Welcome to the July 2021 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, July 2021
July 1, 2021
“Therefore watch carefully how you walk, not as unwise, but as wise, 16 redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Therefore don’t be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Don’t be drunken with wine, in which is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; giving thanks always concerning all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to God, even the Father; subjecting yourselves to one another in the fear of Christ.” Ephesians 5:15-21, WEB
I am not a musician. I can barely carry a tune. I like music, I listen to music. I even make a joyful noise when a song I like is on the radio, especially in the car. I can read music and I can peck at a piano, but I can’t translate that knowledge to my voice. I’m always off key. I do sing in church, but I try to do so quietly so as not to undermine the beautiful singing around me. I regularly attend a retreat with a group of about a dozen friends and we sing hymns at worship throughout the day. My breath is always taken away as I listen. We are unaccompanied and yet our voices (or their voices) meld together beautifully. I was so inspired by it that one day I decided to record a song to share. Unfortunately, when I listened to the recording later, I realized that my voice was dominant and it was not inspiring.
It doesn’t matter if we have a perfect voice; we are encouraged to sing for joy and in praise of God. We are invited to join in the heavenly chorus. We are invited to sing with God. Warren Wiersbe has pointed out that the scriptures show all three persons of the Trinity singing. Zephaniah tells us that God rejoices over us and calms us. He rejoices over us with singing. Matthew 26:30 tells us that Jesus sang hymns with the disciples at the Last Supper. The text from Ephesians for today encourages us to be filled with the Spirit and we worship God with songs.
The Christian community has been compared to a symphony created by God, each member adding their notes to the song. In a choir there are different types of voices and in an orchestra there are many different types of instruments. Each instrument creates a unique sound: some high, some low, some soft and some very loud. A full orchestra and choir will produce the most incredible full, rich sound because all the members are doing their part. But if an oboist tries to play the notes of the piccolo or a soprano tries to sing as a base, then the outcome will be disturbing. And if someone like me with no talent or ability tries to join in, then we could end up with something uninspiring.
Our Christian witness as a community is not always like a symphony. As a matter of fact, many people throughout the world see Christians as nothing more than hypocritical and arrogant. The Gospel itself is not always heard with excitement or faith, and it will cause a negative reaction to those who are still in rebellion against God. But it is important that we ask ourselves whether we truly are sharing the Gospel with our witness. Or are we singing off key?
The Lord has perfectly designed His Church to play out in a beautiful song of praise and thanksgiving that glorifies Him in everything we do. When we live according to His Word, stepping out in faith, and using our gifts according to the generous empowering of God’s Holy Spirit, and when we sing together in love, then God will be glorified. May we always make a joyful noise together in Jesus’ name, not only in our worship but in everything we do!
“For you see your calling, brothers, that not many are wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, and not many noble; but God chose the foolish things of the world that he might put to shame those who are wise. God chose the weak things of the world that he might put to shame the things that are strong. God chose the lowly things of the world, and the things that are despised, and the things that don’t exist, that he might bring to nothing the things that exist, that no flesh should boast before God. Because of him, you are in Christ Jesus, who was made to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption: that, as it is written, ‘He who boasts, let him boast in the Lord.’” 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, WEB
A friend received some old church cookbooks from a town in Pennsylvania with a couple recipes from a woman with our last name. She asked, “Is she related?” My husband was not familiar with her, but I answered, “I am sure there’s a connection if you go far enough back in history.” We discovered accidentally that a friend of ours is related to us via a man about ten generations ago. That man’s sons parted company with one staying in Pennsylvania (Bruce’s line) and hers moving to Indiana. The person in the cookbook could have been related to us by any male offspring in those generations who passed on the surname.
Those many generations have been all but forgotten in our family history. We could do research, many certainly have subscribed to the services that have collected information over the years. I have used some free sites online to understand a genealogy that I have in an old family Bible. I look at those names and wonder who they were and what they did. In the end, all I really know is that the women listed in that bible are my great-+-grandmothers. I’m sure they accomplished many wonderful things but the one thing I know that they accomplished is me, and that seems like a really insignificant reason to have lived.
One of the things I learned about when I visited the exhibit of Sistine Chapel paintings is that one of the ancestors of Jesus Christ was named Salmon. I’d never heard of him, even after decades of Bible study. Who was this Salmon? As it turns out, he’s only mentioned in the Bible a handful of times, and only ever in genealogical lists, most especially in Jesus’ family line. (1 Chronicles 2:10-11, Ruth 4:20-21, Matthew 1:4-5, Luke 3:32.) He was the son of Nahshon, about whom we have a little more information, but not much. In Numbers 2, we learn in the description of the arrangement of the Exodus camp of Israel that Nahshon was appointed the prince, or chief, of the Tribe of Judah. This established his authority and his line as the one through whom God would work the ultimate salvation of the world. He was important, but that’s all we really know about him.
We know even less about his son Salmon. We know more about Salmon’s wife, who was Rahab. Rahab was an innkeeper, perhaps even a prostitute, in Jericho at the time of the Exodus. Word had spread rather quickly that a very powerful God was with the Hebrews. After Moses died, Joshua led the Israelites into the Promised Land. Joshua sent spies into the land ahead of the army. The two spies stayed at the home of Rahab the prostitute. When they were discovered, she hid them on her roof and told the men of the city they had left. She believed in the God of Israel and saved the spies with their promise that she would be saved when they attacked the city. Many experts believe that Salmon was one of those spies. Rahab did as she was told and when the Israelites defeated Jericho, she and all her family were saved. We are told at the end of that story in Numbers (chapter 6) that Rahab dwelt in Israel to that day because she saved the two spies.
Not only did she stay, but the genealogies of Jesus show us that she became the mother of Boaz (Salmon was his father) who became the father of Obed, who became the father of Jessie, who became the father of David, who ultimately became the father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though Salmon might have been one of the spies, we don’t know this for sure. All we know is that Salmon’s greatest accomplishment is having been a father in the line that led to our Lord Jesus Christ.
None of us are truly insignificant. God has plans for each of us, and while the tasks may be small, they can have eternal consequences. The story of Salmon reminds us that we don’t always know the accomplishments of God’s chosen people, because it isn’t really about us anyway. The story isn’t about Salmon, it is about Jesus. The story isn’t about us, it is about Jesus. So while we may not want to feel insignificant about our lives, Paul reminds us that we have nothing about which to boast, except in our Lord Jesus Christ. We are meant to live our whole life for Him.
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other commandments there are, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love doesn’t harm a neighbor. Love therefore is the fulfillment of the law.” Romans 13:9-10, WEB
I’ve never been a huge fan of fireworks. I have gone to the big city shows and joined in the “ooing” and “awing” with the crowds, but the loud noises have always bothered me. I live in a city where the use of fireworks is illegal, though it is ok in the country. The fireworks stands open up for ten days and sell to anyone who visits, although the expectation is that they will use them where it is legal. Unfortunately, most of the people who use them do so where they should not. There are always people in my neighborhood who make noise for days. I’m bothered by them, but I don’t do anything because they are a block away and I don’t know which house is guilty.
Last night was different. There was a huge family gathering at the house just across the street from my house and they were shooting off fireworks that exploded over my house. I don’t like to be the spoil sport, but after about a half hour I couldn’t take anymore. Every explosion rattled my house and set my nerves on edge. My kitties were hiding out of fear. I looked up the number to report illegal use of fireworks, but the fine is $2000 if caught and I wouldn’t want to cause such trouble for my neighbors. I went outside and yelled to them that I hoped they were finished, that we weren’t happy with the noise and the danger. I reminded them that what they were doing was illegal.
There are reasons why these fireworks are illegal in the city. While these smaller fireworks are unlikely to start a fire, accidents can happen and it was my property that was at risk. Our landscaping is dry because it is July in Texas. Another reason why fireworks are illegal in such small places is because people and pets are affected by the noise. We often hear about pets that get upset; some are even lost because they run away from the noise. We don’t realize that the fireworks can harm the wildlife in our neighborhoods. The noise can incite flight response and disorientation of birds which can lead to death. The noise can also affect the hearing of wild animals.
Human beings can be harmed by these fireworks, too. It is especially disturbing for those on the autism spectrum and those with PTSD. The noise can trigger diseases like Multiple Sclerosis. Those who continue their shows well into the early hours of the morning have no respect for their neighbors who have to get up early for work. This morning I learned that there was another danger. The fireworks left heavy smog in the air, pollution that will cause health issues for those with allergies and asthma. The leftover ash can be toxic for both domestic and wild animals. It might seem like a few fireworks are harmless disobedience, especially when we’ve all been so cooped up for so long. I think there were more neighborhood shows because this Fourth of July was the first chance many people have taken to gather with family and friends. Everyone wanted to celebrate. I didn’t want to be the one to spoil the fun, but I’m sure if I was having trouble with the noise and danger, then other neighbors were also.
Thankfully, my neighbors were considerate and they stopped when I asked. I never expected to have such a visceral reaction to fireworks, but it me took more than an hour to stop shaking. It took even longer for one of my cats to reappear. It might seem unnecessary to make a few sparklers illegal, but these laws are meant to protect those for whom they are not harmless.
God’s Law has a purpose, too.
According to the Talmud, which is a Jewish book with the text and commentary of civil and ceremonial law, there are 613 commandments. Those commandments include rules for the priests, for the men and for everyone, and they provide rules for life in community and faith. The bible includes other rules for living, including many commands from Jesus that augment the 613. Perhaps this sounds like a lot of rules, but it is important to understand the reason for Law.
Rules are not meant to be oppressive or burdensome, especially God’s Law. Jesus spoke to this often; He reminded the people of the reason for the Law. It was meant to protect them and their neighbor. It was a sign to help them see and believe and remain in the care of the God who was their Creator and Redeemer. Law was a gift given so that the people would remember God and look to Him always. The stories in the bible show us what happened to the people when the people turned away. He did not punish them, but they suffered the consequences. They broke the relationship with God when they went their own way. The blessed life of the obedient is not a reward for good behavior, but it is effect of a right relationship with God.
The laws about fireworks are there for a reason, and though these reasons might seem insignificant to those who see them as harmless sparklers, they protect people, animals, and property from unexpected harm. There might be 613 rules, or more, but the bottom line is that they are all based in love. Peace and happiness comes to the one who loves: first God and then one another. The rules help us to live well in those relationships. Generations have discussed the meaning and practice of following those rules. The commentary in the Talmud is the compilation of hundreds of years of debate. It can be confusing. Some rules keep the status quo; others bring change. This confusing mix makes it difficult for us to follow the Law.
Our Lord Jesus came to remind us of the true purpose of the Law: to turn our hearts and minds to Him. There are certainly rules that we should teach our children so that they will live well and avoid the consequences of disobedience, both secular and spiritual. But the real lesson that God has written on our hearts and that He calls us to share with the generations that come after us is to love God and our neighbors with our whole being.
“For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am fleshly, sold under sin. For I don’t know what I am doing. For I don’t practice what I desire to do; but what I hate, that I do. But if what I don’t desire, that I do, I consent to the law that it is good. So now it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing. For desire is present with me, but I don’t find it doing that which is good. For the good which I desire, I don’t do; but the evil which I don’t desire, that I practice. But if what I don’t desire, that I do, it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwells in me. I find then the law that, to me, while I desire to do good, evil is present. For I delight in God’s law after the inward person, but I see a different law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity under the law of sin which is in my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me out of the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ, our Lord! So then with the mind, I myself serve God’s law, but with the flesh, sin’s law.” Romans 7:14-25, WEB
It is said that if you ask ten Christians a question, you’ll get eleven answers. I’m sure the same can be said about other aspects of our life, like political parties and even family members. Our answers, our opinions, are based on our own biases and circumstances. We can fail. We can make mistakes. We can say and do the wrong things. And, as Paul suggests, it is most likely that we’ll do things wrong, especially if we rely on our own power.
The 14th and 15th centuries were a time of upheaval in the Church. National partiality created tension between the churches in Italy and in France. At one point, the seat of the Pope was moved out of Rome to Avignon, France. It was moved back to Rome after a time, but the cardinals were almost all French. The Italian people were afraid that the cardinals would elect a French pope, and that he would move the seat to France again. The cardinals elected an Italian, fled the country, and then elected a French man into the office. Who was the real authority? There were people on both sides, which was right? All claimed to be from God, which one was true?
During this controversy over authority, one of the popes sold indulgences to raise the money he needed to wage war against the other pope. Could God really wish His people to fight one another over a position whose official title is “Servant of the Servants of God?” This was the question asked by a man named Jan Hus. We often think of Martin Luther as the man who started the Protestant Reformation, but there were others before him who laid the foundation for reform. Jan Hus preached about the abuses of the church a hundred years before Martin Luther. The question of papal authority was brought into question during a debate between Luther and Johannes Eck, who asked Luther whether the Church had been right to condemn Hus. Luther thought about it a moment and said that Hus had been unjustly condemned.
Jan Hus was burned at the stake on July 6, 1415, having been found guilty of heresy. The question before the council was about this issue of papal authority. Jan Hus believed that the pope was not a divinely created position, but one of necessity to keep order in the church. The leaders had only recently managed to bring the Church under the authority of one Pope after the confusion between the Italian and French popes, so they did not want anything that might disrupt the shaky unity. They found him guilty and he was martyred. The followers of Jan Hus became what are known today as the Moravian Church. We celebrate him today because he was willing to stand up for the Jesus Christ even when it threatened his life.
Paul certainly had a lot to say about the Gospel message and the Church. We look to him for guidance about how we live and serve God in this world. We might even think that Paul was perfect, yet Paul did not even think so. Paul knew his failures, he recognized his frailty. He knew that he could make mistakes and even that he was likely to do what is wrong. If Paul, who met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, could have no control over his own flesh, how do we expect to be any better? This is why we must always remember that while God does call and ordain His Church to do His work in this world, the Church is made of many members all of which are fallible. We don’t have all the answers even though we have a lot of opinions. We don’t have control: we do what we want to do which is not always what God would have us do. That is why we are called to be slaves to God, who can and will bring us to that perfection which is the result of His grace.
Scriptures for July 11, 2021, Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: Amos 7:7-15; Psalm 85:(1-7) 8-13; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29
“Surely his salvation is near those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land.” Psalm 85:9, WEB
I recently remodeled my office space. This required a rearrangement of my cross wall. Most of my crosses have hooks on the top or the back that just need a nail or hanger of some sort, but a couple hang better with contact strips. One cross in particular had no other way of hanging. I worked diligently to ensure that I was placing this cross perfectly straight. I did it by eye, and as an artist I’m usually pretty good at getting it right. I did not do so with this one cross. It is askew just enough to bother me, and it is in my eyesight when I’m on my chair. It drives me a little crazy, but I don’t want to remove it and try again because it might ruin the paint job.
