Welcome to the August 2017 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 2017
“But you did follow my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, steadfastness, persecutions, and sufferings: those things that happened to me at Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. I endured those persecutions. The Lord delivered me out of them all. Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. But evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived. But you remain in the things which you have learned and have been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them. From infancy, you have known the Holy Scriptures which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith, which is in Christ Jesus. Every Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:10-16, WEB
I began writing A WORD FOR TODAY on August 1, 1999. Today I begin my nineteenth year. That seems impossible. It all began simple enough: I acted as hostess on an online email discussion group while the regular hostess was on vacation. She usually sent an email a day with fun, inspiring graphics, just to ensure that there would be some contact between us. I didn’t do graphics, so I sent a short devotion on some Bible verse I had read or some thought I had about God that day. I continued to write after the two weeks were over, and have continued ever since.
There have been changes, of course. In the beginning I wrote seven days a week, and I realized after a few years that I should take a Sabbath break. I added Midweek Oasis, and then I merged the two and spent a few years focusing daily on the lectionary texts in preparation for that writing. Now I use Wednesday for the lectionary and freestyle the other four days. I have had the website from the beginning, but added a Facebook page a few years ago.
It hasn’t always been easy. Some days I suffer from writer’s block. Other days the message is one I’d rather not send. Some days I feel as if I’m writing to myself, certain that no one is reading these words. Then there are the days when someone will send me a note or comment on a writing to tell me how it has touched their lives. I don’t need accolades, but it is nice to hear that God is actually using this ministry for good.
My website is not perfect. In the beginning I built a page that had all the scripture references so that if you were doing a study you could find out what I had to say on the matter. Unfortunately, over the years I discovered that many of those links are wrong; they lead to a devotion for a completely different scripture text. I also stopped updating that page years ago when I went to the lectionary devotions, and so it is missing a decade of references.
Themes have certainly been used over and over again because there is no way to talk about God daily without mentioning His grace and love. I have had periods of strong emphasis on certain aspects of our faith, like repentance and service. My series on the Proverbs 31 woman became a published Bible study and I’m working on books based on other studies I’ve done over the years.
I have not kept an accurate record of the scripture texts I’ve used. The link page was the best I did in the first few years, but after that I couldn’t tell you the last time I used a text. There are a few favorites that have been referenced time and time again, sometimes in quick succession. I have a few devotions I’ve repeated over the years (March 2, 2000 is one of my favorites.) And I have to admit that I cut and paste with editing bits from some of my older posts. Over the years I’ve written approximately 5000 devotions. I have often wondered what percentage of the Bible I’ve used.
The lectionary helps us to see so much of the Bible over the three years, but there are many stories we don’t see. There are some very hard texts that we all try to avoid. I try to use some of the more obscure texts. You might recall a series last year about strange Bible stories and characters. Despite dedicating so much of my life in the study of scriptures there were a few I’d never heard. Even so, I’m sure that there are plenty of texts I’ve never referenced. I decided a few weeks ago to see. So, I am visiting each archive page and writing the text address. I’ve purchased a Bible with wide margins for notes and I am going to mark each reference with dates used. I hope to uncover a whole lot more wisdom in the pages of our Bibles so that I can keep writing these devotions for many years to come. Every word in the book is for our benefit, even the ones we have avoided over the years.
Scriptures for Sunday, August 6, 2017, Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 55:1-5; Psalm 136:1-9 (23-26); Romans 9:1-5 (6-13); Matthew 14:13-21
“Give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good; for his loving kindness endures forever.” Psalm 136:1, WEB
It can be overwhelming. It seems like every day someone is asking for a donation for this fundraiser or that one. I want to give to every single opportunity, but it becomes impossible. I made two donations the other day but had to ignore a third. I just can’t do it all. We’ve had a similar thing happen at our church. We have had multiple collections over the past month or two and another opportunity came up last week. We decided to say “No” because our members are tapped out. There’s only so much you can do.
I can’t possibly meet every need on my own. Even as a crowd we find it difficult. But “The Starfish Story” by Loren Eisley encourages us to try. “One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked, ‘What are you doing?’ The youth replied, ‘Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.’ ‘Son,’ the man said, ‘don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!’ After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said ‘I made a difference for that one.’”
We can’t do it all, but we can give our resources to God and trust that He will make miracles happen. If each of us just made a difference for one, we will see many helped.
The disciples didn’t have enough for themselves. As a matter of fact, they may have been wondering how they were going to eat that night. They had five loaves and two fish, not enough to feed a dozen people let alone thousands. They couldn’t pop into the grocery store for food to share. Even if they had these options, how could they possibly have served a satisfying meal to five thousand or more on a hillside in the wilderness? They couldn’t. Their own grumbling tummies made it easy to say, “This place is deserted, and the hour is already late. Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves food.” Jesus answered, “You give them something to eat.”
In John’s version of today’s Gospel lesson, Philip argues with Jesus. “Even if we spent every penny we have, there is no way we could buy enough food to feed them all.” Andrew, however, says, “Here, we have five loaves and two fishes.” Matthew does not share so many details, but you can sense the hopelessness when they point out how little food they have.
I’m sure there was a lot going through their minds at the time. The first verse of today’s passage says, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat, to a deserted place apart. When the multitudes heard it, they followed him on foot from the cities.” Jesus had just heard that Herod had beheaded John the Baptist. Several of His disciples had been disciples of John. I’m sure they were all wondering where following Jesus would lead them. Would Jesus also end up dying? Jesus was John’s relative. He, perhaps, needed time to grieve. So, He left the place where He had been preaching about the Kingdom of Heaven to be apart from the crowds.
The crowd would not leave Jesus and the disciples alone. While they went to another place by boat, the crowds followed Him on foot. I’m sure at least a few of them were also shocked and scared when they heard what happened to John the Baptist. Jesus was their next great hope. Despite His own needs and the needs of the disciples, Jesus had compassion on them.
The disciples, along with the crowds, had heard the parables we have been studying over the past few weeks. We heard in the parable of the sower about God’s radical generosity to scatter the seed even though some will fall on the path, rocks and thorns. Enough will land on good soil to bring a great harvest. They heard the parable of the weeds which warned that the devil will plant weeds in the fields, but that it is God’s job to meet out justice at the right time. If we try to remove the weeds, we will destroy the good plants. They heard the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven, and learned that even the tiniest of things can grow into something huge. The parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price show us that the Kingdom of heaven is worth our lives. God is worthy of our absolute trust. The parable of the net reminds us God will make all things right in the end.
Did the disciples understand? They thought they did, but then at the first moment when their faith was tested, they didn’t trust God. Instead of believing in God’s radical generosity or the truth that a little can be become great, they were ready to push away the opportunity to see God’s grace in action by sending the people away.
Jesus took the five loaves and two fishes, blessed them and then gave them to the disciples to give to the crowd. When it was over, not only had everyone eaten enough to be satisfied, they collected twelve baskets of leftover bread.
Jesus’ radical generosity almost seems wasteful. He miraculously fed thousands of people with a hearty meal of fish and bread with baskets full of leftovers. What did they do with that extra bread? Was it used to feed the poor or did it go to waste? The story does not answer that question. What we do see, however, is that God is radically generous. He doesn’t give out of some misplaced motivation, He meets people’s most basic needs, but He also does so with incredible extravagance. When it comes to all His gifts, we see in this story how there are always leftovers: something to share. He blesses us with gifts, some spiritual some very mundane, but all are meant to be shared with the world. Our joy, our resources, our spiritual gifts are given in far greater quantity than we will ever need. In Christ we can be radically generous, too, sharing the love of God with the world.
If we work together, we can certainly change lives. If we all put our little bits together, our resources will be magnified. If we follow Jesus’ command, “You feed them” trusting in God’s promises, we’ll find we can do amazing things. But we’ve given up. We’ve accepted the lie that it would be a waste of time to even try. We are like the old man, thinking that we can’t possibly make a difference, so we don’t. We are no different than the disciples. We want to send the people away. But Jesus says, “You feed them.”
We can make it happen. We can make a difference for one, two, or even five thousand. If each person ensured the well-being of our neighbors, or even our families, they would not have to turn to strangers for help. If we make it a habit to prepare for hard times, we’ll have enough to share when the need presents itself. An extra can of tuna fish or a ten dollar gift card might seem like much, but Jesus has promised to bless our work. A few loaves of bread can’t feed a thousand, but it can if we trust God.
In today’s Old Testament lesson, Isaiah was speaking to the exiled Israelites with a promise from God. In the previous chapter, God’s promise was for the rebuilding of the Temple. The invitation in today’s lesson is for the feast that will come after: the dedication feast. Isn’t it a bit strange that this passage would instruct us to buy while also telling us it is without cost?
The fifth definition for the word ‘buy’ in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is “to accept or believe” as in “I don’t buy that explanation.” Can you imagine the people to whom Isaiah is speaking these words and what they must have been thinking? They were still in exile and their future was uncertain. They might have found it hard enough to believe that they would ever be free, let alone to believe that they would celebrate the restoration of Israel, the Temple and Jerusalem. To these people, Isaiah said, “Come, you who are thirsty.” God promised that they will be satisfied, not because of anything they can give to God, but because of His faithfulness.
Part of Israel’s problem is that they looked to other gods for their spiritual guidance. They accepted and believed – bought - the faith of those other gods. Isaiah says, “Why do you spend money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which doesn’t satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in richness.” Things are no different in today’s world. We insist on having more than enough, working to ensure that we will never suffer. This is true of our physical, emotional and spiritual needs.
We often get confused about what we need and what we desire. We need to eat. We desire more than a bite of every good and wonderful thing on the buffet. We need, even more, the Bread of life. We need Jesus Christ who fills us with more than food. He fills our hearts with the desire for the truly good things in life. He was sent from heaven to live, die and rise again to new life so we can freely live in the love and glory of the Most High God. It costs us nothing to partake in the bread and wine which is the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and in that meal we will be more than satisfied. The feeding of the five thousand shows us the miraculous and abundant grace of God, and serves as a foreshadowing of the greatest meal: the Eucharist. As the psalmist says, “Give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good; for his loving kindness endures forever.”
