Welcome to the June 2017 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the World English Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, June 2017
June 1, 2017
“Behold, I send you out as sheep among wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to councils, and in their synagogues they will scourge you. Yes, and you will be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony to them and to the nations. But when they deliver you up, don’t be anxious how or what you will say, for it will be given you in that hour what you will say. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.” Matthew 10:16-20, WEB
Memorial Day is often considered the start of the summer season. While it is not officially summer for another few weeks, it is certainly beginning to look like summer around here. The pools are open. The theme parks are open daily. My Facebook timeline is filled with last day of school photos. Colleges have had their graduation programs and High schools are beginning to have theirs. Summer camp counselors have begun training. The traffic on the roads in the morning is much lighter. The thermometer has gone up and we’ve started watering our lawn. People are recommending their favorite books for summer reading lists.
I read an article today about one man’s list. Russell Moore, an American evangelical theologian, ethicist, and preacher, has a rather eclectic list. He included books about Jimmy Buffet, John Kennedy, Winston Churchill and George Orwell. He had a book on his list about Martin Luther as well as several others. It was a rather lengthy list, longer and heavier than the usual summer fare. One commenter on post wondered if he’d include something fictional. Most people try to go for something fun, something easy to read while lying in the sun or enjoying the peacefulness of the mountains.
Some might wonder at the appropriateness of topic for a Christian reader. Of course, he included the books of Ezekiel and Jeremiah on his list, but does a preacher really need to know the story of Jimmy Buffet? Yes, and he gave a reason why. At the beginning of the article, he wrote, “Jimmy Buffett said, ‘I’ve read dozens of books about heroes and crooks, and I’ve learned much from both of their styles.’ Me too. And as a Christian who believes in both the imago Dei and original sin, I think every book (and every person) includes some of both.” His point is that we can’t limit our quest for knowledge to only those things that we think are good. We must read about saints and sinners to see the good and bad in our own lives.
Jesus tells us to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. We don’t necessarily read books to take on the characteristics we see describing the people whether real or imagined. We read them to learn about the world so that we can interact with it in a way that glorifies God. It is so easy for even the most faithful Christians to be deceived. As much as we want to think we are smarter than the devil, we aren’t. Satan has had direct access to the throne of God. He knows the scriptures better than the best theologian, and he knows how to twist God’s Word in a way that can confuse and mislead us.
What’s on your reading list? There are, perhaps, books that are inappropriate for Christians to read, even over the summer. There are, perhaps, books that we should be reading to encourage our faith and gain in the wisdom of God. The thing to remember as we read this summer, whether we are catching up on books that will teach us something or just relaxing with something frivolous on the beach, is to read everything through the eyes of faith. We’ll find, just as Jimmy Buffet and Russell Moore, that every book has heroes and crooks, saints and sinners, and we can learn from all their styles.
In the end, we know that God is with us and helps us to tell the difference between the things of this world and the things He would have us do and say. As we watch the world through eyes of faith, we will see Him provide us with all we need when we need it. Meanwhile, it is good to seek knowledge even from books that may seem inappropriate, because God can even use those books to teach us how to live and serve Him in this world.
“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, the same 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. In this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit; and so you will be my disciples. Even as the Father has loved me, I also have loved you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and remain in his love. I have spoken these things to you, that my joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be made full.” John 15:1-11, WEB
We have all the technological gadgets in our house: phones, tablets, computers, smart televisions, game consoles and e-readers. You name it, someone probably has one. The gadgets have specific purposes, but most of them do just about anything you want. It is to the point that with the right plans and applications, you can do anything you want on your phone. I personally prefer to use gadgets that have a purpose. I still take photos with a camera. I still use a flashlight if I need to light the darkness. I still open a bible when I want to study the scriptures.
I do have to admit that I have mostly given up paper books for my e-reader. I love the convenience. I tend to read extremely lengthy novels that are heavy to carry. It is nice to be able to carry many books on a vacation without having an extra bag full of books. I could use my tablet, but I read in bed before I go to sleep and experts suggest avoiding the blue light of computer gadgets before going to sleep. I don’t even take my phone or tablet into the bedroom. My e-reader, however, is better than a book because it is easier to hold. The digital versions of books are often cheaper, too.
The problem with all these gadgets is that they require power to make them work. It is important, even when the gadgets are not in use, to ensure that the batteries remain at least partially charged. Letting them go empty can make them unusable. My husband has been reading on his tablet or paper books for the past few months, but decided to use his e-reader for the next one. He turned it on last night only to find the battery empty. We plugged it in, but the battery would not recharge. It was useless. We thought we might have to buy him a new one. I did some research and found a way to make it work again, but we learned a valuable lesson: do not let the batteries of your gadgets empty completely it may become useless.
There’s a story about a man who had been attending regularly stopped going to church. The pastor visited after a few weeks to make sure everything was ok. The man had been sitting in front of a roaring fire. He invited the pastor to have a seat. They watched the fire together quietly until the pastor got up, took the tongs and picked a burning ember out of the fire and set it to the side on the hearth. The coal shined brightly for a moment, but then the fire faded until it was cold. Just before he left, the pastor took the ember and added it to the fire again where it burst into flames. Without saying a word, the pastor reminded the man that he needed to stay connected to keep faith alive. As the pastor left, the man said, “Thank you so much for your visit and especially for the fiery sermon. I shall be back in church next Sunday.”
Church is certainly not the only way for us to stay connected to God, but it is important for us to stay connected to the body of Christ. We must also spend time daily in prayer and Bible study. The goal for Christian life is to dwell in the presence of God every moment, constantly aware that He is with us. It isn’t always easy because God will prune from our lives the things that keep us from having that strong and vital relationship with Him that gives us life. We’ll find, as we remain in God, however, that we’ll be stronger and better. We’ll produce more fruit. We’ll have more confidence to share the Gospel. We’ll accomplish more things that glorify Him. Like the gadgets, we need to stay connected so that we’ll have the power to do what God calls us to do. Like the ember, we need to stay in the fire to remain vital in God’s world. Dwell in God’s love and you’ll be amazed at the life you will live.
“They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other languages, as the Spirit gave them the ability to speak. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under the sky. When this sound was heard, the multitude came together, and were bewildered, because everyone heard them speaking in his own language.” Acts 2:4-6, WEB
Found in Reader’s Digest, an example of tortured English from around the world. “On a car-rental brochure in Tokyo: ‘When a passenger of foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage then tootle him with vigor.’” The text in this brochure was definitely English, but it used words we would not have used to describe this situation. It may have been a literal translation of the Japanese brochure, but we don’t talk about honking at pedestrians the same way. As a matter of fact, in America we tend to frown on tootling our horn with vigor, particularly at heaving foot passengers who are obstacling our passage. Our law demands that we wait patiently for pedestrians to cross our path, although I’m sure we’ve all had moments when we wanted to tootle vigorously.
Language is interesting. We all have heard that America and England are two countries divided by a common language. My mom and dad were visiting when we lived in England; we were on an adventure to see the places where my mom’s family had lived a century earlier. We stopped for dinner and my mom had difficulty understanding the waitress. The waitress was having equal difficulty understanding my mom. My mom, very frustrated, suddenly said, “Speak English, please!” The waitress answered, “I am!” The difficulty was in part due to heavy accents, but also the use of specific words. We often use the same words for different reasons or use different words for the same thing. I found myself translating so that they could understand each other.
One of the things that amazes me most about Bible study is how often I have to look very closely at the meaning of specific words. Most of us are familiar with the fact that Greek uses several different words that are translated “love” in English, but understanding the specific Greek word helps us better understand what has been written. What we don’t always realize is how many different possible translations there can be for one Greek word. Take, for instance, the Greek word “logos.” It means “a word, speech, divine utterance, analogy.” It has been translated “account, answer, appearance, complaint, exhortation, instruction, matter, message, news, preaching, question, reason, remark, report, saying, speech, statement, story, teaching, thing, or utterance,” among others. The most commonly used translation is “word” and yet we can see here that there are different possibilities. Imagine if the translator of John 1:1 had decided it should say: “In the beginning was the Complaint, and the Complaint was with God, and the Complaint was God. While this is absurd, we know that language has caused confusion since the beginning of time.
The story of Babel shows us when language became confusing. The people were working together, and while this is a good thing, they were working together for the very thing that caused all our problems in the first place. They wanted to be like God. They wanted to build a tower that would take them to heaven. God confused their language so that they could not succeed. He overcame this confusion at Pentecost when He gave us the common language of faith. Oh, we’ll still argue over words. We’ll still misunderstand one another in the languages of this world. However, we can trust that God will help us to speak the Word in a way so that they will hear and believe.
“Blessed is he whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom Yahweh doesn’t impute iniquity, in whose spirit there is no deceit. When I kept silence, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me. My strength was sapped in the heat of summer. Selah. I acknowledged my sin to you. I didn’t hide my iniquity. I said, I will confess my transgressions to Yahweh, and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah. For this, let everyone who is godly pray to you in a time when you may be found. Surely when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach to him. You are my hiding place. You will preserve me from trouble. You will surround me with songs of deliverance. Selah. I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you shall go. I will counsel you with my eye on you. Don’t be like the horse, or like the mule, which have no understanding, who are controlled by bit and bridle, or else they will not come near to you. Many sorrows come to the wicked, but loving kindness shall surround him who trusts in Yahweh. Be glad in Yahweh, and rejoice, you righteous! Shout for joy, all you who are upright in heart!” Psalm 32, WEB
Penny, a character on the show “The Big Bang Theory,” bought Leonard and Sheldon some toys to thank them for their kindnesses to her. From the beginning, Penny has struggled financially and the boys have been there for her in many ways. She doesn’t quite fit into the crowd, as the boys are all scientists and into comic books. She’s a pretty girl who doesn’t understand the science or the interest in the geek stuff. Yet, she’s a friend and wanted to do something nice for them.
She gave each of them a transporter toy to use with their Star Trek action figures. They were mint in box, which excites collectors because it means they will continue to rise in value. Penny was disappointed when they refused to play with the toys. “I bought it for you to enjoy,” she said. They answered, “But it is mint in box!” Sheldon, however, had a conversation with his Spock action figure which convinced him that he should play with his transporter because the purpose of a toy is to be played with and to not play with it would be... illogical. Sheldon opened his box, played with it for only a moment and then broke it.
He didn’t want a broken toy, so he switched boxes with Leonard, but he suffered from the transgression against his friend. He couldn’t sleep. Spock told him that he should confess. He thought he might get away with it because Leonard would never open his. However, Penny convinced him that he should play with it. “I’ll never get rid of it because you gave it to me,” so he started to open his box and discovered it was broken. Sheldon tried to confess, but had difficulty. He blamed everyone but himself. Finally, in the end, he told the truth and felt better about it.
It is said that confession is good for the soul. We spend a lot of time talking about the forgiveness of Jesus Christ. Forgiveness is the foundation of our faith, the fulfillment of Jesus’ work and promises. We know this and we believe it. Yet, we live in a world that would rather accept forgiveness without acknowledging sin. Sadly, there are even Christians that think this way. It is possible to focus too much on our sinfulness. Martin Luther was known for spending hours on confession, speaking about every minor sin he’d ever committed in his life every time he met with his confessor. However, it is important bring our sins to light, to ease our guilt and restore the brokenness of our relationships with people and with God.
The psalmist knows the importance of confession. When I kept silence, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.” The psalmist felt the hand of God upon him when he tried to hide his sinfulness, but we know that God knows even the depths of our hearts. I suppose that’s why we don’t think we have to say the words out loud: God already knows what we’ve done wrong, just as Spock knew what Sheldon had done wrong. However, the only way to ease Sheldon’s struggle was to confess the truth to Leonard. The same is true for you and I. By confessing our sins out loud, we ease the burden on our soul and open ourselves up to the forgiveness of God and restoration of our relationships.
Scriptures for Sunday, June 11, 2017, The Holy Trinity: Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Psalm 8; Acts 2:14a, 22-26; Matthew 28:16-20
“Go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I commanded you.” Matthew 28:19-20a, WEB
In the beginning. The beginning is always a good place to start. Most biographies are written in chronological order, beginning at the beginning of a life. This isn’t always true. As a matter of fact, I’m currently reading a biography about Martin Luther that began with the end.
