Welcome to the February 2021 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the World English Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, February 2021
“Give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good; ... Give thanks to the God of gods; ... Give thanks to the Lord of lords; ... to him who alone does great wonders; ... to him who by understanding made the heavens; ... to him who spread out the earth above the waters; ... to him who made the great lights; ... the sun to rule by day; ... the moon and stars to rule by night; ... to him who struck down the Egyptian firstborn; ... and brought out Israel from among them; ... with a strong hand, and with an outstretched arm; ... him who divided the Red Sea apart; ... and made Israel to pass through the middle of it; ... but overthrew Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea; ... to him who led his people through the wilderness; ... to him who struck great kings; ... and killed mighty kings; ... Sihon king of the Amorites; ... Og king of Bashan; ... and gave their land as an inheritance; ... even a heritage to Israel his servant; ... who remembered us in our low estate; ... and has delivered us from our adversaries; ... who gives food to every creature; ... Oh give thanks to the God of heaven; ...” Psalm 136, WEB (only the first line of each verse.)
The question for today comes out of the story of Moses leading the Israelites through the wilderness to the Promised Land. They had already sojourned at the base of Mt. Sinai, received God’s Law, and failed to live accordingly. That’s why it took them forty years to get where they were going: God punished the generation of adults that rejected His Word and sent them wandering until nearly all had died. This doesn’t mean that the next generation was any better at being faithful. They grumbled and complained along the way. They asked Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” (Numbers 21:5b) They were tired of walking. They were tired of being thirsty. And they were tired of “the disgusting food” which was the bread from heaven.
They were discouraged. This was near the end of their journey; it had been a long thirty-nine years. Miriam died. They couldn’t find water, and even Moses was frustrated. Instead of obeying God’s command to speak to the rock, Moses hit it with his staff in anger. Nations stood in their way. Aaron died. And they were sick and tired of the manna. Even though God had sustained them for nearly forty years, they thought they’d been through it all for nothing. “Why have we done all this if we are just going to die anyway?” They forgot every good thing that God did along the way and focused only on their discouragement. Their grumbling brought them death.
God got their attention with fiery serpents that bit them, whose poisons killed many Israelites. The people realized their mistake, went to Moses and begged him to intercede for them. “Pray to Yahweh, that he take away the serpents from us.” God did not take the serpents away, but He gave them a way to live. He commanded Moses to create a bronze serpent and place it on a pole; when the people were bit by a serpent, they need only look at the pole to live. This wasn’t “a” way to be saved; this was “the only” way to be saved. This story is a foreshadowing of an even greater salvation to come. Moses reports this incident so that we will see that Jesus is not “a” way to salvation, but that He is “the only” way.
The problem of the Israelites (and many of us today) is that they were so focused on their discouragement that they forgot the great things God had done for them along the way. They were saved from the death of the first born in Egypt. They were saved from the Egyptians at the Red Sea. They were given the Law and a second chance at the foot of Mt. Sinai. They were sustained for forty years. This was not just about food and water. In Deuteronomy 29:5, God says, “I have led you forty years in the wilderness: your clothes have not grown old on you, and your shoes have not grown old on your feet.” Yet they continued to grumble.
We grumble, too. We get discouraged when it seems our world is falling apart around us. When you go through a month to month of recounting of the year 2020, doesn’t it seem like one thing after another happened? Just as one thing came to an end (though much of it didn’t end!) something new happened. Add to this all the personal tragedies of the past year. No wonder we are discouraged! We cry out similar words as the Israelites? “Why have you brought me through one trouble only to bring me to another?
There is a billboard campaign that is spreading across the nation. They have definitely appeared in San Antonio, and you may have seen one around your neighborhood. It is simply a white billboard with the words “THINK GOD.” The point of the campaign is to get people thinking about God, to recognize Him in their daily lives. Those who have commented on the billboards have said that they are encouraging and that they do make them stop and consciously think about Him. It is a really powerful idea, but after nearly a year of studying and teaching about the psalms, I wish it said something slightly different: “THANK GOD.” Perhaps the way it is will better touch those who do not have faith, but thinking about God is an open-ended suggestion that can lead our thoughts anywhere.
“THANK GOD” begins our thinking at the right place, with thankfulness for what God has done. The text today from Psalm 136 recounts the wonderful things God did with and for the Israelites as they wandered in their wilderness. The list of good things in our lives might be similar, but different. No matter what, we can praise God because He has done good things for us. You might note that I’ve included ellipses in between the lines of the psalm. Those ellipses replace a refrain that is repeatedly throughout the psalm that says, “for his loving kindness endures forever.”
For His loving kindness endures forever. This is the most important thing, and even if we can’t come up with a million ways God has been good and gracious to us in our own wilderness wandering and discouragements, we can begin all our moments with thanksgiving that His living kindness endures forever. “Why have you brought me through one trouble to bring me to another?” is a question we ask our God, especially when it seems our life is falling apart. But let us instead recount the good things He has done and remember that His loving kindness endures forever. Beginning every moment with Thanksgiving will replace our discouragement with peace.
***Reread the psalm and replace each ellipsis with the refrain, “for his loving kindness endures forever.” Then add your own verses of thanksgiving. How many ways can you recount the goodness of God in your life?
“This is my commandment, that you love one another, even as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends, if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant doesn’t know what his lord does. But I have called you friends, for everything that I heard from my Father, I have made known to you. You didn’t choose me, but I chose you and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain; that whatever you will ask of the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” John 15:12-16, WEB
How are you doing? How has your life changed over the past ten months? For many people, the changes are significant, but one of the most common things to hear is that our lives aren’t very exciting these days. We aren’t going anywhere or doing anything beyond necessity or often beyond our homes. Do you ever feel like you are living the same thing day after day? You get out of bed at the same time, put on the same kind of clothes (usually sweatpants these days!) and get that morning cup of coffee. You walk to wherever you’ve set up your home office and do the same work over and over again. Oh, there might be minor differences during the day such as a blue shirt instead of white or a ham sandwich instead of turkey, but most of us aren’t even aware of the changes in the world outside because we aren’t leaving our homes. After work we do the same old things: dinner, a little television, then off to bed for another night of rest before it all begins again.
Phil Connor experienced this to the extreme. In the movie “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray plays Phil who is an arrogant self-centered weatherman who was sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for the annual Groundhog celebrations. He did not want to go because he thought the whole thing was beneath him. The town is boring, the celebration corny. Punxsutawney is the last place in the world he wanted to be. He did the report with distain and rushed his director and cameraman out of town. Unfortunately, the winter storm he swore would not hit the area closed the road home and he was stuck for another night in the small town.
The next morning, Phil woke to exactly the same day. Everything was the same, literally. The same song was playing on the radio, the same banter came from the DJs. The same people were walking around outside and in the Bed and Breakfast where he was staying. He has to go back to Gobbler’s Knob and do the report again. Everything else that day was the same and he ended up in the Bed and Breakfast for another night. No one else knew that he was reliving the same day. To them it is a whole new day. But for Phil, the day was new but everything about it had happened already. This happened over and over again. Each morning Phil woke up to the same day.
He first responded with confusion and denial. He didn’t want to do the report again and tried to convince everyone that he was reliving the same day. They thought he was just nuts. Eventually he realized that his actions had no consequences, so he took advantage of the situation. He took a joy ride with a bunch of drunks, had a one night stand with a pretty woman, and stole a bag full of money left on the ground by some bumbling armor car guards. Then he became desperate for the day to be over. He tried to kill himself. He stole the groundhog (also named Phil, of course) and drove them both over a cliff. He jumped in front of a moving truck and off a building. Nothing worked. He woke up each morning exactly the same.
He finally conceded to the idea that he would have to live the same day forever, so he took advantage of the situation. He learned how to play the piano and how to carve ice sculptures. He read great novels and learned poetry. He became knowledgeable in many different fields. He got to know the people and his co-workers, learning the most intimate details about his pretty producer so as to win her trust and get her into his bed. Over and over, day after day, he failed as she ended each day with a slap on his face. All the while, Phil was watching the town and its people, learning every movement, seeing all their needs.
One morning Phil decided to tell the producer Rita that he thinks he’s a god. He didn’t think he was God, but he told her about his seeming immortality. He proved his incredible knowledge by telling her details about all the people in the town, and then told her exactly what the cameraman would say when he came through the door. They hung out together for that day and she tried to keep him awake until midnight, but they both fell asleep and he woke up to same day again. That day he finally used his power for good.
He spent the day doing good things for the people of Punxsutawney. He presented the most fabulous report about the groundhog celebration. He saved a boy who fell out of a tree. He changed the tire of a group of older women. He gave the Heimlich to a man in a restaurant chocking on a piece of steak. He helped a young couple through pre-marriage jitters. He was the hit of the party and Mr. Congeniality of Punxsutawney, loved by everyone. This time Rita really did fall in love with this terrific guy who was much different than she thought he was. They fell asleep in each other’s arms and when Phil woke, it was finally a brand new day. In the process of discovering a life of living for others, Phil also found joy and love.
It was when Phil started living for others that he found renewal and hope in a new day. Jesus chose us for a purpose, and that is to glorify Him in the way we live our lives of faith. I call this living faith, and it means living in a way that takes the needs of others into consideration. We all experience times like Phil when we are confused and deny what’s happening around us. We don’t do what we should do because we just don’t believe we need to do it. We take advantage of situations in a negative way, thinking that we might as well do what we want because we won’t suffer any consequences. We have gotten desperate and frustrated, and though we haven’t tried to kill ourselves like Phil, we have all had moments when we’ve quit something because it is just not satisfying. All these actions are selfish and self-centered.
As Phil grew, he began taking advantage of the situation in a positive way by learning new things and seeing people in new ways. This led him to a new way of life, a life that changed his vision from himself to others. That’s when he finally began to live; he did so in giving of himself for others. We are certainly not perfect, but the more we grow, the more we realize that the best life is the life lived for the sake of our neighbors, glorifying God. That is where we, too, will find joy and love.
Scriptures for February 7, 2021, Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany: Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-11; 1 Corinthians 9:16-27; Mark 1:29-39
“Yahweh takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his loving kindness.” Psalm 147:11, WEB
Isaiah calls God “Holy One of Israel.” This title appears twenty-six times in his book. The people to whom he was ministering were struggling with this reality because they were facing such a difficult time in their history. They were defeated and exiled in a foreign land. The very existence of the nation of Israel was threatened. This was their own fault because they were suffering the consequences of their own unfaithfulness. They forgot that He is the Holy One as they turned repeatedly to the false gods. This is what happens when we forget our God. But that same God sent Isaiah to speak a word of hope to His people in the midst of their despair.
