Welcome to the May 2018 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the World English Bible which belong to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, May 2018
“Therefore Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you would have been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now I know that, whatever you ask of God, God will give you.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will still live, even if he dies. Whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, he who comes into the world.’” John 11:21-27, WEB
Death is a fact of life. Even if there were no weapons, no war, no hatred or violence, no disease and no accidents, people would still die. Our response to death might be different since there would be none of the usual shock from tragedy or fatigue from watching someone slowly die from illness, but death would still be a fact of life.
See, it began in the Garden with Adam and Eve. They walked with God and enjoyed His company until the day they believed the word of the serpent over the Word of God. The serpent convinced them they could be more like God. The sad part is that they already were like God, after all He created them in His image. Yet, something about the words of the serpent made sense to them at that moment. They wanted knowledge and that’s just what they got when they at the fruit from the tree of Good and Evil. Unfortunately, they also got shame and fear because they suddenly realized that they were naked before God.
Now imagine living in shame and fear in the presence of someone you love. Perhaps you have had to do it. Perhaps you did something wrong and you had a hard time even looking your parents or spouse in the eye. Perhaps you cheated on a test and felt such guilt that you did not want to attend that class. Perhaps you stole something from a store and just could not return without feeling fear. Now, imagine that you have to live with your parents or spouse, attend that class or shop in that store for eternity. What kind of life is that to live?
God knew that Adam and Eve could not spend eternity living in shame and fear in His presence. He didn’t kick them out of the garden as a punishment, but because they could not have access to the Tree of Life. It was an act of mercy; death was given so that human beings would not have to live eternally in fear of their Creator. He did this knowing that He had a plan, a plan to make things right again between Himself and His people.
That plan is Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life; through faith in Him we share in His resurrection and His life. He came not only to do good things among His people, but to die in our place. Human disobedience caused a breech between the heavens and earth, and we are stuck on the wrong side unless we have faith in Jesus. His death and His resurrection built a bridge so that we could once again enter the Garden and dwell with our Creator forever without shame or fear. Faith makes things right and we gain faith by the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. For those who believe, death is no longer an end, but it is the beginning of an eternity in a restored relationship with our Father.
Scriptures for Sunday, May 6, 2018, Sixth Sunday of Easter: Acts 10:34-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-8; John 15:9-17
“This is my commandment, that you love one another, even as I have loved you.” John 15:12, WEB
I spent last weekend at my favorite camp crafting with dozens of other women. We had the opportunity to take lessons or to simply work on whatever we wanted to do. We could nap, read, hike or just sit on the porch and watch the wind blow. It was the chance to get away from “it all” and bask in the companionship of my sisters in Christ. We had times of worship and devotion, but worship and devotion happened at other times, too, as we shared our love of God with one another.
We praise God in so many ways. We gather in worship together, hear the Word together and study the Bible together. We gather in fellowship and at meals. We celebrate the sacraments. Our worship and praise does not stop at the front door of our churches, however. We praise God when we share a word of hope with someone in distress and when we give a cup of water to the thirsty. We praise God when we pray for the healing of the nations and our neighbors. We praise God when we tell His story and introduce others to the saving grace found through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Most of all, we praise God when we love one another. There were plenty of opportunities to do that during the weekend. One project led a woman to tears because she was making a scrapbook in honor of someone she recently lost. We had conversations about love and loss, about fear and worry, about hope and faith. These were intimate moments between friends who gather once a year to share a weekend together.
The Gospel lesson was at very intimate moment between Jesus and His disciples. Jesus’ time was quickly growing short and there was so much more for the disciples to learn. The passage is found in the middle of a lengthy speech by Jesus, given to them on the night He was betrayed. He talks about many kinds of love: the love between brothers, the love of neighbor, the love of enemy. He talks about living in love and what that looks like in the world. He talks about how God manifests Himself through love, in love and with love. And He commands us to love one another. The passage for today is directed at our relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ, but as we live in that love we are reminded that God desires all to be part of our fellowship.
In the passage from Acts we see what happens when we love beyond our own little corner of the world. Peter went to Cornelius and his community to share the message of Christ. They all gathered around to hear what Peter had to say. As he was speaking the Holy Spirit came upon the entire community. God touched each person and changed the whole family. It was particularly surprising to those who had traveled with Peter because that community was not Jewish. The people were Gentiles, but God showered them with His love just as He had showered the community in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost.
It was a sacrifice for Peter to go to the house of the Gentile centurion named Cornelius. It was a sacrifice for him to go in to a room filled with Gentiles and to speak a message he thought had been given solely to His people. It was a sacrifice for the community to welcome these new believers into their midst, knowing that their whole world could be turned upside down by the message. Peter decided to be obedient and take the risk. He decided to follow God’s vision for the Gospel.
How hard it must have been for Peter. He knew that God does not play favorites, and that the Gospel message was going to be shared with the world. But it is still hard for us to accept that God’s grace is meant for everyone, especially those who do not fit into our understanding of faithfulness. The people in Cornelius’ house were Gentiles. Peter wasn’t even supposed to be there according to the religious practices of the Jews. It was a sacrifice for him to take the risk necessary to go and share the Gospel message with them.
They had such firm beliefs about how things must be done and who might be allowed into their fellowship, that this event at Cornelius’ house must have rattled their understanding of faith. They weren’t allowed to eat with Gentiles, but in giving the Holy Spirit, God broke down a wall that Peter could not rebuild. He asked, “Can anyone forbid these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just like us.” We might want to forbid someone from coming into our fellowship, but if God welcomes them, how can we say “No”?
Peter said, “God has offered forgiveness and mercy and grace to these Gentiles, who are we to suggest they can’t be part of our group?” So, he called the gathering to join in the celebration of baptism, to welcome them into the fellowship of believers.
We may have very good reason to keep people out of our midst. At least they seem like good reasons to us. The community that gathers for the craft retreat is extremely diverse. There are women from every age, young mothers through great-grandmothers. Some come from the city and others from rural areas. We have a wide range of political opinions and religious understanding. Some are extremely talented at their craft and others claim they don’t have a creative bone in their bodies. If we are honest, we’ll admit that we don’t always like everyone. Yet, we all love Jesus and that is enough for us to love each other.
Some who hear and believe the Gospel might be people who don’t seem to fit in our group, but we see in this story that God does not have the same requirements for becoming part of His Church. So, we are called to care about them all, to share our faith and do whatever we can do to make them a part of our fellowship. Since God loves them, there is no reason why we shouldn’t! Besides, there is no joy in keeping people from fellowship.
There are those in the world that would rather not hear what we have to say. Non-believers do not understand our perspective or attitude; they are, perhaps, afraid of what they see in our lives. Faith means change. It means transformation. It means living differently than the world. It is hard enough to live this life among people who are like-minded and have similarities. It seems almost impossible to share it with people who are completely different, who do not live up to our expectations.
We are often bullied by the world because of our Christian faith. Bullies do not lead happy lives. They generally do not find comfort or peace in their bullying, and often are looking for some sort of relationship but they do not know how to make it happen. They are, more often than they would admit, afraid of something. Bullies don’t pick on people larger or stronger; they pick on those smaller and weaker. The small and weak have to find a way to build a relationship with the bully. We are called to share the Gospel with them so that they will become part of our community. And then we are commanded to love them.
Jesus taught that we should love our enemy and do nothing to bring him or her harm. Jesus taught that it is better to suffer persecution for the Gospel than to turn to the ways and methods of the world. As Christians, we are to obey God, live by His commandments, and show the world our gifts. We’ll face many people who do not understand our faith and they will respond with anger and bullying. When we love as God has commanded us to love, the world will see the light of Christ and experience the reality of life in faith. Our love, or Christ’s love in and through us, might just help the bully see that life is much better when lived in love and hope and peace. They might just find joy through our sacrifice.
There is a special museum in Xi’an, a city in central China. This museum is located underground and is the excavation of an army of terra-cotta warriors created to guard the tomb of China’s first Emperor. These 7500 amazing life-size clay statues are being carefully exhumed and restored for modern archeologists to study and people to see.
The ruler was Qin Shi Huangdi. He began his life as a ruler in China when he was just thirteen. He was a warlord who fought against other warlords for twenty-five years, taking control of more and more men until he had an army of over a million. He dominated the people, using violence to gain power over his enemies until he was the most powerful man in the land. He then took on the name Qin Shi Huangdi, which means “First Divine Emperor in China.” He was in some ways a good ruler. He unified China, built the great wall, and developed a capital city with excellent infrastructure. He was so confident about his power and position that he claimed that his dynasty would last ten thousand years.
But, Qin Shi Huangdi was afraid of death. He built hundreds of palaces that were connected by underground tunnels. He could sleep in a different palace each night to avoid assassination. He even refused to die a normal physical death, so he sent his wise men to locate the fountain of youth, which they never found.
Though the Emperor accomplished great things, he did it with excessive cruelty, slaughtering people and destroying the treasures of the culture. Finally, the prime minister conspired with others and the Emperor was assassinated when he was just forty-one years old. The conspirators sent a forged letter to his only son and convinced him to commit suicide, leaving the legacy that this dynasty was the shortest in China’s history.
Qin Shi Huangdi lived in fear, for though he was a very powerful man, he did not know grace, mercy or love. He knew only his desires to live forever and treated his people as if they were only the means by which he would get what he wanted. He was the exact opposite of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, which we see revealed in Jesus Christ. Jesus came not to gain power, but to bring forgiveness. He came not to build a kingdom through violence, but to unify people by the Word of God. He came to give us the love of God so that we can live in that love and share it with others. He did not fear death, but laid down His life for our sake.
The terra-cotta warriors stand as a testament to the life of the first man to unify China and who brought good things to the people of that great land. Yet, it is also a testament to how human ways pass quickly. The dynasty of Qin Shi Huangdi lasted less than a lifetime because the emperor did not know the power of love, only the power of the sword. He came to an end as he brought the end to many. But the kingdom of God is eternal; He reigns here and now and in the future, because it is built on love and mercy. Our Lord Jesus grants salvation freely to those who believe in His name. Through Him we are heirs to a kingdom that is built to last, to endure even longer than ten thousand years. It is in that kingdom we are called to live and join in the psalmist’s songs of praise. We are the warriors that stand as a testament to His grace.
Today’s psalm tells us about the good things God has done: how God has won the victory over Israel’s oppressors and how He has saved them from exile. The psalmist sings about God’s faithfulness and His love for His people that is lasting. Telling others about the great things God has done is just one of the many ways we can sing His praise. The psalmist tells us other ways. We can sing a new song. We can sing praises with a harp. We can sound trumpets. The creation even gets involved with the heavens and earth joining in the noise of praise. The sea roars, the floods clap their hands, the hills sing.
