Welcome to the October 2020 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.
A WORD FOR TODAY, October 2020
“By reason of the exceeding greatness of the revelations, that I should not be exalted excessively, a thorn in the flesh was given to me: a messenger of Satan to torment me, that I should not be exalted excessively. Concerning this thing, I begged the Lord three times that it might depart from me. He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Most gladly therefore I will rather glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest on me. Therefore I take pleasure in weaknesses, in injuries, in necessities, in persecutions, and in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then am I strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, WEB
Alexander Selkirk was a Scottish sailor who got into an argument with the captain of the boat on which he was traveling. In September 1704, he chose to be put ashore on an uninhabited island. He was not rescued until 1709. His life inspired Daniel DeFoe to write “Robinson Crusoe.”
In the story, Robinson Crusoe discovered a bible in one of the trunks he salvaged from the remains of his wrecked ship. Reading the words of the book changed his heart. “I learned to look more upon the bright side of my condition, and less upon the dark side, and to consider what I enjoyed, rather than what I wanted; and this gave me sometimes such secret comforts, that I cannot express them; and which I take notice here, to put those discontented people in mind of it, who cannot enjoy comfortably what God has given them, because they see and covet something that He has not given them. All our discontents about what we want appeared to me to spring from want of thankfulness for what we have.”
This has been a most extraordinary year. We are extremely thankful for the blessings we have, yet we are living with a cloud of fear and anger. We are anxious to return to normality. We want to be able to go about our daily lives without the concerns of disease and violence. We want to go out to eat at our favorite restaurant and take our long planned vacations. We want to hug our friends and worship at our churches. We want to feel the peace of knowing that the military and police are available but not on high alert. We want to know that the election process will be fair and right. We want a reason to have hope, peace and joy. We want to be thankful, but some days it is hard.
Paul encourages us to be content in our circumstances. We do not know what Paul’s thorn was, and I think the reason for that is so that we can see ourselves in Paul’s situation. Perhaps Paul had a physical ailment of some sort, those who are sick can identify with Paul’s words. Some people think that Paul’s ministry was being attacked; many can relate to that experience. Yet others think the thorn is spiritual, perhaps a demon or some sort of temptation that tormented him. We all face temptation, so we look to the Word of God for comfort in those times. “My grace is sufficient for you,” He says, even in our struggles.
May God bless us this day with a reminder that even in the direst circumstances, His grace is sufficient for our joy to be complete. I pray that whatever thorn we face each day, we can face it with contentment and live in thanksgiving for all our blessings from God instead of wanting something different. We will see that God is ever present in our hardship in our thankfulness. He is indeed stronger in our weakness. This day, praise God from whom all blessings flow and rejoice in your circumstances whatever they may be.
“But the end of all things is near. Therefore be of sound mind, self-controlled, and sober in prayer. And above all things be earnest in your love among yourselves, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, employ it in serving one another, as good managers of the grace of God in its various forms. If anyone speaks, let it be as it were the very words of God. If anyone serves, let it be as of the strength which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.” 1 Peter 4:7-11, WEB
I saw a meme the other day. It said, “Normalize telling your friends that you love them. Tell them a lot. Make it weird.” The meme made me laugh because I could just imagine some of my friends going overboard with the making it weird part. It is good to tell our friends that we love them, though I confess that I am not always comfortable saying the words. It doesn’t make the reality any less, but I suppose that I don’t need to work at making it weird, sometimes it just feels weird. I like to find other ways to share my love with my friends.
This is good, too, because sometimes words become meaningless when they are overstated. There’s always some regular at the local bar who loves everyone, especially after he’s had a few pints. I had a relative that constantly told everyone that she loved them, though at times it was obvious that she was saying the words without feeling the feeling. The Bible is clear that we can’t tell our neighbors that we love them while also gossiping behind their back or working against them in other ways. Love must be more than words.
Henri Nouwen is quoted as saying, “Dare to love and to be a real friend. The love you give and receive is a reality that will lead you closer and closer to God as well as those whom God has given you to love.” Notice here that love is more than words or even feelings. Love is action.
Here’s the thing: we often speak the words but ignore the person because they do not live up to our expectations. They hurt us. They disagree with us. They act in ways that make us angry. We know we are to love them, but it is hard to love the unlovable. What we often forget is that we are unlovable, too. We have to recognize in ourselves the things that make it hard for us to be loved.
I have been hearing more and more about loving one another in the past few months. We know this is necessary. We know we need one another. “We are all in this together” we say. Yet, if you spend any time on social media or watching the news, you’ll see that there is definitely not so much love these days. It seems we can’t talk to our neighbors with civility, and even worse, we are unwilling to do anything to help them. We say that we love them because we know that God insists on it, but our actions or inaction speaks much louder than those words. When we truly love them, not just with words and feelings but with action, we will discover a deeper and fuller relationship with God.
Action doesn’t necessarily have to be active. Sometimes loving someone means just being with them. It means listening to their worries and fears. It means holding their hand. It means celebrating their achievements. It means laughing at their jokes, even if they are terrible. It means making your presence in their life apparent. I have friends that say they love me, but I rarely hear from them. I suppose I probably have friends to whom I seem absent, too. So, while it is important that we tell our friends that we love them, let’s make sure we do so with more than words. Our love for God will build through our love for one another; our love for neighbors will build through our obedience to God who is calling us to love those neighbors in word and in deed.
“For Moses writes about the righteousness of the law, ‘The one who does them will live by them.’ But the righteousness which is of faith says this, ‘Don’t say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” (that is, to bring Christ down); “Who will descend into the abyss?” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead.)’ But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth, and in your heart;’ that is, the word of faith which we preach: that if you will confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart, one believes resulting in righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made resulting in salvation. For the Scripture says, ‘Whoever believes in him will not be disappointed. For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, and is rich to all who call on him. For, ‘Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in him whom they have not heard? How will they hear without a preacher? And how will they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the Good News of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!” Romans 10:5-15, WEB
I once read an article a few years ago with the headline “Area is being besieged by butterflies.” The writer began the article, “If it seems the tiny winged creatures meeting a messy demise on your windshield are a bit more striking than the usual bug carcasses, you’re not alone.” I recall having seen a butterfly or two in my yard, but I didn’t think there was anything out of the ordinary, until I went out of the house. As I drove that day, I noticed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of those small butterflies. It is the American Snout Butterfly. When they come, they come abundantly.
They are back. There are pockets where the insects seem to be swarming. The butterflies keep fairly close to the ground and appear to be dead leaves blowing across the street. The appearance provides protection for the butterfly, hiding it from its predators. My car was a mess by the time I got home from a meeting the other day; I must have hit a hundred that day. It is hard to avoid them, and to be avoided, when driving 70 mph on the highway.
These butterflies are migratory, and at times the sky can be thick with them. Here is some information from Wikipedia, “These migrations are thought to be triggered by droughts followed by heavy summer rains: the droughts reduce a parasitoid that would otherwise limit butterfly populations, whereas the rains induce the spiny hackberry to grow new leaves which provide food for caterpillars. Furthermore, whereas the droughts send the butterflies into a sort of hibernation, the rains bring them out of it all at once to lay eggs, causing a population explosion.
The other day my husband showed me the weather app on his phone. It showed light rain. He reloaded it several times because it didn’t make sense. The sky, which in Texas goes on for miles, was absolutely blue with not a single cloud in the sky. We thought there must be something wrong with the weather station that was reporting to his phone. That evening during the weather forecast, the meteorologist showed that the radar had some ground clutter showing up. “Those are the butterflies,” he said. We realized that the butterflies must have been abundant enough at the weather station to trigger to app to report rain.
They seem to come suddenly. Did I see any butterflies before they were reported on the news? I don’t know for sure. I don’t recall seeing so many that they would show up on radar. Then I drove home from my meeting and they were everywhere. The year of the article, I wondered if I had noticed the butterflies before I knew what they were. I may have noticed what I thought were blowing leaves, but it wasn’t the right time of year. I might have thought the leaves were from a dead tree. But then I read the article, I became aware of the butterflies and I saw them everywhere. Now I know what they are when I see them.
The author of the article interviewed a biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department about the butterflies. The biologist said that he’d been receiving calls about swarms of these butterflies. Of course, the department was able to provide an explanation for the phenomenon: the weather provided the perfect conditions for an explosion of new butterflies. By virtue of his job, he is more aware of these situations than the average person. So, he provided the information the general public will need and when the information is heard, others become aware of the butterflies. Should we have noticed them, too? Yes, perhaps. However, we needed someone to draw our eye to the butterflies to even notice them.
Those of us who know the Lord Jesus can’t imagine what life would be like without Him. We wonder at those people who are able to live day after day without some relationship with God. We can’t fathom the atheist who claims there is no God, especially when we see a perfect rose, a brightly colored rainbow or feel a cool breeze on a hot day. We see God’s hand in the coincidences that seem to occur at just the right moment in just the right place to answer our prayers. We see Him in our relationships, in our worship, in our lives as we walk forth in faith. So, we can not understand how they do not see Him also.
Yet, even as we do not understand how they do not see Him, do we show them? When I read that article, I did not believe that there were so many butterflies, but almost as soon as I walked out the door I could see that it was true. Those who hear us speak about the Lord may not believe when they hear. They may not even believe a week, a month or years after they heard. However, once they know that God is there, it is hard to miss Him. Eventually they will realize that the things they see are not simply dead leaves blowing across the street, but rather that they are the living, loving God of creation. Sharing the Word is not easy. We face persecution, rejection and broken relationships. But how will they know if we do not tell them?
“Beloved, don’t be astonished at the fiery trial which has come upon you to test you, as though a strange thing happened to you. But because you are partakers of Christ’s sufferings, rejoice, that at the revelation of his glory you also may rejoice with exceeding joy. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed; because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. On their part he is blasphemed, but on your part he is glorified. For let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or an evil doer, or a meddler in other men’s matters. But if one of you suffers for being a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God in this matter. For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God. If it begins first with us, what will happen to those who don’t obey the Good News of God? ‘If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will happen to the ungodly and the sinner?’Therefore let them also who suffer according to the will of God in doing good entrust their souls to him, as to a faithful Creator.” 1 Peter 4:12-19, WEB
John Foxe wrote, “In the Gospel of Matthew, we read that Simon Peter was the first person to openly acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God and that Jesus, seeing God’s hand in this acknowledgment, called Peter a rock on which He would build his church - a Church that even the gates of hell would not be able to defeat. This indicates three things. First, that Christ will have a Church in this world. Secondly, that the Church would be persecuted, not only by the world, but also by all the powers of hell. Thirdly, despite its persecutions, the Church would survive. The whole history of the Church to this day verifies this prophecy of Christ. Princes, kings, and other rulers of this world have used all their strength and cunning against the Church, yet it continues to endure and hold its own. The storms that it has overcome are remarkable. I have written this history so the wonderful works of God within the Church will be visible to all who might prophet from them.”
These words are found in the book “Acts and Monuments of These Latter and Perilous Days Touching Matters of the Church” otherwise known as “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.” John Foxe lived in 16th century England, a time of bloody battles over religion. He was a professor at Magdalen College in Oxford until he converted to Protestantism, became an Anglican priest and became friends with Hugh Latimer, William Tyndale, and Thomas Cranmer. When Queen Mary took the throne and ordered that England return to Catholicism, John Foxe fled to Switzerland. While there, he learned of the martyrdom of his friends Latimer, Tyndale, and Cranmer. He became obsessed with the idea of writing down the stories of the men and women who had perished for the faith of Christ.
The book was first published in 1563 in Latin, then translated to English when Foxe returned to England. By 1570 it had been expanded to two volumes, 2315 pages. Copies of the book were kept in churches near the bible and read during Sunday worship. The Puritans were inspired by the stories as they were read aboard their ships to the New World as they fled their own persecution. As we read the stories of the saints in Christ who died at the hands of the enemy, we are reminded that life in Christ is never easy. There are some today who think that once you are a Christian, you will never face suffering of any sort, but Jesus never said it would be easy.
In Jesus sermon on the mount, one of the Beatitudes talks about joy in the midst of suffering. Jesus warned that we would be persecuted as He was persecuted. Over the millennia since Jesus died on the cross, many have died at the hands of men for the sake of the Gospel. Nearly all the apostles suffered painful and humiliating deaths. Stephen, the first martyr, was stoned to death. Latimer, Tyndale, and Cranmer were burned at the stake in Oxford. Today it is estimated that more than 100,000 Christians are killed for their faith, and hundreds of millions are persecuted in other ways each year.
Though most of us have no idea what it is like to face such horrible persecution, we can rest assured in the promise that God will be with us when we do suffer at the hands of an enemy for the sake of the Gospel. Even when we seem to be the scum of the earth to the people of the world, God has made us a royal priesthood, citizens of heaven. It is true that life in Christ is not easy; we are not guaranteed worldly happiness and prosperity. Life in Christ is often hard, but the blessings are incredible. Blessed are those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are merciful, who are pure in heart, who are peacemakers, who are persecuted, for God is with you and He is faithful to His promises.
Scriptures for October 11, 2020, Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:4-13; Matthew 22:1-14
“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a certain king, who made a wedding feast for his son...” Matthew 22:2, WEB
I am planning a women’s retreat that will be next weekend for our church. The theme is Jesus. I know that Jesus is an awfully broad topic, but we have several aspects of His life and ministry that we’ll be covering in our time together which will hopefully act as a catalyst for getting to know Jesus better after we go home. We are going to talk about how we see Jesus, the names He is called, how He defines Himself, and we will answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?” We are also going to have several prayer stations that continue the learning.
