Welcome to the September 2018 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 2018
September 3, 2018
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Matthew 5:8, WEB
I was spoiled in August. You might have noticed that I used texts from the book of Proverbs through the entire month. You probably did not realize that I edited a series on Proverbs that I originally wrote in 2003. I knew that I was going to be traveling for so much of the month and I did not want to miss too many days since I had been out for more than a week in May. A few of the posts early in the month were new, but more than half were edited repeats. The prewritten devotions were easy to post each day and I managed to get through the entire month without missing a beat. But now it is a new month and I have to get back into the normal routine. I have to think of something to write, to find appropriate scriptures, and put the words together in a way that makes sense to my readers.
One of the things I have always loved about writing this devotion is that I am constantly looking for God in my daily life. I need to do this so that I will have stories to tell and examples of faith to share. I am fairly observant; I can see God in the most unusual places. I have to admit, however, after nineteen years of writing, it is hard to see Him in new ways. There are only so many examples I can find in “The Big Bang Theory” or the grocery store shelves. My cats have given me enough stories to fill a book, but I’m not sure anything they do will strike me in a new way. You probably tire of my weather reports and my art descriptions.
I was spoiled last month because I didn’t have to work as hard searching for God in my daily life. I clicked a few buttons and my work was done. It is sad, though, that I got out of the habit of looking for Him. Our time is so well spent when we have God on our minds; we sense His presence and we feel the calm of knowing He is near. Even in the grocery store a simple reminder of God’s presence helps us to be kind to our neighbors and to do what is right. Seeing God in the faces of the drivers on the roads we travel helps us drive more carefully. It isn’t easy, though, is it? Those other drivers make it difficult to remain calm when they are cutting across lanes or running red lights. All too often we end up like the other shoppers in the grocery store blocking the aisles, unaware that anyone else is trying to do their shopping, too.
Looking for God in my everyday life has become second nature to me, but even a short month of taking it easy has made it harder to see Him. We think it is enough to pay attention to God on Sunday morning without realizing that paying attention to Him every moment of every day will make our lives better. We are at peace when we know He is near; we know we can trust in Him even in the mundane moments of our lives. If He will be with us in the grocery store, won’t He be with us even more so when we need Him most? Unfortunately, we get so caught up in our lives that we miss experiencing His presence.
We hear the words of the beatitude in today’s scripture verse and we wonder how we could ever experience this blessing of seeing God. Who among us has a pure heart? I know I don’t. I am a sinner; I fail to live up to the expectations of my God on a daily basis. Yet, I’m not sure that Jesus is expecting us to be perfect to be pure. He simply wants us to be aware; He wants us to pay attention so that we’ll see how He is working in this world. He wants us to trust that He will be with us in the grocery store and in the car as we go about our daily tasks. Knowing He is there will give us that peace that makes us live as He wants us to live. We’ll never get it perfectly right, but with hearts that seek God we will see Him.
“Therefore prepare your minds for action, be sober, and set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ - as children of obedience, not conforming yourselves according to your former lusts as in your ignorance, but just as he who called you is holy, you yourselves also be holy in all of your behavior; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy; for I am holy.’ If you call on him as Father, who without respect of persons judges according to each man’s work, pass the time of your living as foreigners here in reverent fear: knowing that you were redeemed, not with corruptible things, with silver or gold, from the useless way of life handed down from your fathers, but with precious blood, as of a faultless and pure lamb, the blood of Christ; who was foreknown indeed before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of times for your sake, who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead, and gave him glory; so that your faith and hope might be in God. Seeing you have purified your souls in your obedience to the truth through the Spirit in sincere brotherly affection, love one another from the heart fervently: having been born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, through the word of God, which lives and remains forever. For, ‘All flesh is like grass, and all of man’s glory like the flower in the grass.The grass withers, and its flower falls; but the Lord’s word endures forever.’ This is the word of Good News which was preached to you.” 1 Peter 1:13-25, WEB
How do you prepare for action in the work that you do? A kitchen worker puts on an apron and a hair net. A gardener puts on heavy boots and overalls. A football player puts on pads and teeth guards. Many jobs do not require special clothing, but there are other things they do to prepare themselves for a day of work. An accountant sharpens pencils. A writer turns on the computer. A nurse wraps a stethoscope around her neck. They prepare their mind for action as they prepare their bodies. By getting ready in these ways, the worker sets their mind to the task at hand. “I am wearing my apron, now it is time to chop vegetables.”
In the days when Peter wrote this letter, people dressed in long robes which helped protect their bodies from the harsh environment in which they lived. Those long robes, however, made it difficult to move freely. You can’t wrestle a ram or tend a garden with the hem of a robe tripping your feet. The robe would get in the way when fighting in battle or doing heavy labor. To prepare for their work, whatever work they had to do, they tucked the hem of their robes in their belts. It is often called “girding your loins.” This is one of the ways that people prepared for action.
Peter is calling us to action that seems impossible. Do not conform. Be holy. Live in reverent fear. He gives us a reason for this action: we have been saved by the precious blood of Jesus Christ. This life and the work we will do is temporary. It will end. However, through grace we have been given faith to hope in the God who has made a promise of new birth in His Son. His Word is true and it is truly Good News. We are born again by God’s Word and by His grace we will live forever.
So, Peter calls us to action, preparing our minds for the life of faith. This means living a life that does not conform to the world, but conforms to God’s Word. It means becoming holy as He is holy. It means setting our hope on His promises. It is hard, perhaps even impossible on our own, but we are transformed by God’s Word to be as He is. It is a lifelong process, a transformation that will not be complete until the day we join Him in the kingdom forever. Yet even today we can prepare ourselves for that day through prayer, worship, fellowship and the scriptures. We will grow in faith as we hear the story over and over again, trusting in God daily to be faithful to all His promises.
Scriptures for Sunday, September 9, 2018, Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm 146; James 2:1-10, 14-18; Mark 7:(24-30) 31-37
“Praise Yah! Praise Yahweh, my soul. While I live, I will praise Yahweh. I will sing praises to my God as long as I exist.” Psalm 146:1, WEB
Israel was God’s chosen people. He called Abraham out of Ur and then worked for centuries developing them into the nation He meant them to be. They failed often. They turned from God in many ways. Even when He saved them from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites wanted to go back where they would have food to eat and roofs over their heads. After years, and dozens of kings, Israel was sent into exile because they had turned once again from their God. Even so, God gives them a word of hope through Isaiah.
They were far from Jerusalem; in their minds, they were far from God, for He dwelt in the temple. They wanted freedom, but they feared the future. They still had enemies, enemies that sought their destruction. What would happen if they were released? Would they even make it home?
In Chapter 34, Isaiah spoke to them about what God had in store for Israel’s enemies. The name Edom, while a specific place, was also used for all those who opposed God’s chosen people. Isaiah wrote, “For Yahweh has a day of vengeance, a year of recompense for the cause of Zion.” (Isaiah 34:8) God had plans for Edom and for Israel. The day would come when there would be joy again and the glory of the LORD would be seen. Through Isaiah, God offers the weak and downhearted a word of hope. “Be strong. Don’t be afraid. Behold, your God will come with vengeance, God’s retribution. He will come and save you.” What great promise these words hold, the salvation of God is near!
Great and wonderful things will happen that day. The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the lame will walk and the mute will shout for joy. The desolation of the wilderness will be transformed into a place of praise and beauty. You can almost hear the exiles singing today’s psalm. “Praise Yah! Praise Yahweh, my soul. While I live, I will praise Yahweh. I will sing praises to my God as long as I exist.” They were weak and afraid, but God spoke a word of hope into their lives. They were exiled, far from home, unsure about tomorrow. Would they survive? Would they ever be near the LORD their God again? Yes, God had not forsaken His people. He was coming to bring healing and peace.
Israel’s problem, for most of their relationship with God, is that they never really trusted Him to be there when they needed Him. They turned to others. The sought the aid of other nations, even Egypt. They asked for an earthly king. They tried to find salvation in God’s creation, rather than from God Himself. The psalmist reminds us that we should never put our trust in men; they cannot save. They will pass away; their plans will come to an end. But those who trust in God will be blessed, for He is faithful. Hope is found only in the Lord.
Israel was in a bad place. They felt abandoned. They had little hope. However, Isaiah spoke these words of hope into their lives, words that promised transformation. The day would come when Israel’s God would come to save them, and that day would be the most spectacular experience. God’s presence among His people would change the entire atmosphere of the desert. It would heal brokenness and restore wholeness. The time was not at that moment, they only had the promise of what was to come. However, trusting in the promise the people are called to be strong and to not have fear. They might be in a bad place for a moment, but God would not allow them to stay there forever. He was coming and He would bring change. The enemy would be punished and those who are hurting would see God’s grace.
This promise was fulfilled when God saved Israel from Babylon, but the promise also looked forward to an even better day: the day of the Messiah. This passage from Isaiah points to the reign of Jesus Christ, whose very presence brought about healing and peace. He is the living water that will nourish the perishing people who are caught in the darkness of sin and death.
The Old Testament lesson gives us a hint of what it might be like to be in the transforming presence of God. He will bring healing, freedom. He will make the blind see and the deaf hear. He will give walking legs to the lame and words to those who can’t speak. All of creation will be transformed; the world will be brighter, cleaner, and fresher. The thirsty will have cool, clear water to drink. It will be a joyous time.
Our Gospel lesson shows us the fulfillment of the promises found in Isaiah. In this passage we see two examples of people being healed. First, a mother came to Jesus and showed Him that she believed He could heal her demon possessed daughter. Then a group of friends brought a deaf and dumb man to Jesus for healing. There any mention of faith in either story, yet in their act of approaching Jesus they believed that Jesus could do something. They received the answer to their request. Jesus brought transformation; He gave them healing and wholeness.
In the first story, the woman was not a typical follower of Jesus. She was a foreigner, a pagan. She was a woman. It is unlikely that she would even have felt comfortable talking to a man, particularly a Jewish man like Jesus. Yet, she sought Him out and interrupted a well-deserved and long needed moment of solitude with her request. Jesus seems to reject and ridicule this woman. It isn’t something that we would expect from Jesus. It is shocking to us to hear Jesus refer to the woman as if she were a mangy street mutt begging for a morsel that might keep her alive.
From the woman we learn about humble boldness. She knew her place in Jesus’ world, even if Jesus did not really think of her in that way. She knelt before Him and agreed with His assessment that she was a dog. But she was bold enough to seek His grace, even if it was just the leftovers. Her words made Jesus act. He said, “For this saying, go your way. The demon has gone out of your daughter.” At first Jesus indicated that He would not do anything for the woman. Her words changed His mind. The child received the healing the mother sought. With humble boldness - a boldness that first knows our place and trusts God's mercy anyway - we can seek God’s grace even when we think there’s no chance to receive an answer. He will hear and He will be present in our circumstances and we will know the transforming power of His grace.
What about the attitude of Jesus in the second story? He followed a strange ritual, putting His fingers in the ears of the deaf man, spitting and then touching his tongue. This sounds like some sort of pagan practice; I can almost see the old witch doctor in a frightening feather mask and cape screaming some strange words at the demons causing the deafness and muted voice. Jesus healed with just a word, why the weird acts? Was Jesus reaching out to this man in a way he might understand? The same, perhaps, is true of the woman. She expected to be treated as a dog; anything else, even compassion, might have been frightening to her.
