Welcome to the May 2020 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 2020
“As we were going to prayer, a certain girl having a spirit of divination met us, who brought her masters much gain by fortune telling. Following Paul and us, she cried out, ‘These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us a way of salvation!’ She was doing this for many days. But Paul, becoming greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!’ It came out that very hour. But when her masters saw that the hope of their gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas, and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers. When they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, ‘These men, being Jews, are agitating our city and advocate customs which it is not lawful for us to accept or to observe, being Romans.’ The multitude rose up together against them and the magistrates tore their clothes from them, then commanded them to be beaten with rods. When they had laid many stripes on them, they threw them into prison, charging the jailer to keep them safely, who, having received such a command, threw them into the inner prison, and secured their feet in the stocks. But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were loosened. The jailer, being roused out of sleep and seeing the prison doors open, drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘Don’t harm yourself, for we are all here!’ He called for lights, sprang in, fell down trembling before Paul and Silas, brought them out, and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ They spoke the word of the Lord to him, and to all who were in his house.” Acts 16:16-32, WEB
What is hope?
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines hope as “to cherish a desire with anticipation: to want something to happen or be true.” This definition makes hope a matter of personal desire, to hope is to want. Yet, as we consider the idea of hope from a biblical point of view, we know that hope is something deeper. It isn’t about wishes and dreams; it is about confident trust that God will fulfill His promises.
Paul was in Macedonia, preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but the ministry was not going smoothly. I’m sure the disciples had to constantly deal with hecklers and others interrupting their work. In this case, it was a girl with a spirit that gave her the gift to supernaturally understand matters beyond her ability. She was a slave and her owners took advantage of her gift. They were making a fortune by her soothsaying. By this spirit, the girl knew that Paul and Silas were servants of God. She made a nuisance of herself by following the disciples, crying out about them. She was probably not telling her neighbors that they should follow Paul. The spirit within her was speaking the truth, they were servants of the Most High God, however, the terminology she used was not typical of the time or place in which they lived. Perhaps the demon was using it as a form of disrespect. Perhaps her cries were making it difficult for Paul to even speak or maybe her cries were sarcastic and mocking. Whatever she was doing annoyed Paul so much that he cast the spirit out of the girl.
The girl’s masters were not happy with the exorcism because they could no longer count on the financial benefits of their slave. Luke writes that the men “saw that the hope of their gain was gone.” They wanted money and she was the source of it for them, but their hope was gone. She was useless to them. They had Paul and Silas arrested and taken to prison. The crowds agreed because the girl was no longer of use to them, either. They hoped that she would tell them what they wanted to hear. She had been giving them readings, telling their fortunes, and now they had no one on whom they could rely for such services. They were beaten and thrown into prison. The jailer put them in the innermost cell and chained their feet so that they would not escape.
It seems as though they had no reason to hope. What good could come out of being in prison? They did not worry or complain. They did not fight to be set free. Paul, being a Roman citizen, could have demanded a proper trial, but he allowed them to do what they chose to do. Instead of dwelling in their discomfort, they prayed and sang hymns together. The other prisoners listened to them. They had true hope, a confident trust that God would be faithful to His promises.
An earthquake hit as they worshipped, causing the prison to fall down around them. Even the chains were let loose. Yet, Paul and Silas did not escape. They stayed. Something about God’s grace touched them, and they stayed together even though they had been set free.When the jailer realized that the prisoners were free, he thought to kill himself rather than suffer the humiliation of failure, but Paul cried out in the night, “Stop, we are all here!” The jailer was amazed by their mercy and he asked what he must do to be saved. “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They told them about Jesus and his whole household was saved. He took care of them, washed their wounds and gave them food to eat. The jailer and his house were all baptized. They showed him true hope.
The difference of hope is striking. The men had hope in a young girl, and their hope was disappointed when the spirit that gave her power was exorcised. Wishes and dreams may come true, but they are not eternal or assured. When we hope in perishable things, we will be disappointed. But the hope we have in Jesus Christ is real. It is true. It is lasting. Paul and Silas trusted in God enough to not take advantage of someone who would have been destroyed by their escape. They were so confident in God’s promises that they used the opportunity to share their hope with the jailer. The integrity of the Christians caught the jailer’s attention and he asked about Jesus. In the end, he and his entire household was baptized. This conversion gave the Christian message to the Gentile community some credibility and others who were beginning to believe also became Christians based on the witness of that one man. One annoying girl led to the Christianization of the Gentiles, and the sharing of true hope with the world.
“Commit your way to Yahweh. Trust also in him, and he will do this: he will make your righteousness shine out like light, and your justice as the noon day sun. Rest in Yahweh, and wait patiently for him. Don’t fret because of him who prospers in his way, because of the man who makes wicked plots happen.” Psalm 37:4-7, WEB
I was in the grocery store today when the cashier made a slight blunder. She apologized and said that she was having a bad day. Her father had a stroke recently and she’s had him on her mind. Sadly because of the virus she can’t visit him or do anything about his care. She decided to return to work now so that she could take the time in a few weeks when he would be home and need her.
Many people with elderly loved ones are dealing with similar difficulties. Bruce’s dad is in a nursing home and he has a form of dementia, so the isolation is incredibly difficult for him and his family. His dad does not understand why he has not seen anyone, and it is causing his health to slip. I am sure there are many others who can tell similar stories and similar concerns. The decisions are difficult at the best of times, but in a time like this, they are nearly impossible.
We faced similar decisions when my father when sick. We talked to dozens of people, searched the Internet and considered all the options. Some of the information was helpful. Some of the advice was unfortunate. Everyone has good intentions, of this I have no doubt, but everyone’s situation is unique. We also talked to Dad about his wishes. He died much sooner than we would have liked, but while we waited, we wanted to provide him with the best care possible.
I certainly prayed during those weeks, but I'm not so sure I prayed as I should prayed. about making the right decisions for Dad. I prayed for good health and for quick healing. I prayed that the nurses and doctors would use their gifts to help him. I prayed for safe travel as we dealt with the situation. But I don’t recall praying for God’s will for my Dad. Any decision we make in this world, no matter how insignificant or important it is, needs God’s guidance. We need Him to step forward, and we need to trust that He will lead us in the right path.
All too often we do the research: we talk to others, get advice, seek information. We probably seek God’s Word in His scriptures and perhaps even look for His hand in our circumstances. Unfortunately, we do not often stop to listen. We jump to conclusions, we manipulate the process, and we seek to have God answer as we would desire rather than seek what He wills to be done. We can pray about a problem from a million different directions, but until we stop and listen we will never know what God wants us to do.
The Hebrew understanding of waiting patiently is not what we expect today. To wait patiently can be better understood as wrestling in conflict. Isn’t that what we do? Decisions mean conflict, even if the conflict is not important. Do I buy chicken or beef today? This is not a big deal, but it is a conflict that needs to lead to a decision. We wrestle with the choices. Now, I’m not sure God cares so much about whether we buy chicken or beef, but He does care when it comes to the bigger decisions like how to care for those we love. God wants to be in the center of the conversation. He wants us to rest in Him as we wrestle with the choices. Waiting patiently does not mean idleness; it means wrestling with the choices as we seek God’s will.
Trust in Him as you wait patiently, wrestling with conflict; He has promised to lead you on the right path, according to His good and perfect will.
“The God who made the world and all things in it, he, being Lord of heaven and earth, doesn’t dwell in temples made with hands. He isn’t served by men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he himself gives to all life and breath, and all things. He made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the surface of the earth, having determined appointed seasons, and the boundaries of their dwellings, that they should seek the Lord, if perhaps they might reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live, move, and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also his offspring.’” Acts 17:24-28, WEB
I am fascinated by clouds. When I am out on one of my wildflower adventures, you’ll often see me pointing my camera to the sky rather than the fields. It is especially joyous when I find a view that includes both flowers and clouds. There are so many different types of clouds, and they are even more interesting when the light catches on the edges in just the right way. Sunsets are beautiful with so many colors, but they are even more fascinating with high, wispy clouds. I have one photo of the moon with clouds; it appears as though the full moon is riding on a bed of fluffy cotton.
The sky is particularly interesting during times of storm, especially in places with large flat plains, and nothing to block the view for miles. A severe storm can be a hundred miles away making it possible to see the entire shape of the thunderhead though the viewer is in sunshine. I recall a time when we were in the midst of a few days of frightening weather, with threats of thunder, lightning, and even tornadoes. The sky was filled with an unusual array of clouds; there was something very strange about them. There were some pure white fluffy clouds, almost like ice cream. Others were gray and seemed heavy with water. Some were flat, and the light of the setting sun shone on the edges of a few giving them an orangish hue. It was as if we were seeing every type of cloud all in one place. The clouds did not look real. As an artist, I know that if I tried to duplicate what I saw, it would not be believable to the viewer.
Our faith is not believable; it is really ridiculous, isn’t it? We believe in a God who created everything and loved all His creation, who created man in His image and gave us the freedom to fail and turn from His love, who sent His Son to die in our place so that we can be forgiven our sinful ways, who does not require good works for the fulfillment of His promises. Some of the stories about God and His people are preposterous, who could believe them? Men left their homes for unknown lands, women had babies when they were old, prophets were taken away in flaming chariots, donkeys talked and armies defeated their enemies with song. It is no wonder that so many do not have faith, it is all so unbelievable. People often say they are merely fairy tales.
The Bible is filled with miracles, but the true miracle is that some do believe.
The reality is that there is no way for us to prove that God exists. We can talk until we are blue in the face about the way God has impacted our lives, about how the scriptures are truth, and that Christ really did die for our sake. We can share our story, tell of miracles we’ve witnessed or describe visions of angels we’ve seen. We can explain what the scriptures mean and point to God’s creation with the belief that such beauty did not occur by accident, but by the hand of an Almighty God. Yet many will call us foolish for believing in fairy tales, and continue to reject the Lord because it is impossible to believe in something you can’t see, feel, hear, touch or taste. The whole idea of an almighty God loving or blessing anything unworthy like mere human beings is far-fetched and mind-boggling. And yet, it is all true.
A great artist might be able to put onto canvas the incredible vision of so many different types of clouds at one time. He may be able to make it beautiful and inspiring, but even a master painter would have difficulty making it seem real. I had to experience it myself to know that clouds can look so strange during a storm. The same is true when it comes to our relationship with God. The Christian faith is truly ridiculous to those who have not experienced the mercy and grace of God. Yet, despite our reluctance to believe the unbelievable, God gave us everything we need, most especially Jesus. In Him we see the love of God, receive His forgiveness, and abide in the Kingdom of God. We may never come up with the words that will paint a picture of what God is really like for those who do not yet believe, but God does make miracles happen when He breathes the breath of eternal life into the hearts the hearts of men so that they will be saved.
Scriptures for Sunday, May 10, 2020, Fifth Sunday of Easter: Acts 6:1-9, 7:2a, 51-60; Psalm 146; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14
“While I live, I will praise Yahweh. I will sing praises to my God as long as I exist.” Psalm 146:2, WEB
I have been buying myself some fresh cut flowers during the past few weeks. It is a little thing to make me happy, to raise my spirits during this time when everything is so strange. The flowers I bought yesterday included some mums that had been dyed. Dying is a fun way to add color and interest to flowers. I used to do it when I was a kid. We lived near a field that was filled with Queen Anne’s Lace, a pretty white flower that was perfect for the experiment. It is easy to do.
I filled glasses with water and added food coloring to make different colors. I put the flowers in the glasses and then watched as they drank up the colored water into their petals. Eventually the flowers were no longer white, but were red, blue, green and yellow. You can even split the stem and put it into different glasses to make multi-colored flowers. The dying works best with flowers that have white petals. The colors make fascinating highlights on the tips of the flowers, especially something like carnations. It only takes one drop of food coloring to change the water in the glass. It is better to use more, darker color gets the best results.
Have you ever watched a drop of food coloring when it has been added to water? At first the drop falls toward the bottom, but it quickly begins to separate, becoming part of the water. If you shake or stir the water, the drop becomes impossible to find. It becomes part of the water and the water becomes part of it. The more drops that are added, the more the water resembles the food coloring.
Human beings usually demand tangible evidence of things for us to really believe. If I told you that a flower could become red just because I put it in a glass of red water, it is likely that you would doubt it, at least a little, without seeing it happen. Science helps us to sort out the things of creation that we want to understand better by allowing us to see the tangible evidence. However, God is beyond anything that can be proven by science. That does not stop us from wanting to see Him with our eyes, hear Him with our ears, or touch Him with our hands.
Jesus Christ was asking so much from His followers, extraordinary sacrifices. Don’t be troubled? How can we go through even a day without a bit of worry, especially when our world seems to be falling apart? Believe in someone? People fail us every day. They break promises. They break our hearts. It is no wonder that Philip wanted something to help him hold on to the hope which Jesus was promising. “Show us the Father,” he asked. He wanted to believe, but without something on which He could grasp his senses and his mind, he was having a hard time with belief. He just wanted Jesus to show him some tangible evidence.
Jesus answered, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” God is like that glass of water, two persons but so closely connected that it is impossible to separate them. Jesus is fully man and fully God, the visible manifestation of the Divine Godhead. He is the tangible evidence of that which we can’t see with our eyes or hear with our ears. We are like the flower, placed in a glass of colored water. As we drink in His life-giving grace, our life begins to reflect the life of the Father. We are transformed.
The first followers of Jesus probably numbered a few hundred. We focus our attention on the Twelve during the ministry of Jesus, but it is likely that there were far more that regularly attended Him. Luke tells us of a time when Jesus sent seventy out to share the kingdom of God with the nations. The crowd in the Upper Room for the Last Supper as well as in the days following Jesus’ crucifixion was likely even larger than that, including women and children. Matthias replaced Judas and was chosen out of a group of seventy who “have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, to the day that he was received up from us, of these one must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” (Acts 1:21b-22, WEB)
The group of Twelve was important. While there were many others who had been with Jesus from the beginning, Jesus had given the Twelve an important role as leaders among the disciples. Among those disciples were the inner circle, Peter, James and John, who had been witness to some of the more private moments of Jesus’ time on earth. They weren’t greater than the others, but they were given the responsibility to guide the Church into the future.
