Welcome to the October 2021 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 2021
“No more will there be an infant who only lives a few days, nor an old man who has not filled his days; for the child will die one hundred years old, and the sinner being one hundred years old will be accursed. They will build houses and inhabit them. They will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They will not build and another inhabit. They will not plant and another eat: for the days of my people will be like the days of a tree, and my chosen will long enjoy the work of their hands. They will not labor in vain nor give birth for calamity; for they are the offspring of Yahweh’s blessed and their descendants with them. It will happen that before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear. The wolf and the lamb will feed together. The lion will eat straw like the ox. Dust will be the serpent’s food. They will not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain,” says Yahweh..” Isaiah 65:20-25, WEB
Sequoia National Park is one of several national parks that protect the giant ancient trees that still amaze us today, Sequoia is the home of the world’s largest tree (in volume), the General Sherman, and four more of the world’s ten largest trees. It is also where you can find the highest point in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney. There are plenty of other features to see, including Moro Rock (a granite dome), Tokopah Falls, and Crystal Cave. Sequoia was the second area set aside as a National Park, the first was Yellowstone.
The Giant Sequoias, Coastal Redwoods and other Old-growth forests are amazing places, with trees that are bigger than we can imagine and older than we can remember. The General Sherman sequoia is estimated at being 2300-2700 years old. The oldest non-clonal tree on earth is Methuselah, a tree in the Great Basin, and is estimated to have germinated in 2832 B.C. Several sequoias in the Sierra Nevada are more than three thousand years old. There are old growth trees all over the world, including a four-thousand-year-old Yew tree in the United Kingdom and a Mediterranean Cyprus in Iran. A clonal colony of quaking aspens in Utah is estimated to be 80,000-1,000,000 years old. In the clonal colonies, the individual trees may be only a few hundred years old, but the roots are much older. One Norway spruce in Sweden is the oldest known individual tree in a clonal colony at 9,500 years old.
Isaiah wrote “for the days of my people will be like the days of a tree.” Could we become as old as those trees? The human with the longest lifespan recorded in the Bible is the one for whom the tree in the Great Basin was named; Methuselah was 969 years old. It is unlikely that any of us will live for hundreds of years let alone thousands. We certainly won’t grow old with the Redwoods or Sequoias. Perhaps, however, God was referring not to individual trees, but those old-growth clonal colonies. Instead of being like a redwood or sequoia, we are like those quaking aspens that have roots that are older than we can remember. While He wants each of us to live our lives to the fullest, He promises that His people as a whole will live as long as the life of a tree.
We are reminded that as individuals we will not last forever. Even those giant sequoias and redwoods die. Though they are now protected from human harvest, they still suffer loss from natural causes. The Giant Sequoias were threatened by an intense wildfire this year, and though the oldest and most famous wee protected, as many as ten percent were destroyed in the last two years. A 3500-year-old pond cypress in Florida was destroyed by fire in January 2012. A sacred Formosan cypress in Taiwan collapsed following heavy rainstorms in 1997. The Washington Tree in Giant Forest Grove in Sequoia National Park was once the second largest tree. In 2003 it was struck by lightning and lost a portion of its crown. Since it was structurally weakened by the lightning and fire, the remaining crown collapsed under the weight of heavy snow. It was once 255 feet high and now stands a mere 115 feet. Despite the damage, the tree is not quite dead, and may still live for many years and even centuries into the future. Even still, it will die one day.
So will we, but God has promised that His people will live on. We are individuals who will pass on some day, but we are part of something greater, something older that will last. We are part of His Kingdom and in that sense we will last forever. So, let us live together in the promise that what we do for His Kingdom will go on. When we share the Gospel of Jesus Christ, others will join us. They will become part of the Kingdom He has established and they, too, will live forever. The world in which we live may seem to be going up in flames, but we need not fear the future because God has promised that there will be a time when everything will be made right. We will grow old with those ancient forests and live in peace.
“Praise Yahweh from the earth, you great sea creatures, and all depths; lightning and hail, snow and clouds; stormy wind, fulfilling his word; mountains and all hills; fruit trees and all cedars; wild animals and all livestock; small creatures and flying birds; kings of the earth and all peoples; princes and all judges of the earth; both young men and maidens; old men and children: let them praise Yahweh’s name, for his name alone is exalted. His glory is above the earth and the heavens. He has lifted up the horn of his people, the praise of all his saints, even of the children of Israel, a people near to him. Praise Yah!” Psalm 148:7-14, WEB
We put out birdseed for the birds, but the squirrels enjoy our offerings, too. One feeder is filled with food that squirrels and larger birds particularly like, including peanuts in the shell. The squirrels love the peanuts. I have watched the creatures (perhaps one who keeps returning) digging through the food to find those peanuts. With peanut in its mouth, the squirrel finds a spot in our yard and buries it. He’s saving it for later, of course. One day the squirrel ran across the street to our neighbor’s yard. The last I saw it, it was headed straight for the statue of St. Francis that watches over their garden. It is almost like the squirrel knew St. Francis would protect its peanut until it was needed.
Today is the Feast Day for St. Francis of Assisi. Most people are familiar with this saint, statues bearing his likeness grace the gardens of many animal lovers. St. Francis was known for being a very gentle being, his charm able to sooth even the most savage beast. Many churches hold special services to commemorate his life, offering a chance for the people to present their animals for blessing.
St. Francis is remembered for his simple life of poverty. Yet he did not begin life poor. As a matter of fact, he was the son of a very wealthy merchant, and it is thought that his mother was even born into nobility. As a child he was spoiled with everything his heart desired. As a young man, he lived a life of pleasure, wearing fine clothes and fully immersing himself in the social activities of the nobles. He was a soldier who sought victory and honor. He enjoyed the wealth of his father and the opportunities his position provided.
However, he began to dream and have visions, hearing a voice that guided his life. Eventually he devoted his life to service to God, giving up everything for the sake of his new love. His was described as having “wedded Lady Poverty.” He devoted his life to serving the poor and sick, founding an order of monks devoted to the same rule of obedience, poverty and chastity.
St. Francis of Assisi is quoted as teaching this prayer: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
It is said that St. Francis reunited with his brothers after a period of separation. They met in a remote monastery in the Umbrian mountains of central Italy. The brothers shared their travel adventures. The first two brothers shared harrowing life-threatening experiences and were thankful to God for saving them. Then St. Francis is reported as saying, “Let us thank God for his wonderful works. I did experience the greatest miracle of all on my way. I had the smoothest, most pleasant, completely uneventful trip.”
An artistic tradition is attributed to St. Francis. Nativity scenes are often used at Christmas, but I confess that I have a collection that I keep up all year long. Many churches put out lovely scenes. I loved the creches that are found throughout Europe. The scenes include grottos, hills, trees, lakes and rivers. Figures are added daily of the people that visited the Christ child in the stories: the shepherds, wise men, and ordinary folk from the village such as a laundress, baker or blacksmith. Some scenes include local heroes, zampognari (pipers) and other characters. Baby Jesus is added on Christmas Eve. In the midst of celebration that does not always seem Christian, Christ is still the center. It is said that St. Francis asked Giovanni Vellita to create a scene to use in church. St. Francis conducted the mass in front of it, inspiring awe and devotion. Since then, people have worked hard to create the most beautiful scenes.
The stories of the Saints are meant to reflect the life of Christ, including those of St. Francis. These stories may be exaggerated to give those Saints a fuller, more Christ-centered life. Francis was known to have experienced stigmata, which are visual wounds on the body similar to those of Jesus. They appeared during a period of intense prayer. He hid the wounds until his death, not wishing the fame that might come from those who would pilgrimage to see it.
St. Francis praised God with the rest of God’s creatures. His radical poverty, itinerant nature, and selfless servanthood are certainly reflections of the life and love of Christ. In his life of obedience, poverty, and chastity, St. Francis was able to experience the deep and loving relationship between Father and son, between God and a man that shines His grace throughout the world.
“Jesus answered them, ‘Be careful that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, “I am the Christ,’ and will lead many astray. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you aren’t troubled, for all this must happen, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; and there will be famines, plagues, and earthquakes in various places. 8 But all these things are the beginning of birth pains.” Matthew 24:4-8, WEB”
Our question for this week is the question that led to Jesus’ answer in today’s passage. The disciples asked, “Tell us, when will these things be? What is the sign of your coming, and of the end of the age?” Many answer this question with a list of signs that they’ve seen. They pull verses from throughout the Bible with suggestions of the things for which we should look. They identify the false prophets. They point to historic and natural events. The name those they believe are the anti-Christ. Jesus does give a list of signs, but you’ll note that these things have happened in every generation since He walked on earth. Instead of looking for signs, Jesus warns us to study His Word so we’ll know when we are listening to a false prophet. He encourages us to stay true to Him so that we won’t be led astray.
I saw Elvis once. He was in a gas station in Arkansas. He was wearing black denim pants with a blue country style shirt, a big belt and boots. He was overweight with a head full of black hair, including bushy sideburns. He looked pretty normal but very different, almost like he did not belong in that place at that time. I’ve heard it said that Elvis is spotted all over the country, usually in places like McDonald’s, Minit Markets or Wal-Mart. After my own sighting this week, I can certainly understand why. Elvis had a very distinctive look, one that stands out of the crowd. And yet his features are not that unusual. Elvis impersonators are a dime a dozen and there are some who really look the part.
Elvis died in 1977. We remember him as he was a long time ago, whether it is the show Elvis with the glitzy costumes, or the older Elvis with the effects of age. If he were still alive, he would be eighty-six years old and it is likely that he would have a completely different appearance. He might be bald or have a head of gray hair. He would probably move more slowly. Even the healthiest people see the signs of aging as they get older. Yet, we still have many Elvis sightings around the United States.
I know I did not see Elvis that day; it was just a man who happened to look like him. I have other experiences when I have seen people who might have been someone famous. I suppose we have all had such experiences, like a glimpse of a politician in a crowd or a movie star at the theater. Even the rich and famous have to take care of their daily needs of food, shelter and transportation. Granted, they often have people to take care of those needs, but sometimes they are spotted out in public. The trick is knowing for sure if you have seen the real thing, or just someone who happens to look like them.
The same can be said about the things of faith. Jesus warned us that the day would come when false prophets would come and do things that seem to be real. He warned that the devil would perform signs and wonders to fool the people. There are those who will even come and claim to be the savior.
It is easy, when looking at the news each day, to wonder if we have reached that time in history that we can call “the last days.” We have reached that time and have been in them for nearly two thousand years. Since the inception of the Church, there are those who have come to claim to be sent by God. False prophets, counterfeit messiahs with bogus signs and wonders will always be with us. Many will try to convince those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ that they have a better answer, a more complete understanding of the Truth of God. Oh, they will say they come in Jesus’ name, even quote His words and show their power to be like His. But they will not be real, just a copy of the true. We have to discern the good from the evil, the right from the wrong, the true from the false. This is a daily task, particularly in our world today where we are immersed in too much information.
Are we close to the end of all time? We are closer today than we ever have been. However, I don’t know if it will come tomorrow or in two thousand years. The date is unimportant. We need only remember to keep our eyes on Jesus, to trust in His promises as we walk in this world. For whether His return is immediate or in the far distant future, we can know that He will be faithful. Watch out that you are not deceived. To whom are you listening? Does their word line up to what Jesus has already told us? Remember, the devil himself can do great and extraordinary things; he can do signs and wonders to fool those who are looking for Christ. We know it is from God when it points the Jesus who is the Messiah, our Savior. There is no other and there never will be, for He is the only one who could possibly bring the blessings of grace to the world.
Scriptures for October 10, 2021, Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Psalm 90:12-17; Hebrews 3:12-16; Mark 10:17-22
“Let the favor of the Lord our God be on us. Establish the work of our hands for us. Yes, establish the work of our hands.” Psalm 90:17, WEB
The cross is often used as a visual representation of the relationships in our lives. The pole or column indicates the relationship between God and man, between heaven and earth. The crosspiece indicates the relationships between people, reaching out from the center to the ends of the earth. Both parts of the cross are necessary for it to be complete, and so it is with relationships. We need to be in relationship both with God and with one another to be whole. As we saw in last week’s Old Testament lesson, the Man was alone even though he was with God. God gave him other creatures, and then the Woman, so that he would not be alone.
The relationship with God takes some work on our part. Amos writes, “Seek Yahweh.” While God does come to us, and most dramatically He came to us in Jesus and on the cross, we are called to seek Him. We could not find Him if He hid His face from us, but we can miss His face if we do not seek Him. We seek Him through prayer, through worship, and through His Word. The pole or column of the cross is a two-way street. God reaches down to touch us as we are reaching up to reach Him. Thank God He reaches down because we could never reach high enough to touch Him.
The people to whom Amos was speaking might have appeared to have the “right” relationship with God, but their earthly relationships proved otherwise. They were trampling on the poor, hating those who called for repentance. They were unjust, untrustworthy and uncharitable.
The lectionary often gives us split passages. It makes me wonder why. The missing verses often have nothing to do with the concept of the passage chosen for that particular Sunday. Those verses have something important to say, but it is a completely different idea. That is certainly true in the missing verses in today’s Old Testament lesson. Verses 8-9 (along with verse 5) is a sermon in itself because it contrasts the limitless glory of the Creator, as we see in the text, with the things worshiped at the pagan influenced shrines in Bethel, Gilgal, and Beersheba. Obedience to the God who made the stars, brings life, and waters the earth will lead to a life of justice, trust, and charity.
Amos calls the people to this kind of life. He wrote, “Seek good.” When we seek goodness by living a life of justice, trust and charity, we will see the God of hosts. In our relationships with others in this world, not only those that we choose to love but also our neighbors who seem unlovable, we will see the face of God. We were not meant to live alone, but to live amongst all the creatures of the earth, even (especially?) those we might not like very much. We tend to treat those we hate with unkindness and injustice. When we do this, we make it impossible to live and experience the relationship we are called to have with God. We can’t reach toward heaven if we aren’t reaching out to one another. God can’t reach out to us if we are too busy hurting others.
I watch “The People’s Court.” The cases often revolve around money that the giver sees as a loan and the receiver sees as a gift. Judge Milian looks for evidence to decide who is telling the truth. Are there emails or texts talk about repayment? Did the recipient sign anything? Did they make any payments? How much was the loan and could the giver afford to make a gift of so much money? In the end she usually has to make a judgment about the money, and she uses as much information as she can glean from the testimony, including the rise and fall of the relationship between the litigants. Sometimes a gift becomes a loan when the relationship changes. Sometimes the truth is that the money was a loan, and the recipient is just trying to make excuses to get out of paying. When the case goes in that direction, Judge Milian will often say to the defendant, “I wish I had friends like yours. No one has ever given me a thousand dollars as a gift.”
