Welcome to the August 2011 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, August 2011
August 1, 2011
“And they forgot to take bread; and they had not in the boat with them more than one loaf. And he charged them, saying, Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod. And they reasoned one with another, saying, We have no bread. And Jesus perceiving it saith unto them, Why reason ye, because ye have no bread? do ye not yet perceive, neither understand? have ye your heart hardened? Having eyes, see ye not? and having ears, hear ye not? and do ye not remember? When I brake the five loaves among the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces took ye up? They say unto him, Twelve. And when the seven among the four thousand, how many basketfuls of broken pieces took ye up? And they say unto him, Seven. And he said unto them, Do ye not yet understand?” Mark 8:14-21, ASV
I cleaned my closet today. When things get a little crazy, my clean clothing gets stacked on the shelf instead of hung on hangers, which makes it a little more difficult to find what I want to wear, but since few of my clothes really need to be hung on hangers, it doesn’t matter much. When the pile of clean clothing gets overwhelming, I get around to straightening my closet.
I had a pile of wire hangers on my bed neatly stacked next to the pile of the clothes. One by one I picked up a hanger and put on the article. It was going well, until I grabbed the wrong hanger. It was a little askew and caught one of the other hangers. Within a heartbeat, the whole pile became an unmanageable mess. The hangers were all caught up with one another in an impossible way. I don’t know how it could go from a neat pile to a mish mash of wire so fast. Once the pile was out of control, it was frustrating to get each hanger. It took longer than I’d hoped to get the task done, but eventually I finished.
After taking care of that job, I decided to go through my old jewelry. I’m thinking about having a yard sale in a few weeks, and I’d like to get rid of as much of my junk as possible. I have boxes full of old jewelry that I wore when I was in school. None of it is worth very much, but there might be someone who can clean it up and use it. Unfortunately, necklaces are like coat hangers. It doesn’t take much to make a few into an impossible tangle of metal. It seems like I can put the necklaces neatly into separate little boxes, and carefully put them away, only to find they’ve somehow gotten all mixed up together again!
Now, these items are not living, they don’t control themselves, but anyone who has handled hangers or delicate chains knows how quickly they get tangled if you aren’t careful. It seems to me that sin can be the same way. If you aren’t careful, one tiny failure can become a huge mess. One lie can become a host of lies. One angry word can become a violent altercation. One shoplifted candy bar can become a life of stealing. We think that there are victimless crimes, but the reality is that every sin hurts someone. Every lie breaks a trust. Every angry word destroys a relationship. Every selfish act turns us away from the ones we love and makes our lives a little bit tangled and confused.
It doesn’t take much yeast to make a loaf of bread rise. It doesn’t take much to mess up a pile of hangers or a few chains. And it doesn’t take much to destroy a life with sin. The Pharisees and other leaders thought they were righteous. They thought they were doing what was good. In reality, though, they were not living as God intended. They allowed their selfishness to tangle what was good and right and true according to God’s Word. Don’t we do the same? Don’t our own failures make our lives a tangled mess even when it seems like it couldn’t possibly mess it up?
“And Ruth said, Entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee, for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God; where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: Jehovah do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.” Ruth 1:16-17, ASV
There’s a commercial for American Express that I watched online this morning. It shows a man on a road trip to see Steve and Eydie. He believes himself to be the luckiest man in the world. He stops to get a picture of himself by the Grand Canyon, but a car hits the tripod on while his camera counted down to the click. The camera flies into his head and knocks him over. In the next scene, we see the man calling his credit card company to ask if he’s covered. As he learns that he is not, his wallet flies out of his hand into the Grand Canyon. He then asks if he can get a replacement card somewhere nearby. He’s disappointed again. In the next scene, he’s driving down the road and hears a commercial for his credit card claiming to be wherever he is, something he’s learned is not necessarily true.
Still happily excited about his tickets to see Steve and Eydie, the man tries to pass a bus on the highway and he notices that the bus is Steve and Eydie’s! Suddenly, a rabbit jumps in front of his car and just as he might have waved at his idols, the man swerves off the road onto the desert. Inside the bus, Steve and Eydie wonder what’s happening and if they should help, but Steve says that he doesn’t need help popping the champagne. Meanwhile, the man’s car continues to bounce over cactus and tumbleweeds until it comes to a stop in front of a billboard. Slowly, but surely, the billboard falls on his head. “Unbelievable” he says. On the bus, Steve and Eydie, whose luck is significantly better than the man’s, say “Unbelievable!”
He’s not really a very lucky man, is he? The point, of course, is that he should have had the right credit card: American Express. If he had their card, he would not only have gotten that picture of himself in front of the Grand Canyon, not lost his card and not run off the road, but he would have probably met Steve and Eydie in person before even arriving at the show. Of course, the credit card in his wallet would not have changed his circumstances. He probably would have found a concerned person on the other end of the phone, but I doubt there’s an American Express office on the rim of the Grand Canyon. He would have had to drive to the nearest city anyway. The American Express promises may be more accessible than the other credit cards, but even they can’t do the impossible.
His luck had little to do with the credit card. He seems to be an incredibly unlucky anyway. Perhaps he should take a friend with him, to help guard him from himself! And yet, would you want to hang out with a guy who has so much happen to him in such a short period of time? Do you know anyone that seems to have that kind of luck? Do you know someone who can’t seem to catch a break?
Naomi had a rough time. First she had to leave the land she loved to go with her husband and sons to a land she didn’t know because a drought threatened their lives. The new home was no kinder, as her husband and both her sons died there. One day, she decided that she had to go home. If she was going to suffer, she might as well suffer among family and friends, in the land of her people and her God. She told her daughters-in-law, who loved her, to go home to their parents. Though common practice was for the daughters-in-law to stay and care for the their mother-in-law, Naomi set them free to begin a new life.
Orpah was sad to leave Naomi because she loved the woman, but she willingly went home. Might she have been relieved? How easy is it for us to assume that we’ll have the same suffering if we stay with an unlucky person? Ruth, however, was a kind and generous woman. She followed Naomi home and promised to care for her. Ruth was a Gentile, a pagan who worshipped the foreign gods, but she left everything to serve Naomi and in doing so she became part of the story of God. In Bethlehem she married Boaz and their son was the grandfather of King David, an ancestor of Jesus Christ. She left her home and her gods to take care of Naomi, but God had blessed her with faith in Him. He used that faith to do great things, making her part of the story of our salvation. Naomi’s God became her God.
Ruth helped change the course of Naomi’s life and in doing so found great blessing. We won’t change our luck by choosing the right credit card, but we might just find blessing in those relationships we might want to avoid. Who knows what a different someone might make in the life of that unlucky man? Is there some acquaintance in your life who could us a little of your own blessedness?
Scriptures for Sunday, August 7, 2011, Lectionary 19A: 1 Kings 19:9-18; Psalm 85:8-13; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33
“Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Romans 10:13, ASV
I ordered some linens for Zack from an online company because we were having trouble finding something he liked for his dorm room. The website listed shipping times, and I was confident that the items would arrive in plenty of time for us to get it ready for move in day later this month. When nothing showed on my account several days after my shipping date, I wrote to the company to ask about the item, voicing my concern that the items would not arrive in time.
The email response was not very satisfactory; the writer said that my product was being sent directly from the manufacturer and that it takes extra time. She assured me that my account would be updated shortly. Three days later there was still no sign of shipping.
I tried to call the company, well within their business hours. When the phone at the company answered, it gave me the business times, and told me which button to push, but then gave me a message that they were on summer hours, to call back on another day. I sent them another email letting them know that my account was still not showing any information. I told them that I wanted to cancel the order if it would not ship immediately. I had to wait through the weekend, but just as I was ready to try to call again, I got an email with shipping information. The item was set to arrive the next day.
We finally got his box, but the process was very frustrating for me. I’m so used to better customer service from online companies. Some orders, especially from book distributors, arrive in unbelievably short periods of time. Most online companies have twenty-four hour service, are quick with responses to questions and solutions to problems. The responses from this company were slow and were not really helpful. Though I dealt with this problem in email, I knew the tone of my voice was getting angrier with every day that passed. I felt like I wasn’t being heard. I felt like my concerns did not matter. The linens arrived in plenty of time and I probably had no reason to be concerned, but I have to wonder if they would have arrived at all if I hadn’t complained.
Have you ever had a situation in which you’ve had to repeat yourself over and over again and how did your tone of voice change over time? Did you get frustrated? Did you get angry? Or were you humbled by the experience? I wonder how Elijah’s tone of voice changed over the course of today’s Old Testament lesson.
In the chapters before this story, Elijah did a miraculous thing: he defeated the prophets of Baal. It must have been an incredible experience to see God’s hand work so mightily in the presence of Elijah’s enemies. And yet, it must have been a little intimidating, too, to fight against so many. In the end, Elijah won and the prophets of Baal were destroyed. In the epilogue, however, Jezebel found no grace in the moment and threatened to kill Elijah. Elijah thought he won, but now he was running for his life. Shouldn’t God have done something to protect him after all he did for God?
When he defeated the prophets of Baal, he thought he had accomplished something his ancestors had never done. The people were amazed by the burning water and called out to God. He thought, perhaps, he might be able to lead the people and accomplish more with them. But, he didn’t convince everyone. Jezebel was unrelenting, and because she threatened to kill him, Elijah thought he failed. So, Elijah ran away. He not only ran away, but he begged God to let him die. God doesn’t work that way, though. He sent angels to care for Elijah’s needs and then sent him on a journey. Perhaps at the end of the journey Elijah might discover that success is not always what we want it to be.
Elijah’s fear of Jezebel and her gods is a lack of trust in God, however. Despite defeating Baal, he ran because she called on the name of her gods. He ran because he still felt alone. He ran because he couldn’t imagine that anything bigger than burning water that could convince Jezebel that her faith was wasted on useless gods. Though he knew God was the only God, he feared the vow Jezebel made on her own gods. He ran because of fear, but he asked to die because he was disappointed. He failed. And since he failed just like his ancestors, he might as well go to be with them.
With this in mind, as you read today’s passage from 1 Kings, how do you hear Elijah’s tone of voice? Twice he says, “I have been very jealous for Jehovah, the God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword: and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” Is he boasting? Is he justifying what he did? Is he desperate to find encouragement? What is his tone as he explains to the voice of God why he is running away?
I doubt that I would have reacted any differently than Elijah. Now, I don’t know if I would have asked to die, but I am sure I would have ran away and hid myself somewhere to have a pity party. I’m really good at saying, “Woe is me.” I’m really good at turning into myself when things do not go as I want them to go. We think we hear God's voice calling to us or see God's work in our world, but we doubt. We doubt because we also see the evil in the world, in our neighbors and in our own hearts. We feel alone. We feel scared. We feel burnt out. We feel like there is no way we can do anything that will make a difference. We feel like it is all a waste of our time. Running might have been the right thing to do, after all Jezebel wanted him dead. However, Elijah turned inward. He was being self-centered instead of God-centered. God did not allow Elijah to wallow in his fear and self-pity; He invited Elijah into His presence.
At the mountain, a powerful wind, earthquake and fire shook the mountain, but God was not in them. Then Elijah heard a gentle whisper. He put the hood of his cloak over his face and went to the mouth of the cave. There he met God, voiced his complaint and waited to hear God's answer. God does the same for us, meeting us in our doubt, fear and grief as a quiet voice calling us to trust in Him and follow His word with courage and faith.
Elijah did what he thought was right, according to God’s Word, and in doing so believed that God would overcome the disbelief of people like Jezebel. The rejection of Jezebel was discouraging and even shameful. The world wants to mold believers to fit into their expectations. But Paul reminds us that the person who believes God’s Word and lives accordingly will not be put to shame. The work God calls us to do will not always be accepted or acceptable according to earthly or cultural standards. We can see that in the response of many to our proclamation of the Gospel. We can’t even pray in Jesus’ name anymore, or seek God’s help in our times of distress, or share the love of Jesus with our neighbors. We can’t speak of our faith without offending someone, and so we are put to shame by society. Yet, Paul says that if we believe in Christ, we won’t be put to shame.
Paul also reminds us that the word is near to us. It is in our mouths and in our hearts. The word is the word of faith that has been proclaimed to us. “…if thou shalt confess with thy mouth Jesus as Lord, and shalt believe in thy heart that God raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” It isn’t enough to just believe. It isn’t enough to do great things. We are called by Jesus to confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord. People will see your good works and they might glorify God, but the reality is that they probably won’t even know you are a Christian unless you confess Jesus’ name. Paul says, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek: for the same Lord is Lord of all, and is rich unto all that call upon him: for, Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Christ won’t be known by your outward appearance or by your work. He’ll be known to others by the proclamation of His Word.
By proclaiming Jesus’ Lordship, others will hear. And when they hear, they will believe. And when they believe and confess their faith in Him, they too will be saved. Christ calls and sends us out into the world to take His message of grace and mercy into the world, not just in our deeds but with our mouths and our confession. We are witnesses, and as witnesses we are instructed to speak. We speak in faith, trusting that God will accomplish His work in their hearts and in their mouths, so that they too will speak in faith and confess His Lordship.
