Welcome to the August 2021 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, August 2021
“‘For I, Yahweh, don’t change; therefore you, sons of Jacob, are not consumed. From the days of your fathers you have turned away from my ordinances, and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,’ says Yahweh of Armies. ‘But you say, “How shall we return?” Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me! But you say, “How have we robbed you?” In tithes and offerings. You are cursed with the curse; for you rob me, even this whole nation. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house, and test me now in this,’ says Yahweh of Armies, ‘if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there will not be room enough for. I will rebuke the devourer for your sakes, and he shall not destroy the fruits of your ground; neither shall your vine cast its fruit before its time in the field,’ says Yahweh of Armies. ‘All nations shall call you blessed, for you will be a delightful land,’ says Yahweh of Armies. ‘Your words have been stout against me,’ says Yahweh. ‘Yet you say, “What have we spoken against you?” You have said, “It is vain to serve God;” and “What profit is it that we have followed his instructions, and that we have walked mournfully before Yahweh of Armies? Now we call the proud happy; yes, those who work wickedness are built up; yes, they tempt God, and escape.” Then those who feared Yahweh spoke one with another; and Yahweh listened, and heard, and a book of memory was written before him, for those who feared Yahweh, and who honored his name. They shall be mine,’ says Yahweh of Armies, ‘my own possession in the day that I make, and I will spare them, as a man spares his own son who serves him. Then you shall return and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him who serves God and him who doesn’t serve him.’” Malachi 3:6-18, WEB
Today’s question comes from the prophet Malachi. Through him God asks, “Will a man rob God?” We are encouraged to think about our own response to God’s grace. Where do we get our joy? Do we get it from taking care of ourselves or by being obedient to God’s Word?
Helen Keller once said, “Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes real happiness. It is not obtained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”
Eric Hoffer said, “The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.”
Kim Hubbard said, “It is pretty hard to tell what does bring happiness: poverty and wealth have both failed.”
Bertrand Russell said, “To be without some of the things you want is an indispensible part of happiness.”
George Burns said, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.”
Ok, that last one was a bit of humor in the midst of an important subject. What is happiness? What does it meant to be happy? Verse 15 of today’s reading is a sad statement, but one I think many of us can identify with: we call the proud happy. The NIV translation says, “We call the arrogant blessed.” The Message says, “Those who take their life into their own hands are the lucky ones.”
I once read an article about the history of happiness. The list began with a quote from Aristotle in 350 BC that said, “Happiness is the best, most noble, and most pleasant thing in the world.” In 1776, the writers of our Declaration of Independence included that all men have the right to “the pursuit of happiness.” Laughing gas was invented in 1799. Books about parenting in the early 1900s focused on children’s happiness. The term “Happy Hour” came into use by sailors in the 1920s. The song “Happy Birthday to you” was copyrighted in 1935. The laugh track for radio and television was invented in the 1950s. The term ‘happy pill’ for tranquillizers was coined in the 1950s. The idea of national happiness and happiness in international relations came into style in recent years. In 2010, Matt Salzberg said, “My vision of success is based on the impact I can have, much more than the pursuit of money or prestige.” Perhaps Matt was the first one to get it right.
The article gave several steps to finding happiness. First, they recommended valuing your relationships. In a University of Illinois study, researchers discovered, “The highest levels of happiness are found with the most stable, longest, and most contented relationships.” Second, those who are happy express themselves. According to a Wake Forest University study, participants were tracked over a two week period and they found that they were happier when they were more outgoing and less happy when reserved or withdrawn.
I think it is true that happiness comes when we do not put the focus on ourselves, but turn our actions and thoughts to others. Those who take their lives into their own hands are not the lucky ones. God says, “Return to me, and I will return to you.” They didn’t understand. “How have we turned away?” “How have we robbed you?” God told them that they were focused on the wrong things. They were more interested in themselves and their own happiness. Instead of sharing their blessings with others, they were keeping it for themselves.
Instead of serving God, they served self. Malachi wrote, “You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God;’ and ‘What profit is it that we have followed his instructions, and that we have walked mournfully before Yahweh of Armies?” They thought it was a waste of their time and resources to serve God. We might think that a new car or party dress will make us happy, but true happiness comes when we love God and live for Him in this world. This doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t have the new car or pretty dress, but let’s remember what matters most. Our happiness comes from living the life God is calling us to live, with Him in the forefront, doing His work in this world.
Stewardship is a word that evokes fear in the hearts of many when it is brought up at church. “Oh, no. Not again. They are going to ask me for more money. I already give more than I can spare. I have bills to pay and children to feed. I just can’t give any more than I already do.” Wait! What is the motive here? Where are the hearts for God? Where is the obedience to His will?
Abel gave the best of his flock out of his love for God, but Cain merely gave some of his fruits out of duty. Everything we have comes from God. How do we repay Him for His many blessings in our lives? By grumbling? With excuses? We need to return to the LORD what was first His, not only our material blessings but also our whole lives. Do you just go to church on Sunday and drop a twenty-dollar bill in the plate? We need to be giving our first fruits, the best of all we have, to our Lord God. It is in giving our best selves for God’s kingdom that we will know real happiness, that we will experience the joy of belonging to the Lord fully in heart and spirit.
“Yahweh visited Sarah as he had said, and Yahweh did to Sarah as he had spoken. Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore to him, Isaac. Abraham circumcised his son, Isaac, when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was one hundred years old when his son, Isaac, was born to him. Sarah said, ‘God has made me laugh. Everyone who hears will laugh with me.’ She said, ‘Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? For I have borne him a son in his old age.’” Genesis 21:1-7, WEB
I don’t have any grandchildren yet, but I have a little friend who comes to visit me. He was here yesterday for a little while. The last time he came over, Bruce told me to let him play with some of his childhood trucks, and he had a great time with them. This time Bruce was home and let him play with a few different ones. I also have a cube filled with toys that I kept from my own children for the day when I will have grandchildren. We got that out last time and my little friend remembered it this time. He also remembered some of the toys from last time, and he wanted Bruce to get them out. He loves farm stuff. All his antics made us laugh.
My little friend is just at the point of being fully potty trained. We noticed the dance a couple times and his mom took him to the potty, although it was a tough task. He did not want to stop playing. He was having such a good time with the toys that he was willing to wait until it was too late. Thankfully, his mom knew better and took him in time. He is stubborn, like most children his age, and he did not want to go home. He found all sorts of ways to put off the inevitable. He knew where the toys belonged, and he wanted to take them to the room. We let him drive one of the trucks into the room, and then told him that we wanted the toys to stay in the living room for Bruce. Even though his games were a bit disobedient, we still laughed. After all, a “grandma” is meant to be a little indulgent, right?
It is good to be happy. Laughter is not always looked upon as a good thing in the scriptures. Even in this scripture, the laughter is almost out of disbelief. Sarah had laughed when she heard the promise that at ninety years old she’d have a child. Then, when her son was born she laughed again. This time, she wanted the world to laugh with her because she was finally going to know the joy have having a child in the house. God made her laugh with happiness, along with the amazement of experiencing the impossible. Children might be hard to deal with, but they also make us happy. They bring us joy because we see life and innocence and excitement in all they do. They are happy even when the surprises seem small and insignificant, and see love in the simplest gestures.
Sarah’s gift was great: she gave Abraham a son. But she knew the gift came from God and she rejoiced over His grace in her life so she could give him that son. I know part of my happiness last night and when the children were small was because I was thankful I could do those simple things for my kids. We might feel it is impossible to do what we want to do with others. We won’t be having children at an old age, and we can’t afford to purchase everything our kids want. However, sometimes the greatest joy comes from the smallest things. Happiness doesn’t come from wealth, but from generosity. The special moments give us the greatest laughter. The little things sometimes bring the greatest joy, especially given in thankfulness for all God has done for us.