People just don’t give large amounts of money without a reason. What would you think if someone came up to you and offered you a million dollars? If you are normal, one of your first reactions will be the question, “What do I have to do?” We know that in this world no one gives something so extravagant without expecting something in return. In many of the cases seen on “The People’s Court”, the giver often had an underlying purpose, a hope that the recipient would meet the giver’s needs or desires. They say there is no such thing as a free lunch in this world, and we believe it. Most of us feel like we have to reciprocate everything: dinners, presents, or good deeds. Unlike those on the court cases, we tend to want to pay for everything, even gifts. We are so cynical that we won’t even accept a simple act of kindness without trying to pay it back.
On the surface, today’s Gospel story seems to be about a man who honors and respects Jesus and His teachings. Mark tells us that he ran up to Jesus, knelt before Him and called Him “Good teacher.” The reality is that this was little more than flattery spoken by someone who was looking for Jesus to justify the life he was living. The young man is described as wealthy. It is possible that he was even part of the ruling class, perhaps even a Pharisee. He wanted Jesus to tell him what he needed to do to earn a place in heaven, but he was expecting that Jesus would tell him that he’d done more than enough.
Jesus’ initial answer was uplifting to the young man. Jesus quoted the Decalogue, listing the laws that involved relationships between human beings. The man could easily respond that he has never killed, cheated, stolen, lied or coveted and he honored his parents. “Teacher, all these things have I observed from my youth.” He was a good man, good according to the expectations of the world around him. I can almost hear Jesus’ sigh; I hear it every time I think of myself as a good person. I can also say that I have lived up to the words of the law. I’m fairly generous with my resources and I try to do kindnesses for my neighbors.
“Jesus looking at him loved him.” We are no different than the rich young ruler. We want to know what we have to do to earn the kingdom of heaven. We respond to Jesus’ answer in the passage with a sigh of relief. It should be easy for us to earn heaven because we are generally good people. Murder, theft, adultery aren’t part of our daily lifestyle. We even try to bring our good life before the Good Teacher with humbleness and respect. “I have done all these things.” Jesus looks upon us with love.
Yet, in love He responds with a greater expectation. “One thing you lack,” He continues. Even though we do everything right and are generous with our resources, we still have something in our life that is more important. We aren’t willing to give it all up for God. We aren’t willing to let go of our old life and follow Christ without burdens and baggage. For this rich young ruler, the burden was wealth. He became sad when Jesus told him that he had to sell everything, give it to the poor and then follow Him. He walked away because Jesus expected too much.
I wonder if the response would have been different if Jesus had said, “Give half your stuff to the poor.” The man would then have still had enough to survive in the world without relying on the charity of others. He would have had a place to hang his hat. He would have had finances to support the ministry he may have been willing to do. Jesus said, “Get rid of it all.” The young man wanted to know what he had to do to earn what God was giving for free, so Jesus made the payment beyond the young man’s ability to pay.
The disciples were shocked and asked, “Then who can be saved?” The truth is that no one can be saved by their own goodness or good works. But Jesus answered, “With men it is impossible, but not with God: for all things are possible with God.” This is good news! God is offering us a gift worth far more than a million dollars and He is asking nothing in return. When we ask what we have to do to earn this gift, the cost is always beyond our ability to give. How will we respond? Will we respond with sadness, turning away from God or will we truly be humbled by His amazing grace?
St. Teresa of Avila was born in 1515 A.D, which was a time of upheaval in the world. Christopher Columbus found the new world a few years earlier and adventurers were traveling to distant lands in search of wealth and fame. Martin Luther fought against the mammon-centered focus of the Church which was selling indulgences to build a bigger and more ornate building in Rome a few years after her birth.
Even the Carmelite nunnery where Teresa had committed her life to serving God sought wealth above piety. As a matter of fact, the nuns were known to dress in finery to entertain visitors in the parlor of the convent. Teresa taught lessons on prayer for money to aid the financial position of the house. It was thought that wealth bred respect, so the nuns sought wealth to earn the respect of the community. The nuns were even sent out into the world to live among the people, not to serve, but in search of gain for the order.
Teresa was not a particularly righteous or “saintly” woman. As a matter of fact, she is as known for her ability to create trouble as she is for piety. Even in prayer, Teresa the mystic provided fodder for her detractors. At a very young age, she convinced her brother to leave home with her to go be beheaded by the Moors. She was charming and well liked. She considered the enjoyment of her friends as her greatest vice. She joined the Carmelite order not because she was particularly called to serve God, but because it seemed like the easier path for her to take. Her attitude changed as she matured in faith, and she focused her life more on God. She worked at reforming the Carmelite order, but she also retreated into herself where she found great comfort in the presence of God.
She succeeded in creating a reform movement, establishing houses for nuns that centered on God rather than power, position, or wealth. It was a simple life, living strictly in the monastery. They identified with the poor by going shoeless. Though money was not the goal the sisters worked hard to earn enough to support the community and their mission to serve Christ in the world.
We look at the story of the rich young ruler and we wonder what might have happened to him after he walked away from Jesus. Did he continue to live the life of wealth, seeking after the things of this world? Or did he perhaps continue to listen to Jesus and slowly come to the realization that the life he was living did not really fit God’s will? Teresa is not the best example of a saint who has turned their back on everything worldly for the sake of God and the Gospel. However, we can look at her life and see that change often takes a lifetime.
When Jesus says, “one thing you lack” we are brought face to face with the truth that we too have our failings that separate us from God. Even the most pious or righteous person can’t reach God’s expectations. That’s why we need Him. St. Teresa once said, “God treats his friends terribly, though he does them no wrong in this, since he treated his Son in the same way.” Jesus’ answer to the rich young ruler seems so wrong; to require him to give up everything is beyond extreme. Yet, in this very act the man would have found something even better. Perhaps one day he did. We might never know. We can rest in the hope that as we go through life, all too often focused on all the wrong things, we might truly understand the gift God has given by grace through His Son Jesus Christ.
The Psalmist today asks God a simple question, “How long?” According to the title of the Psalm and tradition, this was a song of Moses. It was probably written during a time of trial brought on by the hard hearts of God’s people. The Hebrews wandered in the desert for forty years; this unfortunate detour of their travels was not because God wanted them to be hungry and thirsty, or that He could not lead them on the right path. They wandered for forty years because they rebelled against God at Mount Sinai. During those years of wandering, the Hebrews complained about everything; they even thought it would be better to go back into slavery in Egypt than to continue wandering in the desert and eating manna.
The Hebrew word translated “how long” can also mean “enough is enough.” This makes sense to us. We identify with the question and the interjection. “How long?” we ask, and “enough is enough” we plead. When we are in the midst of trying times, when we are facing trials and temptations, we wonder how long we will have to suffer. We cry out to God seeking some sense of the time. Will we hurt for a long time or for a brief moment? Our cry is for the time to be short, for God to have mercy. We cry that we’ve had enough. We ask God to relent, to repent of the course He has set before us. We seek His mercy and pray for His compassion. We seek His steadfast love.
When we ask the question “How long?” we are usually looking for a number. We like to define time according to our clocks. Human beings have always tried to make His world fit into our ability to define and measure everything. We have determined that there are 60 seconds to a minute, 60 minutes to an hour, 24 hours to a day, 7 days to a week and 52 weeks to a year. But God has designed the world around us to move perfectly according to His good and perfect will. We can’t make it fit into our own understanding of time and space. We can’t even work to make ourselves perfect, let alone the creation. This is why we seek God. Only He can control the days, weeks and months, and only He knows the course our life is meant to go. He gives life and He takes it. He guides and directs our footsteps.
We might plead with God that enough is enough and ask God to define the time according to our understanding, but God will always give us something better than we expect. He will help us to number our days, to realize that our time is short and that it will be best used according to His perfect will and purpose.
They say that God will only give what you can handle, but I recently heard it put a better way. God will give you only what He can handle. God gives us all we need to live in this world and the next. He has mercy and grants forgiveness that we might truly have more than earthly time, giving us an eternity to spend praising His holy name. He will help us to live through our times of trouble with the hope of what is to come, and He will help us to work according to His grace.
In our Gospel lesson Jesus asked, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except one - God.” He knows we are going to fail, and He identified Himself with us. He took on our very nature as His own, despite the reality that He is truly good. Jesus knew the man’s heart, just as He knows ours. He knew the man would be devastated by His answer, but Jesus looking at him loved him. That’s why God forgives. He knows us better than ourselves. He knows we can’t do it on our own. He knows that we will constantly fail to live up to His expectation of our lives. He wants more from us and knows our life will be better if we follow Him.
God calls us to a life in which we “Hate evil, love good, and establish justice in the courts.” We may not be good, but we can do good in God’s name. We can serve Him by using our resources for the sake of others. Jesus made the task impossible for the rich young man, but if he had only listened and followed, he would have discovered the incredible blessing that comes from putting God first in the world.
We are shocked when Jesus says, “Don’t call me good,” because if Jesus isn’t good, then how do we have any chance? But we are reminded by the writer of Hebrews that Jesus shared in our frailties. “For we have not a high priest that cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but one that hath been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus knew how hard it was to be a human being; He was tested just like every other man. When we go to Him with our pain and frailties, He can sympathize. Yet, He was without sin and because of His own obedience to the will and word of God; we can trust what He says. There is one thing we all lack - God - because we have something that we hold in higher regard than Him. For the Israelites in Amos’s day, it was their twisted justice that trampled the poor and oppressed the righteous. For the rich young ruler, it was his wealth. What is it that Jesus is asking us to give up to follow Him? In what do we trust more than God?
What Jesus was trying to get across to the young man and those who overheard the conversation is that it is not about what we can do to earn our place in the kingdom, but rather what God can do and what God has done. Amos calls the people to live in a relationship with God. He shows them their faults and their frailties. He points out their injustices. Most of all, he shows them that they are no longer in a relationship with their Creator. He shows them that following God is the better way.
They had turned away from Him to worship the false gods, and they were unjust, untrustworthy, and uncharitable. He was calling them to live a life of justice, trust, and charity, but that life was too hard. They focused on their wealth, and the keeping of their wealth. Amos told them to seek something better: the LORD. It might seem like a burden to turn around and follow, but there is where the true blessing is found. It is there we will find peace and rest.
We can’t do this alone. We are all so easily tempted by the world. The excuses are right on the tips of our tongues. What harm is there in calling a loan a gift? Those who take advantage of others, whether giver with demands or a receiver with excuses, do not live according to God’s grace. The truth is we really do harm our neighbors when we do not live according to God’s Word.
We need to help each other. It took just one voiced doubt in the desert to turn the entire nation of Israel against God. It takes just one moment of disobedience to set us on a wrong path. We need to encourage one another to be obedient so that we will all be blessed with the promise.
Christians have an advantage over the psalmist; we have seen the fulfillment of Moses’ prayer. The Lord had compassion on us; He sent His Son to take His wrath upon Himself. He has proven His unfailing love through the blood of Jesus Christ our Lord. He has favored us with His Holy Spirit through whom He establishes the work of our hands for His glory. Let us praise God for His greatness, His mercy and His love.
We can’t do it ourselves, but Jesus made it possible for us to approach the throne of grace with confidence and to receive that which God gives so freely. He does not give us more than He can handle. At His throne, we find mercy and forgiveness. It is there that God takes away our burdens and makes us free. It is there He helps us through all our trials and suffering. We get to the throne through the cross because it is there that we see that God does know our suffering and that He can overcome anything we bring before Him.
It is all about grace. We can’t live up to the expectations of God’s commandments, but God is with us through it all. He looks on us with love; He provides the way for us to go. He calls us to follow Him so that we will experience the blessings He desires for our lives. We can confidently sing with the psalmist, “Let the favor of the Lord our God be on us. Establish the work of our hands for us. Yes, establish the work of our hands,” because God is faithful to all His promises.
“As he thus made his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, ‘Paul, you are crazy! Your great learning is driving you insane!’ But he said, ‘I am not crazy, most excellent Festus, but boldly declare words of truth and reasonableness. For the king knows of these things, to whom also I speak freely. For I am persuaded that none of these things is hidden from him, for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.’ Agrippa said to Paul, ‘With a little persuasion are you trying to make me a Christian?’ Paul said, ‘I pray to God, that whether with little or with much, not only you, but also all that hear me today, might become such as I am, except for these bonds.’” Acts 26:24-29, WEB
There is a local landmark called the Buckhorn Saloon & Museum. It is an intriguing place, with walls filled with taxidermy and rooms filled with curiosities. There is a room to honor Texas Rangers, a room designed to look like a small Texas town, a room full of furniture made with horns. Some of the more interesting items are pictures made out of rattlesnake rattles. There are two-headed animals, a topsy-turvy room, and a stuffed gorilla that stood guard in the Saloon for many years. They even had a re-creation of the car in which the infamous Bonnie and Clyde were killed. The taxidermy animals included everything: deer, birds, longhorns, wildcats, giraffes, and even an elephant.
Visitors to this museum wander wide-eyed with mouths open. There are five rooms filled with thousands of incredible items, including the antlers of an Irish Elk. The animal has been extinct for over nine thousand years, but was once found all over Europe, North Africa and Asia. This elks’ antlers are at least ten feet wide and shaped much like that of a modern elk. The rack was so large that the head seemed way too small; the animal must have had an incredibly strong neck. According to the sign, this type of elk was the largest species of deer to ever exist; a mature Irish elk weighed 1000-5000 pounds and stood seven feet tall at the shoulders. The antlers averaged 12 feet and weighed 80-90 pounds.
How long could you go wearing something that heavy on your head? The elk was large, but how long could you last with something that was 5-10% of your weight on your head? I sometimes get a headache just from wearing a heavy barrette. I have a thick head of hair and have to cut it regularly because the weight eventually bothers me. I know it is time to go to the beauty parlor when my neck and back begin to hurt and I get a lingering headache. I would always be in pain if I had to carry 80 or 90 pounds of bone sticking out of my head!
Unlike the elk, our bodies aren’t built to hold such a heavy weight, but the burdens we carry aren’t always on our heads. They aren’t even always a physical burden that needs strength to carry. Look at Paul: he was a missionary, pastor, preacher and teacher. He went out in the world telling others about Jesus, teaching them how to be Christian. His mission got him in trouble on many occasions. There are always people who do not want to hear the Gospel message. They don’t want to believe in Jesus. They prefer to believe in their own gods or religions. Those most vehemently opposed to Christianity even found ways to make it a crime.
The text for today comes late in the story of Paul. He was arrested for preaching and during the trial he appealed to Caesar. He was a Roman Citizen as well as a Jew and a Christian. He had rights that many of the Jews and Christians did not have; but they treated him poorly because he was a Jew and a Christian. Appealing to Caesar meant that they would be forced to properly try him to execute justice. At the end of this passage, King Agrippa even concedes that if Paul had not appealed to Caesar, they would have had to let him go; Paul had done nothing to deserve the punishment of death.
I don’t know how I would have responded to this situation, after all, isn’t freedom better than facing the possibility of death? Wouldn’t being a free Roman Christian have a better impact on the world than being imprisoned and executed? I don’t know if I could have carried such a heavy burden. I don’t know if I could continue to preach the Gospel with such gusto and peace. Despite Paul’s ridiculous choice to be tried, he continued on the unbelievable path because he hoped that his words would turn the faith of his enemies!