Paul was a Jew and he loved his people. He knew the blessings of being one of God’s people: the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the law, the worship, and the promise. Yet, he also knew that they were missing something: Jesus. It was a hard quandary for Paul, to know the people he loved did not know the assurance of faith in Christ, but also knowing that they were beloved of God. How do we deal with this dichotomy?
We struggle with the reality that we can’t help everyone who needs us and our resources. Paul struggled with his love for Israel and his desire for all to know Jesus. He wanted to save the whole nation of Israel; he even wished that he could give up his salvation for the sake of those he loved. Paul could only live in hope, trusting that only God could provide the salvation for the His people. Hope is a solid foundation for our life of faith. In hope we will have the courage to go into a place and share the Good News of God’s mercy and forgiveness despite the dangers we face. Jesus had no time to mourn the loss of His cousin or to settle His own fears of what might happen. He took God’s grace to others.
As we look at the world we often wonder how God is going to manage to fulfill His promises. The chaos and confusion is overwhelming. Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. There are far too many people who need our meager resources. Yet, God is faithful and His promises are true. There is still work to be done, people for whom God’s mercy has yet to be revealed. He has called us to give Him our five loaves and two fishes and has promised to make it feed thousands. He has invited us to scatter the seed and promised to make it grow. He has called us to give everything for the sake of His Kingdom and has promised that it will be worth our sacrifice.
The psalmist says, “[God] gives food to every creature; for his loving kindness endures forever.” There is always enough. The overflowing baskets of bread show us that God’s grace goes on and on. He can make five loaves and two fish feed thousands and He can make the ministry of twelve men go on for millennia. It continues with us today. We still eat that bread and we still hear God’s Word. We are strengthened for the journey and given everything we need to share with others. There are many who do not yet know Christ. It is up to us to share Him with them. God will have mercy on whom He will have mercy. He will forgive those whom He will forgive. He will give life to those whom He will give life.
Like Paul, we can hope for those who do not yet know Him. They might be our own people, our own family and neighbors. They might be complete strangers who are served by the fundraisers that demand our money. They might be people in foreign lands who hunger for bread and well as for Christ.
For us, the promise begins at the font, but it continues regularly as we join in the feast that God lays before us at the Lord’s Table. There we will be renewed and restored to go out into the world to invite those family members, neighbors and strangers to dine with us. The meal may seem sparse, but it is more than satisfying. It is there we meet God in a very real and tangible way and proclaim the life, death and resurrection of the One who gives us true life, eternal life, life in the presence and the Kingdom of God. His loving kindness endures forever, so let us give thanks for God’s radical generosity!
“Be strong and courageous. Don’t be afraid or scared of them; for Yahweh your God himself is who goes with you. He will not fail you nor forsake you.” Deuteronomy 31:6, WEB
Our cat Sammy is a scaredy-cat. I don’t know why, but he does not like when someone knocks on the door or rings the doorbell. He runs to the closet to hide. He might appear if the person stays in our house for a very long time, but he usually stays hidden until long after the person first came to the door. He does this even if it is just a delivery man who never even enters the house.
I don’t recall any reason why he should be afraid; his fear is exactly the opposite of his sister, who runs to the door when the bell rings. I think she hopes it will be someone with a purse. She loves to stick her nose inside and rub against them. Tigger will usually be curious about visitors, but tends to stay in the background, unafraid but not brave like Delilah.
I had a cat that had every reason to be afraid. LaToya was abandoned in a parking lot, found in a paper bag. I always suspected that she had been abused in her first few weeks of life. She was a kitten when she was found, barely old enough to be separated from her mother. She lived with me for a very long time; she moved several times, became part of Bruce’s life when we were married and saw the birth of our two children. Despite many years of love, she was afraid of strangers. Friends who visited our home in California could hardly believe we even had a cat. “You play with those cat toys on the floor, don’t you?” they used to joke.
We can’t know why our animals react the way they do. Sometimes we have a hard enough time understanding why we are afraid. I don’t consider myself a scaredy-cat, but there are moments when I want to run and hide in my closet just like Sammy. I’m sure we all have moments like that. We are afraid of being rejected or failing. We are afraid that the outcome will not be what we hope or expect.
Today’s passage comes just as Moses was about to send God’s people over the Jordan to the Promised Land. He could not go with them; they would have to follow Joshua to their new life. The people crossing into the Jordan had known nothing but the nomadic life of wandering in the wilderness. They were a new generation, they didn’t even remember Egypt. They would face enemies. They would fight wars. They would have to learn how to settle down and live in a new way. There was hope in the promise of God, but also fear. What if they failed?
Moses told the people to be strong and courageous. They could no longer rely on him, but they had no reason to fear. The God who had led them out of Egypt and through the wilderness would not abandon them. They did not need Moses; they had the One who chose Moses. He would be with them always. The same is true for us. We will face moments when we are unsure of our future. We might even be afraid to cross over to some new life. We can face it with faith, trusting that God will never fail or forsake us.
“So let a man think of us as Christ’s servants, and stewards of God’s mysteries. Here, moreover, it is required of stewards, that they be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you, or by man’s judgment. Yes, I don’t judge my own self. For I know nothing against myself. Yet I am not justified by this, but he who judges me is the Lord. Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each man will get his praise from God.” 1 Corinthians 4:1-5, WEB
One of the daytime judges constantly says, “Say it forget it, write it regret it.” She says this to the young people who put so much of their lives on social media. Many of them get into trouble because the posts provide proof for the other litigant’s case. Their words can easily be used against them.
A young girl was being interviewed on another type of show. She was an out-of-control daughter, stealing cars and doing drugs. She was even leading her younger sister down the same path. She denied that she was doing anything wrong and blamed her parents for all her troubles. She claimed she was protecting and guiding her younger sister in a good path. The interviewer showed pictures and videos from her social media. “How did you get that?” she asked, still claiming none of it was real. She continued to deny her guilt despite the evidence.
I read an article today with stories from Human Resources departments about how they found extremely interesting posts online about potential employees. Some companies are smart enough to do background checks and check references. They quickly discover the truth of resumes. A person can be charismatic, intelligent and seem incredibly qualified for a job while also hiding something that makes them less than ideal. At least a few were hired despite the uncertainty of the HR person. A quick look on social media confirmed their suspicions. Many HR departments have learned to look online early in the process to find that which is hidden so that they can avoid the problems that occur after hiring a questionable employee.
The Internet has made it easy to reveal much that is hidden, and most job resource companies encourage job seekers to purge their social media of anything that doesn’t look professional. That doesn’t always help because what goes on the Internet tends to stay there somewhere. Most of us don’t have the kind of things to hide that those litigants or that young lady don’t want seen, yet our posts can prove that we are not the right person for the job. Even the most innocent posts can cause a company to reject us as a candidate for a job.
Thank goodness God doesn’t dismiss us so easily. There is nothing that can be hidden from this God; He can see to the very depths of our souls and He loves us anyway. God brings all things out in the open – both our vices and our virtues. For those whose hearts are turned toward the Lord, the vices are transformed and the virtues are magnified so that the kingdom of God will be glorified in this world. For those whose hearts are hard, only the Gospel of Jesus Christ can make them soft. Let us pray for those who need to hear that message of forgiveness and mercy and ask God to use us as His servants, sharing Christ with the world so that they too might see Him and walk in the light. God is faithful. He brings to light the darkness and He makes things new with His love.
“Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee, and news about him spread through all the surrounding area. He taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all. He came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. He entered, as was his custom, into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. The book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. He opened the book, and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to heal the broken hearted, to proclaim release to the captives, recovering of sight to the blind, to deliver those who are crushed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.’ He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began to tell them, ‘Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All testified about him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth, and they said, ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’ He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will tell me this parable, “Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we have heard done at Capernaum, do also here in your hometown.”’ He said, ‘Most certainly I tell you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But truly I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land. Elijah was sent to none of them, except to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. There were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed, except Naaman, the Syrian.’ They were all filled with wrath in the synagogue, as they heard these things. They rose up, threw him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill that their city was built on, that they might throw him off the cliff. But he, passing through the middle of them, went his way.” Luke 4:16-30, WEB
Jesus began His ministry was about thirty years old. It began very quietly, with a miracle at a wedding; few people were even aware that something incredible happened. Jesus performed many miracles; He was popular as word of His miracles spread across the land. Eventually, He went home to Galilee for a visit and taught in their synagogues.
The people were amazed and pleased that their son Jesus of Nazareth had come to visit. They were seeing the fulfillment of prophecy. They wanted Jesus to give them everything they’d heard that was happening around His ministry. They thought that because He was their son, then He would give them more than He gave to anyone else. However, Jesus answered that He would be rejected like the other prophets. He knew they were expected all the wrong things from Jesus. The people were looking for something they thought was better.
Jesus told of two miracles performed by Elijah, when he fed the widow of Zarephath and cleansed the leper, Naaman of Syria. God’s provision and healing through Elijah came to Gentiles. Elijah was rejected because his people did not think that he should go to the other nations. Jesus warned the people of Nazareth that if they rejected Him, He would be sent to the Gentiles just like Elijah. They did reject Him and were so angered that they tried to throw Him over a cliff, but His time had not yet come to die.
Jesus came for those who would hear His message and believe. Many still reject Him today because they are looking for something different in a Savior. They want someone who is going to give them what they want, to put them ahead of others. But God does not confine His love to a select few. His mercy and redemption is given for all who hear.
“Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the lawyer of this world? Hasn’t God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For seeing that in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom didn’t know God, it was God’s good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching to save those who believe. For Jews ask for signs, Greeks seek after wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified; a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Greeks, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For you see your calling, brothers, that not many are wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, and not many noble; but God chose the foolish things of the world that he might put to shame those who are wise. God chose the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong; and God chose the lowly things of the world, and the things that are despised, and the things that are not, that he might bring to nothing the things that are: that no flesh should boast before God. Because of him, you are in Christ Jesus, who was made to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption: that, according as it is written, “He who boasts, let him boast in the Lord.” 1 Corinthians 1:20-31, WEB
I spent a few days last week in Nashville, Tennessee with my daughter. She lives entirely too far away from me, so it was nice to be able to spend time together. Nashville was out destination because it was the venue for my church’s national gathering. It was also convenient for her. We managed some time as tourists and enjoyed some of the unique offerings of Music City USA. We toured the state capital, visited the Musicians Hall of Fame at the Municipal auditorium, walked down Broadway, visited Centennial Park, ate some Bar-B-Que and took the backstage tour of the Grand Ole Opry. We enjoyed a bit of honky tonk and a fried baloney sandwich, went to the Duke’s of Hazard Museum and shopped for souvenirs at the Willie Nelson Museum.
