Welcome to the November 2017 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture quotes taken from the American Standard Version
A WORD FOR TODAY, November 2017
Scriptures for Sunday, November 5, 2017, All Saints' Sunday: Revelation 7:(2-8) 9-17; Psalm 149; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
“See how great a love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God!” 1 John 1:1, WEB
Human beings are religious by nature. We all believe in something. We hold to a cause, principle or system of beliefs, whatever it may be. Even the humanist and atheist are religious in their lack of belief in a supernatural force. For many, faith is in self rather than in something else. Unfortunately, religion tends to be a catalyst to many problems in this world. When two people with differing ideas clash, the end result is often violence. Anybody who has followed the comments on Internet posts know how quickly we are to attack one other. Anybody who watches the news can see how quickly disagreement can lead to violence.
Many Christians emphatically claim they are not religious simply to avoid the stigma that is attached to the word based on a long history of improper action in the name of God. Today we are dealing, once again, with a tragedy that has been done in the name of someone’s understanding of God. Oh, there will be those in the next few days who will remind us that it wasn’t done because of religion, but the reality is that it was done because of that man’s understanding of his religion. We might not agree with his cause, the principle of his actions, or his system of beliefs, but he ran that truck into a crowd of people because he is religious. He thinks he will be blessed by this action, that it will make the world a better place and that he will give glory to Allah.
We do not practice our faith in the same way, but we have the same motivations. We want to be blessed, we want to make the world a better place, and we want to bring glory to someone or something beyond ourselves. We act out in ways that we believe will accomplish these things. We can’t understand how someone like the terrorist in New York could believe murder is the right thing to do; we know he has a skewed image of God and the religion he claims to follow. Yet, he believed it was a righteous action and that he will be blessed because of his obedience. He acted on hope and trusts that the persecution he will experience will end in the fulfillment of promises.
The scriptures tell us that his actions were not righteous. He was following a false understanding of God. He was not obedient to God’s commands. The blessing he seeks is not the one that God has promised. He thinks that his actions will earn him benefits in heaven, but as Christians we know that there is nothing we can do to earn God’s favor in this life or the next. We hope for mercy and forgiveness, we trust in God’s grace.
Though I live out my Christian life in this world for the glory of God, for the betterment of society, and for the blessings I receive from living a ‘good’ life, I know that the greatest blessing is that one day I will be face to face with my Lord. As much as I’d like to claim that I deserve this gift, the reality is that nothing I do will get me there; it is only by the blood of the Lamb that we’ll be saved. This God who has shed His own blood for our sake does not call us to murder innocents in His name.
Living in the promises of God is never easy. There will always be those who oppose Him and seek to destroy His people. Persecution is always a possibility when we follow in Jesus’ footsteps. He was spot-free Lamb, sinless and innocent. Yet He suffered the cruelest torture and death imaginable. We are baptized into His life and His death, called to persevere through this life until we see the fulfillment of His promises.
John writes about those who make it through tribulation, “They washed their robes, and made them white in the Lamb’s blood. Therefore they are before the throne of God, they serve him day and night in his temple. He who sits on the throne will spread his tabernacle over them. They will never be hungry, neither thirsty any more; neither will the sun beat on them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the middle of the throne shepherds them, and leads them to springs of waters of life. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
John gives us hope to live our faith in Jesus Christ in this world today sure of the knowledge that one day we will live in a place with no hunger, thirst or pain. Someday we will live in the very presence of God for eternity, with nothing to separate us from the fullness of His glory. The difference between us and the terrorist is that we know this is not ours by our works, but by God’s grace. This leads us to a life of worship, not violence.
William Temple was the Archbishop of Canterbury as Europe was facing World War II. He was known by his admirers as “a philosopher, theologian, social teacher, educational reformer, and the leader of the ecumenical movement of his generation.” He was an excellent moderator; he was able to put forth both sides of an issue so convincingly that both sides often agreed with one another. During the war, Bishop Temple was opposed to the demands of unconditional surrender that the Allied leadership was demanding and supported a process of negotiation to bring about peace in Europe. He worked to help free the Jewish prisoners held by the Nazis. He was a leader in social reform in England, and as a leader in the movement to form the World Council of Churches he helped make great strides in the areas of ecumenism. Not everyone agreed with his policies, either political or religious, however he will be remembered for the impact he had on the world.
William Temple is quoted as saying, “The world can be saved by one thing and that is worship. For to worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God.” While this might seem to work well in the life of a Christ - when one puts God ahead of all else in one’s life, joy and peace can be found in all aspects of life, including the suffering - how can our worship save the world? Most people do not even believe that they need a Savior, even fewer believe in Jesus as Lord.
However, have you ever been in a situation that seemed hopeless, where people were arguing about the most insignificant things? The whole atmosphere changes when one person begins to pray or praise God. Others join in the praise. Though there may be non-believers in the group, they become quiet either out of respect or because no one is left to argue. Words of praise to God will quiet an enemy.
I do not have any answers to the troubles we face in the world today. I do not think 24-hour worship services would have stopped World War II, and I do not think it would stop war today. We have to trust that God has blessed our leaders with the wisdom to use their gifts and knowledge to make just and appropriate decisions. However, those of us who are not the president or generals, those of us who are not leaders in the political, social or religious arenas, can devote ourselves to praising God. As He is glorified, He will bring about His justice and perhaps change the hearts of those who promote violence and war.
After every attack people talk about standing with that place and they offer their thoughts and prayers. Attendance at church rises, although often very briefly. We seek something outside of ourselves for comfort, peace and hope. We gather together to pray. Worship is far more than that. It includes giving fully of ourselves to the will of God – giving our soul to the holiness of God, our mind to the truth of God, our imagination to the beauty of God, our heart to the love of God. Worship begins with praise to God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, thanksgiving for His incredible goodness, rejoicing in His presence. When we worship Him completely, things change.
We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, people throughout the ages that have lived and died for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. Through their testimony we see the love and mercy of God as they pass the things He taught and did from generation to generation. They stood before us; they focused their hearts and minds on Jesus Christ, and we remember them on All Saints’ Day for the faith they passed on to us.
The word saint refers to several different groups of people. A saint is one who has been set aside for special recognition for their lives of faith by the church. Yet, it also refers to all those who have died in the faith. The biblical witness gives a third definition, using the word saint to refer to all those who believe. Each Sunday we confess together our belief in the communion of saints, the fellowship of all believers throughout time and space. We gather together around the table of our Lord Jesus Christ and receive His body and blood with all those who believe from the beginning until the end. Even future generations who do not yet know the Lord are with us in the liturgy, sacraments and the word because God’s promises are timeless.
All Saints Day is not really a day for mourning. It is a day to celebrate the promises of God. For a Christian, death is just a passing into new life in Christ, when we receive the blessings promised by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We weep over the loss of those we love, for they will never again join us in the laughter and pain of this world. Even Jesus wept, for in death we see the reality of sin and the grave. It is separation from those we love, an end to the blessings of life in this world. When someone we love dies, we mourn because we feel the loss, but we know that there is hope beyond the grave. Jesus made it possible.
Those who believe in Jesus will receive blessing from the Lord, salvation from our Savior. We will see the day when mourning is turned to joy. We will feast at the victory table. Jesus overcomes even time and space by drawing all the saints - past, present and future - into one body. All Saints Day is sad as we remember those whose lives have slipped from our grasp, but it is also a joyous event as we remember that they are still with us as part of Christ's body. Jesus is the resurrection; He is our hope and life. He has overcome death and the grave and in Him alone is our hope for salvation. We will receive a blessing from the Lord, those who seek after Him and believe in His name.
The epistle lesson for All Saints Sunday, reminds us that we are children of God and that some day we will join those who have come before us to dwell in God’s presence forever. We celebrate our future at the table, feasting forever on God’s grace without the muck of life in our earthly flesh. We will remember the great cloud of witnesses that have passed before, but we will also look forward to the day when we will be with them again. We will receive the bread and wine of communion, knowing that it is only a foretaste of the feast which our loved ones already enjoy.
In the Gospel lesson for All Saints, Jesus tells us “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” We are comforted by the Word of God that tells us this life is only a momentary journey on our way to an eternity in heaven. We believe and we are blessed. We find comfort in the promise that our mourning will one day come to an end forever as God Himself wipes away our tears.
In our life of humble service we are given the greatest blessing which is that the kingdom of heaven is not just a future hope. It is hard for us to see the blessing in the Beatitudes. Where is the blessedness in poverty, mourning, meekness or hunger? In a world that seeks wealth, fame and power it is hard to understand mercy, purity of heart and peacemaking. These are not seen as strengths, but weaknesses. Finally, it is impossible to rejoice in persecution. Yet, Jesus says, “Blessed are they...” They are the blessed ones, the ones who are receiving the mercy and grace of God.
The hope of faith is framed in this passage by the assurance of God’s presence. In verse three, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In verse ten He says, “Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Notice that in these two verses, the gift is present: theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This is not a promise for just the future. The kingdom of heaven IS theirs.
Death does not only come to us when the physical body fails. We go through all sorts of deaths in our lives. We suffer the grief of unfulfilled dreams, the pain of loss when friends move, the sting of sin that touches all our lives. We live in a transient world, especially those who have jobs with mobility. It is not only true of military families, but many people find themselves moving regularly. This is true also of clergy. How many churches have suffered the loss of a favorite leader because it was time for him or her to move on? Congregations go through a mourning process, especially difficult when the move was related to conflict or hurt feelings. Even within the walls of the church we face the difficulties of this life.
People die. Injustice exists. All too many people have no problem stepping on anyone to get ahead in this world. We will suffer. We would like to think that the promises found in the beatitudes will be fulfilled in this life; they sometimes are. I have found great comfort in the love of my family and friends. I have experienced mercy. Though I have not seen the face of God, I've known His presence and seen His face in the faces of my brothers and sisters in Christ. I've shared in the waters of life and God has indeed wiped away my tears. Yet, I know that I will hunger, thirst and cry again before I pass into life eternal.
On Sunday we will remember those who have passed from this life to the next. We can’t help but mourn, because their lives meant something to us. Our parents, our family, our friends and our neighbors had an impact on the life we lived. They taught us, touched us, comforted us, fed us, showed us mercy and shined the light of Christ. They will be missed and it is good for us to take a moment to join together in this time and place to remember them, honor them and thank God for their witness in our lives.
We stop on this All Saints Day to thank God for their witness. For we were brought into the fellowship of believers as those we loved shared the Gospel with us by God’s grace. We are called to live as they lived, as witnesses so that those who are yet to come will have the opportunity to hear God’s Word and believe. We are saints and that means something. It means we are God’s children, called to a life of worship and praise, of service and justice, of love and peace and joy. Though the life that awaits us after death is greater than anything we can experience in this world, we have work to do.
That work includes sharing the grace and mercy of God with those who are following a false understanding. It includes loving our neighbors, even those whose religion makes demands that make no sense to us. It includes sharing our blessings even with our enemies. It includes worshipping God in praise and prayer, in fellowship with other Christians, in Word and Sacrament. We might just find that the work we are called to do will make a difference in the world. It might just bring us blessings we never expected. It might just glorify God and cause others to sing His praise.
What it won’t do is earn us a place in heaven. Eternity is already ours, thanks to the blood of the Lamb. We are now God’s children, and will be His forever. We might have to wait for the hope to be fulfilled, but God is faithful and so we can go forth in faith knowing that the day will come when we will see Him face to face. And then we’ll worship Him with all the saints forever.
“Oh come, let’s sing to Yahweh. Let’s shout aloud to the rock of our salvation! Let’s come before his presence with thanksgiving. Let’s extol him with songs! For Yahweh is a great God, a great King above all gods. In his hand are the deep places of the earth. The heights of the mountains are also his. The sea is his, and he made it. His hands formed the dry land. Oh come, let’s worship and bow down. Let’s kneel before Yahweh, our Maker, for he is our God. We are the people of his pasture, and the sheep in his care. Today, oh that you would hear his voice!” Psalm 95:1-7, WEB
Thanksgiving in the United States falls in November. Many people are using this month as an opportunity to publically proclaim their thankfulness for the blessings of their lives. The posts include family and jobs, homes and neighbors. I have seen thankfulness for sweaters and coffee posted already. It gets a little harder to keep posting as the month goes on. We are thankful for millions of things in our lives, but we take so much for granted that we don’t even think to be thankful for the commonplace and trivial. It is a wonderful practice as it makes us think about those blessings and see how good our life is even when we are struggling.
