Welcome to the April 2013 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, April 2013
“Then spake Jesus to the multitudes and to his disciples, saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses seat: all things therefore whatsoever they bid you, these do and observe: but do not ye after their works; for they say, and do not.” Matthew 23:1-3, ASV
I’ve put 1200 miles on my car so far. The route I selected has taken me through seven southern states. Now, it is commonly understood that you must be careful when driving through most southern states because the police are always ready to catch speeders and give them a hefty fine. I tend to drive within the legal parameters, especially since the speed limit is pretty high on most of the highways in the south. It is safe to go seventy miles per hour on roads that are long and flat. We even have roads with speed limits above eighty in Texas. Why do you need to go faster?
I ask that, but I saw plenty of speeders today, and so did the police. They were everywhere. I joked that I tried counting the Alabama highway patrol cars and I had to stop because it tested the limits of my math skills. At one point I saw several cars posted behind a concrete barrier. They were probably waiting for a call from a policeman watching further down the road to send them after a speeder.
I have a GPS which I’ve been using to help me go the right way. The GPS also helps me see how far I have to go and how long it will take to get to my destination. I realized today (the gadget is new) that it tells the speed limit and the speed I am traveling. It even warns me when I am going too fast. When I get four or five miles per hour over the posted speed limit, the background goes red. “Warning! You might get stopped if you go much faster!” is what I heard it saying. I found that the gadget helped me stay within the speed limit.
I also realized that the gadget isn’t all knowing. It doesn’t know when there is a change of the speed limit. I drove through a number of construction zones that had reduced speeds. I had to read the signs and not count on the GPS to always have the right speed. I also noticed one area that had a slower speed than was showing on the gadget. If I relied on the GPS I would certainly have been stopped. I often follow the flow of traffic in the cities, which rarely ever sticks to the speed limit. I was shocked at one point how much faster we were going.
I realized that when it comes to travel, we can use these tools and follow the crowd and usually be safe, but sometimes we can be led astray. It is better to pay attention to the signs and obey the law than hope that we’ll get away with doing what is wrong even though it is the pattern of the world.
Jesus knew that His disciples would need some guidance when it comes to following God’s Law. The teachers knew all the right words, they were experienced at teaching and telling others what they should do, but they were hypocrites because they did not follow their own words. While the disciples should listen, they should do only what is right. It is up to me to pay attention to the signs (word) and not rely on others to be my example. I can’t trust a gadget or a crowd, nor can I trust a hypocrite to show me what I should do.
“Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying, On this wise ye shall bless the children of Israel: ye shall say unto them, Jehovah bless thee, and keep thee: Jehovah make his face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: Jehovah lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace. So shall they put my name upon the children of Israel; and I will bless them.” Numbers 6:23-27, ASV
I read a prayer this morning that ask God to help us become encouragers, not discouragers of one another. It is so easy for us to think negatively, to see the bad in others and speak dispiriting words. While there may be times when we have to speak in a way that helps our neighbor do what is right, or what is better, for their life and the world, we should do so in a way that inspires them to do right and be better. Discouraging words tend to make us quit or rebel, rather than change.
The prayer went on to ask God to help us be a benediction to others, “always making life easier, never harder for those who come within our influence.” This made me think about the word benediction. We usually think of it in terms of a blessing given by a priest or minister at the end of the service as we are leaving the building to go out into the world. The words of today’s passage are a benediction given to Aaron and the Levites to bless the people of Israel.
A benediction is a short prayer asking for God’s divine blessing, guidance and help. In the online dictionary, the first definition is “an utterance of good wishes.” Another source lists “expression of approval or good wishes” as the first definition. I think this is an interesting perspective on the word benediction, because we usually think of it in terms of a blessing said over us, to protect us or send us on our way. But the words in the benediction go deeper than that. In this passage, God is telling Moses that He wants to make the lives of His people easier, to speak encouraging words so that we will go out into the world to be encouragers, not discouragers. It is not simply a proclamation of God’s grace on our heads, but a commission for us to be God’s grace to the world.
The prayer asked that we may be a benediction. Now, we could speak those words to others, and that would be wonderful. However, we can be the benediction by blessing others and keeping them (taking care of them), by shining God’s light on them and be gracious to them, by being a very real presence in their lives so that they will not be afraid and find peace. It is easy to speak words, but we are called to be Christ-like in the world.
“For the word of Jehovah is right; And all his work is done in faithfulness. He loveth righteousness and justice: The earth is full of the lovingkindness of Jehovah.” Psalm 33:4-5, ASV
I wandered around Philadelphia yesterday afternoon while my daughter finished working for the day. I spent my time around Independence Mall and visited many of the historic buildings. I didn’t do the most popular sites since I’d been there before, and I only had a few hours.
It was interesting to see the places where some of the most important moments in United States history took place. I did not get to go inside Independence Hall or Carpenter’s hall, but I did manage to go in Congress Hall and the Old City Hall where the Supreme Court met in those days. I walked through Benjamin Franklin’s post office, which was the first in the United States and I saw a printing press like he may have used back then. I even went into Christ Church Cemetery where Ben is buried with his wife Deborah.
The Franklin’s grave wasn’t extraordinary, except in one way. The stone was a large slab that was flat on the ground with just their names engraved. What makes it interesting is that it is covered in pennies. It is said to be good luck to throw a penny on his grave. The practice comes from one of the most famous quotes of Ben Franklin, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” How ironic is it that the tourists throw away a penny for good luck when Franklin would have them save that penny?
Victoria and I popped into Declaration House on the way to the train, a replica of the original house where Thomas Jefferson. The building was in the same place, but had fallen into disrepair many years ago. The tour guide who kindly showed us the exhibit even though the site was about to close told us that there was a hot dog stand on the spot when he was growing up. In 1976 they decided to rebuild the house and restore the rooms as best they could. The guide admitted that only a few things were original to the house, although everything was from that time period.
I think that’s what surprised me the most about the items on display around the historic sites. While items were historically correct, they weren’t always the actual items used in those days. The guide in Congress Hall pointed out specifically which chairs were original, including that of the Speaker. There were signs near many displays that had a disclaimer, “Item may have been the original.” It is hard to know for sure two hundred and forty years later; after all it is unlikely anyone at the time thought about saving them for future generations to see on field trips and vacations.
I think the most surprising sign was near the Declaration of Independence. It said that the documents are rotated to protect them and that it is possible the document in the case at that moment is just a replica. There was no way to know for sure whether or not it was one of the original copies. There is not just one copy of the document; many were made in 1776 to send to authorities and governments to inform them of the work of the Continental Congress. In 2009 a copy was even found in the British Archives, though no one knows how it got there. The original is in the National Archives in Washington, so the one in Philadelphia would naturally be one of those original copies. However, I learned that it might not even be one of those originals; it might be a replica.
Does it matter? Is it really the piece of paper that guarantees the freedoms intended by the founding fathers? Is my freedom any less real because I was seeing a copy or a replica of the document? Is the history false just because the items on display are not exactly those used in those days but are like them? No. These displays are given so that we might see and understand the times and experiences of those first Americans. It is the spirit of the founding and the intent of the founders that gives us the great nation we have.
Have you ever wondered that if we can’t possibly know whether a 250ish year old inkwell is real, how do we know if the words in the scriptures are real? How do we know that the message we hear from ministers, teachers and writers is real? With hundreds of translations available of the Bible and a million interpretations of it how do we know what is true? We cannot rely on the things of men, but we can rely on the Spirit and intent of God to know what is real. He is faithful. He loves righteousness and justice. Everything of God is centered in lovingkindness. That’s how we know it is real.
“Charge them that are rich in this present world, that they be not highminded, nor have their hope set on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; that they do good, that they be rich in good works, that they be ready to distribute, willing to communicate; laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on the life which is life indeed.” 1 Timothy 6:17-19, ASV
Christ Church Burial Ground was established in 1719, and is still an active cemetery. I didn’t spend much time walking through the grounds to read tombstones, but an artist who died in 1972 is on their map of famous ‘residents.’ There are about 1300 gravestones; about 4000 people are buried in the two acre plot. Some of the city’s oldest families have vaults that extend thirty six feet into the ground and contain as many as twenty family members. Some gravestones have disappeared. Some have been rediscovered during restoration of the grounds. Some graves have been marked with plaques so that visitors can discover their location.
What amazed me most is that so many of the gravestones were blank, not because the families were too cheap to have them engraved, but because time and the weather have worn the words away. The marble used for the gravestones is lovely, but very soft. It doesn’t take much in the harsh Pennsylvania weather to destroy any remembrance of the person buried beneath. In 1864, the warden of Christ Church compiled a book of the inscriptions that were still visible, and many of those inscriptions have been memorialized with plaques containing the words.