Our purpose for being there, of course, was to participate in one of the activities at the gathering. The week was filled with many different events. There were conferences and workshops for young theologians, youth ministers and the women of the church. There was a Global Forum with representatives from all around the world, a theological conference and a Mission Festival to discuss discipleship and mission. The week ended with the business of the church. It was a week of seeing old friends and hearing about the many ways that faith us being lived in our world through our congregations and members.
My daughter and I attended the theological conference. Five academics presented lectures with the theme “Savior and Lord: Lectures on the Work of Christ.” The speakers talked about salvation and the life-giving sacrifice of Christ from a biblical point of view. This being the 500th anniversary year of Martin Luther’s nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses meant that they also looked at these topics from his point of view. One spoke on Luther’s understanding of Psalm 8, another looked at the Small Catechism as a prayer book that focuses our hearts and our minds on Jesus Christ.
I have to admit that I won’t be able to repeat much of what I heard during those five lectures. I am a fairly intelligent woman, but Im not an academic and the lectures were presented as theses, proofs and summaries. I always find it a bit difficult to follow when the theologians use “five dollar words” or bring out the Latin, Greek or Hebrew. I realized this year (this was my fourth time attending) that part of the problem is that I become confused when they use quotes, especially when the quote is from someone speaking the opposite of their point. I know I would do much better to read the essays, to take my time with the ideas being presented. Despite these problems, I enjoy these conferences and come out better for having listened.
These speakers are professional theologians. They think deeply about God and the Bible. They study the scriptures in ways that most Christians do not. This is their job, and they use their knowledge and research to teach others to think more deeply about God. It is important that we have theologians to understand and teach the scriptures so that we stay on the right path. God has spoken to us through the text and it is very, very easy for us to read what He has said the way we want it to be said rather than as He meant it to be said. We are always just one twist of the Word from heresy, and Satan is constantly twisting God’s Word to lead us astray.
Now, while those speakers are professional theologians, every Christian should also think deeply about God. We don’t need to use five dollar words or speak the ancient languages to study the scriptures given to us by God. The thing we must remember is that the place to begin all our thought is with prayer. One of the speakers said, “Prayer is the making of a theologian.” His point was that prayer sets every Christian on the path of thinking deeply about God. It is where we begin having a deeper, fuller, more complete life of faith. It builds our relationship with the One about whom we are thinking. This God we are chasing is beyond our reach; the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. Yet we are invited to sit at His feet, to hear His Word and to consider what it means for our lives today.
We don’t become theologians to become great but to grow closer to the One who is our God. This begins with prayer, the conversation that takes place as we kneel at the throne of God laying before Him our hopes and fears, our joys and sorrows, our life and love.
Scriptures for Sunday, August 20, 2017, Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Psalm 67; Romans 11:1-2a, 13-15, 28-32; Matthew 15:21-28
“Maintain justice, and do what is right; for my salvation is near, and my righteousness will soon be revealed.” Isaiah 56:1, WEB
I’ve heard people say about someone, “He (or she) looks like a Christian.” What does a Christian look like? Does it have to do with what they wear? Can race, nationality, physical features or gender act as identifying marks? Does wearing a piece of jewelry with a cross mean a person is a Christian? We all know the answer to these questions. Of course, there are some outward signs that may make a person’s faith obvious. Certain communities require certain clothing. Some kids love the faith t-shirts they can wear. But the outward signs do not guarantee commitment to God. A person can be a Christian without wearing a t-shirt saying so.
For those in Isaiah’s day, the identifying mark of God’s people was national and religious heritage. The Jews were Jews because of where and who they came from, not who they were. That’s what they thought. Through Isaiah, God told them that it was not their race or nationality, or any other outwardly identifying marks, which makes them people of God. The ones whom God will embrace, whose sacrifices God will accept are those who do justice, who wear righteousness and obedience, and are found joyfully worshipping in the Temple. It doesn’t matter what they wear, whether or not they can pinpoint their genealogical line. God sees their hearts, and the world sees that they live according to the ways of the God of Israel.
What does this mean? Ask two Christians to define justice and you’ll hear two different answers. The elephant in the room as pastors are preparing their sermons for this Sunday is the horrific tragedy of last weekend. Though some, many, addressed it this past Sunday, the text for this week comes at a moment when we can’t ignore God’s voice in the midst of it all. Both sides of the present divide believe that they are fighting for justice. Unfortunately, I think the reality is that neither side truly knows what God means when He says, “Maintain justice.” Justice is not “I will get what I want or what I think I deserve,” but rather about making God’s world whole again. Hatred and violence will never make the world whole again. And there is hatred and violence on both “sides.”
Unfortunately, by the time Jesus lived, the identifying mark of the Jews was whether or not they could obey the laws, or rather the interpretation of the laws. The laws became the rules for identifying someone as righteous and only the righteous were part of God’s people. Obedience was a sign of righteousness. If people did not do as they were required by the interpretation of the laws provided by the temple leaders, 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 Jews did not fellowship with Gentiles or an unclean Jew. They were unclean because they were sinners and the righteous were not allowed to be in fellowship with sinners.
Is that any different than what we are doing to one another today? Don’t we point our fingers at “the other” and claim they are the sinners. We believe that our cause is right and they are not only wrong, but evil. We use God’s Word to prove our point, but the paradox is that they do too. We can all point to a proof text that shows our righteousness; so can they. We all forget that we are as fallen as our neighbor. None of us are perfect; we all fail to live up to the expectations of our God. There are none who are innocent; we would do well to recognize our own fault in the brokenness of our world.
A woman, a foreigner, cried out to Jesus for help. She was “the other.” The woman in today’s passage did 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. Was she married? Was she wealthy or poor? Was she respected among her people or is she an outcast? All we know is that her daughter was possessed and she was desperate.
She yelled to Jesus, “Have mercy,” but Jesus did nothing. He ignored the plea. 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 wasn’t sent to anyone but the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He rejected her, but His words brought her closer; she saw the open door and she entered into His presence. She asked again. He answered, “It is not appropriate to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” We are shocked and bothered by Jesus’ interaction with the woman. This is not what we expect from the Lord of Love. It was, in an ancient sense, a bigoted response. The Jews called the gentiles dogs.
In chapter 15 of Matthew, Jesus tells it as He sees it. The Jewish people, especially the leaders, were no longer living faithfully according to God’s Word, but were following a bunch of self-righteous rules. Justice was not according to God’s intent, but what they thought they deserved. 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. They claimed it was honoring God, but by dishonoring fathers and mothers it was really dishonoring God.
Jesus answered as would be expected of someone in His position. He 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.
Jesus did not send her away as they advised. Instead, He continued the exchange, leading her into a confession of faith. She was not a Jew; she was not marked by the covenant or bound by the Law. The disciples were Jews and had the advantage of being born into that covenant. They knew the Law and lived rightly and yet last week Jesus said they had little faith. The self-righteous Pharisees were rebuked for misusing the Law for their own benefit. They may have looked faithful, but God saw their hearts.
The woman in our story today probably looked much like the average Christian in our world today. Though a relatively high number of people in the United States claim they are Christian, a relatively small number of people actually appear to be one. Most Christians do not stand out in a crowd. As I look out my window at the homes in my neighborhood, I can’t say whether my neighbors are Christian or not. I am aware of a few who go to church. I know some of them do really great things in the community. Most would give me the shirt off their back if I needed it. But I doubt I would ever say, “Great is thy faith” to any of them. I’m sure my neighbors would think the same of me.
I confess that I would never say “Great is thy faith” to any of those who are perpetuating the present brokenness and divide in our world today. Though some may have marched or countermarched on Saturday because they believed it was demanded of them by God, I don’t see great faith in any of their lives. Hatred and violence does not come from God. The thing for us to remember is that somewhere in the midst of the horrific tragedy of last weekend is God saw their hearts. He knew the ones who were fighting for His justice in the world. He knew the ones who truly sought healing and wholeness to the brokenness.
The woman in today’s Gospel story was not part of the faith community. To the Jews she was “the other,” an outsider who came to Jesus to be healed. She must have heard about His power, perhaps she was even in one of the crowds who had heard Him preach. Maybe she was in the crowd that ate the fish and the bread in the miracle of the feeding of five thousand. The community (or at least the leaders themselves) thought that the Pharisees and teachers of the law were the faithful ones because they obeyed all the religious rules and did what tradition demanded of them, but they aren’t the ones to whom Jesus says, “Great is thy faith.”
Jesus said, “Great is thy faith” to this dog because 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 demon-possession. She probably understood that she was to blame; she accepted that blame and humbled herself before the Lord. She knew Jesus could fix it. “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat 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 those who wore the identifying marks of God’s covenant people. That is faith.
How hard must it have been for those Pharisees and teachers of the Law, who thought they had great faith, to see Him crediting this dog with a faith that was not obvious in their own lives? What about those disciples? They left homes and families and followed Jesus everywhere and yet in last week’s story about walking on the water in the storm, they had little faith. How could a foreign woman have great faith when they had little? In their failure to trust, the disciples learned that they, too, were sinners in need of a Savior.
She had great faith because she trusted in God even though she had no reason to think He would do anything for her. The disciples had everything going for them: they were Jews. They came from the right heritage. They believed in God. They knew the scriptures. They followed the Law. They followed Jesus. Surely their faith must be great! Jesus isn’t suggesting that she was better than the others, or that she was more deserving of God’s grace. Compared to the disciples and to the Pharisees, she didn’t have the credentials. She didn’t appear to be the right kind of person to receive God’s blessing. She simply had no reason to believe that God would do anything for her. Yet Jesus saw her faith and humility and held her up as an example of great faith. She doesn’t need the credentials; she only needs to believe.
God is not looking for people who have a certain appearance. 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’s graciousness will be revealed to all, including “the other.”
In today’s epistle lesson, 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 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. He has found comfort in the reality that Israel is God’s chosen people. They are blind for a moment, but Paul 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.
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.
