Welcome to the January 2022 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.
    You are welcome to use these writings or pass them on. All we ask is that in all things you remember the Author and give Him the glory, and remember this vessel which He has used to bring them to you. Peggy Hoppes


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A WORD FOR TODAY


Scripture on this page taken from the World English Bible which belongs to the public domain.




A WORD FOR TODAY, January 2022





January 3, 2022

***A year ago I began using the questions in the book “The Jesus Code: 52 Scripture Questions Every Believer Should Answer” by O.S. Hawkins. We are in a new year, but I missed a few weeks, so we’ll continue looking at the questions until they are finished.

This week’s question is taken from Paul’s letter to the Romans. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31)

Today’s question is actually the answer to another question. In verse 30, Paul asked, “What then shall we say about these things?” What things? Romans 8 talks about life in the Spirit. Jesus Christ has won a spiritual victory for all those who believe; we have been made free to live a new life in His grace. This means walking in the Spirit, surrendering to the Spirit, hoping in the Spirit, and trusting in the Spirit.

Paul tells us that there is no condemnation from Jesus, and that Jesus condemned sin. In the new life we are given through faith, we are meant to live differently. The life of the flesh is no longer ours to live because we have a new reality in Jesus. We will live according to the Spirit that dwells in us by God’s grace. We are to die to our flesh so that we will live because by the Spirit we are made children of God. We have no reason to fear because we have been adopted by God and can call Him Daddy. As His children we are heirs to a kingdom, His eternal Kingdom sharing in everything with Him. It might seem harsh to say that we will share in His suffering, but it was in His suffering that He was glorified. His coronation throne was the cross and we join Him there to share in His glory.

We live in a world that is desperately trying to avoid any sort of suffering, and yet in doing so is missing the real grace that is found in trusting that God is in control. Paul knew that everything he suffered was for God’s glory. It doesn’t seem that way at the moment, but we find that somehow in the end we have experienced something greater than ourselves.

There have been a series of movies, the kitschy romantic Christmas kind, that center on what they call “Godwinks.” These movies are based on real life stories that show how idea God uses circumstances to nudge people in the right direction. In those movies, the direction is always toward the person with whom they were meant to fall in love. The characters think those “winks” are simply coincidence until the end when they realize they’ve been nudged right in the arms of their one true love.

I’ve often said there’s no such thing as a coincidence, although I like to call them “God-incidences.” God certainly does nudge us toward His will in ways that may seem completely unattached to anything spiritual. After the dust has cleared, however, we often realize that our circumstances have put us into the right place at the right time to experience God’s incredible grace. Those circumstances might not seem like they are putting us on a good path, especially when they include suffering. Yet, as Paul says, the sufferings are nothing once we see the glory that God reveals to us. Even the creation is waiting with bated breath for the good things that God has promised to come into fulfillment. We might face difficult times, but we can trust that God is always moving us toward His promise and that His indwelling Spirit will be with us through it all. This is our hope.

What then shall we say about these things? The answer to this question is a question. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Of course, we know that many are against us. Well, they are against God and because we believe in Him they are against us, too. It is by their hands that we experience some of our suffering. Yet, God can use even those who are against us to nudge us closer to Him. If God is for us, then He can (and He does) use even their hostility for our favor. God is glorified when we live in the Spirit He has given to us, even in our suffering, and we will share in His glory according to His promise.

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January 4, 2022

“My heart overflows with a noble theme. I recite my verses for the king. My tongue is like the pen of a skillful writer. You are the most excellent of the sons of men. Grace has anointed your lips, therefore God has blessed you forever. Strap your sword on your thigh, mighty one: your splendor and your majesty. In your majesty ride on victoriously on behalf of truth, humility, and righteousness. Let your right hand display awesome deeds. Your arrows are sharp. The nations fall under you, with arrows in the heart of the king’s enemies. Your throne, God, is forever and ever. A scepter of equity is the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness, and hated wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your fellows. All your garments smell like myrrh, aloes, and cassia. Out of ivory palaces stringed instruments have made you glad. Kings’ daughters are among your honorable women. At your right hand the queen stands in gold of Ophir. Listen, daughter, consider, and turn your ear. Forget your own people, and also your father’s house. So the king will desire your beauty, honor him, for he is your lord. The daughter of Tyre comes with a gift. The rich among the people entreat your favor. The princess inside is all glorious. Her clothing is interwoven with gold. She shall be led to the king in embroidered work. The virgins, her companions who follow her, shall be brought to you. With gladness and rejoicing they shall be led. They shall enter into the king’s palace. Your sons will take the place of your fathers. You shall make them princes in all the earth. I will make your name to be remembered in all generations. Therefore the peoples shall give you thanks forever and ever.” Psalm 45, WEB

There was a time the British Empire was described as “the empire on which the sun never sets.” The British flag flew over territories across the world, in Africa, Europe, America and islands across the world between the 18th and 20th centuries. It is roughly estimated that 25% of the landmass was in the control of the British, holdings so extensive that at any one time there was daylight in one of the territories. Our understanding of the role and rule of a king is based on the great empires of history. These kingdoms and the rule of their monarchs extended far beyond any geographical borders.

The world was much different in earlier times. Kingdoms were much smaller. We visited on castle in England that was smaller than our current house. The “king” of that place ruled over little more than a neighborhood. His subjects were few and his impact minor. As time passed, some of these smaller kingdoms gained power and one king became ruler over the smaller kings, called subject kings. These servant kings owed allegiance to the authority of the great king. In the Ancient Near East, this relationship was not only described as a lord/servant relationship, but also as father and son.

In those ancient days, when many kings ruled the land, there was constantly war, as neighboring kings tried to gain power and property. They built larger, stronger castles for protection, seeking refuge behind stone walls that were twenty feet thick. These structures offered safety for a time, but there was always someone smarter, stronger, or quicker who could bring the king to defeat. Sometimes the enemy came from within the walls of the castle, such as a child, brother or trusted friend.

There were some kings whose reign lasted for long periods of time. The only enemy these kings could not defeat was death itself. Their kingdoms were passed on to their children, but they too no longer exist. Today, all that remains of these kingdoms are the empty shells of their castles. I do not even recall the name of the king who lived in that castle we visited so many years ago. The memory of many of the ancient rulers have been lost to history.

As David took the throne of Israel, God promised him that his kingdom on earth would be established through Solomon. In 1 Chronicles, God said to David, “I will be his father, and he will be my son.” Thus, God established the royal relationship in the line of David; David and all that followed him were servant kings and God was the great king. That line struggled over the years. The sons of David wavered time and again, some loved God and served Him with all their heart but others turned from their God to serve others whether they were earthly kings or false gods. In time, the house of David seemed to disappear, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were destroyed for their unfaithfulness. But God remained forever faithful, and the house of David did not die. The promises were fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ, the Son of David and the forever Servant King, did not wage war for power or property. He lived without a roof over His head; He trust in God’s protection and provision. He battled with those who would bring down His kingdom, the people who refused to see the truth. His refuge was not a strongly built castle, but the LORD God Almighty. Other kingdoms have been brought to ruin, but our Lord Jesus still reigns. This Servant King, one of true goodness and mercy, accomplished the defeat of death itself, by the power and authority of His Father, our God. Glory, honor and praise be to God the King and our Lord Jesus, the Servant King who deserves our thanks and praise forever and ever.

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January 5, 2022

Lectionary Scriptures for January 9, 2022, Baptism of the Lord: Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Romans 6:1-11; Luke 3:15-22

“We were buried therefore with him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life.” Romans 6:4, WEB

We often set our minds so completely on one idea that we refuse to look beyond for other possibilities, including our ideas about God. Oswald Chambers once said, “It is perilously possible to make our conceptions of God like molten lead poured into a specifically designed mold, and when it is cold and hard we fling it at the heads of the religious people who don’t agree with us.” God is far more than we can imagine. By His Word, the world exists. By His Word, we have life. His Word gives us all we need to live and to serve Him to His glory. Yet, with our words we still try to make Him fit into a box that suits our needs and desires. The psalmist in today’s passage knows that God is far bigger than human reason and understanding can imagine. He praises God by singing of the awesome power of His Word.

