Welcome to the September 2019 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 2019
September 2, 2019
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You can’t serve both God and Mammon. Therefore I tell you, don’t be anxious for your life: what you will eat, or what you will drink; nor yet for your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food, and the body more than clothing? See the birds of the sky, that they don’t sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns. Your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you of much more value than they? Which of you by being anxious, can add one moment to his lifespan? Why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They don’t toil, neither do they spin, yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his glory was not dressed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today exists and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, won’t he much more clothe you, you of little faith? Therefore don’t be anxious, saying, ‘What will we eat?’, ‘What will we drink?’ or, ‘With what will we be clothed?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first God’s Kingdom and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore don’t be anxious for tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Each day’s own evil is sufficient.” Matthew 6:24-34, WEB
Today is Labor Day in the United States and for most of us it is a day to relax and enjoy some rest. One year when we were living in England, we spent the holiday visiting London. One of our stops that day was St. Paul’s Cathedral, a magnificent building designed in the 17th century by Sir Christopher Wren. Christians have worshipped in the cathedral for over 1300 years and is one of London’s most beloved landmarks. At the center of the cathedral, where the transepts meet, is a large dome with three galleries. These galleries can be reached by climbing many stairs.
Running around the interior of the dome, 259 steps above the ground floor, is the Whispering Gallery. This walkway, which runs a complete circle around the dome, is called by its name because a whisper is audible on the opposite side of the dome, due to a building quirk. The Stone Gallery, 378 steps above ground level, runs around the outside of the dome and provides an incredible view of London. From this perch we could see Parliament, The Globe Theatre, the Thames, and many other London landmarks.
Just as we were about to descend back to the main level of the cathedral, we discovered that we could climb to the Golden Gallery, which is a total of 530 steps from ground level. The stairways to the top were rickety iron, and our bodies were getting tired of laboring to climb to these great heights. But as we came out into the sun, we could see the reward of our labor. The view of London from the Golden Gallery is remarkable.
We do not always get such a reward for our hard work. We get our paychecks, an occasional day off and the satisfaction that comes from a job well done. Sometimes, we receive a word of thanks for the work we do, or we get a glimpse of the product of our labors. For teachers, it may be a student who succeeds after graduation. For a doctor, someone is healed. For a writer, a book is sold. All too often, however, we work too hard for too little and we worry the whole time about whether it will be worthwhile. God also honors those who work, so we should not stop working for the things we need in this world. We simply need to remember that our life is not dependent on those things. Only God can give us what we really need and He does so with love and mercy and grace.
Are we worrying about things that do not matter, working to have things we do not need? Are we more concerned with our homes, clothes and food than about our relationship with God? We can’t make things better for ourselves, not really. Oh, we can find the bigger home, the nicer car, the prettier dress. But we can’t buy happiness or success. We can’t purchase the things that make our lives more complete. God’s grace is a free gift, and it is only in faith that we’ll really be content. When we focus on the things of God, everything else falls into place, and then we will have the peace that we can’t find while laboring too hard for things that will pass away.
“Shout for joy to Yahweh, all you lands! Serve Yahweh with gladness. Come before his presence with singing. Know that Yahweh, he is God. It is he who has made us, and we are his. We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, and bless his name. For Yahweh is good. His loving kindness endures forever, his faithfulness to all generations.” Psalm 100, WEB
A few years ago I went to a conference in Germany. The hotel where we met was in a small mountain town; there was a light dusting of snow on the ground. It was lovely, not only because of the setting, but because of the company. The conference was for a group of Christian women, so the hotel was filled with grace and praise and joy.
One of the most incredible moments happened one evening. The hotel was built with balconies on every floor that encircled a rotunda, so every guest could see down into the lobby. The balconies were filled with ladies as we moved from one event to another, especially in the evening when we went to our rooms to rest. We would often linger at the edge, waving at our friends both old and new who were also lingering. The balconies were full on our last night of the conference as we were headed to bed. I don’t think anyone wanted it to end, so we stayed in the rotunda, basking in the glow of the peace we all felt after spending a few days in companionship with so many faith-filled women.
I don’t know how it happened. Perhaps it was members of the choir who decided to begin, or simply one woman who wanted to praise God, but someone began singing “Jesus loves me.” Others joined and quickly all of us were praising God in that rotunda. The shape of the space, the many levels on which we were standing and the sheer joy we were experiencing made it sound like we were singing along with the angels in heaven. Other guests in the hotel also gathered to listen; some even joined in the song. However it began, God put a song on our tongues and we praised Him for His many blessings. It was a simple pleasure and we all went to bed with uplifted hearts.
What are the simple pleasures that bring joy to your life? The greatest blessings are those in which we see the hand of God working for our sake. It is good, right and true that our blessedness is founded on the cross of Jesus Christ, His mercy and grace. Yet, in the shadow of the cross, it is easy to miss out on the simplest pleasures that bring us joy. We were getting ready to go back to the “real world” where we had to deal with the struggles of life. We’d spent a few days without worrying (and it was long before cell phones, so we were really disconnected to our problems.) We knew it was time to go home, but we also knew that we could take that grace, joy and peace home with us.
God is active in our world today, continually creating and recreating the world for His glory. Sometimes the crosses of life hang over us, threatening our peace and hope. Yet, when we look for God in even the simplest of pleasures and sing with joy, the crosses we bear become light because He carries them with us. So, take time today to praise the Lord in song. Perhaps you won’t join in with hundreds of others, but you can hum the tunes of your favorite hymns or break out in the words of “Jesus loves me.”
God has written His Word on our hearts, and we can easily reach for those words in the songs that we hold dear. In our singing, we keep God close to us, remembering His truth and sharing them with the world. Shout for joy and sing joyful songs, give Him thanks and praise His name! Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
Scriptures for Sunday, September 8, 2019, Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-35
“So therefore whoever of you who doesn’t renounce all that he has, he can’t be my disciple.” Luke 14:33, WEB
Last year our Sunday school class spent nine months studying the book of Revelation. One of the things we took away from that study is the question put forth by the visions of the Apostle John: Which do you choose, God or the world? This summer we have been looking at the Didache, an ancient Greek document that was the earliest known catechism, probably dated even before Mark’s Gospel. That study has led to a similar question: Which way do you choose, life or death? Though slightly different questions, they demand that we consider how we live our lives.
I’m not very good at making decisions. My family will ask, “Where should we go to dinner?” and I would just as soon let them choose. I hate packing for a trip because I don’t like having to decide what I’ll wear in a few days, especially if the weather is questionable. I am thinking about buying a new, lightweight laptop for travel, but there are too many choices!
Have you been to the grocery store lately? Try choosing a can of tomatoes. There is ten feet of shelf space for all the different types of tomato products they carry, and that doesn’t include sauces and condiments. It isn’t just a difference in brand names. Each brand seems to have a dozen different types of tomatoes. One is seasoned with garlic and herbs, another with chilies. There are diced and finely diced, stewed and roasted, whole and pureed. There are even choices between the different types of tomato sauces and tomato pastes. The number of choices is staggering. How do you choose?
The choice presented to us in today’s scriptures might be even harder. Many of our choices have no real consequences. The recipe might call for a certain kind of tomato, but the meal won’t be ruined if we don’t choose perfectly. It doesn’t matter if we have hamburgers or casserole for dinner tonight or if I wear the red or green shirt. It does matter how we live our life. It does matter if we believe in God or in ourselves and the world. It does matter if we obey God’s commandments and walk in His ways. These choices mean the difference between good and evil, between life and death. Moses writes, “Behold, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and evil.” This choice might not seem that difficult, after all, who would choose death over life? Yet, Jesus tells us why it is hard: we must choose God above everything else to choose life.
The LORD lays it on the line with Israel in today’s Old Testament lesson. The kind of life we will live is dependent on the way we walk in this world. If we love God and walk in His ways, we will see the blessings of obedience which is life and prosperity. “But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away and worship other gods, and serve them, I declare to you today that you will surely perish. You will not prolong your days in the land where you pass over the Jordan to go in to possess it.” If we turn away from God, we will suffer the consequences.
Taking the wrong path can be dangerous. I was watching a show with a pair of brothers who go on adventures in the wild looking for answers to age old questions or for treasure. One day they were following a path and thought they found a marker that pointed up a mountain. They struggled with the climb, and when they got to the top, they discovered it lead to a huge cliff. It was not the way they were supposed to go. If they had not been careful, they might have fallen hundreds of feet to their deaths.
Most of our wrong turns are not so consequential, but they make our way more difficult. When I was coming home from my vacation last month, I was following my GPS. I knew the way home at that point, but the GPS knows how to avoid traffic jams. I happily took the first detour, knowing it was right. I was planning to stop at a certain place to take a break, but the GPS took me on another road. Again, I was familiar with it, but I usually don’t go that way because it is out of the way. I didn’t even realize I was taking that detour until it was too late. It saved me time, which is good, but I was really desperate by the time I reached a place where I could finally stop.
The most life threatening mistake I made happened to me when I lived in New Jersey. I was trying to find a business one evening and I came to a crossroad that I thought would lead me to the place. I was in the left hand turning lane waiting for the green arrow. When I turned, I carefully moved forward, but a drunk driver ran the red and smashed into my car. My car spun several times and my can of soda exploded on the dashboard. I was not injured but I believe that my seatbelt saved my life that night. That night a wrong turn could have meant the difference between life and death.
As we learned in the book of Revelation and the Didache, the right choice is to follow God’s Word. The psalmist writes that the man who lives by God’s Word is like a tree planted by the streams of water. This is not simply a matter of living a life that is righteous according to the Law, but instead is about living in a relationship with God. God does not come to us because we are good enough, but we are made righteous by living in His presence. We are given all the faith we need by God’s grace, dwelling in His gifts will keep us on the path which God has ordained for us. Dwelling in His gifts means that we’ll avoid those paths that will harm us. Dwelling in God’s grace means that we’ll not walk in the counsel of the wicked because we have His council by which to walk. Dwelling in God’s faith means we’ll not stand in the way of the sinners because we will stand in His love. Dwelling in God’s presence means that we’ll meditate on His Word, His Law, day and night.
Does this mean that we should separate ourselves from the world? No. It is not necessary to hide, instead we are called to take God with us into it. We have each been given a vocation, a calling in this world. It is through our vocation that God’s grace flows into the lives of others and His purpose for our lives is accomplished. Our vocation might not sound very godly; as a matter of fact, sometimes our jobs seem very counter to God’s intent. Is a stable hand really doing God’s work when he shovels the manure each day? What about those accountants, lawyers and stockbrokers riding the train each day? Is a mother serving God when she feeds her children or a shop clerk ringing up my total at the grocery store?
Jesus says, “So therefore whoever of you who doesn’t renounce all that he has, he can’t be my disciple.” His point is not that we are to give up everything of this world and lead a life of separation like a hermit. He is telling us that we must check our priorities. What matters most? What is the purpose of our work? Who are we serving when we start our day? To follow Jesus means putting Him first. It means leaving aside our agendas, our expectations, and our desires so that we will do what He has called us to do. As recipients of God’s grace we are called to make Him the priority in our life, to consider His Word when we make decisions and to walk in His ways as we respond to His call.
Our study in Revelation and the Didache has led us to a new study: the Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes give us a picture of what a disciple’s life should look like. It is counter to everything we know in this world. Jesus tells us to be poor in spirit, to mourn, to be meek and to hunger and thirst for righteousness. He tells us to be merciful and pure in heart. Jesus tells us to be peacemakers and to accept the persecution that will come our way because of Him. This is exactly the opposite of what the world expects from us. We are to be wealthy, happy, strong, and satisfied. We are to get what we are owed, to follow our desires, be a winner and follow the crowds. We struggle with God’s path because it seems to lead to suffering, but the reality is that those who are obedient disciples will enter the kingdom of heaven. God’s path leads to eternity, all other paths lead to hell.
We are shocked by Jesus’ comment in today’s Gospel lesson. He said, “If anyone comes to me, and doesn’t disregard his own father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he can’t be my disciple.” This seems like a contradiction since Jesus talks about honoring mother and father and loving our neighbors, even our enemies. How can we both honor and love them and also hate them? Jesus is telling us to consider the cost of following Him.
The word “hate” is defined in Webster’s as “intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury, extreme dislike or antipathy, loathing.” If it is used as a verb, it means, “to feel extreme enmity toward, have a strong aversion to, find very distasteful.” Imagine the shock Jesus must have provoked with His comments in today’s lesson. We are to hate our mother and father?
“Hate,” as it was understood in ancient Israel, had to do with priorities. To hate something meant to turn your back on it, to separate yourself from it. Jacob loved Rachel but hated Leah. Obviously he did not feel a strong aversion to her since they created several children together. This passage simply means that Jacob put Rachel first, turning his back on Leah for Rachel’s sake. When Jesus calls us to hate our mothers and fathers, our wives and our children, He is not telling us to abandon them or treat them as enemies. He is simply calling us to put Him first, setting aside everything and everybody else for His sake. It is a matter of priorities, placing God ahead of everything else, including our selves. It is a heavy cost and never easy, but it is the life to which each disciple is called.
