Welcome to the August 2020 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 2020
“Very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. They were saying among themselves, ‘Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?’ for it was very big. Looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back. Entering into the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were amazed. He said to them, ‘Don’t be amazed. You seek Jesus, the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen. He is not here. Behold, the place where they laid him! But go, tell his disciples and Peter, “He goes before you into Galilee. There you will see him, as he said to you.”’ They went out, and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come on them. They said nothing to anyone; for they were afraid.” Mark 16:2-8. WEB
Today we celebrate the lives and ministeries of the “myrrhbearers,” the women who went to prepare Jesus’ body on the morning after the Sabbath. His body had laid in the tomb long enough to make this a very uncomfortable experience. It does not take long for a dead body to smell. Jesus had been beaten and crucified. His body had bled, other fluids would have leaked, and His flesh would have already begun to decay. They also went at great personal risk because they did not know how the Romans or the Jews would react to them as followers of Jesus. Despite this reality, these women took the responsibility to do what was right for their Lord.
Three women are named: Joanna [the wife of Chuza, a steward in Herod’s household (Luke 8:3)], Mary [the mother of James (the son of Alphaeus)] and, Salome [the mother of the sons of Zebedee (Matthew 27:56)], with the other women. Jesus had a strong following of female disciples who helped with His ministry in resources and in service. They loved Jesus and rose early to take the spices to the garden tomb. They were still grieving, but women throughout the ages have found comfort in cleaning and anointing their loved ones’ bodies after death. They never expected to find it empty.
They were frightened by what they saw and heard that morning. Mark tells us that they fled and said nothing to anyone. Luke reports that the women did tell someone. A few additional verses in Mark tell us that Mary Magdalene did say something, but the authenticity of those verses is in question. Mark’s Gospel is open ended, putting it before his listeners the question, “What would you have done?” Obviously, someone told someone, because we have the Gospel two thousand years later, but would you have been so brave?
Where would we be today if those three women remained speechless because they are terrified and awestruck over the incredible events of that day? What would have happened if the disciples refused to believe what they said? The Gospels record numerous other appearances of Jesus and the reactions of those who saw Him. What if they had remained silent? Would we have faith today without their witness?
Those women were the first witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, and because they told someone, the Good News has been shared with so many others, generation after generation. Now, today, we are called to do the same. Mark invites us to ask ourselves the question, “What would you have done.” We know the Good News is meant to be shared, but how many times do we stay silent? Perhaps our reasoning is not as those women that day at the tomb. Perhaps we aren’t afraid or confused by it all. But we stay silent because we do not want to offend or be rejected. We often think we are not good enough to speak those marvelous words. But we need not be special to share the Good News of Christ; we need only to trust in God and believe all He has said is true. In faith we follow those women into the world with our own fears and confusing, trusting God and telling the story to all those who need to hear.
“Grace to you and peace be multiplied in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, seeing that his divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and virtue, by which he has granted to us his precious and exceedingly great promises; that through these you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world by lust. Yes, and for this very cause adding on your part all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence; and in moral excellence, knowledge; and in knowledge, self-control; and in self-control perseverance; and in perseverance godliness; and in godliness brotherly affection; and in brotherly affection, love. For if these things are yours and abound, they make you to not be idle or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these things is blind, seeing only what is near, having forgotten the cleansing from his old sins. Therefore, brothers, be more diligent to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never stumble. For thus you will be richly supplied with the entrance into the eternal Kingdom of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 1:2-11
I have been taking a walk almost every day since the pandemic began. My usual route takes me a mile, though I do occasionally take a shorter or a longer path. I have carried my camera with me, and I’m constantly looking for changes in the landscape of my neighborhood. I’ve gotten to know a few of my neighbors who are out at the same time. I acknowledge with a smile those who pass in their cars. I usually listen to some music as I walk, and some of the songs really give me a spring in my step. I have found inspiration in this little corner of the world and I’ve used the time to pray.
I usually walk on the road rather than the sidewalk because there are a lot of obstructions along the way. It also helps with social distancing when I come upon another walker. I keep to the left hand side of the road and stay as close to the curb as possible. I use the sidewalk when the roadway is not safe, but we don’t have very many cars on our streets, so it is easy to stay out of their way.
There is a spot on one of the roads that has been my nemesis over these past few months. The roads are made with asphalt, and while they generally do a good job laying down the material, sometimes a hunk will fall and they’ll miss it with the roller. There is such a lump on one of the streets. I know it is there. I’ve tripped over it more times than I would like to admit. I always wonder who might be watching out their windows when I stumble. I remind myself every day as I turn onto that road, “Remember the lump. Don’t stumble.” but I still do. It is never quite where I remember it is located. I pay attention too early, and then when I get distracted. That’s when it hits me, or I hit it. I’ve never fallen, but I am sure I’m a humorous sight when I trip. My walk is a very good habit, but my lack of attention is a bad one. It is a habit I would like to break!
God has invited us on a journey in this life, a journey of faith and service to His glory. We will come across stumbling blocks along the way, but Peter reminds us that God has given us everything good we need to follow the path God has ordained for us. He reminds us to live daily in the grace of God so that we will not lose the good habits we gain as we grow in faith. The virtues of faith - goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, kindness and love - are given by God and made stronger through diligence. We are sometimes distracted by the world which will make us stumble and keep these virtues from being manifested in our life. When we diligently live in faith, His light will shine in our lives and we will never doubt that we have received the promise of life in the eternal kingdom of God. Then we can walk our path, serve our God, and glorify Him as wait for that great and glorious day when we will be with Him forever.
Scriptures for Sunday, August 9, 2020, Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: Job 38:4-18; Psalm 18:1-6 (7-16); Romans 10:5-17; Matthew 14:22-33
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” Job 38:4a, WEB
Every generation has a “Where were you” question. Where were you when Pearl Harbor was bombed? Where were you when JFK was shot? Where were you when the astronauts walked on the moon? Where were you when the Challenger exploded? Where were you on 9/11? People can generally remember where they were when these history changing moments happened, or at least where they were when they heard about it.
We can ask the question about more personal events, too. Where were you when you met your spouse? Where were you when you proposed? Where were you married? Where were you when you decided what you wanted to be when you grew up? Where were you when you became a Christian? For those of us in the military, and other transient communities, knowing where we were helps us to remember when something happened. Where were we when Zack broke his finger? Where were we when we bought that piece of furniture? Knowing where we were helps us to remember when it was.
The question is also used in the courtroom. The lawyer will ask his client, “Where were you on the night this crime happened?” to establish an alibi for the accused. Questions are also used to help place the defendant at other crucial moments, like when a gun was purchased. The lawyer is trying to prove that the defendant could not be guilty because he or she was not there. The same questions might be asked by the prosecutor, too, as he or she tries to put the defendant in the right place at the right time, thus proving them guilty.
God asked this question of Job in today’s passage. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” In this case, the question is meant to establish that Job has no right to question the will and purpose of God. Job was not even a glimmer in his mother’s eye when God spoke creation into existence. God was before the beginning and will be after the end. Human beings are simply unable to know or understand everything about the God we worship. He wouldn’t be worthy of worship if we could.
It is especially hard when God allows terrible things to happen in our lives. We want to be angry. We want to go to court with God, to question Him, to insist on answers to our questions. But God reminds us that we weren’t there when He established the foundation of the earth and we’ll never fully understand Him. What seems to be bad from our point of view may lead to something beyond our imagination. We know that God is faithful. We can rest in God’s promises even when it seems like things are falling apart. Where were we when God laid the foundations of the earth? We did not yet exist in the flesh, but we were loved. Of this we can be sure.
I don’t know about you, but I sometimes wonder why this amazing God even knows about me. After all, I’m nothing. I’m a guppy in an ocean filled with whales. I confess, though, I also sometimes think the world revolves around me. I think I’m the most important person, that my opinion is the only one that matters. I suppose that first sentence is a bit of false humility, while the second is a matter of pride. It is human; we all have the same thoughts and feelings.
The names of the characters in the ancient myths and legends have often become words we use in our daily lives to describe things or people that are similar to those characters. Echo, for instance, was a woodland nymph that loved to use her voice. She sang and talked and always had the last word. One day a goddess was looking for her husband when she came across Echo. Echo, knowing her husband was cavorting with other woodland nymphs, held her in conversation until everyone was safe. When the goddess discovered the deception, she cursed her. From that day on Echo could only repeat someone else’s words.
Now, Echo met a young man named Narcissus who was very handsome. Many a nymph had fallen in love with him, only to be rejected. He refused to fall in love with anyone. Echo followed him in the hope that he might speak to her, since she could not speak first to him. One day the youth, alone in the woodlands, shouted out “Who’s here?” Echo replied, “Here.” Narcissus could not see the source of the voice so called, “Come.” Echo replied “Come.” Narcissus called again, “Why do you hide from me?” Echo replied with the same words. “Let us come together,” Narcissus called. Echo repeated the invitation, went to Narcissus, and flung herself into his arms. He was startled and yelled, “Get off, I would rather die than let you have me!” Echo repeated, “Have me.” But it was too late. Narcissus was gone and she was left alone. From that day on she lived hidden away in caves and withered until all that was left was her voice. She still has the last word and that is why we call an echo and echo.
Narcissus was another character whose name became a common word in our language. We all know what it means to be narcissistic. Narcissism is excessive love or admiration for oneself. It is self-centeredness. Narcissus was a beautiful young man who was beloved of all the woodland nymphs but he had no desire to fall in love and so rejected them all. At his birth, a prophet told his mother that he would live to a ripe old age if he never knew himself. One day, Narcissus was hunting in the woods when he became tired and thirsty. He knelt down next to a creek and saw his reflection for the first time. Thanks to a spell by Artemis, Narcissus was enraptured by the face he saw in the water. Eventually he realized that the face was his own and that he would never be able to possess the thing he loved the most. He was thus tortured in the same way he tortured all those whose love he had refused. He killed himself, the last self-centered thing any man can do.
We are all a bit narcissistic. As a matter of fact, it is a normal stage of growth in humans. As children we believe that the world revolves around us, that everything happens for our sake. It is often true because parents learn the necessity of giving up oneself for the sake of their offspring, at least for awhile. Some narcissism is healthy because it helps us to protect ourselves and to spur us on to follow our dreams. It can also have negative consequences, affecting our relationships in every aspect of our lives. When we make ourselves the center of our universe, we miss out on the possibilities this life has to offer. Some of the best opportunities we have are found in selflessness.
Our relationship with God is not the same as our relationship with others. We might not think it possible for a religious or faith life to be narcissistic, but it is in many cases. How many people change churches because they “weren’t being fed” at their old church. We might not directly ask the question “What is in it for me?” but we make decisions based on the impact it will have on our lives. When God calls us, do we go without concern for ourselves? Or are we like Narcissus, always looking back to ourselves, thinking only of ourselves?
I’m an artist, but not a commercial graphics designer. I have always been fascinated by logos, but I don’t have the talent for creating them. I don’t really like to sketch or draw; I prefer to slap big globs of paint on canvas and make pictures with bright shapes and colors. I also don’t have the creative insight to put a company’s identity or purpose into simple, eye catching shapes. It takes something special to create a logo that will have an impact for a company. It is amazing how subtle these things can be. Sometimes they are so subtle that you may not even realize there is something complex behind the simplicity.
I wonder who thought to put an arrow from the “A” to the “Z” in Amazon’s logo. The meaning, of course, is that Amazon has everything from A to Z. Sometimes the meaning is even less obvious. Take the FedEx logo, for example. I had never noticed it, but I read an article that revealed the FedEx logo has a hidden arrow. You can see it between the “E” and the “X” in FedEx. The arrow represents the forward movement of the company, which is why the arrow faces to the right. I had never noticed it before, but once it was revealed to me, I can’t help but notice it. It only took someone pointing it out to make it obvious.
Has that ever happened to you? Have you passed by a place repeatedly for days, weeks or months, not noticing that there is a new restaurant or shop, but then someone points it out to you? You ask, “When did that go in there” and they answer, “Months ago.” You did not see it on your own; it took someone else to point it out to you. From then on you can’t help but see. Has anyone ever drawn your attention on a song or a television commercial which you then hear or see all the time? We sometimes need someone to point out the obvious for us to see it.