Scriptures for August 8, 2021, Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost: 1 Kings 19:1-8; Psalm 34:1-8; Ephesians 4:17-5:2; John 6:35-51
“Oh taste and see that Yahweh is good. Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.” Psalm 34:8, WEB
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Whether this is true or not, we have a tendency of imitating the world around us. People are often seen wearing clothes that imitate their favorite singers, actors or sports stars. They imitate their role models, buying the vehicles, homes and material goods they see the rich and famous collecting. Advertisers rely on our tendency toward imitation to sell their products. This is why they get famous people to do commercials. If you like the star, you’ll buy the products they use.
The cost of imitating people can be expensive. Even if you are able to find manufacturers that produce decent knock-offs, the clothing can still cost more than too much money. Chasing after an image that is beyond your means can change your attitude and cause you to do things that go against your better judgment. A person who wants the hot new sports car will work long hours at a job they hate while overlooking their vocation as a spouse and parent, friend and neighbor. Some will do anything necessary to get what they want, even if it is illegal. They will lie, cheat and steal, perhaps even murder. If they don’t get their way, they become bitter and angry; turning their wrath on whomever is in their path. We don't even realize we are being imitators sometimes, but we are. We just have to recognize who it is we are imitating.
Florence Nightingale is remembered for her work reforming health care and hospitals in England. She was born in Florence, Italy in 1820 to an English couple who traveled extensively. Though she was expected to marry well, she had a different goal in mind. She was just seventeen years old, in the gardens at her home in Hampshire when she heard the voice of God calling her to do His work. She didn’t understand it immediately, but she became interested in the issues of her day. She began to spend time with the sick. She was well educated, but her family refused to allow her to pursue nursing because it was considered beneath her station in the world. She became a nurse anyway. She was placed in good positions, including the job of overseeing the first female nurses in military hospitals in Turkey.
She had a positive impact on the military hospitals. After the Crimean War, she continued to work toward creating better health care standards in the British Army. The British people were grateful to her for all her work and established a fund that would enable her to continue. With that money, she built a training school for nurses, which raised the level of professionalism in that career field. Florence believed that poor health had something to do with cleanliness and she advocated the modern practice of regularly washing hands.
The practice of hand washing has been center stage since the start of the pandemic, but most of us have been in the habit since childhood. We don’t even realize that we are imitating someone when we wash our hands after we have gone to the bathroom. We remember our mothers and fathers constantly reminding us to do so when we were young and now it is a habit. We don’t think about the fact that Florence Nightingale promoted this habit of good hygiene as she followed her calling from God.
Florence Nightingale had a positive impact on many aspects of the health care system. It was because of her faith that she was able to do these things. She recognized from the beginning that she received her gifts from God for a purpose, one she carried out despite the displeasure of her family. We honor Florence Nightingale for her work, and as we look at the scriptures for this week we can see a call to action. Despite his fear and sense of failure, Elijah ate and went to the mountain of God, being obedient to God’s command even though he wanted to die. David’s song is reminiscent of a time when he managed to escape the hands of his enemy by his shrewd actions. Paul talks of the life we are called to live, the life in which we imitate God.
The life of a prophet is not easy; Elijah’s life was no exception. He had to do hard things. He had to face evil and destroy it. He had to go against the rulers of the day, to speak God's truth at a time when the people were following false gods and accepting false religion. The people of Israel, including King Ahab, were worshipping Baal. They, like so many before and after, thought it best to cover all their bases. They worshipped both God and false god. Elijah called together the prophets and the people. He asked them how long they would divide their loyalties. See, we can't worship both God and the false gods. We have to choose.
Elijah suggested that they hold a competition. There were four hundred and fifty prophets for the false gods and Elijah was the only one for the true God. Surely so many prophets could make a miracle happen, right? The prophets of Baal made their sacrifice first, but when they called on their gods there was no response. Elijah prepared his bull, placed it on the altar, and surrounded the altar with wood, as expected. Then he covered the wood with so much water that it would be impossible to burn. He called on God who sent a fire from heaven that not only roasted the bull, but burned everything from the wood to the rocks and soil and every drop of water. When the prophets of Baal sacrificed a bull and called on their gods, there was no response. It was obvious to the people which God was real.
It wasn’t so obvious to Jezebel, Ahab’s wife. Well, it probably was, but it didn't matter to her. She was willing to follow false worship because it suited her. Those prophets served her needs and desires, while Elijah did not. To her, the one speaking the truth was wrong because he wasn't willing to cater to her. She became extremely angry with Elijah because after the competition, Elijah ordered the people to kill the false prophets. This caused Jezebel to threaten Elijah. He ran away in fear.
Despite the positive response from the people, Elijah knew that their hearts were fickle. They might believe that the LORD is God, but how long would it last, particularly if Jezebel succeeded? The prophets of Baal were defeated, but it would not be long before they people turned away from God. Elijah thought he failed. He thought he was no better than all the other prophets of God. He just wanted to die.
We lift up Elijah as a great prophet of God; and rightly so because he was. However, this story is a good reminder for us. We aren’t much different. We are willing to do God’s will, but we also get frightened by the threats of our enemies. We think we have failed. We run and hide. We forget that God is faithful and that we are called to trust Him. That’s what is so great about this story. God didn’t give up on Elijah.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not a very patient person. If I ask someone to do something and they don’t do it, I don’t give them much of a chance to redeem themselves. I do it myself and then I use it against the person I originally asked. “Clean your room,” I said to my children over and over again during their childhood. It never took very long for me to go in there myself and start picking up. “See how much better it is if you just hang up that pair of pants?” It isn’t just children that frustrate me; I’ve done the same thing with people at work or on committees. Sometimes it is just better to do things on my own rather than wait for them to get around to it.
God does more than give us second chances. When we are afraid or think we failed or run and hide, He has patience with us, encourages us, and gives us all we need to do the work He is calling us to do. He knew what Elijah was feeling; He doesn’t ignore our fears or doubts. He doesn’t assume (as I have done with my kids and their rooms) that we are lazy or rebellious. He takes us by the hand and patiently leads us to the place He wants us to go. It would be much easier for Him to abandon us, to get someone else to do the work or to simply do it Himself. He doesn’t. He helps us to be faithful to our calling.
One of my favorite scripture passages is the story that follows today’s verses. Elijah went to where God commanded him and met God on the mountain. In that story we learn that God does not always scream and shout, but that He comes to us as a whisper. Today’s passage is equally important because we see that He gives us all we need as we journey through this world on our way to do His Work. Elijah wanted to die, but God still had work for him to do, so God provided the strength and then whispered His grace into Elijah’s life. Elijah went on to do God’s Work in this world. God gave Elijah food for the journey and rest. He does so for us, too.
That’s where Jesus has been leading us over the past few Sundays in the Gospel lessons. First Jesus gave the people food to eat as a sign of His authority, and then He told them that the work of God is to believe in Him. They asked for a sign, refusing to accept the one He had already given. They pointed to Moses, but Jesus reminded them that the manna that they ate was not given to the by Moses, but by God Himself, and that they ate that bread and died anyway. He told them to eat the real bread from heaven. When they asked for it always, He said, “I am the Bread of Life.” If we eat this bread we will never die.
In today’s passage Jesus points to their unbelief. “I have told you all this but you don’t believe. I am who I say I am.” We can even write that “I AM who I say I AM” because Jesus was clearly identifying Himself with God. This upset the Jews because they recognized the words and considered it blasphemous. The conversation didn’t get any better, because Jesus told them that He is the Bread that comes down from heaven and if they eat of it, they will live forever. The final words were so far out of their comfort zone that it turned many away from following Jesus. “I am the living bread which came down out of heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever: yea and the bread which I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world.” Next week will be even worse.
