Welcome to the September 2020 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 2020
September 1, 2020
“Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valor. He was the son of a prostitute. Gilead became the father of Jephthah. Gilead’s wife bore him sons. When his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah out and said to him, ‘You will not inherit in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman.’ Then Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob. Outlaws joined up with Jephthah, and they went out with him. After a while, the children of Ammon made war against Israel. When the children of Ammon made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah out of the land of Tob. They said to Jephthah, ‘Come and be our chief, that we may fight with the children of Ammon.’ Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, ‘Didn’t you hate me, and drive me out of my father’s house? Why have you come to me now when you are in distress?’ The elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, ‘Therefore we have turned again to you now, that you may go with us and fight with the children of Ammon. You will be our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.’ Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, ‘If you bring me home again to fight with the children of Ammon, and Yahweh delivers them before me, will I be your head?’ The elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, ‘Yahweh will be witness between us. Surely we will do what you say.’ Then Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and chief over them. Jephthah spoke all his words before Yahweh in Mizpah.” Judges 11:1-11, WEB
A lazy lion was sleeping comfortably beneath a tree in the forest. A tiny mouse came upon the lion and thought it would be fun to play on his soft fur for a bit. He ran up and down the lion’s back and slid down the lion’s legs like a sliding board. Suddenly the lion awoke and grabbed the mouse by the tail. “What have we here?” asked the lion. “Perhaps a morsel for an afternoon snack?” The mouse acted brave though he was very afraid. “I’m too small to make even a decent bite for you,” said the mouse. “Besides, I may be able to return the favor one day if you set me free.”
The lion laughed hysterically at the possibility that a mouse might be able to help him. “You? You are much too small to be any help to me. But you are right, I need a more substantial meal than you can give me.” So, the lion let the mouse go and he ran far away. Sometime later, a group of hunters found the lion and decided to take him to put in the king’s zoo, so they tied him to a tree until they could return with a wagon. The lion was miserable, unable to escape the ropes. The tiny mouse heard the lion’s complaints as he happened by. He said to the lion, “I will save you.” The tiny mouse quickly gnawed on the ropes until the lion was freed. The lion and the mouse lived together as good friends from that day forth.
In the story, the lion thought the mouse was too small to be any help. Though that might not be a characteristic we reject in our day, we have other biases about people that make us think they are unable to do anything of value. Someone is too young, too stupid, or too weak. They do not come from the right side of town nor have the right ancestors. They do not have enough money, enough education or the right kind of friends. They are crude or rude or handicapped in some way. We all have our litmus tests in deciding a person’s ability to accomplish something.
Jephthah was a mighty warrior, but his family rejected him because he was not a true born son of his father and his father’s wife. He was born of a harlot. He was driven away by their cruel words and attitudes. A time came when they realized that they needed him. The one ridiculed became the one in charge, leading the people to a victory that would not have been impossible without him. Just like the lion who escaped thanks to the help of the tiny mouse, Israel defeated her enemies thanks to the faith of Jephthah.
There are some people who just seem as though they will never be able to accomplish anything of value. They do not fit into our understanding of what it takes to be successful. Perhaps we even feel that way about ourselves. We are too small, too weak or too young. We have been outcast or have no place in which we feel we belong. We think we have no gifts or fall into the trap of believing others who cannot see what we have to offer.
God has created everyone with a purpose and has given each of us gifts and talents to use for the sake of others. No matter who you are or what your circumstances might be, God can use you to His glory. Jephthah was an illegitimate son, outcast, and outlaw, but when the time was right, God gave him a victory that established his purpose in Israel. He became a judge and served the people for six years. We need to remember to look beyond the surface, beyond those aspects of a person that seem to make them unqualified, and help each other accomplish the purpose for which God created us to do. A mouse can save a lion and a bastard can save a people, if only we have faith.
Scriptures for September 6, 2020, Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 32:1-7; Romans 13:1-10; Matthew 18:1-20
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” Romans 13:8, WEB
We all make mistakes. I make mistakes all the time in my art, usually when I am trying something new. I once took up tatting, which is similar to crochet. It is often used to make doilies or lace collars. The stitches are very easy, but it takes some concentration to follow the complicated instructions for some of the projects. I kept making mistakes and in the end the projects looked nothing like the samples. I learned a lot about tatting from my mistakes and then tried not to make the same mistakes. Sometimes the mistakes gave me ideas for my own designs. We can learn from our mistakes.
Our children also learn from their mistakes. As a parent, I really want to stop them from making mistakes so that they won’t get hurt, but I know that they have to fail once in a while or they will never grow and learn. We walk a fine line between allowing them to make mistakes and keeping them from harm. A good parent will certainly not let a child go so far that their mistakes will cause lasting damage. We might allow a two-year-old to touch some things that could get broken, but we will not allow them to touch a hot stove. We give teenagers a chance to drive a car, but we take the car away if we become aware of irresponsible behavior. It is our task to ensure they have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes while keeping them safe. There’s a fine line between the two.
Sin leads to death, not only in the spiritual realm, but also in the world in which we live. Smoking causes lung cancer. Foolish driving causes accidents. In today’s lessons we learn that it is our responsibility to call others to repentance, especially when they might harm themselves or others. We may think that their mistakes are none of our business, but we have been called to help others repent so that they will be safe. It is a very fine line we walk when we talk about the sins of our neighbors. As a matter of fact, in our world today many are offended when we seem to interfere in their personal lives. Who are we to judge? Yet, sometimes God does call us to intercede in the lives of our neighbors for their sake, to shine a light so that they might see their error and repent. It isn’t easy, but it is necessary.
God does not want any to perish. Ezekiel was called to tell the people of Israel about their sin against God. The truly prophetic voice is not something that anyone would choose by their own will because the world does not want to hear it. In the first thirty-two chapters of the book, Ezekiel spoke about God’s judgment on Israel, Judah, and the nations. In chapter 33, God begins to speak words of consolation. It is the beginning of hope because the words of judgment brought repentance.
“Tell them, ‘“As I live,” says the Lord Yahweh, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why will you die, house of Israel?”’ God does not want any to perish. We may suffer the consequences of our sin, experience the cost of our mistakes, but God is ready with a word of consolation for us. We may be the one called to give that word to another. The call for repentance is the beginning of hope, a revelation of the mercy and grace of God. We might be afraid to speak those words, but God calls us to this ministry so that none will die. He calls us to share in the life-giving promise of His word.
What does it mean to repent? We don’t use the word repent when we talk about teaching our children how to get along with the world. We deal with misbehavior by demanding an apology when they have misbehaved. Unfortunately, our children don’t always understand what they have done wrong. “Tell your sister that you are sorry,” we insist, so the child says, “Sorry.” Minutes later we see them doing exactly the same thing. They said the word but were not transformed by the lesson because they didn’t know why they were apologizing.
There have been times when I’ve asked my children to apologize but later realized that they didn’t even know why. I was mad about something, but they didn’t understand. I learned to ask, “Why do you need to apologize?” because I knew that they were often sorry for something completely different than the lesson they needed to learn. Take this hypothetical situation: a child breaks something of value and hides the item to avoid punishment. The broken object is found and the parent asks how it got broken. Children will often answer, “I didn’t do it “or “I don’t know.” The truth eventually comes to light and the child admits fault. The greater offense was not the breaking of the object; stuff is stuff and can be replaced. The greater sin is the lie. When the child apologizes, he or she is usually sorry about breaking the item, but they don’t think about the lies. While they should learn to be more careful with other people’s things, it is important that they learn that the truth matters.
How will others know what they’ve done wrong if we do not tell them? In today’s text, Jesus teaches us the way to call our brothers and sisters to repentance. If our brother offends us in some way, or to be blunt, sins against us, it is not enough to demand an apology. We should sit down with our brother or sister and explain how they have hurt us. We do it privately to keep the infraction from the gossips. If he (or she) refuses to hear us, then we take another person who can testify with us about the behavior. Again, this is done privately to avoid embarrassment. If our brother still will not hear what we have to say, then we take it to the church, together we can help our brother see his error and help him to be reconciled to us. If he still refuses to hear, then we are to treat them like a pagan or tax collector.
There are a few things to consider as we follow this process. When we go to our brother about our problem, what is his answer? We may need to consider our own role in the brokenness. I had a friend who constantly complained about his wife, and then ex-wife. His complaints were one very one sided; she was to blame for all their problems. As I listened to his complaints, I could see that he was at fault, too, but he refused to accept his own need for repentance. We are all sinners, we all have sinned against God and our sin affects our relationships. His ex-wife may have been more at fault than my friend, but he refused to see his own need for repentance.
So, as we deal with those who have hurt us, we need to ask whether we also need to repent. That’s why it is helpful to include a third party, a mutual friend to help guide our conversation if our private encounter does not bring reconciliation. An intermediary might provide some insight into both people involved. If one does not help the situation, then we can bring it out in public with the body of Christ to find a solution. If that doesn’t work, Jesus says to treat them as if they were not a brother or sister in Christ.
What does that mean? Does it mean we should sever the relationship? Does it mean that we should hate our brother who has refused to repent? Does “treat him as a pagan or a tax collector” mean that we should remove them from our lives (and our church rolls) forever?
Keep in mind that this text was written by a tax collector who believed and followed Jesus. Jesus didn’t reject him even though tax collectors were considered traitors to their fellow Jews. They worked with the enemy, and even if they did so honestly and according to the authority given to them, they were rejected. How did Jesus treat the pagans and tax collectors? He fought for them. He encouraged them. He invited them into His presence. He taught them about the Kingdom of God and called them to repent.
Jesus does not abandon us even though we continue to sin against Him. He comes to us with His Word, reminding us of His mercy and grace. He fights for us. Earlier in this text, Jesus talked about the shepherd who left the ninety-nine to find the one lost sheep. It is our task as Christians to constantly be working for reconciliation. Next week we will hear how often we have to forgive those who sin against us. Over and over again we meet those who have hurt us with grace, remembering that we were like the pagans and tax collectors. We needed God’s mercy. We needed Jesus’ compassion. And so, we fight for reconciliation, even when it seems impossible. Whatever we bind will be bound and whatever we loose will be loosed and whenever we agree with each other, God will be in the midst of it, working His grace.
Our biggest problem is that as adults we are stubborn. Just as the child that apologizes for one wrong, ignoring the bigger sin, we seek God’s grace for the obvious faults while ignoring the true sin in our lives. We’ll say “I’m sorry” for the things we do wrong but we do not accept that we have sinned against God.
Children know it is wrong to break something, but they have to mature to see the importance of truth. The deeper concept of lying and deceit is beyond their young understanding. This is why we have to teach them. It takes time. If we did not teach them, they would continue to think that it is wrong to break things but ok to lie. Even so, Jesus points to a child as an example of faith. It takes the faith of a child to live a life that is always working toward reconciliation. Remember your childhood friends. I constantly bickered with my best friend growing up, and yet we always found peace again. We may have lost a day of play, but we quickly returned to our old antics, the fight forgotten and the friendship restored.
The reason for this lesson from Jesus is that disciples were still focused on Jesus being a different kind of Messiah. They wanted to know who would be at His right hand when He came into His Kingdom. They wanted to understand the hierarchy, to know the pecking order. They wanted to know which one of them was most important. Jesus reminded them that the future of the Kingdom did not rest on their power or position.
I often wonder if Jesus got frustrated with them. They just didn’t get it. Jesus just told them that He would die, so it is understandable that they were wondering about the future. The natural human response would be to ask who would inherit His ministry. Who would be in charge? Who would lead the people when Jesus was gone? These are obvious questions for a group of men who believed there would be a future for their mission but who needed to understand what would come next. They weren’t much different than we are today; there is always a leader and followers. They wanted to know who would be the leader. They wanted to know who would have the authority.
Jesus turned their world upside down. Again. He told them that being the greatest had nothing to do with power or position. They needed to be like little children. Jesus refused to establish a hierarchy, and He told them that if they didn’t humble themselves, they would not even enter the Kingdom. They probably felt pretty confident that they were already in; after all, they were the chosen disciples. How could a little child possibly be greater than them?
Children didn’t have any clout in Jesus day. They were not doted upon as our children are today. They were meant to be seen and not heard. Actually, they were not meant to be seen, either. They were barely even people until they reached the age of maturity. They had no rights. They had no power. They certainly had no authority. It was beyond their expectation for Jesus to choose a little child as the example in this lesson.
“Unless you turn, and become as little children...” What is it about children that we should emulate? They are innocent, not in legal terms, but as it relates to life. They are not cynical. They are pure, naive and open. They have no preconceived ideas. They are creative, inquisitive, bold and unafraid to ask questions. They are like sponges, taking in everything around them. They are trusting, accepting and vulnerable. They still believe in the unbelievable. They are willing to risk it all to try something new and they trust that all will be well. They are willing to forgive and forget; reconciliation and restoration is natural to them.