Even stranger in this story, however, is that Jesus told the man not to tell anyone about what happened. He also told the man’s friends. Yet, how can someone possibly keep silent when their tongue has been loosed? We don’t know how long the man had suffered, and I’m sure there was a million things he wanted to say. He would now be able to say thank you to his friends, I love you to his family. He would be able to hear the same words. He would be able to do business, earn a living. Jesus transformed His life. Yet, with all these wonderful things to say and hear, the most important would be praise to God for this incredible gift. When you are transformed by the presence of God, how can you remain silent?
Though Jesus repeatedly told the man to keep silent, his joy was so great he could not keep silent. Do we feel that same sort of joy? Do we receive God’s grace with such an enthusiasm that we can’t help but share it with others?
Isn’t it interesting that God’s presence would loosen the tongue of the mute so that they might sing for joy? Yet Jesus commanded the man in today’s passage not to tell anyone. No matter what He said, the man would not be silent. He could speak and the words that poured forth from his lips were songs of joy. Perhaps his voice joined those of the Israelites singing today’s Psalm, “Praise the Lord!” After living as a deaf and dumb man, unable to hear or speak, it was natural for the man to sing “Hallelujah!” His life was transformed by that strange encounter with Christ.
I’m not an expert, but in the simplest terms the electricity from a battery is created by a chemical reaction. The chemical reaction is started by the movement of electrons from the positive to the negative terminal. When the appliance is turned on, the current is allowed to move in and through the battery causing the chemical reaction that creates more electrons. If you just take a wire and hold it to both ends of a battery, you will create electricity in the wire. An appliance (load) is placed along the wire to slow down and control the electrons, using the electricity for practical purposes. If there is no path along which the electricity can run, the battery does nothing. It just sits there, lifeless.
Faith is like a battery. It is a gift from God, who places it in our hearts to transform our lives. Faith moves us to action. When we are “turned on” we can make things happen. By faith we can be God’s hands, His feet, and His mouth: His presence in this world. What happens when a battery is not used? Though a battery has a long shelf life, they do not last forever. Eventually they become useless. It is even worse if they sit too long in an appliance without being used. The batteries can become corroded and destroy the appliance. It is best to use the battery once it is installed, to make the light bright or the radio sing. The battery is useless otherwise. Isn’t it interesting that the appliances are lifeless without the battery and the battery is lifeless without the appliance? We need faith to accomplish God’s will and God installs faith into our hearts so that we will be His hands, feet and mouth. James writes, “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself.” Just like a battery.
Mark tells us that the more Jesus ordered the people to be silent, the more loudly they proclaimed God’s glory. They sang praise to God and they told everyone about the good things Jesus could do. They were so amazed and said, “He has done all things well. He makes even the deaf hear, and the mute speak!” This brings us back to the Old Testament prophecy from Isaiah. Jesus was, even from the beginning of His ministry, fulfilling the very things that were promised of the One who would restore Israel. And we see in the story of the Syrophoenician woman that Jesus’ power was not limited to Israel. Jesus would restore all people to God. Our faith makes us part of that salvation story: first as recipients and then as God’s hands sharing His grace with others, no matter who they are.
Faith does not justify sin. Faith admits our sinfulness and trusts in God's mercy. Faith recognizes that we are sinners in need of a Savior and that Jesus Christ is the one who has saved us. We might be able to point to a good life, but there are truly none of us who are good. Our good works will never save us, but James asks, “Do we have faith if we do not live as God has called us to live?” Do we have faith if we justify our sin? Do we have faith if we treat people according to what we see on the outside? Do we have faith if we seek what is best for ourselves rather than doing that which God has called us to do?
When James asks “Can faith save you?” in relation to the good works he is describing, he isn’t suggesting that good works will save a person. What he is saying is that those who are saved, who live in the faith that comes from grace, will have the same mercy on those whom they see that need to be saved. When we see someone who is hungry or naked, we’ll offer them what they need. It is not enough to wish them well in their hunger and nakedness. James writes, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man says he has faith, but has no works? Can faith save him? And if a brother or sister is naked and in lack of daily food, and one of you tells them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled’; and yet you didn’t give them the things the body needs, what good is it?”
Faith without works is a dead faith, not a living faith. Just as the God who comes to save us does so in an active and powerful way, so too we are sent into the world to be God’s hands and share His grace with others. Isaiah talks about the work God is going to do in the world. The eyes of the blind will be open, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame shall leap like a dear and the tongue of the speechless will sing for joy. God will take those who can’t do things and make them people who can. Faith calls for action: seeing, hearing, leaping and singing! Faith is about praising God for His mercy and grace. And then it is about going out into the world to help others see, hear, leap and sing. God gives us the faith and in that faith we do.
We learn from the time we are very small children about the Golden Rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” There is an even greater law at work, the law of God, the “Royal Law.” This law is not about an equal action and reaction, it is about love: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
So, James follows up this treatise on favoritism with a comment about works. We are called, by faith, to a life of mercy. But if we do not show mercy, our faith is as good as dead. Mercy means loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. Mercy means loving our neighbor whether they are rich or poor, native or foreigner, healthy or sick, young or old. Mercy means being God’s hands, feet and mouth for them. It means being God's presence in the world so that the world will be transformed by His power.
Jesus did just that. Whatever His attitude about the people who disturbed His peace, Jesus was God’s presence in the world, not only in word but also in deed. He brought transformation. He gave sight to the blind, hearing to the death, feet to those who could not walk and voice to those who could not speak. He did this for us, too, even though we may not have ever thought ourselves as blind, deaf, lame or dumb. We were once prisoners to sin, but He set us free and brought us through the desert with life giving water. He gave us sight to see the truth. He gave us ears to hear His Word. He gave us feet to go out and He gave us voice to sing praises to God. He calls us to live our thanksgiving in very real and tangible ways, ways that will transform the world. He’s put the battery of faith in. Now turn it on and go. Praise God and do whatever you can to make a difference. Manifest the faith that has been given so that the world will see the glory of God.
“Remember my affliction and my misery, the wormwood and the gall. My soul still remembers them, and is bowed down within me. This I recall to my mind; therefore have I hope. It is because of Yahweh’s loving kindnesses that we are not consumed, because his compassion doesn’t fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Yahweh is my portion, says my soul; therefore will I hope in him. Yahweh is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that a man should hope and quietly wait for the salvation of Yahweh. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.” Lamentations 3:19-27, WEB
We had a brief power outage in our neighborhood yesterday. It lasted only a minute, but that was long enough to shut off all my electronics. My clocks are not set at the right time. I always worry about my computer when it is improperly shut down. Worst of all, however, is that the power outage and the surge that followed when the electricity was restored caused something in my clothes washer to pop. I was in the middle of a load of laundry; after the power outage I could not turn the machine back on. I could not even open the door.
I found a repairman who both had mercy and time to fit me into his schedule yesterday. He was there within a few hours to see what happened. I didn’t know if I would bother to have it repaired since the part that likely popped is very expensive. However, he came quickly because he knew I had wet clothes inside the washer that would begin to smell if we could not get them out and into the dryer. The news was exactly as I expected: fixing the machine would cost nearly as much as buying a new one.
I struggled with this decision, after all, what’s the point of spending so much on something that is not worth that much. I see this all the time on the court shows; the judges often wonder why anyone would spend thousands of dollars on a vehicle that is only worth hundreds. The answer is always about the sentimental value of the car. I certainly don’t have that kind of feelings for my washer. And yet, I still could not justify buying a new one. That’s what I did the last time this happened (the same part blew then.) I also replaced the dryer at that time because both machines were fairly old. My dryer is fine and I didn’t really want a new washer with an old dryer.
The thing that really influenced my decision, however, is the fact that my old washer would end up in a landfill somewhere. We throw so much away these days, partly because nothing lasts like it did. Our parents had appliances that lasted decades, but the ones made today seem to break down in five or ten years. They are cheap, easy to replace and repair costs so much; it just makes sense to throw everything away. However, everything we throw away must go somewhere. Some parts may be reused and recycled, but most of our garbage just ends up in a hole in the ground to decompose for a thousand years. This washer will probably end up there someday, but hopefully I’ll get another five good years out of it with this replacement part.
We are so quick to throw things away, it doesn’t even have to be broken. How often have we replaced electronics because our favorite company has released a newer, better phone or television? We throw away socks with holes rather than darning them. We use old clothes as rags rather than sew on a new button. We refuse to buy food in the grocery store that has brown spots and that food often gets thrown in a dumpster. I’m guilty of all this. I do recycle, but have to admit that I don’t recycle everything that I can; it is just easier to throw it into the trash can.
It isn’t just material things we cast away. How many times have we rejected a relationship with the first disagreement? Unfortunately, we see that even more in our society today. We “unfriend” those who have different points of view on social media. We quit jobs at the drop of a hat. We church hop, looking for the perfect pastor and congregation. Families are broken because rejection is easier than forgiveness.
What would we do if God were so careless with imperfection? Where would we be if God threw us away the first time we failed? What if God refused to fix us, instead replacing us with someone new? Thankfully God is not like us human beings; He is the God of second chances. He offers forgiveness. He makes us new. We are not thrown in the trash heap because of God’s lovingkindness. He is faithful to His promises, we can trust that He will save us. Let us patiently hope in God because He is our inheritance and the grace of Jesus Christ guarantees that we will spend eternity in His Kingdom.
“Unless Yahweh builds the house, they labor in vain who build it. Unless Yahweh watches over the city, the watchman guards it in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, to stay up late, eating the bread of toil; for he gives sleep to his loved ones. Behold, children are a heritage of Yahweh. The fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows in the hand of a mighty man, so are the children of youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them. They won’t be disappointed when they speak with their enemies in the gate.” Psalm 127, WEB
There is a back to school commercial that I really like. It shows men ordering school items on their cell phones and picking them up at the big discount store. The final scene shows these men and a lot more lining the sidewalk into the school as their children run in for their first day of school. There are high fives and hugs, clapping and other encouraging actions. The kids are excited to go in to begin the new school year. The last picture shows a few women with cell phones, standing back while filming the action to give the men a special place in this ritual.
More men are involved in their kids’ lives these days and yet there is a subtle undercurrent in our society that men are unimportant. I read an article which said, “Even in homes where the father is present, research shows that the average father spends less than 10 minutes a day one-on-one with his child. In our society, emotional and spiritual fatherlessness is becoming the norm. Many of today’s fathers did not have positive role models to show them how to be a father, so they are not there to show their children what it means to be a father.”
Unfortunately, Men are often cast away as being irrelevant to the life of the child. It is true that moms tend to be more active in their children’s lives, but it has been shown that the presence of a strong male promotes a child’s physical well-being, perceptual ability and competency for relating with others. These children also demonstrate greater ability to take initiative and evidence self-control. On the negative side, the lack of a male figure leads to criminal activity, premarital sexual activity, poorer academics and participation in unhealthy activities.
Experts encourage men to have a greater role in the life for their children. They also suggest that men be a role model for children who do not have fathers at home. That’s what I love most about the commercial. Those men clapping as the children enter into a school year will have a great impact on each of those children whether they are fathers or not. The children will remember and will look to the men for encouragement and guidance.
I read a story about a man who was left home with his children while his wife went out for the day. He was trying to get some work done, but his young daughter demanded his attention. She insisted on trips to the window to watch birds. She wanted stories on the chair. She suggested a walk to the park. The man kept pushing her away so that he could get his work done. Unfortunately, the last time was too harsh and he made her cry. He realized that the work would get done, but his daughter will not always want his attention. He put the work away and took her for a walk, knowing that the moment with her was more important than any work he might have accomplished.
So, let’s us encourage men to play a greater role in the lives of children. Children may be bothersome sometimes, but they are indeed a great blessing. They need us, both men and women. I’m glad the commercial showed the men having such a prominent role in their children’s back to school. Mom will probably be there most other days, but that moment of encouragement by the men in their lives will long be remembered with joy.