The promises, like the one found in the passage from Isaiah, were meant for us. We don’t need special credentials to enter into the presence of God. Jesus Christ broke down all the barriers between people. In Him there is no difference in nationality, gender or race. Jesus Christ came in flesh to live and to die for our sake, to reconcile all of us to the God who has mercy. By faith we all become part of one family; we are made right by God and we are invited to share in the covenant promises no matter who we are.
There were Christians on that street Saturday. There were people who really were marching to make the world whole again. Unfortunately, we may never see their faces because the images of hatred and violence have become all-encompassing, as if the world were trying to magnify the divide rather than heal it. The truth is that Satan does want to continue the divide, and he will always push us toward hatred and violence. Jesus calls us to love.
The psalmist today joins with the congregation of believers singing praise to God. They seek God’s blessing on them, but unlike many of our self-centered and self-righteous prayers, they wanted to be blessed so that they could be a blessing. They wanted God to share His blessedness with them so that they could share it with the world. They wanted the entire world to sing His praise. This is the prayer that Jesus lived. As we recall our own sinfulness we will treat those who are “like dogs” with mercy, knowing that we too are unworthy of the crumbs we have been given. Sometimes we will be shocked by the people to whom we are called to share God’s message of hope and peace. Sometimes we’ll be offended by the way we learn the lessons of faith.
The faithful will live like the psalmist, singing praise to God and recognizing that 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.
“Preserve me, God, for in you do I take refuge. My soul, you have said to Yahweh, ‘You are my Lord. Apart from you I have no good thing.’ As for the saints who are in the earth, they are the excellent ones in whom is all my delight. Their sorrows shall be multiplied who give gifts to another god. Their drink offerings of blood I will not offer, nor take their names on my lips. Yahweh assigned my portion and my cup. You made my lot secure. The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places. Yes, I have a good inheritance. I will bless Yahweh, who has given me counsel. Yes, my heart instructs me in the night seasons. I have set Yahweh always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my tongue rejoices. My body shall also dwell in safety. For you will not leave my soul in Sheol, neither will you allow your holy one to see corruption. You will show me the path of life. In your presence is fullness of joy. In your right hand there are pleasures forever more.” Psalm 16, WEB
What is peace? We certainly can’t find it in the papers or on the nightly news programs. When we open the papers or turn on the TV we are bombarded with information from home and abroad of violence, destruction and loss of life. There seems to be no peace in our world today.
What is peace? Jesus knew peace. He didn’t live without threats of violence. One day the crowd tried to stone Him. The temple leaders accused Him of blasphemy and insurrection. He was crucified on the cross, a most horrific death. Yet, He faced large crowds of hungry people with only a few fish and some bread without worry. He touched the sick, spoke to the outcasts and loved the sinners. He faced His trial without fear; He spoke only the words necessary despite threats from His accusers. He had peace, the peace that comes from knowing God is close.
Jesus said “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, give I to you. Don’t let your heart be troubled, neither let it be fearful.” The world thinks of peace as a lack of violence. The battle cry of the day is “Pray for peace!” This is certainly a most worthy prayer. But what is the peace for which we praying? Peace is not just the lack of violence. Violence is brought on by a lack of peace; the unending cycle of attack and retaliation will only be stopped when the hearts of the warriors find true peace. We have that peace. Christ’s peace is the assurance that God is with us. We live in that peace singing praise and thanksgiving to God and we have been called to share that peace. As we share God’s Word, He works in the hearts of those who are lost in this troubled world and are seeking their own kind of peace with weapons and threats.
As you pray for peace today, do not pray only for an end to the death and destruction that is ruining many lives. Pray that those who live in violence will come to know the peace that passes all human understanding: Christ’s peace. When they have such peace, they will put down their weapons and learn to trust the promises of God. The world will never be completely free of violence, but the peace of Christ can set us on the path of hope and healing, forgiveness and joy.
“Therefore putting away falsehood, speak truth each one with his neighbor. For we are members of one another. ‘Be angry, and don’t sin.’ Don’t let the sun go down on your wrath, and don’t give place to the devil. Let him who stole steal no more; but rather let him labor, producing with his hands something that is good, that he may have something to give to him who has need. Let no corrupt speech proceed out of your mouth, but only what is good for building others up as the need may be, that it may give grace to those who hear. Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, outcry, and slander, be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving each other, just as God also in Christ forgave you.” Ephesians 4:25-32, WEB
I was amazed by the number of plugs in the room at the hotel where I stayed in Nashville. Along with the wall sockets, there were plugs on every lamp, on the night stand and even on the chaise lounge. The hotel had recently been renovated and they recognized the need. Everyone has so many electronic devices that need to be charged. I started carrying a multi plug adapter when I traveled to use when charging my camera batteries because older hotel rooms never had enough plugs. I had to unplug lamps or use the bathroom plugs. It was nice to not fight for plugs for my phone, tablet and other electronics.
In the early days of harnessed electricity, appliances needed to be directly connected to the wires in the wall; there were no easy plugs for electrical appliances. These were developed and patented in the early 20th century by Harvey Hubbell and then standardized in the U.S. a few years later. International travel is still problematic since they have different types of plugs. There are thirteen different configurations around the world. So, if you decide to go to Europe or Asia, Africa or Australia, do not bother taking your small appliances. A curling iron will not work because there is no way to plug it in. Of course, this is actually a safety issue also, since many foreign countries use a different voltage and frequency in their electricity. Plugging an American hairdryer into a European socket could cause a fire if it were possible to plug it in.
Today’s passage is filled with some difficult demands. Take for instance, the call to speak the truth. We may consider ourselves honest people, but everyone lies regularly, perhaps even daily. Most of us don’t tell the big lies, but how often do we twist the truth in the little things. “I’m fine,” is probably the most common lie. We don’t want to burden others, so we hide what makes us less than “fine.” Paul tells us to be angry without sinning, and so we say that we are fine, but the anger simmers until it explodes and then it makes us sin. It would be better to admit that we aren’t fine and deal with the issue that is making us angry. We can make similar observations about the other demands in today’s passage.
We find it difficult to live up to these demands. How many of us can actually say that no corrupt speech comes out of our mouths? Do you curse? Do you make negative comments? Do you whine or complain? None of those works build up our neighbors. While the level of our bitterness, wrath, anger, outcry, and slander might not be as bad as our neighbor, we are reminded that sin is sin. All fall short and need the grace of God.
Paul writes, “Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” This can also be translated, “Do not bring sorrow to God’s Holy Spirit.” Though these demands are difficult for us to live up to, we are reminded that as God’s people we have been given the Holy Spirit to help us. We have been sealed by God’s Spirit, made heirs to God’s kingdom. He connects us to Himself by His Spirit. Without Him, we could do nothing. Thankfully, God makes His Spirit more available than electricity in a hotel room; by His power we can always be “plugged in” and can everything that God has called us to be. We can be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving each other, just as God also in Christ forgave us.
“The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from Yahweh.” Proverbs 16:33, WEB
There was an episode on the “Big Bang Theory” during which Sheldon decided to use a Dungeons and Dragons dice to make all his trivial decisions. It began with a trip to the Cheesecake Factory. He rolled the dice and ended up with succotash for dinner. It didn’t end there, he even used the dice to decide whether or not to go to the bathroom, if he should grow a mustache and whether he can order dessert. Some of the decisions, like not wearing underwear, were not the best choices to make. When asked why he continued, Sheldon answered, “Because it’s working. In the past few weeks, unburdened by trivial decisions, I’ve co-authored two papers in notable peer-reviewed journals, and I’m close to figuring out why the Large Hadron Collider has yet to isolate the Higgs boson particle.”
The bottom line is that we really shouldn’t be making decisions based on the roll of the dice, and yet even the disciples did so. They cast lots to decide who should replace Judas as one of the twelve. For Sheldon, the experiment worked sometimes and didn’t work at other times. Trusting in luck or fate or coincidence is not a faithful way of living for Christians. The disciples did what they did trusting that God is in control, knowing that He would guide the dice to the right choice. It was a matter of faith.
Sometimes things happen in our lives that seem like luck, fate or coincidence, but as Christians we have a faith that God is in control. I’m sure we all have stories of what I call “Godincidences,” moments when something out of the ordinary happens that seems like a coincidence but also seems like it has been guided by unseen hands. Church potlucks are the perfect example; I’ve never been to a potluck that had only desserts or side dishes. I’ve made phone calls to friends at exactly the moment they needed a listening ear. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ended up in the right place at the right time. Maybe it is coincidence, but sometimes it is obvious that something else is happening.
I recently finished a painting for a friend. She had seen a photo of one I made with a frame and a cross covered in hymn music with decoupage. I picked through the hymnbook I’ve been using for the projects and chose bits and pieces with words that seemed appropriate. I did not know which hymns might be meaningful. I was amazed when I delivered the painting. My friend told me that a friend of hers had recently died, and several of the hymns I used were the ones they sang at her funeral. It was suddenly not just a pretty painting for her wall, but was a constant reminder of her beloved friend.
Coincidence? I don’t think so. To me it was a reminder that God really does care about the little things and that His hand is in the midst of all we do. I never know what sort of impact my work will have on the person who will own it, but I work with the faith that God has a plan. I don’t cast lots to make my choices, but I trust that God cares about my work and about the person who ultimately will find hope or inspiration in something I create.
“My son, if you will receive my words, and store up my commandments within you; so as to turn your ear to wisdom, and apply your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for discernment, and lift up your voice for understanding; if you seek her as silver, and search for her as for hidden treasures: then you will understand the fear of Yahweh, and find the knowledge of God. For Yahweh gives wisdom. Out of his mouth comes knowledge and understanding. He lays up sound wisdom for the upright. He is a shield to those who walk in integrity; that he may guard the paths of justice, and preserve the way of his saints. Then you will understand righteousness and justice, equity and every good path.” Proverbs 2:1-9 (WEB)
Researchers have long understood the value of using twins in medical and biological studies. Since identical twins are exactly the same, medicine and procedures can be tested to see if they truly make a difference. Since there are fewer variables between the subjects, the researchers can be more certain of the outcome of their research.