Imagine how hard it must have been for Philemon to get the letter from Paul. We do not know his whole story from the beginning or the end. We know a little bit about the characters, the time and place where this story is set. Paul is the writer, a passionate Christian who has not only taken God’s word to the world, but has suffered for its sake. He is a prisoner, though we do not know from which of his many imprisonments he is writing this letter. We know that Timothy is a friend and co-worker in Christ, a “son” of Paul not in the biological sense, but because Paul was the one who instructed him in the Christian faith. We know that Philemon is a man from Colossae of some means because he had at least one slave. He was Christian. We know that Onesimus was a slave from Colossae who became a Christian under the instruction of Paul.
We do not know how Onesimus became a slave. We do not know why he ran away or how he came to befriend Paul. We do not know what happened to these characters after Paul sent his letter. Did Paul have any impact on the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon? Were the reconciled? Did Onesimus suffer the consequences of his infraction against Philemon? Did Philemon have mercy and receive his slave as a brother in Christ? Did Paul ever see them again?
Paul’s concern here is not just for his new friend and brother Onesimus. He was concerned about Philemon. There is a question of a financial matter involved in this story. Was Onesimus purchased or did he owe Philemon a debt which forced him into slavery? Did Onesimus steal from Philemon when he escaped? Paul was so concerned for the welfare of both these men that he was willing to repay the cost to restore the relationship. The details of this story don’t really matter; the purpose for Paul is to show us what it means to walk the path of Christian faith.
The purpose of Christian faith is restoration and forgiveness. Philemon knew the power of God’s forgiveness in his own life because he’d become a Christian. He knew the transforming power of the call of God in the lives of those who believe. Onesimus also learned about the forgiveness that comes from faith through the teaching and concern of his new friend Paul. Onesimus, though still a slave, was something new, he was a brother in Christ to all those who believed in Jesus. He was transformed and willing to serve. Did his good graces extend even to the one who had held him as a slave and did he return with courage and hope to the place where he belonged?
Along with forgiveness, we see a lesson in living our vocation in and through the faith we have been given. Philemon was master, Onesimus a slave. In Christ the roles of life may not change but the way we deal with one another does. In our own churches we often have people who are CEOs of a company and their employees worshipping side by side. That relationship reaches beyond the church door as the CEO is expected to treat the employee with Christian love and respect even in the workplace and vice versa, neither one taking advantage of their position in the church or in the world to set themselves ahead or above the other. The life of discipleship means doing things in a whole new way.
Paul was writing to Philemon to encourage him to receive Onesimus, to grant forgiveness and be reconciled to him in Christian love. It went against everything he knew about business and society, but for him it was the cost of discipleship. To be a follower of Jesus means more than just words and even good deeds. It means more than giving up the easy things like immoral behavior. It means hating your very life, turning your back on everything for the sake of Christ.
This message of hate in today’s Gospel is harsh and hard. Jesus not only asks it of us, but demands it of those who want to be disciples. Jesus was being followed by a mob of people. Most of them believed in Jesus, at least to a point. They believed that He could do great things and that He was a charismatic and credible speaker. He had an authority they had not seen in any of the religious and national leaders. He turned to them and told them what it meant to be a disciple. It meant putting Him first.
The people in the crowds had not given themselves fully to Jesus. They could leave at any moment, to go home to care for the needs of home and family. They could walk away if Jesus did something or said something with which they disagreed. They believed, some may have even had faith that Jesus was the Christ for whom they waited, but they had not committed themselves to Him.
He told them two parables: one about a builder and the other about a warrior king. He asked what would happen if they did not count the cost of their projects. The builder would be seen as a fool when his foundation lay undeveloped, the king would be routed by the enemy. The builder and the king had to count the cost so that they knew if they could succeed. The cost of discipleship is great. It means giving up everything for the sake of Christ. Jesus wanted the crowds to consider whether or not they wanted to be followers or disciples. It is much harder to be a disciple. “So therefore whoever of you who doesn’t renounce all that he has, he can’t be my disciple.”
I wonder if it is possible to truly become this kind of disciple, though there are some throughout history of that seem to have come close. I can’t imagine giving up everything I own and everyone I love or to turn my back completely on the society in which I live, to follow Jesus wherever He might lead. I praise God for the incredible blessings I have in my family, my home, my work in this world. Perhaps this is an impossible request from Jesus. Yet, this is the demand of discipleship, and by God’s grace we can fully commit to Him.
Slaves were not slaves forever. They served for a time and then were set free. If the slave was married when he went to a master, his wife was also set free. However, if he married and had children while serving a master, the wife and children belonged to the master. The slave could decide to stay with the master, choose to be with him forever for the sake of his wife and children. “But if the servant shall plainly say, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children. I will not go out free;’ then his master shall bring him to God, and shall bring him to the door or to the doorpost, and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall serve him forever.”
When a slave chose to stay with a master, he was nailed through his ear to the doorpost as a witness to his willingness to be a servant forever. Perhaps this was what Paul was referring to in this letter when he said that Philemon would have him forever. Onesimus, in his new found faith and trust in the Lord, willingly returned to the life of servanthood for the sake of the Gospel of love. For him, it was the cost of discipleship. He turned away from freedom to live reconciled to his brother in Christ and master, Philemon.
When we consider the servant who has had his ear pierced on the door jamb of his master’s house, did he live in want? No, as the master’s servant he had everything he needed: a home, food, work, clothes, family and friends. This message is not about having nothing or living as a penniless wanderer. It is about giving up even your very life for the sake of Jesus Christ to be more than a follower. He is calling us to be disciples, putting Him first and sharing the Gospel of love with the world. As His servants, we can trust that He’ll take of us in this world and the next.
God puts us in a time and a place and in relationships to accomplish His good and perfect work in this world. He needs stable hands and mothers, masters and slaves, CEOs and employees to live their Christian faith not only within the walls of the church on Sunday, but daily in the world so that others might see God’s grace. We don’t know the whole story of Philemon and Onesimus. We do know that Paul sought to restore their relationship for the sake of God’s kingdom in Colossae, so that the two brothers might work together in forgiveness and grace to make the Church grow in truth and in spirit. The prize we seek as Christians is not to be better than one another but to build the Church of Christ together so that we will shine God’s grace to the world.
To do so, however, means keeping His Word in our hearts and in our minds. It means taking time daily for prayer and study, for renewing ourselves by drinking in the waters of life. All too often we think that we are strong enough, faithful enough, knowledgeable enough to live on what is already a part of our lives. We may have read the bible a dozen times, so why do we need to read it again? We hear it at church and learn about it in our bible studies, why do we need to read it ourselves every day? We need to drink daily to live. So it is with the scriptures. It is much too easy to lose sight of what matters, and then the lines between the wicked and the righteous blur. If we take the wrong path, we lose touch with God. When we live without daily time in God’s presence, we are like a tree that is planted in the dry field far from the source of life. God intends for us to be like the tree that dwells by the streams of water, drinking in His Word daily for life.
We will not suffer the wrath of God for our poor decisions, but we’ll never truly know the blessings of grace if we turn our back on the One from whom true life comes. We will suffer the consequences of a life poorly lived. So God, in His love and mercy, calls us to put Him first in our lives so that He care for us as He has promised. Following Jesus comes at a great cost, but God paid the greatest cost and Jesus made the greatest sacrifice so that we could follow Him. He paid the debt to set us free. In that freedom we are called to willingly serve Him, to turn our hearts away from the world to become His disciples. As disciples we’ll truly know what it means to be blessed, even if we suffer the wrath of the world. Our sacrifice will last but a season and we’ll soon know the blessing of dwelling with Him forever.
“As soon as Gideon was dead, the children of Israel turned again and played the prostitute following the Baals, and made Baal Berith their god. The children of Israel didn’t remember Yahweh their God, who had delivered them out of the hand of all their enemies on every side; neither did they show kindness to the house of Jerubbaal, that is, Gideon, according to all the goodness which he had shown to Israel.” Judges 8:33-35, WEB
They say it only takes one generation for a culture to change. It seems that this is the truth these days, as the world is different than I knew it as a child. I’m not talking about nostalgia, remembering the “good old days,” but I know that I was much more cautious about giving my children the freedom to play outside than my mother was. Words always change their meaning, but sometimes it is hard to know what a word means these days, and it is even harder because the wrong use of a word can set off a storm of rage. Unfortunately, as we remember the “good old days,” we think that today is so much worse. Perhaps it is, but the human race has gone through phases from the beginning of time.
Think about the pattern for life of the Israelites. The people believed in the LORD and cried out to Him for His help. In His mercy and grace, the LORD answered. They lived faithfully for a season and then forgot and turned to other gods for their peace. They suffered the consequences of their unfaithfulness and cried out to God in their pain. He heard their cries, remembered His covenant and saved them. They lived for another season in peace, until they forgot and turned away. This circle has existed ever since Adam and Eve turned from God in the Garden of Eden. Blessedness, forgetfulness, pain, repentance, mercy and blessedness is the pattern of life even for us today. We are saved by the grace of God for our sin and for our daily sins.
The people of Israel were too big and the tribes were spread out over many miles so that there would be room for them to grow. They had no central leadership who could help keep them faithful to God. There was no one to draw them together to keep them strong as a nation. So God sent prophets who told the people to repent and judges to lead them into victory. When the Israelites had been oppressed for seven years, God called a man named Gideon to lead the people. Gideon did not understand why God would choose him. He was from the smallest tribe, and was the weakest of his family. Yet, God assured him that he was a mighty warrior who would be victorious. Gideon did not know what to think; he wasn’t even sure it was God talking to him. He even tested God to know the truth.
Then the LORD sent Gideon to lead the Israelites against Midian. He had over thirty thousand men. The LORD wanted there to be no doubt about who brought the victory, so He told Gideon there were too many men. Gideon told those who were afraid that they could leave, and only ten thousand remained. But that was still too many. So the LORD told Gideon to have the men drink at the pool. Those who remained on their feet, lifting the water to their lips, would be chosen for the battle. Most of the men knelt to drink.
The three hundred men were given torches in jars and trumpets and they surrounded the camp of the Midianites. On Gideon’s command, the men broke their jars and blew their trumpets, then yelled “A sword for the LORD and for Gideon.” The Midianites fled in terror and the LORD caused them to turn on each other with their swords. They army fled and Israel took the land. Three hundred men defeated a massive army, but it wasn’t them, it was the LORD.
God’s plan always seems odd to us. Gideon was a nobody, yet he was chosen by God to lead His people into such an incredible victory. Gideon was not perfectly faithful. He demanded proof that the call was from God. Gideon rejected they demand that he be their lord, reminding them that only God is LORD. Yet, Gideon also collected the golden plunder from the army and made an ephod which he placed in his city. An ephod is an item for spiritual use, and it became the center of attention for the people. The Bible tells us that it became a snare for Gideon. The land lived in peace while he was alive, but they quickly fell after he died.
We might think the minor changes in our world are not important, but it really does take just one generation for a nation to fall. I don’t know if we can stop the progression, but we can remain faithful to our God, no matter the worldly consequences we may face. We can pray. We can stand firm on God’s Word. We can live according to the expectations of our God. We can reject the temptation to set up our own idols, and keep our eyes and our worship directed toward the only LORD, God our heavenly Father. We may be just a remnant, but God hears the prayers of His people and He answers. He is gracious and merciful. He always makes things right even though we fail.
“He said, ‘God’s Kingdom is as if a man should cast seed on the earth, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should spring up and grow, though he doesn’t know how. For the earth bears fruit by itself: first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the fruit is ripe, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.'" Mark 4:26-29
There are several ways to invest your money. There are those who like to take a risk, and they sink their money into some product or company in which they hope to see immediate financial gain. If the company does succeed, they can reap a quick harvest of their money and get out. Often, these types of investments fail because the company does not succeed, so the investor loses everything. This type of investment is looking for immediate and large financial pay off but can end in financial ruin. Most financial counselors will recommend a long-term program of investment. They suggest placing your money in a wide variety of growth opportunities, so that if one fails, you have not lost everything. This type of investment looks to the long term. You won’t get rich quick, but your financial future will be solid and reliable. It takes patience to wait for the rewards of such a program.
A farmer must have patience as he waits for his crops. He cannot plant the seed and expect the harvest the next day. He must wait for the seed to grow and ripen. Then he can go bring in the crop. If he expects to see the product of his labor too quickly, he will be disappointed and perhaps even give up caring for the field.
As Christians, we have been called to sow the seeds of hope for God’s Kingdom in the world and to pray for healing. Jesus Christ commanded us to preach and teach the Word and to heal in His name. When we share His kingdom through words and deeds, we expect to see a difference. We expect people to be saved and healed. Yet we must be patient, because God does not always produce an immediate change. As we obey our Lord Jesus, we must look to the long term and know that God is always faithful. Have you been praying for someone you love and wonder if God will ever make a difference in their life? Do not give up. The investment of your heart and time will pay off for God’s glory in His time.