Peter knew that Jesus is Lord. He’d seen Jesus do the most incredible things. He’d heard Jesus speak about God, and he believed. He followed Jesus. He went out and did the same work as Jesus. He was often confused and he was very, very human. He made mistakes. But we have little doubt that Peter believed and even trusted in Jesus.
One of the biggest mistakes Peter makes is his bravado. He needs to prove himself constantly. I suppose that has to do with the fact that Peter has those underlying doubts and he’s afraid to admit it. He is the leader of that motley crew. He’s the one Jesus turns to. He’s the right hand man. He’s got to be the brave one, the smart one, the powerful one. Or, at least he seems to think so. We see it in the way he interacts with Jesus, telling Jesus what Jesus ought to do. He even rebukes Jesus. Yet, he seems so uncertain sometimes.
I wonder what he was really thinking when he saw Jesus walking toward the boat. He was probably just as fearful as the other disciples, yet when Jesus said, “It is I,” Peter jumped at the chance to prove his boldness. “Tell me to come,” says Peter. Did he really want to walk on water? Was he hoping that Jesus might tell him to stay in the boat? After all, there was a strong wind raging around them. It was even foolish to be on the water in a boat, let alone on foot! Was Peter truly trusting in Jesus when he stepped out of that boat? Or was he seeking more proof from Jesus that He is who He says He is? I think, perhaps, that it is more likely the latter than the former. Peter still did not fully trust in Jesus. He needed proof that Jesus is the Son of God.
Jesus gave him the proof, but not in the way Peter expected. Peter expected to walk on the water, to be like Jesus. But in his quest to prove Jesus, he lost sight of Jesus. He knew Jesus was the Messiah, but he was still frightened by the world around him and for that instant he forgot to trust Jesus. That’s when he went down, just as Elijah’s moment of fear came when he did not trust God.
Peter was saved when he cried out, “Lord save me!” He confessed Jesus as Lord, and Jesus came to His rescue. He was right there with Peter. He was able to do the miraculous, to get Peter out of the boat and onto the water. But even more importantly, Jesus showed Peter, and all of us, that when we get distracted by our own fears and doubts, He’s right there to save us. And when we cry out, we confess our faith that Jesus can and will bring us out of the water.
I have to wonder about this whole scene. Did Jesus intend on teaching this lesson to the disciples? How is it that the boat was so close to the shore that the walking Jesus could reach them hours after they left? Could it be that Jesus caused the wind to blow so that they would be stuck in one place? After all, if you couldn’t go on to the other shore because of a heavy wind, wouldn’t you turn back and wait until the wind passed? Why were they stuck on the lake so long? Did Jesus want to keep them there so that they would see and confess that He truly is the Son of God?
We believe, but we certainly have moments when we are fearful and when we doubt. We have times when we just want to run away from the dangers we face because of the Gospel of Jesus. We have times when we want to prove that we have faith even though we are actually afraid. But in today’s lessons we learn that God is with us. When we confess with our mouths and believe in our hearts we will not be put to shame and we will be saved.
Elijah and Peter forgot that the miracles they were experiencing were by God’s power and for God’s purpose. The real world made them turn inward, think of themselves instead of seeing that it was God doing something incredible. With our eyes on Christ, we’ll see, and know, God’s salvation and His peace.
Those who fear God see His salvation. His salvation is available to all those who turn to Him, who listen to Him, who hear His Word of peace. The psalmist says, “But let them not turn again to folly.” Having heard the word of peace, let us remember to keep our eyes on the truth, which is where mercy dwells. If we turn from the truth, we’ll turn away from the peace that comes from the assurance of faith in God’s salvation. As we trust in God, we’ll see that faith grow and flow into the whole world. As we follow God’s word and take it into the world, others will hear our confession and believe in the One who can save.
We’ll make mistakes. We fall into doubt and uncertainty. We’ll get frustrated and our tone of voice will change as we try to deal with the disappointments and failures. We’ll try to get out of the work God has called us to do because we won’t believe we can make a difference. We’ll fail because we’ll lose sight of the One who is changing the world by His Word. But God will remind us, in a whisper or the blowing wind: He is with us. He’ll reach out and grab us and pull us out again. He’ll send His angels to watch over us. He’ll feed us with His grace. And then He’ll send us back out into the world with the promise that we’ll never be put to shame because He is with us.
“These things have I written unto you, that ye may know that ye have eternal life, even unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God. And this is the boldness which we have toward him, that, if we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us: and if we know that he heareth us whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions which we have asked of him.” 1 John 5:13-15, ASV
I speak a great deal about witnessing your faith to people who do not know Jesus. It is important that in everything we do, we also speak the Gospel to our neighbors. The Great Commission sends us into the world to make disciples of all nations, and we can only do that by speaking His Word into their lives. While most of us would just as soon leave the task of evangelism to the evangelists, quietly living good lives and doing good deeds to make a difference in the world.
Yet, who among us doesn’t love the hymn “I Love to Tell the Story?” This hymn was written first as a poem by Arabella Katherine Hankey as a testimony to her own love for Jesus. She was evangelically minded, interested in telling the story of Christ to others. The poem (actually two poems) was written during a lengthy period of illness and recovery. The first poem called “The Story Wanted” speaks of the need to hear the story of God and has been made into a children’s hymn called “Tell me the Old, Old Story.” The second poem, called “The Story Told,” speaks of our need to then tell the story of Christ. Her words were set to music and the refrain added by William Gustavus Fischer.
The hymn talks about telling the story. We often think of evangelism in a way that makes it difficult for the average person to accomplish. We don’t know theology, we don’t have the confidence to answer questions from those seeking. We don’t know where to find the right passages in the scriptures. We can’t preach. We aren’t teachers. We are simple Christians. Shouldn’t the work of the Great Commission be left to those who are trained in matters of faith and religion? After all, Jesus gave that commission to the apostles, whom He had trained to continue His work. Yet we sing this hymn with tears in our eyes, knowing that the story of Jesus is the best one to tell.
John wrote to the Church, reminding them (and us) of the reason why Jesus came: to guarantee us eternal life. Jesus asks us to also tell the story to our neighbors both non-believers and believers. As the hymn says, we all need to hear it. We all want to hear it. The story is as wonderful the hundredth time as it was the first time we heard it. So, let’s keep telling the story so that we all will know and live in the faith and the eternal life we have in Christ.
“For though I was free from all men, I brought myself under bondage to all, that I might gain the more. And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, not being myself under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; to them that are without law, as without law, not being without law to God, but under law to Christ, that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might gain the weak: I am become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. And I do all things for the gospel's sake, that I may be a joint partaker thereof.” 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, ASV
We’ve lived in our house for seven and a half years. In that time, the surrounding community has changed a great deal. Besides the hundreds of new houses in our own neighborhood, dozens of other housing developments have gone up. We’ve seen the addition of a large apartment complex, several stores, multiple strip malls, doctors and dentists. Roads have been built and older roads have been enlarged. We’ve had gas stations and fast food. Several churches have been gone up around us. The local school district has had to build new schools to house all the new children and we’ve seen a new library and a Y.M.C.A. open. The local communities have had to expand government and safety buildings.
All these new people and businesses mean so many more cars on the roads. The traffic patterns have had to change. Intersections that once saw just a few vehicles, and needed little more than stop signs now have lights to control the flow of traffic and give those trying to turn onto a busy road a better chance. Small dirt roads are now parkways. Two lanes have become four and in some cases more than four lanes. Turning lanes mean easier access to roads and strip malls for those wishing to make a left hand turn.
The most apparent affect all this growth has had is on the time it takes for us to get from one place to another. A trip that once took ten minutes now takes at least twenty. Not only do we have to deal with the extra traffic, but a number of additional traffic lights have been added to the trip, guaranteeing at least a few minutes of sitting still while waiting for the light to change. I can’t imagine any of those corners without those lights now, but I remember grumbling when they were installed, knowing that they would add to our travel time. I do appreciate them when I’m the one that benefits from the green light, taking my turn at a place that used to be very difficult to cross.
The stop light was invented nearly one hundred years ago, the first electric light having been installed on this day in 1914. Despite the few automobiles on the road in those days, driving was a chaotic experience since there were no controls. It was especially bad in the early days of the motor vehicle because the roads were shared by pedestrians, bicycles, horses and streetcars. Eventually regulations, motor vehicle laws, helped reduce the number of accidents and helped keep traffic moving smoothly.
Other traffic signals existed before 1914, but the system invented by James Hoge in Cleveland is generally regarded as the first electric. His system received a patent in 1918, five years before Garrett Morgan invented the system with which we are most familiar today. Hoge’s system included four interconnect posts each with a pair of lights, one red and one green, each placed on one corner of an intersection. The lights were controlled by a switch in a control booth. The invention was credited with revolutionizing the traffic flow and cities were encouraged to install them.
We might grumble at the installation of a traffic light when it makes our trip take longer or causes us to wait when we would not have had to wait, but we know that the traffic light helps keep us safe. The light also helps us at times when it is busy, when we would have to fight with the traffic that is blocking our way. They were certainly a good thing in the early days of the automobile, helping all drivers to respect the space and needs of the other drivers. I’m not sure everyone respects the other drivers; many will run a red light just to save a few minutes on their travel time. I’m sure I have stretched the limit a time or two. Sometimes the safest thing to do is to keep going. Though I don’t always like the lights when they are first installed, I do come to appreciate them and I try to obey the signals for the sake of my own safety and that of others.
Paul knows he can live well in the Gospel without fear and with the freedom to do as he pleases. He need not worry about eating certain foods or avoiding certain ceremonies. He knows that he can ignore the old laws under the new covenant. However, he chooses to abide in the grace of God by doing what is good in the eyes of others, for their sake and for their salvation. By being weak for the weak, he helps the weak be strong. By being obedient to the law for those who follow the law, he shows them his respect for their point of view. By becoming all things to all me, Paul draws them into his life and into the heart of the Gospel, introducing them to Jesus and inviting them into a life of freedom from the bondage of their own beliefs. Just as we have to change our driving habits with the changes in traffic, we also have to find a way to share the Gospel with the people who cross our path. It might mean slowing down. It might mean stopping for a moment. It might even mean gunning it to keep the speeding person behind us from rear-ending us. Like Paul, we can be all things to all people, as long as we keep their best interests in mind.
“If any other man thinketh to have confidence in the flesh, I yet more: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; as touching zeal, persecuting the church; as touching the righteousness which is in the law, found blameless. Howbeit what things were gain to me, these have I counted loss for Christ. Yea verily, and I count all things to be loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but refuse, that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not having a righteousness of mine own, even that which is of the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith: that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming conformed unto his death; if by any means I may attain unto the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained, or am already made perfect: but I press on, if so be that I may lay hold on that for which also I was laid hold on by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself yet to have laid hold: but one thing I do, forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, I press on toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:4b-14, ASV
There’s been a trend on Facebook to create groups with the title “You know you’re from…” and each page lists a place. Some of the places are cities, others are states. I don’t know who started the trend, or even who started the group I decided to join, but these pages are extremely active on the social network medium. People post memories of people, places and things around that state or town, things that you might remember if you are from that place. It has been fun to see what other people remember, to have my own memories spurred by their memories.
Now, I have to laugh at the posts of the youngsters from these places. They remember things that are barely a few years old. Yes, the world around them can change dramatically in a short period of time, and seems to do so even more quickly now, but it sounds so funny to the older generations to hear young people reminisce about the past. I have shoes in my closet older than some of their memories. (I have shoes in my closet older than some of the youth!)
These pages are fun to follow, though, because through them you get a peek into people’s hearts. The things they remember are the things they hold dear, the moments they prized from the past, the people they loved. You see how much some of the places that have disappeared were truly appreciated and the people who’ve made the biggest impact on their lives. We are made up of those experiences; we have become what we are because of the people, places and things of our past.
The passage today is an autobiography of Paul, a statement of his past and how it reflects his future. He hasn’t given us a peek into his childhood, or told us about his favorite restaurants, but he has shown us a piece of himself. He knows who he is, but that doesn’t discount who he was. As a matter of fact, who he is after Christ is made richer by the history of his life, the past that rejected God and made it all the more possible for God’s grace to transform his life.
Some of the posts tell stories of youthful innocence and others of youthful mischief. We weren’t any of us perfect, I’m sure those memories bring back moments we regret. But even those moments are part of the foundation of who we are. Our failure, our sins, and our self-centered actions of our past are the foundations upon which God builds a lifetime of forgiveness and grace. Paul knew God’s grace, and he knew that it was both because of his past and despite his past that God called him into a relationship and a ministry sharing His Word.
