Welcome to the May 2021 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the World English Bible which belong to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, May 2021
“When the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning Yahweh’s name, she came to test him with hard questions. She came to Jerusalem with a very great caravan, with camels that bore spices, very much gold, and precious stones; and when she had come to Solomon, she talked with him about all that was in her heart. Solomon answered all her questions. There wasn’t anything hidden from the king which he didn’t tell her.” 1 Kings 10:1-3, WEB
People learn by asking questions, and every parent knows the truth of this. Some phases are more difficult on parents than others. How many of us had had to endure the series of “Why...” questions that never seems to come to an end. It doesn’t help that many of those questions do not have easy answers, so the children keep seeking so that they will understand. We do what we can to find answers for them, but by the time we do, the children has moved on to new, more difficult questions.
Mature Christians are also faced with difficult questions, from believers and non-believers. I’m often asked questions that do not have an easy answer. Why is there suffering in the world? How could God sit back and watch His Son die? What does heaven look like? Why are there so many different Christian ideas, when there is just one Truth? These are all tough questions. We try to answer them the best we can, but the answers often bring up more questions. We would rather avoid these questions than face more puzzling answers.
King Solomon asked God for wisdom. God was pleased with Solomon’s request and granted him far more than just wisdom, also wealth and fame. Stories of Solomon traveled the world. The queen of Sheba heard these stories and traveled many miles to see and hear the truth with her own eyes. Her search for wisdom and his willingness to answer the questions benefited both in many ways as the king and queen gave much of their wealth to each other.
There is a deutero-canonical writing called “The Wisdom of Solomon.” Despite the name, it was probably not written by Solomon. Experts suggest that it was written by a Greek-speaking Jew to young Jews who were turning away from God and their Jewish heritage toward the culture of the day. The wisdom found within could very well be wisdom that Solomon shared with Sheba during her time with him. The writer describes Wisdom in this way, “I learned both what is secret and what is manifest, for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me. There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle.” (Wisdom 7:21-22, NRSV)
We can learn from Solomon and Sheba who willingly asked the tough questions and sought wisdom because they knew that it was the foundation of a good life and was worth pursuing. The characteristics in that quote from wisdom are all values that we should strive to attain. Solomon, unfortunately, eventually fell from the truth. He allowed the worship of false gods to pollute his kingdom and his life. He did not remain steadfast in his faith in God. He became vulnerable to the temptations of the world and failed to hold on to the wisdom God had gifted to him. It is difficult for us to manifest it all in our lives because we, like Solomon, are sinners in need of God’s grace. Our best prayer is to ask God for wisdom like Solomon did in the beginning of his reign. He can, and will, make us wise so that we can seek and share the answers to the tough questions of our faith.
“Paul and Timothy, servants of Jesus Christ; To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and servants: Grace to you, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God whenever I remember you, always in every request of mine on behalf of you all, making my requests with joy, for your partnership in furtherance of the Good News from the first day until now; being confident of this very thing, that he who began a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ. It is even right for me to think this way on behalf of all of you, because I have you in my heart, because both in my bonds and in the defense and confirmation of the Good News, you all are partakers with me of grace. For God is my witness, how I long after all of you in the tender mercies of Christ Jesus.” Philippians 1:1-8, WEB
I was making breakfast this morning. We had a leftover baked potato and bacon, from dinner last night, so I mixed them with eggs and cheese. I thought of my dad as I was peeling and dicing that potato. That might seem like a very odd trigger, but the potato reminded me of a day I helped my dad work at a charity breakfast. My dad loved to cook breakfast. A few days ago I mentioned to my husband that my dad would have loved living at this time because I am sure he would have bought a food truck to serve breakfast. He always wanted a small café that he could open for a few hours a day to serve eggs and bacon to appreciative desks. I remembered that day as I cooked breakfast this morning; I remembered watching my dad at the grill as I peeled potatoes.
I have been reorganizing my house, cleaning drawers and purging bookshelves. I have filled seven boxes and two bags with items I plan to take to the charity shop. It isn’t an easy process. I have held, and moved, and considered some items several times. I had a small box of knick knacks that I wanted to keep but couldn’t find a place to put them. These items had sentimental value; they reminded me of someone I love. I couldn’t just get rid of them, but I didn’t need to keep them. But I keep asking myself, “Do I need to keep that volunteer plaque from 1998?” As hard as it is, some of those items have ended up in the giveaway box. I don’t need them to remember, especially if a simple task like peeling potatoes can bring such vivid memories for me.
What reminds you of people you love? What brings to mind someone you have lost? What causes you to get lost in memories? I may have put a few items in the giveaway box, but I’ve kept many, too. Places I visit remind me of trips with my family. Certain smells take me back to my mother’s kitchen. Music makes me think of Friday night football games or summers by the swimming pool with my friends. Most of those memories give me a moment of joy, then I move on to doing whatever it was that took me to that place, but memories can also spur us to action.
One of the things I loved most about that memory of my dad is that it was from a time when we worked together for the sake of others. It was not only something my dad loved to do, but it was one way my dad served his neighbor. It made me wonder about the opportunities I have to follow his example. It brought me joy to see my dad in that light. My dad was a quiet servant; he never made a big deal about the work he was doing. I don’t even recall whether he ever got a volunteer plaque for the work he did.
Yet, that moment reminded me of what a caring, active man he was. These moments remind us to be thankful for the people, both past and present, that God has made part of our lives to serve as examples, encouragement, and sources of joy. Despite time and distance, even death, God gives us these reminders to let us know we aren’t in this alone; we share the work of God’s kingdom and His grace with others yesterday, today, and forever.
Scriptures for May 9, 2021, Sixth Sunday of Easter: Acts 10:34-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-8; John 15:9-17
“This is my commandment, that you love one another, even as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:12-13, WEB
I loved when my children were small enough to sit in the shopping cart at the grocery store. It was a time of interaction with my child; I took the opportunity to talk to them, to teach them about food and groceries. We laughed together and made choices together. It makes me sad when I see children in shopping carts with their noses glued to a smart phone watching a video. Sure, Mom is able to concentrate on the shopping. Too many of us are so busy that we can’t wander the aisles and enjoy the company of our children. I am sure those moments had a lasting impact on my children’s growth and created a lasting bond between us.
I don’t recall the same kind of interactions with my own mother, but I do remember the many times and ways that she made my life better. It seems hard to believe that she has been gone for more than two decades, but I am still so thankful for her. I went to a craft retreat a couple weekends ago, and my big project was to finally put together a charm bracelet that she began for me. When I was little we often traveled by car to visit her brothers in Kansas and Colorado. Along the way we stopped in Stuckey’s and she bought me enameled state charms. I continued to buy the states I visited, and during my recent cleaning spree I rediscovered the unfinished bracelet. I purchased everything I needed, including a bunch of states I had not yet purchased that I found on e-bay (they are difficult to find anywhere else.)
It was a tough job; those split rings are difficult to work with my old, less than nimble fingers. But it was a joy to do, and now when I show others my bracelet, I always begin with the story of how my mom started the bracelet for me. I think of her whenever I look at those charms and I remember our trips. We had some interesting adventures over the years. I miss her and I am very thankful for everything she did for me.
Sunday is Mother’s Day in the United States. Some have suggested that the American Mother’s Day was first started in the late 1800’s by Julia Ward Howe, the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” She intended the day to be one to promote peace. Mothers were encouraged to gather at an organized meeting in Boston Massachusetts each year. In 1872 she asked for June 2nd to be identified as “Mother’s Day for Peace,” but her campaign was unsuccessful. By 1893 she considered transforming July 4th into “Mother’s Day.” In 1908, Anne Jarvis held a memorial service for her own mother and then campaigned to make Mother’s Day a nationally recognized holiday. By 1911, it was being celebrated all over the U.S. President Woodrow Wilson made it a national holiday in 1914. Anne Jarvis was disappointed that only a few years later the day was already becoming over-commercialized; she intended for the day to be faith-based and include attendance at a special worship.
The focus is a little different in England. While it, too, has become secularized, Mothering Sunday was celebrated on the fourth Sunday of Lent and was a day when Christians visited their home church or “Mother church.” The parishioners gathered together at a special service at a central church that connected local parishes. Domestic servants were given the day off so that they could go to church with their own families. It was not necessarily a day to honor each person’s mother, but rather to celebrate the body of Christ and our “mother” the church.
Mother’s Day has definitely become a secular event with children sending gifts and cards. The flower industry makes 25% of yearly sales during Mother’s Day. Mother’s Day is the most popular day for making telephone calls worldwide. Churches will likely be more full than usual, as children honor their mothers by attending worship with her. The focus will still be more about brunch and presence; worship is not really the purpose of the gathering as it was when Anne Jarvis meant it to be when she campaigned to make it a holiday.
It is good to honor our mothers because her job is never easy. After nine months of carrying another human being in her womb, a woman goes through intense pain so that child will be born into the world. That pain is forgotten as a mother takes her child in her arms and immediately shows her love and care for that little person. The child is completely helpless in the early days. While she often has help, the mother does most of the work changing diapers, carrying, feeding, and bathing the child, loving him or her from sun-up to sun-down. As time goes on they learn to do things on their own, but Mother must continue to care for their needs until they become independent adults. Even then a mother’s job is not complete. I still worry about my children, though both have their own homes. A mother always loves her babies and continues to pray for them.
Mothers not only provide for the physical needs of a child, but also the intellectual and emotional needs. From the day of birth, mothers talk to their children, holding them close and whispering love and encouragement through the tears, fears and hurts. Mothers sing songs, such as the Alphabet Song, that help her children in language development. Mothers provide opportunities throughout their toddler and school age years for continued learning and growth. That’s why those moments in the grocery cart were so important to me.
Mothers also provide for the spiritual welfare of their children. Christian mothers promise to provide every opportunity for their children to hear the stories of Jesus. They take the children to Sunday school, Vacation Bible School and worship; they give them copies of the Bible so that they can read and study it on their own. Mothers teach the children the Lord’s Prayer and other ways to speak to God. Mothers teach them the ways of living faith, so that they will be obedient to God our Father in Jesus’ name.
Mothers suffer many things. They suffer through the pain of childbirth, the rambunctious toddler years, the preteen years when children begin to grasp their own independence and the teenage years that provide their own difficulties. Mothers do their best to raise the children in the ways of Christ, pray for them and hope that they will continue to walk in those ways. Children always rebel in some way and they will even reject their mothers sometimes, but the seeds of faith that were planted in the hearts of our children will grow into lives of grace, thanks to the endless sacrifices of our mothers.
A mother lays down her life for her children. They set aside their own hopes and aspirations, at least for a time, as they love their children into the people God has created them to be. Oh, mothers aren’t perfect, and there are many mothers who do not sacrifice everything for the children’s sake. However, all mothers make sacrifices of some sort or another. Even if they are struggling to pay the bills they make sure their children are fed. They have sleepless nights as they worry about a sick child. They clean up the messes left behind by children of every age. They cry the first time their child says, “I hate you,” and they forgive when the child has done something to disappoint.
Mothers lay down their lives for the sake of their children because of love. They sacrifice and suffer to provide everything a child needs and even a few things they don’t. In this way mothers are like Christ.
The Gospel lesson for today is from the final discourse from Jesus on the night before He was betrayed. Jesus offered the final lessons, the final encouragement, the final words of hope that were meant to help the disciples through the three days between His crucifixion and resurrection. They were about to lose Him; they would be scattered, confused and afraid. Jesus warned and commanded them to abide in His love. They were about to experience sadness beyond anything they ever knew or expected, but Jesus told them to be filled with His joy. The sacrifice was necessary and the suffering real, but it was the moment when God revealed to us His deep love and invited us to truly abide in Him.