I’ve decided to celebrate “Thank Month” by using scripture texts in A WORD FOR TODAY that have the work “thank,” except on Wednesday when I do Midweek Oasis. There are plenty of scriptures to use; the struggle will be keeping each post fresh, with new thoughts about being thankful. The Psalms offer the most verses with some form of the word “thank” (thank, thanks, thanksgiving.) Depending on the version, it is used at least fifty times, in nearly one third of the psalms. It makes sense to begin our month of thankfulness with a psalm.
I once went on a boat ride in the Gulf of Mexico. It is a rather large body of water, surrounded on most sides by land - America to the north, Mexico to the west and south and the Caribbean Islands to the east - so it is almost like a huge round lake, but much bigger. We were only a few miles from the shore, but we were completely out of sight of any land, with only the occasional oil rig or boat to remind us that there is life elsewhere besides the few hundred people on that boat.
As I watched the vast nothingness of the sea, I could not help but consider how inconsequential we really are, little more than a tiny spot on the big sphere of earth. We seem to have conquered the world, especially when we are sitting in the middle of a traffic jam on a Monday morning on our way to work. We build buildings that reach to the sky and can travel all around the world in a matter of hours. We can see the DNA make-up of a human child before he or she is born and we can send men into outer space to build a city. Yet, we could never make an ocean and though we might be able to build an oil rig out there, I doubt we will ever conquer it completely. There is still too much under the water we have not yet explored.
The Gulf of Mexico seemed like a vast desert, though I knew that the water was teaming with a multitude of living things that we could not see. I watched, hoping to see something like a whale or some porpoises playing in the waves, but even the sky was empty of life. I was awed by the endlessness of the water and sky; they seemed to go on forever. I was even more awed by the fact that this was made by God. And though God made the heavens and the earth, though He created the vast oceans, the land and all that lives here, though He controls it all with His hands, He also knows my name. He gave me that name, child of God, daughter of the Most High. As I sat there feeling rather insignificant, I realized that through Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior, the God of all creation has given me a share of His eternal kingdom which is even more awesome than anything I can see on earth.
As we spend the month being thankful, let’s remember that there is nothing commonplace or trivial when it comes to thankfulness. When we consider the entirety of the world, the universe, we are commonplace and trivial, and yet the Lord God Almighty calls us His. He has provided us with everything we need, including the things we take for granted. Let us worship Him and sing His praise in thankfulness, for He is our God, the King above all kings.
“He appointed some of the Levites to minister before Yahweh’s ark, and to commemorate, to thank, and to praise Yahweh, the God of Israel: Asaph the chief, and second to him Zechariah, then Jeiel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Mattithiah, Eliab, Benaiah, Obed-Edom, and Jeiel, with stringed instruments and with harps; and Asaph with cymbals, sounding aloud; 6 with Benaiah and Jahaziel the priests with trumpets continually, before the ark of the covenant of God. Then on that day David first ordained to give thanks to Yahweh, by the hand of Asaph and his brothers.1 Chronicles 16:4-7, WEB
The Ark of God had been lost. This was a special vessel commanded by God to the people of Israel after the Exodus from Egypt. God gave them very specific instructions as to the construction of the Ark. It was made of acacia wood a certain size, covered in gold with gold rings for carrying with gold covered acacia poles and gold angels on the cover. The Ark held the most precious items of Israel: the Tablets of the Law, Aaron’s staff that budded, and a golden jar of Manna. (Hebrews 9:4, although the Old Testament places the staff and the jar in front of the Ark. The key here is that these symbols of God’s relationship with Israel were all kept together in the Holy of Holies.)
The Ark was untouchable. The cover was called the kapporet or the mercy seat. It was there that Moses and the high priests met with God. The mercy seat received the blood of atonement. It was the earthly throne of God. The rings on the corners of the Ark were placed so that no man needed to touch the vessel; the rods were easily strung through the rings for carrying. The scriptures tell us that Uzzah reached out and touched the Ark because one of the cattle stumbled; Uzzah was struck dead. (2 Samuel 6)
The Ark was thought to give the Israelites protection and victory. The Jordan River grew dry so the feet of those carrying it were not dampened as they crossed into the Promised Land. They had carried it around Jericho and won that city. Joshua lamented before Ark when the Israelites were defeated. They consulted with the Ark when they were planning attacks.
They were not always obedient when it came to the use of the Ark. On one occasion, they decided, without consulting God, to take the Ark into battle against the Philistines. They were defeated and the Ark was taken out of their hands. The Philistines held the Ark for seven months, but the Ark was not the blessing for them that it was for Israel. They faced suffering wherever the Ark was held: their idol was broken, the people suffered tumors and mice plagued the land. The Ark was returned to Israel and David joyously led the Ark into a Tabernacle he had prepared for it and they held a grand celebration. In today’s text, David established a regular ministry before the Ark with thanksgiving. Some of the Levites were given the responsibility of writing a record of God’s great works and songs of praise. You will find a number of Psalms headed, “A Psalm by Asaph.”
The Levites were chosen to lead the worship of God in the presence of the Ark, just as our modern worship leaders are appointed to the same task. We must remember, though, their task is to lead us in our worship. They wrote the records and the psalms for the people to know, to repeat, to sing, to join in praise and thanksgiving to the God who did great things for His people. Things don’t always go the way we hope, especially when we are not asking God for guidance, but let us always join with the voices of those over time and space who have been called to lead us in thankfulness to God for His many blessings.
“Be therefore imitators of God, as beloved children. Walk in love, even as Christ also loved you, and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling fragrance. But sexual immorality, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not even be mentioned among you, as becomes saints; nor filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not appropriate; but rather giving of thanks.” Ephesians 5:1-4, WEB
We all have habits we know we should break. We try, but we don’t always succeed. We set New Year’s resolutions and often fail in January. We fast during Lent but we gorge on Easter Day those things we gave up for seven weeks. We struggle with diets, with addictions, with the temptations that keep us on the wrong path. For most of us, these sins are relatively insignificant. After all, who should deny us the happiness we get from that cup of coffee or that extra large piece of cake? Who does it hurt that my language is a little salty?
Language is one of the easiest and yet hardest things that we can control. I went to college to be an elementary school teacher. I had a wonderful mentor when I as a student teacher, perhaps too wonderful. She was perfect in every way, or at least it seemed like she was perfect. The children listened to her; she never once had to raise her voice. Though she had a difficult and extremely diverse class, she was able to impact each of their lives, even the children for whom English was a second language. I struggled.
I may have done better in another classroom, but it was good for me to see myself in that environment. It helped me to my virtues and my faults. Though I was able to accomplish many of the tasks the teacher assigned to me, I was unable to handle the most important thing: teaching the children. All too often, my frustration set my nerves on edge and I reacted by raising my voice. One of the things the teacher constantly brought up during our reviews was my language. She pointed out my raised voice and the words I used. I often resorted to the phrase “shut up” in my effort to get the children to listen. “Shut up” does not help the situation and yelling is even less helpful. My attitude made the children respond negatively, rather than positively. Instead of getting quiet, they got louder. Instead of listening, they turned on their neighbor.
There is a modern day proverb that says, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” This is often taken to mean that everyone should do everything in their power to make Mama happy. If we keep Mama in a good mood, she'll do the things that make our life satisfying and comfortable. However, if Mama ain’t happy, she’ll make our life a living nightmare.
I liked this proverb because it places the blame of chaos on others, but I realized that I needed to turn it around. I realized that if I was not happy, the atmosphere around me was unhappy. My attitude affects the world in which I live. So, if I make a willful attempt to be happy, under any circumstance, those around me will feel comfortable and satisfied. If, when I as student teaching, I had followed the example of my teacher, I might have had a much different impact on the children in my classroom. If I’d been quiet and encouraging, rather than loud and angry, the whole class might have turned around.
We can choose what comes out of our mouths. We are called to be imitators or Christ. Jesus always used language that honored God and loved neighbor. Oh, He did speak the truth to those who opposed Him, but even then He did so with grace. After all, He wanted to turn everyone toward His Father. Some of us take a little harsher push. Yet, He never told his opponents to shut up, He loved them enough to speak the truth. He calls us to repentance and to a life that honors God. That means sacrificing ourselves, ridding ourselves of everything that is not appropriate and replacing it with thanksgiving.
Just as the teacher who could quiet a hoard of noisy first graders with a whisper, we can change the atmosphere in our little corner of the world by using the right language. Thanksgiving begets thanksgiving, so let us live as God has called us to live. We are His children, loved so that we will love, redeemed so that we will worship Him forever. We have a choice. What words will come out of your mouth today?
“Yahweh says: Yet again there shall be heard in this place, about which you say, It is waste, without man and without animal, even in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem, that are desolate, without man and without inhabitant and without animal, the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voice of those who say, Give thanks to Yahweh of Armies, for Yahweh is good, for his loving kindness endures forever; who bring thanksgiving into Yahweh’s house. For I will cause the captivity of the land to return as at the first, says Yahweh.” Jeremiah 33:10-11, WEB
The families of the victims of the most recent shooting were gathered together in one place. It was a time to comfort one another and to receive information. This horrible tragedy ended with the death of the shooter, but it didn’t really end. The families will need to grieve. They will need to deal with the business of burying their dead. The church, which was halved in number in a few minutes, will have to rebuild. Some families lost multiple members; one man survived as eight of his loved ones were killed. I can’t imagine his pain or how hard it will be for him to bury so many. It would be no surprise if he came out of this brokenhearted and bitter.
Many visited those families to offer their support. One was surprised by the peace they found in the room. He couldn’t understand why those families weren’t angry and filled with hate. There may be many reasons for this. Most of those families were still in shock. The enormity of the tragedy was overwhelming. It takes time to process what happened and though they had seen the reality, there is a certain amount of denial in the beginning. There may have been some who were angry and filled with hate, but for the sake of other loved ones buried it for the moment. We expect those suffering to cry out, like those in today’s text, who question even God about the waste they see around them.
Yet, I believe that there was something else in that room. It is horrific that the tragedy happened in a church. There are those who are now questioning security procedures. There is this idea that we should be safer in the walls of our sanctuaries and people are crying out in fear that there is no safety even there. Now, in this case it appears the shooter was targeting estranged family member, but there have been many churches around the world over time that were the victims of violence. Church shootings happen regularly in places like Nigeria. Christians have always been the target of persecution; we are surprised because we take our safety for granted. It hasn’t happened to us; we don’t understand what it means to experience this kind of violent persecution for our faith. But it has always been a reality from the days of the Apostles.
God makes a promise in today’s passage from Jeremiah: I will make things new. He will restore His people. One day they will sing with joy and thanksgiving. We do not live in the world which God intends for us today, but in a world that is filled with darkness. We live in the hope of the world He will make according to His promises. The peace that was in that room that day was not because those grieving families did not know what had happened to them, but because they knew that those who were lost had finally seen the promise fulfilled. They had peace because they believed in the faithfulness of God and live, even in the midst of tragedy, in thankfulness.
Scriptures for Sunday, November 12, 2017, Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost: Amos 5:18-24; Psalm 70; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
“But I am poor and needy. Come to me quickly, God. You are my help and my deliverer. Yahweh, don’t delay.” Psalm 70:5, WEB
We are racing toward the end of the church year; as much as we don’t want to admit it, we are quickly nearing Advent and Christmas. During the last few weeks of the year we look toward the future, not tomorrow, the coming holidays or even next year. We will be looking forward to the fulfillment of all God’s promises, the coming day of the Lord and the eternity that is ours by faith in Jesus Christ.
Come, Lord Jesus.
There are certainly as many ideas about the end times as there are people discussing them. Whole systems of theology have evolved around the study of eschatology, much of it with confusing language and troubling imagery. There have been charismatic leaders who have taken their understanding of the end times to such an extreme that whole communities have died in their leadership trying to force God’s hand. We can name some of the more famous false messiahs who have led their people to the grave following orders down a path of destruction and death.
Some people look forward to the end times with giddiness and expectation. They believe that they are so right about what the end times will look like that they flaunt their salvation and blessedness in the faces of those who believe differently. They believe that they will be saved, that they are a lonely remnant in the world that will be destroyed for lack of belief. They stand up against anyone that disagrees, often to the point of violence. The charismatic leaders have such control over their people that they are willing to even die for their sake. When the leader says, “Drink this” they drink, believing that it will take them to heaven.
