Welcome to the March 2021 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the World English Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, March 2021
“Have mercy on me, God, according to your loving kindness. According to the multitude of your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity. Cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions. My sin is constantly before me. Against you, and you only, I have sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight, so you may be proved right when you speak, and justified when you judge. Behold, I was born in iniquity. My mother conceived me in sin. Behold, you desire truth in the inward parts. You teach me wisdom in the inmost place. Purify me with hyssop, and I will be clean. Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness, that the bones which you have broken may rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all of my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a right spirit within me. Don’t throw me from your presence, and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation. Uphold me with a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways. Sinners will be converted to you. Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God, the God of my salvation. My tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. Lord, open my lips. My mouth will declare your praise. For you don’t delight in sacrifice, or else I would give it. You have no pleasure in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit. O God, you will not despise a broken and contrite heart. Do well in your good pleasure to Zion. Build the walls of Jerusalem. Then you will delight in the sacrifices of righteousness, in burnt offerings and in whole burnt offerings. Then they will offer bulls on your altar.” Psalm 51, WEB
Today’s question is found in 2 Samuel 12:9, “Why have you despised Yahweh’s word, to do that which is evil in his sight?”
David was specially chosen by God to serve as king of the people of Israel. He loved the Lord and had a heart to serve Him. He was blessed by God, ruled over the people during a period of prosperity and growth and has been listed among God’s faithful and righteous people.
David was also a sinner. Chapters eleven and twelve in 2 Samuel tell the story of David and Bathsheba. He stayed home while his army fought his battles. One day he was walking on the roof of his palace and he saw her bathing. She was extremely beautiful and he lusted after her. He was tempted by her flesh, sent for her, and committed adultery. She became pregnant. She was the wife of a soldier fighting against the enemies of Israel. David tried to cover up the affair, but sin has a way of revealing itself. Besides, no sin is ever hidden from God. Instead of taking responsibility for his actions, David had Uriah killed and took Bathsheba as his own wife.
Nathan the prophet approached David about this sin. He told David the story about two men, one who was rich and the other who was poor. The rich man had plenty of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had just one. When a traveler visited the rich man, he took the sheep of the poor man to serve at the feast rather than one of the many sheep in his flock. When David heard this story he was outraged and ready to punish the rich man for his sin. Nathan told David that he was the sinner and asked today’s question.
Have you ever been in a situation like David? Have you ever heard a story and got angry because of another person’s action, only to realize that you have done the same? We look at the hatred in the world and become angry, but have we looked in the mirror to see whom we hate? We see the hungry, and we wonder who will feed them, but have we looked in the mirror and seen that it should be us? We see the sins of others very clearly, but have we looked in the mirror to see our own sin?
God sent Nathan to David to act as the mirror, and God does the same for us. He shows us the truth of our actions so that we can turn back to Him. David was disciplined for his sin, but God continued to bless him. We too will be disciplined for our sins against God, but as we turn back to Him and live accordingly, we will be blessed. Nathan was willing to tell David about his sin, but even more importantly, David was willing to listen and repent. Are we willing to hear the words of loving rebuke that will turn us back to the God who loves and forgives us our sin? Today’s question is a mirror for us, too. “Why have you despised Yahweh’s word, to do that which is evil in his sight?” Look in the mirror, what does God want changed in you?
“Finally, brothers, whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report: if there is any virtue and if there is any praise, think about these things. The things which you learned, received, heard, and saw in me: do these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4:8-9, WEB
We love books. If you walk through our house, you will find at least one bookshelf in almost every room, with multiple shelves in several rooms. Plus we have e-readers filled with hundreds more books. We have books from many different genres and despite the fact that both our jobs are heavily dependent on reading, we take time every day to read other works. I have four devotionals I’m following right now. I read extensively as I research and write this devotional. I read a lot of theology and religious literature, but I also read other books. I love historical fiction. I enjoy reading the works by several authors whose genre is hard to define, but they are fantasy style absurdist fiction with hints at history and other literature. I even read a romance or two, especially at Christmastime. It’s my guilty pleasure.
I read an article this morning that asked the question, “What does the bible say about reading or writing fiction?” The premise of the article is that since God exhorts us to speak truth and reject lies, and since fiction is not true, can we read it in good conscience? Paul tells Timothy to avoid myths and tales. The author of the article reminds us, however, that the teaching from Paul is not about books of fiction, but about the controversies that were impacting the faith of Christians in the new and growing church.
The author also reminds us that the Bible is filled with fictional stories. Take, for instance, the way Nathan approached David in the story we read yesterday. Nathan did not say “David, you stole Uriah’s wife!” Instead he told a parable about a rich man who stole a poor man’s sheep. It wasn’t exactly a true story, but it was a story that David heard as true. He wanted to punish the rich man for what he did to the poor man. Then Nathan said, “That man is you!” The fictional story and the truth that went with it convicted David to repent and to make things right. The fiction we read can lead us to do the same thing. There are other fables found in the scriptures. And who can deny that Jesus was a great storyteller with His use of parables?
One of our bookshelves is filled with children’s books, some from my own school days and many from our children. I keep them because I look forward to the day I can share them with my own grandchildren. Most of those stories, including the silliness of Dr. Seuss, gave our children a love of reading. They were not truth. A person named Sam I Am did not eat green eggs and ham, but where would we be without the delightful rhymes of that great author.
Today is National Read Across America Day. The date was originally chosen to honor Theodore Seuss Geisel who was born on March 2, 1904. Better known as Dr. Seuss, he had an incredible impact on children’s literature and literacy. It is important that we give this gift to our kids. Reading is fundamental, if I can steal the phrase from my childhood. It is imperative not just to keep up with the news and learn something new, it is essential to keep our brains active and our imaginations working. We should read devotionals and Bible studies. We should read non-fiction. But we should also read the stories that take us on adventures. Reading in every form is good for our brains and for our physical bodies.
It is important that we read books beyond our comfort zone. We should read those books that make us think. We should read those books with which we disagree. Yet, we must also be careful that we read books that will have a positive impact on our lives. I do like the occasional romance novel, but I’m careful to choose stories that are not filled with wanton physical expressions. Paul encourages the people of Philippi to look for good things in life, to think about true, honorable, lovely, and virtuous things. Be discerning readers, but be sure to read the books that challenge you. Look for God in the words and lessons about His grace, even if the author never meant for Him to be there.
I read every day and I encourage you to find time to do the same whether it is an article in a magazine or a book you found at the grocery store. Read to your children and grandchildren. Take a book to the coffee shop and spend a few minutes immersed in a story. Settle down with a glass of wine and reread a favorite, even if it is from your own childhood. Reading is good when we do so with our hearts in the right place. God can use even fiction to shine His light in our lives, so enjoy a good book today and praise God for giving authors like Dr. Seuss the talent to instill a love of reading that will last a lifetime.
Scriptures for March 7, 2021, Third Sunday in Lent: Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; John 2:13-22 (23-25)
“For Jews ask for signs, Greeks seek after wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Greeks, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God; because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” 1 Corinthians 1:22-25, WEB
I occasionally get an email from some foreign dignitary (or usually their recently widowed wife) that claims that they have millions of dollars that they need to smuggle out of their country before it is stolen by an evil government. They compliment the work they see me doing and want to use my ministry as a beneficiary. They promise that they will give me a huge percentage of the money for my trouble, and ask only that I give them some important information so that they can begin the process. These emails always focus on their humble desire to support the great work of my ministry.
These emails sound wonderful. Imagine what I could do with millions of dollars! I could do more than write a few words of inspiration and instruction every day. I could open a retreat center. I could publish my own books. I could share my windfall with other ministries that are doing incredible work in the world. I would try to glorify God with every cent of that gift and hope that it might help change lives and create faith. It is tempting to answer, “Yes.”
But I’m not foolish; I would not fall for the scheme because I know that it is too good to be true. Oh, the first one delighted me and made me consider it for a minute, but I did a little research and it didn’t take very long to discover the truth. These people have been doing this for a very long time. They establish a relationship with their victim and slowly gain their confidence. Eventually they ask for a bank account number or other personal information. Some even claim that they need a few dollars (or a few thousand dollars) to pay for the legal fees, which they can’t afford because the money is tied up until the transaction is complete. They sign with official titles and use real names, making it seem as if it is legitimate. It sounds too good to be true, and it is.
It amazes me that anyone would fall for these schemes, and yet they do. Dr. Phil often does shows with the victims of these imposters. Some have sent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the promise of millions. The schemers have ways of making people believe that what they say is true, and then when cooperation fades, they make people think something bad will happen if they don’t continue. The victims are often those who can’t make decisions; they have mental issues or are desperate. Some are simply greedy and think that they can beat the conman. It is foolish to think that it could be true, but our fear, desperation and greed can make us see things from a skewed perspective. A few kind words and a promise can offer hope to someone who is anxious for salvation.
Paul tells us that the Jews were looking for miraculous signs and the Greeks were looking for wisdom. We ask ourselves, what are miraculous signs and what is wisdom? The cross does not fit into our worldly understanding of miracles and wisdom. For the Jews, the cross means the person hanging from “the tree” is cursed. It was a sign from God that the person is not blessed or righteous. For the Greeks, the cross was not a wise way to create a group of followers. It is, indeed, foolishness to the world.
Stephen King’s “The Stand” is a book about the end of the ages, the final battle between good and evil. Though it has been a long time since I’ve read the book, the basic plot is that a disease wiped out the majority of people in America. It was a frightening book to read years ago, but it would be even worse for many today as we live through the covid pandemic. The few who survived because they were immune to the disease divided into two camps: the good and the bad. The bad people ended up in “Sin City,” Las Vegas Nevada, where they could meet all their every desire. They surrounded an incredibly charismatic character named Randall Flagg who had supernatural powers. He sounded good, looked good and seemed to do what his people wanted done. They, in exchange, were willing to do anything he asked.
The rest of the people gathered around Mother Abigail. She was found in Nebraska, but led the people of “The Free Zone” to Boulder, Colorado where they began to reestablish a democratic society. Mother Abigail was a Christ-like character, representative of all that is good in the world. She was humble and encouraging of others. Though she was a leader, she believed in the concept of ‘The Free Zone,’ so no one was required to work. Compared to the work ethics of those living in Las Vegas who are serving Flagg with all their heart and energy, ‘The Free Zone’ appeared to be filled with lazy, unmotivated people. Mother Abigail, as a country bumpkin, didn’t seem to have the wisdom to lead an army into the war that would define the future of the nation.
The ultimate conflict asks the ultimate questions. What is wisdom? What is power? What type of leader should we follow? The people in Paul’s day had their own idea of what they expected from a leader and the community of believers. The Jews were looking for miraculous signs and the Greeks were looking for wisdom. The cross certainly does not seem to fit into our understanding. For the Jews, the cross meant the person hanging from ‘the tree’ was cursed; it was a sign from God that the person was not blessed or right. For the Greeks, the cross was not a wise way to create a group of followers. It is, indeed, foolishness to the world.
Jesus turned the world upside down. What we see as foolishness is actually the wisdom of God, for it is in the life of that one perfect man that we find true peace and forgiveness. It is in His death that we find life. In God’s kingdom, the weak are given power and wisdom based on God’s grace, not on their own abilities or work. In God’s kingdom, the wise are those who look to the cross for everything instead of the things of this world.
The psalmist writes, “The heavens declare the glory of God. The expanse shows his handiwork. Day after day they pour out speech, and night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.” God can be seen in the beauty of a rose garden anywhere around the world. He can be experienced on the top of any mountain. His handwork is seen in the sunset as it follows the path of the earth’s rotation. Every star screams “glory” and every wave mutters “power.” Everything that God created points back to Him. But we need more than the creation to have a relationship with our Father in heaven. Christianity is a faith based on grace and we cringe when there is a focus on law, but we need both to be whole. The Law shows us our need for God’s grace.
Board games come with an official set of rules so that all the players will know how to play the game. I don’t know about you, but we often change those official rules to make the game more fun. Take, for instance, Monopoly. On the board there is a space called “Free Parking.” According to the official rules of the game, the “Free Parking” space is just that, a place to park your token for a turn. If you are playing against a mogul who owns every property, a free space might be a welcome rest stop.
I don’t know many people who play the “Free Parking” space as directed in the official rules. We put the money that comes from taxes and fees paid from the Community Chest or Chance cards, as well as any bail money. We try to build up as big a pot as possible because when the players get rich, the game gets interesting. Though we do not follow the official rules of the game, we established a rule that makes it more fun. It is necessary, however, to ensure at the beginning of the game that everyone understands the rules.
That doesn’t always happen when playing games with young children. They want to teach us how to play and they are very good at making up rules as they go along. The new rules usually benefit the child in some way. When something is about to go against them, the child quickly says “Oh, by the way, I forgot to tell you about this rule...” and they go on to tell you how you have to jump three times on one foot and then turn around in circles until they can move their piece to the place where it needs to be to make them the winner. Ok, so I’m exaggerating, but I’m sure many parents know exactly what I’m talking about. It is important to teach our children how to play by the rules, but it can also be fun playing it their way. Playing the games are not just about winning; it is about building relationships.
Sometimes we have to establish the rules from the beginning. With board games it is important that everyone know how to play before starting, or else in the middle there will be conflict. Like the “Free Parking” rule in Monopoly, it is essential that everyone agrees or there will be an argument. It can ruin the fun and hurt feelings.
But sometimes it is more important to establish the relationship, to build up trust in one another before setting the rules. In the case of the Israelites, God did lay down the rules before taking them out of Egypt. He didn’t say, “If you do this, that, and the other thing, then I will save you from this slavery that has you bound.” No, God saved them first, taking them out of bondage and into freedom. As you read the story of the Exodus, you see how those Israelites constantly tried to get God to play by their rules. They grumbled and complained at every turn. The purpose of this journey was to rebuild a relationship with His people based on the covenant of steadfast love He made with Abraham so many centuries earlier. God met their demands, giving them water and food along the way until they arrived at the foot of Mt. Sinai.
Then, and only then, did God establish the Mosaic Covenant. This covenant was conditional and included the Law which was given to Moses on the mountain. They had learned that God was a deliverer. They knew He could save His people. They knew that they could trust Him. So, He gave them the Commandments so that they could learn how to live in His new community together.
Notice that the Ten Commandments do not begin with “do not” rules. They begin with relationship building rules. It is about putting the One who saved them out of Egypt first in their life, and then those whom God has appointed as elders. The last few commands are the “do not” rules, but they are meant to be relationship keeping rules. The acts we do against other people are the acts that cause the brokenness in our world. We build walls between people when we murder, commit adultery, steal, lie and covet our neighbor’s things. These rules are not given to make our life harder. They are given to keep us right with our neighbors and therefore right with God. In the end, if we keep the first commandment by keeping God as first in our lives, we will by His nature not disobey the others because we will want to please the One who is our Savior and Deliverer.
God’s Law is described five ways in today’s Psalm. These words sound so similar: law, testimony, precepts, commandment and ordinances. However in the Hebrew the words are all very different. The law is the Torah, the teaching of God. The testimony is the witness to God’s wisdom, works and promises. The precepts reference God’s authority. The commandment refers to the entirety of God’s Word. The ordinances speak of God’s justice, the verdict over sin. We hear those law words knowing that God’s Word is meant for us, too. They bring us a sense of uneasiness based on our experiences and culture, but they also offer comfort and calm. God’s Word is perfect, sure, right, pure and true; His message gets into our hearts because He puts it there. By His Spirit, we hear His grace. His Law restores the soul, makes wise the simple, makes our heart rejoice, enlightens our eyes, and we will endure forever. We can trust in His Word because He is righteous.
The Psalmist shows us the only way we can live righteously for God: “Forgive me from hidden errors. Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins. Let them not have dominion over me.” Only with God’s help, God’s hand in our lives, will we ever be kept blameless.
There is a universal language when it comes to faith. No, I don’t mean that we can all hear words in other languages and understand everything we hear. While the gift of tongues is real, that’s not what I mean by a universal language. Music comes close, because it is in music that we share in the emotion of the words spoken. An Italian opera can move a person to laughter and to tears even if they do not know a word of Italian. A Christian can attend liturgical worship in a foreign country and understand what is happening even if the words spoken are not in their own language.
But the Psalm speaks of a more basic universal language: that of creation. The heavens declare the glory of God. They don’t speak words but their voice is heard. God can be seen in the beauty of a rose garden anywhere around the world. He can be experienced on the top of any mountain. His handwork is seen in the sunset as it follows the path of the earth’s rotation. Every star screams “glory” and every wave mutters “power.” All that God created points back to Him. By His Spirit, we see His grace. And by His Spirit, we hear His grace in His Word. In many and various ways God spoke to His people of old by the prophets, but now in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son.
In our gospel lesson for this week, Jesus enters into the Temple and openly defies the expectation of the community. The marketplace at the Temple was an important part of the worship experience. These merchants and moneychangers were there at the request of the priests to make things easier for the pilgrims attending to do their duty and obey the law. The moneychangers provided an important service, exchanging the money that had graven images to a type of coin that did not, which was the only type of coin that could be received in the offering. The animals were an important part of the worship. Providing the pilgrims with animals that were suitable made their travel easier and ensured perfect animals for the sacrifice. If the marketplace had been outside the gates of the Temple, Jesus would probably not have chased off the merchants and money changers.
The outer court of the Temple was a place where the pilgrims from other faiths were welcome to visit. It was a place of prayer for the gentiles, a sanctuary for those who wanted to worship God but could not enter the inner courtyards. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus quotes Isaiah who wrote, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations.” By filling the outer court with merchants and money changers, the gentiles had no place to experience the presence of God. Jesus was standing up for the nations of the world, whom God loved, too.