Have you ever wondered why there are people who do not believe in Jesus Christ? Those of us who know the Lord Jesus can’t imagine what life would be like without Him. We don’t understand those who live day after day without some relationship with God. We can’t fathom the atheist who claims there is no God, especially when we see a perfect rose, a brightly colored rainbow, or feel a cool breeze on a hot day. We see God’s hand in the coincidences that seem to answer our prayers. We see Him in our relationships, in our worship, in our lives as we walk forth in faith. So, we cannot understand how they do not see Him also.
Yet, even as we do not understand, do we bother to show them? It is like that arrow in the FedEx logo. For many it was invisible until I mentioned it today. Now you won’t be able to look at the logo without seeing it. Faith comes from hearing, but sometimes we are not willing to take the risk to speak the words they need to hear. How will they know if we do not tell them? It might not be as easy as pointing out the arrow in a logo, but God has sent us to be His witnesses in the world, and He can and does work through the words we speak. We just have to have faith to get out of the boat and try.
Job was a righteous man who had fallen prey to the adversary. He lost everything; he lost his wealth, his health and his family. The book describes his lament and shows us how even the most righteous can find themselves in the midst of a storm of doubt and uncertainty while undergoing suffering. Job comes to the point of blaming God for his troubles, a response to the questions raised by his losses. “Where was God? How could the Almighty allow this to happen to me? Why?”
I don’t think there is anyone who hasn’t uttered those words at some point in their life. We all wonder where God is when we are facing some desert, darkness, sickness, or storm. When a tornado destroys and entire town or a gunman shoots a dozen victims at a school, we ask why God didn’t do something to stop it. When cancer destroys someone we love or we face unemployment because the company can’t survive the economic conditions of the day, we wonder how God could allow it to happen. When a pandemic and social unrest create havoc on our society, we cry out to God to do something. Why would we be any different than Job? If he could doubt, we can, too.
We forget that God has the power to control the world around us because He laid the foundations long before we were born. Instead of trusting in Him, we try to control the world with our own strength, and we fail. When we suffer the consequences of our faithlessness, we blame God. We worry. We are afraid. We are desperate. It is when we are desperate that we finally remember God; it is then that we cry out to Him. Thankfully, He hears us and answers. He hasn’t abandoned us. He hasn’t been sleeping. He is there, always ready to save us.
An enthusiastic young Methodist minister was posted to a small town where there was both a Catholic church and a Jewish synagogue. The Catholic priest and the Jewish rabbi welcomed the young minister warmly and offered any assistance he might need in his new charge. Then they invited him to go fishing with them. As they were sitting in the boat about fifty yards from shore, the priest said he was thirsty. But they had left the cooler on the dock. The Rabbi said, “I'll get it.” With that he stepped out of the left side of the boat, walked to the dock, and returned with the cooler. Later the rabbi hooked a large trout, but the net had been left on the dock also. So the priest stepped out of the left side of the boat, walked to the dock, and returned with the net. By this time the young minister was a little red in the face. Then the old priest said that he had left his knife on the dock and he couldn't get the hook out of the fish's mouth. The young minister stood up and said, “I'll get it!” With that, he stepped out the right side of the boat and promptly sank to his eyebrows. The rabbi turned to the priest and said, “Well Father, if we’re gonna’ help this boy, we should start by showing him where the steppin’ stones are.”
Peter saw Jesus walking on water and he wanted to believe. He wanted to believe so much that he thought the only way he could do so was to prove to himself, and to the others including Jesus, that he had enough faith to walk on the water. His focus was on himself, on his ability to do this amazing thing. He was doing well at first, keeping his eye on Jesus. Then suddenly he turned his attention to something else: the storm. His thoughts turned inward, to his safety and the ridiculous nature of what he was trying to do. He could not walk on water and by stepping out of the boat he was sure he would drown.
The joke is funny because the priest and the rabbi didn’t really walk on water. They knew about stepping stones that would take them to the dock safe and dry. The young minister did not know there were stones. He thought that the priest and the rabbi had so much more faith and in his self-centered view, he thought he had to prove to himself and to them, that he was a faithful and holy as they. His purpose for going to the dock was not to serve the others but instead was narcissistic. He was motivated by his need to be than the others instead of humble and faithful. What he really needed was for someone to point out the stepping stones to him.
I suspect that none of us will have the opportunity to walk on water. No matter how great our faith, we do not need to prove ourselves by doing something impossible and amazing. However, Jesus calls us out of our boat all the time. He calls us out of our comfort zone into situations where we can serve others even though we are not entirely comfortable. He calls us to come to Him in ways that are beyond our ability so that we will learn to keep our eyes on Him for our strength and power and grace. The problems come when we turn our thoughts inward. We get into trouble when our motivation is self-centered, when we allow fear and envy to guide our steps. When Jesus says, “Come” to us, calling us out of the boat, we will stand as long as we keep our eyes, and hearts, on Him.
Storms can be frightening. In this story, the disciples were familiar with the lake, with the boat and with storms, but it doesn’t make it any less frightening for them. They probably predicted that they had enough time to cross before the storm hit, but it came out of nowhere. They weren’t prepared. They were exposed to the elements. Imagine, then, what it must have been like to see a man walking toward them. There is no way a man could walk there, even in the best of weather. Who could it be? Why would he be there during this storm? They thought it must be a ghost, and I don’t blame them. Things like ghosts help us explain the unexplainable, and Jesus walking on water is one of those things. They were expecting to see Him on the other side, not to catch up with the boat on the lake. They were already frightened, and the image of a man in a place he shouldn’t be just added to the fear.
In this story we see a wide range of emotion, especially from Peter. In just a few lines, Peter is terrified, uncertain, demanding, trusting, doubtful and then confident. He believed and then he didn’t believe and then he believed. He trusted and then he didn’t trust and then he trusted again. Isn’t that it is with us? We trust God with our whole hearts until something happens that makes us uncertain or doubtful. Like Job we cry out, “Why me?” and demand proof that God is really there. Like Peter we realize in the midst of faith that it is all so ridiculous. We take our eyes off God and realize that we can’t walk on water.
In the end, God has proven Himself in Jesus. He is truly the Son of God and He has ensured that we will be blessed in the end. It might seem like we should have that perfect life today; it might seem to us that the reality of the world should not interrupt our lives, but we aren’t in control. We can’t possibly know what God knows or see what God sees. We can trust that even in our bad times that God is near and that He will be faithful.
The Psalm for today reminds us to be prepared in another way. Where do we get our strength? We are both humble and narcissistic. What is our stronghold? We rely on ourselves and our abilities. In whom do we put our trust? Do we put out trust in our own strength, or do we look to the God who created the whole world? It is good to be prepared for the storm, but what will we do when the storm strikes without notice? Will we be like Job, crying “Why me?” or will we look to our God and say, “You are my strength”?
We often face our suffering by demanding something from God. Job demanded an answer. Peter demanded proof. We demand healing or vengeance or salvation. Paul reminds us, however, that we can’t make God do what we want Him to do. We can’t go to heaven or hell to bring Him to us. We can only trust that He has done what He has promised and that He will be faithful. See, it wasn’t man who demanded Jesus come, but God who sent Him and Jesus who obeyed. It wasn’t man who demanded Jesus be raised from the dead, but God who restored Him to life so that we can live with Him in eternity. We can’t do it; we can only trust that He can and that He did. It is in that trust that we find life and hope and peace, even in the midst of suffering.
We weren’t there when God laid the foundations of the earth and we will never be able to fully understand Him. But He is with us, near us, in our lives and our hearts and our mouths. He knows how to turn suffering into blessing. He calls us to trust in Him, to believe with our hearts and to confess with our mouths that He is Lord. It won’t be easy. We are no different than Job or Paul. We can rest in the knowledge that God knows that, too, and that He has given us the way of forgiveness. He will be there to pick us up whenever we fail because He has promised always to be near.
Here’s the real joy of Paul’s words: God invites us to be a part of His work. Though we cannot go to get Jesus for ourselves, He is with us and near us in our hearts and in the Gospel, which is spoken into our lives. Paul says that when we believe His Word in our hearts and confess Him as Lord with our mouths we are saved. Of course, we often look at faith in extremes: it has to be fully God’s grace or fully our decision. But when we do this we lose the beauty of the relationship God has ordained between Himself and His people.
We are given an active role in His Kingdom, even from the beginning of our relationship with Him. We join our hearts and minds with His by participating in His wonderful grace, and then we take His Gospel into the world, witnessing to those who do not yet believe so that they, too, can be saved. It cannot happen without God, we can’t make it happen ourselves, for without Jesus none could be saved. By His grace we receive that which He has promised, confessing with our lives that His is indeed Lord of all.
“The proverbs of Solomon, the son of David, king of Israel: to know wisdom and instruction; to discern the words of understanding; to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young man: that the wise man may hear, and increase in learning; that the man of understanding may attain to sound counsel: to understand a proverb, and parables, the words and riddles of the wise. The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge; but the foolish despise wisdom and instruction.” Proverbs 1:1-7, WEB
The Transfiguration is celebrated at different times during the year, although the Revised Common Lectionary devotes the last Sunday of Epiphany to remembering the event. It makes sense because the Transfiguration is a story of Light and from that mountain top experience Jesus returns to the valley to begin His final journey to the cross. Ash Wednesday comes after Transfiguration Sunday and on that day we begin the season of Lent during which we recall Jesus’ forty days of temptation in the wilderness as we consider our need for a Savior before Jesus finally arrives at the cross on Good Friday.
The universal date for the Feast of the Transfiguration is on August 6th. There is no certain explanation for the choosing of this date, but it seems appropriate in the middle of the season of Pentecost to be reminded that Jesus has been glorified, to worship Him and to listen to Him as God has commanded.
Peter, James and John received a glimpse of heaven that day on the top of a mountain. They witnessed a miraculous event as Jesus was transfigured into a divinely shining being, the Light shined with glorious light. He was standing among the great men of their faith. Moses was the father of the Law and Elijah was the father of the prophets. They stood for everything on which their faith was built. Peter wanted to capture the moment, to build a temple on the spot to honor Jesus and hold on to the glory. While Peter was speaking, a cloud came over the scene and a voice commanded the disciples to listen to Jesus. Peter’s sense of assurance was overpowered by a sense of fear. All three fell on their faces when they heard the voice.
Peter reacted to the transfiguration as we all might have done. Peter was trying to seat Jesus as king over an earthly kingdom. God interrupted, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” God commanded them to listen to Jesus, the Word incarnate. He is the Word made real and sent to dwell among God’s people. Jesus is the place where heaven and earth meet.
Later in his second letter, Peter writes, “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables, when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” Peter was there with Jesus as He ministered to the world, on the mountaintop when Jesus was transfigured, at the cross when Jesus died, and then he saw the risen Lord. He heard Jesus speak. He listened to Him. He learned firsthand that Jesus was who He said He was. Jesus is the Light. Jesus is the Truth. Jesus is the Word incarnate. Jesus is Wisdom. On this day when we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration, we are reminded to listen to Jesus, to hear what He has to say and to believe His words. It is there we will gain wisdom and understanding; it is there we will discover what it truly means to be righteous in God’s eyes.
“For we were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and his love toward mankind appeared, not by works of righteousness which we did ourselves, but according to his mercy, he saved us through the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly, through Jesus Christ our Savior; that being justified by his grace, we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This saying is faithful, and concerning these things I desire that you affirm confidently, so that those who have believed God may be careful to maintain good works.” Titus 3:3-8, WEB
I read this story this morning, “I was at the grocery store this morning and heard a loud crash and something shattering. Being nosy, I walked towards the sound and saw some people whispering and looking back to the end of the next aisle. When I walked down that aisle, I saw an older lady had hit a shelf and many things had fallen to the ground and broke. She was kneeling on the floor embarrassed, frantically trying to clean up. I felt so bad for her, and everyone was just standing there staring at her. So I went and knelt beside her and told her not to worry and started helping her pick up the broken pieces. After about a minute, the store manager came and knelt beside us and said, ‘Leave it, we will clean this up.’ The lady, totally embarrassed said, ‘I need to pay for all this first.’ The manager smiled, helped her to her feet and said, ‘No ma’am, we have insurance for this, you do not have to pay anything!’”