The first chapter begins by describing the last letter that he wrote to his wife Katharina, which he wrote four days before he died. The last act of this man who is known for his religious impact on the world was to help settle a copper mining dispute. This chapter opens us to the reality that Martin Luther’s life was more than theology. The description of that letter helps us to see the world in which Martin Luther lived. Much of what we know about the man we know from his communications with friends. While we focus on the 95 theses that he supposedly nailed to the Wittenberg Church door and his role as father of the Reformation, there is so much more to be learned about him.
The author of this book (“Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer,” by Scott H. Hendrix) decided to begin by setting Martin Luther’s life in the context of where it ended. He might have had fame, but he was an ordinary man. He might have been the target of his detractors, but he had friends and family who loved him. The biography could have begun in the beginning, but there is something very interesting about approaching Martin Luther’s life from that letter to Katharina that helps us to see that there was much more to him than a few essays and an argument with the Church.
The Bible begins, “In the beginning...” The author of the Bible decided to begin the biography (after all, it is God’s story) from the beginning. And yet, even this biography is not really chronological, really. After all, God existed before the beginning. God already is when the story starts. This is biographical, in a sense, but it is more about our relationship with God. “In the beginning” is when our story begins.
There wasn’t much “In the beginning.” The scriptures tell us, “The earth was formless and empty. Darkness was on the surface of the deep.” This is a human writer’s way of saying that there was nothing “In the beginning.” How do you describe nothing? Our human minds just cannot grasp the reality of this. There are those who try to make is as earthly possible to experience nothingness; there are places that offer “float therapy.” Float therapy is done in a sensory deprivation tank. You float in salt water in a light-proof, sound-proof tank. Advocates claim that it very beneficial; removing all sensory input and existing in a near-zero gravity state is relaxing and healing. That’s about as close as we’ll ever come to feeling as if we are existing in a state of nothingness.
Yet, our human minds can’t really grasp the reality of what it was like in the beginning. We try to explain it, put words to our ideas, or consider it scientifically, yet nothing really answers the uncertainty of what it was like. The sensory deprivation tank might make it seem like nothing exists, but we know that there is water, salt, a pod and a great big world waiting for us after our hour is complete. In the beginning there was nothing.
Well, there was nothing except God. Everything came into being when He spoke. There are those who will tell you that there is no way to reconcile Christian faith with the scientific theory of the Big Bang. I’m not a physicist and I don’t fully understand the theory, so I can’t speak to it. I’m also not one who believes that creationists must believe in the six day creation. In the beginning there was nothing, God spoke and suddenly there was light and matter and life. In the beginning there was nothing and suddenly, out of a single miniscule point, everything came into existence.
The big bang theory teaches that ever since that moment, light and matter and life has existed in an ever expanding form. The Bible when God spoke, first there was light. Then God arranged formless and empty void into sky and waters. Then He divided the waters and created dry land. On the fourth day, He created the sun and the moon and the stars to govern the days and the seasons. Then He added plants, fish, birds and finally the land creatures.
The Big Bang is a theory, and it is a flawed theory. We believe in the Biblical witness not because it tells us how God make something out of nothing, but because God made something out of nothing. Despite the scientific flaws and the faith we have in the scriptures, do you notice how the Biblical witness actually follows the scientific chronology? The Bible will never answer for us the “how” but the more we learn about the earth and everything in it the more we can see that God has done something truly amazing with just a word. In the beginning, God spoke and nothing became something. We could argue whether it happened in six days or a billion years, but the truth is that God created the heavens and the earth, the plants and creatures. Then He created man.
The Old Testament lesson is the beloved story of how God made everything. Our human brains want to explain it, that’s why we turn to science to answer our questions. I think it is good that we seek to understand the world in which we live. However, we have to remember that God is beyond our understanding. He is greater than anything we can imagine. He existed before anything existed. He spoke and made everything come into being. This is a mystery we will never fully understand. It is ok to believe in the mystery and not try to explain it. We reject things about God that just don’t make sense and we call them myths. Or we find scientific explanations for the tangible things so that we don’t have to believe something that is outside our senses.
We can easily get buried by the question of evolution and the six day creation. However, we need to look at these mysteries beyond the words on the page and try to see the One behind the words. The creation story tells us about God the Creator and His love for His people. The details are interesting to discuss and important to study, but as Christians we also look at this story so that we can understand our relationship with our Creator.
How do we respond to the story of the creation? We respond first with fear and trembling. The Creator, who can bring order out of chaos and life out of nothingness is certainly powerful and worthy of our awe. Based on this story we can trust in God, because God provides for our every need. It is humbling for us to see the wisdom of God, not only in this story but in the creation that exists outside our windows. How is it that the bluebonnets know to spring forth in March every year? And how do the animals learn to migrate? Everything is according to God’s plan, the earth turns and is recreated daily according to His design and purpose. There is comfort in knowing that in our times of difficulty God is able and willing to transform our lives with just a word, to bring order out of our chaos and hope into our emptiness. The One who has created the world in which we live must, of necessity, be magnificent, greater than all of creation. This is the God worthy of praise and worship. God spoke and it was good.
We can’t possibly understand God completely, for He is greater than anything we can even imagine. However, He is good. He is trustworthy. He is faithful. We can believe in Him, not out of reason but out of faith. There is a place for reason, a place to study the words and try to understand what they mean. Instead of debating the Big Bang theory, let’s focus on worshipping the God who is so great that there are mysteries we will never fully grasp with our human minds. This is the kind of God that is worthy of our praise, and who is able to accomplish the very works that He promised.
Perhaps one of the greatest mysteries is that of the Trinity, the focus of our worship this coming Sunday. The Trinity is one of the most confusing and mystifying aspects of the Christian faith. How do you explain the unexplainable? Some theologians in the sixth century set out to explain the Trinity in language which the common man could understand and it took approximately seven hundred words. The Athanasian Creed, which is often used in churches on Trinity Sunday, seems to go around and around in circles dividing the persons of the Trinity while holding them together. It is a long creed to recite and generally brings a sigh of annoyance from the congregation whenever it is said. And yet, is a powerful reminder of the incredible nature of the God we worship. He is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He Is.
Three is a good number. Most of our chairs have four legs, but have you ever thought about how much better it would be if they only had three? A chair with four legs must set perfectly flat on the floor or it wobbles. If one of the legs is slightly longer or slightly shorter than the other three, the chair wobbles. If the floor is uneven and one of the legs just sits in a hole or on a bump, the chair wobbles. However, if the chair has only three legs, even if there is some imperfection in the legs or the floor, the chair stands firm.
In a committee of three, there is usually no leader. The three are equal, all having a voice and a vote. If two are against one another, the third can acts as a peacemaker. If two are overly passionate about something, the third can act as a stabilizer. In a triangle, each side has a relationship with the other two sides; this is not always true with groups with more than three people. While many organizations need more than three to accomplish the work, most organizations require three people in leadership: a president, a secretary and a treasurer. We have three branches of government in the United States. These three keep one another in balance. No one person has to be responsible for everything. No one person can be blamed if something goes wrong. No one person gets the credit when something goes right. Maybe that is why Jesus kept the three disciples (Peter, James and John) close to Him, so that they might balance and support each other. I suppose that’s why the founding fathers of our nation chose to create a government with three branches. Each balances the other and keeps each other accountable.
We set aside one day a year to focus on this concept. Although the word trinity is not specifically written or defined in the scriptures, Christians from every age have experienced God in three persons since the beginning of the Church. Our readings for today show us just a few examples of how the early Christians put voice to the Trinity. Paul writes, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.” Matthew tells us that Jesus commanded the disciples to go into the nations, “baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Those early Christians even saw a shadow of the Trinity in the Word and the Spirit at the creation of the world as God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”
In the beginning, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered it. The Creator was able to speak and transform that formless and dark void into something new. He said, “Let there be light” and there was light. He ordered the days and the substance. He brought order to the chaos. He filled the emptiness with good things. He did all this in a way that makes sense, each day building upon the work of the next day. He did not create the animals before there was food for them to eat. He did not create plants until the land and the sea were separated in a way that would provide all that the plants would need to survive. He did not create the fish before there were bodies of water in which they could live. In this story we see that God is. We see that God is powerful, compassionate, wise, capable and magnificent. This God who created the universe also created mankind and gave us dominion over the rest of the creation.
The Psalm for today almost questions God’s thinking in this decision to give mankind rule over the whole earth. “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have ordained; what is man, that you think of him? What is the son of man, that you care for him? For you have made him a little lower than God, and crowned him with glory and honor.” When we look at the majesty of God’s creation, it is easy for us to doubt our ability to rule over it all. Modern science has given us a greater understanding of many parts of God’s creation. We have men living in space, cameras visiting planets millions of miles away. We can see stars that are farther than we can imagine. We can study about particles that are so small they are invisible to the naked eye. Our world has expanded both outwardly and inwardly beyond that which the Psalmist could ever have imagined.
Yet, we have not come even close to fully understanding the wholeness of God’s being or experiencing the fullness of His glory. We can’t answer all the questions we have or comprehend the reason and purpose for everything that happens in the world. All too often we feel we have no authority, no power. After all, if we really were in control, would we not try to stop suffering or find a way to end pain? The trouble occurs when we try to be the ones in control. We tempt reality by thinking that we can explain everything with a theory or two. Though we have been given authority of all God’s world, we are just creatures, imperfect and fragile.
Matthew tells us in today’s Gospel lesson that the eleven disciples followed Jesus to a mountain. There they worshipped Him, but some doubted. The eleven had lived and worked with Jesus for three years. They’d seen Him crucified and raised. They had undergone an intense forty days with the risen Christ as He trained them in their mission and ministry. They touched Jesus, heard His voice, and loved Him like a brother. They had seen the miracles happen, eaten the bread that Jesus blessed and tasted the wine of the covenant from His own hand. They confessed faith. They believed. And they doubted.
We wonder how this could be, but it is a very natural response to God. This doubt was probably not so much about doubting God, for they had seen the power and authority by which Jesus had ministered. Despite the training and encouragement they received, they had also made many mistakes. They couldn’t heal all the sick or cast out all the demons. Peter confessed faith in Jesus and then rebuked Jesus for saying that He had to die. They were often self-centered and selfish. They hid in fear, refused to believe the news of Jesus’ resurrection. They failed over and over again. Though Jesus had confidence in the ones He had chosen, they did not have confidence in themselves. They knew all too well how imperfect they could be. How could they do what Jesus had done? How could they go on without Him?
It is no wonder that they doubted. This whole thing is so outside the realm of human understanding. The whole thing is beyond ridiculous. It is ridiculous, except for the fact that it comes from the God who created the heavens and the earth. He made everything out of nothing and He continues to create in this big, beautiful world. He is the God who is worthy of praise, and if He thinks we can do, who are we to doubt?
Jesus answered their doubts. “I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” They were being sent into the world to do an awesome thing. They were being sent to change the world. They scattered, each disciple going the way the Spirit led; they took the Gospel to the four corners of the earth. They doubted because they did not know how they could accomplish this great thing, but there was no need to worry. God was not sending them alone. He was there with each one and as they baptized each new believer in the Trinity, He made them part of the body He had created in Christ.
He is still with us today. On this Sunday we honor a God we do not fully understand and contemplate the creation that God made out of nothing of which we are a part. We think about our relationships with one another and this magnificent God who has done greater things than we can ever imagine. We join in community with others, hearing the Word and receiving the sacraments that give us a foretaste of all that God has waiting for us. We live in faith, wait in hope and respond with the love that flows from our lives, the love that first came from the tri-unity of God and now is shared through us with the world. Through it all, Jesus reminds us that no matter what happens as we go to do His work, He is with us always, even unto the end of the world.
We may at first respond to this incredible God with fear and trembling because this is a God who is so great that there are mysteries we will never fully grasp with our human minds. But this is the kind of God that is worthy of our praise, and who is able to accomplish the very works that He promised. God spoke in the beginning and began something that continues with us today. The first words of the Bible are the first words of the story of our relationship with God. We now trust that this Creator God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, will be with us as we continue to share His Light and Life with the world.