One prayer station includes a large wooden cross. It is made with plain two by six inch pieces of wood. There will be band-aids at the station on which to write our pains, hurts, worries, fears, and even sins and then we will stick those on the cross. There will also be colored markers available to write words of praise and thanksgiving to God for His mercy and His graciousness. The point of the station is to give Jesus our troubles and to thank Him even before we know the answers to our prayers for help, trusting that God will take those band-aids and make things right for us.
We always talk about how Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins, but Jesus took more on His shoulders than just what we have done wrong. He took all the brokenness of the world. He took death, illness, fear, and worry. He took our troubles because the source of our troubles goes all the way back to the Garden when Adam and Eve stopped trusting in God’s Word. Jesus took everything that makes this world imperfect and overcame it so that one day those of us with faith will dwell in that perfect Garden with Him forever.
We will use the band-aids for the things we want Jesus to help us overcome and markers for our thanksgiving and praise because band-aids are temporary, but the ink will never fade. The troubles we experience in this life might seem to last for a long time, but they are temporary. They may end in death, but with faith in God and trust in Jesus, we will enter into that eternity that they have promised to us.
Eternity is going to be amazing. All the brokenness will be gone and we will be whole and restored to a perfect relationship with God. There will be no more tears, no more dis-ease, no more fear or worry. We will praise God constantly, singing Alleluia with the whole company of angelic hosts and all the saints from all time. We will rejoice always.
It isn’t so easy to rejoice always right now, is it? We have so much happening in our world that is causing us grief. We are afraid, not only of dis-ease, but of the future. We can’t talk to our neighbors without getting into an argument about politics. The streets in too many cities are more dangerous than ever. We are cut off from others in too many ways: distance and quarantine have made it difficult to gather with our loved ones and our brothers and sisters in Christ. The masks and other safety recommendations keep us from being able to have any physical contact. We may not even realize how much we are struggling with these things, but it is affecting many people’s lives. Suicide is up, depression is up, and people are getting in ways that have nothing to do with the virus. Too many people are not happy, and it is manifesting in anger and hatred.
Yet, there are those who have found joy even in the midst of all our troubles. Have you ever known anyone who was perpetually happy? Have you known one of those people that no matter where they are, no matter what is happening in their life they have a smile on their face? In the movie “Sister Act” starring Whoopi Goldberg, Kathy Najimy played Sister Mary Patrick, an upbeat nun who helped Sister Mary Clarence (Whoopi) find her place in the convent. Sister Mary Clarence was actually Delores Van Cartier, a Las Vegas headliner who was in hiding because her boyfriend had threatened her life. The convent life was far from Delores’s comfort zone and no matter how temporary it was to be, she needed people to help her adjust.
In one scene, Sister Mary Clarence and Sister Mary Patrick were sitting together, chatting about their lives. Slightly annoyed by the constant giddiness, Sister Mary Clarence asked Sister Mary Patrick if she was always so happy. Sister Mary Patrick answered, “Yes” and said that her mother thought she would grow up to be either a stewardess or a nun. Most of us look at people like her with the same annoyance as Delores. We can’t imagine always being happy. It is exhausting to be with them, how much more exhausting must it be to be them?
Yet Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, Rejoice.” Always is a very long time. Sister Mary Clarence seems to have found that place where she seems to be always rejoicing, but I don’t know many people who can get there. We go through a whole range of emotions, sometimes in just minutes. Even as we watch the movie “Sister Act” we experience fear, worry, sadness, hope, doubt and happiness. We react to the experiences of those characters on screen and we respond with smiles as well as tears.
However, rejoicing need not manifest merely as giddiness. Sister Mary Clarence has that kind of happiness even in tough times, because she knows God is in control. We can rejoice even as we cry tears of pain and doubt because in this passage Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord.” This is different than mere happiness. This is living out trust in God and responding to the world with a steadfast faith that is visible to the world. It does not mean we have to smile at all moments, but it means standing firm in the promises of God knowing that He is faithful. It means praising God even in the midst of the pain and trouble that we experience. It means being thankful, even when it seems like there is nothing to be thankful for, praising God before we see the answers to our prayers.
Sadly, this letter was written by Paul in part because two fellow co-workers for Christ were at odds. We don’t know why Euodia and Syntyche were fighting, but these types of battles seem more common than ever these days. Each is passionate about their opinion and is willing to fight for what they believe to be right and true. That is certainly true right now in the United States as politics has divided our nation. Many are divided over religion, also, even Christians. Perhaps Euodia and Syntyche had differing opinions about certain doctrines of faith or the direction of the new and growing Church. It would be impossible to find full agreement in the pews of our churches today, let alone between church bodies.
But Paul says, “Be of the same mind.” Does this mean that we have to agree fully about every detail of our faith? Some might think so, but Paul goes on to talk about rejoicing in the Lord. We have differences because God has created us as unique individuals, we can be of the same mind, praising God in all circumstances, even when things are not going so well. We can share the peace of God as we dwell in the love of God in Christ Jesus, instead of dwelling in our differences. As Paul writes, “whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report: if there is any virtue and if there is any praise, think about these things.” Jesus Christ is all this, and in Him we can rejoice together, singing praise and thanksgiving to God.
We can thank God for His mercy and grace even in the midst of our troubles because we know that God has already made all things right. We just go by a different calendar than God; we are bound by space and time, but God is outside our limitations. And He is faithful to His promises. This is why we can rejoice always.
The retreat has taken a great deal of preparation. I’ve had to figure out a theme, ask people to help, assigned tasks. We’ve had to purchase supplies and create materials. We have had to think through the unique needs of having an event during this time. We have had to work out details with the venue and arrange for transportation. We’ve been working on this for the past few months, and it hasn’t always been easy. The ladies will not know all the work or the struggles that have gone into planning and preparing; they will arrive at the retreat and experience it with joy and peace.
Isaiah 25 begins with a hymn of thanksgiving in which the singer praises God for the things He has done, and for planning them long before there was ever a need. God knew at the beginning that His people would need Him. He knew they would fall. He knew they would be overcome. He knew they would face terrible enemies. And He promised to be faithful. He promised to protect them against the storm and the heat of the sun. Knowing that God has promised these things and that He is faithful, God’s people can go forth in faith even through the storms.
Even now, as we live in a time of fear and confusion, as we wonder what tomorrow will hold, we can sing the hymn of thanksgiving because God is still faithful. We can look forward to a day when things are better, knowing that it might not be comfortable or perfect for the moment because we will face times of trouble, but God is in control. He is with us and He can see beyond the moment. He has great things planned for His people and He will not allow us to be destroyed. There is a feast waiting for us, a feast we will enjoy in the day of the Lord. Our salvation is waiting for us on the other side of our fear and pain. Knowing this, we walk through the times of trouble with faith, praising God for all that will be because He has planned it and He is faithful. The band-aids will be removed, and the praise will remain forever.
Living a life of praise and thanksgiving to God is a life which Paul says will be without worry. Trusting in God’s promises, we look toward tomorrow with peace and joy rather than fear and doubt. Perhaps this is a message that is most relevant to our time today. After all, we are looking at a world that seems to be collapsing and we do not know what is going to happen that we walk with fear. And while I doubt that God is planning a financial takeover of the world banks, I do know that God is in control of the world which He has created. Even if times get frighteningly bad, we can look to Him for peace and hope.
Paul writes that we should rejoice always. It is difficult to rejoice when we do not know what is going to happen tomorrow, but we do not face our troubles alone. “The Lord is near.” This promise is the foundation of everything we do today and always. As someone once said, “Worry is unconscious blasphemy.” Worry is self-centered. When we worry we focus on our own inability to handle the problems in the world. It makes us and our works the center of our attention. Worry is the opposite of faith. Instead of worry, we are called to live in prayer and thanksgiving, knowing that God is able.
The guest at the banquet who refused to put on the gift is like the person who worries. The worrier does not recognize that God is near, that He has offered something of great value worth rejoicing always. This is certainly easier to type in words than to exhibit in actions, yet Paul gives us suggestions of ways to begin. Do whatever is honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and commendable. Think about that which is worthy of praise. Follow the lessons learned from those who have walked in faith before us. As we do these things the peace of God will be with us. The peace is with us anyway, because where God is, His peace follows. But as we live in praise and thanksgiving, we will experience that peace and rejoice. We might even bring some hope to our neighbors and change the world by sharing that peace.
We have all probably attended a banquet or two in our time. We like to hold banquets to celebrate all sorts of milestones and accomplishments. When Bruce was in the military we attended banquets for promotions, to thank volunteers, and for days of prayer. We’ve been to school and sports banquets with the kids. There are often banquets at church to celebrate anniversaries or transitions. Who hasn’t attended a wedding banquet?
I went on a tour with an organization when I was a teenager; we visited many cities around our state so that we could introduce our group to places that might benefit from having a chapter in their town. We were fed well during our trip, hosted at banquet feasts every day by the local groups who invited us to visit. We mostly ate ham; ham is easy to fix and at that time it was relatively inexpensive. The side dishes that go with ham are easy to prepare for large groups. The food preparers did well, the food filled our bellies and we appreciated the effort. As with much banquet food, however, it was never fantastic and we were all a little tired of dry ham and lukewarm side dishes by the end of our tour.
What are your memories of the banquets you’ve attended over the years? We were thankful and filled at those banquets so long ago, but they were typical of what I think about a banquet: long lines at buffets with empty trays when the food runs out or plates that were obviously slapped together in an assembly line. It is hard to serve hundreds of people at the same time. That’s why groups choose ham and au gratin potatoes.
How can God possibly serve so many a feast so great? He can because He is God. He will be celebrating the marriage of His Son. This will not be like any wedding any of us have ever attended. This is the consummation of all His promises, the fulfillment of Christ’s work in the world as His bride the Church is made fully and completely one with Him. Death will be swallowed up, tears will be dried. We will have reason to celebrate and this feast is not a party that will end; it will last for eternity as we dwell in heaven with our Father and our Lord Christ forever.
Today’s texts have images of banquets, and in them we are reminded of the eternal feast that God is preparing for us in heaven. As we think about how hard it is to feed a few hundred people, we can’t imagine the feast that God is preparing. It will be a feast for all who have waited for God’s salvation.
Isaiah writes, “Behold, this is our God! We have waited for him, and he will save us! This is Yahweh! We have waited for him. We will be glad and rejoice in his salvation!” Those who believe in Jesus will receive blessing from the Lord, salvation from our Savior. We will see the day when mourning is turned to joy. We will feast at the victory table. Jesus overcomes even space and time by drawing all believers past, present and future into His body the Church. Jesus is the resurrection; He is our hope and life. He has overcome death and the grave and in Him alone is our hope for salvation.
The wedding feast promised in our scriptures is for Christ and His Church. We know that ultimately God’s salvation is meant for all people, just as we see in the passage from Isaiah, but the invitation was first given to Israel. The scriptures foretold of the time when the Messiah would come. They were given the signs and promises; they knew what they should be looking for. The prophets came and spoke the warnings and the promises, but the people ignored and even rejected them. Matthew’s texts over the past few weeks have shown how God’s people have gone their own way, following their own wants and desires rather than God’s Word. They killed the prophets, and in last week’s lesson Jesus predicted that they would even kill the Son.
At that word, the chief priests wanted to arrest Jesus but they were afraid of the crowd. Jesus extended the conversation with a parable about heaven, taking the message of Isaiah to the next level. Heaven will be a banquet with fine wine and rich foods, served for those set free from the oppression of their enemy. The ultimate enemy is death; Jesus would overcome that enemy through His death and resurrection. He was about to fulfill God’s promises by setting the world free to be welcome into the heavenly banquet.
Isn’t it amazing how patient and purposeful He is with His people? Even as they were trying to find ways to arrest Jesus, He was still trying to help them see the truth.
The invitations went out, and like those who said “Yes” in the parable a few weeks ago but did not do what they promised, the guests accepted the invitation but refused to come. More servants were sent and ignored. Like the tenants in the vineyard, some of the invited guests even killed the king’s servants. In both the previous stories, the recipients of God’s promises were those who were deemed unworthy of God’s grace because they proved faithful in the end. The same is true in today’s passage, where the king rejected those who rejected him and invited anyone willing to come. “Go therefore to the intersections of the highways, and as many as you may find, invite to the marriage feast.” The servants went out and invited all those they found, good and bad. The wedding hall was full.
The people in our stories from Matthew over the past few weeks - the son who said yes but did not do the work of his father, the tenants who thought that they deserved the vineyard so they killed the son, and today’s guests who ignored or rejected the wedding invitation - did not trust in God. They trusted in themselves, in their own rightness. They are like those today who still ignore and reject the God who has offered salvation to all who believe. Unfortunately, in today’s passage we learn that there are some who accept the invitation but not the gift. They are the ones who are part of the Church but who have not truly accepted the free gift of God’s grace. They think that they are there according to their own works and righteousness. This is why it is so important to remember that we do not earn God’s grace but in His grace we are called to live accordingly.
In ancient days, the host of a banquet gave clean robes to the guests. The people had traveled far on dusty roads; the robes were given so that the guests would feel fresh and clean for the feast. Rejection of the gift was disrespectful to the host, just as a rejection of Jesus Christ is a rejection of God’s grace.
The wedding garment here has nothing to do with the clothing we wear. It is the righteousness we wear. The robes of the priests and the leaders were a sign of their position and authority. It was also a sign of their piety. But the robe given at this wedding banquet is not self attained by good works or human effort: it is the righteousness that comes from Christ. The warning in this text is for those who think they can attend church but hold on to their own ways. It is a warning to the hypocrites who claim to be faithful but live faithless lives.