Jesus pulled that little child into His circle because he or she believed in Jesus. He said, “Whoever receives one such little child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him that a huge millstone should be hung around his neck, and that he should be sunk in the depths of the sea.” The child knew something that the disciples still had to learn: Jesus was the greatest and He always would be.
Despite their faults, Jesus did choose them to carry on His ministry. They didn’t fully understand it yet, but He was preparing them to continue the work of reconciliation He began, and that He would make possible through the cross. He would give them the authority to proclaim the forgiveness of sin and bring others into God’s Kingdom. Oh, we need to reconcile with one another, to rebuild relationships, and to make peace between people. But most of all, we need to be reconciled to God, since our sin is against Him most of all.
This ragtag bunch of imperfect me were the ones who would lead God’s people into the future. We can easily list their faults, but God chose them to be His witnesses. We look at the people who are leaders today, both in the church and in the world, and we are reminded that God has given them their authority. Paul writes that we should willingly subject ourselves to the authorities whom God has appointed because they are there by God’s grace. There may be a time or a reason to stand against those who do not live according to God’s Word, but even then we need to trust God more than any earthly authority. If they reject God, He will reject them. If we die in the process, then God will be faithful to His promise to embrace us in His eternal Kingdom. The authorities are God’s servants, whether we like them or not. Paul writes, “Do that which is good, and you will have praise from the authority, for he is a servant of God to you for good. But if you do that which is evil, be afraid, for he doesn’t bear the sword in vain; for he is a servant of God, an avenger for wrath to him who does evil.”
This is perhaps a hard word in these days, but we can trust that God is always working to make things right. It is not up to us to decide who is His chosen and who is not. Who would have ever thought a denier like Peter could be the rock on which Jesus built His Church? Who would have accepted Matthew the tax collector as an Apostle? Who would have listened to Paul after he saw to the death of Stephen? We can find something, some sinfulness, in every person to whom God gave authority from the beginning of time. Paul says, “Therefore give everyone what you owe: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if customs, then customs; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” There are many we refuse to honor, but we’ll never experience reconciliation if we continue to disrespect and hate others.
Love is the fulfillment of the law, and we owe love to every neighbor. Unfortunately, we live in a time when everyone who offends us is an enemy. We would rather sever the relationship than repent of our own faults. This life Jesus is calling us to live: the humble life of a child willing to trust God even when we think we have good reason to reject others. He is the judge and He will make all things right. He calls us to be people who work toward reconciliation, not people who fight for what we think is right.
The disciples would continue Jesus’ ministry, but they would never take His place. Jesus did not need a human right hand man, but a group of willing disciples to continue His work. There is no hierarchy in God’s Kingdom; Jesus is King and those who believe in Him are His children. Jesus warned the disciples to take care of those who are innocent, the “little ones” who trust in Him. He warned them, and us, not to lead the pure, naive, vulnerable, fearless sponges on the wrong path. “Do not cause them to sin.” By this He means, “Do not cause them to stop believing in me.” Sadly, I think we do this much too often.
This talk of repentance and faith is important because those who sin against us become a burden on our hearts and minds. Each sin against another believer can cause them to doubt Jesus. How many people refuse to become involved in a church because it is filled with a bunch of hypocrites? We know that we are sinners in need of a Savior, but our sinful attitudes and actions can push a “little one” away.
As hard as it is for us to deal with sin, our own and those of our brothers and sisters, we must bring it into the light for the sake of the sinner and the one who has been hurt. Too many lose faith because we don’t deal with sin. We speak the words of forgiveness, but it is much easier to forgive than to forget. We have to deal with it or it will become a burden. We can’t allow sin to cause us or another to turn from Jesus.
The life of the repentant sinner is blessed because those who trust in God will know His forgiveness. He does not want to lose anyone; He is willing to go out of His way to bring us home. The psalmist recognized the joy that comes from the forgiveness of God. That forgiveness comes to those who are humble before God, who trust God and His promises. The blessed ones are those who are like little children, living in faith. Blessed are those who live together in the kingdom of heaven without trying to be greater than one another. Blessed are those who are willing to deal with sin and reconcile with one another.
Paul writes, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” We are called to care for one another by helping each other live according to the Word of God. Love does not allow our brothers and sisters to continue to sin. God loves us as we are, this is very true. However, God has called us to something better. Though we fail, He speaks His word into our lives over and over again until we hear and are transformed by it. And thus we are called to live in community with others, speaking God’s word into each others’ lives.
The problem is that we don’t always live in faith, hope and love. We get angry when people and circumstances get in our way. We react negatively; we lose control. It is then that we slip from being the people God has called us to be. Paul reminds us to live in faith, hope and especially love. No matter what the circumstances, by loving our neighbor we will face tomorrow’s brokenness with God’s grace, leaving nothing undone or unsaid so that all might see the light of Christ.
However, upon hearing God’s Word, we realize there is no way we can live up to His expectations. Paul writes, “Love doesn’t harm a neighbor.” I don’t think I can live even a day without doing something wrong to someone. It might seem insignificant. I’ve gossiped. I’ve lied. I’ve cheated. I have done a million things that I should not have done. The more I hear God’s Law, the more I realize that I deserve nothing but death for my iniquity.
That’s why God does not give us a word of instruction and judgment without a word of hope. He does not want any to die. God’s Law condemns, but Christ saves. We fail miserably on a daily basis. Yet, when we hear God say “I do not want to see any perish” we realize there is hope. God is holy and it is hard for us to look at Him, knowing we are unworthy of His love. Yet He calls us to do so. He calls us (through our brothers and sisters in Christ) to turn around, to repent, to seek His mercy. As we hear the promise found in these words, we can seek His face. We can be like little children, innocent, not in legal terms, but as it relates to life. We don’t have to be cynical, but can be pure, naive and open. We need not follow preconceived ideas. We can be creative, inquisitive, bold and unafraid to ask questions. We can be like sponges, taking in everything around us. We can trust and accept what we hear from God. We can even be vulnerable. Most of all, we can believe the unbelievable.
That’s what God wants from us. He wants us to be like little children, open to His love and grace. He wants us to be humble and He promises that He’ll always come looking for us when we wander away. He doesn’t want anyone to get lost; He wants to bring us home. He wants us to deal with our neighbors with love, speaking His word of both Law and Gospel so that they might live. There might be a line we have to draw, a place where we have to break fellowship for the sake of others. But we must never forget that God is not limited to our side of that line, He longs for all to experience His salvation. Let’s not wait until it is too late to speak His grace into the lives of those who have turned from God or we might just find ourselves responsible for those who have been lost. Now is the time. Are you ready to pay that debt of love?
“Yahweh, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel says: ‘I am Yahweh your God, who teaches you to profit, who leads you by the way that you should go. Oh that you had listened to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river and your righteousness like the waves of the sea. Your offspring also would have been as the sand and the descendants of your body like its grains. His name would not be cut off nor destroyed from before me.” Isaiah 48:17-19, WEB
Do you notice the art around you? I minored in art in college, and one of my classes took a trip to New York City to visit some of the art museums. Now, I love to visit museums these days, but on that day, my friends and I really didn’t feel like wandering through art museums all day. We ended up in a bar and had a great time. At one point we realized we should at least talk a little bit of art, so we looked around at the walls and noticed the paintings decorating the place. At the end of the day we had something art related to talk about.
There is art everywhere, although I wonder how many people really notice it. I tend to notice art, perhaps because I’m an artist. I appreciate the work that goes into a painting and into the decisions about what sort of statement a decorator wants to make. I confess that I don’t like all art. I am sure that there are people who do not like some of my work, too. No piece of art will ever satisfy every viewer. There is a commercial for a local lawyer set in his office with art on the walls. One painting is horrible. Not only is it (in my opinion) a very bad painting, it is also a piece that makes an incredibly negative statement. I don’t know if anyone else has noticed it, we tend to ignore the art around us. If we are paying attention to commercials, we are watching the people or listening to their sales pitch. Our minds are focused elsewhere. Yet, this piece of art is part of this lawyer’s identity. He’s chosen (or his decorator has) this piece to be in his office space. What does that piece of art say about him?
Art impacts society. Art impacts our perspective. Art impacts our faith.
There was an art critic and teacher named Hans Rookmaaker who understood this. He looked at art from a Christian perspective, but in the process realized that modern art was having a negative impact on the world in which he lived. He taught that art should not be critiqued just as evolving styles throughout history, but also as an evolving philosophy. He encouraged Christians to become involved in the arts, sciences and politics to help shape the direction of the culture in which they lived.
Hans Rookmaaker became a Christian under the most unusual circumstances. He was born in the Netherlands, though was the son of a politician who was posted in Dutch colonies. Eventually Hans returned home for college, became part of the Dutch Navy and was imprisoned during WWII. While living as a POW in Nuremburg, Hans began reading the Bible as a cultural and literary exercise. The more he read, the more he came to believe in the message that he was reading. He wrote, “As I was reading, I gradually came to the conviction that the Bible reveals the truth to us... The Bible comes to us, and it came to me, with the demand to accept the gospel as a joyful message, God as Father and hence also his son as Savior.” Hans did not come to this realization without questions. As a matter of fact, he experienced a dogmatic struggle, a struggle he compared to the struggle of the early church. Finally he said, “I came to an insight that turned out to be called ‘orthodox biblical Protestant.’” In other words, despite the fact that he came to his knowledge of the Gospel through intense personal study, his answers matched that which the church had discovered over the years.
It was written that Hans Rookmaaker taught his students how to look at art, to critique it and to discover what it has to say about the culture and the world around them. He did not allow his students to take one brief look at the art and then move on. As a matter of fact, he was known for making his students sit for long periods of time in front of one painting, sometimes for several sittings over several days. He wanted them to see more than the surface; he wanted them to see the details and to understand what the piece had to say about life. Through modern art, his students learned more than just art, they learned about life and philosophy. They also learned how the world had changed around them so that they might start thinking about how they, from a Christian point of view, might change the world.
He once said, “You cannot begin as though there was nothing before you. There have been many who have struggled before you. Learn from them, be humble. You stand on the shoulders of those others, and you can maybe take their ideas a little further; that is all. Then one day, someone will go beyond you; only be sure that you take your ideas and your work deeper into the Christian way of seeing reality.”
Hans once said, “Art is obvious.” The gospel is also obvious. However, we allow the culture around us to twist and bend the gospel to fit into the world view. Instead, we are called to see the world through Christian eyes, to live in the peace of Christ and to be guided by the Spirit of God. Then, and only then, can we impact the world in a positive way, to the glory of God.
“A man of the house of Levi went and took a daughter of Levi as his wife. The woman conceived and bore a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him three months. When she could no longer hide him, she took a papyrus basket for him, and coated it with tar and with pitch. She put the child in it, and laid it in the reeds by the river’s bank. His sister stood far off, to see what would be done to him. Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe at the river. Her maidens walked along by the riverside. She saw the basket among the reeds, and sent her servant to get it. She opened it, and saw the child, and behold, the baby cried. She had compassion on him, and said, ‘This is one of the Hebrews’ children.’” Exodus 2:1-6, WEB
My daily walks have given me the opportunity to pay more attention to the landscaping all around our neighborhood. Our homes are more than thirty years old, and so the trees are mature and the bushes are often past their prime. We’ve had a number of bushes removed because they were dying, and we are trying to find ecologically responsible ways to fill those areas. We are filling one corner with stone and potted plants. We added a small concrete bench and other décor. We are going to fill the pots with succulents and cactuses that don’t need much water. Some of my ideas have come from those daily walks because every home in this neighborhood is unique.
Our last home was brand new when we purchased it, and the neighborhood landscaping was consistent throughout the development. Even though the houses are unique, they are in many ways the same. The type of planting was dependent on the style of home, to enhance the features of the house. A home with a large porch, for example, has plants that grow low to the ground while the homes with no porch have larger bushes. Every home has two trees, one to line the road and the other in the yard to eventually to provide shade for the home. I’m sure it would be a little different now, after fifteen years, since the homeowners have had the chance to choose plants that fit their needs and tastes. Some folk choose to have manicured lawns with formal gardens. Other homeowners prefer large trees and wildflowers. Some landscaping is designed to enhance the qualities and hide the defects of the house. Many people plant tall bushes to hide air conditioners or grow vines to highlight arches. The landscaping serves a purpose besides being beautiful.
God’s creation has often been used as a hiding space. Deer hide in the thicket to be protected from predators. Birds hide in the trees to be safe from inclement weather. Children play hide and seek by crawling into the bushes or standing behind the trunk of a large tree. Criminals take advantage of the landscaping to hide from their illicit activities. A mother used papyrus grass to protect her child when his life was threatened.
God’s creation serves many purposes. The plants and trees help keep the air and the water clean. They provide food for animals and people, shade for those who are hot and tired. God’s creation even offers a place for people to hide, for both good and bad reasons. In the case of Moses, the papyrus grass was a haven from certain death at the hands of Pharaoh. God provided the hiding place so that Moses’ mother could place her child where he would be found by someone who would care for him. In this small act, Moses’ mother and the daughter of Pharaoh set in motion God’s plan to have Moses in a position to grow into the man God ordained him to be.
