Welcome to the February 2023 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, February 2023
February 1, 2023
Lectionary Scriptures for February 5, 2023, The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany: Isaiah 58:3-9a; Psalm 112:1-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16); Matthew 5:13-20
“For I tell you that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, there is no way you will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” Matthew 5:20, WEB
When I began teaching my Sunday school class at church, I told the adult education staff member that I wanted to advertise it as a theology class. She recommended against it, suggesting that the people at our church would be put off by that language. I agreed at first, but I realized after the class was established that those who chose to come were not scared off by the idea that we are all theologians.
What is a theologian? One definition calls a theologian an expert in the subject of theology, which is the study of what is taught by God, teaches of God, and leads to God. There are people in this world who are professional theologians. They get paid to talk about the things of God. They write books and give lectures. I have to admit that I’ve sat in lectures by theologians that make my head hurt. They use Greek and Latin words I don’t understand. One speaker spoke so quickly that I could barely comprehend the fifty-cent words he used before he moved on to the next topic in his lecture. I was dazed and confused!
Yet, I love to sit in those lectures because through the big words and high concepts, God speaks to me by the power of the Holy Spirit about what He has taught, what is being taught about Him, and what leads me into a deeper and fully relationship with Him. I often walk out of an hour long lecture with little more than a thought or two, but it is enough for me. I’m sure many of the people who study with me on Sunday morning would not be interested in those lectures, and that’s ok. There is a place for those professional theologians, but theology is not just for them. Theology is for anyone who talks about God.
It is so exciting when our Sunday school class discovers some great idea about the character of God. Our discussions have left us breathless, in tears, laughing with joy. While people may be afraid to do theology as it is done among the doctors of the Church, the simple reality is that talking about God helps us to see Him, hear Him, and understand Him. The Holy Spirit works among us during those conversations, revealing to us the God who loves and forgives us with such grace as to send His own Son for our salvation.
It really is that simple, but we often make it so complicated that people will reject it. Then we blame them for the rejection. I experienced too many people doing online ministry who convoluted the Gospel and would then say, “I don’t need to explain it to you. If you had the Holy Spirit, you would understand.” They made it seem as if you couldn’t possibly be saved if you didn’t understand what they said.
Isn’t it funny how the Church has been discussing the nature of God and His will for this world, and yet today we are no closer to understanding Him than the disciples were when they lived with Jesus? It is good to be theologians discovering the character of God and the fulfillment of His promises in and through Jesus Christ. There are things about God, however, that we will never fully know. Even the theologians that lecture about the doctrine of God accept that there are mysteries they will never be able to explain no matter how many fifty-cent words they use. We can talk about the things we know, the things we believe, the things we see and understand. We can believe in the things we will never really understand. That’s faith. Faith is trusting that God’s promises are true and that our hope is found in Christ.
As theologians, it is important that we look to all God’s Word, including the Old Testament for understanding. In those books we see the promises of God and we are blessed with more than hope because in the New Testament we see that all God’s promises have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. This isn’t so obvious to those who do not believe. They think our hope is foolishness because they can’t see or hear the Gospel as it has been made clear to us by the Holy Spirit. We have faith and therefore we rest in the knowledge that God has prepared something beyond this world for us, but the world does not understand. They don’t understand because they aren’t in a right relationship with God. That’s the definition of righteousness: to be in a right relationship with God.
The people in Isaiah’s time were acting righteous, but they were not in that right relationship. The same is true of the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, and in the religious lives of so many today. They were going through the religious motions while ignoring what God was calling them to do in the world. We are still a few weeks away from Ash Wednesday, but how many Christians will decide to fast on something as a Lenten discipline. The discipline is a good thing, but the fasting should also lead to positive changes in our lives and our lives of faith. Does it do any good to give up something for seven weeks and then gorge on it on Easter Day? Those Lenten disciplines have no purpose if they don’t cause growth in faith and discipleship.
The religious rituals that are mentioned in Isaiah were commanded by God, but they had become something much different than God intended. The people saw their actions, their obedience, as the source of their salvation and their blessings. They did all the right things, so they must be righteous, right? Jesus said, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, there is no way you will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Too many people are confused by the word righteousness. The world thinks it means being good, doing good things. Like those in Isaiah’s day, they think being righteous is doing all the right religious practices. “I fasted, so I deserve to be blessed.” The religious leaders in Jesus’ day were the same. “I keep the Law, so I deserve to be blessed.” Today people work so hard to be right with God, and never realize that the things they are doing will never make them right with Him. We can’t work our way into righteousness: that’s called self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is the very thing that divides us from God and from one another. When we think we are being obedient, following all the rules, then we think we deserve favor from God.
Paul writes, “Now the natural man doesn’t receive the things of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to him, and he can’t know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” It doesn’t make sense to our natural man to live the Christian life. We want to follow rules and earn our reward. We want to get what we deserve. We think we are entitled to God’s blessings because we are righteous. So, we do what we do to earn our place in God’s kingdom. However, we can never earn our place; we can’t manipulate God into giving us what we want. Righteousness is not a matter of works; it is a matter of heart.
Unfortunately, many have a worldly understanding of what it means to be spiritual. That might sound like an oxymoron, but I once read an article that defined someone who is spiritual as one “whose highest priority is to be loving to yourself and others. A spiritual person cares about people, animals and the planet. A spiritual person knows that we are all One, and consciously attempts to honor this Oneness. A spiritual person is a kind person.” This is not what Paul means when he talks about being spiritual.
The author of the article suggested that one could follow different types of religious practices like attending church and doing yoga and not be spiritual. This is true, but as many in today’s world, the author used scripture but removed God completely from the equation. Paul tells us that we need God’s Spirit to know the things of God. That’s what it means to be spiritual. The worldly definition of spiritual makes it about works, about doing good things to and for others.
Paul is not referring to the spiritual man as being non-religious. Paul is talking about those who are focused on God, who live lives that glorify Him. The man who lives by faith will live according to God’s Word, doing what God calls us to do, living the life of discipleship. The spiritual man is the one who lives the Christ-centered life, who has the mind of Christ. The world would rather remove Christ from the equation, reducing Him to some sort of great force of which we are all a part. The world would rather be self-righteous rather than right with God.
I wanted to use the word theology in the explanation of my class because I wanted those who attended to realize that the focus of our conversations should always be God and our relationship with Him. Oh, we go off on rabbit trails sometimes, talking about politics or the struggles of our lives, but somehow we always bring it back to some aspect of God’s character and His Word. We often ask questions like, “Where is God in the midst of this?” or “What is God working in this situation?” or “What does scripture teach us about how to deal with this?”
The author of that article was wrong about what it means to be spiritual, but she was right that ultimately it all comes down to love, peace, joy, truth and kindness. The difference is this: she contends that it is by our power we can heal and change the world, but we know that it will only come about through God’s power.
The writer of the book of Hebrews goes on for several chapters talking about the faith of those who heard the promises of God but never saw them fulfilled. Abraham was promised that his offspring would dwell in the Promised Land, but it didn’t happen for hundreds of years. He was promised that his offspring would be as many as the stars in the sky, but he was a very old man when his son was born. The writer lists many promises given to God’s people and then says, “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them and embraced them from afar, and having confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.” Many of those promises were fulfilled in some way in their day but pointed to an even greater promise. They saw God’s work but could only hope for the salvation that would come. They believed anyway, not because they saw the fulfillment but because they were in a right relationship with God.
The whole message of Christ, the message of forgiveness and mercy, is beyond our vision. The idea of God the Father giving His Son for our sake is just crazy. Why would an all-powerful God do that? Why would He have to? Though there are still things about the spiritual realm that we do not fully understand, we have a wisdom that is greater than anything in the world because we have a connection to the source of all wisdom. The Spirit of God dwells in our hearts and reveals to us that which God would have us know. We no longer live in the flesh, but in spirit. We are no longer uncertain but have confidence in the promises of God. We don’t live in darkness, but in the Light.
A motorist was driving in the country when he came upon a priest and a rabbi standing on the shoulder of the road, fishing. Next to them was a sign that read. “Turn around. The end is near.” The motorist didn’t like to be preached to, so he rolled down the window and yelled, “Mind your own business, you religious nuts!” A few seconds later the two fishermen heard tires screech, then a splash. The rabbi turned to the priest and said, “I told you we should’ve just written, ‘Bridge Out.’”
The message of the priest and the rabbi would have helped the driver keep from ending up in the river, but they spoke in a language that the driver rejected. They made it too complicated for the motorist to understand. He saw two religious men and assumed the sign had religious significance. He quickly rejected what it had to say because to him it seemed unreasonable. If they had put the simpler words “Bridge Out” on the sign the man would have stopped and turned around. I suppose that’s why the staff member discouraged the use of “theology” in my class description.
How often do we try to share the Christian message in a way that is too complicated for the hearers to understand? Sadly, we sometimes do this because we are trying to put our own spin on the Gospel. We think we can do it better than God. But that which brings people salvation is the message of grace found in the cross of Jesus Christ. By His blood He restored our relationship with God our Creator and Father by paying the price and providing forgiveness for our sin. By His resurrection we are raised to new life as His child to live and love in this world, sharing that message with others.
I don’t think the professional theologians use fifty-cent words to impress the listeners, but sometimes we make it complicated, sound intelligent among the intelligent, to speak into the lives of those to whom we are sent as witnesses. We don’t come to faith by understanding the things of God. Rather, it is by hearing the Word of God. He moves in our hearts, convicting us, and transforming us by His love. It is the simple message, “Jesus loves you” that will truly save. God does the rest.
People from every age think that it is enough to go through the religious motions and then go on to do whatever they want to do in their daily lives. They think it is alright to cheat or hurt their neighbors if they repent with the right rituals. It is no wonder that God did not hear the prayers of those in the text from Isaiah. He calls us to be merciful, to be just, to be compassionate and to be generous. He calls us to sacrifice from the heart, not the flesh. God cannot be manipulated, and too many people then and now think that if they just appear to be faithful, then God will bless them. God sees behind our masks; His grace is not a reward for good works. He looks to the heart.
While our works will never make us righteous, God calls us to be the people He intends us to be. He isn’t looking for religious folk who fast when they are supposed to fast or who sacrifice when they are supposed to sacrifice. He is looking for believers who use their gifts for His glory.
A large portion of the US is dealing with cold, icy weather, including most of Texas. I heard some people in Dallas joking that there are fewer people on the road today than there were at the height of the pandemic. Those who live in the north do not understand. Those of us from the north who live in Texas now know it is silly for us to stop our lives for a day or two because of a little winter weather. We also understand that Texas is not prepared for this kind of weather. It doesn’t make financial sense to have fleets of salt trucks when we might need it one or two days a year.
Did you know that only about 6% of the salt produced around the world is used for food? More salt is used to condition water (12%) and de-ice highways (8%). Another 6% is used in agriculture and a whopping 68% is used in manufacturing and industrial processes. Did you know that they use salt to make PVC, plastic and paper? It is also used to make aluminum, soap, rubber and pottery. It is used in to drill, to tan hides and to dye fabric. It is also used as a preservative.
There are many different types of salt. It used to be easy to buy salt at the grocery store, since there was usually just a few choices. Now you have to decide what type of salt you want. You can buy regular table salt, but there are other possibilities. Kosher salt is used for all types of cooking and contains no additives, so it has a better flavor. Sea salt comes in coarse to be used in cooking or flaky for use at the table. Fleur de Sel is a specialty salt, and is considered the caviar of salt. It is used at the table for a wonderfully melt in your mouth experience of saltiness. Pickling salt is used for preservation. Rock salt is used in making ice cream and can be handy on these icy winter days. Each type of salt has a specific purpose, some are added during cooking and others are designed to enhance the flavor at the table. Salt does add a salty flavor, but it is also used to enhance the other flavors of food. Salt controls yeast growth in bread so that it will rise properly. A little salt on a margarita makes the tequila pop and it suppresses the bitter flavors.
Salt has always had a spiritual or religious dimension, too. Salt is often found on an altar or is used in ritual. Salt is used to ward off demons or to honor gods. According to some, salt is one of the four blessings from heaven, which included fire, water, iron and salt. Salt is the center of some ideas about hospitality. In ancient religions, the value of salt made the offering a covenant between people. If someone at the salt at your table, they became your responsibility while you were in their home. You had to protect them from any harm.
You didn’t know salt was so important, did you? It is hard to put such a high value on a commodity that we can purchase so cheaply and that we use so unsparingly. After all, how could something we just throw on the roads to melt ice be so valuable that the use of it at the dinner table offers a promise of protection and good will? In some places salt was so valuable that it was minted into coins and used to pay soldiers. As a matter of fact, that’s how we get the phrase, “He is worth his salt” and the term “salary.” It is interesting that salt comes from both land and sea, some harvested by evaporation and others through mining.
I came across all these facts about salt because I typed in the question, “Does salt really lose its saltiness?” This is a question that often comes up during bible studies focusing on today’s Gospel text. After all, I’ve never known salt to lose its flavor. According to my research, this is true. Salt is a very stable chemical, and it is only by a chemical reaction that it can lose its saltiness. However, it has been discovered that some salt, especially that which is harvested from marshes along the seashore, can lose its saltiness when it is in contact with the ground or is exposed to rain and sun. It isn’t that the salt itself loses its saltiness, but that the salt is contaminated with impurities collected with it. It is likely that this is what happened to the salt that they would have eaten in Jesus’ day, as their salt generally came from the shore of the Dead Sea.
What did Jesus mean in today’s Gospel lesson? The listeners knew the importance of salt, its rarity, its significance, and its value. They also knew that if salt were left drying too long on the side of the sea, it would be useless. It was not only useless, but it was hazardous. They could not keep this salt in the house because the impurities could be dangerous, and they could not throw it in the fields or gardens because it would kill the plants. might be harmful, and they could not throw it into the fields or gardens because it would wreak havoc on the growth of the plants. It was not just tasteless; it was good only to be trampled underfoot, so it was thrown into the streets. We do not understand as they did because we don’t usually throw our salt into the street, and when we do it serves an important purpose. Those who have had to walk on ice covered sidewalks are thankful that the salt can melt ice to make it safe. The same is not true of the salt to which Jesus refers.
Jesus was warning the disciples that they have a purpose and that they should not wait around too long before they go out to do that work, because if they wait too long they would no longer be of value. We wait because we don’t think we are ready or smart enough or know the scriptures well enough. We think we have work to do to overcome our sin and be perfect witnesses. We think we should let the theology to the theologians. Meanwhile, as we are trying to make things right in their own lives, we succumb to the cares and worries of the world. Or we fall for the temptations that abound. Or we conform to the ways of the world. These are the impurities that make us, as salt, worthless.
