Welcome to the October 2023 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
A WORD FOR TODAY, October 2023
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.” Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, WEB
There are specific times when farmers do certain jobs. In the spring, they plant crops which are watered so that they will grow. In the fall, they harvest the fruits of their labor. Some crops need to be planted early in the season, some later. Some crops may have two or three growing seasons in one year. The farmer knows which crop needs to be planted at which time, and when they need to be harvested. Take potatoes. A potato farmer knows exactly the moment a potato needs to be put in the ground, and when those potatoes need to be uprooted. Too early, and the crop will not be fully developed. Too late and the crop will go rotten. There is a time to uproot.
The agricultural cycle has been in existence for as long as man has domesticated the land. The Jews had three festivals that were tied directly to agriculture and the harvest and also had historical remembrances attached. They were celebrations in thanksgiving to God for His daily care for His people as well as His goodness to their people throughout the ages. Passover occurred first and is a remembrance of the Exodus. On the third day of Passover, a sheaf of the first barley was waved by the priest toward God so that He might accept it and bless it. No one was allowed to eat any of the barley wheat before the wave offering. Fifty days after Passover, the people celebrated the Feast of Weeks, also known as Pentecost. This was a festival of joyful thanksgiving to God at the beginning of the wheat harvest. Pentecost was also a time to remember the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. The third feast was called Sukkot or the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths. This festival lasted for a week in the fall and it celebrated the harvest. During this festival the people remembered the journey from Egypt to Canaan and thanked God for the productivity of Canaan. The religious life of God s people went from Passover to Sukkot, just as the agricultural calendar went from planting to harvest. The people identified God s deliverance and His provision by celebrating the harvest of their daily bread and the remembrance of their past.
The Jewish festivals and feasts revolved closely around the cycle, showing God’s hand even in the mundane task of growing food for the people. If man tries to change the cycle to fit his desires, the crops do not prosper. We like to set our own time for things. We plan our lives down to the minutest detail, scheduling time with our kids like appointments with the doctor. We keep calendars which are jam packed with meetings and activities, leaving no room for the unexpected encounter with a friend. We like to think our time is under our control, forgetting that God has a time and a purpose for everything.
As we look at the list from Ecclesiastes and we wonder if there really could be a time for some things. Is there really time for war? A time to kill? A time to hate? Surely our life is meant to be merciful, compassionate, and filled with love; such things like war, killing and hate do not make sense. How about a time to break down or weep? Shouldn’t we be rejoicing and building up? And yet, we look at these purposes and we know that there are even inappropriate times for laughter and love. Human beings have chosen the wrong times and reasons for many things. We fight over the wrong causes, we love the wrong things, we keep that which is corrupt and reject that which is eternal. We break down relationships and weep over that which has no value. We embrace that which will harm us and cast away that which will make us better. We make mistakes and misuse that which God intends for good.
Should we reject all war because one overzealous leader fights for all the wrong reasons? Should we never weep because the Bible tells us to live in joy? We need to learn how to discern that which is God’s will and way so that we will live as God would have us to live, experiencing everything at the appropriate time and purpose. God has a season and a purpose for everything, and He will guide us in the right way.
We are called to follow Christ and continue His work in the world, witnessing His mercy and grace to those who are broken and in darkness. Unfortunately, we like to set the time. We think that if we plant a seed today it can be harvested today, but we forget that it is God who does the work. He sets the time for someone to be saved. Just as we seek God’s blessing on our harvests and to direct the time for all things, we are to listen to the Spirit so that we’ll do the work of Jesus according to God’s time and then we'll find that the harvest will be plentiful.
“Therefore Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” John 20:31, WEB
I once heard an interview about the problem with memory. We have an incredible capacity to remember things, but we often forget or remember wrongly. A study was done with people after the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001. They were asked to write down what they experienced immediately following the event. Sometime later they were asked to remember those moments again. When they reviewed the original stories, many of them were certain they were wrong. They couldn’t understand why they would lie in those moments, but their current memories were so different. They believed what they remembered now had to be the right stories.
We don’t know why our memories might change over time. Our brains do not record these memories like movies; they are edited over time. When we remember one moment in two very different ways, we think one must be a lie, but the reality is that our brains are imperfect, and we can’t rely on our memories. It is odd that those people thought the original writings must have been lies; the closer we are to any moment, the closer we are to the real story. Think about mother giving birth. Ask her how she feels in the first few moments, and she’ll tell you she’s exhausted, in pain, afraid and uncertain about the future. Ask that same mother about the birth of her child when he or she is about to graduate high school and she’ll tell you it was the most beautiful moment of her life. It was truly an exhausting, painful, fearful, and uncertain moment, but she forgets all that to celebrate her beautiful child.
This is why we need more than our memories. I read a book about a German man and his family during World War II, his work behind the scenes in the secret fight against Adolf Hitler. The story was based on true story, shared by a woman’s husband’s family. She researched and found evidence that the stories they told were real and she wrote the book about the man. All too often those stories are lost because no one bothered to write them down. I’ve heard people say that they regret never recording their loved ones as they talked and shared their lives. Even more so, people regret not writing down their own memories.
The person interviewed about memory suggested that we should all be keeping diaries so that as time passes, we can look back on our stories with confidence that we are remembering what happened as it happened. It is funny; I have to admit that I often look back on this writing to find ideas for current writing. After more than twenty years, there doesn’t seem to be anything new for me to say. Yet, as I reread those posts from the past, I have trouble remembering the details. Who was that friend? Where was I going? I wonder if it really happened that way. I think I have a good memory, but like all of us, it is imperfect. At least I have twenty years of writing to remind me. The thing we have to remember is that we are far more accurate in the moment than we are twenty years later.
John wrote the stories of Jesus down so that we would believe. He said there were many other stories, and we hear a few of them in the other Gospel accounts. There are those today who make claims about the writings of the scriptures; they declare it couldn’t happen the way it was written. “They must have forgotten.” Who would be more accurate: the one writing or the one thinking about it two thousand years later? I always amazed when modern theologians argue with the church fathers about whether John really is John or someone else named John.
Let us remember, too, that the stories in the scriptures are not just the remembrances of people. They are the story of God, and He is able to ensure that the story is told as He intends. There’s a purpose to our stories. We learn from them. The woman wrote down the story of the man in Germany so that we would remember and avoid another ruler like Hitler. We tell our own stories so that our offspring will learn from them. God told His story so that we would believe. Our human memories might be imperfect, but His is always faithful and true.
Lectionary Scriptures for October 8, 2023: Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
“Not that I have already obtained, or am already made perfect; but I press on, that I may take hold of that for which also I was taken hold of by Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:12, WEB
When we lived in England, I did much of our produce shopping at the markets in the town squares of villages near where we lived. Each town had their market on a different day of the week, and most of the towns were very close together. I could find very fresh produce on a daily basis. The sellers at the markets also offered some strange but wonderful choices. I first learned about broccoflower in England. Broccoflower is a cross between broccoli and cauliflower with its flavor falling somewhere between the two. It is delicious.
We were back in the United States for several years before we were able to find these vegetables in our grocery stores. They may have been available, but I never saw them. One day I was in one of my favorite grocery stores, just peering over the produce when I discovered a head of broccoflower. I excitedly cooked it for my family who delighted in eating this vegetable that we had come to enjoy. These strange and wonderful vegetables are still hard to find, but I can find them occasionally.
I once stopped by a store that is known for carrying uncommon produce. I was amazed by the variety of fruits and vegetables. I’m used to seeing one type of radish, maybe two. This store had at least seven varieties, including purple! There were five or six types of carrots, one of which was red. The choices of apples, oranges, potatoes, onions, and grapes were so diverse that it was hard to choose. They also had fruits and vegetables I’d never seen before, imported perhaps from exotic places. I’m not terribly adventurous, but I did buy a few things I would never have found in my local grocery store. I probably need to go out of my way to stores like that more often.
It used to be that a grape is a grape is a grape, but now you can choose from a dozen different varieties. Champagne grapes are so tiny that it is hard to imagine how you could eat them. They are smaller than peas but grow in bunches just like regular grapes. There are grapes that don’t even taste like grapes, including one that tastes like cotton candy! Wine producers have long worked with their vines to develop special grapes to create new and different wines. Each grape gives a unique quality to the wine, and combining grapes can make fantastic flavors.
People have been grafting grape vines for a long time, even in the days of Isaiah. The vineyard keeper carefully planted the vines hoping to get an excellent crop to make fine wine for drinking. But in today’s passage we hear that the vineyard brought forth wild grapes. We are reminded by this lesson that we can try to control the circumstances in which we live, but we never know what might grow in our vineyard. I imagine the botanists who developed broccoflower and broccolini probably had some failures along the way.
We have all seen the comedic scene of a substitute teacher trying to take over a class in the absence of the regular teacher. Sit-coms and movies tend to make this a scene of chaos where the substitute has no power to control the students. Their job is often described as one who keeps the children from killing one another or getting harmed in any way. I don’t think most classrooms react so violently and hilariously to a substitute teacher as we see in sit-coms and movies. Yet, there are certainly issues when a teacher is absent. There is often no expectation of teaching or learning when a substitute is in the room; the lesson plan for the day often includes busy work or activities. The substitute teacher is little more than a babysitter, offering merely a presence in a room full of kids when the regular teacher is out.
It is a shame because many substitute teachers are highly trained and capable teachers. Many of them have chosen to work as a substitute because there is more flexibility in time and experiences. They are not incompetent people. They are bright and talented, possibly great teachers whose circumstances have them dealing with diverse and often difficult situations. The trouble is that substitute teachers have little or no authority. Misbehavior can be dealt with by administrators and the regular teacher, but there is rarely a sense of urgency. School authorities know that even the best students will find ways to take advantage of the upheaval in the classroom, so misbehavior with a substitute is addressed differently than the usual infractions on a daily basis.
How can a person really accomplish anything if they have no recognized authority? In last week’s Gospel lesson, we heard the leaders of the temple ask Jesus about His own authority. They did not believe He had the authority to do or say the things He was doing and saying. Jesus was shaking up their world and threatening their position. They needed to find a way to stop Him. He refused to give them the answer they sought and caused them to look at their own obedience to God.
Today’s story goes a little further. Jesus describes a landowner (God) who built a vineyard (Israel) and left the vineyard under the care of tenants (the chief priests and elders). When the landowner came to take possession of the fruit that was rightly his, the tenants killed the servants (the prophets of God). More servants were sent and killed. Then the landowner sent his son (Christ) because He thought the tenants would recognize his authority. They did not give the son the respect due and even killed him, hoping to gain possession of the inheritance.
The chief priests and elders were much like the students in a classroom, refusing to recognize the authority of Jesus. They didn’t recognize the authority of the prophets sent before Him and their self-centeredness and greed led to the same end of all God’s servants: death. Did the tenants (the chief priests and elders) really think that the landowner (God) would leave them to their scheming and violence? Though the story has a sad ending, there is hope. With God there is always hope.
Isaiah shows us that God is the vineyard owner and Israel was like those wild grapes, growing up in the midst of the vineyard that the Lord has planted. We are just like them. We fail. We sin. We go our own way. Despite all that God has done for us, we want to be in control of the world in which we live. In doing so, we often make the wrong choices. Isaiah does not seem to leave us much hope, as God swore to repay His wayward people with justice. Yet, this is not the end of the story. There is hope because the promises of God reach far beyond our failing. For every curse there is a promise and God is faithful.
After telling the parable of the tenants, Jesus addressed the reality of the religious life in Israel in His day. They didn’t see the God who was right in front of their eyes. He quoted Psalm 118.
There is a story that occasionally circulates about Psalm 118. It goes something like this. “Did you know that: Psalm 118 is the middle chapter of the entire Bible? Psalm 117 is the shortest chapter in the Bible? Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible? The Bible has 594 chapters before Psalm 118 and 594 chapters after Psalm 118? If you add up all the chapters except Psalm 118, you get a total of 1188 chapters. Psalm 118 verse 8 (1188) is the middle verse of the entire Bible? Should the central verse not have a fairly important message? ‘It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man.’ - Psalm 118:8. Is this central verse not also the central theme of the entire Bible?”
A little research on the Internet finds that there are those who disagree with the numbers in this email and its conclusion. Ironically, this sequence requires trusting in a construct of man: the numbering of the verses and chapters in the Bible! The original books and letters were not numbered. The numbering is not the same in all editions of the scriptures. The Hebrew Bible is numbered much differently, and certain Christian translations have changed the numbering. Though different from what we have today, early manuscripts even before the Council of Nicaea had some divisions of text. Versification was a convenience created to help make reading and studying the scriptures easier. It helps when several people are discussing the texts, so that they are on the same page (or in the same verse). It is helpful for us to know exactly where something can be found in the midst of the entire book. When a teacher says turn to Psalm 118:8, it is easier for a group to find that place, especially if they have different Bibles with different page numbers.
However, the chapter and verse numbers are not really part of the scriptures. Is that verse the central theme of the entire Bible? Perhaps, and yet when thinking in terms of Law and Gospel preaching, this verse is wholly Law: it is about the flesh clinging to God, a work of faith. The Gospel, however, is about that which God has done for us. Perhaps we should make the numbers work out so that verse 27 can be the center of the Bible. It says, “The Lord is God, and he has made his light shine upon us.” Now, that is the center of the Bible. That is Gospel.
Psalm 118 is a hymn of thanksgiving for deliverance, perhaps written by David to praise God for saving him from his many enemies. Jesus quoted from this Psalm just as the chief priests and elders were beginning to see Jesus as a real threat to their position and their power. They needed to find a way to stop Him. He refused to give them the answer they sought and caused them to look at their own obedience to God.
The word in the Gospel passage that has been translated “head of the corner” can be translated in a number of different ways. “Head of the corner” is the literal translation of the word, but that translation is outside our modern understanding. What does “head of the corner” mean? Translators have used the words capstone, keystone, and cornerstone. Though these words have similar meanings, they are representative of stones that have slightly different purposes.
A capstone, or coping, is a stone that is used to finish the top of the wall. It is not just decorative; it is also protection for the wall. It helps hold the wall together. Coping stones are larger, or longer, than the bricks and stones used to build the wall, and therefore give strength to the top. Capstones are also used as lintels, on the top of a doorway. The capstone supports everything above the door and also the posts that create the opening. The entrances to ancient tombs were often created by standing two stones side by side and placing a capstone on top of the two standing stones. I saw one of these doorways in England. The only part of the structure to survive was this doorway which was still standing because it was held together by the capstone.
Another type of stone used in building is a keystone, which is used in building an arch. It is the central, uppermost stone, often shaped slightly differently than the other stones to give the arch a decorative touch. I like this translation of the word because of the statement that the builders rejected the stone. The keystone need not be the strongest, largest, or prettiest stone. It offers no support to the arch, but instead locks it together. To build an arch, the builder creates a form that will later be removed. The stones are carefully placed along the form. Finally, the keystone is put into place. The arch would fall if the form was removed before that keystone is in place, but once it is there, the arch stands strong. The builders rejected the stone because it was not big or perfect enough to use in a strong and longstanding building, but it was chosen to be the keystone.
The third translation is cornerstone. There are two types of cornerstones. When the builders began laying the foundation of a building, they place one square stone in the corner of the building site, making sure that the sides are perfectly aligned with where the sides of the building were designed to be. All the other stones are then placed in relation to the cornerstone. These stones were often marked and in ancient societies were given spiritual and superstitious power. We no longer normally lay a stone in the foundation of our buildings, so the cornerstone has become a purely informational and decorative feature of buildings. Inscribed with dates and the names of those responsible for the building, the cornerstone stands as a testament to the work of those people.
