Welcome to the September 2021 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 2021
September 1, 2021
Scriptures for September 5, 2021, Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm 146; James 2:1-10, 14-18; Mark 7:(24-30) 31-37
“Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in Yahweh, his God.” Psalm 146:5, WEB
Have you ever known someone whose very presence could change the atmosphere in a room? Perhaps it was a favorite aunt whose sweet demeanor was able to calm nerves at a family reunion. It may have been a very good teacher who could cause a room full of rowdy children to be quiet and attentive in an instant. A romantic partner can change our mood in a heartbeat. A Sunday school teacher can plant the seeds that make us want to know more about Jesus. Some transformation is temporary, but some can be eternal.
Israel was in a bad place. They were exiles in Babylon, far from home and far from the dwelling place of their God. They felt abandoned. They had little hope. However, in today’s Old Testament lesson we hear words of hope spoken by Isaiah to those exiles, words that promised transformation. God promised that the day would come when He would save them and that day would be the most spectacular experience. God’s presence among His people would change the entire atmosphere of the desert. He would heal brokenness and restore wholeness.
The time was not at that moment; they only had the promise of what was to come. However, that promise is enough to encourage God’s people to be strong and have no fear. They might be in a bad place for a moment, but God had a plan. They would not stay in that bad place forever. He would come and He would bring change. The enemy would be punished and those who were hurting would see God’s grace.
This promise was fulfilled when God saved Israel from Babylon, but as with so much of the Old Testament, it also pointed to another day. Israel was taken home to Jerusalem, but all people would one day be saved from the greater enemies by the Messiah. This Old Testament lesson points to the reign of Jesus Christ whose very presence brought about healing and peace. He is the Living water that nourishes perishing people who are caught in the the darkness of sin and death.
These are words of hope for them and for us, yet we do not know what the future holds. Those Israelites had been in Babylon for seventy years. Most of those still alive did not even know what life was like in Jerusalem. Was there even a city where they could live? What of their enemies? Would they allow them to travel home? Would they make it, or would they die in the desert at the hands of their enemies?
Isaiah speaks to the people about what God has in store for Israel’s enemies. The name Edom, while a specific place, was also used for all those who opposed God's chosen people. “For Yahweh has a day of vengeance, a year of recompense for the cause of Zion.” (Isaiah 34:8) God had plans for Edom and for Israel. The day would come when there would be joy again and the glory of the LORD would be seen. Through Isaiah, God offers the weak and downhearted a word of hope. “Be strong! Don’t be afraid! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, God’s retribution. He will come and save you.” What great promise these words hold, the salvation of God was near.
Those words are for us, too. I don’t know about you, but I feel weak and downhearted some days. I trust in God, but the struggles of this life are sometimes overwhelming. It seems like something new happens every day to cause worry and fear. We carry so many burdens that we can’t help but wonder what will happen next. We hear the words of hope in this promise, but we can’t help wondering if it is really meant for us. We know that we are saved by God’s grace and that Jesus finished the work, but we also know that we still struggle with sin. Sometimes we are our own worst enemy; will God really save us from ourselves?
Israel’s problem for most of their relationship with God is that they never really trusted Him to be there when they needed Him. They turned to others. The sought the aid of other nations. They asked for an earthly king. They tried to find salvation in God's creation, rather than from God Himself. The psalmist reminds us that we should never put our trust in men; they cannot save. They will pass away; their plans will come to an end. But those who trust in God will be blessed, for He is faithful. Are we any different? Aren’t most of our problems caused by our turning to the wrong saviors?
Israel had been saved from exile and sent home to Jerusalem. They praised God and lived under His kingship for a time, but it did not last. Years passed and the people turned away from God again. They became oppressed by an occupying nation, but the enemy was even closer than the Romans. They were trying to save themselves. They thought that if only they did everything right, if they followed all the rules, then God would bless them.
