Welcome to the September 2016 Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture on this page taken from the American Standard Version of the Holy Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, September 2016
September 1, 2016
“Jesus went about in all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the Good News of the Kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness among the people. The report about him went out into all Syria. They brought to him all who were sick, afflicted with various diseases and torments, possessed with demons, epileptics, and paralytics; and he healed them. Great multitudes from Galilee, Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and from beyond the Jordan followed him.” Matthew 4:23-25, WEB
I read a satirical article the other day about a man who practically destroyed his brand new Bible in an effort to appear as though he was an avid daily reader. He didn’t want the other members of his church to be able to say that he didn’t use his bible very much. It was a joke playing on the idea that a well worn bible must be a well read one. That is most certainly true. I have a friend who has a Bible that is so full of notes and papers and tags that it can barely close and I know she’s has read it from front to back on many occasions. She doesn’t, however, look down on those whose Bible pages appear to be spotless and new.
There’s a joke that I’ve heard that some people only have a Bible so they can display it on their coffee table when the pastor comes to visit. That may be true. There are others who will carry a Bible everywhere they go just to appear holy. It is as if just having one of those books makes a person more Christian. If that’s the case, then I must be a saint: I have dozens of Bibles within reach of my desk and I’ve been known to open three or four of them while preparing a Bible study.
Of my dozens of Bibles, there are only a few that I would call well worn. Besides the fact that I use so many, I usually replace my bible as soon as they begin to look rough around the edges. I recently replaced the one I kept on the desk because half of it had fallen out of the binding. I fixed it once, but I couldn’t even page through it anymore. I never carried that book with me, it always stayed open by my computer, but even there it was difficult to navigate. I’d rather a fresh, clean Bible than one that is falling apart.
I know it is hard to give up a beloved Bible because of the notes and papers and tags that have become a part of it. I had one Bible years ago that I didn’t want to let go. As a matter of fact, I never did: it is still sitting on the shelf. But I finally decided to replace it. I decided it was time to read it with fresh eyes. See, sometimes we get so caught up in the way we have read the Bible that we miss how God is talking to us today. I’ve gotten to the point that I rarely even mark my Bibles: most of my notes and thoughts end up in this devotional or my studies.
A well worn Bible is certainly a sign of a well used one, but we need to be careful that we do not assume that the crisp new one belongs to someone who never opens it. The book is not a sign of faith or knowledge of God’s Word. The state of our Bibles certainly does not indicate the state of our hearts.
William J. Toms once said the widely quoted, “Be careful how you live. You may be the only Bible some person ever reads.” I have never really liked this quote. We certainly should be careful how we live, but the Bible is so much more than a life well-lived. My life will never speak the Word that people need to hear. We can live in a way that glorifies God and acts as an example of the way we are called to live, but salvation comes not from examples but from God’s Word. Faith comes from hearing the promises of God. We can’t trust any other person to be our Bible no matter how well they live. Even Jesus, who is the Word, preached the Good News to the people.
And yet, the way we live is a much better indication of the state of our hearts, faith or knowledge of the scriptures. The well read Christian will be kind and generous, gracious and merciful, forgiving and humble because they know the promises and commands of God. They live according to God’s Word, glorifying Him in all they do. Whether we are battered and torn or crisp and new, the best way to share the Bible is to tell the Good News to the world.
“Then Jesus said, ‘I will be with you a little while longer, then I go to him who sent me. You will seek me, and won’t find me; and where I am, you can’t come.’ The Jews therefore said among themselves, ‘Where will this man go that we won’t find him? Will he go to the Dispersion among the Greeks, and teach the Greeks? What is this word that he said, “You will seek me, and won’t find me; and where I am, you can’t come”?’ Now on the last and greatest day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink! He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, from within him will flow rivers of living water.’ But he said this about the Spirit, which those believing in him were to receive. For the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus wasn’t yet glorified. Many of the multitude therefore, when they heard these words, said, ‘This is truly the prophet.’ Others said, ‘This is the Christ.’ But some said, ‘What, does the Christ come out of Galilee? Hasn’t the Scripture said that the Christ comes of the offspring of David, and from Bethlehem, the village where David was?’ So there arose a division in the multitude because of him. Some of them would have arrested him, but no one laid hands on him.” John 7:33-44, WEB
Texas has a desert or semi-arid climate. It is interesting to note that there is only one natural lake in the entire state, the rest are created by damming the rivers. Even the rivers sometimes look like little more than a trickle of water or a puddle. There are thousands of dry creek beds that seem as though there hasn't been rain for decades. The grass and trees become brown or golden, and sometimes even die during the times of drought, which can last years. The cycle of drought is alarming to those of us who live in these places because water is so necessary to our lives. Millions of people rely on the little water that gathers in the aquifers that collect under the surface of the earth. We need the water to drink, cook and clean. Yet the cycle is normal and even if we conserved every drop we could, we’d still have dry creek beds and brown or golden plant life.
It is a joy when it rains because the world becomes lush and green. After a refreshing rain, the desert comes to life with color and activity with flowers and animals that you would not expect to find in such a desolate place. Of course, Texas is incredible in springtime as the wildflowers respond to the spring rains and color the landscape with red, purple, yellow, white and blue.
It has been relatively wet here in Texas this year, so the fields are green and filled with thriving plant life. We were driving a couple weeks ago and notice the fields were filled with tiny white flowers everywhere. These are called thunder lilies and they appear suddenly following a thunderstorm. It seems that they come especially after an especially dry time. They literally sprout and die within hours but then seed the earth for the next time. Other plants are far more hearty, able to reach deep into the earth to draw water that remains hidden until it rains again.
I recently heard about a time several decades ago when there was a seven year drought in Texas. Everything, it seemed, was dead. Yet, even in those times there were areas of trees. The storyteller was a young girl at the time and she asked her father how there could be green trees in those areas. Her father could name the creek that normally ran where the trees still grew. She noticed, however, that the creek beds were dry. “How can that be?” He explained that though the water was not visible, it was still there, the trees reached deep into the earth to find sustenance.
Jesus lived in a time of spiritual draught. The Jews were lifeless, brown and nearly dead because they were living according to their interpretation of God’s law rather than His intent. They were dead in their sin and did not know God’s grace. They did not know where to look for the spiritual water that would give them forgiveness and life. Even when Jesus stood in their presence, many missed what He had to offer.
Without Christ, the world is like a desert. The people are lifeless, living as if walking in darkness carrying burdens that are much too hard to lift. They have no joy or peace, even when it seems as if they are happy and content. They wander through the deserts in search of something and think they find it in their jobs, families and possessions. Yet, there is a thirst for something more that can’t be had by any human effort. They seek the Lord Jesus and yet do not know that He is what they want or need.
At times, however, those lost in their sin find themselves caught in a rainstorm and suddenly the hidden waters flow strong, bringing life to that which seemed dead. Jesus Christ is indeed the living water that gives life and hope and He reveals Himself to those who need Him. Just as there is life in the desert even when it seems to be dead, Jesus brings life to the most desolate hearts.
September 5, 2016
"Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the Lord’s work, because you know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord." 1 Corinthians 15:58, WEB
St. Paul’s Cathedral is a magnificent building, designed in the 17th century by Sir Christopher Wren, built on a site where Christians have worshipped for over 1300 years. St. Paul’s is one of London’s most beloved landmarks, easily recognized in pictures.
At the center of the cathedral, where the transepts meet, is a large dome. There are three galleries on the dome, which can be reached by climbing many stairs. Running around the interior of the dome, 259 steps above the ground floor, is the Whispering Gallery. This walkway, which runs a complete circle around the dome, is called by its name because a whisper is audible on the opposite side of the dome, due to a building quirk.
The Stone Gallery, 378 steps above ground level, runs around the outside of the dome and provides an incredible view of London. From this perch you can see Parliament, The Globe Theatre, the Thames, and many other London landmarks.
From there you can climb to the Golden Gallery, which is a total of 530 steps from ground level. The stairways to the top are rickety iron, and it is exhausting to climb to that great height. But as you exit the stairs into the sunshine, you can see the reward of your labor. The view of London is remarkable.
We do not always get a reward for our hard work. We get our paychecks, an occasional day off and the satisfaction that comes from a job well done. Sometimes, we receive a word of thanks for the work we do, or we get a glimpse of the product of our labors. For teachers, it may be a student who succeeds after graduation. For a doctor, someone is healed. For a writer, a book is sold. All too many are not recognized for their work like the grocery store cashier or the production line at the factory. Their work is important and their labor pays their bills; all our labors are important, but exhausting. Labor Day began in 1894 as a day to remember. It is a day when we should say, “Well done and thank you for your hard work.”
It is funny that Labor Day has become a day when we lie around and relax, party and celebrate the end of summer. Sadly, many of those honored by the day are still laboring for the rest of us. The cashiers are still ringing in our groceries and factories often keep running even on holidays. Those who work these jobs must continue because they need the paycheck to buy food and clothes and place a roof over the heads of their families. It is no wonder that many don't think that their work is appreciated and that they labor in vain.
How often do we, as Christians, think that the work we do for God in this world is exhausting and doesn’t lead to anything of value? We share God's love and are met with hate. We speak God's forgiveness and experience persecution. We are rejected and ignored by the world. We may not always see the fruits of our labors, but the work is never in vain. The day will come when we emerge from this world, as we can emerge from the stairway inside the dome, into the eternal Kingdom of God and look upon His glory forever. On that day God will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Your work made a difference in my world.”
September 6, 2016
“In you, Yahweh, I take refuge. Let me never be disappointed. Deliver me in your righteousness. Bow down your ear to me. Deliver me speedily. Be to me a strong rock, a house of defense to save me. For you are my rock and my fortress, therefore for your name’s sake lead me and guide me. Pluck me out of the net that they have laid secretly for me, for you are my stronghold. Into your hand I commend my spirit. You redeem me, Yahweh, God of truth. I hate those who regard lying vanities, but I trust in Yahweh. I will be glad and rejoice in your loving kindness, for you have seen my affliction. You have known my soul in adversities. You have not shut me up into the hand of the enemy. You have set my feet in a large place. Have mercy on me, Yahweh, for I am in distress. My eye, my soul, and my body waste away with grief. For my life is spent with sorrow, my years with sighing. My strength fails because of my iniquity. My bones are wasted away. Because of all my adversaries I have become utterly contemptible to my neighbors, A fear to my acquaintances. Those who saw me on the street fled from me. I am forgotten from their hearts like a dead man. I am like broken pottery. For I have heard the slander of many, terror on every side, while they conspire together against me, they plot to take away my life. But I trust in you, Yahweh. I said, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hand. Deliver me from the hand of my enemies, and from those who persecute me. Make your face to shine on your servant. Save me in your loving kindness. Let me not be disappointed, Yahweh, for I have called on you. Let the wicked be disappointed. Let them be silent in Sheol. Let the lying lips be mute, which speak against the righteous insolently, with pride and contempt. Oh how great is your goodness, which you have laid up for those who fear you, which you have worked for those who take refuge in you, before the sons of men! In the shelter of your presence you will hide them from the plotting of man. You will keep them secretly in a dwelling away from the strife of tongues. Praise be to Yahweh, for he has shown me his marvelous loving kindness in a strong city. As for me, I said in my haste, ‘I am cut off from before your eyes.’ Nevertheless you heard the voice of my petitions when I cried to you. Oh love Yahweh, all you his saints! Yahweh preserves the faithful, and fully recompenses him who behaves arrogantly. Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who hope in Yahweh.” Psalm 31, WEB
“Oh love Yahweh, all you saints!” This is a call to each and every person who believes in our Lord Jesus Christ. It is hard to consider ourselves saints, however, especially when we compare our lives to a woman like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta who was officially declared a Saint by Pope Francis this weekend. I visited with a woman last week who was very excited to see this happen. “It is taking long enough,” she said.
While it seems like it has taken forever, the process of canonization for Saint Teresa has actually gone very quickly. There are many who remain “servant of God,” or “venerable” or “blessed,” for decades or even centuries before the final steps have been proven real and true. See, after someone is nominated for sainthood, their life must be investigated, and the information is given to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints who decides whether to go forward with the process. They make a declaration that the person pursued a holy life on earth. Then the person must be proven to have interceded in a miraculous way. The miracle credited to the person must be instantaneous, permanent, and complete while also being scientifically unexplainable. Finally, to be canonized, a second miracle must be credited to the person.
