Welcome to the May 2017 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, May 2017
“Therefore putting away falsehood, speak truth each one with his neighbor. For we are members of one another. ‘Be angry, and don’t sin.’ Don’t let the sun go down on your wrath, and don’t give place to the devil. Let him who stole steal no more; but rather let him labor, producing with his hands something that is good, that he may have something to give to him who has need. Let no corrupt speech proceed out of your mouth, but only what is good for building others up as the need may be, that it may give grace to those who hear. Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, outcry, and slander, be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving each other, just as God also in Christ forgave you.” Ephesians 4:25-32, WEB
I attended a retreat this weekend at my favorite camp. It was a crafting weekend, so we didn’t spend a lot of time in Bible study. We did have devotional times with prayer and worship, but the weekend was more about rest and creativity. Even the devotional times had creative elements. At one painted tiles as we listened to a song, letting the words and music guide our creativity. At the beginning of the project, our hostess warned us that the tiles would be broken later, although she told us that we could keep ours if we really wanted. It is really hard to let something go that we have created. Later, during worship, we placed our tiles (and everyone let theirs go) into a bag. The hostess then took a hammer to our beautiful creations, breaking the tiles into a million little pieces. We each then took a small piece of the broken tiles and placed it on a wooden cross. They will be glued down, grouted and made into a mosaic. The lesson was about how our sinfulness is destructive, but with forgiveness God can create something beautiful in our lives.
Sin is not good. Perhaps that’s an understatement; our sinfulness can be extremely destructive. Even those little sins that don’t seem too bad can cause trouble in ways that we don’t realize. At the very least, every sin, big or little, affects our relationship with our Father. But sin is not just about those things we do wrong; we are sinners. The worst of our little sins are nothing compared to the reality that our relationship with God is broken. Even the best of us are selfish and self-centered. We are perishable human beings because we are born with a darkness that we can’t overcome on our own. We need God’s forgiveness.
Jesus Christ died on the cross carrying our sin and sinfulness. He took God’s wrath, the wrath we deserve, and laid it all in the grave so that we would be forgiven and transformed into the people God meant us to be. God took a hammer to Jesus to break the power of sin and death over our lives. And then He has pieced us together into a new creation, people who might live as He has called us to live.
The work is finished, and yet it is still not done because we continue to sin. By the power of the Holy Spirit, our God is constantly transforming us, changing us, guiding us into the way we should go. Hopefully we are each growing into perfection, although we’ll never reach that place in this life. We can, however, listen to the encouragement of the scriptures in how to be better. Jesus overcame sin and gives us the strength to do so, too. He took our brokenness and is now making our lives into a beautiful mosaic.
In today’s passage, Paul gives us a guideline of how we are to live. Don’t lie. Don’t cheat. Don’t be angry. Don’t let the devil have a place in your life. Don’t steal. Do good things. Accomplish something with your hands. Give to others. Speak kindly. Build up others. Share God’s grace. Don’t refuse or reject the work of the Holy Spirit in your life. Don’t be bitter or slanderous. Be kind. Forgive. It is hard, nearly impossible for us to do all these things. Remember, though, these aren’t actions that will gain us favor with God; these are the way God is calling you as His forgiven child to live. He will give you the strength and the courage to become a person who can resist the temptations that lead us to do bad and not do good. The journey might include discipline as we learn how our sinful behaviors affect others. And no matter how good we become, our flesh will still die because of sin. After we die, however, we will be transformed completely into that new creation God has promised so that all brokenness will be gone, and we will dwell with our Father forever.
We have been forgiven so that we will become forgiving people. Christian faith is merciful as we follow in the footsteps of our merciful Lord, Jesus Christ who died on the cross in the ultimate act of mercy. Our life in Christ is then one in which we have compassion on our neighbor, sharing God’s grace with others so that they will also be forgiven and transformed. When we live all our days loving and forgiving one another, the mercy and grace of God will be returned to us a hundredfold for the sake of the one who lived, loved and died for our sake, Jesus Christ our Lord. And God will create in and through us a beautiful mosaic of His grace.
“David said, ‘Is there yet any who is left of Saul’s house, that I may show him kindness for Jonathan’s sake?’ There was of Saul’s house a servant whose name was Ziba, and they called him to David; and the king said to him, ‘Are you Ziba?’ He said, ‘I am your servant.’ The king said, ‘Is there not yet any of Saul’s house, that I may show the kindness of God to him?’ Ziba said to the king, ‘Jonathan still has a son, who is lame in his feet.’ The king said to him, ‘Where is he?’ Ziba said to the king, ‘Behold, he is in the house of Machir the son of Ammiel, in Lo Debar.’ Then king David sent, and brought him out of the house of Machir the son of Ammiel, from Lo Debar. Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan, the son of Saul, came to David, and fell on his face, and showed respect. David said, ‘Mephibosheth.’ He answered, ‘Behold, your servant!’ David said to him, ‘Don’t be afraid of him; for I will surely show you kindness for Jonathan your father’s sake, and will restore to you all the land of Saul your father. You will eat bread at my table continually.’ He bowed down, and said, ‘What is your servant, that you should look at such a dead dog as I am?’ Then the king called to Ziba, Saul’s servant, and said to him, ‘All that belonged to Saul and to all his house have I given to your master’s son. Till the land for him, you, your sons, and your servants. Bring in the harvest, that your master’s son may have bread to eat; but Mephibosheth your master’s son will always eat bread at my table.’ Now Ziba had fifteen sons and twenty servants. Then Ziba said to the king, ‘According to all that my lord the king commands his servant, so your servant will do.’ So Mephibosheth ate at the king’s table, like one of the king’s sons. Mephibosheth had a young son, whose name was Mica. All that lived in Ziba’s house were servants to Mephibosheth. So Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem; for he ate continually at the king’s table. He was lame in both his feet.” 2 Samuel 9:1-13 (ASV)
David was God’s chosen king for Israel, but the journey to his rule was rough. Saul held the kingdom and though God had taken his favor away, David refused to be the one who would end Saul’s life. He had been a loyal servant to the king, and he waited patiently for God’s timing. Saul constantly sought to rid Israel of the threat of David, but David sought constantly for God’s will to be done. One day Saul and his son Jonathon were killed on the battlefield. The time came for David to be king. Unfortunately, Saul had sons who continued to fight David and it took him a long time to settle the matter.
Saul’s son Jonathon was a dear friend of David. Even as Saul sought to eliminate the threat of David on his throne, Jonathon remained a loyal friend. He did not at first believe his father could hide such a hatred, but when it was proven to him, Jonathon protected his friend. In that encounter (1 Samuel 20) David promised to continue to love and care for Jonathon’s family. This meant, even, those who were Saul’s family. In ancient times, a change in rule meant the destruction of a whole family. David’s promise meant that any he saved from death would always be a threat.
When Saul and Jonathon died on the battlefield, a servant named Ziba was given the responsibility of Saul’s land. The profits were given to David. Many years passed and David remembered his promise. He found Ziba and asked if there was yet any family of Saul he could bless for Jonathon’s sake. Ziba told him about Jonathon’s son, a cripple, who still lived. David sent for Mephibosheth and cared for him. He gave Mephibosheth his grandfather’s land including all the profits. Mephibosheth loved David.
David continued to fight for his kingdom, and sometime later Ziba met David on the road with provisions. He suggested to David that it was his idea, that Mephibosheth was preparing to use David’s difficulties as a reason to take over the throne for himself. On Ziba’s word, David gave everything to Ziba, taking it away from Mephibosheth as a punishment for his disloyalty. (2 Samuel 16) Later, Mephibosheth met David (2 Samuel 19) when he returned to Jerusalem and revealed the deception of his servant Ziba. David believed Mephibosheth and restored half the land. Mephibosheth refused, saying that David should let Ziba have it all, “Let him take it all. It’s enough for me that you’ve come home safely.” Mephibosheth loved David.
Imagine what it would be like if you adopted a disabled child who was also the only remaining offspring of an enemy? Suppose you were godparent to a child, written into the will of his or her parents as the guardian if they should die, but some time later you fought bitterly and broke the relationship. What would happen if they suddenly died and you were given custody of the child? Could you care for them? Change your life for them? Feed and cloth them for as long as was necessary? What if the child was disabled and could not fend for themselves the rest of their lives? This is what happened with David.
David was certainly not a perfect man. He made some horrible mistakes throughout his life. Yet, it can be said that he had mercy on his enemies. David had mercy, took him into his own house and ensured that he would live well for the rest of his life. Mephibosheth was not a child at the time, but David provided all he needed. I wonder if we could be like David and give such mercy and grace to our enemies. Certainly we are called to do so, granting forgiveness through Christ our Lord and loving our neighbors. We are much like that adopted son, lame and weak in flesh, but loved by God. As children of the Most High God, we have all we need to live in this world and go forth in faith to share the kingdom of God with others.
Scriptures for Sunday, May 7, 2017, Fourth Sunday of Easter: Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
“They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and prayer.” Acts 2:42, WEB
I am reading a book right now that is fantasy historical fiction. It is the fourth book in a series, although it is actually a prequel to a trilogy I read. This book is answering some of the questions that came out in the other books, background that makes certain things more understandable. It is interesting because though it is fantasy fiction, I can see the real history that is under the story. The names of people and places have been changed, the events are not exactly as you might have read in a history book, but there’s a parallel to real life that has given the author an outline for the fantasy. This is true not only of the history, but also the religion. The author’s background is apparent in his descriptions of the religious rituals and experiences.
There is a character in this book that is well blessed by the deity; she often hears the whispers and follows without question. She’s had visions, knows the future and has a faith that is extraordinary. If she hears a word, she obeys, no matter what it might mean for her life. If find myself struggling with this character because though there is faithfulness to everything she does, there is a sense of pride in her obedience and an unwillingness to listen to what anyone else has to say.
Now, there are some voices that should not be heard; they are false and are spoken to guide things in a direction that is not true or faithful. They are greedy, self-centered and selfish. Yet, she constantly tells the other characters to believe in her because she has been blessed. It isn’t about faith in the deity, but in her. She’s had successes and has proven herself to be true, and yet there is something troubling about demanding faith in a fallible human being.
Our texts for today revolve around the word “shepherd.” The fourth Sunday of Easter is always Good Shepherd Sunday, and over the three years of lectionary we hear John 10. We hear how Jesus is the gate and the gatekeeper, the only way to salvation and how He is willing to lay down His life for His sheep. In the end He provides proof of His authority to be the Good Shepherd. His sheep are those who believe, they’ve been given to Him by His Father. The psalm for this day is always Psalm 23; it is a song of the sheep who is praising the goodness of the Shepherd who is the LORD. The LORD provides. The LORD directs. The LORD leads. The LORD restores. The LORD guides. The LORD protects. The LORD comforts. The LORD feeds. The LORD anoints. Life under the LORD’s care is good. Life in the presence of the Shepherd is blessed.
We are called to be faithful to the LORD, to follow our Shepherd and to trust in Him. We will hear His voice and He will take care of us. I suppose there are those who are as troubled by our confidence in our own hearing. The world struggles to understand how we can be obedient to a fairy tale. They consider the story of our God as fictional as the book I’m reading. They think we are crazy, just like many of the characters in the book think the young woman is crazy. How can we believe that God would call us to do that, especially in this day and age? Tithe? Isn’t there better ways to spend our money? Church on a Sunday morning? Don’t you want to sleep in? You are studying the Bible again? You have read it so many times there can’t possibly be anything new to glean out of it!
We know, however, that God will use our resources in ways we can’t even imagine, that time with God in community is more than just a place to be and that the Bible will always surprise us with something new. Yet, we also know that there are people who make claims about God’s voice that are questionable. God will never call a mother to murder her children. God may call someone into a job or situation, but we can’t assume that He’s doing so because we will win. How many politicians look foolish after an election when they did not get selected after boasting that God told them to run?
We never know when God is calling us to do something but for reasons different than we expect. We are to trust His voice, to be obedient, to follow. But we must always remember that He is not leading us down the road we want to go, but the road He intends for us. That might mean walking through the valley of the shadow of death. The blessing is not found in God’s answering our prayers according to our desires, but in our trusting that God is in control.
As much as we want to believe that we are hearing God rightly, we must remember that we are imperfect and that we can easily be confused and tempted to believe what we want to believe. We live in a world that is full of noise. It is full of voices calling us to follow this path or that path. They want us to believe in their idea, to do things their way, to follow the path they think we should follow. That path is very often not the narrow path of the Gospel that relies solely and only on Jesus Christ, but is a wide path filled with options. People today prefer choices. They want the best of every religion. They want to believe what feels good. They want their faith to express their desires.
I once met a woman on the Internet who called herself an eclectic Christian. She didn’t like the narrow focus on Jesus, but thought He was a good person to emulate. She liked aspects of other religions and saw nothing wrong with picking and choosing what felt best to her. She said, “We all worship the same god, don’t we?” The answer to that question is, “No.” If you reject the parts of Jesus that you don’t like, then you are rejecting the revealed Word of God. He is the gate. He is the Good Shepherd. The false gods will not take care of you the way the Good Shepherd has promised; we should not believe in someone just because they claim they come from God. Even if they have proven themselves in amazing ways, our faith is misplaced if it isn’t in Jesus.
There was something very unique about the Christian community in Jerusalem that made strangers want to be a part of it. Luke tells us that day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. Unfortunately, today many congregations are failing and churches are dying; we certainly aren’t adding thousands to our numbers. As a matter of fact, too many of our new members are simply Christians who are coming from another place. The church is not growing from our witness, it is just moving around as people search for the Jesus they want to trust.