“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to walk worthily of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and humility, with patience, bearing with one another in love; being eager to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as you also were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in us all.” Ephesians 4:1-6 (ASV)
Have you ever known anyone that was very loving and caring on the surface, but it was only a facade? They hug and kiss whenever they are in the presence of other people, sweet as pie, but as soon as they turn the corner they are gossipy and completely unwilling to help. This is the stereotypical image often given to rich women in sitcoms. These are the women that bring to mind a simple but inappropriate five letter word. They are the ones that appear to be madly in love with their husbands, but who linger in the bushes with the pool man. The love they show is insincere.
Of course, there are men for whom it is true also. Men simply do not show love in the same manner as women. For men this facade of false love often manifests as the guy who brings his girlfriend flowers, but then beats the girl behind closed doors. It appears to the world that he is in love, but the love he shows is insincere. It is a mockery of real love, because it does not come forth in humble service to those whom they claim to love.
This is a problem in the church, too. Many Christians suffer from such hypocrisy. They speak the words of love: love of God, love of neighbor. They show love to their brothers and sisters in Christ with joyful embraces but they never show that love in meaningful and merciful actions. They are unavailable when their neighbor needs a helping hand. They gossip about the other members of the congregation. They will fight until they get their way, not considering the feelings or opinions of others. They speak of Christian love, but the love the show is insincere.
We are called to love one another as Christ loved us. This means a sacrificial love that acts as it speaks. It is a love that humbles itself before God and for the sake of the neighbor. It is a love that does not concern itself with superficial facades, but loves with active support and grace. It is not a love that is all show but no substance. It is a love that benefits others, not just self. This love, while meant for all people, should especially be true among those who claim to be followers of the Christ.
Insincere love is a reality in our world. I am sure that every one of us can confess that there were times when we were insincere with the love we had for our neighbor or when we have fallen short in active service to those we claim to love. Yet, this is exactly why we are called to grow in our faith, to grow in our active living of the faith Christ has given. We fail but Christ forgives. He does this because of the deep love He has for all His people. His love is real and as we grow in the faith He has given us - not gaining more faith, but living more fully in it - Jesus asks us to truly love with heart and hand as well as voice. It is hard. It means patience and humility. It means getting our hands dirty doing things we would rather not do. It means speaking the truth in love and listening with the same spirit. It means giving up our selfishness to live in peace with one another. That is love without hypocrisy.
“Preserve me, God, for in you do I take refuge. My soul, you have said to Yahweh, ‘You are my Lord. Apart from you I have no good thing.’ As for the saints who are in the earth, they are the excellent ones in whom is all my delight. Their sorrows shall be multiplied who give gifts to another god. Their drink offerings of blood I will not offer, nor take their names on my lips. Yahweh assigned my portion and my cup. You made my lot secure. The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places. Yes, I have a good inheritance. I will bless Yahweh, who has given me counsel. Yes, my heart instructs me in the night seasons. I have set Yahweh always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my tongue rejoices. My body shall also dwell in safety. For you will not leave my soul in Sheol, neither will you allow your holy one to see corruption. You will show me the path of life. In your presence is fullness of joy. In your right hand there are pleasures forever more.” Psalm 16, WEB
I was reading an article this morning about a man who had been saved from a car that was caught up in a flash flood. A stranger risked life and limb to help him get out of the car and then get to the bank of the overflowing creek. The man was quoted in the final words of the article praising God for is greatness. I was thinking, when I finished the article, that my life isn’t very exciting. Granted, I would rather not get caught up in a sinking car in a flash flood, but my days are relatively uneventful. Then I wondered, do I praise God enough?
It is easy for us to praise God when something exciting happens, whether it is the answer to prayers or something spectacular that happens. I imagine the man, who obviously is filled with faith, prayed when he got caught up in the flood waters. He received an answer to that prayer when the stranger helped him out of his car. It is no wonder he praised God. We are also quick to praise God when good things happen to us. As people of faith we are thankful people. We know in our hearts and in our minds that God is good all the time and we’ll praise God when we think of it.
I wondered this morning if we think of God enough. When we are going through normal, completely uninteresting times of our life, do we praise God for blessing us with a normal, completely uninteresting life? We do we even think of Him? It isn’t a time of need. It isn’t a time of answered prayer. It isn’t a time of anything particularly spectacular. Do you remember how great God is when there’s no reason to do so? It is at the moments when we aren’t aware of God’s presence in our lives that we should be particularly conscious that God is with us, because it is at those moments when we are feeling the peace of God.
What is peace? We certainly can’t find it in the papers or on the nightly news programs. We are bombarded with information from home and abroad of violence, destruction and loss of life. Weather threatens many people this week, storms are brewing on the horizon and rain is falling in record amounts. We fear what might happen when the flood waters roar. We struggle with finding peace in the midst of the dangers of this world. On this seventeenth anniversary of 9/11, we are reminded how tragedy can seemingly come out of nowhere.
What is peace? Jesus knew peace. He didn’t live without threats of violence. One day the crowd tried to stone Him. The temple leaders accused Him of blasphemy and insurrection. He was crucified on the cross. Yet, He faced large crowds of hungry people with only a few fish and some bread without worry. He touched the sick, spoke to the outcasts and ate with sinners with love. He faced His trial without fear, spoke only the words necessary despite threats from His accusers. He even faced a storm on the Sea of Galilee. He had peace, the peace that comes from knowing God is close.
Jesus said “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, give I to you. Don’t let your heart be troubled, neither let it be fearful.” Apparently the words “fear not” are in the Bible 365 times. Why would He tell us not to be afraid unless He can do something about it?
There are reasons in this world for us to be afraid; there are reasons for us to pray. God is faithful to answer our prayers, sometimes as we wish but always as He wills. We are so aware of God’s presence in those moments. Yet, God is also present at the normal, completely uninteresting moments of our lives. God is good, all the time, even when we are not particularly conscious of His presence. Let us praise our great God today as we dwell in His peace; we have that peace because He is near and He is faithful.
Scriptures for Sunday, September 16, 2018, Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 50:4-10; Psalm 116:1-9; James 3:1-12; Mark 9:14-29
“Out of the same mouth comes blessing and cursing.” James 3:10a, WEB
Praise, supplication and thanksgiving: this is how we approach God in prayer. We see this in the psalm for today; it follows a pattern. First the psalmist praised the Lord for listening. Then the psalmist described his difficulty. Finally the psalmist spoke words of thanksgiving and praise. This is a powerful pattern for us to follow. We are to begin with a hope-filled prayer, praising God for His compassionate mercy. This is based on faith and trust that God is present and that He hears, even if it seems He is far away. We know by His promises that He is near and we trust that He hears our cries. Once we worship Him and acknowledge His presence, then we approach Him with our needs. Finally, we sing thanks and praise to God for His mercy knowing that He is faithful.
The psalmist talks of death but death is not always the end of our physical bodies. We all face death in different ways throughout our lives. Broken relationships, unemployment, illness and other difficulties are types of death. We experience a type of death can happen when our circumstances change. Hope can die when nothing is as we think it should be. We often find ourselves crying out to the God who is present, knowing that He is listening to our cry. In praise, supplication and thanksgiving, we trust that God will deliver us from death by His mercy and grace.
Unfortunately, our mouths are not always filled with praise, supplication and thanksgiving. I had a very bad habit when I was a student teacher so many years ago. I tended to get frustrated and angry with my classroom filled with children who were constantly making noise. In anger I would raise my voice and shout “Shut up!” This did not go over well with the teacher who was mentoring me. “Shut up” does not help the situation and yelling is even less helpful. My attitude made the children respond negatively, rather than positively. Instead of getting quiet, they got louder. Instead of listening, they turned on their neighbor. My teacher had a very quiet voice and could somehow calm the chaos with a whisper.
There is a modern day proverb that says, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” Those who live by this proverb will do everthing in their power to make Mama happy because if we keep her in a good mood, she’ll do the things that make our lives better and we will feel comfortable and satisfied. However, if Mama ain’t happy, she’ll make our lives a living nightmare.
I like to think of this proverb in a different way. I have realized that if I am not happy, the atmosphere around me will be unhappy. My attitude affects the world in which I live. So, if I make a willful attempt to be happy, under any circumstance, those around me will feel comfortable and satisfied. If I had learned that lesson earlier in life, I might have had the peace and patience to be a teacher who could calm the chaos with a whisper. I don’t use the phrase “shut up” very much anymore, but we all have certain words that we go to when we are frustrated or angry. What word do you use to describe bad drivers on the road? What word do you yell when the referee calls a play against your team? What word do you use when things just aren’t going right in your world?
These might be words that you can’t say on television, or they might be words that are g-rated but stand for the same thing. We all know what someone means when they say “gosh darn” or “fiddlesticks” or “son of a gun.” While that driver who just cut me off might deserve to be called whatever word is on the tip of my tongue, I have begun asking God for forgiveness every time I do so. I’m trying to learn how to, to take a breath first and to think about what to say. I am trying to learn how to hold my tongue and respond with self control.
James writes, “Out of the same mouth comes blessing and cursing.” We are all saints and sinners at the same time, but this is not how we have been called to live. I used language in that classroom and words still come out of my mouth that was both unhelpful and disturbing. Yet over the years I have become more aware of the words that come out of my mouth. I’ve had a positive impact on children, including my own. I’m sure there were many days when Mama wasn’t happy, but it wasn’t the responsibility of the little ones to make my world seem good. It is much better for us to live in a way that brings forth blessing from our mouth rather than cursing. The world around us will be better for our good words.
It all begins with recognizing the presence of God in our lives and staying connected to Him through prayer. That awareness will help us to know what God is calling us to do and we can trust that He will give us all we need to do that work.
I was once acquainted with a young lady on the Internet who had decided that she was a prophet. I’m not sure what evidence proved this, but she sought out others she thought were prophets in chat rooms to discuss the things of God. She was impressed one day with the things I was saying and we struck up a conversation outside the chat room. She was young and willing to learn, and for some reason had decided I was a prophet, too. She looked to me for advice, and understanding. Though I have never considered myself a prophet, I saw the conversation as an opportunity to help her understand her vocation in God’s kingdom.
She sent me several teachings that she had written, and quite frankly they were horrific. Not only was the theology questionable, but the writing was terrible. She had no grasp on spelling or grammar. Her sentences were confusing and sometimes incoherent. She was young and passionate, and she truly believed she was doing what God had called her to do. I encouraged her, but since she had sent me the writings for review, I gave her some honest opinions about them. I believe I was gentle but firm, showing her ways she could make the teaching stronger and easier to understand. I showed her biblically where she was in error. I even rewrote some of the text to make it usable for her ministry.
She was shocked. In the end I realized that she wasn’t looking for advice. She wanted me to fawn over her wonderful work and tell her that she really was a prophet. I couldn’t do that; she needed to hear the truth because she would be judged by her teaching. She was playing a dangerous game and if she was going to play at being a prophet, she needed to know her errors and experience God’s grace in a way that would help her to be merciful in her teaching. She responded with an attack on my own writing, but she did so with no foundation in the scriptures. Her faith was eclectic, and mix from many different religions and she based her rebuke on teachings from outside the Christian faith. It made me sad to think that someone might be led astray by her teaching and that she would discover the judgment that comes from teaching a false gospel.
