Welcome to the November 2022 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 World English Bible
A WORD FOR TODAY, November 2022
“Praise Yahweh! Sing to Yahweh a new song, his praise in the assembly of the saints. Let Israel rejoice in him who made them. Let the children of Zion be joyful in their King. Let them praise his name in the dance! Let them sing praises to him with tambourine and harp! For Yahweh takes pleasure in his people. He crowns the humble with salvation. Let the saints rejoice in honor. Let them sing for joy on their beds. May the high praises of God be in their mouths, and a two-edged sword in their hand, to execute vengeance on the nations, and punishments on the peoples; to bind their kings with chains, and their nobles with fetters of iron; to execute on them the written judgment. All his saints have this honor. Praise Yah!” Psalm 149, WEB
This week we celebrate the Hallowmas season. This is the triduum (three days) of All Hallows Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Soul’s Day, October 31 to November 2. Hallowmas has roots that go back into the days of the Celtic Druids. Samhain was celebrated from the evening of October 31st to the evening of November 1st. It marked the end of summer and the beginning of the dark days of winter. They believed that on that day the dead returned to the earth. The spirits were given credit for any mischief that happened, and the people believed that the priests could predict the future when the spirits were nearby. The celebrants had bonfires and wore costumes.
When the Romans populated Celtic lands, they joined their own fall holidays with Samhain. Feralia commemorated the dead and there was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. By the ninth century, Christianity was the dominant religion in the areas where the Celtic people lived and Pope Boniface IV named November 1st All Saints’ Day to transform the pagan traditions into a church-sanctioned holiday. The evening before All Saints’ Day was called All Hallows Eve, and the people continued to celebrate with bonfires, parades and costumes. Eventually, November 2nd was called All Soul’s Day, and the three-day celebration was called Hallowmas.
The Christian Church traditionally observed All Hallows Eve with a vigil for worshippers to prepare themselves with prayers and fasting prior to the feast of All Saints Day. The All Hallows Eve liturgy and scripture was meant to point the people to the light that is Christ who overcame death and darkness. All Saints’ Day honors the Church Triumphant. In older times, the day honored local martyrs with ties to specific places. As the Saints became more well known, the day began to focus on those who have been beatified who have been set aside as special because they lived good and virtuous lives. They are models of the Christian life, and in their stories we see the willingness to follow Christ anywhere and the courage to face even the most difficult times for His sake.
All Souls Day completes the triduum and focuses on honoring all faithful Christians who are unknown in the wider fellowship of the church, especially family members and friends. This is a day of prayer for the dead. Those of us who live in the Southwestern part of the United States are familiar with a Mexican tradition called Dia de los Muertos, which translated literally means “the Day of the Dead.” There is a party atmosphere with picnics in the cemetery and other celebrations. Day of the Dead altars are beautiful reflections of the love that the people have for those they have lost. It may seem to those outside the culture that it is a celebration of death, but it is a time to share familial love and to tell the stories of their past.
We have melded all this into one day. We usually celebrate Hallowmas on All Saints Sunday which will be on November 6th this year. It is a time for us to remember the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us, those who have had an impact on our lives, who have shared God’s word with us in so many ways. Most churches will hold a special remembrance to celebrate those who have died in the previous year. The mood tends to be sad and teary as we join together to mourn the loss of our loved ones.
But All Saints Sunday is not just a day to mourn our dead and to remember them, it is a day to remember that we are all children of God and that someday we will join those who have come before us to dwell in God’s presence forever. We have seen the light. We celebrate our future at the Lord’s Table, looking forward to the time when we will feast forever on God’s grace without the muck of life in our earthly flesh. We 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 receive the bread and wine of communion, knowing that it is only a foretaste of the feast which our loved ones already enjoy. They no longer need hope because they have achieved what we look forward to in faith: eternity in God’s presence.
Though we mourn, we are also called to rejoice. There is pain in the death of those we love because they will no longer be with us. But there is also joy because we know that they are now among the multitude praising God forever. On this day we join with the psalmist signing songs of praise and thanksgiving, knowing that we too will join them one day. “Praise Yahweh! Sing to Yahweh a new song, his praise in the assembly of the saints.”
Lectionary Scriptures for November 6, 2022, All Saints Sunday: Revelation 7:(2-8) 9-17; Psalm 149; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
“After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude, which no man could count, out of every nation and of all tribes, peoples, and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, dressed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.” Revelation 7:9, WEB
It is hard to talk about the persecution of Christians in this day and age in America, simply because we do not know what it is like to suffer the way they did in the early church. There are Christians who are dying for their faith in places like Africa, China and South America, but not many could be called martyrs in America. Through there have been times when American Christians faced verbal abuse or ridicule, and churches have burned, in general we have not faced the difficulties that the first disciples faced. Of the twelve disciples, only John died of old age. Judas killed himself, but the rest were martyred for their faith in Jesus Christ in many horrific ways. To us, it seems strange to find joy in such a death, but the apostles understood the glory that came out of suffering.
In the history of the Church, beheading, stoning, crucifixion, and burning at the stake were commonplace. The stories of the saints are hard to read, though some of them are mythic the saints really were murdered for their faith. St. Sebastian was killed twice: first with arrows from a battery of archers that left him wounded but not dead. He was found by a woman who nursed him back to health. He was then clubbed to death and then dumped in a sewer. It is said that St. Lawrence was grilled to death, recorded as taking the slow torture stoically, even joking that they should turn him over. “I’m cooked on that side.” St. Margaret was pressed to death. She was placed on her back on a sharp stone, then covered with a door on which was placed an 800-pound weight. St. Cassian was hacked to death by children. He was a teacher who refused to make sacrifice to the pagan gods, so he was condemned to death and turned over to his students who acted as his executioners. Let us never forget the fate of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen who was stoned to death. He stands as an example and a witness to us, praising God and sharing the Gospel even as he died in a pit, pummeled by stones that bruised his skin and broke his bones.
It is interesting to look at the stories of the Saints, those whose lives serve as an example of how to boldly live the Christian life in this world, beginning with the disciples. Many of those who have been canonized by the Church died for their faith, they were martyred for being a Christian with beatings, torture, and murder. Many were burned to death or beheaded. They were thrown in prison and forgotten. They were ripped from the people they loved and forced to serve as slaves. Through it all they never wavered in their faith. They accepted the pain and suffering, and even sang God’s praises while their world fell apart. They were witnesses, even unto death, of the Gospel and God’s grace. They deserve to be remembered.
A few years ago, I attended an All-Saints Sunday at the cathedral in Bury St. Edmunds, England. Bishop Clive preached on the Gospel lesson of the Beatitudes. Throughout the sermon the bishop kept saying, “Consider yourself blessed.” It is hard to think in those terms when the blessedness is given to people who are being persecuted and are suffering. Bishop Clive explained, “In the beatitudes, Jesus was making saints out of ordinary people.” All those in Christ are saints, called, gifted and sent to be His witnesses in the world. The saints are those who trust in God no matter their circumstances.
What is a saint?
From the Concise Encyclopedia: “[A saint is a] Holy person. In the New Testament, St. Paul used the term to mean a member of the Christian community, but the term more commonly refers to those noted for their holiness and venerated during their lifetimes or after death. In Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, saints are publicly recognized by the church and are considered intercessors with God for the living. They are honored on special feast days, and their remains and personal effects are venerated as relics. Often Christian saints perform miracles in their lifetime, or miracles occur in their names after their death. In Islam, wali (“friend of God”) is often translated as saint; in Buddhism, arhats and bodhisattvas are roughly equivalent to saints. Hindu sadhus are somewhat similar.”
While this definition is true, it isn’t complete, because we know that the scriptures refer to all those who are Christians are saints. Saints do not have an exceptional degree of holiness or virtue. Those who have been canonized have died, and their stories show them to be extraordinarily faithful or pious, at least at the end of their life. We all possibly name people from our own history or lives that we might count among the saints even though they have not been canonized. This year I will remember my lifelong mentor, Sister Verna, who always encouraged me in my ministry and will always be an example I want to follow. She was definitely not perfect. I remember her getting a speeding ticket on the way home from a youth group activity. But she loved Jesus and all those He had put into her care. She served God and the Church until she couldn’t actively work, and then she served God and the Church in a manner that mattered even more: through prayer. Now she has joined the Church Triumphant, singing God’s praises for eternity.
Sister Verna was well into her nineties when she passed from life to new life, a long life well lived. She had her own struggles, and perhaps dealt with verbal abuse and ridicule, but she did not die a martyr’s death. Many churches will have special ceremonies this Sunday in remembrance of those we loved and lost this year. Our church places white roses in a basket as the names are read. Those whom we remember dealt with their own suffering and sacrifices. They have learned to live as children of God from those experiences, and they have passed those lessons on to us. They should be remembered for the impact they had on the world.
We are called to have an impact, too. The Beatitudes are given to us to help us to become the disciples that God intends us to be. Martin Luther wrote in his commentary on the Beatitudes, “These eight beatitudes are nothing else than a teaching about the fruits and good works of a Christian, which must be preceded by faith, as the tree and main body or sum of his righteousness and blessedness, without any work or merit, out of which these beatitudes must all grow and follow.”
John Stott wrote, “These characteristics do not describe eight separate and distinct groups of disciples. There are not some who are meek, while others are merciful, yet others called upon to endure persecution. These are eight qualities of the same group who at one and the same time are meek and merciful, poor in spirit and pure in heart, mourning and hungry, peacemakers and persecuted. They are the characteristics of the common, everyday Christians.” The Beatitudes emphasize who we are rather than what we do. They are not a statement of social or sociological judgment about the poor and hungry, and though we are to take care of those in need, the Beatitudes are the beautiful attitudes of the people who are obedient to God’s Word, humble before God and merciful to neighbor.
“Blessed” is sometimes translated “happy.” Happiness is subjective feeling, but in this text Jesus is making an objective judgment about those who follow Him. The word “to bless” means “to speak well of.” These blessings are what God thinks of Jesus’ disciples and what they are: blessed (fortunate, “it will be well with them.”) The saints include all those in Christ in every time and every place, including us. The saints are those who have been blessed by God’s grace and who lived, do live or will live in the faith that is a gift from God. That blessedness is not accompanied by some sort of giddy happiness or a life of prosperity. Jesus calls those whose lives are ravaged by the world as “blessed.”
The world reads today’s Gospel lesson and laughs at the foolishness. The beatitudes are eight beautiful attitudes that are lived by those who follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel is organized to establish Jesus as the foundation, as the One who accomplished the will and purpose of God in this world. His life was parallel to the people of Israel, but where Israel failed to keep the faith, Jesus did so and in doing so, Jesus made it possible for the rest of us to do so, too.
John writes, “See how great a love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God! For this cause the world doesn’t know us, because it didn’t know him.” We are the saints, the children of God. It is the love of God that gives us this grand and glorious title; by His mercy we are adopted into His family, and we will inherit His kingdom one day, just as those faithful ones we have loved and lost have already received their inheritance. We live in the hope of faith that one day we will join them to dwell forever in the presence of God. For now we have to deal with the reality that we are blessed though we are ravaged by the world. Sometimes the blessing is in the suffering, as with those martyrs of old who were blessed because they passed through death into the bosom of God for eternity by the blood of Jesus Christ.
The book of Revelation has been widely interpreted, and misinterpreted, since John wrote it nearly two thousand years ago. Read a dozen commentaries and you’ll find a dozen different explanations for the symbolism of the images and the numbers. Today’s passage includes one of the most puzzling accounts of all. The number 144,000 has been described by some as a literal number, yet if we take that as true, even those who believe this can’t account for the many others who have been sealed by God’s grace.
In the verse following the list of tribes, John writes that there was a great multitude that no one could number. Some say that this refers back to the 144,000; others say that they are two different groups. I’ve always interpreted the 144,000 as twelve times twelve tribes times a thousand which was the largest number understood by man at the time, thus representing a great multitude and possibly the same group. However, the first group is made of Jews and the second of the nations, so we can interpret this to mean all people: Jew and Gentile.
Does it really matter? What is the point of John’s witness of this scene? What is happening there that we should try to understand?
The multitude cries out, “Salvation be to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” This is a moment of worship, of thanksgiving, of witness to the work of God in Jesus Christ. He is being praised for saving God’s people, bringing them through the tribulation and making them right so that they can stand before the throne. The angels see this praise and join in with the faithful, singing a doxology of praise. Whatever the numbers, every one of the faithful, both angelic and human, are part of the eternal worship that will glorify Christ forever. This is our eternal hope; this is the life the saints will live according to God’s promises. This is the hope that God has fulfilled through Jesus Christ, washing our righteousness with His blood so that we can stand before Him in praise and thanksgiving; it is the hope that we will never suffer again.
The apocalyptic text gives us a picture of what life will be when everything has been fulfilled. That multitude represents all those who have believed in Jesus throughout time and space. We stand somewhere in that multitude. We are part of those who have washed our robes in Christ’s blood and who will spend eternity worshipping God. We are the children of God. We are the saints. Thanks to God’s grace we are blessed with this future, but that doesn’t mean that our present will be without pain. We will suffer. We will get sick. And yes, we will die.
A few years ago, I saw a story about a girl who had a rare disease. CIPA, congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis, is a condition in which the person feels no pain. We might consider this a blessing because we don’t want our children to feel pain. However, pain helps us to know when something is wrong. We feel pain in our body when we are sick. We feel pain when we hurt ourselves.
The little girl was only a few years old put her hands on a scalding hot surface and her hands were burned terribly. Most children realize the danger quickly and pull back their hands. They might end up with first degree burns which would require some care, but Ashley had no idea that she was suffering. She should have been screaming in pain. When asked what they wanted for their daughter, her parents answered, “a normal life.” They even want her to feel pain because they know that she would be much safer if a cut or a bruise would cause tears.
When we think of blessedness, pain never enters our mind. To the human mind, blessed are those who are healthy, wealthy, and popular. We equate blessedness with being comfortable, contentment with satisfaction. We would never consider the poor, hungry, or sick to be blessed, for they are suffering in a world that God made good. However, the danger to our souls comes when we are too comfortable. We do not see that we need help; we do not look to God for His grace.
Jesus had a way of turning our world upside down. We would much rather be comfortable and happy. We would much prefer a life of wealth, health and popularity. However, Jesus never promised us a rose garden. He promised Himself. We can find blessedness in poverty and in mourning, not because there is anything good about these things but because it is in suffering that we turn to grace. Physical blessedness is found in pain because the pain makes us look to the one who can heal us. Spiritual blessedness is found in suffering because it makes us look to God. The saints are those who trust in God no matter their circumstances.
Jesus does not call us to overcome our troubles or wallow in them, but rather He encourages us to live in an attitude of trust and confidence that God is faithful to His promises. The beatitudes are the attitudes of God’s people living in faith. The students for today’s lesson were not the great crowds of people; Jesus was speaking to the disciples. This lesson is not given for those who are trying to earn their way to heaven but is given to those who believe in the work of God. The lesson is given for us, the Christians who have been saved by the cross of Christ, saints who are anxious for the day when we will join the hosts in heaven singing God’s praise. 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 blessings of 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.
God does not limit eternal life to a few; He receives all who believe. He makes children out of all those who wash their robes in the blood of Christ. That’s awkward image as we battle the cultural focus on death and darkness. How many young people came to our doors wearing a ripped and dirty shirt covered in fake blood on Halloween? It wasn’t a pleasant sight. Anyone who has had to wash a garment that has been stained by blood knows that it is very hard to make it clean. How can blood make a robe white as snow? And yet, in faith our robes are made white by Christ’s blood. “These are they that come of the great tribulation, and they washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
Thanks to God’s grace we are blessed with life in His Kingdom now and forever, but that doesn’t mean that our present will be without pain. We will suffer. We will get sick. And yes, we will die. Pain and death have a purpose, but it isn’t meant to be for entertainment, as it has come to be in our culture today.
Jesus climbed the mountain and began to speak words to the multitude that were difficult to hear. We don’t want to find blessedness in poverty or mourning or persecution. But the multitudes in Revelation were not there because they had an easy, careful life. They had washed their robes in the blood of Christ. He did it for us and calls us to follow Him. That life of following Jesus is not a carefree journey. He doesn’t make it so that we’ll never suffer. Pain has a purpose. “Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets that were before you.” Even death has a purpose, because without death we’ll never enter into eternity with our Father.
