Welcome to the August 2023 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 2023
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which will be revealed toward us. For the creation waits with eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to vanity, not of its own will, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of decay into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now. Not only so, but ourselves also, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in hope, but hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for that which he sees? But if we hope for that which we don’t see, we wait for it with patience.” Romans 8:18-25, WEB
Photography is a hobby for me. I still have photos I took as a youth with one of those Kodak instamatic cameras. I look back on those photos and laugh because there is always glare or darkness and the composition is off. I didn’t cut off many heads, but the subject was never central or creatively placed. I wasn’t always good at focusing, but that can also be the fault of a cheap camera and those tiny plastic film cartridges. I was excited when I was able to use a 35mm camera, one with changeable lenses and much better film. I wasn’t sure about using digital, and even swore I’d never go that route.
The first digital camera we had was one that used 3.5-inch discs, and I have to admit that I liked the freedom. See, I was always careful when I was using film because it was costly, not only for the film but also the developing. I hated paying for photos that were out of focus or badly lit. I confess I have thousands of unusable photos in boxes that I just can’t seem to throw away. I keep them because I’m sure I can come up with some craft project. Though I once claimed I would never go digital, I have learned how advantageous it can be. I can take a thousand photos on a wildflower adventure (and I do!) and just delete the bad photos without it costing anything but a moment in time. I have found with modern technology that even my worst photos are better than my best from my youth.
Now I deal with a new problem. We live in a fallen and broken world. I love to go on those wildflower adventures and my favorite photos are the ones that show individual close-ups. However, the fields are so beautiful that I can’t pass up on taking pictures of many flowers dancing in the wind. The problem is that there is always a dead flower in the middle of the field. There is always dry grass blocking the prettiest blooms. The same happens with landscapes: there always seems to be a dying tree right in the middle of the best view. These flaws in my surroundings always seem to be right in the center of my composition. Sadly, sometimes I don’t even notice until after I’m home and can’t try to retake the photo from another angle.
This doesn’t mean what I’m seeing isn’t absolutely beautiful. I go on wildflower adventures because I love to see the colors of the fields in springtime. I enjoy visiting mountains and beaches to photograph incredible landscapes. Sometimes I’m lucky, but usually I find some flaw in the midst of the beauty. Unfortunately, we live in a fallen and broken world, which not only affects our lives but also affects all of God’s creation. Paul wrote that the sufferings of our moment is nothing to be compared to the glory we’ll experience when all God’s promises come into fulfillment. Can you imagine what it will look like in heaven? If a field full of wildflowers, peppered with dead blooms and golden grass is beautiful, God’s creation will be beyond our imagination in heaven. For now, we live with the imperfections of this world.
The word used in today’s passage that is translated vanity can also mean frustration. It is frustrating to get home without the perfect photo I hoped to take on my adventure. Perhaps that’s where the vanity comes in; it is vain to expect my photos to be perfect in an imperfect world. Sometimes, however, I’m look at those imperfections knowing that the shriveling bloom will plant new seeds for the fields next spring.
The creation is frustrated by our fallenness because it means death happens for it, too. Flowers and trees die, peppering the landscape with a reminder of our sin. We often wonder why there is suffering and pain; the answer is that we dwell in this time before the perfection of God’s eternity. It will come one day, not today but we can be assured that it will come because God is faithful. We see the world now through lenses like those of my childhood cameras, our lives are filled with moments that are out of focus or badly lit. Death and imperfection is a part of our lives. But we live in the hope that one day there will be no more frustration, but only fulfillment and that there will be no more pain, but only joy. Let us wait with patience for the redemption of God, not only for our lives but also for that of all creation, until the day when we will see what God intended from the beginning: a world beyond our imagination.
Lectionary Scriptures for August 6, 2023, Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 55:1-5; Psalm 136:1-9 (23-26); Romans 9:1-5 (6-13); Matthew 14:13-21
“They all ate and were filled.” Matthew 14:20a, WEB
I recently cleaned out my pantry. It was out of control, with cans stacked on cans, some hidden in the back had been there for several years. I did not realize I had those cans when I wanted to cook with them, so I bought new ones. I decided that I needed a better system, so I bought two small pantry cabinets. These are just deep enough so nothing will ever be hidden and lost. I also realized I was missing some of my staples. I would have been very disappointed if I’d planned a dish only to discover I didn’t have what I needed. I like to be prepared so I don’t have to run out to the store every day.
My pantry is more organized, but it isn’t huge. I don’t worry much but we all learned the value of having extra things in storage during the early days of the pandemic. It didn’t take very long for the shelves at the stores to be empty. The same happens when we face severe weather. We joke about getting milk and bread as a hurricane approaches our coast or a blizzard threatens our neighborhood, but we know how quickly these things disappear and how long they take to be restocked, especially if there is significant damage. We buy them just in case, and though we usually find our fears were unwarranted, we are thankful to be prepared when the situation is worse than expected.
I struggle with this because I know that it is our responsibility to be prepared to take care of our families and neighbors, but I also know that we are meant to trust God to provide for us in times of need. We have to find a balance, like what I’m trying to find in our own pantry. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Give us this day our daily bread.” I don’t know about you, but I tend to prefer having just a little more. I don’t know what it is, but I always buy too much bread and then I end up throwing much of it away. I like to have fresh bread with our meals, especially the store baked kind that is often still hot when it is purchased. You can’t get much fresher. But we rarely eat it all and by the next meal the bread has gone bad. Just the other day we were making sandwiches and discovered mold in the bread.
We often get confused about the things we need versus the things we want. We need bread to eat, but we don’t need so much that it will go bad before we can eat it. We need the things necessary to keep our living space clean and healthy, but we don’t need to fill our cabinets with dozens of bottles. We need enough for today; that is why we ask God for our daily bread. We work so hard to have “just a little more” and in the end it does nothing to make our life fuller or our soul more peaceful. As a matter of fact, chasing after “a little more” is why so many of us are suffering from stress and depression. We don’t have the resources available for “a little more” so we live in fear and discontent.
Jim Carrey starred in the movie called “Bruce Almighty” as a man who was granted the opportunity to become God, while God went on vacation. Bruce began his reign as a very selfish god, using his power to get everything he wanted: the girl, revenge on his enemies, fantastic possessions. Then he began to hear voices in his head. He discovered that these were the prayers of the people. Bruce was having difficulty keeping up with all the prayers, he just said “Yes” to every request. One of the most popular requests was for a winning lottery ticket. More than 400,000 people won the big drawing one day, giving every winner a grand total of just $17. They were angry that the answer to their prayer was less than they expected.
I’m guilty of praying selfish prayers for things I want to have. Wouldn’t life be so much easier if only I had a million dollars to guarantee a secure future? I even justify the request with the promise that I’ll use it to help others. The God we worship is not in the business of giving us everything we want. He provides for our needs. We don’t need the newest car or the biggest house. Those are “nicessities.” God knows that a million dollars can help us through tough times, but He also knows that a million dollars will keep us from looking to Him for our daily needs today. He knows that we will see money as our savior. I sometimes wonder if keeping a pantry full of too much food can do the same thing. We don’t need God if we have food enough to keep us satisfied.
We think that satisfaction means having “more than enough” but really, we only need “enough” to be truly satisfied. I was watching old videos one day and in the Christmas scenes I could see the difference between the two. We lived far from most of our family and friends, but they all sent presents to the children. One video showed a tree that was surrounded by a mountain of gifts. Shipping became too expensive, so everyone just sent money so that we could buy things to put under the tree in their name. Everyone wanted to make the children happy, but we realized that too many presents under the tree were a waste. We decided to put the money in their piggy banks so they could use it later. It was wonderful that our loved ones were so generous, but in the end too many toys did not make them happy.
We need shelter, food, and clothing, without a doubt, but our daily needs are so much more than that. We also need companionship, strength, guidance, and family. Even more so, we need hope, faith, joy, love, and peace. We need God, and we need Him daily. In the Gospel for this week, Jesus filled the bellies of the people, but He also supplied their spiritual needs by speaking the Word of God into their lives. He raised the bread and fish in thanksgiving to God, showing them God’s provision for their every need. God is not a pop machine, available to give us what we want whenever we want it. We pray in submission, recognizing the truth that God is our provider; He gives us only what we need for this day so that we will continue to look to Him tomorrow. We need to be responsible and prepared, but not to the detriment of our reliance on our God who has promised to give us everything we need. He provides with radical generosity, but not in the way we think.
In today’s story, we see that God is radically generous. He doesn’t give out of some misplaced motivation like we did with all those Christmas gifts. He meets people’s most basic needs, but He does so with incredible extravagance, even providing leftovers. We don’t know what happened to those baskets of bread and fish, but we see that He gives enough so that there is always something to share. He blesses us in ways both spiritual and mundane, but all is meant to be shared. Our joy, our resources, and our spiritual gifts are given in far greater quantity than we will ever need. In Christ we can be radically generous, too, sharing the love of God with the world.
Jesus never worried about where the disciples would get food and drink during their travels. Even this special meal was not a concern for Him. He knew that God would provide. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to give us our daily bread, enough for today. That might mean being responsible for our family by ensuring a pantry with enough food to help us through an emergency, but it doesn’t mean we need to worry about tomorrow. We can trust that God will provide with the necessities that will get us through the good times and the bad.
One of the things that the experts suggest having in plentiful supply during a hurricane or a blizzard is bottled water. This is to ensure that there is some available if something should happen to the water supply. Water seems so simple and plentiful, and yet we realize how important it is when the taps go dry or the pipes freeze.
We spend a lot of money on bottled water in the United States. According to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, bottled water was an $18.5 billion industry in the U.S. in 2017. Conservationists warn about the impact all this bottled water is having on our world. Although some of the bottles are recycled, many are simply thrown into landfills. The plastic bottles take centuries to decompose. Energy is used to produce the bottles, collect the water, and fill the bottles. It takes energy to deliver the bottled water from the distributor to the store. There are some brands of water that are produced in foreign countries. It takes double the energy to get those foreign sourced water bottles to our store shelves. It even takes three liters of water to produce a one-liter bottle of drinking water!
Sadly, many of the brands of bottled water are not what you expect. If you read the fine print on those bottles, you will see that many of them say that the water is from “municipal water source.” The municipal water source is... tap water. In other words, you could get similar water from your tap. Now, most of those brands that use municipal sources also filter it or add something to make it better, but it is still just water. Since many people have water filtration systems in their homes, it seems unbelievable that we would spend so much money on bottled water. We like the convenience. We prefer the taste. We think there is something better about bottled water because it comes in a bottle. We think we are getting something for our money.
We can’t live without water; there are nutritional and health benefits to drinking enough water daily, especially since most of our favorite drinks are unhealthy. Some experts suggest that we are dangerously dehydrated, often caused by the very things we think are keeping us hydrated! Dehydration causes fatigue and other health problems. We are trying to be healthier, so we drink as much as possible. Despite the relative value of water, we willingly pay outrageous sums for the bottles, especially when we aren’t sure the tap water is safe. Sadly, we would probably doubt that there is anything special about the water if we didn’t pay outrageous prices. We might even suspect that it really is just tap water.
In today’s Old Testament scripture from Isaiah God says, “Hey! Come, everyone who thirsts, to the waters! Come, he who has no money, buy, and eat! Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” How could water, wine, or milk be any good if it is free? We are taught that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Perhaps that’s why so many in our world reject the free gifts of God. They don’t believe that He will provide for every need, but as we grow in faith and trust, He will fill our hearts with the desire for the good things in life that aren’t what we expect.
Jesus Christ is the bread of life. He is the Word made flesh. He was sent from heaven to live, die, and rise again to new life so we can freely live in the love and glory of the Most High God. It costs us nothing. We have been invited to eat and drink the gift of eternal life, to partake in the bread and living water that is Christ Jesus which is the only thing that will truly satisfy. We need bread and water for our bodies to survive, but we need Jesus even more. He is the good thing in life.
In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, Paul addressed a difficult question: what about the Jews? Paul was a Jew, and he loved his people. He knew the blessings of being one of God’s people: the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the law, the worship, and the promise. Yet, he also knew that they were missing something. They were missing Jesus. It was a hard quandary for Paul. The people he loved did not know the assurance of faith in Christ even though they were beloved of God. How do we deal with this dichotomy?
Paul wished that he could give up his salvation for the sake of his people, but we know that this is not a possibility. Only Christ could provide the salvation for the whole people of God. Paul could only live in hope. This might not seem like much, but hope is a solid foundation for our life of faith. In hope we will have the courage to share the Good News of God’s mercy and forgiveness with people who are determined to destroy us. We can walk through persecution, and even walk to our deaths, knowing that God’s promises are true. He will provide all that we need, and we can rest in that hope because God will be faithful to His promises even when we can’t see it in the people we love. We are called to continue to love them, to hope for them, and to share God’s mercy with them. We can’t give up our salvation for them, but we know that Christ died for all and He will provide what they need to be saved.
Psalm 136 is a hymn of praise with a repeating refrain after every line. The psalmist focuses on the loving kindness of God which endures forever. It can be translated in so many ways! “Give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good; for his loving kindness endures forever.” (WEB) “Give thanks to God because God’s faithful love lasts forever!” (Common English Bible) “Give thanks to God because His love endures forever.” (NIV) “Give thanks to God because His faithful love endures forever.” (New Living Translation) “Give thanks to God because his mercy endureth for ever.” (KJV) “Give thanks to God because His steadfast love endures forever.” (English Standard Version) “Give thanks to God because His love never quits.” (The Message) “Give thanks to God because His lovingkindness (graciousness, mercy, compassion) endures forever.” (Amplified Bible) So many different ways to say that God’s love is eternal!
This term, “loving kindness” is the Hebrew word “chesed” or “hesed”, and it refers to the covenant loyalty and faithfulness of God for His people. If we read the psalm without the refrain, we see the see how God manifests this covenant loyalty in our lives. We praise God because of His loving kindness and because He is the God of Gods and the Lord of lords.
God is good. He does great wonders. He made the heavens. He created the earth. He made the sun and moon, and they do what He created them to do. He saved His people from Egypt and then guided, protected, and provided for them through the wilderness to the Promised Land. He has the power to control nature and to overcome the kings of the earth. He did all this for the people He loved. But His love did not end when they entered the Promised Land; it continued for God’s people even as they failed to be faithful. It continued for His people when He saved them from the greatest adversaries: sin, death, and the devil. His loving kindness endures for us today as He provides us with everything we need.
God has done great things and has shown His faithfulness to His people throughout the generations. The psalm may seem clearer without the repetition of the refrain, but those words of His lovingkindness are worth repeating every moment of every day to remind us of the great and good things that He has done. His love endures, His mercy endures, His covenant loyalty endures forever. By His grace His people were saved from Egypt, but that was just a foretaste of the salvation that He would offer to the world through Jesus Christ. By His willing sacrifice which overcame sin, death, and the devil, we experience His love forever, dwelling eternally in His presence. This love is meant to be shared.
“The Starfish Story” by Loren Eisley encourages us to try to do what we can for the world. “One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. Approaching the boy, he asked, ‘What are you doing?’ The youth replied, ‘Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.’ ‘Son,’ the man said, ‘don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!’ After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said ‘I made a difference for that one.’”
We can’t do it all, but we can give our resources to God and trust that He will make miracles happen. If each of us just made a difference for one, we will see many helped. We can give Jesus our few fish and loaves and He’ll make miracles happen.
The disciples didn’t have enough for themselves. As a matter of fact, they may have been wondering how they were going to eat that night. They had five loaves and two fish, not enough to feed a dozen people let alone thousands. They couldn’t pop into the grocery store for food to share. Even if they had these options, how could they possibly have served a satisfying meal to five thousand or more on a hillside in the wilderness? They couldn’t. Their own grumbling tummies made it easy to say, “This place is deserted, and the hour is already late. Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves food.” Jesus answered, “You give them something to eat.”
In John’s version of today’s Gospel lesson, Philip argued with Jesus. “Even if we spent every penny we have, there is no way we could buy enough food to feed them all.” Andrew, however, said, “Here, we have five loaves and two fishes.” Matthew does not share so many details, but you can sense the hopelessness when they point out that they have “only” five loaves and two fish. Despite His own needs and the needs of His disciples, Jesus had compassion on the crowds. Jesus took their “only” five loaves and two fishes, blessed them, and then gave them to the disciples to give to the crowd. When it was over, not only had everyone eaten enough to be satisfied, but they also collected twelve baskets of leftover bread.
If we work together, we can change lives. If we all put our little bits together, our resources will be magnified. We don’t need to keep enough food to feed an army on a rainy day, but if we follow Jesus’ command, “You feed them” trusting in God’s promises, we’ll find we can do amazing things. Unfortunately, many of us have given up. We’ve accepted the lie that it would be a waste of time to even try. We are no different than the disciples. We want to send the people away, especially when we are in a difficult situation like during a hurricane or blizzard that is causing us suffering, too. But Jesus says, “You feed them.”
We can make it happen. We can make a difference for one, two, or even five thousand. This is where we struggle with the idea of keeping some extra for a rainy day. We know we need to trust God, but we also know that it is our responsibility to be prepared for those times of trouble. If we make it a habit to prepare for hard times, we’ll have enough to share when the need presents itself. An extra can of tuna fish or a ten-dollar gift card might seem like much, but Jesus has promised to bless our work. A few loaves of bread may not ordinarily feed a thousand, but it can if we trust God.
