Welcome to the March 2023 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 2023
March 1, 2023
Lectionary Scriptures for March 5, 2023, Second Sunday in Lent: Genesis 12:1-9; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-8, 13-17; John 3:1-17
“I will lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from Yahweh, who made heaven and earth.” Psalm 121:1-2, WEB
It is an odd time of year to think about it, but this reading reminded me of a children’s Christmas song. You know the one, “You better watch out. You better not cry, better not pout I'm telling you why. Santa Claus is coming to town.” We have this image of an old guy in a bright red furry costume watching our every move. His purpose is to find out if we are being bad or good. Only the good little children will get presents under the tree on Christmas morning, so he has to know at every moment if those children are good or bad.
I suppose some people have a similar image of God. I’m have been reading an historical fiction novel series that was written from the perspective of a warrior in Saxon England who though he had heritage in the Christian faith decided to worship the gods of the Danes. He saw Christianity as a religion of rules, the Lord as a god whose purpose is to punish wrongdoers. The type of Christianity practiced in his day probably made the Lord look like that kind of god. The same is true today in many churches. Our God is not about love in the pink hearts and syrupy emotions of Valentine’s Day, but He is about love. The kind of love He gives is found in mercy and forgiveness. There is room for the rules and discipline, but there is even more room for grace.
When I read through today’s psalm, I was reminded of that creepy image of Santa Claus watching every movement of all the children. But the psalm is really the song of a pilgrim. Pilgrimages were difficult. Our trip to Germany last June was a sort of pilgrimage for us. We followed the footsteps of Martin Luther, learned about his life and his ministry. It was fascinating to see original publications and to stand where he preached. It wasn’t always an easy trip. Europe was hotter than usual; we are used to having ice in our drinks and air conditioning to keep us cool. We walked miles every day. We had to experiment with food we didn’t know. We had disheartening emergencies. We didn’t have the time to see everything we wanted to see. In the end we were exhausted, but our journey was much easier than it would have been for pilgrims n the past.
The pilgrims in David’s day would have had to travel on foot. There were few hotel rooms available along the path. The roads were dangerous. Thieves and murderers waited around every bend for the perfect victim. The heat of the day and the cold of the night made for difficult travel. No gas stations with mini marts were set up along the way to offer a cool drink or a restroom. Stinging insects and hungry predators provided yet another danger to the traveler. It is no wonder that the pilgrims sought some comfort in their faith in God. He was not far; He was watching them along the way.
I went camping with my Girl Scout troop when I was a teenager. We went to a camp in a state park a few hours from home. It was a nice park, with amazing waterfalls and exhausting hikes. Our camp was at the top of the mountain, near the beginning of the string of waterfalls. We had some rain that weekend, rain that nearly washed our tents down the mountain. It was frightening, but the rain passed by the next morning so we could hike the falls the next day. We went back to our tents exhausted from the climb and the lack of sleep the night before, but we were amazed when we looked at the sky above us. It was so full of stars that it was difficult to distinguish between the stars and it was impossible to count them.
We returned home from that camping trip and the sky never looked the same; I even wondered if the stars were still there. I understood the promise God made to Abraham in Genesis 15 much better after my night on the mountain. God told Abraham that his offspring would outnumber the stars in the sky. It was an amazing promise, especially since Abraham and Sarah were well beyond child-bearing years. Even the promise in today’s passage is unbelievable. How could Abram become a nation over such a vast wilderness when he was just one man? He feared he would have to give his inheritance to a servant.
Today’s Old Testament lesson shows Abraham’s faith long before the promise in Genesis 15. He was still called Abram. He still lived under the faith of his forefathers. The LORD God Almighty was unknown to him and his family. Yet Abram believed and followed Him.
Abram lived with his extended family in Mesopotamia; he had great wealth with servants, flocks, and many material possessions. He worshipped the moon god and other local gods with the rest of his family and friends. Life was pretty good for Abram. One day the LORD spoke to Abram, which must have been a very strange experience for him. The gods they worshipped had no voice, no form except that which were created by human hands. This strange voice told Abram to leave his home and go to an unknown land. The voice promised Abram many blessings: he would become a great nation and be blessed, his name would be great and he would be a blessing, all those who bless him will be blessed and those who curse him would be cursed. The greatest promise reached far beyond Abram himself: the entire world would be blessed through him.
We also see Abraham’s faith when God sent him to the altar of sacrifice with his son Isaac. Isaac was the seed of the fulfillment of the promise, the first of a long line of offspring that would be beyond number. Yet, Abraham obediently took Isaac, knowing that God would provide the sacrifice. God had provided the son; He would provide whatever was needed to fulfill the promise.
These amazing stories show us a man who believed and trusted God, but Abraham’s faith began and His life was changed when he believed that strange voice that came to him out of the blue. Would you decide to leave everything you know to follow the LORD into the unknown?
God promised Abraham that his offspring would outnumber the stars in the sky. That might seem possible for those of us who are used to seeing the sky as it appears blocked by the lights of the city, with just a few dozen or hundred. Abraham, however, was in the wilderness, thousands of years before electricity and far from the modern light pollution that has hidden the stars from our view. The sky he saw was more like the sky I saw on the top of the mountain, with so many stars that it would have been impossible for him to count.
Abraham believed the LORD, and it was credited to him as righteousness. That righteousness was not an indication of good works or right living. His righteousness was living in a right relationship with God, dwelling in His presence, following His voice. Abraham was willing to go even into the unknown. His faith was not in the promise but in the LORD who made the promise. The promises were ridiculous, but God is faithful. So, Abraham had faith in God. Abraham never saw the fulfillment of those promises, but he did see the seed. He gave birth to the son with his beloved Sarah. In that son he saw the promise of more, but his faith was in God.
I wonder how often Abraham doubted God’s promises. Abraham and Sarah tried to take matters into their own hands, seeking a child through Sarah’s maidservant Hagar. Sarah laughed when the LORD said to Abraham that she would bear a child. Did Abraham also wonder at the ridiculousness of that statement? Yet, through it all, Abraham lived in the presence of God, and that is righteousness.
The trip from Ur to the Promised Land was not easy. Abram, Sarai and Lot traveled many miles with a large contingent of people, animals, and things. He did not pack a small bag and set out alone into this adventure, but took all that he had with him, praising God every step of the way. He knew nothing of the voice that spoke to him, and he would not see the fulfillment of all the promises. That is faith. His faith is credited to him as righteousness.
We like to believe that we would do so, especially those of us who have been actively living our faith for a long time. Yet, I suspect most of us would be a bit more like Nicodemus.
We hear about Nicodemus three times in the book of John. Today’s Gospel lesson is the first. In the second story, which is found in John 7, the chief priests and the Pharisees were concerned about the way Jesus was speaking in the Temple. They sent officers to arrest Him. Some believed His words and others rejected them. Even the officers were divided. They went back to the chief priests and Pharisees without Him and when questioned said, “No man ever spoke like this man!” The leaders wondered if the officers had even been led astray. Nicodemus stepped up and said, “Does our law judge a man, unless it first hears from him personally and knows what he does?” They called Nicodemus foolish. “Are you also from Galilee? Search, and see that no prophet has arisen out of Galilee.”
Nicodemus did not confess faith in Jesus. He didn’t even claim to believe Him. He did, however, act as an advocate. It isn’t fair to condemn a man on the word of witnesses alone. He simply wanted the leaders to hear Jesus and judge for themselves.
Finally, Nicodemus made one last appearance. In John 19, after Jesus died, Joseph of Arimathea sought permission to take down the body and have it entombed. Nicodemus also went and took a large amount of myrrh and aloes for preparing the body.
Each time Nicodemus is mentioned, John notes that this was the man who first went to Jesus at night. Had Nicodemus found the light? Did he believe? Did he ever truly confess his faith in Jesus? He never does so in words, but he seems to do so in action. We are left wondering about his faith. In time, Nicodemus was made a saint. There is an apocryphal gospel attributed to him. It is likely that he believed, but we can’t know for sure without a public confession.
There was a time when this distinction was very important. Things were difficult for Christians in the Middle Ages. There were times, particularly in English history, when the dominant Church switched between Catholic and Protestant over and over again. Unfortunately, those who followed “the other religion” (whichever it might be) often risked severe punishment. Many martyrs were made in those days. At the time, a disparaging term came into use, thought to have been introduced by John Calvin. It was the term “Nicodemite” which referred to someone who was suspected of misrepresenting their actual religious beliefs by exhibiting false appearances and concealing true beliefs. Calvin considered a lack of public confession an act of duplicity; he originally used the word referred to hidden Protestants in a Catholic environment, but it was later used in opposite cases.
So, are you a Nicodemite? Are you one who believes but you would rather not take the risk by making too public a confession of your faith? Do you seek Jesus in the dark, or perhaps on Sunday morning, but keep Him hidden from the rest of your life? Do you quietly serve Jesus in the background while never really being seen as an active, faithful disciple? I think many of us can say “Yes” to these questions. Perhaps you are as troubled by this as I am. Do I really have to wear my faith on my sleeve to be a faithful Christian?
There are certainly those who are more than willing to make a public confession. Anyone who has ever seen a football game on television has seen signs saying “John 3:16” raised above the crowds beseeching people to believe in God; this timeless verse is recognized the world over. Even if they can’t quote the verse word-for-word, non-Christians know what the sign means. It is the foundation of our faith. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” This is a favorite verse of many Christians.
This is a favorite passage because it shows both God’s gospel and man’s response. God loves and if we believe, we will not die. Yet, John 3:16 should not be taken without verse 17. “For God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him.” We like to think of God in terms of love, and love He is. However, it is not love that saves us. Love is the reason why we are saved, but it is not our salvation. Forgiveness saves us. Forgiveness was won on the cross when Jesus willingly took on our sin and the wrath of God to make us righteous before Him and win us eternal life.
God forgives. God forgives because He loves, but love is not the foundation of our faith. We are saved by God’s mercy, by His forgiveness. Nicodemus went to Jesus in darkness, seeking answers to the questions of his heart. There was something about Jesus, but Nicodemus was afraid. What did it all mean? What was He saying? Nicodemus was a teacher. He was responsible for the spiritual lives of the people, yet he could not understand what Jesus was saying. Nicodemus understood the Law. He understood the things he could grasp and the things that he could do. It is easier to respond to God’s word than it is to accept His grace. How can we be certain?
I am sure there were many times in the years Abram and Sarai were wandering toward the Promised Land that they got tired, scared, and hungry, leading them to doubt. During our own wilderness journeys we also get tired, scared and hungry. We complain. We doubt. We look away from God and try to make our own way. But God has given us His Son to die for us on a cross so that we can see our sin and remember His grace. There, on the cross that seems to defy love, we see God’s forgiveness and our salvation.
Paul tells us that we don’t receive the gracious gifts of God because we deserve them. We can’t trust enough, believe enough, work enough to deserve God’s blessing. We don’t deserve heaven. We don’t deserve the gifts that God gives. If we deserved these things, if we have done something to earn them, then they aren’t gifts and everything about the Jesus story is pointless. But we receive heaven and God’s blessings because He has offered them to us, and we believe Him. That’s righteousness; we aren’t righteous because we’ve done something or because we are somebody who deserves what God has given. We are righteous because we trust in God and believe what He has said.
Jesus never said we’d be blessed for our works. We are blessed because of faith. Abraham was given an incredible promise, one that is beyond anything we might expect. He was promised that his name would be great and that his offspring would become a great nation. To see the fulfillment of this promise, Abram had to leave everything he knew and loved and trust in God’s Word. He did not deserve what would come. As a matter of fact, he did not even see the fulfillment himself. But his offspring did. They received the promise because God is faithful. And we receive the same promise because God is faithful.
God’s promises were misunderstood by Jesus’ time. Instead of trusting in God, the people trusted in their own righteousness. They believed that they deserved the blessings they received. They boasted of their relationship with God based on who they were and what they did. They believed that they were right with God because they could point to a blood relationship with Abraham, but they had lost touch with the reality of God’s grace.
Nicodemus knew there was something to what Jesus was preaching, but he didn’t understand it. He knew Jesus came from God, but he didn’t have the heart connection. His faith was still in himself, his family ties and his position. He confessed faith in Jesus, but Jesus knew that it was not complete, that it was upside down and backwards thinking.
Jesus answered his confession, “Most certainly, I tell you, unless one is born anew, he can’t see God’s Kingdom.” Jesus was talking about faith. He was telling Nicodemus that faith had nothing to do with the ties that bind us to the earth. You have to be born again, in heart and in spirit.
The conversation continued as Jesus tried to explain the deeper things of God. He told Nicodemus about new birth and about the anointing of the Spirit of God, but he couldn’t see these things beyond the thinking that had been conditioned by his religious and cultural point of view. To him, birth happens once, and righteousness comes from the law. He knew Jesus came from God, but he couldn’t understand the deeper purposes of His life and His future death. Jesus pointed to the cross in this passage, telling this Pharisee that He would be lifted up in death to bring life for those who believe. It is no wonder that Nicodemus was confused; this was a very radical revelation for the Jews.
It is still a radical revelation for many people. We still believe that we’ll get the blessing of God based on our works, our attitude, and our qualifications. When we say, “She (or he) deserves to be blessed,” we are thinking from the same frame of reference as those Pharisees and other Jewish leaders. We speak of our loved ones deserving heaven because we know they lived good lives and did the right things. We pray for our neighbors to be blessed because they are good people who have done good things. We thank God for graciously rewarding our good works but do not understand that we are seeing God’s grace from the wrong point of view. God doesn’t bless us because we have been a blessing. We are blessed so that we’ll be a blessing to others.
God didn’t send Jesus because we deserve to be saved; the reality is quite the contrary. God gave us Jesus because He loves us. Because we’ve been blessed by the saving grace of Christ’s blood, we have also been given to the world so that others will know Him and be saved. It is tempting to think that we deserve heaven, especially if we have done something extraordinary. But Jesus is calling us to look at it differently. We have been promised eternity in heaven not because we deserve it but so that we’ll live lives of thanksgiving and praise to God, blessing others with acts that come from faith. We get to go to heaven because we trust in God’s word and His promises, faithfully living in His faithfulness.
God invited Abram on a journey to a place he did know. He would never see the fulfillment of the promises, but he trusted God and went on that journey in faith. God may not be calling us to go to a new nation or leave behind everything we know and love, but He is inviting us on a journey of faith, too. We don’t know where the road will lead. We don’t know who we will meet. We don’t even know what we’ll be expected to do. The one thing we do know is that like Abraham, we’ll probably make mistakes. We’ll try to take matters into our own hands. But we can travel with Him, trusting that He knows and that we’ll end up in the Promised Land, just as He has promised. In faith we join on a journey with Abraham and share in his righteousness.
We have been blessed to be a blessing and called to look at the world in a new way. We need not worry that this journey is dangerous, for God is with us in it. Our God does not watch us like Santa Claus waiting to see what we will do wrong. He watches because He loves us. He will keep our going out and coming in from this time on forevermore.
Abram didn’t know anything about God. He followed a different religion which worshipped a multitude of gods they thought would meet their daily needs. He heard a voice that told him to pack up his entire life, leave everything he knew and loved behind to travel to a place he did not know. The voice promised Abram that his name would be so great, that he would be so blessed, and that everyone would be dealt with, good and bad, according to their relationship with Abram.
If you heard a voice like this, what would you do? In today’s modern age, everyone around you would say you were crazy. They might even lock you up. We don’t know how Abram’s family and friends reacted; perhaps they threatened to do the same thing. It didn’t matter to Abram. He packed up his life and he went into the wilderness following a voice that he trusted. It took faith to leave the past behind and go into the world chasing after ridiculous promises. Abram was righteous from the very beginning. He had a right relationship with God from the moment he heard his voice. Abram’s righteousness did not come from his work; he was righteous because he believed. Through it all, God was faithful to His promises.
From where does our help come? Jesus calls us to look at the world through the eyes of faith, to trust that God has done exactly what He promised to do. It comes from the God who loves us and who has given His own Son to save us from our own sin. It comes not because we deserve it but because the God who loves us has promised and is faithful. So, during this Lenten journey, let us be transformed by the journey, trusting in God and His amazing grace. We may feel more like Nicodemus than Abram, but we need not hide in the dark. God calls us out of the world we know away from the gods that have no power. Hear God’s voice and follow Him wherever He may lead, for it is there that you will be the blessing His has blessed you to be.
