Welcome to the March 2011 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, March 2011
March 1, 2011
ďIs any among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: and the prayer of faith shall save him that is sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, it shall be forgiven him. Confess therefore your sins one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The supplication of a righteous man availeth much in its working.Ē James 5:13-16, ASV
I received an email this morning called ďThe Charles Schultz Philosophy.Ē First a number of questions are put forth for pondering. ďName the wealthiest people in the world.Ē ďName the last five Heisman trophy winners.Ē ďName the last five winners of the Miss American pageant.Ē ďName ten people who have won the Nobel or Pulitzer prize.Ē ďName the last half dozen Academy Award winners for best actor and actress.Ē ďName the last decadeís worth of World Series winners.Ē
You may or may not have been able to answer one or more of those questions. You probably canít answer all six without doing some research. The email goes on to say, ďNone of us remember the headliners of yesterday. These are no second-rate achievers. They are the best in their fields. But the applause dies. Awards tarnish. Achievements are forgotten. Accolades and certificates are buried with their owners.Ē
Then the email asks another series of questions to ponder, ďList a few teachers who aided your journey through school.Ē ďName three friends who have helped you through a difficult time.Ē ďName five people who have taught you something worthwhile.Ē ďThink of a few people who have made you feel appreciated and special.Ē ďThink of five people you enjoy spending time with.Ē
The email then tells us the lesson in Schultzís philosophy is that the people who make a difference in our lives are not the rich, powerful or famous, but those who have touched our lives personally and in a very real way. We may try to emulate the actions of our favorite basketball star or seek the job of that rich man, but the relationships we have face to face are the ones that will truly impact the world in which we live. And the impact we have is most likely to be on those who are in our little corner of the world.
So, let us keep those who are close to us in prayer and be ready with a helping hand when necessary, for you are the one they will remember when pondering their life. And look to that neighbor, teacher, pastor, friend, mother, sibling, husband, child and thank them for the impact theyíve had on your life. Appreciate their words, their prayers and their love. For we will be stronger if we focus our attention and our hope on those we can see and hear and touch, rather than depending on the rich, powerful and famous.
Scriptures for Sunday, March 6, 2011, Transfiguration of Our Lord: Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2 or Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
ďServe Jehovah with fear, And rejoice with trembling.Ē Psalm 2:11, ASV
One of my claims to fame (or so I joke) is that Iíve eaten at every one of Queen Elizabeth of Englandís homes. I had tea at Sandringham, her country estate. I had a ham sandwich while walking around the gardens of Buckingham Palace. I had sugar cookies at Windsor Castle and a chocolate bar at Holyrood in Edinburgh. Finally, I had tea and an apple at Balmoral, the queenís country estate in Scotland. Of course, I ate the food as a tourist, not as a guest, items purchased in the tea or gift shops. The ham sandwich was the lunch we carried with us from home on the day we visited London.
But, I can still claim that I ate at every one of Queen Elizabethís homes. Now, I have to stretch the truth a little bit with Holyrood because we were unable to go into the palace the day we visited. As it turned out, the queen was in residence and the gates were shut to tourists for her safety and comfort. But one of the guards was kind enough to allow me to stick my foot through the gate, so that I could be Ďstandingí in the palace grounds when I ate my chocolate. I know it is a silly claim to fame, but I like to tell the story.
When we were at Holyrood Palace, one of the clerks in the gift shop let us in on a secret. She told us that the queen likes to mingle with visitors at Balmoral when she is in residence. She also told us that she would be there a few days later. We were still going to be in Scotland, so we decided to make the very long drive through tiny Scottish roads covered in flocks of highland sheep to see if we might catch a glimpse. The place was all abuzz when we arrived, as the staff prepared for the upcoming visit. We didnít know when she would arrive, but knew she would get there by helicopter. We took the tour and sat down in the tea shop for a bite to eat as we waited. Unfortunately, the long trip meant that we had to leave too early, so we missed meeting her that day.
I like that she takes the time to mingle with the visitors to Balmoral. Iím sure that she sees it as a safe place to do so, since the castle is way out of the way of most peopleís ability to travel. We drove for at least five hours from our hotel. It is the farthest north place we visited during our time in England and it is set far out in the countryside. It is easy to protect the queen from crowds and it is an idyllic setting for relaxed interaction. As you watch Queen Elizabeth interact with the crowds at other times, you can see that she enjoys being with her people, but in many cases it is simply too dangerous to allow her to mingle. She has to allow the wall to be built that will protect her while still being available to those who love her. Balmoral is the place where the monarchy can meet the people.
In the Old Testament lesson from Exodus, the Lord says to Moses, ďCome up to me into the mount, and be there: and I will give thee the tables of stone, and the law and the commandment, which I have written, that thou mayest teach them.Ē That place was where heaven and earth mingled, where God met man face to face. The man, in this case, was Moses. All others were warned to stay at the foot of the mountain. Iím not sure many of those people would have wanted to climb the mountain, since it seemed to burn with fire. A cloud covered the mountain and the earth trembled at the presence of God.
Imagine what it must have been like at the foot of the mountain when Moses went to talk with God. Though the God on that mountain was the God of their forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Hebrews did not know Him very well. They had spent four hundred years in Egypt. They had lost touch with their God. They knew the foreign gods and recognized that the signs of nature could be interpreted as communication from the divine. It must have been frightening to see that cloud descend down the mountain as Moses was climbing up. Was it a bad sign? Was Moses going to be safe? What did the fire mean? Would this God really save them from their suffering?
They werenít very patient people. Moses was on the mountain for forty days, and the people feared he was dead. Instead of waiting for him to come, they turned to the gods they knew from Egypt and convinced Aaron to create an idol of gold. They worshipped the idol and sought its protection and guidance. God was not idle during those days and Moses was not dead. The people looked to themselves for salvation instead of waiting for God. They tried to take the divine into their own hands, to lift themselves into heaven.
As we consider the actions of those Israelites who were waiting at the base of the mountain, we wonder why they couldnít wait just a few weeks for God to give Moses His Word. After all, forty days is not that long a period of time. The psalmist asks, ďWhy do the nations rage, And the peoples meditate a vain thing?Ē (Psalm 2) We might ask the same question of those Israelites on the foot of the mountain. We are equally as surprised at their lack of trust in the God who saved them from Egypt as the psalmist is in the nations who cannot see that the Lord is Lord over all the earth. The kings set themselves as rulers over themselves and others just as the people set themselves and their gods above the God on the mountain.
The psalmist warns the kings, ďServe Jehovah with fear, And rejoice with trembling.Ē We are given the same warning. We are called to worship God, to trust in Him and to keep Him as ruler of our lives.
The cloud covered the mountain for six days and then God called Moses out of the cloud. He was invited into the presence of God, and during the forty days Moses received Godís Word for His people. They received that Word, but failed to live by it over and over again. They revolted against God, not in an open rebellion as it at the foot of Mount Sinai; they revolted by turning to the strength and power of men and nations for help. They revolted by going their own way instead of the way of God. They revolted by doing their own thing. Thatís sin. We are all guilty of that sin. We all go our own way. We all think that we know better than God. We all think that our way is the right way.
But the psalmist in our second psalm (Psalm 99) reminds us that the Lord is King. He sits enthroned in heaven and He is great in Zion. He is holy. We are called to praise Him for all that He has done and all that He is able to do. He is worthy of our worship and our trust. But we tend to look at life from our own point of view, with a need to control our own circumstances and set our own paths. When Moses, Aaron, Samuel and the others whom God called to speak His Word into the lives of His people, cried out to the Lord, He heard their cry. He heard them because they listened and they lived the Word in this world. They were not perfect, they failed at times, just as we all do. But they experienced Godís grace and knew His forgiveness. They kept Him at the center of their life and lifted as Creator and King as He should be.
This Psalm was probably used during the Feast of Tabernacles. This festival is held in the fall, and is reminiscent of the forty years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. We see, once again, the number forty, just as Moses was on the mountain for forty days. They wandered in the wilderness for forty years because they were unfaithful to God. He caused them to wander so that the generation who failed Him did not have the chance to enter the Promised Land. Once they had died, the people were led to the Jordan and were invited to receive Godís promise.
The Feast of Tabernacles is a joyous occasion because it is a festival of ingathering. The people attended the festival in Jerusalem, taking with them the fruits of their harvests. They built booths, or tabernacles, in which they ate and slept during the festival, as a reminder of the temporary structures their forefathers used during the wilderness wandering. It was a joyous occasion of thanksgiving for Godís salvation from Egypt and His provision in the Promised Land. We donít see Jesus celebrating this festival in the book of Matthew, but John places the timing of this festival in the last six months of Jesusí ministry, shortly after He began the final journey to Jerusalem. It is likely that the feast was just two months after the Transfiguration.
We have reached the end of a very long Epiphany. Weíve seen the Light of God shining in the world and experienced Jesusí presence with us in the reading of the Sermon on the Mount. Weíve learned what it means to live as Christians in this world. We are blessed not when we live on the mountain top, but when we wallow in the valley with the poor, sad, meek and hungry. We are blessed, happy, when we are dwelling among those upon whom God has mercy. We celebrate the holiness of God when we praise Him and obey His Word. We are saved and forgiven so that we will be like Him, sharing His light and His mercy in the world.
But now that Epiphany is over, we are about to set out on another long journey, that of Lent. Ash Wednesday is next Wednesday, but we donít get there until we see the Light glorified on the mountain. The Transfiguration is the end of Jesusí ministry and the beginning of His journey to the cross. Things will change now, as we begin to see the world reacting to Godís grace with confusion and hatred.
But first we see Jesus as He is completely and perfectly. He is transfigured on the mountain, glorified so that those with Him will know that He is all that He has said that He is. There are parallels between Moses and Jesus in the texts we read this week. First of all, Moses waits on the side of the mountain for six days before he is invited into the presence of God and Jesus climbs the mountain six days after predicting His death. In the case of Moses, the people thought that he would die. Jesus knew he would. Both trusted in Godís Word and obeyed Godís command, knowing that He would do what was necessary for the sake of His people. Both Moses and Jesus entered into the glory of God. Both were totally covered by His Light. Both heard the voice of God and experienced His presence. In the Old Testament story of Moses and the Gospel story about Jesus, we see the place where heaven meets earth, where God mingles with His people.
I think it is interesting that Jesus begins and ends His ministry with a mountaintop experience. In Matthew 4, Jesus is taken to a high mountain and offered the kingdoms of the world by Satan. In that temptation, Jesus is given the opportunity to avoid all the messiness of obeying Godís expectation of Him. Satan gives him the chance to rule without the cross. It would be easy for any of us to take the easy way out, to accept our own ideas and take control of our own destiny. But Jesus knew that Godís way is the right way. He had to go through the cross to complete what God began in the beginning. Godís justice demanded a price and Jesus was willing to be the sacrificial lamb. On the mountain of Transfiguration, God commended Jesus for His obedience and called Him the Son. With Him, God was well-pleased.
Peter reacts to the transfiguration as we all might have done: with his own idea of how to commemorate the moment. ďLet us build booths,Ē he said. Peter wanted some sort of control, even in the things of God. He was trying to have a hand in establishing the rule. By building the tabernacles, Peter thought to seat Jesus as king over an earthly kingdom. But just as he begins to speak, God interrupts, ďThis is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.Ē God tells them to listen to Jesus, who is the Word incarnate. He is the culmination of what was begun on Mount Sinai. He is the Word made real and sent to dwell among Godís people. He is the place where heaven and earth meet.
We can study God, know the history of His people, learn and follow His law. We can try to live according to His wisdom and His love. However, there is no way we can possibly even imagine the holiness of God. His ways, His thoughts, His purposes are higher than human flesh can attain. The best we can do is to know Jesus Christ, and in Him we see the holiness in flesh and through Him we have a glimpse of what we will one day know in eternity.
Peter, James and John received a glimpse of heaven one day on the top of a mountain. They witnessed a miraculous event where Jesus was transfigured into a divinely shining being standing among the great men of their faith. Moses, the father of the Law and Elijah the father of the prophets, stood for everything on which their faith was built. Peter wanted to capture the moment, to build a temple on the spot to honor Jesus and hold on to the glory. While Peter was speaking, a cloud came over the scene and a voice commanded the disciples to listen to Jesus. Peterís sense of assurance was overpowered by a sense of fear. All three fell on their faces when they heard the voice.
God is a loving God, and that is the trait we all prefer to embrace. However God in His fullness is something to fear. The Israelites feared the fiery glory on Mount Sinai, and the disciples feared the voice they heard. God has the power and might to bring down nations and kings. He has the strength and the wisdom to change the course of human events. He has the authority to bring judgment. Yet, those who know God do not fear Him as we would fear a volcano. We know that He does all things righteously with love and mercy. We fall on our faces not because we are terrified but out of a sense of wonder and awe. Our fear acknowledges Godís greatness and our humility before Him.
But Jesus touched them, and in that touch they experienced the healing grace of God. ďGet up and letís goĒ is Jesusí invitation to us. We arenít meant to stay on the mountaintop because thatís not where Jesus is. Heís in the valley, with the people, reaching out to those who need Godís grace.
In the Old Testament lesson we see where heaven and earth meet, but that begs the question for us. Where does heaven and earth meet for us today? Is it on a mountaintop as many would assume? Or is it in the fellowship of believers, in our worship together and the work that we do? Where does the world experience God? Will they see Him if we lift ourselves onto the mountaintop and build tabernacles there? Or will they see Him in our hope, faith, trust and obedience to His Word?