Remembering that God provides our daily bread will help us to live content with what we have instead of laboring for so many things that never satisfy us. As we come to rely on Him as our Provider, we will see that we indeed have enough to get us through the day and that there is even enough to share with others. We need not chase after “a little more” because God will provide all that we need and then some. When there is some extra, like those twelve baskets of leftovers at the meal on the hill, we need not hoard it “just in case.” God gives freely and abundantly with a radical generosity, so that there is always enough not only for our needs, but also for the daily needs of the world.
Sadly, many in our world reject God and they refuse to acknowledge the good things He gives, but by faith we know that He will provide enough. Like Paul, we can hope for those who do not yet know Him. For us, the promise begins at the font, but it continues regularly as we join in the feast that God lays before us at the Lord’s Table. There we will be renewed and restored to go out into the world to invite those family members, neighbors, and strangers to dine with us. The meal may seem sparse, but it is more than satisfying. It is there we meet God in a very real and tangible way and proclaim the life, death, and resurrection of the One who gives us true life, eternal life, life in the presence and the Kingdom of God. His loving kindness endures forever, so let us give thanks for God’s radical generosity!
“Very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. They were saying among themselves, ‘Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?’ for it was very big. Looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back. Entering into the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were amazed. He said to them, ‘Don’t be amazed. You seek Jesus, the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen. He is not here. Behold, the place where they laid him! But go, tell his disciples and Peter, “He goes before you into Galilee. There you will see him, as he said to you.”’ They went out, and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come on them. They said nothing to anyone; for they were afraid.” Mark 16:2-8. WEB
Today we celebrate the lives and ministries of the “myrrh-bearers,” the women who went to prepare Jesus’ body on the morning after the Sabbath. His body had lain in the tomb long enough to make this a very uncomfortable experience. It does not take long for a dead body to smell. Jesus had been beaten and crucified. His body had bled, other fluids would have leaked, and His flesh would have already begun to decay. They also went at great personal risk because they did not know how the Romans or the Jews would react to them as followers of Jesus. Despite this reality, these women took responsibility to do what was right for their Lord.
Three women are named in the Gospel accounts: Joanna [the wife of Chuza, a steward in Herod’s household (Luke 8:3)], Mary [the mother of James (the son of Alphaeus)] and, Salome [the mother of the sons of Zebedee (Matthew 27:56)], with the other women. Jesus had a strong following of female disciples who helped with His ministry in resources and in service. They loved Jesus and rose early to take the spices to the garden tomb. They were still grieving, but women throughout the ages have found comfort in cleaning and anointing their loved ones’ bodies after death. They never expected to find the tomb empty.
They were frightened by what they saw and heard that morning. Mark tells us that they fled and said nothing to anyone. Luke reports that the women did tell someone. Verses 9-20 are not found in some of the early manuscripts, so their authenticity is questioned. Though those verses do suggest that there was more to the story, perhaps based on the other Gospels, Mark’s Gospel is meant to be open ended with the uncertainty of what came next. Mark wanted the listeners to consider the question, “What would you have done?” Obviously, someone told someone, because we have the Gospel two thousand years later, but would you have been so brave?
Where would we be today if those three women remained speechless because they were terrified and awestruck over the incredible events of that day? What would have happened if the disciples refused to believe what they said? The Gospels record numerous other appearances of Jesus and the reactions of those who saw Him. What if they had remained silent? Would we have faith today without their witness?
Those women were the first witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, and because they told someone, the Good News has been shared with so many others, generation after generation. Now, today, we are called to do the same. Mark invites us to ask ourselves the question, “What would you have done.” We know the Good News is meant to be shared, but how many times do we stay silent? Perhaps our reasoning is not as those women that day at the tomb. Perhaps we aren’t afraid or confused by it all. But we stay silent because we do not want to offend or be rejected. We often think we are not good enough to speak those marvelous words. But we need not be special to share the Good News of Christ; we need only to trust in God and believe all He has said is true. In faith we join the myrrh-bearers, following those women into the world with our own fears and confusing, trusting God and telling the story so that others will believe and follow Jesus.
“But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how they might destroy him. Jesus, perceiving that, withdrew from there. Great multitudes followed him; and he healed them all, and commanded them that they should not make him known, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying, ‘Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved in whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit on him. He will proclaim justice to the nations. He will not strive, nor shout, neither will anyone hear his voice in the streets. He won’t break a bruised reed. He won’t quench a smoking flax, until he leads justice to victory. In his name, the nations will hope.” Matthew 12:14-21, WEB
There is an old French tale that tells of a boy who learned how important it is to live through the good and the bad. The boy’s name was Peter, and he was a daydreamer. In school he was constantly thinking about what he would do when the day was over. He barely paid attention to his life as he longed for vacations to come. He wanted to be grown so he could marry his best friend Liese who was the woman of his dreams. His mother warned him to enjoy this day, to have patience until that day really comes.
One day when the boy was in the forest daydreaming, he awoke to find an old woman at his side. She asked him if he wanted a gift: a special ball that would help him make time pass more quickly. This ball had a golden thread, if he never touched the thread time would pass normally, but if he pulled the thread it would make an hour pass by like a second. She warned him that he could never get that time back, to use the thread with caution.
The boy took the ball home and learned very fast how easy it was to pull the thread to get him through bad times. At first, he pulled just a tiny bit. When he was bored in school, he pulled it out so that the day would be over. Then he pulled a little harder so that he would be finished with school and have an apprenticeship. He pulled the thread to get through illness. He did two years of military service in minutes. His children grew from babies to independence in days. Suddenly he realized that his life was nearly over, and he’d accomplished nothing. The old woman returned to him and asked if he liked his life. He admitted that he felt cheated of so much time and that he would have been much happier experiencing even the bad things so that he would have memories to enjoy. He wished he could start again without the ball and live through it all. She granted his wish and he found himself waking as a young boy again. He looked forward to his life as he left his house to go to school that morning.
Do you ever wish you could get through something so that you might get to something better? When we are in school, we wish we were grown. When we are engaged, we wish for our marriage. When our children are troublesome, we long for the day when they are grown. We can’t wait for retirement, for special trips. Kids get excited about Christmas long before the day. We get impatient waiting for the things we want. These things are brief, passing events in our lives. What about the even greater things for which we hope? Are there ever times you just wish this life would end so that you can spend eternity with your Father? I have to admit I would not mind having a magic ball if it promised to take me to that Day. However, we can’t rush things, not even eternal life. There is a time and a place for everything. Even Jesus had to wait.
It seems so strange that Jesus told the people to be silent. Shouldn’t they be yelling from the rooftops that the Messiah had come to save them? Everything would have progressed so much faster if Jesus the Messiah was revealed to everyone with every miracle. More people would have believed in Him, and the leaders would have pushed to finish His ministry. Why go into hiding when everything could be finished quickly? Why not be done with it? After all, the cross was His reason for becoming flesh.
It is true that Jesus was born to die, but He had other work to do. The disciples needed to be taught how to be witnesses for the Kingdom of God. He went into hiding so that the message, the healing, and the promise could reach the whole world. There was a time for Jesus to die, but there was also a time for Jesus to be alive so that many would know that He was exactly who He said He was. While we might long for the day we will spend eternity in heaven with our Father, there is also a time to live in this world. We have work to do, just as Jesus had things to be accomplished. We walk in the hope that God’s promises are true and that they will be fulfilled one day, but we are called to live daily in faith, witnessing to the love and mercy of God to bring hope to the world.
“Where do wars and fightings among you come from? Don’t they come from your pleasures that war in your members? You lust, and don’t have. You murder and covet, and can’t obtain. You fight and make war. You don’t have, because you don’t ask. You ask, and don’t receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. You adulterers and adulteresses, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, ‘The Spirit who lives in us yearns jealously’? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Be subject therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners. Purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament, mourn, and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he will exalt you.” James 4:1-10, WEB
A woman was being harassed by a stalker and they were in court to deal with the situation. The stalker was in love with his victim, but she wanted nothing to do with him. The man represented himself so was the one who questioned the witnesses. When the young lady was on the stand, he pounded her with questions. She became quite upset throughout the session, more and more angry at every question. During the line of questioning, he was convinced her anger was passion and he was certain of her love for him. He pulled a $5000 diamond engagement ring out of his pocket and asked her to marry him.
This case is an incredible example of foolishness and blindness to the truth. The man was being tried because this woman had rejected him numerous times. He never took the hint, even though the hint was direct and included legal action against him. This was certainly not an act of love, but of the unfulfilled desires of flesh causing a man to see life from a crooked perspective.
What does this story have to do with our Christian life? We are not to treat people with such contempt, but it happens, doesn’t it? Take, for example, discussions between Christians about issues of faith and doctrine. I have watched Christians pound each other with questions until they are hurt, upset or angry. I have participated in this myself. It is especially sad to see it among the clergy. In the end, it is almost like someone thrusts a ‘diamond ring’ in the face of another and asks, “Are you going to be a Christian now?”
The man needed to humble himself before the court and accept responsibility for his actions. Instead, he saw the events as running in his favor and tried to force a woman to accept the inevitable - that she would be his. When we are in fellowship with other Christians, particularly when we are trying to encourage and teach Christ-like living, we have to recognize when we are not doing so in the love and grace of God. We must learn when to back off if we are focused on our opinions rather than the Word of God. The truth is not defined by the one who wins the battle; it is defined by our Lord Jesus Christ. Speak the Word, by the power of God’s Holy Spirit and then let it go. Don’t follow the desires of your flesh to ‘win’, instead humble yourself before God and the truth will always win.
When someone is moving in the wrong direction, it isn’t enough to tell him or her to stop. We must give positive direction by suggesting ways to do the right thing. James wrote that it is hostility to God to be a friend with the world, fulfilling our selfish desires. This will lead us to separation from God not His blessing. Today’s passage is a lesson about pride.
James does not just tell us what not to do, he gives us direction on how to turn our life to live in the grace so freely offered by God. Today’s text includes ten commands that call for immediate action to destroy the pride we have in our lives. God desires that we serve Him with our whole selves. We must be ready vessels so that He can work through our lives. We cannot harbor the attitudes of the world and still be friends with God. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” He will block our actions if we become too self-centered and proud. But He also gives us the right direction to live in His grace.
“Be sober and self-controlled. Be watchful. Your adversary, the devil, walks around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Withstand him steadfast in your faith, knowing that your brothers who are in the world are undergoing the same sufferings.” 1 Peter 5:8-9, WEB
I used to spend a lot of time in internet chat rooms. This was long before Zoom and other types of online discussion. The rooms were public, so anyone could join, although there was usually some focus for the conversation. I spent my time in Christian rooms, but we often had visitors that were not Christian. Some were sincere in their questions, but others came just to stir up trouble. One evening some of my friends were holding a Bible study in a public chat when a stranger joined the group. After a few minutes, he greeted the group and wondered if he could ask some questions unrelated to the study. The group welcomed him and his questions. He began by asking, “If Lucifer is God’s most beautiful angel, where did the horns and pitchfork come from?” This shocked and upset the members of the group but one member answered that they were talking about God, not Lucifer. The visitor became upset and left in a huff.
They didn’t have much to go on, and perhaps they judged wrongly, but the group felt that the visitor a Satanist who entered the room to cause disruption to the study. As he left, he tried to make everyone feel bad for not taking up his challenge, as if he was a person asking a very genuine question. Yet, my friends were certain that if he had been allowed to continue, he would have manipulated the group into unhelpful conversation and destroyed the study. I don’t know what I would have done in the situation; those friends tended to see Satan in everything. Don’t get me wrong, Satan is active in our world, of this I have no doubt, but I am not as quick to judge everyone with unfortunate questions as purposely be making trouble.
The visit brought up an interesting question. How did Satan become a foolish looking creature? Our image of this evil being is some dude wearing red tights, with horns and a tail. This seems more like a myth or legend than a very real force in this world. However, like the questioner in the chat room, the image we’ve created for him is so ridiculous, we think he must not even exist. Many Christians even laugh at the mention of his name because the whole idea is silly. He certainly has this world fooled, doesn’t he?
Satan doesn’t devour people by eating them or causing them to do horrible evil things. Rather, he roams the world looking for people who can be manipulated away from the word of God. It doesn’t take much; just a slight twist of the truth sets us on the wrong path. He tries to convince us that he doesn’t exist, and that it’s ok to do things we know we should not do. There are many things that are acceptable in our society that the Lord has warned us to avoid. Satan’s job is to tempt us to do those things. He doesn’t do it by force, but by manipulation.
James tells us to resist the devil and he will flee. While I wouldn’t say the visitor was Satan himself, he seemed to those present to be someone who came only to make trouble and he did flee when he was resisted. He did not leave quietly, trying until the last moment to confuse and disturb the hearts and minds of those Christians. Yet, the group stood firm in their faith and told him to leave. We should listen carefully to the inspired words of Peter to be self-controlled and alert. Satan is here, and the closer you are to the Lord, the more he will seek to devour you. Resist all his temptations and stand firm in your faith in Jesus Christ.
Lectionary Scriptures for August 13, 2023, Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost: Job 38:4-18; Psalm 18:1-6 (7-16); Romans 10:5-17; Matthew 14:22-33
“Yahweh is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge; my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my high tower.” Psalm 18:2, WEB
We laugh at the weathermen. I know that meteorologists are highly educated and that they have incredible computer programs that help them predict the weather. The meteorologist on my lunchtime news even said that they are using artificial intelligence to prepare their forecasts. I have recently been impressed at how well they can predict the day fairly well, getting it right more often than not. Although when the forecast is 100+ almost every day, it is hard not to get it right! It is sometimes quite amazing to watch the model predictions of expected storms and see how close they came to the real thing.
The laughter comes with the long-term predictions. For weeks now they have been predicting that the high that is creating this incredible heat will move and disperse, and for weeks they say the same thing. It doesn’t just happen in the heat of summer. Two-week forecasts are not very reliable. It isn’t even certain that they will be right when they look forward during Monday’s forecast for the weather the next weekend. You can watch every local newscast and hear different expectations. One puts the chance of rain at 60% while the other does not expect rain at all. Their models all come together by Friday, and the forecasts look amazingly similar for Saturday and Sunday. Weather science is getting better, but it is still not something we can predict with any real accuracy too far in advance.
You can see this most clearly when the weathermen display the computer models for hurricanes. They call it the spaghetti model because the picture of the many different possibilities looks like a plate of spaghetti. Early in the formation of the storm, the models have it going many different directions. There are a few that tend to be more accurate, but even those will change as time goes on. In the end, the models tend to tighten up only when the storm is close to land, and then they can make their landfall predictions. Unfortunately, some storms still surprise them and veer one way or another. One hurricane was expected to make landfall around Corpus Christi, putting our city directly in its path. We prepared, and though we are well inland, and the hurricane would be downgraded significantly, we still expected nasty weather, flooding and the other problems associated with a storm. It turned at the last minute and made landfall much farther east. We had nothing but windless and sunny skies. The last-minute turn proved devastating because the area could not evacuate fast enough. People were stuck on the highways for hours trying to escape.
I am sure it is a frustrating job to be a meteorologist because no matter how many times they get things right, we still laugh when they get it completely wrong. We joke that it is the best job to have in our neck of the woods because they are right nine months out of the year when it is always sunny and hot. The local weathermen have created all sorts of new ways of sharing the weather to fill their five minutes, comparing temperatures in different zones just to show that there is something to predict. There is one map which puts up the expected temperatures in different neighborhoods as if a few degrees difference will be noticeable. Is 99 all that different than 100, really? It is hot. And the reality is that it might be 100 in my front yard where it is sunny and slightly cooler in my backyard where it is shady.
It is an important job, though. We need to know the weather and even if I joke about their forecasting, I turn on the TV before bed just in time to see what it will be like tomorrow. I even followed the two-week forecast as I was preparing for our spring vacation. I wanted to plan appropriately so that we wouldn’t be hiking when a storm hit and so we could pack the right clothing. It is good to know if a hurricane might come our way so we can make sure that we have the supplies we need. Families who live on the coastlines where hurricanes make landfall need to board up their windows or evacuate. Families who live in tornado alley need to make sure that they have a safe place to hide. People in flood zones need to be prepared in case the waters rise. We need to know the temperature so that we can dress appropriately.
Through it all, however, we have to remember that the weathermen are not God. They might get it right most of the time, but sometimes they fail. They can’t predict the unpredictable.
I thought about the weathermen as I read today’s passage from Job. God wasn’t speaking to the scientists that try to predict how much rain will fall, but He is talking to all of us when we try to be in control. Sometimes we think we know better than God. Job certainly felt that way as he made his case, claiming that he did not deserve the suffering he experienced. We do the same; we cry, “Why me?” and then lay out all the reasons why we deserve better. We have been good. We went to church. We did nice things for our neighbor. “Why did this happen to me?”
We never really know the answer, but sometimes we discover that we are blessed through our suffering. In this speech, God reminds Job that he can’t possibly know everything that God knows. Neither can we. We weren’t there when He created the world. We don’t know the measure or the line. Science may understand a more each day about the way the world works, but no human being will ever know what God knows.