“When they didn’t agree among themselves, they departed after Paul had spoken one word, ‘The Holy Spirit spoke rightly through Isaiah, the prophet, to our fathers, saying, “Go to this people, and say, in hearing, you will hear, but will in no way understand. In seeing, you will see, but will in no way perceive. For this people’s heart has grown callous. Their ears are dull of hearing. Their eyes they have closed. Lest they should see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their heart, and would turn again, and I would heal them.” Be it known therefore to you, that the salvation of God is sent to the nations. They will also listen.’ When he had said these words, the Jews departed, having a great dispute among themselves. Paul stayed two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who were coming to him, preaching God’s Kingdom, and teaching the things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness, without hindrance.” Acts 28:25-31, WEB
Paul was traveling to Rome for trial, a journey that would last many months. Though he could not be certain of the outcome, it was God’s will for him to go and I’m sure there was some frustration in the length of the trip. He continued to share the Gospel along the way, preaching to the believers who came from long distances to see him as he passed through and evangelizing those who had not yet heard God’s Word. When he finally arrived in Rome, he was put under house arrest and allowed to live a relatively normal life. He had many visitors, including the Jewish leadership in Rome. He told them about the kingdom of God, using the Law of Moses and the Prophets to prove that Jesus is the Messiah. Some believed and some didn’t.
The writer of Acts tells us that Paul spent two years awaiting trial. During that time he welcomed visitors and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ boldly. We don’t hear how the story ends. We are left hanging. What happened at the trial? Was he punished or set free? Did anyone come to know Christ because of his testimony? When we finish reading the book of Acts, we long to turn the page and see the next book called, “Acts II”. We know from history and from the Biblical witness of the letters from Paul to the Churches that Paul was set free from this arrest and allowed to go on at least two more missionary journeys. He was eventually arrested again and was ultimately martyred for the Gospel.
Yet, the story of Acts ends abruptly, but I think we are left hanging for a purpose. The church is constantly growing. Every day new people come to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. New believers are freed from death and darkness by the Holy Spirit through Baptism and old believers are renewed and strengthened through Word and Sacrament. The story of the Church is never ending. Each day we are left hanging in expectation of what incredible thing God will do next through, with and for His people.
As Paul reminds us by quoting Isaiah 6:9-10, there will always be some who will not hear, whose hearts are calloused. Despite this, God is still active in this world today, transforming sinners into saints by His grace. Paul was just one very short chapter in the long saga of God’s people. We don’t really need to know the end of his story. Life goes on from generation to generation as faith is shared and lives healed by God’s love. Although it will never be written and published into a Bible, your story is another chapter in the story of God’s Church. Your story will not be the same as Paul’s. It won’t even be the same as your next door neighbor, but it is a story that is meant to be told.
“In that hour the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who then is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?’ Jesus called a little child to himself, and set him in the middle of them, and said, ‘Most certainly I tell you, unless you turn, and become as little children, you will in no way enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Whoever therefore humbles himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Whoever receives one such little child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him that a huge millstone should be hung around his neck, and that he should be sunk in the depths of the sea.’” Matthew 18:1-5, WEB
I went to see the moving “Guardians of the Galaxy” with my son yesterday afternoon. It was a good movie, filled with laughter, excitement and a few tears. As with everything, I watched the movie through eyes of faith. Though not produced as a Christian film, there are always lessons we can learn. The basic theme was a search for family, a subject that often leads to moments of sacrifice, forgiveness and reconciliation. That was certainly true of this movie with imagery that could even be considered Christian.
I was curious about this when I came home and I discovered many different sites on the Internet discussing the Christian imagery and themes of the film. Even more interesting, however, was the article I found about the star of the film, Chris Platt. As it turns out, Chris is a committed Christian who actively lives his faith. He spends time visiting children’s hospitals, loving those children who are so filled with faith despite their suffering. A month ago he posted an Instagram photo with one of those children and said, “I'll never fail to be moved by the unbreakable spirit of a child.”
Chris is very open about his faith; he even installed a very large cross for Easter last year. His faith was tested when his son was born premature, but as he found his faith strengthening as he prayed for his beautiful baby. He lives that faith daily openly talking about his story and his love for Jesus. He was not always so faith-filled. Though raised a Lutheran, Chris found himself homeless, living in a van on a beach in Hawaii, working at a restaurant. He was too young to drink, but he and his friends relied on willing adults to buy them liquor. He had boasted to a high school teacher not long before that he was going to be rich and famous some day, but it wasn’t looking like he’d ever end up being anything.
Then one day, he says, “I was sitting outside a grocery store... And a guy named Henry came up and recognized something in me that needed to be saved. He asked what I was doing that night, and I was honest. I said, ‘My friend’s inside buying me alcohol.’ ‘You going to go party?’ he asked. ‘Yeah.’ ‘Drink and do drugs? Meet girls, fornication?’ I was like, ‘I hope so’... It should’ve made me nervous but didn’t. I said, ‘Why are you asking?’ He said, ‘Jesus told me to talk to you...’ At that moment I was like, I think I have to go with this guy. He took me to church. Over the next few days I surprised my friends by declaring that I was going to change my life.” He’s been a Christian ever since.
It took time, but Chris has finally fulfilled that high school boast. He is certainly rich and famous. However, he’s also now humble, kind and generous, giving his time and a message of hope to children who are suffering. He finds strength in those visits, uplifted by the ones he was sent to uplift. We look to the children because they have that unbreakable spirit. They love without expectation. They believe without doubt. They rejoice even when there seems to be nothing to be joyful about. Children speak the truth even when it could bring them harm. Chris seems to be emulating the children he so loves, as he lives openly and willfully in his faith.
“The heavens declare the glory of God. The expanse shows his handiwork. Day after day they pour out speech, and night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard. Their voice has gone out through all the earth, their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a tent for the sun, which is as a bridegroom coming out of his room, like a strong man rejoicing to run his course. His going out is from the end of the heavens, his circuit to its ends; There is nothing hidden from its heat. Yahweh’s law is perfect, restoring the soul. Yahweh’s testimony is sure, making wise the simple. Yahweh’s precepts are right, rejoicing the heart. Yahweh’s commandment is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of Yahweh is clean, enduring forever. Yahweh’s ordinances are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yes, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the extract of the honeycomb. Moreover by them is your servant warned. In keeping them there is great reward. Who can discern his errors? Forgive me from hidden errors. Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins. Let them not have dominion over me. Then I will be upright. I will be blameless and innocent of great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, Yahweh, my rock, and my redeemer.” Psalm 19, WEB
I grew up in the suburbs of a pretty large city, so while I could see some of the stars, there were only a few hundred dotting the sky at night. I saw the heavens in a whole new way when I went camping with Girl Scouts when I was a teenager. We camped on a mountain far from the city, and the sky was so filled with stars it was impossible to count them all. I’ve had other opportunities to see the night sky without light pollution, and it amazes me every time.
I’m equally amazed whenever I see a rainbow. I remember once in California seeing a rainbow stretch across the road in the distance in front of us as we traveled. The road was straight and level and the rainbow was so full and bright it seemed as though it was a tangible arch that we would eventually drive through. I saw where one rainbow touched the ground in England, I was so close that I could see how the rays colored the grass.
The psalmist says, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Who hasn’t stood in awe when the sunlight breaks through storm clouds? Or when the sun rises or sets over a beautiful landscape? Or when the clouds floating by look like they’ve been molded into recognizable shapes? And yet, we are not just amazed by the heavens. I have seen the world from the top of a mountain and in the center of a desert. I have experienced the endlessness of being on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico without land anywhere in site. I’ve smelled with joy the fragrance of a million bluebonnets in a valley and seen a bumble bee land on a single blossom in the middle of a field. There’s something incredible about the raging waters of a waterfall and the waves crashing to the shore. Distant mountains, fields of prairie grass and wild animals lingering on the edges of a forest always cause me to pause and thank God for His amazing grace.
The psalmist says, “There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.” I love this verse. We recently talked about the humor and confusion we still experience when we run into people who speak another language, and we’ve talked about how God was able to overcome language barriers at Pentecost. We are reminded by today’s passage that even the creation is able to speak God’s grace into the world, even though the heavens and earth will never speak a word. We are amazed when we see what God can do with a few clouds or a trickle of water. Yet the greater word is always God’s Word, the Word that speaks to our very spirits and offers to us His grace in forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, hope and joy.
“Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.” 1 Corinthians 14:1-5, ESV
The term soapbox has come to mean an improvised platform that is used by a self-appointed speaker to make an impromptu or nonofficial speech. The term comes from early in the twentieth century when the platform was actually a wooden crate that had been used for soap. Now our soapboxes are often imagined, but we still make those speeches and often end with the statement, “I will get off my soapbox now.”
There was a time when those soapboxes were used by street preachers who went out into the market squares or along main street in town to proclaim the coming of the end of the world, to call for the repentance of the people and bring salvation into their lives. Most of these soapbox preachers spoke well of hell and damnation, scaring folk into a very shallow faith that fell when easily under the burden of disappointment or persecution. Some of these folk were self-proclaimed prophets, determined to change society one heart at a time.
These men were false prophets. What they predicted did not come true and the faith that accompanied their words was not true faith in Christ. We are quick to dismiss this type of preacher because we do not see the grace of God in their ranting and raving. Because we have seen so many men live this lie, it is easy to assume that there are no more prophets. However, God continues to give the gift of prophesy in this world, because it is through the proclamation of His Word that people are saved.
What we have to remember is that the way God’s Word has been spoken has changed since the time of the Old Testament prophets. Christ had not yet lived and died to bring forgiveness to all those who believe. He was just a promise. For prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel, there was only the hope of the coming Messiah. They could only point forward to that day and persuade the people of their need to turn to God so that they would know Him when He came. The purpose of prophesy changed after Christ. Now, we don’t have to point to something that will happen in the future, but rather we point to Jesus who brings forgiveness in the here and now. This is something that we should all be doing every day.
We don’t need prophets who stand around on soapboxes in the middle of the market square warning the population that the end of the world is near or predicting the date of Jesus’ return. What we do need is every Christian willing to speak the word of God with those who have not yet heard, that they might know Christ and be saved through faith in Him. We are called to prophesy in the world today, but we don’t need to act like the Old Testament prophets running around screaming hellfire and damnation to the nation. Rather, we are gifted with God’s words in our hearts and on our tongues so that we can bring the grace of God in Christ Jesus to one heart at a time. Fear never saved a soul, but God’s Word has the power to transform the most horrible sinner into a forgiven saint who will live with God for eternity. Let us go out and be the prophetic voices through which God can bring His salvation to the world.
Scriptures for Sunday, June 18, 2017, Second Sunday after Pentecost: Exodus 19:2-8a; Psalm 100; Romans 5:6-15; Matthew 9:35-10:8 (9-20)
“All the people answered together, and said, ‘All that Yahweh has spoken we will do.’” Exodus 19:8a, WEB
A dying man gave his three best friends - a clergyman, a doctor and a lawyer - envelopes with $25,000 each and made them promise that they would put those envelopes in his casket at his funeral. The man died and each of his friends did what they promised. Later, however, the clergyman admitted that he did not include the whole $25,000. “I sent some to a foreign ministry.” The doctor admitted that he didn’t include it all. “I donated most of it to a medical charity.” The lawyer was outraged. “Am I the only one who keeps his promises? I want you to know that the envelop I placed in the coffin had my own personal check for the entire $25,000!”
Ok, so this joke doesn’t say much about the lawyer’s faithfulness. He kept the promise in a way that benefitted himself while the two who did not keep the promise did so for unselfishly. The real question here is whether or not the promise itself was reasonable. Why would a man want $75,000 placed into a casket that would be useless buried under six feet of dirt? That’s not the point of the joke, of course, but it makes us wonder about promises.
I know that over my lifetime I’ve made promises that I could not keep. I suspect the same is true of every parent. We promise to play with our children and then get caught up in work. We promise to take our children to the park but we realize that we need to go to the grocery store to buy what we need for dinner. We promise that we’ll get our children the hot new toy for Christmas, but we can’t find it because every store is sold out. Promises aren’t always broken for self-centered or even unselfish reasons. Sometimes there is nothing we can do but break a promise.
We promise our bosses that we’ll get a project finished by a specific date, but everything goes wrong along the way. Computers break down, co-workers don’t do their part, or additional requirements add make the projected finish date impossible. Yet, the fault for breaking the promise falls on the one who made it.