I cry out to the Lord almost daily, “Come, Lord Jesus,” but we have to be careful about looking forward to that day with giddy excitement. Some want the end times to happen now so they do what they think will make it happen. They try to force God’s hand; “See God, we made everything ready for you. Come!” They invite God to run on their schedule, to ensure that they are the generation who will see the fulfillment of the promises. To be honest, I wouldn’t mind to see Jesus coming on those clouds. I’m ready to dwell in God’s presence for eternity. However, no human being knows the mind of God so well as to direct God’s hand. We are called to trust in Him, not to test Him or demand that He satisfy our expectations.
Amos says, “Woe unto you that desire the day of Jehovah!” We have been reminded in the past few weeks that while we are saints with faith in God, we are still sinners in need of salvation. Eternity for us is both a present reality and a future hope. We have no reason to believe that the judgment that awaits us at the end of all days will be pleasant for us. We don’t deserve to be protected from times of trouble, for we are as guilty as those that we believe deserve to be left behind.
The message Amos took to his people is one we need to hear also. We have forgotten to live thankful. We are comfortable in our worship, attending services on Sunday but forgetting about God the rest of the week. We ignore the needs of our neighbors. The true life of faith is not that which offers sacrifices because it is our duty or because we want God’s blessing. He desires mercy, not sacrifice. We are to walk in faith because we are thankful for God’s grace.
That’s the best way for us to prepare for the coming of the Lord: to live thankful.
Jesus tells us what it will be like in today’s parable. Ten virgins will be waiting for the bridegroom. Five were prepared for a long wait, but the others expected him to come quickly. The bridegroom came in his time. The wise virgins had extra oil, enough oil. They were patient, trusting that the bridegroom will be faithful. The other bridesmaids were unprepared. They did not expect a delay and were disappointed when the bridegroom did not come. They ran out of oil when he did not arrive on time. Their hope was lost. Hope can die; our light can dim, if we do not keep hold of the promise. The five wise virgins believed the bridegroom even when it seemed like he was never going to arrive. The five foolish virgins ran out of oil; they became confused and disappointed because the bridegroom did not fulfill their expectations. They believed in the bridegroom but their faith rested in their own understanding which failed them in the end.
The people in Amos’s day had faith in the things they were doing. They thought their worship and their offerings were enough to guarantee God’s blessings even in the Day of the LORD. Amos told them a different story. They had lost sight of wisdom. They were not humble or obedient. They did what they thought was right according to the way they understood God. But their understanding was not simple or wise; it was based on the complicated interpretations and rules established by the religious leaders. In the end, they would find that the Day of the LORD would not be what they hoped for; it would be darkness and gloom, a judgment of their failure to be just and righteous. They were like the unwise virgins who weren’t properly prepared for the coming of the bridegroom. Like those virgins, they would be very surprised when He came.
What is wisdom?
The Revised Common Lectionary includes as a choice for today’s a passage from the Apocrypha. I like to include these texts occasionally. Though they are extra-canonical, they serve as additional insight into God and His people. In today’s passage from the Wisdom of Solomon, we have words about wisdom. “Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her. She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her. He who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty, for he will find her sitting at his gates. To fix one’s thought on her is perfect understanding, and he who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care, because she goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought. The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction, and concern for instruction is love of her, and love of her is the keeping of her laws, and giving heed to her laws is assurance of immortality, and immortality brings one near to God; so the desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom.” (Wisdom 6:12-20, RSV)
In this text we see that wisdom is not complicated. She is easy to discern by those who seek her. The one who studies the scriptures easily finds wisdom, clearly revealed in the text. We might spend times seeking spiritual understandings of the scriptures, or seek to understand it based on intellectual and historical knowledge, but the bottom line when it comes to understanding God is that the simple answer is always best.
We live in a divided world. We don’t agree with our neighbors on anything. We disagree about faith and politics. We fight on the football field. We even reject our neighbors for their choice of Coke or Pepsi. We argue with long-winded explanations that have no substance and make the argument personal. We get so caught up in the argument that we lose sight of the people. We lose sight of wisdom. We lose sight of God.
The text from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is perhaps one of the most debated in our day. What does it mean when he says that those who are alive will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord? There are those who understand this to be a physical rapture. Others claim there is something spiritual about this. Yet others put a metaphorical sense on the text. Those who are giddy about the second coming of Christ look forward to the day when they will be caught up and taken away, leaving behind all those who disagree.
The people in Paul’s day, perhaps even Paul, were getting nervous. They expected Jesus to return within their lifetime. They saw the second coming as an immediate response to what was happening, and every day that passed brought doubt and concern. The people who knew Jesus personally were dying. The first believers were passing away. Would Jesus come before they were all gone? Paul assured them that it did not matter. Those who were dead were not gone forever. Jesus would return, and all those who died in faith would be with Him at that trumpet sound. Paul shared his image of that day. It might not be the same as we see it or match the reality when it happens, but he has found comfort in wondering what it will look like. Many others have done the same. The image of Christ returning is a favorite of authors, artists and film makers. It is something I think about.
Paul tells us to encourage one another with these words. What does he mean? Should we be like those who look forward to the Day of the Lord, the Judgment day, expecting to be raptured away from the struggles of our world? Or should we, as Paul says, encourage one another with the hope that comes from believing that Jesus Christ died and rose again to give us eternal life? See, the point of this passage is not that we’ll be taken into the clouds, but that we will be with the Lord forever. Our hope is not in some sort of rapture, but in the reality of eternal life with Christ. Will there be a rapture? Perhaps. Does it matter whether this passage is physical, spiritual or metaphorical? No. What matters is the faith we have in Christ that gives us hope in the midst of our sorrow. It is that faith and that hope that lights our darkness.
Today’s Psalm has been ascribed to David, and it is generally agreed that it was written when David was in the later days of his life. David was a mighty king, but even mighty kings face great difficulties. This is especially true when they are nearing the end of their lives. They are seen by enemies, both close and far away, as weakened and unable to hold on to their kingdoms. David chose his son Solomon to be heir, but David’s other sons wanted the kingdom, too. Though Israel was threatened on all sides by foreign armies, the most difficult battles happened within the walls of his own palace. David’s sons fought against one another and against their father. Amnon raped Absalom’s sister, so Absalom killed Amnon. Absalom rebelled against David and was killed on the battlefield. Adonijah, as the then oldest son, expected to be heir but was rejected for Solomon. He tried twice to gain control, but was eventually killed by Solomon.
It sounds like the script from a soap opera, but it isn’t unusual to hear stories about intrigue in royal families. Murder, adultery, greed, dishonesty and war are found in the histories and in the palaces of all civilizations. To many the end justifies the means and the end is always power. But in David we see a man who has learned what it means to be humble, to turn to God in times of trouble and to praise Him even if the circumstances seem impossible to overcome.
As we wait for the Day of the LORD, we may find ourselves in the midst of troubles and suffering, attacked by the self-righteous who do not seek Wisdom as she appears to the faithful. We are called to be like David, humble before God, seeking His face and being obedient to His Word. David is faithful and faith-filled. The one who knows Wisdom is also faithful and faith-filled. As we seek to know God, we will find Wisdom who will teach us and guide us in His ways. She will be vigilant and present in our lives. She is not hard to find, but as the writer of the lesson from the Wisdom of Solomon says, “she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought.”
For God, faithfulness and faith-filled lives are manifested in kindness and mercy and grace. That is the life that will be rewarded with fulfillment of God’s promises. Unfortunately, throughout the history of God’s people, we have repeatedly lost sight of the reality, getting caught up in our own expectations. Take, for instance, the understanding of the people in Amos’s day. They did what they thought they had to do and they looked forward to the coming Day of the Lord. But Amos had bad news for them. They had a wrong image of what was to come.
People are merciful when they are thankful for the mercy they have received. We are generous when we are thankful for the things that we have been given. But there are times when we aren’t so generous: when we are afraid and when we are comfortable. When we are afraid, it is hard to see anything for which we can be thankful. When we are threatened by forces outside ourselves, we hold on to the little we have, trying to ensure “enough” for tomorrow. We can’t take care of the needs of others because we are too worried about our own needs. This is true of mercy as well as money. It is hard to be merciful if we are afraid that we will not receive mercy.
It is understandable that people are not generous when they are operating in a state of self-protection. We can’t give a hand to someone else when we are hanging by a threat. Even worse, however, is when we are in a state of comfort. We forget to be thankful. We forget about those times when we were afraid or hungry or poor. In our comfort we see no need to be thankful. Our lack of thankfulness makes us blind to our neighbors and apathetic about their problems.
We can overcome our fear and apathy with an attitude of thankfulness, but even when we regularly attend worship and say that words of thanksgiving, we all too often forget to be thankful. We thank God in the immediacy of our salvation and our prosperity, but we do not continue to do so in the constancy of life. When we face the dangers that cause our fear, do we thank God for those times when we were lifted out of danger? When we are surrounded by the good things in life, do we remember the source of all our blessings? We wear the façade and we offer the sacrifices, but do we really trust and hope in God?
The wise virgins had lasting hope, a faith that believed that the bridegroom would come, even when it seemed impossible. They were prepared for the late coming of the loved one. Paul wrote words of wisdom to a people whose hopes were fading. Their loved ones were dying despite the promise that Christ would come again. Why was He delayed? Paul reminded them that the promise is for those who believe in Christ, whether dead or alive and that Christ would bring all those of faith together in His day. We need only be patient and prepared.
There is reason to hope. It is easy to fall apart when our expectations are smashed and we are disappointed by what we see happening in the world around us. It is easy to fall into the temptations around us, to conform to the world and to give in to our flesh. But we need not be afraid of tomorrow; God is looking at things much differently than our human hearts and minds. He does not accept the worship that is not founded in real sacrifice. He does not care about the blood of animals or the sweet sounding songs if there is no justice. Righteousness is not something that can be worn like a mask, but is a right relationship with the One who has delivered and promised to save His people.
What does it mean to be prepared for the coming of the Lord? What are your expectations for the end times? We begin to answer these questions by turning to God, seeking His guidance and deliverance, rather than relying on our own strength, knowledge and expectations. What do you think you will see on that day? Your expectations are really not important; the important thing is to remember that the promise is in Jesus Christ. Our hope is not that that Jesus will come at a certain time or do a certain thing; we hope in the promise that we will be with the Lord forever, whenever He comes.
As we look forward to His second coming, considering the apocalypse to come, we are called to encourage one another through the good times and the bad. Let us continually seek God, trusting in Him, rejoicing with thankfulness and gladness. The one who is prepared for that Day is the one who lives as if they have been blessed to be a blessing, praising God for all that He has done and dwelling in the hope that the bridegroom is coming!
“There was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher (she was of a great age, having lived with a husband seven years from her virginity, and she had been a widow for about eighty-four years), who didn’t depart from the temple, worshiping with fastings and petitions night and day. Coming up at that very hour, she gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of him to all those who were looking for redemption in Jerusalem.” Luke 2:36-38, WEB
Anna was a devote prophetess. She was extremely old; depending on how the Greek is translated she was at least eighty-four, but was more likely over one hundred years. She had not left the Temple for decades, at the very least half a century, and had worshipped God daily.
We live in a world that can barely pay attention for more than a few minutes. Researchers have found that unless a web developer catches a surfer’s attention, they will not stay on a page for more than 10-20 seconds. The surfers stay only long enough to read a fraction of the text and then they click through to the next page. We can’t sit still. We can’t pay attention. We do not want to do anything that takes too long because there’s always something better to do somewhere else.
Unfortunately, this is true in our faith lives, too. One of the biggest struggles of worship teams is planning worship that fits into a specific time period. Sometimes this is because the schedule demands it; another service or Sunday school begins immediately following and there is no room for flexibility. Sadly, the rush to finish is often demanded by the members of the congregation. They need the service to be only an hour because they want to get to the diner before the crowds. We are no better at our prayer lives, rushing through our devotional time because there is something else we need to do. We settle for popcorn prayers, the kind that pops up in our minds as we are busy with our daily lives. We skim over daily bible readings, if we even find the time to open our book.
Anna lived a life we can’t possibly imagine. It was a different world, of course, but even then people were rushing around, taking care of their business and families. Worship was different although I’m sure there were at least a few who were impatient with the time spend without accomplishing anything tangible. After all, we are all human and not much has changed under the sun. There were probably those who did not understand how Anna could live in the Temple and worship constantly. She had a special gift, and I don’t think her life is the kind of life God is calling most of us to live. We are put in the world to glorify Him with whatever work we are gifted to do.
We can learn from Anna’s life, though. We may not live in the Temple and pray constantly, but her story reminds us that we should slow down and spend more time with God. She knew that Jesus was the Promised One because God had written it on her heart. Can we recognize the blessings before us when we are so busy rushing from one place to another, throwing quick prayers and grabbing brief glimpses of His grace? She was in the right place at the right time to witness the promise fulfilled and then she was so thankful that she took the Good News to others. Are we thankful enough to do the same?