God’s Word is powerful, but we have little experience with the actual voice of God. Have you ever heard Him speak to you audibly? Most people will say that you are crazy if you claim such a thing. The cynics question why God would talk to a specific person in particular; the skeptics wonder if anyone else could hear the voice. They want details about the tone and tenor. Is it booming and thunderous, or the sweet and melodious? I’m not sure that we can describe such a thing; for those who have heard the voice of God it is a very personal moment. Perhaps it is just in their head, but that doesn’t make it any less real. Was Joseph’s visitation less than Mary’s because it was dream rather than a face-to-face encounter? God has spoken to His people in many ways over the years.

The scriptures tell us about the ways God speaks to His people. He spoke out of a burning bush to Moses, but to Elijah His voice was like a whisper. He came to Mary and Joseph in words from an angel. He even spoke to Balaam out of the mouth of a donkey. The psalm for this week describes God’s voice as thunderous and powerful. It is not God who breaks the cedars, but God’s voice. His voice strikes like flashes of lightning. It shakes the desert, twists the oaks and strips the forests bare. The response of God’s creation to this voice is awe. “In his temple everything says, ‘Glory!’”

This is not an image of God with which we can easily identify. We tend to prefer the idea of God’s still, sweet voice, the quiet calling of a Father to a child. Thunder and lightning bring fear to our hearts. We tremble at the thought of God’s voice shaking the desert, twisting the oaks and stripping the forests bare. If He can do that to something strong like a tree, what will that voice do to us? Instead of expressing awe, many people are offended by an image of God that might denote an iron fist over His creation. We are willing to ascribe to Him the glory we know He deserves, but we’d much rather keep Him confined to a softer image. We like the idea of the shepherd king or the mother hen protecting her chicks. We like the image of a loving father or a brotherly friend. There is little room for wrath in that perception of God.

We struggle with passages like today’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah. Isaiah spoke about the destruction of others. God’s people would return home, but He gave the people of Egypt, Cush, and Seba as a ransom for Israel. Persia conquered those places, and it was the Persians who allowed the Jews to go home. The wrath was necessary for God’s grace to be complete.

The text was given to a people who were far from home. They were exiles in Babylon, sent there by God so that they would be brought to their knees and remember that He is the LORD their God. They were separated from everything they loved, seemingly abandoned by their God. It was heartbreaking, but necessary.

The text from Isaiah is an oracle of promise for the exiles who have been away from home for so long. It is a promise that they will return soon to Jerusalem. Yet life in exile was not nearly as bad as we would suppose. As a matter of fact, the Jews who were taken to Babylon were often the educated and gifted. They were well respected, given decent jobs and wages. Many had accumulated wealth and property. Some even married. They were in exile for so long that many of the Jews who had been taken captive were dead and it was their children who received the promise. Would they really want to leave the good life they had created to return to a desolate and barren place?

Isaiah reminds those wondering if they should go that the Lord God Almighty loves His people. He is their Creator and Redeemer. They are His chosen people, called by His name and created for His glory. He dwells amongst them, and they are His. It might seem foolish to leave a good life to go back to the unknown, but that unknown is the life to which they have been called and for which they have been created.

We have this phrase that is heard constantly in our area when the rain threatens to become dangerous: turn around, don’t drown. See, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of dry creek beds around the state of Texas. These are creeks that don’t run with water constantly but get filled with the runoff during times of heavy rain. These creeks often cross roadways, but it isn’t worthwhile to build a bridge because the water rarely causes a problem. Sometimes those creeks look mild; people think that they can easily drive through the running water. They don’t realize that it only takes a few inches of rushing water to carry away a car. Too many people die because they don’t turn around.

There are usually barriers that hinder a driver from going into the rushing creek, although there always some people who think they can handle it. They go around the barrier, get into the water and suddenly realize they have no control. It is almost impossible to save yourself at that point. Sadly, some people are found dead in their car miles downstream. Those barriers are there for a reason: it might cause you to drive well out of your way and make you late for your appointment, but turn around, don’t drown.

Unfortunately, these dry creek beds are not easy to predict. It might not even be raining in one place, but as the water gathers in the creek upstream, it races down, catching people off guard. Those dry creek beds can go from dry to overflowing in seconds and you don’t want to get hit with a foot of water rushing at you. It is foolish to try to cross a raging creek, especially when there is a barrier place for your protection, but sometimes we can’t avoid the danger because we simply don’t know when it will come.

The same is true with other severe weather. We can’t predict a lightning strike or a tornado. We might be able to give warning, but even a large storm like a hurricane can be unpredictable. Wildfires can seem to be under control until the wind turns and then they can suddenly burst to new life. We can be careful, we can prepare, we can even do whatever we can in expectation of the worst, but we can’t know exactly what will happen.

The Bible uses the physical world to help us see and understand God. Many of the stories revolve around water. In the beginning the earth is a formless void and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. A river watered the Garden of Eden. At God’s command, Noah built an ark to survive the flood. Drought and famine sent the patriarchs on journeys to new places. Jacob sent his wives and all their possessions across the stream and was left alone to wrestle with God. Moses took the Israelites through the Red Sea and they later crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land. During the Exodus they found water in the most unexpected places. Elijah covered the altar of Baal with water, and yet God still burned it all.

Fire is another subject of so many stories. The altar of Baal was destroyed by fire, as was Sodom and Gomorrah. The bush Moses encountered was on fire but did not burn. God led the people out of Egypt with a pillar of fire. These elements are so often identified with God, perhaps because they are so unpredictable. No human could have made the Red Sea part or burnt the stone altar, but God can. He then uses those same elements to bring faith and hope to His people.

Water and fire. During Israel’s history some of the most important moments were when God led His people through one or the other. Noah was protected through the flood. Lot was saved from the fire at Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses was guided through the waters of the Red Sea. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego lived through the fiery furnace. Water and fire were elements that brought death, but also cleansing. Only by God’s power could His people overcome the destruction of either water or fire. And He always promised to be with His people in the midst of it all.

Just as God was quiet during the exile, He was also silent in the days before the coming of the Messiah. The people knew the prophecies, they knew that God would fulfill His promises to His people, but they did not know what to expect. They thought they understood, and they were watching and waiting for the deliverer. They expected a powerful man, one who would become king and save them from the Romans. When John the Baptist began preaching about the Kingdom of God, it was easy to assume that he was the one for whom they were waiting.

In today’s Gospel lesson, John answered their questions. “I indeed baptize you with water, but he comes who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to loosen. He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire, whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing floor, and will gather the wheat into his barn; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Later, Jesus approached John for baptism. John was just a minor figure in Luke’s version of this story; he does not even talk to Jesus. But the voice of God does.

Luke tells us that Jesus was praying as He was baptized, and that while He did so the heavens opened and a voice spoke, “You are my beloved Son. In you I am well pleased.” I wonder what this sounded like to those who were watching. Did they hear the words of God, or did they hear something like thunder? The voice of the Lord is powerful indeed.

We may not be able to claim that we have heard His voice audibly in our life, but His voice still speaks to His people today. It brings us through the water and the fire and makes us one of His own. In baptism, we take on His name and become children of God. There are times when it is difficult to notice God’s presence in this world, particularly in times of pain and confusion. We doubt that we can even hear Him amid the noise of the world. Yet, in faith we can hear God’s voice calling to us, reminding us that He is always near. His voice is heard in the thunder, it rattles the deserts, and it changes us into new creation.

He is the Lord, the one who reigns over the water and the fire, who gives strength to his people; He blesses us with peace. He calls us to worship Him, the only one worthy to be praised. He is bigger than we can imagine; His majesty is sometimes frightening, but we need not fear. God’s voice can level a forest, but He uses His voice to call His people to hope and peace. We are called to a life that glorifies God. The journey might not be easy. We may have to walk through the waters of a flood or face the fire, but God is with us. He has called us by name. We can rest assured that God is with us through it all.

The whole story of Jesus can be offensive to those who do not believe. We begin with the offense that we are sinners in need of a Savior. Perhaps this is even truer today than ever before. We live in a pluralistic world where there is no truth and righteousness is relative. We don’t talk about sin anymore because the world rejects the notion. We don’t talk about it because we don’t want to offend anyone. We don’t want to seem judgmental. We don’t want to seem as though we are being haughty. We are all sinners; we all sin. We all need God to save us, and we need to talk about it even if the whole idea seems offensive to the world. They need to hear that they need forgiveness, and that Jesus is the only One who can save them.