James writes, “Let not many of you be teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive heavier judgment. Prophecy and teaching are closely related and are often mentioned together in the scriptures. Some people are gifted at proclaiming the message of God’s Kingdom, while others are gifted at explaining it. It is vital that churches find those who are gifted in teaching, so that the congregation will learn how to apply the lessons learned from those who prophesy. These are gifts, not something we can grasp for ourselves. They are given by God, and though we can develop the gift, we can’t learn how to be a prophet or teacher if God has not first called and gifted us to that work. We might think that we want to prophecy and teach, but we won’t succeed if God is not calling us to that vocation.
Too many people try to be something they aren’t called or gifted to be. They try to teach, but leave their students confused and doubtful. The young lady in the chat room boasted that she was a prophet, but her words proved her wrong and she refused to accept the words of others. I was not the only one who tried to encourage her to seek God’s purpose for her. She most certainly had other gifts that would glorify God, but she was so focused on being a prophet that she missed the blessed life God had for her.
She probably had people who were encouraging her to continue to do this work, ignoring the reality. “Follow your heart” they say. We’ve all watched the auditions for those reality shows with people who appear so sure that they are the best performer in the world. They’ve been told to that they are wonderful but we know that they should never have been allowed on a stage. They end up being the joke, making us laugh. We wonder how they could possibly think that they are good enough to be there. I know I will never, ever try out for a singing show because I can’t sing, and though I’ve had people compliment me, I’ve also had people tell me the truth. I have plenty of other gifts; I don’t need to pretend that I have that one.
Finding our place in God’s kingdom requires a connection with God. We have to listen to Him, trust in Him and let Him guide us in the way He wants us to go. We had a problem in the kitchen of one of our former houses; we didn’t have enough electrical plugs for all our appliances. We had to unplug the toaster to plug in the can opener. It was often frustrating, especially when I forgot to switch the plugs. All too often in the morning rush, I put two pieces of bread in the toaster then moved on to some other quick task. After a few moments I checked on the toast to find that it hasn’t even started. I forgot to plug in the toaster, and it won’t work without electricity.
Jesus, Peter, James and John were on the Mount of Transfiguration when the crowds began to gather around the rest of the disciples. A man approached hoping that they might heal his boy who had been possessed by a demon. Jesus and his disciples were quickly gaining notoriety because of the miraculous works they were doing. The disciples had been sent out earlier to heal and preach the kingdom. When they returned from that experience, they were excited by the power and amazed at the things they could do. They saw people transformed before their eyes. They thought they could do anything. People were flocking to these men who could do such incredible deeds, even without Jesus around. The disciples were basking in the glory.
This was a particularly difficult demon. It rendered the child speechless and often threw him to the ground in violent convulsions. It has even tried to kill the child by throwing him into dangerous situations such as water or fire. The disciples were unable to do the work. When Jesus came back down from the mountaintop, He asked what was happening. The man was desperate, so Jesus rebuked the evil spirit and it left the boy. It left so violently that the child fell to the ground and appeared dead. Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet. The boy was healed.
Later, the disciples asked why they were unable to cast the demon from the boy. As is true with all human effort, the disciples lost sight of what gave them the power and began to take for granted the gifts given to them. They were not asking God to heal him through prayer; they were trying to do it on their own volition. Just like the unplugged toaster will not work, the disciples could not bring healing without that connection to their power source: God. The disciples needed to pray, to stay in constant touch with God. They were seeing and doing incredible things, but they were being distracted from the work of faith by the glory of this world.
The disciples were so confident of their ability to do the work from their previous successes that they forgot the most important thing: that Jesus is the source of their power. They did not take the time to pray, to ask God into the situation and to call on Him for the power to do His work. They tried to do it themselves. We do the same thing.
There are many things we can do as Christians every day to bring the Kingdom of God to the people who are dying in this world. We can love, serve and speak the Word into their lives. We can step forth in faith and do the work of the Kingdom in this world. Yet, we should never forget the source of all we have and look to Him in prayer. We can do nothing without Him. Jesus reminded the disciples that they need to turn to Him, that it is not their own power or authority that brings healing and peace into the lives of those who suffer.
The text from Isaiah is a servant song a song spoken by one who had been chosen to bring hope to God’s people. The prophets were often given a word of warning or a word of discipline, but this prophet was given a word of hope for those who were weary from living in the midst of suffering and pain. The singer knew what it was like to suffer, just like those to whom he was speaking.
I worked in retail a number of years ago. I started as a cashier but eventually became an assistant manager. I always felt it was important to be an example to the employees. A retail store requires people to do all levels of work. We need people with accounting skills to take care of the money as well as people who can mop the floor and clean the bathrooms. We need people who can unload a truck or unpack a box. A well run store has people who can determine future needs, ordering the right amount of merchandise that will sell through each season. All these tasks are vital to the success of the store.
Sometimes it was necessary for management to be “every-man.” In other words, there were times when the janitor was not available to deal with an emergency, so we grabbed a mop to clean up the mess. If the crowds were overwhelming the cashiers, we would jump on a register to help ease the load. If a truck with an extra large load showed up at the back door, we would lend a hand. A willingness to experience the hard work gave the management credibility. If some smart aleck kid refused a job saying, “You do it,” I could easily answer, “I have; now it is your turn.” There is nothing I didn’t experience and the employees knew it. They also knew that I was the boss, and they had their own job to accomplish.
This singer of the servant song knew what it meant to live in suffering. He not only received the gift of the word, but he also lived in the midst of pain. He was persecuted, humiliated, insulted. He was shamed, but without shame. Though he experienced this suffering, he never turned from his calling. He persevered through it, trusting that God was there with him.
Through the eyes of the cross, we see this song as sung by our Lord Jesus Christ. He was the suffering servant who was persecuted, humiliated and insulted. He was even crucified on the cross. Yet, He never wavered, standing firm on the word that had been given to Him. He spoke those comforting words to the people and those who had ears to hear and in His words His people found hope in the midst of their own suffering and pain.
God is about to impact the world through us, just as He did with the suffering servant. It takes prayer, of course, because without Him we can do nothing. Not by our strength or knowledge or abilities, but by God’s power, word and Holy Spirit can we do what He is calling us to do. We will certainly disappoint those who have expectations beyond our ability; we might even face persecution, rejection and even death. They will chase after us for all the wrong reasons. And unfortunately, we’ll use our mouths in ways that won’t always glorify God. So, let’s live in a way that brings forth blessing from our mouth rather than cursing. The world around us will be better for the good words we will speak by His power to share the grace of God.
“Hear, Yahweh, and answer me, for I am poor and needy. Preserve my soul, for I am godly. You, my God, save your servant who trusts in you. Be merciful to me, Lord, for I call to you all day long. Bring joy to the soul of your servant, for to you, Lord, do I lift up my soul. For you, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive; abundant in loving kindness to all those who call on you. Hear, Yahweh, my prayer. Listen to the voice of my petitions. In the day of my trouble I will call on you, for you will answer me.” Psalm 86:1-7, WEB
We have been members of several different churches that went through building expansion construction. Our church is under construction. In each case, the members did much of the work. They call it sweat equity: putting yourselves as well as you money into the project. On one occasion, we were working at the church when it was time to lay the first tiles on the floor of a new sanctuary. If you ever wondered how many Lutherans it takes to lay tile, the answer is ten (at least it was that day!) As one member knelt with trowel and tile, the rest of us stood watching. It was an important moment for the progress of our project and we all wanted to be a part of it. Yet, our standing there did little to help. The one who was working was the one on her knees.
After the first tile was laid, we each went back to work at our own task. Yet, at that moment we were all humbled by the greatness of the work that lies ahead for us. The future of that space was unknown to us, but we knew that many feet seeking a relationship with the one and only God will walk on it. They will stand to hear the Gospel, to receive forgiveness and to receive God’s grace in the sacraments. Whatever would come, we had to face our work as they did when they laid the tile: on our knees in prayer.
I find it interesting that David, the king of Israel with great wealth, began this prayer with the words, “I am poor and needy.” He certainly did not face financial poverty; he was struggling with something in his life and knew that only God could provide him with the salvation from his troubles. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and David lived knew that God would hear and bless those who humble themselves before Him. It seems odd, then, that David would claim to be a godly man as we see in the second verse of today’s Psalm. He wasn’t professing his perfection. The word can also be translated “holy.” He uses the term to proclaim a genuine faith in God. He trusted that God would listen and answer his prayer.
We, too, are poor and needy and we are holy. We are poor and needy because we are imperfect sinners in need of God’s grace. We are holy because He has made us so. We are able to approach God with all our requests because God is good, ready to forgive and full of loving-kindness for His people. He will hear our prayers and He will answer them. Let us always trust in this truth and begin every task on our knees, praying at all times for God to bless our lives and Christ’s church. On our knees, humbled before God in submission to His Will, we will accomplish great things for His Glory.
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” John 3:14-15, WEB
Today is Holy Cross Day. The cross is foolishness to the world but salvation to those who believe. God’s way of salvation seems ridiculous in our world.
The Israelites were delivered out of slavery in Egypt by God. He did amazing things during the Exodus. The plagues showed His power over nature. He divided the Red Sea and held Pharaoh back until the people made it to the other side, and then He let the waters loose on Pharaoh’s army. Moses led the people to Mount Sinai and there received the Law. Every experience in the desert was meant to grow the faith of the people of Israel, but the people constantly grumbled and argued with Moses. They had rebelled to such a point that God would not allow them to enter the Promised Land. They were sent to wander the wilderness until the last of those who came out of Egypt died.
The people were tired, hungry, thirsty and frustrated and they were beginning to doubt the promise. They cried out, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” The answer from the LORD is shocking. He sent venomous snakes among them that bit the people. Many died. The people went back to Moses and asked him to pray for them. He did. God told Moses to make an image of a snake and put it on a pole, displayed for all the community to see. All who were bitten by the snakes needed only to look at the bronze image on the pole and they would be healed.
I always wondered why God did not simply remove the snakes. It would have been easier for everyone if He had taken away the problem rather than offering a source of healing. Yet, this story shows us how God’s people had taken their eyes off God and His promise; they were too focused on their flesh. They cared only about themselves and forgot the God who was delivering them from a life of bondage and oppression. In their grumbling they showed God that they would rather be bound and beaten than to trust in Him. The snakes and the snake on the pole reminded them of God’s power and authority over the world and their nation. They turned to Him for salvation from the snakes, but God provides so much more.
We have spent two thousand years contemplating the Cross of Jesus Christ. Many people have asked, “How could a loving God be so cruel to His own Son?” It is a hard question for us to answer. How could a loving God continue to allow the Hebrews to be bitten by poisonous snakes in the wilderness? God could, and did, offer forgiveness to His people even without the cross. But the cross served a purpose far more important than just the forgiveness of sins. The cross offers healing and wholeness. The cross convicts, opening our eyes to the reality of our brokenness and imperfection, but on that same cross is lifted to Son that has saved the world. We see God’s love in both the conviction of our sin, as God calls attention to the things that make us imperfect before Him, and in the promise of forgiveness and healing. It is an object of both pain and peace, an object that shows us our failure and draws us into God’s heart. That’s what makes it so holy, because it is through the cross that we are restored to the God who has loved us eternally.
The serpent on the pole in the wilderness was a foreshadowing of what Jesus would do on the cross. Sin is a sign and a symptom that there is something wrong, that there is brokenness and imperfection in our world. We fail. We do the wrong things and don’t do the right things. We are upside down and backwards against God’s good and perfect purpose and intent for our lives. Something needed to be fixed.
It seems to me there should have been an easier way. Couldn’t God just get rid of all the bad stuff? Couldn’t the all-powerful God create a utopian world where there is no sin or devil? Adam and Eve lived in Paradise and still turned from God. The Israelites had everything they could possibly need, and they grumbled about God’s grace. We are no better. So, rather than take us out of the world, God gives us something to look toward for salvation, His Son on the Holy Cross.