There was once a doctor who was fascinated by the study of twins. Even in university he wrote a paper about using twins for research. He was a well-bred man, often described as refined and intelligent. He became a doctor and was active in several civic organizations. He was quite popular and successful. Unfortunately, he was also a rabid racist, a German war criminal who participated in Auschwitz. As a matter of fact, Dr. Josef Mengele was known as “the angel of death.” He sent four hundred thousand Jews and Gypsies to their death in the gas chambers and he conducted horrific experiments on the prisoners. He welcomed every delivery of prisoners even when he was not on duty to ensure that all sets of twins were given for his research. He ensured that his ‘patients’ were treated better than others – they had a special dorm and enough rations to keep them healthy – but he never considered them human and did whatever he wanted to their bodies.
I doubt that Josef Mengele was the first to consider using twins for research, but it was a good idea that was used in a most horrible way. The gifts and wisdom of God were abused for all the wrong reasons and many suffered. In those days it seemed as though he was blessed. Ultimately, though, his life proved to be worthless. After the war he escaped to South America where he lived until 1979 when he died of a stroke. The papers from his research have never been found and what little we know about the findings from his studies is absolutely useless medically and scientifically. He is remembered only for the horror he brought to the world, for the waste and for his evil attitudes.
Dr. Josef Mengele sought wisdom, knowledge and understanding, but he did not look to God. He took an evil path for the sake of his desires, built up treasures that were worthless. He destroyed lives because he did not fear the Lord’s justice and in the end he paid the price for his wrong path.
As we look around the world, we wonder how so much evil can be so well received. How can the wicked be so blessed, popular and gifted? For a season it may seem that way, but if we do not seek the Lord’s wisdom, we never really find knowledge or understanding. Instead, we end up dead and our lives are meaningless. God calls us to listen, to hear His words and to obey His commands. When we seek Him and His wisdom, we walk a path of righteousness and justice and our ultimate end is eternal life with Christ.
Scriptures for Sunday, August 27, 2017, Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138; Romans 11:33-12:8; Matthew 16:13-20
“Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look on the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish away like smoke, and the earth will wear out like a garment; and its inhabitants will die in the same way: but my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will not be abolished.” Isaiah 51:6, WEB
Today’s Gospel text is a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. Matthew was a brilliant rabbi who did not just report the events surrounding Jesus’ life and ministry; he wove a story that pointed toward the purpose of Jesus’ life. In the first part, Matthew introduces us to Jesus. He tells us about His nativity and youth, as well as His relationship with John the Baptist. In the second part, Matthew shows Jesus proclaiming the message of His life, He is followed by the crowds and they see the parables in action. Jesus teaches and then gives the people a very real example of the lesson. The second part ends with today’s Gospel passage: the confession of Peter. From this point forward in Matthew’s story, Jesus will set His feet toward Jerusalem and the cross.
Peter’s confession is only the second time since the birth story in Matthew that Jesus was referred to as the Christ. The first time was when John was in prison; he sent his followers to Jesus to ask if He was the Messiah. Jesus told them to report to John what they had seen and heard. His identity as the Christ, the Messiah, was wrapped up in His ministry. It was the proof John needed. The healings and the stories revealed to the world that Jesus was the One for whom they waited. That was all any of them needed
The Pharisees and Sadducees recognized that there was something different about Jesus, but they were afraid. They didn’t want a king who would take away their power and authority. They demanded a sign from heaven, yet they had been given multiple signs. They didn’t want to see the truth because it would turn their world upside down.
Jesus’ question is one we still ask. “Who do you say that Jesus is?” We like to define Jesus as a good guy, a healer, teacher and prophet. We like to see His radical hospitality and His generosity. He is friend, brother, wonderworker. My Sunday school class has been looking at the many characteristics of Jesus, a study that lasted months because there is so much we can say about Him. He is the living water, the bread of life, the gate. He is the great high priest and the Lamb of God. He is all these things and more. We love to hear the stories and to study the lessons that have been recorded in the scriptures. Yet, no matter how much we believe and love Jesus, we all struggle with the reality that Jesus came to die. The signs may have revealed Jesus as the Messiah, but faith in His ministry would never have been enough to save us. Jesus Christ had to complete the work He was sent to do.
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 gaining the attention of the temple leaders. He had a following. 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 Christ, the Son of the living God.” For just one moment, Peter saw Jesus clearly and confessed faith in the Savior of the world. It wasn’t of his own doing.
Jesus answered Peter’s confession, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, 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.
Note that Jesus addresses Peter as Simon Bar Jonah in His answer. Peter is the son of a man named John; Jonah as a variant of that name. By using this formal title, Jesus accentuates the truth of Peter’s confession. Jesus is the Son of God, the Christ who came to dwell among for a purpose.
In today’s Old Testament passage, God says, “Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look on the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish away like smoke, and the earth will wear out like a garment; and its inhabitants will die in the same way: but my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will not be abolished.” We don’t need another earthly king; we need a Savior.
Peter confessed his faith that Jesus is Lord, but Jesus’ relationship with the people went downhill from that moment. They want something different than what He is willing to give. The miracles and stories continue, but they are more pointed as Jesus moves toward the cross. Jesus refuses to be what they want: an earthly king that meets their physical needs. He is the Anointed One who will fulfill all God’s promises.
The image of rocks from Isaiah reminds me of the many historical ruins we visited while living in England. We also visited buildings that were still standing, some a thousand years old. Yet, there was something particularly poignant about the sites that were left bare from years of destruction, neglect and theft.
The abbey in Bury St. Edmunds was one of the most popular pilgrimage sites for many years. Edmund was a hero of the British people because in the middle of the ninth century he stood up against the Danes to save his throne and the Christian faith; the people went to see his relics. The Danes viciously tortured and killed him, then went on to ravage the land.
The abbey built in his honor was a grand complex with a magnificent church more than five hundred feet long and two hundred feet wide. There were also many other buildings used for the business of the abbey. Today there is little more than foundational footprints left behind. My visit to those ruins helped me understand the methods the medieval builders used to create the abbeys and churches we still visit today.
The builders wanted to create thick walls that would survive weather, enemies and time. They also wanted the buildings to be impressive, with the most beautiful stone, carvings and towers. All this cost money and though the abbey had great wealth they did not limit their desires to what they could afford. They were no different than us today. It seems to be human nature to always reach just beyond our resources so that we can have bigger and better things.
The cost was too great to make the entire building out of the best stone, so instead of making walls solid with hewn stone, they laid a foundation, built a layer of the fine crafted stone on the outside and inside of the wall and then filled between these layers a mixture of mortar and discarded stone. Though the walls were several feet thick, only a foot or so of expensive stone was used to create the beautiful face. The garbage in the middle was never seen until the abbey fell. The abbey was eventually left to the ravages of weather, enemies and time. The beautiful stone was stolen to be used in other buildings and the mortared garbage was left behind. No one wanted the junk, they just wanted to beautiful stone. They walls now look like statues of cobblestone towers.
Isaiah uses the image of God’s people being stone, like rocks hewn from a quarry. He reminds the people to look to the foundation of their faith, to their father Abraham and mother Sarah. God’s people were founded in the promises given to them. Though Abraham was old, God provided him with a son that would become the father of many. Those promises were given to us, too; the foundation of our faith was started with our father Abraham.
None of us look like stones hewn from a quarry or the beautiful buildings that were built with that stone. We are far more like the mortar and discarded stone, the garbage left behind. We look like the cobblestone towers left behind in the ruins of the abbey. We are sinners and no matter how good we seem to look, we can’t hide from our Father what is our hearts. 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 left them in ruins, the beautiful facade stolen away over time.
The passage from Isaiah offers a promise, not only to the people in his day, but to us even today. Isaiah writes, “For Yahweh has comforted Zion. He has comforted all her waste places, and has made her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of Yahweh. Joy and gladness will be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody.” The passage points to a future promise that was fulfilled in Jesus. “My righteousness is near. My salvation has gone out, and my arms will judge the peoples. The islands will wait for me, and they will trust my arm.” We are called to look toward the heavens and rest in the promise that God’s answer to our worries and fears is eternal. We might appear to be nothing more than the garbage the builders used to make the walls of those ancient cathedrals look bigger, but we are stones hewn by God Himself. He has given us what we need to inherit His Kingdom forever. He has revealed Jesus as the Christ to us so that we will believe.
Peter seems to stand alone as he makes his confession of faith, but while he was the first, Peter is also standing in for the whole body of Christ. The other disciples may have come to the realization at a later time, but all but Judas eventually came to understand Jesus and His purpose. The disciples saw Jesus as the revealed Word of God in flesh, the Savior, the Son. They became sons of God by faith, hewn by God's own hand.
God covers all our garbage by clothing us with Christ, but this is not just attributed to the individual. Paul reminds us that our faith brings us into relationship with Christ and also with others who are in Christ. We are made into one body. On the foundation of the promises of God, the hewn stone of Jesus Christ is laid and we are poured into the walls, coming together as one Church through one faith and one baptism.
Paul reminds us not to think too highly of ourselves. Paul 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. What would we be without one another?
Although today’s psalm has similar language to the Davidic psalms, most experts suggest that it was written after the exiles returned to Jerusalem. Singing a song of praise brought the singer into the presence of God. He dwells where His name dwells. He dwells in the hearts and on the lips of the faithful who sing about His goodness. As they sing, they not only show their praise to God, but they reveal His wondrous goodness to the world. Thus, God is made known to those who have not believed through the praise and thanksgiving of God’s people. All the other gods are brought low as the Mighty One is raised high.
The psalmist speaks about God’s name because He is where His name is spoken. God dwells amongst those who remember His goodness and pray for His continued care. He helps the poor and humble, raises the lowly and sets the prisoners free. The psalmist reminds us that God brings down those who raise themselves up and stands far off from those who are haughty.
We are reminded in today’s passage that God’s glory is different from that of the world. It is a spectacular glory not in our accomplishments but in our faith. As we sing praise to God, He is glorified. He is found dwelling wherever His name is praised. Amongst His people, even in their times of trouble, His glory shines for the world to see. We are blessed and the world is blessed as we shine God’s glory into their lives.
We are Easter people, living because Jesus finished the work He was sent to do. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ has been revealed to us and we can know who Jesus is and understand what He means to us today. He still asks us the two questions. He asks, “Who does the world say that I am.” There are a thousand different answers to this question. To the world He was a teacher, a rabbi, a miracle worker and a good man. He was a radical willing to stand up against the injustice of His day. He’s a friend, a comforter, a guide whose example we would do well to follow. But the question that truly matters is the one He asks each of us, “Who do you say that I am?” Our answer, and how we live out that answer in this world, is all that really matters.