We are commanded to love, and there are many times when this is very difficult. We struggle when we are faced with those who do not quite fit into our expectations. We wonder how we will ever obey. It is in faith that we abide in the love of Christ, obeying His command to love one another with a sacrificial love while bearing fruit that will last. Faith and community are connected. Christ loved us, chose us and calls us friends so that we will obey His command to love one another. In love He has made us part of a body, calling us to love that body. We love because He first loved us. As we love one another, we will see the fruit God calls us to bear, the fruit that is the witness to our love for God.
The love we give is to be like Christ's love: sacrificial. Sacrifice means giving up something, perhaps even something we love. It means changing our ways. Peter’s sacrifice was to be disobedient to a law to which he had been faithful, a law which defined his faithfulness. He risked losing everything by stepping out of his world into another because he loved God. What he found was joy, because the Word he shared with the Gentiles bore lasting fruit.
Sacrifice means letting go of one’s own self for the sake of another. It means hearing the call of God and following, even when God’s call sounds different than you expect. It means loving God’s kids even when they do not stand up to your expectations. It means facing change for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus even when change will rattle your whole world. Jesus chose you as His friend and He has appointed you to go and bear fruit. Sometimes that means entering into a world that is beyond your understanding and outside your expectations. We are afraid of what we might find, but when we step out in faith - in the love of Christ - we will find joy. Abiding in God’s love is a life of joy, even when it means sacrifice.
The psalm is a victory hymn. Perhaps victory sounds too much like war talk, as if the battle we are fighting with our brothers and sisters in Christ is war. After all, when there are divisions in the Church we take sides. We gather with those that speak to our ideals and value our opinions. We square off against one another, not living in love but abiding in our self-centeredness. We desire to keep our community free of those whom we consider impure or unclean.
God calls us to see others through His eyes. “Do not call anything I have created unclean.” Instead, we see everything through the lenses of our own lives, our own experiences and our own rules. We reject that which does not fit into our tidy box.
Is there joy in your life of faith? If you can’t answer yes to this question, then perhaps you should look at your relationships with your brothers and sisters in Christ. God is calling you to live in love, sacrificial love. We can say over and over again that we love God, but if we do not love God’s kids in service and grace - even those who don't fit into our expectations - then we do not truly love God. Loving our brothers and sisters just might turn our world upside down, but God will not leave us without assurance. He will make known His victory and reveal His vindication. We will remember His steadfast love.
Our love for Christ reaches further than our brothers and sisters. It also reaches to those whom God wants to join the family. Just as Peter had to go to into a Gentile place and share the Gospel, we may have to go to a place that doesn’t seem suited to our faith. Yet, God desires the whole world to know Jesus. He is ready and anxious to send His Spirit into the lives of those still dead and lost in the darkness of this world. Who are we to keep the Good News from them?
The psalmist writes, “Make a joyful noise to Yahweh, all the earth! Burst out and sing for joy, yes, sing praises!” Perhaps today is the day God will bless us with our own miraculous Pentecost moment when we will join with others in praise to the good things God has done as they experience the salvation found in Jesus Christ our Lord. This grace has been given for everyone, even until the strangers and foreigners amongst us so that they will believe. Then they, too, will be our brothers and sisters in faith, the children of God whom we will love for eternity.
“Be therefore imitators of God, as beloved children. Walk in love, even as Christ also loved you, and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling fragrance." Ephesians 5:1-2, WEB
What is your favorite scent? I love to smell brownies or banana bread baking in the oven. The smell of lilacs in the spring reminds me of my childhood home. A turkey roasting makes me hungry. I enjoy breathing in the scent of a bouquet of roses given by my husband for a special day or just because. I don’t enjoy all scents, though. Coffee, for instance, is a favorite of many, but it makes my stomach turn. I’m sure I’m not alone in cringing at the smell of a dirty diaper or unattended litter box. I desperately try to clean out the leftovers in the refrigerator before they become odorous. The smell of smoke makes us run away.
Smell is important. Bad smells keep us safe, like the smell of smoke or rotting food. Nothing would taste good without the sense of smell because the taste buds only recognize four of the ten thousand possible flavors. It is only when combined with the scents that we can savor the food that we eat. Those who have lost their sense of smell tend to put too much salt on their food because they think there is no flavor.
We even rely on the sense of smell in choosing our mates. Our bodies create specific odors that attract members of the opposite sex, drawing us together. We might not even realize that the attraction comes from the sense of smell, although I’ve had a few experiences that have worked the other direction! It is thought that kissing developed from sniffing: the first kiss being a primal behavior of testing to see if the partner is a match by sniffing and tasting.
The Altar of Incense was an acacia wood altar was covered with pure gold and placed before the curtain in the Temple which covered the Ark of the Covenant. It was at this altar where God would meet with the priests. The incense was to be burnt regularly before God, every morning and every evening. The smoke that rose from the altar represented the prayers of God’s people being lifted to God. The incense used was very special, produced only for use on the altar. No one was to produce the incense for personal use. No one was to share in the fragrance of that particular gift to God.
But at the death and resurrection of Christ, some things changed in the relationship between God and His people. He was no longer hidden behind a curtain, approachable only by the priests. God ripped the Temple curtain, anointed all God’s people with His Spirit, and now dwells among the people of faith in this world. We now serve as His hands in the world, His light in the darkness and His voice for all those who will hear. We are now the altar of incense; our prayers are a fragrant scent wafting to heaven, pleasing God. But we are not hidden away. We dwell in the world, for the world to see and hear and experience.
Today is the National Day of Prayer, a moment in our year when we stop as a people to lift our prayers to the God who is able to do incredible things among His people. Do our neighbors experience the fragrance of our prayers and praise? Do they know we are here, seeking God’s grace for them? Do they smell the incense of our relationship with God? Does our faith reach their lives as pleasant and attractive scents, or does our life of faith reach our neighbors as a bad or dangerous smell? There may be no physical scent of faith, but our life can reach out to people and meet all their senses. They see our works, hear our words and experience the touch of our hands. It is harder for our neighbors to sense the smell and taste of our faith, especially when we pray alone. However on this day as we join together in prayer, the world can know more about our God as we love as He loves and are unified in our the prayers and praise that rise into the heavens to be received by the Lord God Almighty.
“Hear this, all you peoples. Listen, all you inhabitants of the world, both low and high, rich and poor together. My mouth will speak words of wisdom. My heart shall utter understanding. I will incline my ear to a proverb. I will open my riddle on the harp. Why should I fear in the days of evil, when iniquity at my heels surrounds me? Those who trust in their wealth, and boast in the multitude of their riches - none of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give God a ransom for him. For the redemption of their life is costly, no payment is ever enough, That he should live on forever, that he should not see corruption. For he sees that wise men die; likewise the fool and the senseless perish, and leave their wealth to others. Their inward thought is that their houses will endure forever, and their dwelling places to all generations. They name their lands after themselves. But man, despite his riches, doesn’t endure. He is like the animals that perish. This is the destiny of those who are foolish, and of those who approve their sayings. Selah. They are appointed as a flock for Sheol. Death shall be their shepherd. The upright shall have dominion over them in the morning. Their beauty shall decay in Sheol, far from their mansion. But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me. Selah. Don’t be afraid when a man is made rich, when the glory of his house is increased. For when he dies he shall carry nothing away. His glory shall not descend after him. Though while he lived he blessed his soul - and men praise you when you do well for yourself - he shall go to the generation of his fathers. They shall never see the light. A man who has riches without understanding, is like the animals that perish. Psalm 49, WEB
A story is told of a young man who was about to graduate from college. He had worked hard for those years and was prepared to enter into the world of business and a successful career. His father asked him, “What would you like as a gift for your graduation?” The young man did not even have to think about his answer. He gave his father a picture of an expensive sports car with detailed notes - right down to the color he wanted. It was his dream.
The day of graduation came and the young man was as excited about his gift as he was to receive his diploma. His father called him into the library and handed him a box. Inside was a bible. “What is this?” he asked. The father explained that a life worth living was not one that was filled with things like expensive sports cars, but rather with the Word of God. The young man was upset by his father’s gift and stormed out of the house. He did not return for many years.
He returned on the day of his father’s funeral. He wandered the halls of the place he once called home and eventually found himself in the library, his father’s favorite room. He looked at the books on the shelves and skimmed through the papers on the desk. In one of the drawers he found a box – the box with the bible his father gave him for graduation. Tears began to fill his eyes as he recalled that day so long before and the lost years since. He opened the box, pulled out the bible and began flipping through the pages. In the center of the book was a key, one that would fit an expensive sports car, just like he wanted for his graduation. There was a note in his father’s writing that said, “Read Psalm 49 and remember it always.”
The young man could have had everything he wanted and far more. He found the car in the garage waiting for the day he would return to claim what his father had given him, but he never came until it was too late. He had lived those years without love or peace and he missed the joy of sharing his life and success with the one who loved him so much that he risked everything to give him the most important gift of all. It is there in that book that the real key for a successful life are found, not the car keys but the Word of God’s grace.
“Don’t remember the former things, and don’t consider the things of old. Behold, I will do a new thing. It springs out now. Don’t you know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.” Isaiah 43:18-19, WEB
Some of the roads in England are tiny. When I say tiny, I mean barely wide enough for my American car. These roads are lined with hedgerows and stone walls, so there really is nowhere to go. Every so often there is a small turn out so that two cars could pass, but there is rarely a turn out exactly at the spot where two cars meet. That meant one car has to back up to a turn out and then both cars can go on their way.
We were driving one of these tiny roads when I said to Bruce, “No one is going to believe that the roads are this small.” So, I pulled out of video camera and began to record. I was watching the road through the one square inch viewing screen just as we went around a curve in the road. There, in front of us was a very large farm tractor. I said, “Holy (word not appropriate for this writing)”. It was obvious who was going to go in reverse to the previous turn out. Bruce did so, we sucked in our breath because we didn’t know how the tractor would still fit and then we went on our way. We ran into another tractor at the exact same curve in the road. We decided we should find a bigger road on which to drive.
Have you ever felt as though you keep running into something that is making you go backwards? It might not be quite so blatant as those roads in England, but there are moments in our lives when we think we are moving in the right direction, but something gets in our way. Suppose, for instance, a person working their way up the corporate ladder. They think are doing very well and are expecting the next promotion, but it never comes. As a matter of fact, they discover that someone else has been given the promotion they deserve.