We suffer, not because God is making life difficult for us, but because we live in a perishable and imperfect world. No matter how good we are, we are not perfect. Sometimes suffering is a consequence of our frail flesh. Through it all, however, we can continue to trust in God because He does know. We might be sick or going through a difficult situation. We make wrong decisions; we turn down the wrong path. Our mistakes are not always blatantly wrong; we aren’t evil because we make a mistake.
I was in Charleston, South Carolina for a conference a few years ago. I arrived early and spent time enjoying the sites, but on my way back to my hotel I decided to locate the venue for the conference. I knew it’s approximate location, but I did not have exact directions. I found a part of the campus, but it did not make sense. I drove around the block and could not find a place to park or even a building that looked correct. I made a turn down one road and ended up at a dead end. I made another turn which took me into the city. I went around the block several times, and spent nearly an hour trying to find the place but never did. I went back to my hotel hoping I could find someone who had the answer. I found my way, but I have to admit that there were some crazy, scary moments.
I don’t like to be lost in a strange city. I have ended up in dangerous neighborhoods late at night because I made a wrong turn. It is scary because I have heard too many stories of people who were robbed and even killed because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I could ask the question, “Why me?” but the reality is that I was in that situation because of my own imperfection. Some suffering can be attributed to sin and the sins that we commit, but sometimes it is simply a reality of this flawed world.
I suppose this is especially true when it comes to the weather. Can a family be blamed because their house was destroyed by a tornado? Are they experiencing the consequences of sin because they lose everything during a hurricane? We can’t even blame the weathermen for inconvenient weather, so we certainly can’t blame the victims. And we shouldn’t blame God.
Sadly, we do blame God when we experience unexpected suffering. We cry out, “Why me?” We lay down the reasons why He should have protected us or saved us or stopped the bad thing from happening. We don’t deserve it. This is actually true. We don’t deserve the bad, but we also don’t deserve the good. Sometimes it happens. What we need to do is trust that God will help us through the bad and the good. Trust. It is all a matter of trust.
The disciples experienced an unexpected storm. Jesus sent them across the lake to the other side while He went to the mountain to pray. He was planning to catch up with them later. Unfortunately, the wind blew so hard that they could not make the boat go forward. It kept them in one place, a way off the shore.
Storms can be frightening. In this story, the disciples were familiar with the lake, with the boat, and with wind, but that didn’t make it any less frightening or frustrating for them. They might have thought that they had enough time to cross, but the Sea of Galilee was notorious for unexpected weather. The disciples weren’t prepared. They were exposed to the elements. Imagine, then, what it must have been like to see a man walking toward them. There is no way a man could walk there, even in the best of weather. Who could it be? Why would he be there? They thought it must be a ghost, and I don’t blame them. Things like ghosts help us explain the unexplainable, and Jesus’ walking on water is one of those unexplainable events. They were expecting to see Him on the other side, they never expected that He would catch up with the boat on the lake. They were already frightened, and the image of a man in a place he shouldn’t be would just add to the fear.
In this story we see a wide range of emotion, especially from Peter. In just a few lines, Peter is terrified, uncertain, demanding, trusting, doubtful, and then confident. He believed and then he didn’t believe and then he believed. He trusted and then he didn’t trust and then he trusted again. Isn’t that it is with us? We trust God with our whole hearts until something happens that makes us uncertain or doubtful. Like Job we cry out, “Why me?” and demand proof that God is really there. Like Peter we realize in the midst of faith that it is all so ridiculous. We take our eyes off God and realize that we can’t walk on water.
God has proven Himself in Jesus, who is truly the Son of God. He has promised that we will be blessed, and He is faithful. It might seem like we should have that perfect life today; it might seem to us that the reality of the world should not interrupt our lives, but we aren’t in control. We can’t possibly know what God knows or see what God sees. We can trust that God is near even in our bad times and that He will make all things right.
The storms of life will come, the winds that blow will frighten and frustrate us, and no matter how good we are at predicting the weather, something will catch us off-guard. It is important to be prepared. Life in this world means that we should do so by having bottled water and non-perishable food, and a radio with fresh batteries to listen to the news. We can buy generators to provide electricity and make plans for evacuation.
The Psalm for today reminds us to be prepared in another way. Where do we get our strength? Who is our stronghold? In whom do we put our trust? Do we trust in the weathermen who get it wrong so often, or do we look to the God who created the whole world? It is good to be prepared for the storm, but what will we do when the storm strikes without notice? Will we be like Job, crying “Why me?” or will we look to our God and say, “You are my strength”?
It is good to be prepared for the inevitable storms. Even more so, it is good to be prepared for the storms of life that can make our faith waver. As the world tries to harm and your enemies attack, remember that the Lord God Almighty is your rock, your refuge. all out to God in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the power of His Holy Spirit you will know His love and grace. He will see you through.
We often face our suffering by demanding something from God. Job demanded an answer. Peter demanded proof. We demand healing or vengeance or salvation. Paul reminds us, however, that we can’t make God do what we want Him to do. We can’t go to heaven or hell to bring Him to us. We can only trust that He has done what He promised and that He will be faithful. Man didn’t need to demand Jesus come to save us because God planned for His mission and ministry from the very beginning of time. God sent Him and Jesus obeyed, not because any man could foretell Jesus’ death and resurrection but because God raised Him from the dead and restored Him to life so that we can live with Him in eternity. We can’t do it; we can only trust that He can and that He did. It is in that trust that we find life and hope and peace, even in the midst of suffering.
Here’s the real joy of Paul’s words: God invites us to be a part of His work. Though we cannot go to get Jesus for ourselves, He is with us and near us in our hearts and in the Gospel, which is spoken into our lives. Paul says that when we believe His Word in our hearts and confess Him as Lord with our mouths we are saved. Of course, we often look at faith in extremes: it has to be fully God’s grace or fully our decision. But when we do this, we lose the beauty of the relationship God has ordained between Himself and His people. We are given an active role in His Kingdom, even from the beginning of our relationship with Him. We join our hearts and minds with His by participating in His wonderful grace. It cannot happen without God, we can’t make it happen ourselves, for without Jesus none could be saved. By His grace we receive that which He has promised, confessing with our lives that He is indeed Lord of all.
When it comes to faith, I wonder about those who hold to extreme views, and yet by listening to discussions between people of different perspectives I have realized that there can be an understanding that falls in the middle, joining the good things of both extremes for the glory of God. Too many of the debates separate grace and confession when they belong together as one. Grace and faith reveal itself in word and action so that we can live in the assurance of God’s promises. We trust in our hearts and confess with our mouths that Jesus is truly the Son of God. Through Him we have life and by His grace we are blessed.
He invites us into His work by giving us opportunities to tell others about Him. Those of us who know the Lord Jesus can’t imagine what life would be like without Him. We wonder at those people who are able to live day after day without some relationship with God. We can’t fathom the atheist who claims there is no God, especially when we see a perfect rose, a brightly colored rainbow, or feel a cool breeze on a hot day. We see God’s hand in the coincidences that seem to occur at just the right moment in just the right place to answer our prayers. We see Him in our relationships, in our worship, in our lives as we walk in faith. So, we cannot understand how they do not see Him also.
Yet, even as we do not understand how they do not see Him, do we show them? Those who hear us speak about the Lord may not believe when they hear our words. They may not even believe it in a week, a month, or years after they heard our words. However, when the time is right God will reveal Himself to them and they will know that God is there. Then it is hard to miss Him in everything. Eventually they will realize that coincidences are not coincidental, but are moments designed by the living, loving God of creation. It may all begin with a seed we’ve planted.
It isn’t easy to share the Word, to introduce people to Christ, especially if they look at our lives filled with suffering; they refuse to believe in a God who would allow it to happen. That should never stop us from sharing Jesus with the world. We have been invited to be the mouths that confess God’s grace to our neighbors. Our confession not only reminds us of the God who is near and who is trustworthy, but it offers that same grace to those who as yet do not believe.
Here’s a joke for today: An enthusiastic young Protestant minister was posted to a small town where there was both a Catholic church and a Jewish synagogue. The Catholic priest and the Jewish rabbi welcomed the young minister warmly and offered any assistance he might need in his new charge. Then they invited him to go fishing with them. As they were sitting in the boat about fifty yards from shore, the priest said he was thirsty. But they had left the cooler on the dock. The Rabbi said, “I’ll get it.” With that he stepped out of the left side of the boat, walked to the dock, and returned with the cooler. Later the rabbi hooked a large trout, but the net had been left on the dock also. So, the priest stepped out of the left side of the boat, walked to the dock, and returned with the net. By this time the young minister was a little red in the face. Then the old priest said that he had left his knife on the dock, and he couldn’t get the hook out of the fish’s mouth. The young minister stood up and said, “I’ll get it!” With that, he stepped out the right side of the boat and promptly sank to his eyebrows. The rabbi turned to the priest and said, “Well Father, if we’re gonna’ help this boy, we should start by showing him where the steppingstones are.”
The emotions of the disciples that night on the sea were intense. Peter was on a roller coaster. He saw Jesus walking on water and he wanted to believe. He wanted to believe so much that he thought he had to prove that he had enough faith to walk on the water. He did well in the beginning because he kept his eyes on Jesus. Then suddenly he turned his attention to something else: the winds that were blowing around him. His thoughts turned inward to his safety and the ridiculous nature of what he was trying to do. He realized that he could not walk on water after stepping out of the boat. He was sure he would drown.
The joke is funny because the priest and the rabbi didn’t really walk on water. They knew about steppingstones that would take them to the dock safe and dry. The young minister did not know there were stones. He thought that the priest and the rabbi had so much more faith and he thought he had to prove that he was as faithful and holy as they. His purpose for going to the dock was not to serve the others but to prove his faith.
I suspect that none of us will ever really walk on water as Jesus did. No matter how much we trust God we do not need to prove our faith by doing something impossible and amazing. However, Jesus calls us out of our boat all the time. He calls us out of our comfort zone into situations where we can serve others even though it seems ridiculous. He calls us to come to Him in ways that are beyond our ability so that we will learn to keep our eyes on Him for strength. The problems come when we turn our thoughts inward. We get into trouble when our motivation is self-centered, when we allow fear and envy to guide our steps. When Jesus calls us out of the boat saying “Come,” we will stand as long as we keep our eyes, and hearts, on Him.
We weren’t there when God laid the foundations of the earth, and we will never be able to fully understand Him. But He is with us, near us, in our lives and hearts and mouths. He knows how to turn suffering into blessing. He calls us to trust in Him, to believe and confess that He is Lord. It won’t be easy. We are no different than Job, Peter, or Paul. We can rest in the knowledge that God is our rock and our fortress, our deliverer and refuge. He knows everything about us good and bad, and that He has sent Jesus as the way of forgiveness. He will be there to pick us up whenever we fall because He has promised, and He is faithful.
“But know this: that in the last days, grievous times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, fierce, not lovers of good, traitors, headstrong, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding a form of godliness, but having denied its power. Turn away from these, also. For some of these are people who creep into houses and take captive gullible women loaded down with sins, led away by various lusts, always learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” 2 Timothy 3:1-7, WEB
The names of the characters in ancient myths and legends have often become words we use in our daily lives to describe things or people that are similar to those characters. Echo, for instance, was a woodland nymph that loved to use her voice. She sang and talked constantly and always had the last word. One day a goddess was looking for her husband when she came across Echo. Echo, knowing her husband was cavorting with other woodland nymphs, held her in conversation until everyone was safe. When the goddess discovered the deception, she cursed her. From that day on Echo could only repeat someone else’s words.
Echo met a young man named Narcissus who was very handsome. Many a nymph had fallen in love with him, only to be rejected. He refused to fall in love with anyone. Echo followed him in the hope that he might speak first to her, since she could not speak first to him. One day the youth, alone in the woodlands, shouted out “Who’s here?” Echo replied, “Here.” Narcissus could not see the source of the voice so called, “Come.” Echo replied “Come.” Narcissus called again, “Why do you hide from me?” Echo replied with the same words. “Let us come together,” Narcissus called. Echo repeated the invitation, went to Narcissus, and flung herself into his arms. He was startled and yelled, “Get off, I would rather die than let you have me!” Echo repeated, “Have me.” But it was too late. Narcissus was gone and she was left alone. From that day on she lived hidden away in caves and withered until all that was left was her voice. She still has the last word and that is why we call an echo and echo.
Narcissus’ name also became a common word in our language. We all know what it means to be narcissistic. Narcissism is excessive love or admiration for oneself. It is self-centeredness. Narcissus was a beautiful young man who was beloved of all the woodland nymphs, but he had no desire to fall in love and so rejected them all. At his birth, a prophet told his mother that he would live to a ripe old age if he never knew himself. One day, Narcissus was hunting in the woods when he became tired and thirsty. He knelt down next to a creek and saw his reflection for the first time. Thanks to a spell by Artemis, Narcissus was enraptured by the face he saw in the water. Eventually he realized that the face was his own and that he would never be able to possess the thing he loved the most. He was thus tortured in the same way he tortured all those whose love he had refused. He killed himself, the last self-centered thing any man can do.
We are all a bit narcissistic. As a matter of fact, it is a normal stage of growth in humans. As children we believe that the world revolves around us, that everything happens for our sake. This happens because a child’s world is very small, and parents sacrifice for their children who really do need adult help and guidance. As children grow, we teach them their place among others in the world so that they will understand that others have needs, too. Self-interest can be good because we need to protect ourselves and discover our purpose in life, but narcissism is unhealthy. Self-love to an extreme affects our relationships and other aspects of our lives. When we make ourselves the center of our universe, we miss out on the possibilities this life has to offer. Some of the best opportunities are found in selflessness.
A report in 2007 discovered that college students were more narcissistic and self-centered than any generation before them. It might seem hard to believe, but today’s generation might even be worse. The researchers believed that it had to do with the “self-esteem movement” in which parents and teachers focused on a child’s uniqueness. “You are special” is true, but in its extreme it has led to a generation of children believing that they are not just special, but that they are more special than everyone else. The study showed that narcissists “are more likely to have romantic relationships that are short-lived, at risk for infidelity, lack emotional warmth, and to exhibit game-playing, dishonesty, and over-controlling and violent behaviors.”
Our relationship with God is not the same as our relationships with others, particularly those of a romantic nature. However, I wonder if the conclusion of this study can be juxtaposed with the state of the church today. We might not think it possible for a religious or faith life to be narcissistic, but it is in many cases. How many people change churches because they “weren’t being fed” or because the church didn’t meet their expectations? We might not directly ask the question, “What is in it for me?” but many of our decisions are directly affected by the impact it will have on our lives. When God calls us, do we go without concern for ourselves? Or are we like Narcissus, always looking back to ourselves, thinking only of ourselves?
“Now Yahweh’s word came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach against it, for their wickedness has come up before me.’ But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of Yahweh. He went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid its fare, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of Yahweh. But Yahweh sent out a great wind on the sea, and there was a mighty storm on the sea, so that the ship was likely to break up.” Jonah 1:1-4, WEB
I saw a cartoon that had two porcupines standing beside a river. They were at a river rafting place and inflatable rubber boats were lining the shore. One of the porcupines said, “Are you sure this is a good idea?” Needless to say, it probably would not be a good idea for prickly quilled porcupines to step into a boat that could easily be punctured and sink while they are on the water.
The scriptures often talk about getting into the boat, with stories that lead us to be bold in action and our faith. Jesus found the first disciples in their fishing boat and called them to be fishers of men. After feeding the five thousand, Jesus sent them to another place in a boat. Jesus used a boat so that He could speak to a crowd gathered on the beach. Some of the most amazing events the disciples experienced happened while they were on a boat: Jesus’ walking on water and Jesus calming the storm. Our church worship area is called 'the nave', which is a nautical term and reminds us that we have been called into a boat to journey in faith with Christ.
Yet not all the boat stories are pleasant. Paul and his companions experienced a horrible storm and nearly drowned. Though it was right for Noah and his family to get on the ark, it was probably a frightening and sad time. After all, though they were being saved from both the wickedness of the world and the flood water, they were facing a terrifying journey and mourning the loss of all other human beings. Can you imagine what it must have been like knowing that you would be the only people left when the event was over? Might it have been better to just perish with the rest of the world?
Another boat story involves the prophet Jonah. God called him to do something he did not want to do. He was to go to Nineveh to tell his mortal enemies about the love and mercy of God. He did not want to go because he did not want his enemies to be saved. When God had mercy, Jonah said, “See, that’s why I didn’t want to go. I knew that you would be nice to them!” So, Jonah decided to run from God.
What might have happened if Jonah had a mentor or encourager standing beside him as he decided to get on that ship? “Is this a good idea?” he might have asked as Jonah considered his options. Is it a good idea to get on all the boats that come our way? Noah and Paul were called by God to get on the boats that took them on those frightening journeys. God was with them through the stormy seas and there was a future awaiting them on the other end. However, Jonah was trying to run from God.
I don't know if the porcupines would actually puncture the raft, but it is a danger that they should not test. Jonah never should have gotten on that boat to Tarshish. Though Jonah’s life was not in danger because God had a purpose and plan for his life, his actions did put a number of other people in danger. The sailors were frightened by the storm and even sought the aid of Jonah’s God for salvation. Jonah, realizing that running from God was a bad choice, ended up in an even more difficult situation: in the belly of a whale. How often do we decide to get on the wrong boat for all the wrong reasons? When we go forward in faith to follow God’s call, we will find that even the rough seas will be a joy because He is with us.
