Welcome to the April 2021 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 World English Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, April 2021
“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are dying, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise. I will bring the discernment of the discerning to nothing.’ Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the lawyer of this world? Hasn’t God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For seeing that in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom didn’t know God, it was God’s good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching to save those who believe. For Jews ask for signs, Greeks seek after wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Greeks, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God; because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, WEB
Have you ever played the perfect practical joke on someone? The perfect practical joke is one that catches the “victim” unaware, but ends in hysterical laughter. Some jokes aren’t so funny. Some jokes hurt people’s feelings, but not the perfect practical joke.
There are those who say that the Resurrection of Jesus was the perfect practical joke. The devil thought he won, but Christ rose from the dead. The devil didn’t see the joke coming. It was outrageous and preposterous. It was unexpected. No one say it coming, even those closest to Jesus. The time between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection was horrible, but it ultimately ended in great joy, except, perhaps, for the devil. We’ve heard this story so many times before, but can we still hear it with fresh ears? Can we tell jokes about ourselves, about our fear and our doubts and laugh in the joy of God’s forgiveness? Can we trust that God is merciful and that we can experience His grace in laughter and merriment? We can be glad and rejoice because what God has done is really a great joke that has brought salvation to the world.
Today is April Fool’s Day, but it is also Maundy Thursday. Our local zoo posted an incredible article on Facebook about how they are going to cover the entire zoo with a biodome. After the horrible weather a few weeks ago, this would create a safe environment for the animals no matter the weather outside. The article came with visual mock-ups of the new domes and excitement about the historic nature of this project. Of course, you have to be careful about believing anything published on April Fool’s Day, including this incredible idea. There is no way the zoo can afford to take on a project like this and though it would be wonderful, the article is just a practical joke.
Jesus’ joke on the devil began on Maundy Thursday. Jesus and His disciples gathered around the Passover Seder meal. We know that this is the time and place where Jesus instituted the New Covenant and the Eucharistic meal that is a foretaste of the feast that is to come. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we join Christians from every time and place in that meal that we’ll enjoy forever when God’s Kingdom as promised in Isaiah 25.
Yesterday I talked about how the world thinks that our celebration of the Resurrection is too sober, somber, and grave with serious formality compared to the joy and happiness of their Easter celebrations. They don’t understand the joy we have in the promise of eternal life that we have because Jesus was raised from the dead. I think that sometimes we treat the Lord’s Supper with a solemnity and holiness that makes it inaccessible to many. We do that, though, because we have a similar understanding of the Passover Seder as the outsiders have of our Easter worship.
The text from the Gospels about the night Jesus was betrayed makes it clear that Jesus was doing something sacred and holy with His disciples in establishing the New Covenant. We know (they did not) that it would not be long after the meal that Jesus would be arrested. That meal was not sober, somber, and grave with serious formality. The Passover Seder was a celebration of freedom and God’s faithfulness. There were somber moments when Jesus told them the truth about the night ahead of them, but they surely laughed as they ate together. They sang hymns. They reclined to highlight their status as a royal nation. They experienced the ritual that reminded them of their slavery, but they also savored the glasses of wine that stood for sanctification and holiness (I will bring you out), deliverance (I will rescue you), redemption (I will redeem you), and blessing (I will take you as my own people.) These glasses of wine and the promises attached are a reason to rejoice and be glad, not be sober, somber, and grave.
The disciples didn’t get the joke until Easter Sunday, but there is one who never saw the humor. He probably didn’t even enjoy that last supper with his Lord. Judas must have thought “What Folly!” as he watched the events of Holy Week unfold; it was foolish enough to have wasted the money wrapped up in that alabaster Jar that Mary broke, folly for Jesus to have provoked a scene at the temple and then withdrawn, failing to follow it through with a proper, thoroughly planned rebellion. Now on this Thursday the greatest folly of all, to waste the chance of insurrection with all the defeatist talk of His own body being broken, his own blood shed. Judas could see that this little movement he had joined with such hope was going nowhere. Its numbers already dwindling and its strangely passive leader was clearly headed for the gallows. What to do? What would be the wise course of action? He must have thought that it would be best to jump ship first before they all went down, best indeed to put some space between himself and this crowd so that he would not be dragged down with them, best to bring the whole foolish charade to an end as soon as possible. The authorities were bound to pick up this great fool anyway, bound to have informers, “If I don’t do it somebody else will” thought Judas as he slipped out into the night.
So on that Maundy Thursday Judas left the April Fool to his folly, and seemed wise enough looking on from the distance on Friday. But hidden in the folly of the cross was a wisdom Judas had never guessed. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it bears no fruit, but if it dies it bears a rich harvest,” Jesus had said. In utter trust He had made himself the seed of all humanity and cast himself and all of us once and for all into the rich ground of God’s eternal love.
Maundy Thursday was the beginning of a roller coaster of three days with highs and lows we can’t possibly imagine. There are moments that are truly sacred and holy, moments when we should treat with the seriousness due. We know what happens next and Good Friday is certainly a time to be sober, somber, and grave. But if we are walking in the footsteps of Jesus and His disciples during these three days, then tonight should be a time of celebration. We are part of that holy and royal family rejoicing over our sanctification, deliverance, redemption, and blessing, thanking God for making us His own people forever and ever. The meal we take together in this life is just a foretaste of the great feast to come, a feast we receive because Jesus played the most perfect practical joke on the devil two thousand years ago. It may seem to us that this was a foolish way to accomplish the work of salvation, but the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
“My praise of you comes in the great assembly. I will pay my vows before those who fear him. The humble shall eat and be satisfied. They shall praise Yahweh who seek after him. Let your hearts live forever. All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to Yahweh. All the relatives of the nations shall worship before you. For the kingdom is Yahweh’s. He is the ruler over the nations. All the rich ones of the earth shall eat and worship. All those who go down to the dust shall bow before him, even he who can’t keep his soul alive. Posterity shall serve him. Future generations shall be told about the Lord. They shall come and shall declare his righteousness to a people that shall be born, for he has done it.” Psalm 22:25-31, WEB
I wrote about the events surrounding the last Thursday of Jesus’ life and encouraged joy because the meal past and present is one of celebration. Yet, we know that the events of Maundy Thursday included some solemn and even disturbing moments. Jesus told Peter he’d deny Him. Jesus washed the feet of His disciples, which was a sacred moment that probably induced some uncomfortable nervous laughter. His talk of death would not have been happy news. Jesus sent Judas to do what he had to do. Despite these moments, the disciples left the Upper Room and headed to the garden with Jesus satisfied from the food and drink, ready to finish the night with pleasant rest.
The night wasn’t over, though. Jesus still had to face the most difficult hours of His life. Though the events in the garden begin on Thursday after the meal, they belong to Good Friday. What a strange name for the day our Lord was put to death.
It had been approximately thirty-three years since the birth of our Savior. For the last three years, he shared the Kingdom of God. During that time he did many incredible things. He healed the sick, cast out demons and fed thousands. He even raised the dead. He preached a new truth to the people, that God is merciful, full of forgiveness and love. He also taught that following Him would not be easy, that He demands much from our lives.
Jesus went to the garden to pray while Judas went to the Temple to betray Jesus. The disciples were so content that they fell asleep even though Jesus asked them to watch. It was not unusual for Jesus to pray, and it was not unusual for those times of prayer to last hours. They didn’t realize that during those prayers Jesus was fighting the greatest spiritual battle of His life. He was fighting the devil. He was fighting for our lives. The man Jesus could still have said “NO!” but He remained without sin. He rejected the temptation and willingly finished the work His Father sent Him to do.
After He spent time in prayer, everything moved very fast. Judas came with a crowd of people and betrayed his friend by identifying Him with a kiss. Peter tried to stop the event from continuing by swinging his sword. A guard was injured by Jesus healed the wound. The will of God would not be hindered by the desires of men. Jesus appeared before Caiaphas, the chief priest, so that the Sanhedrin could find some crime worthy of death. By Roman law, the Jews could not put a man to death. They found him guilty of blasphemy.
The disciples scattered. They hid in the crowds, trying to see each moment, but afraid of being discovered. Peter warmed himself over a fire, trying to fit in to the crowd. Three people approached him and claimed they had seen him with Jesus. Three times, Peter denied knowing him, just as Jesus said. After the final denial, a rooster crowed and Jesus looked directly at Peter. Peter wept bitterly because he knew that Jesus had been right. He couldn’t do as he boasted he would do.
Jesus was taken before Pilate, the Roman governor. Pilate could find nothing against Rome that would be punishable by the death penalty. When Pilate discovered Jesus was from Galilee, he sent him to be tried by Herod. Pilate was anxious to be rid of this problem. His wife has seen in a dream that Pilate would be blamed for the death of this innocent man. Leaders from the temple were scattered in the crowd that watched the proceedings. He was taken to Herod who was quite excited about seeing Jesus face to face. He’d heard so much about the man; he wanted to see some mighty miracle performed before him. When Jesus would not prove himself, Herod humiliated Him and sent Him back to Pilate.
Pilate did not see reason for death, so he took the question to the crowd. Someone yelled, “Crucify him!” The crowd that was yelling, “Hosanna” just days before were so agitated by Jesus’ actions in the past few days, they easily fell to the temptation of anger, fear and violence. They yelled, “Crucify him!” The final betrayal came when the people said, “We have no king but Caesar.” They showed Jesus that they did not even look to the Lord God Almighty as their King. Pilate had no choice but to send Jesus to the cross.
Through all this, Jesus was humiliated, beaten and stripped of everything. They took His clothes and His dignity. They forced a cross onto His already sore and bleeding back and pushed Him on to Golgotha. As He walked His final footsteps on this earth, He faced the women who were weeping over His fate. He told them to weep for themselves, because the time would come when they would face great suffering.
He had great difficulty carrying the cross, falling under the heavy burden. A man, Simon, was ordered to carry it for Him. Other prisoners were taken with Him to the hill, each sentenced to die for their crime. One thief begged Jesus to save them, but the other humbled Himself in repentance and accepted responsibility for the wrongs he had done. Jesus welcomed him to His kingdom. He saw His mother and the one disciple who stayed near. He gave Mary to John to care for the rest of her life, seeing to her welfare, even in the midst of His pain. The soldiers mocked Jesus and tried to serve Him a poison that would bring death more quickly, but Jesus refused. He would control every moment. As Max Lucado so eloquently states, “He chose the nails.”
At the end of our Maundy Thursday service, we stripped the altar of all paraphernalia while Psalm 22 was read. On the cross Jesus quoted this Psalm when He said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The imagery of the Passion is found in this psalm. He is forsaken. He is scorned and mocked. He thirsts. He is surrounded by ruthless people. His hands and feet are pierced. His garments are divided and lots are cast for his clothing. As we read Psalm 22, we see the suffering of Jesus. The psalm also shows us, however, that the afflicted one is not forsaken. God has not hidden his face from him; God has heard his cry. Affliction is not the end of the story. The suffering one will eat and be satisfied. We’ll have to wait three days to see this promise fulfilled.
Affliction leads to deliverance. Jesus knew, despite the cry of abandonment on the cross, that God can be trusted. God is faithful. One day the whole world will join in worship of Him. Psalm 22 gives us a vivid portrait of affliction, alludes to the resurrection and then closes with a future-facing kingdom reign. Jesus fulfills in the Gospels everything we see in the psalm.
While Good Friday should never be a day of celebration, it is a day filled with hope because of God’s promises. We know the end of the story because we are Easter people. But Jesus may have given some comfort to those who were struggling with His death by pointing them toward the words of the Shepherd Psalm Trilogy (Psalms 22-24). “I am suffering right now (Psalm 22), but after you walk through the valley of the shadow of death during these three days (Psalm 23), I promise that I will be there waiting for you in victory (Psalm 24). I will deliver you from sin and death and you will live with me in my eternal kingdom forever.” This is our hope and it is in His Word we can find peace.
“So, then, my beloved brothers, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; for the anger of man doesn’t produce the righteousness of God. Therefore, putting away all filthiness and overflowing of wickedness, receive with humility the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not only hearers, deluding your own selves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his natural face in a mirror; for he sees himself, and goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of freedom and continues, not being a hearer who forgets, but a doer of the work, this man will be blessed in what he does.” James 1:19-25, WEB
Today’s question is “Why do we sit here until we die?” and it comes from 2 Kings 7, another story from the Bible that is not well known. Jehoram, son of Ahab and Jezebel, king of Israel, was not perfect, but was not as bad as his parents. He pulled down the pillar of Baal that his father made. There was war between Israel and Syria, but Elisha the prophet helped protect Jehoram by telling him where the Syrians planned to attack. Jehoram ended up in the city of Samaria but the Syrians besieged the city. Israel was dying inside the walls while the Syrians feasted on the plain.
One day Elisha said to the king, “Tomorrow about this time a seah of fine flour will be sold for a shekel, and two seahs of barley for a shekel, in the gate of Samaria.” This was an incredible promise of salvation, of bread to feed the starving people. God was about to do something amazing. The right hand man of the king doubted the prophecy of Elisha and said, “Behold, if Yahweh made windows in heaven, could this thing be?” He had no trust that God could make things right; Elisha told him that he would see the great miracle, but he would not eat the bread of God’s mercy.
Meanwhile, at the gate of the city sat four lepers. They realized that sitting there at the gate of the city was doing them no good. It also would do them no good to go inside. They were going to die one way or the others. So, they took the risk and went out, hoping perhaps for some mercy from the Syrians. If not, they were going to die anyway. They thought they might as well die quick by the sword rather than slow from hunger. They discovered that the entire Syrian army was gone. There was not a man left behind. The tents were still standing; there was even food on the tables. God had created fear in the hearts of the Syrians by making a noise that sounded like a great army with chariots and horses. They fled, leaving behind everything, including the besieged city.
The lepers ate their fill from one of the tents, but then realized that they needed to do something more. They needed to tell the city they were saved. So, they went back and told the king. The king thought it was ruse on the part of the Syrians, but he sent a few to go and see if it was true that the army was gone. The messengers told the king. If it were not for those four lepers who took the risk, the Israelites would never have known they had been made free by God. The right hand man was given the duty to guard the gate of the city, but he was trampled as the people rushed out to plunder the camp. The prophecies of Elisha were fulfilled. God saved His people once again and proved that He has the power to make amazing things happen.
“Why do we sit here until we die?” God did the saving, but He used those four men at the gate of the city to announce the good news. The lepers were outcast. They had no value in their community. They were sick, unclean, and they were left to die in a city that was dying. Yet, we cannot deny the amazing timing of their question. God removed the army and He put the question on their hearts. They risked their lives to escape certain death. Note also that their motives were selfish and self-centered. God used that to His advantage. He can use our own failings, selfishness and self-centeredness, too. But we have to ask ourselves the same question. “Why do we sit here until we die?”
We are not meant to sit around in this world until we die. He has given us faith so that we will take risks to help others see the salvation of God. As we continuing celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are reminded that there are many people in our world who are starving for the Good News of God’s mercy and grace. We’ve seen an incredible miracle. Jesus Christ died on a cross, but on the third day God raised Him from the dead. This is news that is meant to be shared. We might think that we are outcast, have no value in our community, sick and unclean. We might think that we are just waiting to die. But God whispers in our ear that we should get up and see what He has done. God might just be calling us to share the Good News of salvation with our neighbors, and in our doing His work we will be blessed.
“You were made alive when you were dead in transgressions and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the children of disobedience. We also all once lived among them in the lusts of our flesh, doing the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, for his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him, and made us to sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus; for by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, that no one would boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before that we would walk in them.” Ephesians 2:1-10, WEB
I certainly rejoiced on Resurrection Day because of what the Lord had done for me. I also rejoiced because we had a church full of people celebrating the incredible gift of new life from our Father thanks to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. We did not have that experience last year because the churches were locked down. We worshipped online from home which wasn’t the same. Yet, there was something different about this year, too. I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. The problem was that Lent didn’t feel like Lent. Unfortunately here in Texas on Ash Wednesday we were in the midst of the worst storm in many years. Many Texans, including my family, had no electricity. We couldn’t drive anywhere because the roads were dangerous. Ash Wednesday services were canceled.