We have to ask ourselves what we are doing that is different than what they were doing. Are we trusting in God? Do we hear His voice and respond accordingly? Or, are we trying to get people to follow us, to go on our path, to believe in what we are doing? Are we trying to manipulate people by giving them what they think they want or coercing them with guilt or promises we can’t keep?
That early church devoted themselves to the work of God. They studied the scriptures and the teachings of the apostles, they gathered together for worship and praise, and they prayed. Do we do this? Yes we do, for an hour or two a week, but then we go out and live according to the ways of the world. Perhaps we spend time in bible study and daily prayer, but is it filling our lives with God’s voice to drown out the calls from the world? Do we spend time during the week encouraging one another with words of grace or by helping each other live the Christian life outside the walls of the church?
It is not enough to be Christian for an hour or two a week. It is not enough to spend time in the privacy of our homes with God. God calls us to be obedient to Him at all times, no matter what that might mean for our lives. I think that’s what Luke means when he talks about the early Christians sharing everything they had. The Christian community in Jerusalem was not a model of literal equality, but it shows us the need to support one another for more than just that hour a day.
I am always amazed at how quickly people respond when they see a need. A hurricane comes through a coastal town and people donate to Red Cross to help. Others load trucks full of water. Yet others go with shovels and work boots to help clean up the mess. We take casseroles to our neighbor when they lose someone they love. A charity needs a new bus to move students and the community chips in. We may not always seem as generous as we should, but when we see a need we are more than willing to help. We aren’t trying to make things equal between us, but we are share our “more than enough” so that others will have “enough.” They weren’t required to put everything into one bank account, but they were so committed to the Lord that they willingly gave up what was necessary for the sake of others in need.
That’s what the outsiders saw in the Christian community: a willingness to give to share with one another. It wasn’t forced or even expected: it just happened. When someone was hungry, someone else fed them. When someone needed a new robe, someone helped them get one. When each was comfortable, they ensured the others were comfortable, too. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a community that doesn’t worry about money and resources?
What makes the Church unique is that it is one body, Christ’s body, working together to accomplish God’s Work in the world. And we don’t do it according to our will and purpose, but according to God’s. We trust in Him. We listen for His voice and we respond by faith with strength and everything we have. We might fail. No, we will fail at times. But if we continue to work like those first disciples, devoting our time to the teachings of the apostles, worship and prayer, then we will learn to recognize God’s voice above all the others.
See, it is easy for someone to claim they are speaking for God, but we need one another to keep us on the right track. We are imperfect, fallible human beings. We are easily tempted to go our own way. We want control. We speak and expect others to believe in us, but we make mistakes. The noise of the world can confuse us and send us in the wrong direction. When God speaks, He will confirm to us that we are hearing Him. It is not enough that we “feel” that we are hearing God. Does what we hear line up with the Word of God, the scriptures? Do others confirm what you have heard? That’s why it is so important that we do not try to go at this on our own. We need our brothers and sisters in Christ to help us hear the voice of God and go on the right path.
In the beginning, God said, “It is not good for man to be alone” so He created woman and at the same time a community. He drew His people together and gave them laws to help them live together. He ordained a pattern for worship that was practiced in community and a social system that made all people important to the whole.
We live in a “people-free society” these days. The grocery store provides “self check-out” lanes so that the consumer can do all the work for themselves. You can take care of almost all your business on the internet, with voice mail, with text messaging. We use email instead of the phone. Gas pumps have pay points, so we do not need to pay a cashier. We don’t even have to go to the post office anymore: we can print our stamps on our own computer and put the envelope in a mailbox. We can order pizza on the Internet and rent videos from our cable box. And of course we have smart phones and tablets that let us converse with our neighbors without ever seeing them face to face. We text one another from the same building. We have more friends on Facebook than we have in real life.
We need to interact with other people every day, to share our joys and pain. We need hugs and smiles. People need people. Sadly, too many of us, myself included, get most of our human contact without ever being in the same room as another human being.
The “people-free” society is even making its way into the church. Besides televangelists, people can attend worship at mega-churches where they are assured a sense of anonymity; individuals easily get lost in the crowd. On the other extreme, many Christians are choosing to have a solitary life of faith, no longer attending services at the church down the street. They sit in front of their television or go worship in a field. They read and study the scriptures and have a life of prayer, but they miss the life of community that comes from fellowship with other Christians. Those smart phones and tablets have wormed their way into the corporate worship, as pastors even encourage the congregation to use their phones to look up scripture and send twitter posts about the sermons they hear.
In the beginning, the Church was more than a group of people who got together for an hour or so a week to hear the Word and receive the Eucharist. They prayed together. They studied the scriptures together. They ate meals together. They gathered in their homes as well as at the synagogue. They shared with one another. If someone needed something, someone else supplied it. This was a community that knew each other so well that they knew what everyone needed and offered it without thought.
Have we lost touch with His voice? Do we hear Him when He calls? Are we ready to respond with mercy and grace to meet the needs of those who are suffering in the world? Or are we following the voices of strangers? Do we trust the thief that claims to be the voice of God but who only wants to steal the gifts God has given? Are we willing to trust God even when we are suffering? Is Jesus our focus, or are we chasing after our own agendas, theories, expectations?
As we follow Jesus, listening to His voice, going only where He leads, we will find that God’s grace will multiply in ways that are beyond our ability to imagine. Even if we don’t think we have enough, we’ll be able to find more than we need to help our neighbors just as they will help us. This is the kind of community that others long to join.
So, let’s devote our time to the work of God, learning how to hear His voice through study, worship and prayer. Then when God calls, we’ll hear and respond with mercy and grace, just like Jesus, and our community will look a lot like that one in Jerusalem so long ago. The work we do might not be what we expect. It might be giving a grocery store gift card to a neighbor or helping rebuild a barn. It might be giving a little bit of hope to a stranger that lost everything in a tornado or providing the resources a charity needs to continue their work. It might be helping a fellow Christian hear the voice of God for their life.
The work God calls me to do will be different than the work God calls you to do, but together we’ll accomplish incredible things. And the Lord will add to the numbers daily those who are being saved.
“Now about that time, King Herod stretched out his hands to oppress some of the assembly. He killed James, the brother of John, with the sword. When he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This was during the days of unleavened bread. When he had arrested him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four squads of four soldiers each to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover. Peter therefore was kept in the prison, but constant prayer was made by the assembly to God for him. The same night when Herod was about to bring him out, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains. Guards in front of the door kept the prison. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood by him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side, and woke him up, saying, ‘Stand up quickly!’ His chains fell off from his hands. The angel said to him, ‘Get dressed and put on your sandals.’ He did so. He said to him, ‘Put on your cloak, and follow me.’ And he went out and followed him. He didn’t know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he saw a vision. When they were past the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate that leads into the city, which opened to them by itself. They went out, and went down one street, and immediately the angel departed from him. When Peter had come to himself, he said, ‘Now I truly know that the Lord has sent out his angel and delivered me out of the hand of Herod, and from everything the Jewish people were expecting.’ Thinking about that, he came to the house of Mary, the mother of John who was called Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. When Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a maid named Rhoda came to answer. When she recognized Peter’s voice, she didn’t open the gate for joy, but ran in, and reported that Peter was standing in front of the gate. They said to her, “You are crazy!” But she insisted that it was so. They said, ‘It is his angel.’ But Peter continued knocking. When they had opened, they saw him, and were amazed. But he, beckoning to them with his hand to be silent, declared to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. He said, ‘Tell these things to James, and to the brothers.’ Then he departed, and went to another place. Now as soon as it was day, there was no small stir among the soldiers about what had become of Peter.” Acts 12:1-18 (WEB)
I was once a fan of horror movies, although I haven’t been to one in years. I found it far more difficult to watch the random killing of young people after I became a mother. I had enough to fear; I didn’t need a movie to add to my stress. Horror movies were fun because of the adrenaline rush that comes from the fear we experience watching the fate of those in the path of some killer.
The funniest part about horror flicks is how predictable they are. When you go to the theater, you know that someone is going to do something to make you scared and sick to your stomach. It doesn’t take very long for the victims and the villain to be introduced to the audience and then it is easy to guess when and where the slasher is going to strike next. You yell at the poor innocent idiots not to lie on that couch or go out the door, but they never hear you. And then, that squeaky, freaky music starts playing and you cringe in your seats knowing it is going to happen. Then, finally, when the deed does happen, you still jump up in astonishment because even though you knew it was going to happen, you just can’t believe that it did.
In today’s Bible story, we see the same type of astonishment, although the surprise is a good one. The people were praying for Peter because he was imprisoned by Herod. They prayed with the expectation that God would do something to help him. In response to their prayers, God sent an angel to free Peter from his chains and imprisonment. When Peter arrived at the house of those praying, they did not believe it could be him. When they saw him, they were astonished; they even thought it must be Peter’s angel.
We don’t pray with the expectation that God will let us down, but we are often surprised when God does answer our prayers. Does that doubt show a lack of faith? After all, God has promised to hear and answer our prayers. Yet, we are not much different than those early Christians. They were experiencing God’s incredible power first hand and they were still astonished that their prayers were answered.
Today is the National Day of Prayer. I imagine that we all have certain things for which we are praying. We all have personal prayers that we pray on a daily basis. We are praying for family and friends. We are praying for good health and to overcome the troubles of our lives. Our prayers are heard and though we don’t always receive the answer for which we hope, God does hear and answer. On this day our focus is much bigger. Though we should pray for our nation and the leaders every day, today we are invited to join our voices to all citizens for the sake of everyone.
We don’t always agree on the politics or the issues. My prayers will be different than other prayers. Sometimes they will even contradict each other. Yet, God hears and answers all our prayers. The thing for us to remember as we are praying for our nation is that God knows what we need better than we do. On this National Day of Prayer, let us pray God’s will and not our agenda and let us do so with faith rather than doubt. God will continue to amaze us daily with the works of His hands. We’ll still be surprised because God’s amazing grace is greater than anything we can ever imagine. His surprising actions help us to remember how awesome He truly is, to be astonished into praise and thanksgiving for He is worthy of our worship.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.” Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, WEB
I was watching television the other day when a commercial came on starring a family visiting places all across the United States. The group included the recently widowed grandmother who was determined to fulfill the dying wish of her husband to see America. The family is shown driving from New York City through St. Louis, Arkansas, west Texas, Colorado, Arizona and Utah, ending in northern California, where the family spreads the grandfather’s ashes into the Pacific. The soundtrack is Simon and Garfunkel’s “America.” I watched the commercial with interest thinking to myself, “That’s a movie I would like to see.” The commercial ended and I discovered it wasn’t a movie trailer; it was a car commercial.
The advertisement was for a new Volkswagen vehicle that is larger than the usual beetles or rabbits that they have always been known to produce. The Atlas is a comfortable crossover that will fit a large family comfortably for extended journeys and thus the story of the widow’s quest to honor her husband. It is a lovely story and would really make a terrific movie.
As I researched this advertisement, I discovered that the real story behind the grandmother is as delightful as the story in the commercial. Marie Gallagher is a widowed Irish-American from Boston who heard about the opportunity to be in the commercial, so she decided to try out. She was unprepared for the visit of the casting agents because she was expecting them an hour later, but despite her hair in rollers and her disheveled appearance, the interview went well. She and her husband were avid VW fans, having owned many throughout their lives. Her husband was an electrician; they traveled the country in a beetle as he took jobs working on power lines. She became emotional as she showed them pictures of her husband. They used one of those photos in the commercial.
The commercial was filmed during a twenty-eight day “vacation” during which the seven cast members got to know each other like a real family. They hung out in hotel rooms and ate pizza together. While the scenes were surely staged, the emotions, particularly Marie’s, were likely very real as she remembered her husband and the adventures they took together. She told stories of their life together and they even saw one of the large power towers that he helped to build. She told a reporter this story from the shoot, laughing at the memory: “One day in a redwood forest in Northern California, the cast was kept waiting in a van as a driving rain kept them from shooting. Being from Ireland, I was born in the rain. ‘Grandma is not sitting in this van, let me out.’ It was pouring from the heavens and they are all saying, ‘Grandma, get back in the car.’”
Isn’t that a movie you would like to see?
Whether a movie or a television commercial, the story is not real. Anyone who has taken a road trip knows that the kids begin to pester one another. We get tired. We can’t find a decent place to eat and get grumbly hungry. Hotels are often disappointing. The weather doesn’t cooperate. And yet, as I learned about Marie Gallagher I realized that though the people were actors, the story was actually very real. I’m sure we only see what they want us to see and that everything did go so well during those four weeks. They talk about being a family, but we all know that families aren’t perfect. We fight. We get angry. We hurt one another. We love. We laugh. We help each other. It is all part of life. There is a time for it all. Most of all, there is a time to be together, to tell our stories and to experience life and all its joys and sorrows, as a family whether we are related or not.
“Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind; for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin; that you no longer should live the rest of your time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. For we have spent enough of our past time doing the desire of the Gentiles, and having walked in lewdness, lusts, drunken binges, orgies, carousings, and abominable idolatries. They think it is strange that you don’t run with them into the same excess of riot, blaspheming: who will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.” 1 Peter 4:1-5, WEB
There are some things that are difficult to give up. Cigarettes, alcohol and drugs are substances that are addictive for many people. For others, bad language and physical violence are habits that are tough to break. Some people are drawn into sexual promiscuity. They justify continuing in their way of life by saying it doesn’t hurt anyone else. Many times they try to stop but other factors stand in the way. One excuse is that they are dealing with too many other things, such as financial or emotional problems, and their habit helps them cope. They claim that they will give it up soon, after they get through some situation. Also, our bodies do not want to give up our addictions, so it goes through painful withdrawal.