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. They 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 loved us. They will be missed, and it is good for us to take a moment to join together to remember them.
Though we mourn, we are also called to rejoice. There is pain in the death of those we love because they will no longer be with us. But there is also joy because we know that they are now among the multitude praising God forever. We join with all Christians in heaven and on earth signing songs of praise and thanksgiving, knowing that we will be part of that multitude some day.
We stop on this All-Saints Day to thank God for their witness. We were brought into the fellowship of believers by those we love who shared the Gospel with us. 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 still have work to do here and now.
The promise of God is not that we’ll be saved from suffering in this world at the hands of our enemies. By His grace we have been saved from the greatest enemy: death. We have the promise of eternal life, an inheritance beyond anything we can imagine. How much more should we praise God for His grace and mercy? We are called to live a daily life of thanksgiving and praise to God for everything. Jesus Christ has made it possible for us to dwell now in the Kingdom of Heaven even as we wait longingly to join those who are already singing the eternal doxology of praise at the foot of God’s throne in robes made whiter than we can even imagine.
People die. Injustice exists. All too many people have no problem stepping on others to get ahead. 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. I’ve known the presence of God 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 still feel hunger and thirst. I will cry again before I pass into life eternal.
The closest we will come to experiencing the future kingdom of heaven in this life is at the at the communion table when we share the Lord’s Supper. I grew up in a church that received communion at railings that surrounded the Table. Later we joined a church that only had railings around the front and sides of the Table. It made me sad because I loved the image of us as a congregation kneeling in a circle together, joined together in the feast. One day, however, I realized that the circle may not have been closed in the furniture, but the rest of the circle was filled on the missing sides with all the saints in heaven. I imagined my mother and other forebears, my friend who died when we were teenagers, and so many others kneeling there with us, taking the body and blood of Jesus as one body in Him. Now I know that my friend Sister Verna is with me even more so now that she has died than she was when she lived two thousand miles away.
In some forms of the liturgy we hear words like these: “Join our prayers with those of your servants of every time and every place and unite them with the ceaseless petitions of our great high priest until he comes as victorious Lord of all.” Our worship is timeless and the fellowship of the saints numbers in the multitudes, and those who died in faith that we mourn are amongst us, sharing the same feast and worshipping the same Lord.
What is a saint? A saint is one in whom God takes pleasure; a saint is one who is humble before Him, believing His Word, and receiving His salvation like a crown. Thanks to those who loved and served God throughout time, sharing the Gospel with us so that we would know His mercy and grace, we will join the multitude standing before the throne and before the Lamb, dressed in white, with palm branches in our hands, singing the victory song.
“I thank my God whenever I remember you, always in every request of mine on behalf of you all, making my requests with joy, for your partnership in furtherance of the Good News from the first day until now; being confident of this very thing, that he who began a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ. It is even right for me to think this way on behalf of all of you, because I have you in my heart, because both in my bonds and in the defense and confirmation of the Good News, you all are partakers with me of grace. For God is my witness, how I long after all of you in the tender mercies of Christ Jesus.” Philippians 1:3-8, WEB
I saw a joke the other day that showed a clock striking midnight on Halloween and someone asking, “We can play Christmas music now, right?” Of course, there are other memes that remind us that November should be spent giving thanksgiving for all the blessings of God. That doesn’t lessen the reality that the stores are filling with Christmas things (and have been for months!) and the airwaves are becoming more focused on Christmas giving. One particular ad I’ve heard recently is for a company that digitizes old media like video and audio tapes. As they say, these were not designed to last forever, and they aren’t doing anyone any good in a box on the top shelf of a closet. They are particularly unuseful if you don’t have the player to watch them.
I have one of those boxes and I’ve thought about sending off my videos to have them done. I didn’t want to just throw them into a box, though. I knew some of the videos were not worth the trouble or didn’t have very much recorded on them. I tended to begin a new tape for a new event, even if the last tape was only a few minutes. And many of those events are not even memories I want to keep. There’s no point in paying someone so much for something that is unnecessary.
So I began watching videos the other day. I discovered two videos that had a television appearance of my daughter on a local morning news program. I had to record the whole show because I was with her, but her performance was just three minutes. Do I really want to pay to digitize two hours of news from 20 years ago? I also discovered some of the videos are really degraded. Do I want to pay to digitize video that is garbled and nothing but snow? It can be time consuming, but there are fairly inexpensive gadgets that allow the home techie to accomplish the same work.
There are definitely things I want to digitize. I found video of our daughter when she was just a toddler playing with my husband’s parents that died in the past few years. It was a joy to watch because they were still active and healthy. I also found a video of my mom’s 60th birthday party. She died decades ago, but the video showed her before she was sick. I loved watching her laugh at the gag gifts she received. Then the DJ played a song for my mom and dad to dance. He died long ago, too, and I confess to tearing up a little at the memories. I still have a dozen or so videos to watch and I’m looking forward to finding more special moments of our lives.
Today’s text is from the letter of Paul to the Christian church in Philippi. This church appears to be Paul’s favorite and this letter is the most personal of his corpus. He was thankful for the Philippians and congratulates them for their generosity. Someone wrote, “The letter to the Philippians is permeated from beginning to end with the sweetness of holy love. It has been called the ‘jewel’ or the ‘pearl’ of St. Paul’s writings.”
He was in prison at the time, though hopeful that he would see them again. The letter encourages the Philippians and focuses on suffering with joy. He wants them to follow his example, to live in trust and faith because even if they suffer in this life, they look forward to their citizenship in heaven. Paul knew that his mission was having an impact through his suffering and that was reason to rejoice.
In this greeting to his letter, Paul talks about how much he loves the people in Philippi. He remembers their work in the Kingdom and their generosity. Paul’s memories of the Philippians helped him through a tough time, although we don’t need to be suffering to benefit from remembering our past. Seeing the videos of our parents helped both of us think about how they impacted our lives. Though we cried a little, we did so with thanksgiving for them and with praise to God for sharing them with us for a time.
“Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you such a long time, and do you not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father. How do you say, “Show us the Father?” Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? The words that I tell you, I speak not from myself; but the Father who lives in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me; or else believe me for the very works’ sake. Most certainly I tell you, he who believes in me, the works that I do, he will do also; and he will do greater works than these, because I am going to my Father. Whatever you will ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you will ask anything in my name, I will do it.” John 14:9-14, WEB
We look at people and often assume things about them that simply aren’t true.
I once took a personal profile survey for a financial services company that I was considering for part time work. The survey was designed to see if I was right for the company and where I would best fit in the organization. These surveys try to do determine similar things, such as if you are a leader or a follower, if you are self-motivated or one who needs supervision, if you can think on your feet or need very specific instruction. I have taken similar tests at other times, and I could tell this one was specifically designed for financial services, many of the answers dealt with wealth and success.
The man who gave me the test was genuinely surprised at the results. I was bold and friendly with the people I knew in the office, so he assumed I would be a good candidate for a certain position. Yet, the results showed that I’m actually quite shy. Those who know me personally always laugh when I suggest my introversion. The bold Peggy is a façade and is quite exhausting for me. I would rather hide in my room or be in the background of an endeavor. I have learned that I’m far more bold when it comes to the work I do for God’s kingdom, my courage is a gift from God so that I can do what He’s called me to do. The personal profile survey showed me that even though I can be bold for the Lord, I could not be so bold to sell financial programs.
This is not the first time people have assumed things about me and tried to put me in the wrong position. It happens all the time to everyone when we make assumptions based on first impressions and what we see in their actions. It happened to Jesus all the time. The people He met during His ministry thought He was an earthy Messiah, one who would save them from the Romans or that He was from the devil. Some saw Him as a wonderful teacher, but when He began defining Himself as more, they could not handle His claims and left Him. The same is still true today. Many people look at Jesus as no more than an incredible teacher who showed us the right way to live, shared the truth about God and helped people live a good life. However, Jesus was far more than that. In John, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Jesus is not just one who shows the way: He is the way. He does not just speak the truth: He is the truth. Jesus is not just a role model who demonstrated the godly life, He is the One who gives life.
We make assumptions about others because we do not know everything we need to know about them. People assume I’m bold based on a few encounters, but they don’t see me when I’m hiding in my quiet place. Some are surprised when I claim I am shy, but they don’t realize how much I have to overcome, and that I do so only by the grace of God.
Even those closest to Jesus did not recognize the truth of His identity. They were looking on the surface, basing their assumptions on their own ideas, wants, and needs. But Jesus repeated over and over again that He was far more than just a man who came to be a king or role model. He is the Living God, the One who gives the good gifts of life, hope, peace, joy and grace. There are many like Philip in today’s world who do not see Jesus as He really is: the Way, the Truth and the Life. We will never know everything there is to know about God for He is greater than we can even imagine, so we should not make assumptions about Him. But we can know God deeply through Jesus Christ who is the revelation of God in flesh. We cannot know the Father without Jesus, for Jesus is the full revelation of God in flesh. He is truly the only way for us to have a relationship with the Almighty; it is by His grace we believe.
“Be patient therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it, until it receives the early and late rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Don’t grumble, brothers, against one another, so that you won’t be judged. Behold, the judge stands at the door. Take, brothers, for an example of suffering and of perseverance, the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we call them blessed who endured. You have heard of the perseverance of Job, and have seen the Lord in the outcome, and how the Lord is full of compassion and mercy.” James 5:7-11, WEB
Richard Nixon was asked about peace efforts around the world in 1986 and he answered, “As Americans, we have many great strengths, but one of our weaknesses is impatience. The Russians think in terms of decades, the Chinese in terms of centuries. Americans think in terms of years, months, and even days. But if the quest for a realistic, lasting peace, we expect overnight success – instant gratification – we are bound to be disappointed.” I suppose this quote is as appropriate for our world today as it was nearly twenty years ago.
Impatience appears in all aspects of our life, even more so today than in Nixon’s day. We want to see results immediately. We email because sending a letter takes too long. We eat fast food, so we don’t have to wait for a decent meal. We drive too fast, pick the self-check-out so we don’t have to stand in line, and drive too fast to get to where we are going as quickly as possible. We are impatient when we are suffering. We get tired of laying around when we are sick, so we push ourselves to get moving too fast. We stop taking medicine the minute it seems we are better, even when the prescription calls for a regimen that lasts several days or even weeks. We think that just because we are feeling better, we don’t need to continue with the care. However, our body has not yet overcome the infection and we suffer a relapse.
We are especially impatient when we see anything we consider injustice. We become frustrated when it seems that evil is winning. We do not like to see anyone suffer and we do not like to suffer ourselves. When the rich oppress the poor or the powerful afflict the weak, we cry out in confusion and anger. We can’t explain why the world has to work this way. It is this very uncertainty that makes many people doubt the existence of God. How could a loving and compassionate God allow such things to happen? How could the Savior tolerate the arrogance of the wicked as they celebrate in their victories? We want the suffering to be gone now. Today, not tomorrow or in a few years. We demand that God finish the job according to our expectations even though we can’t see or know the world through God’s perspective. Sometimes there is a greater victory to be won on the other side of the suffering.
These feelings are magnified at times like we are experiencing today. We are hours away from an election in the United States and we are a people who are divided. We even disagree about what is evil and what is oppression. We do not know how to talk to one another. We do not question our own thoughts or motives and blame others for our struggles. Don’t get me wrong: evil is real, and we do sometimes suffer at the hands of others. We simply need to remember to look in the mirror. What role do we play in the problems of our world? Are we too quick to blame? Are we too impatient? Do we trust that God is working, even in those we deem our enemies? Look at the Bible: how many times did God choose someone who seemed against God’s will? God was glorified in the end, every time. God’s people were not always patient to see His faithfulness. Neither are we.
The promise in James does not say that God’s people will not face suffering, but rather that they need to stand firm and be patient through it. If a farmer tries to pick his crop too early, he will end up with a poor quality and quantity of produce. The plants need that final rainfall to complete the growth cycle. So, too, does God’s plan need to be allowed to go to its conclusion according to His perspective. Even when it seems as though the wicked are winning the battle, we know God has won the war. And sometimes we learn that our very suffering is given to help us discover our own failure to live up to God’s Word. Patience is a gift when it helps us grow as God’s people in this world. At those times when things do not seem to be going according to our thoughts or motives, patience helps us to develop trust in the God who will always bring us through according to His good and perfect will.
“Is any among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praises. Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the assembly, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will heal him who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your offenses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The insistent prayer of a righteous person is powerfully effective. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain, and it didn’t rain on the earth for three years and six months. He prayed again, and the sky gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit. Brothers, if any among you wanders from the truth and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” James 5:13-20, WEB
I would like to be like Elijah. We are in a period of extreme drought, just on the edge of exceptional drought. Things are beginning to look better around Texas as there has been some substantial rain. For some reason, however, these storms keep missing us. We had showers around the area yesterday. I don’t know if it actually rained at home, but it did rain upon the places I visited while I ran errands yesterday. It will take a lot more water to get us out of the drought, and we’ve been praying for months for God to make it happen.
It would be so much easier if we were like Elijah. He prayed and God stopped the rain. Then he prayed again, and God made it rain. We haven’t had such a powerful success in our prayers for rain. After several months of prayers, it is easy for us to begin to doubt that prayer even does any good. I know people who have struggled through illness, wondering why they don’t get better. Family members who pray for dying loved ones without success sometimes lose faith in the God who can heal. Those of us who believe in Jesus can’t understand why our neighbors do not respond to the Gospel or have wandered from the faith, and we wonder if God is even hearing our prayers for them.
God does hear, but He does not always answer according to our expectations. There are two key words in our life of faith: patience and perseverance. We talked about patience yesterday, and today we need to be reminded to persevere. When we least feel like praying, when we have given up because it just doesn’t seem like it is worth our time, that is when we need to pray with extraordinary trust and faith. That is when “thy will be done” becomes our mantra and opens our hearts to the reality that God’s will is perfect, even though it doesn’t match our own. We might want to be like Elijah, but James reminds us that Elijah is like us. He was imperfect and human just like us, but serves as a model of trust and faith
God calls us to be bold. God welcomes our perseverance. God listens to our cries and answers our prayers. He finishes His work according to His good and perfect will. Life in Christ means more than just having faith. We can trust that God will not abandon us and that in the end He will make all things right. Our doubts come because we expect all things to go well for us in this day. We expect rain, health, life, and salvation. And God promises all these things in His own way. What we are to remember, however, is that through our disappointments that His love is eternal. Though we might have reason to question whether God is even listening, we are called to live lives of thanksgiving and praise, trusting that God’s plan is greater than our expectations and He is faithful to His promises.
Lectionary Scriptures for November 13, 2022, Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost: Malachi 4:1-6; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 3:(1-5)6-13; Luke 21:5-28(29-36)
“Sing to Yahweh a new song, for he has done marvelous things! His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.” Psalm 98:1, WEB
The Church calendar has a very specific purpose and pattern. It is meant to remind us every year of the story of God and our place in God’s kingdom. We begin in Advent with the promise and the coming of Christ, move into the revelation of His light and purpose, and then the journey to the cross. Holy Week takes us from His triumph over the world to His triumph on the cross to His triumph over death. The Easter season ends with the birth of the Church, Pentecost, and the reminder of the Trinitarian God we worship. The season of Pentecost teaches us how to be disciples of Christ and then ends with a foretaste of the feast to come, the promise on All Saints of an eternity with God. The week/s between All Saints and Christ the King remind us that life in this world, even with faith, is not always safe and secure and that persecution, sickness, and death is still a reality for Christians.
We end the year with the reminder for why we need Jesus. God’s promises are real, and they are ours today, but eternity is a future hope. We still live in a world of darkness that cries out for a Savior. That’s why we begin the year with Advent, the light growing in the darkness as we journey with John the Baptist and the other prophets toward the birth of the Jesus. The last Sunday before Advent is Christ the King and though we struggle with the reality of evil and suffering in this world, we celebrate that Jesus is King now and forever. We can’t see Jesus, or touch Him, or feel Him in tangible ways, but we trust by faith that He Is and that He will come to make all things right. For this moment we have to live in hope.
It is hard to hope when the world seems to be falling apart around us. We aren’t the first generation to deal with the struggles of life, however. As a matter of fact, our struggles aren’t nearly as bad as we think they are. We listen to the prophets of the age and become afraid and angry, forgetting that God can use our struggle to build in us strength, courage, and wisdom. Sometimes it takes getting to the bottom of the barrel to realize our need for His grace.