That should not have mattered, but after a year of struggle and days of suffering, I never really got around to choosing a fast. My husband and I did several twenty-four hour fasts, but we didn’t “give anything up.” We both read extra devotions, but even those didn’t really feel like much for me. When we arrived in church on Sunday, it seemed like any other Sunday because I didn’t feel like I’d left a wilderness to experience the renewal of Easter.
I was really grateful, then, that I read this on Easter Sunday from John Chrysostom: “If any person is devout and loves God, let him come to this radiant and triumphant feast. If any person is a wise follower, let him enter into the joy of his Lord, rejoicing. If any have fasted long, let him now receive refreshment.
If any have labored from the first hour, let him keep the feast with thankfulness. If any came at the third hour, let him keep the feast with thankfulness. If any arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings for he shall not be deprived. If any delayed to the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any have waited until the eleventh hour, let him not be alarmed at his tardiness. For the Lord will accept the last even as the first. Therefore, all of you, enter into the joy of your Lord. Rich and poor together, hold the high festival. Diligent and heedless, honor this day. Both you who have fasted, and you who did not fast, rejoice together today. The table is full; all of you, feast sumptuously.”
I needed to read that on Sunday, because I confess that I despite my love for God and my assurance that He loved me from the cross to the grave and back, I often feel unworthy of that grace. Don’t we all sometimes? I shake my head and wonder why God would care so much for me. I fail to live up to His expectations daily. I grumble. I doubt. I get angry with my neighbors. I sin against them in thought, word, and deed. Yet, what St. Chrysostom wrote is absolutely true. Jesus went to the cross for the worker who has labored from the beginning and the worker who makes a deathbed confession. He died for the Christian who made and diligently lived according to his Lenten promises as well for those of us who just could not find the strength or energy to give anymore of ourselves at this moment.
Paul reminds us that we are saved by grace and not by anything we have done. As Christians, we are meant to live faithfully daily, but as fallen and imperfect human beings we all have our moments. The promise of the Resurrection is for the lifelong Christians and for the last minute believer, for the person who is a saint and the one who stumbles and falls. Jesus did this for us when we are at our best, but more so for when we are at our worst. We all deserve the wrath Jesus received on the cross, but God does not strike out at us. He loves us. He doesn’t see every fault or every sin. He doesn’t record the work we do or count our failings. He sees us through mercy and grace and kindness. God treats us with love. He does good things for us. He fills our hearts with peace and joy and our lives with good gifts. He gives us Easter even when we forget how to walk through Lent. He doesn’t do this because we deserve these good things; He does it because He loves us. He never stops seeing us as the beautiful child He created in our mother’s wombs, and He continues to act with kindness even when we do not deserve it.
Scriptures for April 11, 2021, Second Sunday of Easter: Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 148; 1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31
“With great power, the apostles gave their testimony of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Great grace was on them all.” Acts 4:33, WEB
We know about the twelve days of Christmas, but few even realize that Easter continues for eight days. It is called the Octave of Easter and ends this Sunday. Though the holy day is over and our lives are getting back to normal, it would do us well to remember that the disciples were still confused and uncertain about what was happening for them. Jesus had appeared before them, but were they ready to truly believe? Were they ready to go forth into the world telling others about Jesus? We do not hear a true confession of faith until the eighth day when Thomas says, “My Lord and my God.” The eggs may be found, the chocolate eaten and the lilies fading, but Easter continues.
According to the scriptures, Jesus made twelve appearances after the Resurrection. He appeared to Mary (Mark 16:9; John 20:10-18), the women returning from the tomb (Matthew 28:9-10), the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32; Mark 16:12-13), Peter in Jerusalem. (Luke 24:34; 1 Corinthians 15:5), His disciples except Thomas in the Upper Room (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-23), Thomas and the disciples in the Upper Room (John 20:24-29), seven of His disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1-24), five hundred believers at one time (1 Corinthians 15:6), James (1 Corinthians 15:7), eleven disciples on a mountain in Galilee (Matthew 28:18-20), along the road to Bethany, on the Mount of Olives before He ascended into Heaven (Luke 24:50-53), and Paul on the road to Damascus. (Acts 9:3-6; 1 Corinthians 15:8). We also know that in the forty days between the Resurrection and Ascension, Jesus spent time with the disciples, augmenting the knowledge He had given them before His death. It is worthwhile reading these texts to see that the witness of these disciples and followers is true. They were witnesses, not only of the great work Jesus did before His death, but of the reality that Jesus didn’t stay dead. He is alive, and those hundreds of people saw it for themselves.
I must confess that I enjoy watching some of the paranormal shows on television. I don’t like them all because they can become overly dramatic. I enjoy the ones that use science to prove, or more often to disprove, the claims in the place they are investigating. The investigators do not go in with preconceived expectations. They really want to find reasonable explanations for the paranormal events. They often have real world skills like plumbing and electrical expertise which helps the client see mechanical or technological answers to some of their questions. Sometimes a cold spot is just a draft. Sometimes a door opening is caused by bad latches and the vacuum affect when another door is opened. Sometimes the creepy feelings are brought on by high electrical fields. Sometimes the faucet is broken and the water really does just turn on by itself. Odd lights and shadows can be caused by passing cars.
Not everything has a reasonable explanation, however. Clients take the investigators around the home or building to tell the stories and show the hot spots. The stories often include tales of full body apparitions and shadow figures. People hear voices and footsteps. Objects move and lights turn on. There are often feelings of dread and sometimes people feel sick. Some people even report being physically touched as if something has pushed them, pulled their hair or breathed on their neck. Some of these reports can be easily explained away. Sometimes they can’t.
The investigators occasionally find evidence of paranormal activity. Even then, they rarely call a place haunted. Some paranormal activity is simply that: not normal. Not all paranormal activity is a spiritual entity. Sometimes it is just energy that has manifested in an unusual way. Sometimes it is simply the imagination of an overactive mind. When we can’t identify something as normal, we are quick to identify it as abnormal and frightening. The claims of paranormal activity in some of these buildings cause fear to the point that people refuse enter certain rooms or are unwilling to live or work in that space.
Despite the times Jesus told His disciples that He had to die so that He could be raised again, and despite the fact that Mary (in John’s version of the story) told them what she had seen and heard at the tomb, the disciples were frightened when Jesus appeared. It was not normal for a dead man to walk again. They appear to be familiar with paranormal activity because they thought Jesus was a ghost, but it never occurred to them that He might actually be alive.
N.T. Wright once wrote, “But ‘resurrection’ to 1st-century Jews wasn’t about ‘going to Heaven’: it was about the physically dead being physically alive again. Some Jews (not all) believed that God would do this for all people in the end. Nobody, including Jesus’ followers, was expecting one person to be bodily raised from the dead in the middle of history. The stories of the Resurrection are certainly not ‘wish-fulfilments’ or the result of what dodgy social science calls ‘cognitive dissonance’. First-century Jews who followed would-be messiahs knew that if your leader got killed by the authorities, it meant you had backed the wrong man. You then had a choice: give up the revolution or get yourself a new leader. Going around saying that he’d been raised from the dead wasn’t an option.”
There was only one answer to the question of what they were seeing that first night in the upper room: Jesus was alive. But it didn’t make sense to them right away. They were afraid because what they were seeing could not be real. Jesus answered their fear and gave them the proof they needed to know that it was true. Jesus was alive! Unfortunately, Thomas was not with them when Jesus appeared. So, just as the paranormal investigators do not believe until they see and experience it for themselves, Thomas could not believe until he received the same proof as the other disciples.
Thomas did not believe when he heard from the other disciples that Jesus had appeared bodily before them. He needed to see the risen Christ for himself. From that moment, Thomas was pinned with the name “Doubting Thomas” because he doubted what they saw. Perhaps he should have believed, after all there were plenty of reasons given to the disciples before that moment when Jesus came to them in the upper room. Jesus’ own words should have given them peace in the aftermath of the crucifixion. It took them time to fully grasp the reality of their experience with Jesus. As a matter of fact, even after appearing to them in the flesh, Jesus stayed among them for forty days to continue to teach them all they needed to know to go into the world and do the work He was calling them to do. These lessons were reruns; He’d been teaching them for three years but the lessons had new meaning after His Resurrection. The faithful and faith-filled life does not happen overnight. It is an ongoing life of growing and maturing.
And while “Doubting Thomas” was not willing to believe until he had physical proof, he is also “Confessing Thomas” because as soon as he saw Jesus he cried, “My Lord and my God.” He not only believed that Jesus was alive, but he also believed that Jesus was who and what He said He was. Jesus was not only their friend and teacher. He was not simply a man who lived and died like all other men. He was Lord and God. Man and God. Human and Divine. This is an important confession of faith and the foundation of all we believe as Christians.
Peter gave a similar confession before the crucifixion when he said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus replied that this was not something that Peter could know on his own. It was by the power of the Holy Spirit that he could confess this faith. Thomas has been long been characterized by his doubt, but rarely remembered for his confession. I suppose that it is Jesus’ reply to Thomas’ doubt that makes us think that way. After all, when Jesus saw Thomas during that second appearance, He said, “Be not faithless, but believing.” But, Jesus still showed Thomas His hands and side. Jesus understands our doubts and He reaches out to us so that we might see the truth. Thomas did see the truth and said so. He needed Jesus to shine the light on his doubt to make it faith.
Where would we be without light? God created light, the sun and the moon and the stars, and our bodies were designed to live according to those lights. We rise with the sun and we rest in the darkness. Yet, in this modern age we have the advantage of electricity and the light bulb. We have extended the time we have to accomplish our work. In some ways this is not an advantage; instead of going to bed when it is dark, we stay up late into the night. We’ve extended our day which used to be limited by the daylight. Stores can be open 24/7. There is no darkness, which for our human bodies means that there is not enough time to rest. In an article from the Washington post by Rob Stein, Najib T. Ayas of the University of British Columbia was quoted as saying, “We’re shifting to a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week society, and as a result we’re increasingly not sleeping like we used to. We’re really only now starting to understand how that is affecting health, and it appears to be significant.”
The light bulb “tricks” us into believing that we do not have to sleep. There is light, so we must have time to continue our work, to enjoy our hobbies, to read a good book. The light bulb “tricks” us in other ways, too. A well placed light will provide a certain atmosphere and create an emotional response that other lighting might not be able to produce. Lighting can draw the eye to a certain person or object. This is especially apparent in theater or film, where lighting is used to both emphasize something the directors want you to see and hide the things they do not want you to see. I’ve noticed, also, that lighting is used to make things look better to our eye. Take, for instance, the produce department of your local grocery store. Have you ever noticed the special lighting hanging above the fruits and vegetables? Those lights are designed to make the fruit look better, riper and more delicious. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been disappointed by tomatoes that looked great in the store, but not so great when I got them home.
This is not to say that man made light is a bad thing. I’m certainly not against the light bulb! I’m as guilty as everyone else of using too many hours in every day, working into the night. I paint better at night. I probably wouldn’t read as much if I didn’t do so before I went to sleep. But we fool ourselves if we think that the light we create is miraculous. Our life is not necessarily better than it was hundreds of years ago, before the advent of modern conveniences. It is better in many ways, but what have we lost in the process? I wonder if we’ve lost a sense of the darkness because we have conquered it by our own hands. Do we really understand Jesus as the Light of the world, whose light is real and not tricky or manipulative? Or do we rely on our own ability to create light, both physical light and spiritual?
The light which is Christ is different than the man made light bulbs. It is different even than the natural light of the sun. Christ is the light that overcomes the darkness of the spirit, the darkness of sin and grief. His light is the light the bears all truth. His light reveals all that is good and provides true hope to those who are lost. In His light we see the reality of our life and the world, but we also see the reality of His grace. We see how the created world was meant to be. God did not create the world, or our lives, to be bad. He said, “It is good.” Yet, we have gotten lost in the darkness, not only that which is without light, but in the false light we create. In His light we see the truth, confess our sins and receive the forgiveness which He offers. There, in that Light, we will truly have rest and peace and hope.
The light continues to shine through the church, beginning with Thomas’ confession of faith. We have the record of Jesus’ life and ministry. We have the apostolic witness. Since those first days the Church has passed on the knowledge and experience of Christ and His light in the world. We have the scriptures and the traditions of the Church. We have the lives of the Saints who’ve been set aside for great acts of faithfulness and the saints who have taught us all we know about Jesus. We have our own experiences of God touching our lives with His grace. We have all this to help us know that Jesus is real and that His grace is transforming our lives and the world. Jesus shines His light in and through these things so that we can know it is true.
Those first disciples were given the opportunity to touch Him, to feel His wounds, to share in the reality of the resurrection. We are not blessed in that way, but Jesus tells us that we are blessed even more than those who saw and believed. “Blessed are those who have not seen, and have believed.” We walk in faith, continuing the work Jesus began on that first Resurrection Day. We have the greatest advantage: we have the Holy Spirit.
He gives us the faith to believe based on their witness and His Word rather than on proof. Though we cannot experience the flesh of Jesus as they did, we can believe their words. The Resurrection was real, physical and according to the scriptures. To reduce it to something less diminishes the witness of Peter and the others. It also diminishes Jesus because He fulfilled everything that was promised by God through the Old Testament prophets. It all may seem ridiculous and impossible, but the story of Jesus’ ministry, Good Friday, Easter, and Eternity is as God intended. Jesus lived, died and rose again by God’s hand and for God’s plan so that we will live in joy forever.
It is very important to John that we understand his reason for writing. John was there. He saw the risen Lord, he heard His voice. He listened as Jesus reminded them of everything that He taught throughout the three years. John was there when Jesus appeared out of nowhere and breathed on the disciples. He was there to experience the joy of knowing that Jesus fulfilled all His promises. The joy he felt on that first day was a joy that needed to be shared. We don’t believe in Jesus for a personal, private faith, we believe in Jesus with an active, public faith so that the light of God will shine to the world. John wrote so that others would believe and would join in the fellowship of the faithful. We are sent into the world to continue this work. This is the life that God has promised us. This is the life that begins today.
Have you ever wondered why the four Gospels do not line up perfectly? I have a wonderful resource that shows the Gospel parallels, but no matter how many texts agree, there are many things that each of the evangelists thought was important enough to add to the story that the others did not. John’s Gospel is the most different, but he writes from distinct point of view. While it seems to be entirely different, you still find enough the same to see that they are really telling the same story. Matthew and Mark are the closest, but even they have unique passages.
The four Evangelists were each unique people. Matthew was a tax collector, a Hebrew and his purpose was to prove that Jesus was the Messiah for which they were waiting. Mark was not one of the twelve, but it is likely that his Gospel is from Peter’s point of view. Luke was a doctor and a Gentile; he tells us that he is putting forth an accurate record of Jesus’ life and ministry. John was the youngest of the Apostles and writes so that we will see that Jesus is the Son of God. Despite these different points of view, experts insist that there is just the right amount of agreement between the four Gospels to prove that they tell one true and real story.
John tells us that “many other signs therefore did Jesus in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book.” There was no way for one man to record the whole life and ministry of Jesus. There was no way for the disciples to write down everything Jesus did for us to read. By their words, however, we know that we’ve been given just a glimmer of His life and the Light. They were blessed to live with Him, to work with Him, to learn under His teaching. We have what they were able to pass down, but we don’t have a physical Jesus who can come into our homes or walk with us on our path. It is no wonder, then, that there are those in our world today who doubt. Jesus says, “don’t be without faith, believe.” It is hard, but we can help by being the witnesses God has called to share His grace with those who need more than words. In our lives, in our actions, in our faith, they will see His shining light and believe that He lives.
Sunday, April 11th is the eighth day; it is the first day of the rest of our lives. By faith we dwell in the eighth day always. While the earth still turns and the sun still rises, we no longer live in darkness. It isn’t the light bulb that has overcome the dark; we live in the light because the Light is Christ. He lives so that we might have life. He shines through us to overcome the darkness of sin and death; we no longer need to fear because Jesus overcame them both for our sake. We dwell in eternity in the here and now even while we wait for eternity in the future.