I recently saw an episode of the show starring the nanny who helps families who are struggling with their children. Usually the families need help because they have lost control of the children. The Nanny teaches them techniques for discipline and helps them see how they can better interact with the children. On this particular episode, however, the mother was dealing with something far more tragic than her failure to be a good mother. Her husband had recently died unexpectedly and she did not know how to move forward with her life as a single mother of two very small children. She could barely find the energy to feed the little ones. She was exhausted, but couldn’t sleep. She wanted to cry all the time, and her daughter didn’t make things easier when she constantly asked her about her daddy. “When is he coming home?” she would ask. Children don’t understand the finality of death.
I imagine that mother felt that she was on a very tiny road, blocked by a tractor, forced to go backwards. She even said that it hurt most because they had just settled into a good life and were looking forward to so many possibilities. She did not know what she would do. The Nanny helped her see that importance of a regular schedule, of setting priorities and of letting go her hurt and her anger. By the end of the show, the mother was not yet over her grief - you can’t get over such a loss so easily - but she was ready to face her future with hope and peace.
Sometimes the road is blocked and we have to go backward for a moment. It is frustrating and frightening. We wonder if we’ll ever be able to move forward. What we don’t realize is that God can use those moments to make us stronger, to teach us lessons, to make us wait until a better time to get on the road. Oh, it is hard to see the silver linings in tragic stories like the woman on the nanny show. It is impossible to think that anything could ever be better when her life has been upset so terribly. It is true it will never be the same; something will always be missing in her heart without her husband. Yet, as we finally move forward, we discover that life does go on.
We quickly found another road on which to drive and we discovered great adventures. A person stuck on the corporate ladder might just find a better job. The woman found a new way to live in her circumstances. Those road blocks might seem frustrating and frightening, but they are also opportunities to start anew. We don’t know what might have happened if we had continued on that road. We do know that we can trust that God will see us through and put us on the right path.
“But don’t forget this one thing, beloved, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some count slowness; but is patient with us, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fervent heat, and the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Therefore since all these things will be destroyed like this, what kind of people ought you to be in holy living and godliness, looking for and earnestly desiring the coming of the day of God, which will cause the burning heavens to be dissolved, and the elements will melt with fervent heat? But, according to his promise, we look for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.” 2 Peter 3:8-13, WEB
I read a story about a man who had an “ah ha” moment. He was a con-man; he had spent his life manipulating people out of their money, sometimes with sleight of hand and some with sleight of mouth. He was in a hotel with his latest victim, a drunken man who gave him a fortune. The crook was going to dump the drunk in the hotel hallway but something amazing happened. The drunk broke down; in tears he confessed that he was ruined, that his life was over. The crook listened and suddenly changed his mind about the con. He gave the man his money back and never was the same again. He took his gifts to the stage, became a magician. He was so beloved in his community that they supported him when we got sick. His life dramatically changed by that one “ah ha” moment.
In the language of faith, that moment was one of repentance. As Christians, we live in repentance, but for most of us it is a slow, daily process. We don’t have those dramatic moments; we have moments that guide us into a new life. I often tell this story of my own moment of repentance. We all have experienced the mistake of a cashier. We have accidentally received an extra quarter in our change. Most of the time we pocket the small amount without even realizing that we have been given too much; if we are honest we will admit that we don’t usually worry about it. We pocket the money, perhaps even thinking that it was a blessing. One day I received an extra quarter in my change and I felt a twinge. I suppose that was my “ah ha” moment. I began to think about that quarter and the impact it could have on someone’s life.
It is only a quarter. You can’t even play a video game for a quarter anymore. It isn’t even a very big deal when it comes to counting the register till at the end of the night. Oh, it will be remembered, but a quarter could be missing from a roll of change or it could have dropped on the floor. The problem is that the quarter in your change could be the catalyst that will get that cashier fired.
I began paying attention to the change in my hand. I gave back the extra coins. It was relatively insignificant. I didn’t do anything unseemly to gain that quarter, and it was only a quarter. However, I realized that even the smallest act of repentance is a huge act of obedience to God’s voice in our life. See, that “ah ha” moment, as the author of the story called it, was a movement of the Holy Spirit in his life. The realization that the quarter could be the difference between a job and unemployment was God speaking into my life. It changed me in a way I never expected.
Of course, there are a million other little things that God needs to change in me. There are probably a million little things that God needs to change in you. Most of us won’t have such extreme moments of repentance as the con-man, but we are all sinners. We are transformed by the grace of God into better people on a daily basis as He points out our faults and calls us to obedience. As we listen and obey, we are transformed into the kind of people He created and redeemed us to be. It might not be sudden or dramatic, but every act of repentance brings us closer to our God. God is patient, but He is calling us to be better in every way, including those tiny acts that seem insignificant.
Scriptures for Sunday, May 13, 2018, Seventh Sunday of Easter: Acts 1:12-26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-15; John 17:11b-19
“He who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. He who doesn’t believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son.” 1 John 5:10, WEB
I served on a jury two years ago. It was a horrible experience for the twelve of us. We were trying a child molestation case and the defendant was obviously a creep. We all, from the beginning, believed that he was guilty. We all listened intently to find the one thing we needed to convict, but the evidence was not there. Even the testimony of the victim was filled with holes and inconsistencies. One juror fought long and hard for conviction, but when we reviewed the testimony, she finally agreed. We had to rule that the man was not guilty.
I don’t think I would like to be a judge. They sit on the bench every day and listen to the stories being told to them by both plaintiffs and defendants. I often watch “The People's Court” and other court television shows. The small claims cases are taken out of the system and into the limelight. These cases have a financial limit, but there is not a limitation on the strangeness and hilarity. The litigants tell stories that are unbelievable, not only because they are so strange, but because they simply are not truthful.
On one episode, the plaintiff obviously forged a signature to prove her case, even the name was misspelled on the faked promissory note. On other episodes, plaintiffs and defendants forget their stories even while they are telling them, jumping from one idea to another. The judge will often call attention to something they had written in their statement to the court that is contrary to their testimony. They make excuses or justify their words to try to convince the judge to rule in their favor. In the end, however, the judge has to make a decision based on everything he or she hears according to the law.
The judge often says, “I don’t believe you.” We want to believe what they say, especially since they have sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. However, many people do not take that oath seriously. They make the vow, but then say what they think will help them. Unfortunately, when their stories do not line up, the judge sees past the lies and rules accordingly. The litigants often respond, “I am not a liar!” yet their answers to the questions clearly show that they have not told the truth. The problem is that many people think it is ok to be a little dishonest and think they are good people even when they twist the truth. The judge, however, has to pick through the lies and find the truth that will provide justice to everyone concerned.
“I don’t believe you,” leads to the assumption that the person is a liar. Sometimes I question the judgment of the judge because I don’t think he or she has really heard or understood what was said. I am surprised some days when the judge does not believe a story that seems to make complete sense to me. Of course, I’m limited in my knowledge; I only see what the editors and producers of the show reveal to the audience. I don’t see all the evidence or have a chance to review the litigants’ statements before the show. The judge has information that I do not know, giving him or her insight into the character of the litigant or the case that is unavailable to the rest of us.
This is what happened to those of us on the jury two years ago. See, there were people there supporting the victim and they were shocked and appalled that we presented a verdict of not guilty. How could we do so when the victim was so obviously devastated by the events? They were basing their judgment on just what they wanted to see, not what was presented before us. They didn’t understand that some of the evidence was inadmissible. The hope of the prosecution was always that the lingering emotions of those pieces would tip us toward judgment. Instead, it left lingering doubts which meant we had to rule not guilty. In the end, we didn’t believe the testimony.
Our judgment is not always right; we are fallible human beings. We see the world through our imperfect and biased understanding. We did the best we could based on what we were given. Those who judged the jury two years ago were upset because they judged us by their mission to protect the children. They refused to see the possibility that the child was not telling the truth. They refused to believe the lack of evidence.
I’m wrong sometimes, aren’t we all. It is important for us to make our judgments on the information on hand. We must remember that sometimes others have more information and fewer biases. We all make mistakes. We have to discern whether or not to believe the things that people say. The experts in fields of study do not always agree; some even give totally opposing answers to the same question. The things that Jesus said stood against the words and wisdom of the Jews and the Romans. Those things still stand against the words and wisdom of our world today. It is no wonder some people don’t believe. Even those of us with faith struggle to believe.
Unfortunately, we live in a time when it is very difficult to find the truth. We don’t believe politicians. We don’t believe journalists. We don’t believe the authorities. We don’t believe the brutes that run on the streets and attack others. We don’t believe our family or friends when they say something that does not fit our expectations. We don’t believe others, and when we don’t believe them, we make them out to be liars. Sadly, our judgment of not guilty fell upon the victim; we did not believe her testimony. I would not call her a liar, but we questioned her truth which caused doubt.
John writes, “He who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. He who doesn’t believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son.” Quite frankly, it is hard to believe in Jesus and what He said. His truth seems questionable when seen through our eyes. His preaching and teaching went against the norms of society, not only the religious expectations of the Jews but also the secular and political expectations of the Romans. Even today some suggest that His teaching isn’t all meant for our time and place. They pick and choose what they want to believe about God and explain away the rest. Some who claim to be Christian even reject the crucifixion. “I can’t believe in a god who would murder his own son.” So, they focus on “God is Love” and set aside anything that they deem opposed to their understanding of love.
They call God a liar because they do not believe that Jesus is exactly who He says He is and that Jesus does what He says He does. Disbelief is a judgment against God.
John writes, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God.” This is written to believers - those who already know the story of Jesus, His ministry and death on the cross. It is written for those who already believe that Jesus rose from death into life. It is written for those of every generation who already live in the life that He gives through faith. Why would we need to hear these words? We need them as much as those who still need to hear the Gospel message, because we still live in the flesh and we have moments of doubt and uncertainty.
This Sunday stands between Ascension and Pentecost. Imagine what the disciples were going through at the time of today’s reading from Acts. Jesus had just spent forty days living with them after He had risen from the dead. He was the same, but not the same. He was glorified and yet still ate with them and talked to them about the things of God. He was calling them to a greater purpose, even greater than when He was alive. They were to carry on His work, not simply follow Him wherever He went, but to go out on their own to do the work.
Yet, things didn’t seem to be going very well to start. Jesus chose twelve to carry on the mission, a really wonderful number because it represents the tribes of Israel and was considered the number of divine government. But one of the twelve died at his own hand after falling into despair about his own role in the death of Jesus. Judas went to the Temple, to the priests of God, to find forgiveness for his sins against Jesus, but they laughed in his face and sent him away. He did not know what else to do, so he killed himself. Peter had also mourned over his role in the crucifixion of his Lord - his fear and denial of Jesus in those last hours - but he did not despair, he waited prayerfully for whatever was to come. He found forgiveness when Jesus returned and he was restored in his relationships with God, Jesus and the other disciples. Judas was lost.