The worst example of broken promises is divorce, but again it is sometimes the only option. I found a website today filled with brief stories of people who have experienced broken promises. Most of them were young and had been scorned by someone they love. They cry about how they can never trust someone again. Some cynical posts insisted that promises were made to be broken. Some insisted that breaking a promise is the worst thing that you can do to another person.
Perhaps that’s true, but we break promises every day. Have you ever gone over the speed limit? You made a promise when you signed the application for a driver’s license that you would obey all the laws. Speeding is breaking a promise. I suspect that most of us can think of some promise we’ve made that we have broken today. I keep promising myself that I’ll get more exercise, but my mini tramp is dusty. We have a million excuses; we may not even consider these things promises, but we fail to live up to them anyway.
Worst of all, we fail to live up to the promises we make to our God.
The people of Israel were at the base of Mt. Sinai. They had escaped the Egyptians, had made it through the desert to this place where they would hear from God. Moses went up and came down with the Word that if they obeyed God’s commands, they would be His people. They promised to do so. They didn’t keep that promise. As a matter of fact, Moses went up the mountain to receive the Commandments, and within forty days God’s people rebelled. They rebelled over and over and over again throughout their history. They repeatedly broke their promise to God.
God made a promise in today’s text, too. “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice, and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own possession from among all peoples; for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.” God could have, at the foot of Mt. Sinai, dissolved the relationship with Israel because they were unfaithful. Yet, our God is a merciful God, the God of second chances. They suffered the consequences of their unfaithfulness, but God never abandoned His people. God is always faithful and He called His people to an extraordinary vocation: to be priests in His Kingdom, a holy nation.
The priests of ancient Egypt had an extraordinary vocation in their place and time. Modern priests (this is true of many different types of religions) are called and separated by their god to serve as mediators by offering sacrifices and teaching. This often means more than just religious service. Along with their religious duties, the Jewish priests practiced medical and judicial duties. They also were the teachers, providing both religious instruction as well as practical life lessons to the students. The priests were considered servants of God because they were doing the work God called them to do. That work often included very temporal duties for the sake of God’s people.
The priests of ancient Egypt were servants of their gods in a much different way. They did not serve the people. They did not preach or teach. They did not act as doctors or judges. They were set apart to meet their god’s every need, from sun-up to sun-down. At the break of day, the Egyptian priests sang a hymn calling their god to awake for the day. The priests then opened the sanctuary door, the place where their god slept, say a prayer over the image of the god so as to bring it back to life again. The god’s image was bathed, anointed and purified. Linen clothes were removed and fresh garments were put on the image. The sanctuary was cleansed with incense, perfumes and cosmetics were applied to the image. Food was laid out for the god. The sanctuary was sprinkled with water, natron (which is a salt mixture harvested from dry lake beds) and resin. The doors were closed and sealed. This ritual happened three times a day. The priests spent their lives serving the physical needs of the god of their temple, whatever it might be.
We see God from a much different perspective. Our God does not need to be aroused in the morning. He does not need to be cleansed and clothed. He does not need meals laid at His feet or baths of water, natron and resin. We do not give God anything because everything we have is His.
God promised that His people would be a kingdom of priests if they kept His covenant. The covenant at Sinai was a conditional pledge from God that He would act as protector over Israel and assure for her a blessed place among the nations as His treasured possession. The people were being called to separation as a priesthood, servants of God, a holy nation. The people eventually let go of their calling and let others act as priests, mediators, between God and man. Modern Christians still set aside certain people to do very specific work of God. Yet, the promise in today’s Old Testament is still meant for us. Peter applied that same promise to Christians in his first letter (1 Peter 2:5) called to serve God as His priesthood and to dwell in this world as a holy nation.
We continue to fail. We break our promises to God. We disobey His commandments. We live selfishly. We ignore the needs of our neighbors. We don’t realize it but our broken promises, even speeding, are rebellion against God. Yet, this God of mercy and second chances remains faithful to His promises. He continues to call us to be His priests in this world.
As priests we do not serve others, we serve God by serving others. Perhaps that sounds confusing, but it is all about our focus. There are many people in this world who do great and wonderful works for others. There are people who feed the hungry and clothe the poor. People who have no faith in God or Jesus have compassion on those who need shelter and companionship. There are non-religious people who are concerned about justice and mercy. They are good people. However, God was calling the people of Israel to be a kingdom of priests, to be people who served God. Keeping the covenant meant living as God had called them to live, with Him as their King. We are called to do the same, to do everything we do for the sake of God, to serve Him with all our hearts. As a priest in the Kingdom of God, we have one focus and that is our Father in heaven.
At the foot of Mt. Sinai, the people were preparing for the journey into the Promised Land. It would be a difficult time because it would take them many years to arrive at their destination. God would test them, they would fail; He would lift them up again and again. Through it all, they would see that He was with them always. They did not always believe, but He was always faithful. The disciples were preparing for a much different kind of journey in today’s Gospel lesson. They had no time to prepare; Jesus sent them off with nothing. They had no burdens, no maps, and no money. They had only faith, the authority Jesus gave them and His instructions.
The disciples had to trust that there would be a family waiting to take them in for the evening. Hospitality was different than it is today: you could knock on someone's door and you would find a warm fire and a hearty meal. Yet, not every homeowner was hospitable. The disciples could expect some compassion on the road, but they would not always be welcome. They would also face those who would not receive their message. The world does not want to hear the truth and their journey would not be easy. They would face hate, betrayal, persecution and doubt.
Though they would take the power of God to heal bodies, hearts and minds, they would be cast out of villages and left without proper food and shelter. Yet, if they walked forth in faith, God would provide all they needed. Jesus tells the disciples, “Freely ye received, freely give.” They were never to expect payment for the gift they were given. Jesus gave them the Gospel message and the power of God without concern for his salary. So, too, the disciples were to give freely.
We can only do the work of God because He has given us the authority and the power to do so. There would be no message to share if Jesus had not died on the cross. The Kingdom of God would still be under that covenant given at Mt. Sinai, a covenant dependent on our obedience to His Law. Paul tells us that our peace with God is not based on our ability to walk rightly, but rather it comes because we are made righteous through faith in Jesus Christ.
Faith in Christ is not easy; the disciples faced hate, betrayal, persecution and doubt. However, they were greatly blessed. Paul writes, “But God commends his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we will be saved from God’s wrath through him.” God demands our faithfulness, but knows we could never be faithful and so He sent Jesus to be faithful for us.
Jesus sent the disciples into the world with nothing. They were not to force themselves on the people. If they were not welcomed, they were not to stay. Jesus said, “Shake off the dust of your feet.” Then He told them the consequences of rejection. “It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that city.” This does not seem very merciful. However, we have to remember that this was a training mission. The disciples, though gifted and authorized, were inexperienced. How could they convince people when they were not yet really convinced of everything Jesus would teach them? Unfortunately, those who reject the disciples might not have the chance to hear the good news again, and so the consequence of their rejection was a day of judgment against them.
The work would not be easy. Jesus said, “I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves.” Some people will not only reject them, some might even threaten them for the things they would do and say. The crowds were often afraid after Jesus’ miracles. When He sent the demons into the pigs, the crowds begged Him to leave them alone. Jesus was able to get through those tough times. The disciples might not have been so lucky. It was better for them to leave the places where people rejected them than to face spiritual, emotional and physical harm. Jesus said, “Be wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” They were not being sent into the world to be hard or harsh. Wisdom in this case meant leaving unbelievers behind.
Though the work they were being called to do was difficult, Jesus reminded them the source of their power and their authority. “But when they deliver you up, don’t be anxious how or what you will say, for it will be given you in that hour what you will say. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.” Sharing the Kingdom of God is not something we can do by our own power. It is His power that brings healing and restoration. He approves those whom He calls and gives them (us) the authority to do the work. He speaks through us. The word that saves is His. When we face those tough times, we need not worry for God is with us.
The apostles were taking a message of hope into the world. The people to whom they were taking that message were probably not very hopeful. They were an oppressed nation, oppressed not only by the Roman government that ordered their secular lives, but also the religious government that were merely puppets to Rome. The Law was a burden they could not carry and they saw the leaders who should be their examples living self-righteously without mercy or grace. They had no control over their lives and they had no hope for tomorrow. They were relying on the things that fail - human beings, human rules, and human government - and they had lost touch with the God who gives a hope that does not disappoint. God will always be faithful to His promises, and we can sing His praises.
As I read today’s psalm, I remember the wonderful music that we all learned in Sunday School, at Vacation Bible School or at summer camp. I can hear children’s voices singing: “I’ve got the joy down in my heart” and “Enter his gates with thanksgiving in my heart.” These songs remind us of the joy of living in relationship with God, of being joyful in His presence. It is in the power of music that we are able to remember the simplest, but most important, things about God. He has written His Word on our hearts, and we can easily reach for those words in the songs that we hold dear. In our singing or humming or words of praise, we keep God close to us, remembering His truth and sharing them with the world.
None of us are perfect. We fail and we suffer the consequences of our failure. We make mistakes, but faith brings us through our times of suffering, as we persevere through tough times with God’s promises as our firm foundation. We will break our promises. We will even break our promises to God. Yet, we can trust that God will be faithful through the rough times; He will give us all we need to be the priests of His Kingdom, to be His holy nation. This gives us reason to shout for joy and sing joyful songs, to give Him thanks and praise His name!
“He entered again into the synagogue, and there was a man there who had his hand withered. They watched him, whether he would heal him on the Sabbath day, that they might accuse him. He said to the man who had his hand withered, ‘Stand up.’ He said to them, ‘Is it lawful on the Sabbath day to do good, or to do harm? To save a life, or to kill?’ But they were silent. When he had looked around at them with anger, being grieved at the hardening of their hearts, he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored as healthy as the other. The Pharisees went out, and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him.” Mark 3:1-6, WEB
I once heard a caller on a radio talk show who told the host about an experience he had in college. He was taking a class required for graduation with a professor who had a completely different point of view of the world. He thought the teacher scored papers based on her bias, giving higher grades to the students who agreed with her. The young man was soon writing what she wanted to hear rather than what he believed. He was willing to give up his principles for the perfect grade. I have heard similar stories from other students since.
We don’t know the whole story, of course. He based his opinion on one grade. The paper may have been filled with errors. It may have been a bad paper. However, there are professors that allow personal biases and perspectives to rule their teaching practice. It seems to be getting worse than better. If the teacher was grading based on her world view, the student had a choice. He needed the class and wanted the best grade, so he felt is was necessary to write things he did not believe. The other choice was to deal with a grade that would destroy his grade point average. He chose what he thought was the better of two bad outcomes. We make tough decisions all the time.
Jesus often presented choices to His listeners. The choice in today’s passage was whether or not to heal on the Sabbath. Since it would mean being disobedient to the Law as they understood it, they could not make that choice. Yet, they could not very well say that it was better to let a thing die than to save it. So, they remained silent. Though the choice was black or white, they decided to take gray. They didn’t realize that their choice would lead to death.
They decided to destroy Jesus because He demanded from them something they could not give. They could not give Him the answer to His question because they thought it was unlawful to heal. Yet, in not healing they were choosing death. Jesus did not concern Himself with their opinion. He healed the man despite their perspective. He chose life even though it seemed as though He was choosing disobedience. For Jesus this was not a tough decision, however because He put it into its most basic form: good verses harm or life verses death.
The man in today’s story was no one important and to the Jews perhaps even deserved his dis-ease. Yet, they knew that it was not good to wish any dead, so they chose to remain silent. In doing so they rejected Jesus and thus choice death both for Him and for themselves.
Did the young man make the right choice by writing what he did not believe? Which is good, which promotes life? Would giving up our principles to earn an “A” based do anyone any harm? Would it do anyone any good? Perhaps the “A” would not harm anyone, but standing for his principles just might have done some good. When we have decisions to make, especially when it seems we are choosing between two equally bad choices, we should follow Jesus’ example and choose life because ultimately it means choosing Jesus and eternal life with Him.
“The word which came to Jeremiah from Yahweh, saying, Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause you to hear my words. Then I went down to the potter’s house, and behold, he was making a work on the wheels. When the vessel that he made of the clay was marred in the hand of the potter, he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it.” Jeremiah 18:1-4, WEB
I had the opportunity to visit a couple yesterday who are artists. They do mostly three dimensional works, sculptures out of different types of materials. They love to shop the antique stores and flea markets to find lost treasures to use in their work. Their workshops are filled with bins that contain old rusty kitchen items, tools, ceramics and other things. They have a huge collection of doll parts, everything from disembodied Barbie legs to porcelain faces. The man particularly likes using very old rusty metal roller skates which he makes into fantasy tea pot vehicles.