This life does not come to us by physical proofs, but from the faith that God is faithful to His promises. As we dwell in this reality, we are called to continue sharing our faith with others in word and in deed. We are called together to be the body of Christ in the here and now as we wait until the day when we will all be joined in eternal praise and thanksgiving to the God who is victorious over even our sin.
We can live in the joy of the eighth day for the rest of our lives. We are Easter people, and every day is a day of joy. The psalmist knew that even though we experience the most terrifying things of the earth and the most mundane aspects of life, we have reason to praise God and given Him thanks. “He has lifted up the horn of his people, the praise of all his saints; even of the children of Israel, a people near to him. Praise Yah!”
I often wonder where Thomas was when Jesus appeared to the disciples the first time. He was outside of their fellowship. The rest of the disciples received an incredible promise when Jesus breathed on them. They were given the Holy Spirit and the assurance that Jesus would never leave them alone. Thomas probably felt very alone when he was not with the rest of Jesus’ disciples. Together they prayed. Together they talked. Together they grieved. Thomas did it alone. Together the disciples saw the risen Jesus in flesh and blood. Isn’t it interesting that even together in the presence of Jesus Christ, none of the disciples made the clear confession of faith? We learn from the passage from acts that as the community of faith grew, the Christians leaned on one another. No one was left alone, not by Jesus or by His body the Church.
Thomas was blessed with a physical, real encounter with the living Christ, but Jesus told him that many would believe in a better way. He said, “Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen, and have believed.” We are those about whom Jesus was talking. We believe not because we have touched His wounds or seen His face. We have received His light through the witnesses who have faith. Jesus breaths on us through their testimony and we believe because they shine His light. We need them, and they need us to continue sharing the Good News to those who will encounter Jesus through our testimony.
Our scriptures for this week make it clear that Jesus lived, died and rose again not only in Spirit but in flesh. He was a man and He was God. We now, thanks to the body of believers who have come before us, can also say with faith, “My Lord and my God” because Jesus is in the midst of our fellowship. Outside that fellowship is nothing but darkness, but together as Easter people we will have His power to shine His light and we will experience His great grace upon us all and dwell in His true presence forever.
“For we were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and his love toward mankind appeared, not by works of righteousness which we did ourselves, but according to his mercy, he saved us through the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly, through Jesus Christ our Savior; that being justified by his grace, we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” Titus 3:3-7, WEB
We have lived in our current house for nearly nine years, our longest residence since we were married thirty-two years ago. We bought our house for a son because it really needed some upgrades. We have done some work over the past nine years, but recently we’ve taken some of it more seriously. Our son moved out and his bedroom became my husband’s office, so we did some painting. Now that he has his own office, we are working on mine. Slowly, but surely, things are getting done. He’s doing most of the handy work and I’m doing most of the organizing.
Organizing means going through paperwork, bookshelves and drawers. I’m purging as much as I can. Organizers will tell you to make several piles. One pile is for the things you want to keep. You can only keep them if you have a place to put them. A second pile is to recycle. I currently have four nice sized boxes filled with books I’m going to take to the used book store to sell. I’ve also created a huge pile to take to Good Will. Our recycling bin has been full the past few weeks and I sent several boxes of old paperwork to be shredded. The final pile is garbage. While it is important to get rid of things, the hope of the recycling pile is that you won’t just thrown a bunch of things away.
I still have several drawers I need to go through. And I have a shelf full of VCR tapes to consider. We still have a couple of VCR players, so the tapes are not impractical, but we haven’t watched any of them for a long time. Most of the movies are easily available on streaming services or digital. Yet, there’s a whole collection of Disney movies that I don’t want to give away. I’ve had to make similar decisions about books and jewelry and research I’ve collected over the years.
When my husband’s parents died, he went home to deal with their family home and discovered that in some ways his folks were hoarders (not like those you see on TV!) There were piles of paperwork and a hundred years worth of collectibles (his family has lived on the property for hundreds of years.) We promised our children that they would not have to face the same sort of mess. I’m trying to keep that promise. Oh, we still have too much stuff, but hopefully it will be a little bit easier to deal with when the time comes. I have to admit that it has felt good to purge my life of some of this stuff that I have not used in decades (I found printed emails from 1996) and to share the things I don’t need with others who can use them. My house is a bit of a mess right now, but it will be better than ever when we are finished.
Lent is meant to be a time when we spring clean our spirits and our souls. That’s why we fast and take up extra devotional and prayer times. It is especially good when we come out of Lent transformed in some way. One year I gave up soda and I’ve never gone back to drinking it the way I did before that year. Many people who take up devotional reading during Lent continue it throughout the year. During a time of repentance we see the things about our lives that need to be changed, the baggage we need to rid from our lives. It is a time when God can do a little renovation and purging to make us into the people He has created and redeemed us to be.
I expect our house will be better, but it won’t be perfect. There is always work to be done. There will always be too many books on my shelves. Though my theological research is well organized, it is still extensive and it is unlikely to interest anyone beyond me. Someone is going to have to deal with all my collectibles and memories someday. The same is true about the baggage in my spirit and my soul. I’m not perfect. Despite all the Lent fasting and spiritual disciplines, I’m still a sinner in need of God’s grace. Easter is the assurance that God will keep working in my life. We will never deserve eternal life in His presence, but by His grace we’ll be with Him forever anyway. This is thanks to Jesus, who lived, died, and rose again to make me clean according to His promises.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort; who comforts us in all our affliction, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, through the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound to us, even so our comfort also abounds through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation. If we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer. Our hope for you is steadfast, knowing that, since you are partakers of the sufferings, so you are also of the comfort. For we don’t desire to have you uninformed, brothers, concerning our affliction which happened to us in Asia, that we were weighed down exceedingly, beyond our power, so much that we despaired even of life. Yes, we ourselves have had the sentence of death within ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead, who delivered us out of so great a death, and does deliver; on whom we have set our hope that he will also still deliver us; you also helping together on our behalf by your supplication; that, for the gift given to us by means of many, thanks may be given by many persons on your behalf.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-11
In the story “The Wizard of Oz”, Dorothy was a young girl who was transported to a land far beyond the rainbow. The people in that land are different, unusual, and her only desire is to go home. She was sent on a journey to the Emerald City which was a place where she might find help. She encountered many people along the way, some good and others bad, although each encounter helped her grow as a person. She met Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, and Tin Woodman each of which had their own desires that might be fulfilled in the Emerald City, so they joined Dorothy on the journey. Together they faced obstacles including a wicked witch who sought the pair of ruby slippers that Dorothy wore on her feet.
Another character they met along the way is Glinda the Good. Throughout the story, Glinda had the answers to the things our friends were seeking, but she knew they needed to learn the lessons gained by the journey. Along the way, Glinda offered encouragement and protection to the four travelers. Just when they wanted to give up, she stirred in them to desire to go on. She exhibited the gift of exhortation, the ability to share some words of comfort and encouragement to help someone continue on the right path.
Barnabas was a man described in the book of Acts who had the gift of exhortation. He was like a big brother, spurring others on to greatness while he followed quietly with love, direction and kindness. He sold property so that the church in Jerusalem would have the financial resources necessary to feed the poor. He endorsed Paul before the Jewish leaders, bringing him into the fold of the church. He also helped Paul develop into a great leader. His life was lived for the glory of God and the strength of the church. His encouragement resulted in Paul assuming a position above that of Barnabas, but his unselfishness gave the church a great leader that may have been lost to oblivion without the use of his gift. He encouraged the gentile church of Antioch. He took his nephew Mark under his wing, seeing the potential in the young man, helping him even after Mark deserted the ministry for a time.
Ministry is a difficult course of life to travel, whether it is ordained or lay. Attacks come from every direction trying to keep the people of God from doing the work they are called to do. Ministers need people like Barnabas who will help them continue to see the potential of their gifts, to spur them on in joy and obedience. Exhortation may come in many forms. It can be a word of kindness, a gift of financial resources, a message of correction and rebuke. When it comes from God, it is an act of comfort and edifies the one to whom it is given.
There may be moments when you are called to exhort those around you. There are some to whom this is a special gift, like Glinda and Barnabus, and they are called to give of themselves in a way that the church will prosper and grow under the direction of those who receive those words of exhortation. Even if we don’t have the gift, God may give us opportunities to exhort one another, to help build the church and make it stronger. We are called and equipped to help one another grow in faith and in obedience to God’s will, including those whom God has chosen to minister to us. Together we will be the Church that shines God’s hope and peace to the world.
“Take, brothers, for an example of suffering and of perseverance, the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we call them blessed who endured. You have heard of the perseverance of Job, and have seen the Lord in the outcome, and how the Lord is full of compassion and mercy.” James 5:10-11, WEB
The Nazi situation in Europe in the 1940’s was horrific because of the sheer numbers and the depths of the brutality. It is hard to imagine an evil so great could occur, but the pictures, videos and personal eyewitness stories make it impossible to disbelieve that it happened. On trips to a Holocaust Memorial with school, my children all learned that we study these things so that we will know the evil of men’s hearts.
Interestingly, those horror stories are often juxtaposed next to stories of heroism, self-sacrifice, and hope. For those who survived, lessons were learned and faith grew. They found hope in the simple things even when there was no hope. They lived in peace amidst the horror of war and destruction. They saw God in situations that seemed to be without any trace of God.
Maximilian Kolbe was one of those people who lived a life of grace in the midst of evil. He was a priest taken to Auschwitz because the monastery which he had founded was ministering to Jewish refugees. During his imprisonment, he constantly gave himself for the sake of others, refusing food so his brethren could eat and offering his life for the sake of others. His death, his martyrdom, happened so that the life of another could be saved. It was the common practice of the guards to punish ten men for the escape of just one. When a man from Maximilian’s cell block disappeared, ten men were selected to be put to death in the starvation chamber. Francis Gajowniczek cried out in fear for his wife and children, “What will they do?” Maximilian stepped forward and asked the commandant to let him take Francis’ place.
It surprised the group that the commandant agreed to the request, but those two weeks were incredible to those who experienced them. Maximilian comforted his fellow prisoners, he prayed for them, sang hymns and said psalms. He gave them hope, reminding them that suffering in this world will end and then they will know the glory of God in heaven. One of the guards said of the priest, “This priest is really a great man. We have never seen anyone like him.” Maximilian was the last to die in that chamber, injected with a poison to quicken the death because they needed the room for other prisoners.
Maximilian Kolbe is one of the few twentieth century men who have been officially recognized as Saints. He is known as the Saint from Auschwitz. His perseverance during his imprisonment, his unbreakable spirit and mercy has made him someone to whom we can look for hope in the midst of tragedy. Even as the men were suffering from hunger and thirst, drinking their own urine or the mucky condensation on the wall to survive, he held out hope that the escaped man would be found and set free. The irony of this situation is that the man had not escaped but had fallen into the latrine and drowned.
When Francis Gajowniczek went home from Auschwitz, he found that his wife and children had been killed in the war. All the reasons for Maximilian Kolbe’s death were meaningless, but God found a way to use this priest in a very powerful manner. He still stands as an example of perseverance, courage and faith, providing a glimpse of hope in the midst of tragedy. Many people found reason to live when they could only see reasons to die. Those who did die in the presence of Maximilian Kolbe saw the heart of God and knew the peace that passes all human understanding.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an incorruptible and undefiled inheritance that doesn’t fade away, reserved in Heaven for you, who by the power of God are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. Wherein you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved in various trials, that the proof of your faith, which is more precious than gold that perishes even though it is tested by fire, may be found to result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ - whom, not having known, you love. In him, though now you don’t see him, yet believing, you rejoice greatly with joy that is unspeakable and full of glory, receiving the result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. Concerning this salvation, the prophets sought and searched diligently. They prophesied of the grace that would come to you, searching for who or what kind of time the Spirit of Christ, which was in them, pointed to, when he predicted the sufferings of Christ, and the glories that would follow them. To them it was revealed, that they served not themselves, but you, in these things, which now have been announced to you through those who preached the Good News to you by the Holy Spirit sent out from heaven; which things angels desire to look into.” 1 Peter 1:3-12, WEB
Viktor Frankl experienced Auschwitz and Dachau. He’d been condemned to a living death, like so many who were affected by the horrors of the holocaust. It was humiliating to be treated like an animal, stripped, whipped, shaved and put into prison. He lost many family members; they either died in the camps or were sent to the gas ovens. It would have been understandable if he lost hope; he had nothing to look forward to. Yet, Viktor knew that hope was the only thing that kept him alive as he suffered the cold, fear, starvation, pain, lice and vermin, dehumanization, exhaustion and terror. Faith in the future kept him going day by day. When a person cannot see the future they give up. Many of the prisoners in concentration camps just stopped living; they refused to move off their beds, wash or dress, even when they were threatened by the guards. They no longer cared; they had no hope and so gave up. This is what Viktor called “give-up-itis.”
We can almost understand giving up under such extreme circumstances, and yet looking at those who survived we can see that God did amazing things through their lives. When we think of the record that has been written by those who lived through the horrors, and the lessons they’ve shared, we are thankful that they never lost hope. Otherwise, we might have lost their witness, not only to the horrors of what happened at the hands of the Nazis, but also the amazing grace of God.
“Give-up-itis” is not found just in prisoners of war, and it is not limited to people who are in extreme circumstances. Have you ever known someone who felt there was no hope in their job or relationships, and just gave up on them? They stop working to make things better. When there is no room for promotion, a worker will only do what is necessary to get through every day at the job. When there seems to be no future in a marriage, a couple will give up and stop trying to build up their relationship. “Give-up-it is” even affects simple things in life. We give up when we do not see the possibilities of the next moment.
When we hear the stories of those who survived the holocaust, we have to wonder how they managed to get through every day. Yet, Viktor Frankl knew the answer: courage and strength is found in the hope for tomorrow. Though there seemed to be no reason for hope, the survivors had faith that there would be a tomorrow. Hope begins with faith in God and His promises.
We may never face anything so horrifying as concentration camps or ovens, but we do often face circumstances that might leave us without hope. Give-up-itis is easy when we do not look beyond this moment. Without hope we let something inside us die. We are reminded that those of us in Christ have something greater even than a future in this world. Whatever we face, we have an inextinguishable hope because that hope comes from God. We might want to give up our job, our relationships or our activities when we seem to be failing, but God gives us the strength to go on with our life because we know that even if we are at the end of our rope, there is something beyond this day toward which we are journeying. Knowing this gives us the courage and the strength to get through our every day troubles until that day when everything will be fulfilled.
The Jews in Nazi Germany could not cry out, but the crimes against them certainly did. It took time, too much time, for people to realize that what was happening was not right. Many who survived that time are still hesitant to talk about it. We look back on the history today and wonder how it was able to go so far, but the attitudes still exist and as much as we deem it impossible, it could happen again. We can learn from those who survived that hope can get us through the toughest times. As Christians, we know our hope is in Jesus Christ. It is difficult sometimes for victims to cry out, God knows the suffering of His people and He has promised to make all things right. Though our prayers may not be answered as we might hope, we know that there is a greater promise waiting for us by the grace of Jesus Christ our Lord. God works to make things right, whether it is in this life or the life promised to us in eternity.
Scriptures for April 18, 2021, Third Sunday of Easter: Acts 3:11-21; Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48
“Beloved, now we are children of God. It is not yet revealed what we will be; but we know that when he is revealed, we will be like him; for we will see him just as he is.” 1 John 3:2, WEB
There is a play called “Melancholy Play” which was written by Sarah Ruhl. The main character, Tilly, is melancholy. Melancholy is a state of being that is beyond sadness: it is deep and lasting, a lingering state of depression. Most of us would consider a lasting state of sadness unattractive. We would rather be near people who are happy because we join in their joy. We don’t like to share their depression because it makes us depressed, too. However, there was something beautiful and attractive about Tilly’s melancholy. The other characters in the play are phenomenally drawn to Tilly; each and every one of them falls madly in love with her. They are happy in her presence.