“Now may he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food, supply and multiply your seed for sowing, and increase the fruits of your righteousness; you being enriched in everything to all liberality, which produces through us thanksgiving to God. For this service of giving that you perform not only makes up for lack among the saints, but abounds also through many givings of thanks to God; seeing that through the proof given by this service, they glorify God for the obedience of your confession to the Good News of Christ, and for the liberality of your contribution to them and to all; while they themselves also, with supplication on your behalf, yearn for you by reason of the exceeding grace of God in you. Now thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift!” 2 Corinthians 9:10-15, WEB
Blessed to be a blessing. We are, by the grace of God, blessed to be a blessing. It doesn’t matter how much or how little we have, when we are thankful for that which God has given us, we will share our blessings with others.
Have you ever noticed how some of the poorest among us are the most generous? It is very easy to give a million dollars when you are a multi-millionaire, and without those generous gifts much would not be done in our world. Yet, the sacrificial giving of those who have very little, though the amount is so much less than the millionaire, is as valuable. Remember, Jesus pointed out the woman in the Temple who put two small brass coins in the treasury and said, “Most certainly I tell you, this poor widow gave more than all those who are giving into the treasury, for they all gave out of their abundance, but she, out of her poverty, gave all that she had to live on.” Her humble offering reminds us to be thankful for all God’s blessings upon our lives, not only in words, but in deeds.
Jesus praised God for her generosity. So, too, does those who benefit from the gifts we return to God through charity and kindness. We are blessed to be a blessing and when we bless others with our blessedness, they see God’s grace and offer thanksgiving. Generosity is a way to thank God for all He has done for us. God surely blesses us differently. Some are given more than others, not because they are loved more, but because God demands more from their blessedness. Let us remember this as we consider how we will give back in thanksgiving during this time of year. Whether you have a million dollars to share, or two small brass coins, do so sacrificially in thanksgiving for God’s great gifts of life, peace, joy and forgiveness.
“I will praise the name of God with a song, and will magnify him with thanksgiving. It will please Yahweh better than an ox, or a bull that has horns and hoofs. The humble have seen it, and are glad. You who seek after God, let your heart live. For Yahweh hears the needy, and doesn’t despise his captive people. Let heaven and earth praise him; the seas, and everything that moves therein! For God will save Zion, and build the cities of Judah. They shall settle there, and own it. The children also of his servants shall inherit it. Those who love his name shall dwell therein. ” Psalm 69:30-36, WEB
Hans Seyle, a prominent researcher in the field of stress claims that two attitudes more than any other affect human lives: revenge and thankfulness. These two emotions influence our state of mind, our health and our feelings of security and success. Revenge is an unhelpful, negative emotion that causes frustration and unhappiness. It is dangerous and unhealthy. On the other hand, a grateful heart knows peace and joy. Hans writes, “Among all the emotions, there is one which more than any other, accounts for the absence or presence of stress in human relations: that is the feeling of gratitude.”
A man named Mike’s wife was in the intensive care until of the hospital. When asked about her condition, he answered that though things were not great, she did recognize him and they prayed together. He added that they sought comfort in the scriptures, particularly the passage from James encouraging believers to find joy even in the trials of life. God is able to make good things happen out of the most horrible circumstances. It does little good to worry and fret when we can look toward God in thanksgiving and praise, knowing that He is able to do the most extraordinary things in our lives. Mike finished by saying, “It is impossible to be anxious and thankful at the same time.”
It may not always seem possible to find joy in the midst of our suffering or thanksgiving in the midst of our pain. Yet, when we focus on the negative, when we worry and fret or even go so far as seeking some sort of revenge for our misery, we will suffer in our physical, emotional and spiritual health. Stress can cause so many problems in our bodies, hearts and minds, but we can live in a way that will reduce the level of stress in our lives. With thanksgiving and praise, we see God in even the hard times and trust that He will do good things.
We are talking about thanksgiving this month because people in the United States will gather with family and friends next week to thank God for our blessings. Yet, one day is never enough to really live a life of gratefulness. For good health it should be a daily attitude, an emotion that accompanies every aspect of our lives. Thanksgiving is not just one day a year when we go overboard with the love and food, but it is a way of life that brings joy and peace to the lives of all who live it. It helps us see the goodness of God even in the midst of suffering. He does not desire that we sacrifice anything, except to offer Him sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving. There we will know His salvation and His presence.
“Put on therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, humility, and perseverance; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, if any man has a complaint against any; even as Christ forgave you, so you also do. Above all these things, walk in love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your heart to the Lord. Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father, through him.” Colossians 3:12-17, WEB
David Milton was a merchant seaman during World War II. His ship was carrying Sherman tanks to Europe on one crossing when the ship hit a storm. The tanks broke loose from their holdings; as the ship rocked to and fro, the tanks slid back and forth banging against the walls, tearing the ship apart. The sailors managed to re-secure the tanks by lashing them down with cables. The ship continued on its way. The greatest stress on the ship came not from the war to which it was going or from the storm that blew outside, but from within the heart of the ship.
As we think about our modern world, peace is something that is very hard to come by. In international relations, there is always some country or regime that is threatening violence against another nation or their own people. War is a constant factor in the lives of many people. Even in the United States we are faced with the possibility that our military will be sent abroad.
We also see a lack of peace in our daily relations with people in our own neighborhoods and families. Violence and crime are an ever-growing danger in our cities and our towns. People are quick to sue a friend or a neighbor to get what they want. Divorce is rampant. Our children are facing the most difficult issues that have ever been put before young people: drugs, sexual disease, bullying, and single parent families. These things are not only found in the inner city, but also in rural areas. 'Reality TV' producers provide the most popular television programs, shows that pit neighbor against neighbor in battles for power, money or fame. How can one person possibly make peace in our society today?
Charles Spurgeon once asked, “Do you know what it is, when you are tossed on the waves, to go down into the depths of Godhead, there rejoicing that not a wave of trouble ruffles your spirit, but that you are serenely at home with God your own Almighty Father?” This is peace. We live in a world of violence, hatred and war, yet we have a peace within our souls that is beyond understanding. We may never be able to bring peace to our world, cities, neighborhoods or even our families, but we can share the peace of Christ.
It is said, “Peace begins with me.” As the ship that was tossed to and fro on the ocean needed its cargo battened down inside, so too must we have an inner calm to face the storms of life. True peace is not something we can create on the outside, but rather something that comes from the inside. In Christ, we live a life of making peace with others, by sharing the Gospel of Christ so that all might have the inner peace needed to face the violence, hatred and war in this world. In Christ, we are clothed with those traits that will promote peace rather than desire the things that will make us happy in our flesh. Paul reminds us in today’s passage to be thankful, so whatever you do in the name of the Lord Jesus, do so with thanks.
Scriptures for Sunday, November 19, 2017, Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost: Zephaniah 1:7-18; Psalm 90:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
“But you, brothers, aren’t in darkness, that the day should overtake you like a thief. 5 You are all children of light, and children of the day.” 1 Thessalonians 5:4-5a, WEB
The Day of the Lord. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I cry out daily “Come, Lord Jesus,” but I’m reminded by today’s Old Testament lesson that it isn’t necessary a day we should hope to see. There is nothing but doom and gloom found in this text. There is no promise. There is no Gospel. There is only a word of warning describing that the Day of the Lord will be horrifying. God will be searching for sinners, setting forth to punish those who are indifferent. God’s people thought that God would let them be because they were His people, but in this passage we see that God will not hold back from dealing with the sins of His people. This isn’t a pretty passage. It is not an image of God we want to see.
We find comfort in the images of Christ returning, taking His people with Him, promises that will be fulfilled finally after so much time. Yet, we cannot forget that the people of Israel were God’s people and that they had turned from the God who had blessed them above all other nations. They were set aside for a purpose and they had failed. They were unfaithful and God would not come simply to defeat His enemies, but to cause His people to repent.
The scriptures say, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” We automatically think this is spoken of the atheist or agnostic who rejects or doubts the reality of God. They call us the fools for believing in a myth or a fairytale, calling faith a crutch to those who are not wise enough to understand the world without superstitious ideas.
Zephaniah identifies another type of fool. God says, “It will happen at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the men who are settled on their dregs, who say in their heart, “Yahweh will not do good, neither will he do evil.” The phrase “are settled on their dregs” can be translated “are complacent.” This was spoken about God’s people; they had become self-satisfied and conceited. They didn’t believe that God would do anything, good or bad. If they sinned, they wouldn’t be punished; any good works they did had nothing to do with God. It is almost better to reject or doubt God than to believe and reduce Him to nothing more than a far off creator-king who is no longer involved in his creation.
I’m not sure things are much different today. While many people believe that there is a God, their understanding of Him is minimalistic and their faith is little more than a footnote on their life. It is a label that doesn’t mean much, it doesn’t affect the way they live and they don’t expect anything to come of it. God is there, safely tucked away in a corner of their mind. They attend church services and donate to charities, but faith is kept separate from the rest of their lives. In too many cases, faith is the least priority. They might not say “Yahweh will not do good, neither will he do evil,” but they live as though nothing they do matters to their King.
So, it does us well to listen to the warnings of the Old Testament promise. It is true we live under a new covenant, but we are the like those who have believed in God. We, too, can become complacent. We can forget God when our focus is on other things. We can turn our hope toward earthly things and lose sight of the One who is our true hope. Zephaniah talks about the people building houses and making wine, building up wealth that they would never use. Aren’t we doing the same? And when our lives are threatened by forces beyond our control, we mumble like the people in Zephaniah’s day that God won’t do anything, good or bad. We think we can “settle on our dregs.” But God is offended by our indifference.
He calls us to know Him fully, to know His power as well as His grace. He reminds us with passages such as this one from Zephaniah that we can fall, turning away from the grace He so freely gives. We can lose sight of Him by focusing on our own desires and resting in our own wealth. Zephaniah writes, “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to deliver them in the day of Yahweh’s wrath.” We can’t buy our way out of learning that lesson all over again. We can only fall on our knees in repentance, crying out to the God who can ensure our deliverance or allow our destruction. Has He, even now, been consecrating the enemy for that great and terrible Day of the Lord? Will we see it? Are we ready?
This is certainly not a message we want to hear. But we do have something that trumps this message: hope in God. He has promised, and He is faithful. We may not hear it clearly, but the Gospel underlies every text in the scriptures. We read a message like this through the eyes of faith, resting in God’s love. We know that He has relented from destruction. He has changed His mind. We also know that He has given us His own Son to overcome our faithlessness and sin. The image in this passage may seem hopeless, but we are called to believe that there is always hope even when we can’t see it with our eyes. God does not forget His promises. Despite the warning there is always a promise. Zephaniah writes later in the book, “Yahweh, your God, is among you, a mighty one who will save. He will rejoice over you with joy. He will calm you in his love. He will rejoice over you with singing.” (Zephaniah 3:17)
We like to put God in a box. It is much easier for us to deal with God if we make Him fit into our world. We build magnificent churches for His habitation, as if He needs a place made by human hands to dwell. We visit Him regularly, but when we walk out the doors into the world, we often forget that He goes with us. It is easier for us if we let Him stay hidden away in our box because we don’t know how to deal with the God we often see in the texts, like that of Jeremiah.
But our uncertainty isn’t limited to the Old Testament images. Some people are bothered by the image are very bothered by the image in the Gospel lesson. We can’t embrace a God who is “a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter.” Yet, this is the story of a master giving his servants an opportunity to work in his kingdom. He gave each of these servants according to their ability and left them to learn how to deal with business while he was gone. A good master will give some freedom to the servant so that they might succeed knowing they will make mistakes. Some of the greatest lessons are learned in failure. The third servant is unprofitable in this story not because he did not make a profit, but because he did nothing.
A light bulb glows brightly when it is new, but it slowly dims as time goes by. As it gets older, the light bulb eventually burns itself out until that day when the filament breaks and the light is gone forever. When we replace the bulb we are shocked by its brightness. We do not realize how dim the old one had become until is replaced with a new and brighter light. We do not know when a light bulb will burn out, but when it is replaced we realize that we had been seeing the signs all along, we just didn’t realize it.
