Welcome to the January 2021 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the World English Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, January 2021
“Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, yes, the death of the cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave to him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:5-11, WEB
Names often play an important role in stories. In the Shakespeare play “Romeo and Juliet” it was their name and family relationships that kept them apart. Juliet cries out “‘O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name. Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love and I’ll no longer be a Capulet. ‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy: thou art thyself, though not a Montague. What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot nor arm nor face nor any other part belonging to a man. O be some other name. What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet; so Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d, retain that dear perfection which he owes without that title. Romeo, doff thy name, and for that name, which is no part of thee, take all myself.”
So, it is a wonder that we set aside one day a year to consider the name above all other names: that of Jesus. The naming of Jesus is reported in just one verse, Luke 2:21, “When eight days were fulfilled for the circumcision of the child, his name was called Jesus, which was given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” Mary and Joseph did not have to read through dozens of baby name books or think about which family members they should honor by using their name. When they were visited by God's messengers, they were both told His name was to be Jesus. His naming happened at His circumcision, eight days after His birth as it should with all good Jewish boys.
So why should we be so concerned about His name? By any other name, Jesus would still have been the salvation, the redemption, the promised child of God. While many modern parents give strange and names to their children, names do mean something, particularly in the Bible. Often the names have some special meaning, other are given to define a purpose or characteristic. God is given dozens of names in the scriptures like Creator, Almighty God, Father, the Lord our Righteousness, “I AM.” Jesus is identified by certain names, too: the Light of the World, Savior, Redeemer, the Son of God. Even the Holy Spirit has a special name: Counselor.
In the Old Testament, people were made part of Israel through a blessing. God’s name was spoken over the people. “Yahweh bless you, and keep you. Yahweh make his face to shine on you, and be gracious to you. Yahweh lift up his face toward you, and give you peace. So they shall put my name on the children of Israel; and I will bless them.” They are blessed by the name of Yahweh. In Psalm 8, God’s name is exalted. “Yahweh, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens!” The Psalmist goes on to prophesy about Jesus. “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have ordained; what is man, that you think of him? What is the son of man, that you care for him? For you have made him a little lower than the angels, and crowned him with glory and honor.” God’s name is excellent, but the day would come when a new name would bring salvation. It is not the name of another god, but a new name for God: God in flesh, Immanuel.
Yes, the name of Jesus is especially important. It is by His name we are saved. Paul wrote that the name of Jesus is the name above all other names, and that at His name every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. It is His name we take when we are baptized, we become Christians by faith. His name is written on our hearts and on our heads. In His name we are adopted and made heirs of the Kingdom of God. And then as Christians we bear His name into all the world that all those who hear might be blessed and become heirs with us to the promises of God.
One of the devotional books I purchased for use this year is called “The Jesus Code: 52 Scripture Questions Every Believer Should Answer” by O. S. Hawkins. I have not read the book yet, so I cannot assure you that I will agree with the theological direction of the devotions. However, I’m certain that the questions are worth considering. So, I am going to use those questions in my devotions on Monday of each week. I may reference thoughts from the devotions. I hope you’ll spend the week considering the question and how it impacts your faith and your life.
Question #1: Has God really said…?
“Now the serpent was more subtle than any animal of the field which Yahweh God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Has God really said, “You shall not eat of any tree of the garden”?’” Genesis 3:1, WEB
Adam and Eve were created and God called them “good.” They lived in harmony with their Creator and with the rest of His good creation. Then the serpent made them aware that there is more than “good” in the world. They sought to know more. They thought that they could be like God and that it would make them more than “good,” but the reality is that only God is good. Everything that isn’t God is less than good.
We aren’t God. We are created by God and beloved of Him, but we aren’t God. And we aren’t good. We are imperfect, frail, fallen beings. We are created and fallible. We are perishable. We are sinners. We are just like Adam and Eve. They sinned in the Garden of Eden by eating the apple fruit that God told them not to eat, but the sin goes even deeper. The serpent twisted God’s word to put doubt in the minds and hearts of God’s people.
This question was specifically recorded from the mouth of Satan in the Garden of Eden, but he asks the same question to us every time we open the scriptures. This question causes us to interpret God’s word to fit our own desires, justifying our disobedience by twisting God’s Word to fit our own plan. It causes us to make decisions that are not really beneficial to our lives even if they seem the right thing to do. We doubt God’s word to our detriment, though, because obedience will truly bring blessing to the lives of those who believe God’s Word. “Has God really said…?” Yes. Yes, He has.
Take, for instance, the commandment to “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” There have been times when this commandment was taken to an extreme. The Jewish rabbis a few thousand years ago created a list of “work” that was never to be done on the Sabbath. There were thirty nine melachot, or forms of work. Jesus was repeatedly accused of disrespecting the Sabbath because He did “work” on those days that were forbidden on the Sabbath. When He cured the blind man by making mud, He disobeyed the rule about amalgamation, which is the combining of solid and liquid together into a paste. How could Jesus be the Messiah chosen by God if He would do such work on a Sabbath? The problem is that they interpreted the Law to fit their own knowledge and understanding.
The melachot against ignition is often cited as the reason to prohibit use of electricity. This caused problems in modern days. How do you turn on your lights or change the channel on the television. Many families began to hire a “shabbos goy” or a non-Jew to do forbidden work on the Sabbath. This was officially unacceptable, but that didn’t stop those families to have someone turn on their lamps or to find their favorite show. Is it in keeping with the commandment from God to remember the Sabbath to watch “The Masked Dancer” every Saturday night if you have avoided the work of turning on the show?
Did God really say that we should remember the Sabbath and keep it holy? Yes. Yes, He did. We justify our interpretation of what that means, putting our words into God’s mouth. The Sabbath is meant to be different. It is meant to be a day to worship God. It is meant to be a day of rest. This doesn’t mean that we can’t turn on our lights or the television on a certain day of the week. But, it does mean we should think about how to set aside a day each week to honor the God who loves us, truly finding rest and restoration by focusing on Him and His Word without the distractions of the world and Satan that are constantly trying to cause us to doubt what God said.
“Now there was a certain rich man, and he was clothed in purple and fine linen, living in luxury every day. A certain beggar, named Lazarus, was laid at his gate, full of sores, and desiring to be fed with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Yes, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The beggar died, and he was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died, and was buried. In Hades, he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far off, and Lazarus at his bosom. He cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue! For I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that you, in your lifetime, received your good things, and Lazarus, in the same way, bad things. But now here he is comforted and you are in anguish. Besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, that those who want to pass from here to you are not able, and that no one may cross over from there to us.’ He said, ‘I ask you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house; for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, so they won’t also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if one rises from the dead.’” Luke 16:19-31, WEB
It has been nearly two months since our neighbors started lighting their homes with twinkling lights. Quite a few began early, desperate for a little joy in this strange and confusing world. I saw multiple people post the desire to keep lights up until February, just to keep the spirit of Christmas going well into the new year. However, most of my neighbors began taking down their decorations on the day after Christmas. Our street was once bright with light and now there are just a few houses with lights, including ours. My husband is emphatic that we’ll be the lone house until Epiphany if need be and I have answered, “The wise men haven’t even arrived yet.”
Christmas has pretty much disappeared elsewhere, too. The clearance aisles are empty of Christmas merchandise and Valentine’s Day merchandise has filled the shelves. Trees are waiting on the curb for the garbage men. The radio stations are playing regular music again and the Christmas movies are packed away until next year. Many people think the twelve days of Christmas end on Christmas day, but that is just the first day of the Christmas season. For the Church, Christmas is not over until tomorrow, which is Epiphany or Three Kings Day.
Tonight is Twelfth Night, historically a special celebration though not very popular today. It was a day of parties, with special pastries and ceremonies. In one tradition, a person was chosen to be the Lord of Misrule, and for a brief period of time the world is turned upside down. The rich become like the poor, the poor become like the rich. The world was restored to normal at midnight.
Another tradition included the taking down of all Christmas decorations. In those days, the trees and wreaths and houses were often decorated with fresh fruit and other foods. The food taken from the decorations was then eaten at the feast given on Twelfth Night. Since fruit and pastries were very expensive, it was appropriate to use them to decorate the tree and then even more appropriate to enjoy a special taste at the party. Twelfth Night, then, was really a very special time.
Most of us will barely notice that today is even special. Three Kings Cakes are available in the stores. We won’t have special fruit or pastry treats because we don’t put anything like that on our trees. If we use apples, they are glass or plastic, and will be packed away in boxes until next year. I doubt that the world will be turned upside down with the rich becoming poor for a day while allowing the poor to become rich for the moment. Things are getting back to normal after the hustle and bustle of the holidays. On this Twelfth Night, let us remember these old traditions and think about what they mean to us in our Christian faith. After all, Jesus came to turn the world upside down.
Being rich will not send anyone to hell, but ignoring the fact that there are those in the world who are suffering will. The rich man in today’s story rejected Lazarus and refused to give him aid. The rich learned what it was like to be poor by living it for a day when they followed those old traditions. Hopefully they learned to have empathy and in compassion acted upon the needs of their poorer neighbors. I’m sure some were more merciful during the rest of the year because of their Twelfth Night experiences.
How will you take this tradition into your day on this Twelfth Night? Will you see those around you who need your help, attention and resources and do something to make their world turn right side up? We are generous at Christmas, but by the fifth of January we are back to normal. Let us constantly remember, not just today but every day, that Jesus Christ turns the world upside down and that we’ll be remembered not for what we have accomplished on our own but for how we shared our life with others.
Scriptures for January 10, 2021, Baptism of Our Lord: Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
“A voice came out of the sky, ‘You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’” Mark 1:11, WEB
There is an Italian artist who has lived in the United States since 1965, developing his style in Florida and Arkansas until he landed in Texas. Like all artists, Benini’s style has changed over the decades, but I love his more recent work. He uses an application process that combines hand blended backgrounds and selectively dropped acrylics in controlled patterns. These paintings are very geometric and often monochrome, with clean lines while still being almost chaotic. One series is called “The Face of God.” He used large canvases, 4ft x 6ft, and acrylic paints to create seventeen paintings that are all similar and yet very different. Each painting has an irregular oval in the center of the canvas and is surrounded by splotches of color, each canvas a different color focus.
Benini said about this series, “The God I was portraying had nothing to do with religious icons or established beliefs - identities man has created from the beginning of man time. It was more a quest for an abstract essence: universal in spirit. I used color, my lifetime ally, with all its powers and varieties.” While I might not agree with Benini’s understanding of God, the paintings are incredibly beautiful and they draw you into the light at the heart of the painting which his surrounded by a frame of colorful chaos. It is, in essence, an artist’s representation of the creation, and that’s why he called the series “The Face of God.”
As I look at artistic representations of creation, I wonder how I might represent the seven days from my own point of view. I think that the first day would be the hardest of all to paint. How do you capture “formless void” and “Day and Night” on canvas? How do you take common earthly elements to portray the incredible thing God did on that first day? Perhaps Benini captures it well with his chaos surrounding an oval of light, “The Face of God.”
The hardest thing about the creation story for us to wrap our minds around is that in the beginning there was nothing. The scriptures call the earth a formless void. What is that? If there was an ‘earth’ how could it be formless? How could it be void? And how can you recreate something so outside our limited earthly experience?
Yet, as I think about the first words of the Bible, it seems to me that the formless void is much like an empty canvas. The point is not that there was nothing for God to use to create the world, but that He had a vision. When God spoke, that vision came to life. It only took a word from the mouth of God for the formless void to become light and dark. By His word the light and the dark were divided and He gave them names: Day and Night. This aspect of the first day is as difficult to put to canvas as the formless void. The light, the Day, is Christ: love, mercy, hope, grace, joy, generosity, justice and all things good. The dark, the Night, is the absence of those good things. It is not enough to paint a canvas with white and black, with sun and moon. How do you portray God and all His goodness as it was “In the beginning.”
The formless void in the creation story is like an empty canvas to God the master painter. His vision of what would be is not limited like ours. We may not be able to find a truly fitting way to put it on canvas, but God spoke all of creation into existence, beginning with the spiritual foundation of all that there is. We don’t hear about Jesus until later, much later, in the history of mankind. Yet, Christ was there, at that moment, and it is through Him all things were created. On the first day God brought to life His imagination, everything He desired for that formless void was started with just a word, His Word.
When someone in my church wants to get the attention of the crowd, they will loudly speak the words, “Peace be with you.” They usually aren’t heard the first time, so they say it again a little louder. A few people hear and mumble, “And also with you.” The person says “Peace be with you” again, and by now most of the crowd is paying attention. They will say “And also with you” a little louder. Finally the person will say it one last time and everyone will join in the response.
There’s a comedic scene that is often used in television or movies. Two people are trying to talk in the middle of a noisy crowd. One wants to tell the other something important and very personal, but it is nearly impossible for the other person to hear. The character tries to whisper it in the other’s ear, hoping that the words will be heard above the noise. “I can’t hear you” is the response time after time. Finally, the character gets so frustrated that he or she screams out secret. Of course, a split second before the words leave the character’s mouth, something happens to stop the noise and everyone in the room hears the secret. The shout is much louder than anyone might expect, making it doubly humorous to those of us watching. It is usually followed by the comment, “You don’t have to shout.”
Public speakers learn how to talk so that they will be heard, especially if they are facing a room that has uncontrollable noise. In most cases, it is best to speak with a normal voice: not too loud or too soft. Sometimes it is helpful to use a soft voice, making it necessary for the listeners to focus on hearing the words. This is especially true in groups with young children. Teachers o learn quickly that raising their voice only raises the noise level in the room. It is sometimes better to talk in a whisper because the children realize that the words being said might be important and the only way to hear them is to be quiet.