“Be not many of you teachers, my brethren, knowing that we shall receive heavier judgment. For in many things we all stumble. If any stumbleth not in word, the same is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body also. Now if we put the horses' bridles into their mouths that they may obey us, we turn about their whole body also. Behold, the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by rough winds, are yet turned about by a very small rudder, whither the impulse of the steersman willeth. So the tongue also is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how much wood is kindled by how small a fire! And the tongue is a fire: the world of iniquity among our members is the tongue, which defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the wheel of nature, and is set on fire by hell. For every kind of beasts and birds, of creeping things and things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed by mankind. But the tongue can no man tame; it is a restless evil, it is full of deadly poison. Therewith bless we the Lord and Father; and therewith curse we men, who are made after the likeness of God: out of the same mouth cometh forth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be. Doth the fountain send forth from the same opening sweet water and bitter? Can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a vine figs? Neither can salt water yield sweet.” James 3:1-12, ASV
One of George Carlin’s most famous routines was “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television.” I won’t repeat the words here, although several of them have become more acceptable. And while they might not be acceptable in certain company, the words are much less uncomfortable in the modern world. The words themselves do not necessarily bother people, but the things to which they refer is shocking and inappropriate for all company. Perhaps that’s why the words were banned from television: if you can’t use the words, you can’t refer to the things about which they describe.
Yet, television is far more open than it was a couple decades ago. Imagine what would have happened if Rob and Laura Petry had actually slept in the same bed on the “Dick Van Dyke Show”? Now there are rather graphic references to sex even in thirty second commercials, and it isn’t surprising to find married couples, engaged persons and even strangers sharing more than a bed on television.
The words in George Carlin’s comedy act might still be rejected based on the context in which they are spoken. Some of the words are appropriate to air when dealing with the truth of inner city life on a news program. These are words people use on the streets, so if a journalist is talking to gang members, it would be more offensive to see them speaking high brow English because it is dishonest. Yet, at other times the words are used in a way that has no value. Many comedians feel that it is funny to repeat the words over and over because they are so offensive to some. But what point is there in saying any word ten times in one sentence? If you chose to say “flower” instead, it would sound stupid and unnecessary. “Flower this and flower that. This is so flowering stupid.” It just doesn’t say anything of importance.
Words matter. The words you use matter. Language changes; some words change over time to mean new things and new words are created to refer to old ideas. But something never changes: the power of words. Does God love us less if we use words that are inappropriate? Does He turn His back because you use those seven words or others that are offensive to someone? No, He doesn’t. Yet, the scriptures today remind us to keep a hold of our tongue, to speak words that have meaning and that have purpose. Isn’t it better to use our tongue to speak words of hope and praise? Isn’t it better to worship God with our tongue and speak uplifting words to our neighbor? Isn’t it better to use words that put people at peace with our mouths than to set them on edge? So, watch your tongue, use language well. Speak words that make a difference and say the things that matter. You’ll find that when your words are well spoken, that other areas of your life will be transformed, and your actions will matter, too.
Sunday, August 14, 2011, Lectionary 20A: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Psalm 67; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28
“The Lord Jehovah, who gathereth the outcasts of Israel, saith, Yet will I gather others to him, besides his own that are gathered.” Isaiah 56:8, ASV
We hear the word “law” and we automatically think in terms of bondage, a loss of freedom. A law ties you into doing a certain thing in a certain way. The speed laws are established to ensure safety for the people and vehicles along a road. The speed is dependent on the conditions. Highway speeds are set high while city streets and suburban neighborhoods are set much lower. It is pointless to drive 30 miles per hour on a four lane highway that is well maintained, long and flat. But it is dangerous to drive 70 miles per hour in a neighborhood where children might run into the street.
It is interesting to note that not every place makes the same judgment about the right speed for a road. In Pennsylvania, where I learned to drive, most country roads were set at 30 or 40 miles per hour. Similar roads, with curves and hills, in England, were often 60, except through the villages. It was hard to change driving habits from England to Pennsylvania, because I was used to legally driving much faster. In that case, the law was a burden. But the law tied me to a certain speed, even if I knew I could handle something faster.
When we talk about the Sabbath, we think in terms of the Law; in other words, keeping the Sabbath means obeying a set of rules pertaining to the day. On the Sabbath, worshippers gather for prayer, people rest and families spend time together. For the Jewish people, the Sabbath is Friday evening to Saturday evening. Other faith traditions have set their sabbaths for other times or days. Some people follow a weekly sabbath while others follow other traditions. The sabbath comes with certain rules: what to eat, where you can go, what type of work you can do. In some cases, the rules seem very extreme. In America, and elsewhere, the idea of the sabbath has led to laws that prohibit stores from opening or for alcohol to be sold before noon on Sunday.
I watched a conversation on Facebook the other day about a restaurant that does not open on Sunday. There is no law requiring them to be closed, but as a Christian owned business, they’ve made the choice for the sake of their employees. Of course, they’ve made it very inconvenient to get your fix if you get a hankering for their food on a Sunday. The conversation led to questions about the Sabbath, the proper day, the proper way to keep it. Some were offended by the idea at all, insisting that not everyone is a Christian. They thought it was wrong for a business to force their faith on others by remaining closed on a Sunday. They wondered about the people who celebrate a different Sabbath day, “Why aren’t their beliefs respected?” someone asked.
We can easily get caught up in the Law when it comes to concepts like the Sabbath. What does it mean to keep it? What rules should I follow? What pleases God when it comes to this aspect of faith? Am I righteous because I keep a certain day or do certain things?
It certainly seems that way when reading our passage from Isaiah. The text focuses on how foreigners are welcomed at the Temple; we are given the promise that God’s house of prayer is for all people. This can be troubling for those of us from a grace-focused tradition. Does God only welcome those who are bound by the Law? Is righteousness dependent on conforming to a certain tradition? It might seem that way if we look at the Sabbath in terms of the Law, but not if we see this passage as a promise, a covenant.
The Sabbath was not given to be a burden. The rules of the Sabbath, the demands of any faith tradition are not necessarily what God has intended, but what man has attached to the promise.
If we consider the passage in light of grace, we see that it is a gift, a promise, a sign of a covenant between God and His people. The Sabbath is the opportunity to rest, to focus just one day of our week to Him and His Word. It is not a requirement in any way, shape or form, but those in a relationship with God will experience His salvation in the obedience of faithful living.
It isn’t about receiving the salvation, but experiencing it. We are saved by God’s grace, not by our works. But doing what is right is just one way to manifest our faith and reveal God’s righteousness. Blessed are those who do these things, not because God will give them something in reward, but because they have truly experienced what it means to live in His grace.
This promise is for all people. All the nations are invited to dwell in His presence. Foreigners and outcasts are invited to enter into the house of prayer, to worship at His Temple. There they will find an everlasting place in God’s family. They won’t be burdened by a set of rules that demand obedience. Instead, the obedience of faith is a sign of the relationship that God’s people have with Him.
In Jesus’ day, obedience to the Law was a sign of righteousness. If people did not do as they were required by the interpretation of the laws provided by the Pharisees, then they were not even worthy to worship God in the community of believers. They were unclean and in their uncleanness had the power to make others unclean. They were outcast and unwelcome. This is why it was unheard of for Gentiles to fellowship with Jews. A Jew would never be seen eating with a Gentile or even with an unclean Jew. They were unclean because they were sinners and the righteous were not allowed to be in fellowship with sinners.
They say, “You are what you eat,” and in many ways that is true. If you eat only junk food, your body will become unhealthy. A good and balanced diet is important for good health. Scientifically we understand that not everything that goes into the mouth actually comes out the other end. Fats and toxins can damage organs and cause dis-ease in the body. God knows this, which is why some of the sanitary laws existed in the Jewish world. Pork was dangerous to eat. Dirty hands can spread disease. The laws themselves were not a bad thing.
However, the traditions of the elders had become more important to the keepers of the Law than the reality of God’s laws. That is not the vision God had for His world. He did not intend for people to be separated from one another by dietary laws and the other rules He gave to His people. The Law was a gift designed to keep them safe. To many of the Jews, the Law set them apart and made them greater than other nations. Though Israel was separated for a special purpose, God did it so that they would draw all people to God. In the beginning, as the nation grew, it was important for them to be separate, so that they would grow strong. But the promise always existed that others would be welcome and saved by God’s grace.
So, in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is dealing with this idea that the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders were somehow better judges of people than God Himself. At the beginning of chapter 15, the Pharisees approached Jesus about the way His disciples eat. They apparently did not wash their hands according to the traditions of the elders.
I saw a story about a research study recently that proved how important it is for children to wash their hands. Apparently, according to the study, the students that were taught to properly wash their hands regularly through the day were far less likely to get sick and miss school. As a nurse, Florence Nightingale discovered the advantages of good sanitation. Under her direction, medical care changed dramatically because she insisted on clean hands and working space. They had far more healing success because they had less infection caused by dirt or germs.
We can’t argue that washing hands is a good thing, and the rule was probably a very good rule even in the days of Jesus. Even if they did not understand the scientific reasons why they should wash their hands, they probably knew instinctively that clean hands meant a healthier body. However, they had a twisted understanding of it. They thought people got sick because they weren’t obedient to the Law, not because they were living in unsanitary conditions. So, anyone who was sick was outcast for being spiritually unclean. They were sinners and unworthy to be in the presence of the ungodly.
In chapter 15 of Matthew, Jesus tells it as He sees it. The Jewish people, especially the leaders, were longer living faithfully according to God’s Word, but were following a bunch of self-righteous rules. He condemned the practices that manifested a false piety. The traditions of the elders had become more important to the keepers of the Law than the reality of God’s justice. In 15:1-9 Jesus questioned the Pharisees about a law that actually dishonors fathers and mothers, against the commandment of God. They claimed it was honoring God, but by dishonoring fathers and mothers it was really dishonoring God.
Though tradition can lay a foundation for living out the intent of God’s Word, it can become something completely different when we insert our own interpretation and rules to go along with it. We are sinners and everything we touch is spoiled by our sin. And that’s the point of Jesus’ lesson for us today. God’s creation is not bad; the food we eat is good because God made it. The sin that lives within us defiles us and is manifested in the words that come out of our mouths. It is good for us to teach our children the proper way to wash their hands because it will keep them healthier, but we must be careful not to make eternal judgments based on the rules and laws we define. We might be surprised to find that even those we deem to be the most unworthy and unrighteous are beneficiaries of God’s grace.
God is not looking for those who keep anything perfectly. He is looking for those whose hearts are humble and whose faith is real. He is looking for those who believe in Him and His word, those who live accordingly. The woman in today’s passage does not fit into the mold of those whom would be considered righteous according to the rules of the Jews. She was a foreigner, a woman, a sinner in need of a savior. We know nothing of this woman. Is she married? Is she wealthy or poor? Is she respected among her people or is she an outcast? All we know is that her daughter is possessed and she is desperate.
And we know she believes. In the second half of our passage for today, Jesus has moved on to a new place. We might think that this is a story completely separate from the lessons that come earlier. When the woman first arrives, she yells to Jesus, “Have mercy.” Jesus does nothing. He ignores the plea. If we look at this story through this idea that God welcomes the foreigner that believes, we see that Jesus might just be testing His disciples. How will they react to this woman who clearly does not belong among them? How will they treat her? Will they help her?
The disciples did not help her; instead they told Jesus that He must send her away. They were probably concerned about what the other people might say. They didn’t want to ruin the ministry. They didn’t want to upset the authorities. They didn’t want to chase away the very people whom they were saving.
In response to their concern, Jesus answered her, “I was not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” His words brought her closer; she saw the open door and she entered into His presence. She asked again. “It is not meet to take the children's bread and cast it to the dogs.” These are answers expected of someone in His position. Jesus was being like the Pharisees He’d just rebuked for following the letter rather than the spirit of the Law. He was showing His disciples what it looks like to be unmerciful.
But the woman showed what it means to be faithful. She accepted His judgment: she was a dog. She was a sinner. She needed Him. She probably knew what the Jews thought about her daughter’s dis-ease. She probably understood the concept that her daughter was possessed because there was sin in her life. She accepted that she was to blame for her suffering. And she knew Jesus could fix it. “Yea, Lord: for even the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” She sought Jesus’ mercy and had confidence that God’s promises were as real for her as they were for all people.
So, she is lifted as an example of faith. She was not a Jew; she was not marked by the covenant or bound by the Law. She was seen as unclean and unable to have faith in the one true God. The disciples, who were Jews, had the advantage of being born into that covenant. They knew the Law and lived rightly and Jesus has talked about their small faith. The Pharisees that live according to the letter of the Law were rebuked for misusing it for their own benefit. Their hearts are made obvious in their actions which go against God’s intent for His people. But the Canaanite woman was blessed because she trusted in God. Her daughter was healed, not because the woman was particularly righteous or obedient to the Law, but because she trusted in the promise.
It is interesting, then, to see today’s Epistle lesson through the lens of this lesson. Paul asks if God has rejected His people. It might seem that this is so, since Jesus rebukes the Pharisees and then blesses and commends the woman. He seems to rebel against the traditions of His people, to reject the Law and its rules. Paul tells the Romans that though God has welcomed others into His Kingdom according to His promise, He hasn’t abandoned them or forgotten His promises to them. They are still His people, blessed to be a blessing. They have been given His grace for the sake of the whole world. And they will once again experience His presence some day.