We can see Jesus in all these definitions of the phrase “head of the corner.” He is the capstone, not only a physical and tangible manifestation of the highpoint of our faith, but also that which holds us together. Without Him, we will fall. Jesus was not the most powerful man or the one with the political or religious authority. He was in no position to rule. He was the keystone that was cast away by the leaders of the faith, but the Church cannot stand without Him. He locks us together. Jesus is also the cornerstone. Without Him the church would be misaligned, and we would never recognize the God of grace from whom we have faith and hope and peace. Jesus is the “head of the corner” in every way.
I shake my head in complete astonishment that the tenants of the vineyard concluded that they could inherit the vineyard if they killed the son. The religious leaders wanted control, and they were willing to reject the stone that held it all together, the stone that lines everything up according to God’s good and perfect Word. These are people who have twisted justice and righteousness to the point of being upside down. We aren’t much different than they were in Jesus’ day. There are still religious leaders who want control and reject the truth of God.
Ananias was an early disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Christian Church was just beginning its spread to the four corners of the earth; the followers were not yet called Christians. They were Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah for whom they had waited. They gathered together in homes, sharing fellowship and food, reading the letters of the apostles and the scriptures they knew so well, trying to understand all that was happening to their world, their faith, and their lives.
Not all Jews believed the message of Jesus or that He was the Messiah for whom they were waiting. They began calling the followers of “The Way” Christian as an insult because they had wandered from the true faith and were apostate and traitors. Some Jews were more zealous among the company of religious leaders, and they believed that the new Christians deserved to die, that the new faith had to be stopped at all cost. One of those zealous members of the ruling party was Saul of Tarsus.
Ananias was a devout observer of the law and was highly respected by all the Jews living in Damascus. (Acts 22:12) He had heard that Saul of Tarsus, the zealot who was present at the stoning of Stephen, was headed for Damascus on orders from the chief priests to rid the city of those who believed in Jesus. The Lord spoke to Ananias in a vision and told him to go find Paul to heal his blindness. Imagine how frightened Ananias must have been. Saul had a deadly reputation that made the Christians tremble with fear.
But God had something wonderful planned for Saul whose name was changed to Paul after his conversion. He no longer wanted to be in control, holding on to the power and authority to destroy the Church. He’d had a dramatic moment of clarity as the Lord Jesus Christ came to him on the road to Damascus. He left Jerusalem with the intent of doing more harm to the Christian Church but arrived in Damascus a changed man. Ananias could not have known that. All he knew was that Saul was a Jew’s Jew, zealous for the faith of his fathers.
Paul soon had an entirely different reputation. He began preaching the Gospel to all people, Jews and Gentiles alike. The Jew’s Jews began to question his authority. Many men, like Ananias, continued to live devotedly in the faith of their heritage while also believing in the Gospel message brought and won by Jesus Christ. We don’t know where Ananias might have stood on the issue of Gentile believers, but men like him were disturbed by the way Paul was taking the blessings of this new faith to pagans and foreigners. There were those among the Jewish Christians who believed that the Gentile Christians must first become Jews, through conversion and circumcision. They were against Paul’s evangelism techniques and his expectations of the new non-Jew Christians.
Paul had a hard word for them: he called them dogs and mutilators of the flesh. He said they were evil. They were evil because they put their confidence in the flesh, rather than the Spirit. Paul learned on the road to Damascus that the flesh is not faithful, but God is. His conversion was more than a change from Jew to Christian. Paul’s life was turned upside down as he learned that faith is about living in trust of God and His Work in and through Jesus Christ rather than having faith in the things that he could do to be saved. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul admits that he has not yet reached perfection, but he refuses to turn back to the ways of his old life to live in a faith of the flesh that fails. Instead, Paul continued forward, despite the assault from those Christians who still relied on the flesh for salvation. This was as Jesus promised in the parable for today. The tenants who killed the son would lose the vineyard and it would be given to others. Paul was sent to share the Gospel with those others.
Psalm 80 tells the story of Israel, the vine. God brought His people out of Egypt and planted them in the garden of His choosing. They did not do well. He expected the grapes He planted to grow and prosper, but instead they went wild. Israel’s actions brought bad times upon the land; they suffered the consequences of being disobedient to the Father, but He never left. He heard their cry and restored His relationship with them. They sought His face and He shined it upon them.
This psalm is the cry of God’s people for salvation. “Turn us again, God of Armies. Cause your face to shine, and we will be saved.” They knew God’s good works; they didn’t know why they had been abandoned. They didn’t see their own failure, but despite this reality, God did come to their aid. He restored His people and called them to the life He intended for them. Despite His grace, they continued to fail. Despite their failure, He continued to be faithful. He replanted the vineyard and began again.
By the time of Jesus, the faithlessness of God’s people came in the form of self-righteousness. They believed that they were guarded and protected by God, that He would provide all they needed. But they expected this to be true not because God was good but because they thought they were. The watchtower was their own interpretation of the Law, the wall was their heritage. They thought they were good because they relied on their own abilities. They did not see how they had turned from God or how they had rejected Him. The leaders had allowed even the Temple to become corrupt.
In both the Old Testament and Gospel lesson, God is the vineyard owner. In the first, the vineyard is Israel, and it is rejected because the grapes are wild. In the Gospel, the tenants are the leaders of Israel who have rejected God but think they deserve to keep God’s kingdom. In the first, God allowed the vineyard to suffer the consequences of disappointing Him. He took down the hedge of protection and allowed the beasts and the weeds to take over. It is trampled and devoured. When the rain of blessing stopped falling it withered and died. In the second, God put out the unfaithful tenants and gave the vineyard to those who would care for it and give Him His due.
This is the story of Israel. God gave them the world, but they lost sight of Him. They turned to other gods; they did what they wanted to do. They rejected him by ignoring His servants. The prophets were beaten, killed and stoned, because they did not like the messages they shared. We don’t want to hear that times will be tough, that we have to be obedient. There were plenty of false prophets willing to tell the kings that God was on their side and that they would win every battle. There were plenty of prophets willing to tickle their ears with happy promises even if they had nothing to do with God. God’s real prophets spoke the truth, called people to repentance, reminded them of their sin and warned them of what would happen if they did not turn back to God.
The warning from Isaiah was fulfilled when Jesus and the apostles took the story of God into the whole world. Jesus might have come first for the Jews, but God meant for Him to be the shining light for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. The early church fought amongst themselves about how to deal with those who were not Jews but who believed in Jesus, but God made it clear through the prophecies and through evangelists like Paul that His Gospel was for all people.
We aren’t perfect, and we won’t be perfect in this world. We go our own way and think that we deserve the blessings of God based on our work rather than God’s grace. Paul knew that he had not yet reached the goal but knew that he belonged to Jesus and that every day took him closer to the prize, so he pressed on toward that goal. We are called to do the same, to look toward God, to live in faith, and to trust that God will provide all we need. We are to call on God to turn us so that we can see that He was with us all along. He will bless us in His vineyard and give us all we need to continue glorifying Him with praise and by giving Him the fruit He is due.
“‘Then those who feared Yahweh spoke one with another; and Yahweh listened, and heard, and a book of memory was written before him, for those who feared Yahweh, and who honored his name. They shall be mine,’ says Yahweh of Armies, ‘my own possession in the day that I make, and I will spare them, as a man spares his own son who serves him. Then you shall return and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him who serves God and him who doesn’t serve him.’” Malachi 3:16-18, WEB
Vance Havner was an evangelist in North Carolina whose wife died of an unusual disease. All his hopes and dreams of living a long, happy life with her passed away when she did, and he found no consolation. He missed her touch and her voice so much that he was constantly tempted to ask “Why, God?” In his book, “Playing Marbles with Diamonds” he writes, “You need never ask ‘Why?’ because Calvary covers it all. When before the throne we stand in Him complete, all the riddles that puzzle us here will fall into place and we shall know in Him fulfillment what we now believe in faith – that all things work together for good in His eternal purpose. No longer will we cry ‘My God, why?’ Instead, ‘alas’ will become ‘Alleluia,’ all question marks will be straightened into exclamation points, sorrow will change to singing, and pain will be lost in praise.”
I’ve had my own reasons for crying “Why, God?” recently. I stand firm in my faith, and trust that God will make all things right, but I can’t help but wonder why I’m struggling. I know I’m not alone. I also know my struggles are nothing compared to what Jesus experienced for me. Yet, it is hard for us to ignore the question when there seems to be so many things that are going wrong. Aside from personal struggles we experience, we also see the wicked prosper as believers are persecuted. Sickness, pain and death reign and we often mourn the loss of those we love. The question “Why” has been a stumbling block for many, the straw that breaks the faith of those who do not truly trust in the Lord. All too often we hear the words, “I can’t believe in a God that would allow suffering…” or something like that. We get caught up in our desire to understand the purpose for our lives and everything that happens that we lose sight of the big picture.
Though Satan does still roam on this earth and those who reject God seem to be blessed, we are to look past our experiences of the flesh into the promises of God and know that all things work together for good. We will not see the big picture in this life, and the question “Why” will always be present in our minds. It is a human quality to desire understanding. It is not necessarily wrong to ask; God may even answer. But it is wrong to demand from God some response or to expect an explanation or that will satisfy our desires. Even our Lord Jesus asked, “My God, why have you forsaken me” as He hung on the cross. Yet, Jesus did not demand anything from God. He trusted His Father.
Our lives are like a puzzle being put together piece by piece. We won’t see the whole picture until our life is complete and we stand at the throne of our Lord. Until then, there will be pieces of the puzzle that just do not seem to fit. We will ask “Why?” as we wonder about the wickedness and suffering in this world, as we face our own pain and loss. Yet, we can rest in the promise of God that one day all things will be clear, and until that day everything will serve His purpose even if we do not understand. We can encourage one another and keep our eyes on Jesus. All else will pass away and we will rejoice in the Alleluias of praise to God.
“Yahweh says concerning the prophets who lead my people astray; for those who feed their teeth, they proclaim, ‘Peace!’ and whoever doesn’t provide for their mouths, they prepare war against him: ‘Therefore night is over you, with no vision, and it is dark to you, that you may not divine; and the sun will go down on the prophets, and the day will be black over them. The seers shall be disappointed, and the diviners confounded. Yes, they shall all cover their lips; for there is no answer from God.’ But as for me, I am full of power by Yahweh’s Spirit, and of judgment, and of might, to declare to Jacob his disobedience, and to Israel his sin. Please listen to this, you heads of the house of Jacob, and rulers of the house of Israel, who abhor justice, and pervert all equity. They build up Zion with blood, and Jerusalem with iniquity. Her leaders judge for bribes, and her priests teach for a price, and her prophets of it tell fortunes for money: yet they lean on Yahweh, and say, ‘Isn’t Yahweh among us? No disaster will come on us.’ Therefore Zion for your sake will be plowed like a field, and Jerusalem will become heaps of rubble, and the mountain of the temple like the high places of a forest.” Micah 3:5-12, WEB
Door-to-door salesmen have a job to do, but it is very frustrating to listen to them. They will say whatever they think will convince you to buy their product. They need to make sales, but I will not buy a product from someone if I can’t believe what they say. I have even put a “No Soliciting” sign on my door, although many of the people going door-to-door don’t respect it, or do not know what it means. I had a very negative experience with a salesman, so I am sometimes a bit rude when the knock on my door.
A few years ago a young many came to my door selling a special vacuum cleaner. I told him that I had no money and that there was no way I would buy a vacuum cleaner. We had recently purchased our home and it cleaned out our bank accounts. I was struggling to pay my bills and fill my pantry. The young man told me that he got points toward a prize for just demonstrating the machine and asked if I would let him show me the cleaner. He insisted that there was no obligation to buy and asked if I wouldn’t enjoy having someone else clean my floor for me.
I repeated that I had no money to purchase the cleaner, but against my better judgment I allowed him in because who doesn’t want to have someone else vacuum their floor? From the moment he entered my house, he said everything he thought I would want to hear. He told me he was a Christian, although he continuing conversation did not agree with that confession. He rattled on about what a great deal he could get for me, just a few dollars a month. I repeated that I could not afford the machine, no matter how cheap it would be. He told me it didn’t matter. He changed his tactic often, constantly trying to find the “button” to push to make me want to buy his product. He even asked if my husband would approve of all the dirt he found in my carpet.
He eventually called in his boss, who also tried to sell me the product. He made me “an offer I couldn’t refused.” I told these guys again and again that I could not afford to buy the vacuum, standing firm on my original answer to the request to demonstrate their product. The boss got angry for wasting their time and the young man was not apologize for wasting my time. A few days later a woman from the same company came to sell me the same machine. She brought a gift I could have if I would just let her in to demonstrate her product. I told her I already had a two-hour demonstration (the first guy would not leave until he sold me a machine) and could I have the gift that the other guy never offered me? She left in a huff insisting that she was from a different distributor. Later that day I saw her get into the exact same van that delivered the first guy to my neighborhood.
In Micah’s day the prophets spoke for profit. In other words, they said what they thought the king, or those willing to pay, wanted to hear. A message of peace sounds so much better to the ears of those who do not want to experience a lack of peace, but the prophets were not speaking God’s word. Sometimes we have to face difficult times. Sometimes we have to face the consequences of our actions and those times are not pleasant or peaceful. The prophets were given their gift to help God’s people walk a straight line and live as He ordained for them. But the kings were never willing to pay for the truth. They wanted to hear the things that made them feel and look good, so they supported the prophets that gave them what they wanted.
There might be good reason to give a positive message when times are tough. Some prophets speak about peace because they know dwelling on the negative message will only make the hearers afraid or moved to wrong action. They have good and right motive, but a lie is still a lie. And is it really good to have the world turned upside down because there was no call to change? Prophets are not given messages of warning to make them afraid, God’s words of warning are always a call to repentance. God has been known to change His mind. Take Nineveh, for example. When Jonah got around to preaching the message to the Ninevites, they repented, and God had mercy on them. Might the destruction of Jerusalem have been averted if only the prophets told the truth? The blessings would have been far greater if the people had heard the right word and done what God called them to do.
We need to beware of those who expect payment for the Word of God. I used to belong to a mailing list in which prophetic voices shared their visions and prophecies. I was impressed with the words that were shared in the beginning, and blessed by the messages they gave. As the list grew, I found that more and more of the messages I received were selling me something. Even those that included a prophetic message had links to books to buy or conferences to attend. They sold workshops on how to be a prophet. The last time I visited the website, I had difficulty even finding something that might have come from God. Everyone was more interested in selling themselves. It didn’t help that some of their prophecies were proven untrue. Unfortunately, many people believed what they had to say, especially when the “words” meant good things for the hearers.
Do we want the truth? Or do we prefer to have our ears tickled with words that make us feel good? Are we willing to buy what the prophets tell us? Are we willing to face the consequences of following after warm fuzzies instead of working for God's justice in our world? We need to hear what God has to say and trust that He will be faithful when we trust in Him. If we listen to His warnings and do what He is calling us to do, we’ll find true peace in His promises.
“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. For there is no distinction, for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; whom God sent to be an atoning sacrifice, through faith in his blood, for a demonstration of his righteousness through the passing over of prior sins, in God’s forbearance; to demonstrate his righteousness at this present time; that he might himself be just, and the justifier of him who has faith in Jesus.” Romans 3:21-26, WEB
In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. We learned in school that he was searching for spice, wealth, and proof that the world was not flat. That last accomplishment is a persistent legend because in his day there were few who doubted the reality of a spherical earth. Knowledge of the earth’s shape was passed down from ancient times. There is even a quote from Isaiah that says, “It is he who sits above the circle of the earth.” The world relied on India for spices, and spices meant wealth. Columbus thought he could find an easier way to get to India by going west instead of east. What he found was that there was a whole other land between Spain and his destination. He also found gold.
It is true that Christopher Columbus was not the hero we learned about in Elementary School decades ago, our understanding of him is flawed. He’s also not the villain that many paint him to be today. He was, as we all are, both saint and sinner. He is sometimes credited with discovering the United States, but he never stepped foot on our continent. We have been taught that he was successful, yet he died a broken and bitter man. The celebration of Columbus Day has become controversial; there are many today who would rather forget him and have renamed the day to honor those whose lives were destroyed by his exploration. Though it is still a federal holiday many places no longer recognize it as a day off. My son even had to go to jury duty today.