John tells us that the disciples heard Jesus and remembered a quote from Psalm 69, “For the zeal of your house consumes me.” They saw Jesus’ actions in the Temple as a statement about how He wanted to clean up the religion of the day. The priests had lost touch with the God for whom they claimed to work. They were more concerned about filling the Temple coffers than meeting the spiritual needs of travelers. They were more concerned about making every little detail about the service perfect that they did not see how they were no longer living up to God’s expectations.
John places this incident much earlier in Jesus’ ministry than the other Gospel writers. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) place this event on the Monday following the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. They point out that this incident was a last straw for the leaders. Jesus had to be stopped because He was claiming authority over even the Temple business. While John also makes the point that the leaders demanded that He prove His authority, John has other reasons for placing it early in the story.
Water is a running theme through the first part of the book of John, often connected with repentance and purification. John writes of water far more than the other evangelists. In the early chapters of John’s Gospel, Jesus is baptized, He changed the water into wine, He talked with Nicodemus about water and blood, He had a conversation with the woman at the well, and He healed the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda. These stories remind us of the purification that must come as we become people of faith. In the midst of these stories, we see Jesus cleansing the Temple. Even the place where the people worshipped needed to be cleaned.
This is also a story about the leaders questioning Jesus’ authority. Jesus told those who demanded a sign that they would get one. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They thought this was ridiculous, and the statement would come back to haunt Him later during His trial. They thought He meant the Temple made of stones, the Temple that had taken forty-six years to build. He couldn’t possible rebuild such a miraculous building in just three days. However, we know that Jesus was not referring to the building; the Temple was His own body. When they destroyed Him, they would see the sign because He would rise up again in three days.
John put this story so close to the beginning because His purpose was to establish that Jesus is indeed the True Temple of God. Throughout the book of John, Jesus is identified with every aspect of the Temple worship. Each of the seven “I Am” statements that Jesus makes throughout the book takes us deeper into the Temple and deeper into the heart of God. He is the Bread which was represented in the Temple by the Bread of the presence. He is the Light which is represented by the candlesticks. He is the Gate, which is represented by the altar of incense. He is the Shepherd which is represented by the royal priesthood. He is the Resurrection and the Life, which is represented by the atonement cover on the Ark of the Covenant. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life, which is represented by the contents of the Ark: the tablets of Law, Aaron’s staff that budded and a gold jar filled with manna. Then, when Jesus says, “I am the True Vine” He is telling us that any connection we have to God comes through Him. We are merely branches. He is the One through whom we can see and know God. The Temple itself was just a building. He was the place where we would meet and worship the Creator and Master of our lives.
John begins with this incident so that we might see step by step as we move from the courtyard into the Holy of Holies that Jesus is the One He says He is. We enter into His presence cleansed and purified so that we can stand in His glory and worship Him. He is the I AM. He is our God. He has the authority to stand up not only for His chosen people, but for all people so that they might worship Him, too. His zeal is not to clean up a building, but to offer Himself to the world as the way to meet God, to know Him and to love Him.
God is revealed as we live according to God’s Word and Law. He is manifest in our relationships with our neighbors and creation. We see Him revealed in all these things as we put Him first, keep Him as our God, love Him above all else. The Jews went to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple, but today we are called to worship at a greater one; for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is the true Temple. He saved us and invites us into His eternal covenant where we will dwell forever in a relationship with Him.
Some people don’t want to hear about a God that demanded such obedience that His Son died on the cross. To them it is nothing but foolishness. Yet, by that Word we are saved. We follow after wisdom and intelligent teaching, but we ignore the foolishness of the cross. The truth of God’s purpose is a stumbling block to many and unfortunately, we think it is more important to sell ourselves than to give our visitors what they really need. God is not glorified by those who claim to be righteous. He is not glorified by a Temple full of moneychangers and sacrifices. God’s grace is found in the pure Law of God, for it is the Law that points to our need for Jesus.
The Law was a gift, a sign that shows us God's care and concern for our health and safety. The Law was a gift to help us build and keep relationships between our God and other people. The Temple was a gift, a sign that reminds us of God’s presence among His people. Even more so, however, our Lord Jesus Christ is a gift, because He is the Law in flesh and His body is the true Temple. In Him we truly see God’s care and concern for us and His presence among His people.
“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” Mark 4:14-15, WEB
A few days ago we learned that Psalm 51 was David’s response to the revelation from his friend and counselor Nathan. He realized that he was a sinner in need of the grace and mercy of God. He sang his repentance in the hymn, approaching God with a sense of deep grief over his sin, earnestly seeking God’s help and forgiveness.
In verse 7 David says, “Purify me with hyssop, and I will be clean.” Hyssop was a very important herb in the Bible; it was used for cleansing. In Leviticus 14 it is used to cleanse skin disease from a person and mildew from a home. In Numbers 19 it is used to create the water used for purification. The writer of the book of Hebrews tells us that Moses used hyssop to sprinkle blood on the book of the Covenant and on the people to confirm the covenant (Hebrews 9). John the Evangelist tells us that when Jesus was thirsty on the cross, a sponge of sour wine was put on the end of a hyssop branch to give him something to drink. In Exodus 12, the people use hyssop to put the blood on the lintels of their homes to turn away the tenth plague (the angel of death.)
Hyssop was used in Hebrew ritual, but also in other religions throughout history to cleanse sacred places. It was a symbol of cleansing and purification, but why would the plant be so important? Though it is sometimes hard to identify items described in ancient manuscripts, an herb called hyssop is described by modern herbalists. It is used for purging the body of ills, especially if taken as a tea. It is used as an expectorant to clean the respiratory system and it promotes sweating so is good for fever. It is also good for digestion, for the immune system and for clearing the mind. It is also good to use as a poultice for healing wounds. These medical uses of hyssop make it a logical choice when using it for spiritual and symbolic cleansing. If it can clean the body, then it can clean the spirit and sacred places.
Hyssop is not a pleasant herb to eat, somewhat bitter and very strong. Little was needed to make a powerful tea. However, the unpleasant smell was also one of the characteristics that made it a viable herb for religious ritual. In the time of the Hebrews in Egypt, it was believed that the smell of hyssop could repel evil spirits, so perhaps it was the smell of the hyssop as well as the blood that kept the angel of death from their doorjambs. David asked God to cleanse him with hyssop. He desired God’s forgiveness; he wanted to be made clean. Perhaps he also wanted to repel the evil that affected his life so that he could live righteously in God’s service.
David was tempted and we are tempted daily. We are only a few weeks into Lent and I imagine at least a few of you have struggled with your Lenten fasts. Lenten fasting can be of value as we come to recognize the things that tempt us. By standing up to the temptations, as Jesus stood against the devil, we learn to rely on the strength that God gives us through the power of the Holy Spirit. The things we fast might be unimportant, we might fail and we might splurge on them in a few weeks, but the lessons learned from leaning on God can help us overcome the bigger temptations of this world. In today’s passage, Jesus calls us to repent and believe. Lent is a time of repentance; it is a time for us to ask God to cleanse us from the sin that keeps us far from Him. He doesn’t use hyssop. He uses something far more powerful: His Spirit. As we stand against the temptations that come our way, we are transformed into people ready to receive the Risen Lord.
“He spoke a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the best seats, and said to them, ‘When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, don’t sit in the best seat, since perhaps someone more honorable than you might be invited by him, and he who invited both of you would come and tell you, “Make room for this person.” Then you would begin, with shame, to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when he who invited you comes, he may tell you, “Friend, move up higher.” Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.’” Luke 14:7-11, WEB
Ingrid Bergman starred in a film called “Inn of the Sixth Happiness.” This film was a Hollywood version of the life story of a real English woman named Gladys Aylward. While some people seek out the fame and fortune that can come from this type of attention, Gladys was embarrassed by the movie. The story was inaccurate and she felt the love scenes ruined her reputation. Even more so, Gladys did not need, nor want, such fame. She was a simple woman who served God with her whole self.
Gladys was born in 1903. She was the daughter of a mailman. She left school early because of a learning disability and became a parlor maid in rich west end London manors. She grew up in the church, but one day she attended a revival and rededicated her life to the Lord. She applied to the board of the China Inland Mission when she learned about the need for missionaries to go to China. She failed the test and was rejected. However, she learned that there was an aging missionary named Mrs. Lawson who was looking for a younger woman to continue her work. Gladys wrote to Mrs. Lawson who responded in agreement if she could find her own way to China.
Gladys took her purse and emptied it onto her bed. Two pennies fell onto her Bible. She said, “O God, here’s my Bible! Here’s my money! Here’s me! Use me, God!” She was rejected and poor, but at the lowest moment of her life she was still willing to serve God.
She worked hard to save her money and eventually had enough to take a train to China. It was a hazardous way to travel because of an undeclared war between Russia and China, yet Gladys did not care. She was so determined to accomplish her mission that she traveled on train, boat, foot, bus and mule to the inland city of Yangchen and her mentor Mrs. Lawson.
The locals refused to listen to the two women because they did not trust foreigners. They decided the best way to reach out would be to open an inn for the mule traders that passed by frequently. They opened and waited for the first caravan to pass. Gladys ran to the lead mule, grabbed the reigns and led the train into the courtyard. The mules followed willingly knowing that it meant food and drink and the muleteers had no choice. Gladys and Mrs. Lawson fed the animals and offered hospitality to the men. They fed their bodies and their souls as they preached the Gospel to their captive audience. In the days and weeks to come, they did not need to force anyone into their home; the stories of their graciousness and the affordable inn spread. Though their preaching did not convert all to Christianity, the stories they told were shared by all those who visited.
Gladys continued the inn for a time after Mrs. Lawson died. In 1936, she became a Chinese citizen and was able to preach the Gospel to more people. She was a frequent visitor to the palace of the Mandarin, and was given a very important position in the government. She settled a prison riot by offering suggestions for prison reform. She adopted several children. She lived frugally and dressed like the natives, which made her far more effective. When war broke out between China and Japan, Gladys helped one hundred orphans escape to Sian. After a bout of sickness, she established a Christian church in Sian and continued her work throughout China. Finally, her war wounds were too much and she returned home to England in 1947. She died in 1970, one of the most famous missionaries of the twentieth century.
Gladys was given the name Ai-weh-deh, which means ‘the virtuous one’ in Chinese. She was known for her brokenness, her humility and her willingness to serve God. She once said, “I wasn’t God’s first choice for what I’ve done in China. There was somebody else - I don’t know who it was - God’s first choice. I don’t know what happened. Perhaps he died. Perhaps he wasn’t willing. And God looked down and saw Gladys Aylward.”
Jesus reminds us to humble ourselves. Gladys did exactly that, humbled herself in her brokenness and gave herself fully to God. God took this woman who had been rejected by the world and used her to preach the Gospel to many people in China. Have you given yourself fully to God? Have you given Him everything you own, and willingly stepped forth in faith to serve Him? Humble yourself and God will lift you up, just like Gladys.
“Solomon said, ‘You have shown to your servant David my father great loving kindness, because he walked before you in truth, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart with you. You have kept for him this great loving kindness, that you have given him a son to sit on his throne, as it is today. Now, Yahweh my God, you have made your servant king instead of David my father. I am just a little child. I don’t know how to go out or come in. Your servant is among your people which you have chosen, a great people, that can’t be numbered or counted for multitude. Give your servant therefore an understanding heart to judge your people, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to judge this great people of yours?’” 1 Kings 3:6-9, WEB
Today’s question comes from the story of Solomon. The LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream and said, “Ask for what I should give you.” (1 Kings 3:5)
David died. He was an incredible king. He ruled over a golden age in Israel. He was a divinely gifted warrior who defeated the many enemies of God’s people. He wasn’t perfect, but He had a heart for God. He sinned against God and man, but he repented and sought God’s grace. The LORD blessed Israel under David’s leadership and when David died, Solomon inherited a throne that was honored and respected around the world.
Solomon wasn’t perfect, either. We often focus on the story of Solomon’s wisdom, but if you look at the text that comes before this gift from God, you’ll see that Solomon was already on the path that would lead to foolishness in his old age. Solomon was very young when David died, just 20 years old. While young people are able to take on heavy responsibilities, they often see the world through much different eyes of their forefathers. David knew and understood the importance of trust in God. The Temple was not yet built; the Ark of the Covenant was still kept in the Tabernacle outside the city. David went there to worship God, to pray to Him, to seek His counsel.
The scriptures tell us that Solomon was different. “Solomon loved Yahweh, walking in the statutes of David his father; except that he sacrificed and burned incense in the high places.” Solomon loved God and followed David’s way of life, “except...” The one thing that Solomon did wrong was a sin against God Himself, the sin of idolatry, the turning to false gods. He was in Gibeon, sacrificing “in that great place.” Solomon loved God and followed David’s ways, but Solomon may have been confused about the right place to worship. The Tabernacle from the Exodus was moved several times but ended up in Gibeon. David, however, moved the Ark of the Covenant to a tent outside Jerusalem so that he could easily worship there. The Tabernacle in Gibeon was used for sacrifices until Solomon built the Temple.
The writer of 1 Kings tells us “The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there; for that was the great high place. Solomon offered a thousand burnt offerings on that altar.” We might suppose that Solomon went to Gibeon for the Tabernacle, but the scriptures say it was a great high place. To whom was Solomon offering sacrifices. Solomon was already slipping from his father’s ways because he married an Egyptian princess. While this might have been a good political move, it was problematic religiously. God commanded His people that they should not intermarry with other nations. The reason? They were not to marry people from other nations because they would lead God’s people to worship the false gods. Solomon offered a thousand burnt offerings at the great high place. In the end, Solomon would lead Israel away from the God of his father David to the gods of the nations.
At this moment, however, Solomon was a young man who had the wisdom of youth. It was a worldly kind of wisdom. Despite the foolishness of his religious acts at Gibeon, the LORD appeared to him in a dream and asked him today’s question. We remember Solomon for his answer to this question and we often forget his lifetime of foolishness. The scripture text for today is Solomon’s answer. He knew he was young and foolish, that his wisdom was worldly. “Give me a discerning heart.” (NIV) Despite his foolishness, this was the wisest request he could make. The word “discerning” means “listening or hearing”. Solomon was asking for a hear that would listen to God, to hear what God has to say. He wanted God’s wisdom when he was asked to make decisions, many of which would be life or death.
God said, “Because you have asked this thing, and have not asked for yourself long life, nor have you asked for riches for yourself, nor have you asked for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern justice; behold, I have done according to your word. Behold, I have given you a wise and understanding heart; so that there has been no one like you before you, and after you none will arise like you.” God added, however, that the blessings would continue as long as Solomon and his offspring walked in the ways of David their father. Unfortunately, even Solomon with his wise and discerning heart failed to be obedient to God’s Word.
How would you answer the question from God? If God came to you and said, “Ask for what I should give you,” what would you say? There are a million things for which we can seek God’s help, but when God offers you the world, how would you answer? Prayer avails us much, but the best prayers and the answered prayers are those that seek God’s will. God wants to give you the world, but what that looks like depends on what God has planned for your life. By asking God to give us discerning hearts means we are willing to listen to what God wants, knowing that it will be for our best and for His glory.
“Now I don’t desire to have you unaware, brothers, that I often planned to come to you, and was hindered so far, that I might have some fruit among you also, even as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am debtor both to Greeks and to foreigners, both to the wise and to the foolish. So as much as is in me, I am eager to preach the Good News to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the Good News of Christ, because it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first, and also for the Greek. For in it is revealed God’s righteousness from faith to faith. As it is written, ‘But the righteous shall live by faith.’ For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known of God is revealed in them, for God revealed it to them. For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity, that they may be without excuse. Because knowing God, they didn’t glorify him as God, and didn’t give thanks, but became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless heart was darkened.” Romans 1:13-21, WEB
There is an old English story about a chicken named Henny Penny. She was working in her garden when something fell on her head. She was convinced that the sky was falling so set off to tell the king. Along the way she met up with some friends. Cocky Locky, Ducky Daddles, Goosey Poosey and Turkey Lurkey joined her in her travels. No one questioned her assertion that the sky was falling.
The group met Foxy Loxy, a sly old fox who knew that the sky was not falling. He told them that they were not taking the right path to get to the king. Foxy Loxy took them on a path to his hole. He went inside, and then one by one the friends followed. One by one Foxy Loxy ate them up. Cocky Locky saw that Foxy Loxy was killing his friends, so he called out to Henny Penny who ran home, never telling the king about the sky.
What would have happened had one of Henny Penny’s friends had asked about the sky? Perhaps they could not have convinced her that the sky was not falling, however they could have made her slow down and think about what she was saying. They could have helped her understand the sky is not a solid object that can fall on our heads. They could have helped her find the thing that fell on her head so that she could see it was simply a branch or a pine cone.
Social media has made it extremely easy to get information and even easier to share it. However, not everything we read on the Internet is true. People are quick to share a meme without considering what it really says. There’s one, a funny one, that has a picture of Abraham Lincoln and a quote attributed to him that says, “If it is on the Internet it must be true and you can’t question it.” We all know that this is not a true quote because it is too obvious; however the falsehood of others is not as obvious. I’ve been guilty of posting some of these memes myself.
In the world today, there are many people who willing to post or repost things that just are not true, not only about secular things but also about God. They read the scriptures and something strikes them on the head. So they run with it, telling their friends and dragging them along wherever they go. Unfortunately, just like Henny Penny and her friends, those who follow such teachings are so focused on one idea that they do not see when the evil one is using these false ideas to lead them into a hole.