Paul is in agony over the question of his people. He knows three truths: first, that Israel is God’s chosen people; second, that God is faithful; and third, something new has happened. People around Paul have claimed that Paul is rejecting God’s Word of promise to Israel by claiming something new has happened. Paul, having experienced the love and mercy of God cannot understand how the rest of Israel has not embraced Jesus. But he knows God is faithful, so he has found comfort in the reality that Israel is, at that moment, wearing a mask. He is certain that the truth dwells within and that one day, when the time is right, their eyes will be opened and they will believe. For now their hearts are hardened, but there is hope. There is hope because God is faithful.
We are no different, no better, because we believe. We were, and are, also disobedient. But He is merciful, transforming us into the people He has created us to be. Now, we are called to be merciful, to live in hope assured that God is faithful. God does not forget His promises.
All too often we think that we have great faith based on that which we have done or from whence we come. We think we deserve the blessings of God because we have done what is right. We think that being a good Christian, attending church regularly, giving our tithes and doing good works is what makes great faith. Yet, even the disciples who gave up everything to follow Jesus had little faith.
Great faith is manifest in the life that recognizes our own sinfulness and need. We, like the woman, have nothing to offer Jesus. Even our worship does not make us worthy of His grace. All we have is faith which leads us to see the grace which God offers through our Lord Jesus Christ. We are sinners in need of a Savior and we have that salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord. The benefit of God’s faithfulness—the fulfillment of His promises—is that we are free to take His Word into the world to others, that they too might be blessed.
The psalmist understands that God’s grace is not meant to be confined to a small box, but that it is given so that we might be a blessing to others. God shines His face on ours and blesses us so that we might make Him known to the whole world. This means taking the message to people we do not think is worthy, to the foreigners, the outcasts and the sinners. We are blessed to be a blessing, to draw all people into His heart, to share His promise with the world.
In these lessons we learn what it means when God says, “Mercy and truth are met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” God is not looking for people who are perfect. He is not searching for the people who are obedient to every letter of the laws of our lands or whose life story fits into the right box. He is looking for people who are humble of heart, those who willingly accept the reality that we are merely dogs. We are unworthy of the crumbs God gives, but we are faithful when we believe the promises. God doesn’t bless us because we do what we think is right. He has blessed us so that we will live in the faith we have been given, doing what is right so that God graciousness will be revealed to all.
“And you did he make alive, when ye were dead through your trespasses and sins, wherein ye once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the powers of the air, of the spirit that now worketh in the sons of disobedience; among whom we also all once lived in the lust 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 wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace have ye 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 have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God afore prepared that we should walk in them.” Ephesians 2:1-10, ASV
Our home is in transition and it is a bit chaotic right now. Though Victoria has been away at college for three years already, Bruce and I will become official empty-nesters next week when Zack moves into his dorm room at college. We’ve spent the summer purging the house. The kids have been going through all the junk they have in their rooms, choosing to keep a few things that have sentimental value, but getting rid of many things that just have no purpose for them anymore. I’ve been through the craft closet, getting rid of all those supplies I kept around for the day that one of the kids needed to do a project for school.
So, the garage is filled with tons of junk we hope will become someone else’s treasures at a yard sale this weekend. To prepare for this sale, we collected a pile of empty boxes so that we could gather the things we wanted to sell and display that stuff in the driveway. We collected a lot of boxes. More boxes than we can use for this project. We don’t want to get rid of the boxes because they’ll come in handy in the near future when we decide to sell our house and move into a new one.
I started to organize the boxes of treasures the other day and needed more room in the garage. Since we’ve been incredibly dry, I decided that it wouldn’t hurt to put those empty boxes in our yard, behind the fence and out of the way. “It won’t rain, anyway,” I said to myself. “It is never going to rain again.” I know that’s an exaggeration, because it will rain again. It just seems like it won’t. Occasionally the weathermen will give a slight hope for rain days away in the forecast, but by the time those days arrive, the rain is nowhere to be found. Lately they haven’t even given a small hope for rain, so I knew it was fine to leave them exposed for the next few days.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I checked the radar last night and found a huge area of pouring rain about sixty miles to the southwest. We’d had cloudy skies all day, clouds that looked like they should rain, but we have become so accustomed to no rain that we didn’t think it was a possibility. The rain wasn’t moving very fast or very far, but it was moving slightly toward us. Though I doubted that it would ever get to our house, I decided that I ought to find a place for those boxes. So, we rushed to store them in the shed for the night. Of course, it didn’t rain.
We joked about how we should just keep them in the yard. “Maybe it will make it rain if we leave them here.” That might sound good, just like washing a car is supposed to make it rain, but the reality is that these things don’t really bring the rain; it is a coincidence when it does. If washing a car would actually make it rain, it would be raining constantly, since people get their cars washed every day.
We like to think we have control over the things that are beyond our control. This is true of the weather and so many other aspects of our lives. It is even true of our salvation. We think that we can bring salvation to ourselves by good works and right words. Yet, like the rain that comes does not depend on our actions, so too, God’s grace comes when it is least expected. Unlike the rain, however, it isn’t a coincidence that God has done a good think in our life when we are saved. He is very purposeful in the way He comes for us, transforms us, and makes us into His people. He loves us, and He grants us His grace so that we might, by faith, believe and experience His Kingdom now and forever.
“Ye are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a lamp, and put it under the bushel, but on the stand; and it shineth unto all that are in the house. Even so let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 5:14-16, ASV
There’s a house down the street that has a really well built wooden fence. It is well maintained without the usual fading stain and broken slats. Unlike our wobbly fence, this fence is strong and stable, solidly built with a strong foundation. It is also beautiful, with a lovely pattern in the panels and posts that have a pyramid on top.
I was driving by this house one day and the pyramids seemed lit. Now, it was in the middle of the day, but it seemed as though the there was a light bulb in the cap; it didn’t look like a reflection. I wondered why I hadn’t noticed it before, but suspected that there was something wrong with a timer, making the lights shine in the day rather than at night. It wasn’t until I got very close to the fence that I realized the light was a reflection, coming off copper plating that decorated the pyramids at the top of the posts. The sun was in the right position to shine on these posts, to make the copper shine. I was surprised that it was a reflection because it really seemed like the light was coming from within.
Jesus Christ is the light of the world and as His people, His light shines in our lives. We often think of that light as a reflection of His grace, shining off our lives as if we are a mirror. This light can manifest in good works and fine speech, and the scriptures for today makes it clear that we are called to be light to the world. It isn’t good to hide our light under a bushel. Our light is meant to be set high for all to see, revealed in the actions that make a difference to others.
But it is not enough for our light to be a reflection of goodness. The light of Christ is not something that just shines on us: it shines within us. His light not only makes a difference in the lives of others, it transforms us from within. We might do great and wonderful things for others, but if our hearts are not filled with the light of Christ we are little more than a mirror or that copper plate on the top of the fence. Jesus came to do more than call us to lives of service: He lived and died so that we would be made new. He gives us His light, plants it in our Spirit and makes us like Him, shining not only in word and deed but in spirit and truth.
“And he stood before the altar of Jehovah in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread forth his hands; (for Solomon had made a brazen scaffold, five cubits long, and five cubits broad, and three cubits high, and had set it in the midst of the court; and upon it he stood, and kneeled down upon his knees before all the assembly of Israel, and spread forth his hands toward heaven;) and he said, O Jehovah, the God of Israel, there is no God like thee, in heaven, or on earth; who keepest covenant and lovingkindness with thy servants, that walk before thee with all their heart; who hast kept with thy servant David my father that which thou didst promise him: yea, thou spakest with thy mouth, and hast fulfilled it with thy hand, as it is this day. Now therefore, O Jehovah, the God of Israel, keep with thy servant David my father that which thou hast promised him, saying, There shall not fail thee a man in my sight to sit on the throne of Israel, if only thy children take heed to their way, to walk in my law as thou hast walked before me. Now therefore, O Jehovah, the God of Israel, let thy word be verified, which thou spakest unto thy servant David. But will God in very deed dwell with men on the earth? behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have builded! Yet have thou respect unto the prayer of thy servant, and to his supplication, O Jehovah my God, to hearken unto the cry and to the prayer which thy servant prayeth before thee; that thine eyes may be open toward this house day and night, even toward the place whereof thou hast said that thou wouldest put thy name there; to hearken unto the prayer which thy servant shall pray toward this place. And hearken thou to the supplications of thy servant, and of thy people Israel, when they shall pray toward this place: yea, hear thou from thy dwelling-place, even from heaven; and when thou hearest forgive.” 2 Chronicles 6:12-21, ASV
One of the things that has Zack excited about college is the football. He’s going to a good school with a winning team, most likely heading toward some bowl game in December or January. The football field is just a block or so from his dorm and tickets come with his tuition. So, he’s planning to attend every game possible. His voice will be among the thousands cheering their team.
I imagine that you don’t have to be in the stadium to hear the excitement. As a matter of fact, I expect that you could hear the cheering from the other end of town (it isn’t a very big town.) The stadium does not have a dome, so it is open and those thousands of voices will sound like thunder when their team makes a touchdown. Since the town revolves around the university, I’m sure that those who can’t go to the game will be watching it on television or talking about it with their neighbors. Even though the eleven players on the field are just a few bodies, the spirit of what they are doing is everywhere, before, during and after the game. You can’t keep football confined to the stadium; the game is far reaching, well beyond even the borders of the town.
Our scripture for today comes from the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem by King Solomon. King David wanted to give God a house, a place to dwell among His people, but it was his son Solomon who completed the building. It might seem odd that David would want to confine God to one place, but the reality is that even if God does dwell in that sacred space, He is never confined to it. Like the spirit of football that reaches beyond the stadium, God can’t be held by the walls of any building.
Yet, we build these places to honor God, to give God’s people a place to gather and to have a holy place where we can enter into the presence of our God. He is not just found in that place. We can find Him on the highest mountain and in the deepest sea. He is wherever His people meet to share grace and mercy and forgiveness. He is in the faces of those who need our help and He is in the hands of those willing to give themselves for the sake of others. He is everywhere; the places we build can’t contain God.
Solomon prays, “But will God in very deed dwell with men on the earth?” Today is the Feast of St. Mary, the Mother of our Lord, one of several celebrations that honor and remember Mary. As we think of Mary, we realize that even though God cannot be confined to the buildings we create to honor Him; He has found it pleasant to be in our presence, so much so that He sent His Son in flesh to dwell among us. She was just a lowly maid, but her body was a temple that held the living God. Our buildings might not be grand like the Temple, but God does choose to dwell among His people, both in those buildings and in our lives.
“Be ye therefore imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, even as Christ also loved you, and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for an odor of a sweet smell.” Ephesians 5:1-2, ASV
I’m sure you’ve heard of the newest internet fad: group coupon sites. I can’t possibly tell you which one was first, but I’m currently on the mailing list for at least three different organizations that do these group coupons. What happens is this: you get an email in the morning, advertising a special deal. These deals are really good, usually at least fifty percent off the regular price. The group coupons require a certain number of purchasers, are available for a short amount of time and are offered in limited numbers so that the buyers will take advantage of the deal quickly.
Each offer is slightly different, depending on the advertiser, but I’ve bought $15 restaurant coupons for $7 and incredible deals on golf course fees. Some of the deals are very inexpensive, costing just a few dollars. Others cost much more. I saw one for a fine jewelry store which was more than a hundred dollars, but was good for well over $300 in merchandise.
This is a brilliant idea. The advertisers are often very new stores that need easy advertising. They give the group coupon in the hopes that you’ll get through their door once and become loyal customers because their product is so good. The coupons must work because I’ve seen several businesses offer coupons on more than one occasion. I’ve bought quite a few myself, and the businesses have benefitted because I always spend more money in the store and I’ve returned to some of the businesses.
As I said, there are many of these group sites, and I have no idea who offered the first online deal like this. I do know that there have been coupon books for years that offer similar deals. But the Internet idea has turned out to be an excellent opportunity to get timely coupons for new places and the deals are often better. On several occasions, the coupons in the books have been worthless because the businesses have closed long before we could visit. Everyone does well with the group coupons, the advertisers, the Internet company and the buyers profit from the relationship. Whoever was first at this was brilliant, and others saw how great it can be an imitated it in their own way. It was a good thing to imitate.
We live in a time when individuality and creativity is admired. Isn’t it better for a developer to come up with a new and exciting idea? And yet, when something works, it is good to imitate it for the sake of others. Some of the new companies are more local, are focused on a certain population, offering the best deals for them. What good is a list with a lot of high dollar restaurants when the buyer can barely afford the mom and pop place down the street? Is a list that offers most of their deals at restaurants downtown good for someone who lives in a suburb thirty miles away?