Judas is a hard character to understand. In Judas we see failure. In Judas we see the follower who is faithless. In Judas we see the member of the organization that went his own way, who did his own thing. When we are hurt by someone, we think of them as a Judas.
Judas did not seem to have any choice. In the prayer from John’s Gospel, Jesus calls Judas “the son of destruction” which means that he was slated for eternal damnation. Yet, Jesus says he was destined for such. Could Judas have done anything but turn Jesus over to the authorities? Jesus had to die. He knew it from the beginning and had been telling His disciples about His death in the parables and teachings. It was part of the plan. Judas was destined to be the one to betray Jesus. Prophecy said that it would be one who was part of their group. Jesus even told Judas to go and do what he had to do. Can we really blame Judas for Jesus’ death when Jesus knew that it had to be that way?
What did Jesus mean when he said that Judas was destined for eternal damnation? Was Judas’ suicide alone in a field part of the plan? Or, by eternal damnation did Jesus simply mean that Judas would be blamed and damned by every generation of Christian forever for Jesus’ death? Judas was, after all, not the only one to turn his back on Jesus. All the disciples ran away. Peter, beloved Peter, denied Jesus three times on the night of the trial, and did not stand with Jesus at the food of the cross. Peter’s response to the arrest was as Jesus predicted, but it served no greater purpose for God’s plan. As a matter of fact, Peter’s denial was self-centered. He was protecting himself. Judas, on the other hand, was doing what he was expected to do.
At this point, the disciples did not know what would happen. Even with all Jesus had said and done, they still were not prepared to go out into the world. They were the twelve and others, waiting for the promised Comforter. The words that Jesus spoke in those hours before His crucifixion must have been ringing in their ears as they waited. “But now I come to you, and I say these things in the world, that they may have my joy made full in themselves.” Joy? What Joy? Jesus is gone, Judas is dead, they cast lots to pick another apostle, they had no idea what would come next. They were waiting, perhaps not so patiently. On Pentecost it will all come together when they are filled with the Holy Spirit. Then their ministry would truly begin.
We have the Holy Spirit today because Jesus sent Him into our lives. Yet, don’t we still have moments when we are not so patiently waiting for whatever is going to come next? Don’t we wonder why we are in a specific place at a specific time, wonder what God would have us do? At times I think that I have it all figured out and then something goes wrong. That’s when I’m most likely to be unsure if I can even hear God or discern what He’s saying in my life.
These words in John’s letter are comforting to me, particularly at those times. They’ve been written so that even when we don’t have a clue what's going on with God’s Kingdom in the world around us, we can know that we have eternal life in Christ. Those who believe in His name are assured that God’s testimony is true, and His testimony is found in His Son, through whom we have life.
The psalmist tells us that the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. For Judas, it solved his problem. Our problem is that sometimes we justify taking the way of the wicked. It is fun, exciting, and an adventure. Some may think that the way of righteousness seems uninteresting, tedious, boring. It is hard going counter to the culture. And it doesn’t seem like God always protects those on the right road or punish those going the wrong way. After all, the good suffer as much as the wicked. But, there is joy found at the end of the journey as God welcomes those who have followed His path home.
That doesn’t mean the path will be easy. After all, of the apostles, only John died as an old man. Most of them were martyred, punished for spreading the Gospel to an ever expanding world. Judas died by his own hand, alone in a field paid for with the blood money that he received to betray Jesus. The apostles ended their lives faithful to the Lord. Judas died in despair. The apostles knew they were forgiven. Judas was eternally damned. Though they all suffered in their own way, the apostles had joy but Judas had nothing.
We all suffer moments like Judas and Peter, on the verge of despair and not knowing what will come next. How do we respond? Do we take matters into our own hands like Judas, or do we wait patiently like Peter, knowing that God’s Word is true and that He is faithful to His promises? Do we believe God?
The difference between Judas and Peter is that Peter waited. He was probably suffering from despair just like Judas. He thought he could handle anything and that he could stand up with Jesus, but he failed. Peter was not a strong man. He constantly wavered between bravado and humiliation. In one breath Peter could confess his faith that Jesus is Lord and then in the next breath think he could control the will and purpose of God. Perhaps the fact that he couldn’t stand on a decision was his salvation in those dark days between the crucifixion and resurrection. Perhaps he was patient because of the community in which he lived. Judas didn’t have that community. He was, and still is, blamed for what happened on that dark day two thousand years ago. Whether he deserves our disdain or not, he will forever be damned in our eyes. He followed the path of the wicked.
Judas didn’t believe Jesus and made God out to be a liar. Judas was not wicked because he betrayed Jesus; he was wicked because he didn’t stand upright when the judgment came. He did not remain focused on the God of mercy, taking in the living water of grace that came from Jesus Christ the Lord. The psalmist says that the way of the wicked is doomed, but perhaps it is not because of their sinful actions but instead because they do not believe God’s Word.
The question for us today is whether or not we believe God’s Word. Will we believe that God will be faithful to His promises, even if it seems as if He has abandoned us? Or will we make God a liar by not believing the testimony that God gave us about His Son Jesus Christ and the eternal life He won for us on the cross? Will we wait for Him, knowing that we have been assured of the eternal life won for us by Jesus Christ? Will we have such confidence in this promise that we will trust God in everything, looking to Him for everything we need? Will we stand upright when judgment comes, connected to the God who gives life and brings forth the fruit in our lives? Will we trust God’s lovingkindness even when it seems as though there is no hope for us? Will we believe the witness of the scriptures both Old and New Testament that tell the story of the One who has won for us the eternal life that is ours in Christ Jesus?
We are not perfect today, nor will we be until the day we come face to face with our Lord Jesus. We still doubt and fear and make really bad decisions. Yet, it is at those very moments we can turn to the words of John and rest assured that we have eternal life through the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.
The writer of today’s Psalm refers to two types of people: those who delight in God and those who are wicked. Aren’t we both? Aren’t we those who believe but doubt, who know but still wonder what will happen tomorrow? We are like the trees planted by the streams of water, yielding fruit in due season, but we also have chaff that needs to be blown away.
The chaff is the seed covering; the part that protects the seed while it grows, but when on the threshing room floor it is blown away. After harvest it is useless. So too are our doubts and fears and our worrying about tomorrow. That will all be blown away so that we will face our Lord covered in His righteousness rather than our wickedness. What a wonderful promise, a great hope in which we live. Eternal life is ours today and it will be ours tomorrow by His Grace and His Word. His testimony is true and all who believe in His name have eternal life.
“Yahweh says to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool for your feet.’ Yahweh will send out the rod of your strength out of Zion. Rule among your enemies. Your people offer themselves willingly in the day of your power, in holy array. Out of the womb of the morning, you have the dew of your youth. Yahweh has sworn, and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.’ The Lord is at your right hand. He will crush kings in the day of his wrath. He will judge among the nations. He will heap up dead bodies. He will crush the ruler of the whole earth. He will drink of the brook on the way; therefore he will lift up his head.” Psalm 110, WEB
Living in England gave our family the wonderful opportunity to visit places we would never have had the chance to see. We went to castles, cathedrals and palaces. We went to Roman villas, Saxon villages, and Norman strongholds. In school, one of the special teachers our children visited every week was the Host Nation teacher. She was a lovely British woman who shared information and the history of England with the children so that they get the most out of our tour. Each grade level had specific field trips to important landmarks, which they learned about in the Host Nation class. They went to London, York, and even visited the queen’s country estate Sandringham.
Elizabeth Alexandra Mary succeeded her father, King George VI, on February 6, 1952. Due to the illness of her father, she was already performing the duties attributed to the monarch, however it was not until his death her position became official. Even at his death, it was necessary to go through the pomp and circumstance of her crowning. A royal coronation is not a simple affair. It takes some time to plan and execute such an event. The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth did not occur until June 2, 1953. Every detail needed to be perfect, every person properly briefed, and every item in its place. Pictures and video from this glorious day certainly show the outcome of hard work and painstaking attention to detail.
During His life on this earth, Jesus Christ was already performing the work of His Father. He lived, died and rose again so that all might benefit from God’s promises to His children. Jesus’ resurrection defeated the power of death so that all who believe have eternal life. The prince of this world lost the war. After His resurrection, Jesus Christ stayed with the disciples for a time so that many could see Him in His glory before He returned to His Father. He continued to instruct His chosen representatives so that they would be fully prepared to continue His Work. Yet, the day had to come for Him to leave, or the Holy Spirit could not come to fill them with His power.
In the first chapter of the book of Acts, we hear the story of Christ’s ascension. Even to this very last moment, the disciples questioned Jesus as to the time when the kingdom of Israel would be restored. Jesus responded by saying, “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.” Then He was taken up into heaven. Mark tells us that He sat at the right hand of God. Today is Ascension Day, Jesus’ Coronation day. He was crowned with all the glory of heaven and now reigns forever as the King.
Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth! I am so thankful to be part of God’s Kingdom, and I praise God for His mercy and love. God does not forget His promises, and we live today in the assurance that we filled with His life. My King reigns forever and He reigns in me.
“Therefore you are without excuse, O man, whoever you are who judge. For in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself. For you who judge practice the same things. We know that the judgment of God is according to truth against those who practice such things. Do you think this, O man who judges those who practice such things, and do the same, that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his goodness, forbearance, and patience, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance? But according to your hardness and unrepentant heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath, revelation, and of the righteous judgment of God; who “will pay back to everyone according to their works:” to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory, honor, and incorruptibility, eternal life; but to those who are self-seeking, and don’t obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, will be wrath and indignation, oppression and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” Romans 2:1-9, WEB
Reader’s Digest runs a regular feature called “That’s Outrageous.” The briefs tell unbelievable stories, often about stupid criminals, terrible mistakes or bizarre events. These are funny even as we shake our heads in disbelief. Some of these stories are really hard to believe that they are true. One man was arrested because the police thought the glaze on his donut was crystal meth. He won a huge settlement against the authorities. A hotel asked a guest to post a review. When the review was negative, they charged the guest an extra fee. The state’s attorney general is suing the hotel. A man wanted to get rid of the opossums in his yard so he set a fire. He didn’t get rid of the opossums but burned down his house.
These are very real stories and we can find similar all over the internet. The Darwin Awards are a tongue-in-cheek honor. Beginning in 1985, they “recognize individuals who have supposedly contributed to human evolution by selecting themselves out of the gene pool via death or sterilization by their own actions.” Facebook is filled with memes telling similar ridiculousness. Most of the time these stories simply make us laugh. At other times, we see the reality of human foolishness. Sometimes, the stories show us the reality of human sinfulness.