Isaiah asked a number of questions leading to today’s Old Testament lesson. “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and marked off the sky with his span, and calculated the dust of the earth in a measuring basket, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance? Who has directed Yahweh’s Spirit, or has taught him as his counselor? Who did he take counsel with, and who instructed him, and taught him in the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?” And finally, “To whom then will you liken God? Or what likeness will you compare to him?”
We tend to forget that God is the source for all hope and peace and strength, so there have been times throughout the history of God’s people when they looked elsewhere. They allied with neighbors for protection, sought encouragement from foreigners, all the while ignoring the true King, God Almighty, who always provided them all they would ever need. They turned from Him, and in doing so lost touch with the One who could and would protect them.
God never forgot His promises, but He did allow them to suffer the consequences of their unfaithfulness. At just the moment when Israel had no hope, I saiah called them to remember their God. He reminded them that the God they had forgotten had not forgotten them. They just had to see that the things and people to whom they had turned would never be able to provide them with what they needed. Only God could measure the water or the heavens with His hand. Only God could weigh the mountains and hills. There is no one who has, or can, tell God how to be God. He did not ask for human advice in the creation of the world or learn from human teachers. There is no one like God.
So, Isaiah asked, “Haven’t you known? Haven’t you heard? Haven’t you been told from the beginning? Haven’t you understood from the foundations of the earth?” Yes, they have heard and they are called to remember. God is greater than their problems. He is above all creation. He can raise up kings and bring them down again. God is their strength. He is their hope. He is their refuge. He is the everlasting God, creator of all things. In Him they will find their comfort and salvation.
We aren’t exiled, but we are facing our own problems. Have we forgotten, too? Have we become too comfortable in the things we thought would bring us comfort, losing site of the God from whom all blessings flow? Have we lifted up false gods and put them as our priorities, turning our back on the only One who can provide all that we need? Isaiah calls out to us today, just as he called out to the Israelites so long ago, “Haven’t you known? Haven’t you heard? The everlasting God, Yahweh, the Creator of the ends of the earth, doesn’t faint. He isn’t weary. His understanding is unsearchable.” He is faithful and we will find our hope in Him.
Martin Luther spoke during one of his table talks about the difference in how God and Satan use fear. He said that the Lord first allows us to be afraid so that He might relieve our fears and comfort us. The devil first makes us feel secure in our pride and sins, that we might later be overwhelmed with our fear and despair. The devil uses our security to his benefit by threatening to destroy the things we love. So, we become afraid and do everything we can to protect our lives, our homes, our families, our jobs and our things. We even willfully disobey the Word of God, living in anger, hatred, violence and war, justifying our actions as a way to overcome the things of this world that threaten our lives.
The fear of the Lord is much different. The Law provides insight into our own sinful nature. Through it we can see our inability to be obedient. We know of God’s power and justice, so we fear the wrath that we deserve. Yet, God comes to us through the Gospel, not with threats, but with love and mercy and grace. Jesus Christ relieves our fears and the Holy Spirit comforts us. We hear the promises of God that He will not destroy us, but rather He will give us eternal life in His Kingdom. Rather than reason for alarm, we are given reason for hope and peace.
One of the hidden effects of the pandemic lock downs has been the impact on children. We’ve heard the story too often of fathers beating their children. One story involved a woman who disappeared and her children were left in the care of her abusive husband. The children did not see her for thirty years until they were reunited. The children wondered why. They did not know if they should worry about her safety or be angry that she left them to suffer. The true story is that he kidnapped them when we left to get help, and though she tried for years through the legal system to get her children, he threatened her to the point of believing that it was better to let them go than to risk the violence she knew he was capable of doing.
Sometimes our fears get the better of us. I think we have all probably been in situations when we have made irrational decisions because we let fear control our thought processes. There usually is no real reason for us to be afraid, but that does not diminish the reality of how we feel at that time: alone and in a position of vulnerability. There are those who take a certain pleasure in fear. The man was an abuser who enjoyed making his wife and children tremble because it gave him a sense of power and control. Some people use your fear manipulate you to do whatever they want you to do. You’ll give them information, possessions or your service just to remain safe.
We see this in our world today, so we find it difficult to understand why the psalmist would write, “Yahweh takes pleasure in those who fear him...” God does not find pleasure in our fear the way an abuser does. We fear God not because we are afraid; fear of God does not make us cower and tremble. We fear God because we are in awe and respect everything God has done and what He can do. He is fearful, that much is true, but He is also gracious and merciful. He takes pleasure in those who put their hope in His lovingkindness. This is a much different type of delight. It is a delight that will do what is best for those who look to Him, who remember His goodness. He will guard, protect, provide and bless all those who trust in Him. For this, He deserves our praise.
How do we praise God? There are certainly many ways we can do so. We join with other believers in hymns and songs glorifying God’s goodness and His good works. We can also be obedient to His Word, living the life He has created and called us to live. We can praise God by serving others, using the gifts He has given us to shine His light in the lives of others, who see our thanksgiving and join in the song.
I was able to be stay-at-home mom for my kids. I loved being a mom, but I have to admit that there were times when I wondered what I could have accomplished if I had followed a career path. How would you answer the question “If you could have done something differently in your life, what would it be?” I think I might have pursued a different degree at college. I love the life I’ve lived, but I think we all wonder what might have been if we walked a different path. Sadly, sometimes women who choose a life serving their family are not respected for their choice. The world they could or should have had a greater impact on the world, as if raising children is not a worthy accomplishment. Stay-at-home moms are often thought to be nobodies, but I was happy to live a life of service to my family.
Today’s story from Mark is comforting to those who are nobodies like me. First of all, we see Jesus ministering in a home. Last week Jesus healed a demon-possessed man after preaching and teaching the scriptures in the synagogue. He was seen and heard by many who were amazed at His authority over the word and the spirit. He was just beginning to accomplish the great things that we still remember today: the miracles, the crowds who followed Him, the willingness to give himself wholly for the sake of the world. These are great acts. Yet, that story is followed by a much smaller encounter. A friend’s mother was ill. Jesus touched her and she was made well. And we see in this story that she wasn’t healed for some great purpose. She was healed so that she could continue to live in her vocation: serving those she loves.
She was a nobody. She has no name and is only identified by who she knows. She had no great job, and yet Jesus restored her to her place in her community, to her place in her home. He gave her the gift of life again to do what she was meant to do. It was not a special day or a special place. This story shows us how Jesus did extraordinary things for ordinary people in ordinary places on ordinary days. Jesus can, and does, the same for us as we live our ordinary lives in this world. We need not wonder so much about whether or not we can accomplish something great. God is in the ordinary experiences of our life, too.
The Gospel lesson takes place early in the ministry of Jesus and His friends. News of the exorcism of the man in the synagogue had quickly spread around the countryside because later that evening many people who were sick and possessed came to see Jesus. He healed many of them, but not all. He managed to get some rest, but woke while it was still dark and left the house to find a quiet place to pray and renew His strength. When the disciples found Him, they said, “Everyone is looking for you.” We expect Jesus to return to the house and continue healing the people, but He took the disciples in another direction. He did not heal everyone.
Fear causes us to lose sight of God but so does comfort. Fear creates in us the fight-or-flight response and we focus on fixing our own problems; comfort makes us believe that we have no problems. Both cause us to lose sight of God’s grace. Have we chosen to believe that we have the answers, that we know how to solve the problems? Have we become too comfortable in our action and forgotten that it is His Word that truly makes a difference? Have we lifted up the false god of our own goodness and made it our priority, ignoring the real purpose of God’s grace? Isaiah calls out to us today, just as he called out to the Israelites so long ago.
Jesus might never have left Simon’s home if He had waited for the crowds to stop coming. They would have been there day after day looking for Him. They wanted Jesus to focus on meeting their needs, but healing was not the focus of His ministry. Healing was just a part of it. Healing was one of the ways that God verified Jesus’ authority. It was one way God’s glory shined so that the people would see that Jesus had the power of God. Jesus told the disciples, “Let’s go elsewhere into the next towns, that I may preach there also, because I came out for this reason.” He came to preach, to teach, to change people’s spirits as well as their bodies. Jesus would not allow the crowds to tell Him what He should do. He did what God had sent Him to do: share the Word that heals hearts and sets people free.
We can’t compare our God with the abusive father, or any of the gods the people have always chased. God can create both fear and hope in us, fear that brings us to our knees in praise and thanksgiving and hope that lifts us up to experience His loving kindness.
So many things about today’s lessons seem out of whack to our modern way of thinking, but we are reminded that the Gospel is shocking and counter-cultural. It is life changing. It is powerful. Most of all, it is for everyone. The power of the Gospel is for men and women, for those in worship and at home, for those in our small circles of friends and for our neighbors far away. That’s why Paul says that he has become all things to all people. He’s not wavering on the one thing that matters: the message.
This passage almost makes Paul seem wishy washy, unwilling to commit to anything. But that’s not what he’s saying. Paul stands on Christ, the foundation of everything he believes. However, the people he meets are diverse. As a matter of fact, the people we meet are diverse. Some people are in a time and a place of comfort, others are afraid. Some are happy; others are in mourning. Some are healthy and some are facing dis-ease. We meet people from different cultures, from different world views. Everyone has a different need. Paul is prepared to meet them where they are, to touch them in a way that will shine the light of Christ into their life. We are called to do the same, because God’s Word is the foundation of all healing, no matter what troubles us.
Paul’s message never changed; he always preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ. However, he shared that Gospel in a way that would be understood and relevant to the people to which it was being given. To the Greeks he spoke as a Greek, to the Jews he spoke as a Jew. He was weak so that those who are also weak might find the courage to receive God’s word for themselves. He took the extraordinary Word of God to ordinary people in ordinary ways. God’s Word is meant for all, the Gospel was given for the salvation of the world. We are called to take that message to all who will hear and to give it to them in a manner which will be received with joy.
Paul did not expect that all would be saved, but he was willing to see the world from someone else’s point of view to help them see God in a life-changing and transforming way. He was willing to let God work through his life in a way that would heal people and make them whole. This is frightening because it means we have to give up control. But it is only in letting God work through us that anyone will be saved. We must be willing to let God work through our lives in a way that will heal people and make them whole.
The Gospel brings change. The change comes from the Spirit of Christ dwelling within, and it is in Him that we live. In Christ we are more alive than we have ever been, and the breath we breathe is from the Spirit of God Himself. This awesome reality leads us to a life of praise and thanksgiving, a life that can’t help but proclaim the message of grace to the world no matter how much we might be afraid. The Gospel gives us the power to take the Kingdom of God to those who will hear, for those who hear will be saved.