I once read an article from 1992 on the five hundredth anniversary of his first trip that gave an entirely different perspective on the work of Christopher Columbus that I didn’t realize. There are several websites with the title, “What you don’t know about Columbus.” Columbus made several trips to the New World. He set up trading posts, established a colony, and was governor of that land.
After his first trip, a group of thirty-nine men volunteered to stay on La Navidad as Columbus returned to Spain to report what they had found and to prepare a larger group to establish a colony there. By the time he returned, the thirty-nine men were dead. They did not live according to the expectations of Columbus, abusing the natives and stealing from them. They did not live according to the expectations of the God for whom they were on a mission. See, what we don’t learn about the adventures of Christopher Columbus is that he was on a missionary trip. He was determined to take Christ to the world. He also had a mistaken understanding of the end times, and he was trying to find enough gold to pave the way to a new Crusade. He believed that Jerusalem belonged to Christ, and he wanted to finance the restoration of the city, to take it away from the Muslims who dwelt there.
He believed he was called and sent to share the love and mercy of Christ. Unfortunately, he chose men who did not have the same heart. They took advantage of the people on La Navidad, and their lives were ended for their sinfulness. As for Columbus, the quest to do what he believed to be right led him down a path that was truly filled with sinfulness. He became greedy, perhaps not as we understand, but in his quest to accomplish his mission in the world. Rather than serving God, he followed a path that did not glorify Him.
He knew that he was sinner. He wrote in his journals, “I am a most unworthy sinner, but I have cried out to the Lord for grace and mercy, and they have covered me completely. I have found the sweetest consolation since I made it my whole purpose to enjoy His marvelous presence. For the execution of the journey to the Indies, I did not make use of intelligence, mathematics, or maps. It is simply the fulfillment of what Isaiah had prophesied...”
He failed in every way. He was misguided, arrogant, and exploitive. He could not lead the people in a way that honored the Christ he loved. The people became discontent and eventually shipped Christopher home to Spain in chains, a fate he probably deserved. He found great wealth and success along the way, harming others in the process, but eventually died penniless and forgotten.
The article I read came from a site that supports church planting movements all over the world. Their concern with Columbus’ adventure was not what we remember today good and bad, but what went wrong with his missionary work. His missionaries were not prepared. They weren’t trained. Most of them were probably not even intent on taking the Word of Christ to the people in the New World. Despite his misunderstanding of his calling in life, seeking gold to fight the Muslims, Christopher Columbus always remained true to his passion, which was to establish the Kingdom of Jesus Christ in the world. He didn’t ensure that his mission was God-centered, but allowed human sinfulness to ruin the work he was trying to accomplish. He did not glorify God with his work.
Christopher Columbus was a man of vision and failures. Unfortunately, we focus on the failures and ignore his faith. The truth is, every great person in the Bible had similar failures alongside their accomplishments. Remember Paul killed Christians before Jesus transformed his life. God is able to use fallible, sinful humans to do great things. Christopher Columbus may have never set foot on land that became the United States of America, but his work led to the Western Hemisphere becoming a bastion of vibrant Christianity. The Latin American places where he first visited more than five hundred years ago are now centers from which modern missionaries are spreading out to the rest of the world to take the light of Jesus Christ to those who are lost in the darkness. Kay Brigham wrote, “In spite of all the tragedy that resulted, the discovery of the new world, was above all the triumph of Christianity.”
Christopher Columbus, the saint and sinner, stepped out in faith. We may not have the opportunity to be a missionary to a foreign land, but we all have opportunities to take the love of God into the world. We will probably not fail so miserably or walk such a sinful path, but our sin is just as great. We, too, are all saints and sinners. We all fall short of the glory of God. Despite our flaws, Jesus died to forgive us and God has called each of us to step out in faith, to be a light to the nations, to share God’s salvation with the world. We won’t do it perfectly. We might even do it poorly. God will give us what we need, let us receive His gifts of wisdom, grace, mercy, humility, hope, peace, joy so that we will be prepared to glorify Him in all we do.
“Rejoice in Yahweh, you righteous! Praise is fitting for the upright. Give thanks to Yahweh with the lyre. Sing praises to him with the harp of ten strings. Sing to him a new song. Play skillfully with a shout of joy! For Yahweh’s word is right. All his work is done in faithfulness. He loves righteousness and justice. The earth is full of the loving kindness of Yahweh. By Yahweh’s word, the heavens were made: all their army by the breath of his mouth. He gathers the waters of the sea together as a heap. He lays up the deeps in storehouses. Let all the earth fear Yahweh. Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him. For he spoke, and it was done. He commanded, and it stood firm. Yahweh brings the counsel of the nations to nothing. He makes the thoughts of the peoples to be of no effect. The counsel of Yahweh stands fast forever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations.” Psalm 33:1-11, WEB
You know how it is: your car warranty expires, and everything falls apart. I have been feeling a bit like this over my body. I’m about to turn sixty years old and things are beginning to go wrong. I’ve had to make some radical changes in my lifestyle, and I’m now that little old lady with pill bottles on the dining room table. I have seen remarkable change in just a couple weeks, so it has all been good. The visit to the doctor was a wake-up call and I’ll be better for it.
I confess, however, that I’ve had a few moments of anger, depression, frustration, and even denial. I suppose that’s natural. I also think it has distracted me from the typical attitude about growing old. Too many people hit sixty, or even fifty, and think that the best years are far behind. Many people experience a mid-life crisis when they pass the half century mark. They try to prove their youthfulness and longevity. Old guys buy sports cars and women get facelifts. It is no wonder, actually, that we go through these feelings. Too many of my high school classmates have died; my husband and I have lost our parents and most of our aunts and uncles. We have seen dear friends pass away. How do we look forward to life when death seems to be on our doorstep? I am reminded daily of my impending old age by invitations from organizations for older people and encouragement to buy insurance. We’ve even gotten advertisements for funeral homes! I’m reminded that my warranty has expired when my joints creak and my muscles ache. I can no longer enjoy some of the things that I really enjoyed when I was young.
There are reasons to celebrate, however. Birthdays are an opportunity to show how much we love someone with cards and gifts. My husband brought home a dozen roses and my family treated me to dinner this weekend. We aren’t having a huge celebration, but that’s probably for the best right now. Reaching sixty (which I know many of my readers will consider young!) causes a person to think about their life. I realize daily that the years that have passed have been really great years. I heard a quote somewhere recently that said, “Don’t call yourself sixty years old, say you have sixty years.” This quote causes us to embrace all that has happened instead of seeing it as past history.
I’ve enjoyed thirty-five years of marriage to the most wonderful guy. I had the blessing of raising two incredible children who are now making the world a better place with their gifts. And now that they are grown and independent, I have the freedom to pursue my own opportunities. I have the freedom to write and to paint. I have the time to go to the movies, to visit the zoo, to experiment in the kitchen. I have the time to devote to prayer. It is not so bad turning six decades old.
Despite the recent health issues, I’ve decided to approach this momentous moment with joy and excitement. The changes are already making me healthier and better able to do what I want to do. I am going to celebrate every moment, after all it isn’t the number that determines the quality of our life, but how we live it. We reach these ages and see that death is so close, but we are reminded that we do not know the hour or the day when we’ll be called home. I’ve seen sweet babies laid to rest and centenarians blowing out a hundred candles. The feelings we have are understandable, the midlife crises make sense, but they’ll never make our lives better.
Instead, we should celebrate every moment in some way. We should wake up every morning with a smile on our face. We should join in the song of the psalmist, remembering all the great things God has done for us knowing that He has plans for our lives. Whether the day He calls me home is today or decades from now doesn’t matter. I may be older, but I’m blessed, and that’s reason to praise God. He loves each of us and all His creation; it can be seen in all the good works He has done in the world. It can be seen in His promises. Whether we live another day or decades, we can rest in the faithfulness of God who will get us through every moment, good and bad.
Lectionary Scriptures for October 15, 2023: Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:4-13; Matthew 22:1-14
“It shall be said in that day, ‘Behold, this is our God! We have waited for him, and he will save us! This is Yahweh! We have waited for him. We will be glad and rejoice in his salvation!’” Isaiah 25:9, WEB
I visited a preschool one day just as the children were gathering for naptime. One little girl was holding a blanket and a stuffed animal, comfort items she always held during her naps. The teacher made a comment about the items, trying to convince the little girl that she did not need them. I was somewhat saddened by the exchange. We make our children grow up too fast these days.
We all have things onto which we cling during times of stress and doubt and fear. We cling to them because they give us comfort and peace. As adults we do not take a blanket and stuffed animal to bed, but we cling to other things. How many can’t face the day without a cup of coffee or cigarette? We hold onto pictures and knick-knacks because they remind us of people we love or happy memories. As much as we might wonder about the child with the blanket and stuffed animal, I carry my favorite pillows when I travel and have favorite blankets I use when it is chilly outside.
My recent health issues have made me reconsider how I eat. The hardest part of that is giving up my favorite comfort foods that I turn to when I am under stress. Who among us doesn’t dive into a bowl of ice cream or gorge on a favorite meal when we need comfort? I found a place near the hospital in Houston for cheesesteaks that I visited several times during the five weeks I cared for my dying father. The meal didn’t change anything, but it made me feel a little better.
Dogs have special toys; cats have a favorite place to sleep. Teenagers find comfort in talking on the phone to their best friends. Certain smells have an amazing effect on people, like baking bread or brownies. A widower will notice the smell of his wife’s perfume that still lingers in the closet. I think about my mom when I see pansies and my dad when I’m driving my car. We also have intangible things that bring us comfort. We find strength and courage through prayer, hope in something greater than ourselves, love in the faces of our family, and peace in the knowledge that God is in control. We cling to these things in good times and bad.
Psalm 23 is one of the most popular scriptures in the Bible. Even people who don’t follow Jesus are familiar with David’s words of trust in God’s care for His people. We hear it often, especially since it is often used for funerals. When we hear these words, we hear the promises of God’s loving hand on our lives. He takes care of our every need, even as we walk through that shadowy valley.
However, this passage is not comforting to everyone, just as the things we cling to might not be comforting for others. Our blankets seem old and smelly, unnecessary to those who find comfort in less tangible things. For some, Psalm 23 is only identified with funerals, so all they remember is that it accompanies death. The Psalm will not bring comfort to that person, only more pain. It would do us well to remember that God has created each of us to be different. We are unique in not only our gifts and our personalities, but also in our needs. For one person, Psalm 23 might offer a glimpse into something wonderful while for another it will only bring pain. So, we are called to minister to each other in their needs, to help them find comfort during their own times of stress, doubt, and fear.
And we all have those times when we need comfort. We can’t be happy all the time. Yet, there are people who seem to be just that. Have you known one of those people that no matter where they are, no matter what is happening they have a smile on their face? In the movie “Sister Act” starring Whoopi Goldberg, Kathy Najimy played Sister Mary Patrick, an upbeat nun who helped Sister Mary Clarence (Whoopi) find her place in the convent. Sister Mary Clarence was actually Delores Van Cartier, a Las Vegas headliner who was in hiding because her boyfriend had threatened her life. The convent life was far from Delores’s comfort zone and no matter how temporary it was to be, she needed people to help her adjust.
In one scene, Sister Mary Clarence and Sister Mary Patrick were sitting together, chatting about their lives. Slightly annoyed by the constant giddiness, Sister Mary Clarence asked Sister Mary Patrick if she was always so happy. Sister Mary Patrick answered, “Yes” and said that her mother thought she would grow up to be either a stewardess or a nun. Most of us look at people like her with the same annoyance as Delores. We can’t imagine always being happy. It is exhausting to be with them, how much more exhausting must it be to be them?
Yet Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I will say, ‘Rejoice.’” Always is a very long time. Sister Mary Clarence seems to have found that place where she always finds joy, but I don’t know many people that can get there. We go through a whole range of emotions, sometimes in just minutes. Even as we watch the movie “Sister Act” we experience fear, worry, sadness, hope, doubt, and happiness. We react to the experiences of those characters on screen, and we respond with smiles as well as tears.
However, rejoicing need not manifest merely as giddiness. Sister Mary Clarence had that kind of happiness, even in tough times, because she always saw the glass as half full. By writing “Rejoice in the Lord,” Paul reminds us that we can rejoice even as we cry tears of pain and doubt. This joy is different than mere happiness; it is living trust in God, responding to all our circumstances with a steadfast faith that is visible to the world. This does not mean we have to smile at all the time; it means standing firm in the promises of God, knowing that He is faithful. This means praising God always, in the good and the bad. This means being thankful, even when it seems like there is nothing to be thankful for.
Sadly, this letter was written by Paul in part because two fellow co-workers for Christ were at odds. We don’t know why Euodia and Syntyche were fighting, but I’m sure we have all seen this kind of relationship in our families, work, and even in church. Both sides are passionate about their opinion and are willing to fight for what they believe to be right and true. That is certainly true right now in the United States as politics has divided our nation. Many are divided over religion, also, even Christians. Perhaps Euodia and Syntyche had differing opinions about certain doctrines of faith or the direction of the new and growing Church. It would be impossible to find full agreement in the pews of our churches today, let alone between church bodies.
But Paul wrote, “Be of the same mind.” Does this mean that we have to agree about every detail of our faith? Some might think so, but Paul goes on to talk about rejoicing in the Lord. Despite our differences (differences that occur because God has created us as unique individuals), we can be of the same mind, praising God in all circumstances. We share the peace of God as we dwell in the love of God in Christ Jesus, instead of dwelling in our differences. As Paul wrote, “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.” We are called to make the best of our circumstances, even if it means taking a chance of doing something unexpected according to the ways of the world. Just as a person like Delores did not understand the joy in Sister Mary Patrick’s life, so the world does not understand our life of praise no matter our circumstances.
In today’s Gospel passage from Matthew, Jesus said, “For many are called, but few chosen.” If we are honest with ourselves, we will realize that we tend to read this with a sense of haughtiness. We believe that we are chosen, that we are “one of the few.” We think we are special, set aside because of our gifts and abilities rather than because of God’s grace. It is easy for us to point fingers at people that that seem to have rejected God’s invitation because they don’t seem to share “the same mind.”
In the past few weeks my husband and I have celebrated our thirty-five anniversary and I have celebrated my sixtieth birthday. We’ve struggled about how to celebrate. I searched the web for the right place to go out to eat, but all the “fancy” places were ridiculously expensive. We’ve visited some of those places in the past but have done so with coupons or at a discount. Even then those meals were too expensive. I don’t know whether I’ve become cheap in my old age or if prices have gone up so much, but I just couldn’t see myself spending that much money for a meal that did not have lasting value. I can be absolutely satisfied with a meal at a more practically priced restaurant. The food is usually pretty good and the service pleasant. We don’t need to spend our grocery money for a week to be filled.
Our scriptures today focus on the great banquet which our Father is preparing for us in heaven. Both Isaiah and Matthew talk about wedding feast that will be filled with an abundance of good food. I’m sure that whatever God has waiting will be better than even the best, most expensive meal we’ve ever eaten. My mouth waters in expectation, although this scripture makes it seem like this feast will be like a banquet, and I’m not sure I like the idea of spending eternity at a banquet. I have memories of banquets I’ve attended throughout my life. Wedding feasts are often fun, but the food is mass produced and sometimes over-cooked or cold by the time we get to eat.