The whole message of Christ, the message of forgiveness and mercy, is beyond our vision. The idea of God the Father giving His Son for our sake is just crazy. Why would an all-powerful God do that? Why would He have to? Though there are still things about the spiritual realm that we do not fully understand, we have a wisdom that is greater than anything in the world because we have a connection to the source of all wisdom. We build that connection by talking about God and His Word.
We grow in faith and discipleship by being theologians daily. This is what it means to have righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees. It is about having a right relationship with God. By faith His Spirit dwells in our hearts and reveals to us the promises of God and helps us to know Him through His Word and our fellowship with other Christians. We no longer live in the flesh, but in spirit. We have confidence in the promises of God because He has revealed Himself to us. We don’t live in darkness, but in the Light. We aren’t worthless salt good only to be trampled underfoot, but we are the salt that will enhance and flavor the world.
February 2, 2023
“The voice of my beloved! Behold, he comes, leaping on the mountains, skipping on the hills. My beloved is like a roe or a young deer. Behold, he stands behind our wall! He looks in at the windows. He glances through the lattice. My beloved spoke, and said to me, ‘Rise up, my love, my beautiful one, and come away. For, behold, the winter is past. The rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth. The time of the singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree ripens her green figs. The vines are in blossom. They give out their fragrance. Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away.” Song of Solomon 2:8-13, WEB
We are at the end of a few days of winter weather, something we rarely see. We’ve had cold and ice, enough to close down much of the state. I know it seems odd to our northern neighbors, but we simply do not have the resources to deal with this kind of weather. As is typical of Texas weather, however, we’ll be in the 70’s by Sunday. Can we say it is spring? Probably not, after all, the first day of spring is still another six weeks away.
At least that’s what Punxsutawney Phil has to say. We don’t pay much attention to Phil in Texas because our weather is so different. Though we can expect more cold weather before the bluebonnets begin to sprout, spring does come earlier for us in the south than it does in the north. The tradition of Groundhog’s Day says that if Phil sees his shadow when he pokes his head out of his hole, then spring will not occur for another six weeks. If it is cloudy, and Phil does not see his shadow, then spring has sprung! Phil’s record is less than admirable, because no matter what the tradition says, spring will come in due season. I saw a meme this week that was a cartoon of a female groundhog wearing curlers in her hair. The caption said something like, “This is Phil’s ex-wife Phyllis who lives in Florida. She says that Phil’s a habitual liar.”
I’ve never quite understood why Punxsutawney Phil has been a national icon, since the weather forecast in Pennsylvania has little to do with the forecasts in the south or the west. If Phil were in San Antonio today, it is likely that he would not have seen his shadow. We are still cloudy from the ice storm. Someone recently posted that Phil less accurate than the weathermen. Though I think they really are learning to understand the science, weathermen still have difficulty telling us what the weather will be like tomorrow. How could a groundhog in Pennsylvania possibly know what our weather will be like for the next six weeks?
The idea that a groundhog can predict the weather goes way back to ancient myths around other animals coming out of hibernation. If the animal came out on some specific day to find sunny weather, it took it as a sign that there would be more bad weather. But if it came out of its hibernation to a cloudy day, then it stayed above ground in expectation of spring. The day depended on the environment of its home, but is generally around the same time of year, early February. Christians in Europe associated these ancient myths with Candlemas, which happened to be on February 2. Candlemas celebrates the presentation of Jesus at the temple and the recognition by Simeon and Anna of the divine manifestation in the babe Jesus Christ. It is celebrated with the lighting of candles and songs of hope.
Winter may or may not be past, but it doesn’t really matter in the greater scheme of things. What does matter is that God has come, seeking those He loves, bringing forgiveness and healing and transformation. He has come to make all things new. Like the coming of spring, the coming of Christ ensures new life. We might not be able to depend on the prediction of a groundhog, but in God we can have hope and peace. This day we remember the divine presence in the Temple as we look forward to the spring. It will get here when the time is right, just as God comes to us in His time and His way.
The scripture for today talks of the end of winter and the signs of spring. This is the story of a lover coming for his beloved so that together they might enjoy the freshness of spring. God is our lover. He is calling for His bride, the Church, to awaken to this new life. This day as we remember the divine presence in the Temple, we also look forward to the Eternal Spring for which we long. The day of our Lord will come in God’s time, just as the springtime comes in due season.
February 3, 2023
“Therefore we ought to pay greater attention to the things that were heard, lest perhaps we drift away. For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation—which at the first having been spoken through the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders, by various works of power and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to his own will?” Hebrews 2:1-4, WEB
God has a way of confirming what He is saying to His people.
I write a weekly devotion that is posted to our email blast that I try to base on our pastors’ sermons for the previous Sunday. Sometimes my schedule is hectic enough that I try to write someone based on what the intended direction is to be. Whichever one is preaching sends out an email late in the week so that we can pray for God’s blessings, so I have an idea. I know the scripture and the basic focus. So, I try to get a good start on it. Sometimes I need to make changes after I hear the sermon, but it is amazing how many weeks I have practically read their minds.
It isn’t so unusual, though, is it? The Holy Spirit works among God’s people to speak the words that His people need to hear. It isn’t so unusual that two or three will make the same proclamation because God is in the midst of their ministry. Have you ever had one of those thoughts that seemed to come to you from somewhere beyond yourself, one of those Holy Spirit moments? It isn’t necessarily that you’ve heard an audible voice or a visit from an angel, but you see or hear something and it turns our thoughts to the things of God. This devotion is often built on those experiences.
How many of those moments have been followed by thoughts of doubt. You hear something, but the world seems to be telling you something completely different. I don’t think any of us really feel like God is talking so directly to us, so when we have these thoughts we think we might be crazy. Or, we don’t believe what we’ve thought. We question the idea because it seems as though we are the only one who has thought it. How could it be true if everyone else thinks differently? Then you see a story or talk to a friend. You see a meme on Facebook with a scripture that parallels the thought. You read an article with a similar story and realize that you are not the only person who has been thinking these things.
Let me give you an example. I once wrote about a child pulling on the pants leg of a parent, seeking their full attention. The child just wants a moment of time to tell us how much they love us, but the parent is often too busy to bend over and listen. They miss the moment because they are caught up in life. I was amazed at how many times I heard stories about how other people were learning that lesson that week. One woman I spoke to realized that she should spend more time with her daughter She told me, “My daughter is constantly trying to get me to play, but I have other things to do. I wonder how many moments I’ve missed?” She vowed to more time with her daughter; she realized that it would not only be good for her relationship with the girl, but also with God.
That week I also read an article about a woman who decided to put down her cell phone and just watch her twin boys for a time. She kept track of the moments they sought her attention; the times they called out for acknowledgement that she saw what they were doing. It happened twenty-eight times in a half hour. She wondered how many times she ignored those cries, teaching her children that the Internet is more important than them. A comment under the story was from a woman who was playing with her son. Her phone was at hand, and she kept looking at it during the game. The boy touched her hand, took the phone, and set it aside upside down. She hadn’t even realized how little attention she was paying him until he showed her.
In less than a week, several different people of their own volition made exactly the same point. My voice was just one of many making the same cry in our world that day. The devotions and these stories made me realize that I should be paying more attention to the world around me than my phone. Of course, I’ve failed over and over again, but I try to remember to put it in its place. I believe this is God’s work in and through His people; it is obviously something God wants us to hear.
Sometimes when I am writing, I think that what I have to say comes out of nowhere. I think I must be crazy, and I know the world would say that I am. Yet, as I do my research and pay attention to the world around me, I discover that I am not the first person to think these things. As a matter of fact, I usually discover that some people much more educated than I am have already presented these ideas. They stand as witnesses that this is God’s Work and I’m just another voice. This is why I am so grateful that what I hear on Sunday morning lines up to what I’ve already written.
The reality is that we are really good at coming up with crazy ideas that aren’t from God even though we think that they are. We believe in our hearts and we hold onto those ideas, thinking that surely God has blessed us with something new. This is how many of the modern “prophets” think. However, we can be deceived, our hearts can be led astray. It is better for us to look for the witnesses, to seek confirmation of our thoughts through the scripture, and to ask God if what we have heard is really from Him. See, God has not changed. My thoughts about paying attention to the children is not new, although the circumstances in our modern world might be different. Jesus told us to pay attention to the children. Our thoughts about God and faith will never be new, but God will use us regularly to remind one another of His Word. And when He really wants us to hear the message, He’ll use many voices to share it. God still talks to His people; He does so through His people. May we always listen and seek to hear the many witnesses He has called to confirm that the word we hear is real and true.
February 6, 2023
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which will be revealed toward us. For the creation waits with eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to vanity, not of its own will, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of decay into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now. Not only so, but ourselves also, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in hope, but hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for that which he sees? But if we hope for that which we don’t see, we wait for it with patience. In the same way, the Spirit also helps our weaknesses, for we don’t know how to pray as we ought. But the Spirit himself makes intercession for us with groanings which can’t be uttered. He who searches the hearts knows what is on the Spirit’s mind, because he makes intercession for the saints according to God.” Romans 8:18-27, WEB
I am a cat person. Anyone who has read this devotional for any length of time have used the antics of my kitties many times. I have learned so many lessons from them that I started collecting the stories to put in a book. I began it years ago. I have returned to it occasionally. But I have not finished writing it. I suppose I thought that as long as I had cats, I would still learn things I should share.
The thing is, I’m nearly sixty years old and I have rarely been without a cat. I have been married to my husband for over 34 years, and we only had four months without a cat in our house, and that was when we were moving to England. Our cat at the time was elderly and we did not think she would survive the six-month quarantine. We have had at least two cats for most of the time we have lived in Texas. Sadly, we have lost three cats in the past two years. Tigger died in February 2021 and then Delilah died in September of that same year. That left us with Samson, Delilah’s twin. We did not get another cat to keep Sammy company because Bruce and I decided to take a break from pet ownership. We wanted freedom from the responsibility, although when we made that decision after Tigger died, we did not think we would have to deal with it for several years.
Sadly, Sammy died last Friday. He was not feeling well, and the vet found a tumor in his digestive tract. It is always a hard decision to make, but the best thing we could do for him was to let him go. He had stopped eating and he was isolating himself. The vet told us that she could take tests and perhaps extend his life for a few months, but it would not be a quality life. Sometimes the best thing you can do for your pets is to let them go.
We have always had a cat waiting at home for us when we said good-bye to the others. They grieved, as we did, but they were still here and we learned how to live without our friend. Not this time. This time we came home to an empty house. There was no cat waiting for us at the door. There was no cat to eat the food our use the water fountains. There was no cat to use the litter box or play with the toys. I spent a few hours cleaning up all those things. I washed the favorite blankets. I emptied the food and water bowls. I touched Sammy’s favorite toys. It almost seemed as though I was wiping his presence from the house, but I was dealing with my grief by caring for him this one last way.
This was not much different than the way ancient generations dealt with their dead. Most of us don’t do it anymore, but in the past the family spent time with the deceased, cleaning their body, touching them with love one last time. It was a way to deal with the grief and to show love in a very special way. We don’t do this anymore. We cringe at the idea of touching dead bodies, so we pass them off to morticians who do the work. And I sometimes think that we have lost an important step in dealing with our grief. These activities are gifts, a chance to say good-bye, a chance to remember, a chance to tell the stories. Yes, it is hard, but sadly death is a fact of life.
However, death is not what God intended for His creation. And when Adam and Eve sinned against God, they broke more than their relationship with God. They broke the whole world. Cats die because we sin. People die because sin entered the world. A day will come when death will no longer have the final say, but until that day we’ll have to suffer the consequences of our brokenness. We’ll have to say good-bye to those who love, both human and animal. We do so with a hope that God’s promises have been fulfilled through Jesus Christ. Paul wrote that all of creation groans as we wait for that day. This means pets will leave us too early, and people too. But as I recently heard someone say, “Love is worth the grief.”
It is hard because there is no longer someone waiting at the door when we come home or to be our alarm in the morning. There are no more demands for playtime or purring lap snuggles. And as much as we love our kitties, the grief is far worse when we are saying good-bye to a spouse, or child, or parent, or friend. The best we can do is remember that God loves us. Jesus loves us. And one day we’ll experience that love in ways we can’t imagine today. For now, we’ll learn how to deal with our grief. We’ll say our good-byes with the hope that God has already made things right and the patience to love while we wait for that which is ours by God’s grace, an eternity in the presence of our Creator Redeemer God.
And maybe I’ll finally finish that book.
“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose. For whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. Whom he predestined, those he also called. Whom he called, those he also justified. Whom he justified, those he also glorified. What then shall we say about these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who didn’t spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how would he not also with him freely give us all things? Who could bring a charge against God’s chosen ones? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, yes rather, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Could oppression, or anguish, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Even as it is written, ‘For your sake we are killed all day long. We were accounted as sheep for the slaughter.’ No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from God’s love which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:28-39, WEB
In yesterday’s devotion, I quoted someone who said that love was worth the risk. We loved our kitties. All our kitties. We might think it would have been easier to not have had those kitties. The pain of loss is so hard. It made me sad to leave this morning and not give Sammy a hug and promise him I would be home soon. It was lonely to come home to an empty house, with no kitty to run up to greet me. I wanted to go walk through the pet department at the grocery store, but there was no reason to do so. Online cat videos make me a little teary. Yet, the love we shared over the years was worth the grief we are feeling today.
Romans 8:28 is one of my favorite texts because it reminds me how much God is in control of the world in which we live. His grace is woven so intricately throughout our lives that we may do something or meet someone today that will have an impact in a day, a year or even decades later. In some cases, the impact is seemingly insignificant, but at other times the lessons have been lifesaving. Sometimes we do not even know the impact those experiences have on others or ourselves, yet sometimes God gives us a glimpse so that we know that He will make everything work out for the good of those who love Him. Even when we lose someone we love.
I’ve been trying to write a book about my cats, to share those stories with others so that they might learn the lessons I have learned from my kitties. This book includes stories from my childhood and the cats that were part of our home decades ago. Each one of our cats was a gift from God. The lessons I learned from each of them made me look at God and life in a new way. Perhaps I’ve struggled with that writing because I needed to see the “end of the story.” Oh, it is likely that we’ll eventually get a new cat or two, but as we take this break from the responsibility, now is a good time to focus on all the stories that have happened without the distractions of the new stories that were being written daily. Perhaps my writer’s block was God’s way of making me wait so that I could put together the book as He intends it to be.
The grief I am experiencing may just be what I need to spur me on to do this work that God is calling me to do. He will certainly use my love and my grief to His glory in the world, whatever I accomplish. Those of us in Christ have an advantage to get us through the hard times: we have a hope that goes beyond the things of this world. We know God’s love is bigger than the hard times and that He will see us through everything we face. Even death does not hold us down. The great joy is found in knowing this and sharing it with the world. Perhaps they will not hear or believe in Christ from our witness, but we are blessed to be a blessing and we do what we do trusting that God will use our work according to His will. He is in control, and He makes good things happen out of our lives even when everything seems bad.