I just finished reading the book of Judges. The book repeats and then ends with this line, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did that which was right in his own eyes.” The last few chapters were so difficult to read because they were horrific. Nothing God’s people did glorified Him. I wondered why God would even tell those stories. It disgusted me that His people would act so unconscionably. I wanted to stop reading. I then read some commentaries to try to understand. God always has a purpose, doesn’t He?
The book of Judges was written to help us see that human leadership is always temporary and fallible. Even the lives of the good judges came to an end. These stories, especially those at the end of the book, would lead Israel to cry out for king. God always hoped that He would be their King, but He knew that they would need strong leadership to stay the course of His purpose for them in the world. The rest of the history books of the Bible remind us, however, that even kings are temporary and fallible. They cycle of life would always continue. Even now we have the same cycle which I describe as “good to eh to ugh to awful.” Then whenever we hit awful, we cry out to God to save us.
Sometimes God’s timing and ways don’t make any sense.
Today is the 84th anniversary of “Kristallnacht,” or “Night of Broken Glass,” when Jewish businesses were targeted in Germany. People died, businesses were ruined, and thousands were sent to concentration camps. Though they were set free, it was only on the condition that they leave Germany. It began an exodus, but not everyone was able to leave. Sadly, that night was just the beginning of the horror of the Holocaust, the attempt to rid Germany of all the Jews and other undesirables. Kristallnacht was nothing compared to what would happen in the next ten years: millions died and Germany was devastated even to the point of being divided. On this day exactly 51 years later, the wall that divided the country fell and Germany began to heal.
There is that pattern again. Things were good in Germany in the beginning of the twentieth century. Even Adolf Hitler had some positive impact. But then things got bad, and then they got worse, and then they seemed unredeemable. But God knows what He’s doing. Like those stories in Judges, the stories of those years in Germany were horrific and they make us wonder what kind of God would allow such things to happen. Why does He allow us to suffer the fire?
There is a story about a mother bird that was found in a national park after a fire. She was charred beyond recognition, but the forest ranger found several chicks under her wings. According to his story, the chicks survived, and we are to learn that God covers us with His wings to save us from the dangers of this world. It is a beautiful story. Unfortunately, it never happened. Scientists have confirmed that it would have been impossible for the mother bird to have saved her chicks from the fire just by covering them with her wings. We love these stories that help us understand the loving and caring nature of God, but human analogies rarely describe God completely. As we read the scriptures there are images of God that touch our hearts and there are some that are unreasonable. We prefer the loving, caring God than the God who allows the horrors of this world.
We forget that we do not deserve God’s grace. We are proud and we are wicked. There are aspects of our lives that would best be destroyed. We sin, we doubt, we hate in one way or another. We deserve to be destroyed by the fire. But that’s where God differs from the human analogies we use to describe Him. He is like that mother bird, covering us with His wings. But He is also like the fire, burning away the pride and wickedness in our lives, leaving behind a cleaner, purer person. He brings healing and righteousness.
When it feels like we are in the furnace, God is working good things in our lives, bringing us to the place that He intends us to be. We will face the fire of cleansing as God burns away the stubble. We will never be perfect in this world because we continue to be sinners even while we are saints, but those who persevere through the fire, resting on the promise of Jesus Christ, will see the other side.
A new movie is nearly ready for release; it will be in the theaters early next summer. It is the fifth and final installment of the popular series “Indiana Jones,” which tell the adventures of Dr. Henry Walden Jones, Jr. who is played by Harrison Ford. Indiana Jones is an archeologist who searches for some of the greatest treasures of the world. He is the good guy who made it his life’s purpose to protect the treasures from those who want to use them for selfish and self-centered reasons.
Indiana Jones is an archeologist like no other. I watch several shows about archeology, and none of them show the kind of experiences that we see in the movies. Indiana Jones is always getting into some sort of trouble. In “Raiders of the Lost Ark” he was trying to recover the Ark of the Covenant because the Nazi Germans were hoping to use its power to take over the world. He was chased all over the world, constantly running from those who wanted to stop his quest.
One of the most famous scenes from the Indiana Jones movies has to be from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” when Indiana Jones was attempting to get through an ancient obstacle course to the hiding place of the Holy Grail. The obstacles made the path difficult, and they were dangerous. He had to solve riddles to move forward step by step. He risked being impaled by spears or falling through a hole into a bottomless cavern if he got the riddle wrong. Meanwhile, he was surrounded by bad guys and his father was dying by their hands. The pressure to succeed was intense.
The Holy Grail was believed to hold the power of eternal life. Indiana’s father had been injured by one of the bad guys and the only hope to save his life was to find the cup and give him a drink of water from it. Of course, the bad guys wanted the cup to abuse its power and control the world. They followed his path through the obstacles to the chamber where the cup was hidden. There were hundreds of different goblets. Choosing wrongly meant immediate death. One of the bad guys chose a precious goblet of gold with magnificent stones, certain that the Christ would have the best of the best. She drank some water and immediately died. Indiana knew better. He knew that Jesus was a carpenter. The Holy Grail was not some fancy goblet, but a simple pottery cup. He filled the cup with the water that saved his father’s life.
During his quests, Indiana Jones moves forward by a sense of purpose. His purpose is not fame or wealth, but a search for the truth and the protection of the world’s precious treasures. He is not driven by the benefits he will receive from finding the treasures but by the treasures themselves. It doesn’t matter what he will face, as long as he is able to find what he is looking for. Guns, rolling stones, ancient obstacle courses and bad guys never stop him from finding the purpose of his quest.
For many of the people living in Jesus’ day, the Temple was the destination of their greatest quests. The Jews took pilgrimages to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices and to worship their God regularly. There was nowhere else they could be so close to God as in the courts of the Temple. It was a magnificent place dedicated to God. It honored Him well. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus prophesied the destruction of the Temple. When He did so, He was not just threatening a beautiful building. He was threatening the very foundation of their faith. It was a terrifying possibility. The Temple was a sanctuary from the fears and dangers of the world, and they must have felt very safe within its walls. The words of Jesus must have been shocking and unfathomable. How could that great place be destroyed? What would they do? Where would they go? How would they sacrifice to God?
Then Jesus told them that not a hair on their heads would be destroyed. This seems like a ridiculous statement. If only it would be true! I rip a dozen or more strands of my hair every time I brush it. I can’t tell you how often we have to clean the drain because hair has created a blockage. And whatever happened to the bald guy next door? Will he think it is a sign of God’s wrath that his hair is gone? Or the cancer patient that is wearing a scarf to cover the loss of hair from chemotherapy? Hair has a purpose, but it is not vital to our existence. Our hearts, lungs, and brains need to be protected. Hair can be cut, colored, woven, braided, pulled, knotted, shaved and made to stand on end without harm to the body.
So, why would Jesus begin a lesson with a warning about the destruction of the Temple and end it with a promise that the hair on their heads would be unscathed? The Temple was where God dwelt among men. In the story just before this message, Jesus pointed out to a widow who gave a measly mite to the Temple offerings. His point was that she gave more than the others who had put so much more in the plate because she gave everything. She gave her only coin, her well-being, her future to God. The others were giving just a portion. She was an example of faith in dire circumstances. She trusted so much in God that she gave Him everything, knowing that He would be with her through her troubles.
The Gospel lesson is about the end of the age, and we might focus on the end times because we see wars and rumors of wars, and false prophets touting their goods in the public squares. We can read this warning for our own time and place because there are many reasons to be afraid. Will our walls come tumbling down? Jesus reminds us that we have a purpose in this life and worrying about the end times will not make anything happen. It will not make anything better. We should not sit and wait for His coming or worry about the destruction of our temples; our purpose is to be His witnesses in this world.
Though Jesus said that not a hair on our head will be harmed, we must not read this as a promise that we won’t suffer. The Saints throughout the ages discovered that being a witness for Christ might lead to a martyr’s death. Many were beheaded, impaled, hanged, and slaughtered for their faith. The word martyr means witness. Persecution will lead to the opportunity for us to glorify God as His witnesses.
We are reminded that through it all, even if it all leads to death, God is concerned about even the most insignificant parts of our bodies. He has counted to the number of hairs on our heads. He knows our every thought, prayer, concern, and doubt. He also knows that every bit of His creation is perishable. We will see the cycle of life and experience the pattern of God’s story over and over again. We’ll see the good, the eh, the ugh, and the awful. We will see the darkness and the coming light. We’ll learn how to be disciples, growing in faith, receiving strength, courage, and wisdom. Today is just one of the many days in which God walks with us, His wings over our heads as we face the horrors of this world.
When Jesus told the disciples about the Temple, they asked, “When?” We are not waiting for the destruction of the Temple, but we are waiting for the return of Christ. We have been waiting for His return for two thousand years. We, too, ask “When?” Jesus tells us the signs, but every generation has seen these signs. Perhaps we are the generation that will see the return of Christ, but probably not. We must not make this the center of our focus or the quest for our lives.
I have been watching old videos. Well, I’ve been skimming through them to see if there is anything worth keeping. I occasionally stop the fast forward and watch what’s happening. It brought back such memories to watch the early years of our children. I found video of my mom and dad from when they were young and healthy. Many of the videos are from my daughter’s theater days. I found one of her High School troupe doing “Robin Hood” which I watched in its entirety. Though they had other shows that won awards, I thought it was their best. The actors were talented; the sets and transitions were creatively done.
Instead of closing the curtain between scenes, the director decided to allow the audience to see the set changes. A wandering minstrel played a song under the spotlight while the crew moved the pieces into place in shadow. Everyone was in costume, including the offstage crew, to keep the up the image of medieval England. The set changes were choreographed, and it was vital that every member of the cast do their part. If they were assigned the duty of moving a tree, the tree had to be moved in a timely and effortless manner. Every member had to do their part for the play to be successful. It worked and surprised the audience.
Paul wrote to the Thessalonians that each member of the community has a role to play and a task to complete. When everyone does their part, everything works well, both in the Church and all of creation. He encourages all Christians to be active participants in the world around them, working to provide for their own needs and for the needs of the community.
Thessalonica was dealing with a time of uncertainty. They knew that Christ would return, and that time was short. However, they could not define the time. Many assumed that the end would come during their lifetime, and they were misled by the Gnostic idea that the flesh no longer mattered. Some thought they did not need to work to care for their needs because they would soon have no flesh for which to labor. They managed to keep their bellies full by eating the food shared by the other members of the Christian community. They did nothing to provide, but took advantage of the grace of others, leaving few resources for those who really did need help.
They forgot that everyone has a purpose and the gifts to fulfill that work, even if they are needy. They have a role to play and tasks to do. The widows had no money, but they could help teach and guide the young women, offering their time, wisdom, and experience to help them grow into disciples. Unfortunately, some of the widows spent their time being busybodies and gossiping rather than doing what they could do. As they say, “Idle hands are the devil’s playground.” Those who seemed to have no purpose in the community spent their time doing things that would never benefit the believers. As part of the community of believers, we are all called to be faithful witnesses of the Gospel in words and deeds. Our work will never gain us salvation, but as Christians it is up to us to live as God has gifted us to live. As part of the body of Christ, we are meant to do our part for the smooth and successful operation of God’s kingdom on earth.
God is faithful, and because He is faithful, we have all we need to live and work in His promises. The psalmist calls us to make a joyful noise and sing praises to God. Paul encourages us to be active, working to make our own living in this day so that we’ll have enough for ourselves and for those who cannot provide for themselves. Though it seems like the world is about to end, we should not be idle.
More than two thousand years after the apocalyptic warning from Jesus, we are still seeing the signs of the end. Jesus’ words warn us today as much as it did His first disciples. We still have temples that will fall. Our temples are not just places of worship. Other temples might include our jobs, our homes, and our relationships. Sometimes God shakes the foundation of our perishable world so that we will look to Him and toward that which is imperishable.
Jesus is coming to judge the earth; He has come and will come again. Until that day, we will suffer during troubled times, we will experience persecution, we will die. We don’t know when Jesus will come even though we can see that there are signs pointing to the end. It isn’t up to us to worry about the day, to even try to figure out when it will happen. “When” is not the right question to ask when God reveals the coming of Judgment. We should be asking, “What should we do?” We are called to endure in faith, to wait patiently through the fire, and to do whatever needs to be done in the meantime. God is always working, and though we may not understand what He is doing, we can trust that it is good, right, and true.
Jesus didn’t tell them when, but warned, “Do not be fooled.” The scriptures at the end the of Church year are not pleasant. Malachi talks about the day of the Lord, when the arrogant and evildoers will be burned. Paul warns those who believed the Gnostics and were idly waiting for Christ’s return that they will starve. Jesus talks about the destruction of the Temple and the danger to the believers. Even the psalmist talks about vindication and judgment.
When the world around us is confused and without hope, it is easy to be fooled. We listen to the wrong voices. Jesus knew that there would be those who would claim to be from God, offering promises they could never fulfill. He warned us not to believe every charismatic speaker who promised prosperity and wealth or every leader who said that they would take care of us. He knew that desperate people could fall easily for lies.
The walls of our Temples might come tumbling down, but God doesn’t dwell in those buildings, He dwells in the hearts of believers. So even if the walls are gone, God is still here. There isn’t much left of the Temple in Jerusalem, but God is still among His people because they believe, not because there’s a beautiful house where He can dwell. Knowing this, we can enjoy what we have today, and do the work we are called to do. When our world falls apart, we must hold fast to the promise that God is faithful. He is with us. His right hand is manifested in the life and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. His holy arm is the Holy Spirit that reaches out into our lives to give us faith and hope so that we might live in peace doing that which He calls us to do in this life even if we face difficulty.
We look forward to the day when Christ will come again, but we should not reject the things of this world like the Gnostics. God has given us life to live and His Word to share. The hair on our head may not last, but it doesn’t matter. The temples we build might fall down, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that God is with us through it all and He has promised us something greater. Those who persevere resting on the promise of Jesus Christ will receive a place His eternal kingdom and dwell with God forever and ever.
“Always rejoice. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus toward you. Don’t quench the Spirit. Don’t despise prophecies. Test all things, and hold firmly that which is good. Abstain from every form of evil. May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely. May your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, who will also do it. Brothers, pray for us. Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss. I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all the holy brothers. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-28, WEB
I bought a book the other day. It is a book of pictures called “Find the Cat.” Someone with too much time on their hands photoshopped a cat into pretty pictures to create a hide-and-seek game for other people with too much time on their hands. I wanted something do in the toilet, and that seemed like a great way to pass the time. Some of the pictures are incredibly easy, others are harder. Sometimes there are spots like shadows or rocks that look like they could be the cat. I keep looking when I’m not sure, and I eventually find the actual cat and then realize how foolish I was to think the other spot was it. The book won’t last very long because I do five or six of the puzzles each time I look, and I’ll soon have to buy something else to pass that time.
You can find these games online. People will post them on their social media. The nice thing about doing it online is that you can zoom your focus on the picture, making it easier to see. The funniest thing about this book is that I forget it is a book; I have found myself trying to zoom on the picture as if my book were a phone or tablet! It would be especially helpful when I think something is a cat that is not really a cat. If I could zoom in on that shadow or rock, I would know it isn’t a cat.
Zooming on pictures is a learned response from all the time we spend on our devices. They call it muscle memory. Wikipedia says, “When a movement is repeated over time, the brain creates a long-term muscle memory for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed with little to no conscious effort. This process decreases the need for attention and creates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems. Muscle memory is found in many everyday activities that become automatic and improve with practice.”
A few years ago, I volunteered at a local theme park for special needs people, and I often took a basket of origami butterflies that I made to give out to the guests. It took a while to learn how to make the butterflies. I found several different websites with directions, and none were quite complete. It took trial and error to figure it out, but eventually I was able to do them quickly so that I could a large number to give away. Muscle memory made it look simple, even though it was initially very complicated for me. I once tried to teach the same design to a group of women, and I didn’t realize as I was teaching how much detail I was missing in my lesson. I had to slow down my teaching and explain every step of the process, even to the tiniest detail. If those steps weren’t taught, the project will not be properly completed. A few women gave up trying, and I ended up making them butterflies to take home.
As we grow in our faith in Jesus Christ, the fruit of the Spirit and His works are manifest in our lives. They become a natural part of our day. We love because God first loved us, and we share that love without a thought. Our joy is made complete in Christ Jesus, so we are naturally joyful. As we are sanctified for God and by His work in us, the fruit becomes such a part of our lives that we do not have to work at them.