I was watching one of those shows with an expert that goes into a business to help the owner overcome difficulty. In this case, the biggest problem was that the business troubles caused the owners to drink excessively. The expert refused to help unless they promised not to drink while they were at work. The man struggled and even showed signs of withdrawal during the show, although his fears of failure were enough to keep him from turning back to alcohol. The woman did not struggle as much until old friends came into the bar. They wanted her to take a shot with them; they even began chanting which spread through the place as everyone tried to get her to drink. She walked away. Her future was far more important than falling into peer pressure.
Peer pressure is tough to beat. When we socialize with our friends, we take part in the same activities. Parties include drinking, smoking and other habits. Nights out on the town are spent in bars, picking up members of the opposite sex. It’s fun! Yet, the time comes for many when they realize that these activities are not harmless. They recognize the dangers involved in continuing those actions. So, they try to stop. Their friends make it so difficult. They say, “You were more fun when you were drinking.” Or, “You have become such a prude.” It is our nature to want to fit in with the crowd. We are tempted to go back to our old way of life. For a new Christian, this is one of the hardest things to overcome. It is often the cause of lost friendships. We suffer persecution from those who think we are being “holier than thou” with our newfound faith.
What changes have occurred in your own life of faith and what changes still need to happen? Do you get angry too quickly, or overeat when upset? Do you spend too much money when you are shopping? Do you drink, smoke or swear? If you have tried to stop, how are your friends dealing with the changes in your life? Have you been persecuted for your new actions, abusing you in word or by tempting you to return to your old ways?
Remember, you have life in Christ, a new life that should be according to the will of God, our Father Almighty. God loves us as we are and has forgiven us for our excesses, but He calls us to give up the old ways so that we can live in love, hope and peace. The fruit of the Spirit should be manifesting in your life, and will as you get rid of the acts of the sinful nature. We cannot be a friend of Christ and continue in our old life. There is no room in our heart for both man’s ways and God’s ways. When you face the persecution that comes with new life in Christ, stand firm in faith. Suffer with your Lord, knowing that you have chosen the better way and God will give you strength to live in Him.
“By this we know that we remain in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God remains in him, and he in God. We know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and he who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him. In this love has been made perfect among us, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment, because as he is, even so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear has punishment. He who fears is not made perfect in love. We love him, because he first loved us. If a man says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who doesn’t love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? This commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should also love his brother.” 1 John 4:13-21, WEB
A joke for today: Fred arrived at the Pearly Gates ready for his interview with St. Peter. He asked Fred several questions including, “Can you share any experience in your life on earth when you did anything that was purely unselfish?” Fred answered, “Yes! I was walking along when I saw an old lady being attacked by a group of motorcycle thugs. I ran toward her, pulled her from their grasp, distracted them by knocking over a bike while I got the woman to safety. They I turned back to fight the group. I managed to get a few good shots in.” St. Peter was impressed. “When did this happen,” he asked. “Oh, about twenty minutes ago.”
It surely is unselfish to give your life for the sake of another, especially a stranger. I’m not sure many of us would do the same. It was probably foolish for him to turn back to the group, but I’m not sure that he’d have escaped anyway, especially when he kicked over the bike. Of course, the story is a joke, but it makes us wonder how far we would go to help another person. Are we willing to risk our lives for a stranger? Are we willing to risk our reputation? Our wealth? What are we willing to give up so to serve our neighbor?
Now, St. Peter won’t be asking such questions of those who make it to the pearly gates. No good deeds, no matter how good they are, will get us into heaven. Jesus is the only way. Yet, our faith in Jesus Christ calls us to live a sacrificial life. That means willingly giving ourselves for the sake of others, risking life, reputation and wealth so that our neighbors will see God’s grace in and through our lives. We probably won’t need to lay down our lives for the sake of another, and there are some things that we do that are more than foolish.
Here is thing for us to remember: our hope is not in our earthly lives, our reputation or our wealth. Our hope is in the promises of God. Whatever we face is nothing compared to the things we will receive from our Father when we do find that we must make sacrifices for the sake of others. Loving God means loving others even unto death. Death has no hold on us, however, because we have been promised eternal life. Our faith guarantees our invitation to enter through the Pearly Gates, so we have no need to fear even if we are faced with the possibility of sacrifice.
Scriptures for Sunday, May 14, 2017, Fifth Sunday of Easter: Acts 6:1-9, 7:2a, 51-60; Psalm 146; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
“Don’t let your heart be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me.” John 14:1, WEB
Have you ever become overwhelmed by the stresses of a big project or event? There are a lot of details that go into the planning and execution of anything of importance. We had an open house a few months after we moved into our house five years ago. I had to make sure that the house was clean, that there was plenty of food and drink. We made it an open house, but planned on doing a house blessing at a certain hour, so most of our guests came at that time. We invited a lot of people, and a lot of people showed up. We had more than fifty guests! Luckily the weather was nice so people could gather outside to fellowship.
It was really difficult to keep my eyes on everything that day. I had plenty of food, but kept some in the refrigerator so it would stay fresh. It wasn’t until the end of the party that I realized that we had not continued to fill the deviled eggs. We had a lot left over. I was so busy being a hostess that I couldn’t take care of that task. I should have assigned it to someone.
It is very easy to become overwhelmed with some of the details when putting on a big event. How many times have we attended events where the sound system doesn’t work right or the name tags were left at the office? Slide shows and videos never seem to work. There’s always something wrong with the number of wine glasses for dinner. Some server always manages to scoop too many potatoes on the first plates so there aren’t enough for the last ones.
I was a DJ and worked a wedding with a bride who wanted a very specific song. She gave it to me as part of a very long list of other songs she wanted, but didn’t tell me that one was most important. I told her I’d find as many of the songs as I could. She was terribly disappointed when I told her I had not found that one song; it ruined her whole day. Luckily, I made a phone call and managed to find a copy that could be delivered to the party immediately. I’m not sure why that one tiny detail was so important to the bride, but it fell through the cracks. Something always seems to go wrong.
Imagine what it must have been like for the first Christians. Not only were they trying to understand everything that had happened, they were trying to establish something very new.
The first followers of Jesus probably numbered a few hundred. We focus our attention on the Twelve during the ministry of Jesus, but it is likely that there were far more that regularly attended Him. Luke tells us of a time when Jesus sent seventy out to share the kingdom of God with the nations. The crowd in the Upper Room for the Last Supper as well as in the days following Jesus’ crucifixion was likely even larger than that, including women and children. Matthias replaced Judas and was chosen out of a group of seventy who “have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, to the day that he was received up from us, of these one must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” (Acts 1:21b-22, WEB)
The group of Twelve was important. While there were many others who had been with Jesus from the beginning, Jesus had given the Twelve an important role as leaders among the disciples. They spent more time with Jesus, had been taught more thoroughly. While I don’t think Jesus ever meant for there to be a hierarchy of disciples, the Twelve certainly stood separate from the rest. Among those disciples were the inner circle, Peter, James and John, who had been witness to some of the more private moments of Jesus’ time on earth.
The Twelve, including Matthias, needed to focus on certain aspects of ministry. They had to take what Jesus had taught them and learn how to teach it to others. Jesus did so many good things along the way, but the most important thing was always sharing the Word of God with the people. We see that especially in the story of the feeding of the five thousand. The people followed Jesus because their bellies were full, but Jesus rebuked them because they missed the sign in the meal. “Believe.” The Word of God brings faith, but if we are so busy filling bellies, then we miss the opportunity to give the people what they really need.
Jesus knew this would be a problem. It was one of the temptations He faced in the wilderness. The devil tempted Him to turn all the rocks into bread, but Jesus reminded him that the real bread is God’s Word. Peter learned that lesson and knew that it was important for the Twelve to keep their focus on what was important.
Yet, we also know the importance of ensuring that the needs of our community are met. Jesus would not want anyone to go hungry. He commands us to take care of one another. He gives us the authority to do the works He did. We are called to feed the poor, to give a cup of water to those who are thirsty, to clothe the naked, to visit the imprisoned and to heal the sick. There is so much to be accomplished. It is hard enough when the community is small, but imagine how difficult it became in those first days of the Church.
There are always growing pains. Ask anyone who has been involved in a church that has had sudden growth. The numbers go up faster than the workers can be trained, and something always falls through the cracks. That’s the reason many congregations hit a plateau. They level out because there is no plan for dealing with so many extra people. The best congregations plan for growth long before it comes so that they are ready with helpers to keep things moving forward.
That’s what Peter suggested when he began to hear complaints that things were being missed. He knew the importance of what the Twelve had to do, and that others needed to be prepared to do the other work. Unfortunately, we don’t always appreciate the work of our pastors and we think that they can, and should, do much of that work themselves. Ask any pastor, of a small or large congregation, how hard it is to accomplish everything they need to accomplish! Some congregations depend on their pastors for everything, from preaching to scrubbing the toilet bowl. I once had a conversation with a pastor who was dealing with a difficult situation at his church. The people expected him to put in a forty-hour week doing the things they thought needed to be done. So, they asked him to put on paper his schedule and to document his work. He included time for prayer. His members were taken aback: “You pray on the clock? Shouldn’t you do that on your own time?”
Peter knew that prayer was vital to the work they were doing. It was new. Though they had spent time with Jesus, around three years, there was still so much to learn and understand. They needed God’s guidance to work out the details of this new community of faith. They knew that they could not push forward and make decisions without first listening to God. Sadly, we make a lot of decisions in the church these days without seeking God’s help with the matter. We think it is more important for our pastors to clean toilets than to pray. We want them to fill their calendars with busy work that we could accomplish, when they should be spending most of their time in prayer and ministry of the Word.
We are reminded by this text that our pastors need to focus on prayer and the ministry of the word without being tasked with jobs we can do. The twelve looked to the disciples for help. The chosen men - Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus - had been around for awhile. They may have been in the groups of disciples sent out to preach and heal by Jesus. They were probably in the Upper Room on that first Easter night and on Pentecost. They were not part of the Twelve, but had heard and seen Jesus with their own ears and eyes.
These were not dish washers; they were men of wisdom and power. Stephen did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. He preached the Word even as he worked to meet the physical needs of the community of faith. Stephen fed the hungry and met the needs of the poor, all the while sharing the Gospel of grace. Even at the point of death, Stephen cried out to the Lord to forgive those who were about to kill him. Jesus said we will do greater things, and that is what Stephen did. He is remembered as the first martyr, and so he was the first to follow Jesus into death. Yet, his martyrdom did not earn him a place in heaven or a reward of eternal life. That was won at the cross of Christ. Our mission is not just about living the example of Christ in the world; it is about sharing the forgiveness He brought to the world through His death on the cross. There God is truly glorified.
Today’s Gospel lesson includes statements of wonder from two of the disciples. Thomas, whose unbelief and confession was the focus just a few weeks ago, didn’t understand what Jesus was saying. He told them that He was going to prepare a place for them and that they would follow Him. “You know the way,” He said. But Thomas didn’t know where He was going. “I am the way, the truth and the life,” He said. Jesus wasn’t talking about a trip to a place, but rather the path to God’s kingdom.
Jesus is not simply one of the ways to God; He is the way, the truth and the life. His way is not just a right way to get to heaven. Jesus did not say that those who think or act as He does will inherit the kingdom of God. He said, “No one comes to the Father, except through me.” Jesus is the gate that leads to eternal life. There is no other way. There are those, even some Christians, who see Jesus as merely another chapter in the story of God. To them, Jesus need not be the only way to God, but rather an example of one path we can take to know God. Jesus is the only way.
Phillip, still confused asked Jesus to show them the Father. Philip wanted to believe, but he was having a hard time believing without something on which He could grasp with his senses and his mind. He just wanted Jesus to show them some tangible evidence. It is certainly not too much to ask from a man who was demanding such an extraordinary sacrifice of His followers. Don’t be troubled? How can we go through even a day without a bit of worry, especially when our world seems to be falling apart? Believe in someone? People fail us every day. They break promises. They break our hearts. It is no wonder that Philip wanted something to help him hold on to the hope which Jesus was promising.
Jesus wasn’t just a teacher or rabbi. He wasn’t just another person demanding something from them. He wasn’t just someone asking them to have faith without reason. “Have I been with you such a long time, and do you not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father. How do you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? The words that I tell you, I speak not from myself; but the Father who lives in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me; or else believe me for the very works’ sake.” Jesus is the way and He is so close to the Father that being with Him means being with God. There is no other path.
God’s way is different. He does not need anything we have; He gives freely out of His love for His creation. That is why we take refuge in God when we face difficulty, committing our souls to His care no matter what should happen. For no matter what happens to our bodies, God has rescued us from death through the blood of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Our good works will fail us because we will fail to do everything that needs to be done. We can’t solve the world’s problems with our physical labor or all the money that exists. We need something greater. We need someone greater: Jesus. He has laid down the future not only of an earthly Church that does good work, but of an eternal kingdom where we will dwell in the presence of God forever. These are words that need to be heard. Unfortunately, many will cover their ears. They don’t want to hear this. They don’t want to know that Jesus is the way because they like the path they have chosen.