I worked in retail for several years. We called any kind of financial loss like this “shrinkage.” We were covered for damage and theft; I had a least a few conversations like this when I was a manager. There are some stores that would demand payment, especially those with expensive, easily breakable merchandise. You really don’t want to let a bull into a china shop because it would be a very expensive disaster. Some stores put up signs warning parents to keep their children from touching; they have probably had a problem with young fingers causing too much shrinkage. The threat of financial penalty is meant to encourage parents to keep their children under control.
That’s how many people view sin. They believe that sin requires some sort of payment. If I did something wrong, then I need to pay the price. I need to make reparations. I need to buy the broken jars in the grocery store. While there are often consequences for our sin, this perspective blames all suffering on sin. The Apostle John wrote about an encounter with a man born blind. They asked Jesus, “Who sinned, the man or his parents?” Jesus had a much different answer than they expected: none of the above. The man was chosen by God to be an example of God’s grace.
The point of the story in the grocery store is grace. The post I read invited us to close our eyes and imagine God doing the same for us. The photo accompanying the story showed spaghetti sauce all over the floor, a stark image that reminds us of the blood shed for us on the cross of Jesus Christ. He is our insurance. He pays the price for our sin. He cleans up our mess, picking up the broken pieces of our lives. He will lift us to our feet and send us on our way to live the life He has created and redeemed us to live. This means turning from the wrong path, walking in His ways. This means rejecting sin and growing in discipleship. We will still fail; it is impossible for us to be perfect in our flesh, but the closer we come to God through worship, study, prayer, and Christian fellowship, the more Christ-like we will become.
“If therefore there is any exhortation in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tender mercies and compassion, make my joy full by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind; doing nothing through rivalry or through conceit, but in humility, each counting others better than himself; each of you not just looking to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others.” Philippians 2:1-4, WEB
I take a mile long walk nearly every day. I try to leave the house at a consistent time, but sometimes I sleep a little later or I’m moving a little slowly. Today, for example, I looked at my clock at around 5:00 a.m. when the cats started getting noisy for breakfast. I looked at it again at 6:22 and suddenly realized that my husband was already out of bed. Then it was 6:54. I didn’t even think I’d gone back to sleep. So, I ended out taking my walk a little later this morning.
Since I’m fairly consistent, I tend to see the same people out walking the street. Many of them have dogs, but there are others who are like me, just walking for physical and emotional health. We greet one another with a wave and a smile or a nod of the head. I’ve scratched the heads of more than a few of the dogs and I have gotten to know a few of my neighbors that I never would have met otherwise.
I run into one woman and her dog on a regular basis and we have stopped to chat several times. Her dog is very sweet and enjoys a head scratch every time I see her. The woman works from home (she did before the pandemic) and her retired husband does most of the errands. Her walks with the dog are rare moments for her to see others face to face and she is always happy to have a conversation. She has a lot of struggles in life, especially with difficult elderly parents. Her husband’s mother recently broke her hip and she has had to deal with her home that had become chaotic. I think she was happy to see me today, to share her burden.
It is not that she expected me to help her, but she needed someone to share her frustrations. Sometimes that’s all we need. We don’t need advice. We don’t even need a hand. We just need to put voice to our concerns. It is comforting, even for those who don’t really pray, to have their struggles thrown out into the universe, but for Christians it is especially comforting because we know that God is listening. I don’t know if she sees me as a praying woman, but I take her concerns to God regularly. Perhaps she knows that I’m an ally in prayer, but whatever the reason, this new friend has seen me as a sounding board. She doesn’t ask me about my life and that’s ok. I’m happy to help her carry her burden to God.
As Christians we are called to watchfulness. We are to watch for the opportunities to glorify God with those simple deeds that will make a difference in someone’s life. The scriptures give us some very specific examples of feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked and visiting the sick and imprisoned. But there are millions of other ways we can serve those who cross our path. Our task might simply to be a sounding board or someone to offer a prayer. We watch to see how we can help our neighbors, and in responding to their needs we are responding to the call of Jesus Christ. We can see His face in their faces and glorify God in our humble service.
“But as for me, I would seek God. I would commit my cause to God, who does great things that can’t be fathomed, marvelous things without number; who gives rain on the earth, and sends waters on the fields; so that he sets up on high those who are low, those who mourn are exalted to safety.” Job 5:8-11, WEB
Back in my college days there was a room in the Student Union that filled to the brim from 3:00 to 4:00 every day. Students purposely worked their schedules to ensure that they would be free during that hour. They had to be there. The room held a fairly large (for the time) television which was tuned to ABC. We were there to follow the adventures of Luke and Laura on “General Hospital.” We couldn’t miss a minute of our favorite show. At that time there were dozens you could watch; the soap operas began in the morning and lasted until late in the afternoon. There were a few game shows in the mix, but you could spend hours watching the love, hate, and insanity of those fictional towns and the characters that dwelled in them.
Daytime television is much different today. Though there are still a few soap operas left on network television, the air is filled with games shows, talk shows, and court TV. Afternoon television was originally programmed to meet the needs of the stay-at-home wife and mother, so everything focused on topics and formats that would interest them, even the commercials. The name “soap opera” was created because the early radio shows and the later television shows were sponsored by soap manufacturers; they were peppered with ads for dish and laundry soap, as well as other products that would make life easier. It was thought that if she could get her housework done more quickly, then she would have more time to watch all that great television.
Just as the shows are different today, the ads are different, too. Daytime television doesn’t focus on the stay-at-home wife and mother anymore, perhaps because there are fewer of them these days. More women are working; those watching daytime television are often the unemployed who can’t find work because they are sick and disabled. While there are still a few soap commercials, most of the advertisements are for drugs, lawyers, and finance groups. The drug companies want to offer the disabled a solution for their pain. The lawyers want to give them all a lot of money by suing someone somewhere for something.
It is hard to watch. Have you ever really listened to the drug commercials? The lists of possible side effects are so long that the narrators rattle them off so fast you can barely understand what they are saying, and the side effects are often worse than the disease the medicine is meant to cure. The drug commercials are then followed by lawyers who want to get help those who are suffering the side effects of certain drugs with class action suits to get financially compensated for the problems they experienced.
To round out the commercials, the finance groups encourage those who have received settlements to get their money now. Those large settlements are often divided into monthly payments that last for many years. The finance groups “buy” the settlement and give the recipients a onetime payment. The payment is well below the actual value of the settlement, but people who are unemployed and sick or disabled prefer to have their money immediately, rather than have it help over a period of time. “It’s my money and I want it now!” they cry.
The drug companies, the lawyers and the finance groups take advantage to those who are in need. The commercials seem to be filled with concern and compassion, but in the end they are all using people in need for their own financial gains. The afternoon television commercials try to convince those who are watching that they have the answer to all their problems. If you take this drug, you will be well. If you sue that person, you will be rich. If you sell us your settlement, you can have your money now. But the reality is those commercials don’t offer real solutions. The drugs are dangerous, the lawyers get a huge part of any settlement, and the finance companies take a portion of the rest. In the end those people are still unemployed, sick and disabled and they quickly have too little money to pay their bills.
Commercials are meant to sell us something; the soap operas in days gone by would not have even been around without those soap commercials. However, we need to be careful what we buy. Will that drug really heal us? Will that lawyer get us justice? Will that finance group provide us with the cash we need? The answer is probably, “No.”
They say that Jesus is the answer to all our problems. In some ways that seems like a shallow cliché especially when you need real help in the real world. Medicine is good, justice is right, and sometimes it is better to take enough today than to wait for years for the money we are owed. But we won’t find the answers to our problems in the commercials on afternoon television. We have to be smart, to seek the right answers to our problems, to work with those who can really help without taking advantage of our situation. God can help, and we should turn to Him. Prayer, study, and faithfulness to God’s Word will lead us on the right path. Seek first God’s kingdom and He will guide you to people and places that can truly help you in your difficulties. The things of the world will fail us, but God is always faithful and He will help us find real answers to our problems.
Scriptures for Sunday, August 16, 2020, Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Psalm 67; Romans 11:1-2a, 13-15, 28-32; Matthew 15:21-28
“May God be merciful to us, bless us, and cause his face to shine on us. Selah.” Psalm 67:1, WEB
I drive my son crazy because I love to watch Hallmark movies. “Mom, they are all the same. I can figure out what’s going to happen even before they get five minutes into the movie.” Sure, they are formulaic, but I still enjoy watching most of them. There are a few actors I don’t particularly like, and I get really frustrated with the story lines that are based around lies, but for the most part they are sweet and make me happy. In times of stress, I enjoy the happily ever after.
As for the idea of those movies being formulaic, aren’t all stories? So many stories, at their core, are the same, and many of them seem to parallel the stories we see in the Bible. They are different, with different people, places and circumstances, but the lessons learned and the basic plotline are the same. Throughout all time, from the beginning until today, people have not changed, and neither have their stories. Different experts have different opinions about the number, but literary experts all agree that there are only a certain number of stories. Despite the number of books available, there are only about fifty plots. We just change the details to make the stories real to us. It might seem like a stretch to some, but all those plots can be found in the Bible.
The story of Cinderella is just one of many. The usual plot has a girl who has been abandoned to a horrible situation by the death of her only relative, her father, who had recently married a woman that wanted his wealth. The daughter is left with nothing, treated poorly and even enslaved. A conquering hero, the prince, comes to save her by taking her away from her wicked stepmother into the life she was meant to live. There is usually a moment of transformation, of redemption, and even forgiveness. There are several biblical characters whose stories might fall into this pattern, like Jesus’ mother Mary and Queen Esther. Different details, but in both stories a lowly girl is given a new life by a savior.
The movie “A Cinderella Story” starring Hilary Duff is a modern day version of the Cinderella story. Hilary Duff plays Sam Montgomery who lives in California with her father and step mother until he is killed during an earthquake. The step-mother then takes advantage of Sam, forcing her to work extreme hours at the family owned restaurant while insisting that Sam will never get any farther. Sam meets a boy in an online chat room who turns out to be the school football hero. Their relationship was anonymous and they did not know each other’s real identity. She would have never guessed his true self because the boy she knew online was poetic, independent, and had very similar goals as she. The football hero was exactly the opposite.
While the story of Cinderella is wonderful, I want to focus on the story of Austin Ames, the boy on the Internet. Austin wants to be a writer, but his father has much different goals for him. Austin is a great quarterback, the star of the team, and likely to be offered scholarships to his father’s alma mater. He wants to go to another school, but does not know how to tell his dad. He lives behind a façade, wishing he could be one thing while pretending to be another. This brings trouble to his relationship with Sam, who breaks free from her own prison and wants him to do the same.
At the end of the movie, Austin realizes that if he does not turn around he is going to lose her and her love, forever. He walks away from the big game, from his chance to prove himself to the college football scouts and his father. He lets go of the man he isn’t to become the man he is. His eyes are opened and he sees the truth. That’s the story we see in today’s epistle.
Paul was in agony over the question of his people. He knew 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 was rejecting God’s Word of promise to Israel by grasping on to this new thing. Paul, having experienced the love and mercy of God in a very real and tangible way could not understand how the rest of Israel had not embraced Jesus. But he knew God is faithful, so he found comfort in the reality that Israel was, at that moment, wearing a mask. He was certain that the truth dwelled within their spirits and that one day, when the time was right, their eyes would be opened and they would believe. For the moment their hearts were hardened, but there is always hope. There is hope because God is faithful. We are no better because we believe. We were, and are, also disobedient, but He is merciful, transforming us into the people He has created us to be.
