Welcome to the August 2022 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 2022
“So teach us to count our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Relent, Yahweh! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your loving kindness, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work appear to your servants, your glory to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be on us. Establish the work of our hands for us. Yes, establish the work of our hands.” Psalm 90:12-17, WEB
At the start of the pandemic two years ago, the schools were closed, and the children were left without their usual activities. Some of them may have been excited to have a day or two off, even a week, but eventually it became obvious that they were not on vacation. It took time for the districts to establish online school, and they couldn’t do the fun things they might do during the summer. They were often “stuck” at home. Teachers and parents quickly began offering ideas to help families get through those days, especially when it lasted more than a couple weeks. They suggested families take walks in their neighborhoods and some neighbors began putting stuffed bears in their house windows so they could go on a bear hunt.
We live in a neighborhood with plenty of children, our street was often crowded with families. Our house is on the corner of two streets, and I realized that the bed on the corner was a great place to get people’s attention. I started putting out little activities or toys for the children and did it until the children went back to school that fall. Despite some semblance of normalcy around our neighborhood, the pandemic was obviously still causing issues, so I began again that Christmas. Now I put out a new treat about once a month. It’s been more than two years, and I sometimes think, “Perhaps this should be the last one.” Then something happens. One day the doorbell rang, and two adorable children were standing on my doorstep with thank you notes. On another, I found a surprise gift by my door. People said “Thank you” when they saw us outside. Recently I found a post on a social media site that mentioned how much those treats have meant to her children. Just when I thought now was the time to stop putting out the treats, we found another reason to keep going.
I began A WORD FOR TODAY DEVOTIONAL on August 1, 1999. It began as a two week commitment long before there was such a thing as social media. I belonged to an email discussion group and the moderator was going on vacation. She asked if I would act as the moderator while she went on vacation. We were a kind group, but she wanted to ensure that everyone received something in their email every day. I wasn’t interested in doing what she did, which was use a lot of graphics, so I decided to write a brief devotional each day. At the end of the first week, I wondered how I would ever make it through to the end. By the end of the second week, I had more ideas. So I just kept writing. Today, by God’s grace, we are beginning our twenty-fourth year.
I confess that I have thought about stopping through the years. It hasn’t always been easy. Some days I suffer from writer’s block. Other days the message is one I’d rather not send. Some days I feel as if I’m writing to myself, certain that no one is reading these words. My life has changed significantly over the past two-plus decades. I’ve had jobs. I’ve been busy with kids. I’ve experienced financial and emotional struggles. Sometimes I’ve felt like I’m just wasting my time. I can’t believe that my mundane existence is inspiring to anyone’s spiritual life, especially since my life is incredibly boring. When I began writing this devotional, I had lots of exciting opportunities to see God’s hand in the world. This still happens, but I don’t go so many places. I’m not chasing children or volunteering with the military spouses. I spend more time at my computer writing bible studies or in my studio painting. The view doesn’t change much; I don’t see anything new. I confess that many days I edit older devotions and repost them. Maybe it is time to try something different.
Yet, just as I get that feeling that perhaps it is time to stop, God grants me a glimmer of the impact of these devotions. I meet someone who has enjoyed reading my posts. I get an email or a comment on a post that it was just what they needed to hear that day. I experience God’s grace for myself in the words He has given me for that day. And like the end of that first week twenty-three years ago, God has continued to put on my heart words He would have me say.
I would like to thank you all for your prayers, notes, and encouragement throughout the years. You are always in my heart and prayers. I could not do this without the grace of God and your support. I have written nearly six thousand devotions these many years, and it hasn’t always been easy. Sharing our faith is never easy. However, I know I am not alone. I am confident that God has brought us together for mutual edification and that together we will continue to bless the world through our witness. Though many of you are strangers, we are one in Christ, joined together in Spirit and truth. May God bless us so that the light of Christ will move and shine through our lives and so this ministry will continue to impact the world with His grace. There may come a day when I have to stop writing these devotions, but for today, I pray God will continue to establish the work of my hands and bless us with His favor.
“John, to the seven assemblies that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from God, who is and who was and who is to come; and from the seven Spirits who are before his throne; and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us, and washed us from our sins by his blood - and he made us to be a Kingdom, priests to his God and Father - to him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, including those who pierced him. All the tribes of the earth will mourn over him. Even so, Amen. ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.’” Revelation 1:4-8, WEB
The letters of the alphabet are the building blocks of language. One of the first things that children learn are their A, B, Cs. They learn the song, begin to recognize the letters, and then eventually learn how to put them together to make words. We use words to communicate our thoughts to other people, and though there are many ways to tell our stories, there’s something special about the written word.
We have not always had an alphabet. The earliest forms of written (or painted) communication seem to be pictures that are found in caves. Some of the most spectacular cave paintings are found in France and Spain. The oldest is in Cave of El Castillo in Northern Spain; scientists believe these paintings are more than 40,000 years old. Interpretation of the pictures varies, but they usually portray the animals as well as symbols, patterns and hands. Some have suggested that these drawings were part of a religious ritual to help the people have a successful hunt.
As man evolved, they began to develop a more complex way of communicating. This occurred in speech as well as in writing. Pictographs represented specific concepts or ideas. These pictures are often difficult to interpret because there is no direct connection between them and the language. Hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt go a step further in the evolution of language. In this type of writing, the pictures represent a specific word or grouping of letters. Cuneiform writing is composed of wedge-shaped marks which did the same. The marks were simplified over time. Syllabaries used graphemes to represent specific syllables. Eventually the alphabet used symbols to represent specific sounds, with each letter representing a word. Some alphabets, called abjads, used symbols for just the consonants (Hebrew). Others have specific symbols for special sounds.
This devotion is written using the modern Latin or Roman alphabet. It has twenty-six letters, including five vowels. It appears to be based on the Phoenician alphabet that was in use from about 2000 B.C. That was adapted by the Greeks around the ninth century B.C. and eventually adopted by the Romans in the third century B.C. Over the years it has changed, with letters added and removed as needed in the language. It is the most common alphabet used today and though there are some variations, they can all be traced back to the original letters used in ancient Rome.
The twenty-six letters of our alphabet can be used to make billions of words. Those words can be put together to make a limitless number of sentences, paragraphs and books. Those words tell stories, describe experiences, and share knowledge. They encourage and correct. They declare love and hate, hope and fear, life and death. Everything that exists can be described through words, even God. Of course, words might not always be enough, but they are a good start.
John writes of God, “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” Notice that John uses the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. This is called a merism, which is a rhetorical device or figure of speech in which two contrasting parts refer to a whole. God isn’t limited by those two letters: He is the beginning and the end and everything in between. Everything points to Him. Our God is not one who is limited by time and space or even words. He is, He was, and He is to come. He is the beginning and the end. He is the Alpha and the Omega. We can use all the letters of the alphabet to describe Him and tell His story to the world.
Lectionary Scriptures for August 7, 2022, Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: Genesis 15:1-6; Psalm 33:12-22; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:22-34 (35-40)
“Our soul has waited for Yahweh. He is our help and our shield. For our heart rejoices in him, because we have trusted in his holy name. Let your loving kindness be on us, Yahweh, since we have hoped in you.” Psalm 33:20-22, WEB
The psalmist writes, “Blessed is the nation whose God is Yahweh...” The numbers from surveys throughout the U.S. in the past few years have been disappointing. They show that fewer people have faith in God than ever before. I still believe that Americans believe that there is something bigger than them. Even so, I’m not so sure that we really trust in God as we should. We trust in so many things. We trust in our talents. We trust in our politicians. We trust in our strength. We trust in our financial institutions. We trust in our ideas. We even trust in our generosity. Sadly, I’m not so sure that many churches even trust in God. Too many Christians these days trust in their pastor, their programs, and even in their material possessions. Just like those in the secular world, they trust in their ideas rather than in God.
We are reminded that a king is not saved by an army or a man by great strength. Man is saved by God’s grace, and God has no favorites. He sees all mankind; He watches all people of the earth. The psalmist describes Him as the one, “who fashions all of their hearts and considers all of their works.”
We are called to be patient and to trust in God. He is our help and our shield. We struggle with this because we have seen that there are wonderful people who helped and shielded others. We don’t give God credit for the work they do. We are thankful for the military and first responders. We are thankful for the Food Banks and other organizations that aid the poor. There are so many in the world who are doing good works locally, nationally, and internationally to make a better life for others. But we forget that all those who are blessed to help are blessed by God.
There are things that happen in the world that require action. A hungry person will not eat if someone does not help them find some bread, but we have to be careful that we do not allow our actions or generosity to become our god, that we do not trust in ourselves or let others trust in us. Blessed is the nation, and the man, whose God is Yahweh. Happy are they who trust in His holy name. We might be able to give of ourselves in very real ways, acting on the opportunities in front of us to serve our neighbors, but we have to trust that God is behind it all, that His grace is what saves people even in tangible ways in this world.
This seems like an impossible expectation. As a matter of fact, too many people think we are foolish to trust in God, especially when we trust in Him to care for us in ways that seem to take too much time. “Where is your God now?” they ask when our prayers seem unanswered. Unfortunately, we can easily suffer the same doubts when God does not work according to our expectations.
There was a movie released in 2001 called “The Rat Race” was about a Las Vegas magnate who set a star filled cast on a wild chase after a bag of money to provide a new way for his customers to gamble. The film was filled with cliché experiences as the characters became involved in all the craziness.
In one scene a couple of women were driving down the road and somehow they lost the highway. They came across a roadside stand with a woman who was selling squirrels. They did not want a squirrel, they just wanted directions to the highway. They repeatedly refused and asked the lady for directions. The lady described a shortcut and they trusted that following her very detailed instructions would get them to the highway. As they came across each turn exactly where and how it was expected, they became more and more confident in the lady’s instructions. They were excitedly expectant as they turned the last corner but then realized they had made a huge mistake. That last turn led to a very steep hill and as they were careening down it they passed a bunch of signs that said, “You,” “should,” “have,” “bought,” “a,” “squirrel.” Then their car fell over the cliff into a large pile of other vehicles whose owners made the same mistake.
The squirrel lady initially seemed odd to the women, but their trust grew at every turn when her instructions were perfect. Sometimes the world, and the people in the world, make it easy for us to believe that they are right and true. A lie becomes believable if you tell it enough times, giving us reason to trust in something other than God’s Word. Unfortunately, we see too much of this in the world today, and it makes us wonder why the God of truth has not done something to make the world right. As we lose our patience, we turn our faith to the people whom we think have proven themselves to be true. We believe in the promises that sound believable.
What happens when a promise is too long in coming? We live in a world of instant gratification. People don’t write letters because it is faster to send an email. We have overnight delivery for packages we buy online; in some cases, we can even get things delivered within hours. We don’t have to go into a grocery store anymore: we simply shop online, and they will have it waiting at a pick-up spot.
We don’t like to wait. We pick the shortest line at the grocery store. We follow recommendations at the theme parks to visit the busiest rides early to avoid the crowds. We pay extra for expedited shipping. I read a post on Facebook that suggested that if someone doesn’t return a text within minutes, then they must not want to communicate. We can have just about anything we want instantly, gratifying our deepest wants and our basic needs quickly.
Patience is difficult for us all. Imagine what it must have been like for Abraham. When Abraham first arrived in Shechem after being sent away from his home and family in Genesis 12, God promised that his offspring would inherit that land. Abraham was already an old man, and Sarah was not much younger. She was sixty-five, well beyond childbearing years, but God promised offspring. It could have been accomplished by adoption, but God promised a child from his own flesh. In Genesis 15, Abraham questioned the promise.
“Behold, you have given no children to me: and, behold, one born in my house is my heir,” said Abraham. God is not bothered by our doubts and questions. When we are uncertain about what He intends for our lives, we won’t be called unfaithful if we ask Him to explain. As a matter of fact, despite the ridiculousness of the promise as it is given in today’s lesson, Abraham still “believed in Yahweh, who credited it to him for righteousness.” Faith in God means trusting Him, even when it seems like the promise can never be fulfilled. Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 years old; decades passed between the promise and fulfillment.
Unfortunately, between the promise and the fulfillment Abraham and Sarah took God’s plan into their own hands. Sarah gave him her maidservant Hagar and a child was born. Sarah gave him her maidservant Hagar and a child was born. This lack of trust has caused problems throughout the world for millennia, even to today.
We don’t need to take God’s plan into our own hands, but we like to see results. The clock is constantly ticking in our world. God might not be limited by time or space, but we are. So, like Abraham and Sarah, we do whatever we think is best to make God’s will happen. Now, of course, there are those who blame Sarah, especially since we are told that Abraham’s faith is extraordinary. But the reality is that Abraham allowed himself to be swayed. He believed, but he also doubted.
We want the tangible evidence that God is really doing what He said He would do. But faith is not really faith if it is about things that we can experience with our senses and our flesh. Faith, as the writer of Hebrews tells us, is the assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen. Faith is believing in something we can’t touch, see, hear, taste or smell. It is believing in something that is beyond this world. Faith is believing in the better, heavenly country which was promised to our forefathers. They believed when it was not even within their reach. The people of Israel would not see the Promised Land given to Abraham for hundreds of years. Yet, they believed in the a distant promise, one that was given to their descendants. It was given to us.
The writer of Hebrews reminds us of the people who came before, the faithful from every generation who believed in God’s promises even though they would not receive it during their lifetime. We have been given that which they desired; we dwell with the One to whom they committed their lives. We have received the promise. Is it something we can grasp? No, eternal life is not something we can touch, see, hear, taste or smell. However, we can be assured that it is true by faith. We are convicted by God’s Spirit and His grace of that which is real though unseen. We believe not because we have done anything to deserve that which is to come, but because God is faithful. We have Abraham as an example of faith, but even more so we have Jesus Christ who is our life and our hope and our peace. Everything else is like the squirrel lady, unreliable, unpredictable and perishable.
If we are honest with ourselves and honest with God, we would all admit that there are parts of the Bible that are easy for us to ignore because it seems like Jesus is speaking only to the needs and understanding of the crowds in His day, not to ours. After all, His examples and stories do not reach into our modern daily lives. We don’t understand their way of life. We have a much different point of view, different problems, and many different expectations. Our economic world is different. Our political world is different. Our social world is different. How can Jesus expect us to fulfill the expectations He gave to the people two thousand years ago and thousands of miles away?
The writer of Hebrews tells us, “Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, proof of things not seen.” It’s all about faith. This is an easy statement to make, but it is much harder to live. After all, what is faith? How do we define something so intangible, so incomprehensible? The scriptures are filled with faith stories, and we all have our own stories to tell, but can we really define what it is? And what happens when our actions are faithless? What happens when we question God about how or when He will accomplish His promises? Does this mean we don’t have faith?
We won’t necessarily see the promises of God fulfilled as we want or expect. Think about the people in Jesus’ day who were expecting a military or political king. They didn’t get what they expected, they got something better, and yet most of them did not see the truth. There are many today who are still waiting for the Messiah to come to make Israel great again. They want God to make things happen in their time and in their way. The point of faith is to believe that God will do what He promises in His time and way.
That’s the hard part. We have a difficult time waiting and recognizing how God is fulfilling His promises even now in our lives. We really are impatient, but I don’t think that’s a quality that is missing just from those of us who live in this age of instant gratification. Abraham waited longer, but even so he didn’t wait long enough. He believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness, and yet we learn he didn’t trust God enough to wait. The people in Jesus’ day trusted that God would send His Messiah, but they didn’t trust Him enough to believe that He was doing it differently than they expected. Despite all their failures, God was still faithful. Despite all our questions and doubts, God will be faithful.
The Old Testament and Epistle lessons today remind us that Abraham had faith. He trusted God and followed Him out of the world He knew into a world he did not know. He left his home and his people to become a nomad, to journey to a strange and foreign land because a God he didn’t know called him. There is nothing reasonable about Abraham’s story, at least from our point of view. How do we react to those who say, “God told me to do this?” Usually we laugh or ridicule them, or we reject the notion that God might speak to an individual in such a specific way. This modern world scorns those who act on faith, especially when it doesn’t fit into their expectations.
I wish God would talk to me with such clarity. I have asked Him repeatedly what He wants me to do for as long as I can remember. I’ve sought His will on career, family, future. Sometimes I think I know what’s He’s saying, but most of the time I just muddle through. I’m not very patient, you see, and so when things don’t fall into place as soon as I think they should, I begin to second guess myself. So, even now as I wander through each day with the faith I have, I wonder if I’m headed in the right direction. God does not always seem as clear to me as He seems to have been to Abraham. Could I leave my home and family like Abraham to follow God? I’d like to say “Yes, I have that much faith,” but I’m not quite that confident.