It seems like words don’t mean much these days, especially in our current climate. However, the Word is what matters in the Kingdom of God. What matters is the message. In last week’s passage, Jesus healed to prove His credibility. He assured the people that He did indeed speak with authority, and the healing showed the people the source of His authority: God. He was willing to give people life and healing, wholeness and forgiveness. The problem at Simon’s house was that the crowds just wanted Jesus to heal them. They weren’t looking to be changed or to be transformed. They just wanted Him to fix their problem. They didn’t want the Word that came with the action.
It is so much easier to be people of action. We can easily give away a bag full of food to a poor person, but we are hesitant to tell them that Jesus loves them. We don’t want to offend. We don’t want anyone to think that we are giving them the food just to convert them. We don’t want to waste our energy on words when there are so many who need our action. Maybe we’ll talk about faith later, but first we need to heal their hurts. Yet, as we see in this story: someone will always need us to do something. We can’t let the need for action stand in the way of proclaiming that God is the Holy One.
What is striking about this story is that Simon’s mother-in-law is given a central place but she remains insignificant. She isn’t named, she doesn’t speak. She is sick, she is healed and she serves. Sounds like most of us, right? I can imagine Jesus and the disciples leaving the synagogue after the worship after the man was healed, heading to Simon’s house for an evening meal. I can hear Jesus greeting Simon’s wife affectionately and asking, “Where’s your mother?” They were like family. She was important to them, though she might not seem very important to us.
The reality is that we are important to our own loved ones, but we aren’t any more significant than Simon’s mother-in-law. The people to whom Jesus ministered were insignificant. They were often unnamed. Most of them did not have powerful jobs or important positions in society. They were a lot like us. We are reminded in Isaiah that we are trivial. We are like grasshoppers compared to God Almighty, who created everything and whose hand drives it all. God can bring down princes and rulers and scatter them. He placed every star in the sky and He knows them all by name. “To whom then will you liken me? Who is my equal?” says the Holy One.” There is none like God. Yet, we try to be like Him. We try to be the one in control; we demand that God do what we want Him to do.
Jesus didn’t stop healing or casting out demons. The miracles were important because they were signs of the power in Christ’s Word, but He moved quickly from one place to another so that the people would not focus solely on His actions. He went to do what He was sent to do: preach the Good News.
Now that we have that Good News, the Word of life, of hope, of peace, we are called to take it into the world to share it with those who need the healing touch of God’s grace. Now that we have the Good News, we fear God without being afraid, responding to His grace with thanksgiving and in obedience to His call share His Word in our little corner of the world.
Paul knew the power of the Gospel. That power manifested not only in the impact his ministry had on the towns he visited, but the book of Acts shows us that he was able to continue the healing ministry of Jesus. Yet, Paul also knew he had nothing about which he could boast. He knew that Jesus called him into a new life. He was restored to God by the Gospel and was made whole. He knew that he did not receive the gift to keep for himself. Instead, Paul knew the obligation that was laid upon him and knows he’d live in woe if he did not proclaim that Gospel to others.
We have no reason to boast, because we are nothing more than grasshoppers, but through faith in Christ by God’s grace, we are lifted up, given eagles’ wings and the strength to take the Good News into all the world. Our God is the Holy One of Israel and He is faithful even when we are unfaithful. God takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his loving kindness. The Gospel gives us an even greater word of hope that this God is among His people. Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise.
We will have to act. We’ll heal our neighbors and cast out their demons. We’ll feed the hungry and clothe the poor. We’ll act for justice and work for peace. But in the midst of these ministries let us never forget that ultimately our purpose is to proclaim the Good News to all people, so that they too might experience the transforming power of Jesus Christ and continue living as God has called and gifted them to live, no matter how ordinary it might be.
“But don’t forget this one thing, beloved, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some count slowness; but he is patient with us, not wishing that anyone should perish, but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fervent heat, and the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Therefore since all these things will be destroyed like this, what kind of people ought you to be in holy living and godliness, looking for and earnestly desiring the coming of the day of God, which will cause the burning heavens to be dissolved, and the elements will melt with fervent heat? But, according to his promise, we look for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.” 2 Peter 3:8-13, WEB
In John 5, Jesus healed a man who had been disabled for thirty-eight years. When He came across the man, Jesus asked him if he wanted to get well. The man was laying near a pool that was known for its healing properties. It was said that an angel of the Lord would come down and stir the water of the pool, and the first person to enter the stirred waters would be healed. The man was unable to get into the pool because he had no one to help him, so someone was always beat him into the water.
Jesus gave him what he wanted: healing. He told the man to get up, pick up his mat and walk. It was a Sabbath day and there was a law against carrying a mat, but the man did what Jesus told him to do. There was no discussion about faith or repentance, just a command to walk. The man did not even know the identity of the One who healed him. Jesus disappeared into the crowd. When the Jews questioned the man about his disobedience, he told them he didn’t know who did the healing but whoever had was the one who told him to carry his mat.
The man did not really ask to be healed. Instead the man grumbled about how it was all so unfair. He was obedient to Jesus’ words, but he would face consequences. When Jesus found him again, Jesus’ words seemed very harsh. He told the man to stop sinning. In thirty-eight years of lying near a pool, what sin had the man committed? The only disobedience we see in this story is a sin against the Law of Moses as interpreted by the Jews, carrying his mat on the Sabbath, and Jesus told him to do it.
But to survive for thirty-eight years, the man must have made his living by begging for support. Did he really want to be healed knowing that he would have to work to support himself? What would he do with his life? When Jesus met the man, he was wallowing in self-pity. He passed the blame of his ailment off on those who did not help him and those who beat him into the water. He did not recognize his own sinfulness as seen in his lack of faith, idleness, and greed that had kept him lame for so long. Jesus told him to go and sin no more.
The man faced consequences. First, the Jews accused him of sinning by carrying his mat on the Sabbath. Then Jesus, who told him to carry his mat, told him to stop sinning. This story of healing is a call to repentance. The man would no longer be able to depend on his ailment for his welfare, but he could rely on the One who cared for those who trust in Him. The man could no longer pass the blame off on other people; it was time to take responsibility for his life. The man responded to Jesus’ grace by turning him over to the Jews. This was not an act of praise; his report gave the Jews reason to kill him.
Jesus’ warning to the man was not a threat about punishment. Jesus knew that if the man continued in a life of relying on others rather than trusting in God, he would face eternal consequences. Sin means separation from God, and the man’s self-pity, greed and idleness kept him from having faith in the One who could make him whole. We are encouraged by this story to remember that God is always faithful, that His promises are real and He will make everything right. We are called to live a life of trust in the God who has made us whole, who saved us by the blood of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. By His Word we can walk in His life in peace and hope for the fulfillment of God’s promises.
“I waited patiently for Yahweh. He turned to me, and heard my cry. He brought me up also out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay. He set my feet on a rock, and gave me a firm place to stand. He has put a new song in my mouth, even praise to our God. Many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in Yahweh. Blessed is the man who makes Yahweh his trust, and doesn’t respect the proud, nor such as turn away to lies. Many, Yahweh, my God, are the wonderful works which you have done, and your thoughts which are toward us. They can’t be declared back to you. If I would declare and speak of them, they are more than can be counted. Sacrifice and offering you didn’t desire. You have opened my ears. You have not required burnt offering and sin offering. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come. It is written about me in the book in the scroll. I delight to do your will, my God. Yes, your law is within my heart.’ I have proclaimed glad news of righteousness in the great assembly. Behold, I will not seal my lips, Yahweh, you know. I have not hidden your righteousness within my heart. I have declared your faithfulness and your salvation. I have not concealed your loving kindness and your truth from the great assembly. Don’t withhold your tender mercies from me, Yahweh. Let your loving kindness and your truth continually preserve me. For innumerable evils have surrounded me. My iniquities have overtaken me, so that I am not able to look up. They are more than the hairs of my head. My heart has failed me. Be pleased, Yahweh, to deliver me. Hurry to help me, Yahweh. Let them be disappointed and confounded together who seek after my soul to destroy it. Let them be turned backward and brought to dishonor who delight in my hurt. Let them be desolate by reason of their shame that tell me, ‘Aha! Aha!’ Let all those who seek you rejoice and be glad in you. Let such as love your salvation say continually, ‘Let Yahweh be exalted!’ But I am poor and needy. May the Lord think about me. You are my help and my deliverer. Don’t delay, my God.” Psalm 40, WEB
Many of my friends have been dealing with a huge snowstorm. Some received more than a foot of snow; a few even saw nearly three feet. That is a lot of snow. I, for one, am happy to live in the south where we get very little. I miss the beauty, and there was something fun and special about snow days. I do not miss the cold and wet, the slippery streets or the inevitable slushy mess.
Snow occasionally does fall in the south, and we had one particular snowfall when we lived in Arkansas that gave us several inches of snow. It was enough to close down everything. Southern states are unprepared for winter weather; they do not keep plows or deicing agent readily available because it is a poor use of resources since they are usually unnecessary. It doesn’t help that southerners aren’t experienced driving in the snow, so for everyone’s safety they encourage us to stay home. It never fails, a snowstorm always causes some bad accidents because people do not take the warnings seriously.
My children were excited about that snow day; they wanted it to happen. They got dressed into their winter wear early in the morning so they could go outside and play. They threw snowballs and attempted a snowman. After a few minutes, they came inside cold and tired, but they’d had fun. After they warmed up from their games, my son told me he wished they had school. He remembered the special things they had planned for that day and he did not want to miss them. We suggested that they go out and shovel the snow off the driveway and sidewalk since they were so excited about the snow. They weren’t excited about that idea.
Doesn’t it seem like many of the good things in life come with bad things? Life inevitably leads to death. Prosperity leads to worry that we’ll lose the things we have. Relationships come with disagreements. They say that life is a roller coaster and I’m sure that we can all give examples of bittersweet times when we have experienced both joy and sadness at the same time. Even our faith comes with difficulties. Belief in Jesus brings rejection and persecution. Sometimes it even brings death. Yet, faith in Jesus is the greatest blessing we could ever receive. David knew the life of ups and downs. He was beloved of God, but not always beloved of those around him. He was threatened and pursued by his enemies, even his own flesh and blood. Becoming King of Israel was an incredible blessing, but it came with troubles and pain.
Yet, David knew that faith in God was the best way to live. He knew that God was his strength and his refuge. He knew that God was his deliverer and his provider. He knew that God loved him and would care for him no matter what the world threw his way. Though we experience those incredible blessings that come with difficulty, we can rest assured that the blessings come from our God who loves us and that He will guard us through the difficulties. The best we can do is to have faith, to believe and trust in Him, and to praise Him even in the times of trouble, knowing that He is faithful.