What would have happened if one of Henny Penny’s friends had asked about the sky? What would happen if we stopped before we shared an Internet meme and checked to make sure it was true? What would happen if we focused our attention on what is good, right, and true? We need to be careful about who we choose to believe and who we choose to follow because Satan uses any false teachings to devour us.
Scriptures for March 14, 2021, Fourth Sunday of Lent: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
“For he satisfies the longing soul. He fills the hungry soul with good.” Psalm 107:9, WEB
A few weeks ago the weathermen and other experts predicted that we would experience an historic storm like none most of us had ever experienced. We did what you do when expecting to be stuck in your house for a few days: we went to the grocery store and stocked up on plenty of food. We filled the freezer, the refrigerator, and the pantry. We were ready for the storm.
We rushed out to the grocery store before a huge weather event because we don’t want to be trapped without food. The trouble is we could probably survive just fine with what is already in our pantries, refrigerators and freezers. In the United States, most of us have more food than we can possibly eat. We go shopping before those storms not for survival, but for comfort food. We want snacks to eat during the movies we will watch if our electricity doesn’t go off. We want snack foods. We buy milk and bread, but really want chocolate and wine. We buy food that will sustain us, food that can be eaten even if we can’t cook, but we usually eat the junk food because it makes us feel good.
My preparation didn’t really do us any good during that storm. We lost electricity for so long that not only was it difficult to cook, but most of the food in our refrigerator and freezer was lost. We didn’t starve because we had enough. We weren’t very hungry anyway because of the stress of the situation. We couldn’t find anything that would satisfy when we looked for food.
We do that under the best circumstances, though, don’t we? We all have to admit that there are times we go to our pantry or refrigerator and think, “There’s nothing to eat,” despite the fact that we couldn’t fit any more food on the shelves. We can’t find something because there is nothing looks good. Nothing seems worth the work and time it would take to cook it. Everything looks bland and unappetizing. We manage to settle for something, but we think about all the things that would taste better. Sometimes we don’t even know what would satisfy, we just know that we don’t have anything that will.
The Israelites had plenty to eat, but they were tired of eating the same old manna day after day after day. I can see them as well as I can see myself standing in front of the refrigerator saying, “There’s nothing to eat here!” They complained about everything. They complained against Moses and God. They wanted to return to Egypt. Did they really expect that everything would be better back in Egypt? They were runaway slaves and life would never have been better if they returned. Did they really think that the food for slaves would be better than the manna of freedmen.
God was disappointed by their lack of faith and trust. The Israelites wanted control. They felt helpless. Moses had led them into the wilderness away from their homes and everything they knew. Their life in Egypt was not comfortable; they were oppressed and worked to death as slaves to the Pharaoh, and they hated their life. When Moses led them out of Egypt they were excited to be alive and free, but the Promised Land was not right around the corner. The wilderness wandering became such a burden that they began to look back on their sojourn in Egypt with fond memories. Even though God was providing them with all that they needed, they hungered and thirsted for the familiar.
Today’s story takes place well after Mt. Sinai, but the grumbling began just days or weeks after they crossed the Red Sea. They grumbled constantly during their journey which was meant to teach them how to trust. It was a hard earned but shortly held lesson. God’s people fell to unfaithfulness over and over again. When they did, God used the world to help them to look to Him again. Whether it was war, exile or oppression, the suffering they faced was given as a gift to bring about repentance and faith.
Today’s Old Testament lesson is the aftermath of one of those moments. Numbers 21:1-3 tells the story of their first battle as a new community under God’s grace. The king of Arad attacked the wandering nation as they passed near to his land and captured some of them. Israel vowed a vow to God: “If you will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.” It wasn’t enough for their people to be set free; they wanted to destroy those who had harmed them. God gave the Canaanites over to the Israelites and they completely destroyed them. God made it happen, but we get caught up in our successes. They believed they had the power to defeat a great enemy.
Moses next led them a roundabout way to avoid Edom. The people were upset by this route; they were impatient and thought it was a waste of their time. Why shouldn’t they go into Edom and use their new found strength to take what they needed? They could find fresh food and water; they could eat something besides manna and quail. The Israelites exaggerated their needs. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul loathes this light bread.” They were sure they were going to die. I didn’t think I was going to die, but I must confess that during that storm, I exaggerated my complaints to God about my suffering.
The Promised Land was not right around the corner but they weren’t going to die from starvation. God provided for them: the manna and quail filled them, and they had enough to survive. They didn’t want to just survive and their desires turned them away from God. The Israelites wanted control; they spoke against God and Moses. They complained the way we complain when we can’t find something we want to eat in the pantry or refrigerator. Manna was not food to these people even though it filled their bellies. They imagined that back in Egypt they would be eating comfort foods like chocolate and fine wine.
The people exaggerated the dangers they faced in the desert, especially since they had the God of creation, the God of their forefathers, protecting and leading them. All they could see was what they had left behind. Sure, they had been slaves, but they had food other than manna and quail. God had to remind them that they were not in control.
This story of snakes is hard for us to accept. It doesn’t fit with our expectation of God. Why would He do such a thing? Why would He send dangerous snakes into the camp? Why would He allow so many to die? The poisonous snakes were a way of getting their attention before they did more harm to themselves by rebelling and returning to Egypt. Would Pharaoh welcome the slaves back with open arms and a huge barbeque? No, they would go back to their own deaths, and they would be alone, without God. If they turned back to Egypt, they turned their back on their Savior. Returning to Egypt would have been worse than poisonous snakes because it would have led to the annihilation of God’s people.
The snakes got their attention. The people went to Moses and asked him to pray for them. Moses did pray and the LORD heard their pleas. Did He remove the snakes? That certainly would have been the most logical solution to the problem, but in His mercy God did not remove them. Instead He commanded Moses to create a bronze snake on a pole. When the people were bit, they looked at the snake to be healed. Ironic, isn't it? Looking to the very thing that brought death would bring them healing and life. God gave them the sign so that they could have a visible reminder of His salvation and deliverance. As Christians we have a similar sign to remind us that we need not complain when things are not going our way because God provides all we need.
Our Gospel lesson for today is one of the most beloved of all the scriptures; John 3:16 is probably one of the most quoted (and misquoted) verses of the Bible. Yet, there is more to this passage than God’s love for the world. This is a passage is about light. Jesus Christ is the light, and without Him we live in darkness. We like the world in which we live even if there is darkness because we enjoy the things of the world. Yet, peace, hope, and life are found in Jesus.
My cousin fell in with the wrong crowd when he was a youth. He acted out against everything and everyone. He used illegal substances and did illegal things. One day he was hanging out with friends, under the influence of something, and they decided to burn down a dilapidated old house on their street. The house was worthless because it was empty and falling apart. It was an eyesore and a health hazard. It didn’t matter. What they didn’t know is that the house was not empty; a homeless man was sleeping there to keep warm and he died in the fire. No matter how they justified the fire, they could not justify murder.
My cousin spent many years in prison paying for his crime. He could have responded to this defeat by living in darkness, turning to revenge and hatred and more crime as happens to so many who go through the prison system. They learn how to fend for themselves, growing more ego-centric as they sit alone in their cells pondering their lives. A few, perhaps very few, realize that they have done wrong and they look beyond themselves for hope and redemption. They seek healing and peace.
My cousin wrote to me on several occasions about how thankful he was to have been caught. He believed that the life he was living was leading him toward death. Prison helped him see the reality: that he was a sinner in need of salvation. My cousin grew up in a Christian household. His mother was very active with her church and she encouraged her children to follow her footsteps in the faith. They attended worship together and went to Sunday school. But everything he learned about God in those younger years was lost to his self-centered occupation of trouble as he grew older. He forgot that his Savior had already saved him. In prison he was set free from his selfishness and pettiness so that he could live truly free in the world. He saw that his trouble was not only because his actions were sinful, but that his attitude was a reflection of his sinful nature.
It would have been very easy for him to stay in the darkness as many prisoners do. Too many return to their old lives when they are released and act out against the society that had imprisoned them. The crime builds, from minor infractions to major ones, from assault to murder, from theft to armed robbery. They take the lessons learned in prison and use them not to do good things, but to do bad things better. Fortunately, my cousin caught a glimpse of the Light in Jesus he had known as a child and turned back to it. He believed that prison was God’s way of calling him back to Himself.
God could have saved every one of the Israelites who were bit by the snakes, taking away the poison and making them well. He didn’t need to give them a snake on a pole to look at when they were ill. He could have even removed the snakes, driving them back into the wilderness and away from His people. However, they had to learn how to look to God in their trouble. They needed a sign of God’s presence to help them look toward Him when they were losing hope. They needed a glimmer of light in the darkness to remind them that they were never alone.
We also need a reminder when we are caught in the midst of trouble. We forget that our worldly problems are temporary and we sink into despair. Like those prisoners who return to crime when they are released, we often get more self-centered when we are faced with difficulties. We don’t understand why God won’t just take it away and set us free. God can do it; He could make life nothing but chocolate and wine for us, but what kind of life would that be? God has given us the freedom to live as we wish in this world, but our desires often get us in trouble. So, He also gives us a reminder of His presence and love in our lives. He lifted Jesus on a pole, just as Moses lifted the snake. We need only look to Jesus on the cross to find healing and peace. He calls us to this life of thanksgiving, looking toward the One who is the Light of the world.
Nicodemus was a teacher, a Pharisee, and a member of the ruling council. A man like Nicodemus knew God’s Word. Yet, he understood God only from the perspective of law and tradition. Jesus pointed him to the well known story about the snakes to show Nicodemus how God would give a sign to His people. The Savior would be lifted just like that bronze snake in the wilderness. Jesus would be lifted on the cross and those who look to Him will have eternal life.
The image of the cross is no more comforting than the snake on a pole. We wonder why it was necessary for Jesus to die. Couldn’t God have simply forgiven our sins and let us continue on our journey? No, it would not have been enough. We would have been like those Israelites eventually. Even in a state of salvation we continue to sin over and over again. Along our journey we would wonder about whether things were better before we were forgiven. Isn’t it more fun to live according to the ways of the world? Isn’t it more exciting to follow our own desires, to seek the good things in life? Isn’t it better to be in the comfort of Egypt rather than wandering helpless in the wilderness?
God had to do something more than get our attention; He had to finish the work. He had to pay the price. He had to provide His Son who would guarantee eternal life to those who believe. The issue in the desert was not hunger or starvation; it was trust. The issue for us is not living by the law; it is about trusting that God provides true life. Nicodemus didn’t understand how anyone could be born again. He probably didn’t even understand why; he thought everything he needed could be found in good works and right living. He thought he could trust in himself. But just as the Israelites had to trust in God to be healed from the snake bite, we have to trust in God to be reconciled to Him, even if His method seems out of character.
Thankfully, God gives us something to look at, to remind us of His grace. He could have taken the snakes away, but how long would the Israelites have continued to trust in Him if He had? He gave them the bronze snake so that they would keep looking to Him. Would we trust in God if He took away sin and made us perfect? Adam and Eve certainly didn’t. How long would we last? How long would we remember God and look to Him? Instead of letting us wander in our own wilderness, in our own selfishness, God gave us something to remind us of His grace: the cross. When we look to Jesus, we see the Light that reminds us that all God’s promises and covenants are real.
The psalm for today is a call to praise God, given to those who know God’s salvation. The psalm names several groups of people, including those who are wandering in the wilderness. Did God really hear the cries of His people? They were grumbling about the conditions. They were tired. They were sick of the manna. They were thirsty. They were beginning to fear what was ahead. They wondered if the Promised Land would be everything they expected. The wondered what suffering they might experience next. They worried about how many would die along the way. God answered their grumbling with poisonous snakes.
Yet, despite this unexpected answer, God did lead them to the Promised Land. Despite our grumbling, God answers our prayers, too. The answers to our worries are not what we expect. We don’t always get healed of our disease nor have our problems fixed. Unfortunately, the answers we want often lead us away from God and His salvation. He answers so that we will learn to trust Him and give Him control over our lives. The psalmist sings, “Let the redeemed by Yahweh say so, whom he has redeemed from the hand of the adversary.” No matter our circumstances, we’ve been set free to praise God and glorify Him to the world.
Paul begins today’s epistle lesson with a rather strong statement: “You were dead.” They weren’t physically dead; this isn't the first scene from some zombie movie. As a matter of fact, they were probably living a fairly decent life in Ephesus. They were dead not because their heart stopped beating and their brain stopped working. They were dead in their sin; they did not believe in God. They were living in darkness and Paul wanted to show them the Light.
There is a very real “us versus them” attitude in the words of this epistle. The “you” in verse one is directed toward the Gentiles, those who lived according to the desires of the flesh, following the ruler of this world: the devil. In verse three Paul refers to the Jews who were called to be God’s chosen nation.
Marriage is more than the joining of two people; it is the joining of two families. These families are often very different, especially when the couple meets somewhere far from home. The families often have very distinct cultures. City girls marry country boys. Boys from New York marry southern bells. California babes marry Texas oil sons. In each case, their worlds are very different, and though they get along as a couple, it is harder to bring together their families.
Christianity is the joining of two very distinct families. The Jews had rules to live by and that did not include interaction with the non-believers. The Gentiles did things that made them “unclean.” They ate food that was unacceptable. They worked on the Sabbath. They followed other deities and practiced objectionable religious traditions.
The early Christians had to deal with this marriage of two very distinct cultures. They had to find a way to live together, to work together, and to worship God together. It was hard for them, and it is still hard for us. Despite two thousand years of trying to work out these issues, we still have many Christians who find it difficult to get along. “We” look at “them” and do not understand their culture or religious practices. These may seem minor to those on the outside, but they can be major stumbling blocks for those of us trying to deal with this incredible marriage between cultures.
The Ephesians were dealing with their own issues as we do today, but Paul focused on what we all have in common. We are all sinners in need of a Savior and we all have faith in that same Savior, Jesus Christ. God loves us all. It isn’t by our traditions and practices that we are saved. It isn’t the way we say the Lord’s Prayer or the form of our worship that brings salvation. We are saved by grace and are made alive together in Christ Jesus. We may have to be like those families that don’t get together but love one another because we have that common love of Christ. We may, sometimes, be able to find the courage and humility to gather together for His sake, despite our differences. Whatever happens in the family of Christ, we are who we are because of what God has done, and as we remember this we will look at our “in-laws” with a whole new perspective: through “Jesus-colored glasses.” Despite our differences, we can work together to do God’s will in this world, if we look together at Him on the cross.
We truly see the God of mercy on the cross. Could God have removed the serpents from the camp of the Israelites? Of course He could have, but He didn’t. Instead He gave them a way to be healed. Could God forgive without the cross? Why didn’t He find another way to save us from our troubles? I don’t have the answer to that question, for I do not know the mind of God. I do know that when I need to know God’s presence, I can look to the cross and Jesus will draw me back by His grace. It is there I can most clearly see God’s love. In the cross I see my sin and my sinful nature and I see His mercy and His grace. Any freedom I have, or peace, or joy, or hope, or even faith has nothing to do with me. Everything is a gift from God, given not because I’ve done anything right, but out of His deep love for me. As a matter of fact, I was dead, and He died so that I might live.
We continue to do things our way, to rely on ourselves and put our trust in the things of this world that will perish. Yet, we need not fall into despair when things seem to be falling apart around us. There is hope that has been lifted up above a messed up world. His name is Jesus. He satisfies and fills the needy soul with everything we need.
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and fill up on my part that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the assembly, of which I was made a servant according to the stewardship of God which was given me toward you to fulfill the word of God, the mystery which has been hidden for ages and generations. But now it has been revealed to his saints, to whom God was pleased to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. We proclaim him, admonishing every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus; for which I also labor, striving according to his working, which works in me mightily.” Colossians 1:24-29, WEB
A woman named Hope was sitting in her car with her family at the harbor on a river on a Sunday afternoon. The woman saw a young man drive his car right into the water, but quickly climbed to the roof of his car and called for help. The woman jumped into the water and with a large stick helped the man to shore; her husband helped pull him on the beach. The man was a struggling college student who thought he was useless. Hope said, “You are worth something. You are here, aren’t you?” The young man asked her name. When she answered, “Hope,” he repeated the question. When speaking to the reporter on the scene, Hope said that when he heard her name, “He had a smile on his face. You knew he didn’t want to die.” He just needed a little hope. God sent him Hope.
John Bunyan once said, “Hope is never ill when faith is well.” I’ve talked about my experiences during the storm and compared myself to Elijah with a death wish under the bush in the desert. I wasn’t there, thank goodness, because of my faith. I may have wavered. I may have been angry. I may have been pitiful. But, through it all I knew that it wasn’t as bad as my whining might suggest. I knew others needed help far more than me. I prayed for those who I knew for whom this was a greater struggle.
I laugh now. Our street and a few nearby houses were without electricity for a long time, but the houses across the street had much briefer outages. I can’t tell you how many times I stood at my window, looking across the street with envy, knowing that those families were warm and comfortable, enjoying hot showers and delicious food. They did check on those of us without electricity, offering help. One lady felt so bad that she had electricity while we did not, that she turned off all her lights in sympathy.
I may have stood there by my window pitying myself for the frustrations of the storm, but I also had hope. Those lights reminded me that the lights in my house would go on again. Those lights also reminded me that if I really needed help, it was there just feet from my house. I knew God was with us; some things happened that were actually silver linings in that dark time. While I was miserable, God was still working and making good things happen. I can see them now, but it is hard to see goodness when we are drowning.