But that’s the point of our scriptures today. It isn’t about how much faith we have; it is about trusting in God even when we feel like we are faithless. It is comforting to see this story of Abraham from Genesis 15, because even though Abraham is lifted up for his faith in this text, we also see the reality of Abraham’s faithlessness. He trusted God even while He doubted God. Abraham questions how and when God will provide him offspring because he doesn’t see how any gift or blessing really makes sense if he has no heir to which it can be passed.
I suppose the thing we have to ask ourselves in the midst of our questions is what to do while we wait. We don’t have to wait if we are instantly gratified, but that’s not the way it works with faith. Sometimes God’s promises take time. Take the promise of eternal life, for instance. We know we have eternal life now, but it is a future promise that we won’t see fulfilled until we pass from this life into the next. We are certainly not running off to take that into our own hands, although I have been finding myself crying out “Come, Lord Jesus,” often these days.
Jesus doesn’t make living in that faith easy. He tells us in today’s Gospel lesson, “Sell that which you have, and give gifts to the needy. Make for yourselves purses which don’t grow old, a treasure in the heavens that doesn’t fail, where no thief approaches, neither moth destroys.” Perhaps we have not been given the command to leave our family and our homeland to go to an unknown place, but God wants us to trust in Him even to the point of sacrificing everything for His sake, and it is that faith that is credited to us as righteousness.
Jesus has set His expectations of us so high that it doesn’t seem possible to achieve them. Trusting in a God we can’t touch, see, hear, taste or smell, who makes promises that are completely out of our reach is hard. Jesus tells us to trust that God is in control through our bad times as well as our good times. We fail to believe. We fail miserably. We fail daily. We fail desperately. So, we often look at this expectation of trust as something that isn’t meant for us. Yes, we know eternal life is ours, but we don’t know why God isn’t making things right in our world today. So, we ignore some of the texts that don’t seem relevant because we just don’t think Jesus expects the same from us. The bar is too high, and it was set for a people from a different world.
How can I sell everything and give it away when I’m not sure I can even fill the tank of my car to get to work this week? We need every penny just to feed our family. The economic realities of today’s world do not allow us to gather a heavenly treasure without risking our survival now. We trust God, but only so much. Perhaps spiritually, but it is much harder to trust Him when it comes to the tangible world in which we live. So, we make excuses. And we take things into our own hands.
Jesus did not teach us His expectations so that we could find loopholes. He gave them to us so that we might strive to be like Him: Christ-like. He knows we will fail. He knows we will make mistakes daily. He knows that we will never be perfect. But that is alright. There is no reward for faith. He won for us the fulfillment of the promises for which we now wait.
Jesus isn’t looking for the best or most righteous people. Unfortunately, too many thinks that’s the goal of the religious life. They think that if they are faithful enough, the God (or god) they trust will grant the blessings they seek. They think that if they are righteous enough, then they will get what they deserve. Christianity shows us something different. From Jesus we learn that we will never be good enough. We will never be strong enough. We will never be righteous enough. We will fail. That’s why Jesus came. He came to overcome our failure, to stand before God in our stead.
That doesn’t mean we can slack off, however. Jesus still calls us to live according to His expectations, but when we fail, He is there to forgive. He is there to encourage. He is there to continue building us up in faith and hope and peace so that one day - that glorious day - we’ll be face to face with our God for eternity. The words are meant for us, just as much as they were meant for those who heard them from Jesus’ own mouth. They are meant to challenge us, but even more so they are meant to show us how big and wide and wonderful is God’s grace. His love is greater than our mistakes. Faith is not about our faithfulness, maturity, or morality. Faith is about trusting in God’s grace, looking forward to that heavenly country, which is ours because God has promised, not because we’ve done anything to deserve it. We fail miserably. We fail daily. We fail desperately. We justify our failure with an understanding that we live in this different world, as if Jesus’ words are not for us too. We think Jesus can’t expect so much from us. We decide that if the bar is that high, then Jesus meant for us to walk under it.
We can look to Abraham as an example in holding out hope even when there appears to be none. Abraham had been promised a child for decades, but the time came when it seemed he was too old to even think there was no chance for it to happen. The LORD told Abraham to not fear and reaffirmed the promise. Abraham believed and it was credited to him as righteousness. He believed God’s Word and it gave him hope about tomorrow.
There may be promises that we long to see fulfilled, promises about our lives and future that God has spoken into our hearts. We believe that God can and will provide for us in these ways but let us always remember as we wait that God will fulfill all His promises in His time and way. Blessed are those who trust in God because they know what truly matters. We have faith in something we will not see in this world, an eternal Kingdom where we will dwell in God’s presence forever. We have this hope by faith, and this is what is credited to us as righteousness. God remains true even when we question and doubt. He watches from heaven above and knows all, into the very depths of their souls.
God has called us into His Kingdom and given us all we need. He has promised us more than we can possibly imagine, and we are counted as righteous because we believe. We are children of Abraham that are as numerous as the stars in the sky; we are not children not by our own power or work, but because God is faithful. We need not worry or take matters into our own hands because in His time and in His way, He will make everything come together perfectly.
We will not see the fulfillment of all God’s promises in our lifetime; Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah all believed even though the promises were years and generations from being fulfilled. And even though they were not always faithful, God was. He is faithful to us, too. So, let us walk in that faith, and live in the hope that rejoices at the promises even before they are fulfilled. In faith we will dwell with God now and forever and inherit the Kingdom that is eternal.
“These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God. This is the boldness which we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he listens to us. And if we know that he listens to us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions which we have asked of him.” 1 John 5:13-15, WEB
I am an artist as well as a writer. Most of my work ends up in silent auctions for organizations I support. I donate a painting to the zoo every year, always based on a photo I’ve taken during one of my visits. My current painting is of Tau, the male lion. I’m also working on a painting for a church charity event. It is a very Texan subject matter, with a Texas flag, bluebonnets, a yellow rose and a longhorn. I don’t just use paint in my works. I like to do multidimensional works with silk flowers and other items that I’ve picked up at garage sales or thrift shops. Many of my paintings are a cross between fine art and craft, a genre I really enjoy.
One of my most popular techniques is to frame a painting in a decoupaged frame with a cross. I use the pages from old hymn books. I like to find ones that have ripped yellowed pages and bad binding so that I’m not ruining something special. I shop the antique and used bookstores for my materials. The fun part is going through the hymnals and finding the right songs. I’ve done a few commissions with the favorite hymns of my clients, but most of the time it is my choice. I don’t use all the ages because some of the pages just don’t work artistically, and there are some themes that are more appreciated than others. The choices I make a way of telling a story about Jesus Christ in art and craft. Some of my other paintings tell a different kind of story, but I always hope that the choices I make in subject matter and materials will glorify God.
One hymn I’ve used repeatedly (it is in almost every hymnal!) is “I Love to Tell the Story”. This hymn was written first as a poem by Arabella Katherine Hankey as a testimony to her own love for Jesus. She was evangelically minded, interested in telling the story of Christ to others. The poem (actually two poems) was written during a lengthy period of illness and recovery. The first poem called “The Story Wanted” speaks of the need to hear the story of God and has been made into a children’s hymn called “Tell me the Old, Old Story.” The second poem, called “The Story Told,” speaks of our need to then tell the story of Christ. Her words were set to music and the refrain added by William Gustavus Fischer.
The hymn talks about telling the story. We often think of evangelism in a way that makes it difficult for the average person to accomplish. We don’t know theology; we don’t have the confidence to answer questions from those seeking. We don’t know where to find the right passages in the scriptures. We can’t preach. We aren’t teachers. We are simple Christians. Shouldn’t the work of the Great Commission be left to those who are trained in matters of faith and religion? After all, Jesus gave that commission to the apostles, whom He had trained to continue His work. Yet we sing this hymn with tears in our eyes, knowing that the story of Jesus is the best one to tell.
John wrote to the Church, reminding them (and us) of the reason why Jesus came: to guarantee us eternal life. Jesus asks us to also tell the story to our neighbors both non-believers and believers. As the hymn says, we all need to hear it. We all want to hear it. The story is as wonderful the hundredth time as it was the first time we heard it. So, let’s keep telling the story so that we all will know and live in the faith and the eternal life we have in Christ.
“Teach me your way, Yahweh. I will walk in your truth. Make my heart undivided to fear your name. I will praise you, Lord my God, with my whole heart. I will glorify your name forever more. For your loving kindness is great toward me. You have delivered my soul from the lowest Sheol. God, the proud have risen up against me. A company of violent men have sought after my soul, and they don’t hold regard for you before them. But you, Lord, are a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness and truth. Turn to me, and have mercy on me! Give your strength to your servant. Save the son of your servant. Show me a sign of your goodness, that those who hate me may see it, and be shamed, because you, Yahweh, have helped me, and comforted me.” Psalm 86:11-17, WEB
Anne Hathaway played Princess Mia in the “Princess Diaries” movies. She was an American girl who discovered that her father was the crown prince of Genovia, a tiny fictional country in Europe. Mia’s parents were divorced, her mother returned to America and her father prepared to become king. When her father died before he could remarry and produce an heir, Mia was left as the last of the line. She became princess and eventually moved to Genovia to become queen.
In the second film, Mia discovered that it was Genovian law that a queen must be married to take the throne. Since she was a foreigner, unfamiliar with the country and its people, she was only given thirty days to find a suitable husband or else the throne would be given to another. During that month, however, even as she was preparing to marry a man she barely knew, Mia proved to her new country that she was everything they could want in a queen. In the end, Mia refused to marry and she convinced Parliament to change the law so that she might rule the country she had come to love. There was a scene in the film that was the defining moment for Mia. Her actions proved her worthy, not only to those who loved her and to the people of the country, but also to the young man who was next in line for the throne. When he saw her, he knew she should be queen and he later renounced his claim so that there would be nothing to stand in her way.
The moment came during a parade. The queen and Princess Mia were riding down the cobblestone streets of the village when Mia noticed some children that were watching the parade. Several boys were picking on a little girl who was clearly frightened by their thoughtlessness. She was a young child, perhaps five years old, with her thumb stuck in her mouth and a security blanket wrapped around her shoulders. Mia halted the parade and got out of the car. She walked over to the children and interceded for the little girl. When she discovered that the children were orphans, she invited them to join her in the parade, choosing to walk with them rather than ride in the car. She purchased plastic tiaras for all the girls and taught them how to be princesses. The boys came along because the world can always use a few more princes. The young girl was transformed - she became a princess simply because Mia said she was a princess. She stopped sucking her thumb and walked with grace and courage. By making the young girl a princess, even if only for a day, Princess Mia showed the bullies that they should not pick on her. Mia lifted her up, gave her confidence and hope.
The fictional character of Princess Mia is certainly not God, but this story sounds much like what we hear has happened to the psalmist in today’s lesson. The Lord God Almighty teaches His ways, transforms His people. He lifts them up so that their enemies see their value in His eyes and they are put to shame. He helps us, and in this we find great comfort.
“Samuel said to Saul, ‘Why have you disturbed me, to bring me up?’ Saul answered, ‘I am very distressed; for the Philistines make war against me, and God has departed from me, and answers me no more, by prophets, or by dreams. Therefore I have called you, that you may make known to me what I shall do.’ Samuel said, ‘Why then do you ask me, since Yahweh has departed from you and has become your adversary? Yahweh has done to you as he spoke by me. Yahweh has torn the kingdom out of your hand, and given it to your neighbor, even to David. Because you didn’t obey Yahweh’s voice, and didn’t execute his fierce wrath on Amalek, therefore Yahweh has done this thing to you today. Moreover Yahweh will deliver Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines; and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. Yahweh will deliver the army of Israel also into the hand of the Philistines.’ Then Saul fell immediately his full length on the earth, and was terrified, because of Samuel’s words. There was no strength in him; for he had eaten no bread all day long or all night long.” 1 Samuel 28:15-20, WEB
We all have people to whom we turn to for help, spiritual guidance or counsel in decision making. Children look to parents and teachers. We often find mentors or supervisors that give us advice as we make decisions about our future. As we mature we become more independent, but it is helpful to have someone to help us see our choices from a different perspective. Some of our guides know us so well that they can see when we are leaning in a wrong direction and others have had experiences that can help us see the pitfalls or consequences of our decisions.
This is true of everyone, from young children to world leaders. People in authority have always had men and women to whom they turned for guidance. Sometimes it was a good thing, sometimes not so good. Movies often show these guides as untrustworthy or actually in control. This is why we need to know the people who surround our leaders as well as our leaders. Sometimes the decisions those leaders make are not in the best interests of the people they serve but are in the best interests of those who are controlling from the background.
Saul was the first king of Israel and he messed up, big time. He stopped turning to God for guidance and protection. He turned to his neighbors and their gods and ignored the pleas from the prophet Samuel to do things righteously. The Lord took away his anointing and gave it to David. In the end, things got so bad it was beyond repair, and then Saul finally turned to the Lord. Unfortunately, Samuel was dead, and Saul had no one left to whom he could turn. Rather than seek out the Lord, however, Saul went to a witch to have her contact Samuel and seek his aid. The spirit of Samuel came to Saul but had nothing good left to say.
The best advice anyone can give us is to follow the Lord and turn to Him for help. This is what Samuel tried to do for Saul throughout his reign as king. Saul refused to listen and did what went against the word of God. He sought advice from all the wrong people and in the end he lost everything, including his life. His blessings were taken away and given to another.
God uses men and women like Samuel to guide us on our way. We can certainly listen to our hearts, but they tend to take us in the wrong direction, they focus our direction on what will benefit ourselves like those advisors controlling people in authority. We are called to follow God and do everything for His glory. God is the God of second, third and even forth chances. By the time we reach that point, it does no good to turn to the wrong sort of mentor or counselor. There may come a time when it is too late. There was one thing Saul could have done; he could have humbled himself before the Lord God Almighty and admitted his failure. Saul continued to manipulate his world to his benefit, to stay in control. In doing so, the world held him captive, and he lost every blessing God had given him.
“Therefore we know no one after the flesh from now on. Even though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now we know him so no more. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away. Behold, all things have become new. But all things are of God, who reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ, and gave to us the ministry of reconciliation; namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses, and having committed to us the word of reconciliation. We are therefore ambassadors on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating by us: we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, WEB
I went to the grocery store the other day and as I was walking down an aisle I did a double take. Something seemed wrong. Something looked different. Then I realized that the cooler was filled with the wrong kind of meet. What used to be the bacon display was now the children display. This is no big deal, right? After all, grocery stores are constantly renovating and changing things. But this change meant I had to find where they had moved the bacon. I walked up and down the aisles and finally found it. I really didn’t need it, but I wanted to see what other changes they were making. The changes were subtle, and ongoing, so I know that it will be some time before I can quickly fill my shopping list because I’ll spend time searching the aisles for everything I need.
I went to another store another day. This store was doing a major renovation. They moved whole departments, although I’m not sure if those moves are permanent or just to make room for new displays. The changes at this store are not at all subtle. As a matter of fact, at sometime in the past month or so, they had a whole department hidden behind dust screens. The merchandise that belonged there was just stacked in another spot in the middle of the store. That department was nearly done, but there is still a lot of work to do. It took me a long time to find what I was looking for in that store, too. I also found changes when I logged onto Facebook a few days ago. They have been going through some subtle changes, especially in the way I work between my multiple pages. I sometimes think they all make these changes just to confuse me. They have been a little frustrating, but I’ve been finding my way through them.
Change is never easy, but in a few months I’ll be so used to new layout of the stores and Facebook that I’ll forget where everything used to be. I will probably even discover that these new designs are better and more convenient. Change is natural and happens all the time. Our own little corner of the world changes as we go through stages of life. Our church prayed over the children who are headed to kindergarten this past Sunday, which can be a very scary time for both the children and the parents. Some children are moving into new schools. Older students are beginning High school or college. Families are moving because of new jobs or to be closer to family. Young adults are marrying, and many young couples are having children. Older adults are learning how to deal with illness and the death of a spouse.
These changes are huge in a person’s life, but one of the biggest is when we begin following Jesus Christ. It is interesting, though. We are all changed in different ways. Some people notice subtle changes as God moves and removes different aspects of our life. Other people suddenly, and sometimes painfully, get a major makeover. No matter how God moves in our life, we become a new creation in Christ. The old is meant to pass away. When God shows us the things that need to change, He gives us what we need to become what He has created and redeemed us to be. It isn’t easy. We love some aspects of our life that does not glorify God. We don’t always want to change. But by faith we have been made ambassadors for God and He has some expectations of us. We are meant to be transformed into people who show our neighbors the wonderful, life-changing grace that reconciles the world and makes everything new.