Another movie character wore a mask. His name was Montgomery Brewster and he was played by Richard Pryor in the movie “Brewster’s Millions.” Monty was a minor league baseball player who was having trouble making ends meet. A rich relative died and left his entire fortune to him, a three hundred million dollar windfall. He would only get the money if he could spend $30 million in just thirty days. At the end of the thirty days, Brewster could have nothing leftover. He could not have any new possessions. He could not be one penny richer at the end than he was before he learned of his new fortune. He also could not tell anyone the conditions of the inheritance.
So, Brewster went out spending his thirty million dollar fortune. Everyone else thought that was his entire inheritance and they did everything they could to help him. His spending habits became wasteful, or so it seemed. He was extremely generous and hired his friends to help him with ridiculous tasks. He rented the most expensive penthouse and rented furniture to fill it. His employees thought that their job was to help Brewster keep his money. They made savvy investments, recommended buying things instead of renting them and got upset by his unbelievable waste.
He ran for mayor, but when it looked like he might win, he changed his tune and insisted that he’d be a terrible mayor. He still didn’t want the other candidates to win, so he changed his campaign. He convinced the entire city to vote for “None of the Above.” (Who among us wouldn’t love to have that be an option on our ballots this fall?) He bought an extremely rare stamp for one million dollars and used it to mail a letter to someone. He even rented the Yankees for three innings so that he would have the chance to pitch against his dream team.
He even held a magnificent party for them toward the end of the month, to thank them for their help. He was almost broke and ready to be done with the game. They had loved him so much, had told the world about Brewster’s virtues and then when he was nearly at his lowest point in the movie, they took up a collection to help him. He, of course, went nuts because he had to be penniless in just a few hours, but they wanted to show their appreciation by sharing back what he had first given.
The point of the exercise was to ensure that Brewster would not waste the gift he was given. How many people receive a windfall such as a lottery win only to spend it too quickly. Brewster’s relative wanted him to be sick of money, so sick that he would not be foolish with it. Brewster truly did get sick of spending. He was almost ready to give up, especially in the very last minutes of the exercise when it was “discovered” that $1000 was hidden by one of the lawyers that wanted Brewster to lose. The inheritance would have gone to the law firm if Monty failed. The lawyer claimed that it was extra for something and that he “forgot” to give it back. How could Monty spend $1000 in a few minutes in a room full of lawyers that wanted him to lose?
In the end, Monty won because he was able to pay a retainer to one of the lawyers who had spent time with him and knew that he was a good man who deserved the inheritance. She saw the insincerity of the other lawyers and knew that he didn’t deserve to lose because someone cheated. He worked hard to do what his relative asked. She saw him give jobs to people others would not hire and she saw his concern for his city. She saw his love for baseball and his willingness to play the inheritance game according to the rules.
The psalmist in today’s passage joined with the congregation of believers singing the praise of God. They sought God’s blessing on them so that they could be a blessing. They wanted to be able to share His blessedness with them so that they could share it with the world. They wanted the entire world to sing His praise. $300 million was a lot of money and Brewster’s rich relative knew it. He wanted Brewster to receive it with the knowledge that it was not something to waste, but something to use well for the sake of others. Brewster won, and hopefully so did the community as he took his blessing into the world.
We wear a whole new type of masks these days, and we have been having some very difficult conversations about these masks, especially with school scheduled to begin in the next few weeks. We normally want people to take off their masks, but the situation is completely different because of the pandemic. It has become an important item added to a very long list of needed materials. I helped give school backpacks filled with supplies to the clients at a local ministry, and each child received a cute mask so that they will be prepared.
Another important item for those students in upper grades was t-shirts. My kids came home constantly during the first few weeks with requests for money to buy organizational t-shirts. The shirts were specially designed to be an identifying marker for the students involved in that organization. They wore their shirts to events and on special days. The students were never required to spend the money, but they often received points toward awards for wearing their shirts so they were motivated to buy. In college, t-shirts were given at every event. My daughter ended up with so many between high school and college that she was able to have a memory quilt made. Her favorites were from her favorite events and the ones that reminded of her friends from those organizations. They remembered those good times and those important connections when they wore their shirts.
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 shirts that have faith sayings or their t-shirts from summer camp. But the outward signs do not guarantee commitment to God. A person can be a Christian without wearing a t-shirt saying so.
For the people in Isaiah’s day, the identifying mark of God’s people was their national and religious heritage. The Jews were Jews because of where and who they came from, not who they were. At least, that’s what they thought. Through Isaiah, God reminded them that it is not their race or nationality or any other outwardly identifying marks that makes them people of God. They are the ones who are doing justice and what is right, holding fast to the covenant of God. They will be found joyfully worshipping in the Temple. God will embrace them. He will accept their sacrifices. 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. It is ultimately a matter of faith.
The Gospel lesson is a difficult one, especially in these days when there is so much outrage and division. I’ve even heard some pastors are choosing to avoid the text this year because the language seems so disparaging of a foreign woman. It can be offensive to see Jesus calling her a dog and rejecting her cry for help. Yet, as we look at the text from the eyes of grace, we realize that Jesus is not insulting her based on her outward identity, but is encouraging her to remove her mask and reveal her inner faith.
To what sort of person would you say the words, “Great is your faith?” When we think of great faithfulness, we think about the people in our lives that lived an obviously Christian lifestyle. We think about those whose life is one of service. We think about those who praise God even in the midst of hard times. We think about those who are dedicated to the life we live together as a body in Christ. I can remember people, usually older women, from every congregation who exhibited to me “great faith.” A few pastors and other church leaders also impressed me with their great faith. We can name several famous people, like Mother Theresa, who would find themselves on the list. The Saints throughout the ages showed great faith. There was something special about those folk. They stood out in the crowd. They were people who were recognized as Christian even by those who did not have Christian faith.
Considering that we’ve had two thousand years of Christian history, however, that list is very small. 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 without a doubt which ones are even Christian. 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 your faith” to any of them. I’m sure my neighbors would think the same of me.
People are people, and over the ages we have all lived in masks that hide our inner selves. We share all the same stories. The woman in our story was not part of the faith community. She was 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 heard Him preach. Maybe she was in the crowd who ate the fish and the bread a day or so before this story. The people who were identified as having great faith were those to whom Jesus addressed the previous message: the Pharisees and teachers of the law thought they were faithful 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 your faith.”
Jesus was not radically rebelling against the faith of His fathers in this story. As a matter of fact, He refused her at first when she approached Him. He pointed out that His ministry is for a specific group of people: the lost sheep of Israel. Even after she worshipped Him, He said, “It is not appropriate to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. She became bolder but at the same time more humble by saying that the dogs eat the crumbs. She didn’t let Jesus go, she continued to pursue His help, but accepted her place in the world. She was not one of the lost sheep; she was one of the dogs. Even so, she said, “Please help me.”
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 were wearing their masks. 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 thought they were sent to save.
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, the masks they wore, 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 dishonored fathers and mothers. They claimed it was honoring God, but they dishonored God by dishonoring their parents.
Jesus’ answer fit the expectations of a man 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 showed His disciples what it looked 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.
It is to this woman that Jesus said, “Great is your faith.” We might never know those whom Jesus calls faithful because we see their masks, not their hearts. They aren’t wearing the t-shirt. There is truth to the statement that we know they are Christians by their love. However, the most faithful people are not those who wear Christianity on their sleeves, but are those who are bold and humble enough to turn to the only one who can bring healing and transformation in their times of deepest distress.
We may not ever know what God has done in our neighbor’s lives. We can’t see their faith and may never know about their miracles. The lessons for today call us to live as those in the text from Isaiah, doing justice and what is right, holding fast to the covenant of God. We should boldly and humbly seek God in the midst of our troubles. We can live like that woman, acknowledging that we are dogs, assured of the truth that God’s grace is bigger than the masks we wear, whether they are by choice or thrust upon us by the world. God sees our hearts and we can hear Jesus’ voice saying to us, too, “Great is your 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’s graciousness will be revealed to all.
“This is the message which we have heard from him and announce to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him and walk in the darkness, we lie, and don’t tell the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us the sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we haven’t sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” 1 John 1:5-10, WEB
I went out to lunch once with my husband one day and decided to pay cash. He was in a hurry to get back to work, and we didn’t want to wait for the waitress to deal with a credit card. Unfortunately, when I first took out the money, I grabbed the wrong bill and nearly shorted the waitress of her tip and a few cents of the bill. Thankfully, I checked twice before I walked out of the restaurant. When I recounted the money, I realized I was short and fixed the problem. That waiter would not only have worked hard for us without receiving fair pay, but he also would have had to cover what I did not give. It would have been wrong, even if it was an accident.
It is mistakes like this that keep my awake at night. Even though I fixed the problem, it would have bothered me that I came close to shorting the waitress and the restaurant. I have had many restless nights thinking through things I know I had done wrong, not only that day but in the past. I worry how my actions have affected the lives of others and it causes me to lose sleep.
We all make mistakes. We all fail to do what is right and good and proper. In the beginning, God created us and called us good, but the day that Adam and Eve believed the word of the serpent above the Word of God, we became fallen and imperfect people. We try very hard to do what is right and good and proper, and when we realize we have failed, we suffer from guilt. And then we lose sleep.
The way we respond to the guilt determines our state of mind. We can hold on to the guilt, let it simmer until it builds into something like depression or anger. We can let it cause us lost sleep. Or we can recognize that we’ve done something wrong and deal with it. We can repent, seek reconciliation and restoration. If we can’t make things right with the person that we’ve harmed, we can humbly approach our God who is able to do what we can never do. The best way to ensure rest is to take our day to God in prayer, seeking His grace, accepting His forgiveness, and trusting His promises.
There is nothing we can do when do not know we’ve done something wrong. If I walked out of the restaurant without rechecking that bill, I would not have known. God knows all that we’ve done and left undone. No matter how good we seem to be, there are hidden things that we may never realize. So, even when we are having a good day, a day when we’ve done nothing to outwardly hurt another person, we must not think too highly of ourselves. But neither do we need to walk around feeling guilty about what we might have done wrong. We can turn to the Lord our God in repentance for all we’ve done and all we’ve left undone, praying with thanksgiving for His mercy and grace. Whatever we do, let us never forget that we are imperfect reflections of what God has intended us to be, sinners in need of a Savior. As we confess our sins, known and unknown, God is faithful to forgive our sins so that will rest at night without worry and in peace.
“For I say through the grace that was given me, to every man who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think reasonably, as God has apportioned to each person a measure of faith. For even as we have many members in one body, and all the members don’t have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another, having gifts differing according to the grace that was given to us: if prophecy, let’s prophesy according to the proportion of our faith; or service, let’s give ourselves to service; or he who teaches, to his teaching; or he who exhorts, to his exhorting; he who gives, let him do it with generosity; he who rules, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.” Romans 12:3-8, WEB
In his book “Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer,” C. S. Lewis wrote, “It takes all sorts to make a world; or a church. This may be even truer of a church. If grace perfects nature it must expand all our natures into the full richness of the diversity which God intended when He made them, and Heaven will display far more variety than Hell.” He went on to tell about a visit to a Greek Orthodox Church. “What pleased me most was that there seemed to be no prescribed behavior for the congregation. Some stood, some knelt, some sat, some walked; one crawled about the floor like a caterpillar. And the beauty of it is that nobody took the slightest notice of what anybody else was doing.”
Now, I confess that I would struggle if I saw someone (an adult) crawling around on the floor like a caterpillar. I’m more gracious if that person is a two year old, although even then I notice. The point of his message was not that we should be rid of order in our churches, but that we should be gracious to our brothers and sisters in Christ, loving them in their uniqueness and the diversity that makes God’s kingdom so beautiful.
Unfortunately, when we struggle the actions of our brothers and sisters in Christ and question their sincerity, we lift ourselves as better Christians and more faithful based not on heart but on outer appearances. Perhaps Lewis’ example is a little extreme, but how many times do we question what we see in the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ? Every Christian has their own gifts and callings, which is what makes the Church such a beautiful and diverse organism. We are different, but we are called to respect one another in the way we share God’s kingdom with the world.
