Welcome to the November 2023 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 2023
Lectionary Scriptures for November 5, 2020, All Saints’ Day: Revelation 7:(2-8) 9-17; Psalm 149; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
“Beloved, now we are children of God. It is not yet revealed what we will be; but we know that when he is revealed, we will be like him; for we will see him just as he is.” 1 John 3:2, WEB
Our church has a tradition of remembering those who passed from life to death in the past year by putting white roses in a vase to represent their lost presence among us. The list of beloved members of our congregation is going to be too big and made even bigger with the members who have lost family and friends. Two of those being remembered with very good friends that are dearly missed. I know too many people who have had some major losses this year. Too much death.
It is too much death, but in the midst of our mourning we learn about the grace of God. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if I did not know about the mercy and forgiveness that comes from God, especially when I think of my friends who have died. I rest assured in my suffering that God’s promises are real and that He is faithful. Though I mourn, I also rejoice because I have hope that reaches beyond this world into something I can only see with cloudy vision. My friends had faith, so I know that they can see the fulfillment of those promises clearly and with great joy. We look forward to the day when we will be with them again.
It is hard to lose someone we love. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus teaches, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” We are comforted by the Word of God that tells us this life is only a momentary journey on our way to an eternity in heaven. We believe and we are blessed. We find comfort in the promise that our mourning will one day come to an end forever as God Himself wipes away our tears. I don’t know how people deal with death without the promise of Jesus.
Human beings are religious by nature. We all believe in something. We hold to a cause, principle, or system of beliefs, whatever it may be. Even the humanist and atheist are religious in their lack of belief in a supernatural force. For many, faith is in self rather than in something else. Unfortunately, religion tends to be a catalyst to many problems in this world. When two people with differing ideas clash, the end result is often violence. Anybody who has followed the comments on Internet posts know how quickly we are to attack one other. Anybody who watches the news can see how quickly disagreement can lead to violence.
We do not practice our faith in the same way, but we have the same motivations. We want to be blessed, we want to make the world a better place, and we seek glory either for ourselves or for something beyond ourselves. We act out in ways that we believe will accomplish these things. We think we are doing what is right, but we need to keep our eyes on God. The path He calls us to walk does not always look like we expect it to look. Sadly, many people do not walk in His ways, they are not obedient to God’s commands: they have a false understanding of God. The blessing they seek is not according to God’s promises. They think they can earn benefits by doing what seems right in their own eyes.
Jesus had a way of turning the world upside down; He makes us look at the world in a whole new way. We think of blessedness as being successful, being a winner. But in today’s Gospel reading Jesus defines blessedness in ways we would never expect. The blessed are not those who deserve to be rewarded, but rather those who look to God in all things. The poor in spirit are blessed because they see that God has given them the kingdom of heaven. Those who mourn are blessed because they know the comfort of God. God takes care of those who seem downcast to the world: He raises those who are humiliated and feeds those who are hungry. Those who look to God for everything are blessed because God has promised to save those who trust in Him. Blessedness is the attitude of those who trust that God’s promises are true.
John Stott wrote of the Beatitudes, “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. The Kingdom is not of this world. The beautiful attitudes and the blessings of the Kingdom are not economic but spiritual. Some may be called to lives of poverty, but the beatitudes refer to spiritual states. The eight blessings are given to every Christian. God favors the humble, those who trust in Him rather than their own strength. These humble people are those who yearn for God above all else. They become wholly dependent on God. Martin Luther wrote, “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.”
As Christians we know that there is nothing we can do to earn God’s favor in this life or the next. We hope for mercy and forgiveness, we trust in God’s grace. Though I live out my Christian life in this world for the glory of God, for the betterment of society, and for the blessings I receive from living a good life, I know that the greatest blessing is that one day I will be face to face with my Lord. As much as I’d like to claim that I deserve this gift, the reality is that nothing I do will get me there; it is only by the blood of the Lamb that we’ll be saved. This God who has shed His own blood for our sake does not call us to do what is wrong according to His Word.
I got my car’s oil changed one day. The greeter introduced himself and asked me a few questions, including my name. I answered “Peggy.” It was a casual moment, and I only use the name “Margaret” on official documents and for some business. The gentleman then typed our vehicle identification number into his little machine and came up with a list of names: Bruce, Margaret, and Victoria. No Peggy. He was confused and said that my name wasn’t listed for that car. I told him that Peggy is a nickname for Margaret. He asked, “How?” The answer is complicated and has to do with the evolution of language.
Names matter. A mistyped name on a legal document can make that paper null and void. My middle initial was added to my name on all our mortgage paperwork, so I had to include it in my signature on every page (if you ever bought a house, you know it is a lot of paperwork.) Confusion about name can cause problems in business and in the case of a name like mine, can even raise doubts about a person’s right to be dealing with business. I’ve dealt with it at the bank, in school, at my job, and even at home.
Even though names matter, it is easy to get our names changed. There was a story about a girl in New Zealand a few years ago who had her name changed. Her parents had named her “Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii.” The judge made her a ward of the state so that she could legally change her name, because the name her parents had given her had caused undue social hardship. Unusual names have become a social trend, not only in New Zealand, but around the world. “Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii” might be memorable, but children with unusual names suffer embarrassment and harassment from peers and others. In his ruling, the judge wrote, “The court is profoundly concerned about the very poor judgment which this child’s parents have shown in choosing this name. It makes a fool of the child and sets her up with a social disability and handicap, unnecessarily.” Some judges have refused to allow some of these unusual names, turning down requests for names like “Yeah Detroit”; “Stallion”; “Twisty Poi”; “Keenan Got Lucy”; “Sex Fruit”; “Fat Boy”; “Cinderella Beauty Blossom”; “Fish” and “Chips” (twins). I worked data processing for a charity and noted that several girls were named “Abcde” (pronounced Absidee.)
Names matter, but something else matters even more. A wise woman once told me, “Know your calling better than your own name. Your Mama and Daddy gave you the name Peggy, but your calling is what God has named you. It is written on your heart and is the name that matters.” We are called to be children of God and Jesus teaches us in the Beatitudes how to live in this world even as we wait for the promises to be fulfilled. Those we love who have passed from life into death have already seen the fulfillment of those promises, and we live in the hope that we’ll join then at the banqueting table.
The epistle lesson for All Saints Sunday, reminds us that we are children of God and that some day we will join those who have come before us to dwell in God’s presence forever. We celebrate our future at the table, feasting forever on God’s grace without the muck of life in our earthly flesh. We will remember the great cloud of witnesses that have passed before, but we will also look forward to the day when we will be with them again. We will receive the bread and wine of communion, knowing that it is only a foretaste of the feast which our loved ones already enjoy.
Meanwhile, we have to live in this world. The qualities Jesus expected of His followers are counter-cultural and difficult. Who would choose to be meek and merciful, poor in spirit and pure in heart, mournful and hungry, peacemakers and persecuted. Those are the characteristics that define what it means to be a Christian, but they aren’t easy. There will always be those who oppose Him and seek to destroy His people. Persecution is always a possibility when we follow in Jesus’ footsteps. He was spot-free Lamb, sinless and innocent, but suffered the cruelest torture and death imaginable. We are baptized into His life and His death, called to persevere through this life until the day when we will join those we love at the eternal banqueting table.
John gives us hope to live our faith in Jesus Christ in this world today sure of the knowledge that one day we will live in a place with no hunger, thirst, or pain. Someday we will live in the very presence of God for eternity, with nothing to separate us from the fullness of His glory. The difference between us and the terrorist is that we know this is not ours by our works, but by God’s grace. This leads us to a life of worship, not violence.
In the scene from Revelation, we are assured that God is faithful. He is worthy of our praise, and we are called join with all the heavenly host in worship even today while we still wait to join the multitude. “Amen! Blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, power, and might, be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” This sevenfold blessing is a doxology, praising God in every way. It begins with the word “Amen,” which we usually use to end a prayer, but here it calls us to listen. John uses the word “amen” often throughout his writings, particularly in his Gospel, to indicate that Jesus is about to say something very important. “Amen, amen lego humin” is Greek for “Truly, truly, I say to you.” When John writes that Jesus said “Amen, amen” we should listen. So, too, both the “amens” in this passage call us to hear the words of the angels that define God’s character and establish the reason for our praise. We praise God because His is the blessing, His is the glory, His is the wisdom, and He deserves the thanksgiving because His is the honor, His is the power and His is the might.
The hope of faith is framed in the Beatitudes by the assurance of God’s presence. In verse three, Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In verse ten He says, “Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Notice that in these two verses, the gift is present: theirs is the kingdom of heaven. IS. In verses four through nine the gifts are future. Jesus tells us that the blessed will be comforted, will inherit the earth, will be filled, will receive mercy, will see God, will be called sons of God. A time will come when all our suffering will cease, and we will be with God for eternity.
William Temple was the Archbishop of Canterbury as Europe was facing World War II. He was known by his admirers as “a philosopher, theologian, social teacher, educational reformer, and the leader of the ecumenical movement of his generation.” He was an excellent moderator; he was able to put forth both sides of an issue so convincingly that both sides often agreed with one another. During the war, Bishop Temple was opposed to the demands of unconditional surrender that the Allied leadership was demanding and supported a process of negotiation to bring about peace in Europe. He worked to help free the Jewish prisoners held by the Nazis. He was a leader in social reform in England, and as a leader in the movement to form the World Council of Churches, he helped make great strides in the areas of ecumenism. Not everyone agreed with his policies, either political or religious, however he is remembered for the impact he had on the world.
William Temple said, “The world can be saved by one thing and that is worship. For to worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God.” We know how powerful worship can be in our lives, but how can our worship save the world? Most people do not even believe that they need a Savior, even fewer believe in Jesus as Lord.
However, have you ever been in a situation that seemed hopeless, with people arguing about the most insignificant things? The whole atmosphere changes when one person begins to pray or praise God. Others join in the praise. Though there may be non-believers in the group, they become quiet either out of respect or because no one is left to argue. Words of praise to God quiet an enemy. Worship includes giving fully of ourselves to the will of God, giving our soul to the holiness of God, our mind to the truth of God, our imagination to the beauty of God, our heart to the love of God. Worship begins with praise to God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, thanksgiving for His incredible goodness, rejoicing in His presence. When we worship Him completely, things change.
We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, people throughout the ages that have lived and died for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. Through their testimony we see the love and mercy of God as they pass the things He taught and did from generation to generation. They stood before us; they focused their hearts and minds on Jesus Christ, and we remember them on All Saints’ Day for the faith they passed on to us. The saints we celebrate this weekend are enjoying the promises for which we long.
The word saint refers to several different groups of people. A saint is one who has been set aside for special recognition for their lives of faith by the church. Yet, it also refers to all those who have died in the faith. The biblical witness gives a third definition, using the word saint to refer to all those who believe. Each Sunday we confess together our belief in the communion of saints, the fellowship of all believers throughout time and space. We gather together around the table of our Lord Jesus Christ and receive His body and blood with all those who believe from the beginning until the end. Even future generations who do not yet know the Lord are with us in the liturgy, sacraments, and the word because God’s promises are timeless.
We remember those who died before us, especially those who died in the past year, but All Saints Day is not really a day for mourning. It is a day to celebrate the promises of God. For a Christian, death is just a passing into new life in Christ, when we receive the blessings promised by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We weep over the loss of those we love, for they will never again join us in the laughter and pain of this world. Even Jesus wept, for in death we see the reality of sin and the grave. It is separation from those we love, an end to the blessings of life in this world. When someone we love dies, we mourn because we feel the loss, but we know that there is hope beyond the grave. Jesus made it possible.
People die. Injustice exists. All too many people have no problem stepping on anyone to get ahead in this world. We will suffer. We would like to think that the promises found in the beatitudes will be fulfilled in this life; they sometimes are. I have found great comfort in the love of my family and friends. I have experienced mercy. Though I have not seen the face of God, I've known His presence and seen His face in the faces of my brothers and sisters in Christ. I've shared in the waters of life and God has indeed wiped away my tears. Yet, I know that I will hunger, thirst and cry again before I pass into life eternal.
As Christians, we have a joy that manifests itself in praise and worship, as we see in the first few verses of today’s psalm. What does that look like to those who do not believe or understand? Do people see us as we saw the flamingos? Do they wonder about what we are doing or why we are doing it? Do they think we are silly, or do they laugh at us? It doesn’t matter, really. We know what we are doing. We know a joy that can’t be explained. Like the flamingos, we have to dance and sing, and perhaps someone will laugh with us and see God’s grace in the midst of it.
The psalmist says that a two-edged sword will execute vengeance upon the nations, punish the people, bind the kings, and capture the nobles with fetters of iron. The psalmist sings that it is up to the saints and it is their honor to cast judgment on the beasts which have risen out of the sea or the earth. But is that really what God intends? The double-edged sword is not necessarily steel, it is not any sort of earthly revenge. There is a sword even greater: the Word of God. What greater vengeance could we meet out to our enemies then to give them the Word of God so that they might believe and become our brother? It is much better to wield a sword that will save a life than one that will take it.
What is a saint? A saint is one in whom God takes pleasure, the ones who are humble before Him, believing His Word, and receiving His salvation like a crown. Let us thank God for all those who have loved and served Him throughout time so that we would know His mercy and grace today. Let us also thank God that He has named us as His own, that we will one day join in the multitude and spent eternity praising Him for the great and many blessings of life in His Kingdom.
On Sunday we will remember those who have passed from this life to the next. We can’t help but mourn because their lives meant something to us. Our parents, our family, our friends, and our neighbors had an impact on the life we lived. They taught us, touched us, comforted us, fed us, showed us mercy, and shined the light of Christ. They will be missed, and it is good for us to take a moment to join together in this time and place to remember them, honor them and thank God for their witness in our lives.
We stop on this All Saints’ Day to thank God for their witness. For we were brought into the fellowship of believers as those we loved shared the Gospel with us by God’s grace. We are called to live as they lived, as witnesses so that those who are yet to come will have the opportunity to hear God’s Word and believe. We are saints and that means something. It means we are God’s children, called to a life of worship and praise, of service and justice, of love and peace and joy. Though the life that awaits us after death is greater than anything we can experience in this world, we have work to do. God has named us and called us to glorify Him in this life as we wait for that which is to come.
That work includes sharing the grace and mercy of God with those who are following a false understanding. It includes loving our neighbors, even those whose religion makes demands that make no sense to us. It includes sharing our blessings even with our enemies. It includes worshipping God in praise and prayer, in fellowship with other Christians, in Word and Sacrament. We might just find that the work we are called to do will make a difference in the world. It might just bring us blessings we never expected. It might just glorify God and cause others to sing His praise.
Nothing we do will earn us a place in heaven. Eternity is already ours, thanks to the blood of the Lamb. We are now God’s children and will be His forever. We might have to wait for the hope to be fulfilled, but God is faithful and so we can go forth in faith knowing that the day will come when we will see Him face to face. We might mourn today for those we have loved and lost, but the day is coming when we will join them at the banqueting table in the presence of God forever.
“Put on therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, humility, and perseverance; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, if any man has a complaint against any; even as Christ forgave you, so you also do. Above all these things, walk in love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body, and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your heart to the Lord. Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father, through him.” Colossians 3:12-17, WEB
I saw a funny meme the other day. It was a picture of two decorative blow-ups. One was a turkey and the other Santa Claus. The decorator put the turkey on top of Santa lying on the ground with a sign that said, “Not so fast, fat guy!” This is an attitude that has become more and more common these days, perhaps rampant because so many people jump from Halloween to Christmas without thinking about the fact that there is nearly two months between the two. Some social media posts have shown people pulling out the Christmas decoration and music on the first of November. I love Christmas, and I have already been making some plans. I have purchased some things in preparation. But I am not ready to put up the Christmas tree. I recognize that we have a very important holiday between Halloween and Christmas: Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving in the United States falls in November. Many people use this month as an opportunity to publicly proclaim their thankfulness for the blessings of their lives. I have joined in the practice, using social media to daily share the things for which I am thankful. It can be challenging to do this for thirty days. Oh, it is easy in the beginning; we are thankful for millions of things, especially the big things like family, jobs, home, food, and friend, but by the end of the month we are grasping for things that seem too small, too mundane, too insignificant.