They had to take what Jesus had taught them and learn how to teach it to others. Jesus did so many good things along the way, but the most important thing was always sharing the Word of God with the people. We see that especially in the story of the feeding of the five thousand. The people followed Jesus because their bellies were full, but Jesus rebuked them because they missed the sign in the meal. “Believe.” The Word of God brings faith, but if we are so busy filling bellies, then we miss the opportunity to give the people what they really need.
Jesus knew this would be a problem. It was one of the temptations He faced in the wilderness. The devil tempted Him to turn all the rocks into bread, but Jesus reminded him that the real bread is God’s Word. Peter learned that lesson and knew that it was important for the Twelve to keep their focus on what was important.
Yet, we also know the importance of ensuring that the needs of our community are met. Jesus would not want anyone to go hungry. He commanded us to take care of one another. He gave us the authority to do the works He did. We are called to feed the poor, to give a cup of water to those who are thirsty, to clothe the naked, to visit the imprisoned and to heal the sick. There is so much to be accomplished. It is hard enough when the community is small, but imagine how difficult it became in those first days of the Church.
There are always growing pains, especially when there is sudden growth. What church today wouldn’t love to be able to say that they welcomed thousands of new believers in a day? The problem is that the numbers go up faster than workers can be trained, and something always falls through the cracks. That’s the reason many congregations hit a plateau. They level out because there is no plan for dealing with extra people. The best congregations plan for growth long before it comes so that they are ready with helpers to keep things moving forward.
That’s what Peter suggested when he began to hear complaints that things were being missed. He knew the importance of what the Twelve had to do, and that others needed to be prepared to do the other work. Unfortunately, we don’t always appreciate the work of our pastors and we think that they can, and should, do everything. Ask any pastor, of a small or large congregation, how hard it is to accomplish everything they need to accomplish! Some congregations depend on their pastors to preach and to scrub the toilet bowl. I once had a conversation with a pastor who was dealing with a difficult situation at his church. The people expected him to put in a forty-hour week doing the things they thought needed to be done. So, they asked him to put on paper his schedule and to document his work. He included time for prayer. His members were taken aback: “You pray on the clock? Shouldn’t you do that on your own time?”
Peter knew that prayer was vital to the work they were doing. Everything was new. Though they had spent time with Jesus, around three years, there was still so much to learn and understand. They needed God’s guidance to work out the details of this new community of faith. They knew that they could not push forward and make decisions without first listening to God. Sadly, we make a lot of decisions in the church these days without seeking God’s help. We think it is more important for our pastors to clean toilets than to pray. We want them to fill their calendars with busy work that we could accomplish, when they should be spending most of their time in prayer and ministry of the Word.
We are reminded by this text that our pastors need to focus on prayer and the ministry of the word without being tasked with jobs we can do. The twelve looked to the disciples for help. The chosen men - Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus - had been around for awhile. They may have been in the groups of disciples sent out to preach and heal by Jesus. They were probably in the Upper Room on that first Easter night and on Pentecost. They were not part of the Twelve, but they had heard and seen Jesus with their own ears and eyes.
These were not dish washers; they were men of wisdom and power. Stephen did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. He preached the Word even as he served the community of faith with his hands. Stephen fed the hungry and met the needs of the poor, all the while sharing the Gospel of grace. Even at the point of death, Stephen cried out to the Lord to forgive those who were about to kill him.
The psalmist sings, “While I live, I will praise Yahweh. I will sing praises to my God as long as I exist.”
Stephen is remembered as the first martyr, and so he was the first to follow Jesus into death. His martyrdom did not earn him a place in heaven or a reward of eternal life; that was won at the cross of Christ. Like the psalmist, Stephen was faithful to sing praises to God to the very edge of his existence. Are we willing to do the same? Or do we suffer from doubt and uncertainty when things aren’t going so well. Do we demand tangible proof of God before we are willing to live faithfully in this world?
Jesus wasn’t just a teacher or rabbi. He wasn’t just another person demanding something from them. He wasn’t just someone asking them to have faith without reason. “Have I been with you such a long time, and do you not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father. How do you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? The words that I tell you, I speak not from myself; but the Father who lives in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me; or else believe me for the very works’ sake.” Jesus is the way and He is so close to the Father that being with Him means being with God. There is no other path.
God’s way is different. He does not need anything we have; He gives freely out of His love for His creation. That is why we take refuge in God when we face difficulty, committing our souls to His care no matter what should happen. For no matter what happens to our bodies, God has rescued us from death through the blood of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Our good works will fail us because we will fail to do everything that needs to be done. We can’t solve the world’s problems with our physical labor or all the money that exists. We need something greater. We need someone greater: Jesus. He has laid down the future not only of an earthly Church that does good work, but of an eternal kingdom where we will dwell in the presence of God forever. These are words that need to be heard. Unfortunately, many will cover their ears. They don’t want to hear this. They don’t want to know that Jesus is the way because they like the path they have chosen.
This is why it is a miracle that anyone still comes to believe.
Jesus says, “Most certainly I tell you, he who believes in me, the works that I do, he will do also; and he will do greater works than these, because I am going to my Father.” Taken in the context of John’s gospel, Jesus has done some miraculous signs. He changed water into very fine wine. He healed the dying son of a royal official. He cured a man who had been crippled for a long time. He fed five thousand people with just five small barley loaves and two small fish. He walked on water. He healed a man born blind. He raised Lazarus from the dead after four days in the tomb.
In the early pages of the New Testament we hear of the disciples and apostles doing some pretty amazing things. Peter healed a cripple and raised Dorcas from the dead. Peter escaped from prison and Paul survived incredible experiences on land and sea. The Church grew rapidly, missions were planted and people were changed. In the stories of the early Christians and martyrs we hear accounts of incredible and miraculous things happening by them, with them, through them.
When was the last time you heard about someone rising from the dead? I’ve heard that there are places where incredible miracles happen, but are people being prayed back to life after being dead for several days, like Dorcas? I think it would make the news if a man who’d been paralyzed for most of his life would begin to walk with just a word. Perhaps these things do happen. People come out of comas and people learn to walk after years of rehabilitation. These are no less miraculous than what Peter did by faith, but the glory is rarely God’s. We credit the doctors who find the cure and thank the physical therapist who patiently works with the patient.
How can we do anything greater than Jesus? Even if we, by faith, bring life to a lifeless body, how is that greater than what Jesus did with Lazarus? Which of us hasn’t attended a potluck dinner that managed to feed hundreds with only a few delicious dishes? But is that greater than what Jesus did on that hillside two thousand years ago? We might be able to explain away stories like Jesus’ walking on water and the calming of the storm with scientific explanations as some often try to do, but can we really make these things happen?
Jesus said we will do greater things by faith. What did He mean? Did He really mean that the miracles we will see will be greater even than what He did? Or is there some greater mission for which we have been sent into the world?
We are sick, lonely, burdened, imprisoned, hungry and poor. The church has worked for millennia to help ease the troubles of the world with love, care and compassion. This is a wonderful mission. Yet, people from every religion are called to similar service by their faith. People from every religion pray. They see miracles happen because of their faith. They find peace and joy in their worship. They have fellowship with other believers and they do good works for their neighbor. Christians are not unique in this type of godly and righteous life.
Christians are called to something greater; ours is a ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation. According to John’s Gospel, the greatest sign, or miracle, of Jesus was His death on the cross, because there He defeated death and sin to reconcile us to God through His forgiveness. People are not saved by good works. They are saved by the Word of God, Jesus Christ. We are called to take Jesus Christ into the world, to share His grace and His mercy. There is a chasm between God and man much greater than we ourselves can cross. We try to do so with good works, even following the example of Jesus’ kindness and compassion. We are merciful to our neighbor. But there is no hope in works righteousness because we can’t do enough to earn the grace of God. We have no assurance that we have done enough.
Jesus says we will do greater things, and we do when we share Jesus with the world. Sadly, we think that we can’t make a difference as one little person in the world, but remember what one drop of color in a glass of water can do. One seed of faith can transform a person’s life, and it will be shared with others. Our lives are not just about sharing the good things He did, but it is about sharing the forgiveness He brought to the world through His death on the cross. It is there that God is truly glorified.
We struggle, though, because we know that the world does not want what we have to give. They doubt and they reject. They call our stories fairy tales. They mock and scoff. They even beat and humiliate. In some places, even today, people are being killed for their faith.
Jesus told the disciples, “Don’t let your heart be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me.” Whatever we are called to do, we are called to do it with faith. God is with us. We don’t have to speak our own words because by the power of the Holy Spirit, God will put His Word in our mouths. We will face opposition; but we do not need to be afraid. He is always with us. Like Stephen and the psalmist, God calls us to a life that praises Him as long as we exist.
We have no reason to fear because we have a firm foundation for our faith. Jesus is the cornerstone, the stone the builders rejected, the stumbling block for some.
Jesus is the cornerstone. The cornerstone of modern buildings is little more than a marker, often with dates and other information so that people who visit will have information about the building and builders. That’s how some want to think of Jesus: He is little more than a marker, a part of God’s story, pointing people toward the Father as others have done.
But in the days of those first Christians, the cornerstone was much more important. The stone was generally laid at the northeast corner of the building site, a placement that promised prosperity and fortunate circumstances for the people who would work, dwell or worship in the building. It was the cornerstone that laid the lines of the building. Each stone was set in relation to the cornerstone. If any of the sides were off by even fractions of an inch, the entire building would end up out of alignment. It had to be perfect, which is why the builders often rejected many stones before choosing the one to be used for the foundation.
When laying a cornerstone, the builders held a ceremony with offerings of grain, wine and oil or blood. In some places even today, a chicken, ram or lamb is slain on our near the cornerstone, its blood washed over the stone and then the body buried beneath the stone. In even more ancient days the body was human. It was thought that the offering gave strength and stability to the building. Jesus willingly became the cornerstone of the New Covenant.
He is also the stone that many rejected.
God sees perfection from a much different perspective than human beings. In God’s mind, perfection is not judged by outward image. While we are able to make some scholarly guesses about Jesus’ appearance, we have no pictures that would help us identify Him if He were to walk down the street today. God recognized His perfection by His obedience. He willingly became the cornerstone and allowed His blood to wash over the foundation, and it is Him that God uses to line up the other bricks in His Church. One by one we who are His bricks, the saints from past, present and future are laid on the foundation of Christ.
A building stands as a testament to the work of the architect, the builders, and the patrons. So, too, we stand as a testament to the work of God in this world. He is glorified in our life together. We are built on that cornerstone that is Christ. Jesus was rejected; they did not see what God knew to be true. He was faithful. He was obedient. He was truly perfect in every way and God made Him the foundation of the kingdom He is building. It is in our life, our service, our hope and our faith that the world can see God glorified, particularly when we work together to shine the light. We are the tangible evidence of God’s existence. But just as Jesus was rejected, so will we be. Faith means continuing to sing God’s praise and sharing His Gospel until our very last breath.
We are called to live in hope no matter the circumstances we face. We are called to dwell in the presence of God today because He will help us through our troubles, even unto death. And we are called to share the hope of the promise with all those who cross our path no matter the consequences. For in doing so, in sharing the forgiveness of God and helping God in the ministry of reconciliation, we will truly see greater things happen than ever happened with Jesus in flesh. He went to be with the Father so we could be His hands, and mouths, in this world. By sharing His Word, by sharing Him, we bring forgiveness and reconciliation to the world.
“In the same way, the Spirit also helps our weaknesses, for we don’t know how to pray as we ought. But the Spirit himself makes intercession for us with groanings which can’t be uttered. He who searches the hearts knows what is on the Spirit’s mind, because he makes intercession for the saints according to God.” Romans 8:26-27, WEB
A story is told about a young man who was serving in Vietnam. One particular night the young man was struggling with what he was experienced. He had watched his buddies die around him for a long time and he finally wished for it all to end. He prayed for death and was certain that he would die that day. His base came under attack and he heard the rocket’s scream as it was coming straight for him. He counted the seconds until death, but a friend shoved him in a pit and the fuse malfunctioned. He was not killed.
Meanwhile, the young man’s wife’s grandmother awoke from sleep in terror. She sensed Jim was in trouble and began to pray and read her Bible. She turned to Matthew 18:19, “Again, assuredly I tell you, that if two of you will agree on earth concerning anything that they will ask, it will be done for them by my Father who is in heaven.” She called her Sunday school teacher who rushed to her side and joined her in prayer. Together, they sought God’s blessings for Jim until they felt the peace of God. Years later she told Jim about that night and showed him her Bible. At that spot in her Bible were the words, “Jim, February 26, 1968.”
Have you ever had a similar situation? Have you ever felt God calling you to prayer? Have you ever felt the desperate need to take someone to the foot of God’s throne to beg for His mercy? I was awakened one night by a frightening dream that made me pray and I didn’t even know for whom or for what I was praying. The next day I received an email from a missionary friend who shared that their group had a difficult experience the previous day. I realized that my call to prayer came at about the same time.
I have no doubt that Christians right now are finding the need and the time to pray. Even though we know that prayers are desperately needed because of the virus, the subject of our prayers is not always clear. I suppose there are just too many reasons to pray. We want God to protect our immediate family, but we are also concerned for those who are risking their own health to serve us in so many ways. Add to that the people who are suffering financially, those who are so lonely that they are contemplating suicide, those whose isolation is leading to endangering health issues. Many who have jobs are exhausted. The current crisis did not stop the problems people had before it began. As a matter of fact, the virus only made things worse for too many people. On top of everything, we are simply afraid because we do not know what tomorrow will hold. We want to have faith. We want to be at peace. But it is hard, especially when we really don’t know what to pray.