We can never 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. It begins with the humble realization that we are little more than the garbage that filled the walls of the abbey church, sinners in desperate need of a Savior. Believing in Him also means that we are covered with His righteousness, the beautiful hewn stones from the quarry.
Our faith is built on the foundation which Jesus laid; we are blessed with the salvation that comes through Jesus Christ our Lord. It is there we find the strength to live and love and rejoice. Our earthly troubles, whatever they may be, are temporary because God has promised that His salvation is eternal.
God revealed to those first disciples that Jesus was the Word which was exalted above all else. They might have wondered about Jesus, His identity and purpose, but everything changed once He was revealed as the Christ. They began a new journey that would lead them into danger. Despite his confession Peter will fail miserably, but he was given a measure of faith that did not fail in the end. The disciples joined in the chorus of praise to God, “Though I walk in the middle of trouble, you will revive me. You will stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies. Your right hand will save me.” We can rest in this promise, too, for God is faithful.
“Purify me with hyssop, and I will be clean. Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness, that the bones which you have broken may rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all of my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a right spirit within me. Don’t throw me from your presence, and don’t take your holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation. Uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways. Sinners shall be converted to you. Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, the God of my salvation. My tongue shall sing aloud of your righteousness. Lord, open my lips. My mouth shall declare your praise. For you don’t delight in sacrifice, or else I would give it. You have no pleasure in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Psalm 51:7-17, WEB
I love Texas. We are so blessed for having ended up here. Oh, it isn’t perfect. No place is. The weather can get rather warm in the summer. Storms can be extreme. There are those who would say that Texans are arrogant; perhaps it is true, but it is hard to be humble when you live in the best place in the world. (I’m being facetious.) Texas is thought to be barren, but you wouldn’t say that if you visited the Hill Country in spring when the wildflowers cover the fields with every possible color. The food is a delightful blend between barbeque and Mexican. The people are friendly. The variety of places to visit is incredible. That’s why I want people to come visit me. I want to take them to see the Alamo and the River walk. There are painted churches and German settlements. There is history, art and nature to see and experience. I love it so much that I want to share.
That’s the way it is when you find something great: you want to share it with someone else. Word of mouth is the one way many restaurants and stores get new clientele. This is why it is so important for the employees to be friendly and helpful. If a customer is satisfied, they are likely to tell all their friends and neighbors, building business. This is also true of the things we buy. I have had people in the grocery store ask me what I think of a product; I often take the time to rave about a product, to make suggestions about how to prepare and serve the item. I was happy and I shared my happiness.
Sadly, we are quick to recommend a diet soda or prepared meal, but we are much too silent when it comes to the things of faith. I don’t know why we are not very good witnesses to the love of Christ. After all He has given us the greatest gift of all. He has made us heirs to the Kingdom of God, saved us for eternity from our sins and death. We rejoice in our salvation, but not so much that we are calling out to our neighbor to share the Good News with them.
There are times when we do talk about our faith, but we are generally hesitant, not wanting to insult or offend our neighbor. We think proclaiming God’s Word, preaching the Gospel, is a job meant only for those who are trained or called to specific jobs in the church. We let them take care of the evangelism because they are more versed in the subject and can quote the Bible much better than we. However, in Christ we are all given the Spirit and we can gain the knowledge we need with His help. We can read the Bible and know enough to teach those who are lost in darkness about the Light of the World.
The psalmist was so overjoyed by the salvation of God that he was excited about sharing the message of forgiveness with others. The saving grace of God makes us into a new creation, filled to the rim with the love of Christ. We are more than willing to commend a product to a friend, why don’t we do the same with this great gift? That which Christ has done gives us the strength, courage, love, hope, peace and joy that should be overflowing into the hearts and lives of others. With the gifts He gives, we go out into the world to teach sinners about the forgiveness found on the cross of our Lord Jesus. We take the Word of God to them that they might repent, turn to Him and be saved. God does not want us to hide this Good News, but to give ourselves fully over to it for the sake of the world.
“A certain ruler asked him, saying, ‘Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus asked him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good, except one - God. You know the commandments: “Don’t commit adultery,” “Don’t murder,” “Don’t steal,” “Don’t give false testimony,” “Honor your father and your mother.”’ He said, ‘I have observed all these things from my youth up.’ When Jesus heard these things, he said to him, ‘You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have, and distribute it to the poor. You will have treasure in heaven. Come, follow me.’ But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was very rich. Jesus, seeing that he became very sad, said, ‘How hard it is for those who have riches to enter into God’s Kingdom! For it is easier for a camel to enter in through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into God’s Kingdom.’ Those who heard it said, ‘Then who can be saved? But he said, ‘The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.’” Luke 18:18-27, WEB
Paul wrote many letters to the congregations that he planted during his missionary journeys. He wrote the letters to help the new Christians grow in faith and discipleship. He addressed issues in the congregations. He encouraged the Christians. We still read his words today and look to them for wisdom for our own lives and churches. His words sometimes seem easy. We can certainly love our neighbors in word and in deed, particularly when our neighbors are loveable. However, our neighbors are not always lovable. Sometimes they are wicked and hateful. We can put others first, especially those we love, but there are times when we are selfish and self-centered, needing to take care of ourselves before we can meet the needs of those around us.
We can speak the words of love and blessing about our enemies, but it is much harder to offer forgiveness and prayers for their sake. We can persevere in times of trial if the trials are not overwhelming. We are humble about many things, but we are also proud and arrogant. We can agree when everyone agrees with us. We can be at peace with those who are peaceful. Paul asks us to feed our enemies and give them drink. In this way we overcome evil with goodness. This is all easy to say and even easy to agree to obey, but it is not so easy to make it real in our lives. As a matter of fact, I am sure that while we all desire to live this wonderful godly life that Paul describes, there are none of us who are able to do so without falling in some way.
As we read the words in the context of the passage from Paul, it seems possible that we can follow. In the grand scheme of things, we do love our neighbors and try to treat people with mercy and grace. Yet, have we lived up to this godly life when we grumble about our neighbor whose music is too loud at night? Do we always rejoice with those that rejoice and weep with those that weep? Are we ever proud, vengeful or impatient? Do we always pray and serve as we ought? When we take these encouragements one at a time, we realize that this is an impossible task.
We are not called into a relationship with Jesus Christ so that we will be perfect. We are brought into His presence by the power of the Holy Spirit through His grace so that we will be made perfect through His Word as we journey in faith. It is not an immediate transformation, but rather a transformation that takes a lifetime. In the end, God has and will overcome all our sin by the blood of Jesus Christ and we will spend eternity living in His presence. We live in a world that is full of sin, including our own flesh. We don’t overcome that evil with our own wills, but by the grace of God.
Throughout his letters, Paul encourages us to live a more godly life. We need to recognize our own inability to be obedient. We will fail. We will grumble. We will forget to love and serve. We will be unmerciful. We will be disobedient. However, we will also be forgiven and sanctified so that we can try again to live as God calls us to live. The ruler was able to keep the law, but when asked to go beyond his own expectation of righteousness, he knew he could not do it. Unfortunately, he walked away from Jesus. Instead of giving up hope, let us look to God for help when we find ourselves faced with the impossible. He can overcome our sin by His grace.
“Now may the God of peace, who brought again from the dead the great shepherd of the sheep with the blood of an eternal covenant, our Lord Jesus, make you complete in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” Hebrews 13:20-21, WEB
We’ve had a little rain in Texas this weekend. I don’t mean to sound facetious: the devastation that is occurring in the Houston and Gulf coast region is heartbreaking. San Antonio, thankfully, did not receive the brunt of the storm; we are breathing a sigh of relief. Hurricane Harvey made a slight change in direction at the last minute, and we ended up on the dry side of the storm. Hurricanes are notoriously unpredictable; it only takes the slightest turn to change the circumstances. Our prayers changed, too, as we began focusing on our friends who are struggling to hold their lives together in those places that have been impacted. It is going to take years for some of the people who have suffered to return to normal.
If ever there is a silver lining in any storm it is this: people are helping people. We’ve all seen photos of rescuers helping those who need rescuing. Oh, we’ve seen the bad pictures, too, of the destruction and the ongoing flooding. Yet, we are drawn to the pictures of those who are showing kindness to those in need. There are pictures of people with boats who have saved families trapped in homes. There are photos of people caring for stray animals to safety. There are photos of men working together to carry wheelchair bound patients out of nursing homes. I saw a video of a convoy of trucks from a grocery chain that was headed to help feed the hungry and take medicine to the sick.
I’m sure the same can be said about people in other places that have dealt with natural disaster, but I must confess that Texans are rather proud of our generosity and willingness to help. We don’t think twice about jumping in to lend a helping hand, and if we are too far to help in body, we willingly give cash and supplies to relieve the pain. I saw many people on Facebook opening their homes or barns to offer refuge to those fleeing the storm as it churned over the gulf and made landfall a few days ago. They weren’t looking for any gain; I even saw one horse lover willing to pay for the food and care of any animals left in her care.
Oh, I know, not everyone is so generous. I saw pictures, too, of the price gouging that was happening; $99 for a case of water is beyond ridiculous. Prices for ice and gas were raised, too. I saw photos of two women with a truck looting the damaged homes on the shore. They were probably not the only ones. Several cities on the coast are like ghost towns until the officials can repair the infrastructure. Though there are curfews and emergency personnel working to protect the interests of the misplaced residents, they can’t stop everyone who is taking advantage of the situation.
Sadly, the harm is not just tangibly felt as many people are taking advantage of this situation to promote their ideological points of view. There is one photo of a man carrying two children from a flooding house, one under each arm. He was wading in about a foot of water. I saw the photo and blessed the man and prayed for the family of the children. A commenter on the photo made it about race. Until I saw the comment I didn’t even notice that it was a black man with white children. The commenter said, “You’ll never see it the other way,” claiming that no white man would ever save two black children. There are others who are trying to make a political point even while families are still being rescued from the rising waters.
Thankfully, those people are the minority, even if they are the loudest. One of the best posts I’ve seen is a grouping of pictures with people of every race and nationality helping one another with the caption, “America is not what happened in Charlottesville. America is what is happening in Houston.” This is what love is all about. What is interesting is that while people everywhere are praying for Houston and doing what they can, they are still going about their lives. The world continues to turn. For Texans, particularly those in the southeastern part of the state, they don’t have time to be offended or to blame anyone for their troubles. They are focused on taking care of one another.