March 2, 2023
“Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the lawyer of this world? Hasn’t God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For seeing that in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom didn’t know God, it was God’s good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching to save those who believe. 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 1:20-25, WEB
“Do you like Green Eggs and Ham?” “I do not like them, Sam-I-am. I do not like green eggs and ham.”
Theodore Seuss Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss, wrote these infamous words. Dr. Seuss was born on March 2, 1904. Today we are celebrating the utter foolishness written by this man. This literature that seems to have no reason within has made an incredible contribution to the education of our children.
Children love to sit and read Dr. Seuss books because they have fun pictures, interesting characters and exciting stories. The rhythms catch the attention of the children and draw them into the stories. The repetition helps them to learn to read the simple words and patterns used. The stories, though they seem silly, are filled with life lessons that help the children learn and grow. In Green Eggs and Ham, Sam-I-am convinces his friend to try something new. After fifty pages of certain disgust at the thought of eating green eggs and ham, the gentleman discovers that he likes them.
That which seems like foolishness is filled with wisdom.
In today’s world, so much of the Christian message is viewed as foolishness. We are called to submit to God, and yet the world claims there is no God. We are called to love our neighbor, and yet the world says that we should love our selves. The Gospel tells us that God in flesh died so that we might have life. What foolishness! Yet, God is wiser and more powerful than anything we can imagine, and we know that He loved His children so much that He did everything necessary to reconcile us to Him. I’ll take Dr. Seuss above a grammar book and God’s foolishness above my wisdom, any day!
***This is one of my favorite devotions, first written 23 years ago. It is a timeless message, still relevant to us all today.
March 3, 2023
“As you would like people to do to you, do exactly so to them. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive back as much. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing back; and your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind toward the unthankful and evil. ‘Therefore be merciful, even as your Father is also merciful. Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Set free, and you will be set free. Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be given to you. For with the same measure you measure it will be measured back to you.’” Luke 6:31-38, WEB
I saw a suggestion for Lent that was meant to help also with spring cleaning. It recommended filling a bag or a box each day with unwanted items to give away. The bags didn’t have to be big; you could clean a drawer or fill a grocery bag with food items. You could clean a closet or a bookshelf. The idea is that in forty (plus) days, you can purge your house of unnecessary items that might help a neighbor or a charity. The question is, to whom to give all that stuff?
Most of us don’t have too much trouble finding someone to take our things. In our neighborhood, you can put something out on the curb and it will likely be gone in less than a day. There are dozens of charity thrift shops that will take those bags of items to resell, and other charities that support people in distress can use them to help their clients.
We need to be careful, however, what we give away. I have read articles about donations given to thrift shops. Most people just throw things in a box or bag without considering if it would really be helpful. We might think that they’ll take anything, but they get frustrated with certain items. Do you really think someone will buy a pile of National Geographic magazines when they are struggling to clothe their children? Should someone really buy that worn out Teflon pan that you won’t use anymore because it is unhealthy? Would you want to wear a shirt that has grease stains all over the front? We put these things into bags because we think that it is better than throwing it away. After all, we are trying to cut down on what we send to the landfills, but should we give our useless junk to these places that will probably end up in the dumpster behind the charity place anyway? There may actually be a better place those items could be used. It takes more work, but is a better use of our resources.
So, as you fill those bags or boxes during Lent or spring cleaning, think about what you have. That worn out towel or blanket can be bedding at an animal shelter. The pots that can’t be used anymore for cooking might be useful for a preschool’s playground. That stained shirt could be used as rags at the local technical school. It might take some creative thinking, but we can be good stewards of the earth while also being considerate to those who need our help. They say one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, but sometimes junk is just junk. It could have another purpose, we just have to find it.
The question we should ask ourselves as we are filling those bags is whether we would want to settle for those items we are donating if we are struggling with our finances. Would we want someone to do that to us? It is not merciful to give junk out of our resources when people need kindness and mercy. They don’t need the best of the best, but they do need items that will be healthy for their body, mind, and spirit. Our junk can still be useful if we find just the right recipient.
March 6, 2023
“For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.” 2 Corinthians 10:3-6 (ASV)
People assembled at dawn this morning to commemorate the fall of the Alamo in San Antonio. In 1836, Mexican forces led by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna stormed the fortress after a 13-day siege; the battle claimed the lives of all the Texan defenders, nearly 200 strong, including William Travis, James Bowie and Davy Crockett. It was a horrifying defeat, which was followed by another defeat in Goliad. The Texian forces should have lost the war, but Sam Houston defeated Santa Anna at San Jacinto, freeing Texas from Mexican rule. We remember the Alamo because in that story we see how defeat can lead to victory.
It was a much different battle than those we wage today. Modern warfare uses weapons that are delivered from great distances. Pilots drop bombs without ever seeing the people who will die from the explosion. Soldiers fire guns that can hit targets so far away that it is hard to recognize if the victim is friend or foe.
There was a movie a few years ago about the great Trojan war, a story that has been colored with so many legends and myths that it is difficult to know how much is really true. This is the story of the gods, the wooden horse, the face that launched a thousand ships, and great warriors like Hercules. In one scene, thousands of men were on the battlefield, lined up one side facing the other. Suddenly the soldiers rushed forward, and the swords begin to clang. It was hand to hand combat and the winners were left with the blood of their victims on their swords and bodies. We see similar scenes in movies like the “Lord of the Rings” and other stories from ancient days.
I don’t know much about the Trojan War, but I wonder if the number of soldiers on the field was really anything like what we see in the movie. There are often hundreds of thousands of soldiers on the filed in modern combat, so we think the same must be true for those ancient fights. The bloodiest ancient battles throughout history really had only thousands, perhaps just hundreds of troops! Most died seeing the whites of their enemies’ eyes in hand-to-hand combat. Unfortunately, most of the dead probably died from lack of medical attention and from being trampled than from the actual wounds they sustained.
I have been to the Alamo and have seen the IMAX movie about the great battle over Texas that has nearly as much myth and legend as the Trojan War. Though that battle was 187 years ago, there was a big different between how they fought and how the armies fought in the twelfth century B.C. in Troy. Santa Anna’s Mexican troops as well as the men in the Alamo had rifles and cannons that could be used from a distance. There is a scene in the movie showing Davie Crockett shooting a man from the other side of the battlefield. But they also fought head on. As the Mexicans breached the wall, the Texans pushed and hit them with blunt instruments and their hands. The Alamo eventually fell, and many men lost their lives. The battle took 90 minutes after a siege of thirteen days. In today’s world, the Alamo complex could be completely destroyed in a minute with one smart bomb.
We are lucky that we don’t have to fight in battles like they did at Troy or the Alamo. Most of us have not had to fight modern wars, either. We do fight battles every day, however, often without realizing it. We fight against that which stands against God. There are spiritual powers that are determined to turn us from God, to make us reject Him. Our battle is against these powers. We also fight an inner battle against our own human flesh.
The weapons we use in spiritual warfare are much different than they used at Troy or at the Alamo. We do not use swords of metal or guns that shoot bullets. We do not even use our fists. We have no shields that will stop our enemy from harming our bodies. We have something greater. We have the Word of God as our weapon. In the world we learn that sticks and stones may break our bones, but names will never hurt us. Yet, we also know that words in a time of battle do have an impact on the outcome of the war. Scottish warriors often frightened their enemies with their loud war cries. Other ancient armies used the chanting and witchcraft of their priests to create terror in the hearts of their foes. Kings gave great speeches to their troops to build them up and to dishearten the opponents. But in the end, it is the sword and the gun that killed the soldiers and won the war.
In Christ, however, our enemies are not the kind that will fall by the sword. Darkness and death cannot be defeated with a gun. It is only by the Word of God that we can overcome the greatest enemies. As we preach the Gospel into the lives of those who are living in sin, they are transformed in heart and spirit by the love and mercy of Christ. The devil and the demons will only be defeated by the power of Christ, and people will only be set free by His love. It is unlikely that we will ever face a battle of the flesh or fight on a battlefield of this world. But we do fight every day against the powers that are in opposition to the will of God. He does not leave us to fight this battle alone, however. He stands with us on the battlefield giving us all we need to fight.
March 7, 2023
“May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely. May your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, who will also do it.” 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, WEB
I don’t know why, but there are videos that pop up on Facebook that fascinate me. I love to watch the ones where people put icing on cakes, although those make me want to eat the icing! I have recently been watching woodworkers turning items on a lathe. I especially like the ones where they use resin. It is amazing how they can make such beautiful things out of such unexpected materials. I have also gotten caught up with videos from rug cleaners.
The videos show a filthy rug in a clean space. The area rugs are often black with dirt, so dirty that you can’t even see the colors or patterns. One had been in a fire and another was outside, frozen to the ground. The process is lengthy, beginning with a water spray down. They then pour soapy water and use a machine to get the dirt out. One step is never enough. And one process is never enough. After the machine, the rug is sprayed down again, or the cleaner uses a squeegee type of broom. Then they put more soap and use the machine again. Over and over again. Eventually they turn the rug over and go through the same processes. Every so often, they clean the dirt from the floor. There are different types of machines. They move the tools in different directions. The videos usually last 5-10 minutes, but the process actually takes hours.
The first time I watched, I didn’t really understand why they did the same thing over and over again so many times. Isn’t one or two steps enough? Yet, as I watch these videos, I can see that even after multiple sprays with the hose and runs with the machines, the water draining off the rug is still dirty. It isn’t as dirty as the first step, but it is obvious there’s still work to do. The end result is always amazing. The rug in the beginning is black with dirt, but as you watch the process, you can see they are colorful with pretty patterns. The rugs often look like new.
I don’t know why I like to watch, but those rug cleaning videos remind me of God’s work in our lives. We think it is enough to clean the surface of our lives, to make superficial changes that appear to make us better. We realize that there’s more work to do, more dirt to rid from our lives, so we accept His continuing work. There comes a time, like when I’m watching those videos, that it seems the work is over. Yet, there’s always still dirt hidden below the surface. Just when we think God is done with us, He pours another layer of soap and scrubs us again. Unlike the area rugs, however, we’ll never be completely clean until the day He takes us home.
What is most interesting about those videos is that the person doing the cleaning has to get right down into that dirt to make it clean. Isn’t that what Jesus did for us? As we wander through our wilderness this Lent, we are reminded daily that we need God to keep working in our lives, removing that which is hidden beneath the surface; sometimes we don’t even realize how much needs to be cleaned. We are forgiven of our sin by the grace of Jesus Christ, made clean at the Baptismal font, but there is still work to do. God is faithful to do it, to strip from us layer after layer of filth, sanctifying us according to His promises.
March 8, 2023
Lectionary Scriptures for March 12, 2023, Third Sunday in Lent: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95:1-9; Romans 5:1-8; John 4:5-26 (27-30, 39-42)
“Come, see a man who told me everything that I did. Can this be the Christ?” John 4:29, WEB
Anyone who has flown on an airplane is familiar with the main task of the flight attendants: pushing the drink cart down the aisle. Oh, it isn’t their main task; they spend much of their time keeping things safe and comfortable for the passengers. They are constantly watching to make sure there is no emergency, and if there is, they are trained to deal with it. They have forms to fill out and procedures to follow. We may think they are there to simply pour beverages for us, after all, almost as soon as the plane is safely in the air, they pull out the beverage cart and slowly make their way through the cabin to serve us something to drink.
Compared to all the other things they do, serving drinks may seem unimportant, but flying can easily make someone dehydrated. The cabin air is extremely dry, made worse by the altitudes. By the time the beverages are served, the people have been sitting on the airplane for a long time. Thirst comes easily in those situations. Many people carry bottles of water with them now, but there are other reasons why we thirst on a plane. Some people are looking for comfort in their distress. Ginger ale helps with an upset stomach. Tomato juice is supposed to help ward off thrombosis, a dangerous condition in which blood clots develop in the legs which can then be carried to other parts of the body and cause illness or even death. Some people prefer the calming effects of alcohol.
So, for the health and comfort of the passengers, the flight attendants walk down the aisle with the drink cart, offering refreshment. It seems like I am always at the end of their service pattern. It seems to take forever for one of the crew to say, “What can I get you to drink.” The thirst builds as I see water and other beverages poured out for the passengers around me. Often, just as I think it will be my turn, the flight attendant turns to another passenger or takes a trip to the kitchen to restock. Thirst becomes overwhelming when there does not seem to be any relief.
The Israelites were on a difficult journey. They wandered in the wilderness for forty years, never certain where they were going or even why they were there. Though they had cried out for the salvation of the LORD in Egypt, the life they led in slavery was better than the uncertainty of where they would get their next drink. If we think it is dry and uncomfortable aboard an airplane, imagine what it must have been like for a million people camping in the desert with no source of water!
The people began to grumble. I understand. I get pretty testy when I’m uncomfortable. I know what it is like to wish I was back at a familiar place, even if it was not the best place to be. The unknown is scary. It is unpleasant. The unknown is worse than the worst places that we know. The people went to Moses and asked why he led them out of Egypt just to die in the desert. When we are uncomfortable, we believe that the worst that can happen is what will happen. We are thirsty that surely we will die.
God heard their cries, just as He heard their cries in Egypt. In this story we are reminded that in those times when it seems like God is nowhere near to us, He is very near. Even though it seems like the flight attendant will never get around to giving me a drink, he or she always manages to get to me in plenty of time. As thirsty as I get on an airplane, I do not get thirsty enough to die. God seemed to be far away from the people in the desert, but He knew their needs. They needed water, but they also needed to learn how to trust in Him. They were being led from one life to a very different life. The wilderness journey was not only meant to get them from one place to another, but to also help them transform into the people God was calling them to be. He was teaching them about faith, about hope, and about relying on the One who would provide for their every need. They quarreled and tested God, but He still provided. This is good for us to know: even when we quarrel and test the LORD, He is still close by to meet our needs.
He will give us water when we need it, we just have to learn to trust in Him.
The interesting thing about this story from the Exodus is that the people were not even traveling very long when it happened. We think it happened during the forty years they wandered, but it happened even before they reached Sinai. The trip to Sinai from Egypt lasted only a few weeks. They had seen some pretty incredible things. They saw miracles in Egypt. They saw the column of fire at night and cloud during the day which led them on their way. They saw the Red Sea part so they could safely pass and then swallow Pharaoh’s army. They saw the bitter water of Marah and Elim miraculously become sweet. They saw the manna and quails fall from heaven, to feed them with satisfying food. I never realized how many of these miracles happened in such a short period of time. How could they become so discontented so quickly? I thought that was a modern problem! Even after God had provided safety, escape, clean water, bread and meat, they were still afraid that they would die.
God answered their cries by commanding Moses go ahead of the people with his staff. tells Moses to go ahead of the people with his staff. “Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock in Horeb. You shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink.” This was not stale, murky water; it was clean fresh flowing water, good to drink. It was also a foreshadowing of the Living Water that Christ would give to the woman at the well. Moses called that place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and tested God, but God stood on a rock. In later days, Jesus would be the Rock from which the water flowed.
We are no better at seeing things for what they are then those who followed Moses. I am sure they looked at the desolate place they were walking and could not see the promise clearly. How could this be what God intended for them? They were not patient, but God is. He was using this time to teach His people; they were being tested; they were still learning to trust in God. We might think that we would have believed if we had been them, especially after seeing so many miraculous things. But would we? Or would we grumble, too?
I once took a trip to Oklahoma with my daughter. We were going on a college visit. Oklahoma has few hills; it is relatively flat and barren land. We were hoping for good weather for our weekend since we had to drive so far, and we’d be walking around campus. The weather reports expected bad weather farther north, but clear skies over our destination.
A few hours from the city we noticed a cloud bank. We weren’t sure at first. We knew the storm was supposed to be further north and it seemed impossible that we might see it from so far away. The line also appeared as though it might be the top of a hill. We drove for hours and it never seemed to get closer. It eventually became clear that we were seeing a cloud, but we never drove far enough to be under its shadow. The storm stayed north of us as it was expected to do; we continued to see it throughout the weekend.