We take so much for granted that we don’t even think to be thankful for the commonplace and trivial things like sweaters and coffee, but there is value to remember that everything, even the small things, come from God. It is a wonderful practice as it makes us think about those blessings and see how good our life is even when we are struggling. We focus in November on Thanksgiving, and though thankfulness is something that we should do daily, it helps to have moments when we put extra focus on it. We make these public posts because we hope that it will help others take the time to be thankful in these days because a little gratefulness can change the world.
Paul lifted up the faith of the Colossians in the introduction in his letter to them. Paul lifts up their faith. He reminds them of the Word they heard and the lessons they learned about God’s kingdom. They believed as he had taught them, but others had joined their community with a different understanding and were teaching another Gospel. False teachings had become part of the message they shared. Ritualistic requirements, mandatory self-denial, angel worship, diminution of Christ, special knowledge, and reliance on human wisdom (both Jewish and Gnostic) were becoming the norm in the congregation. Paul was concerned that the message of Christ was being lost to the fallible human message that was being integrated into the Gospel.
I love to see the posts and about being thankful, but I always pray the focus is on God. Paul’s letter lifted up the faith of the Colossians, but not by thanking them for being faithful. He gave all the credit to the One who is worthy of our thanks: God. He thanked God for their faith, their love, and their hope. He prayed that God would continue to fill them with knowledge of Christ and keep them worthy to walk with the Lord. He lifted up Christ, reminding the people of Colossae that He is supreme and that it is by Him, through Him, and for Him that we are saved. It is keeping this in mind that we live as we are truly called to live, loving God and neighbor. As we humbly remember that it is not our works that bring the world to Christ, but Christ who has come to the world, we recognize the opportunities He offers to join in His work in the world, always thanking God for everything big and small, especially the biggest thing: our faith.
“It is a good thing to give thanks to Yahweh, to sing praises to your name, Most High, to proclaim your loving kindness in the morning, and your faithfulness every night, with the ten-stringed lute, with the harp, and with the melody of the lyre. For you, Yahweh, have made me glad through your work. I will triumph in the works of your hands. How great are your works, Yahweh! Your thoughts are very deep.” Psalm 92:1-5, WEB
It is that time again. Tomorrow night most people in the United States will turn our clocks back and hour. Some other places around the world do the same thing, but often on different days. Daylight Savings Time, which is from spring until fall, makes the summer days extra long because the time is set forward an hour. We are given more daylight to enjoy the warm weather and the vacation time we usually take during the summer. It was first proposed in a satirical letter written by Benjamin Franklin as a money saving measure. Longer daylight meant using fewer candles. Others around the world proposed similar policies as money saving measures. It was not actually implemented anywhere until the early 1900’s.
Unfortunately, the change of time (forward in the spring and backward in the fall) often causes difficulties for sleep schedules, at least for a few days. Scientists have strongly argued against changing the clocks twice a year. Some suggest, and many people agree, that we should choose either Daylight Standard Time or Standard Time permanently, another debate around the time. Many people would prefer making DST permanent. The US Senate has passed a bill called the Sunshine Protection Act, but it never passed the house, so it has not been approved.
Animals do not understand time on a clock, they sense the movement of time by light and dark, and they know when their tummies start grumbling. Our cats were troublesome in the early days following the fall time change because they wanted their breakfast when they wanted it. It was bad enough on weekends when Bruce could sleep late and they were looking for their breakfast at the normal hour, but they really didn’t know what to think when we changed the clock.
The changes also affect human rest. Though we have come to rely on the time we find on our clocks, our bodies sense the movement of time by natural processes, just like animals. It is much harder when we force our bodies to wake at early hours by waking to an alarm. It is, unfortunately, a fact of life in our world today that we have to make our bodies conform to the schedules of our jobs and so we wake up while it is still dark, and we go to bed late in the night. Electricity and light bulbs are wonderful inventions, but they have changed the way we live. This is one of the many reasons why we are so tired all the time.
There is a product designed to help people wake up more naturally, even if they have to do it at an early hour. The body wakes up naturally as the world around our sleeping bodies becomes lighter and brighter. Though our eyes are closed, we sense the light, and our bodies move slowly from sleep to awake. We begin the day rested and with more energy when we are able to wake up slowly with the light. The product is an alarm with a special light that gradually brightens during the half hour before the alarm is set to go off. The wake-up light also comes with noises that gradually get louder, slowly waking other senses to the dawn of the new day. It creates an experience of sunrise in your room so that your body can wake naturally, and you’ll feel better in the morning.
We are lucky to live in this time. We have so many opportunities that generations that passed would never have even imagined. Who would have thought we would be able to talk instantly to people across the world? Who would have expected the incredible entertainment possibilities like movies or streaming services? Not even the science fiction writers of fifty years ago could have imagined the food preparation equipment available to us today, let alone the people from a thousand years ago. Most people can’t leave the house without a cell phone, making it easy to access people and information instantly. Vacuum cleaners can be started and left to do the work on its own; robotic engineering is being developed into many machines to make our life easier. Our appliances are connected to wifi so we can control them with our phones.
All this is meant to make our lives easier, but it isn’t. We had trouble with our refrigerator this week. We called in a repairman, only to discover our problem was the filter that had an RFID chip that wasn’t properly lined up. A simple computer chip made a vital appliance unusable.
We are still tired with the conveniences of modern technology. We don’t have enough time each day. We work long hours to earn the money to buy the things that are supposed to make our lives easier. We are slaves to a clock, bound by rush hour traffic, burdened by the very things that are supposed to set us free. I say this knowing that I’m not about to change my lifestyle. I am not planning to downsize. I own a phone and use it constantly. I love to stream my favorite shows. I believe we are lucky to have access to so many wonderful inventions. But it isn’t hard to wonder if things are really that much better now than they were in simpler times when a body could wake up in the morning to the rising sun and the sound of roosters crowing the world to life.
No matter the time of day, whether morning or evening, let us join the psalmist in songs of praise to God for everything we have. We have been born in a time like this. Whether we like the time change or wish it would be different, God is with us and He provides us opportunities to worship Him. We are called to be glad, not grumbly. By His grace we can overcome anything, even the human constructs that are not as convenient as we think they should be. Let us live according to His plan because He wants us to be rested and not constantly tired. He has created us to live in joy and peace through faith and hope, glorifying Him with our breath and life.
“Beware, brothers, lest perhaps there might be in any one of you an evil heart of unbelief, in falling away from the living God; but exhort one another day by day, so long as it is called ‘today’, lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence firm to the end, while it is said, ‘Today if you will hear his voice, don’t harden your hearts, as in the rebellion.’” Hebrews 3:12-15, WEB
There was a place in Pennsylvania I loved to drive in the fall. Just as you drove over a hill, the valley view was filled with bright, beautiful color. People go on vacations to New England just to see the changing of the leaves. The sound of crunching makes the children laugh and play, jumping into the piles to send the leaves flying in the air. I’ve noticed houses and other buildings that are normally hidden in the forests by the curtain of leaves but are now in view as that curtain drops. Autumn is a beautiful time of year, but sad in a way as we watch the fresh life of spring and summer pass into the bleakness of winter.
Many people look forward to Autumn because they love the cool, brisk weather. They want pumpkin spice everything and sweaters. It is not my favorite season, because I love the wildflowers of spring and the warmth of summer. Autumn often brings dreary, wet weather and it leads to the bitter cold of winter. I do like the color of the changing leaves, although not so much the clean-up.
We don’t get much color here in Texas. We have pockets of deciduous trees that change to yellow, orange, and red around the state, although they are few and far between. There are a few trees in our neighborhood, but most of our trees are a type of oak that lose their leaves in February after they turn brown and die. This has not been a good year for any of our trees. A lengthy, intense drought has stressed all our trees, and the leaves on those that might be pretty are just turning brown and falling to the ground. Even the places that are known for hiking among the colorful leaves have little hope as the leaves are simply turning brown.
One thing about Autumn is that it is a time filled with lessons about change and death. I once noticed a leaf on a tree that seemed to be hanging by an invisible thread, blowing in the breeze. It was probably caught on a spider web as it dropped from the branch. It made me think about how there are times in our life when we seem to be hanging on nothing more than a thread that is keeping us from falling. Others may not even be able to see, or understand, why we are still hanging there, and they are certain that the invisible force will give out at any moment.
Spider webs are extremely strong, but the Lord God Almighty is even stronger. Five hours after I first saw that leaf, it still dangled in the air. How often do we feel like we are dangling, close to falling out of reach of our Father? Our faith in Him is like an invisible thread, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are kept from falling when we are tempted by doubt, fear, and desire.
Doubt, fear, and desire are regular parts of our lives. The world provides many ways for us to turn away and fall from the grasp of our Lord. That invisible thread of faith in God is all we have keeping us from falling to the ground to die and cleared away. Unbelievers do not understand, because they can't see what holds us to God. But we know that He is stronger than anything in this world, and that even in the worst of times, we can hold firmly to the confidence we have in God, because He is faithful. So, Today let us encourage one another to keep hanging in there. The bleak winter will pass and we will see new life once again.
“I will extol you, Yahweh, for you have raised me up, and have not made my foes to rejoice over me. Yahweh my God, I cried to you, and you have healed me. Yahweh, you have brought up my soul from Sheol. You have kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit. Sing praise to Yahweh, you saints of his. Give thanks to his holy name. For his anger is but for a moment. His favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may stay for the night, but joy comes in the morning. As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’ You, Yahweh, when you favored me, made my mountain stand strong; but when you hid your face, I was troubled. I cried to you, Yahweh. I made supplication to the Lord: ‘What profit is there in my destruction, if I go down to the pit? Shall the dust praise you? Shall it declare your truth? Hear, Yahweh, and have mercy on me. Yahweh, be my helper.’ You have turned my mourning into dancing for me. You have removed my sackcloth, and clothed me with gladness, to the end that my heart may sing praise to you, and not be silent. Yahweh my God, I will give thanks to you forever!” Psalm 30, WEB
Psalm 30 was probably written by David to be used by his son Solomon at the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem. David desperately wanted to build God “a house” because he was living in a permanent structure in Jerusalem while God had only the Tabernacle, a portable tent, for His dwelling place. But David had shed too much blood in his life; the story of David and Bathsheba comes to mind, but also the fact that David was a warrior. God promised to build David into a house and that one of his offspring would build the house where He would dwell among His people. David spent the rest of his life collecting the materials for the building of that Temple: gold, silver, linen, wood, stone, all of the finest quality. His heart was in this fully, no price was too high. It is no wonder he might have written this Psalm for the dedication.
We see in this psalm the reality of David’s life. He loved God and trusted Him, but he was harassed and threatened by enemies. David also knew that he was a sinner in need of God’s mercy. Isn’t that our lives, too? We love God and trust Him, but the world around us makes it hard for us to be entirely faithful. We fail. We sin. We struggle. We suffer. There are plenty of reasons why we might despair, just watch the news on a daily basis. There are times when we feel like God has abandoned us, turned His face away from us. There are times we deserve to be abandoned; we deserve to suffer the consequences of our sinfulness. This is a very personal psalm. It is a song of reorientation after the disorientation of calamity.
It is a good psalm for us to pray. We have been shaken, and we feel like God has perhaps abandoned us. We are threatened by forces beyond our control, not only human, but also natural and spiritual. We don’t know what to do. We are afraid. We doubt. We worry. But as saints saved by God’s grace, we are given the faith to trust that He knows what He is doing.
The psalm begins with a psalmist who is troubled. He fears shame and defeat but prays for deliverance and protection. Though he struggles, he has faith in God. He knows he can’t save himself, so he puts himself totally in God’s hands. He writes that God “brought up my soul from Sheol” which may be an exaggeration, but David’s life was threatened repeatedly. God saved him from death more than once. He was lifted out of the pits by God’s grace.
The psalmist invites the congregation to praise. We join together with fellow worshippers, the saints of the past, present, and future. As we give thanks to God, we remember how holy He is. We don’t deserve God’s mercy because we fail over and over and over again, sometimes committing the same sins, but God’s love is greater than our failure. He turns our wailing into dancing. His anger is brief, His favor is forever, we weep for a short time, but we will sing for all eternity. We understand these words from the Christian perspective because we know that as saints, even though we continue to sin, God has promised an eternal house in which we will dwell. God will not let us fall.
David felt secure. He knew that we experience the good life and are secure thanks to God’s benevolence. God does hide His face when we sin and we feel abandoned, but our dismay leads to an outcry. David bargains with God, reminding Him that ghosts cannot worship. Of course, though sometimes David prophetically points to an eternity to come, the Jews did not have an understanding of an afterlife. Eternal life came as they were remembered by their offspring, so he prayed for salvation for the sake of God’s name. God answered his prayer and turned his wailing into dancing. David ended the psalm jubilantly, praising God’s name.
We are reminded that we will inherit the promises that David foresaw in his psalm, but we will have experiences that leave us shaken. We must beware of growing presumptuous about God’s grace. God will discipline those He loves. We do not understand the Old Testament fear of death because we know God’s promise of eternal life. The cross defeated death and through faith we will continue to praise God into eternity. We will fail. We will sin. We will struggle. We will suffer. There are plenty of reasons why we might despair. We are afraid. We doubt. We worry. But as saints saved by God’s grace, we are given the faith to trust that He knows what He is doing. The world around us might seem out of control, but as we pray this psalm, we are reminded that God is in control, and He will make all things right.
Lectionary Scriptures for November 12, 2023, Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost: Amos 5:18-24; Psalm 70; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
“You are my help and my deliverer. Yahweh, don’t delay.” Psalm 70:5b
The Wisdom of Solomon is a deuterocanonical book that is not often found in the Bibles most of us use. It is considered intertestamental, having been written about the mid-first century B.C., most likely by a descendant of David. It was considered canonical in the second century, but it was not included in the canon of the Jewish scriptures which is why it is separated from other Old Testament texts. It was found in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) and was included in the Vulgate (a fifth century Latin version of the scriptures.) The Church Fathers differed on their opinion about these books. Although considered authentic and valuable to read, they did not consider them canonical. Martin Luther separated the deuterocanonical books and placed them in a section called the Apocrypha. Though these texts are unfamiliar to us, some lectionaries include passages from those books. Though they are extra-canonical, they serve as additional insight into God and His people.
Today’s passage from the Wisdom of Solomon describes wisdom. “Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her. She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her. He who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty, for he will find her sitting at his gates. To fix one's thought on her is perfect understanding, and he who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care, because she goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought. The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction, and concern for instruction is love of her, and love of her is the keeping of her laws, and giving heed to her laws is assurance of immortality, and immortality brings one near to God; so the desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom.” (Wisdom 6:12-20, RSV)
This text is appropriate for this week’s lectionary because in it we see wisdom defined, not only as a divine quality, but also as a characteristic of those who live in faith and trust in God. The wise virgins in the Gospel text had lasting hope, a faith that believed that even when it seemed impossible the bridegroom would come. They prepared for the late coming of the loved one. Paul wrote words of wisdom to a people whose hopes were fading. Their loved ones were dying despite the promise that Christ would come again. Why was He delayed? Paul reminded them that the promise is for those who believe in Christ, whether dead or alive and that Christ would bring all those of faith together in His day. We need only be patient.