In a world where we are to love one another for who we are, we do not appreciate that God calls us to become something new, transformed, and different. God doesn’t demand that we change so that He can love us, He loves us so much that He takes us through the water and the fire to transform us into the people He created and redeemed us to be. The world suggests that we are to love one another as we are no matter what; they expect us to agree with the saying “Be you, Boo!” But God calls us to love one another into being the best we can be. If we accept people exactly as they are, then we can’t help them become what they are meant to be. There are people who think we should be canceled for even thinking such things, but should we really stay silent and let people die in their comfort. Or should we speak God’s Word into their lives and encourage them to be transformed by the water and fire of God?

God is offensive. He is both Law and Gospel. He is both wrath and love. He is both Judge and Father. We need Him to be all those things, and we need to be reminded by His Word that God IS. He is more than our expectation. He is more than we can imagine. He is more than we want. But it is in that more that we find what we really need to be the people He has created and redeemed us to be.

In today’s Gospel passage we hear God Himself proclaim the name of Jesus and embrace Him as His own beloved Son. While Jesus prayed, the heavens opened up and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him. While our baptism may not have appeared to be so dramatic, the same thing happened to us at the font: God called us His beloved child and the Holy Spirit descended upon us joining us to His body forever. Today as we celebrate Jesus’ baptism, we are reminded of our own baptisms. When we came out from the water, the heavens opened up and God spoke our name. He anointed us with the Spirit that gave Jesus His strength and sense of purpose in this world. We are called as Christians to live in our baptism.

When we are faced by temptation, we usually claim our own strength, “I can avoid this” or “I can make it go away.” Despite God’s saving grace we are still sinners and we have no power over sin by our own will. But by His grace we can answer every temptation with the reminder, “I am baptized.” The devil has no power over us when we are covered by the grace of God. God was with us through the water and the fire, and He will stay with us as we continue to face the world.

We are sinners, there is no doubt about that, and unfortunately we all continue to make foolish mistakes. Like those who think they can get through the raging waters of a rising creek, we go around the barriers meant to stop us and get caught up in the consequences of our sinfulness. We justify our actions by the mantra that God loves us anyway, and while that is true, we need to know that God is disappointed when we reject the transforming power of His grace. And yes, there are those who sin because they know how much greater God’s grace is than our failure.

Paul writes, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” No, God has cleansed us with the water and fire of baptism to be something better, to be like Christ. Like those cars that get caught in the sudden, unexpected flood, we will fail, but we should never go about our life purposely acting against the Word of God. We died to sin. We were made new. The old desires no longer have the power to keep us enslaved. We are freed from those sinful desires and made part of the body of Christ, raised to new life in Him.

The tallest building in the old villages in England was the church; it was the center of the community. All life passed through its doors at one point or another, if only to be baptized, married or buried. The church bells were used to call people together and to inform them of important announcements. Church buildings rarely dominate the skyline today and church bells are barely heard. Many churches are not even built with a tower, and few consider the cost of bells worthwhile. We have radio, television, telephone, email, and social media to share news. We gather in public buildings to do the business of the community. Church is often only for church these days.

We live in a multicultural society where the church is not the center of most people’s lives. In those days when the church played a more prominent role, the lines between church and state got confused and even lost. People were Christian because everyone was Christian. Yet many were not quite Christian. They went to church because it was expected but did not understand what they claimed to believe. There are still many who suffer the same trouble.

It is almost as if they can hear the church bells, but they have no idea what the ringing means. The call to worship draws them in but they don’t understand what they have gathered to do. In faith it is easy to look out at all of creation and see the hand of God, but without faith the world just looks like it is revolving on its own. God is not visible to those who do not see with the eyes of their heart. His voice is silent to those who refuse to listen.

The psalmist understood this problem. This song of praise calls us together with words that give honor and glory to the One who created. Yet, in the call to worship the psalmist found it necessary to tell us to whom we should attribute the praise. “Ascribe to Yahweh, you sons of the mighty, ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength. Ascribe to Yahweh the glory due to his name. Worship Yahweh in holy array.” We get distracted by the things of this world, but God the divine King is the only one worthy to be praised.

Unfortunately, we do not always recognize the presence of God. Like the exiles, there are times in our lives when it seems like God is nowhere to be found. The Jews were in exile. Perhaps they believed that God had abandoned them. Why else would they be in such a terrible state? After many years, God spoke to His people through Isaiah and promised that they would be saved. The national of Israel was His, they were called by His name. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned, and flame will not scorch you” He promised. The churches may not be the center of life in many towns in our world today, but God is no less available to those who believe.

Through His baptism, Jesus identified Himself completely with us, taking upon His shoulders our burdens, our sin and death. He truly became one of us. Yet, at that moment God embraced His Son whom He had sent, anointed Him with power and glory as His Beloved. We who are baptized followed our Lord Jesus into the water and fire. We are all beloved, named by God as one of His own children. We have been given the Holy Spirit to make us part of the one body. Sadly, we continue to sin because we have not yet been made perfect, but by His grace we are daily being transformed by His Word into the people who will praise His name forever and ever, worshipping at His throne for all eternity.

The key is to remember that we don’t have to go about it alone. We don’t have to try to avoid our temptations with our own strength or make things go away by our own willpower. We can say, “I am baptized” and trust that God will be with us through the cleansing that we need to undergo. Whether it comes by water or fire does not matter; we simply rest in the knowledge that God is doing good things in and through us. Let us pay heed to the barriers that block our way to sin because they might just be God’s way of stopping us from falling to the temptations that can destroy us. He is there with us, even when we get overwhelmed by the rushing floods. He is constantly working in our lives so that we will be forgiven, healed, cleansed, made whole and transformed into the people He has created and redeemed us to be. By His promises and in His faithfulness He will bring us through the waters and fires of life and into His presence for eternity.

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January 6, 2022

“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King Herod, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who is born King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east, and have come to worship him.’ When King Herod heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he asked them where the Christ would be born. They said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is written through the prophet, “You Bethlehem, land of Judah, are in no way least among the princes of Judah; for out of you shall come a governor who shall shepherd my people, Israel.”’ Then Herod secretly called the wise men, and learned from them exactly what time the star appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, and said, ‘Go and search diligently for the young child. When you have found him, bring me word, so that I also may come and worship him.’ They, having heard the king, went their way; and behold, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them until it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. They came into the house and saw the young child with Mary, his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Opening their treasures, they offered to him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country another way.” Matthew 2:1-12, WEB

I enjoy taking road trips; as a matter of fact, I’d rather drive than fly. I am not afraid to fly, but you have so much more freedom with a car. It takes longer, but you don’t have to limit your luggage. I took a trip to my hometown last summer and I filled my car with presents for birthdays and Christmas that would be difficult and expensive to ship. I like having my own pillows. I pack clothes for “just in case” because you never know what will come up. I also took a detour and visited my daughter along the way.

Modern transportation means that you can get from one place to another in a relatively short amount of time. Even with driving and taking time to rest, you can cross the United States in a matter of days. I usually aim for about six hundred miles a day and I can easily be settled into a hotel after about ten hours of driving.

Imagine what it must have been like for wise men who visited Jesus on the first Epiphany Day! We do not really know how many wise men traveled to see Jesus, but it is likely that the three gifts were carried by a caravan of people, not only numerous wise men, but also family, servants, and soldiers. It was a long and difficult road; the wise men were emissaries visiting a foreign country to welcome a new-born king. They would not have come as three guys on camels for such an important visit. At best, this caravan probably traveled hundreds of miles at a pace of just ten to twenty miles a day. They didn’t have good roads or high-speed automobiles. Even if they had horses and chariots, the burden-filled camels would not have been able to keep up with them. They could not reserve hotel rooms or ensure that there would be resources along the way. There was no way to call ahead to let anyone know they were coming. It probably took months for them to arrive; it may have taken years, which is why Herod targeted children under two years old.

They took this trip without even really knowing what they would find at the end. They saw a star and recognized it as a sign of something wonderful. They were probably familiar with prophetic promises of Israel found in the Old Testament and thought that the star might point to the fulfillment of those promises. They traveled with the hope that they were right, that at the end of their journey they would find the king for whom they were searching.

We have developed a whole tradition around the story of these wise men even though we only have a few verses out of the book of Matthew. The purpose of Matthew’s Gospel was to prove that Jesus was the one for whom the Jewish people had waited. His style and organization seem to be in line with typically rabbinic education, suggesting that Matthew intended his work to be a catechetical document for teaching the faith to new believers, particularly Jewish ones. This is why we look to the Old Testament texts for answers to our questions about these wise men.