Imitation might seem lazy. I certainly feel that way when it comes to many of the new movies that will be released in the next few months. Do we really need remakes of my favorite 80’s films? I can still watch the original. Are there no new stories? Yet, to imitate something that is good, to make it available to people who might not have access, is valuable. Most of all, it is good to imitate God, for doing what He would do will bring grace to a world in need.
Scriptures for Sunday, August 21, 2011. Lectionary 21A: Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
“I will give thee thanks with my whole heart: Before the gods will I sing praises unto thee.” Psalm 138:1, ASV
The drought in Texas is affecting many people in many ways. The cattlemen must thin their herds. Farmers are losing their crops. Wild animals are moving into cities in search of water, creating problems in suburban areas. A swarm of bees attacked our hummingbird feeder the other day, so desperate for water. We were afraid to go out our door. There’s a story on the news today that ants are invading more homes looking for coolness, water and food. Though ants are always a problem, they are worse right now than ever.
One of the major affects that homeowners are suffering, besides the dead lawn, is foundation damage. As the ground becomes drier with the lack of water, it shrinks away from the foundation. This gives the house room to settle, which leads to cracks. Cracks in the foundation lead to cracks in the wall, broken door and window frames and broken pipes. The problem won’t be obvious immediately. As a matter of fact, some of the worst damage will be done once the rain begins again, because all that water will run under the house and cause the ground to become unsettled. The foundation that once protected the house will slip and cost the homeowners thousands of dollars in repairs.
We’ve tried to protect our foundation by using a soaker hose for a few minutes several times a week. By keeping the soil moist around the house, the foundation will remain stable. The water also helped the grass near the house. But the rest of the yard is dying. I walked across some of the grass the other day and it was like straw. A little water would be a welcome relief for all of us for so many reasons. We could use the comfort offered in today’s Old Testament lesson.
God, speaking through Isaiah, says, “For Jehovah hath comforted Zion; he hath comforted all her waste places, and hath made her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of Jehovah; joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody.” Things were bad for Judah. They had rejected God by their disobedience, and God allowed the Assyrians to destroy the Northern Kingdom. The people were taken into captivity and exiled. Isaiah warns of what will happen and offers comfort in the promise that God will restore His people. The journey would be difficult, but those who would receive the promise had nothing to fear because the God of the promise would make all things right. The desert would be like a garden, the people would be joyful and thankful.
I had to laugh the day I realized the weathermen were putting a slight chance of rain on the calendar in a few days, every day. It seemed as though they wanted to give us the hope of what could be, but as each day passed and nothing changed, they had to move the chance forward. That promise is not very hopeful because we never see the fulfillment. In our minds we know that the weather will change eventually and it will rain again. But right now we laugh when we hear about the slight possibility and say, “It will never rain again.”
We are suffering just a few months of drought, but God’s people suffered years of exile. As they recalled the promises we read here, how do you think they would feel? Did they look forward to the journey through the desert, even if it was to their home? Would they experience goodness and mercy again, despite the long drought?
God says, “Listen to me you who seek the Lord. Look to your history, your father Abraham and your mother Sarah.” The stories of Abraham and Sarah were irrevocably woven into their lives. The promise on which they live was given first to Abraham, a man alone with no hope for a future to whom God fulfilled His promise of becoming the father of many nations. The people hearing these words were the fulfillment of that promise. The people remembering Isaiah’s prophecy were the fulfillment of that promise. They were all the children of Abraham. They would be comforted because of God’s promise to him; His word is forever faithful.
We are also children of the promise. We come from the same quarry. In the passage from Isaiah, we see the image of God's people being stone, rocks hewn from a quarry. Isaiah reminds the people to look to the foundation of their faith as a people, to their father and their mother: Abraham and Sarah. God's people were founded in the promises given to Abraham and manifest through Sarah. Though Abraham was old, God provided him with a son that would become the father of many. Abraham's seed would extend far beyond one man into many nations.
On the inside we don't look much like a beautiful stone. I would say that we look more like those foundations suffering from the drought. We are sinners and no matter how good we seem to look on the outside, we can't hide the cracks and broken pipes that are hidden beneath. Even God's chosen people made mistakes; they turned from God and worshipped others. They did not do justice in the world. They were unable to keep the Law. Their disobedience made their gardens into wastelands and left them in ruins. No matter how bad it seems today, however, this promise still stands, as much for us as for them: God will bring comfort to His people.
There is a future promise, a promise that was fulfilled in Jesus. “My righteousness is near, my salvation is gone forth, and mine arms shall judge the peoples; the isles shall wait for me, and on mine arm shall they trust.” We are called to look toward the heavens and rest in the promise, “But my salvation shall be for ever, and my righteousness shall not be abolished.”
God’s Word, His Law, is beautiful. The Law demands an impossible righteousness, but God grants those who live by faith righteousness like that of Abraham. We see God revealed through His Word. It is a gift that brings joy and peace to those who believe, but it has been abused and misused by every generation since the beginning of time.
It has been used to oppress and manipulate. The yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees bound people and revealed to them a false understanding of God. This kind of teaching blinds God’s people to the reality that Jesus is the Messiah. The message is hidden from the teachers and all those who they teach because they cannot see past their own interpretations. They have built their faith on their own righteousness rather than the reality of God.
Jesus wondered what was being said about Him around town. After all, He’d been doing some incredible things. In the past few weeks we have seen some miraculous events: Jesus fed thousands, He walked on water, He healed a Canaanite woman. Word of His works was getting around. A few weeks ago we heard that Herod suspected that He might be John the Baptist resurrected. Behind the scenes the people were whispering other possibilities. “Maybe he is Elijah.” “He could be Jeremiah.” “Perhaps he is one of the prophets.”
His actions were certainly gaining the attention of the temple leaders. He had gained a following and there was something extraordinary about this man Jesus. There had been other would-be messiahs, political and religious zealots trying to lead the people into some sort of revolt. They were easily disregarded because they had no authority. However, Jesus spoke with power that seemed to come from God Himself.
Jesus wondered about the scuttlebutt. “What are they saying out there about me?” The disciples told him about all the theories. Then Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Isn’t it wonderful to finally see Peter get something right? It didn't last long because as we will hear next week, but for just one moment, Peter saw Jesus clearly and confessed faith in the Savior of the world.
Jesus answered Peter’s confession, “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jonah: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father who is in heaven.” Peter's confession of faith was not something parroted from what other people thought about Jesus. It was not from the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees, it was not a fearful assumption from a king and it was not a guess from those who knew the stories of the Old Testament. It was a confession of faith hewn by God's own hands. And on that rock, Christ would build His church. Peter didn't confess faith by His own knowledge or ability. It was God Himself that revealed the truth to him. Neither can we come to such a bold profession without God granting us the faith to believe with our hearts and confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord.
At the end of today’s passage Jesus says, “Don’t tell anyone.” Why? After all, in a short time Jesus would command the Church to be His witnesses. Why the silence at that moment? Shouldn’t they tell the world that Jesus is the Messiah? After all, it would help the crowds to know Jesus better, to follow Him with more commitment, to establish His authority in His day. That’s the point of Jesus’ call to silence. Jesus’ authority was not built solely on His life. The authority He has now, over life and death, was established in its fullness on the cross and in the empty tomb. Peter thought he understood, but he would not understand until the he heard the rest of the story. A detail still needed to be revealed. A light still needed to shine. Then, and only then, could Peter and Christ’s Church fully live God’s calling in this world.
Paul reminds us not to think too highly of ourselves. He calls us to think of ourselves with sober judgment according to the faith we have received. We are individuals, each one gifted by God according to His good and perfect will. As individuals in faith we are joined together by the Holy Spirit as one body to glorify God and build up one another as the church. No matter how good a person is at what they do, they can’t do it by themselves.
We might accomplish great things for the kingdom of God, but we can never take the credit on our own. We are part of a bigger body, a body filled with gifted and committed people who also serve the Lord our God. Together we share God’s kingdom with the world, taking His mercy and His grace to those who need to know His love. We can’t do it alone. We need one another. Most of all, we need God, for all we have comes from Him. We have been hewn, along with the whole Church, from God’s quarry, rocks from which God’s Kingdom is built on the foundation of Christ, the Messiah. We are now, along with Judah, recipients of the promises in Isaiah. We will be comforted. Our wilderness will be made to be like Eden. Our deserts will become gardens. And God’s people will sing with joy and thanksgiving.
The psalmist sings praise to God in thanksgiving for answered prayer. “I will worship toward thy holy temple, And give thanks unto thy name for thy lovingkindness and for thy truth: For thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name.” God revealed to Peter and the first disciples that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. They joined in the wonderment of the people, curious about Jesus identity and purpose, but once He was revealed to them as the Messiah, everything changed. It is at this moment that Jesus sets His feet toward the cross.
The new journey would be dangerous. The leaders did not like the lessons He was teaching or the authority He commanded. They did not like that He had gathered so many followers with His power and His compassion. The disciples would fail, including Peter, would fail, but they were given a measure of faith that would not fail in the end. When everything was complete, when the Holy Spirit rained down on their lives, they took the message of promise found in the reality of Christ the Messiah to the world.
Now, today, we join with the psalmist, the people of Judah, Paul and Peter and the other disciples, and every generation of the Church throughout time in the chorus of thanksgiving, “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, thou wilt revive me; Thou wilt stretch forth thy hand against the wrath of mine enemies, And thy right hand will save me.” We can rest in this promise, for God is faithful. We are sent forth in faith to be God’s witnesses, to tell the story of Jesus the Messiah and how He fulfills God’s every promise. In that obedience, God will fulfill purpose for our lives. Today and every day, sing praise and thanksgiving to God, for He has hewn you out of the solid rock and given you the foundation of faith to see Him as He truly is. He is the Messiah, the One who brings God’s eternal salvation to the world.
“The word that came to Jeremiah from Jehovah, saying, Stand in the gate of Jehovah's house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of Jehovah, all ye of Judah, that enter in at these gates to worship Jehovah. Thus saith Jehovah of hosts, the God of Israel, Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place. Trust ye not in lying words, saying, The temple of Jehovah, the temple of Jehovah, the temple of Jehovah, are these. For if ye thoroughly amend your ways and your doings; if ye thoroughly execute justice between a man and his neighbor; if ye oppress not the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your own hurt: then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, from of old even for evermore. Behold, ye trust in lying words, that cannot profit.” Jeremiah 7:1-8,ASV
It is hard to believe that school is about to begin again. Of course, this year the beginning of school is much different for me because both Victoria and Zachary will be at college. However, I’ve been very aware of the usual signs that school is getting ready to open. The stores have had aisles of school supplies for sale and they have lists available for the elementary aged students. Sign boards have advertised preparation days. The parking lots have been full of cars as the teachers start organizing their rooms and their schedules. The road maintenance guys have been repainting the crosswalks all around our neighborhood. “Meet the teacher” nights have been going on for the past few days at the local schools.
This week I’ve noticed dozens of school busses on the road. They aren’t picking up children yet, but the bus drivers are testing their routes. When the students sign up for the school, many are given the option of taking a bus. Once the lists of students are ready, someone sets up bus routes that are efficient and safe. Some of the bus stops are right in front of children’s homes, so the bus driver must drive the route to make sure they know where to stop. The drive also helps the bus driver know how long it will take to get from stop to stop. When the kids were in school, we received a phone call from the bus driver a few days before the first day telling us when we should expect him or her. “Be ready ten minutes early,” they would tell us.
Despite these test drives, the schedule is always a little off. It often takes a few weeks before everything is in place. Sometimes students register late and need to be added to the route. The bus drivers rarely take their test drives at the same time of day as the regular pick-up, so they have to change timing due to traffic patterns. It is hard to guess how many cars will be lined up at the schools, blocking the roadways. I know that one stop sign often gets very backed up and takes ten or fifteen minutes to get through during those early morning hours. The bus drivers sometimes change their routes or timing after the first few days just to avoid those problem areas.
We are not perfect, and like the bus driver, we often have to pick our way through our journeys until we discover the right way. We can listen for God’s voice, know the scriptures and have a solid community of faith to help us and still make mistakes. We hear voices that do not speak for God and are led the wrong way. We can be blocked by difficulty or find the direction we are traveling is wrong. We have to change the timing or add new possibilities to our route. We may think we have it all planned out today, but tomorrow will reveal something that changes our path. We get caught up in the wrong focus, distracted by the everyday surprises of life. We lose our way and make mistakes, and then we have to turn around, repent, and begin again.
God is a God of second changes. Even if we make mistakes, God is forgiving and merciful. Even if we are headed in the wrong direction, God offers us a chance to turn around. He speaks to us until we hear His voice, showing us in different ways the things we should be doing and the bad habits we must end. He calls us to live the life He has defined, teaching us what is right and providing opportunities for us to practice what we’ve learned. It takes time. We’ll continue to make mistakes, but if we are really paying attention we’ll make the changes necessary to head in the right direction. We’ll find our place, our path, and do what God has prepared for us to do. In living our purpose we’ll be blessed and we’ll bless the world in which we live.