The United States was a nation built on prayer from the beginning. It isn’t prayer that was forced by the government, but the prayers of mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, wives and children, neighbors and friends, all joined together seeking God’s blessing. It is prayer brought about by people who are awakened in the middle of the night with a desperate need to pray. While we have so many specific reasons - for health and safety, security and peace - perhaps the most important reason to pray is a prayer of trust that God has His hand in our lives and that He is working miracles even if we do not see them happening.
Today is the National Day of Prayer and people all over America will join together in prayer for our nation, its leaders and each other. The usual gatherings in churches and on courthouse steps have been canceled this year because of the virus, but our need for prayer is even greater. We are crying out as individuals and perhaps feel as though our prayers are pointless because we have no focus, yet God knows what we need even more than we do. Though we can’t gather, we can join our prayers from wherever we are. God will hear. He is already at work, healing lives and transforming people.
Find time today to join with your brothers and sisters in Christ to ask God for His blessings on His creation in our nation and the world. By God’s grace we may truly begin to see how two or more praying together can make a difference. And may today be just the beginning of a long outpouring of prayer to our Lord God Almighty in Jesus’ name.
“Truly I know that it is so, but how can man be just with God? If he is pleased to contend with him, he can’t answer him one time in a thousand. God is wise in heart, and mighty in strength. Who has hardened himself against him and prospered? He removes the mountains, and they don’t know it, when he overturns them in his anger. He shakes the earth out of its place. Its pillars tremble. He commands the sun and it doesn’t rise, and seals up the stars. He alone stretches out the heavens, and treads on the waves of the sea. He makes the Bear, Orion, and the Pleiades, and the rooms of the south. He does great things past finding out; yes, marvelous things without number. Behold, he goes by me, and I don’t see him. He passes on also, but I don’t perceive him. Behold, he snatches away. Who can hinder him? Who will ask him, ‘What are you doing?’” Job 9:2-12, WEB
One of my favorite college classes was Astronomy. It was an elective for me, chosen to fulfill a science requirement. I loved looking at the night sky, so it was an easy choice, and it turned out to be an easy class. There is something fascinating about the stars, about the shapes that people see in the constellations. I loved learning about the different types of heavenly bodies like comets and meteors. My favorite days were spent in the planetarium, not only hearing the information about the heavenly bodies, but also the stories that grew out of the mysteries of the stars.
People have always looked to the sky for inspiration. As one example, here is how the indigenous people of Australia looked toward the skies: “They used the stars for telling them the seasonal supply of food, when to plant and how is the crop, and for transmitting the morals of their society. They identified the system of stars with their own zodiac. In Victoria, the Southern Cross is identified with a ring-tail possum, while the long neck tortoise is identified with the star called Pollux. We also find, in Victoria, that the star Taurus showed them where to find the pupa of the wood ant. While the star cluster, called the Pleiades or Seven Sisters informed the people in the western desert region that the annual dingo season was starting. And so they would descend to where the dingo stays and then catch their little pups and have a good feast. On the Torres Strait Islands the appearance of the stars the Tagai told them that it was time to start preparing the land for planting.”
The same can be said about many different cultures from the beginning of time. The skies defined time, religion, and even morals. It is mysterious, untouchable and unknown. People have always tried to understand, but in the ancient times they could only explain it in terms they understood. The moving bodies like planets and comets were seen as omens, both good and bad. They could not define what the stars really were; the earliest peoples thought that the stars were simply holes in a great cover above the earth.
We know more now, however. We learned that the movement of the stars is from the spinning of earth. We have learned to predict the movement of meteor showers. We have been able to create telescopes that help us see far into the universe. We can count the many moons around Saturn. We can look into the heart of a comet. We have even been able to send men to the moon and technology even farther. We have been able to study the dirt of Mars. We have more knowledge, but many aspects of the heavens are still unknown and untouchable.
The same is true of our God. We know much because He has revealed Himself to us through the scriptures and Jesus Christ. Despite being an intimate friend to those who love Him, God is still mysterious, unknown, and untouchable. We see God because He has shown Himself to us, but we cannot see Him with our eyes. Just as the heavens are beyond human comprehension, so too is God so big that He is beyond our ability to fully understand.
In today’s passage, Job makes it clear that human beings are unable to argue a case before God. He is the Creator of the universe that we cannot understand, how can we question His mind? He controls the earth and commands the sun. The sky that inspires us was put there by His hands. He does work that we might never see or know, so many miraculous things that we can never count them. Job says, “Behold, he goes by me, and I don’t see him.” This reminds us of Moses’ encounter with God from Exodus 33:22-23. “It will happen, while my glory passes by, that I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you will see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
It is no wonder we are commanded to fear Him. And yet, this fearful God is wise in heart and mighty in strength. He loves His people, guards and protects us. He saves us. We can’t argue with Him, and we do not deserve mercy, but God is gracious to those who wonder at Him. He is mysterious, unknown, and untouchable while being a loving Father who invites us to the foot of His throne. We cannot control Him, but we can seek Him and ask Him to hear our prayers. The God who created the stars in the sky hears us and answers our innermost needs.
“As they went on their way, he entered into a certain village, and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. She had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she came up to him, and said, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister left me to serve alone? Ask her therefore to help me.’ Jesus answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the good part, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:38-42, WEB
It has been a long seven weeks, but many places have begun the process of opening up again. Many people are still staying home, but others have the opportunity to go back to work. This was obvious during the traffic report this morning; the reporter commented about how many more cars there were today than in the past few weeks. “Give yourself a little extra time,” she said. We need to be patient as we get used to the typical commute. I suppose that was one of the silver linings of this time of isolate: our world was a little quieter and it moved more slowly.
I wonder how many of us took advantage of the quiet. Did you spend more time in prayer and Bible study? My husband still worked during this time, but he gained more than an hour a day just in the lack of commute. Most of our usual activities have been canceled. We spent less time in meetings, even if we did gather virtually. We aren’t running our kids to a million different activities. Though our houses might be less quiet because more people are around all the time, I think we have had a wonderful opportunity to stop and listen to our God.
One day the pastor of our church asked my daughter and I to be disruptive during his children’s sermon. We slipped into the front pew when he called the children. He asked the children to pay close attention to the story he was going to tell and then started. I made a paper airplane which I threw toward the kids. We discussed an article in our church magazine. I tore out a page, made a ball and threw it at the pastor. We called out to my son who was acolyte that day; he was trying so hard to be well behaved, but it is pretty hard when your mom is being so silly.
Needless to say, we did our task well. Pastor finally had to stop telling the story and ask us to stop. Then he talked to the children about how distracted we can be by the things around us when we should be paying attention to more important things like God’s word. When the service was over, several people suggested that perhaps I was having way too much fun being a distraction, all in good humor of course.
Isn’t that how life normally is, though? We are constantly bombarded by distractions. Perhaps they aren’t paper airplanes or people loudly disrupting our conversations, but rather hours of traffic jams and ridiculously long meetings. A quick trip to the grocery store takes an hour, and we face so much noise and so many distractions: videos play advertisements and people wander the aisles talking into their Bluetooth. On a normal day we are faced with dishes and laundry, cooking and cleaning up. There is so much to keep us occupied and we miss out on the opportunities to stop and listen. We never seem to have enough time to just read our bible or pray. The point of the lesson in church that day was quite clear: we don’t listen very well. Either we let the world around us become a distraction or we simply focus inward and we do not hear what others are saying.
What Martha was doing was not a bad thing. She was taking care of her houseguests, meeting their physical needs. However, she was worried and distracted by the work so much so that she was more concerned about herself. Jesus did not berate her for making lunch or doing the work of hospitality. He told her to stop letting the distractions of this world make her miss out on the greater things such as hearing the word of God.
Jesus was not suggesting that Mary was somehow a better or more faithful person as an example for our own life. The reality of this story is not that we should spend all our time sitting at the feet of our Lord, but that we should not worry and fuss over the distractions of this world that keep us from hearing Him. A balanced life of being both Mary and Martha, listening and doing, is the way Christ calls us to live. We can’t know God’s will if we don’t hear His voice, and once we hear His voice, we can’t help but go out and do His will. We have had several weeks to get into the habit of listening to those near us, and hopefully to God. So now as the world begins being more distracting, let’s continue to focus our attention and spend more time listening, so that we might live in God’s grace more fully in the world.
“Don’t be deceived. God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption. But he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. Let’s not be weary in doing good, for we will reap in due season, if we don’t give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let’s do what is good toward all men, and especially toward those who are of the household of the faith.” Galatians 6:7-10, WEB
My kids are long grown, though my son still lives at home. They get along so well as adults, but I remember the childhood spats. They always loved one another, but they didn’t always like each other. Sometimes it seems as though they disagreed just for the sake of disagreeing. Though I don’t have human children around the house these days, my feline children seem to do the same thing. Early this morning I heard the cats screaming at each other. They were ready for breakfast and I wasn’t ready to get out of bed, but there was no reason to pick on each other just to get my attention.
Childhood spats are a natural experience, especially between children. Some parents have gotten very creative with the ways they deal with those arguments. There is a photo that circulates occasionally of an extra large t-shirt with the words “Our get along shirt.” The picture shows two very unhappy children who have been ordered to share the shirt to learn how to get along. The reason for the punishment is unknown, but some mother decided this was the best way to help her kids learn to live together was to force them into close quarters. I don’t know if it worked, but it is certainly made a funny picture.
It might be funny, but it is a question that every parent has to deal with at some point. How do we teach siblings to get along? No matter how much they love each other, living in close quarters always leads to some conflict. I did not have to experience that during the isolation for the past few weeks, but I can imagine that we would have had terrible moments if they were stuck together for weeks at a time. Kids are human; they have human needs and desires. They see the world through their own biases and experiences. If they feel like a sibling is getting the better deal (and the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence) it is likely that they will rebel. They respond to their jealousy by attacking the one who seems to be getting the greener grass.
It is nearly impossible to like everyone. No matter how well we get along with people, there’s always someone who rubs us the wrong way. It is better to stay away from those who make us act crazy, but sometimes it is impossible. How do you avoid your biological siblings, especially when you are young? Even more so when they are forced to isolate together? Our siblings can drive us crazy even when we love them. My kids love each other very much, but they had moments.
Our relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ is no different. We love them, as we should, but there are times when they drive us crazy. There are some relationships that are very difficult because we simply do not get along. Our ideas and understanding of faith is too different. In two thousand years this has manifest in thousands of different denominations each claiming to have the best understanding of God. Even Peter and Paul had their disagreements. There may be good reason for our differences, but we must be careful that we do not sin in our disagreement. We are brothers and sisters, children of the Living God. It is up to us to find a way to live together in His love, treating one another with grace and mercy.
Scriptures for Sunday, May 17, 2020, Sixth Sunday of Easter: Acts 17:16-31; Psalm 66:8-20; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts. Always be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you a reason concerning the hope that is in you, with humility and fear, having a good conscience. Thus, while you are spoken against as evildoers, they may be disappointed who curse your good way of life in Christ.” 1 Peter 3:15-16, WEB
My husband got a phone call a few days ago from his sister. His father was at the end of his life, it was time to go home. It took a day to prepare, but he left Saturday morning to drive across country, hoping he would make it in time. Unfortunately, his father died Sunday morning. I am a worrier, and since I did not go with him, I spent the three days worrying about him. It was especially difficult when he heard the news. He called me, but I was in church and didn’t answer right away. As soon as I could, I grabbed my phone and went to listen to the voice mail. I called him back immediately. He was still on the road. “Are you ok to drive?” I asked. He was fine, he answered, but I still worried. I worried every minute he was driving until arrived home Monday afternoon. I worried especially when it seemed like his stops were too far apart.
I worry about my kids, too. I worry when my son is later than I expect, wondering if his car is in a ditch and he’s crying for help. It was unnecessary stress, but I’m a mom. I will never stop caring for my children. I worry about my daughter, too, although that worry is different. She lives too far from home. We keep up with each other via text and social media, but I can’t help but struggle when she calls to tell me she’s sick since I can’t help her from a thousand miles away. I can only offer words of advice and pray.
We can’t be with those we love constantly, even when they live under the same roof. We have been doing that, in general, for the past couple of months, but we can’t live this way forever. We are going to have to go back out into the world, and we are going to have to allow those we love to go back into the world. We won’t be able to be with them wherever we go, but that’s the limitations of our flesh, isn’t it?
Jesus was limited, too. I’ve often thought about how wonderful it would have been to be one of the disciples. Imagine walking with Him, talking with Him, listening to Him. Imagine being like Mary at His feet and like Martha serving Him dinner. Imagine being one of those He healed and forgave. We read the stories of Jesus as He walked on earth and we wonder what it might have been like to be one of those who were with Him and we think that if only we had lived in that day we could have experienced His grace in person. Yet, we often forget that there were many people who lived at the time that never saw Him. Despite the large crowds and the spreading stories, Jesus could not meet every person everywhere. He was limited by His human flesh.
He was limited by time, too. He was God in flesh, so I suppose it would have been possible for Him to walk on earth forever, but even with his resurrected body, Jesus could not be with everyone everywhere at the same time. That’s why He had to ascend to heaven. That’s why He invites us to be His heart and His hands in this world. And that’s why He sent the Holy Spirit. While He could not be in every time and place in flesh, He could be in every time and place in Spirit. He may not be with us as He was with the disciples two thousand years ago, but He’s with us in a much better way.
The Gospel passage for this week continues from last week when Jesus encouraged the disciples not to be troubled. He promised that He will not abandon His people. “I will not leave you orphans,” He said. This is the last Sunday before Ascension Day which will be celebrated on May 21st. Ever since Easter, Jesus has been training them for the future, but these are the final days. Jesus was getting them ready for the inevitable: He had to leave.
I can imagine the worry. What would they do? How could they do it without Jesus? Jesus’ lessons were never easy. Think about the Beatitudes! The qualities Jesus expected of His followers were counter-cultural and difficult. Who would choose to be meek and merciful, poor in spirit and pure in heart, mournful and hungry, peacemakers and persecuted. Those are the characteristics of the common, everyday Christians, but they aren’t easy. It was best when Jesus was around, because He gave them courage and strength. He seemed to have everything under control. How would the disciples continue without Him?