Would you carry such a heavy burden? Would you continue to share the Gospel message even if your life hung in the balance? Would you hope for your neighbors to know the Lord and become Christians if doing so was dangerous? What fear or pain or anger or frustration will keep you from being a witness to Christ’s grace? What is your tipping point? How far are you willing to go today to share the truth that Jesus is the fulfillment of all God’s promises, the answer to the prophecies and the only way of salvation?
“But don’t forget this one thing, beloved, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some count slowness; but he is patient with us, not wishing that anyone should perish, but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fervent heat, and the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Therefore, since all these things will be destroyed like this, what kind of people ought you to be in holy living and godliness, looking for and earnestly desiring the coming of the day of God, which will cause the burning heavens to be dissolved, and the elements will melt with fervent heat? But, according to his promise, we look for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.” 2 Peter 3:8-13, WEB
I went to the zoo yesterday. I had an errand to run, and I couldn’t be so close and not spend time visiting my animal friends. It was fairly early in the morning, so many of the animals were still active; the coolness of the day and recent breakfast gave them the energy to run and play. I tend toward my favorites when I visit. I usually spend a long time in front of the flamingo exhibit, as well as the lions and tigers. I spent time with the lemurs yesterday because they were behaving with all sorts of silliness. I got one photo of a lemur that will make me laugh for a very long time.
The best visit was with the tiger. We have two, a male and a female, which will eventually be bred, but until then they are kept separate. Jamaal is the female, and she was the one who was out and about for the day. She was typically sleeping in her favorite spot, one that makes it possible to know where she is but impossible to get a decent picture. I stood for a while, hoping she would wake. I called, “Here kitty, kitty” a few times, which made other zoo visitors laugh. As if a tiger is a kitty like our domestic cats.
I have said all along, though, that cats will be cats, whatever the size. I doubt my “Here kitty, kitty” is what woke Jamaal, but within a few minutes she was up and wandering around her habitat. She went to the doors that go into her den; I suspect a keeper was in there and that she was expecting some lunch. She quickly gave up with that and went to the pond. There is a barrel that the tigers like to play with, and she put her paws on it, but then saw a stick, which she picked up. She got bored with the stick pretty quickly and eventually moved to the deck that gives the tigers a higher view. There was a log on the edge of the platform. She played with it for a while and then I could see where it was going.
Anyone who knows anything about cats knows that they tend to push things off tables. There are many videos out there that prove this point. I was right, Jamaal knocked that board off the platform onto the ground. The funniest part was the photo I took of her face when it happened. She looked like she was thinking, “I can’t believe that the log is gone!” She went to the ground, sniffed the log, then began wandering her habitat again.
There are those who have tried to explain this behavior. Cats use their paws to test and explore objects, and the movement, sound, and touch or feel of the object helps them understand what might be safe or not. It is natural, then, that sometimes the items will accidentally fall off. This might be true, but cat owners know that sometimes they do it on purpose. I’ve looked at one of my cats with sternness and said, “No.” They returned my look with one of innocence, keeping eye contact while they slowly move their paw to the item. I can repeat “No” a hundred times and those cats will continue innocently pushing the item until it is on the floor.
Cats will be cats. I noticed it with others in the zoo. They curl up into little balls to take their nap. The sit with regal indifference when they are resting. They have their favorite spots. I see all these characteristics and actions in my own kitty. Even the “Here kitty, kitty” is met with the same, “Well, perhaps I’ll deign to honor her with a brief moment of my attention. My cat will often enter the room meowing, and I’ll tell him to come to me. He doesn’t. He sits just out of reach meowing. It works, of course. I get up and walk to him, pick him up or rub his belly. We think we have them trained, but the reality is that they have us trained.
We take care of them because we love them. They make our life better in some way. We learn about ourselves by watching them, because while cats will be cats, they all have personalities that we can see in our human family, friends and neighbors. Have you ever watched a toddler in that “I think I’ll test mommy today” stage? They are just like the cat who is acting innocent even while they were planning their next move. I once watched a mother with a toddler in a shopping cart in the grocery store. The child kept dropping something on the floor. Mom had to pick it up and she always gave it. When she did, he dropped it again. This happened over and over again, and it made me smile. Parents have all been there, and while it is silly and annoying I’m sure some educator will tell you that there is a reason for the behavior. Jamaal’s game made me smile; I could even see in her face that look of “Should I?” and then the moment she decided that she should. God is patient, and He is constantly moving us toward repentance and maturity of faith.
I’m sure the keepers have patience with Jamaal’s games, just as that mother had with her child. Imagine how God must feel about our silliness? We look at Him with innocence but act in willful disobedience, but God is like that mother giving us chance after chance to grow in faith and maturity. Thankfully God is patient. The mother may have seemed to some that she was giving in to the child’s whims, but there was learning and bonding happening in that grocery store that day. The same happens between God and His children. We might think we are getting away with something, but God is able to use even our silliness to bring us closer to Him. Let us remember that time is in God’s hands; while He is patient, time will end. God smiles at us, but He hopes that we will mature in faith and walk in holy living and godliness as we wait for His day to come.
“Paul stood in the middle of the Areopagus, and said, ‘You men of Athens, I perceive that you are very religious in all things. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription: “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” What therefore you worship in ignorance, I announce to you. The God who made the world and all things in it, he, being Lord of heaven and earth, doesn’t dwell in temples made with hands. He isn’t served by men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he himself gives to all life and breath, and all things. He made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the surface of the earth, having determined appointed seasons, and the boundaries of their dwellings, that they should seek the Lord, if perhaps they might reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. “For in him we live, move, and have our being.” As some of your own poets have said, “For we are also his offspring.” Being then the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold, or silver, or stone, engraved by art and design of man. The times of ignorance therefore God overlooked. But now he commands that all people everywhere should repent, because he has appointed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he has ordained; of which he has given assurance to all men, in that he has raised him from the dead.’” Acts 17:23-31, WEB
Our question for this week comes from the Garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus prepared His heart for the trial and crucifixion that was just hours away. Peter, James, and John went with him to a secluded place, and Jesus asked them to watch with Him. He was troubled and told them, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch with me.” They fell asleep. He returned to where they were sleeping and asked, “What, couldn’t you watch with me for one hour?”
No man is an island. Jesus wasn’t just a man, He was God, and He could have done it all alone. He had the Father with Him. He had armies of angels at His command. He didn’t need a few fallible human beings to get Him through His night of grief. He didn’t even need the Twelve or the dozens of other followers who were committed to His ministry, both male and female. He could have done it alone. He didn’t, though. He chose those Twelve and invited so many others. We think of DaVinci’s “Last Supper” when we think about that night, but there were likely many others in the room besides the Twelve. He didn’t need them, but He loved them and He called them to continue His work. He even knew they’d fail, but He prepared the Way for them to take God’s grace into the world.
Jesus knew what was about to happen, they did not. They should have, because Jesus told them several times that He had to suffer at the hands of unbelievers. They heard Him say these things, but they didn’t really understand. They didn’t really believe this word of His. They didn’t want to believe it. They thought that it was just another night of Passover. They were tired from long journeys and a huge meal. They weren’t waiting for anything to happen. Jesus was different; He told them He was troubled and exceedingly sorrowful. They still didn’t understand that everything they’d done for three years was about to dramatically change. Jesus may have been able to do it by Himself, but He needed them.
He needed them to watch, not for His safety, but for their souls. He warned them when He found them asleep that they could be easily tempted away from Christ. How quickly they forgot! Jesus asked, “What, couldn’t you watch with me for one hour? Watch and pray, that you don’t enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” This time He told them to pray. He needed to seek God’s strength to get Him through the night, but so did they. Instead of praying, they fell asleep again. It happened three times. They would soon abandon Him in more physical ways, as Peter would deny Him and the rest would run and hide. But at that moment, they abandoned Him in spirit. They fell asleep when He needed them the most, and by falling asleep, they succumbed to the temptation to abandon Him altogether.
Jesus the Son of God did not need the disciples. He knew they would fail Him. But Jesus the Son of Man desperately needed to know that those whom He’d chosen would watch and pray with Him as He accomplished the most difficult thing any human being was ever asked to do. He knew they would fail, but He hoped they would stand.
Jesus asks us the same question, “What, couldn’t you watch with me for one hour?” Jesus doesn’t need us, but He hopes we will watch and pray, to stand with Him despite the temptations around us. Don’t we also experience times when we want to deny Jesus like Peter? Don’t we also want to run away like the rest of the disciples? Following Jesus is hard. It can be frightening. Quite frankly, it can lead to death as it did for some many of the Apostles and Christian martyrs throughout history. Peter and James would die at the hands of unbelievers; though John would live to old age, he would spend his last days as a prisoner for Christ. Are we willing to do the same?
He doesn’t need us. He can do it all by Himself. But He died for our sake and calls us to continue His work in the world. He knows we are no different than those disciples, but He has given us something that they did not have: the Holy Spirit. Let us pray that we won’t be tempted to fall asleep just when we can help Him the most. With God’s grace we can watch with Him for opportunities to share the Gospel so that all those who do not yet believe will hear and repent so they too might be raised to new life in Him.
“This I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense to the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” Philippians 1:9-11, WEB
Yesterday I wrote, “No man is an island,” but there are people in the world that we think can do it on their own. They seem strong, wise, independent. They don’t seem to need anyone or anything to accomplish everything they want to do. Unfortunately, I think this happens too often with our pastors. We love and support them, but we don’t think they need us. We count on them to pray for us, to share the Gospel with us, to counsel us when we are struggling. We expect them to visit us when we are sick and to provide for our spiritual well-being. We don’t think they need us. How can we minister to the minister?
If Jesus needed His disciples, how much more do our pastors need us? No man is an island, and while our pastors do have families and friends outside of their congregations, they also need our support.
Some think that a pastor’s job is easy. After all, they only work an hour or so a week, right? That’s not even remotely true. Being a pastor is a 24/7 job. They put hours into planning that hour a week when we come together to worship our God. They study the scriptures so that their messages are not only relevant to our lives, but so that they are biblically founded and true to God’s Word. They are available for us at our moments of deepest need, answering the phone at insane hours in case a parishioner is sick. They bury our dead and comfort those who grieve. They advocate for those who are dealing with difficult situations. They counsel people with troubles in their relationships. They take upon their shoulders the burdens of our sin and struggle with the emotions of those to whom they are ministering.
On top of the spiritual work they do, they are often responsible for mundane tasks around the Church. Most pastors can tell you about days they’ve been on their hands and knees cleaning up overflowing toilets and sitting late at night at their desk pouring over budgets. They order materials, lead preschool children in worship, attend committee meetings, outreach to the community and pray for every one of their sheep.
A pastor once told me that a council member once had an issue with his record of work. The pastor had recorded all his home and hospital visits, the hours spent preparing a sermon, the community gatherings at which he represented the church and other work that he did. He included the number of hours in prayer. The council member was shocked. “Shouldn’t you pray on your time?” he asked. No, the truth is that praying for the flock is one of the most important jobs of a pastor. Not only does it take their needs to the One who will hear and answer, it also tightens the bond between pastor and parishioner. Our pastors share everything with us, our grief and joy, our hopes and doubts, our assurance and our fears.
They need us as much as we need them. October is a good month to celebrate our pastors because it gives them the strength to help them through the upcoming season. We don’t realize how busy they are through Advent and Christmas, not only with extra services and social engagements, but also with the struggles of life. More people die at this time of year. More people struggle with emotional issues, suffering from depression and loneliness. It is a time when God’s people need guidance so that they will make the right decisions about resources and relationships. They carry our burdens throughout the year, but the burdens of the next few months tend to be especially heavy.
Our pastors are there for us year-round, so we should never limit our thanksgiving and our prayers to one month, yet this is a very good time for us to remind them how much they are appreciated. Send a note or a token that will brighten their day. Remember that they have a hard job, perhaps one of the hardest of all. They are responsible for so much more than a twelve-minute sermon on Sunday morning. Be compassionate, merciful and full of grace; they are carrying the burdens of the world on their shoulders. Be careful about how to deal with them so that they can glorify God and do their work with joy.
The text from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is one of my favorites, and it is a prayer we can all pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ. This is certainly what our pastors do for us, and we need to remember that our pastors are our brothers and sisters, too. They need prayer; they need us to pray that they know God’s love for them and for Paul’s hopes for all Christians. They need us to pray in hopeful expectation of God’s blessing on their lives of faith. They need our prayers more because as ministers they face attacks and difficulties we’ll never understand. October is Pastor Appreciation month. We can do lots of things to show our pastors we are thankful for their ministry among us but let us give them what they need the most: our prayers.
Scriptures for October 17, 2021, Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost: Ecclesiastes 5:10-20; Psalm 119:9-16; Hebrews 4:1-13 (14-16); Mark 10:23-31
“For we don’t have a high priest who can’t be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but one who has been in all points tempted like we are, yet without sin. Let’s therefore draw near with boldness to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace for help in time of need.” Hebrews 4:15-16, WEB
God created the world in six days, and then He rested. He did not rest because He was tired, but because His work was done. The gift of the Sabbath, given from God to mankind, is a moment in time when we can stop and rest, knowing our work is done. But it seems like our work is never done. We take time on the weekends from whatever job pays our bills, but then we must mow the lawn or do the laundry. We have to go grocery shopping or change the oil in the car. We need to do our work at church, preparing the things for worship, singing in the choir or teaching Sunday School. The rest of Sunday is spent doing the work that didn’t get done on Saturday. By Monday morning, we begin again without ever really finishing.
So many of our commitments are good things; we volunteer at church or in our neighborhoods, giving ourselves sacrificially to other people. At times, however, these responsibilities become burdens. We no longer “want to” do these tasks, we believe we “have to” do them. We grumble and moan when we need to attend yet another meeting. Our work is never done, and we get very tired of it all. Too often, we fear that if we don’t do everything that comes our way, we will disappoint our Father. We think we are righteous by what we do, so we feel we need to do more and more to be right with God. We never enter His rest.
Moms never get any rest. She has her hands full of the usual paraphernalia that moms carry - diaper bag, purse, carrier, and baby. She also carries a phone. Each item has its place on her shoulder or under her arm. She is burdened with so much baggage and yet she somehow manages to take care of everything. Moms just seem to gain a few hands during those early days of childhood; they become Octopus Mom. But there are times when even a mom needs help.
Doors provide a difficult obstacle, particularly when the need to be pulled open. At times it is necessary to put down the burdens we carry to be able to get through the door. It really is a joy when there is someone who will help us by opening the door, although we sometimes think we have to do all it all ourselves, as if we are Supermom defeating the door with our own strength. Unfortunately, that attitude appears in other aspects of life. Even as Christians, we tend to carry our own pain, unwilling to burden our family or friends. We try to be Superchristians, defeating the greatest evil with our own power.
Today’s Gospel lesson is a continuation of the story that began last week of the rich young man’s visit to Jesus. “What must I do to be saved? I have observed all the commandments since my youth.” Jesus looked at him and loved him, “One thing you lack...” Jesus said. The obstacle Jesus placed in front of the young man was his stuff.