“Brethren, even if a man be overtaken in any trespass, ye who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; looking to thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ. For if a man thinketh himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself. But let each man prove his own work, and then shall he have his glorying in regard of himself alone, and not of his neighbor. For each man shall bear his own burden.” Galatians 6:1-5, ASV
This is college move-in weekend. We delivered Victoria and her stuff to her apartment this morning and we leave early tomorrow to take Zachary to his new school. We’ve spent the past few weeks shopping, organizing, gathering and packing. It was easier for Victoria, since we’ve been through this three times already, and her college things were mostly packed away in boxes ready for the new school year. Zack has been a little more challenging, but we managed to get everything together and it even fits in the car for the trip to Lubbock.
Now, since is going so far away, I really needed him to make sure his room was clean and organized. I wanted him to go through all his things, find the objects that he’ll want to keep forever, the things he’ll need when he visits home, and sort out the garbage. The rest was to be sold at a yard sale. Victoria was supposed to do the same. They had two months for this process. The yard sale was last weekend. Monday morning I looked in Zack’s room, just to see what still needed to be done and I realized that he didn’t really get much done at all.
So, Monday and Tuesday we began going through his room, one section at a time, one thing at a time. We’d dump everything into the middle of the floor and he picked through it, putting everything in its place. By the time we were finished, his room was clean and significantly larger since he got rid of so much stuff. Unfortunately, he also found five more boxes of stuff that might have sold at the yard sale. All day long he’d say, “Sale box,” and I’d answer, “The sale was last weekend. That’s now a donation box.”
Zachary also found several things that didn’t go into any of the other categories. A few items were things he didn’t want anymore, but that I didn’t think we should give away. They were items I could use or that would be good to have in case someone else could use it. He found a box full of school supplies that he has collected over the past few years. As we were going through his things, I told him to put the items on my desk or in the den. I said that I would deal with it next week. Unfortunately, my desk is now covered in things, an absolute disaster. I’m glad we got so much accomplished this week but I wish we had not had to do it all at once. If he had managed to get the work done a little at a time, I might have been able to keep things organized.
We never know how our actions might affect another. We might think the things we do have no impact on the world, but they do. It is said that the breeze from a single butterfly’s wings can create a typhoon on the other side of the world. While this might be an extreme example of the impact we have on others, we can see it every day in our work and home. For example, if we park our car so that it blocks a driveway, we might make a neighbor late for an appointment. It doesn’t seem very important, but we don’t know what impact those little things might have, so it would do us well to think carefully about everything we do. Oh, we’ll still fail, but at least we can try to make things right for our neighbors.
“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God: I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So because thou art lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew thee out of my mouth. Because thou sayest, I am rich, and have gotten riches, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art the wretched one and miserable and poor and blind and naked: I counsel thee to buy of me gold refined by fire, that thou mayest become rich; and white garments, that thou mayest clothe thyself, and that the shame of thy nakedness be not made manifest; and eyesalve to anoint thine eyes, that thou mayest see. As many as I love, I reprove and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me. He that overcometh, I will give to him to sit down with me in my throne, as I also overcame, and sat down with my Father in his throne. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches.” Revelation 3:14-22, ASV
It is hot here in Texas. We’ve gone for well over a month with over 100 degree temperatures every day. Now, I know I’ve talked about this before, referencing the drought and other problems connected to the heat, but there’s one that people may not even realize. The water coming out of our faucets is never cold.
The pipes bringing water to our house are not buried very deep beneath the surface of the earth because we do not need them protected from extreme cold. In the north, the pipes must be buried much deeper or they will freeze during the winter, but it is not a problem for us. What this means in the summer, however, is that the heat of the ground keeps the water at a much warmer temperature than it might be if it were buried deeper in the ground.
When I get into the shower, I automatically turn the knob three quarters, so that the water will get to the right temperature. However, I noticed a few weeks ago that the water was much too hot at my normal setting. It was like there was no cold water mixing with the hot to make it a comfortable temperature. I had to turn it down significantly. As a matter of fact, right now I am only turning it a quarter turn, running almost only ‘cold’ water with a little hot to make it comfortable. I don’t need much hot because the ‘cold’ water is lukewarm to begin with.
Of course, in the middle of winter the situation is completely different. I have to turn the knob almost all the way to get enough hot water to make it comfortable. The water, though not frozen, does still get very cold sitting in the pipes. It is amazing how different the settings can be from one season to another. I almost thought something was wrong with my water heater until I realized it had more to do with the water in the pipes.
The church in Laodicea was lukewarm. Now, in today’s world we seem to have many people who are too hot or too cold. We have too many people at the extremes. We have too many willing to do extreme things out of their passion. Yet, it is not good to be lukewarm either, for it is in that state of mind that allows us to be led in all the wrong directions. If we are lukewarm, we don’t care about the things that surround us. In the passage, John writes that those who are lukewarm fall back on what they have and they do not see all the work they might do in the world. Passion for Christ opens our hearts and our minds to the opportunities we have to do God’s work in the world.
There is a painting that shows Jesus outside a door, reaching for a doorknob that is not there. The painting is often interpreted to mean that we have to invite Jesus into our lives, that He can’t be inside unless we open the door. That painting is not painted for non-believers who come to know Christ: it was painted in reference to this passage, which was written to the Christians. Some Christians lost their passion for Christ, they no longer served Him with zealous love and joy. They’d closed the door and locked Him out of their lives. Have we?
We may not mean to be lukewarm, but circumstances that surround us might make us so. We lose our passion and lose sight of what Christ is really saying to us. We forget the work to which we’ve been called. We miss seeing the opportunities that God presents to us, are blinded by our lack of heat or cold. This is not to say that we should be extreme in any sense of the word, but we are called to be bold and courageous, stepping forth to do what Christ did, speaking His Word into the world in words and deeds.
Scriptures for Sunday, August 28, 2011, Lectionary 22A: Jeremiah 15:15-21; Psalm 26:1-8; Romans 12:9-2; Matthew 16:21-28
“Therefore thus saith Jehovah, If thou return, then will I bring thee again, that thou mayest stand before me; and if thou take forth the precious from the vile, thou shalt be as my mouth: they shall return unto thee, but thou shalt not return unto them.” Jeremiah 15:19, ASV
One of the chefs on “Hell’s Kitchen,” the reality television show starring Chef Gordon Ramsey, is very good at placing the blame on everyone but herself. She’s pretty quick to take credit when she does something right, but when her work is below par, she claims it is someone else’s fault. It isn’t her attitude that is causing problems, but another person’s. It isn’t her fault that the meat isn’t cooked right, someone else distracted her or did something wrong in preparation.
On the last episode, she did very well in the first challenge, beating everyone and winning the game for her team. She spent some time rubbing it in, boasting of how good she is. She used her success to put down the other contestants, even those on her team. When her team returned to the kitchen after their prize, she noticed that something was wrong with the preparation and loudly proclaimed her discovery to the whole kitchen. Yet, she didn’t do anything about the problem. When time came to cook that food, and it failed, she took the failure to Chef Ramsey and blamed the guy who did the prep.
Quite frankly, I scream every week that she gets by. I’ve wanted her kicked off the show from the very beginning. Her attitude is terrible, and if I were Chef Ramsey I would never want her to be the executive chef of my new restaurant. She has moments of brilliance which have gotten her this far, and she has been lucky that others have failed even more miserably on the days she’s had trouble. But everyone is tired of her blame game; they are tired of her attitude. A little humility would do her well; a little confession is not only good for the soul it is also good for the relationships that surround us.
Jeremiah plays a little bit of his own blame game in today’s Old Testament lesson. He points to virtuous life, how he has suffered for God’s sake and how he has not joined in the frivolity of others. He was indignant about the circumstances of his world. Then he blames God. “Why do you make me wait?” he asks. “Why am I suffering like this if I’ve done everything I should?”
All too often, like the contestant on “Hell’s Kitchen,” we see ourselves through rose colored glasses. We rarely accept the blame for our circumstances, always looking to others as the source of our troubles. Jeremiah takes it a step further, blaming God for his difficulty. Not only does he blame God, but he also claims God is unfaithful. “Wilt thou indeed be unto me as a deceitful brook, as waters that fail?” Are we any different than Jeremiah? Don’t we, at times, wonder about whether or not God is doing what we expect Him to do? Don’t we list our virtues before God, justifying ourselves before Him as we demand His faithfulness. We think we know better than God, so we stand up to Him, courageously demanding what we want without seeing what He has already done.
God answers Jeremiah’s prayer with His own demand. “Repent,” He says. We might ask ourselves what Jeremiah has done wrong. After all, it sounds like he’s been pretty faithful to God. Yet, in the very act of doubting God’s faithfulness, Jeremiah has shown that he thinks himself greater than God. Peter does the same thing in today’s Gospel lesson.
We left Peter last week on a high note. He had made the grand confession: Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. We are told that Peter cannot make this confession on his own, that it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that he can speak the words. Yet, Peter sees himself through those rose colored glasses. He has said those words, so his other words must also be right. Yet in today’s passage we see how quickly we can fail.
Jesus chose this moment to tell His disciples of the direction they have to go. The time had come to head toward Jerusalem. The ministry to the people was coming to a close and now Jesus had to face the cross. He had to suffer. He had to die. He had to finish the work God sent Him to do.
But Peter wasn’t ready to face the cross. He was not ready to deal with the reality of what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah. Perhaps his expectations were much different, after all the people expected the Messiah to be a worldly king. They thought he would sit on the throne of David and do great things for the nation of Israel. They thought he would fight for them, set them free from the oppression of the Romans. They thought the Messiah would bring back the glory days. Jesus’ talk of death was not happy news and it didn’t fit into the expectations of the people or the disciples. He answered Jesus’ teaching with a demand, “God forbid it! This must never happen to you!”
Now, he did call Jesus Lord, but isn’t it interesting that the honor is lost in the midst of this man’s demand from God. Do we really think Jesus is Lord when we tell Him what He should do?
Jesus may have used parables and figures of speech to point toward his impending death, but he had never said it outright, at least not in Matthew’s Gospel. This was a turning point in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. His disciples knew who He was, but they did not entirely understand what He was sent to do. Certainly His work in those first few years was amazing. He spoke with authority. He healed with power and He changed lives. He was gaining a following and it would have been so easy to take it to the next step. I can see the thoughts going through Peter’s head about all they would accomplish and all the people they would save.
Jesus ruined it all. Just as they were coming to the realization of Jesus’ true identity, He told them He was about to die. He told them He would suffer and be killed. Peter missed the promise in this statement, “and on the third day…” What Peter heard was Jesus telling them that the mission would be stopped and that the future was limited. How could Jesus accomplish the work of the Messiah if He was dead? Jesus told him how. He told Peter that on the third day he would be raised from the dead. Just as Jonah was resurrected in a sense from the belly of that whale, Jesus would not know death for long. He would be raised to live anew and in His resurrection the promise of eternal life will be assured.
We live in that hope because we see it as Easter people. We know the reality of Jesus’ promises because we see it from this point of view. We live in the assurance that we will one day share in the glory that Jesus knew ever since that first Easter Day. Peter wanted to ignore the cross. He wanted the glory without the suffering. We are much the same. It is so easy to live in the glory and ignore the cross, even now, long after Jesus was raised. We’d rather think of our God as one who ensures good things, who does not allow suffering, who rewards goodness. So when God does something we do not understand, we question His faithfulness. “God forbid it,” we say, not knowing the grace and blessing that will be found on the other end of our suffering. God tells us to repent. “Turn around and speak words that glorify God.”
Jesus’ answer to Peter seems harsh. “Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art a stumbling-block unto me: for thou mindest not the things of God, but the things of men.” Satan? Is Jesus calling Peter Satan? Of course not. However, Peter’s perspective was not from God. He was thinking only of the glory and not of the sacrifice that was necessary for God’s redemption of the world to be complete. God’s purpose for Jesus was not to be a great teacher or a great politician or a great prophet. The Father sent the Son to die for the sake of sinful human flesh. He sent Jesus to die for you and for me. While we live in the hope of the glory to come, we cannot ignore the cross through which Jesus passed for our salvation.
Living the life of a disciple is never going to be easy. We won’t be blessed with good times and great wealth. We might even have to suffer. We’ll carry our own cross, walk in the way of Jesus, perhaps even die for the sake of others. As Jesus says, “For what shall a man be profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and forfeit his life? or what shall a man give in exchange for his life?” What good is it to hold on to the mountaintop if the valley is where we’ll truly find God? It is in the valley that we discover God’s grace, and from there God will lift us into His Kingdom.
The idea that we will live a blessed and glorious life in Christ is called the theology of Glory. But what is the theology of the cross? What does it mean to take up our cross? Is Jesus referring to the pain of sickness or the persecution of our enemies? We often consider the suffering we face in this world the cross we have to bear for the sake of the Gospel, and yet this is little more than a reverse theology of glory. We magnify our suffering and boast of it as if it is our endurance that brings us salvation in the end.