The sadness they felt at the crucifixion was even greater now. Death seemed so permanent, but Jesus returned. Who knows what they would have done if He had never been raised. I doubt they would have continued His work. They were ready to get back to their old lives. Two disciples went home to Emmaus. Thomas disappeared, we don’t know where. Peter even went back to fishing. Then Jesus returned and He spent forty days nurturing them beyond discipleship into apostleship. He breathed the Spirit and true life into them and taught them everything they needed to know. It was finally possible for them to understand; they became apostles sent into the world to continue His work. That didn’t make His departure any easier.
But He would not leave them alone. He would send a helper: the Holy Spirit.
The psalmist for this week says, “Praise our God, you peoples! Make the sound of his praise heard.” The song encourages all God’s people to praise Him for His blessings. However, the blessings found in this psalm are not wealth, health or power; the psalmist thanks God because He has preserved their lives through trials. He praised God that He has refined their lives through the suffering they faced. The psalmist sings, “You brought us into prison,” and “You laid a burden on our backs.” He says, “You allowed men to ride over our heads” and “We went through fire and through water.” In the end, however, God brought His people to a place of abundance.
I have been studying the psalms and I have noticed that there are times when the psalmist promises to praise God when things turn out alright. That’s a very human quality. We can all relate stories of times when our prayers have been more like negotiations. Caught up in the frenzy of a moment, we promise God anything if only He will save us. Vows escape our lips as we make deals with God, negotiating our safety and well-being in trade for some sacrifice on our part. These vows are very serious although there is never serious thought about them. They are cried out in the heat of the moment, in the depths of pain and fear. We often find it impossible to be faithful to the promise.
Martin Luther was traveling down a road one day when a storm suddenly struck. Frightened by the lightning and thunder, he fell to his feet and cried out to God through Saint Anne. “Help me, St. Anne, and I'll become a monk!" He escaped unharmed and kept his word. It is not always so easy. Martin’s faithfulness meant disappointing his father. We often find that our spur of the moment vows require sacrifices that we can’t always make. But God knows we will fail. He knows that we can’t live up to the vows we make. We can’t keep the Law perfectly because we are imperfect. He answers our prayers because He loves us and because He is faithful to His promises. He has promised that He will not leave us along. Do we bless God because He has blessed us? Or do we live in the blessing and respond without fear and with faithfulness?
There is a word found in many of the psalms that is difficult to interpret. The word “Selah” is thought be be a musical command to stop, a moment to take a breath and to think about what we are hearing or to prepare our hearts for what we are about to hear. In today’s Psalm the word is followed by something very important: “Come, and hear, all you who fear God. I will declare what he has done for my soul.” The psalmist is bold enough to proclaim God’s grace to whoever will listen.
Jesus is the answer to all our problems. Are we willing to be so bold to proclaim this truth?
Paul was in Athens. The Greeks were an ecumenical society. They offered something for everyone, especially in religious practice. There was a temple on every corner. The temples satisfied the religious needs of a very diverse community. Athens was a place where trading routes crossed; it was a place where the world came together. Since the economy was dependent on foreigners, they wanted everyone to feel at home.
They tried to honor every possible god; they did not want to suffer the wrath of some god they did not know, so they honored those unknown gods with an altar. The worship and devotion was not in the living God, the Creator and Redeemer of the world. Instead, they paid honor to man-made idols, gods that had no power or Truth. The people were not faithful or even religious; they were superstitious. They even had an altar inscribed “To an unknown god.” Those who could not find a specific temple at least had a place to worship, a place where their god could be honored and remembered.
Mars Hill was a place of theological debate and discussion. Paul went there to join in the conversations. He commended the Athenians for their religious practices and called their attention to this altar for the unknown God. He stepped into their world and reached them from their point of view. In doing so, however, he did not settle for their ecumenical open-mindedness. He told them what they were missing.
Paul described the God of the universe, the One who made the heavens and earth, the God that does not need the works of men since He gives breath to all living things. He told them that He made all the nations of the earth to seek Him “…that they should seek the Lord, if perhaps they might reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.” God is near to all men if only they would see and hear Him. In hearing the Gospel, the Spirit of God takes residence in the hearts of men. Paul boldly proclaimed the God of creation and His Son Jesus Christ.
It was risky to speak to that crowd. Paul was a man of power and intellect; he was respected as a teacher and wise man. Some of the men on Mars Hill sneered at Paul’s sermon; it was unacceptable to raise one god above the others, all gods were considered equal. He sounded like an intolerant fool. The mythical stories of Christianity made it even worse: a virgin birth and a dead God? Repentance and forgiveness? These were not part of their religious experience. The Christian story seemed pointless and absurd.
But others believed and asked Paul to tell them more. Paul risked status, position, and respect by boldly proclaiming the Gospel message of grace. Some came to believe. We live in a similar society where buffets are the norm so that everyone who enters can be satisfied. There are religious houses on every corner, something for everyone. While diversity can be a good thing, are we willing to be like Paul boldly proclaiming the message of the Gospel to those who would prefer to settle for the ecumenical open-mindedness that says that all gods are equal?
Paul knew that the people were reasonable and religious, so he took advantage of his time in Athens. He went the synagogue and preached. He talked to people on street corners and in the marketplace. I can just imagine him pulling up a chair at the street café and striking up a conversation with the others at the table, “Have you heard of Jesus?” Paul had the courage to be a bold evangelist, but our question for today is whether or not we have the same courage.
We should. We have the Holy Spirit. Yet, I suspect that there are many of us who do not have the same boldness as those early disciples. We might claim the times are different, but are they all that different?
I think we are afraid to speak the Gospel because we don’t want to be rejected. We forget that even though some will scoff, but there might just be someone who will hear the Word and want to know more. We stay silent out of fear of those who do not want to be saved, ignoring the needs of those who would be saved if only we would be gracious to share God’s Word with them. Paul certainly knew what it was like to get run out of town because of his ministry, but that didn’t stop him. Are we willing to be so bold?
I know I’ve squandered moments when I should have spoken the Gospel and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. I’m sure there are times when most of us, if not all, decide it is just better to remain silent than say something. We can even justify our silence with scripture; after all there are plenty of verses that tell us wise men keep their mouth shut while the foolish rant on and on. We all know that there are just some times when it is better to just be silent. We decide that it is better to just live peacefully as we believe we are meant to live and allow others to live as they want to live. But there are times when we should not be silent, when a word from God is not only helpful, it is vital. There are times when God calls us to speak words we would rather not speak.
We think that kindness and good works are enough. “Preach the Gospel and if necessary use words” is a favorite mantra of many. However, the scriptures are clear that actions are not enough, people aren’t saved by good works. They don’t receive faith in a sandwich. Faith comes from hearing the Word. But it is a lot easier to feed a belly than to testify to the world about our faith in Jesus Christ. In his first letter, Peter describes the harm we might experience for being witnesses. Our testimony will bring peace to the world, but is likely to bring persecution to our lives. We are called to take the saving WORD of Christ into the world, no matter what others think, say or do.
Peter was writing to a community under persecution. They were afraid to do what they knew they should do. Peter wrote to give them courage. Though they would suffer persecution, they would see God glorified. Instead of responding with anger, they were to respond with grace. Instead of fighting back, they were to be meek and humble. In the end, the enemies of God’s people will be put to shame. Their suffering might just be the catalyst that will cause another person to believe in Jesus and in this God will be glorified.
Reflecting the comforting words of Jesus to not be troubled in last week’s Gospel, Peter gives us two tools to help us: do not fear and be faithful. We are invited into the work of God’s kingdom on earth, to continue what Christ started. We need not fear what will come because we have the Holy Spirit; with His help we can speak God’s truth. What is the truth? The truth is that Christ died for our salvation. He died so that our neighbors might be saved. He died so that our enemies might be saved. But no one can be saved without hearing the Word.
Do not be afraid. Be faithful. These are probably the hardest words any Christian can hear and follow. Unlike the disciples who at least walked with Jesus and experienced His ministry first hand, we don’t even have anything tangible on which to hold to give us the confidence that we need. How much easier is it when we can hold someone’s hand through tough times? I am less likely to worry about my family when they are standing beside me. Jesus prepared them for His departure; He told them that He would no longer be seen. We can understand their fear when Jesus was crucified. He was no longer among them. They enjoyed forty days in His presence after His resurrection as He continued to teach them everything they would need to know. He repeated the commands and promises. “Do not be afraid. Be faithful. The world won’t see me, but you will see me. You will have my Spirit and then you’ll know without a doubt that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”
Peter reminds us that the persecution we face for doing God’s work in the world cannot truly harm us. Our Lord Jesus gave His life for us. We in turn are called to give our lives for His glory. The questions we face are opportunities from God to testify about the work of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit manifests in very real and powerful ways as we walk in faith, so we should be ready to give the testimony. That person might just be the next one God intends to save.
Are we willing to give to God even when we will risk everything to do so? Are we willing to speak the truth when we come across those altars to an unknown god? Do we even know how to answer? We are encouraged to know our defense, to be ready to give an answer whenever we have the opportunity to share our testimony. Are we ready to proclaim the Good News that Christ died and rose again so that we can be part of the work of God’s kingdom in the world?
“Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor that which is evil. Cling to that which is good. In love of the brothers be tenderly affectionate to one another; in honor preferring one another; not lagging in diligence; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope; enduring in troubles; continuing steadfastly in prayer; contributing to the needs of the saints; given to hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless, and don’t curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind one toward another. Don’t set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Don’t be wise in your own conceits. Repay no one evil for evil. Respect what is honorable in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as it is up to you, be at peace with all men. Don’t seek revenge yourselves, beloved, but give place to God’s wrath. For it is written, ‘Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord.’ Therefore, ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing so, you will heap coals of fire on his head.’ Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:9-21, WEB
There seems to be some perception that Christians should get along with everyone. The Bible commands us to love one another and to love our enemy, so they think we should have hundreds of friends. If we love everyone, then we should be popular, loved and liked by the world. Yet, we know that it is impossible. It doesn’t matter who we are, there are people we just do not like, Christian or otherwise. Our personalities clash and we just can’t get along. Though the Christian response to such people in our life should never be hate, there are just some people that we’d rather not know.
I confess that there was one woman years ago who grated on my nerves. She was like nails on the blackboard of my soul. I probably had the same affect on her. I dreaded our encounters and even found ways to avoid them. We could not avoid one another completely; we shared friends and activities. We had children about the same age. We went to the same church. We were just different; we had different perspectives, different ways of doing things, and different goals in life. It was hard to work together because we both had passionate opinions about how things should be done.
This is not how it should be, after all we are supposed to love one another. Much as we didn’t like each other, we did love one another. If I needed something, she was there to help. If she needed something, I willingly gave back. We may not have enjoyed the time together; we did not pretend to like one another for the sake of appearances. Our love manifested in very real action and I will be forever grateful for the things she did for me and my family.
Loving someone does not mean that we have to be best friends with them. I am sure we can all name someone in our life that has the same effect as that friend so long ago. They grate on our nerves. They do all the wrong things. They annoy us, frustrate us and even make us angry with the things that they do. It is impossible for us to like them. Yet, if that person is part of our life -particularly if they are a co-worker, family member, fellow Christian - it is impossible to avoid seeing them. We have to find some way to live in the relationship despite our dislike. When it is particularly difficult, or impossible, for us to love our neighbor, we need only look at them through the eyes of faith. Faith gives us “Jesus-colored glasses” so that God will love them for us, giving us the strength to act boldly in Christ’s love for their sake.
We might be tempted to hate, but we are called to love. In this passage from Romans, Paul wrote that love should be sincere. This does not mean that we need to have close relationships with everyone in the world. However, if we claim to love someone, then we need to find a way to live out that love in very real action. Paul notes that the Christian life is hard, but it is the life that God is calling us to live. It is a life of active love, joy in hardship, compassion, forgiveness, humility and peace keeping. It is loving with our hands and our resources even when we do not particularly like those who are part of our lives.
“My son, attend to my words. Turn your ear to my sayings. Let them not depart from your eyes. Keep them in the center of your heart. For they are life to those who find them, and health to their whole body. Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it is the wellspring of life. Put away from yourself a perverse mouth. Put corrupt lips far from you. Let your eyes look straight ahead. Fix your gaze directly before you. Make the path of your feet level. Let all of your ways be established. Don’t turn to the right hand nor to the left. Remove your foot from evil.” Proverbs 4:20-27, WEB
Facebook and Messenger are wonderful tools and resources during these days, helping us to keep connected. Unfortunately, they can also be frustrating. Every so often I see a meme on Facebook asking others not to send videos or photos via Messenger. Those videos often have viruses attached, so watching them can be damaging to a computer. I’ve posted similar please. These chain messages are annoying even though they are sent with good intentions.
I got an email the other day from a friend who was passing on a recipe chain mail. I remember doing those when I was young, but I wrote back to my friend to tell her that I didn’t want to participate. These things can cause all sorts of problems with email and they never really produce what they promise. I remember getting a chain email a long time ago, a sweet message I decided to share. Unfortunately, the email was not sent, saying it was against the terms of service for my Internet provider. That was a long time ago, but these chain letters can still cause traffic jams on the information super highway. Every byte of information takes up valuable computer space.
Computer viruses are a very real threat and they can reach our computers in many different ways like video messages and email. There are virtual wars happening between nations all over the world; the news is filled with stories of hacking and other difficulties. Viruses cause problems on major networks, even those with excellent security features. Some viruses are designed to open a receivers address book or friends list and send the virus to more people. This creates a snowball effect, first affecting one person, but then affecting all their friends, and all their friends’ friends, and all their friends’ friends’ friends. These computer viruses fill the computers with superfluous emails and tie up the networks. It is amazing how quickly these things can grow. One email can become thousands in just hours.