Take, for instance, the story of the woman who won a huge prize in a sweepstakes. That’s not the problem with this story. The problem is that she was a prominent crusader against gambling in her town. She fought against casinos, raffles and even the company where she won her prize. Her answer to this inconsistency was that she was not a hypocrite, but rather the win was a result of her crusade. “It’s God showing his grace on me.”
Unfortunately, we are all familiar with the Christians in this world who talk the talk but do not walk the walk. We’ve heard the stories of pastors who have abused their power and used their parishioners. We’ve heard the stories of Christians put in charge of church finances who have taken advantage by stealing funds. We’ve heard stories about Christians who did the very things that they argue against. Sadly, we often condemn and judge others for their words and their actions without realizing that we think we are looking through a window but we are really looking into a mirror. We don’t realize that we are doing the exact things for which we are condemning others.
We have a responsibility to show our neighbors their need for Christ and His forgiveness. We need to talk about sin and call them to repentance. But when we do so we have to remember that the world is looking at us. Are we repentant? Or are we justifying our sin by claiming God is blessing us through it? That is truly outrageous; it is no wonder that the world sees these examples and rejects Christianity for the hypocrisy of Christians. They don’t understand that Christians aren’t perfect; we fail daily but we are trying to live up to the expectations of our God. That does not mean we should act like the crusading woman and claim that God blesses us in the midst of our sin. We will suffer the consequences of our hypocrisy, not because we are sinning, but because we are dishonoring God by our duplicity.
“Therefore I urge you, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service. Don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what is the good, well-pleasing, and perfect will of God. For I say, through the grace that was given me, to every man who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think reasonably, as God has apportioned to each person a measure of faith.” Romans 12:1-3, WEB
Bruce and I are getting ready to take a road trip to Minnesota to see our daughter graduate with her Master’s degree. Unfortunately, the price of gas seems to be steadily rising. This is partly due to the time of year, but also due to world events. I laugh because I wrote about this several years ago and I was complaining at the price of gas then, too. Fortunately, my prediction then did not come true. I thought the price would go much higher and that we’d see those high prices forever. It is nearly a dollar cheaper now than then, but that doesn’t mean I’ll stop complaining. The price this week jumped twelve cents a gallon in a matter of hours. Gas is relatively inexpensive in Texas; I can’t imagine what we’ll pay along the road.
I remember cringing the first time I had to pay over two dollars a gallon. I can remember even remember paying ninety-nine cents. That was a long time ago, but still within my memory. I’m sure a few of my readers have memories of even cheaper gas. Can you remember cringing when the price went to a dollar? Two dollars? Do you recall the hope you had that it wouldn’t go over three dollars? We’ve had moments when we prayed that it would stay at four dollars. I don’t think any of us are expecting to ever see a dollar a gallon gas again. Perhaps we’ve even lost all hope for two dollars. We were close just a few months ago, but now we are steadily headed toward three.
It changed the way I live. I once rejected a part time job because I knew I would spend more than half my paycheck for the gas to get me to the job. With other job expenses, it would cost me money to be employed. I was less likely to jump in the car and drive to the other side of town to go shopping or have lunch at a favorite restaurant. My husband and I are even moved our current house just to get him closer to work, to save him money on gas and time in the car.
How do we get to the point that we accept what was once considered unacceptable? Could you imagine the uproar if gas had jumped twelve cents in a few hours when we were paying a dollar a gallon a few decades ago? We groaned when it went up a penny. Now it is not unusual to see the price jump a quarter over a week or two. We still groan, but not quite as loud. We’ve come to expect it and we have transformed our lives in acceptance.
What else have we accepted and conformed to in this world? I watch television and think to myself, “That wouldn’t have been acceptable a few years ago but now it is the norm.” Our children are forced to grow up too fast and too early. Food packaging is getting smaller while prices are getting higher. Things and people we have taken for granted are disappearing because they are being replaced by technology.
Most of these things do not matter. We pay more for everything today than we did thirty years ago. Some of the old ideas were out of date. There are so many advantages to modern technology. Change is not an awful thing. It is not always bad to conform to what’s happening in the world around us. But the question we ask today is this: where do we draw the line? How far can we conform before it changes even the deepest parts of our spirit? How much can we accept before it changes even our relationship with God?
Scriptures for Sunday, May 27, 2018, Holy Trinity Sunday: Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
“Nicodemus answered him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel, and don’t understand these things?’” John 3:9-10, WEB
I think this might be one of the worst questions that Jesus can ask, especially of those who are teachers of the word. I consider myself a Bible teacher. I’ve taught workshops and classes, preached, and written Bible studies. I have been posting this devotional for nearly nineteen years, which often includes lessons on the scriptures alongside the inspiration and spiritual aspects. I should know and understand everything, right? If I went to Jesus with my doubts, I am sure He would ask me the same question.
This is particularly true about the Trinity. I get it, really I do. God is three in one and one in three. He is the Godhead, three persons or essences of the same One. He is God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There are dozens of possible analogies that get bandied about at this time of year trying to explain to our limited human minds this incredible and impossible concept. I read through the Athanasian Creed and try to grasp the seriousness of this doctrine, but I can’t come up with the words that will silence the critics and nonbelievers. How do you teach something that is completely beyond our grasp so that others will receive it with faith?
“How can this be?” “Are you a teacher and yet do not understand?”
No, Jesus, I don’t understand. Not fully. So much about what is happening in the world around me does not make sense. I see the issues from too many points of view. I see what you have said and what you have not said and what everyone interprets from the words you have said, but I still have doubts and concerns. I know enough to have an opinion, but not enough to be assured that it is what you truly want me to understand. Then you throw Bible texts at me with the expectation that I will know and understand what you mean.
We can’t believe everything we hear or see, especially if we are getting second or third person accounts of a story. Have you ever been at the water cooler, involved in a conversation that turns into a debate because everyone has heard different versions of the same story? “I heard ten were killed.” “The radio just said fifteen.” “The news website reports that the sheriff said the early figures were too high, there were only two killed.” Not a pleasant example, but the confusion is more distressing when the reporters can’t get the story correct. When the dust has settled on the situation and someone finally takes charge of the information, we can finally get the real answers to our questions. Unfortunately, in today’s world we can receive news immediately and the reporters are more than willing to continue talking even if they do not know what they are talking about.
People of faith see the world from different points of view. Some believe we should do one thing and insist that the Bible says that is the answer. Others see the problem differently and insist that the Bible supports their point of view. Unfortunately, they are, in many ways, both correct, and yet that doesn’t solve our problem. We simply don’t understand and we end up fighting with one another because we can’t come to an agreement. Soon we are faced with yet another tragedy and we still can’t understand.
Nicodemus didn’t understand, and he belonged to a group of people who had very specific ideas about what it meant to be faithful. Somehow he heard about Jesus, but what he heard was confusing. It didn’t fit into his “box.” He must have had a glimmer of faith, but the things Jesus was saying did not quite fit into his knowledge. We don’t know how he heard about Jesus. He may have been lingering on the edges of the crowd, listening along with the rest. He may have been told stories by people in his household or overheard conversations in the market. He may have simply wanted better information so he could make a righteous decision about the Jesus problem.
According to John, Jesus had just cleared the temple and He was amazing the crowds with miracles. The crowds were just beginning to believe in Him. He offended the leadership with talk of destroying and rebuilding the Temple of God; they didn’t realize He was talking about his body. They laughed at the thought of Jesus rebuilding a building that took their forefathers forty-six years to build. Jesus was quickly making enemies, and Nicodemus wasn’t sure what might happen to him if he showed an interest in what Jesus was doing so Nicodemus went at night.
Nicodemus wanted to know more. Whether he heard the words from Jesus, or he had just heard the stories that were being told about him, Nicodemus needed to clear up the confusion in his mind. Something he heard made him think. It made him want to study and learn and understand. Even face to face, the words Jesus was speaking didn’t make sense, but Nicodemus took what he heard, that which made him seek out Jesus and that which Jesus told him directly, and continued to ponder. Nicodemus later argued for fair treatment for Jesus (John 7:50) and helped Joseph of Arimathea with the burial of Jesus’ body. We don’t know if he ever really understood, but we do know that he became more open with his support of Jesus.
There are many people who try to tell us what the Bible says and how we should live according to God’s Word. They insist that they have the answers to our problems, and believe that we can fix it all “if only.” We live in community and God has given us teachers to help us understand, but we need to remember that even the teachers can be confused. Nicodemus was a teacher but he needed to learn more. He didn’t know what to believe, so he sought knowledge and pondered what he heard. We have an advantage. We live after the crucifixion and resurrection, after Pentecost when God sent His Spirit to His people. Now when we hear things, we have the Spirit, along with the Church and the written Word, to help us see what is true and what is not. We can’t do it on our own. We need God’s help to understand.
Sadly, we don’t always seek God’s help in dealing with our problems. We insist that our human solutions will be enough. Jesus once said, “This kind can come out by nothing, except by prayer and fasting.” Sometimes we need to stop seeking understanding and trust by faith that God is at work.
We must remember that God is greater than our human brains can ever fully understand. It is ok that there are mysteries about God that we have to take on faith. After all, what is the point of worshipping something, or someone, that is less than or equal to ourselves? We were made in His image, but too many want a god who is made in our image. Too many want to fix the world with human ideas and actions, but forget that only God can make things right in the end. Perhaps the concept of the Trinity is a reminder to humble ourselves and remind us that we are limited in ways that God is never limited.
On Sunday we celebrate the Holy Trinity. Three in one, one in three is beyond our ability to comprehend. We can come up with dozens of different analogies to help us explain the doctrine, but those analogies always come up short. Something limits the validity of those human explanations of a divine reality. Take, for example, the analogy of water. Yes, water can be liquid, gas or solid when it is warm, hot or frozen, but it cannot be liquid, gas and solid simultaneously. It is alright that we can’t reduce the Trinity to simple human terms. If we could, God wouldn’t be God.
Knowledge is never a bad thing; our connection with our God grows stronger as we seek and study and learn about Him, but concepts like the Trinity must be accepted by faith. Unfortunately, too many are willing to reject Christ because they can’t accept aspects of Christianity which they find foolish, unexplainable or beyond proof.
Nicodemus wanted answers. Thankfully most of the adults who come to my Sunday school class ask questions about which I can usually find the answer. However, there are definitely things that I don’t completely understand. I struggle with some of parables and stories of sacrifice and war. I know that the crucifixion was a necessity to make things right, I don’t really understand why God couldn’t choose another way. “Why did God...?” is a question I don’t think I’ll ever be able to answer with certainty.