If we did the same when times were not so bad, the world would be a better place. As someone said, however, if Katrina, Rita and Ike didn’t change us, Harvey won’t change us, either. It may take days, weeks or even months, but Americans will be divided again as soon as they don’t have the distraction of people in need. We forget that we always have neighbors in need. There are people who need our helping hand every day, whether it be physical, emotional or spiritual. Let’s not let go of the spirit that has risen in the wake of Hurricane Harvey and continue to reach out our hands to our neighbors. Let’s make this the disaster that changes us forever. Someone you know needs you today. Focus on them rather than on those who seek to divide. We’ll soon discover that we are truly glorifying the God of peace and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ with the good works He has worked through us.
“King Herod heard this, for his name had become known, and he said, ‘John the Baptizer has risen from the dead, and therefore these powers are at work in him.’ But others said, ‘He is Elijah.’ Others said, ‘He is a prophet, or like one of the prophets.’ But Herod, when he heard this, said, ‘This is John, whom I beheaded. He has risen from the dead.’ For Herod himself had sent out and arrested John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for he had married her. For John said to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife. Herodias set herself against him, and desired to kill him, but she couldn’t, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. When he heard him, he did many things, and he heard him gladly. Then a convenient day came, that Herod on his birthday made a supper for his nobles, the high officers, and the chief men of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias herself came in and danced, she pleased Herod and those sitting with him. The king said to the young lady, ‘Ask me whatever you want, and I will give it to you.’ He swore to her, ‘Whatever you shall ask of me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.’ She went out, and said to her mother, ‘What shall I ask?’ She said, ‘The head of John the Baptizer.’ She came in immediately with haste to the king, and asked, ‘I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptizer on a platter.’ The king was exceedingly sorry, but for the sake of his oaths, and of his dinner guests, he didn’t wish to refuse her. Immediately the king sent out a soldier of his guard, and commanded to bring John’s head, and he went and beheaded him in the prison, and brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the young lady; and the young lady gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard this, they came and took up his corpse, and laid it in a tomb.” Mark 6:14-29, WEB
John said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
John had a huge following until Jesus gained popularity. John the Baptist heralded the coming of the Christ, proclaiming the kingdom of God and calling for the repentance of the people. He was sent first to warn the Jews that they must turn back to God or they would miss the Messiah for whom they were waiting. The Jews were longing for deliverance; they wanted to be freed from the Romans that bound and oppressed them in that age. Yet, they did not realize they were bound by an even harsher master: sin and death. It was not an earthly kingdom that was coming, but God’s kingdom and the salvation that was to be offered was not for the flesh. Jesus Christ brought eternal life to those who believe and John the Baptist prepared the way.
Yet, a time came when John had to decrease. It would have been much better if John could have just retired to the wilderness, but John’s life ended in a horrific and pointless way.
In most things, Mark’s Gospel is a rapid, almost journalistic accounting of the events surrounding the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. In this story, however, Mark adds a side-note about the beheading of John the Baptist. It is not enough to imply Herod’s judgment against John; Mark tells us the whole story. Mark tells us about the rumors about Jesus, that He might be a prophet, or even Elijah. Herod fears that Jesus is John raised from the dead. We might wonder how that could be, but it makes sense. Jesus only became widely known after John was beheaded and He was doing things that no man could do. He came out of nowhere, so it seemed, and Herod worried that John came back to destroy him.
This is perhaps why Mark gives us a flashback to the story of John’s death. According to Mark, John preached against the unseemly relationship between Herod and Herodias, since she was his brother’s wife. Herodias wanted John dead. Herod willingly imprisoned John, but would not have him killed. Herod actually liked to listen to John and was afraid because John seemed to have an authority greater than his. Herodias waited for a convenient moment. It came when Herod was having a huge banquet with all the important people of his kingdom. Herodias’ daughter danced for them, and Herod was so besotted by her that he promised anything she desired. She asked her mother and they demanded John’s head. Herod feared John, but was more concerned about his image in the eyes of the great officials in his banqueting hall, so he had John beheaded and the head given to the girl on a platter.
I doubt the girl really appreciated the gift. She probably would have preferred jewels or dresses or a handsome husband. But she wanted to make her mother happy. Herodias’ hatred of John brought his life and ministry to an end. John decreased in the most dramatic way. As horrific as this story is, perhaps it was necessary for John to have a definitive end so that there would be no confusion as to who the disciples should follow. Some of John’s disciples were already moving toward Jesus, but without their leader, the rest could move on to the One who was the true Messiah. Of course, there was always confusion about the identity of Jesus and many did not believe in Him. But John accomplished his purpose: to make the way of the Lord.
Today we remember the beheading of John the Baptist. This story reminds us that hatred leads to horrific and pointless acts. It destroys life. Let us thank God for John’s ministry and praise God that Jesus increased in the days following so that He might accomplish His work of saving God’s people for eternity.
Scriptures for Sunday, September 3, 2017, Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost: Jeremiah 15:15-21; Psalm 26; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, for you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of men.” Matthew 16:21-28, WEB
Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” The rumors going around about Him were many. Some thought He was a prophet, others Elijah, yet others thought He was John the Baptist raised from the dead. It doesn’t make sense to us today, but they lived in another time. They were waiting for the Messiah, but nothing about Jesus fit their expectations. So, they put Him into the context of the Messiah, but perhaps as merely a messenger like John, preparing the people for the One who was yet to come. Even the disciples were confused. They were all looking for a military or political hero to defeat the Romans and restore Israel. Jesus would not be able to fulfill those expectations, so He must be something else.
However, Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter did not know this by his own power or intelligence. He was able to speak this confession by God’s grace. This was an incredible moment. It seems as though perhaps the disciples are finally beginning to understand and believe that Jesus is Lord. It was also the turning point of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ relationship with the people began to go downhill from there. He was of one mind now, moving toward the cross. His sermons and miracles continued, but they became more pointed. Jesus was not pointing to God’s Messiah as an earthly king to meet their physical needs. He was proving that He was the Promised One who would fulfill all God’s promises.
We see this story through hindsight, thinking that we would have been able to make the confession with our own power and intelligence; even now we like to try. However, we could not have done it ourselves. We like to seek our own righteousness, that’s why Jesus is more palatable as the kind of Messiah who offers a tangible salvation from our physical problems. We prefer the Jesus early in the book of Matthew. It becomes very uncomfortable when Jesus begins talking about death. Even the idea that Jesus is the Son of the Living God is too difficult for us to comprehend.
That’s why the words that came out of Peter’s mouth were not his own. Peter made the great confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus was overjoyed that Peter answered His question with those words. Despite the many rumors and guesses, Peter gave the true answer. Peter gave the only answer. Only the Christ, the Son of the Living God would be able to accomplish the work of God in this world. Only He could fulfill God’s promises and restore God’s people.
Jesus told Peter that He would build His church on that rock. We often debate over the meaning of this promise. Is Peter the rock? Is the confession the rock? I think the answer might be a little bit of both. Peter is the first to make that confession of faith, to declare the truth of who Jesus Christ really is. And yet, Peter isn’t better than the rest of us; he continued to fail. He continued to misunderstand Jesus. We see his greatest failure in today’s text. There is great comfort in knowing that Peter is just like you and I.
It is often hard for us to accept the Word of God. Though Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, he didn’t want to believe that Jesus had to die. It didn’t fit his expectations.
Prophets rarely have the opportunity to speak to people’s expectations. We are too self-centered to see God from His own point of view. Prophets are called to show the people what God really has to say. In last week’s lesson, Peter was the mouth of God, naming Jesus as the Messiah. This week, Peter is back to being himself, rebuking Jesus for the unacceptable.
Jeremiah’s message to his people was unacceptable to them. Jeremiah had a right to complain. God called him to a tough job. He had to preach a hard word to people who wanted to hear only warm fuzzies. He was persecuted for being the mouth of God. He suffered at the hands of his own people. He lived in fear for his life and his future, but he had no choice. He had to do what God called him to do. The book by his name is one of the most honest and personal of all the prophetic books in the bible as Jeremiah admitted to God and to those of us who read his words his unhappiness.
Throughout his book, Jeremiah makes several confessions, admitting to God his hurt and pain. In this passage, Jeremiah even says, “wilt thou indeed be unto me as a deceitful brook, as waters that fail?” This is a bold statement, blaming God for his heartache. He wants to know where God is in the midst of his troubles. Why has he been abandoned? Why hasn’t God done something! Jeremiah is disappointed in his God and is not afraid to admit it.
I wonder how many of us have felt the same in our own pain. I wonder how many of us have screamed “Why?” when we are faced with fear and doubt. Have you ever felt abandoned and alone? Have you turned your hurt and pain on God? I am sure we have all done this because we do not know who else to blame. Jeremiah could not take his complaints to the people because they would just see him as foolish and false. He had no family, no wife or children. He was alone, with only God as his companion. When he felt as if he had been abandoned by God, he felt he was completely alone in the world. That’s enough to make any of us complain.
Peter may not have known what was to come next, but he knew that he didn’t want to face it without Jesus. Jesus could not die, not only because that would defeat the purpose of His being the Messiah, but also because it would leave the disciples alone to sort out what God was doing in the world. He must have wondered if perhaps the rumors were correct; perhaps Jesus was just a messenger like John and the real Messiah was still waiting to be revealed.
When Jesus began to speak of His suffering and death, Peter took Him aside and said, “Far be it from you, Lord! This will never be done to you.” He didn’t believe it could happen, but he also thought that they had the power and the strength to protect Him. He didn’t know that they would have to battle God to stop what was to come. He simply responded with the raw emotions of one who wants to be in control during times of chaos.
Facebook has been surreal this week. I live in Texas, and though the storm only dropped a few inches of rain, we have friends who have been directly impacted by the wind, rain and flooding. Meanwhile, I have a friend who is on vacation in Hawaii. The pictures from the two places could not be more differently. In Hawaii, the waterfalls are beautifully flowing over the cliffs, while in Houston the bayous are rising onto streets and into homes. The crystal clear ocean is compared to the muck that surrounds homes. My friend’s vacation is a time of peace and tranquility while the storm left a huge part of Texas in chaos.