We are to live our lives in Christ knowing that nothing can separate us from Him. He will use our good times and our struggles to teach the lessons that make us look at Him and the life we have in Him in a new way. As God’s light shines upon us through all our experiences, His light will also touch others and they will be blessed. Even in grief we are to be faithful and hopeful, for out of that will come true joy and peace. We have the victory, and though there are still battles being fought, still grief to be experienced, we know the outcome of our struggles. In grief and sadness, God offers hope and peace. Jesus Christ defeated death and the grave for us and for all of creation that is groaning in expectation of the fulfillment of God’s promises.
February 8, 2023
Lectionary Scriptures for February 12, 2023, The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37
“For I command you today to love Yahweh your God, to walk in his ways and to keep his commandments, his statutes, and his ordinances, that you may live and multiply, and that Yahweh your God may bless you in the land where you go in to possess it.” Deuteronomy 30:16, WEB
We are studying Paul in our adult Sunday school class. Our focus right now are the words and ideas that are central to Paul’s understanding of the Gospel like justification, reconciliation/peace, and forgiveness. These words are each separate aspects of what happens in the salvation won for us by Jesus Christ on His cross. We are justified, which means we are made righteous by the grace of God through the blood of Jesus. He died in our place, taking from us the wrath we deserve for our sinful natures and giving us His righteousness so that we can stand before our Father at the throne of judgment. We are forgiven our sins because Jesus is the scapegoat upon which all our failings, past, present and future are laid and sent away.
Thanks to Jesus we are reconciled to our God, which leads to peace in our lives. That peace is not a state of security in a community, although there is a little of that peace promised, too, as we who are justified and reconciled to God by His forgiveness also become reconciled to one another as we forgive those who have hurt us. The concept of peace in the scriptures is a wholeness. It is the harmony and calmness of body, mind and spirit trusting in the power and grace of God. Peace is knowing that God is in control and that He knows what He’s doing.
Reconciliation is the goal of the Gospel and of the church. Martin Luther never wanted the brokenness that came out of the Reformation. He wanted to strengthen the Church by standing firmly on Christ. If reconciliation is our goal, then forgiveness is the path and peace is the outcome. We have been called to stand firmly in God’s Word, to take the Gospel to our neighbors, and to be God’s hands and voice in the work of healing our brokenness. We can’t do it alone. We are not enough. We need Jesus.
Those who worship in a liturgical setting are familiar with a moment that we call “Passing the peace.” For many Christians, this is a time to catch up, to hug our best friends, and to acknowledge those who may be new to our community. It is seen as a time to wish each other well. It often takes more time than it should as the worship leader has difficulty getting everyone settled back into their seats. I am as guilty as the next person, chasing my friends to give them a hug and tell them how pleased I am to see them. This isn’t a bad thing, but it is not the purpose of this moment in the liturgy. It is meant to be a moment of reconciliation. We should take that time to forgive and be forgiven so that the broken relationships in the congregation are healed before we all visit the Table to receive the Eucharist.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells us “If therefore you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Passing the peace is about reconciliation. It is about restoring our relationships with one another before we stand before God.
We all know that the church is struggling these days. It didn’t begin with Martin Luther, but we are far from the reconciliation that he always wanted. Peter and Paul had their disagreements. Paul wrote to the Corinthians because they were having trouble getting along. Churches are fighting within, splitting over how to deal with the issues of the day. I’ve even seen congregations divided over silly things like the color of the carpet, but our brokenness is so much deeper. Christians are saved by the grace of Christ, but we are still sinners, and we still desire much that the world has to offer. This means standing against Christ and one another. And all too often, we place the blame on the other and do not accept our own fault.
I had a friend who got a divorce. He hated his ex-wife. She could not do anything right. She was to blame for everything that went wrong. He thought she was evil, and he could never find even a small positive thing to say. He was angry. Unfortunately, he was also blind. He refused to see the role he played in their break-up. He refused to believe that he was even a little bit at fault. I knew him well enough to know that his attitude and actions played a bigger role in their brokenness than he would ever admit. Whenever I gently suggested that he look at his own sinfulness, he rejected my words. He even lashed out at me, refusing to accept his sinfulness.
I don’t know what happened in their marriage, but I do know that broken relationships are never wholly one-sided. The best we can do for our own life is to consider our own fault and work toward reconciliation. They would never be friends again, but they had children and had to find a way to work together. He was unwilling to give even and inch, which made it all the more difficult for their children. Sometimes, for the sake of others and ourselves, we have to take the initiative to make things right in brokenness, even if we are not the one who is at fault.
Jesus is calling us to accept our role in our brokenness. How often do we wait until the other initiates the reconciliation because we believe they hold the greater guilt in the matter? We think we are innocent. Listen to the arguments on the day time court shows and you’ll see just that. One litigant refuses to pay because the other did something wrong. The other litigant will tell you that they did that thing because the other didn’t pay. It is a vicious circle when we play the blame game. How do we forgive someone who hasn’t repented? How do they forgive us when we don’t do so?
When Luther began his career, he was committed to the ways of the church as he understood it, which suggested that human beings were capable of earning salvation. He struggled with this because he knew that the more he tried, the less he deserved God’s grace. He lived through “the dark night of the soul” during this time and came close to despair.
He took his job as a professor very seriously and as he delved more deeply into the scriptures as he prepared for his classes. He even went so far as to learn Greek and Hebrew so that he could translate the texts from the original. His understanding of salvation changed dramatically as he taught through the book of Romans. The true Gospel was revealed to him; he realized that we can’t earn our salvation. He realized that human beings will always tend toward selfishness, self-righteousness, and self-centeredness. He grasped onto Romans 3:28, “We maintain therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law,” and in that verse found the key that set him free from the despair that nearly sent him to hell forever. Christ and Christ alone make Christians “perfectly whole in hope.” We will never be enough. We need Jesus.
We are not right in this world, even with Jesus, that’s why we need Him daily. We fail. We sin. We make mistakes that break relationships. It may be true that the “other” has done something worse, but we need to accept that the brokenness is because we are all sinners. Sometimes it is best for us to forgive where there is no repentance. After all, we are forgiven not by our actions but by God’s grace. As forgiven sinners, we are meant to work toward reconciliation through forgiveness. The blessing will never be found in holding a grudge and we may discover that taking the initiative will make miracles happen.
Holding on to anger can hurt us more than the sin that was committed against us. That’s what I saw in the life of my friend who refused to forgive his ex-wife and that’s what Jesus is saying in the confusing verse in today’s Gospel lesson. My friend was hurting his children, himself, and his ex by holding on to his anger. Jesus said, “But I tell you that everyone who is angry with his brother without a cause will be in danger of the judgment. Whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ will be in danger of the council. Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of Gehenna.” This statement is a process before court. Each statement takes us further into punishment. Since anger is the same as murder, anger deserves a harsh punishment. We are first accused, and this sin deserves a sentence of death. What is the judgment? How will he die? He is found guilty and is already sentenced. Finally, he is handed over to the executioner and is sent to hell.
“Raca” and “thou fool” are both insults, but thou fool is the greater one. “Raca” suggests anger against neighbor, but “thou fool” suggests that the speaker sees the neighbor (or enemy) as already deserving of hellfire. The word may translate as “apostate” and thus suggests that the person deserves death and eternal punishment. The man who tells his brother that he is doomed to hell is in danger of hell himself. John Stott wrote about this text: “Anger and insult are ugly symptoms of a desire to get rid of somebody who stands in our way. ‘I wish you are dead’ is an evil wish and a breach of the sixth commandment.”
Our Father wants us to be reconciled, to live in peace with one another, and so Jesus encourages us to think about what we are saying. A death wish will never lead to life.
The joke regularly made after I’ve mentioned this true reason for passing the peace is that everyone is going to watch me. “We’ll know something is up if we see you cross to the other side of the sanctuary!” We don’t really want to make such a public demonstration of our brokenness, and so we pass the peace to those who are nearby and continue to ignore the conflicts that are causing us to lose sight of our God. See, brokenness in our everyday life and world is magnified in our relationship with God. We can’t hate a neighbor and love God; this is why God wants us to lay down our offering and reconcile.
We have a choice. We can hold the grudges that keep us apart from others, or we can pass the peace and find common ground in the reality of our need for God’s grace.
The Old Testament lesson takes place at the end of the Exodus story. The Israelites were wandering in circles throughout the wilderness for forty years because they broke their relationship with God. A whole generation passed, and the new generation finally reached the Promised Land. They were standing on the far side of the river preparing to see the promise made to their forefathers fulfilled. Moses gave them one final message before they crossed. They made the choice once when offered the opportunity to be saved from Egypt. The choice was easy then: stay in slavery or go to the Promised Land? They overwhelmingly chose to go forward into God’s promises. Yet, that first generation did not stay faithful. They turned from God along the way, more quickly than you might expect! That’s why they wandered for forty years. They made their choice to not trust God and they suffered the consequences.
But now a new generation stood on the banks of the Jordan River, ready to cross over. The next part of their journey would take even more trust. Joshua would have to lead the people in a parade around Jericho instead of into a battle. They would have to destroy everything according to God’s command. They would have to fight with ridiculously small armies. They would have to follow directions that made no sense at all. Moses called God’s people to commit to a life of obedience to God, no matter how ridiculous it seemed. They agreed to choose God. They agreed to trust Him.
Sometimes they obeyed, and they succeeded. But sometimes they made another choice. They went another way. They did their own thing, and in doing so chose destruction. We aren’t any different. We go our own way too often; we choose to follow our flesh rather than God’s grace. Our lives may appear good because we haven’t murdered anyone, slept with our neighbor’s spouse, or gone to court over defamatory statements about our neighbors. But who among us can say we haven’t been self-righteously angry or overcome with lust? Who among us can say we have never called someone a fool?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us the difference between living under God’s Law and living in His grace. In today’s Gospel text specifically, Jesus teaches that someone who murders is liable to judgment, but then goes even further by saying that even anger is liable to judgment. One act is liable to the judgment of men, but the other is liable to a greater judgment: that of God. He does the same with adultery. A man is commanded against adultery, but Jesus says it is even worse to look upon a woman with lust. Men can provide justice for someone who has been wronged by the physical act, but only God sees the deepest lusts of our hearts.
God knows that our hearts can be false, and that they can lead us down a dark and dangerous path. It might seem harmless to be angry or lust in our hearts, but it doesn’t take very long before the sins of our hearts are manifest in the flesh. It creeps up on us; we are tempted until we see no harm in action. We even justify that action because we are following our heart. How many times have we seen the family and friends of a murderer interviewed who have said, “He was such a kind and caring man”? They are so often surprised by what they didn’t see: the anger simmering in his heart that exploded into physical violence. How many people are surprised when a spouse is discovered having an affair?
Jesus seems to be setting unrealistic expectations. He commands not only that we obey the Law, but that we live in grace. He desires more than a life of obedience; He calls us to reconciliation. He knows our hearts and our temptations. It is so easy for us to respond to our anger by voicing our hostility. After all, we learn from a very early age that words can’t hurt us. And yet, Jesus tells the disciples that they are in danger of the hell of fire for calling someone a fool. The problem is not the words; the problem is the broken relationship. Murder is final, but even harsh words can destroy a relationship for a lifetime. We are called to live better; we are called to a life of peace. We can only do that when we are reconciled with others despite the foolish things we all do when we fall to the temptations of our flesh.
The most important relationship that is affected by our sin is our relationship with God. Sin separates us from our Father in heaven, but thankfully God has breached the gap by sending His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to die on the cross. Now God sees our sin through Jesus-colored glasses, forgiving us every time we fail. It is only in forgiveness that we can be reconciled to God, because without Him it is impossible for us to live according to His Word. The same is true of our relationships with people. We can only be reconciled through forgiveness. We need to forgive one another and ourselves of the sins that destroy our relationships.
Martin Luther wrote in his commentary on Galatians, “Works indeed are good, and God strictly requires them of us, but they do not make us holy.” We humbly approach these texts with the reality of our sinfulness. We will fail. We will break the commandments. We will destroy relationships, with God and with our neighbors. But we come to these texts with a promise: even when we fail, Christ has forgiven. He has reconciled us to God so that we can reconcile with our neighbors. We can’t do it on our own. We will never be enough. We need Jesus.
This is an urgent calling! We tend to wait until the right time. We wait until we feel better. We wait for our wounds to heal. We wait until we are not so angry. Unfortunately, things do not get better while we wait. There is never a right time. We don’t feel better. Our wounds fester and our anger simmers in our heart. Healing comes with forgiveness. Peace comes with reconciliation.
I can’t imagine what it was like to be in Corinth when Paul wrote his letter. Well, perhaps I can, because we continue to do the same things. There were factions in the church of Corinth, each following a specific teacher. One followed Paul and another followed Apollos. The people were missing that Christ was the center of both their ministries, and they were condemning one another in the process. We do the same by lifting up our own doctrines and denominations while claiming others are following false gods and false gospels. There may be good reason to rebuke a Christian if they are following a heresy, but we will never experience the peace of God if we condemn them to hell.
Paul had a problem. He wanted to teach the Corinthians a deeper understanding of God. He wanted to them to live a fuller, richer faith. However, they were not yet ready for spiritual understanding. They were still caught up in the world. He continued to teach them the basics of Christianity, even though they should have moved on to deeper things; instead of having the heart of Christ, they were living according to their flesh. And their flesh was sinful. Paul writes, “For insofar as there is jealousy, strife, and factions among you, aren’t you fleshly, and don’t you walk in the ways of men?”
Paul tells us that we have different purposes in Kingdom of God. We have different gifts and different opportunities. The trouble that was happening in Corinth is that the people were following individuals. One group believed the Gospel from Apollos’ point of view. Another followed Paul’s witness. Yet, each was a part of God’s work in the world. They weren’t looking at God, but to man.
That is our greatest problem. We look to ourselves, to our opinions, to our points of view for guidance, when God has something completely different in mind. We think we are enough and we lose sight of the reality that we need Jesus. We get so caught up in what we want that we miss what God has for us. The Israelites followed God out of Egypt, but it didn’t take them very long to realize that the path was going to be hard, and they stopped looking to God. They wanted to turn around and go back to Egypt. How often do we start following God but when the going gets rough we decide to turn around. We think, “This way is better.” Or, “God could not have made this decision” so we go our own way. Or we think we can’t continue and then we end up going in the wrong direction, suffering the consequences of not trusting in God.
Worst of all, we hold on to our hurts and our angers because we can’t believe that God would want us to reconcile with that other person.