One of my favorite passages of scripture is the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19 when he was running away from Jezebel. He made it to a cave on a mountain to wait for a word from the Lord. He heard a great and powerful wind that tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks, but God was not in the wind. Then there was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. Then came a fire, but God was not in the fire. Finally, there was a gentle whisper. Then Elijah knew the Lord had come to speak with him.
We hear God in the still small voice, the gentle whisper. There are other ways that God speaks to us that are quiet and subtle like through the creation and the love of other believers. How often do we miss that small voice because we are so busy listening to the chaos in our lives?
We are reminded that God does not speak only with that still small voice. The psalmist describes God’s voice as powerful, full of majesty. It breaks the cedars and shakes the wilderness. A quiet voice does not rattle the world, a thunderous voice does. Sometimes God speaks in a way that will get our attention.
The psalmist writes, “Yahweh’s voice is on the waters.” This brings us back to the image of God at the beginning of creation, speaking order into the chaos and something out of that formless void. He has not stopped speaking into the world He has created. His voice still makes the world tremble. But, even more so, He gives strength to His people. We have nothing about which to be afraid. God is King and He will bless us with peace.
Yahweh’s voice is over the water of baptism, too. The baptism liturgy that my church uses begins with the Spirit moving over the waters when God created heaven and earth. Water nourishes and sustains us. The liturgy tells of the flood that condemned the world and the grace that saved Noah and his family. It goes on to talk about the Red Sea that parted to allow Israel to escape slavery. It reminds us that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan. In baptism we join Jesus in His death and resurrection, saved from sin and death by Jesus who set us free. Water is a sign of the kingdom and of cleansing and rebirth. We join the church historic in obedience to His command to make disciples of all nations by baptizing, asking God to pour out His Spirit so that by baptism we will have new life. We ask God to wash away our sin so that we can be brought forth as inheritors of your glorious kingdom. We praise God for His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom all this is possible.
I love the way the pastor proclaims God’s use of water in the baptismal prayer so that we see the connection of our baptism to the creation, to our sinfulness, to God’s grace. “He made water a sign of the kingdom and of cleansing and rebirth.” We are called to be instruments of His grace by using water and His Word to make disciples of all nations. This is an act of worship; it is an act of trust and obedience. We believe that God’s voice can put order to the chaos of our world; it can free us from the bondage of sin and death and grants us new life.
The image of that chaos is as frightening as a churning, dark and stormy sea might be, because there is no order and no light. But God had a vision for the formless void that was earth in the beginning. God said “Let there be light,” and there was light. It took only a word and everything changed. The chaotic formless void now had light. Even with nothing else, there is a peace in knowing that something, or someone, has dominion over the chaos.
Evil exists; we know this to be true. Besides our experience with evil, the Bible tells us that evil is in the world. We have suffered from the sins of others and we have suffered the consequences of our own sin. We die because of sin, even though that was not God’s intent. So, we are left once again with that question. “Why?” Why is there sin? Why is there evil? And the worst question of all is, “Why would God create evil?”
Evil exists because some of God’s creation rejected the light. Evil exists outside the Light; it is the lack of God. Some of God’s creation rejected God, and thus we are left with evil. It did not take very long for the evil to draw others away from the light. Even in the Garden of Eden, Paradise, Adam and Eve were swayed to turn from God and to leave the Light. Since that moment, sin has been a part of our world. We can’t fix it. We can’t defeat it. We can’t overcome sin by our own power because it has overpowered us. In the beginning, God spoke and our salvation was revealed.
With a word, God made the chaos orderly, the darkness light. With just a Word, He changed a formless void into the beginning of His vision for the world. Though it seems like darkness and evil still rule and that the world is still chaotic and void, today’s scriptures remind us in a very real, tangible way that God did not stop speaking. God had a plan to bring order to this world that was filled with sin. The voice of God ripped through the fabric of creation and God incarnate was born.
The Word He spoke on Christmas Day was His Son, Jesus Christ. In today’s Gospel lesson, we meet that Son as He enters fully into the lives of His people through the ministry of John the Baptist. John is the voice crying out in the wilderness, calling God’s people to repentance, making the way for the Lord. The people flock to John no matter who they are: young and old, rich and poor. Those who believed John’s message were baptized in the river Jordan, but even as he did this baptism he told them that another would come. The one to come would be greater than John, so great that John would not even be worthy to be His slave.
Then Jesus came to the River Jordan and was baptized by John. At that moment, God spoke again; with His voice He divided light and dark. He spoke hope into the world. Mark writes, “Immediately coming up from the water, he saw the heavens parting, and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. A voice came out of the sky, ‘You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’” The plan came to fruition when God named Jesus His beloved Son.
The voice of God continues to be heard today and when He speaks, things still happen. The Holy Spirit still hovers over that which is formless and void and brings life, light and peace. We hear God’s voice and believe through the beloved Son who came into the world to be just like you and me. Though He is different, though He is the incarnate Word of God, He came to be one of us, to live as we live, and to die as we die, so that we might become like Him. His voice gives us light and peace. His voice gives us life.
Sometimes we feel like that chaos still rules our world. We all have aspects of our life that need light and order. God is working on us, daily speaking His grace into our life. I have been writing devotions and bible studies for more than twenty years, and I’ve collected piles of notebooks with research and writing. It was rather chaotic and I have had to go through every notebook to find the things I need for my current projects. I spent time this week organizing those notebooks. I recycled the pages I didn’t need. I condensed the studies into one notebook and labeled each one so I would know what was inside. They will be much easier to use now that there is order in my office.
Like my notebooks, we need to be organized, changed, and picked through. Some things need to be thrown out while other things added. As God continues to speak in our lives and the world, the darkness will still exist. Through the Word who is Jesus Christ, we will be set apart in the light and will live in this chaotic world with peace and hope.
We face temptation every moment that we walk in this world. God knows how difficult it is for us to walk away from those things that are harmful to our spiritual life. Jesus Christ came in flesh and was tempted so that He could truly identify with the failures of our flesh. However, Jesus did not fall to temptation; He remained perfect and true to the Word of God no matter what Satan offered Him. His understanding of the grace and mercy of God was so perfect, that He was able to keep from sin. By His death and resurrection, we are forgiven our failures and given the freedom to live in His grace and mercy.
There used to be a television program called “True Beauty.” It was a reality show, but he contestants did not really know what the end game is. Men and women were invited on this show because they were physically beautiful people. They also had attitudes that weren’t quite so beautiful.
They thought they were competing to be the most beautiful (physically) person in the world. In reality, they were being judged on their character. Would they do what was right? Would they act responsibly? Would they care for other people’s needs? In the end, the people who were kicked off the show might have been physically attractive, but they weren’t really ‘beautiful’ because they proved themselves to be selfish, arrogant and mean. The challenges were simple but powerful. Would they help the delivery man? How did they respond when a waiter tripped, spilling drinks and upsetting food all over them? Would they take a peak at the other contestants’ folders if given the opportunity?
The woman who was kicked off the first episode was self-centered in every way, shape and form. Everything she did and said showed an ugly inner character. She failed every test, and when confronted about those failures she lied and made excuses. Even as she was walking out the door she claimed to be a good person and that they wrongly judged her.
I wonder how we would judge John the Baptist in today’s world? He was unusual in the days of Jesus. The writers of the Gospels are so specific about his wardrobe and diet that we have to assume it was not typical. Camel’s hair is not comfortable and locusts don’t taste very good. John stood out in a crowd, but his odd taste in clothing and food did not keep the crowds from gathering around to hear him preach. Would the crowds gather today? Would we believe his words like they did?
We might be fascinated with his character, like we are so fascinated by the characters on those reality television shows. Human nature doesn’t change. Perhaps we would rush out into the desert to hear him preach. Perhaps we might even get caught up in the excitement of the experience and step into the river to be baptized. But in the end, would we believe? Would we understand? Would we really see the Christ toward which John was pointing? It is easy to say “Yes,” but we don’t know. If we were in the same position, we would not have the benefit of the Holy Spirit as we do now. They didn’t, and I imagine many of those who listened to John ignored the Christ for whom he was sent to prepare the way.
I’ve often wondered who witnessed the baptism of Jesus. Did those who were gathered see what Jesus saw? Did they hear the voice? The stories do not make it clear if it was solely a personal experience or if others were part of the experience. In John’s Gospel, John the Baptist testifies to seeing the Holy Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on Him. He knew because God told him that would be how he would recognize the Messiah.
How many on the banks of the River Jordan believed? Some must have because Jesus did gain a following. Those who truly had faith, though, were few. Many people fell away when Jesus began preaching the hard lessons. John’s message is so much easier. It is easier to be repentant than to accept the grace God gives. But in faith we know that we can’t fix our sinfulness. We can’t defeat death on our own. We can’t even overcome sin by our own power because sin has overpowered us. The power comes from the Son who was baptized that day in the wilderness.
We join in His death and resurrection through our baptism. Cleansed by the waters and the Word, we are made new creatures, no longer under the hold of sin and death, but embraced by the God who knew what we needed long before we needed it. We still dwell in a world filled with chaos and darkness, and we still need God’s grace because we continue to fall. Paul tells us that faith changes things. We walk in newness of life, and though forgiveness continues to be ours, we are reminded not to live as if we have never been baptized. We are no longer lost in the chaos and darkness; we dwell in the Light. We are dead to sin, called to trust and obey His Word as inheritors of His glorious Kingdom.
Though we are not Jesus the Beloved, we are beloved children of God. The Light shines in, with and through our lives when God speaks our name. On this Sunday as we remember the baptism of Jesus, we are called to remember our own baptisms. And yet, we should not simply recall the experience of getting wet in church one day.
In the beginning God spoke and a formless void was changed. He said just a word and the light was separated from the darkness. He continued to speak and everything came into existence. In the Old Testament, God spoke into and through the lives of His people. Despite God’s powerful word, we continue to fail, attracted by the darkness instead of the light. So He sent His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus came to change us, to make us whole, to give us the final word and faith.
With Jesus we receive a greater baptism. Just like Jesus in the River Jordan that day so long ago, the Holy Spirit comes out of Heaven and falls upon us while the voice of God speaks the assurance and encouragement of His love into our lives. At our own baptism, God says, “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.” This might seem impossible; after all, we do not deserve such kindness. We aren’t worthy of such an amazing promise. We know and we may even understand that God loves us, but these words say so much more. At our baptism, God says, “I like you and I want to be with you forever.” God’s Word brings light to our darkness, order to our chaos.
“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. I will walk before Yahweh in the land of the living. I believed, therefore I said, ‘I was greatly afflicted.’ I said in my haste, ‘All people are liars.’ What will I give to Yahweh for all his benefits toward me? I will take the cup of salvation, and call on Yahweh’s name. I will pay my vows to Yahweh, yes, in the presence of all his people. Precious in Yahweh’s sight is the death of his saints. Yahweh, truly I am your servant. I am your servant, the son of your servant girl. You have freed me from my chains. I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call on Yahweh’s name. I will pay my vows to Yahweh, yes, in the presence of all his people, in the courts of Yahweh’s house, in the middle of you, Jerusalem. Praise Yah!
Praise, supplication and thanksgiving: this is how we approach God in prayer. We see this in the psalm for today; it follows a pattern. First the psalmist praised the Lord for listening. Then the psalmist described his difficulty. Finally the psalmist spoke words of thanksgiving and praise. This is a powerful pattern for us to follow. We are to begin with a hope-filled prayer, praising God for His compassionate mercy. This is based on faith and trust that God is present and that He hears, even if it seems He is far away. We know by His promises that He is near and we trust that He hears our cries. Once we worship Him and acknowledge His presence, then we approach Him with our needs. Finally, we sing thanks and praise to God for His mercy knowing that He is faithful.
The psalmist talks of death but death is not always the end of our physical bodies. We all face death in different ways throughout our lives. Broken relationships, unemployment, illness and other difficulties are types of death. We experience a type of death when our circumstances change. Hope can die when nothing is as we think it should be. We often find ourselves crying out to the God who is present, knowing that He is listening to our cry. In praise, supplication and thanksgiving, we trust that God will deliver us from death by His mercy and grace.
Unfortunately, our mouths are not always filled with praise, supplication and thanksgiving. I had a very bad habit when I was a student teacher so many years ago. I tended to get frustrated and angry with my classroom filled with children who were constantly making noise. In anger I would raise my voice and shout “Shut up!” This did not go over well with the teacher who was mentoring me. “Shut up” does not help the situation and yelling is even less helpful. My attitude made the children respond negatively, rather than positively. Instead of getting quiet, they got louder. Instead of listening, they turned on their neighbor. My teacher had a very quiet voice and could somehow calm the chaos with a whisper.
There is a modern day proverb that says, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” Those who live by this proverb will do everything in their power to make Mama happy because if we keep her in a good mood, she’ll do the things that make our lives better and we will feel comfortable and satisfied. However, if Mama ain’t happy, she’ll make our lives a living nightmare.
I have begun to think of this proverb in a different way. I have realized that if I am not happy, the atmosphere around me will be unhappy. My attitude affects the world in which I live. So, if I make a willful attempt to be happy, under any circumstance, those around me will feel comfortable and satisfied. If I had learned that lesson earlier in life, I might have had the peace and patience to be a teacher who could calm the chaos with a whisper.
Now more than ever, we need to have an attitude of trust and faith, believing that God is in control even when the world is in chaos. In faith, we approach each moment with praise, supplication and thanksgiving.
God is able to make things right, and He will impact the world through us. It takes prayer, of course, because without Him we can do nothing. We can’t do anything by our strength or knowledge or abilities, but all good things will come by God’s power, word and Holy Spirit. He gives us what we need to do what He is calling us to do. It won’t be easy because we will face persecution, rejection and possibly even death. Unfortunately, we’ll use our mouths in ways that won’t always glorify God. So, let’s live in a way that brings forth blessing and not cursing. The world around us will be better for our good attitudes and the good words we can speak by His power to share the grace of God.