See, the wedding robe represents the righteousness of Jesus Christ, the righteousness we receive by faith in Him. We can’t be right with God without Jesus, but God Himself has given us the robe to cover the filth of our sinful natures.
We might think that the guest was cast out because he had not changed his ways or repented of his “grime,” but the robes did not remove the dust and dirt from the road. It was simply covered by the wedding garment. The guest without the robe was still a sinner, but so were all the other guests. It isn’t the act of wearing the robe that made the guests clean. Every person given the robe is still covered in the grime of sin and death, but the wedding garment given by the host makes them clean. We are simultaneously sinners and saints. The guest was not cast out because he was grimy and dirty from the road, but because he rejected the gift that had been given.
Euodia and Syntyche were fighting about something that was probably insignificant. We’ve all been there, though, haven’t we? It seems these days that we are even more a divided people, unable to agree about much, even the color of the carpet. Our brokenness is obvious. Each side is passionate about their opinion and are willing to fight for what they believe to be right and true. Paul encourages us to approach our relationships differently.
Instead of worrying about tomorrow and arguing about insignificant details, let us remember that Christ has called us to be one in Him, of the same mind. We won’t agree about everything, but there is something about which all of us can agree: He has given us the gift of His own righteousness, a robe to wear over our dirty and grimy selves. We are drawn together into a banquet of unlimited grace, a feast that has been promised in eternity but which we can enjoy even today. And as we wait, we join in the chorus of our forefathers who knew the words of praise and thanksgiving to sing to experience the peace and joy of living in God’s presence. They failed, as we all fail, with dirty clothes under the garment of grace. But when we feel like we should worry, like there’s nothing else for us to do, let us remember to sing and rejoice and we’ll forget about the fear and pain because we will know that God has already made all things right.
“‘You are my witnesses,’ says Yahweh, ‘With my servant whom I have chosen; that you may know and believe me, and understand that I am he. Before me there was no God formed, neither will there be after me. I myself am Yahweh. Besides me, there is no savior. I have declared, I have saved, and I have shown, and there was no strange god among you. Therefore you are my witnesses’, says Yahweh, ‘and I am God. Yes, since the day was, I am he. There is no one who can deliver out of my hand. I will work, and who can hinder it?’” Isaiah 43:10-13, WEB
I’m reading an historical fiction novel right now that is set in England around the turn of the first millennium. Things were different in those days, though many of our modern practices were just being tried and developed in the villages and hundreds. When someone was accused of a crime, the people gathered in what was called a “thing” to hear the case and decide the guilt or innocence of the perpetrator and the punishment due. The theigns were appointed by the king and commanded to be unbiased. This is all well and good until the accused was related to the ruler.
Unfortunately, that’s what happened in my book. A man of high position in the church was abusing his power by counterfeiting coinage. The bishop had been appointed by the theign; he was also the theign’s brother. So, despite irrefutable evidence, the bishop and theign manipulated the thing and convinced the people who were assembled that the bishop was innocent. Another was found guilty and punished and the kangaroo court ended up giving the bishop more power than he had previously. I have not finished the book and I hope that true justice will win out in the end, but so far he has gotten away with many crimes against God and man.
During the thing, the accuser and accused have “oath helpers” to testify to the evidence. These witnesses take an oath to tell the truth, doing so by placing their hands on the relics of a saint. Books, even Bibles, were not so readily available at that time. The saint was believed to be present in those relics and any lies after an oath taken in their name was thought to anger the saint and cause spiritual difficulty for those who did not tell the truth. Sadly, the oath helpers in my book on the side of right have been the ones to suffer so far. It is difficult to agree to be an oath helper because it is possible that the accused will seek revenge, as has happened in my book.
The Lord God Almighty, who was, is and will be, has placed great value on the human soul. Not only did He come in the flesh, to live and die so that we will have eternal life in Him; but He also has chosen you to be a witness to His greatness. God, our Lord and King, has called you to be His oath helper, testifying about Him before those who are against Him. You may not think you have anything to say, however your story testifies to the love of Christ. It can be frightening, too, to stand up for God against the world because the world will retaliate. We can do so without fear, however, because we know that God will make all things right in the end.
Trust in God as you journey into Today. Remember His presence is with and in you. There is nothing in this world, either physical or spiritual, that can take Him away from you. As you walk in His light, shine for all to see. Tell your story, be a witness and remember that the human souls to whom you speak are valuable to God. Treat every person with the same love and mercy that God has given to you.
“Now Yahweh said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, and your relatives, and your father’s house, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. You will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who treats you with contempt. All the families of the earth will be blessed through you.’” Genesis 12:1-3, WEB
I took a bunch of old athletic shoes to the Nike store a few years ago. Nike has a program that takes the old sneakers, sends them to a processing plant and recycles them into something new. The shoes are separated: rubber, foam and fabric. The parts are cleaned and ground up into tiny pieces, which are then used to create different surfaces. The recycled material is used in track surfaces, gym flooring tiles, playground surfacing and other consumer products such as new footwear outsoles and trim items like buttons and zipper pulls. Some of their newer products are including shoes and clothing are made from recycled materials.
Along with the recycling program, Nike has also established a program that gives matching grants to help youth-oriented programs build and refurbish running tracks. More than 1.5 million shoes are being recycled yearly by the program, keeping those sneakers out of the landfills and providing good materials for play spaces for athletes and kids.
I gave eight pairs of shoes. Those eight pairs wouldn’t do much good, but those eight pairs are part of something bigger. A little bit helps a lot. Sometimes we wonder what we could possibly do, especially when the problems seem so big. How can one person feed hundreds of hungry people? How can one person clean up the garbage in the rivers? How can one person change the world? Unfortunately, the answer is that one person usually can’t make those big changes that are needed. However, if each individual took eight pairs of sneakers to the Nike Store, the impact could be huge. It is huge, because obviously thousands of people are recycling their sneakers each year.
Abraham was one man, but God called him to a new life and promised that something incredible would come from it. That one man’s faith has blessed millions of people over the past few thousand years. It may seem impossible, but the same can be true of our faith. We don’t think we could possibly make a difference as an individual sharing our faith. And yet, if we share the love and grace of God with just one person, and they come to know the redeeming forgiveness that we receive through Jesus Christ, they will be transformed into something new. Then there are two. Soon there are four, then eight, then sixteen or more. As each new person is drawn into the heart of God, the world will slowly be transformed into something new. One word becomes part of something much bigger.
There are many things we can do to be responsible in this modern world. Recycling our sneakers is just one. We each can be part of the transformation, even if it is a very small part. God has given us gifts and He calls us to use our resources to bring transformation and reconciliation. Each one is unique, each calling individual. If we do what we can do, instead of doing nothing because we don’t think we can have an impact, we’ll see the world changing before our very eyes. But let us never forget that we have been blessed to be a blessing, not only in the physical universe, but also in the spiritual lives of our neighbors. If we take just a moment to share Christ’s love with someone who needs to feel His embrace, we might just see God glorified in the most magnificent way. After all, look what has become of Abraham and his faith.
“For then I will purify the lips of the peoples, that they may all call on Yahweh’s name, to serve him shoulder to shoulder. From beyond the rivers of Cush, my worshipers, even the daughter of my dispersed people, will bring my offering. In that day you will not be disappointed for all your doings, in which you have transgressed against me; for then I will take away out from among you your proudly exulting ones, and you will no more be arrogant in my holy mountain. But I will leave among you an afflicted and poor people, and they will take refuge in Yahweh’s name. The remnant of Israel will not do iniquity, nor speak lies, neither will a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth, for they will feed and lie down, and no one will make them afraid.” Zephaniah 3:9-13, WEB
Penn and Teller are my favorite magicians. Well, I am not sure that they can be called magicians, even by their own admission. The magicians in the world disclaim them, saying that they ruin the illusion by giving away the secrets. Penn and Teller are often considered the greatest liars because once their secrets are known you can see that the tricks are not illusions but lies. But that’s their point. They want to show how magicians really are just great liars.
I remember watching one illusion where the small guy, Teller, was placed in the path of the left hand tires of an eight-wheeler. The truck drove right over him; there was no way the man should have survived. At the end of the show, Penn explained how the trick worked. The tires on the left side, the ones that ran over Teller, were foam props. The truck remained upright because it was counterweighted on the right side, keeping it balanced. That, in itself, is an amazing trick, but the illusion itself was a lie.
Penn and Teller created a television show called “Penn and Teller Tell a Lie.” During the hour, they told seven stories about some unusual fact. They used video, experts, real time experiments to prove whether or not the facts were real. The problem was that one of the seven stories is a lie. They told the story as if it were true, everything they used to prove it were fake. In one episode, they told the story of a zoo keeper who was attacked by one of the tigers during feeding time. The video showed the tiger maliciously aiming for the man’s neck, while another zoo keeper looked on helplessly, knowing for certain his co-worker was a dead man. Then you saw the zoo keeper stick his fist into the tiger’s mouth, punching the back, sending the tiger reeling away. The expert explained, from an official looking room, about the tiger’s gag reflex because he’s a meat eater. Video showed the attack from every angle on the zoo’s cameras.
In the end, the whole story was a lie. The zoo keeper was actually a tiger trainer and the tiger was one of his trained animals. The expert was an actor. They made the story look convincing; they made all the stories look so convincing that it was impossible to tell which one was not the truth. It wasn’t until they showed the clues that they put into the story that we chuckled at how gullible we were to have believed the story. They actually made it pretty clear that the story was fiction, even showing us the same tiger in a picture from a movie in which he was a star! The famous trainer should have been recognizable in the close-up interview. The live feed from the zoo cameras showed one frame that was not even in a zoo.
The first episode was difficult because we didn’t really understand the premise. We didn’t realize at first that one of the stories would be fiction. We thought they were proving or disproving a bunch of stories. Once we knew how it worked, we began watching more carefully. We searched out their clues, considered their stories with a more focused mind. Now, I don’t really approve of building something on a lie, but then what television shows are real anymore? I have to admit that I looked forward to the challenge of discovering Penn and Teller’s secret. It was good practice and strengthened the mind to discover the truth and the lies that surround us every day. Though the premise of their show is about a lie, Penn and Teller always end with the truth. And though we may face lies all our lives, the truth will ultimately win, because God is truth and God has won the victory over all falsehood.
“For this cause, I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, that you may be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner person, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, to the end that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be strengthened to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and height and depth, and to know Christ’s love which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to him be the glory in the assembly and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.” Ephesians 3:14-21, WEB
A motivational speaker said, “Stuck in a creative rut? Try this: Look to your left and focus on whatever random object is there; then think about how your life or your problem is like that object. It’s a simple exercise, but it can help get your creative juices flowing.” While I am not stuck in a creative rut, I am always looking for inspiration for these devotions. As it happens, when I look to my left, I spy a wall filled with a couple dozen crosses: my cross wall. Lots of people have them; I love my wall.
I have crosses from all over the world. There is one made with Belgium lace. Another is from Mexico, bought by my daughter during a mission trip. There are a couple Celtic crosses, one from Peru, many that were given as gifts. There are crosses made of wood, metal, beads and ceramics. Some are simple, others are extremely ornate. There are a few other things on the wall, some angels and lilies. There is a Welsh love spoon and some inspirational poems. A few of the items are things I created myself.
In the center of this wall of crosses is a picture that Bruce and I bought many, many years ago. It is a portrait of Jesus, an incredible black and white pen and ink image glued to a wood plaque and sealed with varnish. What makes the picture amazing is that the image is not drawn with lines or shading, the artist created the image with words. The picture is made using the Gospel of Luke. Slowly and patiently the artist copied the words, perfectly readable (with a magnifying glass.) The picture is created by changing the distance of the letters, so where it is darker the letters are close together and lighter when the letters are spread farther apart. You can’t tell that the picture is made of words from a distance, but it is mesmerizing to hold the picture and read the words with the face of Jesus in their midst.
When I read the article, I knew that the object I would see when I did the exercise would be my cross wall, and I began thinking about the question of how my life was like that wall. On another day, however, I wondered: “How has the object changed my life?” How has the cross of Christ changed my life? As my eyes fell on that picture of Jesus, I asked myself, “How is my life different because Jesus is a part of it?”
It isn’t as easy to give an answer to those questions as you might think. There is no way of knowing what my life would have been like if I weren’t a Christian. I don’t have one of those sudden conversion stories where I can talk about life before and life after faith. Jesus has always been there for me. I know in my heart that my life is better because of Him, I just can’t say how. I only know that I am certain that my life would be empty, missing something, if I didn’t believe.
I suppose there are those who want me to have a ready answer to the question; after all, we are called to witness the grace of God to the world in which we live. Those who do not yet believe want to know how their lives would be different if they had faith. They want to know what Jesus is going to do for them. They want to know how the cross can bring the kind of change that we Christians claim. If we can’t tell them what kind of change it brings, how will we ever convince them that it does?
Here’s the thing: it isn’t up to us to convince them. We are sent out into the world to tell them about Jesus. Part of that, of course, is telling them how a relationship with Jesus Christ has impacted our lives. However, it isn’t about what Jesus did for me, or even about a different life. We can’t even guarantee that their life will be different or better. As a matter of fact, sometimes faith makes life more difficult. Even the promise of eternal life has little sway over someone whose life is out of control.
While there might not be a moment to which I can point that says, “I was one person then and another person now,” I know that God is constantly transforming life to be conformed to His. The best I can do is to tell them the story of Jesus. I can tell them that I find comfort and hope and peace in my worst times because I know that Jesus is there in the midst of it all. And as I tell them the story of Jesus, and live in the faith that God has given to me, He will speak faith into their lives, too, until they see how Jesus fills the empty places and gives them what they have been missing.