The Church is the fellowship of all believers, each one given a place in the body which God uses to spread the Gospel and bring glory to the name of Jesus Christ. Every Christian has a place of honor as a child of the living God, so all are called to serve Him and each other in love and mercy and grace. God has created the perfect machine, but when one cog thinks more highly of themselves the machine does not work well. None of us are given every good and perfect gift; none of us can fill all the parts of the body. God has blessed us with each other so that we can glorify God and share Jesus with the world together in our unique and beautiful ways.
“Besides hope, Abraham in hope believed, to the end that he might become a father of many nations, according to that which had been spoken, ‘So will your offspring be.’ Without being weakened in faith, he didn’t consider his own body, already having been worn out, (he being about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah’s womb. Yet, looking to the promise of God, he didn’t waver through unbelief, but grew strong through faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what he had promised, he was also able to perform. Therefore it also was “credited to him for righteousness.’ Now it was not written that it was accounted to him for his sake alone, but for our sake also, to whom it will be accounted, who believe in him who raised Jesus, our Lord, from the dead, who was delivered up for our trespasses, and was raised for our justification.” Romans 4:13-25, WEB
There is an advantage to living in a world with minute by minute access to news. The advantage is that we always know what is happening. The disadvantage, though, is that we get news before there is any real information about the event. Yesterday a friend posted a message for her friends that they were not at a flea market where there was a shooting in our town. She didn’t have any information, just rumors, but she wanted to fend off the inevitable questions from family and friends around the country.
We see this with breaking news all the time. Newscasters want to be the first to report what is happening in the world, so they will turn to constant programming, talking incessantly about nothing in particular, hoping that they will be on when information is revealed. In the meantime, they report rumors or interpretations of the events as they unfold. They ask reporters on the scene to describe what is happening, but they are only able to report what they can see. Unfortunately, most of the early reports are not true. They make assumptions, often based on biases, and then the rumors spread quickly on the Internet. They even make claims about guilty parties, usually untrue but convenient to the message they want to share. In the end, the rumors are passed along as truth and it is nearly impossible to set the record straight. Minute by minute access to news means there’s always something breaking, but I would much rather wait until the reporters are able to give us truth.
Have you ever heard some news that sounded so good that you could not help but share, but soon found that it wasn’t entirely true? We do not always know the rest of the story, the outcome of what we have heard sometimes turns out much different than we expect. It is especially difficult when the reports come from an unreliable source. This is why it is particularly important to beware of gossip and never spread what we hear because it is never the entire truth.
There is one whom can be trusted with the truth, even when we do not know the whole story. From the beginning, God spoke to His people about His love, mercy and purpose. Adam heard a bit, Noah another, Abraham yet another. From generation to generation, God renewed His promise to His people, building on what He spoke to their forefathers. What God spoke was trustworthy, even to those who did not see the fulfillment of the promise. Abraham knew that God would finish the story in a most wonderful way.
The reporters give us the information they have, but we have to put those early reports in perspective. It takes time to investigate breaking news, yet they want to give some information to calm the fears and concerns that inevitably come, like my friend. But we are imperfect and we cannot see beyond what our eyes can see. We might receive new information at any moment and learn that our original thoughts were wrong. But when it came to the promise of God, Abraham believed. His faith, the assurance that God’s Word is truth, was credited to him as righteousness. He had a right relationship with God. Abraham never experienced the fulfillment of the promise, but he knew it would come to pass. We are the seed who are blessed with the end of the story. We know Jesus paid the debt of our sinful nature so that we can have life eternal in His name.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, and from the words of my groaning? My God, I cry in the daytime, but you don’t answer; in the night season, and am not silent. But you are holy, you who inhabit the praises of Israel. Our fathers trusted in you. They trusted, and you delivered them. They cried to you, and were delivered. They trusted in you, and were not disappointed.” Psalm 22:1-5, WEB
Joseph was the first-born son of Jacob’s favorite wife. He was deeply loved by his father who gave him a richly ornamented robe. Joseph’s brothers were jealous and hated him because he was the favored son. One day Joseph had a dream, which the brothers understood to mean they would bow down to him. Then he had another, which showed that not only his brothers, but also his parents would bow down to him. This made his brothers hate him even more and they conspired to kill him. At the last moment, his life was spared and he was sold as a slave.
Even in slavery, Joseph was blessed. The LORD was with him and his Egyptian master, Potipher, gave him a high position in his household. The wife of his master found Joseph attractive and tried to seduce him, but he refused to betray the trust given him, knowing it was a sin against God. Potipher’s wife falsely accused him of trying to sleep with her, and he was put into prison. Even in prison, Joseph was blessed. The LORD was with him and the prison warden made him responsible for all that was done there.
One day two of Egypt’s highest officials, the cupbearer and chief baker, offended Pharaoh. The king of Egypt put these two men into the custody of the prison warden. They were assigned to Joseph who cared for them. One night, the two men both had dreams that troubled them. The next morning, when Joseph saw they were upset, he asked why they were so sad. They told him about the dreams and lamented the lack of an interpreter to help them understand. Joseph’s life was always centered on God, so he told them that God would provide them with what they desire. The cupbearer’s dream was favorable. He would return to his position in Pharaoh’s house on the third day. Joseph asked, “But remember me when it is well with you. Please show kindness to me, and make mention of me to Pharaoh, and bring me out of this house.” The chief baker’s dream foretold death on the third day. Joseph’s interpretations came true, but the cupbearer did not remember Joseph when he was restored.
Two years later, Pharaoh had a dream that could not be interpreted by any of the magicians or wise men of Egypt. Then the cupbearer finally remembered Joseph, so Pharaoh called him to provide the interpretation. Once again, Joseph said that it would be God who would provide the answer. The dreams foretold of great prosperity for Egypt for a time, but then a time of drought and famine. Pharaoh was being warned to set aside some of the abundance in the good years to provide for the years of famine.
Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of his kingdom; only Pharaoh ruled above him. Joseph ruled well. He put grain aside during the years of prosperity, and when the years of famine came, Egypt was well prepared. People from foreign lands came to purchase grain from the storehouses prepared by Joseph, including his own family. The day came when his youthful dreams came true as his brothers and father bowed down before his authority.
Many years passed from the time when God spoke to Joseph in his dream to the day it was fulfilled. During that time, Joseph suffered many humiliations: slavery, harassment and imprisonment. Those who made promises to help him forgot their promises. It would have been so easy for Joseph to give up on people, to fall into despair, even to reject God. Yet, he continued to trust God and in His time, everything came to pass.
Psalm 22 is very familiar. We read it on Good Friday as we strip the altar. We do this because Jesus quoted Psalm 22 on the cross. He said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The imagery of the Passion is found in this psalm. He is forsaken. He is scorned and mocked. He thirsts. He is surrounded by ruthless people. His hands and feet are pierced. His garments are divided and lots are cast for his clothing. As we read Psalm 22, we see the suffering of Jesus. The psalm also shows us, however, that the afflicted one is not forsaken. God has not hidden his face from him; God has heard his cry. Affliction is not the end of the story. The suffering one will eat and be satisfied.
Joseph was a foreshadowing of Jesus; in his story we see an unbreakable trust in God despite affliction. Jesus knew, despite the cry of abandonment on the cross, that God can be trusted. God is faithful. One day the whole world will join in worship of Him. Psalm 22 gives us a vivid portrait of affliction, alludes to the resurrection and then closes with a future-facing kingdom reign. Jesus fulfills in the Gospels everything we see in the psalm. Joseph could have tried to take matters into his own hands or fall into self-pity, but instead he waited patiently for God’s time. We too should trust in God’s perfect timing for all things in this life, knowing that His plan is perfect. Do you feel that something should happen today, but it seems like the promise has been forgotten? Be patient and wait on God. His promises never fail.
Scriptures for Sunday, August 23, 2020, Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138; Romans 11:33-12:8; Matthew 16:13-20
“Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’” Matthew 16:16, WEB
I heard on the radio the other day that someone has decided to do a remake of a movie that was popular decades ago. This is common these days, and I always think to myself, “I guess we’ve run out of stories.” I say that, but I confess that I have been doing reruns, too. I have been writing “A Word for Today” for over twenty-one years, and there are some mornings when I have a very difficult time finding something new to say. So, I dig into my archives and find a relevant devotional, edit and post it as new. I’ve done reruns of my favorites since the beginning, but it is becoming more common these days. My life just hasn’t been that interesting (especially the past five months!) and God’s Word is timeless, so it works.
The interesting thing about this process, though, is the memories of the stories I’ve related in the past. Sometimes I remember the events, sometimes they are like they are the stories of strangers. I try to remember the friend with whom I’ve had the conversation, or the place where the event happened. After twenty years, it is hard to remember those details. This devotional has been like a journal, but the memories have not always been worth remembering.
There are lots of reasons why we don’t remember. I’ve had visits with my siblings and they have told me things that haven’t been part of my personal story as I tell it. They are significantly older than me, so they recall interesting bits of my early years that I don’t remember. Apparently we had a pony for a few months and went on vacations I will never remember. I had a broken leg when I was just a baby, having fallen down the stairs under my brother’s watchful eye. These stories will only be part of my memory because they have told them to me. Although I will never remember those events or many of the people involved, they are a part of my history and I am who I am because of them.
In the passage from Isaiah, God is speaking to His people through the prophet Isaiah. He says, “Listen to me you who seek the Lord. Look to your history, your father Abraham and your mother Sarah.” None of them would have known Abraham personally; they would not have known about Abraham and Sarah’s everyday life. Yet, the story of Abraham and Sarah are irrevocably woven into their lives. They believed promise given to Abraham that He would be the father of many nations, despite being a man with no hope for a future. They were the fulfillment of that promise: they were the children of Abraham.
We are also the fulfillment of that promise. We are of those many nations that came from the bosom of Abraham and from Sarah his wife. Because the promise was fulfilled, we can rest in all God’s promises, including those found in this passage. We will be comforted. God will look upon His children with compassion. He will restore His people and they will rejoice. We will become the light that shines to the world, manifesting God’s justice and peace. God will grant us His righteousness and His salvation. The promise is ours and we are called to live in hope, waiting patiently for eternity.
It is also up to us to tell the story.
That’s why it surprises us that Jesus says, “Don’t tell anyone” in today’s Gospel lesson. After all, it was not much later that Jesus commanded the Church to tell the world. Why the silence in this passage? Shouldn’t they tell the world that Jesus is the Messiah? After all, it would help the crowds to know Jesus better, to follow Him with more commitment, to establish His authority in His day. Wouldn’t He want committed followers right from the beginning?
The point of Jesus’ call to silence is that it wasn’t the right time. Peter and the disciples had not yet seen the whole story. They thought they understood, but until the resurrection and Pentecost, they would not fully understand what God was doing in and through Jesus. Jesus’ authority was not built solely on His life and actions during His ministry with the disciples. The authority He has now over life and death was established in its fullness on the cross and in the empty tomb. Peter thought he understood, but he would not understand until the story was complete. A detail still needed to be revealed. A light still needed to shine. Then, and only then, could Peter and the Church which he represents in this story, fully live God’s calling in this world.
To reach this moment, Jesus asked, “Who do the people say that I am?” The disciples gave Him a list of interesting choices. They thought Jesus might be John the Baptist, Elijah, or a prophet like Moses or Jeremiah. They were looking for God’s voice in their world, for someone that would give them hope for their future. They wanted deliverance. They wanted freedom. They wanted to be the great and golden nation they had once been, and they were looking for God’s representative to tell them how to make it happen.
Jesus then asked another question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” By God’s grace Peter recognized that Jesus was the Messiah. There was still work to do, but the disciples were on the right track. Though Jesus silenced them at this moment, they would eventually be sent into the world to tell the story. We still hear it today through their words in the scriptures. Just as we benefit from the promise to Abraham though we barely know him, we also benefit from the lessons Jesus taught the disciples so long ago even though we only have a part of the story. We have enough to hear and believe.
He still asks us, “Who does the world say that I am?” We can see a thousand different answers to this question today. 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. These are good answers, but they by no means reach the depth of the truth of Jesus’ identity.
It doesn’t matter what the world thinks anyway, because Jesus asks each of us the next question. “Who do you say that I am?” We spend our lives pondering the answer to this question, as we grow in faith and understanding about God’s grace in our lives.