“We heard this voice come out of heaven when we were with him on the holy mountain. We have the more sure word of prophecy; and you do well that you heed it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns, and the morning star arises in your hearts: knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of private interpretation. For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but holy men of God spoke, being moved by the Holy Spirit.” 2 Peter 1:18-20, WEB
Any writer likes to know that their work has been read and appreciated. I’m no different. I hope that people who receive this daily have found it helpful and inspiring in their walk of faith. Martin Luther was surely no different. He lived at an incredible time, just when the printing press was producing many works that became available for even the common man. He purposely wrote many of his works in German rather than Latin so that the people hear what he had to say. The papers were affordable and widespread. Luther never got rich off his writing, as a matter of fact he often didn’t earn anything from the sale of his books (much to his wife Katie’s dismay!) but wanted everyone to understand God’s Word so he made them easily accessible.
Many people describe Martin Luther as arrogant and rude, and perhaps he was at times, but he was also concerned about the faith of God’s people. He wanted people to read his work, but he also knew the importance of reading the scriptures. This is why he spent so much time translating the text into language that the people would know and understand. As a matter of fact, he diligently sought the best phrase in the vernacular. He may have written hundreds of works, but he always pointed to the scriptures as his source of knowledge and faith.
Martin Luther is quoted as saying, “I only ask in all kindness that the man who wishes at this time to have my books will by no means let them be a hindrance to his own study of the Scriptures, but read them as I read the orders and the ordures of the pope and the books of the sophists.” Here he is using toilet humor again (“ordures” means “excrement.”) Note here that he does insult the writing of the pope, but he does so in the context of insulting himself! Yes, he wants us to read what he has written, but reminds us that nothing is better than reading the scriptures for ourselves.
I won’t say it in the same language as Martin Luther, but I also encourage you to read the scripture for yourself. I may not be published on paper, but I might even be more prolific than Luther since I have been writing nearly daily for twenty-three years! I hope my writing is inspiring and has helped you grow in your faith. I am glad you read my work, but I’m human and fallible; everything I write is little more than garbage compared to the Word of God. Enjoy what I write, but please spend time reading the Bible for yourself. Hear what God has to say. It is sometimes helpful to listen to others like Martin Luther, pastors, theologians, and even myself, but never let any human work become a hindrance to your own study of the scriptures.
“Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord. My spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior, for he has looked at the humble state of his servant. For behold, from now on, all generations will call me blessed. For he who is mighty has done great things for me. Holy is his name. His mercy is for generations and generations on those who fear him. He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down princes from their thrones, and has exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things. He has sent the rich away empty. He has given help to Israel, his servant, that he might remember mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his offspring forever.” Luke 1:46-55, WEB
The Magnificat is a song of faith. The singer knows who she is, whose she is, and what He has done for her. She rejoices in serving Him with all she is, to the very depths of her soul and spirit. This is the song of Mary, the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, a simple teenage girl facing an incredible situation.
God promised to send a deliverer to save His people. Over time they had been scattered and many lived away from Jerusalem; they had been conquered by many enemies and taken far away. By the time Jesus was born, the Israelites were living under the thumb of the Romans who had established puppet rulers in Israel. These were local people who had been trained by the Romans to rule for Rome’s best interest. They were incentivized to make Rome’s interests their own, and so did the bidding of their masters even when it went against God's intention for His people. The tax collectors were cheating the people. The rulers were basking in wealth while the people starved. The priests put heavy burdens on the people. The common men were poor and frustrated. They cried out to God, “Save us!” When the time was right, God answered their prayers.
Sometime around the year 4 BC, God sent the angel Gabriel to a young woman named Mary who was betrothed to a man named Joseph, a carpenter in the small town of Nazareth. Mary was probably no more than fifteen years old. The angel came with an incredible message, saying: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and give birth to a son, and shall name him ‘Jesus.’ He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever. There will be no end to his Kingdom.” Upon hearing the news of her miraculous pregnancy, Mary went to visit her older cousin Elizabeth, because the angel said was also with child. The reunion was filled with joy, and Mary burst into poetic praise. This was certainly a promise, but would it be a blessing? Only time would tell.
Mary was a young girl living in a very strict society facing this incredible blessing from God. When she was found to be pregnant, her fiancée wanted to cancel the marriage. The community would look down on her as a fallen woman, even as a prostitute. They were praying for the Messiah, but they did not believe her story. The news from the angel was not good news. Yet, Mary did not complain. Instead, she answered the angel “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.”
After the birth of baby Jesus, his parents took Him to the Temple. They met two faithful people who praised God for the birth of this child; their names were Simeon and Anna. They knew by the power of the Holy Spirit that Jesus was the answer to the prayers of Israel. Unfortunately, Jesus was in danger from the beginning of His life. Herod feared that the promised Messiah would destroy his puppet kingdom, so Mary and Joseph were warned by angels to flee. They went to Egypt for a time to protect Jesus. They returned to Nazareth after Herod died.
Though the scriptures are silent about Jesus’ childhood, the family must have settled into a normal life; they surely obeyed the Law of Moses and traveled to Jerusalem for feasts and festivals. The last we hear about Joseph is in a story about a visit to Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve years old. They went for a festival, and Jesus found comfort and learning in the presence of the great teachers of Israel in the Temple. He stayed among them, even as Mary and Joseph returned home with the rest of their companions. They didn’t realize Jesus was missing until three days later. They ran back to Jerusalem and found Him among the teachers, learning and impressing them with His own knowledge of God.
Mary remained a part of Jesus’ life even after He was an adult. She loved Jesus in a way no other human being ever would: Mary had been chosen to be the mother of her Lord. It was never easy, but Mary did not complain. Mary stayed faithful to her confession that she is the Lord’s servant, accepting His will. This doesn’t mean that she was perfect.
Mary didn’t always understand what Jesus was doing or why. She became angry with Jesus when He stayed at the Temple as a child. She pushed Jesus to help at a wedding in Cana even though He said it was too soon to reveal Himself. Mary and Jesus’ siblings thought Jesus was out of His mind. Despite these moments, Mary trusted God’s Word and stayed with Jesus until the very end.
Today we honor the life and faithfulness of Mary not because she is extraordinary, but because she is just like you and I. She was a sinner who needed a Savior who faithfully believed the promises of God. She played a unique role in the life of Jesus; no other Christian can claim to be the mother of God. She knew Jesus and His salvation before He was even in her womb. That knowledge did not make her perfect; she failed and doubted and feared. She grieved more than anyone over the death of Jesus; what mother would not? And yet, she remained faithful to the end because she trusted in God’s promises.
Lectionary Scriptures for August 20, 2023, Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8; Psalm 67; Romans 11:1-2a, 13-15, 28-32; Matthew 15:21-28
“May God be merciful to us, bless us, and cause his face to shine on us. Selah.” Psalm 67:1, WEB
I can’t tell you how many times I have been misidentified as an employee in a retail store. It doesn’t matter that I’m not wearing the uniform; people see me and ask me for help. I worked in retail, and I loved the work, so maybe there’s something about my demeaner that screams, “She’ll help!” I am usually willing to help, especially if I have an answer. I’ve even been known to go out of my way to make sure the customer gets what she wants. The other day I was in a hobby store and a lady needed an item. I knew I had seen it, but it wasn’t where it should have been. She walked away disappointed, but I kept looking until I found what she was looking for. Then I went searching for her. She was so thankful.
I’ve read stories about other people who have had encounters with people who have misidentified them as employees, and they usually aren’t as positive as mine. They accidentally walk in a store wearing clothing similar to the uniform, so some demanding customer insists that they should help. “I don’t work here,” doesn’t help. The customers threaten to have them fired. They go off looking for a manager, who is confused when they don’t recognize the “employee.” “Ma’am, that’s not our uniform.” Sometimes these encounters get violent, with the customer even being arrested. Wearing the wrong clothes can lead to trouble.
Students are headed back to school in the next few weeks. One of the big expenses for many students at this time of year is for organizational t-shirts. These shirts are specially designed for the students to help define them as part of that organization. The students receive points whenever they wear their t-shirts at meetings and events, giving them incentive to purchase the shirts. They can be part of the group without the shirt, but it helps identify them.
Have you ever heard someone say, “He (or she) looks like a Christian.” What does a Christian look like? Does it have to do with what they wear? Can race, nationality, physical features, or gender act as identifying marks? Does wearing a t-shirt with a bible quote mean a person is a Christian? We all know the answer to these questions. Of course, there are some outward signs that may make a person’s faith obvious. Like the organizations at school, certain communities require certain clothing. I have a cross necklace I never take off, but the outward signs do not guarantee commitment to God. A person can be a Christian without wearing it on their sleeve, and sometimes the pictures on the t-shirts do not mean the person is faithful.
For the people in Isaiah’s day, the identifying mark of God’s people was national and religious heritage. The Jews were Jews because of where and who they came from, not who they were. You’ll note throughout the scriptures the lists of genealogy. These are important because those lists establish the proper credentials for God’s leaders. Many Jews today can still list their genealogy back to Abraham, thinking that it establishes their relationship with God. At least, that’s what they thought.
Through Isaiah, God told them that it is not their race or nationality, or any other outwardly identifying marks, which makes them people of God. The ones who do justice, who wear righteousness and obedience, are those who will be found joyfully worshipping in the Temple. They are the ones whom God will embrace, whose sacrifices God will accept. It doesn’t matter what they wear, whether or not they can pinpoint their genealogical line. God sees their hearts, and the world sees that they live according to the ways of the God of Israel.
What is truly interesting, though, is that God says that He will bless foreigners who do the same. God’s grace is not just for those who hold the right pedigree; His grace is for all who believe. That’s what we see in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman shows us that Jesus didn’t look at outward appearances, but at the hearts of those who trust in Him.
A few weeks ago we looked at the parable of the sower. We tend to focus on the seeds that fall in the good soil because we know that they will produce a harvest. But it is interesting to consider what happens to the other seeds, the people for whom the seed did not have lasting effect. The seeds in the stones withered away. The seeds in the thorns were choked.
The seeds on the path didn’t stand a chance. They were snatched away by the birds, which represent the devil. As I have considered that parable, it has occurred to me that God can do the impossible. Though it is a bad thing for the birds to steal the seed that fell on the path, many plants grow because a seed has passed through a bird’s system and end up in good soil. As a matter of fact, in James Michener’s book, “Hawaii,” a good portion of the beginning tells the tale of how the volcano created the islands. Eventually the islands were large enough to be higher than the waves of the ocean and the volcanic debris became rich soil. The islands were then planted with seeds from birds as they flew from other places over the new ground. Then I thought, “It would be really hard to preach ‘bird poop,’ wouldn’t it?”
It isn’t bird poop but leave it to Jesus to work such a natural human (creation) function into a sermon. He says, “The food we eat just goes out the other end.” That’s how Jesus teaches; He takes the things about life with which we are very familiar and shows us how it fits into the life He is calling us to live. It is shocking, almost offensive, to think about human waste as a topic for religious discussion. Yet, we learn a very important lesson in this passage. It isn’t what goes into our mouths that makes us unclean, it is what comes out of our mouths.
They say, “You are what you eat,” and in many ways that is true. If you eat only junk food, your body will become unhealthy. A good and balanced diet is important for good health. Scientifically we understand that not everything that goes into the mouth actually comes out the other end. Fats and toxins can damage organs and cause dis-ease in the body. God knows this, which is why some of the sanitary laws existed in the Jewish world. Pork was dangerous to eat. Dirty hands can spread disease. The laws themselves were not a bad thing.
However, the traditions of the elders had become more important to the keepers of the Law than the reality of God’s laws. In the verses that come before our Gospel text for this week Jesus questions the Pharisees about a law that actually dishonors fathers and mothers, against the commandment of God. Though tradition can begin as a way of living out the intent of God’s Word, it can become something completely different because we insert our human frailty into all we touch. We are sinners and everything we touch is spoiled by our sin. And that’s the point. God’s creation is not bad; the food we eat is good because God made it. The sin that lives within us defiles us, and manifests in the words that come out of our mouths. Let us remember, however, that God is not offended as we are. We might be disturbed by talk of bird poop, but God is disturbed by the real things that defile us: evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, and railings.
The disciples were upset with Jesus because He interacted with the Canaanite woman, but Jesus knew she was more than she appeared to be.
To what sort of person would you say the words, “Great is thy faith”? When we think of great faithfulness, we think about the people in our lives that lived an obviously Christian lifestyle. We think about those whose life is one of service. We think about those who praise God even in the midst of hard times. We think about those who are dedicated to the life we live together as a body in Christ. I can remember people, often older women, from every congregation who exhibited to me “great faith.” A few pastors and other church leaders also impressed me with their great faith. We can name several famous people, like Mother Theresa, who would find themselves on the list. The Saints throughout the ages showed great faith. There was something special about those folk. They stood out in the crowd. They were people who were recognized as Christian even by those who did not have Christian faith.
Considering that we’ve had two thousand years of Christian history, however, list of people with great faith seems very small. Most Christians do not stand out in a crowd. As I encounter my neighbors on my street, in the store, at work or school, I can’t say without a doubt which ones are Christian. I am aware of a few who go to church. I know some do really great things in the community. Most would give me the shirt off their back if I needed it. But I doubt I would ever say, “Great is thy faith” to any of them. I’m sure my neighbors would think the same of me. I know one woman who does incredible charity work in our city who admits that she’s a nominal Christian with no real connection to the body of Christ.
The Canaanite woman was not part of the faith community. She was an outsider who came to Jesus for healing. She must have heard about His power, perhaps she was in one of the crowds and had heard Him preach. She may have even been in the crowd who ate the fish and the bread a day or so earlier. The people who were thought to have great faith were the Pharisees and teachers of the law; they thought they were faithful because they obeyed all the religious rules and did what tradition demanded of them, but they aren’t the ones to whom Jesus says, “Great is thy faith.”
Jesus is not radically rebelling against the faith of His fathers in this story. As a matter of fact, when the woman approaches Him, He refuses her at first. His points out that His ministry is for a specific group of people: the lost sheep of Israel. Even after she worshipped Him, He said, “It is not appropriate to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She became bolder, but at the same time humbler, by saying that the dogs eat the crumbs. She didn’t let Jesus go, she continued to pursue His help, but also accepted her place in the world. She was not one of the lost sheep. She is one of the dogs. Even so, she has the faith to say to Jesus, “Please help me.”
It is to this woman that Jesus says, “Great is thy faith.” The world will know us by our love, but we might just be surprised by those whom God calls faithful because they don’t fit into our expectations. They don’t wear their faith on a t-shirt or a necklace. They don’t serve the way we think they should serve. They don’t come from where we expect or live with their Christianity on their sleeves. They might even seem like the Canaanite woman, at the point of their greatest trouble, but God knows their faith because they are bold and humble enough to turn to the only one who can help them.
Richard Pryor played Montgomery Brewster in the movie, “Brewster’s Millions.” Monty Brewster was a minor league baseball player who was having trouble making ends meet when rich relative died, leaving his entire fortune to him. He would get the money, which was $300 million, if he could spend ten percent in just thirty days. At the end of the thirty days, Brewster had to be exactly where he started, with nothing of the $30 million left. He could not have any new possessions. He could not be one penny richer than he was before he learned of his new fortune. He also could not tell anyone the conditions of the inheritance.
So, Brewster spent the money. Everyone thought that he was going crazy, wasting the gift he’d been given. He hired his friends to help him. He rented the most expensive penthouse and furniture to fill it. His employees thought that their job was to help Brewster keep his money. They made savvy investments, recommended more economical ways of doing business. They got upset by his foolish decisions. He ran for mayor, but when it looked like he might win, he began to say that he would not be a good mayor and convinced the entire city to vote for “None of the Above” because all the candidates were horrible. He bought an extremely rare stamp for one million dollars and used it to mail a letter. He even rented the Yankees for three innings so that he would have the chance to pitch against his dream team.
Brewster’s relative knew that inheriting a fortune can ruin a person, so he required Brewster to do the month long exercise to learn how to properly use the gift. Many people receive a windfall like a lottery win, a tax refund, or an inheritance and spend it too quickly. Brewster’s relative wanted him to be sick of money, so sick that he would not be foolish with it. It worked; Brewster got sick of spending.
During the exercise, Brewster learned about the love and compassion of his friends. They were so grateful for his kindness, his extravagant salaries; he even had a magnificent party for them at the end of the month to thank them. He was almost broke and ready to be done with the game. They had loved him so much, had told the world about Brewster’s virtues, and then when he was nearly at his lowest point in the movie, they took up a collection to help him. He, of course, went nuts because he had to be penniless in just a few hours, but they wanted to show their appreciation by sharing what he had first given.
He was almost ready to give up, especially in the very last minutes of the exercise when it was “discovered” that $1000 was set aside (by one of the lawyers to cheat Brewster from his inheritance). The lawyer claimed that it was extra for something and that he “forgot” to give back to Brewster. How could he spend $1000 in a few minutes in a room full of lawyers who wanted him to lose? He hired one of the other lawyers, signing a retain in the final seconds of the exercise. Brewster gained the inheritance and looked forward to using it in ways that would honor his relative’s generosity.