“Nevertheless, I am continually with you. You have held my right hand. You will guide me with your counsel, and afterward receive me to glory. Whom do I have in heaven? There is no one on earth whom I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart fails, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For, behold, those who are far from you shall perish. You have destroyed all those who are unfaithful to you. But it is good for me to come close to God. I have made the Lord Yahweh my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.” Psalm 73:23-28, WEB
Today’s question comes from the story of Gideon which is found in Judges 6-8. “Oh, my lord, if Yahweh is with us, why then has all this happened to us?”
Gideon’s story begins and ends with Israel following after the false gods. In the beginning the writer tells us that “The children of Israel did that which was evil in Yahweh’s sight.” He used the Midianites to punish their unfaithfulness. They were harassed and attacked; they fled from the army of Midian and were left with nothing. Midian destroyed their crops and stole their cattle. The nation of Israel was very low and they cried out to God. That’s how it was with Israel. Over and over and over again, God’s beloved people forgot the good things God did for them and turned to the foreign gods, they suffered their consequences for their unfaithfulness, repented and were saved, only to turn from God again.
When they cried out to God, He sent them an unnamed prophet to remind them why they were suffering. He told them to look back at how God’s hand saved them from Egypt and gave them the Promised Land. “Do not fear the gods of the Amorites.” This is not a fear that they would be hurt by them, but rather a fear like that which we should hold for God: a sense of awe and profound respect. They were replacing God with false gods that were no gods, and the LORD warned them not to make those false gods equal to Him. They did not listen to His voice.
God heard their cry and He called Gideon to lead the nation against the Midianites and their allies. A messenger of the LORD went to Gideon and said, “Yahweh is with you, you mighty man of valor!” Gideon was never one to mince words, so he answered this message with the question, “Oh, my lord, if Yahweh is with us, why then has all this happened to us?” He reminded the messenger that God saved Israel previously. “Why is He not helping us now?”
Haven’t we all felt that way? If God is with us, why are we dealing with so many problems in our lives? Why am I sick? Why did I lose my job? Why are my relationships falling apart? We should not assume all our problems are some divine punishment for us, but we all have reason to repent and cry out to God, seeking His mercy and help.
The key word in this question is that simple two letter word: if. “If God is with us...” God is not bothered by our questions. He knows why we ask “Why?” We want to have an intellectual understanding of something that seems to contrast our faith in our God, who is Creator and Father. But in the question for today from Judges, there is a sense of doubt, and even perhaps a bit of distain. “If God is with us...” says that we don’t believe He is here. We doubt God’s presence because we are dealing with the struggles of life, but it is more than that. We doubt God’s presence because we do not trust that He will get us through.
Gideon was God’s chosen judge for that period of time; the land rested for forty years under Gideon. Gideon lead Israel to victory by obeying God. When God said tens of thousands were too many, Gideon sent some of his army home. When God said that ten thousand was too many, Gideon sent all but three hundred home. He did trust God to do what He promised. Yet Gideon was not perfectly faithful. He tested God repeatedly before he willingly served Him. In the end, Gideon made an ephod from the spoils of war. An ephod was a religious article worn by the priests when they sought the Word of the Lord. The commentators disagree whether this was an act of faith or faithlessness. Some say that it was meant to be a memorial for the victory. Others suggest that he wanted to move the religious center to his hometown. The scriptures do tell us that it became a snare to Gideon and his house. Matthew Henry says that “Many are led into false ways by one false step of a good man. It became a snare to Gideon himself, and it proved the ruin of the family.” The people began to look to the ephod as they had the false gods. Then after Gideon died, they returned to their faithless ways, turning away from the God who saved them time and again.
Many of us have asked, and are asking, and will ask the question, “Why?” But we need to do so trusting that God is present with us in and through it all. Gideon had heard the stories from the past and knew that God could save His people. We do, too. Yet, Gideon doubted whether God was really among them. Let us never say “If...” but always remember that God is with us. He is working in our lives. We don’t always understand what He is doing or why, but we can trust that He knows what we do not know and His way is always right. Why is this happening to us? We might have to answer with the reality that we have failed to be faithful to our God, but even then God will hear our cry and will answer. When we ask “Why?” let us do so with the faith of the psalmist, knowing that God is near even when He seems so far.
“We always give thanks to God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers, remembering without ceasing your work of faith and labor of love and perseverance of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, before our God and Father.” 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3, WEB
Way back in March or April, shortly after we were encouraged to stay home to stop the spread of the virus, I began doing things to connect with my neighbors. At first I put stuffed bears in my window. The children were home from school and many families were walking together. Someone suggested the bears so that those families could go on a “bear hunt” making the song “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” into an active lesson. I noticed other neighbors did the same.
I then wanted to have a more tangible impact on my neighbors. I made a whole bunch of origami butterflies and a sign talking that said, “Butterflies are symbols of hope,” and said that everyone should to take one. I also put paper and pens so that they could leave prayer requests. I continued to put things out on our “Kindness Corner” all summer long, giving out portable soap, silk flowers, and make your own snow. We voted between Christmas and Luau and built a “Very Hungry Caterpillar” with painted rocks. I ended the summer by giving out some school supplies. I started again at Christmas with jingle bells so that we could remember joy. Right now I have heart shaped stress balls for Valentine’s Day so that everyone can remember they are loved. I have some more giveaways planned for the next few months. They have given the children, and many of the adults, something to look forward to on their walks.
It was wonderful to have the opportunity to pray for my neighbors; and they did leave prayers. Some were written by children who desperately wanted to go to school, but others were from adults who had adult problems that needed prayer. One was hoping for a job. Another had a sick parent. A couple was planning their wedding and wanted prayer that everything could happen as they hoped. A lawn care worker asked for prayer and advice. Some of the prayers were in thanksgiving for family and friends, God’s creation and other things.
Some of the people used the papers to thank us for our kindness. We never expected thanks, but it was so nice to see that they gifts were appreciated. The doorbell rang one day at the end of the summer and two beautiful little girls were standing there with cards in their hands. They wanted us to know that they had fun with the gifts that summer. That happened several other times. Then at Christmastime several neighbors brought us little gifts like a tin of fudge and a Christmas cactus. One woman said, “We just wanted you to know that we see you. We know you are sharing your love for Jesus and we thank you.”
This is a silver lining to this incredible year: seeing parents use it as an opportunity to teach thankfulness to their children. We have so many hand written notes and colorful pictures that the children gave us, and they hang where I posted the prayer requests. Thankfulness is an important attribute, and I’m glad that this lesson is being taught and lived.
Who can you thank today? Words are good, so be sure to thank the cashier at the grocery store or the friend who called to check up on you. But also think about sending a note, like Paul did in today’s text. He appreciated their work for the Lord. He thanked God for them, but he did so in a note that let them know that he saw them, that he knew what they were doing, and that he was thankful.
Christians are good about thanking God, although we tend to be quiet, thanking God through prayer. I know that I often thank God silently during the day, but the words rarely leave my mouth. I am not less thankful; since it is between me and my God I never bothered to say it out loud. Yet, Paul shows us in his letters the joy of thanking God in the presence of those who deserve our thanks. By thanking God for them, he is also thanking them.
Let us then make our thankfulness known to the world. In our praise of God’s wonderful grace in those that touch us day by day, we show the world what a great and merciful God is our Lord. Who can you thank God for today? Don’t just be thankful quietly in your prayers. Write them a note and tell them how much their witness has done in your life.
Scriptures for February 14, 2021, Transfiguration of Our Lord: Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 3:12-13, 4:1-6; Mark 9:2-9
“A cloud came, overshadowing them, and a voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.’” Mark 9:7, WEB
The Epiphany texts for the past few weeks have focused on the revelation of God in the life of Jesus Christ. We have been following Mark’s telling of the story of Jesus at the beginning of His ministry. We saw Him call His first disciples, drive out an evil spirit, heal many people including Simon’s mother-in-law, pray alone and move on to other towns to preach the Kingdom of God to the people, which was the work He was sent to do. We end this season with the brightest light of all, the transfiguration of Jesus. On this day we see Jesus literally glowing from within the radiant light of God’s glory in the presence of the ones whom God sent to point His people toward the Messiah: Moses and Elijah.
Some lectionaries use the story of Elijah from 2 Kings 2:1-12 for this week. This is the story of the assumption of Elijah. Elijah and Elisha were traveling through the prophetic communities of Israel so that Elijah could say good-bye. All along the way, Elijah told Elisha to stop following him. Elisha refused to leave his master, “As Yahweh lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you.” All along the way the prophets told Elisha that he was about to lose his master. Nothing stopped Elisha; he was determined to follow Elijah every step of the way. Elijah was prepared to take this journey alone, but Elisha would not leave him.
This must have been a frightening time for Elisha. Was he ready to take on the responsibilities of being God’s prophet? Being a prophet was not a pleasant job, especially if the word God speaks is unpopular. Elisha knew that he would experience persecution and threats, but he also knew that it was where he belonged. He did not allow any fear to keep him from doing what he was called to do. At the end of the journey, Elijah and Elisha found themselves at the Jordan River. While this is the story of the passing of Elijah’s authority to Elisha, Elijah’s story is the one that matters today. Elijah was taken up into heaven suddenly in a fiery chariot, the sign of God’s blessing on Elisha’s ministry, and it is for this reason many believe that Elijah will return.
This Old Testament lesson takes us on a journey where Moses was never allowed to tread. Due to his own failings, Moses never entered into the Promised Land. Instead, the Hebrews were led across the Jordan River by Joshua as Moses watched from a hilltop. Then he died and God buried him in Moab. Joshua took the Hebrews through the Jordan, through Jericho, through Bethel to Gilgal where they were circumcised. All those who had left Egypt that had been properly circumcised had died in the desert. There, at Gilgal, Joshua restored the people to the covenant between God and His people by circumcising all the men. Elijah followed that same route, returning to the very place that the Israelites crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land. There are some who believe that Jesus was baptized in the same area of the Jordan.
In our lectionary lesson, Moses had been on the mountain for forty days and forty nights to receive the tablets of the Law. This was the second set of tablets; Moses destroyed the first set when he came off the mountain and discovered that the people had turned to false gods while he was gone. He had seen God’s glory (Exodus 33:12-23) and was changed, although he did not realize it at first. The people saw how he reflected God’s glory and they were afraid, but he called them to come to him and listen. He gave them the commands the LORD had given him on Sinai.
When he was finished talking, Moses put a veil over his face. The Old Testament lesson seems to indicate that looking upon the reflected light of God’s glory is too dangerous for ordinary people. However, St. Paul wrote that Moses put it on to hide the fact that the radiance passed away. He took off the veil when he spoke to God and then stayed unveiled when he reported what God said. They were afraid of him; the light reminded them that Moses was God’s own chosen representative. It is likely, then, that Paul has it right. The glory fades. Would the people of Israel have continued to listen to Moses if they did not see the radiance of God’s grace? Perhaps Moses wore the veil because of his own fears or insecurities.