The apostles continued to live as Jesus lived, sacrificing themselves for the sake of the Gospel. It was a sacrifice for Peter to go to the house of the Gentile centurion named Cornelius. It was a sacrifice for him to go in to a room filled with Gentiles and to speak a message he thought had been given solely to the Jewish people. It was a sacrifice for the community to welcome these new believers into their midst, knowing that their whole world would be turned upside down. Peter decided to be obedient and take the risk. He decided to follow God’s vision for the Gospel.
The Jews had such firm beliefs about how things must be done and who might be allowed into their fellowship that this event at Cornelius’ house must have rattled their understanding of faith. It was a sacrifice for him to risk becoming unclean to share the Gospel message with that family. The Jews weren’t allowed to eat with Gentiles, but in giving the Holy Spirit, God broke down a wall that Peter could never rebuild. When Peter saw what happened in Cornelius’ house, he asked, “Can anyone forbid these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just like us.” We might want to forbid someone from coming into our fellowship, but if God welcomes them, how can we say “No”?
Peter said, “God has offered forgiveness and mercy and grace to these Gentiles, who are we to suggest they can’t be part of our group?” So, he called the gathering to join in the celebration of baptism, to welcome them into the fellowship of believers.
We may have very good reason to keep people out of our midst. At least they seem like good reasons to us. The community that gathers for the craft retreat is extremely diverse. There are women of every age, from young mothers to great-grandmothers. Some come from the city and others from rural areas. We have a wide range of political opinions and religious understanding. Some are extremely talented at their craft and others claim they don’t have a creative bone in their bodies. If we are honest, we’ll admit that we don’t always like everyone. Yet, we all love Jesus and that is enough for us to love each other. We must sometimes sacrifice certain aspects of our own lives, hopes, ideologies, understandings, so that we can follow Jesus and do His work.
It is frightening to take the risk. But fear is not the way to life. Love is.
There is a museum in Xi’an, a city in central China which displays an army of terra-cotta warriors created to guard the tomb of China’s first Emperor. These 7500 amazing life-size clay statues are being carefully exhumed and restored for modern archeologists to study and people to see.
The ruler was Qin Shi Huangdi. He began his life as a ruler in China when he was just thirteen. He was a warlord who fought against other warlords for twenty-five years, taking control of more and more men until he had an army of over a million. He dominated the people, using violence to gain power over his enemies until he was the most powerful man in the land. He then took on the name Qin Shi Huangdi, which means “First Divine Emperor in China.” He was in some ways a good ruler. He unified China, built the great wall, and developed a capital city with excellent infrastructure. He was so confident about his power and position that he claimed his dynasty would last ten thousand years.
Qin Shi Huangdi was afraid of death. He built hundreds of palaces that were connected by underground tunnels. He slept in a different palace each night to avoid assassination. He even refused to die a normal physical death; he sent his wise men to locate the fountain of youth so he could live forever. They didn’t find it, of course.
The Emperor accomplished great things, but he did it with excessive cruelty. He slaughtered people and destroyed the treasures of their culture. One day, the prime minister conspired with others and the Emperor was assassinated when he was just forty-one years old. The conspirators sent a forged letter to his only son and convinced him to commit suicide. Instead of lasting ten thousand years, his legacy was the shortest dynasty in China’s history.
Qin Shi Huangdi lived in fear, for though he was a very powerful man he did not know grace, mercy or love. He knew only his desire to live forever and treated his people as if they were only the means by which he would get what he wanted. He was the exact opposite of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, which we see revealed in Jesus Christ. Jesus came not to gain power, but to bring forgiveness. He came not to build a kingdom through violence, but to unify people by the Word of God. He came to give us the love of God so that we can live in that love and share it with others. He did not fear death, but laid down His life for our sake.
The terra-cotta warriors stand as a testament to the life of the first man to unify China and who brought good things to the people of that great land. It is also a testament to how human desires and accomplishments pass away quickly. The dynasty of Qin Shi Huangdi lasted less than a lifetime because the emperor did not know the power of love; he only knew the power of the sword. He came to an end just as he brought the end to many. But the kingdom of God is eternal; He reigns here and now and in the future, because it is built on love and mercy. Our Lord Jesus grants salvation freely to those who believe in His name. Through Him we are heirs to a kingdom that is built to last, to endure even longer than ten thousand years. It is in that kingdom we are called to live and join in the psalmist’s songs of praise. We are the warriors that stand as a testament to His grace.
Today’s psalm tells us about the good things God has done: how God has won the victory over Israel’s oppressors and how He has saved them from exile. The psalmist sings about God’s faithfulness and His love for His people that is lasting. Telling others about the great things God has done is just one of the many ways we can sing His praise. The psalmist tells us other ways. We can sing a new song. We can sing praises with a harp. We can sound trumpets. The creation even gets involved with the heavens and earth joining in the noise of praise. The sea roars, the floods clap their hands, the hills sing.
We are commanded to love, and there are many times when this is very difficult. We struggle when people don’t fit our expectations or when they disappoint us. We wonder how we will ever obey. It is in faith that we abide in the love of Christ, obeying His command to love one another with a sacrificial love while bearing fruit that will last. Faith and community are connected. Christ loved us, chose us and calls us friends so that we will obey His command to love each other. In love He has made us part of a body, calling us to love that body. We love because He first loved us. As we love one another, we will see the fruit God calls us to bear, the fruit that is the witness to our love for God.
The love we give is to be like Christ’s love: sacrificial. Sacrifice means giving up something, perhaps even something we love. Many mothers give up careers so that they can give as much time as is necessary to raise their babies. Sacrifice means changing our lives. Peter’s sacrifice was to be disobedient to a religious law which defined his faithfulness. He risked losing everything by stepping out of his world into another because he loved God. What he found was joy, because the Word he shared with the Gentiles bore lasting fruit.
Sacrifice means letting go of one’s own self for the sake of another. It means hearing the call of God and following, even when God’s call sounds different than you expect. It means loving God’s kids even when they do not stand up to your expectations. It means facing change for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus even when change will rattle your whole world. Jesus chose you as His friend and He has appointed you to go and bear fruit. Sometimes that means entering into a world that is beyond our understanding and outside our expectations. We are afraid of what we might find, but when we step out in faith and in the love of Christ we will find joy. Abiding in God’s love is a life of joy, even when it means sacrifice.
The passages from John’s Gospel and Epistle use the words “obey” and “command” several times. It is so easy from our human perspective to embrace those words while missing the true message of these lessons. We like to know that we have done something good, that we’ve had an impact on the people of this world by our power and ability. We are quick to list our good deeds before men as proof of our love for God. We even point to these passages and say, “See, this is how God told us to live!” That’s the way it was for the Jews in Jesus’ day. If they lived according to the Law, if they were good enough, gave enough, did enough, then they would be children of God. The trouble is no one is able to carry this heavy burden. Those who thought they could be God’s by their own works were blind to their own sin, hiding behind a facade of self-righteousness and justification by excuse. They pointed their fingers at others while denying their own inability to live rightly before God. They saw themselves as greater than the others and had no mercy on those they deemed as sinners. But God turned things around. He sent Jesus to reveal to the world the truth of His love which is found only in His grace.
Isn’t it interesting how much like God’s love is a mother’s love? She loves her child even before he or she is born. She willingly does the messiest things to make sure that the completely helpless being is safe and clean and happy. She sacrifices aspects of her life for the sake of her little one. A mother doesn’t love because the child does something for her; the child is completely incapable of doing anything. God does not love us because we have done good things or because we have lived according to a set of rules. He loves us and because He does, we can love Him back and be the vessels by which He reveals His love to others.
That’s exactly what happened in the lesson from Acts. Peter was telling a gathering of people at Cornelius’ house about Jesus and His ministry in this world. He told them about Jesus’ death and resurrection, His appearance to a select group of witnesses, His command to preach the Gospel and to testify that He is the Christ. These people were not Jews, they were Gentiles, yet God's love reached them also as the Holy Spirit fell upon them at the hearing of those words about God's grace. The Jews were amazed that they could become children of God. Those who were there were baptized into the Church of Christ and became part of the Kingdom of God.
John tells us in his first epistle how we can know that we are children of God. When we are born of God, we become His child. What happens for those who are born of God? We overcome the world. What does this mean? Last week we heard that the only way to bear fruit is to be connected to Jesus, who is the vine. We are part of Him by faith and as such He bears His fruit through us. That fruit is salvation, forgiveness of sin and reconciliation to God achieved by the blood of Christ Jesus. We overcome that which burdens us such as the desire to earn grace by good works and perfection, and we are given the victory through faith in Jesus Christ. In Him we are made perfect, justified by His grace, and called to remain in His love.
It is only after God has given us that great gift of salvation that we become His children, and as such we show the world His righteousness by our right living. It is only then that we can carry out His commands. What is it that He commands? He commands us to love one another. In faith, we love as God first loved us, a sacrificial love, willing to give everything we are for the sake of another. Peter did this in the home of Cornelius, first of all entering into the home of a Gentile which was against the Law of the Jews. He spoke to them about Jesus, which must have seemed like a waste of time to the circumcised believers because how could they believe if they had not been obedient to God’s Law?
Yet, God gave them the same gift of faith in Jesus Christ, salvation and the Holy Spirit. They became part of the vine, part of the Kingdom, part of the body of Christ. They have been embraced by His love and become part of the circle of friends of Jesus, who by His power will love others into the Kingdom. God also embraces those who do not fit our own understand and expectations of faith, and He calls us to be like Peter, to take the risk to be obedient to His command and share the Gospel with the very people we do not believe deserve it. We will join with Peter and experience the joy of knowing that God’s kingdom has grown because we were willing to make the sacrifice for someone else’s sake.
“Who then is Apollos, and who is Paul, but servants through whom you believed, and each as the Lord gave to him? I planted. Apollos watered. But God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are the same, but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s farming, God’s building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another builds on it. But let each man be careful how he builds on it. For no one can lay any other foundation than that which has been laid, which is Jesus Christ.” 1 Corinthians 3:5-11, WEB
William Carey got off to a bad start in life. He was born in the mid-eighteenth century England. He was a sick child in a poor family with little education. He was a troublemaker as a youth, hanging out with the wrong crowd. Eventually he was made an apprentice to a shoemaker. John Warr was one of his coworkers and was a faithful Christian who witnessed to him daily, but William didn’t care. John convinced him to go to a church service for a national day of prayer instituted by King George III hoping for God’s help for the war against the rebellion in the New World. William agreed to go.
The preacher gave a rousing sermon urging all to give their lives to Christ. The message spoke into William’s heart and he was converted to the Christian faith. He was baptized and became active in a local Baptist church. He eventually began preaching and pastoring in nearby Baptist churches. He married, had a daughter, and worked as a cobbler for a number of years, but became increasingly interested in world travel and missionary work.
Unfortunately, William lived in an age when most Christians saw no need for missionary work. He continually brought up the subject at religious meetings, but the other pastors ignored him. The pastor that baptized William even said, “When God pleases to convert the heaven, he’ll do it without consulting you or me.” He became dismayed, but wrote a book and continued to teach the importance of Gospel evangelism. Eventually he was given the opportunity to present his ideas and he convinced the meeting to support missionary work. On October 2, 1792, the first collection of pledges for organized, home-supported Protestant missions was collected. William made plans to go to India. He ran into many difficulties, but eventually did get to India and accomplished some amazing things. He translated the Bible into six languages, wrote dictionaries and grammar books in five, founded many schools in rural India and founded a college to train ministers, which is still in operation. He introduced the idea of a savings bank, published the first Indian newspaper. His work made such a difference in the country that the ancient practice of burning widows was stopped.
Mary Drewery, who wrote a biography about William Carey, said, “The number of actual conversions attributed to him is pathetically small; the number indirectly attributable to him must be legion.” William’s work began an era of missionary work in the church, as many Christians went to foreign lands to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Many of those missionaries impacted the world in which they went to live, bringing hope to the people in both spiritual and temporal ways. He may not have converted many people, but through his life God changed the world as he built on the foundation of Jesus Christ. We, too, are called to go out into all the world to share the Gospel with those who need to know His love and forgiveness.