Moses is remembered today in some Christian churches. He was the holy prophet of God, sent to deliver God’s people from Egypt. He was the one God chose to give the people His Law. Moses led more than a million people through the wilderness to the border of the Promised Land. Yet, Moses may have died as an infant if it weren’t for the seemingly insignificant papyrus reeds where he was hidden. God’s creation is given to us to use for His purpose and glory; it is not given to us to abuse. God has a plan even for the bushes and trees that surround our homes and neighborhoods. Every blade of grass was designed with a purpose in mind. If God would go to so much trouble for something as seemingly insignificant as papyrus grass, what must He have in mind for each of us?
“The apostles gathered themselves together to Jesus, and they told him all things, whatever they had done, and whatever they had taught. He said to them, ‘You come apart into a deserted place, and rest awhile.’ For there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat. They went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.” Mark 6:30-32, WEB
It has been some time since I have taken a break from writing my daily devotion, yet, Jesus makes it clear in today’s passage that we need to take time away from our work to rest. I will return next week refreshed and inspired with new thoughts about faith, discipleship, and our lives in God’s kingdom.
As always, you are welcome to visit the archives at my website www.awordfortoday.org.
See you next week.
“No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended out of heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him.” John 3:13-17, WEB
If you read me regularly or if you attend a church that follows the lectionary, you know that we’ve been at dealing with sin and forgiveness in the book of Matthew. Last week Jesus taught us how to deal with sin and then this week Matthew taught us to recognize that we have been forgiven an impossible debt because God sent His Son to pay the price of our sin on the cross. That makes today’s festival all the more appropriate in this time.
Today is Holy Cross Day, which is a festival to celebrate the triumph of the cross. The cross stands as a witness to both sin and forgiveness. As we look at the cross, we are overwhelmed with the conviction that we are sinners in need of a Savior. We are also overwhelmed with the promise that we are saints made free by God’s forgiveness. The cross both convicts and sets free those who believe.
Numbers 21 tells us about when the Israelites were grumbling while they were wandering in the wilderness with Moses. in the wilderness and the company of Hebrews traveling to the Promised Land. They were tired, hungry, thirsty, and frustrated; they were beginning to doubt the promise. They cried out, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, there is no water, and our soul loathes this disgusting food!” The answer from the LORD was shocking! He sent venomous snakes among them that bit the people, killing many. The people went back to Moses and asked him to pray for them. He did and God told Moses to put a bronze image of a snake on a pole and place it where the entire community could see. Those who were bitten by the snakes needed only to look at the bronze image to be healed.
“Why didn’t God simply remove the snakes?” we wonder. It seems like it would have been easier for everyone if He had taken away the problem rather than offering a source of healing. Yet, this story shows us that the people had taken their eyes off the promise, off God, and focused on their needs and desires. They cared only about their flesh and ignored the God who was delivering them from a life of bondage and oppression. In their grumbling they showed God that they would rather be bound and beaten than to trust in Him. The snakes and the snake on the pole helped them to remember God’s power and authority over the world and their nation. They turned to Him for salvation from the snakes, but God provides so much more.
John tells us that the Jesus on the cross is like that serpent in the wilderness. Sin is a sign and a symptom that there is something wrong, that there is brokenness and imperfection in our lives and our flesh. We fail. We do the wrong things and don’t do the right things. We are upside down and backwards against God’s good and perfect purpose and intent for our lives. Something needed to be fixed.
The question of the necessity of the cross has been debated for millennia. Just as we wonder about the snakes, we wonder about the cross. How could a loving God be so cruel? It is a hard question for us to answer. How could a loving God continue to allow the Hebrews to be bitten by poisonous snakes in the wilderness? God could, and did, offer forgiveness to His people even without the cross. But the cross served a purpose far more important than just the forgiveness of sins. The cross offers healing and wholeness. The cross convicts, opening our eyes to the reality of our brokenness and imperfection, but on that same cross the Son is lifted to save the world.
We see God’s love in both the conviction of our sin and the promises of forgiveness and healing. Our sin makes us imperfect before Him, and the promises give us life and wholeness. The cross is both an object of both pain and peace, an object that shows us our failure and draws us into God’s heart. That’s what makes it so holy, because it is through the cross that we are restored to the God who has loved us and will love us eternally. We lift our eyes to the Lord and His cross because it is there we’ll find healing and salvation.
“Aren’t five sparrows sold for two assaria coins? Not one of them is forgotten by God. But the very hairs of your head are all counted. Therefore don’t be afraid. You are of more value than many sparrows.” Luke 12:6-7, WEB
We spent the weekend at a cabin in the woods, a place we visit regularly. We don’t disconnect completely, but it is a very relaxing time away from the normal day to day activities. There is a tree house on the property near the cabin, so we decided to have our lunch there. It was a nice day, warm but not hot. The cabin seems to be far from civilization, but we could hear the normal sounds of the world. A roof was being replaced. Cars were driving by. Chickens were clucking at a neighboring property. We heard music playing and even a few voices. We weren’t away from it all, but we are relaxed and just enjoyed the time together.
I took my camera with me. There isn’t a spectacular view from the tree house. You can see the main site of the camp we were visiting from the upper level as well as far away hills, but I’ve taken those pictures a dozen times. Instead of the big picture, I decided to focus on the details. One of the biggest problems with the landscape pictures in that area is that there is always a dead cedar tree in the middle of the view. While I don’t balk at showing the reality of life, those scenic views are not as pretty with the dead trees.
There was a large dead tree right in front of us. It was fascinating to look at. The empty branches against the gray sky made for attractive patterns. The bark was weathered and worn, coming away from the trunk in interesting textures. There were some branches with bright green leaves and I noticed places were autumn was beginning to show. The close-up photos of these things do not give any indication of the place we were visiting, but looking closely at God’s creation caused me to remember that the little things in life matter.
God sees the big picture better than any of us. He sees all, not only the whole world, but the entire universe from the beginning to the end of time. There are many questions we ask about the creation that we cannot see clearly, but God knows all the answers. He created everything. He knows how it all works. He’s made it work perfectly. Unfortunately, we have messed it up with sin, but He knows that, too. He fixes the brokenness and has promised to make all things right in the end. We may look at the big picture that we can see, and we may even see some details, but God sees all.
Unfortunately, the world we see some days is very troubling. Violence in the streets, children being sold as sex slaves, lies and cheating by the people we rely on to make decisions on our behalf. We are sometimes afraid and I confess that I cry out to God on a daily basis, “Come, Lord Jesus.” As with all suffering in the world, I wonder how God has allowed it to go on for so long. “How long, O Lord,” the psalmist often cries, and so do we as we struggle daily with the evil we see happening in the world around us.
But Luke reminds us that God knows. He doesn’t just see the big picture; He sees everything. He can even count the number of hairs on our heads. He cares for the details. He knows we are struggling. He has promised to make it right. We are of more value to Him than all of creation. We are sometimes afraid, but we need not be, for God is with us. He loves us. This time has a purpose we cannot understand, but He knows what He is doing. He will bring us through to the other side, whether it is in this life or the next. We can find comfort in seeing God in the details, knowing that if He cares for the sparrows and the hair on our heads, then He must care for our whole beings with grace and mercy and incredible love.
Scriptures for September 20, 2020, Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 27:1-9; Philippians 1:12-14, 19-30; Matthew 20:1-16
“But I am hard pressed between the two, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Yet to remain in the flesh is more needful for your sake.” Philippians 1:23-24, WEB
There was a post on Facebook with a number of photos of hidden cats. They can be very good at hiding; as a matter of fact, I think I spend half my day looking for my three. Some of the cats were fairly easy to find in the photos, especially since I understand cats. Others were far more difficult. It wasn’t any easier that I was playing the game on my tablet, so the photos were tiny. I was glad they repeated the photo with a mark showing the cat because there were at least a few I would never have found. They became obvious once I knew where they were.
That happens with those pictures that can be interpreted different ways. There is one circulating that appears to be either a bird or a goat. A much older one can be seen as a young or elderly woman. There’s one that is two faces or a vase. I’m sure you’ve seen at least a few of those. Once you see what the game tells you is there, it is hard to believe you didn’t see it in the first place.
I think that happens with spiritual things, too. People have spent lifetimes searching for something, not even knowing what they need. They try every sort of spiritual practice or device, jumping from one religion to another, trying different types of tangible items in the hope of filling the hole in their hearts. The self-help aisle at the bookstore is filled with hundreds of ideas, and the Internet is overflowing with people trying to convince us that they have the answer. They seek God, but in all the wrong places. They refuse to see Him as He is.
The blessed ones are those who seek Him where He might be found. When they find Him, they often wonder how they could have ever missed seeing Him. They become passionate about faith because they finally see what they have been seeking for a long time.
There is something incredible about a person who has that passion for Jesus. A German man named Count Zinzendorf had the motto, “I have one passion; it is Jesus, Jesus only.” He was passionate for Christ, constantly desiring His presence. He lived during the 18th century, a time when Christians were being exiled from Bohemia and Moravia. He allowed the exiles to establish a community on his estate. They called this place Herrnhut that means “Under the Lord’s Watch.”
He understood the necessity and the power of prayer, and his passion was passed on to the community of Moravians. In 1727, twenty-four men and women covenanted to hold to constant prayer, each member of the group taking one hour a day. This small but committed prayer team grew as others joined and their community was strengthened by unceasing prayer. They met together once a week to share prayer requests and encourage one another. Eventually this constant prayer led to greater outreach when Zinzendorf suggested they send missionaries to other nations.
That prayer meeting lasted a hundred years. Over three hundred missionaries were sent around the world. The Moravian fervor touched the lives of two men in England, John and Charles Wesley, bringing them to Christ. These two men had a significant impact on the Christian church, in music, and preaching. The Moravians’ passion for Christ and for lost souls had an impact on the Church around the world, playing a role in the Great Awakening, a revival that spread through Europe and America. These twenty-four people who began to pray unceasingly touched the lives of millions. The results of their prayers will last for eternity.
Seeking the LORD and calling on Him is spending time in prayer. Count Zinzendorf and the Moravians realized that God is always present with us and that they should be in prayer without ceasing. Not only did they have this group of people interceding constantly, but they also lived within a community of believers that practiced lives that showed the fruit of prayer. They lived like the early Christians in Acts, having everything in common, spending time together in fellowship and worship. They had a heart for spreading the Gospel and did what was necessary to bring Christ to the world. They knew the great gift of salvation and they were willing to follow their Lord Jesus anywhere. They dwelled in God’s Kingdom on earth. Their passion manifested itself in awesome ways.
Another way passionate faith is manifested is in complete and absolute trust in God. Have you ever known someone who had a certain peace and joy no matter their circumstances? They can praise God even when struggling to get through each day because of health issues, or financial difficulties. They smile when they should be in tears. They laugh when they should be angry. They love and trust God even when it seems as though He has abandoned them. The prayer of the psalmist has been answered in their lives; they are dwelling in the house of God today.
We who have known Jesus for our lifetime should have that kind of passion. Yet, how many of us go about our daily lives without even thinking about Him? How many of us would be willing to commit to an hour every day in prayer for as long as we live? Paul understood what it meant to be passionate about Jesus. He was a late bloomer, of course, after some time of persecuting the Christians. Stephen was stoned under his watch. He was on his way to Damascus to persecute the church there when he met Jesus. His life was changed; he committed himself to Jesus even unto death because he was passionate about his new found faith.
Paul was suffering. He’d been imprisoned and he did not know what would happen to him. The people who might have been able to help were unwilling. His Christian congregations had no power or authority to help him, but they were able to give him some aid. The letter to the Philippians was a thank you note to them for gifts they sent to help him in this time of need. It might seem to readers that Paul was suicidal, wishing for death. Yet, his letter is so full of hope. He had hope because his life was centered on Christ: whether he lived or died, Christ was his life. He knew that if he died, he would gain, but if he lived, he could continue the work Jesus had called him to do.
That’s what Paul hoped for the people of Philippi and all Christians throughout time. Suffering is often part of the Christian journey. There are always those who are against the Gospel of Jesus Christ and some Christians would be arrested, imprisoned, and even killed for their faith. Paul’s word of encouragement to the community is that they stay centered on Christ, too, just like he had whether he was preaching, traveling, or imprisoned. If they were united around Christ Jesus, they would have the same joy in the good times and the bad. They would be fruitful together, able to face death (which is gain) or life which is for the sake of God’s glory and the increase of His Church.
Isaiah reminds us that our lives are meant to be focused on God. As we travel through this journey of life, we learn that we aren’t in control of everything and that we shouldn’t even try. We want to avoid suffering and so we let ourselves be led down dangerous paths. It just doesn’t seem worthwhile to fight that which seems like it can’t be fought. Sometimes these experiences are painful or inconvenient. Yet, God uses them for our good, to bring us to a deeper faith and closer relationship to Him. God knows what He’s doing, and His ways are always perfect. We can’t imagine any good that might come from our suffering, but we can be like Paul, trusting that God can and does do incredible things even through our pain.