“Seek Yahweh while he may be found. Call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts. Let him return to Yahweh, and he will have mercy on him; and to our God, for he will freely pardon.” Isaiah 55:6-7, WEB
Count Zinzendorf was a German man who stood on the motto, “I have one passion; it is Jesus, Jesus only.” He was passionate for Christ, constantly desiring His presence. He lived during the 18th century, a time when Christians were being exiled from Bohemia and Moravia. He allowed the exiles to establish a community on his estate. They called this place Herrnhut which means “Under the Lord’s Watch.”
Count Zinzendorf understood the necessity and the power of prayer and his passion was passed on to the community of Moravians. In 1727, twenty-four men and women covenanted to hold to constant prayer, each member of the group taking one hour a day. This small but committed prayer team grew as others joined. Their community was strengthened by unceasing prayer. They met together once a week to share prayer requests and encourage one another. Eventually, this constant prayer led to greater outreach when Zinzendorf suggested they send missionaries to other nations.
This prayer meeting, which began in 1727, lasted a hundred years. Over three hundred missionaries were sent around the world. The Moravian fervor touched the lives of two men in England, John and Charles Wesley, introducing them to Christ. These two men have had a significant impact on the Christian church, in music and preaching. The Moravian’s passion for Christ and for lost souls had an impact on the Church around the world, playing a role in the Great Awakening, a revival that spread through Europe and America. These twenty-four people prayed unceasingly and touched the lives of millions. The results of their prayers will last for eternity.
Seeking the LORD and calling on Him is spending time in prayer. Count Zinzendorf and the Moravians realized that God is always present and that they should be in prayer without ceasing. Not only did they have this group of people interceding constantly, but they also lived within a community of believers that practice lives that showed the fruit of prayer. They lived like the early Christians in Acts, having everything in common, spending time together in fellowship and worship. They had a heart for spreading the Gospel and did what was necessary to take Christ into the world. They knew the great gift of salvation and they were willing to follow their Lord Jesus anywhere.
All this began with prayer; it began with twenty-four men and women seeking the LORD while He may be found and calling on Him while He is near. We are called to spend every moment of every day aware if God’s presence; we can trust this to be true because our Lord Jesus has promised to never leave or forsake us. When we are in constant prayer, there is no room for wickedness or evil thoughts. Turn to the LORD today. Your prayers may just bring about everlasting change.
“Where do wars and fightings among you come from? Don’t they come from your pleasures that war in your members? You lust, and don’t have. You murder and covet, and can’t obtain. You fight and make war. You don’t have, because you don’t ask. You ask, and don’t receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it for your pleasures. You adulterers and adulteresses, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, ‘The Spirit who lives in us yearns jealously’? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Be subject therefore to God. But resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament, mourn, and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he will exalt you.” James 4:1-10, WEB
War, what is it good for? War is certainly not part of God’s intention for mankind. Unfortunately, we are broken and sinful and war is inevitable for human nature. As James says, war comes from our selfishness. As does adultery, pride and all other sins about which God has commanded us to avoid. We are self-centered and we are bound to get into a fight with others. War is just our personal fights magnified. God is not against all war because sometimes it is necessary to make things right in the world; sometimes justice demands battle. The problem is that too much war is fought over a skewed sense of justice based on “the pleasures that war in our members.” It isn’t righteous, it is self-righteous.
In the old days when kings fought against kings, the battles were bloody and too many died, but it was nothing like it is today. I read an article about the technology that has been created for use by the military. In the old days you had to face your enemy on a battle field. They had some technology like catapults and cross bows, but most of the battle took place face to face. You had to see, hear, smell and touch the men you killed. War a few hundred years ago was a little different in that they had guns that could shoot people from a distance, but even then you did not shoot until you could “see the whites of their eyes.” Now we have smart bombs that can be directed to blow up a camp from miles away. A West Texas blacksmith names Bill Poor recently used a highly modified .408 CheyTac rifle to hit a target 3 miles away. It took 14 seconds for the round to reach the target. In the wrong hands... The soldiers who fought ancient wars had to walk away with the memory of the men they killed. Modern warfare allows fighters to kill without even seeing the whites of the eyes of their enemy.
I am reading a historical novel that takes place during World War II. The lead character is a man who was a friar. His community was forced to close, the men ripped from their vocations. They were conscripted into the German army, handed guns and forced onto the battlefield. The man in my book could not in good conscience do what they wanted him to do. He shot his guns, but never aimed knowing it could mean his own death. The only time he shot an enemy combatant was when the lives of his fellow soldiers were threatened. War was not the problem; his problem was that he knew he was on the wrong side of the battle. Hitler was not fighting for justice; he was making war out of selfish desire.
We live in a fallen and broken world and we will always struggle against the reality of sin. We battle in our very flesh, in our hearts and in our minds. We are going to argue; we may even have to take up weapons against a real enemy. The key to today’s text is to remember to be humble, to resist the devil and to be subject to God. What is the reason for the war? Are you fighting for another or are you trying to gain the world for yourself? How is God glorified by what you think you have to do? We are sinners and thankfully we have been given a Savior who will transform our selfishness, self-centeredness, and self-righteousness into something that God can use in this world for justice and peace.
Scriptures for Sunday, September 23, 2018, Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Jeremiah 11:18-20; Psalm 54; James 3:13-4:10; Mark 9:30-37
“He sat down, and called the twelve; and he said to them, ‘If any man wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all.’” Mark 9:35, WEB
Martin Luther and other reformers understood that there are two kingdoms: the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God. They believed that God ruled both kingdoms, but He did so in the kingdom of the world through temporal authority. The left hand of God is found in the hands of kings and presidents, church leaders, bosses, parents and others who hold positions of authority. These temporal authorities have the power to rule through law, including the use of military power as necessary. The right hand of God rules the spiritual, and this authority is not given to man, but to the Holy Spirit whose power is the Gospel. A Christian can (and should) serve in the kingdom of the world, but should never allow the kingdom of the world to usurp the authority of the kingdom of God. Notice that church leaders are appointed to rule in the kingdom of the world,
Martin Luther writes, “God has ordained the two governments: the spiritual, which by the Holy Spirit under Christ makes Christians and pious people; and the secular, which restrains the unchristian and wicked so that they are obliged to keep the peace outwardly... The laws of worldly government extend no farther than to life and property and what is external upon earth. For over the soul God can and will let no one rule but himself. Therefore, where temporal power presumes to prescribe laws for the soul, it encroaches upon God's government and only misleads and destroys souls. We desire to make this so clear that every one shall grasp it, and that the princes and bishops may see what fools they are when they seek to coerce the people with their laws and commandments into believing one thing or another.”
Luther also said, “We are to be subject to governmental power and do what it bids, as long as it does not bind our conscience but legislates only concerning outward matters... But if it invades the spiritual domain and constrains the conscience, over which God only must preside and rule, we should not obey it at all but rather lose our necks. Temporal authority and government extend no further than to matters which are external and corporeal.”
It is hard to hear that we should willingly lose our necks, particularly in a world where many Christians are literally being beheaded by those who would rule over their spiritual lives. Christians are being persecuted all over the world and nearly 90,000 died in 2017. That is one Christian every six minutes. Many of my readers are from Nigeria, and we have heard the frightening stories of what happens to Christian girls at the hands of extremists there. None of us would choose that kind of life.
Yet, our Sunday school class has been pondering this question for weeks: What would you do if you faced someone who would kill you for your faith, but would let you go if you denounced Jesus? I don’t think any one of us can really answer that question, but we all hope we can stay true to our God. Someone suggested that they would have to think twice; she was concerned that her work was not done yet. “If I left, then I could continue to work for God.” This is true, but in leaving we show a complete lack of trust in God. “I still have work to do” gives us more power than God. If He has work for you to do, wouldn’t He ensure you lived another day to accomplish it? Perhaps the work He’s calling you to do is to suffer the persecution and martyrdom.
Jeremiah was facing persecution. His words fell on unwilling ears and his expectations were unwelcome. He was opposed on every side; even his family was against him. His words brought the wrath of the leaders on his head. The family did not want to suffer because of what Jeremiah was saying, so they schemed to destroy him, to stop his words to protect their lives. The Lord made this conspiracy known to Jeremiah.
This brief passage from Jeremiah is a personal lament by the prophet over the suffering he faces. It is difficult enough to face persecution when it comes from the world and from the powerful. However, it is even more difficult when it comes from your own family. Jeremiah was honest with God. He was hurt and angry, so he asked God for vengeance. In this passage we see a deep trust in God. God is big enough to listen to our ranting and our anger. Jeremiah trusted God enough to be honest with Him, to speak the words that he felt and to admit his desires. This display of anger and lament did not bring God’s wrath on Jeremiah, but rather His mercy and grace.
The early Christians were faced with the kind of persecution that we see in Jeremiah’s life; they held on to these words as they tried to understand their suffering. They too had faith enough in God to speak of their fears and their anger, knowing that God is bigger than their human failings. He gives strength to those who call Him, even when the cry is one of anger and lament. He lifts us up and brings us through our troubles, forgiving our frailty and giving us the grace to go on.
David faced persecution, too. Saul knew that David was God’s intended king, but he thought that if David were dead he might be able to hold on to his reign. David was hiding among the Ziphites and they betrayed him to Saul who was intent on killing David. David trusted that the Ziphites would protect him, but his greatest threat came from those who were close.
David sings, “Save me, God, by your name.” The name of the Lord is the manifestation of His character and accessibility to His people. We cry out to Him by His name and He hears our prayers. In the psalm we once again hear a cry for vindication. David asked God to judge him according to His own strength - the strength of God - not according to the strength of David’s life or importance. Vindication will come not because David has done anything particularly important but because David is the chosen one of God. Vindication will come not to the glory of David, but to the glory of God.
David trusted that God was his helper. In this psalm David began with a cry for help, then a confession of trust, and then finished with a vow to offer thanksgiving and praise. David was confident that God would save him from his enemies. David had several opportunities to kill Saul, but he never did. He waited for God’s timing. He comforted himself in the knowledge that God is faithful to His promises. We can do the same. When we face persecution, we can cry out to God with our worries and fears. Like David, we can trust that God hears and that He will accomplish His good and perfect will.
Jesus faced death, too, at the hands of those who should have believed in Him the most. The leaders of Israel knew the scriptures; they saw how Jesus was fulfilling so many of the promises. Yet, Jesus was not what they expected and they feared that Jesus would destroy their world. They liked being in power. They liked having control. Jesus threatened them. In those final days, when Jesus was walking toward the cross, He told the disciples what must take place. They didn’t understand and were afraid to ask what He meant when He said that He would be delivered to the hands of men, killed and after three days rise again. They didn’t want to know. It is so much better to be ignorant, to be blind to the troubles that surround us.
Have you ever noticed that a fairly small percentage of church members are actively involved in ministry? Some suggest it is about ten percent. Some churches may have better discipleship, but there are always some members who refuse to become involved. They don’t want to be leaders, to serve on the council, to attend meetings. For many, the problem is that the simply don’t want to know. I know how they feel. I worked in a church office and I was so disappointed by what I saw going on behind the scenes and behind closed doors. Some have experienced this, too, or they’ve been hurt at other churches. Whatever the reason they do not want to know, and so they remain inactive.