It is interesting that William Carey came to faith in Jesus Christ because of a National Day of Prayer. Of course, George the III was praying for obedience from his wayward subjects here in the colonies, and those wayward subjects were praying for their own idea of peace. But whatever God’s intent was for those prayers, one man truly heard the Gospel and his faith impacted the world. The same thing could be true during any days of prayer in any nation.
I sometimes think that we are in a similar time as William Carey. His faith eventually led him to India, but our own faith doesn’t have to take us so far afield. Our neighbors need to hear the Gospel, too, though too many Christians think like William’s baptismal pastor. “If God wants them to be a Christian, He’ll make it happen without us.” That might be true, but we are called and gifted to share the Gospel with the world. When the Gospel is shared, God does incredible things in people’s hearts. They need to hear the Word to believe, and once they believe they may feel called to do incredible things. The thing we must remember, however, is that it all begins with prayer.
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. Unfortunately, I haven’t heard about many opportunities for prayer together. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t have even remembered it was today without someone asking if our church was doing something. Our pastor joined others from the small town where we are located and are doing prayers regularly on the radio. There are probably gatherings in some places, but nothing so big as to make the news. We need prayer right now, not only for health and peace, but for a sense of normalcy, whatever that means.
Find time today to join with your brothers and sisters in Christ to ask God for His blessings on His creation.That prayer might lead someone into a relationship with Jesus Christ. That prayer might lead someone into a life of evangelism. That prayer might lead someone toward a vocation that will make a very real difference in our world today, doing something to make the world right side up again. Even as you are praying for the usual things on the Day of Prayer, remember to pray for those who do not yet know Jesus. Invite them into your life. Missionary work is not just overseas, it is in our own backyard.
I don’t know what will happen at the end of this day of prayer, especially since so few even know it is happening, but perhaps today might just be the beginning of a long outpouring of prayer to our Lord God Almighty in Jesus’ name. And perhaps that prayer will be the beginning of the changes in individual lives, in our national life, and around the globe that are necessary to make all things right in our world. It will only be right when it is built on the foundation that is Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
“Praise Yah! I will give thanks to Yahweh with my whole heart, in the council of the upright, and in the congregation. Yahweh’s works are great, pondered by all those who delight in them. His work is honor and majesty. His righteousness endures forever. He has caused his wonderful works to be remembered. Yahweh is gracious and merciful. He has given food to those who fear him. He always remembers his covenant. He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations. The works of his hands are truth and justice. All his precepts are sure. They are established forever and ever. They are done in truth and uprightness. He has sent redemption to his people. He has ordained his covenant forever. His name is holy and awesome! The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom. All those who do his work have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!” Psalm 111, WEB
My husband was stationed in England for four years. It was a wonderful experience, but difficult in some ways. Worst of all, my mother was not well, and I was too far from home to be with her in her final days. I did visit a couple months before she died. My father was having surgery, and she wanted me to be home with her to help care for her during his absence. I was surprised at how well she seemed and even more surprised how quickly she was moved into a assisted living after I flew back to England. My mom didn’t want me to worry, so she rallied during the time I was there.
I worried anyway, especially when I realized how sick she really was. I wondered if I should go home, to see her before she died. It was a hard decision. She could linger if I went too early. I could not stay home for an unlimited amount of time. The decision was made for me when my sister called to tell me my mother had died. The people in my husband’s squadron and in the Red Cross were extremely helpful. They helped us get home to mourn her death and celebrate her life. I was so grateful for the visit two months earlier. And I was grateful that she rallied; though I knew she was sick, my final memory is from those days.
One of the things I loved most about my mom is how she was like a mom to all my friends. I was involved in an organization where the mothers were very important, and they were all like moms to us. My friends from the old neighborhood called her Mom. My mom and dad owned a bar in the final years of her life; many of the staff and the guests called her mom. She did kind things for many who crossed her path. She lent people money. She wasn’t perfect, of course, but who is? It has been more than twenty years, and I miss her, especially at this time of year. She was born at the end of April. She married my father at the end of May. And we celebrate Mother’s Day in between.
Have you ever wondered at the relationship between Mary and the disciples? I think it is fascinating that the last time we saw Mary, the mother of Jesus, was at the cross. She is not found in the resurrection accounts, but she was part of that community of believers. The book of Acts tells us that Mary was in the Upper Room after the ascension of Jesus (Acts 1:14.) Tradition says that she died in 41 A.D., and since John was given guardianship, I imagine that she spent lots of time with the disciples until they began to go out into the world. Was she like a mother to those boys, caring for them as she’d cared for Jesus? Did they look to her for motherly love and encouragement? Did they use the familiar name “Mom” as they used “Abba” for God our Father? So much of the scriptural accounts focus on the work of the twelve disciples that we forget that others were part of that early community. They all lived and worked together for the sake of the Gospel, men and woman, apostles and disciples caring for one another and devoting themselves to prayer.
We often lift up Mary and put her on a pedestal, but she was as imperfect as all our own mothers. Yet, she is a wonderful example for us to look to for motherhood. She was given a most unusual life, a most unusual child, and she accepted it all with grace. Mary treasured every word and sign; she pondered them, and she trusted God’s faithfulness even through any uncertainty. Mary must have been overwhelmed with the responsibility of being the mother of our Lord, but she praised God for His faithfulness that He kept His promises for His people.
We can do the same. We delight in God because He has done great things in our lives. He has given us life and so much through a woman we call “Mom.” Our mothers are all different. Some are good and some not so good, but we can be thankful to God for our mothers. As we remember our mothers this weekend, whether they still live or have passed into life eternal, let us join with Mary and praise God for His goodness.
“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and don’t do the things which I say? Everyone who comes to me, and hears my words, and does them, I will show you who he is like. He is like a man building a house, who dug and went deep, and laid a foundation on the rock. When a flood arose, the stream broke against that house, and could not shake it, because it was founded on the rock. But he who hears, and doesn’t do, is like a man who built a house on the earth without a foundation, against which the stream broke, and immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.” Luke 6:46-49, WEB
Today’s question comes from the book of Psalms: “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (11:3)
We spent a few days last week visiting the coastal city of Galveston, Texas. The island sits on the Gulf of Mexico and has repeatedly experienced devastating hurricanes, being brushed or hit by one every few years. The most recent to do significant damage was Hurricane Ike in 2008. We were supposed to go visit the island that year, that week, but the threat of the storm canceled our trip. Our hotel was destroyed along with much of the island. It isn’t just the wind that does the damage; hurricanes come with a storm surge that can put much of the island under water.
The worst recorded hurricane was in 1900. The Great Galveston Hurricane killed thousands of people and destroyed half the buildings on the island. The winds were 145 miles per hour at landfall and the storm surge was 15 feet during low tide. It is said that a one inch steel hull of an ocean going freighter was pierced through with a piece of lumber. It is known as the worst natural catastrophe in the history of the United States. It was not the first and it certainly was not the last, but the city learned an important lesson from that hurricane. Within a few years, they began the construction of a seawall that was designed to provide some protection from the water, especially during heavy storms. The seawall runs 10.3 miles along the shoreline facing the gulf at the densest part of the city of Galveston. You can see a few feet of the all above ground, but it was built deep into land, providing a firm foundation.
Bruce and I enjoyed our vacation, but we both agreed that we did not think we’d want to live there. Every place has its own risks, of course. Earthquakes, tornadoes, deep freeze or oppressive heat can cause damage and death. I just can’t imagine having to repair my home every few years because it has been flooded or torn apart by heavy wind. Yet, many people have made that choice. The western end of the island, which is less than a mile wide and barely a few feet above sea level, is mostly residential. Many homes in this area sell for millions of dollars. You’ll note, though, these houses are all built on stilts, a practice that began after the great hurricane of 1900. I am sure they still suffer damage, but I am amazed when I see footage of coastal damage after a hurricane how many buildings remain intact despite the heavy wind, rain, and storm surge from these storms.
They stand because they are built on a good foundation. Just as you can’t see most of the seventeen feet of seawall under the sand, you can’t see the cement that holds those stilts solidly to the beach. The water can come and the wind can blow, but the foundation doesn’t move.
The writer of the book where I’m getting these questions (“The Jesus Code” by O.S. Hawkins) answered this question from the perspective of our national identity, with its crumbling pillars of dignity, devotion, duty, and decency. I am want to focus in a different direction, however. This is a more personal lament, written by David who was facing enemies without and within. He was constantly pursued by enemies, but in this instance his advisors told him that he should flee from the danger. David knew that he was secure in God, who is His foundation. What can the righteous do when the wicked seem to have gained the upper hand? We can pray in the midst of our persecution. Some may suggest we flee, but we can calmly face our trouble trusting in God to help us through.
God is our foundation. He is the cement holding the stilts or the pillars in place even when we face the roughest storms. We might be hurt or rejected. We might even die. David asked what would happen if the foundations were destroyed, but he knew that God was there, watching and protecting His people. God can never be defeated. If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do? We know that the foundation that is Jesus Christ can never be destroyed, but when things look bad we can trust that God will help us in this life or to the next, according to His good and perfect will.
“Is this blessing then pronounced on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness. How then was it counted? When he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. He received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while he was in uncircumcision, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they might be in uncircumcision, that righteousness might also be accounted to them. He is the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had in uncircumcision.” Romans 4:9-12, WEB
Certain questions have plagued the human mind for generations. “What is the meaning of life?” “Why is there suffering in the world?” “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Though most of the people know that there is no easy answer, some people are very passionate about their opinion. For those who believe in God, there is no question. For those who have found their purpose in living, it seems silly to ask what it all means. Those who believe in evolution generally believe without a doubt that the egg came first and creationists believe the chicken came first based on the biblical narrative. Everyone has a reason, whether logical or emotional, for why they believe their answer is right.
So, which came first? This question can be put into other contexts also. When it comes to religious faith, one of the greatest theological questions ever asked is “Is our salvation dependent on faith or works?” I recently read an article from a local pastor cautioning the readers to be careful about mixing their faith in God and their reliance on works to give them the assurance of salvation. The article suggested that many people mix grace with works and confuse law and Gospel.
“Do we choose God or does God choose us?” The scriptures certainly give us some indication that both answers are correct, and yet it always comes back to the basic question, “Which came first?” The bottom line is that God came first. He was before all things and will be long after all things have passed away. God is the Creator, Redeemer and King of all creation. We can go back into the lives of the patriarchs, judges, kings and prophets to know that in all things God comes first. Moses could not have been the deliverer if God had not revealed Himself first. David would not have been king if God had not anointed him. Isaiah could not speak the words of truth to the Israelites if God had not put those words in his mouth. Yet, they all believed and then God put them to service. How and when does faith enter into the picture?
The people in Jesus’ day thought that their act of circumcision was what brought them the blessings of God. But this letter from Paul to the Christians in Rome shows us that it was not Abraham’s actions which brought God into his life. Instead, Abraham recognized God’s blessings and responded to His call. Faith did not come because Abraham chose to be obedient or because he had done anything to bring it about. God came first, revealed Himself to Abraham who believed and in faith he walked as God commanded.
That’s how it is for us. The question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” may never be answered to anyone’s satisfaction. Even those who believe in the biblical creation story can wonder if God created the actual chicken or an egg first. When it comes to faith, however, there is no question: God came first. He reveals Himself to us in Jesus Christ, through the scriptures and the fellowship of the saints. By His Word we believe. In faith we respond to God’s love in worship, service and witnessing to others in this world. Which came first? God is always first, in love, mercy and peace. All else comes after by faith in that which God has promised.