We are reminded in the prophecy from Amos that the Day of the Lord will not look like we expect. We have to hold on to the hope that God’s promises are true. It is easy to fall apart when our expectations are smashed, and we are disappointed by what we see happening in the world around us. It is easy to fall into the temptations around us, to conform to the world, and to give in to our flesh. We need not be afraid of tomorrow, but we are reminded that God is looking at things much differently than we are. He does not accept worship that is not founded in a life of real sacrifice. He does not care about the blood of animals or the sweet-sounding songs if there is no justice. Righteousness is not something that can be worn like a mask but is a right relationship with the One who has promised to save His people. It takes the wisdom of God to establish and develop that kind of relationship. It comes from Him.
The people in Amos’s day were not living thankful. They were going to temple, singing hymns, and following the rituals, but they weren’t worshipping God with their lives. They were looking forward to the great and terrible day of the Lord. They were doing what they believed is right: going to the temple and the synagogue on the Sabbath, singing all the right songs and presenting all the right sacrifices. But they had lost touch with the God they claimed to worship. They were not pursuing justice or giving mercy.
The message Amos brought to them is one we need to hear also. We’ve forgotten to live thankfully. We are comfortable in our worship, attending services on Sunday but ignoring God in our daily lives. We are overlooking the needs of our neighbors. But God calls us to always walk in thanksgiving, not to offer sacrifices according to our duty or when we are seeking God’s blessing. He desires mercy, not sacrifice. He is looking for His people to live in faith, to go forth as a raging torrent, changing the world with justice and peace.
As much as we don’t want to admit it, Advent and Christmas are right around the corner. We will look forward to the future during the last few weeks of the Church year. That future is not tomorrow, or the coming holidays, or even the new year. The lectionary texts will look forward to the fulfillment of all God’s promises, the coming day of the Lord and the eternity that is ours by faith in Jesus Christ.
Some days it seems like we are racing toward the end of time.
There are as many ideas about the end times as people discussing them. Whole systems of theology have evolved around the study of eschatology, much of it with confusing language and troubling imagery. There have been charismatic leaders during every age that took their understanding of the end times to such an extreme trying to force God’s hand that whole communities have died. We can name several false “messiahs” in the last hundred years that have led their people to the grave following orders down a path of destruction and death.
Some people look forward to the end times with giddiness and expectation. They believe that they have it right and that everyone else is wrong. They believe that they will be among a small number of people saved, that they are a lonely remnant in the world that will be destroyed for lack of belief. They stand up against anyone that disagrees, often to the point of violence. The charismatic leaders have such control over their people that they are willing to even die for their sake. When the leader says “Drink this” they drink, believing that it will take them to heaven.
Some people think they can force God’s hand; “See God, we made everything ready for you. Come!” I confess that I cry “Come, Lord Jesus” on a regular basis. I have joked that it would be nice if Jesus would come so we wouldn’t have to worry about the struggles of our day like illness or elections. Some demand that God run on their schedule; they want to be the generation that will see the fulfillment of the promises. I wouldn’t mind seeing Jesus come on the clouds; I’m ready to dwell in God’s presence for eternity. However, no human being knows the mind of God so well as to direct God’s hand. We are called to trust in Him, not to test Him or make demands for God to satisfy our expectations, even when the circumstances do not go in our favor. Trust means believing that God is in control.
Amos says, “Woe to you who desire the day of Yahweh!” We have been reminded in the past few weeks that while we are saints with faith in God, we are still sinners in need of salvation. Eternity for us is both a present reality and a future hope, yet we have no reason to believe that the judgment that awaits us at the end of all days will be pleasant. We don’t deserve to be protected from times of trouble. We are just as guilty as our neighbor. All of us deserve to be left behind. Thanks to Jesus, we won’t be.
The more I study the psalms, the more I realize that the key to living life in this time and place is to be thankful, even when we face difficulty. The psalmists often lament their circumstances, but in most of the psalms they also praise God and thank Him for His mercy even before they see the answers to their prayers. They pray in confidence that God is in control. They often pray with the expectation that God will answer their prayers in their way, but they are always confident that God will answer according to His promises.
Charles Spurgeon wrote in a sermon for October 29, 1871, “Young painters were anxious, in olden times, to study under the great masters. They concluded that they should more easily attain to excellence if they entered the schools of eminent men. Men have paid large premiums that their sons may be apprenticed or articled to those who best understood their trades or professions; now, if any of us would learn the sacred art and mystery of prayer, it is well for us to study the productions of the greatest masters of that science. I am unable to point out one who understood it better than did the psalmist David. So well did he know how to praise, that his psalms have become the language of good men in all ages; and so well did he understand how to pray, that if we catch his spirit, and follow his mode of prayer, we shall have learned to plead with God after the most prevalent sort. Place before you, first of all, David’s Son and David’s Lord, that most mighty of all intercessors, and, next to Him, you shall find David to be one of the most admirable models for your imitation.”
Today’s Psalm has been ascribed to David, and it is generally agreed that it was written when David was in the later days of his life. David was a mighty king, but even mighty kings faced great difficulties. This is especially true when they are nearing the end of their lives. They are seen by enemies, both close and far away, as weak and unable to hold on to their kingdoms. David chose his son Solomon to be heir, but David’s other sons wanted the kingdom, too. Though Israel was threatened on all sides by foreign armies, the most difficult battles happened within the walls of his own palace. David’s sons fought against one another and against their father. Amnon raped Absalom’s sister, so Absalom killed Amnon. Absalom rebelled against David and was killed on the battlefield. Adonijah, as the then oldest son, expected to be heir but was rejected for Solomon. He tried twice to gain control but was eventually killed by Solomon.
It sounds like the script from a soap opera, but it isn’t unusual to hear stories about intrigue in royal houses. It doesn’t take much study into British history to see brother against brother and mother against son. Murder, adultery, greed, dishonesty, and war have been the part of all civilizations. The end justifies the means, and the end is always power.
But in David we see a man who learned what it meant to be humble, to turn to God in times of trouble, and to praise Him even if the circumstances seemed impossible to overcome. David is faithful and faith filled. We might not have someone close to us threatening our lives and our kingdom, but we all face times of difficulty and people who wish to see us harm. How do we respond? Do we turn to God and seek His guidance and deliverance? Or do we try to go forward on our own strength?
I once did a bible study on the word “seek.” I quickly learned that trying to read every incidence of the word “seek” in the scriptures was overwhelming, so my focus turned to the story of King Saul and King David. I found, not surprisingly, that every time Saul sought something, he was chasing David and his own self-interests. David, however, was always seeking God. That’s why Saul lost his anointing and David ended up with the blessing of the promise. Saul’s line would never last, but David’s would last forever. David was not perfect. The story of Bathsheba most clearly shows us his failures. The intrigue in his house and the battles between his sons was a fulfillment of the warning given to David because of his sins. David was imperfect, but he remained faithful through it all, looking to God and seeking His help. He is an example we can follow, remembering that we too are imperfect, but that God is present in our lives, ready to deliver those of us who praise Him in the midst of our troubles.
For some reason, the algorithm on my computer has been suggesting videos and ads for wedding dresses and other trappings of that big day in the life of a couple. I’ve been married for 35 years and do not expect to shop for these things anytime soon. Still, I have in the past enjoyed some of the television shows focused on weddings. The reality shows were sometimes helpful to those brides in the planning stages. Some taught them how to make the best of little. Others showed ideas that they could use. The most popular shows, however, were those that showed the crazy brides (and grooms!) whose expectations were unrealistic, who insisted on a wedding that was beyond their means and impossible to achieve.
“Bridezillas” took crazy to the extreme. The bridezillas really did believe the world revolved around them. They thought they were entitled to their perfect wedding, even if they couldn’t afford it. They expected everyone’s lives to stop so that they could take care of her every need. Bridesmaids even had to choose between the bride and their own life!
As the weddings grew closer, the bridezillas got more and more out of control. They got angry and upset. They kicked their friends out of the wedding and then got angry when the friends did not show up to make centerpieces. They manipulated parents and husbands-to-be out of cash and pity and complete devotion. They became so demanding that they brought out the worst in everyone else. As I watched, I often wondered if the wedding would ever happen. And when the wedding did happen, I often wondered if the marriage would last. The focus was always wrong. Instead of celebrating the union of two people, those weddings became a coronation for the bride. All too often they said, “This is my day.” I even heard some say that it had nothing to do with the groom. They forgot the purpose and lost sight of the real meaning of the big day.
The relationship between God and His people is described as a marriage and the coming of Christ as the wedding when the bridegroom (Jesus) comes to get His bride (the Church.) Like those charismatic leaders who controlled their people even unto death, many live in expectation of the Day of the Lord as a bride waits for her wedding day. Sometimes we respond like those bridezillas, with demands and upside-down expectations. We forget what it is all about. We forget who God is and what He has done for us. We look forward not to the fulfillment of God’s promises but for the fulfillment of our own desires. We lose sight of Christ and demand that God satisfy our demands.
The people in Paul’s day, perhaps even Paul, were getting nervous. They expected Jesus to return within their lifetime. They saw the second coming as an immediate response to what was happening, and every day that passed brought doubt and concern. The people who knew Jesus personally were dying. The first believers were passing away. Would Jesus come before they were all gone? Paul assured them that it did not matter. Those who were dead were not gone forever. Jesus would return, and all those who died in faith would be with Him at that trumpet sound. Paul shared his image of that day. It might not match our image, or even match reality when it happens, but like us he found comfort in wondering what it will look like. Many others have done the same. The image of Christ returning is a favorite of authors, artists, and film makers.
How do you see the coming of Christ? What do you think you will see on that day? Whatever your image, always remember, as Paul, that the promise is in Christ Jesus and that we will be with the Lord forever. As we think about His coming, let us do so in a way that encourages one another as we wait patiently for the Day of the Lord.
My husband is preparing to travel for a mission trip. The members of the team have been asked to limit their personal items to a carry-on bag so that they can take tubs fill of supplies for their week. I don’t know how they are doing it; I can’t go away overnight with a suitcase that fits in the overhead bin on an airplane.
I tend to over pack when we travel. I guess that’s why I prefer road trips: I have more freedom to take the things I might not need but really think I should have along “just in case.” You know how it is. I can’t be sure about the weather, so I pack clothes for hot and cold and wet. I take every possible health and hygiene product, even some I don’t ever use! There’s a cooler filled with snacks that we never manage to eat. I always take my own pillows. I take a bag full of things to fill the time in case I’m bored (I never am.) I pack an extra book, even if the book I’m reading is so long there’s no way I could finish it during the trip. We usually come home with unworn clothes and unused products, but I prefer to be prepared so I take it all. I was ready for every possibility.
Today’s Gospel story never really made sense to me, probably because I am an over packer. Who doesn’t ensure enough oil for the lamp? But then, who expected the bridegroom to take so long to arrive? There was no reason to think that they would need more oil than was in their lamp. There was no reason to plan ahead. Yet, five of the virgins did just that, they looked at the possibility that the bridegroom might be delayed. They prepared for the “just in case.”
Paul wrote that they expected that Jesus Christ would come immediately. They were all waiting anxiously, sure that it would happen in their lifetime. Some of the Christians struggled with doubt and frustration because their loved ones were dying, and Christ had not yet come. They were afraid that they would die, too. They thought that they were the generation that would see the fulfillment of the promise. Others have felt that way, too, in the two thousand years since Jesus was raised. It is terribly disappointing to our expectations to be smashed. It is easy to lose hope, but the Church has longingly waited for Christ to return.
There are those today who have the same expectations. They see the signs and interpret them to mean that we are in the end times. They live their faith as if we are the generation who will finally see the promise fulfilled. It is possible. We can look around our world and see the signs. But every generation since Jesus has seen signs. There are always those who lose hope because they interpret the signs to mean that now is the time and when it does not come as they expect they turn from the promise.
The oil in the lamp of the virgins is the hope we have as we wait for God’s time. Hope can die out, our light can dim, if we do not keep hold of the promise. That’s what the five wise virgins had but the five foolish virgins lost while they waited: they did not stand firm in the faith that the bridegroom would come, renewing their hope even when it seemed like He would never come. Our waiting is made so much more difficult when we face troubled times.
As we wait for the Day of the Lord, we may find ourselves attacked by those who appear to be living right and true lives, but who are not wise according to the ways of God. They are like King Saul, arrogant in his position and authority while forgetting the source of his blessing and power. We are called to be more like David, humble before God, seeking His face and being obedient to His Word. David is faithful and faith filled. The one who knows Wisdom is also faithful and faith filled. As we seek to know God, we will find Wisdom who will teach us and guide us in His ways. She will be vigilant and present in our thoughts and deeds. She is not hard to find, but as the writer of the Wisdom of Solomon says, “she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought.”
What does it mean to be prepared for the coming of the Lord? What are your expectations for the end times? We begin to answer these questions by turning to God, seeking His guidance and deliverance, rather than relying on our own strength, knowledge, and expectations. What do you think you will see on that day? The important thing is to remember is that the promise is in Jesus Christ. Our hope is not that that Jesus will come at a certain time or do a certain thing; we hope in the promise that we will be with the Lord forever, whenever He comes.
As we look forward to His second coming, considering the apocalypse to come, we are called to encourage one another through the good times and the bad. Let us continually seek God, trusting in Him, rejoicing with thankfulness and gladness. The one who is prepared for that Day is the one who lives as if they have been blessed to be a blessing, praising God for all that He has done and dwelling in the hope that the bridegroom is coming!
God is looking for His people to live in faith. He blesses the humble and lifts up those who need Him. Instead of worshipping God with our rituals and offerings, let’s keep our eyes on God and rejoice in His promises, praising Him for all the blessings fulfilled and those that are still to come. The Day of the LORD will set us free to dwell with Him forever, even if it comes in a way we do not expect. As we wait with our eyes fixed on God, thankfulness will lead us to compassion, mercy, and generosity. We can pray and prepare for the coming of Jesus, but meanwhile let us live in thanksgiving each day, looking forward to the Day as it will be according to God’s good and perfect grace.
“Beware, brothers, lest perhaps there might be in any one of you an evil heart of unbelief, in falling away from the living God; but exhort one another day by day, so long as it is called ‘today’, lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence firm to the end, while it is said, ‘Today if you will hear his voice, don’t harden your hearts, as in the rebellion.’ For who, when they heard, rebelled? Wasn’t it all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses? With whom was he displeased forty years? Wasn’t it with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? To whom did he swear that they wouldn’t enter into his rest, but to those who were disobedient? We see that they weren’t able to enter in because of unbelief.” Hebrews 3:12-19, WEB
We all make mistakes in our relationships with others, even children. I remember times in my childhood when my best friend and I would argue about something. We would scream hateful things and swear that our friendship was over forever. It didn’t take very long for us to be seen running around the neighborhood again, the argument long forgotten. Broken relationships are hurtful, I know I cried more than once over those arguments, but more than fifty years later we are still friends because we overcame our differences with forgiveness.
Sometimes the relationship is broken beyond repair, with complete separation and no further contact. However, there are times when the hurt leads to rebellious actions which include verbal and physical violence. In the movie “War of the Roses” Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner are a married couple that discovered they couldn’t live with one another any longer. The divorce was difficult. They fought over every detail. Eventually, the two locked themselves in the house, neither willing to give it up to the other even for a moment. The battle that ensued nearly killed them both and destroyed the house they both claimed to love. They were found on the floor bleeding in the tangled mess of their precious chandelier that came crashing down as they hung from it in a final battle of the will.
This movie was fiction and a comedy, but in real life this situation would be very sad. How can people who once loved each other get to the point that they are willing to kill one another for such seemingly ridiculous reasons? Yet, there are many suffering people who were once part of relationships that have been broken over the most insignificant things. Too many of the court cases on People’s Court have to do with friends or significant others who have done damage to those they have come to hate with a vengeance. They don’t know where to find healing and peace. They don’t understand forgiveness. They can’t overcome their feelings of hurt and anger and so rebel with vengeance, rejecting completely what they had once loved.