The same can be said of sin. For example, a little white lie can grow into a series of deeper lies and other sins. One angry word can lead to an argument and even physical violence. One moment of lust in our hearts can lead to adultery and even divorce.
Jesus told us to avoid the things that would lead to greater sin. He said that it wasn’t enough to not murder, He told us to not be angry. One small sin can lead us down the wrong road, and cause us to be unable to do our work as a servant of God. Solomon writes here in the Proverbs that we should guard our heart. When we allow things like lust, anger and dishonesty to affect our lives, sin creeps into our heart and builds. Thanks to the work of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are forgiven for our failure, but we must guard every thought, word and deed and fix our eyes on our Savior. In this way, we stay on track and can do His work.
“On that day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the seaside. Great multitudes gathered to him, so that he entered into a boat and sat; and all the multitude stood on the beach. He spoke to them many things in parables, saying, ‘Behold, a farmer went out to sow. As he sowed, some seeds fell by the roadside, and the birds came and devoured them. Others fell on rocky ground, where they didn’t have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of earth. When the sun had risen, they were scorched. Because they had no root, they withered away. Others fell among thorns. The thorns grew up and choked them. Others fell on good soil and yielded fruit: some one hundred times as much, some sixty, and some thirty. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’” Matthew 13:1-9, WEB
My daughter works in youth and family ministry at a church. She’s found ways to continue making connections with her students and families, but they have had to consider what to do about upcoming events, like Vacation Bible School. Though things may open up enough to have some sort of summer program, the time is growing short and it is hard to plan for these large events on short notice. They should already be taking registrations, gathering materials, preparing volunteers. The saddest part of all this is that the children are already struggling with boredom from the lack of school. Some good, old fashioned fun at Vacation Bible School would be just the thing to make them feel better.
I’ve worked at many Vacation Bible Schools over the years. They are filled with so much fun, singing and games, lessons and crafts. There’s always some sort of creative snack that fits the theme of the week. There are moments of mass confusion, chaotic moments when I always wonder if anyone is even hearing a word we say. These Bible Schools are often organized with small groups visiting different stations during the day. The kids spend a few minutes in each, and then they move on to another activity. It is difficult at best to get them to settle down to listen to the leaders. The littlest ones are usually so hyped up that they can’t even sit for a few minutes. They are not really listening.
I loved being the person to lead the group gathering times at the beginning and at the end of each day. These were times when the lesson for the day was introduced and reinforced. During one closing program I mixed a cake using rather interesting ingredients. Instead of flour, I used rice. Rather than sugar, I used salt. Vinegar took the place of vanilla and cat food was used instead of chocolate chips. Needless to say, the cake was horrible but there was a point to make. Someone, probably one of the older children, yelled, “Taste it!” Then they all began to chant it over and over again. They were so loud that they barely heard the purpose of the cake: that it is important to follow the directions.
The theme for that week was about how we are called to share the Gospel in the world and about how God’s Word saves, giving faith to those who hear. Those of us who know the love of God in Christ Jesus find it so hard to understand how anyone can deny the truth of the Gospel. How can you deny God once you’ve heard the Word, particularly since the Holy Spirit gives the faith to believe? Why is it that there are so many who do not believe in Jesus?
There are many reasons we don’t hear. As in the case of the kids at Vacation Bible School, they could not hear because they were busy with their own things. They were too distracted to listen to what was being said. The kindergarteners were tired and restless after a few activities. There are always some children who are not feeling well or are dealing with something hard; they have a hard time concentrating on any of the lessons. Weather has an impact, especially in the summer when it can get very warm. Some kids just don’t want to be there.
Adults aren’t much different, especially with religious things. There are many reasons why people do not hear the message of Jesus. They don’t think they need what He has to give. They are so busy they think they don’t have time. Guilt blocks their ability to hear the Gospel message. Apathy and arrogance both affect the hearing. Physical discomfort like illness, poverty, hunger or thirst can make it difficult to hear. The noise of the world tends to be much louder than the voice of God, especially when His word is coming through the lips of a failed and flawed human being.
It can be very frustrating to try to speak to a room full of screaming, wiggly kids. After the day is over I wondered if they even heard the lesson that day. Yet, somehow the next day some of the children managed to amaze and delight me with their knowledge. We can’t give up just because we think that we aren’t making an impact. We must continue to cast the seed of the Gospel onto the field and ask God to bring the growth. We can see by this parable that not every seed will fall on good ground. Some of the people to whom we speak the Gospel will not hear because of so many other troubles.
We are like the sowers in the story, casting the seed of the Gospel out into the world. At Bible school, there are some children who will not hear and the seed will be snatched away. Others will be excited for a day or a week or even a month, but eventually faith that has grown will wither away because it has not taken root. The faith of some children will be choked by the cares of this world. These children may have heard the Gospel, but they did not really hear. We can rejoice, however, that many of the children at VBS will hear and it will take root in their lives. They will grow and mature in their understanding of God. For those who do not hear today, we need to pray that God will prepare their hearts for the next time. We can have the same hope and prayer for the people with whom we share the Gospel as they cross our path daily. We are called to go on casting the seed into the field, trusting that the Holy Spirit is working in the hearts of the lost and lonely so that they will hear and believe and be saved.
“The disciples came, and said to him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered them, ‘To you it is given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven, but it is not given to them. For whoever has, to him will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever doesn’t have, from him will be taken away even that which he has. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they don’t see, and hearing, they don’t hear, neither do they understand. In them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says, “By hearing you will hear, and will in no way understand; seeing you will see, and will in no way perceive; for this people’s heart has grown callous, their ears are dull of hearing, and they have closed their eyes; or else perhaps they might perceive with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their heart, and would turn again, and I would heal them.” But blessed are your eyes, for they see; and your ears, for they hear. For most certainly I tell you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see the things which you see, and didn’t see them; and to hear the things which you hear, and didn’t hear them.’”
We used to live less than a mile from an active train track. At least thirty trains a day passed by hauling everything from army equipment to lime for cement, cars and people. The track runs along a heavily traveled road with small road crossings along the way. Most of the crossings are well marked with electronic barriers that signal the cars of the coming train with lights and then block them with a barricade. Unfortunately, we heard too many stories of accidents at the crossings because many people refuse to head the warnings and try to cross anyway. They think they can get around the barrier and beat the train, but the trains are faster than they think or they are slower. Sometimes something happens to the car. It can be a deadly mistake to try to beat the train.
The trains send additional warnings by blowing a horn constantly as they are running through several miles of track near our home. This is to discourage those who might take the risk by reminding the drivers that a train is coming. We heard these signal horns constantly as they passed nearby. We definitely knew when a train was coming, no matter what time of day. It was never as bad to hear in the afternoon, but the ones in the middle of the night were annoying. Yet, it was necessary for the engineer to constantly pull at the cord of his horn to protect the lives of the drivers and those on the trains.
Unfortunately, it is much harder to hear the horns from behind the wheel of a car. I have had to sit and wait for the oncoming train behind one of those barriers and the sound of the horn is muffled and difficult to hear. It seemed like we could hear the horns at our house a mile away better than we ever heard them as we were waiting for the trains to pass at the crossings. This is why trucks with dangerous chemicals and buses filled with school children are required to stop and open their door or window to listen and look.
As we read the stories of Jesus, it sometimes seems that He was like a speeding train as He ministered in Israel two thousand years ago. The things He taught were going to make a difference in the lives of those who listened. The disciples experienced the presence of God in their lives as Jesus gave them understanding about the Father’s mercy and grace. They were changed by His forgiveness. There were many, however, who could not hear; others refused to listen. Jesus’ teaching was unbelievable, beyond their experience and ideology. They were knocked over by Jesus’ teachings they refused to believe what He said. It did not enter into their hearts and spring forth in faith. They rejected Jesus and missed the life He had to offer.
The disciples did not understand why Jesus spoke in parables. Why not teach clearly so that everyone would understand? Jesus knew about the people who were like drivers refusing to pay attention to the barriers at railroad crossings. In terms of faith, those are the ones who feel that they are righteous on their own account; they don’t need mercy and grace but live in haughty pride in their ability to do what is right. The parables are nothing but nonsense to people like that because they have no faith. But parables, when heard in faith, are filled with wisdom and grace, giving to the hearer a better understanding of God’s love. It is for these that Jesus speaks so that they will grow in faith and mature into active disciples sharing the kingdom of God with others.
Scriptures for Sunday, May 24, 2020, Seventh Sunday of Easter: Acts 1:12-26; Psalm 68:1-10; 1 Peter 4:12-19, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11
“But may the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a little while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you. To him be the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.” 1 Peter 5:10-11, WEB
I have been studying the psalms, preparing for a class I will teach beginning in the fall. One of the things I learned early in the study is to remember that though we do look at the Old Testament through Christian eyes, it is important to remember that the psalms were written and originally sung by people with a very different mindset. The psalms are filled with verses that make us uncomfortable, curses and demands for vengeance that seem extreme. Some of the verses are even disgusting. The psalmist often wants his many enemies humiliated, subdued, and killed. We don’t see it in the text for today, but Psalm 68 is filled with images of warfare, flesh, and blood.
Psalm 68 is difficult for us to understand because there are thirteen Hebrew words that do not appear anywhere else. We might be able to guess at the meaning of those words based on context, but we do not know for sure. It is interesting because God is named dozens of times in the thirty five verses, and the psalmist used ten different names. The psalm extols God’s past, present, and future. He is the Divine Warrior who defeats the enemies of His people. Though we do not know everything about the Hebrew language, culture, or modes of praise, in this psalm we understand that God can be seen and given glory for His innumerable deeds great and small.
Psalm 68 is one of the few psalms that we can look at with a post-Christian perspective because it has an eschatological insight. It looks forward to the coming of Christ, His resurrection, ascension, and the giving of His Spirit at Pentecost. It looks forward to the time when the God of Israel will be worshipped by people from every nation. So, this God who goes by many names is worthy to be praised. This psalm, and the character of God found in the words, is attributed to Jesus Christ.
Despite the curses in the psalm, it is a song of praise and thanksgiving. It was probably written for the time when the Ark of the Lord, which represented God’s presence among His people, was transferred from the house of Obed-edom to the new location on Zion’s mountain (2 Samuel 6:2-18.) Whether it references that event or some other, it describes a significant procession.
The people sing the song and remember the journey because in the story of God we see His faithfulness and His power. Through the past we hold on to the hope of what will continue to be. We sing in thankfulness because God has chased the enemy away, defended the lowly, set prisoners free, and provided life-giving water to the thirsty. The hope for more of God’s power was brought forth through Jesus Christ, as He defeated death, healed the sick, set free those imprisoned by demons and spoke the life-giving Word to people who were thirsty for God. We recall that journey as we move through Easter toward Pentecost when God continues His story through us.
The ancient people worshipped God with great joy and celebration. The story in 2 Samuel describes David dancing and leaping as they moved the Ark into the city. While joy is certainly a part of our worship, we tend to be less festive. For many, attending worship is more an act of duty than delight. Social pleasure, hymns, fellowship, and joy were a part of their whole lives. We are often more like Michal, David’s wife, in the story. She did not join the party, but watched from a window, and was disgusted by the display of David as he danced in the streets. This psalm reminds us to have an appetite for God, to desire and delight in His presence. We, too often, hide our joy under decorum, but we are called to celebrate. The gift of God’s presence was centered in the Temple (or in the Tabernacle in David’s Day), and they celebrated and praised Him on the streets. We can seek the joy of His presence wherever we are. Do we celebrate Him with joy and song and dancing in the streets?
This is important to remember as we come to the end of the Easter season.
In the forty days between the resurrection and the ascension, Jesus spent time with the disciples clearly teaching the scriptures and telling them what they are to do in the world. Though many of His teachings were parables, in these days He spoke the plain truth so that there would be no confusion. The power and the presence of the Holy Spirit would soon follow; the Spirit continued to teach the disciples and gave them the faith to believe all that Jesus had spoken.
For three years and those forty days, God’s Word dwelled and ministered among His people and taught them about the kingdom of God. He called them to repentance. He called them to new life. He called them to go out into the world with the message of Good News so that others might believe and become new creatures. Jesus had to go to heaven so that the disciples would receive the Holy Spirit, the helper that would give them everything they needed to share the Word with the world.
The Day of Ascension is tomorrow and Pentecost is not for ten days, so this Sunday falls in the middle of a time of transition. These were days filled with prayer. The last time the disciples had to transition was between the crucifixion and the resurrection. They were frightened and confused. They didn’t know what their future held. They didn’t know if the next knock on the door would be someone who wanted to hang them on a cross. They probably wondered if they should return home and return to the lives they had before Jesus.
Their attitude during this transition was much different than the first. Jesus rose from the grave and appeared to them on that first Easter. He spent forty days with them, teaching them everything they needed to move forward. He encouraged them to continue His work in this world. He heartened them with words of comfort; “Do not fear,” He said. He breathed on them and promised to be with them forever, changing their fear into faith. They were in transition and though there was still uncertainty about their future, they trusted Jesus and obeyed His command.
Jesus’ ascension left little room to question the nature of this man they had known for three years. He was God in flesh, worthy of their worship and praise. Now He left them alone, seemingly abandoning them with nothing but the promise of a helper to come. He sent them into the world to share the Kingdom of God, but would no longer be there to pick them up after they fell. It was up to them to do the work they were called to do. It was no wonder that they stopped to stare into the heavens. However, Jesus did not intend for them to wallow in the past. I can imagine there were some tears in their eyes and nostalgia in their conversations as they remembered all Jesus did and all that He was to them.
Their attitude was different than forty days earlier, but I am certain they still felt grief. Though they knew Jesus lived, He was no longer in their presence. Isn’t that how we feel about those we love who are no longer with us? We know that by faith they still live and dwell in heaven. We even comfort ourselves with the idea that they watch over us. We talk to them even though they are not here to hear. We know they are blessed by life in a better place, but we long for their touch and to hear their voice. We miss them. The disciples were going to miss having Jesus physically in their presence.