I have seen more and more posts of people suggesting that we are in the final days. Perhaps it is true, but then again other generations have faced difficult times, times much worse than we are facing today. There are other indicators, at least according to the way they’ve been interpreted, but we can’t know for certain if Jesus will come again in our lifetimes.
When I see those posts I think: “That’s ok. I’m ready. Come, Lord Jesus.” The reality is that no one knows the day or the hour, so I’m still making plans for tomorrow. I used to joke that as long as people predict the end of the world, God will keep putting it off. He can’t have some human reading His mind, now, can He? I joke, but as I’ve grown older, I know that I’m ready. Jesus’ return would certainly solve a lot of our problems, wouldn’t it?
I may be more than willing to see the end of the world in three days, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready for this life to be over. There is still so much work to do. Our Sunday school class just started a study on the Psalms. My children have not gotten married nor had children. There are places I want to go, things I want to see. Someone (or a lot of someones) still needs to hear the Gospel and be saved. There are several retreats I want to attend. There are paintings I want to paint and books I want to write. I can’t do it all today.
Yet, I’m ready. Anything that will come after Jesus’ return will be greater than all the great things I still look forward to experiencing. Jesus is preparing a place for those who love and believe in Him. The eternal banquet will be filled with an overabundance of the best food and drink, more delicious and satisfying than anything on earth. Jesus’ return means that we will join together for an eternity of worship and praise of the One who has saved us. Yes, I’m ready. Come, Lord Jesus.
It will be great, but we can’t count on it happening tomorrow. God knows the right time. He knows who still needs to hear the Gospel message and Jesus won’t come until the last ear has heard the Good News. That doesn’t mean we have been left stranded and abandoned to the chaos and suffering that is in the world today. God is with us now; He will come again, but until that day we can trust in His presence as we live life in this world. As the psalmist says, “One thing I have asked of Yahweh, that I will seek after: that I may dwell in Yahweh’s house all the days of my life, to see Yahweh’s beauty, and to inquire in his temple.” The promise that will be fulfilled the day Jesus returns is already ours in the present. We dwell in God’s house in the here and now by faith in Jesus Christ and we have access to God’s grace through Him.
We who have been saved for a lifetime and those who have been saved for a moment are blessed, but there are still those who need to hear the Gospel so that they, too, can be saved. The eternal promise and all that goes with it will be theirs, too, one day. It may not come to them easily. They may search for it until their death bed, but if they believe in Jesus when they die, they will spend eternity with Him, just like us.
Sometimes it doesn’t seem fair, especially if those deathbed confessions come from those who have harmed us. We look at the enemies who persecute Christians and ask God for justice. Our idea of justice, of course, tends to be that they deserve to spend eternity in hell rather than heaven. They don’t deserve the blessing!
The landowner in today’s story made a deal with the first workers: they would work for the day and receive a day’s wages. A denarius, a day’s wage, was enough to feed a man’s family. It sounds like a ridiculously small amount to us, but it was enough. The workers agreed, gladly. They were happy to have the work. The landowner returns to the corner and discovers more workers throughout the day, each time hiring them to work his fields. He made no agreements with those later workers, but they were happy to have the work. When the day was over, the landowner paid each worker a day’s wage, one denarius. He gave each worker enough.
We are, of course, incensed by this story because we believe that the person who worked more hours deserves more wages. What is right in this situation? The first workers agreed to the wage and when they agreed they felt it was right. Yet, when they discovered that the last hired also received a day’s wage for their, they grumbled about it to the landowner. “It’s not fair.” “We have rights.” But what is right in this situation?
The landowner decided that a living wage is what was right and just in this situation. Perhaps it was generous, but it was also right. Can a man live on less than a denarius a day? Can he feed his family? We want to assume that a man who is not hired immediately has not tried to get hired. And, there are certainly those in this life who refuse to do what is necessary to get a job. Yet, there are some who have tried, but who do not have the necessary skills or whose circumstances make it difficult to find a job. The landowner could have been generous and simply gave those last men some charity, but he chose to hire them for work. He was not only generous with his money, but he was also generous with compassion and encouragement. He did what was right, even if it seemed like the rights of the other workers were traipsed upon.
When it comes to eternal salvation, we think we deserve something better because we’ve spent a lifetime working in God’s kingdom. Does the one who makes a deathbed confession deserve the same reward? God says, “Yes.” All those who believe in Jesus, whether they have believed for a lifetime or a minute will receive the inheritance promised in the scriptures, even those who did wrong but found what was sought at the last minute. As He says in Isaiah, “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways,’ says Yahweh. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
We are reminded that our enemies belong to God, too, and since He is God, He is the one who chooses what to do with His people. Whether baptized as a baby or converted on a deathbed, all those who hear God’s voice and turn to Him will receive mercy. Are we willing to be God’s voice to those for those to whom we’ve been sent, especially those we would rather not see benefit from God’s grace? It is often said that we will be surprised when we get to heaven and see some of the people who are there. How will we feel? Will we be like the field workers and battle the landowner over his generosity?
God has granted us the privilege of believing in Jesus and suffering for Him. What does this mean for us today? For some, it means everything that goes wrong in their life is some statement by God about sin or His response to our actions or lack of action. For others, every burden is a cross to bear, the suffering they have been called to do for God. Yet, the suffering Christ calls us to is like that of Paul to go out into the world and share the message of forgiveness and mercy with those who are dying in their sin. It isn’t easy to preach repentance to those who are our enemies. It might mean we will be dealt with unjustly and we might just feel like we would rather die than see their salvation.
However, we have found what we sought in God for a purpose. He has given us His grace to be shared, even with our enemy. He saves us and calls us to a life of passion for Jesus that is meant to manifest in faithful action and trust in God. God loves even those who do not love Him and He desires that they hear His word of grace so that they might repent and worship Him too.
Like Paul, we are called to take the message of grace into the world, no matter what suffering we face. We are not given the responsibility to decide who gets how much of our Father’s love. That’s up to God. We can’t pick and choose who we want to hear the Gospel. We can’t decide someone doesn’t deserve to receive mercy. We can’t get angry if we see our enemies turn to God and receive salvation. Whether we are part of God’s kingdom for a lifetime, a day or a minute, those with faith will spend eternity with God.
We thank God for His mercy and grace because we are imperfect; we don’t deserve eternal life in His kingdom any more than the other. We need His grace and mercy as much as our neighbor. How blessed are we that we have received the grace that has given us time to enjoy the benefits of living in His kingdom today! That grace has given us strength and courage, hope and peace, joy and love that makes our life worth living. We have that grace to get us through the bad times and help us do what is good and right in the world. That grace gives us the wisdom to treat our neighbor with respect and to value them as God does. Don’t we want to share that with others so that they don’t have to wait until that last minute to have what we have enjoyed our whole lives? Who knows, we might just discover our enemies make wonderful friends.
“For of him, and through him, and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever! Amen.” Romans 11:36, WEB
I began writing this devotion in 1999. It started small, just a brief message of inspiration to a group of people on an email list. I’d committed myself to two weeks. I still had things to say at the end of the two weeks, so I kept going. A month or so later, someone suggested that I should find a way to post them on the Internet; it would be a blog before there was such a thing as a blog.
Unfortunately, I had no idea how to go about creating a website. It is easy these days, with several excellent platforms for publishing personal thoughts, and other random things. I didn’t know anything about coding. Facebook didn’t exist. Myspace had not even been created. So, while I thought it was a good idea, I had no idea how to make it happen. I was discussing this with an online friend one day. He said to me, “Peggy, do you know what I’ve been doing the past few months?” I didn’t. He had been going to school for programming and coding. He knew how to build a website. On this day twenty-one years ago, we began building my A Word For Today website.
He helped me find a usable hosting site, one that was simple but that would help me create professional looking pages. The platform did all the work for me at first, but I eventually learned how to code on my own. My friend taught me the different tags I would need. He showed me some websites that would help me with color and design. If I got stuck, he was there to help me figure out what I was doing wrong. I haven’t needed his help for many years, but I still think about that day when he offered to help me get started. I am thankful to my friend, but I’m especially thankful for the God who put us together for a purpose.
It was a coincidence that my friend happened to be online that day. He had disappeared for a time, it happens all the time on the Internet, but one day he reappeared in the chat room I happened to be visiting. We renewed our friendship and began an incredible venture together. While I say it was a coincidence, I have long argued that there is no such thing. I like to call them “God-incidences.” Those are the moments when God has done something amazing that looks like something lucky or even ordinary. God brought us together at just the right moment.
I found this statement on a website, “The word coincidence is used only once in the New Testament, and it was by Jesus Himself in the parable of the Good Samaritan. In Luke 10:31, Jesus said, ‘And by a coincidence a certain priest was going down in that way, and having seen him, he passed over on the opposite side.’ The word coincidence is translated from the Greek word synkyrian, which is a combination of two words: sun and kurios. Sun means ‘together with,’ and kurious means ‘supreme in authority.’ So a biblical definition of coincidence would be ‘what occurs together by God’s providential arrangement of circumstances.’”
The reason we see these coincidences in a different way is because it turns our minds and our hearts to give credit where credit is due. God is in control of the universe. He can make incredible things happen in very ordinary ways. It might not seem like a miracle to run into an old friend one day, but I have no doubt that God was involved every step of the way. How has God created a miracle in your life recently? What coincidences might you credit to God with praise and thanksgiving? As Paul writes, everything is of Him, through Him, and to Him. He is the source of all good things, and to Him be the glory forever.Top
September 18, 2020
“Now after the death of Moses the servant of Yahweh, Yahweh spoke to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ servant, saying, ‘Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore arise, go across this Jordan, you and all these people, to the land which I am giving to them, even to the children of Israel. I have given you every place that the sole of your foot will tread on, as I told Moses. From the wilderness and this Lebanon even to the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, and to the great sea toward the going down of the sun, shall be your border. No man will be able to stand before you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not fail you nor forsake you. Be strong and courageous; for you shall cause this people to inherit the land which I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous. Be careful to observe to do according to all the law which Moses my servant commanded you. Don’t turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it; for then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall have good success. Haven’t I commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be dismayed, for Yahweh your God is with you wherever you go.’” Joshua 1:1-9, WEB
I was the youngest of three children in my family. There were definitely advantages, especially since my siblings were much older than I, but I did experience the struggle of following my sister through school. One of the difficulties I faced was following a sibling through school. She was a memorable student, one who did very well and who was popular. She left a legacy that was hard to follow. We shared several teachers and when I met one of her old teachers they automatically assumed that I would be like her. They quickly learned that I was different and they began to expect my best, not hers, but for a time it was difficult. It is hard to follow in someone’s footsteps.
We see this in other places. Some parents insist their children attend their alma mater, but they have different goals in life. Some politicians have to follow into a position following the retirement of a public servant. Churches deal with the struggle of finding a new pastor after one who was much loved leaves and that new pastor struggles to find their place in the huge hole left behind. We aren’t always good at accepting the differences and expecting the best someone new can give, making it nearly impossible for anyone to succeed or find peace.
Imagine what it must have been like for Joshua. Moses had led the people of Israel out of Egypt and guided them for forty years as they wandered in the desert. Moses had spoken to God face to face. He had received the Ten Commandments. He was deliverer, judge and lawgiver. He brought miracles of water, food, and protection from the natural elements they faced. No one could fill his shoes. But Joshua was not being called to become a new Moses; he was called to do God’s will.
It is hard enough to follow in the footsteps of a talented and gifted person who came first. Imagine how difficult it must have been for Joshua to become the leader who would take the Israelites into the Promised Land. They looked to Moses, not only in that generation but also for generations to come. It would be impossible to be like him. Yet, God called Joshua to do something different and promised He would be with him always. When He gives a command, He provides all we need to obey. When He sends us into the world to preach the Gospel, He provides the voice and the ears to hear. It does not matter who walks in front of us, who we follow through life. God is with each of person who obediently lives in faith in the here and now, giving us His grace that we might serve according to our own gifts and abilities.
“That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we saw, and our hands touched, concerning the Word of life (and the life was revealed, and we have seen, and testify, and declare to you the life, the eternal life, which was with the Father, and was revealed to us); that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us. Yes, and our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son, Jesus Christ. And we write these things to you, that our joy may be fulfilled.” 1 John 1:1-4, WEB
Saturday was “International Talk Like a Pirate Day.” While this may seem like a strange reason to celebrate, it is just one among many unique holidays that can be found for every day of the year. At one website, there are more than four dozen month long, more than two dozen week long, and more than three dozen day long celebrations and remembrances for just the month of September. These occasions include everything from Fall Hat Month to Hug a Texas Chef Month, Metaphysical Awareness Month to Update Your Resume Month. Some of the daily events include Be Late for Something Day and Ugly Woman Day.