People make mistakes. We sin, we fight, we say hurtful things. We do this against one another, but when we hurt others, we hurt our God. Sometimes in the midst of our pain we shake our hands at the heavens and cry out “Why?” We do not see the big picture as God sees it and we do not always understand how something so horrible could happen to us. Yet, just like that childhood fight, we turn back to our Father, knowing that He is truly merciful and that He provides us with healing and peace.
Sadly, there are those who never turn back. They rebel completely against God, refusing to believe that He is good, right, and true. They reject His love and mercy. They even claim He does not exist. They scream, “How could a loving God allow evil and pain and suffering in the world? They refuse to believe and they do whatever they can to destroy the relationship they might have once had. They even fight against all the good God does in this world by trying to convince those who do believe that they are nothing but ridiculous fools. What they do not realize is that it is this very rebellion that leads to the suffering and pain that once destroyed their own lives.
We make mistakes in our relationships. We say the wrong things or do the wrong things. We sin against those we love. But we forgive, we forget, and we move on. Those relationships often become stronger in the end because mercy and grace bring us together in love. However, there are times when people get so hardened by evil that they rebel completely, rejecting the love that brings healing and peace. This happens, not only through human relationships, but also in the relationship with God.
Apostasy is a word that is often used to describe those who reject certain beliefs and understanding of God’s Word. It is possible to use that word in relation to the connections between people. When a friend completely rejects us, or when a politician turns to another party, or when a Christian decides to attend a different denomination, they can technically be called apostate. However, we must be careful to not place that label on someone just because they disagree with us. A sinner is not apostate, or we would all be apostate because we are all sinners. The apostate Christian is the one who rejects God altogether with a hardened heart, rebelling against our Lord Jesus Christ. May God grant us the strength to stand firm today so that we will always turn to Him and hold fast the confidence we have through faith in Christ.
“Boaz answered her, ‘I have been fully told about all that you have done to your mother-in-law since the death of your husband, and how you have left your father and your mother, and the land of your birth, and have come to a people that you didn’t know before. May Yahweh repay your work, and a full reward be given to you from Yahweh, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.’” Ruth 2:11-12, WEB
I don’t believe in karma. I’ll tell you why: if karma were real, I’d have more people offering to take my shopping cart in the parking lot at the grocery store. See, I’m one of those people who offer to take the cart from other shoppers, to help them so they don’t have to push it to a cart corral or leave it between cars. Yesterday I rushed to help someone with their cart because it was raining. There is an advantage to this for me, I admit, because then I don’t have to carry my purse and shopping bags, and on a rainy day it meant that I was getting a dry cart. There is an advantage to all the other shoppers because those carts aren’t blocking parking spaces or getting wet in the rain. The person leaving opens a parking space faster. It is an advantage to the store because it is one less cart that needs to be picked up by a stock person who could be doing other work. It is an insignificant, but beneficial kindness to everyone involved.
I suppose I have a pretty simplistic understanding of a concept from a different religious tradition, but if the idea of karma is that we will be paid in like manner for our good works, then there would always be someone willing to take my cart for me. Karma ultimately has more to do with reincarnation, but most of us use it in a much more material way. We think that if we do good then good will be done to us. We also think that if someone does bad to us, then they will get their just reward. “An eye for an eye” and all that. I have watched several videos of traffic accidents caused by people driving foolishly. Perhaps they deserved the damage to their vehicle, but what about the others hurt by their foolishness. Still, some people find hope in this idea that one day those who make them suffer will suffer somehow, too.
I don’t believe in karma, but I do believe that kindnesses beget kindness. What happens when you smile at that grumpy old man at the grocery store? Most of the time, they smile back. What happens when you hold the door for that struggling mother? The breath she can take will calm her so that she can better deal with her children. What happens when you let the car on the ramp merge into heavy traffic on the highway? Everything moves more smoothly and there’s less chance for an accident. We may never see how our little acts of kindness benefit others, but sometimes we benefit just in the feeling we get when we have done something nice for another. I get joy from taking that cart from the other shopper, especially if they are elderly or have small children, because I know that I have made a difference, no matter how seemingly insignificant, in their day.
Boaz heard about the good Ruth did for Naomi. Ruth’s sacrifices are much greater than helping with a shopping cart, so if we take Boaz’s words in light of the concept of karma, then Ruth should be rewarded greatly. However, this is not the way God works. He doesn’t pay an eye for an eye; He doesn’t cause someone to suffer because they’ve caused us to suffer. He doesn’t reward us for what we have done. We like the concept of karma because it seems fair. We want to be rewarded for our good works. We want our enemies to suffer for the suffering they’ve done for us. Ruth was blessed, but not because God rewarded her for her sacrifices.
But kindness begets kindness, and ultimately Ruth did find joy and love in the home she adopted by loving Naomi sacrificially. Boaz took Ruth as a wife, not to pay her for her kindness but because her kindness proved she was a woman worth redeeming and protecting. Ruth’s kindness was repaid beyond measure when she became the foremother of Jesus Christ. Ruth did not follow Naomi because she thought she’d be rewarded. As a matter of fact, she gave up everything knowing that they would struggle even to find bread to eat.
We don’t smile at the grumpy old man at the grocery store because we expect a smile in return. We don’t take the shopping cart because we expect others will take ours. We don’t do any acts of goodness because we expect to be repaid. We do these things to be kind, to make life a little better for our neighbors. And yes, we do these things because they bring us joy and peace. We do these things because we are thankful that the offspring of a woman named Ruth, Jesus Christ did the greatest kindness by sacrificing everything for us.
“It was necessary therefore that the copies of the things in the heavens should be cleansed with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ hasn’t entered into holy places made with hands, which are representations of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest enters into the holy place year by year with blood not his own, or else he must have suffered often since the foundation of the world. But now once at the end of the ages, he has been revealed to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. Inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once, and after this, judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, without sin, to those who are eagerly waiting for him for salvation.” Hebrews 9:23-28, WEB
I have been fascinated by the Advent calendars that I’ve seen advertised and on the store shelves. These have gained in popularity over the past few years. Candy calendars were always available, but now you can find them filled with everything from rocks to alcohol. There are some for the creative person in your life, filled with arts and crafts supplies. There are others that include cosmetics or jewelry. The man in your life might enjoy one with beef jerky or whiskey. Jellies, popcorn, cookies, and teas are popular. I have seen them filled with socks or rubber duckies. Most have a surprise behind every door, but some are focused more on inspirational words and scripture quotations. You can even buy them for your pets! Some Advent calendars are empty so that you can fill each window or drawer with your own special treats.
Most of the Advent calendars are designed to begin on December 1st and end with an extra special surprise on December 25th. We know that this does not truly follow the Advent season, since it always begins on the Sunday closest to St. Andrew’s Day (November 30th) and continues the next three Sundays, ending with Christmas Day. It can last twenty-two to twenty-eight days, depending on the calendar. This year, Advent as we know it will begin on December 3rd.
Did you know, however, that in the early days of the Church, beginning in about the fourth century, Advent was longer. It began around St. Martin’s Day (November 11th) ending with Christmas (seven Sundays) followed by the twelve days of Christmas until Epiphany (January 6th). While it was a preparation for the coming of Christ, it had a more eschatological emphasis. We still see that in the lectionary, with the texts at the end of the church year focusing on End Times scriptures. Today we begin Advent the Sunday after Christ the King, the ultimate moment of Christ’s second coming, but that feast day was not even added to the Church calendar until early in the twentieth century.
We sometimes call Advent a “mini lent” but in the early days it was a season of repentance, just as it is during the Lenten season. Baptism of penitents was celebrated on Epiphany (after Lent it was celebrated before sunrise on Resurrection Day.) The season was designed to help new believers prepare for life in God’s Kingdom. It included fasting and prayer, paralleling Lent. A compromise between merging churches around the turn of the eleventh century led to the four-week Advent. Some churches are returning to this pattern of worship for the days leading up to Christmas.
I saw a post from a pastor recently who heard his local school was inviting parents and others to teach the students about the different holidays during this time of year. He offered to share about Christmas with them, but the school refused. “Everyone knows about Christmas.” The problem, as he saw it, is that few people these days really know about Christmas, even many Christians. We can just look at the examples of “Advent” calendars and see that the secular world looks at this important season in a much different way. Oh, many will tell you it is about Jesus, but they still focus on presents and trees and cookies.
I don’t think I’m ready to put seven candles on my Advent wreath this year, but I have to admit that learning this history makes me understand why we use the lectionary texts we’ll see in the next few weeks. This seven-week Advent started yesterday, and the next few weeks of scriptures will be filled with doom and gloom, judgment, and warnings. The texts are meant to call us from our old ways into the Way of Christ. The coming Day of the Lord might be frightening, but those of us with faith have hope in the story of Jesus. We should take the warnings seriously, repenting daily of the sin that keeps us from living the life God has called us to live. Yet, we look forward to the day when Christ comes again, knowing that by His grace we will join Him at the throne of our God for eternity. In that hope, let us enter this season with joy today, sharing Christ in word and deed with all who cross our path so that they might know that Christmas is about more than presents and trees and cookies.
“Watch! Stand firm in the faith! Be courageous! Be strong! Let all that you do be done in love.” 1 Corinthians 16:13-14, WEB
I love to buy souvenirs when I travel. I know they are usually just dust catchers, but I like to have something to remember the trip. I bought a Martin Luther Rubber Ducky when I visited Germany last year. I keep that ducky on my purse, and it has become a conversation starter. Some other souvenirs that I have bought over the years were impulse buys that weren’t so useful. They are buried away in a curio cabinet or a closet, and I rarely even look at them. Some have even ended up in the giveaway box. I bought a Route 66 mood ring during our vacation this spring which I wore for a few days. I noticed it the other day; I haven’t worn it in months. It has become part of the clutter on my desk.
I took a different trip to Germany a couple decades ago when we were living in England. We were limited in luggage for a five-day retreat, but on the final day I went souvenir shopping anyway. I didn’t have much time, so some of my purchases were impulse buys. I didn’t have any regrets, but others in our group did act impulsively and doubted their actions after it was over. Some bought more than would fit in their suitcases and a few worried about what their husbands would think. A few acted impulsively that had a lasting impact on them, their families, and the hotel where we were staying.
Several of the ladies decided to buy coloring for their hair, one bought permanent dye that changed her hair completely. She looked great, but she regretted her impulsive action. The ladies had some difficulty with the product they purchased, and the dye stained more than her hair. The bottle broke so some of the dye spilled on the floor and their clothes. After it was over, she realized that her husband would not be happy with her new look. That impulsive act will have a lasting effect on the clothes, floor, and her relationship.
Impulsiveness can be fun, but it isn’t a good idea. We need to make mature, considered decisions, especially when our choices will impact others. I like to buy souvenirs, but I have realized in recent years that those impulsive choices will become a problem for my children when they are dealing with our estate. They’ve already told us that they don’t want most of our clutter. I suppose that’s why I have given some of those souvenirs away. I’m also more thoughtful before making those impulsive purchases.
We are encouraged to step out in faith, but even when it comes to our life of faith it is important for us to consider the consequences. We should never do things on impulse, but rather we should spend time in prayer listening to the guidance of our Father by the power of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes acting on faith means standing and doing nothing at all. As Paul writes, sometimes we have to stand firm.
When you face moments of decision remember that there is always time to say a prayer and ask God for His opinion in the matter. That’s what it means to stand firm in the faith, to know God has the right answer. Think about the consequences of any action you take. Don’t act on impulse. As Paul writes in this verse, do everything in love considering the lives that will be affected by your decisions.
Lectionary Scriptures for November 19, 2023, Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost: Zephaniah 1:7-18; Psalm 90:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30
“So teach us to count our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:12, WEB
We have been studying the book of Romans in our adult Sunday school class. Paul begins that letter reminding the people of God that their righteousness is not based on anything they have done or can do. All are sinners, Jew and Gentile. One chapter in a resource is titled, “The religious need the Gospel, too.” We have been encouraged to read Paul’s statement “You call yourself a Jew...” by replacing “Jew” with “Christian.” You call yourself a Christian, but you... We point fingers. We judge others. We do the very things we accuse the others of doing. We call ourselves good, we live moral lives, but we sin daily against God and our neighbors.
A few weeks ago, Amos reminded us that we should not look forward to the day of the Lord. It won’t be what we expect. We are still sinners in need of salvation. Eternity for us is both a present reality and a future hope, yet we have no reason to believe that the judgment that awaits us at the end of all days will be pleasant. We don’t deserve to be protected from times of trouble. We are just as guilty as our neighbor. All of us deserve to be left behind.
The passage from Zephaniah this week is not very hopeful. As a matter of fact, there is nothing but doom and gloom in his words. There is no promise. There is no Gospel. There is only a word of warning describing that the Day of the Lord will be horrifying. God will be searching for sinners, setting forth to punish those who are indifferent. God’s people thought that He would let them be because they were His people, but in this passage, we see that God will not hold back from dealing with the sins of His people. This isn’t a pretty passage. It is not an image of God we want to see. As a matter of fact, we’d rather ignore it.
But as we draw to the end of the Church year, we are reminded that the Day of the Lord is still to come. We find comfort in the images of Christ returning, taking His people with Him. I cry out “Come, Lord Jesus,” on a daily basis as I look forward to His promises fulfilled finally after so much time. Yet, we cannot forget that the people of Israel were God’s people and that they had turned from the God who had blessed them above all other nations. They were set aside for a purpose, and they had failed. They were unfaithful to God and the coming Day of the Lord was not about God defeating His enemies, but about causing His people to turn back to Him.
It does us well to listen to the warnings of the Old Testament promise. It is true we live under a new covenant, but we are the same as those who throughout the ages have believed in God. We call ourselves Christians, but we, too, can become complacent. We can forget God when our focus is on other things. We can turn our hope toward earthly things and lose sight of the One who is our only true hope. Zephaniah talks about the people building houses and making wine, building up wealth that they would never use. Aren’t we doing the same? And when our lives are threatened by forces beyond our control, we mumble like the people in Zephaniah’s day that God won’t do anything, good or bad. We think we can “settle on our lees.” But God is offended by our indifference.
He calls us to know Him fully, to know His power as well as His grace. He reminds us with passages such as this one from Zephaniah that we can fall, turning away from the grace He so freely gives. We can lose sight of Him by focusing on our own desires and resting in our own wealth. Zephaniah wrote, “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to deliver them in the day of Yahweh’s wrath.” We can’t buy our way out of learning that lesson all over again. We can only fall on our knees in repentance, crying out to the God who can ensure our deliverance or allow our destruction. Has He, even now, been consecrating the enemy for that great and terrible Day of the Lord? Will we see it? Are we ready?
This is certainly not a message we want to hear. But we do have something that trumps Zephaniah’s words: hope in God. He has promised, and He is faithful. We may not hear it clearly, but the Gospel underlies every text we can read. We read a message like this through the eyes of faith, resting in God’s love. We know that through His story, He relented from destruction over and over again. He changed His mind. We also know that He has given us His own Son to overcome our faithlessness and sin. The image in this passage may seem hopeless, but we are called to believe that there is always hope even when we can’t see it. God does not forget His promises. Despite the warnings there is always a promise. Zephaniah wrote later in his book, “Yahweh, your God, is in the midst of you, a mighty one who will save. He will rejoice over you with joy. He will calm you in his love. He will rejoice over you with singing.”
It seems like more and more people are talking about the end of time. I don’t know if it is wishful thinking in these dark times, or if people are interpreting signs they see, but we join in a long history of longing for Christ to come again. Every generation of Christian and religious folk from many faiths since the beginning of time have wondered about the end of the world. The imagination can go wild with the possibilities. We see the end as some sort of catastrophic event. People have watched for signs on earth and in the heavens. Comets, eclipses, meteor showers foretold doom. The people have always pointed to world events as proof that they are the generation that will see the end. War, rumors of war, natural disasters are all signs or omens and have been for every generation of humans. The same is true today.