In this letter to the Christians at Thessalonica, Paul gave specific instructions for living a life in Christ Jesus. These actions had become a natural part of his existence, and his faith showed clearly by his life, but he knew the importance of laying down the steps to a life of living in God’s grace. Paul deemed it necessary to establish every step of the process for us to follow. Rejoice, pray, give thanks. Don’t quench the Spirit or despise prophecies. Test all things, hold firmly to what is good. Abstain from evil. The more you practice these actions, the more naturally the fruit of God’s Holy Spirit will manifest in your life.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort; 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, through the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound to us, even so our comfort also abounds through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation. If we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer. Our hope for you is steadfast, knowing that, since you are partakers of the sufferings, so you are also of the comfort.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-7, WEB
I am sure you have seen, at some point in your life, people giving away red paper poppies, especially around Memorial Day. Veteran’s groups do this to remind everyone of the sacrifices that have been made for the sake of our country and every American. The “Buddy Poppy” program helps disabled American Veterans, who are paid to make the paper poppies. Donations also support VFW programs that help veterans and the families of fallen service people.
The poppies have been used since the program started in 1922, but the idea of the poppies comes from an historic event. Moina Michael was inspired by the 1915 poem “In Flanders Field” written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. Poppies are flowers that leave behind abundant seeds that begin to bloom when the soil is disturbed. When the bodies of World War I soldiers were buried on the fields of Flanders in Belgium, the ground bloomed with these bright red flowers, leaving the impression of the blood of the fallen on the hearts of those who were left behind. McCrae is said to have been mourning the loss of his friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer.
Though we may not be able to identify with the emotional impact of the poppies in that field so long ago, the poem “In Flanders Fields” continues to leave a lasting impression on our hearts. “In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row, that mark our place: and in the sky the larks, still bravely singing, fly scarce heard amid the guns below. We are the dead. Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved and were loved, and now we lie in Flanders’ fields. Take up our quarrel with the foe; to you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high, if ye break faith with us who die we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders’ Fields.”
Moina Michael was so touched by this poem that she began wearing a poppy in remembrance. She soon began making and selling the poppies to help servicemen in need. Madam Guerin from France took the project to France and earned money to help widows and orphans. People in other countries followed suit. By 1922 the VFW was involved, and now you’ll see veterans handing out poppies in front of your favorite grocery store or at the mall or on Main Street around days of remembrance like Memorial Day and Veterans Day. When you do, remember, they aren’t just trying to help you remember the fallen heroes of our nation. They are helping those who continue to suffer because of the loss.
The poppies stand for something more than blood and death. The aftermath of war leaves behind a land destroyed by bombs, leveled by powerful machines, turned to mud and blackened by fire. It might be said the only color is the red of the blood of the dead, yet even that quickly dries into the reddish-brown shade of carmine. It isn’t pretty. However, in the midst of the carnage and destruction, the delicate but resilient Flanders poppies grew in the thousands. In the midst of death there is always hope.
It is sad to know how many we left behind, but John McCrae reminds us that it is up to us to continue the work, to continue the fight, for their sake. The poppies remind us that there are those who are willing to die if the cause is right. They have become a symbol of remembrance, not only for those lost, but also for those who took the risk to stand, the veterans who have fought the battles that keep the rest of us safe. They have taken up the torch that the previous generation threw, faithfully working toward the world for which they died. They remember the sacrifices of those long gone by continuing to fight for what is right.
On this Veteran’s Day we are thankful for those who have willingly risked everything for the sake of others. Unfortunately, many veterans though they live suffer continued pain from their service. Some have physical pain; others have emotional pain. A friend recently lost a buddy who could not live with his pain any longer. They say twenty-two servicepeople commit suicide every day. Their struggles are real, and they don’t know how to overcome. My friend said they had recently had lunch, and everything seemed fine; there was probably nothing he could do. They need our prayers and whatever help we can give. Sadly, too many hide their pain. Please, if you are struggling, reach out for help.
On this Veterans’ Day, let us embrace those who serve and have served. It is nice to thank them for their service, but let’s remember to give them more than words. Buy a poppy, but also consider volunteering at an organization that reaches out to veterans. Take a veteran out for lunch. Invite a young military family to Thanksgiving dinner. Donate to the organizations that help disabled vets and their families. The best thing we can do is to remind them that they are loved by a God who has promised eternal life to those who believe in Jesus.
There’s a meme on the Internet that shows a picture of a World War II Veteran in a wheel chair with the caption “Somewhere at the VA, there’s a 90-something old fart in a wheelchair.” Below that is a photo from the shores of Normandy showing the army wading through the water in full gear to the beaches where they fight their way into the history books. The caption on that picture says, “Who was a bigger badass at 20 than you’ll ever be. Thank him.” We take this day to thank those who have spent time serving their country. We honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice on other days throughout the year, but on Veterans’ Day we thank the sacrifices of those who survived. Let us spend every day helping them overcome the darkness and pain they may experience with the Light that overcomes all our battles, even those we can’t see.
“Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘You rulers of the people, and elders of Israel, if we are examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, may it be known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, this man stands here before you whole in him. He is “the stone which was regarded as worthless by you, the builders, which has become the head of the corner.” There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven that is given among men, by which we must be saved!’” Acts 4:8-12, WEB
The U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that every child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have a name. It might seem ridiculous to demand this of parents because we can’t imagine that anyone would have a child and never give it a name. The reason for this rule is to ensure the child has an identity, a nation, and the rights they deserve. In the midst of war and poverty, desperate people often pay little attention to the formalities of life; children are never officially registered and then become victims of abuse. They are left abandoned and fall through the cracks of the world in which they live. Having a name matters because it means that child has an identity and all the rights that go with it.
Shakespeare wrote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” but the reality is that names mean something. While it is true that a rose would smell as sweet if it was called by some other name, it would be very confusing to go into a nursery today to ask for a bubolo when you really want a rose. The nursery clerk would have no idea what you want. The same would be true if the nursery tried to advertise plants by other names; their customers would not know if the nursery was selling what they want. It is confusing to try to draw people in with a new name for something that they've known as something else.
America is a melting pot which is obvious in the variety of names among its people. Some experts estimate that there are millions of different surnames used by American families, while in China there are only a few thousand. Since so many people have come from so many different places, our telephone books are an eclectic mix from every corner of the world. As for first names, there are more girl names than boy names in America, according to the census bureau. Boys are often named after a member of the family, particularly the father. My dad and my brother have exactly the same name, the only way to tell the difference is by the “Sr.” or “Jr.” at the end of their name. It might be a matter of expectation; the parent who wants their son to be successful will choose a more serious name. Parents tend to be more creative with female names, and thus they often carry frivolous or bizarre names. Unfortunately, those girls often have to change their name as adults to make it in their chosen career. I’ve done data processing for an organization, and I can tell you there are some very strange names.
Names matter. The names given to the people in the scriptures often give us a sense of their character. He changed the names of many of His people, so that their names would reflect their purpose in the world. Abram became Abraham. Sarai became Sarah. Cephas became Peter. These name changes defined their relationship with God and His Kingdom. Names were so important that God often told parents what they were to name their children.
When God announced the coming of Jesus to His father, He told Joseph that the child would be named Jesus. Would Jesus have been the Son of God with any other name? Would our worship be the same if our Savior were named Butch? God could have named Him anything, but the name given to that baby born to Mary and Joseph was named “the Lord saves.” The name Jesus is the modern transliteration of the word that defines His character and purpose. Jesus was named for a reason, and we hold on to that name because it was God-given.
There are those that would like to say that it does not matter what name we give to God, that He is the same no matter what He is called. While it is true that we are called to love our neighbors even when they differ in their faith, it is not true that any faith will bring salvation. In today’s passage it is clear that the only way to salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ. His name can’t be changed; salvation can’t be reidentified with someone or something else. There are not a million paths to heaven; there is only one way to eternal life, and that is by the name of our Savior Jesus Christ.
“When I came to you, brothers, I didn’t come with excellence of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. My speech and my preaching were not in persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith wouldn’t stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. We speak wisdom, however, among those who are full grown, yet a wisdom not of this world nor of the rulers of this world who are coming to nothing. But we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the wisdom that has been hidden, which God foreordained before the worlds for our glory, which none of the rulers of this world has known. For had they known it, they wouldn’t have crucified the Lord of glory. But as it is written, ‘Things which an eye didn’t see, and an ear didn’t hear, which didn’t enter into the heart of man, these God has prepared for those who love him.’ But to us, God revealed them through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For who among men knows the things of a man, except the spirit of the man, which is in him? Even so, no one knows the things of God, except God’s Spirit. But we received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might know the things that were freely given to us by God. We also speak these things, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual things. Now the natural man doesn’t receive the things of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to him, and he can’t know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he who is spiritual discerns all things, and he himself is judged by no one. ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he should instruct him?’ But we have Christ’s mind.” 1 Corinthians 2:1-16, WEB
It is almost cookie making time, the one time of year I use my stand mixer a lot. I will pull it out for some big projects, but I usually use a handheld mixer. It is easier to handle, and it is not worth pulling out the big mixer for small projects. My stand mixer stays on the counter during cookie making time so that it is readily available for all the work it needs to do. It has done good work for decades, but last year I noticed that the motor was beginning to sound like it is about to break. I am not sure it will make it through the dozens of cookies I plan to make in the next few weeks.
So, I began to do research. There is a name brand everyone aspires to own, though it tends to be very expensive. It is a good machine, and lasts for decades (I know, mine is one) but in these tough financial times I could not justify spending so much on an appliance I use just a few times a year. As I did research, I discovered that there are features that I would like that would make that brand even more expensive for me, although they were available on cheaper machines. One thing I liked was the possibility of having a bigger bowl. Some of my recipes were hard to do in my old mixer because even a normal batch really did not fit. A bigger bowl would make it easier to make those cookies.
I read a lot of reviews. I wanted to know what people liked and did not like about the different mixers. I don’t necessarily trust a five-star review, but I’m also hesitant to trust a one-star review. I did notice certain complaints that I took seriously and others I thought were petty. After reading the reviews of dozens of different mixers, I found one that I thought would fill the bill. It was significantly cheaper than the big-name brand. I am sure the big-name brand is better; the fact that my current one lasted for decades means that it was good and worth the money. I don’t know how long the new one will last, but I hope it will do what I want it to do for years to come or at least until I am able to splurge on the better machine.
I found several other mixers I liked of different prices, including a great sale on that big-name brand, but after awhile it started to get confusing. I had too much information; eventually I had to stop and just make a decision. That’s why I finally “pulled the trigger.” I’ve learned before that you can sometimes do too much research and I needed to move forward or try to get through another season with my old mixer.
I love Bible study and spend hours a day with my nose in books. Right now, I’m teaching a class on Paul and his writings. We are following a book that talks about Paul’s metaphors like sports fans and family, but we are going to go farther. I’m reading several books about the letters of Paul, and it can be overwhelming. There is so much we do not know about Paul, and yet there’s hundreds or thousands of books you can read. Most of the books are about specific letters and I have found that many of the experts definitely do not agree about some information. They don’t even agree about which letter was first or even if Paul wrote all thirteen letters attributed to him. One book talked about Paul’s focus from his Jewish heritage, another thought Paul wrote from a perspective. I don’t mind confessing it can be overwhelming.
It is a good thing to study the scriptures, to use commentaries and other resources to help you understand what the writers were trying to say. Unfortunately, many people want to make the interpretation of the Bible very complicated. Some want to analyze every word, to find symbolism in everything, or to read every word literally. Some want to see every text through modern eyes others see nothing truly relevant in our world today. For Martin Luther, every part of the Bible proclaimed Christ, not apart from the literal sense but in a way that was communicated by the literal sense. He “desired to know nothing but Christ crucified” and he looked at the Bible through those eyes.
The most important thing to remember is that we approach the texts of the Bible through faith, seeking God’s help in understanding, beginning with prayer. When we begin to get overwhelmed, it is time to step back and read something that is encouraging and uplifting. Then you can go back and try again. We don’t have to understand everything today, especially since some things of God are meant to be taken with faith. God helps us understand by His Spirit, and the confusion comes when we rely too much on the interpretations of men.
Lectionary Scriptures for November 20, 2022, Christ the King: Malachi 3:13-18; Psalm 95:1-7a or Psalm 46; Colossians 1:13-20; Luke 23:27-43
“‘They shall be mine,’ says Yahweh of Armies, ‘my own possession in the day that I make, and I will spare them, as a man spares his own son who serves him. Then you shall return and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him who serves God and him who doesn’t serve him.’” Malachi 3:17-18, WEB
Fifteen years ago a group of about thirty Russian doomsday cult members, including women and children, sequestered themselves in a cave in Russia in November 2007 because they believed that the end of the world was coming in the spring of 2008. They threatened to kill themselves if anyone tried to intervene. Some Orthodox monks repeatedly tried to convince them to come out, but to no avail. They asked to be left alone so they could pray. Several women were forced from the cave in March as it began to collapse from melting snow. Fourteen others left a few days later. The last of the members left because the toxic gases of two who died were making them sick.
The leader of the group never even entered the cave with the others but blessed his followers as they entered. He was arrested for setting up a religious organization associated with violence. He was placed on house arrest and underwent psychiatric evaluation. His group and several others called themselves the only true orthodox churches, claiming the Russian Orthodox Church was not orthodox enough.
I don’t understand what they thought they would accomplish by hiding in a cave. Did they think the rocks would protect them? The end shows that it did not work, the cave became a trap for them. What did they expect when they came out? The police didn’t act, although they did ask the monks to try to help and they patrolled the area to keep others away. They feared that the cult would be provoked into doing something drastic and there were children in the cave. They expected that the group would come out when they run out of supplies. Nature helped end the stand-off.
A reporter at the time wrote, “After decades of state-enforced atheism under Soviet rule, many Russians and other ex-Soviet nationals have come under the influence of homegrown and foreign sects.” This makes sense. Though the Church Universal is not perfect, because it is made up of imperfect saints that are simultaneously sinners, the Church Universal has a way of keeping everyone on track. Even though there are hundreds of denominations, we correct, rebuke and encourage one another as we have been instructed. We hold one another accountable. We call each other to repentance. We lift one another in prayer. We encourage one another with love. It is dangerous for any Christians to think that they have the only answer and that they can go it on their own.”
Was God with those people in that cave? Perhaps He was. If they believe in the saving power of Jesus Christ, then God would not abandon them. However, is that hole in the mountain really where God calls us to live out our final days? When God sends a warning about the end of the earth, is He telling us to go find a safe refuge and hide away from the world?
The psalmist writes, “God is within her. She shall not be moved. God will help her at dawn.” When we are in the midst of difficult times God is with us. He is our refuge and our strength. Even the Temple was not strong enough to withstand the forces of Israel’s enemies, but God will always be strong enough. His hand moves mountains and His love melts hearts. He is our help in trouble.
The world could have ended in May 2008; it might end tomorrow. We can’t know for certain when the day will come. It is not for us to know, although many people over the millennia of the Church have tried to forecast the day and the manner. The very reason God has kept that detail from us is because we tend to do what that cult in Russia did. We try to save ourselves. We try to hide from the inevitable. We try to stand on our own strength. But God is our only hope.
God calls us to dwell in His presence knowing that Christ may come as King and change everything in the next instant, while still being actively involved in the ordinary and earthbound world in which we live.
We are familiar with the five senses; these are the sensory systems of the human body that help us relate to the world in which we live. We have the sense of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. I recently learned that we actually have eight senses, three of them are related to the inner world of our bodies. The sense of balance, movement, and the feelings of our internal organs (such as hunger.) One article on senses included temperature. The external senses help us understand the world, and the internal senses help us understand our bodies.
In some ways we might consider another sense, a more religious focus.
The movie “The Bells of St. Mary’s” was made in 1945 and stars Bing Crosby as the lovable, independent priest Father O’Malley who is sent to a failing catholic school run by nuns including Sister Beatrice played by Ingrid Bergman. Father O’Malley and Sister Beatrice disagree about how things should be done. She is upset that he has come to disrupt their school and he is just trying to find a way to save it. He has this way of making things happen behind the scenes that seem to be miraculous. He manages to manipulate the circumstances in a way a rich man donates a new building to the school. Sister Beatrice thinks the prayers of her sisters and the gracious way they approached him did the trick.