The story from Isaiah is another reminder of our limitations. Imagine this scene: Isaiah found himself standing in the presence of the Holy One. This must have been a frightening experience. Isaiah believed that no human could stand in the presence of God, and he was a man of unclean lips. He belonged to a people of unclean lips. The words of our mouths indicate the state of our hearts; Isaiah knew that he was a sinner and that the people of God were not worthy of anything He might give. He knew that he was doomed. But he wasn’t doomed. God took care of the concern: the angel burnt off the source of Isaiah’s fear; He cleansed Isaiah’s mouth. We know we are sinners; how can sinners ever truly understand? How can we be the ones to continue the work of God in this world?
God could have ordered Isaiah to do anything, anything at all, and Isaiah would have obeyed, but God did not command Isaiah to do anything. He simply asked, “Who can I send?” Isaiah could have looked at his feet, hoed and hummed and kept his now pain-filled lips shut. He could have walked away. But the mercy of God is overwhelming and we are drawn into His heart. It is amazing that God would seek the help of a lowly, sinful, human being. Yet, He does. He makes us right with Him, and then He calls us to be actively involved in His work. He sends us into the world. He charges us with the task of telling the lost and dying about the grace of God. “Who can I send?” Isaiah answered, “Here I am, send me.” Are we willing to do the same?
The hard part of doing God’s work in the world is that there will always be people asking the hard questions. They don’t understand and they want answers. When confronted by those questions, how do we respond? Do we sneak around at night hoping to find answers? Or do we volunteer to go wherever God is sending us? We can truly do this work because we have something that will help us: the Holy Spirit. That same Spirit will put faith into the hearts of those who hear and receive His grace. We don’t have to have all the answers; we are called to simply go wherever God sends us and do whatever He is calling us to do. He does this with a promise: “I will be there with you.”
Isn’t it amazing that the most beloved of scriptures (John 3:16) would come in the midst of such a confusing text? Nicodemus wanted to understand. He knew there was something about Jesus worth pursuing, and though he was frightened he sought answers. He did so at a time when the whole work of Jesus was not yet complete. He had not yet died or resurrected. He had not ascended to heaven or sent the Holy Spirit to help His disciples. He was just beginning to reveal Himself to the world and Nicodemus wanted to know more.
Jesus knew how to teach in a way that made people discover the truth. He guided the discussion with questions, asking the student to give input. Jesus’ lessons were difficult because they were so different than what was expected and known in that day, but He was willing to teach those willing to learn. I don’t think that we should fear this kind of conversation with our Lord, even if we are not confident in our answers because Jesus is looking for people of faith who seek the truth. We are always going to have questions; the things of God are too much for our limited human brains. The point of our life is not to find all the answers, or even to fully understand everything, but to believe, worship and pursue the God who loved us so much that He sent His Son Jesus to die for us.
There will always be those who refuse to believe because they can’t understand. We will be rejected when we can’t explain the unexplainable. We wonder, “What’s wrong with me?” when we get rejected. We wonder what we could do differently. I know the feeling; I’ve been rejected, too. I once sent an article to a number of publications and received the standard rejection letter. Usually the letter stated that the editor was thankful for the submission but the magazine did not need any articles on that subject at the moment. It usually went on to invite me to submit something else at a later time, pointing me to a set of guidelines and a calendar of themes. No matter how polite and encouraging they were in those letters, I still took the rejection personally.
I remember when I was doing a lot of online ministry, in chat rooms and through mailing list discussions, many people took every disagreement as a personal rejection: if you didn’t agree with their point of view, then you were rejecting them. This attitude does not leave a lot of room for learning or growing. It also led to a lot of hurt feelings. We see this even more in discussions today, not only online, but at our dinner tables and around the water cooler.
Nicodemus was willing to listen and learn. Instead of being upset by the statement of Jesus, he asked how it would happen. It is difficult for us to know the tone of voice, or the intent of Nicodemus’ question. Was he confused by the idea of a second birth, or was he being sarcastic? His answer, “How can a man be born from his mother’s womb a second time?” It sounds mocking and yet in Nicodemus we see a glimmer of faith. Later in John, Nicodemus did things to help Jesus, actions of a man who had not rejected Jesus. Yet, we do not know if Nicodemus ever experienced that second birth. We don’t see him at all after the burial. There are those who say that he was martyred, possibly by the leaders who disagreed with him about giving Jesus a fair trial. Other than that, we know nothing.
Isn’t that how it is for most of us? Do your coworkers or neighbors know you are a Christian? Can they tell by your daily actions that you follow Jesus? Or do you follow Him at night, worship Him only Sunday morning, serve Him physically but not verbally? Most of us would rather not wear our faith on our sleeve, not because we are afraid, but because we don’t want to be intrusive. We don’t want to appear as though we are rejecting someone because their faith is different than ours, so we quietly serve Christ. We especially do not want to have to answer the questions about things we do not understand. We are more than happy to do good works in Jesus’ name, but we don’t want to speak. We confess, like Isaiah, that our lips are unclean.
The silent Christian is no different than the secular volunteers in your neighborhood. Are your good works better than that of the the guy who works for the lodge down the street or for the volunteer fire company? Does the world know that the reason you are sharing your resources, time and talent is because you love the Lord your God? You don’t have to be born of the Spirit to be kind and generous. But our kindness and generosity is self-serving if we don’t do it in a way that glorifies God. We might end up with nice certificates or even plaques, but if God’s name isn’t praised, then our work is useless. We hear all too often, “She was a good person; she is surely going to heaven.” There is no way for me to know, except that I know it isn’t goodness or service that gets us into God’s kingdom; faith in Christ is the only path to that kingdom.
This is a hard lesson; it is no wonder that Nicodemus was confused. It sounds impossible. We can’t be born again from our mother’s womb, but the idea of a spiritual rebirth is not tangible. How do we know? How can we be assured that God has changed us? How can we know that we have been born from above? Perhaps there is no way to know for certain; there is no proof in flesh and blood. That’s why we live in faith. We who have been given the power of the Holy Spirit can say “I believe” and live according to the spirit in faith and trust and hope no matter what circumstances we face, knowing that God is God even when we can’t fully understand what that means.
We tend to serve quietly because we do not want to be rejected. We don’t want to be mocked for our faith, but we know that our faith demands that we serve God. So we do good deeds without speaking God’s word to our neighbors, hoping that God will make it clear to them that we do what we do in His name. We’d rather not suffer; we are afraid. Paul reminds us, however, that when we join with Christ we join Him in everything: His suffering and His glory. We need not be afraid, for God will use whatever we do in His name for His glory.
Human beings do not want to be confused or have their world turned upside down, and that’s exactly what the Gospel does. Our analogies that describe God in human terms can be easily dismissed because there are holes in the logic. And the other questions that are asked, about evil and suffering and hypocrisy, give plenty of reason to reject God’s Word and those who take it to the world. That’s what makes it hard. We don’t like to be rejected.
But that’s why we live by faith. In Christ we are made heirs, children of God. We are brought before the throne and welcomed into His presence. We have a new relationship with God in Christ Jesus. This is possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. We might be rejected by the world—we will be rejected by the world—but it doesn’t matter because we are embraced by God and made part of His Kingdom.
In Christ we can approach the throne and though God can rattle all creation, we do not need to fear. We are still awed by the presence of this God who is beyond our understanding, for the Father deserves our trembling worship. He is still the Creator and ruler over all the earth. We may be confused by doctrines that make no human sense like the Trinity. But God is God.
We are merely human, but despite our imperfection God invites us into His presence and makes us part of His kingdom. We are merely human, but we are heirs to a kingdom ruled by the King. We don’t need any special abilities, for it is God’s grace and His power that brings His promises to fulfillment. It is His Word that brings life and hope. The transformation of the world is not the task for mere humans. It can only be accomplished by God. So, this message is about the God who can do the miraculous, who can bring life to the dead and who can cause people to be reborn after they have been born from their mother’s wombs.
The psalmist describes God as powerful, majestic, strong, full of might. His voice breaks the cedars and makes the heart of the nations skip a beat. The voice of the Lord strikes like flashes of lightning and rattles the world. The Lord sits enthroned over history and over the future. He is King over everything past, present and future. This same Lord has the power to bring down giants, to end nations, to turn the universe to dust. Yet, what does this Lord do? He gives strength to His people and blesses His people with peace. He can rattle all creation, but with that same voice He gives us the best news we can hear: we are loved.
And we glorify God by answering His call to go into the world to share the Gospel message with those who are still hiding in the darkness, speaking the name of Jesus to the entire world. We will be rejected. We will suffer. But we can’t take it personally. They aren’t rejecting us; they have hardened hearts. They have heavy ears and eyes that are closed. They can’t see, hear or believe. They are rejecting God. But despite the possibility of rejection and suffering, we are joined with Christ in the bad and the good, so we can know that we will be joined with Him in His glory.
“Then Yahweh’s word came to him, saying, ‘Go away from here, turn eastward, and hide yourself by the brook Cherith, that is before the Jordan. You shall drink from the brook. I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.’ So he went and did according to Yahweh’s word; for he went and lived by the brook Cherith that is before the Jordan. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the brook. After a while, the brook dried up, because there was no rain in the land. Yahweh’s word came to him, saying, ‘Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and stay there. Behold, I have commanded a widow there to sustain you.’” 1 Kings 17:2-9, WEB
I love taking road trips. Sure, it takes longer to get to where you are going, but the journey is half the fun. Our road trip included driving through Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota. We stopped twice along the way up and once on the way back. We enjoyed treats along the way, including dinner in an Amish restaurant. We learned things we didn’t know, like the fact that there is an Amish community in Oklahoma. We visited friends and learned about their life in Iowa. We had a car so we could explore Minneapolis. We stopped at the Precious Moments Chapel in Missouri on our way home. We saw hills and streams and lakes. We saw lots of trees and farms with fields of new growth. We went to the Mall of America.
We spent time together. I think that was the best part of taking a road trip. I don’t mind flying, but it is so hectic and uncertain. Our daughter experienced difficulty with her flights home, and ended up being rerouted because of bad weather. We faced our own weather issues; we drove through a significant storm, but arrived at our hotel in good time. We listened to books on CD most of the way, learning about the life of Leonard Nimoy, the Gaines family, and Todd and Lisa Beamer. We laughed and talked and enjoyed each other’s company.
The journey really is half the fun. We went to Minnesota to celebrate the graduation of our daughter who earned her Master of Arts degree. The speakers used the story of Elijah to encourage the graduates to listen to God’s voice and go where He sends them. The journey will not always take them to where they want to go, or provide them with everything they want from their lives, but there are blessings to be found along the way. No one really wants to be fed by ravens, or to demand the last bread from an impoverished woman. No one really wants to accept a call to a church that is in trouble or become youth minister for a struggling group.