They make all sorts of wonderful products to help people properly hang pictures on the all like laser sites. These guarantee that you place the nail in exactly the right place. New fangled gadgets aren’t really necessary, though, because there are simpler ways to ensure things will line up properly. Take, for instance, a plumb line.
A plumb line is a very simple tool, used for millennia, to find the vertical line. It is especially helpful for building walls because it helps to keep the walls straight. A plumb line is simply a weight tied to the end of a string. The string is held at the top of the vertical and the weight is allowed to swing free until it stops. At that point, the line points directly to the center of the earth. All lines established from the plumb line will be parallel and the wall will be straight.
No matter how good a person thinks they are at lining things properly, we are all likely to be off by a little. If a builder tries to line up a stack of bricks using only his own eyes, it is probable that some of the levels will be slightly askew, making the whole wall lean. It only takes a tiny fraction of an inch on each level of brick for the wall to eventually topple. Every wall is dependent on every other wall. Everything inside is dependent on the walls being straight. The windows and doors will not fit properly if the walls are not straight. A leaning wall will not stand very long. Isn’t it amazing that a cheap, simple tool can be so important?
God’s Word acts as a plumb line for our lives, although most of us would rather just use our best judgment to make things straight. Unfortunately, we are no better at walking that straight line than we are at building a brick wall. We will veer own way because we always think we know best. We don’t want to hear what God has to say, especially if it is different than our point of view.
Imagine you are John the Baptist teaching the king things he really does not want to hear. The king respects you because you are righteous and holy and he is protecting you. However, the king’s wife hates you because the things you are teaching make her to be sinful. The king may even doubt his relationship with the queen. Do you feel peace?
John the Baptist did what God sent him to do. He preached to the people and called them to repentance. He told them they were sinners. He baptized the people for forgiveness of their sin. He lived a most unusual life, not concerned about the normal cares of the world. He ate odd food, wore strange clothing, and lived in the desert. I can imagine that John was like the odd transient who wanders the streets of the city mumbling to himself, but engaging people who catch his eye with frightening images of doom. I don’t think he was the charismatic type, drawing people to himself because of the words he spoke or the impression he made. As I read the descriptions of John’s appearance and ministry I see a frightening image that would make me very uncomfortable.
People flocked to him, though. And they listened. And they were baptized, but many were not being baptized because they believed what they heard. When John called the gathering crowds a brood of vipers, he knew that they were just following today’s trend. They were doing it because it was the in thing to do. After all, if the king is listening to John, he must have something to say. If a little water will make everything alright, why not get wet?
Herodias, the villainess in this story, knows that John is far more dangerous than he appears. She knows that the word he is speaking is true, and she simply does not want him to be heard. She knows that her husband is listening, but the reality has not really had an impact yet. His heart wasn’t changed, but her life would change when the Word took root. Changes in his heart could mean changes for all of Israel; after all, he was the king. Would John’s preaching bring the wrath of Rome on their heads? Would she be set aside because their marriage came from sin? It is no wonder that she hated John. She knew the truth of what he was saying.
John’s story is ugly. He was not what we would describe as a superstar. He was rough, wild and probably not beautiful. He preached wrath. He talked about sin. In his story, the truth is ugly. The truth is also ugly in Amos’s story. Amos had no desire to be a prophet. He was a shepherd and just wanted to shepherd his flock. But God spoke and Amos responded. The message he took to that king was not beautiful, either. It was ugly. He warned the people that their sacred places would be destroyed and that the king would die by the sword. He also warned that the people would be sent into exile.
I don’t think I would want to be either John or Amos. The messages they took to the people for God were harsh and ugly. They were sent to be plumb lines for the people in their day and time. That simple tool could make a huge difference in the lives of the people and the nation.
Amos’s king was surrounded by teachers and prophets that were well educated and highly respected in their positions, particularly by the king. Amos, however, was a nobody. Amos had words for the king that the king and the people did not want to hear. Their time was short. They’d disobeyed the Lord and He was about to take matters into His own hands. They were not in line with His Word. The Lord promised to send a plumb line to measure His people, to see how well they stood. The Lord could have chosen a powerful man, an educated man, a gifted man. Instead, He chose Amos, who tells us that he takes care of sheep and sycamore trees. What did he know about politics? What did he know about religion? What did he know about the future?
How did Amos have the authority to say these things? He was just a simple shepherd. But that’s exactly why he was chosen to take a message he really didn’t want to take. As a matter of fact, Amos argued with God about this calling, convincing God to relent from two previous visions. Finally, the Lord showed Amos a plumb line; it symbolized how Israel was out of whack. A leaning wall must be destroyed and rebuilt. Amos was that plumb line, the one being sent to the people to warn them of what was to come.
Amos lived in the age of Jeroboam. His ideas were firmly ensconced in Israel. The high places were the altars to other gods and were a part of the daily life of the people in Beth-el. The king supported the other gods and the priest served them. Amaziah was not a prophet after God’s own heart but after his own power and position. He claimed that Amos was raising a conspiracy. He accused Amos of being a charlatan. Amos’s words were not easy to hear. His words threatened the end of their cozy regime.
Amos answered the exaggeration, the accusation and the condemnation with the truth. He did not go for the money or for the power as the other prophets would do. He went to Beth-el, the king’s sanctuary, to tell God’s people the truth. The message seems graceless; it was a message of destruction. Yet, the skewed wall had to go; it was separating God from His people. The plumb line would bring destruction, but the wall that would be destroyed was the hard hearts of the people that stood in the way of their relationship with God. God was about to destroy the chasm between He and His people.
The response to Amos’s prophecy is typical. “Don’t rock our boat, don’t say such horrible things about the king’s haven.” Amaziah told the king about the things Amos was saying and warned him that it wouldn’t be helpful for the people to hear their king is going to die and that they will be sent into exile. Then he told Amos to go prophesy somewhere else. You can almost hear Amos laughing at the words of Amaziah. He answered, “I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet’s son; but I was a herdsman, and a farmer of sycamore figs; and Yahweh took me from following the flock, and Yahweh said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” Amos didn’t have a choice about his audience or his message; God sent him to say these things to these people. He couldn’t run off or say whatever sounded good. Unfortunately, many of the false prophets gave the king warm fuzzies so that he’d feel good and the people would feel secure. Amos had to tell them all that they were wrong. Amos was the plumb line showing God’s people that they were not lining up to God’s Word.
It is so easy to get confused when there are so many conflicting ideas. Who should the king listen to: Amaziah or Amos? Amaziah made the king feel good and Amos threatened his life. We would rather hear the warm fuzzies any day, but we all need to hear the truth.
Amos’s message has no promise of forgiveness or salvation. They don’t listen to him and try to send him away. John is imprisoned and beheaded for speaking God’s Word. It really is not a pleasant thing to be a prophet for God. The only mention of Jesus in the Gospel is an assumption by Herod that He is someone else. Jesus began his ministry after John was put in prison. As His name became renowned, Herod wondered who He might be. Some claimed he was a resurrected John the Baptist. Others thought He Elijah. Still others thought He was a prophet. Herod was a silly superstitious man and was worried that it was John. He really didn't want to kill John, but the women in his life convinced him to do so. Now there was another prophet out there causing trouble. He was frightened by the prospect that it might be John back from the dead.
Despite the ugliness of those words from John and Amos, there is peace in them. How much better is our life when we live within the grace of God? John and Amos called God’s people back into a relationship. Exile might seem harsh, but during that time God’s people remembered and returned to Him. John’s words might have seemed harsh, but he was preparing the people for God’s grace in the One who would truly change the world. There is peace on the other side of repentance, because there we stand once again in the presence of God.
The Psalmist has an answer to the question, “Where is God’s grace?” He writes, “Surely his salvation is near those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land.” Israel had no fear of God. Jeroboam had more concern about his false gods and his special city. Amaziah had more fear of Jeroboam and the people who had no interest in hearing that things weren’t going to go very well for them. Herod had more fear of his wife, her daughter, the opinion of his guests and his superstitions. They did not care what the prophets had to say. The feared the things and people of the world and did not fear the God who held their lives in His hands.
But there is always a word of hope even in these harsh words from the prophets. God’s grace is there for those who will listen. The psalmist wrote, “I will hear what God, Yahweh, will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, his saints; but let them not turn again to folly.” Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and wisdom is the way God’s people will experience God’s peace.
The psalmist also wrote, “Mercy and truth meet together. Righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth springs out of the earth. Righteousness has looked down from heaven.” I love the image in these two verses and how they describe our Lord Jesus. The fullness of all the good things in heaven and earth - mercy, truth, righteousness and peace - come together in Him. Some translations use the phrase “love and faithfulness meet together.” This is what Paul means in Ephesians 1:10 when he says, “...to an administration of the fullness of the times, to sum up all things in Christ, the things in the heavens and the things on the earth, in him.” Jesus is where heaven and earth meet; in Him they come together for the sake of those who listen to what He has to say about God. Jesus is God’s glory come to earth, to minister to the people, to save them from themselves, and to give them peace.
Paul tells us that through Jesus we are adopted as sons in that kingdom He preached, so that we are seen as holy and blameless in the eyes of God. Through Jesus we are given every spiritual blessing so that our lives will glorify God. We are saved, forgiven by the blood of Christ when we hear the words of those who speak the Word of God. Paul writes, “In him you also, having heard the word of the truth, the Good News of your salvation - in whom, having also believed, you were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is a pledge of our inheritance, to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of his glory.”
We need to hear the words of John and Amos because we are no different than the people in their days. If God held a plumb line to our lives, He would find us crooked. Unfortunately, the bricks of our life our not always placed along the plumb line of God’s Word. We make decisions based on our own agenda or opinion. We follow our hearts rather than the reality of God’s Word. We ignore the ugly truth and seek after the warm fuzzies that make us feel good. Sometimes we simply do what we think we have to do for our own selfish reasons. There are times when we do whatever we can to get our way, even if we have to sacrifice something or someone along the way. We throw tantrums, tell little white lies, manipulate the circumstances, and flaunt emotion. We make people feel guilty or try to convince them that our way is the only way and that if they disagree then there must be something wrong. We even hang salvation on our own human desires.
But God is able to use the weak to accomplish great things. He is able to use even us. We might be crooked, but in His kingdom it doesn’t matter. Christian faith is not about us. It isn’t about our desires. It isn’t even about our needs. It is about God’s faithfulness. He has made promises that He will keep. The stories of John and Amos remind us that life in God’s kingdom is hard. Yet, there is peace in that harshness, in the ugliness we experience. We live in hope anyway, knowing that God is faithful. We live in peace knowing that God can and will accomplish amazing things even when it does not seem possible to us.
If we are honest with ourselves we know that we are willing to do whatever is necessary to get what we want from the world. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we should not sacrifice others for our own sake. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we are afraid of all the wrong things. Instead of acting like Herod, so afraid of the world that we will give in to a promise that we know is not right, we are called to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others.
We have been adopted as sons and daughters of the King, given everything we need to do His work in the world. It won’t be easy; the plumb line demands perfection that none of us can meet. But we can trust in Him, doing all things for His glory as best we can because we know that God is faithful. And when we fail, we can trust His promises of forgiveness.
So, let us always live in line with God’s Word, plumbed by the truth, repenting when we fail and standing with God even when it seems we must stand against the rest of the world. We can trust that He is faithful to His promises, He will save those who fear Him and His glory will shine through His people.
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Could oppression, or anguish, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Even as it is written, ‘For your sake we are killed all day long. We were accounted as sheep for the slaughter.’ No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from God’s love which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:35-39, WEB
The question this week is taken from the book of Daniel, the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the image made of gold. When Nebuchadnezzar heard that the three young men refused to bow to the image, he asked them, “Is it true...?” The wording is slightly different in the World English Bible, which is the version I use in this devotion. Here is verse 14 complete: “Nebuchadnezzar answered them, ‘Is it on purpose, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you don’t serve my god, nor worship the golden image which I have set up?’”
Is it on purpose that you don’t serve my god? This is a question we can hear in today’s world. Oh, they won’t call it their god, but they do question why we refuse to embrace their ideology. The world has made so many things sound good, loving, gracious, but they are in reality against God’s Word. Is it on purpose that we reject those ideas? Is it true that we refuse to follow these modern false gods?
The story of Daniel began about 605 B.C. The Jewish people had been in the Promised Land for a long time, but they were not always faithful to the God who led them there. The rulers of Judah were idolatrous, immoral and unjust and the people followed their lead. God sent His prophets to warn His people that He would chasten them if they were not obedient. You see, God would rather have His people live in captivity in a pagan land than live like pagans disgracing His name in the Holy Land. At the beginning of Daniel’s story it seems like the gods of the pagans had triumphed over the true God, but we’ll see in Daniel that the God of heaven was never far from His people and that He was always in control.
God used King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon to bring His people to their knees. Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem. He removed the sacred furnishings and vessels from the holy Temple and burned it to the ground. He also took some of the royal family and nobility of Judah to be trained in Babylonian culture, language and literature. He wanted leaders from Judah to be examples for the rest of their people, to guide them into submission to the ways of Babylon. Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah were youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge and understanding, competent to stand in the king’s palace. Ashpenaz was the king’s chief eunuch and was charged with training the boys.
Daniel and his friends were renamed by Nebuchadnezzar: Daniel whose name meant God is my judge was renamed Belteshazzar which means Bel protect his life. Hananiah whose name meant the Lord shows grace was renamed Shadrach which means under the command of Aku. Mishael whose name meant who is like God? was renamed Meshach which means who is as Aku?. Azariah whose name meant the Lord is my help was renamed Abednego which means the servant of Nego. If you didn’t notice, their names were changed from relating to the God of Israel to names that related to the gods of Babylon: Bel, Aku and Nego.
Nebuchadnezzar demanded that the trainees be given the best of everything. The Babylonians thought that rich food and drink, the best in the land, was the best diet to stay strong and healthy, but that food was against God’s law because it had been given in honor of the Babylonian gods. Daniel did not want to disobey his God. By God’s grace, Ashpenaz favored the young Jewish exiles. Daniel humbly asked for permission to eat the diet of his faith, but Ashpenaz was afraid to say yes because he would be blamed if the foreign diet caused Daniel and his friends to get sick or diseased. Daniel asked to be tested for ten days. At the end of ten days eating God’s diet, Daniel and his friends were much healthier than the others at court. They were allowed to continue to eat the food that honored the God of heaven. Daniel and his friends accomplished obedience with negotiation rather than a fight.