Because they do not want to hear, we will face persecution and rejection. We probably won’t be stoned and I doubt we’ll see a similar fate of the other disciples. That doesn’t make the message any easier to speak, especially since the persecution we face might mean the difference between a job or friendship. We might even lose our family over our passionate proclamation of God’s truth. But this is what God calls us to do: speak the truth with grace and mercy. They can’t believe if they don’t hear. They can’t experience God’s forgiveness if they don’t know they are in need of it. They won’t be saved if they never realize that they need a Savior. Though they will cover their ears, preach it louder; speak more boldly with love.
Do not be troubled, because even when the world rejects what you, God will not. He will be with you through everything: good and bad. Ultimately, His promises will be fulfilled. Even if we suffer at the hands of enemies that refuse to listen, God has rescued us from the greatest enemy, death. At that moment, we’ll see Jesus at the right hand of God, as He welcomes us into God’s glory for eternity. We’ll see Him with outstretched arms ready to draw us into His bosom forever. There in the glorious presence of God we’ll know real joy and peace forever.
God often calls us to do things that we would rather not do. He calls us to share the Gospel with our neighbor, but we are afraid we’ll sound like a Jesus freak. He calls us to feed the poor, but we don’t want to give money to someone who will use the money for drugs or alcohol. He calls us to rebuke or correct a brother, but we think, “Who am I to do this? I’m not perfect or intelligent enough to do what God wants me to do.” We ask God for confirmation, for a clear sign that it is Him that we are hearing. We put off the task because we fear recrimination or we have doubts of the calling.
Jesus told the disciples, “Don’t let your heart be troubled.” Whatever we are called to do, we are called to do it with faith. God is with us. We don’t have to speak our own words because by the power of the Holy Spirit, God will put His Word in our mouths. We will face opposition; but we do not need to be afraid. He is always with us. These words of Jesus are some of the most comforting of scripture. We can rest in His promises; He is preparing a place for us. One day we will be with Him. This is the promise of eternal life.
We are comforted by the words of Jesus but wonder at them, too. He told the disciples that they would do all greater works than Himself. Have any of us really done anything so extraordinary? What did He mean? Will we really do miracles greater even than what He did? Or is there some greater mission for which we have been sent into the world? People are sick, lonely, burdened, imprisoned, hungry and poor. The church has worked for millennia to help ease the pain which is suffered in this world. This is a wonderful mission. Yet, people from every religion respond to the world’s troubles by doing good works. They find peace and joy in their worship and love in their fellowship with other believers. Christians are not unique in this type of life.
Christians are called to something greater: a ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation. According to John’s Gospel, the greatest sign, or miracle, of Jesus was His death on the cross, because there He defeated death and sin to reconcile us to God through His forgiveness. People are not saved by good works. They are saved by the Word of God, Jesus Christ. We are called to take Jesus Christ into the world, to share His grace and His mercy. There is a chasm between God and man much greater than we ourselves can cross. We try to do so with good works, even following the example of Jesus’ kindness and compassion. We are merciful to our neighbor. But there is no hope in works righteousness because we can’t do enough to earn the grace of God. We have no assurance that we have done enough.
What we need most in this world is reconciliation and forgiveness. Yet how many even think they need to be forgiven? Rather than seeking the justification of God, we justify our sins as if they are God-given rights or even personal expressions of our own lives. Even worse, we no longer recognize that sin is more than just the things we do wrong. It is the separation that was created between God and man in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve rejected God’s Word and chose to believe the serpent. So, in today’s world we still ask the question, “Did God really say?” and we find ways to juxtapose our wants and desires alongside God’s truth.
We must trust in God, not ourselves, or we will be just like Adam and Eve in that Garden. As we continue to ask the question, “Did God really say?” we will find ourselves in the same position: outside the grace of God on our own path. It does not matter if the path appears to be one of goodness and righteousness. If Christ is not the foundation, then it is a path to nowhere.
Peter, Stephen and the rest of the disciples began to understand this as they prayerfully sought God’s will for their lives. God didn’t pick a particularly talented group of men to build His Church. He picked a motley crew of misfits. He did this for a reason. He wanted to show us that He doesn’t choose those who are perfect, but that He perfects those who are chosen. Stephen didn’t accomplish what he accomplished because he was particularly good or wise. He was good and wise because God gave him the power and the words.
He gives us the power and the words, too. As a matter of fact, the promise in today’s Gospel passage is as much for us as it was for those first Christians. Jesus said, “Most certainly I tell you, he who believes in me, the works that I do, he will do also; and he will do greater works than these, because I am going to my Father. Whatever you will ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you will ask anything in my name, I will do it.”
The world will reject us. The world will demand things that are not according to God’s will. We are called to live in hope no matter the circumstances we face. We are called to dwell in the presence of God today because He will help us through our troubles, even unto death. In faith we can join with Stephen in crying out to God to be our refuge, so that we might dwell in His presence today, tomorrow and always. And we are called to share the hope of the promise with all those who cross our path no matter the consequences. For in doing so, in sharing the forgiveness of God and helping God in the ministry of reconciliation, we will truly see greater things happen than ever happened with Jesus in flesh. He went to be with the Father so we could be His hands, and mouths, in this world.
The world might trouble us, but we have no reason to be troubled because we believe in God and we believe in Jesus. Whatever we are called to do, whether it is to be like Peter in prayer and preaching or Stephen in service, we are called to do it with faith. God is with us. We don’t have to speak our own words because by the power of the Holy Spirit, God will put His Word in our mouths. We will face opposition; but we do not need to be afraid. He is always with us.
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, and whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his life? Or what will a man give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and then he will render to everyone according to his deeds. Most certainly I tell you, there are some standing here who will in no way taste of death, until they see the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom.’” Matthew 16:24-28, WEB
There’s a scene in the movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” during which Holly Golightly has a party. It is a chaotic event, with so many people in her tiny apartment that it is impossible to move from one place to another. Holly is busy socializing with her guests, including important and rich men. See, she’s a bit of a gold-digger, determined that she will find and marry a rich man so that she will be comfortable for the rest of her life. When a friend arrived at the party with two men, Holly knew to choose the short funny looking man over the tall, handsome, Latin lover type because the short guy was one of the richest men in the world.
Meanwhile, Holly’s new neighbor Paul Varjak also attended the party. While Holly’s attention was on her latest prey, Paul dealt with a number of problems occurring around the apartment. One woman’s hat was set on fire by a cigarette. The phone rang with the upstairs neighbor complaining about the noise. The police arrived to break up the party and the tall, handsome, Latin lover type was a foreign dignitary who needed to stay out of the limelight. Paul helped him escape out the window. As the movie went on, Paul continued to help Holly. She was an independent woman, but in so many ways little more than a child. She was so focused on her quest for wealth that she never saw that he would fulfill her real need for love.
Paul was his own kind of gold-digger, a writer supported by a married woman who gave him enough money so that he could write his brilliant novel without the distractions of a job. The afternoon trysts with her were to be his only distraction. He needed Holly as much as she needed him. They sought wealth and fame, but what they both really needed was healing and wholeness.
What are you chasing in this world? We all have something to focus our attention, whether it is our jobs, our families or our hobbies. We want the best we can possibly have. Holly’s childhood led to her need for the security she thought she would find in a rich man’s home. Paul’s need for approval led to his acceptance of the wrong kind of help to support his dreams. They tried to save their lives but in reality lost them until they discovered how they healed each other’s wounds. We seek to fill our own holes with all the wrong things and miss where we can truly find healing and wholeness. Our quests for earthly things will never truly satisfy us.
Holly and Paul found love in one another and denied themselves for the sake of one another. Our life as Christians demands an even greater sacrifice. It is only the love of Christ that can fully and completely heal us and make us whole. We might feel like we are losing ourselves by giving our bodies and our spirits over to faith, but the reality is that it is only in our denial of self and everything that has demanded our focus will we ever find the peace that will restore us to the life we are meant to live.
“Yahweh, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth, who has set your glory above the heavens! From the lips of babes and infants you have established strength, because of your adversaries, that you might silence the enemy and the avenger. When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have ordained; what is man, that you think of him? What is the son of man, that you care for him? For you have made him a little lower than God, and crowned him with glory and honor. You make him ruler over the works of your hands. You have put all things under his feet: all sheep and cattle, yes, and the animals of the field, the birds of the sky, the fish of the sea, and whatever passes through the paths of the seas. Yahweh, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Psalm 8, WEB
I love our zoo. I have always supported whatever zoo was in our area wherever we lived. A trip to the zoo was always a fun day for the kids and for me. I like to take photos of many of the animals, although I have to admit that I have my favorites. Our zoo has a wonderful collection of big cats and so many flamingos that they have multiple exhibits. They have an amazing breeding program and have recently seen the birth of tigers, lions and jaguars. They are constantly announcing the birth of another monkey or some other creature.
There are those who don’t like zoos. They think it is cruel to keep animals penned in tiny habitats when they could be roaming free in the wilds. They cry out when an animal dies, even if it has lived well beyond expectation. They demand changes based on their knowledge of animals, although they don’t really know any better than the professionals actually caring for the animals. Zoos offer a valuable opportunity to learn about creatures that we would never see. Photos and books don’t really help us appreciate the reality of these beautiful beings. Zoos have conservation programs that help protect the animals in the wild. Zoos often provide a home for animals that could never survive if they were free to roam.
I love watching as the animals dwell happily in their habitats. Yes, I think they are happy. The big cats, except for size, act just like my cats. The cubs play like kittens. The male lion sprawls out on the warm grass as if he hasn’t a care in the world. The female watches over her family like any mother watches over her children. The apes love to interact with the people, often showing off for the cameras. They are as curious about us as we are about them. Is the life in a zoo ideal for a wild animal? It probably is not, but there is so much we can learn from them when we visit them at the zoo.
Zookeepers all around the world are learning what the animals need and they are applying it to their conservation programs in the wild. Some endangered species have been saved thanks to breeding programs at the zoos. Children who have learned to love the animals on school visits to the zoo have grown to be veterinarians, zoologists, or ecologists. Besides the natural and practical information gained from the work happening at zoos, we can see the majesty of God’s creation as we would never be able without them. How many of us would have been able to say we could see lion cubs at play if they weren’t in the zoo down the street?
We look at the world and think of ourselves as unimportant and unworthy of attention. The Lord loves all His creation, but most of all He cares care for you. He cares about every hair on your head and every tear that you shed. He cares about your pain and your heartbreak. He cares about every thought, word and deed. Why does He care? He cares because He created you, and He planned a special purpose for your life. Rejoice and praise the Lord for He loves you so much. Yet God has placed the highest value on our life. He has given His Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, so that we can have eternal life in the presence of the Most High.
In the garden, God created man and gave him dominion over all the earth. I suppose that’s most obvious within the walls of a zoo. Sadly, we’ve never done a very good job at caring for God’s creation. Too many animals have been destroyed by mankind’s quest to dominate the world: destroying habitats, using animal bones for tchotchkes, trophy killing. There are good reasons for the animal lovers to complain about the treatment of animals. Yet, the zoos provide us a way of seeing how we can love and care for all God’s creation even while we have dominion over them. We can appreciate the lessons they can teach us about God. We can learn how to share this world with them and thus learn how to share this world with one another.
Scriptures for Sunday, May 21, 2017, Sixth Sunday of Easter: Acts 17:16-31; Psalm 66:8-20; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
“But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you are blessed. ‘Don’t fear what they fear, neither be troubled.’” 1 Peter 3:14, WEB
I’m a mom. I will always be my children’s mom no matter how old they grow. I will worry about them no matter where they end up. I will still wonder what has happened when they are a minute later than I expect them to be. My son was very late for church on Sunday and he didn’t text to tell me what happened. He wasn’t feeling well and had gone back to bed so didn’t make it, but I had visions of his car in a ditch and him crying for help. It was unnecessary stress, but I’m a mom. I will never stop caring for my children.
It is much harder to deal with my worries for my daughter because she’s living far from home. We keep up with each other via text and social media, much more than I had when I was a young woman living far from my own mother. However, I still feel the stresses when she calls to tell me she isn’t feeling well. How can I take care of her if she is a thousand miles away? She is certainly not an orphan, but I can’t be two places at once. I can only offer my words and advice and prayers; I can hope all will be well with her and that I raised an independent, intelligent woman who can take care of herself.
Who among us don’t wish that we could have the same experiences that the first disciples had with Jesus? Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to walk with Him, to listen to Him teach, to watch as He made life-changing differences in people’s lives? I would love to have been there when He raised the little girl and fed the five thousand. I might have been as frightened as Peter, but I would have loved having Jesus invite me to walk on the water. I would like to have been able to ask Jesus questions so that I might understand some of the misunderstood things that He said. I want to be Mary at His feet and Martha serving Him dinner. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all have those experiences?
We can’t, however. Jesus was God, but as a man He was limited by the same things that limit us. He could not be in every place during His life on earth. He couldn’t be in Jerusalem and Galilee at the same time; He had to walk from one to the other if He wanted to minister to the people in each place. He did miraculous things, but He did them one at a time for one person at a time. He could have dwelled on earth forever, but He would have still been limited by the flesh. Even after death and resurrection, though His body was different, He would not have been able to be with you and me and all the other Christians in every generation.
That’s why He had to ascend to heaven. That’s why He invites us to be His heart and His hands in this world. And that’s why He sent the Holy Spirit. While He could not be in every time and place in flesh, He could be in every time and place in Spirit. He may not be with us as He was with the disciples two thousand years ago, but He’s with us in a much better way.
The Gospel passage for this week continues from last week when Jesus encouraged the disciples not to be troubled. He promised that He will not abandon His people. “I will not let you become orphans,” He said. He is going to leave them. This is the last Sunday before Ascension Day which will be celebrated on May 25th. We are in the final days of the forty He stayed with the disciples, training them for the future. This is it. Jesus was getting them ready for the inevitable: He had to leave.