Scriptures for August 14, 2022, Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: Jeremiah 23:16-29; Psalm 119:81-88; Hebrews 11:17-31, 12:1-3; Luke 12:49-53 (54-56)
“Therefore let’s also, seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let’s run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1-2, WEB
Mothers have this way of knowing what is going on without even having eyes on the situation. I have been known to tell my children that I have eyes on the back of my head. The children often believe this because we seem to know things we should not know. We are able to see things beyond the reasonable scope of our senses. We are really not omniscient, but we hope they will believe that we can see everything and that it will make them think twice about doing something disobedient when they grow older. We can’t be everywhere, however. Step by step they grow up and move on without us, often testing the limits of our omniscience.
We often think of God as a human parent who is limited by human constraints. The gods of the ancient peoples were local entities, superhumans that could do things regular humans could not do. They were somehow greater, and the people sought help and salvation through them. Yet, it was convenient to ignore the local gods when they weren’t needed, as if anything beyond their scope was outside their jurisdiction. Who needs a rain god when the weather is perfect? Why bother seeking help from the hometown god when you are on the road?
Our God is different. He is greater than all of creation. Sometimes, though, we treat Him as nothing more than a local god, as if He can be controlled. We think we can ignore Him when we do not need Him. We think we can hide from Him so He doesn’t see our wrongdoing. However, God is not just a god who is nearby, like those local gods of the ancients. He is also not a god who is far away. He is not some disconnected being that set the world in motion and then disappeared. In verse 24 of the passage of Jeremiah, He says, “Don’t I fill heaven and earth?” He is everywhere and actively involved in every aspect of the lives of His people.
When we discount the Lord God Almighty and make Him less than He is, we easily fall prey to those who would use and abuse His power for their own benefit. In Jeremiah’s days there were prophets on every streetcorner, prophets who claimed to know God’s mind and His intensions. They cried, “I had a dream” and interpreted the dream to their advantage. By claiming to have received their message directly from God, they sought to gain power and influence over people. Yet, their message was lacking. It led people astray. It brought people to the altar of false gods and made people forget the Creator and Redeemer God. They cried “Peace” because the people wanted peace; it met their needs so much more than warnings of God’s wrath. The false prophets popular because they said what the people wanted to hear.
In the passage from Jeremiah God asked, “What is the straw to the wheat?” Straw is part of the wheat; it is the stem that is left after the wheat kernels are taken. Straw has value; it can be used for bedding, for warmth, for building. Yet, straw is limited. Wheat, on the other hand, is life giving. The kernels can be used for food, or they can be planted to grow more wheat. God’s word as compared to that of the false prophets is life giving. It is forgiving. It is filled with grace and hope and peace. God’s word might be demanding. It might be powerful, like the hammer that breaks the rock into pieces, but it is healing and transforming. Most of all, God’s Word reveals His faithfulness. We can know the difference between the false prophets and those who are faithfully speaking God’s message to the world, because God’s word brings life and growth and hope. God’s Word never contradicts itself.
Who do we believe? This is a question we have to ask ourselves daily. Which news is real news? It is becoming very difficult to know what is true. I’ve watched too many videos of people who can’t answer simple questions correctly because they’ve trusted what they have heard without searching for what is real. People will continually repeat misinformation until it becomes “known fact” despite being untrue. With the viral character of the Internet, this type of misinformation can ruin people’s lives and reputations.
Take for instance the old saying, “God will not give you any more than you can handle.” We think this common refrain is scriptural and that God will keep us away from the hard stuff. Ask Jeremiah if God gives people more than they can handle. His life was rough. It was lonely to be persecuted and rejected. Jeremiah remained faithful not because he thought God would take away the difficulty but because he knew that God would get him through. We believe the refrain because we want our lives to be easy. It doesn’t show that we trust in God; it is a claim that we can do what needs to be done. Yet, we know that we can never make things right. That’s why we need Jesus.
Our scriptures lately have focused on trusting in God and having patience to wait for His will to be clearly known in our life. We looked at Abraham and Sarah whose faith in God’s promises gave them a vision of the future that they would never see during their lifetimes. They saw the beginning in the birth of their son Isaac, but they would never truly see the offspring who were as numerous as the stars in the sky. They still had faith. We are amazed by the examples of faith as we see in passages like today’s epistle lesson from Hebrews, but we almost wonder if they are truly historic stories or just merely myths to give us confidence in our own lives.
The promises become real when we see that these saintly, divinely inspired faithful people were not perfect. Even after Abraham was reminded of God’s promise over and over again, he still went to Hagar for a child. In the list of the faithful given to us by the writer of Hebrews, we see others who were faithful but imperfect. Rahab was of questionable morality. Gideon demanded proof from God. Barak wanted things to be done his own way rather than according to God’s will. Samson fell to the temptress. Jephthah made a deal with God which meant the death of his beloved daughter. David’s indiscretion brought death to a man and a child. The people who crossed the Red Sea did not remain faithful to God. Samuel and the prophets failed in their own ways.
The story of Jericho shows us that sometimes we have to experience the same things over and over again as we wait for God’s promises to be fulfilled, taking us to a place where we truly trust God. Would the walls have come tumbling down if the Israelites had blew their horns on the first day? No, God led them through a period of patience and obedience. The daily parade seemed worthless and ridiculous but in the end they believed, and the walls fell.
We learn through repetition both what we are doing wrong and how to do it right. Our life of faith is a growing, maturing journey that lasts our entire lifetime. We have an advantage over those people of faith in days gone by because the Good News of Jesus shows us the promise has been fulfilled in His life, death, and resurrection. Yet, we still fail. We still have doubts. We still forget God’s promises and need to be reminded daily to trust in Him. There are lessons we still need to learn. God leads us through periods requiring patience and obedience that sometimes seem ridiculous, but then one day He’ll tell us to blow our horns and the walls will come tumbling down.
Brooke Astor was a very wealthy socialite. When her third husband Victor died in 1959, Brooke inherited his vast estate, and then she spent the rest of her life giving it away. Her motto was, “Money is like manure, it should be spread around,” and she was willing to get down and dirty in the effort. It is estimated that she gave away $200,000,000 by the time she died in 2007, and she still left a sizable estate. She did not just write checks to those charities; she actually visited the places that received the funding whether it was an opera hall or a drug-infested neighborhood. She felt at home in any situation and believed that philanthropy was not just about throwing money at problems. She got right into the midst of them when she could.
Brooke Astor used her husband’s fortune to ease human misery, but she faced her own suffering in her last few years. Her son misused her money and abused her. She had dementia in those last days, and he took advantage of her inability to care for herself; he even withheld her medications so he could keep control. He was tried and convicted of many counts including grand theft and elder abuse. Brooke’s grandson fought his own father, risking his own portion of her estate, to ensure that her life was respected. He didn’t care and he succeeded, guaranteeing his grandmother received proper medical care in her final days. He began an organization that helps protect elders from the very things his own father did to Brooke.
These stories are more common than we would like; battles over inheritance often divide families. It is amazing how much, or how little, can get in the way of family harmony and peace. This doesn’t happen just among the rich. Many families battle over insignificant things like a few acres of land or a special memento. I’ve heard stories of family members rushing to the home of a recently departed person just to grab whatever they could get. These games destroy families.
The peace of a family is not always destroyed by stuff. How many of us have experienced broken relationships because of words? How often have we dismissed a family member or a friend because their opinion is different than ours? Sadly, this is happening more and more these days. Many families agree that there are certain topics that will not be discussed at family gatherings because those topics cause tension and division. Politics and religion are often put away for the sake of family unity because we know that those two subjects are met with passion. It is not easy to agree to disagree, and those discussions can lead to a lifetime of dispute.
Jesus says that He has come to bring fire upon the earth, but we would much rather think of Him as coming to bring peace. However, the peace Jesus brought is not necessarily a lack of conflict. Faith in Jesus will cause division, it will bring tension. Those who are passionate about their faith, about Jesus, will stand up for their beliefs under any circumstance, even risking relationships with family and friends.
When we live with this kind of conflict in our lives it is understandable that we wonder when we will know the peace that God has promised. Yet, this is a misunderstanding of the peace that God intends. The life of faith is not a life without conflict; it is a life of joy in God’s kingdom. Trusting in God means allowing the fire that dwells within us to burn brightly to light the world in which we live.
Sometimes we will need to face more than we can handle. Sometimes we will parade around our problems over and over again until God finally says we can blow our horns that will knock down the walls. We are called by faith to risk the division that might be caused by the Gospel. True peace is found in trusting God and living according to His Word, whatever the risk. God’s peace is not without conflict; it comes to us when we live in trust and hope for God’s promises.
Brooke Astor did what she believed was right to do: she gave everything she could to create a better world. She didn’t try to establish accounts to build or save the wealth, she spent as much money as she could, answering every need she saw. She trusted that someone else would provide for tomorrow while she was providing for today. I can’t find any indication of Christian faith in her biography, but she had a heart for those in need and did whatever she could. Others tried to stop her, but she didn’t care what they thought. She did what she did in memory of the man who gave her the responsibility.
We are called to live in our faith in the same manner, to be faithful for God’s sake no matter the consequences. We might think that a martyr’s life was not blessed because they died in suffering and pain. Yet they are so often described as having had an unearthly joy and peace come over them in those final moments, even as they were being burned or beheaded. God is everywhere and He can see everything. He is so close that He can count every hair on our head. He is so far that we can’t keep Him under control. God is with us. He is in our hearts and in our lives. As He said, He fills the earth. And He is constantly working in our world to make things right, to reconcile people to Himself and one another, to heal and grant peace to those who believe.
Texas is dangerously dry. Again. Drought is not unusual in Texas, after all our environment is semi-arid. We normally have several months a year without a drop of rain. This year we have been too dry for too long and we are also dealing extreme temperatures. That’s a consequence of the drought. There is a small hope for rain, perhaps some people will see a brief shower in the next few days. I’ve lived in Texas for nearly nineteen years, and I still do not really recognize the signs of impending weather. Some of it is obvious, but I can’t count on the old wives tale I knew in Pennsylvania about cows lying down before a rain. They might lie down for rain in some places, but here they lie down whenever they are tired.
I’ve also noticed that the clouds sometimes look “wet” as if they are about to burst, but then the sun evaporates the water, and they disappear into the big beautiful blue sky. I saw a storm cloud the other day that looked like it might actually come our way. It turned out it was fifty miles away and disappeared long before it could have reached our house. I’m not always very good at interpreting those signs.
In the Gospel lesson Jesus said, “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky, but how is it that you don’t interpret this time?” They knew what the temporal signs meant for their lives. Their agricultural livelihood depended on knowing the right time to plant and the right time to reap. The desert heat can be dangerous for travelers who might be on a dusty road for days at a time. Knowing the signs meant the difference between life and death.
We look at the stories of Jesus and wonder how they could have been so foolish. After all, Jesus did miraculous things; He made a difference in so many lives. How could they reject the Messiah that was standing right in front of them? Well, they had false prophets like we do. They had people claiming to be the Messiah. They had become cynical because the false prophets were never right. Besides, Jesus did not fit into their expectations. He was not the Messiah they thought they were looking for. He was not the Savior they predicted. They couldn’t read the signs because they were looking for all the wrong things. It was like me trying to understand the weather in Texas by using the signs that meant one thing in Pennsylvania that have no validity here.
They did not know how to interpret the signs. He did many miraculous things, but there were others who seemed to do miraculous things. They missed, or refused to acknowledge, that Jesus did signs that no one else was able to do. Jesus’ miracles were more than supernatural events. His work pointed to the grace of God. He would be faithful to provide the salvation that He promised to those who recognized that Jesus was the One. Too many, even today, put their own spin on those signs, but they have a skewed understanding of God.
Jeremiah had a lonely life. He was a prophet who had a very unpopular message. The other prophets of the day were promising good times to the people. They were promising sunshine and roses, peace and prosperity while Jeremiah prophesied the coming destruction. He was persecuted and rejected because he did not speak words the people wanted to hear. Would we have been any different? After all, it is much better to hear about peace and prosperity rather than destruction. How many preachers today are guilty of similar warm fuzzies when they should be calling people to repentance? How many of them have a skewed understanding of God?
Jesus said, “I came to throw fire on the earth. I wish it were already kindled.” This sounds almost like the boast of a warrior king who has come to bring destruction and wrath. Jesus’ message becomes more difficult to hear as He moves closer to the cross. Life in God’s Kingdom will not always be easy; there will be persecution. The Gospel is not a unifier, it is a divider. But Jesus comforts His disciples with the promise that they will not be alone.
Last week Jesus warned His disciples to be ready. Ready for what? The religious leaders were already pressing Jesus to catch Him in some crime so that they could be rid of Him. The inevitable end of Jesus’ ministry would be on the cross. Jesus certainly wanted the disciples to be ready for what was soon to come because His passion and death would be trying on them as well. But Jesus constantly reminded them not to be afraid. “They can’t really kill you because your Father in Heaven is willing to save you unto eternal life.” No matter how wonderful this message sounds to us, there are many who refuse to hear and believe.
That’s where the division happens when Jesus throws His fire on earth. He divides hearts; some are inflamed with the divine love of God, but others are left cold. The fire is not a fire that destroys, but one that fills the hearts of God’s people with His love. Jesus wishes that it was already burning, but it would take something very radical for it to happen. Jesus had to die on the cross, and then after His resurrection, the Holy Spirit could be thrown upon God’s people, filling them with everything God has promised to those who believe.
Jesus stood before the people in Israel, presenting the Kingdom of God and they could not see Him as He is. He was showing them the signs that pointed to the truth so that they would turn back to God and follow Him as those who walked in faith throughout the ages. Even now too many do not recognize the signs because they expect God to fulfill their expectations rather than be faithful to His truth.
See, God’s Word is good, and it is the word upon which we can live and dwell in peace not only in this world but for life eternal. The Psalm for today is part of that lengthy hymn praising God’s Word. Each of the stanzas in Psalm 119 use words that describe God’s Law. Many people are uncomfortable with this psalm because it seems too legalistic. However, when we study the words we realize that this psalm is really a comfort to those of us who trust God because they remind us that God’s Word is more than rules we must obey.
We are called to speak God’s word to those around us. Jesus expects us to be passionate about our faith, so much so that it just flows out in our everyday experiences. The fruit of the Spirit is not something that should be quelched for the sake of unity. Unfortunately, not everyone will agree with our passion, and this will bring division.
We trust in God’s salvation because He has said He will save us. When we are let down we can look to God’s promises. When we struggle with the life we are living in this world we can see how God’s boundaries will guard and protect us even from ourselves. When we are being persecuted, we can trust that God will provide justice against those who do us harm. Those who are against us are actually against God, but God is faithful. Even when the world means to destroy us, we can look to God’s authority for peace. God’s testimony is worth obedience because He will protect us by His mercy.
Our passion for Jesus Christ might bring discord even among our families. The world will not approve of the choices we make. We might suffer. We might die at their hands. But we are called to take our faith into the world no matter what might happen. So, let’s be ready every moment to do whatever it is God is calling you to do. This means acting as Jesus taught us to act, doing what Jesus commanded us to do. Jesus invites us to follow in His footsteps, even though the circumstances may be difficult. It won’t be easy, but He has called us to share the Gospel that will bring reconciliation, healing, and peace to those who believe.
“Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Colossians 3:12-17, WEB
It is said that those who have the most impact on a life gone astray are those who have overcome similar experiences. In other words, a reformed alcoholic is better able to deal with the physical, emotional, and spiritual problems of an alcoholic. There is some truth to this because someone who has really dealt with those problems can authentically provide advice and examples of the things they did to overcome. A mother who has lost a child can weep with fresh tears with a mother who lost hers. From another point of view, former criminals can teach ways to protect homes, lives, and property. Knowledge can make empathy more real and helpful.
This does not meant that those of us who do not have the experiences can cast off those in need because “we don’t know.” Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. I may not know the mind of an alcoholic, but I do know what it means to be tempted. I may not have lost a child, but I do know loss. I may not have experiences from which I can teach others to overcome specific struggles in this world, but I have struggled and I can identify with the hardships we face when confronted by those who would do us harm.
In other words, I might not be able to deal specifically with someone’s problems, but I can be an encourager, a listening ear, a source for references, a friendly companion along the path someone must take to healing, wholeness and peace. Most of all, we can be the presence of Christ in their lives, speaking His words of love, mercy, grace, forgiveness, peace, hope, and joy into their lives. Empathy is the ability to understand but is not limited to specific knowledge of the problems afflicting our neighbors. Empathy from the heart of a Christian means knowing what it is like to be a sinner in need of a Savior and offering the world a piece of the promise we have received in Jesus Christ.
