Sunday, October 21, 2007

Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 29
Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 121
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains: From whence shall my help come? My help cometh from Jehovah, who made heaven and earth.

As I begin studying the texts for the week, I often refer back to the daily devotionals I have written just to see some of the anecdotes and stories I have used over the years with the texts of the week. It was interesting to see how many times I have referenced this passage from the second letter of Paul to Timothy. It is not so surprising since there are so many different ideas on which we can focus with these texts: the importance of the scriptures, the continuing story of God, living daily in the faith we have been given, the reliability of the scriptures, the way some people manipulate the things of God for their own benefit, the hymns that have helped us learn the Word of God, how human contact can destroy and how we block out God’s Word and listen only to what we want to hear, sometimes missing out on the grace of God.

God reveals Himself through His creation, through prayer, through other believers and we can know Him through these things. But it is by God’s written word, the scriptures, that we can fully understand and be assured that God is present in the things we see, hear and experience together. Satan is very good at being the adversary. He is well versed in God’s Word and cunningly twists it to fit his purpose to deceive and destroy. This is why knowledge is not enough; we also need understanding. God gives understanding by the power of His Spirit, but it is not handed to us. Understanding comes through word and sacrament, as we worship together and received His grace in the sacramental gifts and as we study the scriptures together regularly. The scriptures, both Old and New Testament, tell about the men and women who were witnesses to God’s grace throughout His-story. Jesus and the apostles used the Old Testament to confirm the lessons they were teaching and we use the entire bible to do the same thing. As we see study and see the connections between the Old and New Testaments, God’s word is built line upon line on our hearts, making us wise and understanding disciples.

The book of Acts tells us the story of the early Church, about those first few years as Christians learned how to live together in this new identity that came with the new covenant through Jesus Christ. The letters give us some additional details and help us see how they dealt with some of the problems they were experiencing in those early years. However, the Bible leaves us hanging. Through history has told us the fate of those apostles and the writings of the early church fathers help us to see more of the story, the Bible itself gives us a cliff-hanger. The story wasn’t finished yet. It wasn’t even finished when Paul was crucified. It wasn’t finished when the apostles all died. It wasn’t finished when the church fathers died. The story continues today. It continues in our lives and in the lives of those who have heard the Gospel from us. We are all called to be witnesses to the grace of God.

We have moved too many times. It is an exciting time, new things opportunities happening all around us, but we can’t forget to continue in the every day activities of life. As we are buried under wrapping paper and trying to find the right place for all our things we still need to eat, to clean dishes, to get dressed and to take baths. It is too easy to forget you are hungry when you are desperate to get dozens of boxes out of your way. There are times in our spiritual walk when we have an inner desire to seek more deeply God’s presence in our life. Very often during those times of extraordinary spiritual awakening people stop doing the basics of Christian faith. They stop going to church because the rest of the congregation does not understand the spiritual things they have learned. They stop reading the Bible for the joy of hearing God’s story. They have experienced the extraordinary so they reject the ordinary. Yet, as we look back on the story of God we see that He uses the ordinary to do the extraordinary, so we are called to live out our faith in the daily experiences of life.

When we were living in England, we visited the Roman wall that divided England from the barbarians – Hadrian’s Wall. One of the souvenirs I purchased was a cookbook with Roman recipes. Some of the recipes sounded like food I might actually want to eat, others did not sound very appetizing. There was a recipe for snails which described how the cook should fatten the snail in a bowl of milk and then fry it. This was a Roman delicacy. The author of the cookbook added a disclaimer that he tried to do everything to make the recipes accurate, but there were a few that the test cooks refused to try. The snail recipe was one recipe that went untried. He could not guarantee the results. When you buy a cookbook, you expect the recipes to be accurate. The Bible is much like a cookbook in that it gives us recipes by which we can live our daily lives. We know that it has been tried and tested. We can be assured that the words are true.