I suppose part of the reason it went so quickly for Saint Teresa is because she had such a public life. Modern technology and communication meant that the investigation of her life did not take years to complete. Her life was an open book, not only seen by those closest to her, but by the world. They say that the hardest part of the process is proving the miracles. It took four years to prove Mother Teresa’s first miracle, the healing of a cancerous tumor by a picture of Mother Teresa in 1998. The second miracle, the healing of a man with multiple brain tumors in 2008 was not proven until 2015. The rest of the process, basically the paperwork, was completed in seemingly record time.
Yet, like the person I visited with last week, many people thought she should have been canonized a long time ago; as a matter of fact, some thought it should happen immediately. Mother Teresa was a person we admired. We wanted to be a Christian like her and knew that we would never do it. We could not give up our lives to live for God as she did. We don’t think we have as a great a faith. We are far more likely, like the psalmist, to lament our troubles and burdens than to cry, “I love you, God!” She was so blessed; how could we even think we could be as faithful when we struggle daily with our faith?
However, the reality is that Saint Teresa struggled with her faith perhaps more than all of us. Her letters show that she was a woman who doubted God, felt spiritually desolate and spent forty years serving a God she wasn’t even sure existed. She once wrote, “Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.” She even admitted that she felt like a hypocrite, talking of this God’s love that she did not feel.” This very fact has made some question the validity of her canonization while others suggest it is the very reason she should be called a Saint.
The scriptures give us examples of people who believe but have great doubt. There is the father of a child who cried to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief.” There is Thomas’s doubt turned to the greatest confession of faith. There is Paul who repeatedly called himself the greatest of sinners. These stories help us with our own struggles of faith. Saint Teresa continued to serve God in a way that not only brought healing; it brought peace, joy and hope to the world. And it was a peace, joy and hope that were founded in God’s grace. She may have struggled but she continued to love the God that she knew loved her deep within her spirit even if she could not feel it. She is a great example to us all to remember that God doesn’t abandon us even when it feels as if He is far away; we will all have moments like those. Even at the worst of times we can cry, “I love you, God” and know He is near enough to hear.
September 7, 2016
Scriptures for Sunday, September 11, 2016, Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost: Ezekiel 34:11-24; Psalm 119:169-176; 1 Timothy 1:(5-11) 12-17; Luke 15:1-10
“When he has found it, he carries it on his shoulders, rejoicing.” Luke 15:5, WEB
Ezekiel was commanded to give a warning to the shepherds of Israel. “Tell them that they are not taking care of my sheep.” (Ezekiel 34:1-10) The rulers of Israel were more concerned about their own well-being than that of those whom they were charged with leading. Their lack of care scattered the sheep of their fold, put them in danger of being devoured by the false teachers. The rulers were fat and well clothed but the people were hungry and lost. God said, “Behold, I am against the shepherds.”
Every warning comes with a promise, and that’s what we hear in today’s Old Testament passage. God will care for His flock, searching for those who are missing, restoring them to the field where they will be fed, and giving them rest. There are always some in every group who are weak and those who are strong. Just as it was true in the days of Ezekiel, it was also true in Jesus’ day. The priests, the Pharisees and the Sadducees had all the power and they put heavy burdens on the people. They talked the talk, but didn’t walk the walk. They did what suited them and expected perfection from others. They didn’t even see their own sinfulness.
It is still true today. Every congregation has people who have power and authority who place heavy burdens on the others. There are many within our congregations who are weak. They don’t have a strong understanding of scripture. They have faith the size of a mustard seed, but can’t seem to move mountains with it. They have listened and followed the words of men without knowing that those words are not God’s Word. They have been led astray, and then often left to fend for themselves. The church becomes the seat of power for some and a place of pain for others. God promises that He will take care of those who have been harmed by leaders who did not care for His sheep.
God promises to judge between sheep and sheep. “Does it seem a small thing to you to have fed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the residue of your pasture? and to have drunk of the clear waters, but you must foul the residue with your feet?” The strong and powerful destroy everything good given to the flock by God so that they will get stronger and have more power. The strong do not care when a weak sheep disappears; that leaves all the more for them. But God promises that He will make things right for the weak ones.
This passage makes an even greater promise. “I will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them, even my servant David; he shall feed them, and he shall be their shepherd. I, Yahweh, will be their God, and my servant David prince among them; I, Yahweh, have spoken it.” The promise will be fulfilled by the Great Shepherd, the promised Davidic Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus came and He did search for the lost sheep. He did search for the lost coin. He did search for the people of His flock who had been outcast and forgotten because they weren’t perfect. Jesus reminds us that He didn’t come for the perfect that have no need for forgiveness; He came for the sinners who need to be saved.
There are many who have taken upon themselves the task of saving sinners by their own power. They think they are wise when they are sadly ignorant of God’s whole truth. Too many are so set in their understanding of scripture that they bash it over the heads of others. They use the Bible as a weapon to condemn sinners, forgetting that they deserve condemnation, too. There is a time and a place for speaking about judgment against sin, as long as we remember that we, too, are sinners in need of God’s grace.
God’s Word is more than a warning; there is always a promise. Paul was certainly clear to Timothy that the Law must be spoken to those who are lawless so that they would repent and turn to God. Paul did so from a heart that had been humbled, knowing God’s forgiveness for his own sinfulness. He was a blasphemer, a persecutor, and insolent. Paul writes, “The saying is faithful and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.”
There was a man at a church we attended a long time ago. He was extremely adamant about a particular issue, and was sure to make passionate speeches every time he spoke. We didn’t even have to be discussing that particular topic at the time: it was his sole concern in life and he was determined to convince everyone that he was right. Now, he was right to a point; it was important that we recognize the sin. However, his answer was always condemnation. Anyone who disagreed was surely going to hell. There was no room for grace or mercy in his passion. He spoke the Law to kill rather than to call for repentance, ignoring the promise of forgiveness. What made it worse was his lack of humility. He never recognized his own need for God’s mercy. He would never have described himself as the chief of sinners.
There was only one thing that mattered to that man; many people have the same passion only for different issues. Everything they do in God’s kingdom is focused solely on that one thing. They are never guilty of it and therefore think themselves more righteous, forgetting that the Gospel is necessary not only for those we deem worthy, but for everyone. The scriptures, God’s Word, is never meant to be used as a weapon to condemn and destroy but to invite those who are lost to see the Great Shepherd.
Bashing never saves anyone. All too often, the bashing is based on a misunderstanding of scripture: not necessarily the issues we face, but what God means for those who are lost in darkness. They think they are wise, but they are woefully ignorant of God’s Word.
Thank God that Jesus is the One who saves.
Ezekiel warned the leaders of Israel that God was unhappy with the way they were treating the sheep. “You are keeping all the good things for yourself, but I will make sure those you burden are lifted to new life.” God calls us to a life of humble service, not one in which we hit them over the head with our self-righteous interpretation of scripture. It is not up to us to save anyone from themselves or to condemn them to death. Our task is to share the warning and the promise. “Turn and you will live.” God will do the work. His Word will find those who need to be saved.
Those sinners and tax collectors with whom Jesus was having dinner were probably not outsiders or foreigners. They were probably Jews who had lost their way; they were getting through life they best that they could, even though it did not fit the expectations of the religious leaders. They aren’t any different than the rest of us; we all find a way of living that sometimes goes against the expectations of our faith. As a matter of fact, we understand that the Law is impossible for us to keep perfectly, which is why Jesus came in the first place.
Being a tax collector was so offensive to the Jews because they were traitors, puppets of the Romans, and they often took advantage of their position by taking more than they should. The tax collector received his pay by taking more than the actual taxes. The Romans didn’t care as long as they got the amount they expected, and some of the tax collectors were greedy. They were all rejected and condemned because they were seen as making themselves better at the expense of their fellow Jews.
Jesus loved even the tax collectors and the sinners, so much so that He was willing to set aside societal expectations to have dinner with them. The lesson in today’s Gospel is repeated later in Luke (chapter 19) as Jesus meets with Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho. Despite the grumbling of the Jewish leaders, Jesus visited with Zacchaeus and his friends. In the encounter in today’s passage, Jesus reflected on the promise in Ezekiel using a parable, reminding them that God would find the lost sheep and carry them home. That’s what Jesus did with Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus responded with humility and repentance. He answered Jesus’ invitation with a promise to restore those he had wronged. Jesus answered, “Today, salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost.” Jesus seeks out those who need to be saved; He seeks the lost sheep that need to be found. He doesn’t do it by bashing them with God’s Word, but by shining the light of truth into their lives. Zacchaeus heard Jesus and followed Him. The truth, given in mercy and grace, changed him.
There is a time and a place for warning, for speaking the Law, for calling people to repentance. We must remember, however, that we are not more righteous than others because we are not guilty of their sins. We are still guilty. We need God’s grace as much as they. We need to repent, to receive God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ, to be changed by His Word.
In the texts for this week, we are encouraged to see ourselves as God might see us: the good, the bad and the ugly. Jesus didn’t tell the Pharisees that the tax collectors and sinners were good, only that they were in need and that they were willing to listen. It was their willingness that Jesus commended: they had been lost and now they were found. He was rejoicing with them that they saw the reality of their sinfulness and had turned to the only one who could grant them true forgiveness.
Paul, who was once a Pharisee, realized his failure when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. In his letters, he repeatedly tells us about his sinfulness and the mercy received from Jesus. In today’s letter to Timothy, Paul says, “I am thankful that Jesus has given me so much despite my sinfulness.” He openly admits his failure and embraces God’s grace. God does not desert His people; He does not reject us. He forgives. He teaches. He sometimes rebukes and corrects us, but He does so that we will be all we can be. He draws us into His heart where we will find peace and joy.
In his letter to Timothy, Paul recognized his sinfulness, admitting that He had been ignorant while he thought he was wise. We often see Paul as being strong, arrogant, and self-centered. In today’s passage he wrote, “However, for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first, Jesus Christ might display all his patience, for an example of those who were going to believe in him for eternal life.” Paul was not holding himself up as an example of Christ-like living to follow, but as an example of a humble, repentant sinner receiving God’s amazing grace. Paul didn’t become the great evangelist by any power of his own, but by the power of God’s love and mercy. He called himself the foremost sinner because he recognized that he never deserved God’s grace. He was the greatest sinner because he rejected Christ and harmed God’s people.
It is good to emulate the work of Paul, to share the Gospel as we are able and to serve in whatever manner and gifts we have been given. But Paul is calling us to follow in the most important way. We are called to see ourselves as sinners in need of a Savior, to recognize God’s grace in the world around us and to be transformed by His forgiveness. It takes time. It sometimes takes a lifetime, but no one is outside of hope. God did not give up on Paul. Jesus sought after Zacchaeus. Jesus even continued to preach in the hearing of the Jewish leaders in the hope that they too might hear and believe. He came looking for each of us. He hasn’t given up on those who are still lost and suffering in the darkness. He came to find the lost and will celebrate every sinner who repents.
The psalmist writes, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I don’t forget your commandments.” God’s Word is both Law and Promise. The Law calls us to repent, to turn to God. The Gospel assures us that He has provided for our forgiveness. We were like lost sheep, but Jesus found us, saved us, and restored us to a relationship with our God. The Great Shepherd will continue searching for those who are missing, restoring them to the field where they will be fed, and giving them rest. When He finds them, He will carry them on his shoulders, rejoicing just as He did for us.
“For we were saved in hope, but hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for that which he sees?” Romans 8:24, WEB (I suggest reading all of Romans 8)
We were talking about the work of the Holy Spirit in Sunday School this week. We had a long list of scripture that described the many things He does in, through and for us. He helps us pray, guides us, teaches us, encourages us, gives us new life, dwells in us, gives us power to be witnesses for Jesus and identifies us as God’s to name just a few. Everyone chose a verse or two to read and we considered how the Spirit does these works in our own personal lives.