We watched that cloud bank for a long time. It was one of those experiences that make us realize that we are very small and inconsequential: little more than a tiny spot on the big sphere of the earth. I’ve had similar experiences: on the mountain top under a million stars, floating in a boat in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico with no land to be seen, under a rainbow that spans from horizon to horizon, in the midst of a thunderstorm, looking out the window of an airplane as it flies over the earth.
Human beings have accomplished so many things that it is hard for us to realize just how small we really are. We seem to have conquered the world. We build buildings that reach to the sky and can travel around the world in a matter of hours on airplanes. We can have conversations with people standing on the moon and take pictures of distant galaxies that we can’t even see with our eyes. We can see the DNA make-up of a human child before he or she is born and cure diseases that were once incurable. Yet, we are not God and there is so much about God’s creation that we may never know.
While we do recognize that we are a just a small part of the whole wide world, there are times when we forget our insignificance. There are times when we think that the entire creation revolves around us. This happens especially when we are in the midst of some sort of suffering. The Israelites in the wilderness knew nothing but their thirst. They did not remember their suffering in slavery or God’s deliverance from Egypt. They knew only that they needed water. At Massah and Meribah they were reminded of God’s presence and His grace. In the midst of their suffering, God was there ready to meet their needs.
Those who do not trust in God do not know the peace He has given through Jesus. When we look to God as the rock of our salvation, we can be reconciled to one another and to God by the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. Moses tapped the rock and water flowed, but Jesus is the rock from which the Living Water flows. We can live in the hope He gives through faith. We can partake of the living water which is so much better than the water that is left to stagnate and poison our souls. We can share that flowing water with others because Jesus has broken down the walls that have divided us for so long. “Let’s come before his presence with thanksgiving. Let’s extol him with songs!”
The psalmist recalls the experience of the Israelites in the first lesson, reminding us not to harden our hearts. Instead, we are invited to sing to God and praise His name. He is able to make springs of water flow out of rocks, to give living water without a bucket. He is with us, ready to offer us the entire Kingdom and all of creation to meet our needs. He has even given His Son for our sake. “For Yahweh is a great God, a great King above all gods.”
Have you ever really thought about how quickly Jesus moved in and out of people’s lives? Their experience was often a very brief encounter, but the effects were long lasting. He healed their dis-ease and cast out their demons. He taught them about the Kingdom of God and forgave their sins. Their lives were changed by just a few minutes of conversation and interaction.
The text from John is a long reading, but it was a conversation that lasted just a few minutes. The woman at the well’s life was completely changed by the encounter as she realized God’s promised Messiah was the man Jesus. Her faith, built on just a few questions and answers, was shared with many in her village and then spread among the people of Samaria. When the disciples dispersed into the world to continue Jesus’ ministry, they found that Samaria already believed because they had faith in Jesus because of this woman who met Jesus at the well.
She was there at the wrong time of day. The best time to draw water was in the early morning; the water then was cool and clear because the silt settled over night. Her noontime trip yielded stale and muddy water. We learn during the conversation that she had been the wife of five husbands and that she was currently living with a man who was not her husband. She may have been outcast, or simply embarrassed by her circumstances. Whatever the reason, she waited until the heat of the day to go to the well.
Why did Jesus wait alone at the well? John tells us that He was tired from the journey, but I can’t imagine that He was any more tired than the rest of the disciples. Couldn’t they have sent one or two disciples to get food while they others waited outside the city? Even if they needed more hands, why did they all leave Jesus alone? Why were they even in Samaria?
At the beginning of the chapter, John tells us that Jesus knew the Pharisees were beginning to question His ministry. They’d heard that His disciples were more popular than John the Baptist, so Jesus left Jerusalem for a time; they were headed to Galilee. The typical route for traveling Jews was avoid the Samaritans by going the long way around. Most travelers would cross the Jordan and walk on the east bank so they would not be made unclean by those who were half-breeds: Israelites that had mixed with other nationalities when they were captured by the Assyrians. They were put down by the Jews, cast out of the religious fellowship that was their birthright. They established a religious home of their own, founded upon the life of Jacob. Jesus was offering something better. She must have been surprised that He, who was out of His element, was insinuating that He was better than Jacob.
Jesus and the disciples took a short cut which led right through Sychar, the site of Jacob’s Well. John gives us these details for a purpose. Jesus’ tiredness and thirst reminds us of His humanity. The Well reminds us of His heritage. The encounter with the woman was just the first of many that would identify Jesus as divine. Jesus was there because she had a appointment with God. She didn’t know it, but Jesus was waiting for her to change her life.
Her faith did not come easily. She was hesitant at the beginning. He reached her by asking her for the one thing she could give: water from the well. She seemed uncertain and responded with the question, “Who are you that you would speak to me?”
Listen to the tone of the woman’s answers to Jesus. She is very distant, uninterested, and perhaps even afraid. She was surprised that He would have anything to do with her. When He offered her a drink, she was offended and became defensive, wondering how He could offer her anything better than her forefather, Jacob. She became interested when she heard that the water would make her life better. She wouldn’t suffer thirst. She was willing to believe that He could provide this living water. She humbly admitted her failings when He asked her to bring her husband. She was amazed when He could provide details that she did not give. Her fear of a strange man turned into respect for a prophet in just a few sentences. Then He spoke the promise of God into her life and revealed Himself as the One for whom they had been waiting. In this encounter, Jesus moved her from fear to hope to faith. Whatever her failings, she experienced the presence of God.
The woman at the well was chosen, out of all the women in her village, to be the one to take the Good News of God’s Kingdom to her people. It was an odd choice, considering her life experiences. But that’s how God works, isn’t it?
The conversation began with Jesus stating His need for water from the woman who had the ability to give it to him, and then it was turned around to the woman stating her need for the water which Jesus had to give. She still thought it was water that would satisfy her physical needs. Jesus had something different in mind. He revealed Himself as the Messiah and a promise of the Kingdom of God which she shared with the rest of her village.
Jesus and the woman had a common ancestor, but they did not worship the same. “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” She wanted to know what made them so different. Why were there two places to worship God and two ways to do so? Why are the Samaritans outcast; why were they set aside and rejected from fellowship with other children of Abraham? Why would the conversation Jesus was having with her make Him unclean? Why did the Jews think they were better than others?
Jesus told her that worship is not about where or who you are, but rather it is about knowing the One whom you worship. The Samaritans had lost touch with the God of their fathers. They only held to the Books of Moses. They only knew the Law; they did not know the prophets. They did not know about the promise of salvation that was to come from God. He answered her questions with the promise that the day was coming when the walls that divide the people of God would be torn down because God would bring reconciliation to His people. She had some knowledge that a Messiah was coming, but did not understand what He would mean to the world. The Samaritans were waiting for someone to teach them and make sense of the things of God. Jesus answered, “I am he, the one who speaks to you.”
This was an incredible revelation, and she was the first to hear it proclaimed. She was startled by the return of the disciples who quickly challenged her presence. “What is she doing here?” She left so quickly that she forgot her water jar, but she went into the city unconcerned about what others might think. “Come, see a man who told me everything that I did. Can this be the Christ?” Many in that town accepted her invitation and went out to meet Jesus. He stayed with them for two days and taught them about the Kingdom of God. In the end they said to the woman, “Now we believe, not because of your speaking; for we have heard for ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world.”
Jesus sat at the well for a divine appointment that changed a life and a city. He called out to the woman; He relieved her fears, answered her questions, and offered her something better than she had. God has done the same for us. The difference between God and man was too great for human beings to overcome on our own. We have sinned against Him in our own testing and demands. We have not trusted in His Word or waited for His promises. We never deserved the grace He came to give; we deserve only death. Yet, as Paul writes, we are reconciled to God through Christ Jesus. “For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we will be saved by his life. Not only so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.”
God made the heavens and the earth, He created the vast oceans, the land and all that lives here. He controls it all with His hands. We are insignificant compared to who He is and what He has done. Yet, He also knows my name. At my baptism He gave me that name, child of God, daughter of the Most High. The God of all creation has given me a share of His eternal kingdom through Jesus Christ. We are reminded that even though we are little more than a speck on the face of this earth, no matter what our circumstances, God is near and that He is ready to meet our needs. He is faithful even when we are not. It is in the faith He gives and the trust we have through faith that we find peace. He has made a divine appointment for each and every one of us so that we might hear His Word and believe, even though we do not deserve His grace.
The woman at the well quarreled and tested Jesus, but in the end she received a gift; she had faith in the Messiah, the One who would give her Living Water that would quench her thirst for lasting relationship with God. That Living Water didn’t stay pent up in the deep of her soul, though; she ran to the village to share the Good News. She learned in the very brief encounter that God did not reject her because of her past or her present, and that He would still provide for her needs despite her quarreling and testing. She went forth in joy to share the Good News with others.
The people of Israel tested God, but in reality it was the people who were being tested. Would they be faithful? Would they trust God? Would they learn how to live as His people in the place where they were being led? We think that suffering is a sign of God’s abandonment; they certainly did in the days of the desert wandering. We tend to think that health, wealth, success are the signs of a perfect life. The reality is so different. Faith and faithfulness do not guarantee a lack of suffering. Faith and faithfulness help us to get through everything we have to face in this life.
We have joined the Israelites in their desert wanderings during our forty days of Lent. We thirst, but water is not always at hand. We can respond in two ways. First, we can harden our hearts; we can let the experience of suffering and pain make us angry, bitter, and resentful. We can blame others, like the Israelites did. We can even blame God. We can complain and provoke Him, demand justice and expect that He will do our will. Or we can respond as the woman at the well. She began confused, angry or afraid, but with a willing heart she experienced God’s grace and found peace.
God is able to make springs of water flow out of rocks, to give living water without a bucket. He is with us, ready to offer us the entire Kingdom and all of creation to meet all our needs. He has even given His Son for our sake. We will struggle with our insignificance, but as we realize our unworthiness and humble ourselves before Him and hear His word with our hearts, He’ll make springs of living water flow from our lives, so that we can tell others about the Messiah who is near and invite them to “Come and see.”
March 9, 2023
“Then the king was exceedingly glad, and commanded that they should take Daniel up out of the den. So Daniel was taken up out of the den, and no kind of harm was found on him, because he had trusted in his God. The king commanded, and they brought those men who had accused Daniel, and they cast them into the den of lions, them, their children, and their wives; and the lions mauled them, and broke all their bones in pieces, before they came to the bottom of the den. Then king Darius wrote to all the peoples, nations, and languages, who dwell in all the earth: ‘Peace be multiplied to you. I make a decree that in all the dominion of my kingdom men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel; for he is the living God, and steadfast forever. His kingdom is that which will not be destroyed. His dominion will be even to the end. He delivers and rescues. He works signs and wonders in heaven and in earth, who has delivered Daniel from the power of the lions.’ So this Daniel prospered in the reign of Darius, and in the reign of Cyrus the Persian.” Daniel 6:23-28, WEB
I have been fascinated with the life of Daniel ever since I wrote a Bible study on the book of Revelation. We study Daniel because of his prophecies pointing toward the end time. Plus, his book is filled with exciting stories that teach valuable lessons to children. The prophecies fit together to teach us how to face the end times. The stories give us keys to the character of one who lives in hope and peace when facing difficulty. The stories teach us how to be faithful people of prayer. In his 80 plus years, Daniel was a wise man, an example of faith, a prophet, and an encourager. Daniel was a prayer warrior. Faith was always part of his life and work, even in his work as a public official of Babylon; he served God even in a pagan, secular position. Daniel’s story was dramatic: he was taken captive and exiled to a foreign land. The stories are incredible: near death, a fiery furnace, a lion’s den. Yet, he lived a simple life. He trusted God, did his job and in the end was greatly rewarded by God and by the kings of Babylon.
Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying, “The longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men.” This is providence, God’s hand guiding people according to His good and perfect will. Our stories are not as dramatic as Daniel’s, but we face difficulties as we journey through life just like him, and we can trust that God knows exactly where He is leading us as Daniel did. Ultimately, our destination is home with our Father, but the path seems to twist and turn. Despite the difficulties, we can, and must, walk according to His will and purpose for our lives.
Daniel’s life was certainly not smooth sailing. He was among the Israelites that were taken in a siege on Jerusalem. He was selected to serve in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. He and his friends were treated well, but life in a foreign land in the shadow of foreign gods could not have been easy. God used Daniel mightily during his time in Babylon, revealing the power of God and glorifying Him even when he risked his life to do so. God spoke through Daniel when all the wise men in the kingdom could not understand the signs and dreams. He rose to great power in the kingdom.
The other officials were jealous of Daniel’s success. They convinced King Darius to issue and edict that said for thirty days no one could worship any god or man but the king. The king greatly respected Daniel and if he thought such a law would have harmed him, he would never have agreed. But the group who went to the king claimed that all the officials agreed. The edict fed the king’s ego, so he quickly signed it. Though it could mean death, Daniel continued to worship God three times a day. Darius was distressed when the officials reported Daniel, but in that land even the king could not repeal and edict. So, Daniel was sent to the lion’s den. The king said to Daniel, “May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you.” He did not sleep all night and at first light he ran to the den. He called out to Daniel, “Has your God saved you?”
King Darius reacted with such joy and commanded the people to fear and reverence Daniel’s God and Daniel continued to prosper in the kingdom where God had put him. To Daniel, life away from Jerusalem was difficult, but he trusted in God and knew that God had a greater purpose than what he could see. This incident might have been frightening, but through Daniel’s experience in the lion’s den God was glorified.
Daniel lived for more than seventy years as a captive in a foreign land. Despite the struggles, Daniel remained faithful. It is important for us to note that he also succeeded in the Babylonian government. He remained hopeful over the years because he knew God’s promises and he had experienced God’s power over his life. He remained faithful because he knew that God would return His people to Jerusalem. Just as God used King Darius to spread the news of His sovereignty, God fulfilled His promises through King Cyrus of Persia who allowed the people to go home and rebuild. Daniel died in Babylon as an old man, but he lived to see God’s faithfulness, blessed because he was never willing to go against God’s will and purpose for his life.
March 10, 2023
“But you remain in the things which you have learned and have been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them. From infancy, you have known the holy Scriptures which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith, which is in Christ Jesus. Every Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness, that each person who belongs to God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:14-17, WEB
The more I study the scriptures, the more I realize there is so much I don’t know. The funny thing is, the more I study the scriptures, the more I realize that there aren’t many people in any better shape than I. I am prepping a study on the book of Proverbs for my Sunday school class. When I begin a study, I buy a lot of books about the subject, seeking the best references to help us understand what we are learning. Inevitably, I discover that there are a dozen different ways to understand a text. Some commentators will give various understandings, while others will focus only on their own point of view. Some books are so unhelpful that I don’t even finish reading. It is good to see the many points of view because that helps us look at the text in different ways, often finding the answer somewhere in the middle.
There is a difference between knowing and understanding. I can easily say “The sky is blue,” but I have no answer to the question, “Why is it blue?” I know it has something to do with particles in the air and reflecting light, but I do not understand the process. I could probably learn enough to answer the “why” question with a little research or the help of an expect.
Many people can easily say, “God loves you.” We know this is true because the Bible tells us so, although sometimes when we read the Bible we wonder about the other aspects of God that we see in the texts. We wonder if we can find God’s love throughout the texts. The book of Proverbs seems to be thirty-one chapters of helpful sayings for daily living, but what does it say about the love of God? Is God’s love even obvious in the Old Testament, and if it is not, why do we both to read it?
We read it because Jesus read it, and so did the disciples. The Old Testament, including the book of Proverbs is quoted over and over again. It is the revelation of God, which they knew to be trustworthy. The Old Testament is how they knew God’s Word given through the patriarchs, judges, kings, and prophets. They may not have always understood everything about it, but they knew it was trustworthy. We know it is trustworthy, too.
Though God did a brand-new thing by sending Jesus to be the Lamb of God to take upon the sin of the world, nothing about His character is any different in the New Testament. He is still a just God, but now His wrath has been cast upon His Son rather than us sinners. He is still merciful, forgiving our sins and cleansing us from unrighteousness. He is still a loving God, our deliverer, protector, and teacher. He guides, disciplines, inspires and transforms His people.