The disciples did not want Jesus to know what they were discussing. Were they embarrassed by their immaturity? Were they beginning to understand what Jesus was trying to share: that being part of the kingdom of God meant sacrifice and self-giving? They did not want Jesus to know that they were arguing over which one of them is most important. This happens in other stories about the disciples; they want Jesus to tell them who will lead at His side. Who will be the CEO? Who will be the General? Who will be the boss? They want to know and understand the hierarchy of the ministry. But they don’t want Jesus to know that they are asking this question.
The Gospel lesson for this Sunday has a wonderful message about what it means to be “great” in the kingdom of God. Jesus Christ did not seek a worldly throne; He would not rule as many demanded. He was a humble servant to His disciples, doing the most mundane tasks for them such as washing their feet. He explained that greatness in the kingdom of heaven was not as it is in the world where the rulers seek fame, power and possessions. In the kingdom of heaven, the least are the greatest. Welcoming a little child is like welcoming God Himself, and if they want to be first they must be the last and servant of all.
The disciples did not yet understand, but then have any of us really come to fully understand what God intends for us? They would face persecution. Most would be martyred. It is not a life any of us choose to live. Who wants to be persecuted when going along with the crowd can be so much fun? Who wants to be a servant when there’s a chance for a position of power and authority? Perhaps we don’t really want to be ignorant, but we’d rather follow our own wisdom. We seek pleasure and in doing so we turn from God. We are motivated by our flesh rather than our spirit.
What does it mean to be humble? This is something that I ponder on a regular basis. As an artist and writer, I have to find a way to promote my work. How will people know that they can read my words or buy my paintings if I don’t tell them? And yet, I have a hard time promoting myself. I recently made cards to leave out during a craft festival that included the addresses of my Facebook pages, but I was not comfortable doing it. Would people think I was being too conceited? Shouldn’t I be more humble? But is that humility? Is it humble to wait for people to discover your gifts so that you don’t appear to be selling yourself? This is what I ponder.
There is something to be said about trusting that God will use you in ways that take advantage of the gifts you have been given, but does He really want us to sit around and wait until someone else invites us to share those gifts. When we were moving from England to Arkansas, I was asked to give a sermon at our church, testifying to God’s grace in my life. It was the first time I was ever asked to preach. The sermon had a great impact on the congregation and too many people asked, “Why didn’t we know you could do that?” We all lost the chance to benefit from my gifts because of my so-called humility. How many other times have I failed to do what God is calling me to do because I have been unwilling to tell people I can do it?
I think there is a fine line. Too many people approach promotion of themselves in a way that diminishes others. Unfortunately, we see that in political campaigns all the time. Instead of advancing their own gifts and agendas, politicians at every level of government and from every ideological perspective do whatever they can to put down their opponents. Even in this there is a fine line: where do you draw it. How do you run for political office and sell yourself while remaining humble?
The disciples were thinking like politicians on that road through Galilee. They were arguing with one another about who was the greatest. In other versions of this story, some of the disciples insisted on being Jesus’ right hand and left hand men. They wanted to be part of the ruling party and felt they deserved it. They saw themselves as better than the others and thought Jesus should appoint them to the positions of power and authority. Jesus had another way.
Children are never shy about telling people what they can do. A three year old who has recently learned the alphabet song has no problem walking up to complete strangers and singing. A five year old who managed her first cartwheel at gymnastics class will perform at every opportunity. A seven year old who has received an A+ on his spelling test will gladly hang it on the refrigerator. Children don’t worry about what others will think; they simply share their talents and they are overjoyed if it makes someone happy.
Children have faith. They approach life from the point of view that if they can do something they should because it might just make life better for someone else. Surely that lady at the grocery store needs to hear the alphabet song! She might not know what letter comes after “p”! And mother’s friends will benefit greatly from seeing a cartwheel on the front lawn at church. How they will benefit doesn’t matter to the child, but surely the world will be a better place because of it!
Jesus was talking about suffering and persecution while they were looking forward to being rulers. Though they heard what He said, they didn’t understand and they were not willing to admit their ignorance. They didn’t trust in Jesus; and then they proved that they put their trust in themselves. The disciples were thinking about other things: worldly things. They were concerned about power and position. They were seeking greatness. The things Jesus said along the road didn’t make sense to them because it didn’t fit into their plans. They were going to sit at the right and left hands of the king. They didn’t want to know that their ambitions were flawed. Their desires became a source for conflict. They all wanted to be on top. They all wanted to be the guy to whom Jesus turned, the one to rule alongside Him in this worldly kingdom.
Jeremiah probably didn’t want to hear what was happening with his family. He may not have even wanted to hear the Word of the Lord. Yet, he humbly accepted the task God put before Him. He spoke to the people despite the danger. He trusted that God would do what was right. For him, wisdom meant going against what he wanted and doing what God intended. It meant being a servant, speaking a word to a people who needed the truth. The disciples were seeking what they thought was right, ignoring God’s plan.
David trusted that God was his helper. David cried for help, confessing faith in God and vowed to praise Him. He was confident that God would ensure that he lived another day to accomplish whatever work He had for him to do. That’s what it means to have faith like a child. This kind of wisdom is not ignorant of the truth but trusts in God in the midst of it. When we face persecution, we too can cry out with our worries and fears. Like David, we can do so with the assurance that our helper God hears our cries. The disciples were not ready to face the reality of their life of discipleship.
Jesus showed them the way. He lifted a little child onto His lap and told them they should believe in His words the way a child does, without fear or worry or anxiety. They should just act in faith, doing what it is they’ve been gifted to do while trusting that God will make it work to His glory. Children aren’t afraid to hold someone’s hand when they are crying. Children don’t worry about whether or not they have the right words, they speak from their hearts. Children talk about Jesus and God and love and peace and hope in a way that we no longer understand because we have lost our innocence. Children trust and believe because they don’t have to be the best or the first or the greatest.
Jesus reminded the twelve that they do not need to be the best or the first or the greatest, they simply need to believe. That’s the kind of humility Jesus is looking for in our lives. The humble Christian is a servant that does not seek gold, power or fame, but who walks and works in faith that God will accomplish His good work in our lives. The world will think we are ridiculous, they will persecute us because we do not live as they expect, but we can trust that God will get us through to tomorrow.
“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. 40 If anyone sues you to take away your coat, let him have your cloak also. Whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and don’t turn away him who desires to borrow from you.” Matthew 5:38-42, WEB
Karma is taught in some of the Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Properly defined, karma is a force generated by a person’s actions which will affect the future life of the believer. For those who believe in reincarnation, karma is the force that will decide the kind of existence they will have in the next life. Ultimately, the person who lives the good life will be reincarnated into a wonderful life, a life of comfort and peace. For some, karma does not just control the ultimate fate of the person’s soul, it is a force that affects our punishments and rewards in this life, too.
It isn’t just a religious concept anymore. Sitcoms and other media use karma as a way to make a joke or make a point. When someone does something wrong, the action is met with a threat that “it will come back to bite you one day.” Then, later in the show when something bad happens the person is met with “I told you so.” They are supposed to learn something from this experience, mostly that you should never do something wrong because it will hurt you in the end. Good karma comes to those who do good things. They are rewarded for doing kindnesses or paid back more than they gave. A person who gives a ten dollar bill should expect to be rewarded with an even greater gift somewhere in the future.
Karma is not a Christian doctrine, although there are many Christians who teach a karmic way of thinking. Listen in on a stewardship sermon in many churches and you will hear the pastor promise some sort of windfall for the believer. One ministry claims that if you send them a certain amount of money in faith, that God will return that amount tenfold.
Karma is not a Christian teaching because it puts the power of God into the hands of human beings. In other words, we can control our destiny by doing good works. It makes righteousness a work of man; everything that happens is a reward or consequence of his or her actions. Yet, we all know that our experiences are not caused by some previous action. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Sometimes good things happen to bad people. Sometimes we can’t explain why these things occur. As Christians, we can only expect God to be just, merciful and faithful. As Christians, we are expected to live Christlike - just, merciful and faithful - in the world, but this does not mean we will always receive justice, mercy or faithfulness from the world. We like the idea of karma because it seems to make the world a fair place.
Karma does not fit into our Christian ideology. In today’s scripture passage, Jesus talks about the idea that everyone should be repaid for their actions, but He takes it to another level. Jesus taught us not to demand an eye for an eye. Our actions should always reflect mercy and grace. In this particular message, Jesus even tells us to give the cloak off our back to someone who would steal it from us.
If karma were really part of our Christian thought, then every one of us should be very afraid of our fate. None of us are good enough to deserve anything wonderful in a next life. We don’t live up to our God-given potential or gifts. We often treat others poorly, hurting them with our thoughts, words and deeds. Jesus teaches us to live differently. We aren’t to live today as if it will make a difference in our tomorrow. Instead we are to live in Christ who has already assured us of our future; in Him we have the promise of eternal life. That life might just make a difference for someone else in the world.
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us the sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we haven’t sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” 1 John 1:8-10, WEB
The Sermon on the Mount is a teaching on wisdom by Jesus found in the book of Matthew. This brilliant sermon includes The Beatitudes which are nine statements that show the fruit of a life lived in humble submission before the Lord. The word beatitude can be understood to mean “a beautiful attitude.” The Christian understanding of blessedness is much different than that of the world. The world expects independence, strength, power and honor. In the Beatitudes, Jesus gave us a topsy-turvy understanding of a blessed life. Poverty is never seen as a good thing. Financial concerns impact people’s lives more than any others. When asked, “what would help you today?” most people will answer “money.” It did not matter if the response came from someone who was rich or poor. Everyone agrees that more money would make life easier and they would be happier.
Yet, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Who are the poor in spirit? They are those who approach God with a contrite heart, recognizing their own spiritual poverty. The poor in spirit are those who know they are sinners that cannot do anything to save themselves from death. There are none that are good, we are all born into a fallen world and need the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ to be in a relationship with God. The poor in spirit are those who recognize this need and turn to God for salvation.
Life in the kingdom of heaven is a righteous life lived in a relationship with God our Father. Our Lord Jesus Christ made this possible by His death on the cross. Without Him, we would forever wallow in our own sin and die without ever being reconciled to God. Thanks to His incredible love and unlimited mercy, we are cleansed from our sin and drawn into His heart to live forever in His presence. We are made righteous by His blood and become heirs to the kingdom of heaven: a child of the King!
Unfortunately, the world thinks it is possible to get to the kingdom of heaven by our own means. The self help section of your local bookstore is filled with books about how to be strong in spirit, how to get to heave, how to be blessed in this world. There are even some churches that are preaching a gospel of self, one that uplifts human understanding and ability to be spiritual and blessed, rather than recognizing the truth of human spiritual poverty.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Eternal life comes to those who recognize their sin and turn to the Lord for salvation. It is by His power and grace that we will inherit the life of blessedness; this is not necessarily a life with more than enough money, but rather life in an eternal relationship with God our Father. May we all be poor in spirit so that Jesus can fill us with His Spirit and give us the kingdom of heaven.
“But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. Before him all the nations will be gathered, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will tell those on his right hand, ‘Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink. I was a stranger, and you took me in. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you visited me. I was in prison, and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you; or thirsty, and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger, and take you in; or naked, and clothe you? When did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?’The King will answer them, ‘Most certainly I tell you, because you did it to one of the least of these my brothers , you did it to me.’ Matthew 25:31-40, WEB
One of my favorite things to do as a tourist in places I visit is to go to a local cave or cavern. We’ve been to see the Caverns of Sonora here in Texas, as well as several others. There is one nearby called Natural Bridge Caverns. I loved visiting Ruby Falls in Chattanooga, Tennessee a few years ago. We visited some in Arkansas, and there are several around the country I would love to see. One of my favorite sites growing up was Crystal Cave in Pennsylvania.