See, our faith doesn’t stand on pretty and popular things. It stands on the truth of God which is hard for us to accept. The idea of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ is, quite frankly, not very pleasant to consider. Yet this gift, this sacrament of Holy Communion is the bread God gives us to strengthen us for the journey. It is to this meal that we should run when we are feeling frightened and frustrated, when we think we have failed, when we simply want to die. It is through the body and blood of Christ that God helps us to be faithful to our calling.
This is too hard for the world to accept. The world does not want to experience God as He has revealed Himself, they would rather experience a god of their choosing. That’s why we so easily turn to the false gods and believe the false prophets. Elijah had just done a most incredible thing. Through Him God revealed His power and defeated the prophets of Baal. Jezebel threatened revenge and Elijah was tired of it all. He ran away and asked God to let him die. He knew that the people would turn away eventually and thought he was a failure.
But God did not give Elijah what he wanted; He fed Elijah and then sent Him on a journey. He sent Elijah to a place where He revealed Himself more fully and through that encounter Elijah had the strength to continue God’s work in this world. He does the same for us in the Eucharist and gives us the strength to continue to do His work in the world. It is hard to accept, it is at the Table that God assures us of His faithfulness. He will do what He has promised He will do, and we can know this each time we eat of the bread and drink from the cup that is the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. In this strength we can live as God wants us to live.
That’s what Paul was talking about in today’s Epistle lesson. In this week’s passage, Paul seems to be making a list of things we have to do. At the very least, it is a list of things we should not do. We should not lie, but we should tell the truth. If we are angry, we should not sin or we will give the devil a foothold. We should not steal, but should work hard for our living. We should not speak with a wicked tongue, but should speak in a way that will edify and build up the body of Christ. Yet, this is not a passage about works. It is a passage about our response to the work of Christ. “Walk in love, even as Christ also loved us and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling fragrance.”
Paul’s call to the Christian is not about doing good works, but rather living the life that God has called us to live. “Be imitators of God and walk in love.” This is eternal life in this world, living in the presence of God daily. We are called to become more than just a copy, but to be part of the kingdom of God that has extended over time and space. Our relationship with God is not some disconnected affiliation, but we are joined together by the living bread of heaven. Paul gives us some direction to help us live in our relationships with God and each other. These are not commands of how we should act to gain the kingdom; the Jews tried it that way and they never saw God.
Paul encourages us to share the bread of heaven by living as God would have us live: free from falsehood and anger, gaining good things in a right way and speaking encouraging words. We are to rid ourselves of negative feelings that grow into unhealthy action. Paul shows the difference, “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, outcry, and slander be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving each other, just as God also in Christ forgave you.” In this way God perpetuates the bread of heaven, as He reveals Himself through our lives so that others might know Him and be saved.
Jesus Christ is the bread of life. By the power of the Holy Spirit we have faith unto belief. We believe and have eternal life. We have eternal life. It is not something that will come to us in the future, but is a present reality. Eternal life is living in the presence of God, basking in His glory, sharing His love.
Elijah had a meal of bread in the desert, a meal that gave him the strength to keep going. Jesus told the gathering crowds to eat the bread of heaven for eternal life. By faith we are made part of a Kingdom that is not limited to this world, but it is a kingdom that demands our faithfulness. Will we put God first, sacrificing the old ways for the new? Will we trust that even when the things of God seem so complicated, that God is forever faithful? And will we reject the ways the world tries to make our faith more palatable? Though it seems so strange, Jesus has invited us to receive His flesh and blood so that we will be a part of His body; it is there we truly find refuge.
“Oh taste and see that Jehovah is good.” At the altar rail, as we receive the Eucharistic meal, we are as close to heaven as we will ever be in this life. As we kneel together, we are also kneeling with all Christians throughout time and space. It is there we are in the presence of God, receiving His gift of life together as one body. It is there we set aside our bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, railing and malice, receiving the forgiveness of Christ that we might be strengthened to give forgiveness to others. It is there we taste and see that the Lord is indeed good, and there we find our refuge in the one we can trust to help us along the way.
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” 1 John 4:7-12, WEB
I spent a few days at the coast. It wasn’t a beachy area, but the town has a lovely waterfront. There is a marina, a decommissioned World War II aircraft carrier, and the promise of dolphins in the bay. There are plenty of seagulls, and lots of people to watch. The waterfront includes some informational plaques and some lovely gazebos. There is even a memorial to a famous local. Though I was there for a conference, but I knew I had to spend some time on the waterfront, especially at sunrise. I love to take sunrise photos.
We are in a bit of a rainy weather pattern around Texas, so I wasn’t sure there would be much of a sunrise. I checked the radar Tuesday morning and the cloud cover seemed like it might allow an opportunity for some photos. I rushed to get dressed so I could be sitting on the waterfront by 6:53, which was when the upper rim of the sun appears on the horizon. I could tell that it wouldn’t be a spectacular sunrise with lots of color, but the clouds were very interesting, so I sat on one of the many benches and waited for the show.
There were people around, runners getting in their morning workout, but it was quiet and peaceful. After awhile a woman with two dogs walked up and sat on the bench next to the one I was sitting on. There were dozens of other benches and she picked the one that was closest to mine. Of course I didn’t mind, but I wondered why someone might choose to do their quiet time close to someone else when there were plenty of other choices.
Eventually I asked her a question about the dolphins, which began a lovely conversation with Beena, an ER nurse who lives in the town. As it turned out, the benches had memorial plaques placed by those who sponsored the benches in honor of deceased loved ones. The bench on which Beena sat was her friend David’s bench. She wasn’t the sponsor, but he was someone she knew and she spent time each morning with him. She talked to him, cried with him, and though he was not physically present, he was present in her heart. As an ER nurse through the pandemic, she’s had many reasons to cry. It has been cleansing to her. It isn’t always easy to share our deepest thoughts with others; she has found a way to do so that gives her comfort. I don’t know if the one truly listening and comforting her was Jesus Christ, but I am sure He was.
We talked a little about God and she knew I was there at a Christian conference. I told her I wrote devotions. I mentioned Jesus, and though she didn’t reject, she embraced the idea of a more universal deity that paints the sky beautiful colors. Her life hasn’t been easy, she has struggled with relationships, she has seen things that would make any of us cry. She has a giving heart, making breakfast for some of the homeless who sleep on the waterfront every night. I’m not sure I was the best witness for Jesus; I’m not sure I planted any seeds that will grow into living faith in Christ. I do know that I gave her a chance to pour out her soul to a real heart and pair of ears, once brief moment of connection. It was a holy encounter. It didn’t hurt that she had the most adorable two dogs with her. I don’t know what will happen to Beena, but I do know that God can use the most imperfect people to do His work in the world. Perhaps my task was not the plant the seed, but to plow the field.
A long time ago I was reading through the parable of the sower, where the man cast seed on the path, in the stones, in the thorns, and on the good soil, I realized that it is important to prepare the soil. We never know what part of the process we are accomplishing when we encounter someone who needs Jesus. Are we the sower? Are we the water? Are we the sunshine? Are we the one who is blessed with being the harvester? Whatever our task, we are reminded that it is God who causes faith to happen. The best for which we can hope is that God’s love is visible in our lives in a way that will draw our neighbors into His heart so that they will experience His presence in a very real way. We do that by responding to those divine appointments with grace and hope.