God still reveals Himself to individuals through His creation, through prayer, through each other, and we can know Him through these things. But it is by God’s written word, the scriptures, that we can understand and be assured that what we see, feel, and hear are truly from God. Satan is very good at being the adversary. He is well versed in God’s Word and cunningly twists it to fit his purpose to deceive and destroy.
This is why knowledge is not enough; we also need understanding. God gives understanding by the power of His Spirit, but it is not handed to us. Understanding comes through study of His Word, through the witness of the men and women whose stories are recorded in the scriptures. It is not enough for there to be just one witness, so throughout the Bible the same concepts – faith, hope, peace, joy, love, responsibility, generosity, and many more – are repeated over and over again. As we see the connections between the Old and New Testament, God’s word is built line upon line into our hearts making us wise and understanding disciples.
We are going to study the Proverbs because the Old Testament stories help us to understand God and His Word. For Jesus and those who gave us the New Testament, the scriptures about which Paul writes to Timothy was the Old Testament. The stories that led to Jesus set the foundation of what Jesus was sent to teach and do. Jesus did not bring knew knowledge; He built upon that which God had already revealed to help us understand, fulfilling the promises and making the Word of God complete. Through Paul and the disciples, God added the final pieces to the puzzle so that we might not only know and love God but also that we will live the life that we learn in the Proverbs which is good, right and true, glorifying Him in all that we do.
March 13, 2023
“Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. For ‘Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit; let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.’ Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil.” 1 Peter 3:8-17, WEB
One of my guilty pleasures is reading those lists of stories where people tell their experiences. Each list has a sort of them, like insane in-laws, terrible customers, “Karens”, and other such things. I enjoy reading the stories that tell about something positive that happened, the cute stories about the things children do to make me smile or the Good Samaritan stories. Some of the stories are funny, but some are quite disheartening. I have a hard time getting through the list, if I even bother to read it, of stories about revenge. The writers are always quite proud of how they “got back at” someone for something. The something is usually very petty, and the “getting back at” is usually harsh and even life changing.
This is not the way we are meant to respond to the world in which we live. People are not always nice. People will hurt us. People will do things to us that deserve revenge. We have the choice of how to respond. We can become angry, bitter, hateful, or resentful. We can seek revenge on our enemy, or even walk away from God because he has allowed these bad things to happen. We can say that God does not love or He would not allow this evil to touch our lives. Jesus Christ never said it would be easy. He said He would always be with us, through the hard times. When you face suffering, how do you respond? Do you run from God? Or do you run into His arms? Do you want to get revenge, or do you try to make a difference in your enemy’s life so that they will face life with grace?
The scriptures make it clear that we are not to seek revenge on our enemies. In Romans, Paul quoted the Old Testament, “Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord.” These words are written several times throughout the Books of Moses and the Prophets. In Deuteronomy and again in Proverbs, the scriptures tell us that they will suffer from their own schemes. They may battle against us, but they will fall into their own pit. We don’t have to avenge ourselves because God, and the consequences of their own folly, will avenge us.
After reminding us to leave vengeance to God, Paul wrote, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing so, you will heap coals of fire on his head.” I don’t know, but heaping coals of fire on someone’s head seems more like those acts of revenge on the lists than leaving it up to God. But Paul makes it clear that we are to treat those enemies in a way that will bring them into repentance. We are to feed the hungry and give a cup of water to the thirsty so that they will experience God’s grace through our actions.
On Ash Wednesday we put coals on our heads, the ashes are a reminder that we are made from dust and we will return to dust. The act looks back to an Old Testament practice where they would sit in ashes, roll around in them, sprinkle them upon their heads, or even mingle them with their food and drink as an outward sign of their inward posture of repentance. Ashes were also part of the grieving process. We put those ashes on our foreheads because we grieve our sin and commit to being changed by God’s grace. When we do good to our enemies rather than seek revenge, they see faith in action calling them to a new life to be transformed by belief in Jesus Christ. We don’t know what will happen, but we trust that God will take care of it, whether they suffer the consequences of their sin or they become our brother rather than our enemy.
March 14, 2023
“Therefore let’s also, seeing we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let’s run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him who has endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, that you don’t grow weary, fainting in your souls.” Hebrews 12:1-3, WEB
I was having a good day. I went to my favorite bakery to buy a pie for Pie Day (3-14). I was hoping they would have a chocolate cream pie, but they didn’t have one in the display. The girl asked the person in charge who told us that she had someone making one at that moment. “Go tell her we have a customer waiting for that pie!” I was going to settle for a frozen one if I had to, but I didn’t have to because my timing was just right. My trip to and from the bakery was pleasant because I hit mostly green lights and I was able to easily move into the right lanes. My favorite parking spot at the grocery store was open. I didn’t find everything I wanted, but did find what I needed and a few extra things I didn’t expect. All in all, it was a good day.
It was a good day until I broke my fingernail as I put my bags in the car. I was ready to let that one bad thing upset my mood. My morning before I left the house hadn’t been perfect, so I was a bit on the edge. My husband was having problems and needed my help, so I got out later than I’d hoped. It was dreary and cool outside. My car is filthy, but I don’t want to clean it right now because it is just going to get dirty again. The leaves are falling from the oak trees and the pollen is beginning to color everything yellowish green. We are expecting severe weather in a couple days. And the world seems to be going crazy all around us.
But was I really going to let a broken nail destroy the good mood that I was in despite all the reasons I should be grumpy? It might seem silly for us even to ask the question, but how many times do we allow some little thing to control our moods? We certainly allow the big things to control our moods.
We were talking about the fruit of the Spirit the other day in Sunday school (Galatians 5:22-23) and someone asked, “How is faith in this list? Don’t we all have faith?” Yes, we all have faith, but there are some people who have an extraordinary faith. These are the people we know who rejoice in life no matter what happens. They see God’s grace even in the difficult times. They praise God even when things go wrong. It is hard to grumble and be upset if we approach life through faith. We wonder about those with extraordinary faith because it seems so unreal. They don’t allow things like broken fingernails, or worse!, to ruin their days. I have a friend who has suffered some extreme losses recently, and despite the tragedy and her grief, she still praises God for His grace.
Bad moods make us tired; they make us feel hopeless, they cause us to turn from God as we wallow in self-pit. Though we may not have been gifted with the gift of extraordinary faith, we should be rejoicing even in our struggles because of what God has done for us. Jesus went to the cross without grumbling; He rejoiced in His obedience to God’s will. We may think we have reason to be in a bad mood, but there are so many reasons for us to see every day as a good day, even when bad things happen. We share in everything of Jesus, even the joy He had as He endured the worst thing we can imagine.
March 15, 2023
Lectionary Scriptures for March 19, 2023, Fourth Sunday in Lent: Isaiah 42:14-21; Psalm 142; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41
“He said, ‘Lord, I believe!’ and he worshiped him.” John 9:38, WEB
We do not see well when we are born. Our vision is blurry, and we only see in black and white. Our body develops as we grow, and we eventually see more of the world around us. The first thing we recognize is our mother. Our eyes are designed to focus most clearly on objects that are eight to twelve inches away in those first months; a mother is in that space most often, particularly during feeding. We learn our mother’s face better than anyone else’s. As we grow, we begin to see more of the world and learn to recognize the things around us. As our vision develops, our understanding of the world also develops. Our sight does not improve only because of physical development. We also learn to see.
This was never more obvious than it was in the life of a man named Michael May. Michael was just three years old when his eyes were injured in a chemical explosion. He was blind for forty-three years. In March 2000, Michael May went through surgery that gave him back his sight. It was a miraculous experience for him. He was given a gift that many of us take for granted. Even if our eyesight is less than perfect, at least we have always been able to use our eyes as they were created to be used. Michael May did not have that opportunity for a long time. Meanwhile, from lack of use, the things his brain had learned as a child were lost. Even though the surgery gave him his sight, he still had to learn how to see again. His progress was tracked by doctors, and they learned a great deal about visual development from his case.
He was interviewed several years after the surgery. Despite the joy he had in finally seeing his loved ones, he still had difficulty recognizing them. He also had trouble understanding the world. He continued to use a cane like a blind man because he could not recognize the difference between shadows and curbs. His favorite sport was skiing, and he said that it was actually easier to ski when he was blind. “All of a sudden there’s all this information flying in distracting me, making me tense up. In skiing, you don’t want to do that... I was falling all over the place,” May was quoted as saying.
That’s what makes our story today even more miraculous. The man who met Jesus had been blind from birth. He didn’t even have the learning of those early years like Michael May. When we hear about blindness, we think of wearing a blindfold during a children’s game, but it isn’t the same. We can’t see when the blindfold covers our eyes, but when the blindfold is removed, we can see again. Michael May did not see so easily when his “blindfold” was removed. I wonder how well the man born blind could see when he washed the mud off of his eyes. We see that he was able to get around despite being abandoned by his family; he was able to see well enough to deal with the doubt and rejection. That’s what makes this story so incredible: the healing Jesus gave to the man was something far greater than the medical community gave to Michael May. Jesus gave the blind man a whole new world and the faith to believe.
The story began with a question from the disciples. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” It was common to assume any physical disability or illness was caused by a specific act of sin, a point of view which is still widely held today. Many churches teach that blessedness is a reward for goodness and curses are a punishment for sin. Jesus answered the disciples, “This man didn’t sin, nor did his parents; but, that the works of God might be revealed in him.” This story is not about the man or his parents. It is not even about his healing. This story is about God being revealed to the world.
Jesus said that He is the light of the world, and as light, He reveals things that are not seen in darkness.
My family lived on a farm when I was very young, but we moved to the city when I was barely a toddler. We stayed friends with some of the neighbors, including a family with a girl who was my age. We didn’t see each other much, but we always made the best of our time together. We invited each other to our birthday parties, and we had week-long sleepovers during the summer.
They stayed in the country, so as we got older our sleepovers because campouts. They had a lot of land with a forest and a creek. There were clearings in the forest that were perfect for a tent. Though my friend’s house was close, it seemed so far away because it was hidden by the trees. We could go get anything we needed and felt safe knowing her parents were near. It was a much different time: there was no reason to fear the kind of dangers that lurk in the world today.
My friend had a neighbor who liked to play games with us. He knew when we were camping and tried to sneak up to scare us, pretending to be a bear or a ghost. We expected him, but somehow he always managed to make us scream at some point during our camping trip. After all, no matter how safe it was, we were two young girls alone in the forest. We didn’t have stories about kidnapped and murdered children to make us worry, but we did have stories like Hansel and Gretel to spur our imaginations.
We didn’t take it without a fight. We set up booby traps around our campsite so that it would be more difficult for him to get to our tent. We filled buckets with water and hooked them to a tripwire. We stretched yarn across paths with bells that wrang when he was near. We hung yarn from the trees to feel like spider webs. We knew he was coming when he got caught in one of our traps. We would giggle as he dealt with the water, noise, or string. He knew we would set booby traps, so he carried a flashlight to guide his path, hoping to find the tripwires before they found him. His light helped us see that he was coming.
One night was different. Our fear was very real. We were a little older and perhaps were more aware of real dangers in the world. I don’t even remember what happened; it was probably nothing. It may have even been our neighbor friend. However, something made us afraid, and fear took over. We ran from the tent all the way to her house. We didn’t take the time to put on shoes or grab a flashlight. We knew the paths, though it was dark, we ran through the woods and the creek and then through her backyard until we were safely inside her house. When we finally stopped, my friend realized that she had stepped on some sort of prickly plant. Her foot was filled with sharp, bristly hairs which caused her a lot of pain. The next day we took down our camp and spent the rest of our week having a sleepover in her house. It was no longer fun to sleep alone in the dark woods.
The irony of our friendship is that when we finally were at the same high school and could see each other every day, we were no longer friends. We followed different paths, hers included drugs, which I discovered during my last visit to her house. It made me sad, but when the truth is revealed that something, or someone, is not good for us, then we need to let it go. Like the flashlight that revealed our traps and the neighbor’s presence, God’s light reveals to us the things that are not good for us so that we will be become the people He intends us to be.
This is why we spend time with His Word. Through the scriptures God brings light to the darkness and reveals the things which are not fruitful. We practice disciplines during Lent like fasting and extra devotions so that we will grow. As we pray, study, fast, and worship, His light reveals the world as He sees it, so that we might repent and walk according to His ways. The things in the darkness are revealed by His light and darkness is destroyed so that we will live in the truth.
Interestingly, this story did not reveal any actual sin in the blind man’s life, but shined light on the sin in those who thought themselves to be sinless: they did not see or believe that Jesus was who He said He was. They did not know the truth about the God they claimed to know.
I love to travel and much prefer road trips because it gives us the opportunity to find interesting things to do along the way. I took a trip last year to see my daughter in her new home. I left very early for my drive home and stopped at a quaint town with extra-large attractions. I had breakfast at a café and took pictures of a two-story rocking chair, a ruler that measured feet rather than inches, and a mailbox that was so big you could live in it. It was a fun diversion and worth the time I spent there.
I do a lot of research when I get ready to travel. I check the Internet for information about the best places to eat and the best attractions to visit, but I always hope at our destination has ideas of fun things that are off the beaten track. They are locals, so surely they must have some ideas, right? Unfortunately, too many do not. We went to a small town north of us for Independence Day one year, and the desk staff didn’t even know where we might find fireworks displays to watch. I’m surprised how many times I ask about something I’ve seen on the Internet, and they have no idea what I’m talking about.
Most of the hotels I use do not have a person on staff that acts as a concierge. It always surprises me that the front desk staff at a hotel don’t have any ideas, after all they serve the tourist industry; it is always my hope that they will be able to answer my touristy questions. There is usually a rack of brochures, but those are the places that are crowded. At the very least, a reference guide at the front desk might have information about the other places we’d like to visit. I like to be a tourist, but I also like to find the places that are on the road less traveled.
The Pharisees were educated and knowledgeable, a class of men who were very familiar with the Law and the scriptures. Their strict observance to the traditions gave them an air of superiority. Their knowledge should have given them insight into what was happening in and around Jesus Christ, but there are none so blind as those who will not see. They rejected Jesus because He did not fit their expectation of the Messiah. They rejected Jesus because He was turning their world upside down; Sometimes the people who should know the most are those who have the least understanding.
Jesus was showing the people the truth of God, of sin, of the Law, and of faith. He was bypassing their authority. He was claiming to be God.
This lengthy Gospel passage does not focus on the healing, but on the trial that came after. First the man was questioned by his neighbors who did not believe he was the same man. Those neighbors took the man to the Pharisees who continued to question him. The Pharisees went to the man’s parents to question them. They had no answers and were afraid, so they told the Pharisees to ask him since he was old enough to speak for himself. The Pharisees insisted that Jesus was a sinner and that the man should reject him and give glory to God. The man said, “I don’t know if he is a sinner. One thing I do know: that though I was blind, now I see.” The man focused on the miraculous gift he had received through Jesus while the Pharisees continued to look at this through their misunderstanding of the Law.
This was a particularly troubling act of healing for the Pharisees. The rabbis taught that there were four miracles that would identify the Messiah. These were healings that they themselves could never accomplish, so they taught the people that they could only be done by the one whom God selected, the Messiah.
The healing of a leper was the first Messianic miracle. Leprosy was punishment for sin, which is why the lepers were cast out of the villages and separated from their people. Since only God could forgive sin, it was taught that only God could heal a leper and in doing so also provided forgiveness for the sin that caused the leprosy. This is why Jesus sent the healed lepers to the temple to show themselves to the priests; they would make the final determination whether those healed could return home.
The second Messianic miracle was the casting out of a mute demon. The priests were only able to exorcise a demon if they knew its name, and so when dealing with a possessed person they asked the demon to identify itself. A mute demon cannot speak its name, so they couldn’t provide healing. Jesus knew what was inside a person without asking, so He cast a demon out of a mute and blind man. With this miracle the people began to see that He might possibly be the Messiah. After all, the rabbis taught that only the Messiah could do what Jesus did, so they began to wonder if He was the Son of David for whom they waited.