I learned a great deal about manipulation when I was in the management training program at Toys R Us. We learned how there are loss leaders in every story. In the toy store the loss leader is disposable diapers. This means that the store actually loses money on the item, but since the diapers are so affordable people will go there to buy them. The diapers are placed in the back corner of the store so that the customer has to pass millions of dollars of merchandise on the way in and the way out. Along the way are displays with “must have” items and incredible deals. With a young child in tow, it is usually very difficult for a mother to get out of the store with only diapers in her shopping cart. This is manipulation, but this type of manipulation is used in other aspects of life – including the church. We draw people in the doors with special programs and offer the lessons people want to hear. All too often those messages are little more than warm fuzzies, things to make people feel good about themselves. This type of message is no better than the junk we are tempted to purchase when we go to the toy store.

Martin Luther lived in a time when most people were not educated. This was especially true of religious things. The people of God were ignorant of the scriptures. They did not know or understand the faith or the church. Even the priests were uninformed. They preached messages that were not only unintelligible but they also bordered on heresy. Martin Luther was greatly distressed about the lack of biblical knowledge in his day, so he did several things to educate the people. First of all, he wrote two books. One was the Small Catechism and this was meant for families to learn the basics of Christian faith together in their homes. The other was the Large Catechism which was meant to educate the clergy in more depth about the grace of God so that they could share it with the people. The other thing Martin Luther did was to write hymns. He believed that we learn through music, so his hymns are actually mini sermons, given in a way that is memorable. As the people learned the hymns, they became part of their daily lives. As they took those hymns into their daily lives, they shared the message of hope and salvation with those who heard them. Though most Christians are not trained to give sermons, we can all sing a hymn about God’s grace in a way that will touch the life of someone who needs forgiveness and mercy.

We love to visit caves. In almost every cave that we have visited there is a place or a room that is ‘dead’ in geological terms. A cave is a living thing because as the water moves the formations that make it so beautiful continue to grow. Unfortunately, human beings have often destroyed these beautiful caves they have not understood the impact of human touch on the formations. The oils in our hands can bring a halt to growth because the calcium deposits can not adhere as the water runs off. There was a room in one cave we visited that was considered dead because there is no longer any growth. After discovery the room was used for moonshine production and as a dance hall. The ceiling is covered with soot and the walls were damaged when they built the dance floor. People also chipped away at the formations to take pieces with them because they were so beautiful. The Christian life can be as fragile as the formations in a cave, and unfortunately we often leave indelible marks on the people we touch as they are developing in their faith. Condemnation, false teaching and too much too fast can lead a new Christian down a path to destruction rather than faith. It is our responsibility to teach Christ and nothing else, or we will leave fingerprints like those that have destroyed the caves.

There was a commercial a few years ago that showed two men in a car. They were enjoying the music on their radio and lamenting how they were unable to find women to date. Meanwhile, another car pulled up beside them as they waited at the light. Two beautiful women were desperately in need of directions. They did everything they could to get the attention of the two guys in the car. The car was sound proof, blocking out the noises of the city around them. This sound proofing was meant to give the riders a sense of peace. For those two guys, the soundproofing made them miss out on the very thing that they sought. We do the same thing with our spiritual walk. All too often we listen to the teachers and preachers that tell us what we want to hear and we think we have found peace in those lessons. We block out everything else because we do not want to complicate our lives. Unfortunately, we often miss the very thing that will bring us real peace. Jesus Christ did not promise that we would always be happy. He promised that He would be with us always. By His strength and power we can accomplish all the things that He has ordained for our lives.

These eight examples are just some of the ways we can look at the lessons in the letter from Paul to Timothy. Many Christians are not prepared to take the Gospel to the world. They believe, but they do not think they understand enough about their faith to share it with others. They are afraid of doing something wrong, of saying something wrong. This is definitely the danger of having ordinary people doing the work of an evangelist. However, the Gospel was not meant to be proclaimed only by trained ministers. It is a simple message – God loves you so much that Jesus died to ensure your forgiveness and peace. It becomes more difficult when we start trying to define sin, forgiveness and peace. However, God has given us all we need to know in the scriptures. He has given us a library of books to help us deal with the harder questions that will come from those who wish to know more.

