Welcome to the February 2024 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 2024
“Therefore I urge you, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service. Don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what is the good, well-pleasing, and perfect will of God.” Romans 12:1-2, WEB
Bill Murray starred in a movie called “Groundhog Day.” It is a very funny movie, where Bill Murray plays a weatherman from Pittsburgh sent to Punxsutawney on assignment for Groundhog Day. He is an arrogant and condescending man, putting down his coworkers and the people of that small town. He hates the idea that he has to go on this assignment and grumbles the whole way. He can’t wait to get out of Punxsutawney because he is awaiting news of a new network job. Unfortunately for Phil, someone had something else in store for him.
He gets through the day, but his weather forecast is way wrong, and the crew gets stuck in Punxsutawney for the night. At 6:00 am the alarm rings and Phil wakes up to exactly the same day. Over and over again, Phil relives Groundhog Day in the one place he would rather not be. For the first few days, Phil is confused, wondering why this is happening. Eventually he realizes that he can take advantage of the situation. He robs an armored truck, takes advantage of women, and eats like a pig. He even ends up in jail but wakes up the next morning back in bed with the same radio show blaring a wakeup call. He decides that the day will never end as long as the groundhog exists so he tries to kill it. He kills himself in the process. When he wakes up again to Groundhog Day, he tries to kill himself. One day he electrocutes himself, another day he jumps off a building. Every day he wakes up again to a new Groundhog Day.
Through it all he falls in love with his producer, Rita. He realizes that if he is going to relive the same day over and over again, he might as well do something worthwhile. He learns to play piano and how to carve ice sculptures. He reads and learns about medicine and literature. He gets to know the people in the town intimately, and he experiences the same things every day. He tries to tell his coworkers about his problem, but they do not understand. When they do believe him, but when the day ends and Groundhog Day begins once again, they have no knowledge of what occurred. Finally, Phil takes the day to do many wonderful things. He saves lives and marriages, makes people happy with his talents and by the end of the day the whole town loves him. Rita sees this new Phil and falls in love with him. The next morning, the radio goes off at 6:00 am, and it is finally a new day. As they are leaving town, Phil decides he wants to stay in Punxsutawney with Rita and live there forever.
Bill Murray’s character goes through a transformation that begins with his evil nature and he pursues the lusts of his flesh: greed, gluttony and sex. Eventually he realizes that this is useless, and he becomes a transformed man: educated and caring. Instead of doing everything for his own benefit, he uses his days to do good and wonderful things. When he is finally transformed, completely selfless, the day ends, and he begins a new life as a new person. In the movie, Phil’s transformation seems to be by his own works, yet you can’t help but think something or someone is leading him into a new life. Why this daily rerun of the same day, over and over again?
Do we ever feel like we are living the same day over and over again? The date on the calendar might change, but we get up at 6:00 am to the same old stuff: nine-hour workday, dinner, and the same old reruns on television. We lust after the same things and fall into the same traps. Yet, we have been saved by the mercy of God in Christ Jesus so that we can be transformed into a new creation. Just like Phil, each day we die to our old ways, learning new things about God and finding new ways to live in His love. For Phil, one day seemed to take a lifetime and a lifetime fit into one day. Tomorrow will be a new day for us. How will we use the time God has given us? Let us always live in God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will.
“I love Yahweh, because he listens to my voice, and my cries for mercy. Because he has turned his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live. The cords of death surrounded me, the pains of Sheol got a hold of me. I found trouble and sorrow. Then I called on Yahweh’s name: ‘Yahweh, I beg you, deliver my soul.’ Yahweh is gracious and righteous. Yes, our God is merciful. Yahweh preserves the simple. I was brought low, and he saved me. Return to your rest, my soul, for Yahweh has dealt bountifully with you. For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from falling.” Psalm 116:1-8, WEB
Christian missionaries took the Gospel into Japan in the sixteenth century, and by the end of that century there were hundreds of thousands of converts. It didn’t always go well since there were competing groups of missionaries, international interests, and power struggles in the Japanese government. The missionaries and the growth of Christianity was tolerated for a time, but the conflict began in earnest when the Japanese feared western colonialism. A Spanish ship was grounded, and its cargo of ammunition was confiscated. The pilot revealed that the Spanish began expansion in foreign nations by sending in the missionaries to prepare the way for military conquest. The Japanese rulers grasped this as truth and began to fight the Christians. The first martyrs were crucified on February 5, 1597. Twenty-six men and boys were tied to crosses and stabbed to death with javelins.
It is said that the youngest of the Japanese martyrs was given the opportunity to renounce his faith. The twelve-year-old asked, “Where is my cross?” They pointed to the smallest and “he immediately embraced it and held on to it as a child clings to his toy.” Eventually an edict of persecution ensured the destruction of churches, the expulsion of missionaries, and Christians were martyred. Thousands were martyred and the church was driven underground.
Despite persecutions, the Christian faith expanded. Two hundred and fifty years after the persecutions, contact with western nations was reopened and a community of Japanese Christians was discovered. They did not have leadership, scriptures, or even a good understanding of the faith. They simply loved Jesus and were firmly committed to His worship.
Today is the day we remember the martyrs of Japan. We have the names of the twenty-six, but we remember the thousands who died for the sake of Christ. It is a good time for us to also remember the Christians who risked everything to worship the God of mercy and grace who loved so much that Jesus died to deliver them from death. The Christians stuck together, did whatever they had to do to keep the faith growing. They found peace in the chaos that surrounded them.
How would we respond if we were faced with similar circumstances? I don’t doubt that most of my readers are people of prayer. I imagine that you pray daily and that you seek God’s help for those you love, for the people who ask you to pray, for the world and everything in it. Yet, all too often when it comes to our own needs, especially that of our spirits, we tend to try to deal with it on our own. Are you embarrassed to take your problems to God? Do you think that your problems are inconsequential compared to those of our neighbors? After all, why worry about a little doubt when our neighbor has rejected God altogether?
The psalmist understood this human tendency to go it alone. It was not until he was overwhelmed with trouble that he cried out for God’s help. “The cords of death surrounded me, the pains of Sheol got a hold of me. I found trouble and sorrow.” He had reached the end of his rope; he could not deal with it alone. But even though he waited so long to seek God’s hand, God was ready to answer. “Then I called on Yahweh’s name: ‘Yahweh, I beg you, deliver my soul.’” The Japanese Christians didn’t have the church the way we understand it, but they had faith, and I can hear them calling on God’s name together, sharing God’s grace and hope and peace in a way that we sometimes struggle to find despite the ease of our Christian life.
We forget how much we need God. We try to go our own way. We think we know better than God how to get through our problems. It isn’t until we reach the end that we finally accept that we are lost and need His help; it is then we finally turn to Him, recognizing our need for His mercy and grace.
“After these things he went out, and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the tax office, and said to him, ‘Follow me!’ He left everything, and rose up and followed him. Levi made a great feast for him in his house. There was a great crowd of tax collectors and others who were reclining with them. Their scribes and the Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with the tax collectors and sinners?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Those who are healthy have no need for a physician, but those who are sick do. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’” Luke 5:27-32, ESV
I once read an article about applying to graduate school. The author questioned the appropriateness of emphasizing one’s religious or political leanings in the application. A resume filled with extracurricular activities might appear good at first glance, but they reveal a great deal about a person. The author suggested that an admissions committee might take offense to a specific religion and though that should not weigh in on a person’s acceptance, it might indirectly affect the outcome of the process. The author of the article suggested that when writing one’s resume, he or she should be less willing to identify the specific groups in which they are involved, instead listing activities with vague or hidden references to their faith or racial identity.
I suppose we are all tempted to hide our faith identity from the world at times. It is difficult to be an employee in an organization that is obviously anti-whatever you are. If you are a Christian and your boss considers Christians to be unintellectual, it makes sense to keep your Christian faith hidden from your boss. By identifying yourself with a particular faith group opens the doors to persecution and harassment, even in our world where these prejudices are unacceptable. It is much easier to hide our faith than to try to live openly as a Christian.
Imagine what it must have been like for Levi (or Matthew as he is also called). He was a tax collector. Now some tax collectors were horrible cheats. They took far too much money, getting wealthy off the poor. They were highly disliked, much like the tax collectors in today’s world. Levi was probably not a bad guy. We don’t know what kind of tax collector he was, but he listened to Jesus and knew that He stood for something worthwhile. He left everything to follow Jesus. I wonder how his friends reacted to his conversion. Walking away from his job would not have been welcome by the Romans; his fellow tax collectors probably thought he was crazy. It would have been much better for him to hide his Christian identity during the work week, only following his Christian faith on weekends. At the very least, he could have disappeared with Jesus and the other disciples and not worry about the backlash of his faith.
Yet, Levi did not hide his Christian identity. As a matter of fact, he celebrated it and invited his friends to a great banquet with Jesus. He shared his faith among those who might have been his greatest opponents. He did not worry about whether or not they would like him, whether or not the society in which he lived would accept him. He was passionate about Jesus, and he went forth in faith. Are you willing to be like Levi, or do you prefer to follow the advice of the author by keeping your faith hidden? When Jesus calls us to follow Him, He calls us to give up our lives for His sake. This means taking our faith into our world, whether that world is school, work, or our neighborhoods.
Lectionary Scriptures for February 11, 2024, Transfiguration of Our Lord: Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 3:12-13, 4:1-6; Mark 9:2-9
“The Mighty One, God, Yahweh, speaks, and calls the earth from sunrise to sunset.” Psalm 50:1, WEB
“The Bucket List” is a movie about two dying men, Edward (played by Jack Nicholas) and Carter (played by Morgan Freeman), who discovers life together by traveling the world. The movie asks the question, “What would you do if you had a limited time to live?” Fortunately, Edward was an extremely wealthy businessman, so the two men had unlimited resources to complete their bucket list, a list of things they want to do before they kick the bucket.
The bucket list included the desire to “witness something truly majestic.” Though they shared some beautiful moments, like sitting on top of the pyramids in Egypt, Carter didn’t think any of those things were as majestic as being on the top of a mountain. He explains that it is so quiet on the top of a mountain that you can hear the voice of God. Nothing less than a mountain top experience would be enough for him. Unfortunately, they arrived at the base of an incredible mountain when the weather turned bad for the winter, so they would not be able to get to the top for months. The two men had an argument and returned to their homes. Unfortunately, they did not reconcile in time; Carter died of cancer before they could climb that mountain. He never had his mountain top experience. In his final words, Carter asked Edward to finish the list.
In the end, the two men were buried together on the top of a beautiful mountain. The final scene shows Edward’s assistant adding a can filled with Edward’s ashes to a special container at the top of a majestic mountain. He crossed off the final thing on the bucket list “witness something truly majestic” and placed it in the container with the ashes of the two men.
We are somewhat disappointed that they did not get to experience that mountain top experience, but they both had much more powerful experiences in the valleys of their lives. Carter realized that he had a wonderful life, with a wife who adored him and that he didn’t need to get to the top of the mountain to experience the voice of God. Edward found love and joy in his daughter and granddaughter from whom he’d been estranged for many years. They both realized that life isn’t lived at the top of the mountain but in the everyday experiences with people they love.
The Gospel lesson for this week is an amazing story. Peter, James, and John were invited to experience a most incredible moment. They witnessed God briefly breaking through into our world in a powerful, tangible way. The Law (seen in Moses) and the Prophets (seen in Elijah) were brought together with the fulfillment in Jesus Christ of every promise they spoke. The three disciples saw Jesus in a form that is beyond anything earthly. They heard the audible voice of God that spoke to them personally. This is something we can read and imagine, we can experience awe, but we can’t really know what it was like for those three men. They were afraid. We think Peter was silly for wanting to build tabernacles, but what would we have done? How would we have responded to this incredible moment?
The transfiguration must have been a most incredible experience. Not only were Peter, James, and John on the top of a mountain, but they were there with the Messiah. At that moment, they did hear the voice of God, not in the whisper of the quiet wind but in a voice coming out of the clouds. The words were repeated from Jesus’ baptism, “This is my beloved Son.” Whether anyone heard that voice at the Jordan we may never know for sure, but now it was heard by Jesus’ inner circle of friends. It was a moment worth grasping forever. Peter even wanted to build permanent structures so that Moses and Elijah and Jesus would have a place to stay.
But Jesus hurried them off the mountain back into the valley because He knew that it is in the valleys where life is truly lived. They could not stay on the top of the mountain; they had to get back to work. There were still people to be healed. There were still demons to cast out. There were still so many who needed to hear God’s word and learn about God’s kingdom so that they might be saved for eternity. It would not happen if they lingered on the mountain top. The real work was in the valley.
Do you ever feel like you want to go to a place far away, perhaps to the top of a mountain? Have you ever had one of those moments that you never want to end? Those experiences are incredible, but they are not where we should stay. It is time to move on, to get back into the muck and mire of real life to share the Good News with others so that they too might hear the voice of God.
My dad was a very quiet man. I have a very vivid memory of one conversation we had when I was very young. We talked about the weather. Though the conversation was inconsequential, it is a lasting memory for me because it was one of the few times that my dad talked to me. This isn’t to say that he was a bad father or that he ignored his family. He just didn’t talk much. But when he had something to say, it was worth stopping whatever you were doing to listen.
This is a rare quality, especially in our world full of words. Everyone has something to say and there are so many outlets where they can express their thoughts. Most of sites on the Internet post boards where the topics can be discussed by the readers. Reading these discussion boards is sometimes sad, sometimes disturbing, sometimes hysterically funny. Who hasn’t spent too much time reading a thread on Facebook or other social media? Everyone has an opinion, and most people are willing to post their thoughts for the world to read. Unfortunately, sometimes those thoughts are incoherent and unrelated to the topic at hand.
It seems as though everyone has a blog these days. It is so easy to set up a site to share whatever comes to mind. Though my A WORD FOR TODAY format is different than the blogging sites, I’ve been doing it for nearly twenty-five years now! There have been some people throughout the years willing to read the words I write. I’m sure, however, that in that quarter of a century I’ve said some things that are foolish or trivial. I’m sure there have been times that someone has disagreed with my point of view. I’ve considered myself very blessed that so many people have found value in my work, but I often shake my head in wonder as to why. Why do so many people “listen” to me?