The fourth miracle is found later in Jesus ministry: the raising of a man who was dead for four days. This was extraordinary because the rabbis taught that the spirit left the body after three days. The spirit gave life, and if it was gone, there was nothing left to be resurrected. Jesus purposely waited until His friend Lazarus was dead for four days to bring him back to life. Mary and Martha thought there was no hope, but Jesus showed them that there is always hope when you believe in Him.
The third type of miracle is the one in today’s Gospel lesson. By this time the religious leaders were more than curious about Jesus. He was doing what they said the Messiah would do, but they were beginning to see how this might put a damper on their power and control. When Jesus healed the man born blind, He showed them that He really could do what they claimed no man could do, and that He was from God. That He was God.
They had to find a way to make the people believe that He was a fake. They questioned the man and his family to catch them in some sort of lie. They twisted the miracle into something demonic. They ridiculed the man for being a follower of Jesus and not of Moses. The man answered their mocking, “How amazing! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God, and does his will, he listens to him.” Jesus opened the man’s eyes and his heart. He believed in the truth about God, about God’s plan for the world, and that Jesus was indeed the Christ, the Messiah. The Pharisees claimed to see; yet they were truly blind to the truth. Jesus warned them that if they claimed to see, they would be judged accordingly.
Jesus is the Light that shined in the darkness to reveal that the people who claimed to know and understand God did not know or understand Him at all. They used the Law to bind people, to suppress them, to control them. They didn’t understand that the Law was given to make people free. The Pharisees refused to see their sinfulness.
We understand; it is uncomfortable having our sin revealed. We have a problem understanding it as an act of grace and mercy. They asked Him, “Are we also blind?” Jesus answered, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore your sin remains.” They believed they knew God best but they were unable to see that Jesus fulfilled God’s promses. In rejecting Jesus, they stayed in the darkness that leads to death, rejecting His forgiveness and thus remaining in their sin. They used the Law to bind people to their expectations, so Jesus held them to the same standard. Since they claimed to “see” they would remain guilty.
There is an unfortunate reality when it comes to sin: sin causes suffering. Now, I’m not saying that suffering is the punishment for our sin, but sin hurts others. Sin brings dis-ease. Sin ruins lives. Sin causes men and women to lose their jobs. Sin and darkness shatter our world.
Sadly, those who should be able to see most clearly are the ones that are most blind. Those who should know more are often the most ignorant. I like to think that I have a solid understanding of the scriptures. I’m not theologically educated, but I’ve spent years reading and studying and savoring God’s Word. I hope I would not reject Jesus if I encountered Him. But like the Pharisees, but I am a sinner and I like things my way. Jesus turns our world upside down and just don’t want to see. The truth is that God’s word in Isaiah is as true for me as it was for them. “You see many things, but don’t observe. His ears are open, but he doesn’t listen.”
Spiritual blindness means misunderstanding God’s grace. Instead of seeing the blessing of the man’s healing, the Pharisees insisted that they were more blessed because they had never been blind. They refused to see the reality of their sinfulness. They were blind to what God could do for them, but claimed they could see. If they were still in darkness, then Jesus would be patient with them, but Jesus warned them when they claimed to have the light. They refused to see what Jesus was revealing, and until they saw the truth, they would continue to dwell in their sin.
We can’t live in darkness and expect to glorify God. Paul warns us that what is hidden will be revealed, that God’s light breaks through the darkness to expose the secrets in our hearts. In Christ we are called to live in that light, not in the darkness of our sin. That means dealing with our sinfulness and helping others see theirs too. As we share Jesus with our neighbors, He will reveal the hidden things and call them to wake and rise from the dead.
The line of questioning the Pharisees used with the man born blind was designed to put doubt into the minds of those witnessing the proceeding. They didn’t want anyone thinking that God was actually involved in the man’s story. They actually did the opposite for the man. He did not even know who healed him at first. Then he knew it was Jesus, but he couldn’t pick him out in a crowd. The man only knew, and cared, that he could see. By the end of the questioning, he confessed faith in Jesus. He glorified God by identifying Jesus as the Messiah because He did what no man could do. “I was blind and now I see.” Whatever the cause of the man’s blindness, he fulfilled the very purpose of his life: to glorify God.
People have always been blind and deaf to the truth of God, even God’s own people. Though the prophets warned them that they were not in a right relationship with God, they repeatedly refused to see or hear the truth. They thought they were righteous but twisted God’s Word to appear righteous. They could not see that the Law acts as a mirror to show us our sin and cause us to seek God’s mercy and grace. Instead of being justified by God, they justified themselves by their strict observance of rules, traditions, and ceremonies. Jesus was showing them that they misunderstood what God intended for His people.
Once God reveals the reality of our sin and the darkness in which we live, we have to deal with it. We have to deal with our sin. We have to admit our failures and experience His mercy. When we see our sin and repent, turning to God and seeking His forgiveness, He transforms us into the people He intends us to be. It isn’t comfortable. We might even suffer. We can respond like the people in our Gospel story that rejected Jesus and continued to walk in the darkness, or we can believe and be saved.
We were once blind, but now we see. We are children of light. Throughout the questioning after his healing, the man discovered what it meant to believe in Jesus. We are meant to grow in our faith, too, so that we’ll be transformed into people who glorify Him. We see, by His Word, that the things of darkness are not fruitful, so we turn to the things in the Light. That is why we practice disciplines like we do during Lent: to mature people of faith as God has created and saved us to be. As we pray, study, fast, and worship, we learn to see His face better than anything else, believing and worshipping Him, glorifying Him with our whole lives.
March 16, 2023
“Be merciful to me, God, be merciful to me, for my soul takes refuge in you. Yes, in the shadow of your wings, I will take refuge, until disaster has passed. I cry out to God Most High, to God who accomplishes my requests for me. He will send from heaven, and save me, he rebukes the one who is pursuing me. Selah. God will send out his loving kindness and his truth. My soul is among lions. I lie among those who are set on fire, even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword. Be exalted, God, above the heavens! Let your glory be above all the earth! They have prepared a net for my steps. My soul is bowed down. They dig a pit before me. They fall into the middle of it themselves. Selah. My heart is steadfast, God. My heart is steadfast. I will sing, yes, I will sing praises. Wake up, my glory! Wake up, lute and harp! I will wake up the dawn. I will give thanks to you, Lord, among the peoples. I will sing praises to you among the nations. For your great loving kindness reaches to the heavens, and your truth to the skies. Be exalted, God, above the heavens. Let your glory be over all the earth.” Psalm 57, WEB
David was the anointed king of Israel, but Saul still held the power. David respected Saul’s position and refused to kill him, even though Saul constantly sought to destroy David. David understood that Saul was in God’s power, and that it was up to him to simply trust in God. There are those who might think that David was afraid, and perhaps he was, wouldn’t you be if you had a powerful king chasing after you? But David was also waiting; he was waiting for his moment according to God’s time.
David knew where to turn when he was afraid; he cried out to God. He didn’t just ask God for help, however. He sought God’s mercy and confessed his faith. He sang, “in the shadow of your wings, I will take refuge.” He trusted that God would send help. He trusted that God’s love would be fulfilled in his salvation. He trusted that God’s word was true and that his enemies would not have victory over him. He knew that he was in danger, and he was afraid. But in the midst of his fear, he saw the promise fulfilled.
Even when he was in hiding, running from Saul, David sang God’s praises. We might think this is a hard thing to do, after all David wouldn’t have been in this trouble if God hadn’t anointed him to be king. Saul was jealous and afraid. He didn’t want to lose his power; he was willing to do whatever was necessary to destroy David. David could have happily been keeping his father’s sheep in the field, no worries about war or death or the burden of a nation on his shoulders. But David trusted God, accepted God’s choice, and followed God’s plan. He thanked the LORD and sang His praises among the nations, even when he was on the verge of disaster. He exalted God, even when death was close.
Do we have such faith? Do we thank God and sing His praise when we are in the midst of trouble? We might not have powerful kings chasing us through the desert, but we do have to deal with pain and suffering. We have enemies that are chasing us through life, perhaps not powerful kings or even people, but the devil is constantly trying to turn us onto a different path. The devil would rather we die than thank and praise God. But we know God is always faithful, even when we are afraid. His Word is true and His plan is right. So, let us thank God and praise Him, even when things don’t seem to be working out in our favor, because He will make things right in His way and in His time.
March 17, 2023
“Now I Paul, myself, entreat you by the humility and gentleness of Christ, I who in your presence am lowly among you, but being absent am bold toward you. Yes, I beg you that I may not, when present, show courage with the confidence with which I intend to be bold against some, who consider us to be walking according to the flesh. For though we walk in the flesh, we don’t wage war according to the flesh; for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but mighty before God to the throwing down of strongholds, throwing down imaginations and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God and bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and being in readiness to avenge all disobedience when your obedience is made full.” 2 Corinthians 10:1-7, WEB
St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, but he wasn’t even Irish. He was born late in the fourth century as a Roman citizen in Britain. Irish raiders carried him away when he was a teenager to live in Ireland as a slave until he was able to escape on a boat to what is now France. He studied under St. Germanus and then returned to Britain to live with relatives. He had a vision of becoming a missionary to Ireland, to take Christ to those who had been his captors. He went back to France where St. Germanus finished his education, consecrated him, and sent him on his mission. He returned to the land of his captors and preached the Gospel to the people there. His preaching against the pagan religion was first met with resistance but he was eventually able to convert the high king. The rest of the Irish followed. He had a remarkable effect on the druidic people and many came to know Jesus Christ because of Patrick’s witness. He established a bishopric in Armagh and began a strong foundation for the Christian church in Ireland.
I once received an email offering the “true” story about Patrick driving the snakes from the shores of Ireland. This mailing came from a person who claimed to be a pagan. Stories about Patrick driving the snakes from Ireland abound. One says that Patrick beat a drum that caused all the snakes to dive into the sea. Another says that there was one ornery serpent that refused to go so Patrick made a box and told the serpent to get inside. The serpent claimed it was too small. Patrick was certain he would fit, so the serpent said he would prove it by getting inside. When the serpent was in the box, Patrick slammed the lid shut and threw the box into the sea.
Ireland never had snakes, so this story has no truth in it, or does it? According to that email, Christians used the snake as a symbol of paganism. Apparently the “snakes” driven from the shores were people, not animals, and that Patrick committed genocide to rid the island of the non-believers. The email claimed that many people died at the hands of Patrick. There is no record of genocide in the history of Ireland, but in a spiritual sense this claim may be very true.
“The Confession of St. Patrick” is his testimony. He wrote of his life in bondage, his escape, his training in missionary work, and his return to the land of his captors. After a few years, he heard a voice telling him to go to Britain, but the ship refused to take him. He prayed and the captain changed his mind. The ship was filled with pagan sailors, possibly slave traders. Patrick was with them on the ship for three days and then they spent 28 days roaming through deserted country. They grew hungry and weak. The pagans came to Patrick and asked why he would not pray to his God for them. Patrick answered, “Be truly converted with all your heart to the Lord my God, because nothing is impossible for Him, that this day He may send you food on your way until you be satisfied; for He has abundance everywhere.” Patrick wrote that by the help of God, a herd of pigs came and satisfied their hunger. Those pagans did suffer death: death to their own selves by faith in Jesus Christ.
Patrick was not the first missionary to be sent to that land, but he was by far the most successful, bringing thousands of people to faith in Christ Jesus. The nation was transformed, no longer trading slaves, or sacrificing humans. The people died to the old way of life but lived in Christ. So, the pagan writer was right: Patrick killed the pagans, not physically but spiritually. It wasn't genocide; it was the Gospel Jesus Christ. While the letter writer was mourning the death of his spiritual ancestors, we can rejoice for those who found true life in Christ because of St. Patrick.
In his confession, Patrick showed himself in true humility and obedience to God. He thought himself to be the least among his brethren, but spoke boldly about His Lord Jesus Christ and changed his little corner of the world. It seemed he was always surrounded by his enemies, trying to share God’s grace with people at first unwilling to accept the Word God sent to them through him. I wonder if he ever remembered the cruelty of his captivity and the injustice of his slavery. I wonder if he ever wished that he did not listen to the voices that sent him to places he did not want to go. Yet, through it all, Patrick held firm and obedient to his calling, doing what he could to share the message of forgiveness with those he needed to forgive. He remained faithful so that his enemies might come to know the love of God and be saved.
March 20, 2023
“Yahweh, keep me from the hands of the wicked. Preserve me from the violent men who have determined to trip my feet. The proud have hidden a snare for me, they have spread the cords of a net by the path. They have set traps for me. Selah. I said to Yahweh, ‘You are my God.’ Listen to the cry of my petitions, Yahweh. Yahweh, the Lord, the strength of my salvation, you have covered my head in the day of battle.” Psalm 140:4-7, WEB
Joseph was a carpenter in Nazareth who was 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 law. 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, 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 a great distance to register for the census in Bethlehem 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. He ran away from everything he knew and went to Egypt to protect this 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’s son.
King David wrote today’s psalm as a prayer for deliverance from his foes. David was a powerful man and had many enemies who were determined to destroy his kingdom and his life. Yet, David knew that God was his protector. Joseph was not a powerful man, but he was a man of faith who saw the troubled world around his tiny family. He did not have a great and powerful army to protect them. He trusted in God and obeyed his commands with practical use of the gifts given to him by God. Though little is said of Joseph beyond a few verses at the beginning of the Gospel narratives, Joseph has long been honored as the foster father of our Lord Jesus.
We remember St. Joseph as the husband of Mary and the guardian of Jesus. He was so ordinary, just a human being like the rest of us. Yet, he was given the most incredible gift: the responsibility to care for the Savior of the world through some very difficult times. He did not do it alone; it was by the Word of God that Joseph was able to take Mary as his wife, to care for her in Bethlehem and take his family out of danger to a foreign land. God’s grace saw them through the extraordinary circumstances of this ordinary life. We are like Joseph, ordinary but loved by God, protected Him and led by His Word through the difficulties of life.
March 21, 2023
“My son, if you have become collateral for your neighbor, if you have struck your hands in pledge for a stranger, you are trapped by the words of your mouth; you are ensnared with the words of your mouth. Do this now, my son, and deliver yourself, since you have come into the hand of your neighbor. Go, humble yourself. Press your plea with your neighbor. Give no sleep to your eyes, nor slumber to your eyelids. Free yourself, like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter, like a bird from the snare of the fowler.” Proverbs 6:1-5, WEB
I like to watch the “People’s Court.” On a recent episode, the plaintiff was suing the defendant because he had borrowed the plaintiff’s credit card to rent a car. He gave the plaintiff a few dollars toward the bill, but never paid the whole thing, leaving the plaintiff with a bill, the interest, and the threat to her credit. The judge eventually gives the plaintiffs in cases like this their money, but she always asks why they would do such a thing. “Why risk it?” Their answer is always some sort of “He’s a friend.” “I have a soft heart.” “He needed it and can’t get credit.” This brings the judge to the big question, “Why can’t he get credit?” She turns to the defendant and asks, “Why can’t you get credit?” He (it is usually a girl giving money to a boy, sadly) answers, “I have bad credit.” The judge then turns to the plaintiff and says, “He has bad credit.” And the plaintiff shakes her head and says, “I know I made a mistake.”
This happens too often. People have a kind heart and want to help. The plaintiffs in cases like this are often Christian and claim they did it out of the goodness of their hearts. This is all well and good; we are meant to be kind and compassionate. We are called to help others through difficult times. But we are also warned to be responsible with our resources. All too often these cases lead to bad credit reports for the person who is doing the kind thing. They have to sue because they can’t pay the bill the other person promised to pay. They are left to struggle because their friend has taken advantage of them.
In the case mentioned above, the defendant claimed that he didn’t pay the whole bill because she also used the car. He tried to make his payment to her sound like he did his share. He kept the car longer than expected, for two weeks. She used it for just one day, and she compensated by lending him her car on the day she used the rental. On top of it, he was responsible for several tickets and fines he received during the use of the car, but she was charged because the car was rented in her name. It was a bad situation for her. She was right, she made a mistake.