Through the training period the boys adapted well to life in the palace and were successful in learning while never succumbing to the ways of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar was impressed with their learning when he tested them. They were ten times better than his the magicians and enchanters. When Nebuchadnezzar had a dream, it was Daniel and his friends who were able to interpret it for the king. At first Nebuchadnezzar believed in their God, but he quickly and repeatedly forgot, returning to his faith in the false gods.
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had risen to power in the Babylonian government. The Babylonians who served the king were jealous that the Jewish captives were rising to such heights. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego lived as good and faithful Jews in the foreign land, obedient to God in every way. The others knew they could use this against them. One day they convinced Nebuchadnezzar that it would be good for the diverse nation if they had one religious focus. They convinced him that he should be the one that everyone worshipped. The people were used to multiple gods, so they really didn’t care who they bowed to. Nebuchadnezzar built a huge statue of gold and demanded that everyone bow down before it when the music played. Anyone disobeying the command would be thrown into the fiery furnace. Isn’t it interesting that after dreaming of a huge statue, knowing that his kingdom was made of gold, that Nebuchadnezzar would make a golden image of himself for the people to worship? He really did not learn the lesson of the first dream.
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to bow down and were reported to the king. In a rage, Nebuchadnezzar had them brought before him and he asked them if it was true. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego truthfully answered that they could not bow down to any god but the Most High God. They did not know if their God would deliver them, but it did not matter. They had to honor Him with obedience. They had faith that their God knew best. They didn’t make excuses. They weren’t frightened by threats. They weren’t impressed by the crowds. They weren’t swayed by superstition. True faith confesses the Lord and obeys Him regardless of the consequences.
The three were thrown into the fiery furnace. It was so hot that some of the men who threw them in died from the heat. Yet, they did not die. A fourth man, a pre-incarnation appearance of Jesus Christ, was seen in the furnace with them. The men were released from the furnace; their bodies, hair and clothes showed no sign of the heat. They did not even smell of fire. Nebuchadnezzar was so impressed by the saving power of their God that he praised God and told the story to all of Babylon confessing His power, the effectiveness of faith in Him, and the remarkable dedication of the three Jews. Nebuchadnezzar made a decree that anyone of any nation or language who spoke against the God of heaven would be cut into pieces. Shadrack, Meshach and Abednego became witnesses to God by their obedience. Nebuchadnezzar promoted them to higher positions in the kingdom. This story encouraged the displaced, exiled and scattered Jews and warned them to remember God’s promises. He is faithful.
When the world asks us if it is on purpose that we refuse to bow to the gods of this world, we can follow the example of Shadrack, Meshach and Abednego, trusting that God is in control. Our rejection of the modern ideologies in favor of God’s truth will not sit well with many of our neighbors. We may even be persecuted, threatened, or thrown into the equivalent of a fiery furnace. They ask if we do this on purpose, asking like Nebuchadnezzar that “Who is that god who will deliver you out of my hands?” Shadrack, Meshach and Abednego did not know whether God would deliver them from death, but they trusted Him even unto death. We do not know what will come of our life in this world, but even if we are rejected because we refuse to bow to the golden images that are so embraced, we know that God will be with us and He will bring us through.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty. Darkness was on the surface of the deep and God’s Spirit was hovering over the surface of the waters. God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw the light, and saw that it was good. God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light ‘day’, and the darkness he called ‘night’. There was evening and there was morning, the first day. God said, ‘Let there be an expanse in the middle of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.’ God made the expanse, and divided the waters which were under the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse; and it was so. God called the expanse ‘sky’. There was evening and there was morning, a second day. God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together to one place, and let the dry land appear;’ and it was so. God called the dry land ‘earth’, and the gathering together of the waters he called ‘seas’. God saw that it was good.” Genesis 1:1-10, WEB
We have undergone a lot of change in the past few months. Our son moved out in February which set off a series of tasks around our house. The other catalyst was the death of my husband’s parents. He and his sister have had to deal with the estate, not just paperwork but also the clearing of the family home, a home that has been in the family for nearly two hundred years. The attic was filled with childhood toys and other things. The barn was filled with old tires. The basement was filled with piles of newspapers. There were many good things that were worth keeping or selling, but so much was just chaos.
Back at our house, both my husband and I decided that we would not leave our children a house full of chaos if we could help it. When our son moved out, his bedroom was transformed into my husband’s office. We cleaned furniture as it was moved in. I cleaned the desk. I cleaned the bookshelves. I cleaned the filing cabinet. Can anyone tell me why I still had tax paperwork from 1999? We had to have moved it to three different houses! I went through every drawer in this house, replacing “junk drawers” (they were all junk drawers) with drawers that have a purpose. I even left a few drawers empty. I’ve purged my books, leaving some shelves empty. We took a huge pile of items to Good Will. The house was a bit chaotic for awhile as we made decisions and found the right place for everything.
And now I’m ready to go even deeper. Our house is more than thirty years old, and much of it needs to be remodeled. We are starting with a bathroom. Unfortunately, this means more chaos. We are waiting for an estimate from the remodeler. I want to buy the pieces we need, but I don’t want to store it if it will be months before we can begin the work. This is how it is, though, isn’t it? Sometimes you need chaos before you can find order.
I’m not sure we can imagine the chaos and confusion that must have existed before God ordered all things. What would the earth have been like when it was nothing but waste and void? I would like to think I understand these things, to see in my mind’s eye what God saw before the beginning, but even the most analogous experiences of our lives can’t come close. Yet, God was able to make good and wonderful things happen with only His Word. He spoke and brought order out of chaos. He imagined the world and it came into being with light, heavens and earth, land and sea.
There are still tasks to accomplish before everything is completely in order in our house, but we are well on our way to having an updated home in which to live. There is always one thing that holds us together amidst the chaos and confusion in our world: God brings order out of chaos and He is working through our mess to establish peace in our hearts and our home.
“Yahweh said, ‘You have been concerned for the vine, for which you have not labored, neither made it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night. Shouldn’t I be concerned for Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred twenty thousand persons who can’t discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much livestock?’” Jonah 4:10-11, WEB
Today’s question comes from the story of Jonah. “Yahweh said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’” Jonah 4:4
Jonah was the reluctant prophet. It isn’t that he did not want to obey God’s command to preach God’s Word; he was reluctant because he thought God was sending him to the wrong people.
Jonah was in a sticky situation. He had a unique relationship with the LORD; he was a prophet. A prophet was called by God to speak His Word to the people to bring repentance. This is a tough job because no one really wants to hear God’s opinion about things. Living in obedience is a tough task; God’s expectations are much different than the world. Jonah didn’t mind preaching to his fellow Hebrews, but he wasn’t interested in preaching to the pagans.
God knows His plans and does not really care about our opinion about His work. Sometimes He sends us to do the very thing we do not want to do. God told Jonah to go to Nineveh. The people of Nineveh were pagans and were enemies to the Hebrews. They were evil and violent. The prophet Nahum describes their actions to include plotting evil against the Lord, cruelty and plundering in war, prostitution and witchcraft and commercial exploitation. God commanded Jonah to go tell these pagans to turn from their wicked ways or Nineveh would be destroyed. Imagine Jonah’s feelings at this moment. He knew his enemy should be destroyed, but God wanted to give them one last chance.
Jonah had no interest in helping his enemy, so he tried to run away. After a wild adventure, Jonah finally agreed to go to Nineveh. When he arrived, Jonah proclaimed the word of God and they believed. They fasted, mourned and repented. Even the king took off his royal robes, put on sackcloth and sat in the dust. When God saw that they turned from their evil ways, He had mercy on them and spared their city. Jonah became angry, so angry that he wished he would die. What he really wanted was God to do what He first intended, and answered God’s grace with resentment. “I knew it, I knew you’d never go through with it. You have too much love and hope and mercy. So, I decided to keep the truth to myself and not tell them how good and wonderful you are. That way you could still pass judgment on my enemies.” But God knew their hearts and He wants none to die. When they heard the word, they were immediately transformed and God withheld His anger.
Think about the person most in the world that you would not want God to send you to share the Gospel. Is it a childhood bully? What about that co-worker who stole your promotion? Is it the neighbor who shoots fireworks over your house in the middle of the night? What about that family member who has hurt you in some way? Who is your Nineveh? What would happen if God sent you to speak the Gospel to that person? Would you answer that call or would you try to run away?
It is easy to share God’s grace with those we like, but it is incredibly hard to do so for those whom we do not think deserve His mercy. Even if you reluctantly did share the message, how would you respond to their repentance? Would you get angry at God for doing what God does best? Would you feel resentment when God did not destroy your enemy? Would you, like Jonah, sit under a tree to wait for death rather than join in the praise and worship of the God who loves even those we deem unworthy of His grace? It isn’t up to us to decide whom God should save.
Is it right for us to be angry when God saves our enemies? The story of Jonah reminds us that it is natural for us to be despondent when we see God do things that we do not think is fair, but it is not fruitful. God taught Jonah a lesson. He grew the vine under which Jonah sat to watch for the destruction of his enemies. The vine gave him shade and this made him happy. Then God destroyed the vine, which made Jonah angry. God expanded His question, “Is it right for you to be angry about the vine?” Jonah thought his anger was so righteous that he was willing to die for it. God answered that He felt the same way about the Ninevites, who were His, too, and they were walking the wrong path.
When you get angry at the good things that happen to those you consider unworthy, remember that God loves them too, and that God does not want any to perish. God knew they were simply uninformed about God’s grace. They just needed to hear the word. That might just be the same for those to whom God is sending you. Instead of being angry that things have not gone your way, join in the celebration and worship of the God who loves all people and saves those who will listen and believe His good and perfect Word.
“Finally, all of you be like-minded, compassionate, loving as brothers, tenderhearted, courteous, not rendering evil for evil, or insult for insult; but instead blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing. For, ‘He who would love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit. Let him turn away from evil and do good. Let him seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears open to their prayer; but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.’” 1 Peter 3:8-12, WEB
Our local big box store has a reputation for not having enough cashiers on during the day. It is surprising to me how often the only register, out of twenty-five, that is open is the express lane. The express lane exists for a reason: so that people who only need one or two items can get through quickly. I rarely use it because I usually have close to the limit. Sometimes I have the right amount, but I still go to the regular check out so that those who are in a rush can get through quickly. I hate when I have a cart full of merchandise and it is the only choice. I am always so apologetic because I know I don’t belong in that line, even though it is not my fault that I’m there. Sometimes I’ll let someone in front of me that has only one or two items, but I can’t do that for every customer or I would never get my turn.
I understand that it is a waste of manpower to have cashiers standing around with nothing to do when it is slow, but as soon as someone with a cart full of food approaches the express lane, the line grows very long. The express lane is not designed for large orders. They don’t have as much space for so many items or a conveyer belt to move it along. There is not enough room for the customer to place all their items, and the filled bags can’t be put back into the shopping cart. This makes everything go slower and the express lane is not express.
They are never quick to open another register to take care of the rush. On one occasion I stepped out of line to find a front end supervisor to ask for more cashiers. She hadn’t noticed that there were ten people waiting and then she had to find someone who could work the cash register. Unfortunately, she became upset with me because she couldn’t believe that a customer would try to tell her how to do her job. I hope I was kind, but you never know how someone will interpret your words and actions, especially when they are struggling with a problem. It is likely that the lack of cashiers had nothing to do with her. If management doesn’t plan well then she has to take the brunt of the customer complaints.
I worked in retail management, so I know how difficult it can be. You base your scheduling on past experience, but you can’t foresee circumstances that will prove those plans to be incorrect. I also know that if you waste your money on cashiers that have no work today, then you won’t have enough capital to schedule them tomorrow. It would seem like a game if it weren’t so essential to make the right decisions for the sake of the customers, employees, and the overall success of the business.
I confess that I get very frustrated when I’m in that store and there is only one register open. I confess, too, that I probably am not as kind as I hope to be when I get stuck in a line. I complain with the other customers who are stuck there, too. It is easy to get angry when you are inconvenienced by the lack of foresight by others, but can we really justify the anger? Wouldn’t the time go more quickly if we were kind to those who are trying their best? God calls us to be the best we can be in all our circumstances, to do good in even the most ordinary moments. Even when we are standing in a very long line.
Scriptures for July 18, 2021, Eighth Sunday after Pentecost: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-44
“‘I will set up shepherds over them, who will feed them. They will no longer be afraid or dismayed, neither will any be lacking,’ says Yahweh.” Jeremiah 23:4, WEB
What is leadership? This is a question for all time, but it seems to be particularly pertinent for our time. We have watched corporations fall apart because of poor leadership. Politicians of every stripe are questioned about their decisions in their public and private lives. It even happens in churches and families. What is the right way to lead a group of people? What is the best thing to do for the sake of the group and for those group serves or encounters? How many leaders are concerned about their people? Unfortunately, too many are actually most concerned about power and position.
Jeremiah passed on a word of warning to the leaders in Israel: they had failed to care for God’s people and God was ready to take over. He would take care of everyone, including the leaders. Unfortunately for them, God would take care of them by calling them to account. They would experience the same measure of care they gave to those who were given to them. What if the leaders had to live according to the same expectations as they place as burdens on their people? It seems that many leaders lived, and still live, by the adage, “Do as I say, not as I do.” What if they had to live according to their own words? Would things be any different?
Many leaders forget that they are not the king of the hill or they don’t realize that there is always someone who is working to push them off. Then what happens? What happens when the abusive father becomes old and unable to care for himself? Does he receive the same mercy he gave to his children? Does the corporate CEO stay in power by stepping on the little people who make the company work? The good leader is the one who realizes that the burden is on his or her shoulder. When the leaders take care of those people who are in their care, then those people will do everything they can to make the leader successful.
We have all had experiences in the church that have been disappointing and hurtful. We all know a council president who was focused more on his power than on God’s will or what was right for the church. We all know the committee chair who has lots of ideas but who does not want to do any of the hard work. We all know a pastor who is so busy with the business of church that he has forgotten to be a shepherd to his sheep. We also know that none of us are perfect. It is important for us to remember that we are all sinners in need of a Savior.
We live in a world where individuals will always have differences of opinion, even when it comes to God’s grace. An orphan will understand the idea of our Father in a much different way than someone who grew up in a strong family or someone who experienced abuse. That doesn’t change God at all. God is God. He is I AM. We see Him through the eyes of our own experiences and our own little corner of the world, but our common denominator Jesus Christ gives us new eyes and a new attitude. We love those imperfect leaders and fellow workers because that is God’s will for us. We can’t see God through their eyes and we can’t expect that they will see Him through ours. We can only dwell together and love each other as children of the God who is big enough to reach us all.