As we worked through this exercise, we realized that many of the scriptures came out of Romans chapter 8. The heading in many Bibles for that particular section calls it “Life in the Spirit.” Now, we were looking at the broad range of the Spirit’s work in this world, but Romans 8 focuses very closely on the work of the Spirit in sanctification.
Martin Luther writes, “St. Paul shows how spirit and flesh struggle with each other in one person. He gives himself as an example, so that we may learn how to kill sin in ourselves. He gives both spirit and flesh the name ‘law,’ so that, just as it is in the nature of divine law to drive a person on and make demands of him, so too the flesh drives and demands and rages against the spirit and wants to have its own way. Like wise the spirit drives and demands against the flesh and wants to have its own way. This feud lasts in us for as long as we live, in one person more, in another less, depending on whether spirit or flesh is stronger. Yet the whole human being is both: spirit and flesh. The human being fights with himself until he becomes completely spiritual.
“In chapter 8, St. Paul comforts fighters such as these and tells them that this flesh will not bring them condemnation. He goes onto show what the nature of flesh and spirit are. Spirit, he says, comes from Christ, who has given us his Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit makes us spiritual and restrains the flesh. The Holy Spirit assures us that we are God's children no matter how furiously sin may rage within us, so long as we follow the Spirit and struggle against sin in order to kill it. Because nothing is so effective in deadening the flesh as the cross and suffering, Paul comforts us in our suffering. He says that the Spirit, love and all creatures will stand by us; the Spirit in us groans and all creatures long with us that we be freed from the flesh and from sin.”
We don’t usually have homework after our discussions on Sunday, although I always ensure that there are more scriptures to read than we can talk about in class, hoping that everyone will continue to ponder the subject throughout the week. This week I thought it would be good for us all to read through Romans 8. As I read through it today, I was truly comforted by Paul’s words. I know that I struggle with sin and I wonder how that could be. I love Jesus and I want to be the best He has called me to be, but I continue to get to do things that are not as God intends. My flesh is weak and I fall to the temptations of the world.
I do try. I usually catch myself after I’ve failed to avoid sin and I seek God’s forgiveness, knowing He is faithful. I trust that the Holy Spirit, who is my strength, will help me grow into a stronger Christian and perhaps someday I won’t fall to the temptation the next time. God has done the work to make us free and He calls us to put up the fight knowing that we have His Spirit to help us move toward the time when today’s sufferings will be replaced by His glory. This is our hope, and while we struggle in this life with our flesh, we know the Spirit will help us be patient for the day when He will finally complete the work He began in us, fulfilling everything us that He has promised.
“Be strong and courageous; for you shall cause this people to inherit the land which I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous. Be careful to observe to do according to all the law, which Moses my servant commanded you. Don’t turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it; for then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall have good success. Haven’t I commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be dismayed, for Yahweh your God is with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:6-9, WEB
Moses died and Joshua was left to the task of taking God’s people into the Promised Land. Joshua, along with another faithful Israelite named Caleb, were the only men to survive the forty year wilderness wandering. They were both about sixty years old and had been saved because they were faithful.
In the beginning of the Exodus, after Moses received the Law on the mountain, twelve men were sent to spy in Canaan. Ten of the men came back frightened by what they say, “We can’t do this.” Joshua and Caleb saw the same thing but they believed that God was on their side. Caleb said, “Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it!” Despite this faith, the task ahead of them was daunting. They had to take a nation into a strange land, overcome the inhabitants and establish their place there.
No matter how faithful, Joshua must have had some concerns. After all, how do you step into Moses’ boots? How do you follow after a man who had led the people out of Egypt? Joshua was there all along. He was with Moses on the mountain, was his assistant and commander. He was a strong leader and had earned his place over the years. Yet, how do you take the place of a man like Moses? God knew Joshua’s heart, his faithfulness and his doubts. When He called Joshua to this new role, He did so with encouragement. “You can do this; don’t be afraid.”
We all have moments like this. Perhaps we aren’t leading a nation into a Promised Land, but we have moment when we are called to do something that frightens us. There are times when we doubt we can do what we are being called to do. We may have faith, but we also doubt. God says to us, just as He said to Joshua, “Be strong and courageous. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be dismayed, for Yahweh your God is with you wherever you go.”
I’ve heard it said, “When God calls you, He also equips you.” I would say that we should take this thought one step further. Even as He has given us the gifts to do His work in the world, He doesn’t leave us to do it alone. He is with us, walking beside us, helping us, encouraging us, giving us the strength and courage we need. Faith is not the absence of doubt, but the willingness to trust even when we do. I can’t do what I’m called to do, but I believe God is with me to help me do it and therefore it gets done. The same is true for you. Are you afraid of something you are being called to do? Trust God. He will be faithful even when it is hard for you to be.
“The king rejoices in your strength, Yahweh! How greatly he rejoices in your salvation! You have given him his heart’s desire, and have not withheld the request of his lips. Selah. For you meet him with the blessings of goodness. You set a crown of fine gold on his head. He asked life of you, you gave it to him, even length of days forever and ever. His glory is great in your salvation. You lay honor and majesty on him. For you make him most blessed forever. You make him glad with joy in your presence. For the king trusts in Yahweh. Through the loving kindness of the Most High, he shall not be moved.” Psalm 21:1-7, WEB
I have a confession to make. I spend the weekends watching as many of the made for television romance movies as possible. It is usually that the movies are on in the background as I clean, cook or work in my studio, but they are there, making me tear up when everything works out in the end. Oh, I know they are formatted; I can usually figure out the conflict and resolution in the first fifteen minutes of the movie. I can always say, “They will fall in love” because they always do. I think I like to watch those movies because ultimately there is a happy ending, and it is nice to escape a world where there seem to be so few happy endings if only for a moment.
One of the most interesting aspects of watching these movies is to see who they have used in the cast. Many of the actors and actresses look familiar and I often ask myself, “Who is that?” I wonder what they did before starring in this movie. It is rather natural to assume that an appearance of a made for television movies is a step down. Take, for instance, Ed Asner. Mr. Asner is described as a television legend, having earned multiple Emmy awards for his famous roles on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and the dramatic spin-off “Lou Grant.”
Now you can find Mr. Asner starring on many of the made for television movies, often playing Santa Claus or an old man who somehow manages to work some magic around the intended couple. It is easy to say, “What happened to him? Can’t he get a better job?” I was thinking about it this weekend as I watched several movies I had never seen, asking the same question about other rather famous actors and actresses who had minor roles. We think they’ve “settled” because they don’t have anything better to do, but I think the motivation of many might be completely different.
See, many prominent actors and actresses have talked about their roles on these sappy movies. James Brolin thinks that the media focuses on the edgy, violent and graphic when the people really want old fashioned values and “happily ever after.” Andie McDowell said, “I get really stressed out watching horrible movies that make me anxious because of murder or rapes. We have plenty of that on TV. And I’m just in a place in my life that I like to go to work every day with sweetness, and I like to watch sweetness. So I’m really happy.”
Not only are they producing work that makes others happy; they are producing work that makes them happy. It is sappy, but also sweet. It is a way to escape, even briefly, from the world filled with hatred and violence, a world that has insinuated itself even into our leisure time. These actors and actresses have decided that it is good to produce something that makes people feel good. Even the screenwriters are finding joy in the work.
We live in world that is constantly striving for greatness, so we wonder about those who seem to settle for less. During one movie the son of a widowed woman and the daughter of a divorced man decided to get married very young, leaving behind their “dreams” to do something that seemed ridiculous to Mom and Dad. “You are giving up your dreams,” said one to the child. “No, that was always your dream.” In the end, the mom and dad fell in love while they planned a surprise wedding for their children. They realized that it isn’t necessary to chase after success as defined by the world, but rather to find success in something that brings them joy.
Today’s passage is a psalm of David, but it brings to mind the attitude of his son Solomon. It is, I suppose, easy for a king to praise God and to be joyful because he has achieved greatness, especially kings like David and Solomon. However, Solomon knew that it wasn’t the wealth or power or greatness that would make his life well-lived, so when God offered to give him anything, he asked for wisdom. David and Solomon knew that joy came not with greatness but with simple humility. They trusted God and lived for Him. While I’m sure many of the sappy movie stars do not do what they do because of faith, they have figured out something that we have naturally: it is ok to live beyond the expectations of the world, to seek love and joy. In doing so we might just find we’ve “settled” for something much greater.
September 13, 2016
“Finally, be all like-minded, compassionate, loving as brothers, tender hearted, courteous, not rendering evil for evil, or insult for insult; but instead blessing; knowing that to this were you called, that you may inherit a blessing. For, ‘He who would love life, and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil, and his lips from speaking deceit. Let him turn away from evil, and do good. Let him seek peace, and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears open to their prayer; but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.’ Now who is he who will harm you, if you become imitators of that which is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you are blessed. ‘Don’t fear what they fear, neither be troubled.’ But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts; and always be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you a reason concerning the hope that is in you, with humility and fear: having a good conscience; that, while you are spoken against as evildoers, they may be disappointed who curse your good way of life in Christ. For it is better, if it is God’s will, that you suffer for doing well than for doing evil. Because Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God; being put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which he also went and preached to the spirits in prison, who before were disobedient, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, while the ship was being built. In it, few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. This is a symbol of baptism, which now saves you -- not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, angels and authorities and powers being made subject to him.” 1 Peter 3:8-22, WEB
The case on the court show the other day was about a fight between several young men. The story was hard to grasp because everyone had a different point of view, but the plaintiff had damage on his car from the defendants who threw a can at the car. The plaintiff claimed that the defendant was threatening, chasing them. The defendant claimed the plaintiff was harassing and started it all. The reality is that they were both unwilling to give in, to stop the aggression before someone, or something, got hurt.
Judge Milian, a Latino woman, often brings in Spanish maxims to make a point. One of her favorities is, “Quien es mas macho.” This means, “Who is more macho?” She usually uses this when she’s got litigants who take a problem to an extreme because they don’t want to be the one stop. They don’t want to be the loser. They want to be the one that is most macho.
I think we find the same thing in too much of our interactions. We want to be right, to have the last word, to be on top. We live in a world that expects everyone to do whatever is necessary to be a winner. Those who are humble enough to let things go are ridiculed and humiliated. They are called “losers.” No one wants to be a loser, so they “quien es mas macho.” They play the game to prove that they are “more macho.” It is no wonder that our political and religious discourse has become so harmful.
As Christians, however, we are called to live differently. Sometimes it is better to just walk away. Sometimes it is better to let an opponent have the last word or to be on top. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they are right, but sometimes it is simply not worth the fight. Ultimately, the Lord knows, and you will find a greater reward by being humble than you will by fighting to be the winner. Jesus never promised that we would experience the kind of success that the world seeks; He promised that we’d be glorified with Him when everything is finally made right in the world. We don’t have to prove we are the most macho because Jesus Christ won the greater victory.
Scriptures for Sunday, September 18, 2016, Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-15; Luke 16:1-15
“The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, also heard all these things, and they scoffed at him.” Luke 16: 14, WEB
Ok, I’ll say it. I really like money. I am very happy that I have enough money to take care of my needs and to provide more than I need. I am glad I can buy books, paint supplies or clothes whenever I want or that I can stop at the fast food place for a milkshake once in awhile. I like that I can afford to eat what I like and travel and have pretty things. I like having money in the bank so that I don’t have to worry when there is an emergency.
I like being able to afford to live comfortably. I am thankful that my husband has a job that has provided for an education for our children, a lovely home and a little extra to share. I like donating money to many organizations and filling bags full of food for food banks. I like that I can buy paint and canvas to make pictures to donate to charities. I like that I can give away my crafts to make people happy and that I don’t have to work so I can spend my time writing to help people grow in their faith. It is sad to say, but the world revolves around money; we can’t live without it. And, well, I admit that I like to have the financial resources to be comfortable and generous.
I like money and we need money, but there is a line that has to be drawn when it comes to our relationship with money. See, the problem is that when we love money and make pursuit of it our life’s goal and the focus of our work, then we have put aside things that are much more important. We are encouraged to put money away for a rainy day, to take risks so that we will have a comfortable retirement. We are encouraged to work long hours for the paycheck to afford the life we think we deserve. We covet what we don’t have and it is very tempting to do whatever it takes, perhaps even take advantage of our neighbors, to get ahead.