I don’t know how these special days get started, yet there seems to be something for everyone. Certainly Mother’s Day covers a large audience, but there are those for whom Mother’s Day can be hard rather than a joyous occasion. Christmas has become a holiday for many who are not even Christian, but there are still many who don’t celebrate. So someone somewhere chooses a day and calls it “National Whatever Day.” They might have too much time on their hands or they want to impact their corner of the world in some way. Many are used to promote some product; National Pickle Month benefits the pickle industry. National Breast Cancer Awareness Month will help with breast cancer research. Some of these remembrances are quite valuable; who could deny the importance of letting people know about breast cancer? Other holidays on the list are ridiculous and bizarre. Yet, we can learn much about people by the things with which they identify. For example, those who celebrate International Talk Like a Pirate Day have a sense of humor.
It is funny how in our society with hundreds of special holidays for very specific group and our hyphenated heritages, we refuse to embrace the labels that identify our faith. Many Christians would rather not reveal their Christianity in their workplace or neighborhoods. They fear persecution or are wary of bringing up the subject of faith, they think it is possible to keep God compartmentalized, to worship Him on Sunday but keep Him out of their life out in the world. Yet, we are called to be in fellowship with God at all times, to walk in His light and share His love with all. It is especially important to do so in these days when the world needs to see God’s light, to experience His grace, and receive His forgiveness. It may be hard. It may be dangerous. But it is what God has called us to do.
As Christians, we are called to live in fellowship with those who have also heard God’s message of grace through the witness of the Christians - the saints - that have come before us. Through the Word of God given us by them, from the apostles to our parents and every Christian in between, we receive the blessings of life in Christ, becoming one in fellowship with Him even while we live in this world. Our faith is the foundation of our relationship with God the Father, the Son and the Spirit, it gives us something to truly celebrate. As we join with others in the body of Christ, our days all become holy days of joy.
“Let no corrupt speech proceed out of your mouth, but only what is good for building others up as the need may be, that it may give grace to those who hear. Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, outcry, and slander be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender hearted, forgiving each other, just as God also in Christ forgave you.” Ephesians 4:29-32, WEB
There are pages on the Internet where people can go tell stories about their experiences. Editors gather these stories and put them thematically into one page. I read one today that was about the weirdest things customers ever did, as told by the customer service person that experienced it. Many of the stories were from fast food or retail, and I’m sure that anyone who has worked in either has their own stories to tell. A few examples from the article were of people who ordered food from one restaurant while standing in another. One woman kept insisting on a particular sandwich. The employee had never heard of it. She insisted on speaking to a manager. In the end she said, “You are the worst *a particular restaurant* ever and I’m going to complain to corporate.” The employee answered, “Ma’am, we are not *that particular restaurant* you are at a *another restaurant.* She quickly left, embarrassed by her mistake.
Now, sometimes these articles make me laugh, but sometimes I struggle with the attitudes of those people who post their stories. We all make mistakes and as an observer through the story, I can’t really know what happened because we do not have the other side. I spent several years working in retail and I know that customers can be very difficult. I think, perhaps, it has even gotten worse in the past few years. I’m sure that people are especially frustrated these days. I had bad days, too.
I remember one day I was working the check out at a retail store when an elderly woman came to my register. I was young, impatient, and I had a long line of customers. The woman was buying something that was just a few dollars. We didn’t use debit or credit cards for everything in those days; we dealt mostly in cash. The woman asked me if I minded taking some change. We preferred not taking a lot of coins those days because it left room for errors and there was never enough room in our drawers. I had just opened several rolls of coins to give change to the previous customers. I explained our policy, but she pulled out a plastic bag full of pennies and began counting them, as if she didn’t hear me. “One, two, three...” she went on for a long time, counting out over two hundred pennies. I looked at the customers behind her and mouthed “I’m sorry.” A few rolled their eyes. You can’t reject pennies, they are legal tender. It just would have been easier if she had taken those pennies to the bank and brought me two crisp one dollar bills. I would not have had to experience the uncomfortable conversations with my supervisor and the woman in the office who had to count those pennies at the close of the day.
It was a long time ago and I think I was fairly patient, but I probably wasn’t. I probably told the story with a similar attitude as those storytellers on the Internet pages. I look back on it now, especially since we have a coin shortage. I don’t think I’d ever take a plastic bag full of pennies to the store, but I have become one of those little old ladies who digs in my wallet for the exact change sometimes. The customers involved in those stories I read will probably never know they’ve been told, and even if they do, no one will know they are the customer. It doesn’t matter; whether they know it or not, it is up to us to be gracious about our neighbors, even when they do something that annoys us. We don’t always know what is happening in their lives at that moment. We all have bad days. Perhaps that elderly woman did not hear me.
We live at a time when we see our neighbors through our own frustration, anger, confusion, and uncertainty. We are quick to see the negative and slow to consider that they might be dealing with the same feelings, responding to a messed up world in the only way they know how. It might not be the best way, but we never make things better when we complain or ridicule. We are encouraged as people of faith, to find positive ways to help our neighbors, even when they are driving us crazy. We might just find that our attitude will make a difference to someone, whether it is the customer (or employee), the witnesses of the experience, or those to whom we tell the story. We will never lift the world if we spend our time taking people down.
It is very easy to react negatively when someone does something that is frustrating or that angers us. It is our calling to be merciful. After all, Christ died on the cross in the ultimate act of mercy, forgiving us of our sins. This leads us to be forgiving, to have compassion on those who suffer with joy knowing that the very character of God shines when mercy is shared. We are called in Christ to deal with difficult experiences with grace. In Christ, it is our responsibility to speak with goodness, building up our neighbors so that they will be the best they have been created and redeemed to be.
Scriptures for September 27, 2020, Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25:1-10; Philippians 2:1-4 (5-13) 14-18; Matthew 21:23-32
The political season is well underway in the United States. Political ads are playing on the radio, television, and through social media. The news shows have focused on the candidates and the issues. Political signs are popping up all over our neighborhood like wildflowers in the spring.
Politicians in every level of government are working hard to make sure that we have heard their words and will remember their name when we vote on Election Day. They repeat key words and phrases to convince us that they are the right person for the job. They have to keep it short so that it will fit on a bumper sticker, but bumper sticker wisdom is often twisted and less than true. The more we hear those key words and phrases, however, they become so embedded in our minds that they seem to become common wisdom. They are repeated in everyday conversations until they are accepted truths.
These short, memorable statements begin as little more than a slogan or motto, but often take on the life of something greater. They become adages, maxims, aphorisms, epigrams, proverbs and when overused they become clichés. These words have nearly identical definitions and can be generally used interchangeably, and yet there is some difference between them. Maxims are adages that become general rules. Aphorisms are adages that have not been around a long time but are recognized as particularly deep or well-written. Epigrams are known for their wittiness and irony. Proverbs summarize basic truths of folk wisdom, made acceptable by long use and universal experiences of common folk.
The problem with political slogans and with proverbs is that there is often an equal and opposite slogan or proverb. That’s what makes voting so difficult. Which do you believe? Two politicians from opposite sides claim they will best represent the military community, or the inner cities, or the farmers, or a certain race, or... the list goes on. They all say the right words. They all make sense in some way. They all seem true. They all point to a measure of wisdom that we need to go into the future. That’s why it is so important to base our decisions on more than sound bites and bumper sticker wisdom. It is important to know more about the candidates, to listen to both sides of the debates, to research the backgrounds and words of all candidates to find the whole truth amongst the adages.
There are, among the common proverbs of our time, a number of “dueling maxims” which are contrary proverbs. Take, for instance, “The bigger the better” and “Good things come in small packages.” Which is better, the big one or the small one? “Actions speak louder than words” and “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Is it better to write letters to the editor about a problem or face your enemy? I love this pair: “You’re never too old to learn” but “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” If you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, how is he supposed to learn? We often live our lives according to this proverb: “It’s better to be safe than sorry” but we also know “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” So, should we live safe or go forward with courage? And finally, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” but “Out of sight, out of mind.” So, will we remember those we love if they stay away or if they are under our noses?
Proverbs change according to the changing world in which we live, although I think we all have moments when each side of a dueling maxim is appropriate. I’ve received big presents that were great as well as small boxes with diamonds. The pen is mighty, but there are times when action is necessary to make a real difference. Long held habits are hard to break, but you do learn something new every day. We have to be courageous and careful. A relationship can be built from afar, but temptation can lead to unfaithfulness.
The proverb in today’s passage may have seemed true to the people of Israel in the day of Ezekiel. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?” In so much of God’s relationship with His people, the blessings and the consequences seemed absolutely determined by the actions and words of their forefathers. They were a people dependent on national identity and relationship to the past. Yet, we also see in the lives of those forefathers that God wanted a personal relationship with those He called to serve. God cares about each person and we will experience His mercy and justice as individuals because He loves each of us as individuals. There may be some truth to the proverbs of our day and in the proverb in today’s passage, but when it comes to the things of God, human wisdom will never stand.
The worst part of our political process is that many people rely solely on those words to make their decision rather than looking further to understand the person’s attitude and action. We all know that many politicians (most?) say one thing and do something much different. They promise one thing, but they don’t accomplish what they’ve promised. Sometimes there is good reason why it didn’t come to be, but sometimes they simply promise what they think the voters want to hear and then when they get into office, they do whatever they want to do. Sadly, they begin saying the same words when campaign season starts, and the voters rarely hold them accountable. They like what they hear, so they vote for the same failed promises over and over again.
I spent several years as a retail manager. In retail, as in other areas of life, there are different types of people. One type was a joy to be around. They worked hard, always happy to be at work. They completed their tasks with enthusiasm and enjoyment. They didn’t waste time during the day; when they finished their tasks, they looked to see what else could be done. At the end of the day, those employees always go above and beyond the “call of duty.” This is the kind of person you want to employ and to reward because they are valuable assets to the company. The parable in today’s Gospel lesson doesn’t give us an example of this type of person. We do hear about the other two, though.
Jesus described two sons whose father sent them to the vineyard to work. One son answered, “I will surely go,” but he never got around to it. I had employees who were the same. They accepted assignments with enthusiasm, but they never finished the job. They were easily distracted by other things and though they might have started a task, they got caught up in other things, often using those other tasks as excuses for their inability to get the work done. For example, I had one employee whose job was to take care of the stationary department of the store. Now, this department (pens, notebooks, office supplies) was definitely hard to deal with because there were so many small items on the shelves. This employee was also often called to serve as a cashier during busy times. She was distracted by other work and might have had a good excuse, except that even when she was not on the cash register, she managed to waste time. She found a way to make her brief stints at the register become lengthy time away from her regular duties. She lingered around the check-out station, stopped to chat with other employees and excused herself to the break room. She had been called away and used that as her excuse for not completing her work even though she could have returned to it immediately and accomplished it in plenty of time.
Most of my employees were the third type: the grumblers and complainers. They were the ones who were vocal about the tasks they hated to do. They often found easy work on the floor quickly so that they would not be assigned to those hated tasks. They never said “Yes” with or without enthusiasm. They said “No, I am working on this.” Yet, I often found them doing the work later, having realized how important it was to get it done. It was those employees that had to do the work of the enthusiastic employee who never got done. I would rather have these employees because at least I knew they would eventually accomplish everything.
And according to the parable, this last group of employees was like the son who was obedient. He grumbled, but he did it. He immediately said “No” but ended up completing the tasks anyway. They didn’t make any promises but eventually changed their minds and changed their actions.
Jesus used this parable to describe the religious people of the day. The first son represents those who said “Yes” to God like the chief priests and teachers of the law who were religious but who refused to do the work of the Father, which is to believe in Jesus. The second son represents those who initially said “No way, I like my life as it is!” but later realized their mistake and believed. They were the ones called sinners by the religious elite, but they would receive the Kingdom because they did the work of believing in Jesus.
John the Baptist preached a message of repentance and for John that meant more than words. The Pharisees and the Sadducees wanted John to baptize them but he warned that they must produce fruit in keeping with repentance. He told them that it was not enough to have Abraham as their father because God is able to adopt children from even “the stones.” In this week’s Gospel lesson it seems that God found children in the most unusual place: among the sinners. These were not just your everyday sinners, either; He found believers among the publicans and prostitutes, the worst of the worst.
I wonder what life was like for those sinners who repented. They believed John and they also believed in Jesus. But this newfound faith would have wreaked havoc on their lives. Jesus described and exhibited the life of faithful living that was just and right according to God’s Word. His Father was the center of His life and His ministry. The kingdom as God intended it to be was the focus of His preaching. He was calling people to a life of repentance, but that repentance was more than an “I’m sorry.” Jesus was calling the people to a change of heart, a change of mindset, a life with God and His Word as the center.