The healthiest Christian congregations are those who have a good leader and people who can live together despite any differences. We don’t all agree on politics. Not everyone will like a certain hymn. Pot lucks will be filled with food from many different traditions, some of which might not satisfy every palate. We may even have disagreements about certain doctrines, but the healthy community learns to find unity in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the One who can break down all the barriers between us. We don’t have to be the same to belong to God and to do His work in the world. We need others to share their experiences so that we know that God is truly greater than we can ever imagine. Do we really want to worship a God who fits into our tiny little boxes?
The passage from Ephesians specifically talks about the difference between Gentile and Jew, but we have our own borders and walls that can be broken down by the love of Christ. We separate ourselves for a multitude of reasons like age, gender, race, nationality, intelligence, class, ideology, politics... We also separate ourselves based on petty or trivial reasons. How many congregations live in tension between groups that disagree about the insignificant aspects of church life? How many congregations are made up of different groups that can’t seem to work together? Some folk think the mission of the church is to feed the poor and that we should focus on social justice and political issues. Others think that our mission is to take God’s Word into the world. Yet others think church is to feed and care for the believers. To embrace one and ignore the others is to reject the full measure of God’s calling for our lives. Jesus took care of the physical, mental and spiritual needs of His disciples even while caring for the physical, mental and spiritual needs of others. In just a few short lines in today’s Gospel story, Jesus did it all.
There must be a hundred sermons found in this week’s lectionary texts and I am certain that if you went to a hundred different churches you would hear them all. These topics or themes touch our lives very deeply; they reach us right where we are in this day. Are we confused? There is hope. Are we mourning? There is hope. Do we need to be challenged to reach beyond ourselves? There is hope. Are we afraid that there is no hope? By God's grace, there is always hope. There is hope even when we seem to be so fiercely divided because we have a common bond: Jesus Christ. Jesus is the promised Shepherd who would lead God’s people according to His good and perfect will.
While there are those who might not be able to relate to the idea of God as Father, we can see in today's psalm that God is everything a Father is meant to be. He is the One who provides everything we need: food, water, shelter, guidance, protection and love. Did God hand us the keys to our home or do the grocery shopping? Of course not. However we can trust that through good times and bad, God will be by our side. The ultimate fear is death, but we all walk through different types of valleys as we live in this world. We walk through the valleys of illness, broken relationships, and financial insecurity. We walk through the valleys of doubt, confusion, and pain. We walk through the valleys of anger, hatred and fear. We experience difficult times, things that affect our understanding of our neighbors, of the world and of our God.
Rabbi Harold Kushner was once interviewed by Bob Abernathy about his book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” He said, “The twenty-third Psalm is the answer to the question ‘How do you live in a dangerous, unpredictable, frightening world?’ People who have been hurt by life get stuck in ‘the valley of the shadow,’ and they don’t know how to find their way out. And that’s the role of God. The role of God is not to explain and justify but to comfort, to find people when they are living in darkness, take them by the hand, and show them how to find their way into the sunlight again.” The sheep know they are safe when the shepherd is nearby. The crowds knew they had hope when they saw Jesus. This is the key to life: living in faith, trusting in the God who is never far away, whether He is like a Father or a Shepherd or a King. He is all of those and so much more.
Jesus never worried about His power and position. As a matter of fact, He often hid from the crowd that wanted to make Him an earthly king. His concern was for the people, to ensure that they received the kind of care that God desired for them. He was in a right relationship with both His people and His Father in Heaven. What makes good leadership is an understanding that although He is the Master, He is also the Servant. We could use more leaders like that in our world today, in corporate leadership and politics and the church and our homes.
There are always times of upheaval, however. Take, for instance, the period of time after a pastor leaves. If the pastor leaves on good terms, it is likely that the church will move on and be able to call a new pastor to take his or her place. I’ve been in churches like that. Though the call process is always difficult, a good leader will prepare the people to make a healthy transition to someone new. I’ve also been in churches where the pastor did not leave on good terms. The frustration and anger that was already building within that body of Christ became even worse. There was no agreement on the future of those congregations, which made it even harder to choose someone to lead.
Most circumstances are mixed. A time of transition in any organization is a time to discover the problems that exist. I was in a congregation where a beloved pastor retired. He did as was proper, separating from the community for a time so that the new pastor could establish his own leadership. Unfortunately, the new pastor did not meld well with some of the staff. Changes were necessary. Some people left the church because of those changes; they were angry about those decisions. In the end everything turned out well and some of those that left returned. The retired pastor eventually came back to fellowship with us again as a member, but he gave the community enough time to overcome the challenges, to establish relationships with new staff and to figure out the vision for our future. He allowed the congregation to move forward without him as those tough decisions were made.
It took a humble man, a good leader, to step aside to give room for another to establish his own ministry in our congregation. Former pastors often refuse to let go; they fight to keep the status quo, making it impossible for a new pastor to do what he or she is called to do. Christians are human. We make mistakes. We feel emotions. We get angry, hurt, and frustrated. We are opinionated. We think we know best. Christian leaders are as human as the rest of us.
Yet, there are many examples of leaders who do what is right. The pastor who retired knew his time was finished and he stepped away. George Washington was offered the title of king, but he refused, knowing that his time as president was only temporary. Even Jesus trained others to follow His ministry, to do His work when He was gone. These good Shepherds were more concerned about the welfare of those to whom they were charged to lead, and because they had this attitude the people who surrounded them loved them and worked for the best interest of all. That’s the way of a good shepherd.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and we see that particularly in the Gospel passage for today. In this story, Jesus greeted the returning apostles who had been out in the world sharing the grace of God. They saw amazing things. They did amazing things. They were exhilarated, but also exhausted. Jesus knew they needed to rest.
I am making plans for a vacation in a month. The trip is mostly about going home, seeing family, and attending my class reunion. I am have enough time that I’m trying to find something touristy to do. I have been searching the Internet, trying to find a hike I might enjoy or an attraction that would be fun. I’ve thought about bird watching, chasing waterfalls, visiting a zoo or a show. I really like to find activities where I can use my camera, like parks with beautiful scenery. My favorite vacations are those when I come home with a visual diary of God’s beautiful world. I also need to remember that this vacation is a chance to rest.
A few years ago we went to West Texas. We stayed in Alpine and traveled to places like Fort Davis and Big Bend to enjoy the history and the nature. That region of Texas, particularly in Big Bend National Park, is one of the most diverse landscapes in the world. It is mountainous and desert. We spent time along the Rio Grande. Every turn or rise of a hill brought us to a brand new scene, each more incredible than the last.
Texas mountains might not be as tall as those in other states, but they rise to impressive heights none the less. These desert mountains are covered with flora and fauna that thrive in arid climates. We saw coyote, snakes, lizards, road runners, buzzards and a peregrine falcon. Since the mountains were built by volcanic activity, many were covered with great rock clusters and with layers of different colored rock. The mountains that rise south of the Rio Grande in Mexico are as beautiful as those on the U.S. side, reminding us that God’s creativity knows no borders.
The Rio Grande in many places is not a terribly impressive river. It was not very wide; an average baseball player could easily throw a ball across the water in some places. It is very long, of course, creating a natural border between Texas and Mexico. It cuts through some of the most beautiful canyons in the world, with walls that tower a thousand feet above the surface of the water. The river can get a little muddy after rain showers, but it still shimmers in the sunshine and reminds us of the continuity of God’s grace, taking life giving waters where they will be used to sustain God’s living creatures along the way.
Vacations like the one from a few years ago and the one I’m planning to take can help us see that God is never far from us. We see Him in the stars, mountains, desert, and river. We see how much He loves His creation in birds, waterfalls, and gardens filled with flowers. We will trust in the Good Shepherd that we know is near, and as we trust in Him, we can find rest even when we are walking through the valleys of life, whatever they might be for us.
Imagine how incredible it must have been for the disciples. They had seen the power of God at work through their lives. They were excited when they returned to Jesus, telling Him everything they had done. I can almost see the chaos as James and John wouldn’t let the either get a word in edgewise before interrupting with his own version, Andrew praising God for the lives changed and Peter trying to get things organized in some way. What about Judas? He must have cast out demons and healed the sick just like the rest of them.
They didn’t even have time to rest before the people came looking for them. They weren’t just seeking Jesus now because they knew that the disciples also had this power to change lives. Jesus was concerned for their health: physical as well as emotional and spiritual. He took them away so that they could rest and eat, but they also needed time away from the admiration of the crowd. It would have been so easy to become proud of their accomplishments and to forget that it was God’s power that made the good things happen.
They slipped away by boat, but the people saw where they were headed and ran to meet them on the shore. Jesus saw the people, who needed so much, and He had mercy on them. They were like the sheep that had been scattered and they needed shepherds who could meet their needs. All their needs.
If you were Jesus, what would you do? He was faced with a difficult decision. The apostles needed to rest, but the people chasing them needed a shepherd. It might seem like Jesus is shirking His duties as their shepherd by turning to help the crowds. In this text, however, we see how Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise in Jeremiah. He was the shepherd who would care for the flock that the leaders ignored. He stepped in where He was needed and did what He needed to do. He took care of the sheep who were desperate to find a shepherd. Wherever Jesus went the people needed Him, not just to do the miracles but to be the fulfillment of the promise. They needed the Messiah.
Of course, we know that not everyone believed that He was the Messiah. Not everyone followed Him. Some ran to Him on these occasions just to get what they could out of Him, but Jesus served for the sake of the Father. Whether they understood or not, Jesus had to do what He’d been sent to do, and that was give the Kingdom to the people. Since many of the Jews rejected Jesus, the message was given to others. Many Gentiles heard and believed. Because Jesus became the shepherd of Psalm 23, we have the forgiveness and grace that we need to be part of that Kingdom.
He had compassion on the crowds and began to teach. The day ended much too quickly and the people were far from home. Jesus was preaching to the people and the disciples came to Him. “This place is deserted, and it is late in the day. Send them away, that they may go into the surrounding country and villages, and buy themselves bread, for they have nothing to eat.” Jesus answered, “You give them something to eat.”
These guys just came home from the most amazing “revival tour” where they had been doing the work of God in extraordinary ways. Yet, when Jesus told them to feed the people, they answered in a huff, “Where are we supposed to get food? Even if it were available, we don’t have the money to feed so many!” Jesus told them to find some bread and they found five loaves and two fish. Jesus blessed it and they fed the people, with baskets full of leftovers.
Our leaders will fail. We will still get thirsty, hungry, tired, lost, hurt and lonely, but we can rest in the knowledge that Jesus is our Good Shepherd. He is the fulfillment of the promise. He is the Messiah. He has given us the forgiveness and made us part of the Kingdom so we can walk in faith and do the work He has called us to do. As we trust Him, and walk by faith, we will see that He can do extraordinary things in the world and He will do them through us.
We won’t like everyone with whom we are called to work for God’s kingdom. Sometimes our disagreements will be impossible to overcome. Our hope is not found in the earthly decisions we have to make together, but in the reality that we are gathered together to worship God. I suppose one day the lessons will be learned and the people will be united by more than just the blood of Christ. But even when there is no agreement, there is unity because God is with us in the midst of it all.
This week’s texts are filled with so many wonderful images. There is the Old Testament promise that though the shepherds abandon their flock, God will provide a Good Shepherd. We are comforted by Psalm 23, especially when we are dealing with the valleys of our lives. We see the community of believers through the eyes of Paul who notes that all believers were once far from God, but God draws us together. The Gospel lesson show us the compassion of Christ as found in His love for the disciples and the crowds. The Word of God was drawing people to the community of believers that Jesus created. He is the center, but He was building the disciples into one body, and He continues to build us into that Temple, His Temple. In Christ we are bound together as one.
It is not always easy living in that temple. Unfortunately, the differences that separate us often lead us into places we would rather not go. There are dark valleys even in the heart of the church, as the differences between people are magnified by the passions of those called to serve. Sometimes it seems impossible to find rest. We are reminded of something in today’s texts, though. God is with us through it all. He has never promised to make it easy, but He has promised to be there.
Our neighbor on the church pew or in the congregation down the street is no less or no more a Christian than us even if they see God and our mission differently. We were all once far away and now we are one, dwelling in the temple of God. Jesus did not come to accomplish the things that we have on our checklist or in our agenda. He didn’t come just for the body or the mind or the spirit. He came to bring wholeness to each of us and to the world. He feeds us physically, mentally and spiritually. He heals our body, our mind and our spirit. He makes us whole as individuals and as the body of Christ.
We can’t do the work of the Kingdom alone. That is why God calls us into community; we are one body made up of people from all sorts of different backgrounds with different gifts and passions. We can’t do what we are called to do it if we hold each other and our idea of mission against one another. We have a common bond: Jesus Christ. It is by His blood that we are reconciled to God and drawn together as one body. Most of all, we need to follow the greatest leader, our Good Shepherd, who will always lead us in the right path. With Him we can be the shepherds who continue His work, doing the amazing things He has called and sent us into the world to do.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the farmer. Every branch in me that doesn’t bear fruit, he takes away. Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already pruned clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I in you. As the branch can’t bear fruit by itself unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you, unless you remain in me. I am the vine. You are the branches. He who remains in me and I in him bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man doesn’t remain in me, he is thrown out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them, throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, you will ask whatever you desire, and it will be done for you.” John 15:1-7, WEB
John Wesley’s nephew entered the Roman Catholic Church. Wesley was grieved, but he did not rebuke him. He wished him well. “You can be saved in any Church and you can be damned in any Church. What matters is, How is your heart with Christ?” Wesley was known for greeting people, “Is your heart as my heart? Then give me your hand.” While John Wesley was firm in his theology, he also understood that the point is not being part of the “right” church, but being right with Jesus Christ.
There are many who will completely reject people who belong to a church that do not have the same understanding of theology, even to the point of questioning their Christianity. I must confess that I have passed the same judgment at times, and quite frankly there are some organizations that claim to be Christian that have lost their connection to Jesus Christ because they are walking the wrong path. There have been people who have suggested the same of me because I don’t belong the same church as them. I like Wesley’s point of view on this, however, because it is true that what matters is whether or not our hearts are with Jesus Christ.