Peter reminds us that we do not follow cleverly devised myths but the witness of those who were with Jesus in those days. He talked about what he experienced on that mountain, ďFor he received from God the Father honor and glory, when there was borne such a voice to him by the Majestic Glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: and this voice we ourselves heard borne out of heaven, when we were with him in the holy mount.Ē
On the mountaintop, the voice of God told Peter, James and John to listen to Jesus. Jesus then invited the three to follow Him to the valley, to do the work of God. He did not tell the disciples to seek after the riches of the world or avoid suffering. He took them into the midst of poverty and pain. He taught them to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. He encouraged them to endure persecution. He died on the cross and invited all those who believe to follow Him. He experienced the glory on the mountain but left it behind for the true glory that comes with sacrifice. We might not understand. It is certainly easier to seek after the good things in life than to experience the bad. But God knows His plan and His purpose. He knows His grace. And He is faithful.
Where does heaven and earth touch? Where does God mingle with me? This happens anywhere that Godís Word is spoken and obeyed, and Godís people are touched and healed. It happens in worship and in service, in sacrament and prayer. He mingles with us in His Word as we praise Him and sing songs of thanksgiving for His many blessings on our lives. We donít need to build tabernacles on the mountaintop to experience Godís presence. We will find Him as we gather together in hope and peace and faith, trusting in His mercy and grace.
Moses was on the mountain forty days. The Israelites were in the wilderness for forty years. Jesus was tempted for forty days. We are about to enter into a period forty days as we seek to experience the presence of God. Will we try to climb up to the top of the mountain to see God in His glory? Or will follow Jesus into the valley, seeking to do His will in the world? How will we spend those days? These scriptures signal the beginning of the end, and Jesus invites us to join Him as He goes to the cross. Will we continue with Him, no matter where He takes us? Or will we try to avoid the pain and suffering as we lift ourselves toward heaven? Thatís the question we ask today as we get ready for Lent.
We might be surprised that the Israelites turned from God during those days at the foot of the mountain, but we are no different. We might be surprised that Peter wanted to build tabernacles at the top of the mountain, but we are no different. We still try to carve our own path, to establish our own power, to set the agenda for Godís kingdom on earth. We shouldnít be surprised because we are the same as all those who have come before us. But Jesus was different, and we are touched and transformed by His grace. God heals us and grants us a new life. He calls us to serve with fear with trembling, to kneel at the foot of His throne and to kiss His feet. He invites us to take refuge in Him, to dwell in the very place where heaven and earth meet: Jesus.
ďAnd one out of the multitude said unto him, Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me. But he said unto him, Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you? And he said unto them, Take heed, and keep yourselves from all covetousness: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth. And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: and he reasoned within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have not where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, be merry. But God said unto him, Thou foolish one, this night is thy soul required of thee; and the things which thou hast prepared, whose shall they be? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.Ē Luke 12:13-21, ASV
The cats love to watch out the windows. We have plenty of birds and other wildlife that hang out in the bushes and the pond near our house, so they spend hours watching them play. Most of the time the animals are far enough away to be interesting, but they donít expect to catch them. They know that the window keeps them from going outside.
But sometimes the creatures get very brave. Our front window has a small sill, big enough for birds to settle. When that happens, the cats go crazy, crouching as if they will pounce, growling under their breath in warning. Sometimes they even wiggle their bottoms and spring forward toward the bird. Of course, this means that they crash into the window and the bird flies away, but they hope perhaps this time the window will let them through.
This morning was even worse for Delilah. Weíve had a squirrel running through the yard recently. The nuts have fallen from our Live Oak trees, and the squirrels are in heaven. One day we watched the squirrel up in the tree, sitting at the edge of the branch, and if I didnít know better I would say that he was watching the kitties in the window. Today I know he was watching because he jumped up on the window sill and sat there watching Delilah. She was frustrated because she could not get to him, and he was without fear because the window was in the way.
I donít know about you, but I suspect this is true for everyone: we often want what we cannot have. I would like a better car, a bigger house, a brand new kitchen. I want a swimming pool in the backyard and a bank account that gives me the freedom to shop and travel and give without thought or concern. I want that new television and the latest gadget that is supposed to make my life easier. I want those cool things that Iíve seen at my neighborís house.
But I donít need them, just as Delilah does not need to catch that squirrel. She doesnít need it to eat or to be safe, because we provide everything she needs. She is lucky to have that window in the way because chasing down a squirrel can be dangerous and exhausting. She may get hurt or lost, and the episode may even be pointless because it is unlikely she would even catch him.
Temptation for us is like that squirrel on the window sill, but all too often there is no window in the way. We have to be stronger than a cat, standing firm in the reality that what we have is enough rather than coveting that which we do not have. We shouldnít go chasing after the squirrels when we have everything we need. We may find that the chase is pointless in the end.
ďAt that season Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou didst hide these things from the wise and understanding, and didst reveal them unto babes: yea, Father, for so it was well-pleasing in thy sight. All things have been delivered unto me of my Father: and no one knoweth the Son, save the Father; neither doth any know the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son willeth to reveal him. Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.Ē Matthew 11:25-30, ASV
Victoria bought a cute toy for the cats for Christmas. It has a plastic matt and several wires with toys rising out of the center. They like to bat at the toys, which bounce up and down with the activity, making it even more interesting for them. The toy takes up some space on the living room floor, as it is much larger than their usual fake fur mice or plastic jingle balls. We donít mind because they enjoy having it around.
The other day I was making the bed in our bedroom, which is upstairs on the second floor, and I noticed the toy was right there, as if someone tried to hide it under the bed even though it is too big to fit. I was a little surprised that it would be right there, but I thought perhaps someone else carried it upstairs for the cats to play. I asked, but no one can claim credit.
Now, cats are capable of carrying things in their mouths, as is seen with a mother cat and her kittens. Samson is excellent at carrying those fake fur mice and other toys. But this particular toy seems much too big and cumbersome to be carried that way. Iím sure it is light enough, but with a 12Ēx12Ē base, it would be very difficult for a cat to do so without stepping on it. He would have to somehow drag it to his side and carefully step around it. I have a hard time believing that he managed to carry this thing all the way upstairs and into our bedroom.
Yet, there seems to be no other explanation. As I was thinking about it, I realized that we often carry burdens that seem impossible to others, and yet somehow we get through. Think about the woman suffering from cancer who manages to keep a smile on her face. Or what about that mother with a special needs child who seems to always have the energy she needs to get through every day. Or that man who recently lost a job who manages to continue to give time and resources to the food bank. It might seem impossible for those of us who are seeing it from outside their experience, but somehow they manage. They have a strength that goes beyond the ordinary.
Our burdens are heavy only because we try to carry them ourselves. Those who seem to have it easy despite their difficulties rely on strength beyond the ordinary. Samson may have found some way to drag that toy upstairs all by himself, but we donít have to do it. We can lean on our Lord Jesus, who takes our burdens and helps us carry them. Through faith they are made light and easy.
ďBut, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak: for God is not unrighteous to forget your work and the love which ye showed toward his name, in that ye ministered unto the saints, and still do minister. And we desire that each one of you may show the same diligence unto the fulness of hope even to the end: that ye be not sluggish, but imitators of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises.Ē Hebrews 6:9-12, ASV
We have been a customer of one of those frozen food at home delivery services. The truck comes by every few weeks and we purchase the things we want or need. The food is pretty good, especially the ice cream, and it is very convenient. These are the major selling points of the service, and my delivery guy reminds me of these things every time he comes. Of course, he also thinks that the food is much better than anything you can find in the grocery store, and the convenience of cooking canít be beat.
Though I have enjoyed having the service for many years, I have to admit that Iíve thought about discontinuing it for many reasons. First of all, the food is not really much different than that which you can buy in the grocery store. As a matter of fact, careful reading of packages will show the discerning shopper that many of them are produced by the same people. So, the sales pitch is somewhat less than trustworthy. If the truck were filled with all the food products I use and need, then buying from them would truly be more convenient, but I have to go to the grocery store anyway. Buying from him does not save me any time, and it certainly doesnít save me money. Not only is the food more expensive, but Iíve recently discovered that I also pay a delivery fee for the convenience.
Many of the foods available from the service are pre-made; all you have to do is stick it in the oven. They sell this convenience by emphasizing how little time you have to spend in the kitchen preparing the food. All it takes is a quick zap in the microwave; no cleaning, chopping, mixing, searing, stirring. The conveniently packaged food requires less clean-up because there are fewer preparation tools, dishes and pans. It is certainly easier to buy a pre-made meal than to go to all the trouble of cooking one yourself.
But I like to cook. Iíd much rather create a noodle dish in my kitchen using fresh meat and vegetables. I hate dishes, but Iíd rather wash a few pans than throw away wax covered cardboard baking dishes. When I prepare my own meals, I know exactly what is going into it. I am able to limit the artificial ingredients and preservatives; I can choose the cuts of meat and the exact vegetables I want to use. And no matter how good those frozen meals taste, thereís nothing better than something Iíve created from scratch.
Donít get me wrong, there are days when I would rather just throw something in the microwave. As much as I love to cook, there are days when Iíd rather not spend that time in the kitchen. If I could avoid going to the grocery store, I think I would, because it can often been an adventure in aggravation. We are all in such a hurry that the aisles get crowded and people push their way through. We donít pay attention to the other customers, often focused on our own inconvenience. We waste hours every year standing in long check-out lines. We live in a day when Ďeasyí is the goal, and Iím as guilty as the next guy.
I had to laugh the other day when I was watching a television commercial for one of those online shopping websites. The website domain name was very short and easy to remember, just seventeen keystrokes. They have recently gotten a new Ďaddressí which is just four keystrokes. The new address is catching and very easy to remember. But did we really need to remove those thirteen keystrokes to make our lives easier? Those who enjoy shopping at that website will probably make it a favorite and get there with just one click anyway.
I suppose when Iím having an online shopping emergency, that shorter link will get me to the website just that much faster and when we are busy some pre-made food will be convenient. But there is value to a little bit of hard work. Fresh food tastes better and is better for you. While convenience might be good once in a while, our desire for easy often overflows into every area of our life, making us lazy and disinterested in the good things. This even affects our faith life at times. Jesus didnít make life easy. As a matter of fact, sometimes Christian faith is inconvenient and difficult. But it is worth living life in the fullness of Christ, doing all He has called us to do, walking every step in His shadow and sharing His love with all.
ďThen was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he afterward hungered. And the tempter came and said unto him, If thou art the Son of God, command that these stones become bread. But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. Then the devil taketh him into the holy city; and he set him on the pinnacle of the temple, and saith unto him, If thou art the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and, On their hands they shall bear thee up, Lest haply thou dash thy foot against a stone. Jesus said unto him, Again it is written, Thou shalt not make trial of the Lord thy God. Again, the devil taketh him unto an exceeding high mountain, and showeth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; and he said unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. Then the devil leaveth him; and behold, angels came and ministered unto him.Ē Matthew 4:1-11, ASV
Numbers matter, especially in the Bible. We might not always agree as to the purpose of those numbers, but they mean something. There are those who study the numbers, putting special significance onto those mentioned many times, sometimes taking those numbers down to their base or root numbers. The ancient alphabets had numerical equivalents, each letter equaling a certain number, and sometimes the studies have found hidden meanings in the words based on the numerology. I think it is possible to take these studies too far, or to rely on the human wisdom of interpretation, but I also think it is important to look at those numbers God has given us and considered what they might mean for us today.
Now, in the study of the number, one website has suggested that forty is the product of five and eight. Five is the number of grace and eight is the number of renewal (the eighth day is a new beginning.) So, we can see the number forty, the wilderness time, as being a time of Godís renewing grace. Forty is also the product of four and ten. Four stands for the divine creation, the four winds, the four corners of the earth, etc. Ten is the number of perfection. Therefore, the number forty also signifies the perfect relationship between God and His creation that He intended from the beginning of time, a perfection that will come at the end of the time of trial.
Through Lent, which begins tomorrow, we are being led in a wilderness for forty days to be chastised and transformed into the people God has chosen us to be. Thatís why we take this time to consider our own imperfection. What is it about our lives that need to change? What bad habits can we fix? Iím sure many of us tried to begin that transformation on our own at the New Year, when we made resolutions to get fit, healthy and happy. Many of us have also failed. Now might just be a better time to attack those aspects of our lives that need change, because we do so not on our own power, but in the power of Godís grace. The wilderness time is meant to be a time of prayer, of study, of focusing on God.
In the passage we see that Jesus is tempted by the devil during His wilderness time, but He meets those temptations with Godís Word. Our temptations might be different, but we too can look to God for help. What will you do during Lent? Have you chosen a book to read or a devotion to follow? Have you committed to a time of prayer and worship each day or to give up something that distracts you from your relationship with God? Whatever you do over the next few weeks, remember that it is not by your power that you are transformed, but by Godís grace. Look to Him for strength, guidance, courage. Look to Him for the authority to tell that devil to go away. Look to Him to fulfill the promise of salvation that will be ours in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which will come at the end of this wilderness time. He calls us to be His perfect creation and stands with us as we journey toward the day when He will make it real.