We don’t have to take it all upon our own shoulders, of course. An alcoholic should have guidance from someone with the medical and psychological knowledge to get them on the right path to healing. Those who are grieving need someone who can help them through the emotional journey through grief. There are organizations that offer services to people in situations like these and many others that can help them overcome. Those who are confronted by the evils in this world need to rely on those who have the authority to deal with the crimes committed against them.
But this doesn’t mean we can walk away from those who need help because we don’t have the right experience or knowledge. We have been given Christ’s heart and can act with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, bearing their burdens with them. We can love them, hold their hands, share the peace of Christ with them as they deal with their struggles. We do this in the name of Jesus, and He gives them what they need through us so that they may overcome.
“Let’s fear therefore, lest perhaps anyone of you should seem to have come short of a promise of entering into his rest. For indeed we have had good news preached to us, even as they also did, but the word they heard didn’t profit them, because it wasn’t mixed with faith by those who heard. For we who have believed do enter into that rest, even as he has said, ‘As I swore in my wrath, they will not enter into my rest;’ although the works were finished from the foundation of the world.” Hebrews 4:1-3, WEB
I noticed a truck at a neighbor’s house the other day and realized they were getting a brand new front door installed. It was a beautiful wrought iron door, and it made me wonder if it was an option for us. A new front door is on our to-do list, although with a million other things, it isn’t at the top. A wrought iron door would be beautiful, but expensive. We may have to consider other options, but we also have to consider the impact any changes will have on our house.
A front door is an important feature of any house. A beautiful front door like my neighbor just installed is expensive, so many people find the most affordable alternative. Any door is better than no door because it offers us protection. Visit the website of any door company, and they will tell you that it worth spending a little extra money because the right front door creates a first impression. The front door offers curb appeal for those who are trying to sell. They add value to a home. Most of all, though, I think a front door is important because it is the place where we welcome our guests.
One of the things I loved most about our trip to Germany was looking at the doors. It almost became an obsession for me to take pictures of them. The next door was always so pretty I had to get a picture. There are photographers who specialize in photographing doors and many coffee table books have been published with their pictures. I was thinking the other day that I should do a series of paintings of the doors I took. Every door was unique. They are often painted bright colors or have intricate carvings. In Europe, many of the doors are hundreds of years old. They have a lovely patina, centuries worth of dings and scratches. They have old iron hinges and handles. They are often surrounded by intricate stonework with figures, dates, and words.
Most of the time we have no idea what is behind the doors we see. One of my favorite doors was from a hotel where we stayed. It was a plate of clear glass with brass fixtures. It was impossible to photograph because I could see what was behind, but it was a very welcoming lobby and reception desk. It was a small-town Bavarian inn, each room slightly unique with a gorgeous view of an abbey with the Alps in the background. It was my favorite hotel on our trip; it was small and cozy. We woke to the sound of singing birds and the bells of the abbey ringing. I wish we’d had more time there, and I would go back in a heartbeat to enjoy the hospitality and rest behind that door.
Jesus describes Himself as a door. It is through faith in Him that we enter into the eternal hospitality of the LORD our God and the best rest we can ever imagine. He welcomes us into fellowship with our Father; through Him we can see behind the door. The Good News of Jesus Christ is the invitation to enter. Sadly, not everyone who hears believes, but all who believe will enter God’s rest. That word spoken is meaningless without faith; they don’t hear and experience God’s grace in a lifesaving way without it. But faith is a gift of God, so let us pray that all who hear will believe and find true rest behind the door into God’s eternal kingdom.
“He stood before Yahweh’s altar in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands (for Solomon had made a bronze platform, five cubits long, and five cubits wide, and three cubits high, and had set it in the middle of the court; and he stood on it, and knelt down on his knees before all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands toward heaven) and he said, ‘Yahweh, the God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven or on earth; you who keep covenant and loving kindness with your servants who walk before you with all their heart; who have kept with your servant David my father that which you promised him. Yes, you spoke with your mouth, and have fulfilled it with your hand, as it is today. Now therefore, Yahweh, the God of Israel, keep with your servant David my father that which you have promised him, saying, “There shall not fail you a man in my sight to sit on the throne of Israel, if only your children take heed to their way, to walk in my law as you have walked before me.” Now therefore, Yahweh, the God of Israel, let your word be verified, which you spoke to your servant David. But will God indeed dwell with men on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens can’t contain you; how much less this house which I have built! Yet have respect for the prayer of your servant, and to his supplication, Yahweh my God, to listen to the cry and to the prayer which your servant prays before you; that your eyes may be open toward this house day and night, even toward the place where you have said that you would put your name; to listen to the prayer which your servant will pray toward this place. Listen to the petitions of your servant, and of your people Israel, when they pray toward this place. Yes, hear from your dwelling place, even from heaven; and when you hear, forgive.’” 2 Chronicles 6:12-21, WEB
You can’t go to Europe and not notice the churches. One town seemed to have a church on every corner; a steeple was visible down every alley or street. The cathedrals often tower over every other building. As a matter of fact, in England there was once a law that no building could be taller than the church. This made the cross at the top of the steeple always in people’s sight, a reminder that God dwelled among them. One friend is currently on a river cruise through Europe, and she posted a photo of a small town along the way. Her caption was “There is always a church.” I noticed that, too, on our river cruises. And the church always stands out.
Even today we design our churches to stand out. There are many who struggle with the amount of money spent on the buildings, claiming that the church is not a building but the people. This is true, but churches give us a place to gather as the body of Christ, a place to join together in worship and prayer. Churches are meant to stand out, to be a place where people can look for the presence of God in the world. Sadly, sometimes we Christians do not do a very good job at standing out so that people can look to us, but they have a place to go when they see the buildings we build. The thing is, God has chosen to dwell among His people, and though He is not confined to any building, He uses our buildings as a place to encourage faith and teach discipleship to His people.
God dwelt among us in a more personal way. He came in flesh in the body of our Lord Jesus through Mary. He dwelt in Mary’s womb, and then dwelt among the people of Israel. He dwelt with His disciples and friends. He now dwells in our hearts.
Our scripture for today comes from the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem by King Solomon. King David wanted to give God a house, a place to dwell among His people, but it was his son Solomon who completed the building. It might seem odd that David would want to confine God to one place, but the reality is that even if God does dwell in that sacred space, He is never confined to it, just as He isn’t confined to our church buildings today.
Yet, we build these places to honor God, to give God’s people a place to gather and to have a holy place where we can enter into the presence of our God. He is not just found in that place. We can find Him on the highest mountain and in the deepest sea. He is wherever His people meet to share His grace and mercy and forgiveness. He is in the faces of those who need our help, and He is in the hands of those willing to give themselves for the sake of others. He is everywhere; the places we build can’t contain God.
Solomon prays, “But will God indeed dwell with men on the earth?” Today is the Feast of St. Mary, the mother of our Lord, one of several celebrations that honor and remember Mary throughout the year. Why do we pay so much attention to Mary? Some, of course, have raised her to near goddess status, but we are reminded that Mary needed Jesus as much as the rest of us. Dr. James Lee said of Martin Luther’s attitude about Mary, “I think Luther hit the nail on the head. He neither needs to improperly elevate Mary as co-redemptrix or the object of our intercession. But neither does he denigrate her. He honors her as the Mother of God. He sees her as an example for all in her humility, in her chastity, and most importantly in her faith.”
As we think of Mary today, we realize that even though God cannot be confined to the buildings we create to honor Him, He has found it pleasant to be in our presence, so much so that He sent His Son in flesh to dwell among us. Mary was just a lowly maid, but her body was a temple that held the living God. Our buildings might not be grand like the Temple of Solomon, but God does choose to dwell among His people, both in our buildings and in our lives.
“He showed me a river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. On this side of the river and on that was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruits, yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. There will be no curse any more. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no night, and they need no lamp light or sun light; for the Lord God will illuminate them. They will reign forever and ever.” Revelation 22:1-5, WEB
I like chocolate. I really like chocolate. I think most of us would agree that chocolate is good. Chocolate tastes good. Chocolate makes us feel good. Some will even tell you that there are health benefits to chocolate. I have been in the mood for chocolate. As if I’m not always in the mood for chocolate! I usually keep a cup full of M&Ms on my desk within easy reach. As I wandered the aisles at the grocery store, I looked at a lot of options. I picked up packages and read the labels and put them down. Candy. Cake. Ice Cream. Fresh made. Frozen. Make at home. On my way home I considered stopping at a fast food place to buy a milkshake. I didn’t buy anything, not even M&Ms to put in my empty cup.
Chocolate is good, but we also know that chocolate is bad, especially the kind of chocolate that I really like. The chocolate that we like to eat has other ingredients, especially sugar. Those extra ingredients are what makes chocolate taste good and what makes us feel good. The chocolate cake has flour, oil, sugar. The icing has butter and sugar. Without those ingredients, the chocolate cake would not be quite so good. When I read those labels on the candy, cake, and ice cream, I see that I should not buy it because it just isn’t good for me. Oh, I do indulge, probably too often, but I’m trying to remember that while chocolate is good, it is also bad. Those days of indulgence are when I recall that even though chocolate is bad, it is also good.
Doesn’t that describe human beings? We are good, but we are bad. We are bad, but we are also good. One of the great mottos of the Reformation is “simul justus et peccator,” which means “simultaneously saint and sinner.” We are constantly reminded that though we have been saved by the grace of Jesus Christ, we are still sinners. We need Jesus every day. Sadly, I think we sometimes forget that we are also saints. We are good, even as we are bad.
I read an article recently that reminded me that the Bible begins at Genesis chapter One, even though we sometimes look only back to Genesis chapter Three. We begin so much of our understanding of our relationship with God with the fall in the Garden of Eden. But we should also remember that when God created everything else, He called it all good. After He created humankind, however, the Bible says, “God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” We were created good. We fell which is not good, but we are made in the image of God, and God does not lie. Everything He had made is very good.
It is because of this goodness that God did all that was necessary to bring us back from the darkness, to find us when we were lost. He sent Jesus to begin the work necessary so that one day we would dwell with Him for eternity once again in the garden He made for our home way back in the beginning. He sent Jesus to make things right, as they were meant to be. He sent Jesus to make us good, very good, again. It will take a lifetime, but the day will come when we will walk in the Garden once again with our Father, reigning with Him forever. He created us good, and by His grace we will be good again.
Lectionary Scriptures for August 21, 2022, Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 66:18-23; Psalm 50:1-15; Hebrews 12:4-24 (25-29); Luke 13:22-30
“‘For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me,’ says Yahweh, ‘so your offspring and your name shall remain.’” Isaiah 66:22, WEB
I was busy working on my writing a couple weeks ago when my computer suddenly went black. My computer has been on its last legs for some time, but I put off buying a new one. I did purchase an external hard drive and I was in the process of moving my files to it. I hoped that removing some of my photos would help my computer run better. I was running out of space. I had not yet completed that task when my computer went black. I was procrastinating because it is such a pain to have to reinstall my programs, to remember all my passwords, to learn a new operating system.
I was worried when my screen went black. Would I be able to get my files, most of which were from two decades of my writing? I was able to reboot and the devotion I was writing at the time had been saved, so I didn’t have to start all over again. The computer continued to work, but I finished moving all my files and made arrangements to purchase a new computer and have it set up as soon as I could. I made sure that I bought a computer that had plenty of memory so that when I am working on photos, I won’t take too much space. I take a lot of photos, and photos use a lot of memory.
I made sure that I purchased a computer that had at least a terabyte of memory. That is a lot of memory. A terabyte is one trillion bytes of information. The earliest computers had a fraction of that amount. As a matter of fact, Bill Gates in 1980 said, “640K ought to be enough for anybody.” That’s just 640,000 bytes. My raw photos from Germany equaled nearly 80 billion bytes! My best photos, about a thousand of them, equaled nearly 7 billion bytes. Most cell phones these days have at least 100,000 times the memory of those first computers forty years ago.
In 1977, Ken Olson, the president of Digital Equipment Corporation said, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” In 1968, an engineer at IBM responding to the microchip said, “But what… is it good for?” In 1943, Thomas Watson, the chairman of IBM said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” We now know that those men seriously had no idea where technology would go in just a few decades.
There is a wide variety of low cost electronic gadgets this day. I had a scientific calculator for school many decades ago, and the cost was significantly more than many cell phones today. And my cell phone can do so much more! You don’t need to buy a DVD player or television anymore because you can watch movies digitally on watches. New computers are far more advanced than the original ones and are so inexpensive that nearly everyone can have one in their homes. The sale aisles are filled with new gadgets for the kitchen that dice, chop, bake, grill or freeze anything you want to cook. The toy stores have hundreds of new and improved items that will satisfy the desires of any child. Just about everything has one of those microchips that the engineer at IBM questioned.
All this technology has impacted our lives in many ways, and it has not always been positive. Spend five minutes reading social media and you know what I’m talking about. Yet, I would not want to live in any other time of history. I like my gadgets. I like being able to instantly see how the traffic is or where the weather radar shows rainfall. I can put my laundry and dishes into machines that do all the hard work for me, giving me time to do other things. The new is better than the old.
And yet, we aren’t very good at change. It took me too long to deal with my dying computer, so long that I almost lost thousands of important files. I get frustrated when my favorite store moves things around so I can’t find what I need on my shopping list. I miss certain aspects of worship when we try something new. I’m set in my ways, and though I’ve always claimed to be able to adapt, I grumble when things are not as I expect them to be.
When the Hebrews left Egypt, they camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Moses went up into the mountain to talk to God, but he was there a very long time. Some of the people thought he surely must be dead, and so they suggested going back to the old ways of worship. What good is a God that would take away their leader, so they turned to the religion that made more sense to them. It was easier to worship a golden calf they could see than to worship the God that they could not see.
The writer of the book of Hebrews wrote that these people could not bear to even listen to the Word of God because they were afraid. It was much the same for the people in Jesus’ day. They trembled, but not at the foot of the mountain. They trembled at the foot of the Law, out of fear that they would do something against God. They listened to the council of the leaders who burdened them with long lists of rules and taught that God’s grace depended on their obedience. They did not trust in God’s grace.
The writer of Hebrews gives us two visions of life under the rule of God. In the first there is fear. The people stood at the base of Mount Sinai, receiving the Law as given to Moses. That mountain was fearsome -- not even an animal could set foot on it. Anyone who touched it would be stoned. The people were so frightened by the sound of God’s voice that they begged Moses to be an intercessor. Even Moses was terrified and trembling with fear.
But there is another way to live in God’s Kingdom: by faith. This means trusting God. God disciplined His people when they turned from Him at the foot of that mountain. It was punishing, but full of grace because He did not reject or abandon them. Instead, He called them to repentance and drew them into Himself. He remained faithful to His promises, and they learned to trust in Him. It didn’t happen overnight. As a matter of fact, He had to teach them that lesson over and over again. The story of God’s people has always followed the same pattern since the beginning: faith, wandering, discipline, repentance and faith. We hear this throughout the history of Israel and throughout the history of the Christian church. We wander because we want to go through the big door, to follow the wide path. We want to do things our own way.
The question in today’s Gospel lesson is whether we are walking through the wide or the narrow gate. The Hebrews chose the wide gate when Moses was gone too long. It was the easy way. Waiting is hard, there are few (if any) humans who have the kind of patience we need to trust in God. His timing is never our timing. The people in Jesus’ day also went through the wide gate, choosing to follow the council of men rather than Jesus. By following the Law, we can be in control. Even if we err, at least we are doing it by our own will.
The wide door (or path, or gate) is the easy way. When we lived in England, I was fascinated by the doors, especially those of the cathedrals. They have huge front doors, made of thick wood made sturdy with iron belts. The churches were often the last line of defense against an enemy, so they were built like fortresses. The huge doors are well taller than a man, perhaps two or three stories high, so large that they seem impractical. Those doors are rarely opened because it takes several men to do so. They were generally used only for ceremonial purposes; processions could easily enter through them, including men on horseback.
There was no need to open these larger doors because a smaller door was always cut into the larger one for regular use. Unfortunately, these smaller doors are often very small. I am not tall, but I usually had to bend to walk through. I always thought about today’s Gospel lesson when I entered a church through one of those doors. The big doors, the wide path, is easier to go through, but Jesus reminds us that the way of Christ is never the easy way. It is a narrow door. These smaller doors are not only more practical, but they also remind us to follow the narrow path.