There are always risks whenever you go on a journey. We drove 2500 miles. Gas prices were high in some places. Traffic is crazy in the cities. We ran into so much road construction. We weren’t entirely happy with one of our hotels. We got lost more than a few times along the way. Yet, we also saw the beauty of God’s creation, met people along the way and enjoyed surprises. As a matter of fact, the Amish restaurant had food reminiscent of our youth. I even had soda produced near my hometown. We were amused by a car in one hotel parking lot that was loaded with new interesting treasures every day. One day there was a kids electric BMW, the next day there was also a Hummer. There were paintings and children’s tables and dolls. The windows were broken and the driver left the hatch open one day to fit a trunk that was too large for the vehicle. Most of all we were blessed by sharing the journey.
Road trips may not always be practical for every vacation, but every trip is a journey. Our lives are ultimately one long journey from birth to death to eternal life. There are certainly risks, and God will call us to places we don’t always want to go to do things we don’t always want to do. We may think we are incapable or inadequate, but we can trust that God will provide according to His good and perfect purpose. Elijah received the grace of God in the food from the ravens and the sacrificial hospitality of the widow, and in the end the world was blessed by his obedience. The world will be blessed by our obedience, too.
“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.” John 15:12-16, WEB
All around America are roadside attractions that draw visitors on a daily basis. These attractions are often just off major highways, easily accessible and weirdly appealing. These roadside attractions include odd collections such as twine, toilet seats and funeral items. There is a miniature railroad museum in PA, a nod to Paul Bunyan in Minnesota and the world’s longest candy in New Hampshire. These places have to be careful about claiming to be world’s biggest anything because there is always somewhere else making a similar claim, such as the largest pecans found in Seguin, Texas and Brunswick, Missouri.
Most of these attractions require little of your time and they offer a good opportunity to stretch legs and use the rest room. The gifts shops are filled with kitschy souvenirs and you almost always walk away with some interesting piece of information. We once stopped at a gift shop that sat right on the border of Arizona and New Mexico. When I say “on the border,” I mean that the line went right through the middle of the store. The shop was located near an ancient native American village site, so we had the opportunity to see the way they lived and the hundreds of artifacts that had been found on the site. Many of these attractions are located on the infamous Route 66, so you have the added thrill of following the travelers from days gone by, many of whom visited those very attractions decades ago.
Bruce and I stopped at one of these roadside attractions during our trip this week. The Precious Moments Chapel is located in Carthage, Missouri, near Joplin. We saw advertisements for the chapel on our way north and our planned hotel was just a few miles away, so we decided to stop. Precious Moments is the name of a line of cute porcelain figures created and designed by a man named Sam Butcher. We didn’t know what we would find when we arrived at the attraction, but we were pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t a cheesy site filled with poorly produced enlargements of the endearing childlike Precious Moments figures.
As a matter of fact, the story behind the chapel is one of faith. Sam Butcher is a Christian who came from a poverty stricken family. People recognized early in his life that he had artistic talent, but his family was so poor that he had to take rolls of discarded paper from a local factory. He managed to receive a scholarship to an art school. He worked for Child Evangelism Fellowship. He began in the shipping department, but eventually got a job as an artist for the group, even worked as the illustrator for the television series “Tree Top House,” where his teardrop eyed characters first made their appearance. He began selling inspirational greeting cards with the characters in 1975 and then partnered with Enesco in 1978 to produce the porcelain figures.
His faith was always part of Sam’s work; he was determined to glorify God in everything he did. Despite his success with the cards and figurines, Sam thought something was missing. That is when he decided to build the Chapel in Carthage. The buildings and gardens were completed in 1989 and is filled with Sam’s art work, paintings, statues and stained glass. Each piece shares his vision of God’s story, using the Precious Moments caricature for Bible characters. Bruce and I had fun trying to identify each story. Now seventy-nine years old, Sam continues to work on the chapel, changing the paintings with new details. He added his mother’s picture into the largest piece called “Hallelujah Square,” a vision of heaven. He signed that piece after the addition, indicating that the piece is finished and that he won’t make any more changes to it. Other pieces are still unsigned. He was seventy-five when he completed work on the ceiling.
Near the entrance to the chapel is a monument with the following engraving. “Before I close my eyes in death I pray that I might be the kind of person God might choose in His great ministry. That I may share my talent in a warm and loving way by touching every heart until God calls me home someday. And I trust that when I’m gone our visitors may find great comfort in the work of art that I have left behind.” This monument will serve as Sam’s tombstone when he died, leaving a legacy of faith for all who remember him. God help us all to find some way to live our faith in a way that will impact the world and glorify Him well beyond our own life.
“Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time; casting all your worries on him, because he cares for you. Be sober and self-controlled. Be watchful. Your adversary, the devil, walks around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Withstand him steadfast in your faith, knowing that your brothers who are in the world are undergoing the same sufferings. 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. To him be the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.” 1 Peter 5:6-11, WEB
Our trip to Minnesota had a purpose: we attended the graduation ceremony for the seminary from which our daughter received her Master of Arts degree. It was a distinguished event, held in a large beautiful church. About one hundred students received their degrees, both Master’s and Doctorates. The church was full of family and friends celebrating the day. The professors were dressed in their official garb and the officiants did their tasks with dignity and grace.
Bruce and I decided to sit in the balcony of the church because I thought I would be able to take better photographs of our daughter and her friends from that height. We were the first up the stairs and so we had front row seats. Our view was terrific. Soon after the processional, however, I saw something flying straight for my head. It was a bat. A few other people noticed, although those on the floor had no idea what was happening. The bat flew around, never actually attacking anyone, although it didn’t take very long before we all knew there was a bat. It eventually flew into the well lit area near the altar and the whole church became aware of its presence.
The bat grew bolder and bolder with every lap around the church, soon swooping at the people in the balcony. At one point it dropped so close to the people that we all screamed. Soon after, the bat landed on the wall near the balcony and a brave man caught the bat in his jacket and carried it out of the church. We all cheered. Meanwhile, the officiants kept on with the ceremony. As a matter of fact, I don’t think the speaker at the podium even skipped a beat while we were making a ruckus in the balcony. They eventually realized what was happening, and probably cheered with us silently when the bat was caught. The rest of the event went on without incident.
We try to control our world, to make everything perfect. I am sure that those who planned the ceremony last week didn’t consider the possibility of a bat disrupting the event. Those of us in the balcony tried to ignore the bat, but it came much too close for comfort. Those speaking and presenting did not let the commotion disrupt the ceremony, but they probably struggled with the noise coming from the balcony, perhaps upset that we had so little respect for the solemnity of what was happening.
That’s life, though, isn’t it? We plan everything to be perfect, but the world gets in the way. We can’t always blame the devil on all the hard times that befall us, but we have to be aware that the devil is waiting for the perfect opportunity to make things chaotic. The key for those of us in faith is to be aware that anything can happen and to be prepared to face it with grace, courage and strength. We can continue to glorify God even when the struggles of life try to distract us from God’s grace.
“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 am working on a project that requires drilled holes through pieces of wood. I have been using a piece of scrap wood as a base so that I don’t put holes in my work table. That piece of scrap wood now has dozens of holes, making it completely unusable for any other project. I’m not even sure that it will last through this project since the holes are merging, leaving gaping openings. I will probably turn it over for the final pieces so that I don’t waste another piece of wood as I finish this project.
There is a story about a boy who had a temper. His dad gave him a bag of nails and a hammer and told him to put a nail in the fence every time he got angry. The boy put thirty seven nails in the fence the first day, but he began to learn self-control and eventually made it to the day when he did not put a single nail in the fence. He realized it was easier to control his temper than to put a nail in the fence. He told his father who told him to take a nail out every day that he did not lose his temper. It took a while, but the boy finally removed all the nails. When he told his father, they went to the fence and the father pointed out the holes left behind.
The father said, “You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this one. You can put a knife in a man and draw it out. It won't matter how many times you say I’m sorry, the wound is still there.” This was a lesson in the power of words and the impact we leave behind.
I’m using the piece of wood for my project because it wasn’t good for much else anyway. Yet, that doesn’t make the lesson any less important. After all, don’t we often target the least of these when we get angry? Aren’t they the ones most hurt by the words we use? We may think they have no value, but in the eyes of God they are beloved children and worthy of His grace. Proverbs 18:21 says that death and life are in the power of the tongue and that we will eat of its fruit. Isn’t it better to speak goodness and grace than anger and hatred? Not only will we make the world a better place, but we will benefit from the blessings of the grace we share with our neighbors.
Scriptures for Sunday, June 3, 2018, Second Sunday after Pentecost: Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Psalm 81:1-10; 2 Corinthians 4:5-12; Mark 2:23-28 (3:1-6)
“But we have this treasure in clay vessels, that the exceeding greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves.” 2 Corinthians 4:7, WEB
In 1946, Bedouin shepherd Muhammed edh-Dhib, his cousin Jum’a Muhammed, and Khalil Musa stumbled across some caves in the Qumran region of the West Bank near the Dead Sea. Muhammed edh-Dhib was concerned about his livestock who were getting too close to the caves. He dropped a stone and heard an unusual cracking noise. He knew he had found pottery and expected to find treasure. Most of the pots were empty and the scrolls were a disappointment. They even thought of burning the parchments for fuel. They tried to sell the scrolls to a dealer who claimed they had no value. Several of the scrolls were eventually sold for about $300 (today’s value.)
An archeologist heard about the scrolls and began the process of searching for more. The searchers discovered many manuscripts in other caves over the years. Scholars have identified remains of more than 800 different scrolls. Most of the tens of thousands of pieces are little more than fragments, but come from both religious and secular texts. There are theories about the origin of the scrolls, but the discovery was the greatest manuscript discovery in modern times.
We know today the great value of those manuscripts, even the fragments, because they are the oldest manuscripts of the original biblical texts and provide us confidence that the scriptures we have today have not changed over the millennia. The scrolls, which include at least fragments of every Old Testament book of the Bible except Esther, are nearly identical to what we have today, showing that the scripts who have copied those words over the years were remarkably accurate and that God was able to protect His Word.
The discovery began with a simple clay pot. What is truly amazing is that pottery is often the first thing found at most archeological sites. They are usually bits and pieces, not enough to hold water, but even a small piece can help the researchers identify the time and people who lived in that place. The type of clay, other materials used and the symbols painted or carved on the piece help. It might seem like those tiny pieces have no value, but they can truly be the key to unlocking the mystery of the dig site. I’m sure the archeologists have used the clay pots found in those caves to help with identifying the people who placed the scrolls in the caves. While the real treasures were the scrolls that were found, the clay pots have incredible value, too, because they helped to protect the scrolls for nearly two thousand years. They held the Word of God.