The psalmist writes, “Blessed are those whose ways are blameless, who walk according to Yahweh’s law.” We aren’t perfect, and we will never be perfect in this life. We might get beyond the milk to the solid food to which Paul refers, but we will continue to be selfish, self-righteous, and self-centered. Though we are forgiven, we are still sinners in need of the Savior. We still do things that will satisfy our flesh and follow human understanding. But God gives us the grace and the Spirit to try to live as He has called us to live, to follow His commandments, and be obedient to His Word. We do this not of our own volition, but we do it because we have been forgiven. God makes us righteous. He makes us perfect. He leads the way. He loves us with a gracious and forgiving love and calls us to do the same with our neighbors. The deeper we love God, the more we will love our neighbors. When we truly love our neighbors, we will never abandon them to the hell of fire but will invite them into the heart of grace.
We don’t much like dealing with the scriptures for this Sunday. As I was doing my research for these texts a few years, I read discussion board with postings from pastors that did not know what they were going to preach. “No wonder there aren’t a lot of postings here. This is such a difficult text to preach on. This is not the good-news Jesus we're used to.” “I’m not sure where I am going with all this either.” “It seems to me this is a very scary passage to preach.” Moses offers us difficult choices and Jesus tells us that even our thoughts are destructive. How do we, who prefer to emphasize God’s grace, find grace in the Law we are reading today?
In Deuteronomy 30:20 Moses says, “…for he is your life.” There’s the grace and the foundation on which everything we read today is built. The writers have used a lot of words describing the Law, but if we think about them, we’ll see that each one is built on the reality of God’s love for His people. He is our life. Now, what do we do with that? The choice is simple: life or death, prosperity or destruction. Certainly, we have no trouble making that choice! And yet, we don’t always know which way is the way to life or the way to death. It isn’t so clear cut as we are wandering through our own wildernesses.
The whole message of Christ, the message of forgiveness and mercy, is beyond our vision. The idea of God the Father giving His Son for our sake is just crazy. Why would an all-powerful God do that? Why would He have to? Though there are still things about the spiritual realm that we do not fully understand, we have a wisdom that is greater than anything in the world because we have a connection to the source of all wisdom. The Spirit of God dwells in our hearts and reveals to us that which God would have us know. We no longer live in the flesh, but in spirit. We are no longer uncertain but have confidence in the promises of God. We may not be enough, but Jesus is, and He has made peace possible through forgiveness, reconciling us by His grace to our Father and to one another. So choose life by walking in His ways so that you will truly have His peace.
February 9, 2023
“A glorious throne, set on high from the beginning, is the place of our sanctuary. Yahweh, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you will be disappointed. Those who depart from me will be written in the earth, because they have forsaken Yahweh, the spring of living waters.” Jeremiah 17:12-13, WEB
We have been getting some rain recently, not enough to break the drought but enough to make things green again. There’s a long way to go, but there’s always hope. The meteorologists are already pointing to rain chances in the next few weeks. Perhaps we will see relief in the next few weeks. We were in a similar situation a few years ago, and when it started raining, it rained enough to fill the springs to overflowing. We had friends who lived in the country and you could see the water bubbling up all around their yard. The creeks were full. The aquifer was restored, as were the lakes. After years of too little water, we finally had enough. That can, and will, happen again. When you live in a semi-arid environment, drought and abundance is cyclical.
Our friends had no idea that their house was built over springs. It took the overabundance of rain to make them visible. The same thing happens sometimes in other places where there are springs. I remember seeing springs overflowing over the rocky cliffs left behind as roads were built around my hometown. It was necessary as the nation grew in population to quickly build as many roads as possible so people and good could move from place to place. Roads are the main source of transportation around our much of our country. In the beginning, the roads followed the “cow paths.” These are the paths that were worn into the land by the cows as they went from field to field. Those paths laid the course of the tiny country roads that go up, down, and around the hills, turning a new direction whenever necessary. As time when on, men began to build bigger and straighter highways so that we could travel safer and faster.
They used explosives to cut into the hills to make those highways, leaving rocky cliffs beside the road. Inside those hills are springs of water that were set free in the process. As you drive along those roads, you can see trickles of water flowing from the rocks. I have often seen people fill pitchers and jugs with the cool, clear waters from these springs. Most people do not even realize what a wonderful source of water exists in those hills. Those tiny waterfalls are most beautiful in the winter when the cold weather makes the water freeze on the road, creating frozen waterfalls that are beautiful. It is then you can see how much water really flows out of those hills.
Lord Jesus Christ said He is a spring of water welling up to eternal life (John 4:14). Unfortunately, not everyone recognizes who He is or what He has done for the world. Those who know Jesus as Lord and Savior have a reason to rejoice because we have Him as our resting-place. We are currently in a drought in our area, but even so there is water under the ground, springs just waiting to be refilled to overflowing. I suppose there are those who might tell you that we are experiencing a spiritual drought in our world today, but we know that the Living Water which is Jesus is always there, ready to bubble to the surface to overflow into the lives of those who are caught nearby. It is through our lives that Jesus waters the world.
Even in the times when things seem rough, the beauty of God’s eternal water can shine as it flows from our lives. It is our responsibility to share the Living Water that is Jesus with those who do not know Him. Who can you give a drink today? Who is nearby that you can offer a glass of hope so that they will believe? God does not want any to be thirsty, so take time today to share the water of eternal life for those who are thirsty so that they will experience God’s grace and be filled with hope.
February 10, 2023
“He said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been made a disciple in the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who is a householder, who brings out of his treasure new and old things.’” Matthew 13:52, WEB
I have a book that is one of my favorites from my childhood. It is a Christmas story called, “The Littlest Angel.” The story involves a young child who died and went heaven. Things were never quite the same because this little angel was untidy and mischievous, causing trouble wherever he went. An understanding angel took the little one upon his knee. He knew the little angel was troublesome because he was unhappy. So, he asked the little angel what would make him happy. The little angel whispered that there was a small box under his bed and if he could have it, he would be happy. The box was brought to heaven and the little angel began to behave angelic. The time came for the baby Jesus to be born and all the angels were preparing gifts for the King. The littlest angel had nothing to give: he could not sing very well or write fine sounding prayers. Finally, he decided to give his small box, filled with his treasures from his life on earth: a butterfly, an egg-shell, a couple of stones, and the torn up collar from a dog that had been a loving companion. The littlest angel looked at all the beautiful gifts that were laid out for the baby Jesus, and he realized how silly it was to give such ordinary things. He tried to get the box back before anyone saw it laying there, but God took it to the heavenly throne and spoke, saying that of all the gifts, that one was most precious, because the child Jesus would also treasure those things and have to leave them behind when He died on the cross.
The story of the Littlest Angel might not be sophisticated theology, but it makes us think about the things we treasure. I was watching a show today when an audience questioned whether the stars had any sentimental things in their home. We recently asked the question what you would grab if you had sixty seconds to get out of your house. There are few of us who are wealthy. Yet, we all have some bits of memorabilia from those we love and the time we spent with them. We treasure our families, our churches, and our heritage. They are all part of who we are, and though God has created us, He has used the ordinary things and people of this world to mold us. The memories of those we have loved are special to us. While these things should never be held in greater esteem than our Lord God Almighty, the most ordinary things are often the quite precious, and God does honor our love for the simple things of this world. As we learn and grow in faith, those past experiences build one upon another to build us up for the sake of God’s glory.
As we grow in faith, we begin to look at our relationship with God and each other differently. Every Christian is at a different place in their journey, some are infants and others are mature in knowledge of God and deep in spiritual understanding. In the story of the littlest angel, we see the older angels looking down on the mischievous games of the child and the foolish love for those humble items in his small box. Yet, it was not the beautiful songs or the well-written prayers that God honored, it was the simple things from a child’s heart given in love.
It is possible for us to become too spiritual, to forget everything from our past and lift up only the new things we learn. I’ve even known people to reject basic Christian teaching for more spiritual endeavors. Others go so far as to condemn the religious heritage of their youth, suggesting we should leave the fellowship of our past for something new. Many people have condemned the faith of their fathers and the experiences of their youth, forgetting that God uses even the simplest things to mold us into that which He created us to be.
I often ponder my place in this world and in God’s kingdom, where I should be and what I should be doing. Yet, I know who I am in Christ Jesus, and part of that is where I have been throughout my life. We will constantly learn and grow in faith, but we should never forget the old things. It is good to remember the basic lessons of Christian faith, to go back to the Gospel regularly and remember from whence we came. It is good to embrace the simple things because God honors them as much as the deeper things. For the old and the new are treasures from God.
“The Lord said, ‘Because this people draws near with their mouth and honors me with their lips, but they have removed their heart far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men which has been taught; therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people, even a marvelous work and a wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men will perish, and the understanding of their prudent men will be hidden.’ Woe to those who deeply hide their counsel from Yahweh, and whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, ‘Who sees us?’ and ‘Who knows us?’ You turn things upside down! Should the potter be thought to be like clay; that the thing made should say about him who made it, ‘He didn’t make me;’ or the thing formed say of him who formed it, ‘He has no understanding?’” Isaiah 29:13-16, WEB
Children hear what they want to hear and remember what matters most to them. They ignore the things they’d rather not deal with, particularly mom’s requests to clean their rooms. We do the same with our Father in heaven, hearing only what we want to hear and ignoring the things that we’d rather not deal with. A child’s disobedience can be a frustration for a parent, particularly when they ignore the things that are most important – words that will guide and protect their lives.
I complain about my kids having selective hearing, but I know I’m guilty of it, too. Bruce was scheduled for a trip a few years ago and for some reason I could not remember where he was supposed to be going. I thought he told me that he was going one place, but then the next day I was confused again. I thought he told me another place, but even as he was walking out the door he had to remind me of his destination. I don’t know why I kept forgetting, perhaps it had something to do with the fact that he was going to be out of town over Valentine’s Day. Where he was going didn’t really matter much to me.
Sadly, we often have selective hearing when it comes to the Word of God. Obeying God is a difficult thing. He has extraordinary expectations for our lives. The world would have us follow our own path and do what we think is best. They promote self-righteousness and encourage conforming to what they think is good and right and true. God expects us to be humble and to rely on Him. The world looks at outer appearances; God sees our hearts. Isaiah was writing to the self-righteous of Israel whose hearts were not humble before God though they appeared to be doing everything right.
I really didn’t want Bruce to go away. I supported him with my mouth, yet my inability to remember where he was going showed that my heart was not there. Our kids say “yes, mom” when we tell them to do something, but they never quite get around to it. How often in our Christian walk do we do the same to our Lord? We say with our mouths that we love Jesus, but in our minds we are planning things that are against God’s will. We hide the truth from others by putting up a pretty façade, but God knows our intent. When God speaks, listen. His Word will have an extraordinary impact on your life. He’ll make you into a vessel for His glory.
“Beloved, let’s love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves has been born of God, and knows God. He who doesn’t love doesn’t know God, for God is love. By this God’s love was revealed in us, that God has sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son as the atoning sacrifice[a] for our sins. Beloved, if God loved us in this way, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God remains in us, and his love has been perfected in us. By this we know that we remain in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God remains in him, and he in God. We know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and he who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him. In this, love has been made perfect among us, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment, because as he is, even so we are in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear has punishment. He who fears is not made perfect in love. We love him, because he first loved us. If a man says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who doesn’t love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? This commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should also love his brother.” 1 John 4:7-21, WEB
There is a meme using the icon of St. Valentine that says, “Roses are red, violets are blue, I was beaten with clubs, beheaded, buried under the cover of darkness, disinterred by my followers, and you commemorate my martyrdom by sending each other chocolates.”
St. Valentine’s Day has become a secular and romantic holiday, but it began as a feast day for a saint called Valentine. So little is known about the man that they don’t celebrate his day in the Church any longer. Some suggest that Valentine’s Day is meant to honor a number of different martyrs with that name. He is described as a priest or a bishop in Italy or a martyr from Africa. The myth is that Valentine was martyred for performing marriage ceremonies for Christian couples who were being persecuted by the Roman emperor Claudius. His ministry is the reason why this day became a celebration of love and romance. St. Valentine is the patron saint of affianced couples, happy marriages, and love. He was martyred for the sake of love.
Valentine is a man of mystery to us, but on Valentine’s Day it is worth considering the idea of a mysterious man whose life was about love. After all, the story of God is a love story between God and His people. It is also a love story between God and His Son. And finally, it is a love story between God’s Son and all those who believe in Him. We don’t always understand His love for us, but the scriptures describe our relationship. Life with God is like a marriage; we are the bride, and He is the bridegroom. He is the King, and we are His valentine.
The stores have been filled with Valentine merchandise since the minute the Christmas decorations dwindled from the shelves. You can buy anything from simple cards to expensive jewelry to figurines depicting lovers in love. There are hundreds of different kinds of candy and stuffed animals. You can buy heart shaped pink bowls or lacey handkerchiefs. Everything is red, white and pink and it is all frilly. For some reason, love is linked to frills and fluff for Valentine’s Day.
In the end, however, it isn’t the gift that will convince our spouse or friend that we love them. People try too hard to make Valentine’s Day special, but they ignore romance and love the rest of the year. A special Valentine’s Day will never make something wonderful happen if something wonderful isn’t happening any other day. Those simple gifts are forgotten quickly. A stuffed bear has no real value except as a dust catcher or donation to charity. A dozen roses will wither and die. There is no lasting reminder of a box of candy except for the ten pounds we gain after we’ve eaten it all. A heart shaped diamond will never prove a deep and abiding love.
Our God is not about love in the pink hearts and syrupy emotions of Valentine’s Day, but He is about Love. His Love is found in mercy and forgiveness. Love is a daily experience, growing in our relationships through the good times and the bad. It takes harder work than an agonizing walk down the seasonal aisle at the local department store. It takes sacrifice and compromise. It takes faith and trust. It takes mercy and forgiveness. Most importantly, love does not come out of human effort but from the grace of God.
John tells us that no one has seen God, but that when we love we are like Him. As we love one another, not with romantic trinkets or expensive bobbles, but with the pure love that comes from God, the world sees His image in our hearts and in our lives. We love because God first loved us. Even more importantly, because God loves us there is nothing less we can do but to share that love with our loved ones, our friends, and our neighbors.
February 15, 2023
Lectionary Scriptures for February 19, 2023, Transfiguration of our Lord: Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2:6-12; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
“Jesus came and touched them and said, ‘Get up, and don’t be afraid.’” Matthew 17:7, WEB
Our house is in a homeowner’s association. I once said I would never buy a house that was in an HOA, but we love this house and the HOA is really not as intrusive as the stories I have heard about others. Things around our neighborhood have gotten interesting, however, as personalities on the board have clashed and the work of the HOA is not getting done. We don’t pay much attention, quite frankly. We simply want to live in our house and enjoy our neighbors. It is hard, however, when the people who have been elected to lead us are suing in court over frivolous things completely unrelated to the comfort and security of the homeowners. It is all politics; it is all about power.