The psalmist today joins with the congregation of believers singing the praise of God. They seek God’s blessing on them, but unlike many of our prayers, they wanted to be blessed so that they could be a blessing. They wanted to be able to share His blessedness with others so that they could share it with the world, so that everyone would sing His praise. $300 million was a lot of money, and Brewster’s rich relative knew it. He wanted Brewster to receive it with the knowledge that it was not something to waste, but something to use rightly. Brewster won, and hopefully so did the community as he took his blessing to others.
Paul was in agony over the question of his people. He knew three truths: first, that Israel is God’s chosen people; second, that God is faithful; and third, something new has happened. People around Paul claimed that Paul was rejecting God’s Word of promise to Israel by grasping on to this new thing. Paul, having experienced the love and mercy of God in a very real and tangible way could not understand how the rest of Israel had not embraced Jesus. But he knew God is faithful, so he found comfort in the reality that Israel was, at that moment, wearing a mask. He was certain that the truth dwelled within their spirits and that one day, when the time was right, their eyes would be opened and they would believe. For the moment their hearts were hardened, but there is always hope. There is hope because God is faithful. We are no better because we believe. We were, and are, also disobedient, but He is merciful, transforming us into the people He has created us to be.
In chapter 15 of Matthew, Jesus told it as He saw it. The Jewish people, especially the leaders, were no longer living faithfully according to God’s Word; they were following a bunch of self-righteous rules. Justice was not according to God’s intent, but what they thought they deserved. He condemned the practices that manifested false piety. The traditions of the elders, the masks they wore, had become more important to the keepers of the Law than the reality of God’s justice. Jesus questioned the Pharisees about a law that actually dishonored fathers and mothers. They claimed it was honoring God, but they dishonored God by dishonoring their parents.
Jesus’ answer to the woman is shocking or perhaps even offensive to us, but it fit the expectations of a man in His position. He was being like the Pharisees He’d just rebuked for following the letter rather than the spirit of the Law. He showed His disciples what it looked like to be unmerciful.
Jesus did not send her away as they advised. Instead, He continued the exchange, leading her into a confession of faith. She was not a Jew; she was not marked by the covenant or bound by the Law. The disciples were Jews and had the advantage of being born into that covenant. They knew the Law and lived rightly and yet last week Jesus said they had little faith. The self-righteous Pharisees were rebuked for misusing the Law for their own benefit. They may have looked faithful, but God saw their hearts.
We may never know what God has done in our neighbor’s lives. We can’t see their faith and may never know about their miracles. The lessons for today call us to live as those in the text from Isaiah, doing justice and what is right, holding fast to the covenant of God. We should boldly and humbly seek God in the midst of our troubles. We can live like the woman, acknowledging that we are dogs, assured of the truth that God’s grace is bigger than the masks we wear, whether they are by choice or thrust upon us by the world. God sees our hearts and we can hear Jesus’ voice saying to us, too, “Great is your faith.”
The faithful will live like the psalmist, singing praise to God and recognizing that He is looking for people who are humble of heart, those who willingly accept the reality that we are merely dogs. We are unworthy of the crumbs God gives, but we are faithful when we believe the promises. God doesn’t bless us because we do what we think is right. He has blessed us so that we will live in the faith we have been given, doing what is right so that God’s graciousness will be revealed to all.
“Trust in Yahweh with all your heart, and don’t lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” Proverbs 3:5-6, WEB
There is an office nearby that has “Proverbs 3:5-6” on the sign outside the door. This has been there for as long as I can remember. I was curious and looked it up and I was impressed that the office would put a profession of faith like this. It made me consider that business for myself. I have learned, however, that the business has changed hands in the past year, and the reviews are not very good for the new owners. It sounds like the old owner was a person of faith, but the new owner just hasn’t gotten around to changing the sign. I don’t know whether it helped either owner, but it has made me consider going to a different because it seems like the new owner is either wearing a mask to gain customers or has no idea what it even means.
We don’t know what is in people’s hearts, especially if they are wearing a mask. Thankfully I have other choices, so my choice not to choose that business has more to do with poor reviews than uncertainty about the heart of the owner. However, sometimes we find ourselves in the midst of relationships that we can’t be assured that what we see is what we will get.
There is a movie called “A Cinderella Story” that stars Hilary Duff as a modern-day version of the Cinderella story. Hilary Duff plays Sam Montgomery who lives in California with her father and stepmother until he is killed during an earthquake. The stepmother then takes advantage of Sam, forcing her to work extreme hours at the family-owned restaurant while insisting that Sam is a loser who will never get very far in life. Sam meets a boy in an online chat room who turns out to be the school football hero. Their relationship was anonymous, and they did not know each other’s real identity. She could not have guessed his true self because his online identity was so different than the stereotype. The boy she knew was poetic, independent, and had very similar goals. The football hero seemed to be exactly the opposite.
The boy’s name is Austin Ames. He wants to be a writer, but his father has different goals for him. Austin is a great quarterback, the star of the team, and likely to be offered scholarships, including money to attend his father’s alma mater. Austin would rather go to a different college but does not know how to tell his dad. He lives behind a mask, wishing he could be one thing while pretending to be another. This brings trouble to his relationship with Sam, who broke free from her own prison and wanted him to do the same.
At the end of the movie, Austin realizes that if he does not turn around, he is going to lose her and her love forever. He walked away from the big game, from his chance to prove himself to the college football scouts and his father. He let go of the man he isn’t to become the man he is. His eyes are opened, and he sees the truth. He decided to follow his heart, to try to become a writer, and to live happily ever after with his Cinderella.
Now, I have come to understand that there is danger to following our own hearts. Jeremiah tells us “The heart is deceitful above all things and it is exceedingly corrupt. Who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) But, the writers of the Bible also understood that the heart was the center of our live. The writer of Proverbs wrote, “Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it is the wellspring of life.” (Proverbs 4:23) Today’s Proverb tells us how to keep our hearts on the right path: trust in God.
Now, the movie was not a story about faith in God, but Austin had two voices encouraging him on which way to go. His dad had very self-centered reasons for pushing Austin to be a football player at his alma mater. He probably thought he was doing what was right for his son, but he didn’t even think about Austin’s interests or even his gifts. Austin was good at football, but he was also a poet; he never took his mask off so that his dad could see the real young man. Though Sam had reason for Austin to follow her advice, her encouragement was more focused on Austin’s gifts. Sure, he was a good football player, but would he be able to do that forever and what would it really accomplish? However, he could write for the rest of his life and his writing could make a difference in someone’s life. Sam was certainly not God, but her advice gave Austin the freedom to take off his mask and live.
We face similar decisions throughout our lives. We have lots of voices trying to tell us which direction we should go. Most have our best interests in mind, but sometimes they also have self-centered reasons for telling us which way to go. The best thing we can do is to trust in God. We also wear masks, guided by the world in the way we should go. We follow the advice of parents, teachers, leaders, the media, social media, and friends without seeking the guidance of the only one that will truly lead us on the right path. God has given us the life, the gifts, the opportunity, the freedom, the faith, the hope, and the joy to do what is right according to His good and perfect plan. If we listen to Him, rather than to the voices of the world and even our own hearts, He will lead us to where He wants us to go and the world will be blessed by our lives.
“Therefore we ought to pay greater attention to the things that were heard, lest perhaps we drift away. For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation - which at the first having been spoken through the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders, by various works of power and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to his own will?” Hebrews 2:1-4, WEB
They say that everyone’s secret passion is watching those kitschy romance movies, although many will scoff because they are just formulaic repeats of the same story over and over again. The names may be changed. The setting is different. Sometimes there’s a cut kid or animal. There is always tension at the beginning, a spark of love, some ridiculous misunderstanding and conflict, and then a quick restoration of the relationship that leads to “the kiss.” Yes, sometimes the city girl goes to the country, or the country boy goes to the city. Sometimes high school sweethearts meet again. Sometimes meddling aunts or mothers try to make a love match. Those differences don’t change the basic outline of the story, they simply make it new.
So many will say that they won’t watch those movies because they can figure out what will happen in just seconds, that the format makes them boring. Yet aren’t all stories? I get bored with superhero movies because they are all the same in their own way. Horror films are all the same even while they are different. So many stories, at their core, are the same. They are different, with different people, places, and circumstances, but the basic plotline and the lessons learned are the same. Throughout all time, from the beginning until today, people have not changed, and neither have their stories. Different experts have different opinions about the number, but literary experts all agree that there are only a certain number of stories. Despite the number of books available, there are only about fifty plots. We just change the details to make the stories real to us.
What is really interesting is that you can find those same plots in the Bible and in the other ancient myths and legends from around the world. They have different characters that fit the culture of the people who hear the words. Take, for instance, the Native American Indian version of a Cinderella story, one that is not only a story of patience but also of honesty.
The story tells of a great warrior whose greatest gift was his ability to become invisible. His name was Strong Wind. All the maidens desired him, but he refused to marry any who were dishonest. Strong Wind had a sister who helped him test each maiden that came to marry him. The sister took the maidens to the shore when Strong Wind was due to come home in the evening. As he approached, his sister asked the maiden if she saw him. They all said yes, but when asked to describe something about his appearance, they could only guess. They were always wrong, and he knew they were lying.
At this time there lived a chief with three daughters. Their mother had died and the two older sisters were jealous of the youngest. They treated her cruelly, burning her face and putting her into rags for clothes. They told their father she did it herself. She did not complain, but patiently did her work with a gentle heart. The two older sisters sought Strong Wind but were found in their dishonesty. The chief s youngest daughter determined to find Strong Wind for herself. She tried to fix her ragged clothes and her face and then set off for the shore. She was ridiculed by her sisters and the others along the way, but Strong Wind’s sister had mercy and took her to seek her brother.
When it was time for Strong Wind to come home, his sister asked, “Do you see him?” The girl answered, “No.” Once again the sister asked if the girl could see her brother and this time she said, “Yes.” When Strong Wind’s sister asked her to describe him, she said, “His sled is drawn by a rainbow and his bow is the Milky Way.” Since she had been honest with the first answer, he made himself visible to her. They took the girl home, healed her wounds and cleaned her face and body. She was clothed in fine clothes and many rich ornaments. The fate of her two sisters was not so great. Since they had lied and had treated their sister with such cruelty, Strong Wind turned them into Aspen trees. Whenever he came to them, their leaves trembled, and they knew of his anger.
We are just like the maidens who could not see Strong Wind. We can’t see God, but we try to think we can get there on our own. We do good works, we say the right things, we go to the right places and claim our self-righteousness is enough to be the one who can see God. For the Jews, righteousness by obedience to the Law of Moses was the way to see God. Those who did not keep His commandments were not worthy of His grace. Unfortunately, there are none who are worthy because we are unable to keep His law.
For this reason, Jesus came to bridge the divide between God and His people. When we are honest and confess our sinfulness, Christ heals, cleanses, and robes us with the finest garment He has to give is His righteousness. We need to recognize our inability to see Him and honestly say that we have eyes that are blinded to the truth. With that confession, repentance, our eyes are open, and we can see Him as He is. If we continue in our old ways, claiming a righteousness that is not in Christ but through the Law, we will never know the salvation Christ gives through His Gospel. The young sister humbled herself before Strong Wind and he gave her the world. When we do the same before God, we are given eternal life and a place in His kingdom forever by His grace.
“Did then that which is good become death to me? May it never be! But sin, that it might be shown to be sin, was producing death in me through that which is good; that through the commandment sin might become exceedingly sinful. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am fleshly, sold under sin. For I don’t know what I am doing. For I don’t practice what I desire to do; but what I hate, that I do. But if what I don’t desire, that I do, I consent to the law that it is good. So now it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing. For desire is present with me, but I don’t find it doing that which is good. For the good which I desire, I don’t do; but the evil which I don’t desire, that I practice. But if what I don’t desire, that I do, it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwells in me. I find then the law that, to me, while I desire to do good, evil is present. For I delight in God’s law after the inward person, but I see a different law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity under the law of sin which is in my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me out of the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ, our Lord! So then with the mind, I myself serve God’s law, but with the flesh, sin’s law.” Romans 7:13-25, WEB
I reorganized my pantry a few weeks ago. The canned goods were chaotic. I couldn’t find anything I needed, so I ended up buying a new one even though old ones were buried in the back. I was worried that the items on the shelves were too heavy; the wood was warping, and it always seemed as though items would fall off or the shelf would break. I bought a couple of standalone pantries for the canned goods, a few plastic bins for some smaller items, and I picked through everything to make sure it was still good. Then I rearranged everything to make it easier to find.
One thing that moved significantly was the peanut butter and jelly. It never quite made sense where I kept it, but there was no room anywhere else, so when I took out all the canned goods, I filled the hole with the peanut butter and jelly, and I was happy that it finally was where it should be. Unfortunately, I have yet to remember that I put it there! I open the wrong door every time I want peanut butter. I know I am wrong every time, I sigh, and then go to the right spot. I suppose some day I will remember, but right now, I keep doing the same wrong thing over and over again.
Isn’t that the way with us, though? Think about all the times you have made New Year’s Resolutions? How many years have you promised yourself you would start saving more money or give up something you know is not good for you? How many times have you committed to regular visits to the gym? How many times have you started reading the bible or doing a study?
Even more so, how many times have you realized a sin that you keep doing? I get very frustrated with other drivers on the road, and I often yell at them from my car. They can’t hear me, of course, but God can. And my yelling is not very gracious. Every time I yell, I confess my sin and promise God (or whoever happens to be in the car with me) that I will do better. Then just like opening the wrong door for the peanut butter, I end up yelling at the next person who has cut me off or doing something foolish on the road. Over and over again I sin, I repent, I promise to try better, and I fail.
Though we fail, consider how many times you’ve managed to keep your resolutions? Did you save money? Did you break a bad habit? Did you manage to do healthier activities both physically and spiritually? We fail, we learn, we fail again, but we eventually learn new and better habits. Of course, we are still not perfect because just as we find success in something, we discover something new we are doing wrong, and the process begins anew. It is frustrating to realize how imperfect we are, and how often we fail to live up to our promises.
Paul understood. I think what I like most about Paul is his honesty. He is often harsh in his letters, saying what most of us think but would never say out loud. He is willing to call a sin a sin and to admit that he is the worst of sinners. In his letter to the Romans, he talks about his inability to be all he wants to be, the perfect Christian, a righteous person. He admits his frailty and his lack of control. He wants to do what is right and avoid what is wrong, but he recognizes and confesses his failure. I don’t want to do those things I do wrong, but like Paul, I do what I don’t want to do and I don’t do what I know I should do.
There is a phrase attributed to Martin Luther, “simul justus et peccator” which means “simultaneously saint and sinner.” We are saved and are assured of the hope of eternal life. We are being transformed into the saints that God has created and ordained us to be. It is a process that takes a lifetime; while we still live in these bodies of flesh we will sin.
Thank God we are saved by the grace of Jesus. While our salvation is a future promise of eternal life, we are saved in this life to be transformed for the sake of the Gospel and for the glory of God. We are saved and are sanctified so that the world will see Christ in our life and in our deeds. Unfortunately, we are still living in the flesh, the flesh which is weak. We sin over and over again. We do what is wrong even before we realize we are doing it. We don’t do what is right and do not even realize our failure until the moment has passed. We fail because our flesh still holds the sin which Christ has overcome.
We look to Paul for guidance about how to live and serve God. Sometimes we put Paul on a pedestal, but Paul knew that he was not perfect. Paul knew his failures; he recognized his frailty. He knew that he was likely to do what was wrong. If Paul, who met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, did not have control over his own flesh, how do we expect to be any better? This is why we must always remember that God does call and ordain His Church to do His work in this world even though the Church is made of many fallible and imperfect members. We don’t have control: we do what we want to do which is not always what God would have us do. We are called to serve God; He can and will bring us to perfection, step by step, on transformation at a time. We won’t be perfect in this life, but we live in hope because of God’s lovingkindness even when we keep doing the same wrong things over and over again.
“Therefore watch carefully how you walk, not as unwise, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Therefore don’t be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Don’t be drunken with wine, in which is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; giving thanks always concerning all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to God, even the Father; subjecting yourselves to one another in the fear of Christ.” Ephesians 5:15-21, WEB
I went with some friends to the San Antonio Riverwalk a few days ago. We visited the Mexican Market, had dinner at an iconic Tex-Mex restaurant, took a river cruise, and went to see an art video presentation that tells the history of San Antonio, projected on the façade of the San Fernando Cathedral. It was a great way to get to know downtown San Antonio for a visitor from Europe. Though I’ve been living in San Antonio for nearly two decades, it was good to hear the stories and see the places again.
The river cruise is a 35-minute adventure on the San Antonio River. The river runs through San Antonio, and there has been a long history of it being the center of life in the city. Unfortunately, some of that history includes flooding and the destruction of the city. A report in 1919 warned of the dangers, which were proven true in September 1921 when the water reached 9 feet above the street level. A dam was built north of the city and they decided to build a bypass channel that would help divert flood waters during difficult times. Flood gates and dams along the path were built to help. The plan proved right in 1946 when another flood threatened the city, but damage was limited. The banks of those channels were developed over the years to a vacation destination for people from all over the world.