Lectionary Scriptures for May 23, 2021, The Day of Pentecost: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 139:1-12 (13-16); Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27, 16:4b, 15
“When the Advocate has come, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will testify about me. You will also testify, because you have been with me from the beginning.” John 15:26-27
I come from a faith tradition that is fairly sober during worship. We sing when we are supposed to sing and we pray when we are supposed to pray, but it is unlikely that you’ll hear anyone joyfully shouting “Alleluia” or “Amen” in the middle of the service. I once heard a preacher punctuate a significant point during a sermon with the phrase, “Can I get an Amen!” There are congregations that would raise the roof with their answer, but not this one. When the pastor said, “Can I get an Amen!” the congregation just looked at one another and then finally someone muttered “Amen.” A few others joined in but it was a pretty pathetic answer. The preacher was unwilling to let it pass, so said again, “Can I get an Amen!” This time the people were not caught unaware and they responded with a resounding “AMEN!” The pastor said that she knew it was really hard for them to do that and she thanked them. It was a humorous moment that had us laughing well into the Hymn of the Day.
I’ve preached, so I know how hard it is to stand in the pulpit and look out into a congregation of glazed eyes and bobbing heads. It is impossible to get through a sermon without wondering if they are listening, or if they are getting anything out of the words I’m speaking. We listen, we learn, we are transformed by the words, but we do not respond. In one sense that is not a bad thing. I have been asked by pastors to be disruptive during sermons to make a point, and it can be very distracting. It becomes difficult to hear what the pastor is saying when everyone around is yelling “Amen” and “Alleluia.” However, it is impossible for the pastor to know if they’ve had an impact. The people seem asleep, or dead, by the end of the sermon.
I think that’s my greatest fear when I speak in public: that the people will stop listening and that I won’t have an impact. I worked as a mobile disc jockey for several years, performing mostly at weddings and junior high dances. My best party was an outdoor barbeque where the guests really wanted to have a good time. I ended up playing for eleven hours. I had the time of my life and so did the guests, but I also remember what it was like to be a disc jockey at an impossible party. At one party the bride and the mother of the bride could not agree to the type of music that should be played. They would not allow me to do my job, to create the atmosphere with the music that would make everyone enjoy the day. Instead, they constantly insisted I play their songs and attacked me for playing music that they thought the crowd wouldn’t enjoy. In trying to make them both happy, the guests were left confused and unwilling to get up and dance. The music never brought the party to life. I wasn’t able to do my job because my clients tried to control my work.
That was an unusual experience, but I had at least a few parties that were hopeless. I just couldn’t get the crowd involved. Good dance music, party games, begging: none of it made a difference. At one party the people requested songs but never got up to dance. When I said I’d be glad to play the song, but would they please get up and dance. The guest answered, “Oh, we just like to listen to music. You are doing a terrific job, but we just aren’t dancers. We are enjoying the time spent visiting with people we rarely get to see.”
I couldn’t always tell my success by the number of people on the dance floor. A preacher can’t always judge the success of a sermon by the responses of the congregation. The real test is whether or not the music or the sermon makes a difference in the life of the person listening. If the crowd is happy and having a good time, then the disc jockey is doing a good job. If the congregation is glorifying God with their lives, then the preacher is bringing God’s Word to the people in a transforming and life-giving manner.
Today’s Old Testament lesson is a miraculous witness to the work God can do in this world. He gave the prophet Ezekiel the words to speak so that the dead were raised to new life. While I doubt that this will literally happen in our seeing, this is what God does every day with His Word. He speaks His word into our lives and brings to life those who are dead in their sin. He puts His Spirit into their hearts so that they will have faith and hope in God’s promises. I’ve heard it said that there are dead churches, places that seem to have no life. Perhaps this is true; there are many Christians who are like the walking dead, or at least look like the walking dead in the congregation. It makes one wonder whether or not they really believe the message of the cross and the forgiveness of sin. Yet, if God can bring life to the valley of dry bones, then He can bring life to the deadest of congregations. We are called to speak the Gospel into the lives of those we meet, whether we are a preacher or teacher or a neighbor, and we can be like Ezekiel, speaking God’s word of promise into their lives. We might even see the bones rise up and dance.
The most successful people are not the ones who do everything for themselves; they are the ones who have helpful partners in the work. The best president is one who is surrounded people who can provide valuable advice to ensure good decision making. A successful church is not one that simply has an excellent pastor that preaches well; the successful church has a pastor who can raise up disciples who continue to do Jesus’ work in the world. The best leaders are those who empower others.
That’s what Jesus did, first with the disciples and then with all of us through their testimony and the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus ascended to heaven so that He could send the helper that gives His helpers everything they need. He breathes life into us with His Word so that we can take that life to the world.
The Holy Spirit is described in today’s Gospel passage by a word that can mean many things. The Holy Spirit is Helper, Comforter, Intercessor, Counselor, Strengthener, Standby, or Advocate.
Some of these translations make sense, but I wonder about the word “advocate.” This word usually refers to someone who speaks for the underdog. There are those who have no voice in this world, or have voices that cannot be heard, who need someone to speak for them: the young, the unborn, the persecuted, the dying. It is good to stand for justice and to help people who cannot help themselves. Sometimes that means giving them what they need, but sometimes it means being a voice that can be heard for their sake. I never thought about it in terms of advocating for someone strong and powerful.
However, in this passage, Jesus describes the Holy Spirit as an advocate bearing witness for Himself. Why does Jesus need an advocate? Who is more powerful than Jesus? Who is more able to defeat the wicked and stand against injustice? Who is able to restore and heal and transform the world? There are none more able than Jesus. Yet, He tells us that he’ll send an advocate to be His witness. Even more amazing is that He says that we will also bear witness, be advocates, for Him. What can we possibly do? We can stand up for Jesus, to speak on His behalf. We can tell the world what He has, can and will do. Jesus can’t be everywhere at once. He can’t take care of every minute detail of life of every person in the world. He has, however, sent an advocate, the Holy Spirit, who teaches us how to be advocates for Jesus. With His help, we can stand up not only for Jesus, but as Jesus in this world. We are His voice. We are His hands. We are His witnesses.
Our task as advocates is two-fold. We speak about Jesus, witnessing to the world about the grace and mercy of God. We also act in Jesus’ stead, sharing our resources, time and talents with the underdogs. It is not our task to simply give away everything we have, but to be good stewards of what we have been given. Everything we have is Gods, and He has called us act with Him in the business of the Kingdom. With Him, we are the voice and hands of God, sent into the world to glorify Jesus and giving the world God’s grace that everyone might know Him and be saved.
We are like Ezekiel, speaking the words of life into the world. The lesson from Ezekiel is about God’s promise of restoration. In this strange but powerful story, God told the prophet to speak to the dry bones, to speak life into the bones, to speak God’s Spirit into the bones. Ezekiel’s message was one of hope. The people thought they had nothing left. Even the Temple where the God of their fathers dwelled for generations was in shambles. They were looking for hope in Babylon, turning to the ways of the other gods. God sent Ezekiel to prophesy to the people, to give them hope. They would be restored to Jerusalem, the Temple would be rebuilt and they would live once again as His people. There would be life in the nation of Israel.
This Old Testament lesson is a miraculous witness to the work God can do in this world. He gave the prophet Ezekiel the words to speak so that the dead were raised to new life. While I doubt that this will literally happen in our seeing, this is what God does every day with His Word. He speaks His word into our lives and brings to life those who are dead in their sin. He puts His Spirit into their hearts so that they will have faith and hope in God’s promises. God promised to bring new life to His people. Jesus promised that the new life would only come if He left, but He promised to send an Advocate.
I can’t imagine what it was like to be one of those disciples. They had lived with Jesus for three years. They saw Him die and they saw Him rise again. They lived with Him for forty days as He reminded them of everything He had taught them. No matter how many times He warned them that He had to leave, I am sure they hoped that He would stay with them forever. Yet, the day came when He ascended to heaven. The disciples were told to wait for the Helper.
The disciples were left alone; I wonder if they started to lose hope. After all, Jesus was gone and the promise had not yet come! They had not yet written down everything Jesus said and His words were becoming more distant, His voice harder to remember. They saw the feast of Pentecost celebrations that filled the city around them. Did they wonder if they could ever enjoy the feasts again? They may have even thought about abandoning the cause, joining in the feast around them, returning to their old ways.
Just as they were wondering these things, God fulfilled His promise.
God said, “I have spoken and I will act.” This is what Pentecost is all about; it is a realization of the promise given in the story from Ezekiel. When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, they took the Hebrews into exile. God’s people were far from home a long time, living amongst people who seemed to have much more powerful gods than the God they worshiped. They felt abandoned. After all, if God were almighty, would He have allowed strangers to devastate His people? They did not see the destruction and exile as a way by which God was turning them back to Him. They lost hope and they assimilated into the culture of the world around them. In essence they died, and they were left like dry bones in the desert. For the children that were born in exile, Jerusalem was not even a distant memory. They only knew the world in which they lived. During the exile, God’s people forgot who they were. But God would not let them go.
The ten days between the Ascension and Pentecost were like a time of exile. The disciples did not yet have what they needed to continue the work of Jesus in the world, but they could no longer return to world they knew before Him. They had to be patient. They had to believe the promise that Jesus made to them when He was praying the night before His crucifixion. Their patience was rewarded when God sent the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, calling them to new life and sending them into the world to speak to the dry bones.
That’s what we do. We speak God’s Word into lifeless bodies. Their flesh wasn’t dead, of course, but like those lifeless parties or the lifeless congregations, they are living, breathing human beings that seem as good as dead. They need to hear the Gospel so that the breath of True Life, the Holy Spirit, will transform them into new creatures of faith that believe in the promises of God through Jesus Christ.
The disciples received the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost, and they were the first fruits of Christ’s message and work. Jesus told them that He did not tell them everything because He was with them, but He promised that when the time was right, the Advocate would come and tell them everything. They could not have the whole message of Jesus when He was in their presence. Some of the things they learned from the Spirit were too hard for them to receive on their own. However, Jesus’ ascension to heaven made it possible for the Spirit to come and dwell in their hearts. If Jesus stayed, the Advocate could not come. The faith could not spread beyond the small group of people who could follow Jesus Christ in flesh. With the Spirit, the message could, and would, be taken to the four corners of the world.
It is impossible to discover the exact number of different languages that exist in the world. The best estimates place the number between 3,000 and 8,000. There are legends in every nation concerning the advent of language, including the story found in the Bible about the Tower of Babel.
Despite the large number of languages we know to exist, some of the ancient legends claim that there are seventy different languages. In one such legend, it is said that the leaders in Pharaoh’s court were jealous of Joseph. They insisted that Joseph should not have so much power since he was a slave purchased with a few coins and they demanded that he be demoted if he could not speak the seventy languages of the nations. The legend claims that the angel Gabriel himself came to teach Joseph the languages.
There is another legend that says that on the day the Divine Law was given to Moses seventy tongues of fire fell from the sky so that each nation in the world could understand God’s Law. In the end, only one nation promised to keep the Law, and that was Israel.
The festival of Pentecost for the Jews had several purposes. First of all it was the feast of weeks, a celebration of the first fruits. The people went to the temple to offer the first grain from their fields. The timing of the festival mattered because it was also connected to the Law given at Sinai. They believed that it took Moses and the Hebrews fifty days to get to Mount Sinai from Egypt, so the festival occurred fifty days following the Passover. Pentecost was an agricultural festival, but it was also a festival about God’s Word. The Hebrew legend of the giving of the Law was probably repeated by storytellers at the Pentecost celebration as the Hebrew people remembered that they were the only ones who honor God with their righteous obedience to His Law.
Pentecost for modern Christians is not an agricultural celebration or a remembrance of the giving of the Divine Law at Sinai, but it is about first fruits and words. It is about God giving His Holy Spirit to His chosen people and laying His Word upon their hearts. It is about renewing a people who were dying in their own sin, giving them new life and calling them to take that life into the world so that others might see God glorified and believe.