Christianity is about community, but it is also about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We need to be in fellowship with people who will help us grow in our faith and live in obedience to God’s Word. We need to gather in worship with other Christians who will keep us accountable and who will encourage us to walk the right path. We also need to walk the Christian journey individually, spending time in prayer and the scriptures, finding our place in God’s kingdom. There may be reason for us to question the theology of a church, but we can trust that God can use even the faultiest institutions to touch a person’s heart. We have to remember the other part of Wesley’s comment, too. It is possible to lose faith in the “right” church.
They key, according to Wesley and Jesus Christ, is to be connected to the true vine. Jesus says that He is the vine and we are His branches. In a vineyard it is hard to discern which branches come from which trunk, as they weave together over the years. We grow together as we share our life of faith in the vineyard. However, we will not live or produce fruit if we are cut away from the vine. We are called into fellowship with Christ and with one another, working together to share God’s kingdom with the world. This can happen anywhere despite our doubts because God is able to do great things despite our flaws. We may be called to share a word to help others to see more clearly God’s truth, but we should never suggest that a person is not a Christian based on which church to which they belong. God can transform any heart to be faithful and obedient to Him as long as we are connected to Jesus Christ, the true vine.
“Look! Praise Yahweh, all you servants of Yahweh, who stand by night in Yahweh’s house! Lift up your hands in the sanctuary. Praise Yahweh! May Yahweh bless you from Zion, even he who made heaven and earth.” Psalm 134, WEB
Our church had an intern for a year. She was at the end of her seminary education and is now waiting for a call and her ordination as a pastor. Our church is medium in size with several pastors and staff members. It was a good experience for her, not only in positive ways but also in lessons that will be helpful in the future. Unfortunately, a pastor’s job is not always peaches and cream. People are people and we are all sinners, sometimes treating others in less than Christian ways. This is especially true for our pastors who seem to get the brunt of our disappointment with God and the church. These experiences were good for her because it helped her discover ways to deal with trouble while under the close care of a mentor. She will still have support when she is installed in her own church, but she will also be on her own.
The irony of the life of new pastors is that they usually find themselves called to small churches where they have much more responsibility than they would in a larger church with other clergy and staff to deal with the many aspects of ministry. We often think that a pastor only works one day a week, on Sunday when he or she preaches. During the rest of the week they just praise the Lord, right? Oh, they may have to read a bible verse or two, maybe visit someone in the hospital, but they certainly don’t work more than a few hours a week, right?
Actually, a pastor’s job is very stressful and extensive. They are on call 24 hours a day, always available to meet the spiritual needs of their congregation. They must also take care of the emotional and at times physical needs of the people. The church has bills that need to be paid and the building needs maintenance. It takes a great deal of work to coordinate the logistics of all the services and other events, such as bulletin preparation and newsletter publication.
On top of that, a pastor must stay well read on the issues of the day and must be spiritually healthy to deal with the things that threaten the ministry of the church. They must spend time in prayer, for the congregation and listening for God’s will. A sermon takes time to prepare, so they must take time daily to read and study the scriptures so that the Word is written on their hearts and they are prepared to speak the Gospel to the congregation.
A minister does not have an easy job. They suffer from stress and burnout quite often because the congregation demands so much and they overextend themselves. Yet, the most important job of a pastor is to minister to the Lord and praise Him. This is why it is so important for us to pray for all our clergy, those who minister in large churches and those who minister in smaller ones. We need to pray for those who are just entering ministry so that they will find a place in God’s kingdom where they can use their gifts to His glory and build up the Church on earth.
Most of all, we need to remember that amidst the many tasks the pastors of our churches have to accomplish during the week, there is one that is most important: they need to spend time in prayer, raising hands in praise and thanksgiving to God for His many blessings. We can help give them the time to do this work by taking on some of the other responsibilities. It is perhaps easier in a larger church because there are so many more people to spread the work.
We have an important job to do too: to pray for those who minister in our churches and elsewhere. They are called to lead us in God’s kingdom, but we are called to lift them up, to encourage them, to help them do the work of the Gospel. We should never be the person who burdens the pastors with unnecessary stress. We should never be the one to create negative experiences for them, taking them away from the true work of ministry. We are also called to be ministers, though not ordained, to praise God and serve His people in all the ways He has gifted us to do. That means spending time with God every day in prayer, in service, and in praise.
“If I speak with the languages of men and of angels, but don’t have love, I have become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but don’t have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but don’t have love, it profits me nothing. 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 13:1-13, WEB
I went to the zoo this morning. I love to go to the zoo. There are people who do not like zoos because there have been poor examples throughout history. Some people cruelly locked the animals in tiny cages to be gawked at and harassed by visitors. Even today there are practical problems at every zoo that cannot be easily solved to give the animals the best life possible. Most zoos honestly try to provide well for their animals and many zoos do much more than just showcase the animals.
Many zoos, including ours, have amazing breeding and educational programs that are working with organizations world-wide to supplement native populations of many animals. Some endangered species have actually been removed from the lists because zoo breeding programs have rebuilt their populations successful. Many of the habitats around our zoo have special signs that talk about those animals’ success stories. The zoo has been running summer camps for children; the educational programs teach the children about caring for the world. Zoos help us see animals up-close so that we can understand why it is so important to protect them in the wild.
I love the zoo because it gives me an opportunity to see many of God’s creatures that I would never be able to see. There aren’t usually lions or tigers or even bears walking down my suburban street. I have seen snakes, raccoons, squirrels, birds, skunks, possums, geckos and insects in my yard. I’ve seen deer down the street. I’ve heard that there are foxes and armadillos nearby. There are other wild animals within miles of my house, but it is unlikely that I’ll ever see one personally. Quite frankly, I don’t think I would want to come face to face with a mountain lion or a black bear without the safe walls of zoo enclosures.
The zoo offers us the opportunity to watch the animals as they interact with one another. We can learn so much from them. Animals are certainly not human but they seem to have personalities; sometimes they act very human. I have seen animals that remind me of people that I know.
My favorites are the big cats and the flamingos. If you time visits right, you can watch the flamingos go from mating dance to laying eggs to babies dancing around the habitat. I’ve seen chicks that are barely a few days old; they were adorable white fluff balls. I laughed as these tiny (as compared to the adults) birds tried to act like full grown birds. One tried desperately to stand on one leg, but it was still too wobbly. The chicks stretch their wings and act as if they are trying to fly. They wander through the puddles looking for food just like mom and dad, even though they are still fed by the adults.
It was really fun watching the adults with the chicks. One bird was what we might call a “helicopter mom.” You know the kind; these are the moms that are always hovering over the child, protecting her chick from every danger and every mistake. Another mom was never far from her chick but that one had much more freedom. It played freely in the mud and wandered among the crowd of adult birds that mingled in the shade. We know that kind of mom, too, don’t we?
Even with the differing parenting techniques, all the flamingo parents cared for their chicks. Would we describe it as love, like the love between people? Many scientists would probably say no, pointing to the fact that animals are driven by instinct and self-preservation. I don’t think they’ve spent much time simply watching the animals. As I watch the animals I can see how God is active in the world around us. All too often we rush through life trying to answer the questions that matter to us. In the process, however, we miss God’s subtle reminders of His love as revealed in His creation.
Love is often misunderstood. The image of love in this world is all romance and physical attraction, but in Christ we know a love that is different. God loved us so much that He gave His Son to die for a people that were self-centered and unrighteous. We are so much like the animals, which is why it is so easy for us to see human characteristics in their antics.
Paul describes the love we know in Christ. Love means being patient, love means giving tender loving care. Love means being happy with what you have and rejoicing with your neighbor for their blessings. Love never fails. We are called and gifted to share His love in this world, as imperfectly as we might. Unfortunately, we can see negative human characteristics in the animals, too: impatience, enviousness, boasting, self-satisfaction and anger. These are the imperfections that get in our way of loving. These are the sounding brass and clanging cymbals which remind us that we are not God. The only true love comes from our heavenly Father. Thankfully He reminds us in incredible ways, like the antics of His Creation, so that we can see His love in real and very tangible ways.
“As they went on their way, he entered into a certain village, and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. She had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she came up to him, and said, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister left me to serve alone? Ask her therefore to help me.’ Jesus answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the good part, which will not be taken away from her.’” Luke 10:38-42, WEB
Martha was busy in the kitchen; she was trying to meet the physical needs of a large crowd. She knew it was her responsibility to provide hospitality to those who came through her door, and she went right to work. It was a daunting task; if you have ever tried to cook for more than a dozen people, you know that it is hectic and exhausting. There are a million things to do, and it all would get done so much better if there were more hands in the kitchen.
Mary found a spot at the feet of Jesus, listening to His stories and learning about the Kingdom of God. I can identify with Martha; I have had my own martyr moments. That’s what I call those times when it seems like I’m doing all the work and everyone around me is ignoring my cries for help. What I don’t realize that I don’t always ask for help. I get caught up in my aggravation and stress out over every little detail, convincing myself that if I don’t do it, it will never get done. At that point I have already convinced myself that it has to get done or the event won’t be perfect. That’s usually the problem: I put too much pressure on myself and worry about insignificant things. Did we really need to have hand-rolled scrolls with tiny bows for the program? Was it necessary for the green beans to be all the same length? Did I really need to change the color of the table linens because the flowers were a slight shade off?
(BTW, those aren’t real examples of stresses that I’ve experienced in the past, but I assure you that some of them have been just as absurd.)
Martha was worried because she wanted everything to be perfect, and it seemed as though no one cared enough to help. Even Mary, who was jointly responsible for receiving Jesus, was ignoring her pleas for help. Did she really ask? Or did she grumble to herself in the kitchen until she was so angry that she took her problem to Jesus? She doesn’t ask Mary; she tells Jesus to command her to help.
I have been in many conversations about this text that inevitably ends up commiserating with Martha. We hostess types understand. We identify with her. We know that the work has to be done. One member of our study asked, “What would those men say if there was no food for dinner?” We laugh and we always focus on the reality that Martha must work if they will eat. But what I have noticed in this text is that Jesus doesn’t tell her she shouldn’t feed them, but that she shouldn’t worry about so many things. Jesus was happy to eat a few kernels of wheat walking through a field; He didn’t need a feast with ironed linens and favors. After all, He did an amazing thing with a few loaves of bread and some fish.
The key here is to find the balance between Martha and Mary. Yes, Mary chose the good part, but we are not meant to ignore our responsibilities to spend all our time at worship and prayer. It is interesting that this story of Martha and Mary in Luke is found immediately following Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. This is important because we have first learned that it is up to us to take care of our neighbors who are in need. Martha was serving, showing mercy to Jesus and the disciples who were surely hungry and tired after their journey. She was a “Good Samaritan” in action.
Jesus didn’t call her out because she was busy with work, but because she was distracted from God. It is easy for that to happen to all of us, especially when we are serving by showing mercy to those who are in need. We get so caught up in the absurd details and miss the good part. We might be working hard to feed bodies, but what about spirits? When we are so caught up in the insignificant things, we ignore the people who have been placed in our path. We forget that they need our hearts as much as our hands. This might just need to stop, step out of the kitchen, and spend time with the person we are serving. Those who are hungry and tired surely need our hands, but they also need us to be present. That is truly the good part.
Scriptures for July 25, 2021, Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 136:1-9; Ephesians 3:14-21; Mark 6:45-56
“Now to him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to him be the glory in the assembly and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.” Ephesians 3:20-21, WEB
Psalm 136 is called “The Great Hallel”. Hallel is related to the word hallelujah, so this is a psalm of thanksgiving and eternal (forever) praise. It is a psalm that tells the redemptive history of Israel. Martin Luther says that we should sing and preach of God and His wonderful works. He is gracious and merciful. This psalm is nothing but grace, not human works or doctrines, they are not deserving of this worship.
This psalm reminds us (repeatedly!) of God’s covenant loyalty. God is committed to honoring His covenant with His people. All we have and all we do is centered on the endless love of God. God was and is forever reliable, kind, trustworthy, faithful and loving to His people. The psalm moves from creation in our verses in this week’s lectionary to the redemption of God’s people. The psalm recounts the creation and acts in history through which God demonstrated His enduring love and covenant loyalty. There is an order to world God created. It is not random.
There is a word in this passage that is very hard to translate into English, so there is a long list of similar though different words that are used. The Hebrew word is “chesed” or “hesed” which is often translated “steadfast love” or “lovingkindness” or “mercy”. The word can also mean: love, kindness, unfailing love, great love, loving, kindnesses, unfailing kindness, acts of devotion, devotion, favor, approval, devout, faithful, faithfully, glory, good favor, grace, kind, kindly, loyal, merciful, well. These all give us a sense of the word, but it leaves out something important. It is a word that would probably be best kept in its Hebrew form, like we do with the word “Amen.” It is actually refers to a loving loyalty based on a covenantal relationship. God’s hesed comes to us because He has established a bond between Himself and His people. When we share that hesed with others, we do so because we are in a relationship with them, but even more so because we are in a relationship with Him.
God’s hesed endures forever. This is a message we need to know. It needs to be written on our hearts. We hear it over and over again as we read today’s psalm. The passage that talks about God’s goodness, His good works, the goodness of the world He has created. He did all this because His hesed endures forever. He is God of gods and Lord of lords because His hesed endures forever. He gives us rest when we need it because His hesed endures forever.
Another word that needs understanding is the one translated “endures.” There is no word in the Hebrew for this; the word is added so that we will understand that this is about the ongoingness of God’s lovingkindness. The Hebrew would be better translated “never fails.” A bible scholar has retranslated the passage, “Because forever is His loyalty.” God will do what He has said He will do because He has established us as His people in a covenantal relationship. This is about God’s faithfulness to His promises. He is the God of gods, the Lord of lords. He has done good things for His people. He created the heavens and the earth, the sun and the moon. He kept His promise to Abraham by saving His people from Egypt. He delivered them into the Promised Land, just as He promised. He remembers His people, saves us from our adversaries, and provides for us. He is good and He deserves our thanks and praise. This is a matter of trust; we can trust God because forever is His loyalty. God’s hesed endures forever.
Hesed is a word that is filled with promise. God promised to be faithful to the covenants He made with His people forever, even while it is impossible for us to be faithful to Him.
We see human unfaithfulness in today’s Gospel lesson. This story continues what we heard last week. The disciples were excited but exhausted by the ministry they did in throughout the countryside healing the sick and casting out the demons. They returned to Jesus with stories to tell about all the wonderful things they did. Jesus tried to find a place to rest, but the crowds followed them. They weren’t just attracted to Jesus anymore; now they knew the disciples had power, too. Jesus met those crowds with compassion and teaching, and then fed more than five thousand with just five loaves of bread and two fish.