They both work in clay, also. The woman prefers to create freeform pieces; her creatures have amazing personalities and interesting stories. The man has recently begun creating pieces with slabs of clay that are pieced together. After glazing and firing, he includes bits and pieces of their found treasures. He also uses a potter’s wheel to create thrown pieces. He gave us a demonstration of how to use the wheel.
It was fascinating to watch as he prepared his clay, centered it on the wheel and then worked it into something beautiful. He talked us through the steps, warned us about the dangers, showed us how to push and pull the clay into something useful. He demonstrated tools and described methods used by other potters. He showed us three different pieces so that we could see how he handled the clay to make a small bowl, a tall vase and a larger piece.
I couldn’t help but think about the scripture texts that talk about the potter. The one that ran through my mind before the demonstration was Isaiah 64:8, “But now, Yahweh, you are our Father. We are the clay, and you our potter. We all are the work of your hand.” I asked the potter if he minded my taking pictures, and I focused on his hands, the clay and the vessels he created. I planned to use the photos to create a meme for my Facebook page, but the photos gave me a new perspective about the potter and the clay.
We all watched in amazement as he worked the clay, and his first piece had very lovely curves. When it was finished, he took a wire cutting tool and slashed it in half. We all gasped in shock! How could he destroy something so beautiful? He did it because he wanted to show us what the clay looked like after it had been worked. We saw that clay had no air pockets, which could cause the piece to explode in the oven. We also saw the different thicknesses from the top to the bottom. He described the different ways to embellish a pot, how to dry it and how it will be glazed and fired. He destroyed the pot to teach us things we could not learn by just seeing the finished piece. He said, “The best part of working with clay is that the materials are reusable.” He put the clay back on the pile for use at another time.
The second pot he threw came out lovely, although he made some errors along the way. He pushed too hard and the top of the pot got all wonky. His mistake gave him the opportunity to show us how to trim the top and fix the problem. He also talked about how some potters like the wavy top and do it on purpose. After smoothing some edges, he decided he liked the pot and then showed us how to prep it for drying. He used a larger pile of clay for the final piece which fell in on itself. There was something about the clay that made it hard to work. He tried to work it into something usable, he showed us how the piece could still be used as a wall hanging despite its lack of symmetry. I thought it would have made a cool clock. In the end he smashed the piece and put that clay back on the pile.
I learned a lot of lessons about working with clay, but I also saw the potter’s texts more clearly. It wasn’t until I looked through my photos later that afternoon that I really saw the work of the potter’s hands. He’s gentle but strong, pushing and pulling the clay. He presses it into shape, removing the bubbles that could cause the pot to explode in the fire of the kiln. In the process, his hands are covered with clay as he smoothes the surface. He skillfully uses the tools to remove the parts that aren’t needed or are not quite right.
Although I know how messy it can be to work with clay, I always pictured God’s pristine hands has He made each of us into a vessel for His use. I never really thought about how many pots a potter might smash before throwing the one that he will keep, reusing the clay over and over again until everything was right. I never had good luck with clay. Whether it was my fault or the fault of my teachers (both happened) my pieces often failed and I avoided using the material for my work.
Jeremiah writes, “When the vessel that he made of the clay was marred in the hand of the potter, he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it.” Perhaps I didn’t try hard enough to learn how to use clay. I don’t like to destroy my work and it would be very hard to smash something on which I’d worked so hard. Yet, where would any of us be if our God gave up on us? He is not an imperfect Creator, but His raw materials are often difficult to work with. I don’t always respond to His gentle but strong touch and I know I fall too often. Thankfully our God keeps working, getting His hands dirty, and will keep working, until the day when we will be everything He has created us to be.
“Therefore you shall lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul. You shall bind them for a sign on your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them your children, talking of them, when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall write them on the door posts of your house, and on your gates; that your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, in the land which Yahweh swore to your fathers to give them, as the days of the heavens above the earth.” Deuteronomy 11:18-21, WEB
Zack loves to play games and will often get together with his friends to play one of the popular strategy games. Sometimes he even asks us to play with him. His games are not the games we grew up playing, but he quickly teaches us the rules and always promises that the game will not last too long. We learn, we win or lose, and we have a lot of fun in the process.
I grew up playing Monopoly with my friends. We didn’t always play by the rule, though. The game, which should have lasted an hour or so, often lasted days. We would set up at someone’s house and begin on a summer day and we would trust that person to leave the game board in tact when it was time to go home for dinner. It became lengthy because we all got extraordinarily rich by landing on Free Parking. See, when I was a kid, we always put all monies the bank should have collected in the middle of the board. We did this with the fees from purchasing properties, taxes, chance and community chest cards. This built up a rather large fortune, and anyone landing on the Free Parking space got rich. It made for lengthy, very interesting games. We did this while playing Monopoly with the kids when they were young and it bothered Zack a great deal. He had read all the rules and wanted to follow them exactly. That is a good idea, because a game where people are following different sets of rules can be quite chaotic.
I suppose that’s what has happened in our world. Everyone seems to be following a different standard of rules. Oh, almost everyone agrees that we should not kill, but there are a million different opinions about what is meant by killing. Some consider war an unfortunate necessity while others think that there should be no war whatsoever. Some consider abortion murder, while others do not. Some believe that euthanasia is ok and others do not believe it should be allowed. As we consider our world today, we can see how these disagreements have created chaos in our world.
The LORD gave us a set of Laws, the Ten Commandments, which established the most basic rules for our relationships with one another. More laws were developed for the nation of Israel to help them deal with offenses against that Law and the broken relationships that ensued. Yet, even when things were so clearly laid out by God, it was impossible for God’s people to remain faithful to the covenant He had made with them. He asked His people to remember His words, to live by them every moment and if they did so they would be blessed. Yet, even then the people had difficulty agreeing about the rules and found them impossible to follow.
We still find it impossible to be completely obedient to the Commandments. We change the rules so that they suit our lives. We justify our faithlessness by making excuses as to why we must do things the way we do them. God knew that we would not be able to keep His Word perfectly, that’s why He sent Jesus Christ to forgive the sins of His people. Those who would not keep the Law as God intended had only one place to go: the cross of Christ.
However, that does not diminish the words of today’s passage from God. He calls us to write His Word on our hearts, to learn His words so that they become the very center of our being. This begins with the Commandments that God gave us to help us live in relationship with Him and one another and continues with the rest of God’s Word that points to the Word incarnate who saved us from our faithlessness. When we know God’s Word, teach those words to our children, talk of them, walk with them, dwell with them in our lives, we will live as God has created and redeemed us to live. We will be blessed when His Word, from the Commandments to Jesus Christ, is written in our hearts. There may be disagreements about the rules and chaos because of our understanding, but when God’s Word guides our every moment then we will be blessed.
“Blessed is the man who doesn’t walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand on the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in Yahweh’s law. On his law he meditates day and night. He will be like a tree planted by the streams of water, that produces its fruit in its season, whose leaf also does not wither. Whatever he does shall prosper.” Psalm 1:1-3, WEB
As I researched for yesterday’s WORD, I found an article by a man who had learned that the best way to memorize scripture is repetition. He decided to follow a plan of reading the text each day for thirty days. He began with 1 John, a book of only five chapters. At the end of the thirty days he wasn’t sure he really had it perfect, so he did it for another thirty and then another thirty for a total of ninety days. Even then he didn’t think he’d memorized it perfectly, but decided to move on. In the end, he decided that it would be best to just move on after the thirty days so that he could become very familiar with the entire New Testament.
There are plenty of suggestions about memorizing scripture. Many groups have plans, lists of the best texts to memorize, and reasons to do so. Doing so, as we talked about yesterday, helps us to live life as God has created and called us to live. It becomes part of our being and God’s Word guides us as we walk in this world. It transforms us, helps us avoid temptation, helps us to live in obedience. It will bless us and it will make us ready to bless others with encouragement and the Gospel. It helps us to better understand God and it makes us wise.
One site I visited talked about the reasons to memorize scripture. Most importantly, the writer said, we should do so because Jesus memorized scripture. Jesus certainly quoted the scriptures repeatedly, showing us how the Word given in the Old Testament was fulfilled by His life. The story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus tells us that Jesus opened the scriptures to them: “Beginning from Moses and from all the prophets, he explained to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27, WEB)
I take issue with the idea that Jesus memorized the scriptures. I once took a workshop on biblical storytelling. While many programs will give lists of scriptures to memorize, the storytellers say that we should be doing something much deeper. We should learn the text “by heart.” While there might not seem to be that much of a difference, memorization is a head thing and we need to go further. See, Jesus didn’t memorize scripture; it was a part of Him. He was the Word and He knew God’s Word in a way we can never know it, but we can spend our lives making it, and Him, a part of our whole beings.
The lectionary texts during the Pentecost season this year will be entirely from the center of the Gospel of Matthew (chapters 10-22.) During his sermon on Sunday, he suggested that we read through those chapters as our summer reading. We might not have the time to do the whole thing every day, but imagine how transforming it could be if you read one chapter each day for a week! You could become very familiar with those chapters by the beginning of September. In that time you’ll learn what it means to be a Christian in this world, about how to live your Christian faith for the sake of others. You’ll hear God calling you to a life of grace that won’t be easy but will be blessed. God’s Word will be written on your heart and will produce fruit that will glorify Him in this world.
Scriptures for Sunday, June 25, 2017, Third Sunday after Pentecost: Jeremiah 20:7-13; Psalm 91:1-10 (11-16); Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:5a, 21-33
“Everyone therefore who confesses me before men, him I will also confess before my Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 10:32, WEB
Henry VIII did not like to receive bad news; he preferred hearing good news and he was likely to punish the messenger if someone told him something that he did not like. Men and women were cast out of his court when he did not like what they had to say. Those around him learned quickly never to say something that he would not like. It is natural for people to prefer good news. None of us like to hear that our plans have failed or that we have done something wrong. We don’t like to hear that we are going in the wrong direction. Unfortunately, ignoring the truth always leads to deeper troubles.
Unfortunately, the people of Israel in Jeremiah’s time were much like Henry VIII. They preferred good news. The self-proclaimed prophets of the day learned quickly that they would do much better if they gave the people, especially the kings and leaders, words that they wanted to hear. If they thought the king wanted peace, they spoke of peace as if it were coming right from the mouth of God. If they thought the king wanted to go to war, they promised that God was behind the war and that they would be victorious.
Jeremiah had no good news for the people. As a matter of fact, the words which God had given him to speak were hard for the people to hear. The words were so hard that Jeremiah was persecuted. It is impossible for a man to speak such truth when there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of others making false prophecies and promises. They believed the warm fuzzies because they make them feel good. Besides, isn’t there truth in numbers? Surely the majority is always right!
There are times when a majority is right, but we have to remember that there are consequences to our choices. Claiming peace when there is no peace means that we’ll be shocked when something happens that is no peaceful. Unfulfilled prophecies and broken promises will cause doubt and rejection of God. Warm fuzzies of falsehood will never keep you warm on a cold winter’s day.
When God called Jeremiah to be a prophet, Jeremiah surely had no idea how hard it would be. It would have been much easier for him if he could have been a prophet like all the others, speaking warm fuzzies to the kings and the people. He was shocked at how hard it would be to be the one who spoke the truth. The reality made him angry with God. The New International Version translates the first line, “O Lord, you deceived me.” Yet, despite Jeremiah’s hard words against God, he still had faith. Despite the persecution, Jeremiah still believed in God’s grace.
He would have preferred to give up his role as prophet. Isn’t that what we would rather do? Like the courtesans of Henry VIII, it is much easier for us to just remain silent. We prefer, particularly in this world which demands our silence, to keep our faith to ourselves. We try to be faithful in the privacy of our own homes or in the comfort of our Christian congregations. We choose to allow others to continue to live their lives as they want even if we know that they need Jesus. After all, who are we to tell them what religion is right and what is wrong? It is even worse when it seems that we are speaking against the majority that insists we coexist. We don’t want to suffer the persecution, so we simply remain silent.