Clay is a type of soil. Clay is fine-grained earthy material, which is pliable when wet. When the clay dries, it becomes hard and can be used for a multitude of purposes. When the clay is fired in a kiln, it becomes even stronger. A coating of glaze is added to give the object more strength, as well as to cover the pores to make it retain liquid. Clay has been used for thousands of years for many practical things - tiles for floors or roofs, bowls, coins and pots. We don’t often pay attention to the clay pot, particularly when it is filled with a beautiful flower. We even ignore the cracks and holes in the pots because we value that which is held within.
The Bible refers to God as a potter and we as the vessels, which He has molded to carry His Word. We were created to glorify God the Father. We do that by being the vessel that shares the truth of His life with the world. We will get chipped and cracked in the process, but we will not be destroyed. Those moments when the world thinks it’s getting the better of us, are the moments when God is doing His greatest works. I’ve often referred to myself as a cracked pot. It is my prayer that this cracked pot will always shine the light of truth and life to the world.
We have entered into the season of the church year called Pentecost. This is also called Ordinary time and is a time when we focus on our ordinary lives of faith. Advent, Epiphany, Lent and Easter focus on the story of God. Pentecost focuses on our call as Christians. Who are we? What are we to do? How can these cracked pots possibly glorify God? The Gospel stories, Epistle messages and Old Testament lessons speak to God’s call to His people to live and love and serve in faith. It is a life that is not always an easy journey.
I once heard a speaker who was among the troops stationed on Bataan. By the time the Japanese took Bataan, the men stationed there had nothing left; they had no food, no medicine and no ammunition. They were starving, dying. They surrendered, only to face more difficult times under the Japanese. The Death March was sixty-five miles in tropical heat. They had little rest, no water or food. Any people who tried to help them were executed. They endured horror after horror during and after the march. Those who survived the march suffered even greater humiliations as prisoner of war slaves. By the time they were freed in the summer of 1945, only a third of the original captives were alive. If it weren’t for the Russians who liberated the camp, this dear man would have had to dig a mass grave with the other prisoners, he would have been executed and his body burned so that no evidence would remain.
I am sure he could have talked for hours and it was not easy to share those experiences, but he feels it is important that people, especially young people, hear about the horrors of war and remember those who sacrificed even their lives for the sake of others. One story he told touched me deeply, both emotionally and in spirit. The marchers were not given any water to drink in that searing tropical heat. At mid-day they would stop at a field, so that the Japanese soldiers could rest. They would sit in the shade and drink their fill of the cool, clean water that flowed freely out of artesian wells that were near the road. The prisoners were not allowed to drink. If they tried, they were killed. Can you imagine what it must have been like to be so near to fresh water and yet unable to drink without dying for it? For some Christians, that’s exactly what living their faith could mean. They want to drink the living water, which is Christ, but doing so could lead to death. It is only faith that gets them through the persecution.
The man said that there were three things that got him through it: his faith in God, the prayers of his family and the determination to survive.
Paul writes, “We are pressed on every side, yet not crushed; perplexed, yet not to despair; pursued, yet not forsaken; struck down, yet not destroyed; always carrying in the body the putting to death of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” Most American Christians have no idea what it is like to face such persecution, even those soldiers at war in the Pacific during World War II had no expectation that they would suffer such great horrors during that war. The man survived because of his faith, he looked to God to help him through his captivity and the many attacks to his life and his emotional well-being. We do not know what tomorrow holds, but for a Christian persecution is always a possibility. We can only trust that if someone refuses to allow us to drink of the living water, God is with us through it all. He will not allow us to be crushed, to despair, to be abandoned or destroyed. Our bodies might die, but in Christ we will live forever. May we all face tomorrow with the faith that God’s power is greater than any power in this world.
It is particularly appropriate that we should begin this season with the Old Testament lesson on the Sabbath. We begin with the reminder that we are to take time to rest. It is so easy for us to get caught up in “doing,” especially when there is so much to do in this world. It doesn’t help that we will be hearing the Gospel stories through Mark whose Gospel is filled with such urgency. We feel the same urgency today. When something happens, we cry, “We have to do something!” We don’t know, or can’t agree, what that “something” is, yet we rush out, demand change and fight with one another, never really accomplishing anything. We forget to take the time to stop, to pray, to ask God for His help. We are reminded that we are simply the pots, the vessels, and imperfect ones at that, through which God can make incredible things happen.
This God on whom we rely, took time to rest after creating the whole of creation. Do we really think we are any more of the strength and abilities to accomplish the work? Do we really think we can keep going like the Energizer bunny? God stopped to rest, shouldn’t we?
We need to be careful, however, how we define this Sabbath rest. God intended the day to be a time to stop, to pray, to rest, but the people of God decided that we needed specific rules to govern that time. They then determined what obedience to those laws looks like in the world. The rule to never start a fire on the Sabbath has been extended to anything in the modern age that causes a spark, like driving or turning on the lights. These rules are meant to give God’s people and those who surround them (both animals and foreigners) rest from their labors.
These rules, however, often became a burden. In today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches us there’s a place for grace on the Sabbath. He and the disciples happened to be walking in a grain field on the Sabbath. They were hungry, so they were grasping the grain and pulling it off by the handful, tossing kernels into their mouths. In essence, they were reaping on the Sabbath, specifically disobeying the intent of the Sabbath rest as defined in Exodus 34:21. The Pharisees were constantly looking for reasons to expose Jesus and His ministry. How could a man of God go against God’s own word?
Jesus answered by reminding the Pharisees that even David was disobedient when he was hungry. And besides, Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 Therefore the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” The Sabbath was never meant to be a burden. It was meant to be a gift for God’s people so that they would have the strength and ability to serve Him the other six days of the week.
Jesus entered the synagogue and saw a man who needed His healing. He confronted them, asking if it was ok to heal on the Sabbath. Now, in other healing stories, Jesus did specifically disobey their rules. He mixed mud. He told the cripple to carry his mat. In this story, He asked, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath day to do good, or to do harm? To save a life, or to kill?” They were silent, although the answer is that if a human’s life is in danger, then we have to responsibility to disobey the laws to save the life. In this case, Jesus didn’t do anything wrong; He simply told the man to reach out his hand and his hand was healed. Jesus proved that He is the Lord of the Sabbath. He also showed us that mercy is greater than obedience.
We should take a Sabbath rest, but it isn’t about avoiding the work that needs to be completed. It is about setting our hearts and our minds in the right place so that we can do that work the other six days a week. We can’t accomplish anything if we are burnt out. However, we are also reminded that Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath, so our Sabbath rest is in Him. The more we are connected to our Lord, the better we can accomplish His Work.
Martin Luther writes in the Small Catechism, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” The Sabbath, as so much else in the Old Testament, was given to point us to Jesus. Our Sabbath rest is in Him, and we are commanded to keep our lives holy by spending time with Him. There are good and healthy reasons to take a day of rest each week, but even more so there spiritual reasons to spend time in worship and prayer. We will discover in that time that God really does have a plan and a purpose. We’ll discover through His Word the things we should do during the other six days of the week. We will realize that we are called to be merciful and in doing so we will find the real blessing of living in faith.
We won’t be perfect. As a matter of fact, we are little more than cracked pots. Yet, there is great value in those pots because we are filled with God’s Spirit and His grace. There is a story told of an Indian water bearer who had two large pots. One was perfect, the other had a crack. The perfect pot was always full when the bearer arrived at his home, but the cracked pot was only half full. The bearer carried his water daily for two years, ending with only a pot and a half of water at the end of the journey. The cracked pot thought it was a failure. “For these past two years I am able to deliver only half of my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master’s house. Because of my flaws, you don’t get full value for your efforts.”
The cracked pot did not realize the affect it was having on the world. A row of beautiful flowers grew where the water dripped for two years. The flowers were only on that side of the path; the water bearer had planted seeds to take advantage of the dripping water. He had used those flowers to decorate his master’s table. Though broken and leaking, the pot provided beauty to grace the life of someone else.
The same is true of us. We are broken and leaking vessels, but we are filled with God’s Spirit. That is truly the treasure that fills us. As we begin to travel this year’s Pentecost journey, let’s look for those opportunities to let that Spirit leak into the world, to share His grace with our neighbors. It begins with remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy. It begins with honoring God’s work and holding it sacred. It begins with resting in Jesus and trusting in Him.
“Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” Proverbs 22:6, WEB
You may have seen the video. It shows an 8 year old boy helping an elderly woman with a walker up a flight of stairs. The boy was in a car with his mother when they saw the woman slowly cross a road. On the other side, she was faced with a daunting climb. The boy asked his mom if he could help her. He was incredibly patient, particularly for a young boy. He helped lift the walker up each stair and then held the woman’s arm as she stepped up. The woman hugged the young man at the top of the stairs, then he ran back to his mother’s car and they went on their way.
A woman stuck in the traffic jam caused by this boy’s kindness taped the whole thing and shared it on the internet. The video brought as much joy to the boy’s mother because she saw this wonderful moment all over again. The act was simple and brief. If there hadn’t been a video, we would never have heard about it. It is one of millions of acts of kindness that happen every day. It had no real impact on the world, but it had a huge impact on the woman who needed a help up those stairs. It has now also had an impact on everyone who has watched the video. We have seen that there are good kids out there, kids who are willing to give a helping hand with no expectation. He had no idea he was being recorded. He had no plan for fame. He just wanted to help someone.
There are no easy answers for the problems we face in our world today, and unfortunately it seems many children are overindulged and they see themselves as the center of the world. There are others who have learned how to live from parents who are focused on all the wrong things. Most children would have been so busy playing a game on their cell phone to even notice the woman in need. But the video gives us hope that there are children who will grow into caring, merciful people. The mom may be especially proud of her little boy, but kudos to her for teaching him kindness and grace.
My children are well past this type of training; they are young adults now making their way in the world. I pray that the lessons I taught and the life I’ve lived has been a good example to them so that they will act with kindness their whole life. This proverb, however, is not just for mothers or fathers. We can all make an impact on the life of a child. We can model kindness in the grocery store where strangers and their children will see and learn. We can mentor the children in our neighborhoods. We can be good examples when we visit the public pool or go to the theme park. We can encourage and help the parents of the next generation so that they will raise up children in the right way to go. We can also pray for those who are outside our sphere of influence.
The hope of tomorrow is found in the youth of today. Thank goodness there are some, like that 8 year old boy, who are willing to give in simple and unimportant ways that may not have an impact on the world but will impact the life of one.