The language in today’s Proverb is poetic but very practical. The father is telling his son not to do what the woman did in that court case. Don’t get yourself caught up in a financial scheme that will ultimately hurt you. This happens all the time on the court shows. Plaintiffs will let others join their phone plans. They will cosign for vehicles. They’ll take responsibility for situations based on promises that are not kept. They become “collateral for their neighbor” or “pledges for a stranger.” They are trapped because of their kind hearts. It may seem like the thing to do to help a neighbor, but how will you help anyone if you suffer financial hardships because someone has taken advantage of your kindness?
The scriptures teach us to be kind, to help, to even be sacrificial with our resources, but the Bible also teaches us to be good stewards. This means making good decisions about how we handle our money. Sometimes we have to say “No.” Sometimes the best thing to do is find another way to help. The most important thing we learn from the father in today’s proverb is that we should be careful that we don’t allow ourselves to be ensnared in something that will cause us harm, and if we are ensnared, then we should find a way out. Sadly, for many, the way out is in the courts. Those plaintiffs often learn the lesson the hard way. Thankfully, God has give us His Word to help us discern the right way to live, doing good things out of the kindness of our hearts while also taking responsibility for the stewardship of what God has give us to use for His glory in this world.
March 22, 2023
Lectionary Scriptures for March 26, 2023, Fifth Sunday in Lent: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:1-11; John 11:1-45 (46-53)
“I wait for Yahweh. My soul waits. I hope in his word.” Psalm 130, WEB
I have only experienced on earthquake in my life, and that was the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. We lived in California, though far enough from San Francisco that we weren’t in any danger. The only reason I know that it shook the earth at our house is that a plant we had hanging in our living room began to sway. I happened to be watching the five o’clock news when it hit just after five. The anchor in Sacramento freaked out because he could feel the building sway under him and could see the overhead lights swaying. That’s when I looked around our house and saw the plant. I was later told by a friend that water splashed out of her pool. It might not have been a problem for us, but the damage in and around San Francisco was serious.
I thought about this experience when I read through today’s Old Testament lesson. Ezekiel had a spiritual experience in which God’s Spirit set him in a valley full of bones. God asked, “Can these bones live?” The human answer is, “of course not,” but the faith answer is that God knows. Then God told Ezekiel to prophesy over the bones. As he spoke there was an earthquake. We all know that earthquakes destroy things. In San Francisco, the Loma Prieta earthquake took down a bridge. It killed sixty-three people and caused six billion dollars in damage in that area. Earthquakes certainly don’t put skeletons back together or return the flesh to those bodies.
God, however, is able to do anything, even the impossible. He often does what is opposite what is natural or expected.
I worked as a mobile disc jockey for a few years. I was an employee of a large company on the east coast that had disc jockeys in multiple states. The equipment I carried belonged to the company, but I had crates full of vinyl albums and forty-fives that I carried with me. The company gave me my contracts and I had to ensure I had everything I needed to satisfy their expectations. I could take extra equipment, and they had a collection of records I could borrow if I needed something unusual. My parties were usually assigned based on my age and personality, so I tended to get school dances and weddings. I never got the bar mitzvahs or punk party. My best party was a pool party that lasted nearly twelve hours. I also loved the group that repeated requested for me to work their New Year’s Eve party.
It was important that I have the right kind of music for each party and it was sometimes difficult to judge what the group might want. We were required to keep our collection up to date but it was good that they had the library where we could find the hard to find records. Brides often presented long lists of songs that they wanted played, and they usually made it clear which special songs they wanted for specific moments in the party. On one occasion, the bride gave me a list of dozens of songs but when I told her it might be hard to find all of them, she didn’t have any particular favorites. I managed to find several of the records before the party, but not all of them. Early in the party my “bridezilla” insisted that I play her favorites. Unfortunately, I did not have the “absolutely most important song” on the list. It was buried in the middle of the list along with dozens of other “absolutely most important songs.” Luckily, I was able to find someone who had a copy of the song who could deliver it to me at the venue. The party was saved.
The same can’t be said about other parties. There are just some groups of people that are impossible to entertain. I had one party with a bride and a mother-of-the-bride that spent the whole evening in competition for my attention. The bride would request a song. As that song began, the mother would complain that her guests did not want to listen to that type of music and insisted that I change my format. When I did play a song for the older generation, the bride complained that I was playing “old fogey” music. The bride said it was her wedding so I should obey her commands. The mother said she was paying for the wedding and so I should obey hers. In the end, their selfish insistence that I play what they wanted to hear meant that I was unable to do the job I had been hired to do and the party died.
It was my job to discern the atmosphere of the group and make the party of success. Sometimes that meant playing a lot of dance music. I had other resources, like prizes for fun party games and novelty music. Sometimes the guests had no interest in dancing but wanted to listen and sing to good music. Sometimes the music served as background noise while they had conversations. I had to adapt my show to fit the crowd. A successful party did not necessarily mean that everyone was dancing; a successful party was the one at which everyone was enjoying themselves.
Sometimes it was difficult. Like the party with the bride and her mother, sometimes it was impossible to find the right format to make the party a success. I always had guests that complained the music was too loud while others thought it was too soft. Sometimes the mixed crowds competed with each other as some wanted oldies while others wanted top forty hits. Most of the time I could bring life to the party, but sometimes I failed and the party died.
You can’t get any more dead than those old dry bones that Ezekiel saw in that valley. They were old and dry. The story of Ezekiel’s vision is odd, but amazing at the same time. The imagery is something out of a horror film, and yet miraculous in the way God can take something that is so far beyond restoration and give it life. Those bones were dry; they were probably lying in the wilderness for a very long time. There was no hope for life. God did the work, but Ezekiel became part of the process by preaching to those dry bones.
This is what God does every day with His Word. Those who do not look to God or to Jesus as Savior are living dead men, dead in their sin because they refuse to hear the saving words of forgiveness from Jesus. God’s Word can bring them to life again; it shakes their world and makes them whole by putting His Spirit into their hearts so that they will have faith and hope in His promises.
God can bring life to those who do not yet know Him, but in this story from Ezekiel, God was bringing new life to His own people who were exiles in Babylon. They said “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost. We are completely cut off.” But God answered that He would open their graves and take them home. He promised, and He is faithful.
I’ve heard it said that there are dead churches, places that seem to have no life. Perhaps this is true; there are many Christians who are like the walking dead, they don’t really believe the message of the cross and the forgiveness of sins. Yet, if God can bring life to the valley of dry bones, then He can bring life to the deadest of congregations. If He can restore His people to Jerusalem after the exile, He can make us whole again. He calls us, like Ezekiel, to speak hope into those who have given up.
It has been said that the Gospel lessons during Lent become progressively longer to train the readers for the crucial but very long readings during Holy Week. The Palm Sunday reading is nearly two chapters of Matthew. On Good Friday we hear two chapters of John. They also help train the people in the pews to hear the texts. We easily get lost in our thoughts when we have to sit or stand and listen for so long, especially since these are stories are so familiar. We believe we know every word, that we’ve heard it all before. So, we stop listening. After the first verse or two, we think, “I know what this passage says,” then zone out for a few minutes.
The problem for a writer like me and all the pastors prayerfully planning their sermons for this week is that this text is filled with so many important lessons. This is a crucial moment for Jesus. It is a catalyst for what is to come. For the teaching pastor, there are a dozen details that could be expounded upon to help us better understand the time during which this happened and the people to whom it was happening. John writes well beyond the physical particulars of the story, so we could spend pages or hours discussing the spiritual dimensions. We could look at the people and the relationships to try to identify with their experiences and see God in our own pain and suffering. How do you take forty-five verses of text and write a few hundred words or speak for a few minutes?
Though we take these texts for granted, they have incredible depth and are still invaluable to our Christian growth and maturity. They also have something new and unique to tell us today. We hear and respond to the texts according to our current circumstances, but if we won’t hear what God has to say if we don’t listen. The story of Lazarus talks about death. Which of us is not dealing with death from one point of view or another most of our lives? We might identify with any of the characters. Has someone you love recently died? Perhaps you can hear some words of comfort. Do you have a friend who lost someone recently? The mourners can teach us what to do, and what not to do, to help our friend. In the disciples we see fear about facing the danger that is building around them. Jesus shows us strength in sorrow and concern for others.
We can even identify with Lazarus. There are times in our lives when we are as good as dead, wrapped up in those grave clothes and buried in a tomb. We might be suffering from loneliness or depression. Our burden might be an addiction or obsession. Whatever it is, this text may help us to hear Jesus calling out to us by name, commanding us to come out of the tomb. Through this text, we might even see that Jesus is calling us to be like Him (and Ezekiel), speaking God’s word to call people out of their tombs to a new life of faith.
Whatever it is we face today, we can find some comfort or strength through the words of our scripture lessons. That’s why we should never take these beloved and well-known stories for granted. We stop listening because we think we’ve heard it all before but this time it might not be just a story, it might hold for you the answer to your prayers.
Lazarus, Mary, and Martha were friends of Jesus. I can imagine that they spent many hours hosting Jesus in between His journeys. They offered a home, a place to rest, the comforts of family and friendships. Those times were surely filled with good food and laughter. Lazarus became sick, but Jesus was far away, traveling near where John had baptized in the Jordan. The sisters sent a messenger to give Jesus the news; they wanted Him to come to heal their brother. Jesus did not leave immediately, saying that the illness would not end in death.
A few days later, Jesus told the disciples that they had to hurry to Lazarus’ house. They didn’t get it when He said, “Lazarus has fallen asleep.” After all, He’d said just a few days before that Lazarus would not die. They were concerned for His safety. He told them bluntly, “Lazarus is dead.” For their sake, He was glad that they did not go to Lazarus immediately.
This is the part of the story that does not make sense to us. Why would Jesus want Lazarus to die? Why would He allow His good friends to suffer the pain of grief for even a few days? By the time Jesus arrived, Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days, well beyond the hope of physical resurrection. The Jews believed that the soul departed the body on the third day. There was no Lazarus left to resurrect. The sisters said to Jesus, “If only you had been here!” They still had hope in the eternal promises of God, but they wanted their brother in flesh and blood.
In this story we see two sides of Jesus. We see the caring friend who mourns with those who have lost a loved one. We wonder why Jesus might have waited. Wouldn’t He have at least wanted to visit Lazarus when he was sick? Most of us have had to rush off to the hospital to be with someone we love who is suffering. It is hard for us to understand why Jesus would wait. Yet, in this story we also see the Divine. Jesus knew there was more to the illness. He knew the illness would not END in death. Lazarus did indeed die, but so that they - and we - might believe, it ended in physical, not just spiritual, resurrection.
We are reminded that Jesus is indeed our friend, there for us in our times of need. However, He is also the Divine, the Son of God, and He knows the end of the story. We might think we need Him to be here at this moment, to heal at this time, to finish His work right now, but He sees beyond our immediacy. He knows the right time and He will be there. We will probably react like the sisters, complaining that if only He were there when we thought we needed Him, things would be different. We learn in this story, however, that God might have something even greater planned for us on the other side of our suffering. Trust Him. He is faithful. He turns things upside down, like the earthquake in Ezekiel that made things whole.
It was disheartening to have one of those parties that would just not come to life. It seemed hopeless, a waste of time. Have you ever felt like you are in a hopeless situation? Perhaps you feel that way much too often. You know there is something you should do, but you are also sure that it won’t do any good. For instance, parents know that it is impossible to reason with a toddler who is having a tantrum or a teenager who has decided to rebel. I’m still trying to figure out how we managed to survive those years!
Sadly, many Christians think that it is pointless to share the Gospel. I suppose some of it is the fear of being rejected, but we also worry that we will be deemed judgmental and intolerant if we share the Gospel. We’d rather just live our faith quietly; after all we have been repeatedly told that faith is a private matter anyway. There are those who do not even think it is their place to raise their children as Christians. “They can decide when they are grown.”
How will they know if we don’t tell them?
God commanded Ezekiel to do something absolutely pointless. What good would it do to prophesy over a field full of dried bones? The people that were once those bones had been long dead. There was no chance that they would ever come back to life. There was no skin, muscle or organs. Some of the bones were probably carried off by wild animals. How could one man’s voice change anything about that field?
Ezekiel knew that only God had the answer, so when He commanded Ezekiel to speak to the bones, Ezekiel did so. Immediately the bones were brought back to life, with skin, muscle, and organs. When the flesh was restored, God commanded Ezekiel to speak again and to command the wind to breathe upon those He had resurrected. Ezekiel spoke and they were filled with life. God was able to restore flesh and soul into dry bones.
Our Gospel lesson for today was the straw that broke the camel’s back, the final sign of Jesus that caused the leaders to decide that it was necessary for Jesus to die. Life for one man meant death for another. However, the Jews were concerned that Jesus was going to incite riots and upset the Romans. Though they were watching and waiting for the promised Messiah, the power Jesus demonstrated was beyond their control. They expected the Messiah to be one of them, but Jesus upset the status quo. Though the raising of Lazarus should have convinced them that He was the one for whom they were waiting, they knew that Jesus would not do their bidding. They were willing to ignore and reject Jesus for the sake of their future. They were comfortable in their positions, and they would not accept a Messiah unless they could be assured of their own status in his kingdom. Jesus would not convince them otherwise; His actions from now on may have seemed pointless to those watching.
Thankfully, Jesus didn’t think it was pointless.
Jesus waited because God would be glorified by doing that which would seem pointless to the rest of us. The man born blind in last week’s story wasn’t blind because he or his parents sinned. He was blind so that God would be glorified. The same is true with this week’s story. Lazarus died so that God would be glorified. There is hope even when it seems hopeless, even in a pile of dry bones. Ezekiel didn’t say that it was impossible for the bones to live; he confessed that only God knew. While he might have thought the situation was hopeless, he trusted God, and it is there we exhibit our hope. We don’t have hope because we think we know what is going to happen or because we think we can make something happen. We have hope when we trust that God will make something happen.
Sometimes God calls us to do what seems to be pointless things. We discover that when we are obedient, the command was not so pointless. We see that He is faithful. He is glorified by our faith and our willingness to speak to the dry bones. It is in this that we hope.
Just like the Israelites in Babylon and the sisters of Lazarus, God comes to us with a vision of what life will be like under His rule. He shows us new life brought by His Word and His Spirit. The dead bones in the valley can dance and sing His praises. By God’s power, Lazarus could walk out of his tomb to live another day. So, too, in faith we can live in hope and glorify God with our lives.
The only thing we have to get us through is faith. Jesus says if we believe we will see the power of God. That power will bring life out of death. It is a matter of trusting the Lord to be faithful to His promises, because there we find our salvation. It is this trust to which the psalmist is referring in today’s Psalm.
Our hope is found in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Without Him we are nothing more than dead bones in a valley or dead men in the tomb. Without Him we have no hope. All too often, however, we don’t recognize our own death. We don’t see how we are being like the Pharisees by our attitudes toward others. We do not see that we are relying on our own righteousness. We don’t live as God has called us to live, full of mercy and compassion for those who are suffering, boldly speaking the Gospel message to those He will raise to new life.
Paul reminds us that we are dead when we live in this attitude, but when we live in the Spirit we will know real life and peace. In Christ we are given new life. We are going to mess up. Even after Martha confessed her faith in Jesus, she still doubted. It is that way with us every day. We second guess God’s work. We question His mercy; we doubt His promises. As Martin Luther put it, we are “simul justus et peccator” which means that we are simultaneously saints and sinners. However, in Christ we have been given the gift of His Spirit, which dwells in our hearts. As we are sanctified, daily growing in faith and in knowledge of the work God is doing in our lives as well as in the lives of others.
It took something extra to put life into a dead party. I had to work to bring people to the dance floor who did not wish to dance. It took something special to bring happiness to the celebration. While we may think someone is beyond hope today, God calls us to the work of His kingdom, prophesying to them so that we would see God glorified as they are raised to new life in Christ.
We have hope, and there is hope for others. It isn’t pointless to speak God’s Word to the world because God can, and does, bring life out of death. Looking to Jesus means looking at hope, trusting in God’s promises to bring us through. He will bring life out of death according to His good and perfect Word. And though our bodies are riddled with sin and death, Christ gives us life to live for His glory by taking His mercy and grace to the entire world.