Yet, God calls us to be His voice in this world; He sends us to tell people about God and their need for Him. We want to ignore the call, but we can’t. There’s something within us that demands our faithfulness to God. Jeremiah cried, “If I say, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name, then there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with forbearing, and I can’t.” Jeremiah knew there was no way he could stop speaking God’s word to the world. In the end, his terror gave way to praise because he knew that whatever God planned would benefit His people in the end.
Can we truly praise God in the privacy of our homes and the comfort of our congregations when He is calling us to go out in the world to speak His Word to those lost in sin and darkness? We might avoid persecution, but are we being faithful and obedient by being silent?
We don’t have to be afraid of the persecution. In the Great Commission which Jesus gave to the disciples at the end of their time together, which we heard several weeks ago, Jesus told us to go and make disciples of all nations and that He would be with us wherever we go until the end of the age. During the season of Pentecost we will be reading through the center chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, watches as Jesus teaches the disciples how to do the work He is calling them to do. In this text He tells them not to be afraid of those who can cause harm to the body because He can save the soul.
We may suffer for speaking God’s Word into the world. Unfortunately, Christians are being persecuted. Some are being beheaded. Others are losing their children as enemies kidnap them or governments take them away. Yet others are having their reputations and businesses destroyed. Churches have been burned. Too many have been led down paths that seem faithful but do not remain true to God’s Word for the sake of tolerance or acceptance. Anyone who speaks against this way of faith supposedly does not understand God’s unconditional love; they are rejected for standing true to God’s unwavering holiness.
There are people in this world who are willing to risk their own lives to do what they think they are called to do, which is to kill their enemies. The terrorists and extremists believe that death will lead them to a promise and they are willing to do whatever is necessary to be obedient to their beliefs. They promote their religion with fear and demand complete submission. The consequence for those unwilling to surrender is destruction and death. We are not called as Christians to kill our enemies in the city streets, but can you imagine the world if we were as bold with the mission we have been given?
We are called to speak the Gospel, to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are given the power and authority to cry out for repentance and to invite our neighbors to experience the forgiveness that God has promised. We are called to invite our neighbors into the Kingdom of God so that they might die to self and live for God. If we were as bold as those terrorists, fearlessly preaching the Gospel even when we know that they will reject us and possibly harm us, then many would come to faith. See, for every person who rejects the word of God, there are more who hear and believe. God’s Word does not return to Him void, so while there are those who will reject the reality of their sinful nature so that they might be forgiven, others will see the truth and the truth will set them free.
We don’t do it, do we? We live in a world that has decided that it is wrong, perhaps even unchristian, to convince people that they need Jesus. We aren’t supposed to tell people they are sinners. We are supposed to tolerate everyone’s point of view and accept everyone’s gods. So, instead of taking the Gospel to all nations, we conform to the world. We embrace the fear and reject the One who has saved us from real harm. We hide in the privacy of our homes and the comfort of our congregations.
Jesus says, “Therefore don’t be afraid. You are of more value than many sparrows. Everyone therefore who confesses me before men, him I will also confess before my Father who is in heaven.” But He doesn’t leave it there: He warns us, “But whoever denies me before men, him I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven.” We can’t simply praise God in hiding. We must boldly confess our faith before the world no matter what might happen to us. We truly show God that we trust Him when we are willing to say the words that no one wants to hear. He has promised to be with us until the very end of the age. He has promised that death will not lead to death.
We haven’t been saved from physical death. There was once commercial for some fancy water. The commercial showed a man take a drink of the water and suddenly realize that he was walking on bubble wrap. The voice over said, “It helps protect your body.” So, the man went around the city doing ridiculous things, things you could not do if there were not bubble wrap on everything. He rolled down a huge set of steps. He jumped into a wall. He rode an elevator to the top of a skyscraper and jumped off. The water might have been healthy, but it would never really save a person who leapt from the top of a very large building. The water may have had very real advantages, but those who drank it would eventually suffer pain, disease and death.
We are not immortal now that we are Christian. As a matter of fact, we have died, like Christ, through baptism. We are dead and we don’t have to fear death because death actually means life for us. See, death is just the beginning of the life God has promised we will live in His kingdom. This does not mean we should be like the man in the commercial seemingly seeking death by risking our lives in ridiculous ways. It means that we don’t have to be afraid to do what God is calling us to do, because we can trust that God will take care of us if we do experience persecution.
We weren’t saved from death so that we can hide in our homes or church and worship God privately. We are called to the life of a prophet, one who tells the world about Jesus Christ and who invites them to repentance. This life God has called us to means that we might have to speak words that our neighbors do not want to hear. We have to tell people the truth. We have to bring light to the darkness and reveal what is hidden. We have to say what the other prophets refuse to say. We have to give them the bad news. But in the end we have even greater news, “Yes, you are a sinner, but I want you to meet Jesus. He died so you can live. Believe in Him and you won’t have to pay the price for your sin; He has already done it for you.”
You might think that you are just an ordinary Christian, but you are a prophet; God has sent you to take His Word to His people. Being a prophet is never going to be easy. We will face the difficulties of those who want to harm us because we don’t conform to their expectation. But Paul reminds us that the difficulty is not only outward. We have to face the reality that despite what Jesus did for us, we will never be perfect. We will continue to sin. We will continue to make mistakes. It is, perhaps, our imperfections that will make it most difficult for the world to believe us when we speak.
But we’ve been saved for a purpose. God is with us through it all, and He will do what is necessary to make us into His prophets. With His help, we must be transformed into something new. If we lie, we must stop lying. If we cheat, we must stop cheating. If we use revolting language, we must stop using it. God will help, but it is up to us to work at not doing those things that disappoint Him. “Go and sin no more,” He says. Just because we have been saved doesn’t mean that God is entirely pleased with our lives. He continues to work in us and on us so that we can be all that He has created and redeemed us to be.
After all, how will anyone respond to the Gospel if we continue to let sin reign in our mortal bodies? We are under grace, and so we no longer have to let sin have dominion over us. God is with us. He will take care of us. He will help us defeat the sin that tries creeping into our lives every day. The more we are aware of our own sinful behavior, the more we can work at avoiding the things that displease God. We are slaves now to God, and as servants of the Master we are called to a life of pleasing Him. That means being obedient to all that He has taught us. That means avoiding the things that still want to enslave us, the things that make us conform to the world.
Paul reminds us that while we might have been free to do whatever we wanted before we were Christian, that doesn’t mean we were free. We were slaves to sin, and as a slave to sin our fruit was not good. The end of sinful behavior and a nature of sin is death. But we have been given new life, a life of righteousness. Yes, we are now slaves to that life, but now we produce fruit that is good and God pleasing. We produce fruit that will make the world a better place. We produce fruit filled with love and hope and peace. As a slave to God and righteousness, we are embraced by His grace and continually sanctified so that on that day when we will meet Him face to face, we will be everything He has created and redeemed us to be. On that day we will receive the promise in full: eternal life. God is faithful to His promises and even when it seems like the world wants to destroy us, we know that we cannot really be destroyed.
I have to admit that I am afraid. I don’t mind admitting that I’d rather hide in my home or congregation. I even say that I am ready for the end; “Come, Jesus, Come” is my battle cry. He could come today or it may not be for a thousand years, so while we wait, we can’t be afraid of those who have threaten to kill the body. We know they can’t kill the soul. My fear is less of them and more that I’ll fail. How could God possibly choose someone like me to be a prophet? I’m nobody. I’m ordinary. I sometimes can’t even get those who love me to listen or to understand what I’m trying to say. How can God ever think I could speak to the world?
But that’s the point of these texts, isn’t it. We aren’t speaking; we are called to let God speak through us. It isn’t our words that matter, but God’s Word. We don’t need to be afraid because we are already dead but He has promised us eternal life. When the world rejects us, even if it is our closest relatives, we can go on knowing that God can make miracles in the most extraordinary circumstances. See, every person who believes the Gospel is a miracle. They believe by God’s hand, by God’s grace, by God’s Word. And we are called to share in the making of these miracles, even if we have to experience persecution or death to do so.
But we need not be afraid. As the psalmist says, “He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” God is with us. Jesus will be at our side wherever we may go. The Holy Spirit will guide us in the right paths and give us the words to speak. We have no reason to fear because God is our refuge and our strength. The world may not want to hear what we say, but it truly is Good News that burns within us to be spoken. Let us boldly preach the Gospel, praising God with our willingness to risk everything to be obedient to His calling as His prophets in this world.
“I will lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from Yahweh, who made heaven and earth. He will not allow your foot to be moved. He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. Yahweh is your keeper. Yahweh is your shade on your right hand. The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. Yahweh will keep you from all evil. He will keep your soul. Yahweh will keep your going out and your coming in, from this time forward, and forever more.” Psalm 121, WEB
Are you planning to take a vacation this summer? Some friends have already gone on road trips or have boarded airplanes for far away destinations. I’ve seen photos of people having fun at the beach or visiting tourist sites in exciting places. Summer is a great time to visit National Parks or to just relax in a cabin in the woods.
I’m planning a trip for later this summer. I will be meeting my daughter in Nashville and we will have some fun visiting the city. We have timed our trip so that we can attend a theological conference, but we are planning to have some much needed mother-daughter time. We have already started the planning. I am driving, so I’ve booked a hotel room for stops along the way and made our reservations for the conference. We have both sent for visitor’s guides so we can decide what we want to do and see during our time together. I have been saving money so it won’t be a financial burden. As we get closer to the time, we’ll have to check weather reports, make sure the car is ready and pack our suitcases.
I wonder what it was like for people in other eras of human history to plan for trips. It is unlikely that a common family would go on a vacation and family was rarely farther than the next farm, but there are stories of people who traveled in other generations. I just finished a biography of Martin Luther which talked of the many times he traveled hundreds of miles for assemblies called by the princes and religious leaders of his day. He often refused to ride, preferring to walk until his health made it impossible. That meant the travels took many days. Pilgrims in the ancient times also walked, often as far as a thousand miles to prove their love for God. Those pilgrimages might take months or even years; to do it would mean giving up the normal life.
Travel was much more dangerous than it is today. Though there are dangers in automobiles or airplanes, we generally do not have to worry about pirates or thieves on the road. We don’t suffer from the heat of the day or the cold of the night because our cars have air conditioning and there are hotels every few miles where we can stay. We don’t have to worry about hunger because we are likely to find a fast food place at the next exit or in the airport concourse. Unfortunately, we don’t take our pilgrimages as seriously anymore and it seems like we need not look to God as much as those earlier travelers for our daily care and protection.
Today’s Psalm is the song of a pilgrim, sung by travelers to comfort them with the promise that God was with them through their journey. For those who had to walk through wilderness under the heat of the sun and who faced criminals around every corner, such a psalm would offer hope and peace in the journey. We may not be subjected to the same dangers of the road, but it does not make our need for God any less than it was for them. Even if we never leave our home, we can rest in the knowledge that God will never slumber, that He will keep us and guide us through all our journeys, large and small.
“An angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. Zacharias was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, ‘Don’t be afraid, Zacharias, because your request has been heard, and your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. You will have joy and gladness; and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and he will drink no wine nor strong drink. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord, their God. He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, “to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,” and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to prepare a people prepared for the Lord.’” Luke 1:11-17 (ASV)
Don’t shoot the messenger, but as of tomorrow we are just six months from Christmas Eve. I know it is too early to think about it, although if you’ve been in the craft stores you know that it isn’t for them. Some people have already complained, but think about this: those who give homemade gifts must get an early start on their shopping so they have time to make everything. Professional decorators need to fill their inventory. People shipping to overseas locations need to prepare much earlier than those who will give gifts in person. On the business end of it, the stores can’t have empty shelves, so they must put out merchandise once the previous seasonal items are gone. We might not want to think of it, but time flies and Christmas will really be here soon.
So, who are we thinking about it today? Tomorrow is the Nativity of John the Baptist. We celebrate this historic moment based on Luke’s telling of the story of Jesus. Luke tells us that Mary went to visit John’s mother Elizabeth after she heard the message of the angel Gabriel. Gabriel told her that she could see proof of his words by visiting her relative Elizabeth who was pregnant in her old age. Mary went to see and stayed with her for three months, when the time for John’s birth came. Tradition thus holds that John was six months older than his cousin Jesus.