It is interesting, then, that the passage from Matthew talks about the work and successes or failures of the people waiting for the return of the landowner. The story foretells Jesus’ own leaving and return. He is the landowner who gives gifts to the servants and goes away on a trip. When the landowner returns, he finds two of his servants have not only worked hard but have profited from their work. They took what they had and made it into something bigger and better. In faith terms, they took their gifts and grew them which glorifies God as it grows His kingdom.
Even though the text does hint at an end time scenario, the focus this week is about what to do while we wait. God’s people don’t often have the patience to wait; we do what we think will hurry God along. In recent history we’ve seen false prophets convince whole communities to do foolish things to spur Christ’s return. They aren’t much different than the people in the Old Testament. Take, for instance, Abraham and Sarah. They could not wait for God to fulfill His promise that they would be the father and mother of nations, so they took matters into their own hands. They decided to use Sarah’s servant to get the long-awaited heir. Their impatience still impacts our world today. Moses had little patience with God and the people as they journeyed through the wilderness. David had little patience and dealt with his sin against Uriah with more sin. The consequences of our decisions can be life altering, not just for ourselves, but for the world in which we live.
We know Christ is coming again, but we do not know when. How do we respond to the hope we have in Him as we wait? The problem in Paul’s day is that the people were getting frantic because they were dying, and Jesus had not yet returned. They were afraid and doubted the promise. They didn’t know what to do. Some were falling for false preaching. Others were oppressive with their own preaching, forcing others to believe in the hope that they could create the necessary conditions for Jesus’ return. Yet others gave up. They stopped waiting and turned to the world for comfort and peace.
We look at the story of the talents and realize that we are called to be like the two servants who used their talents for the glory of God. Jesus has gone away but has left us each with sufficient talents to make a difference in the world while we wait. It does us no good to sit around waiting for the Day of the Lord because there is so much to be accomplished. It does us no good to bury our talents when there are so many people who still need to experience God’s kingdom in this world. So, instead of waiting and wondering when the Day of the Lord will happen, or even wonder what it will be like, we are called to get to work, doing God’s business today. Then we have no need to worry, or fear or doubt, because we’ll be doing exactly what God is expecting from us when Christ comes again. He’d find us actively living in faith and hope and love, ready to see what He has planned for us in eternity.
We often focus specifically on the spiritual gifts when talking about this passage, particularly since most translations call the coin called a “talent.” We think about our own talents and consider whether or not we are using them in a way that will grow the Kingdom of God. But this story isn’t necessary just about those spiritual gifts and talents; it is about our whole lives. After all, everything is God’s, isn’t it? We can probably list all the many ways we’ve served the Lord through our churches; the Sunday school classes we’ve taught or the songs we’ve sung in the choir. But do we take our faith out into the world in which we live, glorifying God with everything we do? Do we bury our gifts in the church and go about our daily lives without a thought about God’s Kingdom?
We are often just as afraid as that third servant; we are afraid to use what God has given us where it is risky. It is risky to share our faith with our neighbors. It is risky to serve people. It is risky to give everything we have for an outcome we can’t guarantee. It is much safer to keep our faith among friends, to share our gifts with those we know, to do the things that we are sure will make a difference in the world. It isn’t enough to dedicate a few hours in one place each week to the glory of God. God calls us to use everything He has given us (life, breath, love, time, hope, peace, faith, along with our tangible possessions and our spiritual gifts) every day for the sake of His Kingdom and people.
But we get complacent. We become self-satisfied and conceited. Though we don’t necessarily say it, we begin to act as if God will not do anything, good or bad. We let the world convince us that if God exists, He isn’t much more than a faraway creator-king who is no longer involved with His creation. We hide our faith because we are accused of believing in myths and fairytales; it is simply easier to have a private faith without the risk of being rejected or persecuted by the world. Unfortunately, that’s no better than the third servant who buried his talent in the ground, returning to the master only what he had given.
It takes time to get complacent. God’s people did not start out the way they were in Zephaniah’s time. They had passion and living, active faith. But time and the world mellowed their passion. They didn’t teach their children to have the same passion or faith. They conformed to the world. They allowed their leaders, their kings, to be allied with enemies and to concede to foreign friends. They made their faith fit their circumstances. Don’t we do the same?
A light bulb glows brightly when it is new, but it slowly dims as time goes by. As it gets older, the light bulb eventually burns itself out until that day when the filament breaks, and the light is gone forever. Then we have to replace the bulb and it is shocking how bright it is when we turn on the light again. We do not realize how dim it was until it burnt out and was replaced with a new and brighter light. We do not know when a light bulb will burn out, but when it is replaced, we realize that we had been seeing the signs all along, we just didn’t realize it.
One of the advantages of the nomadic military life we lived for the first eighteen years of our marriage is that we moved every few years. Each move offered us the chance to change. We purged our excess baggage when we packed our household goods. We said good-bye to old friends and made new ones in our new home. The children adapted to new schools, new teachers, and new activities. We couldn’t always ensure that we would find a group to join or that the school would be teaching the same curriculum. We experienced the shock of changing cultures, even when we moved within the United States, since every place we’ve lived has been somewhat different from the last. We had to find a new church, get used to new food, and establish a new schedule. Everything was new over and over again. We moved before our lives in one place became too settled. We changed our life before our old life burned out.
We have lived in Texas for nearly twenty years now. We have lived in two different homes, our current one for nearly twelve years. The days of being a transient family is long over and we have not had to purge our excess baggage for a long time. We have given things away, but I would never be able to move to a smaller house without a major cleaning. Speaking of cleaning: I was vacuuming a room the other day and looked under a piece of furniture that I hadn’t moved in at least a decade. I couldn’t believe the dust. I asked my husband to move that piece of furniture for me, and he couldn’t believe the dust. We’ve become complacent, allowing piles of stuff to gather and dust bunnies to grow. We always cleaned them out once our furniture was on a truck, but with no move in sight I need to think about getting into those corners or ignore the dust bunnies altogether. I don’t care so much about the dust bunnies, so they’ll probably continue to live quietly in those corners.
We stop noticing the little things that are wrong when we set down roots. We don’t notice that the paint on the walls has faded and chipped. We don’t notice the worn carpets or the grime in between the tiles. We don’t notice the change because we stop looking. We are not worried about the paint on the walls or the dust bunnies in the corners because it happens so slowly we do not notice. But as we sit back unconcerned, our world slowly falls apart around us like a light bulb about to burn out.
We have talked about how the lectionary at this time of year focuses on the second coming of Christ, but how many of us are truly waiting for the Day of the LORD? How many of us really think we’ll see Him return in our lifetimes? There are those who think so, and they are counting down the days, studying the texts and certain they have figured it out. There are even those who are working to put the pieces in place to guarantee His coming soon. But most of us, most Christians, go about our daily lives worried about how we’ll pay the mortgage and what we will have for dinner rather than whether or not we are ready for Jesus’ return. After all, it has been two thousand years; perhaps we misunderstood. Some have suggested that He has already come or that the second coming is spiritual. That kind of thinking makes us stop preparing and waiting.
And so, as we draw closer to the Day of the Lord, we are reminded that God cannot be kept in a box, but we do have our limits. Time passes for us. We get older. Things change. The world becomes different. Our magnificent buildings get old and crumble, the things we deem important become obsolete. Even our words pass away; they are forgotten, or they become irrelevant. But God and His Word are from everlasting to everlasting. He does not dwell in a world we have created for Him; we dwell in Him. He does not exist within time as we have ordered it; He has ordered the world in which we dwell. We need not put God in a box to understand Him because He has given us all we need. Whether our time is short or long, our home large or small, we dwell in the midst of the One who is outside time and space even while we are limited by our flesh in this world. And while we find comfort in our understanding of God, we must never forget that He is more than we can imagine.
We are to see the world in which we live through the light which we have been given by our Lord and our God. Despite two thousand years of waiting, we are called to stay awake. Paul might have thought that Jesus would return during his lifetime, but his words are for us today. It is easy to become complacent, to settle into the world without concern for the heavenly things. It is easy to let the dust bunnies of our lives grow in those hidden and unnoticeable corners. It is easy to let the light bulb slowly dim making it hard to see how our lives are falling apart around us. But we are called to be in the light, to be the light along with our Lord Jesus Christ. We are called to suit up and dwell in the promise of God, whose hope and salvation are true. We won’t be disappointed unless we allow ourselves to settle too deeply into the world and forget that the immediacy of Paul’s warnings is for now as well as then. Jesus can still come soon, and if we lose sight of His kingdom, He will come like a thief in the night. But we are people of the day, of the light. Let us pray that we will not fall asleep as we wait patiently and longingly for the Day of the Lord.
May we be watchful and alert, doing as God has called us to do, living as God has created and redeemed us to be. We are in Christ, saved by His blood and Spirit, called out of darkness into the light. In that light, we are to love God with our whole being, doing His work every day. God is faithful and His Word is true. The Day will come, whether it is today or in a thousand years and God has provided us with everything we need as we wait. We need not be afraid to risk what He has given us for He will provide the growth.
The psalmist writes, “For a thousand years in your sight are just like yesterday when it is past, like a watch in the night.” We live in a world with instant gratification. We send a text and have a response in seconds. We type a few words into an Internet search engine, and we have a million resources to help our research. We order a burger and fries, and it is delivered to our car window in seconds. We buy a book from a bookseller, and it is downloaded to our e-reader instantly. We do not have to wait for anything anymore, and so we have lost the ability to wait.
Not that people were ever very good at being patient. The early Christians wanted Jesus to return in their day. We still have that same longing, and it manifests occasionally when some charismatic cult leader decides to proclaim that the time is now. I have seen the would-be prophets proclaiming that everything that has happened recently are signs that Jesus is coming, as if no other generation has had to face difficult times. There will be people who believe those proclamations, they may even quit their jobs and take up their signs that say, “The End of the World is Near!” They will try to scare people into salvation rather than shine the light of Jesus. And when the end of the world doesn’t happen, they will be left without a job, home, or food. They will be disappointed and perhaps even lose heart. They may even lose faith.
Even worse, though, is when people are complacent. In Thessalonica, the people were self-satisfied, believing everything was fine. When we are complacent, we also become apathetic since there is no need for hope beyond today and no need to reach beyond oneself. Yet, our passages for today speak of a day when everything will fall apart, when the Master will bring an end to our complacency. They call us to live as if Jesus were coming today, doing His work in the world.
Our time in this world will not last forever, though at times it may seem to be too long. God has a plan, and we are called to live each day as if this is the day, knowing that only He knows when it will happen. For now, we have been given everything we need to actively shine the Light of Christ in the world. The words of the prophets about the Day of the Lord may be frightening, but we have a promise that we who have waited faithfully will, one day, hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a few things. I will set you over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.” In that Day, we will be invited to share in His joy, to bask in His glory, to dwell in His Kingdom forever.
“I watched until thrones were placed, and one who was ancient of days sat. His clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool. His throne was fiery flames, and its wheels burning fire. A fiery stream issued and came out from before him. Thousands of thousands ministered to him. Ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The judgment was set. The books were opened. I watched at that time because of the voice of the great words which the horn spoke. I watched even until the animal was slain, and its body destroyed, and it was given to be burned with fire. As for the rest of the animals, their dominion was taken away; yet their lives were prolonged for a season and a time. I saw in the night visions, and behold, there came with the clouds of the sky one like a son of man, and he came even to the ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. Dominion was given him, and glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which will not pass away, and his kingdom one that which will not be destroyed.” Daniel 7:9-14
Lawyers will do just about anything to keep a trial from starting. My son served jury duty last month. He went in for the initial selection process and was chosen. They were to report early the next morning. They gathered and found out that the lawyers settled. The judge was as mad as the jury that they came in for nothing! My husband served a few years ago, and every case was settled while the jurors waited to be selected! Even before trial day, the lawyers want as much time as possible to get as much information as possible so that they might prove their client to be the one who should win. They file for continuances, which put off the inevitable, in the hope that they will find that one fact that will change the outcome of the trial.
People also like to put off taxes. Those who owe taxes wait until the very last moment, having their returns postmarked seconds before midnight on the last day that it is due. Many people even file for an extension, in the hope of putting off the inevitable work that is necessary for making the final calculations. Unfortunately for them, they still need to pay the bill on April 15th, or they will pay high penalties and fees.
Much of the salvation language with which we are familiar, particularly in the New Testament, is legalese. We hear how there will be an advocate for us at the judgment throne of God. Jesus is assigned the duties of standing in our defense. We also hear financial language that describes the work of Jesus as paying our debt or giving us an inheritance. This is all language with which we are at least vaguely familiar, equally now as it was in the days of Jesus. We also have the same tendency to put things off, to wait until tomorrow to take care of the things we need to accomplish. We, like them, hope that there will be a new bit of information that might help our situation.
In terms of judgment, we hope that we can put it off for another day. After all, if we can wait to stand before the throne of God until tomorrow, perhaps we can find something to prove that we do not deserve to lose. Or perhaps we will try to do something today to make up for all the things we have done wrong in the past. We also want to try to earn enough to pay our debts, so we put off the payment date. Even when it comes to our inheritance, we’d rather put it off to another day because it means we have to accept the inevitable: people die.
In Daniel we see an image of what it might be like to face the judgment throne of God. Daniel describes this in visual language to give us a glimpse of the glory of God. Of course, it is impossible for us to truly express in human terms what God is like. Can we really imagine a multitude of angels, so many we can’t possibly even count them? And there, in the midst of this incredible image, we face the inevitable: the book is open and we have to meet the judge. We don’t have another day to find more evidence, we don’t have another moment to do what is right, we don’t have time to make enough money. We stand bare before Him.
Yet, we do have an advocate and He does not need more time. He completed the work of salvation on the cross. We can’t possibly find more evidence or do what is right. We’ll never have enough money to pay our debt to God. We have one like the Son of Man who has been given dominion over all of Creation. He has overcome death; He has paid the debt. He has done all that is necessary. We can rest in this because His dominion will last forever. His salvation is eternal.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.” Proverbs 3:5-8, WEB
I tend to use my GPS, even if I am going somewhere with which I am very familiar. This is helpful if something happens along my path. The GPS will give alternate routes if there is an accident or construction issues. This can be helpful, but sometimes the directions are crazy. I was once on a route downtown during rush hour, and the GPS suggested I get off the highway and back on immediately three times, because the frontage road was moving more quickly. I stopped listening, even though it would take a few minutes longer because it was not helpful for the rest of the traffic to have me zipping in and out of the jam.
I sometimes think that the GPS must get frustrated with me because I don’t always go the way it recommends. I was traveling to pick up my son from college several hours away. I had my usual route, which I followed for several reasons. One was that the “fastest” route went through natural gas territory, and the smell for quite a few miles gave me a headache. The other reason was there was a gas station where I always filled on the way. One day I had my GPS turned on, and as I drove through a small town, the voice kept trying to get me to turn around. It did this at every opportunity for five miles, and then finally gave up and recalculated to go the direction I’d planned to go. It was a very long drive through West Texas to pick up my son, so this little “game” was an amusing way to deal with boredom.
We have a lot of road construction on our route to and from our church. There is a back way that helps avoid some of the delays. It usually takes a minute or so longer, but it is worth avoiding the traffic. I don’t like to drive that way at night, so the other evening I followed the GPS suggestion. I made a slight detour because I don’t like the recommended exit. Unfortunately, the way I wanted was closed, so my trip took much longer as I followed a detour. Unfortunately, the closings are erratic, so you never know what roads will be open or closed. Night or not, I think I’ll take the back way from now on. It might be easier to follow the way the GPS suggests, but it does not always know the safest or most convenient way to go. GPS usually relies on time and I often make my decisions based on other factors.
GPS is helpful, convenient, and it has gotten me out of problematic situations over the years, but it is just modern technology that doesn’t need our obedience. It isn’t God. It doesn’t always know what is best for us. It doesn’t always know the right path. God does. When God makes a path for us, it is best for us to follow, even if it doesn’t fit our plan. We just have to watch and believe, acknowledging that He is in the midst of it all. If we look for God’s hand in the ordinary experiences of our lives, we will discover that He is guiding us to walk in His ways.