I traveled with a group for a week when I was a teenager. We visited cities around our state to introduce our organization to places that would benefit from having us around. We were fed well during our trip, hosted at banquet feasts every day by the local groups who invited us to visit. Nearly every meal centered around ham; ham is easy to fix, at that time it was relatively inexpensive. The side dishes that go with ham are easy to prepare. The people who prepared the food did a good job; the food filled our bellies, but it was never satisfying. The ham was usually dry, the side dishes were not quite hot and fresh. Don’t get me wrong, we enjoyed the hospitality, but that’s my idea of what a feast is all about. God’s feast will not just serve a hundred or so; it will be a feast for all who have waited for God’s salvation. How can He possibly serve so many a feast so great?
He can because He is God. It is not a normal wedding like those we’ve attended. The feast will be great because He will be celebrating the marriage of His Son. This is the consummation of all His promises, the fulfillment of Christ’s work in the world. His bride the Church will be fully and completely made one with Him. Death will be swallowed up; tears will be dried. We will have reason to celebrate, and this feast is not a party that will end. It will last for eternity as we dwell in heaven with our Father and our Lord Christ forever.
Isaiah wrote, “This is Yahweh! We have waited for him. We will be glad and rejoice in his salvation!” Those who believe in Jesus will receive blessing from the Lord, salvation from our Savior. We may not think we can rejoice always, but we will see the day when mourning is turned to joy. We will feast at the victory table. Jesus overcomes even time and space by drawing all believers - past, present, and future - into His body, the Church. Jesus is the resurrection; He is our hope and life. He has overcome death and the grave and in Him alone is our hope for salvation.
It seems unbelievable to me that anyone will reject the Lord, but there are those who will not respond to the invitation to come to the feast. This is what Jesus was telling the disciples in today’s Gospel lesson. This parable follows the ones we’ve heard over the past few weeks. Two weeks ago, we were reminded that those who respond to God’s promises will be blessed, but those who say they believe but do not act will be left behind. Last week the lesson showed what will happen to those who violently reject God’s call to active, living faith. We know from the text that Jesus was speaking to the Jewish leaders; even they knew they were the ones who were being targeted at the time. However, these parables are as relevant today for those who continue to say one thing but do another and those who reject God’s call.
This week God offers an invitation. Isn’t it amazing how patient and purposeful He is with His people? Even as they were trying to find ways to arrest Jesus, He was still trying to get them to see the truth. He tells them the kingdom of heaven is like the wedding feast given by a king for his son. The invitations went out, and like those who said “Yes” but did not do what they promised, the guests refused to come. More servants were sent and ignored. Like the tenants in the vineyard, some of the invited guests even killed the king’s servants. In both the previous stories, Jesus pointed toward those who were deemed unworthy of God’s grace as being the recipients of His promises because they proved unfaithful in the end. The same is true in today’s passage; the king rejected those who rejected him and invited anyone willing to come. “Go therefore to the intersections of the highways, and as many as you may find, invite to the wedding feast.” The servants went out and invited all those they found until the wedding hall was full.
The wedding feast promised in our scriptures is for Christ and His Church. We know that ultimately God’s salvation is meant for all people, just as we see in the passage from Isaiah, but the invitation was first given to Israel. The scriptures foretold the time when the Messiah would come. They were given the signs and promises; they knew what they should be looking for. The prophets came and spoke the warnings and the promises, but the people ignored and even rejected them. Matthew’s texts over the past few weeks have shown how God’s people have gone their own way, following their own wants and desires rather than God’s Word. They killed the prophets, and in last week’s lesson Jesus predicted that they would even kill the Son.
At that word, the chief priests wanted to arrest Jesus, but they were afraid of the crowd. Jesus extended the conversation with a parable about heaven, taking the message of Isaiah to the next level. Heaven will be a banquet with fine wine and rich foods, served to those set free from the oppression of their enemy. The ultimate enemy is death; Jesus would overcome that enemy through His death and resurrection. He was about to fulfill God’s promises by setting the world free to be welcome into the heavenly banquet.
The people in our stories from Matthew over the past few weeks - the son who said yes but did not do the work of his father, the tenants who thought that they deserved the vineyard, so they killed the son, and today’s guests who ignored or rejected the wedding invitation - did not trust in God. They trusted in themselves, in their own righteousness. They are like those today who still ignore and reject the God who has offered salvation to all who believe. Unfortunately, in today’s passage we learn that there are some who accept the invitation but not the gift. They are the ones who are part of the Church but who have not truly accepted the free gift of God’s grace. They think that they are there according to their own works and righteousness. This is why it is so important to remember that we do not earn God’s grace but in His grace, we are called to live accordingly.
In ancient days, the host of a banquet gave clean robes to the guests. The people had traveled far on dusty roads; the robes were given so that the guests would feel fresh and clean for the feast. Rejection of the gift was disrespectful to the host, just as a rejection of Jesus Christ is a rejection of God’s grace.
The wedding garment here has nothing to do with the clothing we wear. It is the righteousness we wear. The robes of the priests and the leaders were a sign of their position and authority. It was also a sign of their piety. But the robe given at this wedding banquet is not self-attained by good works or human effort: it is the righteousness that comes from Christ. The warning in this text is for those who think they can attend church but hold on to their own ways. It is a warning to the hypocrites who claim to be faithful but live faithless lives.
See, the wedding robe represents the righteousness of Jesus Christ, the righteousness we receive by faith in Him. We can’t be right with God without Jesus, but God Himself has given us the robe to cover the filth of our sinful natures.
We might think that the guest was cast out because he had not changed his ways or repented of his “grime,” but the robes did not remove the dust and dirt from the road; the robes simply covered it. The guest without the robe was still a sinner, but so were all the other guests. It isn’t the act of wearing the robe that made the guests clean, it was the gift that made them right for the feast. This is how the righteousness of God works. We are still sinners in need of a Savior, but Jesus covers us with His righteousness so that we can attend the eternal feast in the presence of our God. We are simultaneously sinners and saints. The guest was not cast out because he was grimy and dirty from the road, but because he had rejected the gift.
Who are the chosen? We automatically put ourselves into that category, but we would do well to remember that we aren’t invited to the banquet because of our works. We don’t deserve the invitation; we are invited out of God’s grace. If we expect to enjoy the banquet based on our own good works, our own righteousness, we will be sadly mistaken. It is only by the gift of the wedding robe, the righteousness of Jesus Christ, that we will be received at the great and glorious banquet which God is planning for us.
God knew from the beginning of time that we would need Him. He knew we would fall. He knew we would be overcome by the world. He knew we would face terrible enemies. And He promised to be faithful. He promised to protect us against the storm and the heat of the sun. Knowing that God has promised these things and that He is faithful, God’s people can rejoice always.
We can rejoice because the day will come when everything will be right. Meanwhile, we sing songs of thanksgiving though the uncomfortable moments and trouble because we know that God is in control. He is with us and He can see beyond the moment. He has great things planned for those who love Him. There is a feast waiting for us, a feast we will enjoy forever. Our salvation is waiting for us on the other side of our fear and pain. Knowing this, we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, praising God for everything. It won’t be easy. Like Euodia and Syntyche, we will fight over our differences. There will be times when we are forced to live outside our comfort zone. Our world is broken and only God can make it right.
Euodia and Syntyche were probably fighting about something insignificant. We’ve all been there, though, haven’t we? It seems these days that we are even more a divided people, unable to agree about much. Our brokenness is obvious. We don’t seem to share the same mind, so Paul encourages us to approach our relationships differently. He teaches us to have the mind of Christ. He teaches us to rejoice always.
It isn’t so easy to rejoice always right now, is it? We have so much happening in our world that is causing us grief. We are afraid, not only of dis-ease, but of the future. We can’t talk to our neighbors without getting into an argument about politics. The streets in too many cities are more dangerous than ever. We are cut off from others in too many ways. Like Euodia and Syntyche, we even struggle loving brothers and sisters in Christ. We may not even realize how much we are struggling, but the brokenness of the world is affecting many people’s lives. Too many people are not happy, and it is manifesting in anger and hatred.
We have all received the same invitation and despite our sinfulness, Jesus has given us all the gift of His own righteousness, a robe to wear over our dirty and grimy selves. Despite our differences, we are drawn together into a banquet of unlimited grace, a promised eternal feast that we can enjoy even today. As we wait for eternity, we are called to join in the chorus of praise and thanksgiving, as we experience the peace and joy of living in God’s presence. We all wear dirty clothes under the garment of grace, but when find ourselves in the struggles of life, let us rejoice always because we know God has already made all things right. Our joy will help us let go of the stress and doubt and fear we because we know that God has already made all things right.
Eternity is going to be amazing. All the brokenness will be gone, and we will be whole and restored to a perfect relationship with God. We will celebrate at a great banquet that will last forever. There will be no more tears, no more dis-ease, no more stress or doubt or fear. We look forward to the day when we will praise God forever, but let us not wait, but begin today to rejoice in Him always, praising God for His gracious gift that brings us comfort and peace.
“Jesus therefore answered them, ‘Most certainly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing of himself, but what he sees the Father doing. For whatever things he does, these the Son also does likewise. For the Father has affection for the Son, and shows him all things that he himself does. He will show him greater works than these, that you may marvel. For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom he desires. For the Father judges no one, but he has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father. He who doesn’t honor the Son doesn’t honor the Father who sent him. Most certainly I tell you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and doesn’t come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life. Most certainly I tell you, the hour comes, and now is, when the dead will hear the Son of God’s voice; and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, even so he gave to the Son also to have life in himself. He also gave him authority to execute judgment, because he is a son of man.’” John 5:19-27, WEB
We love bloopers. Most people will sit the extra few minutes in a movie to see clips of the actors making mistakes. Some of the most popular television shows focus on the outtakes from video production. Even textual errors can be funny. I tend to find typographical errors in the books I read. Most of the time it is no big deal, but sometimes it is very funny. I admit that I have made some doozies over the years. Some of the funniest come out of church bulletins. These documents are often prepared quickly, with a lot of cut and paste, and rarely edited.
Some of the funniest I’ve seen were reported in a post that goes around occasionally via email or on social media. These are mistakes made by the secretary who omitted, misspelled, or changed a word or two that completely changed the meaning of the message. Here are a few funny examples: “Ushers will eat latecomers.” “For those of you who have children and don't know it, we have a nursery downstairs.” “Remember in prayer the many who are sick of our church and community.” That last one might have more truth to it than we care to admit. We can blame the secretary, but I think that most of the mistakes occur when the secretary is on vacation, when the people taking over do not take the time necessary to do the job well. A few years ago, a few churches ago, the secretary was on vacation and the pastor did the bulletin. I don't know what he was thinking when he typed the Lord’s Prayer. It said, “Our Father, we art in heaven.”
What a wonderful sentiment! This was very funny to me at the time, and I’ve come to understand that those people of faith are in heaven even as we dwell in this world because we already have the eternal life God has promised to us. However, I’m sure it was not so funny to some people in our congregation at the time. There are always brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering from some distress that makes this life more like a living hell. We see so much evil and death around us that it impossible to believe that we are living in heaven. Yet, we can embrace the truth that is found in this mistake because through faith in Christ, eternal life is a present reality as well as a future hope. Though our world might not seem like heaven, we are in heaven in the sense that the Lord dwells in our hearts and in our lives from now and forever.
Some of those bloopers go unnoticed by those reading because they are used to seeing the words and they don’t really read what is on the paper. As a matter of fact, most of the congregation missed that the pastor of our church typed “we art in heaven” when it should have been “Thou.” The Lord’s Prayer is so familiar do us that we do not even need the words to pray along. Yet, that also means that sometimes our prayer becomes rote, and we take the words that Jesus taught us for granted.
This also happens with our witness for Christ. We’ve all seen signs that Christians hold in the end zone of a football game that simply say, “John 3:16” These signs declare the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the holder hopes that it will bring faith to someone in the crowd or those who see it on television. It is an excellent passage that brings hope to the world. I’ve often wondered what would happen if someone held up a sign that said, “John 3:17.” The promise that God so loved the world is good, but the next verse has even more hope. John wrote, “For God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him.”
We can laugh at our bloopers, and even our sinful failures, because we know that Jesus came to save us. John wrote about the incredible self-sacrificial love of Jesus, a love that gave us eternal life in the here and now while we wait for the hereafter. Knowing this, we can confidently say “Our Father, we art in heaven” even though we still live in this world surrounded by sin and death and evil.
“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat.” Psalm 19:1-6, WEB
There is big excitement in our region tomorrow and then again in April. We are the bullseye for two solar eclipses. The path of an annular eclipse will move from northwest to southeast tomorrow, and a total eclipse will pass through from southwest to northeast in April. These eclipses are bringing a lot of interest, and people, to central Texas. There is so much interest, that bureaus of emergency management have been warning residents that the roads will be crowded with extra cars, the grocery stores could have empty shelves, and even the cell phone towers could be overwhelmed. Most of the towns, big and small, are expected to double in size this weekend. It will be worse in April for the total eclipse.
The annular eclipse is tomorrow. In this type of eclipse, the moon crosses in front of the sun but only covers a portion of it (a total eclipse covers the whole sun); this one will cover ninety percent, leaving a “ring of fire” for a few minutes. Though an annular still lets light shine past the moon, the sky will be dark. It is a rare and dramatic sight for anyone lucky enough to see it. This is why so many people are expected to be in town. We are lucky that we’ll see the full annular eclipse, but everyone in the US will see some coverage, so it will be best to be prepared.
I have been planning for these eclipses for some time. It is tempting to think that since the sun is hidden behind the moon, you can look at it with your naked eye. The truth is that even ten percent of the sun’s light can blind you. It will be more tempting during the total eclipse in April, but I’ve seen several stories about people who were blinded. It can also destroy your camera and your cell phone. I knew the eclipses were coming, so I purchased filters for my camera, glasses for us to wear, and film we can tape onto our phones to protect them. It seems like a lot of work for a few minutes of darkness, but if any of my pictures turn out, it will be worth it. Even more so, it is important to protect our eyes.
There are other ways to see the eclipse without even looking at the sky. Look up “solar eclipse viewing projector on the internet, and you’ll find instruction for making a box with a pinhole that projects the image of the sun onto paper so you can see it. Another suggestion I read was to use a colander; with this “projector”, you see dozens of little suns on the ground as they shine through each hole. The weather guy on the news last night recommended finding a place where the sun shines through the leaves on the trees; the eclipsing sun will appear on the ground in the sunny spots. I’m sure there will be places on the Internet and television showing live feeds as it happens.
The coming eclipses have been a topic for conversation for some time here in Texas, but I’ve not heard anyone suggesting that it is the sign of the coming apocalypse. Heavenly events have long been considered signs of one thing or another. Is there spiritual meaning to this particular event? I am sure there are some out there interpreting it to be so. In Genesis 1, God set the heavenly lights in the firmament, not just to count the days, seasons, and years, but to be signs. Religions throughout time have looked to the skies to understand their gods, their lives, and the time. We are excited about the eclipse, but we have scientific equipment that helps us predict and understand what is happening. Imagine what it was like for the ancient people that did not have computers or scientists to predict the coming. There were people who followed the stars, but they didn’t have the daily news or the internet to inform the people. It is no wonder that ancient people were superstitious or found spiritual reasons for the signs in the heavens. What could the gods, or God, mean by minutes of darkness at the height of the day?
For me, this experience is going to be about enjoying the beauty of what God has created. The experts are saying that for many this could be a once in a lifetime experience. As you experience this eclipse, whatever it will be for you, praise God for the order in His world that allows us to prepare for these incredible events. Thank Him for the heavenly bodies that help us tell time and that affect the world in which we live. Share God’s grace with your neighbors who will probably be out looking at the eclipse, too. Whether they are signs for something that can be interpreted, the heavens indeed proclaim the glory of God. Let us join with the sun, the moon, and the stars, praising our Creator.