“Therefore let’s not judge one another any more, but judge this rather, that no man put a stumbling block in his brother’s way, or an occasion for falling. I know, and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean of itself; except that to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. Yet if because of food your brother is grieved, you walk no longer in love. Don’t destroy with your food him for whom Christ died. Then don’t let your good be slandered, for God’s Kingdom is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who serves Christ in these things is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then, let’s follow after things which make for peace, and things by which we may build one another up. Don’t overthrow God’s work for food’s sake. All things indeed are clean, however it is evil for that man who creates a stumbling block by eating. It is good to not eat meat, drink wine, nor do anything by which your brother stumbles, is offended, or is made weak.” Romans 14:13-19, WEB
Have you ever had a relationship in which you did nothing but bicker about the silliest things? Siblings tend to do this all the time about silly things like who will get the last Twinkie, who set the table yesterday, whose turn is it to do the dishes. I’ve seen childhood friendships break up daily over some small argument. An hour or two later, or the very next day, they are back to playing. Even adults quarrel over silly things: a parking space at the mall, which restaurant to visit, whose turn it is to take the kids to the dentist. Unfortunately, adults do not usually bounce back in an hour. Sometimes it takes twenty years or relationships are completely broken.
Families have separated over the execution of a will, neighbors have become enemies over property rights, and co-workers have fought over promotions and benefits until they can no longer even work together. These issues might sound quite important, and yet is money, material possessions and position really more important than our relationships with our fellow human beings? How many of us have lost friendships in the past few years over politics? Some prominent people are beginning to threaten those in their circles over their opinions about the pandemic and the recommendations of how we should live in this time.
As bad as all this is, it is even more upsetting when the bickering is over religious ideology. There are certainly things that matter, such as the character of God and the truth about Jesus. I’ve always joked that we tend to fight over silly things like the color of the carpet, but in these days the bickering goes much farther. Too many Christians are questioning the truthfulness of the Bible, or at least the interpretation of the Bible how the issues of the world around us impact our faith. This silly and heavy bickering is dividing the body of Christ and weakening the Church’s impact on the world. We are hurting one another and our God by fighting these fights. We need to learn how to deal with our brothers and sisters in Christ in a way that is merciful and compassionate. Sometimes we have to act with grace when others disagree with our opinions.
Christians are constantly bickering with other Christians about some doctrine or another. These issues can seem very clear to the believer when they read the scriptures, and they find it impossible to see how anyone can think differently. Unfortunately, people see these things differently. Even in the earliest days of the Church, the disciples argued over silly and heavy issues. There were those in Jerusalem that insisted that the new Gentile converts needed to be circumcised, while others understood their conversion an act of grace that did not require the new believer to become a Jewish proselyte.
Paul knew the scriptures about food that is clean and unclean, but when he became a Christian he realized that there is no such thing as an unclean food. So, he no longer worries about what he should eat, for he knows it would not be a sin to eat whatever is placed before him. Yet, he is greatly concerned with his brothers in Christ who are not as strong in their faith and understanding. This is why he appeals to the mature Christians to love their weaker brothers and sisters and not do anything that will grieve them.
It is better to give up a bit of freedom in Christ, to avoid the things which cause our brothers and sisters to bicker with us. Our bickering does not glorify God and our division with one another does not please him. He calls us to live in peace with one another, serving God loving and edifying one another. Is there some issue that makes your blood boil? Is there some ideology that sets you on edge? Think twice or a million times before forcing your opinion on others who disagree, for it grieves God to see His children bicker. Let us not let silly bickering cause another to fall, for Jesus came to bring peace into the hearts of all who believe.
I had a wonderful vacation and I’m back inspired and ready to share God’s grace!
“Continue steadfastly in prayer, watching in it with thanksgiving, praying together for us also, that God may open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in bonds, that I may reveal it as I ought to speak. Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” Colossians 4:2-6, WEB
Our question for this week comes from all three synoptic gospels (Matthew 5, Mark 9, and Luke 14), where Jesus asks with what we can season flavorless salt. He warns that we are the salt of the earth, but if we do not keep ourselves salted we might miss the opportunity to do His Work in this world and serve the purpose for which we have been created, redeemed and gifted.
Though many have decided to avoid salt on their food for health reasons, salt is a most important commodity in this world.
Did you know that only about 6% of the salt produced around the world is used for food? More salt is used to condition water (12%) and de-ice highways (8%). Another 6% is used in agriculture and a whopping 68% is used in manufacturing and industrial processes. Did you know that they use salt to make PVC, plastic and paper? It is also used to make aluminum, soap, rubber and pottery. It is used in to drill, to tan hides and to dye fabric. It is also used as a preservative.
There are many different types of salt. It used to be easy to buy salt at the grocery store, since there was usually just a few choices. Now you have to decide what type of salt you want. You can buy regular table salt, but there are other possibilities. Kosher salt is used for all types of cooking and contains no additives, so it has a better flavor. Sea salt comes coarse to be used in cooking or flaky for use at the table. Fleur de Sel is a specialty salt, and is considered the caviar of salt. It is used at the table for a wonderfully melt in your mouth experience of saltiness. Pickling salt is used for preservation. Rock salt is used in making ice cream and can be handy on icy winter days.
Salt is no longer just white; you can buy salts that are red, pink or black. It comes in coarse and fine. It can be cheap or you can spend a fortune on it. Each type of salt has a specific purpose, some are added during cooking and others are designed to enhance the flavor at the table. Salt does add a salty flavor, but it is also used to enhance the other flavors of food. Salt controls yeast growth in bread so that it will rise properly. A little salt on a margarita makes the tequila pop and it suppresses the bitter flavors.
I’m sure we could talk for hours about the qualities and purposes of salt. We know that too much salt is not good for our health; it leads to heart disease and stroke. I don’t use much salt in my house, a practice that would quickly get me kicked off most of the cooking shows. The judges are constantly complaining about the lack of salt. I don’t avoid salt completely, but I use it sparingly, because we get so much salt in many of our foods these days. I found it interesting that animal products have a naturally higher salt content than plant products. We can’t live without salt altogether; it is a necessary part of our diet. We just have to learn how to balance our need for salt and how we get it.
Salt has always had a spiritual or religious dimension, too. Salt is often found on an altar or is used in ritual. Salt is used to ward off demons or to honor gods. According to some, salt is one of the four blessings from heaven, which included fire, water, iron and salt. Salt is the center of some ideas about hospitality. In ancient religions, the value of salt made the offering a covenant between people. If someone ate the salt at your table, they became your responsibility while you were in their home. You had to protect them from any harm.
You didn’t know salt was so important, did you? It is hard to put such a high value on a commodity that we can purchase so cheaply and that we use so unsparingly. After all, how could something we just throw on the roads to melt ice be so valuable that the use of it at the dinner table offers a promise of protection and good will? In some places salt was so valuable that it was minted into coins and used to pay soldiers. As a matter of fact, that’s how we get the phrase, “He is worth his salt” and the term “salary.” It is interesting that salt comes from both land and sea, some harvested by evaporation and others through mining.
I came across all these facts about salt because I typed in the question, “Does salt really lose its saltiness?” This is a question that often comes up during bible studies. After all, I’ve never known salt to lose its flavor. According to my research, this is true. Salt is a very stable chemical, and it is only by a chemical reaction that it can lose its saltiness. However, it has been discovered that some salt, especially that which is harvested from marshes along the seashore, can lose its saltiness when it is in contact with the ground or is exposed to rain and sun. It isn’t that the salt itself loses its saltiness, but that the salt is contaminated with impurities collected with it. It is likely that this is what happened to the salt that they would have eaten in Jesus’ day, as their salt generally came from the shore of the Dead Sea.
What did Jesus mean in this question? The listeners knew the importance of salt, its rarity, its significance, its value. They also knew that if salt were left drying too long on the side of the sea, it would be useless. It was not only useless, but also hazardous. They could not keep this salt in the house because the impurities might be harmful, and they could not throw it into the fields or gardens because it would wreak havoc on the growth of the plants. It was not just tasteless; it was dangerous, and good only to be trampled underfoot, so it was thrown into the streets.