Isaiah and the psalmist give us some hints about the place from which the wise men came. Isaiah (chapter 60) tells us that many camels from Midian and Ephah would come, and that all from Sheba would come. The psalmist (Psalm 72) says they are from Tarshish, Sheba, and Seba. Where are these places and what do they mean? Though there is some question as to the actual location, most agree that they would have been in the general vicinity of southwestern Arabia, near Yemen or even Ethiopia. They would have traveled north along the Red Sea and the Jordan, then turned toward Jerusalem just east of the city to cross. Some suggest that the wise men were Persian. So, whether they were from the south or the east, they would have entered from the east, as Matthew says.

Wherever the wise men began their journey, they likely would have entered Jerusalem by the Golden Gate. It was the only gate to face the east and it was the largest and most impressive gate into the city. An impressive caravan would likely have entered by this gate. The Messiah was expected to enter through Golden Gate. The gate leads to the Temple Mount. It is the gate through which Jesus entered on Palm Sunday for His triumphant parade into Jerusalem. The Muslims walled up the gate in 810 A.D. to halt the coming of the Messiah. The gate remains closed today, although we know that no walls will keep the Messiah from coming again.

While these facts may not be significant for the story of Epiphany, it perhaps gives some insight into Matthew’s description of the wise men coming from the “east.” Matthew used this detail as a literary device to cause his readers to look east as they studied the story of Jesus. This idea came full circle later in chapter 24 where Matthew wrote, “For as the lightning cometh forth from the east, and is seen even unto the west; so shall be the coming of the Son of man.” The story of the wise men help us to look toward the second coming of Christ.

We have created some wonderful traditions around the story of the wise men in Matthew, but do they really matter? What matters on this Day of Epiphany is that the wise men followed the signs to search for the promise even though the journey took them into the great unknown. They believed in something and went in search of it. It was a long journey, one filled with dangers and uncertainty.

The light first appeared as a star in the sky leading those wise men from foreign lands to a humble place in Bethlehem. There, they found the true light, the true King, the promised Messiah. While Israel may have looked forward to the day when they would be restored, Epiphany shines the light on the real mystery of faith: that the mercy of God is available to us all.

The divine mystery once secreted from the world is now made visible in the life and grace of Jesus Christ. It is still a mystery because our human flesh will never fully understand the wholeness of God, but it is no longer hidden. The light shines for the whole world to see and we have been called to take the light of Christ to others. On this Epiphany, we are reminded that our Lord Jesus Christ will come again. Are we willing to be like those wise men, following the signs into the great unknown? Do we believe enough to go on the long journey that takes us toward the ultimate fulfillment of the promises of God?

Are we wise enough to go toward the light to find and worship the King?

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January 7, 2022

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, WEB

In an effort to get through the final questions from the book “The Jesus Code,” I will be looking at another one today. This question comes from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. The church at Corinth was relatively knew (weren’t they all?) and the early Christians were just trying to figure out how to live this new faith in the world. Paul addressed many of their questions, particularly those that affected the body. They were a mess and sex was central to their confusion. Corinth was a center of goddess worship and sacred prostitution was a part of their lives before Christ. In chapter six, as Paul was describing sexual immorality, he asked “Don’t you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God?”

Paul followed this question with an admonition: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. Therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.” While the context of this question is found in a discussion about sex, the fact that our body is the temple where God’s Spirit dwells, should make us consider how we treat our bodies in every way. After all, we don’t worship at temples dedicated to goddesses and I have not heard of sacred prostitutes in our day, we do worship false gods in modern terms and should consider how we are treating our bodies and how we are using our bodies as we live in this world.

I have to confess that I have become a grumpy driver. In most areas of my life I am calm, kind, and softspoken, but put me behind the wheel of a car and everyone is an idiot. I grumble at every person who cuts me off, who forgets to use their turn signal, who pushes the length of a yellow light. I’m usually sarcastic with my comments to and about them, but I often shock myself when say these things. I know it is something that needs transformation. It is something I’ve resolved to change in my life.

At the beginning of every year, millions of people set for themselves some goals to change the way they are living their lives. They resolve to break year old habits that are destroying their health or their relationships. By mid-January, most of those resolutions have been forgotten. On January 1, there is a fresh desire to make a new start, but as time passes, commitment wavers and we settle back into the old routine. Resolutions are a normal part of the New Year. We change the calendar, and we promise to make ourselves new.

There is advice everywhere for those who want to make these changes. Experts give suggestions on how to stick to that diet and how to spend more wisely. Shows that focus on the humorous side of life have already sought out those people who have failed to keep their resolutions. There are always people who promise to give up habits like chocolate or lattes that finish off a one-pound bag of M&Ms in one sitting on New Year’s Day or who go to Starbucks early on January 2nd to get their favorite drink.

We usually make these resolutions because we know we will benefit from the change. Overindulging in chocolate is bad for our weight and those high-priced coffees are bad for our wallet. The change I want to make in my own life will be good for my soul. These are good things, but our resolutions are rarely changes we make based on our relationship with God. We sometimes do that at Lent, but we rarely get God involved with our New Year’s resolutions. Perhaps we should. How much different would our transformation be each year if we reminded ourselves in these promises that we are temples of the Holy Spirit?

It isn’t that the Holy Spirit is bothered by chocolate or lattes, although any overindulgence does not glorify God. No one is directly affected by my grumbling as I drive; they can’t hear me, and I don’t let it affect my driving. However, I know I’m dishonoring God by even thinking negative thoughts about my neighbors. As I work on this bad habit, I will remind myself that my body, my whole body, is a temple where God’s Spirit dwells so that I will be more aware of how I treat my body and how I use it. I am more likely to be calm, kind, and softspoken in the presence of others, hopefully glorifying God by the way I act. However, God’s Spirit does not dwell in me only when I’m with others. God is there always and He’s the one I need to honor. We may be more successful with our resolutions this year if we use them to grow in our relationship with the One to whom we belong and who will be glorified by the new ways we will live.

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January 10, 2022

“Therefore prepare your minds for action. Be sober, and set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ - as children of obedience, not conforming yourselves according to your former lusts as in your ignorance, but just as he who called you is holy, you yourselves also be holy in all of your behavior; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy; for I am holy.’ If you call on him as Father, who without respect of persons judges according to each man’s work, pass the time of your living as foreigners here in reverent fear, knowing that you were redeemed, not with corruptible things, with silver or gold, from the useless way of life handed down from your fathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb without blemish or spot, the blood of Christ, who was foreknown indeed before the foundation of the world, but was revealed in this last age for your sake, who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead, and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope might be in God.” 1 Peter 1:13-21, WEB

The question this week comes out of the book of Hebrews. The author was likely writing to a Jewish community; his focus is on showing how Jesus is greater than the Mosaic Law and the sacrificial system on which they relied. The message of the superiority of Jesus gave the persecuted Christians a reason to hold on to their faith, since many were considering a return to their old faith which was tolerated by the Romans. In chapter two, the writer asked, “How will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” perhaps specifically to those who were willing to let go of the great gift salvation for an easier life. We might think this question is meant for those who reject the Gospel they have heard but notice the word “neglect.” This is meant for those Christians who are not willing to live the life of discipleship.

The writer of Hebrews was concerned that the early Christians would drift away (verse 1). It is certainly an easy thing to do. Look at the numbers these days. There are still a majority of people in the United States who claim to be Christian, yet few people report that they regularly attend worship at a church. The pandemic made it easy for many. Instead of getting up early, showering and getting dressed, then driving to a church, many families turn on their television and stream a service from somewhere. Our church has been streaming for many years, since long before the pandemic, as a service to those who are shut-in or have difficulty getting to church. Our pastor’s mother who lives far away watches regularly! But it has become too convenient. Who wouldn’t want to sit on the couch in their jammies with a cup of steaming coffee in their hand. Yet, there is so much missing from this type of worship. And Christian faith requires so much more than an hour of our time on a Sunday morning.

God demands more from us. We who have been baptized are called into a life of discipleship. This means glorifying God in all we do. It means living a fruitful life, a life of kindness and obedience. It means dying to self and being transformed into the image of Christ. It is not enough to spend sixty minutes a week in worship, we are to spend time daily in prayer, in study, and in service to our neighbors. Christian faith means risking everything for God’s sake, perhaps even our lives. It means being committed to the God who came and died so that we would receive this great salvation.