A worker’s wage in biblical times was most often just enough to survive for a day. Laborers were paid at the end of each day; they bought the food they needed each day from the market. They didn’t stock their shelves for a month or buy ahead because canned corn is on sale. They didn’t buy things beyond their means and rack up debt they couldn’t pay. They didn’t need to save for retirement because families and communities took care of one another. All they needed was enough. The reality, of course, is that many people had (and still have) barely enough.
The Jews were a people of faith, called to trust in God for all they needed to survive. They lived in community; those who had much were expected to share with those who did not have enough. Any money beyond that which was necessary to meet the current day’s needs was considered “unrighteous mammon.”
Most people lived this way by necessity. It was the only way to survive. They could not save their coins because at the end of the day there were no coins to save. But there were those who had a different life, like the Pharisees. They were able to afford fine clothes and marble columns on their homes. They could feast on good food and enjoy the company of their friends. They considered their wealth a blessing from God, but forgot that the blessing was meant to be shared. They looked down on those who were poor and blamed their circumstances on their own sinfulness. They had more than enough; their extra wealth was unrighteous mammon. They were misusing the blessings that God had given to them.
The more we seek wealth the more we think that it is ours by our own power and strength. The Pharisees thought they earned God’s gracious gifts by their own goodness. We forget that everything belongs to God and that He graciously entrusts us with His creation for the benefit of the world. If we are wealthy, it is not so that we will look good or have nice cars; it is so that we can take care of the needs of our neighbor when they are in trouble. We need enough, but God gives us more than enough and then calls us to be a blessing to others.
We don’t really know what’s going on in the story of the wealthy landowner and his manager. Was the manager incompetent? Was he lazy? Was he greedy? We don’t really even know how bad the situation is. All we know is that the landowner heard rumors that the manager was wasting his possessions and that he called the manager to make an accounting. The bottom line is this: did the manager accomplish the work of his master? The landowner didn’t care about the manager’s wealth, as long as the work was done to expectation.
So, what was the manager to do? He had no skills and he was unwilling to beg. He had to do something. His solution to the problem was to make things right with his neighbors. He had unrighteous mammon; he had more than enough and did not share with his neighbors. He was using the wealth at his disposal for selfish and self-centered reasons. He may have even been taking advantage of them. At the very least, he was not taking care of them.
He repented and began to help the neighbors with their bills in a way that would both satisfy the master and ingratiate him with his neighbors. Then, when he was in need, they might pay it forward to him and he would at least receive the help to get him through the tough time. He made friends by using his unrighteous mammon and established for himself the promise of a community that would be there when he needed them.
The manager did not reduce the bills equally. This may have been because the items have different values, but it might also show that the manager took into account the needs of the neighbors. The oil producer might have only been able to afford fifty measures, while the wheat farmer could still afford eighty. In the end the master’s books were right and the master commended the manager for being shrewd.
Many translations call the manager “dishonest” but the word means “unrighteous.” Unrighteousness is about broken relationships, about being in “un-right” in one’s associations. The manager’s relationships were not right, both with the rich man and with the people. Our unrighteousness begins as a broken relationship with God, but is manifest in all our relationships that are “not right.” When we are lazy, incompetent, or greedy, we are “not right” with the world.
The Pharisees were not right with God or the people. They had more than enough - unrighteous mammon - and used it for their own benefit, justifying their wealth as gifts from God. They used it to make their lives better while ignoring the needs of their neighbors. They had more than enough and they forgot that everything they had belonged to God. They were merely stewards, or managers, called to do the Lord’s business. They sought fine robes and marble columns while their neighbors suffered the oppression of few resources and high taxes. The Pharisees wanted to be exalted and they used their unrighteous mammon to create an image that set them above others. God knew their hearts. They loved something more than Him: they loved money.
I’ll say it again: I like money. I hope and I pray that I don’t love it. I hope and I pray that I do not take advantage of my neighbors for the sake of money and that I use my “more than enough” to do God’s work in the world. I know I fail. I know that I haven’t always given as generously as I am able. I have, sadly, ignored the man on the corner because I have judged his heart even though I’m not God. I have some money in the bank “just in case.” Perhaps that means that I am not trusting entirely in God, but He has called all of us to be good stewards, and I am glad I can afford to deal with those emergencies that come, like replacing my roof which was damaged during the hail storms in the spring. I pray that I will respond to God’s voice when He calls me to share my resources in someone’s time of need.
As we look at the text from the Old Testament book of Amos, we see that there are always people who are lovers of money and seekers of unrighteous mammon. As a matter of fact, they can’t stand to wait through even the holy days to get out in the market to sell, sell, sell, and cheat, cheat, cheat. They make the measures small but the prices high; they use false scales and take advantage of the poor. They sell inferior products to make the biggest score. They might be faithful in their Sabbath rest, but they live unrighteously every other day of the week.
We aren’t any different. We think that it is enough to attend an hour of church and spend time in bible study, but we go about our daily lives as if God is trapped in the walls of the church and that He doesn’t care what we do the other 166 hours a week. And, like those merchants in Amos’s day, we can’t wait until the Sabbath is over so we can go about chasing after the world. But God calls us to a different life. He calls us to a life in which enough is truly enough and anything more than enough is meant to be shared. We don’t need to lie and cheat and steal to get ahead; we don’t need to pursue wealth for our own sake.
God will bless us with enough, and if we don’t have enough, He’ll bless us with a neighbor who has enough. And if we have more than enough, He will place us with a neighbor who doesn’t. It is all about trusting in God. That extra wealth is unrighteous mammon, so what are we going to do with it? Are we going to hoard the wealth we think we’ve earned or are we going to listen for God’s voice and be obedient to God’s call to use that unrighteous mammon in righteous ways?
Jesus says, “He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much. He who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.” We can see that, can’t we? Money is a fact of life; we can’t live without it. But we can live faithfully by using our worldly wealth in ways that will glorify God. Are we like the dishonest manager? Can any of our neighbors charge us before the Lord with squandering God’s gifts? The words of the prophet are as relevant for us in today’s world as they were for Israel so long ago. If we can’t be good stewards of the worldly resources we have been given, why would God trust us with the true riches?
We aren’t right with God or with one another. We are also unrighteous people doing dishonest things with unrighteous mammon. We have never been very good stewards of the resources that God has given to us. We are wasteful, greedy and dishonest. We fail at using those resources in a way that will build up the kingdom and take care of our neighbors in need. We are so much like that manager and God is calling us to account. How will we make use of our resources so as to heal broken relationships? We are put in charge of earthly wealth for a time. Will we use that wealth in a way that makes us right with one another?
Putting all things of this world aside, we are equal in the eyes of God. By our own power we are all slaves to the world. We squander the creation over which we have been given charge. We deserve to suffer the fate of that dishonest manager, jobless and without any hope. Yet, Jesus Christ has taken our unworthiness and made us worthy by His blood, so that we can take what we have been given and use it wisely, in a godly manner, to glorify God in all that we do.
So where do we start. We start with prayer. Paul writes to Timothy, “I exhort therefore, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and givings of thanks, be made for all men: for kings and all who are in high places; that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and reverence.” Most of us have enough. We might even have a little extra and we do with it what we can. Modern life means that we must, perhaps, put a little away for an emergency, but we should never hoard the resources or live in excess. It is a matter of trusting in God, being a good steward of His gifts and responding when He calls us to help our neighbors.
There are those in the world who not only have the resources, but also the power and position to do more. The Pharisees could have made things right for so many people, but they were more concerned about their robes and marble columns. Many of the leaders of our world have the resources and the power to make great things happen, but they have lost touch with God.
We can do amazing things on our own, but how much more can we do if we work together with the support of those who are in power? They need to see that their power comes from God, and that He has given them their power in this time and place for the sake of His people. This means political leaders, religious leaders, and corporate leaders. Their blessings come from God for the sake of the world. God isn’t bothered by fancy robes and marble columns as long as His work is done and everyone has enough. He knows our hearts, and He exalts those who trust in Him.
We are commanded to pray. Prayer is our way of showing support, of bringing our hopes and concerns before someone who is greater than us. It is through prayer, communication with God, that we find some sense of peace.
We are to pray “that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and reverence.” In Paul’s day the leaders were enemies of the Christians. The Jewish leaders were fighting the Way, trying to halt this strange new religion that was bringing conflict to families and communities. The Roman leaders were fighting this new religion because the conflicts were causing strife in the cities and empire. The Christians were tearing apart the peace that Rome had enjoyed for so long. Imagine how hard it must have been to pray for those leaders who were the enemies of this new and growing religion. However, when we pray for someone, truly and really pray for them without an agenda, we can’t help but identify with them and grow in love for them. God’s grace enters into our hearts and we see them through God’s eyes and from God’s heart.
As much as we think we are right, our point of view might not be what God intends. We don’t know the whole picture. We know only that God is faithful and that He will be with us. He wants all men to be saved. He hasn’t told us how He will accomplish it. He only asks that we live the tranquil and quiet life so that men will see the God of grace in our lives. Our prayers, and the actions brought about by our prayers, will stand as a witness to God’s love in this world. He will take care of the rest. He knows what He intends, He knows hearts and He is faithful. As we live in this truth we can pray for others, whether they are unbelievers or enemies, with thanksgiving, knowing that God has purpose for them, too.
If God can use unrighteous mammon in ways that makes life better for His children, then He can use those who appear to be His enemies for the sake of those He loves. And it is up to us to start by praying for them, for dealing kindly with them, for standing firmly in God’s grace so that they might see that God is real and faith is true. God has great plans for this world, and He can accomplish them. He calls us to join Him in making the world right, however we are able, whether it is in sharing our “more than enough” or praying for those who can really make a difference.
In Christ we can join in the praise of the psalmist, “Praise Yah! Praise, you servants of Yahweh, praise Yahwehs name. Blessed be Yahweh’s name, from this time forward and forever more. From the rising of the sun to the going down of the same, Yahweh’s name is to be praised. Yahweh is high above all nations, his glory above the heavens. Who is like Yahweh, our God, who has his seat on high, who stoops down to see in heaven and in the earth?”
It is by His grace that people are saved, but it is through our humble human flesh that He is revealed to the world. It is His Word that brings peace, but our tongues speak that Word to the world. It is by His blood that we are forgiven, but He has chosen to institute rituals using water, bread, wine and people to share that blood with His faithful. He has provided us with many blessings and opportunities to share our “more than enough.” Worldly wealth is not meant to be loved, it is meant to be shared. Let us in every way share God’s grace with the world, whether with our worldly wealth or our spiritual disciplines, that God will be glorified.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, don’t resist him who is evil; but whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Matthew 5:38-39, WEB
Last Sunday was the fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and there have been many stories over the past few weeks talking about the attacks, the aftermath and the recovery. I’ve heard stories from the children of those who died that day; they are now adults and reflected on a life without a mother or father. I’ve heard stories from survivors, and stories of those who are still dying from cancers caused by the carcinogens in the dust from the collapsing buildings.
One story was about a flag made famous in a photograph from the early moments of the tragedy. That particular flag was photographed and then disappeared. The collection of artifacts has been important during the process of recovery because the artifacts tell the stories. They thought they had found it once until they realized that it was not even the right size. The search for the real flag took years; it ended with the person who had it gave it to an official and it has made its way to the Memorial in New York, revealed once again during the anniversary this year. It was proved to be the right one not only by the size and appearance, but by the dust that still clung to the material that matched that which had been collected by others at Ground Zero fifteen years ago.
Some of the artifacts created controversy, like the cross that was found in the rubble. The cross, which was formed by two steel beams that were bolted and welded together prefabricated in the construction of the building. It was found during the aftermath and was seen as a symbol of hope in the midst of tragedy and destruction. Some people did not want the cross to be put on display because it was too Christian, too religious, but after a lengthy court case, the cross was installed at the memorial.
There were other religious artifacts found in the rubble of the World Trade Center, including a bible. A New York photographer who spent much time recording the work in cleaning up the site was walking in a burnt pit of rubble when a fireman called to him. The fireman showed him something he found: a Bible that was fused to a piece of steel that looks vaguely like a heart. The Bible is opened to the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew and is still legible. The photographer was surprised to see the words of today’s passage on that page.