We don’t have to be manipulative. We don’t have to try to sell people something they do not need or want. We are called to simply share the love of God with those whom God has placed in our path. Living faith is not something that requires a special degree or a ministerial vocation. Living faith is taking God with us into our daily lives, continuing to worship and praise God in our homes, jobs and schools. We tend to put our faith into a box when we walk into the world, but in doing so we also hide God from a world that desperately needs His grace. God has entrusted us with a very special gift and He daily gives us the opportunity to share it. All too often we ignore the opportunities to evangelize because we are afraid, but we have nothing to fear. God is with us in our daily lives.

God is with us in our daily lives. This is an important message for us all to remember. We would rather leave God in the Temple or in our church building. We would rather control our own lives, direct our own paths. When we do so, however, we find that the path is much more difficult. Take Jacob. Jacob is an interesting, though not very likeable, biblical character. From the beginning of his life he wrestled with his brother and with the promises of God. He had struggled with his brother Esau over the blessing of Isaac and his inheritance. He had struggled with Laban over the woman he loved. He had struggled with his wives, their maids and the children they gave him. Jacob wrestled with his fears, his doubts and his place in the story of God’s people. The promises for Jacob were clear from the beginning, but he did not trust God. The voices that guided him did not trust that God is faithful. He lied and cheated and inflicted revenge on those who lied to and cheated him. He manipulated things to his benefit and ran away when the going got tough. He played favorites and served himself.

Jacob is not totally to blame. Though he took the birthright from Esau, Esau gave it away for a bowl of soup. He worked seven long years for the right to marry Rachel and Laban tricked him into taking Leah. Laban tried to take advantage of Jacob, cheating him out his rightful pay. He took matters into his own hands. Rebecca helped him take control of the blessing from his father. It seemed to her that it was necessary to do so that God’s promises could be fulfilled. Rachel helped him escape from Laban. In every situation, the actions are justified by the idea that they helped bring about God’s purpose for Jacob. However, every time we take matters into our own hands, we show our lack of trust in God. We think that God needs our help to be faithful.

During the years that he was gone, Jacob had built a dynasty for himself. He had wives, servants, children and great wealth. He heard the voice of God who told him to go home. He was afraid, but he obeyed. He sent a message to Esau announcing his return and Esau answered by coming to meet him with an army of hundreds. Still afraid and doubting God’s promises, Jacob divided his people and possessions into two groups, hoping that if Esau destroys one group the other group will survive.

Then he prayed. He prayed a prayer in which he recognized his unworthiness, confessed his doubt and reminded God of His promises. On the night before he faced his brother, he had to wrestle with his own doubts. To be reconciled to his brother, Jacob first needed to overcome all that had kept him from living as God had intended. He was a sinful man who had to face his greatest sin – his lack of trust in God. Everything he did against men, he did against God, because it was his way of ensuring that God’s promises would be fulfilled. Before he faced his past and began his future, he had to face his God.

Jacob was about to meet with Esau, his brother with whom he had been fighting for his entire life. God’s promises were wrapped up in that relationship and instead of trusting God to be faithful, Jacob had taken control. It was necessary for Jacob to wrestle with God, to understand that God is in control of his life and his destiny. He had to give himself to God, to be humbled in His presence, to recognize his own mortality before he met with his brother. He had to trust God.

We know that God is faithful and that He will be with us on our journey of faith, giving opportunities to be His witnesses by sharing His Word with those who are lost and hungering for His presence in their lives. Paul wrote to Timothy about how to discharge our duties in a way that will glorify God and draw many into a relationship with Jesus. Our calling is to take God into the world with the strength, encouragement, prayer and grace that God has provided through the body of Christ. To do so, we have to trust God.

The widow trusted God. I have often considered the widow in this story similar in character to the pesky five-year old. Those of us with children remember that age, especially those trips to the store. The store owners strategically place the things that interest children so that they will pester their mom until she gives up and gives in. The cash registers areas are filled with candy and toys so that Mom is trapped and has to endure the cries of the child.

Children can be very persistent. They ask, plead, haggle, deal, cry and beg in a matter of minutes. It takes the most unfaltering mother to keep saying “No” over and over again. Sometimes our response is just like that of the judge. We decide to give in because we know that the child will simply wear us out if we don’t. Sometimes we do so out of frustration or embarrassment. Sometimes we do so because we want to bribe the child. Sometimes we give in because we realize that they deserve a special treat. There have been times when I have weighed and measured the choices. Would it be better at this moment to teach the lesson that we can not have everything we want or is this an opportunity to share grace?