The man didn’t drown. He obviously didn’t want to die even though he drove his car in the harbor because he got out of his car and called for help. Yet, even after being saved he still struggled with his life and his future. It was only after he was reminded that there is always hope that he smiled. Hope saved him, both literally and spiritually. I don’t know what has happened to that man, but I want to imagine that Hope and her family became friendly with him, to encourage him and help him see his value in the world. While it is unlikely we’ll be sitting in our car with our family at a harbor on a river on a Sunday afternoon when someone who thinks he is without value drives into the water, we can be hope to those who cross our path. We can share the light of Christ so that those who are in darkness can see that there is hope.
“The foolish woman is loud, undisciplined, and knows nothing. She sits at the door of her house, on a seat in the high places of the city, to call to those who pass by, who go straight on their ways, ‘Whoever is simple, let him turn in here.’ as for him who is void of understanding, she says to him, ‘Stolen water is sweet. Food eaten in secret is pleasant.’ But he doesn’t know that the departed spirits are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.” Proverbs 9:13-18, WEB
I used to hang out in online chat rooms and one day someone asked everyone’s opinion about a distressing situation in her life. She heard plenty of opinions, many of which were focused on the woman’s comfort and desires. “Do what you feel is best for you.” “You need to take care of yourself.” “Follow your heart.” She was excited about this advice, and easily rejected everything that questioned her motives. “What about your children?” “Have you considered your own role in this problem?” She didn’t really want advice; she wanted justification for what she’d decided to do anyway. What happened in chat rooms decades ago now happens regularly on social media.
We are always looking for advice that fits our expectations and desires. We look to so called “experts” in love, money, and health. Radio and television shows have a call-in format that allows the listener to speak directly with a knowledgeable professional who will tell you the best way to deal with whatever situation troubles you. Newspapers and other print media have regular columns where people write to seek advice. “Dear Abby” is just one of the many people who will share her opinion on everything from the right dress to wear to a wedding to how to get your boyfriend to marry you. Most often the writers have a preconceived answer they want to hear.
A young woman wrote, “Dear Abby: I am a twenty-three-year-old liberated woman who has been on the pill for two years. It’s getting expensive and I think my boyfriend should share half the cost, but I don’t know him well enough to discuss money with him.” For this young woman, following her passions was more important than common sense. She was physically active with a man with whom she couldn’t even discuss important issues such as money. The difference between wisdom and folly is like night and day. She thought she was being wise by asking Dear Abby for advice about money, but she was lost in her folly.
We are so easily swayed by our own desires. We want to enjoy life, to taste sweet water and eat secret food. We want to enjoy our relationships without being tied down to the things that truly shine the light of Christ. We want our flesh to be fulfilled and would rather set aside the truth that is God’s wisdom. We don’t want to be disciplined; we want to be accepted just as we are. This is why sound bite advice is so successful. It isn’t possible to get to the root of our problems in 30 seconds of airtime or a paragraph in a paper. So, the lessons learned are flippant, humorous, or satirical. Unfortunately, these answers call out to the passersby, “come in here, this is the answer to all your problems.”
We want to follow our hearts, not consider our role in our problems, but the scriptures teach us that “The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge; but the foolish despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:7) This is written throughout the book of Proverbs and the rest of scripture. In our world today, what seems to be wisdom is actually folly, because it follows the desires of the flesh rather than the will of God. We can go to experts for advice on our problems, but those who revere the Lord will accept the words of wisdom that come from God. His Word turns our focus from our flesh to the saving grace of Jesus Christ and the life that comes from faith in Him so that we’ll live in obedience to the expectations of God rather than our fallible and self-centered hearts.
“For this commandment which I command you today is not too hard for you or too distant. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up for us to heaven, bring it to us, and proclaim it to us, that we may do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us, bring it to us, and proclaim it to us, that we may do it?’ But the word is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it. Behold, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and evil. For I command you today to love Yahweh your God, to walk in his ways and to keep his commandments, his statutes, and his ordinances, that you may live and multiply, and that Yahweh your God may bless you in the land where you go in to possess it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away and worship other gods, and serve them, I declare to you today that you will surely perish. You will not prolong your days in the land where you pass over the Jordan to go in to possess it. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Therefore choose life, that you may live, you and your descendants, to love Yahweh your God, to obey his voice, and to cling to him; for he is your life, and the length of your days, that you may dwell in the land which Yahweh swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” Deuteronomy 30:11-20, WEB
The question for today comes from the story of Elijah when he fought against Ahab, the king of Israel. The land had been in drought, prophesied by Elijah in 1 Kings 17. After three years, the LORD sent Elijah to meet with Ahab. Ahab blamed Elijah for the drought, but Elijah told him and all Israel that God sent the drought because they had abandoned God’s commandments and turned to false gods. Elijah addressed the people, “Elijah came near to all the people, and said, ‘How long will you waver between the two sides? If Yahweh is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.’ The people didn’t say a word.” (1 Kings 18:21, WEB)
I teach an adult Sunday school class, and over the past few years we’ve studied the Gospel of John, Revelation, the Sermon on the Mount, the Psalms, and the Didache. We have found a common theme throughout all these books, a theme found repeatedly throughout the scriptures: the Two Ways. The Bible comes down to a choice: God or any other path. Who will you choose?
The problem with the people of Israel, and every human from the beginning of time, is that we want to have our cake and eat it too. We want to cover our bases. Sure, it is good to believe in God, but I want to have some back-up. The Israelites knew God and believed in Him, but they didn’t think it would hurt to believe in the gods of their neighbors. Baal could pick up the slack. Why bother God with everything? This turning to back-up happened in other ways besides worshiping the false gods. The Patriarchs followed their own wisdom rather than that of God. The kings sought help from the armies of her neighbors to save them from their enemies. The early Christians conformed to the ways of the world. We’ve all learned that anything that turns us from complete and absolute trust in the Lord God Almighty is an idol or a god to us.
The Didache is one of the earliest catechisms, written in the very earliest days of the Christian church, perhaps even before some of the New Testament texts. There are echoes in that document that parallel some of the most beloved statements of the Bible. The Didache begins, “There are two ways, one of life and one of death; but a great difference between the two ways. The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, your neighbor as yourself; and all things whatsoever you would should not occur to you, do not also do to another.” It goes on to describe the two ways, the way that follows God and the way that doesn’t.
The Book of Proverbs is filled with this choice between the two ways. Do we walk in the way of the wicked or the righteous? Do we walk in wisdom or folly? Do we stand with the sinners or the saints? Unfortunately, most of us vacillate, or as Elijah says, “How long will you waver between the two sides?” How long will we believe in God, but trust in ourselves, in the strength of others, in the ways of the world?
God made it very clear the day Elijah met with Ahab and the people of Israel that day. Elijah told the prophets of Baal to prepare a sacrifice and that he would do the same. Neither would light the fire. “You call on the name of your god, and I will call on Yahweh’s name. The God who answers by fire, let him be God.” They agreed. They prayed for hours, but they received no response from their god. Then Elijah built an altar of stone, dug a trench around it, filled the trench with water, and soaked everything until it would never catch fire. Then he called to God. “Prove yourself to these people that they might believe in you alone!” God answered with a fire that consumed it all, even the dust of the earth. The people fell on their faces and cried out to their God.
Unfortunately, such passionate faith is short-lived. God’s people turned from Him over and over again, and we continue to do the same today. “How long will you waver between the two sides?” is a very appropriate question for us to ask during this season of Lent as we consider our own sinfulness, repent, and seek God’s grace through our Lord Jesus Christ. What path are you taking? What way are you going? Do not waver, but chose God’s way and you will be blessed. Choose life and you will live in God’s Kingdom from this day and forevermore.
“Then justice will dwell in the wilderness; and righteousness will remain in the fruitful field. The work of righteousness will be peace, and the effect of righteousness, quietness and confidence forever. My people will live in a peaceful habitation, in safe dwellings, and in quiet resting places, though hail flattens the forest, and the city is leveled completely. Blessed are you who sow beside all waters, who send out the feet of the ox and the donkey.” Isaiah 32:16-20, WEB
Our son moved out about a month ago and we are converting his old bedroom into an office for my husband. Part of this move means rearranging furniture in other places. A desk is being moved from my office space. The drawers in that desk needed to be cleaned, and now there is a box full of items that need a new home in our house. Bookshelves need to be emptied and moved. The paperwork in a filing cabinet needed to be sorted so that I can shred the old, unnecessary files (why did I still have tax paperwork from 1997?) It seems like every day I have made huge messes to bring order to this process.
Isn’t that the way it is, though? I remember cleaning my children’s rooms when they were young, especially when it was time to purge the toy box. We always dumped the box on the floor, the put back the good toys and got rid of the old and broken ones. It was frustrating to see the room look like a tornado went through, even if it was for a brief moment, but then it was wonderful to have everything organized in place, better than it had been. Sometimes we make a mess to make things right.
We look at our lives and everything looks fine, but we know there are things that need to change. This is what Lent is all about, isn’t it? Lent is a time for us to consider our lives and our actions, to repent of our sins so that we can be transformed by the grace of God. Unfortunately, like that toy box in our kids rooms, that repentance often becomes a mess. The light shining on our failure makes everything look out of control. We are frustrated because we thought it would be easy to just pick out something small to make things better, but the reality is stark and clear: there’s a lot wrong with us. We work on that one thing and realize that there are a dozen hidden problems that need to be fixed.
Isaiah 32 is a prophecy of Jesus Christ. Hezekiah is the king about whom the prophecy is directly given, but it is ultimately about the Messiah to come in the future. The king and those who serve under him, will bring abundant blessings to the kingdom. Those blessings, those good things, that Light, would also shine upon everything that is not good, too. The prophecy warned that the nation would struggle because of their sins. Eventually they would be conquered and taken into captivity. This took years, and multiple kings, to come to pass, but Isaiah warned them not to become complacent. Eventually they would be restored, but it would take the chaos of the exile to make things right between God and His people again.
As we draw ever nearer to the week of our Lord’s Passion, we are daily reminded of our own sinfulness and the chaos of the cross. It can feel like God has dumped our lives on the floor and is picking out the good things to put back in. Meanwhile, He’s also finding the old and broken things that need to go. He’s finding the unnecessary things that need to be shredded. He’s finding parts of our lives that need to be emptied and moved. In the end, through the cross, He will make all things right. Though the world around us may seem like it is being destroyed, God has promised that we’ll dwell in peace and safety, in a quiet resting place. That resting place is Jesus. So, let us let go as God puts order to the chaos, cleansing us with His mercy and grace.
Scriptures for March 21, 2021, Fifth Sunday of Lent: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 119:9-16; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:[32-34] 35-45
“‘But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days,’ says Yahweh: ‘I will put my law in their inward parts, and I will write it in their heart. I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’” Jeremiah 31:33, WEB
We do a lot of things wrong. We lie, we cheat, and we steal. Sometimes we don’t even realize we are doing it. We are jealous of our neighbors and covet what they have. We may seem to be living a good, righteous life; our neighbors may think we are kind and generous, moral and upstanding citizens. And perhaps we are. Yet we still do a lot of things wrong. We don’t always love. We sometimes hate. We don’t share everything we have. We are, at times, selfish. We get angry for all the wrong reasons. We do not forgive. We forget to do what is right. We sin in thought, word and deed by what we have done and by what we have left undone. That’s our human nature: we are sinners and we do a lot of things wrong.
We know that we do things wrong because of the covenant God made with His people. The Ten Commandments gave us a foundation on which to build the lives God wants us to live. We are meant to follow those rules. We are commanded to honor our father and mother and all authority. We are commanded not to kill, commit adultery, steal, lie or covet. Most of us can do a pretty good job at checking off these commands and perhaps we are doing things right according to the letter of the Law. I don’t know any murderers, although I know people who have wished others dead. I know people who have committed adultery, but I don’t think there’s anyone who hasn’t lusted over some sexy body. Jesus once told the crowds that it isn’t enough to avoid doing the things that God has commanded against: He said that we shouldn’t even think about them.
The Commandments, and the rest of the Torah, help us see what we are doing wrong so that we might try to live a better life. The covenant God made with His people at Sinai demands that they live accordingly or He will turn His back on the nation. Each of us has learned in our own way how hard it is to live by those laws and how we suffer when we don’t. We’ve experienced broken relationships, sickness and even death because of our failure.
In today’s scriptures, however, we learn that there is a new covenant. Jeremiah writes God’s word, “...not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which covenant of mine they broke, although I was a husband to them...” The first covenant given through Abraham had to do with flesh and blood and land. God promised to make them a great nation, to guard them and to prosper them. He took them by the hand as Moses led them out of slavery into a new homeland. He promised that if they continued to live in the commandments, He would be with them.
God promised a new, better covenant through Jeremiah. This is a more personal covenant. It is not given to the nation as a whole, it is give to individuals. It is a covenant that has no ifs, no conditions. It is a covenant that does not require good works or right living. It is a covenant that can’t be broken because it is fulfilled and finished by God Himself.
God was available to His people from the beginning of time. We hear in the scriptures that He can be seen in the creation, in blooming flowers and magnificent sunsets. His strength can be seen in the high mountains and His power in the rolling ocean. Yet, God has always had a special relationship with humankind. This is especially true beginning with the Patriarchs, Abraham and his offspring. The Old Testament stories show us how God interacted with His people, making covenant promises and guiding their footsteps. He gave them the Law, anointed their leaders and led them to a Promised Land. In those stories we can see that certain people had a special relationship with God, like Moses and David and the prophets. They had God’s Spirit; those special people were given the task to lead and teach God’s chosen nation. They were mediators between God and His people.
The people didn’t mind having a go-between. They were afraid of hearing God’s voice for themselves; they were afraid of seeing God’s glory. They thought they would die if they did. So, God appointed those special people and filled them with His Spirit to speak on His behalf. Yet, having someone to teach and lead did not make it easier for them to stay in a right relationship with God. They fell hard and they fell often, doing their own thing and going their own way. They chased false gods and disobeyed the commands. It didn’t help when their leaders and teachers did not walk the talk; it was often those on whom the people relied who led them down the wrong path.
Jeremiah wrote, “‘I will put my law in their inward parts, and I will write it in their heart. I will be their God, and they shall be my people. They will no longer each teach his neighbor, and every man teach his brother, saying, “Know Yahweh;” for they will all know me, from their least to their greatest,’ says Yahweh: ‘for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more,’” This covenant promises that God will be dwell in each of our hearts, writing His Word on the very depths of our souls. This new covenant is not about obedience, it is about God changing His people so that they will live naturally according to His will.
God promised that one day our relationship with Him would work in a whole new way. In that day everyone would have the Spirit of God in their hearts and in their lives. Instead of pushing them from the outside, God’s Word would drive them from the inside. They need not fear God’s Word; they could study and know God for personally. They could hear Him and follow Him without the need for someone to do it for them.
This does not mean that there will be no teachers or leaders. We are a community of believers who need one another. Others can help us to learn and grow and mature in our faith. We need one another, to keep each other accountable to the true Word of God, to keep from interpreting God’s Word to meet our own desires. In giving us the Spirit, God does not reject teachers and leaders. But God has made it possible for us to know Him, to discern who is speaking His Word rightly. We can hear His voice and respond to our own personal call to faithful living.
Online ministry was an eye opening experience for me. I grew up in my neighborhood church, knew the Bible as it was preached and taught by my pastors and others. As I grew older, of course, I began to look more deeply into the scriptures for myself, and though I learned new things I never wandered very far from the understanding that I’d been taught as a child. I discovered in those online chat rooms that there are a million different ways that people understand the Bible. I think I have run into every one of them during my online wanderings. Some of our differences are minor and are based on personal and unique perspectives. We look at every text through our own experience, culture, gender, and age. We all know that His Word even speaks to us differently at different times of our lives. This is what makes the Bible God’s living Word: He speaks to us individually through every word.
Sometimes, however, there are people who see God’s Word in a way that we might even be able to call it heretical. All too many believe they have been given “special knowledge” of the scriptures. When asked to clarify, too many of these self-proclaimed prophets will say, “Ask the Spirit to reveal it to you.” If you don’t get it, they suggest that you just aren’t gifted. They refuse to answer and act superior because they have this special knowledge. They find it very difficult to cope in a regular congregation of believers. Their ideas are so different and their attitude so haughty that they find fault with everything and everybody. They refuse to accept what others have to say so they create their own fellowships and appoint themselves as leaders.
I’ve talked about one such woman several times in this devotional. She was taking courses on how to be a prophet and she started a house church where she was preaching to a few followers. She respected me based on what she’d heard in the chat rooms and asked me to read one of her sermons. The sermon was so full of error that it made me concerned for those attending her meetings. She misquoted the scriptures, misidentified the passages, and her interpretations were questionable because she was mixing ideas and themes from completely unrelated texts. She asked for my opinion, so I gave her a few notes as graciously as I could, but she was offended by my response. She answered me with a warning that she was one of God’s prophets and I should beware.
I don’t know what happened to her, but I do know she was not a prophet called by God. She was self-appointed and she twisted God’s Word. She called me a prophet, too, until I didn’t gush over her preaching. Unfortunately, she was unteachable. Even the most educated among the people of God need to willingly listen to others because we are all sinners. The very things that make us unique can cause us to misunderstand God’s Word. We need one another and we need to be teachable. We have to be in communication with other faithful people to hear God’s Word and to know what He is calling us to do in our world. Perhaps that was the woman’s biggest problem: she disconnected from the Church God has given to us to help us grow and mature in faith. She went her own way.