The young man was heartbroken because he had a lot of stuff. How do you get rid of everything you own?
I often ask this question when I see stories of those people who have chosen to live in tiny houses. My art supplies would never fit into such a small space, let alone my whole life. As a matter of fact, my husband and I did not downsize when we bought our latest house, as many do when they become empty nesters. We bought a larger house so that I would have room for a studio. This is the first house we’ve had since we were married that doesn’t have furniture pushed against every wall. There is room to move, a place for cats to run, storage space for my junk. I can’t imagine every getting rid of everything to move into a house that is just two hundred square feet.
I make it sound like I am a hoarder, but I know how to purge. We moved regularly as a military family, and while we probably moved too much, we always let go of things we knew we would not need. Well, almost always. Our tour in England required some storage, but when we returned to the United States, I ended up getting rid of almost everything that we did not have for four years. Our latest move nine and a half years ago was an incredible undertaking. We had lived in that house eight years and it is so easy to let things pile up. The kids were on the verge of adulthood, so we donated truckloads of things we didn’t want to move to another house.
When the pandemic hit, I joined millions of others in the quest to simplify life. We did some redecorating, which meant moving furniture, including a desk. The desk drawers will filled with junk from the last house, so I emptied each one, separated the good from the bad. I threw out useless items and filled many boxes to donate. After the desk, I began cleaning the other junk drawers in our house. I cleaned bookshelves and purged hundreds of books from my collection. I gave kitchen items to my children who are both establishing their own homes. I even got rid of some furniture. Even after all this purging, I know I cold get rid of more.
While I still have too much stuff, I have also learned to limit my collecting. I celebrated a birthday this week and my husband repeatedly asked me what I wanted. I know he means well and that he wants to show me his love in tangible ways, but I really didn’t want anything. Do I really need another tchotchke to clutter my shelves? Do I really need the latest kitchen gadget? He’s going to ask the same question in a month or two as we prepare for Christmas, but the answer will be the same. It isn’t that I want to be difficult, I am just content. That said, I still don’t think I could get rid of everything for Jesus’ sake.
Today’s Old Testament reading from Ecclesiastes is a little uncomfortable for us who love our stuff. The writer writes, “He who loves silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he who loves abundance, with increase: this also is vanity.” Have you ever noticed that when you satisfy one desire, you soon have another? We start with a little, but we always want more. Who can eat just one potato chip? It is hard to collect just one porcelain figurine. No one has just one pair of sneakers, but I confess that I have shoes of every color so that I can match my shoes to my clothes. I also have socks to match. I rarely leave the kitty store without yet another toy for our baby, even though there are so many in the house he can’t possibly play with them all.
The writer of Ecclesiastes talks about the vanity of collecting stuff, after all, we can’t take it with us. We labor for everything we have. We not only chase after that next piece to our collection, but we labor to earn the money to purchase, labor to keep the dust from it. We even labor at holding on to it against those who want to take it from us. Our focus is on our stuff, and we lose sight of other things. Too many men pay more attention to their car than their girlfriend. Too many women are more concerned about which shoes to wear. Children don’t like to share because they are afraid someone will break it. We lose sight of joy because we are too worried about what will happen to our stuff.
As the writer says, “As he came out of his mother’s womb, naked shall he go again as he came, and shall take nothing for his labor, which he may carry away in his hand.” There is a joke about a man who was near death. He had spent his life working hard for his possessions and he prayed that he might take some of it with him to heaven. An angel heard him, and though the angel told him that he could not take anything, the man implored the angel to ask God. After a time, the angel reappeared and told him he was allowed to take one suitcase. He died and went to heaven. At the pearly gates, St. Peter stopped him and said that he couldn’t bring the suitcase. He retold the story of the angel’s visit and after St. Peter checked it out, he returned and said, “Ok, but I have to see what is in there.” St. Peter opened the suitcase to find bricks of pure gold stacked neatly inside. He said, “Pavement? Why did you bring pavement?” We love our things, but we have to remember the value of anything of this world is miniscule compared to what we will experience in eternity. We don’t need to take gold to heaven because the sidewalks are paved with gold. Everything in heaven will be better than anything we have on earth.
The message of Ecclesiastes isn’t all bad news. The writer goes on to say, “Behold, that which I have seen to be good and proper is for one to eat and to drink, and to enjoy good in all his labor, in which he labors under the sun, all the days of his life which God has given him; for this is his portion.” God wants us to enjoy our life on this earth, not to the point that our possessions are our focus, but in thanksgiving for the God who has made all good things possible. “Every man also to whom God has given riches and wealth, and has given him power to eat of it, and to take his portion, and to rejoice in his labor - this is the gift of God.” We are called to a life in which God is our focus. Our stuff is meaningless in terms of eternal destiny, but they are blessings to be enjoyed.
The key here is to remember the priorities of life. The Ecclesiastes passage for today ends, “For he shall not often reflect on the days of his life; because God occupies him with the joy of his heart.” We don’t need to worry about today or about our stuff because our hearts are filled with real joy in knowing that our God is gracious.
When we put down our burdens, we find it much easier to accomplish the work God is calling us to do. In the Gospel story, Jesus referenced a gate called “the eye of the needle,” which was a tiny gate that led into Jerusalem. It was convenient to the trading routes but was so small that a fully loaded camel could not fit through. It was not impossible - but the merchant needed to unload the camel, lead him through, and then reload the things onto his back.
Jesus invites us to unburden ourselves of everything that keeps us from walking through the gate. For the rich young man, it was his wealth. Our burdens are our own, but none are so great for God to carry. We just need to give everything to Him, the good things as well as the pain. We need to give Him our families, our wealth, our bodies, and most of all our hearts. Jesus tells His disciples in the following verses that because they have given up their very lives for Him, they will receive blessings far greater than they left behind. The same is true for us, we will be blessed for our submission. Our treasure will be in heaven.
The rich young man was distraught over the command of Jesus because his focus was on the stuff rather than the One by whom He was blessed. The one thing he lacked was not poverty. It was the joy of knowing that God is the center of blessedness. Joy, true joy, does not come with stuff that sits around getting dusty but is found in our relationship with our Creator and Redeemer God.
The rich young man missed what was important in the encounter with Jesus: that Jesus loved him. Jesus knows that the world tries to distract us with shiny bobbles. “It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter into God’s Kingdom.” His words were shocking to the disciples because they did not see who could be saved. Jesus answered, “With men it is impossible, but not with God, for all things are possible with God.” Then Jesus promised that those who are willing to set aside the things of this world for the sake of the Gospel will be blessed beyond measure with even more. However, it will come with a price: persecution. We have reason to rejoice because the promise of eternity is greater than the wealth of this world, and even if we suffer now we can do so with joy because the day will come when the promise will be fulfilled.
We chase after stuff, but God offers us something even better: rest. We exhaust ourselves with the work to pay for our stuff, with the searching for the stuff, with the caring for the stuff, and with the protecting of the stuff. All this for stuff we have to leave behind. But God says, “You don’t have to exhaust yourself over all this; put me first and you’ll have enough. You will have even more in the Promised Land. Rest in me, for in Me is the true blessing.”
Some people, even Christians, never really experience the rest that comes with faith in Christ. This is not a rest that means we do nothing with our lives. God calls us to work. He calls us to produce. He calls us to be witnesses and to serve others. He calls us to be good stewards of all we have been given. He doesn’t even mind that we fill our lives with things that we enjoy. But He might call us to rid ourselves of everything to follow Him completely. This is a call to trust that God is faithful to His promises and the blessings of this world are simply a foretaste of that which is to come in Heaven. One thing they lack is complete trust in God and the joy of knowing that God is the center of our blessedness.
We have talked multiple times about Psalm 119. It reads like a redundant law-filled text and is often ignored. However, there is value in the words of the entire psalm because it turns us toward the One from whom all rest and blessing is received. There are eight different law words used in the psalm, each describing a different aspect of God’s Word. If you understand that each word has a unique meaning, then you see what the psalmist was telling us more clearly. The theme of today’s text is ultimately “staying in God’s Word.” We learn that it is there that we find rest and joy.
The psalmist asks how a young man can be pure. The answer is by obeying God’s divine spoken Word. We can look for Him in our religious obligations. We must keep His promise close to our heart so that we won’t turn from Him and do what is wrong. We can seek God’s teaching on how to live properly and according to His rules. We can accept God’s judgment when we do wrong and rejoice through our worship practices. We can, and must, focus on God’s authority over our life and there we will find rest.
See how each word means something different? Each verse of this stanza of the psalm refers to something different: the spoken Word of God, the obligations of faith, the promise, the teachings, the rules, the judgment, the rituals and the authority each have a place in our life and as we are obedient in all ways we will find a life blessed by God’s graciousness. None of that will earn us eternal life in Heaven, but it will help us to live a life that glorifies God in this world as we wait for the promise Jesus won for us on the cross.
Jesus was so much more than we can expect or desire. He is the King of kings and Lord of lords. He is Redeemer. He is the Great Shepherd. He is our brother, our friend, and our master. He is our teacher. He is the Great High Priest as the writer of Hebrews describes in this week’s epistle lesson.
Human beings are very good at making titles something pompous and extraordinary. We take something simple and make it complicated to give ourselves a boost in ego or a seemingly higher position in this world. Some actual job titles are preceded with words like “great,” “grand,” “chief,” “senior,” or “lord.” Other amplifiers that are used are “honorable,” “prestigious,” “right worshipful,” or “magnificent.” I am sure we could come up with dozens of others. These words might be helpful to know a person’s place in this world, but in most cases these titles simply raise an ordinary person to some extraordinary position. In England, for example, the mayor of a town is addressed “the Right Worshipful, the Mayor.” This seems like an extreme title for any man or woman.
The writer of Hebrews tells us that we have a “Great High Priest” adding an amplifier to the role of the most important leader in the temple. Yet, this title was not given to a man is was given to Jesus Christ. Is it necessary and what does it mean? For some, the titles almost make it seem as though they are beyond humanity, something above the average person.
In the case of Jesus as High Priest, it is not simply a title to make Him greater than others. As a matter of fact, the title itself actually identifies Him more with His human brothers and sisters. A priest is not one who rules over a people, but rather one who serves God and man. A priest is a servant and in the case of Jesus, the perfect servant who though He was tempted He never sinned. Though the human response to such greatness would tend to make such a man unreachable, in the case of Christ this is a title that makes Him even more gracious. He knows what we are experiencing, so He offers mercy. The pompous sounding title does not make Him beyond our reach. Instead, He calls us to approach Him with boldness.
I hope that if the time ever came for me to choose between God and the world that I will make the right decision. I know, however, that Jesus loves me even when I fail. I know that He understands the draw of the world and the bobbles that it promises. I know that He sees my heart and that He sees the flicker of faith that is at the center of my being, the faith that He has given by His grace. Day by day, Today even, I find I can let go more and more as He fills me with Himself. One day I will have to give it all up; one day I'll die and stand at those pearly gates. I don’t have any pavement to take with me, but I hope that I won’t feel the need to beg God to let me take a few of my favorite things. I hope that my little faith will be enough to keep my focus on the Lord now so that I won’t worry day by day what will happen to my stuff because the joy in my heart is from God. For now, I pray that God will help me remember that the meaningless dust-catchers I will have to give up in this world will be replaced with so much more: eternal rest and joy and peace.
“I said, ‘I will watch my ways, so that I don’t sin with my tongue. I will keep my mouth with a bridle while the wicked is before me.’ I was mute with silence. I held my peace, even from good. My sorrow was stirred. My heart was hot within me. While I meditated, the fire burned. I spoke with my tongue: ‘Yahweh, show me my end, what is the measure of my days. Let me know how frail I am. Behold, you have made my days hand widths. My lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely every man stands as a breath.’ Selah. ‘Surely every man walks like a shadow. Surely they busy themselves in vain. He heaps up, and doesn’t know who shall gather. Now, Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in you. Deliver me from all my transgressions. Don’t make me the reproach of the foolish. I was mute. I didn’t open my mouth, because you did it. Remove your scourge away from me. I am overcome by the blow of your hand. When you rebuke and correct man for iniquity, you consume his wealth like a moth. Surely every man is but a breath.’ Selah. ‘Hear my prayer, Yahweh, and give ear to my cry. Don’t be silent at my tears. For I am a stranger with you, a foreigner, as all my fathers were. Oh spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go away and exist no more.’” Psalm 39, WEB
I confess that I’m not always very good at keeping my tongue, and it is usually at the most inappropriate moments when I do so. I can get angry or frustrated, and I take it out on the person in my way. Sometimes the person needs to hear that they are not doing what they should do, but too often I do it in a way that is unsuitable, sometimes even humiliating for the person who is being chastised. We’ve all heard the term “Karen” referring to middle aged women who “want to talk to the manager.” While I’m not really that type of woman, I have to admit that sometimes after I’ve had a confrontation in public that I probably appeared to be one. Who knows, one day I may find a story I recognize on one of those articles.
Unfortunately, we tend to be worse when it comes to our own family. We were at a picnic when my son copped an attitude. It turned out that his sister was sitting on the chair we specifically brought for him. There were other chairs, but for some reason it was his favorite. I didn’t know we had special chairs and it was not a good time for him to complain, so I snapped to threaten him into submission.
It was a bad time to snap. There were many people around, including his friends. Public humiliation is never a good discipline technique, but instead of taking him to private spot to explain when his actions were not appropriate and to ask him to cooperate, I embarrassed him at that place and time. Kids love to use moments like that to rag on their friends. “Man, your mom got you good!” Adults are not much better. Even the briefest instant showing a lack of control can be used against a person and the gossip spreads quickly.
We can also lose our cool in private at inappropriate times, like when we get angry with our spouse. We should always be sure that our children are not listening when we argue. A mother and father may not always agree about things, but it is best not to snap at each other in front of the children. Unfortunately, couples in the midst of an ugly divorce will often try to use the children as weapons in their battles; they tell the children things they should never know. This type of information can ruin the relationships and only exasperate the situation.
We get mad at our kids and our spouses, but we also get mad at God. Things do not always go as we expect. We face the consequences of our disobedience, and we are persecuted for our obedience. Sometimes it seems as though God is a million miles away, having abandoned us for some unknown reason. We respond in pain and cry out “Why me?”; we shake our fists at God in anger. We are not alone in this. Even King David, who was a man after God’s own heart, wondered why he had to suffer. It is normal in the course of human emotion and experience to have times when we blame God for our difficulties. Yet, David understood the consequences of a public proclamation of God’s guilt.
To reprimand a child in front of his friends does little to solve the situation and it tends to make things worse. The child, in response to the kidding he will get, may act out in a worse manner and rebel in ways that are even more difficult to handle. When parents reprimand one another in front of the children, they lose the integrity of their unity as one unit raising children. These experiences will not affect only one side of the equation. The children and the parents will suffer when the relationships are broken, even if it is for a short period of time.