Jesus was gone. The disciples were alone. They knew things, but did they know enough? How were they supposed to continue Jesus’ work? How were they supposed to do the miracles, speak the words, teach the lessons that would change people’s lives? They lost their teacher. They left their families, and in many cases couldn’t return because their families had rejected Jesus as the Messiah. The world was opposed to everything they had come to believe. How do you deal with that?
It is no wonder that the disciples stood looking at heaven after Jesus was taken up. I think I would just want to go to heaven, too. I surely would not want to go back to Jerusalem to face the challenges of living without Jesus and continuing His work. It wasn’t going to be easy. It was even going to be dangerous. They had enemies both in flesh and spirit. Besides, what glory could be found in the suffering that was inevitable?
Jesus taught them that there is glory in suffering. Christ was not glorified in heaven or on earth but on the cross. It wasn’t Jesus’ words or His miracles that brought God’s blessing on Him, but His willingness to face death for the sake of others. God’s purpose for Him was to hang on the cross, and God raised Him up in victory. This is reason for us to celebrate, to sing praise to God the Divine Warrior who defeated the true enemies of His people: sin, death, and the devil.
The cross doesn’t sound very glorious though, does it? The world cannot see the glory: it was a weapon of torture! But God sees the world in a different way. The glory was not in the instrument, but in the one playing it. Jesus Christ was glorified not because He died, but because He did what God sent Him to do. We will glorify God by doing just what He has sent us to do. It might not be pretty. We might find ourselves in the midst of suffering. It won’t seem very glorious. But as we live in complete obedience to God’s intention for our lives, He will be glorified. God tells us to go forward, to do His work and not to worry. Whatever the circumstances, He’ll be with us and will help us overcome.
As the disciples watched Jesus ascend to heaven, two angels appeared and said, “Don’t just stand there!” They went to Jerusalem to wait for the promise of power that Jesus said that they would receive. The only thing they could do at that moment was to pray. Those disciples were about to be sent into the world to do whatever it is that God was calling them to do. The lessons were over; the time for work was at hand. They had no idea what the future held. They had to stand on their own two feet. They had to be responsible. They had to be more independent and the work was going to be so much harder without Jesus. Would they be able to do the job God was calling them to do? Would people believe them? Would people believe in Jesus because of their words? Would there be any joy? This was the beginning of the end of their time as followers; it was the beginning of a new phase of their life and ministry. They were about to become apostles, sent into the world to do the work that Christ did. Instead of just one man, there were eleven and soon there would be more.
They didn’t wait until Pentecost to make the first change amongst their group. Jesus originally selected twelve men to accompany Him. Sadly, Judas did exactly what Jesus expected him to do, but he did not know how to deal with his grief and his guilt. I’ve often wondered what would have happened if Judas had just waited long enough to see Jesus face to face after the resurrection. Would he have found forgiveness? The prophecies said he was doomed to destruction, but was that destruction destined to be the horrific ending we see in today’s passage from Acts? After all, though Peter did not betray Jesus, he did deny Him. Yet, on the beach after the resurrection, Jesus had mercy on Peter, forgave him and called him to lead the Church into the future. Might Judas have found a similar grace at the feet of his Lord?
Judas’ destruction came because he was unwilling or unable to face Jesus. He sought forgiveness from the priests in the Temple who had no mercy. He saw no other way out besides suicide. How could the disciples forgive him? He never saw the whole story from the other side of the cross. He only knew that Jesus was dead and that it was his fault. He thought there was no hope. Suicide is never a good option, though many people think that it is better to die than to face the pain their situation. Death seems so easy when there is no hope.
Despite their grief, the disciples knew there was work to be done. The Church would not remain a group of eleven men. It would not be just a few women who supported and encouraged the work. It would not be just the few dozen followers that had been with them for the past three years. The Church was about to explode. The disciples gathered in prayer and Peter suggested that they should replace Judas. They chose two men out of the disciples and voted by lots for someone to be the twelfth. Matthias was chosen and he joined them in their work. They would have to add other leaders because the community of faith would continue to grow. In those early days they added to their numbers daily, sometimes by the thousands! This work required God’s help. Even though it might have seemed like they were abandoned, the disciples would succeed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Christian faith means rejoicing in all circumstances and moving forward in faith. Can you imagine what it must have been like for Jesus to pray the prayer in today’s Gospel lesson? The text can be divided into two distinct prayers. In the first section, Jesus prayed for Himself. He did not pray for the cross to be removed, but rather that He would be glorified. The prayer is a remembrance of the things that Jesus did, sharing the life and light of God with the disciples. It is, in essence, a eulogy, proclaiming the message and purpose of His life for us to hear. The second half of the prayer describes how the disciples reflect the glory of Christ. As we read this passage we see first the life of Jesus and then the life of those touched by His ministry and message.
When Jesus said those words, He wasn’t just talking about the disciples; the prayer is for every generation. The prayer is for you and for me. We are called to relate the good news of what Jesus has done and proclaim that He has been glorified with God the Father to the people of our own days. Those good words become part of our lives and we become like those first disciples even though we have not lived with Jesus in the flesh. We are among those to whom Christ has been given and He prays also for us today as we shine His light to the world.
The original disciples shared the Gospel with the first Christians, and Christians have continued to share the Good News with every generation since. They were His because they heard the Word and believed all that God has said and done. So, too, we are His by that same Word, the Living Word that once dwelled among a small group of disciples but now dwells among all those who believe. We give thanksgiving and praise for those who shared that Good Word with us, so that we too might know Christ and live according to His Word. The God who dwelled in the Tabernacle now dwells in the hearts of all those who believe. This is a reason to celebrate.
Peter writes that we are to rejoice in the midst of our sufferings. He was writing to a people who were on the verge of being persecuted for their faith in Jesus Christ. They faced trouble from the Romans and from the Jews, and they would eventually face even worse. They had seen a new light which had given them a new faith and the world did not approve. The persecution came as expulsion, rejection, and even death. They did not know if they would even be alive the next day to share the joy of God’s grace with anyone. However, they approached every minute with the assurance that God was with them. They danced in the streets, celebrating with joy and delight the God who saves.
The early Christians needed encouragement to get through. Peter wrote to remind his readers that we share in the glory of Christ when we share in His suffering. “Beloved, don’t be astonished at the fiery trial which has come upon you to test you, as though a strange thing happened to you. But because you are partakers of Christ’s sufferings, rejoice, that at the revelation of his glory you also may rejoice with exceeding joy.” Our joy comes from being one with Christ in all things, including His sufferings.
Peter then listed a number of ways to live out our faith in this relationship we have with God. First of all, we are to be humble before Him. He is God, we are His servants. We will share in His glory, but it is not up to us to choose the time or the place. God calls us to live humbly and we will be exalted. Second, we are to give our worries and our fears to God because He cares for us. We often feel like we have been left alone, particularly when we are suffering from persecution. God loves us, He won’t leave us alone.
Third, Peter tells us to discipline ourselves. Jesus spent three years and forty days teaching His followers what it meant to be a Christian. He showed them how to be a servant. He was an example of prayer. He worshipped with them, walked with them, scolded them, encouraged them, warned them, and corrected them. It is not easy to live the Christian life; it requires the kind of relationship Jesus had with His Father. This relationship comes first through His grace, for He comes to us. We can’t find Him by our own works. However, faithful living means constant devotion to building our relationship with God through prayer. We can’t expect it to just happen. Peter warned his readers that Satan is prowling like a hungry lion waiting to pounce on prey; we must be alert and prepared. It takes training and practice. It takes discipline.
There is hope despite the troubles we will face. God has promised that He will be near and that He will restore, support, strengthen and establish us. He is indeed the God of all grace and He has called us to this life. He has promised that we will share in His eternal glory that is found in Jesus Christ our Lord. By the power of the Holy Spirit we have all we need to live this life, to go forth in faith, and to serve God in the world.
We can’t do it by ourselves. We need one another. The witness of Peter and all the other disciples was passed on through generation after generation. We know Jesus Christ because of the testimony of those who have come before us and future generations will know Him because of the witness of the Church from every time and every place, including you and me. We are all bound together by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are made one by God’s Word through God’s grace, together continuing the work of Jesus Christ in this world. This is a reason to celebrate. We have reason to dance in the streets. We have reason to praise God with joy, to delight in His presence because we are His forever. He has won the victory. He has defeated our enemies. He has made all things right and we are called to sing the song that tells the story of His innumerable deeds, His faithfulness, and His power.
“The first book I wrote, Theophilus, concerned all that Jesus began both to do and to teach, until the day in which he was received up, after he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. To these he also showed himself alive after he suffered, by many proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days, and speaking about God’s Kingdom. Being assembled together with them, he commanded them, ‘Don’t depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which you heard from me. For John indeed baptized in water, but you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’ Therefore when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, are you now restoring the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It isn’t for you to know times or seasons which the Father has set within his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you. You will be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth.’ When he had said these things, as they were looking, he was taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight. While they were looking steadfastly into the sky as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white clothing, who also said, ‘You men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who was received up from you into the sky, will come back in the same way as you saw him going into the sky.’” Acts 1:1-11, WEB
Ascension Day is always the fortieth day after Easter.
Jesus stayed with the disciples for forty days after His resurrection and then He ascended into heaven to be seated at the right hand of God. This was necessary: if Jesus had stayed, the Holy Spirit could not come and the disciples would never have the gifts necessary to be witnesses to the work of Christ. Jesus did not just disappear. He opened their minds to scriptures and revealed to them the will and purpose of God. Jesus came to die and they were His witnesses. He told them, “I am going to send you what my Father has promised.” That promise was the Holy Spirit. “Don’t depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which you heard from me.”
You would think after three years and those forty days that the disciples would fully understand what Jesus was teaching and what God intended for them. Yet, as Jesus was about to leave they still asked, “Lord, are you now restoring the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus reminded them that it was not for them to know the times or dates. The disciples considered the mission of the church as urgent; they thought the second coming of Christ was an imminent event. There was no time to wait.
Yet, Jesus told the disciples to stay in Jerusalem until they received the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus taught them, but they still needed the Spirit to be able to accomplish the work. The Spirit would continue to teach and remind them of everything that Jesus had taught. The Spirit would give them the gifts, the authority and the power to continue Jesus’ work in the world. So they waited in Jerusalem.
That’s what it is like in the Kingdom of God: urgently waiting. There is no time to spare, but we have waited for two thousand years.
Luke gives us two different versions of what happened when Jesus ascended into heaven. In the Gospel, Luke tells us that they worshipped Him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. In Acts, Luke tells us that when Jesus rose into heaven, they stood there staring into the sky. While they were looking up, “...two men stood by them in white clothing, who also said, ‘You men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who was received up from you into the sky, will come back in the same way as you saw him going into the sky.’” In one story, the disciples worshipped Jesus and went joyfully to wait for His promise. In the second story, they stood gaping at what they saw, unmoving perhaps because they were unsure of what should come next. This is not a contradiction; it is the reality of our faith in Christ. We joyfully worship and wait, but we also wonder and worry. We know Christ and His promises, but we aren’t sure of what it means.
I heard about a young girl who said to her mother, “If I had known my last day of junior high was going to be in March, I would have done things differently.” Isn’t that how it is for all of us every day? If we knew what would happen tomorrow, would we do anything different today? If we knew we might die tomorrow, would we kiss our kids or call our best friend? Would we share the Gospel message with our neighbor so that they would know Jesus and be saved?
Christian faith means waiting urgently, but we should not be passive as we wait. We are called to active faith. Jesus has given us gifts to share with others, and He expects to find us busy with His work when He comes. We cannot be complacent because He could come tomorrow. Though we’ve waited for two thousand years, our mission is as immediate as it was when the first disciples saw Jesus raised to the right hand of God. Now is the time. Today is the day. Amen, Come Lord Jesus.
“John, to the seven assemblies that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from God, who is and who was and who is to come; and from the seven Spirits who are before his throne; and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us, and washed us from our sins by his blood—and he made us to be a Kingdom, priests to his God and Father—to him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.” Revelation 1:4-6, ASV
Paul writes, “Grace and peace to you,” as part of the salutation in his letters to the churches. I like this phrase because it seems to encompass the character and purpose of God’s Church. With grace and peace as our foundation, we will accomplish the greatest works that God can call us to do. Peter and John used the phrase, too.
So, what do we mean when we say, “Grace and peace to you”? The word grace has many meanings, not the least of which is the definition we often seen used in Christian memes: God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense. The top definition of the word is “unmerited divine assistance to humans for their regeneration or sanctification,” but I’m not sure that definition is one that really helps us to understand. After all, it is filled with a bunch of religious words that don’t make sense even to the average Christian let alone unbelievers. I think we tend to think of grace in a more modern understanding: the quality or state of being considerate or thoughtful. After all, if we are gracious to our neighbor, it usually means that we are doing something to make their life better.
In the greeting from Paul, the word grace is ‘charis.’ This word in Greek is also used for the three goddesses of charm, beauty, nature, human creativity, and fertility; they are known as the Graces or Charities. It is no wonder, then that grace has come to be understood in terms of charity. But is that what Paul was wishing for the people in those congregations? Was he seeking God’s charity for the people? Or is the grace Paul prays for something greater?
The other word is peace. The cry of our human race is for peace on earth. We just want people to get along. We want war to cease. We want everyone to live together without conflict. The definitions of peace include harmony in personal relations and mutual concord between governments. The first definition is “a state of tranquility as a freedom from civil disobedience or a state of security or order within a community provided for by law or custom.” Is this the peace for which Paul is praying?
It is interesting to note that the phrase “Grace and peace” uses a Christianization of a Greek word, charis, and the Hebrew word, shalom. Now, the word shalom in Hebrew can refer to peace between two entities, but it has a deeper meaning in faith. It refers to a person’s well-being. In this phrase, Paul links together the grace of Greek thought with the peace of Hebrew thought into the true source of both, which is God. We can strive to be charitable and to promote peace between people, but true grace and peace is a gift from God. True grace is the merciful kindness of God exerting His holy influence on our souls, which leaves us with true peace, which is the well-being that reaches to the very depths of our spirits.