The Bible was found in March, months after the attack. As a nation we pulled together in the days that followed the attacks. We mourned and we helped. As time passed, our attitude changed as the events of that day were set aside for the reality of life. There were those who continued to work at the sites, like that fireman and the photographer. We never forgot, but we began looking at the events from a different perspective; many were feeling anger, and not just for those who attacked. Sadly, in the fifteen years since the attacks, we seem to be angry with one another, especially those who disagree with our point of view.
I imagine that anger and heartbreak was a daily struggle for those who continued to work in the rubble. They were still finding artifacts, but they were also still finding bodies. As a matter of fact, bodies were discovered nearly ten years after the attacks. The words on that Bible page were a reminder to all of us who were turning our hearts toward vengeance. The report of that Bible today is still relevant to our attitudes as we remember the events of that day. It is especially important as we face incredible contentiousness in our world.
I know it is important to pay attention to the political process to make the right decisions on election day, but I don’t like the way I feel when politicians (all of them) say something with which I disagree. I will confess that I saw a bumper sticker for a candidate on a car yesterday and I wanted to rip it off. Or cover it up. I didn’t, but I wanted to and I thought terrible things about the person who owns that car. That person is not my enemy: he or she could very well live in my neighborhood. He or she might even be the person who sits in the next pew at church. I don’t like these feelings, so this text is a reminder that we are called to a life of graciousness. It is even more important when our hearts are struggling in response to the world we experience every day.
“Immediately I was in the Spirit. Behold, there was a throne set in heaven, and one sitting on the throne that looked like a jasper stone and a sardius. There was a rainbow around the throne, like an emerald to look at. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones. On the thrones were twenty-four elders sitting, dressed in white garments, with crowns of gold on their heads. Out of the throne proceed lightnings, sounds, and thunders. There were seven lamps of fire burning before his throne, which are the seven Spirits of God. Before the throne was something like a sea of glass, similar to crystal. In the middle of the throne, and around the throne were four living creatures full of eyes before and behind. The first creature was like a lion, and the second creature like a calf, and the third creature had a face like a man, and the fourth was like a flying eagle. The four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and within. They have no rest day and night, saying, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come!’” Revelation 4:2-8, WEB
I painted the Stations of the Cross during Lent, a spiritual discipline that was way outside my comfort zone. I love my art, but I tend to paint more in the abstract than in reality. I work in color, shape and line rather than scenic or realistic. I think these paintings are beautiful, but I know many who look and say, “I just don’t get it.” For them, my pictures have not painted a thousand words.
There’s no way to do the Stations of the Cross purely with symbolism. Though I’m not very good at painting people, I knew that I could not completely avoid painting Jesus, after all, the Stations of the Cross is the story of His passion. So while I did use symbolism rather than realism, I did so using recognizable figures. I wrote a devotion as I painted each station to explain the choices I made. Why did I make Jesus and Judas in silhouette? Who is pointing that finger? Why is there a rooster? Each painting tells the Biblical stories from a unique perspective.
I digitized the works and put them in a devotional book with the text that I published when I shared the paintings as they were finished. These books can be used by individuals to follow the Passion of Jesus devotionally. I’ve taken the book to several groups to share the product with others. Most of them simply looked at the paintings, ignoring the words that were part of my creative process.
This bothered me but most of the people were more interested in the art than in the words. It would also take more time to read each devotion, time which we didn’t have. I’m sure those who have their own copies of the books have read through to better understand the symbolism I’ve included in each picture.
And yet, we are reminded that a picture paints a thousand words. While some of my symbolism might be lost without the words, the story is still told. Those who have heard it over and over again will recognize Jesus praying in the Garden, the women grieving their loss, Simon of Cyrene helping Jesus. Sometimes the picture is enough to draw us into the moment, to connect us with our God.
And sometimes words simply aren’t enough. Can you imagine how hard it was for John to describe what he was seeing when he was experiencing the events recorded in Revelation? Today’s passage is one of my favorites, an image of heaven as it will be for all of us one day. I’ve often thought I should try to paint this, but I’m not sure I could do it. What does John mean by a rainbow that looks like an emerald? What about a figure that has the appearance of jasper and carnelian? How hard was it for John to find words to describe the indescribable?
A picture does, indeed, paint a thousand words, but sometimes those words are meant to be from a person’s own heart. Perhaps I want the viewer to see what I meant when I painting each scene, but they will also see what will help them grow closer to God. They don’t need to be reminded of the Garden of Eden when they see Jesus humbly kneeling in prayer to His Father. Whether in words or image, we are sharing a story that has an impact beyond our eyes and ears. The story of Christ meets us where we are and changes us in ways that paint and devotions cannot do without the Spirit of God.
John’s words, for the moment, might seem hard to grasp. We might respond, “I just don’t get it.” But one day we’ll see it for ourselves and dwell in it for eternity. And then we won’t need a thousand words, just those that will praise the One who has made it happen and given it to us, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come!”
“Therefore putting away falsehood, speak truth each one with his neighbor. For we are members of one another. ‘Be angry, and don’t sin.’ Don’t let the sun go down on your wrath, and don’t give place to the devil. Let him who stole steal no more; but rather let him labor, producing with his hands something that is good, that he may have something to give to him who has need. Let no corrupt speech proceed out of your mouth, but only what is good for building others up as the need may be, that it may give grace to those who hear. Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, outcry, and slander, be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving each other, just as God also in Christ forgave you.” Ephesians 4:25-32, WEB
I had a booth at a craft fair on Saturday. I don’t do this often; it is simply too much work for too little reward. I do this particular event because it benefits a charity I support and I feel it is a great way to help them raise funds for major projects. I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t just be easier to write the check and avoid the work, but there’s more to my presence than the financial aspect. See, while I’m there I am able to talk about the organization (not all the vendors have the same connection.) Also, every vendor makes the event more worthwhile for those who attend. It is exciting to enter a space filled with people selling a wide variety of items. Unfortunately, there has been a loss of interest among the usual vendors and my presence is even more important as the spaces are not filled. So, despite the work, I expect that I will continue to rent booth space to help make the event successful.
It is also fun. I enjoy talking to people about my work. I have to admit that I also enjoy having people tell me that they like my work. It is a little frustrating because the best way to show an artist that you appreciate their talent is by buying their work, but most people praise the talent and walk on. It is very easy for the vendors to become discouraged, and even angry, by the end of a bad show. Most will complain, as I have, when they don’t make enough money to cover their expenses for the day. It is even worse when people come with camera in hand to get ideas for their own projects, take pictures and leave without buying at least one sample, thus “stealing” the person’s creativity because they decide “I can do this myself.”
The struggle, especially for a Christian, in this kind situation is to remain holy and gracious even when the world is not. Paul’s encouragement in today’s lesson is that we are called to live a holy lifestyle and he gives many examples of ways to do that. I go with the attitude that I represent Christ, and it is obvious because so much of my work revolves around my faith. I make crosses and sell devotional books. I use Christian hymns in my decoupage frames. I must, as I work in that very worldly place, be a witness to Christ.
It isn’t easy to be the person that Paul encourages us to be. It isn’t easy to be honest. We don’t even know what it means to be righteously angry. We do hold on to our anger and give that opening to the devil. We may not think we are stealing, but we are whenever we take something that belongs to another, even if it isn’t tangible. I have to admit that I said a few words that I should not have said and I probably didn’t say some things that I should have. I think we all have moments when our attitudes are negative rather than positive. Perhaps the most difficult thing God asks of us is that we forgive one another. It is a very difficult thing Paul asks of us, but those of us who have faith have been given the greatest
helpmate, the Holy Spirit. I do sometimes say words I should not, but He gives me a nudge and I try harder to avoid them the next time. I know that I could not forgive if it weren’t for Him. It is hard, but it becomes easier as we grow in faith because we are filled with the Spirit who helps us be all that God intends for us to be. He helps us follow all these practical examples for holy living so that each day we will be a better witness for our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore putting away falsehood, speak truth each one with his neighbor. For we are members of one another. ‘Be angry, and don’t sin.’ Don’t let the sun go down on your wrath, and don’t give place to the devil. Let him who stole steal no more; but rather let him labor, producing with his hands something that is good, that he may have something to give to him who has need. Let no corrupt speech proceed out of your mouth, but only what is good for building others up as the need may be, that it may give grace to those who hear. Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, outcry, and slander, be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving each other, just as God also in Christ forgave you.
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23, WEB
My dad worked for an auto body shop when I was a kid. The shop had numerous junkyards which were teeming with critters. There were plenty of junkyard cats to keep the rodent population in check. Every so often we’d end up with one of those cats at our house. They remained outdoor cats, but they enjoyed the food and attention we gave them, so they stayed around. It never failed: the cats my dad brought home were always female and they were pregnant. As I think about it now, I wonder if he knew but I doubt it. He was never really thrilled with all the extra kittens running around, but I was happy with every ball of fluff that found their way to our doorstep.
It was a simpler time and place, and perhaps we were part of the cat overpopulation problem, but all those kittens then had full access to the outdoors. I now keep all my cats inside not only for their protection, but also so that they don’t become a problem for my neighbors. They are spayed and neutered, so that wouldn’t be a problem, but we keep them indoors anyway.
As for those cats so long ago, well, cats are very good at reproducing. The cats my dad brought home had their kittens and by the time we were able to do something about the litters, all the females became pregnant. Yes, this happened to us multiple times. You should have seen us the day we tried to capture a dozen kittens to give them away!
Here’s the best story of all, however. The first time this happened, the mother cat had her kittens, three girls and a boy. Before we even realized it was early enough, the mother cat and the three female kittens were pregnant. We didn’t have a plan, so each of the cats had her kittens wherever they were comfortable. They chose the garage or the porch or the basement. One day we noticed that some of the kittens were not nursing properly. They did not want to eat. I was concerned but did not know what to do. One day, I looked out the dining room window and saw two of the mother cats walking in opposite directions with kittens in their mouths. They were, apparently, stealing each other’s babies. When we realized that this was the problem, we moved all the kittens into one place and the mothers took turns feeding. All the kittens were satisfied, even those who wanted only their mothers. It was a life threatening problem that was solved in a very simple way.
We face a life threatening problem in this world: sin. Sin leads us to a death worse than physical death; it leads us to eternal death. But the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus. God knows our problem, and He knows we can’t solve it on our own. He has offered the greatest solution: Jesus Christ defeated death and by His grace we are saved to eternal life. Those kittens had no idea what was wrong. I am sure even the mother cats did not realize what they were doing when they moved the kittens. All it took was someone greater to transform their circumstances. That’s what Jesus does. He moves us into a relationship, into the fellowship of His body where we hear His word and receive His sacraments and experience His life changing and life giving grace.
September 21, 2016
Scriptures for Sunday, September 25, 2016, Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Amos 6:1-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 3:1-13; Luke 16:19-31
“Besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, that those who want to pass from here to you are not able, and that no one may cross over from there to us.” Luke 16:26, WEB
In the story of “The Hunger Games,” the people in the Capitol have no idea what life is like in the districts. They eat, drink and act merry all the time, encouraged by the comforts of life in the safety of the city. Meanwhile, the rest of the people are dying from hunger and are oppressed by powers above. The people of the Capitol see the games as an exciting time meant to bring unity to the nation, even though the districts are losing a beloved child in a cruel and tragic way. They don’t experience the suffering; they have no compassion because they ignore the suffering of others; they are happy to be living well, sleeping on ivory couches, even though they are doing so on the misery of the poor. It is easy to close our eyes to suffering when our own life is going well.
Today’s Gospel lesson makes us uncomfortable because we have seen the needs of those around us but we all too often ignore them. See, the rich man knows Lazarus by name; it is likely he passed Lazarus many times as he entered and exited through the gates to his house. Just as I have passed, many times, the man begging on a downtown street corner.