There is a student at St. Mary’s named Patricia who does not feel like she belongs. She has difficulty doing the work and keeping up with the other students. Father O’Malley knows that she just needs a little push, a bit of encouragement and a chance to shine. He visits her one evening and finds her trying very hard to write an essay. The topic is “the Five Senses.” Though she knows the five senses, she does not know what to say about them. Father O’Malley gives her some ideas which she is able to take and put into a wonderful essay.
She begins the essay with the title, “the Six Senses.” Of course, Sister Beatrice was taken aback at first because the assignment was the five senses. Patricia continued, “The Six Senses: To see, to hear, to taste, to smell, to feel... to be.” She goes on to say, “to be (or not to be) is the final sense, the common sense and the most important of them all.” It isn’t enough to just be aware of the senses we have. We should experience the things of this world with our whole being. Take a rose, for instance. How many of us have some sort of rose bush in our yards or pass some sort of roses each day and we barely even notice? Perhaps it is cliché to say, “Take time to smell the roses” but there is truth in that saying. God created that rose, just as He created each of us. We are part of the creation that God both made and loves. We are connected by the same creative powers that were present with Him at the beginning.
“To be” is a sense that is both external and internal.
I’m not talking about the New Age idea that the Spirit lives in everything and everything has a spirit. I’m not saying that I am connected to the rose bush because we all share the same spirit. However, that rose bush is part of what God has created and it is part of the world in which we live. It is even possible that you had a part in planting and caring for that rose bush. I do not have a green thumb and when I do have plants like roses, I manage to remember them a few times a year when I cut off the old flowers and give it some nutrients. I became part of the creative process by planting that bush in my yard, but I needed to continue to be part of that process to keep it beautiful and a live.
Scientifically, there is a reality that all things are connected. We experience the world with our senses: seeing the flowers, hearing the birds, smelling the bread baking in the oven, tasting that turkey and feeling the touch of a friend. It all seems separated by space and time. Yet everything in God’s world is made up of the same thing: atoms. Atoms are made up of parts. Those parts are connected by an indescribable force. A rose may seem like a solid thing, but it is made up of atoms and the parts of atoms that are swimming together in space. Scientists, when they discovered the indescribable force holding the parts of an atom together called it “The Colossians Force.” Note that verse 17 in our lesson from Colossians says, “He is before all things, and in him all things are held together.” He is the Colossians force holding all things together.
Christ is the image of that which we cannot see. He is the Word made flesh, the God of creation dwelling with us. He was there when God laid down the foundations of the earth and it was through Him all things were made. In Christ we see that God did not make the world and disappear, He didn’t plant the rose bush and forget to keep it watered and pruned. He has been with us always, planning even in the beginning the redemption that was to come. Everything is His, and through Christ we are re-created and reconciled to God our Father in heaven, part of the body of Christ and blessed with eternal life in Him.
Sometimes we don’t pay enough attention to our senses, external and internal. We don’t take the time to appreciate and enjoy everything that God has given us in creation. We forget the great and wonderful things God has done that can’t be experienced with our senses. If we don’t enjoy the roses, birds, bread, turkey or friends and attribute them to the One who brought them forth, how can we really every grasp God’s mercy and grace found in His redemption and re-creation of His world? How can we ever truly be?
What happens when we do not pay attention to our senses? In the example of the rose, we might miss something beautiful, but it can be more vital than that. If we ignore the smell of smoke, we might be caught in a house fire. If we keep our hands on a hot surface despite the pain, we might get a severe burn. Our senses help us stay well. This is especially true of our inner senses. Problems with balance and movement might indicate that we need to see a doctor. Hunger pangs make us eat and a high temperature sends us to bed. The senses are God’s gift to help protect our bodies so we can live long and productive lives. We are more likely to find peace when we are well.
Instead of serving God, the people in Malachi’s day served self. “You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God;’ and ‘What profit is it that we have followed his instructions, and that we have walked mournfully before Yahweh of Armies?” They thought it was a waste of their time and resources to serve God. The same might have been said about those who hid in the cave in Russia.
I think it is true that peace comes when we do not put the focus on ourselves but turn our actions and thoughts to others. Those who take their lives into their own hands are not the lucky ones. Early in the chapter from Malachi, God says, “Return to me, and I will return to you.” They didn’t understand. God told them that they were focused on the wrong things. They were more interested in themselves. Instead of sharing their blessings with others, they were keeping it for themselves.
Jesus must have been the happiest man on earth.
I have a collection of crosses. They hang on the wall in my office. If I take a moment and look, I can see all the different types of crosses that I have collected over the years. There are crosses from all over the world. In a small oval frame is a Belgian lace cross. There are several made from wood. Numerous crosses are Mexican, some are pottery, and one is made from silver. One of the crosses has a bunch of grapes with the passage from John in which Jesus says, “I am the vine and you are the branches.” The crosses bring back memories. Some were gifts. Some are handmade. Some were bought to support ministries. My favorite is a silver and green Celtic cross, the type that has the circle of life encircling the cross pieces.
I always wear a cross around my neck and I have been asked whether I would wear an electric chair. It is impossible not to see the beauty in my collection of crosses, but there is an underlying sadness about it: the cross was indeed used to kill people. It was used to kill Jesus. It was not a thing of beauty. As a matter of fact, it was ugly and horrifying. It was little more than two pieces of wood and a few nails, most likely already covered in the blood of previous victims. The death experienced on the cross was slow and painful, terrifying and disgusting. The death was not only physical, but also emotional and spiritual. It was humiliating to hang on the cross as the witnesses threw insults and accusations.
The world thinks it is ridiculous that our lives are wrapped up in the story of Jesus Christ. After all, He died a spectacularly horrible death. How could He possibly give us what we need for a full and happy life? How can He be our refuge? The story of Jesus is terrible, sad, even disturbing and yet we look to the cross and find peace.
Why would we want to remember this? Why would we want to hang this symbol on our wall or wear it around our neck? Why is this cross so important? Why would we choose to remember this moment of Christ’s life - His death - on this day which is set aside for Christ the King? In today’s Gospel passage we are reminded of the sign placed above Jesus’ head on the cross that calls Him “The King of the Jews.” This sign and title was meant as an insult, to remind the gawkers of Jesus’ foolishness. How could a king end up hanging nearly naked by a few nails on a cross?
We celebrate a different kind of king. Jesus Christ did not have a typical coronation. The kings and queens of the world celebrate their elevation to monarch with grand parties and ostentatious ceremonies. Charles became king the day Queen Elizabeth died, but the official ceremony will not be held until June. It has always been this way, with some monarchs ruling for months and even years before they officially took the crown to their heads. They need time to prepare. New gowns, new jewels, new furnishings are often created. Dignitaries are invited and accommodations are prepared. Some royals in the past even built new palaces, churches, or banqueting halls before hosting the party of their lives. It was such an important moment of their lives that they wanted everything to be new, beautiful and perfect.
Jesus’ coronation was much different. A week before He was lifted onto the cross, Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem like a king. He rode a donkey and was surrounded by people singing thanksgiving to God for giving them the Messiah. In less than a week He was hanging on the cross, having disappointed everyone who had hung their hopes on Him. The followers turned because He was not leading them into battle against Rome. Even His closest friends betrayed, denied, and abandoned Him. Yet, it was at the very moment that Jesus cried out one last time and gave up His spirit that He was crowned King. It was at that moment that He fully lived out the purpose of His life, bringing the entire burden of God’s justice on His flesh. His obedience to God’s will earned Him the greatest crown of all.
He is King because He died.
We see many images of God throughout the Church year and in the scriptures like Abba, Creator, Redeemer, Friend, Master, Shepherd, and Teacher. He loves and encourages and disciplines His people. He even scolds and rebukes us when we go the wrong way. He guides and teaches. He saves and calls us to live out our salvation.
We end the Church year with the image of Yahweh of Armies. The leader of that group in Russia did not even go into the cave with His people, but Christ will come again to lead His people to victory. He won’t come on a donkey, as He did when He entered Jerusalem before His crucifixion. He will come on the clouds with thunder and lightning, with a double-edged sword. He will come to fight the final battle, to finally and completely destroy the last enemy. He will come as King! He is coming to finish the work He began at the cross. Jesus Christ was crowned on that cross, not just with a ring of thorns. He was crowned with glory and the cross was His throne, because of His obedience to His Father on that first Good Friday. Now we wait expectantly for His coming as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Jesus is the One who truly saves us. As the psalmist sings, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” We may struggle, but we can trust in God’s promises. He has appointed His Son to rule over our lives. Our circumstances may seem out of control. The world may seem like it is upside down. We may find ourselves in exile or beaten by our enemies, but we can rest in the knowledge that God is the driving force behind our lives. When our leaders fail, and when we are led astray, God has not forgotten His promises. We don’t need to hide in a cave. God is faithful to save.
Be still and know. He is God and He is with us. And He has appointed the King who will not fail, our Lord Jesus Christ.
The scriptures for Christ the King show us images of God that are hard for us to understand. He is Yahweh of the Armies and the King of the cross. We can trust that He is by our side and that He is ready to save us from all that wants to destroy us; He will even save us from our own fallen and imperfect nature and forgive us our sin. Just like that criminal on the cross, we can cry out in faith to Jesus, “Remember me!”
It is hard to live in faith when the world around us is falling apart. It is especially hard when we do not think our human rulers are on our side. It is easy to give up and become pitiful. “Why me?” falls so easily off our tongues. We see the wicked prosper while believers are persecuted. Sickness, pain and death still reign, and we often mourn the loss of those we love. The question “Why?” has been a stumbling block for many, the straw that breaks the faith of those who do not trust in the Lord. There are those who say, “I can’t believe in a God that would allow this to happen.” They can’t trust a God that would die; they would rather have a ruler that will make their life better. Or, they’d rather deal with it themselves, relying on their own strength or power to get things done.
It is easy to lose sight of God when it seems like we’ve been waiting forever for something that has not yet happened. We ignore the sense of “being” and forget that God dwells with us.
Here we are again at the end of a Church year celebrating Christ the King, but He has not yet come. Next week we begin Advent, counting down the days until we celebrate His birth. Again. We cry out in our pain, “Come, Lord Jesus,” but He does not come. We prepare our hearts for His Judgment Day, but it never happens. We hide in a cave to escape the world and hope that today is the day when God will take us into His arms for eternity. But most of us will wake tomorrow to another day. It is no wonder that we ask “why?” We feel as though God has forgotten, that Jesus is late, and that we have been forsaken.
The people in Malachi’s time thought the same thing. They saw wickedness succeed and the righteous suffer. They wondered why they should even bother being faithful. They didn’t even see these words as being against God. Perhaps the people in that Russian cave thought the same thing. But God reminded the people in Malachi to trust in Him and to continue to live the life that He has called them to live, no matter what happens in the world around them. God says of those who do that they shall belong to Him and that He will take care of them.
We have been waiting a long time for Christ the King to come, and it is incredibly hard sometimes. Our kings fail us too often and we constantly turn away from God by trying to create our perfect world on our own. We are looking forward to a Kingdom of beauty and peace and joy, without wars and schemes. We long for a King who will not abuse His power or take advantage of His people. We look forward to the day when we will truly dwell in the Eternal Kingdom. But we have a hard time waiting for God to make these promises happen.
God says, “Trust in me. Do not trust in human kings or in your own strength.” Christ the King is coming. He is, even now, on the horizon. He is our salvation and will be faithful to His promises. “Why?” is a question that will remain in our minds and on our tongues as we wonder about the wickedness and suffering in this world, as we face our own pain and loss. We might even be tempted to hide in a cave.
Yet, we can rest in the promise of God that one day everything will be clear. For now, it is up to us to be, to live as God calls us to live, no matter the circumstances of the world around us, doing His work in the world. As we wait in faith, let us encourage one another and keep our eyes on Jesus, resting in the assurance that our cries of woe will be turned into joyful alleluias of praise and thanksgiving, soon.
“Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength[b] of my heart and my portion forever. For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.” Psalm 73:23-28, WEB
I like to hike. Well, I like to walk around wilderness areas with my camera, taking my time to catch all the wonderful things in God’s creation. My husband likes to hike, to really hike, and tends to walk much faster than I do, particularly if there is something beautiful to see. I also confess that I’m not as robust as he is, so I don’t have the strength or energy to do long, difficult hikes. I sometimes think I’m holding him back when we are out and about at these beautiful places. Sometimes I let him go ahead and follow the path further than I want to go, partly for my own sake, and partly so that he will enjoy the hike without worrying whether I’m able to keep up.
We spent a week or so enjoying the National Parks in and around Utah, including Zion National Park. It is a beautiful and very diverse place. We only spent a day there, so we picked specific trails to hike since we wouldn’t have time to do them all. One trail promised to be a little more difficult, so I sent Bruce ahead when we found a bench where I could wait for him. I took some pictures of the view and a few critters I might not have noticed when I was walking. I did some people watching, which is one of my favorite activities. I had some conversations with passersby and just enjoyed the nature around me. Bruce went further and saw some more beautiful scenery that he was certain I would have loved.
I suppose I could have wished I had taken the rest of that hike with my husband, but then I would have missed the things I experienced. He could have wished he sat with me for a bit to see those critters and have those conversations, but then he would have missed what he saw. One way is not better than the other, and it is good to take the path that fits your interests and physical abilities. Bruce likes the hike; I like to linger in the world around me. So, we did well to enjoy that path in our own way.
Christian faith is much the same, we all go at our own pace and enjoy God’s Kingdom in our own way. None is better than the other. I prefer a certain type of worship and Bible study, which is much different than the way others worship and study. I am at a different place in my journey than my neighbor. Some people like to read several chapters of the scriptures at a time. Others prefer to linger on one verse for a time. Some like loud musical worship and others like to sit in a quiet chapel to pray. Just as I like to pay attention to the tiny details and Bruce likes the bigger pictures, some people focus their faith on the little things while others look at God’s Kingdom as a whole.
It is good that we are different. If everyone looked only at the little things, then no one would see how it all comes together. If we only paid attention to the big picture, we might miss the beautiful details of God’s grace. Thankfully, my husband and I shared our experiences on that path with pictures and stories, so in the end we might have seen it differently, but we saw it as a whole through each other. That’s what we are to do as Christians, sharing our view of God’s Kingdom with others and listening to their perspective so that we’ll get a fuller understanding of God. We can’t do it all, so we need one another to help experience God more deeply. The most important thing to remember is that God is our focus, however we seek after Him, so that we’ll always be on the right path no matter how we travel it. He will guide our way, using our interests and abilities to take us where He wants us to go, so that we’ll do what we can for His Kingdom.
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellence of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. In the past, you were not a people, but now are God’s people, who had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.” 1 Peter 2:9-10, WEB
One of my favorite Christmas moments is at the Christmas Eve service when we sing “Silent Night” to candlelight. The lights are turned low, leaving the congregation in darkness. The flame begins as the pastor lights his candle from the Christ candle in the chancel, and then passes it on to the ushers who pass it on to the members of the congregation. One by one the lights are lit, and the darkness of the sanctuary disappears with the light shining from hundreds of candles.
The American twentieth century priest James Keller is quoted as saying, “A candle loses nothing of its light by lighting another candle.” This is easy to understand in a very literal way. We see it every Christmas Eve as the candles are lit as we sing “Silent Night.” Anyone who has ever lit a candle using another candle knows that the second candle does not take half the light away, but the light is doubled with another burning wick. With two candles, the darkness is lessened twice as much.
James Keller was probably thinking in more metaphorical terms, but the meaning of the quote depends on the point of view of the hearer. I did a quick search of this quote and I found dozens of websites that used it to inspire, challenge and encourage visitors. The devotions range from understanding the light as love, knowledge, hope, and peace. Generosity can’t be compared in the same manner, because if you give something away, you have less of that thing, but the quote still holds true with it because you find yourself blessed in other ways when you are generous.
I like to think about this quote from a spiritual perspective. If Jesus is the light, giving a bit of Jesus to our neighbor will not take away any of our own relationship with Jesus. The Christ candle in the chancel is not less bright because the pastor lit his candle from it. So too, sharing the Gospel won’t diminish the Gospel in our lives, and we will be blessed by even greater light because it has been shared. When two people know Jesus, the world is a little brighter.