Sadly, we can find political motives in every aspect of our life, but the most obvious is found in government systems. I don’t like to talk about politics; I try to keep my opinions to myself in this writing. I recognize that many of my readers would probably disagree with me on many issues. Many of my readers are from much different cultures; they wouldn’t understand some of the arguments that fill our time. This writing is meant to be an inspirational devotion encouraging discipleship that glorifies Christ whatever your point of view.
It is impossible, however, to ignore the reality of our world: politics are a part of our lives. Unless we never listen to the news or pick up a newspaper, we can’t avoid the topic. Even if we do avoid the media, it is a topic that will inevitably come up in our homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces. It was interesting to follow some of the discussions around the HOA debacle. The characters were using social media to get out their case. One board member’s husband posted a scathing letter against another board member. Others posted rebuttals. People were fired, lawsuits were threatened, and nothing got done. It is sometimes interesting, sometimes disturbing, to listen to the these arguments from people who are supposed to be working together for the sake of others.
This is true in any sort of political confrontation. Ultimately it is all about power, and no one wants to give up their control. Some people are deeply rooted in their opinions and discussion is about converting others. To them, any difference in opinion is a condemnation of a person’s sanity, intelligence, or even faith. It is not the opinion that is questioned or debated, but it is the person who has the disagreeable point of view that becomes the focus of the discussion. The person with an opposition opinion becomes an enemy, someone who is less in some way. Those discussions on social media got personal.
This happens in all aspects of life. It happens in religion, in science, in academia. It even happens between tea drinkers. Try starting a debate about regular tea and sweet tea someday. Coke or Pepsi? Which fast food fries are the best? Chili with beans or no beans? Which region makes the best barbeque? The person who is passionate about his or her opinion will often put down the other point of view. Most of the time it is in fun, but sometimes people take the question so seriously that they’ll reject the other and make the disagreement about which is best. It becomes personal and the relationship is broken because no one is willing to give up their power or control.
The psalmist asks why the nations want to revolt against the Lord God Almighty. The question is not a cry of arrogance against the other nations, but a question of surprise. When we sit down with a person with a different point of view, we often think to ourselves, “I just don’t understand how he or she can think like that.” However, we don’t do that because we are so certain that we think they are wrong, we do it because we see the world from an entirely different perspective. The psalmist knows the loving grace of God and simply can’t understand a perspective that can’t see that grace. The psalmist is amazed by this point of view because he or she knows that any revolt against the LORD is fruitless.
Trusting in the Lord is the only path that leads to true life. This is the lesson we are meant to learn throughout the Church year, as we see Christ born, live, die, live again, and teach us how to follow Him in this world as we wait for His coming again. There are some moments that stand out, like the focus of this week’s texts.
We have reached the end of the Epiphany season, the season of light, and we end the season with one great flash of light. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been enlightened with the words of the Sermon on the Mount, giving us instruction on what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. It hasn’t been easy to hear, since Jesus put before us expectations that at times seem impossible. The Beatitudes demand a life counter to the culture. Politics is everywhere. We are told to seek power and control. But Jesus teaches about living upside down in the world. We are salt and light. Avoid anger and lust. Do not divorce, make oaths, or retaliate. Love your enemies. Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.
We’ve heard Paul warn us, as he warned the Corinthians, against division in the church. Our focus is now and ever shall be Jesus Christ, for it is through Him and His work on the cross that we have received grace and salvation. God’s temple is holy, and we are that temple.
Paul warned the Corinthians to be careful not to think too highly of themselves. God is greater than all of us and we are to treat each other with the grace He first gave to us. We are not to boast because everything belongs to God, even power and control. Paul encourages us with the reality that we belong to God. “We are Christ’s and Christ is God’s.” (1 Corinthians 3)
You are Christ’s and Christ is God’s. The rest doesn’t seem so impossible now, does it?
We are warned to be careful to discern what we hear coming from men, and to always remember to keep our focus on God. This means carefully discerning what we say and do, our motives and our actions. Are we arguing for the sake of argument? Are we trying to hold on to some power or control that was never ours to begin with? Why are we fighting our neighbors? Have we made enemies where no conflict is even necessary? On September 11, 2001, I used the text from 1 Peter. That devotion was written before the events of that horrific day.
In that writing, I talked about how people interpret the signs in creation in relation to the coming of Christ. “Prophets and prophetic interpreters watch for things to happen, and they try to decipher what they mean and how they relate to the biblical descriptions of the last days.” This was certainly true in the days following 9/11. Many people used the disaster as a launching point for their prophetic utterances. Grief and fear made people flock to religious centers, to gather for prayer and worship, to comfort one another and seek answers to the questions on their hearts. Many voices were willing to give answers, but so many of those voices did not agree. Some voices, even in the earliest moments of that tragedy, were seeking power and control.
Unfortunately, many of the prophetic voices of that day and in our day are speaking not from God’s power or Spirit, but from a sense that if they speak it loud enough or long enough, then it will be true. It is humorous to watch a “prophet” (or politician) explain away his mistake, justifying his misinterpretation by reconciling it with actual events. Many “prophets” will wait to release a “word” until after he or she can make it fit the circumstances of the day. “See, I received this word, but now I see it is true and reveal it to you.”
Peter writes, “For we didn’t follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” And “For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but holy men of God spoke, being moved by the Holy Spirit.” So, how do we tell? How do we know which voices are right and which are false? How can we be sure that we are on the right side of any argument?
Thomas Aquinas lived in the thirteenth century. He was a teacher and a theologian. The thirteenth century was a time of philosophical rebirth. The work of Aristotle was making a renaissance, very popular among the educated in that day. Thomas Aquinas studied the works of Aristotle and found connections between his philosophy and that of the Christians. He believed that truth is known through both reason (natural revelation) and faith (supernatural revelation.) Natural revelation is available to all human beings as they use, observe, and experience the world in which they live. Supernatural revelation comes to men through the scriptures, the church, and prophets.
Some prophetic utterances are worth our attention. God does still speak to His people. We are reminded, however, that we are to discern that which comes from God and that which comes out of the desires of men. Is that prophetic word confirmed by that which has been revealed to us already? Does it stand up to the light of Christ? Aquinas found the Gospel in the midst of that which was popular in his day, and he taught the people how to balance faith with intellect. He didn’t change the Christian message to fit into the society of his day but developed a method of using philosophy to explain Christianity. The false prophets are those that change the message to fit their prophetic utterances.
My mother had two rings. Both of those rings looked like large diamonds, between two and three karats. One had a silver-colored setting, the other was gold-colored. One was a diamond, the other a cubic zirconia. She always wanted a large diamond on her finger, but our family never had the kind of money necessary for that type of jewelry. She bought the cubic zirconia to give her the feeling of having the “big rock” until she could afford it. Then she saved her money. Eventually she had enough to purchase the real diamond. It was not a high-quality rock, but it was beautiful. She was proud of her efforts and wore her ring with pleasure. When she got sick at the end of her life, she stopped wearing the jewelry.
After mom died, we knew that one of the few treasures she had was that diamond ring. The house was cluttered: housekeeping was never her strength and though Daddy did a good job taking care of her when she was sick, the clutter was not a concern. So, we cleaned. We organized the things that might be of use to someone else, threw away the garbage. We looked for the ring as we went through her things. We were careful to look closely through everything. We searched every pocket and dug to the bottom of every purse. We found one of the rings in her jewelry box. We thought it might be the real diamond, but we weren’t sure. We had to find both rings for comparison.
We found the second ring tucked into the corner of a windowsill. She must have taken it off when she was sitting on a chair near the window and put it there for safekeeping. It didn’t make sense, and we thought that it must be the cubic zirconia because it was just lying around. We looked at both rings; none of us were expert gemologists, but we thought for sure we would be able to tell the difference. However, the stones looked amazingly similar. We cleaned rings, hoping it would help. We considered the setting, thinking that might give us a clue. We eventually took them to a jeweler because that was the only way we would find the truth.
The answer didn’t make sense: the ring we found on the windowsill was the real diamond and the cubic zirconia was the one in the jewelry box. I’m sure that she put the cubic zirconia in the jewelry box when she purchased the diamond and that it had been there for a long time. The diamond was probably on the windowsill because she wore it often. She loved it. But one day she had to take it off and then she probably never put it back on. It was no less important, and she probably hoped to be well enough one day to wear it again.
The story of Pompeii is a tragedy. We know about what happened in that town at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius from two major sources—archeology and the letters of Pliny the Younger. Those letters described what happened the day that the volcano erupted burying the town and the people of Pompeii. Archeological digs since the town’s rediscover in the mid-eighteenth century have given us an image of what life was like in the ancient Roman Empire. Pompeii was a suburban town, with people from every class represented. The people of Pompeii had no idea what would happen on that day in August 79. Unfortunately, there were plenty of signs—earthquakes, tremors, dried up wells—but they did not recognize those signs.
Ironically, the Romans celebrated Vulcanalia, the festival honoring the Roman god Vulcan, on August 23rd, just one day before the eruption. The Romans believed in multiple gods, each representing some aspect of life. The people worshipped them in relation to those things. There was a god for war, for peace, for rain, for procreation. The festivals were meant to placate the gods so that they would be blessed by them. The signs in nature were interpreted as emotional responses by the gods to the people’s actions. Floods were a sign that the rain god was upset. Barrenness was a sign that a woman had sinned. A volcano eruption was a sign that the fire god was angry. Despite the signs around them, the people began August 24th with a sense of assurance because they had just offered sacrifices to Vulcan.
Imagine what it must have been like at the foot of the mountain when Moses went to talk with God. Though the God on that mountain was the God of their forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, they did not know Him very well. They had spent four hundred years in Egypt. The Hebrews had lost touch with their God. They knew the foreign gods and recognized that the signs of nature could be interpreted as communication from the divine. It must have been frightening to the people to see that cloud descend down the mountain as their leader was climbing up. Was it a bad sign? Was Moses going to be safe? What did the fire mean? Would this God really save them from their suffering?
Forty days and forty nights are a long time. I confess that I worry every time my son or husband are a few minutes later than I expect them. We begin to worry if someone is out of our presence for even a day or two. How could Moses survive up there? It was an extraordinary experience for Moses; he stood in the presence of God, learning how to lead God’s people. He learned about the tabernacle, the laws, and worship. He received the tablets of stone. When he came off the mountain, he retained some of the glory of God. It shone in his own face. By then, even in such a short period of time, the people had forgotten Moses and the God who delivered them from Egypt. Moses found them worshipping an idol, running from that which frightened them by trying to placate the gods in a way that they knew. In less than forty days they forgot the one who had saved them from bondage and returned to the ways they had known for four hundred years.
They weren’t very patient people and they thought they had the power to be in control. God was not idle during those days and Moses was not dead. The people looked to themselves for salvation instead of waiting for God. They tried to take the divine into their own hands, to lift themselves into heaven. They did this over and over again throughout their history. They revolted against God, not in an open rebellion as it at the foot of Mount Sinai; they revolted by turning to the power of men and nations for help. They revolted by going their own way instead of the way of God. They revolted by doing their own thing. That’s sinfulness; we are all guilty. We all go our own way. We all think that we know best. We all think that our way is the right way, not only in our opinions and ideas of the things in this world, but in the things of God.
Matthew wrote, “After six days...” as he began the story of the Transfiguration. This happened just after the confession of St. Peter. Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus blessed Peter but told him that he did not speak those words on his own. It was God who spoke through Peter’s confession. On the mountain, Peter, James, and John saw the truth of Peter’s confession. Jesus was transfigured on the mountain, glorified so that those with Him would know that He is all that He said He is. Things changed on that mountaintop; in the days that followed Jesus began His final walk toward Jerusalem and the world began to react to God’s grace with confusion and hatred.
Jesus began and ended His ministry with a mountaintop experience. In Matthew 4, Satan took Jesus to a high mountain and offered Him the kingdoms of the world. In that temptation, Jesus was given the opportunity to avoid all the messiness of obeying God’s plans. Satan gave Him the chance to rule without the cross. It would be easy for any of us to take the easy way out, to accept our own ideas and take control of our own destiny by our own power. But we don’t really have any power, but Jesus did, and He knew that God’s way was the right way. He had to go through the cross to complete what God began. God’s justice demanded a price and Jesus was willing to be the sacrificial lamb. On the mountain of transfiguration, God commended Jesus for His obedience and called Him the beloved Son, just as He had at Jesus’ baptism. With Him, God was well-pleased.
There are parallels between Moses and Jesus in the texts we read this week. First of all, Moses waited on the side of the mountain for six days before he was invited into the presence of God and Jesus climbed the mountain six days after predicting His death. In the case of Moses, the people thought that he would die. Jesus knew he would. Both trusted in God’s Word and obeyed God’s command, knowing that He would do what was necessary for the sake of His people. Both Moses and Jesus entered into the glory of God. Both were totally covered by His Light. Both heard the voice of God and experienced His presence. In the Old Testament story of Moses and the Gospel story about Jesus, we see the place where heaven meets earth, where God mingles with His people.
The world is filled with voices in politics, religion, science and academia. The voices we hear these days speak with so-called wisdom but do not come from God. There are many people who seem to preach but are speaking a different gospel. They twist the word to fit their point of view and ignore everything about the scriptures that reject their own way of living. They often focus on mountain top experiences and ignore the reality of sacrifice. They avoid the cross. In their own way, they have turned from God. They aren’t building altars of gold, but they are building altars that serve their own desires. They are trying to hold onto the power and control that belongs to God.
On this last Sunday of Epiphany, we celebrate a moment when God revealed Jesus as more than the Light. On the mountaintop God transfigured Jesus and revealed Him as more than the Light. Peter, James and John witnessed Jesus being transformed into a divinely shining being standing among the great men of their faith. Moses, the father of the Law and Elijah the father of the prophets stood for everything on which their faith was built. Peter wanted to capture the moment, to build a temple on the spot to honor Jesus and hold on to the glory. Jesus said “No.” He told them to keep it a secret. He told them to hide their experience away until the future day when “the Son of man be risen from the dead.”
Then Jesus invited the three to follow Him to the valley, to do the work of God. Jesus went to the cross and died for our sake. It was on the cross, not the mountain, that Jesus was truly glorified. It was not beautiful; as a matter of fact, it was horrific and tragic, not only for Jesus but also for those who loved Him. His humiliation was there for all to see. It was the diamond in the rough. The transfiguration, as glorious as that moment must have been, was not the ultimate glory. It was a mountaintop experience that was used to compare to the real glory that would be found on the cross. It seems backwards to us. It seems upside down. Didn’t Jesus deserve to be honored on that mountaintop? He did, but He knew the real glory would come on the cross where the word and work of God would be complete. Peter, James and John would not know that until later. They would see the truth after the resurrection.