Paul tells us what it means to take up our cross. It means to love genuinely. The cross calls us to do what is right not for the reward it will bring but rather because love demands it. Love often demands what is hard. We are to rejoice in hope: not hope in the glory but rather the hope that comes from the cross. How many of us really want to be patient in suffering or persevere in prayer when it appears God is unwilling to answer as we expect? Paul’s words get even harder. How do we bless our enemy? Is it really possible to be humble in this world of ours? What if, like Jonah, we know God will not avenge us but will seek our enemy’s repentance? How can we let go and treat our persecutors as if they deserved our compassion and mercy? How can we let Christ die for the sake of all human flesh when most people will never deserve His grace?
We do so by turning toward God, picking up our cross and following Jesus. We do so by laying down our lives for the sake of His Gospel and speaking of God’s faithfulness. We trust in God by humbling ourselves before Him. Sometimes the blessings will come through pain. Sometimes they will come in joy. Through it all, we are called to speak what is precious, the message of the cross that brings true life to those who believe. We don’t know when or how we will experience the glory, but we can live in the reality that God is faithful even when we face suffering. When we live in that reality, we’ll do the work God has called us to do, even when it is hard. We can feed our enemy or even tolerate the bad attitude of those who cross our path.
While we all want the contestant to find some humility, I wonder what might happen if the other contestants treated her with grace? It is hard to do so in a competition like “Hell’s Kitchen,” after all they are competing for an excellent job and a lot of money. You have to have a certain amount of boldness to win such a competition. Yet, perhaps the contestant who receives grace will see in that very kindness the foolishness of her own attitudes. Instead, she has faced argumentative combatants who have given her the reason to justify her own actions. They have given her reason to play the blame game. Love might just overcome the attitude, ‘heaping burning coals’ on her head in a way that will bring forth humility and repentance.
We might just do what is right. Like Jeremiah we might have lived a life of righteousness, always doing what it good and true. We might see Jesus as Lord, speak the words the world longs to hear and do the good things to which we have been called. We might just have reason to prayer the prayer of the psalmist, seeking God’s help and His grace. Yet, the minute we blame others including God, we put ourselves first. The minute we make demands on God, telling Him what to do because we think we know better, we deny God’s faithfulness and trust in ourselves rather than Him.
We might just have reason to boast. We might be right to lay the blame elsewhere. But let’s always remember that God is faithful. He will deliver us and bless us and we will stand before Him and share in His glory as long as we keep our eyes on Him. May we remain humble, never seeking the glory but instead seeking God, seeing Him as He is and living in the reality of what comes when we travel through the cross.
“And he said unto his disciples, It is impossible but that occasions of stumbling should come; but woe unto him, through whom they come! It were well for him if a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, rather than that he should cause one of these little ones to stumble. Take heed to yourselves: if thy brother sin, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he sin against thee seven times in the day, and seven times turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him. And the apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith. And the Lord said, If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye would say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou rooted up, and be thou planted in the sea; and it would obey you. But who is there of you, having a servant plowing or keeping sheep, that will say unto him, when he is come in from the field, Come straightway and sit down to meat; and will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink? Doth he thank the servant because he did the things that were commanded? Even so ye also, when ye shall have done all the things that are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants; we have done that which it was our duty to do.” Luke 17:1-10, ASV
Apparently today is “National Kiss and Make Up Day.” I could not find any information on the origin of this particular national holiday, but it sounds like a good thing to me. Most of the websites referencing today are related to entertainment, particularly restaurants and bars. They ask, “Have you had a fight with someone? Well, bring them here to kiss and make up!” They figure that you can’t stay mad at someone with filet mignon and fine wine between you. And who knows? A romantic dinner might lead to that kissing part.
The idea of having a national kiss and make up day is a little facetious, probably created by some greeting card company or organization trying to get noticed. You have to ask why they chose August 25th for the date. What is particularly special about this day? What fight or feud might have been the catalyst for setting aside a special day for overcoming disagreement?
The big question is this: is one day enough? Shouldn’t every day be “Kiss and Make Up Day”? If we have an argument with our spouse tomorrow, should we wait a year before making up? Do we need to wait for a specific day to make amends for the harm we’ve caused others? Do we need to wait until August 25th to forgive those who have done us wrong?
Of course not, forgiveness is an every day event. A national day might spur us into restoring relationships that have been broken by something dramatic or long-lasting, but we should never wait for a special day to forgive or seek forgiveness. One day might not be enough. We may have to forgive someone over and over again, constantly renewing the relationship with words and actions that transforms brokenness. There might be one specific day on the calendar, put there for some reason, but every day should be “Kiss and Make Up Day” for us all.
“Trust in Jehovah, and do good; Dwell in the land, and feed on his faithfulness. Delight thyself also in Jehovah; And he will give thee the desires of thy heart. Commit thy way unto Jehovah; Trust also in him, and he will bring it to pass. And he will make thy righteousness to go forth as the light, And thy justice as the noon-day. Rest in Jehovah, and wait patiently for him: Fret not thyself because of him who prospereth in his way, Because of the man who bringeth wicked devices to pass.” Psalm 37:3-7, ASV
We had surprise showers yesterday. In San Antonio the rain was nothing extreme, and it probably didn’t even do much for the drought, but for those of us weary of high temperatures and chocking dust, even a little rain was delightful. Some people were so excited that they went out to dance in the rain and jump in the puddles. I certainly didn’t mind the raindrops falling on my head when I was out and about yesterday. The rain brought cooler temperatures, and because of it we fell far short of the record for consecutive days of 100+ temperatures. Yesterday only hit 93 degrees, stopping the countdown at forty-five.
I had to laugh at my daughter. The rain was coming from her direction, and it appeared that she was getting wet according to the radar. I asked her if she was and she said, “Yes, but my umbrella is in the car.” We haven’t had to use an umbrella for so long they have become buried under other things and forgotten. I don’t know whether she ever got it or not, but I said that she should just go out and let the rain fall on her head. In our case, it was wonderful to go out and feel the rain.
The situation is much different on the east coast, however. The rain they are expecting will come with high winds, flooding and severe lightning. The people on the coast are moving inward, evacuating before the weather gets too bad. Others are gathering supplies and preparing their homes for rough weather. As I write this, the first rain is beginning to fall in North Carolina. Now is the time to settle in until the storm passes, to stay home and safe.
But I read an article this morning with the headline, “What to Watch During the Hurricane.” The story was about the movies being released this weekend. Sure, a movie theater might just be the safest place to be during a storm, with strong windowless walls. However, you have to get to and from the theater. The worst place to be is in a car in a flash flood. The rain will be heavy and impossible to see through. The wind will be strong and dangerous, sending projectiles into anything in its way. What happens when the electricity goes out and those crowds of movie goers are stuck in dark, stuffy rooms with nowhere to go? Will they take the responsibility for the safety of all those people when the storm is most extreme?
The right response to the circumstances of our lives is not always exactly the same. For those of us in Texas, the rain was a welcome sight and a reason to dance. But for those on the east coast, the rain is dangerous. For them, the time has come to be prepared, to hide away and to stay safe. Sometimes we are meant to face the world head-on, while at other times we should retreat and withdraw into prayer. The difference might not be as obvious as today’s example. The storms will not always be so apparent, the danger so visible. The times to dance might be unclear to us. But when we trust in God and follow Him, He will be with us in our dance and in our prayer, leading us down the right path.
“Blessed be Jehovah my rock, Who teacheth my hands to war, And my fingers to fight: My lovingkindness, and my fortress, My high tower, and my deliverer; My shield, and he in whom I take refuge; Who subdueth my people under me. Jehovah, what is man, that thou takest knowledge of him? Or the son of man, that thou makest account of him? Man is like to vanity: His days are as a shadow that passeth away.” Psalm 144:1-4, ASV
I read an article about the television show “Two and a Half Men” which is in production again, despite the loss of one of the main stars. Though there’s been a great deal of secrecy about the upcoming season, Jon Cryer was interviewed for the article. He said that Charlie Sheen’s character has died, and that the mourning will go on throughout the season. “‘The history of the show does not go away at all,’ despite Sheen’s absence. ‘It will be dealt with all through the first season. It’s not, “Oh, that character’s gone, let’s forget completely about him.” There will be ramifications all through the season. We’re not taking this into a new universe where the first show didn’t exist.’”
I liked the show for a long time, but the past few seasons have been missing something. I’m not sure what it is that I didn’t like, but I didn’t really care whether or not I saw the show. Then the controversy concerning Charlie Sheen happened and I didn’t mind. I would not have missed the show if it disappeared. Now that decisions have been made and changes are in progress, I will probably watch it for a little while just to see. This type of change does not usually bode well for a television series. The viewers don’t like to see dramatic transformations to characters or relationships.
Yet, I have to wonder if the problem with the show that was already affecting viewership will be fixed by these new changes. Perhaps the thing that made me stop enjoying the show had something to do with the undercurrent surrounding the controversy. We heard about Charlie Sheen’s issues when they became public, but surely people were being affected long before the news reached the world. Even if they did not know what was happening, that Charlie was in so much trouble, the relationships were already changing both on stage and off. Perhaps the writers had to create stories and scenes that would fit the attitude and physical attributes of a star that was falling apart.
I am glad that they will continue as if the person really died, keeping the past as part of the storyline instead of erasing the character. When someone dies in our life, they are not erased. They continue to live in our hearts, in our stories. Though they are not physically with us, they are a part of who we are and who we have become. Our parents may be gone, but our identity is intertwined with the lives they lived. It will be interesting to see how the situation comedy reflects this reality in the new direction of the show.
The actor Charlie Sheen has not really died, just his character. When we are thinking about the people from our past, we need not think only of those who died, but those whom we have lost. Charlie the actor was lost to his co-workers in a much different way. I’ve lost friends because they’ve moved to a new home or I’ve moved. Other friends found different interests. There are many reasons why we might lose a friend. So, who has been a part of your life that you miss today? How did they affect you? How did they change you? What good things, and what bad things, did you experience in that relationship that made you the person you are today? Has your life continued since you lost them and have they continued to be in your thoughts in the time since? Could it be that God has given you that person and those moments as a gift, to make you into the person He has created you to be?
“Jesus therefore six days before the passover came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus raised from the dead. So they made him a supper there: and Martha served; but Lazarus was one of them that sat at meat with him. Mary therefore took a pound of ointment of pure nard, very precious, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odor of the ointment. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples, that should betray him, saith, Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred shillings, and given to the poor? Now this he said, not because he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and having the bag took away what was put therein. Jesus therefore said, Suffer her to keep it against the day of my burying. For the poor ye have always with you; but me ye have not always.” John 12:1-8, ASV
When people we know are headed on vacation to Europe, especially England, they ask advice about what they should do and see. Several years ago a friend sent me an itinerary she thought was appropriate for a two week trip to England. It was possible to get everything in that she had planned, and I understood her need to see all everything. A trip like that is once in a lifetime; you don’t want to waste even a minute. But her schedule didn’t give her any time to relax. It didn’t give her any time to enjoy the country or its people. It didn’t give her time to see anything, even though she was seeing everything.
She wasn’t taking into account the time spent for travel. Some of our best experiences were those side trips we took when we were traveling to the place we wanted to go: a brief walk through a country village, a visit to the local church, lunch at the local pub. She didn’t think about taking time for meals. We met wonderful people and ate terrific food in those local pubs. She had no idea what surprises she might find along the way. On more than one occasion we planned to spend a few hours at a site, but discovered something special was happening when we got there. Two hours easily became four hours when there was an event or exhibit we didn’t expect. We often found ourselves in a cathedral at the right time to attend worship or hear a concert. Some of those experiences put me as close to heaven as I’ll ever be in this life.
So, I told my friend that she should try to do many things, but that she should leave time between activities for those moments. I told her that she would be exhausted and that she’d have so many regrets that she didn’t take the time necessary to really enjoy the places and people she visited. She’d get so much more out of the trip if she slowed down and smelled the roses.
I read an article today about how many parents fill the schedules of their children with too many activities. The article specifically talked about the stress parents feel when trying to do too much. They feel that their children need all these opportunities to be successful later in life. “I’m willing to sacrifice for their sake,” they say. The article went on to say that the stressed parents think they are hiding their exhaustion and frustration from their kids, but the kids really do know. And then the kids get stressed, work too hard to succeed at something that they don’t really want to do. Parents bicker, kids withdraw. The family suffers financially because the activities cost more money than they really have. And in the process, everyone misses the fun they could be having together, even if it is “just” gathered around the dinner table.
I put the word ‘just’ in quotes because there is nothing ordinary about spending time at the dinner table. A child will get more out of that time than they will ever get out of ten hours of extracurricular activities. They will be happier if they have time to rest. They’ll learn more from those surprising moments that we miss when we are rushing from one activity to another. They will be healthier in a stress-free house.
We often read the story of Mary and think she is lazy. Shouldn’t she be busy at life, just like Martha? How many of us look at those parents that do not have their kids scheduled for activities every night and think, “Those kids are missing so many opportunities.” But are they? Or, are they experiencing moments of grace, taking time to rest and reflect and breath. We don’t know how busy Mary is on all the other occasions. But we do see that she recognizes a time to stop, to listen, to enjoy the moment. Will we?