Mark tells us, “Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat, and go ahead to the other side...” The already exhausted disciples must have been even more tired after passing out that food. Though the rest did not come first, Jesus ensured they would have that rest soon. Mark often uses the word “immediately.” The ministry of Jesus was urgent and you hear that in the way Mark tells the story. While the rest might have seemed urgent after the disciples returned from their mission, the needs of the sheep without shepherds were even more urgent. But God does not forget what we need. His hesed endures forever.
But the disciples continue to show signs of doubt and mistrust. One of the most surprising lines of scripture is found in today’s Gospel passage. Mark tells us “their hearts were hardened.” How could they have lived and worked and walked with Jesus for so long, about two years at this point, and not believe Jesus could do miraculous things? The passage ties their hard hearts with their misunderstanding about the feeding of the five thousand. What did they believe happened on that hillside that day? Did they, like so many in today’s world, simply downplay the miracle because they could not explain it?
There are some, even in the Church, who have suggested that Jesus did not really feed more than five thousand people with just five loaves and two fish. They insist that others had food available on that hillside that day, like a modern pot luck meal that miraculously feeds everyone. In this way all were fed; they claim there is no reason to make this story supernatural in character. Perhaps the disciples had a similar mindset. It doesn’t explain how they ended up with twelve full baskets of leftovers, though.
This miracle is so outside our natural experience that it isn’t surprising that we moderns want to diminish the miraculous aspects of the Jesus story because we have a more thorough understanding of science and the world. Intellectually we know that five loaves and two fish cannot feed more than five thousand people. We also know that a church potluck dinner can be miraculous in the way a crowd is left stuffed and satisfied because everyone contributes to the meal, so why not believe this could be the explanation?
The trouble with this, as Mark tells us in today’s passage, is that their misunderstanding (whatever it was) of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the five thousand left them unable to believe that Jesus could do other miraculous things. They were frightened by Him when He came to them on the water. They were amazed when the winds died down after He got into the boat. They had a hard time believing the things they were experiencing with Jesus; their hearts were hardened.
We see God’s hesed in the relationship Jesus had with His disciples. They had hard hearts, but that didn’t stop Jesus from showing them who He was. He didn’t abandon them because of their unfaithfulness. He continued to pull them in His wake, knowing that they would one day have the Holy Spirit to make all things clear. He continued to let them witness His power as they ministered to the people. God does not cast us away. Jesus continued to walk with the disciples at His side, loving them even though they did not really know Him. That hesed is not conditional. There is nothing we can do to earn it or expect it from God. It is given freely because God made a covenant with us. He loves us and we are bound to Him because of that covenant, not because we have done anything to deserve it. He offers Himself for us to know, to love, to trust and we are called as His people to respond to His hesed with joy and praise.
We need the encouragement of this text. We are no different than human beings have been since the beginning of time. We need to hear repeatedly that God loves us. He has loved us from the Garden of Eden until the end of the world. Unfortunately, it did not take very long for us to mess things up in this beautiful world that God created. Adam and Eve failed to trust in the Word of the Lord and they were cast out of the garden. They lived long lives, tilling the soil and working hard. They were obedient to God’s command to be fruitful and multiply, but the sons they bore lived at odds with one another, until Cain murdered Abel. He became a restless wanderer, sent away from the presence of God for the evil he did to his brother.
Adam and Eve had more children, but as time passed the generations of men became more and more wicked in the sight of God. Things became so nasty that God regretted creating mankind and He decided to destroy the world. However, there was one who found favor in the eyes of God. Noah was a righteous man, a man who lived in a right relationship with God the Creator. God told Noah to build a large boat, an ark, and to fill the ark with every kind of animal. God was planning on sending a great flood to cover the entire earth, to destroy that which had become so evil and destructive. The grace in this story is found in the fact that God spared Noah, his family and the animals so that they could repopulate the earth when the floodwaters dried.
Noah obeyed God’s command, despite the absurdity of the request. After all, how can one man possibly build an ark large enough to hold so many for so long? It did not help matters that the wicked men ridiculed Noah for such a silly project. God gave Noah the strength to persevere and when the ark was finished, God helped Noah to fill it with the good things of His creation. When the time was right, God closed the doors of the ark so that Noah and his family would stay dry and safe.
Imagine what it would have been like at that time, for both the eight people on the ark as well as those who were drowning outside. After all, those screaming men and women were neighbors, friends and even family. Even though they were wicked, it must have been quite difficult to let them die without trying to help in some way. But God knew that the only way to save mankind was to begin anew. It rained for forty days and forty nights until even the highest mountains were covered with water. The waters stayed for one hundred and fifty days.
God remembered Noah and his family. He stopped the rain and blew across the waters. Noah sent a raven and a dove to see if the waters had receded. The raven flew back and forth until the water dried, but the dove returned. A second time Noah sent the dove it returned with an olive leaf. The third time the dove did not return. The ark came to rest on dry ground and God ordered Noah and his family to leave the ark to reestablish the earth. The animals were freed and Noah built an altar of thanksgiving to God for His mercy. Then God promised to never destroy the earth by water again. Then God established a new covenant with His people.
We need to hear repeatedly that God loves us. He has loved us from the Garden of Eden until the end of the world. Unfortunately, it did not take very long for us to mess things up. The entire Bible is filled with the stories of how God’s people were unfaithful to Him. And though God’s people repeatedly returned to their wicked ways, generation after generation, God remained faithful to His covenant promises. We deserve nothing but His wrath, yet as we wait patiently for the final fulfillment of all God’s promises at the end of days we know that God is loyal to us now and forever.
In today’s Epistle lesson, Paul is responding to the incredible acts of God in his life, in the lives of God’s people and in the Church. God has provided salvation to individuals, reconciliation between people and unification of those who believe by the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul tells the reader that because of all the great things God has done, he bows his knees to the Father “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.” God is the Father of all fathers. In this case, father doesn’t necessarily stand for the male head of a household; it stands for those who are in power and authority over others. A king or a president is like the father of a nation. A CEO is like the father of a company. A priest is like the father of a congregation. The person who is in charge is not the ultimate authority, however. He (or she as might be the case) receives power and authority from the Father of all fathers.
Verses 1-3 in Psalm 136 have different Hebrew words for God. Adonai is the way they pronounced the tetragrammaton (YHWH or JHVH) and is rendered LORD, Yahweh or Jehovah. Elohei is the singular form for God and elohim is plural, so God is “God of gods”. Adonei (note the difference in spelling) means Lord with the plural adonim, so God is “Lord of lords.” This shows us first that God is the one true God almighty and that He rules over the heavens and the earth (over gods and lords.) God is greater than anyone or anything in heaven and on earth. We are reminded that God is the center and every good thing is rooted or founded on Him. What we have comes from God. What the leaders have, including their power and authority, comes from God.
And since that power comes from God, leaders are called to lead as God leads. That which God has done is what they (we) are called to do. We can’t save anyone, at least not in the sense God has saved us, however we can meet the needs that have left people oppressed and burdened. It is not enough to simply meet the physical needs of those who suffer; we are sent into the world to work toward reconciliation between people and between God and His people. Remember, Jesus did not just feed the five thousand with bread and fish; He fed them with the Word of God.
Many leaders will keep their resources and use them in a way that continues to oppress and burden the people to whom they’ve been sent. They don’t want to lose their power so they hold on to at least a portion of their resources so that they will continue to have authority. This is not God’s way. He works through mercy, giving abundantly more than we can even imagine. So, as people founded in love, we have at our fingertips more than we imagine. God’s resources are wider and longer and higher and deeper than we can even know. He is our Father and everything He has is given for us to use to His glory. For in sharing God’s grace with others, people are saved, reconciled and unified and God is glorified.
In today’s Gospel lesson the people recognize Jesus, and they ran throughout the region to call those who were sick into His presence. People were drawn to Him wherever He went, laying their sick in His path so that they would be healed. Many even believed that all they needed was to touch the edge of His cloak (as we saw in the old woman a few weeks ago) and they begged Him to let them do so. “...as many as touched him were made well.” They seem to believe better than Jesus’ own disciples.
The passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is a prayer for God’s people, that they who bear His name will experience the love of God fully and completely as He transforms our lives and makes us whole. Paul is praying for Christ to continue the work begun in and through the church in Ephesus. In this passage, the word for love is the Greek word “agape.” The love of God found in and through Jesus Christ is a deeper, more permanent love. Though agape is not exactly the same as hesed, it is a word that calls us to more than trust. It calls us to a self-sacrificing love of God and neighbor. It calls us to an active life of trusting our Father Yahweh, the God of gods and Lord of lords. In this passage, Paul is reminding every Christian that God’s grace is bigger than anything we can even imagine, a love so permanent that we should praise God forever.
We are comforted by the story of the disciples because we see that God’s loyal love is forever even when we our hearts are hardened by our inability to believe. We see the crowds flocking to Jesus, seeking His grace, but we are reminded that they did not all continue to walk with Him to the cross. The disciples on that boat saw Jesus do the impossible, and they struggled with knowing Jesus as He. In the end, though, those disciples trusted Him all the way to and beyond the cross. The disciples, that rag-tag bunch of misunderstanding misfits, may have had hard hearts in this story, but they stayed the course and followed Jesus anyway. They trusted Him long enough to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit so that they might know Jesus and experience His hesed in a very real way. May we stay on that same course experiencing His grace daily and trusting that He will always be lovingly loyal, providing us with all we need daily to love Him and one another. He is able to do more than we can ever imagine, and despite our hard hearts, let us remember always to give Him the glory by sharing His story over and over again for every generation from now until the end of time. Then, we will all join together with the hosts of heaven to glorify Him forever and ever. Amen.
“How shall I come before Yahweh, and bow myself before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will Yahweh be pleased with thousands of rams? With tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my disobedience? The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O man, what is good. What does Yahweh require of you, but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:6-8, WEB
The question this week is from Micah 6: “What does the LORD require of you?” We know that there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation, but what does God demand from those who have been saved? It may seem impossible for us to live up to the expectations of our holy and perfect God, but He gives us what we need to try, and by His grace we do much more than we ever think we can. It isn’t easy, but with God all things are possible.
Fifteen years ago I wrote about how I never wanted a cell phone. We got along just fine without them for most of our lives and previous generations would never have imagined the convenience of being accessible wherever they went. It made sense for Bruce to have a phone, especially when he was dealing with a sick airman and his family. He was often away from the office and working odd hours. It was not only difficult for us to contact him, but it was also difficult for those at work when he was dealing with the airman. I eventually gave in and got one, too. Now I can’t imagine life without it.
Cell phones have developed so much since those days, but there’s always been the question of abuse. Too many people keep their nose in their phones and they don’t pay attention to the world. This is dangerous when driving; it is discourteous when in the presence of those we love. The technology can be used to cheat. It is also a distraction to have cell phones go off in the middle of a meeting.
However, cell phones can be an even greater and more dangerous nuisance. There was a game that swept the world called “Happy Slapping.” Young people chose a victim and beat them while filming the attack on their cell phones. The video was then sent to friends or posted on the Internet. It is meant to be a joke, to humiliate the victim. This practice has led to the deaths of several people and many injuries. The technology that was in many ways very good and helpful is being misused and abused by people all over the world. There have been many other challenges or games that were harmful to others.
“Happy slapping” was not really a new crime. People have committed violence against others while videotaping the event ever since it has been possible. However, it has become so convenient. For a criminal a decade or two ago, a videotaped crime had to be carefully planned because it would take extra work to set up the filming equipment. Now kids can decide at the spur of the moment to harm someone and have the video all over the world in a matter of minutes.
In ancient times, sacrifice was an important part of the ritualistic aspects of the people’s faith. Through the physical act of slaughtering an animal or offering the first fruits of their labor, the people saw the redemption of their sins. It was not a bad thing. Sacrifice served a very important purpose. However, good things can be misused and abused. For some, the ritual of sacrifice was nothing more than a “get-out-of-jail-free” card. They could sin against their fellow man, offer a sacrifice and feel as though they are still right with God. This still happens today, although in different types of sacrifices. In this text from Micah, we see that God does not require or even desire sacrifice. He desires justice, loving kindness and a humble heart. “Happy Slapping” is far from just, loving or kind.
When we do things to hurt someone we love, what do we do? When we have a spat with our spouse, we buy flowers or a gift. When we do something that hurts a friend, we call them to apologize or offer to take them for lunch. When we sin against God, what do we do? In the Old Testament, the people had certain sacrifices that needed to be done to atone for their sins. They offered rams or other animals to be cleansed of the sins that separated them from God. The text from Micah asked, “What does the LORD require of you?” There was a time when the requirement was blood, but God found a better way.
God gave His own son as the final bloody sacrifice and now requires so much more of those who have been saved by His grace. And yet, His demands are now so much more attainable because He gives us all we need to do what He wants us to do. God paid the debt; He offered the sacrifice for our sins. Now, God requires us to walk in His light and act according to His Word in our lives and He gives us the Holy Spirit to do so. Justice, mercy and humility are the best we can do, and we honor our God by being the best we can be.
“You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and these are they which testify about me. Yet you will not come to me, that you may have life. I don’t receive glory from men. But I know you, that you don’t have God’s love in yourselves. I have come in my Father’s name, and you don’t receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, who receive glory from one another, and you don’t seek the glory that comes from the only God?” John 5:39-44, WEB
Dr. Alvin Granowsky is a children's writer who has taken old stories and given them a new twist. The books are called “Another Point of View” stories. He gives his own rendition of stories such as “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and “Jack in the Beanstalk.” The original versions of these stories are seen from the point of view of the Bears and Jack. They make Goldilocks and the Giant out to be nasty and bad.
But every story has two sides. Dr. Granowsky has rewritten the stories from Goldilocks’ and the Giant’s points of view. We have heard the stories one way for so long that it is somewhat disturbing to hear the other perspective. When I used these books for a story time, one little girl commented, “I wonder which one is true?” Since these stories are just stories, not historical reporting of a real time event, it really does not matter. Yet, there are often times when the truth gets lost in the opinions and points of view of individuals. This is perhaps more true today than ever with mass and social media. The amount of misinformation is overwhelming. The hard part is knowing which reports are really true or false.
This is nothing new. By the time of Jesus, a proper understanding of God’s Word was lost in the confusion of human interpretation. It was hard to know what was true. God gave His people promises and laws to live by, but over the years they put their own point of view to the story. They interpreted the promises and laws to fit their own expectations. They guessed at what God meant when He spoke through the prophets. By the time Jesus appeared, they were so messed up with their understanding of God that they needed to see another point of view. Jesus turned their world upside down.