It is hard to believe but we are quickly nearing the start of Advent, that season of the church year when we watch in darkness for the coming of the light. The next few weeks will be busy with the usual preparations for the holiday; it has already started for many. I have already seen some houses with their decorations lit for the season. I confess that I have begun some of the work in my house to make it less stressful. The stores are already having sales and the aisles are full of Christmas things.
We’ll see in the Advent texts how Christ came to bring light into the darkness, how the light grows as we get closer to that day, just as the light grows around the world with the secular trappings of Christmas. When we believe, we become part of something much greater than ourselves, the kingdom of God. Our Lord Jesus Christ died to forgive our sins, so that we might know the love and mercy of God. In that forgiveness, we become like Him, shining the light in the darkness. We are His chosen people, members of a royal priesthood, called to share Jesus with the world.
Now is the time for us to share that Gospel message, to share Light with others so that the darkness will be overcome by the joyous light of Christ in spirit as well as in the world. We lose nothing by telling our neighbor about Jesus, by sharing His word, His life, and His salvation with them. As a matter of fact, we will find the world is a little brighter with the hope and peace of God as others believe that He is indeed the Light of the world.
“‘Yahweh of Armies says: Ask now the priests concerning the law, saying, “If someone carries holy meat in the fold of his garment, and with his fold touches bread, stew, wine, oil, or any food, will it become holy?”’ The priests answered, ‘No.’ Then Haggai said, ‘If one who is unclean by reason of a dead body touch any of these, will it be unclean?’ The priests answered, ‘It will be unclean.’ Then Haggai answered, ‘“So is this people, and so is this nation before me,” says Yahweh; “and so is every work of their hands. That which they offer there is unclean.”’” Haggai 2:11-14, WEB
I love cinnamon toast. It is easy to make and has a lovely flavor. It is just toasted bread with a little butter or margarine topped with a mixture of sugar and cinnamon. It tastes good on bagels, English muffins, and sourdough, any kind of bread. The first time I made the cinnamon sugar, I started with the cinnamon. I did not have a recipe, so I was just guessing about the amount I should use. When I started adding the sugar, I realized I had used way too much cinnamon. It took far more sugar than I expected; I needed a much bigger container to store the mixture. Now when I make the mixture, I start with the sugar and add cinnamon until it is just right.
It takes just a little bit of cinnamon to color the sugar, but it takes a large amount of sugar to dilute the cinnamon. The same can be said about righteousness and sin. It takes just a little bit of sin to color our righteousness and a lot of righteousness to cover our sin. Jesus used the example of yeast; a small amount spreads through the whole loaf. It took very little for the entire nation of Israel to turn from Moses and the Law he was receiving from God, a few complaints and Aaron was willing to make a calf which turned the entire nation to worship of Baal. Jesus said that the one who breaks the least of the commandments and teaches others to do the same would be called the least in the kingdom of heaven.
Have you ever tried to remove cinnamon from a recipe when you add it accidentally? It is impossible. The grains are so small, and they spread throughout the entire mixture, there is no way to remove it without getting rid of the whole batch. When I was making that first batch of cinnamon sugar, I had to get a bigger container and add a lot of sugar to make it right. Once the cinnamon was in there, there was no way I could ever make it pure sugar again.
We are like the cinnamon. It takes a lot of righteousness to cover up our sinful natures, so much that it is impossible for us to do it on our own. We can never become like pure sugar by adding lots of good, sweet works. The sin will always be there if we try to overcome it on our own. Only Jesus’ righteousness is good enough to make us pure. It isn’t enough for us to add Jesus to what we are; He has to take all the old and make it new. Jesus did not come simply to teach us how to walk in faith and be good people. He was not just a political figure intent on bringing justice for the poor and widowed, advocating peace between nations. He is the Lord who took on the flesh of man to be the final sacrifice for sin and to bring forgiveness to all those who believe. He came to make us new again, to take out the things that color our lives and transform us into the holy people God intended us to be.
The Israelites could not be clean on their own. It took only a small amount of unrighteousness to make the whole nation unclean. All the holy things they tried to do to make up for their failure to live according to God’s Law would never make them right before God. It took something radical: God Himself cleansing the people for His glory.
“Be sober and self-controlled. Be watchful. Your adversary, the devil, walks around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Withstand him steadfast in your faith, knowing that your brothers who are in the world are undergoing the same sufferings. But may the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a little while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you. To him be the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.” 1 Peter 5:8-11, WEB
It is that time of year again. The holiday season begins with Thanksgiving and lasts through January. Of course, if you have been to a store recently, you’ll know the season began months ago. This week has been crazy with shoppers, as everyone is preparing for big Thanksgiving celebrations. We are having a quiet Thanksgiving, but I still needed a few things. Plus, I’m preparing for a party in less than three weeks, and I like to shop a little at a time rather than trying to bring home everything at a time. If I buy some now and some later, then I can spread the cost over two paychecks.
There are a million other things to do, however! We have company coming next week, so I have to prep the house and get as much of my normal Christmas chores done before then so that I can spend time with our friend. I have already packed boxes for shipping, started my Christmas cards, and yes, I have started decorating. My husband brought some of my boxes into the house last weekend. I’m rearranging my displays this year, so I need extra time to think through what will go where. I emptied all the boxes and just put everything somewhere. I even took a picture and joked that I was doing a “Chaotic Christmas” motif this year. I didn’t care; I was going to do a display a day along with all my other chores.
Last night I found out we might have company for Thanksgiving. I’m happy about it; if you are going to cook a Thanksgiving meal you might as well feed more than a couple people. But, I really don’t want my guests to come to a chaotic house. I’ll never get everything done, but at least I can make it appear more organized. So, I began today by going to the grocery store to buy a few more things and when I came home I got started on my work. I emptied a bag, but then made lunch for my husband. I emptied another bag, but then realized I needed to rearrange the refrigerator for some of the items. I emptied another bag and lunch was ready, then as I was eating, I saw the mess on the coffee table. When I finished lunch, I began to put another display together. Then I remembered I still had groceries. I emptied another bag, and then something else distracted me. Just now in the middle of my writing, I went to fill my cup with water and began straightening a floral display.
I said I began today by going to the grocery store, but the reality is that I organized several other displays before I even took my shower. None of my displays are done, but they all look less chaotic. Our friends won’t care. They would not have cared if it was chaos, but I could not help myself. I just kept seeing things that needed to be done and I did them. Even now the towels are in the dryer calling my name and some of the groceries still need to be put into the pantry. I am so distracted by all the things that I need to get done and I worry that I’ll miss something. I do this every year and every year everything is fine, so I’m sure it will be this year. That doesn’t mean I won’t run from one task to another, easily distracted by everything I see that needs to be finished.
I wonder how often we are like this when it comes to our spiritual life. I am sure most of us have times when the things of the world distract us from our daily prayers, but do we jump from one spiritual idea to any other spiritual idea that catches our eye? Movies or television shows can make us wonder about the theology we learn at church. Do circumstances make us jump from one church to another? Do we get distracted by the work we do in the church and miss opportunities to worship God?
Most of our distractions are no big deal. I will get everything done; I will get enough done to make our Thanksgiving comfortable. But there are distractions that can be harmful. I realized after I worked on one display or another that I didn’t put the frozen foods away from my grocery bags. If I’d completely forgotten and that food could have defrosted. When it comes to our spiritual lives, we are reminded that we do have an adversary that is trying to distract us from the things of God, and these distractions can cause us to sin. They can take us on paths that lead us from God. We might get caught up in a million things that need to be done for the holiday season but let us always keep our focus on our God keeping on His path and doing the work He is calling us to do.
Lectionary Scriptures for November 27, 2022, First Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122 Romans 13: (8-10) 11-14; Matthew 24:36-44
“Therefore also be ready, for in an hour that you don’t expect, the Son of Man will come.” Matthew 24:44, WEB
Have you ever been anxious to go somewhere, but you are held up because someone is holding up the journey? I remember those years with kids when they’d call out “I’m coming” and still take several minutes before they are ready to go. Not that I had a right to complain, since I have often been the one to hold up the journey. “Let’s go” someone would say and we would begin to gather our things. Unfortunately, I often can’t find my keys or my cell phone or I need to use the restroom. “I’m coming,” I answer, and it seems a lifetime before I am actually ready to go. I have to return to the house too many times because I’ve forgotten something I need for that journey.
Imagine what it must have been like preparing for the journey to Jerusalem! Those pilgrims could be away from home for weeks. They didn't have a McDonald’s on every corner, so they had to carry food and water. The surely didn’t pack suitcases full of outfits for their journey, but they did need more than the clothes on their backs. They also needed the gifts and offerings they planned to make at the Temple. Someone calling “Let’s go,” was probably filled with as much excitement and exasperation as it is for us today. Our journeys may take us on long adventures or may be the daily excursions to work, school, leisure activities, or the story. Every journey has a destination, some close and others far away. The big journeys might seem of more value, but even though the small journeys seem insignificant, they are opportunities to share God’s grace and grow in faith.
But we don’t always move from place to place on our journeys. We journey through life, from childhood to adulthood, moving from one age to the next. We journey through our education, from kindergarten to graduation day, learning and growing and changing every step along the way. We journey through our faith, walking with Christ from the moment we first heard His voice to the day we will hear Him calling us into eternal life forever. These journeys don’t take us to a place on a map, and they are often harder to identify. Sometimes we don’t realize we are moving forward, or backward. We don’t see how we are growing or changing. We may even think we are standing still, or even worse, that the journey we are on is pointless or insignificant, much like the trip to the grocery store.
The church calendar is cyclical. We begin with Advent, go through Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and then Pentecost. The last few weeks of each year, during the month of November, we look forward to the coming of Christ the King. It is a great way to see the whole story of God in a year, to celebrate the works of His hands, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. We see the life and ministry of Jesus develop until He is finally given the Kingdom forever first on the Cross, through the empty tomb and then on Christ the King Sunday. One of the disadvantages is that we go from Christ the King directly into Advent, thus moving from the promise fulfilled to the promise yet to come. It is hard to go back to the beginning once we’ve seen the end. Don’t we get tired of reruns?
I don’t know about you, but there are some movies and shows that I could watch over and over again. Who isn’t anxious for those old cartoon Christmas favorites to show on television? I have at least a few favorite movies that I look forward to every year. Some sitcoms are timeless and make me laugh even if I’ve watched an episode a dozen times. And when it comes to storytelling: I love to tell the same old stories over and over again. I’m not sure my kids like when I do, but those old stories bring joy.
That’s why we don’t get tired of hearing the Good News story of God year after year. It brings us joy to hear about the birth of Jesus and His saving grace. God commanded His people to repeat the story, to remember His good works for His people. The Jews still remember the Exodus year after year, even though it happened thousands of years ago. Oh, there’s parts of God’s story we would rather forget, but we need to remember those parts too, which is why we hear so much of the Bible through our lectionary. The horrors found in the Old Testament point us to the salvation of Jesus in the New. It all points us to the time when time as we know it will end, when we will all experience the beginning of eternity.
We keep the story of Jesus close to our hearts because we don’t know it will happen. Jesus made it clear that even He would not know the time that all things will end. There is a scene in the book of Revelation that shows the Temple emptied of everyone and everything except God Himself. The Temple fills with smoke. From there, God commands the final act of His story as the bowls of judgment are poured out upon the world. At that moment, God gives all people a final chance to choose between joining in the heavenly worship of God and the earthly blaspheming of God. And when it is over, God Himself proclaims that it is done. Jesus could not command those angels with the bowls; only God knew the time when it would happen.
Jesus reminds us that if He doesn’t know, we can’t possibly know when the time will come. This is why it is vital for us to be ready always for the end times. This is why it is vital for us to remember the story over and over again. Besides, the story always brings us joy. I love the song “I Love to Tell the Story” and there is one verse that is particularly meaningful for me. “I love to tell the story; for those who know it best seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest. And when, in scenes of glory, I sing the new, new song, ’twill be the old, old story, that I have loved so long.” This weekend we begin the retelling of the story that we all need to hear over and over again.
The four weeks of Advent may not seem very important, and they certainly get lost in the hustle and bustle of our quest for a perfect holiday. But in chasing after that perfection, we forget that we are beginning a journey toward the greatest story ever told. For the next four weeks we are meant to look forward to His coming even while we know that He has already been here.
Today’s Gospel lesson is not very hopeful, but Advent always begins in darkness. Jesus told his disciples to keep watch for the time of His coming, and to be doing everything He has commanded: loving God with our whole heart and loving one another as ourselves. He warned His disciples that no one will know the time when the Son of Man will come. He told them to prepare their hearts so that they will be strong against those who try to confuse them with false doctrine, false prophets who will come. As the day grows closer, Satan will become more desperate to deceive the children of God. His tactics will become harder to detect, easier to pass from one another.
On this first Sunday of Advent, we are reminded that the Christmas season is about more than presents and parties. We encourage each other to take time for God, to experience His coming with prayer and devotional time, to prepare our hearts for what is to come. It is likely that most people who are reading this already do those things, even outside the season. For many Christians, the Christmas season brings them into fellowship with Christians more often. We have extra services. We have fellowship gatherings. We have Christmas pageants and programs.
We also deal with the secular aspects of the holiday season. I have to admit that I like the secular aspects of Christmas. I like to have the biggest, brightest Christmas tree. I like to bake cookies and make ornaments for my family. I enjoy the brightness, the joy and the love of the season. I even like to shop for Christmas presents. I know that it isn’t all good. I am troubled like so many of you by the pervasiveness of the worldly and greedy aspects of the holidays. I used to love Black Friday, but it became dangerous to be at the door when they opened early in the morning. I’m not sure it will be a problem this year since most stores have had Black Friday savings for the whole month of November.
There are stories that make us wonder about the affects of the secular aspects of the holidays. A woman had the Thanksgiving celebration at her house every year and worked for hours to make everything wonderful for her family. One year, however, a bunch of her family members ate dinner, wiped their mouths and rushed out the door to go to the mall so that they could be there in time for the sales. She said that she was hurt and disappointed that they were more interested in shopping than spending time together. “I won’t invite them again,” she said. A family is falling apart because of this need to be the first in line for the sale.
I suppose in some ways this is exactly what it means to be entering Advent in darkness. Even though the decorations are up, and the lights are twinkling, the attitudes and expectations of the people are exactly why Jesus came in the first place. People are looking to the world instead of to God. People are more interested in fulfilling some quest for the perfect gift (although I imagine a lot of the shopping is not even for others) than in spending time in the company of family and friends. All too often those gifts are not from the heart; they are bought and given out of some duty. After all, third cousin twice removed Bernice really is expecting another duck figurine. And that nephew you never see expects at least a $50 gift card, right?
We fill the night with Christmas lights, but we are wandering in this darkness that has our focus on everything but God. It is no wonder, then, that we begin the Advent season with a warning: Christ can return at any moment. It might be tomorrow, or it might not happen for another ten thousand years. No matter when He comes, we are warned to be ready.
What does it mean to be ready? My husband was in the military for thirty years. He wasn’t often sent on temporary duty at the spur of the moment, but he always had to be ready just in case. He had several bags that were always packed, including one that had personal items like underwear and shaving kit. Those bags were kept close at hand because they could be told that they would be leaving in an hour. They didn’t have time to pack. They barely had time to kiss their families good-bye. There were times when the call was expected. On those occasions they could go through the bag and make sure that the underwear was not holey and the can of shaving cream was full. However, sometimes the time was short, so they went with the pack as it was, even if it was not complete. I think his bag is still in the garage buried under a pile of junk even though he retired many years ago.
What does it mean to be ready for Jesus? We tend to get complacent when things seem to be going well. We pray, but half-heartedly. We read the scriptures, but we shrug if we miss a day. We decide that we are just a little too tired to get up and go to church. It doesn’t matter, anyway, right? God doesn’t take attendance. But what if Jesus came during at a point of apathy. Would you be ready for Christ?
The world is preparing for Christmas. The stores are filled with aisles of gifts and decorations. Invitations for parties have been mailed. The shipping places are already busy with people taking packages to send to family and friends who are far away. There are even a few houses in our neighborhood that have turned on their Christmas lights. It seems hard to believe that we are a month away from Christmas.