Scripture for Sunday, March 13, 2011, First Sunday in Lent: Genesis 2:1517; 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
ďMany sorrows shall be to the wicked; but he that trusteth in Jehovah, lovingkindness shall compass him about. Be glad in Jehovah, and rejoice, ye righteous; and shout for joy, all ye that are upright in heart.Ē Psalm 32:10-11, ASV
When I was doing ministry in the online chat rooms years ago, I always encouraged the listeners to find a local congregation where they could go and be with other Christians. We all have excuses for not attending church on a Sunday morning. For some, it is that Sunday is the only day they get to sleep in. For others, Sunday is packed with sports activities or family gatherings. Others have to work. Many of those listeners told me that they hang out in Christian chat rooms because that was their congregations. ďI come here to worship with other Christians, and thatís good enough for me.Ē
Some donít want to go to church because they know it is filled with hypocrites, people who say one thing and do another. Yet others refused to get caught up in the politics that inevitably exist in a gathering of people. Others have not found a place where they feel welcome or comfortable. ďThat church is too stuffyĒ or ďThat church is too loose.Ē Some say that the church they want to attend is too far away. Others complain about the parking and traffic. Others are disappointed in the coffee that is served. Ok, so some of these reasons seem ridiculous, but I know you are shaking your head as you think about the non-church-going people who have crossed your path. What was their excuse?
The saddest reason of all, however, comes from the person who thinks themselves humble, but are in a way very arrogant. Thatís the person who says, ďI canít go to church until I get myself right with God. I have to fix a few things first.Ē They think they have to be good enough, or righteous enough, or perfect enough, to meet God. For some, it is a matter of fear. They know God is a just and demanding God and they donít want to face His wrath. They donít want to come to Him with their dirty laundry. ďIíll go when Iím fixed.Ē
Now, we canít deal with all those people in the same way. Some truly want to be part of a Christian community. Theyíve met Jesus and know that He is Lord and Savior. They just donít know how to be a Christian. They need to be encouraged to seek God in every way possible, including in the fellowship of other Christians, who are just like them. They need to see that Christians are all trying and failing to be what God intends, but that we know about forgiveness, too. They need to see that God has provided us the doorway into that place where He can transform us into the people He wants us to be. When they realize that the other Christians are just like them, they find comfort in the fellowship and a home in the community.
However, there are those who believe that they canít go to church unless they fix themselves. They demand perfection and expect perfection from Christians. They define perfection in their own way and if they canít reach it, they will not become part of the community. Unfortunately, their definition of perfection is often beyond any human beings reach, perhaps on purpose. If they canít reach that goal, they donít have to go. This Ďhumilityí is the very root of all sin, the sin of believing that we can be like God.
Ironically, we are like God. God created us in His image and because He did so, we have the will and capability to love and be loved, to create and to reason. We have the ability to make choices and to do what is right. Animals may seem at times to be able to do what is right, but in reality they do what is good for their life. They eat when they are hungry and they sleep when they are tired. They can be trained to do other things, but in the natural course of their existence they will live to meet their physical needs. Human beings are different. We do tend to be self-focused, but we can see outwardly and do something to make a difference.
Birds fly south in the winter, they have no choice. If a bird becomes injured, he is left behind to die as the rest of the flock continues on the journey. The bird might survive, but it will probably find itself the victim of a predator, which is part of the natural world. The predator needs the prey to survive, too. Now, human beings have similar instincts: to travel where they will find food and protection from the weather. Nomadic people, of whom we all have our ancestry, moved their flocks to new meadows. They followed the water, sought out the caves and other protection. When resources were low, they moved on to a new place.
But while animals continue the natural processes of life like migration, human beings have learned creative ways of living. They found a way to move water so they could produce food on farms. They learned how to work with wood and stone to build beautiful homes. They transformed from hunters and gatherers into beings that live not only to survive, but to enjoy life. Art, music, literature, and all things beautiful, science and math and faith became a part of their existence. They no longer focused solely on self, but on the world around them.
Best of all, when one of their own became sick or hurt, they did not leave that person to die, but stopped to offer care. They did not follow the natural instinct to keep moving, but moved by compassion they chose to do something different. They, we, are like God in this way: human beings can choose to be merciful. But Adam and Eve didnít feel much like God, or at least the devil made them feel like they could reach for something bigger and better.
ďYou can be like God,Ē he said. There are two lies in this statement. The first lie is, of course, that we can be like God. We arenít omnipotent, omnipresent, divine. We arenít eternal, the beginning and the end, all powerful. We arenít God. But, the second lie is that there is something to attain. We donít have to attain to be like God because we were created that way. We donít need to eat the fruit of the tree or work to overcome our failures to be like God. We are like God. In trying to attain god-like status, we turn our focus back on ourselves instead of seeing the whole world around us. We also forget that all good things come from God.
Adam and Eve tried to attain something that they already had, but they still wanted more. Sounds pretty familiar, doesnít it? But thatís what temptation is all about. The devil twists our circumstances, and the words, to make it seem like there is something good beyond what is already good. In the Garden, the serpent made Eve feel deprived of something, even though it was something she did not need. She reasoned that the fruit on the tree looked good and therefore must be good, so why should God keep it away? They had plenty of fruit to eat, and Iím sure the fruit on all the other trees must have been good. But temptation, the serpent, made her want the one thing she couldnít have, and since she had the will and ability to do so, she picked the fruit.
Jesus had everything He needed, and He knew what God intended His mission and purpose in this world to be. Temptationóthe serpent, the devil, Satanócame to show Him what He could have, but his offer wasnít real. He twisted the Word of God to make the promises seem good, but he wasnít offering anything Jesus didnít already have. The tempter offered Jesus control over material, spiritual and civil matters, but he didnít have the authority to do so. Only God has that authority, and Jesus turned back the temptation with Godís Word; it was God alone who had the authority to give control to Jesus.
As it turned out, Jesus did have control over material things. We see this in the stories of the feeding miracles, the calming of the storms, walking on water, getting money out of a fish, the great catch of fish, etc. He also had the power to do miraculous healing. He even raised the dead. He also had power over political policies, in that everything that happened to Him was by His will, even His crucifixion. With a word He could have saved His own life, but the cross was Godís will, and He accepted it with courage and peace. And in doing so, He won the kingdom for us all.
In our scriptures today we see the comparison of two men: Adam who fell to the words of the tempter and faced death and Jesus who faced death by not falling for the temptation. Through Adam we have inherited the reality of sin and we are all in need of a Savior; through Jesus we are given life. Adam listened to the other word and believed it more than Godís Word. Jesus never believed the lies of the tempter and stood firm in Godís Word. Paul draws these two stories together, comparing the trespass and the gift in todayís epistle lesson. ďSo then as through one trespass the judgment came unto all men to condemnation; even so through one act of righteousness the free gift came unto all men to justification of life. For as through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one shall the many be made righteous.Ē
We join Adam in the reality of our failure and continue to be tempted by the same things that have plagued human life since the beginning. Jesus faced those same temptations but He did not fall because saw through the lie. He did not seek to attain more and He stayed the course which God had given for Him. He walked to the cross because it was what God intended for Him to do. He didnít reach beyond what He had because He knew He had everything. His obedience has secured the gift of life for all who believe. Though we are sinners, we are called to live in faith according to Godís good and perfect Word. We will be tempted, but we have been made in the image of God and we can make the conscious decision to follow God and be like Him even when our natural impulse wants to lead us another direction.
God has given us His Word and by His Word we can stand firm in His promises. When Satan tempts us, we need only turn to that which He has spoken through Israel and most especially through Jesus. Last week we were given the command to listen to Jesus, the week before He called us to follow. By His grace we can live free from the burden of sin and walk according to His Word. Grace overcomes and grace transforms, making us to be the image of the Creator He created us to be.
Lent is a time of repentance and a time for reflection as we consider our own humanness. We canít confess that which we do not accept to be true, so we must realize that we are sinners. Yet, once we have made that confession, we can rest in the promise of Godís Word that we are forgiven. In todayís Psalm, David writes, ďBlessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.Ē We are blessed because our Lord Jesus did not fall to the tempter in the wilderness. Yet, David also reminds us that when we do not confess our sins, we suffer the burden of guilt and the discipline of God. When we confess our sins, we experience Godís mercy and forgiveness. David writes, ďI acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity did I not hide: I said, I will confess my transgressions unto Jehovah; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.Ē Forgiveness comes to those who trust in the Lord.
Instead of striving to be god-like, during this Lenten season, perhaps our focus should be on considering how we are like God. How are we creative? How can we be merciful? To whom can we offer forgiveness and grace? Most of us have probably already started pursuing fasts and practices that will help us develop into better Christians, and these are good things to try. We canít be worse for giving up chocolate or online video games. But let us be careful not to get caught up in those same sins that have plagued human existence from the time of Adam and Eve.
Do not strive to control the material, spiritual or civil realms in your life, but trust in God to control them. He will give you the strength and courage and His Word to help you send the tempter away. Do not give up your fast, but consider the attitude with which you approach it. Are you sacrificing something to be more perfect, or are you becoming more like God created you to be? Those who live according to their own ways will see the consequences of self-centeredness; those who believe the tempter will turn away from God and walk a path that leads to destruction and death. But those who trust in God will overcome the world and know His grace. ďMany sorrows shall be to the wicked; But he that trusteth in Jehovah, lovingkindness shall compass him about. Be glad in Jehovah, and rejoice, ye righteous; And shout for joy, all ye that are upright in heart.Ē
ďMoreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may be seen of men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have received their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face; that thou be not seen of men to fast, but of thy Father who is in secret: and thy Father, who seeth in secret, shall recompense thee.Ē Matthew 16-18, ASV
So, how are you doing so far? Today is the second day of Lent and I wonder how many of us have already failed to keep our fast. I know that it sounds ridiculous to already be thinking of failure, but I know from my own experience that going into Lent Iím often not even sure what fasting and practices I want to do. Do I really want to give up chocolate or soda? Do I really think it would be helpful to give up those video games? Can I really get through that book in seven weeks? And what does that look like? Do I give up all chocolate, or just candy bars? Do I give up all those video games or just the few that are addictive? Even today several people have mentioned on Facebook the things they might give up for Lent. We ease our way into our sacrifices, slowly finding a fit.
The first few days are generally a time when we share our promises with others. There is value to this, because by telling others what we plan to do, we bring them into our practice by offering them the opportunity to help us stay on track. If I tell my husband that Iím giving up those video games, then he can gently remind me of my commitment when Iím tempted to play again. I have given up several different games that I love to play on Facebook that have stolen too many hours from me. I am very competitive, and whenever one of my friends is on the leaderboard, I do whatever I must to get back on top. Iím good at those games, and it was usually pretty easy to get the high score, but I didnít like my attitude as I am doing so. I kept thinking to myself, ďShouldnít I let my friend win just this once?Ē But for some reason I can't. I have to be number one.
So, I posted on Facebook yesterday that I was giving up those games. A couple of my friends made comments about they now stand a chance. I hope they were kidding, but this time of Lent will be a chance for me to consider this competitiveness in me and to let go of the need to win. The only games I will keep playing are those in which I compete for myself. Now, donít get me wrong, I think competition is good. What I need to change is my unrelenting need to win which steals hours from my day as I play for that top score. My friends will keep me accountable: if a score appears on the scoreboard, then they will know I have failed.
Our scripture for today talks about not making our fasts public. This was the scripture at our Ash Wednesday service and I think it is a good scripture for us today. As we share our Lent promises with our friends and neighbors, it is good to put this scripture up front. We can share our goals with others, but letís do so in a manner that calls them into our journey so they can help us, not in a way that boasts about our expectations. In the next few weeks, weíll be tempted to do the things weíve promised not to do. I will desperately want to click into those games and get my name on the scoreboard. Someone will offer us a cup of coffee or a piece of chocolate cake.
How will we refuse without making a production of it? How can we refuse and make it a moment of shared faith in which we tell our friend or neighbor about our promise without sounding pietistic or haughty? As the weeks go by, will we begin to show our suffering and pain to the world so that they will feel sorry for us? Or will we experience the fast with the strength and courage that comes from faith? Will I start posting how much I miss my games, or will I use the time I was wasting to do something productive and faith-building?
Whatever you do, whether you started yesterday or will start next week, do it with grace and faith. The paraphrase for this passage in ďThe MessageĒ is terrific. ďWhen you practice some appetite-denying discipline to better concentrate on God, don't make a production out of it. It might turn you into a small-time celebrity but it won't make you a saint. If you 'go into training' inwardly, act normal outwardly. Shampoo and comb your hair, brush your teeth, wash your face. God doesn't require attention-getting devices. He won't overlook what you are doing; he'll reward you well.Ē So, as we fast this Lenten season, or as we begin new spiritual disciplines, let us do so with the knowledge that God knows what we are doing; let us use our promises to share His grace with others rather than to receive acclaim for ourselves. Then the fast will be truly worthwhile and weíll know Godís blessing in a very real way.
ďBlessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ: even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blemish before him in love: having foreordained us unto adoption as sons through Jesus Christ unto himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved: in whom we have our redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, making known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he purposed in him unto a dispensation of the fulness of the times, to sum up all things in Christ, the things in the heavens, and the things upon the earth; in him, I say, in whom also we were made a heritage, having been foreordained according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his will; to the end that we should be unto the praise of his glory, we who had before hoped in Christ: in whom ye also, having heard the word of the truth, the gospel of your salvation,-- in whom, having also believed, ye were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, which is an earnest of our inheritance, unto the redemption of God's own possession, unto the praise of his glory.Ē Ephesians 1:3-14, ASV
On this date in 1997, Paul McCartney was knighted for years of service to England through his music. With the investiture, Paul was able to add the title ďSirĒ to his name, and heís now held with a higher regard. He began life as a boy growing up in an average English home on an average English street in an average English town, and now he has been given an extremely high honor by the queen of his country.
When he was much younger, the members of the musical group for which he is mostly know, The Beatles, were given medals to celebrate the contribution they made to their world through their music. Many people were upset by the investiture in the 1960ís because it seemed to trivialize the honor that was normally bestowed on people who did much more heroic things for the country. Yet, in 1997, many were surprised it had taken so long for Sir Paul to receive this higher honor. In the younger years, they didnít seem to have done anything that was worth the medal, but in the end he had definitely earned the special recognition.
I donít know whether the knighting provided Sir Paul with any special privileges beyond the title in his name, but thereís something very special about the honor. I doubt he gets invited to dinner at the queenís house or gets to tell Parliament how to vote. I doubt thereís any extra money or possessions besides the medal that is part of the honor. Heís not made part of the royal family or given a position of power. But he is part of a unique group of people, the few who have been given this fine honor.
We often think of ourselves as princes and princesses of the King, the Lord our God. We have a right to do so, given to us through the blood of Jesus Christ and the faith we have in Him. Yet, the honor of our title does not come like the knighthood given to Sir Paul in 1997. It is much more like the honor given to those rowdy young boys who took the world by storm in the 1960ís. Many did not think they deserved the medal, and they probably did not. What did they accomplish besides giving enjoyment to millions of people?
If you asked John Lennon, heíd tell you that they deserved it more than the ones who normally received the honor: military men and women whoíd sacrificed for the sake of the nation. He was quoted as saying, ďLots of people who complained about us receiving the MBE received theirs for heroism in the war Ė for killing people... [W]e received ours for entertaining other people. I'd say we deserve ours more.Ē In the thirty years between the medal and the knighthood, Sir Paul could add a great many accomplishments to his resume, including service beyond the music industry.
But thatís why we are to be compared with that MBE rather than the knighthood. We donít deserve to become princes and princesses of the King, He chooses us out of love and mercy and grace. We arenít made members of the family because weíve done anything special, but because He created us special and saved us through Jesus. We are Godís children because He has chosen us for Himself.
ďAnd as they heard these things, he added and spake a parable, because he was nigh to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was immediately to appear. He said therefore, A certain nobleman went into a far country, to receive for himself a kingdom, and to return. And he called ten servants of his, and gave them ten pounds, and said unto them, Trade ye herewith till I come. But his citizens hated him, and sent an ambassage after him, saying, We will not that this man reign over us. And it came to pass, when he was come back again, having received the kingdom, that he commanded these servants, unto whom he had given the money, to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by trading. And the first came before him, saying, Lord, thy pound hath made ten pounds more. And he said unto him, Well done, thou good servant: because thou wast found faithful in a very little, have thou authority over ten cities. And the second came, saying, Thy pound, Lord, hath made five pounds. And he said unto him also, Be thou also over five cities. And another came, saying, Lord, behold, here is thy pound, which I kept laid up in a napkin: for I feared thee, because thou art an austere man: thou takest up that which thou layedst not down, and reapest that which thou didst not sow. He saith unto him, Out of thine own mouth will I judge thee, thou wicked servant. Thou knewest that I am an austere man, taking up that which I laid not down, and reaping that which I did not sow; then wherefore gavest thou not my money into the bank, and I at my coming should have required it with interest? And he said unto them that stood by, Take away from him the pound, and give it unto him that hath the ten pounds. And they said unto him, Lord, he hath ten pounds. I say unto you, that unto every one that hath shall be given; but from him that hath not, even that which he hath shall be taken away from him. But these mine enemies, that would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me.Ē Luke 19:11-27, ASV
There is a commercial on television for a credit card company that begins by showing a very pregnant woman sitting amongst a pile of shopping bags. He husband enters the room and she says, ďI went to the doctor today, and then I went shopping.Ē She talks about how convenient the credit card is to use and to pay off, giving them the opportunity to pay off some of the items while spreading out the payments for others, as they walk to the new babyís bedroom. She opens the door and the father faints at the sight of three of everything: triplets!
Now, I tend to look at media from a very practical perspective. If something isnít realistic about it, Iím sure to point it out. In the case of this commercial, I find it impossible to believe that the very pregnant woman was able to accomplish everything she was suggesting in one day. First of all, she had a doctorís appointment, which probably took a few hours. Then she went shopping. In the end, we see a perfectly clean and decorated babyís room with three fully put together cribs, complete with sheets and other accessories.
I donít know about the other women whoíve had children who read this writing, but I wouldnít have had the energy to do all that work after a trip to the doctor and the shops. I certainly would not have been able (and probably should not physically have done so) put together those cribs all by myself. Any store might have been able to deliver and install the furniture, but it would have had to be scheduled, unlikely on the very day. Even if the store took care of the cribs, I donít think Iíd want to bother making those beds and adding those accessories after such a big day. In the commercial she accomplished what most of us would do in days, or perhaps even weeks. The producers of the commercial seem to be completely unconcerned by the reality of time. Of course it doesnít really matter; after all this is just a commercial. And the commercial isnít about time, or even the stuff that the woman purchased, but about the flexibility of her credit card.
I suppose part of the question involves how we look at time. Is time an enemy or is it a friend? Do we use our time well or do we waste too much time? I have realized, already, how much time I was wasting on those stupid online video games. It is no wonder that I was unable to accomplish some of the things I intended on accomplishing because the clocked ticked away endlessly while I did nothing of substance. As we look at the story for today, we certainly see a message that encourages us to use our gifts for the sake of others. But perhaps this is also a message about using our time well.
The people thought that Jesus was speaking of a time that would come quickly, immediately. They were anxious for Godís promises to be made complete, for Israel to be restored and for God to be honored once again in the world. They were anxious to see the Kingdom of God rule over all the nations. The two servants did a good job at using their talents in the time they had to accomplish great things for the Master. The third servant hid the talent until the Master returned because he was afraid it would be lost. Perhaps if there were more time, the servant would have found the courage to do something. Perhaps he was just piddling away the hours and would never have accomplished anything. Whatever the reason, time ran out and he failed.
I suppose we could try to accomplish all the things that woman did in that commercial, even if it seems impossible. What we learn from the scriptures is that time is limited. It might not be limited in the way we expect. The Kingdom of God may not arrive today, but Jesus is coming. We might have many years to accomplish the work God has called us to do. But the reality is that we donít really know how much time we have, and that means we do not have time to waste. The Master is coming and He expects to see something to show for our time and talents.
How will you spend your time today?
ďI will declare thy name unto my brethren: In the midst of the assembly will I praise thee. Ye that fear Jehovah, praise him; All ye the seed of Jacob, glorify him; And stand in awe of him, all ye the seed of Israel. For he hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; Neither hath he hid his face from him; But when he cried unto him, he heard. Of thee cometh my praise in the great assembly: I will pay my vows before them that fear him. The meek shall eat and be satisfied; They shall praise Jehovah that seek after him: Let your heart live for ever. All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn unto Jehovah; And all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee. For the kingdom is Jehovah's; And he is the ruler over the nations. All the fat ones of the earth shall eat and worship: All they that go down to the dust shall bow before him, Even he that cannot keep his soul alive. A seed shall serve him; It shall be told of the Lord unto the next generation. They shall come and shall declare his righteousness Unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done it.Ē Psalm 22:22-31, ASV
I have a statistics tracker on my website. It gives me basic information about the people who have visited. I can see the city and country of origin, what words they used to find my site and approximately how long they visited. Sometimes I can tell if they have returned more than once or if they have visited other pages. My free statistics tracker isnít very detailed and I can only see the last hundred people who have visited a few of my pages. I donít use the information for anything, but enjoy seeing the places from which my readers come.
Iím familiar with most of the places, like England, Australia, Canada and the United States. I get regular visitors from Jamaica, and I have to admit that I wish one of them would write to tell me that they would like to send me a plane ticket so I can visit and speak at their church. I regularly see visits from European nations, India and Malaysia as well as other Caribbean nations. Iím often surprised by the number of visits I get from people in the Middle East and a day doesnít go by when I donít have a visit from Africa.
Sometimes the countries are unknown, places about which I have never heard. When this happens, I like to look up the country and find it on a map. I like to learn about the people who live there and about the nation. How many people are there? What is the landscape like? What are the challenges they face and the accomplishments to their credit? The unknown nations are often tiny islands in the middle of the ocean or some sea that seems impossibly far away. But as it turns out, the people in these distant places often have the same hopes and joys and fears that we have. It sometimes amazes me that they have access to my website, and it amazes me even more that they might be interested.
They say it is a small world, and I believe that to be true in our modern world. The Internet has made it possible for a nobody in Texas to reach the world with a few words of Godís grace. Video means we can experience the pain and suffering of people on the other side of the world immediately. Text messages mean that we can donate money to help victims of natural disasters in seconds with just a few clicks of the button. I might have some evidence that the gifts I use to Godís glory is having an impact on the lives of others, but we donít always know how our faith is making a difference in other peopleís lives.
Yet, as we go through each day, the words of the psalmist can ring through our hearts, reminding us that lives of praise and thanksgiving to God will be heard by the world, and the world will see Godís mercy and love. Then others will join in the song, even people who come from places far away about which weíve never even heard. This isnít by our own work or ability, but because God is amazing. He uses our very words to touch the hearts of neighbors and strangers, to spread faith to all the nations.
Scriptures for Sunday, March 20, 2011, Second Sunday in Lent: Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
ďI will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains: From whence shall my help come? My help cometh from Jehovah, Who made heaven and earth.Ē Psalm 121:1-2, ASV
Have you ever known someone for whom it could be said, ďShe (or he) really deserves to have something good happen for them? Take, for instance, the television show starring David Tutera, ďMy Fair Wedding.Ē On this show, David enters the life of a bride who is just weeks away from her wedding. She usually has some odd concept and limited finances. So, sheís approaching the concept of her wedding with the attitude of ďIíll do the best with what I have.Ē Most of the preparations end up being Dollar store items, often very tacky and confused. David privately talks to the camera after their initial meeting with thoughts about the absurdity of her plans. He then her ideas and transforms everything sheís done into the wedding of her dreams.
As he gets to know the bride and her family, the same idea is voiced by everyone, including David. ďShe really deserves this. We hear stories of her kindness, of her joy, of her humility. We hear about the nice things sheís done at work and for her friends. We see her amazement with every step of the process. Sometimes she is sad because she really liked something about her plans, but her sadness is always turned into joy when she sees Davidís vision of her concept. He is able, due to his resources, to do things which she is unable to do. He can use the finest lines, hire the best entertainment, and cater the most incredible food. He can take the work out of the day for her and treat her like a princess. By the end of the show we are in tears because we have seen this bride get everything she deserves, thanks to David.
The question we ask this week, with these scriptures, however, is ďDoes she really deserve this amazing wedding?Ē Does she really deserve it any more than another bride who is unable to produce a similar event because she doesnít have the resources or contacts? Why?
When we say someone deserves it, it means that they have earned it. What did she do to earn it? She earned an incredible wedding because she has done good things for others? She deserves it because she is a sweet girl or because she is humble enough to accept it? The word ďdeserveĒ is defined on dictionary.com as ďto merit, be qualified for, or have a claim to (reward, assistance, punishment, etc.) because of actions, qualities, or situation.Ē
Iím not sure how they make the selection for the brides who appear on the show. They audition like they might audition for any other part on a reality television show. Iím sure the process includes questions about their lives and the things they have done. I imagine that part of the selection process is much the same as it is for college scholarships or other awards. For those scholarships, they look at each applicantís resume, read their essays, consider the numbers and then choose one above the rest to receive the money. With the television show, they probably also look at physical attributes, such as how they appear on camera and if they can speak well. The selection process is about choosing a person who has a history of good works, right attitude and proper qualifications.
At the end of the show, the bride and groom always take the microphone and give a speech in which they thank David for the incredible gift. He receives the praise and thanksgiving he so richly deserves for all he did to make their day special. She trusted him, and he gave her more than she could have imagined.
In the end it might be right that the bride deserves the wedding or the college student deserves the money, but can it then be called a gift? I donít know how much work goes into the audition for ďMy Fair Wedding,Ē but I can speak from experience on the scholarships. Iíve been through it with my daughter and Iím going through it with my son. Not only did they work hard throughout their school careers, but they also spent hours filling out applications, writing essays and seeking letters of recommendation from adults.
When it comes to earthly things like weddings and scholarships, there might be a fuzzy line between what is deserved and what is gifted. The same cannot be said about the gifts of grace from God. The bride trusted David and humbly accepted the changes he made to her wedding, including the changes she did not expect or even want so in some ways we can look at this television show from the faith perspective. She had to have faith that he would do what is right. But can we have faith in God the way a bride has faith in a wedding planner?