Many of the gravestones were little more than a bump of stone standing out from the ground. It is likely that those stones were rather small, but it is apparent that the stones have shrunk over the years. Those families probably could not afford large impressive vaults or decorative statues for the graves of their loved ones, but they honored them the best they could. It didn’t matter how much was spent two hundred years ago; even the opulent tombs of the rich and famous were weathered and old. Rich, poor, famous, infamous or unknown, our end is the same. We die.
We die, but we want to be immortal, so we spend a lot of resources to guarantee that we’ll be remembered by generations to come. We bury our bodies and place expensive stone markers with our names, dates and perhaps even some interesting statement of faith, wittiness or accomplishment. But I was struck by the reality in Christ Church Cemetery: even those stones fade away. While we remember a few of the people buried in that cemetery, we remember them for their accomplishments in life, not their burial place in death.
The words in today’s passage have been addressed specifically to the rich, who have the resources to do so many good works, but they are words we can all take to heart. Rich or poor, we will all finish this life in the same place, and even our gravestones will eventually be erased by time. But the good that we do, the grace that we share, will make an impact on the world that we may never see.
“Except Jehovah build the house, They labor in vain that build it: Except Jehovah keep the city, The watchman waketh but in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, To take rest late, To eat the bread of toil; For so he giveth unto his beloved sleep. Lo, children are a heritage of Jehovah; And the fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows in the hand of a mighty man, So are the children of youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: They shall not be put to shame, When they speak with their enemies in the gate.” Psalm 127
I think what amazed me most at the Christ Church burial ground is that Ben Franklin was buried with his wife, Deborah. I was under the impression that Franklin was a bachelor, a womanizer. I didn’t know he was married or that he’d had legitimate children. He did have an illegitimate son which the Franklins raised, that was probably born before they entered into their marriage. It is believed that Ben kept the boy’s birthdate a secret to give him legitimacy, and even told his mother that he was nineteen when he was probably twenty to keep up that appearance. The boy eventually became the Colonial Governor of New Jersey. Unfortunately, William chose to remain a loyalist, was imprisoned during the war and eventually went into exile in London.
The story of the Franklins’ marriage is a love story for the ages. Ben proposed to Deborah when he was seventeen and she was just fifteen, but her mother would not allow them to marry. Her reason was that Ben was preparing for a prolonged trip to England and he had no money. She was married to a man named John Rogers who spent her dowry and incurred a great deal of debt, then disappeared. Because there was no proof of his death or a divorce, Ben and Deborah could not legally get married. However, in 1730 they entered into a common-law marriage which lasted until Deborah’s death in 1774. Both remained faithful in those forty-four years, despite Ben’s lengthy absences due to travel to Europe. He was a flirt, but there is no evidence of any infidelity on Ben’s part despite his reputation.
Along with William, Ben and Deborah had two children. Felix was born in 1732 but died of smallpox at age four. Sarah was born in 1733 and grew to be an ardent patriot during the Revolutionary War. She was a fundraiser for the Continental Army, a relief worker and acted as her father’s political hostess after her mother’s death. In 1780, she led the Ladies Association of Philadelphia in making 2,200 shirts for soldiers at Valley Forge. She and her husband Richard Bache had eight children, all but one reached adulthood. The list of accomplishments of her children in politics, the military and publishing is long; her impact on the world through her own work and the work of her children is great.
It was not until I visited the Christ Church Cemetery that I even knew that Sarah Franklin Bache existed. She was a woman who impacted the world, but her life has been somewhat buried due to her father’s questionable reputation. Sadly, that reputation is apparently not even true, and so Ben Franklin is portrayed as something he was not and his family has disappeared from the history. Of all his accomplishments, his greatest might be his daughter, whose life touched so many other lives in really positive ways.
Scriptures for Sunday, April 14, 2013, Third Sunday of Easter: Acts 9:1-22, Psalm 30, Revelation 5:(1-7) 8-14, John 21:1-14 (15-19)
Today’s post is an edited repeat from six years ago.
“But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles and kings, and the children of Israel: for I will show him how many things he must suffer for my name's sake.” Acts 9:15-16, ASV
“An evil is in the professed camp of the Lord, so gross in its impudence, that the most shortsighted can hardly fail to notice it during the past few years. It has developed at an abnormal rate, even for evil. It has worked like leaven until the whole lump ferments. The devil has seldom done a cleverer thing than hinting to the church that part of their mission is to provide entertainment for the people, with a view to winning them. From speaking out as the Puritans did, the church has gradually toned down her testimony, then winked at and excused the frivolities of the day. Then she tolerated them in her borders. Now she has adopted them under the plea of reaching the masses.”
This quote might seem like something that was written recently by someone concerned about the number of churches feeding the flock with activities and preaching that will draw in the crowds and satisfy everyone’s desires. It is certainly a problem in today’s world, but apparently was a problem in the nineteenth century. The words were written by C.H. Spurgeon. It is a problem that every generation of Christianity faces. Since Adam and Eve in the garden, the world has tried to turn our thoughts and our actions away from God. We aren’t any different.
What is our purpose as a Church? Are we called to get as many people in the pews as possible? Are we called to be the majority? Should we conform to the world so that it will come through our doors? After all, if we can get them to come, then we can speak God’s word into their lives and they will come to believe, right? So, we spend our time trying to be exciting, satisfying and relevant—whatever that means—in the hope that we’ll fill our churches until they are overflowing. Then we can build bigger churches with room for more activities that will draw more people into our doors. We can claim that we are doing it for God, but are we if we’ve turned from Him in the process?
We certainly want the Church to grow. We want to experience the exciting spread of the Gospel that we see in the book of Acts, when families, hundreds and even thousands of people were added to their numbers. Yet, in those stories it is not what the disciples were doing to attract the people that made them believe: it was the Gospel, God’s Word that gave the people faith. Nowhere does it tell us that the disciples entertained the people or that they gave the people everything they desired. They preached, they baptized, and they healed. They took the Resurrection of Jesus into the world and many were convinced of its truth. By God’s Word they believed and were saved.
This is not an easy thing for God to ask from us. The world does not want to hear the Gospel. As a matter of fact, the message of the cross—of forgiveness—is foolishness. There are those who do not believe they have anything for which they should be forgiven. They have lived well enough; no one is hurt by their actions. There are others who think that they are beyond forgiveness. They believe that things will never be right because they are unworthy of such grace. The disciples were arrested and even killed for the message they preached, but the Church refused to stop speaking despite the persecution because they were commanded by Christ to do this work.
The Gospel lesson tells the story of the commissioning of the disciples. Jesus had already appeared to the disciples twice; today He appears to them again. It is a strange story because the disciples were not certain that it was Jesus and that they were afraid to ask. How could they have seen Him twice and still not be sure?
Each time Jesus appeared to them, He revealed Himself in a way that they would recognize and understand. It was not about recognizing His body or His face, but His words and His actions. Mary knew it was Jesus when He called her by name. The disciples on the road to Emmaus knew Him when He broke the bread. The disciples in the Upper Room on that first Sunday recognized Him by His wounds. We see two more revelations in today’s story, both repetitions from their time together.
The Gospel lesson includes two stories. In the first, the disciples have returned to the sea, they’ve gone back to a place that was familiar. Peter wanted to fish. It was while Peter was fishing that Jesus called him to follow. Fishing was all Peter knew three years ago. It was his livelihood, and the place where he felt most comfortable. I can imagine that Peter could think there, after all it was a place where he was in control. He probably enjoyed the hard work, the fresh air, the satisfaction of bringing in a net full of fish. Some of the other disciples decided to join him. The disciples had experienced some incredible things in the past three years, especially in the past few weeks. Now everything Jesus did was coming to a head; they were beginning to see that their lives were forever changed. It was probably too much to bear, so they went ‘home.’
They didn’t have any luck, however. After a night of fishing the boat was empty. Someone called to them from the shore which was about a hundred yards away. They didn’t know it was Jesus, they did not recognize Him from that distance. “Have you any fish?” He asked. They answered, “No.” He told them to cast the net to the right side of the boat and they would find some there. This must have seemed like a ridiculous idea, especially to seasoned fishermen who had been at work all night. What could a guy on the beach know about the location of the fish? They tried it anyway and the net quickly filled with fish until it was too heavy to pull aboard.
John said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” John recognized Jesus not because he suddenly saw His face, but in the memory of another miraculous catch of fish, from the fifth chapter of Luke. After preaching to the crowds from a boat, Jesus told the tired fishermen to go back out onto the lake to get some fish. They had worked all night with no luck, but they followed his instructions and they hauled in so many fish that it took two boats to take them to shore.