Thankfully there have been many who have worked to keep order. The first responders, the volunteers from everywhere, the organizations that were on the ground immediately have saved, housed and fed people who have lost their homes. Several cities are still without electricity or safe water. Rescue operations continue as the storm moves east. Schools are closed and some families wonder when they will even be able to return to begin the restoration of their lives. Sadly, there are some who have decided to take advantage of the chaos by looting. There is order, but there is also chaos.
It is tempting to react to the ordered chaos with our own power and intelligence. Many have demanded a church open as a shelter, though there are many reasons why they did not do so immediately. Reporters have been sticking microphones in the faces of those who are being rescued, though they just want to get out of the water and deal with their fear, grief and worry. Some people are taking advantage of the situation by establishing fundraisers to help using photos of people they found on the Internet. They have no intention of helping; they are scamming people who simply want to help. There are thousands who are asking, “Why?” and wondering where God has gone in the midst of this.
Peter didn’t know how to deal with the words Jesus was saying. Losing Jesus would be chaotic for the disciples. They would not know where to go or what to do. They needed Him to guide them. He was right in that; we do need God to keep us on the right track. However, we need to remember that even when things look chaotic, God is in control. God is in the hands and the hearts of those who have gone to help. He is in the trucks of supplies delivered from all over the country. He is in the neighbors who are checking on one another. He is in the generosity of every person who has dialed a charity to donate funds. We may not understand what God is doing, or why God has allowed this to happen, but we can trust that God does know how to bring order to the chaos and restoration for all that has been broken.
See, Jesus didn’t come to be that military or political hero. He came to restore God’s people to Himself. There only way that could happen is on the cross. Peter’s confession was the beginning of the end. It was a direction Peter did not want go.
Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, for you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of men.” Jesus said this because Peter was trying to convince Jesus to do His mission in a different way. Peter did not want Jesus to die, so he rebuked Jesus for talking about sacrifice and death. Peter was just seen having great faith, by the grace of God recognizing Jesus for who He was. Yet, in the next breath Peter’s thinking was lost to his own needs and wants.
Jesus was not saying that Peter was Satan, or even that Peter was trying to block Jesus’ mission. Peter had seen the reality of Jesus as the Christ by God’s grace, and by God’s power; he knew in his heart that Jesus was the Messiah. However, Peter his head held a much different expectation of how the Messiah would accomplish the work of God. Peter could not see the truth; something was ‘standing in his way.’ It was not something tangible that needed to get out of the way, but something intangible. Peter was not Satan, but Peter was not seeing Jesus clearly. His own expectations were in the way. Though Satan is a very real figure, we are reminded by Peter’s failure that anything that stands between us and God’s will is a temptation of Satan.
Jesus said “Get behind me, Satan” because Peter needed to put aside that which kept him from seeing Jesus clearly. Jesus had a path to take, and no matter how much we would rather God do things our way, we have to put aside our own expectations so that we aren’t standing in the way of God’s Work. We are n different than Peter; we are all failures when it comes to fully knowing what God intends, so we tell God the way it should be and we ignore that God really is in control.
In this Gospel story we see the real battle that rages: the battle between God and Satan, the spiritual battle that we ignore or refuse to believe exists. It is a battle that continues to be waged in every one of our lives. Will we trust God and believe Him or will we follow our own path, tempted down the one that seems easier, practical, contemporary, or academic? These are the things that Satan is whispering in our own ears, and when we listen we stop seeing Jesus as He is and start seeing Him through our own understanding and expectation.
The Gospel message, the message that salvation comes from spilled blood, is a hard one to take. We would rather our God restore the world by grasping onto the power that we want to give to Him through our works and our faith. We are like Peter, wishing God would do our bidding, provide for our every desire and ensure that we will never feel pain. However Jesus never promises them a life free of pain. As a matter of fact, Jesus tells His disciples that seeking after the glory will cause them to lose their life. Yet, if we lose our life for the sake of Christ, we will find true life.
The LORD answered Jeremiah, “Turn around and there you will see me. I’m right here with you. Times are tough but I will not abandon you. Speak what is good and you will see my hand do amazing things.” In his confession, Jeremiah was doing and saying what is worthless. Complaints do not change things. Accusations only make things worse. We all do it; it is part of our nature. Those of us who are honest admit that we do. But our complaints have no value. Even when things seem like they can’t get any worse, we find peace and hope in the precious words of God’s promises. Transformation comes from the utterance of God’s word. We may feel alone at the moment, but as we trust in God we will see His mercy and His grace in our lives and in the world. Sadly, Satan blocks our vision. Whether Satan is whispering in our ear, or we are listening to the other temptations around us, or we are following our own hearts, we can’t see God when we are too focused on ourselves. We can’t follow God if we are trying to make Him follow us. It is at those times when God says, “Repent, turn around. I’m here. Listen to me, not to them.” This is the cross we are called to carry, the cross that says, “I will do Your Will, O Lord, not mine.”
Today’s psalm is a prayer of one who has been falsely accused. David faced persecution from Saul because Saul knew that he was no longer in God’s favor. Saul suspected David of conspiring against him and did everything he could to demean David in the eyes of the people. The reality is that the accusations of Saul about David were a mirror to Saul’s soul. I once did a study on the word “seek” as it is found in the story of David and Saul. In every case, Saul sought after David while David sought after God. Saul wanted David dead; David wanted to follow God’s heart. We see that in the last verse of this passage as David says, “Yahweh, I love the habitation of your house, the place where your glory dwells.”
God is calling us to the life that seeks Him above all else, even if seeking Him puts us in a risky or dangerous place. His path may not be easy, but He is there with us. His path may lead to physical death, but He has promised a life that will last forever. When we die to self, we are free to live for Him.
The people in Jeremiah’s day did not like what Jeremiah had to say. They accused him of being a very bad man. The same can be said about David. They were persecuted by people who wanted their way, who wanted to do what they thought was right. Their truth was dependent on their desires and their motivation was totally self-serving. As we read passages like today’s psalm, it might seem as though David, and Jeremiah, are self-righteous as they talk about their goodness and seek God’s favor. Yet, this prayer is one of humble supplication before God, seeking His help in their troubles. We tend to respond to persecution and false accusation with a desire to vindicate ourselves, but David asks God to look at his life and do what is right according to His word. We are not asked to see David as a perfect person, or to see David as one more righteous than others. Instead, we see David’s example of faith in God’s mercy and justice and learn that even when we are being persecuted, we can still live the life God has called us to live, to keep our eyes on Him and trust that He will do what is right.
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 hope in 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 our way? 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 picking up our cross and following Jesus. We do so by laying down our lives for the sake of His Gospel and speaking God’s Word into the lives of all whether we want them to be saved or not. We trust in God by humbling ourselves before His throne of grace realizing that we ourselves have no reason to expect His incredible blessings on our lives. We do so when we stop paying attention to the things that distract us from seeing Jesus as He is.
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. There are those who will not want to hear. There are those who will stand in our way, especially Satan. We are reminded that we will not fully see God’s glory while we live in the flesh. We live in a world with ordered chaos, but we can trust that God is always faithful to His promise. Thanks to Jesus, who never turned from His path, we can believe that eternal life is ours even while this world seems out of control.
“The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies - in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” 1 Peter 4:7-11, WEB
A photo out of Houston has been making the rounds showing a long line of people waiting for something. The captain says, “This is Houston. Wanna know what this line is for? Food? Water? Housing? Nope. These are people waiting in line to VOLUNTEER.” It is an amazing photo showing the kindness of people whose hearts are broken by the disaster of Hurricane Harvey. This is happening all over the more than fifty counties in Texas that have been affected by the storm. People are sacrificing their time, their resources and even risking their lives to help.
Other photos show convoys of people with boats moving into the city to rescue those trapped by flood waters. The big Texas grocery store has sent dozens of trucks to provide hot meals and medicine to those in need. Shop owners whose businesses have remained dry are opening up to house first responders or to feed them. Neighbors are helping neighbors and people from all over the country are sending truck loads of water, cleaning products and diapers. The San Antonio Zoo is coordinating efforts to help the zoos and aquariums affected by the storm.
We are seeing so many pictures, even those who are far from here, that our hearts overflow with the desire to help. Houston is only two hundred miles from my house, and I have to admit that I feel a little helpless. I want to be there, to hold someone’s hand, to cook them a meal, to hand them a bottle of water. I’ve found ways to help. I’ve donated to several funds. I filled my trunk with supplies to send with a church group going to help. I’ve prayed. Even so, it doesn’t feel like enough. I’m sure there are many who are much farther from the epicenter of this disaster who feel even more helpless. You want to do more than make a monetary donation. You want to make a tangible difference, and perhaps feel guilty that all you can do is write a check.
Here’s the thing: right now the best thing you can do is to write that check and wait. Did you know that there are too many volunteers right now? It may seem unbelievable, but they are turning people away. “There can never be too many volunteers!” said one person in response. Actually, there can. See, volunteers for official operations have to be trained. While you could just go find someone to help, there are other problems. Each body in the disaster area will need to be fed and housed, victim and helper, taking away limited resources from those who are truly in need. Fuel is quickly becoming an issue, with gas stations as far away as Dallas are running out of fuel. It is difficult enough to get people around the city, how do you do so with so many extra people?
The thing to remember is that help will be needed for weeks, months or years to come. Did you know that groups are still going to New Orleans twelve years after Katrina? There will be plenty of ways to help for a very long time. You may not be able to get to Texas today, but the ten dollars you text to that charity will do incredible work. Then, perhaps when the adrenaline rush ends and the people rushing to help return to their normal lives, you can come and hold someone’s hand, cook them a meal, or hand them a bottle of water.
Also remember, mercy is needed in Texas today, but it could be in your neighborhood tomorrow. You might not be able to volunteer at a shelter in Houston, but there will be an opportunity for you on another day. When that happens, the people of Texas will feel as you do now, desiring to lend a hand when all we can do is write a check. We can glorify God by loving people as we are able in this moment, whether it is tangible or financial. Do not feel guilty that you are not doing enough; you are not helpless even if you are too far away. God has given gifts to be used in many different ways. Do what you can today and be ready to do what you can tomorrow, because God will give you the opportunity.