Conviction and condemnation is so powerfully manifest in the lessons for this week. Sunday is Pentecost; it has been fifty days since the Resurrection. This is the day the disciples were waiting for in Jerusalem, the promised day when the Advocate would come to help continue the work of Jesus in and through the lives of the disciples. It was ten days following Jesus’ ascension and the disciples were waiting prayerfully as they had been told. We often think of the disciples in saintly terms, as if they were perfect and incorrupt just from knowing Jesus. However, they were ordinary men. They were just like you and I. They suffered the same fear, doubt and pain that we experience when things don’t seem to be going our way.
The Church would not exist without Pentecost. Though Christmas and Easter are vital to the story of Jesus, Pentecost might just be the most important holy day because this is when God truly made us one with Him, filling us with Himself and giving us everything we need to continue His work in the world. The gifts we have come to us from God through the power of that same Holy Spirit that gave the disciples the words to speak on that first Pentecost. He continues to give us the power, boldness, courage, strength, talents and words to speak the Gospel to those who are nothing but dry bones. God uses us to rattle those bones so that the dead will be raised into new life.
In the Psalm we are reminded of the creation, God’s good creation. As God’s advocates we are given everything we need to share God’s grace with the world. We are given the words and language we need to share the message. We are given the resources to share with those whose needs are so great that they can’t hear. God does not expect us to do it alone. He has given us all of His creation to continue the work of reconciliation that Jesus began. And all of creation longs for the day when God’s promises will be fulfilled because when we failed, we took the whole world down with us.
Did everyone believe on that first Pentecost day? As the tongues of fire landed on the disciples and they started speaking in languages that the crowds could understand, the people listening were amazed and perplexed. But not everyone came to believe what they were hearing. When the disciples began speaking in tongues, the crowd thought they were drunk, but they weren’t.
Peter stood up before the people and explained that this was the fulfillment of 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 of forgiveness in their own language was a most miraculous thing. The disciples were uneducated laborers who probably only knew Aramaic fluently, enough Hebrew for worship and perhaps just enough Greek necessary for business. They barely knew and understood the message they were giving in their own tongues, but Jesus sent the Advocate.
God began something new at that moment. The disciples were the first fruits that were spreading the seed of the Gospel message that would bring healing and reconciliation to the people of God. The crowds, no matter where they were from, could hear and understand the Word that came from the mouths of those disciples and many came to believe. The church was born and God began the great work of restoring His creation. The Spirit of God gave voice to what they knew to be true in their hearts and the language to make it understandable for others. The Advocate made them advocates for God. Those who heard and believed on that first Pentecost were baptized. Luke tells us that about three thousand were baptized that day. We continue the work of Jesus by baptizing those who believe our testimony about Jesus, testimony that comes by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Pentecost is a time of new beginnings. We see new beginnings in the texts for today. The story from Ezekiel is the promise of a new beginning to the exiled people of God. Jesus promises a new beginning to the disciples, a new life of speaking God’s word into those who are lost and dead in their sin. Those who hear and believe are given a new beginning, a new life in Christ Jesus. Let us join the psalmist and sing praise to the God of creation who continues to create and recreate all that is His. Let us thank God for His goodness. May the fire of God consume that which is evil and wicked in our midst and restore us as people of hope, living patiently as we wait for the Day of the Lord.
“The elder to Gaius the beloved, whom I love in truth. Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be healthy, even as your soul prospers. For I rejoiced greatly when brothers came and testified about your truth, even as you walk in truth. I have no greater joy than this: to hear about my children walking in truth. Beloved, you do a faithful work in whatever you accomplish for those who are brothers and strangers. They have testified about your love before the assembly. You will do well to send them forward on their journey in a way worthy of God, because for the sake of the Name they went out, taking nothing from the Gentiles. We therefore ought to receive such, that we may be fellow workers for the truth. I wrote to the assembly, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, doesn’t accept what we say. Therefore if I come, I will call attention to his deeds which he does, unjustly accusing us with wicked words. Not content with this, neither does he himself receive the brothers, and those who would, he forbids and throws out of the assembly. Beloved, don’t imitate that which is evil, but that which is good. He who does good is of God. He who does evil hasn’t seen God. Demetrius has the testimony of all, and of the truth itself; yes, we also testify, and you know that our testimony is true. I had many things to write to you, but I am unwilling to write to you with ink and pen; but I hope to see you soon. Then we will speak face to face. Peace be to you. The friends greet you. Greet the friends by name.” 3 John, WEB
I worked in retail during my college years and then moved into management after graduation. I worked at several different stores in many different positions. Every supervisor was unique, some good and some not so good. Some are memorable and some I don’t remember at all. I do remember the lunch counter manager at one store where I was an associate manager who made the store manager and I sit down to each a decent meal every day. She knew we were both single and that we weren’t taking care of ourselves. She cooked a special each week, usually turkey and stuffing, and she forced us to eat it whether we wanted to or not. I was thankful because she was right; I wasn’t eating proper meals at home or at work.
Despite my experience in retail management in a couple large retail stores, I didn’t want to work in management after I moved to another state and got married. I wanted a job, but I didn’t want to work the ridiculous hours or have the responsibility. I was hired to work in the home fashions department of another large retail store and I loved it. I particularly loved the discount as I was furnishing my new home as a newlywed.
I was successful in that position; I received several commendations from the store manager and good reports from customers. Everything about the job was perfect for me. However, my manager was not comfortable with my presence. She became paranoid that I was after her job. She did everything she could to make me miserable. She gave me lousy hours, often refusing to work the schedule around days I requested off. She assigned me the dirtiest, most difficult tasks, often in the stockroom where I would not be visible to the customers or other store management. Finally she broke a promise and I quit. When I left, I reminded her of our original interview and my lack of interest in a management position. I told her how much I loved my job. She tried to get me to reconsider but I was pregnant and ready to be a full time wife and mother.
There are times in our spiritual journey when people we encounter are afraid of our intentions. At times we are rejected from a fellowship because members are concerned about losing their position. John wrote to a man named Gaius in his third letter. It was a letter of encouragement for the congregation to take care of the itinerant preachers who were sharing the Gospel with them. Unfortunately, there was a man in the congregation named Diotrephes who seems to have had a position of authority that was not so hospitable. John had sent those preachers to the churches in Asia, but Diotrephes refused to welcome them at his. He wanted to be in control and did everything he could to keep the competition away. He gossiped maliciously about John his associates. John wrote to Gaius to commend him and exhort him to continue doing what is good.
The manager had no reason to be concerned about my intentions, but her management practices were questionable and it was after I left she realized how much I did to help her department run smoothly. I had no intention to hurt her career, but she destroyed her own with her attitude. She was fired soon after I left because her department fell apart.
The early churches were no different than today's churches - filled with humans who were imperfect in their thought and action. The Apostles sent preachers to help guide the churches and to help them resolve difficult situations. In that age, just like today, some of the leaders of local congregations did not want help. They had selfish desires rather than the desire to share the truth, which is Jesus Christ, with the world. John encouraged Gaius, and those of us reading his letter today, to honor God in the way we treat those sent to work in our midst. We have been giving the truth of the Gospel and called to be faithful in the work of the Kingdom, helping our siblings in Christ and others who cross our path. We are to glorify God with our love and to service to them so that they will go forth in God’s grace to do whatever He is calling them to do.
“But what I do, that I will do, that I may cut off occasion from those who desire an occasion, that in which they boast, they may be found even as we. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as Christ’s apostles. And no wonder, for even Satan masquerades as an angel of light. It is no great thing therefore if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works.” 2 Corinthians 11:12-15, WEB
I was walking down the aisle of a store the other day and I noticed some beautiful bath towels for sale. They were soft and luxurious and really affordable. Our towels are a few years old and they have lost the lushness that feels so good when getting out of the shower. I picked two green towels and brought them home. I picked up a couple of new washcloths at another store that I knew were not exact matches, but I thought were close enough. I washed the new towels and hung them in our bathroom only to discover they were not green as I thought, but were blue! The washcloths were not even close to the same color.
The color was fine, but I couldn’t believe I would make such a huge error. As an artist, I’m pretty good with color, but this mistake bothered me. I pointed it out to Bruce and he said he thought it had some green. The next morning I grabbed my towel to dry off after my shower and it was green! I realized that light really affected the color; it appeared different under different lighting. It also might have to do with the cones and rods in our eyes affecting the color.
We’ve all seen those challenges online that focused on color. One was of a dress that some people saw as blue and black and others saw as white and gold. There are also pictures of sneakers that are seen as either pink and white or gray and green. The experts use both the light and the eye explanations for those differences. I realized during the dress controversy that I was seeing my own clothes differently under different lights. I would often pick an outfit in my closet that I thought matched perfectly until I walked outside and saw it in the sunlight. I changed the light bulbs in my closet to fix that problem.
Retailers often use light to give the best appearance to merchandise to make the consumer purchase. The lights over the produce department are different than the lights in the rest of the store, and they make the tomatoes look wonderfully ripe and red. The lighting in dressing rooms is designed to make everyone look their best, that’s why an outfit looks lovely when you are trying it on, but horrible when you try it on at home. Home stores use lighting that is soft and comfortable. Bars create an atmosphere that encourages interaction so that the guests will stay longer and buy more. Galleries highlight the art with focused lights.
Jesus says repeatedly that He is the light. He is the light by which we should look at the world. He shines in a way that reveals everything, good and bad. His light shines in the darkness and helps us to see and avoid that which is evil. He shines to reveal the Father and the way we are to walk in truth and righteousness.
Unfortunately, we are reminded by Paul’s words that there is a false light that can confuse us. Satan is not light, he doesn’t shine light, but he masquerades as light. The wrong light can make things look good even when they aren’t, causing us to buy those tomatoes or dress even though they aren’t right. So, too, Satan can cause us to “buy” something that is not good, right, and true. This is why we are to look at everything through the Light who is Christ. Does when we see line up with the scriptures? Does it line up with what God has said to us? Does it line up to the truth as revealed by Jesus Christ? Through which light do you see the world? If it isn’t the Light of Christ, you could be seeing green when it is blue and never really know what is real.
“They told Esther’s words to Mordecai. Then Mordecai asked them to return this answer to Esther: ‘Don’t think to yourself that you will escape in the king’s house any more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent now, then relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Who knows if you haven’t come to the kingdom for such a time as this?’” Esther 4:12-14, WEB
The book of Esther has long been one of controversy. The text makes no mention of God and there seems to be no historical proof of its authenticity, sp many think it should have never been included in the canon. Yet, the Jews continue to celebrate the festival of Purim, which was commanded in the book. It commemorates her story and the salvation of the Jews. Purim shows God’s divine presence even in the wholly secular world represented in the story. The celebration itself is one of costumes, feasting and even drunkenness in some cases, all the while remembering God’s hand in the deliverance of the Jewish exiles from death.
Have you ever felt you were in exactly the right place at exactly the right time? Did you ever feel that God put you someplace for a purpose? I think we can all recall times when we have been blessed by the opportunity to do something for someone when we really didn’t expect to be there. Sometimes these incidents are dramatic, such as a doctor who is lost while driving in a strange city comes across an accident and is able to save the life of the victim. Other times seem very insignificant, such as those times we run into an old friend in the grocery store and learn that they are in need of prayers. These moments are not coincidental; they are acts of God, the means of His grace to those who are in need. He guides us into situations where we can make a difference in the lives of others, even when we do not expect anything to happen. It is those moments that really make me realize how active God is in His creation, how much He loves us.
Esther was one of those people who happened to be in the right place at the right time. She was a beautiful young Hebrew girl who lived with her cousin Mordecai who had been living with other Hebrews in exile in the citadel of Susa during the reign of Xerxes, king of Persia. Xerxes was married to Vashti, a lovely woman he liked to show off to the leaders of Persia. One day she refused to appear when she was summoned so Xerxes sent her away for the sake of order in his kingdom. Yet, after a time he became lonely for her and wished her to return. His advisors told him it would be foolish to forgive her, and recommended that he find himself another wife. He followed that advice and sent for all the lovely virgins of his kingdom. Each girl was prepared for a year, well cared for and pampered with beauty treatments. Then each girl was called into the king’s chamber for a night. When he was finished with her, she was sent to another part of the harem, where the concubines lived and they stayed there unless the king called her by name to return to him. With a palace full of pretty virgins, they rarely saw him again.