Peter was in that boat and when he saw this miracle he fell on his face and said, “Go away, I am not worthy.” Jesus told Peter, “Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men.” He’d spent three years catching people with Jesus, but now in his fear and confusion, Peter back on the sea fishing for fish again. With this miracle, Peter was reminded of that Jesus called him to be a disciple. He was probably feeling the same unworthiness; after all, Peter had denied Jesus three times on the night before His crucifixion. Now that Jesus was back, would Peter still be accepted as part of the ministry?
When John said that it was the Lord, Peter jumped into the sea and swam toward Jesus. The other disciples followed, dragging the net. They saw that there was already a fire and some fish cooking on the coals. There was also bread. He told Peter, “Go bring some of the fish you caught.” He went aboard and hauled the net which had 153 fish. Nothing in the scriptures is there by accident, and there is some purpose to this number. There are many possibilities, but it is one of those things we may never know for sure until we get to heaven.
Heaven is the theme of our second lesson for today; John gives us a revelation of heaven. In this vision, the people do not really care about things like the meaning of 153 fish. John describes a scene with myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands of angels, creatures and elders surrounding the throne of God. They sing His praises with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain!” Then every creature in heaven and on earth sing blessings to the One on the throne and to the Lamb forever and ever.
I suppose in some ways this sounds like what Church must seem like to those outside our community of faith. Who wants to sit around even for an hour and sing the same old hymns, talk about the same stories and eat the same food? It is no wonder that some people aren’t interested in spending eternity in heaven – it would be boring to do the same thing over and over and over again forever, wouldn’t it? It is bad enough to do it every Sunday.
In the presence of the Risen Lord Jesus, Peter put on some clothes and jumped into the sea. All he wanted was to be with Jesus. After the breakfast, Jesus turned His attention to Peter; Peter needed forgiveness. Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” What is Jesus asking of Peter? Does he love Jesus more than the other disciples? Does He love Jesus more than those disciples love Jesus? Does he love Jesus more than his fishing gear and the hard work of catching fish on the sea? Peter does not answer with specifics but simply says, “Yes, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee.” Jesus did know, for Jesus knew the hearts of His disciples as well as He knows our own hearts. Yet, Jesus asked again. And then He asked again. Three times Jesus asked Peter about his love and by the third time Peter was hurt because Jesus asked it again. “Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee.”
There are several reasons for why Jesus might have asked Peter three times. We are reminded that Peter denied Jesus three times, and the threefold confession of love for Jesus counters the denial. For Peter, the three questions seemed to verify his unworthiness, but for Jesus the three answers restored their relationship and reinstated Peter to his position as leader among the disciples.
There are some subtleties in the text that may or may not be significant. One thing that is often noted is the use of the word “love” in these passages. In the Greek there are different words used by John in describing this scene. The transliteration of these words is “agape” and “phileo.” Some suggest that there is little difference between these two words and John simply used the variety to keep the passage interesting. Others will tell you that agape refers to a deeper, more abiding sense of love while phileo is a brotherly love.
There is some comfort to be found in this passage if we recognize the difference between these words. In the first and second questions Jesus asks Peter, “Do you agape me?” Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, I phileo you.” In the third question Jesus asks, “Do you phileo me?” Peter answers, “Yes, I phileo you.” To me it appears Jesus was asking Peter for a deep commitment while Peter was not yet ready to give him that much.
Though Peter was not quite ready, Jesus did reject him as he was. Peter was still restored and reinstalled, commissioned to do the work of Christ in the world. There is comfort in this for those of us who have taken too many years to make that commitment to the work Christ is calling us to do. We can see that Jesus has patience, that He does not take away our commission because we have doubts and uncertainties. He loves us and encourages us until we are deeply and fully committed. Obviously, Peter’s love became deeper as he continued the work until he did died the martyr’s death on the cross.
Another subtlety we see in this passage is found in the commission. Jesus first tells Peter, “Feed my lambs.” Then He says, “Tend my sheep.” Finally, He tells Peter to “Feed my sheep.” There is a progression in the way we do ministry. First, we are to give the lambs, the newborns or baby Christians, the milk of the Gospel that they might believe and be saved. We go out into the world feeding the lambs with God’s grace so that they will follow Jesus. Once they have been saved, the lambs are brought into the fellowship of believers, through baptism and the sharing of the eucharist, and there in the congregation the shepherd tends to their needs, making disciples who will also go out into the world to take the Gospel to others. Finally, we feed the sheep. We never stop needing to hear the Word of God, to learn more, to grow in our faith. Every Christian needs to hear the Gospel over and over again, to stay firm in the faith which has been given. Peter first, and those of us who have followed, are called to continue to feed Christians with the Word of God, to offer Bible studies and the sacraments so that they will stand firm in Christ.
There is nothing in this commission about entertaining folk or focusing on good works. We are called to share the Gospel message and help people make it a part of their life. Then we help one another grow and mature in our faith so that we can do the work that God has called us each to do. We might be overwhelmed with the tasks we have been given and with the people we have to help, but we find comfort in the scriptures and in the sacraments as we go study and gather in worship, even that so called boring worship that has no modern entertainment value. Our call might take us into places we do not want to go, but God will be with us through it all. We do not have to work so hard at filling our pews to do the work God has called us to do: God provides the harvest and He holds the Church together through everything, including persecution.
Imagine what it must have been like for Ananais when God sent him to heal Paul and baptize him. Ananias was not pleased. He knew that Saul was a cruel man who had done cruel things to believers. He did not deserve to be touched by God's grace. God spoke to Ananias. “I have plans for Saul who will become Paul. Do as I say and you will see something amazing.” It took a miraculous revelation to get Paul's attention. We are called to be like Ananias, to share the Gospel with those who cross our path, to prayerfully share God's grace with them. We might be rejected and persecuted, but God knows what He is doing. Eventually His Word will touch the heart of those whom He loves and they will be saved.
Most of us have less dramatic experiences of God’s grace. As a matter of fact, most of us come to know the Lord slowly, as we go with our family to church each Sunday, attend Sunday school and other church activities. Most of us catch a glimmer here and a glimmer there, but grow as we are fed the Word of God throughout our lives. Some people do experience a miraculous conversion, like Paul and like a man named Jacob Koshy.
Jacob Koshy said about his conversion to Christianity, “Who would have believed that I could find the truth by smoking the Word of God?” His story is unusual. He was living in Singapore and success drove him to do whatever was necessary to get ahead. He was a smuggler and drug dealer, a gambler and abuser. Eventually he ended up in prison, a harsh place where he could not even get a cigarette. He managed to make cigarettes with smuggled tobacco and the torn pages of a Gideon Bible until one night he fell asleep with it in his hand. The cigarette burned out in his hand and when he awoke he read the words “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”
Jacob asked for another copy of the Bible and he read the story of Saul who became Paul. He realized that if God could work such a miracle in the life of a man like Saul, then He could do the same for him. He got down on his knees and with tear filled eyes asked Jesus to change him too. With every tear his pain was washed away. He became a missionary when he was released from prison and married a Christian woman. He no longer chased after wasteful things and lived a praise filled life in thanksgiving for what God had done. So, by smoking the Word of God, Jacob experienced the miracle of God’s mercy and grace.
Perhaps there were those in the world who thought that Jacob Koshy did not deserve God’s grace. Christians most certainly had come across Jacob in his days of smuggling, drugs and gambling. Did they speak the Word into His life or did they turn away because he was undeserving? What about the people we meet day to day. Do we speak God’s Word into their lives, or do we try to create an entertaining experience that will bring them through our doors? They need to know God’s forgiveness, to be reconciled to the One who is their Father and Creator. They don’t need another place to fellowship or to play. Does the Church exist to be in competition with the world, and the activities of the world? Or does it exist to share God’s forgiveness with them?
They need the Gospel. We won’t fill our nets with fish by becoming like the world, but by following Christ and doing His work in the world.
This happens when we remember the words of today’s Psalm. This psalm was apparently written for the dedication of the Temple. Though this was a time of joy for the people of Israel, it was also a frightening moment. The Temple gave the people a sense of stability, roots. Yet, people were still out to destroy David and the Israelites. They could not become complacent in their blessedness, for complacency is our greatest enemy. It means we take for granted our past and our God, we forget His grace and we think we are to take credit for our blessings.
When we step out in faith to do the work God has called us to do, we ask ourselves, "What is our purpose." We seek to understand God's will for our lives and we try to do be obedient to His will. This often leads us to step out of our comfort zone, to do things that seem beyond our ability and beyond our resources. When we succeed, it is easy to pat ourselves on our backs in a congratulatory way. Yet we learn, particularly during this Easter season, that our purpose is not to create grand buildings to build up great ministries. Our purpose is to take the forgiveness of Christ into the world.