When a Christian rages about God in front of strangers, they not only disrespect their Lord, but they also set themselves up for suffering from their enemies. Who would want to worship a God that is so horrible? Who would respect the will of a God that seems to have so little control of His believers? Yet, when David tried to stay silent, out of respect for his God, the sorrow burned within his heart. He had to speak out against the pain. We can do so, for God is indeed strong enough to handle our anger. We are His people and He loves us even in our inappropriateness. It is important, however, to remember that is a good time to take our pain to God and a good way to do so. We can take it to Him in our prayers, or seek help from other Christians who can remind us of His grace. We need to be careful that we don’t dishonor Him in the eyes of those whom He seeks to welcome into His kingdom but will reject Him because of our disrespect. God will hear our complaints but let us always remember that He has not gone far from us, no matter how things seem. He hears us and answers. His grace is greater than our suffering, and His love will always see us through.
“Consider the lilies, how they grow. They don’t toil, neither do they spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if this is how God clothes the grass in the field, which today exists, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith? Don’t seek what you will eat or what you will drink; neither be anxious. For the nations of the world seek after all of these things, but your Father knows that you need these things. But seek God’s Kingdom, and all these things will be added to you. Don’t be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. Sell that which you have, and give gifts to the needy. Make for yourselves purses which don’t grow old, a treasure in the heavens that doesn’t fail, where no thief approaches, neither moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Luke 12:27-34, WEB
Everyone who has ever had a pet has seen trust in action. The depend on us for food and other care, and they form their habits around their expectations of us. We feed them, and they soon rely on that food at a specific time of day. Our current cat is very vocal when that hour draws near, constantly meowing until we respond by getting out of bed. Unfortunately, he is used to very early morning meals because Bruce is out of bed very early during the week. He doesn’t understand that we can sleep in a little on weekends, so he meows until we give him his breakfast.
We had another cat named Felix who demanded his breakfast in a different way. He wanted his breakfast at a certain hour, but he usually waited for the alarm to go off to start doing whatever was necessary to get us out of bed. First he purred in our ear. If that didn’t work, he put his head under our hand to get us to pet him. He climbed all over our bodies and sat on our chests with his nose in our face. He showed us love to get our attention. He was persistent and anxious to get his food, but his actions showed his love and trust. He could be quite annoying, particularly on those days when we were able to sleep a little later. Yet even when we refused to respond, he remained patient, knowing he would be fed.
What does it mean to trust? Trust is defined as having total confidence in the integrity, ability, and good character of another. Though pets are unable to discern and define such character traits, they certainly can recognize those who will feed and care for them. They don’t reason the way people do, but they learn to trust based on action.
Sometimes we human beings reason too much. We think about our needs and worry about where we will get the money to do everything we need and want to do. We look at our budgets, often cutting our charitable giving first. We know we need to eat and pay for shelter to keep safe and dry. We don’t realize how much of our money goes to things that simply are not necessary, like the bigger car, the house in the best neighborhood, or the newest technology. Human beings trust in the wrong things. We turn to our jobs, our credit cards, and our desires for worldly objects for happiness and contentment.
Yet, we should never put our trust in worldly things. God our Father has promised to provide everything we need to live day to day.
If only we could live our lives like our pets. They need nothing but a warm place to sleep, food and water, and the companionship of people who love them. They trust that we will continue to provide them with all those things. Some pets like Felix will respond with patience if left to wait, coming to us with a love that speaks of thankfulness for that which he knows to be true, that we will be faithful to our promise to care for him. This is contentment.
Too often, we human beings trust in the things of this world rather than One who gives us all we need. We worry about bills and where our next meal will come from, but we fill our homes with stuff that is just not necessary. We think contentment comes from our material wealth, yet it will perish. Jesus tells us that we should trust God our Father, because He is faithful to His promises. He has promised that He will provide everything we need, and as we live our life of faith we will gain a treasure that can never be destroyed: eternal life in the Kingdom of God. Do you feel like God is slow in answering your call? Seek His kingdom; enter into His presence with love and thanksgiving. When you trust Him, He will provide for your every need.
“Have mercy on me, Yahweh, for I am in distress. My eye, my soul, and my body waste away with grief. For my life is spent with sorrow, my years with sighing. My strength fails because of my iniquity. My bones are wasted away. Because of all my adversaries I have become utterly contemptible to my neighbors, a horror to my acquaintances. Those who saw me on the street fled from me. I am forgotten from their hearts like a dead man. I am like broken pottery. For I have heard the slander of many, terror on every side, while they conspire together against me, they plot to take away my life. But I trust in you, Yahweh. I said, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hand. Deliver me from the hand of my enemies, and from those who persecute me. Make your face to shine on your servant. Save me in your loving kindness.” Psalm 31:9-16, WEB
The question for this week comes from the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus cried from the cross, “Eli, Eli, lima sabachthani?” That is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 or Mark 15:34) It is a quote from Psalm 22. Do you ever feel abandoned by God?
This story of Jesus’ Passion doesn’t seem like good news. The horrific events of the first Good Friday make us wonder how it could ever be called good. Jesus, without an understandable reason, was abandoned by God, falsely judged, beaten and humiliated and then hung on the cross. After a few hours of suffering, Jesus died. Even in those final moments, the people ridiculed Him, yelling for Him to save Himself. The criminals that were punished by His side joined in the scorn. His disciples disappeared; only a few of the women stood nearby. That doesn’t seem very good.
The good news wasn’t found on that cross. It was, without a doubt, a horrific way of accomplishing what God intended through Jesus Christ. No death, not even the death Jesus suffered, is good news. The cross was necessary to complete God’s work and we would have no joy on Easter without it. But what made that Friday good were not the events leading up to the death, but everything that followed. Jesus’ final cry unleashed the power of God in incredible ways. At that moment, the curtain in the Temple tore and the earth shook with earthquake.
It is easy to imagine that the curtain tearing in the Temple had something to do with this earthquake, but it was no coincidence. An earthquake that didn’t bring down the walls of the Temple could not cause the ripping of an extremely heavy curtain that was nearly two inches thick. It was the partition that separated God from humans, the entry into the Most Holy Place where very few men were allowed. Only the High Priest on one day a year could enter that place, and only after a long ritual of cleansing and preparation. On that day, the priest entered the most holy place to sprinkle the blood on the Ark of the Covenant to atone for the sins of the people.
Jesus changed all that. With the shedding of His blood, it was no longer necessary to shed the blood of animals that had no eternal affect. Jesus was the final lamb. He was the One who could provide forgiveness forever. The priest would never have to enter into that Most Holy Place once a year again, because Jesus finished the work. For that to happen, Jesus had to be abandoned by His Father.
Jesus died at the ninth hour, 3:00 p.m. Even to that final moment, Jesus was in control. During the final moments on the cross Jesus took care of the last-minute business. He forgave His enemies. He honored His mother and gave her a son to care for her future. He provided hope to a sinner in need. When all was complete, Jesus cried out for the last time and gave up His spirit. The world rocked with the anger of God.
His death came quickly. Mark gives us a few final words from Jesus. He cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which Mark translates to mean, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” The people gathered at the base of the cross misinterpreted His cry, thinking that He was calling for Elijah to save Him. He was remembering Psalm 22 where David cries out as a godly sufferer. By turning to those words Jesus identifies with the pain of David and all the people who suffer. It is a psalm of comfort, which gives hope to the sufferer in the midst of their trial by remembering the promises of God.
As we look back on the events of that horrific day, we might think that the suffering was at its greatest when the physical pain was the worst. But for Jesus the greatest suffering came at that moment when the weight of the world’s sin was on His shoulders; our sin made it impossible for God to look upon His beloved Son. Jesus cried out in His abandonment; in His cry we see His humanness. He may have suffered the pain of all His wounds for hours, but it was that one moment when He was truly alone, if ever so briefly. That is when He suffered the most.
Yet, even when His Father seemed to be acting in an uncharacteristic, unmerciful, and unloving manner, Jesus continued in His will of the Father. He did not save Himself even though the crowd shouted that He should. Instead, He gave a loud cry and died. He suffered the ultimate abandonment in the moment when He needed God the most, and He did it willingly. He was not willing to follow the cries of the crowd; they were fickle, following every wind. They did not know what they were doing. He had to die for God’s promises to be complete. His amazing grace was realized through the most incredible act of sacrifice: the beloved Son, the Priest-King, offered Himself as the Lamb of God for the forgiveness of all sin for all men in all time.
The Psalmist understood this tug of war between desire and submission. “Have mercy on me, Yahweh, for I am in distress. My eye, my soul, and my body waste away with grief.” Though he complained of his anguish and loneliness, he trusted in God. “But I trust in you, Yahweh. I said, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hand. Deliver me from the hand of my enemies, and from those who persecute me. Make your face to shine on your servant. Save me in your loving kindness.” Everything Jesus went through was nothing compared to the promise of God’s unfailing love for His people. Jesus humbly accepted the Will of God and obediently suffered for our sake.
We benefit from the abandonment of Jesus because we see in the promise of the resurrection that our pain will not last forever. There are times when we feel alone, but God loves His people and He is always with us. We may have trouble seeing His answers to our prayers, but we can trust that God is answering according to His good and perfect will for our lives. We have reason to trust in Him because He is our God. When we ask “Why have you forsaken me?” we can believe that He loves us, that His face is shining on us even in the hard times, and that He will save us because He is faithful to fulfill His covenant promises, because Jesus willingly faced God’s abandonment for our sake.
“On the next day, the multitude that stood on the other side of the sea saw that there was no other boat there, except the one in which his disciples had embarked, and that Jesus hadn’t entered with his disciples into the boat, but his disciples had gone away alone. However boats from Tiberias came near to the place where they ate the bread after the Lord had given thanks. When the multitude therefore saw that Jesus wasn’t there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats, and came to Capernaum, seeking Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they asked him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Most certainly I tell you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves, and were filled. Don’t work for the food which perishes, but for the food which remains to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For God the Father has sealed him.’” John 6:26, WEB
I have been the lead planner for a women’s retreat for our church for the past few years. There have been lots of women who have helped with the planning, I could never take credit for the whole thing, yet much of the responsibility did fall on my shoulders. I made some decisions and changes over the years based on the evaluations of those who attended those retreats. Those changes have been good, and the retreat has been better and better each year. Still, there is always someone who has something negative to say.
Of course, the evaluation gives a place to make suggestions for improvement, many who fill out the form think they should answer all the questions. They should, we need to know what needs to be improved so we can make the next retreat even better. I must confess, however, that I have taken some of those negative comments very personally. I know they aren’t meant to be, and I am getting better, but I have planned these retreats with the hope that I would make everyone happy. I know it is an impossible hope, but I still hope. I did a search on the internet for biblical answers to the question of making everyone happy. One site used the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. It gave me a perspective I had never considered.
Jesus fed a crowd of people with a few fish and loaves of bread. It was an incredible miracle as God made a little food satisfy a whole group. Yet, in the end there were still some who were not satisfied! They wanted more. After Jesus fed the five thousand, He perceived in His heart that they wanted to take Him by force to make Him king. He would be King, but He didn’t come to dwell among us to become an earthly king. The crowds wanted Him to feed them, to fill their bellies, to take care of their physical needs. It is so much easier when we rely on someone else to take care of these things. Why work for food when someone can give it to us? Jesus came to feed them a better food, the Word of God that leads to eternal life, and He would not be distracted from the Father’s will.
We all know that person who can find fault with everything. Sometimes I worry that I am that person, but I try to find the goodness and grace even when circumstances are not perfect. Good has come from the negative evaluations because we have made changes that benefit the event and the women who attend. It is very easy for us to get caught up in the idea that we can make everyone happy. Ironically, sometimes the changes we make are disliked by those who liked the old way! We can’t make everyone happy.
We aren’t as connected to the Father as Jesus was, so we struggle with knowing God’s will. We can only trust that God will help us do what is best, which is not always what makes everyone happy. It would have made many people happy to have Jesus fight for the throne of Israel, but it wouldn’t have accomplished God’s true will for us. Jesus would not have saved us from sin and death if He had followed the will of the people. This was one of the temptations that Satan presented to Jesus when He fasted in the wilderness. We can learn from Jesus that it isn’t our responsibility to make everyone happy, but to do the best we can do to be obedient to God’s plan. God’s concern is that we encourage one another to seek Him and in Him we will always find joy, peace, hope, and even happiness. We can’t give everyone what they want, but we can share with them what they need the most: Jesus.
Scriptures for October 24, 2021, Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost: Jeremiah 31:7-9; Psalm 126; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52
“Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing. Then they said among the nations, ‘Yahweh has done great things for them.’” Psalm 126:2, WEB
Jeremiah talks in the Old Testament passage about a remnant. Those who sew know that a remnant is a leftover piece of cloth, the end of a roll, often sold at a discount. The pieces are usually too small to make anything, certainly not a piece of clothing. I search the remnants for material to use for craft projects, and quilters can often use pieces for quilts they create. Usually, though, these pieces are worthless and unwanted. The word “remnant” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a usually small part, member, or trace remaining; a small surviving group -often used in plural.” The remnant of Israel was a small surviving group, a group with no power, no authority, and no position in the world.
In this case, the remnant includes those who turned to the Lord, who returned to the Lord. Israel had been lost, forgetting the works of God and turning to the nations for aid. The judgment they received for their unfaithfulness was exile in Assyria. But God did not send them into exile without a promise: they would be saved. In today’s passage, God called His people to praise Him. “Sing Hosanna” which means, “Save, O LORD, your people.” They were called to rejoice in what God has done and what He will do.
In this passage, He calls His people both “the chief of nations” and a remnant. This doesn’t make sense in our mind. How can a remnant be a chief? Then He says, “For I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my first-born.” The irony here is that Ephraim was the second son of Joseph who was the eleventh son of Jacob. He could not be the first born. The nation could not be chief. Israel was just a remnant. But God can do whatever He wants to do.
Jeremiah says, “Behold, I will bring them from the north country, and gather them from the uttermost parts of the earth, along with the blind and the lame, the woman with child and her who travails with child together: a great company shall they return here.” God was not going to bring together the best of the best. He wasn’t going to gather the strong or handsome. He wasn’t seeking the smartest, richest or most powerful. He gathered together the weak. He restored the weak and the lame, the women at their most vulnerable. They were the ones that He promised to take home and He promised to protect them along the way.
The trip into exile did bring His people back into His heart. The remnant did turn back to Him and they were returned to their home. Jeremiah tells us that they would come with weeping. See, those who are weak recognize their need and weep because they see that there is someone who cares. The strong have no need of a savior; they can save themselves. But the weak need someone who is willing to do the unexpected. The weak need someone who is willing to turn the world upside down, to find value in imperfection and to lift up those who the world would rather throw away. God is the One who does this. They may have returned with weeping, but it was tears of humble thankfulness and joy.
It is hard for us to imagine the nation of Israel as the greatest nation in the world, particularly in this day when there are so many problems in the Middle East. There was a time, however, when Israel was very prosperous, having fame and wealth that was known around the world. Yet, for most of their existence the nation was nothing more than a people, often oppressed by nations much greater, destroyed by their weapons and controlled by their authorities. Israel had little to offer the world, except the greatest gift: the one true and living God. Israel’s greatness had nothing to do with power or money; Israel was great in the eyes of God.