One door in Israel is even smaller than those doors in England. It is called the “Door of Humility,” and is the way into the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Not only do you have to bend to walk through, but you must stoop quite deeply. There is no other door. There is no wider path. This door reminds us that we are entering a holy place where God Himself entered our world as flesh and blood. We bow in humility, honoring the One who is our LORD.
Moses delivered a covenant from God to His people. This covenant was a promise that God would always be with them. The people saw the awesome power of God as they moved into the Promised Land, defeated their enemies, and settled into the life of blessing promised to their forefathers. The LORD asked only that the people obey His commands; to keep themselves separate from those who worshipped other gods. This command was for their own protection, since union with the pagans would lead to their own worship of those gods.
We have seen that happen throughout history, and even in our time. Though we talk about Jesus and live as a part of the Church, we get lost in the culture of our world and forget, at times, that God has warned us to be careful that we do not follow the ways of the world. We forget that the door is narrow, and we open the big doors to let everything in. There are those who talk about how the church should be a big tent, able to hold all thought and beliefs. This leads us to worshipping the wrong things, for chasing after a false Gospel, for doing what seems right but is not according to God’s will and purpose for our lives.
The reading from Isaiah is a message of judgment and hope. God said, “For I know their works and their thoughts.” God knows our hearts; He knows what we do and don’t do. He said, “The time comes that I will gather all nations and languages, and they will come, and will see my glory.” He promises to set a sign for all to see His glory, and by that sign to know that He is God. That sign is Jesus. We see in Jesus the love, mercy and grace of the Father, as well as His glory. He is the door. He is the light. He is the way. He is not just the narrow path; He is the only path. Those who believe this will survive the judgment; those who reject Jesus will not.
I’ve seen a lot of church doors, but I once worshipped at a church that had the most magnificent door I’ve ever seen. The church was old; the congregation was the first in Pittsburgh, but the building was only about a hundred years old. It was obvious from some of the architecture that some parts of the building were newer than that, but it was a splendid building that was much like those I’d experienced throughout Europe.
What I liked about that church is that the magnificent door did not lead into the church, but was inside the church. There was a large archway over the high altar, which led to a room behind it. The space was set with tables and chairs, like a banquet hall. The door was nearly three stories tall and it divided the worship space from that banqueting hall. I imagine that it is often used for weddings with the door closed, separating the ceremony from the party. The door was concave, so when it was closed behind the altar it appeared almost cave-like, giving space for movement during worship. It was made of the most beautiful wood, and it was so smooth that it shined.
I wish that it had been closed during our worship, but there was something wonderful about the imagery of that banquet hall. The door into the church from the street was average, although beautiful. It was the size of a normal church door, although quite small compared to the one inside. As I considered the story in today’s Gospel lesson, I loved the imagery of getting into the church by the small door, but the door to the banqueting hall is large enough for everyone.
Many Christians really like to sit in the back of the church. Parents with small church often do so because they don’t want their fidgety kids to disturb the other people. I learned that sitting in the front row actually helps a child connect to the worship; they can see, so they don’t get so fidgety. They also learn quickly how to behave in church. Others sit in the back because they are afraid that the pastor will see them falling asleep during the sermon. As one who has preached, I can assure you that the preacher sees you anyway. I recently learned that most people try to sit near the doorway, either out of safety concerns or because they want to get out quickly.
All too often, the people who sit in the front rows are those who get to church late because the back pews are already full. So, we get there early to get the “best” seats, so that the latecomers get “stuck” in the front. But when I saw this huge, beautiful door leading to that banquet hall, I thought that if there were a banquet in that room after worship, it might be best to get stuck in one of the front pews, because then you would be the first into the banqueting hall! After all, Jesus said that the last will be first.
This Gospel lesson has a warning for Christians. We are encouraged to be more than just believers; we are to be disciples. Some people who appear to be among the faithful will not be recognized by Jesus. They are the ones who do not want to enter heaven through the narrow door; they get lost in the culture of our world and forget that God has warned us to stay on the right path. We forget that the door is narrow, and we open the big doors to let everything in. This leads us to worshipping with half-heartedness, focusing on the wrong things, and even chasing after a false Gospel. We all too often do what seems right but is not according to God’s will and purpose for our lives. We follow the wide road because it is easier, but the true path leads to eternal life.
God warns us not to follow the ways of the world. Those of us with faith in Christ have been welcomed into the Kingdom and are invited to the eternal banquet. We are given a life that isn’t restrained by a set of rules but is made righteous by the blood of Jesus. This is a life God wants for everyone; He has promised to share it with all the nations. Will Jesus open the door for us if we are silent and conforming to the world? Will we who were first end up last because we are half-hearted and focused on all the wrong things?
A story is told of a dream a man once had of worship from the perspective of heaven. An angel took him into church one Sunday. Everything was normal; the people were singing with the musicians and listening to the minister speaking God’s word, yet there was no sound. When the man asked what this meant, the angel answered that it was how worship was heard in heaven, for though the lips of the people were making the motions; their hearts and minds were elsewhere.
The psalmist dwelt at a time when the people were giving many offerings and sacrifices to God, but they were not giving Him their hearts. Though we do not kill bulls or lambs in our modern worship, what are we offering to God? Do we grumble when we write our weekly check? Do we moan as we roll out of bed on a Sunday morning? Do we make excuses as to why we can’t be at church this week? Is our worship silent in heaven because we are thinking about the cares of this world or checking our cell phones, turning our attention away from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ? Just like the Jews in days of old, it is almost as if we think that God needs our bodies there at worship, but what He truly wants is our hearts.
God expects more from us than attendance on Sunday, too. Worship should not be limited to an hour a week and it is meant to go beyond the church doors. The psalmist wrote that God is not looking for our sacrifices. He doesn’t need our bulls because they are already His; we cannot give Him anything that doesn’t already belong to Him. We can only sing songs of praise and thanksgiving and look to Him above all else in this world. He is the Lord God Almighty, Creator, Redeemer, and Comforter. True spiritual worship will focus entirely on Him, not only during a worship service but always. That worship will bring blessings.
The greatest act of spiritual sacrifice is to share the Gospel with our neighbors, even when doing so puts us at risk. God wants us to be missionaries, to share His Word with the world whether across the sea or in our own backyards. He wants us to invite more people into His presence. He wants us to lead them through the narrow door, to help them see that any other path leads to nothing. God is calling us to bring them into the Church so that they too might join in the eternal banquet. If we accept that whatever they believe is good enough, we condemn them to a judgment that will lead to death rather than life.
We are saved from the wrath of God for a purpose: to take God’s glory into the world. Isaiah talks of bringing others to Jerusalem as an offering to God. This is an interesting image, and one we should seriously consider if we are to be Church in today’s world. We often think it is enough to give God our money, time, and our talents, but what God really wants is for us to bring more people to Him. He owns everything! As the psalmist wrote, He is not looking for our sacrifices. He doesn’t need our bulls because they are already His.
But He wants us to be missionaries, to share His Word with the world whether across the sea or in our own backyards. He wants us to invite more people into His presence. He wants us to lead them through the narrow door, to help them see that any other path leads to nothing. God is calling us to bring them into the Church so that they too might join in the eternal banquet.
Faith is not easy because it means giving ourselves over to God. There’s always a way that seems better to us and the world. Only those who walk through the narrow door will be left to dwell in His presence for eternity. This is particularly hard to proclaim in a world where everything is good and acceptable. The narrow door is too limiting, the narrow path is too restraining. Yet, it is there we’ll find the grace that saves.
Isaiah writes, “‘For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me,’ says Yahweh, ‘so your offspring and your name shall remain. It shall happen that from one new moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all flesh will come to worship before me,’ says Yahweh.” We should not assume that this is true now, or that it is true that all faiths will be part of this joyous worship. Only those who walk through the narrow door, who believe in Jesus, will dwell in His presence for eternity. God does not want anyone to perish, and He’s calling us to lead them toward true life. We do so in work and in action; our faith is made obvious in our passion to share the Gospel with the world. But too many of us do not have that passion, in church or in our daily lives.
I love living in this time with access to so many wonderful and helpful gadgets that went so far beyond the expectations of those who were creating the technology. I love living in this time with Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Everything old was made new again when Jesus came to dwell among us fulfilling God’s promises. He was born to bring forgiveness for our failure and to give us the power to live in His grace. We do not have to be frightened to stand in the presence of God our Father, because Jesus stands before us as mediator. The Old Testament is filled with predictions about how God will deal with His people which were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. There was great blessing in living in a covenant with God, being obedient to His commands. I would not want to live in any other time than now, in the New Covenant brought forth by Jesus no matter how difficult it is to stay on the narrow path to our destination of the great banquet in heaven.
“However, I consider those things that were gain to me as a loss for Christ. Yes most certainly, and I count all things to be a loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus, my Lord, for whom I suffered the loss of all things, and count them nothing but refuse, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, that which is of the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith, that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming conformed to his death, if by any means I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained, or am already made perfect; but I press on, that I may take hold of that for which also I was taken hold of by Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:7-12, WEB
I’ve been reading what life was like in the days of Paul. His letters are filled with metaphors from the life he lived; he talks about sports, family, military, and city life. He grew up in a city; you can see in his letters and the examples that he uses that he was cosmopolitan. Some suggest that Paul teaches a different Gospel from Jesus. One reason is that his language is so different, so the message sounds different. Jesus’ parables are more focused on agrarian life and vineyards, country or small-town life. How could they be saying the same thing? Jesus came from an Eastern (Middle East) culture, but Paul came from a Western (Greco-Roman) culture. Their world views were different, but the Gospel remains the same.
The message is the same, the way of saying it is different. Paul grew up in the city. The first century urbanization was second only to our time. Life revolved around the cities in the Roman world. There were differences between then and now. We have urban sprawl, but they were confined by walls. We tend to think that multi-level buildings were a recent development because of modern engineering and elevators; who could walk up more than a few flights of stairs every day? But some buildings in Rome and other ancient cities were as much as six floors high because there was no room within the cities to build wider buildings, so they had to expand up.
The cities dealt with so many problems, like the lack of water and the overabundance of sewage. It was dangerous to be out after dark, and the people hid behind locked doors. The people were crammed in, especially the poor who were forced to live in tiny spaces at the tops of those ancient skyscrapers. When disease came, it took many. Fire was a particular fear because once something began to burn, the fire often took whole blocks and cities. The problems of that ancient world may have manifested differently than today, but doesn’t this paragraph sound familiar?
When I drive through the cities in our nation, I always pass through neighborhoods that are falling apart. They are dirty and dangerous. The poor are living in unlivable conditions. Those buildings might have running water, but in too many of them the water is nasty and unhealthy. It may seem hard for most of us to believe, but many of those buildings do not have adequate plumbing. Large families live in small rooms, and do not have good access to waste disposal. In those ancient cities, the sewage and garbage ran in the streets; it was said you could smell Rome before you could see it. Sadly, sometimes, human waste is still found in our streets today. You don’t want to be on the city streets at night now any more than then. Fire and disease are still very real fears for those who live in crowded buildings.
This was the world in which Paul lived, which is why his examples seem so different from Jesus. Yet, sometimes I think we moderns can understand Paul much better than Jesus because we are more familiar with his Greco-Roman world view. We are more likely to understand city life than vineyards. Imagine being Paul, walking through a city, seeing the waste along the roads and thinking about his own life and faith. In today’s passage, he sees every good thing about his life as refuse, as the sewage running down the street, because the promise of Christ is so much better than anything in this world. The New Jerusalem, the city where we will dwell for eternity will not be dirty or dangerous or unhealthy. It will be perfect. For today, we press on toward the promise that is ours and will be ours forever through faith in Jesus Christ.
“Behold, one came to him and said, ‘Good teacher, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but one, that is, God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ Jesus said, ‘“You shall not murder.” “You shall not commit adultery.” “You shall not steal.” “You shall not offer false testimony.” “Honor your father and your mother.” And, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”’ The young man said to him, ‘All these things I have observed from my youth. What do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ But when the young man heard this, he went away sad, for he was one who had great possessions. Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Most certainly I say to you, a rich man will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven with difficulty. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter into God’s Kingdom.’ When the disciples heard it, they were exceedingly astonished, saying, ‘Who then can be saved?’ Looking at them, Jesus said, ‘With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’ Then Peter answered, ‘Behold, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Most certainly I tell you that you who have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on the throne of his glory, you also will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Everyone who has left houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive one hundred times, and will inherit eternal life. But many will be last who are first, and first who are last.’” Matthew 19:16-30, WEB
What does it mean to give everything up for the sake of Christ? Peter reminds Jesus that they gave up everything and followed Jesus. But did they really? At this point in the story, the disciples had been following Jesus for three years. They were with Him constantly. They heard every story, probably many times. They’d had private lessons about what it means to believe in God. They had seen Jesus do the most miraculous things, including raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus was about to enter Jerusalem in triumph, and the disciples had been with Him as He rose to such notoriety.
They did leave everything behind for this adventure with Jesus. Everything but themselves. Along the road to Jerusalem, they fought over who would be the greatest. James and John wanted Jesus to guarantee that they would be part of His leadership council. Peter denied Jesus on the night He was betrayed. They gave up homes, friends, and jobs. They gave up all their stuff. But even at this point in the story, they still held on to their will and their expectations.
Andrew Murry wrote, “But Christ taught them and trained them. He revealed to them, time after time, what the sin of pride is, and what the glory of humility is, and when He died upon the cross, they died a terrible death too. Think of Peter, the impetuous disciple, having denied his Lord. Do not you think that in all the sorrows of those three days, from the crucifixion day to the resurrection day, the deepest and bitterest was this – shame at the thought of how he had treated his Lord? Then he learned to despair in himself. At the supper table how self-confident he had been! ‘Although all shall be offended, yet will not I!’ But Jesus took him down with Him into death and the grave, and then Peter felt that there was in him, no good thing. He learned to despair of himself.”
Peter died to self as Jesus died on the cross, and only then had he truly given up everything. Giving up everything means everything, even ourselves. Especially ourselves. This is not something that happens easily. It takes a lifetime. We are no different than those disciples who walked with Jesus for three years. Peter boasted that they had given up everything, yet he failed to live as Jesus taught them: in humility. He, they, had pride in their discipleship but continued to hold on to their own wills and expectations.
What do you still hold? Jesus promised to the disciples the very thing they thought they deserved! They would rule with Him forever. Yet, He pointedly reminded them that it isn’t just about giving up the stuff of this world. He said, “But...” Those who are last, those who submit themselves completely to the will and expectations of God, are those that will be first. It may take a lifetime, but Christ teaches us and trains us. He reveals to us our own pride and shows us that glory is found in humility. He died so that we can live, but we have to die to ourselves and then we will truly live the life promised to us by our God.
“For this cause, I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, that you may be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner person, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, to the end that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be strengthened to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and height and depth, and to know Christ’s love which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to him be the glory in the assembly and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.” Ephesians 3:14-21, WEB
My husband and I have recently realized that we are the elder generation of our family. We do have two aunts and an uncle, but our parents have all passed. It seems impossible to believe, but my husband turns sixty-five in just a few days. I sometimes think I am still just a kid. It is not true, of course. Our children are older than I want to think I am!
Being the elder generation doesn’t have the clout that it used to have. In our society, we teach our children to be independent, to go make a name for themselves, to start their own family. It is certainly what we did when we got married. We loved our parents and listened to their advice, of course, but we did what we thought was right for our family. We have advice for our children, but we expect them to make their own choices. We hope that they respect our wisdom and love us, but we give them the freedom to be independent, praying that we have given them everything they need for good decision making.
Families were different in different eras of history. For much of the ancient world, the family was a patriarchal society; the male head of the household was the head over all his family including his wife, sons of any age, grandchildren, widowed mother. He was father of all, and his word ruled. They stayed together. The sons served the father. Everything the family owned was the father’s until he passed, then it was given in due portion to each of the sons. The daughters were little more than property and belonged to her father or her husband’s father. We don’t understand so many of the references to those ancient families because of the way we see the world, so it makes it harder for us to understand the scriptures that refer to God in this way.
Paul says that every family in heaven and on earth is named for the Father of Jesus Christ. He is the elder generation; He is the head of every household. Sadly, many do not recognize or acknowledge this truth. They want to be independent, as we are independent of our mothers and fathers once we are old enough to live on our own. We don’t want someone who has rules which we must obey. We don’t want someone keeping what we deserve. We want to own our stuff and go our own way. Our Father gives us room to be who we want to be; He does not suppress our will. But He calls us to live according to His Word to experience His grace fully.