“Now when morning was come, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death: and they bound him, and led him away, and delivered him up to Pilate the governor. Then Judas, who betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, I have sinned in that I betrayed innocent blood. But they said, What is that to us? see thou to it. And he cast down the pieces of silver into the sanctuary, and departed; and he went away and hanged himself. And the chief priests took the pieces of silver, and said, It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since it is the price of blood. And they took counsel, and bought with them the potter's field, to bury strangers in. Wherefore that field was called, the field of blood, unto this day. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying, And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him that was priced, whom certain of the children of Israel did price; and they gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord appointed me.” Matthew 27:1-10, ASV
Have you ever wondered what happened to Judas? We know that he committed suicide, but what does that mean? We have this understanding that suicide is the worst thing a person can do and that the one who takes his own life is doomed to hell. Perhaps there is something to this in that a suicide, like a murder, takes life into human hands, thus making oneself like God. And yet, the mind of one who takes his own life is not right; they are out of control. So, can they be damned?
“I don’t share the opinion that suicides are certainly to be damned. My reason is that they do not wish to kill themselves but are overcome by the power of the devil. They are like a man who is murdered in the woods by a robber. However, this ought not be taught to the common people, lest Satan be given an opportunity to cause slaughter, and I recommend that the popular custom be strictly adhered to according to which it [the suicide’s corpse] is not carried over the threshold, etc. Such persons do not die by free choice or by law, but our Lord God will dispatch them as he executes a person through a robber. Magistrates should treat them quite strictly, although it is not plain that their souls are damned. However, they are examples by which our Lord God wishes to show that the devil is powerful and also that we should be diligent in prayer. But for these examples, we would not fear God. Hence he must teach us in this way.” Martin Luther
Sadly, if Judas had only survived the three days while Jesus was dead, he would have certainly received the grace and mercy of God. Judas did what he knew to do: he went to the priests to repent and sought absolution. They refused to give it to him. Judas was a scapegoat; they could pass the blame off on the guy who killed himself, thus relieving themselves of some of the guilt. If Judas had thrown himself at the feet of the only one who can truly guarantee forgiveness, the end of Judas would have been much different.
But perhaps he did. After all, Jesus was in the place of the dead for three days, preaching to the souls. It was a victory tour and He took the Good News to all those who’d died in faith before His life and crucifixion.
Martin Luther’s words seem harsh, although in some ways he is probably right. The more we accept this as inevitable or blame ‘the devil’ for our failure to live up to God’s expectations, the more we fall away from him. Judas saw no future for himself. He didn’t trust in God. He had missed the most important lesson Jesus taught while he was a disciple: God is merciful. But thankfully, Jesus is the Lord of the second chance. But that doesn’t mean we should flaunt His grace or take advantage of Him by doing whatever we choose. He calls us to a life of faithful living.
Would Judas’ fate been different if he had gone to the disciples? What if the disciples had found Judas and kept him in their fellowship? Instead of dying alone in a field, he might have been there to see the risen Christ. And like Peter, he may have heard to words of forgiveness and been restored to a relationship with his God. There is no one who is beyond the love and mercy of God. Judas went to the wrong people to find absolution and he found only condemnation. And he didn’t think he was worthy to be amongst the disciples. He thought his only choice was suicide.
Is there someone in your life who, like Judas, can’t see any other way out of their problems? They need you to be there, to encourage them with words of grace and mercy. They need you to remind them that Jesus is the Lord of second, third, millionth chances and that He is alive and willing to forgive. They need to look to the Living God and find life in Him, rather than fall under the hand of the devil who desires only death. Be there, love them, and do whatever you can to help them seek life. But if they do fall to the power of the devil, do not assume they are condemned, but pray that Jesus has forgiven even this unfortunate sin and live in hope. For Jesus has overcome even death and the grave.
“We speak wisdom, however, among them that are fullgrown: yet a wisdom not of this world, nor of the rulers of this world, who are coming to nought: but we speak God's wisdom in a mystery, even the wisdom that hath been hidden, which God foreordained before the worlds unto our glory: which none of the rulers of this world hath known: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory: but as it is written, Things which eye saw not, and ear heard not, And which entered not into the heart of man, Whatsoever things God prepared for them that love him. But unto us God revealed them through the Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For who among men knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of the man, which is in him? even so the things of God none knoweth, save the Spirit of God. But we received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is from God; that we might know the things that were freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Spirit teacheth; combining spiritual things with spiritual words. Now the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him; and he cannot know them, because they are spiritually judged. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, and he himself is judged of no man. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he should instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.” 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, ASV
There is an old Indian folktale that tells the story of four traveling companions. Three of the travelers are highly intelligent, famous scholars. The fourth was a commoner. The travelers came upon the skeleton of a lion and the scholars wanted to prove their skills. Despite the warnings of the commoner, they decided to bring the lion back to life. The commoner, knowing that this was not a good idea, climbed high into a tree, while the scholars used their intelligence to put life back into the animal. It worked, but then it killed the three scholars. The commoner might not have been as intelligent as the three scholars, but he had the common sense to know that a live lion is a dangerous thing.
Rene Descartes said, “It is not enough to have a good mind. The main thing is to use it well.” Unfortunately, there are many people who have good minds, who can accomplish great things with their intelligence, but they do not use their minds well. In the case of the folktale, the scholars were showing off without thinking it through. They were trying to impress the commoner and each other but they did not consider the consequences. They used their minds, but they did not do so well.
Now, when we think about faith, we rarely think about it in terms of our mind. This is a mistake because God calls us to be faithful with our entire being. It is not enough to have blind faith; reason is an important part of our Christian life. God does not want us to remain babies, but to mature in faith and in knowledge of His grace. He’s given us the Spirit, which will help us to understand, but what good is it if we do not use it well?
True wisdom is in the mind that looks beyond the moment, considering the consequences of our actions. We might have the mind, or the Spirit, to do incredible things, but if those actions are not helpful to others, then they are nothing more than foolishness. The Spirit will guide us into the work that will glorify God and bring faith into the world, but if we try to prove our greatness, we are likely to end up eaten by the lion. Let us always use our minds well so that we will be faithful to God and do the work He has called us to do with the gifts He has given us.
“Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men, to be seen of them: else ye have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. When therefore thou doest alms, sound not a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: that thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret shall recompense thee.” Matthew 6:1-4, ASV
There is so much about the Christian faith that is hard to put together. How can someone be both a saint and a sinner? How do you love the sinner but hate the sin? How do you not judge your brother and yet also “correct, rebuke and encourage” as written in 2 Timothy?
I read today’s passage this morning and I saw something I’d never noticed before: “to be seen of them.” While it is important that we do not make a show of our faithful living, we are often told that we are the only Bible some people will ever read. How do you live faithfully so that the world can see if you are supposed to hide it from the world? The question here is not whether or not we live in a way that is an example to others, but why. Why are we doing what we do?
I would never suggest that a wealthy man should not build a library or performing arts center. It is wonderful that they are willing to give so much for the sake of others. Who among us has not benefited from a hospital that was founded and funded by a philanthropist? Where would we be if those rich families had not built buildings of higher education? These are important, and wonderful, gifts to society and the world.
I have long joked that I will win the lottery and when I do I have all sorts of plans for the money including a performing arts center at the university where Victoria got her education. Someone once said, “We’ll be happy to put your name on it!” Forgive my humility, but I wouldn't want it. The gift is not about getting my name on a building, it is about serving the needs of the community. I don’t know that we can assume that those philanthropists over the years did it just to get their name on the building, but it is hard not to assume so. Are they putting their righteousness before men to be seen?
We don’t have to hide our good works. As a matter of fact, it is good for the world to see you glorifying God with your resources and your time. But the motive matters. Why are you doing this good thing? Is it for the love of God? Or for the benefits you will receive from the good work? So, when going forth to do the work of faith, the question our passage asks is not whether or not your works should be visible, but rather: will God be glorified? Or will you?
Scripture for Sunday, April 21, 2013, Four Easter: Acts 20:17-35; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30
“For I shrank not from declaring unto you the whole counsel of God.” Acts 20:27, ASV
Paul never shrank from doing the work God called him to do, even when it was difficult work. I suppose in some ways God didn’t give him much choice. After all, he was called in the most unusual fashion, with a vision that was beyond description and beyond rejection. Can you say “No” to God when He comes to you in such an intense and real way?
In today’s passage, Paul told the elders of Ephesus that despite his love for them and for the work he was doing among them, he had to go to Jerusalem. This was not going to be a pleasure trip: the Spirit was clear that Paul would face imprisonment and afflictions. He wasn’t concerned. He knew that everything he experienced was under the control of God.
We often talk about Paul’s arrogance, if that’s the right word for it, but Paul was really a very humble and obedient man. He says, “But I hold not my life of any account as dear unto myself, so that I may accomplish my course, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God.” His flesh didn’t matter to him; the ministry did. If scourging or martyrdom would spread the Gospel of Christ and glorify God, then he was willing to go through it.