Advent is a dichotomy. It is a time when we wait for something we know has already come, and yet we also wait for something that we know is still coming. It is a time of looking to the past while looking to the future. We hope for something we know exists by faith, but which has not yet been completely fulfilled. We wait for the baby in the manger even though we just celebrated the coming of Christ as King.
It can be confusing to hear texts from the final days of Jesus’ life as we prepare for His birth. But that’s what Advent is all about. It is about seeing Christ as He was, as He is and as He will be all at once. When we think of Christ only in terms of the past, the present or the future, we do not live fully in His presence. If we stay in the past, we live as if there is nothing left to be done. We do not bother to keep watch or to wake up from our slumber. If we stay in the present, then we think what we do matters for our salvation. When we look only to the future, we think we have time to get ready and we put off the things we should do for the sake of Christ.
In other words, this first Sunday in Advent we are reminded that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. As we live in this truth, we realize that our faith is not a past, present or future reality; it is all three. We die with Christ through our baptism. We live with Christ in this present reality, a reality that includes faith and grace and the hope of the promise to come. We look forward to the fulfillment of the promises: yesterday, today and tomorrow.
At the same time, we are living in this world and we have to find a way to live our life with our faith. That means making choices that are God-pleasing, ready at a moment’s notice to receive Him. See, there will be a time when Christ comes again in glory, a time when we will see Christ the King come as victorious Lord of all. But Christ comes to us constantly in our daily living: in the request from a charity for food, in the paper ornaments on an Angel Tree at the mall with the wishes of children, a knock on the door from a neighbor who needs a friend to listen to her troubles. Christ comes to us in those busy crowds as we are fighting over the last hot toy or cheap television. He comes to us in that car that needs to merge on the highway or in the parking lot at the mall. Will we choose to be selfish, or will we choose to be generous? Will we be greedy or kind? Will we glorify God this Advent, or will we chase after our own needs and desires?
What if Jesus came tomorrow? What would He find on earth? Would He mind if He found you in line to buy the latest gaming system at the Black Friday sales? Quite honestly, I don’t think so. I do think He would mind if you had abandoned a loved one to chase after a sale. It is about attitude, and Advent is about making our hearts right before God so that we’ll be ready to receive our King, both as a baby in the manger and as the Victorious One at the end of all the ages.
Jesus calls us to be ready so that we’ll embrace every opportunity to share Him with others. Christmas can be about presents and parties and decorations, but it is also about sharing Christ with our neighbor. Isaiah says, “Come, let’s go up to the mountain of Yahweh, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths.” The many peoples to whom Isaiah refers are the Gentiles. The day will come when those who are not believers will seek the LORD and His Word. The time will come when they will answer His call to go to hear the Gospel and to learn from His wisdom.
Our relationship with God acts as a call to those who do not yet believe. They see our faith and wonder what it is that gives us that joy and peace that is visible in the way we live. Why are we a little happier waiting in the checkout lines? Why are we more willing to give bags of food at a time when our own purse strings are tightening? Why are we excited about going to a boring worship service with a bunch of hypocrites? What is it about Jesus that makes our life different?
The point is not that we should stop living while we wait for Jesus to come again, but that we should always be prepared so that when He does come He’ll find faith on earth. Will He see faith in the crowds at the Black Friday sales? Will He find faith in the piles of Christmas presents? Will He see faithful people living faith-filled lives in the hustle and bustle of the season and in the holiday celebrations ahead of us this month?
I don’t think we need to stop the quest for a wonderful Christmas. Perhaps the problem is that we try too hard to separate our secular celebration from our Christian faith. Christians don’t keep Christ out of the season; I’m sure many of those people who will be flocking to the stores this weekend will celebrate in many faith filled ways. They will display a nativity in their home, maybe even on their lawn. They will go to church. They will sing Christmas carols. They will be generous to the charities that need help at this time of year. But are we thinking about Jesus when we buy the latest “R” rated movies or video games that are filled with sex, hatred, and violence? Do we consider how our choices might impact the faith of our neighbor?
It is not easy living as a Christian in the world. This has been true of all time, not just this time. Can we really say that we are suffering from persecution just because someone doesn’t want us to say “Merry Christmas?” Jesus told us to expect this. Generations of Christians have faced death and beatings because they believed in Jesus. Even today there are countries that will deal with bombings in churches on Christmas day. Jesus warned us that the world would hate us. But He told us not to worry, He will be with us. On this first day of Advent, let us remember that He is there.
Isaiah says, “House of Jacob, come, and let’s walk in the light of Yahweh.” We are that house of Jacob now. We are the witnesses of God’s light and love and mercy. While individual prayer and devotional time is a good thing and is encouraged for everyone to help make their hectic lives a little more peaceful, we are sent into the world to share that peace with others. They will not see the Christ in Christmas if we are too busy to share Him with them.
The psalmist writes, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let’s go to Yahweh’s house!’” Those who hear the Gospel message and experience the love and mercy of God are glad when they discover that He has been with them all along. God is not relying on us to fight the culture war with Facebook memes about keeping Christ in Christmas. God’s presence is in this world whether or not we spend all day with our families on Thanksgiving or boycott the stores that they open earlier and earlier each year. He’s relying on each of us to shine His light.
Paul writes to the Christians in Rome that salvation is nearer at that moment than when they first became believers. That promise is continued into our day. We know this is true, and yet we wonder. So much time has passed since Paul wrote his letters. It might be closer, but it is so easy to become apathetic. We’ve heard the story over and over again for two thousand years and we are reminded each year that every day brings us closer to the day when Christ will come again. But it is hard to wait anxiously for something that doesn’t seem to be coming. We are called to wait patiently, to look forward to the birth of the King and remember that the King will come again. We live between the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. Until that day, we are called to live in Christ, who is as present now as He was then and as He will be in that day.
So, come, let’s go. Are you ready? I’m not asking if you have all the presents for the tree or the invitations to your open house printed. Are you ready to spend the next four weeks looking forward to Christ? It might seem odd to return to the idea that He has not yet been born since we just celebrated Christ as King, but that’s what Advent is about. We begin again in darkness with only the promise of what will come. We’ll hear the same scriptures and the same music. The world around us will look much the same as those reusable trees and decorations are brought out of the attic. The banners will look the same, the Chrismons have not changed. Yet, we are beginning a new journey, a new advent, a new time of looking forward to the coming Christ.
We dwell in a world full of darkness, even when it appears there is light. But the True Light dwells among us, too, and we are sent out into the world to live in faith and shine that light to others. Remember that Christ is with you always, whatever the days of Advent hold for you. These weeks will be filled with opportunities and choices. How will you answer His call? Will you keep your faith separate from your quest for the perfect Christmas or will you be ready at a moment’s notice to be generous with His grace? Christ came. Christ is here. Christ will come again. Let us live today remembering the past, embracing the present and looking forward to the future as we dwell in His presence always.
“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, and 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
We are so very blessed. We should be singing songs of thanksgiving every day of our lives for the many gifts God has given us. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln asked all Americans to set aside one day a year, the final Thursday in November, to give thanks to God. Many people think that Thanksgiving is merely a holiday to remember the early settlers. In school, the children learn about the Pilgrims and Indians, recreate The First Thanksgiving, and get a few days off. At home, we say a five-minute grace thanking God for our material blessings, eat too much food, and then watch parades and football all day.
Some people are surprised to hear that Thanksgiving is about thanking God for our blessings. We have forgotten why Abraham Lincoln set apart this day. In his proclamation, he said, “It has seemed to me fit and proper that God should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”
On this day called Thanksgiving, let us remember to thank God for His many blessings. In the midst of the football and pumpkin pie, focus on the Father and His Son and the blessing of eternal life, which is the greatest blessing you can receive.
Father in heaven, I thank you for all I was, all I am and all I will be, through your Son, Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior. Amen.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and without defect before him in love, having predestined us for adoption as children through Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his desire, to the praise of the glory of his grace, by which he freely gave us favor in the Beloved, in whom we have our redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he purposed in him to an administration of the fullness of the times, to sum up all things in Christ, the things in the heavens and the things on the earth, in him. We were also assigned an inheritance in him, having been foreordained according to the purpose of him who does all things after the counsel of his will, to the end that we should be to the praise of his glory, we who had before hoped in Christ. In him you also, having heard the word of the truth, the Good News of your salvation - in whom, having also believed, you were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is a pledge of our inheritance, to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of his glory.” Ephesians 1:3-14, WEB
Black Friday is the day when businesses expect to see a change in their financial records from red ink, which means losses, to black ink, which means profits. In the past stores prepared all year for that moment, building up inventory, investing in supplies, so that when the after-Thanksgiving sales began they were ready to receive buyers with plenty of choices. The Thanksgiving Day newspapers were as heavy as a Sunday paper, with hundreds of ads from stores that are vying for your business. Commercials touted how this store or that store has the best deals. Some have even suggested that a trip to their sale will conveniently complete all your shopping lists in just one trip!
I have not attempted the Black Friday adventure for a number of years. We are always so busy getting our house ready for our annual open house. My daughter and I used to go all the time, but it just isn’t really fun going by yourself, and I am never really chasing the sales they offer. I have boycotted the last few years because of the retail trend of opening earlier and earlier, even on Thanksgiving Day. I thought about going this year because most stores were closed until early this morning. Even the opening hours were more reasonable. I must not have been very serious because I woke up at 7:00 a.m. I am not sure it would have made much of a difference; most of the stores have had Black Friday specials for a month. Besides, I’m nearly done with my shopping. I am shipping all my packages today, so there aren’t many people left on my list.
Black Friday had gotten to the point of ridiculous with mad rushes and long lines. Black Friday is a uniquely American problem, although I’m sure other nations deal with a time that is considered an official beginning to the shopping season. This year has been strange since most of the stores have been stocked and selling Christmas gifts for months, and some have even had Black Friday sales going on all through the month of November. I was shocked at how steep the discounts have been on Christmas items for the past few weeks. Black Friday is when retailers sell so much that their books go from being “in the red” to being “in the black.” In other words, this is the time when the really show a profit for the year, so they offer their best deals to get people in the store. They sell electronics at unheard of prices and have miles of shelves filled with the most popular toys. It was an adventure to be to first in line to get that special gift. You had to be there early, or you wouldn’t get one of the limited quantities available.
Black Friday is not the biggest shopping day of the year, however. The Saturday before Christmas is a higher grossing day because so many people wait until the last minute because they have not had the time to shop or because they are hoping to find a late sale with drastically reduced prices. Many of the people that do that late season shopping are also the ones who were out there early. I often think I am finished with my shopping, but as the day drew nearer, I find more gifts that are perfect. My budget is always shattered and the pile of gifts under the tree gets bigger than I want it to be, again.
Retailers play upon this phenomenon by encouraging people to buy early and buy lots. Then as the days grow closer to Christmas, they focus more heavily on reminding the buyers of all the things they have forgotten: stocking stuffers, brand new products made available late in the season and items for that hard to shop for person in your life. Though you may think you finished in November, it is hard not to find things in December that you would really like to share with someone. Then, when it is all over, you realize that you’ve gone too far, spent too much, and it was all really very unnecessary. We are easily played by the world, and we conform to what the world expects us to do.
Giving gifts for Christmas has a long history; after all, the wise men brought Jesus gifts when He was a young child. However, gift giving is sometimes the sole focus of our Christmas celebration, and the gifts are little more than packages bought out of a sense of duty or as a response to the expectation of the world. We spend too much money and put too little thought into what we wish for those we love.
When shopping this year, let us ask ourselves, “How is this glorifying God?” By keeping Christ in Christmas, by keeping our eyes on Him in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the holidays, we will not purchase things for the wrong reasons but will do that which will share the gospel of Jesus Christ and the love of God. Christmas is a time to look beyond ourselves, to those around us but also to the Lord. It is a time to watch for His coming in glory, acting as witnesses to His presence in this time and place. We can share Christ in our presents, doing everything we do in His grace, passing His love to all those who are part of our Christmas celebrations.
“And whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord, and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ.” Colossians 3:23-24, WEB
The Little Red Hen found a grain of wheat. She decided to plant the grain and asked if any of her friends would like to help her. The dog, cat, pig and turkey weren’t interested in doing any work, so she planted the wheat herself. The wheat grew until it was tall, strong, and ripe. She asked her friends if they would like to help her harvest the wheat. They weren’t interested in doing any work, so she did it herself. She invited her friends to help her thresh and grind the wheat and then bake it into a loaf. Each request was followed by “No thanks” from her friends, so she did all the work herself. When the loaf was finished, she wondered who would eat the lovely loaf of bread. At this her friends all perked up, “I will!” But the Little Red Hen said to her friends, “You did not help with the planting, harvest, threshing, grinding, or baking. I think I will enjoy the reward of my hard work.” And she ate the bread herself.
The Little Red Hen did not set out to earn a reward for her hard work, but she enjoyed the fruit of her labors. We were talking in our class yesterday about how the Apostle Paul gives us numerous pictures of what it means to be part of the Church. We are part of the body of Christ, and as part of His body we need to remember that we are all important to the work even if we don’t think we are needed. We are part of the household of God, inheritors of His Kingdom. We are also the stones that build His Temple and the builders who place the stones. Finally, we are His bride, the love of His life. As part of the Church, we have the responsibility to live the life that serves God using our gifts to His glory. The Little Ren Hen was the only one of her friends willing to do the work, and in the end she was the only one to benefit from what she did.
We deserve nothing, and yet the Lord God Almighty loves us with a love we can never fully comprehend. We were sinners, enemies of God, and yet He sent His Son to be our Savior. Jesus left the riches and glory of heaven to take upon Himself the wrath of God so that we might inherit the riches and glory of heaven with Jesus. We don’t deserve the mansion, the feast, or the crowns, and yet thanks to the mercy and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, we will receive the most incredible blessing. It is not due to our hard work, nothing we do will ever be enough to earn the gift God offers to us through Jesus.
Yet, the scriptures are quite clear that those who serve the Lord by working for His Kingdom will be given a great reward and honored at the gates of the city. As we discussed Paul’s picture of the Church yesterday, we realized that the work we do isn’t something that we do to earn a reward but is a natural response to God’s grace of a disciple of Jesus Christ. We do not do what we do to receive any reward, but we do what He calls us to do in thanksgiving and praise for what He has already done We help one another and live His Kingdom willing to join in the work. Together we’ll receive His greatest reward, the inheritance He has promised that we will be with Him in that great day when we will feast with Him in eternity.
“Out of the depths I have cried to you, Yahweh. Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my petitions. If you, Yah, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, therefore you are feared. I wait for Yahweh. My soul waits. I hope in his word. My soul longs for the Lord more than watchmen long for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. Israel, hope in Yahweh, for there is loving kindness with Yahweh. Abundant redemption is with him. He will redeem Israel from all their sins.” Psalm 130, WEB
There was a commercial for a credit card company that used the classic song by Queen, “I Want It All and I Want It Now!” A man wanted a new television because his old one broke beyond repair and his wife told him he could buy a new one. He was so excited because he could finally go out and buy his dream set. The credit card company had a number he could call to find out how much credit he had available, so he called to know how much he could spend. With the knowledge in hand, the man was confident that he could afford the biggest, best television.
It was all well and good that he had enough credit available to buy the biggest and best, but having credit does not mean that we need to use it. The credit card companies do nothing to remind their cardholders that they are using borrowed money. The man is going to have to pay the bill eventually, and the longer he waits, the more it will cost. Credit is easy to abuse. It is so easy to pull out the credit card when we are feeling a little stretched by our bills and our needs. It is easy to pull out the credit card when there is something we really want to have but we don’t have the money right now. The song says, “I want it all and I want it now!” That is how we all feel sometimes, and it is very convenient to use our credit cards to make it happen. One purchase leads to another; one card leads to another. Eventually some people end up with so much debt that they can’t get out from under it.
Using credit is not a sin, but poor stewardship of our resources is. Sin leads to more sin if we are unwilling to recognize our sinfulness and repent. There was a story about a man who had been paroled from prison. He returned to his old ways rather quickly, breaking into a house soon after his release. He found a bottle of liquor while rummaging for valuables and decided to take a few sips. He was found later by the homeowners passed out drunk on a chair in the house.
We all sin. We don’t treat our neighbors with love and respect. We get angry with our children and our spouses, gossip about others, take things that are not ours. We fall to the temptations of this world. We spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need. We want it all and we want it now. We look for help in all the wrong places. We are greedy, lustful, abusive, self-centered. Sadly, we often do not even realize our sin. We recognize the biggies, especially in the lives of others. But we are blind to our own unfaithfulness.