Their happiness must have found a way through her melancholy because in the middle of the play she suddenly becomes deliriously happy. In this state of joy, Tilly is no longer attractive or beautiful to her friends. They do not share in her joy: instead the fall into her melancholy. One of her friends becomes so blue over the transformation of Tilly that she becomes an almond. During the rest of the play the group of friends tries to find a way to bring Francis back and in the end the audience, and the cast, are never quite sure whether Francis has become human again or if everyone has become an almond. The play is a humorous look at melancholy and is very funny.
One of the things that makes this play so funny is how Tilly’s melancholy makes her friends respond in quite the opposite emotion. We usually share in emotions. We are happy when those around us are happy and sad when those around us are sad. We certainly do not become joyously happy when our friends are depressed. Even if we don’t become melancholy, we don’t act deliriously happy in their presence. We try to help them through their emotions, meeting them with compassion.
There’s a funny sign that women like to post in their homes that says, “If Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” This is true because when Momma is frazzled by the work she has to do, she takes it out on the others in the house. If there are too many dishes in the sink, the kids hear long lectures about wasting valuable resources when they take a clean cup every time they want a drink of water. Toys on the living room floor bring out the wrath of Momma. You don’t even want to see Momma when there are dirty footprints in the kitchen. On the other hand, how happy is the household after Momma has had a quiet and relaxing bubble bath without children interrupting. The point of the funny sign is so that everyone will remember that happiness comes when Momma is kept happy.
Unfortunately, many mothers deal with too much stress, perhaps more now than ever. It isn’t just mothers right now, though. Everyone has had a very stressful year. I did an internet search of everything that went wrong in 2020, and one article listed fifty-eight things. Some of those were not really stressful for the average person, like Meghan and Harry’s departure from the royal family. But didn’t it seem like every month there was something new to worry about? There was fire in Australia, locusts in Africa, killer hornets in America. There was rioting in the streets and political battles. There was a period in time when it was nearly impossible to find toilet paper and other cleaning products in the stores. The food supply was disrupted. Store shelves were empty. On top of all this we were dealing with a world-wide pandemic that disrupted everyone’s lives in one way or another. For some, the events leading to the stress were all consuming and life changing.
This is a saying, “I don’t suffer from stress. I’m a carrier.” Stress is definitely a part of our lives. Problem after problem pile up on our shoulders, giving us plenty to worry about. Financial crisis affects other aspects of our lives. Higher prices mean that we have to stretch our resources. We have less to pay for more We have little left to save, so we are not prepared for emergencies that arise. Even driving our cars can be a source for stress because every bump and knock we hear makes us worry that we will be facing a large mechanics bill or the need to replace the vehicle.
It is hard on everyone, but parents deal with a unique stress because children do not understand why their mothers and fathers are so stressed. They don’t understand why they can’t do the things they want to do or have everything they want to have. Parents are asking some very hard questions this year: Can we afford summer camp? Can we take that trip to Disney we promised? Though these things are not necessities, a child does not understand why we can’t always do the things we want to do. What is different now? Parents know how beneficial those experiences are for a child, but they are stressed about how to make them happen. They end up worrying about broken promises.
The stress has caused some people to respond in extreme ways. The news seems full of more stories about people who have taken it out on others. There seem to be more shootings, robberies, arson and abuse. Domestic violence is on the rise and even animals are suffering. One of the first expenses cut is often care for our furry friends. They end up in a shelter or on the street.
We could name a million other ways the stress is affecting people in our world today. It is a wonder that anyone can say, “I don’t suffer from stress.” The punch line of the joke is that the person is a carrier, but is it funny that so many are responding so negatively that it is affecting their homes, work, and communities? We must consciously decide where we will be defeatist or optimistic when we experience such difficult circumstances. Will we continue to suffer or are better times around the corner? The answer to that question is what drives our response. If we believe that tomorrow will be a good day, we’ll do positive things. If we expect that suffering is our fate, then nothing we do, good or bad, will make any difference.
David was always facing some enemy. We see in the psalms his songs of lament and worry. But we also see that he faced those times of difficulty with faith. His God was trustworthy so he had nothing to fear. In today’s psalm, he cried out to God, asking God to answer him, to have mercy and to hear his prayer. Yet, even in that cry he spoke to God with confidence in God’s saving hand. “You gave me relief in my distress,” he said. He then turned his words to his enemies. “Let go of the battle because my God will not let me lose.” He faced his difficulty with faith, knowing that God is trustworthy.
We shouldn’t be a carrier of stress, since so many people are already dealing with problems that seem beyond their ability to handle. We need not suffer from it either. We can, in our faith, have the same attitude as David. Hope in the Lord gives us a greater joy and the peace to sleep well at night, despite the difficulties we face.
Imagine the stress of those first days after Easter. They found an empty tomb. Jesus appeared out of nowhere. They couldn’t explain it. Rumors were flying all over Jerusalem. Some were whispering about the resurrection, others were loudly proclaiming that the disciples had stolen the body. They showed fear when they saw Jesus because they thought he was a spirit, but they were also afraid of what would happen to them. Would they be arrested and crucified? Would they be rejected by family and friends?
Even with the appearances of Jesus, I’m sure that they were still struggling to understand. Luke tells us that the disciples “still disbelieved for joy.”The New Revised Standard Version words this phrase, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering...” This is such an odd statement. How can they be happy about something they can’t believe is happening?
Yet, haven’t we all experienced that at some point in our lives? Have you ever been so joyously in love and yet at the same time questioning how that glorious creature could possibly love you too? Have you ever received an award or a gift that seems way beyond what you deserve, and even while accepting the gift with joy can’t believe that you are actually the recipient? Have you ever gotten a test back, thinking that you must have failed only to find that you did very well? Your examples might be different, but I’m sure each of us can remember a time when we’ve received something with the same joy and disbelief that the disciples experienced when Jesus came again.
Today’s Gospel lesson is another version of the story we heard from John’s Gospel last week. In this story, the two disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus had just returned from that extraordinary experience. They had met a man along the road and there was something different about him that they noticed as they walked and talked. He explained the scriptures in a way they’d never heard before, not even from Jesus. They did not know that this was their Master and friend. He was different. His words were somehow new. They were beginning to understand the things Jesus had said before He died. Then, when He broke the bread, their eyes were opened and they saw Him clearly. Only then did they know it was Jesus.
They ran back to Jerusalem, to the upper room, to the place where the disciples were hiding and told them what they had seen. Imagine the scene: two disciples run in breathless with the biggest news the disciples have ever heard. They, of course, had heard the same news from Mary, but no one really believed the women. Now they heard it again from the two men, but it is still unbelievable. They were discussing it as Jesus appeared. What do you think they were saying? “You saw Jesus? But He’s dead!” “Was it a ghost?” They were probably arguing about what the disciples had seen and experienced. They were probably even arguing about what they had heard. “What do you mean that he said that he was the one that Moses and the prophets were talking about?” Religious debate can be heated even when those arguing have had similar experiences. Imagine how hard it must have been on those two disciples to explain the unexplainable to those who had not yet experienced it.
In the middle of this discussion, Jesus appears. I can hear those two disciples saying, “See, we told you so!” And yet, they were probably as startled and frightened as the rest of the group. After all, they had seen Jesus and knew that it was Him, but then He just disappeared from their sight. They didn’t know where He went. I wonder if those two disciples were trying to get the other disciples to run to Emmaus. “Come with us and see!” But there He was, in the midst of the disciples, appearing as quickly as He’d disappeared after breaking bread at their table.
It is no surprise, then, that the disciples were both joyous and disbelieving. After all, this was beyond their understanding. No one had ever been resurrected. They’d never met a physical being that was man and yet not man. Despite the times and ways Jesus told them that He would be raised, they didn’t expect this turn of events. They were probably in the upper room trying to figure out what they would do. Who would be their new leader? Or, the more likely possibility, they were probably deciding to drop it all and return to their lives. Joy and disbelief is the natural response to this circumstance. “Yes, He’s back! But how?”
The circumstances the disciples experienced on that first Easter were extraordinary. Emotions must have been running high. They were grieving because the Master whom they followed for three years died just a few days before. They were angry because the people who should have stood up for justice and Jesus were among those who cause His death. They were afraid because they did not know whether or not those same leaders might go after them. They were probably tired for lack of sleep and hungry for lack of appetite. Then, when the women and the disciples from Emmaus came into their presence with the strange news that Jesus had been raised, they were probably confused, doubtful, curious and perhaps even anxious for it to be true. Talk about stress; I am sure the emotions they were feeling with highly charged and shared by all.
When Jesus did appear in the upper room with the disciples, it is no surprise that they misunderstood what they were seeing. They knew about spirits, ghosts and other superstitious possibilities. They did not believe that anyone could be resurrected. According to N. T. Wright, in his book “Surprised by Hope,” there were very few people in Jesus’ day that believed that a body could be made alive again. Those who did believe in resurrection believed that it would happen only at the end of time. No human was ever expected to be raised in the middle of history. So, these disciples were expected to believe something that was completely outside their understanding. The fact that Jesus’ body was different didn’t help matters. He could walk through walls and appear out of nowhere. What was this being that was standing in their midst?
In John’s story, Jesus simply tells them to touch His wounds. By feeling His body they would know that it was true. Luke makes it even clearer that Jesus was not a spirit: He had a human body and asked the disciples for something to eat. Though they touched His body, there was still left room for doubt. People who have had paranormal experiences tell stories about solid looking apparitions and the feeling of a physical presence. People even talk about feeling the touch of a hand or even physical force. But ghosts do not need to eat.
Though we see something unique in Jesus, Luke is very careful to show us that the Jesus the disciples met after the resurrection was very real and very human. There were already some who were trying to diminish the events of Easter to nothing more than a spiritual rebirth. Others were claiming that the body had been stolen. Luke, by noting the meal Jesus ate, firmly establishes that Jesus was bodily resurrected from the dead. We still do not understand exactly the type of body He had, but despite those odd differences, it was still like ours. Since Jesus is the first born of the dead, we see that our resurrected bodies will also be very real and very human. From this, N. T. Wright suggests that we should rethink our understanding of Heaven. It won’t be a place, he says, where disembodied spirits hang out on fluffy clouds and we never become angels. Our eternal life will be spent on a new earth with a new flesh that is very real that does not perish but has everlasting life. This is the true hope of our faith that we received on that first Easter.
I suppose even today we can meet this Good News with the same emotions as the disciples, “While they still didn’t believe for joy...” It really is ridiculous and impossible. We still struggle with wanting proof. Why isn’t God showing us His power today? Why don’t we see God’s miraculous works happening among our congregations?
We often talk about the miracle of a magnificent sunset or a baby’s giggle. We see miracles in nature all the time with the blooming fields of wildflowers in springtime and the way the land is restored after a disaster. It doesn’t take very long for a forest to begin sprouting after a fire or a valley to recover after a flood. Even drought stricken regions of the world turn green with new growth when it begins to rain.
There are those who scoff at the idea that those are miracles. They can easily be explained. There is always a sunset, and those brilliant days come because of the right conditions. A baby’s giggle isn’t extraordinary; babies laugh and cry all the time. The wildflowers will bloom year after year; they will be magnificent when the conditions are perfect. Fire is good for the forest, and that’s why it recovers so quickly. Floods leave behind nutrients that get washed out of the earth and even droughts can provide positive effects. Where is the miracle?
We see miracles through the eyes of faith, simply knowing that God’s hand is in the midst of everything in our world. We see Him as He touches our lives in subtle but very real ways. We see Him painting that sunset and that field of wildflowers. We see Him make good things happen out of the bad. They might not be miraculous events, but to us they are miracles. We are happy to settle for the little miracles because we believe that God can and does make incredible things happen every day.
We read the stories of Jesus and we are amazed. He healed the sick, cast out demons, made wine out of water and fed thousands on multiple occasions. He walked on water and stopped the storm. He made the blind see, the deaf hear and the lame walk. He cured leprosy and raised the dead. The disciples did the same thing. We don’t seem to see that kind of miracle anymore. Oh, we occasionally hear of some medical miracle, but even then we can usually explain it away.
When we do hear about an actual miracle, we think like Thomas: we will believe when we see it for ourselves. We don’t doubt that God can make these things happen, but we want proof. We believe in Him, but there’s no reason for us to believe in miracles because our faith is based on what Christ has done rather than on what He might do. We know that the stories in the scriptures, both of Jesus and His disciples, helped to establish their authority to speak the Gospel to the world. We don’t need these miracles to establish our credibility. We have the power of the Holy Spirit and as we speak, the Word does the work. Those who believe do so because the Spirit gives them faith. While it would be nice if we had the backing of miraculous works to put credibility to our words, we don’t need them anymore. The true miracle has nothing to do with supernatural occurrences. The true miracle is faith.
Jesus said, “You will do greater things that these.” The disciples were amazed at His miraculous works, but Jesus assured them that they would do more. They did do miraculous works as we see in Acts 3. Peter saw a crippled man who was left at the gate to beg. He wasn’t very enthusiastic about his “work”; he didn’t even look at those who were passing him by when he asked for money. When Peter said, “Look at us,” he looked because he thought they were going to give him some coin. Peter gave him something better. “I have no silver or gold, but what I have, that I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, get up and walk!” Peter helped him up and he was so excited to be healed that he danced around the Temple praising God. The people were amazed.
The miracle made the people pay attention. Isn’t that what we want? Isn’t that why we want the miracle? We want people to pay attention to us. However, it is very easy to get caught up in the fame and amazement of the crowds while losing touch with our true ministry. After all, Jesus didn’t heal to make the crowd follow Him; He healed so that they would listen. As a matter of fact, how many times did Jesus tell those He healed to be silent?
The healing definitely got the attention of the people in the Temple. They ran and surrounded Peter, John and the man. Peter asked, “You men of Israel, why do you marvel at this man? Why do you fasten your eyes on us, as though by our own power or godliness we had made him walk?” It wasn’t about Peter or John, or even about the man. It was all about the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob, the God of their fathers. It was all about glorifying Jesus. Peter didn’t heal with fancy words but with the name of Jesus Christ. Peter went on to tell the people what really mattered: “Believe in Jesus.”
Miraculous healing, raising the dead, overcoming nature and the physical world is nothing compared to the real miracle: faith. Sharing the Gospel is the greater work that we are called to do, because in speaking God’s Word of forgiveness and hope we give the people what they truly need: life. Amazing, isn’t it: the one thing that was denied Jesus is the very thing He won for us on the cross. Peter used this opportunity to tell the people that even though they missed the truth of Jesus when He was alive, God was doing exactly what He intended so that they could see the truth. Jesus died at the hands of all those who rejected Him, but He has promised forgiveness for all who turn back to the God who loved them so much that He sent His Son to make all who believe heirs to the eternal kingdom.
We live in between the now and what is to come. We are saved and yet we are not fully saved. We live in the already but not yet. We are children of God, and yet what that means for us in the future has not yet been revealed. We are transformed by the grace of God, but we’ll be transformed in that day when we are in His presence again. What He is has already changed us. We are forgiven. We have the Holy Spirit. We are living new in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Though we are not quite there and we do not see Him clearly, He is still with us and in us. We live in a hope that is without disappointment, knowing that what is now will be even more so some day. And in that hope we live as Jesus lived, and doing as He did. We share in His righteousness and are righteous as He was righteous.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, don’t resist him who is evil; but whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also. If anyone sues you to take away your coat, let him have your cloak also. Whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and don’t turn away him who desires to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you, that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? If you only greet your friends, what more do you do than others? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Matthew 5:38-48, WEB
Corrie Ten Boom has written extensively about faith from her perspective of being a prisoner of the Nazis during the holocaust. It was a difficult time for her, and the recovery took many years. She watched people she loved die and she suffered horrible humiliation. She learned how to forgive, but it wasn’t easy. In her writings she tells of times when she came face to face with some of her enemies and though she thought she had truly forgiven, she found that she met them with hatred.