Esther was favored by the eunuch who cared for the young girls; she was given special care. He made suggestions for what she should take with her when it was time for her visit to the king. She won the favor of all who knew her, including the king. He made her his wife. This must have been quite difficult for a young Jewish girl, for she was not given the choice of whether to go or not. She would be humiliated and rejected by her people for being with a non-Jew and the Persians would have rejected her because she was Hebrew. She kept her identity secret and lived in the care of the king.
There was a wicked man who was a high official in the king’s court. Haman convinced Xerxes that the Hebrews deserved death and an edict was issued to ensure the entire nation would be destroyed. Mordecai sent word to Esther that it was up to her to save her people. She was not sure how it could be done because she could only approach the king if he summoned her, and he had not called for her in some time. She was afraid, but Mordecai reminded her that she may have been born for such a time as that. She asked for prayer and fasting, then bravely approached the king despite her fear. Her obedience saved her people.
Most of us will never be in a position to risk our lives for the sake of others, although we must not think that martyrdom is an ancient problem. During a conversation about the life and ministry of Dietrich Bonheoffer, a member of the group told us a story from when she was younger. A pastor had included Bonheoffer in a sermon and mentioned that he’d been martyred. My friend said that she was surprised, because she thought all the martyrs were from long ago. “I didn’t realize that modern people could be martyred.” She was much older during that conversation and certainly knew that people have died for their faith in every age, even today.
What we learn from the stories of Esther and the martyrs is that living for others might mean death. Dietrich Bonheoffer did what he did because of his faith; he believed that God has called us to stand for those who can’t stand for themselves, even if it means risking everything. He wasn’t perfect; he didn’t always stand as strong as he should have. He made some decisions for all the wrong reasons. But in the end, Dietrich Bonheoffer answered the call. Most of us will be called to much simpler tasks, without the risk of life. Are we willing to answer, knowing that anything that God commands could have a life changing effect for someone?
As we look deeply into the story of Esther, we find that there is a parallel between the kingdom of Xerxes and the Kingdom of God. Esther was being obedient to the call of Mordecai by approaching the throne of grace to ask for the lives of her people. This act of obedience is an example to us today to do according to the will of God our Father.
The least we can do - and the most - is to approach God with our requests. He has made us heirs to His kingdom. Xerxes was willing to give Esther her heart’s desire, and God has done the same for us. She risked everything not to get gold or jewels, but to save lives. Dietrich Bonheoffer risked everything not for fame or prestige, but to save lives. Are we willing to do whatever is necessary for the sake of those who are dying so that they might have life? The book of Esther reminds us that even as we live in a very secular world, the hand of God directs our paths, even in the worldliest situations. So, let us listen to His voice, and follow, doing whatever it is He is calling us to do even if it seems like the risks are too great. After all, God may have brought you into His kingdom for such a time as this.
“Therefore we ought to pay greater attention to the things that were heard, lest perhaps we drift away. For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation - which at the first having been spoken through the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders, by various works of power and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to his own will?” Hebrews 2:1-4, WEB
If you google the question, “How many stories are there?” you’ll find a variety of answers. Some, like Aristotle, said only two: comedy and tragedy. Others have suggested seven: Man vs. Man, Nature, God, Society, Woman, Himself and Man in the middle. Yet others have suggested the number is more like 20 or 36. One man suggested there are more than a thousand while another said there is only one.
One popular storyline is the Cinderella story. This is a plot that begins with a happy girl whose life is turned upside down by some catastrophe. She is persecuted and denied her greatest wish, but waits patiently, being humble before those who treat her cruelly. A kind force helps opens a new door for her where she is saved by her hero and lives happily ever after. In the end, the cruel ones receive their just reward. The biblical book of Esther is a Cinderella story. This plot line can be found in myths and legends from around the world.
The Native American Indians version tells of a great warrior who lived on the Atlantic Ocean. His greatest gift was his ability to become invisible. His name was Strong Wind and all the maidens wanted to marry him. He rejected all who were dishonest. With the help of his sister, Strong Wind tested each maiden that came to him. His sister took the maidens to the shore when Strong Wind was due to come home in the evening. As he approached, his sister asked the maiden if she saw him. They all said yes, but when asked to describe something about his appearance, they could only guess. They were always wrong and he knew they were lying.
There was a chief with three daughters. Their mother had died long ago and the two older sisters were jealous of the youngest. They treated her cruelly, burning her face and putting her into rags for clothes. They told their father she did it herself. She did not complain, but patiently did her work with a gentle heart. The two older sisters sought Strong Wind but he saw through their lies. The chief’s youngest daughter also tried. She fixed her appearance as well as she could, but she was ridiculed by her sisters and others along the way. Strong Wind’s sister had mercy and took her to seek her brother.
When it was time for Strong Wind to come home, his sister asked, “Do you see him?” The girl said, “No.” Once again the sister asked if the girl could see her brother and this time she said, “Yes.” When Strong Wind’s sister asked her to describe him, she said, “His sled is drawn by a rainbow and his bow is the Milky Way.” Since she had been honest with the first answer, he made himself visible to her. They took the girl home, healed her wounds and cleaned her face and body. She was clothed in fine clothes and many rich ornaments. The fate of the two sisters was not so great. Since they had lied and had treated their sister with such cruelty, Strong Wind turned them into Aspen trees. Whenever he came to them, their leaves trembled and they knew of his anger.
The maidens thought they could convince Strong Wind to marry them with their good looks or clever answers, but Strong Wind was only visible to those to whom he revealed himself. The same is true of our God, although throughout the ages we human beings have tried to create a relationship with Him on our own terms. We do good works, we say the right things, we go to the right places and claim our self-righteousness is enough to be the one who can see God. For the Jews, righteousness meant being obedient to the Law of Moses, those who did not keep His commandments were not worthy of His grace. The reality is that none of us are worthy.
For this reason, Jesus came to bridge the divide between God and His people. Through Christ we can see God, be healed, cleansed and robed with the finest garment He has to give: His righteousness. We need to recognize our inability to see Him and honestly say that we have eyes that are blinded to the truth. With that confession and repentance, our eyes are open and we can see Him as He is. If we continue in our old ways, claiming a righteousness that is not in Christ but through the Law, we will never know the salvation Christ gives through His Gospel. The young girl humbled herself before Strong Wind and he gave her the world. When we do the same before God, we are given eternal life and a place in His kingdom forever.
Scriptures for May 30, 2021, Holy Trinity Sunday: Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Acts 2:14a, 22-36; John 3:1-17
“He touched my mouth with it, and said, ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away, and your sin forgiven.’” Isaiah 6:7, WEB
We have nearly reached the end of an incredibly unusual school year. I don’t know how those schools that are still meeting virtually are handling the final weeks. In a normal year, the teachers are dealing with children who are anxious for the freedom of summer, so that they can sleep in late and do nothing they do not want to do. Teachers have to keep those children focused on the final work, like exams and projects. They children don’t put all their attention into the school work which can cause poor grades that will affect their future. Some are rushing to get all their work done. They are hiding their faces in their books, studying for those last chances to get their grades up for the year. They are praying that they’ll get lucky, that the tests will have questions with answers they will remember and that the essays are on topics they understand.
Most teachers offer some sort of extra credit work, especially for those students who have struggled with the material. Extra credit work is never required but all students are encouraged to participate. Many choose not to do the work. They think it is a waste of their time. Why go to all that trouble if it won’t do any good? Extra credit is valuable for multiple reasons: the work adds to their knowledge, it trains them in new disciple that will help them in later years.
Many parents nag their kids about the extra credit work; I was as guilty as the next mom. It doesn’t make sense to me not take advantage of every opportunity. Some parents force their children into doing the work, insisting that it isn’t “extra.” There comes a time in a child’s life, however, when parents need to back away and let the children make their own decisions. If they decide not to do the extra credit work, or if they fail to do their best at the end of the year, then they will suffer the consequences. We don’t like to let go because we do not trust them to do what is best for their own future. We are afraid that they will not make the right choices. But if we do not give them the opportunity, how will they ever learn. They will fail once in a while, but they will also succeed. It takes failure and success to learn.
God is our Father, but He never forces us to do anything for His kingdom. He has freely given His grace and we have been transformed into the people of God. He calls us to respond in faith to the work He has begun with Jesus Christ, giving us the gifts and resources necessary to do so, but He never forces us to respond.
Isaiah had a frightening vision: he was standing in the presence of the Holy One, Yahweh of Armies. Based on his religious understanding, Isaiah believed that no human could stand in the presence of God. He said he was a man of unclean lips, which mean he had a deep sense of his sinfulness. He said belonged to a people of unclean lips recognizing the sinfulness of God’s people. The mouth represented far more than we expect; the mouth represented the sinful thoughts, words and deeds of God’s people. Our mouths reveal the state of our hearts. Isaiah knew that he was a sinner and that the people of God were not worthy of anything He might give. He knew that he was doomed; but he wasn’t really doomed. God comforted Isaiah by taking away the fear. The angel burnt off the source of Isaiah’s fear; God cleansed Isaiah’s mouth. God could have ordered Isaiah to do anything, anything at all, and Isaiah would have obeyed because he was grateful for His forgiveness.
God did not make any demands; He simply asked “Who can I send?” Isaiah could have looked at his feet, hoed and hummed and kept his now pain-filled lips shut. He could have walked away. But the mercy of God is overwhelming and we are drawn into His heart. It is amazing that God would seek the help of a lowly, sinful, human being. but He does. He calls us to be actively involved in His work. He sends us into the world. He charges us with the task of telling the lost and dying about the grace of God. “Who can I send?” Isaiah answers, “Here I am, send me.”
Will there be consequences? We won’t be sent to the flaming gates of hell because we do not answer His call. We are tempted to say “No,” especially since it sometimes seems like the things we do will not make a difference. We are simple people with unclean lips. How could my efforts bring any change to the world? We say “Yes” when we experience the incredible forgiveness of God and respond joyfully to His call. We respond when we realize that it is not our effort that brings reconciliation and transformation. Our God is Yahweh of the Armies, the divine Warrior who is LORD Almighty, and He can make incredible things happen through our lowly but grace-filled lives.
My children had a Sunday School teacher when they were young that was overwhelming in size with a deep, booming voice. He had a position of authority in the Air Force. He demanded everyone’s attention with his very presence. I suppose he was like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in the movie “Kindergarten Cop.” He was an imposing being; people looked at him with awe and perhaps a little fear. He is not the one you would expect to be assigned the Kindergarten Sunday school class; it seemed impossible that he could reach them through his rough and powerful exterior.
You would be mistaken because that man had the softest heart. He not only reached the children, he gave them a very solid foundation on which their faith was built. They say that everything you need to know you learn in Kindergarten, and it might just be true of those children who were blessed to have that man as their Sunday school teacher. The children were so calm and it had nothing to do with fear. They found joy in his presence.
The words in today’s Psalm remind us of this type of person. The teacher’s deep, booming voice certainly rattled the nerves of the airmen under his supervision, but that same voice made Kindergarteners feel welcome and gave them the best news any child can hear: you are loved. The psalmist describes God as powerful, majestic, strong, full of might. He is Yahweh of Armies, the LORD Almighty! His voice breaks the cedars and makes the heart of the nations skip a beat. The voice of the LORD strikes like flashes of lightning and rattles the world.