God calls us to a life of righteousness, and the work of the publicans, or tax collectors, was not right. They cheated people out of money to get rich. They were willing to take the last dime of a widow in order to have a new robe and they feasted on the labor of the poor. A person could work as a tax collector and do it justly, but they would not be able to continue living a life of luxury. A tax collector got the job by competing for it against other tax collectors. They made bids, like a construction company might bid for a job with the government. If they won the bid, they were required to pay the taxes up front. They then went to their station and recouped their investment. It could have been a just system, but the tax collectors got greedy. They required higher taxes from the people to pay for their profits. While a farmer might owe ten measures of flour, the tax collector often charged twenty. What would a tax collector do with this new faith? With a change of heart, they could not longer cheat the people, but how would they live?
Faith means putting God first. Unfortunately, in Roman times there were dozens of gods to be worshipped. The prostitutes were part of the religious system of the day. They often lived in the temples and served the believers as part of the ritual of worship. Our God is a jealous God and demands from those who believe to hold no god above Him. This sounds like a very human emotion, but in the case of God, it is very divine. We cannot hold the Creator of everything equal to the gods found in the Roman or Greek temples of the day. He is God. When John the Baptist preached to these prostitutes, they saw a different kind of life for themselves, under the care and protection of a God who can truly make a difference. They could not go back to their temples, to hold up those gods and religions that had stolen their virtue for false promises. And though we can certainly make sex the issue, this is more about a change of heart. The prostitutes, like the tax collectors, believed in God and put Him first. That meant a change in lifestyle. How would they live?
They willingly turned their lives upside down because they believed John and then Jesus. Maybe that was why it was so hard for the Pharisees and the Sadducees. They already believed in God and were doing the work they believed God was calling them to do. They didn’t think that this new belief held something better, or that they needed to be transformed, so they could not believe John’s message or believe in Jesus Christ. They claimed to believe in God but refused to do like those tax collectors and prostitutes; by rejecting Jesus they lost touch with the very God in whom they thought they believed.
Look at the headlines and you’ll see that we are suffering from so much brokenness in the world and everyone is trying to point the fingers at everyone else. The reality is that we are all sinners and we are all at fault in some way, but we want to lay the blame on others. Take, for instance, the work of Martin Luther. There are many who point to his writing against the Jewish people and blame him for Adolph Hitler. Luther was not gracious toward the Jews for many reasons, not the least of which was his frustration that they refused to see Jesus as the Messiah. He never called for their murder and despite his harsh words I believe he would have stood with Dietrich Bonheoffer in opposition to the extermination of an entire nation. Hitler claimed to be Luther’s kind of Christian, but he wasn’t a Christian at all. He misappropriated Luther’s words and used them to do the unthinkable. Luther was not perfect, and he should not have such harsh language about the Jews of his day, but Hitler was to blame for the things he did, especially misrepresenting what it means to be a Christian.
Is there anything about our own lives that can be misconstrued or mischaracterized, to be used in a negative way? When the world looks at your life, will they see that you are living a life according to God’s Word? Or have you said “Yes” without committing yourself to a true Christian life?
The proverb represented in today’s Old Testament lesson may point back to a verse from Exodus. “I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and on the fourth generation of those who hate me.” This is what is known in some circles as the generational curse. It is claimed that the children will experience the punishment for all that has been done wrong by their fathers. We do suffer from the original sin, born into the world as sinners because of the actions of our father Adam and mother Eve.
Unfortunately, we often see this most clearly in impoverished communities. The children suffer from the sins of their parents. But this generational curse is not limited to the poor. Children in every level of society learn to live according what they see in their families.
They claim that they don’t have a choice. Some blame society for making it impossible for them to get out of the cycle. Others point to the scripture from Exodus and claim that they are suffering because their fathers sinned. They, as the people in Ezekiel’s day, believe the proverb. Ezekiel tells the people that God has commanded them to reject that proverb. “Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins, he shall die.” God wants the faith of His people to create a personal relationship that changes them from the inside. When we believe in Jesus, we will become the people we are meant to be.
Has your life been transformed? Is God the center of your life? Have you cheated someone today? What gods do you hold in greater esteem than the Lord? Have you repented? Has your heart and mind been changed, or do you continue to do things as you have always done them because you have built your hope on all the wrong things?
We live in a fallen and sinful world. Human beings are imperfect and fail to do the things God expects us to do. We are unrighteous and unjust. Each and every one of us. We all deserve God’s wrath; we all deserve to experience His justice. Instead of pointing our fingers to our fathers or to the forefathers of our neighbors, it is up to us to face the reality of our own sinfulness. We aren’t going to solve today’s problems by blaming our neighbors for yesterday’s sins.
God put a halt to the blame game. God deals with each person according to their own sin; they pay the price for their unwillingness to obey God’s Word. We all sin in specific ways and we often suffer the consequences of those sins, but Jesus had a much greater concern: the sin which separates us from God. Our natural inclination is to be our own god, to take control of our own life, and act according to our own ideology. This is the sin that sets us against God and His will. While some of our burdens can be blamed on the sins of our fathers and forefathers, we should be more concerned about our relationship with God.
The Gospel lesson calls us to a life where our “Yes” means “Yes” in word as well as deed. We are to believe in Jesus, but also to live as if we believe in Him.
Paul tells us that our attitude should be the same as that of Jesus Christ: humble submission to God’s Will. Jesus did not die because we can’t control ourselves; He died because we were separated from our Father. He died for forgiveness, not for each individual sin but because we are all incapable of willfully obeying His Word. He died to reconcile God to His people. Whatever happened in history is no concern; the father’s sin will not kill the child. Christ made it possible for all men to live in relationship with God the Father and to receive his blessings.
We respond to Jesus’ humility with the realization that if Jesus, who was the Son of God, could be humble, we should also be humble. The temple leaders didn’t know what it meant to be humble. They ignored John and they accused Jesus. John came with a message of repentance, “Turn to God!” Jesus came with the same message, but He knew that it was impossible for man to do the will of the Father. Only Jesus could make it possible. Paul knew that he could not save anyone by his own power, but that sharing the truth of Christ would bring faith to all who hear and believe. It is by faith we are saved.
It is by God’s grace that we live in faith. Thanks to Christ Jesus our relationship with God has been restored and we have been called to trust in Him. In faith we can sing praise to God even in the midst of our troubles. We can turn to the Psalms to seek comfort and peace when the world around us seems to be falling apart. David sang, “To you, Yahweh, do I lift up my soul.” The world is filled with injustices and we should work to reconcile neighbors to neighbors. We are called to bear one another’s burdens, but not to lay upon others the burdens of sin from the past.
It all begins with faith. God will judge; it doesn’t always seem fair, but we can trust that God is just and good and He will always do what is right. Thank goodness, because if He meted out justice according to the ways of the world, we would all deserve to suffer His wrath. Thankfully, we are made righteous by believing in Jesus and by His grace we are saved. By His obedience we are forgiven. By His life we are given eternal life.
So let us have the mind of Christ, humble and obedient before God. Let us hear His messenger and turn to Him, learning and following His Word. Let us trust that God is fair, in His way, and that He will be faithful to His promises for our sake and for the sake of the world. For God does not want any to die. We all belong to Him and He desires that we will all will know and experience His love and mercy into eternity.
“Knowing this first, that in the last days mockers will come, walking after their own lusts and saying, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For, from the day that the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.’ For this they willfully forget that there were heavens from of old, and an earth formed out of water and amid water by the word of God, by which means the world that existed then, being overflowed with water, perished. But the heavens that exist now and the earth, by the same word have been stored up for fire, being reserved against the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. But don’t forget this one thing, beloved, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some count slowness; but he is patient with us, not wishing that anyone should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” 2 Peter 3:3-9. WEB
In 1981, Bill Gates said, “640K ought to be enough for anybody.”
In 1876, a representative at Western Union had this to say in a memo, “The ‘telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” Today, the telephone is a vital part of international communication. With wireless and cellular technology, even the most remote places in the world can connect to the world.
Lord Kelvin, president of the Royal Society said, “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible,” in 1895. According to the FAA, 4.4 billion passengers flew in American air space in 2018. The number of airplanes that take off and land daily around the world is staggering, so it is needless to say that airplane flight is not impossible.
The commissioner in the U.S. Office of Patents, in 1899 made this statement, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” The technological advancements that occurred in the twentieth century were not even imagined by those who lived in the nineteenth century. Even science fiction books did not anticipate things like television and microwaves. In 2019, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued 333,530 new patents.
People make predictions all the time, and as you can see from these four very notable predictions, they don’t always come true. We look at the world around us and think we know what tomorrow will hold, especially if we are the people who are at the cutting edge of the information. Yet, as we can see from these four examples, tomorrow is beyond our knowledge. Sometimes the predictions come true. Sometimes we get it right, but it is rarely a prophetic utterance. It is usually coincidence.
Unfortunately, many people think they are prophets. They speak a word about something and when it seems to come true, they think they are gifted with special sight. Too often, however, they have to reinterpret their words to make it fit the actual events. I used to receive email daily from “prophetic” groups that claimed to know what would happen tomorrow. They occasionally sent a confirmation email showing what was said then and how it was actually happening. They never had any idea how it would play out in the future, and often had to rewrite the original words to show how they were fulfilled. Hindsight is twenty-twenty vision.
People have been predicting the end of the world since the beginning of the Church age. Some prophet has appeared in every era of Church history; they interpret the scriptures and point to signs of the coming of Christ. A few go so far as to predict a date when it will come. Each one failed and all their followers have been disappointed. Today, the predictions are coming in even greater quantity, probably due to social media. One lucky guess or twisted interpretation and these people call themselves prophets.
Prophetic materials, even novels, are used as evangelistic tools. Friends share books about the end times with their friends; they fear because of what they read and they make a commitment to Jesus Christ. Yet, as time passes and they do not see the fulfillment of these so called prophecies, many of those who live by such shallow faith fall away with a vengeance. They mock and question the faithful, “Where is He?”
We are indeed living in the end times, but we have been since Jesus ascended to heaven. The Bible gives us a description of what it will be like in that day, but God warns us not to try to figure out the day Jesus will come again. We won’t know; even Jesus does not know the date. He will return when it is time. It could be today, or tomorrow, or in a thousand years. Even if the signs seem to point to Today, we have to remember that God is never late. When tomorrow comes, we’ll know that our prophecy was wrong. God’s time is different than our time, but His promises are true. We can rest in the knowledge that He will come, and we need not worry about predicting the time. He’s waiting for the full measure of those for whom He has prepared salvation to come to faith. His patience is our joy because it just might mean someone we love will be saved. What are we waiting for? Rather than waiting for Jesus to come again, let’s go out to share Him with the world so that many more will be saved.
“On the first day of the week, when the disciples were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and continued his speech until midnight. There were many lights in the upper room where we were gathered together. A certain young man named Eutychus sat in the window, weighed down with deep sleep. As Paul spoke still longer, being weighed down by his sleep, he fell down from the third floor and was taken up dead. Paul went down and fell upon him, and embracing him said, ‘Don’t be troubled, for his life is in him.’ When he had gone up, and had broken bread and eaten, and had talked with them a long while, even until break of day, he departed. They brought the boy in alive, and were greatly comforted.” Acts 20:7-12, WEB
There are times we can’t help but fall asleep. I seem to be at a season in my life (or we can blame the pandemic) that I start to get sleepy-eyed in the afternoon. I manage a nap some days, others I have to work my way through it. It happens when we are just too tired. Medicines cause sleepiness. The conditions in the room, like warm air or boring discussion, can make it impossible to stay awake. Who among us hasn’t needed to rest our eyes for just a few minutes after a delicious Thanksgiving dinner (blame the turkey!) This can be dangerous when we are driving a car or operating heavy equipment. Long car rides do me in when I am a passenger, especially when I have to take medicine for motion sickness. My son has a button on his butt; it doesn’t matter how long the trip, he manages to fall asleep.
Some of the funniest home videos are those of people who have fallen asleep in this most unusual circumstances, like the child who falls asleep in her mashed potatoes, the groom who falls asleep at the altar, or the person at the head of the table who falls asleep during the keynote speech. Yet, those situations are not always funny to the ones involved. Imagine how the bride must have felt! The snoring of the listener must have made the keynote speaker wonder about his speech. A speaker who sees someone falling asleep in the audience, like a preacher from a pulpit, can’t help but wonder if there is something about the speech that is causing the person to fall asleep.
I wish I’d had the opportunity to hear Paul preach, even though it sounds like he could preach until the sun went down and then came up again. How difficult it must have been for that young man, Eutychus! Look around church on a Sunday morning and I’m sure you’ll see at least a few heads bobbing during the typical fifteen minute sermon. I know a retired pastor who is guilty of this. He always claimed he was communing with the Holy Spirit. Doesn’t necessarily happen because the sermon is boring or too long; I’m sure the boy wanted to hear everything Paul had to say, yet the hour was late and he could not help but fall asleep.