The writer of Hebrews tells us that God spoke first through the prophets and then through the Son. The Son was not simply a man; He was the One through whom all things were created. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. Man is the image of God, but Jesus was more. He is the Word of God. This passage does not just define Jesus’ divinity; it also defines His humanity. Jesus was fully divine, and He was fully human. He was not only the Son of God, but He came to be in relationship with us as the Son of Man. He came to form a bond that cannot be broken. This is what makes the Christian faith so much better than the faiths toward which we drift. It isn’t easier to be a Christian, as a matter of fact, we might suffer persecution for our faith, but we can rest in the promises of this God because He is faithful.

This God is worthy of our whole beings, our commitment, and our sacrifice. But like those first Christians, there is always an easier way. So, we drift away. We check the mark on the questionnaire about our faith, but we don’t bother to live as God would have us live. We call ourselves a Christian, but we do not live a life of discipleship. We neglect the gift that has been given to us, the gift of the Church, of the Spirit, of the opportunities to glorify God. Neglecting this great salvation is akin to being lukewarm, halfhearted, or unfaithful. It is easier to turn toward the ways of the world than to remain true to the God who became one of us and bought with His own blood the salvation that we do not deserve. This is so great a salvation and because of His grace we are promised a life beyond the struggles of this world. This is a gift we should not only accept, but also embrace with our whole beings, living daily in the discipleship that will risk everything but gain even more. Neglecting this faith we have been given means risking something far greater than we would ever lose in this world.

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January 11, 2022

“Now a certain Jew named Apollos, an Alexandrian by race, an eloquent man, came to Ephesus. He was mighty in the Scriptures. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, although he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. But when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside, and explained to him the way of God more accurately. When he had determined to pass over into Achaia, the brothers encouraged him, and wrote to the disciples to receive him. When he had come, he greatly helped those who had believed through grace; for he powerfully refuted the Jews, publicly showing by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ.” Acts 18:24-28, WEB

I attended a retreat a few years ago that was designed to help Christians grow in their faith, but it wasn’t limited to Christians. It was also designed to introduce simple Christian ideas to people who are seeking something. You might wonder how a retreat can serve such a diverse group of people, but there are many Christians who never really got beyond the initial moment of belief. They never learned how to be a disciple. Even those who are disciples need to be reminded about the simple aspects of faith, to hear the story once again to make it take hold in a new way and to restore the passion that happens in the early days of our life of faith.

There was a man at that retreat whose life did not show any commitment to Christ at all; it was hard to tell if he was even a Christian. He struggled with addiction; he was more likely to manifest the fruit of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21) than the fruit of the flesh (Galatians 5:22-23.) He was a changed man by the end of the retreat. He took everything he heard to heart and he was ready to live life anew. Unfortunately, the mountain top experience of the retreat soon wore off and he was back to his old ways within a few weeks.

Dawson Trotman founded the organization that is known as the Navigators. They encourage evangelism, but mostly they teach discipleship. Being a Christian is far more than becoming a Christian. Many people have heard the Gospel yet have not taken it beyond the initial belief. They have a passionate, mountain top response, but quickly go back their old lives as if nothing has changed. Dawson learned this the hard way. He witnessed to all those who crossed his path, leaving the scene high on the knowledge that another person has come to know Jesus. He even picked up hitchhikers with the hope that he might share Christ with them. One day, however, he picked up a man that looked familiar. He remembered that he had taken the same man just a year before, having left him and “sped on his merry way” with no concern about what would be next for the man. A year later, the man was the same, there was no change in his life. His witness might have given the man a peak at Christ, but he never followed up and the man did not go beyond the initial acceptance of Jesus.

Dawson learned a valuable lesson that day and went back to check on others he had led to Christ. He was disappointed to discover that most were unchanged. They needed more than a hit and run evangelist. They needed mentoring, teaching, encouragement. They needed the fellowship of other Christians, someone to guide their maturation in faith. After this incident, Dawson began spending time with those to whom he witnessed.

One of the greatest joys about our faith in Jesus Christ is that God has made us part of something much bigger than ourselves. We do not come to faith alone: He has provided a great cloud of witnesses that came before us to witness to us and to help us grow in our faith and become disciples. The saints of past share their testimony and teach about what it means to be a Christian. We are drawn into fellowship with others, to worship God together and grow in faith.

Unfortunately, many people receive the witness of someone like Dawson Trotman, who hits and runs, leaving the new believer to fend for themselves. They often try to grow. I know many new Christians rush out and buy bibles, but without guidance and encouragement from mature Christians they come up with strange doctrine or just fall away. Sometimes they rush out to be evangelists themselves, teaching a false Gospel that does not save. Apollos was an intelligent man, knew the scriptures and had come to believe in Jesus. But he needed more. He needed the guidance of mature Christians to fully understand what it meant to be a Christian. When Apollos was mentored, he became an awesome witness.

It might seem odd that well worn Christians attend a retreat that meets the needs of seekers, but they need to be reminded of what gave them faith in the first place. Also, those committed disciples can establish relationships with new Christians, mentoring them into a stronger and more mature faith. God has blessed us with faith and has called us to be part of that great cloud of witnesses, not to just share the Gospel with strangers, but to help friends new and old to become disciples of Jesus Christ.

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January 12, 2022

Scriptures for January 16, 2022, Second Sunday after the Epiphany: Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 128; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

“As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so your God will rejoice over you.” Isaiah 62:5b, WEB

We have heard much in the lectionary for the past few months from the prophet Isaiah. He was addressing the exiles that had been taken so far from home, sharing God’s promises with them so that they might have hope. They were living in a strange land with strange people far from the land of their ancestors and the throne of their God. Their life in Babylon was not bad; as a matter of fact, they prospered in Babylon, thanks to God’s grace. Yet, there was always an underlying desire to go home. They were disappointed when they finally arrived in Jerusalem because they found that the city was desolate. Those who had been left behind did not have the resources to repair all that had been broken, so it was never restored from the destruction of the battle decades earlier. It must have been disappointing to return to such a sight.

God made this promise: that which is desolate today will be restored tomorrow. The promise offered a new hope, a hope that Jerusalem would once again be the city where God’s people would worship the LORD. Its beauty would shine the glory of God to the nations once again.

We inherit that promise. God baptized us into the body of Christ, a perfect machine called the Church. We are all part of that machine, with our own gifts, vocations, and opportunities. We need to stop trying to put square pegs in round holes; we need to help one another discover exactly what God intends for our lives. We try to fill holes with the first body that comes along. We embrace the willing participants but do nothing to help the others discover their place in God’s work. When we are not aware of our own spiritual gifts, we try to do things we are not designed to do.

There are tests online that can help you discover your own spiritual gifts. The tests seem ridiculously simple. One test has sixty questions that seem almost redundant. They ask the same thing in three different ways. Those questions help us to look at the gifts from different perspectives. Do we see ourselves as a teacher? Do others see us as a teacher? Is God leading us toward being a teacher? In the end, those sixty questions help us to see whether we have the desire, the gift, and the calling to teach. These questions discover the gifts which can be used in very tangible and practical ways in the ministry that you do in your congregation or in the world. They don’t seem very spiritual, but they are gifts that God has given to be used in, though, and for the church to share God’s grace.

On this particular test, the questions are statements of actions and experiences, and you are asked to rank from consistently true to rarely true. Some people think that because they do not answer consistently true on any of the questions, that they really don’t have any gifts. Some people do not even realize the things they do in the congregation are the evidence of God’s Spirit in their lives. They do tasks that seem so ordinary, so temporal, that they could not have anything to do with God. Take the cleaning lady or the administrative assistant: how can scrubbing toilets or printing bulletins glorify God?

The idea of discovering spiritual gifts can be very unnerving for some people. After all, it is easy to think that prophecy and preaching, teaching and healing are spiritual gifts, but not so easy to say the same thing about service or administration. Too many are afraid that the results will show a pastoral gift because they don’t think they could ever be a pastor. They don’t realize that the pastoral gift does not necessarily lead to ordination. A person with the pastoral gift may simply be someone who has the confidence, capability, and compassion to provide spiritual leadership and direction for individuals and congregations. Though the most obvious way of using such a gift is to become a pastor, people with the gift of pasturing might also be a study or small group leader, a new member sponsor or a counselor. I’ve even seen the gift manifested in the life and vocation of a mother.

Those who are born by the Spirit in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord are given everything necessary to do God’s work in this world. One has wisdom, another knowledge, yet another faith. All of us are bound together by the Holy Spirit and it is by His power that we have the ability to share the Gospel and meet the needs of those who are lost and perishing in this world. He calls us to provide His Word that they might hear, to bring healing to their lives, and to share His love with all who cross His path. What are your gifts? How is God calling you to serve Him in this world? At your baptism in Jesus’ name, your Father gave you everything you need to get through this life of faith. Our work is to believe in Him, and in that faith God will use you to share His message of hope and the healing that comes from it with the world. It takes us time and encouragement from others to find our place in His Kingdom, but as we grow into discipleship, we begin to see God’s hand in our lives.