There was a nurse who served in the concentration camp where Connie and her sister Betsy were prisoners. The nurse was cruel and harsh, particularly with Corrie’s sister Betsy. Corrie took had taken Betsy to the infirmary to see the nurse and though Betsy’s feet were paralyzed and she was dying, the nurse had no compassion. She encountered that same woman ten years later. She did not recognize her at first and the woman would not look her in the eyes. When Corrie realized that she was that nurse, she was so angry. The only thing she could do is ask God for forgiveness. She cried out, “Forgive my hatred, O Lord. Teach me to love my enemies.” She was deeply touched by the love of Christ and her heart warmed to that woman. She invited her to one of her speeches. The woman was shocked but agreed to go and she listened very carefully to everything Corrie had to say. She heard the gospel and learned about God’s love for all people. The woman met Christ Jesus and believed through the message of forgiveness that Corrie Ten Boom spoke that night.
Our natural inclination is to seek justice against our enemies. The problem is that our understanding of justice is not always God’s understanding. If they have harmed us in some way, we seek repayment for our loss. I’ve been shocked in recent years with how many television commercials are devoted to selling law services and how much importance has been placed on the whole judicial system. We are bound and determined to ensure that we get our due; to ensure that our enemies pay for their crimes against us. We have no desire to reconcile unless it is on our terms.
Christ calls us to live differently than the world. He calls us to forgive, really forgive. This is not a half-hearted “I forgive” after we’ve taken our revenge, but a true forgiveness that accepts God’s mercy even for those who hurt us. It is a forgiveness that draws near to our enemies and walks with them. Corrie Ten Boom was angry and she had every right to be angry with the nurse, to make the woman feel guilty for what she did. The woman knew she’d done wrong, obvious from her inability to look Corrie in the eyes. Yet, with Christ’s help Corrie was able to forgive, truly forgive, and share the greatest gift with her enemy. She sought no recompense, but rather gave the woman the Gospel of Jesus Christ so that she would know the forgiveness of God and live in His love.
Jesus’ words in today’s lesson are radical, nearly impossible for us to keep. Which one of us would actually walk with the thief who stole our clothes or allow our enemy to beat us? However, we are called out of the world by the love of Christ to be sent back into the world with that love for others. We too were once enemies of God. By His grace we can offer them the saving words of forgiveness so that they will experience His loving embrace. Then they will no longer be enemies, but brother and sisters in Christ.
“Give thanks to Yahweh! Call on his name! Make his doings known among the peoples. Sing to him, sing praises to him! Tell of all his marvelous works. Glory in his holy name. Let the heart of those who seek Yahweh rejoice. Seek Yahweh and his strength. Seek his face forever more. Remember his marvelous works that he has done: his wonders, and the judgments of his mouth, you offspring of Abraham, his servant, you children of Jacob, his chosen ones.” Psalm 105:1-6, WEB
Monday was the Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust, which is why I’ve written several devotions focused on some of the people and their experiences this week. They say that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, but it seems that human beings are doomed to repeat it anyway.
We have been studying the Psalms this year in my Sunday school class. Most of the psalms have references to people and events from the past, but there are at least a few that are specifically focused on Holy History. Two psalms, 105 and 106, share a similar history but from a different point of view. The history represented is from Abraham through Joshua, although a few verses might point toward a time after the exile.
Psalm 105 describes the positive things God did for Israel. The actor in this psalm is God. He does great things for His people and He is worthy of our praise. Psalm 106 describes Israel’s negative behavior. The actor in this psalm is Israel, and their actions are usually rebellion or grumbling. We also find comfort in this psalm because the psalmist reminds us every few verses of God's grace and mercy for His rebellious people who quickly forget God's goodness and grumble because God is not acting as they expect Him to act. This is true of all human beings, including you and me.
Psalm 105 is the attitude we should take, but we tend to have the attitude of the Israelites in 106. We rebel and grumble because we are human. We study the past to learn from it so that we can be obedient to God’s Word and worship Him with our whole lives. The whole duty of man is to obey and praise the LORD. As we remember the past, we gain confidence in God’s promises and it leads us to obedience and worship.
God did all His great works and had mercy on His people because He remembered His promise. The Hebrew word “hesed” is translated “loving kindness” in the first verse of today’s passage. This word means God’s covenant love and mercy; it is about God’s faithfulness based on His promises rather than on our obedience. His deliverance and the remembrance of His “hesed” has a purpose; it is meant to motivate God’s people to trust Him and to act in obedience, to make God’s people keep His statutes and laws. It is obvious from the entire history of Israel, and mankind in general, that the people had a hard time keeping their promises. Over and over again, God’s people turned from Him and worshipped the false gods, not only Baal in the ancient days, but everything that takes our attention from our Savior in these days. We all have our own gods, but that which we worship in these modern times are not as obvious. We trust in our jobs, we put of families first, we turn to government when we need help. While all these have a good purpose in the world, we have to learn how to trust in God and worship Him above all else.
Maximillian Kolbe gave up so much for the sake of others, from food to his very life because he trusted in God’s grace. Viktor Frankl refused to succumb to give-up-it is; he did not give up hope because he trusted in God. Corrie Ten Boom learned what it means to be forgiven and she forgave her enemy because she trusted that God’s Word is true. These remembrances from the past help us get through our own struggles and keep God in first in our lives worshipping Him with praise and thanksgiving every day.
We ended our conversation the Sunday we discussed these psalms with the question, “Are you a 105 or a 106?” Are you praising God for His good works? Or are you grumbling because you don't think that God is working fast enough or in the manner you expect? We can rest in the knowledge that God does forgive our grumbling and our rebellion when we turn to Him, but we should STRIVE to have an attitude of praise all the time.
“Don’t fret because of evildoers, neither be envious against those who work unrighteousness. For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither like the green herb. Trust in Yahweh, and do good. Dwell in the land, and enjoy safe pasture. Also delight yourself in Yahweh, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to Yahweh. Trust also in him, and he will do this: he will make your righteousness shine out like light, and your justice as the noon day sun. Rest in Yahweh, and wait patiently for him. Don’t fret because of him who prospers in his way, because of the man who makes wicked plots happen.” Psalm 37:1-7, WEB
Today’s question is “Should a man like me flee?” from Nehemiah 6:11.
The city of Jerusalem was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar and many of the Jews were sent to Babylon. This exile was assigned by God who used the Babylonians to discipline His wayward children. God has a way of making all things right, and despite being a great nation, the Babylonians fell to the Persians. This happened just at the right time, about seventy years after the exile, the time period foretold in the scriptures. God put mercy in the heart of Cyrus the king of Persia, who wrote a decree allowing the Jews to return to their home. Unfortunately, they found their beloved city was in ruins, but we hear the story of the rebuilding, not only the buildings, but also the spiritual lives of God’s people, in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
The two books were once one book, and they focus on the events following the return from Babylon. Ezra focuses on the return of the exiles and the rebuilding of the Temple. It happened in the early days of the reign of Cyrus. Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem about twenty years later.
Nehemiah had been born in Babylon and was an important official in the court of King Artaxerxes I of Persia. He heard that the remnant who had returned to Jerusalem were struggling because the walls were in poor condition and foreign enemies were threatening. Nehemiah asked permission of the king to go to Jerusalem to help them rebuild. He was appointed governor and he worked to make Jerusalem safe and strong for God’s people again. He was not a prophet or a priest. He was a lay person on whose heart God placed a burden for the protection of God’s people. He was a man in the right place at the right time. He was sent to Jerusalem to do what was right.
However, there were those who did not want the city walls rebuilt. He faced opposition both from people outside the city and from within. The foreigners taunted Nehemiah and mocked the rebuilding project. Nehemiah would not let their taunting dissuade him from his work and refused to allow God’s people to become disheartened by the mocking. Then the outsiders decided to attack, to stop the building through violence and war. Nehemiah appointed people to watch the walls constantly and encouraged the people to pray. He also set people in positions and prepared them to fight if necessary. They did all this while continuing the work on the walls. The enemies learned that Nehemiah had prepared the people and they stopped the harassment temporarily.
The Nehemiah began to face opposition from inside the walls. The people were tired and the work seemed impossible. They forgot the LORD who had saved them and they were concerned only with their own pains. They wanted God to do His work their way rather than following God’s eternal plan. Then they became afraid. Taunting and mocking and threats had a psychological affect on the people. They believed that the enemy had made it inside and would kill them behind the very walls they were building. The people were worried about food and money. They complained about taxes. Nehemiah became angry because there were some within the walls taking advantage of the people. Nehemiah took care of the problem and continued the work.
Then Nehemiah faced another obstacle: people questioned his authority. Who was this lay person to have power over God’s people? He was, in essence, a nobody and yet acted as if he were a king over the Jews. Nehemiah prayed and waylaid the accusations. Finally, Nehemiah’s opponents tried to convince him that he should lock himself into the Temple for protection, but Nehemiah was not tempted. He answered their council, “Should a man like me flee? Who is there that, being such as I, would go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in.” If Nehemiah, who was not a priest or one appointed to the work of God’s holy house, went inside, he would desecrate the sacred space and he refused to do so. He knew that they were trying to find any excuse to defeat him, but he also knew that God was in control. He had no need to fear any opposition, whether it came from outside or inside, because he trusted that God had appointed him to the task of repairing the walls of Jerusalem for the protection of God’s people.
It might seem impossible to believe, but all that happened in just fifty-two days, the amount of time it took for Nehemiah to restore the walls of Jerusalem. And yet, we all face all sorts of opposition to the work we are doing for our God. We face people from the outside who taunt and mock and threaten us. We face people on the inside who are afraid and worried and complaining. We face people who question whether we have really been chosen by God to accomplish the work we are doing. We learn from Nehemiah to never let our enemies stop us. We answer their troublemaking with today’s question, “Should a person like me flee?” We know the answer; we answer “no” because we can trust that God will make all things work according to His good and perfect plan no matter what opposition we face.
“It is a good thing to give thanks to Yahweh, to sing praises to your name, Most High, to proclaim your loving kindness in the morning, and your faithfulness every night, with the ten-stringed lute, with the harp, and with the melody of the lyre. For you, Yahweh, have made me glad through your work. I will triumph in the works of your hands. How great are your works, Yahweh! Your thoughts are very deep.” Psalm 92:1-5, WEB
My computer is situated in a room where I am able to look out three different windows in three different directions. We have purposely placed bird feeders in sight from my desk, and I confess that I spend some time each day watching the flitting birds and the scurrying squirrels. We get a wonderful variety of feathered friends, and the squirrels seem quite aware of our watching eyes. I am beginning to recognize a few of the squirrels; they have unique physical characteristics and habits. I love when they sit on the tree and chatter at me, as if they are trying to tell me something. Of course, that usually happens when the feeders are empty, so I’m sure they are chastising me.
I suppose my time watching the critters at my feeders must seem like I’m lazy or procrastinating. I often stop watching and say to myself, “I must get back to work.” I try to keep my eyes on the computer, but I can’t seem to concentrate when I force myself. We are expected to be constantly productive in our modern world so we stay busy, busy, busy. Yet, how many times do you feel exhausted from a day filled with work, but then realize you haven’t accomplished anything? Busy doesn’t always mean productive. I can spend all day on the computer and realize I spent most of it busy surfing the internet without accomplishing anything. Yet a few minutes watching the critters outside my window gives me what I need to get things done.
I read an article about how scientists have discovered the value of those moments of distraction. Daydreaming helps us to refresh and recharge which actually makes us more productive rather than less. The article began with the story of a young man whose job was to watch a steam pump and to open a valve occasionally to release the built up pressure. His job wasn’t very exciting, but required his constant attention. He invented a mechanical way to open the valve, thus making his job unnecessary. He daydreamed his way out of a job, but proved that innovation can make life better. He then had the time to go accomplish something else. I find myself more inspired when I’ve taken a few minutes to stop thinking and just enjoy the world around me.
The scientists have recommended that we go ahead and do nothing. Rather than constantly pushing ourselves to accomplish something, it is good for us to stop and smell the roses. Or watch the birds. Or daydream about ways to get out of the work we are meant to do. For Christians, this means spending time in prayer or wondering about the goodness of the God who loves us. It means taking a sabbath rest. It means putting aside our work for a moment to ponder what is holy and sacred. By taking time to do nothing helps us to focus on the One who does everything. He will help us to do all our work, no matter how mundane. Our sabbath rest will help us to do everything for His glory, even if it is the most ordinary work. God is with us in the midst of all our circumstances. We take advantage of time because we are constantly trying to accomplish something that will make us successful, but we are encouraged to do what we do to give God the triumph in our lives.
Today’s passage is a liturgical hymn of praise used in Temple worship on the Sabbath after the exile, in the morning when the sacrifice was offered. The promise from Ezekiel was being realized. The people were joyful and thankful that God rescued them, restored them and replanted them in their home. They were growing again, and they were happy. When the psalmist says, “I will triumph in the works of your hands” he is not talking about his own triumph, but that God will accomplish great things through him. It is all about God’s hands, all about God’s works, all about God’s triumph. All that we have, all that we are, is thanks to God. Those moments of daydreaming, of letting go of the busy-ness of our lives, are moments when we can ponder the triumph of God and what He can and does do in our lives. We both sing of His success and are successful in His grace. He is faithful. His lovingkindness is manifest in the lives of His people. When we take time to do nothing, we are renewed so that we can share His grace so that the world will know that He is God, no matter what we manage to accomplish each day.
Lectionary Scriptures for April 25, 2021, Fourth Sunday of Easter: Acts 4:1-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18
“By this we know love, because he laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” 1 John 3:16, WEB
Psalm 23 is one of the most beloved passages of scripture, perhaps even one of the best known. Even if you can’t quote it word for word, I suspect that you are familiar enough with it to give a decent rendering. We love this passage because we find comfort in it, especially in those tough times. It is, of course, used often at the beside of the sick and dying and is very popular at funerals. In it we can experience God’s presence and His care through the good times and bad.
Yet, I have to admit that we use it an awful lot in the lectionary. It is the psalm of the day at least six times in the three year lectionary, so we’ve looked at it more than any other text in the past three years. It might also be used at other times, for special festivals or remembrances. It is always used on the fourth Sunday of Easter, which is Good Shepherd Sunday, so we hear it each year at this time.
So, how do we look at something that is so familiar with new eyes?
Perhaps we should look at them in the context of the Psalms. Though many of the psalms were written separately, by different writers, at different times in the history of Israel, the editor of the book of Psalms (perhaps Ezra) was inspired by the Holy Spirit to put them together in an order that places these songs and prayers in ways that tell a bigger story. The Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134) are pilgrim psalms, sung as the Jews traveled toward Jerusalem for festivals. The Egyptian Hallel (Psalms 113-118) are used during the Passover Seder. The same is true of the Shepherd Trilogy which is Psalm 22-24; our understanding is so much fuller if they are taken together. They focus on Christ the King. We see Him as the Suffering Servant, the Loving Shepherd and the Reigning King. It is a trilogy of the past, present and future of our Eternal King.
Psalm 22 is very familiar. We read it on Good Friday as we strip the altar. We do this because Jesus quoted Psalm 22 on the cross. He said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The imagery of the Passion is found in this psalm. He is forsaken. He is scorned and mocked. He thirsts. He is surrounded by ruthless people. His hands and feet are pierced. His garments are divided and lots are cast for his clothing. As we read Psalm 22, we see the suffering of Jesus. The psalm also shows us, however, that the afflicted one is not forsaken. God has not hidden his face from him; God has heard his cry. Affliction is not the end of the story. The suffering one will eat and be satisfied.
Affliction leads to deliverance. Jesus knew, despite the cry of abandonment on the cross, that God can be trusted. God is faithful. One day the whole world will join in worship of Him. Psalm 22 gives us a vivid portrait of affliction, alludes to the resurrection and then closes with a future-facing kingdom reign. Jesus fulfills in the Gospels everything we see in the psalm.
Psalm 24 is less familiar, but the theme of kingship continues. This comes at a high point when the King takes his place on the throne. It is a coronation song. The righteous king ascends to the Lord’s hill. He has triumphed, and he proceeds to the seat from which he will rule the nations, until every last one of his enemies become his footstool.
We see affliction and a glimmer of hope in Psalm 22. We celebrate a victorious monarchy in Psalm 24. Psalm 23 comes right in the middle. Psalm 23 is the bridge between affliction and triumph, both for Jesus and for us. The pain of the afflicted one in Psalm 22 is translated into contentment and trust in Psalm 23. There is still pain. Real pain. Darkness surrounds the suffering one, but God is the rescuer. God is the Shepherd. He leads and restores. Even though the afflicted one walks through the valley of the shadow of death, God is there to guide and rescue and comfort.