How do we react when someone falls asleep at an inappropriate time? We might laugh at them like we do the funny videos or we might get angry when they seem to disrespect the things we are saying. We take it personally, wondering what we could do to make things better for the person. Paul’s response to this situation was full of compassion. He brought the young man back to life and then went on with his preaching. He did not allow the circumstances to affect the work he was doing; He allowed God to impact the lives of many through the experience.
Our hectic lives leave little time for us to properly rest and care for our bodies, so there are times when we just can’t help ourselves. Yet, our sleep is not always like that of poor Eutychus. There are millions of people who are sleeping walking through life. They go about their day to day activities; they do not pay attention to the One that is speaking healing and forgiveness into their lives, our Lord Jesus Christ. They do not realize how close they are to falling out a window to their own deaths because they are missing out on the mercy and grace of God. Apathy, unconcern or indifference are the kind of sleep that brings death. Let us pray that we won’t be caught falling asleep while the Lord speaks to us. But if we do, may we always remember that He is merciful and will bring healing and forgiveness into our lives.
“Trust in Yahweh with all your heart, and don’t lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” Proverbs 3:5-6, WEB
My husband was in the military and we were stationed in England for four years. It was a wonderful opportunity for us, and we took advantage of every moment. We tried to go to different places every weekend and we took several longer trips further afield. We saw castles, palaces, manor houses, churches, and museums. We visited places that literary significance, like the Hundred Acre Woods of Winnie the Pooh. We climbed hills and wandered through forests. We looked at ancient, military, and natural landmarks.
Unfortunately, many families that move overseas for a season think they have plenty of time to do some sightseeing, so they wait for the right time to go on adventures. Unfortunately, too many wait too long. They get caught up in life and they don’t wander far from home, missing out on the chance to learn and enjoy something very different. Suddenly the orders come from headquarters that it is time to move again, and then it is too late. Those last six months are filled with the business of moving. They missed their opportunity. The thing is, we should be adventurous all the time, even at “home,” because there are so many wonderful things to do and see here in the United States. We promised ourselves after four years of adventures that we would continue to do so. We didn’t because we got caught up in life and never wandered far from home; we missed opportunities to experience the beauty and history that was available there.
I have a million stories to tell about our adventures in England, but I’ll begin with this one. We were wandering around the western part of the country, Cornwall, a day I called “Climb a hill, look at a rock day.” It took on that name because after climbing a number of hills and looking at a number of rock formations, we came to another sight to see. The kids were not sure about climbing another hill, so I told them to wait in the car with my husband. I was halfway up the hill when I noticed that they following me. I got to the top of the hill and started taking pictures. The view was spectacular and the landmark was a beacon, a place where they lit fires to send messages across the land. It was also likely the entrance to an even older tomb that had been covered with dirt until almost hidden. My daughter made it to the top of the hill and asked, “So, what are we supposed to be looking at?” I said, “These rocks.” She said, “We climbed up this hill to look at these rocks? Why? I said, “Because these rocks are very old.” She answered, “Aren’t all rocks old?”
Cornwall is an ancient land with many ancient landmarks. It is not a very big area, but there are many sites that date back thousands of years. We wanted to find some Celtic crosses, although we did not have much luck with that quest, we did see standing stones, menhirs, quoits, and even a 2500 year old village. It is also an adventure to get around. We were using an ordinance map which showed the location of the rock formations. The roads in Cornwall are small. I mean tiny. American cars are almost too big on these roads; this is about 6 inches of space between the car and the hedgerow. The hedgerows are 8 feet tall. I am not exaggerating. It is like you are driving through a tunnel. Also, these roads are not one way; you never know when you will turn a curve and come across another vehicle.
I was navigating; Bruce was driving and wary. Every time I said, “Turn here,” he knew it meant another tiny road. I told him to turn at one road that I saw on the map, but somehow we missed it. I said, “No problem turn at the next road.” We did and as we drove by what was the end of the original road, we realized why we missed it: it was a cow path, smaller than the actual road which was tiny. Those ordinance maps are very detailed. That cow path was not even wide enough for our car; it was a good thing we missed it.
I decided to videotape our drive down one of these roads because I was sure no one would believe me when I told them about it. It is hard enough to watch the hedgerows go by when you are just inches away, but imagine watching while viewing it in a 1” eyepiece. We went around a curve, and I exclaimed (using a word I can’t print here, because there we were, face to face with a great big tractor. I’m not even sure how he fit between the hedgerows. With no way to go forward and no way to turn around, we had to back our car to a wide place in the road, and wait for the tractor to pass. When we felt safe to head on our way, we arrived at the same curve only to meet a second tractor. We had to back up once again to let that tractor pass, and then we finally made it off that road. Bruce was hesitant to listen to my directions the rest of the day, but we did find another interesting site to visit.
“Climb a hill, look at a rock day” was fun, at least for me. The children eventually got bored with all the driving and all the rocks, but I learned some interesting history. I also enjoyed the humor and the laughter of the day. Even my colorful language when seeing a large tractor in my viewfinder has given me another story to tell. My navigation was the source of some frustration but also a lot of laughs. I learned a lot about the roads of England that day, and I’ve always wished I could go back and do it again because I think I would be better prepared a next time.
I suppose our day was a lot like life, but we don’t even really have a road map for our journey of life. We do have the Bible, but how often do we read something, turn on that path and discover the roadblocks that cause us to back up when we want to move forward. The writer of today’s proverbs reminds us to trust in God with all our heart, acknowledging Him and following His ways. Our understanding is limited, even with His Word as our guide. But God is able to lead us so that we will get to where we need to be. He will help us take the right road, but even if we turn on the cow path, He will be with us and help us through.
“Praise Yahweh, you angels of his, who are mighty in strength, who fulfill his word, obeying the voice of his word. Praise Yahweh, all you armies of his, you servants of his, who do his pleasure. Praise Yahweh, all you works of his, in all places of his dominion. Praise Yahweh, my soul!” Psalm 103:20-22
One of the most incredible places we visited during our time in England was an island off the coast of Cornwall called St. Michael’s Mount. The island rises out of Mount’s Bay, and can be seen from the hilltops that dot the West Penwith peninsula, the westernmost corner of England. A causeway is revealed at low tide which allows visitors to walk to the island, but at all other times it is necessary to travel by boat. The mount’s purpose has changed over the centuries; it has been a port used for tin trade, a monastery, a military outpost, and a private home. It has been the site of numerous battles throughout history and many have sought control of this important property.
As with many things around England, particularly Cornwall, St. Michael’s Mount is known for several ancient legends, including stories about King Arthur and some Celtic saints. St. Michael is an archangel described as a mighty warrior angel in the Scriptures. Many churches and religious institutions that were located on the top of a hill or mountain took the name St. Michael in honor of his feats in the heavenly realm, so it is no wonder that the legendary place off the coast of England would be called St. Michael’s Mount. In one of the legends, some fishermen saw Michael standing high above the sea on a rocky ridge on the island, as if he were guarding it. The tradition was due to the stories found in the bible about St. Michael fighting the devil in the heavenly realms. One such story is found in Revelation 12, where Michael fights the dragon and casts him to earth.
Today is the Festival of St. Michael and All Angels also known as Michaelmas. In the modern quest to rationalize all things spiritual, we have lost touch with the beauty and importance of God’s angels. We forget that there is a spiritual world beyond what we know with our senses and our mind. We don’t see angels or hear about them every day, so we reject the notion that they are real. We reject the reality of Satan, too, to our detriment. In the modern quest to rationalize all things spiritual, we have lost touch with the beauty and importance of God’s angels. We forget that there is a spiritual world beyond what we know with our senses and our mind. We don’t see angels or demons or hear about them every day, so we reject the notion that they are real.
Martin Luther said, “All heaviness of mind and melancholy come of the devil; especially these thoughts, that God is not gracious unto him: that God will have no mercy upon him, etc. Whosoever thou art, possessed with such heavy thoughts, know for certain, that they are a work of the devil. God sent his Son into the world, not to affright, but to comfort. Therefore be of good courage, and think, that henceforward thou art not the child of a human creature, but of God, through faith in Christ, in whose name thou art baptized; therefore the spear of death cannot enter into thee; he has no right unto thee, much less he hurt or prejudice thee, for he is everlastingly swallowed up through Christ.” (From Table Talk)
Perhaps we have reason to be melancholy. Watch just a few minutes of the news these days and you will see that there is trouble everywhere. The pandemic and social unrest, the political process and the struggles of business, the lack of access to the places where people find fellowship and encouragement has led to high rates of depression and even suicide. 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. There is no doubt that Satan has a hold on our world. Wickedness is rampant. We are reminded today, however, that we have allies in the spiritual realm to aid us as we walk in this world. Angels are a means of God’s grace, a way by which God reveals Himself to the world. Human beings are just a small part of the created order: the heavens and earth, plants, animals and people, angels and demons are all under the dominion of the Lord God Almighty.
The modern understanding of angels is far different than it was in the days of John. Today, pretty little angels decorate cards, plaques, statues, and jewelry. Movies like “Michael” and television shows like “Touched by an Angel” give the angels very human characteristics. Those in mourning are often told their loved one has gone to heaven and become an angel. Angels aren’t dead people who are made new in heaven; God created them as unique beings that live and move in the spiritual realm, as we are unique beings that live and move in the temporal. They are able to move throughout the dominion of God, passing into our world in obedience to God’s will. Their main purpose, as is ours, is to glorify God in all they do. Angels are generally messengers, but they were created to minister to us: to bring hope, comfort, protection and the Word of the Lord.
The psalmist in today’s lesson encourages all of God’s creation to sing His praises, from the angels and all those who serve Him in heaven and on earth, to the soul of the individual Christian saved by His grace. Whenever we praise God, we join in the chorus of praise and thanksgiving with the angels and all the saints who have gone before us that is constantly glorifying God in the heavens and on earth. On this day of Michaelmas, let us remember that we are not alone in our battle against Satan and wickedness in our world. St. Michael is fighting for us and the angels are walking with us. We rarely see them, but we can praise God with them and for their presence, trusting that God has sent them to help us with the battle we can’t see.
Scriptures for October 4, 2020, Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
“Turn us again, God of Armies. Cause your face to shine, and we will be saved.” Psalm 80:7, WEB
One of the things I loved most about living in England was the fact that there was a farmer’s market in every town. They were on different days of the week, so I could visit one town one day and another town the next. We always had fresh fruit and vegetables and the sellers at the markets offered some strange but wonderful choices. I first learned about broccoflower in England. Broccoflower is a cross between broccoli and cauliflower with its flavor falling somewhere between the two. It is delicious. We also had broccolini, which many people think is “baby broccoli” but it is really a cross between two types of broccoli. The baby brussels sprouts were the best I’ve ever tasted and they were incredible inexpensive.
We don’t have as many farmers markets here in Texas, and the types of vegetables are somewhat limited in our grocery stores. There are a few markets that offer interesting choices, but they are not the most accessible so we live with the choices we have at the store down the street. There are still choices available. You can buy a number of different types of peaches or apples, plums that taste like grapes, mini-bananas and so much more.
It used to be that a grape was a grape was a grape, but now you can choose from a dozen different types, probably more. You can even buy champagne grapes, which are tiny grapes so small it is hard to imagine how you could eat them. They are smaller than peas, but grow in bunches just like regular grapes. I have not eaten any, so I don’t know about the flavor, but wine producers have long worked with their vines to develop special grapes to create new and different wines. Each grape gives a unique quality to the wine, and combining grapes can make fantastic flavors. They do this by planting the grapes in certain soils and using special techniques like grafting to make the plants hardier.
People have been grafting grape vines for a long time, even in the days of Isaiah. The vineyard keeper carefully planted the vines hoping to get an excellent crop to make fine wine for drinking. But in today’s passage we hear that the vineyard brought forth wild grapes. We are reminded by this lesson that we can try to control the circumstances in which we live, but we never know what might grow in our vineyard. I imagine the botanists who developed broccoflower and broccolini probably had some failures along the way.
I don’t have a green thumb. I have been known to get very passionate about planting pretty flowers in my garden, but the enthusiasm doesn’t last very long. I forget to water when it gets too dry. I hate to weed. I don’t pay attention when the plants need to be pruned, so they stop producing or fruit. I can keep plants alive, generally, but do much better with plants that do not need much attention. We have settled for a few potted plants, but I really don’t have anything colorful planted in my yard.
I’ve had several success stories over the years. When I was in Junior High I grew a sunflower plant that was over seven feet tall. The blossom was nearly two feet across. I had a snake plant that became so out of control we divided it and gave pieces to a bunch of friends. I once had a philodendron that was full and beautiful. We had a white lilac bush in California that began as an unrecognizable stick in the ground and after eight years was so beautiful that we gave cuttings to all our friends when we moved. I had a rose bush here in Texas that constantly produced beautiful flowers.
The bush was located just under the place where two roofs met and the rainwater naturally fell nearby. While the rest of the yard quickly dried out after a shower, that spot did well because it was saturated, giving the rose bush plenty of moisture deep into the ground. I tended to that rose bush, cutting the dead flowers and pruning when necessary. It gave us some beautiful flowers over the years.