Jesus was warning the disciples that they have a purpose and that they should not wait around too long before they go out to do that work. See, we are tempted to wait too long. We want to be ready. We want to have all the information. We think we need to be smarter. We think we need to know the scriptures better. We think we need to overcome our sins. We think we need to be perfect to go out into the world to share the Gospel message, we think we should let the theologians deal with theology.
Jesus warned the disciples that if they waited too long they would no longer be of value. While they are trying to make things right in their own lives, they succumb to cares and worries of the world. Or they fall for the temptations that abound. Or they conform to the ways of the world around them. These are the impurities that make us, as salt, worthless. But through prayer, thanksgiving, and God’s grace, we can do God’s work in the world seasoned with His Word, preserving, flavoring, enhancing, melting, and impacting the world in so many other wonderful ways.
“When they had gone through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, they were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they tried to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit didn’t allow them. Passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas. A vision appeared to Paul in the night. There was a man of Macedonia standing, begging him, and saying, ‘Come over into Macedonia and help us.’ When he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go out to Macedonia, concluding that the Lord had called us to preach the Good News to them. Setting sail therefore from Troas, we made a straight course to Samothrace, and the day following to Neapolis; and from there to Philippi, which is a city of Macedonia, the foremost of the district, a Roman colony. We were staying some days in this city.” Acts 6:6-12, WEB
Phillips Brooks was a nineteenth century American clergyman who was known for an incredible spiritual ministry. He spoke the Gospel with great power and impacted the world with his preaching. He was a writer, and he wrote the hymn “Little Town of Bethlehem.” It is said that Phillips cherished a letter he received from a tailor near Boston. It said, “Dear Mr. Brooks: I am a tailor in a little shop near your Church. Whenever I have the opportunity I always go to hear you preach. Each time I hear you preach I seem to forget all about you, for you make me think of God.” Would that all our preaching be the same.
Phillips Brooks did not intend to be a preacher. He wanted to be a teacher. He went to school, graduated, and began his career. It didn’t last long. He failed. About this experience and his students he wrote, “They are the most disagreeable set of creatures without exception that I have ever met with... I really am ashamed of it but I am tired, cross and almost dead, so good night.” While still in his position, he said, “I don’t know what will become of me and I don’t care much.” He had other pitiable things to say about his future. He was so humiliated, his father said, “Phillips will not see anyone now, but after he is over the feeling of mortification, he will come and see you.”
We may not feel such shame, but haven’t we all had moments of failure that have made us question our own ability to accomplish anything of substance? I can identify with Phillips’s experience. I went to college to be an elementary school teacher and I too failed. How do you find a room full of first graders disagreeable? I don’t know, but I did. I didn’t belong there. I couldn’t get them to listen. I couldn’t teach them what they needed to learn. I tried again in a preschool classroom, and though I had only a handful of children, I didn’t do very well for them. I felt a certain amount of humiliation, but for the sake of those children I left the classroom.
Henry Fosdick likened Phillips’ experience to Paul’s Bithynia. Paul wanted to go there to preach the Gospel, but the Spirit would not allow his group to pass. God had a different plan. There was a different place for him to go, different people who needed his ministry. The same was true for Phillips Brooks. God had plans for him and God gifted him for an incredible ministry. Though I doubt I’ll ever be remembered like Phillips, his story helps me to find peace with my own failure that set me on a path that is glorifying God in a much different way.
What was your Bithynia? What did you try to do that failed but led you on a much better path? Have you embraced your calling in a new and better way? We will regret our failures, but we should look to God for guidance about where He would have us go. We might just be the one called to preach God’s Word in a way that makes our listeners forget us as they think about God.
Lectionary Scriptures for August 29, 2021, Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Psalm 119:129-136; Ephesians 6:10-20; Mark 7:14-23
“Only be careful, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things which your eyes saw, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life; but make them known to your children and your children’s children...” Deuteronomy 4:9, WEB
In 1905, George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In a 1948 speech to the House of Commons, Churchill paraphrased Santayana when he said “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” We’ve heard similar quotes from many others over time, but they weren’t the first. In today’s Old Testament lesson, Moses warned Israel to remember what they saw so that they would remain faithful to the God who saved them from slavery.
Unfortunately, we easily forget history. We certainly don’t learn from it. We’ve seen it happen over and over again. As we study the history of Israel we can see that they forgot God’s grace. Though there were good kings over the ages, their sons and grandsons often turned to the gods of the world, ignoring the God who is their true King. Over and over again the chroniclers say, “He did that which was evil in Yahweh’s sight, and walked in the way of his father, and in his sin with which he made Israel to sin.” Where the kings go, so go the people. And if the king forgets history, the people will follow him into folly.
The first verse of the passage from Deuteronomy uses two legal words to describe the Word of God. These words are translated “statutes and ordinances.” It seems, as we read, that the speaker is simply repeating himself for the sake of making a point. “Pay attention, I'm telling you something important.” Though these words sound alike in English, they have very different focus. The first refers to the ritualistic law or the boundaries set by God to protect the spiritual life of His people. The second word is a more worldly understanding, a word about justice and judgment.
In his notes on this text, John Wesley wrote, “The statutes - The laws which concern the worship and service of God. The judgments - The laws concerning your duties to men. So these two comprehend both tablets, and the whole law of God.” Wesley saw this repetition as not only an emphasis but also as defining the aspects of the rules we are to follow, rules that demonstrate love of God and love of man. We can find a similar division in the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, those laws that concern our relationship with God and those that concern our relationship with one another.
We are called to obedience to the whole Law, not just the parts that we want to obey. This obedience is not simply knowledge of the laws, for many can recite the Commandments as they learned them in Sunday School. We are to be actively doing what is right according to the intent of the Law. In Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, the explanation of the Ten Commandments contains not only the directive not to do the things that are wrong, but also to do that which is right. Most of us can easily say we have not killed our neighbor, but have we done everything we can to ensure that he or she has life? We may not physically take our neighbors’ things, but do we do everything necessary to help our neighbor keep what is theirs?
Unfortunately, Israel’s greatest problem over the ages was that they did not keep God’s statutes and ordinances. They often turned their back on Him, forgetting what He did for them. Over and over again they fell to the foolishness of worship to false gods. Are we any different today? Our gods may not be golden idols, but we worship at the altars of modernity and progress.
Why keep the statutes and ordinances of God? This passage suggests that if we keep the laws of God, the nations will see us as wise. For these laws were not established as a way to keep the people down as are so many human regulations, but rather as a way to lift the people and the nation up. They were given to guard and protect the people of God, to make them and to keep them whole. Our relationship with God and our relationships with one another are vital to our wholeness.
The laws are good, right and true. God’s laws, His Word, are complete just as given. There are no laws of any country that are more perfect, or more righteous, or more just than the laws of God. In these statutes and ordinances are found true wisdom. We should not think ourselves wiser than God to add to or take away from what He has given. All too many of us think that if we do all that is right according to the statutes, we can ignore a part of the ordinances. For example, we think that if we go to church on Sunday, we can sin all we want. After all, we have been forgiven of all by the blood of Christ. We also add to His Word by justifying our actions that are against His ordinances. Yet, God calls us to live according to His law completely, just as it was given.
We are to hold fast the knowledge we have about God and His laws, and we are to teach them to our children. It is not only the rules we should remember and hold dear to our hearts, but rather it is the story of God and His relationship with His people that will keep us well. God does not love us because we have obeyed His commands. God loves. God is love. He showed His love in many ways and then He called His people to live in His love. He gave the rules to keep His people in that love. We obey to stay in the gift and we teach our children so that they too will remain in God’s loving care.