We might want to argue about the “politics” of our day, but Jesus taught us to live in trust of God and to do His will. We might not understand, after all, we always want to win the argument whatever it is. It is not easy to live counter to the culture. Politics is everywhere. We are told to seek power and control. Jesus teaches about living upside down in the world. We have nothing to fear and we have no reason to argue. God is in control; He has the power to do what He intends in this world. Jesus was worthy of the Transfiguration, but He was willing to die on the cross. He experienced the glory on the mountain but left it behind for the true glory that comes with sacrifice.
“He called to himself the twelve, and began to send them out two by two; and he gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He commanded them that they should take nothing for their journey, except a staff only: no bread, no wallet, no money in their purse, but to wear sandals, and not put on two tunics. He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter into a house, stay there until you depart from there. Whoever will not receive you nor hear you, as you depart from there, shake off the dust that is under your feet for a testimony against them. Assuredly, I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city!’ They went out and preached that people should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed many with oil who were sick, and healed them.” Mark 6:7-13, WEB
I was really active with the kids when they were in school. I volunteered in their classrooms, helped with the Parent Teacher Organizations, and spent time helping around their schools in other ways. I was usually one of the parents who acted as chaperone on field trips; I was there for special events. I enjoyed helping the teachers and getting to know the children. Some of the work had wonderful benefits, like the year I was in charge of the visiting author program at the school in England. I had the opportunity to hang out with some incredible children’s authors; many of them gave me signed copies of their books in appreciation of the hospitality. Kevin Crossley-Holland took a nap on my couch.
As our children grew older, the tasks for volunteer moms were fewer. The teachers don’t really need parental help in the classrooms, and the kids really don’t want their mom hanging around. I had time on my hands when Victoria made it to Middle School, so I started working with a program to mentor other children. Each volunteer was asked to spend at least one hour a week with a child to be his or her friend. We played games, read together, and ate lunch. During the year I helped my mentee with special projects. I wasn’t in that city very long, so I only spent a couple years with my girl, but some mentors have the privilege of walking beside their who school careers. Those mentors give those children the extra support they need to succeed.
Mentoring programs have been around since the beginning of time, although they have been called many different things. Craftsmen learned the trade by being an apprentice to a master. Young people find mentors among their teachers and coaches. College students often have an advisor that helps guide them through their education. Alcoholics Anonymous encourages members to find a sponsor, an alcoholic who is farther along in the program to help and encourage them. As Christians it is helpful to have someone to help us along in our spiritual journey.
Even the greatest Christian leaders began under the teaching and encouragement of faithful believers who guided their faith and ministry. St. Augustine would not have even been a Christian if it had not been for his mother’s support. She prayed for him for years, until he finally turned from his wicked ways and was converted. Peter Boehler was a Moravian who showed John Wesley how to have a personal, restful trust in God. Even Martin Luther had Johann von Staupitz, his confessor, who helped him understand God’s grace.
There were those who rejected the work of the Reformers like Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon; the English preacher Hugh Latimer was one of the most vocal attackers. He described himself “as obstinate a papist as any was in England.” A scholar from Cambridge University named Thomas Bilney understood the work of the reformers and prayed that God would use him to lead Latimer to understanding. Bilney himself had come to understand the truth of the Gospel by one line of scripture, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” (1 Timothy 1:15) One day after listening to Latimer rant about the Reformation, Bilney took him aside and shared that verse. From that moment, Hugh Latimer led the English into the Reformation.
There is some person in all our lives who mentored us in our faith. It may have been a parent, pastor, teacher, or friend. These people helped guide our walk with Christ by sharing their faith and understanding. It is because of their encouragement and love that we can do the work God has called us to do. Every Christian is a disciple, born anew to live in Christ and share His Gospel with the world. We could not do it without the help of those who came before.
The disciples had the greatest mentor, our Lord Jesus Christ. They were the first to then go and share the message of Christ with the world, encouraging others and teaching them to live according to the Word of God. Those disciples went out to make more disciples through the ages to your mentor who shared the Gospel with you. Who will you mentor into a life of discipleship today? Will it be your child, a neighbor, or a friend? Will you help someone who rants against the truth of the Gospel find a simple faith in Christ? Jesus gave his disciples all they needed: the faith to go out and do His work. He does the same for us, touching us through the lives of those who come before so that we will go out and continue to touch the lives of those who come after. As disciples, we are called to be the mentors who pass the faith from generation to generation.
“Now Yahweh said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, and your relatives, and your father’s house, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. You will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who treats you with contempt. All the families of the earth will be blessed through you.’” Genesis 12:1-3, WEB
Have you ever read a book that was so good you just had to share it with everyone you know? Over the years I have had some children’s books that I’ve bought for my friend’s children and inspirational books that I thought would help others through tough times. Even if I can’t give them copies, I recommend them to as many people as I can. I keep these books in my library so that I can loan them to people who might be interested. A good book is a real gift, and it is important to share such gifts with others.
Some people are fanatical about keeping their books in perfect condition. They do not like to have the pages bent or the binding creased. For this reason, many people do not even open their bibles. I’ve known folks who are upset to see writing in the margins or highlighting on the words. To them, the bible is meant to stay pristine, even if that means it is never opened. They consider it a holy book that should not be touched or used. It is almost blasphemous to crinkle a page. The trouble with this attitude is that the Bible is a great gift from God which is meant to be used, studied, learned, and loved. I have worn out more bibles than I can count. We should not be throwing it around or purposely damaging the pages, but we can’t know what God has to say to us if we never open His love letter.
Unfortunately, too many Christians are like those unopened Bibles. They have faith in Christ but never take that faith beyond the church doors or the privacy of their homes. They don’t share the gifts they have with others; they don’t share the message of the Gospel with those who need to hear it. Christ died that we might be saved. Isn’t this a gift meant to be shared? Jesus lives so that we will have eternal life with God forevermore. Shouldn’t we be blessing others with this incredible gift? Forgiveness is not just for one person; it is for everyone. But how will they know if they never hear? We are blessed to be a blessing.
We have no problem accepting the gifts that God has to give to us. We easily hear the first part of the promise in today’s passage: that God will bless us and make us great. We love that God will bless our friends and curse our enemies. We fall short remembering that we are blessed for a purpose; we are blessed to be a blessing to others. While the blessings given to Abram are different than the promises we have received in Christ, this promise is meant for us all. We are children of Abraham and benefit from his righteousness, but we are also expected to share our blessings with others.
It does no good for us to be a Christian hidden behind our weekday flesh. We are called to be open books, to actively live our faith every day in every way, revealing God’s grace with our family, friends, and neighbors whether they are believers or not. We don’t know what might come of our witness. We may never see the results of our gifts in the lives of others. That does not matter. God does not bless us to keep it for ourselves. His gift of life is better than any of our favorite books. He gives us abundantly everything we need to do His work, more than we can ever imagine or consume. Like that good book we can’t keep to ourselves, why would we ever keep God’s word from being shared with others?
“May Yahweh answer you in the day of trouble. May the name of the God of Jacob set you up on high, send you help from the sanctuary, grant you support from Zion, remember all your offerings, and accept your burned sacrifice. Selah. May he grant you your heart’s desire, and fulfill all your counsel. We will triumph in your salvation. In the name of our God, we will set up our banners. May Yahweh grant all your requests. Now I know that Yahweh saves his anointed. He will answer him from his holy heaven, with the saving strength of his right hand. Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but we trust in the name of Yahweh our God. They are bowed down and fallen, but we rise up, and stand upright. Save, Yahweh! Let the King answer us when we call!” Psalm 20, WEB
One of my daily devotions is a Bible reading program that includes a different portion of the Bible each day of the week. I will have read the entire book by the end of the year. The Epistles are on Sunday, the Pentateuch on Monday, the history books on Tuesday, the Psalms on Wednesday, the poetry books on Thursday, the Prophets on Friday, and the Gospels on Saturday. Reading from the different parts of the book means that we won’t give up when we face a difficult section of the scriptures. We know that tomorrow will be better and so we get through the hard reading. I’ve also noticed when I have done this Bible reading program in the past, that those random texts from all over the Bible often line up and confirm the other texts I read that week.
It might be easier to read a little at a time, but it is still difficult because some of the stories are too bloody and violent for us. We don’t always understand the poetry or the apocalyptic language. We don’t get the point of view because it is so different than ours today. And we struggle with some of the stories. How can ever we understand a God who would ask Abraham to sacrifice his beloved child for whom he waited a lifetime? How can we accept the word of a God who would require the destruction of everything in a town by His invading army, even the animals and property? How can we believe the stories when they seem completely unbelievable?
Take the story of Gideon, for instance. He had an army of thousands available to defeat the enemy on his doorstep. Yet, God told him that he had too many for the task at hand. Gideon told the people that whoever wanted to leave could leave, and many left the battlefield to go home. Even with that big loss of men, God told Gideon that 10,000 is too many. “I’ll tell you which men to take,” He said. And in the end, God allowed only three hundred men to go into battle. Imagine you are one of those three hundred men: do you really follow Gideon?
We know that poor Moses was stuck with a nation of people who were not thrilled to be wandering around in the desert for forty years. They complained about everything: no water, no meat, no bread, too much meat, weird food that’s kind of like coriander that they made into bread. They wanted to go home. They wanted it to be done. They wanted someone else to lead them because Moses was not doing things the way they thought it should be done. Yet, in the end they followed Moses because God was with him and God proved Moses to be true.
Is God with our leaders? I suppose there are times when we think that is not true, yet God has a purpose for all of them. We might not agree with the way they are accomplishing their work. We may not like their agenda. We might think that their expectations are ridiculous. I’m not sure I would follow some people into battle or move to a new place if the circumstances were like those found in the scriptures. Yet, we are called to pray for our leaders, to hold them up before God and seek prosperity under their leadership. We might not understand why God has chosen them for this time and place, but we can trust that God knows what He’s doing in all things.
And so, let us take a moment on this Presidents’ Day to pray for our leaders. It is up to us to pray that they will listen to God and do His will so that He will bless them and us through them. When the leaders are blessed, whether they are leaders in a local organization or a global enterprise, whether they are kings or prime ministers or presidents, whether they rule over ten or ten million, the group will be blessed through their leadership. Whether we like them or not, the community is centered on them for a season, and it is up to us to pray for them so that they will do God’s will for the sake of those they lead.
“From that time, Jesus began to preach, and to say, ‘Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’” Matthew 4:17, WEB
I made donuts yesterday. I didn’t make my usual type of donuts for today, which are called fastnachts (which means fast night). Fastnachts are a special yeast raised potato doughnut that are deep fried and then covered with sugar or syrup. we are trying to eat healthier, and sugary deep-fried carb units are probably not the best thing for us to have. The recipe I use makes dozens of donuts and we just don’t know enough people who could help us eat so many, so I did something different. I made a small batch of baked cake donuts, enough to share and leave us a few bites. They are delicious. I missed the traditional fastnachts but am happy I could make a better option for our house this year.
The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday has also been called Fat Tuesday. In many places this is a national holiday and is a day of celebration. The parties began on Three Kings Day, January 6 and end with Mardi Gras. The carnival reaches a peak on Fat Tuesday with parades, feasts and costumes. The modern celebration of Fat Tuesday is wild, self-indulgent and sinful, seeming far from the Christian tradition of Shrove Tuesday. However, evidence of the Christian foundations of the day is still found in the fact that the party ends abruptly at midnight when Ash Wednesday officially begins.
This hedonistic party seems more an attempt to an attempt to enjoy oneself as much as possible before the season of fasting. It is like the partiers are trying to get it all out of their system before they have to spend forty days suffering. Lent is a time of repentance, a time of reflection and a time of preparation. Because of the seriousness of the Lenten journey, Fat Tuesday was seen as a last bastion of fun until Easter. After all the partying, the people attended worship to be shriven so that they could enter Lent free from guilt.
I come from Pennsylvania and our tradition for Shrove Tuesday was to eat donuts. My family just went to a donut shop and bought some, but my husband’s family made the Pennsylvania Dutch fastnachts. I use my mother-in-law’s recipe when I make them. The purpose of Shrove Tuesday was to remove all the forbidden foods from the home for the season of Lent from the homes. Lent was a time of fasting. There were lists of food items in times past that were banned for the faithful during this season. The lists varied but among the forbidden foods were meat and dairy products, yeast, flour, sugar, and grease. Many of these items are found in traditional Shrove Tuesday foods. By making donuts, a housewife could use up her entire supply of certain banned foods and clean her house from every trace of them.
Many people choose to give something up for Lent: some sort of self-sacrifice to better understand the suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. Shrove Tuesday is meant to be a day to examine ourselves, to consider the wrongs we need to repent, and to ask God in what ways we need to change. Our Lent fasting is not about causing suffering, but to begin a wilderness period during which we let the Holy Spirit work in our lives, to change what needs to be changed.
I saw a meme this morning with a poem from Pope Francis about Lent. It said, “Do you want fast this Lent? Fast from hurting words and say kind words. Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude. Fast from anger and be filled with patience. Fast from worries and trust in God. Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity. Fast from pressures and be faithful. Fast from bitterness and fill your hearts with joy. Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others. Fast from grudges and be reconciled. Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.
It is good to physically fast in some way, like giving up some food or activity. We should remember, however, that the point of fasting is not to give something up, suffer for seven weeks, then gorge on it again after Easter. We don’t empty our homes of flour and grease anymore, because we understand that the point of fasting during Lent is to draw closer to God. Jesus fasted for forty days in the wilderness to prepare Himself for what was ahead of Him. Will giving up that piece of chocolate or that video game prepare you to do the work of Christ in this world? Note in the poem from Pope Francis that it wasn’t just about giving something up. What will you do to fill the void? Instead of television, will you read scriptures? Instead of indulgent eating, will you share your resources with the poor? As you consider how you will spend this season of Lent, remember that you are walking with the Lord. Engage with Him so that He will increase your faith to daily move forward in obedience to His good and perfect plan for our lives.