Paul tells us that we donít receive the gracious gifts of God because we deserve them. We canít trust enough, believe enough, work enough to deserve Godís blessing. We donít deserve heaven. We donít deserve the gifts that God gives. If we deserved these things, if we have done something to earn them, then they arenít gifts. But we receive heaven and Godís blessings because He has offered them to us and we believe Him. Thatís righteousness; we arenít righteous because weíve done something or because we are somebody who deserves what God has given. We are righteous because we trust in God and believe what He has said.
I like to watch ďMy Fair WeddingĒ because the brides usually do act in a way that gives me a sense that they deserve the good things they are receiving. They donít act like the brides on some of those other wedding shows that consider themselves much more highly than they ought: the bridezillas who act like the world should revolve around them and that the wedding is their moment to shine. They usually discount even the groom in their decisions, throw fits if people do not do everything they say and they spend money like the only thing that matters in all the world is their moment of glory. They are demanding and self-centered, and compared to them, Davidís brides really do deserve a nice wedding. God never said weíd be blessed for our works. We are blessed because of faith. Abraham was given an incredible promise, one that is beyond anything we might expect. He was promised that his name would be great and that his offspring would become a great nation. To see the fulfillment of this promise, Abram would have to leave everything he knew and loved behind and trust in Godís Word. He did not deserve what would come. As a matter of fact, he did not even see the fulfillment himself. But his offspring did. They received the promise because God was faithful. And we receive the same promise because God is faithful.
Godís promises were misunderstood by Jesusí time. Instead of trusting in God, the people trusted in their own righteousness. They were like the bridezillas, believing that they deserved the blessings they received from God. They boasted of their relationship with God based on who they were and what they did. They believed that they were right with God because they could point to a blood relationship with Abraham, but they lost touch with the reality of Godís grace.
Nicodemus knew there was something to what Jesus was preaching, but he didnít understand it. He knew Jesus came from God, but he didnít have the heart connection. His faith was still in himself, his family ties and his position. He confessed faith in Jesus, but Jesus knew that it was not complete, that it was upside down and backwards thinking.
Jesus answered his confession, ďVerily, verily, I say unto thee, except one be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.Ē Jesus was talking about faith. He was telling Nicodemus that his earthly birth and that faith had nothing to do with the ties that bind us to the earth. You have to be born again, in heart and in spirit.
The conversation continued as Jesus tried to explain the deeper things of God. He told Nicodemus about new birth and about the anointing of the Spirit of God, but he couldnít see these things beyond the thinking that had been conditioned by his religious and cultural point of view. To him, birth happens once and righteousness comes from the law. He knew Jesus came from God but he couldnít understand the deeper purposes of His life and His future death. Jesus pointed to the cross in this passage, telling this Pharisee that He would be lifted up in death to bring life for those who believe. It is no wonder that Nicodemus was confused; this was a very radical revelation for the Jews.
It is still a radical revelation for many people. We still believe that weíll get the blessing of God based on our works, our attitude and our qualifications. When we say, ďShe (or he) deserves to be blessed,Ē we are thinking from the same frame of reference as those Pharisees and other Jewish leaders. We speak of our loved ones deserving heaven because we know they have lived good lives and done the right things. We pray for our neighbors to be blessed because they are good people who have done the right things. We thank God for graciously rewarding our good works but do not understand that we are seeing Godís grace from the wrong point of view. God doesnít bless us because we have been a blessing. We are blessed so that weíll be a blessing to others.
God didnít send Jesus because we deserve to be saved; the reality is quite the contrary. God gave us Jesus because He loves us. Because weíve been blessed by the saving grace of Christís blood, we are also been given to the world so that others will know Him and be saved. It is tempting to think that we deserve heaven, especially if we have done something extraordinary. But Jesus is calling us to look at it differently. We have been promised eternity in heaven not because we deserve it but so that weíll live lives of thanksgiving and praise to God, blessing others with acts that come from faith. We get to go to heaven because we trust in Godís word and His promises, faithfully living in the reality of His faithfulness.
God invited Abram on a journey to a place he did know. He would never see the fulfillment of the promises, but he trusted God and went on that journey in faith. God may not be calling us to go to a new nation or leave behind everything we know and love, but He is inviting us on a journey of faith, too. We donít know where the road will lead. We donít know who we will meet. We donít even know what weíll be expected to do. But we can travel with Him, trusting that He knows and that weíll end up in the Promised Land, just as He has promised. In faith we join in a journey with Abraham and share in his righteousness.
Jesus calls us to look at the world through the eyes of faith. We have been blessed to be a blessing and so we go forth in faith to share Godís kingdom with the world. Our neighbors are much like Nicodemus, doubtful and confused. They may think that the blessings of God are earned, or deserved. But in that shallow faith is a seed that can be watered or a spark that can be fanned into an understanding of faith.
Jesus calls us into His live and blesses us with His grace and then sends us out to share our faith with others so that their faith may grow deeper. We may never see the fulfillment of our work; Abraham never experienced the fulfillment of Godís promises. It took four hundred years for his ancestors to enter into the Promised Land, yet he continued to walk in faith.
Did Nicodemus believe? We donít really know. Later in the story, when the Pharisees want to arrest Jesus and stop His ministry, Nicodemus called for calm and reminded the others that they should give Jesus the chance to speak for himself. He didnít tell them that they were wrong. He didnít stand up for Jesus. But he did want to do what is right according to the Law, to search for the truth and understand Jesus better. Later yet in the story, Nicodemus joined Joseph of Arimathea in dealing with Jesusí body. We canít see the deep faith of a believer, but we do see a seed or a spark that could grow into something spectacular.
I think that in some way we are all a little like Nicodemus. We know that Jesus is from God, but we have a hard time seeing past our understanding of grace. We think that we deserve Godís blessing because we have done something right or that we are blessed because we have been a blessing. God invites each of us on a journey to a place we donít know, a place where we have to trust in Him. He calls us on a pilgrimage to His Temple, where we will sing along with the psalmist in faith.
From where does our help come? It comes from the God who loves us and who has given His own Son to save us from our own failures. It comes not because we deserve it but because God has promised and is faithful. So, during this Lenten journey, let us be transformed by the journey, trusting in God and His amazing grace; He will keep our going out and coming in as we live in faith. Let us live as if we have been blessed to be a blessing, not the other way around, so that others will see Godís kingdom in this world and believe so that they, too, might be saved.
ďPraise ye Jehovah. Sing unto Jehovah a new song, And his praise in the assembly of the saints. Let Israel rejoice in him that made him: Let the children of Zion be joyful in their King. Let them praise his name in the dance: Let them sing praises unto him with timbrel and harp. For Jehovah taketh pleasure in his people: He will beautify the meek with salvation. Let the saints exult in glory: Let them sing for joy upon their beds.Ē Psalm 149:1-5, ASV
Victoria and I went to the zoo yesterday. It is spring break time around here, and Zack was working at a golf camp nearby, so we took the opportunity to have a little fun. Unfortunately, so did half the city. By ten oíclock, the zoo was overflowing with visitors, all wanting to see the animals. Victoria and I arrived early and were among the very first people to get inside, so we had an hour or so of pleasant viewing until it got really crowded.
One of the first exhibits when you enter our zoo is a pond with flamingos. They have a few dozen of these bright pink birds, which normally just stand around preening and sleeping. For some reason, however, the birds were highly active yesterday. The shades that protect them at night were still down when we walked by, but you can see through the shades and it was obvious that they were in a mood. I even commented to Victoria how unusual it was to see them so active. They were running back and forth, to and fro in a frenzy. After a few minutes, I noticed one of the birds was turning his head from side to side, over and over again, almost as if he were watching a tennis match. He was not watching the crowd run back and forth because he was facing away from them. I donít know why, but it seemed as though he was about to talk, and sure enough he made a loud screeching noise. This noise set off the whole crowd, which stopped running back and forth and started screeching along with him. The noise got louder and louder until it hit a crescendo and some of the birds began flapping their wings. These beautiful pink birds have the darkest black feathers underneath and it was an amazing sight. As quickly as it began, the noise and the dancing stopped, and within a heartbeat the birds were running back and forth again.
It didnít take long before I noticed the one bird doing the head thing again. This time several others had joined in the dance, moving their heads from side to side. I jokingly reached up as if I were an orchestra conductor and moved my hand. At that very moment, they started their song again. Victoria and I laughed hysterically at the perfect timing, and that moment set us up for a very nice day at the zoo.
Despite the crowds, Victoria and I found many reasons to laugh for the next few hours. The monkeys were playing by swinging on the ropes and flying around the screens of their habitat. We laughed at the cats, both small and large, that acted just like our own cats at home, sleeping all curled up in a corner. In the butterfly house, the butterflies seemed to like me a lot. I took one from the staff member and carried it around nearly the whole time I was in the house taking pictures, which was interesting since I was left with only one hand. Another landed on my leg and stayed there as I wandered round the paths. The tiger was roaming, the hippos were swimming and the elephants were playing with their trainers.
It was a happy day, and we ended it with another visit to the flamingos, which were still doing their dance. As a matter of fact, we heard them often throughout the day as they screamed their song and did their dance. We enjoyed watching them a few more times and took some pictures of their antics. It was great to see such joy, even if we didnít understand what it was that they were doing.
As Christians, we have a joy that manifests itself in praise and worship. What does that look like to those who do not believe or understand? Do people see us as we saw the flamingos? Do they wonder about what we are doing or why we are doing it? Do they think we are silly or do they laugh at us? It doesnít matter, really. We know what we are doing. We know a joy that canít be explained. Like the flamingos, we have to dance and sing, and perhaps someone will laugh with us and see Godís grace in the midst of it.
ďHo, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labor for that which satisfieth not? hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.Ē Isaiah 55:1-2, ASV
As we were leaving the grocery store yesterday, Zack and I noticed some vending machines. Now, that may not seem so unusual, except that the vending machines are not what you might expect. They didnít have sodas or snacks. They werenít games for kids to win stuffed animals or video movie rental. They werenít even the vending machines that now sell lottery tickets. One of the vending machines was selling inexpensive refurbished electronic equipment like cameras, mp3 players and computers. Yes, computers.
There was a second machine that sold what looked like designer pieces: purses, rhinestone studded watches, necklaces. I canít imagine that the items would really be from famous names, although I have to admit I didnít look very close at prices or descriptions. Would someone really buy a Coach purse from a vending machine at the grocery store? I donít think I would ever want to buy a computer that way. What happens if there is a problem? Where is the tech support? Who will make things right if something goes wrong?
I wondered who might make this kind of purchase. When we were looking at the machines, a woman stood there alongside us and asked Zack a few questions. This woman was impressed with the prices. ďCan you imagine buying a laptop for only $199?Ē she asked. Then she commented about how Zack probably didnít need one. ďIím sure your phone does all that.Ē Well, Zack does not have a smart phone, but even if he did there are things that are much better done at a computer, even if the phone has the capabilities. I canít imagine writing even this devotional at a tiny keyboard, let alone the homework he has to accomplish.
During the conversation, it became very obvious that the woman did not understand much about electronics, yet as we left, she continued to seriously look at the items in the vending machine as if she were thinking about making a purchase. Sadly, she is exactly the type of shopper that needs to go to a store, talk to a salesperson that will help her find a laptop and teach her how to use it. I decided, by the end of the day, that the vending machines would probably be used by the people who should avoid them. It makes it too easy for people to slide a credit card and buy something they probably donít need that will probably not be what they hoped to purchase. They will take advantage of the poor, the unknowledgeable and the foolish.
I might be right, but as I did an Internet search on these vending machines, I learned that they are being used by some of the major retail stores like Macyís and Best Buy. These vending machines are popping up in airports, hospitals and businesses. It is called ďv-commerceĒ and is apparently popular among a generation of business people who are used to shopping online. Some retailers are closing because so many shoppers would rather not actually go shopping, so vending machines provide an easy and convenient option for busy people.
These vending machines might be a good thing for some people, but I can see the dangers for many, too. When everything is too handy, we can be tempted to buy the things we do not really need. We donít take the time to think about whether that camera or mp3 player is really necessary. When we can swipe a credit card in a machine and get the things we want, we donít think about the bill weíll have to pay later. For someone, excessive shopping is the temptation that needs to be beaten down during this Lenten journey, and these new machines will not make it easy. But we can beat down the temptation with Godís Word, seeking His help to seek only the things that we need, rather than the things that look like something we think we need.
ďHave mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: According to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, And cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions; And my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, And done that which is evil in thy sight; That thou mayest be justified when thou speakest, And be clear when thou judgest. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; And in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts; And in the hidden part thou wilt make me to know wisdom. Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Make me to hear joy and gladness, That the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice. Hide thy face from my sins, And blot out all mine iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God; And renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence; And take not thy holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; And uphold me with a willing spirit.Ē Psalm 51:1-12, ASV
I was driving down the highway one day when a plastic shopping bag flew into my car and got caught on my side mirror. At first I thought it would blow off, but it was evenly trapped on the mirror and the force of the wind kept it there. I thought about opening my window to pull it off, but it was whipping violently, so I decided it was better to leave it go. It wasnít going anywhere and I wasnít distracted by it; I knew I could easily take it off when I stopped at the stop sign at my exit. Unfortunately, it fell off as I slowed down but before I could get my window open, so it was free to fly into someone elseís car.