We are reminded by the history of God’s people in the Old Testament that whenever they did not obey His Word, He disciplined His sons and daughters. Though we fall under a new covenant, forgiven by grace and loved without condition, are we not also disciplined by our Father? The writer of Hebrews tells us, “It is for discipline that you endure. God deals with you as with children, for what son is there whom his father doesn’t discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have been made partakers, then you are illegitimate, and not children.” He calls us to a life of obedience as His children, saved by grace to honor Him before the world.
Psalm 119 uses those same words as found in the text from Deuteronomy, along with six other words. Again it sounds redundant as we read this text in English, and we struggle with the focus on the Law. Yet each of these words have a unique meaning. While statutes and ordinances give us a full range of laws about our relationships with God and mankind, the rest of the words fill out the idea of God’s Word, showing us that God’s Law is more than rules; it is also promise and justice and guidance.
In today’s stanza, the psalmist longs to obey God’s word because he is thankful for God’s faithfulness. Here is my own paraphrase of these eight verses. “The testimony of God is wonderful so I treasure it in my soul. As your word is spoken, it brings light and helps us understand. I anxiously desire all God’s law. Have mercy on me according to your justice. Guide me according to your promise so that I won’t sin. Save me from oppression so I can live according to your appointed authority. Make your face shine on me, teach me how to worship you. I grieve that they do not know your teaching.”
I grieve because too many today do not know God. Many think they do, but they misunderstand the reality that God is love. Love is not a free-for-all, love demands obedience because Love has given us the best path for us to walk for our own sakes and for His. To continue to sin means disrespecting the grace that has been gifted to us and we’ll find ourselves being disciplined. This discipline is not meant to punish, but our Father allows the consequences of our sin to bring us back to the way He would have us live.
God gave a number of sanitation rules that the people were expected to follow. There is no doubt that hand washing is a valuable practice for our health. We pass so many germs between one another when we shake hands, pass money or handle food. Florence Nightingale changed the nature of health care with the simple practice of washing hands regularly, and the practice is continued today. Jesus wasn’t telling us in today’s lesson that we should not wash our hands. The question in this passage is about the authority to which we are obedient.
This would have been a different discussion if they had asked a different question. They asked, “Why don’t your disciples walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with unwashed hands?” They focused on the traditions of their elders instead of the Word of God. God gave the laws about cleanliness for a purpose; it is healthy and sanitary to cleanse the hands before eating. However, the Pharisees were more concerned about the disciples doing as they do, being as they are, rather than obeying the Word of God.
Jesus answered their question with a statement about how they hold their tradition above the Law. Moses gave them the Law that says “Honor your mother and your father” but they were willing to accept a vow that would dishonor that authority. The vow, that everything belonged to God, was not lived out as if everything actually belonged to God; it was a convenient excuse not to take care of one’s mother and father. The tradition was held above the Law and was abused and misused for justifying dishonorable and unfaithful practice. The Pharisees really did not care whether or not the hands were dirty, only that the people who claimed to be “holy” fit into their mold. Jesus turned the tables. He answered their questions with the intent of God’s Law and opened the door for more people to dwell in the presence of God.
There is a lot of law talk in today’s passages. Deuteronomy is, of course, a book of laws. In it we see how God was calling the Israelites to live in their new land. They were going to face tough times; the world would constantly try to turn them from Him. The rituals and practices were given as a way to stay focused on the life He meant for them to live in the Promised Land, to help them avoid falling into the traps of pagan worship. They were also given to make Israel stand out from the rest of the nations. They were set apart for a purpose, to be God’s people and through which God would send His salvation.
Non-believers like to trot out the old rules to prove that Christians are hypocrites and foolish. After all, some of the rules from the Old Testament seem ridiculous to those of us today and we often do not continue to live according to them. Take pork, for instance. We eat pork; most of do, anyway. Bacon makes everything better, doesn't it? We wear mixed blends of fabric. We cross breed animals. People get tattoos (and for some in ministry, it is even considered “cool.”) I don’t know many people who refuse to work on the Sabbath. These are just a few examples of ways we no longer live by the laws according to the scriptures. Those non-believers point out the hypocrisy of ignoring these rules but demanding obedience to others.
Today we understand that there are certain rules given to us in the scriptures that were culturally important that do not necessarily apply to us today, but we also know that God gave those rules to help us live well. We don’t reject pork, mixed fabrics, mules or tattoos, but we do respect the rules because we know God had our best interests in mind when He gave them. Pork can be dangerous because pigs are garbage collectors and eat foods that with disease that can ultimately harm our bodies. Modern refrigeration and production make those food stuffs not only delicious, but also safe to eat. We still must be careful because those meats improperly stored and cooked can make us sick, but we have the knowledge to do it well today. Mixing linen and wool is not recommended because the fabrics are so different that the garment would not last. Heavy wool can rip the much more delicate linen. While we have developed good production methods for mixing blends that last, we also know that pure cotton has a much better quality than that which is mixed.
The problem with the argument that we are hypocrites because we eat bacon and wear cotton/polyester blends is that there is a misunderstanding about the Law and the laws. It is, in a sense, like talking about apples and oranges: both are good for you, but they serve different purposes. The laws were given to protect God’s people; the Law was given so that God’s people would look to Him.
As Christians we know and understand that the Law has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. In today’s Gospel we see Jesus teaching the people that they had become so caught up in following the rules that they lost the intent of God’s Word. Jesus told the crowds that it isn’t what goes into the mouth that makes a man unclean, but what comes out of the mouth. Faithfulness is not dependent on the menu, but on the thoughts, ideas and practices of our hearts. When we are questioned about our bacon cheeseburgers, we can point to Jesus’ own words. Some manuscripts even include an explanation of what Jesus meant: “This he said, making all meats clean.” We should still be careful about the foods we eat, but we need not worry that what goes into our mouths will harm our relationship with God.
Does it matter if we eat bacon or wear cotton/polyester blends? Not really; we need not live in the past. What matters to our life in Christ is that we live according to the Word of God in a way that glorifies Him and shines His light to others. This is why it is important to remember Moses’ words in today’s Old Testament passage. God’s people repeatedly forgot their history and suffered the consequences of disobedience to God’s Word. We have been given the story of Israel to learn the lessons that keep us on the right path of life in God’s kingdom.
The Law is a gift of God to His people. It was never meant to be a burden; God gave the Law for a purpose. God is glorified by our obedience because the world will see how great things can be if we live rightly. The Babylonians saw that Daniel and his friends were healthier than those who ate the food of the palace. Israel would be seen as a great nation not as a reward, but because they would manifest God’s plan. “Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who shall hear all these statutes and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to them as Yahweh our God is whenever we call on him? What great nation is there that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you today?”
Once we are saved, God calls us to live the best life we can live. If that means avoiding food that can harm us, then we should avoid those foods. If it means being good stewards of our resources by buying the best quality clothing, then we should do that. If it means avoiding situations that might cause us to sin, then we had best avoid those situations. As children of God, we are meant to be a light in the darkness and the voices that invite people to hear God’s Word of salvation.
We aren’t saved by being obedient to the rules that are found in the book of Deuteronomy or elsewhere in the scriptures. We are better when we are obedient because God’s laws help us to be the best we can be. They will never save us; only His Word, God’s Son the Living Word, can save us. We can talk about obedience, but none of us are able to keep it perfectly. We will fail often; we will sin. But God’s spoken Word has the power to change lives, to change the world, and to save us. And when we have been changed, we have been called to live accordingly. The world will see the wisdom of our actions and praise God for it.