“For this cause, I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, that you may be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner person, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, to the end that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be strengthened to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and height and depth, and to know Christ’s love which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:14-19, WEB
I have a confession to make. I have struggled during this time (weeks, perhaps even months) with the faith that God is in control. I’ve said the words a million times. I’ve focused the lessons in my adult Sunday school time on trusting in God, that He is faithful and that He will always make things right. Yet, I live in a world that demands immediate satisfaction and I’m as guilty as the next. I have struggled with doubt that God is even listening to our prayers.
I make this confession with the hope that others who have had similar doubts will know that you are not alone. We woke up on January 1st with the hope that this year would be different, but the beginning of this year has seen troubles that seem magnified. The virus numbers continue to rise. The unemployment numbers are going up because of stricter restrictions. Violence is up. People are sad, afraid, frustrated and angry. We are struggling with hope.
Perhaps this is exactly where God wants us to be. See, it is easy to have faith when everything is going well. It is easy to believe in God when we have nothing that makes us sad, afraid, frustrated or angry. It doesn’t take any work to say the words that God is in control and that He will make everything right. Unfortunately, when we do not work at our relationship with God, we become complacent. We are satisfied with our lives and so we take our blessings and our God for granted.
We are forced to seek God in such a time as this. God is not bothered by our sadness, fear, frustration, and anger. He calls to us to give it to Him. He calls us to trust in Him. He promises that He is indeed in control. But we who are struggling and suffering need to remember that He fulfills His promises in His time so that we will set everything into His hands. Then, and only then, can we see how truly gracious and merciful He is.
In these days I’ve seen people withdraw, not only from God but from each other. We have stopped trusting our neighbor. We have harbored anger and mistrust for so long. Who can we believe? What is true? The pandemic has forced us to withdraw into our homes and rely on social media for our fellowship. Yet, even that is becoming difficult as the divisiveness is destroying relationships. More and more of my friends are choosing to close their accounts. This is probably a good thing for their state of mind, but it means even more isolation.
How easily we cast away our fellow man when we see their imperfections! Thankfully, God does not cast us away. He sees our heart, our true self that is often ignored by the world. As we begin to fade, He nurtures us so that we might grow more beautiful for His glory. Perhaps that’s why we have come to a time like this. He will use this time not only to bring His grace to our fallen world, but He will use it as a time to heal our brokenness and transform us into the people He has created, redeemed and called us to be. As Paul writes, we are rooted in His love and we are blessed according to the riches of his glory. There is hope. There is always hope. Tomorrow may not be better, but God is in control and we can trust that He is working in ways we will never fully understand. I pray that this day you (and I) might fully grasp this incredible love and trust in Him with more than words.
“In the same way, the Spirit also helps our weaknesses, for we don’t know how to pray as we ought. But the Spirit himself makes intercession for us with groanings which can’t be uttered. He who searches the hearts knows what is on the Spirit’s mind, because he makes intercession for the saints according to God.” Romans 8:26-27, WEB
We moved to England in January 1997. As we prepared for that move, many people told me about the differences in culture I would face. In many ways life was so much simpler there with far fewer choices. The television, even with cable, offered only about thirty stations. The grocery stores were smaller, and thus offered fewer options of brands and products. We had fewer options for restaurants and entertainment. After four years, we learned to live with less of everything.
Then, when it was time to return to the United States, many people talked about the culture shock we would experience at home. We didn’t really expect it to be a problem, after all we were only gone four years. Yet, we found the transition overwhelming. We looked forward to shopping in the big box stores again where we could find everything that we could not find in England. We were astounded with the number of choices we had in the grocery stores. Our hometowns were nearly unrecognizable. The hundreds of television stations were filled with commercials for drugs and lawyers as we had never seen in the past.
There was so much to accomplish in those days of transition. We wanted to visit every fast food place that we missed. We wanted to buy things that we had lived without for four years. We wanted to visit our family and friends. We knew where we would be stationed, but where would we live? Where would we attend church? Where would the children go to school? There was so much to do that we didn’t know where to start. It was even overwhelming to pray. How do you make so many decisions when there are so many choices? How do you ask God for help when you don’t even have the words to say in prayer?
I wonder how many of you are feeling overwhelmed today, so overwhelmed that you do not even know how to pray? There are often moments in all of our lives when we face multiple problems all at once. In the past few months, we have had to struggle with our health, our finances, our relationships, our cultural and political division. I’ve been praying, especially for those specific prayer requests I’ve heard. I’ve prayed for friends and neighbors. I’ve prayed for peace and hope. I’ve prayed for truth and light. Yet, I still feel like I don’t know what to say. We know we need to pray and ask for prayer but everything in our world is chaotic and overwhelming. It is so difficult to find the words.
It is at those times that we have an intercessor, the Holy Spirit, who goes to God for us to ask for everything we need according to our Father’s good and perfect will. Trust that He knows what is needed in this world and in your life. Do your best and pray what you know, then let go and let Him intercede for you, for He knows what you need more than you do. This world is overwhelming, even at the best of times, but now is the time to have faith that God knows and He can lead you to make the right decisions in this time to glorify Him with all you do.
“The men rose up from there, and looked toward Sodom. Abraham went with them to see them on their way. Yahweh said, ‘Will I hide from Abraham what I do, since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed in him? For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of Yahweh, to do righteousness and justice; to the end that Yahweh may bring on Abraham that which he has spoken of him.’ Yahweh said, ‘Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous, I will go down now, and see whether their deeds are as bad as the reports which have come to me. If not, I will know.’ The men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, but Abraham stood yet before Yahweh. Abraham came near, and said, ‘Will you consume the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous within the city? Will you consume and not spare the place for the fifty righteous who are in it? May it be far from you to do things like that, to kill the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be like the wicked. May that be far from you. Shouldn’t the Judge of all the earth do right?’ Yahweh said, ‘If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare the whole place for their sake.’ Abraham answered, ‘See now, I have taken it on myself to speak to the Lord, although I am dust and ashes. What if there will lack five of the fifty righteous? Will you destroy all the city for lack of five?’ He said, “=’I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.’ He spoke to him yet again, and said, ‘What if there are forty found there?’ He said, ‘I will not do it for the forty’s sake.’ He said, ‘Oh don’t let the Lord be angry, and I will speak. What if there are thirty found there?’ He said, ‘I will not do it if I find thirty there.’ He said, ‘See now, I have taken it on myself to speak to the Lord. What if there are twenty found there?’ He said, ‘I will not destroy it for the twenty’s sake.’ He said, ‘Oh don’t let the Lord be angry, and I will speak just once more. What if ten are found there?’ He said, ‘I will not destroy it for the ten’s sake.’ Yahweh went his way as soon as he had finished communing with Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.” Genesis 18:16-33, WEB
This week’s question to ponder comes from the negotiation between Abraham and the LORD about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham asked, “Shouldn’t the Judge of all the earth do right?”
Today’s story follows the encounter Abraham had with the LORD, when God promised Abraham that he’d have a son within the year. Sarah laughed because at her age the promise seemed impossible. After serving dinner to the LORD and the angels, the LORD wondered if He should reveal to Abraham what was on His mind. He had heard the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah; He was going there to see firsthand the sins of the city. Their sins were great enough to warrant God’s personal attention, whether the cries came from victims or were simply too blatant to ignore.
We wonder about this, because we know that God is omni-everything. He knows, so why does He have to go to see? This is comforting because God’s cautiousness shows His mercy. We see that He won’t destroy a city without ensuring that what He is doing is good, right and true. “I will know” He said based on what He will see; He makes decisions based on His knowledge, on His mercy, on His grace.
One of the most difficult questions facing Christians is the question of what will happen to those who die without faith. “Who is going to heaven?” We have difficulty believing that God will abandon the “good” people who aren’t filled with faith in Jesus. Some choose to err on the side of leniency and believe that all will go to heaven. Some suggest that those of other faiths will be in heaven even though they will get there by other roads. Christians believe that we will only enter heaven by faith in Jesus Christ and we worry about those who are following a different path. We wonder about those who have never had the opportunity to hear the Gospel. What will happen to those who do not believe in Jesus?
We ask these questions, but there is no way we can answer it. That’s above our pay grade. That’s why we need to answer today’s question with an emphatic “Yes.” The Judge of all the world will do what is right. God’s Word is clear: He is merciful and He is the righteous Judge. We can’t read anyone’s heart, but God can. We might just be surprised at the people we find sitting at the eternal banqueting table, we might even be surprise by those who are absent. Some will not make it into heaven, but we can live in the hope that God will be more merciful than we would be. The scriptures assure us that God does not want any to perish and He will do whatever He can to save those He has chosen to save. Just as He went into the heart of Sodom and Gomorrah to ensure that the reports were true, He delves deeply into the souls of all people to test their hearts. Though He found fault in the two cities, God saved those in whose hearts He found a spark of faith. He will judge rightly, and He will be merciful according to His good and perfect will.
Scriptures for January 17, 2021, Second Sunday after the Epiphany: 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]; Psalm 139:1-10; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51
“Yahweh, you have searched me, and you know me.” Psalm 139:1, WEB
Today’s psalm reminds me of the Christmas song, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” The lyrics speak of an omniscient being who watches our every move and judges our worthiness based on the good and bad things we do. “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout I’m telling you way, Santa Claus is coming to town.” It goes on, “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.” This idea of someone being able to see and know the intimate details of our lives is somewhat frightening to many people. It doesn’t help that Santa Claus is a little creepy in his red furry suit. Though Santa is not equal to God, but the idea of an omnipotent being is equally disturbing to some people. We are not even willing to share our deepest secrets those closest to us, such as our spouses or best friends. The idea of anyone knowing us totally is hard to accept. I guess that’s because we think of omniscience in terms of Santa Claus; we fear that if they really know us, then we won’t receive any blessings from the relationship. If we’ve done something bad, Santa won’t bring us our gifts and we worry that if God knows our hearts, we won’t experience His grace.
But God is more than a spouse or a best friend. He knows everything and loves us anyway. This is very comforting to me. I looked back on my past use of this psalm and discovered that I’ve used it dozens of times in twenty plus years. I even used it twice in the weeks I dealt with my ailing father. In the midst of the trauma and decisions, I must have found comfort in these words to be drawn to it twice in such a short period of time. But it is good to know that when everything else is falling apart, God is with us. He is there to care for us. He has a plan for us. His grace will win out even when it seems like nothing will ever be right in our world again, because He is faithful and He is present. As we consider the depth of the promise that He knows us and loves us anyway, we can go forth in faith to do whatever it is to which He is calling us to do, knowing we are never alone.
The news was not so good for Eli and his sons, whose lives were not lived for the glory of God, though they were tasked with the responsibility of being priests in God’s Temple. Eli’s sons were given their positions in the Temple by inheritance. They didn’t have the heart or the attitude to have the power or authority of priests of God. They took advantage of their positions, using them for their own gain. They did nothing for God’s people; they did not serve the Lord. They were given all they had and they did not value it. They abused their power and lived sinful lives. Eli knew his sons were evil, and tried to stop them, but he did not succeed. They continued to be wicked and the Lord decided to put them to death and end the house of Eli. They lived under a promise made to Eli's father that they would minister before the Lord forever, but since Eli chose to honor his sons more than God, God chose to end that promise.
Samuel was very different; he was a most unusual young man. His mother Hannah was barren, but loved deeply by her husband Elkanah. He treated Hannah with love and grace to the point of making his other wife jealous. Whenever he went to Shiloh to worship the Lord God Almighty, Penninah treated Hannah so poorly that she wept and refused to eat. Elkanah asked, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why don’t you eat? Why is your heart grieved? Am I not better to you than ten sons?” She ate and then went into the temple to pray. Her ache was so deep and her tears so bitter that her prayers came from the very depths of her heart even while her lips moved soundlessly. Eli the priest saw her and thought she was drunk. He rebuked her, but she told him that she was pouring out her soul to the Lord. He said, “Go in peace; and may the God of Israel grant your petition that you have asked of him.”
During her prayers, Hannah made a vow, “Yahweh of Armies, if you will indeed look at the affliction of your servant and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a boy, then I will give him to Yahweh all the days of his life, and no razor shall come on his head.” She became pregnant and gave birth to Samuel. As soon as he was weaned, Hannah took Samuel to the temple and gave him to Eli to serve the Lord for his whole life. Her faithfulness was rewarded as she was blessed with more children.
Today’s Old Testament lesson picks up Samuel’s life sometime later, perhaps a decade. He was probably in his early teens. He had been ministering before the Lord, learning the priestly work under his mentor Eli. It was a time when God had been silent; there were no visions and the word of the Lord was rare. Samuel had never experienced that kind of incarnation; he probably didn’t even know that it could happen. His understanding of God was limited; though he served in the temple, his service had always been to Eli. Eli was as like a father to him and Samuel did everything he could do to help Eli. Eli was quite old, he could barely see; he needed a helper to do even the most mundane things on a daily basis.
Samuel was attending the lamp in the temple, ensuring that it would not go out, when he heard a voice calling to him. He assumed it was Eli and he ran to his mentor’s side. “You called?” Samuel asked. Eli answered, “No.” Samuel went back to the lamb and heard the voice a second time. He ran to Eli. “You called?” Eli said, “No.” This happened a third time. This time Eli understood that the Lord was calling Samuel. “Go back and when He calls, answer, ‘Speak; for your servant hears.’”
Samuel obeyed. When the Lord stood there and called Samuel’s name, Samuel answered as Eli told him. Did he understand what was happening? I am not so sure; even at this point Samuel was obedient to Eli, the one he knows and has served for so long. It must have been a frightening thing since his experience of the Lord had been so mundane.