Imagine what it must have been like for those early Christians. They were faithful Jews, and the Way seemed so strange. Yet, they believed in Jesus. They must have worried, at least a little bit, that they were walking a dangerous path. As a matter of fact, there was a resurgence of the Jewish faith during the time when the book of Hebrews was written. They questioned whether or not “The Way” was real or acceptable. They struggled; many Jews and pagans returned to their roots. The writer of Hebrews, however, tells us that Jesus was not like that woman online. He was not self-appointed. He was identified as the Son of God by God’s own voice. He was not doing His own will but the will of His Father. He was obedient; He was glorified not by what He did, but what God did for and through Him. He was Priest and King not because He decided he wanted to be, but because God promised that He would be.
We don’t choose our calling. We simply choose whether or not we will be obedient to the will and purpose of God. In doing so, we receive all that He has promised. There are times when I worry that I’m self-appointed. Do I do what I do because God has called me to this ministry or because I have chosen this path to suit my own desires?
I can imagine that all those that were specially chosen in the Old Testament asked themselves similar questions. We know that Abraham went his own way over and over again. Moses argued with God. David disobeyed the commandments. Yet, we also know that they had a heart for God and were gifted with His Spirit. They were also teachable.
David was chosen to be king of Israel because God could see that his heart was in the right place. God doesn’t look for the strongest, or the most intelligent, or the most beautiful people to do His work; He looks for those who love Him and trust in His promises. David was a man like that, but he was also a sinner.
David believed in God and sought God’s mercy and grace. He sinned against others: against Uriah and Bathsheba. He even sinned against his people because he lied to them and he stole one of their own from their midst. But David understood the reality of our sin: no matter what we do, no matter whether or not our sin is “victimless’” or affects a nation, our sin is against the Lord. When we do what is wrong, we break our relationship with God. Even from birth we are broken and in need of God’s grace. We are saints and sinners, righteous by God’s grace, yet still capable of sinning against God and one another. It seems contradictory, but it is the reality of our existence.
So we, like the psalmist, ask how to we can keep our way pure? God has given us a path to follow. He’s given us a book to read. He has placed His word in our hearts so that we will be strengthened to be all that He has created and called us to be. We are righteous in our hearts because of what Christ has done, and because of Jesus we can seek God despite our failings. We beg that He will help us walk rightly, that He will teach us to do that which will glorify Him in the world. Jesus obeyed unto death, glorifying God on the cross. By His grace we can at least treasure the Word He has placed in our hearts and constantly seek what that Word means in our daily lives.
Each verse in Psalm 119 refers to some different aspect of God’s Law: the spoken Word of God, the obligations of faith, the promise, the teachings, the rules, the judgment, the rituals and the authority each have a place in our life. When we are obedient we will find a life blessed by God's graciousness. It won’t earn us eternal life, but it will help us to live a life that glorifies God in this world as we wait for the promise He has won for us.
The answer to the psalmist’s question is to obey God’s divine spoken Word. We can look for Him in our religious obligations. We must keep His promise close to our heart so that we won’t turn from Him and do what is wrong. We can seek God’s teaching on how to live properly and according to His rules. We can accept God’s judgment when we do wrong and rejoice through our worship practices. We can, and must, focus on God’s authority over our life and there we will find rest.
We do this together, helping one another be all that God has created and redeemed us to be.
The writer of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus Christ was obedient, giving up the glory of heaven to become flesh to live, serve and die for the sake of the world. “Having been made perfect, he became to all of those who obey him the author of eternal salvation...” Our obedience to God’s Word is our response to that which He did for us. The source of our salvation calls us to a life of humble service; following in His footsteps, perhaps even to our own death.
We don’t choose our calling. We simply choose whether or not we will be obedient to the will and purpose of God. In doing so, we receive all that He has promised.
James and John were important to Jesus and they were witnesses to the miraculous and incredible things He did. They immediately left their father Zebedee to follow Him. They were part of Jesus’ inner circle along with Peter; they were witnesses to the Transfiguration. They are often known as the Sons of Thunder because they asked Jesus if they should call down hellfire on a Samaritan town that rejected Him as they were going to Jerusalem. They were zealous and loyal. They believed and lived their faith passionately. They also thought they were important enough to have Jesus give them special consideration when He entered into His Kingdom. They wanted to sit at His right hand and left hand. They wanted to be on the dais with the King, sitting beside His throne.
Jesus had authority over heaven and earth but He could not fulfill their wish to have such seats of honor. The reality, which they did not yet understand, is that the seats they desired would never exist. They thought Jesus would be an earthly king like David, who would rule over Jerusalem and Israel to save the people from the oppression of the Romans. The irony here is that Jesus just finished telling the disciples that the Son of Man, Himself, had to suffer at the hands of the world and be condemned to death. He told them that He would be mocked, spit upon, flogged and killed in Jerusalem. Jesus would never sit on the type of throne they expected and desired. His throne would be a cross, and those on His right and left would be common criminals facing the same punishment for their sins. They had no idea that His cup and baptism would offer only suffering and pain. They were willing to follow Jesus anywhere, but they did not expect that it would mean following Him to a cross. They told Him they were able to follow Him. Jesus said, “You will.”
This came true for James. Just fourteen years after the Jesus’ death, James was beheaded in a lame attempt to halt Christianity. He was the first Apostle to be martyred, the only one of the eleven whose death was recorded in the scriptures. He indeed did drink the same cup and suffer the same baptism as Jesus. James boldly asked Jesus for the wrong thing, but he continued to live out his life of faith and then he died for the sake of the Gospel. We may make the same mistakes, thinking our position or our experiences merit us greater attention or honor. Jesus teaches us a different way.
Jesus called the twelve together and said, “You know that they who are recognized as rulers over the nations lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you, but whoever wants to become great among you shall be your servant. Whoever of you wants to become first among you, shall be bondservant of all.”
Jesus was not self-appointed. He was the beloved Son sent by God. He was not following His own will but the will of His Father. Because of His obedience, God made Him Priest and King over this New Covenant. He did not choose these roles; God fulfilled His promises in Jesus. These were not earthbound titles given for a brief period of time; He is Priest and King forever.
The journey we’ve traveled during this Lenten period has helped us see, and accept, that we have truly sinned against God. We have done what we should not do and failed to do what we should do in thought, word and deed. While our sins may seem to be against our neighbors, the root of our problem is that sin keeps us separated from our God. Our failures make us unable to pay the debts we owe one another and our God. But God promised to take care of it all and He fulfilled that promise with Jesus on the cross. We do not need a priest or a king to intervene on our behalf because we have Jesus. God forgives our iniquity and forgets our sin because He was obedient.
We are still going to sin. It’s a fact of life that our flesh is weak and susceptible to temptation. Every day we will fail to do what is right. These sins are rarely anything major; we seem to be good and upright to the world. But sin is sin, and the effect of sin reaches far beyond our own lives. Though the work is complete, we still have reason to pray for God’s grace and forgiveness. We need Him to change us, to fill us with His Word.
Our Gospel passage for today is the beginning of the end for Jesus. He told the disciples that “the hour has come.” The catalyst seemed to be the arrival of some Greek believers who were in Jerusalem for the Passover. They were looking to meet with Jesus. They weren’t necessarily from Greece, but were from the Greek speaking world, which was separate from the Jewish world. Jesus was having such an impact on everyone, all the nations, that they were beginning to seek Him out. The world was ready to judge Jesus for His work.
But really, it was God that was about to judge the world for the works of fallible human beings. The “ruler of this world” was about to be defeated, not with military might but in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The world thought they were casting out a troublemaker, crucifying a rebel, but in reality God was destroying the hold of sin and death on His beloved people. We look at the story of Jesus and are saddened by the necessity of His horrific death on the cross, and yet in that very death He was glorified and God was glorified by His obedience. It seems like the end of a story we do not like, but we know the rest. We know that Easter will come. And when Easter comes, the world will see God’s grace and mercy.
We do a lot of things wrong. That’s our human nature: we are sinners and we fail to live up to God’s expectations. When we do, we can trust in God’s faithfulness to keep the New Covenant. Our Lenten journey has led us toward repentance, turning to Jesus for His forgiveness. He has led us to the point that we can delight in His statues and never forget His Word. In His great mercy and love, Jesus has provided for our reconciliation with God the Father, which then makes it possible for us to reconcile with our neighbors and all creation. He forgives us, forgets our sin and dwells in us, guiding our resurrection journey along the path He has ordained for each of us.
“Yah is my strength and song. He has become my salvation. The voice of rejoicing and salvation is in the tents of the righteous. 'The right hand of Yahweh does valiantly. The right hand of Yahweh is exalted! The right hand of Yahweh does valiantly!' I will not die, but live, and declare Yah’s works. Yah has punished me severely, but he has not given me over to death. Open to me the gates of righteousness. I will enter into them. I will give thanks to Yah. This is the gate of Yahweh; the righteous will enter into it. I will give thanks to you, for you have answered me, and have become my salvation. The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is Yahweh’s doing. It is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that Yahweh has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it! Save us now, we beg you, Yahweh! Yahweh, we beg you, send prosperity now. Blessed is he who comes in Yahweh’s name! We have blessed you out of Yahweh’s house. Yahweh is God, and he has given us light. Bind the sacrifice with cords, even to the horns of the altar. You are my God, and I will give thanks to you. You are my God, I will exalt you. Oh give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good, for his loving kindness endures forever.” Psalm 118:13-29, WEB
Have you ever had “one of those days?” You know the ones. Those days are filled with too many responsibilities and there is always something that goes wrong. Just when you think you can relax a little, there is always something looming in the next moment that needs your attention. This week my writing has been interrupted repeatedly with calls from workmen who could fit me into their schedule. These were good visits, as I had new light fixtures installed and a minor issue with a toilet. I was glad to get the calls, but they were unexpected and my train of thought lost because of the interruptions. Thankfully the interruptions this time weren’t worrying, but how many times do we have those days that are filled with trouble. The only thing we can get through them is to pray. Prayer helps us get out of our bad moods; it helps us overcome the headaches. It helps us remember our blessings.
It is amazing how quickly we can allow the cares of the world to take over our entire being. I’ve had days when my emotions were out of control because I was focusing on the negatives rather than keeping my eyes on Jesus through it all. I got angry, I yelled a bit. Eventually the whole situation gave me a headache and I desperately wanted to run away to hide and have a good cry. That’s exactly how I felt the week of the storm. As I look back on it today, I know that I made it a bad day for myself. I overreacted. If I had remained calm, and put God in the midst of it, I would not have had such a bad day.
I read that it does not take much to turn an attitude from positive to negative. All you have to do is multiply -1 to any number, and it will be a negative number. The same is true of sin. It takes only one small sin to make us turn from being Christ-like to acting in sin. When I let my emotions take over, when I put God aside, I fell. But God helped me. He helped me find peace in the midst of trouble. He helped me find hope where there seemed to be none. He helped me turn around and look to Him.
We all make mistakes. We all have bad days. We all turn around and overreact to the world that surrounds us. It is part of our nature. But in Christ Jesus, we have the salvation of God who will help us through our difficult times and transform us into people who love as He loved.
“Now may he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food, supply and multiply your seed for sowing, and increase the fruits of your righteousness, you being enriched in everything to all generosity, which produces thanksgiving to God through us. For this service of giving that you perform not only makes up for lack among the saints, but abounds also through much giving of thanks to God, seeing that through the proof given by this service, they glorify God for the obedience of your confession to the Good News of Christ and for the generosity of your contribution to them and to all, while they themselves also, with supplication on your behalf, yearn for you by reason of the exceeding grace of God in you. Now thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift!” 2 Corinthians 9:10-15, WEB
I mentored a girl at one of the schools in Little Rock when we lived there. One day, after spending some time one on one, we joined her classmates for lunch. They all gathered around; they all wanted the attention my little friend received whenever I visited. The children asked me about my family and were surprised that I had been married to the same man for a long time. Most of those children came from broken homes, homes with missing or even abusive fathers. There were few that knew what it was like to have a loving father, one who took care of his family.
Joseph was a man, a carpenter in Nazareth, betrothed to a girl named Mary. Imagine his shock when this virgin became pregnant. What was he to do? Societal expectation meant she should be stoned, since this was adultery according to the tradition of the day. It was an embarrassing situation for Joseph. Yet, the Word of the Lord came to him and told him to take Mary as his wife; he was assured that the child was not conceived in the ordinary way. This decision to be obedient to this command was a difficult one. It went against everything he knew as a good Jew, and it would bring him humiliation in the synagogue and with his peers.
Joseph’s troubles did not end there. He had to take his heavily pregnant wife on a long journey to Bethlehem to register for the census where there was no room in any of the inns. Soon after they arrived, Mary began to feel the pains of childbirth. Joseph found a kind innkeeper who allowed them to sleep in the stable, and Joseph acted as midwife at the child’s birth. He watched as kings and shepherds came to worship the child. Then an angel warned Joseph that Herod was sending soldiers to kill the infant king. He ran away from everything he knew to Egypt to protect the child. Through it all, Joseph never lost faith and remained obedient to the Word of God. He knew that God would guard him as he guarded his wife and the Son.
We celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph on March 19th. The scriptures are relatively quiet about Joseph, but they show us that he was a faithful guardian for Jesus. From what we see in the scriptures, Joseph made a good father. The Sicilians celebrate Father’s Day on St. Joseph’s Day. They combine the disciplines of fasting, almsgiving and prayer by inviting the poor to a dinner called “St. Joseph’s Table.” The tradition began during the Middle Ages when there was a severe drought in Italy. The prayers raised for rain were accompanied by promises to honor God and St. Joseph with a feast. The prayers were answered, rain fell and the famine was over. The people were true to their vow and held the great feast in gratitude to God for His people. They held it in the town square, and the poor were given their fill of food. The feast is still celebrated as an act of thanksgiving for prayers answered.
I began mentoring because I was blessed with a wonderful family and I wanted to share that with a child who was not so blessed. As it turned out, I adopted a whole class full of children to love. God blesses us for a reason, so that we might be a blessing to others. The scriptures warn us not to make vows to God; our motives are questionable when we promise God that we’ll tithe if only He would make our lottery numbers the winners. We probably should promise God that we’ll throw a feast if He answers our prayers. That’s not the way God works. He needs nothing from us, not even our promises. He answers prayers according to His good and perfect will. “St. Joseph’s Table” may have begun with promises to get God to hear, but God does honor those who fulfill those promises with a right heart, those who generously give of the harvest in thanksgiving to God.
Joseph was so ordinary, but he was chosen to care for the Savior of the World through some difficult times. He was a man of faith who was given a great responsibility. He did not have a powerful army to protect them. He trusted in God and obeyed his commands using the gifts he had been given. Joseph did not do it alone: God knew his heart and He led Joseph to do what needed to be done. God’s grace saw Joseph and his family through the extraordinary circumstances in his ordinary life. We are just like Joseph. We are ordinary people, loved by God, protected Him, and led by His Word through the difficulties of life.
“Give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good, for his loving kindness endures forever. Let Israel now say that his loving kindness endures forever. Let the house of Aaron now say that his loving kindness endures forever. Now let those who fear Yahweh say that his loving kindness endures forever. Out of my distress, I called on Yah. Yah answered me with freedom. Yahweh is on my side. I will not be afraid. What can man do to me? Yahweh is on my side among those who help me. Therefore I will look in triumph at those who hate me. It is better to take refuge in Yahweh, than to put confidence in man. It is better to take refuge in Yahweh, than to put confidence in princes.” Psalm 118:1-9, WEB
“What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:9)
Last week’s story about Elijah continues this week. Elijah overcame the prophets of Baal and proved to God’s people that He is powerful and sovereign. The false gods are useless. The people fell on their faces and believed that God is the only God. Even Ahab was willing to listen. Once the false gods were defeated, Elijah then prayed for rain. God sent the rain that ended the drought. Despite witnessing God’s overwhelming power, Elijah was afraid. Ahab’s wife Jezebel was not present on the mountain, so she was not impressed. As a matter of fact, she was angry because Elijah had her prophets killed. She sent Elijah a note that said, “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I don’t make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time!” She still thought the gods had power over life and death.
Elijah ran. He hid. He begged to die. He believed it would be better to die alone in the wilderness than at the hand of Jezebel. Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever felt so alone? Have you ever been so depressed that you thought death was better than living in a dangerous and threatening world? Despite the incredible mountain top experience where he saw God’s power, where he participated in God’s power. Jezebel was just one woman. What could she possibly do to Elijah with God as His helper?
God sent an angel to encourage Elijah. The angel told him to rise and eat, so Elijah ate and drank. He was fortified to go on a forty day journey that ended at God’s mountain, Mt. Horeb. Then God asked today’s question of Elijah, “What are you doing here?” Elijah gave the LORD his sob story. “I did what you told me to do, but now I’m alone and afraid because they want to kill me.” He forgot that there were others that were still faithful. He forgot that God was more powerful than Jezebel.
There are many reasons why we get into bouts of depression. Certainly, depression can be a very real physical problem, a chemical imbalance in the brain that makes us feel as Elijah did. We can also feel like we’ve been abandoned by those who love and depend upon. We can be exhausted or malnourished. We can forget, like Elijah, that God’s steadfast love endures forever. These things magnify our troubles. They make us want to give up. Elijah’s incredible mountain top experience was exhausting. Then he ran. Then he got a threatening message from Ahab’s queen. It is no wonder he wanted to give up.
God did not let him. But God also wanted Elijah to experience His grace. God asked the question of Elijah when he was hiding in a cave on the mountain. “What are you doing here?” He asked. “I’m done.” “‘Go out, and stand on the mountain before Yahweh.’ Behold, Yahweh passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before Yahweh; but Yahweh was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake; but Yahweh was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake a fire passed; but Yahweh was not in the fire. After the fire, there was a still small voice. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle, went out, and stood in the entrance of the cave.” Then God asked Elijah the question again. “What are you doing here?”