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.
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 Danes viciously tortured and killed him, then went on to ravage the land. The abbey built in Edmund’s 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. The cost was extraordinary and though the abbey was extremely wealthy, they wanted to reach for the stars. They didn’t limit their desires by a budget. They were no different than we are 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 to build the grand cathedrals was too much to use hewn stone for the entire building. Though the walls were several feet thick, only a foot or so of expensive stone was used to create the beautiful face. They couldn’t use the best stone, so 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 stones a mixture of mortar and discarded stone. 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 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 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 in them, 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. The world may thing we are nothing more than the garbage the builders used in the walls of those ancient cathedrals, 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.
Jesus would be worth following if He were just a prophet, teacher, rabbi, miracle worker, radical, friend, comforter, or guide whose example we would do well to follow, because He is a man of authority. But Jesus is so much more. He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. This is reason to worship Him.
The psalmist sings, “I will bow down toward your holy temple, and give thanks to your Name for your loving kindness and for your truth; for you have exalted your Name and your Word above all.” We praise His name because He has fulfilled His promises. 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, and with our voices we remind the world that all other gods are lowly while the Mighty One is raised high.
There may have been a time when Jesus commanded silence, but He has given us a new command. We are Easter people, living after the story has been completed. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ has been revealed to us and we can know who Jesus is and understand what the Gospel means. We are called to sing His praise before the world, to shine His light into the darkness, to tell our neighbors His story by telling them about our faith, so that others will benefit from all His promises.
Peter seems to stand alone as he makes his confession of faith, but while he was the first, Peter also represents the whole body of Christ. He was the first, and then after Pentecost the disciples came to understand Jesus and His purpose. They 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. And they were called to tell the story. Their witness led to our faith; our witness leads to the faith of others.
Paul reminds us not to think too highly of ourselves, though, to consider our lives 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?
We are like that garbage that filled the walls of those ancient churches, but God covers us by clothing us with Christ. 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.
Just like Peter, we can never come to a bold confession of faith without God’s grace. He puts the Word in our hearts and the words in our mouths that Jesus is Lord. Our life of faith 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 failed miserably but God gave him a measure of faith that did not fail in the end.
Now, today, we join with the psalmist, the people of Judah, Paul and Peter and the other disciples, and every generation of the Church throughout time in the chorus of thanksgiving, “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, thou wilt revive me; Thou wilt stretch forth thy hand against the wrath of mine enemies, And thy right hand will save me.” We can rest in this promise, for God is faithful. We are sent forth in faith to be God’s witnesses, to tell the story of Jesus the Messiah and how He fulfills God’s every promise. In that obedience, God will fulfill His purpose for our lives. Today and every day sing praise and thanksgiving to God, for He has hewn you out of the solid rock and given you the foundation of faith to see Jesus as He truly is. He is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, the One who brings God’s eternal salvation to the world.
“This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and doesn’t come to the light, lest his works would be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his works may be revealed, that they have been done in God.” John 3:19-21, WEB
In his book “How To Be Born Again,” Billy Graham told a story about a time he was to appear on a well-known television show. They were planning to film the interview in his home, so his wife Ruth spent hours preparing the space. She cleaned every nook and cranny until it appeared to be spotless. When the film crew arrived and turned on the bright lights, they saw cobwebs and dust where they had never seen them before. Ruth said, “That room was festooned with dust and cobwebs which simply did not show up under ordinary light.” The lesson Billy Graham learned from this experience is that we are festooned with dust and cobwebs - sin - in our own lives that do not show up in ordinary light. It is when we see ourselves in light of God’s Word and His holiness that the cobwebs and the dust are visible.
We like to think we are good people. Maybe we are; most of us are clean, on the surface. We do good things and what is right according to worldly ideals. We define people’s eternal destiny based on what we see happening in their lives and in their actions. When referring to the lives of the dearly departed, it is natural for us to say that they are going to go to heaven based on the good things we saw them do. As for our own eternal destiny, we compare ourselves to others are think that we are certainly going to heaven. “If my neighbor is good enough, then I certainly am!”
However, when the light of God’s Word shines on our lives, we suddenly realize that our righteousness is like filthy rags and our goodness is stained by sin. We are not clean. The thoughts of our minds, the failure of our actions, and the hardness of our hearts can’t be seen on the surface in ordinary light. It is only by the light of Christ that we realize that we are unworthy for the blessedness of life eternal in the kingdom of God. The more we realize the hidden truth and the reality of our worthlessness, the more we’d rather walk in the darkness of this world. However, Christ has made it possible for us to live eternally with Him even though we are unworthy. He makes us clean by His blood and His word.
Ruth probably went for a brush to clean more when she saw the dust and the cobwebs all over her living room under the lights of the cameras. During our journeys of faith we do the same thing. As God reveals our inner sins to us, He helps us to clean up our lives. Our homes will never be perfectly clean and we won’t be perfectly clean while we live in our flesh. God reveals our dust and cobwebs so that we will see our need for His love and mercy as found in our Lord and Savior Christ Jesus. God shines His light to turn us toward Himself, to bring us to our knees in humility and confession.
“With the merciful you will show yourself merciful. With the perfect man you will show yourself perfect. With the pure you will show yourself pure. With the crooked you will show yourself shrewd. You will save the afflicted people, but your eyes are on the arrogant, that you may bring them down. For you are my lamp, Yahweh. Yahweh will light up my darkness. For by you, I run against a troop. By my God, I leap over a wall. As for God, his way is perfect. Yahweh’s word is tested. He is a shield to all those who take refuge in him.” 2 Samuel 22:26-31, WEB
David wasn’t born into a royal family. If David had said as a child that he wanted to be king over Israel, they would have patted him on the back and encouraged him to dream big, as we do so for our children. They would never have expected it to happen, however. Saul the first king of Israel had reigned for about twelve years when David was born, and there is no way David’s family could have expected the visit from Samuel when he was just fifteen. David was anointed, but even then did not become king for more than twenty years. I can just imagine Uncle Yosef saying to David at the family reunions with a hint of facetiousness, “So David, are you king of Israel yet?”
David became king because God chose him to become king. He was never perfect, and he had done some terrible things, but he had a heart for God. When others were seeking his death, David sought God’s grace. He had opportunities to defeat his enemies, but remained obedient to God’s Word and God defeated them for him. God walked with him for his seventy years and he is remembered today as the king who led Israel through their golden years.
David’s love for God is obvious in the Psalms. He had his moments of self-pity, of course, and though often humble, David declares his righteousness as compared to his enemies. David, even as king, was constantly running from people who sought his life and his anointing, including his own family. The laments of the psalms were rightly sung, but in the end David always praised God and thanked Him for His deliverance of David from the hands of his enemies.
The twenty-second chapter of Samuel is known as David’s Song of Deliverance. This psalm was written at the end of David’s life as he reviewed everything he experienced. He always knew God was with him, and this was especially clear when he looked back over his life. David sang praise to God because God was worthy of his worship. Psalm 18 is an adaptation of David’s Song of Deliverance, used in corporate worship as God’s people remember all the times He came to their aid. Though we have not likely suffered the same kind of persecution, rejection, and threats as David, we can join in this psalm and remember how God delivered us from our enemies. As Christians, this means deliverance not just from human foes, but from sin, death, and the devil.
David’s heart was for God and this is why God chose him to be the second king of Israel. Samuel was sent to Jesse’s house to anoint the next king. Son after son came before him, strong man who had the appearance we might expect of a king. Yet, God told Samuel, “Don’t look on his face, or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for I don’t see as man sees. For man looks at the outward appearance, but Yahweh looks at the heart.” We are called to dwell in God’s mercy and despite his failings, David always dwelt in God’s mercy. If God chooses us, who can stand against us?
In today’s text, God shows us that He is what we are to him. He shows mercy to those who are merciful. He shows His righteousness to those who live rightly according to His Word. He is faithful to those who are faithful. He also shows Himself to those who are against Him, but they will find that they are on His wrong side. He will bring them down. We can do all things with God as our strength and our shield, not because we have the strength to do it ourselves but because we trust in God. He is our refuge and He deserves our praise.
“Shout for joy to Yahweh, all you lands! Serve Yahweh with gladness. Come before his presence with singing. Know that Yahweh, he is God. It is he who has made us, and we are his. We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, and bless his name. For Yahweh is good. His loving kindness endures forever, his faithfulness to all generations.” Psalm 100, WEB
If there’s one thing that we’ve learned over the past few months, it is that the priorities we put in the world were skewed. We gave more attention to the people in the news than the people in our house. We were more likely to remember the names of the top five American Idols than we are of our neighbors. We were more interested in the exploits of today’s divas than we are of the accomplishments of the teachers at our neighborhood school. We were more concerned by the news involving a sports hero’s injury than the family whose home burned down in our city because of a lightning strike. Celebrity is very visible and is central to our knowledge and interest, and we often miss what’s really important in the world.
Perhaps that has changed in the past few months. We are more aware of the cashiers and stockers at the grocery store. We are more concerned about the teachers who are having to adapt to un expected circumstances. We appreciate the doctors and nurses, first responders, and those who work tirelessly for our well-being. They are often nameless, but in recent months we have been far more aware of their faces.
There is a cartoon called “Coffee with Jesus” from RadioFreeBabylon which shows Jesus having coffee with a variety of characters that have questions for Him. He offers some very down to earth and yet very heavenly advice. The cartoon is not always comfortable. The artists often challenge our understanding of faith, life, and relationships. Sometimes they make me laugh. Sometimes they make me think. Sometimes they make me angry. But there’s something very real about the conversations Jesus has with the characters in the comic strip.
One episode showed Carl asking Jesus which was His favorite Christian singer. Jesus answered that He enjoys listening to a woman from a small village in Thailand who sings with her whole heart all day long. Carl said, “Oh. So no one anyone’s ever heard of.” Jesus answered, “She won’t be touring the church circuit anytime soon, Carl, but she’s famous where I come from.”
Carl never heard of the woman in Thailand who sings with her whole heart, and we will never get to hear her praise songs, but Jesus knows and the angels rejoice when she sings. Our own successes and failures will never be reported on the news, but Jesus knows and He celebrates our accomplishments and cries over our pain. He’d rather hear us sing “Jesus loves me” than attend a concert with every RIAA Diamond Certified Artist. The list is filled with extraordinary musicians, but Jesus loves to hear you sing and He is in the front row every time you raise your voice in praise to God.
Praise the Lord today in song. Sing of His glory and His love. Hum the tunes of your favorite hymns and break out in the words of “Jesus loves me.” God has written His Word on our hearts, and we can easily reach for those words in the songs that we hold dear. In our singing, we keep God close to us, remembering His truth and sharing them with the world. Shout for joy and sing joyful songs, give Him thanks and praise His name!
“Having therefore such a hope, we use great boldness of speech, and not as Moses, who put a veil on his face, that the children of Israel wouldn’t look steadfastly on the end of that which was passing away. But their minds were hardened, for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains, because in Christ it passes away. But to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. But whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face seeing the glory of the Lord as in a mirror, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord, the Spirit.” 2 Corinthians 3:12-18, WEB
A dozen or so years ago, our family took a summer vacation to Disney World. It was the summer before our daughter’s senior year of high school and we knew that it would probably be our last major family vacation. It was a fun time; we spoiled ourselves with excellent dining and all sorts of extras. Our daughter and I even took the behind the scenes tour.
I won’t give away too many secrets, because Disney is really all about the magic. However, I think the most amazing thing about Walt Disney World - particularly the Magic Kingdom – is that the size is misleading. As we enjoyed the tour, our guide told us to pay attention to how far we were walking. It was a long walk from one place to another. Then he took us behind the scenes; we stood behind one building and he pointed to the one right behind. That was our starting point, and though the two buildings are close, we had walked a long way from one front door to the other.
Disney does not allow many pictures of the park from above because it takes away the magic. Those overhead photos show you how much space is required to create the experience. Unfortunately for Disney, Google has made it easy for anyone to see what it is like. Our tour guide showed us a picture and pointed out a few of the more interesting things you can see. Take, for example, the ride called “The Haunted Mansion.” This ride appears to be a normal sized mansion on a hill, there is no reason to believe that there is anything behind. It is hard to understand how they were able to fit so much into that tiny building.