It didn’t help that the Lord spoke words against Eli which were difficult for Samuel to hear. What would you do if the Lord came to you and told you that He was going to do this horrible thing to someone that you loved? The words made Samuel afraid. How could he tell Eli this truth? The first thing God laid on Samuel’s shoulders as His prophet was this harsh word. Eli warned Samuel to be honest with him, and that God would punish him if he hid anything. Samuel told Eli what he heard. Eli answered, “It is Yahweh. Let him do what seems good to him.”
Talk about baptism by fire! This was a hard way to begin a career serving the Lord, but this harsh word verified to Eli that Samuel was a chosen prophet. He was not telling Eli something new; Eli had already heard this word, and now Eli knew without a doubt that it was true. But Eli also knew that God was not leaving the people desolate. Imagine if you were Eli, trying to reign in out of control sons, knowing that you have failed to be not only the father but also the priest that God called him to be. It was up to him to ensure the spiritual welfare of his people, but how could that happen if there was no one to carry on the ministry? Samuel was a ray of hope in a hopeless situation. Samuel grew and ministered to the Lord; the people heard God’s Word through him. God was no longer silent.
His life was never easy, but He was obedient to God and He did what God called and sent him to do. The people of Israel were, as all of us are, imperfect. They believed God but often fell away. The history of God’s people is a constant circle of faith, apathy, sinfulness, repentance and faith. God had to remind His people of their failure, their needs and His grace over and over again. They suffered the consequences of their apathy and sinfulness but were always given a word of hope and God always remained faithful to the promises He made to them.
I had a friendship that began when we were just little children. Our parents were friends because we were neighbors out in the country. Our family moved into the city, but we continued to enjoy that friendship. My friend was invited to all my birthday parties and we spent several weeks each summer staying at each other’s houses. We loved to camp out in the woods behind her house when we were old enough to be “on our own.” We even roughed it, using a hole in the ground instead of the cozy indoor plumbing in her house.
Our paths went different directions when we were in High School. We had different friends and different interests. We attended the same Girl Scout meetings for awhile; I rode the bus home with her and her mother took us to the meetings. She stopped going, but I liked that troop and we made arrangements that I would still go home with her and her mom made sure I got to the church where the meetings were held.
One day, my friend brought another friend home with her. There had already been evidence that she had chosen a group of friends who were involved in drugs, but that day I saw it for myself. The two girls smoked a joint in her basement. I left them alone and went to find a quiet place to read a book. That day I decided that we no longer had anything in common. I stopped going to Girl Scouts and we lost touch.
Unfortunately, my friend died at a very young age. Her death was unexplained, but the reports denied it was drug related. Whatever the cause, her life had been wasted. She had a learning disability that was not properly diagnosed and she used it as an excuse to never accomplish anything. She accepted her failures as a fact of life and found comfort in the company of others who didn’t care about the future. She was drawn into the world of people who willingly threw their lives away following a path of abuse and addiction. That became her home and her life.
Paul talks about the use, and abuse, of the body in today’s lesson. He was addressing the issue of the Corinthian attitude about the Law. They thought that nothing they did in the flesh had any bearing on their spiritual life. Paul agreed that all things are lawful, that the rules of the past are no longer binding to the person who has been saved by God’s grace. But, he went on to say that all things are not beneficial. It was fine for a Christian to eat meat that had been given as an offering to a foreign god because it had no meaning to the spirit of the believer. However, was everything beneficial? No. Some things are harmful to the body, to the soul and to the fellowship of believers.
In this case, Paul discussed fornication with the prostitutes of the foreign gods. Would a believer lose his eternal soul if he fornicated with those priestesses? God’s grace is always bigger than our failures. He has overcome our sin and has defeated death despite our inability to stand firm in His promises. However, sin is very powerful. Drugs at first offer a moment of bliss apart from a world of pain and suffering, but they eventually take over, harming the flesh and life of the addict.
We are part of something much bigger than ourselves. Though we might enjoy the things that tempt us, let us always remember that our life is a gift from God and our body is His temple. Sin often seems harmless at first; who is harmed by one joint in the basement? But it would do us well to ask the same question as Paul: is it beneficial? We are called to make a commitment to the body of Christ, and if our actions are not beneficial, then we should answer like Paul. It might be lawful, but we should not be brought under its power. This is not only for the sake of one person’s flesh, but for the entire body of Christ. We should always keep away from those things that might bring harm to ourselves or others.
There was a scene in a movie (actually, many movies) with a woman who had heard a piece of incredible news. She wanted to shout it out to the whole world, but not before she told someone who was particularly special. “I wanted you to be the first to know,” she said. I’m always happy when my daughter calls me with something exciting that has happened. I used to love calling my mom, too, when there was happy news. She was one of the first people I thought of when I had something to share. Throughout the years I’ve had friends who have been my confidents. I tell Bruce everything, and my kids. I’ll share news with friends at church or parents of fellow students at my kids’ schools. Some things are just too good to keep to yourself.
Philip was excited about what was happening in his town. John the Baptist was preaching a good word about God and baptizing people in the Jordan. John told his followers that someone greater was going to come along. They were expecting a Messiah because Moses and the prophets had written about him. So, when Philip met Jesus, he knew this was something that he should not keep to himself. He found Nathaniel and told him about Jesus. Nathaniel didn’t believe Philip right away because the news did not match his expectations. “What good can come out of Nazareth?” he asked.
Nazareth in Jesus’ day was a dirty small town with average folk and even a few shady characters. It wasn’t the type of place you would expect to bring forth someone as important as the Messiah. Nathaniel was not necessarily putting the town down, but there were certain expectations. How could the Messiah possibly live in a place like Nazareth? There was no power, no prestige, no position available in that town. How can this man overcome his lack of credentials to become the promised leader of God’s people? How could this man, a carpenter’s son, become a warrior king of Israel and lead them into a new Golden age?
Philip didn’t argue, he just said, “Come and see” and in doing so gave Nathaniel the chance to believe that his news was true. Jesus showed Nathaniel His credentials, power and authority. But the thing that made Nathaniel believe was just the beginning. Jesus promised that they would see incredible things. This news of the coming Messiah was the start of something really new in the world.
Sometimes God seems quiet, as He was in the days of Eli and Samuel, but God still speaks to His people. The writer of Hebrews tells us, “God, having in the past spoken to the fathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, has at the end of these days spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom also he made the worlds.” (Hebrews 1:1-2)
The Old Testament stories show us that God spoke to His people through the patriarchs and the prophets. He came to them in a very real way; sometimes He sent angels, sometimes He spoke in dreams. He even appeared pre-incarnate in human form. Last week we talked about the powerful voice of God. When He spoke, things happened. God spoke and the world was transformed. Now, we are told in Hebrews, that we hear God’s voice in the words of Jesus.
So, we know God does talk to His people, through the scriptures and through His Son. We also know that God still talks to us through others. Yet, there are many contradictory voices out there. Which church is right? Who has the best understanding of God’s Word? Is God calling us to do this thing or not? It can be very confusing, especially when we see so much politics in our religious communities. When two Christians disagree vehemently about an issue, who is right? What is truth? Who is speaking God’s Word? It is no wonder that we doubt what we hear because the world is chaotic.
And sometimes we will make the wrong choice. We will believe the wrong word. We’ll speak the wrong word because it makes the most sense to us in our understanding of God’s love and grace and Word. We’ll say and believe “God told me,” when the voice we heard was not His. We will fail because do not always listen to the voices around us through the lens of God’s Word. I was so glad that when God did speak to me, He did so in words that I knew were His. “My grace is sufficient for you,” was more true than all the other words being spoken to me by the voices who truly believed that they were speaking for God.
Thankfully, God’s grace is always bigger than our failures. He has overcome our sin and has defeated death despite our inability to stand firm in His promises. When we are confused by the voices we hear, when we listen and believe what they say, we can trust that God will keep calling us until we hear what He is really saying. We may be led down a wrong path, but God will find a way to turn us around.
God still speaks and He calls us into a relationship. It is difficult in this world because even Christians wonder if we are really hearing the voice of God. We want to be accepted, to be respected, to be happy. We want to fit in. But God’s grace is sufficient. To believe otherwise is to doubt God.
On this second Sunday of Epiphany, we are reminded that God has invited us into a new life, a life following Him. It doesn’t matter if others think we are crazy because we have met the Messiah in an unexpected place or way. What matters is that we live the life that glorifies Him, trusting that He has done something we might never fully understand. God knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows what we are meant to do. He knows what purpose our life holds. And He has promised that we will see extraordinary things happen. When we hear His voice, and we will, we need only say, “Speak; for your servant hears.” Unfortunately, sometimes the Word God wants us to speak will be uncomfortable and unpopular.
God knows our hearts. It might be uncomfortable to think about God reading our hearts, knowing our fears and our doubts, but we can find comfort in the knowledge that God knows what we need and that He is faithful. We are just like the Israelites who repeatedly turned from Him. We still experience that constant circle of faith, apathy, sinfulness, repentance and faith, but God is quick with mercy and forgiveness. He knew that we’d never truly be faithful, so He sent Jesus to be faithful for us. Now He is the Word God speaks into the world and we are called to hear His voice and answer.
We are made new when are baptized into Christ Jesus, but there is more to that gift than just receiving His grace. We are also called to be partners with God in the work of His Kingdom. We are His and we are to glorify Him in body and spirit. When we remember that our bodies are God’s temple, and that we are blessed by our position within God’s world, we listen for His word, act upon it and are blessed even more so by the glory He receives. We do not take advantage of the position He has given us, but we use it to share His grace with others, no matter how foolish they think we might be. We can trust that He will let none of our words fall to the ground, and like Samuel will use us to grow His kingdom. Like Philip we can change the lives we touch with the ministry to which we have been called by pointing to Jesus.
“Love is patient and is kind. Love doesn’t envy. Love doesn’t brag, is not proud, doesn’t behave itself inappropriately, doesn’t seek its own way, is not provoked, takes no account of evil; doesn’t rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, WEB
I have always joked that I didn’t look forward to the day Bruce retired because that would mean he would be underfoot every day. I’ve been a stay-at-home wife and mother for most of our marriage, and I enjoy the solitude of the day when everyone is at work. I’m an introvert at heart, and I work so much better when I am uninterrupted. I didn’t have to wait until his retirement to test my ability to live with him, though. The pandemic made it necessary for him to work remotely. I’m not complaining, though, because it meant that he could continue to work.
Thankfully, I’ve learned that he doesn’t drive me completely nuts! We have found ways to work around each other. I now own a pair of sound blocking Bluetooth headphones and he gives me a schedule of his meetings so I can work around them. I do confess that I enjoy the rare occasions when Bruce has to go into his office, so I can have a time of peace and quiet. It has taken work to find a way to live together in this strange time. We have always gotten along well, but we’ve both had to act as peacemakers to keep our relationship strong. We have not had any of the usual underlying reasons to divorce, so this constant togetherness has not caused us the kind of problems it might have.
It might seem strange to say we’ve had to work at it; we are married and we should get along well under any circumstances. We vowed “for better or worse, in sickness and in health” although many would suggest we didn’t vow “under pandemic.” I saw a billboard shortly after the lockdowns began for a divorce attorney that showed a measuring tape and the words, “Need more than six feet?” The implication was that marriages would be falling apart because of a lack of space. Instead of finding a way to live together, divorce lawyers assumed that couples would choose to divorce. Current records, however, have found that divorce rates hit a fifty year low in 2019 and the trend has not changed in 2020. Some have suggested that the lower rate for this year is simply because it is hard to get a divorce right now and that the rate will skyrocket as life returns to normal. But perhaps many couples have found new love and appreciation for one another.
How are you getting on with the people who are living in your house? How are you spending time together? What activities have you found to make the time less stressful and more joyful? What work have you done in your relationships to keep them strong?
Today’s scripture is often used at weddings, and I sometimes think that it is cliché to use such an obvious text. Yet, Paul’s words are more important than ever in times like these. It is not just about the romantic love between a man and a woman, but is about the love of God that is manifest through His people. The words of this love chapter that are used so often at weddings may mean something very special on that day, but what marriage is perfect? Are we really able to avoid breaking some of the exhortations? Are we always patient with our spouse? Are we always kind? Do we really manage to live together without envy, boasting, arrogance or rudeness? Unfortunately, we all have moments when we demand our own way, when we are irritable and resentful. We can probably all think of a time when we have even rejoiced in wrongdoing. We can remember a moment when we refused to bow down and respond to an overflowing heart.
But the love of God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. The love of God never ends. We are reminded by this passage that everything given to us by God is to be built on His love. That’s how we keep our relationships strong. If, perhaps, 2020 was the year of building our personal, intimate relationships, then perhaps 2021 is the year for us to work together to take that love of God out into the world in ways that will bring peace. That is a lesson for tomorrow.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” Matthew 5:9, WEB
Sandra Bullock played FBI agent Gracie Hart in the movie “Miss Congeniality.” In the movie, the crazed former beauty queen who ran the Miss USA pageant threatened the safety of the girls. The FBI moved in to protect the girls and find the perpetrator. Gracie was placed in the pageant as a contestant so that she could watch from the inside, especially in those places where the FBI agents are not allowed. Gracie Hart was not pageant material. She was rough and unfeminine, with knotted hair and the manners of a sailor. She walked into a meeting strong, wearing a practical suit and absolutely no grace at all. The make-over was amazing and she managed to be a beautiful pageant contestant, doing whatever she had to do. Yet, her practical, law enforcement background shined in her actions.
When the host asked the beauty contestants the question, “What is the one, most important thing our society needs?” The other women said, “World peace.” Gracie, however, answered “That would be harsher punishment for parole violators, Stan.” The silence in the venue was tangible. Gracie paused and then said, “And... world peace.”