The judge had no fear of God or concern for men. He had ruled against the woman time and time again. Her opponent was probably a more powerful person, probably a man who had some power or position in the city. The woman could do nothing for the judge’s career or for his personal fortune. She could not pay him to rule in her favor. Perhaps he had received, or expected, a nice bribe from the widow’s adversary. We do not know the story behind the appeals. She was a widow, perhaps a woman who had lost everything when her husband died. She was probably left with no means of support and as a widow, a woman, she had no authority. She may have had no one to stand up for her. She was alone and she really had no choice. She had to fight.

Her fight was to appeal to the judge’s sense of justice. Though he was a man who had no fear of God and no regard for humans, he did have a sense of his position. Her constant appeals were not only annoying, but they called the attention of the community to her plight and his obstinance. He dealt with the widow much like the mother of a pesty five-year old, he gave in. “Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest she wear me out by her continual coming.”

The translation does fully convey the intent of these words. The Greek word used here means “to strike in the eye” or “to give a black eye to someone.” In other words, this judge who was a man of power and authority recognized that the weak widow could do damage to his reputation and his future. He saw that even though the widow had no wealth to pay him or power to secure him a better position, she could destroy his reputation in the community and make his job more difficult. He gave in to her cries and ruled in her favor. Sometimes human justice comes through the unrighteous motives of men.

In this story, however, we learn that God is different. Jesus does not say that God is like that judge; He shows an exaggeration of a typical human response to a situation and compares that to the reality of God’s ways. God does not have to be threatened with a loss of his power and authority to respond to human need. God is just and when he hears the cries of His people, He responds with mercy and grace. The lesson we learn is that we are called be persistent in matters of grace, to cry out to God for things to be made right in the world and with the world. God hears and He will rule in favor of grace – always. We simply live in faith, knowing that God knows what is happening and that He is working for justice. We trust God.

The psalm for today was apparently used at the end of worship during those feasts and festivals that brought pilgrims into the Temple. The community of faith sought the blessing of God as they were beginning their trip back to their homes. “Who will save us? Jehovah will save us.” The song finishes with a benediction, a invocation of God’s blessings over the community of faith as they went their separate ways. “Jehovah will keep thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth and for evermore.” God does not sleep. He takes care of His people.

The Jews made pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem. They went to the temple to make sacrifices, to worship and honor God at the special feasts and festivals during the year. It was a difficult journey. The roads were harsh and dangerous. No one knew if they would make it home alive, particularly through the hills that surrounded the city. Robbers and murderers hid in the rocky crevices of those hills waiting for travelers. The conditions of the hills and deserts were unwelcoming to the pilgrims. They took these journeys with the assurance of God’s presence. They were not making a pilgrimage to a sacred place to meet God, they knew that the only way they could arrive at that sacred place was if God walked with them.

Our daily work and our every day activities are part of our journey of faith. Through it all we can go with peace knowing that God is with us wherever we go. He does not sleep. He helps us through our struggles and keeps us in our coming and going. We don’t need to choose to take this journey in a manner that proves our worthiness to be in His presence. He loves His people and has chosen to be a part of our lives. This is why we sing such songs of praise, because He deserves our worship.

As we think about the encouragement Paul gave to Timothy, we are reminded that there is a very solid foundation to everything we do for God in this world. He has shared the stories of the grace that has touched His people throughout His-story and in those stories we learn the lessons of trust. It is comforting to know that those people who have been specially chosen to testify to God’s mercy have failed over and over again. Jacob was a sinner. He was also blessed. In the story for today he finally realized where he had failed the most, in trusting God. In the Gospel we see a woman who trusted that she would receive justice. She was persistent, going back to the judge over and over again knowing that eventually he would do what was right.

When we cry out “I will lift mine eyes unto the mountains: from whence shall my help come?” we can confess with certainty, “My help cometh from Jehovah, who made heaven and earth.” We can trust in God, for He is always faithful. We know this because He has given us a faithful witness that has stood the test of time and use by all the Christians who have come before us. The story goes on. It goes on with us. We take His grace into the world knowing that we do not go alone.

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