I struggle with this because I know there are homeless people in my city, but I also know that there are many who take advantage of the generosity of strangers by pretending to be homeless. You might think that it would be a waste of time, but I’ve seen reports from many different cities about panhandlers that make a fortune. They drive expensive cars. Reporters have followed them to expensive suburban homes. The problem is that there are many truly homeless people who need help, so we have to make a judgment call: “Would I be a good steward of my resources if I give to this person?” Sadly, I usually ignore the guy on the street corner while I’m comfortable in my air conditioned car on my way to wherever. Then I wonder, “Was that my Lazarus?”
I was once in the parking lot of a grocery store when I was approached by a woman who seemed desperate. She told me her car had broken down a couple block away and she needed bus money to get somewhere while she waited for her brother to deal with the car. Her story seemed a bit contrived, but I gave her a few dollars anyway. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was probably scammed. At that point all I could do was pray and give it over to God.
Last week’s lesson taught us that we must be shrewd with our worldly wealth. There have been times when I’ve come across those who are certainly scamming people. As a matter of fact, my husband was meeting me for lunch when he got caught up in a conversation with a man who gave him a story, begging for help. My husband decided not to give him cash and then we learned that he had approached others, not only in that parking lot, but all over town. He had become so “famous” that his exploits made it to the news. Unfortunately, he did not just beg, but often became belligerent and threatening to those from whom he wanted donations.
We live in a world where people will take advantage of other people. It forces us to make judgments about how to be good stewards of our resources and makes us want to be like those who live in the Capitol in the story of the Hunger Games. We’d rather not see what is wrong with the world so we turn a blind eye. We’d rather hide behind our safe walls; we’d rather eat, drink and be merry. Yet, God reminds us not to ignore those whom He puts upon our doorsteps because in serving them, we are serving God.
Amos describes a wonderful life that is lived by those who live in the capital cities of Samaria and Jerusalem. The royal seats were filled with people who not only had wealth, but they also had power. They dwelled comfortably in the cities on the hard work of the people, poor and not so poor, taking advantage of the power and access to money that they have in the capitol city. Oh, they do it under the guise of serving the people, but too often they get so caught up in the benefits of their position that they lose sight of the reality in the world outside. It doesn't happen just in government, either. It happens in the church, in our schools, in our work and in our leisure activities. Today’s texts call us to ask ourselves, “Where are we blind to the needs of our neighbors?”
Amos is warning those who dwell in the cities that they should not be confident in their own power. They were oblivious to their sin and reveled in the very best of life’s pleasures. And yet, God was ready to send them into exile, to allow the Assyrians to destroy what they had because they did not care for the needs of others. The rich man would have heard this same warning through Moses and the prophets, but he ignored it, too. Amos warned the rich man that he would end up in exile. It wasn’t the Assyrians, but death that sent the rich man into exile far from the bosom of Abraham.
We might not be wealthy or powerful, but we are still to look at these scriptures through the lens of our own lives. How are we failing to see those outside our own palaces that need a few crumbs of what we have to offer? We may not have much, but there's always something, and it doesn't have to be material. Do we have a gift or talent, the time or the physical energy to do something for another? Our neighbor may not ask for help, but when we see the need, it is up to us to step forward and share what we have to meet that need. It doesn't matter if we are rich or poor. It doesn't matter if we have power or not. What we, as Christians, are reminded in these scriptures is that God has called us to be His hands in a world full of people who need something we have to give.
Our problem is not that we are too rich or even that we don’t share our wealth. I imagine every one of us can list the things we have done recently for someone: the money we have given to charities, the time we have given to the church and other ministries, the kindnesses we have done for our neighbors. Perhaps we are right when we claim that we can’t do it all. However, we are called to a life of compassion and mercy, a life in which we look for the one whom God has dropped on our doorstep with whom we can share our life and resources. Lazarus may just have been sent to the rich man in life to bridge the gap between them.
While God is concerned about our salvation and the destination of our souls after death, He is also concerned with the life we are living today. Christian faith is not just about whether or not we’ll end up in the bosom of our father Abraham. It is about reconciling the world, bridging those gaps that seem too hard to cross. In this life, however, the gaps are not impossible. The rich man and Lazarus shared the same space, but they were worlds apart. A simple meal and a clean robe would have bridged the gap not only in this world, but in the one to come.
Have we created gaps in our own eternity because we have failed to share a few crumbs from our tables? Those are the very gaps we can bridge today, by being a blessing to others, reconciling people, and sharing God's grace. This means turning away from the things that distract us; it means keeping our priorities right. It means keeping God in focus and remembering that He is the Lord of heaven and earth. It means listening to God and responding to the opportunities He drops on our doorsteps. It means being the best we can be. If only the rich man had shared some bread and some drink with the man named Lazarus who lay at the gate of his home, perhaps the chasm between them in eternal life would have also been bridged.
Timothy was a young man who came from a faithful and faith-filled family. He was the son of Jewish mother and Greek father. Timothy, his mother and grandmother may have become followers of Jesus during one of Paul’s visits. Timothy became like a son to Paul and was instrumental in Paul’s ministry, often going on important missions to encourage and strengthen the churches Paul established. Today’s epistle lesson comes from a letter Paul sent to Timothy in Ephesus where he was working to strengthen the church against false teaching. It is a letter that shows us that the Gospel leads to practical, visible changes in believer’s lives. False teachers were leading people astray, but Paul shows us what it means to follow Jesus. Faith begets holiness in the lives of believers.
In today’s passage, the focus is on those in leadership. The descriptions of both the pastors and deacons seem almost too hard; after all, we are constantly reminded that they are only human, too. These characteristics, however, are expected of those who are leading God’s church because if they don’t live up the expectations of God’s Word, how will those who live under their care know how to live?
Think about how different the world of Panem would have been in the Hunger Games if the people in the Capitol had lived lives of mercy and grace. Think about how different the world of Israel and Judah would have been if the leaders had followed God’s Word. The leaders of the church are expected to be people for whom the Gospel has had a tangible impact on their behavior.
This story of the rich man and Lazarus describes two very extreme conditions: the great wealth and blessedness of the rich man verses the physical, financial and emotional poverty of Lazarus. The only thing these two men have in common is that they both die. The reality of life is that we all die. I doubt that any of us live lives to either extreme; rich people have their own problems and poor people are in many ways blessed. Jesus used these two extremes to show us a great gap between their situations. They had nothing in common. Yet they both died. Our fate is the same whether we have a lot of money or no money at all. It is the same if we are sickly or healthy. It is the same if we live on the streets or in fancy houses. We are all going to die.
There is a reversal of fortune in the afterlife for these two men. The gap is still as great between them. They still have nothing in common, only now Lazarus is in the bosom of Abraham and the rich man is suffering the eternal torment of Hades. To add to his suffering, the rich man can see that Lazarus is living in comfort and peace while he is in agony. The rich man calls out to Abraham, “Have mercy on me.” Abraham calls him “child.” He still cares for the man, but the gap between heaven and hell is simply too great for any man to cross. As long as there are chasms between people, the kingdom is not whole. The time to bridge those gaps is in this life, before it is too late.
We are called by these texts to see our own failure, to see where we have allowed the gaps to widen between us and the others. Our prayers of confession not only bring us to a place where we are forgiven, but also to the heart of God where we can overcome our failure. It might seem like lying on the ivory couch is the choice life, but the reality is true contentment comes when we live in faith, trusting in God. As we live that life of prayerful praise, we will see the ones who are right in front of us that need something we can give. Contentment gives us the freedom to take our crumbs to the gate and share it with whoever might be waiting.
The psalmist calls us to live in the hope of God's promises. “Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in Yahweh, his God: who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps truth forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. Yahweh frees the prisoners. Yahweh opens the eyes of the blind. Yahweh raises up those who are bowed down. Yahweh loves the righteous. Yahweh preserves the foreigners. He upholds the fatherless and widow, but the way of the wicked he turns upside down. Yahweh will reign forever; your God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise Yah!”
When we praise God, we see the world through His point of view. We see what justice and mercy look like. We see what it means to be righteous. We see how He bridges the gaps between people and reconciles them to Himself. We see the Lazarus who is on our doorstep and realize that our selfishness is affecting others in a negative way. We hear His voice as He calls us to share what we have with those we see through God's eyes. We might have doubts about whether we are being good stewards of our resources, but we can trust that God will make all things right.
Our wealth will fade. It will not take us into heaven or follow us into hell. When we die, everything we have done on earth will be lost. Everything will be lost but faith. What is most interesting is that faith is the greatest treasure that we have, and yet we all too often take it for granted. And while these lessons are definitely about the proper use of our wealth in this world, we have a wealth beyond our imagination that we tend to hoard for ourselves.
The most important gap we have to bridge is the one between Jesus and those still lost in the darkness. We have been given bread that will satisfy our greatest hungers, but are we willing to share even a few crumbs with our neighbors? When was the last time you shared the Gospel of Christ with someone who crossed your path? The world is filled with people who are hungering Jesus, starving and they don’t even know it. So, let’s be holy people, righteous, seeing the world through God’s eyes. Let’s work with Him to bridge the gaps that divide us now and forever. Let’s see the Lazarus God has dropped on our doorstep, feed him with bread and the Bread of Life so that we’ll dwell forever together in the bosom of God our Father.
“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. For I know that this will turn out to my salvation, through your supplication and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will in no way be disappointed, but with all boldness, as always, now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life, or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will bring fruit from my work; yet I don’t know what I will choose. But I am in a dilemma between the two, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Yet, to remain in the flesh is more needful for your sake. Having this confidence, I know that I will remain, yes, and remain with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, that your rejoicing may abound in Christ Jesus in me through my presence with you again.” Philippians 1:18-26, WEB
I was on a retreat with fellow youth a very long time ago. I can’t even remember the details of the retreat like where we were or our theme. I vaguely remember doing dishes. I remember a few of the people who were there. Most of all, I remember taking a walk.
There was a cemetery along the path and we went in to check out the old tombstones. It is fascinating to see what has been written, although many of the tombstones were so old that the letters were worn down so much they were barely readable. The cemetery had graves that were there for more than a hundred years. Many were ignored and unkempt as the families of the deceased were long gone.
I wandered to a distant corner, a very quiet section of the cemetery. It suffered from neglect with high grasses and fallen markers. Some of the graves were sinking. It is always sad to enter a cemetery, but it is even worse when the people buried there have long been forgotten. Physical death is dismal, but the finality of being forgotten is heartbreaking. It is a death worse than death; it is tragic to see a place where there is no life and seemingly no hope. Yet, it was worth walking to that sad corner because nestled into the hollow created by a sinking grave I found a most beautiful sight: a baby deer was resting, hidden from view by the overgrowth. There it was: the hope found in new life.
We are surrounded by death. We all know someone who had died or is dying. We will all die. But physical death is not the greatest tragedy. The greatest tragedy is not even that we are all eventually forgotten, left buried and ignored in an unkempt cemetery. The greatest tragedy is that too many face a death that is eternal because they do not know where to find hope and life. We have been given the greatest gift: the Gospel which gives us life. We are forgiven of our sin which leads to death and we are made alive with Christ. Those of us with faith are like that baby deer; we have life in the midst of death. We are witnesses to the hope that does not disappoint because by God’s grace we have been reconciled to Him through the blood and mercy of Jesus Christ.
“Give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good... give thanks to the God of gods... give thanks to the Lord of lords... to him who alone does great wonders... to him who by understanding made the heavens... to him who spread out the earth above the waters... to him who made the great lights... the sun to rule by day... the moon and stars to rule by night... to him who struck down the Egyptian firstborn... and brought out Israel from among them... with a strong hand, and with an outstretched arm... to him who divided the Red Sea apart... and made Israel to pass through the middle of it... but overthrew Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea... to him who led his people through the wilderness... to him who struck great kings... and killed mighty kings... Sihon king of the Amorites... Og king of Bashan... and gave their land as an inheritance... even a heritage to Israel his servant... who remembered us in our low estate... and has delivered us from our adversaries... who gives food to every creature... Oh give thanks to the God of heaven...” Psalm 136, WEB
I have taken artistic license in the text of today’s scripture passage. I removed the refrain from each verse and replaced it with ellipses. Despite being the most important statement in the whole psalm, vital even in its repetition, I decided that we should look at the reason why it is so true. See, the ellipses replace the line “...for his loving kindness endures forever,” which is the very reason that we should give thanks to God who is good, who is the God of gods and the Lord of lords.