Scriptures for October 18, 2020, Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96:1-9 [10-13]; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
“I am Yahweh, and there is no one else. Besides me, there is no God.” Isaiah 45:5, WEB
Most of us probably have a quarter in our pocket or purse that was minted as part of the State Quarters Program. The first quarter was from Delaware and was released in January 1999 and the rest were released every few months in order of statehood. Since that day a new quarter has been released every few months in order of statehood. The front of the quarter still bears the likeness of George Washington, but the back has pictures of those things that are identified with the state and the date of statehood. Georgia has a peach. New York has the Statue of Liberty. Kentucky has a racehorse. Texas has a star for the Lone Star State and a rope representing our cowboy heritage. Arkansas has a diamond.
It is fascinating to see what people consider most important. If you are unfamiliar with each state, the pictures might not make sense. After all, what does Arkansas have to do with diamonds? There is a state park in Murfreesboro Arkansas where you can mine for diamonds. Actually, it is a field where you can dig in the dirt for natural gems. Apparently somewhere below the surface of this field is a source of gemstones, including diamonds, which rise to the top of the soil. For a few dollars admission, you can go prospect for gems and keep everything you find, including the diamonds. They even have a sluice for removing the dirt to reveal any stones. People have made amazing finds, including the Uncle Sam Diamond, the largest diamond ever discovered in North America. It was a total of 40.23 carats. Just a few weeks ago a man found a 9 carat diamond, one of the largest ever found.
Most money, if not all money, includes a picture of someone special. British money has a portrait of the reigning monarch. It is interesting to see how Queen Elizabeth’s portrait has changed over the more than sixty years she has served. Other monarchies also use pictures of their ruler. United States currency generally honors former U.S. presidents and other historic personalities. One dollar coin has the picture of Native American Sacagawea. The coins also include statements about foundational beliefs about the nation and symbols of things important to its people. In America it would be impossible for Jesus to say “Give to George Washington what is George Washington’s” because George Washington is no longer alive. I suppose that is why we do not put pictures of living men and women on the currency and coins. The money does not belong to our leaders; it belongs to the people.
We choose those pictures because those are men and women who were important to our history, just as the pictures on the state coins are important to the people of those states. They mean something, they are identifying marks. They are, almost, the things we idealize or even idolize about the place we live. We don’t take the literal understanding of the commandment that says “no graven images” as seriously as they did in Jesus’ day. It is impossible for us to live in a world without money. It is part of our society, a part of our existence. We no longer barter for the things we need. We need money to survive. They even used money in the Temple, but had special coins that were used for the Temple tax. That’s why there were moneychangers in the temple complex. The coinage was offensive because it had a graven image. It had an image of the Caesar who was not only the leader of the Roman Empire, but was also considered divine. We don’t pay much attention to that detail because for us it is natural to have a few coins in our pocket, but the Jews should not have had a Roman coin.
We tend to view this scripture as a statement about separating Church and State, and yet there is something deeper and much more important about what Jesus is saying here. The phrase that stands out is “Give to God what is God’s.” Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees and their council was brilliant because it turned the tables. They thought they were going to catch Him one way or another: either He would upset the Romans by telling the people not to pay taxes, or He would upset the people by telling them they should pay taxes. He did neither. He told them to give Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God. In other words, they were to give the idol back to the idolized and give God everything that is good and right and true. For everything belongs to God. When we remember that, we see that even the government is given by God, not as a divine representative of what He wants to accomplish, but as a divinely appointed servant for a particular time and place. Good and bad, God is in control of our world and we can live in trust knowing that in the end everything will be as He intends.
This is especially important for those of us in the United States as we get closer to the upcoming election. We have the right to vote for our chosen representative, but sometimes the one we think will do the best job is not the one who is elected. We wonder how God could allow that other candidate to win, but God has a plan bigger than today or tomorrow. Sometimes He chooses someone we don’t expect because He is going to give them a work we do not know needs to be done. If the opponent of our choice wins the election, we need to trust that God is doing something that will make things right in the end, even though it doesn’t make sense to us. We need to trust that God is big enough to know more than we do and small enough to care about each of us as individuals.
A well-known English deist, Anthony Collins of the seventeenth century, was walking one day when he crossed paths with a commoner. “Where are you going?” asked Collins. The man answered that he was going to church to worship God. Collins wondered whether the man’s God was a great or a little God. The man answered, “Both.” Collins did not understand how that could be. The man answered, “He is so great, sir, that the heaven of heavens cannot contain Him; and so little that He can dwell in my heart.” Collins later declared that this simple answer had more effect on his mind than all the volumes he had ever read about God, and all the lectures he had ever heard.
In Isaiah we read, “I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil. I am Jehovah, that doeth all these things.” We are terribly bothered by this idea that God creates evil. There are many who would claim that they cannot believe in a God that would create evil, that He is only capable of goodness and love. That’s why so many people are bothered by the Old Testament and the revelation of God that is found there. They are bothered by war and suffering, which fill the pages of the Old Testament, often as ways which God is communicating with His people. The exile was given by God’s hand to His disobedient people. How could the God of love found in the New Testament stories be the same God we hear about in this passage?
How could God choose a foreigner to be His anointed one? The word used here is Messiah or Christ, and Cyrus plays the role of the deliverer of God’s people. Though he does not even know the God of Israel, God has called him to gain salvation for His people. This doesn’t make sense to us because we want to define God according to our own needs and expectations. We want Him to be all light and no darkness, compassion and no discipline, mercy and justice as we characterize it.
How do you describe God? In today’s society, there are many different ideas about the nature of God. So many people are looking to fill the hole in their souls, a hole that can only be filled by the One, True and living God. Yet, if you visit the spiritual section of any secular bookstore, you will find large displays of books that teach different ideas about God, even the belief in many gods. There are religions that make the things of creation - nature, materials or man himself - to be gods. The limited ability of human beings to understand the vast truth about the LORD causes us to look for explanations in the things we can see. But God tells us the Truth in His Word.
God is everything He said He is and does what He said He does, although there is a difference between what we see in Old Testament and that which we see in the New Testament. That difference is that Jesus Christ the Messiah who was promised in the Old Testament came in flesh to establish an everlasting covenant based on His blood. He came to reconcile God and His creation, giving those who believe in Him the gift of the Holy Spirit so we can seek His face and understand His nature. He is both big and small: bigger than creation, but small enough to live in our hearts. He is so big that everything must submit to His authority, but He humbled Himself and became flesh in so that we can know Him intimately. And while there is still darkness amongst the light, we have the promise that the Light has won the victory and that one day we will see, know and experience God fully and completely.
Wherever we are and whatever we do, God is with us. We live in a society where our religious and faith beliefs do not keep us separated from the world in which we live. We have to follow secular laws, deal with non-Christian people, respect leaders who might not have the same ideology as we follow. I don’t usually talk about politics in these devotions, because that is not the purpose of my writing. A WORD FOR TODAY has always been written to help the readers see God in their everyday life and recognize His voice that comes to us through the world in which we live.
We sometimes forget that God can speak through people who do not agree with us. If He can speak His word to someone through a donkey (Numbers 20) then He can speak to us through people who do not believe as we do. Cyrus was not a Jew. He was a pagan whom God chose to serve His will. Cyrus delivered the Jews out of exile; he was for God’s purposes their messiah at that time and place. God was in control and God chose a foreigner to do what His people could not, or would not, do. Jesus did not tell the people to pay or not pay taxes, He reminded them that everything belongs to God.
Kristen Wiig was one of the regular players on the show “Saturday Night Live.” She played many different characters, including an excitable clerk at the Target store who is always annoying the customers with chit chat and trips from behind the register to go pick up items for her. The New York Times wrote this about Kristen, “Kristen Wiig has become a household name on ‘SNL’ by playing outrageous versions of people we’ve all had the misfortune to encounter.”
One of my favorite, but equally repulsed by, characters is Penelope a woman who feels that she has to one-up everything that everyone says. If another character says that they had a baby, she had twins. If another character says that he speaks four languages, she speaks twelve. By the end of the skit, Penelope has disclosed some of the most bizarre and disturbing claims to the people to whom she is speaking. My daughter said the whole character freaked her out.
We all know a Penelope, although hopefully not as extreme as the character on the television show. We all know the guy who thinks he knows it all and the woman who has accomplished everything possible, and perhaps we all have a bit of Penelope in us. There is a video by John Crist showing two neighbors one upping each other with political signs to the point of absurdity. We try to one-up our neighbor because it makes us feel more important. In doing so, we make ourselves seem much less, even petty. By the end of the skit, Kirsten’s character Penelope is seen as a ridiculous person, a joke. So do we when we insist on raising ourselves above our neighbors instead of lifting them up with praise and encouragement.
The psalmist writes, “For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but Yahweh made the heavens..” We make so many people in our world idols - sports stars, singers, models, even politicians - but the definition of the word ‘idol’ is less than flattering. Merriam-Webster says an “idol” is “a representation or symbol of an object of worship, a false god, a likeness of something, a form or appearance visible but without substance, an object of extreme devotion, a false conception.” Not only are the gods of the nations less than our God Jehovah, they are nothing. We make our idols, including our own selves. But that does not mean we are greater than our neighbor, even if our one-upmanship is true. Even if we did have more babies or speak more languages, we are not greater than our neighbor, and we are far less than our God. Especially when we look at all He has done.
There is no way we can one-up the Lord. That’s why we are called to sing His praise. He has done great things. He has brought salvation to His people. He made the heavens. That’s something, and Someone, to sing about.
As a parent, it was always my hope that my children heard my teaching and that they would remember when they went out on my own. I wanted to seal them when they walked out the door. Each day when they were younger and still at home, I wished them a good day and that I said I hoped they would make good choices as they go out into the world. I told them to be careful, to have fun, to do what is right. When they were headed to a special activity, I added an appropriate word of encouragement or instruction. Even as adults I still try to remind them of things we’ve talked about, lessons we’ve learned. They might think I am a nag, but I really just want to put a seal on the things I want them to remember. Did they listen? I can only hope so, but I can trust that the lessons they’ve learned are written on their hearts and in their heads and that they will do what is right and good.
Paul had taken the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the people of Thessalonica and they received that message. They gathered together as a community of believers and were growing in grace and hope and faith. Paul could not stay with all the communities he began, but he kept in touch with them through letters and through helpers who visited the congregations and sent word to Paul wherever he was staying. The Thessalonians were doing well. Timothy had sent a good report to Paul and Paul was pleased to hear the good news. There wasn’t good news in every community. Some people preaching another Gospel followed Paul into his communities, speaking against Paul and telling the people something completely different. There was a similar threat in Thessalonica.
They were holding strong, but Paul did not know how long they could last. Would they remember the lessons he taught them? Would they keep the Gospel of grace or turn to another gospel message? Would they believe the lies being told about him by those opposed to his message? Paul did not know what might happen next, so he wrote a message of thanksgiving and encouragement to the congregation. He put a seal on the people so that they would not fall from grace and turn to a faith built on works and self-righteousness.
So, too, we are encouraged by these words as Paul lifts all those who have heard the Gospel and received God’s grace to a place where we will stand firm in what is right no matter the circumstances we face. Our hope is in Jesus Christ and we are called to live the life of faith that rests in His promise and His forgiveness. Paul called the people of Thessalonica “imitators” of the apostles and of the Lord. We saw that continued through generations of Christians, into those who were our mentors. We are now the next generation, sharing the Gospel with our children and our neighbors, imitating what Paul first lived so that the world might see God’s grace. We, too, are sealed so that all we do and say are firmly founded in Jesus Christ.
We are called as Christians to live in trust and hope. Whatever happens, we can trust that God is in control. We live in hope, not in individuals or even the government, but in God’s promises. Good or bad, our life of faith will keep us focused on what is good and that is God. We may be nervous, frustrated, anxious and possibly angry, and we won’t agree with our neighbors what is good and bad in our world. But we can sing to the Lord that new song, the song of thanksgiving that He is with us through it all.
We live in a world that requires we deal with people and situations we might not want to experience. We are called as Christians to live in trust and hope. Whatever happens today, tomorrow or on Election Day, we can trust that God is in control. If our guy wins or loses, God can make His will happen through it all. We live in hope, not in individuals or the government, but in God’s promises. Good or bad, our life of faith will keep us focused on what is good and that is God. We may be nervous, frustrated, anxious and possibly angry, and we won’t agree with our neighbors what is good and bad in our world. But let us remember to join together as we sing to the Lord that new song, the song of thanksgiving that He is with us through it all. He binds us together not on our hope for the world, but on the hope that He brings through faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you, that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? If you only greet your friends, what more do you do than others? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Matthew 5:43-48, WEB
Early voting has begun in Texas and I went this week. The lines were long around the city, including the polling place I visited. It seemed longer than four years ago, but with physical distancing it didn’t really take any longer. I waited in line for an hour. It is Texas and we are having above normal temperatures right now. The sky has been absolutely cloudless for days. For most of that hour I stood in the sun, waiting for my turn. I was smart enough to spray myself with sun block. Some others were even smarter; they brought umbrellas to keep the sun off their heads. One lady even brought a chair with her. She expected to wait for several hours, and felt silly having the chair since the line moved rather quickly.
One of the earlier voters recognized the danger of standing in the sun for so long and kindly went to the grocery store, bought a cheap cooler, some ice, and a case of water. They were concerned that someone would become overwhelmed with the heat and need water to stay healthy. Most people didn’t realize the water was there, so it was being unused. The women acting as security at the door announced there was water and asked if anyone wanted some. She ended up giving away everything that was left.