Our sin against God is a debt we can never pay, even worse than our credit card debts we build when we spend too much on the biggest and best things that we really don’t need. Every wrong thought, word, and deed against God or man is a sin and we are all guilty. None of us can stand before the holiness of God, but He is gracious and merciful. He forgives our iniquity. He not only grants forgiveness, but He also forgets our sin. Washed by the blood of Christ, we are cleansed and made new and right before Him. As we live in this hope, we find ourselves walking in the light of Christ, covered by the unfailing love of God and reconciled to Him. When we wait for the Lord and watch for Him, we are less likely to fall into the temptations of this world by chasing after the biggest and best that we can’t afford. We will make mistakes because we are human, but He calls us to be the best we can be, promising to be ever ready with His forgiveness even when we fail to live up to His expectations.
Lectionary Scriptures for December 4, 2022, Second Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
“It will happen in that day that the nations will seek the root of Jesse, who stands as a banner of the peoples; and his resting place will be glorious.” Isaiah 11:10, WEB
When we moved into our house in California, we walked around the lot planning our landscaping. We talked about which bushes to plant and were to put flowers. We talked about pruning the trees and removing the old, dead plants. In the front corner, a very prominent spot, we noticed a plant that was perplexing. It was a stick, a single branch sticking straight out of the ground. It looked ridiculous. We thought about removing it, but since we didn’t know what it was we decided to leave it there until the spring to see what it would do.
We were so glad we did. By the next spring we realized that we had a treasure. It was a white lilac. Lilacs are not typically found in the Sacramento valley, and white lilacs are even rarer. By the time we left that house, our lilac bush had spread and was so beautiful that many of our friends begged us for cuttings to plant in their own gardens. We didn’t know what to do and we didn’t have the Internet back then, but we discovered that lilacs propagate by spreading the root system and then sending shoots through the surface of the earth. We were able to dig down and cut through the root system, pulling out each shoot which could then be replanted anywhere. For a moment our friends had a single stick somewhere in their yards, but they too ended up with big, beautiful bushes.
Sadly, the people who bought our house saw no value in the lilac bush. We heard from a neighbor that they parked an old car on top of it. Thankfully, the lilac was not lost forever because we were able to share those shoots with others.
In the beginning, Israel was little more than that lilac bush, barely a branch sticking out of the ground. God blessed Israel, and she became a great nation. Throughout her history, however, there were many who saw her as nothing of value, driven over and destroyed. Israel’s troubles were not always caused by other nations; sometimes she suffered from self-inflicted wounds. The kings did not live according to God’s Word. The people chased after false gods. They were caught up in their own lusts. They lost sight of the God who was their Creator and Father.
But God continued to bless Israel; He was faithful to His promises. Every few generations saw a king that remembered God and they repented. At times God allowed Israel’s enemies to overwhelm them, and each time the people turned back to Him. They cried out to Him, and He answered. The priests offered sacrifices, the people sought forgiveness, and God had mercy. Those sacrifices and the forgiveness they gained were not lasting, however. The priests had to repeatedly offer the sacrifices in the Temple, regularly returning on the Day of Atonement to seek God’s grace for another year.
From the beginning, God knew that He would have to do something permanent. Human nature is fickle. We will always turn from God if we follow our own paths. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, we try to become our own gods. But human beings cannot be gods. We are perishable. We make mistakes. We sin. On our own we will always make choices based on our flesh, we will follow our fickle hearts, and we will always find that those choices will lead us back to the place where we have to cry out to God for salvation. We think that making a sacrifice will make everything right, but that turns our faith inward and we end up trusting in our own works.
God knew human nature, and He planned from the beginning a way of overcoming our weakness. Jesus was the plan all along, and we see the promise of Him throughout the Old Testament scriptures. During Advent we look at these promises and we see Christ woven into the whole plan of God. He will be the King of kings. He will be the Lord of lords. He will be the final sacrifice that restores God’s people to Him forever.
One of my favorite Advent traditions is the Jesse Tree, which comes from the first verse in today’s Old Testament lesson. The Jesse Tree is a daily remembrance of the roots of Jesus’ life and heritage, from the beginning of time to His birth. He is the shoot that comes out of Jesse. Though different scriptures and people are used in different traditions, the stories include the creation of the world, the patriarchs, judges and kings, the prophets, and the people who were present at Jesus’ birth.
It seems odd that it would be called a Jesse Tree. Why wouldn’t it be called a Jesus Tree, since it is his family tree? Or why not be a David Tree, since Jesus is the fulfillment to the promises made to King David? The prophet reminds us that the promise was made to David long before Jesus was born. David was the son of Jesse, the first in the line of kings that would last forever. “He will build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” (2 Samuel 7:13) He was imperfect, but he was loved as a son by God and the promise was irrevocable. Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of that promise, and during this Advent season we await His coming.
God had a plan from the beginning, and this text shows us how God pointed toward the promise throughout the story of His people. The shoot came out of the stump of Jesse reminding us that Jesus’ roots go much deeper than David.
Jesus’ roots go back to the beginning of time. He was there; Christ was the Word that was spoken when God created the sun and the moon and the stars. Jesus was there in the promise of the baptism to come after the flood of Noah. Jesus was in the hearts of the patriarchs, judges, and kings as God guided them. The righteousness of those in the Old Testament who trusted God was theirs by faith, and Jesus is in the midst of any faith that focuses on the Father. Jesus was in the words of the prophets who proclaimed that one day there would be a King who is Lord over all. Jesus was with them all even though He had not yet been born. The Jesse Tree not only shows us the story of God; it shows us the character of Jesus, the one who is, was, and will be forever.
We live in a broken world; it is not as God intended it to be. So, He promised that He would provide a Messiah who would make all things right. The images in today’s Old Testament lesson seem unbelievable to us. The lion will lie with the lamb? Impossible! I have a friend who spent several weeks in Africa on a photo safari. He managed to get photos of what lions do: they kill their prey, and they eat whatever they catch. A lamb could not possibly survive a lion encounter.
This image is one of the most common religious Christmas card designs. This beautiful image brings to mind the ideal peace for which we hope during this special season. It is a peace without violence and fear, where the strong stand with the weak. This is what it will be like during the reign of the Messiah. The lamb will lie with the lion, the bull and the bear will eat together. The world will be at peace; there will be no more enemies, no more hunter and prey. This is a world we long to experience, but it is a world that will not come by means of flesh and blood. Only Jesus can fulfill this promise. As we wait the coming of the Christ child, we are reminded by this text that we also await a second coming, for only in that advent will everything come into fruition.
That time is not now. A few years ago, a lion became aggressive with one of the caretakers in our local zoo. The man was injured but recovered quickly from the incident. After it happened, everyone asked the question, “What happened?” They wanted to know what would have made the normally mild cat attack the man who was there to take care of him. The problem was not with the lion. The man made a mistake. The caretakers follow a very specific pattern when taking care of the animals. They do not do their work when the animal is in the habitat. The man had carefully ensured the animal was penned while he worked, according to the instructions.
He let the animal free when he was done, but then noticed that he forgot to close a door. He thought he could sneak in the habitat, close the door and get back out without the lion seeing him. He was wrong. The man did something that the lion did not expect. He felt threatened and so he used his strength and skills to protect himself. Lions only attack when they feel threatened or hungry. That’s why the animals in a zoo are well fed and why the caretakers are so cautious when they do their work.
I love watching the lions in the habitat at our zoo. We currently have three: a male and female pair and one of their cubs. It is a joy to see them lazing around the habitat and playing games. They seem so harmless, like the kitties who keep us company at home. However, the photos from my friend’s trip make it clear that they are not harmless. Lions can bring down much larger animals in a matter of minutes. Their claws and teeth are deadly. One bite from their strong jaws would render a lamb lifeless.
That is why the image in today’s Old Testament lesson is so startling and yet comforting to us. We might think that the sheep or the goat would not stand a chance against the wolf or the leopard, but Isaiah looks forward to a time when the animals will live in harmony. It will be as it was in the Garden of Eden, before Adam and Eve destroyed the harmony of creation by trying to be like God. Their sin brought grief to the entire creation and now the animals face hunger and thirst, threats and danger. Even the animals were forced to live in conflict with one another by the sin that broke paradise.
One of the effects of sin in our broken world is that we tend to make judgments about our neighbors. We make judgments all the time, often without even realizing it. I am really bad when I’m driving. I confess that I grumble at the other drivers on the road and call them names. One time I was on a highway when a semi, disobeying all the rules, wove in and out of traffic. He used the far-left lane, which was prohibited for that type of vehicle. He cut off multiple cars, including mine. It wasn’t worth the risk because the traffic was bad that day and he didn’t get much farther than me. His antics were frightening, so much so that I slowed significantly to let him get far ahead. I didn’t want to be in the accident he could possibly cause.
I made a judgment. It was probably a good judgment; it may have even been a lifesaving one. Sometimes, sadly, we make judgments because we are annoyed or inconvenienced, or based on our biases and experiences. I do this often. I often make judgments about public figures who don’t live up to the standards I think should be kept. I make judgments about the people I hear on the news or see on the streets. I make all sorts of judgments about my neighbors. I even make judgments about fictional characters in movies or books. “I can’t believe they would do it that way,” I think to myself.
We all make judgments, both good and bad. We make judgments that are helpful and others that are not so helpful. The judgment of a court can transform someone who is on a wrong path; other judgments can cause people to rebel or retreat. Judgments can help, or they can hurt. That’s why we are warned to be careful about how we judge our neighbors. I judged that truck driver because I knew that dangerous driving could hurt others. However, some judgments just aren’t right. Too often we judge people for all the wrong reasons, because they don’t live up to our expectations, but we don’t know the motives of their hearts. Though it might be wrong, we can harm them by the way we cast our judgment on them. We judge based on our senses, because of what we see and hear, but we never have enough information to judge them righteously. We have limitations.
Isaiah described the perfect leader, the shoot that would come. This leader has wisdom, understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and fear. Perhaps this sounds redundant, after all, isn’t wisdom, understanding and knowledge the same thing? No. Wisdom is the ability to discern between right and wrong, good and bad. Understanding comes from the heart, being able to identify with the circumstances. Knowledge is having the facts. A good judge has all three. A good judge also accepts counsel, heeding the advice of those who might have a better grasp of the situation. Might, or strength, means authority and power, and when used appropriately can provide justice. Fear is not meant to be understood in terms of a bad horror movie, but as a state of awe for the One who truly rules. A good leader will be all these things.
Isaiah says, “He will not judge by the sight of his eyes, neither decide by the hearing of his ears.” Human judges have limitations. We judge by the sight of our eyes and decide by the hearing of our ears. We also make mistakes. We are not always as wise, understanding, or knowledgeable as we should be. We fail to listen to good advice; we take advantage of our power in inappropriate ways. We don’t always fear God as we should.
A good leader will be righteous. This means he or she will have a right relationship with God, having a heart to do what God would do. A good leader is faithful, keeping all his promises. Can you imagine what the world would look like if we had leaders that are wise, understanding and knowledgeable, who accept right counsel and proper authority, and who fear God? Can you imagine if we had leaders that were righteous and faithful in all things according to God’s Word? We might have leaders that display one or more of these characteristics, but it seems like none truly fit the bill.
Only one, Jesus Christ, will ever be the perfect leader. During Advent we await His coming. As Christians we know He arrived more than two thousand years ago, but even as we prepare to celebrate Christmas, we are called to live in the hope of His second coming. During Advent we await the shoot of Jesse that was promised by God through the prophet Isaiah to fulfill the promise for eternity.
Paul wrote of the harmony that exists in a kingdom where God rules. Like the promise in Isaiah, the people join together as one voice, glorifying God. We can’t do it without God’s help. Jesus came at Christmas as a down payment on the promise, to give us a glimpse of what it will be in the day when He rules over all. Until that day we dwell in the tension of Advent. We know Christ has come. We know the Kingdom of God is near, but we still long for Christ to come again. We are still waiting for the king who will bring peace to the earth so that the lion will lie with the lamb and the powerful will stand with the powerless. We live in this hope even while we see the disharmony of the world that surrounds us each day, the disharmony of which we are a part. That disharmony comes because we do not judge righteously. This is why we need to be continually reminded to repent, because we fail to live according to God’s Word.
Paul reminds us of the promise from Isaiah so that we can live in hope and joy today. “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope, in the power of the Holy Spirit.” This joy and peace won’t come from our work. It is a gift of God. When we live in this hope, we can find harmony where there is disharmony.
There will come a day when the entire world is in harmony again. The lion and the leopards will lie with the sheep and the goats. There will be no need for animals to kill, for they will be satisfied by God’s provision. In that day even human beings will live in harmony with one another. No longer will men and women harm others for the sake of some unnatural desire. There will be no need for war or hatred. We will be restored to our God and will live in His presence for eternity; we won’t have need of anything because God will provide. Our work will be praising God and our joy will be lasting. It is no wonder that we sigh with anticipation, especially since our human leaders so often fail us.
The Pharisees and Sadducees were the leaders of God’s people in John’s time. We hear the voice of the one calling in the wilderness in the Gospel lesson from Matthew, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” John the Baptist knew that the leaders were not taking care of God’s people. Israel’s history was riddled with leaders who sought their own righteousness, their own power, their own glory. They were called to rule with justice and peace, but they failed. Nothing was different in John’s day. John spoke to those that had followed him into the wilderness and asked, “Who told you to come here?” The Pharisees and the Sadducees had their history, the same history we read in the Old Testament prophecies, but they did not understand.
John promised the coming of the One who has wisdom, understanding, knowledge, authority, righteousness, faithfulness, and a humble relationship with His Father. He would come and He will make all things right. He would baptize with more than water and feed us with more than bread and wine. He would give us His Spirit and remove from our lives the imperfections that bring us down. It won’t happen overnight. It won’t happen in the next few weeks. It’ll take a lifetime or more; it will happen in God’s time.
The Pharisees and the Sadducees went to the river because they were curious about John. They wanted to know if he was claiming to be the Messiah. They wanted to squelch his ministry before it got out of control. They wanted to destroy him. John was talking to them when he said “You offspring of vipers,” but his word cuts to our hearts too. We have our facades, our masks, our sins from which we must repent. We are arrogant and haughty. We do not bear the fruit worthy of repentance. We judge according to what we see and hear rather than according to God’s Word. This is why we remember John’s call for repentance each year, calling us to prepare the way of the Lord. Though Christ has already come, we are still longing for the fulfillment of the promise of a world fully restored to God. We remain sinners even while we are saints. We have been baptized with the Spirit, but we still need daily repentance.
We dwell in a time between the already and the not yet. We know that the Christ child has come, but we wait for Him to come again as King. We know that Christ has died, but we wait until that day when the forgiveness that came with His blood is fully realized. We wait for that which already is but is yet to be.
The psalmist prays that God will give the king justice, that he will dwell in God’s righteousness. Every good and perfect thing that can come to a nation and a people begins with the goodness of the king. Today’s psalm was written by Solomon; during his reign the nation of Israel prospered. He had a heart for God, he desired wisdom, he pursued justice and God gave a golden age to the land. The world sought Solomon’s wisdom and the kingdom benefitted because Solomon stood as a leader and the people followed. They did what was right. They listened to his wisdom, experienced his understanding, sought out his knowledge. They respected authority and had a healthy awe of the Lord. Together they lived in God’s blessing.
But even Solomon was not perfect, and his kingdom didn’t last forever. The offspring of Jesse - David, Solomon and the kings that followed - failed to be all that God intended for His kingdom. Only Jesus could fulfill the promise. Only when Jesus rules the entire will peace abound and righteousness flourish. Until that day, however, we can try to be wise, understanding, knowledgeable, seeking counsel and might, fearing the Lord. Perhaps, just maybe, we’ll experience a little bit of that promised peace.
The world as God created it to be will not be restored until the second coming of Jesus Christ. One day the promise in Isaiah will be fulfilled. Until that day, the lion will not lie with the lamb. However, in Christ we can live in harmony with one another, the powerful with the powerless. We still live in an age of repentance as we wait for the coming of our King. In the meantime, we can work for justice, caring for the poor and the weak. We can be heralds of God’s grace, proclaiming the coming of the kingdom so that others might prepare their hearts to receive Him now. Through our witness, God will be glorified in this world.