There is a theological reason why we remember John’s birth on June 24th. Mid-June is the time of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. From that day until the winter solstice in Mid-December the days become shorter. We are reminded of John’s words from John 3:30, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” With John’s birth the light wanes until Jesus is born and then the light waxes as the sun after the winter solstice.
John the Baptist heralded the coming of the Christ, proclaiming the kingdom of God and calling for the repentance of the people. He was sent first to warn the Jews that they must turn back to God or they would miss the Messiah for whom they were waiting. The Jews were longing for deliverance; they wanted to be freed from the Romans that bound and oppressed them in that age. Yet, they did not realize they were bound by an even harsher master: sin and death. It was not an earthly kingdom that was coming, but God’s kingdom and the salvation that was to be offered was not for the flesh. Jesus Christ brought eternal life to those who believe and John the Baptist prepared the way.
Tomorrow we remember the nativity of John the Baptist, and honor him for the role he played in the ministry of Jesus Christ. We remember, however, that John was just the herald, the one who came before to proclaim the coming of the King. He knew that he was unimportant, and once Jesus arrived on the scene, he willingly stepped aside so that Jesus would have center stage. John is in some ways an example to us today. We are also called to be witnesses to the coming of Christ, yet our role is different because Jesus has already completed the work of salvation. What we learn from John is that we too are called to proclaim Him, but then step back and let Him have all the glory.
“They departed, and went throughout the villages, preaching the Good News, and healing everywhere. Now Herod the tetrarch heard of all that was done by him; and he was very perplexed, because it was said by some that John had risen from the dead, and by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the old prophets had risen again. Herod said, ‘John I beheaded, but who is this, about whom I hear such things?’ He sought to see him. The apostles, when they had returned, told him what things they had done.”
Late in His ministry, Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They answered, “Some say John the Baptist...” (Matthew 16:14, Mark 8:28, Luke 9:19) This seems very odd to us because we know that John and Jesus are two very different people. We assume that everyone would recognize Jesus as being a different man. However, their fame was based as much on word of mouth as in personal experience. Herod knew John, but had never met Jesus. I’m sure the same is true of many others; they’d heard rumors about an incredible prophet. It would have been must easier in their day to confuse the two. They didn’t have television and social media to help them identify the men.
Jesus increased just as John was decreasing. Though Jesus had done some of His miraculous work before John was beheaded, His fame would have grown after the murder. It is no wonder that some thought John had been raised from the dead. Despite the numerous times John told his disciples that He was not the Messiah, that he was only a witnesses and messenger pointing to His coming, some still thought that John was the one. There are still some in the world who believe in John’s message of repentance rather than the grace and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. As a matter of fact, there are some who claim to this day that Jesus perverted the teachings given to Him by John the Baptist.
Herod wanted to meet Jesus, perhaps to assure himself that Jesus was not the man he beheaded. It is bad enough when people fear ghosts will haunt them; can you imagine the fear that he must have felt at the thought that John might be back in flesh? John was a powerful man. He may not have had worldly power, but he had the power of God to speak words that drew people to him. He was determined to herald the coming of the Messiah as God had called him to do, but people would have easily followed his leadership to fight against the enemies of God’s people. His words had an impact on so many. Some, like Andrew, was there when John pointed to Jesus and said that He was the one to follow. Others, like Apollos, took off to preach John’s message to distant places. It took an encounter with Paul in Ephesus to convince Apollos of the rest of the story. (Acts 19)
Many people remain confused about the Gospel. Ask ten Christians about Jesus and you’ll get eleven answers. Those who don’t know Jesus, or only know Him from rumors of His fame, will have an incomplete understanding of His grace. We need to be like Paul and tell them the rest of the story. We need to be so familiar with the Gospel that we can speak the words that will create the spark of faith in their hearts. Jesus Christ, the Word and true Messiah, will do more than John the Baptist ever could. He will offer forgiveness and hope, life and peace, to all those who believe.
“I know a man in Christ, fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I don’t know, or whether out of the body, I don’t know; God knows), such a one caught up into the third heaven. I know such a man (whether in the body, or outside of the body, I don’t know; God knows), how he was caught up into Paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in my weaknesses. For if I would desire to boast, I will not be foolish; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, so that no man may think more of me than that which he sees in me, or hears from me. By reason of the exceeding greatness of the revelations, that I should not be exalted excessively, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, that I should not be exalted excessively. Concerning this thing, I begged the Lord three times that it might depart from me. He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Most gladly therefore I will rather glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest on me. Therefore I take pleasure in weaknesses, in injuries, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then am I strong.”
I take a lot of photographs. I might take a thousand photos on one of my wildflower adventures or a trip to the zoo. I have found that it is a very good day if ten percent of the photos are decent, and I usually pick a fraction of those for display. There are so many things that can make a photo less than ideal. Bad lighting, a tiny movement, a missed detail that stands out in a bad way can ruin a photo. Every photographer, even the best with great equipment, can make mistakes.
I can take a thousand photos because I have a digital camera. It doesn’t cost me any more to take a thousand and it is easy to delete those that are bad. Film and developing is expensive, so I tended limit the photos. I was more careful in composition, but I still had photos ruined by some failure. When I am on a wildflower adventure, I tend to use continuous shot as I aim for a group of flowers. In seconds I’ve taken a dozen or so, and in the end I find one that is well composed with flowers blowing in the breeze. I’ve taken lovely flower photos with film, but I’m able to capture so much more with digital.
I have to admit that I have a hard time getting rid of any of my pictures, even the bad ones. I know there’s no reason to keep that fuzzy, dark photo with someone’s head cut off, but there are lessons to be learned from our failures. When I look at my perfect wildflower shot, I think maybe I’m a great photographer. When I look at the other eleven of the same flower, I am reminded that I’m not perfect. Our failures are humbling, but in humility we are willing to learn and to accept the help of others.
Imagine what it must have been like to be Paul. He was pretty incredible, a specially chosen man called to do an extraordinary task. He would have been right to hold his leadership and authority over the members of the congregations he established. He could have demanded payment for the work he did. He could have insisted that the Christians do as he said. He had the authority based on his experience. It was obvious that he was chosen by God. He was gifted and God’s grace was manifest in his life and work. He even had some remarkable things happen to him that serve as proof of God’s hand in his life.
The conversion on the road to Damascus was more than enough to establish Paul as God’s helper, but in today’s passage Paul tells another story. This was probably an important moment in Paul’s ministry because in it he was given a vision of Paradise and given a message from God that he could not share. Though it is likely that he was the one who had the vision, he told it in third person, as if he were talking about another. Others might have boasted about the experience and make it the center of their ministry, demanding respect, attention and obedience because of it.
However, Paul was humble. He refused to be the center of the story, claiming it is about someone else. Then Paul reminded the congregation about his imperfections. He talked about his thorn, whatever that might be. Paul was not perfect. Though he was gifted and blessed, called by God and given the most incredible spiritual experiences, he insisted that his authority was not based on his mountain top experiences or even his incredible gifts. His authority is based on God’s grace. And so it is with us. There might be visions or revelations we’ve received that prove to the world that we are chosen and called by God. But it is in our failures that we are humbled to remember that we are nothing without God’s grace.
Scriptures for Sunday, July 2, 2017, Fourth Sunday after Pentecost: Jeremiah 28:5-9; Psalm 119:153-160; Romans 7:1-13; Matthew 10:34-42
“Plead my cause, and redeem me! Revive me according to your promise.” Psalm 119:154
I am trying to make healthier choices about food. I know there are things I should avoid and I commit myself to avoiding those things. For a time. Then I begin to crave the things that I know I should avoid. The more I convince myself to be true to my commitment, the more I desire those things. The worst of all, of course, is chocolate. I was at the grocery store the other day and had a craving for chocolate. I have to admit that I wandered past the chocolate cake very, very slowly. I lingered near the chocolate ice cream. I barely got through the check-out lane without a pile of chocolate bars in my cart. I made it through the store without buying it this time, but I have to admit that I’ve failed more often than I succeeded. The more I tell myself to avoid these things, the more they are temptations for me.
I’m sure we can all give similar examples of things we want desperately when we cannot have them. Movies and television shows tell stories of unrequited love that cause people to do crazy things. Workers who feel they deserve a promotion that seems to be going to another will do everything they can to make the other person look bad. Our desire for the things we cannot have often leads us to sin. We know these things are wrong. Unfortunately, the more we are aware of the sin, the more we are tempted by it. The more we are tempted, the more likely we are to fall.
In today’s epistle lesson, Paul clearly differentiates between the Law and sin. The law is not sin, but with the law we become aware of the sinful behaviors that harm others and ourselves. When we hear the commandment, “Thou shalt not lie,” we realize that anytime we tell an untruth, a partial truth or keep the truth hidden, then we are sinning. Paul uses the law of covetousness in this passage. He tell us that before the law we did not know what it meant to covet something, but when we heard the law, we learned that it is wrong to desire something which is not ours. The law about coveting is not sin, but it opens our eyes to the way our flesh desires go against God’s intention for our lives.
As Paul describes it, sin took advantage of the law, causing the one who heard the law to covet all the more. He writes, “For apart from the law, sin is dead.” He goes on to tell us, “I was alive apart from the law once, but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. The commandment, which was for life, this I found to be for death; for sin, finding occasion through the commandment, deceived me, and through it killed me.”
The Law is not deadly. The Law is given to us so that we will live as God intended us to live. “Therefore the law indeed is holy, and the commandment holy, and righteous, and good.” The commandments, as we hear in the psalm for today, deliver us from the wicked ones and preserve our lives. But once we hear the law, we become slaves to sin. The law then shows us through death that we are sinners, and thus separated from God our Father. It turns us to Him, so that we might be saved.
I know as I wander and linger near chocolate at the grocery store that I’m not very good at avoiding the things I should not eat, but in humbling me, the “law” I’ve given to myself helps me see the temptations around me. If I hadn’t made that “law” for myself, I would buy all the chocolate cake and ice cream I wanted without realizing how harmful it is to my body. But now that I have that “law” is am tempted by it everywhere I go. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail. The same is true of God’s commandments. Knowing the Law makes us see when we are being tempted and we struggle; sometimes we succeed in being obedient to God’s rules, but sometimes we fail. If we had never heard the Law, we would never know we failed.
If we didn’t know we failed, we’d never know we needed Christ.
The Law is not deadly. The Law is given to us so that we will live as God intended us to live. “Therefore the law indeed is holy, and the commandment holy, and righteous, and good.” The commandments, as we hear in the psalm for today, deliver us from the wicked ones and preserve our lives. But once we hear the law, we become slaves to sin. The law shows us through death that we are sinners, and thus separated from God our Father. It turns us to Him, so that we might be saved.
The psalmist is dealing with some sort of affliction and is seeking God’s mercy. The psalmist knows God’s divine word, His promises, and knows that God is faithful. He compares himself to those who do not know God’s promises. Despite their persecution, the psalmist has not turned away from God. The psalmist is seeking new life and trusts that God will be true to His Word. Our greatest enemy is our own inability to be true to God, but we can trust that He will save according to His promise. When we see our failure through the Law, we see most clearly that our only hope is in God’s mercy.
We’d rather not see sin for what it is. We don’t want to think that we are sinners; this is why so many Christians ignore the reality of our sinful nature. We want to hear God’s promises, but refuse to believe in God’s wrath. We want to experience God’s grace, but reject any thought that God might use the consequences of our sin to turn us to Himself. We’d rather hear fluff and stuff; the word “sin” has been removed from too many Christian voices. God is love, which is true, but He is also holy and just. He demands obedience.
Will obedience save us? No. Christ has saved us. He died and when we die through faith and baptism, we are raised to new life in Him. We are set free from the law and made captive to the Word, Christ. We are not capable of being perfect on our own; our flesh is weak and perishable. Christ saves us and calls us to a new life, a life of new obedience, not to the law, but to Him. He is the fulfillment of God’s law; we dwell in Him and we live for Him.
This life is never easy. We live in a time and culture where pursuing our desires is not only acceptable, but expected. Our friends tell us to ‘follow our hearts,’ even if following our hearts will hurt someone. Society tells us that little white lies won’t hurt anyone, that it is ok to want something so badly that you’ll do anything necessary to get it. We have been given permission to take care of ourselves even if God’s law commands against it, after all, those rules were made for another time and place. Certainly a God of love would want me to be happy, right? We’ve made ourselves gods, but in doing so have become slaves to sin and rejected the God who has our best interests in His heart and in His plan.