When you look at the picture from the sky, however, you can see that hidden behind the façade is a large warehouse. The ride takes you through this building, but they have created it in a way that makes it seem as though you never leave the mansion. You can’t see it from inside the park. On the overhead photos, you see that there are parking lots and storage buildings, huge areas of necessary but not so magical places. These things are invisible as you wander the park. The staff moves from place to place via underground tunnels. You’ll never see a package delivered or a bag of trash removed. The park seems so big, but it is far bigger than you can imagine. The park does seem big, but it is tiny compared to how big it really is.
Some people might not enjoy taking a behind the scenes tour of Disney World because it would take away the magic. Somehow, knowing that the Haunted Mansion is a huge ugly warehouse might make it less impressive. We like to think that somehow the Disney imagineers fit that long ride into a tiny mansion on the hill. Yet, to me, seeing behind the scenes made me realize how amazing Disney World really is. Instead of simply experiencing a small enclosed world, we stepped into an expansive complex designed for the happiness and comfort of the visitors. I enjoyed seeing the reality behind the magic.
When we think about Jesus, the man we meet in the scriptures, He seems to be very limited. He’s limited by His flesh, and by the stories that we are told in the Gospels. He is limited by our own understanding of the scriptures. We are limited by our traditions and our own culture. For many, this is enough. They like to keep Jesus, and God, in a very small box. It is easier to live with a God that we can see, touch, and understand. Yet, there is so much about God that is beyond our sight. There are mysteries we will never fully understand. Jesus is like that Haunted Mansion in that He is a big God wrapped in a very small package.
The Christian life can seem limiting, too. Some people look at our rules and think they’d rather live free to do whatever they want. They seek self-fulfillment and independence, thinking that it is a bigger and better way to live, and yet life in God’s Kingdom gives us access to eternity. You can’t get much bigger than that. Of course, some of the behind the scenes things aren’t very pretty, but it is the reality of living in God’s Kingdom. Our lives in Christ are not like a day at an amusement park. Our lives are filled with opportunities that we can’t see when we are focused on the glitz and glitter. Service and persecution are the hidden realities of our journey with Christ, and while some would rather avoid those things, they are where we find God’s grace most clearly.
Too many people have such a limited understanding of the God of our salvation that they do not realize how vast is His kingdom. Instead of being limited to some small, narrow experience of the divine, faith in Christ opens a whole new world to those who believe. Instead of being bound by our own sinfulness and flesh, we are given the freedom to live whole, new lives. Entering into the Christian faith is not limiting, it is freeing. We are free to be everything God has designed us to be, to experience His grace and to share it with the world.
Scriptures for August 30, 2020, Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Jeremiah 15:15-21; Psalm 26; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
“I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and I will redeem you out of the hand of the terrible.” Jeremiah 15:21, WEB
We are all “but people.” We are willing to make bold statements, but they are often accompanied by a “but.” This happens regularly on the court shows. The judge will ask “Did you sign a contract?” The person will answer, “Yes, but...” What mother has not said, “Yes you can have ice cream, but first you need to eat your dinner.” Not all “but” statements are bad, sometimes they are good. The key is to recognize how often we say it. I know I write it often (sometimes using the word “yet” which doesn’t change the meaning!” We often even use it when we are talking about our faith.
That’s what happened to Peter. Last week he made the great confession of faith, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This week is his “but...”
This was an incredible moment. It seemed as though the disciples were finally beginning to understand and believe that Jesus is LORD. It was also the turning point of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ relationship with the crowds began to go downhill from that point because he was 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, and we think that we would have made the great confession by our own power and intelligence. Even now, however, we cannot do it. We like to seek our own righteousness, that’s why we prefer to see Jesus as a Messiah that saves us from our earthly troubles. We prefer the Jesus we meet early in His ministry. Jesus makes us very uncomfortable when He begins talking about death. Even the idea that Jesus is the Son of the Living God is too difficult for the world to accept.
When Peter made that great confession that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus was overjoyed with his answer. Despite the many rumors and guesses, Peter spoke the truth. Only the Christ, the Son of the Living God could accomplish the work of God in this world. Only He could fulfill God’s promises and restore God’s people. Peter was the first to make the great confession, but he was just like you and I. He continued to misunderstand Jesus. We see his greatest failure in today’s text. It is comforting to know that we are all “but people.” 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. “You are the Christ, but do it the way I think you should do it.”
Have you ever gotten terribly lost while driving in an unknown part of a city? I was trying to deliver some paperwork to a building I had never visited. I made a wrong turn and ended up in a neighborhood with several dead end streets. At one point I realized that I was on the right street. I took that street in the direction of the building, but there were barriers at the edge of the neighborhood to keep the cars from using it to avoid the heavy afternoon traffic. I could see my building, but I could not get to it because of the roadblock. I had to turn around and continue to find my way back to the main road.
We love Peter, perhaps because he is so much like the rest of us. He is a “but person.” He made the great confession, but he wasn’t ready for the cross. Peter did not want Jesus to die, so he rebuked Him for talking about sacrifice and death. Peter had great faith by the grace of God, but in his next breath Peter’s faith seemed lost to his own needs and wants.
Jesus’ answer to Peter seems so harsh. “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.” Satan? Is Jesus calling Peter Satan? No, but Peter’s perspective was not from God. He was thinking only of the glory and not of the sacrifice that was necessary for God’s redemption of the world to be complete. God’s purpose for Jesus was not to be a great teacher or a great politician or a great prophet. The Father sent the Son to die for the sake of sinful human flesh. He sent Jesus to die for you and for me. While we live in the hope of the glory to come, we cannot ignore the cross through which Jesus passed for our salvation.
Jesus was not saying that Peter was Satan, or even that Peter was trying to block Jesus’ mission. Peter was not seeing Jesus clearly because something was standing in his way.
Satan is real. The reality is that there is a being bent on destroying the work of God in this world. Peter is not that being, and Satan was not physically standing between Peter and Jesus, but Satan was very much a part of that conversation because Peter had fallen prey to the spiritual reality of our own human faults. Jesus rebuked Peter’s point of view that made seeing the reality of Jesus impossible. Peter had seen Christ by God’s grace, and by God’s power, and knew that Jesus was the Messiah. However, Peter had his own expectation of what the Messiah would do and how He would accomplish the work of God. Peter could not see the truth; something was “standing in his way.”
Pope Francis said a few years ago, “Some of you might say: ‘But Father, how old fashioned you are to speak about the devil in the 21st century!’ But look out because the devil is present! The devil is here... even in the 21st century!” There is a very real spiritual battle that has been waged since the beginning of time. Adam and Eve faced the serpent in the Garden who asked, “Did God really say?” and we struggle with the same question today. Satan needs to get out of the way so that they can each see Christ clearly. We are all “but people”, like Peter, when it comes to fully knowing what God intends. We confess faith but we want to do it our own way.
It is easier for us to blame human nature for the evil that we see happening in the world. Surely we are too advanced to suggest that there exists a being like the devil! I’ve never seen him, have you? The quote from Pope Francis was using the text of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness; in that text, the devil or Satan tries to convince Jesus to pursue a different kind of work in the world. Temptation is real, we all know that, but we moderns think that it is ridiculous to blame a character for our own limitations. We especially reject the notion that Satan is a dude with horns and a tail carrying a pitchfork around the world. This is a good thing, because Satan certainly is not a character. And sometimes, yes sometimes, human nature is to blame.
Satan is real and sometimes our neighbors cause us to sin. This does not mean that our neighbor is Satan. Satan is real and sometimes it is our own weakness that causes us to sin. This does not mean we are Satan. We are reminded that he is real so that we’ll be prepared, not only if we see evil face to face, but when we are faced with the temptations that come to us through our neighbors and our own hearts. The best way for Satan to accomplish his goals is with the help of flesh and blood people to do his dirty work.
We see this most humorously in the brilliant story of Screwtape and Wormwood found in the insightful book by C.S. Lewis called “The Screwtape Letters.” Wormwood is an apprentice demon seeking for advice from his Uncle Screwtape. Uncle Screwtape tells him how to use human nature to his advantage.
Here is a quote out of the book: “It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one - the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” Screwtape advises his nephew to play upon the image of the devil as being a scaly red dragon with horns and a tail. Satan’s goal is to convince us that he doesn’t exist. What better way to accomplish that goal than to make his image so ridiculous that it just makes sense to ignore the reality of his existence? He’s done a pretty good job; many people, even Christians, doubt that Satan is real.
Satan is real. It is not old fashioned to think so; it would do us well to remember that the battles we face are not just physical; a spiritual war wages around us all the time and it is up to us to be prepared to fight against Satan with faith and hope and grace every day.
That said, the biblical word that is often translated “Satan” does not always refer to the being. It means “an adversary, opponent, enemy.” Satan is God’s adversary; unfortunately, so are we when we follow our own path. Human nature is the enemy of God’s intention for His people. Temptation is real and we fall to it every day whether the temptation comes from Satan, others, or from within our own hearts. We are His enemies when we sin. Jesus cries, “Get behind me, Satan” when we stand in His way and do what we want to do rather than what He is calling us to. That doesn’t mean He’s calling us Satan, but that we are opposing Him in a way that is not only dangerous to ourselves, but will hinder His work in the world.
We are just like Peter when He opposed Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson. Peter was not standing there as Satan incarnate, but he had been convinced by his own understanding and the expectations of the world that Jesus would be the kind of Messiah they wanted. Death was not in that plan. Peter was ready to fight for Jesus in the flesh but didn’t realize that he’d been deceived in spirit. The world identifies Jesus according to their wants and needs. They want a teacher, a rabbi, a miracle worker and a good man. They want a radical willing to stand up against injustice. They want a friend, a comforter, and a guide whose example we should follow. Jesus is far, far more. And because He is more, He is rejected by those who need Him most.
So was Jeremiah. 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 warm fuzzies. He was persecuted for doing the job God called him to do. He suffered at the hands of his own people. He lived in fear for his life and his future, but 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; in it Jeremiah admitted his disappointment to God.
Names have meaning. A person’s name defines some aspect of their life: personality, purpose, or heritage. Experts are uncertain about the meaning of Jeremiah, although it has been suggested that it means “the LORD exalts” or “the LORD establishes.” These both make sense when we look at Jeremiah and his place in God’s story. The LORD raised Jeremiah and established him as a prophet. Others have suggested that Jeremiah means “the LORD throws.” As we listen to Jeremiah’s words, this name also makes sense. Jeremiah feels like he’s been thrown to the wolves, tossed into a hostile world to face difficulty and persecution.
Throughout his book, Jeremiah made several confessions, admitting to God his hurt and pain. In today’s passage Jeremiah even says, “Will you indeed be to me as a deceitful brook, like 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.
Jeremiah was never alone, however. He’d lost his way. The LORD answered, “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.” Jeremiah’s complaints were worthless. Complaints do not change things, they only make things worse. If we are honest, we will admit that we complain, too. But our complaints have no value. Even when things seem impossible, we can 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, but we are never outside the presence of God. We will see His mercy and grace.
Today’s psalm is the prayer of one who has been falsely accused. Saul knew that he was no longer in God’s favor, so he persecuted David. Saul suspected David of conspiring against him and did everything he could to demean him in the eyes of the people. The reality is that Saul was falsely accusing David of the very things he was doing. If you study the word “seek” in the story of David and Saul, you will discover something interesting. In every case, Saul sought after David while David sought after God. Saul wanted David dead; David wanted to follow God’s heart. In this prayer from the Psalms, David says, “Yahweh, I love the habitation of your house, the place where your glory dwells.” David always wanted to be with God.