“Now I desire to have you know, brothers, that the things which happened to me have turned out rather to the progress of the Good News, so that it became evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my bonds are in Christ, and that most of the brothers in the Lord, being confident through my bonds, are more abundantly bold to speak the word of God without fear. Some indeed preach Christ even out of envy and strife, and some also out of good will. The former insincerely preach Christ from selfish ambition, thinking that they add affliction to my chains; but the latter out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the Good News. What does it matter? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed. I rejoice in this, yes, and will rejoice.” Philippians 1:12-18, WEB
Frances Ridley Havergal was a hymnist who lived in England in the nineteenth century. She wrote such songs as “On our Way Rejoicing” and “Take My Life and Let it Be,” as well as dozens of others. “Another Year is Dawning” was written as a New Year’s poem for her family and friends. The words of the song came to have much deeper meaning for her that year.
As it turned out, Frances was waiting for word from America that a book she had written was doing well. It was the first book she had published for the American audience, and she was excited about the future possibilities. When a letter arrived in the mail, she thought it contained her first of many royalty checks. Instead, it had bad news. The publisher had suffered bankruptcy and would not be printing her book. This was not only the end of this opportunity, but the publisher held a promise that she would go to no other publishers with the book. She would not know fame, wealth, or influence by being an author in the United States.
Erwin Lutzer once asked, “Have you ever thought that our disappointments are God’s way of reminding us that there are idols in our lives that must be dealt with?” Frances was looking forward to the possibilities that might come from America. Yet, she wrote to a friend, “I have just had such a blessing in the shape of what would have been only two months ago a really bitter blow to me…” She found grace in the disappointment and hope in the words of her poem. “Another year is dawning, Dear Father, let it be, in working or in waiting, another year with Thee; another year of progress, another year of praise, another year of proving Thy presence in all the days.”
Paul did not have an easy life ministering for the Lord. Think about his life: he was persecuted, kidnapped, beaten, threatened, arrested many times, accused in lawsuits, interrogated, ridiculed, ignored, shipwrecked, and bitten by a viper. Tradition says that Paul is eventually put to death for his work. He spent many years imprisoned for his faith, unjustly bound in chains because of those who were afraid of the Gospel. Yet, he glorified God everywhere he went and in everything he did.
It must have been a disappointment for Paul to be imprisoned, for in chains he could not go out and do the work that God had called him to do. Yet, Paul did not let the disappointment stop him from sharing the Gospel. Even in prison, Paul continued to minister, sharing Christ with even his captors and writing letters of encouragement to his churches. He rejoiced in his suffering because he knew that God’s grace was visible even through the lives of those who persecuted him.
Frances quickly overcame her disappointment and looked for God’s grace in the situation. Perhaps her desires for fame, wealth and influence in America had become an idol to her. Though she may not have been a success as she had hoped, her hymns glorify God in our assemblies as we worship God through the words she penned to praise His name. No matter what we do or where we go, there will be situations that cause disappointment because they aren’t as we hoped. For Frances, the publisher’s failure blocked her plans. Paul’s troubles came from every direction, not just enemies but also from his own people, yet he rejoiced that God was glorified even through his suffering. It is my prayer that God will bless each of us with similar strength, that our hope and peace will grow stronger even when things do go as we hope.
“I will lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from Yahweh, who made heaven and earth. He will not allow your foot to be moved. He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. Yahweh is your keeper. Yahweh is your shade on your right hand. The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. Yahweh will keep you from all evil. He will keep your soul. Yahweh will keep your going out and your coming in, from this time forward, and forever more.” Psalm 121, WEB
One of the most fascinating things we saw during our adventures in Germany were the doors. That might seem like such a mundane thing, after all, we see and walk through doors every day of our lives. We even walked through some interesting doors. The entrance to a building provides a first impression, so businesses will often create a sense of welcome with their front door. Other businesses need the doorways, like in retail spaces, need to create a certain flow for people going in and out. Some doors are designed to make it easy for those who are carrying packages or for those who have mobility issues. Despite the special purpose and décor of our doors, most of us don’t really pay much attention.
During our tour of Germany, however, the doors stood out. Many of the buildings are hundreds of years old and great care was put into the entrances. Wooden doors were intricately carved, and the doorways included beautiful stonework. One of our hotels, a sweet Bavarian Inn, had an entrance made of glass with brass decorations. That one was hard to photograph! Many of the doors are painted with bright colors, and I suppose that’s why I started noticing them. One door set in a gray stone building stood out because it was a bright, beautiful blue. Others were red. Some were green. Angels and animals were abundant as well as family crests. There were even a few with gargoyles, added to keep demons from inside. One door even quoted Psalm 121:8a on the lintel: “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in.” This inscription on the door is a reminder to all of us that the faithful seek God’s guidance in all aspects of our life, no matter where they go or what they had to experience. We know from history that the people who lived in those towns with those beautiful doors dealt with everything from war and peace, poverty and wealth, illness and health. It is good to know that God is with us through everything.
The early church struggled with many things. They struggled with the Jews who did not believe Jesus was the expected Messiah. They struggled with the Roman authorities who feared the impact of Christianity on the empire. They struggled with one another about what was holy, right, and true. They struggled, often to martyrdom.
St. Ignatius of Antioch was one of those early Christians. Many of the Christians moved to Antioch after Stephen was stoned. It is said that Peter appointed Ignatius to be bishop at Antioch, a position he served before becoming bishop of Rome. Ignatius called himself “Theophorus,” which means “God bearer.” Though his birth was well after the death of Jesus, tradition claims that he was one of the children that Jesus took in His arms and blessed. He is one of the Apostolic Fathers, the earliest authoritative group of the Church Fathers. He wrote many letters, like Paul, that though not canonized have been preserved for us today. He addressed ecclesiology, the sacraments, and the role of bishops.
He wrote letters after his arrest, as he was sent to Rome. He wrote, “From Syria to even Rome, I fight with wild beasts, by land and sea, by night and by day, being bound amidst ten leopards, even a company of soldiers, who only grow worse when they are kindly treated.” He was martyred in 108 A.D., mauled by wild beasts. The Christians of his day wanted to find away for him to escape, to live on to continue his work for Christ. He told them not to do anything, for he wanted to be with Jesus. He wrote, “I fear your kindness, which may harm me. You may be able to achieve what you plan. But if you pay no heed to my request, it will be very difficult for me to attain unto God.” He was not afraid to die. For him, death meant beginning his new life. In one of his final letters we read, “I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth. Do not stand in the way of my birth to the real life.” We celebrate his life today. We may not understand his attitude toward death, but as we face our own struggles we can look to his life and realize that Ignatius know that God was with his coming and going.
Psalm 121 was used at the end of worship during the feasts and festivals that brought pilgrims into the Temple. The community of faith sought the blessing of God as they were beginning their trip back to their homes. “Who will save us? God will save us.” The final line is a benediction, an invocation of God’s blessings over the community as they went their separate ways. God does not sleep. He takes care of His people. This is why the inscription on the doorway in Germany meant so much to the people who built that place. It is a reminder that God goes with everyone who enters and leaves the home.
The psalmist knew what it was like to take a hard journey. He wrote as a pilgrim who has gone to the Temple in Jerusalem to do his duty as a man of faith. The song of praise looks toward the journey home, a blessing for the faithful people of God as they left the house of the Lord to face the dangers of the world enriched, inspired, and prepared after their time in Jerusalem. We don’t know what we will face during our journeys. Pilgrimage was fraught with danger like murders and thieves in the mountain passes outside the city. They traveled through the heat of the desert and the loneliness of the road. They had to return to their normal lives after experiencing the divine presence in Jerusalem. The pilgrims knew, though, that God was with their coming and going.
Lectionary Scriptures for October 22, 2023: Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 45:1-7; Psalm 96:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
“For Yahweh is great, and greatly to be praised! He is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but Yahweh made the heavens.” Psalm 96:4-5, WEB
A well-known seventeenth century English deist, Anthony Collins was walking one day when he crossed paths with a commoner. “Where are you going?” asked Collins. The man answered that he was going to church to worship God. Collins wondered whether the man’s God was a great or a little God. The man answered, “Both.” Collins did not understand how that could be. The man answered, “He is so great, sir, that the heaven of heavens cannot contain Him; and so little that He can dwell in my heart.” Collins later declared that this simple answer had more effect on his mind than all the volumes he had ever read about God, and all the lectures he had ever heard.
Our God is both big and small: bigger than creation, but small enough to live in our hearts. He is so big that everything must submit to His authority, but He sent His son Our Lord Jesus Christ into the humility of flesh so that we can know Him intimately. Darkness still reigns in this world, but we have the promise that the Light has won the victory and that one day we will see, know, and experience God fully and completely. God is big enough to do this, but also small enough to do it just for us. That’s good to know.
God spoke through Isaiah, “I form the light and create darkness. I make peace and create calamity. I am Yahweh, who does all these things.” We are bothered by this idea that God creates darkness and calamity. Some translations even use the word “evil”. Many refuse to believe that God would create evil; they only accept that His is only capable of goodness and love. That’s why many Christians ignore the Old Testament which is filled with war and suffering. The exile was ordained by God to bring His disobedient people to their knees. How could the God of love found in the New Testament stories be the same God we hear about in this passage?
The passage from Isaiah begins with God speaking to His anointed, Cyrus, a savior the people would never expect. Cyrus did not believe in the God of the Jews, but he was a pluralistic ruler, willing to tolerate all types of faith even though he claimed no religion of his own. He adopted the local gods of each nation as was necessary to get the support of those people for his rule. He was willing to spend the cost of building new temples for their gods to keep his subjects happy. This sounds like the type of ruler that God would eliminate rather than raise because he had no foundation in His kingdom, and yet we discover that this is exactly the man God chose for His purpose.
Cyrus was chosen to be God’s hands in a world that was thrown upside down, to be a savior for the people God loves but whose exile was a lesson to be learned. They turned from Him, followed false gods; they did their own thing. They rejected Him, and God gave the Babylonians the strength to destroy Jerusalem and take the people into captivity. When the time was right, God gave the strength to Cyrus to destroy the Babylonians and restore His people to their homeland.
These nations think they do everything with their own strength; rulers are powerful with mighty armies. They often have their own gods, they have their own resources, and they have everything they need to win the victories that are recorded throughout history. It seems to us that conquest and captivity, destruction and exile are unnecessary in a world where God is in control. Yet, in today’s scripture, Cyrus was reminded from the beginning that God was in charge. God is God, and there is none like Him. God is able to give Cyrus the power, and God is able to take it away.
How could God choose a foreigner to be His anointed one? The word used here is Messiah or Christ, and Cyrus plays the role of the deliverer of God’s people. Though he does not even know the God of Israel, God has called him to win salvation for His people. This doesn’t make sense to us because we want to define God according to our own needs and expectations. We want Him to be all light and no darkness, peace with no calamity. We want justice and mercy to be as we define it, not as God does.
There is a difference between what we see in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, but to have faith is to believe that God is everything He said He is and that He does everything He said He does. The difference between our understanding of God in the Old and New Testaments is that Jesus Christ the Messiah that was promised in the Old Testament came in flesh at the right time to fulfill all those promises. He came to reconcile God and His creation, giving those who believe in Him the gift of the Holy Spirit so we can seek His face and understand His nature. Here we see how He is both big and small. He is the Creator of everything but came to dwell among His people and do for us that which only He could do.
Wherever we are and whatever we do, God is with us. We live in a society where our religious and faith beliefs do not keep us separated from the world in which we live. We have to follow secular laws, deal with non-Christian people, respect leaders who might not have the same ideology as we follow. We must respect when God choses someone we would never expect to do His will in this world.
We sometimes forget that if God can speak through a donkey (Numbers 20) then He can speak to us through people who do not believe as we do. Cyrus was not a Jew; he was a pagan whom God chose to fulfill His promises. Cyrus delivered the Jews out of exile; he was a messiah sent by the God who was in control. He chose a foreigner to do what His people could not, or would not, do.
We live in a world that requires us to deal with people and situations we might not want to experience. We are called as Christians to live in trust and hope, not in anything in this world, but in God. He is in control no matter what happens today or tomorrow. He can make His will happen through it all, even if we do not like those whom God has chosen. We live in hope, not in individuals or the government, but in God’s promises. Good or bad, our life of faith will keep us focused on what is good and that is God. We may be nervous, frustrated, anxious and angry, and we won’t always agree with our neighbors about what is good and bad in our world, but everything will work out in the end for the best according to God’s will.
How do you describe God? In today’s society, there are many different ideas about the nature of God. So many people are looking to fill the hole in their souls, a hole that can only be filled by the One, True and living God. Yet, if you visit the spiritual section of any secular bookstore, you will find large displays of books that teach different ideas about God, even the belief in many gods. There are religions that make the things of creation like nature, materials, or man himself to be like gods. The limited ability of human beings to understand the vast truth about the LORD causes us to look for explanations in the things we can see. But God tells us the Truth in His Word.
Kristen Wiig was a regular player on “Saturday Night Live” for seven seasons. She played many different characters, including an excitable clerk at the Target store who was always annoying the customers with chit chat and trips from behind the register to go pick up items for herself. The New York Times wrote this about Kristen: “Kristen Wiig has become a household name on ‘SNL’ by playing outrageous versions of people we’ve all had the misfortune to encounter.”
I was both enamored and repulsed by one of my favorite characters. Penelope was a woman who felt that she had to one-up everything that everyone said. If another character said that they had a baby, she had twins. If another character said that he spoke four languages, she spoke twelve. By the end of the skit, Penelope disclosed some of the most bizarre and disturbing claims to the people to whom she was speaking. My daughter was freaked out by that character.
We all know a Penelope, although hopefully not as extreme as the character on the television show. We all know the guy who thinks he knows it all and the woman who has accomplished everything possible. Perhaps we all have a bit of Penelope in all of us. We try to one-up our neighbor because it makes us feel more important. And yet, in doing so, we make ourselves seem much less, even petty. By the end of the skits, Kirsten’s character Penelope is a ridiculous person, a joke. We also become a joke when we insist on raising ourselves above our neighbors instead of lifting them up with praise and encouragement.
The psalmist writes, “For all the gods of the peoples are idols; But Jehovah made the heavens.” We make so many people in our world idols such as sports stars, singers, models, and politicians but the definition of the word ‘idol’ is not flattering. Merriam-Webster says an ‘idol’ is “a representation or symbol of an object of worship, a false god, a likeness of something, a form or appearance visible but without substance, an object of extreme devotion, a false conception.” We make our idols; not only are the gods of the nations less than our God, but they are nothing more than a human creation. They will always disappoint us.
We are not greater than our neighbor even if our one-upmanship is true. Even if we did have more babies or speak more languages, we are not greater than our neighbor. Even more so, we are far less than our God. Look at all He has done! There is no way we can one-up the Lord. That’s why we are called to sing His praise. He has done great things. He has brought salvation to His people. He made the heavens. He will never disappoint. Oh, we may find ourselves disappointed with our expectation of God. We put God into our own little boxes; we make Him to be what we want Him to be. We are disappointed when He does not do what we want Him to do, but that doesn’t mean that He has been a disappointment. It just means that we are not seeing Him as He is. It means we aren’t living in thanksgiving and trust.
The answer to our problems is not always as we might expect or desire. We might pray for healing, but find death is the answer. We might pray for a financial windfall, but experience poverty. We might want love and friendship but discover that God is giving us a moment of exile and loneliness, to help us to see Him more clearly. The world might see this as evil and claim God is not good, but we know that God is able to do miraculous things in the midst of hardship. He can bring great things out of tragedy. He can even save people by using an unbeliever.
It seems as though many in our world today have the same attitude as Cyrus. He didn’t believe in any gods but welcomed and tolerated every god. Perhaps most people will say they believe in something, but they are willing to allow all people to worship whatever god they please. There are even those who believe that we all worship the same god. After all, there is only one God and the God we know has many aspects and characteristics. Who are we to judge our neighbor’s understanding of the divine? Some false gods are easy to recognize, like money or sex or power. But many wonder whether the gods of our new age or pagan neighbors’ false gods or some aspect of the God we worship that is just different than the God we know from the bible. What about the understandings of God found in religions claiming a foundation in the God of the patriarchs?