But He would not leave them alone. He would send them a helper: the Holy Spirit. I can imagine how they felt. The sadness they felt at the crucifixion would be even greater now. Death seemed so permanent, but Jesus returned. Who knows what they would have done if He had never been raised. I doubt they would have continued His work. They were ready to get back to their old lives. Two disciples went home to Emmaus. Thomas disappeared, we don’t know where. Peter even went back to fishing. Then Jesus returned and He spent forty days nurturing them beyond discipleship into apostles. He breathed the Spirit and true life into them and taught them everything they needed to know. It was finally possible for them to understand; they became apostles sent into the world to continue His work. He says the same thing to us.
Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” This is not just a call to lawful behavior. We cringe a little when we start talking about the Law because we don’t want to be accused of works righteousness. Yet, we are still meant to live according to God’s Law because it is a gift to God’s people and it is the best life for us. It is good to honor our parents, to not steal, cheat or kill. It is good for us to want what we have and not envy our neighbors. It is wrong to lie or bear false witness. And it is right to live with God as our Lord.
But if we listen to this text in the context of Jesus’ farewell discourse in John 13-16 that the most important commandment is to believe in Him. He is the way, the truth and the life. If we love Him, we will believe in Him. We will believe He is the way, the truth and the life. If we love Jesus, we will keep our eyes on Him and trust that He will be faithful to His promises. Even if we have to suffer for this faith, He will be ready to receive us with open arms.
If we love Him, we will stand so firmly in everything He has said that we will not be afraid to tell those who do not yet know Him about the reality of God. That’s what Jesus was preparing the disciples to do. Oh, they would do amazing, incredible things. Oh, they would heal the sick and cast out demons. They would provide for the well-being of the community of believers. They would even raise the dead. Most of all, however, the disciples were sent into the world to take God’s light and life to those who were lost in sin and darkness. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. The job of all Jesus’ disciples is to help others find that path. He is the only way to forgiveness and reconciliation with God. He is the only path to real peace.
Paul was in Athens. The Greeks were an ecumenical society. They offered something for everyone, especially in religious practice. There was a temple on every corner, which satisfied the religious needs of a very diverse community. Athens was a place where trading routes crossed; it was a place where the world came together. Since the economy of that type of place was dependent on foreigners, they wanted everyone to feel at home. They even had an altar inscribed “To an unknown god.” Those who could not find a specific temple at least had a place to worship, a place where their god could be honored and remembered.
The religious debaters of Athens heard about Paul and that he was teaching about a new God. They convinced Paul to go with them to the Areopagus, otherwise known as Mars Hill, a place of theological debate and discussion. He began his talk by commending them for their religion, but his compliment was tongue in cheek. They had an altar for an “unknown God,” just in case. We don’t want to leave any of the gods out in our worship, right?
He stepped into their world and reached them from their point of view. In doing so, however, he did not settle for the ecumenical open-mindedness of the Athenians. He told them what they were missing. He boldly proclaimed the God of creation and His Son Jesus Christ. His theology was ridiculous to the people of Athens. Though they could grasp some aspects of the Christian message, they found some things to be foolishness, not the least of which was the death and resurrection of Christ.
After Paul finished talking, some of the men on Mars Hill sneered. It was risky to go and speak that day. Paul was a man of power, intellect. He was respected as a teacher and wise man. However, talk about resurrection and the sovereignty of God made him sound like an intolerant fool. In that type of society it was unacceptable to raise one god above the others, all gods were equal. This was made even worse by the mythical stories on which Paul’s faith was built: the virgin birth and a dead God? Repentance and forgiveness were not aspects of their religious experience, so the Christian story seemed pointless and absurd. Sounds pretty much like it could happen today, doesn’t it?
Others believed and asked Paul to tell them more. Paul risked status, position and respect by boldly proclaiming the Gospel message of grace and in doing so, some came to believe. We live in a similar society, where buffets are the norm so that everyone who enters can be satisfied. There are religious houses on every corner, something for everyone. While diversity can be a good thing, and it is right for us to love our neighbor even if they worship a different God, are we willing to be like Paul boldly proclaiming the message of the Gospel to those who would prefer to settle for the ecumenical open-mindedness that says that all gods are equal?
Paul knew that the people were reasonable and religious, so he took advantage of his time in Athens. He went the synagogue and preached. He talked to people on street corners and in the marketplace. I can just imagine him pulling up a chair at the street café and striking up a conversation with the others at the table, “Have you heard of Jesus?” Paul had the courage to be a bold evangelist, but our question for today is whether or not we have the same courage.
We should. We have the Holy Spirit. Yet, I suspect that there are many of us who do not have the same boldness as those early disciples. We might claim the times are different, but are they all that different?
I think we are afraid to speak the Gospel because we don’t want to be rejected. We forget that even though some will scoff, but there might just be someone who will hear the Word and want to know more. We stay silent out of fear of those who do not want to be saved, ignoring the needs of those who would be saved if only we would be gracious to share God’s Word with them. Paul certainly knew what it was like to get run out of town because of his ministry, but that didn’t stop him. Are we willing to be so bold?
I know I’ve squandered moments when I should have spoken the Gospel and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. I’m sure there are times when most of us, if not all, decide it is just better to remain silent than say something. We can even justify our silence with scripture; after all there are plenty of verses that tell us wise men keep their mouth shut while the foolish rant on and on. We all know that there are just some times when it is better to just be silent. We decide that it is better to just live peacefully as we believe we are meant to live and allow others to live as they want to live. But there are times when we should not be silent, when a word from God is not only helpful, it is vital. There are times when God calls us to speak words we would rather not speak.
We think that kindness and good works are enough. “Preach the Gospel and if necessary use words.” However, the scriptures are clear that actions are not enough. Jesus says over and over again, “Listen.” He tells His listeners to “hear the word.” He calls His followers to be witnesses, to testify, to say the words that bring forgiveness, salvation and hope to the world. It is good to do what is right, but I think we use our good works as a cop-out. It isn’t enough to do what is good. People aren’t saved by good works. They don’t receive faith in a sandwich. Faith comes from hearing the Word.
Peter talks about the harm we might experience for being witnesses for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our testimony will bring peace to the world, but is likely to bring persecution. Doing what is good in this passage is proclaiming that Christ is Lord and calling people to repentance. We are called to take the saving WORD of Christ into the world, no matter what others think, say or do.
Peter was writing to a community that was being persecuted. They were afraid to do what they knew they should do. Peter wrote that they should have courage. They might suffer persecution from the things they were doing, but it was through their lives that the world would see God glorified. Instead of responding with anger, they were to respond with grace. Instead of fighting back, they were to be meek and humble. In the end, the enemies of God’s people will be put to shame. Their suffering might just be the catalyst that will cause another person to believe in Jesus and in this God will be glorified.
Reflecting the comforting words of Jesus to not be troubled in last week’s Gospel, Peter gives us two tools to help us through this instruction: do not fear and be faithful. We are invited into the work of God’s kingdom on earth, to continue what Christ started. We need not fear what will come; we have the Holy Spirit to give us the faith that God is with us, and with His help we can speak God’s truth. What is the truth? The truth is that Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God. He died so that we might be saved. He died so that our neighbors might be saved. He died so that our enemies might be saved. But no one can be saved without hearing that Word.
Do not be afraid. Be faithful. These are probably the hardest words any Christian can hear and follow. We don’t even have anything tangible on which to hold to give us the confidence that we need. How much easier is it when we can hold someone’s hand through tough times? Or have someone literally standing beside us. Jesus said that He would no longer be seen. It is no wonder that the disciples were so afraid in those first days after His crucifixion. He was no longer among them. Then, after the resurrection, they saw Him for forty days as He repeated the commands and promises. “Do not be afraid. Be faithful. The world won’t see me, but you will see me. You will have my Spirit and then you’ll know without a doubt that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”
If we love Jesus, we will obey His commands. We will not be afraid. We will be faithful. We will speak the truth with the same love. We will not be intimidated by the world because we will know that there is something greater on which we stand.
The psalmist sings a song encouraging all God’s people to praise Him for His blessings. However, the blessings found in this psalm are not wealth, health or power. They praise God that He has preserved their lives through trials. They praise God that He has refined their lives through the suffering they faced. The psalmist says, “You sent us to prison,” and “You laid burdens on our back.” He says, “You let men ride over our heads” and “we went through fire and water.” In the end, however, God brought His people to a place of abundance.
These statements refer to the time of suffering in Egypt before the Exodus with Moses. The psalmist recognizes that Egypt was never in control, that God was doing a great work for His people. We are offended by a God that allows suffering in the world, we think is no justification for a people enslaved and mistreated, especially if there is an all powerful and omnipotent God in control.
God knows we will fail. He knows that we can’t live up to the vows we make. We can’t keep the Law perfectly because we are imperfect. He answers our prayers because He loves us and because He is faithful to His promises. He has promised that He will not leave us along and He calls us to be obedient and faithful.
I think the most important question to ask is this: Do we bless God because He has blessed us? Or do we live in the blessing and respond without fear and with faithfulness? Are we willing to give to God even when we will risk everything to do so? Are we willing to speak the truth when we come across those altars to an unknown god? Do we even know how to answer? We are encouraged to know our defense, to be ready to give an answer whenever we have the opportunity to share our testimony. Are we ready to proclaim the Good News that Christ died and rose again so that we can be part of the work of God’s kingdom in the world?
Selah. This is a word that is often found in the psalms and is a musical command to stop. It is a moment to take a breath and to think about what we are hearing or what we will hear. In today’s Psalm the word is followed by something very important for us to hear: “Come, and hear, all you who fear God. I will declare what he has done for my soul.” The psalmist is bold enough to proclaim God’s grace to whoever will listen. Are we willing to be so bold?
Come and hear and I will proclaim God’s grace to you. Jesus is the answer to all your problems.
May the Lord grant us all the strength and courage to be obedient to His commands, to stand firmly in His truth and proclaim the reality of His promises for the world so that all might hear the Word and be saved.
“As therefore you received Christ Jesus, the Lord, walk in him, rooted and built up in him, and established in the faith, even as you were taught, abounding in it in thanksgiving. Be careful that you don’t let anyone rob you through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the elements of the world, and not after Christ. For in him all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily, and in him you are made full, who is the head of all principality and power; in whom you were also circumcised with a circumcision not made with hands, in the putting off of the body of the sins of the flesh, in the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. You were dead through your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh. He made you alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, wiping out the handwriting in ordinances which was against us; and he has taken it out of the way, nailing it to the cross; having stripped the principalities and the powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it.” Colossians 2:6-15, WEB
Bruce and I have been married for nearly twenty-nine years and in that time we have lived in eight homes in five places. Most of the moves were due to his career in the military and though it was stressful we loved having so many great experiences around the world. Unfortunately, we got into a pattern of moving early in the year, which forced Zack’s birthday celebration into a crowded hotel room with no friends to share the day. He was fairly young, but I have always tried to make birthdays special for my family. It is hard to do so when you are in a new place and don’t even really know where to buy a birthday cake.
Over the years we’ve all had some fun parties. I remember a few from my own childhood with plenty of friends, yummy cake and fun games. My favorite way to celebrate with our kids was to have a movie party with popcorn and the hot new film on DVD. One party was held at the youth center on base, so the kids had access to the basketball court and other activities. We’ve done some celebrations at special restaurants or events.
Leonard Hofstadter, a character on the show “The Big Bang Theory” never had a birthday party. When asked why, he explained that his parents celebrated achievements and being expelled through a birth canal wasn’t one. We celebrate because it is a great way to mark time and note important rites of passage, transitions from one phase of life to the next. We celebrate the first birthday with huge crowds of adults and watch the child smash icing all over his or her face. The tenth year marks double digits. Thirteen is often important as some religious traditions consider that a time of transition between childhood and the burgeoning independence of teenagers. Sixteen, eighteen and twenty-one are important moments of transition. Adults celebrate the decades as they come and go. A century of life offers an excellent opportunity to see life well lived. Yet, there might be something to Leonard’s parents’ opinion that being expelled through a birth canal isn’t really something worth celebrating.
I went to a retreat early this week and we discussed how to fill our lives with the Trinity. He asked us, “Do you know the date of your baptism?” I did not remember the exact date, but knew I had the certificate. He told us that we should begin celebrating our baptism rather than our birthdays. After all, the day of our birth is the first day of a life that will end with death, but our baptism is the first day of a life that will last forever.
Isn’t it interesting that we have to be born to live but we have to die to have true life? That’s what happens at our baptisms: we are buried with Christ so that we are raised with Him. The life we are given at birth is perishable. We are sinners in need of a Savior. We will suffer the consequences of having flesh that will sin. We’ll get sick and die, not only because we have done something wrong but because we live in a world that is tenuous. It will end. However, through faith in Jesus Christ and the waters of baptism, we are reborn into a Kingdom that will last forever. Jesus overcame all that brings death to this world on His cross and we are raised to new life to share in eternity by His grace. That sounds like something we should be celebrating!