I remembered that I had bottles of water in the trunk of my own car, so when I finished voting I told the security woman that I was going to drive up to the curb and donate it. It was even hotter when I finished than it had been when the previous people brought water. It was a simple act, but one that could be lifesaving to someone facing heatstroke in the heat. I was thankful for the example of the people earlier in the day, and I hope that others continue to bring water for the voters who come to vote during the rest of the election.
The thing I realized as I drove away is that I had no idea for whom my fellow voters were going to vote. I confess that can get frustrated with the signs in my neighbor’s yards for my guy’s opponents. I cringe when I read comments from the other side on social media. I pray that my guy will get the most votes because I believe that he (all my candidates) will do what is best for the nation. Yet, I can’t hate those who are hopeful for the opposite. There are days I may want to, but I can’t because my Lord Jesus taught me to love. That means helping them when there is a need.
Martin Luther wrote, “When you believe in Christ, your heart becomes clean... So your entire life will reflect what’s in your heart.” Our life will reflect the goodness, mercy, and love of our Lord God Almighty. This will manifest in action, not only for those closest to us, but to those who seem to seek our harm. This is not just a surface love with words, but a deep down love of action. We were an enemy to our Lord Jesus Christ, because we were not obedient to the Word of God. Yet, He willingly died so that we would have eternal life. When we believe in Christ, we reflect that same love. Jesus told us to be perfect, as God is perfect. Believe in Him and His perfection will be reflected in you.
“Therefore watch carefully how you walk, not as unwise, but as wise, 16 redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Therefore don’t be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Don’t be drunken with wine, in which is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; giving thanks always concerning all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to God, even the Father; subjecting yourselves to one another in the fear of Christ.” Ephesians 5:15-21, WEB
Most school programs like to include some sort of creative classes. My kids attended a school which required some sort of fine art as an elective. Some students focus on more practical classes like those found at a vocational school. Car repair, home economics, woodworking, graphic arts are creative in their own way. I focused on art through High school and college and learned many different techniques from my teachers. I enjoyed some and hated others, but then the whole point of these classes is to find ways to reflect our creativity and discover our talents. I still have many of my projects and I’ve used much of what I learned in my art in these later years.
One teacher taught us how to batik. This is a technique of dying cloth. The colors are applied in layers, from lightest to darkest, creating an image. Wax is applied between layers to protect the lighter colors. After all the cloth has been died with all the different colors, the piece is ironed to remove the way, leaving behind a beautiful picture on the fabric. One of the most fascinating things about batik is that the wax sometimes cracks, so tiny lines of darker dye make interesting patterns in the picture.
In this technique you must do everything backwards. Backgrounds tend to be darker and foregrounds lighter, so when painting with oil or acrylic, the artist tends to begin dark and then highlight on top with the lighter colors. This gives the painting dimension, especially when an object is painted over its shadow. A highlight will stand out even more if it is added to the painting last. With batik, however, the coloring must be done from light to dark. If you use the darkest color to dye the cloth first, you’ll never see the lighter colors. Yellow would be completely lost because you can’t dye a black cloth with a lighter color.
With each layer, more and more of the cloth is covered with wax. By the time the artist reaches that last layer of black, only small areas are exposed to the dye – details or outlines. Not much is needed, because the rest of the cloth is covered in brightness and color. In these days, when there seems to be so much darkness and evil abounds, we tend to focus on the negative and become sad thinking about the suffering. Some find an escape in alcohol or drugs. Others try to change the world by preaching hellfire and brimstone. Still others find earthbound solutions by waging war with bombs and guns. In these days, there seems to be little joy or peace.
Life with God is an upside down world. We should begin with singing and praise, with the light. We should not turn to alcohol or violence to solve the problems in the world. Instead we should turn our thoughts toward praise and thanksgiving. Rather than drugs we should be filled with God’s Holy Spirit by spending time in prayer. Rather than war, we should humble ourselves and serve our neighbors. We don’t find peace and joy living as the world expects us to live. We find peace and joy by living in God’s upside down world, where light comes first.
“Since many have undertaken to set in order a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us, even as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having traced the course of all things accurately from the first, to write to you in order, most excellent Theophilus; that you might know the certainty concerning the things in which you were instructed.” Luke 1:1-4, ASV
Just as there were those who did not believe in Jesus in His day, before and after the resurrection, there are still those who have rejected Him. These are those whom He defeats, one by one, heart by heart. His Word breaks the hardness in their hearts until they too see the reality of God’s grace. How can we not give thanks and praise Him as we recount the good things He has done. How can we be silent? How can we not share this Good News with others?
The song “I love to tell the story” talks of telling the story of Jesus, because the more it is told and the more it is heard, the more wonderful it is. The singer is so grateful for what God has done, that he or she can’t help but tell it to others. It doesn’t matter who is listening: it is sweet to tell the story to those who have never heard the message of God’s salvation, but even those who know it need to hear it again and again.
Whenever something big, or exciting, or devastating happens in the world, some journalist is always the first to jump in with information, even if they don’t have all the facts. They want to be first. They want to be the one to be remembered for reporting the scoop before everyone else. Over the years there have been famous scoops that went all wrong. Reporters have posted election results, proclaiming one candidate as the winner when the votes were barely tabulated. Other reporters want to be the one to reveal something spectacular about a criminal. It isn’t unusual. It happens all the time. And yet, jumping the gun has ruined people’s lives.
It is so easy to get information these days, but that information is not always correct. With the Internet, a reporter can easily google a name and come up with stories that might be true about someone, but not necessarily about the person you mean to google. Take, for instance, if you googled the name Joe Smith because he was arrested for a terrible crime, you would find there is a basketball player, an actor, a baseball player, and a musician. That is just the famous people. Perhaps we would not confuse these famous folks with the Joe Smith that was arrested, but there is also a link for a local architect. What if I said that Joe Smith the architect was the murderer? Unfortunately, because they want the scoop, because they want to be the first, they often report the wrong information, hoping they are right. They will withdraw the statement if they are wrong, but by then it is too late and the man’s reputation has been damaged.
The Joe Smith who is wrongly linked to the crime finds himself inundated by calls. People pull their business even though he’s not in jail for murder. His phone is compromised by crank callers or people who want to harass a murderer. Joe Smith the architect must change his phone number and then work very hard to prove that he is not the criminal. His life can be ruined, and it won’t be fixed by a quick apology after the report has reached the world via the Internet. It is impossible to make that misinformation disappear. Joe Smith may never recover.
It is emotion that makes us jump the gun. We want to be in the middle of the excitement, to experience the rush of being the first. Even those of us who are not journalists want to join in the frenzy. We gather around the water cooler and relay the reports we have heard. “I heard that…” and we supply the same information we’ve heard. Unfortunately, it is usually hours before we know anything of substance. I often wish that reporters would wait an hour before they even tell us something has happened, because the first information is always wrong. They death count is usually too high. The details are confused. They spend hours collecting all the information and eventually we get the story straight. Until then, we have nothing but emotional outburst and confusion.
Christianity is often seen as a religion of emotion. We believe, which is not something that comes from the head, but the heart. And yet, as we see from this text from Luke, our faith is not just emotion. We are called to be like Luke, carefully collecting the information so that we can talk about matters of faith with our heads as well as our hearts. Christianity is a religion of reason. We can talk about our differences, discuss what things mean. We can study the words and the experiences and seek understanding. Luke didn’t want to write a book filled with misinformation. He wanted to give Theophilus the story as it is, not as he assumes it will be.
How many times do we jump the gun when it comes to matters of faith? We react with our hearts, with our emotions, without really studying what the scriptures have to say about a matter. Unfortunately, when we begin to put out messages about faith that do not line up with the Word of God, it is very hard to retract them. Heresy has existed from the very beginning, and it wasn’t just people wishing to lead God’s people astray who promoted those thoughts. It was well-meaning Christians who responded to situations with their hearts, without truly using their minds to understand what God intends. And so, as we face so many difficult issues inside and outside the church, let us reason together and seek to know the truth of God.
“The king of Israel said to Elisha, when he saw them, ‘My father, shall I strike them? Shall I strike them?’ He answered, ‘You shall not strike them. Would you strike those whom you have taken captive with your sword and with your bow? Set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink, and go to their master.’ He prepared a great feast for them. When they had eaten and drunk, he sent them away, and they went to their master. So the bands of Syria stopped raiding the land of Israel.” 2 Kings 6:21-23, WEB
Oswald Chambers once wrote, “It is perilously possible to make our conceptions of God like molten lead poured into a specially designed mould, and when it is cold and hard we fling it at the heads of the religious people who don’t agree with us.” While I can undoubtedly claim that I’ve been the victim of many such flinging, I am equally certain that I have flung my share of religiosity at those who disagree with me. It is not pleasant to argue about the character of God and it is ridiculous that we even try to put God into a mould. He is much greater than even our imaginations can muster, higher than our minds will ever reach.
Our understanding of God comes from our experience of Him. A child raised by atheist parents will not know God in the same way as one who grew up in a Christian home. Those who have experienced only the negative aspects of a religion will not see God as good, but will see only the stories in which He seems cruel without seeking to understand the reason those stories are in the scriptures. Even those who claim to be open to growth and learning have a bias that will affect their image of God. One woman sees God as only loving, that sacrifice was never God’s intent. Another sees that He is a strict disciplinarian and that He will only love those who are obedient to His Word.
What I have realized is that no matter how much I think I know about God, there is so much more for me to know. No matter how many times I have read the scriptures, it seems like there is something new to be found. Stories that I have read before have a whole new meaning as I read them again and again.
The books of Kings and Chronicles are filled with stories about the relationship between God and Israel, between the kings and the prophets and the people and their enemies. Israel was often at war, usually because they have turned from God. The prophets spoke God’s Word to the kings. Those who listened found favor with God, those who ignored suffered from the hands of their enemies.
In one such story, Israel was being attacked and Elisha received word from the Lord where the enemy was establishing camp. They were trying to ambush Israel, but Elisha always warned the king which places to avoid. The enemy king thought he had a spy in his household until he learned about the prophet. Then he sent his servants to get Elisha so that he could be killed. When the army surrounded Elisha’s home, his servant was afraid and did not know what to do. Elisha prayed that his servant would see the heavenly host that surrounded them that day. “Don’t be afraid; for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Elisha then prayed that the enemy army would be blinded, and they were led into Samaria. When their eyes were open, the army of Israel surrounded them. This is an amazing account of God’s power and the trust that His servants have in His promises. The story ends in a strange way, not as we would imagine. Though God’s people could have destroyed their enemy, God had another plan. God’s ways are higher than our ways.
Oswald Chambers said that we bash others with our image of God. That doesn’t always mean that we will fight them boldly with words. Sometimes we bash the others who are our enemies by hoping that God will destroy them. In this story about Elisha, the king was ready to beat them with the sword. But God did not destroy the army, He commanded Israel to feed her enemies and let them go. This act of mercy caused them to see the power of God and to leave Israel alone for a season. They knew that God was with the Israelites and that He was unbeatable, so they lived in peace in fear and awe of Israel’s God. It did not last forever, another generation of enemies sought to destroy God’s people.
We will disagree with many about our faith because we see God with very narrow vision. Yet, He is more than we can imagine, greater than we can describe. We are called to simply live within His mercy and grace. We all have molded God into some image that fits our experience and biases. Yet, we must remember that God can’t fit into our molds, that we should never take our image of God and fling Him at those who seem to be our enemies. God calls us to feed them and send them on their way so that they will see something new and perhaps grow in faith and trust of a greater, higher God than they knew before.
Scriptures for Sunday, October 25, 2020, Reformation Sunday: Revelation 14:1-7; Psalm 46; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36
“If therefore the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” John 8:36, WEB
We were supposed to go to Germany this past May, but the trip was canceled. The main purpose of the trip was to go to the Passion Play in Oberammergau, but the trip included visits to the most famous places connected to the man Martin Luther. We were to see his Wittenberg, Torgau, Leipzig, Eislebaun, Erfurt, Wartburg, and Coburg. There were a few other stops included, and we were really looking forward to it. The pandemic canceled our trip, but we are rescheduled for next year. We will miss the Passion Play because it has not been rescheduled until 2022, but I was most interested in walking in Luther’s footsteps. We were given homework for our trip, to get to know the man Luther and the places, events and people associated with Him. He is fascinating. I could spend hours telling you about things I learn from those books, but the focus on this writing is on the grace he learned to embrace and then share.
It is always a struggle to decide what to do when I get to this Sunday’s lectionary. I know that a majority of my readers are not Lutheran. As a matter of fact, I’m sure some of you disapprove of Martin Luther and the Reformation. Many of you may not know much about him or the impact he had on the world. Some will even suggest that focusing on a man and his movement is taking our attention from Christ and His grace. Yet, the story of Martin Luther is a story of grace, the story of a man who loved Jesus.
Reformation Day is when we remember how Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses on the church door. The end result, unfortunately, divided Christians, but Luther’s impact goes well beyond the Church. He is often listed as one of the top ten most influential people in history, and is considered by many the most influential of the last millennium. The world was beginning to change when Luther appeared on the scene, but he was a driving force that brought many of them to fulfillment.
There were other reformers. There were other translators. There were other musicians and composers. There were other writers. The printing press had already been invented. Some have suggested that the world would be completely different without the impact of Martin Luther. One writer said that the United States would not even exist without him. I don’t agree. We may credit Luther with changing the world, but he would say that it was God who did it through Him. And God could have used anyone. He just chose to use Martin Luther.