God’s grace was given for you; God’s lovingkindness was manifest in Jesus Christ for each individual child of God. This gift is truly life changing. And while this gift is personal, it was given to make you part of the body of Christ. He came to make you one with Him. He sent the Holy Spirit so that we would be joined together in faith. We share in His Spirit not for our own sakes but for the sake of others. And we need one another. We can’t do it all alone. Paul writes, “Now there are diversities of gifts.” He lists nine: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, working of miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues and interpretation of tongues. We are each given a portion of these gifts, a part of the whole, in good measure, to be used in acts of mercy and grace. When we combine our gifts with those of our brothers and sisters in Christ, the machine that is the Church will work as a single body. God is glorified in all our actions, no matter how inconsequential and hidden they seem. Our spiritual gifts are often given for very mundane and material purposes.

Jesus was in Cana, a place that was probably near to Nazareth. It was the home of Nathanael. Based on the information we have, we can assume that disciples that attended the wedding with Jesus were Andrew, Peter, Philip and Nathanael and possibly a fifth, perhaps the author of the gospel.

It is thought that John was the youngest of all the disciples, that he may have been little more than a boy when he began following Jesus. This is why Leonardo DaVinci painted him with such a young face and no facial hair. John was the only disciple who was at the cross with the women; perhaps his young age made him less vulnerable to arrest or suspicion. At the foot of the cross Jesus named Mary as John’s mother and John as Mary’s son. I wonder if this was just a continuation of a relationship that had been built over the three years of Jesus’ ministry. Perhaps as a young man John looked to Mary as a mother figure. When I was growing up my friends referred to each other’s mothers in such a familiar way.

That might explain why Mary is not named in the Gospel. She is only appears twice in the Gospel of John: once in the beginning and once at the end, both times as simply “the mother of Jesus.” She was there in the beginning and at the end. She was there for the first sign and the last. John made sure she bookends the story, indicating her presence throughout. The writer also never names himself, a sign of humility, and he possibly leaves Mary unnamed for the same reason. It would have diminished their close relationship just as calling my own mother by her name would devalue our mother/child relationship.

Our Gospel lesson is set at a wedding. That is another time when a person’s life changes dramatically. It isn’t quite as true for modern marriages since so many people live with their spouse for a time before the wedding, but in ages past the wedding was the moment when everything became different. The bride left her home and began living with her groom. The husband took his wife into his home, and they began a new life together. They had to learn to rely on one another, to work together, to deal with all the surprises that come as they discover all those habits and attitudes that were never revealed during the courtship. Modern couples believe that the test period will make the marriage stronger, although I’m not sure that’s proven to be true. Unfortunately, the best outcome is often that those couples realize that they can’t handle living together and they never get around to the marriage.

There’s a meme that I see regularly on the Internet. It is a photo taken in a liquor store of shelves full of wine. The sign above says “Water” and the caption says, “Jesus was here.” I’ve worked retail so I know that it is most likely that the staff was in the middle of reorganizing the store and the signs had just not yet been moved. It is funny because it reminds us of today’s Gospel lesson.

We don’t know anything about the marriage in today’s Gospel lesson; we only hear about the party. We don’t know much about the family or the couple; we don’t know why Mary was so interested in their problems. Weddings were large, festive affairs that lasted for seven days and as in all things, hospitality was extremely important. The success of the marriage feast was a matter of honor for any family. Empty wine casks would have been disastrous, and Mary knew that it would be a disappointment for both the couple and their families.

Mary wanted to help. God was an intimate and abiding part of Jesus’ life, and she had no doubt that Jesus could do something. She had seen the hand of God at work from the beginning: angels announced His coming and warned His parents of danger. She saw the miraculous signs that accompanied Him. He was knowledgeable and wise about the things of God. She remembered all these things and treasured them in her heart. She knew that He was kind and generous and that He would not allow the family to be shamed. Did she think He might produce a miracle? Perhaps she was concerned because the presence of Jesus and his disciples contributed to the shortage. Whatever her thoughts, Mary had faith. “Do whatever He tells you to do.”

She didn’t push Him; He didn’t need to answer the call. As we think about all the problems around the world, it seems very odd that this was important enough to get Jesus involved. Wine at a wedding seems so frivolous when you think about all the other miracles of Jesus. The honor of a family seems unimportant when there are people who are sick and oppressed by demons. He knew it was not yet His time. This was not His problem, and He could have simply ignored the request, but He told the servants to fill the jars. Water was not enough. Jesus knew that the problem was about something more than thirst. Mary was asking Jesus to protect the honor of the hosts.

Once the jars were filled, Jesus told them to take some to the steward. The steward was very surprised because the wine he tasted was better than anything they’d offered to that point, down to the bottom of the barrel. The party had already lasted some time and the guests were already drunk; they would not have known the difference. The gift was exceedingly generous; it may have been excessive. At least we would think so. In our day, good guests know when it is time to leave. Imagine how hard it would be to get them to go if a hundred and twenty gallons of the finest wine is flowing so freely!

Even though John does not share the Nativity story, Mary was there at the beginning in his Gospel. This story reports the first of Jesus’ signs, the first time the power of God was exhibited in His life. It is a strange sign. It is such an earthly sign; it answered a mundane and material problem. Does God really care whether we run out of wine at a wedding? In this story we see that God does indeed care about the unspiritual aspects of our lives. He cares about our reputation, about our finances, and about our happiness. We also see that Jesus cares about His mother and is willing to reveal Himself before it is time for her sake and for the sake of the family holding the wedding. We see in this story that God does not simply love us, but that He cares about us in very tangible and everyday ways.

Our scriptures this week speak of God’s abundant love and how it is manifest in our lives. The Gospel lesson seems so frivolous, the gift so outrageous. Why would God care that the host of a wedding ran out of wine, and why would He create such a fine wine? For us, the last drop of wine means it is time for the party to end, that it is time for the guests to go home. But Jesus created hundreds of gallons of wine that could last for days, a wine so fine it should have been served when the guests could still appreciate the taste. What might have been disastrous turned out to be an incredible blessing.

This was a sign of God’s abundant love for His people. He does care about the mundane needs of those who believe in Him. He cares about our financial problems. He cares about our reputation. He cares about what the world thinks of us. We see that also in the Old Testament lesson. The exiles returned to Jerusalem to find that it was desolate, destroyed. But God promised that it would be rebuilt so that the world would see that Israel had not been abandoned. For many people, life’s difficulties are proof that the God of our faith is not real or true. The nations looked at Israel with distain because they believed in a God who would abandon them. God delights in us, and He has promised that the world will see His abundant love and mercy and grace through our lives.

It is not that God wants to gift us with a bunch of material possessions to ensure our reputation, finances, or happiness. He doesn’t do it to make us appear prosperous. A lack of material possessions is not a sign that someone has fallen out of God’s grace, for there is mercy in our suffering and hope in our troubles. We see in our scriptures that God knows us so deeply that He blesses us with an extravagant generosity that honors the very core of our being. He doesn’t give us what we think we want but fills our desires with good things. He is so intimately bonded with us that He reaches our very spirits with His love and manifests it in the most miraculous and ordinary ways. He does this for the sake of the world, that they might see His grace and believe.

It is interesting that the Gospel of John uses the setting of a wedding for Jesus’ first sign. God used marriage as a parallel to His relationship with the Church. He marries us, binds us with Him in a way that is eternal, never to be separated. We are His bride and will be forever. Sadly, we try to define our relationship with God in other ways. We call Him friend, teacher, Father. These are words to can and should be used to define our relationship with Him, but they represent relationships that in this life are temporary. Friends can be separated. Students move on they often surpass their teachers’ knowledge. Even the parent/child relationship is temporary. Eventually every child must leave home to follow their own life. But the relationship as husband and wife has been defined as “until death do us part.”