Have you ever seen one of those plastic shopping bags flying through the air? They are very lightweight and well designed to catch the wind. They can fly for miles as long as they donít get caught on a car or a tree branch. They look almost graceful dancing in the wind, but they are ugly and dangerous. I was lucky, but those bags can get caught in a way that can cause accidents. They can get caught up into jet engines. They can create problems for wildlife.
I was very aware of those bags when we were driving from church yesterday. Several fields along our route are filled with all sorts of plastic things caught on tree branches and chicken wire fences. The breeze blows them constantly and eventually they become ripped and ragged. I couldnít help but wonder how all those bags came to be in that spot. It is possible that the winds just blow in a pattern that allows them to settle in those places. Perhaps it has to do with the number of trees or other things that can catch them.
I donít know how the bags escape. It is so easy for the wind to catch and carry these bags, drawing them high and far so quickly that it is impossible to get them back. And how often do we bother to try to catch a bag that is already in motion, why chase after someone elseís litter? We donít bother to go running after something that is blowing away, leaving it for someone else to catch. Unfortunately, they tend to end up in those fields were no one walks. Could I go to one of those fields and clean it up? Perhaps I could be the one, but thereís no parking, no gates to get through the fencesótoo much trouble.
Arenít we a little like those fields where the bags have become caught up on the tree branches or chicken wire fences. Sin is like those bags. We donít know how it comes to be a part of our life. We are tempted by the actions and inactions of others, and we fail to resist, so sin grabs a hold of some part of us. It might even appear to have grace and beauty, but it is ugly and dangerous, especially in how our sin affects others. We fail each other when we do not try to help one another be rid of sin, we donít want to cross any fences or bother to stop and help. We just let those sins continue to blow in the breeze and after time they also become ripped and ragged, worse as time goes on.
Lent is a time for contemplated our own sinfulness, and when we follow Lenten disciplines in the company of other Christians it is a time for helping one another clean up our fields. Are we ignoring the problems? Are we too lazy to find a way to help? Do we refuse to cross those fences that our fellow Christians have put up to keep us out of their business? Are we building big fences so that others cannot help us? Let us seek Godís help to work together to clean up our fields, sharing Godís mercy and grace and cleansing, so that by Easter our lives will look more like a beautiful meadow of wildflowers than an ugly field of garbage.
ďFor thus said the Lord Jehovah, the Holy One of Israel, In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength. And ye would not: but ye said, No, for we will flee upon horses; therefore shall ye flee: and, we will ride upon the swift; therefore shall they that pursue you be swift. One thousand shall flee at the threat of one; at the threat of five shall ye flee: till ye be left as a beacon upon the top of a mountain, and as an ensign on a hill. And therefore will Jehovah wait, that he may be gracious unto you; and therefore will he be exalted, that he may have mercy upon you: for Jehovah is a God of justice; blessed are all they that wait for him. For the people shall dwell in Zion at Jerusalem; thou shalt weep no more; he will surely be gracious unto thee at the voice of thy cry; when he shall hear, he will answer thee. And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet shall not thy teachers be hidden anymore, but thine eyes shall see thy teachers; and thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it; when ye turn to the right hand, and when ye turn to the left. And ye shall defile the overlaying of thy graven images of silver, and the plating of thy molten images of gold: thou shalt cast them away as an unclean thing; thou shalt say unto it, Get thee hence.Ē Isaiah 30:15-22, ASV
I went wildflower hunting with my camera yesterday afternoon. It was a nice day, warm and partly cloudy. The wildflowers are not nearly as spectacular this year as they were last year. We have been too dry, so the ground is hard and the flowers are small and sparse. Only the hardiest of seeds have been able to break through the earth. It is still pretty, but it is obvious that our weather has not been suitable for the wildflowers.
Unfortunately, it was very windy yesterday. The wildflowers are strong, but not very sturdy. With tall, thin stems, they easily blow in any breeze. When it is extremely windy, as it was yesterday, the flowers do not stand straight and they are constantly in motion. It is difficult to get photos of moving objects, especially when you are trying to take close-up and macro photographs; every small movement causes a blur. It is hard to compose the photo because the flowers move just as you have it set.
So, photographing the flowers yesterday became a lesson in patience. When I found a picture I wanted to take, I stood with the camera to my eye, sometimes for minutes that seemed like hours, waiting for the opportunity to snap the shot. When the wind died down (it never stopped completely,) I used the continuous shooting option and took a dozen pictures. As Iím going through the pictures from yesterday, Iíve discovered the technique often workedóI was able to catch at least one picture that is well composed and without blurs.
What I learned, however, was an incredible lesson. It was during those times of waiting that I found the best pictures. At one point I was looking at a bunch of Texas Bluebonnets, trying to decide the best angle, when I noticed a caterpillar at the base of a flower nearby. A careful scan of the ground revealed another one. They were delightful to watch, and fun to photograph. I noticed many others throughout the day, and one of my favorite shots from the day is of one of these creatures. On another occasion I was waiting when I realized that just a few inches away from the flower I was watching was a wildflower I had not seen during my adventures. It was tiny, only a few inches tall with flowers no larger than a nickel. I probably had not seen them because I was also so busy focusing on the larger, more common flowers.
The greatest blessings of the day came during the moments of waiting. Isnít that often true with our lives, too? When we are waiting for something good to happen, we experience something better. But do we wait patiently? It would have been so easy for me to take a few pictures and move on to another place, thinking that I was wasting my time. As a matter of fact, that particular stop was the second on my journey for the day, and I quickly left the first one out of frustration with the wind. I wonder what I might have missed at that wildflower field?
It isnít easy to wait. Sometimes it seems like those times of waiting have no value, and even worse, they seem risky. Yet, even in the experiences that seem less than blessed, we can find that there is a blessing hidden in its midst. The wind made taking pictures difficult, but it also blew the dust and pollen. The field was filled with ant mounds, which I had to carefully avoid as I was waiting. My back hurts a bit today from waiting with camera held to my eye for so long. But in the process, God whispered a word about finding the hidden blessings. While you wait this Lent, will you watch and listen? Will you find the hidden blessings and hear Godís voice?
Scriptures for Sunday, March 27, 2010, Third Sunday in Lent: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
ďFor Jehovah is a great God, And a great King above all gods.Ē Psalm 95:3, ASV
Liquefaction is a process that occurs in the earth, especially in sandy or dense soils. I donít understand how it occurs, exactly, but it is apparently a phenomenon that can happen during an earthquake. Before the shaking, the soil particles touch one another, holding firm and stable. During an earthquake, the shaking separates the particles, allowing water in between, making each particle like an island. The effect of this liquefaction is like quicksand. As pressure is applied to the soil, the water has to go somewhere, and it is usually forced upward, spouting out of the ground like a geyser. The water seems to come out of nowhere.
A few years ago, when we were in a period of extreme weather, constant rain and flooding, those who lived near the aquifer found their yards spotted with springs. The aquifer could not hold all the water that was collecting from the rain, so it sprung through the surface. This makes sense, because the water is coming from a place where it might be expected under the circumstances. But the liquefaction doesnít make sense because it comes from a place not generally expected to have water. There is always water in the ground, even when we are very dry, but we would never expect a geyser to explode out of the ground right now. It just might if we had an earthquake, due to this phenomenon called liquefaction.
We have it easy. All we have to do to get water is to turn on a faucet. Some of us even have water that comes out cold right from our refrigerator. It wasnít so easy in the ancient times. They didnít have water flowing into their homes. Towns were built around a single source of water, usually a well, that provided all their needs. The water was not purified. It was not really cold, and it didnít stay cool after it was drawn. Sometimes the water in the well got mucky, especially after all the women had drawn their water for the day. The wells were deep, and required a bucket that was lowered on a rope.
A woman approached the only source of water for her town, a well that was built in the days of Jacob. She arrived late in the day, long after the other women had collected their water. She was unwelcome, a sinner who was living with a man (her sixth), so she visited the well after the other women returned to their homes. By then the sun was hot and the water was tepid. But at least she could go without hearing the scorn in the other womenís voices. She wanted to avoid others, to live her lonely life without witnesses or adversaries.
Much to her surprise, a man was sitting at the well. He had no reason to be there. He was alone, without transportation, or bags, or even a pack with supplies. She could not know why he was there, and he might even have caused her fear. She was alone. With no witnesses, he could do anything to her. She could be raped or killed. She could disappear, and no one would know the difference or worse: no one would even care. At the very least, he could easily assume she was trouble because she was at the well at such an odd hour. Would he be the one to persecute her?
She didnít know this was a divine appointment, one designed by God to spread His good word to a village outside the borders of expectation. She was chosen, out of all the women, to be the one to take the Good News of Godís Kingdom to her people. Thatís the way God works, bringing water out of the dry places, creating geysers where there is no water.
We see how God provides life-giving water to His people in the Old Testament story from Exodus. The people have been wandering for awhile; they are getting tired and hungry and thirsty. Theyíve seen the hand of God, experienced His mercy and grace, and yet constantly find reasons to complain. In todayís story, despite God proving that He will provide clean, fresh water (15:27), they complained to Moses about the lack of water. They tested God, demanding more proof that He will take care of them. The wanderers had no hope, they could see no solution to their problem, they did not trust God or ask Him to supply their needs, they complained to Moses. ďWherefore hast thou brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?Ē They were ready to kill Moses.
The Israelites were on a difficult journey. They had cried out for the salvation of the LORD in Egypt, hoping that He would deliver them from the life of slavery into a better world. Once they were on that journey, however, they began to think that the life they had in Egypt was better than the uncertainty of where they would get their next drink. They were thirsty, and their thirst was all they could think about. Imagine what it must have been like having a million people camping in the desert with no source for water.
God heard their cries, and despite the demanding and untrusting tone, God responded. He didnít offer them water to prove Himself, but to remind His people that He was there with them. They saw only their suffering and did not trust that God would do something about it. They did not ask Godís help, they demanded evidence of Godís control.
In those times when it seems like God is far away, He is actually very near and He knows the needs of His people. They needed water, but they also needed to learn how to trust in Him. They were being led from one life to a very different life. The wilderness journey was not only meant to get them from one place to another, but to help them transform into the people God was calling them to be. He was teaching them about faith, about hope and about relying on the One who would provide for their every need. They quarreled and tested, but God still provided. This is good for us to knowóthat even when we quarrel and test the LORD, He is still close by to meet our needs.
In their very real need, the Hebrews wondered if God was really with them. If He were, then why would He allow them to be thirsty? The LORD led Moses to a place with water, although it didnít seem like a place where water could flow. It was a rock. The people wanted to stone Moses, but God stoned themówith water from a rock. He stood on the rock and commanded Moses to strike it. When he did so, using the rod that he used in Egypt, the water began to flow.
The people tested God, but in reality it was the people who were being tested. Would they be faithful? Would they trust God? Would they learn how to live as His people in the place where they were being led? We think that suffering is a sign of Godís abandonment; they certainly did in the days of the desert wandering. Health, wealth, success are the signs of a perfect life, at least we tend to think so. The reality is so different. Faith and faithfulness does not guarantee a lack of suffering. Faith and faithfulness helps us to get through everything we have to face in this life.
Paul writes, ďAnd not only so, but we also rejoice in our tribulations: knowing that tribulation worketh stedfastness; and stedfastness, approvedness; and approvedness, hope: and hope putteth not to shame; because the love of God hath been shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit which was given unto us.Ē God did not abandon His people, He allowed circumstances that would make them turn to Him. Unfortunately, when we face those circumstances, we often harden our hearts instead of seek Godís grace.
Listen to the tone of the womanís answers to Jesus. She is very distant, uninterested, perhaps even afraid. She is surprised that He would have anything to do with her. When He offers her a drink, she is offended and becomes defensive, wondering how He could offer her anything better than her forefather, Jacob. She becomes interested when she hears that the water will make her life better. She wonít suffer thirst and is willing to believe that He can provide it. She humbly admits her failing when He asks her to bring her husband, and she is amazed when He can provide details that she does not give. Her fear of a strange man turns into respect for a prophet in just a few sentences. Then He spoke the promise of God into her life and revealed Himself as the One for whom they had been waiting. In this encounter, Jesus moved her from fear to hope to faith. Whatever her failings, she experienced the presence of God. She was a rock, hard of heart, but Jesus touched her and the living water flowed out of her into the lives of others.
Now, when the disciples returned to see Him speaking with the woman, they were confused and perhaps even upset. They wanted to know why she was talking to Him, and why He was talking to her. Iím sure they wanted to protect Him from women like her. They took care of Jesusí physical needs, while He took care of their spiritual needs. Just as He gave the woman water to drink when she was the only one who had a bucket, He gave the disciples food to eat even though they were the ones to go into the village for food.
As Iím rambling through these texts, I can see an emerging pattern. We think we do for God, or to God, when Heís actually doing for, and to, us. We test God, He tests us. We share our physical resources, He gives us everything we need. We want to stone those who do not meet our expectations, and He stones us with His love and mercy and grace. Perhaps that sounds a little odd, since stoning is definitely not a positive action. It is a violent, awful practice. Yet, donít we sometimes feel like weíve been stoned by something we do not understand? Donít we sometimes feel like we have been pushed down into the earth, left bleeding and dying? The Israelites certainly felt that way.