“The Bucket List” was a movie about two dying men; Jack Nicholas played Edward and Morgan Freeman played Carter. The movie asks the question, “What would you do if you had a limited time to live?” Fortunately, Edward was an extremely wealthy businessman, so the two men had unlimited resources to embark on a worldwide vacation, trying to complete a bucket list of things they wanted to do before they kicked the bucket.
They did some incredible things such as race car driving, skydiving, and going on a lion safari in Africa. The bucket list included the desire to “witness something truly majestic.” They climbed to the top of the pyramids in Egypt, so you might think that they covered that one, but Carter didn’t think anything they did were as majestic as being on the top of a mountain. Nothing less than a mountain top experience would be enough for Carter because he believed that in the peace at the top of a mountain you can hear God in the whisper of a quiet wind. Unfortunately, they arrived at the base of an incredible mountain at the wrong time of year. They had a falling out as they waited for the right time and each returned home. Carter’s cancer got worst of him and he died on the operating table without having his mountain top experience. In his final words, Carter asked Edward to finish the list.
Edward also died and the final scene shows Edward’s assistant combining the ashes of the two men in a special container at the top of a majestic mountain. He crossed off the final thing on the bucket list and placed it in the container with the ashes of the two men then buried that canister. Edward and Carter didn’t see the top of that mountain when they were alive, but they would spend eternity overlooking the majesty at the top of that mountain.
The ending of the movie is somewhat disappointing because we wanted to see them have that mountain top experience together. Yet, we look back at the other moments of their lives together and realize that the most powerful experiences happened in the valleys of their lives. Carter realized that he had a wonderful life with a wife who adored him and that he didn’t need to get to the top of the mountain to experience the voice of God. Edward found love and joy in his daughter and granddaughter from whom he’d been estranged for many years. They both realized that life isn’t lived at the top of the mountain but in the everyday experiences with people they love.
The transfiguration must have been a most incredible experience for Peter, James and John. Not only were they on the top of a mountain, but they were there with the Messiah. They heard the voice of God at that moment, not in the whisper of the quiet wind but in a voice coming out of the clouds. The words were repeated from Jesus’ baptism, “This is my beloved Son.” Whether anyone heard that voice at the Jordan we may never know for sure, but now it was heard by Jesus’ inner circle of friends. It was a moment worth grasping forever. Peter even wanted to build permanent structures so that Moses and Elijah and Jesus would have a place to stay.
But Jesus hurried them off the mountain, back into the valley because He knew that it is in the valleys where life is truly lived. They could not stay on the top of the mountain; they had to get back to work. There were still people who needed healing. There were still demons to be cast out. There were still so many who needed to hear God’s word and learn about God’s kingdom so that they might be saved for eternity. It would not happen if they lingered on the mountain top. The real work was in the valley.
Do you ever feel like you want to go to a place far away, perhaps to the top of a mountain? Have you ever had one of those moments that you never want to end? How do you feel as you cross off experiences from your own bucket list? They might be incredible moments of your life, but that is not where we should stay. We must move on to get back into the muck and mire of real life to share the Good News with others so that they too might hear the voice of God.
My dad was a very quiet man. One of my fondest memories of him was a conversation we had about the weather. My dad was not distant, he did not ignore his family, he just didn’t talk much. When he had something to say, however, it was worth listening. This is a rare quality, especially in our world full of words. It seems as though everyone has something to say and there is so many outlets where they can express their thoughts. Social media and the accompanying comment sections give voice to everyone no matter what they have to say. It is incredibly easy to produce a blog on the internet. It is sometimes sad, sometimes disturbing, or sometimes hysterically funny to read these posts. Everyone has an opinion but unfortunately sometimes those thoughts are incoherent or unrelated to the topic at hand. It would do all of us well to think more about what we have to say and erase most of our comments before we ever hit post.
I saw a meme recently that said something like, “You speak only what you already know but if you listen, you will learn something new.”
The message God spoke to the disciples was simple but very powerful: “Listen to Him.” In a world when we have so many voices screaming at us with opinions that are built on biases, it is hard to know to whom we should listen. Experts disagree about so many things, which one is right? Who is telling the truth? What is the truth? But God tells us what to do, “Listen to Jesus.” I’m not sure it is that easy, because there are so many voices trying to tell us what Jesus said and what He meant, and they rarely agree. But we can listen. We can pray. We can do our best to live as God calls us to live, serving Him with our hearts and our hands and our voices, knowing that God is faithful and that He is more powerful than our failure.
Jesus says, “Get off the mountain.” Over the past few weeks we’ve witnessed His authority in words and deeds. We’ve heard stories about His actions that were publically witnessed and privately experienced, people healed in a religious setting and a home. We’ve seen Him care for individuals and the crowds. All these stories have revealed that Jesus is the One for whom they were waiting, and that was confirmed in a most spectacular way on the top of that mountain. When he had something to say, it was worth listening.
The parallels between Moses, Elijah and Jesus are more than mere coincidences: they show us that God’s hand was guiding each chosen one into the fulfillment of all His plans. On the Mount of Transfiguration we see the glorification of Jesus. He was lifted up, placed in between the two greatest men of Israel and established as the One who brings it all together. It is in Christ that the Law and the Prophets are fulfilled. It is through Jesus that God has finally made all things right. The Transfiguration was not the end of Jesus’ ministry; it was really just the beginning. From that moment, Jesus set His feet toward Jerusalem and the cross.
Paul reminds us that the old covenant was temporary and inadequate. It was passing away, but some wanted to hide its vanishing with a veil. The Old Covenant could never stand because no matter how hard we try we can never be good enough to deserve God’s grace. The Old Covenant was replaced with a new one, one that is revealed to those who believe in Jesus Christ. Moses and Elijah were never meant to be the ones to whom Israel looked for eternal life. They both pointed toward the One God would send to restore God’s people to Him forever. That’s why the radiance of Moses faded.
Moses reflected God’s glory, but even the holiest human is imperfect. We fail. We cannot sustain the glory because we are stained by sin. Moses did not want the people to know the light faded, so he hid his face. Jesus, on the other hand, does not reflect the light; He is the Light. The glory did not fade for Jesus. When the moment was over, Jesus let it go so that He could continue to work in the valley. He had to go back, to get His hands dirty, to face the humiliation of the Passion, and to die. He refused to stay in that moment of glory because the real glory would come later. It would come on the cross.
The disciples did not want to leave, but the mountaintop experience was not the moment for which they had been preparing; it was just a preview of what was to come. Peter wanted to build shelters to make this a lasting moment, but Jesus set His feet toward Jerusalem, toward death and the grave. Peter, James and John did not quite understand but they followed Him, blessed by the brief shining moment when they saw Jesus as God intended Him to be: crowned in glory. Though they wanted that moment to last forever, they saw the hope of what was to come on that mountain top. It will last forever someday.
Paul talks about the Gospel in terms of light and blindness. This is natural because he had experienced it himself in a very real, and powerful way on the road to Damascus. He was blind by his own understanding of God, using his knowledge of the scriptures and his position of power and authority in Israel to persecute Christians. He was given the most incredible encounter with the Living Christ, Jesus, who met him on that road in a very dramatic way. His conversion experience was certainly something to remember, and something that came up often in his teaching and preaching. He’d been blind, both spiritually and physically, and he’d been healed of both.
Yet, somehow he knew that not everyone would see the reality of the Gospel message. They are blinded by the things of this world. He was blinded by his power and his understanding of the scriptural texts. He was blinded by the traditions of his people. He was blinded by his perception of the people who were following “The Way.” He could not see the reality of God’s love and mercy and grace as found in Jesus Christ.
Sometimes it is hard to see that reality because the people who share the Gospel message with us are imperfect and caught up in their own perceptions of the world and Jesus. Many non-Christians say that the reason they are not Christian is because of the Christians. We are seen as hypocrites and accused of falling for fairy tales. Christians are often guided by emotion, so Christianity is seen as foolishness. Reasonable people do not see the reason of faith.
Paul wanted the Corinthians to know that he was not trying to sell himself, but that the message he shared was about Jesus and Jesus alone. He brought us back to his own beginning when he was foolishly unwilling to hear the truth, when he faced the blinding light and three days of physical blindness. We are reminded that nothing we can do can overcome this blindness. It is by God’s grace and mercy that people will see.
So, we go forth sharing the Gospel message, always remembering that it isn’t about us. Though we would like to count every “conversion” as a notch on our belt, counting every saved person as something we’ve accomplished, we see that it is never about us. Though we are the messengers who can take the Gospel out to the world, it is God who lifts the veil off the eyes of those who do not believe. It is God that shines in their darkness. It is God who makes them see.
He did so for us and will do so for many others in the years to come. Do you have a story? Can you share with others how you came to see the light? Of course you do and can. Our stories may not be as dramatic as that of Paul; we may not even be able to identify a time or place when we were blind and then could see. However, we saw the Light by God’s grace and the loving care given by the witnesses that came before us.
Paul writes, “Even if our Good News is veiled, it is veiled in those who are dying.” Those who are ruled by sin and death refuse to see God’s hand in the world. They prefer to veil God’s glory. They prefer to believe what sounds good rather than hear what God really has to say. Jesus came to speak God’s words in a new way, to cause God’s people to see Him as He is, not in the twisted ways of the world. Jesus came to bring a New Covenant in the Gospel that is better than the reflected glory of Moses that passed away.
Not everyone hears. Paul knew this. He was opposed by people who accused him of manipulation and lies. They ministered out of self interest, seeking positions of status and influence rather than glorifying God. They refused to admit or even see that they were the ones playing games. They cared nothing for the Gospel or Christ or the people of God; they cared only for themselves. To them, there was no glory on the cross. They could not see because they were blinded by the god of this world. They were blinded by their own fears and their own desires. They were happy to let the truth be veiled so they didn’t have to see their way was passing away.
Paul writes, “...eeing it is God who said, ‘Light will shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” The Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ was a moment of glory, more magnificent than the glory that shone from Moses’ face or the whirlwind that took Elijah to heaven. It might have seemed like that was the culmination of Jesus’ work. But it was merely the beginning of what was to come. Jesus was about to speak a strange and wonderful Word into their lives, a frightening reality that included death.