Paul might have thought that Jesus would return during his lifetime, but his words are for us today. Despite two thousand years of waiting, we are called to stay awake. It is easy to become complacent, to settle into the world without concern for the heavenly things. It is easy to let the light bulb slowly dim making it hard to see how our lives are falling apart around us. But we are called to be in the light, to shine the light of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are called to suit up and dwell in the promise of God, whose hope and salvation are true. We won’t be disappointed unless we allow ourselves to settle too deeply into the world and forget that the immediacy of Paul’s warning is as vital for us now as it was for them. Jesus will come; if we lose sight of His kingdom He will come like a thief in the night. But we are people of the light, called to be ready instead of “settling on our dregs.”
Every generation of Christian and religious folk from many faiths since the beginning of time have wondered about the end of the world. The imagination can go wild with the possibilities. We see the end as some sort of catastrophic event. People have watched for signs on earth and in the heavens. Comets, eclipses, meteor showers foretold of doom. The people have always pointed to world events as proof that they are the generation that will see the end. War, rumors of war, natural disasters are all signs or omens and have been for every generation of humans. The same is true today.
Matthew’s text focuses us on the work and successes or failures of the people waiting for the return of the landowner. The story foretells of Jesus’ own leaving and return; He is the landowner who gives His servants everything they need to do the work of the Kingdom. In the parable, the landowner returns to find two of his servants have not only worked hard, but have doubled the resources the master gave them to use. They took what they had and made it into something bigger and better.
So, even though the text does hint at an end time scenario, it is even more important to think about what we should be doing while we wait. We aren’t very good at patience; human beings haven’t been from the beginning of time. Even the Old Testament heros did what they thought would hurry God along. Look at Abraham and Sarah. They could not wait for God to fulfill His promise that they would be the father and mother of nations, so they took matters into their own hands. They decided to use Sarah’s servant to get the long awaited heir. Their impatience still impacts our world today. Moses had little patience with God and the people as they journeyed through the wilderness. David had little patience with his situation and dealt with his sin against Uriah with more sin. The consequences of our decisions can be life altering, not just for ourselves, but for the world in which we live.
So, we know Christ is coming again, but we do not know when. How do we respond to the hope as we wait? The problem in Paul’s day is that the people were getting frantic because they were dying and Jesus had not yet returned. They were afraid and doubted the promise. They didn’t know what to do. Some were falling for false preaching. Others were oppressive with their own preaching, forcing others into faith to compel Jesus’ return. Yet others gave up. They stopped waiting and turned to the world for comfort and peace.
We look at the story of the talents and realize that we are called to be like the two servants who used their talents for the glory of God. He has gone away but has left us each with sufficient resources to make a difference while we wait. It does us no good to sit around waiting for the Day of the Lord because there is so much to be accomplished. It does us no good to bury our gifts when there are so many people who still need to experience God’s kingdom. So, instead of waiting and wondering when the Day of the Lord will happen, or even wonder what it will be like, we are called to get to work, doing God’s business today. Then we have no need to worry, or fear, or doubt, because we’ll be doing exactly what God is expecting from us when Christ comes again. He’d find us actively living in faith and hope and love, ready to see what He has planned for us in eternity.
We find it difficult to deal with the idea of eternity. How can there be no beginning or end to time? We have so nicely laid out our days, divided them up into simple units: seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years. We have even taken the story of God and divided it up into seasons; that’s what we do with the lectionary and in this devotional. Time is easier for us to grasp when we can identify it. We remember yesterday and look forward to tomorrow. The stories have been written so that we won’t forget, and so that we can see our place in God’s Kingdom. Yet, it is frightening to consider. What is our life compared to eternity? What is our life compared to the universe? Our life is barely a fraction of a second and we are nothing more than a spot on a speck. To cope with this, we define God by our terms, limiting His time and His scope to be much closer to us. We can hold on to a God that we keep in a building.
God calls us to look at the world from a different perspective. He does not need our buildings to dwell among us, but rather offers Himself as a dwelling place for us. He is not limited by time. The psalmist writes, “a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past.” We might think time passes quickly, especially when we watch our children grow up. But we can’t even imagine a thousand years being like just one day.
And so, as we draw closer to the Day of the Lord, we are reminded that God cannot be kept in a box. Unfortunately, we have our limits. Time passes. We get older. Things change. The world becomes different. Our magnificent buildings crumble and fall. The things we deem important become obsolete. Even our words pass away; they are forgotten or they become irrelevant. But God and His Word are from everlasting to everlasting. He does not dwell in the world we have created for Him, we dwell in Him. He does not exist within time as we have ordered it; He has ordered the world in which we dwell.
We need not put God in a box to understand Him because He has given us all we need. Whether our time is short or long, our home large or small, we dwell in the midst of the One who is outside time and space even while we are limited by our flesh in this world. And while we find comfort in certain images of God, let us never forget that He is more than we can imagine. He is beyond our grasp even while He is so close that we can feel presence in our life. This paradox is such a great mystery, and what kind of God would He be if we could know Him as fully as He knows us?
When will the Great Day come? We don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. Whether Jesus comes today or in a thousand years is up to God. Until that day, we are called to be actively participating in the creative and redeeming work that He began. It is tempting to be like the third servant, planting our resources so that they won’t be lost, but our mission is to use the gifts that God has given. Now or later, near or far, the day is God’s and by faith we can trust Him. Eternity will be more than we can imagine. Until then, this life can be more than we can imagine if we dwell in the Lord and use His gifts until they are multiplied beyond our wildest dreams.
“In that day you will say, ‘I will give thanks to you, Yahweh; for though you were angry with me, your anger has turned away and you comfort me. Behold, God is my salvation. I will trust, and will not be afraid; for Yah, Yahweh, is my strength and song; and he has become my salvation.’ Therefore with joy you will draw water out of the wells of salvation. In that day you will say, ‘Give thanks to Yahweh! Call on his name. Declare his doings among the peoples. Proclaim that his name is exalted! Sing to Yahweh, for he has done excellent things! Let this be known in all the earth! Cry aloud and shout, you inhabitant of Zion; for the Holy One of Israel is great among you!’” Isaiah 12:1-6, WEB
Israel was God’s chosen people, but throughout their history they were unfaithful to God. He was never far, but they turned their backs on Him, so much so that He often used their enemies to bring them to their knees. Isaiah was a prophet called to reach out to God’s people, to bring them to repentance and to purify a remnant of His apostate people. The words are given for the sake of Israel, but are relevant to us because it is a call for all people over time and space to repent of sin and trust in God. Today’s passage is filled with the promise of God’s faithfulness. Though they will one day be exiled, there will also be a day of salvation in which they can rejoice.
I spent Monday and Tuesday at a retreat. We spent our time in worship and theological conversation. The presenter talked about apologetics, which is the defense of the faith, as it relates to evangelism. He showed us that we usually approach non-believers with the idea that we are going to prove God exists. Unfortunately, this gives control of the conversation to the unbeliever who will rarely be convinced of his or her need for God. He showed us a different sort of apologetics which begins with the believer standing on the truth that God does exists and then showing the unbeliever that their view of there being no God is not only foolish, but impossible. They have been created in the image of God and has His Law written on their hearts and are therefore in rebellion. They are sinners in need of a Savior. Evangelism should always lead to repentance, not just acceptance.
This is much harder than it sounds. We live in a world that no longer considers a sin a sin. As a matter of fact, in many hearts it is upside down; they call evil good and good evil. Pastors don’t preach about sin or repentance. We try to prove God exists and then hope people will accept Him without telling them why they need Him. They are in rebellion, having turned their back on the God who is their Creator and Redeemer. They know because God is revealed in all His Creation but they reject what they know is the truth and they live according to their own laws rather than God’s Law.
We have been saved by Jesus Christ, but we continue to turn our back on our God. We all fail to be the people God created and redeemed us to be, and we suffer the consequences of our sin. We deserve whatever penalty is right for the foolish choice we make in trusting the world over Him. It is unlikely that we’ll be taken off into exile by an enemy, but somehow He will bring us to our knees so that we will remember His promises and cry out to Him. He is never far and He is always gracious to save.
In that day we will give thanks to God. That day may be the Day of the Lord when all things will be made new and we will be cleansed forever by the blood of the Lamb, or it may be today, when we repent of our daily failures to live up to the expectations of our God. In that day let us give thanks to our God and sing His praise, telling everyone what He has done so that they, too, will know that He IS and turn to receive His grace.
“Give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good; for his loving kindness endures forever. Give thanks to the God of gods; for his loving kindness endures forever. Give thanks to the Lord of lords; for his loving kindness endures forever: To him who alone does great wonders; for his loving kindness endures forever.” Psalm 136:1-4, WEB
Why do we thank God? That’s a question the world might ask; sometimes we even ask it ourselves. We look at our possessions and think about the hours we have slaved at jobs to earn the money to buy these things. God did not give them to us, so why thank Him? We think about the jobs we have and we know we are lucky to be employed, but we also know that we spent years in school and working our way up the corporate ladder to have the position. God didn’t hand it to us. We might have prayed for that job, but there were a lot of very earthbound reasons why it is ours. We love our spouses and our friends and we are thankful that they are in our lives, but when we struggle in those relationships we wonder if they are really what God intends for our lives.
The people of the world think we are foolish for thanking God for that which comes to us by our hard work and personal decisions. We sometimes even wonder about it ourselves, especially when we don’t quite feel blessed. Sadly, for Christians, it isn’t even that we doubt God’s hand in our lives, but most of the time we just don’t think about God in our thankfulness. As we post that we are thankful for sweaters and coffee and our favorite television shows, are we thankful to God or simply thankful? When we are thankful for our blessings are we really giving praise to God?
The psalm for today continues with a long list of reasons why the psalmist calls us to give thanks to God. He created the world and the heavens. He led the Hebrews out of Egypt, with everything that went along with their journey to the Promised Land. He rescued God’s people from their enemies and provided for them. “Oh give thanks to the God of heaven; for his loving kindness endures forever.” This list included miraculous moments in the story of Israel, but also the destruction of those who stood in the way of God’s plan for His people. The people of the world question whether we should be thankful to such a God.
Yes, we work hard for the life we have, for our jobs and homes and even our relationships. God does not hand such things to us. Yes, we all struggle with times of trouble and uncertainty about this God who doesn’t always seem to be a blessing. Yet, as people of faith we are called to give thanks to God for He is good. We are thankful not simply because we have a bunch of stuff, a job and people we love. We are thankful because He IS. We are thankful for what He has done. We are thankful for His promises. We are thankful because we know His loving kindness endures forever. It is good to be thankful for sweaters and coffee and our favorite televisions shows, but let us always remember that even if we had nothing for which to be thankful in this world, we are called to be thankful to God.
“For Yahweh your God brings you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of springs, and underground water flowing into valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive trees and honey; a land in which you shall eat bread without scarceness, you shall not lack anything in it; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you may dig copper. You shall eat and be full, and you shall bless Yahweh your God for the good land which he has given you. Beware lest you forget Yahweh your God, in not keeping his commandments, and his ordinances, and his statutes, which I command you today; lest, when you have eaten and are full, and have built fine houses, and lived in them; and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied; then your heart might be lifted up, and you forget Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage; who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with fiery serpents and scorpions, and thirsty ground where there was no water; who poured water for you out of the rock of flint; who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers didn’t know; that he might humble you, and that he might prove you, to do you good at your latter end: and lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand has gotten me this wealth.’ But you shall remember Yahweh your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth; that he may establish his covenant which he swore to your fathers, as it is today.” Deuteronomy 8:7-18, WEB
The Israelites had been wandering in the wilderness for forty years. Most of those who left Egypt with Moses had died and a new generation was getting ready to enter the Promised Land. God had been faithful for all those years even though His people had not been faithful. After all, that’s why they could not enter into God’s rest forty years earlier. The book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ sermon to the people, to remind them that God never left them even when they turned from Him. He reminded them of God’s Law and He encouraged them to be faithful to the God who was always faithful to them.
The Israelites had much for which to be thankful. Look at the blessings that God was promising to them as they entered into the Promised Land. It was a good land with plenty of water, a wonderful promise after wandering in a desert for so long. The fields would be filled with good food and they would not hunger again. After so many years of manna, I can imagine a hot baked loaf of bread with honey would be a delight. Entering into the Promised Land meant that God’s promises to Abraham were finally being fulfilled after hundreds of years of waiting. No wonder they were thankful.
Thankfulness is about more than words and a list of blessings. It is easy in our comfort and satisfaction to forget about the God who is never far and who provides all we need. We need to be careful that we do not take all His blessings for granted, to fall into the temptation of giving ourselves credit for the good lives we are living. A life of thankfulness manifests in more than lip service, it is a life lived in obedience to God. Moses reminds the people in this passage that their years of wandering were because they turned away from God. They suffered hunger and thirst, serpents and scorpions and a whole generation passed away before they could receive the promise. “Do not forget what God has done for you or you, too, will find yourself humbled.”