Elijah gave exactly the same answer. But now Elijah could hear God’s answer to his complaints because he knew that he was in God’s presence. God could have encouraged him with his answer many times during his journey. He could have reminded Elijah that he was not alone under that tree in the desert. He could have reminded Elijah that there was still work today and sent him in a different direction. But God wanted Elijah to experience His presence in a different way. He’d already seen God in the fire and in the rain, but now Elijah knew God was in the still quiet whisper.
How often do we think God has abandoned us because we don’t experience Him in powerful ways? When we don’t see answers to our prayers? When everything seems to be going wrong around us? This story reminds us to stop and listen. God is calling us into His presence, to experience His grace in the still, quiet whisper. He hears our prayers and He answers them in His way, but we need to learn to trust in Him. There are some who claim that Psalm 118:9 is the center of the Bible. It might not truly work out that way in numbers, but the words are true and should be the center of our faith. “It is better to take refuge in Yahweh, than to put confidence in princes.”
What are we doing here? God asks the same thing when we run from the world. He reminds us that it is in Him we can find refuge even while we face the troubles that plague us. Why can we trust in Him? We see in the stories like Elijah’s that God is powerful and sovereign, but most of all we see that His loving kindness endures forever. This is not just the love that we have for other people. This loving kindness is “hesed”; it is a Hebrew word that means love based on the covenant promises that God made with Him people. And He is faithful to all His promises.
“Therefore exhort one another, and build each other up, even as you also do. But we beg you, brothers, to know those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you, and to respect and honor them in love for their work’s sake. Be at peace among yourselves. We exhort you, brothers: Admonish the disorderly; encourage the faint-hearted; support the weak; be patient toward all. See that no one returns evil for evil to anyone, but always follow after that which is good for one another and for all.” 1 Thessalonians 5:11-15, WEB
I am getting ready to go wildflower hunting in a few days. The season was set back a little because of the winter storm a few weeks ago, but the scouting reports are suggesting that now is the time. I usually take my first trip to the south and east of San Antonio. I will chase after bluebonnets in the Hill Country in a few weeks, but the fields in the other direction are different. The bluebonnets are a different type and there are so many other beautiful colors at the same time. Unfortunately, this year is not expected to be extraordinary because the weather (not just the winter storm, but the lack of rainfall) means that fewer of the seeds began growing in the fall, which is necessary for a spring bonanza.
There are two places I particularly like to go when I take the southeastern routes, and both are cemeteries. The caretakers of both have made the decision to allow the ground to go wild during the springtime, letting the wildflowers take over for a period of time. There is something quite poignant about seeing the new spring life grow up around the memories of those who have passed. This is especially true because we are so close to Easter. New life rises out of death, after all.
The first time I found one of those cemeteries happened to be a day when the caretaker was working on the grounds. I am always a little hesitant about wildflower hunting in a cemetery, not because I am frightened by death but because a cemetery is a sacred place. Those buried there were loved by people and are mourned by people. Though they are not aware of my footsteps on the ground above their caskets, I want to give them the respect and honor due. I was little more than a tourist, a gawker there to enjoy the beauty, search the gravestones and take photographs for my own enjoyment. I didn’t want to be in the way if a family happened to come by to visit.
I walked over to the caretaker to let him know why I was there. I know that cemeteries sometimes attract vandals bent on destruction, and though it was the middle of the day, I wanted him to know I meant no harm. I commented about the beauty of the place and asked a few questions about the graves. Then I thanked him. I thanked him for taking such good care of the graves and for keeping the cemetery looking so beautiful.
I live far away from the place where my parents are buried, so I am unable to visit their graves on a regular basis. I can’t be there in the spring to pull weeds or plant fresh flowers. I can’t take care of any damage that might have occurred over the winter months. We don’t need to go to a gravestone to remember those we love, we remember them daily when we share stories and pictures of their lives. The bodies in the grave are empty shells. Yet, I am always sad when I see gravesites that seem to have been forgotten, that the last people to know them are long gone and their memory is dust in the wind. I hope that isn’t happening to my parents’ graves.
I thanked the caretaker on behalf of all those people who live too far away to visit regularly, and for those who are no longer remembered by the living in this world. Weed eating the overgrown grasses in a place that rarely shows signs of life must be a lonely job. It might seem to be a job with little value. After all, it seems like he only serves those who are dead. I think he appreciated the words. He seemed a little happier and lighter of step when we finished our conversation.
There are so many people who serve us daily that we rarely consider. Have you ever thanked the station attendant at the self-serve gas station? Or the kid putting products on the shelf at the grocery store? Or the painters who are repainting the walls in your office space? We have no reason to talk with these people, and yet we would not have so many things without these silent servants in our lives. I think, perhaps, the pandemic has reminded us of their value, but let’s never allow them to become unseen again.
So today, thank someone who is doing a job that seems thankless, because they are making a difference in the world. They might not be serving you directly, but they would like to hear that they are important. Even if you don’t buy that product or work in that newly painted office, a word of thanksgiving on behalf of those who will benefit from their work will brighten their day. They might be a little happier and lighter of step when you have finished, and the world might just be a more peaceful place.
Scriptures for March 28, 2021, Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion: Processional John 12:12-19/Passion Zechariah 9:9-12; Psalm 118:19-29; Philippians 2:5-11; Mark 14:1-15:47
“I will give thanks to you, for you have answered me, and have become my salvation.” Psalm 118:21, WEB
According to Rabbinical tradition, there were three miracles that could only be accomplished by the Messiah. The first was the healing of a Jewish leper. Though the Torah gives a lengthy procedure for spiritual cleansing of a healed leper, there is no record of it ever being used. The scriptures tell us about Miriam’s leprosy and healing, as well as that of Naaman. However, Miriam lived before the Torah was given and Naaman was a foreigner. Jesus was the only one who ever healed a Jewish leper. (Luke 5)
The second Messianic miracle was the casting out of a dumb demon. Casting out of demons was not all that rare, but there was a specific process that was followed. The exorcist had to establish communication with the demon and then find out its name. Then the exorcist could then cast the demon out by commanding it by name to leave the person they were possessing. The religious leaders could not communicate with a dumb demon and so could not cast it out. Jesus, however, was able to do so. (Matthew 12)
The third Messianic miracle was to heal a man born blind. You might note that the man in the previous miracle was also blind, though we do not know if he was born that way. The disciples were curious about the man born blind in John; they wondered whose fault it was that he could not see. “Did he sin or did his parents sin?” Jesus answered that it was not caused by sin, but that God did it so that He would be glorified. Jesus glorified God as he healed the man born blind. This final of the three Messianic miracles should have opened the eyes of those who knew and understood the Law. (John 9)
The religious leaders were investigating Jesus from the first Messianic miracle. That was the process. Just like the Catholic Church goes through a series of steps to decide whether a person can be canonized as a Saint, the Jews had a process to decide if someone was truly the Messiah. We see that in these stories. We see them following Jesus and asking questions. They were investigating to find the truth. Yet, they had their own understanding of what the Messiah should look like, so they were trying everything they could to prove He was not the Messiah. He didn’t fit their expectations, and despite the fact that Jesus accomplished the very miracles that they claimed only the Messiah could do, they did not believe.
There was a fourth miracle found in the book of John that was beyond human ability: the raising of Lazarus. The Jews believed that a man’s soul left his body after three days in the tomb, and so it was impossible for him to be raised after that time. Jesus raised Lazarus on the fourth day. This particular miracle, or sign as John calls them, was the catalyst that set the end in motion. The religious leaders were threatened by Jesus and they had to turn the course of events. This brings us to the moment of Jesus’ story that we hear on Sunday.
The Gospel lesson from Mark for the Sunday of the Passion is lengthy. We hear the entire of the Passion from Mark’s point of view. It covers two complete chapters and we see the story go from the threat of the plot to kill Jesus to the fulfillment of that threat.
During the reading of the Passion story we look at the events of that horrific week. Jesus suffered in so many ways. He was harassed, rejected, betrayed, and denied. He was beaten almost to death and experienced the physical pain of being nailed to a cross. You might think that nothing could be worse than that, but imagine knowing that God has turned His back on you! Jesus took upon His shoulders the weight of the world’s sin which made it impossible for God to look upon His beloved Son. Jesus cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” At that moment we see His humanness. He may have suffered the pain of all His wounds for hours, but He suffered most during that that one moment when He was truly alone.
God’s plan seemed uncharacteristic, unmerciful and unloving, but Jesus continued in the path set by His Father. He did not save Himself even though the crowd shouted that He should. Instead, He gave a loud cry and died. He suffered the ultimate abandonment in the moment when He needed God the most, and He did it willingly. He was not willing to follow the cries of the crowd. They were fickle, following every wind. They did not know what they were doing. He had to die for God’s promises to be complete. His amazing grace was realized through the most incredible act of sacrifice: the beloved Son, the proven Messiah, the Priest-King, offered Himself as the Lamb of God for the forgiveness of all sin for all men in all time.
We have reached the end of our Lenten journey and are about to enter into Holy Week. I think sometimes we would rather ignore the reality of the Passion. We love to hear the stories of Jesus’ miracles and celebrate the Resurrection, but we cannot ignore the importance of the Passion. Jesus humbly accepted the will of God and obediently suffered for our sake. He was humiliated by the people He loved, even His closest friends. He faced the temptations we face. He prayed the same prayers; He asked God to take the cup, a prayer we can all admit to praying. We like seeing Jesus as the Priest-King, but we are uncomfortable with the image of the sacrificial Lamb. Yet it is that Lamb that fulfilled all God’s promises.
Hindsight is twenty-twenty vision, so we know the whole story. We know what happens at the end. We know that even though Jesus died on the cross, He lives and in Him we have life. However, it is good for us to walk the journey with Him, waiting and watching as if we are ignorant of the future. Sometimes it is good to put ourselves in the shoes of those who lived it. They didn’t know what would happen on Easter. They didn’t even know what would happen on Good Friday.
The disciples, crowds and leaders did not know how the story would end, but even though we have twenty-twenty vision, we should try to see the sacrifice of Jesus with the same eyes as those two thousand years ago to appreciate that we, too, were among the crowds who honored Him one day and rejected Him the next. Even His closest friends did not know how to deal with the reality of where Jesus was going. How can we expect to understand our own place in this story if we do not experience it as they did? So, let us walk with our Lord and see it through His eyes, to know it through His heart, to experience it in His presence as if we were there. Then we will see as they did, and remember when He is resurrected what He truly did for us all.
This is a lot of story to read. It has been presented in many ways, by many people, with their own vision of those events. Perhaps the most famous right now is the movie “The Passion of the Christ” that was created by Mel Gibson. It is hard to watch a movie that shows so much pain and suffering of the One we love, and yet it is a powerful film to reminds us what Jesus really went through for our sake. What do you hear and see when you read the story? What moments stand out for you? If you were to make a film, what form would it take? Which characters do you identify with? Where is the triumph? Where is the defeat? Who is in control? What promises do we see fulfilled? Where is the grace?
Whispers of real danger were beginning to run through the people who were witnessing the actions of Jesus. He had done amazing things, including the three Messianic miracles and the impossible raising of Lazarus. The leaders were nervous because the people were crying out for a savior. They wanted a king that would save them from the Romans and make the nation great again. This kind of talk threatened the lives and lifestyles of those in control. It was not just selfishness and greed that made them hostile to Jesus; they knew a revolution would be dangerous to the nation.
They may have been afraid that they would lose their own power and authority, but they also perceived the danger Jesus posed to Israel and the council needed to consider everything. Was this man really the Messiah? Though the investigation should have proved He was, they were blinded by their own understanding. And they didn’t consider that the path they were taking was exactly according to God’s plan. They thought that killing Jesus would end the danger, but killing Jesus would do something far more extraordinary.
Passion Week begins with the Triumphal Entry. Instead of quietly slipping into Jerusalem for the Passover feast, Jesus came in a very public and extraordinary way. He fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament by arriving as a triumphant King, filling the people with such hope. But He wasn’t the kind of king that they expected. He is the King willing to spill His own blood to set us free from the real oppressor: sin and death. This is reason for us to rejoice. Unfortunately, those who were there on the first Palm Sunday did not really understand the meaning of this promise. They rejoiced as Jesus went into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, righteous and humble, because they thought that Jesus would deliver them from the Romans. The cheered as He entered the city, threw down palms and their cloaks along His path. Even His disciples did not understand until after the Resurrection.
Jesus could have done everything they wanted. He could have called down legions of angels to defeat the Romans. He could have pushed Herod off the throne; He could have even defeated Tiberius and toppled the entire Roman Empire. But that was not His purpose. He humbled Himself even unto death, giving up the glory of heaven for the torture of the cross to serve you and me. We did not deserve His love and grace; we will never deserve His love and grace. He did not do it to reward us for our goodness. He did it because our Father the Creator made us good and though we were the ones who were unfaithful, He desired restoration. God sent Jesus so that we could be saved from ourselves, forgiven for our sins, and set free from sin and death to live in His Kingdom forever.
The leaders were worried on that first Palm Sunday because the world was willing to follow Jesus. The people cried out in celebration as He entered the city, praising God for finally sending the long awaited Messiah. The jubilation did not last very long, however, which we see in the story of Jesus’ Passion. The crowds were easily turned by rumors and lies. They were shocked by Jesus who did not act like a Messiah who would sit on the throne. He acted like One who set His feet on a path that led nowhere except death. Wisdom incarnate was foolish and they looked for another who would do what they wanted and expected the Messiah to do. We know now, however, that the Messiah had a much different purpose.
There are so many important and intimate moments in the two chapters of the Passion story in Mark. I try to imagine how Jesus felt during those final days. He may have received their praise and worship on Palm Sunday, but He knew it would not last. Beneath the confident façade was a man who knew that His true purpose was just days away. I don’t think we can even imagine the pain He experienced deep in His heart. He loved every one of those people who were crying out and throwing palms. He loved every one even though He knew that they would all abandon Him in just a few days. He loved them so much, and us too, that He carried all our burdens with Him to the cross.
The Jews thought they understood what God expected and how they should live. They had interpreted and reinterpreted the Law to the point that it was so burdensome that most people could not live according to it, but they used that unrighteousness as an excuse for the oppression of the Jews. They thought that surely if the people had been living up to God’s Law, then they would not be living under the rule of a foreign power. If the people repented, God would send a Messiah to defeat the Romans and restore Israel. They were looking for a powerful, military solution to their problem. Many others had come forward as false Messiahs, promising peace through war. That’s why they investigated Jesus after the Messianic miracles. They thought that they had to put down yet another false Messiah. Though they couldn’t refute the miracles, they found He didn’t live up to their expectations.
However, they ignored the prophecies that promised a suffering servant, a humble and peacekeeping king. They expected battles, so when Christ came in peace bringing grace, forgiveness and healing, they did not recognize Him. They wanted a king to ride in on chariots with an army. Despite what Jesus accomplished on the cross, people continued to misinterpret His life and the Kingdom made possible by the cross. The heavy burdens Jesus took off the shoulders of God’s people had returned in new ways. One day fifteen hundred years later, Martin Luther rediscovered God’s grace.
In October 2004, the BBC reported about the toilet habits of Martin Luther. The catalyst of the article was an archeological discovery of the lavatory in Martin Luther’s house in Wittenberg. We may not talk about our bodily functions in public, but Martin Luther was candid about his bowels. He suffered from constipation and spent a great deal of time on the toilet. He didn’t waste his time there, but used it to contemplate the things of God. The article from BBC News said, “Luther is quoted as saying he was ‘in cloaca,’ or in the sewer, when he was inspired to argue that salvation is granted because of faith, not deeds.” The archeologists were quite excited to find this lavatory because it was possibly the sight of one of the most important theological revelations in the history of the Christian church. Martin Luther’s understanding of faith and grace was the foundation of the Reformation.
A man’s toilet habits are none of our business and it seems quite trivial when we consider the great things Martin Luther did in his life. After all, he wrote dozens of books, preached hundreds or even thousands of sermons. He changed our understanding of faith and grace and the church. He was a doctor, a priest, a teacher. He was a husband and the father of many children. He was highly respected not only by the members of his own congregation, but by princes and other world leaders. On the other hand, he was also hated by many.
He was disrespected because of he was seen as crude and common. He was educated and held a position of authority, but refused to be set apart as something special. He believed the common people had a right to education, and that they should be able to read the scriptures for themselves. He fought for full participation in worship and the sacraments. He took care of people’s needs, both spiritual and physical. He believed that God created both body and spirit, and that God cared for the physical as well as the spiritual. He said that all Christians belonged to the “priesthood of believers.” He taught that every person has a vocation and even those jobs that are not considered spiritual. To him, changing a diaper or cleaning the horse manure from the stalls was as important as the work of a bishop because they were jobs that helped others. He insisted that every person, no matter their position in this world or the work they were called to do, glorified God when they were obedient to that call. He was an earthy man, who looked at faith from an earthy perspective. Though I’m sure he would argue, in many ways Martin Luther was much like Jesus Christ. And though we can never be Jesus, we are meant to strive to be like Him in this world.
God sets us apart as Christians, but not above others. We are set apart because through faith we have been forgiven and made new. But that does not mean we can lord over those who have not yet found Jesus Christ. We aren’t appointed as their judges or called to force them into our way of living. It is not for us to strive to be anyone’s spiritual guide or father. Faith in Jesus makes us servants of God who are sent into the world to share His grace. The people wanted to appoint Jesus as King, but He didn’t come as their earthly ruler. He didn’t come to take over the Temple and be the High Priest. He didn’t come to be set on a pedestal and worshipped as a god-figure in this world. He came to serve and to teach us to serve humbly.