They may not listen when we proclaim God’s Word, but they can’t hear if we don’t even try. We speak, not expecting our words will bring life, but knowing that God’s Word can raise the dead. We don’t always know exactly what will happen, but God knows. He can restore the flesh on dry bones and raise the dead out of their tombs. So, when it seems hopeless, we are called to trust in God. God can do the impossible and He will be glorified by our obedience. Are we willing to shine hope in a world that seems hopeless? Are we willing to share the Gospel even when it seems pointless?
There is always hope when we trust in God. He can bring life to dry bones. He can raise the dead out of their tombs. When it seems hopeless, we are called to trust in God. We are encouraged to join the psalmist in a cry of faith. We are invited to speak God’s grace to the dry bones and to call people out of their tombs. Will we ignore the opportunities or will we join as His partners in His life-giving work?
March 23, 2023
“Now there were certain Greeks among those who went up to worship at the feast. These, therefore, came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida of Galilee, and asked him, saying, ‘Sir, we want to see Jesus.’ Philip came and told Andrew, and in turn, Andrew came with Philip, and they told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Most certainly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life will lose it. He who hates his life in this world will keep it to eternal life. If anyone serves me, let him follow me. Where I am, there my servant will also be. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.’” John 12:20-26, WEB
It is bluebonnet season in Texas. Well, it is wildflower season, but the favorite for most wildflower hunters is the bluebonnet. It is the official Texas State flower, and it is delightful to see. The bluebonnet is a lupine in a stunning shade of blue, which is amazingly rare in flowers. Most flowers are red, pink, yellow, white, or purple. Every year there are families who search to find the perfect field of bluebonnets to take pictures of their kids; it is a delightful tradition that makes wonderful memories.
Bluebonnets are fickle. The conditions must be perfect for there to be large numbers of the flowers. Interestingly, the best seasons occur after particularly cold and wet winters; as someone once wrote, “The more miserable the winter, the more beautiful the spring.” The wildflowers are annuals, which mean they go from seed to flower to seed in a year. It is vital that the plants we see in those beautiful blue fields are allowed to mature until the pods have opened and dropped the seed for future growth. Unfortunately, many people get impatient with the fields once the beautiful blue has disappeared. They mow the dying wildflowers too early, destroying the chance for future flowers.
Bluebonnet seeds can go dormant for a number of years and spring to life when you least expect it. I once visited a field that had been underwater for years, but drought made the water level fall. The silty banks had seen wildflowers in the past, and the seeds that have been drowning for so long finally could blossom. The seeds dropped this year may not become bluebonnets until the next miserable winter prepares the seeds for a most beautiful spring. Isn’t it amazing how such beautiful life can come out of death? After all, that’s what happens, isn’t it? The plant dies, drops the seeds which lie lifeless in the ground until they crack open and then the new growth sprouts out of the ground. Death leads to new life; we just have to be patient.
I was once asked, “What physical proof is there that there is life after death?” I hadn’t really thought about this question because I never needed physical proof. I believe in eternal life because I have God’s promises. I rest in the hope of that life because God said it would be so. I do understand how some need to ask these questions. I didn’t know how to answer, but I shared a few stories I had heard about life after death. There are movies that describe the real-life experiences of those who died and came back to life. There are often scientific explanations for these stories, so doubters tend to reject them as proof. We have several stories in the Bible of people who have been resurrected; the scriptures promise that there is life after death, but unbelievers do not put the same credibility to scripture as I do.
As I pondered the question of life after death, trying to find an answer for the question, I recalled the words of Jesus in today’s passage. This isn’t proof for the unbelieving, but it helps us look at the question from a different perspective. We learn from nature that without death there cannot be life. Jesus had to die so that the seeds for eternal life could be planted in us, and now we too must die to our old selves so that we can have that true life. Eternal life is not just a future hope, it is a present reality. We can ponder the questions of the unknown, but as we approach the Passion and Crucifixion of Jesus, He teaches us to live our lives in faith, trusting that God’s promises are true even if we do not have physical proof to alleviate our questions.
March 24, 2023
“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
I don’t want to trouble you, but it is just nine months until Christmas! Are you ready? Have you started your shopping yet? I kid, but we do begin looking forward to the birth of Christ this weekend (March 25th) with the celebration of 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 and end of His life. This journey Mary was about to begin would lead to ridicule from her society; it was even grounds for death. But 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 that would happen, would she have agreed so willingly to accept God’s plan? Can a mother bring a child into the world knowing that His purpose is to die?
There is a song that is played and sung around Christmastime written by Mark Lowry called, “Mary, Did You Know?” The song asks a question we all would like answered: did she know? 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?
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?
We are told numerous times that Mary treasured the things that were happening in her heart; I wonder if she 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.
March 27, 2023
“They wandered in the wilderness in a desert way. They found no city to live in. Hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted in them. Then they cried to Yahweh in their trouble, and he delivered them out of their distresses, he led them also by a straight way, that they might go to a city to live in. Let them praise Yahweh for his loving kindness, for his wonderful deeds to the children of men!” Psalm 107:4-9, WEB
I once read an article that had a list of ten riddles. Some of the answers were ridiculously simple, but the questions were challenging for even the most intelligent people. The riddles were almost too simple; I know I over thought, searching for the answers. One question was “Where can anybody but you sit?” I felt foolish when I did not think of my own lap, but now that I know the answer I’m not likely to fall for that riddle again. Some required some knowledge like, “Why didn’t William Howard Taft run for a third term as President?” The answer is that he didn’t run for a second term. Perhaps if I were more knowledgeable about the Taft presidency, that answer would have come simply.
I struggled with another easy one: “How can you throw a ball so it will reverse direction and return to you without the ball bouncing against or touching any solid object?” I wondered if a sharp twist to the wrist would put the right spin on the ball, but then I looked at the answer. I groaned. Throw it straight up in the air; the effects of gravity will bring it right back to you. The easiest, but perhaps hardest of all the questions was “If Betsy Ross were living today, what would she be most noted for?” I thought to myself, “How can we know, she may have accomplished a great many things.” The answer is: “Her age.” Yes, that makes sense, for if she were still alive today, she’d be hundreds of years old.
Riddles can be silly, and I always feel a little foolish when I don’t come up with the answers right away. The lesson to be learned here, though, is that hindsight is twenty-twenty vision. Would you have gotten the answers if they had not been laid out in this story? Sometimes the simplest riddles are the hardest to grasp.
This is true in matters of faith, too. Think about all the people who are wandering in the wilderness of this world for whom peace and joy are illusive. They seek the meaning of life, unable to find it. They seek fulfillment, most often looking toward relationships, work, or hobbies to satisfy, but never quite finding the thing they long for most of all. There are so many who hunger and thirst, not physically but spiritually, and they do not even know what they are trying to find.
The one question I did get right immediately was “What common mechanical transports in New York City (120,000 of them) carry three times as many passengers daily as all the city’s subways, trains, buses, cars, and taxis combined?” To me the answer was obvious. New York City is filled with skyscrapers and most of the population gets around on foot. Though it is a large city, the people do not travel far to get from place to place. Yet, most of them have to climb many floors. The logical answer to this riddle is a conveyance that goes up and down rather than around the streets: an elevator
What are people’s greatest needs? We need food, shelter, and security. Most of all we need love. Christians have found the answer to the question of life in Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. God meets our greatest need with His unfailing love, providing everything we need to survive in this world when we trust in Him. Those who do not know Jesus continue to wander in the desert wasteland that is life in this world. For them, the answer is beyond reach. It is the easiest question to answer because the truth is right in front of us. It is written in the scriptures and in creation. Yet, many continue to hunger and thirst because they do not cry out to the Lord for deliverance.
Is there someone with whom you can share these riddles today? It might be fun to see if they can figure out the answers on their own. More important, however, would be to take the chance to share the Gospel with someone who is longing to be fed the Bread of Life, someone who thirsts for the Living Water. Jesus will grant them the peace and joy they long to grasp after seeking for the answers in all the wrong places.
March 28, 2023
“Now while they were going, behold, some of the guards came into the city and told the chief priests all the things that had happened. When they were assembled with the elders and had taken counsel, they gave a large amount of silver to the soldiers, saying, ‘Say that his disciples came by night and stole him away while we slept. If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will persuade him and make you free of worry.’ So they took the money and did as they were told. This saying was spread abroad among the Jews, and continues until today.” Matthew 28:11-15, WEB
Dolly Parton starred in a movie called “Straight Talk.” In this movie, Dolly played a woman who had a tendency of giving advice, a tendency that got her in trouble. It caused her to lose her job and ruin someone else’s relationship. Her own relationship failed and she was down to her last dollars. She needed something to change so she moved to a new city. She tried to find a job but was repeatedly rejected until she convinced a radio station to hire her as a switchboard operator despite her inexperience. Her tendency to give advice helped in this case because she offered some for the person who hired her. She didn’t do well at the job at first, but she caught on eventually.
One day she went for a cup of coffee and accidentally ended up in a booth where the staff was preparing for a new radio personality that was late. They were waiting for a doctor that would give on-air advice. When Dolly walked in the door, they hustled her behind the mike, thinking she was the doctor. She did a terrific job, but the man who hired the original doctor fired her and chased her out of the studio. The listeners demanded that she continue, so they agreed to bring her back, as long as she kept up the façade of being a doctor. She wanted to refuse but allowed them to convince her how good it would be for her career and for her listeners. A newspaper reporter spent most of the movie trying to prove that she was not a doctor. By the time he had his story, he had fallen in love with her and quit his job for her sake.
Just as she was about to begin her first national broadcast, a woman approached Dolly’s character with a complaint. “Why did you tell my husband to leave me?” The woman lambasted the talk show host for knowing only half the story and begging for her to help restore her life. Dolly realized that it was foolish for her to give advice when she did not have the credentials to do so. Besides, her own life was such a mess. She went on the air, told the truth, and walked out of her job. In the end, the listeners loved her so much that she got her job back and she did the program as herself. This was just a movie, but in it we see how quickly things can get out of control in our lives, especially when we let others lead us down the wrong path.
As we look at the characters involved in the Resurrection story, there’s one group that does not often get very much attention: the Roman soldiers. When the women went to the tomb early in the morning on the first day of the week, there was an earthquake, and an angel rolled the stone away. The soldiers that had been posted at the tomb to guard it were so frightened by the experience that Matthew tells us they were “like dead men.” After the women went back to the disciples, the soldiers went to the priests to tell them what happened.
The Jews were worried that the disciples would make it appear that Jesus was raised to fulfill Jesus’ words, so they posted soldiers to watch the tomb. They failed; the body disappeared under their watch. Imagine if you had seen the truth? What do you do? Do you report the story as it happened, or do you let others convince you to tell a lie? They might have come to real faith in Jesus if they had done what is right, but like Dolly in the movie, they chose to lie.
If they told the story as they experienced it, they would have been found guilty of not doing their job. The authorities promised to protect the soldiers if there was a question about what happened that day. So, the soldiers accepted the payment and promise, then lived the lie. With two stories circulating about the resurrection, the people were as divided about the truth of Jesus Christ as they were when He was alive. The world is still divided. People still say what they think will be best for themselves instead of accepting the truth. In this world of ours, some are believers and others are not. Which story do you believe? Do you believe the disciples or the soldiers?
March 29, 2023
Lectionary Scriptures for April 2, 2023, The Sunday of the Passion, Palm Sunday: John 12:12-19; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 118:19-29; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:1-27:66
“Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, yes, the death of the cross.” Philippians 2:5-8, WEB
The lectionary Gospel texts take us through the entire experience: the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the prediction of Peter’s denial, prayer at Gethsemane, the betrayal, the arrest, standing before the Sanhedrin, Peter disowning Jesus, Judas’ suicide, the trial, mocking, crucifixion, death and burial. The amount of text for this week’s lectionary is daunting. How do you write a devotional for this Sunday in just a few thousand words?
Jesus had accomplished an incredible amount of work in the three years He did ministry. John even tells us, “There are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they would all be written, I suppose that even the world itself wouldn’t have room for the books that would be written.” (John 21:25) The four Gospels are filled with so many stories of His love, His teaching, His mercy, His healing, His correction, and His grace. Last week we heard the story of the raising of Lazarus who was dead for four days, one of the many things He did that were impossible. He’d certainly had an impact on the world; many people were following Him because they saw how He had power and authority. His words rang true. His miracles were miraculous. His mercy was great.
He was greeted at the gates of Jerusalem with shouts of Alleluia and the waving of palm branches. The people had heard what He could do; the people saw in Him the hope for their future. They were ready to receive their King!
The city was filled with many extra people who had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover Feast. They were there offering their lambs for sacrifice, receiving their forgiveness for another year. They were there to join in the celebration of the Seder dinner when all the Jews remembered the Exodus and thanked God for His promises. They looked forward to the day that the Messiah would finally come and set them free to live once again as a sovereign nation under God’s care.
It is no wonder that people looked to Jesus with hopeful expectation. After all, He was fulfilling the prophecies found in the scriptures in so many incredible ways. Who else can feed five thousand with just a few loaves and fish? Who else could set a man free from a legion of demons? Who else could make the lame walk, the blind see and the deaf hear? Who else could raise a dead man?
He was their King, but not in the way that they had anticipated. He would never sit on a throne. He would never deal with foreign leaders. He would never institute policies that would fill their needs. The man on the donkey hailed as King would be crowned on a cross in just a few days. It would not be very long before they rejected Him and cried for His crucifixion.
They honored Him on Palm Sunday with a parade and shouts of acclamation. Isn’t that what every person wants? Don’t we want to be raised onto a pedestal? Don’t we want people to crown us? Don’t we want to become the best, to reach higher than everyone else? Jesus should have appreciated their approval. However, Jesus was not looking to become an earthbound King. He had even more in heaven. He was there at the beginning of time and participated in the creation of the world. He had power. He had glory.
In Isaiah, the Servant of the Lord speaks with a voice of humility and sacrifice. Isaiah writes, “I gave my back to those who beat me, and my cheeks to those who plucked off the hair. I didn’t hide my face from shame and spitting.” These are not the words of a king, how could this possibly refer to a Messiah? Yet, as we read in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, this is exactly the image of Christ that we must see and we are called to live in that same attitude, which is one of humility.
For many men today, whether or not to wear a beard is a matter of personal choice, but that is not always the case. Religious and secular law has controlled the wearing of facial hair. For some, a beard is expected: to shave the hair is actually an insult to the gods or rulers. For others, wearing facial hair is the insult. There are often rules about how the beard could be worn: long or short, cropped or covering the face. In Greek society, a beard was a sign of wisdom. Rulers often used the removal of a beard as a form of control. Beards were taxed by others. Along with a 100-ruble tax, Peter I of Russia made beard wearers also wear a medallion which had the words “beards are a ridiculous ornament.”
Depending on the society, beards were a sign of wealth or poverty, celibacy or manhood. Roman boys could not remove any facial hair until they reached adulthood. Amish men keep their faces clean until they are married. In some places, a man was not allowed to grow a beard until he had killed an enemy. The size of the beard was symbolic also. For those protesting, a long beard meant greater protest. A long beard meant greater wisdom. Alexander the Great insisted that his soldiers shave their beards because an enemy could grab a hold of the facial hair during battle and use it to his advantage. During World War I, it was discovered that facial hair affected the seal on the gas masks and so soldiers were very conscientious about keeping their faces shaved clean.
Since wearing a beard is so much a personal choice for many men, we don’t understand the imagery found in today’s lesson. Why would “pulling a beard” be considered so horrible? After all, we laugh when we see those pictures of children sitting on Santa’s knees, pulling at his beard to ensure that it is real. Even funnier are the pictures of the child who finds a Santa with a fake. Yet, to pull a beard was a great insult.
As a matter of fact, the suffering servant faces the most horrific interactions between people. He was willing to be beaten, the standard punishment for criminals. He was willing to give his cheek to the person wanting to show him disrespect and contempt. He willingly faced the hatred of mocking and the disgrace of someone’s spit. We see in these words the final hours of Jesus’ life, for He was the suffering servant to which Isaiah was pointing.