Israel would not be considered the greatest anything based on their history, wealth or power. Yet, the scriptures call them the chief of nations in the scriptures. That greatness is in the eyes of one beholder, the Lord God Almighty. He has promised to do great things for His chosen nation, and He did so. He gave His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, through the weak and powerless so that the weak and powerless would become great. In Christ we who are nothing become heirs to the kingdom of God. When the world looks at Christianity, they see a bunch of sinners in need of a Savior, a bunch of losers in need of a Redeemer, and wonder what is so great about a religion in which the main character dies. How can such a religion be great? It is great, not because Christians are perfect or special or powerful, but because God loves us.
It is hard to believe, especially if you watch Christians as they live their lives. We are often worthy of ridicule. The joke is on us because we just don’t fit into the world. There used to be a comedy-drama series that revolved around the set of a late-night comedy show. The program tended to take many swipes at the Christian community, making fun of the extreme actions and words of some Christians in our world. There was one character who was a strong Christian, and she often took a stand against some of the skits, not because she had no sense of humor, but because the jokes are simply not funny. She just as firmly stood up for the skits that were funny, even when the skits poked fun at her faith. There is a place for comedy that is spoken with mercy and grace. She knew that the truth is often very funny and that laughing at ourselves does a soul good. In other words, when we see how ridiculous we are, we can truly see how gracious and loving our Lord truly is.
There are those who might question how she, a Christian, could hold down such a job. They were offended by her presence and even questioned her Christianity. On one episode, she told a reporter how she came to be a comedian. She was always interested in performing and singing, she appeared in church plays. She loved Judy Holliday. During one performance, she forgot a line and broke out into a Judy Holliday impression. Everyone was stunned until the pastor laughed. It was at that moment that she became a comedian. It was also then that she truly committed her life to Christ. In essence, she became a Christian and a comedian at the same time.
Though the bible often refers to laughter in the negative, joy is a gift from God. We can laugh at ourselves and at our failures. We can laugh together and enjoy one another. Some of the fondest memories I have were times when I laughed. I remember a time giggling uncontrollably with my mom on a trip. We even laugh in the midst of tears, as we share memories of loved ones who have gone.
The Psalm for today is a prayer of thanksgiving for God’s saving grace. The mouths of the congregation were filled with laughter and their tongues with singing. Can one weep and laugh at the same time? I know I have. “Those who sow in tears will reap in joy.” There is a time for sorrow and a time for joy. Those who suffer are more readily available to receive God’s help. They look to Him. They trust in Him. They accept their own weakness and count on His strength. The tears of penitence and humility will be sowed into sheaves of bountiful blessings.
The psalm talks of the joy experienced by Israel after being freed from exile, the joy they knew at returning home. They knew the great thing God had done for them and they rejoiced. There are certainly inappropriate times to laugh. There is humor that is hurtful and unmerciful. However, it is good for us to laugh at ourselves and our foibles. It is especially good for us to live in joy. The world will see our joy and know that the Lord has done great things. Though we have to experience times of sadness, we can live in the hope that we will come through and we will once again laugh.
I used to volunteer at a park that was specially designed for those who are differently abled. There are rides that will accommodate wheelchairs and activities for those who have sensory issues. The park includes a lake where the visitors can fish and a waterpark. There is even a Ferris wheel. Their safety protocols were created to help caregivers and other guests have a wonderful time. The park was not meant for just those with disabilities, though. The purpose was to give everyone a chance to play together, to learn how to interact when there are differences that seem unbridgeable. We had school groups and senior centers as well as visitors from all over the world. Some children even wanted a trip to this park to be their gift from the Make-a-Wish Foundation.
This is not the only way that today’s society is trying to meet the needs of those who are differently abled. I use that term specifically because in the past it was thought that they couldn’t do anything. Many people who cast away, hidden in mental institutions, or even dumped on street corners to beg. That is likely what happened to Blind Bartimaeus. There are groups and organizations that have done wonderful work offering opportunities for those who have disabilities. I have a friend whose Down Syndrome son has been part of activities for many years that have trained him to be a productive member of his community. I worked for a store and the store manager worked with a group home to give the residents jobs. Organizations produce items that can be created with the blind. Some people who were once thought incapable of accomplishing anything have found their place in the world.
In the days of Jesus, however, there were no such opportunities. Bartimaeus was a blind beggar; in Jesus’ day they had no chance. It was difficult for them to earn a living, not only because there was little they could do without sight, but also because people were hesitant to support their work. It was believed that blindness meant rejection by God. They believed that the sick and disabled must have sinned to have this suffering. Unscrupulous people often dumped them in a place where they could beg instead of taking care of them or helping them find something productive to do.
Bartimaeus was on the side of the road begging when he heard a commotion. Bartimaeus knew about Jesus. He had probably heard stories of other healing, perhaps even stories about men who had been blind. He couldn’t run up to Jesus the way others who sought healing could do. It was dangerous for him to even try because he could trip over a rock or a child. He could have made a fool of himself trying to find Jesus in the crowd. He couldn’t move out of fear. However, faith is stronger than fear and Bartimaeus called to Jesus. “Son of David!”
It is interesting to note that it is unusual for the man to be named. We don’t hear the names of many of those who interact with Jesus. Even the rich young man is nameless. Yet in this particular story, we are given the blind man’s name. This naming of Bartimaeus is unusual, but it is even more unusual that Mark writes the name twice. Since “bar” means “son,” Bartimaeus literally means son of Timaeus. Why did Mark tell us the same thing twice? The language used is a strange Semetic-Greek hybrid that might not have been understood by the earliest readers. It is also possible that this character has something to tell us about the philosophical understanding of the world in Jesus’ day.
As it turns out, one of Plato’s final dialogues was titled, “Timaeus.” The dialogue in this piece is between several philosophers including one named Timaeus who is the source of a lengthy monologue about the nature of the world, both physical and eternal. Timaeus seems to lay out Plato’s understanding of physics and the role of man in the world. That understanding includes the idea that sight is the foundation of knowledge. Was Bartimaeus a “son of Timaeus”?
The Greek philosophers, including Plato, impacted Christian thought from the beginning. Is it good or bad? I can honestly say that I haven’t studied it enough to know for sure. We do not have time to debate the ancient Greek philosophers, but I wonder if the importance of Bartimaeus’ name has something to do with his understanding of the world. Did he believe platonic philosophy? Did he see the world the way Timaeus does in the dialogue? And if so, does this brief encounter tell us more than just how Jesus healed him of his physical sight, but also how Jesus helped him see the world in a new way, to gain knowledge through God’s eyes?
Jesus never just touched a person’s physical needs; He always touched their spirits with forgiveness, grace, and an understanding of God.
Bartimaeus addressed Jesus as the “Son of David.” He saw Jesus as a savior, as the Messiah. This is not just about Jesus changing his life by giving him sight; it is about Jesus giving him the sight to see the reality of God. In verse 50, Mark tells us that when Jesus called Bartimaeus to Himself, Bartimaeus got up and “casting away his cloak” went to Jesus. This could refer both to a piece of clothing or it could be symbolic of casting away an ideology or philosophy. In answering the call of Jesus, Bartimaeus not only went to Jesus in hope of being healed, but in humble recognition that he needed Jesus to help him gain knowledge by seeing God. Jesus asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus answered, “Rabbi,” identifying Jesus as a teacher, “I want to see.” He certainly wanted to be physically healed, but we all need something more: we want to see God.
Famous people have difficulty leading a normal life. They are constantly recognized, and people demand time with them. Yet, they are people, too, and most would rather have time to be normal. They want to go to the grocery store without groupies or a movie without hearing gossip. I’ve heard stories of people who have been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of someone famous in public. They have children that need to go to school. They go shopping for Christmas presents and buy Starbucks coffee like the rest of us. Sometimes paparazzi will share pictures of those stars without make-up so we can see what they look like in real life. Some are completely unrecognizable when they are caught without hours of preparation. They try to disappear into the crowd when they go out so they can just have dinner with their kids.
It is hard to know what to do when you are face to face with someone famous. If it is an actor or singer, you might ask for an autograph, but that never seems like enough. There was a time when a handshake or a hug would have been nice, but in this day and age celebrities are hesitant. Famous folk don’t even want their photos taken because they do not know where they will be posted. We want to give them respect, but we also want our moment in the presence of celebrity to last, we want some sort of proof that it happened. We try to find the appropriate words to begin a conversation, but we often become tongue-tied and say silly things.
What would you do if you met someone with power or authority? Would you be bold enough to approach this person? How would you react if they then asked, “What can I do for you?” What would you ask? A politician might be able to handle a problem in your city. A corporate executive might be able to give you a job. A famous surgeon might be able to offer some medical advice. Would you be brave enough to ask? Or would you fumble with all the wrong words asking for the wrong thing?
In today’s story, Blind Bartimaeus knew exactly what he wanted. He had the boldness to cry out to Jesus. He knew Jesus had the power and authority to help him. He kept calling out to Jesus, boldly hoping for a just a minute of his time. Bartimaeus would never have seen Jesus had it not been for his boldness. When Jesus called him over, He asked, “What can I do for you?” Most stars don’t have the time or the patience to pay attention to one person in such a large crowd, but Jesus turned His full attention to this one man. Bartimaeus was given a great gift - sight - because He was willing to be bold. But the true gift was not the sight of his eyes, but the sight of his heart, the sight that knew Jesus had the power and authority to make him well.
Jane Wyatt was the actress who played one of television’s favorite mothers. She starred in many roles throughout her long and active life, but she will be most remembered for being Margaret Anderson, the wife of Robert Young’s character Jim. There are those who thought that shows such as “Father Knows Best” had an unrealistic vision of the world in which they lived. No family was like the television families, yet they felt that it was good to hold up an ideal. The characters weren’t shallow: they dealt with problems that other families were facing. They simply solved those problems much more easily. They had to, they had less than 30 minutes.
As we look at today’s television families, we find examples probably reflect more closely the reality in our world. Yet, there was something very endearing about those 1950’s families, something that has lasted a long time, something that gives us some vision of a wonderful, happy life. Perhaps it is unrealistic, perhaps it is utopian. However, in those shows we saw some hope for a life that might be, and they might have even helped us to become better families in some way.
Whatever good they might have done, actresses like Jane Wyatt weren’t real perfect mothers. She held that role for about six years, about 207 episodes. Then it ended. And though you can still find that show on cable or streaming services, we know that it was not real or lasting. Television families are temporary. The people who play the roles eventually die. The shows get outdated, the problems become irrelevant. But then, real families don’t last forever either. Parents grow old and die. Children are born and grow to begin their own families. In today’s modern world, families are divided in other ways, such as divorce.
No matter how wonderful Margaret Anderson was as a mother, she was not perfect. Her tenure as a mother was bound to end. Her life in this world was also bound to end. Jane Wyatt died as we all die. We are reminded, however, that there is one who is not only perfect, but He is eternal. The writer of Hebrews shows us that the old order of priests, the Levites, were not permanent. Those priests not only died, but they needed to present offerings for their own atonement before they could atone for the sins of the nation. Jesus Christ was more than just a good example of a better way. He was the way. He was the priest who presented the perfect offering, Himself. Through Him we have a hope that goes beyond today, a hope that reaches into all eternity.
We can read the story of the blind man Bartimaeus as it plainly is: a healing story. He received his sight because he believed. His faith made him whole. He could see and he could become a productive member of society again because his blindness no longer forced him to beg. But the story might reveal far more than just the physical healing of the man. This is a story of one man recognizing the reality of Jesus, the first in Mark’s Gospel to publicly identify Jesus as the Messiah, the Savior, the Eternal One manifest in human flesh. Whatever the Greek world thought about God, creation and the created order, Bartimaeus saw the truth.
Do we believe this? Are we willing to follow God with tears of sorrow, humbling ourselves before the only One who is able to make us truly see? Will we see ourselves as we truly are: imperfect and weak, requiring the grace of God to make us whole? Will we remember that those who serve us and Him are also imperfect, weak, requiring the grace of God to make them whole?
Jesus came that we might see not only with our eyes but also with our spirits. Jesus came to make an eternal mark on our lives, to restore us to our Father. We all have our weakness, our reason for sorrow and tears, and we should laugh at ourselves. We won’t last forever, but God calls us to Himself and He will turn our tears into joy with His bounteous blessings. He has done great things for us, let us be glad and sing!
“Remember this: he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly. He who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Let each man give according as he has determined in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, that you, always having all sufficiency in everything, may abound to every good work. As it is written, ‘He has scattered abroad. He has given to the poor. His righteousness remains forever.’ Now may he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food, supply and multiply your seed for sowing, and increase the fruits of your righteousness, you being enriched in everything to all generosity, which produces thanksgiving to God through us. For this service of giving that you perform not only makes up for lack among the saints, but abounds also through much giving of thanks to God, seeing that through the proof given by this service, they glorify God for the obedience of your confession to the Good News of Christ and for the generosity of your contribution to them and to all, while they themselves also, with supplication on your behalf, yearn for you by reason of the exceeding grace of God in you. Now thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift!” 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, WEB
Janet Miriam Reback was an American novelist who wrote under several pen names including Taylor Caldwell. She wrote satire, romance and historical fiction, including novels about important and famous characters. Her books include one called “Everything Christmas.” In it is a story about her most memorable Christmas, the Christmas when she discovered the very reason for it all. She was having a difficult time in her life. She was barely in her twenties and a single mother with a six-year-old child. She was newly divorced and could not find a stable job to pay her bills. She worked temporary positions, but they didn’t last very long. At one point during the previous year, she had helped a woman find an heirloom silver handled umbrella. Despite her need, she refused to take a reward, happy that the woman was so excited to have her property returned.
Christmas Eve came and her latest temp job was over. She didn’t have enough to pay rent for the coming month. She had $8 in her savings which she used to buy a few presents for her daughter. They had a meager meal and a tiny tree. Despite her daughter’s joy over the Christmas, Janet was miserable. The doorbell rang and when they opened the door they found a messenger with piles of presents, all sent by the woman Janet had encountered a few months earlier. She had other surprises, too. In her mail was a check from one of the companies for which she had worked during that summer, a bonus for the work she did which was just enough to pay her rent. Another envelope contained an invitation to a full-time permanent position, to begin two days after Christmas.
Janet was miserable because she thought she was alone. She was hurt and afraid, disappointed and frustrated. She was angry with God. But on that special night so long ago, Janet Miriam Reback realized that she was not alone. She wrote, “I am not alone at all, I thought. I was never alone at all. And that, of course, is the message of Christmas. We are never alone. Not when the night is darkest, the wind coldest, the world seemingly most indifferent. For this is still the time God chooses.”
It is early, but we are beginning to hear a lot of conversation about the holiday season. The shelves in stores are being filled with Christmas items already. One friend was looking for autumn decorations and could not find any. Some are suggesting early gift shopping because it could be difficult to find the gifts that will make our loved ones happy. There is still a question whether we will be able to gather for the holidays. Last year, for many, was very sad and lonely because it was too difficult to travel. There is finally some hope as the numbers are trending in a good direction, but some people are still concerned. Others who are just catching up on life can’t afford the time or the money to travel. It is easy to feel like you are alone when you are far from those you love.