What is peace? We certainly can’t find it in the papers or on the nightly news programs. The news programs may be filled with information about the virus, but there is other news. People are still being murdered. Leaders continue to argue. Facebook comments are still hurtful. International relationships may not be at the forefront of our thought right now because the world is working together to solve the problem of the virus, but there are still struggles between nations. There seems to be no peace in our world today.
I have heard, and spoken, the cry for peacemakers in our world today. There may be some evidence that homes are growing stronger during this pandemic, it is obvious that the world outside our homes is chaotic. The cries for peace are coming from every side, but we can’t even agree what it means to be at peace.
I’ve talked about the Beatitudes many times over the years. It is important to remember that the eight beautiful attitudes found in the Sermon on the Mount are not characteristics that describe eight separate and distinct groups of disciples. There are not some who are meek, while others are merciful, yet others called upon to endure persecution. Christians are meant to be meek and merciful, poor in spirit and pure in heart. We are meant to mourn and hunger, to make peace and stand firm even in persecution. These are the characteristics of every Christian. The Beatitudes emphasize who we are rather than what we do.
Many families have a newfound peace after living together through the struggles together of the past few months. As Christians, it is up to us to take that peace out into our chaotic world. That doesn’t necessary mean that it is up to us to stop the violence in the streets, but we have a responsibility to do more than just wish for world peace. The Gospel is about reconciliation. Reconciliation is peacemaking.
We certainly should never seek conflict or be responsible for it, so as they say “Peace begins with me.” Martin Luther said, “There is no person upon earth so bad that there is not something in him that one must praise.” Unfortunately, we live in a time when we spend more time finding the faults of our neighbors than finding the things we could praise. Gossips, and the media and social media, find the smallest flaws and magnify them until that is all we can see about a person. This does not mean that we are never to confront sin, as a matter of fact reconciliation requires repentance and repentance only comes by hearing the truth and the Word of God. We do so, however, by living Christ-like, doing what our Father does, loving people with His love.
Yes, the world needs peacemakers, but what does that mean? Jesus does not merely challenge the bloodshed of revolution, He challenged us to bring harmony between people. Deitrich Bonhoeffer made us familiar with the concept of ‘cheap grace’; there is also such a thing as ‘cheap peace’. We may be able to cause the violence to cease, but we need to be working even deeper. God forgives us when we repent, and Jesus commands us to forgive those who repent of their sins. This begins with sharing the Gospel of grace, the promise that God is merciful and that He is faithful. It begins with the sharing of Jesus Christ, the one who took upon His own shoulders the sins of the whole world, saving us from the burdens that cause the brokenness in our world. As we tell others about God’s grace, we reconcile them to their Creator and renew their relationship with their Redeemer and their neighbors, bringing true peace to this world.
“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. Let no man say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God,’ for God can’t be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own lust and enticed. Then the lust, when it has conceived, bears sin. The sin, when it is full grown, produces death.” James 1:12-15, WEB
This week’s question comes from the story of Joseph. “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?”
Jacob had twelve sons but Joseph, the son of his beloved wife Rachel, was his favorite. He was showered with gifts, including a richly ornamented robe, which made Jacob’s other sons jealous. Rachel had one other son, Benjamin, who was also deeply loved.
Joseph was a dreamer but his dreams were strange and unusual. One dream foretold that Joseph would rule over his brothers. Another dream put him as ruler over even his mother and father. His brothers became so jealous that they schemed to get rid of him. While they were in the field grazing the sheep, Joseph went out to see if all was well. His brothers schemed to leave him to die, and to lie to their father that he had been devoured by a wild animal. Reuben convinced them to spare his life and sell him as a slave instead.
Joseph ended up in Egypt. He suffered through many trials, but eventually Pharaoh made him second in command and charged him with managing the whole kingdom. Pharaoh had several dreams which Joseph interpreted; the dreams were warnings that there would be good years of fruit from the fields followed by years of famine. With Joseph’s guidance, the Egyptians saved enough grain through the good years that they were able to help feed the world, including Joseph’s family, during the famine. Joseph persevered through it all and proved God’s dream to be trustworthy.
He could have been tempted by discouragement, diversion, and doubt. He could have given up when his brothers rejected him. He could have succumbed to the temptation of Potiphar’s wife. He could have doubted God’s dream with every obstacle he faced. He asked today’s question specifically when Potiphar’s wife seduced him knowing that the sin would be against God as well as his master. He seems to have had that attitude whenever he faced moments of decision. He trusted God and persevered until the promise was fulfilled.
It is easy to be discouraged, diverted, and to doubt that God has called you to His work in this world. There are so many obstacles, so many temptations, and so many reasons to doubt that we have heard God correctly. We need to beware, though, that it begins with the littlest thing. A dishonest life begins with little white lie. An affair begins with harmless flirting. A rejection of God’s call begins with a glimmer of doubt that God is able to accomplish His work through your life. This is why we ponder today’s question, knowing that every sin is a sin against God. The best we can do is to trust that God is working through us even when every sign indicates otherwise, to persevere through the difficulties so that we will see the fulfillment of His promises.
“The elder to Gaius the beloved, whom I love in truth. Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be healthy, even as your soul prospers. For I rejoiced greatly when brothers came and testified about your truth, even as you walk in truth. I have no greater joy than this: to hear about my children walking in truth. Beloved, you do a faithful work in whatever you accomplish for those who are brothers and strangers. They have testified about your love before the assembly. You will do well to send them forward on their journey in a way worthy of God, because for the sake of the Name they went out, taking nothing from the Gentiles. We therefore ought to receive such, that we may be fellow workers for the truth.” 3 John 1:1-8, WEB
I taught preschool part time a few years ago. One of my parents was concerned about the syllabus we were using. We only planned to teach the numbers one through ten, and her child was already counting much higher. She was afraid that the lessons would not be challenging enough for her children. I have to admit that I often wondered the same thing about my children when they were in school because they were very sharp and they were early readers.
I explained to that mother that though there was a focus number for each month, we would expand our activities beyond that number as the children were ready and able. An entire month on the number one, even for our youngest students, would not be unnecessary. As we discussed the issue further, the mother realized that though the child could count up to twenty, there were still things about numbers that she needed to learn like recognizing and writing them properly.
I am sure if we all thought back to our school years, we can all find something we thought was a waste of our time. After all, when do we really use Trigonometry? I haven’t dissected a single worm or frog since graduation. As fast as the world changes, I am not so sure that my seventh grade geography class did me much good. Half the maps I colored are no longer accurate and I can only remember one or two things I am sure I learned in that class, none of which are helpful to adult concerns. And yet, I’m sure that I have remembered those lessons over the years in ways that I don’t even realize.
As we read through the Bible, there are things that seem pointless to us. We skim over the book of Leviticus because so much of the instruction does not seem appropriate to our Christian faith. What do the prophecies of the prophets tell us, except perhaps to point toward God’s promise of salvation? While important, we’d rather focus on the fulfillment of the promise than the promise itself. Even in the New Testament, some of the letters speak to some very specific conditions in very specific churches that seem to have nothing to do with us.
Sometimes I even feel like I am intruding on a private and intimate conversation. What does the personal greetings from the letter writers to their readers have to do with our faith today?
When we read these letters, we can see the intimate relationship that the early Christians had with one another. We also see how they acted toward one another. John’s third letter is one of encouragement, of commendation, of unity in Spirit. We are encouraged, too, when we realize that there were problems even in the early churches when faith was new and strong. People are people in every age. There are the faithful and the wicked. There are those who are humble before God and those who pride themselves in their power, wealth and authority.
The letters were written to encourage those first Christians, but they are also appropriate and necessary for us, too. Through God’s grace, we can see that others have dealt with similar problems as we are experiencing today, and they were able to overcome. We find hope and peace in the midst of our troubles knowing That God has provided us with a look into the intimate relationships of those that came before us, so that we might know we aren’t the first and we won’t be the last. This gives us the courage to face our troubles and prepare future generations to face them, too. The Church on earth is not perfect because it is made up of all types of people. All we can do is learn to live with one another in love and share in the unity of spirit that God gives us through faith. We do this by reading and studying the witness of those former generations found in all the scriptures, even when we aren’t sure what it means to us today.
Scriptures for January 24, 2021, Third Sunday after the Epiphany: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 (32-35); Mark 1:14-20
“God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way. God relented of the disaster which he said he would do to them, and he didn’t do it.” Jonah 3:10, WEB
My grandparents lived on a farm. They didn’t grow large crops, but did have a huge garden with plenty of fresh vegetables. There was enough land to build a sports complex, which was used by local teams. There was a creek in the woods at the back of the property and they had a huge pond in the front. There was also a hidden pond in the woods. I usually spent a week or so every summer, sometimes with my cousins and we took hikes, swam in the creek, and fished in the pond which was stocked with catfish. I caught a few, but we always threw them back. As is true of many home grown ponds, there was a mythical catfish that was everyone’s goal; we all wanted to catch the huge, old fish that had avoided capture for years.
I think I liked visiting the woods and the creek most of all when I went to visit the farm. I enjoyed the peace and quiet. I enjoyed reading on the bank of the creek and watching the water bugs skim the top. I liked to visit the hidden pond because it was a secret place. Though those were my favorite things to do, I enjoyed fishing and I was always excited when I caught something on my hook.
I have always pictured this passage in terms of those quiet moments on the pond with my grandpa’s fishing pole, catching the occasional fish. It was such a peaceful occupation. But I heard a description this week about the text from Mark that changed my thinking. Fishing is violent, even those quiet moments on the pond. Think about it: to catch a fish you have to hook a metal pointy hook into its mouth, causing it pain. The fish will not cooperate and come, but will fight every inch until it is in the boat. We always threw the fish back into the pond, but not until after we dug that hook out of its mouth. It spent time out of water, unable to breath. Fish that are caught for food are often gutted while they are still alive.
It was even worse for those fish caught by professional fishermen like Simon (Peter) and Andrew, James and John. They went out on boats with huge drag nets which caught hundreds of fish at a time. Modern fisherman cut the gills of the fish and let them bleed to death or the fish are thrown onto ice to freeze or suffocate. I don’t know how the fishermen in Jesus’ day dealt with their catch, but it wouldn’t have been any less violent.
The people to whom Jesus was talking were familiar with the notion of fishing and the Old Testament understanding of being “caught.” This is from the post, “A ‘fisher of men’ is a violent, judgment-laden image in the Hebrew prophets, not a quaint play on words. When you are the ‘caught fish’ in the Old Testament, life as you know it is now over; something very new is about to begin. What’s more, seas and waves are emblems of chaos and the Gentile world in the Old Testament. When, through Hebrew eyes, we read about Jesus calling his disciples to be fishers of men, this background changes our perspective on their mission.”
Their job was to change lives, and quite frankly that is not always a pleasant thing.
Most scholars will tell you that Peter, Andrew, James and John were not educated beyond the schooling they received as children. They were surely familiar with the scriptures, learned at the feet of their mothers. They may have had enough knowledge in the common languages of the day so that they could conduct their business. It is likely, however, that they were strong, dirty and rough, mouths filled with foul language. Though they could have recited the psalms, they were probably more likely to tell an off-color joke. They were surely not prepared to follow Jesus. They were men of the sea, hardworking, patient and willing to endure hardship, but the life of wandering the wilderness or hanging with crowds in the villages was beyond their experience. Worst of all, they were not preachers or teachers. How could God possibly call these guys to this life?
Perhaps understanding that Jesus was calling them to this kind of hard work helps us to see why Jesus would pick them. They knew by His words that the work was not going to be easy. As fishermen, they weren’t respected. People relied on them for their food, but they would not have been invited to dinner. As fishers of men following Jesus, they would be rejected, persecuted, and mocked. But they would also have an incredible impact on the lives of those who believe the Gospel.
What does that mean? We often think of the Gospel as “God loves you,” and it is. But the call to repentance is necessary, too. We have to know that we are sinners in need of a Savior to benefit from the grace of Jesus Christ. Salvation comes with turning from our old lives and trusting in God. We are to die to self and through faith we are raised to new life. Though this is not violent in the ways we think of violence in this world, it is a dramatic change between our life swimming in the chaos of the seas and waves and the life of following Jesus Christ. Something new has begun in our life, something is radically changed.
That radical change is seen in the story from Jonah.
Nineveh was a troublesome place, especially for their Jewish neighbors. Jonah was a Jew and the Ninevites were the mortal enemies of his people. Border skirmishes between the nations caused too much suffering; Jonah could not forgive. That’s why he ran away when God called him to preach to Nineveh. Jonah did not want them to repent; he wanted them to experience God’s wrath so that they might suffer, too. But God had plans for them, so he sent his reluctant prophet into the city of sin to warn them to repent or die. Jonah’s hope was that it wouldn’t work, that they would just go on sinning. Yet, the word of God had an awesome affect on the people of Nineveh. They believed the prophet, they repented and God spared them His wrath.
God threatened to destroy Nineveh, but He changed His mind and spared them when they repented. We wonder that the omniscient God who knows everything from the past into the future could, and would, change His mind. Was He wrong when He threatened destruction? No, He wasn’t wrong. He hoped that they would change. That’s why He sent Jonah. We see in this story that it is OK to change our mind. God calls us to share His grace and expects us to be merciful even if we don’t think they are worthy. If God, who is perfect, can change His mind, we can be like Him and change ours, too.
I know what it is like to harbor bad feelings, to withhold the words “I forgive you” from someone who has done me harm. I think we all do. I also know what it is like to say the words in a meaningless way. It is fairly easy to say “I forgive you” but it is a lot harder to show forgiveness. I’ve said the words, I’ve written them on my heart, I've tried to return the relationship as it had been, but I can’t. My heart aches when they say something that reminds me of the pain; I lay sleepless, writing letters in my head to remind them of the wrong. Even if I say “I forgive you,” those are just words if the relationship remains broken.