It is hard. The Israelites entered into the Promised Land with hope, but they were surrounded by others who lived differently. The rules were given to help them keep their eyes on their God. We aren’t much different today. The world surrounds us and offers us happiness in all the wrong places, Satan provides us with opportunities that seem too good to resist. Why not live the life that satisfies our every desire? Why not seek pleasure and laughter and gratification of our flesh? Why not do what is necessary to get what we want and think we deserve? We can justify so many things but in the end they do not glorify God and we risk our relationship with Him when we chase after the wrong things. Even self-righteousness will turn us away from our God. The gods of today are so much harder to recognize because they aren’t made of gold or wood.
There are those who think life as a Christian is all peaches and cream, no one with faith could ever be led astray. Unfortunately, that is not true. As a matter of fact, the more deeply committed we are to serving the Lord Jesus, the more likely we will face the attempts by Satan to turn us away. We might fight battles in our flesh but we are fighting an even harder battle in spirit. The closer we get to God, the deeper our faith becomes, the more devious Satan will be. He will even try to convince us that following good rules will be our salvation. We have to be prepared.
Paul gives us help. He lays down a program that will help protect us from Satan and the world, things that will help us keep our hearts and minds on Christ Jesus. The armor of God will provide us with everything we need to stand against that which aims to turn us against Him. Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, Word, prayer and perseverance are the gifts God gives us to be the guardians of our relationship with Him. As we dwell in those gifts we will find the joy that truly blesses us not only in this life but in the life God has promised through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. And then God’s blessings will flow out of our lives into the world, taking the salvation He has promised to all those who hear and granting that they, too, might live the life God intends for them to live.
The world is not a safe place. Paul tells us that the struggles we face as Christians are not against flesh and blood, though we all have experienced those kinds of struggles. No, we face even more difficult struggles. The devil and those that serve him, the powers of darkness and spiritual forces of evil seek to destroy faith and keep Christ’s body from growing. Paul knew the temptations and persecutions that a Christian faced daily in the world. As a matter of fact, he was in prison at the time he wrote this letter to the Ephesians. He asked for prayer, the one thing we can use to clothe one another. Paul needed his brothers and sisters to pray for him so that his armor would stay strong through his trials. We can do that for one another. We all must wear the armor of God, but it is stronger when we join our prayers together and fight against the rulers and authorities as one body, Christ’s body.
We get pretty caught up in rules, rules that are all too often designed to bring division between people. The rules are established to keep people out, or to keep people in. Take, for instance, the rules of a fraternity. The only way to be a part of the group is to follow the rules. At times those rules call for demeaning and humiliating actions. The only way a person can become part of the group is to prove perfect obedience. Yet, the actions are not always worthy. At times they are even dangerous to self and others.
God’s law was not designed to be demeaning or humiliating. God’s law brings freedom from living within such communities that would require those actions. Instead of being a part of a closed group, God invites us to dwell in His tabernacle which is open to the world. Instead of living within a closed set of rules that burden and oppress us, God gives us the perfect Law that frees us to live in love and hope and grace.
God calls us to be obedient, but not in the manner of the Pharisees who lift man's laws and traditions above God’s Word. He calls us to faith. We are called to dwell in the tabernacle, Christ who is God dwelling amongst His people. We are saved to be the kind of people who not only know the statutes and ordinances, but also live His Law fully. We are called to be people who do not add to the word or take away from it, who take care of those in need and who live a life that is good, right and true according to God’s word.
What a world this would be if more people responded to God’s grace with lives honoring our Father with obedience to His authority. The psalmist encourages us to join him in grieving for those that do not know God’s teaching. We are called to go out into the world to speak God’s Word into their lives so that they too might hear and believe.
It is good to remember our past so we won’t repeat it. Israel was commanded to teach their children and their children’s children about God’s Word and all He did for His people. It is good for us to look at the rules as defined in the scriptures, to make sure we are living the best life we can live. Unfortunately, the world will continue to cast fiery darts our way, constantly trying to get us to turn from our God. Satan will even use God’s Word and the traditions of the elders to try to convince us of a better way. He’ll give us ways to justify our actions. He will make self-righteousness seem to be godly, but if we aren’t careful he will twist God’s word in a way that makes us turn from God.
We who have been saved have a new home in God’s Kingdom. We have been changed and are called to live differently from the world. It will be hard; we will be tempted to return to our old ways. We may forget what God has done and chase after the life that fulfills our desires. The life of obedience is not meant to be a struggle, but to give us the freedom to be who God has created, redeemed and called us to be. And as such, we are a light in the darkness. We are witnesses to God’s grace. And through us, God will make His Word known to the world so that they, too, might be saved.
“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 have a picture of my son when he was a little over a year old. We were living in California and we had several potted plants on our patio. He was outside playing while I was busy just inside the patio door. He decided it would be fun to play in the dirt. It was springtime and the plant had been recently potted with fresh potting soil. He didn’t have long; I constantly checked on him while I worked nearby. Yet in minutes he managed to cover himself in fresh dirt from head to toe. His face looked like he’d been eating Oreo cookies and most of the cookie part missed his mouth. I don’t know how much he ingested, but he was no worse for the wear. As some wise mother once said, “A little dirt never hurt anyone.”
Of course, I couldn’t help but laugh and I grabbed the camera. He was teething at the time, so every part of him was covered in drool. This made it even easier for the dirt to stick to his body. I imagine every parent has similar pictures of their children from that age. Perhaps it is a picture with the first birthday cake or a plate of spaghetti from which more of the food ended up on the child than in him or her. It might be when they went a little overboard with the finger paints at school or the egg dye at Easter.
The mess might be annoying because it is never confined to the skin which is easily cleaned. The clothes, the furniture, the floor and sometimes even the walls are often covered in the mess. Yet, we spend the rest of our lives giggling about that moment, remembering how cute they looked all covered in icing and sauce. We certainly keep those photos to be used at the most inappropriate moments, like when they bring a special friend home to meet the parents.
Sometimes we are able to get the stains out of the clothes, sometimes we can’t. What matters most, however, is that we are able to get their bodies clean. Some stains take a little longer than others such as those left by markers or ink pads. Yet, even then it only takes a day or so for the body to return to normal. Except for the pictures, the incident is forgotten as soon as all the mess is gone. Nothing is changed by a brief roll in the dirt or a few handfuls of birthday cake in the hair.
We are a mess. Despite all our best efforts and God’s incredible grace, we still sin against Him and our neighbors. We live in a fallen world and we struggle daily with the temptations of life. Too many of our experiences are uncertain. Our decisions are never black and white. Sometimes we are faced with two terrible choices. We are going to get muddy. Thankfully, God has taken care of our mess. He sent Jesus Christ, who was the only one who could ever be perfect enough to cleanse us from our sin. Jesus lived and died for our sake, and now we benefit from His righteousness. Our clothes may still be messy, but our bodies are cleansed by the blood of our Lord Jesus and God will give us new robes to wear for eternity.
“Answer me when I call, God of my righteousness. Give me relief from my distress. Have mercy on me, and hear my prayer. You sons of men, how long shall my glory be turned into dishonor? Will you love vanity and seek after falsehood? Selah. But know that Yahweh has set apart for himself him who is godly: Yahweh will hear when I call to him. Stand in awe, and don’t sin. Search your own heart on your bed, and be still. Selah. Offer the sacrifices of righteousness. Put your trust in Yahweh. Many say, ‘Who will show us any good?’ Yahweh, let the light of your face shine on us. You have put gladness in my heart, more than when their grain and their new wine are increased. In peace I will both lay myself down and sleep, for you, Yahweh alone, make me live in safety.” Psalm 4, WEB
I am short, so I often have a problem with items on the top shelves at the store. I can sometimes find a way to get what I want. I often search for some sort of stick that I can use to drag the items to the edge and then let it fall into my waiting arms. Sometimes I seek a taller person who can reach the item for me. I will also search for an employee if there is no other option, but they are often hard to find.