“In those days, when there was a very great multitude, and they had nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples to himself, and said to them, ‘I have compassion on the multitude, because they have stayed with me now three days, and have nothing to eat. If I send them away fasting to their home, they will faint on the way, for some of them have come a long way.’ His disciples answered him, ‘From where could one satisfy these people with bread here in a deserted place?’ He asked them, ‘How many loaves do you have?’ They said, ‘Seven.’ He commanded the multitude to sit down on the ground, and he took the seven loaves. Having given thanks, he broke them, and gave them to his disciples to serve, and they served the multitude. They had a few small fish. Having blessed them, he said to serve these also. They ate, and were filled. They took up seven baskets of broken pieces that were left over. Those who had eaten were about four thousand. Then he sent them away.” Mark 8:1-9, WEB
It does not matter where you live: there is a time during the year when you need to be prepared for bad weather. In the north, you need to have a stocked pantry in case you are snowed in by a blizzard. On the coasts you need to have bottled water and a generator in case a hurricane knocks out the electricity and water supply. Those who live in the center of the country are threatened by tornadoes and need to have a safe place to hunker down if a storm comes. Each area requires certain specifics, but every storm kit should include things like a radio, flashlight, extra batteries, plenty of clean water, blankets and clothes, medical necessities such as medicine and a first aid kit and some food. It is never easy to face some sort of natural disaster, but having supplies on hand that will take care of the most basic needs of the family can make it less stressful.
Most people do not have these kits prepared, but they try to gather the supplies when the weather reports indicate severe weather. In the days or hours before the storms hit, the stores are filled with people filling their shopping carts with the necessities to help them through the worst. In hurricane country, men run to the home repair store to purchase tape and particle board to cover the windows of their homes. The women run out to the grocery store to stock their pantries with good food to eat. Bread, milk and water quickly disappear from the shelves. The shoppers also buy plenty of chips, cakes and other munchies. If the family is going to be trapped inside the house for any length of time, it is nice to have comfort food to share as they watch the storm. The stores have difficulty stocking enough of the necessities as well as the “nicessities” to provide for all the people who are shopping at the same time.
The smart store owners are those who pay attention to the weather reports, because they ensure that they will have extra stock on hand for those times of emergency. Yet, it is impossible to predict some natural disasters far enough in advance to prepare. So, during those times, we often see television reports of grocery and home improvement stores with empty shelves. This is why it is recommended that we prepare ahead, to be ready when the storm strikes so that we will not be left wanting when the time comes.
It does not matter how prepared we are, there are times when we are not prepared enough. We faced a tornado warning one day in Arkansas. It occurred about the time the children were coming home from school. Vicki’s school bus driver was near our house when the dispatch ordered that he abandon the bus to find a safe place for himself and the children. They came to our house. If the emergency had lasted any length of time, we would have not had enough for such a large group of people. I did not expect so many people that day. Where would I have gotten enough food if I had to feed them?
If the storm comes too fast, or we wait too long to prepare, we might find that the necessities are not available at the store, leaving us wanting through a time of trial. Yet, it is highly unlikely that we will face the same desperate situation as Jesus and the disciples did that day near the Decapolis. The people had been following Him for days from the ten cities. They probably had taken food with them for the journey to see Jesus, but after so much time their food was gone and they were hungry. They were far enough from their homes that hunger would have overtaken them in the wilderness. Jesus would not send them away hungry, but where could they find enough food?
In this story which is different than the feeding of the five thousand, the concern is not about where to get the money to buy food. They were too far from the markets; even if they had enough money, there was not enough to buy to feed so many people. It is good to be prepared for an emergency, to have the kit ready for those times of disaster, but there will be times when we are not well enough prepared, times when we have to meet needs we just don’t have the resources to meet. We cannot send them out into the wilderness to face the ravages of nature, but instead God calls us to be like Jesus, to trust in Him to provide whatever we need. Jesus fed four thousand men with seven loaves of bread and there were leftovers. God can do the same for us in our times of need.
“Behold, I am Yahweh, the God of all flesh. Is there anything too hard for me?” Jeremiah 32:27, WEB
Yesterday’s scripture told the story of the time Jesus miraculously fed four thousand men. We read this story and are amazed at what God can do. There are those who even try to explain away the miracle by claiming that this meal was more like a huge pot luck, and while Jesus did bless and pass the bread and fish, there was other food available in the kits of those following Jesus. But the scriptures clearly tell us that the people had been following Jesus for three days and that there was no food for them to eat. They weren’t even near a market; if they had the money, there was no food to buy. This was an incredible miracle. Sometimes we wonder why we do not see or experience anything like this.
This passage was the Gospel lesson for a sermon Martin Luther gave for a Sunday in the season of Pentecost. Luther compared the work of Jesus that day to the people in the world who would have prepared the bread from seed to mouth. He said that Jesus, without anyone’s help, plowed, harvested, threshed, ground and baked all that bread in a split moment. It said it was a miracle incomprehensible to reason that Jesus, God, could feed so many until they were satisfied with some left over, quickly and with only a word. Then he went on to talk about every day miracles.
“Of course, we have become accustomed to grain annually growing out of the earth, and because we are accustomed to it, we become blind and do not pay attention to this work. We do not regard what we see and hear daily to be a miracle. Nevertheless, giving grain out of the sand and stone is a miracle as great as – and if we were to speak properly, even greater than – that he feeds the crowd here with seven loaves. What is dry sand other than simply crushed stone, or a stone other than something which can be ground down into sand or earth? But how can bread which we can eat come out of stone? Yet, it grows only out of sand and earth, just as everything we grows and what all the animals give to us, each according to his kind. From where does it come except out of earth and dust?
“These are the same miracles which were established at the beginning of the world and happen daily, so that we are entirely inundated by them. Because they are so common, and our eyes and mind do not perceive them, God must at times (as He does here) do something not greater, but special, which does not happen according to the ordinary course of things. In this way, He awakens us and leads us through such a special, individual miracle and into the daily miracles of the wide world.”
For most of us, a sandwich is delicious, but not a miracle. We all have a loaf of bread in the pantry, a loaf we purchased from the grocery store that has thirty feet of shelving filled with dozens of different kinds of bread. The only time the shelves are empty are when there’s a storm on the way. Yet, when you think about it, every loaf of bread is a miracle because God makes the seed grow. God gives life and gifts to the people who are involved in the making of that bread. We hear the stories of Jesus miraculously feeding large groups of people, but we don’t think about the fact that the world is fed by God’s grace. We don’t think about it because we know there are farmers and bakers and grocery store clerks who provide that bread for us, it doesn’t seem like a miracle.
It doesn’t seem like a miracle because most of us aren’t so hungry without any way to get food. We aren’t in the middle of the wilderness. We don’t struggle with finding enough money. We have access and we have resources. We have been blessed. The most wonderful thing about our God is that He invites us to become part of His miracles. Jesus asked the disciple to find some bread. He asks us to give to Him what we have, too. A sandwich might not seem miraculous to us, but what about that homeless man on the street corner? A loaf of bread given to a struggling family might just be enough to get them through until payday. We are blessed to be a blessing, and the kind things we do for our neighbor are daily miracles. We might not see or experience anything incredible, but God does amazing things every day by using us, our access and our resources.
Lectionary Scriptures for Sunday, September 15, 2019, Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Ezekiel 34:11-24; Psalm 119:169-176; 1 Timothy 1:(5-11) 12-17; Luke 15:1-10
“I have gone astray like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I don’t forget your commandments.” Psalm 119:176, WEB
I spent a few years in retail management. I was with Woolworth’s, working as an assistant manager under a great guy at a store in New Jersey. Another store nearby had an assistant manager that seemed to be doing a great job. He arrived at work extremely early; the district managers assumed he was doing so to get more work accomplished. They thought he was working to prove his worth to the company. One day they discovered that his early arrivals had nothing to do with his career. He was a baseball card collector. He purchased hundreds of dollars of cases of baseball cards. He also stole thousands of dollars worth of merchandise by walking it out the back door during those early hours. He was fired and charged with theft, and I was moved into his position.
Unfortunately, he also managed to get some of the employees involved in his scheme. We had to find out which employees were involved and let them go. That assistant manager was hired to lead the employees, to teach them how to do their jobs, and to ensure the success of the store. He not only stole merchandise, he destroyed the spirit of that store. Those who lead others have a responsibility to make sure that they do their best to protect not only their own jobs, but they must care for the people and the institutions for which they were liable.
Ancient Israel ran into a similar situation, something God warned them would happen. In the beginning, they had God as their King and He provided prophets and judges to lead them. There were also priests, whose job was to minister to the Lord and administer the sacrifices. Eventually they wanted to be like everyone else; they wanted to be a kingdom with an earthly ruler who would guide their lives. God warned them that earthly kings demand much from the people; some would be cruel and lay heavy burdens on their lives.
He granted their request. Over the years, some of the kings were cruel and the people were led from the path of righteousness. Israel lost their independence, the line of kings ended and they were left desolate. By the time that Jesus was born, puppet kings controlled by the Romans, ruled over the people. Even the priests and temple leaders were more interested in their own welfare and position than that of the people they were called to lead.
The LORD knew what was going to happen to His people, so He promised that He would search for them when they were lost. He was their Shepherd King from the beginning and He would continue to do so even when they forgot about Him. He promised that though the priests would abandon them for their own selfish desires, He would never let them go. He promised that He would bring them home, give them all they need and tend them as a shepherd tends his sheep. He would not allow any to be lost and all those who suffer would be healed.
He did this by sending Jesus who is our Shepherd, our Savior. Jesus came to fulfill the promises, to fire the bad leaders, to make things right and to return the hearts of God’s people to Him again. It was not an easy task, for only through the cross of humiliation could God’s people be reconciled to Him once again. But Jesus did it; He died for you and for me. Today, we still face human leaders that will lead us astray and put heavy burdens on our lives. There are even such leaders within the church, those who care only for their own welfare and position and who care nothing for the sheep they are called to lead. But God will never abandon His sheep.
Paul has a most extraordinary story to tell. He was passionate for God without even knowing Him, willingly accosting any who stood for the Way, the Christian faith. One day Jesus appeared before him in a powerful and frightening way; he was changed forever. Few of us can tell a similar story. Most of us come to know about God and to have faith in Christ with the patient and persistent witness of those who come before us. I wonder how many times Paul heard the Gospel before that day on the road to Damascus. I wonder how many people he rejected and harmed out of his zealousness for the old way. He was a leader of God’s people, but he was lost. I wonder how many people like Ananias thought Paul was beyond hope, choosing to give up on him rather than risk his wrath. But Jesus sought him out and revealed Himself to Paul.
In this letter to Timothy, Paul recognized his sinfulness, admitting to having been ignorant while he thought himself to be wise. We often see Paul as being strong, arrogant, self-centered because he talks about himself so much, even in letters of encouragement to others. In today’s epistle he wrote, “However, for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first, Jesus Christ might display all his patience for an example of those who were going to believe in him for eternal life.” Paul was not holding himself up as an example of Christ-like living to follow, but as a sample of a humble, repentant sinner receiving God’s amazing grace. Paul didn’t become the great evangelist by any power of his own, but by the power of God’s love and mercy. He called himself the foremost sinner, not because he thought himself greater than others but because he recognized how he never deserved God’s grace because he had rejected God.
It is good to emulate the work of Paul, to share the Gospel as we are able and to serve our brothers and sisters in Christ in whatever manner and gift we have been given, but that is not the example he wants us to follow. In this passage we are called to see ourselves as sinners in need of a Savior, to recognize God’s grace in the world around us and to share it with others so that they too might come to faith. It takes time. Sometimes it takes a lifetime. However no one is outside of hope. We shouldn’t give up on any, no matter how much we are rejected. God did not give up on Paul. He never gave up on us. He hasn’t given up on those who are still lost and suffering in the darkness. He searches for the sheep that is lost.
We lived in England when my son was in Kindergarten. The children were not allowed in the school before a specific time so that the teachers could prepare without having to watch them. Most of the students just gathered willy nilly around the school, but the kindergarteners were assigned a very specific place to wait. They lined up according to classroom and patiently waited for the teachers to come lead them in to school. The parents hovered nearby until they left, keeping their eyes on their children until they were under the care of a responsible adult.
Sometimes the kids were not so patient. It is hard to be five and to stand in line for five or ten minutes, or longer. Since I love interacting with the kids, and often helped in the classroom, I spent that time chatting with Zack and the other children, listening to them tell me about their lives. It didn’t take very long for the children to expect to get a high five or a hug from me along with a listening ear. Some days I nearly fell over when the whole class attacked me.
There was one boy who was very shy. At first he did not want hugs and high fives; he did not want to talk about anything. Each day, however, I said “hello” and offered him my hand. It took a long time - months - before he eventually opened up to me. At first it was just a shy smile or a brief word, but by the end of the school year his smile was bright and his hugs were long. I could have ignored him after the first couple of rejections, but I did not let it go. Though I gave time to every child, I specifically searched out that little boy so that he would know that he was loved. Zack’s teacher told me that those brief moments made a difference to the way the boy performed in school; a little bit of confidence goes a long way.