I couldn’t tell you what type of rose it was, or where it came from. We bought it at a large retail store one day. As with many of those large scale nursery products, the rose bush was probably grafted to a heartier root, possibly for a rose vine. We noticed after a few years that the shoots coming from the roots of that rose bush were different than the original plant. They grew fast and were somewhat wild; the flowers were much smaller. It was pretty and I often thought that I should install a trellis to let it grow. I knew, though, that the wild vines were taking nutrients and moisture from the main plant, so I kept it pruned as best I could.
I managed to keep my rose bush going for all those years and it was as beautiful when we left as it was when it was first blooming roses. However, my lack of gardening skills makes it a fruitless pursuit. The plants die from lack of water or are choked from the weeds. Oh, I might get into it in the beginning, lovingly planting the plants, but it gets old very quickly. I love fresh grown tomatoes, and complain constantly about the quality of those in the stores, but I don’t have the motivation to do all that work myself. It gets harder to keep up with it as time goes on. Something distracts me from the task, or the temperatures just get too hot to be in the garden. I get frustrated when the plant withers or the fruit doesn’t grow. I don’t know how to deal with the critters that manage to get to my fruit before I can harvest. I don’t think I could ever be a farmer. Thankfully, God is able to care for us.
God is more faithful than those we trust the most in this world. The psalmist writes, “Cause your face to shine, and we will be saved.” God looks upon His people and shines His grace into our lives so that we will be blessed, especially blessed with salvation. We feel joy, hope, and peace when we are aware of His presence in our lives.
An infant can only see things about 8 to 14 inches from their eyes. While they might be able to distinguish light and dark farther away, they cannot yet focus on items. They would not recognize a person who is standing across the room, unless they could ‘see’ that person with other senses like smell and hearing which are more highly developed at birth. Even at close distances they do not see detail; they look for contrasts and shapes. Infants particularly like staring into the eyes of the one who is holding them. They begin to recognize their mothers first, probably because so much time is spent together. That early interaction is important for the development of both the child and the relationship.
A study about twenty years ago tested the importance of the interaction between mother and infant child. The mothers entered the child’s space and played with them as they would normally play for about three minutes. The mothers then left and soon later entered the space again. This time the mothers held a ‘still-face’ with no facial movement to interact with the child. This was not what the infants expected and they reacted similarly. The infants first tried to elicit a facial response from their mothers by smiling, reaching out and making noises. After a few seconds, the child’s face became somber. Then the child looked away and finally withdrew by leaning away from the mother. This happened consistently in the studies and the series of events happened in just three minutes.
For a child, that line of vision is their whole world. To have their mother gazing down upon them with love and joy and peace gives the child a sense of love and joy and peace. It is like a light shining down upon them. The same is true about God our Father, as our world is more comforting when we know that He is looking down upon us. When things go wrong, it is easy to believe that God has turned His back, that He has abandoned us, much like those infants whose mothers did not respond to their needs as they expected. As our world crumbles around us we cry out to God, seeking His light and His life in our world because we know that when He is near all will be well. Even if all is not well, at least we know that He is in control and will take care of us in our time of need.
The psalm tells the story of Israel, the vine. God brought her out of Egypt and planted her in the garden of His choosing. She did not do well. He expected the grapes He planted but He got wild grapes. Israel’s actions brought bad times upon the land; she suffered the consequences of being disobedient to her Father, but He never left. He heard their cry and restored His relationship with them. Unfortunately, we are not always so aware of God’s presence and we become unruly.
We have all seen the comedic scene of a substitute teacher trying to take over a class in the absence of the regular teacher. Sit-coms and movies tend to make this a scene of chaos where the substitute has no power to control the students. Their job is often described as one who keeps the children from killing one another or getting harmed in any way. There is no expectation of teaching or learning when a substitute is in the room.
I don’t think most classrooms react so violently and hilariously to a substitute teacher as we see in the sit-coms and movies, but there are certainly issues when a teacher is absent. The substitute is not expected to teach, but is given a lesson plan with certain things to accomplish, usually worksheets or reading. The students are given class time to do homework. There is sometimes a movie or some other quiet activity planned. The substitute teacher is still little more than a babysitter, offering a presence in a room full of kids but no actual teaching or guidance.
This is a shame because many substitute teachers are highly trained and capable teachers. Many of them have chosen to work as a substitute because there is more flexibility in time and experiences. People will choose to substitute if they want to work fewer hours than a normal teacher. They may do this for health reasons, or because they have hobbies or consulting work they want to do. They work as a substitute so that they can say no on days when they have something else scheduled. Some substitutes are trained but have not yet found a full time job or they are at the end of their career and would rather not work full time hours. Some substitutes are second career teachers who are still being trained for licensing to work in the classroom, substituting to gain experience while earning some money toward their training. The movies make it seem like substitutes are incompetent people, but they are bright and talented, possibly great teachers whose circumstances have them dealing with diverse and often difficult situations.
The trouble is that substitute teachers have little or no authority. They have to stick to the plan as it is laid out by the regular teacher because they don’t know what the teacher has already taught or the schedule of future lessons. Making their own lesson plans can confuse the students and even cause failing grades. Though a substitute can fall back on the administration and the full time teacher to address misbehavior, they don’t have any recourse to deal with it themselves. Misbehavior is certainly taken seriously and dealt with, but without the sense of urgency that might come with a regular teacher. School authorities know that even the best students will find ways to take advantage of the upheaval in the classroom, so misbehavior with a substitute is addressed differently than a recurring problem with a regular teacher. The misbehavior often happens because struggle with change. They feel abandoned, especially the younger ones who do not understand why their teacher is missing.
So, how can a person really accomplish anything if they have no recognized authority? Last week the leaders of the temple ask Jesus about His own authority. They did not believe He had the authority to do or say the things He was doing and saying. Jesus was shaking up their world, and threatening their positions. They needed to find a way to stop Him. He refused to give them the answer they sought and caused them to look at their own obedience.
Today’s story goes a little further. Jesus describes a landowner (God) who built a vineyard (Israel) and left the vineyard under the care of tenants (the chief priests and elders). When the landowner came to take possession of the fruit that was rightly his, the tenants killed the servants (the prophets of God). More servants were sent and killed. Then the landowner sent his son (Christ) because He thought the tenants would recognize his authority. They did not give the son the respect due and even killed him, hoping to gain possession of the inheritance.
I shake my head in complete astonishment that the tenants of the vineyard came to the conclusion that they would inherit the vineyard if they kill the son. These are people who have twisted justice and righteousness to the point of being upside down.
The chief priests and elders were much like the students in a classroom, refusing to recognize the authority of Jesus. They didn’t recognize the authority of the prophets sent before Jesus and their self-centeredness and greed led to the same end of all God’s servants – death. Did the tenants (the chief priests and elders) really think that the landowner (God) would leave them to their scheming and violence? Though the story has a sad ending, there is hope. With God there is always hope. We know that God is near even when He feels far away. We need to remember that it is us that turn away from God.
By the time of Jesus, the faithlessness of God’s people came in the form of self-righteousness. They believed that they were guarded and protected by God, that He would provide all they needed. But they expected this to be true not because God was good but because they thought they were. The watchtower was their own interpretation of the Law, the wall was their heritage. They thought they were good because they relied on their own abilities. They did not see how they had turned from God or how they had rejected Him. The leaders had allowed even the Temple to become corrupt.
In both the Old Testament and Gospel lesson, God is the vineyard owner. In the first, the vineyard is Israel and it is rejected because the grapes are wild. In the Gospel, the tenants are the leaders of Israel who have rejected God but think they deserve to keep God’s kingdom. In the first, God allows the vineyard to suffer the consequences of disappointing Him. He takes down the hedge of protection and allows the beasts and the weeds to take over. It is trampled and devoured. The rain of blessing stops falling and it withers and dies. In the second, God puts out the unfaithful tenants and gives the vineyard to those who will care for it and give Him His due.
This is the story of Israel. God gave them the world, but they lost sight of Him. They turned to other gods, they did what they wanted to do. They rejected him by ignoring His servants. The prophets were beaten, killed and stoned, because they did not like the messages they shared. We don’t want to hear that times will be tough, that we have to be obedient. There were plenty of false prophets willing to tell the kings that God was on their side and that they would win every battle. There were plenty of prophets willing to tickle their ears with happy promises even if they had nothing to do with God. God’s real prophets spoke the truth, called people to repentance, reminded them of their sin and warned them of what would happen if they did not turn back to God.
The Old Testament scripture shows us that God is the vineyard owner. Jesus was talking about the religious people of His day, but we are also like those wild grapes, growing up in the midst of the vineyard that the Lord has planted. We fail. We sin. We go our own way. Despite all that God has done for us, we want to be in control of the world in which we live. In doing so, we often make the wrong choices. This passage does not leave us much hope, as God swore to repay His wayward people with justice. Yet, this is not the end of the story. There is hope because the promises of God reach far beyond our failing. For every curse there is a promise and God is faithful.
The warning was fulfilled when Jesus and the apostles took the story of God into the whole world. Jesus might have come first for the Jews, but God meant for Him to be the shining light for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. The early church may not have understood that completely, as they fought amongst themselves about how to deal with those who were not Jews but who believed in Jesus. At first they expected the Gentiles to convert to Judaism and then be accepted in the Church.
But Paul recognized the foolishness of this practice. He knew that God’s grace was meant for Jew and Gentile alike. He knew that those things which they were requiring of new believers were self built watchtowers and walls. God had promised to guard and protect them, to keep them and to produce good fruit through them, but like those to whom Isaiah was speaking, the people in Jesus’ day had turned from the Master. They didn’t trust Him; they trusted themselves and their own righteousness. And they were requiring others to rely on that righteousness instead of God.
Not all Jews believed the message of Jesus or that He was the Messiah for whom they were waiting. Some believed that the new Christians, a named originally given as an insult to those believed to have wandered from the true faith, were apostate and traitors. Some Jews were more zealous among the company of religious leaders and they believed that the new Christians deserved to die, that the new faith had to be stopped at all cost. One of those zealous members of the ruling party was Saul of Tarsus.
Paul was everything a good Jew should be. He had the pedigree. He was born to the right people, did all the right things. He followed the right rules and was zealous for God. Yet, he realized that none of that mattered. His encounter with Christ broke down the watchtower and the walls and his field was left follow. But Paul learned that everything on which he relied was worthless, and God planted a new vine in that field.
God had something wonderful planned for Saul, who was named Paul after his conversion. He was no longer the zealous religious leader who was willing to kill to hold on to the power and authority of those in Jerusalem who were unwilling to follow this new way of life. He’d had a dramatic moment of clarity as the Lord Jesus Christ came to him on the road to Damascus. He left Jerusalem with the intent of doing more harm to the Christian Church, but arrived in Damascus a changed man.
Paul soon had an entirely different reputation. As he began preaching the Gospel to all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, the Jews began to question his authority. Many men continued to live devotedly in the faith of their heritage while also believing in the Gospel message brought and won by Jesus Christ. Many men were disturbed by the way Paul was taking the blessings of this new faith to pagans and foreigners. There were those among the Jewish Christians who believed that the Gentile Christians must first become Jews, through conversion and circumcision. They were against Paul’s evangelism techniques and his expectations of the new non-Jew Christians.
Paul had a hard word for them. He called them dogs and mutilators of the flesh. He said they were evil. They were evil because they put their confidence in the flesh, rather than the Spirit. Paul learned on the road to Damascus that the flesh is not faithful, but God is. The conversion on that road was more than a change from Jew to Christian. Paul’s life was turned upside down as he learned that faith is not about trusting in his works to be saved. It is about living in trust of God and His Work in and through Jesus Christ. In this letter, Paul writes that he knows he is not perfect and that he has not yet reached perfection, but he refuses to turn back to the ways of his old life - which was commendable - to live in a faith of the flesh that fails. Instead, Paul continues forward, despite the assault from those Christians who still rely on the flesh for salvation.
We are like the Israelites in Isaiah and the chief priests in Matthew. We are wild or dis-eased grapes growing in God’s vineyard. We fail. We sin. We go our own way. Despite all that God has done for us, we want to be in control of the world in which we live. In doing so, we often make the wrong choices. This passage does not leave us much hope, as God swore to repay His wayward people with justice. Yet, this is not the end of the story. There is hope because God’s promises are greater than our failures, and He is faithful.
We aren’t perfect, and we won’t be perfect in this world. We go our own way, and think that we deserve the blessings of God based on our work rather than God’s grace. Paul knew that he had not yet reached the goal, but knew that he belonged to Jesus and that every day took him closer to the prize, so he pressed on toward that goal. We are called to do the same, to look toward God, to live in faith, and to trust that God will provide all we need. We are to call on God to turn us so that we can see that He was with us all along. He will bless us in His vineyard and give us all we need to continue glorifying Him with praise and by giving Him the fruit He is due.