Now, the San Antonio River is about twenty-five feet deep, but the channels are only a few feet. The channels are emptied regularly so that they can be cleaned. They become dirty from sentiment and leaves, but the bottoms also become the resting place for many things that people drop into the water as they wander on the Riverwalk. The guide warned us to say goodbye to anything that we drop because it won’t be found until January when they clean the river. She said that they find between three and four hundred cell phones each year. The restaurants are so close to the river that they also find many things like silverware, dishes, decorative terra cotta planters, and even chairs! They have found traffic cones, rakes, skateboards, sunglasses, shoes, jewelry, children’s toys, and beads from river parades. They have even found electric scooters!
The guide told us that we’d never see our items again because everything is considered trash and thrown away after so much time under water. There is no lost and found, no chance to get in the river to look for it yourself. Though it is only a few feet below the surface, it is gone forever. Most of the items end up in the river by accident, but some are due to carelessness, and some things are even thrown in on purpose. There are items that are problematic not only because they are trash that fills landfills, but because they are dangerous. The batteries of electronics leak poisons that can kill the creatures that live in the river.
Though some of the items that are found in the river were thrown there by foolishness, or drunkenness, or just indifference to the impact their action might have on the city or the world, most things found in the river fell there by accident. The people dropping cell phones and silverware are not being careful. Shoes fall in because someone was doing something foolish. I can’t even imagine how an electric scooter ended up in the water!
Very few of us purposely commit mortal sins, but we all sin daily. Our sins may seem insignificant, especially when they happen by accident. We don’t realize what we are doing wrong, but we are still sinning no matter how significant the impact is. Paul encouraged the people of Ephesus to be careful, to not be foolish or drunk, because that’s when we do things we do not intend to do. Instead, Paul encourages us to live in thankfulness to God, keeping our eye on Him so that we will act in ways that care others. We will still make mistakes and have accidents, but the more we focus on God and His will, the less we’ll do the things that make a harmful impact for the world and all God’s creation.
Lectionary Scriptures for August 27, 2023, Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138; Romans 11:33-12:8; Matthew 16:13-20
“Yes, they will sing of the ways of Yahweh, for Yahweh’s glory is great!” Psalm 138:5, WEB
The best part about reunions is the storytelling. Wherever people gather, for whatever reason, conversation always leads to recalling people, places, and events from our past and our present. Funerals are definitely a time for remembering, but they are highly emotional and there is little time with many people who also want to share their memories. Classmates enjoy sharing what’s happening in their lives, but the talk often turns to the stories of our school days together. Families laugh at childhood memories when they gather for holidays and other celebrations. Best men and maids of honor love to share stories about the newly wedded couple while they toast the marriage and wish them a long, happy life together.
My brother and sister and I don’t get together often enough, but I remember a time a few years ago when we laughed and shared stories. My siblings are significantly older than I am; I am the baby. My brother was headed off to the army by the time I was an interesting individual. My brother and sister had a typical sibling relationship; they fought over everything. He picked on her, she tattled on him. Since he was so much older, he was sometimes left as babysitter for the two of us, but since he was fairly young, he was not the most reliable caregiver.
As we visited during that reunion, they shared stories about our childhood that I could never remember. I had a calendar of photos from our past and they used them to remember. We had a pony for a few months and went on vacations I will never remember. I learned that I had a broken leg when I was just a baby, having fallen down the stairs under my brother’s watchful eye. I heard stories that will only be part of my memory because they told them to me. Although I will never remember those events or many of the people involved, they are a part of my history, and I am who I am because of them.
In today’s Old Testament passage, God was speaking to His people through the prophet Isaiah. He said, “Listen to me you who seek the Lord. Look to your history, your father Abraham and your mother Sarah.” Although none of those to whom Isaiah was speaking knew Abraham personally, they knew the stories of Abraham’s life that were passed down orally in the religious traditions; they were irrevocably woven into their lives. The promises of God were first given to Abraham and Sarah who seemed to have no hope for a future, but to whom God fulfilled His promise that their offspring would become many nations. The people listening were the fulfillment of that promise. They were the children of Abraham.
Isaiah used the image of God’s people being stone, like rocks hewn from a quarry. He reminded them to look to the foundation of their faith, to their father Abraham and mother Sarah. God’s people were founded in the promises given to them. Though Abraham was old, God provided him with a son that would become the father of many. Those promises were given to us, too; the foundation of our faith was started with our father Abraham.
We are the people of the many nations that came from Abraham and Sarah. We are proof of God’s faithfulness and can rest in all God’s promises including those found in today’s Old Testament passage from Isaiah. We will be comforted. God will look upon His children with compassion. He will restore His people and they will rejoice. We will become the light that shines to the world, manifesting God’s justice and peace. God will grant us His righteousness and His salvation. It is ours to live in hope waiting patiently for that which will last forever.
It is up to us to keep telling the story.
That’s why it surprises us that Jesus says, “Don’t tell anyone” in today’s Gospel lesson. After all, it was not much later that Jesus commanded the Church to tell the world. Why the silence in this passage? Shouldn’t they tell the crowds that Jesus is the Messiah? After all, it would help the people know Jesus better, to follow Him with more commitment, to establish His authority in His day. Wouldn’t He want committed followers right from the beginning?
Where would the people in Isaiah’s day have been if Abraham and Sarah had not been so blessed by God? Where would we be if the apostles had not learned the lessons necessary for the building of God’s Kingdom in the world? Where would we be if they had not told Jesus’ story?
Today’s Gospel text was a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. From this point forward in Matthew’s story, Jesus set His feet toward Jerusalem and the cross.
The Pharisees and Sadducees recognized that there was something different about Jesus, but they were afraid. They didn’t want a king who would take away their power and authority. They demanded a sign from heaven, yet they had been given multiple signs. They didn’t want to see the truth because it would turn their world upside down. It seems odd that Jesus didn’t want the truth to be proclaimed.
Jesus wondered what was being said about Him around town. After all, He’d been doing some incredible things as we’ve seen in the lectionary over the past few weeks. Jesus fed thousands, He walked on water, He healed a Canaanite woman. Word of His works was getting around. A few weeks ago, we heard that Herod suspected that He might be John the Baptist resurrected. Behind the scenes the people were whispering other possibilities. “Maybe he is Elijah.” “He could be Jeremiah.” “Perhaps he is one of the prophets.”
His actions were gaining the attention of the temple leaders. He had a following. There had been other would-be messiahs, political and religious zealots trying to lead the people into some sort of revolt. They were easily disregarded because they had no authority. However, Jesus spoke with power that seemed to come from God Himself.
Jesus wondered about the scuttlebutt. “What are they saying out there about me?” The disciples told him about all the theories. Then Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” For just one moment, Peter saw Jesus clearly and confessed faith in the Savior of the world. It wasn’t his own doing.
Jesus answered Peter’s confession, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” Peter’s confession of faith was not something parroted from what other people thought about Jesus. It was not from the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees; it was not a fearful assumption from a king, and it was not a guess from those who knew the stories of the Old Testament. It was a confession of faith hewn by God’s own hands. And on that rock, Christ would build His church. Peter didn’t confess faith by His own knowledge or ability. It was God Himself that revealed the truth to him.
“Who do you say that Jesus is?” is a question we still ask today. We like to define Jesus as a good guy, healer, teacher, and prophet. We like to see His radical hospitality and His generosity. He is a friend, brother, and wonderworker. We study the many characteristics of Jesus: He is the living water, the bread of life, the gate. He is the great high priest and the Lamb of God. He is all these things and more. We love to hear the stories and to study the lessons that have been recorded in the scriptures. Yet, no matter how much we believe and love Jesus, we all struggle with the reality that Jesus came to die. The signs may have revealed Jesus as the Messiah, but faith in His ministry was not enough to save us. Jesus Christ had to complete the work He was sent to do.
The image of rocks from Isaiah and the Gospel reminds me of the many historical ruins we visited while we lived in England. We also visited buildings that were still standing, some a thousand years old. Yet, there was something particularly poignant about the sites that were left bare from years of destruction, neglect, and theft.
The abbey in Bury St. Edmunds was one of the most popular pilgrimage sites for many years. Edmund was a hero of the British people because in the middle of the ninth century he stood up against the Danes to save his throne and the Christian faith; the people went to see his relics. The Danes viciously tortured and killed him, then went on to ravage the land.
The abbey built in his honor was a grand complex with a magnificent church more than five hundred feet long and two hundred feet wide. There were also many other buildings used for the business of the abbey. Today there is little more than foundational footprints left behind. My visit to those ruins helped me understand the methods the medieval builders used to create the abbeys and churches we still visit today.
The builders wanted to create thick walls that would survive weather, enemies, and time. They also wanted the buildings to be impressive, with the most beautiful stone, carvings, and towers. All this cost money and though the abbey had great wealth they did not limit their desires to what they could afford. They were no different than us today. It seems to be human nature to always reach just beyond our resources so that we can have bigger and better things.
The cost was too great to make the entire building out of the best stone, so instead of making walls solid with hewn stone, they laid a foundation, built a layer of the fine crafted stone on the outside and inside of the wall and then filled between these layers a mixture of mortar and discarded stone. Though the walls were several feet thick, only a foot or so of expensive stone was used to create the beautiful building. The garbage in the middle was never seen until the abbey fell. The abbey was eventually left to the ravages of weather, enemies, and time. The beautiful stone was stolen to be used in other buildings and the mortared garbage was left behind. No one wanted the junk; they just wanted the beautiful stone. The walls now look like statues of cobblestone towers.
None of us look like stones hewn from a quarry or the beautiful buildings that were built with that stone. We are far more like the mortar and discarded stone; we look like the cobblestone towers left behind in the ruins of the abbey. We are sinners and no matter how good we seem to look, we can’t hide from our Father what is our hearts. Even God’s chosen people made mistakes; they turned from God and worshipped others. They did not do justice in the world. They were unable to keep the Law. Their disobedience left them in ruins, the beautiful facade stolen away over time.
The passage from Isaiah offers a promise, not only to the people in his day, but also to us today. Isaiah wrote, “For Yahweh has comforted Zion. He has comforted all her waste places, and has made her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of Yahweh. Joy and gladness will be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody.” The passage points to a future promise that was fulfilled in Jesus. “My righteousness is near. My salvation has gone out, and my arms will judge the peoples. The islands will wait for me, and they will trust my arm.” We are called to look toward the heavens and rest in the promise that God’s answer to our worries and fears is eternal. He has proved His faithfulness.
We might appear to be nothing more than the garbage the builders used to make the walls of those ancient cathedrals look bigger, but we are stones hewn by God Himself. He has given us what we need to inherit His Kingdom forever. He has revealed Jesus as the Christ through the stories in the scriptures so that we will believe. Jesus didn’t want the truth revealed too soon because He had more work to do.
Michael Phelps won a record number of medals at the Olympics in 2008. He was interviewed and profiled; every aspect of his life was reported, including his eating habits. One reporter even tried to duplicate his calorie intake, an impossible feat for the average person. We met his mother and sister and seen their faces as Michael won contest after contest. We heard from his teammates, coaches, and friends back home. He was the center of attention during those Olympics.
This was good in some ways: he put the limelight on swimming. His amazing races were replayed on the large screen monitors at football and baseball games around the United States. Young people began thinking more seriously about the sport. I’m sure there was a rise in sign-ups for swimming classes, which was one of Michael’s goals. He wanted more youth to be interested in swimming so that the next generation would accomplish even more than he was able to accomplish.
The attention on Michael Phelps has had its disadvantages, however. There was little attention paid to the other astounding athletes. Natalie Coughlin was an American woman who dominated women’s swimming; she won six medals in 2008. She also won five medals during the 2004 Olympics. She competed in eleven events over those two Olympics and won in every event. This was an amazing feat, and she was the first woman to do so. She set her own records, but we hardly knew her.
Natalie took it all in stride. When she was interviewed and asked how she felt about Michael Phelps getting all the attention, she answered, “He deserves every ounce of respect and admiration and attention that he gets because what he’s doing is incredibly phenomenal. I am not jealous one bit. Being his teammate for so many years, you get desensitized to how amazing he is. I think many years down the road, me and the other members of the team will realize what an incredible performance he put on for everybody here.”
No matter how good Michael Phelps is at his sport, he was also humble enough to realize that he could not have done this by himself. He was always thankful for the support of his family, bringing up his mom at every opportunity. His coach is like a father. And his teammates are vital. At least one of his record-breaking gold medals would never have been his without the incredible push during a team relay race by his friend and teammate Jason Lezak. They were in second place until Jason took off during the final meters of the race. He took over the lead and won by eight hundredths of a second. That does not sound like much, but in Olympic timekeeping, eight hundredths of a second is an eternity.
No matter how good a person is at what they do, they can’t do it by themselves. Michael Phelps earned those medals through his hard work and commitment, but he was not the only one who deserves the credit. Credit also goes to his mom and family, his coach, and teammates. Together they accomplished this great feat. His purpose was to encourage young people to look at the benefits of swimming. Though most of them would never break records like Michael or Natalie, they would be happier and healthier if they pursued something like swimming in their life. Those who supported Michael were part of his goal and helped many accomplish even more than any Olympic record breaker.
The same can be said about our faith journey. We might accomplish great things for the kingdom of God, but we can never take the credit on our own. We are part of a larger body, a body filled with gifted and committed people who serve the Lord, founded on the grace of Jesus Christ. Together we share God’s kingdom, telling His stories to those who need to know His love. We can’t do it alone. We need those from our past who built the foundation of our faith. We need one another. Most of all, we need God, for all we have comes from Him. We need to tell the stories so that the world will know and believe.
Peter seems to stand alone as he makes his confession of faith in today’s Gospel, but while he was the first, Peter was standing in for the whole body of Christ. The other disciples may have come to the realization at a later time, but all came to understand Jesus and His purpose except Judas. The disciples saw Jesus as the revealed Word of God in flesh, the Savior, the Son. They became sons of God by faith, hewn by God’s own hand.
In today’s Old Testament passage, God says, “Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look on the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish away like smoke, and the earth will wear out like a garment; and its inhabitants will die in the same way: but my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will not be abolished.” We don’t need another earthly king; we need a Savior.
Peter confessed his faith that Jesus is Lord, but Jesus’ relationship with the people went downhill from that moment. They want something different than what He is willing to give. The miracles and stories continue, but they are more pointed as Jesus moves toward the cross. Jesus refuses to be what they want: an earthly king that meets their physical needs. He is the Anointed One who will fulfill all God’s promises.
In Isaiah God said, “Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish away like smoke, and the earth will wear out like a garment. Its inhabitants will die in the same way, but my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will not be abolished.” We didn’t need another earthly king; we needed a Savior.
Peter confessed his faith that Jesus is Lord, but Jesus’ relationship with the people went downhill from that moment. They wanted something different than what He was sent to give. The miracles and stories continued, but they were more pointed as Jesus moved toward the cross. Jesus refused to be what they wanted: an earthly king to meet their physical needs. He didn’t come to do their will. He is the Anointed One who came to fulfill all God’s promises. It wasn’t time to reveal the truth.
Today’s scripture is perhaps one of the best-known passages. It is the source of much debate about the nature of Jesus, the nature of the church and the relationship of Peter to the church. We could spend hours discussing these questions, noting Peter’s confession of faith and how he failed to understand fully what Jesus had said. What is important in this passage is that God revealed the truth to Peter and that there is more to come. Peter and the disciples had not seen the whole story. They thought they understood, but until the end, until the resurrection and Pentecost, they would not fully understand what God was doing in and through Jesus.
Jesus said, “Don’t tell anyone.” Why the silence at this time, especially since we would eventually be commanded to take His story to the four corners of the earth? Jesus’ authority was not built solely on His life. The authority He has now, over life and death, was established in its fullness on the cross and in the empty tomb. Peter thought he understood, but he would not understand until the story was complete. A detail still needed to be revealed. A light still needed to shine. Then, and only then, could Peter, and the Church which he represented in this story, fully live God’s calling to tell the saving story of Jesus.
Just like Peter, we can never come to a bold confession of faith without God’s grace. He puts the Word in our hearts and the words in our mouths that Jesus is Lord. Our life of faith begins with the humble realization that we are like the garbage that filled the walls of the abbey church, sinners in desperate need of a Savior. Believing in Him also means that we are covered with His righteousness, a robe like the beautiful hewn stones from the quarry. Our faith is built on the foundation which Jesus laid; we are blessed with the salvation that comes through Jesus Christ our Lord. It is there we find the strength to live and love and rejoice. Our earthly troubles, whatever they may be, are temporary because God has promised that His salvation is eternal.
God revealed to those first disciples that Jesus was the Word which was exalted above all else. They might have wondered about Jesus, His identity and purpose, but everything changed once He was revealed as the Christ. They began a new journey that would lead them not into power and fame, but into danger. Despite his confession Peter failed miserably but God gave him a measure of faith that did not fail in the end.