How will you fast? What will you add to your day something to help you focus on God and His Light? How will you prepare for Holy Week and Easter? As you party today, enjoying donuts or whatever your own tradition offers, remember that you are a sinner in need of a Savior. Confess your sins so that you might begin this Lent looking forward to the light and forgiveness that lies at the end of the journey. Seek ways to empty your life of the things that keep you from a right relationship with God. Even if we do not cleanse our homes of the forbidden foods, it is good to cleanse our hearts so that we can enter into the Lenten journey free to pursue a deepening relationship with God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
February 22, 2023
Lectionary Scriptures for February 26, 2023, First Sunday in Lent: Genesis 3:1-21; Psalm 32:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
“But the free gift isn’t like the trespass. For if by the trespass of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God, and the gift by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many.” Romans 5:15, WEB
“The ink is black, the page is white, together we learn to read and write. A child is black, a child is white, the whole world looks upon the sight. A beautiful sight.” This song was made popular in 1972 by the group Three Dog Night and was a statement about the Brown vs. Education decision of the United States Supreme court which outlawed racial segregation in schools. Sammy Davis, Jr. made the original version of this folk song using a verse that was not used in later versions. “Their robes were black, their heads were white, the schoolhouse doors were closed so tight, nine judges all set down their names, to end the years and years of shame.” Segregation demands that people be seen as opposites, just like the colors black and white. However, it is wrong to do so. Skin color might make us different, but we are the same in too many other ways to let it separate us from one another.
It is so much easier to look at the world as dualistic. White or black, tall or short, fat or thin, rich or poor. These are ways we define people and things, but are there really only two choices? Go to a paint store and ask for white paint. There are numerous types of white. Can we really tell the difference between then? Yes. Try comparing ecru to ivory and you’ll see a difference. Most people would not know if you’ve painted ecru or ivory on your wall, but if you put them side by side you can see the difference. Are there really just black and white people? The world is filled with many skin tones. Some people who are ‘white’ have deep tans and look darker in color than some ‘black’ people. How do we discern one from another? Our skin might make us different, but it should never define us or separate us.
When we consider good and evil, we think again in dualistic terms. There is good and there is evil and neither the twain shall meet, right? This is true when it comes to the cosmic battle between God and Satan, but the reality is that it is difficult to separate good and evil when it comes to human actions. Is it possible for us to do only good things? Even though we try to do only good, all too often the things we do turn out to be less than good. If it is less than good, is it still good or is it evil? Where do we draw the line?
Advertisements are designed to tempt us. Naturally, they tempt us to want - or to think we need - their product. However, the ads often sell much more than their products. They say that “sex sells” but I think that the ads using sex also sell sex. In other words, the beautiful girl tempting someone to visit a website or drink a particular brand of water not only sells the product but also makes that behavior seem acceptable. Should women actually be enticing a man because he has the hottest new laptop? He probably doesn’t mind a kiss from a beautiful girl, so it must be ok even if it isn’t real. However, teenagers play out these commercials as if they express life as it should be lived.
Some of the temptations are not nearly so blatant. There was once a commercial with a Dalmatian dog training a Clydesdale. It is certainly not a bad thing to work out, to get healthy and strong, to work toward a goal and achieve it. The temptation we all face, however, is that attaining that goal becomes our entire life. Working out at the gym takes the place of time with the family. Jobs become the most important thing in the life for some, so they work seventy or eighty hours a week and ignore their responsibilities of home and family. The good things we seek - even the blessings for which we thank God - become the overwhelming influence of our lives and we forget the God who by His grace has blessed us.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus faced several temptations in the wilderness as He prepared to begin His ministry. Isn’t it interesting that the temptations Jesus faced were not about those things we normally consider bad? Jesus was tempted by the normal decisions of life and ministry. In this story we see the cosmic battle between God and Satan played out in the wilderness. God won then because Jesus kept His focus on what matters; He was obedient to God’s will.
Satan first offered Jesus food for His belly. It is good to eat. Carbs were not an issue in Jesus’ day, so this isn’t a temptation to break a special diet. It isn’t even about the sin of gluttony. Jesus was hungry. He’d been fasting for days. The temptation is about putting the needs of the flesh first. Jesus was in the desert in an act of obedience to the will of God, to strengthen Him against the things He would face in the days to come. The temptation was not only to feed His own hunger, Satan said, “Command these stones.” Jesus would not have needed more than a loaf, but with many loaves of bread He could have fed all the hungry in Jerusalem. He fed thousands on several occasions! But Jesus’ ministry was not to be about opening a food bank. He did feed the hungry. However, He did so first by speaking God’s Word.
The second temptation was about fame. Imagine what an impact Jesus would have had on His world if He had actually gone to the top of the temple to take a flying leap? The appearance of angels and the miraculous landing would have made Him the talk of the town. People would have come flocking to hear Him speak, and perhaps catch a glimpse of Him doing something else amazing. How many ministries focus on the impact they have in their cities and neighborhoods without caring about the message they are giving to the people? Jesus responded, “Do not test God.”
Finally, Satan tempted Jesus with power. Jesus could rule over all the nations of the world if only He would bow down to Satan. This wasn’t a promise Satan could keep, even if Jesus worshipped him, but Jesus rejected it because His purpose was never control or power. He was not to be a worldly king. His purpose was to share the kingdom of God and then to die on the cross for our sake. He did experience all those temptations as He ministered to the people, but He always remained true to God’s Word and to His purpose.
In today’s Old Testament passage, the serpent told Eve that if she ate the fruit of the Tree of knowledge of good and evil, she would be like God, knowing good and evil. This phrase was not meant to define the world as dualistic, but instead to show that God knows everything. It is like saying that Adam and Eve would be like God, knowing everything from A to Z. But we know that there is not only just good and evil; there is good to evil and everything in between. There are times when we have to choose the best of two evils, when neither choice is good, but a choice has to be made. It is the consequence of living in a fallen world.
Martin Luther said, “Sin boldly.” He did not mean that we should go out in the world purposefully sinning against God and man. He meant that if, as you are living in this sinful and fallen world, you have to sin, do so boldly knowing the grace of God. The whole statement is “Sin boldly but believe more bolder still.” In other words, if we have to decide to do something that is less than good, do so with the knowledge of forgiveness that is ours through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The psalmist wrote, “Blessed is he whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom Yahweh doesn’t impute iniquity, in whose spirit there is no deceit.” This passage shows us the process of forgiveness. This first stage is perhaps the easiest; we say the words “I forgive you” often. But forgiveness requires much more. The psalmist says, “...whose sin is covered,” This is the second stage. This means that we stop focusing on the mistake but instead cover it with grace. The third step is probably the hardest: we forget the sin.
The psalmist says, “Yahweh doesn’t impute iniquity.” He doesn’t hold on to the sin. We often say the words and cover the sin, but we eventually remember and use it against those who have sinned against us. When we get into a battle with someone, we bring up those old sins and remind our “enemy” of the things that they have done to hurt us in the past. God does not do that. When He grants forgiveness, He covers it with Christ’s righteousness and then forgets. It is by God’s grace that we are set free from the burdens of our sin and in this we rejoice.
Unfortunately, we continue to sin. This is why we go through Lent every year, remembering our need for Jesus Christ the Savior. As we walk with Jesus, we are reminded that Jesus already cleansed us from our sin and made us right with God. He will continue to transform us day by day into the people He wants us to be.
I learned to swim at a very early age. We had a small, three foot above ground pool. It didn’t take me long to become like a mermaid, practically living in the water. As my siblings outgrew that pool, our parents built a larger one. They kept the smaller one for me at first so that I would have a safe place to play, but I quickly outgrew it too. The big one was more fun, and I spent nearly every waking hour during the summer in that pool.
The big pool had a deep hole and a deck, so it was impossible to take down every year. So, it stayed up all the time. We didn’t bother with it for the colder months and the water quickly became dirty and gross from lack of care. We did a big clean-up on Memorial Day weekend. We removed all the water, washed down the vinyl sides with soap and water, and then refilled the pool with fresh clean water. Then we added whatever pool chemicals were needed to make it ready for another swimming season. We kept the water clean and safe through summer by cleaning it often and keeping the chemicals right.
It would have been impossible to restore the pool after a long winter’s rest by just cleaning out the gunk and using chemicals. It was necessary to take out the old and put in the new. We had to find a way to stop the process of decay. In the case of our pool, it meant starting over. Year after year, we let the pool go because it was impossible to keep it clean through the fall and winter, and then we started over again the next spring. It only took missing a couple of weeks of maintenance before we could see the stagnation, algae, and built-up foreign matter turning the water nasty.
Adam and Eve were created, and God called them “good.” They lived in harmony with Him and with the rest of creation. Then the serpent made them aware that there is more than “good”. They sought to know more and realized that they were not “good.” They thought that being like God would make them better, but by disobeying God’s Word, they let evil become part of human existence. The choice they made may not seem evil because the fruit looked good, but we are not good whenever we go against God’s word. Anything against God is evil. From that moment in time, we all have evil in us. This is why we need a Savior, why God planned for Jesus from the beginning of time.
We aren’t God. We are created by God and beloved of Him, but we aren’t God. And we aren’t good. We are imperfect, frail, fallen beings. We are created and fallible. We are perishable. We are sinners. We are just like Adam and Eve. They did evil in the Garden of Eden by eating the fruit that God told them not to eat. None of us seem evil, but if we aren’t good, then God’s cosmic battle against Satan falls right into our laps.
We join Adam and Eve in the reality of our failure and continue to be tempted by the same things that have plagued human life since the beginning: we fall to the temptations of our bodies, hearts, and egos. Jesus faced those same temptations, but He did not fall because saw through the lie. He did not seek to attain more, and He stayed the course which God had prepared for Him. He walked to the cross because it was what God intended. He didn’t reach beyond what He had because He knew He had everything. His obedience secured the gift of life for all who believe. We have been healed by Jesus and washed clean so that we can dwell once more in the Garden and in the fellowship of our Father the Creator.
Adam and Eve started a process. They may have been the first to turn away from God by listening to the serpent in the Garden of Eden, but we continue to do so. The freedom we have to reason and make decisions also gives us the freedom to reject God and go our own way. In doing so, we find ourselves in the position to act in ways that are against God’s Word. These actions harm our relationship with Him and with His creation. We are like our old pool: no matter how “clean” we appear to be, the threat of corrosion, stagnation, and filth is always part of our life. We are imperfect. We are frail. We are sinners. We need, more than anything else, a Savior.
Jesus Christ is that Savior. At the cross, He started a new process. This is like what we did on Memorial Day. He took out all the old water and crud, scrubbed us down, and filled us with His living water. Unfortunately, the old still exists in our flesh: we continue to be sinners even while we have been transformed into saints by the grace of Jesus Christ. The threat of corrosion, stagnation, and filth is still a part of our life. Unlike our family, though, Jesus never gives up. He keeps His grace freely flowing into our lives, granting forgiveness when we fail and showing us the better way. The process will not be complete until the day when He comes again.
For now, we live remembering that we are sinners in need of a Savior. And we live knowing that our Savior Jesus Christ has come. We are saints and sinners, going through this life experiencing the free gift of grace and the frailty of our human condition. Joy and pain, blessedness and suffering is what it means to be a Christian in the world today.
Today is Ash Wednesday. It is the beginning of a forty-day period of fasting and prayer, repentance and renewal. After Jesus was baptized, He was sent into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. For Jesus, that was a time of preparation, prayer, and temptation. During those forty days, the devil came to Him and tempted Him to feed His flesh, His heart, and His ego. Jesus stood firm on the word of God and came to know more clearly who He was and to whom He belonged, while also discerning His purpose in the world.
Today we begin a similar journey: the season of Lent. During Lent we focus on the ministry of Jesus Christ while learning about ourselves and the faith which we have been given. It is a time of discipline: not punishment, but training. It is a time when we can develop better habits of prayer and healthier ways of living. It is a time for growing closer to God, to learn who we are and to whom we belong. It is a time to face the temptations to feed our flesh, our hearts, and our egos and to conquer them with God’s Word as we delve more deeply into the scriptures.
Discipline may mean sacrifice. Athletes eat a special diet when they are in training. Students give up the games of childhood as they prepare for college. We do these things so that we can do our best and become the best we can be. Spiritual discipline might also mean sacrifice: giving up the things that keep us from seeing God. This is called fasting. Maybe there is something that in itself is neither good nor bad, yet you find it distracting your focus away from God. Make a prayerful decision. Do not wear your fasting on your sleeves. Keep it private, between you and God. In the end, you will be transformed into something closer to the “good” God intends for your life.
In our scriptures today we see the comparison of two men: Adam who died because he fell to the words of the tempter and Jesus who faced death without failing. Through Adam we have inherited the reality of sin and death; through Jesus we are given life. Adam listened to another word and believed it more than God’s. Jesus never believed the lies of the tempter and stood firm in God’s Word. Paul draws these two stories together, comparing the trespass and the gift in today’s epistle lesson. “So then as through one trespass, all men were condemned; even so through one act of righteousness, all men were justified to life. For as through the one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one, many will be made righteous.”
God has given us His Word and by His Word we can stand firm in His promises. When Satan tempts us, we need only turn to that which He has spoken. Jesus overcame the temptations in the wilderness by proclaiming God’s Word. We can do the same.
Lent is a time of repentance and a time for reflection as we consider our own humanness. We begin on Ash Wednesday with the reminder that we are dust and to dust we shall return. This calls us to a season of confession, but we can’t confess that which we do not accept to be true. The world may not be black and white, good and evil, but we are reminded by the Lenten journey that we are not good. We need the forgiveness of Jesus Christ and His grace to be restored into a right relationship with God our Father.
Once we have made our confession we can rest in God’s promise. We are blessed because our sins are forgiven, our transgression is covered, and our God has forgotten our sin. We are blessed because our Lord Jesus did not fall into the temptations He faced in the wilderness. Yet, we are also reminded by the psalmist that when we do not confess our sins, we suffer the burden of guilt and God’s hand of discipline. Forgiveness comes to those who trust in the Lord.
However, Lent is not only be a time of giving things up; it is a journey in which we seek God, seek His will for our lives, and face our unworthiness so that God can build us up to be the people He has created us to be. It is an inward journey as we come to know ourselves better. It is also a journey that is taken with the community of faith. Many churches offer extra worship opportunities, like weekly meals and special services or studies. As we look more closely at ourselves, we can see our failures as well as our successes and discern the ministry to which God has called us as individuals within the community of Christ and the world.
God’s grace is big enough to overcome sin; Jesus ensured forgiveness by His willingness to climb upon the cross and die. He reconciled us to our Father and God. Now, He calls us to repentance, encourages us to live holy lives of faith. There are things in this world that still tempt us. We are sinners, even while we are saints. We are men and women just like Adam and Eve who have heard God’s Word and twisted it to make it sound good to our ears. Trust in God, He will give you the strength and courage and His Word to help you send the tempter away. Pursue a fast if that is what you are led to do but consider the attitude with which you approach it. Are you sacrificing something to be more perfect, or are you becoming more like God created you to be? Those who live according to their own ways will see the consequences of self-centeredness; those who believe the tempter will turn away from God and walk a path that leads to destruction and death.