The question of faith has become part of our daily dialogue, in politics and other forums. What role should faith have in our decisions about leaders? What role should faith have in the public square? What role should faith have in our life outside the church? Should we sing the song of the psalmist and lift the God we know above all other gods? Or should we live in the world like Cyrus, welcoming and tolerant of all faiths, no matter what god they worship? God was able to use Cyrus in a way that restored His people to Him. Might the same be true of those in our world who accept any faith as faith in the same God?
We will find that there are those who will try to exploit our faith for the sake of their own desires. Cyrus didn’t treat the Jews kindly because he respected them. He wanted them to live peaceably under his rule. Happy people will not rebel. God used this to His purpose, but there was nothing tolerant or charitable about Cyrus’ work. It was for his own benefit.
We’ve seen over the past few weeks how Jesus used parables to attack the religious leaders. Last week’s lesson sent them over the edge; they decided that Jesus must be destroyed. But there was no easy way to do so. They knew that the people loved Him. They also knew that though the Romans tolerated their faith and practices, they tolerated everyone’s. His words could not be used against Him in the Roman courts and the Jews could not destroy Him under their own laws. They had to find a way to make Jesus a rebel in Roman eyes.
So, they asked Him a question about taxes. The coins would have been offensive to the Jews because it bore an image of a person. It was an idol, a graven image. It was necessary to change the coins into something acceptable for Temple use, which is why there were money changers in the court of the Temple. Foreign money was exchanged for Jewish currency. A Roman coin with Caesar’s picture could not be used for religious offerings. They thought this question would trap Him because if He answered yes, it would turn the Jewish people against Him, but if He answered no, they could set the Romans on Him. Jesus found another answer. Jesus answered, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites? Show me the tax money.”
Jesus, knowing their malice, pointed to the picture on the coin. “Who is this?” He asked. They answered that it was Caesar. Jesus answered their question, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar and to God what is God’s.” We might view this as a statement about separating Church and State, and yet there is something deeper and much more important about what Jesus is saying here. The phrase that stands out is “Give to God what is God’s.” Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees and their council was brilliant because it turned the tables. He told them to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God. In other words, they were to give the idol back to the idolized and give God everything else. After all, everything belongs to God. When we remember that, we see that even the government is given by God, not as a divine representative of what He wants to accomplish, but as a divinely appointed servant for a particular time and place. Good and bad, God is in control of our world, and we can live in trust knowing that in the end everything will be as He intends. Jesus did not tell the people to pay or not pay taxes, He reminded them that everything belongs to God.
We are called as Christians to live in trust and hope. Whatever happens, we can trust that God is in control. We live in hope, not in individuals or even the government, but in God’s promises. Good or bad, our life of faith will keep us focused on what is good and that is God. We may be nervous, frustrated, anxious and possibly angry, and we won’t agree with our neighbors what is good and bad in our world. But we can sing to the Lord that new song, the song of thanksgiving that He is with us through it all.
As a parent, it has always been my hope that my children heard what I said and that they would remember it when they went out on my own. I wanted to seal them when they walked out the door. I did this by praying for them and wishing them a good day as they walked out the door. I told them to make good choices, to be careful, to have fun, to do what is right. When they were headed to a special activity, I added an appropriate word of encouragement or instruction. Even as adults I still try to remind them of things we’ve talked about, lessons we’ve learned. They might think I am a nag, but I repeat myself to seal the lessons in their hearts and minds so that they will remember. Did they listen? I hope so, and I have seen them make good decisions over the years, so perhaps I did something right.
Paul was an apostle of God, sharing the Gospel of Christ with the world. His work took him many places, and he planted church after church. The people of Thessalonica received that message and gathered together as a community of faith. They were growing in grace and hope and faith. Paul could not stay with all the communities he began, but he kept in touch with them through letters and through helpers who visited the congregations. Through one of these helpers, Paul heard that the Thessalonians were doing well. Timothy had sent a good report to Paul and Paul was pleased to hear the good news. This wasn’t true everywhere. Other preachers were sharing their own understanding of God and Jesus Christ. They were claiming to be apostles, but they were sharing a false god.
Paul knew what a danger it was for the early Christians to live in this world. They were surrounded by those who had made idols out of all the wrong things. There were preachers speaking a false Gospel. There were leaders who did not fully understand the new faith. There were those who wanted to see it destroyed. They had to be careful; every generation has had to face people who claimed to be from God, but who twist God’s Word to their benefit.
They were holding strong, but Paul did not know how long they could last. Would they remember the lessons he taught them? Would they keep the Gospel of grace or turn to another gospel message? Would they believe the lies being told about him by those opposed to his message? Paul did not know what might happen next, so he wrote a message of thanksgiving and encouragement to them. He repeated the Gospel message to seal it in their hearts and minds so that they would not fall from grace and turn to a faith built on works and self-righteousness.
We are encouraged by these words as Paul lifts all those who have heard the Gospel and received God’s grace to a place where we will stand firm in what is right no matter the circumstances we face. Our hope is in Jesus Christ, and we are called to live the life of faith that rests in His promise and His forgiveness. Paul called the people of Thessalonica “imitators” of the apostles and of the Lord. We saw that continued through generations of Christians, into those who were our mentors. We are now the next generation, sharing the Gospel with our children and our neighbors, imitating what Paul first lived so that the world might see God’s grace. We, too, are sealed so that all we do and say are firmly founded in Jesus Christ.
We are called as Christians to live in trust and hope. Whatever happens, we can trust that God is in control. We live in hope, not in individuals or even the government, but in God’s promises. Good or bad, our life of faith will keep us focused on God. We may be nervous, frustrated, anxious and possibly angry, and we won’t agree with our neighbors about what is good and bad in our world. Let us remember to join together as we sing to the Lord that new song, the song of thanksgiving that He is with us through it all. He binds us together not on our hope for the world, but on the hope that He brings through faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Faith in Jesus means leaving the idols of this world behind. Unfortunately, many still live like Cyrus, welcoming and tolerant of all faiths, no matter what god is worshipped. God calls us to share His glory with all people so that they will turn away from their false gods and know the Lord who is God over everything. We may be struggling with circumstances that are confusing and painful, but we can trust that God is in control.
We may experience an exile of sorts as God sets us apart for a season, but God’s promises are real, and He is faithful. We can trust that He will then send someone like Cyrus who will help to restore us to Him or like Paul who will remind us of whose we are. The lessons we learn along the way will turn us back to the God to whom we belong and who has never left our side. He is always faithfully working to do what is right and good. Let us give everything over to the God who is so great that the heaven of heavens cannot contain Him and so little that He can dwell our hearts. That’s why we are called to sing His praise. He has done great things. He made the heavens. He has brought salvation to His people. That’s something, and Someone, to sing about. He is worthy of being praised!
“James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came near to him, saying, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we will ask.’ He said to them, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ They said to him, ‘Grant to us that we may sit, one at your right hand, and one at your left hand, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You don’t know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’ Jesus said to them, ‘You shall indeed drink the cup that I drink, and you shall be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with; but to sit at my right hand and at my left hand is not mine to give, but for whom it has been prepared.’ When the ten heard it, they began to be indignant toward James and John. Jesus summoned them, and said to them, ‘You know that they who are recognized as rulers over the nations lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you, but whoever wants to become great among you shall be your servant. Whoever of you wants to become first among you, shall be bondservant of all. For the Son of Man also came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’” Mark 10:35-45, WEB
One of the most important things you learn in training to be a lifeguard is that a drowning person is incredibly strong and desperate to be saved. He or she is so desperate that they will fight with all their might, even to the point of putting the lifesaver in danger. So, trainees are taught to approach the victim from the rear, where they cannot see you, to grasp them in a way that they cannot get a hold. A drowning person can drown a trained lifeguard by the strength of their fear.
People drown in many different ways. We drown in debt. We drown in passion. We drown in our quest for material possessions. We want to be in control of that particular aspect of our life, so we do whatever is necessary to keep our heads above water. The deeper we get, the more desperate we get, the more we fight to stay alive. Unfortunately, when we fight, we tend to grasp at things that will not save us but will make us drown even more. Take, for instance, the person in financial difficulty. How many people will go and spend a fortune on gambling or lottery tickets to overcome great debt? I’ve heard stories of people who borrowed money from family or friends to help in their recovery but have gambled away the funds in the hope of making it grow. In the end everyone loses; the victim and the lifesaver who tried to help them out of their problems.
At the end of His three years of ministry, Jesus became increasingly focused on His impending persecution and death. He was completely in control, but everything seemed out of control to the disciples. With each new story, with each new proclamation, Jesus showed them how it had to be. Yet, His vision was so different than the vision they held of the coming kingdom of God. Death and suffering were not what they expected. They were drowning in the fear of what they were about to face.
So, they began to fight. They fought with each other about who was the greatest. They fought with the crowds about what Jesus should be doing with His time. They fought with Jesus about the expectations of a person living in God’s kingdom. James and John, who were quick tempered and strength minded, weren’t ready to follow Jesus down the road on which He was leading them. They weren’t interested in death or suffering. They wanted power and authority.
Jesus answered their request with a question, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They answered, “Yes,” but had no idea what that meant. Jesus knew that to follow Him into the kingdom meant persecution, suffering, and death. Ultimately, however, follow Jesus will lead to resurrection and eternal life. This is as true for those who would follow Jesus today. We must share in the baptism in which Jesus is baptized with and drink the cup that He drank. This will not bring us to a position of power or authority; we will not rule according to the ways of the world. Instead, we will be counted as brothers and sisters of Christ, sharing in His humility, His suffering, and His death. We also share in His servanthood, joining with Him to share the love of God with the world.
“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.’ They said therefore to him, ‘What must we do, that we may work the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ They said therefore to him, ‘What then do you do for a sign, that we may see and believe you? What work do you do? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness. As it is written, “He gave them bread out of heaven to eat.” Jesus therefore said to them, ‘Most certainly, I tell you, it wasn’t Moses who gave you the bread out of heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.’ They said therefore to him, ‘Lord, always give us this bread.’ Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will not be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’” John 6:22-35, WEB
Jesus fed more than five thousand people with a few loaves of bread and some fish. It was one of the most miraculous things Jesus ever did. For John, it was more than a miracle; it was a sign. Jesus gave them bread to eat, but He was telling them something even more important, “I am the bread of life.”
Bread is a staple around the world. Go into the corner grocery store, even a small one, and you’ll find at least a dozen different types. There is hard bread, soft bread, dark bread, and white bread. We can get tortillas from Mexico and sourdough from San Francisco. France gives us croissants and baguettes. Southern kitchens produce biscuits. You can find bread made with cinnamon and raisins, bananas, and nuts. Some loaves are small; others are large. Whenever there is a weather emergency, we run out to the grocery store and buy a loaf of bread; it is one of the first shelves that empties. Prisoners are given bread and water. Many restaurants include a basket of their signature bread with every meal.
There are those who will tell you that we eat too much bread, or at least too much of the wrong kind of bread, but the reality is that when we think of the most basic food necessities, bread is always on the list and has been in every civilization since the beginning of civilization. Bread is made from grains that are ground and mixed with oil or water to make a cake. Of course, modern civilizations have created breads that do more than sustain the body: they taste delicious. Bread is one of the first things I limited in my new diet, but I confess that I love good bread.
The people on the hillside that day were fed and satisfied. Their bellies were full, and they wanted more from the guy who did that for them. They were not interested in the bread being a sign; they were only interested in having more bread. If Jesus were their king, they could be sure that their larders would be full, and they would no longer be hungry. They saw Jesus as a messiah, but not as the Messiah that was promised to them or that He was sent to be. They were not thinking about eternity. They were thinking about tomorrow.
There’s a reason why Jesus taught us to pray “Give us this day our daily bread.” We need food to sustain our bodies and keep us healthy, but Jesus reminds us to seek God’s blessing in all our needs, even the most basic ones that seem so easy to fulfill. Food for the stomach was even a central part of Jesus’ wilderness wandering. When Jesus was fasting, Satan told him to simply make the stones out of bread. Jesus could have done it, He did when He fed thousands with a few loaves. Yet, Jesus knew there was bread that was more important. Jesus answered Satan, “Man does not eat by bread alone, but by God’s Word.” Now we see that Jesus is that Word, the real bread that feeds the people the nourishment they need. The people, sadly, missed the sign that pointed to the real reason Jesus came.
Jesus told the crowd not to work for food that perishes but to work for food that endures. They asked, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” They, of course, were expecting Jesus to repeat the Law which was given to them by Moses. They expected to hear a list of rules to obey and things to do. They wanted to receive God’s blessings based on their own actions. That’s the way it has always been. Moses gave them the Law. Moses even gave them the bread from heaven, manna. If Jesus contradicted Moses, then He’d have to prove Himself. The thing is, He did, and they ignored it. They wanted Jesus to be who they wanted Him to be, an earthbound king who would meet their physical needs.
But Jesus didn’t come to feed the hungry or heal the sick. He did those things to prove that He is who He is. The answer to their question was incredibly simple, “This is the work of God: that you believe in the One whom God has sent.” They were confused and the answer, “believe” was unsatisfactory. The Law always gives us an opportunity to do something, to be active in our salvation. We don’t want to rely on something as intangible as faith; we want to be able to prove that we are faithful.
Instead of believing the Word, they insisted on a sign, as if the things Jesus had done were not enough to prove that He was the One whom God had sent. They wanted to put their trust in someone that they could understand and that would meet needs they recognized. Jesus was offering something so much better. They wanted a king who would feed them, but Jesus was giving them a King that would do so much more. They wanted bread that would guarantee a world without hunger or pain, but Jesus was giving them Himself, the true bread from heaven that would give them life forever.
“Therefore prepare your minds for action. Be sober, and set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ - as children of obedience, not conforming yourselves according to your former lusts as in your ignorance, but just as he who called you is holy, you yourselves also be holy in all of your behavior; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy; for I am holy.’” 1 Peter 1:13-16, WEB
The headline of an article I once read asked whether the readers ever left for a trip without something essential. Many things that can easily be replaced. Hotels usually provide soap and shampoo. I’ve been able to find phone chargers at the front desk that were forgotten by previous guests. There is always a General Dollar or grocery where you can buy just about everything you need. There are some things that are difficult to replace, like prescription medicines. Also, what do you do if you are at the check-in desk at the airport and realize you have forgotten that vital document?
The writer suggested that frequent travelers keep a box with all their travel necessities. When my father was sick in a Houston hospital, I made the more than three-hour trip regularly for over a month. I was constantly packing and unpacking since I spent a few days there and then a few days at home. I often left for Houston on short notice, and I didn’t have time to go through the process of finding everything I needed. That’s when I began keeping a travel bag filled and ready just in case. I have a toothbrush that I only use when I travel along with travel sizes of shampoo, toothpaste, and mouthwash. I am always ready to leave quickly if need be. I regularly attend retreats at a camp, and I keep a kit with the linens and other things I need when I go so that I don’t have to worry about forgetting anything I might need.
The writer suggested that this box should hold other things as well. Can you ever find a luggage tag when you need one? Do you remember where you put that travel adapter that you’ll need for a trip abroad? For those who travel often, the box is a great place to store traveler’s checks and foreign currency. It is good to have copies of your passport, insurance documents and a list of medications in case of an emergency. The writer recommended placing all these papers in the box as soon as you return from a trip, then they will be ready the next time you travel. It is helpful to be prepared if we have the opportunity or need to travel whether it is short notice or not. Every little thing we can do to be prepared makes our life a little easier and less stressful.