Even worse, though, is being in a situation like Janet where circumstances are so difficult that you are carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. Those who are still trying to find a decent job don’t care if the latest toy is available because they can’t afford it anyway. There are too many people who don’t know how they will afford food for the holidays. There are those who can’t think about the holidays because they do not even know how they are going to get through tomorrow, and they feel very alone.
It is easy for us to say that God never abandons us, but it is hard to believe it when you can’t take care of the barest of necessities. That’s why God calls those of us who have enough to share our extra with those who do not have enough. God does take care of us, and He provides us with enough so we can be His presence in this world for those who feel alone. Now is the time that many organizations will begin offering opportunities for us to serve those who don’t have enough and you can help. You can send a check. You can volunteer. You can donate food and toys. You can invite neighbors into your home to share your blessings with them. Begin now to look for opportunities to make this holiday season a little less lonely for someone. You have been blessed to be a blessing and you will be additionally blessed by being a blessing others.
“Jesus answered him, ‘Simon, I have something to tell you.’ He said, ‘Teacher, say on.’ ‘A certain lender had two debtors. The one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they couldn’t pay, he forgave them both. Which of them therefore will love him most?’ Simon answered, ‘He, I suppose, to whom he forgave the most.’ He said to him, ‘You have judged correctly.’ Turning to the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered into your house, and you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave me no kiss, but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss my feet. You didn’t anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’” Luke 7:40-47, WEB
William Arthur Dunkerley, who wrote under the name John Oxenham, was an English journalist, novelist, and poet. He was also known for hymn-writing. He once wrote a fictional account of what happened to Barabbas after he was let go by Pilate. Barabbas was an insurrectionist who was tried for his crimes about the same time as Jesus was tried. Pilate was desperate to set Jesus free because he knew that Jesus was innocent and that he’d be remembered for His death. He had a custom of setting one Jewish criminal free for the Passover. He offered Jesus, but the Jewish leaders who wanted to be rid of Jesus convinced the crowd to call for Barabbas.
It isn’t as unbelievable as we might think. The name Barabbas means “son of the father.” For those hoping for a Messiah, Barabbas fit the expectation more than Jesus. They wanted a military leader, someone who would fight for their freedom from the Romans. Jesus was too passive. Jesus’ teaching did not make sense. Jesus did not fit their hope for a restored and golden nation of Israel. Barabbas seemed to be the true son of the father that would fulfill God’s promises for His people. They were wrong, of course. Jesus was the Messiah who would set them free from the real enemy which is sin and death. But then, Jesus had to die; it was God’s plan for the salvation of the world.
John Oxenham wrote that after the verdict that set him free and condemned Jesus, Barabbas followed Jesus to the cross. He wanted to see what would happen. When the nails pierced Jesus hands, John wrote, that Barabbas had one thing on his mind: “These nails should have been driven through my hands, not His – He saved me.” After the cross was put into place, he thought, “I should have been hanging there, not He – He saved me.”
Another story is told by a missionary in India who told the story of Jesus to a village. He shined pictures of Jesus onto a whitewashed wall and when he came to a picture of Jesus on a cross, a villager jumped up and yelled, “Come down from there Son of God, that is my place, not yours!”
The setting for this parable of Jesus is Simon the Pharisee’s courtyard where a group had gathered to dine. Jesus and his disciples were invited to join him, although He was not given the proper welcome. It was common for groupies to gather around these sorts of dinners; they stood behind the guests hoping that they would hear Simon or one of the guests say something inspirational. The crowd may have been larger because Jesus was there, but Simon would have had his own following. A sinful woman of the city was there, and she was overwhelmed with love for Jesus. She wept and her tears fell on Jesus’ feet. Without concern for the opinions of others, she let down her hair to wipe her tears and she kissed them unashamedly. She then poured expensive perfume on them. She offered Jesus the very hospitality that Simon did not: she cleansed His feet, gave Him the kiss of peace, and poured perfume on Him. She loved Him so much that she put herself at risk, but Simon did not respect Jesus enough to do the minimum expectation.
Do you love Jesus so much that you would risk everything to show Him the honor and respect He deserves? Do you know you are a such a sinner that it would take the death of Jesus to save you? Do you believe that it should have been you nailed on that cross? It is easy to say that we are sinners in need of salvation, but do you truly believe that there was no way for you to be reconciled to God except by the cross?
Too many of us are like Simon. We are curious. We want to hear what Jesus has to say. We even believe His word. But for too many of us, our faith only goes that far. We aren’t willing to risk everything to worship Jesus for His grace and mercy. We don’t think we are “that bad” and we think that we can do what is necessary to be “good enough.” The reality is that we need to recognize that any sin, every sin, is deserving of death and we need Jesus so much that He willingly died to save us.
“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
Our question for today is “Who is my neighbor?” from Luke 10. This is from the parable of the Good Samaritan who took care of a man who had been beaten and left for dead by the side of the road. Others passed and justified their neglect. Jesus told this parable to a lawyer who asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asked him what the Law said. He answered correctly, “Love God and love your neighbor.” The lawyer wanted to justify himself because he thought he was good enough and that he did enough, so he asked “Who is my neighbor?” He thought Jesus would agree with his very narrow definition of neighbor, which included his people and not enemies. After the parable Jesus asked, “Who was the neighbor?” The lawyer had to admit that the person who had mercy was the neighbor.
We call that Samaritan the “Good Samaritan” but notice that Jesus never calls him good. We call him good because we see that he is doing the good thing. Despite the conversation beginning with a question about how to inherit eternal life, Jesus’ answer does not suggest that our good works will send us to heaven. Our good works are always a response to what God has already done. His goodness calls us to be people who are willing to risk everything to have mercy on those who need what we have to give, even our enemies.
The question for today is “Who is my neighbor?” but an equally important question is “Who is my enemy?” Some would say, “I have no enemy,” but we all do in some way. We often think of enemy in the most extreme definition, which is “a military adversary or hostile force.” According to this definition, it is probably true that we have no personal enemies. We do have enemies when our nation is at war, but we have learned that it is wrong to call our neighbors our enemies if they are of the same heritage or race of those with whom we fight.
During our conversation about the psalms in Sunday school yesterday, the question of “Who is our enemy?” came up. I defined “enemy” as “one who is against you.” This is actually close to the top Merriam-Webster definition which is “one that is antagonistic to another.” Antagonism is opposition. It doesn’t have to be an opposition that leads to violence or war, but brokenness and disagreement. Our “enemy” can be those who do not agree with us politically, religiously, socially, or economically. We like to live in our little boxes, to stay where we are comfortable, to deal with people who agree with us. But Jesus says that we should see the needs of those who do not agree, to love our enemies.
During our discussion, one lady asked, “So my kids could be my enemy?” Yes, that is true. The Psalm we were discussing was Psalm 7, a psalm that David probably wrote in response to the rebellion and death of his own son Absalom. Absalom was David’s oldest living son, and those Solomon was chosen as the heir to David’s throne, Absalom and his followers believed that Absalom should be king. They even anointed him, and Absalom rebelled with an army threatening David’s life. David insisted that his army have mercy on his son, but he was killed to ensure the peace of the kingdom. Absalom was David’s enemy despite being his beloved son.
Long before Jesus told the parable, David understood in a very personal way the command to love our neighbors. We are unlikely to have such a disagreement that it leads to war, but we are reminded by the parable and by today’s scripture text that Jesus commands us to love our enemies. The Samaritan and the Jew were bitter enemies, but it didn’t matter to the either of them. The one in need and the one who gave put aside all disagreements. The beaten man may not have been able to argue with his enemy, but I can’t imagine that he was ungrateful when the Samaritan returned to pay the rest of his care.
Who is your neighbor? It isn’t as the lawyer hoped it would be, and as we hope it might be. Our neighbor is anyone who needs our mercy. Our neighbor is the person who disagrees with us politically, religiously, socially, and economically. It is our child who rebels against us. Jesus calls us to risk everything to see, feel, and touch those who have needs we can meet with our resources. Jesus calls us to get out of our own little boxes, away from our comfort zone, to deal with people who disagree with us, to love our enemies with our very lives and resources.
“Simon and those who were with him searched for him. They found him and told him, ‘Everyone is looking for you.’ He said to them, ‘Let’s go elsewhere into the next towns, that I may preach there also, because I came out for this reason.’ He went into their synagogues throughout all Galilee, preaching and casting out demons.” Mark 1:35-39, WEB
My trip to my hometown in August was filled with visits with people I don’t get to see very often. Top of my list was a woman who has been my Christian mentor for decades. She was there from my teenage years and still loves and supports my faith as she is able. She is 96 years old and lives in a nursing home. She was always very active, she always in the midst of church activities, particularly those with children and youth. I have visited her several times since she’s had to slow down and she misses the action. She has told me several times, “All I can do is pray.”
I saw a meme today that said, “Grandma’s prayers are the reason some of us are here.” I have assured my friend that her prayers are necessary and appreciated by those of us who are on her prayer list. She thinks she is not doing anything, but she has raised up a generation or two of Christians who are continuing the work that Christ began through her. Her vocation now is to pray.
In 1978, Mrs. Flossie Cassel wrote an article ministry in a nursing home. She was ninety-one at the time and was active in teaching classes and doing other speaking engagements. She began her ministry when she started receiving prayer requests from missionaries, which she took before the Lord three times a day. She had heard a speaker talk about tithing time as well as money, so she asked the Lord how she could serve Him. She heard Him say that she should pray three hours a day. So, that day she began praying an hour in the morning, an hour in the afternoon and an hour in the evening.
Eventually her other ministries took up too much time. She wrote, “I began to slip up on my prayer time in the afternoon. Soon I was too ill to teach or speak.” She waited patiently in prayer for God to tell her why she was unable to teach or speak. She realized that God would not let her return to those ministries until she got back on track to the three hours a day she had committed to prayer. She asked forgiveness and promised, by the help of the Holy Spirit, to never forget and at ninety-one she was still ministering through prayer from her nursing home room.
We rely on the prayers of those like my friend whose vocation has become lifting us in prayer, but that does not mean we can stop praying. Our time alone with God in prayer is the most important part of our day. Jesus was often difficult to find because He went to a quiet place to pray. It was during that time spent with His Father that He got His strength to go on with His ministry to the people. Time alone was necessary to build Him up to face the challenges; it is where He grew in wisdom and understanding of His purpose. He knew that nothing should stand in the way of that time alone with His Father. He knew to find a place where He could pray without distractions, to be in God’s presence and to hear His voice.
We need to be like Jesus, never letting the work of our lives get in the way of time spent with our Father. By spending time in conversation with God, we are built up with the strength, courage and wisdom to walk in faith each day. Morning, noon, and night is the perfect time to sit quietly with God is a private place. These are times when we can ask God to bless our work, recall our failures, ask for forgiveness, and receive the blessings of faith. Mrs. Flossie Cassel put the other ministries ahead of her times of prayer, and she became sick. We all allow the distractions of the world to get in our way.
I have heard it said that many ‘walk in prayer’ all day long, that their method of prayer is to talk to God in the midst of their other activities. While this is a lifestyle we should all live, we also need that time away, alone in a solitary place. We can’t hear God as we are always talking to Him on the run. Take time each day to be alone with God in prayer, talking and listening to Him for He is always willing to listen but He also has something to say.
Scriptures for October 31, 2021, Reformation Sunday: Revelation 14:6-7; Psalm 46; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36
“We maintain therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” Romans 3:28, WEB
I an artist. I make a type of painting that includes a painted background with a decoupaged frame. I add a cross in the middle and music pages out of old hymn books for the decoupage. I love to search antique stores for those old books. There are specific things I want in an old hymnal: slightly yellowed pages, attractive type set, song titles at the top of the page. I also look for which songs are found in the book. Unfortunately, I purchased one hymn book that was almost useless; though it looked like a Christian hymnal, it had songs with non-Christian theology. There were very few songs that even mentioned the name Jesus. I was able to pull just enough pages to make one painting, but I recycled the rest. Though I use just bits and pieces of the pages, I am careful to make the hymns I use recognizable by specifically choosing words and lines that we know and love. Those songs in that strange hymnal were not at all familiar.
I look for one hymn very specifically when purchasing those hymnals: “A Mighty Fortress.” This is a beloved hymn for me as a Lutheran, but I’ve discovered that most denominational hymnals include this hymn. Martin Luther wrote this hymn based on Psalm 46; he was a prolific writer and hymnwriter, but of all his work, this song is probably the most well known of his work. It has often been called “The Battle Hymn of the Reformation” but it can be found even in Catholic hymnals. The German hymn has been translated into many languages, including seventy different translations into English.
The text of the hymn follows the message of Psalm 46 very closely. The psalm is a Zion hymn, which were written to praise God for establishing his people and his kingdom. They are a mix of history, culture, tradition and loyalty. They are dedicated to extolling the city of God. No other place on earth warrants this praise, according to the poets. For Luther, Zion was not just a city but was God Himself, our refuge and our strength. We sing “A Mighty Fortress” to praise God for being with us. The psalmist expresses trust in God in the midst of chaos. God is our refuge. Though the world is in turmoil, in our God there is quiet and safety.
We need to be reminded regularly of how great God is. God grows smaller in our eyes when we fail to look at Him and His Word. The more we study and pray, the bigger He is, the more we trust that He will help us, the more we will know He is God. We are to realize, acknowledge, experience, enjoy and appreciate God. He asserts His sovereignty over all. The more we praise Him in the way we live our life, the more He will grow in our eyes and in the eyes of the world. God’s presence on Zion brings protection although we must beware to not think a building is a talisman against defeat: Jesus is the Temple. Jesus is the very presence of God; we can find confidence in Christ’s presence. Jesus Christ is the source of God’s protective strength in our lives. We need not fear because Christ’s kingdom will enjoy a rule of absolute peace.
Sunday is Halloween, which is obvious when you drive around my neighborhood. Some people decorate their yards as much for this holiday as they do for Christmas. I used to love Halloween and scary things. I read horror books and visited haunted houses. I loved the teen slasher films. I’m not against Halloween, but it doesn’t hold the attraction it once did. We’ll put out treats for the children, but it makes me sad how many of them, of all ages, will put on ratty clothes and slap on some zombie paint instead of being creative with their costumes. Death and evil run rampant on the streets of our town, in the decorations of our neighbors. One house has so many tombstones, it looks like a cemetery.
Too much death. As Christians we know that we need not fear death. But death is also not something we should embrace.