The LORD sits enthroned over history and over the future. He is King over everything past, present and future. This same Lord has the power to bring down giants, to end nations, to turn the universe to dust. Yet, what does this Lord do? He gives strength to His people and blesses them with peace. He can rattle all creation, but with that same voice He gives us the best news we can hear: we are loved. He is worthy of our fear because He can reduce us to nothing, but we stand in awe rather than fear but because we have been given a vision of His glory. We then glorify God with our praise and thanksgiving.
A friend of mine once told me a bit of shocking news. It was about the death of a celebrity and it was shocking news. I hadn’t heard it, so I began to surf the internet to find out the details for myself. It took a long time, too long, to find anything at all. This was news that would not have been missed by any of the news outlets. I was eventually able to find an old story that revealed this person had been reported deceased previously, but he was absolutely alive. The “news” my friend gave me was a hoax.
That happened many years ago, but we all know how easy it is to fall into believing the headlines on the internet. I follow one satirical site that is constantly posting headlines that make me wonder “Could this be true?” and then I look at the reporter and realize it isn’t. People post photos every day that make claims in the captions that are not true. Those posts go viral and many people believe the falsehoods. Unfortunately, many base their political and religious opinions on those false stories. I confess that I’ve fallen into the trap too many times myself.
We can’t believe everything we hear or see, especially if we are getting second or third person accounts of a story. It is even more vital today to discern what we read on the internet because we can all be easily fooled.
Have you ever been in a conversation that turned into a debate because everyone had heard different versions of the same story? “I heard ten were killed.” “The radio just said fifteen.” “The news website reports that the sheriff said the early figures were too high, there were only two killed.” Not a pleasant example, but the confusion is more distressing when the reporters can’t get the story correct. When the dust has settled on the situation and someone takes charge of the information, we can finally get the real answers to our questions. Unfortunately, in today’s world we can receive news immediately and the reporters are more than willing to continue talking even if they do not know what they are talking about.
We don’t know how Nicodemus came to hear the message Jesus was sharing with the crowds. He may have been lingering on the edges of the crowd listening to Jesus speak, but he was obviously concerned about being seen with Jesus. He was part of the leadership that was considering what needed to be done about Jesus. According to John, Jesus had just cleared the temple and He was amazing the crowds with miracles and they were beginning to believe in Him. He had offended the leadership with talk of destroying and rebuilding the Temple of God. They didn’t realize He was talking about his body. They laughed at the thought of Jesus rebuilding a building that took their forefathers forty-six years to build. Jesus was quickly making enemies, and Nicodemus wasn’t sure what might happen to him if he showed an interest in what Jesus was doing. He wanted to know more, so he went there in darkness.
Whether he heard the words from Jesus, or had just heard the stories that were being told about him, Nicodemus needed to clear up the confusion in his mind. Something he heard made him think. It made him desire understanding. Nicodemus took what he heard and sought out Jesus. Jesus answered him directly, but continued to ponder because it did not all make sense. Something must have planted a seed of faith because Nicodemus later argued for fair treatment for Jesus (John 7:50) and helped Joseph of Arimathea with the burial of Jesus’ body. We don’t know if he ever really understood, but we do know that he became more open with his support of Jesus.
There are many people who try to tell us what the Bible says and how we should live according to God’s Word. We live in community and God has given us teachers to help us understand. But Nicodemus was a teacher and he needed to continue to learn. He didn’t know what to believe, so he sought knowledge and pondered what he heard. We have an advantage. We live after the crucifixion and resurrection, after Pentecost when God sent His Spirit to His people. Now when we hear things, we have the Spirit, along with the Church and the written Word, to help us see what is true and what is not. With His help we can share the message of Jesus with the world, so that others might also receive the gift of the Spirit and learn what it means to be loved and forgiven by God. We might still not understand completely, but the Spirit gives us enough faith to believe God has forgiven us and that He calls us to new life in Jesus.
There is nothing of our faith more confusing than the Holy Trinity. What does it mean that He is three in one and one in three? What does it mean that there is a Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and yet there is only one God?
Three in one, one in three is beyond our ability to comprehend. We can come up with dozens of different analogies to help us explain the doctrine, but those analogies always come up short. Something limits the validity of those human explanations of a divine reality. Take, for example, the analogy of water. Yes, water can be liquid, gas or solid when it is warm, hot or frozen, but it can not be liquid, gas and solid at the same time. It is alright that we can’t reduce the Trinity to simple human terms. If we could, God wouldn’t be God.
While knowledge is not a bad thing, and our connection with our God grows stronger as we seek and study and learn about Him, there are some things that must be accepted by faith. Unfortunately, too many are willing to reject Christ because they can’t accept doctrines like the Trinity which they find foolish and beyond proof. So when confronted by something like the Trinity, how do we respond? Do we stand before God like Isaiah and raise our hands when He asks who will go? Do we sneak around at night hoping to find answers? We who have been given the power of the Holy Spirit can say “I believe,” living according to the spirit in faith and trust and hope no matter what circumstances we face, knowing that God is God even when we can’t fully understand what that means.
There are people in my life that think I know everything. I would not agree with that assessment. I am of the mind that the more I learn, the more I don’t know. Yet, I do know a lot. I have been writing this devotional for decades, and you can’t be in God’s Word daily without having some understanding. I’ve written multiple Bible studies, and you can’t teach God’s Word in a way people understand without having some understanding. Yet, I can almost hear Jesus asking me the same question He asked Nicodemus. “Are you the teacher and don’t understand these things?”
This is particularly true about the Trinity. I get it, really I do. God is three in one and one in three. He is the Godhead, three persons or essences of the same One. He is God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There are dozens of possible analogies that get bandied about at this time of year trying to explain to our limited human minds this incredible and impossible concept. I read through the Athanasian Creed and try to grasp the seriousness of this doctrine, but I can’t come up with the words that will silence the critics and nonbelievers. How do you teach something that is completely beyond our grasp so that others will receive it with faith?
“How can this be?” “Are you a teacher and yet do not understand?”
No, Jesus, I don’t understand. Not fully. So much about what is happening in the world around me does not make sense. I see the issues from too many points of view. I see what you have said and what you have not said and what everyone interprets from the words you have said, but I still have doubts and concerns. I know enough to have an opinion, but not enough to be assured that it is what you truly want me to understand. Then you throw Bible texts at me with the expectation that I will know and understand what you mean.
Add to that the problem of too many differing opinions! People of faith see the world from different points of view. Some believe we should do one thing and insist that the Bible says that is the answer. Others see the problem differently and insist that the Bible supports their point of view. Unfortunately, they are, in many ways, both correct, and yet that doesn’t solve our problem. We simply don’t understand and we end up fighting with one another because we can’t come to an agreement. Soon we are faced with yet another tragedy and we still can’t understand. Nicodemus didn’t understand, because what he’d heard from and about Jesus didn’t fit into his “box.” He must have had a glimmer of faith, but the things Jesus was saying did not quite fit into his knowledge. God is greater than our human brains can ever fully understand. It is ok that there are mysteries about God that we have to take on faith. After all, what is the point of worshipping something, or someone, that is less than or equal to ourselves? Would a God we completely understand be worthy of our awe and praise?
We were made in His image, but too many want a god who is made in our image. Too many want to fix the world with human ideas and actions, but forget that only God can make things right in the end. Perhaps the concept of the Trinity is a reminder for us to be humble and remember that we are limited in ways that God is never limited.
Nicodemus wanted answers. Thankfully most of those who come to me bring me questions about about which I can usually find the answer. However, there are definitely things that I don’t completely understand. I struggle with some of parables and stories of sacrifice and war. Why are there so many curses in the Psalms? Did the miraculous things that happened in the Old and New Testament really happen? If God can stop the sun, then why can’t He cure my friend’s cancer? The crucifixion was a necessity to make things right, I don’t really understand why God couldn’t choose another way. “Why did God...?” is a question I don’t think I’ll ever be able to answer with certainty. And perhaps I shouldn’t even try. I can’t possibly know the mind of God or His motivation, but I can trust that He knows what is good and right and true.
The hard part of doing God’s work in the world is that there will always be people asking the hard questions. They don’t understand and they want answers. When confronted by those questions, how do we respond? Do we sneak around at night hoping to find answers? Or do we volunteer to go wherever God is sending us? We can truly do this work because we have something that will help us: the Holy Spirit. That same Spirit will put faith into the hearts of those who hear and receive His grace. We don’t have to have all the answers; we are called to simply go wherever God sends us and do whatever He is calling us to do. He does this with a promise: “I will be there with you.”
Isn’t it amazing that the most beloved of scriptures (John 3:16) would be found in this confusing text? Nicodemus wanted to understand. He knew there was something about Jesus worth pursuing, and though he was frightened he sought answers. He did so at a time when the whole work of Jesus was not yet complete. He had not yet died or resurrected. He had not ascended to heaven or sent the Holy Spirit to help His disciples. He was just beginning to reveal Himself to the world and Nicodemus wanted to know more.
I often joke about all the questions I'm going to ask when I get to heaven. I am sure you’ve thought of a few questions, too. If you could sit down with Jesus and just listen to Him like Nicodemus, what would you ask? What issues have weighed upon your mind? What confuses you about His parables? What fears and doubts do you have? What is your, “How can this be?” question? Do you think about asking Jesus to answer, perhaps at a heavenly bar over margaritas or under a shady tree by a babbling brook?
We can imagine this conversation and hope for it, but is that what we will experience when we do get to heaven? Will we still want to sit down with Jesus and ask the questions that have troubled us throughout our lives once we have entered through those pearly gates? Probably not. As a matter of fact, the truth is that we will be so awed by what we experience when we finally stand in the very real presence of God that we won’t have any more questions. We won’t care about those issues or worry about our doubts or fears. We will fall on our knees along with the multitudes that went before us to worship the God who is.
I think the message for this Holy Trinity Sunday is that it is ok to believe in the mystery of God even though we will never fully understand it. We don’t have to explain it. We don’t have to have answers to all those unanswerable questions. We don’t have to worry about Jesus asking us the question, “Are you a teacher and yet do not understand?” because we have faith that Jesus will do what He has promised to do even if we can’t wrap our brains around it all. Our quest for answers might just send us on maddening internet search that makes us more confused because it becomes harder to hear God’s voice in the midst of the noise.
“How can these things be?” We might never really know, but that’s ok. God is greater than we can imagine, thank goodness. For a God that we can imagine could never accomplish the work that the Trinity has accomplished in time, in space, and in the hearts of all those who believe. We are not called to understand, but to believe and to take our faith into the world for the sake of those who need to hear the words of Jesus that cleanse our lips and our whole beings. God did so love the whole world that He sent His own Son to save it. This simple but powerful message is given to us to share not just in deeds but in the words that will save our neighbors so that they, too, will join us in singing God’s praise for eternity.
Yahweh of the Armies, the Lord God Almighty, said to Isaiah, “Yes, you have unclean lips, but I can make you clean,” and then invited Isaiah into His work in the world. He does the same for us. Are we willing, like Isaiah, to answer, “Here I am, send me”? There is work to do in this world, and though our eternity in heaven is not dependent on our going where God sends us, we have been given an incredible gift that demands a response. Are you ready to go where He leads?
I was at a retreat Monday and Tuesday, so I waited until today to take on our question of the week.
“So David, the elders of Israel, and the captains over thousands, went to bring the ark of Yahweh’s covenant up out of the house of Obed-Edom with joy. When God helped the Levites who bore the ark of Yahweh’s covenant, they sacrificed seven bulls and seven rams. David was clothed with a robe of fine linen, as were all the Levites who bore the ark, the singers, and Chenaniah the choir master with the singers; and David had an ephod of linen on him. Thus all Israel brought the ark of Yahweh’s covenant up with shouting, with sound of the cornet, with trumpets, and with cymbals, sounding aloud with stringed instruments and harps.” 1 Chronicles 15:25-28, WEB
The question comes from Psalm 24. “Who may ascend to Yahweh’s hill? Who may stand in his holy place?”