God does not do this to punish His people, but to remind them of the source of all their power. Israel failed over and over again, often turning from God in their comfort or their fear to other powers, whether their own or their allies. God gave them over to their rebellion, though never far from them, so that they would cry out to Him for help. Sadly, we haven’t learned the lesson, and we too turn from God. We might say the words of thanksgiving, but our lives do not manifest our love and trust of God. We take credit for our blessings and we rely on our own strength, but even in our rebellion God is near. He reminds us in this text to remember all He has done with thanksgiving, but also calls us to obedience. For it is not just saying the words but in living His Word that we show our thankfulness and glorify Him.
“May God be merciful to us, bless us, and cause his face to shine on us. Selah. That your way may be known on earth, and your salvation among all nations, let the peoples praise you, God. Let all the peoples praise you. Oh let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you will judge the peoples with equity, and govern the nations on earth. Selah. Let the peoples praise you, God. Let all the peoples praise you. The earth has yielded its increase. God, even our own God, will bless us. God will bless us. All the ends of the earth shall fear him.” Psalm 67, WEB
St. Francis of Assisi once said, “Preach the Gospel always, when necessary use words.” This is not my favorite quote from an early church father because words are always necessary. See, it is never our good works that saves someone; only God’s Word, spoken and heard, will move a sinner to repentance. That’s what the Gospel is all about, after all; it is God offering His forgiveness and inviting those lost in sin and darkness into the Light which is Jesus Christ.
Now, there is value to the quote from St. Francis because our good works do open hearts to hear the Word. No one will listen to that Christian whose car is plastered with religious bumper stickers but who is not merciful on the roads. No one will listen to the Christian who claims to love their neighbor but who posts nasty responses on political websites. No one is going to listen to the Christian who demands goodness from others but who never reaches out in love to those in need. Evangelism is a life we live so that all those who do not know Christ will see His grace as we glorify Him through our actions. We need to speak the words to those whom God sends our way, but our thankfulness for the Gospel that saved us from sin and death is manifest in a life that preaches the Gospel always. As we praise God in our thoughts, words and deeds, His greater work is made known to the world.
Blessedness, the visible sign of God’s mercy on our lives, shines out to the world so that they will see and fear Him. Those who fear the Lord are those who honor Him with their entire lives and live according to His Will. Evangelism is not simply to make this world a better place for people in need, but rather to show His great and mighty works so that they too will repent, believe and be saved so that together we will sing songs of joy, praise and thanksgiving for eternity.
Scriptures for Sunday, November 26, 2017, Christ the King: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 95:1-7a; 1 Corinthians 15:20-28; Matthew 25:31-46
“Then the King will tell those on his right hand, ‘Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Matthew 25:34, WEB
Christ. The. King. We have finally reached the last Sunday of the year when we celebrate and look forward to the fulfillment of God’s promises in and through Jesus Christ. Over the past year we have seen Him as a baby, as a boy, as a rabbi, teacher, friend. We’ve seen Him tell stories and change people’s lives with healing and forgiveness. We have seen Him live, die and rise again. The promise of His kingship has been woven in the parables and in the promises, but on this day we focus on His rule over everything as King.
I’m not sure Christ the King is an image we appreciate; after all, history has shown us the failures of kings throughout time. I read a lot of historical fiction, and my favorite time period is during the reigns of the Tudors. Quite frankly, if our image of a king is Henry VIII, I’m not sure any of us would want Jesus to be a king. Henry was selfish and self-centered; he surrounded himself with advisors who manipulated him to their own benefit by convincing him that their ideas were in his best interest. Of course, that often meant that many others suffered. The selfishness of Henry and his advisor led to the imprisonment, torture and death of innocent people. Even those who weren’t quite so innocent did not deserve to be beheaded.
And while Henry VIII is a rather extreme example, I’m sure that we can find fault with every earthly ruler. Even King David had his faults. Good kings have existed, but none of them were, or are, perfect. When the Hebrews saw that the other nations had kings, they went to Samuel and told him they wanted one. It wasn’t enough for them to have a God who spoke to them through a judge; they wanted a king like everyone else. God warned them that a king would take advantage of them, he would do what served self rather than nation and people; they didn’t care. Samuel took it personally, but God reminded him that they were rejecting Him. “Give them what they want.” They got it, and the kings throughout time have been disappointments beginning with Saul.
What does it mean that Christ is King? Will He sit on a throne? Will He take advantage of His subjects? Will He rule with an iron fist? Will He, as Samuel warned, take our sons to fight and our daughters as slaves? Will He take everything we own and use it for His own purposes? Will He demand taxes or command our labor? Will Christ the King be like the king that God warned the people of Israel and like all kings (even the good ones) have been?
No, Jesus Christ will not be a king like Henry VIII. On Christ the King Sunday we celebrate the return of how it was meant to be. See, Israel had a King: God was her King. But the people wanted an earthly, human representative they could see, hear, understand and perhaps even touch. God was good, and did so many good things for them, but He seemed so distant and frightening. They were content to let others be an intermediary, but then wondered whether or not they could be trusted. After all, even Samuel’s sons were not trustworthy. Isn’t it better to take command from an imperfect human decision maker than to trust someone claiming to speak for an unseen and unknowable God?
We know now, thanks to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, that while God is greater than we can ever imagine, He is not unknowable. We can know Him; we’ve seen Him. Jesus has bridged the gap between human beings and our Creator. Though God is still everything we see in the Old Testament, for God never changes, through faith we have been restored to that intimate relationship that once was lost. He is still a God to be feared, but not in the sense that we are afraid. We are in awe of that which God was, is and will be and what He has done, is doing and will do. He isn’t self-centered like the human kings, He doesn’t rely on advisors; He loves us to the point of sacrificing even His own Son to reconcile with us and that very Son will be the true King forever.
In the beginning, they had God as their King and He provided prophets and judges to lead them. There were also priests, whose job was to minister to the Lord and administer the sacrifices. God warned them that an earthly king would demand much from the people: many would be cruel and lay heavy burdens on their lives. But He granted their request for a king. Over the years, some of the kings were cruel and the people were led from the path of righteousness. Israel lost their independence, the line of kings ended and they were left desolate. Puppet kings ruled by the time that Jesus came; they were controlled by the Romans. Even the priests and temple leaders were more interested in their own welfare and position than that of the people they were called to serve.
The LORD knew what was going to happen to His people, so He promised that He would come for them and be their Shepherd King just as He was in the beginning. He promised that though the priests would abandon them for their own selfish reasons, He would never let them go. He promised that He would bring them home, give them all they need and tend them as a shepherd tends his sheep. He will not allow any to be lost and all those who suffer will be healed.
He did this by sending Jesus, our Shepherd King the Savior. Jesus came to fulfill the promises, to remove those who were not doing God’s work so that the One, true King would rule over the hearts of men once again. It was not an easy task, for only through the cross of humiliation could God’s people be reconciled to Him. But Jesus did it; He died for you and for me. Today, we still face human leaders that will harm us and place heavy burdens on our backs. There are even such leaders within the church, those who care only for their own welfare and position and who care nothing for the sheep they are called to serve. But God will not abandon His sheep. His promises through Ezekiel are as true today as they were when they were first uttered. God will take us home, protect us, tend to our needs and give us rest: the Lord God Almighty is the Good Shepherd and He is faithful.
Ezekiel had more to say. He spoke to the sheep and warned them that it is not just the responsibility of the shepherd to care for the sheep, but also that the sheep should care for one another.
The true King has given us the most incredible gifts: life, love and salvation. He has provided for our every need, given us food for our tables and roofs over our heads. He has given us friends, family, hope and peace. He has promised to be with us through the rough times when money is scarce and our health is failing. No matter what happens in this world, we know that through faith in Christ we will spend eternity in the presence of God. Unfortunately, we don’t always live in thankfulness. We step on our brothers and sisters; we take what we have been given and use it selfishly, forgetting to share with those who are in need.
The King in today’s Gospel lesson judges His people. The focus during these past few weeks has reminded us that the Day of the Lord will not be a day of laughter and roses. The King will judge the work of His people. We saw the wise bridesmaids prepared for a long wait while the foolish ones let their oil go out. We saw the two servants put to the master’s resources to good use while the third just buried it. Today we see that the sheep took care of the needs of their neighbors while the goats ignored the opportunities to serve. In the end, each of these stories ended poorly for those who did not do as expected, they end with weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Goats aren’t bad creatures. As a matter of fact, goats were used in Temple worship in the days of ancient Israel. They were used as sacrifices; even the curtain inside the Temple was made with goat hair. In terms of value, goats were the least valuable of the domesticated animals, but that doesn’t make them worthless. According to Heifer International, goats are one of the “Seven M” animals. The most efficient use of livestock resources is found in those animals that offer meat, milk, muscle, manure, money, materials and motivation. Goats reproduce quickly, often birthing kids several times a year. The milk can be used for drinking, cooking, butter and cheese. Farms with more than one goat can provide their excess for sale. Goat manure makes excellent fertilizer. They are small and need less space for proper care. They eat anything, including weeds that are dangerous for other animals and people, so they are better for managing land. They can be trained to carry packs or they are strong enough to pull wagons. They can be housebroken and make rather good pets. Goat hair is used to make wool, including mohair and cashmere. Anyone who has watched a baby goat video on the Internet knows that they are adorable. These animals are certainly of some value, particularly among those families for whom one animal could mean the difference between life and death.
So, why would Jesus compare the sheep to the goats? In many ways, sheep and goats are the same but they are very different in terms of behavior. In Jesus’ day, the sheep and the goats were separated at night, the goats put into a barn to keep warm but the sheep preferred to stay in the field. Goats are willing to eat anything, but sheep prefer the short tender grasses and clover in the field. Sheep eat to the ground, while goats prefer to eat off the top of the plant. There are also differences in their social behavior. Goats are more curious, wandering to seek out new food sources. They are independent; they do not wander with a flock but move wherever they want. Sheep, however, flock together and become discontent when alone.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus separated the sheep from the goats. The goats go their own way; the sheep stay together. I’m not sure it can be said that sheep help one another, but they are safer and warmer in a group than the goats that go off on their own. The people who are like sheep are those who live in community, sharing what they have with others. People who are like goats live for themselves. That’s certainly the difference between the sheep and the goats in today’s Gospel lesson. The sheep didn’t know they were caring for their Lord, but they were in the Lord’s presence when they cared for one another. The goats were ignorant of other’s needs and thus missed the Lord.
This doesn’t mean that the sheep are perfect at doing good works or that the goats never share. It simply means that the sheep are those whose hearts and spirits respond to the needs of others. As we enter into the holiday season, many people will be generous. They will give quarters to the Salvation Army Santas; they will put toys in the collection barrel. They will take food to the food bank and send checks to their favorite charities. There is no doubt that most people will do something charitable in the next six weeks.
Here’s the thing: we are very aware of those charitable moments when we do something nice or give a donation. As we can see in this story, however, the sheep and the goats had no idea they were doing a good work. “When did we see you, Lord?” We don't always see Christ in the midst of our ordinary lives, but He is with us daily. Sometimes we realize that we’ve had a divine appointment, when the revelation of God’s mercy and grace is made apparent to us. However, the best experiences in sharing God’s love happen without our noticing, like when we speak a word of compassion to someone waiting in the grocery line or when we share a meal with a sick friend. These things do not seem extraordinary, but it is those very things that Jesus commends. He is reminding us in this story that we should always be ready to respond with grace and mercy to everyone who crosses our path.
Christ longs to say to each of us, “Well done, good and faithful servant, join in my happiness.” Oh, sure, it is impossible to see the face of God in His fallen creation, but if we do not concern ourselves with all those whom we meet that need Christ, we might just miss the Christ whom we so greatly long to see. If that’s the way we live, we are just like the shepherds in Ezekiel’s day that stepped on the sheep to get fat, and like the goats in the parable that ignored the needs of their neighbors, missing the presence of Christ.
We are called to live in faith, trusting in our Great Shepherd’s grace as we respond to His love by meeting the needs of this world. In this way we live in praise and thanksgiving, joining our Master in His happiness. As Christians, with the Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts, the response to the worlds needs is natural. We don’t do good works because it is that time of year, or because it makes us feel good, or even because we know we should give back. We do what we do because that is who we are. We have been transformed by faith to be Christ-like, to be His hands in the world. Your holiday charity is a blessing to someone, for sure, but our life is meant to be one of service always, no matter the time or our circumstances.