The afflicted one is forsaken, but not utterly forsaken. And therefore, the afflicted one doesn’t fear. In fact, he’s satisfied. He shall not want. God prepares a table for him in the presence of his enemies. He is victorious, and God anoints him. The afflicted one says, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” Even through affliction. Even through the valley. Even through the grave. God’s goodness and steadfast love and faithfulness will pursue those who trust in Him. Psalm 23 ends with the psalmist dwelling in the house of the Lord forever.
This is the hope that gave Peter and the disciples they courage to stand for Jesus Christ.
We can look at Psalm 23 from Peter’s perspective. Peter, zealous to continue the work Christ began, met a beggar at the door of the Temple. Instead of handing him money which Peter did not have, Peter gave him the one thing he did have: healing in Jesus’ name. The crowds were amazed, but Peter quieted their questions with a proclamation of the Gospel. “Jesus was the fulfillment of the promises found in Moses and the prophets. All those who believe in Him will be heirs, forgiven and transformed and blessed.” The leaders of the Temple were offended by their preaching. Who was Peter to offer forgiveness? This was as blasphemous as the things that Jesus was preaching. The words Peter preached usurped the authority that the Temple leaders though belonged to them.
He and John were arrested. We don’t really know how much time passed between that first Easter Day and the day they were arrested. It was at least seven weeks, after Pentecost. The early Christian community, not yet identified by that name, was beginning to grow. As a matter of fact, those who believed after the healing of the crippled man numbered over five thousand men, not to mention the women and children. This was a quickly growing community of faith. They had established some customs, meeting together for meals, learning from the apostles, breaking the bread as Christ commanded, sharing everything with one another. They praised God together and were making a difference in the world in which they lived.
Peter and John knew that some day they would face inquiry from the Temple leaders. Jesus had told them that they would be hated as he had been hated. They would suffer the same persecution; they would even drink from the same cup. Yet, Peter faced this arrest and false trial calmly with confidence. It wasn’t his words or abilities that gave him hope or peace. It was the knowledge that Jesus Christ was his Shepherd. The comforting words of these psalms may have been on his lips that night he spent in prison. He was walking through a valley, and did not know what would happen the next day. He did know that the suffering servant obeyed God and that in the end He triumphed and is King. Peter trusted in the One who did know, and who had prepared that table of goodness on which Peter could feast even in the presence of his enemies. He was happy, content. He knew God’s lovingkindness surrounded him, despite the circumstances he had to face.
We can face our difficulties with the same trust and confidence. The Lord Jesus is indeed our Good Shepherd and we can trust that He will be faithful because He suffered death and was buried but was also raised from the dead. Now He walks with us, helps us through the good times and the bad. He prepares a place for us and provides all we need. Our cup runs over, not by any work of our own but because God loves us as His own. We are His sheep and we need not fear.
Have you ever thought how wonderful it might be to be a animal? I look at my cats occasionally and think I would enjoy living their life. They sleep all day. They are fed when they are hungry. They have plenty of toys and someone to clean up after them. They don’t have to make any decisions. They are well loved and get all the love and affection they could desire. Who wouldn’t want that kind of life? I hate to make decisions, especially those that affect others. Some aren’t important; are lives won’t be different no matter where we go out for dinner. However, the decision whether to take a sick child to the doctor could be life and death.
We have to make other decisions through our lives. Have you ever wondered where you might be if you had made different decisions along the way? What if you went to a different school or pursued a different career? What if you didn’t turn down that prom date or if you went on that spring break trip? What might be different? Do you have any regrets? Do you think it would have been easier if there had been someone telling you what you should do every step along the way? That’s not the way life works, is it? We aren’t sheep. Jesus is our shepherd, but that doesn’t mean that He will do everything for us.
Instead, we are called to be shepherds right alongside our Lord and Master, helping others to live and learn and love. Jesus is our cornerstone and we have been built on that foundation.
The work we do for our neighbors might seem insignificant. The words we say might not seem life changing. Yet, there can be hope in those works and words. Peter and John did little more than say, “Get up in the name of Jesus” and a man was healed. If it hadn’t been for the crowds in the Temple at the time, we might not have even heard that story. They crowds saw a man they knew had been begging by the Temple gate jumping for joy. How can a lame man dance? Was the man faking all these years? The man wasn’t even a very good beggar. He didn’t care. Peter and John had to say, “Look at us” before the man even realized they were there. He was in despair and felt that nothing he did would make a difference.
It was not a very good life the beggar was leading, but it was much easier to be dropped on the doorstep of the Temple for the day than to deal with the realities of his life. Bad circumstances make us think that we aren’t capable of making the right decisions, so we want someone else to do it for us. If we were sheep, we’d never have to worry. If we are hungry we can blame someone else. When we are sheep, we just look to others to provide all we need. But we aren’t sheep. As a matter of fact, God calls us to be shepherds.
So, as we go about our day, is there someone sitting at the gate who needs a word of hope from Jesus? The impact of that word might be greater than we would ever expect. The Good Shepherd has given us the gifts we need to make a transforming difference in the lives of those who are lost in the darkness of this world, but we can’t accomplish anything with those gifts if we are expecting others to do everything for us. We are blessed to be a blessing. It might seem hard sometimes. We might even fail to do what we should do. But we can go forth in faith knowing that Jesus has accomplished the hard work of salvation, doing our best to share His grace with others in whatever manner we are able. God knows our limitations and He is with us through it all.
We’ve all seen the images. The reporter and cameraman follow animal control officials into a compound where the caretakers have lost control. Animals are found in cages that are much too small, lying in their own waste. They are diseased and malnourished. The owners are arrested or fined for animal abuse and the animals are taken away to someone who will properly care for them. It is heartbreaking to see those animals: the cry for help in their eyes, the frighteningly thin bodies and scruffy exteriors.
In another example, a family has a heart for caring for animals. They take in a stray cat or two, but soon the numbers are unmanageable. They can’t afford to have the cats neutered, or they adopt the pets when they are already pregnant. One or two cats quickly becomes a dozen, which quickly becomes too many for one home. Though they may offer food and water for the animals, it is difficult to keep a home with so many pets clean. Carpets become stained and the furniture infested with fleas. The house smells of urine. The people meant well. They had the heart to take care of the needs for those first strays, but they did not have the resources or know how to deal with all aspects of pet ownership. It is expensive to take each animal for shots and other medical services. In the end, the picture is not pretty and the animals are not really given the care they need.
These two examples might be models of bad shepherds. What does it mean to be a good shepherd? Let me tell you a third story. In Warwickshire, England, animal control officers found a whimpering dog cowering inside a locked shed, obviously not given the care she needed. She was timid from abuse, as well as dirty and starving. They took her to a wildlife sanctuary where the keepers help injured or abandoned animals heal before they are released back into the wild or given to good families. They took very good care of the dog and she rebounded quickly. She was brought back to full health and her trust in human beings was restored. The man who runs the sanctuary, Geoff Grewcock, began looking for a new home for the dog they had named Jasmine. Jasmine had a different plan.
As new animals were brought into the sanctuary, Jasmine took it upon herself to be a one dog welcome wagon. She loved those animals like a mother. It didn’t matter what type of animal was brought it, she stayed with them, cuddled with them, cleaned them. She ensured their comfort and gave them the love and support they needed. I heard about this story through an email, and in the email there are pictures of Jasmine interacting with deer, bunnies, foxes, badgers, guinea pigs, and even birds. In one picture, Jasmine is on a coach with some of her friends: two dogs, a deer, a rabbit and an owl. Not only has Jasmine made the other animals trust her, they trust each other even though in the wild they may be enemies or prey.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. John writes about a shepherd as he might be in the field with a flock of sheep. It doesn’t matter what dangers he might face, he will not abandon his flock. Unlike the hired hands, he will stay with them despite the angry wolves. Jesus is like Jasmine, embracing every hurt and frightened animal. He provides all we need so that we might have life and have it abundantly. In this story, Jesus told the disciples that whatever happened to Him (and they would soon learn about His horrible end on the cross), He would not be destroyed by others. He laid down His life for His sheep. Whatever happened, Jesus told them, He had the power and those who would harm Him did not. Even today we listen to His voice and follow Him because He knows us and we know Him. It is in His care we will find peace and love.
There are bad shepherds, but we can trust that Jesus is the Good Shepherd and that He will take care of us. We are called, then, to be good shepherds, too. Not to do harm, but to do good for our neighbors.
Peter and John did good for their neighbor, the lame man at the gate of the Temple. Unfortunately, the shepherds inside the gates disapproved and arrested the disciples. The disciples had no authority to offer forgiveness. The Jewish leaders did not understand where they got their power but they didn’t believe it was from God. Peter answered, “If we are examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” Jesus is the source of their power.
From the beginning of this thing called Christianity we’ve heard what Peter says so clearly in today’s lesson. Jesus said it, too. “I am the way.” Salvation comes only through the blood of Jesus Christ. This does not mean that somehow Christians are better than others. It also does not mean that the Christians you know today are the only ones who will spend eternity with the Father. But there is no doubt, from Jesus’ own words and the witness of those first Christians: those who reject Jesus will not be saved. It is up to us to be bold witnesses to that Good News, to tell the story so that they will hear and believe. We can’t be wishy-washy. We can love, honor and respect all our neighbors no matter what they believe. But we are called to tell the story of Jesus to them all so that they will be saved.
This attitude is seen as arrogance, haughtiness, superiority, conceit, or pride by those who do not believe. “You just think you are better than others,” they say. So we concede and encourage our neighbors to follow their own hearts. I agree that there are some wonderful aspects of other religions. Yes, there is grace and mercy, kindness and peace. Yes, there are people in every faith tradition who do good and wonderful things. It is even possible that God is working through those faith traditions in His own way. We are not meant to be arrogant, haughty, superior, conceited, or proud, but called and gifted to be loving, joyful, peaceful, longsuffering, kind, good, faithful, meek, and self-controlled. We are called to a humble life of sharing the story of Jesus Christ with bold confidence so that everyone will be saved.
A woman stabbed her husband. The motive was unclear. Was she abused? Did she lose her temper? We don’t know if the stabbing was self-defense or aggression. The woman responded to the event in a most unusual way. When she was speaking with a policeman on the scene, she asked if the knife would be returned to her. The policeman was a bit shocked by the question, but asked her, “Why?” She answered, “Because that knife was part of a set that was given to us for our wedding.” Isn’t it ironic that the gift was seemingly more important than her husband? The marriage was obviously broken, and she did not want the same thing for that set of knives.
What kind of love makes person have more concerned about material goods than human need?
Another example is the man who works eighty hours a week to keep his family in a lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. Yes, it is the loving man who willingly sacrifices his time and energy for the sake of his family, but is he making the right sacrifice? Are the big house, the state of the art electronics and the expensive clothes worth the lost time together as a family? He loves his family by doing for them, instead of being with them. Perhaps the real sacrifice would be letting go of some of the stuff so that true love between people can be maintained.
Jesus’ sacrificed Himself for the sake of those He loves. He died on the cross so that we might have life. He did not do this so that we might have bigger houses or fancier clothes. He did not do this so that we would put the symbols that mean something to us ahead of the needs of others. What kind of life do we have if stuff is more important than people? We are called to live the life that lives sacrificially for others. This means laying aside our own selves and desires to aid those who need us.
John writes, “Let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth.” What does it mean to lay down our lives for another? It means, like Peter and John, facing the questions from the Sanhedrin with the confidence that God is the one who is able to transform lives and spread the Gospel message. It means living humbly in the world, realizing that an incomplete set of knives is trivial but a broken heart or shattered relationship requires mercy and compassion, forgiveness and hope. Love isn’t found in the good things we collect. God doesn’t dwell in that kind of love. He abides in the hearts of those who live in the forgiveness of God and share the transforming power of God’s grace with others. As the song says, “They will know we are Christian by our love,” and that love is manifest through the deeds we do for the sake of others.
Peter, like the rest of us, would probably have preferred just going to the temple that day to share in the fellowship, worship and sacrifice being offered there. He was on his way to be a sheep - to be fed - as many of us do each Sunday. On his way, however, he met a sheep in greater need. Offering Christ to that man forced Peter to sacrifice his time, his freedom, and even eventually his life. It might not be so convenient for us to offer Christ to our neighbor. It might cause friction and even threaten our relationships. It might be a sacrifice of our time. We may even have to give up something that means a great deal to us.
We don’t want to do it. We don’t want to take the risk. We don’t want to step out of our comfort zone. We want to be sheep: fed, watered, and led. Yet, the love of God calls us to be more. The Good Shepherd first loved us so that we will love. In this we will truly know God, know that we abide in Him and know that Jesus Christ is the name above all others names. For through His name we will see the power of God healing the sick and making whole those who are broken. And there we shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
“Now if Christ is preached, that he has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, neither has Christ been raised. If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith also is in vain. Yes, we are also found false witnesses of God, because we testified about God that he raised up Christ, whom he didn’t raise up, if it is so that the dead are not raised. For if the dead aren’t raised, neither has Christ been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain; you are still in your sins. Then they also who are fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have only hoped in Christ in this life, we are of all men most pitiable.” 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, WEB
My children attended a Department of Defense Dependents School when we lived in England. They had some wonderful programs for them, including field trips to London and castles. They also brought in guests to visit with the children. One guest led writing workshops for the older children. Another read his stories to the younger children. I helped with the PTA, so I had firsthand experience with the authors. They often brought books and signed them for the families.
One author, Dr. Alvin Granawsky, wrote a series of books that told common fairy tales from another point of view. His books both stories in one volume. On one side you’ll find a well-known fairy tale like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” or “Jack and the Beanstalk.” When you flip the book over, you find another story. The story about Goldilocks is titled, “Bears Should Share” and Jack’s story is told from the point of view from the Giant’s wife. She describes Jack, who is normally seen as the hero, as a mischievous thief.
Gregory Maguire does the same thing. The most famous of his writings is “Wicked” which looks at the relationship between the Wicked Witch, whom he has named Elphaba, and Glinda from Elphaba’s point of view. Elphaba had a hard life, after all she was born green. She is capable of falling in love, of doing good things. She is also passionate and opinionated, willing to stand up for her beliefs and do what she thinks is right. I don’t think Gregory Maguire makes her more likable, but you do see beyond her wicked witch image. Gregory Maguire has rewritten other fairy tales, like Snow White and Cinderella, giving us those stories from another point of view.
Zack once asked for a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. They were discussing the stories in one of his classes and he realized that what is written in the book is very often different from what we remember of the story. Take, for instance, the story of Cinderella. In the Grimm’s version, one of the ugly stepsisters actually cuts off her toes to make the shoe fit. The descriptions are harsh and dark, not sweet like the Disney version we remember. I love the movie “Ever After” which is a more real world and less fairy tale telling of the story.
We are a few weeks into the Easter season. Can you imagine what it might have been like for the disciples at this point? They had seen Jesus multiple times. Jesus was spending time with them, opening up their minds and their hearts to prepare them for the work that they were to do. In the meantime, however, rumors were running rampant around the city of Jerusalem. I’m certain that the Roman and Jewish leaders were investigating the claims. Even now there are those who offer opinions about what happened on that first day.
Have you ever notices that around Eastertide, television shows discuss the story of Christ from an analytical and critical point of view. I remember watching one show that documented the story of the Shroud of Turin, pointing out inconsistencies with its history and theories about it. A study was done on the shroud a few years ago which dated the linen to the middle ages, and thus confirming that it was a fraud. However, this particular show made the claim that the linens that were tested were fake, and that the real shroud was never really tested. The experts went on to say that a forensic study of the shroud reveals that Jesus was not dead when laid in the tomb, but that He was actually saved by Joseph of Arimathea and laid in that unused tomb in a coma for a few days. Then they reported that when Christ was seen in those days following the crucifixion, it was a resuscitated man not a resurrected man. They even claimed the Bible proves their point, and quoted several scriptures.