We can respond to those moments two ways. First, we can harden our hearts, let the experience of suffering and pain make us angry, bitter and resentful. We can blame others, like the Israelites did to Moses. We can even blame God. We can complain and provoke Him, demand justice and expect that He will do our will. Do you know anyone like that? I know a man who is able to find fault with everything and everybody that doesnít meet his very specific demands. The slightest problems are due to the failings of others, even if it is proven that the trouble is from his own failure. He is angry and negative. He is unwilling to look at the problem from any other point of view, and if it is called to his attention that perhaps some fault lies in his corner, he gets even angrier and more negative. He attacks with nasty and spiteful responses, calls people names and refuses to see anything positive in his opponents. And everyone is an opponent. His heart is hard. He has no faith or hope or peace.
The other response is that of the woman at the well. We might start out angry or afraid, but with a willing heart we can see Godís grace in our circumstance. Suffering has a positive effect on our lives, because it helps us turn to God and seek His help. Paul tells us that suffering produces perseverance, which produces character, which produces hope. And hope doesnít disappoint because hope is based on Godís promises. He said Heíd be near. He didnít say our life would be perfect, but He promised Heíd be with us. When it seems like He is far away, He is always much closer than we expect. He is listening, waiting, preparing to do whatever we need. If we harden our hearts, we do not see the grace He gives. If we trust in Godís faithfulness, weíll be at peace even in those times of trouble. God does not act in response to our righteousness, but to fulfill His promises.
The Israelites asked, ďIs Jehovah among us, or not?Ē Perhaps we ask the same question, especially when we are in the midst of trouble. Thankfully God does not wait for us to repent, or even to seek His help. He provides what we need whether we deserve it or not. He doesnít give us what we want; He gives us what we need. There is a difference. We may think we need to win the multimillion dollar lottery, but we need to rely on Him. We may think we need that fancy house, but we need to be in a place where we can share Godís grace with others. We may think we need a charmed life, but we need a life that reflects Godís grace. When we were weak, God sent Jesus to die for us. When we are strong, we miss the good things God can do. If we do not trust God, weíll never experience His rest.
The psalmist recalls the experience of the Israelites in the first lesson, reminding us not to harden our hearts. Instead, we are invited to sing to God and praise His name. He is able to make springs of water flow out of rocks, to give living water without a bucket. He is with us, ready to offer us the entire Kingdom and all of creation to meet all our needs. He has even given His Son for our sake. ďFor Jehovah is a great God, And a great King above all gods.Ē We might get shaken, as the earth is shaken by an earthquake, as we realize our unworthiness and humble ourselves before Him, But as we hear His word with our hearts, Heíll make geysers explode or springs of living water flow from our lives, so that we can tell others about the Messiah who is near and invite them to ďCome and see.Ē
ďAnd to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God: I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So because thou art lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew thee out of my mouth. Because thou sayest, I am rich, and have gotten riches, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art the wretched one and miserable and poor and blind and naked: I counsel thee to buy of me gold refined by fire, that thou mayest become rich; and white garments, that thou mayest clothe thyself, and that the shame of thy nakedness be not made manifest; and eyesalve to anoint thine eyes, that thou mayest see. As many as I love, I reprove and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me. He that overcometh, I will give to him to sit down with me in my throne, as I also overcame, and sat down with my Father in his throne. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith to the churches.Ē Revelation 3:14-22, ASV
I read two articles today that seemed to contradict one another. The first stated that religion is disappearing in some countries, perhaps even dying out completely. The article described these countries as places with secular democracies, where people are not identifying themselves with any particular religion. Sadly, though not one of the nine countries specifically identified in the article, the study showed that even in America the number of unaffiliated people is rising in every state.
The second article was about a study that shows that the large mega churches of America are growing. According to the survey, the smallest of the top ten largest mega churches is bigger than the biggest one ten years ago. These churches are twice as large as they were. When asked why people are flocking to the mega churches, one pastor suggested that it had to do with the small groups they offer. The studies show that people are attracted to the mega churches for the activities that are offered, not the faith that is experienced. The pastor interviewed agrees that people often attend the mega churches for non-spiritual reasons, but says that it can be a path to spiritual fulfillment.
Another reason suggested for greater growth among those mega churches is the anonymity of being lost in the crowd. In hard economic times, people seek to find answers to their questions and hope for their fears. They turn to the church, not always out of a sense of faith. They think, perhaps, if they are in a church pew on a Sunday morning that God will see their faithfulness and bless them. They choose the mega churches because they can get lost in that pew, unconnected to others. They donít have to commit to anything, they can go, be seen by God and be fed by God, then leave without having to get personal with the people.
So, though these articles may seem contradictory, they are actually the same thing. Though the American mega churches are growing, they are being filled with people who are not interested in religious experiences, but who look to the church to meet societal and personal needs. They arenít necessarily there to worship God, although that is certainly part of the experience. But they are more interested having a place where they can make a difference than having a place where they are transformed by the Holy Spirit.
The church is becoming more and more secular, and though people are affiliated, is it really the Church? This has become extremely obvious in the way the language of the church is changing, removing from our teaching the message that we are sinners in need of a Savior. We donít talk about the forgiveness that comes from Godís saving sacrifice of His Son, our Lord Jesus, because most people no longer think they need to be saved. This is true not only in the mega churches, but also in many other churches.
Perhaps this is the very thing that John saw coming to the Church in Laodicea. They were neither hot nor cold. They had neither passionate faith nor absolute rejection of God. They didnít know their wretchedness, and were probably going to church for many of the same reasons we see today. They wanted a family. They enjoyed the activities. They thought maybe theyíd get something out of it. They wanted to network. They celebrated their blessings and blessedness, but were blind to the reality.
But God calls us to hear and believe. This particular passage is the one that inspired the famous painting of Jesus knocking at the door, but he canít come in because the doorknob is only on the other side. Many people point non-believers to that picture saying that they need to invite Jesus into their heart. But as we can see from this passage, it isnít non-believers to whom John is writingóit is the Church. Have churches lost touch with Jesus? Is He standing outside the door? Are we so busy with our activities and secular teaching that we have forgotten to keep Him as our focus? Do we still hear His voice?
ďNow I make known unto you brethren, the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye received, wherein also ye stand, by which also ye are saved, if ye hold fast the word which I preached unto you, except ye believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which also I received: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried; and that he hath been raised on the third day according to the scriptures; and that he appeared to Cephas; then to the twelve; then he appeared to above five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain until now, but some are fallen asleep; then he appeared to James; then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to the child untimely born, he appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not found vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. Whether then it be I or they, so we preach, and so ye believed.Ē 1 Corinthians 15:1-12, ASV
We have lived in our house for seven years. It was brand new when we purchased it, which means everything in the house was brand new. Of course, over the years some things have needed repairs. The refrigerator icemaker broke. The water heater leaked. The garage door fell apart. Taking care of these things is part of homeownership. We have a list of repairmen that we trust to take care of our problems.
When we moved into this house, we were in a brand new neighborhood, so the salesmen were out in force, trying to sell everyone the things that would make their homeownership easier and the newness last longer. We were visited by an extermination company, who has visited our home every month since we moved in. While I canít say that we are completely free of insects, Iím certain that having that service has made a difference in the creatures that might have taken up residence in our walls and home.
The other service we have had visit on a regular basis is for our central air system. They have come every fall and spring since that first year, ensuring that the system is prepared for the oncoming season of extreme weather. Iím sure that this has made a difference for us, as Iíve noticed that some of my neighbors, whose homes are just about the same age, have had to have their systems replaced already.
I have to admit that I havenít always appreciated the repairmen that have come to the house. Some of them are obviously sales people, here with the intention of selling me some new service or piece of equipment that they claim will make our system work better and our home safer. They constantly tried to sell me extended warranties, which got progressively more expensive with each visit and parts that would make the air in our home cleaner. I have purchased a few of the things, presented with valuable information or offered in response to a problem or question I had. But most of the time I thanked the repairman for checking our service and sent him on his way.
We had our annual spring visit this week and I was pleasantly surprised by the honesty and openness of our repairman. He admitted that the equipment is designed to last eight to twelve years, which seems outrageous to me, considering it costs thousands of dollars to install that kind of equipment. He said that we are probably beginning the first year of our last years for the system. He said that it is in these years that weíll be nickeled and dimed to death, but was pleased to see that we have already signed up for a program that will save us money. He showed me the items heís supposed to Ďsellí but agreed that we probably donít need any of them. ďYou have taken good care of your system and it should give you a few more years of excellent service,Ē he said. It was refreshing to have the repairman do the job he came to do and not force something upon us that we simply do not need.
Paulís witness of the story of Christ is very simple. Heís given the newspaper report of the appearance of Christ after His death and burial. He not only lists himself last, but Paul admits that he is the least of the disciples because, as he says, he was one untimely born. He first persecuted the church and then Christ came to call him out of his darkness into the light. It might have been tempting for Paul to think highly of himself, and to give himself a sense of authority over others because of his experiences. Instead, Paul knew that his job was only to share the Gospel with others and then let Christ do the work in their lives.
We might have good reason to tell others how they should act and what they should do. We might be well versed in the scriptures and understand the reality of sin and the need for repentance. We might have experience that gives us the knowledge necessary to tell others how to act. We might have titles or education. Paul certainly had all of the above. Yet, Paul knew that his job was to speak grace and let God work. We arenít here to sell people anything. We arenít here to make them believe anything or change anything. It is God that does that work. We might preach, but it Godís grace that makes things happen.
ďYe are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a lamp, and put it under the bushel, but on the stand; and it shineth unto all that are in the house. Even so let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.Ē Matthew 5:14-16, ASV
I was driving down the road one morning, well after sunrise, and I noticed that the stadium lights at the soccer fields were shining bright. It didnít make sense. At first I thought perhaps the lights might go on whenever there was activity at the fields, but it was a Friday morning and the children were all in school. I suppose they could have leased the fields to some adult league, but there was not any traffic around the site. Besides, why would they waste the money on the extra electricity necessary to keep lights on during the day?
Next I wondered if the fields had something the night before and the person in charge forgot to turn out the lights. Iím sure that soccer league would be very unhappy to discover that mistake on their electric bill the next month! To keep those high powered lights on overnight would have been more expensive than most of the local sports leagues can afford.
It wasnít until I was right beside the soccer fields that I realized why the lights were on: there were repairmen working on the lights. They were probably changing bulbs or testing the systems to ensure that everything was in good working order. A large basket crane with a worker or two was raised near one of the towers and several other workers were moving at around at the base. It may have seemed ridiculous to me that the lights were on at that hour in the morning, but it was important for the work to be accomplished. They could not make sure the lights would serve the soccer community without having them on during the repair.
Iím sure we all know the childrenís song ďThis Little Light of Mine.Ē In the song we are encouraged to let our light shine all the time so that the world can see. This is, perhaps, much easier for children to actually live than adults. For whatever reason, we turn off our lights all the time. We turn them off at work because we donít want to offend. We turn them off when we are tired or stressed or hurt. We think that there is a limit, so we save our lights for the right moments, saving Ďenergyí for those moments when the light will do the most good.
The song encourages us to let our light shine. We are also reminded not to cover the light. And finally we are warned not to let Satan blow it out. We are to let our lights shine not only for others to see, but because it is in the shining that the bond between us and God is kept strong and true. If we hide our light under a bushel, we think we can live differently in those places where the light is hidden. If we do not keep our lights shining brightly, it is easier for Satan to blow it out. So, though it might make sense to turn off the field lights at the soccer fields, it never makes sense to turn off the light of Christ in our life. ďLet it shine, let it shine, let it shine!Ē
ďIn that hour came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And he called to him a little child, and set him in the midst of them, and said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye turn, and become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.Ē Matthew 18:1-4, ASV
Iím still discovering my style of painting, but I definitely enjoy painting abstract pieces. I have managed to paint a few pictures with subjects that are recognizable, but my favorite paintings leave interpretation up to the viewer. In one painting, a friend noticed that the colors and lines created the image of an angel. I preferred the painting to be held in another direction, making the angel completely unnoticeable. The artist needs to ensure that the direction of an abstract gives the greatest impact and portrays the purpose of the piece. It might seem like it doesnít matter to the average viewer, but it does matter to the artist. And as it turns out, it might mean more to the viewer than they might realize.
I came across an article today about a study conducted by Boston psychologists testing the ability of viewers of art to tell the difference between pieces produced master artists and children or non-human artists. In the study, the researchers presented the viewers with art from a master and a piece that was similar in many ways including color, shape and line, as well as medium, produced by a child or a monkey.
The study is significant because it shows that people can distinguish aesthetically between the scribblings of a child and the thought, intention and planning behind an abstract painting.
The study proved that people can tell the difference between child-like art and that of the masters. The abstract works were judged in a significantly higher than chance level to be the better art and to be enjoyable to view. Also, the viewers were able to point to intellectual and aesthetic reasons for their choices. In other words, they saw purpose in the art by the master than the children. When a viewer chose a childís painting as the preferred piece, they generally said they liked the colors and brush strokes. The results of the study found that people can see in abstract art the mind of an artist and we can read or hear the visual language in the abstract paintings even if there is no recognizable object to see.
Jesus tells us in todayís passage that we must become like little children, humble and innocent before God. We need to trust in Godís grace and receive His goodness as children, willingly leaving our own prejudices and wisdom aside to hear and believe in God. But that doesnít mean that we should be like the children scribble on the paper without purpose or talent. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul says that when he was a child, he thought like a child but when he became a man he gave up childish behavior and walked like a man. We, too, should trust God like a child, but live as the men and women that God has called us to be, with a mind, purpose and beauty of one who lives intently in the knowledge we have from Godís Word.