We have lots of voices trying to tell us which direction we should go. Most have our best interests in mind, but sometimes they also have self-centered reasons for telling us which way to go. We follow the advice of parents, teachers, leaders, the media, social media, friends, and even technology without seeking the guidance of the only one that will truly lead us on the right path. The best thing we can do is to trust in God. He has given us the life, the gifts, the opportunity, the freedom, the faith, the hope, and the joy to do what is right according to His good and perfect plan. If we listen to Him, rather than to the voices of the world or our own hearts, He will lead us to where He wants us to go and the world will be blessed by our lives.
“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” 1 John 1:5-10, WEB
It is that time again: time for the annual Christmas newsletter! We have a love/hate relationship with these once-a-year newsy notes. Some people love them because it is a chance to get caught up on the lives of people we don’t get to see very often. Some people hate them because the lives to are revealed don’t seem real. Or the news is so mundane that it doesn’t seem worth the trouble reading. There are also those who are having a difficult time, and the good news of others does not make them feel joyful.
One “Scrooge” (his word) wrote, “To be brutally honest with you, I look forward to receiving your annual Christmas letter in my mailbox about as much as I enjoy getting my credit card statement in January. And once I do open your letter, I read it with the same passion and enthusiasm as the guy who checks your receipts on the way out of Costco. I will give it a quick glance, but that’s about it. And I mentally check out after a sentence like, ‘Then in May we celebrated Grandma’s 85th birthday.’” He thinks the annual letters are outdated, because most of the news has been blasted on social media for the past year. Besides, the letters are the same year after year. “There’s nothing I haven’t heard already.” He also said he would rather a brutally honest letter, one that talks about all the struggles of the year and the mundane reality rather than a so-called perfect life.
We aren’t very good at being brutally honest, however, are we? We would rather hide all those things that make our life difficult. We don’t tell people about our health issues or the job we lost. We might report about our kids’ sports accomplishments, but never talk about their failing grades. This doesn’t just happen in our Christmas letters; we don’t have any idea what is really happening to the people around us, even those close to us. The scrooge may know more than he wants to know from social media, but who is brutally honest there? I have some friends who post cryptic grumbling about people who hurt them, but they don’t share what’s wrong. We never really know the reasons why we are praying for our friends who ask. We hide the bad things because we are afraid or embarrassed. We want to look better. We want to protect ourselves.
The thing we learn in our Christian walk, however, is that there is nothing that is hidden from God. Jesus is Light and He will shine on the darkness in our lives. Bringing it to light means that we can deal with the problem, either in prayer or by realizing that we are not alone. I recently discovered health issues, and I’ve been very open about it. I’m sure that many people have taken up prayer on my behalf, but even more so, I have found that so many other people are walking the same path. I have learned so much about how to get well from their experiences. I have also been able to help them with my own successes. By sharing what I’d rather keep hidden, light has shined on healing and peace.
Christ is the light that overcomes the darkness of the spirit, the darkness of sin and grief, the darkness of fear, embarrassment. His light is the light the bears all truth, that reveals all that is good, that provides true hope to those who are lost. In His light we see the reality of our life and the world, but we also see the reality of His grace. We see how the created world was meant to be and how it can be better than it is right now. God did not create the world, or our lives, to be bad. He said, “It is good.” Yet, we would rather hide in the darkness, not only that which is without light, but in the false lives we create. In His light we see the truth, confess our sins’ and receive the forgiveness which He offers. There, in that Light, we will truly have rest and peace and hope.
“After these things, Jesus went away to the other side of the sea of Galilee, which is also called the Sea of Tiberias. A great multitude followed him, because they saw his signs which he did on those who were sick. Jesus went up into the mountain, and he sat there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. Jesus therefore lifting up his eyes, and seeing that a great multitude was coming to him, said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread, that these may eat?’ He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, ‘Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may receive a little.’ One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are these among so many?’ Jesus said, ‘Have the people sit down.’ Now there was much grass in that place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand. Jesus took the loaves; and having given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to those who were sitting down; likewise also of the fish as much as they desired. When they were filled, he said to his disciples, ‘Gather up the broken pieces which are left over, that nothing be lost.’ So they gathered them up, and filled twelve baskets with broken pieces from the five barley loaves, which were left over by those who had eaten.” John 6:1-13, WEB
I tend to make too much food. Whenever I prepare to take a dish for a potluck, I make enough to feed an army. I do not want anyone to feel like they did not get enough food. What I forget is that every other person in that army is also bringing a dish to share and I end up taking enough food home to feed another army. There is an almost supernatural effect on the food at a potluck dinner; there is always more than is needed.
We have an annual holiday party at our house every year, known not only for the Christmas spirit, but also for my food. I serve multiple types of meat, an overabundance of side dishes, and enough treats to whet the sweet teeth of a school full of children. I always have leftovers. I try to send some home with my guests, but there is still enough food to last us for what seems like weeks. We freeze what we can, but we end up eating leftovers for days. Every year I think, “I need to cut back next year,” but then the next year comes, and I still want to make sure that there is not only enough food, but also enough choices for our guests.
This year is different. I’ve learned in the past few months to think differently about food. Many of the things I make for our party are decadent holiday fare. Many of them are the types of food I should not eat. While a small amount is not a problem, after all we have to treat ourselves occasionally as long as we don’t overdo. I also don’t eat much the night of my party, I’m so busy enjoying my guests. The problem is the leftovers. Can I find the balance between enough and not too much?
At the end of every party when I am gathering my leftovers, I try to remind myself that I do not need to make so much food. I promise myself I will do better next time. Yet, the next time comes around and I do not have the faith of Andrew: I worry about how we will feed so many people. Andrew saw something in that small amount of food. Even more importantly, he saw something in Jesus and knew He could use that small amount to do incredible things.
I’m not suggesting I should settle for two fish and five loaves of bread for my party; however I need to trust that I will have enough without overdoing like I do every year. I have learned that I’m not the only one who is struggling with health issues. No one eats as much food as they used to eat; we are all making better choices, even during the holidays (perhaps especially, since there is so much decadence!) It seems everyone is watching carbs and sugars these days. As I make choices about what I am going to serve, I need to think about these things.
Jesus threw a party for five thousand with the lunch of one small boy. Yet Jesus was able to feed the entire crowd until they were stuffed full. Jesus filled the bellies of the people, supplied their physical needs; in the process, He taught the disciples a lesson in trust, that God will fulfill their physical needs. Five barley loaves and two fish might have fed the disciples and Jesus. It would have been easy to keep it for themselves and send the crowd to seek food on their own. Yet, Jesus met their needs, the needs of the crowd and even had leftovers to share. As I prepare for my party, I pray I can plan in faith without worrying about whether or not we will have enough. We all need to remember this lesson not only when we plan dinners, but in all things. God has granted us gifts to be used for His glory. Though we do not always think we have enough to accomplish the work He has for us to do, when we believe in God we see that He will make our little bits become a great feast.
Lectionary Scriptures for November 26, 2023, Christ the King: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 95:1-7a; 1 Corinthians 15:20-28; Matthew 25:31-46
“Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and take you in, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and come to you?’” Matthew 25:36-38, WEB
I was probably about eleven years old when the movie starring Lucille Ball called “Mame” was in the movie theaters. It was a musical about an eccentric and wealthy woman who became the guardian of her late brother’s son. She lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929 and her lawyer threatened to remove the boy from her care. In the depths of her trouble, Mame realized that she needed to do something to find joy again. She suggested that they get out the Christmas decorations and start to celebrate early. We laugh today because the line from the boy is “But it’s one week ‘til Thanksgiving Day now!” Since the movie was set in the late 1920s, they were not beginning Christmas in August like we do.
I know it isn’t Thanksgiving yet, but it is impossible not to know that Christmas is coming. When the stores took down their Halloween displays, they replaced the ghouls and goblins with angels and nativities. Some radio stations are already playing Christmas music and the advertisements are full of references to the coming holiday season. I am in planning mode for my holiday party, wrapped presents this morning for shipping, and my husband has already started hanging outdoor lights for the season. I’ve noticed that more people have already lit the lights in their yard. Perhaps they are reliving the scene in the movie when Mame sang the song, “We Need a Little Christmas Now.” The song talks about the struggles they are facing, but also their hope that they can find their happily ever after.
One thing I like to buy each year is a new nativity. I have a growing collection, some were gifts, others were ones I purchased. I have a few silly sets, like one with rubber duckies. I have nativities from all over the world, including several that were created using olive wood from Israel. My collection stays out year-round, although I also have a few that get packed away with the Christmas decorations. We even have a large wooden nativity that my husband made that is displayed outdoors each Christmas season.
I think I love nativities because there is so much symbolism in each one. It is fascinating to see the different ways people represent that special moment in time. There is always a baby, Mary, and Joseph. Other figures include wise men, animals, angels, and a shepherd. The characterization of these figures is based on tradition. There were traditionally three kings, so the nativities include three kings. This is based on the idea that the kings were Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Caspar is usually given Oriental features, Melchior has white skin, and Balthasar has black skin. The kings are sometimes represented in different stages of life, young, old, and in between. Though men, they are meant to symbolize everyone from everywhere that approach the manger to worship Christ, including you and me.
The other character in most nativities is a shepherd. The image is usually of a young boy how is obviously poor. He usually carries a lamb, and though he’s muscular from his work, he is also skinny and often in rags. He usually has a cheerless look on his face. The shepherd reminds us not only of the shepherds who were the first to visit the manger, but also of David who was anointed king of Israel when he was a shepherd boy. David was the youngest and smallest of his brothers, who were warriors. We would never expect God to choose someone like him, but he was God’s chosen leader. He did not take over the throne immediately; he first spent time with Saul, and then spent time running from Saul. When Saul died, many years later, David finally became king. By then he had become a hardened warrior and leader, though he still had the heart to serve God. His heart is what made him king, not his appearance or ability; this is why God chose the shepherd boy, not the warrior.
The shepherd image represents kings or priests, leaders that guide their people in the ways of righteousness and truth. Shepherds were not men of power or authority. They were low class, uneducated, unworthy, and unimportant. And yet, as we look at the work of a shepherd, it was the perfect description for a king or a priest as God intended them to live. The shepherd cares for the flock just as a king or a priest is expected to care for his people. The same image is given to God in many passages in the scriptures.
The shepherds were often boys, too small to fight and too uneducated to do much else. These boys did not own the sheep; the sheep belonged to a master. It seems odd that God would use the image of a shepherd to describe the leaders of His people, and yet it makes a lot of sense. After all, the shepherds are meant to be caregivers working under the Master. They aren’t the authority; they are given the authority by God. We see this in the story of David. He was selected to be king long before he had the ability, strength, and power to lead. He relied on God and obeyed His word. He had a heart for God. That is what God expects of His chosen leaders, but today’s Old Testament lesson reminds us that they failed to live up to His expectations.
God promised to send a new shepherd, one who would care for the sheep, always relying on the Master and obeying His word. The fulfillment of that promise is Jesus. God knew what would happen when God’s people asked for a king. He warned that an earthly king would demand much from the people; many would be cruel and lay heavy burdens on their shoulders. But He granted their request. Over the years, some of the kings were cruel and the people were led from the path of righteousness. Saul was the first of those to depart from God’s ways. David was imperfect, but He was the kind of king that God intended for His people. The king that God promised through Ezekiel would come David’s house; a son of David would be the Messiah. It is that king we celebrate on this coming Sunday: Christ the King, the Shepherd of God’s flock. We look to the kings in the nativity as representatives of power, wealth, and authority, but it is the shepherd that symbolizes what the baby in the manger was born to become.
We are not any more comfortable with this image of the Messiah than they were two thousand years ago. We look for God in the extraordinary, especially since He is an extraordinary God. It seems almost degrading to look for God in the ordinary, as if we are trying to make Him less than He is. The psalmist sings that God is a great God who deserves our praise. He is greater than anything of this world because He created it all. How can we possibly see the Creator in His fallen creation?
Yet, throughout the scriptures, we see God in the most ordinary places. In His parables, Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to everyday people. In those stories, God is represented by some character: sometimes He is like a rich landowner or a king, but at other times He is seen as an old woman or a farmer scattering seed. He is like a rock, a lion, bread, water, a grapevine, and a lamb.
As we finish the church year and enter Advent our lectionary scriptures are focused on the End Times when Jesus will come again. On Christ the King Sunday, we specifically look at Jesus the King who comes to judge.
It is a very fine line we walk when we talk about the coming of Christ. We know that our salvation is dependent on the first coming of Christ: He was born to die so that we would have eternal life. His death won for us freedom from slavery to sin and death. This is grace, and His grace is all we need to be saved. Our good works will not win us anything. Rather, Jesus won our freedom so that we might live and love with justice and mercy as our goal. We are born again to serve our neighbors, to do what is right and good in the world in which we live.
There are three judgments found in the bible. Earthbound judgment is given by humans to humans. It is right for there to be human judges to advocate for justice and bring reconciliation between people. We judge others, sometimes wrongly but sometimes rightly. If someone is hurting another, it is our responsibility to stop them, punish them and teach them how to do right. We must be careful in the role of judge because we are told that we will be judged with the same measure we judge others. So, we are hypocrites if we judge our neighbor and yet do the same sins.
In the spiritual realm there are two judgments. The first is the final judgment. I know that sounds backward, but the final judgment must come first. It is the judgment that came through the blood of Christ on the cross. He died to save us from ourselves. Through the cross we gain the forgiveness of sin that God promised to His people. There is nothing we can do to earn the final judgment. It is a done deal. It can’t be canceled. We can’t overcome His grace by our own power or failure. By faith we have what has been given, and that given by God’s grace.
The second spiritual judgment is the believer’s judgment. Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 3:11-13. “For no one can lay any other foundation than that which has been laid, which is Jesus Christ. But if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or stubble, each man’s work will be revealed. For the Day will declare it, because it is revealed in fire; and the fire itself will test what sort of work each man’s work is.” Paul goes on to say that the ones who have built with good materials will find God’s favor and those who use poor materials will still be saved but will have nothing left to show for their life. Then, as we believers stand before the throne of God, He will see our life of faith manifest. The life that worked for justice will shine. The life that ignored the needs of others will not.
What will the King find when He returns? Will He find us doing all He has called us to do, not only during Advent and Christmastime, but through the whole year long? Will He find us bringing joy to the world even in times of struggle? Will He find sheep or goats?
Unfortunately, today’s Gospel lesson gives us a negative understanding about the value of a goat in God’s eyes. After all, it sounds like goats are unclean or unacceptable, that they will all be sent to be sent into eternal punishment. Yet, the scriptures show us that goats were not only clean, but they were acceptable at the Temple for sacrifice.
As a matter of fact, the hair of the goat was used for the curtains in the tabernacle. This would not have been true if God had deemed goats unworthy. Leviticus 16 describes the ritual involved in the Day of Atonement, at which goats play a very prominent role. The Lord told Moses that Aaron should first offer a bull for his own sins, and then he is to present two goats to the Lord before the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. One goat was chosen for sacrifice, the other was sent into the desert to be a scapegoat. The scapegoat is not immediately killed; the people lay their sins on its head and it is then sent into the wilderness. Both goats are sacrificed, but one is given directly to the Lord and the other is left for God to take in His time and way. The fact that goats are used in the ritual for the Day of Atonement shows us that goats are not unacceptable before the Lord.
Goats were not only acceptable as the sin offering, but also as a fellowship offering. Anything that is given to God in sacrifice is expected to be worthy. It is the blood of that animal, after all, that provides for the spiritual cleansing of the people. It is through the blood that they are forgiven. It is not really a concept that we understand today, especially since in Hebrews 10 we learn that the blood of bulls and goats cannot forgive sun. But for the people of ancient Israel, those goats meant life and reconciliation to God. A goat isn’t a bad thing.