In today’s Gospel lesson, the sinners and tax collectors were drawing near to Jesus. We normally expect that the faithful will flock to a preacher and teacher, but in Jesus’ case the righteous (the self-righteous) people were offended by Him. They saw Him as a threat. They saw Him as opposite of everything they expected in a Savior. He did not appear more righteous than others because He did things that seemed counter to the Law of Moses. He had mercy on sinners. He ate with tax collectors. He touched the unclean and offered forgiveness to all who sought Him. They came to Him because He had something to offer them, something they could not find anywhere else. The righteous, the self-righteous, did not need mercy or forgiveness. They did not need God’s grace.
The stories in our lesson almost seem contradictory to what was happening. Jesus told of a shepherd and woman looking for something of value. In those stories, God is the shepherd and the woman. Specifically, Jesus was telling stories about Himself. He had come to find the lost sheep and the lost coin. The people who came to hear Him, to receive His grace were the ones He came to find. The religious leaders grumbled about how this supposed rabbi welcomed sinners and tax collectors and ate with them. The sinners and tax collectors are seen as coming to Jesus, but we know that Jesus actually came looking for them. The lost sheep heard the voice of their Master and came running for deliverance. The Pharisees and the scribes did not hear that voice. They did not recognize the voice. They did not know Jesus. The tax collectors and sinners did know Him and they knew they needed what He had to give.
The scribes and Pharisees had not turned to Roman gods but they were drawn away from God by a much less obvious god: themselves. They relied on their self-righteousness, their obedience to a set of laws and their own interpretation of them. They looked down on Jesus because He willingly ate with sinners and tax collectors; to them, this was the sin. They had forgotten that God is the God of mercy and grace, that He loves all who seek Him and that He seeks those who are lost. They missed that Jesus was the one whom God had sent to bring His people home. To them the story of the lost sheep and the lost coin had no meaning because to them it was more important to conform than to seek God. After all, they were the examples of how the people should live.
Ezekiel was commanded to give a warning to the shepherds of Israel. “Tell them that they are not taking care of my sheep.” (Ezekiel 34:1-10) The rulers of Israel were more concerned about their own well-being than that of those whom they were charged with leading. Their lack of care scattered the sheep of their fold, put them in danger of being devoured by the false teachers. The rulers were fat and well clothed but the people were hungry and lost. God said, “Behold, I am against the shepherds.”
Every warning comes with a promise, and that’s what we hear in today’s Old Testament passage. God will care for His flock, searching for those who are missing, restoring them to the field where they will be fed, and giving them rest. There are always some in every group who are weak and those who are strong. Just as it was true in the days of Ezekiel, it was also true in Jesus’ day. The priests, the Pharisees and the Sadducees had all the power and they put heavy burdens on the people. They talked the talk, but didn’t walk the walk. They did what suited them and expected perfection from others. They didn’t even see their own sinfulness.
It is still true today. Every congregation has people who have power and authority who place heavy burdens on the others. There are many within our congregations who are weak. They don’t have a strong understanding of scripture. They have faith the size of a mustard seed, but can’t seem to move mountains with it. They have listened and followed the words of men without knowing which words are truly God’s Word. They have been led astray, and then left to fend for themselves. The church can be the seat of power for some and a place of pain for others. God promises that He will take care of those who have been harmed by leaders who did not care for His sheep.
There was a man at a church we attended a long time ago. He was extremely adamant about a particular issue, and was sure to make passionate speeches every time he spoke. We didn’t even have to be discussing that particular topic at the time: it was his sole concern in life and he was determined to convince everyone that he was right. There was truth in what he said; it was important that we recognize the sin. However, his answer was always condemnation. Anyone who disagreed was surely going to hell. There was no room for grace or mercy in his passion. He spoke the Law to kill rather than to call for repentance, ignoring the promise of forgiveness. What made it worse was his lack of humility. He never recognized his own need for God’s mercy. He would never have described himself as the chief of sinners.
There are many who have taken upon themselves the task of saving sinners by their own power. They think they are wise when they are sadly ignorant of God’s whole truth. Too many are so set in their understanding of scripture that they bash it over the heads of others. They use the Bible as a weapon to condemn sinners, forgetting that they deserve condemnation, too. There is a time and a place for speaking about judgment against sin, as long as we remember that we, too, are sinners in need of God’s grace.
“I will set up one shepherd over them, and he will feed them, even my servant David. He will feed them, and he will be their shepherd. I, Yahweh, will be their God, and my servant David prince among them. I, Yahweh, have spoken it.” The promise was ultimately be fulfilled by the Great Shepherd, the promised Davidic Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus came and He did search for the lost sheep. He did search for the lost coin. He did search for the people of His flock who had been outcast and forgotten because they weren’t perfect. Jesus reminds us that He didn’t come for the perfect that have no need for forgiveness; He came for the sinners who need to be saved. He came for you and me.
There was only one thing that mattered to that man in our former congregation; many people have a similar passion for whatever is their issue. Everything they do in God’s kingdom is focused solely on that one thing. They are never guilty of it and therefore think they are more righteous. They forget that the Gospel is necessary not only for those we deem worthy, but for everyone. The scriptures, God’s Word, is never meant to be used as a weapon to condemn and destroy but to invite those who are lost to see the Great Shepherd. Bashing never saves anyone. Those who bash never really understand what God means when He says we are lost in darkness. They think they are wise, but they are woefully ignorant of God’s Word.
Thank God that Jesus is the One who saves.
Those sinners and tax collectors with whom Jesus was having dinner were probably not outsiders or foreigners. They were probably Jews who had lost their way; they were getting through life they best that they could, even though it did not fit the expectations of the religious leaders. They aren’t any different than the rest of us; we all find a way of living that sometimes goes against the expectations of our faith. As a matter of fact, we understand that the Law is impossible for us to keep perfectly, which is why Jesus came in the first place.
Being a tax collector was so offensive to the Jews because they were traitors, puppets of the Romans, and they often took advantage of their position by taking more than they should. The tax collector received his pay by taking more than the actual taxes. The Romans didn’t care as long as they got the amount they expected, and some of the tax collectors were greedy. They were all rejected and condemned because they were seen as making themselves better at the expense of their fellow Jews.
Jesus loved even the tax collectors and the sinners, so much so that He was willing to set aside societal expectations to have dinner with them. The lesson in today’s Gospel was repeated later in Luke (chapter 19) as Jesus met with Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho. Despite the grumbling of the Jewish leaders, Jesus visited with Zacchaeus and his friends. In the encounter in today’s passage, Jesus reflected on the promise in Ezekiel using a parable, reminding them that God would find the lost sheep and carry them home.
The psalmist writes, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I don’t forget your commandments.” God’s Word is both Law and Promise. The Law calls us to repent, to turn to God. The Gospel assures us that He has provided for our forgiveness. We were like lost sheep, but Jesus found us, saved us, and restored us to a relationship with our God. The Great Shepherd will continue searching for those who are missing, restoring them to the field where they will be fed, and giving them rest. When He finds them, He will carry them on his shoulders, rejoicing just as He did for us.
So, let us live in the mercy of God, praising Him for His promises and for His faithfulness. We will fail, one way or another. We might be among the strong who take advantage of the weak or we might be among the weak who are led astray. But God will make things right. He doesn't think any of us are disposable, and He will always bless those who turn to Him.
“But in giving you this command, I don’t praise you, that you come together not for the better but for the worse. For first of all, when you come together in the assembly, I hear that divisions exist among you, and I partly believe it. For there also must be factions among you, that those who are approved may be revealed among you.” 1 Corinthians 11:17-19, WEB
In yesterday’s devotion, I spoke about a man from a former congregation who was solely focused on one particular issue. He believed that anyone who disagreed with his position on that particular issue, not matter what they said about any other issue, was going to hell. There was truth in what he said, but his focus was wrong. The problem was not the issue itself; there are many different issues that are the sole focus of people in our congregations. It doesn’t matter which issue is being discussed, the real question revolves around our understanding of the scriptures. What does God say and what does He mean?
I would not call the man in our congregation a prophet, although he sometimes sounded as if he thought he was sent by God for the very purpose of convincing the world that his issue was the most important ever. His problem was not his passion, or even the issue, but that he did exactly what those on the other side of his issue were doing. He did not focus on the Word of God. He was more concerned about his opinion and his feelings; he did not know or understand what God said about it. The Bible was lost in his condemnation.
Jesus and the Bible are clear in their warning against false prophets. A false prophet is one who claims to speak for God, but whose message does not fit with the truth of God’s Word. Unfortunately, those who follow the lead of the false prophets walk down a dangerous path. They move away from God. In Matthew 7, Jesus warns that there will be people who cry out to Him, calling Him Lord, but are not recognized as His followers. They have trusted and believed the words of the false prophets and do not know Him as He intends to be known.
So, we ask the question, why would God allow false prophets? Couldn’t He just wipe them out, silence their tongues, or cause the people to reject their words? It is true that God can do all those things, but He doesn’t. He does this to test the saints. Will they be true? Will they continue to walk in the right path? We think it is easy to stay on track, but when a false prophet gives us a message that sounds good, sometimes it is hard to know if it is right or if it is wrong. They are able, like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, to twist God’s word just enough to make the false sound good. That’s why it is important for us to reject those who ask, “Did God really say?” and look to God’s Word for the truth.
Paul wrote, “For there also must be factions among you, that those who are approved may be revealed among you.” God allows false preachers so that the truth will be made ever so clear. The world will always try to oppose the truth, and the devil will try to rip it from you, but God trains each of us with the Word so that we’ll keep our eyes on Him. God will reveal the truth. He allows the false prophets to build up those who will keep focused on His Word, giving us the courage to stand up against those who oppose the truth and the strength to reject the schemes of the devil.
There may be something specific that God calls us to do in this world, some specific issue that is to be our focus in life. Some are called to work with the poor, others create ministries that help children, yet others who are given the gifts to be community activists. The thing we need to remember is that whatever our focus, whatever our issue, as Christians we are to keep God’s Word as the center of everything we do. If we stay true to the Word of God, we will be able to do our individual work in this world. Together we can accomplish God’s Will. Instead of condemning the world, we can glorify Him by revealing His truth so that those who are on a wrong path will turn to Him.
“As therefore you received Christ Jesus, the Lord, walk in him, rooted and built up in him, and established in the faith, even as you were taught, abounding in it in thanksgiving. Be careful that you don’t let anyone rob you through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the elements of the world, and not after Christ. For in him all the fullness of the Deity dwells bodily, and in him you are made full, who is the head of all principality and power.” Colossians 2:6-9, WEB
Superstition is defined, “A widely held but unjustified belief in supernatural causation leading to certain consequences of an action or event, or a practice based on such a belief.” Most superstitions are considered irrational, although everybody has something that they hold to, even if it is subconsciously. Of course, there have been times throughout history when people were more superstitious than at other times. The people who lived in those times were more likely to attribute events, particularly negative, to supernatural or events that were beyond their control. Superstitions are often connected to fears, so we see in events either an ability for us to control or a way of seeking supernatural control over the things we fear might bring us harm.
There is a video online of a bunch of cows moving from one field to another. For some reason, the first cow jumped over the white painted line in the center of the road. All the other cows followed suit. It is a funny video, but it brings to memory a childhood superstition with which we are all familiar. I think to myself, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back. Step on a line, break your father’s spine.” We all played the game at some point in our childhood, of course avoiding the cracks and lines because we were afraid of hurting our parents.
The source of most superstitions is questionable. Look up “Friday the 13th” and you’ll discover a number of different reasons why it has become a day of bad luck. None of them are truly rational. Today we have the added disadvantage of it being a full moon. The craziness of a full moon and the danger of Friday the 13th means that some people are afraid to even leave their homes today.
Do you suffer from friggatriskaidekaphobia, which is an abnormal fear of Friday the 13th? According to the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Ashville, North Carolina, millions of people suffer from this phobia to the point of changing their daily routine on the day to avoid bad luck. Some people refuse to go to work or even get out of bed. I heard someone recently say that they planned to travel on September 12th because they refused to get on an airplane on September 11th or September 13th. Interestingly, the Dutch Center for Insurance Statistics report that fewer accidents, fires or thefts are reported to have happened when Friday is the 13th compared to all other Fridays. So is it really unlucky? Or, are people so frightened by the possibility of accident that they are extra careful on Friday the 13th?
Why did this superstition come into being? Though some fears are extreme, there are often reasonable reasons for them. We are afraid of snakes because some snakes can really hurt humans. The fear of heights can come from a real experience of falling or knowing someone who fell. The news is filled with images of fiery plane crashes, so it is understandable when someone refuses to board a plane. But have those millions of people really experienced something horrible on Friday the 13th to give the fear substance? Probably not.
We are so ingrained with the belief that something bad will happen on Friday the 13th that we think the superstition has been around for a long time. However, there is little evidence that the superstition was popular before the 20th century. There are a few writings that make reference to the date, a few horrific events that happened on Friday the 13th, but researchers can only theorize that the tradition began because of those events. A website lists a dozen possible reasons why people might have this unreasonable fear, but every theory is questionable. So, can this day be truly unlucky when there is no real reason to think so?