So, I say to you today, “Grace and Peace to you” so that you might be the person of grace and peace which God has called you to be. May you experience God’s merciful kindness and His peace so that you can go out into the world being gracious to your neighbors and promoting peace.
“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
The last Monday of May in the United States is set aside as a day to remember those who have died in service to the United States. At cemeteries throughout the world men and women are being honored for their courage and sacrifice during war. This year’s celebration will look much different for most of us since we are still practicing. Memorial Day is often considered the official start to the summer season and many usually take trips to the beach, the lake, or the mountains. Many of those families have canceled those trips. Amusement parks and pools aren’t open. Parades are even canceled. In some places, the Boy Scouts have been asked not to put flags on the graves at the cemeteries. You are less likely to see the Veteran’s groups out with their paper poppies this weekend.
The “Buddy Poppy” program helps disabled American Veterans, who are paid to make the paper poppies. Donations also support VFW programs that help veterans and the families of fallen service people. The poppies have been used since the program started in 1922, but the idea of the poppies comes from an older poem. Moina Michael was inspired by the 1915 poem “In Flanders Field” written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. Poppies are flowers that leave behind abundant seeds that begin to bloom when the soil is disturbed. So, when the bodies of soldiers were buried on the fields of Flanders, the ground was covered with these bright red flowers, leaving the impression of the blood of the fallen on the hearts of those who were left behind. McCrae is said to have been mourning the loss of his friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer.
The poem “In Flanders Fields” continues to leave a lasting impression on our hearts. “In Flanders fields the poppies blow… Between the crosses, row on row… That mark our place; and in the sky… The larks, still bravely singing, fly… Scarce heard amid the guns below… We are the Dead. Short days ago… We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,… Loved and were loved, and now we lie… In Flanders fields… Take up our quarrel with the foe:… To you from failing hands we throw… The torch; be yours to hold it high… If ye break faith with us who die… We shall not sleep, though poppies grow… In Flanders fields.”
Moina Michael was so touched by this poem that she began wearing a poppy in remembrance that same year. She began making and selling the poppies to help servicemen in need. Madam Guerin took the project to France and earned money to help widows and orphans. People in other countries followed suit. By 1922, the VFW was involved, and now you’ll see veterans handing out poppies in front of Wal-mart or at the mall or on Main Street around Memorial Day. When you do, remember, they aren’t just trying to help you remember the fallen heroes of our nation. They are helping those who continue to suffer because of the loss.
For many, Memorial Day is a time for picnics, for gathering with families and friends and for getting started on the summer season. I hope it is also a time when we will think about those who made great sacrifices so that we can live freely and share generously all we have.
And, we can take today and consider the sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of others. Few are called to give their lives, but we are all called to give of ourselves and our resources generously. How can you make a difference today? Is there a program you can join to give your time to help others? Is there some need in the world you are drawn to meet? Have you seen something like those poppies in the fields of Flanders that can be used to remind others of the people whom God has sent to us so that we can be His hands in the world?
“Come, you children, listen to me. I will teach you the fear of Yahweh. Who is someone who desires life, and loves many days, that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking lies. Depart from evil, and do good. Seek peace, and pursue it.” Psalm 34:11-14, WEB
I have been walking around my neighborhood regularly, usually about the same time of day. I’ve had to start walking earlier because the Texas heat can be overwhelming. It doesn’t matter what time I go, I manage to see many of my neighbors walking, too. Many of them have dogs. Some are families. Others are like me, walking or jogging for exercise. After so many weeks of these walks, some of the neighbors are becoming familiar. We walk a good distance apart and we don’t talk much, but we always wave or nod our heads, perhaps say a word of greeting. Even those who drive by will smile and wave. Those with dogs will often come close enough for me to scratch behind their ears (the dogs ears, of course.) It has become an excellent way of connecting with my neighbors.
Then I come home and get on the computer; I run through my Facebook and the congenial mood starts to waver. I should probably avoid the comment sections under most of the articles, or the conversations between people about the politics and religious issues of our day. It amazes me how disagreeable people can be. I have no idea how people feel about these things when I’m out on the street. Even if I do have a conversation with a friend, we speak kindly even if we disagree. But when we get on the Internet, it seems all kindness and consideration disappears. Conversations turn into arguments and the arguments are filled with hurtful comments.
These arguments have little or no redeeming value. In other words, we bicker about these topics but never manage to convince one another to accept our point of view. Most of the time, unfortunately, we don’t even manage to hear each other’s point of view. It would be humorous, if it weren’t so sad, to watch two posters go back and forth, neither saying anything new but eventually volleying with “You should read the facts.” “I do. You should read the facts.” No one seems to be able to even decide which facts are worth considering, so they stand firmly on the facts they know and reject anything else. Some of these issues do matter in this world, but we are, too often, passionate about things that won’t make a bit of difference in the eternal scheme of things. It is better to be a peacemaker than to make an enemy over one of those issues.
When we get into discussions over these trivial matters we tend to become wicked in our dealing with those who disagree. We call them stupid or we think they are ridiculous for having their point of view. We even question their faith. Yet, as Christians we are called to consider the issue from a new perspective. How will the outcome affect the eternal security of those who will believe? How will our relationships with them affect their eternal security? Will it matter tomorrow if we saw one movie over another? Will heaven be changed by the school our children attend or the outcome of our battles? Will Jesus Christ love the world any less because of our opinions about these issues?
There are some things about which we will never agree. Does that mean we should continue to be enemies for the sake of ideas? Or do we find some way of getting along with one another. The people with whom we argue on the Internet might just be one of those neighbors we smile at and wave to during our morning walks. It might seem cliché to say “Can’t we all just get along,” but the reality is that we can find common ground if only we listen. For Christians, that common ground is faith in Christ. Even when we disagree about important things, we are called to be at peace with one another, keeping ourselves free from evil by treating others with love and mercy. It won’t be easy, because some people enjoy playing the game. Yet, even when we are provoked into the discussion, we have the power of God abiding in us to avoid doing the evil that leads to war.
Scriptures for Sunday, May 31, 2020, Pentecost: Numbers 11:24-30; Psalm 25:1-15; Acts 2:1-21; John 7:37-39
“It will be that whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Acts 2:21, WEB
It may seem hard to believe but there are thousands of different languages around the world. Some of them are spoken by only a few thousand people. More than two thousand languages are endangered, which means so few people speak the language that it may disappear. They don’t all have a system of writing, but thousands do. The rest are verbal. I am sure many of those languages have similarities, but it can be difficult for people to understand each other.
My mom and dad came to visit us when we lived in England. We went to a restaurant similar to Denny’s one day while we were touring the country. The waitress approached our table to give us the specials of the day and my mother could not understand a word she was saying. My mom said, “Could you speak English please?” The waitress answered, “I am. It is our language, you know.” They say that the Americans and the English are separated by a common language and at times that is very true.
One of my favorite books is Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe.” Adams has created a funny and incredible universe where people can travel from planet to planet and even galaxy to galaxy. If we think we have trouble with languages, imagine what kind of trouble that they can get into! They have an advantage, though. The travelers wear a “Babelfish” in their ear that automatically translates any language so that strangers can understand one another. It isn’t quite so simple in the real world, though with the internet it is getting much easier. There are apps for your phone that will help you communicate when traveling, and other websites that can help with translation. Unfortunately, those apps and websites are only as good as the languages that have been inputted into the system, and there are still many languages that are not available.
We don’t hear the story of Babel on Pentecost this year, but it is the reason why our languages are so confused. Man had settled together and founded a city. Together they decided to build a tower that would reach to heaven; it is typical of human nature to try to become like the gods. The Lord God Almighty saw that they could accomplish great feats together and so He confused their language and sent people to the four corners of the world. Archeologists have recently identified what they believe could have been the original tower and it is interesting to note that it is dwarfed by the amazing skyscrapers of today.
The problem was not that they were able to build a tower that would reach into heaven: that is impossible. Heaven is not a place we can identify in relation to the world. We have sent rockets to outer space, even cameras to the far edges of our universe, but they will never reach heaven. The problem in Babel was that the people thought they could become like God. Though the language has been confused, human beings have never let that stop them from accomplishing great things. Even in the ancient world people were able to communicate with people of other nations; in today’s world we have seen how small the world has become.
This Sunday we are celebrating Pentecost, the day when God overturned the judgment at Babel. Though they once were divided by different languages, God gave them a new language which would draw them together: the Gospel. The words might be different from nation to nation, but the Gospel is the same everywhere. Jesus Christ died for the sake of the world so that all who believe will be saved.
I have been reading a series of books by Jodi Taylor called “The St. Mary’s Chronicles.” The books are fantasy sci-fi style historical fiction and revolve around St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research, a place where historians do a different kind of academic research. It isn’t ‘time travel,’ these historians ‘investigate major historical events in contemporary time.’ They travel to the most exciting times and places throughout history to observe and document events and try to answer unanswered questions without changing a single moment which would upset history. They also try not to die in the process. Their escapades are thrilling if not a little insane, and in the end they see history from a whole new point of view.
If I had the opportunity to “investigate a major historical event in contemporary time,” I think I would choose Pentecost. There are certainly plenty of moments during Jesus’ ministry that would be exciting to see firsthand: the feeding of the five thousand, the transfiguration, the raising of Lazarus. However, I think I would like to see this incredible moment when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples. What were those tongues of fire? Would I have recognized God’s hand in the event, or (like so many that day) would I think the disciples were drunk? What did it sound like? Was it chaotic or more like an orchestra?
In the Old Testament lesson we see that Moses was overwhelmed. He was leading a million people away from slavery into an unknown Promised Land. He only knew what God had told him and that God was faithful. He did not know when they would arrive or what they would find when they got there. The people were tired. They were hungry. They were scared. They wanted to go back to the place Egypt, despite the reality that they would go back to being slaves. They remembered having food to eat and water to drink. In Egypt they had roofs over their heads and they did not have to walk endlessly through the desert. Slavery seemed the much better choice. They complained, and Moses did not know how he, one man, could possibly handle the people any longer.
God told Moses to gather the elders of Israel. When they were gathered, He took the Spirit that rested on Moses and divided it among the other elders. He gave them the authority to lead the people, to share in Moses’ responsibility. He took some of the burden from Moses and laid it on others. This act of mercy meant Moses would have to let go of some of the control, but Joshua was not ready for Moses to do this. The problem was not that Moses had helpers, but that God had appointed helpers that were not on Moses’ list. The Spirit also fell on some men who had not come to the gathering. “Tell them to stop,” Joshua told Moses. Moses was not bothered by this development because he knew that it came from God. God is in control, not Moses. As a matter of fact, Moses would have preferred for every Hebrew to prophecy for the Lord.
I had a conversation with a friend a number of years ago about the Holy Spirit. She insisted that all people had the Holy Spirit. She conceded, perhaps, that it might be only believers who have the Holy Spirit, but continued to insist that Old Testament believers had God’s Spirit just as we do. I think she confused the idea that we have spirit as well as flesh with the infilling of the Holy Spirit. There were certainly people throughout the Old Testament who were equipped with God’s Spirit. Saul, as king, had God’s Spirit until God took it away and anointed David. The judges and prophets had God’s Spirit. The elders found in today’s Old Testament lesson were given God’s Spirit so that they could help Moses.
The disciples had first received the Holy Spirit on the night of the Resurrection. Jesus had breathed on them and they received the Holy Spirit in that breath, just as the elders had received on that day in the wilderness. Others in the Old Testament had also experienced the help of God’s Spirit. The Spirit breathed on them was enough to help them learn and understand what Jesus taught them for forty days, and to patiently wait for the fulfillment of Jesus’ gift. They waited and they prayed until the right time.
While there were those in the Old Testament who were equipped with God’s Spirit to do His work, I think there is a difference between what happened in the camp of the Israelites and what happened with the Christians at Pentecost in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit rested on those who were called in the Old Testament, but Luke tells us in the passage from Acts that “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit...”
The Holy Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost, not just as a breath like they experienced seven weeks ago, or like it came upon those in the Old Testament. The Holy Spirit came into the world in a new way. They were not just kissed by the Spirit. The Spirit did not just land on them. At Pentecost they were filled with God’s Holy Spirit. They were filled. God was no longer going to work at them from the outside, pushing, leading, guiding; now He would move them from within. They would not just learn God’s Word in their heads, it would be written on their hearts. The words they spoke, though in their own voice, would be God’s Word as He spoke through them. At Pentecost the hope of Moses was fulfilled.
Why were the people in Jerusalem? The Jewish people celebrated the Feast of Weeks fifty days after Passover; this festival was also known as Shavuot or Pentecost. This was a festival of joyful thanksgiving to God for blessing the harvest. They gave offerings from the first fruits of their work. Pentecost was also a time to remember the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. Just as the people stopped briefly between their exodus out of Egypt and their journey to Canaan at the foot of the mountain, so too the people stopped briefly during the year to thank God for His blessings and to hear once again the words given to them on the mountain. The giving of the Law occurred fifty days after the Passover in Egypt, so it occurred fifty days later in the yearly calendar. The reading of the Law was an important part of this festival.
The word Pentecost means “fifty days.” Jesus was crucified during the celebration of Passover, taken to the cross as the perfect Lamb of God. It is no surprise then that the Holy Spirit would come upon the disciples fifty days later while the city was filled with people attending the Feast of Pentecost. On the first Pentecost, the people of Israel were given God’s law. On the first Christian Pentecost, the people were given the Holy Spirit, along with God’s power and authority. God’s Word was written on their hearts instead of tablets of stone.
The Old was great. The New is greater.