According to Heifer International, goats are one of the “Seven M” animals. The most efficient use of livestock resources is found in the animals that offer meat, milk, muscle, manure, money, materials, and motivation. Goats reproduce quickly, often giving birth to kids several times a year. Their milk can be used for drinking, cooking, butter, and cheese. Farms with more than one goat can provide products for sale. Goat manure makes excellent fertilizer. They are small and need less space for proper care. They eat everything, including weeds that are dangerous for other animals and people, so they help in land management. They can be trained to carry packs; they are even strong enough to pull wagons. They can be housebroken and make good pets. Goat hair is used to make wool, including mohair and cashmere. These animals are certainly of value, particularly to those families for whom one animal could mean the difference between life and death.
So, why would Jesus compare the sheep to the goats? In many ways, sheep and goats are the same but they are very different in terms of behavior. In Jesus’ day, the sheep and the goats were separated at night, the goats put into a barn to keep warm, but the sheep preferred to stay in the field. Goats are willing to eat anything, but sheep prefer the short tender grasses and clover in the field. Sheep eat the grass to the ground, while goats prefer to just eat off the top of the plant. There are also differences in their social behavior. Goats are more curious, wandering to seek out new food sources. They are independent; they do not wander with a flock but move wherever they want. Sheep, however, flock together and become discontent when alone.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus separated the sheep from the goats. The goats go their own way; the sheep stay together. I’m not sure it can be said that sheep help one another, but they are safer and warmer in a group than the goats that wander. The people who are like sheep are those who live in community, sharing what they have with others. People who are like goats live for themselves. That’s certainly the difference between the sheep and the goats in today’s Gospel lesson. The sheep didn’t know they were caring for their Lord, but they were in the Lord’s presence when they cared for one another. The goats were ignorant of other’s needs and thus missed the Lord. This doesn’t mean that the sheep are perfect at doing good works or that the goats never share. It simply means that the sheep in this story are those whose hearts and spirits respond to the needs of others.
Until that day when Christ comes to rule the world, it might be very difficult for us to tell the difference between those who will be chosen for eternal life and those who will be sent to eternal punishment. After all, there are many “good” people in the world, people who by their own strength and ability may seem like they deserve a place in heaven. However, there is something missing in their life. For Jesus, the ones set to the left hand are those who missed the opportunities to serve Him by serving those in need. That said, are any of us worthy? Have any of us missed even one opportunity to meet the needs of a neighbor or stranger in need? Have we turned away the helpless or forgotten the imprisoned?
These questions make us stop and consider our life, an exercise we regularly do at this time of year. As the church year closes, we are reminded of the life we should be living as we wait for the coming of the Christ. Then we move into Advent to wait for the coming of the Christ child. We feel generous, perhaps because it is Christmas, but also because we’ve been reminded that the Day of the Lord will come. When He comes, He will be looking to find where justice and mercy prevails. We are more aware of the poor around us, so give to the food banks. We are well aware of our surplus, so we make donations to our favorite charities. We are reminded about how incredibly blessed we are, so we take part in projects that try to ensure a happy holiday season for others. But what happens once the holidays pass? Our generosity fades as we get back into our everyday lifestyles. We forget that their needs continue throughout the year.
As I was researching the passages for this week, I came across this anonymously written poem. “I was hungry and you formed a humanities club to discuss my hunger. Thank you. I was imprisoned and you crept off quietly to your chapel to pray for my release. Nice. I was naked and in your mind you debated the morality of my appearance. What good did that do? I was sick and you knelt and thanked God for your health. But I needed you. I was homeless and you preached to me of the shelter of the love of God. I wish you had taken me home. I was lonely and you left me alone to pray for me. Why didn't you stay? You seem so holy, so close to God; but I am still very hungry, lonely, cold, and still in pain. Does it matter?”
We are very aware of those charitable moments when we do something nice or give a donation. As we can see in this story, however, the sheep had no idea they were doing a good work, “When did we see you, Lord?” and the goats did not know they had failed, “When did we miss you, Lord?” We don’t always see Christ in the midst of our ordinary lives, but He is with us daily. Sometimes we realize that we’ve had a divine appointment when the revelation of God’s mercy and grace is made apparent to us. However, the best experiences in sharing God’s love happen without our noticing, like when we speak a word of compassion to someone waiting in the grocery line or when we share a meal with a sick friend. They do not seem extraordinary, but it is those very acts that Jesus commends. He is reminding us that we should always be ready to respond with grace and mercy to everyone who crosses our path.
Perhaps it is impossible to see the face of God in His fallen creation, but if we do not pay attention to the world around us, we might just miss the Christ we so greatly long to see. If that’s the way we live, we are just like the shepherds in Ezekiel’s day that stepped on the sheep to get fat, and like the goats in the parable that ignored the needs of their neighbors, missing the presence of Christ.
It is a very fine line we walk when we talk about our good works. We know that our salvation is dependent on the first coming of Christ: He was born to die so that we would have eternal life. Jesus’ death won for us freedom from slavery to sin and death. This is grace, and His grace is all we need to be saved. Our good works will not win us anything. But, Jesus won our freedom so that we might live and love with justice and mercy as our goal. We are born again to serve our neighbors, to do what is right and good in the world in which we live.
We are called to live in faith, trusting in our Great Shepherd’s grace as we respond to His love by meeting the needs of this world. In this way we live in praise and thanksgiving. As Christians, with the Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts, our response to the worlds’ needs comes naturally. We don’t do good works because it is that time of year, or because it makes us feel good, or even because we know we should give back. We do what we do because that is who we are. We have been transformed by faith to be Christ-like, to be His hands in the world. Your holiday charity is a blessing to someone, for sure, but our lives are meant to be in service always, no matter the time or our circumstances. Jesus might see faith in action in the next month, but we do not know when He will come again. Will He find faith in action?
The three things Paul desires for the Ephesians is “hope,” “the riches of his glorious inheritance,” and “the immeasurable greatness of his power,” and that the people might know what they are. What is hope? What are the riches about which Paul writes? What is God’s power? Unfortunately, all three of these are often misunderstood and mischaracterized. So, as we consider the coming of the King of Kings, we are asked to consider what it means to hope. What riches are we to expect? What power is from God?
What type of King are we waiting to see? He is the Son of David, but also David’s Lord. He is a shepherd, as David was once a shepherd, not strong and mighty and powerful on earth, but able to overcome all things. He is the Shepherd who does the will of the Master, and He calls us to follow Him on the same path. It is a path of justice and mercy through service, a life of faith lived out by God’s grace. While we should ask the questions and ponder this story, we need not fear the Day of the Lord or our failures because God is faithful to His promises. As we enter into the season of Advent, we would do well to consider if our life is manifesting the grace we have been given, not only in this season but all the year through.
“Praise waits for you, God, in Zion. Vows shall be performed to you. You who hear prayer, all men will come to you. Sins overwhelmed me, but you atoned for our transgressions. Blessed is the one whom you choose and cause to come near, that he may live in your courts. We will be filled with the goodness of your house, your holy temple. By awesome deeds of righteousness, you answer us, God of our salvation. You who are the hope of all the ends of the earth, of those who are far away on the sea. By your power, you form the mountains, having armed yourself with strength. You still the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, and the turmoil of the nations. They also who dwell in faraway places are afraid at your wonders. You call the morning’s dawn and the evening with songs of joy. You visit the earth, and water it. You greatly enrich it. The river of God is full of water. You provide them grain, for so you have ordained it. You drench its furrows. You level its ridges. You soften it with showers. You bless it with a crop. You crown the year with your bounty. Your carts overflow with abundance. The wilderness grasslands overflow. The hills are clothed with gladness. The pastures are covered with flocks. The valleys also are clothed with grain. They shout for joy! They also sing.” Psalm 65, WEB
Today millions of Americans will gather around their dinner tables with family and friends. After dinner, we’ll stretch out in front of the television and watch hours of football. At some point we will thank God for our many blessings, perhaps during the prayers of grace before we sink our teeth into the delicious turkeys, stuffing and pumpkin pies that have been lovingly prepared. We might even discuss the good things we have as we grumble in the kitchen or moan over stuffed bellies. It is good to remember with thanksgiving our blessings each year, to remember the good things God has done for us.
Today’s psalm is a song in which David lists the things for which he is thankful. What is on your list of blessings? Are you thankful for home, job, and relationships? Are you thankful for life, breath, health, and happiness? Are you thankful for Jesus, forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life? Are you thankful for God’s Word, for the opportunities God gives each of us to share the Gospel. Are you thankful for those who have been saved by the grace of God through your witness? Are you thankful for the trials that build us up and for the strength that God gives us to persevere in times of suffering? Are you thankful for the hope we have, the faith we’ve been given, and the joy that comes from life in Christ?
We have so much to be thankful for; we have warm homes and plenty of food. We have more than we can even list in just a day, an abundance of reasons to be thankful, all gifts which God has given out of His great wealth. Most of all, though, we have the love and mercy of our Father in Heaven, and the peace that comes from life in Christ. May we never forget that everything we have comes from God from the simplest most worldly things to heaven itself, and may we constantly praise Him for His goodness.
“Don’t let your heart be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many homes. If it weren’t so, I would have told you. I am going to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and will receive you to myself; that where I am, you may be there also. You know where I go, and you know the way.” John 14:1-3, WEB
I once saw a post that said, “The first Black Friday, sad as it was, was the best deal of all.” I have a confession to make: I like the secular aspects of Christmas. I like to shop for Christmas presents, even on Black Friday. 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. But even though I like these things, as so many others I am troubled by the pervasiveness of the worldly and greedy aspects of the holidays. I wasn’t in the stores at 6 a.m. today, but I did go out and do some shopping, and then stopped at the post office to mail packages. I spent the rest of the day decorating my house.
Christmas has become so much about presents and decorations that we forget that Jesus was born to die. Death is not a good thing. It was never God’s plan for His people. He created Adam and Eve to dwell with Him in the Garden of Eden forever. But once their eyes were opened by eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they could not partake of the fruit from the Tree of Life. So, death is a reality for every person in this world. I have known several people who’ve lived well into old age, and each of them have told me that they are ready to go home. Yet, they all take care of themselves, following doctors’ orders and doing what they need to do to stay well. I have the same attitude. We want to go home, but that’s not the way to get there.
Unfortunately, death or the threat of death is all around us. Wars and rumors of wars, disease, and violence. Oh, we’ve always tried to cheat death. We go on diets and exercise to keep our bodies healthy. We avoid things that might kill us. We try not to get run over by busses. These are good practices. It is right that we should live in a way that will keep us alive for as long as possible. Yet, there are some who seem to think that we can find a way to live forever. No matter how far science and medicine progresses, no matter how healthily we eat and live, no matter how many safety rules are put in place, people will die. And quite frankly, until the day Jesus comes again, that’s the only way we’ll find peace and true life. Too often the attitude of the Christmas season shows us that most people are more interested in living in the ways of the world. Perhaps this Christmas season can focus our attention on the reason Jesus was born. He was born to die.
Advent has become a time of preparation, but often not in the way it is meant to be. Advent in ancient times was like Lent, a time for repentance and preparation to enter the Church through baptism at Christmas. It doesn’t begin for another week, but now is the time to think of prayer and devotional practices that will help focus our hearts and minds on the reason for the season.
Perhaps this year, more than ever, we should be encouraged to clear our minds, repent and meditate, do good works for others. Most of all, we should look forward to the promise that is found in Jesus Christ. All our preparations, both secular and spiritual, are good things. They have good purpose for bringing light and faith to the world. As we go about this season of lights and presents, let’s remember that it all leads to death so that we do not fear what is natural and inevitable but rather live for today glorifying God because He has prepared a place for us. Death is just the beginning of life through Jesus Christ, the Lord for whom we wait.
“But God’s love has most certainly been perfected in whoever keeps his word. This is how we know that we are in him: he who says he remains in him ought himself also to walk just like he walked. Brothers, I write no new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which you heard from the beginning. Again, I write a new commandment to you, which is true in him and in you; because the darkness is passing away and the true light already shines. He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness even until now. He who loves his brother remains in the light, and there is no occasion for stumbling in him. But he who hates his brother is in the darkness, and walks in the darkness, and doesn’t know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. I write to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for his name’s sake. I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I write to you, little children, because you know the Father. I have written to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I have written to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God remains in you, and you have overcome the evil one.” 1 John 2:5-14, WEB
We put up our outdoor Christmas lights this past weekend. It is nice to see the bright lights popping up all over the neighborhood, particularly since it is dark so early and it has been dreary these past few days. I am still working on the inside, decorating one little corner at a time. Each display has some form of light, whether they are village houses lit from the inside or Christmas trees with twinkle lights. We also have candles, including our Advent wreath. Light is a big part of the Advent season, after all it is the season of light. Christmas decorations have been springing up all over the neighborhood as our friends are decorating their own houses. Those lights, inside and outside, are more difficult to see during the day or when we have normal lights lit; they shine more brightly in the dark.
Advent is the season of light because it is the time during which we wait for the coming of the True Light, which is Christ Jesus. He often gets lost amongst the hustle and bustle of the season. Though He is the True Light, He is not necessarily the brightest light. When our focus is solely on the other aspects of Christmas - the food, shopping, and decorating we do for the holidays - we often lose sight of the true purpose of Christmas. Advent is a time to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ, to live expectantly not only for His coming as a child, but for His coming in glory. The secular aspects of the season are not bad, we just need to remember to keep our focus on Jesus.
When Christ is our light and our life, He shines into the world so that others might see and believe. Unfortunately, at this time of year we often get so caught up in the stresses of preparation and partying that we forget that Advent is a period of waiting and watching for the True Light. He is like those special lights we set up to decorate our homes but that are useless when the sun is shining, or the bright lights are blocking their twinkle. When our focus is solely on the food, shopping, and decorating, we miss out on seeing Christ in the midst of it all and our actions are selfish, not Christ-like. Yet we are called to live in the light of Christ even as we are walking in this crazy world. We do this by living in the love of Christ, sharing it with others while we watch and wait patiently for His coming in glory.
“By this we know love, because he laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But whoever has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, then closes his heart of compassion against him, how does God’s love remain in him? My little children, let’s not love in word only, or with the tongue only, but in deed and truth. And by this we know that we are of the truth, and persuade our hearts before him, because if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things.” 1 John 3:16-20, WEB
What sort of witness are you? We have so many opportunities to share the love of Christ in word and deed. We can serve our neighbor, share the Gospel, and be respectful to strangers. Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard the expectations of Jesus, that we will be just and merciful, righteous and faithful. We have now entered into the Advent season, the time of waiting and watching for the coming of Christ, so now is a good time to think about how we live out those expectations in our daily life.
I was once talking to a non-believer who wanted to know why he should believe in Jesus. He told me stories of his experiences with Christians, stories of hypocrites who did not act as if they were changed. “They are just like everyone else.” He told of a time when he was driving on a highway. There was a speeding car, weaving in and out of the traffic, which nearly caused several accidents. He told me he was shocked to see an “I love Jesus” bumper sticker on the car. “Is that Christian love, to be in such a rush that the driver risked the lives of others?” He didn’t want anything to do with it. I have at least one friend who won’t put such stickers on her car because she doesn’t want to be a bad witness when she makes a mistake on the road. We are just like everyone else, but we have been transformed by God’s grace to glorify Him in the world.
I once read a story about a trend among some Christians. We all love to go out to lunch after church, but unfortunately, we don’t always do right by the people who are serving us or sharing our space. We are often rude, loud, and do not tip well for our demanding patronage. Sometimes we do even worse. The photo accompanying the article showed an empty dinner plate with a ten-dollar bill peeking out from beneath. The waitress was excited about such a good tip, but then she realized the truth: the bill was fake and it gave an even better ‘tip.’ It read: “Some things are even better than money, like your eternal salvation that was paid for by Jesus going to the cross.” The paper quotes John 3:16 and then gives the reader a prayer to say to accept Jesus as their Savior. The waiter who posted pictures of this ‘tip’ on a blog and said, “P.S. I have never been more atheist.”