There are those who think that faith in the Christian God is nothing but superstition. They think that the story of Jesus Christ is a mere fairy tale. They have a limited understanding of the God of our salvation and think we are foolish for believing. Yet, I suspect that many of them hold to some sort of superstition of their own, such as avoiding cracks or being extra careful on Friday the 13th. We get worked up over our fears because we forget that we do not go through our days alone. Friday the 13th is like any other day; we are afraid because we do not trust. If you are afraid to go out into the world because it is Friday the 13th, remember that Jesus has promised to be with you always, and face the day with courage and faith. It might not be a perfect day, but with God in the midst of it everything will work out just the way He has planned.
“How long, Yahweh? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart every day? How long shall my enemy triumph over me? Behold, and answer me, Yahweh, my God. Give light to my eyes, lest I sleep in death; lest my enemy say, ‘I have prevailed against him;’ lest my adversaries rejoice when I fall. But I trust in your loving kindness. My heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to Yahweh, because he has been good to me.” Psalm 13, WEB
I remember that when I was in school I had to read the book “Of Mice and Men,” by John Steinbeck. Quite frankly, I don’t remember much about the book. Not only was it a long time ago, but it didn’t interest me very much at the time. Like many high school students, I remembered what I needed to know for the test and then the book was erased from my mind. I do remember one line, though, and I have been known to quote it often. “The best-laid plans of mice and me often go awry.”
I try to work out my schedule early in the week so that I could get through it stress free. It didn’t matter how well I planned, something always comes up. On an easy week I am able to write each day, do my daily tasks, and sometimes I’m even able to take time to do something besides run errands. On the not so easy weeks, I try to look ahead to see if I have any place I need to be and write ahead. This week I am attending a meeting on Monday, so I have to plan ahead. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes my plans go awry, especially when something unexpected happens.
Just as we make daily and weekly schedules, we also make plans for our future. We decide where we want to be in ten years. We think about our relationships, our jobs, and our children’s lives. Are you where you thought you would be a decade or so ago? The best-laid plans of mice and men often go astray. Sometimes we change our vision. Sometimes we do not have the gifts to accomplish our original goals. Sometimes other things get in our way.
Sometimes it is not the will of God.
Unfortunately, our best-laid plans often get in God’s way. The psalm is a lament, sung by someone facing some struggle or obstacle. Though life has not gone as they had hoped, and they were feeling abandoned, but the psalmist trusted that God would make everything right. Singing a song of praise brought the singer into the presence of God. He dwells where His name is spoken. He dwells in the hearts and on the lips of the faithful who sing about His goodness. As they sing, they not only show their praise to God, but they reveal His wondrous goodness to the world. Thus, God is made known to those who have not believed through the praise and thanksgiving of God’s people. All the other gods are brought low as the Mighty One is raised high.
We might want to plan for the week or for the future, but let us ever remember that God has a plan we do not know or understand. When our best-laid plan go awry, let’s trust that God can make all things work for His glory, and sing in praise and thanksgiving, even if it means we might have to struggle. We will quickly discover that the plans God has for us are much better than anything we can imagine.
“But you, beloved, remember the words which have been spoken before by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, ‘In the last time there will be mockers, walking after their own ungodly lusts.’ These are those who cause divisions and are sensual, not having the Spirit. But you, beloved, keep building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in God’s love, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life. On some have compassion, making a distinction, and some save, snatching them out of the fire with fear, hating even the clothing stained by the flesh. Now to him who is able to keep them from stumbling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory in great joy, to God our Savior, who alone is wise, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever. Amen.” Jude 1:17-25, WEB
I was reading the testimony of a man who had once been a Buddhist. He had stopped believing in anything religious, calling himself an atheist. He had a great disdain for everything Christian. One day he burned a bible, telling his father that there was nothing good about it. He was proud to make the statement, but it didn’t bring him any peace. The next day he decided to pray because he was seeking something he had yet to find. He had a vision during that prayer of a glorious man. At first he thought it might be Buddha or some other spiritual being, but it was Jesus Christ. Jesus asked the man why he was persecuting Him, but the man knew that even though he had burned a Bible, Jesus loved him. He became a Christian, shocking his father who knew how much he hated Christianity just one day earlier.
As I read this story, the first thing I wondered was why an atheist who does not believe in God would even sit down to pray. To whom is an atheist speaking? I think it is interesting that the common response to tragedy these days is to “send thoughts and prayers.” The concept of prayer assumes a higher power, someone greater in whom we trust, who we believe will do something to ease our suffering and pain. Unfortunately, many people struggle with the idea of a higher power, so they send out “thoughts” because they can be thrown out to the universe in the hope (?) that somehow somewhere someone will make something happen. This accomplishes nothing and we do not experience the peace that trusting in God can give us even in the toughest times.
Those of us with faith can’t understand those who have rejected God. Some not only doubt, but refuse to believe that there is even a God. Even those who claim to be atheist somehow, in the very depths of their spirits, know that there is something out there, even if they can’t define or explain it. They throw out thoughts, not even realizing that the only one who will ever hear them is the God they have rejected, the only one who can do anything about our struggles.
So, how do we deal with our relationships with those who have strong opinions against our God? How do we answer those willing to burn a Bible and reject even the existence of that someone somewhere who can do something to bring us peace? Jude tells us to have compassion. There are certainly those who will mock us for our faith. They will call our belief in God nothing but a fairy tale. They will try to convince us that we should live according to the ways of the world. They might even persecute us.
We have compassion, knowing that Jesus is able to do the miraculous. He is even able to reveal Himself to those who don’t even know to whom they are talking. He can snatch them out of the fire as we fearlessly and boldly share the Gospel of grace and mercy with them. We need to stay strong in the face of opposition because it is by our witness that Jesus Christ can and does reveal Himself to the world. That’s why it is so important that we do not judge and condemn the mockers, but rather have compassion, because it is through grace that they will be saved.Top
September 18, 2019
Lectionary Scriptures for Sunday, September 22, 2019, Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-15; Luke 16:1-15
“He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much. He who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.” Luke 16:10, WEB
The problem with the tax collectors in Jesus’ day is that they took more than should. They were given a figure that they were required to take, and that included enough to cover their pay. What many did, however, was to take more than necessary and kept the excess. They took advantage of their neighbors. The tax collectors that served Caesar among the Jews were Jews themselves, making this an even greater sin because they were taking advantage of their own people. We celebrate Zacchaeus because he repented when he met Jesus and gave back what he could to those who he had cheated.
“And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends by means of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when it shall fail, they may receive you into the eternal tabernacles.” We are bothered by this text because we do not understand how Jesus could tell the people to use money to make friends. Jesus isn’t encouraging dishonesty, but He is trying to induce people to make the best use of their resources. The Jews were a people of faith, called to trust in God and His provision of all they needed. Their attitude was meant to be one of mutual caring. Those who had much were expected to share with those who did not have enough. Any money beyond that which is necessary to meet today’s needs was considered “unrighteous mammon.”
We call the manager “dishonest” because that is the way it is translated in many versions, but the Greek word can be translated “unrighteous.” Unrighteousness is about broken relationships, about being in “un-right” in one’s associations. The manager was not right in this relationship with the rich man, and not right in his relationship with the people. His right use of the unrighteous mammon put him in right relationship with the rich man and with the people. We should not use this manager as an example of good or godly living. He is still an unrighteous man doing dishonest things with mammon.
Unfortunately, we still struggle with living according to God’s Word. We are not very good stewards of the resources God has given to us. We are wasteful, greedy and dishonest. We do not always use our resources in a way that will build up the kingdom and take care of the needs of those who do not have enough. We are so much like that unrighteous manager and God calls us to account. We are put in charge of earthly wealth for a time. Will we use that wealth in a way that will heal broken relationships and make us right with one another?
It is a question of faithfulness. Those who are faithful with a little will be given charge of very much, but those who are dishonest with a little will be dishonest with much. We are called to be faithful with our earthly possessions so that we can also be trusted with the true riches. Faithfulness means trusting in God, living in His amazing grace and sharing our blessedness with others. The parable shows a world that trusts in mammon, by it we learn that we cannot trust in wealth or money because it is fleeting. Instead, by God’s grace we can trust in Him who is the source of all our wealth and use that wealth shrewdly in this world to build up His kingdom, bringing others into right relationship with God.
Our attitude begins in worship. Why do we go to church? This is not a question that will affect our salvation because our faith is not dependent on the things that we do. However, as Christians we are called to examine ourselves to determine the state of our hearts. That’s what God sees; He searches us for the motivations that affect our actions. There are a million reasons to go to church, some good and some not so good. We go to church to worship God, to receive God’s grace in Word and Sacrament, to enjoy the fellowship of other Christians. We also go to church to network with others, to check off a duty on some checklist, to see or be seen.
As Christians we are called to examine ourselves to determine the state of our hearts. Are our motives good and right and true before the God of our faith? When we are at church, are we anxious to be somewhere else? Are we more focused on what will happen later that day than what is happening in the moment? If our motives are wrong, we are more likely to be distracted, singing half-heartedly, nodding off during the sermon, rushing out as soon as the service is over for that cup of coffee and donut or to get on with our lives. If we attend worship for the wrong reasons, we will not give God the praise He deserves. He wants more than our bodies. He wants our hearts.
Apparently this has always been a problem with God’s people, so it is no surprise that there might be people attending worship today for the wrong reasons. The people in the passage from Amos were obviously not there in heart and soul. God could see their hearts, and He sees ours. We also see that those who were anxious to be finished with the worship did not take their faith into the world. They robbed the poor and cheated the needy. They cared only for taking care of themselves. So, why do we go to church? We can’t read the state of someone else’s heart but we can examine ourselves. What happens when we leave the church and go out into the world? Do we take our faith with us or are we anxious to get on with our lives?
In this passage from Amos, we see that there are always people who are lovers of money and seekers of unrighteous mammon. As a matter of fact, they can’t stand to wait through even the holy days to get out in the market to sell, sell, sell, and cheat, cheat, cheat. They make the measures small but the prices high; they use false scales and take advantage of the poor. They sell inferior products to make the biggest score. They might be faithful in taking their Sabbath rest, but they live unrighteously every other day of the week.
We might think that it is enough to attend an hour of church and time in bible study, but we go about our daily lives as if God is trapped in the walls of the church. We convince ourselves that He doesn’t care what we do the other 166 hours a week. Like those merchants in Amos’s day, we can’t wait until the Sabbath is over so we can go about chasing after the world. But God calls us to a different life. He calls us to a life in which enough is truly enough and anything more than enough is meant to be shared.
We don’t need to lie and cheat and steal to get ahead; we don’t need to pursue wealth for our own sake. God will bless us with enough, and if we don’t have enough, He’ll bless us with a neighbor who has enough. And if we have more than enough, He will give us the opportunity to help a neighbor who doesn’t. It is all about trusting God. That extra wealth is unrighteous mammon, so what are we going to do with it? Are we going to hoard the wealth we think we’ve earned or are we going to listen for God’s voice and be obedient to God’s call to use that unrighteous mammon in righteous ways?
Jesus says, “He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much. He who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.” We can see that, can’t we? Money is a fact of life; we can’t live without it. But we can live faithfully by using our worldly wealth in ways that will glorify God. Are we like the dishonest manager? Can any of our neighbors charge us before the Lord with squandering God’s gifts? The words of the prophet and Jesus are as relevant for us in today’s world as they were for Israel so long ago. If we can’t be good stewards of the worldly resources we have been given, why would God trust us with the true riches?
I once took a survey about spirituality in our church today. The surveyor asked questions about when we feel spiritual, where we experience the presence of God and how we describe God. Some of the questions were very hard because I wanted to give multiple answers. In one question, the surveyor asked “How do you describe God? One or three?” I wanted to answer “Yes” because to me we can’t understand God as simply one or three. He is both. In another question, the surveyor asked whether God was “knowable or a mystery.” Again I wanted to answer “Yes” because he is both knowable and mysterious.
We know God because He has revealed Himself to the world. In the beginning He said, “Let there be light” and there was light. Though there was no one present in the beginning to see that light, it has continued to shine as God’s presence in the world. God revealed Himself to Adam and Eve in the Garden, and He never stopped loving them even though they sinned and were cast out of His presence. God revealed Himself to the faithful over the ages. He appeared to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the judges, prophets and kings in many different ways. He revealed Himself in the Law. He revealed Himself in the deliverance of His people. He revealed Himself through promises and then finally He revealed Himself in Jesus Christ.
We know God because He came to dwell among His people in the flesh. Born a child in a humble stable in Bethlehem, Jesus Christ was the embodiment of the divine in the body of a man. Through Christ we have seen the very character of God living and breathing among men. We saw God’s love and mercy and grace in action as Jesus preached the good news, healed the sick and set free those who were bound by all manner of things. We can know God personally through Jesus Christ. We can even call Him Abba or Daddy.
Despite how knowable God is to the faithful, He is still a mystery. God is the Creator of heaven and earth. He is the Deliverer who brought His people out of slavery in Egypt. He is the Redeemer who set His people free from the burden of their sin. He is living and active in our world today, just as He was in the beginning when He brought light out of darkness and order out of chaos. He still creates and recreates His creation, guiding His people in His ways and gifting us with all we need to join Him in the work of creation and redemption in this world.