When he began his career, Luther followed the ways of the religious world around him which suggested that human beings were capable of earning salvation. This caused him incredible difficultly because he saw that the more he tried, the less he deserved God’s grace. It is often said that he lived through “the dark night of the soul” during this period and came close to despair.
He took his job as a professor very seriously and as he delved more deeply into the scriptures as he prepared for his classes. He even went so far as to learn Greek and Hebrew so that he could translate the texts from the original. His understanding of salvation changed dramatically, and thus revealed to the world the true Gospel, as he taught through the book of Romans. He realized that we can’t earn our salvation; he realized that human beings will always tend toward selfishness and self-centeredness. He grasped onto Romans 3:28, “We maintain therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law,” and in that verse found the key that set him free from the despair that nearly sent him to hell forever. Christ and Christ alone make Christians “perfectly whole in hope.”
Martin Luther said, “Sin boldly.” He did not mean that we should go out in the world to purposely sin against God and man. He meant that if, as you are living in this sinful and fallen world, you have to sin, do so boldly knowing the grace of God. The whole statement is “Sin boldly but believe more bolder still.” In other words, if you have to make a decision to do something that is less than good, do so with the knowledge that forgiveness is ours through Jesus Christ our Lord.
In his book about Martin Luther, Martin Marty wrote, “He makes most sense to me as a wrestler of God - indeed, as a God-obsessed seeker of certainty and assurance in a time of social trauma and of personal anxiety, beginning with his own. However you choose to explain his life, it makes sense chiefly as one rooted in and focused by an obsession with God: God present and God absent, God too near and God too far, the God of wrath and the God of love, God weak and God almighty, God real and God as illusion, God hidden and God revealed.”
God seems contradictory, doesn’t He? Perhaps one of the hardest contradictions for us to grasp is the fact that God is both love and wrath. We prefer the God of love, but where would He be if He did not also chastise those He loves? After all, that’s what the wrath of God is about. Wrath isn’t simply vengeful anger or retributory punishment as we describe it; God is the Holy One and His wrath is about making things right. Through His wrath He makes His people righteous. The whole point of Christmas is that He sent His Son who was the One on whom His wrath fell for our sake. God’s opposites are not contradictory, but rather encompass the wholeness of His character; God loved us so much that He took the wrath upon Himself.
Unfortunately, we see things from our own perspective, a perspective that is miniscule compared to God’s omniscience. We try to fit God into a box, to limit His character and nature to fit into our own needs and desires. We want God to be what we want Him to be. Yet, God can’t fit into our box. He is all that He is and all that He does is within His character. He can only be true to Himself. The God that Luther sought was a God of seeming contradictions, but the reality is that He is present and absent, near and far, wrathful and loving, weak and almighty, real and illusion, hidden and revealed. He is more than we can ever imagine, but always the King of Glory.
Martin Luther was a monk, priest and professor. He loved God’s word and studied it passionately. He was heavily burdened by his calling, fearful of the sin he knew he had committed throughout his life and fearful that his own sinfulness could impact those whom he shepherded. He was afraid that his sin was greater than God’s grace and did not see how he could be forgiven. He spent hours in confession repeating every little thing he had ever done. Luther was at the point of despair when he sought solace from God’s word and his confessor, Johann von Staupitz, tired of his lengthy confessions. “Martin, during all the hours I’ve listened to you, I haven’t heard one thing remotely interesting.” He told Luther to come back when he’d actually done something worthwhile to confess.
All joking aside, it was Staupitz that reminded Luther of the Gospel of grace, that Jesus Christ died for his sin. Luther grasped this grace when he read the epistle lesson we always use for Reformation Sunday. It is by faith we are saved, not by works. Jesus completed the work of justification on the cross. Martin Luther realized that his works would never save him and that an eternity in heaven is dependent entirely on the grace of God.
Luther’s confessor was the man behind the man. No man, not even Martin Luther, can do it all by himself. Luther’s story is filled with people who worked with him to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. That was his purpose all along. He wanted people to know that they are freed by the Gospel so that they would not be burdened by the expectations and obligations of manmade institutions. He posted the Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church to begin a discussion about the abuses of the church. He didn’t want to divide the Church; he wanted to restore the Church that Christ built.
It might have gotten nowhere if the Ninety-five Theses had stayed in Wittenberg. However, the printing press made it possible to distribute copies of the document was published and it was read widely around the Holy Roman Empire, by religious and secular leaders. It even made it into the hands of commoners. A copy was sent to Pope Leo X, who did not know at that moment what an impact that meddlesome monk would have on the Church.
One of the defining moments of Luther’s life was a trip he made to Rome. He discovered that the center of his faith was a place of decadence and lack of concern for God’s people. He began to criticize the Church’s excesses and errors.
The reformers were fighting against a body that had lost touch with God’s grace. Religion was much like it was in the day of Jesus Christ, with leaders determined to keep or enhance their positions and power. It was a religion that burdened God’s people with Law, losing touch with the center of God’s salvation: the cross. They sold indulgences to raise funds to build a massive new church building in Rome and they did this by feeding the fears of hell that were held by the people. They made the people believe that the only way they would make it to heaven was to pay for it. They even offered salvation for those who had already died: family members could free their loved ones who were wallowing in purgatory by paying the right price.
Luther seemed to have found the very meaning of today’s Gospel message: that when we are saved we are made free to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the world. Freedom in Luther’s perspective was not about doing whatever we wanted to do, but about being what God created us to be. He never sought division, he sought change and reform. Unfortunately, just like the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, the religious leaders in Luther’s day had no room for God’s word in their lives. And so began the building of walls between Christians that has lasted more than five hundred years. Yet, even as Luther was willing to risk division by speaking forth God’s grace, he longed that the Church would remain whole. We continue to live in the freedom given to us by God through Jesus Christ so that we can reach out to our brothers and sisters in Christ, so that someday the Church will be healed and made whole once again. If not in this life, at least God’s promises will bring us together to share the feast of victory for eternity.
Martin Luther had a reputation for being temperamental, coarse and argumentative. Imagine if Martin Luther had a twitter account! He was a grumpy old man at the end of an unusually long life; he suffered from multiple health issues which made it difficult for him to do everything he wanted to do. He was opinionated and did not understand how anyone could reject the grace of God. Though no excuse, that’s why he struggled with the Jews, one of black marks on his life. Luther, like the Apostle Paul before him, knew he was the greatest of sinners. He also learned that God’s grace is greater than his sin. That’s why one of the great mottos of the Reformation is “simul justus et peccator,” which means “simultaneously saint and sinner.”
He was a confirmed bachelor until the Katherine bon Vora entered his life. She was his rock and in many ways his salvation. Luther was not very good at money. He should have been incredibly wealthy with the number of books he published, but he didn’t make a cent on his printed work. She managed his household, taking care of a farm, borders and his children. There was always food on the table and wood in the fireplace. He knew that he needed her, and even called her Master Kate. He loved his family and spent as much time as he could with his children. He was devastated at the death of his first daughter Elizabeth when she was just a few months old. He also lost his daughter Magdalena who was only thirteen when she died.
Luther believed in education, and insisted that every child should have the opportunity to learn. He proposed that the monasteries be turned into schools and he took the reformation into the school house walls, offering classes for boys and for girls. The schools were available for children all members of society, from the wealthy to the peasants. He encouraged the peasant parents to send their children to school so that they could learn and rise out of their poverty. As a professor, he changed the structure of the lessons, focusing more on the ancient writings and languages, focusing more on the scriptures than on the traditions and doctrines of the church. Instead of teaching the students how to acquire worldly goods as was prevalent at the time, he wanted to provide training in everything necessary for living a faithful Christian life. Children were treated as more than cattle; they were treated as the future of the Church and the society.
Martin Luther’s goal was not just a reformation in the Church. He wanted the people to be reformed as individuals. There are those who see individualism in Christianity as problematic, but Luther’s understanding is that each person is made new by the Gospel to live and serve God as He has gifted and called them to live. We don’t all have to be ordained to pray and praise God, to read the scriptures, to study and grow in faith. We simply have to love God and seek to draw nearer to Him. Oh, there’s always the problem with people misunderstanding the scriptures or making them mean what they want it to mean, but that is why Luther also encouraged Christian fellowship and community worship. We are individual sons and daughters of our Father with the same access to His grace, but we are also part of a larger body and joined together by the Holy Spirit to glorify God.
In Luther’s quest to help Christians grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ, he invited them into the conversations of theology and church. Instead of answering his critics with a typical Latin answer, Luther wrote in German, then had the works published and sold to anyone. Though the printing press existed for fifty years, Luther worked to make it a viable form of communication. He encouraged and supported printers. He helped design a format that was appealing to the masses. His pamphlets and books, often written to respond to other men’s questions, were published by dozens of printers in many cities. His work changed the publishing industry in ways that we still use today.
Martin Luther wanted God’s people to be able to read the scriptures for themselves, though most people could not read the Latin versions that were available. So, he worked at translating the Greek and Hebrew into German and published the Bible for the masses. He did not take this task on his own; he had help from others that he recognized were more knowledgeable than him. Together they put God’s word in the hands of the people. He wasn’t the first. John Wycliffe published the New Testament in English. He also argued against the hierarchy of the Church. Though he died of natural causes in 1384, he was declared a heretic in 1415 and posthumously excommunicated. His body was exhumed, his bones burned to ashes and thrown into the River Swift.
Earlier reformers, including John Hus, were martyred for saying many of the same things. Wycliffe influenced Hus, a reformer who influenced Luther. We might consider Martin Luther one of the most influential men in history, we have to remember those who went before him, encouraged him, supported him, and worked with him. He served God in many ways as an individual, but he always knew that he was part of something much bigger.
As with so many aspects of Luther’s life, timing was everything. The pope and Emperor Charles V had other concerns. The Turks were on their doorstep and the plague was a constant fear. The world was changing, and the people were restless. Sadly, another of the black marks on Luther’s life is that the Reformation led to the Peasant’s War; Luther’s teaching of freedom spurred the peasants to revolt against the nobility. It ultimately failed and hundreds of thousands of peasants and farmers were killed.
Martin Luther had such a huge impact because the timing was just right: the printing press provided widespread distribution of his message. It was a time of political, social and scientific upheaval. He had the support of powerful men, so his reforms reached far past the religious realm. He recognized that we live in two kingdoms - temporal and spiritual, an ideology that encourages justice - so that all people might work for the glory of God even when following earthbound vocations. When we do not have to buy our way to heaven, we are given the freedom to live in God’s grace today, looking forward to the promises of God that will be fulfilled in His time and way.
Despite his opposition, somehow Luther survived. Despite his health issues, Martin Luther was sixty-three years old when he died. Despite his prolific writing and success with the people, he was far from wealthy. Despite his faults, he knew the greatest gift was found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The world might still be as it is without Martin Luther’s influence, but God chose him for a purpose. God used Luther to reform the Church, to remind His people of His grace.
When Martin Luther read the passage from Romans 3, he rediscovered the foundation of the Gospel message: it is not by our works that we are saved, but by the amazing grace of God. It is so much easier for us to do good works than to accept the humbling reality that we can never make ourselves good enough to enter into the presence of God. We don’t want God to see our imperfections and we fear what will happen when He does. It is much, much harder for us to cry out to God in our imperfections because we are truly afraid of what He might say. Yet, the true path, the better path, is to cry out in faith knowing that God is gracious and merciful, full of forgiveness. There is nothing we can do to earn His grace, but in faith we can boldly approach Him with our needs. He will stop and listen. He will heal. In Him and in Him alone, we have joy and hope and peace.
In the texts for today we see a strong and powerful image of God. He is “our refuge and our strength.” We need not fear, like Martin Luther feared for himself and for his congregation, because God is a very present help in trouble. It was Psalm 46 that Martin Luther used as the basis for one of his most important works: the hymn “A Mighty Fortress.” God is always there. He is a fortress in times of difficulty and a refuge in times of need. When things are looking bad in the world in which we live, as they must have looked to Luther in 1517, we can rest assured that God is present, active and faithful.
The Old Covenant included a list of laws that were required for righteousness. Leaders demanded obedience, and they made threats or bribes to keep the people in line. The leaders laid heavy burdens on the people, and the people failed. That’s why God made the New Covenant that gives the believer the faith and freedom to live according to God’s Word.
Jesus told those listening that the truth would set them free, but the Jewish leaders didn’t understand what he was talking about. “We are Abraham’s offspring, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How do you say, ‘You will be made free’?” They relied on their heritage; they relied on Abraham and Moses for their salvation. But since they could not keep the Law perfectly, they would always fail to live up to the expectations of that Law. Jesus said that whenever you sin, no matter how small or insignificant, you are a slave to sin. This is what Martin Luther discovered when he was trying to confess himself into salvation.
The New Covenant gives us a new attitude; it changes how we look at God’s Law and God’s Word. In faith we respond to the call of God. The Old Covenant, which comes from outside, is replaced with a covenant that comes from inside. The Law still has a purpose, in that it helps us to see that we are in need of a Savior. When we hear the Gospel, God’s Word is placed in the heart; faith is given so that the believer can act out of love rather than fear or greed. We are no longer burdened by that Law, but we are set free by faith to live out God’s Word in the world.
We can look to Martin Luther as an example even in the midst of this pandemic that has changed our lives in so many ways. When the plague hit Wittenberg in1527, Luther and his wife Katie refused to leave the city, choosing instead to stay and minister to the sick. Martin Luther did not fear death; he knew that God would protect him, and even if he died, he would live forever in the eternal kingdom with His Lord.
This life of grace is what Martin Luther discovered as he searched the scriptures for relief from his burdens. He longed to be freed from the fear, guilt and pain he experienced when he recognized himself as the sinner that he was. He knew there was no way he could be good or enough for the gifts of God. His fears threatened to affect his ministry, because he thought his lifetime of sin would invalidate the work he was called to do in the church.