The three things Paul desires for the Ephesians is “hope,” “riches of his glorious inheritance,” and “immeasurable greatness of his power,” and that the people might know what they are. What is hope? What are the riches about which Paul writes? What is God’s power? Unfortunately, all three of these are often misunderstood and mischaracterized. So, as we consider the coming of the King of Kings, we are asked to consider what it means to hope. What riches are we to expect? What power is from God?
All too often, we want to put our hope in something less than Christ. We want the riches of His inheritance to be something tangible. And power. That is perhaps the hardest one for us to control. We want power. The greatest lesson we can learn from the apocalyptic texts of the Bible is that it is not up to us to have the power. It is up to us to trust in God; the King will make everything right.
As we recall those lessons that we’ve heard from Matthew 25 over the past few weeks, we see that they point toward these three promises. The oil in the lamps is the hope the bridesmaids had for the coming of the Lord. The ones who were prepared knew that it could take longer than they expected and they were prepared, trusting that the bridegroom would come because He promised, not that He would come when they expected Him. The two servants took the resources of their master and made them grow, and then they were invited to enter into their master’s joy, sharing in the riches of his glorious inheritance. The sheep didn’t try to control the power for their own benefit, but were led by their shepherd to take care of one another.
So, we ask for a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we wait for the coming of the Lord. We live in a world where many people think they know what it will be like. There are hundreds, thousands, of books on the subject. We read these books and think that we know what God has up His sleeve, and we think ourselves as better in some way because we ‘get it.’ Yet, Paul reminds us that we do not have the power; that is for Christ alone. God will set him above all else, with the world as his footstool. And even more comforting is that Jesus will be the head of the church. We don’t need to be in control. We don’t need to have the power. God does, and He has given it to Jesus Christ to be the source of our hope and the immeasurable riches of our inheritance. We are called to trust in Him and live as if He is always with us, responding to the needs of this world with grace and mercy. In the end, we will see the fulfillment of His promises. Christ the King will welcome us into His Kingdom and we will dwell in His presence for eternity.
He is a King that is worthy to be praised. The psalmist writes, “For Yahweh is a great God, a great King above all gods. In his hand are the deep places of the earth. The heights of the mountains are also his. The sea is his, and he made it. His hands formed the dry land.” This is the One who deserves our praise and thanksgiving; He is greater than anything in this world because He created it all. How can we possibly see the Creator in His fallen creation? How can we see God in the ordinary? I’m not sure we’ll ever recognize His face when we see it; neither the sheep nor the goats knew they were seeing God. The sheep responded anyway. That’s what Jesus is calling us to do.
“As he was on his way to Jerusalem, he was passing along the borders of Samaria and Galilee. As he entered into a certain village, ten men who were lepers met him, who stood at a distance. They lifted up their voices, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ As they went, they were cleansed. One of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice. He fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks; and he was a Samaritan. Jesus answered, ‘Weren’t the ten cleansed? But where are the nine? Were there none found who returned to give glory to God, except this stranger?’ Then he said to him, ‘Get up, and go your way. Your faith has healed you.’” Luke 17:11-19, WEB
Jesus often compares one thing against another. Sheep and goats, the house built on rock verses the house built on sand, the master who forgives and the servant who does not. We see a similar comparison in today’s lesson from Luke. Ten lepers cried out to Jesus in their pain, hoping for His healing and they all received a touch of His grace.
I wonder what they were thinking as they left Jesus. It was proper to show yourself to the priest when you were cured of a disease, but they had not yet been cured. They all went in faith when Jesus commanded them to go to the priests. They were healed along the way and the nine continued as was expected by their religion and society and they disappear from the story. We are quick to dismiss the nine because they didn’t go back and say “Thank you” to Jesus, but they did what they thought they were supposed to do. They were thankful, I am sure. The cure saved their lives. They could return home to a normal life. The healing probably saved their families who would have struggled without their outcast loved one. Their world was returned to them and their thankfulness was displayed in a return to the normal course of life. This is not a bad thing.
The nine continued in joy, but the Samaritan returned to the One who made him clean. The ten lepers were all healed physically, but only one sought out the true healing. Jesus gave him far more when he raised his voice in praise to God. He was made whole: physically and spiritually. Jesus changes people from the inside out, granting them forgiveness and filling them with the love of God, bringing them back into a relationship with their Creator. It is that relationship that makes them whole. Those who trust in God are changed; they are made new. The tenth leper saw the truth. The other nine were caught up in their own understanding of God; they did not recognize the presence of God and ran off to do what was expected. They put their faith in their actions rather than in the One who could really make them whole.
God’s grace makes us new so we can go on to live our lives, to care for our families, to do our work. We should go to the Temple as a witness of the good things God has done for us. We should go home and love our families. We should rejoice in the new life we have been given. However, faith takes it further. Faith heals. Faith trusts that it was God who did it for us; faith praises God for what He did.
Today, we are celebrating Thanksgiving Day with food and family. The conversation around so many tables will include the sharing of thanks for the many blessings of our lives. Our lesson is a reminder that there is more to thankfulness than just doing what’s expected. God has done great things for us and He is waiting to give us everything. The nine walked away from God with the promise of a good life. But the one received far more. Let’s do more than list a few blessings around the dinner table; let’s raise our voices in praise, glorifying God and falling on our knees so that He can change us from the inside out. We’ll discover more than a life made normal; we’ll find that we are blessed by a relationship with the faithful One.
“In nothing be anxious, but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report; if there is any virtue, and if there is any praise, think about these things. The things which you learned, received, heard, and saw in me: do these things, and the God of peace will be with you. But I rejoice in the Lord greatly, that now at length you have revived your thought for me; in which you did indeed take thought, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak in respect to lack, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content in it. I know how to be humbled, and I know also how to abound. In everything and in all things I have learned the secret both to be filled and to be hungry, both to abound and to be in need. I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me. However you did well that you shared in my affliction. You yourselves also know, you Philippians, that in the beginning of the Good News, when I departed from Macedonia, no assembly shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving but you only. For even in Thessalonica you sent once and again to my need. Not that I seek for the gift, but I seek for the fruit that increases to your account. But I have all things, and abound. I am filled, having received from Epaphroditus the things that came from you, a sweet-smelling fragrance, an acceptable and well-pleasing sacrifice to God. My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. Now to our God and Father be the glory forever and ever! Amen.” Philippians 4:6-19, WEB
We’ve all had relationships that are very one-sided, friends who make contact only they are in need. They need a friend to listen, they need advice, or they need some sort of help. When their needs are met, they disappear again until the next time they need something. The friendship is a one way street – one party giving constantly and the other taking. There is no real communication, no mutual enjoyment.
How often are we like that with God? We go to Him when we have a need, seeking His mercy and His grace, but we don’t bother when things are going well. Our Father does not mind when we go to Him for help, He finds great joy in giving good gifts to His children. However, He wants to hear from us constantly, in the good times and in the bad. God hopes that our relationship with Him will grow and mature, so that we will communicate our joys as well as our fears. He wants to share in the good times, to be present in our ordinary daily existence. It takes conversation to make relationships strong. With God, that communication comes through prayer.
Our needs as Christians differ, physically, emotionally and spiritually. One person may need comfort in their afflictions; another may need correction or discipline. Prayer lives are different. The way we enjoy studying the bible is unique for every individual. We even find something new in our own prayer and study life over time. Our understanding of scripture and our relationship with God grows with each passing day. Our needs now are different than our needs were yesterday and will be tomorrow. Yet, God always provides what we need wherever we are on our journey.
God provided for Paul through the congregation at Philippi. In his letter of thankfulness for their gift, Paul promised that God would also see to their every need according to His glorious riches in Jesus Christ. This was not a demand to God to give them what they wanted, but a statement of faith that God knows our needs and provides in His time and way. Paul needed financial assistance to share the Gospel around the world. The Philippians had different needs in their city at that time. God knew, and He met those needs. Paul encouraged the Philippians to be thankful for that which God can and will do, no matter what current circumstances they faced.
It is very easy for us to get into the pattern of seeking Him only when we are in need. Those friends who are only there seeking help may not even realize they are doing so and we don’t realize that we are ignoring God in the good times. Paul encourages in the passage from Romans to pray faithfully, not just when we want something from God, but at all times. We know God is with us always, but He wants more than just to be in our presence. He wants to be our friend, our companion and He longs to see us grow in faith, hope and peace. That takes a life of steadfast prayer, living in thanksgiving that God will provide what we need when we need it.
“I exhort therefore, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and givings of thanks, be made for all men: for kings and all who are in high places; that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior; who desires all people to be saved and come to full knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all; the testimony in its own times; to which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth in Christ, not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.” 1 Timothy 2:1-7, WEB
God is blessed with our thankfulness. I know that sounds odd because we usually think of blessing going the other way. God blesses us. We have nothing which God needs or even wants, how could we possibly bless Him? We bless Him by seeking an intimate and personal relationship with Him.
Think about your relationships. You probably have many different types of friends. You have acquaintances that you greet when you see them, but barely think about at other times. You have colleagues at work that are a big part of your life, but only during office hours. You have family friends you remember every Christmas with a Christmas card, but rarely at other times because they live far away. You have closer friends with whom you spend time, go out to dinner or movies and invite to gatherings in your home. And you have those relationships that are so close that you speak to them daily, like your spouse and children.
What is the difference between those different types of relationships? Communication. You barely know the acquaintances you only greet when you see them or the friends who get your Christmas cards. You know your co-workers fairly well, but personally? You might share some stories of your life, but they probably never hear the things that really matter like your hopes and fears. That communication is reserved for those closest to you, and that knowledge strengthens the bond between you.
Paul encouraged Timothy to spend time in communication with God, through petitions, prayers, intercessions, and givings of thanks or all people. The exhortation calls for all sorts of prayers for all sorts of people that they may have peace. Paul says, “For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior.” God is blessed by our prayers because He sees His people caring for their fellow human beings, and through those prayers others will see Him and be saved.
Paul was particularly concerned for the Gentiles who did not know the God of Israel. He wanted all people to experience the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ and that begins with prayer. If Paul were to write to you today, who would he encourage you to focus your prayers? Those prayers will not only bless God and strengthen the bond you have with Him, but it will possibly draw someone into a deeper more personal relationship with you and the Lord. God is blessed when He sees His people sharing His grace with others so that they might also grow into an intimate and personal relationship with Him.
“Shout for joy to Yahweh, all you lands! Serve Yahweh with gladness. Come before his presence with singing. Know that Yahweh, he is God. It is he who has made us, and we are his. We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, into his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, and bless his name. For Yahweh is good. His loving kindness endures forever, his faithfulness to all generations.” Psalm 100, WEB
I keep several bird feeders in line of sight from my computer desk and I often find myself gazing at the birds that come to visit. We get a wide variety of birds in our neighborhood including finch, sparrow, wren and titmice. There usually a bevy of doves and a scurry of squirrels looking for their share of the seed. My favorites are the more colorful birds like the woodpeckers, blue jays and cardinals. It seems silly to get excited when I see them because they are regulars at the feeders, but it brings me joy.
Sometimes it is the smallest things that give me the greatest pleasure, things that others might see as ridiculous. A trip to the mailbox when there was a special letter or package is the highlight of my week. An unexpected phone call from an old friend always brings a smile. A patch of wildflowers at the side of the road can brighten my day and a rainbow in the sky makes me remember the promises of God. It is a joy to find and item at the store that reminds me of my childhood. A stranger opening the door reminds me that there are kind people out there, even when it seems like the world is filled with hatred and violence. A little wave from a child in a shopping cart can brighten my day.
What are the simple pleasures that bring joy to your life? The greatest blessings are those in which we see the hand of God working for our sake. It is good, right and true that our blessedness is founded on the cross of Jesus Christ, in His mercy and grace. Yet, in the shadow of the cross, it is easy to miss out on the simplest pleasures that bring joy to our hearts. God is active in our world today, continually creating and recreating the world for His glory. In the flowers, our relationships and even those little birds, God manifests His love for us in tangible ways we can see and experience with joy. Sometimes the crosses of life hang over us, threatening our peace and hope. Yet, when we look for God in even the simplest of pleasures and sing for joy with thanksgiving and praise, the crosses we bear become light because He carries them with us.