This is the greatest mystery. Why would the Creator, Deliverer and Redeemer of the world give authority and power to people like you and I to help with His work in the world? It is by His grace that people are saved, but it is through our humble human flesh that He is revealed to them. It is His Word that brings peace, but our tongues speak that Word to the world. It is by His blood that we are forgiven, but He has chosen to institute rituals using water, bread, wine and people to share those elements with His faithful. He has promised us great things and remains faithful despite our inability to remain faithful to Him. He is truly a mystery in that He is the Lord God Almighty and yet He decided to send His Son to the world to teach His people how to live and die so that they will live forever.
The Jewish leaders were blessed with the responsibility of caring for God’s people, yet they did not do their work well. Most people barely survived. They could not save any coins because at the end of the day there were no coins to save. They earned a day’s wages and spent it on the day’s needs. But there were those who had a different life, like the Pharisees. They were able to afford fine clothes and marble columns on their homes. They could feast on good food and enjoy the company of their friends. They considered their wealth a blessing from God, but forgot that they were blessed to be a blessing. They looked down on poor and blamed their sinfulness for their hardship. The Pharisees had more than enough, their extra wealth was unrighteous mammon. They were misusing the blessings that God had given to them. Jesus was calling them to check their hearts.
Jesus doesn’t give us many details in the story of the wealthy landowner and his manager. Was the manager incompetent? Was he lazy? Was he greedy? We don’t really even know how bad the situation was. All we know is that the landowner has heard rumors that the manager was wasting his money and he called the manager to make an accounting. The bottom line is this: did the manager accomplish the work of his master? The landowner didn’t care about the manager’s wealth, as long as the work was done to his expectation.
What was the manager to do? He had no skills and he was unwilling to beg. He had to do something. He was using the wealth at his disposal in a way that did not serve the needs of his neighbors. His solution to the problem was to make things right. The unrighteous mammon, the “more than enough,” should have been shared but wasn’t. He may have been taking advantage of them, but at the very least he was not taking care of them.
He repented and began to help the neighbors with their bills in a way that would both satisfy his master and ingratiate him with his neighbors. Then, when he was in need they might pay it forward to help him through a tough time. He made friends by using that unrighteous mammon, and established for himself the promise of a community that would take him in.
The manager did not reduce the bills equally; I think the manager was taking into account the needs of the neighbors. The oil producer could only really afford to give the master fifty measures, but the wheat farmer could still afford eighty. In the end the master’s books were right and the master commended the manager for being shrewd.
The Pharisees were “not right” with God or with the people around them. They were using the unrighteous mammon with which they’d been blessed, justifying it as gifts from God, to make their lives better while ignoring the needs of their neighbors. They had more than enough and they forgot that everything they had belonged to God and was given to them as stewards, or managers, to do the Lord’s business. They sought fine robes and marble columns while their neighbors suffered until the oppression of few resources and high taxes. They wanted to be exalted, and they created an image for themselves that set them above others, but in the end God knew their hearts. They loved something more than Him: they loved money.
I have to confess that I like money. I hope and I pray that I don’t love it. I hope and I pray that I do not take advantage of my neighbors for the sake of money and that I use my “more than enough” to do God’s work in the world. I know I fail. I know that I haven’t always given as generously as I can. I know I like to save some money in the bank “just in case,” so that it will be available for an emergency. I know that means that I am not trusting entirely in God. But I also know that He’s called us to be good stewards, and I pray that I will respond to God’s voice when He calls me to share my resources in someone’s time of need.
Putting all things of this world aside, we are equal in the eyes of God. By our own power we are all slaves to the world. We squander the creation over which we have been given charge. We deserve to suffer the fate of that dishonest manager. Yet, Jesus Christ has taken our unworthiness and made us worthy by His blood, so that we can take what we have been given and use it wisely, in a godly manner, to glorify God in all that we do.
Where do we start? We start with prayer. Paul writes to Timothy, “I exhort therefore, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and givings of thanks be made for all men: for kings and all who are in high places, that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and reverence.” Most of us have enough. We might have a little extra and we do with it what we can. But there are those in the world who not only have the resources, but also the power and position to do more. The Pharisees could have made things right for so many people, but they were more concerned about their robes and marble columns. Many of the leaders of our world have the resources and the power to make great things happen, but they have lost touch with God.
We are to pray “that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and reverence.” In Paul’s day the leaders were enemies of the Christians. The Jewish leaders were fighting the Way, trying to halt the strange new religion that was bringing conflict to families and communities. The Roman leaders were also fighting the new religion because the conflicts were causing strife in the cities and the empire. The Christians were tearing apart the Pax Romana, the Roman peace, which had been enjoyed so long. Imagine how hard it must have been to pray for the leaders who were the enemies of the Way.
In a blog I read once, an atheist wrote, “Don’t pray for me.” He did not believe that there is a God, so considered prayer a waste of time and energy. He also assumed that any prayers would be for conversion. He was probably right. All too many of our prayers are for the wrong reasons. This is also true when we are praying for our leaders. We pray prayers with an agenda, as if we are trying to teach the listeners, including God, how things should be done. These are the prayers that describe the issue at hand and then ask God to make people to see how it should be. “Turn their hearts so that they will do exactly what I think they should be doing.” If there is no room for change, then we pray that God will replace the leader with someone who will do what we think is right. No wonder the atheists and others do not wish to have us pray for them. Our prayers, too often, seem to be focused on our point of view rather than seeking God’s will.
We pray because we are commanded to pray; it is also our way of showing our support, of bringing our hopes and concerns before someone who is greater than us. It is through prayer that we find peace in the situation. Prayer does not always bring about the answers we want, but we pray in confidence that God has heard and that He will be present. We want to see a change of heart, but for us that usually means that the person will become like us.
Instead, when we pray for someone, truly and really pray for them without an agenda, we can’t help but identify with them and grow in love for them. God’s grace enters into our hearts and we see them from a new perspective: from God’s heart. If we constantly pray for them to become like us, we see only how they are different. We pray for change and we take that prayerful attitude into the work we do. If we want them to change, we’ll do anything to ensure the prayers are answered to our satisfaction.
As much as we think we are right, our point of view might not be what God intends. We don’t know the whole picture. We know only that God is faithful and that He will be with us. He wants all men to be saved, but He hasn’t told us how He will accomplish it. He only asks that we live the tranquil and quiet life so that men will see the God of grace in our lives. Our prayers, and the actions brought about by our prayers, will stand as a witness to God’s love in this world. He will take care of the rest. He knows what He intends, He knows hearts and He is faithful. As we live in this truth we can pray for others, whether they are unbelievers or enemies, with thanksgiving, knowing that God has purpose for them, too.
Jesus says those who are faithful with little will be faithful with much. Are we being faithful with the Christian life we are called to live? Are we being faithful with our resources, with our prayers? God sees our hearts and knows our motivations. Luke writes is talking about important things: spiritual and eternal riches. If someone is not trustworthy and honorable with the things of this world, how can they possibly handle the things of God? Jesus knows those who can be trusted with the work of His kingdom, He knows the hearts of those who will serve Him well. There are many who take advantage of the gifts of God for their own sake, but God knows those who have been faithful and they will be blessed with so much more.
“Moreover Yahweh said, ‘Because the daughters of Zion are arrogant, and walk with outstretched necks and flirting eyes, walking to trip as they go, jingling ornaments on their feet; therefore the Lord brings sores on the crown of the head of the women of Zion, and Yahweh will make their scalps bald.’ In that day the Lord will take away the beauty of their anklets, the headbands, the crescent necklaces, the earrings, the bracelets, the veils, the headdresses, the ankle chains, the sashes, the perfume containers, the charms, the signet rings, the nose rings, the fine robes, the capes, the cloaks, the purses, the hand mirrors, the fine linen garments, the tiaras, and the shawls. It shall happen that instead of sweet spices, there shall be rottenness; instead of a belt, a rope; instead of well set hair, baldness; instead of a robe, a wearing of sackcloth; and branding instead of beauty. Your men shall fall by the sword, and your mighty in the war. Her gates shall lament and mourn. She shall be desolate and sit on the ground.” Isaiah 3:16-26, WEB
I keep the decorations in my doorway and front garden seasonal. The garden flags highlight the time of year; right now I have fall items out there which replaced some fun summer objects. I have a place in a closet where I store everything until it is time to use again. I once met a woman in a craft store who was looking at seasonal decorations to buy for her garden. She told me that she keeps everything in her garden year round; she said she adds new items with each season.
I’m sure we have all heard of or seen gardens like this. The yards are fence to fence with strange little scenes, with trolls or gazing balls: entering the yard is like entering another world. I have to admit that those types of homes are overwhelming to me. I think some of them are a bit tacky and cluttered. Sometimes those yards are eyesores. Some people have even been sued by neighbors over muddled attempts at decorating.
Not that all my ideas are appreciated by others. I’ve been thinking that it would be fun to take an old wheelbarrow and fill it with succulents. An old bathtub filled with white flowers might look like someone is taking a bubble bath in the middle of my yard. I would like to use some old salvage materials to build climbing walls for vines. I even thought about buying the shell of a British Mini, filling it with dirt and then planting flowers so they flow out of the windows. Despite the uniqueness of these ideas, I don’t think I would ever go so far as keeping every season scattered around my yard.
There are many different things that motivate people when it comes to decorating. I really think the lady at the craft store just loves all her things so much she wants to share them with everyone all the time. I think she likes to make people smile. I’ve seen stories of people who do it to annoy the neighbors. Others do it because they really don’t understand how horrible it looks. Some people are just too lazy to take out the old stuff when they add new stuff. There are also those that are trying to show off something about their life like their heritage, their wealth or their faith.
I’m sure we all get out of control when it comes to certain aspects of our life. For some people it is the number of shoes that they own. There are those that are fanatical about washing their cars or mowing their lawns several times a week. I know people who can’t pass a sale without buying something even though they already have a closet full of unworn clothes. Some people cover their bodies with piercings and tattoos. Why any of us put so much energy into our obsessions is not known, but they can get out of control, making our lives tacky and cluttered. It is bad when these decorations become our priority.
The prophecy in today’s text was directed at the women of Jerusalem who had lost sight of God in their quest to be more beautiful and richly ornamented than anyone else. This was one of the many sins of the Jews, along with injustice and dishonesty. They turned away from God and focused their hearts on their own physical needs and ignored the other needs in the world.
It is not bad to have pretty things in our lives, after all, God did give us all of creation to make our world beautiful. However, He commands us to worship only Him, to make Him the center of our life and faith. When we put all our energy and resources into the things of this world, our world begins to look tacky and cluttered. It is no longer the beautiful thing God created, but some strange universe we have created for ourselves. We may still do some of the unusual and humorous things in our yard that I want to do, but I hope we always keep our hearts and minds focused on God so that our resources will be readily available to serve Him rather than ourselves.
“Then Job arose, and tore his robe, and shaved his head, and fell down on the ground, and worshiped. He said, ‘Naked I came out of my mother’s womb, and naked will I return there. Yahweh gave, and Yahweh has taken away. Blessed be Yahweh’s name.’ In all this, Job didn’t sin, nor charge God with wrongdoing.” Job 1:20-22, WEB
Job was a man of faith, a righteous man who trusted God and lived according to His Word. He followed the rituals and practices expected of him. He was kind and generous. And he was very blessed. According to the story, Satan was wondering the world trying to find souls to steal. Almost as a challenge, God pointed to Job and asked if Satan had considered Job. “Of course he lives rightly; he’s had not reason to curse you.” Then God gave Satan permission to test Job by destroying everything, but he was not allowed to hurt Job’s flesh.
Satan did all sorts of bad things. Job received word after word from the few servants that managed to escape the disasters. His oxen and donkeys were stolen by Sabeans, his sheep were consumed by fire, his camels were taken by Chaldeans, and all his children were killed when a great wind felled the house where they were eating. Satan used foreigners and nature to destroy Job’s life. Job’s response is to grieve and worship.
What struck me as I read this text yesterday is that Job did not do what most of us do: he did not blame Satan. Isn’t that what happens when something horrible happens to many people? They point out anything bad had to come from a source that is bad. God could not do, or allow, such evil onto someone, especially someone as righteous as Job. They put their focus on Satan, in essence giving him credit for what has happened. Job mourned his loss, but he also worshipped God. This is not about blaming God, however. Job recognized that all blessings come from God, they belong to Him, and any loss that comes to us is simply God restoring us to where we began: “naked I came, and naked I will return.”
When something bad happens to us, we want to find fault. “Who did this?” we ask. It is natural, of course, and it is necessary in making things right between people to discover the truth about what causes pain and brokenness. Satan certainly deserved the blame in Job’s story, because he is the one who directly caused the trouble. Job knew, however, that God is the ultimate authority and that He must have a purpose in what happened. And if there is no purpose, then He will make things right. God is worthy to be praised in our good times and in our bad times. Our witness is far greater, as in the story of Job, when we can hold on to faith despite everything falling apart in our world.