The psalmist shows us what life is like when our relationships are strong. “For you will eat the labor of your hands. You will be happy, and it will be well with you. Your wife will be as a fruitful vine, in the innermost parts of your house; your children like olive plants, around your table.” This blessed life begins by loving God. “Behold, this is how the man who fears Yahweh is blessed.” Life lived in faith in the kingdom of the world is meant to mirror the life God has planned for us in kingdom of heaven. We are His wife, and we are blessed to be fruitful, to provide God’s grace to the world. We are meant to use the gifts we’ve been given to meet the needs of our neighbors. I might be given one gift, and you another, but together God will use us to bring peace and joy to the world. God’s Spirit works in and through each of us, together as one whole body.

Jesus could have done nothing for the host at the wedding banquet, but instead He was exceedingly generous. We don’t have to do anything, either, but when we’ve been given such a great gift, when we have been forgiven everything and blessed with more than we could possibly expect, how can we not let God’s generosity flow through our own lives? It might seem unimportant. It might not seem like the right time. But we never know how God might use us in a miraculous way, turning water into wine for someone, perhaps even for their honor.

Why does honor matter when there are so many in the world who are suffering? Why did God put so much importance on the honor of the family at the wedding in Cana? To honor someone is to value them and God values His people. He also values His creation, all men including those who reject God’s Word today. God gives us gifts because He wants everyone to be restored to Him. He loves the whole world enough to be merciful, to bring the exiles home, to make their world beautiful again. He values all and wants us to know peace. He has promised to make what is desolate into something beautiful. So, He calls us to use our gifts in a way that will reveal His grace so that all might turn back to Him.

There was a movie in the mid-eighties called “Brewster's Millions.” Richard Pryor played Montgomery Brewster; he was a man set to inherit $300,000,000 from his great uncle. The will had a complicated set of conditions that Brewster had to abide to receive the inheritance. He had to spend $30,000,000 in thirty days. He could not donate too much to charity or retain any assets; at the end of the thirty days, he had to be exactly where he started. The trouble was that he could not tell anyone the conditions. He had to spend foolishly while they tried to help him be responsible. He had to waste it while they tried to keep him in check. They even tried to earn him money, and in the end took up a collection to help him pay his bills. He almost lost it all because the lawyers cheated and hid some of the money so that Brewster would still have a few dollars at the last minute. They would then handle the estate and claim a hefty fee for their work. The point of the game was so that Brewster would learn how to handle his money. By the end of the thirty days, his uncle reasoned, Brewster would be so sick of money that he would be responsible with it. It worked. Brewster, who was a failed minor league baseball player before the inheritance, realized the value of the gift and began his new life with a good attitude.

Israel was exiled because their relationship with God had been broken. God used their time in Babylon to remind them of His grace, to turn them back to Him. The Church has not been much different than the people of God in the Old Testament. We have failed to live up to His expectations. Israel was a type of what was to come. We were like exiles, separated from our God by our sin, but God restored our relationship with Him through Jesus Christ and made us new. Yet, even when we are returned home, things are still desolate. Though I am forgiven, I’m still a sinner. Though I am cleansed, I am still imperfect. God is able to use our failure for His glory. What might have been disastrous turns out to be an incredible blessing.

You’ve probably seen the saying, “God at work. Please be patient, God isn’t finished with me yet!” As God’s people the Church, we are home but there’s still work to do. We are cleansed and changed and restored and made beautiful. We are built into a temple in which God is dwelling. He does this because He is delighted in us. He loves us. He wants us to be part of Him and His Kingdom. And the world sees the glory of God because He dwells in our midst.

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January 13, 2022

“For this cause I, Paul, am the prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles, if it is so that you have heard of the administration of that grace of God which was given me toward you, how that by revelation the mystery was made known to me, as I wrote before in few words, by which, when you read, you can perceive my understanding in the mystery of Christ, which in other generations was not made known to the children of men, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit, that the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of his promise in Christ Jesus through the Good News, of which I was made a servant according to the gift of that grace of God which was given me according to the working of his power. To me, the very least of all saints, was this grace given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God, who created all things through Jesus Christ, to the intent that now through the assembly the manifold wisdom of God might be made known to the principalities and the powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. In him we have boldness and access in confidence through our faith in him. Therefore I ask that you may not lose heart at my troubles for you, which are your glory.” Ephesians 3:1-13, WEB

God knew from the beginning that His people would not be able to live up to His expectations. He planned for our salvation even before we were born. Much of God’s plan remained a mystery to those who came before Christ; they knew the promise but how it would be fulfilled remained hidden until the right time. Jesus came to reveal the mystery; one day He broke through into this world to reveal God’s grace and mercy in a new way which was hidden for so long. He gave this knowledge to the church so that we might reveal His love fully, pure, and unadulterated by human hands.

Paul was a zealous Jew, knowledgeable about the scriptures and the Law; he knew the Word of God as it was spoken through the patriarchs, judges, kings and prophets. But he did not have faith. He did everything he could to destroy Christianity, chasing after the disciples and ordering the destruction of the Church. He knew the prophecies that confirmed the identity of Jesus as the Messiah for which Israel waited, but he did not believe that Jesus fulfilled those promises. He stood over the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr. Jesus revealed himself to Paul in a spectacular and miraculous way which caused Paul to believe. He then became an apostle who built faith rather than destroyed it.

Paul knew that his faith did not come from hard work but by God’s grace. God used Paul to reveal the mystery of faith and through him many have come to know God’s grace by the power of the Holy Spirit. We can’t learn how to love and serve God. We can’t learn how to speak His Word to the people. We can’t learn how to be a prophet or apostle. It has to come from within, the indwelling Spirit that brings faith and gifts to all those who believe. He gave the Gospel, first to the Apostles and through them to the rest of the Church, so that His grace would be revealed to the whole world.

This new faith gives us a boldness to approach God in a way that did not seem possible before Jesus Christ. Philip Melanchthon wrote this about verse 12, “Here Paul describes the nature of faith by three very significant words: ‘we dare,’ ‘to approach,’ and ‘confidently.’ It is a great thing to approach God as the Judge who is truly and horribly angry at sin. Here again the mere historical knowledge deters us, unless we have determined that the Son is our Leader and Propitiator and that through Him we are led to the Father.” By the Law we do not deserve to stand in God’s presence, but by faith in Jesus Christ we dare to approach God confidently, and with courage we speak His Word to others.

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January 14, 2022

“Put on therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, humility, and perseverance; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, if any man has a complaint against any; even as Christ forgave you, so you also do. Above all these things, walk in love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body, and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your heart to the Lord. Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father, through him.” Colossians 3:12-17, WEB

Today’s question comes from the book of James. “What good is it, my brothers, if a man says he has faith, but has no works? Can faith save him?” (James 2:14) We cringe at this question because we know that Christianity is not a faith of works righteousness. We often pit Paul against James. Paul is the man who preaches grace, and it seems as though James preaches works. Many will suggest that this is a contradiction. Yet, James and Paul actually compliment each other. It is not that salvation is about faith and works, but faith that works.

I’m not an expert, but in the simplest terms the electricity from a battery is created by a chemical reaction. The chemical reaction is started by the movement of electrons from the positive to the negative terminal. When the appliance is turned on, the current is allowed to move in and through the battery causing the chemical reaction that creates more electrons. If you just take a wire and hold it to both ends of a battery, you will create electricity in the wire. An appliance (load) is placed along the wire to slow down and control the electrons, using the electricity for practical purposes. If there is no path along which the electricity can run, the battery does nothing. It just sits there, lifeless.

Faith is like a battery. It is a gift from God, who places it in our hearts to transform our lives. Faith moves us to action. When we are “turned on” we can make things happen. By faith we can be God’s hands, His feet, and His mouth; we are His presence in this world. What happens when a battery is not used? Though a battery has a long shelf life, they do not last forever. I just found a battery in my backpack that was corroded. Batteries have a shelf life of about five to ten years; eventually they become useless. It is even worse if they sit too long in an appliance without being used. The batteries corrode and then ruin the appliance. An appliance is lifeless without the battery and the battery is lifeless without the appliance.

We need faith to accomplish God’s will and God installs faith into our hearts so that we will be His hands, feet and mouth. James writes, “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself.” Just like a battery. We are lifeless without faith and faith is lifeless when we do not use it.

In the verses before our question, James compares adultery and murder. We know that these things are wrong. Even in modern America where too many people are frivolous with their love, renaming adulterous behavior and justifying certain violence, we admit that adultery and murder are wrong. We have a little more trouble with some of the other commandments. Don’t we covet? Don’t we have idols? Don’t we steal and cheat and lie? Oh, we don’t rob banks or scam our neighbors, but a little white lie is still a lie. I once knew a woman who justified keeping an extra dollar a cashier gave her by saying, “It was her mistake and God knew I needed that dollar today.” She praised God for her sinful behavior instead of considering that He was watching her dishonesty. She accepted His grace without admitting her sinfulness. Where was her faith?