When it comes to living our life for Christ, we are traveling a different sort of journey. We don’t need any paperwork or even a travel bag full of toothpaste. We don’t need a passport or luggage tags. But we do need to be prepared for every opportunity to share Jesus Christ. Our box will not hold travel adapters or foreign currency. It will hold the intangible things of God, like hope, grace, and wisdom. Preparing our minds and hearts for the journey through God’s kingdom means trusting in God and hearing His Word, obeying what we know to be true and living as we are called to live.
“As we stayed there some days, a certain prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. Coming to us and taking Paul’s belt, he bound his own feet and hands, and said, ‘The Holy Spirit says: “So the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt, and will deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.”’ When we heard these things, both we and the people of that place begged him not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, ‘What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.’ When he would not be persuaded, we ceased, saying, ‘The Lord’s will be done.’” Acts 21:10-14, WEB
I have gotten a lot of advice ever since I learned about my health issues. I listen to every word and thank the giver, but I carefully discern between advice, especially since one person’s point of view is very different than the next. Everyone has advice about everything.
The minute a woman gets pregnant, she is the recipient of advice from everyone and anyone. Complete strangers will walk up to a pregnant woman and tell her how to get through her pregnancy and raise her child. If a woman took every bit of advice and put it into practice, she would quickly become confused, and it might even be putting herself in danger. Children are unique. And one piece of advice does not fit every situation. So, just as I need to discern what is good and right for me, my advice to new moms is to graciously listen to everything but do what is best for you.
I know that this might be the most difficult piece of advice to take, simply because a new mom really doesn’t know what is best for her kids. I certainly appreciate those who care enough to share with me because I am just learning how to deal with my own issues, and it would be so much easier if we could have answers to all our questions handed to us on a silver platter. Unfortunately, many of those with good intentions give conflicting advice. It is not easy to pick through every statement to find the best answers.
Christians are quick about giving advice about spiritual things. When someone becomes a Christian, the first thing they ask is what now? The answer to that question will be different with everyone you ask. Some people will tell you to start by reading the Bible cover to cover. Others will tell you to read the Gospels. Yet others will say that it is time to get out in the world and share the faith by serving others. Just as health issues and pregnancies are different, new Christians have different needs. The key is in discerning your own personal gifts and abilities and finding where they will best help spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
There are those in the Christian realm who claim to live in the prophetic. They see and hear God’s will for other people, and they give those visions as God’s Word. It is good that they share these things because there are many times that the message is very timely and very real. Unfortunately, many of these prophets follow the word with advice, telling their listener what they should do with the prophetic word. I have seen it more than once: the word was true, but the advice was all wrong.
There is good advice to be found amongst the hundreds of ideas that are shared to those who needs help. I have been thankful with the recent advice, and the advice from women who shared their experiences with me when I was pregnant. The same is true with my spiritual walk. In my life, many people have shared ideas that have made a difference in my walk with God. Some of these came to me through prophetic words, messages that I believe came from God through pastors or teachers who hear His voice and respond in faith. I’ve had to pick through and discern how God would have me use the knowledge.
Paul knew he was walking into a dangerous situation, and he knew that it was God's will. The people did not want him to suffer and pleaded with him not to go. Paul listened to what they had to say, but did not take their advice and went on to complete the work God had assigned to him in Jerusalem. His suffering would mean salvation for many. There are many people who have our best interests at heart who would offer us much advice about our own walk with God. It would do us well to listen to what they have to say, but we also need to listen to God with our own hearts and minds so that we will do what is right according to God s will. It is not easy, but God is always near, and He faithfully guides those who listen.
Lectionary Scriptures for October 29, 2023: Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost: Leviticus 19:1–2, 15–1; Psalm 1; 1 Thessalonians 2:1–13; Matthew 22:34–46 or Reformation Sunday: Revelation 14:1-7; Psalm 46; Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36
“Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and tell them, ‘You shall be holy; for I, Yahweh your God, am holy.” Leviticus 19:2, WEB
Reformation Day is on October 31st, but we celebrate on the Sunday that falls immediately before October 31st. So, on this upcoming Sunday, many churches will remember the bold action of Martin Luther, who in 1517 posted ninety-five theses on the door of Wittenberg Church. We are just nine years from the 500th anniversary of this great and world changing event. Around the world Lutherans are preparing to remember and celebrate Luther s life, ministry, and faith. While preparing for our celebration, we are also in conversation with our brothers and sisters in Christ from whom we have been divided for so long. There are issues dividing us, and there is no reason to set them aside. But we are also bound together by the Holy Spirit and the common faith we have in Jesus Christ.
I love to talk about Luther, but this devotion reaches an extremely diverse audience, people from the four corners of the world, and from the entire spectrum of God’s church. There may even be some who are not Christian, either members of other faith communities or even those who do not believe in God. I write to encourage Christians in their faith, but I can always hope that God will use my words to help someone come to know the Lord Jesus Christ.
Many years, with your patience, I write as a Lutheran. The texts for Reformation Sunday, focus on justification, which was (and is) the heart of Lutheran theology in Luther’s day as well as today. We are made free from the power of sin and death by the grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ through His life, death, and resurrection. Despite this freedom, we continue to struggle with our human nature which always looks to law for justification. We try, to no avail, to be the saints we were reborn to be, but the sinner in us still has too much control. We are a work in progress, and the only thing that truly saves us is that God saved us; we are saints based on His promises, not on our ability to be perfect.
Since I usually focus on the Reformation, I’ve decided to look at the texts for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, which I have not done for more than a decade. Visit my archives if you want to read more about Martin Luther.
A man owned a trailer that was vacant, so he offered it to a couple who had become homeless due to a hurricane. Soon after moving in, the couple decided to sue the Good Samaritan to gain possession of the trailer. The couple was legally considered squatters, but according to local law, the man could not evict them. They were not paying for utilities, so he tried to turn them off, but the couple borrowed a child to live with them, making it legally impossible because of a law that protected the welfare of children. An act of kindness because an act of injustice.
There are homeless and hungry people who need our help and God has called us through faith to act as His hands to provide mercy and justice to those who are suffering in our world today. Unfortunately, stories of those abusing the systems that were designed to help those who need it, make Good Samaritans hesitant out of fear that their kindness will be turned against them. It is also unfortunate that many people think that justice means that the little guy wins and the big guy loses no matter what.
In Leviticus 19, God told Moses how His people can live as He calls them to live: as holy people. He called them to be holy because He is holy. The chapter includes a list of commandments, rules that would lead them to that holy life. The rules show a connection between holiness and the separation of God’s people from the things that are profane. Holy people respect mother, father, and honor God by keeping the Sabbath. Holy people do not turn to idols. They follow prescribed ritual properly and leave some of the harvest for the poor and the foreigners. They do not lie, steal, cheat or defraud their neighbors. They pay their debts. They treat the disabled with respect and consideration.
The text does not include the familiar commandments, but jumps to verse 15, “You shall do no injustice in judgment. You shall not be partial to the poor, nor show favoritism to the great; but you shall judge your neighbor in righteousness.” We have never been able to find a good balance that is taught in this lesson. It is a vicious circle that human nature travels. We show favoritism to the rich and then the pendulum swings to the opposite extreme where we show partiality to the poor. We manage to find a way to make our opinions fit the Bible, and yet we never seem to find the real path God has called us to live. We can’t seem to be holy like God is holy. We aren’t any closer to holiness than the Pharisees who tested Jesus in the final days of His life.
If you type the word “heart” into your online search engine, the first few hits are likely to be about the organ in our chest. Another top find is the rock group Heart. You’ll also find sites about playing the card game and sites dedicated to things with pictures of hearts. There are organizations with the word ‘heart’ in their name. These organizations are often focused on the physical organ, but many use the word as the source for compassion and respect.
While the heart is the center of the human circulatory system, the early Christians and those who came before them, thought of the heart as more than a pumping muscle. There may have been some with medical knowledge, but they did not fully understand the physical characteristics of the heart beyond experiencing the pumping inside their chest. It was the center of the being: the spirit, the soul, the intellect. They had no better understanding of the brain, so for the people in that day, the heart dealt with everything internal. Prayers came from the heart. Anger and hatred came from the heart. Wisdom came from the heart. Even today there is some of that still present in our thoughts. We learn things by heart. We forgive from the heart. When we are excited about something, our heart is in it. When the opposite is true, our heart is not in it. In today’s knowledge, we know that those things are controlled by the brain, not the heart, and yet the heart is still the center of our being.
The Pharisees asked Jesus a question in today’s passage. This was the fourth of four questions put to Jesus in these days following His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus was on His way to the cross, but the leaders were still trying to understand Jesus or find a way to destroy Him. This series of passages, which we’ve seen a few over the past few weeks, represent the types of questions the early rabbis asked: law, doctrine, meaning of life, and seeming contradictions in scripture texts.
We saw the first, a question of law, in last week’s passage. In that passage, the Pharisees asked Jesus whether or not the people should pay taxes. The question was designed as a trick, but Jesus answered shrewdly. He told the Pharisees to give to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s.
We don’t hear the question of doctrine in the lectionary, but we are surely with the story (Matthew 22:23-33.) The Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection, asked about a widow who married seven brothers. “Whose wife will she be in heaven?” they asked. Jesus answered that they did not understand the scriptures and that the resurrected life will be different than that of normal human experience.
The last two types of questions are asked in today’s passage. First the Pharisees, happy to see the Sadducees’ question about resurrection shot down, next asked a question about the meaning of life. “What is the most important commandment?” they asked. Now, you might think this is a question of law, but it is actually a question of purpose. What is our purpose but to live faithfully to the word of God? Jesus answered with two great commandments: to love God and to love neighbor.
Jesus did not give them time to respond; He asked them a question. “Whose son is the Messiah?” They answered, “David’s son.” This, of course, is the right answer, and yet it offers a question of contradiction. Jesus responded, “How then does David in the Spirit call him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, sit on my right hand, until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet’ If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?”
The Jews in Jesus’ day were looking for a military hero, a king in the line of David. Their Messiah would be the man who could sit on the throne and restore Jerusalem to its former glory, to the golden nation that it once was. They were stumped by His question. They did not know how a son of David could be greater than David himself. How would David have called that son “Lord” long before any sons had risen to the throne? This seeming contradiction cannot be easily answered, unless you believe that the Messiah would be someone greater than David, someone who would be more than an earthly king. The only way for David to call the Messiah “Lord” is if the Messiah were God in flesh.
This is a concept that we have a problem understanding even with our greater knowledge of the world. It is not a fact that can be explained intellectually. It is something we have to believe from our heart. This is the tricky part since our hearts can be fickle. In our hearts we can know love and hate, joy and anger, knowledge of good and evil. If we rely on our feelings, we will be led astray as we follow our own desires and intelligence. Feelings can be deceptive. We might feel that we are doing right, but others will consider what we are doing is wrong. Our gut reactions can lead us to do something that will hurt our neighbor. The man who lent the trailer felt it was the right thing to do regretted his decision and began to rethink being a Good Samaritan, ignoring the opportunities to act with justice. The people who fought to keep it for themselves thought it was right and just. They all lost touch what God meant by justice, forgetting to be holy like God is holy.
If we think of the heart as they did in Jesus’ day, we’ll see that love is not about feelings but about living wholly and completely for God and neighbor, living our purpose in this world. The scriptures of the Jews could be summarized with just those two sentences about loving God and neighbor. We could spend days, even a lifetime, discussing, debating, interpreting, and understanding the Law, but holiness is not achieved by obedience to a list of rules. Holiness comes in our commitment to live as God has called and gifted us to live.
Love is about commitment. Commitment takes work. It means putting heart, soul, and mind into the relationship. Just as we see the heart as more than the physical organ, love is far more than physical attraction. Love is willing to sacrifice for the sake of another, to give one’s whole being into the relationship. It means being holy like God is holy.
How can we be holy? I wonder if I've ever had even one day that could be counted as holy, let alone an entire life. I can’t get through a day without yelling at some driver on the road or thinking unkind thoughts about my neighbor. Some days I can’t seem to get through a minute without doing something that is far from holy. Yet, we are called to be holy. What does this mean for you and me? What does it mean to be the holy people of God, called to be like Him in this world?
A pastor did a sermon series about the Beatitudes, the attributes of those who are blessed by God found in Matthew 5 and Luke 6. He called them the “blessed attitudes” because those who see the world from those points of view and react to it from those perspectives are blessed. They don’t seem like blessings; poverty, mourning, meekness, hunger, and thirst are not points of view from which any of us wish to see the world, but in faith we know that God is with those who suffer these things. When God is near, we are blessed.
Sometimes the Beatitudes are translated “Happy are they” instead of “Blessed are they” but they mean the same thing. We generally think of happiness in terms that can be expressed with a smiley face, a manifestation of good feelings about life. Yet, the most common understanding of the word “happy” according to Merriam-Webster’s diction is “favored by luck or fortune.” In the case of the beatitudes, the favor comes from something truer than luck or fortune: God. When God blesses, we have reason to be happy.
In the psalm, the happy one is the person who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of scoffers. Whether we walk, stand, or sit, the blessed one is the person who drinks in the Word of God, meditating on the scriptures like a tree next to a stream drinks in the passing water. There is something to the progression of these actions. As we walk in counsel, we order our life according to what we have heard. As we stand in that message, we position ourselves with it. As we sit, we settle into the position we have chosen. When walking we can change our path. When standing we can turn around. When sitting, we are set in our way. So, it is important to find the right direction while we are walking so that we won’t settle into the wrong way.
In the story of “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy and Toto set off to find the Emerald City by following the yellow brick road. They soon come to a crossroads in the midst of a field. There, Dorothy wonders which direction she should go. Scarecrow first points one direction, then the other, then both directions. After a little song and dance, Dorothy, Toto, and Scarecrow head down a road with complete trust in their decision. For the next hour, they face all sorts of dangers, make friends, and eventually end up at their destination. I always wondered what would have happened had they chosen another road. Why were all the roads yellow brick? Did they all lead to the Emerald City? Would one road have been easier than another?
I know that “The Wizard of Oz” is just a story, but how many of us have experienced what can happen when we get on the wrong road? I’ve made the mistake of getting off the wrong exit or turning the wrong direction, putting me in the difficult position of finding my way to my destination on unknown roads. Even with GPS we can get lost. It is easy sometimes, not so easy other times. Wrong turns have put me into horrible traffic jams, dangerous neighborhoods, and made me late. A wrong turn once put me in the path of a drunk driver, totaling my car and nearly killing me.
We are called as Christians to follow the right path. When we love the Lord, we live according to His promises and obey His commands. When we obey God’s Word, in the name of Jesus, then goodness and mercy will shine through our lives, and the fruit of His Spirit will be produced abundantly. The more we study the scriptures and live in God’s Word, the better equipped we are to share Christ with those we meet. Blessed are those who meditate on God’s Word, drawing ever closer to our Lord Jesus Christ where we live as people who are blessed, happy. And then Christ will shine out of our lives into the world that others might be blessed, happy. This is what it means to be holy as God is holy.
The Old Testament lesson gives us a list of holy actions as related to our relationships with our neighbors. These rules are about judging rightly and fairly and treating one another as we would want to be treated. In other words, these rules call us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, not perverting justice or showing favoritism. Justice is not about raising one type of person above another; it is about judging fairly. Though it might not seem right according to our society, sometimes the rich man is right. We are to treat all people fairly, no matter their circumstances.
The next two rules are related. We are not to slander or endanger our neighbor’s life. This means we should not harm our neighbor by words or actions. Children we learn that “Sticks and stones break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” but we know that slander can destroy a life. If a businessman is slandered, he might lose his customers, leaving his family desolate. A false statement against a teacher can mean removal from the job. A leader who has been slandered will lose authority to do his job. Those loses can be worse than death.