The children did not expect a book that told the story from another point of view. Goldilocks and the Giant have always been the bad guys in the stories. To hear that Little Bear and Jack were liars and thieves was shocking, because it goes against every understanding of the story. When the story is just a story, it really doesn’t matter, but when it comes to faith the truth is vital.
Unfortunately, the Jews were relying on their own interpretation of God’s Word and they were looking for the wrong sort of Messiah. They wanted a King, one who would defeat their enemy and rule them by the Law as they had come to know it. When Jesus came preaching the Gospel, the good news of the Kingdom of God, they were shocked and offended. Jesus didn’t even follow the Law according to their interpretation! Jesus came to turn their world upside down, to bring them to repentance and back into a proper relationship with God the Father. Everything the Jews believed pointed to Jesus Christ as Savior, Redeemer, and Messiah. Yet they did not believe. They knew God’s Word, every word of it as written in the scriptures. They knew it in their head, but they did not know it in their heart. When Jesus came, they did not recognize Him, because He did not fit their expectation.
Has Jesus turned your life upside down? Do you see another point of view when we hear the stories in the scriptures; do you hear the Good News of Jesus? Or do you still try to make God’s Laws fit your own expectations, just like the Jews? Do you believe Jesus?
Dr. Alvin Granowsky held a radical view of the events in those stories, and so did Jesus. Our Savior came in flesh so that we could see what God is really like, and then He died so that we could live with Him for eternity. The Jews wanted was a king, but when the King showed up on their doorstep, they did not recognize Him. But thanks to God and His wonderful grace, we do recognize our Lord because the Holy Spirit helps to turn us right-side up to see the truth. Jesus Christ shines the glory of God; He has revealed the truth to us, and through Him we will know God as He is, not as we want Him to be.
“The revelation which Habakkuk the prophet saw. Yahweh, how long will I cry, and you will not hear? I cry out to you ‘Violence!’ and will you not save? Why do you show me iniquity, and look at perversity? For destruction and violence are before me. There is strife, and contention rises up. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails; for the wicked surround the righteous; therefore justice comes out perverted.” Habakkuk 1:1-4, WEB
Habakkuk the prophet struggled with the world that seemed so unfair to him. He was consumed by the burden the moral dilemma of a holy God who allowed bad things to happen to good people. He asked our question for the day, “How long will I cry and you will not hear?” Haven’t we all felt that way sometime? Haven’t we all wondered why it seems God is deaf to our pleas for His grace?
The book of Habakkuk is a conversation between God and the prophet which serves as an oracle for the people of Israel. This oracle was a burden for the prophet. Habakkuk appeared to be a whiner, crying out to God about His slow response to the injustice in Israel. “How long?” he asked. Habakkuk was speaking for all the righteous in Israel who had waited so long to hear God’s answer to the wickedness in His people. Habakkuk simply could not understand why God was allowing evil to rule in the world. He did not understand why God was not disciplining His people so that they would turn back to Him.
Sound familiar? How many of us have cried out with the same sense of wonder at the delay of God’s justice? We are frustrated by the suffering we see in the world, uncertain how God could have no concern for His people. Habakkuk knew that the people had sinned against God, but he also knew that God could make them turn back. He asked, “How long?” He wanted to know how long it would be until God brought His people to repentance.
The answer that he received was even more shocking. God answered that the Babylonians would discipline the people of Israel. Habakkuk was upset by this answer because he could not understand how God could use an even more ungodly nation to do such an important work. He suffered the burden of seeing the future of God’s people that would include pain, exile and more injustice. This is not pleasant for anyone to hear, but prophets were often burdened with visions of things they would rather not see. God’s answer was not what Habakkuk wanted to hear. It was shocking and disturbing to think that God would use wickedness against His own people. But God assured Habakkuk that this was just the beginning of the story.
God works in His own time. We look around us and see a world that is full of injustice and suffering and we wonder when God will bring change to the world. God answers our cry with a promise, “Though it takes time, wait for it; because it will surely come.” (2:3b) Babylon would bring Israel to her knees, but God had not forgotten His people. Babylon would also see God’s justice and Israel would be restored. God knows what He is doing and He knows the time. We only know a see a small part of God’s plan and we are called to trust that God does know what He is doing. We do not want to wait, but that is why we live by faith. Our faithful and faith filled response to God’s grace is trusting that He will do what is right when it is right.
“Therefore we know no one after the flesh from now on. Even though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now we know him so no more. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away. Behold, all things have become new. But all things are of God, who reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ, and gave to us the ministry of reconciliation; namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses, and having committed to us the word of reconciliation. We are therefore ambassadors on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating by us: we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, WEB
I don’t know why, but one particular video keeps showing up on my “suggested” lists. I don’t mind too much because it is one of my favorite music videos. It is for the song “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon. It is one of the simplest videos, just two men in a pink room with two patio chairs and some instruments lip-syncing the words to the song. The two men, of course, are Paul Simon and Chevy Chase. It is striking how different they are. Chevy is tall, Paul is short. Chevy is outgoing and confident, Paul is shy and insecure. When the song begins, it is Chevy who mouths the words rather than Paul who actually sang the song. Paul mimes playing several instruments and joins in the chorus, but otherwise seems almost bored with what is happening in the room. At one point he even twiddles his thumbs.
Chevy is an incredible body comedian. This means that he is able to convey so much humor with even the simplest eye and hand motions. For example, he picks up a glass of water from the floor, takes a drink, then places it on the table next to his chair. The table isn’t really a table, though, but is a drum stand, so the water falls on the floor. He later tries to put a piccolo there, too. He dances with his hands whenever Paul is playing an instrument. He emphasizes the bizarre lyrics with his facial expressions.
The lyrics. I’ve never quite understood the meaning of this song because it just seems like Paul was doing stream-of-consciousness when he wrote the song. As it turns out, that is how he wrote many of his songs. In an interview Paul said, “It’s very pleasurable to write in a stream-of-consciousness style and very often you find that what’s in your mind is relevant although at the moment it doesn’t seem so. And so as I was writing [Mrs. Robinson] I had no idea that I would say that but I said ‘Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you’ …then I asked myself later what it meant and I said well it means something. It will mean something.” In “You Can Call Me Al,” that stream-of-consciousness was developed into a series of purposely written thoughts with intricate wordplay. He made those thoughts fit into the music of South Africa on which he based the tune.
Though the words seem random, there is meaning to the words of his song “You Can Call Me Al.” It is a song about a self-obsessed man becoming aware of his surroundings. It begins as a self-deprecating joke about his outward appearance but ends in a change of heart as he comes to the realization that his life is not really as hard as he thinks it is, especially when he sees how hard life is for the people around him. In another interview, Paul talked about the experience that led him to the lyrics of this song. He went to South Africa despite a cultural boycott because of apartheid. He took a lot of heat for doing so even though his intentions were good. Many black leaders in South Africa felt that his visit would hinder the work they were doing. A positive thing happened, though. He recorded the song while he was there, and was able to share the talents of South African artists and the sound of South Africa with the world.
Paul may have seen himself as the man in the song as he experienced the events happening in South Africa. It can be humbling to realize that you are self-obsessed in a world where so many are struggling. This comes to a head in the chorus which makes the least sense of all. Paul sings, “I can call you Betty and Betty, when you call me, you can call me Al.” This comes from another experience. Paul and his first wife Peggy had a party. As one of the guests was leaving, a friend of a friend, he thanked his hosts “Betty and Al.” The man was from France and he misunderstood their names when he was introduced earlier that evening. That had to be a bit humbling; after all, Paul had already been nominated and won multiple Grammies for his music. This incident stayed in Paul’s memory for more than a decade before he used it in the song.
It is just fun to watch Paul and Chevy interact during the video. They always make me smile. The more I listen to the song, though, I see in it the story of a changing heart whether it was based on Paul’s life or not. Even the design of the video showed a man different than we might expect. Other artists in that time were doing performance videos, showing off their glitzy lives on stage and Paul gave center stage to someone else. We are reminded to look around us at the world in which we live, to let ourselves be transformed from self-obsessed to humble people, joking about our outward appearance while we experience the heart changing realities of the world in which we live.
For those of us who are Christian, this happens by the grace of our God. Jesus makes us a new creation because through Him we are reconciled to our God. We can be confident in God’s grace and can go forward in faith to do whatever God is calling us to do, making good things happen even when we are far from perfect.
Lectionary Scriptures for August 1, 2021, Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 145:10-21; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:22-35
“Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom. Your dominion endures throughout all generations. Yahweh is faithful in all his words, and loving in all his deeds.” Psalm 145:13, WEB
They had their fill. That’s what we heard in last week’s Gospel lesson. Jesus fed more than five thousand people with bread and fish until they were satisfied, and there were twelve baskets full of leftovers. It wasn’t the first time God miraculously fed His people. God gave the Hebrews manna in the desert.
Slavery was never a pleasant life. Slaves died at the hands of their masters. They suffered horrific accidents. Who knows how many slaves died under the rolling stones that built the cities of the ancient world? The mortar of too many buildings was mixed with the blood of people unable to stand against greater powers. It appears, however, that those Hebrew slaves at least had food, shelter and the certainty of tomorrow.
Israel was led by God’s chosen deliverer Moses into a wilderness of uncertainty. The wilderness was literal, but it was also spiritual. Spiritually, they were following a man chosen by a God they did not really know. They believed in that God and worshiped Him, but they had lost touch with Him in Egypt after living there for four hundred years. Despite all the miracles that took them to the foot of Mt. Sinai, they quickly reverted to the gods they had come to know. Everything about the journey to the Promised Land was outside their comfort zone. They might not have been happy or prosperous in Egypt, but at least they were relatively safe. They were slaves, but they had roofs over their heads and food for their bellies.
They started grumbling. They grumbled against the enemy they could see: Moses and Aaron. They were them men who had led them out of their security into insecurity. The people saw only death in their future; they could not foresee the fulfillment of God’s promises or the blessings that would come with obedience.
We forget our need for salvation when we are hungry. We forget that we are sinners in need of a Savior when our circumstances are not comfortable. Our tummies grumble and then our mouths grumble. We look for someone to blame: our leaders, the government, or the rich. They grumbled against Moses, but the bible reminds us that when we grumble against God’s chosen, we grumble against God. Moses was the person whom God sent to lead Israel out of Egypt, but he was not their Savior. God was their Savior, so if they were unhappy being away from Egypt, it was Him they had to blame.
It is a lot easier to blame some guy or worldly institution than to blame God. The irony is that it did not take long for them to put Moses on a pedestal. Once they found the Promised Land Moses became more than a man. He became a legend. He became their savior. He became their deliverer. He did not enter into the Promised Land, but he was the one they turned to in times of stress and distress through the Law that he gave them. The Law was their god at times, even when they were not faithful or obedient. That was still true in Jesus’ day.
When the people started grumbling, God sent them food. He sent them so much quail that they became sick of meat, and then He sent them manna. Manna is beyond explanation. We know from the scriptures that it was “a small round thing, small as the hoar-frost on the ground.” Other translations describe it as something like coriander seed.
It is no coincidence that the word manna literally means, “What is it?” They did not know what it was. Many scholars have tried to discover a natural explanation for this miraculous event, and there is a plant that produces a sticky, granular honeydew for a short period of time each year. This could not possibly be the explanation because the plants cannot produce enough to feed more than million people wandering in the desert for forty years. Also, the manna doubled on the day before the Sabbath and was nonexistent on the Sabbath which could not happen with a plant. Manna was miraculous, beyond our human experience and understanding. The Hebrews picked it up off the ground and used it to make bread.
God gave them instructions that were meant to teach them how to trust His provision. They were only to take enough for each day. God would provide enough as long as it was needed. They did not need to hoard the manna because there would be enough. They did not need to keep some for tomorrow because there would be enough. And on the sixth day there would be enough for two days so that they could rest on the Sabbath. Those who did not trust God’s Word, who tried to hoard the manna, were disappointed.
Some did not listen to Moses. Some hoarded manna. Some gathered enough for a second day only to discover that the next day the jar was smelly and full of maggots. Some people did not keep enough for the Sabbath and when they went to gather it there was none. They were not obedient, but they learned. They learned to trust that God would provide them their daily bread, every day. Eventually, they claimed it was Moses who provided food for them to eat. They grumbled against Moses when they were hungry and when they were satisfied they thanked Moses for the manna.
They believed, but it is much easier to believe in those things you can touch and feel and know. God was beyond their knowing. He was bigger than their understanding. They looked to Moses to be their ears and their mouth. They were happy to let Moses have the intimate relationship with God while they stayed apart. It is frightening to see the glory of the Lord, because it is beyond our control. Yet, throughout their struggles they had moments of growth, as God tested them they grew in maturity and obedience. The people were transformed through food and water as they grew into the people God has called them to be.
We might think that it took a long time for the Hebrews to start grumbling. It took them about twenty five days to get to the Red Sea. They began grumbling as soon as they crossed the sea and were safe from Pharaoh. Moses healed the bitter water a few days later. Four days after that, the people complained about having no meat. The quail fell that night and the manna was on the ground in the morning. They arrived at Mt. Sinai two weeks later, just forty eight days after the Passover. The people turned to the golden calf before the 100th day.
It seems to me that it should have taken much longer for them to turn from the God who saved them from slavery, but in today’s passage we see that they had already forgotten the bitterness of their oppression. “We wish that we had died by Yahweh’s hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots, when we ate our fill of bread, for you have brought us out into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” It took just thirty-three days for them to desire their old lives because at least their stomachs were full back then.
God heard their cries and sent everything they needed to survive in the wilderness. The quail came, and they were fed. The manna came, and though they didn’t understand it at first, they were fed and satisfied. Sadly, they got sick of quail and manna and they complained again. But in this story we see that God provides what we need even if we do not trust that He will. He hears our complaining and He answers with His grace. Would that we could be so gracious.
That’s what happened to the Hebrews. They forgot the God of their forefathers, and though they followed Moses, they did not trust God to provide. The manna was unknown, the quail redundant. Their desires made them falsely remember their life during their four hundred year occupation in Egypt. They lost touch with the one who promised to take care of them. Relationships take work and they did not know Him as they should.
We need to be in relationship with others. I don’t know how we’d survive in our neighborhood if we didn’t know our neighbors. We rely on them just as they rely on us. We enjoy sharing what we have with them and look to them for the things they have to share. The same is true in the Church. None of us has everything we need to do the work of God in this world. We each have certain gifts and resources which God joins together with other believers’ gifts and resources. As each person adds something to the mix, the benefits are multiplied. How much more can we do for those who need God’s grace if we join with others who have unique and necessary gifts?