Scriptures for Sunday, December 3, 2017, First Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
“God is faithful, through whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.” 1 Corinthians 1:9, WEB
The sun set over Barrow, Alaska on November 18th and will not rise again until January 22nd. That is sixty five days of darkness. I’ve never experienced the endless nights of the northernmost reaches of the world, but I remember what it was like in winter in England. Despite the temperate temperatures, England lies well north of the United States. At that latitude, the sun sets early and rises late in the middle of winter. The days lasted only about four hours; the kids went to school and came home in the dark. That meant, of course, that the summer days lasted nearly 20 hours.
The problem with lengthy nights and the lack of light is that it can affect the human body. We need daylight for our health. The lack of sunlight causes damage to bones, depression, heart disease and even cancer. Vitamin D is recommended for those who live in those places where the days are short. It isn’t quite so bad in Texas, but our nights are long as we enter into the days of Advent.
Advent begins in darkness, not only because the sun sets early. It is dark because we have failed God. We have forgotten Him in our comfort. We have ignored the needs of our neighbors. We have followed our lusts. We have succumbed to temptation. We are sinners who live in darkness. Like Isaiah in the Old Testament lesson and the psalmist, we cry out to God to reveal Himself so that we might see Him again. We cry out for His presence in our world, even though we are frightened by His power and judgment. We know the only way we will be saved is if God comes to save. So we cry out for Him to come, to make His name known again to the world.
The scriptures for this week help to remind us that we are entering into a time to prepare for judgment. We have talked about the Day of the Lord for the past few weeks, a time of judgment that is to be feared. Several weeks ago we asked, “Why would anyone want to rush that day?” Yet, there comes a time when we just can’t stand what is going on around us so we hope that something will happen to change everything. I can honestly tell you that I cry out daily for the Lord’s return. Come, Lord Jesus.
I can understand why Isaiah would write the words in today’s Old Testament lesson. The people were in darkness. They were following false gods. They were unmerciful and unjust. They were acting shamefully and had forgotten everything the LORD had done for His people. They were lost; they forgot their God. They needed something to happen that would turn them back to Him. In today’s Old Testament text, Isaiah called for God to do something shocking so that everyone would see Him and repent. Sometimes it takes something drastic to change hearts and minds. We turn to God in times of distress. Isaiah was asking God to make that happen.
Isaiah and the people of Israel were feeling abandoned by God. Where was He in the midst of their troubles? Why is Jerusalem in ruins? This prayer begs Yahweh to make Himself known to them and to their enemy so that His authority is without question. We ask the same from our God. Can’t He make things right? Can’t He stop the violence both at home and around the world? Can’t He send His holy angels to take care of our enemies and stop the world from hurting us?
But Isaiah realizes that his cries are out of place. The God he blames for abandoning them has not abandoned them; He has done great things for His people and He continues to do great things. Isaiah asks for forgiveness and reconciliation because he knows that they are paying the price for their own sinfulness. Though Isaiah at first asks God to tear open the heavens to destroy his enemy, he finally realizes that he needs to seek something much different. God will tear open the heavens to bring us something much better than vengeance and destruction; humble acknowledgement of our own sinfulness will bring a God who transforms His people with peace, rather than war. When we realize we are in darkness, God will shine the Light.
We are busy getting ready for Christmas. The Christmas tree is in the house and many of my decorations are in place. I began some of my baking the other day. There is still a lot to do, but it is definitely beginning to look a lot like Christmas. I have done some shopping, although I have to admit that I’m struggling with ideas for presents this year. I have told my kids that there won’t be many presents under the tree this year, but I say that every year and there’s still plenty of packages to open on Christmas morning. I know many people talk about focusing more on Jesus, but somehow we all manage to get caught up in the decorating, baking and buying of this time of year. I have already gotten into the spirit by watching Hallmark movie marathons and listening to Christmas music.
Unfortunately, short days are not the only reason why people struggle during the winter months. Cold, wet weather brings on colds and flu. People struggle with finances and worry about how they will make Christmas special for their families. Others are lonely because of broken relationships or are missing loved ones who have died or moved away. Our schedules are filled with parties, but we are often too tired or stressed to enjoy them. It is no wonder that we often suggest making the holidays simpler. Sometimes our busy-ness makes us miss out on the best part of Christmas: the expectation of what is to come.
Few people really pay attention to Advent, except for maybe a chocolate calendar for the kids and the Advent wreath at church. Some people have probably purchased an Advent devotional to read or will take part in Advent photo challenges as I’ve done in the past. But here are the questions I am asking myself for this first Sunday in Advent: if the Christmas season is well underway with decorations hung and music playing, how do we experience Advent as a season of light growing out of darkness? How do we realize our sinfulness and our need for God if we have already surrounded ourselves with the good things of this world? How will we ever know that we are living in darkness if our world is lit by twinkle lights?
What we, as Christians, must remember as we are going about the business of the holidays is that Christmas does not really begin until Christ is born. Until that day we are journeying through the season of Advent. This is a time for waiting. It is a time for watching. We can’t avoid Christmas in the world, but let us remember that during this time we are meant to be preparing our hearts for the coming of our King. It is a time of longing for His return, a time of considering why He had to come in the first place.
Today’s psalm is a song of lament, and it appears to be from the time when the Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians. It is a cry to God by people in distress. Like those in Isaiah’s story, they wanted God to show His face to them once again. They knew that their troubles were because God had turned away from their sinfulness. Now they repented and sought His face, His countenance, upon them. They knew that if God shined in their world and on their lives, everything would be fine. They never realized He was with them all along.
We can respond to trouble in one of two ways. We can look into ourselves and find only despair or we can cry out to the only one who can make a difference. Israel cried out to God. They sought His help in their needs rather than falling into hopelessness. They knew hope was found in their God; Israel sought the comfort of God’s presence. We look forward to Christmas for the same reason. We know that the answer to our hopelessness is found in Jesus Christ, so we prepare our hearts to receive Him. This means recognizing our need for His saving grace. It means realizing that we are caught up in the darkness of this world.
The Gospel text reminds us that we are waiting for the second coming even while we are preparing to celebrate the first. Though Christ has already come, died, and been raised, we still live in darkness. The work of salvation is complete, but it still needs to be completed. We are already there and we still wait to be there. We live in the already and the not yet. Light is in the world, but darkness still plagues us. Our text today makes that clear.
We might be tempted by this text from Mark to look for the signs that are described. Many people have done so throughout time, pointing to stars, blood red moons, comets and other signs in the heavens. They point to natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes as signs that the time is near. They use the newspaper headlines to suggest that every event points to the time when Christ will come again. Throughout history there have been times when it seemed like the warnings were about to be fulfilled.
We need to remember that Jesus is quoting the Old Testament scriptures throughout this text. The people listening would have been very familiar with these words, particularly from Isaiah. They knew what God was promising in the warnings and they knew how to respond. This isn’t a time for us to stop and watch for signs; it is a time to turn our focus on the One who has promised to come. “Stay awake,” Jesus says, not to be constantly interpreting the signs, but to be actively living the life God has called us to live.
The world is in chaos. People are worried and afraid of what tomorrow might hold. Many are crying out to God to shine His face so that they might be saved. We are His face. We have the message they need. We have the gifts that will bring peace and hope to those who are lost. Each year there seems to be more reason to cry out to God. We can see suffering all around us. People are jobless, homeless and hungry. Our prisons and hospitals are filled to the brink. Last week Jesus called us to meet the simple and ordinary needs of our neighbors. This Christmas will not be wonderful for everyone. But we can make the world a little brighter by sharing Christ in word and in deed with those who are in need.
In Mark’s “Little Apocalypse” we see how to respond to the darkness and chaos of our world. We can certainly hang Christmas lights to shine through the night and take vitamin D to remain healthy, but we are called to wait for the One who will come, to watch for the Light which will bring life and hope. We wait, not only for the baby, but also for the King. Here in darkness we begin our journey to the manger. But while this is a time to wait and watch, it is also a time for us to live and shine the light of God. It isn’t a time to hide behind our safe walls, but to get out into the world to tell the truth: we are all sinners in need of a Savior. The baby we await and the King who will come is the One who will truly save us from ourselves.
In New York City, St. Peter Lutheran Church shares a city block with the Citigroup Center. As I understand, this church has been built right into the building’s structure. There are glass windows through which visitors to the Citigroup building can view the worship in the sanctuary. The website for St. Peter’s describes it thus: “The building is an anchor of serenity in - but not a withdrawal from - the sea of unpredictable turmoil around us.” There is an irony that might be lost on the people who work daily in this building. The church, God, is dwelling in the heart of this financial institution, yet most of the people who work there daily watch from the outside, if they even pay attention. These people are blessed because they have a tangible reminder of a faithful presence of God in a world that is filled with uncertainty and disappointment and yet the often miss it.
We miss it, too. We pass dozens of churches in our daily commutes without thinking about them. We are busy with church things, active with programs and regular attendees of worship, yet we rarely think of the God who is in the midst of our daily lives. We forget that God is faithful not only in the spiritual things but also in the real, tangible things we deal with every day. As crises reaches our own lives, we worry and fear about our future, not allowing God to break our worry and comfort us in our fear.
In today’s Epistle lesson, Paul was speaking to a different people in a different time and place, but they were people dealing with their own crises. It doesn’t even matter what crisis they faced. Every generation of humans had to deal with trouble. Every generation worries and doubts and fears the future. Every person from the beginning of time has wondered if they will make it through today. We can approach our days blindly, missing out of the God in our midst, or we can live in the grace we have been given.
We know that our life is different because we have faith in Jesus Christ, but do we live that way? God is faithful. We might not always understand His plan for our lives or our world in this day, but as we dwell in Him daily, we’ll see more clearly that we are blessed by God’s presence even if we don’t think we have tangible evidence. We are the evidence, God’s people living faithfully in a chaotic world. We are called to be the Church in the midst of uncertainty and disappointment.
Don’t get so caught up in your Christmas decorations that you miss seeing the God who has done great things. In some ways Advent is like it will be in the end times: darkness, confusion and chaos. Yet, in the midst of all of this, God still dwells among us and we need only stay awake to see Him. We stay awake by watching, praying, studying, worshipping and fellowshipping with other believers even while we are busy doing all the work that will make the season merry for those we love. We need not give up decorating, shopping and baking, but let us remember to look for Christ and shine His light for others to see, for He is with us always, just as He promised.
We wait, not only for the baby, but also for the King. The world needs to know Him, and we are the ones to share Him. The world is in chaos. People are worried and afraid of what tomorrow might hold. Many are crying out to God to shine His face so that they might be saved. We are His face. We have the message they need. We have the gifts that will bring peace and hope to lives that are lost in the darkness. We dwell in this world and it is good that we make preparations for Christmas that will bring joy to others, but let us always remember that there is something more important: God. So, in the midst of the chaos and busy-ness, let be aware of the God who dwells with us. He is faithful. Let us live in that grace each day, especially at this special time.
“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. This I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and all discernment; so that you may approve the things that are excellent; that you may be sincere and without offense to the day of Christ; being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” Philippians 1:3-11, WEB
We have celebrated “Thank Month” this November, reading some of the many bible verses that talk about thankfulness. We’ve talked about the many aspects, from thanking God for His grace to being thankful for the ordinary things in our lives. We certainly have much for which to be thankful, tangible things as well as spiritual things. We learned to praise God in worship and in generosity. We remembered to thank God even when it seems as if there is nothing for which to be thankful, for it is in thankfulness that we find joy and peace.
With the passing of "Thank Month" we are about to enter into the season of Advent. It is a busy time, filled with preparations, parties and family reunions. There are presents to buy, cookies to bake, packages to send and decorations to display. There are usually extra activities with church, work, and school. Many of us are planning to travel. It is not a burden, but by the end of the month we are exhausted from it all. In the end, however, we rejoice that the love and grace of God has reached so many people in some many different ways. We praise God for sending His Son to be our Savior, to shine Light into the darkness and forgiveness to those who have failed to be the people He created us to be. We fill our lives with glitz and glitter, but in the end it is the baby in the manger who came to die on the cross that is the real reason for our thanksgiving.
I want to end this month by telling you how thankful I am to each of you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, who have encouraged me and have prayed for me over the years. Paul’s words to the Philippians have long had a special place in my heart in connection with this ministry, because they speak exactly what I feel. Though many of you are strangers to me in flesh, I know you in my spirit because we are joined together through Christ our Lord. Sharing our faith and the Gospel is never easy; it is fraught with the dangers of persecution and spiritual warfare. Yet, I have never been alone. I am confident that God is with me because He has made me part of the body of Christ and we are unified by His Holy Spirit to share Jesus with the world. I pray that God will continue to bless each of you daily so that the light of Christ will shine and the kingdom of heaven will grow to the glory of God our Father.