Sunday, September 4, 2011, Lectionary 23A: Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 119:33-40; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
“And this, knowing the season, that already it is time for you to awake out of sleep: for now is salvation nearer to us than when we first believed.” Romans 13:11, ASV
An Alaskan woman was recently convicted of using excessive punishment on her son. He had done something he shouldn’t and then lied about it, so she made him drink hot sauce and take a cold shower. It is a ridiculous punishment, but she claimed that normal discipline techniques did not work with him and that she didn’t know what else to do. This is a sensational story not only because the punishment was excessive, but for the reason her parenting methods were discovered. She recorded herself giving the punishment as an audition for a television show.
The talk show was going to focus on angry mothers and they needed video of this mother to play during the show. I would like to think that the show meant to bring in a counselor or someone to help this woman find a way to deal with both her anger and her child’s discipline, although I suspect that the show was more interested in the sensational nature of the issue. They like to shock, and I don’t think much healing or help ever really happens on that show.
I haven’t seen that parenting technique used on the show “Supernanny,” although some of the techniques are equally excessive. Supernanny Jo Frost helps families find the reasons for their troubles and teaches them methods that will make a difference. Sometimes the most important lesson she teaches these parents is that the children need them. The children need love, time and interaction with their mothers and fathers. In so many cases, the parents only interact with the children when they’ve done something wrong. The entire relationship is built on punishment, which doesn’t work.
If we were all in a room discussing parenting techniques, we’d hear dozens of different theories of what we should do to discipline our children. Though I doubt anyone would list hot sauce and cold showers as possibilities, I imagine that some would find the answers of others equally extreme. Does time out work? Should we spank? Should we make promises or threats? What punishment is appropriate? What is the difference between punishment and discipline? Is one technique right for every child or every situation? Where do we draw the line? One line might seem right to one family but extreme to another.
What do we do when we are dealing with an adult who has done something wrong? The Gospel text deals with the discipline within a community of faith. We might like to think that everyone who joins our fellowship will do what is right. We expect they will abide by the Ten Commandments, treat one another with justice and mercy, love and support each other. Yet, the Church is made up of real people who are not yet perfect. We make mistakes. We willfully make choices that harm our neighbors. We lie, cheat, steal, covet. We have idols and worship false gods. We do not respect authority or honor our elders. We fail every day, and though most of our failure is common among our communities of faith it is our responsibility to help our neighbors live as God has called us to live. We are to encourage, rebuke and correct one another.
There comes a time, however, when the offense is much greater than those daily failures we are all guilty of making. Sometimes, within our fellowship, there are those who purposely act sinfully, harming relationships and breaking trust. Some of the stories have made it to national news: pastors who take advantage of parishioners, church presidents guilty of murder, treasurers who steal offerings. These actions are not only sins against one another, but are criminal offenses in our society. They will be dealt with by the authorities.
But whether the transgressions are minor or major, the church also has to deal with the people involved. We are a body built on forgiveness, so when someone harms a fellow Christian or does something against the Church, do we respond with forgiveness or with discipline? Where is the line?
Jesus has taught us how to deal with sinfulness in today’s Gospel lesson. If our brother offends us in some way, or to be blunt, sins against us, we must first sit down with our brother and explain how he (or she) has hurt us. We do it privately at first to keep our brother from embarrassment. If he (or she) refuses to hear us, then we take another person who can testify with us about his behavior. Again, this is done privately to avoid embarrassing our brother. If our brother still will not hear what we have to say, then we take it to the church, which together can help our brother see his error and help him to be reconciled to us. If he still refuses to hear, then we sever the relationship, treating that brother as we would a pagan or tax collector.
This sounds very harsh, especially since we really don’t like tax collectors and we don’t understand pagans, but we need to consider how Jesus treated the pagans and the tax collectors. Did He reject them? Did He ignore them? Did He send them away? How did Jesus treat us when we were nothing more than sinners? How does He treat us when we continue to sin? Does He abandon us? No, He comes to us with His Word, reminding us of His mercy and grace. He fights for us. Earlier in Matthew 18, Jesus talked about the shepherd who left the ninety-nine to find the one lost sheep. He cared so much for the one that he risked the lives of the ninety-nine to save it. He does the same for us, and calls us to do the same.
We are founded on forgiveness. When that brother or sister has sinned against us, whether the infraction is minor or major, it is our responsibility to tell them what they have done wrong in a way that will help them become what God has created them to be. In the Old Testament lesson, Ezekiel is given the responsibility to tell Israel the Word of God. If He speaks about some sin, Ezekiel is called to warn the people. If they listen, they will be saved.
But Ezekiel is warned that if he refuses to speak God’s word into the lives of the people; he will be responsible for their death. God said, “When I say unto the wicked, O wicked man, thou shalt surely die, and thou dost not speak to warn the wicked from his way; that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood will I require at thy hand.” God sent Ezekiel to speak His word into the lives of the people. He gave Ezekiel the responsibility to tell them the truth, to tell them about God’s wrath and His promise. If Ezekiel failed to do so, their blood would be on his hand. If we fail to tell our brothers and sisters the truth about their failure, we will also share responsibility and the consequences.
“As I live, saith the Lord Jehovah, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?” God does not want any to perish. We may suffer the consequences of our failures, experience the cost of our mistakes, but our life in God’s kingdom is built on forgiveness. We may be the one called to give that word to a brother or sister. The call for repentance is the beginning of hope, a revelation of the mercy and grace of God. We might be afraid to speak those words, but God calls us to this ministry so that none will die. He calls us to share in the life-giving promise of forgiveness in His word.
Ezekiel was called to a hard task: to tell the people of Israel about their sin against God. The truly prophetic voice is not something that anyone would choose by their own will because God’s Word is not something the world wants to hear. We’d rather let things go, ignore the failures of our neighbors. We don’t want to talk about sin, correct error or rebuke willful disobedience. We’d rather take the idea of sin out of the Church. We focus on forgiveness, on love, and encouragement. But what use is forgiveness if there is nothing to be forgiven? And why would anyone seek forgiveness if they didn’t know they’d done something against God’s Word?
That’s why we are called to speak God’s Word, both Law and Gospel, into the lives of other Christians. There is a right way to do it, though. While we might want to make a public spectacle of some transgressions, Jesus tells us to first take it to the person privately. Then we take a witness. Then the Church must act as a witness. Even then, we should not do so in a manner that will shame our brother. We aren’t in the position to condemn, although we are given the responsibility to judge their actions. If, in the end, our brother (or sister) does not repent, then the final step is to remove them from fellowship.
Does that mean that there’s no room for forgiveness after they’ve been removed? Of course not. As a matter of fact, that is the moment when the Church is called to begin again, treating that person as they would a pagan or tax collector. Jesus did not ignore them, He showed them mercy. He did not reject them; He spoke God’s Word to them. The relationship was different. He was an evangelist, proclaiming the message of grace as if they had not yet heard. We, too, are called to be evangelists again; to take the Gospel of Christ to those who must be removed from our fellowship.
The hard question is: where do we draw the line? Which sin is so great that it requires separation? Which sin is so bad that we should not even welcome the sinner into worship? As with childhood discipline, we would get many different answers to the question. Some churches are harsher than others, perhaps too harsh. Some churches are too lenient. It is a hard task we face, discerning what to do about sin in our midst. But the words to Ezekiel remind us that we will be responsible if we do not speak forth the words of warning that God has given to us. If we allow sin to fester in our midst, we’ll not only put our brother in jeopardy, but also the community of faith.
When we see those reports about the pastors who have abused their position or the murderous council presidents, we wonder, “How did they not know?” Some people are really good at deceiving others. Yet, I wonder how many times the problem continued and became worse because everyone refused to believe the truth. Did they ignore God’s voice? Did they decide to keep out of it because it is none of their business? Did they hold their tongue when God was calling them to speak His words of warning and grace?
Unlike the secular world, Christian judgment does not mean condemnation. There is always room for grace. There is always room for forgiveness. The more extreme examples of evil doing certainly do need to be dealt with by the court system, but how do we deal with those same examples in the Church? We must speak the words of warning and but with a reminder that God does forgive those who return to Him. And then we help them deal with the consequences of their actions.
Sin leads to death. It is our responsibility to call for the repentance of those who cross our path, bringing attention to the sins that might cause harm to others or to themselves. It is a very fine line we walk when we talk about the sins of our neighbors. Who are we to judge a person’s heart? Yet, sometimes God does call us to intercede in the lives of our neighbors for their sake, to shine a light so that they might see their error and repent before their sinfulness leads to irreparable damage.
God does not want any to perish, that’s why He calls us to help one another live as He has created us to live. When we hear God say “I do not want to see any perish” we realize there is hope. God is holy and it is hard for us to look at Him, knowing we are unworthy of His love. Yet He calls us to do so. He calls us to turn around, to repent, to seek His mercy. As we hear the promise found in these words, we can seek His face. The psalmist sings about God’s law and asks God to help him live according to it. “Teach me, O Jehovah, the way of thy statutes…” We may not be able to live fully or perfectly according to God’s Word, but there is hope for us. God wants us to live and He will be there for those who turn to Him, who hear His word and seek His righteousness.
Paul’s words do not make this week’s lessons any easier. He writes, “Owe no man anything, save to love one another: for he that loveth his neighbor hath fulfilled the law.” I’ve failed here. Quite frankly, there are some Christians that just aren’t lovable. There are some actions that, in my understanding, are not appropriate. Perhaps my standards and expectations are different, just as parents differ in the way they deal with their kids. I can’t help but judge in my heart when someone has done something I believe is wrong. It is hard to love someone when that happens.
I know that I have not loved my neighbor as myself. I have certainly not done all that is possible to live in harmony with my neighbor or encourage peace. I’m sure there is someone who needs my forgiveness or with whom I should be reconciled. We think that it is no big deal: tomorrow is another day. We think we can wait until a better time. Maybe tomorrow I won’t be so angry. Maybe I’ll find the words to make them understand how they have hurt me. But, Paul reminds us that there is no time to wait. “And this, knowing the season, that already it is time for you to awake out of sleep: for now is salvation nearer to us than when we first believed.”
Now, we might interpret this passage from the eschatological point of view. We are certainly closer to the day Christ comes than we were yesterday, because time always moves closer. We don’t know the day or the hour. I expect that the day will not come for some time, but we should always be ready for that moment, so that we can meet our Lord with a clean heart. Even if we do not think of this passage in terms of the second coming, we do not know the day or the hour we will no longer be able to love our neighbor. We can die at any moment. We can take our selfishness and self-centeredness a step too far and destroy a relationship or find ourselves separated from those we love. Our failures can mean immediate and devastating destruction to ourselves and others.
Paul tells us to live honorably today, at this very moment. This is not by our own power, but by that which comes from our Lord Jesus Christ. “But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.” We don’t always react to adversity with faith and hope and love. We get angry when people, and circumstances, get in our way. We react negatively when we lose control. It is then that we slip from being the people God has called us to be. Paul reminds us to live in faith, hope and especially love. No matter what the circumstances of tomorrow might be, by loving our neighbor today we will face tomorrow’s joys or disasters with God’s grace, leaving nothing undone or unsaid so that all might see the light of Christ.
Paul’s writes, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor.” I don't think a day goes by without my failing at this one. Even if the infractions are insignificant, I have wronged my neighbor. I’ve gossiped. I’ve lied. I’ve cheated. I have done a million things that I should not have done. The more I hear God's Law, the more I realize that I deserve nothing but death for my iniquity.
That’s why God does not give us a word of instruction and judgment without a word of hope. He does not want any to die. God’s Law condemns, but Christ saves. We hear the words and we cry out like the Israelites, “Our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we pine away in them; how then can we live?” In our sin we see no hope because we are unable to live according to the law of love. We fail miserably on a daily basis. It is not surprising that many people give up on religion because it becomes impossible. Where is love in the bickering? Where is love in the committee and council rooms of the churches? However, without the company of believers to hold us up, we easily drown in our self doubts and sorrows. That’s why it is so important to treat those brothers and sisters in Christ with grace and mercy, even if they must be removed from our fellowship. He wishes none to perish and has called us to be sentinels to proclaim His Word to the world.
The psalmist asks God to teach him how to walk in God’s way, and we can do the same. In our own situations, when there is brokenness in our relationships, God gives us a way to speak the truth while leaving room for forgiveness and reconciliation. Our tendency is to blow up over the little things, to take everything to an extreme. God reminds us to deal with our neighbors with love, speaking His word of both Law and Gospel so that they might live. There might be a line we have to draw, a place where we have to break fellowship for the sake of others. But we must never forget that God is not limited to our side of that line, He longs for all to experience His salvation. Let’s not wait until it is too late to speak His grace into the lives of those who have turned from God or we might just find ourselves responsible for those who have been lost. Now is the time. Are you ready to pay that debt of love?