Do you know the date of your baptism? This year, find some way to mark that day and thank Jesus for giving you true life in Him. There are ways to find out. Call your mother. Contact the church where you were baptized. If you don’t have a date, then pick a day. You could even use your own birth date, just remember also the day you died to this world and were raised in true life in Christ.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort; who comforts us in all our affliction, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, through the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound to us, even so our comfort also abounds through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation. If we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer. Our hope for you is steadfast, knowing that, since you are partakers of the sufferings, so also are you of the comfort. For we don’t desire to have you uninformed, brothers, concerning our affliction which happened to us in Asia, that we were weighed down exceedingly, beyond our power, so much that we despaired even of life. Yes, we ourselves have had the sentence of death within ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead, who delivered us out of so great a death, and does deliver; on whom we have set our hope that he will also still deliver us; you also helping together on our behalf by your supplication; that, for the gift given to us by means of many, thanks may be given by many persons on your behalf.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-11, WEB
Another subject that came up during our retreat this week was the idea that affliction is a blessing. How can you find blessedness in the midst of suffering? The blessedness found in affliction is found in the Holy Spirit of God, our Comforter and friend. He shows us the cross of Christ that we might know that there is Good News in the midst of our trouble. Our grief will turn to joy as the love and mercy of Jesus is revealed to us and God draws us deeper into His presence. He wipes away our tears and holds us close. He takes our anger, regret, doubt and loneliness and replaces it with His love.
See, affliction makes us stop so that God can insert Himself into our life. Think about it this way: what happens when you get too busy? I don’t know about you, but I often get sick just when I don’t have time to be sick. I’m laid up in bed just when I have too much too accomplish. This is often our body telling us to stop and rest. It makes us look at our priorities, to think about whether we really need to fill our lives with so much activity. We take stock of the things we must do and we set aside the things that we can set aside. We learn how slow down, to say “No” to at least some of the things that keep us busy so that we can take care of our health.
God does not want us afflicted, but He has promised to be with us in the midst of it. We see in the relationship of God with His people Israel that the afflictions they suffered brought them to their knees in repentance. It caused them to look to the God who promised to care for them. It isn’t that God has sent affliction as a form of punishment, but He knows that affliction makes it possible for Him to insert Himself into our lives. Good News flows out of affliction. God’s comfort grows out of our suffering. When we know the experience of God’s grace in the midst, then we can share His grace with others who are living in the midst of affliction. God inserts Himself into their affliction, too, by His Word spoken into their lives. That word gives hope and peace to those who will hear and believe God’s promises.
“Therefore David blessed Yahweh before all the assembly; and David said, ‘You are blessed, Yahweh, the God of Israel our father, forever and ever. Yours, Yahweh, is the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty! For all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, Yahweh, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all! In your hand is power and might! It is in your hand to make great, and to give strength to all! Now therefore, our God, we thank you, and praise your glorious name. But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to offer so willingly as this? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you. For we are strangers before you, and foreigners, as all our fathers were. Our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is no remaining.’” 1 Chronicles 29:10-15, WEB
The Sunday School class I lead at church is called “Godtalk” because we talk about God. We are a group of amateur theologians considering the things God has revealed to us about Himself through the scriptures. It is a wonderful group of people willing to ask questions and to consider what these truths, even the hardest ones, mean to us as people in His Kingdom and this world. It is amazing what we have learned together; sometimes we are struck with silence because we have discovered something so incredible it defies words.
Yesterday was one of those days. We all walked out of class with so much to think about for the coming week. We didn’t discover something new about God, since God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, but we did discover a new way of seeing God’s Word. This opens up new insights, but also so many new questions. The more we learn, the more we realize we do not know about the God we worship.
This is a good thing. Over and over we have discovered that there are mysteries about this God who is revealed in scripture, in creation, and in the lives of Christians. There are things we will never fully understand. Our focus yesterday was Christology, the doctrine of the Person of Christ. Our understanding of Jesus as fully man and fully God, truly human and truly divine, is important to our understanding of our salvation and how He is worshipped. Additionally, the doctrine of the Person of Christ helps us see that the human and divine are two natures of one person. And yet, the whole doctrine is impossible for us to fully understand. How can the entirety of God fit into the flesh of a man? How can two be one? We can’t wrap our human brains around this mystery, but we believe it to be true.
This is what the Bible confirms to be true, but human beings have long needed to find ways to explain and understand that which is beyond our ability to understand. Heresies come out of this need to grasp with human logic the mysteries of God. Some people don’t want a God who is out of reach. There are no fewer than six Christological heresies, each diminishing the reality of the Word of God which is Jesus Christ. Those heresies deny some aspect of the Person of Christ, making Him less than He is and thus destroying the work of God in His life. We could never have been saved by a Christ who is not what the Bible claims Him to be.
We gather to talk about God, but we do so with the knowledge that we’ll never fully understand Him. We don’t ever want to fully understand Him because a God we can grasp with our minds is not a God who is worth our worship. Our God must be greater than anything we can think up in our own heads. It is good for us to be amateur theologians discovering the God who is revealed in the scriptures as long as we constantly remind ourselves that there will always be mysteries that we can’t fully explain. We wander down dangerous paths when we try to fit God into boxes we can grasp: by doing so we diminish His work and deny His truth. We need God to be greater than us or His promises will never be fulfilled.
Whatever we discover about God, I pray we will always see Him through eyes of amazement, silenced by the reality of His Word. I pray we will allow God to be God, to be greater than we can ever imagine so that we can worship Him with humility and awe. I pray that each new discovery will continue to lead us to new questions so that we’ll never think that we know and understand everything about this God who has done great things for us.
“And God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.’” Exodus 20:1-11, WEB
The world tries to influence the way we live or the things we buy. Very often the influence takes us far away from our Father rather than closer to Him. Angel figurines are very popular, but how many people are more faithful because of them? It just as often had the opposite effect. Christian faith is often the focus of popular books and movies, but is the Gospel really being shared in those mediums? Sadly, when something becomes part of popular society, it is often twisted and counter to the true Word of God.
Many will tell you that a movie or book has been life-changing, but has the affect truly been Christ centered? Some people have been introduced to Jesus through the movies and discussions, but are they really meeting the Christ of the Bible? Jesus sells: the movie “The Passion of the Christ” has proven that to be true. However, not everyone has the same respect for the man whom we call Lord. Novelties are appearing in stores, particularly stores that sell humorous items. There are Jesus bobblehead dolls and a Jesus action figure. I’ve seen t-shirts that say “Jesus is my homeboy” and other products that puts Jesus in the middle of pop culture.
I don’t know if I would call these things blasphemous, though I do think they are in bad taste and some border on dangerous. They aren’t dangerous to the Christian, but to those who might be saved. If Jesus becomes the pop culture icon of the day like a bobblehead wearing blue jeans and sunglasses, people will believe in a false Christ. They won’t get to know the Jesus of the scriptures, hear about His saving grace. He’ll be the fad for a moment and then they’ll move on to the newest fad designed to change their lives.
One of the commandments warns us about idolatry. The first tablet of the Law, today’s scripture passage, focuses on our relationship with God. The command against graven images is hard for us to deal with because we surround ourselves with tchotchkes like Jesus bobbleheads and action figures. They seem harmless and make us happy. I’m an artist and much of my work is faith focused. Should I stop painting because God has warned us against idolatry?
Some of the most beautiful art in the world have been paintings depicting religious events. In the days when people did not read, they learned the bible stories from the stained glass windows that graced the walls of their church. The Sistine Chapel would be just another church without Michelangelo’s paintings. Yet, there is a danger in putting our image of God in paint or stone, and that is that it limits the understanding of God to only what we see. How many of us still believe that Jesus was that blonde-haired blue eyed man whose picture hung in our Sunday School rooms?
Unfortunately, many people will only see the images found in modern culture, and they will never know Jesus beyond today’s fad. They might even enjoy reading the books, watching the movies or having the tchotchkes on their desks, but those things won’t make Him become their Savior. A bobblehead Jesus might even become something to disrespect as visitors tap the top to make the head bob. There is so much more to God and to Jesus. The first tablet of the Law calls us to have a different sort of relationship with our God. He is due our honor and our worship. Jesus is so much more than a cultural icon. He is our Savior. Faith demands our obedience to the words of the Decalogue; we are called to share the truth about our God with the world, so that they might know the blessing of living in His grace.
Scriptures for Sunday, May 28, 2017, Seventh Sunday of Easter: Acts 1:12-26; Psalm 68:1-10; 1 Peter 4:12-19, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11
“But may the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a little while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you.” 1 Peter 5:10, WEB
This Sunday, for the disciples, was a day of prayer. It was a time of transition, again. The last time they were there was between the crucifixion and the resurrection. They were frightened and confused. They didn’t know what their future held. They didn’t know if the next knock on the door would be someone who wanted to hang them on a cross. They probably wondered if they should return home and go back to the life they were living before Jesus entered their lives three years earlier.
Their attitude during this transition was much different. Jesus rose and appeared to them six weeks ago. He spent forty days with them, teaching them everything they needed to know to go on. He encouraged them to continue His work in this world. He heartened them with words of comfort; “Do not fear,” He said. He breathed on them and promised to be with them forever, changing their fear into faith. They were in transition and though there was still uncertainty about their future, they trusted Jesus and obeyed His command.
When Jesus ascended to heaven forty days after the resurrection, He promised that He’d send a helper. This, of course, refers to the Holy Spirit that they will receive on Pentecost. They were sent back to Jerusalem to wait. Their attitude was different than forty days earlier, but I am certain they still felt grief. Though they knew Jesus lived, He was no longer in their presence. Isn’t that how we feel about those we love who are no longer with us? We know that by faith they still live and in heaven. We even comfort ourselves with the idea that they still watch over us. We still talk to them even though they are not here to hear. Though we know they are blessed by life in a better place, we long for their touch and to hear their voice. We miss them. The disciples were going to miss having Jesus physically in their presence.
So, on this day the disciples were in prayer. Those disciples were about to be sent into the world to do whatever it is that God was calling them to do. The lessons were over; the time for work was at hand. They had no idea what the future held. They had to stand on their own two feet. They had to be responsible. They had to be more independent and the work was going to be so much harder without Jesus. Would they be able to do the job God was calling them to do? Would people believe them? Would people believe in Jesus because of their word? Would they be happy? This was the beginning of the end of their time as disciples, but it was also the beginning of a new phase of their life and ministry. They were about to become apostles, sent into the world to do the work that Christ was doing. Instead of just one man, there were eleven and soon there would be more.
They didn’t wait until Pentecost to make the first change amongst their group. Jesus originally selected twelve men to accompany Him. Sadly, Judas did exactly what Jesus expected him to do; he did not know how to deal with his grief and his guilt. I’ve often wondered what would have happened if Judas had just waited long enough to see Jesus’ face to face after the resurrection. Would he have found forgiveness? The prophecies said he was doomed to destruction, but was that destruction destined to be the horrific ending we see in today’s story? After all, Peter did not betray Jesus, but he did deny Him. Yet, on the beach after the resurrection, Jesus had mercy on Peter, forgave him and called him to lead the Church into the future. Might Judas have found a similar grace at the feet of his Lord?
The destruction came because he was unwilling or unable to face Jesus. He sought forgiveness from the priests in the Temple who had no mercy. He saw no other way out besides suicide. How could the disciples forgive him? He never saw the whole story from the other side of the cross. He only knew that Jesus was dead and it was his fault. He thought there was no hope. Suicide is never a good option, though many people think that it is better to die than to face the pain their situation. Death seems so easy when there is no hope.
Peter writes that we are to rejoice in the midst of our sufferings. He is specifically writing to a people who were being persecuted for their faith in Jesus Christ. They faced trouble with the secular world in which they lived and with the religious world from which they came. They had seen a new light which had given them a new faith and the world did not approve. The persecution came as expulsion, rejection and even death. They did not know if they would even be alive the next day to share the joy of God’s grace with anyone else. However, they approached every minute with the assurance that God was with them, going forth through it all with joy and peace.
For three years and forty days, Jesus dwelled and ministered among His people and taught them about the kingdom of God. He called them to repentance. He called them to new life. He called them to go out into the world with the message of Good News so that others might believe and become new. Faith comes through the spoken Word. We can see good works and recognize a righteous life, but the world will never experience the promise of salvation through good works or right living. We must hear the Gospel to be saved. It is God’s Word that transforms, not our hopes or our actions. Not even our faith saves. By God’s Word and the power of the Holy Spirit, we receive the saving faith that God has promised to those who hear and believe all that God has said and done. This is what the disciples were waiting for in those days between the Ascension and Pentecost.
Last week we heard the promise that Jesus would not leave His people as orphans. Even though it might have seemed like they were abandoned at that moment, the disciples would have the power of the Holy Spirit. We see the promise of God’s presence in today’s Gospel lesson. John records two distinct prayers in this passage. In the first section, Jesus prays for Himself. This is not a prayer to be removed from the cross but instead to be glorified. The prayer is a remembrance of the things that Jesus has done, sharing the life and light of God with the disciples. It is, in essence, a eulogy, proclaiming the message and purpose of his life for us to hear. It is unlikely that these are the words that Jesus spoke, but have been written by John so that we might know Christ. The second half of the prayer describes the life that reflects the glory of Christ in the lives of the disciples. As we read this passage we see first the life of Jesus and then the life of those directly touched by His ministry and message while He lived in this world.
This is a prayer that was meant to be heard, a message that we are called to repeat for each generation. We relate the good news of what Jesus has done and proclaim that He has been glorified with God the Father. Those good words become part of our own lives and we become like those first disciples even though we have not lived with Jesus in the flesh. We are among those to whom Christ has been given and He prays also for us today as we shine His light to the world. That prayer was not meant for just those first apostles; Jesus was praying for us, too.