Then he found the grace of God, that unbelievable truth that the work of salvation is not dependent on man but rather on the mercy of God. When we realize that we are sinners, in need of a Savior, our whole world is turned upside down. We are set free from the burdens of the law so that we might live to the glory of God in His grace no matter who we are. This is what happened to Martin Luther when he read Paul’s words to the Romans, “We maintain therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.”
“But when he was strong, his heart was lifted up, so that he did corruptly, and he trespassed against Yahweh his God; for he went into Yahweh’s temple to burn incense on the altar of incense. Azariah the priest went in after him, and with him eighty priests of Yahweh, who were valiant men. They resisted Uzziah the king, and said to him, ‘It isn’t for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to Yahweh, but for the priests the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense. Go out of the sanctuary, for you have trespassed. It will not be for your honor from Yahweh God.’ Then Uzziah was angry. He had a censer in his hand to burn incense, and while he was angry with the priests, the leprosy broke out on his forehead before the priests in Yahweh’s house, beside the altar of incense. Azariah the chief priest, and all the priests, looked at him, and behold, he was leprous in his forehead, and they thrust him out quickly from there. Yes, he himself also hurried to go out, because Yahweh had struck him. Uzziah the king was a leper to the day of his death, and lived in a separate house, being a leper; for he was cut off from Yahweh’s house. Jotham his son was over the king’s house, judging the people of the land.” 2 Chronicles 26:16-21, WEB
When people talk about the Air Force, they automatically think about pilots. After all, without them the planes would never leave the ground. But when you live and work around an air force base, going about your daily routine, you become more aware of the fact that it takes far more than just a pilot to do the work. There is a saying that goes, “Without maintainers, pilots are just pedestrians with sunglasses and a cool jacket.” It takes hundreds of people to get an airplane off the ground: the airman with a wrench tightening the bolts, the one who loads the fuel, the foodservice and cleaning crews, those who maintain the runway, the control tower operators and the airmen who schedule flights and maintenance. Outside the flight line it takes security police, finance workers, doctors, people to maintain the living areas, run the stores, raise the flags and pick up trash. Some of those jobs may seem unimportant and completely unrelated to the actual flying of a plane, but they are all part of the overall mission of the Air Force. Without the garbage collectors and the pilots, we could not do our job.
Winston Churchill was well aware of the need for those beyond the front lines in times of war. During World War II, there was a great need for coal miners. He spoke to labor leaders to get their support, telling them to imagine what it would be like when the war was over. “A parade will be held in Piccadilly Circus. Sailors, soldiers and pilots would lead the march to cheers from the thankful people. Last of all would come a long line of sweat-stained, soot-streaked men in miner’s caps. Someone will cry out from the crowd, ‘And where were you during the critical days of our struggle?’ And from ten thousand throats would come the answer, ‘We were deep in the earth with our faces to the coal.’”
Imagine what it would have been like if all those ten thousand men thought they should all be sailors, soldiers or pilots? The homes of England would have been cold and dark, and the servicemen could never have done their jobs. Every task is important.
Uzziah was king of Judah, appointed by the people when he was just sixteen years old. He did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, following in the ways of his father Amaziah. He accomplished great things, rebuilt towns and defeated his enemies. The prophet Zechariah taught him that as long as he sought the LORD, God would give him success. But he became very powerful and filled with pride.
Uzziah had a job to do; he was called to lead Judah faithfully according to God’s Word. When he became powerful, however he decided he could do whatever he wanted. Just as we need both the pilots and the garbage collectors, we need both the rulers and the priests, each ministering to God’s people as they are gifted and sent by God.
For Uzziah, the consequence of his pride was leprosy. The consequence of our own pride might not be a skin disease, but when we try to take upon ourselves the tasks that are not given by God, we affect our lives and the lives of those around us. God has a good and perfect plan, He knows who is gifted to rule and who is gifted to minister. He gives the pilot and the garbage collector all they need to do their work, and He sees every one with the same heart. There are none in the kingdom of God who are more important than another, all are chosen by God to glorify Him in the world as they are called and gifted to do. Find your gifts, hear your calling, and follow God’s will for your life. Lift up those who have other tasks to do, encouraging them in their own calling, because without each person called by God the Kingdom will not be able to accomplish His work in the world.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” John 3:16, WEB
Human beings have a tendency to seek the reason or purpose for everything that happens in life. Every child goes through that phase when they ask a million questions. Why is the sky blue? Why do the leaves fall to the ground in autumn? Why do lions roar but cats meow? Why do snowflakes melt when they land on my hand? These questions are not always easy, but we can usually find an answer and teach a lesson in science or biology with our children by sharing our knowledge.
The questions are not always so easy. If they’ve had a fight with their best friend they ask, “Why does my friend hate me?” They often want to understand why the world is as it is, with evil and suffering. “Why are children hungry in Africa?” “Why are they at war in the streets of America?” We shouldn’t kid ourselves by thinking they are not aware of these events that affect our lives. They are afraid, hurt or curious about the same things we watch as adults. They want an answer to their problems because it is the only way they can stop being afraid, hurt or curious. As we grow older, we begin to realize that there are simply some things that do have acceptable answers. Some things happen in our world because of sin. The consequence of sin is suffering and pain. It ultimately leads to death.
When someone we know dies, we want an answer to the question, “Why?” Sometimes it seems easy to answer, “She was old and lived a long life.” “He did not take care of his body and it finally gave out.” Other times it is more tragic, such as when a mother is killed in an accident or a young child dies in his sleep. Yet, death was never part of God’s plan. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve disobeyed God and broke the intimate bond that He intended to be eternal. They were put out of the garden so that they could never eat of the tree of life or else they would live forever in that state. We cannot and should not live forever separated from God.
The world and those in it accept death as final, and they live to satisfy their present desires. They do everything they can to continue and enjoy life in the flesh because there is no reason to look beyond it. It seems as though some in the world are even trying to do everything they can to stop death, even though it is an impossible task. It is not new, people of every generation sought immortality. They were just looking for it in the wrong places.
More people than I can count have asked me, “Why are you a Christian?” Also, “Why do you bother going to church?” To them, I am wasting my time praying, worshiping and praising God. I have looked back over my own life and the times I’ve asked so many of the same questions that have caused them to doubt and reject God. “Why is there suffering?” “Why did my mother die?” I come back to the same answer, over and over again.
Why am I a Christian? Because in the end, when there are no more questions to be asked and I have to face the final enemy, death, I know that I have eternal life waiting for me beyond that moment. Thanks to the work of my Savior Jesus Christ, death is not final; it is a passing from this separation from God we have experienced since the Garden of Eden back into the permanent intimate relationship I was created to have with Him.
I sometimes think turning to John 3:16 is almost a cop-out because it is the one everyone knows and quotes. It seems almost too simple when you think about the entire book of scriptures. I usually try to quote whole sections of scripture rather than just one verse. Yet, sometimes we need simply to hear this incredible truth, that God loved us so much He did what was necessary to heal our brokenness and restore us to Him. Why do I go to church? Because I am so thankful for the promise of God in Christ Jesus that I desire to join in heart, spirit and voice with others as we worship and praise God for His most amazing love.
“So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if you live after the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are children of God. For you didn’t receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God; and if children, then heirs: heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with him, that we may also be glorified with him.” Romans 8:12-17, WEB
There is a story about a little girl who got home late. Her mother had been worried, so she asked the child to explain. The little girl told her mother, “My friend fell and broke her doll, so I stayed to help.” The mother asked, “What could you have done to help?” The little girl answered, “I just sat down and helped her cry.”
Emotion is a very powerful thing, and when we are in the heat of emotion it is impossible to do anything else. You cannot reason with a child in the midst of a tantrum. No matter what you try, positive or negative, won’t make a difference until that emotion is released. This is true of happy emotions. Television bloopers shows often show the funny clips of those times when actors get into laughing fits. Once the giggling starts, it is best to take a break to let them deal with the trigger. Otherwise, the thing that made them laugh at first will only make them laugh more the next time. The director, however, anxious to finish filming the scene, will try to force calm.
That’s what we do as parents. When a child is crying, we ask them to stop crying so that we can understand their problem. Our goal in these situations is to solve the problem and make everything better. There have been times when my children were so upset it was difficult for them to breath, let alone talk. In my desperation to fix what was broken, I got frustrated with their inability to tell me the problem. “Just stop crying and we will be able to do something,” I would say. They would barely answer, “I can’t.”
When ministering to someone through prayer or words of comfort, it is tempting to offer advice or take care of the situation for them. However, most people have the answers but they can’t do anything until they get through the emotion. All they want from us is to share in their pain. When people are happy, they aren’t looking for our opinion about their good fortune or even a word of congratulation. They simply want to share their joy. Paul’s encouragement for the Christian life is that we become aware of other’s emotions and share in them. Like the little girl, sometimes the best way for us to help is to just cry along with our friend. Jesus came in flesh to empathize with the human condition and we are called to have empathy in this world as we live in the joy and sorrow of the Christ-like life.
“What good is it, my brothers, if a man says he has faith, but has no works? Can faith save him? And if a brother or sister is naked and in lack of daily food, and one of you tells them, ‘Go in peace. Be warmed and filled;’ yet you didn’t give them the things the body needs, what good is it? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself. Yes, a man will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” James 2:14-18, WEB
I read an article this morning that told the story of a woman who came across an elderly man selling eggs on the street. He was obviously poor and he was downcast because he was not selling any eggs. The woman asked him how much and he told her one quarter each. She negotiated and he conceded a better price, giving her six for a dollar and a quarter. She was thrilled to have saved a quarter. She then met a friend for an expensive lunch, leaving behind a hefty tip. The article asked, “Why do we always show we have the power when we buy from the needy ones? And why do we get generous to those who do not even need our generosity?”
The writer of the article went on, “I once read somewhere: My father used to buy simple goods from poor people at high prices, even though he did not need them. Sometimes he even used to pay extra for them. I got concerned by this act and asked him why does he do so? Then my father replied, ‘It is a charity wrapped with dignity, my child’”
James begins this chapter with a treatise on favoritism. He reminds us that we are not to give honor to the rich among us while ignoring the poor who need us. We are called by faith to a life of mercy. But if we do not show mercy, our faith is as good as dead. Mercy means loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. Mercy means loving our neighbor whether they are rich or poor, native or foreigner, healthy or sick, young or old. Mercy means being God’s hands, feet and mouth for them. It means being God’s presence in the world so that the world will be transformed by His power.
When James asks “Can faith save you?” in relation to the good works he is describing, he isn’t suggesting that good works will save a person. He is saying that those who are saved, who live in the faith that comes from grace, will live generously in all their interactions, whether it is a seller on the street or the staff at a fancy restaurant. We will react with grace when we see someone who is need; we’ll offer them what they need. It is not enough to wish them well; we are called to be generous with everything God has given to us, even if that means giving more than is expected. This does not mean giving less to one so that we can give more to the other, but rather to look at every person and to meet their individual needs with the resources God has given to us.
Faith without works is a dead faith, not a living faith. Just as the God who comes to save us does so in an active and powerful way, so too we are sent into the world to be God’s hands and share His grace with others. Faith calls for action. Faith is about praising God for His mercy and grace. And then it is about going out into the world to help others live the life God is calling them to live. God gives us the faith and in that faith we respond with generosity to our neighbors in ways that will glorify God.
Scriptures for November 1, 2020, All Saints' Day: Revelation 7:(2-8) 9-17; Psalm 149; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
“Let the saints rejoice in honor. Let them sing for joy on their beds.” Psalm 149, WEB
Who are the saints? Though the word is not used in today’s passage from Revelation, the saints are those who are robbed in white, whose robes were cleansed by the blood of Jesus. They are the great multitude that stands around the throne of God and the Lamb worshipping for eternity. The word multitude is interesting here because it is a number beyond our ability to count, a myriad. It also seems to indicate a sort of anonymity. These saints are part of the crowd.
One of the elders asked John who they are and John did not know. The elder answered, “These are those who came out of the great suffering. They washed their robes, and made them white in the Lamb’s blood. Therefore they are before the throne of God, they serve him day and night in his temple. He who sits on the throne will spread his tabernacle over them. They will never be hungry or thirsty any more. The sun won’t beat on them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the middle of the throne shepherds them and leads them to springs of life-giving waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
They have survived life in this world and have entered into eternity with their Lord. They no longer have to struggle with the troubles they faced. There is no dis-ease. There is no violence. There is no reason to cry. There is only joy, and peace, and love. They will worship God day and night, praising Him forever and ever.
While it might seem that any one of this multitude would get lost in the crowd, God knows every one. He knows every hair on their head. He knows the struggles they faced and He was with them through them all. He knows each one by name.
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.) My given name is Margaret, but my nickname is Peggy. No one really knows how Peggy became a nickname for Margaret, but it is fairly common. It does cause confusion, though. I’ve had to deal with it at the bank, in school, job and even at home.
Even though names matter, it is so easy to get our names changed. I once read a story about a girl in New Zealand who had her name changed. Her parents had named her “Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii. A judge made her a ward of the state so that she could legally change her name. The name her parents had given her had caused her 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 the child with that name could suffer from embarrassment and harassment from peers and others. In his ruling about the girl, 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).
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 He knows each of our names.
The epistle lesson for All Saints Sunday is about remembering 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 remember the great cloud of witness that have passed before us into that great multitude, but All Saints is about even more.