They have rewritten the story. There are times when it is good to see a story from another point of view, and there are often lessons we can learn from other characters. It really doesn’t matter much when the stories are fairy tales. But when we make these changes, we should consider what sort of impact will it have on the hearer. Will we learn not to judge a witch by the color of her skin? Or will we accept that wickedness is acceptable because it is a response to a harsh life? What happens when we change the story of Jesus to fit the theories of those experts? Is it enough for Easter to be resuscitation day?
The experts who make the claims that scripture proves their point ignore the scriptures that tell us differently. Today’s message from Paul clearly states that Christ died and was raised. If this is not true, then the entire mission of the Christian church is pointless. Without the resurrection, our preaching is futile, and so is our faith. A coma on the cross would never finish the work God started, the work of forgiveness that came with the shedding of Christ’s blood. Christ overcame death, winning for us eternal life. He could not have done so if He simply slept for two days. But then, these other versions of the story are as old as the one we believe and love. So let us begin this new day telling the story of Christ without twisting it into something new. His story is best told as it was given to us and it is as true today as it was in the days of Paul.
“He was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath day. Behold, there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years. She was bent over, and could in no way straighten herself up. When Jesus saw her, he called her, and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your infirmity.’ He laid his hands on her, and immediately she stood up straight and glorified God. The ruler of the synagogue, being indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the multitude, ‘There are six days in which men ought to work. Therefore come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day!’ Therefore the Lord answered him, ‘You hypocrites! Doesn’t each one of you free his ox or his donkey from the stall on the Sabbath, and lead him away to water? Ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham whom Satan had bound eighteen long years, be freed from this bondage on the Sabbath day?’” Luke 13:10-16, WEB
I am leaving this afternoon for a four day crafting retreat at my favorite camp. It is only four days, but the pile of luggage makes it seem as though I’m going somewhere for a month. Not really, since I have to take the projects I plan to work on this weekend. I have a bag with crafts, a bag with writing supplies. I have a bag filled with snacks (because who can craft without chocolate and margaritas?) I have my clothing and my linens. The pile is actually rather small compared to previous years, but it still seems like too much.
But then, I’ve never been very good about packing lightly. I like to take road trips because then I can carry anything I want. I like my own pillows. I like to take extra clothes and shoes just in case something gets wet. I like to make sure I have more than enough reading material. I usually fill the empty spots with easy to carry projects like prayer beads or woven bookmarks just in case I have a few minutes. I always take my laptop, tablet, e-reader, phone, and all the necessary charging accessories. I also carry a camera bag. I confess that I usually don’t use half the stuff I take, but I feel better having it with me, just in case.
“Just in case” is the attitude that many of the Israelites had in ancient times. They believed in the God of Abraham, but they followed the practices of their neighbors “just in case.” After all, what harm could it do to pour out an offering to the rain god when the land is suffering from a drought? Why wouldn’t it be helpful to keep an idol on the mantle to honor the local goddess? Even today we will say we believe in God but we rely on the things of the world “just in case.”
Luke tells the story of a encounter Jesus had with a woman who had an long term infirmity that left her hunched and unable to stand straight. Jesus freed the woman of her infirmity, which upset the leaders in the Temple. It was the Sabbath and it was unlawful to heal on the Sabbath.
Jesus called the religious leader a hypocrite because he insisted on obeying the law but willingly had mercy when his own interests were at stake. There is a tension in our relationship with God. He demands so much from His people, as we can see in the laws listed in the scriptures. Our God is a jealous God. He has promised to care for us, to give us whatever is necessary to live well in the world He has created. His lovingkindness endures forever, which means that God will always be faithful to His covenant promises and we can trust that He will do what is right. Oh, we may deal with drought once in a while, but it will do no good for us to turn to rain gods “just in case” because there are no true gods but the God who controls the waters above and below the earth.
They were hypocrites because they claimed to be faithful to God’s Word, but they rejected it and Him when Jesus was in their midst. The woman waited for eighteen years for something in her life to change. When God came, He did not wait another day but offered for her at that moment the freedom in body and spirit that she needed for so long.
There are so many things that we carry with us in our spiritual lives, and though they may seem good, they are actually extra baggage that keeps our focus away from the one true God. Jesus Christ was God incarnate, standing before them in the Temple that day, healing and granting peace to one of God’s people, but the religious leaders did not see Him as He is because they were so busy carrying the baggage of their self-righteousness and power. What sort of baggage are you carrying today that is keeping you from relying totally on the God you claim to trust? What do you hold on to “just in case” that keeps you from living faith in the only one who can make all things right?
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort; who comforts us in all our affliction, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, through the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound to us, even so our comfort also abounds through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation. If we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer. Our hope for you is steadfast, knowing that, since you are partakers of the sufferings, so you are also of the comfort. For we don’t desire to have you uninformed, brothers, concerning our affliction which happened to us in Asia, that we were weighed down exceedingly, beyond our power, so much that we despaired even of life. Yes, we ourselves have had the sentence of death within ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead, who delivered us out of so great a death, and does deliver; on whom we have set our hope that he will also still deliver us; you also helping together on our behalf by your supplication; that, for the gift given to us by means of many, thanks may be given by many persons on your behalf.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-11, WEB
Our question for this week comes from the book of Job. “If a man dies, will he live again?” Job 14:14, WEB
We had a couple of sago palms in our landscaping. I like the palms, but these were in a bad place. They didn’t look pretty, as a matter of fact, they made that particular bed look crowded and chaotic. We had them cut off a few years ago, but the landscaper did not remove the root balls. They grew back; we let them go and were full and vibrant until the winter storm hit Texas in February. Then our palms, as well as every other palm in the neighborhood, looked brown. Some people temporarily spray painted the leaves to decorate for Easter. Someone said that the plants looked pretty with the golden brown leaves, but I knew they had to get cut off. Since we had wanted them removed five years ago, we had our landscaper pull out the root balls this time.
The sago palms were not the only plants to suffer the cold. All my succulents died as well as a number of bushes. One neighbor has had to remove a dozen large bushes because they’ll never come back. The gardening shows have been giving advice about what to remove and what to replace them with. One of the suggestions in early March, however, was to give the sago palms at least a month. The expert said that though they look dead, they most likely will begin sending up new leaves from the root ball. I found that hard to believe, but I have noticed that many of them are coming back. One neighbor cut off the old dead leaves and there were a dozen new ones coming up out of the top. If we’d left them go, we would have full, green palms very quickly. Dead plants can come back from the dead.
Our question today ponders the future existence of mankind. Job was having an incredibly bad day. Or should we say moment in time. He was losing everything: his children, servants, animals and crops. He lost his health. At one point he even lost his will to live. As he struggled with the reality of death, Job asked the question we all ponder at one point or another. What’s next? Is there life after death? What will become of me when I die? We want something to hope for, but we don’t have any tangible evidence of the world to come. Most religions have some answer. We can see from the earliest days of human existence, in cave drawings and Egyptian pyramids, that human beings hoped for an afterlife and did what they thought might prepare them for it. Concepts like reincarnation and karma offer answers to those who believe. Christians, of course, have a different kind of hope. Job had that same hope.
Job seemed so disheartened when he asked the question for today. That chapter leaves little hope for a future; he wanted God to hide him from death. His life was all he had left and he wasn’t sure that he had any future. Yet, Job had faith in God. He had faith that God could restore him. He answered his own question with the words, “But as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives.” (Job 19:25a) We know what Job did not know: Jesus is our Redeemer and because of Him we will live again; we will have eternal life, dwelling in His presence forever.
Plants may look dead, but many will renew with time and proper pruning. We can’t expect human flesh to regrow after death, but Christian faith gives us the hope that we desire about our lives after death. This same hope can help us through the struggles of this life. Job lost everything, but in the end he was restored. We don’t have to wonder or worry about what will happen to us after we die because we trust that Jesus has done all that is necessary to restore us to our God, but we still worry and wonder when we face the struggles in this world. We can die in many ways; we can lose our jobs, we can lose relationships, we can lose material possessions. We might not suffer like Job, but every loss is like a death in our life. Is there life after we lose our job? Is there life after divorce? Is there life after we get a life changing diagnosis? We know there is life after death, but we can also trust that there can be life after all our losses. God can and will restore us; we can live in the hope that today’s suffering will lead to tomorrow’s blessings.
“Yahweh, you have searched me, and you know me. You know my sitting down and my rising up. You perceive my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word on my tongue, but, behold, Yahweh, you know it altogether. You hem me in behind and before. You laid your hand on me. This knowledge is beyond me. It’s lofty. I can’t attain it. Where could I go from your Spirit? Or where could I flee from your presence? If I ascend up into heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, you are there! If I take the wings of the dawn, and settle in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand will lead me, and your right hand will hold me.” Psalm 139:1-10, WEB
We’ve lived in Texas for seventeen years and in our current house for nearly nine. After such periods of time, you get to know the lay of the land. You know how long it will take to get to the grocery store at one hour and how much longer it will take curing rush hour. You know which stores will have what you want to buy or which store will have the best deals. You know which routes will help you avoid the traffic jams. You know which parks are perfect for a leisurely walk or a quiet picnic. You know the best ice cream shop to visit. When you move to a new city, it takes awhile to find the best stores, routes and parks. I’m generally a bit more nervous on the roads as I learn to fit into the traffic patterns. I am more cautious about speed and turns as I become familiar with the local laws.
We lived in temporary housing facilities for about a month when we moved to Texas. I was left alone each day when Bruce was at work and the kids were in school, so I took the opportunity to explore. One day I went in one direction and I went the other way the next day. I usually had some idea of where I was going, but sometimes I got lost along the way. It was the best way to learn the lay of the land. I looked for street names, checked out the locations of my favorite stores and measured distances. I was more likely to be able to locate places because I had knowledge gained from my travels. It is easier now with GPS on our phones, but I still prefer to know where I am going.
It always surprised how many people are not familiar with the towns in which they live. I often know more about a city than the hotel staff, who can never answer my questions about food or attractions. I used to do work that took me on the road to several locations in an evening. I often stopped for directions and could not believe how often I heard the phrase “never heard of it” only to discover my destination was around the next corner. We really do not need to know every detail of every street in our own hometowns, but it is certainly helpful when we are familiar with our local surroundings, because it gives us the confidence that we’ll find what we are looking for.
Isn’t it amazing that God knows every detail about our lives? He knows the depths of our hearts and the number of hairs on our heads. He knows what we need and the best way for us to go. He searches every aspect of our lives to know us completely and perfectly. We are not able to know God that deeply, but He reveals Himself to us daily so that we might come to a deeper and fuller relationship with Him. I sometimes get lost on my journeys around a new town, but I always find my way home. With God, as we seek His face, He keeps us on a right path. When we make a wrong turn, He is never far away, ready to bring us home again. Each day brings us deeper into His grace and love.
Scriptures for May 2, 2021, Fifth Sunday of Easter: Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 150; 1 John 4:1-11 [12-21]; John 15:1-8
“If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, you will ask whatever you desire, and it will be done for you.” John 15:7, WEB
The book of Acts tells the story of the early days of the Church as the apostles and other disciples began to take the Gospel out into the world. The disciples were scattered, but they didn’t go into hiding. They went to the four corners of their world to preach the message of Jesus to the nations. Philip was one of the deacons chosen in Acts 6; he wasn’t one of the original twelve. That didn’t stop him from doing the work of the kingdom. Acts 8 tells us that Philip went to Samaria. The crowds listened to him and they saw the signs which he did. He cast out demons and healed. There was joy in Samaria. He had a successful ministry. The people were experiencing the joy of the Lord, watching Philip do incredible things; they believed what Philip taught because of the work he was doing.
This is terrific. I’m sure most pastors and evangelists out there would give their lives for a congregation willing to listen to everything they have to say. They would be very happy to have such a successful ministry. But we read on in Philip’s story that an angel whispered in his ear, “Go now.” “Now?” we would ask. “But I’m just beginning here. There is too much work left to do. There are too many people left to save!” We might even reject the voice, claiming that it is the devil trying to confuse us and make us lose our place in God’s work.
That’s not the way Philip responded. Luke tells us that Philip, “arose and went.” He was so confident in the word of God that he willingly left a successful ministry to go into the unknown. It was not only an uncertain command, but it was dangerous. The road from Jerusalem to Gaza was infested with criminals like killers and thieves. It was not a place where one would wander alone. The Ethiopian eunuch was certainly not alone. He was probably accompanied by a large entourage, including soldiers, servants and guests. He was representing the queen of Ethiopia, so he had the resources of the kingdom at his disposal.
So, as Philip is walking down this road, he hears the voice again, telling him to go near the chariot. Again, we think, “Are you kidding me? Those soldiers don’t look like they would welcome my presence so near to the official.” I surely would not run toward the group. Philip, however, ran to the chariot; he found the eunuch reading the book of Isaiah. He was probably taking the scroll back to Ethiopia where there was a small but faithful community of Jews from the days of Solomon. It is not only amazing that this man had a scroll, they were rare and expensive, but he also knew the language. We know now that this was obviously where Philip was really meant to be. While we might have had doubts that the voice was really from God, we know now that Philip had work to do. The Ethiopian community needed to hear the Gospel message, too.
Philip asked, “Do you know what it means?” The Ethiopian admitted that it didn’t make sense. Philip joined him in the chariot and told him the story of Jesus. The eunuch was so transformed by the story that he asked to be baptized, so they stopped the caravan by a puddle at the side of the road and Philip welcomed him into the kingdom of God. Philip immediately disappeared as the Holy Spirit whisked him off to another mission and the eunuch went on his way rejoicing.
From this story we learn several things. First of all, we learn that we might be called out of a successful mission into the unknown to do something that seems dangerous and ridiculous. We also learn that ministry moments that seem insignificant might have a significant impact on the world as Philip’s conversation with the eunuch had on Ethiopia. Finally, we learn that we should be ready for anything. Could you explain Isaiah 53 to a stranger in a chariot if God called you to do so? Yes, God is with us when He takes us into the world to preach the Gospel, but we should keep actively in the scriptures so that we will be confidently ready with an answer whenever we are called to give one.
We can see in Philip’s story that he was intimately connected to His Lord. He knew the voice he heard was from God. He willingly gave up what was happening in Samaria to follow God’s call into the world. He recognized the Good Shepherd’s voice and followed.
This week’s lessons follow with a different kind of image, that of the vine. I’m not a horticulturalist; I can barely keep a plant alive. As a matter of fact, I bought a pot of petunias and a few other flowers a few weeks ago and I’m already seeing them droop and turn brown. I water regularly, but I’m still doing something wrong. I’m not surprised; it is typical of all our plants. Anything I buy usually looks pretty for a few days or weeks, but it doesn’t take very long before they are dead in the dirt.
That is why I’m not expert on anything horticultural. I know that there are people both professionals and home hobbyists, who do wonderful things with plants and end up with spectacular gardens. They know what to do to make the plants grow up healthy and strong. Some plants need a lot of water, some need special plant food. Some need a lot of light. Some need a nice cool shady spot. Special care needs to be taken on plants that are vulnerable to pests. A good gardener knows just what to do to deal with all those situations.
Some horticulturists use a method called grafting to make plants stronger and better. Grafting is a process that combines the branch of one type of plant into the roots of another. For instance, the gardener takes the roots of a plant that does well in certain soil conditions and ads a plant that generally does not do well in that environment, such as roots of a drought resistant plant and the stem of a favorite that needs more moisture. The roots of the plant will become strong and healthy despite the lack of water, while the branches will grow to be beautiful. Others will graft different types of fruit so that the tree will produce a unique variety. Some will graft to combine a male and a female tree into one. Grafting can repair damage, create a mutation, or make it easier to propagate the plant.
The people in Jesus’ day were not agricultural experts, but they were familiar with the language of gardening. Grafting has been around for millennia, the Chinese did it two thousand years ago. The Romans used the technique and for the Greeks it was commonplace. They would have heard the words in John’s gospel and would have understood the idea of grafting. We are grafted into Jesus, He is the root and we are the branches. With Him as the root, we are made stronger and more resistant to the dangers of this world. We grow beautiful because of what Jesus gives to us. We are joined together, even if we are different than one another, into one plant that bears good, though different, fruit. Bonded together in this way, we also encourage one another to healthy growth. As part of the new plant, the Church, we look different, we are healed and we grow.