We think that we are happiest when we are doing our own thing, following our own heart. Yet, the reality is that joy and peace come when we are living the blessed life promised by our Father. He is able to do far more for us than we can ever expect. He is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all e ask or think, and He is always faithful to His promises. The heads of our households, whether in ancient days or today, change regularly as we die and pass the responsibilities on to the next generation, God never dies. He is the eternal head of our household, the eternal Father of all. Let us live accordingly, praising Him in thanksgiving and trust for His love that is passed on to those who dwell with us in this world.
“I will lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from Yahweh, who made heaven and earth. He will not allow your foot to be moved. He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. Yahweh is your keeper. Yahweh is your shade on your right hand. The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. Yahweh will keep you from all evil. He will keep your soul. Yahweh will keep your going out and your coming in, from this time forward, and forever more.” Psalm 121, WEB
I like to take road trips. I’d rather drive than take an airplane. I’m not afraid to fly, though I find it terribly uncomfortable. Recently, the flights have been unreliable. We were lucky when we came home from Europe that all our flights worked out, but I’ve heard stories from many others who have been stuck overnight in airports because their flights were canceled. More than a few have been without clean clothes or even toiletries because they aren’t prepared for the extreme layovers.
I also like road trips because of the opportunity to see America and to experience different places along the way. Yes, it takes more time, and it can be more expensive. A road trip means hotel stops, more meals, and these days the price of gas. I have a great car that gets incredible gas mileage, so even with the extra costs a road trip does not really cost much more than a plane ticket, except in time.
Road trips are like adventures. I’ve seen some of the most interesting things when I’ve traveled by car. I took a detour on my way home from the east coast and spend several days Chattanooga, Tennessee. I’ve stopped in a swamp to search for alligators and in a national park to see petrified trees. On those road trips There’s a town in Illinois where they’ve built a bunch of extra-large things. There is a rocking chair that is at least two stories high, and dozens of other unusually large sculptures to see.
I have visited the Cadillac Ranch, a strange art installation of a bunch of old Cadillacs buried headfirst in the Texas landscape which visitors can add their own touch with spray paint. I knew I was going to be nearby, so I carried my own cans to leave my mark. I’ve stopped at more tourist traps than I can count, enjoying the gift shops filled with souvenirs that I never need but always buy. I have eaten local cuisine and seen things that I’d never know existed if I flew overhead.
There’s a website and a book that shares ideas of all the things you can see on “Roadside America.” We are a kitschy people, with strange ideas of entertainment. But it is all in fun. Sometimes you don’t even have to go on a road trip to see them. The World’s Largest Cowboy Boots stand in front of a mall just a few miles from my house. There’s a saloon and a museum on the Riverwalk that has a chandelier made of four thousand antlers. There’s a museum of the weird and a cathedral of junk in Austin. Every city has fun things like these to do for the tourist, but we should always remember to stop and enjoy the wackiness wherever we are.
We had a wonderful time on our trip to Germany, but one of my complaints was that we were constantly on the move. We traveled with a group, and we had a schedule to maintain. We had to leave places so quickly that we didn’t have time to really see them. Our tour manager would often say, “Let’s meet back here in forty-five minutes. Here’s what you can see, the restroom is over there, and this is your opportunity to eat lunch.” I spent about fifteen minutes in one church that demanded hours to see everything, and I still didn’t have time to get anything for lunch. The worst part was not having time in any of the churches to really linger and experience the presence of God.
We are always in a rush. We fly from place to place because we want to spend more time at our destination, but sometimes the real joy is found in the journey. The musical group Alabama once had a song with this refrain, “I’m in a hurry to get things done. Oh I rush and rush until life’s no fun. All I really gotta do is live and die. But I’m in a hurry and don’t know why.” There are good reasons to fly sometimes. Sometimes we need to fly to get to our destination quickly because it is an emergency, or we have a schedule to keep. The scripture for today reminds us that whatever the reason for our journey, let us always look to God and find ways to linger in His presence. Enjoy everything along the way, even the wackiness of roadside attractions, because He is with us wherever we go.
Lectionary Scriptures for August 28, 2022, Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost: Proverbs 25:2-10; Psalm 131; Hebrews 13:1-17; Luke 14:1-14
“Don’t exalt yourself in the presence of the king, or claim a place among great men; for it is better that it be said to you, ‘Come up here,’ than that you should be put lower in the presence of the prince, whom your eyes have seen.” Proverbs 25:6-7, WEB
One of the most difficult parts of being an artist is letting go of the paintings that I have worked on for a long time. They become like children to me. Will the buyer put that piece in a place of prominence, or will it end up in a dark corner? I had one person question whether the piece would hold up in a steamy bathroom.
I once took a consignment; the person loved my other work and trusted my creativity. I did what we discussed, but he was disappointed. I made a few changes according to his direction, including one that made it worse. I was able to make another change that helped, but his original requests were so odd that I could not make them work. I think he realized the foolishness of his demands after it was finished, but I told him he did not have to take the piece. He tried to consign another, but I refused because I did not think he’d be happy with anything. He took the piece anyway and planned to give it as a gift to a friend. I have often wondered what happened to that piece; I’ll probably never know. Maybe it ended up in a dark corner or steamy bathroom.
I have had the pleasure of seeing my work receive acclaim. I make paintings for silent auctions, and some have sold for much more than their retail value. I recently posted a painting on Facebook that I made to build inventory for a show I’m attending next month, and someone wanted to buy it within minutes of posting. Two other people asked for similar paintings. I visited an aunt a few years ago and noticed that a painting I sent her was prominently placed on the wall of her living room. I also know that at least a few of my pieces have found their way into people’s guest bathrooms and other places where they are rarely seen. I want my art to make people happy. Whether it gets hung in a place of prominence, a dark corner, or a bathroom, once a piece leaves my studio, it is no longer mine and I must be humble enough to let it go.
What does it mean to be humble? I think one of the hardest things for me is to “sell myself.” I meet with a group of artists occasionally and I have been asked, “How do you market your work?” I don’t, really. Oh, I post a few pictures on Facebook and I attend a craft fair or two. I open my studio occasionally and invite people to see what I have to offer. Mostly I give my paintings away as donations for silent auctions or galas. I would never do well as a professional.
As Christians, we live in a paradox. On the one hand, the world expects us to boldly blow our own horn so that we can get ahead. As Christians, however, we are reminded that we are called to be like Jesus, who had it all but humbled Himself for the sake of the world. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus told the crowds not to rush for the best seats at a banquet. He reminded them that there are others who may deserve to sit higher, and that it is better to sit lowly and be raised rather than to choose the best seat and be humiliated when asked to move. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” So, too, it is with us: if we think too highly of ourselves, we will find that there is someone greater. But if we humbly accept the least, we’ll find ourselves raised.
There was an article in Reader’s Digest called, “13 Secrets a Reality TV Show Producer Won’t Tell you.” I’m sure that none of us are surprised by any of these secrets. The first, “Reality TV is actually not real.” While we might want to believe that there is some semblance of reality in these shows, we all know they are not documentaries. After all, they film for hours every day with multiple cameras. In one case, it is eleven cameras for eight hours seven days a week. They end up with 616 hours of footage, out of which we see 42 minutes. It is easy to use those 42 minutes to make the contestants say whatever they want them to say.
They edit everything. Most of it is not scripture, but it is edited to make the contestants say what the producer wants them to say. They even do what’s called, “frankenbiting,” which is a process of fitting words and phrases together from different conversations to create the conversation they want to present. The contestants are not real, either. They are often actors who play characters created to make the show interesting. In one case, a person who was ‘cast’ as a villain turned out to be the nicest person on the cast. The producer convinced her to play along, or she would be fired (sent home early.) Even the winners are sometimes planned ahead of time, so the judges do not always have a real say in who goes home. If a character is good for ratings, they will stay no matter how terrible they are.
I don’t watch much reality TV these days, but the truth in that article makes me wonder about the characters I loved or hated in the past. I want to love the humble contestant, the one who is kind to others. I always grumbled when someone was allowed to stay who should have been sent home. “How could they possibly leave that one continue on the show?” we wonder. From the article we know why the wrong person continues: that person is a moneymaker for the show. They keep it interesting. They give them good footage. They may even be much better than we see because 615 hours and 18 minutes of footage end up on the cutting room floor. They’ve created an image that is not real, and they’ve made us love or hate their characters by their editing.
I think what bothers me most about the reality shows is how the contestants are always appear so sure of themselves. They have this haughty, better-than-everyone-else attitude. I understand that the contestants must be confident of their ability to succeed in a competition, and who doesn’t want to win? What isn’t necessary is the way they talk against the other contestants, especially when they are in danger of being kicked off the show. Some speak to their own failure and promise to do better, with an acknowledgement that they have more talent than it appeared that day. Others, however, only point out the failures of the other competitors. They insist, no matter how terrible they were, that they are the best choice. I have seen contestants on cooking shows claim that their meal was better even though they probably didn’t even taste the other’s meal.
I would pick humble over arrogant every time. Unfortunately, we all know that humility doesn’t make for exciting television, and it is the arrogant ones that get through for another chance. You can sometimes figure out who is going home by the way they’ve edited the footage. When a contestant talks about it being their day to shine, the reality is that they end up failing miserably. When they say that they are going to win a challenge, they come up with the worst presentation. At the height of their arrogance, they are often humiliated.
When we put our focus on ourselves, we become self-centered and demanding. We expect others to bow to our greatness, to give us what we think we deserve. But the world of the proud is a frightful place because the haughty never stay at the top for long. There is always someone better who will come along to put us in our place. So, we live in fear that someone else will do what we did to get ahead. We become paranoid that everyone is out to destroy us. When we are not content with our lot in life, we think that no one else is content either. In our pride, we refuse the opportunities that will make us truly blessed because we are too busy fighting to stay on top.
In the passage from Proverbs, the writer tells us that God’s glory is in what is hidden, but kings’ glory is in the search for God. We might know that heaven and hell are far from us, but we can’t know what’s in the heart of a king. Silver must be refined, for it is in the silver without the dross that we’ll have something precious, so too a king must be cleansed of wickedness to be righteous. The rest of the passage talks about our humility before the king, remembering to take the lowly place and to deal with our neighbors privately.
The writer of Hebrews talks about being a good host, because in doing so we might actually entertain angels. We should seek justice, live honorably and chaste, avoid greed, be obedient to those who have been chosen to lead us, do good and share our resources with others. When we trust in God, we need not pursue after the places of honor or the satisfaction of our lusts and greed. The humble will be lifted, and the place of honor is much greater than anything a man can offer. We will be seated in the presence of God to bask in His glory for eternity. For this we most certainly can praise God.
In the Gospel lesson, Jesus was invited to dine with the rulers of the Pharisees, and they were watching Him closely. They believed that outward appearances were of the utmost importance, and they wanted to see if Jesus was living according to the Law, doing what He was supposed to do. Would He maintain His own purity, especially in their presence?
Jesus noticed a man with dropsy; a man with such a disease was considered unclean and untouchable. Jesus asked the lawyers if it was alright to heal someone on the Sabbath. They didn’t answer, so Jesus “took him, and healed him, and let him go.” The word here translated “took” means to take hold of or grasp, so Jesus didn’t just say a few words to heal him. Jesus touched the unclean man, an act that would have made him unclean in the eyes of all those lawyers. Before they could say anything, Jesus asked, “Which of you, if your son or an ox fell into a well, wouldn’t immediately pull him out on a Sabbath day?” They couldn’t answer this one, either, because they certainly would disobey the Sabbath laws to save their sons or oxen.
Jewish theologians believed God’s providence continued to govern the world. This was confirmed by the fact that people were born and died on the Sabbath. Consequently, the belief developed that God exercised two prerogatives on the Sabbath: He gave life, and he executed judgment (2 Kings 5:7.) So only God could “work” on the Sabbath and healing was considered work. By healing the man with dropsy, Jesus not only touched the untouchable, but He did the unthinkable: He blasphemed. He made Himself equal with God.
Jesus told them a story about a group of people gathering for a meal; many of them sought the places of honor as they arrived. They wanted to be close to the host. They wanted to be the center of attention. They wanted to be in the middle of the action, to impress others with their goodness, their power, and their position. Jesus told those listening that they should not seek out the best seats, but instead should humble themselves before their host. Those whose humility is greater than their desire will be raised up before all men. Those who seek to be honored above all others will find themselves dishonored before the world.
Just as Christ was a humble servant for the people to whom He was sent, we are called to live in faith and share the message of forgiveness and freedom from our burdens with the world. By living a life of humble action, giving to others and sharing God’s grace, we may not end up with fame or fortune or have a huge impact on our world, but we will bless those who see God glorified in our lives and we will share in that blessing.
We tend to think highly of ourselves. We each have talents and knowledge that make us a little better than another. I’m a better photographer than some of the professionals I’ve seen. I’m a better writer than some of the bloggers I’ve read. I’m a better painter than some of the artists I’ve met. While I might be better than others, I know that there are many who are much better than I am. That’s the trouble with thinking too highly of ourselves: even though we might be good at what we do, there is always someone better. I could never hope to compete with professional photographers, writers, and artists in this world, and I don’t think I want to try. I’m happy to do what I do and hope that those who buy or receive my work will find joy in them.
The psalmist writes, “Yahweh, my heart isn’t haughty, nor my eyes lofty; nor do I concern myself with great matters, or things too wonderful for me.” I must confess that I hope one day my paintings will grace the walls of a museum. I don’t think I’m alone in my desire to accomplish something lasting with my work. Yet, we do not always realize how much our work is needed in the dark corners and bathrooms of this world. It is there, perhaps, that my paintings will bring someone the most joy.
We are encouraged by today’s scriptures to settle for a lower place until someone values us enough to give us a lift, yet we live in a world that demands we “sell ourselves.” How do we live in this paradox? How do we do what it necessary to succeed and yet also remain humbly respectful of those who are inevitably better? This isn’t a question of worth or ability. It is a matter of pride. It is good to give an employer reason to hire you, to do a good job, and to show that you are a valuable asset to any company or organization; it is not good to be too proud. Pride, after all, is one of the seven deadly sins.
The random thoughts in today’s passages come together in the life and work of Jesus Christ. He shows us how to be kind to our neighbor, to touch the untouchable, to have mercy and grace, and to do good. He shows us how to be humble, to stop worrying about what others think of us, and to trust in God. Jesus shows us that heaven is much closer than we can ever imagine because God has come to dwell among His people, to heal us, and to make us clean and pure.
The writer of Hebrews gives us an image of the life of faith manifested in this world. He calls Christians to love one another, to be hospitable to the stranger, empathetic to the imprisoned, faithful in relationships and content in everything. He calls us to look to God who supplies everything we need: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. He reminds us to remember the witnesses who have shared the Gospel of Christ with us so that we might be saved and follow their example.
“Through him, then, let us offer up a sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of lips which proclaim allegiance to his name. But don’t forget to be doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” The life of faith, the life of humility, is manifested as we do good for others. When we trust in God, we need not pursue after the places of honor or the satisfaction of our lusts and greed. The humble will be lifted, and the place of honor is much greater than anything a man can offer. We will be seated in the presence of God to bask in His glory for eternity. For this we most certainly can praise God.
Jesus tells us in the Gospel lesson that we should not do things for the sake of the impression we’ll make on others. Instead of inviting people to our feasts so that they will return the favor, we are to use our resources to feed those who can’t pay us back. We are called to lift them up, to make them better, to do for them what Jesus has done for us. We are called to invite them to the table so that they can experience grace.
Here’s the problem with human nature: when we see ourselves as better than others, we are unable to see that they are good for us, too. Like the reality show contestants, we get stuck in the idea that we are better than the other guy and we miss the opportunities to share God’s grace and to help them grow. We want to win, and we think we are the ones who should win, so we ignore the possibilities and opportunities to help others.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, empathy is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner. Most of our problems come at us slowly. Bad financial times do not usually come with the purchase on just one item, but with a lifestyle of buying that does not fit income. A dollar here and a dollar there all build to a debt that is out of control. Long standing relationships do not fail over one fight but over years of miscommunication. Nobody gains a hundred pounds overnight. Instead, it comes one chocolate bar at a time.
Once we are stuck in the middle of our problems it is hard to see a way out. Our accumulated debt is impossible to overcome. Our broken relationships seem beyond repair. Our physical problems are out of our control. Sometimes it takes an outsider to help us find the solution. There are credit repair agencies, relationship counselors, fitness coaches all willing to help us overcome our problems. We may look at them and think that they cannot possibly understand our situation, but they do. They can see the journey we took from the outside. They have often experienced it themselves and have overcome, giving them insight to the problem.