The message God spoke to the disciples was simple but very powerful, “Listen to Him.” In a world when we have so many voices screaming at us with opinions that are built on biases, it is hard to know to whom we should listen. Everyone has an opinion, and they often disagree. One expert says this, and another expert says that. Which one is right? Who is telling the truth? What is the truth? But God tells us what to do, “Listen to Jesus.” I’m not sure it is that easy, because there are so many voices trying to tell us what Jesus said, what He meant, and they rarely agree. But we can listen. We can pray. We can do our best to live as God calls us to live, serving Him with our hearts and our hands and our voices, knowing that God is faithful, and His Word is greater than our foolish and trivial words.
Paul knew what it was like to be blind. He was a zealous Jew, set on a course of extermination. He wanted to destroy the new way of seeing, “the Way” as it was called in his day. Luke tells us in the book of Acts that Saul, which was his name at that time, was “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” He had letters to take to the synagogues of Damascus, giving permission to punish those who were following “the Way.” As he made his way to Damascus on that very important mission, he was struck blind by an incredible light on the road. Inside the light he heard a voice calling out to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Jesus called Saul, whom He renamed Paul, into His ministry with that light. Saul remained blind for three days and during that time he fasted. Jesus sent another man, a follower of “the Way” named Ananias to heal his vision and help Saul, Paul, on his new ministry.
So, it is natural for Paul to talk about the Gospel in terms of light and blindness. He had experienced it himself in a very real, and powerful way. He was blind by his own understanding of God, using his incredible knowledge of the scriptures and his position of power and authority in Israel to persecute Christians. He was involved with the death of Stephen, and perhaps many other Christians. He was given a miraculous encounter with the Living Christ, Jesus, who met him on that road in a very dramatic way. His conversion experience was certainly something to remember, and something that came up often in his teaching and preaching. He’d been blind, both spiritually and physically, and he’d been healed of both.
Yet, somehow he knew that not everyone would see the reality of the Gospel message. They would be blinded, as he was blinded, by the things of this world. He was blinded by his power and his understanding of the scriptural texts. He was blinded by the traditions of his people. He was blinded by his perception of the people who were following “the Way.” He could not see the reality of God’s love and mercy and grace as found in “the Way” until he met Jesus.
Sometimes it is hard to see that reality because the people who share the Gospel message with us are imperfect and caught up in their own perceptions of the world and Jesus. Many non-Christians say that the reason they are not Christian is because of the Christians. We are seen as hypocrites or that we will fall for any fairy tale. Often guided not by intellect but emotion, Christianity is seen as foolishness. Paul wanted the Corinthians to know that he was not trying to sell himself, but that the message he shared is about Jesus and Jesus alone. He brings us back to his own beginning when he was foolishly unwilling to hear the truth, when he faced the blinding light and three days of physical blindness. We are reminded that nothing we can do can overcome that spiritual, and physical, blindness. It is by God’s grace and mercy that people will see. It was only by listening to Jesus that Paul was saved.
So, we go forth sharing the Gospel message, always remembering that it isn’t about us. Though we would like to count every conversion as a notch on our belt, counting every saved person as something we’ve accomplished, we see that it is never about us. Though we are the messenger who can take the Gospel out to the world, it is God who lifts the veil off the eyes of those who do not believe. It is God that shines in their darkness. It is God who makes them see. When we speak the Word, it is Jesus to whom they are listening.
The Epiphany texts for the past few weeks have focused on the revelation of God in the life of Jesus Christ. We have been following Mark’s telling of the story of Jesus at the beginning of His ministry. We saw Him call His first disciples, drive out an evil spirit, heal many people including Simon’s mother-in-law, pray alone and move on to other towns to preach the Kingdom of God to the people, which was the work He was sent to do. We end this season with the brightest light of all, the transfiguration of Jesus. On Transfiguration Sunday we see Jesus literally glowing from within the radiant light of God’s glory in the presence of the ones whom God sent to point His people toward the Messiah: Moses and Elijah.
Our Old Testament text for this lectionary is about the story of Moses, but some use the story of Elijah from 2 Kings 2:1-12. This is the story of the assumption of Elijah. Elijah and Elisha were traveling through the prophetic communities of Israel so that Elijah could say good-bye. All along the way, Elijah told Elisha to stop following him. Elisha refused to leave his master, “As Yahweh lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you.” All along the way the prophets told Elisha that he was about to lose his master. Nothing stopped Elisha; he was determined to follow Elijah every step of the way. Elijah was prepared to take this journey alone, but Elisha would not leave him.
This must have been a frightening time for Elisha. Was he ready to take on the responsibilities of being God’s prophet? Being a prophet was not a pleasant job, especially if the word God speaks is unpopular. Elisha knew that he would experience persecution and threats, but he also knew that it was where he belonged. He did not allow any fear to keep him from doing what he was called to do. At the end of the journey, Elijah and Elisha found themselves at the Jordan River. While this is the story of the passing of Elijah’s authority to Elisha, Elijah’s story is the one that matters today. Elijah was taken up into heaven suddenly in a fiery chariot, the sign of God’s blessing on Elisha’s ministry, and it is for this reason many believe that Elijah will return.
The story of the Exodus takes us on a journey Moses was never allowed to finish. Due to his own failings, Moses never entered into the Promised Land. Instead, the Hebrews were led across the Jordan River by Joshua as Moses watched from a hilltop. Then he died and God buried him in Moab. Joshua took the Hebrews through the Jordan, through Jericho, through Bethel to Gilgal where they were circumcised. All those who had left Egypt that had been properly circumcised had died in the desert. There, at Gilgal, Joshua restored the people to the covenant between God and His people by circumcising all the men. Elijah followed that same route, returning to the very place that the Israelites crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land. There are some who believe that Jesus was baptized in the same area of the Jordan.
In today’s Old Testament lesson from Exodus 34, Moses had been on the mountain for forty days and forty nights to receive the tablets of the Law. This was the second set of tablets; Moses destroyed the first set when he came off the mountain and discovered that the people had turned to false gods while he was gone. He had seen God’s glory (Exodus 33:12-23) and was changed, although he did not realize it at first. The people saw how he reflected God’s glory and they were afraid, but he called them to come to him and listen. He gave them the commands the LORD had given him on Sinai.
When he was finished talking, Moses put a veil over his face. The Old Testament lesson seems to indicate that looking upon the reflected light of God’s glory is too dangerous for ordinary people. However, St. Paul wrote that Moses put it on to hide the fact that the radiance passed away. He took off the veil when he spoke to God and then stayed unveiled when he reported what God said. They were afraid of him; the light reminded them that Moses was God’s own chosen representative. It is likely, then, that Paul has it right. The glory fades. Would the people of Israel have continued to listen to Moses if they did not see the radiance of God’s grace? Perhaps Moses wore the veil because of his own fears or insecurities.
Paul reminds us that the old covenant was temporary and inadequate. It was passing away, but some wanted to hide its vanishing with a veil. The Old Covenant could never stand because no matter how hard we try we can never be good enough to deserve God’s grace. The Old Covenant was replaced with a new one, one that is revealed to those who believe in Jesus Christ. Moses and Elijah were never meant to be the ones to whom Israel looked for eternal life. They both pointed toward the One God would send to restore God’s people to Him forever. That’s why the radiance of Moses faded.
Moses reflected God’s glory, but even the holiest human is imperfect. We fail. We cannot sustain the glory because we are stained by sin. Moses did not want the people to know the light faded, so he hid his face. Jesus, on the other hand, does not reflect the light; He is the Light. The glory did not fade for Jesus. When the moment was over, Jesus let it go so that He could continue to work in the valley. He had to go back, to get His hands dirty, to face the humiliation of the Passion, and to die. He refused to stay in that moment of glory because the real glory would come later. It would come on the cross.
The disciples did not want to leave, but the mountaintop experience was not the moment for which they had been preparing; it was just a preview of what was to come. Peter wanted to build shelters to make this a lasting moment, but Jesus set His feet toward Jerusalem, toward death and the grave. Peter, James and John did not quite understand but they followed Him, blessed by the brief shining moment when they saw Jesus as God intended Him to be: crowned in glory. Though they wanted that moment to last forever, they saw the hope of what was to come on that mountain top. That glory will last forever someday.
Paul wrote, “Even if our Good News is veiled, it is veiled in those who are dying.” Those who are ruled by sin and death refuse to see God’s hand in the world. They prefer to veil God’s glory. They prefer to believe what sounds good rather than hear what God really has to say. They do not listen. Jesus came to speak God’s words in a new way, to cause God’s people to see Him as He is, not in the twisted ways of the world. Jesus came to bring a New Covenant in the Gospel that is better than the reflected glory of Moses that passed away.
Not everyone hears. Paul knew this. He was opposed by people who accused him of manipulation and lies. They ministered out of self-interest, seeking positions of status and influence rather than glorifying God. They refused to admit or even see that they were the ones playing games. They cared nothing for the Gospel or Christ or the people of God; they cared only for themselves. To them, there was no glory on the cross. They could not see because they were blinded by the god of this world. They were blinded by their own fears and their own desires. They were happy to let the truth be veiled so they didn’t have to see their way was passing away.
The Word, especially when we are the ones speaking it, often falls onto deaf ears, but that does not mean God is less powerful or Jesus any less authoritative. The god of this world continues to blind those who would prefer to be blinded from the truth and glory; a veil has been drawn over their eyes. As people of faith, we live in awe of God’s presence even if there are consequences of telling His story because by faith we dwell in His presence. He has called us into this relationship, shined the light of His glory so that we might see, and then invited us to follow Him into the valley to do His work.
It is frightening, but as we join Jesus on the journey to the cross, we need not be afraid. God goes with us, and He has assured us that He has the power to fulfill His promises. He can make it happen, and He does. We might not think we are ready to take on the responsibility, but God blesses those who are obedient. Moses trusted God. Elijah trusted God. Peter, James, and John trusted God. Jesus trusted God. Now we are called to trust God, too, to follow Him wherever He leads and to listen to Him above all the other voices.
Peter, James, and John saw Jesus’ glory for one moment on that mountaintop; Jesus was fully and completely revealed as the Light. It was not time for Jesus to be glorified; He still had work to do. It was time to journey toward the cross.
This is the last Sunday before Lent, the last Sunday of Epiphany. While Advent was a time of increasing light, Lent is a time when the god of this world seems to gain power until we think he has succeeded at destroying God’s work. Like Elisha at the Jordan and Jesus on the mountain, we are beginning a new journey. We have to leave the mountain top and go into the valley where we will truly find the grace and mercy of God. There we will see Him, there we will find Him at the cross, and there we will see the glory of God revealed in a whole new way as the Light overcomes the darkness forever. The Mighty One, God, speaks in and through Jesus Christ. He is the Light and all God’s promises are fulfilled in Him. If we are willing to listen, Jesus will tell us of His love in a radical new way, a way that leads to eternity on a mountain top in His glory.
“In that hour the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who then is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?’ Jesus called a little child to himself, and set him in the middle of them and said, ‘Most certainly I tell you, unless you turn and become as little children, you will in no way enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Whoever therefore humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Whoever receives one such little child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him if a huge millstone were hung around his neck and that he were sunk in the depths of the sea.’” Matthew 18:1-5, WEB
I like books. I probably like them too much, but can you really like books too much? I read a lot on my e-reader, but I continue to buy tangible books. We have bookshelves in almost every room, often thematically organized. I have a theological library in my office, as well as a shelf full of different bibles. My husband has a bookshelf filled with his favorite authors, mostly history. We have bookshelves with devotionals and travel, and a large set of shelves with a variety of subjects like literature, reference, and novels. We have a bookshelf filled with children’s books.
Some of those books are from my childhood. I have several well-worn books that I must have purchased from Scholastic book fairs when I was in elementary school. Some have a cover price of just thirty-five cents! One of my favorites is “The Hungry Thing” by Jan Slepian and Ann Seidler. My copy has ripped edges and yellowed pages. I’ve even taped the binding, just to keep it together. I love to use this book when I’m reading at story time with young children because they really enjoy calling out answers to what the hungry thing wants to eat. It is a rhyming story in which the hungry thing says he wants something like shmancakes. The adults in the town provide strange ideas about the food, but a little boy says, “I think you’re all very silly, shmancakes sound like fancakes, sound like pancakes to me.” The adults agree and give the hungry some. This goes on with different foods until the hungry thing is no longer hungry. Can you just hear a group of children yelling out “pancakes” when it is time? They love it, and I love reading it for that reason. I love this book so much I bought a new copy a few years ago so that I won’t risk further destroying my original copy. I’ve recently bought as many copies as I could find to give to my friends with children (I paid a lot more than thirty-five cents!). It is no longer published, but if you search you can find used copies.
It might seem silly to put so much energy into a children’s books. Haven’t I grown up, become an adult? Shouldn’t I be reading grown-up books? Of course I do, but we don’t have to give up our favorite children’s books as we move on to novels. That’s the argument C.S. Lewis makes in a book called “On Writing and Writers: A Miscellany of Advice and Opinions.” The book is filled with quotes from letters and other writings by Lewis in answer to questions about being a writer. Lewis wrote, “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can like only when you are waltzing is a bad waltz.
Lewis argues that instead of replacing our favorite children’s stories with “adult” stories, we should add the adult stories to the ones we loved as children. Growth is not replacing one with another, but adding to it. I think that is true not only with our favorite secular books, but also with the Bible stories we grew up with as children. Who doesn’t feel a sense of joy when singing “Jesus loves me”? We might listen to those Sunday school stories like Zacchaeus or Jonah quoted directly from the Bible, but we think of them as we heard them as children. The Vacation Bible School songs come back to us. We see the characters in cartoon. It makes us smile to see how Jesus loves.