Crystal Cave was founded in 1871 when two men happened upon in while they were working in a stone quarry. It has been a sight of fascination for visitors ever since. A hotel, gift shop and other activities have grown up around it and many people still visit it today. It was a place we visited on school field trips when I was a kid. I took the kids to see it a few years ago. The only way to see these caves is to join a group led by a tour guide. They always talk about the rules and point out the most interesting aspects of the cave. These tours usually take about an hour or so and show off as much of the caves as is easily accessible.
They encourage photography, which can be a little difficult on this type of tour. The caves are dark, lit only by special lighting. There are crowds of people who get in the way. I like to stay in the very back so I can get my photos without distraction when everyone else is walking toward the next stop.
I recall the guide on our tour of Crystal Cave a few years ago. She was very thoughtful, always waiting until everyone was in her sight before she began explaining the next area of the cave. She did not want anyone to miss the information she was about to give. She knew she could start as soon as she saw my face because I was always in the back. As I caught her eye each leg of the way, we exchanged brief smiles and she went on with the tour. I was glad for her kindness because I like to hear the information as much as photograph the rocks. when she saw my face she knew she could start. I was quite thankful because I enjoy hearing the talks as much as I enjoy taking the pictures.
It’s not easy being the last in line, being the one who is left behind. Some people always find themselves bringing up the rear in school, work, relationships and other aspects of living in this world. Sometimes learning is difficult, others just can’t get a handle on that new job. When others succeed and surpass them they wonder if they will ever really understand. This is even true in our faith journey. We have all known someone whose spiritual life is so mature that we envy their discipline and prayer habits. We listen to others in Bible study and wish we had the same understanding. We see their faith and the joy they have in serving the Lord and wonder if we will ever get past our failures. But Jesus doesn’t look just for the ones who are in the front of the line or right under His nose, He gives special care for the ones who are bringing up the rear. And He teaches us to do the same.
Jesus was discussing the end of the ages with his disciples when He shared the promise in today’s passage. It is followed by a warning: when we leave behind those He loves, we too will be left behind. A warning is never comfortable. We hear such words and they rattle our souls because we wonder if we have forgotten to do something for Jesus; have we fed the hungry, given a glass of water to the thirsty, befriended the strangers, clothed the naked, healed the sick or given hope to those who are imprisoned?
Yet, there is comfort in the warning also, for we are often those who are hungry, thirsty or alone. We can take comfort in the knowledge that our Lord Jesus waits for those who are falling behind the rest of the world. He has gifted people who will care for those who would otherwise be left behind. May we always remember to do the same when Jesus puts us in that position and do whatever is needed for the least of His brothers because when we do, we are doing the same for Him.
“You didn’t choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain; that whatever you will ask of the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” John 15:16, WEB
There I was, standing in the aisle at the grocery store, just staring at the shelves. There were dozens of items, all the same but each one different. It doesn’t matter which aisle; it has happened to me in various places throughout the stores. The spices: not only are there a hundred different spices, there are a dozen brands to choose from. Twenty feet of shelf space, six feet high are filled with tiny bottles of everything from adobo seasoning to za’atar. I needed pepper on a recent trip. I needed plain old ground pepper in a small tin and I must have spent ten minutes searching for it. They had several other options, but unfortunately, they were out of what I needed. I had to buy it at another store.
The same thing happens in the vitamin aisle. Both are set up alphabetically, for the most part. However, there are multiple brands, and for some reason some of the vitamins have their own groupings that set them outside the normal alphabet. For instance, I don’t know why the “B” vitamins are out of line with all the vitamins that begin with a “B.” I was looking for one type the other day. I found several different options, but none exactly the way I wanted. I don’t know if the stores did not have what I wanted or if I just never found it, but I finally found it in the fourth store.
In those two examples I spent time in the department trying to find something specific, but I often find myself staring at the shelving units staring because there are too many choices. There’s a four foot display at a grocery store of specialty Texas made barbecue sauces. That is in addition to another four feet of national brands. Every brand has multiple options: size, sweet, sour or spicy, organic or home style. How do you choose? Sometimes I stand there so long that store employees ask if I need help finding something. I don’t; I’m just trying to figure out which one to buy.
Researchers have discovered something about the brain that explains this phenomenon in the grocery store. They set up two tables at a supermarket. On the first table they placed six types of jam and on the second they placed twenty-four. Two thirds of the customers stopped at the first table to try the samples, but when they made their purchase, the second table was four times more popular. The explanation, they said, is that our brains can only focus on three to four things at a time, so making a decision is easier when there is a limited number. However, we also want variety, so we love to browse through a wide range of products. Though we are more likely to stop at the table with more choices, we usually end up with the brand we are used to buying. I have to admit that when I’m standing in front of 100 possibilities, I always think, “It was easier when we only had a few options.”
We have a lot of choices when it comes to our lives of faith. One estimation suggests that there are 4200 different religions in the world. Christianity, Judaism and Islam are among the top twenty, but many also follow Buddhism, Secularism, Sikhism, Hinduism, or Neo-paganism among many others. Three hundred million people follow a primal-indigenous faith which could include thousands of tribal religious found only among dozens or hundreds of people in a small region.
It is nearly impossible to define exactly how many different types of Christian faith exist in this world. There are dozens of different types of Lutherans or Baptists, for example. There was a street in one town that was known as “church row.” Drive down that road for a mile or more and all you could see was churches of every type. There were three different Lutheran churches side by side. I can imagine someone looking for a Christian community on that road wondering which to choose. Add to that the thousands of other possibilities and it is nearly impossible to choose a way to live out faith in this world. I’ve even known people who follow an eclectic faith because they decide to believe the things they like best about every religion.
Here’s the thing for us to remember: we don’t choose God the way we choose barbecue sauce. We are reminded by today’s scripture from John that Jesus chose us. We have faith because He gave it to us. He made it possible for us to know God, to follow Him, to live according to God’s good and perfect Word. It isn’t by our decision that we are who we are in faith; it is by His grace that we go into the world bearing fruit for His kingdom. Oh, there may be thousands of ways to live out our Christian faith, but to follow Christ is a gift given by Him through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Scriptures for Sunday, September 30, 2018, Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 104:27-35; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
“You send out your Spirit and they are created. You renew the face of the ground.” Psalm 104:30, WEB
The crowd that left Egypt during the Exodus was not made up solely of Israelites. It was a mixed group, perhaps made up of God-fearing Egyptians and other foreigners. Did they see hope in the eyes of the Israelites, faith in the way they willingly left home and security, even if the security was one of suffering and pain? Were they persecuted, or did they fear persecution once Pharaoh realized what he’d done? We don’t know why they traveled with the Israelites, but they were among the crowd that made it across the Red Sea into freedom and the new life promised by the God of Israel.
The Old Testament lesson for today begins, “The mixed multitude that was among them...” Some versions translate this “The rabble...” This is referring to the non-Israelites that traveled with Moses out of Egypt. They were the ones that began to grumble about the lack of food. They hated the manna sent by this God they did not know or understand and were, perhaps, bothered by the fact that this escape wasn’t the easy trip they’d expected. They couldn’t have known when they left Egypt that they’d have to go so far for so long. And this was just the beginning of the journey.
They had already complained repeatedly during the journey from Goshen to Sinai, and God always remained faithful despite their unfaithfulness. He provided food and water. He healed them and led them on the path to the Promised Land. They turned from God quickly as they waited beneath the mountain for Moses to return. They created a golden idol while Moses received the tablets of the Law.
Today’s story takes place just three days after the Israelites began their forty year wandering in the wilderness. They had just received the instructions of God for organizing the nation. They were probably still in the shadow of the mountain and they had already forgotten to trust in the God who saved them from the Egyptians. As a matter of fact, they were already recalling the good food they had in Egypt, the fish and fruit “for nothing.” They had already forgotten the slavery and the abuse they experienced. The day they left Sinai was just one year, one month and one week after the day they left Goshen, and they looked at it as “the good old days.”
They were craving the life they used to lead, the food they used to eat, the comfort of their homes and the stability of being in one place. The rabble complained and the Israelites wept. They began to remember a life in Egypt that was much different than the reality. They remembered a good life, with good food and comfortable homes. They saw their past through the eyes of those foreigners and they forgot the pain and suffering of their slavery. They trusted in the memory of the rabble and forgot that the God of their forefathers had delivered them out of slavery into the life He had promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Think about the amazing things God had done in that one year, one month and one week. He parted the Red Sea, killed the Egyptian army, provided water, manna and quail in the desert. At the foot of Sinai He proved His power and He gave the people His Law. He was with them as they wandered, in the cloud by day and fire by night, leading them toward the Promised Land. He had saved them and was taking them to the place He gave to their father Abraham, but by the third day all they could think about was how inconvenient it was. God was teaching them how to trust in Him, but they quickly (in three days) fell back into their old ways, desire and arrogance. They thought they knew better than God and they complained.
Moses was displeased. “Why did you make me the leader of these troublesome people?” Moses asked God; he didn’t know what to do. He knew the reality of the slavery because he had risked his own life to lead the people out of Egypt. He knew the dangers of returning. He knew the blessings of following God. “Why did you stick me with this mess?” he wondered to God. Moses was frustrated. He was given the responsibility to care for this crowd, both Israelites and non-Israelites, and he found it difficult to deal with their grumbling. “If this is what I have to put up with, God, just kill me right here and now.” He wanted the easy solution; he looked for the extreme answer to his problem. Instead, God decided to appoint and anoint other leaders to be his helpers.
Seventy men were chosen and at the given hour, God took some of Moses’ power and gave it to the seventy. Two men in the camp also received the power. They prophesied just like those who had been in the tent of meeting. Joshua was a man of discipline and control and was disturbed by the lack of order. How could those who had not been in the right place at the right time have received the same gift as those who gathered as directed? “Stop them,” he said to Moses.
Tradition suggests several reasons for why the two were not at the tent of meeting. Some think that Eldad and Medad were afraid of rejection or they did not feel that they were worthy of the honor. Others say that because there were twelve tribes there was no easy way to appoint seventy elders. Which tribes would willingly relinquish a place in the council of elders? So, perhaps Moses chose six leaders from each of the twelve tribes and then made seventy-two lots, seventy with the word ‘elder’ and two blank, letting God weed out the two who were not chosen. According to some sources, Eldad and Medad selected the blank lots. If this is the case, then God decided to bless them apart from the lots.
God is not limited by our sense of order or by our fears and uncertainties. Those two men received the Spirit because God chose them to be leaders. Tradition holds that Eldad and Medad gave the most incredible prophecies that day. They say that Eldad prophesied that Moses would die before entering Canaan, that it would be Joshua to lead the people into the Promised Land. Medad is said to have prophesied about the quail. We don’t know why they weren’t among the other leaders. God doesn’t seem to care. They were His chosen and they were given the gift of the Spirit. Joshua was upset that about the men prophesying, but he may have been even more upset about the prophecies. He wanted it to stop. Moses answered Joshua’s request, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all Yahweh’s people were prophets, that Yahweh would put his Spirit on them!”
John had exactly the same reaction in this week’s Gospel reading. The disciples had seen someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but he wasn’t part of their group. Ironically, it was earlier in this chapter of Mark that John and the other disciples were unable to cast out a demon from a boy. They had failed. How much harder must it have been then, to see a stranger doing the work that they could not accomplish?
Moses answered Joshua and Jesus answered John, “Don’t stop them.” Were they jealous for Moses or Jesus’ sake, or for their own? Joshua was Moses’ right hand man, and now there were seventy others called to leadership. Was there room for even two more? John was part of Jesus’ inner circle, Jesus’ closest friends. John even asked Jesus if he could be His right hand man when He ruled. There were already twelve leaders. Was there room for more? What would happen if the disciples were never able to drive out demons, or heal, or impact the world? Would someone more gifted take their place? It was a very real fear for them, as it continues to be for us.