That’s why Paul writes, “Have this in your mind...” Jesus Christ did not come to be God in this world. He was God, but gave up equality with God to become man and to live with us in this world. He experienced what we experienced. He was tempted as we are tempted. He experienced hunger, thirst, pain and heartache. His feet surely got tired and He must have used a toilet. His humility is what saved us; His obedience is not only an example for us to imitate but is the very foundation of the salvation that God has promised to all who believe. Luther realized “in cloaca” that salvation is granted because of faith, not deeds and we are to have the same mind.
Jesus proved Himself to be the One God sent, though many throughout history have ignored or rejected the truth. And though He was God in flesh, He gave up the glory of heaven to glorify His Father by being obedient to His will.
We are to have the same humility in our own lives, taking on the nature of a servant. We cannot follow Jesus to the cross, but we can humble ourselves and become obedient to God’s will for each of us. The answers to our prayers might include humiliation, persecution and suffering. It might even include death, but we willingly accept all these circumstances because Jesus did it first for our sake. Now we can see Him exalted, as was written in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. “Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave to him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
As we look at the time between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, we realize that far more happened than a quick change of heart. Jesus spent those days attacking the status quo. He went into the temple and taught. He overturned the tables of the money changers. He spoke in parables that painted the leaders in a less than positive light. He turned their world upside down, not just the leaders but also the people. He assaulted everything they knew and they did not know how to handle it.
Most especially, He rejected the expectation they had of Him. On Palm Sunday, they welcomed a king they thought was going to save them from the Romans. They were ready to enthrone Him so that He would lead them to freedom. They did not understand the kind of freedom Jesus came to give.
The psalmist writes, “Open to me the gates of righteousness. I will enter into them. I will give thanks to Yah. This is the gate of Yahweh; the righteous will enter into it.” Who are the righteous? In the days of Jesus, the “righteous” were the ones who had the power, who had the appearance of righteousness. They knew the scriptures and they knew Law. Yet they did not know God. They did not recognize Him in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. They rejected Jesus; they cast Him away to the cross.
We are Easter people, given life because He was raised, but the Passion is too important to ignore. If we truly listen to the story, we see the incredible suffering and degradation that Jesus underwent for our sake. This will cut us to the heart, bring us to our knees and cause us to cry out for mercy and forgiveness. After all, we are as guilty as those who rejected Him two thousand years ago. We were there, not in flesh, but in the same nature of those who actually witnessed the events. We need to experience it, too, to truly understand our sinfulness and receive the grace of God’s answers to our prayers. He will deliver us from the hand of our enemies. Jesus remained faithful. He did not fail when the world cried out for Him to take the throne or save Himself. He faced the suffering of the cross with boldness; He even faced the abandonment of His Father. He calls us to be faithful, humbly accepting the answers He gives to our prayers even when they don’t fit our expectations. He just might not do it the way we want Him to.
As we walk through Holy Week, read the Passion story daily. Reflect on it. Hear God's grace in the midst of the horror. Feel the pain that Jesus experienced both in His body and in His spirit. Walk with Him, remembering that Jesus did it all for you and me.
One day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. Until then, we are called to have the same mind as Christ, putting God’s will ahead of everything else. We are called to live as Christ, willingly giving ourselves for the sake of others. This is the life of thanksgiving we are called to live. He is our salvation because He willingly gave Himself for us on the cross.
“Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord. My spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior, for he has looked at the humble state of his servant. For behold, from now on, all generations will call me blessed. For he who is mighty has done great things for me. Holy is his name. His mercy is for generations and generations on those who fear him. He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down princes from their thrones, and has exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things. He has sent the rich away empty. He has given help to Israel, his servant, that he might remember mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his offspring forever.’” Luke 1:46-55, WEB
Jesus spoke words that have been indelibly stamped on our hearts and minds in the final moments of His life as He hung on the cross. First Jesus spoke the words of forgiveness: “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” We hear these words addressed to the people who were directly responsible for Jesus’ death, but they were meant for all of us. After all, Jesus died for our sin, too. We may not have been there physically, but we are as guilty of Pilate and the priests and the Roman soldiers. We are as guilty as the disciples who betrayed, denied, and abandoned Jesus. We are as guilty as the crowds who mocked Jesus as He died. Our sinfulness is to blame, but Jesus says, “Forgive them.”
Next, Jesus told the criminal hanging next to Him who confessed his faith, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” This is a more personal word of forgiveness for those who have repented and looked to Jesus for hope.
The pain must have been excruciating as Jesus hung only by nails in His wrists and feet. He’d been beaten and humiliated. He cried out “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus felt very alone but He turned to the word of God, quoting the Psalm 22 for strength. He said, “I thirst,” and though God was always in control, Jesus still had very real human needs. At the end, Jesus cried “It is finished.” We ponder what He meant when He said this word. Did He mean His life? Did He mean His ministry? Did He mean the work of redemption for which Jesus was sent to the world? Whatever He meant, He then commended His spirit into the hands God, His Father.
There was one other word, the only one given specifically to people He loved. Jesus’ mother and His beloved friend John stood at the foot of the cross watching Him suffer. Seeing their grief, Jesus said to His mother, “Dear woman, here is your son.” To the disciple He said, “Behold your mother.” The scriptures tell us that from that day, John took Mary into His home and cared for her. Even as He was dying, Jesus cared about the needs of others.
Mary was the one person who was there from the beginning to the end. Throughout her life, Mary willingly accepted God’s grace and purpose for her life and for the life of her son. Though she may not have fully understood everything that would happen, she received each moment with praise to God and she treasured them in her heart.
There is a song that is played and sung around Christmastime written by Mark Lowry called, “Mary, Did You Know?” It is a song about Mary, the mother of Jesus asking the question we all would like answered: did she know what her son would accomplish? Did she know the miraculous things He would do? Did she know He would touch so many lives? Heal so many and speak God’s Word into the lives of those lost and suffering in this world? Did she know that He would make so many people mad? Did she know how He would die?
March 25th is the day we celebrate the Annunciation, the day Mary received the word of God that she was to have a child. It has traditionally been thought to have been the actual day that Jesus was crucified, making it a day of both the beginning of His life and the end. Though Mary was about to begin a journey that would be ridiculed by the society in which she lived and that are even grounds for death in that society, she willingly embraced what God had spoken and received it with her whole heart. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Did she know when she accepted this incredible calling what would become of her Son?
We are just days away from the end of Lent and the final preparations are being made in our churches for the great celebration. There are still many things to see and hear in the story of Christ: the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the foot washing and Lord’s Supper, the arrest and trial, the crucifixion.We wait in expectation of what will happen even as we look back to what has already happened. Sometimes it is hard for us to see that the promise is real and that God is faithful. If Mary had known everything, would she have agreed so willingly? Can a mother bring a child into the world knowing that His purpose is to die?
We have the advantage of seeing the story with hindsight. We know the rest of the story. We know what happens on Easter. Even if we try to walk through Lent week by week and day by day, it is impossible for us to get through Holy Week with the same point of view as His mother and His disciples. We know. Did she know? Did she know as she watched Him die that He would live again?
I wonder if Mary treasured the cross in her heart. There at the foot of her son’s suffering and pain, a sword pierced her own heart as Simeon foretold in the Temple when Jesus was just a baby. She’d had a lifetime to ponder the moment no mother ever wants to see. Yet, it was there at the foot of Jesus’ cross that Mary truly saw how much her Son loved her God and His world; there she saw her Savior and the redemption of Israel. Very soon we will stand with Mary, pondering the sacrificial love of Jesus as He carried our burdens to the cross. Pray for ears to hear His words of forgiveness and embrace the hope that one day we, too, will be with Him in paradise.
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by his good conduct that his deeds are done in gentleness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, don’t boast and don’t lie against the truth. This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, sensual, and demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition are, there is confusion and every evil deed. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceful, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” James 3:13-18, WEB
It is springtime in Texas, and therefore time to go on some wildflower adventures. It is difficult to know the best time to go. If you go to early, the flowers have not yet bloomed. If you go too late, the grasses grow taller than the blooms. I usually base my time on when I see flowers blooming on the sides of the highways or in people’s gardens. Those flowers tend to bloom first because the ground is a little warmer. I finally saw a small patch on a median and some flowers in someone’s yard, so I think it is good to go.
Many of my favorite places are fields off the back roads of Texas, out of the way places with ranches and wilds. Websites and other adventurers give fairly good directions to some of these places, but many are found by turning onto the path less traveled. Some of those well known fields become trampled by people anxious to get photos in the middle of the flowers. One place made me very sad. It was a gorgeous field, but there were flattened flowers where someone took a photo of their children in the flowers. Sadly, there three more places just feet from the first. Why didn’t the second, third and fourth families use the same spot? They all wanted pristine fields, so they trampled a new area to get the perfect photo. So many people posted on websites and pages that the crowds became overwhelming and that the fields were being destroyed.
I am thankful for the advice of other hunters, but I must confess that I sometimes wonder if I should share the places with others. I don’t want to be greedy, because I wany everyone to experience the beauty of these wildflowers for themselves. I hope when I do share a place that others will treat the fields with respect and the residents with consideration, but I have learned that too many wildflower hunters are more focused on what they want than on what they should do for the sake of others.
Wildflower hunting demands respect and consideration, not only for the wildflowers but for those who are also on the road or who live where the flowers grow. I usually put more than 200 miles on my car during one of my wildflower adventures, stopping when I can to get photos. Those places are few and far between, so I usually see more flowers than I photograph. The ranchers and homeowners travel those roads daily, and they should have a safe trip when they are going to work or home. Some of the tourists don’t care; they stop in the middle of the road, block driveways, and park their cars over patches of flowers. Some stops are so popular that it is difficult to get around the cars. I have seen too many accidents waiting to happen; drivers will often risk rear end collisions by stopping short because of the view.
True wisdom comes from God and is revealed in the way you live your life. If you act in selfish and self-centered ways, then your wisdom is earthly. James teaches us how we can recognize those who have wisdom from heaven. They are considerate, submissive, and merciful. The fruit that is produced is the good fruit that comes from the Spirit of God. Peace follows wherever they go. Our wildflower hunts will be far more delightful if we wander with respect and consideration because it will be a good experience for everyone.
“The sons of the prophets said to Elisha, ‘See now, the place where we live and meet with you is too small for us. Please let us go to the Jordan, and each man take a beam from there, and let’s make us a place there, where we may live.’ He answered, ‘Go!’ One said, ‘Please be pleased to go with your servants.’ He answered, ‘I will go.’ So he went with them. When they came to the Jordan, they cut down wood. But as one was cutting down a tree, the ax head fell into the water. Then he cried, and said, ‘Alas, my master! For it was borrowed.’ The man of God asked, ‘Where did it fall?’ He showed him the place. He cut down a stick, threw it in there, and made the iron float. He said, ‘Take it.’ So he put out his hand and took it.” 2 Kings 6:1-7, WEB
Today’s question is: “Where did it fall?”
It has become a running joke in my house that I can never find my cell phone. Well, I suppose it has always been that way. My children will tell you a story about a day we were rushing out of the house to go somewhere and I couldn’t find my phone. We called it several times, heard it, and looked where the sound seemed to be. We did this several times and I kept going back into my purse that was hanging from my shoulder. Then, it occurred to me that there was a pocket in my coat right next to the purse. That’s where we found the phone, after much too much time looking.
That was probably fifteen years ago; imagine how bad I am fifteen years older! I don’t carry my phone everywhere I go around the house, so it will often end up in strange places. I’ll put it on the kitchen counter when I go to cook, but then leave it there when I’m off to do another chore. I place it on my dresser when I run to the bathroom, but then go off to the office to work on my writing. I often forget to take it out of my purse when I’ve been out running errands. Whenever I can’t find my phone, someone will ask, “Where did you have it last?” That is a silly question, isn’t it? If I knew where I had it last, it wouldn’t be lost!
Today’s story is probably not very familiar to many. It isn’t used in the lectionary. I don’t think I’ve seen it in Sunday school or VBS curriculum. It is a fun story, though, and the question is equally absurd as the one I’m asked when I can’t find my phone. The axe head fell in the river. I don’t know about you, but I can point in the right general direction when something falls in a river, but it is still impossible to find. The spot comes and goes so quickly that it is hard to pinpoint as the water closes in and makes the point of entry disappear. A river’s movement pushes everything a few inches or feet from where it entered, even something heavy like an axe head. “Where did it fall?” can be answered only with generalizations. Trying to find the axe head in the river would be like looking for my phone in my purse when it is really in my pocket, so close, but so far.
O.S. Hawkins, the writer of “The Jesus Code”, the book I’m using, talked about the cutting edge of the axe head and how we often lose our cutting edge. We get so caught up in the busy-ness of life that we lose touch with the source of our power. The cutting edge for Christians is the power of Christ in and through the Holy Spirit. The tree would never get cut down if the man hit it with just the handle and we can’t accomplish anything if we have lost touch with the God gives us everything we need to accomplish His work in the world. Hawkins noted that the man who lost the axe head was busy doing God’s work, building a place for the school of prophets to meet. We, too, often get too caught up in the work we are doing and we don’t realize we’ve lost our “cutting edge”, we’ve lost touch with the God for whom we claim we are working.
“Where did it fall?” is the question we might ask ourselves if we feel like we’ve lost our cutting edge, and yet it is as difficult to answer as it is to find an axe head in a river. Our passion fizzles a little at a time until we don’t even realize it is lost. The only way to find it again is to turn to the One from whom it comes. The man in the story went to the man of God, “It is lost.” The man from God used God’s power to find it again. We don't need a mediator: we can seek God's power to do the same thing. We can trust that God will fill us with His Spirit to restore our passion to do His work again. He’ll raise our cutting edge from the depths, even if it seems impossible to find. So, let us ask God to help us and grasp what He has to give, for He is faithful to His promises to equip us with all we need to accomplish His purpose in our lives.
“They came again to Jerusalem, and as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him, and they began saying to him, ‘By what authority do you do these things? Or who gave you this authority to do these things?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John—was it from heaven, or from men? Answer me.’ They reasoned with themselves, saying, ‘If we should say, “From heaven;” he will say, “Why then did you not believe him?” If we should say, “From men”’—they feared the people, for all held John to really be a prophet. They answered Jesus, ‘We don’t know.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things.’” Mark 11:27-33, WEB
Jesus had shown Himself to be the Messiah by doing the very things that the Jews believed only the Messiah could do. He healed a Jewish leper. He gave sight to a man born blind. He cast a demon out of a man who was deaf and dumb. Then He raised Lazarus who was dead for four days. The Triumphant Entry made them even more desperate to prove Jesus was not the One because they saw how the people were getting caught up in the excitement of His coming. They were afraid that it would lead to rebellion, that it would be dangerous for the Jews. They questioned Him repeatedly from the first messianic miracle; they were going to through a process to prove or disprove His claims, though they didn’t really believe He was the One. Despite fulfilling all their expectations, Jesus did not fit into their understanding of the Messiah and they sought a way to be rid of Him.
Jesus didn’t make it any easier for them to believe. He was controversial. Whenever He breezed through a town or village, many would follow and listen. However, there were those who did not believe Jesus came from God. His own village rejected Him. Many claimed He was of Satan. Some tried to stone Him for the things He said and did. The teachers in the temple as well as other religious leaders began to fear his power over people.
The life and ministry of our Lord Jesus was filled with incredible signs, wonders and teachings. From the first miracle at Canaan when he changed water into wine, to the raising of Lazarus from the dead, and everything in between, Jesus showed Himself to be different from anyone the world had ever seen. When He taught in the temple and on the hillsides, people were amazed at the Word as it came alive before them. Jesus helped people understand that there was a better way of living and that there was a deeper meaning to the scriptures.
The people saw Jesus as the answer to their prayers. They sought a Messiah, someone who would set them free from the oppression of the Roman invaders of their land. They wanted to be a free nation again and live as they did during the Golden Age of Solomon their king. As Jesus gained in fame and following, His disciples pleaded with Him to go to Jerusalem and claim His place. They knew that there were enough people to support Him, and that they would fight to give Him the position they felt He had come to fill. However, Jesus did not go to Jerusalem until it was the right time. As the Passover of His third year of ministry approached, Jesus knew the time had come for Him to fulfill the promise of His Father.
Jesus entered Jerusalem to shouts of “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest!” The people were excited, pulling palms from the trees to wave and throwing cloaks in the path of the donkey on which He rode. Some of the Pharisees rebuked Jesus, telling Him to quiet the crowd. Jesus answered, “I tell you that if these were silent, the stones would cry out.” These words made the Jewish leaders more upset about the work Jesus Christ was doing in their town. The plot thickened as they sought ways to remove Jesus not only from Jerusalem, but also from the hearts and minds of the people.
Jesus’ answers had a way of cutting right to the heart of a situation. Unfortunately, the Pharisees did not understand the kingdom of God, so they were not seeing Jesus for who He was. Jesus was upset by the state of the Temple. It was a holy week, Passover. The temple courts were filled with merchants selling animals to the pilgrims so they could offer their sacrifices. Certainly some of the merchants were less than honorable about their products, their weights and conversions. Sin after sin was causing disgrace in God’s house. The worst was that the Temple was no longer a place to come to know God, but rather to attend to the works of men.