I encourage everyone to commit time each day to spend with God during this Lenten season. Choose a time and a place, whatever works best for you. Pick a time when you can focus completely on God. Be consistent as you build this habit into your day. Find a place away from distractions so that you can concentrate on prayer, study, and worship. Structure your time with God because it will help you stay focused. Find a Lenten devotional online or in a bookstore that will help guide the direction of your study. Or choose to read through certain books of the Bible. Study the Lenten lectionary texts as we do in this devotional. Begin your time with prayer. Read some scripture. Listen to what God and others have to say about faith in our world today. Hear what God is saying to you personally for this time and place. Discover your own temptations. Discover your gifts. Let God transform you by His Word and His Grace.
Whatever you decide to do throughout this season of Lent, remember that God’s grace is greater than our failure. Christ died so you can live, not bound to the Law, but by His free gift. If you break your fast, ask forgiveness and begin again. Do not let failure become an excuse to keep from trying. We are sinners in need of a Savior. That’s the whole point of Lent, to realize that we need Jesus and the cross to be in relationship with God. Begin each day as if it is a new day. Try and try again. Training is a process of growing. Let the discipline develop over the next few weeks so that it will continue long after Easter Sunday.
“Let no man say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God,’ for God can’t be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own lust and enticed. Then the lust, when it has conceived, bears sin. The sin, when it is full grown, produces death. Don’t be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom can be no variation, nor turning shadow. Of his own will he gave birth to us by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” James 1:13-18 (ASV)
There is a story about a city mouse and a country mouse. One day the country mouse invited her friend from the city to visit her home in the country. The city mouse was excited about the adventure, so he traveled the long distance from his house to her house. When he arrived, he found that his friend led a very simple life. She had invited some of her country friends over for tea and to meet her friend. She was proud of the good food she served, but the city mouse did not eat it. He told the group, “In the city I eat spice cake and drink wine.”
The city mouse was quite bored in the country, so he invited his friend to visit his home. She quickly agreed, wanting to see what it was like to live in the exciting city and to eat such extravagant food. When they arrived at the city mouse’s home, the first thing they did was go into the pantry. There, on a low shelf, was a bag of brown sugar. The city mouse chewed a hole in the bag and they nibbled on sugar. The country mouse agreed that this was the most delicious thing she’d ever eaten. Suddenly the cook came into the pantry. The city mouse said, “Run!” and the two friends ran into the mouse’s hole. The country mouse was shaking, frightened by the danger. But soon the city mouse said, “That was the cook, but she is gone now. Let’s go. I have something even better to show you.”
This time they were on a high shelf where there was a tin of dried fruit with a loose lid. The city mouse tipped off the lid and offered his friend a piece of fruit. The country mouse agreed that this was the most delicious food she had ever eaten. Suddenly they heard a scratching at the door. The country mouse said, “Run!” and the two friends ran into the mouse’s hole. The country mouse was even more frightened. Soon the city mouse said, “That was the cat, but he is gone. Let’s go. I have something even better to show you. They went into the cellar where there were piles of cheese wheels, strings of smoked meats and pounds of fresh butter. The country mouse was amazed and ran from one thing to another trying every different kind of food. Then she saw the most delectable piece of cheese on a piece of wood. Just as she reached for the piece, the city mouse yelled, “Stop!” He told her that it was a trap and that it would kill her if she touched it. The country mouse was so frightened she said good-bye to her friend and ran all the way home. When her friends in the country asked her about her visit she said, “I would rather lead a simple life in peace, than to dine on riches and live in fear.”
The city mouse wanted an exciting and rich life but lived with the fear and danger that existed around him all the time. He could not enjoy the fruits of his labor, but rather had to always keep alert and run away the moment there was danger. He might feast on delicious food, but his life was overshadowed by the fear of death and loss.
Our fears are different than that of the mice. We aren’t worried that the cook will hit us with a broom, that the cat will eat us, or that we’ll get caught in a mouse trap. We are worried about traps of another kind. Our desires for good things cause us to pay for things on credit and then we worry if we will be able to pay. We have to keep expensive security systems on our homes to keep the criminals out and we are constantly watching our backs for those who would cheat us out of our money.
The country mouse was content with her simple life, appreciating every good thing as a gift. So, too, we are called to live that simple life, to praise God for every blessing and have no fear of loss and death. In Christ we have a promise that goes beyond all that this world has to offer. We might enjoy rich food and grand surroundings, but such things will never bring us the kind of joy that we will know in Christ. As a matter of fact, our search to satisfy our desires will actually bring us to destruction as we get caught up in the traps of life which lead us toward sin. I would rather lead a simple life in Christ than to have all the wealth in the world. In the latter we live in fear, but in the former we have true peace.
“‘Of the men therefore who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, to the day that he was received up from us, of these one must become a witness with us of his resurrection.’ They put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias. They prayed and said, ‘You, Lord, who know the hearts of all men, show which one of these two you have chosen to take part in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas fell away, that he might go to his own place.’ They drew lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was counted with the eleven apostles.” Acts 1:21-26, WEB
It may seem strange to talk about the disciples after the ascension of Jesus, since we are just beginning the season of Lent. The event in today’s passage will not occur for several months in the Church calendar. We look at it today because for many, this is his saint feast day. We know so little about him that it is impossible to set a specific date, which is usually the day the saint died. Reports of Matthias place him in too many places, dying too many ways, so he is remembered on February 24th, May 14th, or August 9th, depending on the church. What we do know about him is found only in today’s passage.
Matthias replaced Judas as an apostle of our Lord Jesus Christ. He had been following Jesus as long as the others, so he knew very well the work and words of Christ. Yet, he was not originally called among the Twelve. Twelve is a significant number in the Bible. Jesus selected twelve men to be the core of his ministry. Most theologians would agree that twelve is representative of the twelve tribes of Israel. Twelve is the number of divine governance. In Matthew 19 Jesus even tells the disciples that they will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. They knew from Psalm 109 that another would take Judas’ place. So, when he died, the apostles sought to fill his place among the Twelve.
The disciples were in Jerusalem waiting. They kept watching for the signs, but they had no idea what would happen when the Holy Spirit came. I can imagine them seeing something that might be considered a sign and wondering, “Was that it?” They were there, waiting and praying, unsure of what was to come. So, they did what we all do; they took control into their own hands. They decided to get on with the business of being church. When we aren’t sure what God wants of us or what He has planned for our ministry, we jump forward with busy work. Something was not right; the government of the church was incomplete.
The response of the apostles after the ascension of Jesus was completely natural. What we see in this passage from Acts is a church suspended in a moment of time unsure of which direction they should go. The apostles were between being called and being sent. The outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost had not yet happened, but they had the promises of Christ and His instruction. They were told to wait in Jerusalem until they were “clothed from on high.” The promised Holy Spirit would come, but they did not know when or how. They only knew that they were going to be sent to continue the work Jesus began and that they had to wait for the right time.
But they wanted to get to work. The first act was to bring wholeness to their leadership. Two men who had been with Jesus from the beginning were found to be in good character, worthy to be called an apostle. They used lots because they could not agree on which should be added to their number.
A good portion of the book of Acts has to do with resolving issues in the early days of Christianity. We comment about the divisions in Christianity in today’s world, but those divisions go back to the very beginning. Peter was questioned about his actions in Cornelius’ house. Apollos was teaching an incomplete Gospel. Teachers were trying to convince the members in Paul’s church plants that he was not authoritative. It was happening then, just as it is happening now. We are human, we disagree. Paul and Peter disagreed often yet found a way to work together.
It seems odd that the apostles would use an act of chance to choose someone of such importance, but they used it with prayer and trust in God. There may have been a better way of choosing Matthias as the twelfth disciple, but God blessed the choice, and he joined in the ministry of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Though we don’t know exactly what he accomplished or where, in the lack of knowledge about Matthias those of us who are relatively unknown can find comfort in knowing that God is using us, too. We don’t have to be a Peter or a Paul to do ministry for the Gospel. God calls the most ordinary people to do the most extraordinary things in the most unusual ways, even if it isn’t apparent to the world. Sometimes it isn’t even apparent to us. Most people do not consider their daily actions part of God’s calling in their life. We don’t consider how often we are at the right place at the right time witnessing to God in ways we never expect. We think of the extraordinary call of Paul on the road to Damascus as an act of God, not a chance meeting during our normal, humdrum day. Yet, whenever God’s Word is spoken and His work accomplished, it is done because God has guided or directed His people into that time and place.
This story about Matthias may not take place on the church calendar for several months, but it is appropriate to think about him at the beginning of Lent. We too are in a moment of suspense between the birth and death of Jesus, watching Jesus walk toward the cross. As we journey with Him over the next six weeks, we are reminded to wait and pray, to watch for the signs that God sends to help us move forward into the work He has called us to do. We may want to take control, but it is best to look to God for direction.
This might be a time of transition for many, a time to discover new ways to serve God. Lenten fasts and devotional practices may open our eyes to new opportunities. We may not think we are worthy to be chosen, but God has already done that for all who have faith. Matthias was one among dozens who had followed Jesus along with the Twelve. We join him and them as the unknown witnesses who are sent into the world to serve Him according to His grace.
“Yahweh says, ‘Don’t let the wise man glory in his wisdom. Don’t let the mighty man glory in his might. Don’t let the rich man glory in his riches. But let him who glories glory in this, that he has understanding, and knows me, that I am Yahweh who exercises loving kindness, justice, and righteousness in the earth. for I delight in these things,” says Yahweh.” Jeremiah 9:23-24, WEB
A girl grew up in a small town, in a family that barely survived financially. She wanted what others had, most especially respect. She thought that she would find it in a socially prestigious literary organization in her town. She did well in school, but when she applied for admission to the society, she was rejected. She thought she had to earn her way into the group, so she planned to travel to Europe so she could write a story that would make her welcome. She saved for many years until she finally had enough to go. Her timing was unfortunate, however, and she landed in Europe at the beginning of World War I. She was in Belgium but found a driver willing to take her to Paris.
The driver got lost along the way and they ended up on a battlefield. She heard the desperate cries of wounded soldiers all around her that just wanted a drink of water, so she jumped out of the car and began helping them. She made bandages with her skirt and prayed with the men. The driver took off without her, but she didn’t notice; all she knew is that the men needed her. It was a hellish night of darkness and dying. She served them all night long, and then at the break of day an ambulance arrived with a doctor.
He was surprised to see her and wondered who she was and what she was doing. The girl answered, “I have been holding hell back all night.” The doctor answered, “I’m glad you held some of it back, for everyone else in the world was letting it loose last night.” She told her story to a fellow passenger on the ship to America and the friend suggested the society she wanted to join would be very glad to have her. The girl answered, “I’ve been face to face with war and death and hell and God.” Those little things didn’t matter to her anymore. To her, the only thing that mattered at that point was God and love. All she wanted to do from then on was to do whatever she could do for those God sent her to.
It might have seemed wise in her eyes to be part of a literary organization filled with intellectual people, but she learned true wisdom in the midst of hell, darkness, and dying. She’d spent her life trying to become one thing and in one night God showed her how to be part of something much greater than the most prestigious organization in her town. She experienced the grace of Jesus in a way that changed her perspective; she realized her old dreams were trivial. The glory she wanted among those in the society was not really glory. True glory is found in those who are wise in God’s eyes, exercising loving kindness, justice, and righteousness according to His Word.
“By mercy and truth iniquity is atoned for. By the fear of Yahweh men depart from evil.” Proverbs 16:6, WEB
I spent a lot of time in Internet chat rooms when I was new to the Internet. I’m not sure that they are even a thing anymore, as there are so many other forms of communication, like Zoom. Now, I never really liked Zoom, and have only used it a few times. However, I spent time nearly every day in a chat. I don’t know why I liked one format over the other, although I doubt that I would enjoy those chat rooms anymore. There is something about the disjointed nature of the conversation that bothers me. As a meme I saw recently said, “Virtual meetings are like seances.” You spend half your time trying to connect or helping others get connected. It is impossible to understand one another when everyone is trying to talk at once.
I suppose that is why I wouldn’t like the chat rooms anymore; everyone talks at once and you can never be quite sure who is answering who. It was interesting to see the small talk and learn about people’s lives. Sometimes we were even lucky to hear a big of wisdom, too. I tended toward Christian chat rooms which hosted a diversity of people. Most people simply enjoyed the fellowship of other believers. The conversation generally revolved around faith and Jesus, most of the people just wanted a safe place to chat without bad language and an overwhelming amount of porn mail.
There was always someone who was there to preach or teach. It really wasn’t the best forum to do so, since it was more like a party than a lecture hall. There were always too many conversations going on at once. A few of the regulars made it an art to ignore all the other discussions that happened around them as they posted long messages about some subject. Others visited with an agenda, always determined to convert someone in the room to their point of view. There were those who became very disturbed if they could not control the conversation. Some reacted negatively or even violently.
Chat rooms are better suited for one-liners, for short bits of information. Though I saw good studies occur in some rooms, most of the time they were better used for fellowship. There are more appropriate times and places for lectures. When we study the scriptures with a group of people in person, we are more cognizant of the others in the room, allowing them to speak in turn. It is difficult to converse when there are 20 people talking at the same time. The room simply moves too fast for lengthy thoughts or scripture readings.
Not everyone learns well with that type of learning anyway. Even God recognized the need for different types of teaching, providing us with many different forms of literature in the Holy Bible. There are long lists of genealogies, detailed histories of the people, and other stories designed to teach a lesson. There are hymns and poems, as well as lists of laws. Our Father even recognized the need for a book filled with one-liners.
When people ask what they should read when first approaching the Bible, I generally recommend beginning with the Gospels, but also suggest Proverbs. I am currently preparing a study on Proverbs for our Sunday school class which will begin next January. There is great wisdom in those one-liners, and it is provided in a way that it is easy to take a little at a time, to ponder it and apply it to our lives. The book of Proverbs provides us with God’s view on just about everything we might experience during our days. It would do us well to listen to the words of our teacher daily.
Today’s one-liner sums up the life of a Christian. Our Lord Jesus loved us so much and was faithful to the promise set by God long before the creation of the world: He died to atone for our sin. We rest in the salvation that comes from this atonement and walk in the light that comes from life in Christ. In that light, we know our true selves, and know what we are in Christ, walking in reverent fear of God and living as He has designed and called us to live. When we listen to the Teacher’s one liners in Proverbs and are obedient to His Word, living in His love, we avoid falling into the traps that are set by the world. Though evil things may still try to touch our lives to put a halt on our work in Christ’s name, we will avoid falling into the evil if we remain faithful to God’s promises.
Isn’t it funny how my last paragraph rambled on about our lives as Christians, but it didn’t say anything more than the one line provided by God that is our text for today. We don’t need lengthy lectures to understand God’s promises. We just need to listen to what He has to say, and He’ll move and work in our hearts to make us right with Him.