We also look forward to the day when we will be with them again. We receive the bread and wine of communion, knowing that it is only a foretaste of the feast which our loved ones already enjoy. There, in eternal life, our earthly names don’t really matter, because God has named us His, and that’s what will guarantee our life to come. We look forward to that day, but being a saint begins with our lives in this world. Our faith will guarantee a place in heaven, a great reward according to Jesus, but that life begins in the here and now. That’s why Jesus taught His disciples, and every Christian since, how to live in this world.
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 see that which God has done and is doing in the world. The poor in spirit do not appear blessed because they seem to have no hope, but they are blessed because God has given them the kingdom of heaven. Those who mourn have no joy, but they are blessed because God will give them comfort. Those who are humiliated will be raised and those who are hungry and thirsty will be fed. They are blessed because God has promised to save those who trust in Him. Blessedness is an attitude that looks to God for its fulfillment.
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 preceeded 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.”
The qualities Jesus expected of His followers were 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 of the common, everyday Christians, but they aren’t easy. They aren’t easy, but they lead to the reward of dwelling in God’s eternal presence, worshipping Him forever and ever.
Living in the promises of God is never easy. There will always be those who oppose Him and seek to destroy His people. Persecution is always a possibility when we follow in Jesus’ footsteps. He was spot-free Lamb, sinless and innocent. Yet He suffered the cruelest torture and death imaginable. We are baptized into His life and His death, called to persevere through this life until we see the fulfillment of His promises.
John’s description of the saints 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 world is that we know this is not ours by our works, but by God’s grace. This leads us to a life of worship.
William Temple was the Archbishop of Canterbury as Europe was facing World War II. He was known by his admirers as “a philosopher, theologian, social teacher, educational reformer, and the leader of the ecumenical movement of his generation.” He was an excellent moderator; he was able to put forth both sides of an issue so convincingly that both sides often agreed with one another. During the war, Bishop Temple was opposed to the demands of unconditional surrender that the Allied leadership was demanding and supported a process of negotiation to bring about peace in Europe. He worked to help free the Jewish prisoners held by the Nazis. He was a leader in social reform in England, and as a leader in the movement to form the World Council of Churches he helped make great strides in the areas of ecumenism. Not everyone agreed with his policies, either political or religious, however he will be remembered for the impact he had on the world.
William Temple is quoted as saying, “The world can be saved by one thing and that is worship. For to worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God.” While this might seem to work well in the life of a Christian who puts God ahead of all else in one’s life how can our worship save the world? Most people do not even believe that they need a Savior, even fewer believe in Jesus as Lord.
However, have you ever been in a situation that seemed hopeless, where people were arguing about the most insignificant things? The whole atmosphere changes when one person begins to pray or praise God. Others join in the praise. Though there may be non-believers in the group, they become quiet either out of respect or because no one is left to argue. Words of praise to God will quiet an enemy.
I do not have any answers to the troubles we face in the world today. I do not think 24-hour worship services would have stopped World War II, and I do not know whether it would solve today’s problems. Sadly, in some places, worship as a congregation has been deemed unsafe and many Christians are gathering from a distance. This year has been particularly strange because of this distancing. Normally when tragedy strikes, church attendance rises. We seek something outside of ourselves for comfort, peace and hope. We gather together to pray. We can certainly pray at home, and we can worship anywhere, but there’s something missing for many these days, something very important.
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 have to trust that God has blessed our leaders with the wisdom to use their gifts and knowledge to make just and appropriate decisions. However, those of us who are not the president or generals, those of us who are not leaders in the political, social or religious arenas, can devote ourselves to praising God. As He is glorified, He will bring about His justice and perhaps change the hearts of those who reject His Word and His Way.
We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, people throughout the ages that have lived and died for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. Through their testimony we see the love and mercy of God as they pass the things He taught and did from generation to generation. They stood before us; they focused their hearts and minds on Jesus Christ, and we remember them on All Saints’ Day for the faith they passed on to us.
The word saint refers to several different groups of people. A saint is one who has been set aside for special recognition for their lives of faith by the church. Yet, it also refers to all those who have died in the faith. The biblical witness gives a third definition, using the word saint to refer to all those who believe. Each Sunday we confess together our belief in the communion of saints, the fellowship of all believers throughout time and space. We gather together around the table of our Lord Jesus Christ and receive His body and blood with all those who believe from the beginning until the end. Even future generations who do not yet know the Lord are with us in the liturgy, sacraments and the word because God’s promises are timeless.
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.
Those who believe in Jesus will receive blessing from the Lord, salvation from our Savior. We will see the day when mourning is turned to joy. We will feast at the victory table. Jesus overcomes even time and space by drawing all the saints - past, present and future - into one body. All Saints Day is sad as we remember those whose lives have slipped from our grasp, but it is also a joyous event as we remember that they are still with us as part of Christ's body. Jesus is the resurrection; He is our hope and life. He has overcome death and the grave and in Him alone is our hope for salvation. We will receive a blessing from the Lord, those who seek after Him and believe in His name.
Death does not only come to us when the physical body fails. We go through all sorts of deaths in our lives. We suffer the grief of unfulfilled dreams, the pain of loss when friends move, the sting of sin that touches all our lives. We live in a transient world, especially those who have jobs with mobility. It is not only true of military families, but many people find themselves moving regularly. This is true also of clergy. How many churches have suffered the loss of a favorite leader because it was time for him or her to move on? Congregations go through a mourning process, especially difficult when the move was related to conflict or hurt feelings. Even within the walls of the church we face the difficulties of this life.
People die. Injustice exists. All too many people have no problem stepping on anyone to get ahead in this world. We will suffer. We would like to think that the promises found in the beatitudes will be fulfilled in this life; they sometimes are. I have found great comfort in the love of my family and friends. I have experienced mercy. Though I have not seen the face of God, I've known His presence and seen His face in the faces of my brothers and sisters in Christ. I've shared in the waters of life and God has indeed wiped away my tears. Yet, I know that I will hunger, thirst and cry again before I pass into life eternal.
One of my favorite exhibits at our local zoo is a pond with flamingos. I have spent hours watching, photographing and even videotaping the few dozen of these bright pink birds. They actually have hundreds of flamingos around the zoo and an incredible breeding program. The birds usually just stand around preening and sleeping, but some days I’m lucky to arrive when they are doing their mating dance. The first time I saw it was surprising. They were abnormally active, running back and forth, to and fro in a frenzy. After a few minutes, I noticed one of the birds was turning his head from side to side, over and over again, almost as if he were watching a tennis match. He was not watching the crowd run back and forth because he was facing away from them. I don’t know why, but it seemed as though he was about to talk, and sure enough he made a loud screeching noise. This noise set off the whole crowd, which stopped running back and forth and started screeching along with him. The noise got louder and louder until it hit a crescendo and some of the birds began flapping their wings. These beautiful pink birds have the darkest black feathers underneath and it was an amazing sight. As quickly as it began, the noise and the dancing stopped, and within a heartbeat the birds were running back and forth again.
It didn’t take long before I noticed the one bird doing the head thing again. This time several others had joined in the dance, moving their heads from side to side. I jokingly reached up as if I were an orchestra conductor and moved my hand. At that very moment, they started their song again. I laughed hysterically at the perfect timing. I spent a few hours at the zoo watching other animals, but ended the day with another visit to the flamingos, which were still doing their dance. I didn’t learn until much later what they were doing, but it was great to see such joy, even if I didn’t understand.
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 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.
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.
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.
“Follow after peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no man will see the Lord, looking carefully lest there be any man who falls short of the grace of God, lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you, and many be defiled by it, lest there be any sexually immoral person, or profane person, like Esau, who sold his birthright for one meal. For you know that even when he afterward desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for a change of mind though he sought it diligently with tears. For you have not come to a mountain that might be touched, and that burned with fire, and to blackness, darkness, storm, the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words; which those who heard it begged that not one more word should be spoken to them, for they could not stand that which was commanded, ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned’. So fearful was the appearance that Moses said, ‘I am terrified and trembling.’ But you have come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable multitudes of angels, to the festal gathering and assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better than that of Abel. See that you don’t refuse him who speaks. For if they didn’t escape when they refused him who warned on the earth, how much more will we not escape who turn away from him who warns from heaven, whose voice shook the earth then, but now he has promised, saying, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth, but also the heavens.’ This phrase, ‘Yet once more’ signifies the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that have been made, that those things which are not shaken may remain. Therefore, receiving a Kingdom that can’t be shaken, let’s have grace, through which we serve God acceptably, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” Hebrews 12:14-28, WEB
There are dozens, perhaps even thousands of legends that describe the life of the king known as Arthur. Some of these stories include mystical and magical helps, out of the ordinary circumstances, incredible situations that are beyond our own experience. There are a dozen places in England that claim to be the birthplace of Arthur, others that claim to be the sight of his burial. A number of castles are known for being Camelot or the sight of the round table. The history itself is fascinating, but there are so many conflicting facts that it is like trying to do a puzzle with pieces that will never fit together.
It is more likely that the historical Arthur is a compilation of several different men. The first written record of the man describes someone who did not really fit into the time or place in which he was supposed to live. The clothes, the position and the wars were not from the same era as the legends insinuated. It really does not matter whether or not there was a real King Arthur. There is still so much with can learn from the legends.
What we like most about Arthur is that he was a ruler who led with power and authority but also mercy. He was known for dealing with troubles with an even hand in a time when the powerful served only themselves. Poverty, hunger, illness and death reigned and though luxury was not as we know it today, the wealthy had more than enough while the poor had nothing. It was commonplace for neighbors to be in battle with one another, always fighting over the land. It was the peasants that paid the worst price in those wars because the rulers took everything as taxes to pay for their soldiers.
The legends of King Arthur paint a different picture in his kingdom. He did not rule with an iron hand, but had a council of knights to help with the decisions. He did not judge according to his own best interest, but according to what would be best for all the people. The peasants, though still poor because there was no great wealth even among the rulers, had food to eat and a warm place to live. War played a part of the Arthur legends, but he was always fighting against the evil rulers who had no concern for the people. Arthur was known as a man of the people, a man to whom the afflicted could go for help. He was merciful and full of love.
Whoever the real Arthur might have been, he was not loved by everyone. Those who desire power do not take kindly to justice that ignores their aspiration. Many tried to befriend Arthur so that he might give them what they wanted. Others battled fiercely against all for which he stood. He did not fall under their attempts to suppress him. He stood strong and fought for what he thought was right. Because of his mercy in the midst of power, the weak and helpless felt they could approach him for justice.
In the Old Testament, the only way to get to God was through the Law. The people had to go through the priests, through sacrifice, through righteous obedience to the rules of their faith. This was like trying to make an evil ruler happy just to get a morsel of bread. Even then, it did not work. The evil ruler did nothing to benefit others. In Christ we approach the King of mercy through grace. In this passage, the writer compares two mountains: Mount Sinai with Mount Zion. At Sinai, Moses trembled in fear and anyone, including the animals, that stepped foot on the mountain perished. At Zion, the city of God, the Church can approach God with through the blood of Jesus Christ.
It is easy to see why people would not want to follow the evil ruler who refused to feed the starving and why it would be different with a king like Arthur. God is not someone who is unapproachable. This is only true, though, because of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. He died that we might have life and have it abundantly. Why would we want to refuse to live a life as heirs to the kingdom of God when so much is given through grace? This God we know through Jesus is more than worthy of our praise and thanksgiving, manifested in a life of active service in His name.
“If therefore there is any exhortation in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tender mercies and compassion, make my joy full by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind; doing nothing through rivalry or through conceit, but in humility, each counting others better than himself; each of you not just looking to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others. Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, yes, the death of the cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him, and gave to him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:1-11, WEB
October 31 is not only Halloween, it is Reformation Day. This is the day many Protestants recognize as the anniversary of the beginning of the protestant reformation. We point to this day because it is the day a man named Martin Luther nailed a list of theological issues he wanted to discuss with other academics. These 95 Theses became the catalyst for a world changing social and religious movement in Europe. There was much more involved in the Reformation than just the discussion of these ideas, but that would take far too much time for this devotional. We simply choose to celebrate on October 31st because nailing those theses on the church seems to have been an important moment in the history of the Church.
There was a discovery a few years ago that gives us an interesting perspective on the Reformation. In Germany, researchers have been excavating the site of Martin Luther’s home. They recently found what they believe was the toilet which the family would have used. Now, this seems like a very unimportant artifact, after all, it’s probably not much more than a hole in the ground with a wooden or stone seat. However, the importance of this find comes from Luther himself. Apparently he suffered from chronic constipation and spent many hours sitting on the toilet. The article from BBC News says, “Luther is quoted as saying he was ‘in cloaca,’ or in the sewer, when he was inspired to argue that salvation is granted because of faith, not deeds.”
I admit that this seems like a trivial subject. What would Luther think if he knew we were discussing his privy routine? Actually, I don’t think he would mind. If Luther was anything, he was earthy. He knew and understood better than many theologians that God is found in the ordinary experiences of our life. He related to the words of Paul in our passage, “Set not your mind on high things, but condescend to things that are lowly.” We look at Luther as an extraordinary man because that which he accomplished was extraordinary. Luther had an arrogance that became visible in his writings, particularly those written to his enemies. However, he was also very humble, never seeking fame or wealth or power.
Luther taught that all who lived faithfully in the grace of God according to their vocation were equal in the eyes of God, whether they were a bishop or a maidservant. Paul’s words here help us to see that we should not necessarily be seeking the greater things - the power, riches or fame - but rather we should realize that some of the most incredible acts of God happen in the most ordinary circumstances. We need to live every moment to the glory of God. Yes, even those moments we don’t like to talk about, because He is with us wherever we go.