Isaiah continues, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart.” Do we hate others? I’d like to think that we understand that hate is not good but there are always people who rub us the wrong way. Instead of dealing with the sins and differences between us, we separate ourselves from those with whom we disagree. However, in the scriptures, hate is not what we define in today’s world. When the scriptures said that God loved Jacob and hated Esau, it did not mean that God had an aversion to Esau, but that God put Jacob ahead of Esau. So, when commanding that we should not hate our brother in our heart, God is telling us not to put ourselves above our neighbor. Instead of separating from them, we should find a way to reconcile and restore the relationship, lifting them and their needs above our own.
The instruction about hate is juxtaposed with the next command, “You shall surely rebuke your neighbor.” If we don’t, the Lord tells us that we will share in their guilt. In other words, though we would much rather keep our noses out of the business of our neighbors thinking that their sin is not our concern, we are called to rebuke our brother for their sake and our own. If a brother or sister is doing something wrong and we ignore the trespass, we are as much to blame for the harm it causes another. In this case, love means truth no matter how much it might pain us to speak. But when we speak that truth, it is to be done with mercy and grace. We should not seek revenge or hold grudges but love our neighbor as we want to be loved.
Holiness means being righteous, not in terms of moral behavior but in terms of justice, doing what is right and fair for and to our neighbor. We are called to be truthful in the way we deal with our neighbor both when speaking about them and to them. We are called to respect their life, body, and soul. We are called to forgive, so that our relationships might grow stronger and our love deeper. That’s what it means to be holy, to be like God. It will never be easy to be holy, but as we strive to be like God in our relationships with one another, we’ll discover that we are better able to live within our God-given purpose.
Paul wrote, “Even so, affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you, not the Good News of God only, but also our own souls, because you had become very dear to us.” Paul traveled extensively, planting churches in many cities. He always moved on to a new place, but he never left the growing congregations in his wake. He had friends who visited, and he even returned occasionally as his schedule permitted. He wrote letters to the congregations, helping them to grow but also to stand firm. He didn’t just lay the Gospel on them and then abandon them to their own means of growing in faith. He nurtured them, kept them accountable, rebuked their sin, and corrected their error. He praised their faith and encouraged them to bear good fruit. He thanked them for their work for Christ, for the Church, and for him.
We are encouraged to do the same. Our task is not just to take the Gospel to all nations, but to also teach each other to obey all that Christ commanded (Matthew 28.) We are to give others more than the Gospel; we are to give them our whole selves. We are called to love them, not just with a call to believe but with an invitation into a relationship with Christ, His Church, and us. It is easy to speak a word, but it is far more fruitful to be in a relationship with them, so that they will be made into disciples for Christ.
It is all about the heart. Not feelings, but the center of our beings. Not knowledge, but true justice. We are called to live God’s purpose in the world, by loving Him and our neighbor with our whole selves, striving to be holy as God is holy. In doing so, our neighbors will see the Messiah and hear the Good News, joining us in our quest for holiness in this world as we wait longingly for the day when we will live eternally with our God.
“Joshua the son of Nun called the priests, and said to them, ‘Take up the ark of the covenant, and let seven priests bear seven trumpets of rams’ horns before Yahweh’s ark.’ They said to the people, ‘Advance! March around the city, and let the armed men pass on before Yahweh’s ark.’ It was so, that when Joshua had spoken to the people, the seven priests bearing the seven trumpets of rams’ horns before Yahweh advanced and blew the trumpets, and the ark of Yahweh’s covenant followed them. The armed men went before the priests who blew the trumpets, and the ark went after them. The trumpets sounded as they went. Joshua commanded the people, saying, ‘You shall not shout nor let your voice be heard, neither shall any word proceed out of your mouth until the day I tell you to shout. Then you shall shout.’ So he caused Yahweh’s ark to go around the city, circling it once. Then they came into the camp, and stayed in the camp. Joshua rose early in the morning, and the priests took up Yahweh’s ark. The seven priests bearing the seven trumpets of rams’ horns in front of Yahweh’s ark went on continually, and blew the trumpets. The armed men went in front of them. The rear guard came after Yahweh’s ark. The trumpets sounded as they went. The second day they marched around the city once, and returned into the camp. They did this six days." Joshua 6:6-14, WEB
Have you ever done anything completely on faith? It would seem this would make things much easier, after all the work is much easier when you do it on faith because you are resting on some sort of promise that someone else will ensure that everything works out right. However, we like to have control of things. There are so many of us, myself included, who sometimes feel that the world can’t run without us. We think that we have to do things our own way and with our own hands or it won’t get done right. We might say we trust in God, but we hold on to our difficulties even when we know that God is in control.
We were stationed in California; my husband was with a unit that was being closed and we were to be transferred somewhere else. We were very concerned because there were so many uncertainties. We did not know where we might go or how fast we would have to leave. There were dozens of rumors circulating. We did not know how we would manage to sell our house; no matter what happened, the changes at the base would be bad news for home sellers. There would be a large exodus of people with no new families moving into the area. I was sick with worry, and we tried to take the situation into our own hands. We tried to control that which was completely out of our control.
One day we realized that there was nothing we could do to make the situation better. As a matter of fact, our worry was making things worse. One day we gave up trying and let God take control. we walked in faith, and everything fell in place. We were sent to a great place, sold the house just in time and the move went relatively smoothly. It was hard to let go, but we could see after it was over that God had a plan that we couldn’t see. When we tried to be in control, God’s plan was halted. But when we let go, God moved.
At the end of their forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites did not know what they would face in the Promised Land, but they knew that God promised them rest and peace. We know from our experiences, however, that new beginnings rarely lead to rest and peace. Transitions can often lead to more difficult times.
Joshua and the Israelites had to walk in faith. They were going to have to trust that God was with them as they entered the Promised Land. The people who dwelled would not give up their land easily. They would have to fight, but then God told them to have a parade. They had wandered for forty years, and the entire male population was healing from circumcision, but God commanded His chosen people to walk around the city of Jerico for six days. It seems like a most ridiculous way to handle one’s enemies. I would have wanted to be in a war tent planning a siege or on the battlefield rushing the gates. Joshua, however, listened and obeyed.
Instead of taking control, they walked in faith according to God’s word. They did not worry about whether or not they would look foolish or wonder how the parade would bring the people of Jericho to their knees. They simply went forth as God instructed them and had patience so that God could do His work.
We are called to do the same thing; we are to let go and let God take care of our difficulties. There were things we had to do when we moved: we had to prepare the house and children for a move. We had to meet with real estate agents and sign the papers. We had to pack and say our good-byes. We had plenty to do, but we did not need to worry about what was happening or try to make things happen by our own power. God had a plan. It took patience and trust. We had to wait to see what God would do. As long as we tried to hold on to the power, we could not see God’s hand at work. When we let go and let God, everything fell in place.
Are there any difficulties in your life today for which God is calling you to walk in faith? Have faith, God is with you and is taking care of it.
“On the seventh day, they rose early at the dawning of the day, and marched around the city in the same way seven times. On this day only they marched around the city seven times. At the seventh time, when the priests blew the trumpets, Joshua said to the people, ‘Shout, for Yahweh has given you the city! The city shall be devoted, even it and all that is in it, to Yahweh. Only Rahab the prostitute shall live, she and all who are with her in the house, because she hid the messengers that we sent. But as for you, only keep yourselves from what is devoted to destruction, lest when you have devoted it, you take of the devoted thing; so you would make the camp of Israel accursed and trouble it. But all the silver, gold, and vessels of bronze and iron are holy to Yahweh. They shall come into Yahweh’s treasury.’ So the people shouted and the priests blew the trumpets. When the people heard the sound of the trumpet, the people shouted with a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight in front of him, and they took the city. They utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, both young and old, and ox, sheep, and donkey, with the edge of the sword.” Joshua 6:15-21, WEB
When my children were little, they were amazed at my ability to foretell what would happen on a television show. I didn’t have some special gift of “seeing”; I laughed at their amazement. I knew what was going to happen because I was familiar with the patterns of those particular shows or stories in general. Now that they are older, they can foretell what’s going to happen just like I used to do. This is especially true of those made for television romantic movies. There are only so many types of story plots and if you recognize the plot, you can generally figure out where the writers are going with it. This is true also of situation comedies.
This isn’t true in life. People often surprise me, and circumstances often seem out of my control. I suppose that is why I enjoy watching romantic movies and sit-coms. I feel a sense of control because I know what’s going on and what will happen. Yet, we don’t always know how people are going to react to situations or what might go wrong. We are also surprised because we never know what God is going to do. He does not usually fit into our expectations. Take, for example, the story of Jericho.
Do you think Joshua and the Israelites knew what was going to happen when they blew those trumpets and yelled as they were commanded? Do you think they knew the walls would tumble down? In the story it tells us that they rushed toward the walls, but I imagine that there was a moment of shock. I suppose my own doubt makes me wonder if they also had a moment of doubt when that seventh day started. After six days of walking around the city, it seems like they would have been tired of not seeing anything happen. What did they think God would do?
There are times when we all see ahead and know what is happening, both on television and in real life. However, life often surprises us. Even more so, God often surprises us so that we can’t be sure that we know what will happen tomorrow. Those surprises might be upsetting or cause us to pause for a moment. However, no matter what happens we can rest in the promise that God is with us, and He will see us through. We most likely will never have to rush into a city whose walls have tumbled, but sometimes God will send us rushing into some other battle knowing that He has already prepared the way.
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by his good conduct that his deeds are done in gentleness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, don’t boast and don’t lie against the truth. This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, sensual, and demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition are, there is confusion and every evil deed.” James 3:13-16, WEB
My husband was in the military, we were living in England, and my children were young when I got a call from my mother. My parents needed me for a few weeks, but I didn’t know how I could leave my family. Bruce was a great dad and was perfectly capable of taking care of our children, but he was in the military and his job often required late hours and even possible deployment. We had friends to help in an emergency, but I hated to ask for help. It was a humbling experience for me. I went home to be with my parents and learn that my family could do just fine without me. It was not that I was unneeded, but I learned that I wasn’t so important that the world would end without me.
I have known people just like me. We probably have a little bit of that in all of us. We go to work when we are sick because we think the office will fall apart if we are not there even just one day. We often do things not because we want to do them, but because we think that if we don’t do it, it won’t get done. We also worry that someone else will do it wrong, making everything more difficult tomorrow. We do what we do because we “have to”, sometimes for all the wrong reasons. This happens everywhere, even in the Church.
A pastor told me about a valuable piece of advice he had been given. He was relating to another pastor about all the things he had to do that week: people needed his help, events needed his presence, and problems needed his attention. The other pastor told him to go for one week doing nothing he “had to” do. In other words, he should not do anything for all the wrong reasons. He was not to work out of obligation, or because he thought there was no one else to do it or that they would do it wrong. The exercise for my pastor was freeing and humbling. He did not do anything because he “had to” but he realized that he did all the usual things with a different attitude. He saw them as opportunities to minister rather than obligations that demanded his sacrifice.
We thrive under this “have to” attitude, but it is really self-centered and conceited. We think the ship will sink if we are not at the helm. It is never bad to do what we see needs to be done. The “have to” attitude often leads to great accomplishments. But the attitude also causes us to harm others in our quest to get things done. Climbing the corporate ladder often means stepping on others who stand in our way. We micromanage everything because we want to be in control. The “have to” attitude is not always so arrogant but is still self-serving. I’ve known Christians who are conceited about the work they do for God, thinking more highly of themselves than they ought. Their “have to” attitude often means taking away the opportunities for others to serve God.
In Christ we are called to do amazing things. We are gifted to share in the redemption of the world as we take the Gospel message of hope and forgiveness to those who are lost and dying. It is a good thing to want to witness about Jesus Christ and to use our gifts to make God’s kingdom known on earth. However, we need to be careful that we do not set ourselves apart as if this will not happen without us. Salvation comes from God, not from man, even when man speaks the word of God to others.
Much as we want to think about our importance, God does not need us. No one is going to heaven because of what we do and neither will they go to hell if we fail. It is time to check our motives when our ministry takes on a “have to” attitude. Are we sharing the gospel in grateful thanksgiving for God’s amazing gifts, or is it because we have become self-centered in our thinking? Or to put it more bluntly, are living faithfully in humility in all that we do or are we conceited, thinking that we are so important that the world will fall apart without us?
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him. Without him, nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness hasn’t overcome it.” John 1:1-5, WEB
I don’t always decorate for Halloween, and when I do, I only do it for the day of trick or treat, but I have noted in the last few years how there are more and more people decorating their house for Halloween. Our HOA even had a Halloween decorating contest this year. There have always been a few who have created haunted houses or special experiences for the kids for trick-or-treat night, but it has become big business these days. It has been reported that Halloween is second only to Christmas in spending, with over ten billion dollars spent on the holiday in 2021. The shelves are filled with more items than ever. Many of my neighbors have at least a blow-up character or a ghost flying through their trees. Full size plastic skeletons used to be a specialty item that could only be found in a few places, but this year I saw them in my local grocery store.
The decorations for Halloween are so different than those for Christmas. Though they often include lights, it is a much darker time. Besides skeletons, the decorations include witches and ghosts, gravestones and spiderwebs. One house I passed recently put up a temporary white picket fence around their yard with many cobwebs. The grassy area has been converted into a cemetery with a dozen or more gravestones. They have also placed a directional sign with arrows pointing to strange places. Though some houses include fun, bright colored pumpkin blow-ups or silly characters, Halloween is definitely a time when many are focused on death. There’s always a new horror film in the theaters and many of the costumes are of zombies, murderous clowns, and even the grim reaper. While most people do not celebrate death, there seems to be a fascination with it.
Death is a fact of life. Since the day that Adam and Eve chose to believe the word of the serpent and eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we were cast out into the world where there is suffering and death. Everyone will die, even those who do everything humanly possible to ward off illness and the end of life. That it is a fact of life does not make death any easier. We suffer the ravages of old age, the sting of dis-ease and the danger of this imperfect world. Death comes in too many ways to list; it comes quickly in the night or lingers for years. Death is often the consequence of our own behavior, but too often it comes from others who by accident or choice have taken life into their own hands.
We do not celebrate when death comes knocking on our door; we experience grief and an incredible sense of loss when someone we love dies. We are exhausted by it, especially if death took a long time coming. We are often shocked and afraid of what will happen in our lives, especially if the dearly departed is someone who provided support for us. We do not celebrate these deaths, although we do find the strength and courage to celebrate their lives. When we die, we tell our loved ones not to cry for us, but to go on with their lives. No matter how much we insist on the joy, death will always bring sorrow.
God never intended for death to be a fact of life. Adam and Eve made a choice, and that choice separated all humankind from the intimate relationship that they had with God in the Garden of Eden. But even while death became the problem, God was already working on the solution. He knew, even from the day of Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden, that He would make it possible for mankind to have the eternal life He intended. He knew that the Christ would pay the price that would free God’s people from death, guaranteeing those who believe will have eternal life. As Christians we know there is a reason to celebrate the death of one of God’s people: they aren’t really dead. They live on in the Kingdom where they no longer have to rely on hope or faith because they now walk in the Garden again with their Father the Creator.
October 31st is Halloween and children will be going door to door in the hope of special treats. I have changed my view on the holiday a dozen different times in two decades of writing this devotion. It is all in good fun, but the focus on death is troublesome. There are things about Halloween that is not acceptable in our Christian life. Many places have parties or festivals to make the fun safer for the children. Some churches even do a vigil service on Halloween, praying for light with readings from the scriptures.
Christianity is a religion of light. Jesus Christ is the light of the world. The All Hallows Eve vigil liturgy and scripture is meant to point us to the light that is Christ who overcame death and darkness. After Halloween is over, we’ll see the character of the decorations around our neighborhoods change. Instead of death and darkness, we’ll see light and hope and peace. Isn’t that the reality of life, though? We are lost in darkness without God, but Jesus is the Light that gives us new life. We are dead in our sin, but we are made alive again by God’s mercy and grace. We walk like zombies until Jesus Christ gives us a place in His Kingdom where we can worship God for eternity. The Light that is Christ outshines the darkness of death.