I used to love that kind of stuff. I went to all the horror movies and decorated my house with all sorts of spooky things. When asked, I used to talk about how a little fear is healthy; it gets the adrenaline flowing and the heart pumping. A scream or two never hurt. Besides, it wasn’t real. As I got older, particularly after I had children, I stopped going out of my way to be scared. I suppose I realized that there were real reasons to be afraid in the world, and the idea of going out of my way to be afraid to get my adrenaline flowing and heart pumping just wasn’t fun anymore. Sadly, some of my favorite novels have become truer than we ever thought possible
There are very real reasons to be afraid in our world. I’m not so sure that there are more reasons today, although it seems like it sometimes, doesn’t it? We are afraid of the things that will affect the world and our nation. We are afraid of the crime in our neighborhoods. We are afraid of natural disasters that can destroy our homes. We are afraid of more personal things like financial ruin. We have a collective fear of disease. The political conversation is filled with fear. Sometimes we don’t even really know what we fear.
We look to God as a refuge, yet John writes in the text from Revelation, “Fear the Lord.” There are benefits of being afraid because we react to our fear by doing what needs to be done to avoid the bad things that can happen. However, we can be so focused on fear that we miss the blessings of life. So, why would we have to fear the One who has promised to be our source for joy and hope and peace?
Fear of the Lord is not the same kind of fear. It isn’t the fear we experience in the haunted house or the movie theater. It isn’t the fear we experience when we are threatened. Fear of the Lord is a reverence for the Holy One, trusting that He is where we’ll find our joy and hope and peace. Solomon tells us in the book of Proverbs that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. Awe in the One who is our salvation will make Him grow in our eyes and in the eyes of the world.
Sunday may be Halloween, but it is also Reformation Day, the day we remember the bold action of Martin Luther, who in 1517 posted ninety-five theses on the door of Wittenberg Church. The theses were written to open debate between scholars about the abuses in the Church at that time. This began a reform movement that sought to restore the Church that Christ built. Luther was not the only one; the other reformers and those who followed them joined together to work against a body that had lost touch with God’s grace.
Religion in Luther’s day was much like it was in the day of Jesus Christ. The 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: Jesus and His 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; indulgences could be used to set free their loved ones who were wallowing in purgatory.
Luther was a priest and a teacher, burdened heavily by his calling. He feared sin and he feared that his own sinfulness was greater than the mercy and grace of God. He did not see how he could be forgiven and spent hours in confession. Luther was at the point of despair when he sought solace from God’s word and his confessor. Johann von Staupitz was tired of Luther’s lengthy confessions, so he reminded Luther of the Gospel of grace. Luther grasped the reality that this grace was won by Jesus Christ who died for our sake. He saw it clearly when he read the epistle lesson we always use for Reformation Sunday. “But now apart from the law, a righteousness of God has been revealed, being testified by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ to all and on all those who believe.” It is by faith we are saved. Jesus completed the work of justification when He died on the cross.
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.
We need not fear, like Martin Luther feared for himself and for his congregation, because God is a very present help in trouble. 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 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 His Word. 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.
The brief Gospel lesson for this week took place after an encounter Jesus had with a crowd that was about to stone a woman who had been taken for adultery. We note that there was no man so threatened, but it is suggested that some who would throw the stones were guilty with her. Jesus said, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw the first stone at her,” and they were cut to the heart. One by one they walked away; no one able to cast the first stone because they were sinners, too. The religious leaders then questioned Jesus. “Who are you to do these things?” They wanted to know where He got His authority. “You testify about yourself. Your testimony is not valid.” In that conversation, Jesus revealed that they did not know the Father, but many came to believe in Him.
Jesus told those listening who believed 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.
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. For him freedom was not to do whatever we wanted to do, it was freedom to be as God created us to be. He never sought division, he sought change. 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 by God through Jesus Christ so that we can reach out to our brothers and sisters in Christ in the hope 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. It might not seem like much, but Luther’s hymn that is so loved by so many Christians might just be the first step of a very, very slow process.
Martin Luther was bold enough to cry out to God in his imperfection, seeking God’s touch on his life. It is easier for us to keep working toward our goal, to try to make ourselves good enough to come before the Lord. 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 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. That revelation spurred Luther to reform the church.
Martin Luther had a reputation for being temperamental, coarse and argumentative. Some have suggested he was a chauvinist. He was actually just a grumpy old man living a rather hard 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.”
Luther 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. Martin Luther is quoted as saying, “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 have to sin as you are living in this sinful and fallen world, do so boldly knowing the grace of God. The whole statement is “Sin boldly but believe more bolder still.” We do not live in a world that is all black and white; sometimes we are faced with shades of gray. Sometimes we have to do things we know are not good but are better than bad. So, if you have to decide to do something that is less than good, do so with the knowledge that forgiveness is ours through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Martin Luther believed in education and insisted that every child should have the opportunity to learn. He took the reformation into the schoolhouse walls, offering classes for both boys and girls. Those schools were available for children all members of society, from the wealthy to the peasants. He encouraged the peasant parents to send their children so that they could learn and rise out of their poverty. As a professor, he changed the structure of his 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 God 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. We are meant to help one another stay on the right path, to live according to God’s Word.
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 the printers. He helped design a format that was appealing to the masses. His pamphlets and books, often written to respond to the questions of other theologians, were published by dozens of printers in many cities. His work changed the publishing industry in ways that we still use today. Even our morning newspaper today was influenced by the way Luther published his works.
One of the reasons why I am a Lutheran is because we are serious about theology. Following Martin Luther’s example, we think deeply about the things of God. This isn’t to say that others are less interested in theology or that they don’t think deeply about God, but learning and understanding the scriptures is a foundational characteristic of the Lutheran faith. Is every Lutheran a theology geek like me? I have to admit that I am an odd one out. You can probably tell by through this devotional ministry that I spend a lot of time thinking about my faith and studying about God. I challenge myself to dig deeply. I read the Book of Concord one year, Luther’s sermons another, and studied the life and accomplishments of Luther during another. Like all denominations, Lutherans have people who are very serious about learning and others who choose to focus their religious life in other ways. I celebrate Reformation Sunday because I like to be reminded once a year of my heritage and the example Martin Luther set for the intellectual as well as spiritual search for God and His truth.
Luther was certainly not the first in the church to preach the Gospel of grace, nor was he the only one to seek reform in the church. He just happened to do so at a time when all the circumstances were perfectly aligned for a radical change in thought, both politically and spiritually. The nailing of the Ninety-nine Theses was just the beginning and in hindsight we know it is one of the least of his accomplishments. They focused heavily on the law-centered focus of the Church in his day, which insisted that the people of faith do many things to earn their place in the Kingdom of God. So much of his writings focused on the things that put burdens on the people that were impossible to keep, and which benefitted no one but the Church. Luther taught that we can’t buy our way into heaven; we are saved by grace through faith.
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; he realized that faith was the key to salvation. Those words changed him, and through his willingness to fight for the Gospel of Jesus Christ the world was changed forever.
“Yahweh is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? Yahweh is the strength of my life. Of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers came at me to eat up my flesh, even my adversaries and my foes, they stumbled and fell. Though an army should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear. Though war should rise against me, even then I will be confident. One thing I have asked of Yahweh, that I will seek after: that I may dwell in Yahweh’s house all the days of my life, to see Yahweh’s beauty, and to inquire in his temple. For in the day of trouble, he will keep me secretly in his pavilion. In the secret place of his tabernacle, he will hide me. He will lift me up on a rock. Now my head will be lifted up above my enemies around me. I will offer sacrifices of joy in his tent. I will sing, yes, I will sing praises to Yahweh. Hear, Yahweh, when I cry with my voice. Have mercy also on me, and answer me. When you said, ‘Seek my face,’ my heart said to you, ‘I will seek your face, Yahweh.’ Don’t hide your face from me. Don’t put your servant away in anger. You have been my help. Don’t abandon me, neither forsake me, God of my salvation. When my father and my mother forsake me, then Yahweh will take me up. Teach me your way, Yahweh. Lead me in a straight path, because of my enemies. Don’t deliver me over to the desire of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen up against me, such as breathe out cruelty. I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of Yahweh in the land of the living. Wait for Yahweh. Be strong, and let your heart take courage. Yes, wait for Yahweh.” Psalm 27, WEB
I watched a movie last night in which a woman was in love with a man who was simply using her. He claimed he needed her but he didn’t love her enough to give his whole heart to their relationship. One day she discovered that he was engaged to another woman. She was devasted, but she continued to answer his calls for help, hoping maybe he would still choose her. She decided to go on vacation, but he continued to call. One day he showed up at the door of her vacation rental. He was begging her to take him back but refused to say he was going to break off the engagement with the other woman. “I came here because I need you.” He wanted his cake and to eat it, too.
She nearly said yes, but she stood up for herself when he refused to reject the other woman. She’d been in the relationship for a long time, always hoping to be his woman but always being the “other.” She finally realized that she was flirting with wrongdoing, a practice that was hurting herself and any others involved with the man. It was even hurting the man because it was giving him permission to act in a vain, false, and evil way. This is connivance, which is a willingness to secretly allow or be involved in wrongdoing. If she had agreed to continue in the relationship, even when he was still committed to another woman, she would have been as guilty as him.
The best thing for her to do is to break the relationship completely. So, how do we deal with situations where we are tempted toward connivance? How should we personally, individually, privately behave around people who are vain, false, or evil? We are called to be Christlike, but we are not Jesus. He sat with those who would lead others into unhealthy circumstances. He went to dinner at the homes of tax collectors and other sinners. He talked to the self-righteous without justifying ungodly behavior. He dealt with wickedness with God’s Word, not with human responses. He sat with those who were vain, false, and even evil not for His own gain but for grace, to save, and to transform.
Unfortunately, we sometimes do what we do to be on good terms with the world, to consort for selfish reasons. Christians would be wise to avoid people who are vain, false, or evil, not because they are too good, but because we are not good enough. We can get caught up in the evil. We need to learn how to handle these situations with good intentions, humility, courage. If we can’t do it in a Christlike manner, then we would best avoid the relationship completely.
In the Psalm we are called to rely on the Lord. The world is full of role models, but they are not always sweet or well-behaved. Consider how many sports stars or celebrities are arrested for criminal activity. Politicians lie or think themselves above the law. We have seen disappointing stories of the people we trust most in our communities: police, teachers, and even clergy. Too many parents do not model good behavior for their children. We all struggle with the temptation to be one thing and do another. We get caught up in an attitude or situation and do not know how to respond. It does not take very much to turn a crowd into a raging mob. While a positive attitude can make things pleasant, a negative attitude can have as much power over a group. The group does not have to be something small like a congregation; it can be something as large as a culture. In a world that does not like to wait, this human tendency can create chaos.
When we keep our eyes and our hearts on the Lord we have nothing to fear. God is faithful; He will fulfill His promises. God has our life in His hands and that by faith we can have the courage to wait, but the world does not value our reliance on God.
As we look around us, we can see the impact of ideas and people on the world around them. In the right circumstances, one person can change the course of an entire nation. One designer can establish the clothing that millions of people will wear. One reporter can introduce an idea that will become a standard of policy and practice for many. One politician can set the agenda for the entire government. Good or bad, right or wrong, we can easily be led down a path of achievement or destruction by someone whom we look to as a role model.
It is not that we are all followers, blind or ignorant. It is simply that the human flesh looks for someone to emulate, to people who will be an example for us to help us to grow and mature. We tend toward connivance, acting with those who seem to have our best interests and work in ways that seem right, even if their manner of accomplishing things is vain, false, and perhaps even evil. Sometimes, unfortunately, we grasp on to the ideas that are not right. With all good intention, we sometimes follow those that are not centered in Christ. We do this because it seems like God is not acting fast enough, but we would do well to wait with the psalmist, looking to God’s word for the right way to act, breaking with those who would lead us down the wrong path, acting with Christ’s strength when possible for grace, to save, and to transform.
“Finally, brothers, whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report: if there is any virtue and if there is any praise, think about these things. The things which you learned, received, heard, and saw in me: do these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4:8-9, WEB
Master Sergeant Roddie Edmunds was captured with many Americans by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. The prisoners were divided and Roddie ended up as the ranking non-commissioned officer in a concentration camp with more than twelve hundred other soldiers. It was near the end of the war and the Germans were about to lose. Soon after they arrived at the POW camp, Commandant Siegmann of Stalag IX-B ordered Roddie to send all the Jewish soldiers in front of the barracks. Instead of sending two hundred or so out to be murdered, he ordered the whole contingent of POWs to go out. The Commandant was furious and refused to believe that they were all Jewish. Roddie refused to give up those who were. Even when the Commandant put a pistol to his head, Roddie insisted that they were all Jewish and warned that the Commandant would be punished for war crimes if even one of his men were hurt that day. According to the Geneva Conventions that required prisoners to give their name, rank, and serial number, they were not required to give their religion. The Commandant backed down and more than two hundred men were saved.
Roddie never told his family about this encounter, but they learned about it after his death in 1985 when they discovered diaries that he kept during that time. He never received any official recognition for his actions. After further research, Roddie’s son found some of the men who were saved that day and they confirmed the story. Yad Vashem, which is Israel’s official memorial for those who suffered during the Holocaust, posthumously recognized Edmonds as “Righteous Among the Nations,” Israel’s highest honor for non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Roddie is only one among five Americans so honored and the only American soldier to be given the award. Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev is quoted as saying “...Edmonds seemed like an ordinary American soldier, but he had an extraordinary sense of responsibility and dedication to his fellow human beings.”
Roddie took his responsibility for the men under his leadership very seriously; he was even willing to die for them. Then he didn’t tell anyone afterwards to be rewarded for his incredible courage. He was born and raised in Tennessee and attended a Methodist church in his youth, but other than that we don’t know anything about his faith. We know little about his life after the war, except that he led a rather average middle-class life with a wife and at least one son. Even now Roddie is relatively unknown, but in the atmosphere of our current world, he is a man we should know and emulate.
It is unlikely that we’ll ever be in the same position as Roddie Edmunds. We are unlikely to save two hundred men of another religious faith by standing firm on what is good, right, and true. We are unlikely to even face death for the sake of another in such a dramatic way. But we are reminded that God gives us opportunities to stand for those who can’t speak for themselves, to risk our own life to guard and protect others and perhaps even save them from the threats of this world.
Experts disagree about the timing of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He was likely in prison at the time, but most agree that it was probably in Rome and that he was confined to a house where he was allowed to preach and teach to his disciples. Still, Paul knew what it was like to risk everything for the sake of the Gospel, and he encouraged others to do the same. The Christian life is not meant to be one safely hidden away from the dangers of this world, but to be one that does what is good, right, and true.
In Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, Martin never explains the commandments from just a negative point of view. He doesn’t just say, “Thou shall not...”; instead he reminds us to do what is necessary to make life better for others. Under the Fifth Commandment, Luther writes, “You shall not murder. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.”
Roddie could have protected his own life and that of a thousand other men by sending those two hundred or so men to their death and it wouldn’t be counted against him as murder. The blood would forever be on the hands of that Commandant. However, Roddie knew it wasn’t enough to protect the thousand who were not Jewish. He knew that he had to do whatever he could to guard and protect the lives of those who had no way to protect themselves, to make life better for them. We are called to emulate men like Roddie, to be Christ-like in all our actions, willingly standing for those who can’t stand for themselves, obeying the commandments by helping and supporting them in every physical need even when it is risky and inconvenient to us.