Paul wrote, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child. Now that I have become a man, I have put away childish things.” Paul knew that the Christians would have to become mature in faith, but what does that mean? In today’s passage, we see Jesus uplifting the innocence of childhood. We are most mature when we not only do “adult” things, but when we do so with the eyes of a child. We mature when we add to what we knew as children, not replace the childhood stories with something more adult. Think about this when you are planning your Lent practices. Perhaps this would be a good time to get a Bible coloring book, to remember the stories through the eyes of your childhood. It may seem strange to say, but reading one story a day from children’s Bible can give us a renewed sense of God’s simple and profound grace. The greatest in God’s Kingdom are not those who know the most or can quote the scriptures, but those who trust in God with humility and joy.
“I wish that you would bear with me in a little foolishness, but indeed you do bear with me. For I am jealous over you with a godly jealousy. For I married you to one husband, that I might present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve in his craftiness, so your minds might be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he who comes preaches another Jesus, whom we didn’t preach, or if you receive a different spirit, which you didn’t receive, or a different “good news”, which you didn’t accept, you put up with that well enough. For I reckon that I am not at all behind the very best apostles. But though I am unskilled in speech, yet I am not unskilled in knowledge. No, in every way we have been revealed to you in all things. Or did I commit a sin in humbling myself that you might be exalted, because I preached to you God’s Good News free of charge? I robbed other assemblies, taking wages from them that I might serve you. When I was present with you and was in need, I wasn’t a burden on anyone, for the brothers, when they came from Macedonia, supplied the measure of my need. In everything I kept myself from being burdensome to you, and I will continue to do so. As the truth of Christ is in me, no one will stop me from this boasting in the regions of Achaia. Why? Because I don’t love you? God knows. But what I do, that I will do, that I may cut off occasion from those who desire an occasion, that in which they boast, they may be found even as we. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as Christ’s apostles. And no wonder, for even Satan masquerades as an angel of light. It is no great thing therefore if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works.” 2 Corinthians 11:1-15, WEB
There is a commercial for a television show that calls itself “America’s guilty pleasure.” Quite frankly, there’s nothing about that show that would make me want to watch it, but there’s someone who enjoys it. A guilty pleasure is something you enjoy despite knowing that it is unproductive or flawed. There’s always some show on the television that is a guilty pleasure like soap operas or reality television. Ice cream binges, overpriced coffee, or greasy fast food are guilty pleasures for many. Shopping sprees or sleeping in make people happy even if they should be saving money and busy working.
Another guilty pleasure are those supermarket check-out tabloid magazines. You can’t help but notice the headlines on those “newspapers” on the rack. They always promise to reveal the deepest, darkest secrets of the rich and famous. They also put forth claims of paranormal experiences, intrigues, and criminal activity. The headline is always some silly story that might have some grain of truth, but overall is nothing but a fictional story written to sell papers. These papers claim to have the real news, to be the only paper that tells the truth. It is a joke; the stories are ridiculous, and the editors have obviously tampered with the photographs.
My mom always bought those magazines and though I haven’t, I confess that I have accessed the articles online once or twice. Some of the most popular topics are aliens, mutated animals and people, conspiracies, and prophecies. The writers manage to put some sort of spin on these stories, often crediting themselves with the discovery of a sign pointing toward the end of the world or proof that some bizarre prophecy is true.
Most of the stories involving religion have the effect of making believers look ridiculous. They announce the discovery of some new scroll that proves things are not as we have believed for two thousand years. There have been stories that supposedly prove that Jesus was an alien, that he didn't die, or that he wasn't resurrected. They claim to have some revelation from God about a new way to live or a new way to understand God’s Word. One story even claimed that a recent discovery meant rewriting the first few chapters of Genesis.
While the stories in the grocery store tabloid might be so outrageous that it is impossible for anyone to really believe, they are an extreme but not an exception. As a matter of fact, changing the text of the scriptures, transforming the story of God has become commonplace. It is nothing new, something that began in the Garden of Eden with Satan himself twisting the words of God, leading Adam and Eve into a path of destruction. We might ignore stories from the tabloids, but how many people are using fictional works in a way that makes it appear as though it is Gospel?
I doubt that many people buy the weekly grocery store tabloids because they think the stories are true. More likely they are purchased for entertainment value, a guilty pleasure with no real truth like a soap opera or reality show. After all, it is funny to read some of those ridiculous stories. They are extreme, beyond belief. However, there are many writings published or stories put on film that are not quite as ridiculous. As a matter of fact, they hold more than a grain of truth, enough to make us wonder if it isn't really true. That’s what Satan does. He takes God’s Word and twists it. The truth is there, but it has been changed just enough to no longer be true. We should not be changing the Bible because some editor claims to have proof of another story. Neither should we be changing the meaning of the texts because someone claims to have found something that sounds better. Satan can make himself look good, and he can make his lies sound right. Satan’s word will fail, it will not stand the test of time. God’s Word will always stand up against falsehoods and will last unto eternal life.
“At that time, Jesus answered, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you hid these things from the wise and understanding, and revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for so it was well-pleasing in your sight. All things have been delivered to me by my Father. No one knows the Son, except the Father; neither does anyone know the Father, except the Son and he to whom the Son desires to reveal him. Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’” Matthew 11:25-30, WEB
I tend to be very busy. I’m not sure I accomplish very much, but I’ve always got something to do. The television is always on, but I rarely sit and just watch a show. I’ve usually got something to do, a painting or craft at the ready or research for a writing project. I’ve got several books I’m reading for one reason or another. My busy-ness is not always productive, but I can’t just sit and do nothing. Though I occasionally think about taking an afternoon nap, I rarely do so because I feel like I’m wasting time. Sometimes I forget that resting is necessary so we can accomplish the things we need to accomplish.
There was a commercial for one of those energy shot products. It showed a man accomplishing an unbelievable number of things in just five hours. He began with a round of golf, then read a book while teaching himself how to play the guitar. He wrote a novel while he taught himself Spanish. Then he ran ten miles while knitting a sweater. Then he wrote a sequel to the novel, “En Espanol.” He jumped out of an airplane. Finally, he became a ping pong master while recording his debut album. How did he do all these things in just five hours? Apparently, the energy shot was magic. Most rounds of golf take the best part of five hours, and I know I couldn’t accomplish any of those other tasks in that time. The commercial ended with the guy saying, “Wait until you see the next five.”
The commercial began with the question, “What do you do with five hours.” We are supposed to be impressed by how much he accomplishes, but are we really? Can he really do any of those things well in that time, let alone all of them? Is our goal in life to get as much done as possible in as little time as possible? And should we do it all under the influence of “magic juice?”
Where is the time for rest? Today’s text is about more than resting. Is there a place to enjoy life and the gifts we’ve been given? Jesus tells us to enjoy life like children. Do children try to accomplish a lifetime worth of tasks in just five hours? They know how to rest, especially during summer vacation. They know how to play and to sit under a tree and do nothing but listen to the wind blow. They know how to chase lightning bugs and watch them blink in a jar. They know how to float in the pool for hours. I was like that once, a long time ago.
Kids can run wild and then suddenly fall on the ground in giggles. Children can fall asleep the minute the car starts. They know when to do something and when to stop if we allow them to be children. Unfortunately, we often push our kids to do more and more, signing them up for every camp and after-school activity, so that they are constantly busy. By the time they are teenagers and young adults, they identify with the guy in the commercial. They think they have to do everything in just five hours. They know they can’t accomplish it all in the normal time, so they push themselves beyond reality. Too many people, adults young and old, use products like that energy shot so that they can.
Too many of us have lost the ability to stop and rest. We are constantly on the go, and we have lost touch with the child in us that knows how to enjoy life whether we are busy or still. We are so busy trying to accomplish things that we miss the opportunities to experience everything God has accomplished. We miss the simple and hidden things of God because we aren’t taking the time to look. We do not realized that we don’t need to take an energy shot to keep going because God wants us to slow down and spend time with Him like a child.
“What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? May it never be! We who died to sin, how could we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him through baptism to death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we will also be part of his resurrection; knowing this, that our old man was crucified with him, that the body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be in bondage to sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. But if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him; knowing that Christ, being raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no more has dominion over him! For the death that he died, he died to sin one time; but the life that he lives, he lives to God. Thus consider yourselves also to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Therefore don’t let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. Also, do not present your members to sin as instruments of unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God, as alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.” Romans 6:1-13, WEB
The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is called Fat Tuesday and is a national holiday in many places. It is a day of celebration. The parties began on Three Kings Day, January 6 and will 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, with no sense of repentance or faithful Christian living.
This hedonistic party seems more 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. 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. 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 is seen as a last blast of fun until Easter.
Historically, Shrove Tuesday had a more religious significance as 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 lives. Lent is a time to think about the journey to the cross, to think about how we will engage with Christ along the way. Today is the day to decide how we will spend the Forty Days of Lent, in what ways we will fast or add spiritual disciplines to grow closer to God and increase our faith as we move toward the Crucifixion and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though many are having fun today, the party ends abruptly at midnight with a worship service in which everyone is “shriven” and then Ash Wednesday officially begins. To be shriven means receiving reconciliation so that you can enter Lent free from guilt.
In ancient, and perhaps some not so ancient times, this past weekend would have been spent cleaning out the pantry, removing the forbidden foods from the household stock. The cooks would have spent time preparing foods to use the meat and animal-based products that were forbidden, including eggs, butter, cream, milk and cheese. Those foods were eaten on Shrove Tuesday so that the people would enter Lent without the burden of the temptation of those foods. It is interesting that sugar was never considered a forbidden food. It was considered a vegetable or vegetable products, along with rice, wheat, flour, non-egg pasta.
We really enjoyed the pancake dinners we attended when we lived in England. Many churches in England have pancake dinners before they gather for worship. Some places make it a huge event like Olney, England where they have a Pancake Race. This race is open to any woman who are 18 years and older who has been a resident of Olney for at least three months. The women gather at the starting line with a pan and a pancake. At the start, they have to flip their pancake, then run 415 yards to the finish line where they have to flip their pancake again. The race ends at the church door. Tradition holds that the race was first run in the year 1445. There were lapses over the past few hundred years, but the race was never forgotten and was revived in 1948 after the Second World War. Liberty, Kansas in the United States has joined in the fun and now the two towns compete against one another. The fastest runners win.
These old traditions no longer hold the same purpose as they once did, since we do not empty our homes of forbidden food for Lent. Instead of a time of confession, the hedonistic party atmosphere of Fat Tuesday has become a day to get all our lusts and desires out of our system before the forty days of fasting. I don’t know of many churches that even have a Shrove Tuesday service where people are shriven for their sins before Lent begins. Many churches use a liturgy of repentance before the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, but the absolution is withheld until Easter. Unfortunately, for many, Lent fasting has become a practice of suffering rather than sacrifice, and many people can’t wait until Easter when they can indulge their base desires once again.
As we prepare to enter into the Lenten journey for this year, let’s spend some time on this Shrove Tuesday considering our sinfulness and how we will spend the forty days of Lent. Will we give up something that keeps us from a right relationship with God? Do we forget to do things that build our life of faith? Will we find ways to touch the lives of our neighbors in positive and uplifting ways? Fasting is a valuable practice sacrifice of our comforts help us look to God for comfort, but we should also focus on filling our time with prayer, study, service, and devotion that keeps our mind on Christ Jesus as we follow Him to the cross.
Lectionary Scriptures for February 18, 2024, First Sunday in Lent: Genesis 22:1-18; Psalm 25:1-10; James 1:12-18; Mark 1:9-15
“Show me your ways, Yahweh. Teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation, I wait for you all day long.” Psalm 25:4-5, WEB
Memory is an odd thing. I don’t know about you, but there are so many times when I remember the things I want to forget, and I forget the things I want to remember. I lose things too often, forget why I’ve walked into a room, and forget the names of people I’ve known for years. Sometimes words that I use regularly are hard to find. I won’t admit how many times I’ve gone to the grocery store for one or two items, only to come home with a dozen other things and not the one or two items I needed. I write notes to help me remember and then I forget to take the notes, or forget to look at them. I’ve carried the note in my hands and never bother to look at it. This usually means I forget the most important item on the list. Perhaps this forgetfulness is a sign of age, but I think we all have these moments, even when we are young.
Muscle memory from activities we learned when we were young is amazing. We can ride a bike or swim after many years without relearning how to do it. There are other abilities that are lost without use, like speaking a foreign language. We remember some things so well that we can teach it to someone else without difficulty and yet there are other things that are so complicated that we can’t explain it to another person without doing it ourselves. I’m that way with the computer. I can fix almost anything on the computer if I am sitting right in front of it, but I have a difficult time telling someone over the phone or over their shoulder where they should look for something in their files.
Then there are those times when we remember things out of the blue. I think of an old friend or have a delightful memory about family. I might be reading a book or watching television and suddenly an image from ages past comes into my mind. Those memories make me smile most of the time, and sometimes I laugh at the joke or shed a tear at the nostalgia. How often do we get songs stuck in our head that last all day long? That’s a response of our memory. Don’t you just hate when you begin singing a song to which you do not remember all the words? So, not only do you go crazy as your memory continues singing a song all day long, but you are also reminded about your lack of memory!
The worst part of memory is when remember the negative. Although I enjoy remembering the good times, I can’t help remember the most embarrassing moments of my life. Those moments go around in my head; even though there’s nothing I can do about it now, I still try to think of ways I could have overcome or avoided those moments. It does no good to remember those things, but sometimes they take over my brain and leave me wondering about myself.
And who hasn’t remembered something terrible about a loved one when in the midst of a disagreement? Sometimes it is incredibly hard to fight with our spouses or kids without the old sins coming to our minds. We remember how they hurt us in the past and that makes it almost impossible to approach our disagreements with mercy and love and forgiveness in mind. We are more likely to remember the bad things than the good, despite the fact that the good moments always outweigh the bad. We have selective memory, but we usually remember the things that will make us better rather than those things that might help us to see each other with grace. Even if we have forgiven them, we never seem to forget.
God has selective memory, also, but His memory is exactly the opposite of ours. God forgets our sin, which is absolutely incredible considering how often we fall to temptation, and we sin against a holy and perfect God far more than we sin against each other. God forgives, but He also forgets. Our past sins do not come back to bite us over and over again. Forgiveness from God is permanent, it is final. When God remembers us, He sees a beloved child whom He created “good.” He sees us with love and grace, remembering all the good things about our lives and how we have been a blessing to others. He remembers those important moments in our life, like when we were born, when we were baptized and when we showed Him how much we love Him. Most of all, He remembers His promises and is faithful, even when we are not.