It is not easy to allow someone into our problems to help us. It is even harder to empathize with others. The writer of Hebrews reminds us to “Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; they that are illtreated, as being yourself also in the body.” How do we identify with people in prison or tortured? How do we stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves, especially when we know that we would never get into the same type of trouble?
This passage is about love for others. We not only love others by doing things for them, but in helping them to what is good and right and true for themselves. The writer lists hospitality for strangers. In our world today we are afraid that the stranger may be someone who can harm us, but what if that stranger were an angel? The marriage bed has nearly become a joke, with divorce statistics so high and unfaithfulness nearly acceptable. Greed, the root of many of our problems, can creep up on us and grow as we see more and more that we think we need to have whether it is material possessions or intangible things.
Through it all there is one thing to remember: we can trust God. We do not need to make ourselves better, but instead should look at those of faith who have come before us to see that in life with God we do not need to have power over others. Instead, we can imitate their lives of humility and servanthood, just as Christ was a humble servant for the people to whom He was sent. The sacrifice we are called to offer is not merely financial or physical, but a sacrifice of praise in God’s name. As the writer of Hebrews reminds us, “But don’t forget to be doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.”
Pride means putting ourselves above the God who is our Creator and Redeemer. Humility means sitting in the lesser place and meeting the needs of others. When we put others, especially God, ahead of ourselves and do what is right, we will find ourselves to be greatly blessed. God sees the humble heart and draws it to Himself. There is no better place for us to dwell. Trusting God is where we’ll find joy.
It is a fine line we walk between boldness and humility. We know on the one hand that we’ll never get ahead if we do not take the reins of our own future. Sitting near the host at a dinner would certainly be a way of moving ahead in life. The conversation might lead to opportunities and relationships that could change our lives. However, if we put ourselves forward too far, we might find ourselves being asked to move back. It is much better to choose the humble position and to allow the host to invite us forward. The key to success is finding the right balance.
What are we doing for God? Are we acting in His behalf? Are we working for His purpose? Are we humbling ourselves for the sake of others? If we do so, we’ll find treasures waiting for us in heaven. However, if we spend our time, talents, and resources for the sake of our own honor and glory, we might just find that we are asked to move to a lower place. Jesus reminds us that all those who exalt themselves will be humbled and all those who are humble will be exalted. For God is longing to bring those who live by faith and who glorify Him to the place of honor at His banqueting table in eternity.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, don’t resist him who is evil; but whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also. If anyone sues you to take away your coat, let him have your cloak also. Whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and don’t turn away him who desires to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you, that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? If you only greet your friends, what more do you do than others? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Matthew 5:38-48, WEB
There is a picture I’ve seen on the internet that shows a small patch of grass that is between two townhouses. It is about three feet wide and six feet long. The neighbor on the right mowed his lawn, including this patch of grass, except he only mowed his side of the patch. The other side is tall and unmowed, and it looks silly. There is no reason why the neighbor could not have just done the whole thing; it would have taken seconds, just one pass with the lawnmower. It was probably harder to make the perfect line between the houses than it would have been to just do the whole patch. The caption says, “Whatever you do in life, don’t be like this neighbor.”
We don’t know the relationship between these neighbors. It could be that the neighbor on the left has done things to make the other angry. It could be that the neighbor does not deserve even the smallest kindness. There are always two sides to every story, and we automatically assume the mower is a jerk, but we don’t know the motivation for the mower to ignore that few square feet of grass. It is possible that the neighbor has done it over and over again and is sick of the other has taken advantage of them. It is even possible that the mower has been told not to cross the line. That attitude is as silly as not being willing to mow the space.
In today’s passage, Jesus is addressing our relationship with enemies, but who is our enemy? The word “enemy” is defined, “a person who is actively opposed or hostile to someone or something.” I’ve watched enough of the television court shows to know that neighbors argue over the silliest things and act like they are enemies. The picture of the half-mowed patch might just be the evidence of such a relationship. We might have good motivation to avoid doing this kind of small kindness for our neighbors, but today’s scripture reminds us that Jesus has called us to go the extra mile.
Matthew chapters five through seven is a discourse by Jesus that has come to be known as the Sermon on the Mount. These three chapters make up the longest continuous teaching of Jesus in the scripture and it is made up of multiple beloved texts, such as the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer. The sections speak on topics such as how to live, the law, murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, revenge, enemies, generosity, prayer, true treasure, worry, judgment and spirituality. It is generally agreed that the sermon emphasizes Jesus’ moral teaching and that the last verse in today’s passage is the focus of the text: “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
Jesus mentions His Father in fifteen verses in those chapters: 5:16, glorify your Father. 5:45, be sons of your Father. 5:48, be perfect as your Father. 6:1, live for your Father. 6:4, don’t live to be seen by men, but live to be seen by your Father. 6:6, pray to your Father. 6:8, trust your Father to know. 6:9, address God as your Father. 6:14, your Father will forgive as you forgive. 6:15, your Father will not forgive if you do not forgive. 6:18, keep your fasting secret and only seen by your Father. 6:26, your Father provides. 6:32, your Father knows what you need. 7:11, your Father is gracious. 7:21, your Father receives those who live according to His will.
Imagine what our world would look like if everyone lived according to these fifteen dicta. Granted, we are human, and we will never be perfect as God is perfect. We will probably treat some of our neighbors as enemies in one way or another. Yet, that should never stop us from being as perfect as we can be, and it is surprising how easily we fall into a life that glorifies God if only we live as if we are living for our Father in heaven, trusting in His Word, and letting Him rule the way we deal with others. Think about it: if you are living for your Father in heaven, aren’t you more likely to share your bread with your neighbor, treat your co-worker with compassion, or mow that last few feet of grass? Aren’t you more likely to do what is right and kind, no matter the attitude of the other?
“Be it known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man is proclaimed to you remission of sins, and by him everyone who believes is justified from all things, from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses.” Acts 13:38-39, WEB
Have you ever listened to someone tell a story that takes so many side roads you don’t know where you are going? We all can probably remember a teacher like that, someone who could easily be distracted from the discussion at hand by simple questions or comments. Some students made it a challenge to see how far off subject they could take the teacher before he or she realized they’ve accomplished nothing in the class that day. It happens to so many people, probably even me. Sometimes there is so much to say, it is hard to keep on the right track.
Such a conversation might go as follows: “Once, when I was a young child, I was walking down Main Street, that is the one they are calling George Pike Street now, after the hardware store owner who saved that little girl from the burning building. What was her name? She was the one who became a dancer and went to New York to be a Rockette, but she never was selected so she is a waitress at that little restaurant on First Avenue. Now, where was I? Oh, yes, I was on Main Street on my way to the soda shop. You kids really missed something great with the soda shop. We had so much fun there, eating ice cream and listening to the jukebox with our friends. My favorite song was...” The story goes on and on and you never really find out what happened on Main Street that day.
This same type of thing often happens during Bible studies. Often a subject will come up in the passage that brings questions or comments from the group. We call them rabbit trails in the class I teach, and it happens all the time. This can be frustrating for some who would much rather keep to the topic at hand. We have discovered, however, that those rabbit trails lead to some of the best lessons, drawing ideas together like threads in a quilt. I enjoy watching how God’s Word is living and relevant to the lives of those who read and study the scriptures. Through these rabbit trails we often have seen how the Old Testament passages fit together with the New Testament to complete the story of God’s mercy and grace for His people. Yet, we often prefer to ignore the ancient stories, focusing on the Gospels or the letters to the churches. As we see it, the wrath of God and the laws of the Jews make no difference to those who are saved by the Gospel of Christ. They seem like unnecessary tangents to the conversation.
There are too many who would actually prefer to ignore the ancient stories and focus entirely on the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. They see the Old Testament as a story of wrath and the laws of the Jews which have no relevance for those who are saved by the Gospel of Christ. They seem like unnecessary tangents to the conversation. If we pay attention to the New Testament, however, we discover that the early church told the stories of God’s relationship with His people from Adam to Noah, to Abraham, Saul, David, the prophets and finally the final prophet of the old covenant: John the Baptist. They tell of Jesus, His life, death, and resurrection in the context from whence He came. They stitch the old stories with the new, and draw it all together with the promise of God. All the stories show us God’s purpose.
It might be frustrating for those listening to the person share that roundabout story; they’d rather just get to the point and be done with it. There are also those would prefer to ignore the lessons found in the Old Testament. Why waste our time on old news when there are so many who need to hear the Good News? It is not a waste; at least it wasn’t to Peter, Stephen, and Paul. Jesus is found on every page of the Bible, Old and New Testaments. He is the center of the story; the promises were given to those who came before Jesus walked on the earth, and we dwell in the time when the promises have been fulfilled. Through their stories we see that we can trust God to do everything He has said.
Today’s passage is very short, just two verses. I’ve focused on it, but it belongs to a much longer sermon from Paul. It may have been more than enough to get to the point with these verses, to preach the words of forgiveness to those listening that day. But Paul gave them more. He told the stories they all knew and showed them how their lives fit into the promise of God. They saw it clearly and asked to hear more about the message that Paul and the disciples were taking to the world. Isn’t it wonderful that even God takes a roundabout way of telling us about His grace, so that we can see how much He truly loves us? After all, He worked His salvation through many generations of people so that we - you and I - would be saved.
“King Herod heard this, for his name had become known, and he said, ‘John the Baptizer has risen from the dead, and therefore these powers are at work in him.’ But others said, ‘He is Elijah.’ Others said, ‘He is a prophet, or like one of the prophets.’ But Herod, when he heard this, said, ‘This is John, whom I beheaded. He has risen from the dead.’ For Herod himself had sent out and arrested John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for he had married her. For John said to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ Herodias set herself against him, and desired to kill him, but she couldn’t, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. When he heard him, he did many things, and he heard him gladly. Then a convenient day came, that Herod on his birthday made a supper for his nobles, the high officers, and the chief men of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias herself came in and danced, she pleased Herod and those sitting with him. The king said to the young lady, ‘Ask me whatever you want, and I will give it to you.’ He swore to her, ‘Whatever you shall ask of me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.’ She went out, and said to her mother, ‘What shall I ask?’ She said, ‘The head of John the Baptizer.’ She came in immediately with haste to the king, and asked, ‘I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptizer on a platter.’ The king was exceedingly sorry, but for the sake of his oaths, and of his dinner guests, he didn’t wish to refuse her. Immediately the king sent out a soldier of his guard, and commanded to bring John’s head, and he went and beheaded him in the prison, and brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the young lady; and the young lady gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard this, they came and took up his corpse, and laid it in a tomb.” Mark 6:14-29, WEB
John said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
John had a huge following until Jesus gained popularity. John the Baptist heralded the coming of the Christ, proclaiming the kingdom of God and calling for the repentance of the people. He was sent first to warn the Jews that they must turn back to God, or they would miss the Messiah for whom they were waiting. The Jews were longing for deliverance; they wanted to be freed from the Romans that bound and oppressed them. Yet, they did not realize they were bound by an even harsher master: Satan, the father of sin and death. It was not an earthly kingdom that was coming, but God’s kingdom and the salvation that was to be offered was not for the flesh. Jesus Christ brought eternal life to those who believe, and John the Baptist prepared the way.
But the time came when John had to decrease. It would have been much better if John could have just retired to the wilderness, but John’s life ended in a horrific and pointless way.
In most things, Mark’s Gospel is a rapid, almost journalistic accounting of the events surrounding the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. In this story, however, Mark adds a sidenote about the beheading of John the Baptist. It is not enough to imply Herod’s judgment against John; Mark tells us the whole story. Mark tells us about the rumors about Jesus, that He might be a prophet, or even Elijah. Herod fears that Jesus is John raised from the dead. We might wonder how that could be, but it makes sense. Jesus only became widely known after John was beheaded and He was doing things that no man could do. He came out of nowhere, so it seemed, and Herod worried that John came back to destroy him.
This is perhaps why Mark gives us a flashback to the story of John’s death. According to Mark, John preached against the unseemly relationship between Herod and Herodias, since she was his brother’s wife. Herodias wanted John dead. Herod willingly imprisoned John but would not have had him killed. Herod liked to listen to John and was afraid because John seemed to have an authority greater than his.
On the other hand, Herodias did not like John, and she waited for a convenient moment to end his ministry. It came when Herod was having a huge banquet with all the important people of his kingdom. Herodias’ daughter danced for them, and Herod was so besotted by her that he promised anything she desired. She asked her mother, and they demanded John’s head. Herod feared John but was more concerned about his image in the eyes of the great officials in his banqueting hall, so he had John beheaded and the head given to the girl on a platter.
I doubt the girl really appreciated the gift. She probably would have preferred jewels or dresses or a handsome husband. But she wanted to make her mother happy. Herodias’ hatred of John brought his life and ministry to an end. John decreased in the most dramatic way. As horrific as this story is, perhaps it was necessary for John to have a definitive end so that there would be no confusion as to who the disciples should follow. Some of John’s disciples were already moving toward Jesus, but without their leader, the rest could move on to the One who was the true Messiah. Of course, there was always confusion about the identity of Jesus, and many did not believe in Him. But John accomplished his purpose: to make the way of the Lord.
Today we remember the beheading of John the Baptist. This story reminds us that hatred leads to horrific and pointless acts. It destroys life. Despite that truth, God can use even the most horrific and pointless acts of man to accomplish His purpose, like the way John pointed to the Messiah even as He suffered death. Let us thank God for John’s ministry and praise God that Jesus increased so that He might accomplish His work of saving God’s people for eternity.
“We speak wisdom, however, among those who are full grown, yet a wisdom not of this world nor of the rulers of this world who are coming to nothing. But we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the wisdom that has been hidden, which God foreordained before the worlds for our glory, which none of the rulers of this world has known. For had they known it, they wouldn’t have crucified the Lord of glory. But as it is written, ‘Things which an eye didn’t see, and an ear didn’t hear, which didn’t enter into the heart of man, these God has prepared for those who love him.’ But to us, God revealed them through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For who among men knows the things of a man, except the spirit of the man, which is in him? Even so, no one knows the things of God, except God’s Spirit. But we received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might know the things that were freely given to us by God. We also speak these things, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual things.” 1 Corinthians 2:6-13, WEB
We had a wonderful trip to Germany in June, but I confess that I’m already planning in my head my hope to return. We traveled with a tour group that was on a very tight schedule. We had some appointments with local tour guides which required arrival at specific times. This meant that we were often rushed from one place to the next. All too often our tour manager would say, “You have forty-five minutes to shop, buy lunch, go to the restroom. Be at the bus no later than...” Our itinerary promised whole afternoons for shopping, and I was disappointed when we didn’t have time to visit some of the places I’d found on maps of the towns we visited. We never had time to linger in the churches. I practically ran through one museum so I could see everything, but I never really saw anything. So, I want to go back to some of those towns on my own so I can take my time and really enjoy what I missed the first time.
We lived in England for four years and we often had people ask advice when they were planning a trip. They wanted to know what they should see. One friend sent an itinerary she thought was appropriate for a two week trip to England. She was going to be on her own, but she had planned a trip that was much like our very tight schedule. It was possible for her to do everything, and I understood that this was probably a once in a lifetime trip, so she wanted to do it all. She didn’t want to waste a minute. But her schedule did not give her the chance to really enjoy the country or its people. It didn’t give her time to see anything, even though she was seeing everything.
These types of tours never consider the time needed to get from place to place. They don’t allow for time to linger. Some of our best experiences were side trips we took along the way. It is like the roadside America kitschy sites we mentioned a few days ago. There is something wonderful about a walk through a country village, a visit to a church, lunch at a local pub. My friend did not realize how much she missed. We wanted more time to enjoy meals in the towns we visited, and we often didn’t even get lunch. These tours don’t really plan for that type of meal. They don’t allow for the surprises that you might find along the way. We often discovered during our own travels in England special events at the places we visited, and a two hour trip became four hours as we enjoyed the living history. Some of our best experiences were when we found ourselves at a church or cathedral when they were having worship or a concert.
I told my friend that she should try to do many things, but that she should leave time between activities for the moments because it would be those experiences that would create the best memories. I told her that she would be exhausted and that she’d have so many regrets that she didn’t take the time necessary to really enjoy the places and people she visited. She’d get so much more out of the trip if she slowed down and smelled the roses.
Most of our children are back to school and organizations are beginning to schedule events again. The calendars that were relatively free during the summer are filled with meetings, practices, sporting events, and other activities. I once read an article about how many parents fill the schedules of their children with too much. The article specifically talked about the stress parents feel when trying to run children from one place to another. They feel that their children need all these opportunities to be successful later in life.