The psalmist sings, “I will bow down toward your holy temple, and give thanks to your Name for your loving kindness and for your truth; for you have exalted your Name and your Word above all.” We praise His name because He has fulfilled His promises. Singing a song of praise brought the singer into the presence of God. He dwells where His name dwells. He dwells in the hearts and on the lips of the faithful who sing about His goodness. As they sing, they not only show their praise to God, but they reveal His wondrous grace to the world. Thus, God is made known to those who have not believed through the praise and thanksgiving of God’s people, and with our voices we remind the world that all other gods are lowly while the Mighty One is raised high.
Today we join in the chorus of thanksgiving with the psalmist, Abraham and Sarah, the people of Judah, Paul, Peter and the other disciples, and every generation of the Church throughout time. We can rest in God’s promises, for He is faithful. We are sent forth in faith to be God’s witnesses, to tell the story of how Jesus the Messiah fulfills God’s every promise. As we are obedient to our calling, God will fulfill His purpose for our lives. Today and everyday sing praise and thanksgiving to God, for He has hewn you out of the solid rock and given you the foundation of faith to see Jesus as He truly is. He is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, the One who brings God’s eternal salvation to the world.
“Bring out the blind people who have eyes, and the deaf who have ears. Let all the nations be gathered together, and let the peoples be assembled. Who among them can declare this, and show us former things? Let them bring their witnesses, that they may be justified, or let them hear, and say, ‘That is true.’ ‘You are my witnesses,’ says Yahweh, ‘With my servant whom I have chosen; that you may know and believe me, and understand that I am he. Before me there was no God formed, neither will there be after me. I myself am Yahweh. Besides me, there is no savior. I have declared, I have saved, and I have shown, and there was no strange god among you. Therefore you are my witnesses’, says Yahweh, ‘and I am God. Yes, since the day was, I am he. There is no one who can deliver out of my hand. I will work, and who can hinder it?’” Isaiah 43:8-13, WEB
What do you believe about God? This might seem like an outlandish question to ask a Christian, especially since the Church has established a very basic understanding of what every Christian should believe. Yet, the world often sees our faith in a way that we do not mean it to be seen. So, as Christians it is important to not only think about what we believe, but also to think about how to live our lives so that the world will see our faith as it is meant to be seen.
For instance, I once read an article in Reader’s Digest about Anaheim Angels outfielder Josh Hamilton. Hamilton was an All-Star when he played for other teams, but he had a difficult time when we went to Anaheim. He struggled with substance abuse but credits his relationship with God for his recovery and continued sobriety. Unfortunately, he has relapsed several times, and that might be the reason for his inability to play as successfully as he had once played. He was even booed by the crowds. During an interview, the baseball great told a columnist that he turns to the bible for strength when dealing with the rejection of the crowds. The columnist then asked, “Does it mention anywhere in the Bible what it takes to hit more home runs?”
The author of the Reader’s Digest article wrote, “Of all the things my non-sports-fan friends dislike about sports, the biggest one is how athletes are always thanking God for their achievements. It drives them crazy. The notion that God - who has his hands full of larger matters than the score of the Maaco Las Vega Bowl - would pick one team over another is self-aggrandizing ‘spiritual’ megalomania at its worst.” The author goes on to say that this is a completely different understanding of faith.
vWhen a man like Josh Hamilton says that he’s amazed at what God’s done in his life, the world sees that as thanksgiving for a successful career, riches, and talent. But what Hamilton was referring to is the way God helped him see his addiction and helped him overcome. Hamilton was the most successful when he was faithful to God, not because God was rewarding him, but because he was living a life that honored God. By staying sober and living as a witness to God’s mercy and grace, Hamilton stayed healthy and focused. He played better because he was not distracted by alcohol and drugs or causing problems for others.
We don’t believe in God because we think He will reward us for our faith. We don’t believe that God will make us successful or that He will cause our favorite sports teams to win because of our faith. When we believe in God, we live a life as His witnesses in the world with a life which impacts others positively. The article continued, “Christianity isn’t some peripheral notion of Hamilton’s life; it is his life. As a Christian, Hamilton believes that everything he does, from showing up to church on Sunday to going food shopping to hitting a home run or striking out, is done for the glory of Christ. Hamilton isn’t thanking Jesus for helping him hit a homer; he is thanking Jesus for everything. From the homers to the strikeouts to the millions of dollars and all the boos and cheers in between.”
What do you believe about God? The answer to this question will help you live the life God is calling you to live. He is God, and though He does not help our favorite team win the game or give us success in everything we do, knowing that He is near helps us to be the men and women that He has created us to be. And when we live as if God is with us always, we act in ways that lead to good things for ourselves and the world.
“Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each one of us please his neighbor for that which is good, to be building him up. For even Christ didn’t please himself. But, as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’ For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that through perseverance and through encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. Now the God of perseverance and of encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore accept one another, even as Christ also accepted you, to the glory of God.” Romans 15:1-7, WEB
It was estimated a few years ago that about one third of the world’s population is Christian. The percentage was much higher in the United States with an estimated 73% identified as Christian. There are those who suggest that this number was too high and recent polls have shown that there has been a significant decline. In 2021, the number was closer to 63%. The news isn’t any better when it comes to church attendance. According to a 2022 study, only about 27% attend more than once a month. So, while many people claim to believe in Jesus, a large number of us have better things to do on a Sunday morning.
It is easy for those of us who are actively involved in our church community to question the faith of those we don't see in our midst, especially if their daily lives don’t seem to follow our expectations of the Christian life. I’ve heard Christians reject others because they spend Sundays on the soccer field or golf course, adhere to a different political ideology, choose the wrong charities or shop at the wrong stores. Some even doubt the faith of those who belong to and attend different denominations. I confess that I’ve had similar thoughts. I wonder, “How can someone claim to be Christian and think this or do that?” I think we all do it sometimes. After all, there are wolves in sheep’s clothing, and we must beware that we do not let them lead us astray.
But think about what it must have been like in the early days of the Church. There were two separate embodiments of the body of Christ: the Jews who believed that Jesus was their Messiah and the Gentiles who received His Word with a saving faith. The differences between these two groups were like night and day. They had to learn to live together even though the Gentiles would never fully understand what it meant to be a Jew and the Jews believed that they were chosen to be separate, different, unique. Even Peter and Paul argued over this problem, but they both learned that God was calling them to share the Gospel in different ways to different types of people.
We have to ask why this has happened. In the past it was suggested that part of the decline worldwide was a lower birthrate: Christian adults were not having as many babies and elder Christians are dying. There are secular reasons for the shift. Social media might be blamed for the rapid rise in those who have a negative opinion of the church. Sadly, many reject Christianity because of the behavior of Christians; some even base their opinion entirely on the actions of one prominent person. The most telling part of this trend is that those leaving Christianity are becoming part of the “nones,” those who have no religious affiliation. We might think this means they have no faith, but we all have faith in something. Many who are rejecting Christianity have faith in themselves. Even culture and government hold a higher place in people’s lives than the God who rules all.
Those who are nominal Christians, those who don’t live the life of faith according to God’s Word, including regular attendance at church, don’t help. Why would the world bother to join our fellowship if we don’t care enough to be actively involved? I read an anonymous quote recently that said, “Lukewarm and halfhearted Christians dishonor God far more than the avowed unbeliever.” The church will continue to decline if Christians do not show the world what it means to be faithful. This doesn’t mean just church attendance, but it means showing the world our faith by our actions that glorify God. We have been saved to be one in Christ, unity is a gift from God. It won’t always be easy because we live in a world that has rejected God and hidden His grace, twisting the truth to turn people away from Him. Even those who know Jesus can fall way.
We are called to encourage one another in the faith. Do you know someone who seems to be falling away? Do you see that they are not sharing their faith with a new generation? Do you know anyone who has been missing from fellowship? Do not be judgmental but find out what’s going on in their lives. We will serve our fellow Christians and the Church by speaking and teaching the Word of God so that faith will be fanned and will grow into the kind of fire that manifests in a life that glorifies God. We help our brothers and sisters in Christ by living as God calls us to live. God saved us to make us holy, to separate us from the world to dwell in His Kingdom in the here and now. In speaking God’s Word to both believers and unbelievers, we reveal and glorify Him to those who already love the story and those who desperately need His story, building His Church and filling His churches so that we all might live and worship in His presence now and forever.
“Let no corrupt speech proceed out of your mouth, but only what is good for building others up as the need may be, that it may give grace to those who hear. Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, outcry, and slander be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving each other, just as God also in Christ forgave you.” Ephesians 4:29-32, WEB
My daughter and I were staying in a rather expensive center city hotel that was hosting a conference for a women’s organization. We weren’t part of the conference, but the people in the room next door definitely were. There was a door connecting our room to our neighbor’s room, and although it was locked from both sides, we could hear them very clearly. They were discussing something that happened at the meeting that day. They were unhappy with something one of the officers did and they spent hours complaining about her. They were so loud that it seemed as though they were in our room.
We were exhausted because we had traveled a long way that day and we had an early morning the next day. We knocked on the door and told them that they were keeping us awake. They stopped briefly, but it wasn’t long before they were loudly complaining again. I called the front desk and after a time it got quiet again, briefly. I was ready to call the desk a second time when things finally settled down. It was 2 a.m. They were never considerate neighbors; we always knew they were in their rooms.
It is very odd to be an outsider but also privy to such an intimate conversation. I felt bad for the woman and wondered if she was really as terrible as they made her sound. I found myself looking at the faces of the women from the conference as I walked through the hotel, wondering if they were either the woman or the group of women in the room next door. I wanted to find the woman and tell her about her ‘friends,’ but I knew that was inappropriate. I was in their world because we were all staying in the same hotel and I overheard their conversation, but I was not part of their world. It made me particularly sad because they were Christians and though they didn’t realize the impact they were having on their neighbor but imagine if we were non-believers overhearing their gossip and slander. We’d never want to hear the Gospel if that was what being a Christian was all about.
People are people, and there are always those in every organization that do not get along with one another, including the church. I am certain that I’ve spent sleepless nights in hotel rooms at conferences or conventions thinking - if not talking - about someone who has done something to hurt me during the event. It is possible that the woman really did do something wrong. It is equally possible that the ladies in the room next door had done something wrong. It is probable that everyone is at fault in some way for the broken relationship. We want to lay blame on the other person, forgetting that we are also imperfect and ignoring the role we might have played in the situation. Most of all, we need to remember that the world is watching us, looking for reasons to believe or reject our Lord Jesus.
We are not perfect. We will never be perfect in this world. We will get angry with our brothers and sisters in Christ. We will disagree with what they think and do. We will hurt and be hurt by others. We might even find ourselves in a room full of like-minded Christians complaining about the people and events who make us unhappy. Unfortunately, people in the world will be impacted by our imperfections. They will see or hear when we sin against our brothers and sisters. They will lose sleep over our lack of consideration for the comfort of others. They will think that our faith doesn’t really make a difference because they see our public Christian face doesn’t match what they’ve seen and heard behind closed doors.
We know that we won’t be perfect in this life, but we know we have been forgiven. It is because we have been forgiven that Paul encourages us to live a life that always glorifies God even when we think our words and actions will have no impact on others, because even from behind closed doors the world can hear us tearing each other apart causing them to reject Jesus because they see our faith as insincere. We may have reason to be hurt or angry, but let us always remember to be kind, to forgive because God forgave us first.
“John answered, ‘A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven. You yourselves testify that I said, “I am not the Christ,” but, “I have been sent before him.” He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. This, my joy, therefore is made full. He must increase, but I must decrease. He who comes from above is above all.” John 3:27-31, WEB
Jesus promised the disciples that despite the hatred the world had against Him, not a hair on their heads would perish. How can this be true? We know that many Christians have been killed over the Gospel. Of the Twelve, only one died of old age. In some cultures, cutting hair is an insult. Our hair falls out due to the natural processes of health and aging. What about the cancer patient that loses their hair? Is he or she any less faithful because their hair has perished? The stories of the Saints are filled with beheadings, burnings, and other violence. Even John the Baptist, about whom Jesus said, “For I tell you, among those who are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptizer...” was beheaded, every hair on his head perished.
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.
We hear the promise that none of our hair never perish and think that Jesus is promising a cushy life of peace and joy. John’s disciples were upset when people began to leave him to follow Jesus, but John understood that it was never about him. John told them, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” He wasn’t worried about keeping his head; if he did, he wouldn’t have shined the light on Herod’s sin. Herod didn’t need his wife and daughter to manipulate him to kill John; if he’d had his way, he would have continued to listen to what John had to say.
The people wanted to know John the Baptist. They wanted to know who he was and where he came from. They were so taken by his ministry that they even wondered if he was the one for whom they had been waiting. He quickly put that rumor to rest, saying that he was not the Christ. “Well,” the people asked, “if you aren't the Messiah, are you Elijah?” Elijah was expected to return to announce the coming of the Christ. As a matter of fact, the Jewish people are still looking for Elijah’s return. They set a place for him at their Seder tables and hope that he will come soon. It was natural for them to think that perhaps John the Baptist was Elijah. John said, “No.”
If John wasn’t the Christ and he wasn’t Elijah, then perhaps he was the Prophet. In this case they were referring to the prophet described in Deuteronomy 18:15, “Yahweh your God will raise up to you a prophet from among you, of your brothers, like me. You shall listen to him.” John emphatically denied being this prophet, too.
John wasn’t being unduly humble by denying that he was either Elijah or the Prophet. Instead, John denied identification with the Old Testament promises because he knew that the work of God’s kingdom that he had been sent to do had nothing to do with him. If he accepted the role of Elijah, or the prophet, the people would put too much authority and power into his hands, authority and power that was not his to have. He denied those roles because it was never about him. It was always about Jesus.
John was not the light; John was a witness to the light. He pointed the way. He pointed at Jesus. There were those who thought John might be the Messiah, but John never said he was. He told them from the beginning about the one who would come after him. John knew that he was not worthy of being called the Messiah. He did not even think he was worthy of serving Him. That did not stop John from doing what He was called to do: prepare the way of the Lord.
I’ve never thought of John the Baptist as a particularly joyful person. As a matter of fact, I would think that living in the desert wearing camel hair and eating locusts would make me cantankerous, but there was something about John that drew people to his presence. He had a gift, an anointing, that made them want to listen to him and follow him to the banks of the Jordan. He must have had joy, although it would have been hard for us to identify it as joy.
John said, “Among you stands one you do not know...” How many people in our world today do not know Jesus? How many of us miss Him standing in the crowd because we are too busy trying to be something we are not? The message from John was a call to repentance, a reminder that we are nothing but grass. We will wither and die. He also gave another message: a call to joy. It is not the kind of joy the world expects with laughter and good times. It is the joy that comes from knowing the presence of Christ always. This is a joy that should be shared and so we are called, like John the Baptist, to share the light of Christ with the world.
The time had come for John to decrease. It would have been much better if he could have just retired to the wilderness, but John’s life ended in a horrific and pointless way. Today we remember the beheading of John the Baptist. 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 with joy 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.
The story of John the Baptist reminds us that Jesus’ promise about our hair is no less true when we face difficult times. Jesus promised something even greater than the life of our hair: He promised eternal life with Him for those who believe. Our joy comes when we decrease as we let Christ increase in our lives.
Lectionary Scriptures for September 3, 2023: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Jeremiah 15:15-21; Psalm 26; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
“Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:21, WEB
I live in Texas, and you’ve probably heard that we’ve had a long, hot summer. I try not to complain because I really prefer summer to winter. I don’t like the cold and snow. Autumn is fine, but I’m never anxious for sweater weather or pumpkin spice everything. Spring is my favorite season, but I really do enjoy summer, normally. I have to admit that I have had enough. Our lawn is dead from lack of water, blazing sun, and overwhelming temperatures above 100 degrees.
The weather service posted this notice yesterday, “Our daylight hours are currently getting shorter by about a minute and 45 seconds per day. This will eventually HAVE to lead to cooler temperatures. (That’s just the way it works, you’ll have to trust us even if it feels impossible).” The comments under the post were very funny. One said, “You know, I don’t know how I feel about your attitude. ‘It’s going to get cooler by default’.” Another said, “It’s pretty sad when 97 feels ‘cooler’.” One more said, “The level of desperation is real.” We are all complaining, even those of us who try not to.
Arthur W. Pink said, “When we complain about the weather, we are, in reality, murmuring against God.” There is a Greek word in the scriptures that can be translated “complainer” or “grumbler.” It means “one who is discontented with his lot in life.” Complaining is not only unfruitful, but it can also be detrimental to the peace, joy, and patience that comes from the Spirit. Complaining is destructive and debilitating, but it also does not present a good attitude to those who are seeking God. What’s the point of Christian faith if we aren’t content with the things we can’t even change?
We are in good company when we complain. Take Jeremiah. He is known as “the weeping prophet” because of the gloomy nature of his message and the grief he expressed for his people. He was lonely. He often felt discouraged. There seemed to be no visible fruit from his ministry, and he even wished he hadn’t been born. He didn’t quit, but he only continued in his ministry because he was compelled by God.
Jeremiah had a right to complain. God called him to a tough job. He had to preach a hard word to people who wanted to hear only warm fuzzies. He was persecuted for doing the job God called him to do. He suffered at the hands of his own people. He lived in fear for his life and his future, but he had no choice. He had to do what God called him to do. The book by his name is one of the most honest and personal of all the prophetic books in the bible as Jeremiah admitted his unhappiness to God and to those of us who read his words.