He fulfilled all His promises in and through Jesus.
In the beginning, Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden with God. They walked together and talked. They had a personal, intimate relationship with one another and with their Creator. They were naked and it did not matter. When the serpent deceived them and they ate of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, things changed dramatically. The Bible tells us that their eyes were opened, and they knew they were naked so they covered themselves with fig leaves and hid in the garden. They were afraid to be seen by God.
They were physically naked, and their response showed that they were ashamed of their physical nakedness. Yet, that was just a symptom of the greater problem: when their eyes were opened, they could see that their disobedience was disrespectful to their Creator and that they were not worthy to be in His presence. Their shame was not really about their naked bodies, but also about their fear to be in the presence of God. What would He do in response to their disobedience? He had warned them that eating the tree would mean death and they did not believe His words. No wonder they were afraid and hid from His presence.
We are reminded as we enter into Lent that we are just like Adam and Eve. We came from dust and to dust we will return. Our physical flesh is temporary. We are naked before God, shamed by our disobedience and unworthy to be in His presence. Yet, we are also given the opportunity to think about how we will respond to the temptations that come our way.
Today’s Old Testament lesson is shocking to us. We’ve heard stories about people who have claimed to hear God’s voice telling them to do things that are questionable. Would God command a man to steal for the church? Would God tell a mother to kill her children? Would God ever lead us into doing something that is obviously wrong even if it is for His glory?
God made incredible promises to Abraham, and they all rested on the boy Isaac. How odd it must have been to hear God’s command to sacrifice the boy. What would we do if we heard the same request? We would question our sanity or wonder if some other voice was trying to destroy what God had given to us. We would probably argue with God about the ridiculous nature of the request. We would cling on to the child to protect him from danger. But Abraham believed and obeyed the word of God.
Abraham believed that God would be faithful to His promises. Abraham knew that God would do something; he told Isaac, “God will provide.” This isn’t to say that Abraham expected a ram to show up out of nowhere; he knew that Isaac was a gift of God, and as such belonged to Him. Abraham willingly gave the most important thing in his life to God because that boy was God’s.
We all have people that are very dear to us, so important that we run the risk of letting them get in the way of our relationship with God. Would we sacrifice them because of our relationship with God? Today is one of those rare occasions when Valentine’s Day falls on Ash Wednesday. How many will miss church today, or settle for getting ashes at a drive-through experience because they think a romantic meal with their lover is more important? Are any of us willing to sacrifice even our most important relationship for God’s sake? We are asked, just like Abraham, to sacrifice those things on the altars of our hearts so that there is nothing more important to us than God. That’s what Lent is all about. It is about discovering those things that mean more to us than God. It is about repentance, about sacrifice, about trusting that God will keep His promises.
Like Abraham, we can trust that God will provide the sacrifice, but we need to be obedient to the call. We need to be willing to give up those things we love more than Him so that we can be more greatly blessed. See, we think the blessing is in the relationship with our significant other, but we are even more blessed when God is in the midst of that relationship. Marriage, family, and friendships are better when God blesses it. Would God ask us to sacrifice our beloved child as a burnt offering? I don’t believe so. But He does want us to consider how we are putting our loved ones ahead of Him.
After all, He put us ahead of His own Son.
The story of Abraham and Isaac is a foreshadowing of Good Friday when God sent His one and only Son, Jesus Christ to the altar of sacrifice. But on that day, He did not send a ram to take His place. Jesus died as the final sacrifice, the only one that is lasting. God is not asking us today to lay our loved ones on the altar of sacrifice; but He is encouraging us to search our hearts for that which stands in the way of our relationship with Him. Is fondue at a romantic restaurant more important than an hour of worship and the reminder of our own mortality?
We begin the journey to the cross with Ash Wednesday and follow Him for the next six weeks. This journey will lead us to see the fulfillment of all God’s promises. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and lasts until Holy Week, Good Friday, and then Easter. Lent is a time of examination, to consider the reality of who we are and what we have done. It is a time of repentance and renewal. It is a time to look at God, to see Him from the reality of our imperfections and to realize just how magnificent He is. The Old Testament scriptures we will follow for the next few weeks focus on the great promises of God.
There are many things that keep us from a deep and abiding relationship with God. This is why we choose things to “give up” during Lent. The sacrifice can be difficult, but it is easier than we expect because we know that we can go back to the way things were before we began fasting. How does that honor God? Where is the repentance? Where is the trust? Easter Sunday is forty-five days away, but are we truly ready to meet our risen and glorious Lord? Isn’t Lent meant to prepare us for that day, to make us ready to meet our Lord? What good is it to give up something that we plan to take back? We must, like Abraham, be willing to give it up for good and trust that God will be true to His promises. Isaac was the child of promise, but Abraham knew that God would be faithful no matter what happened to Isaac. He willingly laid everything, including the promise of God, on that altar.
Are we willing to be so faithful? Lent is a time for us to face our sinful, selfish hearts, repent of our sin, ask forgiveness, and trust that God will be faithful to His promises. Are we really willing to give up the things that truly matter? To repent of that which keeps us from being the people God has created, chosen, and redeemed us to be? When we give up the things that are dearest to our hearts and make God first in our lives, we live in the promises that were fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
Our Gospel lesson gives us a picture of Jesus going through the process of self-discovery, an example for us to follow during this Lenten season. First Jesus learned His identity. During His baptism, God said, “You are my son.” He was immediately sent into the wilderness to reflect upon this identity. For forty days He was tempted. Though Mark does not give us the details, we know from the other gospel writers that Jesus was faced with the possibilities of where to take His ministry. Satan offered Him a different path, but Jesus knew who He was and what He had to do. Finally, Jesus left the wilderness and went into action. He recognized His identity, reflected on His purpose, and put it to work.
Mark wrote, “Immediately the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness. He was there in the wilderness forty days tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals; and the angels were serving him.” It is interesting that the word used here describing how Jesus ended up in the wilderness is the same word that is used when Jesus drives out the demons. This is not something Jesus chose to do. He is forced into the wilderness. This was a time of testing for Jesus, a time of isolation from all human contact.
The incident with Abraham was a test of faith, but what about Jesus’ wilderness wandering? Was it a test of faith? Was it a test of obedience? It seems impossible that Jesus could fail. Yet, testing does more than prove one’s faith or obedience. Testing brings strength, courage, knowledge, and the promise of hope for something better beyond suffering. Jesus’ wilderness wander also provided Satan with his greatest challenge.
This reminds me of a joke. Satan was wandering around, bored out of his gills. The LORD said to Satan, “Go, do your job! Tempt people and make them sin.” Satan answered, “But that’s why I’m so bored. They sin without me and there’s nothing left for me to do!” We don’t need to be tempted from the outside. Our human flesh is quite capable of failing without having things of this earth or Satan throw temptations our way. Yet, we are faced by those outside temptations on a daily basis.
Satan’s temptations for Jesus were not the everyday type of things we face. He might tempt us with a chance to have a romantic dinner or chocolate during Lent, but the temptations for Jesus were more difficult. Satan reached into Jesus’ heart and tempted Him to take His ministry in a different direction. He offered Jesus the chance to feed the world, to be known by the whole world and to rule the world. These were noble goals to seek, but to do them would have meant rejecting the reason He was sent into the world. Jesus answered with the Word. “Man does not live by bread alone.” “Do not tempt the Lord your God.” “Worship only God.”
Jesus wasn’t given a choice; He was isolated and tempted as a necessary part of His journey. Satan was given free rein to over Jesus, and according to the other versions of this story, Satan tried to get Jesus to turn from God. Jesus, like us, had free will and could have said yes to any of the temptations, but He stood firm. When Satan tempted Him, He remained true to God.
We are tempted daily, and Lent is a time for us to recognize this reality as we journey through our own wilderness. What does that look like for you? We think we have to choose today something to fast for the next forty days, but we should take some time to discover and reflect upon our identity. Lenten fasting helps us to recognize the things that tempt us. By standing up to the temptations, as Jesus stood against the devil’s taunts, we learn to rely on the strength that God gives us through the power of the Holy Spirit. The things we fast might seem unimportant, we might fail, and we might splurge on them in a few weeks, but the lessons learned from leaning on God can help us overcome the bigger temptations of this world. James wrote, “Blessed is a person who endures temptation, for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord promised to those who love him.” As we stand against the temptations that come our way, little and big, we are transformed into people ready to receive the Risen Lord.
We won’t be perfect. It doesn’t matter how many Lents we journey through; we’ll never be perfect in this life. We will continue to fall for the temptations that are thrust our way by the world and the devil. It doesn’t matter how many things we lay on the altar of sacrifice before our God, we will continue to fail. We will probably fail at keeping our Lent disciplines, no matter how simple and easy they might seem. The big ones will be even more difficult to accomplish. The goal, as in all our journeys of faith, is not to be perfect, but to draw closer to the God who is with us. He’s waiting at the end, not to judge us for our failures but to embrace us for trying. He is walking beside us, giving us strength, courage, knowledge, and the promise of hope for something better beyond suffering
This is the first week of Lent, a season modeled after Jesus’ wilderness experience. Mark writes, “The time is fulfilled, and God’s Kingdom is at hand! Repent, and believe in the Good News.” The Lenten journey we begin today and continue for the next few weeks is a time for us to repent and to believe in God’s promises.
This is also a time of grace. We can even let our fasts and devotions become more important than our Lord. Our success will never earn us a place in heaven. Our eternal salvation rests only on the work of Jesus Christ, who was the only one able to stand against the temptations of this world. As much as we want to join with Jesus in every way of His journey, we need to remember that we do not have to do it alone. The One who went before us will walk with us. Whatever we choose to lay on the altar of sacrifice, we can trust that God is faithful to His promises. He will give us the strength to try to be the people He has created, chosen, and redeemed us to be.
It is hard for us to believe that the God we love would ever test a person so harshly. Why would He demand such a harsh sacrifice from Abraham? Why should the Spirit drive Jesus into the wilderness for forty days? Why do any of us experience temptations that make us fall? Why do we suffer? Sometimes it is just a consequence of living in an imperfect world. Satan’s job is to tempt us and lead us into sin and he often does this in very subtle ways. He makes it appear as though we are choosing good though we are choosing things that turn us from God. Treating those we love with a special Valentine’s Day is good, but not at the expense of our relationship with Him.
Sometimes we are driven by God’s Spirit to be tested. God does not test us to make us fail or suffer punishment. We don’t face times of temptation just so God can see if we will be faithful or obedient. Testing is like tempering. It makes us stronger, gives us courage, and causes us to look to the One who is our salvation and our refuge. When there is testing there is always hope. Hope is seeing beyond the moment into the promises.
Abraham was righteous in the eyes of God; he walked with God and was obedient even to the point of willingly given up his beloved son. As children of Abraham, we share in his faith, but we are more greatly blessed because we have the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In Christ we have the promise of salvation, of forgiveness, of wholeness and eternal life because He was faithful and obedient to go the cross. When we are saved, we are called to a life lived in faith and obedience to God as our response.
On Ash Wednesday, however, we are reminded that this life is temporary. We will die. Dwelling in that truth will help us keep our eyes on the One who has made the greatest promise. With our focus on God and our willingness to obedient to Him, everything else in our life will be incredibly blessed. Are we willing to sacrifice the most beloved things and people of our life to trust that God will fulfill His promises with even greater blessings?
God had a plan from the very beginning. There was no way for human life to redeem themselves, no sacrifice good enough. There was only one way to restore the relationship between God and His creation: Jesus. Jesus’ wilderness wandering was the beginning of His ministry. Jesus, the beloved Son of God, was sent to fulfill the promises, to restore the relationship between God and His creation. Jesus was baptized and tempted, fully identifying with the people He came to save. He did not fall under the false words of Satan, who tried to set Jesus on a different path. Jesus’ mission, His death and resurrection, would overcome sin and death and defeat Satan forever.
Sin still abounds, good is called evil and evil is called good. Men seek the things of this world rather than the things of God, satisfying their flesh instead of serving God. It is the way it has been since Adam and Eve turned away from God in the Garden of Eden, and it will remain so until the end of all the ages. But we are blessed because we belong to the Righteous One, Jesus Christ, who won salvation over Sin and Death for us and for all people who believe. We can trust God to be faithful to His promises. Not only that, but through Jesus, in Jesus, and with Jesus, we can be found righteous before God like Abraham and live in His Kingdom while we wait for that day when we will live with Him forever. In this restored relationship with God, we can cry out the words of the Psalmist, “Show me your ways, Yahweh. Teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation, I wait for you all day long.”
“Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, to Philemon, our beloved fellow worker, to the beloved Apphia, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the assembly in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, hearing of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all the saints, that the fellowship of your faith may become effective in the knowledge of every good thing which is in us in Christ Jesus. For we have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother. Therefore though I have all boldness in Christ to command you that which is appropriate, yet for love’s sake I rather beg, being such a one as Paul, the aged, but also a prisoner of Jesus Christ. I beg you for my child, whom I have become the father of in my chains, Onesimus, who once was useless to you, but now is useful to you and to me. I am sending him back. Therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I desired to keep with me, that on your behalf he might serve me in my chains for the Good News. But I was willing to do nothing without your consent, that your goodness would not be as of necessity, but of free will. For perhaps he was therefore separated from you for a while, that you would have him forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much rather to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. If then you count me a partner, receive him as you would receive me. But if he has wronged you at all or owes you anything, put that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it (not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self besides). Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in the Lord. Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even beyond what I say. Also, prepare a guest room for me, for I hope that through your prayers I will be restored to you. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.” Philemon, WEB
Imagine how hard it must have been for Philemon to get the letter from Paul. We do not know his whole story. We know a little bit about the characters, the time and place where this story is set. Paul was the writer, a passionate Christian who had not only taken God’s word to the world but had suffered for its sake. He was a prisoner, though we do not know from which of his many imprisonments he was writing. We know that Timothy was a friend and co-worker in Christ, a “son” of Paul not in the biological sense, but because Paul was the one who instructed him in the Christian faith. We know that Philemon was a man from Colossae of some means because he had at least one slave. He was Christian. We know that Onesimus was a slave from Colossae who became a Christian under the instruction of Paul.