Have you ever been at a campfire and tried to avoid the smoke? It doesn’t matter where I sit, the wind always turns in my direction. When I move, the wind blows a new way. I sometimes feel as though I’m being chased. I’m not, I know. It just seems that way. The wind might blow in a general direction, but that is never perfectly the same. It is probably better to just stay in one place because the wind will eventually blow the smoke a little to the left or a little to the right, and then someone else around the campfire will have to put up with it. It is hard to sit there, though, because the smoke burns your eyes and makes your clothes smell. The question is: can you put up with the disadvantages to have the fun that can be had around a campfire? I think, perhaps, s’mores are worth the hassle.
Have you ever felt like nothing will go right? I think we have all had times when our lives seem out of control, although I suspect that there are many people who feel that way right now. They’ve lost their jobs so they can’t pay their mortgages and they face foreclosure. If you add to those circumstances health issues and relationship troubles that come from the stress and uncertainty, anyone might feel like someone is out to get them. It is bad enough to face one problem, but one often leads to many and then it becomes a burden that even the strongest among us have a hard time handling.
Glory is found in suffering. Christ was glorified, not in heaven or on earth, but on the cross. It wasn’t Jesus’ words or His miracles that brought God’s blessing on Him, but His willingness to face death for the sake of others. He hung on the cross and God raised Him up, as was God’s purpose all along. Jesus was never meant to try to get out of the smoke, but to stay in it so that others could live. He blocked the smoke so we can breathe. Discipleship means continuing the work of Christ in the world. There, even if we face difficult times, we will find the glory He has promised to share with those who shine His light to the world.
Christian faith means rejoicing in all circumstances and moving forward in faith. Can you imagine what it must have been like for Jesus to pray the prayer in today’s Gospel lesson? He didn’t ask God to remove the cross, but for God to fulfill His promises found there. In this prayer we are reminded of all the things that Jesus has done, sharing the life and light of God with the disciples. It is, in essence, a eulogy, proclaiming the message and purpose of His life for us to hear; they were written by John so that we might know Christ. Then Jesus went on to speak of the lives of His disciples: they will go on to continue glorifying God is the same ways.
Psalm 68 describes the journey of God and His people from Mt. Sinai to Mt. Zion. It was used in liturgical processions into the Temple. The people call God to arise while His enemies are moved by His power. The wicked will be afraid, but the righteous will rejoice in the presence of God’s glory. In the midst of this story, God’s people pray that He will continue to rule over the world and empower His people. The song ends in the sanctuary where God is glorified with the praise of the people.
The people sing the song and remember the journey because in the story of God we see His faithfulness and His power. Through the past we hold on to the hope of what will continue to be. We sing in thankfulness because God has chased the enemy away, defended the lowly, set prisoners free, and provided life-giving water to the thirsty. The hope for more of God’s power was brought forth through Jesus Christ, as He defeated death, healed the sick, set free those imprisoned by demons and spoke the life-giving Word to people who were thirsty for God. We recall that journey as we move through Easter toward Pentecost when God continues His story through us.
It isn’t easy. The task ahead of them meant discovering for the first time how to live in this world without the physical presence of Jesus and yet continuing to carry with them all that He said and did. They’d been changed, no longer of the world but still in the world. They would be hated, despised, rejected. Satan would try to stop the message.
Peter was writing to a Christian community some years after Jesus’ prayer in today’s Gospel. The Christians to whom he was writing were suffering persecution. They needed encouragement to get through. Peter used this opportunity to remind his readers that we share in the glory of Christ when we share in His suffering. “Beloved, don’t be astonished at the fiery trial which has come upon you, to test you, as though a strange thing happened to you. But because you are partakers of Christ’s sufferings, rejoice; that at the revelation of his glory you also may rejoice with exceeding joy.” Our joy comes from being one with Christ in all things, including His sufferings.
Peter then lists a number of ways to live out our faith in this relationship we have with God. First of all, we are to be humble before Him. He is God, we are His servants. We will share in His glory, but it is not up to us to choose the time or the place. God calls us to live humbly and we will be exalted. Second, we are to give our worries and our fears to God because He cares for us. We often feel like we too have been left alone, particularly when we are suffering from persecution. God loves us, He won’t leave us alone.
Thirdly, Peter tells us to discipline ourselves. Jesus spent three years and forty days teaching His followers what it meant to be a Christian. He showed them how to be a servant. He was an example of prayer. He worshipped with them, walked with them, scolded them, encouraged them, warned them, and corrected them. It is not easy to live the Christian life, it requires the kind of relationship Jesus had with His Father. This relationship comes first through His grace, for He comes to us. We can’t find Him by our own works. However, faithful living means constant devotion to building our relationship with God through prayer. We can’t expect to just happen. Peter warns the readers that Satan is prowling like a hungry lion waiting to pounce on prey; we must be alert and prepared. It takes training and practice. It takes discipline.
There is hope despite the troubles we will face. God has promised that He will be near and that He will restore, support, strengthen and establish us. He is indeed the God of all grace and He has called us to this life and to His eternal glory that is found in Christ Jesus our Lord. By the power of the Holy Spirit we have all we need to live this life, to go forth in faith and to serve God in the world.
We can’t do it by ourselves. We need one another. The witness of Peter and all the other disciples was passed on through generation after generation. We know Christ Jesus because of the testimony of those who have come before us and future generations will know Him because of the witness of the Church from every time and every place, including you and me. We are all bound together by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are made one by God’s Word through God’s grace, together continuing the work of Jesus Christ in this world.
“The first book I wrote, Theophilus, concerned all that Jesus began both to do and to teach, until the day in which he was received up, after he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. To these he also showed himself alive after he suffered, by many proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days, and speaking about God’s Kingdom. Being assembled together with them, he commanded them, ‘Don’t depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which you heard from me. For John indeed baptized in water, but you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’ Therefore when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, are you now restoring the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It isn’t for you to know times or seasons which the Father has set within his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you. You will be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth.’ When he had said these things, as they were looking, he was taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight. While they were looking steadfastly into the sky as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white clothing, who also said, ‘You men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who was received up from you into the sky will come back in the same way as you saw him going into the sky.’” Acts 1:1-11 (WEB)
Many students will graduate from college and high school in the next few weeks. These students have spent years learning and maturing with the ultimate goal of going out into the world to work and become successful at their chosen career. Some of the students will go on to more school; others will search for the perfect job. For many, the search will be difficult, as jobs are not easy to find. There are students that know exactly what they want to do for the rest of their lives; others are still trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up.
It is a time of great change. Life out in the real world is much different than academia; even college with its freedom and competition is a closed and protected world. The graduates won’t have anyone to blame when they fail and there are fewer people willing to bail them out when they run into trouble. It is time to stand on their own. Even their social lives will change as their friends move on in different directions.
The disciples faced a similar change in life. Jesus spent three years with the disciples before He was killed on the cross. Then He spent forty days with them after the Resurrection, giving them final instructions and proving that He was truly alive by many wonderful acts. He promised that they would receive power to continue His work when they were baptized by the Holy Spirit. Jesus opened their minds to the scriptures. Everything Jesus had taught them for three years and forty days was finally making sense.
The day had to come when He would no longer be with them in flesh, when they would do the work of the Kingdom on their own. It was a daunting task that Jesus called them to do. How do you share the Gospel with the world that is unwilling to hear? How do you proclaim forgiveness to people who do not think they are sinners in need of a Savior? How do you take the Kingdom to a world whose understanding of God is upside down? Jesus told them repeatedly that He would have to leave, but I don’t think they expected it to happen so soon.
Now, just forty days after He was raised and returned to them, He was taken into heaven, bodily raised from the earth into the clouds right before their eyes. They had seen Jesus do many miraculous things, this was just one more. However, there was something very important about that moment.
When Jesus was raised to the right hand of God, it left little room to question the very nature of this man they had known for three years. This was God in flesh, worthy of their worship and praise. This was also the moment that He left them alone, seemingly abandoning them with nothing but the promise of a helper to come. He sent them into the world to share the Kingdom of God, but would no longer be there to pick them up after they fell. They were graduating from followers to apostles. It was up to them to do the work they were called to do. It was no wonder that they stopped to stare into the heavens. It would have been easy to stay right there at that spot and continue looking toward heaven for Jesus’ return.
Ascension Day might seem like the end of something (Jesus’ time on earth,) but it was really a new beginning. Jesus did not want them to stand around and wallow in the past. There are times in our own lives, such as when we graduate from school, that we can understand why the disciples would stare after Jesus. It is easy to gape at the clouds and hope for His return, but they were called to move forward, to worship Him by doing the work He prepared them to do. On this Ascension Day we are also encouraged to move forward, to go out in faith and do all that He has called us to do.
“Yahweh, you have searched me, and you know me. You know my sitting down and my rising up. You perceive my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word on my tongue, but, behold, Yahweh, you know it altogether. You hem me in behind and before. You laid your hand on me. This knowledge is beyond me. It’s lofty. I can’t attain it.” Psalm 139:1-6, WEB
More than one billion people are active on Facebook. Now, even though that is a large number, it is still a fraction of the overall world population. I love to use that particular social media platform. I have reconnected with old friends, kept in touch with family and made some new friends. It might seem impersonal, and in ways it is because so many of my friends are located so far from me, but it is also very personal because I would never have been in contact with them without Facebook.
It is important to have friends. Friends help us through the hard times and rejoice with us during the good times. Without friends we find it difficult to survive. Now, I find it difficult to accept that those with thousands of Facebook friends can count on them through thick and thin, but we all have at least a few who know us very well and upon whom we can depend. Most of those people are more than virtual friends. Some of those friendships are superficial because we can hide behind the vague masks we create online.
Someone once said, “A real friend is someone who walks in when everybody else walks out.” While our Facebook friends can be very supportive, it is important that we have friends we can see, touch and hear face to face. We need friends who will be honest when we need correction and will be present when we need comfort. It is a blessing to have friends who know us so well that they can almost read our minds and tell us what we are thinking. They can stop us from doing something stupid and encourage us to do the right thing. Even when we make a mistake, they are quick with forgiveness and slow to remember our faults.
It is a blessing to have friends who stand with us and help us through this life, but even our relationships with our best friends are imperfect. I have had friends over the years that have been lost to the ravages of time and sin. We have grown apart for one reason or another, contact broken and never restored. Childhood friends take different paths, school friends move away. For every Facebook reconnection, there are dozens I have not been able to find again. Some relationships are broken because arguments create irreparable damage and walls are built that separate us forever. We do not know what may affect our relationships over time.
However, there is one relationship that will stand forever. He knows us better than anyone. The love of our Lord God Almighty is greater than any we can receive from our earthbound friends whether they are tangible or virtual. He knows everything about our life, even before we know it. We cannot hide from Him. He created us and laid our path before us. He gives us everything we need to live in this world, His life and word. We can go to Him for whatever we need. He will guard and protect us; He will mold and guide us. He is our best friend, the one on which we can depend and without which we would not survive. Thank You, Lord, for your love.
“Even as the Father has loved me, I also have loved you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and remain in his love. I have spoken these things to you, that my joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be made full. This is my commandment, that you love one another, even as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends, if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant doesn’t know what his lord does. But I have called you friends, for everything that I heard from my Father, I have made known to you. You didn’t choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain; that whatever you will ask of the Father in my name, he may give it to you. I command these things to you, that you may love one another.” John 15:9-17
In a scene from the movie “Forest Gump,” Forest is in Vietnam. Things had gone very wrong, and people were dying. Forest ran out of the danger zone, but when he reached safety, he realized that his friend had not followed behind. So, he went back into the battle to find his friend. He had no concern for his own life as he dragged wounded soldiers out of the line fire. He finally found his friend whose injury caused permanent paralysis. The friend would have rather died on the battlefield than to live the rest of his life as an invalid. His friend was not grateful for Forrest’s sacrifice and spent many years angry and spiteful, hating the new demanding life he had to live. He also hated Forest for causing him to live it.
We often listened to Armed Forces Radio and Television Service when we were stationed in England. They showed film clips about real American heroes. These men and women went beyond the call of duty; they risked their own lives for the lives of their friends. There was a story of one pilot who was on his last flight before being sent home. He noticed that the other pilots in his squadron needed help as he was on his way to the air base and went right back into the battle. He saved several planes but died in the process. He had done his share, but went the extra mile to save lives. He sacrificed everything so that others might live.
How much would you be willing to sacrifice for a friend, a family member, a neighbor, or even an enemy? Would you be willing to lay down your life to save another?
Jesus Christ had a short-lived, but incredible ministry. In those few short years, He taught the people about love and God, He healed the sick and raised the dead. Lives were changed by His presence. He did more than His share to make the world a better place. Yet it was not enough. He went to the front lines of the battlefield with Satan and He suffered death so that we will have life. It is not an easy life; it is a life in which Jesus commands us to love as He loved and sacrifice for the sake of others. Are you thankful for the work of Jesus Christ on the cross? Or are you like Forest Gump’s friend, angry that the new life you have been given is too demanding?
Today is Memorial Day in the United States. It is a day set aside to remember those who died in the line of duty. Today, I am thankful to all those who gave their lives for their country. I am even more thankful to Jesus Christ for His love and the sacrifice He made for me. It is my prayer that I will have the courage to do the same as I live my life of faith.