The reality of God is frightening. The psalmist writes, “Our God comes, and does not keep silent. A fire devours before him. It is very stormy around him.” Moses experienced the bush that burned without burning. Elijah was taken to heaven in a flaming chariot. This is how God revealed His presence to the Law and the Prophets, His glory was reflected on them. But God revealed the reality of Jesus to Peter, James and John on the top of the mountain. In the presence of Moses and Elijah, Jesus was transfigured into one filled with glory. It was of Jesus that God spoke for us to hear today: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
The Word often falls onto deaf ears, but that does not mean God is less powerful or Jesus any less authoritative. The god of this world continues to blind those who would prefer to be blinded from the truth and glory; a veil has been drawn over their eyes. But we need not fear the presence of God or the consequences of telling His story. He has called us into this relationship, invited us to experience His glory and then follow Him into the valley to do His work.
It is frightening, but as we join Jesus on the journey to the cross, we need not live in fear. God goes with us, and He has assured us that He has the power to fulfill His promises. He can make it happen, and He does. We might not think we are ready to take on the responsibility, but God blesses those who have faith. Moses trusted God. Elijah trusted God. Peter, James and John trusted God. Jesus trusted God. Now we are called to trust God, too, to follow Him wherever He leads and to listen to Him above all the other voices.
Peter, James and John saw Jesus’ glory for one moment on that mountaintop; Jesus was fully and completely revealed as the Light. It was not time for Jesus to be glorified; He still had work to do. It was time to journey toward the cross.
This is the last Sunday before Lent, the last Sunday of Epiphany. While Advent was a time of increasing light, Lent is a time when the god of this world seems gain power until we think he has succeeded at destroying God’s work. Like Elisha at the Jordan and Jesus on the mountain, we are beginning a new journey. We have to leave the mountain top and go into the valley where we will truly find the grace and mercy of God. There we will see Him, there we will find Him at the cross, and there we will see the glory of God revealed in a whole new way as the Light overcomes the darkness forever. There we will hear Him tell us of His love in a radical new way if we are willing to listen.
“So then, my beloved, even as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who works in you both to will and to work, for his good pleasure. Do all things without complaining and arguing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without defect in the middle of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you are seen as lights in the world, holding up the word of life, that I may have something to boast in the day of Christ, that I didn’t run in vain nor labor in vain. Yes, and if I am poured out on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice, and rejoice with you all. In the same way, you also rejoice, and rejoice with me.” Phillippians 2:12-18, WEB
There are numerous pages on the Internet that collect stories revolving around a theme and post them together for the enjoyment of the readers. These stories often revolve around experiences of service workers like waitresses or retail employees. Some tell about their horrible customers. Others tell about how they got back at those horrible customers. Some are from the point of view of the customers, reporting the antics of horrible employees. Some of the collections are funny, but others are frustrating, especially from my own point of view based on experience.
See, I worked in retail for several years. I was at first an employee, so I’ve seen my share of horrible customers. I them became a manager, and I experienced both lazy employees and demanding customers. I have also been a customer, so I know what it is like from the other point of view. I confess that I have been that horrible customer occasionally, but I hope I was never bad enough to end up as a story on one of those web pages. I also hope I was not the victim of some employee’s revenge. I think those are the hardest stories to read because the revenge is so often childish and immature, and often based on a selfish and self-centered understanding of the situation. I read those stories and think to myself, “Well, if they had done this, or that, or another thing, perhaps the situation would not have gotten so bad.” I second guess their attitude and wonder how long those people would have been my employee if I had been their boss.
It is all about attitude, not matter what side of the story you are on. There are truly horrible customers that make life very difficult for the employees. There are also horrible employees that make the experience unpleasant for their customers. There are even bosses who are jerks. Yet, in every story I see ways that the situation could have been made better with a kind word or a gracious response. Too often we are unwilling to listen, to understand, to find a better way of dealing with trouble.
Even though we always have something about which we can complain, what purpose does it hold for our lives? What good does it do to complain about the people who cross our path? We can’t do anything to change our neighbors, but we can change our own attitude and the way we deal with them.
We live in a world full of sin. We ourselves are sinners and manage to do the things we know we should not do while not doing the things we know we should do. This is the reason our Lord Jesus Christ came to save us. We can’t save ourselves. Yet, as we live in Christ, we can look at what’s happening and try to find a gracious way through it. Even though we may know pain and frustration, we are followers of our Lord Jesus Christ and He gives us all we need to get through our difficulties. We might experience the horrible attitudes of others and suffer their revenge, but with Jesus as our guide and model we will have everything we need to stand firm in those circumstances. We can’t run the race to win that which has already been won for us: salvation. Instead, we continue to run in the race so that we will reach the end as God gives us the gifts to do so, though His grace with peace and joy.
“‘But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first, and said, “Son, go work today in my vineyard.” He answered, “I will not,” but afterward he changed his mind, and went. He came to the second, and said the same thing. He answered, “I’m going, sir,” but he didn’t go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said to him, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Most certainly I tell you that the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering into God’s Kingdom before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you didn’t believe him; but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. When you saw it, you didn’t even repent afterward, that you might believe him.’” Matthew 21:28-32, WEB
I enjoyed being part of the retail environment; I loved the customers, the new merchandise, and the work. I had the opportunity to work with several different teams that set up new stores or remodeled old ones. My favorite task was shelf layout and window display. There was something fun about making the merchandise fit into the area defined in the plan-o-gram, especially when I had a blank canvas with new shelves. Fitting the merchandise was like putting a puzzle together. The plan-o-grams were never perfect, but somehow I made everything fit. Of course, there were also jobs that I disliked, but when you are employed, you do the work assigned.
I worked on the management teams of a couple of major national retailers. In my years working for those companies, I took on every task in the store, no matter how undesirable, at some point during my employment. I scrubbed the floor, took out the garbage, unloaded boxes from trucks, cashiered, worked at the snack bar, counted receipts and the list goes on. It was my policy as a manager to have experience in every task I requested from an employee. No one could deny doing a job with the remark, “You never do the dirty work.” They knew that I could answer, “I’ve done it, now you can too.”
I discovered that there are several different types of employees over the years. I occasionally had the joyous experience of having an employee who loved their job and did every task with enthusiasm. Then there are those who mumble and groan about every little thing, but manage to accomplish the tasks at hand. Another type is the employee who speaks with great enthusiasm about the tasks, but never gets around to getting it done.
This is true in all aspects of our lives, including our faith. Some people are like the enthusiastic employee, and they do the work of God’s kingdom with incredible joy. My favorite example of this is Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, whose actions showed an almost ridiculous trust in God, like when he showed Jesus a few loaves and fishes to feed five thousand. There are, of course, many who groan about every task, questioning God’s judgment about the things that He has called them to do, like Moses who found excuse after excuse to avoid the work. There are many, too many, who say they will do the work but they never get around to it. The chief priests and elders who were talking to Jesus in this story spent their days saying that they would be obedient to God’s Word. However, when they heard the True Word, from John and from Jesus, they continued to live life in their own way.
Jesus tells the story of a man with two sons. He asked both sons to do something for him. One son said, “Yes” but did not do the thing. The other son said, “No” but eventually did it. Jesus asked, “Which son did the Father’s will?” The answer, of course, is the son who did eventually do the task, even if it was done half-heartedly. The point of the story is that Jesus knew that the sons who claimed to be faithful, including the religious leaders, would not follow Jesus, but those who were outcast because they didn’t live religiously righteous lives would. He knew it was more likely that a tax collector would believe in Him than a priest.
We make a big deal about the work we are going to do for the Lord, but we put it off day after day. We promise to pray, but we schedule time “tomorrow.” We commit to Bible study, but we plan to start at the beginning of the month or the year. We talk about feeing and clothing the hungry and poor, but we wait until we have a few more dollars in our pocket. We say we will do the work the Lord has called us to do, but do we ever get around to it? Will we ever have more time or money? Jesus lived, died, and lived again so that we would be saved. Faith means saying “Yes” with joyful enthusiasm to the life of discipleship to which Jesus has called us to live.
Thank you for your patience and your prayers. Things are looking better. Recovery will take some time, but we are moving in the right direction.
“David said, ‘Is there yet any who is left of Saul’s house, that I may show him kindness for Jonathan’s sake?’ There was of Saul’s house a servant whose name was Ziba, and they called him to David; and the king said to him, ‘Are you Ziba?’ He said, ‘I am your servant.’ The king said, ‘Is there not yet any of Saul’s house, that I may show the kindness of God to him?’ Ziba said to the king, ‘Jonathan still has a son, who is lame in his feet.’ The king said to him, ‘Where is he?’ Ziba said to the king, ‘Behold, he is in the house of Machir the son of Ammiel, in Lo Debar.’ Then king David sent, and brought him out of the house of Machir the son of Ammiel, from Lo Debar. Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan, the son of Saul, came to David, and fell on his face, and showed respect. David said, ‘Mephibosheth.’ He answered, ‘Behold, your servant!’ David said to him, ‘Don’t be afraid; for I will surely show you kindness for Jonathan your father’s sake, and will restore to you all the land of Saul your father. You will eat bread at my table continually.’ He bowed down, and said, ‘What is your servant, that you should look at such a dead dog as I am?’ Then the king called to Ziba, Saul’s servant, and said to him, ‘All that belonged to Saul and to all his house I have given to your master’s son. Till the land for him, you, your sons, and your servants. Bring in the harvest, that your master’s son may have bread to eat; but Mephibosheth your master’s son will always eat bread at my table.’” 2 Samuel 9:1-10a, WEB
Our question this week comes from David's story: “Is there still anyone... that I may show kindness?”
I have never adopted a child, but have known families that have gone through the process. The expenses are extreme. There are lawyer fees and possibly travel costs. Hospital costs are often covered by the adoptive parents. Of course, adopting a child is a lifelong commitment, not something you can dismiss in a few days. It is a gift of life for the child, but it can turn out to be an immense burden. This is especially true when the child being adopted suffers from some sort of physical, mental or emotional disability. Such a child can become a burden and can lead to bitterness whether the child is of their flesh or is adopted.
Imagine what it would be like if you adopted a disabled child who was also the only remaining offspring of an enemy? Suppose you were the godparent to a child, written into the will of his or her parents as the guardian if they should die, but some time later you fought bitterly and broke the relationship. What would happen if they suddenly died and you were given custody of the child? Could you care for them? Change your life for them? Feed and cloth them for as long as was necessary? What if the child was disabled and could not fend for themselves the rest of their lives? This is what happened with David.
David was not a perfect man. He made some horrible mistakes throughout his life. Yet, it can be said that he had mercy on his enemies. While Saul tried to kill David, David never threatened his life. Saul perished on the battlefield, and though David ran from Saul for many years, he mourned the loss of the king. Saul’s family continued to do David harm by obstructing his rule over Israel, but David honored them. David punished the men who murdered Jonathon even though they thought they were serving him by ridding him of his enemy.
In this passage, David wondered how he might show kindness to the house of Saul for the sake of his friend Jonathon. As it happened, Jonathon’s son was disabled but alive, living in fear of what would become of him. David had mercy, took him into his own house and ensured that he would live well for the rest of his life. David provided all he needed.