I was once at a store and needed an item that was out of reach. That particular store was going through renovation and the shelving was being reset according to the new plan. Unfortunately, items often get lost in the process when a store goes through change. Fortunately, the item I needed was available, it was just unreachable. I always look at the overstock, just in case the item I need is there. That’s where I found the item I needed on that visit. It was so high that I could not use a stick or a tall person. I needed an employee with a ladder. I found someone who was feeling rushed because she was busy working on the remodel, but she understood that customer service is always more important. She went to the back, got a ladder and got my item for me. That was a lot of work for so little, but I was thankful.
I worked in retail, so I made the suggestion that she get all those items and fill the shelf so that they would be easily available for the next customer. After all, she’d gone to so much trouble to get my item. “I’ll just move a couple. I don’t have time to do anything else because I’m busy with the remodel.” There were less than a dozen of these boxes on the shelf and it would have taken just a few minutes to complete the task. Instead, she decided it would be easier to leave all those items out of reach. She moved a few, but what happens when those are gone? It will require another worker to go through the same process. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to use thirty seconds to just take care of it right then and there rather than waste another five minutes later?
Sadly, I’m sure she probably never got back to it. The store probably lost sales because other customers would not bother to find an employee who could, or would, reach the items. Most customers wouldn’t even notice there were boxes in the overstock. Another problem is that the person who does product orders will see the empty shelf and will order more, even though there are plenty of boxes on the shelf. Those boxes will sit there for a long time, and eventually will be found, covered in dust and unsellable. Those boxes will end up on the clearance rack and the store will lose money.
Is there ever a good time to do a job halfway? Perhaps the priorities for the day were set by the management, but how do you think they would have reacted if they discovered she used so much time and didn’t finish the job? If I were one of the store managers, I would have a talk with that employee about time management, customer service and sales. Remodels are important, but keeping the store in good order while the renovation is underway is vital to the satisfaction of the customers and the future of the store.
I might complain about that store employee, but I am sure there are times when I made similar decisions to do my work halfway. I know from experience it makes the job more difficult when I leave it half done, but I have lots of good excuses when I make the same mistake as that employee.
As I was thinking about that experience I thought about our prayers. Do we ever pray halfway? Do we start praying but then move on to other projects or activities before we have time to actually listen to what God might have to say? Do we think that other things are more important and that we can just get back to our prayers later? Will we get back to it later? Isn’t it ultimately better to take the time to pray and won’t we be better off in the long run if we do?
I’m sure many of us are really good at sending out those quick prayers for needs as we hear of them. I often stop briefly when I’m working on the computer if someone posts a prayer request. I pray a quick prayer when I hear sirens or see an accident on the road. I often pray briefly when I think of a friend or hear some news that demands God’s attention. These prayers are good. But I have to wonder if they are enough? Is that like doing the job halfway? Granted, if we are driving the car, we have to continue driving the car. But what about those moments when we can stop and spend time with God? Do we? Do we give him everything and finish the task before moving on to our other tasks? Can we hear God when He answers if we do not give Him our attention?
“Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I will say, ‘Rejoice!’ Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand. In nothing be anxious, but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:4-7, WEB
The question this week comes out of the Sermon on the Mount, a lengthy teaching by Jesus about how we are to live in His grace in this world. He asked, “Which of you by being anxious, can add one moment to his lifespan?” A Christian does not need to worry because we look to God to help us through our troubles. He encouraged us to look to the birds that sell in the marketplace for pennies to see how to trust in God.
We keep multiple bird feeders around our yard. They are carefully placed so we can watch the creatures who come to share our bounty. The feed is diverse so that we will meet the needs of both bird and squirrel. Bruce had just filled with squirrel food. The mix includes peanuts still in the shell, a favorite of the squirrels. He happened to look out a window yesterday and noticed a squirrel digging in our garden. I wondered if he was burying peanuts, so I watched for awhile. The squirrel did indeed come back over and over again, taking the peanuts out of the feeder. It didn’t go to the same spot, it took the peanuts and buried them all over my yard. It even ran across the street with a peanut in its mouth to our neighbor’s yard to bury one. I noticed this morning that all the peanuts are gone. I suspect they are buried all over the neighborhood and I wonder how it will find them again.
It may have seemed like a waste of time, especially since I was not sure how I would accomplish everything I needed to do. I especially enjoy watching the birds when things seem to be very stressful. It is amazing how quickly we manage to fill every hour of every day with responsibilities, never knowing if we can accomplish everything. I’ve heard people say that all they need is another hour each day, but if we are honest we will confess that if we had another hour we would find more things to do. My vacation meant that I need to rush to get things ready for several major events in the next month or so; added to my regular work means too much to do in too little time. We are also stressed by the events of the past week. I have to admit I was a little worried about it all.
When we are in the midst of a worrisome time, it is very hard to remember that God does provide. We get stressed because we don’t know how we will get through. Whatever our struggles, God has promised to be with us and to help us. Worry will get us nowhere. The answer to Jesus’ question is that we won’t add even a minute to our lives with worry. As a matter of fact, worry tends to take our life. Worry is a waste of time, it causes health problems, it causes us to respond to our stresses in negative or unhelpful ways. Worry reveals our lack of trust in the God who loves us. We may not always understand how He will get us through, but we will always find that things are better when we let go and let God.
“Now may the God of peace, who brought again from the dead the great shepherd of the sheep with the blood of an eternal covenant, our Lord Jesus, make you complete in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” Hebrews 13:20-21, WEB
“Pilgrim’s Progress” is probably one of the most beloved books of all time. Some claim that it has sold more copies than every other book except the Bible, and has been read by people all over the world. It has been translated into 200 different languages. It may be difficult to find the true number of books sold because it is in the public domain and came be republished without penalty. John Bunyan, the author of this special testimony of faith, died on this date 333 years ago. He was a powerful witness of the Gospel to many until the day he died, but he did not truly understand faith until later in life.
John grew up in the Puritan church, attended services regularly, but his heart was somewhere else. He loved to play games, dance and bell-ring, things that were considered improper with his brethren. He also swore and read trashy novels. He joined the army at a very young age, but was spared from death when a fellow soldier volunteered to take his place on guard duty. The soldier died and John knew that he had been spared for some special purpose. John married, but the couple lived in poverty. Her father, a Christian, gave them two books, which John read over and over. The words bothered him deep in his spirit. One day he heard a voice that asked him if he would repent and go to heaven, or continue his life and go to hell. John felt condemned, beyond forgiveness. He tried to make up for his unsavory life; he tried to do everything right. He tried to keep the commandments, he read daily, he stopped swearing and other improper actions. On the outside he looked like a Christian, but inside he had no peace.
Then one day he overheard four women praising God and sharing their faith.They talked about the miserable state of their faith, about God’s forgiveness and the love of Christ. He could tell they had a joy he had never known. Their words had an impact on his life and it was through reading Luther’s commentary on the book of Galatians that he realized that none of the things he was doing would ever give him peace. He could only be justified by faith. He continued to struggle, but began preaching the Gospel, telling others about Christ. People came from far and wide to hear him.
John Bunyan became very ill with fever and died on August 31, 1688 but was serving the Lord to the end. He had traveled in bad weather to help a father and son that were arguing to be reconciled to one another. He risked his life to preach and he was imprisoned for his ministry. He wrote his books, including “Pilgrim’s Progress” while in prison. During his lifetime he touched more lives than we can possibly count. We remember this great man of God on this day because through his life we see the truth of the Gospel: we cannot earn righteousness or do enough to be rewarded with salvation. When he tried, he knew no peace. He learned that it is only in Jesus that we are made perfect and gifted to be witnesses to the mercy of God, glorifying Him in all we do.