Psalm 24 is a hymn of praise to God the warrior who has given His people victory over their enemies. It is also a prophecy of Christ’s Kingdom. It is a liturgical psalm that celebrated the return of the Ark of the Covenant as was reported in 2 Samuel 6 or 1 Chronicles 15. It is a beautiful psalm that came at a high point when the King took his place on the throne. It is a coronation song. The righteous king ascends to the Lord’s hill. He has triumphed, and he proceeds to the seat from which he will rule the nations, until every last one of his enemies become his footstool. While it is directly related to events surrounding David and his rule over Israel, it points forward to David’s son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the true King of God’s Kingdom.
While we can read Psalm 24 on its own, we have a much fuller understanding if we read it as part of the “The Shepherd Psalm Trilogy,” which includes Psalms 22, 23, and 24. These psalms focus on Christ the King. We see Him as the Suffering Servant, the Loving Shepherd, and the Reigning King. It is a trilogy of the past, present and future of our Eternal King.
Psalm 22 is very familiar. We read it on Good Friday as we strip the altar. We do this because Jesus quoted Psalm 22 on the cross. He said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The imagery of the Passion is found in this psalm. He is forsaken. He is scorned and mocked. He thirsts. He is surrounded by ruthless people. His hands and feet are pierced. His garments are divided and lots are cast for his clothing. As we read Psalm 22, we see the suffering of Jesus. The psalm also shows us, however, that the afflicted one is not forsaken. God has not hidden his face from him; God has heard his cry. Affliction is not the end of the story. The suffering one will eat and be satisfied.
Affliction leads to deliverance. Jesus knew, despite the cry of abandonment on the cross, that God can be trusted. God is faithful. One day the whole world will join in worship of Him. Psalm 22 gives us a vivid portrait of affliction, alludes to the resurrection and then closes with a future-facing kingdom reign. Jesus fulfills in the Gospels everything we see in the psalm.
We see affliction and a glimmer of hope in Psalm 22. We celebrate a victorious monarchy in Psalm 24. Psalm 23 comes right in the middle. Psalm 23 is the bridge between affliction and triumph, both for Jesus and for us. The pain of the afflicted one in Psalm 22 is translated into contentment and trust in Psalm 23. There is still pain. Real pain. Darkness surrounds the suffering one, but God is the rescuer. God is the Shepherd. He leads and restores. Even though the afflicted one walks through the valley of the shadow of death, God is there to guide and rescue and comfort.
The afflicted one is forsaken, but not utterly forsaken. And therefore, the afflicted one doesn’t fear. In fact, he’s satisfied. He shall not want. God prepares a table for him in the presence of his enemies. He is victorious, and God anoints him. The afflicted one says, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.” Even through affliction. Even through the valley. Even through the grave. God’s goodness and steadfast love and faithfulness will pursue those who trust in Him. Psalm 23 ends with the psalmist dwelling in the house of the Lord forever.
David followed the beloved Psalm 23 with a psalm of victory. God was with him in his affliction and saw him through his valleys to raise him to victory. In this case it was victory over Philistines, and the restoration of the Ark to the people of Israel. If we read Psalm 24 on its own it seems as though David sees himself as a man who can ascend the hill, which he defines as one with clean hands and a pure heart. Yet, David knew that he was a sinner in need of God’s grace. He knew that it was only by God’s mercy that he was chosen to be king. He knew that God would bless and allow into His presence those who seek Him. David celebrated the return of the Ark because he knew it represented the presence of God in Israel.
We know as we read Psalm 24 through 20/20 vision, that there is only one who can ascend to Yahweh’s hill, and that is Jesus Christ. He is the only one who has clean hands and a pure heart. He is the presence of God among us. Just as David knew that it was by God’s mercy that he could ascend to the throne, we know that it is by God’s mercy we can ascend into His presence, to worship Him. He cleans our hands and gives us a pure heart. Who can ascend to God’s holy hill? We can’t do it on our own, but Jesus carries us up that hill so that we can dwell in God’s presence forever.
“Now to him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to him be the glory in the assembly and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.” Ephesians 3:20-21, WEB
I spent a couple days at a retreat this week. In twenty-four hours we worshipped several times, listened to a theologian, and had fellowship with one another that encouraged us in our ministries. It was a time to rest and recoup our energy to go back into the world ready to take on whatever work God would have us do.
The speaker gave us exactly what we needed: a reminder to take time daily to worship God so that we rest and recoup constantly instead of just a few times a year. He focused on the liturgy, including the established prayers and the communal sacred activities that reflect praise, thanksgiving, remembrance, supplication and repentance. There are standard worship liturgies that can be adapted to home and private use, such as Matins and Vespers. These are valuable because they focus our hearts and our minds on God and prepare us for the work we would do for God’s glory in the world, even our secular work. We might not think we have time for liturgy on a daily basis, but liturgy doesn’t have to be long or complicated.
F. R. Webber once said, “Any liturgy, if it is worthy of the name, is made up of selections from God’s inspired Word, and prayers which set forth the truths of God’s Word. These things, repeated week after week, impress themselves upon the minds of both clergy and people, and become fixed in the memory. The whole structure of our liturgy is based on the facts that man is a poor, helpless inner, and is saved only by the grace of God in Christ.”
This quote looks specifically at the liturgy that we use Sunday mornings, but those well known hymns and prayers come to us at the most incredible moments. People who have held vigil by the bedside of a terminal loved one will often talk about how the beloved liturgy gives the patient a moment of lucidity. They will join in saying the Lord’s Prayer or singing the Hymn of Praise. It was written on their hearts and it returned to them just when they needed it most. A friend told the story of a man he knew who had been arrested. He had no prayer books but the words of confession came to him as clearly as if he were standing amongst a congregation of fellow Christians. Children learn the liturgy from an early age and have even been overheard playing “Church” at home.
Our prayers and the way we worship shapes what we believe and what we believe shapes how we live. Spending time with liturgy, with God’s Word, in prayer and worship in public and private settings, helps us to live daily, hourly, in God’s presence. When we are fully aware that God is with us everywhere, at every moment, we live to His glory in everything we do. We don’t need our hymnals to do so because we all have liturgies we use at home. We can all remember nighttime prayers we said as children and table graces we use on special occasions.
At the suggestion from our speaker, I purchased a couple books that can help build this daily habit of prayer and worship at home. One book, called “Every Moment Holy” by Douglas Kaine McKelvey, has prayers for what some might think are ridiculous moments to pray. Do you even think about praying over your coffee maker in the morning? Or before you begin reading a book? Or before you leave the house to go shopping? The prayers in this book help us to look at these every day moments in a new way, to focus our attention on God, which makes us take on these activities with a new perspective. I wish I’d had one of the prayers in February when we were living without electricity for so long a period of time. The liturgy for the loss of electricity reminded me that Jesus is the true light, that we take all our modern comforts for granted, that God is with us in seasons of comfort and discomfort.
Prayer is a relationship with God, and the liturgy is a way that we speak back to God what God first spoke to us. We grow in our relationship when we sing or pray these words. My in-laws always quoted a psalm as a table grace. “Holy, holy, holy, Lord…” comes out of Revelation. We know these in our hearts because we repeat them regularly. And then, when we need them most, they are right at the tip of our tongues, reminding us that God is near. The Bible is filled with doxologies which are short hymns of praise. As we sing these songs we reaffirm our faith that God is with us. These words, like the one in today’s scripture text, is liturgy we can take into the world with us, constantly dwelling in His presence and glorifying Him with praise.
“Show me your ways, Yahweh. Teach me your paths guide me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation, I wait for you all day long. Yahweh, remember your tender mercies and your loving kindness, for they are from old times. Don’t remember the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions. Remember me according to your loving kindness, for your goodness’ sake, Yahweh. Good and upright is Yahweh, therefore he will instruct sinners in the way. He will guide the humble in justice. He will teach the humble his way. All the paths of Yahweh are loving kindness and truth to such as keep his covenant and his testimonies. For your name’s sake, Yahweh, pardon my iniquity, for it is great. What man is he who fears Yahweh? He shall instruct him in the way that he shall choose. His soul shall dwell at ease. His offspring shall inherit the land. The friendship of Yahweh is with those who fear him. He will show them his covenant.” Psalm 25:4-14, WEB
The world would certainly be a better place if there were no war; peace is the ideal. Yet, it is unrealistic to believe that we can truly live in a world that is completely at peace. After all, this is a fallen world filled with sinners, you and I included. Unfortunately the last hundred years have been incredibly ugly and violent, with world wars and ongoing conflicts. Many people long for the days when there is no more war.
Unfortunately, there has never really been a time throughout human history that has been truly peaceful all over the world. We are more aware of war today, but even in ancient times there was always conflict. I read one theory that in the last 3500 years there have only been 230 years of relative peace in the civilized world. Even then, I suspect that there was war somewhere that is not recorded in the history books.
I love to read historical fiction, primarily from Europe during the Middle Ages. Before William the Conqueror arrived on the shores of England, the English fought the Danes, the Saxons and one another. Meanwhile, on the mainland, the French battled against the Normans who battled against the Angevins. King against king, duke against duke, all vying for control of land, resources, and people.
Things weren’t any better when William finally became king of England. There was always strife between those who had power and those who wanted it. Read just a few stories on King Henry VIII (or any of the English kings) and you’ll find that the war often happened within the very halls of their own castles. These were not good for the people or for the nation, but to think that things are worse today is naïve. These kind of wars, the ones between two tribes, are rampant in Africa and South America, although the “tribes” these days tend to be political parties or gangs ruled by drug lords. Even American neighborhoods suffer from turf wars. None of this is good.
But war is sometimes a necessary evil. Even God commanded His people to fight against those who stood in the way of His work; sometimes the war was meant to humble His own people. There are just and right reasons for war: there may be responsibilities so important, atrocities that can be prevented, or outcomes so undesirable they justify war.
Too many wars, like those between those kingdoms in the middle ages, had more to do with the egos and desires of men (and women) and yet even then the wars may have a positive outcome. Peace is certainly the best possible way, but sometimes the only way to peace is through war. Sometimes it is necessary to do the unimaginable to stop the horrific. Where would the world be today if we had not stopped Hitler? World War II was a great tragedy, but in the end the lives lost may have saved many, many others.
That’s why we remember those who died at war on Memorial Day. We remember them and their sacrifices so that their deaths won’t have been in vain. We hate war, but the lives they willingly gave established peace for a moment and restored a sense of normality in a world that had been turned upside down by the egos and desires of men. We remember them because they believed that they had a responsibility to fight to stop the atrocities. They sought to overcome the undesirable consequences of human sinfulness.
Have all soldiers died for a just cause? Certainly not. From the beginning of time men have fought one another for all the wrong reasons. Yet, it is just as important to remember those who died pursuing a mistaken objective so that we learn what it means to fight justly, seeking righteousness even in our conflicts with our neighbors. We remember, we turn to God for mercy and forgiveness. We ask Him to guide us in a better way.
The last Monday of May in the United States is set aside as a day to remember those who have died in service to their country; men and women are being honored for their courage and sacrifice during war. The history of man has been laced with periods when nations have battled against other nations for many reasons. Those of us who lived through the twentieth century saw more bloodshed than throughout the entire history of man. Americans have participated in world wars and regional conflicts, though most Americans do not know what it is like to hear the sounds of bombs or fear gunfire in our own backyard. Too many do not truly understand the sacrifice made by millions of men and women for the sake of others.
There will be peace one day, but that day will come at the end of time when God blows the final trumpet. Only in heaven will peace be real and eternal. Until that day, let’s look to God and thank Him for those willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of others and to ask Him to help us do what is right in this world. Let us also live lives worthy of the sacrifices they made, honoring them by finding peaceful ways to end our conflicts. God has forgiven our sins so that we’ll have the grace to reconcile with our enemies by forgiving them for the sake of Jesus Christ who made the ultimate sacrifice for our eternal life in His Kingdom.