We are bound together by the Holy Spirit, called as one body in one hope through one Lord, one faith and one Baptism. But even this relationship takes work. It is up to us to live a life worthy of the calling to which we’ve been called. This is a life of humility, which is never easy especially in a world that honors power and position. It is a life of gentleness which is also difficult in a world that gives preference to physically strength and ability. Love generated the call. Love sustains the call. And love determines all that we do for the sake of our neighbors. Though love is from God and is given to us, it still takes hard work on our part to make it happen.
The trouble is that we often look to the wrong source to supply our needs. Israel looked to Moses and Aaron. They were fallible human beings with no special powers. They could not buy bread in the desert. They couldn’t even grow the grain, harvest the wheat and make the bread for so many. They could not provide for God’s people. But Moses and Aaron weren’t the One who promised to provide for them. They were chosen to lead the people to the Promised Land, with God as guide and provider. The wandering was a time for God to prove Himself to the whole assembly. By the time they got to the Promised Land, they would have to trust God even more. And in their history they would need to trust Him over and over again. If only they had trusted Him to give them meat and bread, they might have trusted Him to protect them from the more deadly dangers they would face.
But we don’t think about those other things when our bellies are grumbling. We don’t think about our soul when we are hungry. We fight for the tangible things, but ignore the things that really matter. That’s what Jesus saw in the crowds on the banks of the Sea of Galilee. After feeding more than five thousand people, Jesus saw that they still did not understand. They recognized that He was the Messiah, but they wanted an earthly king. They wanted someone who would lead them out of occupation into a golden age of prosperity as a sovereign nation. They did not know that they had a deeper need, the need for forgiveness and the hope of eternal life.
Unfortunately, Jesus’ teachings seemed to contradict everything that was given to Israel by Moses. Jesus told the crowd not to work for food that perishes but to work for food that endures. They asked, “What must we do, that we may work the works of God?” They were expecting Jesus to repeat the Law which was given to them by Moses. They expected to hear a list of rules to obey and things they had to do. They wanted to receive God’s blessings based on their own actions. That’s the way it has always been. Moses gave them the Law. Moses gave them the manna. If Jesus contradicted Moses, then He’d have to prove Himself.
Jesus told them that the work of God is to believe in the one He has sent. This was a new teaching. It was different than what they had received from Moses. So, it wasn’t enough that He’d just fed more than five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish; they needed more. Jesus needed to do something even greater than Moses in the wilderness. Jesus needed to provide them with something better than the bread from heaven.
This is where they were wrong: the bread from heaven did not come from Moses. It came from God. They’d lost sight of the real provider of all things good, which is the very reason Jesus came. He answered their demand for proof with this statement: “Most certainly, I tell you, it wasn’t Moses who gave you the bread out of heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread out of heaven.” They were so focused on the world as they knew it that they lost sight of the true reality of God just like Hebrews who left Egypt. Just like us today.
The final words of the Gospel passage are difficult to comprehend and believe. Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me will not be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” I have believed and I have been hungry. What of those third world countries where faith in Christ is growing and moving and doing amazing things, yet also suffer great poverty, hunger and thirst even among those Christians who are living lives worthy of their calling. If you ask them, however, they will tell you that they have far more than we because they have learned to trust in God.
We live in our fancy homes with our cushy jobs and worry the minute there is a threat to our security. We grumble when we are hungry at four o’clock because we missed lunch. We look to false gods for our salvation, for our deliverance. We give credit to the wrong sources for our many blessings. We work hard for the perishable, giving far too little attention to the imperishable. Yet, active faith will naturally work the work that pleases God: to believe in the One whom He sent. That’s the advantage those Christians who struggle have in this world. They have nothing on which to rely except God.
Jesus is the bread of life, but He knows how difficult it is for us to believe. He has drawn us together into one body, binding us together with His Spirit, feeding us the bread of life. Together we live with the same hope, faith, and baptism all under and for the glory of the One God our Father.
Paul was in prison when he wrote the letter to the Ephesians. Today’s passage is so full of powerful words, words filled with God’s grace for our lives. It begins with a difficult request. Paul asks the reader to “walk worthily of the calling with which you were called.” Here, once again, we are encouraged to work. Yet, what is the calling to which we are called? Jesus told us: to believe. This is not a passive faith; it is an active faith that naturally works the work that pleases God. It is the faith that leads to maturity, and that maturity leads to love. In love we live in unity and in peace in the body of Christ serving one another in love.
Paul begs us to live a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called. What is that life? He goes on to say that we should live, “with all lowliness and humility, with patience, bearing with one another in love, being eager to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
We don’t do this very well. We find it much easier to grumble when we feel our needs are not being met, asking for food and drink when we really need Christ. In our churches, the bonds of peace are broken too easily over disagreements about the things that really do not matter. We are like children, whining for our own way, never seeking God’s will about our ministry to one another. Do our petty issues matter to God? Or is that the bread that perishes?
Paul tells us to grow up, to not fall for every idea that comes our way, but to love one another as God makes us into one body by the power of the Holy Spirit, so that everything in the church works as it has been designed by God and is built together in love. This will bring glory to God and He will continue to feed us with the life giving food that comes from faith in Christ.
Today’s passage from John juxtaposes the manna in the desert to the Bread from heaven which is Jesus. These things come from God. They are gifts from the One who cares for our every need, even the grumbling of our tummies. But as with the Hebrews in the desert and the people by the Sea of Galilee, we are reminded that there is something much more important to understand here: these lessons are about trusting that God will provide us what we truly need.
Jesus didn’t come to feed the hungry or heal the sick. He did those things to prove that He is who He is. He did it to prove Himself to us, just as God proved Himself in the desert. All He wants in return is that we believe and trust that He will do what is good and right and true. He will provide what we need. And while we do need food for our bellies, the true bread is Jesus. In Him is life; in Him is eternal life.
Have you ever noticed how many different types of bread there are to purchase? Hard bread, soft bread, dark bread, white bread. There are tortillas from Mexico and sourdough from San Francisco. France gives us croissants and baguettes. Southern kitchens produce biscuits. You can find bread made with cinnamon and raisins, bananas and nuts. Some loaves are small; others are large. When we think of the most basic food necessities, bread is always on the list. Prisoners are given bread and water. Many restaurants include a basket of their signature bread with every meal.
Just as there are so many different types of bread, so too there are many different kinds of tasks to do in the body of Christ, to feed the Word of God to those who hear. Paul writes, “He gave some to be apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, shepherds and teachers.” These servants of Christ are gifted with all they need to do that which they are called to do, and that is to build up the body of Christ, bringing all those who believe together in love. The church has much work to accomplish and we are called to trust that God will provide the people to do that work. We are also called to trust that God will provide each of us with the gifts and resources we need to share His grace with the world.
We will continue to study the Bread of Life over the next few weeks, and the lessons will get incredibly difficult for us to understand and accept. It will be so shocking to Jesus’ audience that many will stop following Him. Jesus began this lesson with the feeding of the five thousand because He knows that we need to have our flesh satisfied before we can truly learn about our spirits. We can’t stay there, however. We have to take the next step to truly believe in Jesus. He did not come to be an earthly king; He came to save the world.
That salvation is enough. We might not think so when our tummies are grumbling, but if we begin with thankfulness for God’s salvation and praise for God’s graciousness, then we will find that He generously helps us deal with the rest. We can join with the psalmist in singing the hymn of praise to the LORD who is the Great King of a kingdom that reaches far beyond this world. He has done great things; He saved His people and fed them as much quail and manna that they needed to be satisfied. He taught them to trust in Him, and while they failed over and over and over again, He continued to love them with His faithfulness to His promises.
We will fail. We will grumble about the blessings when they do not seem to be what we want them to be. We focus too much on our stomachs and too little on our spirits. We forget the great things that God has done and turn again to the gods who promise to fill our bellies and satisfy our desires. We turn from God by demanding that He serve as our earthly King and ignore the greater Kingdom that He rules from heaven. We turn from Him when He demands more from us than we are willing to give or that we can understand. We forget to praise Him for our daily bread because we can’t find anything that will satisfy our desires on the shelves of our pantries.
The Israelites learned how to trust in God by eating manna in the wilderness. The crowd learned that Jesus wasn’t who they thought He was by chasing after the wrong sort of bread in their wilderness. Paul learned to live in his vocation even when it took him into places that he didn’t want to go. We learn through these lessons that our work is simply to believe. As we believe in God, we are given opportunities to share God’s grace with others. The love of God calls us to share the bread of heaven with all those who are hungry. We tell the world about the good things God has done, just like the psalmist, so that others will come to believe in Him and receive eternal life.
“Jesus wept.” John 11:35, WEB
Lazarus, Mary and Martha were friends of Jesus. I imagine they spent many hours hosting Jesus in between His journeys. They offered a home, a place to rest, the comforts of family and friendships. While Jesus was away from His friends, traveling near where John had baptized in the Jordan, Lazarus became sick. A messenger came to give Jesus the news. He was probably sent by the sisters to ask Jesus to come to heal their brother. Jesus did not leave immediately, telling the messenger that the illness would not end in death.
A few days later, Jesus told the disciples that they must go to Lazarus’ house. They didn’t get it when He said, “Lazarus has fallen asleep.” After all, He’d said just a few days before that Lazarus would not die. They were concerned for His safety. Those in Jerusalem were already plotting His death. He told them, “Lazarus is dead.” For their sake, He was glad that they did not go to Lazarus immediately.
This is the part of the story that does not make sense to us. Why would Jesus want Lazarus to die? Why would He allow His good friends to suffer the pain of grief for even a few days? By the time Jesus arrived, Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days, well beyond the possibility of physical resurrection. The Jews believed that the soul departed the body on the third day. There was no Lazarus left to resurrect. The sisters said to Jesus, “If only you had been here!” They still had hope in the spiritual, but they wanted their brother in flesh and blood.
In this story we see two sides of Jesus. We see the caring friend who comes to mourn with those who have lost a loved one. We wonder why Jesus might have waited. Wouldn’t He have at least wanted to be with His friend during the illness? Most of us have had to rush off to the hospital to be with someone we love who is suffering. It is hard for us to understand why Jesus would wait. Yet, in this story we also see the Divine. Jesus knew there was more to the illness. He knew the illness would not END in death. Lazarus did indeed die, but so that they might believe, it ended in resurrection, not just spiritual, but physical. This story helps us to believe, too.
We are reminded that Jesus is indeed our friend, there for us in our times of need. However, He is also the Divine, the Son of God, and He knows the end of the story. We might think we need Him to be here at this moment, to heal at this time, to finish His work right now, but He sees beyond our immediacy. He knows the right time to come and He will be there. We will probably react like the sisters, complaining that if only He were there when we thought we needed Him, things would be different. We learn in this story, however, that God might have something even greater planned for us on the other side of our suffering. Trust Him, He is faithful.
On this day we remember Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, a family that loved Jesus and each other. In their stories we learn many lessons, but in John 11 we see the promise of what was to come through Jesus who is the resurrection and the life. For a Christian, death is just a passing into new life in Christ, when we receive the blessings promised by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We weep over the loss of those we love, for they will never again join us in the laughter and pain of this world. Even Jesus wept, for in death we see the reality of sin and the grave. It is separation from those we love, an end to the blessings of life. When someone we love dies, we mourn the loss we feel because they are no longer with us, but we know that there is hope beyond the grave. Jesus made it possible.
“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.” Psalm 139:7-12, WEB
Our family had an aquarium when I was young. We had an oscar fish. Oscars are South American fresh water fish that are known to be aggressive. We also had cats that were fascinated by the fish in the aquarium. The oscar was equally fascinated by the cats, and often tried to get out of the aquarium to get at the cats. One feline loved to drink the water from the tank, and on more than one occasion nearly got bit when the oscar attacked. The fish was so powerful that it almost killed itself when it flung itself at the lighted lid, knocked it off, and then flew to the floor. We were in the room at the time, so we were able to scoop it back into the tank. The oscar was an interesting pet; I enjoyed watching its antics.
There’s something to be said about how an aquarium can impact a person. Studies have shown that contemplating fish can have a significant affect by reducing stress and anxiety. In Feng Shui, moving water is considered beneficial in balancing chi. A study on Alzheimer’s patients have shown that those who have access to an aquarium maintain a healthier lifestyle, with a better intake of food and less aggressive behaviors. One public aquarium has a special program for children with learning and developmental disabilities that help them develop social skills.
I love to sit and watch fish. It is not only relaxing, it is also inspirational. On a trip to Sea World a few years ago, I recall visiting the Coral Reef exhibit. This exhibit had a very large tank with hundreds of different fish and many different corals. The shark tank was right beside the reef with a ‘window’ in the background, giving the appearance that the sharks were so close they could snatch any fish that might drift out of the safety of the reef. I could see all the wonderful colors of each fish and their habitats when I got really close to the tank. A few steps in either direction gave a whole new habitat and group of fish, even though they were all in the same tank.
I briefly looked at the tank close-up, but then I moved to a seat against the far wall. From there I sat to watch the whole tank which was bustling with activity. It was like watching rush hour in New York City. Schools of fish moved along paths in one direction, stopped and then moved in another. Individual fish went this way and that, somehow always fitting into the flow. Some fish were quite unusual, such as the one that just kept swimming in a circle, up and down, up and down, even upside down. Others were very dignified; others were playful. While I watched the whole tank, I realized that though the fish seemed to be separated, the fish were really one body made of many unique characters.
As I sat there watching, I thought about how God sees the world. He is most certainly a personal God, having intimate relationships with each one of us. He knows our every thought, counts the hair on our head. Yet, He also looks at the world from a much broader perspective. He sees us as we interact with others. Are we like the fish that swam in circles, unaware of the others around him? Are we like the ones who swim in schools? Are we like the individuals who swim in and out of the coral so that we are always safe? Are we like the ones who hovered by the sharks, risking life on the edge of danger? No matter who we are, we are never far from our Maker.
God enjoys the relationships with His children, one on one. He gets up close and studies everything about us so that He knows us better than ourselves. He not only watches from the other side of the glass, but He even gets right inside the tank with us. He also sees our world from a distance. He knows every interaction, every habitat and how we fit together. He sees the lonely, the scared, the tired and the weak. And He loves every one of us. We might never leave our little corner of the tank, but God knows there is someone on the other side who needs His love. Perhaps He will call us to be the one to go forth and share the Good News. The world is much bigger than just what we see at any moment and God sees it all. It helps to know that He is with us, so close that He knows every thought and yet far enough away to know what is happening beyond our little corner of the world. We can trust that He will take care of us as He leads us out into the world to do His work.