Names have meaning as is often noted in Bible notes. A person’s name defines some aspect of their life like their personality, purpose, or heritage. Experts are uncertain to the meaning of Jeremiah’s name, although it has been suggested that it means “the LORD exalts” or “the LORD establishes.” These both make sense when we look at Jeremiah and his place in God’s story. The LORD raised Jeremiah up and established him as a prophet. Others have suggested that Jeremiah means “the LORD throws.” As we listen to Jeremiah’s words, this name also makes sense. Jeremiah felt that he was thrown to the wolves, tossed into a hostile world to face difficulty and persecution.
Throughout his book, Jeremiah makes several confessions, admitting to God his hurt and pain. In today’s passage, Jeremiah even says, “Will you indeed be to me as a deceitful brook, like waters that fail?” It was bold to blame God for his heartache. He wanted to know where God is in the midst of his troubles. Why had he been abandoned? Why hadn’t God done something! Jeremiah was disappointed in his God and was not afraid to admit it.
I wonder how many of us have felt the same in our own pain. Our complaint about the weather does not seem so unfaithful. When we are complaining against “Mother Nature” or the weathermen, most of us are really just joking. We all know that we can’t do anything about the weather. There is so much more to complain about in our lives, like our health, finances, or losses we have experienced. I wonder how many of us have screamed “Why?” when we are experiencing fear and doubt. Have you ever felt abandoned and alone? Have you turned your hurt and pain on God? A.W. Pink reminds us that anytime we complain about anything, we are murmuring against God.
Jeremiah could not take his complaints to the people because they would just see him as foolish and false. He had no family, no wife, or children. He was alone, with only God as his companion. When he felt as if he had been abandoned by God, he felt completely alone in the world. That’s enough to make any of us complain.
I read a story about a man who took his son to the woods to perform a life transition ritual as he was growing from childhood to manhood. The father sat his son on a tree stump, blindfolded him, and told him that he needed to sit there alone all night. He could not remove the blindfold or move even if something made him afraid. “When the sun rises, you can remove the blindfold and come home. Then you will be a man.” The boy did as his father said and when he was aware of the sun on his face, he took off the blindfold. There, on a stump nearby, was his father who had sat vigil with him all night to protect him from the dangers of the forest at night. The boy may have thought he was alone when he heard wildlife cries or the rustle of the underbrush, but his father would never have let him be harmed.
Jeremiah was never alone, but he had lost his way. The LORD answered, “Turn around and there you will see me. I’m right here with you. Times are tough but I will not abandon you. Speak what is good and you will see my hand do amazing things.” In his confession, Jeremiah was doing and saying what is worthless. Complaints do not change things. Complaints only make things worse. We all do it and those of us who are honest admit that we do it. Yet, our complaints have no value. Even when things seem like they can’t get any worse, we find peace and hope in the precious words of God’s promises. Transformation comes from the utterance of God’s word.
We are all “but people.” We are willing to make bold statements, but they are often accompanied by a “but.” This happens regularly on the court shows. The judge will ask “Did you sign a contract?” The person will answer, “Yes, but...” What mother has not said, “Yes you can have ice cream, but first you need to eat your dinner.” Not all “but” statements are bad, sometimes they are good. The key is to recognize how often we say it. I know I write it often (sometimes using the word “yet” which doesn’t change the meaning! We often even use it when we are talking about our faith. “I believe in your Jesus, but could you just make it easier for me to live my faith?”
Last week Peter made a great confession of faith; this week is his “but...” Though Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, he didn’t want to believe that Jesus had to die. It didn’t fit his expectations. “You are the Christ but do it the way I think you should do it.” We love Peter, perhaps because he is so much like the rest of us; it is comforting to know that we are all “but people.” Peter made the great confession, but he wasn’t ready for the cross. Peter did not want Jesus to die, so he rebuked Him for talking about sacrifice and death. Peter had great faith by the grace of God, but in his next breath Peter’s faith seemed lost to his own needs and wants.
I’ve heard it said that God does not abandon us, but it sure does feel like He has sometimes. The trouble is, when we feel abandoned, it is not God who has left, but rather it is us that have turned away from Him. We may be just like Peter, looking right in the face of God but not seeing Him as He is because we are blinded by our own expectation and understanding. Peter confessed Jesus was the Messiah, but he did not yet accept what that really meant. When Jesus said, “I have to suffer” Peter rebuked Him. God was doing something new, something He’d promised since the beginning of time. Unfortunately, most of the people misunderstood God’s promises, Peter included. They doubted what Jesus was saying. They worried about His attitudes. They wanted to point Jesus in the familiar and comfortable direction they expected. They didn’t expect or understand that God had to die to fulfill His promises.
But God says, “Look at me.” He calls us away from our expectations and understanding to see the world as He sees it. He has promised that He will take care of us. We are quick to try to make things go our own way trying to take care of ourselves, but then we miss what God is saying and doing. God says, “Look at me” so that we will not take matters into our own hands.
Paul’s command to live peaceably with all is hard for us. We’d rather grumble. For too many people, peace means staying within the status quo, avoiding change in our thoughts and minds. Peter was given a gift of knowledge directly from God, that Jesus was the Messiah. Despite that, he still wanted to Jesus to fight for His kingdom the way an earthly king would fight. He didn’t know that there would be no real peace until Jesus overcame his enemies in His way. Jesus says, “Look at me!” He wants us to see Him as He is, to live as He has called us to live, and to rest in Him to find peace. This is not a peace that has overcome all our worldly problems that cause us to grumble; it is a peace that gives us contentment through them.
Jesus’ answer to Peter seems so harsh. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, for you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of men.” Satan? Is Jesus calling Peter Satan? No, but Peter’s perspective flipped from God’s point of view to his own. He was thinking only of the glory and not the sacrifice that was necessary for God’s redemption of the world to be complete. God’s purpose for Jesus was not to fulfill any of our expectations. The Father sent the Son to die for you and for me. While we live in the hope of the glory to come, we cannot ignore the cross through which Jesus passed for our salvation.
Jesus was not saying that Peter was Satan, or even that Peter was trying to block Jesus’ mission. Peter was not seeing Jesus clearly because something was standing in his way.
Satan is real. The reality is that he is determined to destroy the work of God. Peter is not Satan, and Satan was not physically standing between Peter and Jesus, but Satan was very much a part of that conversation because Peter had fallen prey to the spiritual reality of our own human faults. Jesus rebuked Peter because his point of view made seeing the reality of Jesus impossible. Peter had seen Christ by God’s grace and power; he knew that Jesus was the Messiah. However, Peter had his own expectation of what the Messiah would do and how He would accomplish the work of God. Peter could not see the truth because something was “standing in his way.” That something is the work of Satan.
There is a very real spiritual battle that has been waged since the beginning of time. Adam and Eve faced the serpent in the Garden who asked, “Did God really say?” We struggle with the same question today. Satan needs to get out of the way so that we can each see Christ clearly. We are all “but people”, like Peter, when it comes to fully knowing what God intends. We confess faith but we want to do it our own way.
It is easier for us to blame human nature for the evil that we see happening in the world. Surely, we are too advanced to suggest that there exists a being like Satan! I’ve never seen him, have you? During Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, Satan tried to convince Jesus to pursue a different kind of work in the world. Temptation is real, we all know that, but we moderns think that it is ridiculous to blame a character; especially the notion that Satan is a dude in a red suit with horns and a tail carrying a pitchfork around the world. This is a good thing because Satan certainly is not a character and sometimes human nature is to blame.
Satan is real and sometimes our neighbors sin. This does not mean that our neighbor is Satan. Satan is real and sometimes it is our own weakness that causes us to sin. This does not mean we are Satan. We are reminded that he is real so that we’ll be prepared, not only if we see evil face to face, but when we are faced with the temptations that come to us through our neighbors and our own hearts. When we feel the need to grumble, especially about the things we can’t change, we are reminded that the best way for Satan to accomplish his goals is with the help of flesh and blood people doing his dirty work.
We see this humorously in the brilliant story of Screwtape and Wormwood found in the insightful book by C.S. Lewis called “The Screwtape Letters.” Wormwood is an apprentice demon his Uncle Screwtape’s advice. Uncle Screwtape teaches him how to use human nature to his advantage. Lewis wrote: “It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one - the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
Screwtape advised his nephew to play upon the image of the devil as being a scaly red dragon with horns and a tail. Satan’s goal is to convince us that he doesn’t exist. What better way to accomplish that goal than to make his image so ridiculous that it just makes sense to ignore the reality of his existence? He’s done a pretty good job; many people, even Christians, doubt that Satan is real. It is not old fashioned to think Satan exists; it would do us well to remember that the battles we face are not just physical; a spiritual war rages around us all the time and it is up to us to be prepared to fight against Satan with faith and hope and grace every day.
That said, the biblical word that is often translated “Satan” does not always refer to the being. It means “an adversary, opponent, enemy.” Satan is God’s adversary; unfortunately, so are we when we follow our own path. Human nature is the enemy of God’s intention for His people. Temptation is real and we fall every day whether the temptation comes from Satan, others, or from within our own hearts. We are His enemies when we sin. Jesus cries, “Get behind me, Satan” when we stand in His way and do what we want to do rather than what He is calling us to. That doesn’t mean He’s calling us Satan, but that we are opposing Him in a way that is not only dangerous to ourselves but will hinder His work in the world.
We are just like Peter when He opposed Jesus. Peter was not standing there as Satan incarnate, but he had been convinced by his own understanding and the expectations of the world that Jesus would be the kind of Messiah they wanted. Death was not in their plan. Peter was ready to fight for Jesus in the flesh but didn’t realize that he’d been deceived in spirit. The world identifies Jesus according to their wants and needs. They want a teacher, a rabbi, a miracle worker, and a good man. They want a radical that is willing to stand up against injustice. They want a friend, a comforter, and a guide whose example we should follow. Jesus is far, far more. And because He is more, He is rejected by those who need Him most.
Today’s psalm is the prayer of one who has been falsely accused. Saul knew that he was no longer in God’s favor, so he persecuted David. Saul suspected David of conspiring against him and did everything he could to demean him in the eyes of the people. The reality is that Saul was falsely accusing David of the very things he was doing. If you study the word “seek” (or its forms) in the story of David and Saul, you will discover something interesting: Saul sought David while David sought God. Saul wanted David dead; David wanted to follow God’s heart. In this psalm prayer, David wrote, “Yahweh, I love the habitation of your house, the place where your glory dwells.” David always wanted to be with God.
The people in Jeremiah’s day did not like what Jeremiah had to say so they accused him of being a very bad man. People also accused David of being bad. Jeremiah and David were persecuted by people who wanted their way, who wanted to do what they thought was right. Their truth was dependent on their desires and their motivation was totally self-serving. As we read the lectionary passages this week, it might seem as though David and Jeremiah were self-righteous as they talked about their goodness. Yet, these texts are prayers of humble supplication before God, seeking His help in their troubles. We tend to respond to persecution and false accusation with a need for vindication, but David asked God to look at his life and do what is right according to His Word. This assertion of righteousness is not a claim that David was a perfect person; he was definitely not more righteous than others. In the psalm we see David’s example of faith in God’s mercy and justice. We learn that even when we are being persecuted, we can live the life God has called us to live, keeping our eyes on Him and trusting that He will do what is right.
We may feel alone at the moment, but as we stand in the presence of God, we will see His mercy and His grace. God is calling us to the life that seeks Him above all else, even if seeking Him puts us in a risky or dangerous place. His path may not be easy, but He is there with us. His path may lead to physical death, but He has promised a life that will last forever. When we die to self, we are free to live for Him. This is what it means to take up our cross.
Many people, including Christians, have reduced the rest of our passage to a frivolous motto. After telling Peter that he’s got his mind on the wrong things, the things of the world, He tells the entire group of disciples that they have to be willing to set aside everything for His sake. He says, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” How many of us have used this verse to find comfort in the midst of suffering? “This is my cross,” we say. What are we calling our crosses? We use it to help us through a hard day at work dealing with a frustrating co-worker. We use it when we are sniffling and sneezing from the common cold. We use it when we can’t seem to pass that math test we need to complete to get our degree. Our cross often becomes those things about our discontent and the complaints we have in our lives.
The cross calls us to do what is right not for the reward but rather because genuine love demands it. Love often commands what is hard. We are to rejoice in hope; not hope in the glory but rather hope in the cross. How many of us really want to be patient in suffering or persevere in prayer when it appears God is unwilling to answer as we want? Paul’s words get even harder. How do we bless our enemy? Is it really possible to be humble in this world of ours? What if, like Jonah, we know God will not avenge us but will seek our enemy’s repentance? How can we let go and treat our persecutors as if they deserved our compassion and mercy? How can we let Christ die for the sake of all human flesh when most people will never deserve His grace?
We do so by picking up our cross and following Jesus. We do so by laying down our lives for the sake of His Gospel and speaking God’s Word into the lives of all whether we want them to be saved or not. We trust in God by humbling ourselves before His throne of grace realizing that we ourselves have no reason to expect His incredible blessings. We do so when we stop paying attention to the things that distract us from seeing Jesus as He is.
Sometimes we have reason to complain because the blessings of God seem to come through pain and abandonment. Through it all, we are called to speak what is precious: the message of the cross that brings true life to those who believe. There are those who will not want to hear. There are those who will stand in our way, especially Satan. We are reminded that we will not fully see God’s glory while we live in the flesh. We live in a world that is imperfect, but we can trust that God is always faithful to His promise.
Our cross will never save the world, but as we stop complaining about our struggles, we will discover the incredible blessing of being raised to new life in Christ. That new life will not always be pleasant; as a matter of fact, we are more likely to see persecution as we are obedient to God. But the new life to which we are raised is one that will last forever even if we suffer death at the hands of our enemies. We need not fear Satan, the world, or our own hearts. Let’s just keep our eyes on Jesus and though we lose our lives we can rest in the promise that Jesus has already saved it.
“Now may the God of peace, who brought again from the dead the great shepherd of the sheep with the blood of an eternal covenant, our Lord Jesus, make you complete in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” Hebrews 13:20-21, WEB
Fishermen understand the quest for the one that got away. Every fisher’s paradise has a rumor about some monster sized bass or catfish that has stolen bait from every hook to escape capture for years. Women understand the quest for the perfect dress, visiting store after store looking for the one ideal gown for an event. Collectors know the joy of stopping at every yard sale searching for the perfect item for their collection. Each one will set everything aside as they go off to fulfill their quest.
Many of us have boring stories about our Christian faith. For example, I don’t have a miraculous story of conversion; I have been part of the church from a very young age. I went to Sunday school, was confirmed, and volunteered as a teacher by the time I was a teenager. Though adulthood made attendance difficult for a time, my faith remained strong, and I became active again once I was able. I raised my children so that they continue to stand strong in their faith.
Unfortunately, the same is not true for many Christians. They are born to Christian families, attend when they are children, but turn away at some point and even rebel against the faith of their fathers. John Bunyan was an example of a man who heard the Gospel but thought that there was something better on the other side of the fence. He went looking for fulfillment in other ways. Jesus did not give up on him, constantly working to draw him back into the faith that would save him from himself. The words of strangers filled his heart, and he was drawn back into the fold of Christ.
John grew up in the Puritan church, attended services regularly, but he loved to play games, dance, and bell-ring, things that were considered improper with his brethren. He also swore and read trashy novels. He joined the army at a very young age but was spared from death when a fellow soldier volunteered to take his place on guard duty. The soldier died and John knew that he had been spared for some special purpose. John married, but the couple lived in poverty. Her father, a Christian, gave them two books, which John read over and over. The words bothered him deep in his spirit. One day he heard a voice that asked him if he would repent and go to heaven or continue his life and go to hell. John felt condemned, beyond forgiveness. He tried to make up for his unsavory life; he tried to do everything right. He tried to keep the commandments, he read daily, he stopped swearing and changed his way of life. On the outside he looked like a Christian, but inside he had no peace.
Then one day he overheard four women praising God and sharing their faith. They talked about the miserable state of their faith, about God’s forgiveness and the love of Christ. He could tell they had a joy he had never known. Their words had an impact on his life, and it was through reading Luther’s commentary on the book of Galatians that he realized that none of the things he was doing would ever give him peace. He could only be justified by faith. He continued to struggle, but began preaching the Gospel, telling others about Christ. People came from far and wide to hear him.
We know John Bunyan because of his famous book “Pilgrim’s Progress.” It is one of the most beloved books of all time. It has been translated into 200 different languages and has sold hundreds of millions of copies. He risked his life to preach, he was imprisoned for his ministry, and wrote “Pilgrim’s Progress” and other books while locked in prison. He died on August 31, 1688, serving the Lord to the end. He had traveled in bad weather to help reconcile a father and son that had been arguing. He became very ill with fever and died. Though he lived for a time apart from the church, he ultimately touched more lives during his life and after than we can count.
John Bunyan once said, “Hope is never ill when faith is well.” John Bunyan knew what it was like to have faith that was not well. He thought the only way he could return to God was to earn his way back. He learned that we cannot earn righteousness or do enough to be rewarded with salvation. When he tried, he knew no peace. He learned that it is only in Jesus that we are made perfect and gifted to be witnesses to the mercy of God, glorifying Him in all we do.