I have shared my faith with waiters and waitresses. I have even left my card with my website address for the server. I’ve left cute gifts like an origami butterfly, tiny hearts, or Christmas ornaments. Around Christmas I like to leave a piece of candy or a candy cane. I have never left any of those things in the place of a tip; they have always been in addition to a tip. Waiters do not make a living wage; they depend on tips to live. Should this be changed? Perhaps, but if we choose to use a system, then we should abide by the system. If we go out to eat, then we should give the waiters and waitresses the tips that will make their work worthwhile. The wait staff were often thrilled with their little gifts, but I’m sure they also appreciated the generous tip.
It is especially true to do what is right if we make a point of being a witness of Jesus Christ. How much better would it have been for that diner if he or she had given the waiter a ten-dollar bill along with the encouraging message of salvation? The atheist might not believe in Jesus based on one piece of paper, but they will see that Christian is generous and compassionate, rather than as greedy and inconsiderate.
So, during this advent season, what sort of witness will we be? Will we insist that we be greeted with a “Merry Christmas” but push other shoppers out of the way to get that blue light special? Will we regift the things we didn’t like from a previous Christmas but demand that we get the hottest new products under the tree? Will we go to church on Sunday but act like Scrooge the rest of the week? Imagine if you were the only Christian in the world and it was up to you to be a witness for Jesus. Would others even know that you are different by the way you act and the words you say? Do you glorify God with all your actions, sharing God’s grace in word and deed?
Lectionary Scriptures for December 3, 2023, First Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
“For we have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteousness is like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” Isaiah 64:6, WEB
The sun set over Utqiaġvik, Alaska on November 18th and will not rise again until January 23rd. That is sixty-six days of darkness. I’ve never experienced the endless nights of the northernmost reaches of the world, but I remember what it was like in winter in England. Despite the temperate temperatures, England lies well north of the United States. At that latitude, the sun sets early and rises late in the middle of winter. The days lasted less than eight hours; the kids went to school and came home in the dark. That meant, of course, that the summer days lasted nearly seventeen hours. That is so much different than Texas where our short days are just under eleven hours.
The problem with lengthy nights and the lack of light is that it can affect the human body. We need daylight for our health. The lack of sunlight causes damage to bones, depression, heart disease, and even cancer. Vitamin D is recommended for those who live in those places where the days are short. Even in Texas the darkness is noticeable at this time of year. One friend posted a meme that said, “Every night around 10:00 I realize its only 5:30.”
Advent begins in darkness, not only because the sun sets early, but also because we have failed God. We have forgotten Him in our comfort. We have ignored the needs of our neighbors. We have followed our lusts. We have succumbed to temptation. We are sinners who live in darkness. Like Isaiah in the Old Testament lesson and the psalmist, we cry out to God to reveal Himself so that we might see Him again. We cry out for His presence in our world, even though we are frightened by His power and judgment. We know the only way we will be saved is if God comes to save. So, we cry out for Him to come, to make His name known again to the world.
The scriptures for this week help to remind us that we are entering into a time to prepare for judgment. We have talked about the Day of the Lord for the past few weeks, a time of judgment that is to be feared. Several weeks ago we asked, “Why would anyone want to rush that day?” Yet, there comes a time when we just can’t stand what is going on around us that we hope that God will do something. I can honestly say that I cry out daily for the Lord’s return. Come, Lord Jesus.
I can understand why Isaiah would write the words in today’s Old Testament lesson. The people were in darkness. They were following false gods. They were unmerciful and unjust. They were acting shamefully and had forgotten everything the LORD had done for His people. They were lost; they forgot their God. They needed something to happen that would turn them back to Him. In today’s Old Testament text, Isaiah called for God to do something shocking so that everyone would see Him and repent. Sometimes it takes something drastic to change hearts and minds. We turn to God in times of distress. Isaiah was asking God to make that happen.
Unfortunately, short days are not the only reason why people struggle during the winter months. Cold, wet weather brings on colds and flu. People struggle with finances and worry about how they will make Christmas special for their families. Others are lonely because of broken relationships or are missing loved ones who have died or moved away. Our schedules are filled with parties, but we are often too tired or stressed to enjoy them. It is no wonder that every year we think about making the holidays simpler. Sometimes our busyness means we miss out on the best part of Christmas: the expectation of what is to come.
My mother worked at a shopping mall when I was a kid; she was manager of a fabric store. I remember going with her to work on the days when I did not have school; I would run around the mall, eat at the Woolworth lunch counter, or watch a movie at the theater. When I was tired or bored, I would hide in my mom’s office with books or homework. Sometimes I helped her around the store, but I mostly went on adventures.
Not to get too nostalgic, but things were different back then. Black Friday was a very specific event; it was, literally, the official start to the Christmas season. The mall was not decorated until just before, so there was a dramatic change when it opened on Black Friday morning. Santa Claus arrived with great fanfare with a parade that began in the parking lot and ended at his workshop in the mall. The children received gifts of candy canes as they trailed after him with joy. The stores had sales, certainly, but there weren’t doorbusters to make shoppers all arrive at the same time, too early in the morning. There was excitement about the day; it was filled with wonder and expectation.
Black Friday is still considered the official start to the Christmas season, but many stores began their Black Friday sales weeks ago. Santa Claus is already in the mall, having arrived quietly and without fanfare one day. The decorations were up after Halloween and Christmas music has been playing all over the place. The Black Friday doorbuster sales meant to draw the crowds begin earlier every. I was happy to see how many stores decided not to open on Thanksgiving, and the crowds seemed to make most of their purchases online. Some articles are claiming Black Friday was a bust this year because there just weren’t the kind of crowds that there used to be. There is never any excuse for violence, but this year I didn’t even hear any stories about long lines or mad rushes.
We hear the same complaints year after year. Many denounce the early start to the commercial aspects of the holiday season and vow not to fall for the temptation. We can rant and rave about the commercialization of Christmas, the greed of corporate America, and the foolish actions of people (who are also greedy.). To be honest, I love the secular aspects of Christmas. I love to shop for presents, to decorate my home with thousands of lights, and to party all season long. I’ve watched or recorded every sappy Christmas movie. But I am bothered because Advent will slip by unnoticed, and more so than in days gone by.
Few people really pay attention to Advent. Oh, the idea of Advent wreaths has become very popular, but they are filled with things that aren’t very faith based like liquor, make-up, and socks. Churches light Advent wreaths and sing a few hymns about the long expected coming of Jesus. Some people read Advent devotional or take part in daily Advent practices. But if the Christmas season is well underway with decorations hung and music playing, how do we experience Advent as a season of light growing out of darkness? How do we realize our sinfulness and our need for God if we have already surrounded ourselves with the good things of this world? How will we ever know that we are living in darkness if our world is lit by twinkle lights?
Perhaps I’m being too literal here, since even in the “old days” Santa was in the mall and our neighborhoods twinkled with light. But it seems like there is no longer a definitive break between the seasons. We are coasting into December having already experienced so much of what set it apart. There probably won't be much difference between today and next week. We should be shocked by the reality of our need for God's forgiveness but all we will seek is the best recipe for Christmas cookies.
As we go about the business of the holidays, let us remember that Christmas does not really begin until Christ is born. Until that day we are journeying through a solemn season. This is a time for waiting. It is time for watching. We can’t avoid Christmas in the world, but we are reminded that during this time we are meant to be preparing our hearts for the coming of our King. It is a time of longing for His return, a time of considering why He had to come in the first place.
The Gospel text reminds us that we are waiting for the second coming even while we are preparing to celebrate the first. Though Christ has already come, died, and been raised, we still live in darkness. The work of salvation is complete, but it still needs to be completed. We are already there and we still wait to be there. We live in the already and the not yet. Light is in the world, but darkness still plagues us. Our text today makes that clear.
We are tempted by this text from Mark to look for the signs that are described. Many people have done so throughout time, pointing to stars, blood red moons, comets, and other signs in the heavens. They point to natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes as signs that the time is near. They use the newspaper headlines to suggest that every event points to the time when Christ will come again. Throughout history there have been times when it seemed like the warnings were about to be fulfilled.
While the day will come as He described it, Jesus is quoting Old Testament scriptures which the listeners would know very well, particularly those from Isaiah. They knew what God was promising in the warnings and they knew how to respond. It wasn’t a time to stop and watch for signs; it was a time to turn the focus on the One who promised to come again. “Stay awake,” Jesus said. He wasn’t calling us to constantly interpret the signs, but to actively live the life God has called us to live.
The world is in chaos. People are worried and afraid of what tomorrow might hold. Many are crying out to God to shine His face so that they might be saved. We are His face. We have the message the world needs. We have the gifts that will bring peace and hope to those who are lost. Each year there seems to be more reason to cry out to God. We can see suffering all around us. People are jobless, homeless, and hungry. Our prisons and hospitals are filled to the brink. Last week Jesus called us to meet the simple and ordinary needs of our neighbors. This Christmas will not be wonderful for everyone. But we can make the world a little brighter by sharing Christ in word and in deed with those who are in need.
Mark’s “Little Apocalypse” shows us how to respond to the darkness and chaos of our world. We can certainly hang Christmas lights to shine through the night and take vitamin D to remain healthy, but we are called to wait for the One who will come, to watch for the Light which will bring life and hope. We wait not only for a special day on the calendar or a baby in the manger, but also for the King of kings and Lord of lords. Here in darkness, we begin our journey to the manger, to the birth of the One who will make all things right. But while this is a time to wait and watch, it is also a time for us to live and shine the light of God. It isn’t a time to hide behind our safe walls, but to get out into the world to tell the truth: we are all sinners in need of a Savior. The baby we await and the King who will tear down the heavens to the cheers of His people is the One who will truly save us from ourselves, the One who will one day take us home.
We don't realize we have fallen asleep. There are many who say that they will keep Christ in Christmas and will commit to a humbler celebration with fewer presents and more charity. I am among them. It is good to stand for Christ and to be the people He has called us to be. But we have “fallen asleep” in the worst way possible, because we refuse to tell people the true reason Jesus Christ was born. We forget that Christmas was just the first step toward the cross and that it was our sin that required the birth and death of Jesus. We’ve stopped talking about our sinfulness. We have pointed our fingers at everyone else who has done wrong in the world, but we don’t speak the truth that we are all sinners in need of the Savior.
That’s why we begin Advent in darkness and why it is important that there be a stark line drawn as we enter into this time of year. Jesus is certainly the reason for the season, and I’m happy when I see beautiful nativities decorating the yards of my neighbors and the public spaces in my town. However, I sometimes wonder if we shouldn’t include a crucifix in our decorations to remind us why Jesus came in the first place. We all die, but He was born with the very purpose to die for us.
We will see the Light growing in the darkness over the next four weeks as we await the coming of Jesus, and we will live in the hope that He brings. That hope is not just for peace on earth and goodwill toward men, but it is for forgiveness and mercy. We have, sadly, dropped the ball when it comes to telling our neighbors why they need Jesus.
Have we stayed awake? Or have we been coasting along with the world, accepting as the truth is whitewashed to make it more palatable? Have we accepted the god the world created to appease faith while rejecting truth? Have we been fighting battles that seem important when the truth is that we’ve forgotten what really needs to be said? Are we really awake, or are we sleepwalking in a slumber that looks for signs but misses the truth?
We have learned since we moved to Texas that here football is king. Some of our local schools are competing in the state playoffs! The stadiums are full of enthusiastic fans, all cheering on their team. People who may not be interested in the games during the regular season are going out of their way to cheer on their teams. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter which team is playing, for many people it is simply about the football.
Football is a game that mirrors warfare. George Carlin, in describing the differences between baseball and football said, “In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line.” So, motivation for the team from the cheerleaders and the fans is very aggressive. They make loud noises, stomp on the bleachers and yell “Fight, fight, fight!”
In the beginning of the football game, the teams are welcomed onto the field by waiting fans that hold up a sign designed to put fear in the hearts of the other team. These signs have catchy phrases like “Squash the Rattlers!” or “Bury the Trojans!” Different organizations are given the responsibility of making the signs and holding them for the team to run through. They work for days after school painting their signs and then gather together the night of the game to hold itfor their team. The football players gather behind the sign, waiting for the perfect moment to tear through the paper, screaming their battle cry. It is almost heartbreaking to think of how much work went into those signs when you see how they are destroyed so quickly and thoroughly by the anxious football players. They punch holes in the paper and then rip through, ready to face their opponent on the field.
I thought of this when I read the scripture for today. I can almost imagine the fans in the stands screaming for the coming of the Lord while the enemy waits in expectation with fear and trembling. That’s how we want the opposing team to feel when our players come out on the field. Isaiah and the people of Israel were feeling abandoned by God. Where was He in the midst of their troubles? Why is Jerusalem in ruins?
We wonder about the same things today. Can’t God make things right? Can’t He stop the violence both at home and around the world? Can’t He send His holy angels to take care of our enemies and stop the world from hurting us and others? Isaiah realized that his cries were out of place. He blamed God for abandoning them, but He has not; He has done great things for His people, and He continues to do great things. Isaiah asked for forgiveness and reconciliation because he knew that they were paying the price for their own sinfulness. Though Isaiah at first asked God to tear open the heavens to destroy his enemy, he finally realized that he needed to seek something much different. God will tear open the heavens to bring us something much better than vengeance and destruction; He will bring us to our knees, so that we will humbly acknowledge our own sinfulness. Then God will transform His people and give us peace. When we realize we are in darkness, God will shine the Light.
Isaiah’s prayer begs Yahweh to make Himself known to them and to their enemy so that His authority is without question.
Today’s Psalm is a song of lament, and it appears to be from the time when the Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians. It is a cry to God by the whole people in a time of distress. Like the people in Isaiah’s story, these people of Israel were crying out for God to show His face to them once again. They knew that their troubles were because God had turned away. Now they sought His face, His countenance, upon them. If God shined in their world and on their lives, everything would be fine.
We can respond to trouble one of two ways. We can look into ourselves and find only despair, or we can cry out to the only one who can make a difference. Israel cried out to God. They sought His help in their needs rather than falling into hopelessness. They knew hope was found in their God, seeking the comfort of God’s presence. We too, in these dark days leading to Christmas can respond to the world in which we live with despair, or we can wait hopefully for the One who brings God’s presence into our world, Jesus Christ.
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote to people in a different time and place from the Israelites in Isaiah or us today. They were dealing with their own troubles. It doesn’t matter that our crises are not like theirs; every generation faces some sort of suffering. Every generation has worries and doubts and fears about the future. Every generation has lived in darkness. Every person from the beginning of time has had a need to cry out to God. Every generation is tempted to blame our enemies, to point fingers, to seek God’s vengeance on those who do us harm.
But as Advent begins, we are reminded that we are sinners in need of a Savior. “For we have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteousness is like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” We have forgotten God’s promises; we have stopped humbling ourselves before the One who will be our Judge.
God has not turned His face from us, we have fallen asleep. We have forgotten that we are blind; we ignore the grace that is ours because we refuse to acknowledge our sin. We look forward to the coming of Christ but seek the baby in the manger without recognizing that He is also the man on the cross who paid our debt to God. We are excited about Christmas, but do we really know why and are we willing to tell our neighbors what it really means?
We will continue to experience darkness until the day Christ comes again. But we can live in the knowledge that the Light has come and is coming. We can be a source of Truth for others. We might not always understand His plan, but as we dwell in Him daily, we will be blessed by God’s presence even when it seems like He has turned His face from us. Our lives of faith are the evidence of God's grace; we are God's people living in a chaotic world, called to point to the God who can and will make their lives new if only they acknowledge the reality of their sin.