Though he knew he did not have a choice but to go to Jerusalem, Paul was concerned for the people of Ephesus. He knew he would never see them again, and he knew that their future would be full of similar difficulties. Paul was talking to the leaders of the Ephesian church, those who had been given the responsibility to take care of the flock. They were the shepherds, God’s helpers. But the duty of those leaders was to be the voice of Christ, to speak His Word to the people and to keep them safe from those who would come to twist the scriptures to their benefit.
The Church was bought by a heavy price: the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son. He took the life of His people very seriously. He is concerned that they stay on the right path, that they live as He has called them to live. If we think about the history of God’s people, we can see that it isn’t as easy to live according to God’s Word as it seems. After all, generations of people have come before us. It only took a few generations for the people to turn away from God and follow the ways of the world. Though there were faithful judges and kings to shepherd the people, their sons often turned to other gods. It took catastrophic events to cause the people to return to Him. And then they’d be faithful for a generation or two, quickly forgetting all that He’d done for them.
We might think that as we live under the grace of God that we will be more faithful than those previous generations, but we face the same temptations. We can be led astray by the expectations of the world and the ways of people who have selfish or self-righteous ambitions. The fierce wolves about which Paul warned the Ephesian elders were men who would try to twist the Gospel and lead people astray.
Paul may have been talking to a specific group of men, but it is a warning for every generation. It does not take long for a false gospel to sound right, especially when it tickles the ears of those listening. We can see examples of this in the church today. Leaders get rich selling a gospel that is far from the one Jesus taught. Some churches ignore the reality that we are sinners in need of a Savior and teach that God came so that we might have everything we want. Others put the emphasis on the works of man. Many of these leaders seek fame or a following and will do whatever is necessary to get it. They create division in the church to ensure that they will keep their position and power. This is no different than the leaders in Jesus’ day that killed him for their own sake.
But the leaders of God’s church are meant to be like Paul: humble, obedient and unafraid. He spoke the truth with passion, despite the reality that it would get him killed. Are any of us willing to do the same? Are we willing to tell those wolves that they are wrong? Are we willing to go against the expectations of the world and do God’s will over men’s? As leaders of today’s church, we have to be shepherds that protect the flock from the wolves. We have to be Christ-like, doing His work as God intends.
In today’s scriptures we have an image of God as the Good Shepherd, a comforting image for most people. Though we do not know what it is like to be a shepherd, we do know that the shepherd loves his sheep so much that he takes care of their every need. He protects them from danger, ensures that they are fed and leads them to the best food. We see those images in the Psalm for today, along with some other aspects of the life of sheep and shepherds. Sometimes we do not consider the importance of those other things, since water, food and shelter are so vital to our existence.
Yet, the Good Shepherd provides all the needs of his sheep. He makes the sheep lie down. How many of us could use someone to tell us to go to rest, especially when we get ourselves caught up in so many activities? He leads the sheep beside still waters. Our hectic lives are often chaotic like the churning waters of a fast running river. We need someone who will make us slow down, walk carefully along a better path, a safer path. He leads the sheep in right paths; He helps us to make the right decisions, to do the right things according to His Word. The most comforting thing about this Psalm is the reminder that God is with us. He is with the sheep.
That’s the key message for this week: God is present among His people, His sheep. He is there doing miraculous things, and yet He is doing them in ordinary ways with ordinary people. And He calls us to do the same among His people. We are tempted to offer so many activities that we are constantly busy, but perhaps we should be encouraging one another to practice a Sabbath rest. We are tempted to go our own way, but we are called to follow a very narrow path. We are called to be God’s presence among the people and in the world, and to do so demands a faithfulness that is extraordinary. We cannot go our own way.
In today’s lesson, Jesus was in the temple for the Festival of Dedication. This was the Jewish festival we now know as Hanukkah. It was different then; it was new—a remembrance of an event that had happened just two hundred years prior to Jesus. It was a memorial of a miraculous event in the days of the Maccabees. The temple had been profaned by Antiochus Epiphanes as he tried to make the entire world worship and live as the Greeks. All Jewish practice was suspended for a time; no circumcision or Torah reading was allowed. But Judas Maccabeus refused to stand aside and allow his faith to be destroyed. After three years, the Maccabees took over the temple and restored it to the Jewish people.
Unfortunately, the temple had been desecrated. Antiochus Ephiphanes had slaughtered a pig on the altar and poured urine over the furnishings. The building had been left to ruin because the priests could not continue their work. So, when Judas Maccabeus took control of the temple, the first thing that needed to be done was for the building to be rededicated to the Lord God. Unfortunately, there was no oil for the lamp, except a small portion that would light only one of the seven cups in the lampstand for a day. It would take eight days for new oil to be produced. They lit the one candle and it stayed lit for eight days, a sign to the people that God was with them. They realized that God’s holiness far exceeded the filth of creation.
Judas Maccabeus refused to allow the world to desecrate what God had given to His people. He took it back and it was restored to God’s glory. We need to do the same when those wolves who are dressed as shepherds try to desecrate God’s Church in our day. We need to reject those who would have us live according to their ways.
Jesus who is the Lamb and the Good Shepherd was at the Temple for the Feast of Dedication. The people wanted to know: are you who we think you are? “How long dost thou hold us in suspense? If thou art the Christ, tell us plainly.” They, like all of us, wanted it spelled out in easy to understand language that fits their expectation. Jesus was the Messiah, but they couldn’t see it because they were looking for someone to do it their way. They couldn’t understand how the Messiah could really accomplish anything if He failed to live. They didn’t understand that God’s work was not to conform to the world, but to overcome the world. Suffering and death don’t fit when we are looking for prosperity and success.
Jesus was concerned about life, true life. We might want this life to be filled with the fulfillment of all our wishes and dreams; we want to be satisfied. But that’s not why Jesus came. He didn’t come to make life easy or to give in to all our whims. He didn’t come to make our foolishness acceptable to God. He came to restore us to Him, to overcome sin and death and to provide us with a new life. That life is meant to be lived under the care of God, following His path, doing His work. That means giving up the world. That means being a sheep, but not the kind of sheep that follows every voice. His voice is the only one that will lead us down the right path.
His voice is hard to hear in the cacophony of noises that we hear every day. Every generation faces it, but I think it might be even harder for us. We can’t go to the market without being inundated with temptations. We even carry it with us, on our phones and tablets. We are entertained on television and in movies that make everything acceptable. Faith is ridiculed as something that is a way for people to blind themselves to the reality of life. God is a myth. Jesus is just another prophet or teacher. The Church is filled with hypocrites and sinners.
Of course, they are right about that last one, but what we don’t see is that God embraces those who hear His voice and He gives them forgiveness and life. Yes, we fail, but Jesus died so that we might be forgiven. Yes, we wander away, chasing after our own wishes and dreams, but Jesus the Good Shepherd calls our names and draws us back into His presence. Those who do not believe do not hear His voice. They aren’t sheep, they are of this world. And while it is up to us to share the Gospel with them, we must never allow ourselves to be conformed to the world. When the wolves come, we must be sure to remember the true Gospel, not follow the false gospels that lead us astray.
One of the hardest words of Jesus for us to understand is in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus says, “I have told you, and you do not believe.” I think this is hard for us to understand for two reasons. First of all, I’m not sure I have found anywhere in the scriptures where Jesus tells us plainly that He is really the Messiah. He says many things that lead us to believe in Him and know that He is indeed the Messiah, but plainly? The other thing that bothers me is that they do not believe because they are not Jesus’ sheep. Doesn’t God love all His creation? Doesn’t He promise His grace to all? How can there be sheep that do not belong to Him?
His sheep are those who hear, but hearing is not a passive verb. Hearing is doing, it is acting, it is following, it is obeying. Paul heard and he believed. He went out and began preaching the message of the Gospel to all who would hear. The Jews heard, but they did not believe. They demanded proof. They wanted to see Jesus do and say what they expected from the Messiah, but Jesus didn’t fit their mold. He refused to conform to their expectations because God had already proven Him. Jesus’ authority and power were established in the signs (especially in John’s Gospel) and in the words He spoke. Saying “I am the Messiah” would not change their hearts.
Jesus clearly declared with word and deed the truth of His identity and purpose. He was the Good Shepherd. He was the Light. He was the presence of God they so desperately were seeking in their oppression, and they did not hear because He was not what they wanted for a Messiah. He could not be a king; He could not deliver them from their enemy. His teachings were different than the established Jewish thought. They did not want to hear because they had rejected Him. He did not fit into their expectation, so they ignored His voice. They were not His and it was not because Jesus rejected them. They rejected Him.