We are called to give thanks because He alone does great wonders. He made the heavens. He created the earth. He made the sun and moon which do what He has created them to do. He saved His people from Egypt then guided, protected and provided for them through the wilderness to the Promised Land. He has the power to control nature and to overcome the kings of the earth. He does all this for the people He loves. But His love did not end at the Promised Land; it continued for God’s people even as they failed to be faithful. It continued for His people when He saved them from the greatest adversaries: sin, death and the devil. His love endures for us today.
Give thanks to God because His loving kindness endures forever. (WEB) Give thanks to God because God’s faithful love lasts forever! (Common English Bible) Give thanks to God because His love endures forever. (NIV) Give thanks to God because His faithful love endures forever. (New Living Translation) Give thanks to God because his mercy endureth for ever. (KJV) Give thanks to God because His steadfast love endures forever. (English Standard Version) Give thanks to God because His love never quits. (The Message) Give thanks to God because His lovingkindness (graciousness, mercy, compassion) endures forever. (Amplified Bible) So many different ways to say that God’s love is eternal.
God has done great things and shown His faithfulness to His people throughout the generations. I left out the key phrase in today’s passage above, but they are words that we should utter every moment of every day to remind us of the great and good things that He has done. His love endures, His mercy endures, His compassion endures forever. By His grace His people were saved from Egypt, but that was just a foretaste of the salvation that He would offer to the world through Jesus Christ. By His willing sacrifice which overcame sin, death and the devil, we will experience His love forever, dwelling eternally in His presence. We will sing these words with the great chorus of saints one day, but let us join them in singing the words today. “Give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good; for his loving kindness endures forever!”
September 26, 2016
“Don’t let your heart be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many homes. If it weren’t so, I would have told you. I am going to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and will receive you to myself; that where I am, you may be there also. Where I go, you know, and you know the way.” John 14:1-4, WEB
I am struggling this week with anger and frustration. I am still waiting for a contractor to do work on a contract I signed several weeks ago. The contractor has kept me waiting for nearly three times as long as expected. Each week the answer to my questions is “next week.” There has been good reason for pushing off the work at least a few days or even a week, but there comes a time when one’s word is not trustworthy. Even now I’m waiting for the promised phone call that will give me the final date. “I will call you in the morning,” the contractor told me via email last night and while it is still morning, I’m not counting on actually getting that call in the promised time.
It is frustrating, but the reality is that human beings are fallible and promises often go unfulfilled. We’ve all broken a promise of some sort or another. We’ve told our kids that we would take them to the zoo, but the car broke down and we couldn’t go. Or we have promised to be part of a committee, but work makes it impossible to get to the meetings on time. Or we promise to make a favorite dish for dinner and the grocery store is out of a key ingredient. Promises are broken every day.
Our experience with broken promises has an impact on the way we believe and trust in God. Oh, we know that God is not fallible like human beings, but we still struggle with anger and frustration when things don’t go the way we think they should. We pray and we don’t get the answer we want. We believe that God can heal but illness and dis-ease lingers much too long. We trust that God is leading us down the right path but we don’t seem to get anywhere. It is easy to say we believe, but the hard part is trusting that God can accomplish the impossible.
There’s a story about an area suffering from a drought. The villages decided to gather in prayer, to ask God’s help. On the day of the prayer, the people from the villages gathered together, but only one small boy brought an umbrella. That’s faith. Sadly, the adults had probably experienced unanswered prayers, so while they had faith enough to gather in prayer, they weren’t so sure as to be bothered to be prepared for the answer.
We don’t know if it rained in the story. It might have, and the boy would have been proven right in his trust. However, even if it didn’t rain, we know that not every prayer is answered according to our expectations. God is faithful and trustworthy; He answers our prayers although we don’t always understand His answers. But we can trust Him. He will not make promises that He can’t keep. Even when the contractor makes yet another excuse, we know that God will not disappoint us. Jesus has prepared a place for us where we will dwell with our Father forever. This is a promise on which we can count.
“Then Jephthah gathered together all the men of Gilead, and fought with Ephraim. The men of Gilead struck Ephraim, because they said, “You are fugitives of Ephraim, you Gileadites, in the middle of Ephraim, and in the middle of Manasseh.” The Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. When the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he said, “No”; then they said to him, “Now say ‘Shibboleth;’” and he said “Sibboleth”; for he couldn’t manage to pronounce it right: then they seized him, and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. At that time, forty-two thousand of Ephraim fell.” Judges 12:4-6, WEB
This is an interesting story. At this point in the history of Israel, the tribes still lived as a confederation under the leadership of the Judges. The judges were appointed by God, but often did more harm than good. They were fallible human beings guilty of great sins against God. They were unable to bring the people together and the nation suffered from constant rebellion. The conquering of the Promised Land was never fully completed and the people were unfaithful to the God who saved them. This would all eventually lead to the separation of kingdoms: Israel in the North and Judah in the south. Tensions existed even after God appointed kings to lead the people. Saul, David and Solomon could not make the nation whole. Ten tribes of Israel were led by their own king in the north until they were destroyed, scattered and lost. Judah settled in the south.
The book of Judges is filled with stories of Israelites fighting against Israelites in the times leading up to the reign of Saul. It is here you’ll hear the stories of Gideon, Jephthah and Samson. They ruled over chaos and rebellion, and often made it worse. Gideon tested God, Jephthah made a tragic vow and Samson was weak under the temptations of the flesh. In today’s story Jephthah, after sacrificing his daughter in fulfillment of his irresponsible vow, led the Gileadites against the Ephraimites. Gilead won and Ephraim never again played a role in Israel’s history.
The Gileadites did not allow any of the Ephraimites return to their homes. They put each refugee to a test. Despite their common background and how close they lived to one another, they had significant differences in speech pattern. The Ephraimites did not have the “sh” sound in their language, they pronounced it as an “s.” Any refugee that could not properly pronounce the word “Shibboleth” was seized and killed. The Bible tells us 42,000 Ephraimites died that day.
Today the word “shibboleth” is defined as, “a word or custom whose variations in pronunciation or style are used to differentiate members of ingroups from those of outgroups, with each receiving value judgments of superior or inferior.” It is a test we give to people to help us decide if we want to give them a place in our lives. When they don’t say the right thing, but we do often reject them in other ways. We might even not realize that we are using these tests to separate people.
Some are obvious: race relations, political and religious opinion are modern examples of the way we divide. Words and customs are not always the same for every person; they are filtered through our own world view and biases. Two people can say exactly the same words and mean two very different things. We judge one another on our use of words, and often separate ourselves because of our differences. I doubt any of us would kill someone physically (although it happens much too often), we “kill” them in other ways: through rejection, humiliation, and persecution. Many people are strong enough to stand against shibboleths, moving on to a place where they are accepted and understood. However, for some, these tests can be devastating, as we use them to separate ourselves from those who are different. Ephraim was destroyed; sometimes we hurt our neighbor in much smaller, but still devastating ways.
I don’t know if God blessed Jephthah for his actions that day. He is held up in the book of Hebrews as a hero of faith but he wasn’t perfect. Could Ephraim been saved? Could Jephthah have had mercy? We do not know, but we can think twice about how we use our own shibboleths in our relationships with our neighbors. They might be different. They might speak a different language. But mercy is always an option for us; we can be agents of God’s grace even when the differences seem too great to overcome.
Scriptures for Sunday, October 2, 2016, Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Psalm 62; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:1-10
“Trust in him at all times, you people. Pour out your heart before him. God is a refuge for us.” Psalm 62:8, WEB
I saw an article on a satirical Christian site yesterday that had a list of ten super helpful tips for Bible reading. It was satire, so the list was ridiculous. The article was sadly based on many ways people do actually read the Bible, often without realizing it. They author took those to an extreme, but if we are honest with ourselves, we might realize that we are actually selecting our Bibles based on what it looks like, asking God to give us texts that justify our lives, and disregarding the things we don’t like.
I think this was my favorite, “Make every effort to apply the difficult texts to everyone in the world except yourself. The Word is most effective when we apply it to the lives of those around us, as long as we manage to avoid letting the text speak to and convict our own hearts. When reading a text, ask yourself: how does this practically apply to all these filthy sinners in the world around me?” I think we have all, at some point in our lives, used the Bible to pass judgment on our neighbors without noticing our own sinfulness that is reflected in the text. We use the Bible as a window into the souls of others but it is really a mirror.
Habakkuk may have had good reason to go to God in desperation over the people of Judah. They were truly unfaithful, declining in morals and spirituality rapidly. They were violent and disobedient. He was probably a contemporary of King Josiah, so he saw the same degradation of God’s people.
In 2 Kings 22 we see, “[Josiah] did that which was right in Yahweh’s eyes, and walked in all the way of David his father, and didn’t turn aside to the right hand or to the left.” He rebuilt the Temple and restored right worship of God. During the restoration, the High Priest Hilkiah found the Book of the Law and they realized just how far God’s people had fallen. During the reading of the book, Josiah tore his clothes and sent men to ask God about the words in the book. He knew that the wickedness of Judah would bring the wrath of God. For his faithfulness, Josiah died before Judah fell.
Habakkuk is not mentioned in this story, and is relatively unknown. The book is unusual in that Habakkuk does not address the people: it is a private conversation between God and the prophet. Habakkuk laments over the wickedness of God’s people. “Why don’t you do something?” We don’t hear the whole conversation in our text today, but God answers, “I’m already working on this problem.” The solution, however, is not a very pleasant one. God was building up the Babylonians to punish the Israelites.
Habakkuk was shocked by God’s answer. Sure, it was good to punish Israel, but would He really use an even more wicked people to do so? He reminds God of His faithfulness to His people. “Aren’t you from everlasting, Yahweh my God, my Holy One? We will not die.” Habakkuk understands that God has chosen Babylon, but he laments that God would allow the Babylonians to continue to wreak havoc on God’s people. Where is the justice?
Our passage for today continues with Habakkuk waiting for an answer. God answers, “Keep a record of this conversation. The time will come when the wicked will be destroyed.” God was using the Babylonians for a moment, but they would suffer the consequences of their own violence and idolatry. “Woe to them,” God says, but it will take awhile. Habakkuk prays for God to demonstrate His wrath and mercy and then confesses his faith. He rejoices in the God of his salvation. He could have confidence in this God who has done great things for His people, trusting that God would be faithful.
Habakkuk needed encouragement. It didn’t necessarily come as he expected or hoped, but by the end of the conversation with God, he knew that God was at work among his people. In the end everything would be made right.
The psalm also seeks encouragement for God’s people suffering under the hands of their oppressors. The psalmist begins this song with a confession of faith, “My soul rests in God alone. My salvation is from him.” It may seem as if God is not answering our prayers, and we lament in what we see around us. “How long, O Lord?” we ask. Yet faith means trusting that God is already at work, answering our prayers even before we cry out to Him.
In a sermon on today’s Gospel lesson, St. Augustine said, “We must believe, then, in order to pray; and we must ask God that the faith enabling us to pray may not fail. Faith gives rise to prayer, and this prayer obtains an increase of faith. Faith, I say, gives rise to prayer, and is in turn strengthened by prayer... Mark the apostles: they would never have left everything they possessed and spurned worldly ambition to follow the Lord unless their faith had been great; and yet that faith of theirs could not have been perfect, otherwise they would not have asked the Lord to increase it.”
Jesus said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you would tell this sycamore tree, ‘Be uprooted, and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” He said this in response to the request from the disciples that He increase their faith. The point of this passage is not that you only need a little faith to do the miraculous: it is that faith can’t be measured. Two weeks ago we learned that we can’t serve God and mammon at the same time. We also can’t trust in ourselves and God at the same time. Either you live in faith or you don’t. Either you trust in God or you trust in yourself. God used the Babylonians to get His people’s attention, and they should have been blessed for their obedience to God’s Will. However, they didn’t trust in God, they trusted in their own strength and in the end their power was taken away.