We do not know how Onesimus became a slave. We do not know why he ran away or how he came to befriend Paul. We do not know what happened to these characters after Paul sent his letter. Did Paul have any impact on the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon? Were the reconciled? Did Onesimus suffer the consequences of his infraction against Philemon? Did Philemon have mercy and receive his slave as a brother in Christ? Did Paul ever see them again?
Paul’s concern in this letter is not just for his new friend and brother Onesimus. He was concerned about Philemon. There is a question of a financial matter involved in this story. Was Onesimus purchased or did he owe Philemon a debt which forced him into slavery? Did Onesimus steal from Philemon when he escaped? Paul was so concerned for the welfare of both these men that he was willing to repay the cost to restore the relationship. The details of this story don’t really matter; the purpose for Paul is to show us what it means to walk the path of Christian faith.
The purpose of Christian faith is restoration and forgiveness. Philemon knew the power of God’s forgiveness in his own life because he’d become a Christian. He knew the transforming power of the call of God in the lives of those who believe. Onesimus also learned about the forgiveness that comes from faith through the teaching and concern of his new friend Paul. Onesimus, though still a slave, was something new, he was a brother in Christ to all those who believed in Jesus. He was transformed and willing to serve. Did his good graces extend even to the one who had held him as a slave, and did he return with courage and hope to the place where he belonged?
Along with forgiveness, we see a lesson in living our vocation in and through the faith we have been given. Philemon was master, Onesimus a slave. In Christ the roles of life may not change but the way we deal with one another does. In our own churches we often have people who are CEOs of a company and their employees worshipping side by side. That relationship reaches beyond the church door as the CEO is expected to treat the employee with Christian love and respect even in the workplace and vice versa, neither one taking advantage of their position in the church or in the world to set themselves ahead or above the other. The life of discipleship means doing things in a whole new way.
Paul was writing to Philemon to encourage him to receive Onesimus, to grant forgiveness and be reconciled to him in Christian love. It went against everything he knew about business and society, but for him it was the cost of discipleship. To be a follower of Jesus means more than just words and even good deeds. It means more than giving up the easy things like immoral behavior. It means hating your very life, turning your back on everything for the sake of Christ.
“Everyone therefore who hears these words of mine and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on a rock. The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it didn’t fall, for it was founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of mine and doesn’t do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell - and its fall was great.” When Jesus had finished saying these things, the multitudes were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them with authority, and not like the scribes.” Matthew 7:24-29, WEB
When my husband retired from the military, we had to purchase clothes for him to wear in a civilian job. Thankfully the salesman was able to direct Bruce to the right kind of clothing for the jobs he would try to get. People have been giving advice about work attire for many years. One article I read focused on the types of clothes women wear in the office and whether or not they are too sexy for a business environment; women have been trying to figure out what is right ever since they began entering into the workforce. In one era it is better for a woman to look more male in her dress, wearing dark pantsuits and even going so far as wearing a tie. In other eras the trend is toward a more feminine appearance.
They say the clothing makes the man (or woman) so many people think they need to dress to be noticed. This is not only about work, but about life in general. However, it can be especially important to make good choices when it comes to work clothing. Though job performance is generally the most important thing considered, sometimes the difference between getting a raise or promotion has little to do with the actual job. In a highly competitive field, sometimes a businessperson needs to do something that will make him or her stand out from the crowd.
One article I read described the bizarre behavior of some job seekers. They are willing to do anything to make an impression. Now, it is almost understandable when a performer arrives at an audition, such as those held by American Idol, with unusual clothing or an out-of-this-world appearance. However, even in the entertainment field those tricks do not work. The judges see through the act and reject the more outlandish styles. Sadly, some of them may have the talent and perseverance to make it in the industry, but their foolishness left them out in the cold.
In an article about the bizarre job seekers, I read that some people were willing to do anything to get their dream job. One guy wore a tuxedo, a woman asked the manager out on a date. One guy even showed up at the employer’s church and sat next to him on the pew. People have tried to bribe a manager with gifts or make an usual presentation at an interview. These tactics do not work, and they give a poor impression of the prospective employee to the interviewer. They are trying to build a life, a career, on shaky sand.
When it comes to our faith, do we ever do anything out of place? Do we try to stand out in the crowd by acting in an inappropriate manner? Do we try to stand on something that is shaky, rather than standing firm on the one thing that will bring us blessings? A job seeker has very specific talents and abilities. He or she would do well to stand on the truth than to try to be something they aren’t. The same is true in our faith. We can try to do something to stand out from the crowd, but it won’t get us anywhere. When we stand firmly on the truth, the Gospel of Christ, then we will not fail.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves. By their fruits you will know them. Do you gather grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree produces good fruit; but the corrupt tree produces evil fruit. A good tree can’t produce evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t grow good fruit is cut down, and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” Matthew 7:16-20, WEB
Dr. Charles McCoy had been a preacher for many years at a congregation in Oyster Bay, New York when he retired at 72. He spent most of his life pursuing an education, collecting seven college degrees over the years. In the end it all seemed futile to him. “I just lie on my bed thinking that my life’s over, and I haven’t really done anything yet. I’ve been pastor of this church for so many years, but nobody really wants me much - and what have I done for Christ? I’ve spent an awful lot of time working for degrees, but I haven’t won very many people to the Lord.”
I have learned over my lifetime that when we live for the Lord, He makes amazing things happen, many of which we never see. A life of faith is expected to bear the fruit of that faith, but that fruit comes from God’s grace. We have to trust that God is working in and through us, even when we don’t see the evidence we expect. Sadly, sometimes we look back over our lives and wonder if we have really accomplished anything worthwhile for the Lord.
Dr. McCoy probably should not have felt that his life was futile, but his concern led him to do become a missionary to India. He sold everything he had and went with nothing but a billfold, his Bible, and his passport, all of which was stolen as soon as he arrived in Bombay. He made his way to the home of some missionaries who did not know what to do with him. After all, he was an old man. They took him in and after a day or so he announced that he was going to go to the mayor. The other missionaries told him it was fruitless; they’d tried many times and could not even get through the door. Dr. McCoy went and gave his card to the receptionist who told him to return later that day. When he arrived, he was welcomed with a grand reception. His card listed his multiple degrees and his distinguished appearance gave the leaders the impression that he was a powerful and important man. They thought he might even be from the President of the United States. He preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ and they listened politely. Though it seemed to have no impact on the gathered leaders, he was approached by a military leader who asked him to speak at his school. He eventually received many invitations to speak in many countries. He started churches in Calcutta and Hong Kong, and he traveled to Egypt and the Middle East. He served as an evangelist for sixteen years before he died.
Dr. McCoy thought his life was fruitless, but God had a greater plan. His seemingly useless degrees became a doorway to a great ministry in the East. The fruit of his parish ministry may not have been as visible as those from his later years, but there must have been fruit. A good tree can’t bear bad fruit.
Do you ever wonder about the purpose of our life. Do you ever question whether you have done the work you are meant to do? Have you done enough? What more can you do? Did you make the right choices? Dr. McCoy was afraid in what he thought were the final moments of his life that he had wasted God’s blessings. However, those were not wasted moments. For sixteen years after he retired, Dr. McCoy continued to serve the Lord, using the gifts that He had collected during his earlier pursuits. His fruit was more visible, but not more important. He bore good fruit his whole life because he trusted God and shared His grace wherever he went.
You may not have accomplished anything like Dr. McCoy, but your life and ministry is not fruitless. We can’t always see how God is working in and through our lives, so we are to go forth in faith, trusting that God is creating the fruit that will bless others. You may someday see that the great work of God manifested in you has touched more people than you can ever imagine. Faith in Christ will always bear good fruit for the sake of God’s Kingdom. He will make sure of it.
“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 heavens 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
Have you ever read the whole Bible? I have done it several times, although I have not read it from page one to the end of the book. There are many types of reading plans available to help you along the way. Some begin on page one and lead you through the right number of chapters to get finished in a certain amount of time. Others order the story chronologically. Yet others mix Old and New Testament scriptures so you can see the parallels and connections. I’ve used a plan with a different portion of the Bible for each day of the week. Sadly, many who follow a plan that begins at page one give up when it becomes overwhelming (like in Leviticus!) 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.
Many people prefer to stick to their favorite readings, because some of the Bible is really hard to read. The stories of the Old Testament judges, kings and prophets do not make sense to us. There was so much bloodshed and so many irrational expectations. How can we understand a God who would ask Abraham to sacrifice his beloved child? How can we accept the word of a God who would require the destruction of even animals and property by His invading army? How can we believe the stories when they seem completely unbelievable? Even the heroes seem
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 anyone who wanted to leave could leave, so many left the battlefield to go home. Even with a big loss of men, God told Gideon that 10,000 was too many. “I’ll tell you which men to take.” And in the end, God allowed only three hundred men to go into battle. Now, imagine you are one of those three hundred men; would 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 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 might not like their agenda. We might think that their expectations are ridiculous. I’m not sure if I would have followed Gideon into battle or Moses to a new place. 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 even when we do not understand. And so, we pray that God will bless them, whether we like them or not, because when our leaders are blessed, at whatever level they lead, we are blessed.
Lectionary Scriptures for February 25, 2024, Second Sunday in Lent: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:23-31; Romans 5:1-11; Mark 8:27-38
“For whoever will be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man also will be ashamed of him, when he comes in his Father’s glory, with the holy angels.” Mark 8:38, WEB
I have a cartouche that my husband bought me decades ago when he was deployed to the Middle East. A cartouche is an oval with a line at one end tangent to it which in Egyptian hieroglyphics indicates that the text enclosed is a royal name. Mine is a silver and gold pendant that has my name on one side and several symbols on the other. I can’t read the symbols, but they are meant to represent my name. Now, I certainly don’t have a royal name, but these cartouches were popular among the servicemen who served at the time. Some say they represent good luck and protection from evil. I just thought it was pretty. I always wore it so that the side with my name faced out, because the other side was beyond my understanding.
A number of years ago the singer known as Prince changed his name. He was born Prince Rogers Nelson, but used just his first name professionally. Until the day he decided to change it. In the early 1990’s he created a name that was only a symbol and was unpronounceable. The symbol was later copyrighted as Love Symbol #2, but reporters and disc jockeys simply referred to him as “the artist formerly known as Prince.” He quickly realized the foolishness of this name change and returned to Prince.
Our Old Testament text for today is about a name change made by God. He did this often in the scriptures. Jacob became Israel. Cephas became Peter. Saul became Paul. The name change gave them a new identity. Names have meaning, especially in those ancient days.
We do not necessarily understand the depth of what happened in this passage because our letters are simply building blocks for words. They do not mean anything separate and alone. An “m” is just an “m” and will always be so. However, in the Hebrew language there is meaning to the letters. As in some other languages, you might be familiar with the fact that the Hebrew alphabet has a numerical equivalent. Alef=one. There are those who study the numerics of the language, finding meaning in the numbers of the words as well as the words in context.
It is obvious in today’s text that something has changed with Abram and Sarai. Something is new. God gave them new names. Though the names themselves are quite similar to the names they were given by their parents, their new names show at least a difference in dialects. The scriptures tell us that the new names represent their new place in God’s plan. Abram became Abraham; the childless one became the one who would be the father of many nations. Sarai became Sarah; the childless one became the one who would give rise to nations.
There is more to this name change than meets our eyes, however, and it has to do with the additional letter. The letter “h” in Hebrew is “hey” and means “to reveal” or “behold.” It also represents the divine breath and revelation. In other words, God has breathed new life into Abraham and Sarah; their lives will be different because God is irrevocably intertwined in them.
“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” I must confess that this is one of the few things I remember from literature class in school. It stuck with me all these years because of the truth of it. Someone once said, “How do you make God laugh? Tell Him your plans for the future.” We make plans, and something always seems to go awry. We make plans every day; we schedule our time to fulfill the needs of our family, co-workers, communities. We plan ahead for retirement, for our children’s education and even for our death and burial. When something goes wrong and our plans change, we become confused and upset, particularly when we believe we have made our plans based on God’s promises.
Peter had great plans for Jesus. He was going to be King and save the Jews from their oppression. By the power of the Holy Spirit, he knew Jesus was the Messiah, but he had it all worked out in his head how Jesus would accomplish the work of salvation. Unfortunately, his plans were not Jesus’ plans. His plans were not God’s plan.
Imagine what it must have been like for Abram. After all, he left everything based on the promise of this unknown God who spoke to him one day. God promised that he would be the father of many nations, yet when he was ninety-nine, he wasn’t even a father. I am sure that as he and Sarai made lots of plans as they left their home to go to that unknown land. They probably thought about names for the children God promised. They probably thought about a home they would build, how they would take care of one another. They made plans. But many years passed, and they remained childless.
God first made a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12. He called Abram to a new place, promising that he would be great and a blessing to the whole world. He also promised Abram that his offspring would inherit the Promised Land. There was no reciprocal promise, God asked nothing in return. This promise was renewed in Genesis 15 when God met with Abram and cut the covenant. There the Lord presented Abram a royal grant which is an unconditional promise to fulfill the grant of land. Abram never saw the fulfillment of God’s plan.
God is faithful even when we are not. We are unfaithful because our expectations do not line up with God’s plan. We think God is not fulfilling His promises, so we try to take control. Though Abram followed, he took matters into his own hands all along the journey, never quite trusting that God was in control. Ultimately, Abram and Sarai even tried to provide their own heir, turning to Sarai’s servant Hagar to be a surrogate, but Hagar’s son Ishmael would never be the son of the promise.
In today’s passage, God repeated the promise of offspring. Abram was ninety-nine years old and still had no children. Sarai was barren and very old. Despite their unfaithfulness, God appeared to Abram and confirmed his promise.