The same was true for the Church in Ephesus and for us today. Unfortunately, the wolves are not only those who try to get us to conform to the world, but we often find them in our midst. They speak words that sound true but are far from God. They haven’t heard His voice, but have followed another. While we can talk about the devil, we can’t ignore the reality that the false voices are often our own. They seek the wrong things. They turn others away from God for their own benefit. They say and do what makes them feel good or fits into their own agenda. They turn from God and act as their own gods. Then they try to get others to follow.
It is up to us who have heard to speak like Paul, to humbly face whatever might befall us for the sake of the Gospel. Paul knew that he would die at the hands of men who did not believe. We might die, too. It is hard to imagine, especially in modern America, that we could be persecuted, beaten, imprisoned and killed for our faith, but it is always a possibility. And it saddens me to think about it, but I know that some of the readers of this devotional live in places where it is a reality. Christians are being hurt, imprisoned and killed all over the world on a daily basis.
Are we willing to be like Paul, speaking the whole counsel of God even though it might cause us pain and death? Are we responding to the urging of the Holy Spirit to go into the very center of the danger without fear, knowing that God is always near? Are we willing to reject the ways of the world and follow only Christ?
The passage from Revelation shows us a vision of heavenly worship, where a great multitude from every nation and tongue are standing before the throne of God in white. They are waving palms, just as been done in religious ceremony for generations. The symbolism here can mean many things—God’s victory, His hospitality, His peace and strength. It can represent the joy of the multitude and their thanksgiving for God’s blessings. The white of their robes does not come from their own righteousness, but because they have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. They cry out, “Salvation unto our God who sitteth on the throne, and unto the Lamb.” They sing praise and thanksgiving to God because the blessing and honor and glory for ever and ever.
The wolves want it to belong to them. Paul knew the truth: it is all about God. He is the shepherd. He is the healer. He is the Savior. Are we ready to be His sheep, to follow Him wherever He leads? Our story might not be as extraordinary as Paul’s, but we are called to do the same thing: to speak the truth, share the Gospel and live faithfully in this world. We might even be called to die. But whether at the hands of nature or man, death will bring one thing: the eternal life God has promised us.
Do not fear, for the Good Shepherd is near. Hear and believe. Go and speak and do as He has commanded. Who knows? Perhaps God has chosen you to be the vessel through which He will guard and protect and provide His sheep with everything they need. Or you might be the one to help them join the fold. Then we will spend eternity together singing God’s praise and thanksgiving at the foot of His throne.
“But forget not this one thing, beloved, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some count slackness; but is longsuffering to you-ward, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall be dissolved with fervent heat, and the earth and the works that are therein shall be burned up.” 2 Peter 3:8-10, ASV
We visited a museum in Raleigh yesterday and viewed the exhibit about the Titanic. It was a powerful display of information about the building of the ship, its uniqueness and the people who were aboard during that first, fateful trip. The artifacts included parts of the ship, objects that were used for the care and comfort of the passengers and personal effects. It was amazing to see the things that survived: a silk necklace, money, sheet music, postcards, even receipts and playing cards. Though it is incredible that they found the ship, which was more than two miles below the surface of the ocean, it isn’t surprising that they might find porcelain, steel and gold, but silk and paper?
The exhibit was organized in a logically manner, from the conception and building of the ship, through the first class compartments to the bowels of the ship and then to the finding and conserving of the ship and its contents. They had a recreation of a third class cabin, which was not fancy but seemed comfortable. The builders knew that they had to make money, so they used good materials even in third class, giving those passengers an exciting and pleasant experience.
We had the audio tour, and throughout the exhibit the words of passengers and crew were shared in dramatic monologues. The sounds of the ship reverberated around us. We even heard the grating sound of the iceberg ripping a hole in the side of the ship. They had a large piece of ice for you to touch, representative of the iceberg. It was extremely cold, and was placed there to help the visitors understand how truly horrific the experience was, both for those who died and for those who survived. Imagine floating in sub-zero temperatures in the middle of the night? You might just wish for death to end the agony.
The final displays were cased filled with the personal possessions of several of the passengers. The signs told their stories, and their fate. One woman died because she refused to leave her husband’s side. They died together. “We have lived together for many years. Where you go, I go.” The stories included men and women who were setting off to America for a new life. Others who were going home after business or pleasure travel. Several of the passengers were not on Titanic by choice. They had tickets aboard another vessel, but because of a coal strike, they were transferred to the Titanic.
One of those passengers was a man named Edgar Samuel Andrew. He was a second-class passenger who was the son of English parents born in Argentina, studying in England. His brother was to get married in America and he was traveling to attend the wedding. His plan was to travel on the steamship Oceanic a few days later, but the coal strike canceled that voyage. He was upset that he had to rebook passage because a friend from Argentina was due to arrive in London and they were going to visit before he left. He wrote to her of his disappointment and said, “It really seems unbelievable that I have to leave a few days before your arrival, but there’s no help for it, I’ve got to go. You figure, Josey, I am boarding the greatest steamship in the world, but I don’t feel proud of it at all, right now I wish the Titanic were lying at the bottom of the ocean.” Unfortunately, Edgar did not survive.
We might be tempted to blame such ill-conceived thoughts for the tragedy, but we know that a ship full of people does not sink because of the words of one man. God does not work that way. We certainly do not understand how it can be that God would allow so many to suffer, but the sinking of the Titanic was entirely the fault of the selfish and arrogant men who designed, built and launched that fateful journey. There are lessons we can learn from the tragedy, and lives for which we can be grateful. Their stories help us see faith, hope, courage, love, peace and even joy.
At the beginning of the tour we received a boarding pass with the name and description of a passenger or crew member from the Titanic. At the very end of the exhibit was a list of all those aboard, separated by class and by whether they lived or died. Each person was encouraged to find their name on the wall, to see if they survived. I was the wife of a missionary to India who was traveling aboard the Titanic to take my son to receive medical attention in America. I also had two daughters with me.
I was surprised at how relieved I was to discover that I and my three children all survived. Though I had no real connection to the woman, the exhibit was so emotionally powerful that I felt a connection. I don’t know what happened to her after she arrived in America. But I was happy that she and her children had a future. Of course, I really wish none of them died, but the list is shockingly long: 1,523 people were lost that day. Only 705 were saved.
Just as we, the visitors to the Titanic exhibit hoped that our one person survived to live another day, God has the same hope for all the people in the world. He wants none to perish, but all to have everlasting life with Him. I have to admit that there are times when I think like those people suffering in the cold Atlantic that night so long ago, “Let death come to end the agony.” But I know that God is patient and longsuffering. The delay of His coming is not faithlessness, but instead it is faithfulness. God is waiting for all whom He has called to be drawn into His heart, to be saved and to live forever. The day of the Lord will come as He has promised, so let us share the Gospel with boldness so that none will be left behind.
Scriptures for Sunday, April 28, 2013, Five Easter: Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-7; John 16:12-22
“I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now.” John 16:12, ASV
Imagine the depth of grief that the disciples must have felt in those days between the crucifixion and the resurrection. I think we can all imagine it; we’ve all dealt with the loss of a loved one. The grief is bad enough when we’ve lost someone who has led a long and fruitful life, but it is even harder when we lose a person for whom we have great hope and expectation, like when a parent loses a child who is yet to become everything they are meant to be or when a husband loses a wife before their children are grown. We grieve when a leader dies before his or her work is complete. We grieve when a young person dies before they’ve accomplished something great with their talents. Grief is hard enough, but it is multiplied when their time is cut short.
That’s the sort of grief the disciples must have felt. After all, Jesus was going to do great things. He was going to lead Israel into a new golden age. He was going to defeat Rome. He was going to make them a strong nation. And then He died. He was cut off from the world before He could accomplish everything they hoped He would accomplish.
It couldn’t have helped to have Jesus speaking so cryptically to them the night before He died. “I have more to say but I can’t say it right now because you can’t handle it.” These guys were pretty mature in their faith in Jesus, after all, they were with Him for three years and they’d seen it all. Yes, we know that they failed miserably at the end, but not because they didn’t have faith. They failed because they had so much faith. Unfortunately, it was faith in all the wrong things.
But we shouldn’t consider ourselves any better than those disciples. We might see more clearly than they did during those three days, but we have an advantage: the Holy Spirit. See, there is so much about faith in Jesus Christ that we simply cannot understand with the Spirit. We can’t handle it without the Spirit to help us. Jesus did have more to tell them, but it would never make sense without God’s Spirit. Where would we be without that same Spirit? It was only after they were given the Spirit that they could truly get to work.
That could not happen until Jesus was raised to the right hand of God. Jesus was the presence of God while He lived, but Jesus could never be everywhere. He was flesh and blood. He was limited by time and space. However, when He went to heaven, He sent the Spirit who has no limits. The Spirit can be with you and me at the same time, even if we are a thousand miles apart. He can be with our ancestors and our children in every generation. He can be in the hearts of millions, even billions at the same moment. He can guide us into the truth. He can help us bear everything that Jesus has to say to us. He can help us do the work we are called to do.