Scriptures for Sunday, April 3, 2011, Fourth Sunday in Lent: 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41
ďFor ye were once darkness, but are now light in the LordÖĒ Ephesians 9:8a, ASV
My car was experiencing a minor problem which in the next few months would cause major discomfort. The air conditioner and heater were working, but the blower was not. I could get air at full blast, but not at any of the other levels. When I took it to the mechanic, one guy joked, ďWait a month and you wonít need the other levels.Ē That might have been true, because it can get terribly hot here in Texas. But quite frankly, Iíd rather not run the air conditioner at full blast for long periods of time. It is too noisy and it gets much too cold. I would rather have the option to run the air at low constantly, which will keep the car cool without creating the other problems.
Iíve had this problem for a number of months, but Iíve waited because I was concerned about what would happen when I took the car in to the shop. Iím sure weíve all experienced it: the car goes in for a simple fix and the mechanic finds a problem. By the end of the day, the bill is ten times what you expect and you are stuck without a car for hours, perhaps even days.
So, I went to my usual guy and told him what was happening. As it turns out, the solution was simple. The part was cheap and the work would not take very long. We made an appointment for this morning, and the guy told me it should take about half the day as they worked my car into their other jobs. The guy ordered the part immediately so that it would be available when we needed it. I arrived at the shop early this morning, prepared to leave my car. He had a ride for me, but asked me to wait a few minutes, ďPerhaps we can get this done right away.Ē
He came in a few minutes later and said it was done, but he wanted the mechanic to take a quick look. ďIt has been a few months since weíve seen your car, letís make sure everything is good. Of course, I held my breath because the last thing I wanted was for them to find something wrong. A few minutes later he came back with good news. ďEverything looks great.Ē I was pleased. The trip took a half hour and cost me less than a hundred dollars. And now my air works great, just in time for the hot Texas summer.
Iím not always so lucky. Last year we had a series of problems with the car, not related but happening one after the other. Each time I took it in, they gave me an estimate but throughout the day found problems under the surface. The bills stacked up, and I kept thinking that I could probably buy a new car for less than it was costing me to fix that one. That wasnít true, but it seemed like it could be.
We donít always know what is hidden under the surface, with our cars or with our lives. Iíve known seemingly healthy, athletic people who have died from traumatic health issues. Businesses and professionals can appear to be successful, but have deep secrets buried in their closets. A yard can look lovely and green but have swarms of killer ants just waiting to break through the surface to attack anyone or anything that dares tread in their path.
But those evils buried under the surface need not be a death sentence. Disease can be found by a doctor and cured. Businesses and careers can be saved. Once the ants break through the surface, exterminators can poison the colony so that it will no longer present a danger. But for any of this to be fixed, the problem needs to be revealed. I might have preferred to not have the repair bill for my car, but I could tell the difference in my car once the problems were fixed and the car has continued to serve me well, including several very long trips. What would have happened if I had allowed those problems to stay hidden? I might have broken down in the middle of nowhere, along a lonely highway with no one to help.
We are, by nature, imperfect, despite having been created in our Creatorís image. We are darkness, with secrets hidden from view. But Paul writes, ďFor ye were once darkness, but are now light in the Lord.Ē Jesus comes into our life, shining His light and revealing whatís hidden in our darkness. This isnít the most pleasant experience. We donít like to hear how we are failures. We donít like to hear that we are sinners. We donít like to have our skeletons brought out into the open. But unless they are revealed, we canít deal with them. But thatís how we areÖ weíd rather not deal with them.
We canít live in that darkness and serve God. We canít bear the fruit that comes from holding on to our skeletons and expect to glorify God. Paul warns us that what is hidden will be revealed, that Godís light breaks through the darkness to expose the secrets in our hearts. In Christ we are called to live in that light, not in the darkness of our sin. That means dealing with our sinfulness and using the lessons learned to help others deal with theirs. As the light shines, it will reveal that which is hidden in the darkness, calling others to wake and rise from the dead.
There is an unfortunate reality when it comes to our sin. Sin causes suffering. Now, Iím not saying that suffering is the punishment for our sin, but sin hurts others. Sin brings dis-ease. Sin ruins lives. Sin causes men and women to lose their jobs. Sin, darkness, shatters our world. There are those in our world who have taken this reality to an extreme, claiming that all suffering is attributed so someoneís sin. In other words, if you sin, you will suffer. Or: if you suffer, you sinned to get that way. While it might be true that sin brings suffering, we canít always blame specific suffering on specific sins.
It isnít helpful to do that anyway. Whatís the point of focusing on a lifetime of bad habits when someone is sick? Whatís the point of bringing up every failure when friendships are broken? Yet, it is natural for human thought to question why something has happened. In Jesusí day, the assumption was that suffering was brought on by some specific sin. The disciples didnít think it was an odd question they were asking about the blind man that day. ďWho sinned?Ē Iím sure it didnít make sense that the man himself was to blame; after all he was blind from birth. But it is equally hard to believe that God would punish a man for the sins of his father.
Jesus answered, ďNeither did this man sin, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.Ē This might be the hardest explanation of all. Would God really cause such suffering just so that He might be glorified? Jesus wants the disciples to look at everything from a new point of view. The man was blind, he wasnít being punished. They had an opportunity not to blame someone, but to glorify God.
Is that how we approach our own suffering? Do we ask why? Or do we stand firmly in the promises of God? Do we try to find a reason for the suffering or do we look for a way of shining the light of Christ on the world?
The interesting part of this story is not the healing, however. In this story Jesus glorifies God, but it is not really Jesus that is being seen glorifying Him. As a matter of fact, Jesus disappears before the man can even see Him. The blind man could not pick Jesus out of a crowd, but he knows that it was Jesus that gave him his sight. Over and over again, the man tells the people that it was Jesus who healed him and how He did it, to the point of frustration. The leaders did not believe him because it would be impossible for a man of God to do something unlawful on the Sabbath. But, others argued that a sinner could not do such things. Their confusion fell on the manís shoulders. ďWhat do you think?Ē they asked.
He believed in Jesus, but the people were unable to accept the story as it was being told. They questioned him some more, insulted that a blind man might act as if he knew more than they did about Godís business. After all, if he was blind, he must be a sinner! They even turned to the manís parents to see if they could give them some answers, but they refused. They were afraid to be witnesses because faith in Jesus meant rejection. They would have been kicked out of the community. It was better to lose a son than lose access to everything they need for life.
As the story continues, the people commanded the man to give glory to God and not to Jesus. They said that Jesus could not do such things because He is a sinner. The man didnít care. ďWhether he is a sinner, I know not: one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.Ē The reality here is that the man was giving God the glory by witnessing for Jesus. Whatever the cause of the manís blindness, he fulfilled the very purpose of his life: to glorify God.
That brings us back to that question: Would God really cause such suffering just so that He might be glorified? But thatís not the point of this lesson. The point is that in his circumstances, the man glorified God. The point is that whatever our circumstances might be, our very purpose in life is to glorify God. Whether we are sick or in health, rich or poor, successful or an abject failure, we now live in the light and that light is meant to shine so that God will be glorified. Our circumstances are not given for the purpose of glorifying God, but we can glorify God in all our circumstances.
Spiritual blindness means seeing Godís grace upside down. Instead of seeing the blessing of the manís healing, they insisted that they were more blessed because they had never been blind. They still did not see the reality of their sin and failure. They were blind to what God could do for them, but claimed they could see. Jesus said, ďIf ye were blind, ye would have no sin: but now ye say, We see: your sin remaineth.Ē If they were still in darkness, then Jesus would be patient with them, but they claimed to have the light. They refused to see what Jesus was revealing in His light, however. Until they saw the truth, they would continue to dwell in their sin.
Of course, the Old Testament lesson reminds us that the outside doesnít really matter to God: God sees the heart. In the case of David, Samuel expected the chosen king to be one of his older brothers. David was not even invited to the banquet. He was not sanctified with the rest of the family, but instead was outside with the sheep. Over and over again, Samuel looked at the sons of Jesse and thought he saw a man of authority and strength, but thatís not what God is looking for in a leader. He is looking for men (and women) who will turn to Him for all things. David was that kind of man. It might have been hard for others to see, because he was just a boy, but he was the one God chose because God knew that David would seek Godís will.
Was David perfect? Of course not. We know that David sinned. His desire for Bathsheba led to the death of Uriah the Hittite and the death of his son. But when the light revealed his sin, he repented and turned to God for mercy. He didnít blame anyone else. He didnít try to avoid the reality of his sin. He glorified God, even in his losses.
David knew what it was like to walk in the shadow of death. He knew what it was like to experience darkness. He knew what it was like to suffer the consequences of his failures. But he believed in his heart that God was merciful and right. He trusted that God would make his mistakes into something good. He glorified God at all times, even when it seemed like nothing was going right. His prayer in Psalm 23 is exactly why God chose him to be anointed that day by Samuel. I can hear his voice from the caves where he hid from Saul. I can see David singing this prayer when he was mourning over his dying son. I can imagine that David found these words even when God told him that he could not build the Temple. He didnít try to blame others or get around Godís Word. He simply accepted Godís Word and did what He could, glorifying God not in the building but in the preparation for the work his son would do.
We might not like to have the light reveal our imperfections. We might not want to deal with our sin. But once we have seen the light, there is no holding back from the transformation that God has promised. Once He has opened our eyes, we canít pretend that we canít see.
What would have happened if the auto shop guy found something else wrong with my car? I would probably have asked how severe the problem was and how long it would last before I needed to get it fixed. Perhaps I could go about my usual driving for weeks or months without dealing with it, especially since I donít usually drive very far from home. But once the problem is revealed, I know I need to deal with it. I need to get it fixed.
The same is true in our spiritual lives. Once God reveals the reality of our sin and the darkness in which we live, we have to deal with it. We have to deal with our sin. We have to admit our failures and experience His mercy. We have to repent, turn to God, seek His forgiveness and let Him transform us into the people He has created us to be. It wonít be comfortable. We might even suffer. But we can go forward like the people in our Gospel story, rejecting Jesusí word and continuing to walk in the darkness. Or we can live like David, using all our circumstances to glorify God. In Him we shall not want, for He provides every good and perfect thing.
ďFor God called us not for uncleanness, but in sanctification. Therefore he that rejecteth, rejecteth not man, but God, who giveth his Holy Spirit unto you. But concerning love of the brethren ye have no need that one write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another; for indeed ye do it toward all the brethren that are in all Macedonia. But we exhort you, brethren, that ye abound more and more; and that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your hands, even as we charged you; that ye may walk becomingly toward them that are without, and may have need of nothing.Ē 1 Thessalonians 4:7-12, ASV
I read a story yesterday about a man who had not left his chair for two years. His girlfriend and their roommate found him unresponsive one moment, so they called for help. When help arrived, they found a house that was filthy and with an overwhelming stench of body waste. The paramedics were unable to remove the man from his chair. He did not even leave his chair to go to the bathroom, and just relieved himself where he sat. The waste acted as glue, attaching him to the chair. Since the man was too large for the door, they had to cut a hole in the wall. At the time the article was written, the man was in critical condition, but he has since died.
This story raised a number of questions in my mind. How did he eat if he never got out of his chair? Apparently his girlfriend willingly fed him whenever he was hungry. He had a girlfriend willing to live in those conditions? Why would she allow him to remain in that chair for so long? How could the roommate stand the stench? Even if they got used to the smell when they were inside, they certainly had to leave occasionally for work or to purchase groceries. How did they walk back in without being overwhelmed by that smell? The story also mentioned the landlord, who claims she checked in on the man and his friends regularly but that he always sat with a blanket over his legs. The smell didnít bother her? What about the neighbors? Could they smell it and chose to ignore the situation?
The final and most compelling question I have to ask is ďhow does someone sit in the same position for two years? Iím not the most athletic person, and Iím certainly not thin and fit, but I am not comfortable sitting in the same position for long periods of time. I have to get up and move, walk around the house, go out and get fresh air. I have to see other places, go to the grocery store, visit other people. What does one do in a chair for two years? There surely isnít enough on the television to keep me in the same chair for that long; despite having four hundred television stations, there are nights when I canít find anything I would enjoy watching. I have to go find other things to do. I have to look out the window, smell the flowers, drive my car, worship God with other Christians.
We might never know what caused this man to choose to sit in his chair, and in his body waste, for two years. He may have had a mental illness. His weight may have made it very difficult for him to get up and one day he just gave up. We may not understand how his girlfriend and the roommate were able to live in those conditions. It is easy for us to judge without knowing their side of the story, because there doesnít seem to be any good reason why healthy, capable adults would allow this to happen. It is a horrifying and disgusting story, beyond explanation.
How does this story relate to faith? We might wonder what kind of person can let things get so bad, it is so obvious physically that this should not have happened. But we canít see the state of a personís spirit and heart, and I suspect that there are too many Christians who are stuck to a chair, glued by their own sinfulness. Though salvation is Christís work in our lives, we become partners by faith in the work He is doing. We canít be saved and then sit around doing nothing. We canít expect others to do the work which God calls us to do. If we do, we may just find ourselves in the same situation as that man, unresponsive to the grace of God, dead in our own filth.