Rev. Walter Everett was the father of a young man who was murdered. When he heard the news, he became very angry at the murderer. His anger began to destroy his life. At the hearing, the young man who had done this horrible act stood before the court and said he was truly sorry. A few weeks later, Rev. Everett wrote to the young man, confessed his anger and asked some questions. Then he wrote that he was glad to hear what he had said in court and though it was hard, he wrote, “I forgive you.” Those three words brought the young man to his knees in his cell and he prayed for forgiveness from God. Rev. Everett and the young man continued to write and visit, sharing their faith journeys together. Rev. Everett then testified at the young man’s parole hearing. He was released early and they remained friends. They both learned about the true freedom found in forgiveness. It was also a lesson in mercy.
God forgives, but He’s also merciful. It is actually fairly easy to say “I forgive you” but it is a lot harder to show forgiveness. Rev. Everett not only spoke the words, but became a traveling companion through the journey of faith in Jesus Christ with the man who killed his son. He shared the Gospel, encouraged the young man’s faith and helped him become free in both spirit and flesh. That’s mercy.
We might have faith, but we still ask the question “How could God possibly call me to this life?” I don’t mind following Jesus, although I’d much rather if He led me in the direction I want to go. The call of God is never easy. We’d rather focus on the benefits of being loved by God, the promise of eternity and His provision in our lives. God blesses those who trust in Him, although we must be careful what we consider blessedness. Some tell you that God has promised big cars, big houses, and rose gardens. They promise easy work. They insist that if you love God enough, He will ensure your health and wealth. They tell you that you will have nothing to fear because God will put a hedge around you and will protect you from all harm.
We know, however, that faith in Jesus does not guarantee warm fuzzies. It is like the work of fishermen: hard, sweaty, and smelly. It is work we’d rather not do. We don’t want to go into the enemy camp and tell them to repent. The Saints throughout the ages would tell you that it means persecution, and possibly even martyrdom. It means rejection, especially when we begin living a new and different life under God’s Word. We will still get sick and we will die. We will still experience the troubles of life like lost jobs, broken relationships, natural disasters and human sin (both the harm of others’ sin and the consequences of our own.) The promise of God is that He will be with us through it all and in the end we will spend eternity with Him.
In the meantime, we are called to a life of obedience to His Word. We are called to follow Him. The work may be hard; we may think we are completely unqualified, but we can trust that God will be with us through it all. When God calls He equips, provides, qualifies and enables. We may not be called to do something that is comfortable, but God will give us all we need to accomplish it.
Peter, Andrew, James and John left their fishing boats “immediately” and followed Jesus. There is urgency in the book of Mark; he uses the word “immediately” 41 times. The kingdom of God was at hand and Jesus knew He would not have very long to teach the disciples. Jesus never forced faith on anyone. He was received and believed through the grace of God. “Now” was the time to act; there was no time to wait or think or consider the cost.
Yet, the response of these disciples amazes me. Even with the Holy Spirit urging them to faith and obedience, I find it difficult to identify with someone who would leave everything without thought or consideration for the cost. I’d want a few answers first. Where are we going? What will we do? How will we survive without nets, or jobs, or our families? Can we go home and get a change of clothes and some hiking boots?
It seems like they heard the call of a stranger and just left everything for him. Yet, those four fishermen were familiar with Jesus and the work He was doing. As a matter of fact, Matthew does not tell this story until chapter four. In Luke, Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law before He called the fishermen to follow Him. We don’t know how long it was between the wilderness temptation and the calling of these disciples. It could have been months or even a year. We do know from Mark that the time was right; John the Baptist was arrested, decreasing so that Jesus could increase. These fishermen didn’t drop everything at the call of a stranger. Andrew was a follower of John and heard John tell the crowds that Jesus was the One for whom they were waiting. He told Peter that they had found the Messiah.
The fact that these guys had time to think about it doesn’t make it any less amazing. As a matter of fact, thinking about it might have been the worst thing they could do. Who really walks away from a good living without considering the cost?
Here’s the most amazing thing: Jesus could have chosen far more capable people to be His disciples. What made him pick this rag-tag group of men? Why would He choose fishermen? Why would He pick men that have no experience with ministry? Jesus was calling them to hard work that would not lead them in the direction they thought it would go. Though they weren’t educated as those in the religious establishment, they would have been familiar with the prophecies. The Messiah was supposed to become king over Israel. They were rough and tumble, though not military they were strong and ready to fight. As fishermen they were ready to take on the chaos and tame it for their God.
Jesus may have had a different reason for choosing those disciples: they were clay that could be molded. The religious establishment was too set in their ways, there was too much for Jesus to overcome. He chose people who weren’t afraid, who could learn, whose hearts were open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. They weren’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Even after traveling with Jesus and spending all their time with Him, they did not understand. Even to the cross, the disciples thought that they were picked for a different purpose. James and John thought that Jesus would choose them to be His right and left hand men when He became king. None of them expected Jesus to surrender. They wanted to follow the Messiah. Would any of them have really followed immediately if they thought Jesus would end up on the cross?
I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be those first disciples. Did they know what they were getting themselves into? Did they know that Jesus would be taking them on a long and dangerous journey? Or did they hear Him talking to them in language they understood?
Did they know they’d have to speak God’s Word into the lives of people who would not listen or believe? Did they know they would face demons and persecution? I find it hard to believe that they knew what they were getting themselves into when they left their nets by the sea. And yet, like the Ninevites, they heard the Word and believed. They turned to God and followed Him into the unknown.
I confess that I am not sure I can be so obedient; I have so many doubts, fears and frustrations about the world in which I live. Now that my children are grown I have more freedom to follow God’s call on my life, but it was much harder when my children were small. I had opportunities to travel, to speak, to teach, but I always had to consider the cost. Could I get away for a few days? Could Bruce be there for them when they got home from school, to cook them dinner and tuck them in at night? I worried that Bruce might get deployed while I was gone; I wondered if I could get home in the case of an emergency. Even now I have to consider my relationship with my husband when I make decisions, just as he does the same for me. We find it difficult to follow God because we’ve made promises to each other.
Paul honored marriage, but in today’s epistle lesson he talks about a reality that we do not often consider. Paul wrote that the time had grown short and that Christians should keep their eyes on Jesus, even living as though one did not have a spouse. It meant turning away from family in their greatest time of need. It meant ignoring the joyous times of life. It meant giving up all their stuff. It meant giving up all dealings with the world. This seems rather extreme to us, after all Jesus was not against marriage.
Paul is not telling us to reject earthly things like marriage, family or our comfortable homes. Paul is more concerned about sparing the Christian from the trials that occur when distracted from their calling from God. A spouse, the responsibilities of work and children, the care of a house and property keeps us from time that might be devoted to Christ. It is not only a matter of time. It is also a matter of the emotions that come with the relationships and responsibilities. Our hearts are torn every time we have to choose between a family need and the calling of God.
Peter, Andrew, James and John were busy when Jesus happened by their boats and called them to follow Him. They dropped everything to obey. This was an incredible commitment, particularly since James and John had to walk away from their father. They could have just as easily told Jesus they’d be along when the nets were prepared or the fish caught. Instead, they went immediately.
In today’s passages we are reminded that while our attachments in this world might be gifts and they might be useful for our ministry, God demands to be first. When He calls, He expects us to hear. His calling is urgent and our obedience should be immediate. Can God accomplish the work without us? Of course He can. Can we accomplish anything without Him? No, absolutely not. When God calls us to join Him it is because He has chosen us to the task. He does not need us, but He wants us to follow. We might be more like Jonah thinking that we have a better understanding of what is happening. We are easily distracted by the world, using every excuse to keep from following immediately. We’ll think about joining Him later, after we’ve fixed the nets or brought in the catch. Maybe then we will have a better idea of what He’s planning to do. After all, what if He calls us to take the Gospel to our enemies?
But the mission is urgent. Now is the time. We can’t wait until tomorrow. We need to go forth in obedience to do whatever it is He is calling for us to do. Even if it is hard. Even if it seems like we can’t possibly be the right person for the job. Even if we don’t want to go.
The psalmist writes, “Trust in him at all times, you people.” The psalmist, probably David who was having troubles of his own, knew that the best way to deal with trouble was to trust in God. David had so many enemies. His enemies wanted him dead or at least off the throne. His life and his honor were at stake. However, he knew that he could not defeat his enemies on his own. He had to wait on God, for God’s plan is always right and good.
God has mercy. He had mercy on the Ninevites. He has mercy on us and He calls us to have mercy on our enemies that they might hear the call to repentance and the Good News of forgiveness that is found in the blood of Jesus Christ our Lord. The Psalmist reminds us that God alone is our salvation, that He is our hope, our rock, our rest. Jesus Christ is the Living Word of God who came into time and space to draw people into the kingdom of God. We are really nothing, our stuff is useless and time is fleeting, but God is strong and loving, our refuge. This God calls us to follow, to join Jesus Christ in sharing His Kingdom with the world. Fishing for men is not a peaceful day on the pond, but we need not worry that we are unprepared because He will provide us with all we need to accomplish His work in the world. We are invited to cast out the nets, calling for repentance. He will fill those nets with people whose lives need to be changed by His grace. There will be rejection, persecution, and mocking, but God will see those who turn from their evil ways. He will relent of the disaster which He said He would do to them and save them. When we are obedient to His call, we will be blessed to see the impact of the Gospel on those who believe and follow Jesus with us.
“For the Son of Man came to save that which was lost. What do you think? If a man has one hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine, go to the mountains, and seek that which has gone astray? If he finds it, most certainly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine which have not gone astray. Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” Matthew 18:11-14, WEB
We bought an old church pew from a camping ministry we support. I thought the perfect place would be in front of our giant floor to ceiling living room window. We had to move some chairs and a side table to make it fit, but it did look good there. Unfortunately, we had to find a new place during Christmas because that’s where we put the Christmas tree. So, we placed it near the front door. It turned out to be a much better place, so I didn’t want to move it back in front of the window. We put the chairs back and though we had the old side table, I wanted to find something that better matched the rest of the furniture in that room.
I went to the store where we bought the other side tables in the room, and they did not have any. I tried a number of other stores for something similar and I tried online. The only things I liked were way too expensive, and most of them would not have been any better than the one we already had. We gave up the quest and put the old table back. Now, this quest for a new table was pointless since we already had a perfectly good table. I didn’t need a new one, but there was something about the quest that was exciting. It got me out of the house for a few hours!
Fishermen understand the quest for the one that got away. Many will tell you about their favorite lake and the legendary fish that lives there. Rumors of some monster sized fish that has managed to steal the bait and escape capture for years exist at each fisher’s paradise, just like the catfish in my grandparent’s pond. Women understand the quest for the perfect dress, visiting store after store looking for the one ideal gown for an event. Collectors know the joy of stopping at every antique store and yard sale searching for the perfect item for their collection. Each one will set everything aside as they go off to fulfill their quest.
We have often heard stories of people who were introduced to the faith of their fathers but for some reason rebelled against the message of Jesus. St. Augustine and John Bunyan are just two examples of men who heard the Gospel but thought that there was something better on the other side of the fence. They went looking for fulfillment in other ways. Jesus did not give up on them, constantly working to draw them into the faith that would save them from themselves. Eventually the prayers of a mother were fulfilled and the words of strangers filled their hearts until they were drawn back into the fold of Christ.
Do you know someone who has wandered away from the faith? Are you being lured away by the ways of this world? Do not despair; Jesus does not let His sheep go far. He searches to the very ends of the earth for all those He loves, to bring them back into His kingdom, even if it means leaving behind the rest while He looks. The ninety-nine are not left desolate and alone, He cares for them too. But He is willing to go out of His way so that none will be lost.
We all have something we are willing to go out of our way to find - a table, a fish, a dress or a collectable - but Jesus goes after the souls of His people. He sometimes works in the most unusual ways, like the women who were singing praise not knowing that John Bunyan heard their words. Sometimes He works through you and me, quickening our hearts to prayer for a friend or sending us to a specific time and place where He can touch someone through our lives. Is there someone in your life who has strayed, for whom you long to know the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ? Rest assured, Jesus will search until He brings them back into His kingdom. And listen, He may just be using you to help Him to bring them home.
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other commandments there are, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love doesn’t harm a neighbor. Love therefore is the fulfillment of the law. Do this, knowing the time, that it is already time for you to awaken out of sleep, for salvation is now nearer to us than when we first believed. The night is far gone, and the day is near. Let’s therefore throw off the deeds of darkness, and let’s put on the armor of light. Let’s walk properly, as in the day; not in reveling and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and lustful acts, and not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, for its lusts." Romans 13:8-14, WEB
Ferris Buehler was a troublesome youth, able to manipulate circumstances to his advantage. He took advantage of the people around him, especially his best friend. He often skipped school, so often that he risked having to spend the summer in summer school. This character from the movie “Ferris Buehler’s Day Off” set out to have the best day ever. It was his last chance with graduation nearing, he knew that this was his last hurrah. If he was going to play hookie, he was going to do it right, with all the risks and excitement he could muster.
He convinced his girlfriend and his best friend to join him for the day. They borrowed his friend’s father’s car, a very expensive sports model that the father treasured; a mile added to the odometer would be noticed. Ferris’s best friend did not want to take the car, of even skip school, but Ferris is a strong leader. The three headed into the big city for an adventure. They parked the car in a lot where the attendants were just waiting for some hot little number to use for a joy ride. The red convertible was the perfect choice. When Ferris and his friends returned to the car after outsmarting authorities, hiding from parents and joining in a parade, they discovered that the car had been driven hundreds of miles.