This promise is more than a royal land grant; Abram would be the father of many nations. This was a suzerain-vassal covenant which is a conditional pledge between a great king and a subject king. As long as the vassal remained faithful and loyal, the suzerain would be there as guardian and protector. The sign of this covenant was circumcision. God said, “I am God Almighty. Walk before me and be blameless. I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.” As long as Abram’s descendants continued to consecrate themselves before the Lord, they would receive His blessings.
It seems impossible that a ninety-nine-year-old childless man might become the father of many nations. The promise is equally impossible for Sarah who was well beyond the age of childbearing. Yet, Abraham believed God and trusted that God would be faithful. Do we live with such trust? We should. Although our names have not been changed, God has breathed His “hey” into our lives, too. We have been changed as He has revealed Himself to us through Jesus, by grace, in our baptisms.
That life is not always going to be what we hope or expect.
In this week’s Gospel text, Jesus told Peter and the disciples that not only was death part of His mission, but that they also must be prepared to give up their own lives for the sake of the Gospel. Following Jesus meant death. It meant taking up their own crosses and following Him. It means the same for us. Do we really understand what Jesus is trying to say? We try to define our crosses by the hard things in our life. We take our suffering and say, “This is the cross I have to bear.”
Another way people interpret this text is reflective of God’s call to serve those who suffer injustice. Our cross, in this way of thinking, is to feed the poor and free the prisoners. Many people experience sharing their resources as a burden. We have to die to our own lusts and desires if we are going to give to others. We are blessed to be a blessing, so it is our calling to share everything we have with those in need. This is how we respond to the gift of the Gospel. Is this really a cross we have to bear?
Jesus speaks even harder words for us. “For what will a man give in exchange for his life? For whoever will be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man also will be ashamed of him, when he comes in his Father’s glory, with the holy angels.” Is He asking for us to give a cup of water to the thirsty in exchange for the life He has given us? No. He has given us life and promised that if we share a cup of water in His name with someone who thirsts, we will be blessed.
Our cross is not some suffering we have to face alone in this world. It is not some work we have to do. We take up Christ’s cross with Him. It is His cross we are called to share with others. This is incredibly hard, especially since we know most people do not want to hear the message that comes through the cross. People don't want to hear that they are sinners in need of a Savior and that the only way to inherit the kingdom of God is through Jesus’ death. The message of the cross is foolishness. We want to earn God’s grace. Sometimes we are even ashamed to speak the words to our neighbors.
It is much harder for us to speak the Gospel than to give the thirsty a cup of water or for us to suffer pain in our flesh. But this is the cross we are called to carry, to be witnesses for Jesus in this world. It is a heavy burden to bear, but we are reminded that we do not carry it alone. As we walk in faith, doing all that God has called us to, He will be with us, holding us up, loving us and giving us everything we need to speak those words of grace into people’s lives. We might have to suffer for it, but we won’t suffer alone and in the end we will join Him in His glory in the Day to come. But if we are ashamed, if we do not take Christ’s cross into the world, He will also be ashamed of us. It is worth the risk because suffering in this world is temporary, but the glory in the next is eternal.
God had a plan for Jesus, and it wasn’t what Peter expected. Peter knew that Jesus was the Messiah because the Holy Spirit had revealed it to Him, but Peter’s expectations were much different. We, like Peter, might rebuke God for doing things His way, thinking that we know better. The text today asks us if know who Jesus is. Do we have an answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” Do we know that He is the Messiah, and do we know what that means? We have the advantage of hindsight; we know the rest of the story, but that does not always guarantee that we understand how God is working in our lives. Faith means we trust God’s plan, knowing that only He can make things work out right.
Faith doesn’t always lead to what we call blessing.
A story is told that at some time when a certain country was persecuting Christians, a small gathering of faithful were in a church at worship. Suddenly the door slammed open, and soldiers entered the sanctuary, with weapons pointed at the congregation. The leader of the soldiers yelled out to those who were gathered, “If you deny your faith and walk out of here right now, you will be safe.” A number of people rose and went for the door, but a few people stayed seated. They were unwilling to deny their faith in Jesus Christ. When the last of the deniers left the building, the soldiers closed and locked the door and then all sat in a pew. The leader said, “I’m sorry to frighten you, but in this day we had to be certain that we worshipped with true believers. We know those of you who risked your life for your faith will not betray us.”
Jesus said, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it; and whoever will lose his life for my sake and the sake of the Good News will save it.” Is death a requirement for faithfulness? We are reminded in the scriptures that Christ died once for all. So, what does this mean for us today? We may struggle with the question of whether or not we would stand firm when facing persecution, but are we willing to refuse to take our kids to soccer practice on a Sunday morning so we can attend worship? Will we tell our bosses we can’t do something because it goes against our faith? Will we stand up for the things that we believe matter in this world? Will we call a spade a spade even when the rest of the world says it is a shovel?
Jesus said, “For what should a man give in exchange for his life? For whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of man also shall be ashamed of him, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” Faith means being a Christian even when it is hard, even when it is dangerous. It means standing firm in the promises of God even when it seems He’s not living up to His end of the covenant. God is always faithful.
We may never have to make the choice of whether or not to stay in the pew when threatened by a gunman’s bullet, but there many opportunities to deny oneself for the sake of Christ and His gospel. Will we gain the whole world by keeping our faith private, but lose true life in doing so? Are we so ashamed of Christ that we will bury Him beneath our daily worldly activities because it is easier to do so than to stand with Him? These are the questions we should be asking ourselves, rather than wondering what cross we have to carry. For losing one’s life does not necessarily mean dying in the flesh, it means putting Jesus Christ before everything else in our life. It is there we find true life.
This is a message even the disciples did not want to hear. When Jesus began to speak about death and the cross, Peter took Him aside and rebuked Him. Jesus rebuked Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! For you have in mind not the things of God, but the things of men.” Jesus was not calling Peter Satan, but Peter was trying to make God fulfill his own plans and expectations, which is exactly what Satan attempts to do with us every day. As we entered Lent, we heard how Satan tried to tempt Jesus in the wilderness from the path God intended for Him, which was the path to the cross. In today’s text, at the other end of His ministry, Satan used Peter to try to do the same thing.
We live in a world filled with sin and though we have been changed by God’s love, we still fail, we want to be in control, to be like God, and to do God’s work in our own way. Sometimes we are impatient, thinking that God is taking too long. We see the sin and pain in the world and wish He would do something to make problems end. At other times, we question whether God is taking care of the matter in the right way. Our motives are not always self-centered, but we are led by our own biases, experiences, and expectations. Unfortunately, our way is always imperfect because we can’t see the world as God sees it.
Like Abram and Sarai, we think that we need to be in control. We want to avoid suffering and pain, and yet sometimes it is in the very suffering that God does His best work as we learn to trust in Him. Look at what happened on the cross: Jesus Christ died, but in His death, we find true life. Paul reminds us that we grow through our suffering, which produces perseverance, which produces character, and that character produces the hope that is already within us through faith in Jesus Christ. The character that comes from deep within holds on to a hope that is real and trustworthy because it comes from faith in Christ, a hope that was given through the blood of Jesus on the cross through which we are saved.
The hardest part of our relationship with God is to let Him have control. We make plans for our lives and all too often they go astray. We map out a timeline for when we will graduate, get a job, find a mate, have children, retire and some of us even try to plan our deaths. The death part is a little harder to control, but that doesn’t stop us from trying.
There was an episode of “The Big Bang Theory” where Sheldon decided that his life expectancy was too short (he would only live another sixty years, and miss out on so much.) He began his quest for old age by choosing different food, making Thursday cruciferous vegetable night rather than pizza night. Unfortunately, the bowl full of Brussels sprouts gave him such horrible gas that he thought he was going to die. He thought maybe a running routine with Penny would help, but down the steps on the first day. Then he decided the only way to really save himself was to hide in his room with a virtual presence device out in the world. He created a robot with a video monitor that was connected to a video camera in his room. His plan posed a few problems and he realized that you can’t live your life through a video screen. He has also realized that you can’t control every aspect of your life.
We try, but as we learn to trust in God, we realize that He has much better plans for our lives. He knows us better than we do. He knows us to the core of our beings. He knows our gifts because He has given them to us. He knows every step we have taken and every step we will take. He has set the path for us, and the best path we can follow is the one He has ordained. Sadly, no matter how much we trust God, we still try to go our own way, follow our own plans, do our own thing. That’s when we struggle, although most of us never really learn that lesson.
God does not fail. He knows the right time and the right way to accomplish His plan. He knew exactly how to overcome the sin of this world. He sent Jesus exactly when we needed Him to come, to do exactly what needed to be done. We do not understand why. We can’t quite grasp the need for the cross or for Christ’s blood to cleanse us from our sins. It isn’t up to us to decide whether or not God did things the right way. We are called to trust in Him, to believe in Jesus and to follow Jesus wherever He might lead us. Things might not be as we hope they will be, but they will be exactly as God intends as we walk in His ways and follow His path. Lent is a time to learn how to take up our cross and follow Jesus, to learn how to die and live again so that others might have life.
Give the word to your neighbors. Reveal the Gospel to your friends. Share the forgiveness of God with the world. Tell them about the God that is both fearful and merciful, about the God that died so that they might live. Tell them about Jesus so that they might be saved. Give it freely, for there is more than enough grace to go around. Do not be ashamed of Christ, for He has promised blessings to the faithful. Do not worry about what might happen tomorrow and do not fear death, for God is faithful and His promises are true. He has breathed His Spirit into your life so that you will pass His grace on to the world. Give glory to God and your faith will grow, even in the midst of your doubts and fears. And He will change the world.
“A man’s spirit will sustain him in sickness, but a crushed spirit, who can bear?” Proverbs 18:14, WEB
Charles Spurgeon wrote about this proverb: “Every man sooner or later has some kind of infirmity to bear. It may be that his constitution from the very first will be inclined to certain disease and pains, or possibly he may in passing through life suffer from accident or decline of health. He may not however have any infirmity of the body, he may enjoy the great blessing of health; but he may have what is even worse, an infirmity of mind. There will be something about each man’s infirmity which he would alter if he could; or if he should not have any infirmity of body or of mind, he will have a cross to carry of some kind—in his relatives, in his business, or in certain of his circumstances. His world is not the Garden of Eden, and you cannot make it to be so. It is like that garden in this respect—that the serpent is in it, and the trail of the serpent is over everything here. It is said that there is a skeleton in some closet or other of everybody’s house. I will not say so much as that, but I am persuaded that there is no man in this world but has trial in some form or other, unless it be those whom God permits to have their portion in this life because they will have no portion of bliss in the life that is to come. There are some such people who appear be have no afflictions and trials; but as the apostle reminds us, ‘If ye be without chastisement, whereof all (the true seed of the Lord) are partakers, then are ye bastards and not sons;’ and none of us would wish to have that terrible name truthfully applied to us. I should greatly prefer to come into the condition of the apostle when he said, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” I say again that every man will have to bear an infirmity of some sort or other. To bear that infirmity is not difficult when the spirit is sound and strong: ‘The spirit of a man will sustain his infirmity.’”
Let me repeat the important sentence here: “To bear that infirmity is not difficult when the spirit is strong and sound.”
Have you met anyone whose life circumstances tug at your heart and yet they live that life with peace and joy? Have you ever known anyone who struggled with cancer and yet still had a kind and encouraging word for you? Have you seen someone who doesn’t have a dime to their name and yet still has a quarter to share with the homeless man on the street? Have you met with someone who is dealing with grief and yet still has a word of comfort for you?
In “The Message” Eugene Peterson translates today’s proverb: “A healthy spirit conquers adversity, but what can you do when the spirit is crushed?” The lesson for today is to keep your spirit strong and ready so that you can be sustained through those moments of adversity that will come to your life. We all have bad times, whether it is illness or financial problems, relationships that break and loved ones that leave us. It is so easy to feel crushed under the weight of life’s struggles, but the one whose spirit is strong can stand through it.
What makes our spirit strong? It is certainly not something we do on our own. It is by God’s grace that we can see the hope in death and the joy in illness. It is by God’s grace that we can feel generous when we have nothing and joyful when our world is falling apart. We stay strong in spirit by keeping close to our God, through prayer, the reading of His Word and through fellowship with other Christians. As we grow in faith and in our relationship with God, our spirit will be filled with God and He will sustain us through every difficulty.
“I love you, Yahweh, my strength. Yahweh is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge; my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my high tower. I call on Yahweh, who is worthy to be praised; and I am saved from my enemies. The cords of death surrounded me. The floods of ungodliness made me afraid. The cords of Sheol were around me. The snares of death came on me. In my distress I called on Yahweh, and cried to my God. He heard my voice out of his temple. My cry before him came into his ears.” Psalm 18:1-6, WEB
We can do a lot of things to protect ourselves. We can install security systems in our homes. We can make sure we have fire detectors in our home and test them regularly. We can stay home when the weather is bad. We can pay attention to the world around us and watch out for danger. We can avoid doing things that might cause an accident. We can avoid eating, drinking, and smoking things that can make us sick. Though we can’t guarantee our life will be without trouble, all these things might help to protect us.
There are dangers in this world that we can’t avoid by our own strength and power. I was once hit by a drunk driver. I was driving my car through a green arrow when the car came from the other direction and ran the red light. The driver was cited with multiple infractions, including driving with a suspended license, no insurance, and several different types of drugs in his system. When he hit my car, it spun around several times, although I couldn’t really tell you how many because it all happened in the blink of an eye. It was a good thing I was wearing my seatbelt because it saved my life. I am certain about this because I had an unopened can of soda on the seat which exploded when it flew forward and hit the dashboard; that could have been me.
I avoided death with the seatbelt, but there was no way for me to know that on that corner on that night I might be in an accident. We can’t hide in our homes; we have to go out into the world. Oh, I like to avoid going out, especially when the weather is bad. I am not worried about how I will handle the roads, but I worry about how others will. Yet, there are things that need to be done. I need to go grocery shopping. I need to meet with fellow Christians in worship, study, and prayer. I need to get out of the house and interact with other people. I can’t do much for God’s kingdom hiding behind the safety of my walls, can I?