Jesus was a great storyteller. The people sat mesmerized when He spoke the word of God in ways that touched their life and experience. He used examples of their everyday life: vineyards, yeast, animals, clothes, building, treasures, farming, friends and money. He used the things in this world that they knew to share the Kingdom of God. The crowds were drawn to Him and the children delighted in His presence. These parables of Jesus always had a spiritual message, but were presented in a tangible way so that the people who heard them with a heart of faith understood the promise of God for their life.
The bible shares more words about the Tuesday of Holy Week than any other day in the history of the world. It was a day of controversy and stories. Jesus spent time in the temple teaching, and the leaders sent men to catch Jesus in some sort of crime so that they might have him arrested. His authority was questioned and He was set up with the question about taxes. He warned of false teachers and the end of the age, so that we could recognize the times prophesied throughout God’s Word. As He spoke these words, the leaders became more determined to be rid of Him, but He seemed untouchable.
Not everyone received His words with a heart of faith. The leadership often heard the stories of Jesus as condemnation of them. They were threatened by Jesus’ focus on submission, poverty and forgiveness. They were offended by His insinuation that their obedience was not righteousness, but rather was the act of self-righteous hypocrites. With every word, they became angrier at what they heard and their hearts hardened even more. It is said that the same sun that melts ice hardens clay. Those who had the heart to believe understood that the Kingdom of God was about power in our weakness, hope in our affliction and repentance from our old ways of life. Many did not hear the grace of Jesus’ message and they sought a way to end His ministry.
While Tuesday is the most written about day, the Bible is silent about what Jesus did the Wednesday before Passover. Jesus knew the time of His death was growing close, why wasn’t He in the Temple trying to reach those that He had not yet reached? I would have felt a desperate need to continue the ministry until the very last moment, to reach as many as possible. Jesus knew a better way. He spent the evenings during Holy Week in Bethany, at the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha. It is likely that Jesus and His friends spent a quiet day in prayer and fellowship on Wednesday at that place.
Jesus may have rested on Wednesday after a busy Tuesday, but the rest of the world was in tumult. In Jerusalem, the leaders were plotting against Jesus. We do not know exactly when Judas went to the Temple to offer to help, however it could have been on Wednesday. The leaders were already hardened against the message, but at this point the people were also beginning to turn away from Jesus. He was no longer fulfilling their desires. He was preparing them to accept the ultimate sacrifice.
Through it all, Jesus remained calm and in control, preparing His heart for that moment when He would take all our sins, including those committed against Him in these final moments, on His shoulders. This week is often busy as we make our own preparations for Easter Sunday, with extra worship and dozens of errands. Jesus reminds us, however, to take time during these final days of Lent to rest and to pray, to open our hearts to the incredible gift of life that Jesus won for us by taking our sin to the cross.
Scriptures for April 4, 2021, Resurrection of Our Lord: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 16; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Mark 16:1-8
“It shall be said in that day, ‘Behold, this is our God! We have waited for him, and he will save us! This is Yahweh! We have waited for him. We will be glad and rejoice in his salvation!’” Isaiah 25:9, WEB
Holy Week is an incredibly busy and stressful time for most churches. There are extra services with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, sometimes an Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday usually includes extra worship. It is always strange to write this devotion for Easter on Wednesday before we’ve experienced everything that leads up to Jesus’ Resurrection. We know this story well, and we know it through twenty-twenty vision. Though we take seriously the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, we already know that Jesus ate again with His disciples and that though He was dead, He LIVES!
I once heard a reporter describe Easter Sunday worship as solemn and holy. This is very true if the words are defined properly, but I’m not sure the reporter was using the terms as she should. She seemed ot be saying that Easter worship sober, somber, and grave with serious formality. It is a holy day, set aside for us to celebrate something incredible and special, and yet the reporter made it sound like it was all too good and extraordinary for ordinary people. What average person can stand amidst the holy and who wants to be grave and serious on a day filled with chocolate bunnies and Peeps?
It is true that Easter Sunday is a solemn and holy day, but not because it is formal, somber and untouchable. It is sacred because it is God’s incredible gift for His people. It is the celebration that everything holy has been made accessible. It is joyous because there is no longer a wall between God and His people. Jesus broke the barrier between humankind and the divine. He restored our relationship with our God and we mark that reconciliation with a party. Actually, we mark that reconciliation every Sunday as we remember and celebrate the risen Lord every week, but we have set aside Easter as a special festival day as we complete the story begun on Palm Sunday.
Why would the reporter think that Easter Sunday worship is solemn and holy? Or the better question is: why did she interpret that to mean it is somber and beyond the reach of the normal person? I don’t know. Maybe it is the lilies that many churches use to decorate on Easter Sunday which are beautiful but make the sanctuary smell like a funeral parlor. Perhaps it is the incredible nature of the Easter story: a guy died and rose again. For the rational mind this is beyond the possibility of reality. Perhaps it has to do with the expectation that everyone will arrive in brand new dresses and starched suits, as happy families gather together for that once a year time to worship together.
I suppose in some ways the world sees our Easter worship as opposite the image we have of Easter out in the world. They have Easter bunnies and eggs, chocolate and jelly beans. They have egg hunts and carnivals, feasts of ham and brunches with champagne. They have joy and happiness, we have church. What the world misses is that we have joy, but it isn’t from a sugar high or a belly full of good food. We go to church on Easter Sunday to rejoice in the fulfillment of His promises and to thank Him. It is a much more real joy than that found in Easter baskets and egg hunts. It is the joy of knowing that the world has been made new by the most incredible act of God. The world has been changed forever, and we are called to live as Easter people from this day on. As we live as Easter people, the world will see that it isn’t about somberness and perfection. It is about living in the forgiveness of God’s grace forever.
They don’t realize that when we worship we are looking forward to a feast greater than anything they experience on earth. In the passage from Isaiah, we hear the praise of the nations as they rejoice, “Behold, this is our God! We have waited for him, and he will save us! This is Yahweh! We have waited for him. We will be glad and rejoice in his salvation!” Isaiah promises an extraordinary feast with the best of everything, and this feast is not for a few special people. It is for all who believe. The praise comes not just from the voice of the Jewish people, but it is the voice of all who trust in God for salvation. It is a future hope, but it also a present reality. In the Lord’s Supper, we share with our brothers and sisters in Christ a foretaste of the feast to come, a physical reminder of the promise.
This is Good News! This is something to celebrate. While it is sacred and holy, it is filled with joy and blessedness. Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Good News is meant to be shared, but we can all think of moments that we held back because we wanted to tell someone first. While not happy news, a military person’s death cannot be officially announced until the next of kin is notified. We have all seen the image of several people in uniform standing on the doorstep and we know that their news will not be good news. Thankfully it is not an experience I had to face.
But isn’t it funny how we are equally careful with our good news? How many women with the knowledge of a pregnancy hide their joy until they tell all the right people? She can’t tell Aunt Gertrude before she tells Mother, because Mother will be upset that she wasn’t the first to know. A man can’t tell his co-workers about a fabulous new job until he’s told his boss that he is going to resign. Good news is meant to be shared, but sometimes we have to hold on to our news until we’ve shared it with the people who matter most.
The story of Easter, the rising of Christ out of death into new life, is something that everyone should hear. This is the reason why everyone should be in church on Easter Sunday, to celebrate the incredible gift of Resurrection that we receive through Jesus Christ who lives. Yet, Jesus was careful on that first Easter. Wouldn’t it have been better for Him to just appear to the entire city of Jerusalem at one time? Wouldn’t it have had a greater impact if He had done something spectacular to ensure that the reality of His death and life was understood by all? As it happened, many people doubted the story they heard. The Romans thought the Jews had stolen the body. The Jews thought the disciples had stolen the body. Those who doubted would have been silenced quickly if only they’d seen Him with their own eyes.
But Paul tells us that Jesus was very careful about whom witnessed His resurrection. There is a list of witnesses, from Peter, to the disciples, to a gathering of faithful, to His half-brother James and then to the ones Jesus sent out to do the work He had begun. The Gospels specifically name a few others, like the women who went to the tomb.
Holy Week is hectic and stressful, even to the very moment of the final Easter worship service is complete. We want everything to be right so that those who have never heard the Good News before know that it is sacred and holy and joyous and happy. The first Easter morning was different, but no less stressful. Imagine what it must have been for those women. They watched Jesus die just a few days earlier, but they were not able to do for Jesus’ body all that was their gift to do. Of all people, He deserved the physical anointing that was practiced for the dead.
The anointing is not really that important for the dead, but it is vital for the living. I once heard a story about a person who died at home under the care of a hospice nurse. The family was nearby and when the person died the nurse took out some ointment and began to prepare the body. She asked the family if they wanted to help and showed them how to carefully rub the oil into the body. The family members were unsure at first, but eventually moved to the bedside and began the task. They were amazed at how soothing and comforting it was to do this for their loved one. In anointing the body, they were able to share in that last moment and say good-bye in a most beautiful way. The smell and feel of the oils calmed them in this moment when their world seemed to end.
That first Holy Week must have been incredible for the disciples. On Sunday they entered Jerusalem with Jesus on a donkey being proclaimed king by the crowds. They had given up everything to follow Him and their sacrifice was paying off. Within days Jesus had stunned and upset so many people that they were afraid for His life and their own. At the Passover, just when they thought He might make some big announcement about revolution against the authorities, Jesus taught them to be humble servants and to live in love and mercy. Then He was betrayed, denied and crucified.
We do not know what the disciples did after Jesus died. He was hurriedly wrapped and placed in a freshly hewn tomb because it was the Passover Sabbath, a particularly holy time for the Jews. It is unlikely they did much; the law had many restrictions that were more closely obeyed during the holy periods. Besides, the disciples were in shock, afraid and in mourning. Perhaps they prayed, but it is more likely that they spent the time together discussing all that had happened, trying to decide what they should do. Without their rabbi, they had no guidance.
The scriptures tell us that early in the morning on the first day of the week, the women went to the tomb to take care of the body of Jesus. They did not have time to complete the burial because of the Sabbath, so they returned to use spices for anointing and grieve for their Lord. It was a dramatic moment in time, but we are given a glimpse of normal people attending to the normal tasks of those dealing with grief and loss. They were talking amongst themselves as they approached the tomb, wondering how they’d get the stone moved so they could do their work. There is nothing special or hurried about the moment.
Yet, when they arrived in the garden, they noticed the stone had been moved away. Jesus’ body was gone. Now we look to this empty tomb as the sign of the hope to come; our tombs will one day be empty because we have eternal life in Christ Jesus. We rejoice, but they were not rejoicing. The women were afraid. Mary wept. The disciples were confused. They did not understand what was happening.
Then Jesus began appearing to them. He called Mary by name in the garden. He broke bread with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. He entered through a locked door. He appeared to five hundred. Eventually, Jesus appeared to Paul. When He appeared to Mary, she ran to tell the other disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” One by one they believed and rejoiced.
The empty tomb is a symbol of the hope and joy of Easter. While there is promise in that emptiness, there are also questions, doubts, fears and grief. The same thing is true for those facing tragedy in our world today. The military family seeing the uniformed visitors on their doorstep experience those same questions, doubts, fears, and grief. The empty tomb reminds us that though we may have to say good-bye to loved ones, we also know that we will be reunited with them one day when we believe in the promises of God.
The hope and joy of Easter is not found in a cemetery, or folded grave clothes, but rather in the Risen Lord. It isn’t found in anger or protests or “action.” It was when the disciples saw Jesus that they knew all He had spoken was true. He called their names, ate with them, and showed them His wounds. When they heard His voice and saw His face they believed. In our own moments of darkness, we will find peace when we look for the Light. We will shine the Light when we share the Gospel. The Gospel is not something we do; it is something God did. It is Good News meant to be shared.
In the stress of Holy Week, it is almost shocking to read the scripture for Easter Sunday. This passage is a dramatic moment in time, when the first disciples discovered that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb. Instead of drama, we are given a glimpse of normal people attending to the normal tasks of dealing with grief and loss. They were talking amongst themselves as they approached the tomb, wondering how they’d get the stone moved so they could do their work. There was nothing special or hurried about the moment.
The outcome in Mark’s story is not what we would expect, either. In this text we are left dazed and confused. The women are not excited about the words they hear from the man in the tomb, they are frightened. They do not go immediately to the disciples and tell them what they found, they stayed quiet. Thankfully we have other accounts which tell us the rest of the story. If we were only given this passage, we would not think Easter Sunday is such an important day. So, the body is gone. What does that mean? The cynics said the disciples had stolen the body, giving the impression of a risen lord. But we know that He appeared before many, proving that He was not dead but is alive.
Paul writes, “Now I declare to you, brothers, the Good News which I preached to you, which also you received, in which you also stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold firmly the word which I preached to you - unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”
From the earliest days of the Christian faith, believers gathered together to share their witness and confess their beliefs in Jesus. It did not take very long before they were praying familiar prayers or repeating the words of Jesus. Since much of their religious experience came from the Old Testament writings, we can even see the hymns they might have sung in worship by reading the Psalms. The letters of the Apostles were shared over and over again, establishing proper understanding of this new revelation of God. They began to form creeds, poetry and hymns that brought together the doctrines they had learned in a way they could easily remember and teach. By repeating these confessions of faith, they became deeply imbedded in their hearts and minds. When asked about their Christian faith, they could easily share the Gospel message in words that were seen as credible because the whole Church shared them.
Scholars generally agree that this passage from Paul is one of the earliest Christian creeds. It has been around since the earliest days of the church, having become a part of Christian worship within just a few years of Jesus’ death. By sharing this simple statement about the death, resurrection and appearance of Jesus Christ as the Risen Lord, the truth of salvation was written on the hearts and minds of the believers, giving them the strength and knowledge to share the Gospel with others.
Paul lists himself as the last and least of all the witnesses, because he saw Jesus much later and only after he had persecuted the believers. Paul tells us that his word can be believed because it had been given to him by Christ, just as it had been given to all those others who had been witnesses not only to the resurrection but also to the life of Jesus. He is also credible because the word Paul gave to the people was given first through the scriptures, in promises and prophecies sent by God. The thing we celebrate this week is not some holiday that comes just one Sunday a year filled with candy and bunnies and eggs. It is the culmination of God speaking to His world, fulfilling His promises fully and faithfully. It is news that we now hear, given to us by all those who have come before, because it is our turn to hear and know and experience the joy that comes with Easter.
The Gospel passage from Mark is hard to read because it ends so abruptly. The final sentence says, “They went out, and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come on them. They said nothing to anyone; for they were afraid.” The women were too afraid to say anything to the others. Obviously someone figured it out. Matthew and Luke tell us that they did report what they saw at the tomb to the disciples. John tells us the story from Mary’s perspective. But in Mark, we are left hanging.
There are eight more verses that neatly tie up the story, but there is some controversy over whether those verses were part of the original text. There is another verse that is found between verses 8 and 9 in some manuscripts, that says, “And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterwards Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” Again, this verse helps to alleviate the abruptness of Mark’s story.
These verses are helpful, but ending at verse 8 serves a purpose, especially for those who heard Mark’s story in the beginning. See, Mark was a storyteller. The book was not written at first, but was told orally over and over again. It was a story that developed over time. Mark was very young. His mother owned the building where Upper Room was located, so he probably helped serve Jesus and the disciples at the Last Supper. He was there at the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The disciples hid in the Upper Room after Jesus died. Mark overheard their stories, learned them by heart, and then repeated them to others.
You know how it is: when someone we love dies, we sit around in the living room and we tell stories. “Do you remember that time when Jesus...?” “Jesus always liked to say...” They worked out their grief through those stories. They worked out their understanding through those stories. And the storytelling surely went on after Jesus appeared to them, and then long afterward. Mark could see in the conversations of Peter and the disciples that the experience of being with Jesus was something to be shared. You could not believe in Jesus and remain silent.
And so he took all those stories and told them to others. I can imagine a group of people sitting around a living room, anxiously waiting to hear about the One that was raised from the dead. They were seekers in search of the truth. As Mark tells the story, we are held mesmerized by the immediacy of Jesus’ ministry. I have seen people hearing this story told as it was in Mark’s day sitting on the edge of their seat in hopeful expectation. We can sense the fear and amazement of the disciples. We can feel the anger of the leaders. We are aware of the confusion and doubt in the crowds.
And then, after about two hours of storytelling, Mark says, “They went out, and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come on them. They said nothing to anyone; for they were afraid.” How would you react? I can see the crowd erupting with questions and opinions. There may be good reason for adding those extra verses in the book of Mark because we are no longer hearing that story told directly from the eye witnesses. Something had to happen after the women were afraid or we would not be Christian today.
But let us, for a moment, see that by ending so abruptly, Mark is inviting the hearers into the story. What happens next? You are like one of those women at the tomb. What do you do? Do you take the story to another or do you run and hide out of fear? Do you join with Mark, Peter and Paul by sharing what happened so that others might believe?
When we are preparing our activities for our churches, we often ask ourselves the question, “What are they looking for?” We want to know what our visitors are seeking so that we can provide them with the programs that will keep them coming back. Perhaps we should be asking this question the angel asked the women, “For whom are you looking?” People may want Easter egg hunts and BBQs, basketball leagues and teen dances, but they will never be transformed by those things. The chances we have to reach those who do not believe are so rare, but the Good News has the power to create faith in hearts that need that which is sacred and holy, joyful and blessed. Programs and activities might bring people to the pews of our churches but they will never save a soul. Only Jesus can do that. Only Jesus can give us feed us the feast that has been promised to us on Mount Zion, the feast that will last forever. Behold, this is our God who has saved us. Let us rejoice! Alleluia!