Ferris’ friend was certain this would mean his end. Apparently his father thought more of the hot red car than he did of his own son, or at least that’s how he felt. He blamed Ferris and called him selfish. Ferris assured him he could fix the problem, so they put the car on blocks, put the car into reverse and put a brick on the accelerator, thinking that by running the car backward for a hundred miles would counteract the miles put on by the garage attendants. Anyone who knows anything about cars knows that this trick does not work. The odometer only works in drive, so it is impossible to remove mileage without tampering with the equipment.
They say you can’t go home again. We certainly can’t relive yesterday. We can’t turn back the hands of time just as we can’t turn back the miles on the odometer. However, do we really want to go back? We may think that yesterday was a better time, but today we know so much more. We may have been younger yesterday with more energy, but today we walk with the wisdom that comes from experience. We may have done something wrong yesterday that we would like to change, but then we would miss out on the joy or redemption, forgiveness and absolution.
Ferris’ friend freaked out about the car thinking that his father would kill himfor using it without permission. To add to his pain, when Ferris tried to turn back the clock, or the miles, disaster happened. The car fell off the blocks, and flew out the window of the garage into a ravine. The car was totally destroyed. When Ferris and his friends tried to turn back the hands of time, they caused even more damage.
While we long for the day for Christ to come, we also realize that everything will change in an instant. In that day, the world as we know it will no longer exist. We might want to turn back the hands of time, to restore broken relationships, to do things differently. However, we can’t. What we can do is to live today knowing that we are always moving forward, that the day of Christ’s return is closer now than it has ever been. Knowing that we can’t turn back, we are called to live as if Christ is near, showing love to our neighbors in word and action, always shining the light of Christ by working toward reconciliation with repentance and forgiveness.
“For this cause, I remind you that you should stir up the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God didn’t give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-control. Therefore don’t be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner; but endure hardship for the Good News according to the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given to us in Christ Jesus before times eternal, but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light through the Good News.” 2 Timothy 1:6-10, WEB
Today’s question comes out of the story of Moses, when he was standing at the foot of the burning bush. Moses grew up under the care of Pharaoh and had the best education, but he had been working as a nomadic shepherd under his father-in-law Jethro for forty years, long enough to lose any confidence that he may have had in Egypt as a younger man. When God called him and told him to go back to Egypt to lead His people to the Promised Land, Moses answered, “Who am I?”
Moses’ doubt did not end with that one question. He argued with God that he was not capable of doing this task. He wanted God’s name so that the people would trust that he was indeed sent, but even when God said, “I AM WHO I AM”, Moses did not believe that the people would believe him. Then Moses argued that he wasn’t eloquent enough. Moses found excuse after excuse to avoid the work God was calling him to do.
The difference between Moses and the four fishermen in this week’s lectionary who were called by Jesus is striking. Peter, Andrew, James and John, according to Mark “immediately” left everything to follow Jesus. We know the call stories of other biblical characters. Isaiah answered God’s call, “Here I am, send me.” Mary answered the angel’s message, “Let it be to me according to your word.” Philip ran toward a foreign dignitary with no concern for his safety on the road between Jerusalem and Gaza.
Quite frankly, I think most of us are more likely to answer God’s call with the same question as Moses, “Who am I?” Who am I to take on this task? We can come up with even more excuses than Moses. “They won’t listen.” “I can’t speak well.” “I’m not properly trained.” Our excuses, though, tend to be even more mundane. “I can’t do it right now because work is too busy.” “My family needs me.” “I have to pay my bills.” These are the kind of questions we might have expected from the fishermen, but they didn’t even ask the question, “Who am I to take on this task?”
We don’t think we are capable. We don’t think we have the gifts. We don’t have the confidence to do any good whatsoever. Yet, God refused to take Moses’ excuses. He provided Moses with everything he would need to accomplish the work to which he was called. As it is said, “God doesn’t call the equipped, He equips the called.” We might ask the question “Who am I” with the certainty that we aren’t the right person, but God answers, “You are the one I asked.” That answer is good enough. It is enough to know that God has the confidence that we can do the work. No matter what excuses we might make, God will give us chance after chance to take on His work in this world. The best thing we can do is to accept His answer that we are the right person, to walk in faith and trust that God will make His will accomplished through us to His glory.
“I always thank my God concerning you, for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus; that in everything you were enriched in him, in all speech and all knowledge; even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you: so that you come behind in no gift; waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ; who will also confirm you until the end, blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, through whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.” 1 Corinthians 1:4-9, WEB
January 25th is the day we recall the conversion of St. Paul. In his story from Acts 9 we see the world turning upside down for the man whose name Saul was changed to Paul. He learned that the work he was doing against Jesus was not the work God wanted him to do. He learned that Jesus is real and that He has something even greater planned for Paul. We know that Paul accepted his calling and changed the world. But we also see another man in this story, Ananias. His change was not so dramatic and his impact seems much less than Paul’s. However, Ananias had to face his fear, approach a man who could order his death and be a vessel for the miraculous healing of God. Without Ananias, Paul may have never set out on his journeys, may have never preached the Gospel in all those cities. The message of Christ may have never gone beyond the Jewish people. We might not be who we are today if Ananias had not trusted in God. When you think that it won’t make a difference whether or not you see the world from that new point of view, remember the difference Ananias made by going forth in faith and doing what God called him to do.
Paul then went on to mentor other disciples of Jesus Christ. January 26th is the day we recall Timothy, Titus, and Silas who were missionaries and companions to Paul. They learned about Christianity from Paul and each traveled with him at some point in his journeys. Timothy was with him on his second journey and eventually became bishop in Ephesus. Titus traveled with Paul when he went to the council in Jerusalem and he became the first bishop in Crete. Silas was with Paul in prison in Philippi. We can learn about these men in Acts and in the letters that were written to help them lead the Church.
Tomorrow we’ll remember the women who worked with Paul. Though it seems like women are not given much attention in the scriptures, we know enough about these women to dedicate a day to the work they did with Paul. Lydia, Dorcas and Phoebe were women of faith who lived out their faith in ways that impacted the world in which they lived. Lydia was a woman of wealth who heard about Jesus from Paul. After he shared the Gospel message with her, her entire household was baptized, and then her home became a center for his work. Dorcas was a charitable woman, making clothes for the poor. Phoebe was a deaconess near Corinth who touched many lives with her service.
On these days we also remember all those who have impacted the world through faithful service like these companions of Paul. There are those who stand out in the ministries we do, leaders who will always be remembered. But none of them have done the work alone: they have helpers and companions who have been with them along the way. While Paul may have had the largest impact as an individual, it is more likely that we can identify with one of the companions more closely. As we look at their work, we realize that they, too, have touched many lives by continuing the work Paul started.
We continue that work today, living according to our own calling, using our own gifts. We may never be remembered like a Paul, or even remembered like Timothy, Titus, Silas, Lydia, Dorcas or Phoebe, but we will be God’s hands in the world as we share our own gifts with those who need to experience God’s amazing grace. We are all companions of Paul, but even more so we are companions of Jesus, walking with Him in ministry, touching others and changing lives.
We live our life learning from others, taking their knowledge and experience and applying it to our lives. Thankfully we have many people who are willing to share these things with us so that we might learn both from their mistakes and from their successes. Many aspects of Christian faith come naturally, as they should since they are gifts from God. However, let us be thankful for those who came before us, whose gifts have helped us to learn how to be disciples of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Scriptures for January 31, 2021, Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
“The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom. All those who do his work have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!” Psalm 111:10, WEB
What does it mean to speak a prophetic word of God in the world? Over the past few weeks we’ve seen the stories of some of God’s prophets: Samuel, Jonah and John the Baptist. The words they spoke and the work they did was not always easy. They were not perfect; as a matter of fact they were often afraid, uncertain, and unwilling to do what God was asking from them. Even Moses argued with God. In the end, however, they did as God asked, spoke the word that He sent them to speak and in doing so they called people to God and changed their lives. They did great things and are still remembered today for their gifts and their impact.
The prophetic word of God is a message sent through a chosen vessel for God’s people. The message is not always the lesson we want to hear. Samuel’s message to Eli was frightening because it meant death and an end to God’s promise. Jonah didn’t want to take that word to Nineveh because it meant mercy for his enemies. John’s message disturbed the status quo; the call to repentance required an acknowledgement of sin. Some prophetic words are messages of grace and hope; as a matter of fact, every warning comes with a word of promise. John did not just call the people to repentance, he promised that they would see their salvation.
It is hard, though, to know for certain that the words we hear are from God. The prophets do not always fit our expectations. Samuel was young. Jonah was an enemy of the Ninevites. John was downright bizarre. Why would anyone listen to them? Yet, people listened and were changed by the Word. It wasn’t Samuel or Jonah or John who made the difference, it was God and His word. We know this because the word was fulfilled.
Today’s Old Testament lesson is believed by many to refer to the prophet Mohammed. As Christians, we believe that it refers to Jesus Christ. Muslim apologists present compelling reasons out of scripture for their point of view. So do Christian apologists. Who is right? What is true? We have to be careful about who we believe.
God tells us that we can believe those prophets whose words come to pass but that those who try to speak for God that have not been called will die. It is no wonder we ask “How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?” Moses tells us, “When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.” This is certainly helpful, but the answer is not always timely.
The one we can rely upon is or Lord, Jesus Christ, who was the prophet about which was written in Deuteronomy, and He dealt with the simplest and most personal issues. He spoke about pennies, not trillions of dollars. He talked about loaves of bread rather than worldwide famines. He dealt with people’s hearts and not the national policies of Rome. He invites us to join His ministry and to speak His Word into the world.
This is frightening, given the consequence of speaking presumptuously about God’s will. Perhaps this is why most people would rather keep their faith as a personal experience and stay out of the public, or even the religious, forum with their point of view. They are afraid to talk for fear that they are not really hearing God’s voice, especially when that word is different or even contradicts the words given by people in positions of leadership, authority and power. Yet, we are called to speak God’s Word into the world, the word of hope and peace that comes only from God. We are called to speak prophetically, but we must ensure that when we speak we make it clear whose voice we are using. All too often we insert our voice, presumptuously, into God’s mouth.
We lived in England for four years and we attended a local village church for two of them. We became very active in the work of that church and the neighboring churches. Bruce sang with the choir. I joined a prayer ministry and worked with a committee that planned millennium events. Even the children, though they were young, we able to get involved by serving as acolytes and helping in other ways during church and community gatherings. We attended Bible study and potlucks, suffered through freezing temperatures in an unheated building and became close friends with the people in and around that village. It was a wonderful experience. Though it was not unusual for military members to occasionally visit the church for worship, few became as active as our family.
When it was time for us to leave, our vicar asked me to give my testimony of thanksgiving on our final Sunday about our time in England and how God had touched us while we were there. I was happy to do so, but it quickly became more than just a few minutes of testimony. Our vicar gave me the lectionary scriptures and helped me work out some sermon ideas. I was nervous because I had never preached, but I had plenty of time to prepare. I prayed and thought about what I would say, but I never managed to put my words on paper. I was afraid when I stood in front of the congregation. Could I really do this? But I spoke from my heart and in the end it was a powerful message of gratefulness to God for His many blessings. The sermon had an impact on the congregation, and though I was embarrassed by the many congratulatory comments, I also recognized that something extraordinary had happened. God put His word into the mouth of a simple woman who simply wanted to say thanks.
That’s what happens when people preach God’s message of Good News to the nations from their hearts: He touches the world with His power and His authority to bring healing and wholeness.
Jesus entered the synagogue in His hometown as the lowly son of a carpenter. He was not an experienced preacher and it was not expected that He would preach. He didn’t have the training and had not been studying interpretation for years like the scribes and teachers of the Law. They got their authority from the Torah, but also taught with their interpretive biases. Interpretation tends to obscure the message given by God, and that is what had happened to the people in Jesus’ day. They’d lost touch with the God who’d set them free, and had been burdened by the Law as it was falsely understood by their leaders.
There are many these days who are trying to claim to be God’s mouthpiece in our crazy and topsy-turvy world. Since the questions we face are so great, it is up to us to remain in prayer at all times so that we will be so familiar with His voice that we will know. And, we can in trust that God is still speaking through His people. We need not fear the warning in today’s Old Testament passage, because God can use our mouths to share His Good News.
Perhaps that’s the key, isn’t it? We aren’t called to be prophets that foretell the future or claim we know what God is doing; we are called to share the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness that comes from faith in He who died on the cross for our sakes. We are prophets when we speak the Gospel, when we call people to repentance, when we invite people to trust in God. We need not point at every sign and claim our interpretation is true because the scriptures have given us the true sign, Jesus Christ. This is news so good that we should never keep it to ourselves.
Jesus came and preached with authority. His actions authenticated His words, glorifying the God from whom He received His power and His purpose. The people were amazed by His words and His actions. Yet, even with such obvious authority, there was one thing that the people just couldn’t seem to do. They could not stay silent. Sometimes the command for silence does not make sense to us. Wouldn’t Jesus want the world to know the extraordinary things He was doing? Why didn’t He want the world to know His identity? On several occasions He told the disciples not to tell anyone that He was the Messiah. We are left to wonder why Jesus would want to silence them. Doesn’t Jesus want others to know?
In the Gospel lesson for this week, Jesus commanded the demon to be silent and get out of the man whom he was possessing. The spirit did indeed obey Jesus, but it did not do so quietly. “The unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.” Jesus did not want the demon to disrupt the holiness of the moment. They were in a synagogue. The spirit knew Jesus; it knew Jesus was the Holy One of God. It was too early for this information. It was not time. And it came from the wrong source. Who would believe a demoniac? Jesus silenced it, but it did not go down without a fight.