There are other dangers that we can’t even see. The spiritual warfare that goes on all around is really unavoidable. We will constantly be tempted to do things we shouldn’t do and to avoid things we should. We even face the temptation to hide in our homes when we are afraid of what might happen in the world. We ignore the call of God to protect ourselves from the dangers that can harm us. However, we can’t avoid the spiritual dangers by hiding. We can’t protect ourselves; we can’t trust that we’ll be safe by our own power and might.
The psalmist describes God in many ways, as rock, fortress, deliverer, refuge, shield, horn, and tower. Trust in God will not guarantee that we will be safe from drunk drivers, but He is our salvation. We are strong only because He is strong. We might not be unharmed by our enemies, but God will save us, especially in terms of the spiritual war that is being waged. The devil may tempt us, trying to lead us away from God, but God will be there beside us, calling us toward Himself. And when we fall and cry out to God for His help, He will be there to pick us up, to forgive us, and to help us onto the right path.
“For we don’t desire to have you uninformed, brothers, concerning our affliction which happened to us in Asia, that we were weighed down exceedingly, beyond our power, so much that we despaired even of life. Yes, we ourselves have had the sentence of death within ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead, who delivered us out of so great a death, and does deliver; on whom we have set our hope that he will also still deliver us; you also helping together on our behalf by your supplication; that, for the gift given to us by means of many, thanks may be given by many persons on your behalf.” 2 Corinthians 1:8-11, WEB
Paul had an incredible ministry. His travels took him all over the ancient world and his preaching founded churches in many cities. He had a passion for the Gospel, and he wanted the world to know the love and mercy of God found in Christ Jesus. He wanted the world saved by God’s grace. So, he traveled extensively and during his travels he faced persecution, hardship, hunger, and even a shipwreck. He was beaten and imprisoned many times. It would not be surprising if he felt doubt, uncertainty, hurt, anger, pain, all sorts of negative feelings about his ministry.
What is a feeling? This word can be defined in so many different ways that it is often difficult to understand the meaning of a sentence. One day a friend told me, “Trust your feelings.” We hear the old saying, “Follow your heart” so often, especially in romantic rom coms. So often, though, emotions can stand in the way of a proper understanding. If we love someone, it is difficult to see his or her faults. If we are hurt or angry, it is difficult to see goodness. Emotions block truth.
However, feeling can also be defined as awareness. A mother knows when her child is sick. Physical signs often bring about the feeling; the mother sees the child acting different, feels a fever, or hears a difference in voice, but there’s also something about the connection between the mother and child. A farmer is aware of an impending storm; he feels the difference in the air pressure, or the temperature. When a mother is aware of sickness or a farmer aware of the storm, they are able to make decisions that will make everything alright. There are times when this awareness is unexplainable. Sometimes a mother just knows.
The term “gut reaction” can be used to describe this type of feeling. There are times I feel as though I should be someplace or do something. When I follow this gut feeling, I find that there is someone there who needs my help or even just a kind word. There have been times when I could tell that the feeling came from the Holy Spirit, leading me into a situation where He is able to use me as His vessel for change. Intercessors often have a feeling they should pray for someone, so they do. They later find that the person they were praying for needed that prayer at that moment.
They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but at times we have a gut reaction to someone we meet. We have a feeling about him or her, yet often do not know why. How often do those heroines in the rom coms follow their heart chasing the wrong guy, only to discover that their true love is the best friend they’ve known forever? In time, events and actions unfold to show our reaction to be good or bad, true or untrue. Sometimes that gut reaction comes from the Holy Spirit, so it is important to always seek God’s will in every situation and be obedient to what He is calling us to do. Too often our reaction is based on our emotions, which are often based on our flawed nature, so it is important that we rely on the Holy Spirit whenever we make a decision.
Paul not only dealt with the troubles of travel and persecution from those outside the faith, he suffered at the hands of people claiming to be Christian leaders. They disparaged Paul and tried to turn the churches against him. We don’t know what happened in Asia to make Paul feel so devastated, perhaps it has something to do with this criticism, but Paul didn’t let his feelings rule his actions. He wrote to the Corinthians to tell them that he was trusting in God to make all things right.
My friend’s advice about trusting my feelings happened to be about a situation when I had a gut reaction to something. She wanted me to seek the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit, to see that God was leading me in a certain direction. As events unfolded, I found that the gut reaction proved correct. The next time you have a gut reaction to a person or event, test it to be sure it is not from your own emotions. Then trust in God and know that He is leading you in the right direction by the power of His Holy Spirit.
“In this confidence, I was determined to come first to you, that you might have a second benefit, and by you to pass into Macedonia, and again from Macedonia to come to you, and to be sent forward by you on my journey to Judea. When I therefore was thus determined, did I show fickleness? Or the things that I purpose, do I purpose according to the flesh, that with me there should be the ‘Yes, yes’ and the ‘No, no?’ But as God is faithful, our word toward you was not ‘Yes and no.’ For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us, by me, Silvanus, and Timothy, was not ‘Yes and no,’ but in him is ‘Yes.’ For however many are the promises of God, in him is the ‘Yes.’ Therefore also through him is the ‘Amen’, to the glory of God through us. Now he who establishes us with you in Christ and anointed us is God, who also sealed us, and gave us the down payment of the Spirit in our hearts. But I call God for a witness to my soul, that I didn’t come to Corinth to spare you. We don’t control your faith, but are fellow workers with you for your joy. For you stand firm in faith.” 2 Corinthians 1:15-24, WEB
We make many decisions every day. We decide whether or not we should get up in the morning. We decide what to eat for breakfast and what to wear. We decide how to drive to work, which roads to take and the speed to go. Throughout our day we make many decisions about how we will accomplish our work and our play, how we will deal with our relationships. Some of the decisions are pretty clear cut that they don t even seem like a decision. After all, who can really choose to stay in bed all day in a world where there is so much to do? Other decisions are harder, but don’t make much of a difference in our lives, such as what to have for dinner. Will it matter tomorrow if we choose to eat spaghetti today? Some decisions are weightier; they could change the course of someone’s life.
Paul had many decisions to make. The first, and most important, was the decision to embrace the truth of Jesus Christ and His invitation to be a minister of the Gospel. After that, he had to decide when to stay and when to go. He had to decide which roads to take. He had to decide whether or not someone would be a help or a hindrance. He had to decide whether or not it was worth the risk to share the Good News with a person, a group, or a city. Some decisions were harder, like whether he should go back to a congregation to help them overcome whatever troubled their fellowship. Paul loved the Christians in Corinth, and they were definitely troubled by claims of spiritual superiority over one another, suing one another in public courts, abusing the communal meal, and sexual misbehavior. Paul wanted to go, even promised to go, but something held him back.
He had made a second trip to Corinth after his first letter, but his discipline caused hard feelings among the congregation members. He wrote to say that he did not want to hurt them any longer, so he decided to stay away. I’m not sure Paul could have won either way. He had to be honest, to tell them how they were straying from God’s Kingdom, but some took this to be Paul’s way of ruling over them. He wanted to assure them in this letter that it was never his attempt to control them. He wanted them to know the joy of living the Christ-like life, to be the best they could be.
We don’t have all the letters Paul wrote to the Corinthians; there were at least four. He tried to deal with their troubles through a second letter, but it didn’t help. This is why he made his second trip, the one that hurt so many. The Corinthians didn’t want to change. Paul wrote this letter (probably the fourth) to try to reconcile with his beloved children so that he could return one day in love and joy and peace.
Did Paul make mistakes? Were all the letters necessary? Did he make good decisions about the discipline in Corinth? Two thousand years later we can’t second guess his choices. We can learn from them, and from the way he dealt with his “wayward children”. Paul believed that the Holy Spirit was guiding his actions, that he was going where God was leading him and speaking what God intended for him to speak. Did he do it right every time? Perhaps, perhaps not. Paul is a giant in the Church, but he was human just like you and I. He made mistakes, and in 2 Corinthians 12, he apologized.
Yesterday is past and the decisions we made yesterday are over, even if we are still experiencing the consequences of that decision. We can’t do anything to change it except to walk forth in faith knowing that God can make good come out of our mistakes. We can’t live for yesterday, we can only live in today trusting in God to do His good and perfect work in our lives. Mistakes, even when they affect the lives of others, are not unforgivable sins. We sin when we stop trusting that God is able to overcome our foolishness and that He is faithful in the midst of our trouble.
I have made my own mistakes. I have chosen to do things without seeking the counsel of the Holy Spirit. Even through my foolishness, God has been faithful. He does not waver, always standing close and firmly holding me in His love. No matter the circumstances surrounding his mistakes, Paul stood firm in the truth of God’s love and continued on the right path, glorifying God. He teaches us by his own confession how we can admit our regret and take the steps necessary return to the right path.
Lectionary Scriptures for March 3, 2024, Third Sunday in Lent: Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; John 2:13-22 (23-25)
“They are more to be desired than gold, yes, than much fine gold, sweeter also than honey and the extract of the honeycomb.” Psalm 19:10, WEB
Board games come with a set of rules so that all the players will know how to play the game. It is funny, however, how we sometimes end up making our own rules. Take, for instance, Monopoly. On the board there is a space called “Free Parking.” According to the official rules of the game, the “Free Parking” space is just that, a place to park your token for a turn without penalty or reward. If you are playing against a mogul who owns every property, a free space might be a welcome rest stop.
I don’t know many people who play the “Free Parking” space as directed in the official rules. When I was a kid, we played long games of Monopoly that lasted days during the summer. To make it interesting, we used the “Free Parking” spot to get “free money.” We put money collected from taxes and fees paid from Community Chest or Chance cards in the center of the board and the player who landed took it all. We tried to build up a huge pot, because the game got most interesting when the players were rich. This unofficial rule made the game more fun. We had to remember, however, to teach new players our rule because we wanted everyone to agree about the rule.
Now, if you have ever played games with young children, you know that they are very good at making up rules as they go, “teaching” the adults the right way to play. The new rules usually benefit the child in some way. When something is about to go the wrong way, which means against them, the child quickly says, “Oh, by the way, I forgot to tell you about this rule...” and they go on to tell you how you have to jump three times on one foot and then turn around in circles until they can move their piece to the place where it needs to be to make them the winner. Ok, so I’m exaggerating, but I’m sure many parents out there know exactly what I’m talking about. It is important to teach our children how to play by the rules, but it can also be fun playing it their way.
We have to establish the rules from the beginning. With board games it is important that everyone know how to play before starting, or else in the middle there will be conflict. Like the “Free Parking” rule in Monopoly, it is essential that everyone agrees or there will be an argument. It can ruin the fun and hurt feelings.
But sometimes it is more important to establish a relationship, to build up trust in one another before establishing rules. In the case of the Hebrews, God didn’t say, “If you do this, that and the other thing, then I will save you from this slavery to which you are bound.” No, God saved them first, taking them out of bondage and into freedom. It was then, and only then, that He made the covenant with them. They knew He was a deliverer, that He could save His people. They knew they could trust Him. Then God taught them how to live in this new community together with the commandments.
Notice that the Ten Commandments do not begin with “do not” rules. They begin with relationship building rules. The first commandments are about putting the One who saved them out of Egypt first in their life, and then those whom God has appointed as our elders. The last few commands are the “do not” rules which are meant to be relationship keeping rules. The things we do against other people are the things that cause the brokenness of our world. We build walls when we murder, commit adultery, steal, lie and covet. These rules are given to keep us right with our neighbors and therefore right with God. In the end, if we keep the first commandment by putting God first, we will not disobey the others because we want to please the One who is our Savior and Deliverer.
The thing about rules is that it is not enough to know what we are not to do. We need to know what we should do. One of the schools which our children attended had a list of rules the children were expected to follow. The list included both positive and negative language. One rule was, “Do be gentle. Do not hurt anyone.” Another was, “Do listen. Don’t interrupt.” A third read, “Do be honest. Don’t cover up the truth.” A positive perspective on behavior is more valuable than negatively stated rules. We are to teach our children how to act, not just how not to act. This is not a new concept. It is what we see in Martin Luther’s Small Catechism.
Martin Luther wrote in his Small Catechism, “No person can keep any or all commandments perfectly, except Jesus Christ. All those who have faith in Him by the power of His Spirit willingly strive to keep these commandments.” God didn’t begin His relationship with His people with the commandments. Faith came first. Our inability to keep perfectly these commandments is exactly why God reveals Himself more fully in our other lessons. People learn through repetition and the catechism helped to write the basic doctrine of Christian faith on the hearts of believers. By holding to the words of the catechism, the priests built on the lessons learned at home and avoided confusion. To Luther, it was not enough for the believer to recite the prayer, creed, and commandments; he felt that all Christians should understand what they mean. So, he wrote one sentence explanations answering a simple question, “Was ist das?” which means, “What is this?” The answer to this question in the Small Catechism always included the positive expectation in response to the negative rule. For example, in the explanation for the fifth commandment, Luther taught that disobedience goes beyond murder and includes anything that might harm others. Rather than hurt, we are to help and support each other.
The truth of this concept goes back even further than Martin Luther. The greatest teacher in history also taught rules in the positive form. In the Old Testament, the Decalogue or Ten Commandments is the standard by which God expected the Jews to live, listed in the negative form. All religions have a similar standard. During His ministry among us, Jesus Christ taught the rules from a new perspective. Instead of “you shall not bow down to other gods,” Jesus taught, “you shall love the Lord your God.” Instead of “do not murder, steal, and cheat,” Jesus taught, “love your neighbor as yourself.” Rather than just teaching us what not to do, He gave us the standard of how we should live. Every religion has rules, but they are stated in the negative rather than the positive. This perspective encourages us to do more than avoid negative behavior. By faith in the God with whom we have a relationship, we will glorify Him by treating others well.
The commandments as we hear them in today’s Old Testament passage are not simply a list of things we should and should not do. It is a covenant between God and His people. The Law was a gift, a sign that shows us God’s care and concern for our health and safety. The Temple was a gift, a sign that reminds us of God’s presence among His people. Even more so, however, our Lord Jesus Christ is a gift, because He is the Word in flesh and His body is the true Temple. In Him we truly see God’s care and concern for us and His presence among His people.