It is interesting that verse immediately follows a lesson in temptation and forgiveness. Jesus told His disciples, “If your brother sins against you, tell him and if he repents, forgive him. Do this over and over and over again, as necessary.” I can imagine how they must have responded to this statement. “No way, Jesus, how can I do this?” We can find a way to forgive once, but how can we forgive seven times? Or seventy times seven times? The perpetrator has obviously not learned their lesson. Then they asked, “Increase our faith.” Jesus answered their request with the impossible idea that a tiny bit of faith could do the miraculous. He answered their appeal with the command to do what they are called to do, to be His servants.
It might not seem like God is doing much, but He is always in control. It might not seem like His Will is winning, but He has the power to overcome all our difficulties. We need not be afraid, even if we face pain and suffering, because the righteous that live in faith will see the promise fulfilled. We can trust that even when it seems like nothing is happening, God is at work. We often miss it, like Habakkuk, because God does things His way. We don’t recognize the Babylonian invasion as a blessing. We even ask how He could allow such a thing to happen. It doesn’t seem to be just or right. Yet, God promises that in the end, everything will be made right. We just have to have faith.
We are called to His servants, and in the end, when we’ve done the work, we are to remember that we have nothing about which we can boast. We’ve done our duty. We might think that because we have faith and because we have done good things in His name, then we deserve to receive nothing but good things. When things don’t seem to go our way we cry, “Why?” God says, “I’m working. You’ll see.” God is at work and He is faithful. Instead of fretting over our problems, we are to feed on His faithfulness. Instead of devouring our worries, we are to dwell in God’s heart. As we delight in God’s grace, we will receive all that we need. We may not receive answers to our cries today or tomorrow, and we may not receive the answer we are expecting, but God has promised peace to His people. That peace is not found in solutions to our problems, but in trusting God.
The second letter of Paul to his friend Timothy was written during a time when there was great persecution to the Church, most likely under the emperor Nero. Paul had been arrested again, but this time he faced worse suffering and pain. Instead of living in a borrowed place under house arrest, Paul was being kept in a damp, dark dungeon. He was near the end of his life and he knew it. He was concerned for his friend and for the Church. Heresy grows more quickly under persecution as people find justification and excuse for new ideas to spare believers of risk. Heresy often tries to meld together ideas from other religions to make them more acceptable to the non-believers. Like the people of Israel, Christians can be slowly led astray.
Timothy learned about faith from his mother and grandmother. They brought him up in a Christian home, but the lessons learned as a child are often difficult to keep as we get older. This is especially true in a time of persecution. The life of faith can dwindle under a burden of fear and when we are vulnerable we can fall for the heresies that sound good to our ears but that do not stand up to God’s word.
This is why Paul encouraged Timothy and reminded him of the faith which he was given, a faith built on Christ. Following other teachings might sound good; they might even seem to be less risky and better than the sound teaching given to us by our forefathers. But heresy is taking the word of God under our own control, making it mean what we want it to mean. Heresy leads to destruction. It leads us away from God’s grace, away from the treasure which we have been given. There is no need to fear the circumstances beyond our control because God’s grace gives us a spirit of power and love and self-discipline and He will bring us through it.
It is interesting that the book of Habakkuk is about a very personal interaction between God and the prophet. It must have been frightening for him to be a prophet at a time when there was so much wrong in the world. His laments were genuinely desperate. “Why aren’t you doing anything? I certainly can’t!” Do we ever feel the same way? Do we ever feel as though nothing we do will make a difference? We forgive, at first, because we want to help others be everything God has created them to be. We forgive again because we want to be a good example of what it means to be forgiven. By the third time we begin to feel like forgiveness is pointless. We withdraw into ourselves. We separate from those who hurt us. We hide in our closets with our God because we don’t know how to forgive again. “Increase my faith.”
Let us remember, though, that Jesus doesn’t say that we must forgive an unrepentant person. He says, “Rebuke sin and if the sinner repents, forgive them.” It is up to us to help our brothers and sisters overcome those sins that have become habitual. That’s what happened in Judah. The people didn’t start worshipping the other gods. They were tempted and slowly gave in to the world around them. They slowly accepted the other gods. King after king who did what was evil in God’s eyes led them down a dangerous path that ended in the degradation of God’s people. God’s answer to Habakkuk’s plea was to bring His people to their knees so that they would repent and turn to Him. He was ready to have mercy and forgive.
He calls us to do the same. God’s people have repeatedly turned away from Him, chasing after other gods, being disobedient to God’s word. Despite our unfaithfulness, God is always faithful. We are quick to see the sins of others that we miss our own. Even Habakkuk was so busy worrying over the unfaithfulness of Israel that he doubted God’s work among his people. The apostles did not know how they would be able to be as forgiving as the God they believed. They wanted Jesus to increase their faith, but Jesus reminded them that faith is not something that can be measured. You believe and trust God or you don’t.
Ultimately Habakkuk believed God; he prayed for God to demonstrate His wrath and mercy and then confessed his faith. He rejoiced in the God of his salvation. We can join the psalmist in our cries for God’s encouragement as we face the difficulties of the world, but we are called to always remember that God is already at work and He is faithful. We have faith leads us to prayer and prayer strengthens our faith. Our faith will never be perfect, but God has promised that He’s already at work establishing justice with mercy and forgiveness. He will make all things right despite the smallness of our faith, despite our doubts and fears and frustrations. He alone is our rock and our salvation. He is the rock of our strength. He is our refuge and He is faithful.
“On the next day, Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moses from the morning to the evening. When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he did to the people, he said, ‘What is this thing that you do for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning to evening?’ Moses said to his father-in-law, ‘Because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a matter, they come to me, and I judge between a man and his neighbor, and I make them know the statutes of God, and his laws.’ Moses’ father-in-law said to him, ‘The thing that you do is not good. You will surely wear away, both you, and this people that is with you; for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to perform it yourself alone. Listen now to my voice. I will give you counsel, and God be with you. You represent the people before God, and bring the causes to God. You shall teach them the statutes and the laws, and shall show them the way in which they must walk, and the work that they must do. Moreover you shall provide out of all the people able men which fear God: men of truth, hating unjust gain; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. Let them judge the people at all times. It shall be that every great matter they shall bring to you, but every small matter they shall judge themselves. So shall it be easier for you, and they shall share the load with you. If you will do this thing, and God commands you so, then you will be able to endure, and all these people also will go to their place in peace.’ So Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law, and did all that he had said. Moses chose able men out of all Israel, and made them heads over the people, rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. They judged the people at all times. They brought the hard causes to Moses, but every small matter they judged themselves. Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went his way into his own land.” Exodus 18:13-27, WEB
Kingdoms were small in ancient times. Kings, chiefs, clan leaders led hundreds of people, not thousands or millions. The rulers acted not only as leaders, but also judges; it was easy to be a judge over a community of that size. Whenever a situation occurred that needed to be handled with wisdom, the people went to the ruler and his word was law. It became more difficult as kingdoms grew. There were not only more people, but the distance made it harder to deal with problems in a timely manner. The kings who ruled over England once it was a unified nation would go on progress every spring or summer. This not only gave the king an opportunity to see what was happening around his kingdom and collect tributes, but also gave the people a chance to go before him with their grievances.
The king’s word was law, but the time between visits made justice difficult. There are some things that simply need to be handled immediately. How do you protect the innocent if the guilty are left to do their work for a year? Also, some grievances are just too small for a king’s time. If he had to judge every petty disagreement, he would not have time to govern. As kingdoms grew, it became necessary for the king to appoint wise and just noblemen to deal the minor disputes and when he visited he would deal with the things that needed a ruler’s hand.
Moses was a terrific leader, but he ruled over nearly a million people. How could he possibly judge them all? It is likely that there were petty disputes between tribes on a daily basis. The line for Moses’ wisdom must have been out the door of the Tent of Meeting every day. Moses was exhausting himself over insignificant squabbles. A ruler has many responsibilities; he could not do it all himself, especially for such multitudes.
Jethro, his father-in-law, was also a leader, albeit of a much smaller kingdom. He saw what was happening to Moses and gave him some advice. “Appoint others to help you,” he said. This was sage advice. Moses was still available for the hard cases, but the others dealt with the smaller matters. It takes humility to turn over some of your power, but Moses was always a humble man despite his calling from God.
I think that is what strikes me most about today’s lesson: Moses’ humility. He was specially chosen by God, honored as the great prophet and leader of Israel. His words are still kept by the people of various religions. He stood in the shadow of God and talked to Him as one speaks to a friend. He was ruler over nearly a million people, conquered Pharaoh and led Israel to the Promised Land. He was second only to God. Yet, Moses listened to the voice of reason, to the wisdom of an elder. He listened and obeyed. How many leaders today are willing to listen to the voice of someone who is inferior? Moses did not see Jethro as less, but rather as one who had good advice to share.
We may find ourselves in a similar situation. Have you ever had an employee make a suggestion or a client give advice? Have you ever had someone question your authority or recommend changes to your policies? It is important to discern what is right and good in these situations, but it is especially important that we have the humility to listen. We might just find that the advice is good not only for ourselves, but also for the people we lead.
“‘Sing, barren, you who didn’t give birth; break out into singing, and cry aloud, you who did not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife,’ says Yahweh. ‘Enlarge the place of your tent, and let them stretch out the curtains of your habitations; don’t spare: lengthen your cords, and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread out on the right hand and on the left; and your offspring will possess the nations, and settle in desolate cities. ‘Don’t be afraid; for you will not be ashamed. Don’t be confounded; for you will not be disappointed. For you will forget the shame of your youth; and the reproach of your widowhood you shall remember no more. For your Maker is your husband; Yahweh of Armies is his name. The Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer. He will be called the God of the whole earth. For Yahweh has called you as a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, even a wife of youth, when she is cast off,’ says your God. ‘For a small moment have I forsaken you; but with great mercies will I gather you. In overflowing wrath I hid my face from you for a moment; but with everlasting loving kindness I will have mercy on you,’ says Yahweh your Redeemer.” Isaiah 54:1-8, WEB
Israel was born for a purpose. God promised Abraham that all the nations of the world would be blessed through his offspring. It didn’t seem to be happening, however. By the time Isaiah was a prophet, God’s people had turned too far from God. They were no longer a blessing to the world. As a matter of fact, by the time of Isaiah 54, Israel was exiled, dwelling in a foreign land under the rule of a foreign king. They were far from home, far from the Temple and, it seemed, far from their God.
Isaiah says, “Sing.” It is pretty hard to sing when you feel worthless. They were not living according to their purpose and they felt as though God had abandoned them. They felt the way many women feel who have not had any children, particularly those who lived in ancient times. See, barren women in those days carried a huge burden of shame and disgrace. Their lack of children was often attributed to their own sinfulness. Barrenness was a punishment from God, and it was always the woman’s fault. We know today that there are many physical reasons a woman may not conceive, including imperfections in the male reproductive system. Until recently, however, the woman was always to blame and it left her humiliated.
It is no wonder that a barren woman felt far from grace. I expect that there are barren women today that still feel the same thing, despite the modern medical understanding and opportunities. Most women want children at some point and we can’t help but ask “Why?” when it doesn’t happen.
But it isn’t just women without children who feel like they aren’t accomplishing their purpose in the world. We all have moments when it seems we are far from home, far from God, and far from grace. There are times when we feel worthless. We feel as though nothing we do has accomplished anything of value. We pray and don’t see answers. We share the Gospel and we are rejected. We do good and people still suffer. We struggle because we see evil winning. We feel defeated because we don’t understand why God isn’t hearing our cries.
God says, “I love you. Trust me. Even now I’m doing great things in, with, and through you.” The exiles were hopeless, but God gave them hope. They knew they weren’t being the blessing that God created them to be. They knew that God was not being glorified. But God promised that they would accomplish the work He created them to do. The fulfillment would be found in Jesus Christ and in the New Covenant. Through them, God would be glorified by the nations and all those that turn to the Redeemer. Through Jesus, they would have more offspring than they could ever imagine. Through Jesus and those who believe in Him, God would finally fulfill the promise He made to Abraham and His people that their offspring would be more numerous than the stars in the sky. We can trust that we, children of Abraham, are blessed to be a blessing and that with Jesus we will accomplish God’s purpose in our lives.