This incident is a foreshadowing of another battle Jesus would have to fight. The scribes and teachers of the law were, in essence, possessed by an understanding of God and the scriptures that was burdensome for themselves and the people to whom the ministered. Jesus came preaching something new, but it was not unfounded. The people recognized His authority. They saw the truth. They knew He was right. The leaders did not want to lose their power and position. They, like the unclean spirit, wondered what Jesus wanted with them. “What are you doing here?” they asked. Jesus came to set them free, but it would take God’s Word, God’s power, God’s grace to make that happen.
There is only one God. Paul makes it clear in today’s passage that the other gods in this world are nothing, but Paul also reminds us that we have idols that distract us from the truth. Those idols are nothing, they are not real, but they do hold the place of God in the lives of those who believe. All too often those things are ideals or beliefs that have no foundation in God’s Word, like the prophecies of false prophets. All those things or people or words in which we put our trust and faith are gods to us, even though they are not God and are really nothing when compared to God. They are impersonators, given the power and authority of a god even though they are nothing and have no power or authority.
Paul writes, “We know that we all have knowledge.” Lots of people know about God. They have read the scriptures and have prayed. Many people go to church and hear God’s word read and preached. They sing the hymns and do the work of the Church. They serve in the community and live a moral and faithful life. Yet, knowledge is not the center of a relationship with God. Love is. And in this we all fail. We lose sight of God because we are easily distracted by the imposters. We do not recognize the real thing because we are caught up in our own knowledge of what we believe God should be and what we think God should be doing.
In the Old Testament lesson, God promised to give prophets who will speak His word into our lives. The Israelites were afraid to hear God’s voice and to see the fire of God’s presence, so they turned over the hearing and seeing to another. They told Moses to get God’s Word from Him and deliver it to them. They didn’t seek to know God themselves; they only wished to know what Moses would tell them. There is nothing wrong with learning from others, from listening to what they can teach us about God and His Creation. However, when we let go of all responsibility for knowing God personally, we run the risk of depending on people who do not really know God or speak for Him. Moses had that intimate relationship with God and could be trusted, but he was followed by prophets, priests and kings who were not trustworthy. They spoke words for other gods or claimed to speak for God when they did not know Him. The people followed those false prophets, over and over again. They lost sight of God.
The people in Jesus’ day were not much different. They, too, believed what the leaders of the temple and in their synagogues told them. Were they afraid of God’s voice or fire? I don’t know. Perhaps they were too lazy to seek God on their own. That seems to be a modern problem. Perhaps they were too confused to understand God’s Word without the teachers. Again, that happens in the modern world. Perhaps they had been manipulated into believing in an idea of God that was not true; the manipulation in our world today is pervasive.
When Jesus came and preached they heard something different. They called it “new,” but Jesus was preaching the pure, unadulterated Word of God. There was something in the teaching, not the presentation, which struck the people as true. He wasn’t just a good spokesperson; He knew what He was talking. He knew God, and when He spoke, He spoke with one who has authority. The difference between Jesus and the Jewish leaders must have been shocking; after all, they had been listening to them for so long that they didn’t recognize the falsehood. When they heard Jesus, they knew that He had something the others didn’t have; they knew He spoke the truth. He showed the people the beauty of God’s Word and the freedom it offered.
The pandemic began last year just at the start of wildflower season. I love to chase after the fields of flowers with my camera. I rarely ever interact with people along the way, but my wildflower adventures tend to be daylong affairs and I was concerned in those early days about whether or not I would be able to find an open restroom. I didn’t go. I missed it, though I did begin looking for flowers during walks around my neighborhood. My photos weren’t of large fields of wildflowers, but of small, seemingly insignificant blooms in gardens and on bushes in my neighbors’ yards. I enjoyed my local adventures but I am looking forward to my adventures this year.
Digital cameras make it much easier to get the perfect picture because I can take a hundred photos from every vantage point to get just the right lighting and background. There’s something about the symmetry of the petals and the brilliant colors that always catches my eye and my lens. But there’s something even deeper about my wildflower adventures; I find so many moments of worship as I gaze on the incredible beauty of God’s world whether it is in an open field or my neighbor’s yards.
It is very easy to praise God when we are surrounded by His creation. The most breathtaking and inspiring moments of my life have often been in extraordinary places. There’s nothing like standing on top of a mountain, seeing the snow-covered range that goes on and on. At night, the sky above those mountains are filled with so many stars that they are impossible to count. A beach at sunrise with nothing obstructing the view of the rising sun is amazing. Standing at the foot of a giant redwood is beyond imagination and words. A field full of bluebonnets, a rainbow sweeping over a plain, and a perfectly still mountain lake can raise in us a sense of wonder and praise like little else.
We are also awed by the power that God has given to the creation. The roar of a lion, the thunder and lightning of a storm, the constancy of the waves crashing against the shore reminds us that we are just a small part of God’s great big world. They are not always pleasant. It is fearful to be in the path of a tornado or a hurricane. The tiniest mosquito can spread deadly disease. Yet, even these have a purpose and are given by God to do His will. An out of control raging wildfire is frightening, but is a necessary part of the natural process of forest growth and renewal. We don’t always understand these things when they cause us harm, but God is always worthy of our praise.
In today’s Psalm, the writer praises God for something much different than the tangible blessings of creation. It is difficult to identify with God’s work in the scriptures. Yes, we have the stories of the Exodus, but we were not there to cross the Red Sea with Moses and the rest of Israel. We can read about the miracles of Jesus and believe in His healing power, but we have not experienced His physical touch. The psalmist knew God’s mighty works among His people, but those works were merely a memory, handed down by generation after generation. Yet, these are still worth our songs of praise. God did these things, and in them we see His power, faithfulness, and grace.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” is a hard saying for most of us. Fear in our world is a bad thing. We fear terrorism. We fear disease. We fear losing everything we own. We fear those things that can bring us harm. We don’t want to fear God; He has been so good to us. His faithfulness and mercy is beyond comparison. Yet, He is fearsome. He has warned us to beware of what we say about Him, threatening death to those who claim to speak in His name that have not been called. This does not mean that we should be afraid of Him. Instead, we are to be in awe of Him. “Holy and awesome is His name.” If His name is awesome, how much more so is He? He is worthy of our praise and our obedience.
And so, we are called to praise Him, not just for the beauty of His creation and the goodness of His dealings with His people. We are called to praise Him because we fear Him. We know of His power. We also know of His mercy and grace. He is faithful. Wisdom is seen in the lives of those who live according to His good and perfect Word. We are called to speak His Word into the world so that all will know His goodness, His power, His mercy and His grace.
Moses was the first of many, but Jesus Christ our Lord is the true Prophet that God promised to send to speak His Word to us. There was power in the mouth of Jesus, but His power did not end there. Neither did His authority. The people were amazed by both Jesus’ words and His actions. He spoke about the Kingdom of God in a way that was obvious to everyone: this guy knew what He was talking about. His authority set the people free from the falsehoods that bound them. His words were self-authenticating; He didn’t need anything outside of Himself to make His message true. He was speaking from the heart, not His heart but from the very heart of God.
The trouble with the false prophets is that they don’t speak for God or with His voice; they speak for themselves while claiming to be from God. There is no authority in their words because it is only God who can give us authority. Yet, we know that in Christ we have that authority, the authority to cast out demons and to bring redemption into the lives of those who are burdened by the words of false prophet. In our modern age we might reject the idea that demons exist. Our demons might not even be evil spirits, but we all know brokenness and oppression. We all struggle with sin and pain and evil in this world. We all have something that can cause us to fall.
The psalmist spoke about the work of God. We know that it is His Word that is powerful. Jesus did nothing physically for the man in today’s story. He never touched him, never told him to go wash. He simply spoke the words of command to the demon, “Get out” and the demon left. Yet, it was this work that brought Jesus renown. So, too, the works of God brought His renown to the four corners of the earth. His works, according to the psalmist, are works of graciousness and mercy. They are works of power, healing, wholeness. His hand overcame their enemies, brought them freedom and peace. He was always faithful, always upright. Moses’ and the psalmist’s words looked forward to Jesus.
It is our responsibility to speak these same words to our neighbors. We are not given Christ’s power and authority to abuse them, or use them for our own benefit. We are called to speak God’s word into their lives, as they are called to do the same for us, to point to Jesus and to share His Gospel so that all might know His truth. He brings healing and wholeness through His word spoken into broken lives. It is when we try to do God’s work our own way that we risk the consequences of false prophecy. It is up to us to remain in prayer and God’s Word at all times so we’ll be so familiar with His voice that we will know it is true.
“That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we saw, and our hands touched, concerning the Word of life (and the life was revealed, and we have seen, and testify, and declare to you the life, the eternal life, which was with the Father, and was revealed to us); that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us. Yes, and our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son, Jesus Christ.” 1 John 1:1-3, WEB
I have a very good friend. We are huggers. The past few months have been a bit difficult because we are trying to be respectful of one another and the recommendations for distancing, but sometimes we just have to hug. I needed one of those hugs on Sunday and went out of my way at church to find her to give her a hug. I learned a few days later that she was struggling with some very bad news that would make it difficult for us to have those hugs for awhile. In some communities, it is even harder right now because the churches have not even been able to meet in person.
The joy of being part of a Christian community is fellowship with other believers. We gather together to worship God and share His love with like-minded individuals. These fellowship opportunities are diverse, from a husband and wife sharing a moment of prayer, to grace at a family dinner table, to a massive revival in the Super Dome.
Christian fellowship is like being a family. In every family, there are moments when love seems the furthest thing from our mind. The Gospel and Epistle writers remind us that we must bear with one another and forgive one another. We are told to not pass judgment or slander one another. We are repeatedly told to honor and love each another. The list goes on. If we have to be reminded to do these things, perhaps there are moments when we are unbearable? Unlovable? Capable of judgment and slander? Within the Christian community, we know that Christ died to forgive our sins. By His example, we know we are to forgive the failings of our brothers and sisters. We also know that when we fail, we will be forgiven.
Christian fellowship plays a positive role in our lives. The scriptures tell us that we are to teach and admonish one another, encourage one another, serve each another, and offer hospitality. Together, we learn and grow in our faith. We keep each other accountable and lift each other up in prayer. Fellowship with other believers is vital for a person’s relationship with God. Within the Christian community we have brothers and sisters in Christ which God uses to help us through the tough times, and who will praise God with us! We might have to forego the hugs occasionally, but we can find many other ways to be there for each other.
John reminds us that it begins with the most important fellowship: that which we have with God our Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. By the power of His Holy Spirit, we are in communion with God, and we share His Word through our lives. When we pass the Word on to others in word and in deed, we strengthen the fellowship with have with one another and with the God who loves us. This is where our joy is made complete.
“Therefore my people go into captivity for lack of knowledge. Their honorable men are famished, and their multitudes are parched with thirst. Therefore Sheol has enlarged its desire, and opened its mouth without measure; and their glory, their multitude, their pomp, and he who rejoices among them, descend into it. So man is brought low, mankind is humbled, and the eyes of the arrogant ones are humbled; but Yahweh of Armies is exalted in justice, and God the Holy One is sanctified in righteousness. Then the lambs will graze as in their pasture, and strangers will eat the ruins of the rich.” Isaiah 5:13-17, WEB
“I have been a scoundrel all my life. Selfish, cruel at times, hard to work with. I’m grateful that so many have given me a second chance. That’s when we are at our best – when we support each other. Not when we cancel each other out for our past mistakes, but when we help each other grow, when we educate each other, when we guide each other to redemption.” This quote from Joaquin Phoenix says a lot to our current inability to find any common ground between people who disagree.
“Next time you are discussing and important issue with someone, ask yourself, ‘Is this a monologue or a dialogue?’ Personally, I’m only interested in the latter.” Reese Witherspoon takes the previous quote to another level. Joaquin talks about helping each other grow, educating one another, but how many of us feel that the “conversations” we are supposed to be having these days are more like monologues? Are we listening to one another? Are we willing to consider other points of view?
I read a lot of books, and I often read book suggestions that do not fit my personal ideology. I confess that I don’t read them all, but I do want to try to learn and understand why they think the way they do. I hope the same is true for those to whom I make suggestions. Unfortunately, too many people want to teach everyone else but are not willing to learn the other point of view. Those books I’ve read have not always changed my point of view, but they’ve helped me see why we think differently. Perhaps if we all would listen to each other, we could find the common ground where we can begin to truly have dialogue.
You might just be surprised to see that there is value to the ideas in those other books. I recently read one book that talked about the necessity of change for the church because our world is a different place. The writer talked about adapting to new circumstances. The author’s argument is that we have to change or die. There were a lot of good ideas in that book, ideas that I can see being implemented in a positive way as we navigate a world, both secular and religious, that we no longer recognize.
I just started another book that has exactly the opposite argument. He says that this new creed of the church “change or die,” is what is actually killing local churches. He wrote that the church cannot die because Jesus is not dead. We might disagree because we see churches closing all around us, but this does not mean the church is dying. While one author argued that we are journeying into uncharted territory, the second author wrote that our times are not new. The church has survived worse. He wrote that the key is not to “change or die,” but to trust that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
The first author would not disagree that we should trust Jesus Christ as we meet the challenges of today. The second would not disagree that we need to find a way to dwell in the world in which we live. Yet, it would seem impossible for them to work together since one says “Change!” and the other says that change is the very reason why the church is dying.
Our inability to find the common ground in our conversations these days has led to what Isaiah calls captivity. The lack of knowledge has caused men to be famished and multitudes parched. We can learn something from each other, and we should pursue other points of view to find the common ground which is the place to truly begin healing and peace. We don’t have to give up our understanding, but in learning from each other we discover that neither point of view is complete. We discover the change that is necessary without changing that which is permanent and eternal.