Jesus said, “Don’t stop them. Whoever is not against us is for us.” Perhaps this sounds backwards. We usually say, “Whoever is not for us is against us.” This limits our allies to those who are part of our circle. Jesus turns our thinking upside down. He tells us that we need not be concerned about those who are not against us. There were enough people against Jesus. Jesus assured them that they would not have to worry. “There is no one who will do a mighty work in my name, and be able quickly to speak evil of me.” Deeds of power came by the Spirit of God. If they had that Spirit, they could not work against the will and purpose of God.
Yesterday I talked about the choices we have in the grocery store. Have you ever seen how many different types of salt you can buy? I was once fascinated by a display in a country store because the salt was so beautiful: pink, black, chunky, flaky, and smoked. The salt came from all over the world, enchanting places like Hawaii, India, Italy and France. Some of the salt is so rare that it costs a fortune. One type of salt, I’ve learned, is mined from a cave in India, often in large blocks. Some chefs use the salt blocks for displaying and serving food, so the food is flavored by the vessel.
I have salt in a shaker and in a grinder which I use for cooking. I also have flavored salts, like garlic and celery salt which I use in recipes. And we all have a box of course salt in the pantry for making ice cream. Lately I have recently seen more types available in the grocery store, but since I didn’t know how to use the unusual types and colors, I never really paid much attention. I do have kosher salt because several recipes I have used recently called specifically for it.
Certain salts are better for cooking, while others are better for finishing. Regular table salt should be used for baking rather than a coarse salt because it will melt into the batter much better. The unusual salts are generally used for finishing because they are beautiful and add unique flavor to the dish. I don’t think I will spend much money on the more expensive salts because I doubt my palette is developed enough to notice the difference.
We take some things for granted because we know that we can go to the grocery store and get more if we run out. The salt most of us use is very inexpensive and available. In ancient times it was worth a great deal of money, perhaps even more than gold. Soldiers were paid in salt and slaves were traded for salt. This is why we have phrases such as “salt money” and “he is not worth his weight in salt.” Salt was used for flavor, but even more so it was used as a preservative and to seal covenants. If salt was used during a meal, it represented a relationship of loyalty, protection and hospitality. As a matter of fact, the ancient Greeks had a saying that “no one should trust a man without first eating a peck of salt with him.” A peck is a lot of salt (about 8 quarts.) By the time two men ate that much salt, they would know each other very well.
Salt was much more valuable in the old days because it was much less available. The Phoenicians were the first to harvest salt from the sea, flooding the plains with saltwater and allowing it to dry. Then the salt was harvested and sold to other nations. Such production helped to depreciate the value of salt. In the United States, the difficulty with salt production was not finding the salt, but transporting it from place to place. Morton Salt solved this problem by having salt plants all over the nation.
Jesus said to the disciples, “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Here He is referring to the salt covenant. They are the salt, “salted with fire” by God. Through them, God reveals His kingdom to the world, and through them He establishes a covenant of loyalty, protection and hospitality. Jesus says, “But if salt has lost its saltiness,” warning the disciples that if they have lost their saltiness, then they can’t do what they were called to do. The same is true of us. And if we do not live at peace with one another, how can we possibly share the peace of Christ with the world?
In last week’s Gospel text, Jesus made it clear that they should be servants to one another. In this story, Jesus continues the thought to include the outsiders, “the rabble.” We learn that we shouldn’t doubt what God can do, for God does what He knows to be right and good, whatever our expectations. We are called simply to trust Him and to follow where He leads us because it is the right way to go.
We are reminded how to keep our focus where it belongs: in God and His Word. James tells us that if we are suffering, we should pray. How easy it is, however, to hear the voices of those around us who grumble about problems, who make it seem like the best solution is the extreme solution. How easy it is for us to get caught up in that attitude that complaining is the way to get through our pain. James tells us that if we are happy we should sing songs of praise. Do we? Do we really praise God when we are experiencing good times? Or do we forget that God is the source of all things good? Do we get caught up with the voices that tell us that our triumph has come by our own power and take the glory for ourselves? Finally, James tells us that if we are sick we should seek the help of the elders who will pray for our healing. We will know healing and forgiveness as we keep our focus on the God who provides both in our good times and in our bad.
James also reminds us that we have the responsibility to keep our brothers and sisters focused in the right place. If we see someone falling into the trap of following the rabble, we are to remind them of God's Word and to help them turn back to the right path. We tend to avoid any sort of criticism or judgment because we are afraid to seem intolerant. While it is true that we must be aware that our criticism and judgment can alienate or condemn, our role as Christians is to call people to repentance so that they might know the forgiveness of God and be reconciled with Him and all of God’s creation. We are called to help one another see our sin and turn from it so that we will all dwell in the fold of God’s loving arms. It is easier to let the crowd go their own way. It is much harder to trust that God has a plan that will lead us to a Promised Land that is better than anything the world has to offer.
The Israelites and their companions certainly did not understand why Moses and God led them into the wilderness to die and they complained. Moses did not understand why God had placed such a heavy burden on his shoulder. Joshua and John did not understand why God would gift people outside their circles to do His work in the world. We don’t always understand how God is doing His work in this world, but we are called to trust in Him. Jesus Christ has finished the work of reconciliation on the cross, but the world is not yet perfect. Even the heavens and earth groan for the day when all will be restored as God created them to be. Until that day we will be surprised by God’s grace.
Today’s Psalm is a song of hope of how it can be with the world and all created beings living in the shadow of the Most High, trusting Him to provide all they need. In a perfect world, all of God’s creation will look to Him for food and all good things. In a perfect world, there is no anger or hatred, no war or violence, no tears or pain. Even the sea monsters - the leviathan - frolic in the ocean, leaving the ships to travel safely from port to port. In a perfect world, all creatures live together in fear of God and tremble in His presence, not because they are afraid but rather humbled by His magnificence. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world because since Adam we have not feared God or looked to Him for all we need. Yet even in this there is hope, “You send out your Spirit and they are created. You renew the face of the ground.” He gives His Spirit to those He chooses; He can choose to give it to as many as He pleases. He knows the hearts of those who will live in humble obedience to His Word and He equips every one to do His work in the world.
Our scriptures this week cause us to consider how we determine who had the power and authority to do the work of the kingdom in this world. All too often we are quick to point fingers, like Joshua and John, at those who are outside our circle, complaining that they should not be able to prophesy or heal because they do not stand in the right relationship with God. “Lord, stop them” we say. There might be a valid reason for rebuke or correction. Yet, if they are doing the work in Jesus’ name, as Jesus has commanded, might there be another reason for our irritation? Are we jealous because they are doing things we can’t do? Are we frustrated because they stand outside our understanding of God? Are we offended because they do not fit into the mould we have established?
He that is not against Jesus is not against us, and therefore is for Jesus and for us. We are no better than the rabble who instigates or the crowd that follows. We are no better than Joshua and the disciples. We fail. We follow the wrong people. We complain and doubt and desire our own way. We want to be satisfied and we seek the wrong things to satisfy us. But God has called us to a new life in Christ. He has forgiven us, giving us gifts and sent us into a world that needs to hear His Word. They need what we have to give. We need to trust that God will use us to share His grace, even when everything seems to be out of our control. Here’s the secret: all is well when everything is out of our control because God will always be faithful and make all things right according to His good and perfect will.
“For you are all children of God, through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring and heirs according to promise.” Galatians 3:26-29, WEB
We have lived enough places that we are familiar with the reality that there particular foods found regionally and more difficult to find other places. Take, for instance, some of my favorites. It is as difficult to find a good cheesesteak and pierogies here in San Antonio as it is to find good Mexican food in my hometown. Southern people have their own favorites while those who live in the Northwest have theirs. Even the names often mirror the place or the people who like to eat the food. A thrown together meal is considered a delicacy in one place but a snack in another. I once saw a recipe for Frito Pie in a church cookbook. To me, Frito pie is the junk food kind of meal that I would make on those nights when everyone is busy, so they could put it together themselves when they had time or were hungry. It did not seem to be anything special, after all, Frito Pie is nothing but corn chips smothered in chili and cheese.
Yet, here in Texas Frito Pie is a culinary feast. It has been around since 1932 when Elmer Doolin bought the recipe, the machine and the rights to the Frito Corn chip. The corn chips were already being sold to nineteen retail outlets; they were renamed Fritos and the company grew. Elmer’s mother Daisy created the first Frito Pie. Though it was more popular in the 1960’s, Frito Pies are still available at burger stands and football games.
The humble dish has found notoriety. As a matter of fact, it is being made with brisket, quail, venison chili and even goat cheese. Some restaurants are even known for their versions of the Frito Pie, with fancy descriptions like “exemplary” or “piquant flavor.” It seems hard to believe that anyone would go out to buy something that can be tossed together at home using the microwave and eaten in front of the television. It is incredible to believe that chefs are competing for the best tasting Frito Pie. But that is the reality of regional food - what seems like junk food to one is a delicacy to another.
There are food differences all over the country. The people in one region like things one way, in another region they like things another way. That which is a delicacy to one person is junk food to another. Our religious practices are much the same. People in the south enjoy one type of worship while people in the north prefer another. Some people like loud and exciting worship while others prefer quiet contemplative worship. We have differences, many differences. Yet, in Christ we are the same. We are all believers, all heirs to the Kingdom of God. It doesn't matter if my worship is boring to someone or if their worship is too loud for me. In Christ we are the same.
“Praise Yah! Praise God in his sanctuary! Praise him in his heavens for his acts of power! Praise him for his mighty acts! Praise him according to his excellent greatness! Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet! Praise him with harp and lyre! Praise him with tambourine and dancing! Praise him with stringed instruments and flute! Praise him with loud cymbals! Praise him with resounding cymbals! Let everything that has breath praise Yah! Praise Yah!” Psalm 150, WEB
Maria was in her room preparing for bed while a storm thundered outside her window. One by one the children ran into her room, frightened by the lightning and thunder. Maria calmed their nerves by getting their minds off the storm by singing a song. She told them that when she is sad or scared, she simply remembers her favorite things and then she doesn’t feel so bad. This song is from the movie “The Sound of Music” and is filled with remembrances of the most wonderful things. “Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens; bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens; brown paper packages tied up with strings... Cream colored ponies and crisp apple streudels; doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles; wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings... Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes; snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes; silver white winters that melt into springs...”
There are a many storms brewing in the world today. War and rumors of war leave us frightened and angry. The suffering in the world - illness, hunger and pain - saddens us. Families are divided and communities are broken. Even the church is facing more schism because there are so many differing perspectives and ideas. It is heartbreaking to see this discord among brothers and sisters in Christ, to see so many people arguing, often over the most ridiculous things.
So, as we face these storms of life, we can look to the advice from Maria and get our minds off it, if even for just a moment. The best way I know to clear my heart and mind is to turn to God in praise and prayer, for He is always ready with comfort and peace.
Our problems will not go away so easily; the storms will not stop because we have said a few words of praise. However, we will look at things much differently if we keep God in the midst of our troubles. When we are sad or afraid, we should not let those emotions cripple us, but we should take them to the Lord in prayer. When we do so, we remember that He is in our midst, comforting and teaching, transforming and blessing us with all we need to bring hope and peace to the world. The storms do rage outside in our world today, but God is with us in our rooms, comforting us with words that will give us strength and courage to face the world again.