“Give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good... give thanks to the God of gods... give thanks to the Lord of lords... to him who alone does great wonders... to him who by understanding made the heavens... to him who spread out the earth above the waters... to him who made the great lights... the sun to rule by day... the moon and stars to rule by night... to him who struck down the Egyptian firstborn... and brought out Israel from among them... with a strong hand, and with an outstretched arm... to him who divided the Red Sea apart... and made Israel to pass through the middle of it... but overthrew Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea... to him who led his people through the wilderness... to him who struck great kings... and killed mighty kings... Sihon king of the Amorites... Og king of Bashan... and gave their land as an inheritance... even a heritage to Israel his servant... who remembered us in our low estate... and has delivered us from our adversaries... who gives food to every creature... Oh give thanks to the God of heaven...” Psalm 136, WEB
I have taken artistic license in the text of today’s scripture passage. I removed the refrain from each verse and replaced it with ellipses. Despite being the most important statement in the whole psalm, vital even in its repetition, I decided that we should look at the reason why it is so true. See, the ellipses replace the line “...for his loving kindness endures forever,” which is the very reason that we should give thanks to God who is good, who is the God of gods and the Lord of lords.
We are called to give thanks because He alone does great wonders. He made the heavens. He created the earth. He made the sun and moon which do what He has created them to do. He saved His people from Egypt then guided, protected and provided for them through the wilderness to the Promised Land. He has the power to control nature and to overcome the kings of the earth. He does all this for the people He loves. But His love did not end at the Promised Land; it continued for God’s people even as they failed to be faithful. It continued for His people when He saved them from the greatest adversaries: sin, death and the devil. His love endures for us today.
Give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good; for his loving kindness endures forever. (WEB) Give thanks to God because God’s faithful love lasts forever! (Common English Bible) Give thanks to God because His love endures forever. (NIV) Give thanks to God because His faithful love endures forever. (New Living Translation) Give thanks to God because his mercy endureth for ever. (KJV) Give thanks to God because His steadfast love endures forever. (English Standard Version) Give thanks to God because His love never quits. (The Message) Give thanks to God because His lovingkindness (graciousness, mercy, compassion) endures forever. (Amplified Bible) So many different ways to say that God’s love is eternal.
God has done great things and shown His faithfulness to His people throughout the generations. I left out the key phrase in today’s passage above, but they are words that we should utter every moment of every day to remind us of the great and good things that He has done. His love endures, His mercy endures, His compassion endures forever. By His grace His people were saved from Egypt, but that was just a foretaste of the salvation that He would offer to the world through Jesus Christ. By His willing sacrifice which overcame sin, death and the devil, we will experience His love forever, dwelling eternally in His presence. We will sing these words with the great chorus of saints one day, but let us join them in singing the words today. “Give thanks to Yahweh, for he is good; for his loving kindness endures forever.”
“I went by the field of the sluggard, by the vineyard of the man void of understanding: Behold, it was all grown over with thorns. Its surface was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down. Then I saw, and considered well. I saw, and received instruction: a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep, so your poverty will come as a robber and your want as an armed man.” Proverbs 24:30-34
We lived in England for four years, and took advantage of the wonderful opportunities of living in a foreign country. We visited many historic sites, trying to go somewhere as often as our schedule allowed. I glued a map of England onto a piece of foam core and we inserted a pin everywhere we visited. The pins close to our home because so crowded that there was no room for new ones. There are hundreds of places marked, and each visit provided us with lessons on history and memories that we continue to share.
When we began our quest in England, we expected the castles to look like those we see in Disney movies. However, we quickly learned that many were little more than cold stone boxes. There were no soaring turrets or beautiful stained glass windows. The roof lines were flat with defensive walls so that soldiers could watch in every direction and defend against attack. The stone box is called ‘the keep’; it is the central and most secure building within the castle compound. The walls were ten feet thick and the windows were mere slits large enough to shoot an arrow at an enemy. The first castle we visited was called Castle Rising. This castle was four or five stories high, and it was definitely designed for defense rather than comfort.
The town of Castle Rising was at one time a very busy port. The castle controlled this port and reaped the economic benefits. However, over the years, silt built up along the coast. After hundreds of years, the castle that once lay on the coastline was several miles away from water. The port was moved and a new town was established on the new coast. Castle Rising became obsolete. People still lived within the walls of the castle, but the building was not properly maintained. The financial advantage was gone, so they didn’t have the funds to keep things strong and beautiful. One day the wooden roof collapsed and the family moved out. The defensive walls surrounding the compound were torn apart by the village people who used them to build a church and houses. The site now lies in ruins, home to the pigeons. There are hundreds like it around the country. Each one has its own story, and most often the lack of maintenance was the reason for its destruction.
The proverb for today is a lesson for us about taking care of the things that belong to us. The sluggard was too lazy to do what needed to be done for the field to produce good fruit. Ongoing labor is necessary to the path of wisdom. This does not mean that we should not rest from our labors, but that we do not let laziness become our way of life because it will lead to ruin.
Our lives take maintenance. We must eat properly and exercise to keep our physical body in shape. We must have social and intellectual pursuits to maintain our heart and mind. Our Christian life also needs maintenance. We must worship God and fellowship with other believers, spend time in prayer and Bible study. If we do not work at keeping our body, heart and mind strong, weeds and destruction will overtake our lives. By the power of God’s Holy Spirit, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, do all you can to maintain your life, to the Glory of God the Father.
Lectionary Scriptures for Sunday, September 29, 2019, Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Amos 6:1-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 3:1-13; Luke 16:19-31
“Besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, that those who want to pass from here to you are not able, and that no one may cross over from there to us.” Luke 16:26, WEB
Watch just a few minutes of the news these days and you will see that there is trouble everywhere. There is war and fighting around the world, people are dying at the hands of their neighbors; people are suffering from natural disasters. Illness is rampant; it seems like there is more dis-ease in body, mind and spirit than there ever has been. People are frustrated financially, lonely because of broken relationships and afraid of what tomorrow might hold. Even our entertainment is filled with the promise of suffering rather than hope.
Amos certainly did not offer much consolation in his prophecy to Israel. Unlike the other prophets, who interspersed promises of God’s mercy in their books, Amos only gives four verses, the last four, of consolation. God was angry. Amos was angry. Sometimes, it seems, we have moments when we, too, are angry.
Amos was a prophet who was sent to the Northern Kingdom, Israel, in the middle of the eight century B.C. This was a time of prosperity and security; the people were comfortable. They thought their prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing. They believed that they were reliving the golden age of Israel, the time when David and Solomon were kings. They practiced all the religious rituals, worshipping as expected, and attributed their prosperity to God’s pleasure. Unfortunately, God was not pleased with their worship; their beliefs were pagan in nature.
The Northern Kingdom was situated close to Assyria, so close that the Assyrians were able to assimilate themselves into the lives of the Israelites. The Assyrians were strong and offered protection for Israel. The people of both nations intermarried and the foreign gods became part of their daily living. They were politically secure and they were spiritually arrogant. They did not see the destruction that was happening to Israel from within: within their hearts.
The scene in today’s passage is a gathering of leaders, comfortably feasting in Samaria. It was opulent and excessive and lasted for days. Amos warned that they are ignoring the reality of their future, that invasion and exile was near. The luxury in which they were wallowing is obvious: they lay on beds made of ivory and overindulged in the finest meats, wine and oil. Not only were they gorging themselves on the finest resources of Israel while danger waited around the corner, they were using the resources that were meant for God. The choice lambs and fatted calves were meant for sacrifice. The bowls were taken from temple in Samaria, and originally part of religious ceremony, and they were being used by the leaders to get drunk. The oil was also used for ceremonial services. In other words, they were not only ignoring the turning of Israel from God, they were stealing from Him to celebrate their prosperity and security.
Amos warned them that it would end. Though they thought they were safe and comfortable, they would be the first to fall. Those who thought their prosperity was the very sign that God was with them would be the first to realize that He had left them to fend for themselves. In this they would learn that not only is the Lord God Almighty ruler over Israel, but He is ruler over all the earth. He commands even the armies of His enemies, granting them the power over His people for the sake of the life and their future.
This warning should have brought those leaders to their knees, turned them back to the God of their fathers. They did not hear, ignoring the promise of downfall because they thought that they had done enough to earn God’s grace. They worshipped as was required, but they had forgotten what was most important: that God calls His people to practice justice and mercy. The leaders who gorged on the finest meat and lounged on ivory covered couches had no concern for the welfare of the people over whom they had been appointed. The reward for their indifference would be that they would lead their people into the exile. They would no longer have ivory covered couches or fine meats at extravagant feasts. They would suffer at the hands of those whom they trusted because they stopped trusting the only One who could give them peace.
The reward for the man in today’s Gospel lesson is far more personal. He wasn’t destroyed by an earthly enemy; he met death and discovered that his life of leisure was his only consolation. He had stopped trusting in the God who gave him his prosperity for a purpose and lived for himself, only to discover in death that he would not receive the benefit of God’s mercy.
Lazarus was obviously very sick. He had sores all over his body and he was so hungry that he was willing to eat the crumbs which were given for the dogs. Lazarus was poor, not only in money, but also in flesh and in friends. He did not have anyone to care for his needs; those apparently responsible for him were so uncaring that they simply laid him at the gate of a rich man in the hope that he might get some compassion and help. The rich man was exactly the opposite. Not only was he so wealthy that he had a home with a gate and food enough to eat, but he was also healthy and surrounded by friends. The rich man never noticed the sick man at his gate, distracted as he was with all the good things he enjoyed.
Both men died and came to very different fates. Lazarus was carried away on wings of angels to live for eternity with Abraham. He was so alone in this world that he did not even have anyone to dispose properly of his body. Those responsible for him were probably relieved to be set free from the burden, perhaps not even mourning the loss. The rich man was buried, most certainly with great pomp and mourning. Perhaps the family even hired people to fill his funeral with tears and cries of grief. He was probably wrapped with the finest oils and linens and then placed in an expensive tomb.
This is where Jesus turns the story. The rich man, who had been blessed in his life, found himself suffering the torment of Hades. To add to the torture was the fact that the rich man could see Abraham caring for Lazarus in his bosom. He could see Lazarus blessed with a place in heaven, but there was no way for him to be part of that blessedness. He cried out to Abraham, “Have mercy on me.” All he wanted was a drop of water for his tongue. Abraham could not provide for his needs and answered, “Son, remember that you, in your lifetime, received your good things, and Lazarus, in the same way, bad things. But here he is now comforted, and you are in anguish.” Abraham had compassion and concern for the rich man. He still called him “son,” however the chasm between the two was too great for Abraham to cross.
The rich man realized his failure and wanted Abraham to send Lazarus to tell his family how to live so that they would not have to suffer the same torment. Abraham said, “They have Moses and the prophets.” The rich man argued that they needed something drastic to help them see the truth even though they lived according to the words of Moses and the prophets. These were not bad people. Wealth, in itself, is not bad. They were probably even good Jews, doing all that was expected and living according to the Law. However, they had forgotten the intent of the Law: that all God’s people would share in His kingdom on earth. They had forgotten that they were blessed to be a blessing, that they were given good things to share with those who did not have good things. They had forgotten that true joy came with living by faith, being content with enough and giving the excess to the glory of God.
Lazarus was obviously sick in body, but the rich man had a less obvious dis-ease. He was sick in spirit, separated from God by his apathy and blindness to the needs around him. While Lazarus will live for eternity in the bosom of God, the rich man will suffer without the love and mercy of Christ Jesus. This is a message we all need to hear so that we will make a difference in the lives of those who are suffering. Jesus is not telling us that we have to be sick or poor to be admitted into heaven. He is not telling us that the rich will automatically be sent to Hades. He is reminding us to not be so distracted by the things of this world that we miss out on seeing those who need mercy and grace. We have been blessed to be a blessing and that it is in sharing the Kingdom of God with others that we will know the joy and peace of eternal life.
The rich man was not necessarily someone in power, although his wealth almost guaranteed that he was held in high regard among those in his community. The problem with the rich man is not that he had wealth, or even that he liked to party, but that he ignored the needs that were right under his nose. He was blinded by his ease and feelings of security. Lazarus did not ask for help; the rich man did not directly reject Lazarus in any way. But, there is no way that the rich man could have missed the poor, sick man by his gate. I wonder how long it took for Lazarus to become nothing but a blob, no longer a person, just an annoyance.
The text from Amos can be seen as a warning to the rich man that he will end up in exile. Now, there weren’t threats from Assyria or Babylon in Jesus’ day, but exile can happen in many other ways. The rich man in today’s Gospel was exiled to Hades, far from the bosom of Abraham. If we miss others in the quest to satisfy our own needs and desires, where will we be exiled to? Fired from our jobs? Divorced from our spouse? Life crashing down around us?