The servant does not see himself as greater than anyone. He says he given the tongue of one who is taught, rather than identifying himself as a teacher. The words are passed on, and he does teach, but he recognizes that he is not the teacher. He humbles himself before God’s word and is obedient. He faces the suffering knowing that it is both God’s will and that God will be with him through it. Though the beating, disrespect, contempt, hatred, and disgrace were humiliating, he knew no shame because God was near. His enemies were nothing because their condemnation was meaningless against God.
A story is told of a holy man who was sitting on the bank of a brook while meditating. He noticed a scorpion that was caught in a whirlpool in the brook. Every time the scorpion tried to climb on a rock, it slipped back into the water. The holy man took pity on the scorpion and tried to save it from certain death, but whenever the man reached out to the creature it struck at its hand. A friend passed by and told the man that his actions were futile because it is in the scorpion’s nature to strike. The man said, “Yet, but it is my nature to save and rescue. Why should I change my nature just because the scorpion doesn’t change his?”
Most of us are not so gracious. We are more like that friend, and at times we are perhaps even worse. While the friend may have just let nature take its course, we might even consider pushing the scorpion into a quicker death. We would justify our action, claiming at once that it would be better for the scorpion not to suffer and that it might save someone from being stung. There are certainly few of us who would take the time or the risk to save what is, in essence, an enemy.
Paul wrote, “Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross.”
The passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is thought to have been based on an early Christian hymn describing Jesus’ kenosis, which is from the Greek word meaning “emptiness.” This hymn tells how Jesus emptied Himself to become one of us, to take on our sin and face once and for all the wrath of God on the cross. God honored His humble obedience by exalting Him above all else. But it is in our nature to try to come out on top. We work hard for the promotion. We’ll do what it takes to the nicest car, the prettiest house, and the best lawn. We compete for the biggest trophies, the fastest times, and the best records. Our quest to be number one can easily become the sole focus of our life.
This isn’t true of everyone. I read a story in today’s newspaper about a pole vaulter. He held the record in his division and no matter how high they put the pole; he always cleared it by a foot. His peers said it was so amazing that they decided to test him. Instead of raising the bar an inch, they raised it six inches. He still cleared it by a foot. When they told him what they did, he walked away and never jumped again. He realized that however high he flew, someone would expect him to fly higher. He did not see how he could keep getting better. No matter how great you become, there is always room to do better.
Unfortunately, there comes a time when you can’t do better by your own power and then you face the real test. At some point everyone faces temptation to make poor decisions to be better. Athletes feel the need to use performance enhancing drugs to go one step further. In business, the temptation might be to steal a co-worker’s ideas or lie on a resume to appear more qualified for a job. In our relationships, we pretend to be someone we aren’t to win the prettiest girl or the richest boy.
Jesus was not trying to be the best. He did not humble Himself so that He would be exalted. He humbled Himself because it was in His nature to be a servant: it was the life to which God had called Him to live and die. He was with God: He emptied Himself and took on God’s will as His own. He calls us to do the same. We do not empty ourselves so that we might be exalted with Him, but because in Christ we have taken upon ourselves His nature. That nature is one that saves and rescues even when it puts our own life in jeopardy. We are not called to ride on the war horse or even the donkey, but to go with Him on a journey with the weak and vulnerable.
The whole story of the crucifixion doesn’t make sense to us. We want the happy ending. We want the coronation. We want the King to rule our world without changing anything; we like the status quo. Perhaps we want to think that we would have been with Jesus until the end, standing by Him even as He hung on the cross, ready to receive Him on Easter. We can say that today because we are Easter people; we know the rest of the story. But the reality is that we would have been in those crowds crying “Hallelujah” on Palm Sunday and “Crucify Him” on Good Friday. We would have fallen as fast as Peter, denying Jesus when He needed us most and run right alongside the rest of the disciples. We don’t understand why God would do things this way. Why would He choose to answer a plea for mercy with crucifixion?
Jesus is the perfect Lamb. During the Exodus story, the people were told to sacrifice a lamb, to roast it and to eat it in a certain way. The blood of the lamb was to be painted on the lintel of the house. That night, when the angel of death went over Egypt to take the firstborn, those with the painted lintels would be saved. This was the last straw; it was the final nail that made Pharaoh set the slaves free. The crowds were in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, joining together in feasts, celebrating their salvation as if it had just happened. They did not realize is that the blood of Jesus would be painted on the hearts of those who believe so that death would once again pass over them. Jesus’ death on the cross would defeat death forever. Our flesh will fail and our bodies will die, but through faith in the blood of Jesus we will live forever.
Passion week gives us the opportunity to experience the final moments of Jesus’ life. We wave palms on Palm Sunday. We eat the Seder on Maundy Thursday. We weep at the foot of the cross on Good Friday. We wait with the disciples through the vigil until Easter morning. It is important to hear these stories every year. We need to experience the Passion to understand Easter.
On Palm Sunday we see the community adoring Jesus Christ. They saw Him as the one who will fulfill the promises; they saw Him as the Messiah who will remove the Romans and restore the nation of Israel to the Golden days of Solomon. They saw Him as the King for whom they had been waiting for so long. Just days later at His trial, however, the references to His kingship are made with sarcasm and disdain.
In 27:11, Pilate calls Him “the king of the Jews,” a title that would insinuate that Jesus was usurping the throne of a puppet king. Herod had no real power. He did only what Rome allowed. If Jesus was to be king of the Jews, He would also have no power. He would be a puppet, at least from the point of view of Pilate. How could this weak and suffering man ever defeat the great Roman Empire? Jesus answered Pilate’s question with “Yes, it is as you say,” but Jesus was not talking about sitting on a puppet throne. His kingship was something greater, His kingdom reached beyond Israel.
In 27:29 the soldiers mocked Jesus. “Hail, king of the Jews,” they said, after they stripped Him of His clothes which they replaced with a scarlet cloak. They made a crown of thorns and placed it on His head, adding to the humiliation and pain that He was suffering. They did not really think Him to be a king; they did it to mock Him.
In 27:37, they made a sign that said, “THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” This was the publication of His crime. He was charged with the usurpation of the royal throne. They were still mocking Him, since this throne was not covered with velvet and jewels but was nothing more than a humble cross on which He would suffer and die. While He hung on that cross, the people came to the hillside to gawk and mock Him. In 27:42, the chief priests and elders challenged Him to save Himself. They wanted proof of His right to the throne. If only He would get down from the cross, they would believe.
They did not understand. Jesus did not come to be an earthly king or to lead His people in a revolt against the oppressive powers of this world. He came to save Israel from a greater oppressor: sin and death. As we heard in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Jesus emptied Himself. He came to do the will of God, which was to become one of us to die on a cross for the sake of all mankind. The leaders thought that they had defeated Jesus and kept Him from the throne, but they put Him on the very throne for which He was sent: the cross.
In the end, it was the centurion that pierced Him with a spear who identified Jesus for who He was. Since that man was the Roman in charge at the crucifixion, his declaration was vindication for Jesus. By his words Jesus was ruled innocent and righteous despite the horrific and unsettling end to His life. The centurion, probably without even understanding, proclaimed Jesus to be the King, not of Rome or even Israel, but over all of creation. For his obedience to the cross, God would, as Paul wrote, exalt Him above all else and give Him the name above all other names.
God highly exalted Him at the moment when He was most humiliated, when He was suffering a cruel and unwarranted death. It was on that cross that Jesus was glorified because it was there that He fulfilled God’s word and promise for the salvation of the world. It is on the cross where we find forgiveness and through the cross we are made free. It is there where Jesus Christ was crowned the King who would be glorified forever.
We find it hard to believe that Jesus could lose so many followers in such a short period of time. After all, they went from singing hosanna to murder in less than five days. We almost have to assign blame to someone in the crowd, an instigator who took advantage of the mob to turn people’s attitudes away from Jesus. However, as we look at the story between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, we realize that there is far more there than a quick change of heart. Jesus spent those few 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 the king whom they thought was going to save them from the Romans. They were ready to make Him king of Israel so that He would lead them to freedom. They did not understand the kind of freedom Jesus promised.
They went from jubilant celebration on Sunday to His arrest on Thursday and His death on Friday. Even His closest followers ran away in the end. Judas betrayed Him and Peter denied Him. Where were the rest? They were hiding, afraid. They were confused and upset. They didn’t know what to do without Him. They believed in Him on Sunday, but their faith wavered. Wouldn’t yours? We can’t expect our ministry to continue if our leader is arrested, tried, and then crucified.
We begin the final days of Lent anxiously waiting for the plan of God to be fulfilled, knowing that we do not deserve what He is about to do.
We begin our worship this Sunday celebrating as we remember Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, but we know that it is a short-lived party. Those same people praising Him on the streets quickly turned from Him, falling for the lies of Jesus’ enemies. We don’t understand how they could turn so easily, but it doesn’t matter. This was all in the plan. No matter how the people reacted to Him, Jesus had to die. The religious leaders thought they won. The followers of Jesus thought they lost. In the end, however, Jesus accomplished the work He was born to do.
Jesus humbled Himself and was obedient. He did not turn from God, but faced the suffering knowing that it was God’s will. He trusted that God would be with him. Though the beating, disrespect, contempt, hatred, and disgrace were humiliating, He knew no shame because God was near. His enemies were nothing because their condemnation was meaningless against God’s mercy. It is hard for us to realize, but we were counted among His enemies, and only by God’s grace are we His disciples, emptied of our own desires to embrace His will for our lives.
Have you been emptied of your desire to be God?
One of the best experiences I ever had was at a church where we worshipped every day of Holy Week. The pastor preached about the activities of Jesus each day. It was like walking with Him, alongside the disciples. Between Palm Sunday and Easter, we worshipped together eleven times. It is not a practical choice for many congregations, but most churches will at least offer worship for the Triduum, the Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil. Unfortunately, many people do not attend those services, but Passion Sunday gives us a taste of the story that we’ve heard over and over again.
The scriptures for this week are long and we could easily spend hours with the many details found in these texts. Yet, I wonder if we spend too much time trying to explain God and too little time lingering in His story getting to know Him. Attend as much worship as you are able during Holy Week and experience the Passion with your brothers and sisters in Christ, but also spend time reading the story not only in Matthew, but in all the Gospels. Lent might be almost over, but the walk with Jesus continues as we learn again what He did for our sake.
As we begin the final days of Lent and anxiously face the Passion, let us prayerfully consider what it all means for us. Jesus trusted God to the very end. Now He calls us to follow in His footsteps, to carry our own cross, to trust in God in humble obedience to His Will.
March 30, 2023
“Blessed is a person who endures temptation, for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord promised to those who love him. Let no man say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God,’ for God can’t be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own lust and enticed. Then the lust, when it has conceived, bears sin. The sin, when it is full grown, produces death. 16 Don’t be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom can be no variation, nor turning shadow. Of his own will he gave birth to us by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” James 1:12-18, WEB
I was making copies for a teacher at a school where I volunteered one day. The copier repairman came into the room while I was in the middle of a rather large job, so he waited patiently while the copies were printed. He had been called because faint lines were showing up on all the copies, He made one copy, wiped down the glass scanning surface, and then made another copy. The second copy was clean. The trouble was caused by two small dots of white-out that were left on the surface by someone who rushed a job without letting the white-out on their sheet dry properly. A moment of impatience caused problems for others and the repairman had to make a special trip to fix something that was easily avoidable.
We do so many things on a daily basis that seem harmless but should be avoided because they cause problems we do not realize. We rush into things because we lack patience. We let ourselves overreact to situations with bursts of anger or bad language. We think it is no big deal if we take a grape or piece of candy without paying. We tell a small lie or tolerate something we know is not right. We ignore the needs of our neighbors under the guise that it is none of our business. We watch things on the television or do things on the computer that seem harmless. No matter how small these sins seem, they can cause greater problems that we may not ever realize.
The teacher that caused the problem with the wet spots of white-out probably never knew the lines were his or her fault. The copier repairman might not bother to instruct the teachers about the problem because he gets paid for every visit no matter how difficult the repair job. He was paid well for the two minutes of work. One moment of impatience caused trouble for the fellow teachers and cost the school money they could have used elsewhere.
We do not always know the effect of the small sins that seem so harmless. Children learn from what they see, feelings are fragile, lies lead to greater lies. This is not only true of the actions that can be seen, but also with the thoughts that are known only in our minds and by God. They can lead to greater sins, building ever greater until it is too late to stop the harm that is caused. Though we don’t have the strength on our own to overcome these things, we do have One who gives us the strength to reject that which leads us astray. Our Lord Jesus overcame all temptations so that His Word might bring us forth into new life.
March 31, 2023
“Like a father has compassion on his children, so Yahweh has compassion on those who fear him. For he knows how we are made. He remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass. As a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone. Its place remembers it no more. But Yahweh’s loving kindness is from everlasting to everlasting with those who fear him, his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant, to those who remember to obey his precepts. Yahweh has established his throne in the heavens. His kingdom rules over all.” Psalm 103:13-19, WEB
I am going on a wildflower adventure. It has been so hard to schedule time. Between busy schedules and uncooperative weather, I just have not been able to get out. I’m worried that I’m a little late, and that the fields will be beyond peak, but if I am going to go, I need to go soon. And I want to go.
Those of us who live in Texas are pretty proud of our wildflowers. Now, blooming spring flowers are not unique to Texas. After all, I can remember the delightful smells of the lilac bushes and the brilliant white of the dogwoods in Pennsylvania. I’ve seen fields filled with daffodils and poppies. Washington D.C. is incredible in sight and smell when the cherry trees are in bloom. Texans like to take Sunday afternoon drives to see the fields of color, just as people in the Northeast go to see the changing leaves. There are websites with recommendations to help hunters find the best places to see the wildflowers in bloom. Other websites offer wildflower identification listings. Some Facebook pages have up to the day reports of sightings around the state. The wildflowers even make the evening news.
While the state flower is the bluebonnet, and we search the country for the best of those brilliant blue fields, the direction I’m going tends to be more colorful. I am expecting to see fields washed in bright red, purple, yellow, pink, blue, and white flowers. Some of the reports are showing huge fields of many different types of wildflowers. The hard part about these adventures is finding places to stop to take pictures, but I can usually find turnouts, especially on the county roads.
One of my favorite places to visit are cemeteries. There is one that I regularly visit that has plenty of open space, and that is the direction I’m headed. Some cemeteries keep the lawns trimmed, but at this one they leave the wildflowers bloom for a time, covering the cemetery in splendid color, even on the gravesites, honoring the dead with natural offerings of flowers. It is absolutely beautiful.
The first time I visited, I wandered through the cemetery, reading gravestones and thinking about the lives of those who had been buried there. Since it is a small-town cemetery, plots of land were devoted to families, with graves from generations for the past hundred years. I thought about people I knew with the same last names, wondering if they were somehow related. It brought those friends to mind. I found myself praying, not for the dead, but in thankfulness for their lives and for the living I remembered along the way.
I found one gravestone from 1880 for a baby that died the day he was born. All death is sad, but it is especially sad when you discover a life that hasn’t even had the chance to be lived. The gravestone was not particularly well maintained. The plot was covered in wildflowers and it was obvious that no one had visited for a long time. I was heartbroken for the life lost, but I was also reminded that this is what Easter is all about. Easter is about new life, about rebirth, about hope. God speaks to us in the most ordinary ways, reminding us of His grace.
I think about life and today’s passage from the Psalm when I’m on a wildflower adventure. Though we last more than a day, our time is relatively short compared to the eternal existence of our Father in heaven. We spring up out of the dust, get blown and battered by the storms of life, and eventually pass away. For a few brief moments we provide an image of beauty and grace, perhaps not as delicate as the wildflowers but certainly as perishable. To think of life in this way can be very depressing.
Yet, we are reminded by the wildflowers and the psalmist that God’s love and mercy is forever. The flowers may die for this season, but they will be back another year. Our lives may be fleeting, but God is eternal. He has promised to share His eternal life with those who love Him and keep His covenant. He has guaranteed the promise through His Son, Jesus Christ, whose righteousness has become ours by faith. Even though our lives are fleeing, we will live forever. Though our time here is temporary, we have reason to rejoice! Like that baby in the cemetery, we may be born today and die tomorrow, but we will live forever with God.