Jews from all over the known world were in Jerusalem for the Pentecost celebration. They brought with them offerings of wheat, figs, olives and grapes to praise God for His goodness. I imagine it was an exciting time, but also a confusing time. After all, though they were Jews, they lived in foreign lands and knew foreign tongues. They may have been familiar with Hebrew from the scriptures, but Hebrew was not the commonly spoken language of the day.
Some of the listeners were perplexed, others were amazed, and some just thought it was drunkenness. Peter stood up before the people and explained that this was the fulfillment of the hope of Moses, the promise given through the prophet Joel that the Spirit would come upon all people and they would do amazing things. Certainly, the fact that people from all over the world could hear the message in their own language was a most miraculous thing, especially since most of the disciples were uneducated laborers who probably knew Aramaic fluently, enough Hebrew for worship, and perhaps just enough Greek necessary for business. Those disciples barely even understood the message they were giving with their own tongues! But Jesus sent the helper, the Spirit of God who gave voice to what they knew to be true in their hearts and the words to make it understandable to others.
The Jews had other festivals during the year, including Sukkoth or the Festival of Booths. This was another harvest festival, but while Shavuot celebrated the first fruits in the spring, Sukkoth was in the fall and the people thanked God for His abundant generosity at the harvest. The adherents built small booths, or tabernacles, to represent God’s protection. They lived and ate in the booths for seven days.
Today’s Gospel lesson took place on the seventh day of Sukkoth. Jesus was watching a ritual during which great quantities of water were poured over the altar. The water ran off of the altar, onto the floor and it flowed out of the temple into the valley below. This was not originally part of the festival designated by God, it was a pagan ritual that the people had adopted so that they might feel assured of God’s provision and blessing on their winter planting. It was not an act of faith or obedience; they acted as if they thought God did not know they needed water to live.
Jesus saw this ritual and cried out, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink!” When we drink of the water that comes from God, by His Holy Spirit, living water will wash through our lives into the world. The promised Spirit came to the disciples at Pentecost; He comes to us at baptism and continues to come to us as we live our lives of faith. The Spirit does not come for our own assurance or benefit, but so that the living water of Christ might flow into the world. We use our gifts to share the message which Christ came to give: forgiveness. He sent the disciples, and so now sends us, to take that message into the world so that the world might be saved.
As we look at the motley crew of disciples that Jesus called, we know that He didn’t choose people who were equipped to continue His work. Peter, Andrew, James and John were fishermen. Others may have been fishermen, too, although we don’t know the occupation of all the disciples before they met Jesus. Matthew was a tax collector. Simon was a Zealot and possibly a warrior, passionate about defeating the Romans. Judas may not have been a criminal, but he certainly had scandalous intentions. They weren’t schooled in religious teachings, although I am sure that they all had learned enough at the feet of their mothers and in the temple or synagogues. They weren’t trained to be preachers or teachers. They probably knew as much about the scriptures as the average Christian knows today. They were no different than you and I.
Yet, they were called to do great things! I doubt any of them could have imagined where their lives would lead after meeting Jesus Christ. We may never accomplish as much as those disciples. Very few of us will be involved in the establishment of new churches. I don’t think many of us will ever say that we’ve been the hands through which God healed someone who is sick or raised someone through the dead. Most of us don’t even think we can speak well enough to share the Good News with our neighbors. The scriptures tell us the disciples did all those things. The church grew in number and geographically. People were healed and raised. God changed the world through that motley crew of people.
There is a popular saying among Christians, “God doesn’t call the equipped, He equips the called.” The origin of this saying is unknown, or rather, it has been credited to several different people. There are certainly scripture texts that suggest this very thought. It means that God will provide whatever you need to do His work. Sadly, many people think they are unqualified to be witnesses for Jesus Christ, to be His servants, to share His Gospel. There seems to be people who are more able to preach or teach or serve. They are. But that doesn’t mean that God has called each of us to do His work. We, too, receive the gifts necessary for whatever opportunity God will send our way. We are all unqualified by our own power or gifts. It is God’s power and His gifts that make us His witnesses in the world in word and in deed.
Though we were not there on that Pentecost nearly two thousand years ago, and we’ll never get to “investigate the event in contemporary time” we benefit from the experience as much as they did. The Holy Spirit fell for all Christians as a promise of God’s continuing ministry with and through us today. We won’t see flames of fire or hear the chaotic symphony of all those voices, but we have been given the same Spirit and gifts they received.
Ultimately, Pentecost is about God establishing a new, more intimate relationship with His people. His Spirit would no longer rest upon specific people who are called to do specific works. Now He fills all His people to restore us to Himself and make us inheritors of His Kingdom, calling us to use our gifts to share the Gospel with the world. God confused the language at Babel, but when we receive the Holy Spirit we are taught the eternal language that saves.
The psalmist lists his hope for a relationship with the divine. He does not want to be put to shame. He does not want his enemies to triumph over him. He believes that those who trust in God will never be put to shame, but the treacherous enemies will. The psalmist hopes that God will show His ways and teach His paths to those who believe. He wants to be guided in truth and to be taught by the only one in whom we can have hope. He hopes God will remember His mercy and love. He hopes God will forget his sin. “Remember me according to your loving kindness, for your goodness’ sake, Yahweh.” His hope is based entirely on God’s goodness. The psalmist goes on to describe the reason we can trust in God. God is good and upright. He instructs, guides and teaches His people in the right way. His way is loving and faithful. He takes care of those who live according to His Word.
Jesus said that if we believe in Him, He would give us living water that will flow from our lives. We are filled with the Holy Spirit, to live and work to God’s glory. As believers, we live in Christ, baptized into His body. We are joined with other believers by the power of the Holy Spirit as He moves in our lives. God has blessed us so that the living water will flow through us into the world. Our Father gives us the greatest gift when we believe in our Lord Jesus Christ. He has given us His Spirit so that we can join in the work of sharing His mercy and grace. The Living Water flows from us so that others will be able to drink from the fountain of life.
Will it be easy? Of course not. The disciples learned immediately that there would always be someone unwilling to believe that God is at work. They will blame and accuse; they will harass and threaten. Some Christians will even die at the hands of those who want to degrade and shame God’s people. But we know that even if we do face the terror of persecution, God is on our side. He will not let us be shamed; He will be faithful to all His promises. He’ll guide us, teach us, and encourage us. He will give us the power and strength. He will give us the words. He does all this from within, dwelling in our hearts as His Living water flows from us into the world. And in that day when we no longer live in this world, whether we die by natural causes or at the hand of an enemy, God will be waiting to take us into eternity to live with Him forever. Our death will not be our shame; it will be our greatest moment of glory.
Today we recall the Pentecost when the church was born, how by His Spirit the body of Christ is manifest in this world. Ever since that day in Jerusalem, Jesus has continued to give the Holy Spirit to those who believe so that we too might have the voice to speak and the words that will bring salvation to others. In the beginning, there was some confusion. Some even thought they were drunk. Things are not much different, for there are many who consider Christians nothing more than silly storytellers. And yet, Jesus has promised that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Every day people hear the message that we take into the world and miraculously, some believe. The miracle is not in our ability or in our words, but in the Holy Spirit who gives faith to those who hear with a humble heart.
“My son, attend to my words. Turn your ear to my sayings. Let them not depart from your eyes. Keep them in the center of your heart. For they are life to those who find them, and health to their whole body. Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it is the wellspring of life. Put away from yourself a perverse mouth. Put corrupt lips far from you. Let your eyes look straight ahead. Fix your gaze directly before you. Make the path of your feet level. Let all of your ways be established. Don’t turn to the right hand nor to the left. Remove your foot from evil.” Proverbs 4:20-27, WEB
I have had to learn how to breathe. I know that sounds odd; breathing comes naturally. It is an involuntary action that is controlled by our brains. We rarely even think about breathing, except for the times when we are out of breath or sick. We simply breathe in and breathe out without a thought most of the time. There are two times these days when I think about my breathing: when I am taking my walk and when I am wearing my mask.
I’m not a couch potato, but I admit that I don’t exercise nearly enough. I have not specifically set time aside for the gym, but I do what I can during my day to move, like parking far from the grocery store entrance. My daily or near daily shopping trips came to a halt a couple months ago; that is why I started with the daily walks around my neighborhood. While I wish I were losing weight, I was mostly determined that I would come out of the lockdown without the Corona+15. We have all changed the way we live, some for good and others not, and we can come out of it healthier or not. I think I am healthier, though I still have a ways to go.
It was tough to start those daily walks. Muscles ached, my breathing was heavy. We live in a very hilly neighborhood; there is no way to walk any distance without going down and up some steep hills. I struggled with pain in my hip and back, and though I pushed on, I confess that I often thought that I should stop out of fear that I was damaging something. I did some internet research (not always a good idea because you inevitably discover you are dying from some rare disease) and discovered that if I paid attention to the way I walked and breathed, I would not feel that pain. The research proved true. Every day I have to think about the way I step. I have to pay attention to my breathing: in the nose, out the mouth. It worked.
As for the masks; I needed to learn to wear those, too. I wear glasses, so I often had the problem of my glasses fogging up. The first few trips to the grocery store were difficult because I couldn’t see through the fog to pick my items. I ended up putting my glasses on my head, and though everything was a little blurry, at least I could see. I went to the Internet again and discovered the same breathing pattern as I was using for my walk would help. The slight change is that when I breathe out of my mouth, I do it with fish lips. That focuses the breath away from the lenses and keeps me from fogging.
Now I pay a lot of attention to my breathing when I walk and when I wear a mask. When I stop thinking about it and return to the involuntary action, I feel the pain and I experience the fogging. So I remind myself regularly to breathe in, breathe out. I think about each breath. It seems so silly sometimes because breathing is such a natural thing. I suppose as I continue to practice good breathing (hopefully I will not need to do the mask for very long!) it will become a habit that I don’t need to think about as much.
Did you know that our brains are hardwired to believe in God? There is even a scientific field called neurotheology which studies how the brain processes religion and spirituality. Though religions are very different, there is much in the way we practice our religious and spiritual beliefs that is the same. The science is fairly new and there is much disagreement in the field, it is seemingly true that the human brain tends toward belief. The most difficult part of proving this is that spirituality is impossible to quantify, yet some have suggested that there is parts of our brain that are like “God neurotransmitters.”
Even if we are hardwired to believe in God, and in Christian faith we know that faith is a gift from God, living a faithful and faith-filled life is not something that comes naturally. Like proper breathing, we need to think about our spirituality. Prayer, I’ve noticed, comes somewhat naturally when we are in distress. We don’t think about it, we just cry out to God and hope He hears. Yet, a real, life-changing relationship with God takes more than involuntary actions. Just like learning to breathe, we have to learn to live purposefully, thinking about God constantly, training ourselves to be the people God has called and gifted us to be. When we don’t, like when I don’t breathe properly, we experience struggles and pain.
Notice that the lesson in today’s proverb shows a very active life focused on living according to God’s Word. In verse 4 the father says, “Let your heart retain my words. Keep my commandments, and live.” The heart was considered the center of a person’s being. While we know that the heart is important, we know that it is the brain that controls the voluntary and involuntary actions of a body. We need to think about what we are doing. We need to pay attention to the world around us. We need to make a conscious decision to do what is good and right and true. God has hardwired us for belief, and given us faith, but He calls us to actively live according to His Word, to be what He intends us to be.
“An argument arose among them about which of them was the greatest. Jesus, perceiving the reasoning of their hearts, took a little child, and set him by his side, and said to them, ‘Whoever receives this little child in my name receives me. Whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For whoever is least among you all, this one will be great.’” Luke 9:36-38, WEB
I walk the same path through my neighborhood most days. I confess that it is “the easy route,” more than half a mile up and down hills, though not as steep as some other routes. Sometimes I add an extra block with the down and up of a harder hill, making my walk a little over a mile. There are other routes I sometimes take, but I’ve been avoiding them recently because of construction on the sidewalks. I make the decision each day, depending on the weather and how I am feeling that day.
I took a different route every day in the beginning, looking for different scenery. I wanted to keep my walk exciting. I even took my camera a few days and took photos of flower gardens and interesting patterns in my neighbor’s yards. I was missing my wildflower adventures, so I took the opportunity to look at my neighborhood in a new way. We’ve lived in this neighborhood for eight years and I have to admit that I’ve only really looked at most of my neighbor’s homes as I drove by on my way to somewhere else.
You notice big changes through the car windows when you are rushing by, but you don’t notice the little things. During my walks over the past ten or so week, I’ve seen wildflowers come and go, cacti bloom, squirrels play, and geckoes scurrying on palm bushes. I even saw a hawk with its lunch in its talons the other day. I wondered if my walk would get boring if I took the same route day after day, but it hasn’t because I’ve looked for the little changes daily. Today I saw a bunch of rain lilies that appeared after the thunderstorms we’ve had over the past few days. I would never have noticed them from my car, but I delighted in the. They brought a smile to my face. And I’ve realized that the little things really do matter.
Jesus noticed the little things. It is said that children should be seen and not heard, but children are often not even seen. They have no value in too many societies, so they don’t matter until they are grown. Only about half the children born in Jesus’ day even made it to puberty. Though children are always important for the promulgation of society, they weren’t given personhood until majority. In a society that separated men from women, the children were given free reign of the home, moving between the men and the women. While we might think that raises their importance, it actually shows that the adults didn’t pay attention to them.
Jesus paid attention. He saw the little children and He valued them. He saw in their faith an example we should all imitate. He stopped teaching to bless them. He touched them and loved them. In today’s story, Jesus heard the disciples arguing about how was the biggest and best, and He put a small children into the center of the group and told the disciples that if they want to be great, then they should pay attention to the least of God’s people. “Don’t ignore the little ones, for in them will be found God’s grace.” Then He took the lesson a step further by telling the disciples they should not try to be the biggest and best, but they should be like the little children. Whenever we feel like we don’t matter, we can remember that God sees us like a wildflower and He delights in each of us. We bring a smile to His face. And He has called us to be living examples of faith, willingly living as one who is the least so that He can make us great.