However, we would rather hear words that fit our desires. When I’m struggling over that piece of chocolate cake or candy bar, I want someone to say, “Go for it, it won’t kill you!” They are probably right, it won’t kill my flesh. We want our fellow Christians to stand beside us as we celebrate our decisions, no matter how unfaithful they are to God’s Word. We want to hear that God is love and that He loves everything about us. We want to hear the cry of peace.
People in Jeremiah’s day knew what they wanted. They wanted to be free from Nebuchadnezzar, not so that they could live according to God’s Word, but so that they could do what they wanted. They were willing to hear anything that made them feel good. Hananiah gave them what they wanted: words of peace. He was tickling their ears with talk of hope, claiming to be speaking on God’s behalf. Who doesn’t want to hear words of peace and hope? We do, of course. Even Jeremiah said, “Amen: Yahweh do so; Yahweh perform your words which you have prophesied, to bring again the vessels of Yahweh’s house, and all them of the captivity, from Babylon to this place.” The prophecy sounded good to their ears, and so they ignored the bad news and embraced Hananiah’s good news.
Who wouldn’t prefer Hananiah’s prophecy? Peace means that the people would no longer be oppressed and held as slaves. They would be restored to their homeland and the king would rule again. This is a message filled with hope because it promises peace. It is not surprising that Jeremiah would be rejected when faced with a message that contradicts his own warnings. The people think that Hananiah is surely God’s prophet because he spoke the message that they longed to hear.
The story of Hananiah and Jeremiah goes beyond today’s text. Jeremiah was standing there wearing an oxen yoke which was a symbol of political submission. He was wearing because God commanded him to do so. Jeremiah told the people that they should submit themselves to the Babylonians and he stood as an example to them with the yoke around his neck. Hananiah was preaching a different message, a message that promised that the yoke of the Babylonians would be broken and they would be free. So, Hananiah took Jeremiah’s yoke and broke it, not only showing the power of his message against the Babylonians, but also showing that Jeremiah’s power over the people was also broken.
Jeremiah did not fight the prophet. He agreed with the prophet’s words, saying “Amen, I hope this will be.” But then he reminded the people that a prophet’s words must come true for the prophet to be speaking from God’s mouth. When peace comes, Hananiah will be proven to be a prophet from God. Unfortunately, we learn quickly in chapter 28 that Hananiah is a false prophet. “Listen, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you have made this people trust in a lie.”
He might have broken a yoke of wood, but God responded to the grand gesture by making the yoke of Israel a yoke of iron, unbreakable. While a yoke of wood was a yoke of submission, the yoke of iron was symbolic of servitude. The people could have lived in quiet submission to the Babylonians for a season, but because of Hananiah’s arrogance and their rejection of the truth, they would live as slaves to Babylon. Hananiah prophesied restoration within two years, but he died just two months later.
Today’s false prophets continue to make the people believe lies; they make grand gestures, but their word is not truly from God. God responds as He did to Hananiah. Though the people may not be made slaves to an oppressing nation, they are made slaves to the sin they refuse to let go. They are made slaves to their desires and suffer the consequences of the lives they have chosen to live.
If you read the whole tenth chapter of Matthew, you will see Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel lesson in context. What was He doing? What was He teaching? What was He saying to the disciples? He was about to send them out on their first missionary journey. He divided them two by two; He probably chose the pairs carefully so that they would complement each other. He sent them only to the Israelites, giving them the opportunity to learn how to tell people about the Kingdom of God among those with similar heritage, language and expectations. He told them not to take anything with them, to rely on the graciousness and mercy of those to whom they are sent. They were to find a home in each town that welcomed them and to share God’s peace in that place. Jesus warned them it wouldn’t be easy. Last week He told them to be on their guard. Their own people will reject them; even brothers will betray brothers. He told them that they should expect to be persecuted because the world will persecute Him. They will be rejected, just as He will be rejected.
Jesus continues these warnings in today’s Gospel lesson. Life in Christ will not be all peace. He was speaking to the disciples, but also to us today, warning that our faith will separate us from even those we love. It makes us wonder, “What will I do if someone I love rejects my faith?” I suppose some of my readers already know. Can we stand for Christ when faced with the expectations of those we love? Jesus is very clear in this passage: “Deny me and I will deny you.” That’s what God did to the people in Jeremiah’s day. They rejected the true prophet and they suffered the consequences. They chased after the fluff and stuff and ended up suffering an even greater punishment for their disobedience. They ignored God’s word and became bound to something far worse.
We’d rather ignore the Law because it shows us the truth of our sinfulness. Yet, without the Law, we’ll never know our need for Christ. Without it we’ll never look to God for salvation. Sometimes God has something else in mind: a lesson learned, a call for repentance, a chance for transformation and change. We want the warm fuzzies now, the message that promises good things ahead. We might just need a season of something we don’t want to bring us to the place God intends us to be.
The priceless gift of eternal life takes so little to achieve. Jesus tells us that we need only give a glass of cold water to a child in the name of God’s servants to keep that which God has promised. And yet, even this is too hard for us to do without God’s help. We cannot give a glass of cold water to a child in the name of a disciple without faith. We cannot serve God in this way without believing in the promise that is already assured through the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. To receive a prophet or a righteous man takes faith, and that faith comes from God by the power of the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.
The reality of slavery is very painful for so many in our world, not only from the stories of the past but also in the present. Children are kidnapped from schools and sold as sex slaves. There are those who do not realize they are slaves, like those who are addicted to drugs and alcohol. Many are slaves to jobs and leisure. We are slaves to our opinions, to politics, to government and even to our churches. We don’t have to be yoked to any of that, because Christ has set us free. He has called us to set aside everything in this world, including those we love the most, to put God first. He has called us to live as God intends us to live, obedient to His Word and according to His law. He has called us to trust that even when things don’t seem to be going as we think they should, that He is still in control. He knows what we do not know. He knows what He has to do. It won’t be fluff and stuff; it will be hard, piercing, dividing. It may include rejection and persecution, suffering and pain. It might even mean physical death.
But it won’t mean the grave. Christ has saved us for eternal life and we are yoked to Him forever. We won’t lose what God has promised because He is faithful.
“So when they had eaten their breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I have affection for you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He said to him again a second time, ‘Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I have affection for you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of Jonah, do you have affection for me?’ Peter was grieved because he asked him the third time, ‘Do you have affection for me?’ He said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything. You know that I have affection for you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Most certainly I tell you, when you were young, you dressed yourself, and walked where you wanted to. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you, and carry you where you don’t want to go.’ Now he said this, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. When he had said this, he said to him, ‘Follow me.’” John 21:15-19, WEB
There were two men. One was named Peter and the other named Paul. They were both called by Jesus to serve the Kingdom of God in powerful and amazing ways. From the stories we hear about these two men, we can see how very different they were from one another, and yet in many ways they were very similar. Peter came from a humble background. He was a fisherman with limited education. His knowledge of the scriptures probably came at the knee of his mother and when he heard the scriptures read at the synagogue. Paul was highly educated, very knowledgeable about the scriptures and the Law. They both failed God: Peter denied Jesus and Paul persecuted the early Christians. However, they both knew the gracious forgiveness of Christ.
Today is the day we commemorate the martyrdoms of Sts. Peter and Paul. Some traditions hold that Peter and Paul died on the same day, perhaps even the same year (64 or 67 A.D.), although the experts do not agree. Peter is believed to have been crucified, and traditionally insisted on being hung upside down because he did not feel worthy of dying in the same manner of his Lord. Paul is said to have been beheaded. Both suffered under the reign of Emperor Nero, and their deaths may have been connected to the great fire of Rome. June 29th is generally accepted as date of the translation of their remains. The Christians were suffering persecution under Emperor Valerius. The believers feared that the bones of Sts. Peter and Paul would be destroyed, so the remains were apparently moved temporarily to keep them out of the hands of the persecutors around the year 258 A.D.
Though the date commemorates their martyrdom, it is also a celebration of their apostleship. St. Augustine wrote, “Both apostles share the same feast day, for these two were one; and even though they suffered on different days, they were as one. Peter went first, and Paul followed. And so we celebrate this day made holy for us by the apostles’ blood. Let us embrace what they believed, their life, their labors, their sufferings, their preaching, and their confession of faith.”
The Gospel passage for the commemoration is from John; it is a message of forgiveness. Jesus forewarned Peter that he would deny Jesus during the trial. Jesus was right, and in his fear Peter said he did not know Jesus when he was questioned by the crowd. This happened three times, just as Jesus said. When the rooster crowed, Peter realized what he had done and wept bitterly.
After the resurrection, Jesus appeared before the disciples several times. One encounter happened after a night of unsuccessful fishing. As the disciples came in to shore, they saw a man waiting for them. He told them to cast their nets to the right side of the boat. From there, they caught so many fish they had difficulty hauling it. John realized it was the Lord, and the disciples went to shore to be with Jesus. Peter had denied Jesus three times, but Jesus gave him three opportunities to confess his love. For each denial, Peter made a confession of faith. Each time Jesus forgave Peter by commissioning him to a great task. Peter’s denial had the potential of destroying his confidence to do God’s will in spreading the Gospel. Christ’s forgiveness gave him the courage and the strength to accept his calling.
Paul also denied Jesus, but even worse, he persecuted the followers of Christ. When Jesus appeared before him on the road to Damascus, Paul fell to his knees in terror and humility. He heard the Good News of promise from Jesus and went on to become the greatest missionary for Christ. We learn from their story, from their apostleship, that Jesus doesn’t call perfect men and women to ministry. He calls those who hear His Word, receive His forgiveness and go out to do the work to which they were called.
How often do we deny Jesus in our daily lives? We all have moments when our thoughts, words and deeds are not according to God’s command and will in our lives. We deny Jesus each time we do not feed the hungry or clothe the sick. We deny Jesus each time we speak against our neighbor. Jesus loves us, however, comes to feed us with His Word, gives us a chance to confess our love for Him and sends us out to live and work to His praise and Glory. This is forgiveness.
“So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Relent, Yahweh! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your loving kindness, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work appear to your servants; your glory to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be on us; establish the work of our hands for us; yes, establish the work of our hands.” Psalm 90:12-17, WEB
Today is the last day of June and we are halfway through the year 2017. I hate to say it because it is a little cliche: where did the time go? It is hard to believe, isn’t it?
I spent some time in my studio working on a project that has been sitting on my table for months. I have a painting on the easel that has been there almost as long. I’ve worked on some other things in the past few months, including my big project through Lent, but I’ve been a bit lazy when it comes to my art. I am almost finished with the first project and I keep promising myself to spend time on the other in the next few days, although the next few days are going to be very busy. I had thought about using the painting on the easel for a show later next week, but there’s no way I’m going to get it done in time. I’ve known about the show for months, but I kept putting off the work.
There is a commercial for a travel company. It shows an old man climbing to the top of a pyramid at Anghor Wat. It was a struggle for him, but the view from the top was amazing. The voice narration says, “You didn’t know...” and tells us all the wonderful things you can do with their app. Then the voice says, “A few weeks ago, you still didn’t know if you were going to go.” As the man arrives at the top sweating from the exertion but also experiencing peace, the voice says, “Now the only thing you don’t know is why it took you so long to come here.”
The psalmist prays, “Teach us to number our days.” We may not have tomorrow. Someone once said, “Burn the candles, use the nice sheets, wear the fancy lingerie. Don’t save it for a special occasion. Today is special.” We should not wait. Today is the day to say “I love you” or offer forgiveness for a wrong done. Now is the time to play tea party or race cars with our children. Most of all today is the day to share the grace of God with our neighbor; in doing so we will experience God’s peace.
Salvation comes from the Lord. The psalmist cries out to God for mercy, “Satisfy us in the morning with your loving kindness, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” God’s grace, the unmerited favor He grants to those who seek Him, is the only way we will receive eternal life. The psalmist writes, “Let the favor of the Lord our God be on us; establish the work of our hands for us; yes, establish the work of our hands.” As we pray that same prayer, we can trust that God will give us everything we need to do what we should do today so that we don’t wait until it is too late. By His hand and grace we can glorify Him by living for today fully and completely, sharing love and forgiveness in simple and ordinary ways. Like that man in the commercial, we may just get to the a place of peace and wonder what took us so long to get there.