The people in Jeremiah’s day did not like what Jeremiah had to say, so they accused him of being a very bad man. The same can be said about David. Jeremiah and David 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 the lectionary passages this week, it might seem as though David and Jeremiah were self-righteous as they talked about their goodness. Yet, these texts are prayers of humble supplication before God, seeking His help in their troubles. We tend to respond to persecution and false accusation a need for vindication, but David asked God to look at his life and do what is right according to His Word. This assertion of righteousness is not a claim that David is a perfect person; he is not more righteous than others. Instead, in the psalm we see David’s example of faith in God’s mercy and justice. We learn that even when we are being persecuted, we can live the life God has called us to live, keeping our eyes on Him and trusting that He will do what is right.
I’ve heard it said that God does not abandon us, but it sure does feel like He has sometimes. The trouble is, when we feel abandoned, it is not God who has left, but we miss His presence because we have turned away from Him. We are just like Peter, looking right in the face of God but not seeing Him as He is because we are blinded by our own ambitions and perspectives. Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah but he did not yet understand what that meant. When Jesus said, “I have to suffer” Peter rebuked Him. God was doing something new, something He’d promised since the beginning of time. Unfortunately, most of the people misunderstood what God’s intentions, Peter included. They doubted what Jesus was saying. They worried about His attitudes. They wanted to direct God’s plan in a direction with which they were familiar and comfortable.
But God says, “Look at me.” He calls us away from our ambitions and our perspectives to see the world as He sees it. He promised that He will take care of us. We are quick to want things to go our own way, but then we miss what God is saying and doing. God says, “Look at me” so that we will not take matters into our own hands. We see our “enemies” as Satan, we seek our own revenge. We strive to keep things going our own way, unwilling or unable to see the reality.
That’s why God calls us to the life about which Paul has written. How hard it is for us to abide in a command such as “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” For too many people, peace means staying within the status quo, avoiding change in our thoughts and minds. Peter was given a gift of knowledge directly from God that Jesus was the Messiah, but he still wanted Jesus to fight like an earthly king for His kingdom. Peter did not expect peace until Jesus overcame his enemies. Peter was even willing to cut off the ear of a guard to stop Jesus’ arrest. Jesus says, “Look at me.” He wants us to see Him as He is, to live as He has called us to live, and to do everything we can to be at peace. This is not a peace that overcomes our problems, but it is a peace that gets us through.
Paul tells us that to take up our cross means to love genuinely. The cross calls us to do what is right not for the reward it could bring but rather for the sake of love. Love often demands what is hard. We are to rejoice in hope; not hope in glory but 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 do what we want Him to do? Paul’s words get even harder. How do we bless our enemy? Is it really possible to be humble in this world of ours? God will not always avenge us as we hope, because He will often seek our enemy’s repentance. How can we treat our persecutors as if they deserved 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 God by humbling ourselves before His throne of grace realizing that we ourselves have no reason to expect His incredible blessings. 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. It is a task that is not particularly comfortable and we will struggle with doing the right thing. We are reminded that we will not fully see God’s glory while we live in the flesh. We live in a world that will reject Jesus, but we can trust that God is always faithful to His promise.
We might just do what is right. Like Jeremiah and David we might live a life of righteousness, acting according to God’s will. We might see Jesus as LORD, speak the words the world longs to hear, and do the good things we have been called to do. We might just have reason to pray the prayer of the psalmist, seeking God’s help and His grace. Yet, the minute we blame others, including God, we put ourselves first. The minute we make demands on God, telling Him what to do because we think we know better, we deny God’s faithfulness and trust in ourselves rather than Him.
We might have reason to boast. We might be right to lay the blame elsewhere. But let’s always remember that God is faithful. He will deliver us and bless us and we will stand before Him and share in His glory as long as we keep our eyes on Him. May we remain humble, never seeking the glory but instead seeking God, seeing Him as He is and living in the reality of what comes when we travel through the cross.
Our cross will never save the world, but as we die to self we will discover the incredible blessing of being raised to new life in Christ. That new life will not always be pleasant; as a matter of fact, we are more likely to see persecution as we are obedient to God. But the new life to which we are raised is one that will last forever even if we suffer death at the hands of our enemies. We need not fear Satan, the world or our own hearts. God is faithful to His promises and He has promised to save us. Let’s just keep our eyes on Jesus and though we lose our lives we can rest in the promise that Jesus has already saved them.
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you fall into various temptations, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. Let endurance have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:2-4, WEB
My daily walks have made me more aware of the things that are happening in my neighborhood. I notice new flowers, changes in the landscaping, and construction projects. I am pretty observant, even when I’m driving, but most of it goes unnoticed. One major recent change is a new family has moved in. I probably would have seen the for sale sign, but since the house is down the block, I never would have seen when the new neighbors moved into the house. One day the cars were different and the sign disappeared. Today I saw the couple in their front lawn trying to place a cute bench in their garden.
I smiled when I saw them because I’ve been there more times than I want to admit. I don’t know what the inside of their house looks like at this point, especially since I didn’t see the moving truck, but I know what it feels like to get to the point of those little details that make a house a home.
I have a pattern. The first thing that gets done is the bed because at the end of the day you are exhausted and need a place to rest. The next thing is to work on the kitchen, after all you need to find the coffee cups and silverware. Hopefully the furniture found its right place as it was taken off the truck, but organizing the furniture comes next. I like to empty book boxes as soon as the bookshelves are in place because it is easy to empty twenty boxes (more!) in a short period of time, and that gets rid of a pile of boxes quickly. Clothing is pretty early in the process, although organization usually comes later. The miscellaneous boxes get emptied randomly, either when I’m in that room or when I realize I need something. I always finish the process with the things I hang on the wall. Then I know I’m almost home.
Moving is hard work. There are a million decisions to be made. On one end, you have to decide what to pack and what to clear out. Our last move included a dozen trips to donate items we’d gathered and did not need anymore. We still moved too many things. There are the big decisions like what neighborhood and which house. Do you need new curtains? Will your furniture fit? Where should you put everything? The physical labor is hard, too. Even if you have a mover to carry the heavy items, you still have to prepare by filling the boxes and finish by emptying them. It is an emotional event. Leaving one home is hard because of the memories, but a new home is exciting because of the possibilities. That moment when I hang the last painting on the wall is a joy because I know the hard work is done.
Imagine the joy we will experience when our hard work on this earth is finished? I don’t know if we can even imagine it because heaven will be greater than we expect. Yet, we can experience some of that joy today as we rest in God’s grace. By faith we are home, but it is like when we first move into a new house. There’s still work to do. One day we’ll hang the last picture on the wall and God will be waiting for us at the pearly gates to welcome us to our eternity. It won’t always be pleasant, we have burdens to carry and decisions to make, but we can rejoice today that God is faithful to His promises. Our eternal home is the greatest promise, so rejoice today in expectation and enjoy the journey.
“But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we certainly can’t carry anything out. 8 But having food and clothing, we will be content with that. But those who are determined to be rich fall into a temptation, a snare, and many foolish and harmful lusts, such as drown men in ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some have been led astray from the faith in their greed, and have pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” 1 Timothy 6:6-10, ASV
It is amazing how after nearly a century has passed, that Shirley Temple movies are still popular. Shirley Temple, the adorable little princess with blonde ringlets and catchphrase “O my goodness,” is still an enduring icon of American movies. She was the number one box office draw from 1935 to 1938 and saved Fox Studios. She made more money than some of the biggest stars in that day. She was charming, talented and professional, despite the fact that she was very young. Her acting career lasted only a few years; she left Hollywood and the movies behind at the grand old age of twenty-two. Though she continued to act on radio and television for another decade, she didn’t pursue the fame of Hollywood or make any more feature films.
Unlike many actors, her life didn’t end when she stopped making movies. After a painful divorce, she married her soul mate, had several children and prospered in her new vocation as wife and mother. She eventually got involved in politics, hoping to help the poor and oppressed by serving in Congress, but she lost the battle to another Republican who didn’t have the stigma of being a former actor. She was appointed by Richard Nixon as a delegate to the United Nations. She also served as Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia. Finally, she served as the first female Chief of Protocol under Gerald Ford, and was Foreign Affairs officer for the State Department during the Reagan administration where she trained new ambassadors in diplomacy.
When asked whether she was going to continue working in politics, she answered, “I haven’t been asked, and I don’t seek political office.” She was always willing to serve, but she did not feel the need to pursue it as a career. She kept busy, serving on boards of corporations and organizations, always serving others with her gift of generosity and peacekeeping. Her movie, political, and business careers may seem completely unrelated, but it was that same charm, talent and professionalism that made her successful in everything she did. Shirley once said, “Shirley Temple doesn’t hurt Shirley Temple Black. Shirley Temple helps Shirley Temple Black because Shirley Temple is remembered with love and with affection. I am thought of as a friend - which I am.”
Ten years ago Betty White, another icon of American culture, had resurgence. Someone began a Facebook campaign to get her as a host on Saturday Night Live. I wondered at the time whether Shirley Temple Black would be interested in the same type of invitation. She died in 2014, but I wonder if she ever thought about what it would be like to use her charm, talent, and professionalism to continue making an impact in the world. Could she have found success again in the movies, or on television, or in politics?
I don’t doubt that she is still loved by many and that she could have garnered the support necessary to bring her out into the limelight again. The question we have to ask, however, is whether or not Shirley Temple Black would have wanted the notoriety a Facebook campaign might bring. She found contentment in her quiet life in Northern California, and she never sought the power of fame a public career offered. I don’t think we should have seen her singing “On the Good Ship Lollypop” on Saturday Night Live and I doubt she would have ever accepted that offer, but I do think she could easily been a public face for those seeking peace and diplomacy in our troubled world.
I am happy for Betty White and the success she has had over the past few years, but I am also glad that Shirley Temple Black found her place of peace away from the limelight. She was happy and content. I’m sure, if asked, Shirley Temple Black would have served in whatever form necessary to do the work that needed to be done, but she was not tempted by the promise of fame in a world that would quickly embrace her. She was content to live graciously and serve willingly to do what is good and right and true in this world.
“Finally, brothers, whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report: if there is any virtue and if there is any praise, think about these things. The things which you learned, received, heard, and saw in me: do these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4:8-9, WEB
I woke up this morning and checked the weather. It was already over 80 degrees outside and I just did not feel like taking my walk. Of course, I’ve learned that on the day I really don’t want to take the walk is the day I really should, but I didn’t. Instead I exercised on my mini trampoline inside. I love taking my walks for reasons other than the exercise, but I probably should do the tramp exercises more often. I definitely moved different muscles. I definitely put in a different kind of work out. The walking exercise is good, but it isn’t enough. I need to move beyond one type of exercise, even if I’m pushing to walk faster and longer, to work different parts of my body.
Those of you who actively work out on a regular basis probably think that’s old news. Of course it is important, but I’ve been so proud of the changes I’ve been making in my life, one step at a time, that it took watching a video or two to help me see the next step I need to make. Working those other muscles will help my whole body. It is a matter of balance, and this can be true in other aspects of life.
A person mowing a lawn knows that it is good to mow in different directions each time. The same is true of vacuuming. Moving the equipment in the same direction leaves some grass uncut and some dust in the carpet. Car tires need to be rotated occasionally so that they wear out more evenly. I like to alternate my reading materials between entertaining novels and academic works, this way I am building my mind as well and having fun. Balance means taking care of the whole, not just one part.
This is true when it comes to our relationship with God. It isn’t enough to do just one thing to exercise our faith. It is good to spend time in church, but we also need to spend time acting our faith in the world in service to others. It is good to gather with others in bible study, but we need to also sit quietly to listen to God’s voice in private. It is good to sing praise songs, but it is important to also lament our fallenness, to seek God’s mercy and forgiveness. None of these are done alone, but are done in conjunction with all other ways of worshiping God, balancing every aspect of our faith exercises to reach healing and wholeness.
I’ve realized that something was missing from my exercise program and I’m making the changes so that it will have a greater impact. Is there something missing from your life? Is there something that you are not presently doing to exercise your faith? Do you need more private devotion and prayer? Or do you need a Bible study to see God’s words through a different point of view? It is tough right now, but are you finding ways to gather with other Christians, to fellowship and worship together? Are you using your gifts to make a difference in the world? Exercise your faith in a new way too; it might be a struggle as you begin using “new muscles” but in the end you’ll find it will help your relationship with God grow deeper and fuller each day.