God’s Law is described five ways in today’s Psalm. These words sound so similar: law, testimony, precepts, commandment, and ordinances. However, in the Hebrew the words are all very different. The law is the Torah, the teaching of God. The testimony is the witness to God’s wisdom, works and promises. The precepts reference God’s authority. The commandment refers to the entirety of God’s Word. The ordinances speak of God’s justice, the verdict over sin. We hear those law words knowing that God’s Word is meant for us, too. They bring us a sense of uneasiness based on our experiences and culture, but they also offer comfort and calm. God’s Word is perfect, sure, right, pure and true; His message gets into our hearts because He puts it there. By His Spirit, we hear His grace. His Law restores the soul, makes wise the simple, makes our heart rejoice, enlightens our eyes, and we will endure forever. We can trust in His Word because He is righteous.
There is a universal language when it comes to faith. No, I don’t mean that we can all hear words in other languages and understand everything we hear. The psalmist speaks of a more basic universal language: that of creation. The psalmist wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God. The expanse shows his handiwork.” He also said, “There is no speech or language where their voice is heard.” God can be seen in the beauty of a rose garden anywhere around the world. He can be experienced on the top of any mountain. His handiwork is seen in the sunset as it follows the path of the earth’s rotation. Every star screams “glory” and every wave mutters “power.” All that God created points back to Him.
However, we need more than creation to have a relationship with our Father in heaven. Those who think it is enough to worship God on the mountaintop miss the beauty of dwelling in God’s Word. The commandments as we hear them in today’s passage are not simply a list of things we should and should not do. This covenant between God and His people established a relationship, building trust in one another. In the case of the Hebrews, God did not sit down with them before taking them out of Egypt. He didn’t say, “If you do this, that and the other thing, then I will save you from this slavery that has you bound.” No, God saved them first, taking them out of bondage and into freedom. It was then, and only then, that He made the covenant with them. They knew He was a deliverer, that He could save His people. They knew they could trust Him. Then God taught them how to live in this new community together. This meant putting God ahead of all, living for the sake of all God’s people, something Jesus modeled during His ministry.
In our gospel lesson for this week, Jesus entered the Temple and openly defied the rules of the community. The marketplace at the Temple was an important part of the worship experience. The merchants made things easier for the pilgrims to obey the Law, but they were there at the request of the priests who benefitted financially from the sales. Providing the pilgrims with animals that were suitable made their travel easier and ensured perfect animals for the sacrifice. The moneychangers provided an important service, exchanging the money that had graven images into acceptable coins. If the marketplace had been outside the gates of the Temple, Jesus may not have chased off the merchants and money changers. What was Jesus standing for when He chased out the animals and tipped over the tables of the money changers?
The sales were going on in the outer court, the only place in the Temple where visitors from other faiths could visit. It was a place of prayer for the Gentiles, a sanctuary for those who could not enter the places meant only for Jews. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus quoted Isaiah who wrote, “...for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” By filling the outer court with merchants and money changers, the Gentiles had no place to experience the presence of God; Jesus was standing for the nations of the world, whom God loved, too.
John tells us that the disciples heard Jesus and remembered a quote from Psalm 69, “Zeal for thy house shall eat me up.” They saw Jesus’ actions in the Temple as a statement about how He wanted to clean up the religion of the day. The priests had lost touch with the God who was their Creator and Master. They were more concerned about filling the Temple coffers than meeting the spiritual needs of the travelers. They were more concerned about making every little detail about the service perfect that they did not see that their world, as God saw it, was not what He intended for His people.
John places this incident early in Jesus’ ministry. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) have Jesus clearing the Temple on the Monday following the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. They point out that this incident was a last straw for the leaders. Jesus had to be stopped because He was claiming authority over even the Temple business. While John also makes the point that the leaders demanded that He prove His authority, there is something deeper to John’s purpose in telling us this story.
Jesus tells those who demand a sign that they’ll get one. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They thought this was ridiculous, and the statement would come back to haunt Him during His trial. They thought He meant the Temple made of stones, the Temple that had taken forty-six years to build. He couldn’t possibly rebuild such a miraculous building in just three days. However, we know that Jesus was referring to His own body. When they destroyed Him, they would see the sign because He would rise again in three days.
So, why does John put this story so close to the beginning? John’s purpose in writing was to establish Jesus as the true Temple. Throughout the book of John, Jesus is identified with every aspect of the Temple worship. Each of the seven “I Am” statements that Jesus makes throughout the book takes us deeper into the Temple and deeper into the heart of God. He is the Bread which was represented by the Bread of the presence. He is the Light which is represented by the candlesticks. He is the Gate, which is represented by the altar of incense. He is the Shepherd which is represented by the royal priesthood. He is the Resurrection and the Life, which is represented by the atonement cover on the Ark of the Covenant. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, which is represented by the contents of the Ark: the tablets of Law, Aaron’s staff that budded and a gold jar filled with manna. Then, when Jesus says, “I am the True Vine” He is telling us that any connection we have to God comes through Him. We are merely branches. It is through Him that we have a relationship with our God; He is the One through whom we can see and know God. The Temple itself was just a building; He was the place where we would meet and worship the Creator and Master of our lives.
John begins with this incident so that we might see step by step into the Holy of Holies that Jesus is the One He says He is. He is the I AM. He is our God. He has the authority to stand up not only for His chosen people, but for all people so that they might worship Him, too. His zeal is not to clean up a building, but to offer Himself to the world as the way to meet God, to know Him, and to love Him.
God is revealed to us as we live according to His Word and Law. He is manifest in our relationships with our neighbors and creation. We see Him revealed in all these things as we put Him first, keep Him as our God, love Him above all else. The Jews went to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple, but today we are called to worship at a greater one; for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is the true Temple. He saved us and invited us into His eternal covenant where we will dwell forever in a relationship with Him.
Some people don’t want to hear about a God that demanded such obedience that His Son died on the cross. To them it is nothing but foolishness. Yet, by Jesus we are saved. They prefer to follow after wisdom and intelligent teaching and ignore the foolishness of the cross. The truth of God’s purpose is a stumbling block to many. God is not glorified by those who claim to be righteous. He is not glorified by a Temple full of perfect sacrifices and acceptable coins. God’s grace is found in the pure Law of God, for it is the Law that points to our need for Jesus.
God seems to take the most incredible situations and make them work for His glory. Grace is found in the Law, as God promises to bless us for generations for the obedience of our forefathers, but the greatest moment of grace came when Jesus died on the cross. He died and was raised so that we can present living sacrifices to God: our hearts, our hope, and our lives. But that’s just foolishness. Why would a God of love demand such a high price for our failures?
Paul tells us that the Jews were looking for miraculous signs and the Greeks were looking for wisdom. We ask ourselves again, what are miraculous signs and what is wisdom? The cross does not fit into our worldly understanding of either. For the Jews, the cross meant the person hanging from “the tree” was cursed. It was a sign from God that the person is not blessed or righteous. For the Greeks, the cross was not a wise way to create a group of followers. The cross was, indeed, foolishness to the world.
Paul saw the doubt of men. We suffer from the same doubts today. Why did Jesus have to die? Why did God require a blood sacrifice? What possible benefit could the world get from the cross? How could one life make up for all our failures? It is easier to think God loves us for our good works as we meet the needs of our neighbors. It isn’t so easy to see that we need a Savior, and that Jesus is the One. This is why we often focus more on changing the world than on repentance and redemption.
Jesus turned the world upside down. What we see as foolishness is actually the wisdom of God, for it is in the life of that one perfect man that we find true peace and forgiveness. It is in His death that we find life. In God’s kingdom, the weak are the ones who have power because they are given power and wisdom based on God’s grace, not on their own works. In God’s kingdom, the wise are those who look to the cross for everything, not to the things of this world. Lent is about repentance; without repentance, the grief of Good Friday is foolishness and there is no real joy at Easter.
Are we speaking this foolishness about Jesus to the world, telling them that the only answer to evil and sin is found in Him? Do we call people to recognize their sin and point them to Jesus the Savior? Or are we like the wise ones in Paul’s day seeking signs and earthly wisdom rather than the cross of Christ? Have we allowed our own churches like marketplaces that make it impossible for those outside our faith communities to seek God in prayer and to learn about Him? Have we taken advantage of those who are afraid or desperate by giving them a false hope and phony promise? Do we think that all will be well if only we could change the world?
We are reminded during our Lenten journey that God did not just deliver the Hebrews out of Egypt, He delivered us from death. He did that while we were still sinners, which seems so foolish, but it is the reality of God’s grace. He loved us so much that He died for us. Yet we are also reminded that we are still sinners. We still need His grace. We still need to look at the cross and ask Him for forgiveness. We need to do this daily, constantly reminding ourselves that though we are saved, we still fail to live up to the expectations of our God. The Psalmist shows us the only way we can live righteously for God: “Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins. Let them not have dominion over me.” Only with God’s help will we ever be kept blameless.
Are we willing to join with the psalmist in praising God with the silent voices of creation while also living in the gift of God’s Law? The Law He gave is not meant to be a burden, but is perfect, sure, right, pure, and true. It is more desired than gold and sweeter than honey. As we live in that Law, our souls will be restored, we’ll be made wise, our hearts will rejoice, our eyes will be enlightened, and we will endure forever. Most of all, as we live in the Law as it came to us in and through Jesus, we’ll be made righteous, blessed for generations and into eternity.
“Oh come, let’s sing to Yahweh. Let’s shout aloud to the rock of our salvation! Let’s come before his presence with thanksgiving. Let’s extol him with songs! For Yahweh is a great God, a great King above all gods. In his hand are the deep places of the earth. The heights of the mountains are also his. The sea is his, and he made it. His hands formed the dry land. Oh come, let’s worship and bow down. Let’s kneel before Yahweh, our Maker, for he is our God. We are the people of his pasture, and the sheep in his care. Today, oh that you would hear his voice! Don’t harden your heart, as at Meribah, as in the day of Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers tempted me, tested me, and saw my work. Forty long years I was grieved with that generation, and said, ‘It is a people that errs in their heart. They have not known my ways.’ Therefore I swore in my wrath, ‘They won’t enter into my rest.’” Psalm 95, WEB
I consider myself a fairly intelligent and educated woman. Much of my knowledge is self-taught, but I am a college graduate and I read a lot. Yet, there is so much I do not know, particularly in the sciences. I can tell you that the sky is blue, and that it has something to do with particles in the air, but I can’t give scientific reasoning. I know that yeast is a living organism that makes bread rise, but how it works is beyond my understanding.
I love the show “The Big Bang Theory,” but I confess that sometimes my brain hurts when I watch it because they talk about concepts that are theories to explain the unexplainable. Even though they do so in fairly simple language, physics tries to make the intangible tangible, and we are people who prefer to understand our world in concrete ways. Another subject that is difficult to truly understand is the concept of time. We know that we can watch a clock and a calendar to see time pass, but do those clocks and calendars really help us understand the passing of time? I once read an article about a scientist who was trying to answer the question, “What is time.”
In an interview, American theoretical physicist and philosopher Sean Carroll answers the question of whether he can explain his theory in layman’s terms. “I’m trying to understand how time works. And that’s a huge question that has lots of different aspects to it. A lot of them go back to Einstein and spacetime and how we measure time using clocks. But the particular aspect of time that I’m interested in is the arrow of time: the fact that the past is different from the future. We remember the past, but we don’t remember the future. There are irreversible processes. There are things that happen, like you turn an egg into an omelet, but you can’t turn an omelet into an egg.” Is your head swimming as much as mine? And this is the “easy” statement, which went on for several more paragraphs.
The hands of a clock and pages of a calendar show us the passage of time, but those are man-made ways to measure something that doesn’t exist in a tangible way. Human beings have determined that there are 60 seconds to a minute, 60 minutes to an hour, 24 hours to a day, 7 days to a week and 52 weeks to a year. We’ve made those measurements based on the observation of God’s creation: the passing of the heavenly bodies, the sun, the moon and the stars. Yet, when you read through the story of the creation of the universe, you discover that the heavenly bodies were not even created and set into place until the fourth day. Did time exist before the sun counted the days and the moon the nights? We know that time would pass even if we did not count the days, and yet we human beings needed some way to measure time.
Those man-made measurements are not perfect. Every day we lose a bit of time, so much so that every year we lose a quarter of a day. Instead of trying to make up that quarter of a day each year, we add a day once every four years. February 29 is the Leap Day. There is no February 29 three years out of four. The day simply does not exist. A few years ago, when the leap day was on a Monday, I a post on Facebook that asked, “If we had to add an extra day, why did it have to be a Monday?” No matter what we try to do, the system is not perfect. The true year as defined by the position of the earth and the sun is exactly 365.2422 days. This means that we must occasionally skip the leap year to readjust the adjustment. I know. If your head wasn't swimming before, it is now. So is mine.
I don’t understand time, but I believe that God has created the perfect universe and it doesn’t matter if we can measure it perfectly. The important thing to remember is that time passes. The Leap Day is a gift, time we would not have had without the extra day on the calendar. Yet, our time is not extended by even a minute by means of a calendar or watch. God has designed the world around us to move perfectly according to His good and perfect will. We can’t make it fit into our own understanding of time and space, especially since our own understanding is so limited that even the scientists can’t quite explain it.
This is why we seek God. Only He can control the days, weeks, and months, and only He knows the course our life is ordained to go. He gives life and He takes it. He guides and directs our footsteps. He gives us all we need to live in this world and the next. The day will come when we will not measure time because time will be beyond measure. Our God has mercy and grants us the forgiveness that makes us heirs to an eternal Kingdom that will never be defined by time. In His grace we will be forever in His presence, yet another concept that we do not understand with our brains. It is understood by faith alone.
How will you spend this day? Will you waste it with the normal routine of day-to-day living or do something extraordinary? The scriptures encourage us to count our days, and our Lord God has chosen this day, Today, to speak to our hearts and spirits. Will you hear and rejoice in His love and mercy? Or will your heart harden against Him, leading you astray? I pray that today you will see that the Lord is good and worship Him with your whole being. This day is a free day, a gift from God, just as each and every day of life is a gift from Him. By the power of the Holy Spirit, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, do something extraordinary with this day in praise to God’s mercy, glorifying Him for His grace.