“I’m willing to sacrifice for their sake,” they say. The article went on to say that the stressed parents think they are hiding their exhaustion and frustration from their kids, but the kids really do know. And then the kids get stressed, work too hard to succeed at something that they don’t really want to do. Parents bicker, kids withdraw. The family suffers financially because the activities cost more money than they really have. If they eat, it is a scarfed meal picked up from a fast-food place and eaten in the car between activities. And in the process, everyone misses the fun they could be having together, even if it is “just” gathered around the dinner table. I put the word “just” in quotes because there is nothing ordinary about spending time at the dinner table. The best moments in our lives is when we stop rushing from one activity to another, enjoying the surprising moments that we usually miss.
Sometimes we keep too busy to stop for a good meal, but too many of us keep too busy to spend moments with our Lord. We don’t linger in His presence. We don’t stop and listen to His voice. We don’t watch for the opportunities that He offers for us to be obedient to His call on our lives.
They say we should take time to smell the roses. I think that the adage refers to much more than enjoying the beautiful flowers that God created. If we take time to stop, to look at the world around us instead of working so hard to fill every moment of our time, we will notice that there are people and experiences waiting for us around every bend. They are opportunities to share our faith, to serve our neighbors, to invite them into a relationship with Jesus Christ. We need to stop trying so hard to plan and execute the perfect journey and leave room for God to use His miraculous hand to accomplish His work in our lives. He has prepared our way; we will be amazed at what He has planned for us along the journey.
Lectionary Scriptures for September 4, 2022, Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33
“Behold, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and evil.” Deuteronomy 30:15, WEB
When we first moved to England, we had to wait a month for our car to arrive from America. It was brought by ship and took much longer to arrive than the rest of our things. During that time, we only had access to a manual drive English car meaning that I would not only have to get used to driving on the wrong side of the road, but also using my left hand to shift gears. Since I’m not very good at manual driving anyway, we decided it would be best for me to wait for our car to arrive before driving.
I had no chance to get used to the idea of driving an American car on the left side of the road and dealing with the English roundabouts. Bruce drove us down to the port in the English car and I had to drive our car to our home. Also, it was a brand-new car, one that I had never driven. I didn’t know the little details about the car that are necessary, like where to turn on the windshield wipers or lights. Everything went well at the port, and we were on our way. I was happy and proud at how quickly I became comfortable with driving on the English roads. It was a little shocking how fast you are allowed to travel on those country roads, but I remembered to stay on the left and did very well.
I did well until we came to our exit from the highway and the first major roundabout during our trip. At the very moment we exited it began to rain and I could not find the control for the windshield wipers. I had to concentrate on getting through the roundabout, so I focused on Bruce’s little red car that was ahead of me and we got through it without incident. I found the switch to turn on the wipers as soon as we were on the next road, and I continued to follow that little red car. The driver was going a little fast for my comfort since I was just getting used to a new car and a new country. Eventually, the car was so far away I lost sight. It was at that moment that I realized that I was not traveling in the right direction. I followed the wrong car.
Luckily, traveling in England is really very easy. The roundabouts may seem like a strange and confusing way of directing traffic, but the reality is that it makes finding your way much easier. If you take the wrong exit out of a roundabout, you just have to get to the next one and you’ll get turned in the right direction. I learned that it was better to follow signs to the towns rather than road names and numbers. Once I realized that I was lost, I just followed the sign to our town at the next roundabout. Eventually I made it home, and I had so much fun in the process. Getting lost is the best way to see the English countryside.
Getting lost is not always a pleasant experience, however. Sometimes a wrong turn can get a driver in trouble. It happened to me when I lived in New Jersey. I was trying to find a business one evening and I came to a crossroad that I thought would lead me in the right direction. I was in the left-hand turning lane and I took the turn when the arrow turned to green. A drunk driver ran his red light and smashed into my car. I was not injured but I believe that my seatbelt saved my life that night. In that case a wrong turn could have meant the difference between life and death.
In today’s Old Testament lesson, two ways lie before the people of Israel, and before us. We are given the choice between life or death, good or evil. Many of our choices have no real consequences. It doesn’t matter if we have hamburgers or spaghetti for dinner tonight or if I wear a red or green shirt. It does matter how we live our life. It does matter if we believe in God or in ourselves. It does matter if we obey the commandments of God or if we decide to walk in His ways. These choices mean the difference between good and evil, between life and death.
It has been incredibly dry in Texas, and in other places, this year. We are finally getting some scattered rain showers. Unfortunately, very few of those drops of rain have fallen on our house. I was driving the other day when a downpour hit the city, and it took me much longer than usual to get home. The water was running on the streets, and the experts were warning of flash floods. I knew it was true until I took a left turn onto a road that was nearly dry. The rain that was flooding the last road had not even fallen on this one. I got home to discover that we did not get any rain, again.
You can tell it has been dry here in Texas because the grass is brown and the trees are stressed. The ranches in the country have empty tanks that look like big dirt holes in the ground. There are many of these dry creek beds around the state. When I first moved here, I didn’t even realize they were creek beds because there had never been any water, and yet when it does rain they fill to the brim and flow like a river. We might have realized that they were dry creek beds by the presence of the trees and shrubs. Out in the country there are often lines of trees that seem out of place; they aren’t part of a manicured landscape, they seem to follow an imaginary creek. The trees grew there because it is the only place a tree can survive in the semi-arid environment. We don’t see it, but sometimes those dry creeks run on top of underground water, so despite the empty creek above, they still have a source of water to stay alive.
The psalmist writes that the man who lives by God’s Word is like a tree planted by the streams of water. This is not simply a matter of living a life that is righteous according to the Law, but instead is about living in a relationship with God. God does not come to us because we are righteous, but we are made righteous by living in His presence. We are given all the faith and grace we need to live. Dwelling with those gifts will keep us on the paths which God has made for us. Dwelling in those gifts means that we’ll avoid those things that will bring harm upon ourselves, our neighbors and the world in which we live. Dwelling in God’s grace means that we’ll not walk in the counsel of the wicked because we have His council by which to walk. Dwelling in God’s faith means we’ll not conform to the ways of the sinners because we are being transformed by His love. Dwelling in God’s presence means that we’ll meditate on His Word, day and night.
Does this mean we are to reject the world and become hermits with only the Bible to keep us occupied? No, we are called to take God with us into it. To do so, however, means keeping His Word in our hearts and in our minds. It means taking time daily for prayer and study, for renewing ourselves by drinking in the waters of life. All too often we think that we are strong enough, faithful enough, knowledgeable enough to live on what is already a part of our lives. We may have read the bible a dozen times, so why do we need to read it again? We go to church and hear a few passages read and expounded, why do we need to read it ourselves every day?
We are concerned about the lack of rain not only because our lawns are dying, but because our source of water is disappearing. We still need to use water even if there is no new water filling the aquifer. Thankfully the recent rains are helping, but there is still a long way to go for us to be out of drought conditions.
Have you ever experienced a spiritual drought? Have you had times when you just didn’t feel the living water fill you? I’ve been in churches where the Word was not proclaimed, and the people seemed to be following that wrong path. The choices they are making do not seem to have life and death consequences, but they do affect the eternity of those who listen. They’ve lost touch with the God of the Bible. A person who attends my Sunday school class told a story yesterday about a friend who attends a different church. He asked about the decisions they are making and how they see those choices in light of the scriptures. The man’s friend said, “Oh, the Bible has changed, you know.” While the Bible is a living document that we must interpret to understand, we are reminded that God is the same today, tomorrow, and always. His Word does not change, even as we might hear it in new ways.
The problem is that too many people who think the Bible has changed have not even spent time in the scriptures. They are not letting the Living Water fill them with daily scripture reading, study, and prayer. They listen to those who teach on a passage here and there, but they don’t delve deeply into the Word to hear what God really has to say, relying on those who twist the Word to fit their ideas and ideology. I once attended a group that didn’t study the bible, they read books about issues and then discussed them from every point of view than God’s. It is no wonder many Christians are living in a spiritual drought.
We need to drink water daily to live; the same is true of the scriptures. After a time without renewal and study we lose sight of what matters, the lines between the wicked and the righteous blur. We lose touch with God. When we live without regular study and reading of the scriptures, we are like the tree that is planted in the dry field far from the source of life. God intends for us to be like the tree that dwells by the streams of water, drinking in His Word daily for life. We can choose to be satisfied with what we know of the scriptures, but then we will risk losing touch with the God who speaks to us through His Word. That risk leads to the risk of following the wrong path.
We have each been given a vocation, a calling in this world. It is through our vocation that God’s grace flows into the lives of others and His purpose for our lives is accomplished. Our vocation might not sound very godly; as a matter of fact, sometimes our jobs seem very counter to God’s intent. Is a stable hand really doing God’s work when he shovels the manure each day? What about those accountants, lawyers and stockbrokers riding the train each day? Is a mother serving God when she feeds her children or a shop clerk ringing up my total at the grocery store?
Jesus says, “So therefore whoever of you who doesn’t renounce all that he has, he can’t be my disciple.” His point is not that we are to give up everything of this world and lead a life of separation like a hermit. He is telling us that we must check our priorities. What matters most? What is the purpose of our work? Who are we serving when we start our day? To follow Jesus means putting Him first. It means leaving aside our agendas, our expectations, and our desires so that we will do what He has called us to do. As recipients of God’s grace we are called to make Him the priority in our life, to consider His Word when we make decisions and to walk in His ways as we respond to His call.
We are shocked by Jesus’ comment in today’s Gospel lesson. He said, “If anyone comes to me, and doesn’t disregard his own father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he can’t be my disciple.” This makes it seem like Jesus is contradictory since He talks about honoring mother and father and loving our neighbors, even our enemies. How can we both honor and love them and also hate them? Jesus is telling us to consider the cost of following Him.
The word “hate” is defined in Webster’s as “intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury, extreme dislike or antipathy, loathing.” If it is used as a verb, it means, “to feel extreme enmity toward, have a strong aversion to, find very distasteful.” Imagine the shock Jesus must have provoked with His comments in today’s lesson. We are to hate our mother and father?
“Hate,” was understood differently in ancient Israel, however; it had to do with priorities. To hate something meant to turn your back on it, to separate yourself from it. Jacob loved Rachel but hated Leah. Obviously, he did not feel a strong aversion to her since they created several children together. That passage simply means that Jacob put Rachel first, turning his back on Leah for Rachel’s sake. When Jesus calls us to hate our mothers and fathers, our wives and our children, He is not telling us to abandon them or treat them as enemies. He is simply calling us to put Him first, setting aside everything and everybody else for His sake. It is a matter of priorities, placing God ahead of everything else, including ourselves. It is a heavy cost and never easy, but it is the life to which each disciple is called.
Imagine how hard it must have been for Philemon to get the letter from Paul. We do not know the whole story. We know a little bit about the characters, the time and place where this story is set. Paul is the writer, a passionate Christian who has not only taken God’s Word to the world but has suffered for its sake. He is a prisoner, though we do not know from which of his many imprisonments he is writing this letter. We know that Timothy is a friend and co-worker in Christ, a “son” of Paul not in the biological sense, but because Paul was the one who instructed him in the Christian faith. We know that Philemon is a man from Colossae of some means because he had at least one slave. He was Christian. We know that Onesimus was a slave from Colossae who became a Christian under the instruction of Paul.
We do not know how Onesimus became a slave. We do not know why he ran away or how he came to befriend Paul. We do not know what happened to these characters after Paul sent his letter. Did Paul have any impact on the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon? Were the reconciled? Did Onesimus suffer the consequences of his infraction against Philemon? Did Philemon have mercy and receive his slave as a brother in Christ? Did Paul ever see them again?
Paul’s concern was not just for his new friend and brother Onesimus. He was concerned about Philemon. There is a question of a financial matter involved in this story. Was Onesimus purchased or did he owe Philemon a debt which forced him into slavery? Did Onesimus steal from Philemon when he escaped? Paul was so concerned for the welfare of both these men that he was willing to repay the cost to restore the relationship. The details of this story don’t really matter; the purpose for Paul is to show us what it means to walk the path of Christian faith.
The purpose of Christian faith is restoration and forgiveness. Philemon knew the power of God’s forgiveness in his own life because he’d become a Christian. He knew the transforming power of the call of God in the lives of those who believe. Onesimus also learned about the forgiveness that comes from faith through the teaching and concern of his new friend Paul. Onesimus, though still a slave, was something new, he was a brother in Christ to all those who believed in Jesus. He was transformed and willing to serve. Did his good graces extend even to the one who had held him as a slave and did he return with courage and hope to the place where he belonged?
Along with forgiveness, we see a lesson in living our vocation in and through the faith we have been given. Philemon was master, Onesimus a slave. In Christ the roles of life may not change but the way we deal with one another does. In our own churches we often have people who are CEOs of a company and their employees worshipping side by side. That relationship reaches beyond the church door as the CEO is expected to treat the employee with Christian love and respect even in the workplace and vice versa, neither one taking advantage of their position in the church or in the world to set themselves ahead or above the other. The life of discipleship means doing things in a whole new way. It means learning how to stay on the right path.
Paul was writing to Philemon to encourage him to receive Onesimus, to grant forgiveness, and be reconciled to him in Christian love. It went against everything he knew about business and society, but for him it was the cost of discipleship. To be a follower of Jesus means more than just words and even good deeds. It means more than giving up the easy things like immoral behavior. It means hating your very life, turning your back on everything for the sake of Christ.
Jesus not only asks us to follow Him, but He demands that those who want to be His disciples “hate” everything else. He was being followed by large crowds; most of them believed in Jesus, at least to a point. They believed that He could do great things and that He was a charismatic and credible speaker. He had authority they had never seen in any man.
They followed until He told them what it meant to be a disciple. But His words were too harsh. Discipleship meant putting Him first. The people in the crowds had not given themselves fully to Jesus. They could leave at any moment, to go home to care for the needs of home and family. They believed but had not committed themselves to Him. It is a very hard thing that Jesus asks. It is hard to give up everything, to turn our backs on everyone we love. I can’t imagine giving up the wonderful life I have been living. It is an impossible request from Jesus.
And yet, does the servant who stays with the master want for anything? No, as the master’s servant he had everything he needed: a home, food, work, clothes, family and friends. Jesus is not calling us to live a life with nothing. He is not telling us to become penniless wanderers. He is asking that we give up even our very lives for His sake to be more than followers. He is calling us to pick up His cross and follow Him.
Our choices have consequences, and though we may not suffer the wrath of God for poor decisions, we will suffer the consequences of a life poorly lived. We will also miss out on the blessings of grace if we turn our back on the One from whom true life comes. God, in His love and mercy, calls us to put Him first in our lives so that He care for us as He has promised. Following Jesus comes at a great cost, but God paid the greatest cost and Jesus made the greatest sacrifice so that we could follow Him. He paid the debt to set us free. In that freedom we are called to willingly serve Him, to turn our hearts away from the world to become His disciples. As disciples we’ll truly know what it means to be blessed, even if we suffer the wrath of the world. Our sacrifice will last but a season and we’ll soon know the blessing of dwelling with Him forever.
God puts us in a time and a place and in relationships to accomplish His good and perfect work in this world. He needs stable hands and mothers, masters and slaves, CEOs and employees to live their Christian faith not only within the walls of the church on Sunday, but daily in the world so that others might see His grace. We don’t know the whole story of Philemon and Onesimus, but we do know that Paul sought to restore their relationship for the sake of God’s kingdom in Colossae, so that the two brothers might work together to make the Church grow in truth and in spirit. The prize we seek as Christians is not to be better than one another but to build the Church of Christ together so that we will shine God’s grace to the world.
To do so, however, means keeping His Word in our hearts and in our minds. It means taking time daily for prayer and study, for renewing ourselves by drinking in the waters of life. We are not strong enough, faithful enough, knowledgeable enough to live on what we have already read. Like the aquifer, we need to be drenched with the Living Water, which is Christ, which we find in the words of the scriptures. We need to read it again and again, to hear it at church, and talk about it in our Bible studies. We need to drink daily to live, and we need to drink deeply of God’s Word so that we’ll stay on the right path. And then we’ll be like that tree planted by the streams of water.
The crosses we must bear have nothing to do with the suffering we experience in this imperfect world. Jesus calls us to willingly give up the freedom we think we have and take up a life following Him, even if it means the loss of everything we love in this world. We’ll find, in the end, that by hating the world and turning to Him, that we’ll have so much more love to give to the world through Him. It is, perhaps, the most difficult choice we’ll ever have to make, but being a disciple will reap the greatest benefits in this life and the next.