Perhaps, like the rich man in today’s Gospel story, we just stop seeing. I wonder how many times God places before us a need that we fail to notice; instead of giving bread from our table, we just step over them. We ignore a lot of needs in our world for one reason or another. Today’s Gospel lesson makes us uncomfortable because we have seen the needs of those around us but we all too often ignore them. The rich man knew Lazarus by name; it is likely he passed Lazarus many times as he entered and exited through the gates to his house. Just as I have passed, many times, the man begging on a downtown street corner.
I struggle with this because I know there are homeless people in my city, but I also know that there are those who take advantage of the generosity of strangers by pretending to be homeless. I’ve seen reports from many different cities about panhandlers that make a fortune. They drive expensive cars. Reporters have followed them to expensive suburban homes. The problem is that there are many truly homeless people who need help, so we have to make a judgment call: “Would I be a good steward of my resources if I give to this person?” Sadly, I usually ignore the guy on the street corner while I’m comfortable in my air conditioned car on my way to wherever. Then I wonder, “Was that my Lazarus?”
I was once in the parking lot of a grocery store when I was approached by a woman who seemed desperate. She told me her car had broken down a couple blocks away and she needed bus money to get somewhere while she waited for her brother to deal with the car. Her story seemed a bit contrived, but I gave her a few dollars anyway. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was probably scammed. At that point all I could do was pray and give it over to God.
Last week’s lesson taught us that we must be shrewd with our worldly wealth. There have been times when I’ve come across those who are certainly scamming people. As a matter of fact, my husband was meeting me for lunch when he got caught up in a conversation with a man who gave him a story, begging for help. My husband decided not to give him cash and then we learned that he had approached others, not only in that parking lot, but all over town. He had become so “famous” that his exploits made it to the news. Unfortunately, he did not just beg, but often became belligerent and threatening to those who refused his request.
We live in a world where people will take advantage of other people. It forces us to make judgments about how to be good stewards of our resources. We’d rather not see so we turn a blind eye. We’d rather hide behind our safe walls; we’d rather eat, drink and be merry. Yet, God reminds us not to ignore those whom He puts upon our doorsteps because in serving them, we are serving God.
We are blessed to be a blessing, but we are often solely focused on our own little corner of the world. We feast in times of prosperity and we wallow in times of suffering. The psalmist calls us to live in the hope of God’s promises. “Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in Yahweh, his God: who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps truth forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.”
We might not be wealthy or powerful, but we are to look at these scriptures through the lens of our own lives. How are we failing to see those outside our own palaces that need a few crumbs of what we have to offer? We may not have much, but there’s always something, and it doesn’t have to be material. Do we have a gift or talent, the time or the physical energy to do something for another? Our neighbor may not ask for help, but when we see the need, it is up to us to step forward and share what we have. We are reminded in these scriptures that God has called us to be His hands in a world full of people who need something we have to give.
While God is concerned about our salvation and the destination of our souls after death, He is also concerned about the life we live today. Christian faith is not just about whether or not we’ll end up in the bosom of our father Abraham. It is about reconciling the world, bridging those gaps that seem too hard to cross. In this life, however, the gaps are not impossible. The rich man and Lazarus shared the same space, but they were worlds apart. A simple meal and a clean robe would have bridged the gap not only in this world, but in the one to come.
Have we created gaps in our own eternity because we have failed to share a few crumbs from our tables? Those are the very gaps we can bridge today, by being a blessing to others, reconciling people, and sharing God’s grace. This means turning away from the things that distract us; it means keeping our priorities right. It means keeping God in focus and remembering that He is the Lord of heaven and earth. It means listening to God and responding to the opportunities He drops on our doorsteps. It means being the best we can be. If only the rich man had shared some bread and some drink with the man named Lazarus who lay at the gate of his home, perhaps the chasm between them in eternal life would have also been bridged.
We are called by today’s texts to see our own failure, to see where we have allowed the gaps to widen between us and the others. Our prayers of confession not only bring us to a place where we are forgiven, but also to the heart of God where we can overcome our failure. It might seem like lying on the ivory couch is the choice life, but the reality is true contentment comes when we live in faith, trusting in God, serving others. As we live that life of prayerful praise, we will see the ones who are right in front of us that need something we can give. Contentment gives us the freedom to take our crumbs to the gate and share it with whoever might be waiting.
When we praise God, we see the world through His point of view. We see what justice and mercy look like. We see what it means to be righteous. We see how He bridges the gaps between people and reconciles them to Himself. We see the Lazarus who is on our doorstep and realize that our selfishness is affecting others in a negative way. We hear His voice as He calls us to share what we have. We might have doubts about whether we are being good stewards of our resources, but we can trust that God will make all things right.
Our wealth will fade. It will not take us into heaven or follow us into hell. When we die, everything we have done on earth will be lost. Everything will be lost but faith. What is most interesting is that faith is the greatest treasure that we have, and yet we all too often take it for granted. And while these lessons are definitely about the proper use of our wealth in this world, we have a wealth beyond our imagination that we tend to hoard for ourselves.
The most important gap we have to bridge is the one between Jesus and those still lost in the darkness. We have been given bread that will satisfy our greatest hungers, but are we willing to share even a few crumbs with our neighbors? When was the last time you shared the Gospel of Christ with someone who crossed your path? The world is filled with people who are hungering for Jesus, starving and they don’t even know it. So, let’s be holy people, righteous, seeing the world through God’s eyes. Let’s work with Him to bridge the gaps that divide us now and forever. Let’s see the Lazarus God has dropped on our doorstep, feed him with bread and the Bread of Life so that we’ll dwell forever together in the bosom of God our Father.
“Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, kneeling and asking a certain thing of him. He said to her, ‘What do you want?’She said to him, ‘Command that these, my two sons, may sit, one on your right hand and one on your left hand, in your Kingdom.’ But Jesus answered, ‘You don’t know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with; but to sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not mine to give, but it is for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’ When the ten heard it, they were indignant with the two brothers. But Jesus summoned them, and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. Whoever desires to be first among you shall be your bondservant, even as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’” Matthew 20:20-28 (ASV)
Harrison Ford played Henry in the movie called “Regarding Henry.” He was a high power, unscrupulous lawyer who did everything necessary to win. His attitudes about people left him on the verge of divorce with his wife, not speaking to his daughter and in a secret affair. He seemed to be quite successful, but his life was falling apart. One night he stopped to buy a paper, but he was shot during a robbery. The gunshot left him disabled. He determined to get better and worked hard with the doctors, physical therapists and his loved ones to recover. The damage was physical as well as mental; he did not remember anything from his life before the shooting. As his memory returned, he realized that he did not like the man he had been. He began to find joy in the simpler things of life, like his wife, daughter, art and kindness. When he was well enough to return to work, he found that he was unable to do the things that made him successful. His friends ridiculed him, but his family came to love him again. He made amends for his deceitful practices and quit his job, beginning anew with his wife and daughter.
How many people in our world are exactly like Henry? There are people in every profession who will do anything to succeed, even if it affects the rest of their lives. They don’t even realize how it damages their credibility as a person, how it harms the lives of others. They do not understand that success is not a blessing if it is taken at the expense of others. Even within the Christian community, there are those who would rather be at the top than truly serve the Lord Jesus and their brothers and sisters in Christ, such as the council president who will do anything to get their way in the running of the church or the preacher that teaches his own doctrine rather than the truth of Jesus Christ. They don’t seek the good of the body of Christ, but their own success.
James and John did not understand the will and purpose of God in their lives. They wanted Jesus to become the earthly king just like David and to let them be His closest advisors. Their mother even got involved by taking the idea to Jesus. The other disciples were upset that James and John would try to usurp authority in such a way, going behind their backs to get Jesus to give them a higher position. When Jesus asked if they could drink the cup He would drink, they said they could, but they had no idea what they were saying. Neither did their mother know the fate her sons would face taking the kingdom of God into the world. Most of the disciples would die as martyrs for the sake of the Gospel.
Henry’s friends did not understand his new attitude about life; he seemed to have become ridiculous in his humility and kindness. They only knew success to include power, prestige and wealth. Anything else was just foolishness. The disciples were not going to become rich, powerful or famous. They were going to serve one another and the lost as humble, loving ministers of the Word of God, giving hope and peace to the world. The same is true for those of us today, called to be servants rather than rulers, brothers rather than authority figures. We need not seek to sit at the right or left hands of Jesus, for He has called each of us to be faithful servants for the sake of Him who was first a servant to us.
“Bless Yahweh, my soul. Yahweh, my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty... Let Yahweh’s glory endure forever. Let Yahweh rejoice in his works. He looks at the earth, and it trembles. He touches the mountains, and they smoke. I will sing to Yahweh as long as I live. I will sing praise to my God while I have any being. Let my meditation be sweet to him. I will rejoice in Yahweh. Let sinners be consumed out of the earth. Let the wicked be no more. Bless Yahweh, my soul. Praise Yah!” Psalm 104:1, 31-35, WEB (I encourage you to read the whole psalm.)
We recently moved the patio furniture around, making it more accessible. I decided to do my morning prayers and readings outside at the table today. The weather during the day is still hot, but the mornings are cool enough. The sun was just rising, visible enough to see the words in my books, and yet I could still see through the trees the changing colors of the sunrise. In the distance I could hear the sounds of the city waking up and in my yard I could hear nature greeting the new day. A pair of hawks screamed at one another, song birds sang their songs, a squirrel sat on a branch chirping at me.
One of the song birds had a call I did not recognize and I found myself distracted from my work as I searched the tree branches to see what type of bird it was. I also watched the hawks as they flew through the trees and landed on my neighbor’s house. The clouds in the distance were fascinating as they seemed to be darkening into storm clouds, but then suddenly disappeared to reveal blue sky. I noticed neighbors walking their dogs or heading toward the bus stop. I managed to get all my reading finished, but I was definitely distracted by all God’s creation.
Today’s psalm praises God for His creation. The psalmist runs through the creation story, beginning with the creation of the Light in which God clothes Himself and ending with the provision of food for all His creatures. Every step of creation is amazing, and God deserves our praise and thanksgiving for the skies, the land and water, the vegetation and trees, the sun and moon and stars, the sea creatures and those of the land, and finally mankind. I might have been distracted by the sun, the creatures and the noises of mankind, but with each distraction I blessed God.
The last verse seems odd in the midst of a psalm of praise; why would the psalmist pray for the consumption of the sinners and the end of the wicked? It seems like it doesn’t belong here. Yet, this is not meant to encourage hatred of those who are sinners and hatred, but of what they have done. The psalmist wishes not for their destruction, but for their salvation. He praises God as a witness to His great works, praying that the sinners and wicked will be transformed by God’s grace, so that they too will bless God.
To bless means “to speak well of.” The psalmist ends with “Bless Yahweh, my soul. Praise Yah!” We sing to the Lord, sing praise to God, because He is worthy. He has done great things for us, from creating the world to providing everything we need. We are blessed by His goodness and in being blessed we speak well of Him to the world as witnesses to God’s glory and the greatness of His works.
“Beloved, let’s love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves has been born of God, and knows God. He who doesn’t love doesn’t know God, for God is love. By this God’s love was revealed in us, that God has sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, if God loved us in this way, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God remains in us, and his love has been perfected in us.” 1 John 4:7-12, WEB
It is nearly impossible to define love. Webster’s defines it as; “an intense affection for another person based on personal or familial ties.” But what does that mean? Love shows itself in many different ways. There is the romantic sort of love between husband and wife. This love changes over time, beginning with a passionate, physical love and growing into much more. It is a joy to see elderly couples out for a day who after fifty years of marriage still hold hands and share their lunch. They truly have become one in body, mind and spirit. Some couples who have been together for a long time die within a short period of time.
There is the love parents have for their children. There is a commercial with a father who is making his child giggle hysterically by blowing on his tummy. Some of my favorite moments with my children were when we cuddled with a book. It wasn’t always about hugs and giggles, though. Sometimes children need tough love when they are on a dangerous life path. Discipline is important in tempering children to be the best they can be. A child that is left to run wild, to act out against the rules that are established, will travel down a path of destruction.
We love our pets, which provide us with so much love, companionship and protection. We take care of these animals, whether they are a cat, dog or some exotic pet. Our love shows in the actions we take for their well being, such as buying food and toys, and keeping their living areas clean.
It gets even more complicated when we start talking about our friends. We have some friends that we love deeply, our best friends, with whom we share our joys and tears, that we know will be around no matter what we do right or wrong. With other friends, our affection is not as intense, though we still enjoy spending time with them and doing things for them. The greatest difficulty comes in loving strangers or our enemies. How do we do love those who do not love us back? How do we show love to someone who acts with evil intent, jealousy, hatred, or lies? God loved us so much that He gave up His own Son so that we might be reconciled to Himself. Now, He calls us to do the same.
There is only one sort of love to God, for He is love. It is a sacrificial love that willingly gives everything for the sake of others. It is a love which God calls us to emulate; as Christians we are meant to love as Jesus loved us. Perhaps that love will manifest differently, but in all cases our love must be unselfish. We love because God first loved us, and He has taught us to see Him in the faces of all who cross our path today, whether close relatives or mortal enemies. The love He has given to us will flow from our lives into theirs if we remember that He loves them, too, even if we find it difficult. Let us share His love today.