I wonder if we could be like David and give such mercy and grace to our enemies. Are we willing to seek those who did us harm and so something good for them? Certainly we are called to do so, granting forgiveness through Christ our Lord and loving our neighbors. We are much like that adopted son, lame and weak in flesh, but loved by God. As children of the Most High God, we have all we need to live in this world and go forth in faith to share the kingdom of God with others.
“Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I don’t make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time!’ When he saw that, he arose, and ran for his life, and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree. Then he requested for himself that he might die, and said, ‘It is enough. Now, O Yahweh, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.’ He lay down and slept under a juniper tree; and behold, an angel touched him, and said to him, ‘Arise and eat!’ He looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on the coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. Yahweh’s angel came again the second time, and touched him, and said, ‘Arise and eat, because the journey is too great for you.’ He arose, and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, God’s Mountain.”
My real life has always been a source for fodder for this devotional. I’ve found examples of God’s grace in the grocery store, when I’m driving, in the lives of my kitties. For the past twenty plus years, you have read about the exciting moments of my life as well as the most mundane. I don’t often lay upon you my heaviest burdens, unless I can find a way to inspire and encourage you with them. It is nearly impossible, though, to write without giving you a small piece of what we experienced last week.
First of all, let me say that others fared far worse than we did. We never lost water but we had less than 7 total hours of electricity in 72 hours, including a period of 31 hours without any power. Our house reached a low of 50 degrees. I worried about my kitties. We have a gas fireplace, so by Wednesday afternoon we were spending all our time as close to it as possible. We have not found any broken pipes but we lost most of the food in our refrigerators. We can’t complain because we have the resources to cover our losses. I can even find silver linings in our struggles.
Yet, I confess that by Wednesday I was in despair. I was in tears. I felt very alone. I begged God to intervene, but my prayers were not prayers of faith. They were filled with anger and frustration. I could not count my blessings because I was cold, dirty, and afraid. I am still worried because the long term backlash of what happened in Texas will be difficult for many people. We know one family that is still without electricity. Another family will have to do a total house renovation because of burst pipes. The power company has suggested that the cost of energy will go up significantly. I know my water bill will be extremely high next month because I ran four faucets for 6 days to keep my pipes from freezing and my gas bill will be high after using the fireplace for four days. My food bill will be high as I restock everything I lost. I still pray for strength in the coming days.
As I look back at Wednesday, I know that I should not have been in despair. I know I wasn’t alone. There were a million little things that happened over the past year, especially in the past few months, that had heightened my emotions. The tears were the end result of a year of stress that finally broke. I tell you all this because we often look at people who seem to have unshakeable faith and we wonder how they do it. Some have said that about me. Elijah’s story shows us that even the most faithful among us have our moments when we just can’t see straight.
One of the hymns we sang in church on Sunday was “In the Cross of Christ I Glory,” In the second verse we sang, “When the woes of life o’ertake me, Hopes deceive, and fears annoy, Never shall the cross forsake me, Lo! it glows with peace and joy.” I knew no peace last week. And I cried as I sang those words because I recognized my faithlessness in the midst of my struggles. I just couldn’t take any more. People often see me as strong, but we all have our breaking point, and I found mine last week. I feel incredibly guilty at having such an intense reaction because I know others have had it worse. Far worse.
But even at that, I know that I am forgiven. I know that I am not alone.
Elijah loved the LORD. He was zealous for God. But Elijah found his limit. “It is enough,” he said and he wanted to die. I was not that far gone, but I understand what he was thinking. Despite Elijah’s despair, God was with him. God fed him. God gave him rest. God sent him to continue the work he was called to do. God didn’t give up on him even if he gave up on God. The same is true for each of us when we face those moments when it is enough. When we face despair, God is there and ready to restore us, to raise us, to encourage us, to send us back into the world to do what He is calling us to do. We may seem faithless for a moment, but God is always faithful and He will get us through.
Scriptures for February 28, 2021, Second Sunday in Lent: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:23-31; Romans 5:1-11; Mark 8:27-38
“Not only this, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope: and hope doesn’t disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” Romans 5:3-5, WEB
“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” I must confess that this is one of the few things I remember from my school age literature classes. It stuck with me all these years because of the truth of it. Someone once said, “How do you make God laugh? Tell Him your plans for the future.” We make plans, and something always seems to go awry. We make plans every day; we schedule our time to fulfill the needs of our family, co-workers, communities. We plan ahead for retirement, for our children’s education and even for our death and burial. When something goes wrong and our plans change, we become confused and upset, particularly when we believe we have made our plans based on God’s promises.
Peter had great plans for Jesus. He was going to be King and save the Jews from their oppression. By the power of the Holy Spirit, he knew Jesus was the Messiah, but had it all worked out in his head how Jesus would accomplish the work of salvation. Unfortunately, his plans were not Jesus’ plans. His plans were not God’s plan.
Imagine what it must have been like for Abram. After all, he left everything based on the promise of this unknown God who spoke to him one day. God promised that he would be the father of many nations, yet when he was ninety-nine, he wasn’t even a father. I am sure that as he and Sarai made lots of plans as left their home to go to that unknown land. They probably thought about names for the children God promised. They probably thought about a home they would build, how they would take care of one another. They made plans. But many years passed and they remained childless.
God first made a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12. He called Abram to a new place, promising that he would be great and a blessing to the whole world. He also promised Abram that his offspring would inherit the Promised Land. There was no reciprocal promise, God asked nothing in return. This promise was renewed in Genesis 15 when God met with Abram and cut the covenant. There the Lord presented Abram a royal grant which is an unconditional promise to fulfill the grant of land. Abram never saw the fulfillment of God’s plan.
But God is faithful even when we are not. Our faithlessness comes because God is not fulfilling His promises according to our expectations. Abram took matters into his own hands all along the journey, never quite trusting that God was in control. Ultimately, Abram and Sarai even tried to provide their own heir, turning to Hagar to be a surrogate, but Hagar’s son Ishmael would never be the son of the promise. In today’s passage, God repeated the promise of offspring. Abram was ninety-nine years old and still had no children. Sarai was barren and very old. Despite their unfaithfulness, God appeared to Abram and confirmed his promise.
This promise is more than a royal land grant; Abram would be the father of many nations. This was a suzerain-vassal covenant which is a conditional pledge between a great king and a subject king. As long as the vassal remained faithful and loyal, the suzerain would be there as guardian and protector. The sign of this covenant was circumcision. God said, “I am God Almighty. Walk before me and be blameless. I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.” As long as Abram’s descendents continued to consecrate themselves before the Lord, they would receive His blessings.
It is obvious in today’s text that something changed with Abram and Sarai, something was new. God gave them new names. The scriptures tell us that the new names represent their new place in God’s plan. Abram became Abraham; the childless one became the one who would be the father of many nations. Sarai became Sarah; the childless one became the one who would give rise to nations.
There is more to this name change than meets our eyes. The English language alphabet is much different than the Hebrew alphabet. We do not necessarily understand what really happened because our letters are simply building blocks for words. They do not mean anything separate and alone. An “m” is just an “m” and will always be so. However, in the Hebrew language the letters have special meaning.
The letter “h” in Hebrew is “hey” and means “to reveal” or “behold.” It also represents the divine breath and revelation. In other words, God has breathed new life into Abraham and Sarah; their lives would be different because God was irrevocably intertwined in them. By adding the “h” to Abram’s name, the Lord God Almighty added His breath, His life, His Spirit into the life of Abram. Abraham was now fully a part of God’s kingdom; the vassal that would become the father of many nations. In this passage we see God taking hold of them and giving them everything they need to become what He has planned.
It seems impossible that a ninety-nine year old childless man might become the father of many nations. The promise is equally impossible for Sarah who was well beyond the age of child bearing. Yet, Abraham believes God and trusts that God will be faithful. Do we live with such trust? We should. Although our names have not been changed, God has breathed His “hey” into our lives, too. We have been changed as He has revealed Himself to us through Jesus, by grace, in our baptisms.
That life is not always going to be what we hope or expect.
In this week’s Gospel text, Jesus told Peter and the disciples that not only was death part of His mission, but that they also must be prepared to give up their own lives for the sake of the Gospel. Following Jesus meant death. It meant taking up their own crosses and following Him. It means the same for us. Do we really understand what Jesus is trying to say? We try to define our crosses by the hard things in our life. We take our suffering and say, “This is the cross I have to bear.”
Our cross is not some suffering we have to endure. It is not some work we have to do. We take up Christ’s cross with Him. It is His cross we are called to share with others. This is incredibly hard, especially since we know most people do not want to hear the message of the cross. They don’t want to hear that they are sinners in need of a Savior. They don’t think they need to be saved. They think there are many roads to heaven and are unwilling to accept that the only way to inherit the kingdom of God is through death and the grave, specifically Jesus’ death. The message of the cross is foolishness. We are ashamed to speak these words to our neighbors because we live in a world that demands something different.
This is a message even the disciples did not want to hear. When Jesus began to speak about death and the cross, Peter took Him aside and rebuked Him. Jesus rebuked Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! For you have in mind not the things of God, but the things of men.” Jesus was not calling Peter Satan, but Peter was trying to make God fulfill his own plans and expectations, which is exactly what Satan attempts to do with us every day. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry Satan tried to tempt Jesus to turn from the path that God planned for Him, which was the path to the cross. In today’s text, at the other end of His ministry, Satan tried to tempt Jesus away from God’s plan through Peter.
God opened Abraham and Sarah’s hearts, revealed His purpose for their lives; He promised them greatness and took hold of them so that He could give them everything they needed to become what He planned. He does the same for us. We might not have a name change like Abraham and Sarah, but we are God’s and He has a plan for our lives.
God had a plan for Jesus, and it wasn’t what Peter expected. Peter knew that Jesus was the Messiah because the Holy Spirit had revealed it to Him, but Peter’s expectations were much different. We, like Peter, might rebuke God for doing things His way, thinking that we know better. The text today asks us if know who Jesus is. Do we have an answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” Do we know that He is the Messiah and do we know what that means? We have the advantage of hindsight; we know the rest of the story, but that does not always guarantee that we understand how God is working in our lives. Faith means we have trust and confidence in God’s plan, knowing that only He can make things work out right.
Faith doesn’t always lead to what we call blessing.
Jesus said, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it; and whoever will lose his life for my sake and the sake of the Good News will save it.” Is death a requirement for faithfulness? We are reminded in the scriptures that Christ died once for all. So, what does this mean for us today? We may struggle with the question of whether or not we would stand firm when facing persecution, but are we willing to refuse to take our kids to soccer practice on a Sunday morning so we can attend worship? Will we tell our bosses we can’t do something because it goes against our faith? Will we stand up for the things that we believe matter in this world? Will we call a spade a spade even when the rest of the world says it is a shovel?