There were things that had to wait, but when they came, they came with surprising outcome. Take, for instance, the story of Peter in today’s first lesson. Peter was a good Jew. He followed the rules. He ate what he was supposed to eat and he did what he was supposed to do. He honored God and the Law by being faithful as he was able. But under the Spirit’s guidance, things were about to change. The love and mercy of God given through Jesus Christ was not going to be limited in any way. It was not going to be limited to those who had inherited the covenant. There was a new covenant that would extend far beyond the borders of their knowledge and expectation.
Perhaps that was one of the things that Jesus thought would be too hard for them to bear, after all they’d spent generations believing that they were meant to be separate, special, chosen. How would they have accepted the reality of the New Covenant if they had to do so without God’s help? Would they have rebelled against everything Jesus said if He’d thrust this upon them? Were they ready to deal with the death and resurrection if the life it guaranteed was going to be given to all people?
Jesus knew how hard it would be on them. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, that ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy.” How could they possibly know what He meant by this? Even though Jesus had spoken of His death, they did not really expect it. And then once He was dead, their grief left them blind to the promise that He’d rise again.
While Israel was specially chosen to be separate, God did this for a purpose. Their purpose was to be a blessing to the world. Their purpose was to give the world the Messiah. God never intended to be a private God for one small group of people. He is God. He is God for the whole world. His grace is given for all who believe. God hears the praise of all those who sing out His name and proclaim His goodness. It doesn’t matter to Him whether the voice is coming from a Jew or a Gentile, a man or a woman, an old man or a baby girl. Each one who sings His praise is heard and embraced as His child.
Peter had not been ready to go out into the world and speak the Gospel message to the Gentiles. He considered them common and unclean. Neither were the leaders in Jerusalem ready for the message to go beyond their community. In today’s lesson from Acts, however, Peter tells the apostles a story about a word from God that means to change that point of view. He tells of a vision of a sheet filled with foods that Jews will not eat, foods that might be found on the table of the Gentiles. Peter heard a voice say, “Kill and eat.” Peter told the listeners that he refused because the food was common and unclean. Then he told them that the voice said, “What God hath cleansed, make not thou common.” This happened several times until Peter understood: the Gospel is for others, too.
Isn’t it interesting to read the psalm for today? In that song the psalmist says that we are just a small part of all that worships God. The sun, the moon and the stars all praise God. The heavens and the raindrops, the earth and all that lives on land and in the sea sing His praises. The elements, the mountains, the hills and all the trees praise God. Wild and domesticated animals, clean and unclean and birds of the sky all join in the worship. No man is greater than all this, whether ruler or servant, young or old, male or female. All creation was made by God and all creation sings His praise. If all of creation can sing God’s praise, can’t the Gentiles or pagans do so, too?
The trouble for the Jews, however, is not that the Gentiles can praise God; it is that they have expectations of those who join their ranks. The early Christians were expected to first become Jews and then they could become Christians. They Gentiles were required first to become clean before they could be part of the Church. The lesson to Peter was that it is God that makes people clean, not the works of men. Even in baptism it is not the water that makes one clean, but the Spirit that flows with the water and the words.
Peter saw that first hand with the Gentiles in Caesarea. He witnessed another Pentecost, with the Holy Spirit coming down on those who were listening as he told the story of Christ. He knew that he could not withhold the grace of God from those people because God did not withhold it. He remembered that John baptized with water, but that God would baptize with the Holy Spirit. It isn’t about the works of men, it is always about the works of God.
In the final verse, the psalmist says, “And he hath lifted up the horn of his people, the praise of all his saints; Even of the children of Israel, a people near unto him. Praise ye Jehovah.” That horn is Jesus Christ our Savior who deserves our thanks and praise. He has made things new by loving us so much that He was willing to die. On that cross, Jesus made things new and gave us hope that the day will come when creation is restored as God intended. That promise is for all men, for all who hear His voice. And all those who hear His voice are joined into a community of faith that is much bigger than one small group of people. We worship together outside space and time.
In the passage from Revelation, John sees a vision of heaven and earth as God intended it to be. The new heaven and earth are as God originally planned, where God dwells among the people, where they can drink of the water of life and live forever in His presence. As we look back to the beginning, we see that what God created He called good. The earth, the heavens, the plant and animal life, the man and the woman are spoken into life by God and He said, “It is good.” When sin entered the world, everything became corrupt and perishable. What God intended was destroyed when the relationship between Creator and creation was broken in the Garden. Death and tears became a part of life, pain and suffering something that we all face.
Before Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge, God dwelled with them in the Garden. They were content to live within the bounds of the relationships God had created between man and God, man and nature and man with each other. Once sin entered into the world, man tried to confine God to make Him suit their needs with idols, locking God behind the doors of their hearts and their temples so that He would not disrupt their plans. But God cannot be confined by our small minds or intentions. He cannot even be confined by time or space.
Throughout the history of the Jews, it seemed that He dwelt among them in the Tabernacle, inaccessible to anyone but the priests. No matter what they thought, God was not hidden behind the curtain in the temple. He was still working amongst His people, making them to be a unique nation among the nations, a people through whom the world would see the True and Living God. In this, God gave Israel the Law. He made circumcision a sign of the covenant between them. He made His grace visible in their lives, in His judgment and in His mercy. They were made to glorify Him. Israel’s enemies saw that God dwelt among them. When He removed His hand, Israel fell, but He always turned back to restore her to Him. Through it all, Israel’s unique relationship with God made Him visible to the world.
Jesus extended the grace beyond the bounds of the relationship with Israel to touch the world. God would no longer be trapped in the Holy of Holies, available only to those who came to the temple. He would dwell in the hearts of all those who believe. The Holy Spirit would fill our lives, teach us everything we need to know and guide us into the life God always intended for us to live.
God has done something new, but it isn’t really all that new. It is as He always intended. The psalmist shows us that the entire creation sings His praise. In Revelation we see all God’s people, no matter who they are, joining in the eternal worship of the One who did it all. Death and tears may have entered the world, but God has overcome death and will wipe away all our tears.
The disciples must have mourned the loss of their beloved teacher during those three days, but after the Resurrection, they knew the joy that only God can give. We, too, mourn the losses that are too sudden and unexpected, but in faith we know that death is not the end for those who believe. It is only the beginning. One day we will all join in the praise of the whole creation and all the Church for eternity, dwelling once again with the God who created us, loves us and saves those who hear His voice and believe.
So, let us always remember that even though there is much we can do in this world, there are some things that only God can accomplish. We are commissioned to go out, to share the Gospel, to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But we could do none of this without the Spirit which God gives. Our words, our water, our work is useless without Him. It’s all about God. Without Him we could not bear it at all, but with Him we can overcome everything, even sin and death.
“But this I say, He that soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he that soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully. Let each man do according as he hath purposed in his heart: not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound unto you; that ye, having always all sufficiency in everything, may abound unto every good work: as it is written, He hath scattered abroad, he hath given to the poor; His righteousness abideth for ever. And he that supplieth seed to the sower and bread for food, shall supply and multiply your seed for sowing, and increase the fruits of your righteousness: ye being enriched in everything unto all liberality, which worketh through us thanksgiving to God. For the ministration of this service not only filleth up the measure of the wants of the saints, but aboundeth also through many thanksgivings unto God; seeing that through the proving of you by this ministration they glorify God for the obedience of your confession unto the gospel of Christ, and for the liberality of your contribution unto them and unto all; while they themselves also, with supplication on your behalf, long after you by reason of the exceeding grace of God in you. Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift.” 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, ASV
I have driven the road through west Texas to Lubbock enough times to know every landmark. It isn’t hard, there isn’t much to see. Oh, you pass through a couple towns and there are oil wells and windmills. There are trees and ranches, fences and roads. But there isn’t much else. You can see the horizon miles away in every direction. It seems desolate, even barren.
Barren is not a word that can be used of the miles of roadway I drove during my trip this month. As a matter of fact, the roadsides were thick with forest. I was delighted to see wisteria hanging from the trees and blooming dogwoods peppered between many different trees just coming into leaf after a long winter. It was like traveling through a beautiful green tunnel.
Barren might better describe the miles of water I saw when traveling across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. Like in Texas, I could see the horizon in every direction. The drive was shorter, but no less desolate, with the only landmarks to break the monotony being the islands leading into the tunnels.