“Hannah prayed, and said: ‘My heart exults in Yahweh! My horn is exalted in Yahweh. My mouth is enlarged over my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation. There is no one as holy as Yahweh, Ffor there is no one besides you, nor is there any rock like our God.” 1 Samuel 2:1-2, WEB
There was a certain man named Elkanah who had two wives. Peninnah had children but Hannah was barren. Elkanah traveled regularly to the tabernacle to sacrifice and worship the LORD as was required by law. Each time, he gave his wife Peninnah and her children a portion of the meat, but to Hannah he gave her a double portion. Peninnah was jealous of Elkanah’s love for Hannah and provoked her with taunts about her barrenness. The visits to the tabernacle were most difficult for Hannah because the words of her enemy reminded her that the LORD did not bless her with children. She grieved and wept so much she would not eat. In her desperation, she went before the LORD and vowed that if He blessed her with a son, she would give him to the LORD for all the days of his life.
She continued to pray to the LORD, but her voice was without sound despite the movement of her lips. Eli the priest thought she was drunk on wine and commanded her to give up her wine. She told Eli she was not drunk but was pouring out her soul to the LORD. Eli answered, “Go in peace; and may the God of Israel grant your petition that you have asked of him.” At that moment she was no longer downcast. She ate, worshipped the LORD. When they returned home, Elkanah lay with his wife and she became pregnant with a child.
Hannah did not forget the vow she made before the LORD. In time, when he was weaned, she returned with the proper sacrifice and presented her son, Samuel, to Eli. Most men were not presented to serve the Lord until later in life, and for only a time. Hannah promised that Samuel would serve the LORD his whole life, so took him when he was just a child.
How difficult it must have been for Hannah to give up her child in such a way. She longed for that boy, so much so that she wept and fasted in grief. But Hannah did not hesitate when it came to give her child to her LORD. She rejoiced, not because she bore a child, but because God answered her prayer.
Hannah grieved her lack of children but it was more than just because she had an earthly desire to be a mother. Barrenness was a sign that God had abandoned a woman. Hannah grieved because she lacked the love of God, not the experience she was missing in motherhood. Elkanah tried to make Hannah feel loved, but it was never enough. When Eli told her to go in peace her prayer would be answered, Hannah knew she was loved. When the child was born, she easily gave him back to the LORD her God who loved her. When she rejoiced, it was because God delivered her from the disgrace and put her in a position of honor as one who was loved by God.
Our world today recognizes other blessings as signs of God’s love, but our situation is the same as Hannah. Those who see the lack of our blessings as signs of God’s abandonment taunt us. Others try to help us fill the void with other types of love. But God does not show His love through the things of this world, He showed His love in our Lord Jesus Christ. Today, He is the sign we look to rather than health, wealth or children. Let us sing today in praise and thanksgiving to Rock who answers our prayers with the deliverance that comes from salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Scriptures for Sunday, June 4, 2017, Pentecost: Numbers 11:24-30; Psalm 25:1-15; Acts 2:1-21; John 7:37-30
“He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, from within him will flow rivers of living water.” John 7:38, WEB
There is a popular saying among Christians, “God doesn’t call the equipped, He equips the called.” The origin of this saying is unknown, or rather, it has been credited to several different people. There are certainly scriptures texts that suggest this very thought. It means that God will provide whatever you need to do His work. Sadly, many people think they are unqualified to be witnesses for Jesus Christ, to be His servants, to share His Gospel. There seems to be people who seem much more able to preach or teach or serve. They are. But they aren’t more able because there is something particularly special about them, except that they have received God’s grace and they’ve responded to the opportunities to use their gifts for His glory. We are all unqualified by our own power or gifts. It is God’s power and His gifts that make us His witnesses in the world in word and in deed.
I was in a conversation with a friend a number of years ago about the Holy Spirit. She insisted that all people had the Holy Spirit. She conceded, perhaps, that it might be only believers who have the Holy Spirit, but continued to insist that Old Testament believers had God’s Spirit just as we do. I think she confused the idea that we have spirit as well as flesh with the infilling of the Holy Spirit. There were certainly people throughout the Old Testament who were equipped with God’s Spirit. Saul, as king, had God’s Spirit until God took it away and anointed David. The judges and prophets had God’s Spirit. The elders found in today’s Old Testament lesson were given God’s Spirit so that they could help Moses.
While there were those in the Old Testament who were equipped with God’s Spirit to do His work, I think there is a difference between what happened in the camp of the Israelites and what happened with the Christians at Pentecost in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit rested on those who were called in the Old Testament, but Luke tells us in the passage from Acts that “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit...”
We know that Moses was greatly blessed by God. The people were afraid of Moses because of the relationship he had with God. Moses came out glowing with the glory of God whenever he went into the Tent to meet with the LORD. Yet, even though Moses was the greatest prophet of the Israelites, the glow did not last. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us that Moses wore a veil to prevent the people from seeing that the glory faded away. God did pour His Spirit upon men and women in the Old Testament, but it was temporary. He gave it as needed.
Sometimes we are surprised by the people who have received gifts from God.
God told Moses to gather the elders of Israel. When they were gathered, He took the spirit that rested on Moses and divided it among the other elders. He gave them the authority to lead the people, to share in Moses’ responsibility. He took some of the burden from Moses and laid it on others. Joshua was not ready for Moses to let go of the control. It was not a problem that the elders were gathered and given some of the Spirit. It was not a problem that those who had been gathered were going to share in the responsibility and burden of care for the people. However, he was disturbed when the Spirit also fell on some men who had not come to the gathering. “Tell them to stop,” Joshua told Moses. Moses was not bothered by this development because he knew that it came from God. God is in control, not Moses. Moses would have preferred for every Hebrew to prophecy for the Lord. This was a hope that would come into fulfillment long after Moses died, after Jesus, when God did give the Spirit to all those who believe.
That’s what Pentecost is all about. In the life of Peter we see our own reality. Peter was chosen by Christ, he was a leader of the disciples. He was in Jesus’ inner circle, perhaps even Jesus’ best friend. He was given a lot of responsibility, and in many ways filled Jesus’ shoes when He ascended to heaven. He was the first to speak in Acts 1:16, encouraging the gathered assembly of believers to get on with the business of Church. He was the first to speak in today’s second lesson; his speech at Pentecost was the first public ministry of the Church without Jesus. Yet, this Peter who is given so much authority by Jesus and the other disciples was as imperfect as the rest of us. He failed Jesus in many ways while He was still among the disciples. Peter never fully understood what Jesus was teaching. Peter might have gone his own way if it hadn’t been for God’s answer to the prayers of today’s psalmist.
The psalmist lists his hope for a relationship with the divine. He does not want to be put to shame. He does not want his enemies to triumph over him. He believes that those who trust in God will never be put to shame, but the treacherous enemies will. The psalmist hopes that God will show His ways and teach His paths to those who believe. He wants to be guided in truth and to be taught by the only one in whom we can have hope. He hopes God will remember His mercy and love. He hopes God will forget his sin. “Remember me according to your loving kindness, for your goodness’ sake, Yahweh.” His hope is based entirely on God’s goodness. The psalmist goes on to describe the reason we can trust in God. God is good and upright. He instructs, guides and teaches His people in the right way. His way is loving and faithful. He takes care of those who live according to His Word.
The disciples were abandoned briefly when Jesus ascended into heaven, but even then they had experienced the promised Spirit. Jesus had breathed on them that first night after His resurrection. They received the Holy Spirit in that breath, just as the Old Testament judges, kings and prophets, but there was more to come. The Spirit breathed on them was enough to help them learn and understand what Jesus taught them for forty days, and to patiently wait for the fulfillment of Jesus’ gift. They waited and they prayed until the right time.
The Holy Spirit came upon those disciples at Pentecost, not just as a breath like they experienced seven weeks ago, or like it came upon those in the Old Testament who had been so blessed. The Holy Spirit came into the world in a whole new way. They were not just kissed by the Spirit. The Spirit did not just land on them. At Pentecost they were filled with God’s Holy Spirit. They were filled. God was no longer going to work at them from the outside, pushing, leading, guiding; now He would move them from within. They would not just learn God’s Word in their heads, it would be written on their hearts. The words they spoke, though in their own voice, would be God’s Word as He spoke through them. At Pentecost we also see the hope of Moses fulfilled.
The Jewish people celebrated the Feast of Weeks fifty days after Passover, also known as Shavu’ot or Pentecost. This was a festival of joyful thanksgiving to God for blessing the harvest by giving offerings from the first fruits of their work. Pentecost was also a time to remember the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. Just as the people stopped briefly between their exodus out of Egypt and their journey to Canaan at the foot of the mountain, so too the people stopped briefly during the year to thank God for the blessings He has already given and to hear once again the words given to them on the mountain. The giving of the Law occurred fifty days after the Passover in Egypt, so it occurred fifty days later in the yearly remembrance of God’s mercy. The reading of the Law was an important part of this festival.
The word Pentecost means “fifty days.” Jesus was crucified during the celebration of Passover, taken to the cross as the perfect Lamb of God. It is no surprise then that the Holy Spirit would come upon the disciples fifty days later while the city was filled with people attending the Feast of Pentecost. On the first Pentecost, the people of Israel were given God’s law. On the first Christian Pentecost, the people were given the Holy Spirit, along with God’s power and authority. God’s Word was written on their hearts instead of tablets of stone.
The Old was great. The New is greater.
Jews from all over the known world were in Jerusalem for the Pentecost celebration. They brought with them offerings of wheat, figs, olives and grapes to praise God for His goodness. I imagine it was an exciting time, but also a confusing time. After all, though they were Jews, they lived in foreign lands and knew foreign tongues. They may have been familiar with Hebrew from the scriptures, but Hebrew was not the commonly spoken language of the day.
In today’s passage from Acts, we hear how the listeners felt about this experience. Some were perplexed, others were amazed and some just thought it was silliness due to drunkenness. Peter stood up before the people and explained that this was the fulfillment of the hope of Moses, the promise given through the prophet Joel that the Spirit would come upon all people and they would do amazing things. Certainly, the fact that people from all over the world could hear the message in their own language was a most miraculous thing, especially since most of the disciples were uneducated laborers who probably knew Aramaic fluently, enough Hebrew for worship and perhaps just enough Greek necessary for business. Those disciples barely even understood the message they were giving with their own tongues! But Jesus sent the helper, the Spirit of God who gave voice to what they knew to be true in their hearts and the words to make it understandable to others.
In the passage from John 7, Jesus was teaching in the temple during Sukkoth, or the festival of Booths. It was a time to thank God for His abundant generosity at the harvest. The adherents built small booths, or tabernacles, to represent God’s protection. They lived and ate in the booths for seven days. Other rituals accompanied the celebrations. Jesus spoke to them on the seventh day, when great quantities of water were poured over the altar. The water ran off of the altar, onto the floor and it flowed out of the temple into the valley below. Though this was not originally part of the festival, it had become an important aspect to the people as they sought God’s blessings for their winter planting. It was not an act of faith or obedience, defined by God to be a part of the celebration. It was a pagan ritual that the people had adopted so that they might feel assured of God’s provision. It was as if they thought God did not know they needed water to live.
Jesus saw this ritual and cried out, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink.” When we drink of the water that comes from God, by His Holy Spirit, living water will wash through our lives into the world. The promised Spirit came to the disciples at Pentecost; He comes to us at baptism and continues to come to us as we live our lives of faith. The Spirit does not come for our own assurance or benefit, but so that the living water of Christ might flow into the world. We use our gifts to share the message which Christ came to give—forgiveness. He sent the disciples, and so now sends us, to take that message into the world so that the world might be saved.
As we look at the motley crew of disciples that Jesus called, we know that He didn’t choose people who were equipped to continue His work. Peter, Andrew, James and John were fishermen. Others may have been fishermen, too, although we don’t know the occupation of all the disciples before they met Jesus. Matthew was a tax collector. Simon was a Zealot and possibly a warrior, passionate about defeating the Romans. Judas may not have been a criminal, but he certainly had scandalous intentions. They weren’t schooled in religious teachings, although I am sure that they all had learned enough at the feet of their mothers and in the temple or synagogues. They weren’t trained to be preachers or teachers. They probably knew as much about the scriptures as the average Christian knows today. They were no different than you and I.
Yet, they were called to do great things! I doubt any of them could have imagined where their lives would lead after meeting Jesus Christ. We may never accomplish as much as those disciples. Very few of us will be involved in the establishment of new churches. I don’t think many of us will ever say that we’ve been the hands through which God healed someone who is sick or raised someone through the dead. Most of us don’t even think we can speak well enough to share the Good News with our neighbors. The scriptures tell us the disciples did all those things. The church grew in number and geographically. People were healed and raised. God changed the world through that motley crew of people.
And He changes the world through you and I. We aren’t called because we are equipped, we are equipped because we are called. We have been filled with God’s Holy Spirit, given every good gift needed to respond to the opportunities that God puts before us each day. We don’t know how our one life might make a difference in the world. It may be something as simple as a word of kindness for someone we’ll never remember but who went on to do great things because we gave them the courage or strength to get through another day. Our children may go on to change the world with their gifts and talents. A small donation to a food bank might give someone a second chance and then that person might just go on to change a town, a country or even the world.
The world is different because Jesus passed His ministry on to His people. As we celebrate another Pentecost, it is time for us to pause and consider whether we have been using our gifts to pursue our calling, glorifying God with our lives. And so we ask on this Pentecost, what is our purpose? Why were we born into such a body as the Church? Why did God send His Spirit to rest on His people? Are we responding to those opportunities to speak God’s Word and serve others to bring healing and life and hope in a world that so desperately needs the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Ever since that first Pentecost, the Church and individual Christians have had the power of God indwells in our hearts, the Living Water flows to quench the thirst of the world. God’s power and His gifts make us His witnesses in word and in deed.