Jesus said, “For what should a man give in exchange for his life? For whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of man also shall be ashamed of him, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” Faith means being a Christian even when it is hard, even when it is dangerous. It means standing firm in the promises of God even when it seems He’s not living up to His end of the covenant. God is always faithful.
In 2006, a girl named Kristi Yamaoka earned her fifteen minutes of fame in a terrible accident at a basketball game. Kristi was a cheerleader for Southern Illinois University and her cheer squad was building a pyramid during a time out near the end of an extremely important game. Kristi fell off the pyramid and fell on her head. They stopped the game while medical staff dealt with her injury. They were very concerned that Kristi would be permanently injured, so every care was taken to keep her still. Video of the fall hit the airwaves from national news reports to YouTube. The game was a close one, and the crowds were noisy with spirit. The minute Kristi fell, however, the gym went silent.
Kristy is remembered for how she dealt with her injury. She did not want to leave the game. The medical team insisted that Kristi be taken to the hospital, but even as she was being taken on a stretcher, Kristi continued to cheer. Her coach cautioned her to stop but the medical team said she would be fine, so Kristi showed her spirit by performing the fight song routine on the stretcher. Though she was injured she said, “My biggest concern was that I didn’t want my squad to be distracted, so that they could continue cheering on the team, and I didn’t want my team to be distracted from winning the game,” she said. Kristi recovered completely. She’d suffered a chipped neck vertebra, concussion, and bruised lung but was released from the hospital just two days later. She had no problem securing her place on the cheer squad for the next school year.
Have you ever known a Christian who is so filled with Christ that he or she can continue praising God even in the midst of tragedy and pain? Kristi’s coach said, “She’s 100 percent school spirit.” Though the focus of her excitement was different, Kristi reminds us of a passionate Christian. Faith-filled Christians can praise God from a wheelchair and speak about hope at a funeral.
From the stretcher on her way out of the game Kristi said, “I am a cheerleader.” She had to cheer. It was her identity and her work. How many people can say “I am a Christian,” and live their life so fully immersed in who they are in Christ that they can’t help but live in praise and worship to God? Do we walk around living in the Spirit of God? There are a few, but very few, people about whom it might be said, “He (or she) is 100 percent spirit,” because we get caught up in the troubles and pains of this world. It doesn’t take much for us to lose sight of God. His greatest gift is life, the true life that comes from the forgiveness that our Lord Jesus Christ won for us on His cross. We are called to live fully in that gift so that the world might see the grace of God and believe.
Paul lists a number of ways we can love and encourages us to live in the love of God. Without a doubt, none of us could do it without God’s abiding love. We could not care for others, consider others first, or serve the Lord if He had not first loved us. The world knows that God is love, but it is hard for the world to see God’s love when Christians often appear so unloving.
Unfortunately, we live in a world filled with sin and though we have been changed by God’s love, we still fail, we want to be in control, to be like God, and to do God’s work in our own way. Sometimes we are impatient, thinking that God is taking too long. We see the sin and pain in the world and wish He would do something to make problems end. At other times, we question whether God is taking care of the matter in the right way. Our motives are not always self-centered, but we are led by our own biases, experiences, and expectations. Unfortunately, our way is always imperfect because we can’t see the world as God sees it.
Like Abram and Sarai, we think that we need to be in control. We want to avoid suffering and pain, and yet sometimes it is in the very suffering that God does His best work as we learn to trust in Him. Look at what happened on the cross: Jesus Christ died, but in His death we find true life. Paul reminds us that we grow through our suffering, which produces perseverance, which produces character and that character produces the hope that is already within us through faith in Jesus Christ. The character that comes from deep within holds on to a hope that is real and trustworthy because it comes from faith in Christ, a hope that was given through the blood of Jesus on the cross through which we are saved.
God does not fail. He knows the right time and the right way to accomplish His plan. He knew exactly how to overcome the sin of this world. He sent Jesus exactly when we needed Him to come, to do exactly what needed to be done. We do not understand why. We can’t quite grasp the need for the cross or for Christ’s blood to cleanse us from our sins. It isn’t up to us to decide whether or not God did things the right way. We are called to trust in Him, to believe in Jesus and to follow Jesus wherever He might lead us. Things might not be as we think they should be, but they will be exactly as God intends. So, let us take up our cross, His cross, and follow Him, speaking the Gospel into a world that so desperately needs God’s salvation. We are Christians: we have to be Christ-like, spirit-filled and led. It won’t be easy, we may even suffer, but in the end we will see God’s promise of reconciliation be fulfilled and we will share in His glory forever.
“Preserve me, God, for I take refuge in you. My soul, you have said to Yahweh, ‘You are my Lord. Apart from you I have no good thing.’ As for the saints who are in the earth, they are the excellent ones in whom is all my delight. Their sorrows shall be multiplied who give gifts to another god. Their drink offerings of blood I will not offer, nor take their names on my lips. Yahweh assigned my portion and my cup. You made my lot secure. The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places. Yes, I have a good inheritance. I will bless Yahweh, who has given me counsel. Yes, my heart instructs me in the night seasons. I have set Yahweh always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my tongue rejoices. My body shall also dwell in safety. For you will not leave my soul in Sheol, neither will you allow your holy one to see corruption. You will show me the path of life. In your presence is fullness of joy. In your right hand there are pleasures forever more.” Psalm 16, WEB
I saw a photo this morning of a child receiving a teddy bear as a gift. The child’s face showed sheer joy. It was a simple thing, a little thing, yet the child lit up with love and excitement and thankfulness. The photo came out of a ministry in Africa, and it is likely that child’s family have many real world problems. Children don’t know how to worry about those problems. It isn’t about foolishness or irresponsibility. Children trust, and while they might sometimes be hungry or thirsty, they believe in those who have promised to help. They find joy in the little things.
The Gospels tells about moments when Jesus called the little children to sit with Him. The disciples rebuked the parents who brought their children to be blessed by Him. Jesus said, “Allow the little children, and don’t forbid them to come to me; for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to ones like these.” I can imagine that the children at Jesus’ feet had the same look on their faces as that child in the photo with the teddy bear. They knew real joy being in the presence of Jesus. They trusted Him with a faith that was not based on some intellectual understanding, but rather an innocent and sincere love.
We belonged to a church that went through a renovation project. We doubled the size of our building by adding a beautiful new sanctuary and plenty of classroom space. Each week, we were surprised by the latest change in the building. One day the walls are painted, another the floors laid. The furniture was fitted into place. After many months of construction chaos, we could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. Our work was nearly complete.
One week we found new cushions had been installed onto the pews. The cushions were made of very firm three-inch foam. They looked nice in the sanctuary and were comfortable. There was only one problem: the cushion raised us high enough that our feet no longer touched the floors, especially those of us who were short. Our pastor was a very tall man and had no idea this would happen. During the announcements, one woman joked, “We need footstools!” Pastor walked around looking down each pew to see his congregation swinging their feet, just like children. We laughed together at the silliness of it all, and began worship with a childlike joy in our hearts. I think we all sang a little louder and prayed a little freer because of that joy.
How many times do we go to church and find ourselves annoyed by the little children who can’t sit still? They are constantly moving, swinging their feet, kicking the back of the pew. They whisper and whine, laugh and cry, play with their toy airplanes by crawling over the other members of the congregation. Yet somehow, in the midst of their play, they hear the story of Jesus and know that He loves them. They sing along as best they can, even conduct the choir at times. They share in the prayers by joining in voice as we say the liturgy, because those words of God have been written on their hearts. They sing a little louder and with so much joy. They love Jesus and they say so loudly, even when it seems inappropriate to do so. We are tempted to be like the disciples, to rebuke their parents and try to send the children away, but Jesus knows better. He invites us to be like those little children, to sit at His feet with joy, putting aside the troubles of the moment to bask in His presence.
The psalmist knew that every good thing comes from God. It is in His presence we find refuge and many blessings, and His gifts bring us gladness. Faith in Him will see the fulfillment of all His promises. In Him there is reason to shine. For one day, our congregation knew what it was like to be like a little child in worship. We swung our feet to the music, sang loud and with that joy that comes in the knowledge that Jesus loves us. If only we could always be more like the child in that picture I saw today, with faces of pure joy, shining with the love and excitement and thankfulness we have for all the simple gifts God has given us, especially His presence in our lives.
“By this we know love, because he laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But whoever has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, then closes his heart of compassion against him, how does God’s love remain in him? My little children, let’s not love in word only, or with the tongue only, but in deed and truth. And by this we know that we are of the truth, and persuade our hearts before him, because if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things. Beloved, if our hearts don’t condemn us, we have boldness toward God; so whatever we ask, we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do the things that are pleasing in his sight. This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, even as he commanded. He who keeps his commandments remains in him, and he in him. By this we know that he remains in us, by the Spirit which he gave us.” 1 John 3:16-24, WEB
Words change. Take, for instance, a word like “awful.” It used to mean “inspiring wonder” but has taken on a much more negative meaning. The word “egregious” originally described something that was remarkably good. It comes from a Latin word that means “illustrious” that would best be translated “standing out from the crowd.” Just like the word “awful,” the word “egregious” now has a negative connotation, meaning something that is remarkably bad or flagrant.
The changes in some words are not only in meaning, but they evolve in spelling especially when translated from one language to another. We once visited Orford Castle which is located on the coast of the North Sea. A historian explained that the original purpose of the castle was as a defensive residence for King Henry II. These buildings were called “donjons,” which is the French word for the great keep. The keep was the strongest and most central building in a castle. As peace reigned, it became unnecessary for the monarch to live in such secure spaces, so they began building places designed for comfort and beauty rather than defense. The medieval castles were abandoned for country homes and grand palaces.
Local authorities eventually began to use many of the castles as holding cells for those who were awaiting trial. In some towns, they became the prisons. The donjons became dungeons. A dungeon (donjon) was once the home for a king, but time and history changed our understanding.
Is your heart a dungeon or a donjon? Is it a place of condemnation or a royal residence? Since language changes over time, even from one generation to another, it is more important that we demonstrate the Word in our lives, by showing our love in actions. God loved us so much that Jesus died on the cross that we might have His life in us. He gave us the gift of His Holy Spirit so that we might know of His presence in our hearts. We can speak the words of love to the world, however it is when we live the Word and obey His commands that we walk confidently in faith that God lives in us. Orford Castle was used as a prison, but it is remembered as a royal residence. What is the state of your heart? Is it a prison, offering only condemnation? Or is it a royal residence for the King of Kings?