It struck me how different, but alike, these three drives were. You might assume that the forest has more life because you can see so many trees, and yet the desert and the ocean are no less full of creatures. All three were teaming with live, whether plant or animal. The seagulls flew overhead while fish swam below. I even saw a dolphin. I did not see any animal life in the forest, but I have no doubts that the tree tops were home to birds while deer and other critters scampered on the ground. Even in the desert there is life. The ranches are home to horses and longhorns, but there are wild animals too. Birds fly overhead while coyotes and lizards find homes in the scrub.
We can’t assume that something is barren just because it doesn’t seem to be hospitable to life. We might not enjoy living in the desert, but there are plenty of plants and animals that call it home. We might not be able to live in the ocean or bay, but it is home to fascinating creatures that couldn’t live where we are comfortable. Many of us would not enjoy living in the forest because they trees block the sunshine and the shadows harbor dangerous creatures. Yet each place is home to something that God created.
How often have we looked at our neighbor and wondered whether there is life within? This is, of course, a question we shouldn’t ask about our neighbor because we can’t possibly know what is in their heart. We might not see life on the surface, but like the desert, the forest and the ocean, there is life beyond what we can see. God knows. As for us, can our neighbor see the fruit of our own life? Do we appear to be a desert, barren and desolate? Or are we like an ocean with a flat and lifeless surface? Are we like the forest where there appears to be life, but our neighbors see miles and miles of the same thing? God has given us an incredible gift: life. That life is given not to be hidden under a façade, but to be manifested in the sharing of His grace. Though it is not up to us to judge whether our neighbor is letting the life of Christ flow from their hearts, we can ensure that His love is visible in ours.
“Again, ye have heard that it was said to them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: but I say unto you, swear not at all; neither by the heaven, for it is the throne of God; nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, for thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your speech be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: and whatsoever is more than these is of the evil one.” Matthew 5:33-37, ASV
In Matthew 21, Jesus tells the story of a man with two sons. He asked both sons to do something for him. One son said, “Yes” but did not do the thing. The other son said, “No” but eventually did it. Jesus asks, “Which son did the Father’s will?” The answer, of course, is the son who does eventually do the task, even if it is done half-heartedly. The point of the story is that Jesus knew that the sons who claimed to be faithful, including the religious leaders, would not follow Jesus, but those who were outcast because they didn’t live religiously righteous lives would. He knew it was more likely that a tax collector would believe in Him than a priest.
We know that actions speak much louder than words. We can probably all tell stories about times when we have said that we’d do something but circumstances got in the way. We can also remember times when we didn’t agree to do something but eventually did it anyway. Many of my stories involve my children. As a parent I’ve made lots of promises that I was not able to keep, and I’ve also changed my mind. I can remember too many times when I’ve promised that we would go someplace or do something but could not keep my promise or times when I said “Absolutely not” to some request only to give in later.
As parents we know that these things happen. There is good reason for a yes to become a no and a no to become a yes. We can change our mind. However, the scripture for today is about more than changing our mind. It is about vows, promises, covenants. See, Jesus warns us to be careful about swearing about these things because when we break the vow made in God’s name, we not only show ourselves to be unfaithful but we diminish God.
Actions certainly do speak louder than words, but we are cautioned to beware of the words we speak. Instead of making promises that we can’t keep or vows that we will turn over, we would do well to do stand firm in what is right. Jesus wants us to live according to God’s will, to do what God intends in our relationships with one another. We don’t need to swear on heaven and earth or Jerusalem or our own head. We just need to be faithful in our actions, to do what would honor God and serve our neighbor.
“Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is begotten of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. Herein was the love of God manifested in us, that God hath sent his only begotten Son into the world that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man hath beheld God at any time: if we love one another, God abideth in us, and his love is perfected in us: hereby we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit. And we have beheld and bear witness that the Father hath sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world. Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God abideth in him, and he in God. And we know and have believed the love which God hath in us. God is love; and he that abideth in love abideth in God, and God abideth in him. Herein is love made perfect with us, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as he is, even so are we in this world. There is no fear in love: but perfect love casteth out fear, because fear hath punishment; and he that feareth is not made perfect in love. We love, because he first loved us. If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, cannot love God whom he hath not seen. And this commandment have we from him, that he who loveth God love his brother also.” 1 John 4:7-21, ASV
Have you ever felt completely useless? Have you felt like nothing you do has any impact on the people you are trying to help? I know that there have been times when it seemed like the words I said or the things I did nothing to change anything. But a story I read today reminded me that sometimes it isn’t about saying the right words or doing the right things. Sometimes the best thing we can do is to be present.
The story was about a woman who became a teacher in a class of special needs students that were not able to cope in normal school situations. They were students that had been moved from school to school, never finding success because of their behavioral difficulties. No other program was able to fulfill their needs. One young man coped with disappointment with outbursts and then by running away. The problem was dealt with by calling the police.
On one particular occasion—the first this woman experienced with the young man—he became upset because his behavior did not allow for him to attend a field trip with the rest of the class. He loudly screamed in the hall and then ran. He ran into the street and just kept running. The woman was concerned for his safety and she ran after him while others called the police. She could not catch him, but managed to stay close enough to see that he was safe. He eventually stopped, physically exhausted by it all.
The teacher caught up, but was afraid he’d run again when he realized she was near. He didn’t. When he realized she was there, he relaxed and looked at her quizzically, but not with fear. She didn’t know what to say, or even what to do. They just looked at each other until the police arrived. He willingly got in the back of the car and was taken away. She went back to school feeling like a failure. When she returned, however, another teacher said, “No one ever ran after him before. No one. They just let him go.”
Things were different when the boy returned to school. He always chose her as the teacher to help him. He listened and obeyed when she told him what to do. He connected to her in a way he’d never been able to connect to another teacher. One day he even said, “I love you.” He was a boy that had a notation in his records that said, “Unable to express love or maintain a loving relationship with another human being.”
All it took was her presence. She didn’t need to say or do anything to make a difference; she simply had to be there to make a difference. We might think that we have failed those in our life who needed us in some way because we didn’t have the right words or do the right things. But it doesn’t take words or deeds to make a difference. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that we hold back from being present in the lives of those hurting or in need because we don’t know what to say or to do. That’s when we truly fail.
But if we are open to run after those who just want to run away, we might find that we can make a very real difference in their life. We don’t have to have the right words or do the right things; we just have to be there. And eventually we will understand what we can say and do to have a lasting impact in their life.
Do we always hear God speaking or see God working? Do our prayers get answered in a way that we can see the impact on the world? If the answer is no, does that mean God is not present among us? Of course not. God is always present, answering our prayers in ways that we might never expect, doing things that we do not always see. He answered our greatest need by sending His Son, our Lord Jesus, to be present among us, and then when Jesus ascended to heaven, He sent the Holy Spirit to dwell among us. Now we are, by faith, called to be His presence in the world, to be the vessel by which He will impact those in need. Though we might not see it today, our willingness to be present might just be the way God will touch those in need and love those who need it most.
“There is one that is alone, and he hath not a second; yea, he hath neither son nor brother; yet is there no end of all his labor, neither are his eyes satisfied with riches. For whom then, saith he, do I labor, and deprive my soul of good? This also is vanity, yea, it is a sore travail. Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falleth, and hath not another to lift him up. Again, if two lie together, then they have warmth; but how can one be warm alone? And if a man prevail against him that is alone, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” Ecclesiastes 4:8-12, ASV
We have a sofa bed that we’ve moved numerous times over the past decade or so. We like it, but it isn’t really the kind of sofa we want in our formal living room. Last Friday we went out and bought a couple standard sofas to create a conversation space in the room, with the plan to move the sofa bed into our daughter’s empty bedroom. That way it will be usable if we have company, and that company won’t have to sleep in the big open living room.
Our new sofas arrive tomorrow morning and I wanted to prepare the room by getting the old couch out of the way and vacuuming the floor. It was heavy, but I could push it along the carpet with little exertion. It took me time, but I did it. I even managed to wrangle it around the corner and line it up with the door. That’s when my problems began. The bedroom door is small and the sofa is about an inch too big in every direction. There may be a way to get it through the door, but there is no way I can do it by myself. The couch is simply too heavy and bulky for one person.
How often do we try to do things on our own when we really should seek help? We like to think we are strong enough, smart enough, or experienced enough to accomplish anything. But while we might have the strength, intelligence and experience to accomplish many things, we can’t do everything on our own. We need others. We need a helping hand. We need other people to give us ideas. We need to depend on the experience of other people.
This is true in tasks like furniture moving as well as in matters of faith. No matter how long we have been a Christian, we can’t live faithfully on our own. We need other Christians to help us stay the path. We need other Christians to help us discern what God is speaking into our lives. We need other Christians to be our support, comfort, strength. God does dwell in the hearts of every believer, but we are much better when we live in the community that is called the Church. One person might accomplish great things, but two or three can accomplish miracles. And Satan cannot break apart a fellowship of believers that are bound together by faith.