As grafted branches into the root which is Christ, we are intimately connected with Him. We dwell in Him as part of His body, as part of His Church. We are individuals, but we are made part of the whole. We do not glorify God on our own. Without Christ we would be like my withered and dying plants that I try to grow. God is glorified in Him, with Him, and through Him. Through our lives He is made known to the world. We are reminded in this passage that God is the master gardener who prunes the bushes, but even in this warning there is comfort and grace. As we abide in Christ, we have nothing to fear. God knows what He’s doing: He is the Master. He only prunes what is necessary to make the vine grown strong.
Jesus said “I am the true vine.” He was standing in the shadow of the Temple which was decorated with a large gold decoration of a grapevine. The symbolism is obvious, as the scriptures often describe Israel in terms of vineyards and grapes. The golden vine was so large that some of the grapes were as large as a human head. It was created from donations from God’s people. The gold was even engraved with donors’ names, much like we put names on bricks for sidewalks or park benches. It was beautiful, but it also had a purpose: the grapevine represented the relationship between God and His people, but the people were often too focused on the symbol that they lost touch with the relationship.
Jesus reminded the people that He is the true vine; He is the One through whom faith and fruit comes. “Look to me, abide in me, and bear fruit.” Unfortunately, we often spend so much time looking outward, away from God, focusing on our fruit that we lose touch with Jesus. We can’t bear fruit without Jesus; we can’t bear fruit without faith. It is not wrong to spend time and resources on the buildings where we worship, but it is possible to make those things our gods. It is possible to put so much attention in the symbols that we ignore the true.
It is even possible to give so much attention to our ministry that we forget the one who has called us to it. Philip could have thought to himself, “I will go later, after I get some more done here in Samaria.” He may have thought it was necessary to train someone to continue the work. He may have thought that he needed to baptize just a few more people. He may have had a notebook full of sermons to finish sharing and then he’d go. But then it would be too late and God would use someone else to do His work.
We have an advantage over Philip because we have two thousand years of the history of the church behind us. We have the writings of the Apostles, the Gospel stories and the letters of Paul, Peter, James, and John. We have the writings of the early Church fathers who knew the Apostles or were only a generation or two away from them. Their writing has been tested for millennia, and their understanding has developed into the basic beliefs of the church today. The most important points were written into the historic creeds and the faithful have built on that foundation of the Christian Church.
We must remember, however, that the one voice that truly matters is our Good Shepherd’s. We need to know Him intimately so that when He speaks we hear. The devil will try to lead us on paths that will take us the wrong way. The devil will even try to convince us to hold on to the successful ministry to distract us from the work we are really called to do. The devil will send opportunities for us to work that seem good, while keeping our eyes off the work that we are really meant to do.
We have to be careful that we do not rely on the wrong voices. John reminds us that we should not believe every spirit. There are many false prophets and have been from the beginning of time. People believe the words they hear words that tickle their ears and satisfy their desires. There have always been competing understandings of Jesus even in the early days, but so many ideas were rejected by the early Church for good reason. There are still many false teachers selling a Gospel that does not fit the Biblical witness of faith. They have turned the focus from God to their own expectation. Isn’t that what the devil tried to do when he tempted Jesus in the wilderness?
We have to be careful about listening to the wrong spirits, but we also have to be wary of our self understanding. We can be easily swayed by our own life experiences. We are selfish and self-centered. We are sinners. We interpret God’s Word to benefit our own desires. We often twist the scriptures to justify our biases and points of view. We can be swayed by every thought, inward and outward, and if we are not abiding in God, those thoughts can come from the wrong spirits.
Jesus is the true vine and we have no need to fear living and working in this world because God will be with us through the good and the bad when we abide in Him. Even when we experience difficult times, we can be at peace knowing that in the end God will use it all for His glory. He calls and sends us out into the world, sometimes He sends us outside our comfort zone into unknown experiences. He will not throw us on the heap to wither and be burned when we keep our focus on Him. He will produce the kind of fruit that makes a difference in the world. Who knows, we might just be the one to explain the scriptures to a stranger on the road, sending them off with joy in their heart.
The word translated “remain” in the focus verse for today is the Greek word “meinete” which can also mean “to stay,” “to be permanent,” or “to abide.” “To abide” means “to remain stable or in a fixed state.” Do we abide in Christ, or are we just living? Perhaps the difference between living and abiding seems insignificant, but I wonder how our life of Christ would change if we made a conscience effort to abide in Him rather than just live. In this world change is not only acceptable, it is inevitable. I’ve known too many people who got married with the understanding that if it doesn’t work out they can just get a divorce. People don’t stay in a single job for forty years anymore; they get jobs on their way to the next job which will lead to the next. Thirty years ago the cars were made so well that we could keep it, and drive it for decades. There are those who say that even the scriptures have changed over time and that God has changed. We live, but do we abide in anything anymore?
It takes work to live this kind of Christian life, and it is work that we don’t always like. The Master Gardener, our God, will trim from our lives that which is not healthy so that we will grow stronger and more holy.
Our neighborhood has undergone so much trimming. Too many plants died during the storm in February, and we have had to remove many plants to make our space look nice. But it isn’t just about appearances. Those dead bushes are dangerous. They can easily catch on fire, especially in the dry summer heat. The ranchers are also undergoing a cleansing process out in the country.
Many of the scrub fields need major maintenance. In ancient times, the earth healed itself with fire. A lightning strike set a field to blaze which burned the dead wood and made the earth ready for new growth. Those same fields today have homes and businesses that need to be protected. It is important that those owners do something to clean up the dead to protect the living.
As you drive down these roads of Texas at this time of year you can see the work as it is happening. The old trees are cut and stacked in tall piles. They are left to dry for days, weeks, perhaps even months depending on the weather. When everything is ready, they carefully burn those piles of wood, protecting the surrounding field. You can often see fire crews standing by to ensure the fire does not get out of hand. The ranchers end up with smoldering piles of ash. The removal of the old dead trees leaves room for the living ones to grow. The landowners know how to make things right by removing that dead wood which is ugly, useless, and dangerous.
It might seem like a lot of trouble for the wide open spaces of unused wilderness, but a healthy field is better for all those who dwell there, including the birds and animals. A tended field has much more wildlife because there is good food and shelter for them. That’s why the earth naturally heals itself, but as caretakers of God’s creation, we are given the task of helping the world be as fruitful as possible even while we subdue it for our use.
This is what God does for us. He removes that which is old and dead so that there can be new growth in our lives. It is painful to discover that God is moving us away from the work that seems so good to the unknown. I imagine it was difficult for Philip to respond to angel’s quiet whisper. It is equally difficult for us. Yet, as we live grafted into Jesus, intimately connected to the root that makes us strong, we will hear His voice and obey with trust and faith. Abiding in Christ might mean taking risks, but the blessings reach into eternity.
Maria was in her room preparing for bed while a storm thundered outside her window. One by one the children ran into her room, frightened by the lightning and thunder. Maria calmed their nerves with singing that got their minds off the storm. She told them that when she was sad or scared, she simply remembered her favorite things and then she didn’t feel so bad. This song is from the movie “The Sound of Music” and is filled with remembrances of the most wonderful things. “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens; bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens; brown paper packages tied up with string… You can probably sing the rest of the song yourself.
We all have something that we use to get our minds off the things that bother our hearts and minds. For some it is family; for others it is a favorite book, movie or song. When I am upset about something, I find it difficult to even think straight. It is best to take at least a moment to get my mind off my problems so that I can return to my work with a clear heart and mind to face it with strength and courage.
There are too many storms brewing in the world today. War and rumors of war leave us frightened and angry. The suffering in the world saddens us. Families are divided and communities are broken. Even the church is facing more schism because there are so many differing perspectives and ideas. It is heartbreaking to see this discord among brothers and sisters in Christ, to see so many people arguing, often over the most ridiculous things.
So, as we face these storms of life, we can look to the advice from Maria and get our minds off it, if even for just a moment. The best way I know to clear my heart and mind is to turn to God in praise and prayer, for He is always ready with comfort and peace. The words of today’s Psalm are a great place to begin.
Our problems will not go away so easily; the storms will not stop because we have sung a song or said a few words of praise. However, we will look at things much differently if we keep God in the midst of our troubles. When we are sad or afraid, we should not let those emotions cripple us, but we should take them to the Lord in prayer. When we do so, we remember that He is in our midst, comforting and teaching, transforming and blessing us with all we need to share His hope and peace with the world. The storms do rage outside in our world today, but God goes with us when we obediently follow Him into the unknown to do whatever it is He is calling us to do.
“Then on that day David first ordained to give thanks to Yahweh, by the hand of Asaph and his brothers. Oh give thanks to Yahweh. Call on his name. Make what he has done known among the peoples. Sing to him. Sing praises to him. Tell of all his marvelous works. Glory in his holy name. Let the heart of those who seek Yahweh rejoice. Seek Yahweh and his strength. Seek his face forever more. Remember his marvelous works that he has done, his wonders, and the judgments of his mouth, you offspring of Israel his servant, you children of Jacob, his chosen ones. He is Yahweh our God. His judgments are in all the earth. Remember his covenant forever, the word which he commanded to a thousand generations, the covenant which he made with Abraham, his oath to Isaac. He confirmed it to Jacob for a statute, and to Israel for an everlasting covenant, saying, ‘I will give you the land of Canaan, The lot of your inheritance,’ when you were but a few men in number, yes, very few, and foreigners in it. They went about from nation to nation, from one kingdom to another people. He allowed no man to do them wrong. Yes, he reproved kings for their sakes, ‘Don’t touch my anointed ones! Do my prophets no harm!’ Sing to Yahweh, all the earth! Display his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, and his marvelous works among all the peoples. For great is Yahweh, and greatly to be praised. He also is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but Yahweh made the heavens. Honor and majesty are before him. Strength and gladness are in his place. Ascribe to Yahweh, you relatives of the peoples, ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength! Ascribe to Yahweh the glory due to his name. Bring an offering, and come before him. Worship Yahweh in holy array. Tremble before him, all the earth. The world also is established that it can’t be moved. Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice! Let them say among the nations, ‘Yahweh reigns!’ Let the sea roar, and its fullness! Let the field exult, and all that is in it! Then the trees of the forest will sing for joy before Yahweh, for he comes to judge the earth. Oh give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good, for his loving kindness endures forever. Say, ‘Save us, God of our salvation! Gather us together and deliver us from the nations, to give thanks to your holy name, to triumph in your praise.’ Blessed be Yahweh, the God of Israel, from everlasting even to everlasting.” 1 Chronicles 16:7-36, WEB
David was God’s chosen king, but it didn’t come to him easily. David was patient for God’s time. It was many years after he was anointed that he actually became king over all of Israel. He lived in Saul’s house and then eventually fought against him. Though he had the opportunity to kill Saul, he never did. He waited for God. Saul finally killed himself, and even then David had to fight for Jerusalem. He conquered the enemies of Israel. He built a home in Jerusalem and he prepared a place to restore the Ark of the Covenant among the people of God. He wanted to build a Temple, but that would be left for his son. Until that day, the Tent of Meeting was pitched and the people were assembled around it. The priests consecrated themselves and appointed musicians. They moved the Ark into the Tent with great fanfare and rejoicing. The rough times for David were not yet over. He would continue to fight the enemies, and even battle with his own family. But even though the future was insecure, David rejoiced in God’s good works and His promises.
It is often difficult to be joyful in this world. We face troubles every day, such as sickness, poverty and friends who turn against us. We see so much suffering in this world that we wonder how we are to be joyful. As I searched the dictionaries for a definition of joy, I kept finding it to mean happy. Even in the Old Testament scriptures, the word joy seems to refer to moments of great gladness. How can we be glad when we see death and hatred around us? Paul told the people of Thessalonica to be joyful always (1 Thessalonians 5:16). Throughout his letters to the churches, Paul constantly speaks of his joy, especially in the midst of his suffering. Yet, even Jesus wept.
What sort of joy is this? It is certainly not always some sort of giddy laughter with leaping and dancing. Joy can mean “being in good spirits.” This is the sort of joy we have in the Lord. Paul’s joy was not of this world, it was a joy that came from closeness with God. It is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.
We have so many reasons to be happy; we are blessed in so many ways. We thank God for family, for jobs, for their homes. We thank God for grocery stores and for paved roads. I’ve heard people thank God for seedless watermelon. We are thankful for the technology that keeps us connected and for the opportunities we have to share our blessings with others. And yet, we can’t get through the day without realizing that there is also so much around us to make us sad. People are sick and dying. There are those in the world who will blow up innocents to make a point and who will kidnap children to force them into the sex trade. Families are suffering at the hands of nature. There are others who have lost jobs, who do not have the money to pay the rent, who are hungry every night. How can we be happy when the world around us is in so much pain?
We rejoice not because everything is perfect, but because God is near. David’s prayer is one of thanksgiving for God. Whatever he faced, whatever Israel faced, they could do so with joy because God promised to always be near. We know that they did not always remain so faithful, but even when they strayed, God did not abandon them. They suffered, they cried out to their God and they were saved. We can rest in the same hope, and live in joy daily. Today, let us simply praise God and offer Him our songs of thanksgiving, so that even in the midst of our suffering and tears we will know His joy.
“The heavens declare the glory of God. The expanse shows his handiwork. Day after day they pour out speech, and night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard. Their voice has gone out through all the earth, their words to the end of the world.” Psalm 19:1-4a
I have been cleaning drawers and cabinets, purging the extra baggage of our life. I have given some items to the kids, thrown out a bunch of garbage, and filled a pile of boxes to take to charity. I’ve organized jewelry, kitchen drawers, and cleaning products. It has been unbelievable how much we have collected over the years. My Facebook memory yesterday was from nine years ago when I was doing the same thing as we prepared to move to our current house. As I looked at that picture, I realized that some of the items in that “junk drawer” were in the drawers I cleaned in the past few weeks! I moved junk from one house to another and threw it into a drawer to be ignored for nine years. I’ve dealt with those items, and I think I really have purged much of the baggage from our lives.
During my quest I found a pile of unused gift cards. I’m sure I purchased them to use as gifts but forgot I had them. One was from a bookstore that I received as a promotion during Christmas sales a few years ago. Instead of saving it, and forgetting it, I went to the store to spend it. Though I buy most of my books as e-readers, I do like to buy some books in hard copy, especially those I use to prepare Bible studies. So, I wandered through the inspiration section for a few minutes. This is that area where we expect to find literature about God and how to live a life of faith. There were shelves of Bibles and other Christian writings as well as books about other faiths.
There are always books about other religions, written to help those who seek divine wisdom find the answers to their questions. The covers and titles speak of hope, heaven, peace and life. There are people who do not believe in God who are looking for something they cannot define. They select these books on witchcraft, crystals or new age ideology, hoping to find some understanding of the spiritual. They don’t realize that true life can only be found in our Lord Jesus Christ, who lived, died and rose again so that we will be able to approach the throne of Grace and have eternal life.
Unfortunately there are too many books teaching too many ideas. Those who seek truth and peace cannot find it in the midst of the confusion. Many deny altogether the existence of the One True and Living God and reject the idea that life comes from a relationship with Jesus Christ. I have been asked on many occasions to prove the existence of God. This is probably the most difficult thing we can be asked to do as Christians. Though we believe beyond a shadow of a doubt, we cannot prove the things of faith. Our God is a hidden God, one that can’t be proven, but whose existence is obvious to those who believe. The psalmist reminds us that God declares His existence through His creation.
Do you doubt the existence of God, or seek to know His divine presence? Look toward the heavens and hear God’s voice in His creation. Look toward the flowers and know that the Creator designed each one out of love for you. Look toward the rivers and know that the waters flow endlessly to bring life to the earth, like the water of life that flows from our Lord Jesus Christ. Most of all, look toward Jesus Himself, in scripture and the gifts He has given to the Church, and know that God is not found in books about manipulation and self righteousness, but rather He is found in you, by the power of His Holy Spirit.