Faith does not justify sin. Faith admits our sinfulness and trusts in God’s mercy. Faith recognizes that we are sinners in need of a Savior and that Jesus Christ is the one who has saved us. We might be able to point to a good life, but there are truly none of us who are good. Our good works will never save us, but James asked whether we have faith if we do not live as God has called us to live. Do we have faith if we justify our sin? Do we have faith if we treat people according to what we see on the outside? Do we have faith if we seek what is best for ourselves rather than doing that which God expects of us?

When James asked, “Can faith save you?” he wasn’t suggesting that good works will save a person. He was saying that those who live in the faith that comes from grace will have the same mercy on those that need to be saved. When we see someone who is hungry or naked, we’ll offer them what they need. It is not enough to wish them well in their hunger and nakedness. James wrote, “And if a brother or sister is naked and in lack of daily food, and one of you tells them, ‘Go in peace. Be warmed and filled;’ yet you didn’t give them the things the body needs, what good is it?”

Faith without works is a dead faith, not a living faith. Just as the God who comes to save us does so in an active and powerful way, so too we are sent into the world to be God’s hands and share His grace with others. Isaiah talks about the work God is going to do in the world. The eyes of the blind will be open, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame shall leap like a dear and the tongue of the speechless will sing for joy. God will take those who can't do things and make them people who can. Faith leads to action. It is about seeing, hearing, leaping and singing! And then it is about going out in the world to help others see, hear, leap and sing. God saves us with a faith that works.

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January 17, 2022

“So teach us to count our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Relent, Yahweh! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your loving kindness, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work appear to your servants, your glory to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be on us. Establish the work of our hands for us. Yes, establish the work of our hands.” Psalm 90:12-17, WEB

James writes to encourage us to consider our days with the question “For what is your life?” (James 4:14b) For many of us, the only memory of our life will the information found on our gravestones, particularly our birthdate and date of death. In the book “The Jesus Code,” O.S. Hawkins says that what matters most of our lives is hidden in the dash. He wrote, “Make sure the years represented by your dash are characterized by your preparation for the next life, by your focus on your relationship with Jesus.”

The Psalmist in today’s lesson asks God a simple question, “How long?” Tradition holds that this was a song of Moses. It was written, perhaps, during a time of trial brought on by the hard hearts of God’s people. The Hebrews wandered in the desert for forty years. This unfortunate detour of their travels was not because God wanted them to be hungry and thirsty, or that He could not find the way. They wandered for forty years because they rebelled against God at Mount Sinai. During those years of wandering, the Hebrews complained about everything; they even thought it would be better to go back into slavery in Egypt than to continue wandering in the desert and eating manna.

The question “How long?” makes sense to us. When we are in the midst of trying times, when we are facing trials and temptations, we wonder how long we will have to suffer. We cry out to God seeking some sense of the time. Will we hurt for a long time or for a brief moment? Our cry is for the time to be short, for God to have mercy. We ask God to relent, to repent of the course He has set before us. We seek His mercy and pray for His compassion. We seek His steadfast love.

Psalm 90 is a song of repentance. The first verses speak of God’s greatness and honor Him for being the everlasting Creator. Then the psalmist confesses his frailty and humbles himself before the Lord. He recognizes how unworthy we are to stand before the Lord, and how God’s light reveals everything about ourselves. Then the psalmist seeks forgiveness and asks the Lord’s presence in this life.

Christians have an advantage over this psalmist. We have seen the fulfillment of this prayer. The Lord had compassion on us; He sent His Son to take His wrath upon Himself. He has proven His unfailing love through the blood of Jesus Christ our Lord. He has favors us with His Holy Spirit through whom He establishes the work of our hands for His glory. Through faith our dash can be a time of sharing God’s grace with the world. We might not be remembered by future generations, but God will see what we have done to glorify Him, and He will remember. We are reminded, though, that it begins with understanding that our dash is little more than a blip in the story of God.

The answer to the question, “For what is your life?” is that our life is His. This is why we seek God. Only He can control the days, weeks and months, and only He knows the course our life is ordained to go. He gives life and He takes it. He guides and directs our footsteps. He even gives us all we need to live in this world and the next. He has mercy and grants forgiveness that we might truly have more than earthly time, promising us that after we spend our blip on this earth filling our time with work that glorifies God, we will spend eternity praising His holy name.

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January 18, 2022

“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. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will be done away with. Where there are various languages, they will cease. Where there is knowledge, it will be done away with. For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when that which is complete has come, then that which is partial will be done away with. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child. Now that I have become a man, I have put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, even as I was also fully known. But now faith, hope, and love remain - these three. The greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-13, WEB

We lived in England for four years and during that time we had visitors. There is so much to see and do, historical and beautiful. We kept a map of England and put a pin every time we went somewhere new, and we were so blessed by our experiences. I never really liked history in school; I didn’t enjoy having to memorize dates, places, and people. I know now that it was the wrong attitude, but it didn’t seem relevant to me. History was just stories in a book.

I’m sure that my attitude was about age; how many school children really care about history, especially if they can’t experience the stories in the real places. Oh, schools take field trips to historic places, but it didn’t make much difference to me as an American child where our history is just a few hundred years old. I grew up and matured. I moved to a place where average people lived in houses that were older than the United States. We almost rented a darling cottage that was at least five hundred years old. It still had a thatch roof. You couldn’t drive around the country without wondering about the history of every little village. We even worshipped in a church that was nearly a thousand years old. I learned to love history.

Our visits were not only to ancient castles or museums. England is filled with literary references, real places that you find in the books you read. We visited Sherwood Forest and saw what was rumored to be the tree where Robin Hood hid. We took a bus tour through London that passed many buildings with historic plaques announcing that this author or that story lived or happened in that place. We visited a small village called Lavenham which was the home to Jane Taylor who was a poet and novelist best known for writing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” You can even schedule a Jane Austin tour to see places identified with her life and her work.

Literary places were the focus of my sister’s visit to England. We discovered the location of the Hundred Acre Woods as we were looking through maps and brochures. Since Winnie the Pooh was on of my sister’s favorites, we had to go. She had to see Poohsticks Bridge. Today is National Winnie the Pooh Day which celebrates the birthday of A.A. Milne, who was born 140 years ago. His son Christopher Robin was the source of inspiration for the stories in the Winnie the Pooh books.

We set off to Hartfield, just south of London, to a tiny town where Christopher Robin Milne grew up. We passed by Pooh Corner, the original candy store where Christopher Robin bought candy on trips to town with his nanny. We found the bridge and played a few games of Poohsticks. We drove farther into the Hundred Acre Woods. We were able to see some of the places where Christopher Robin and his friends played. We walked through Eeyore’s Gloomy place, which really was rather boggy and sad. There was a monument to A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard in an enchanted place. Thankfully, Ashdown Forest, the real name of the Hundred Acre Wood, had not become a touristy place. There were no markers except for a small map showing a hiking trail around the park, and the monument. It was completely natural, as it would have been nearly a hundred years ago when the books were first written.

I immediately went to the internet to look for Winnie the Pooh quotes when I found out it was National Winnie the Pooh Day. There are many, most with a focus on love and friendship. And honey, of course. But the ones that mean the most to us are the ones on love and friendship like these: “Piglet: ‘How do you spell love?’ Pooh: ‘You don’t spell it, you feel it’.” “‘A hug,’ said Pooh, ‘is always the right size!’” “A friend is one of the best things you can have, and one of the best things you can be.” “If ever there is a tomorrow when we’re not together, there is something you must always remember, you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think, but the most important thing is, even if we are apart, I’ll always be with you.” “Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”

Winnie the Pooh might be stories written for children, but don’t they often speak to us in a way that touch us deeply? Christopher Robin and his friends, real or make believe, taught us how to love, how to be friends, how to live life simply. I can imagine today’s passage from Paul being one of Pooh’s favorites. It is usually used as a wedding text, but it speaks to all our relationships, even those between a boy and his bear. Paul talks about growing up and putting away childish things; that’s what happened to me between my childhood hatred of history and my adulthood love of it. But in some things, we are reminded that children see the world through the eyes of grace. They love. They feel it. They know the smallest things take up the most room in your heart. They know of all things, love is the greatest and they live it in simple, very real ways.

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January 19, 2022

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