They built walls dividing people in their quest to become perfect; they outcast those they deemed unworthy of God’s salvation. They separated themselves from the sick, the foreigners, and the sinners. They did not believe God would come for them; God would only save His chosen people. Yet, the promises from Isaiah and the psalmist speak about the great things that God will do for those who are rejected. He will ensure justice, feed the hungry, free those in prison, give sight to the blind, lift the fallen, and love those in a right relationship with Him. He will protect the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widows. God will bless all those whom the elite of His day reject.
The psalmist wrote, “He turns the way of the wicked upside down.” Isn’t that what Jesus did? He turned the whole world upside down. He ministered to the outcasts, the oppressed, the sick, and the lonely. He forgave the unforgivable. He ate with the sinners, taught the women, and shared the kingdom of God with foreigners. He came for the weak and downhearted. He spoke the words of hope into their lives. “Be strong! Don’t be afraid! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, God’s retribution. He will come and save you.” The promise was no longer a future event: the Savior stood in their midst.
The Gospel lesson shows us the fulfillment of the promises found in Isaiah. In this passage we see two examples of people being healed. First, a mother came to Jesus and showed Him that she believed He could heal her demon possessed daughter. Then a group of friends brought a deaf and dumb man to Jesus for healing. They approached Jesus because they believed that He could do something. They received the answer to their request. Jesus brought transformation; He gave them healing and wholeness.
He healed the sick, comforted the grieving, and befriended the lonely. He gave sight to the blind and made the deaf to hear. Today’s Gospel lesson tells two very different stories. In the first, Jesus did not want any attention. He hid in a home, but a woman found Him. She fell at His feet and begged Him to heal her daughter. “Sir, she has an unclean spirit, please free her.” Jesus’ response seems strange. Why would Jesus insult this woman? In His words we see how the world saw the woman. To them, she was a dog. But Jesus did not reject her; He asked her to wait. “Let the children first be filled.”
There are a dozen different ways we can understand Jesus’ comments to this woman which seems to infer that she is nothing but a dog. It is shocking to us to hear Jesus refer to the woman as if she were a mangy street mutt begging for a morsel that might keep her alive. We might think of the reference in a much less offensive way, as if she were like a house pet that needed to be patient for a moment, her time would come. It all depends on how we perceive Jesus’ words: is He pushing her away or encouraging her to be bold? We don’t have the advantage of hearing His tone of voice. Is there annoyance or compassion? While the term “dogs” was probably meant in negative terms, there is something about this passage that hints at the compassion we know Jesus exuded to all He met.
She heard compassion and did not give up. “Yes, Lord. Yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She had heard of Jesus and she came to Him in faith. She was not offended by His comments, but rather accepted their relationship as it was: He was Lord, she was a dog. This is where Jesus turned this story upside down: He didn’t accept their relationship that way. He was Lord, she was His. She got exactly what she asked from Jesus, her daughter was healed.
When I think of crumbs, I think of the unsatisfying bits that fall to my lap and to the floor. The dogs might lick them from the floor, but they’ll never fill a grumbling belly. These crumbs were much more. In those days they did not use silverware and they did not have linen napkins. They used crusts of bread to wipe the grease off of their hands and then threw those crusts on the floor. Instead of getting tiny pieces of bread, they were fed with tasty morsels filled with substance and flavor. The woman’s “crumbs” were the incredible gift of her daughter’s freedom.
The woman was far from the typical follower of Jesus. She was a foreigner, a pagan. She was a woman. It is unlikely that she would even feel comfortable talking to a man, particularly a Jewish rabbi. Yet, she sought Him out and interrupted a well-deserved and long needed moment of solitude with her request.
From the woman we learn about humble boldness. She knew her place in Jesus’ world, even if Jesus did not think of her in that way. She knelt before Him and agreed with His assessment that she was a dog. But she was bold enough to seek His grace, even if it was just the leftovers. Her words made Jesus act. He said, “For this saying, go your way. The demon has gone out of your daughter.” At first Jesus indicated that He would not do anything for the woman. Her words seemed to change His mind. The child received the healing the mother sought. With humble boldness - a boldness that first knows our place and trusts God’s mercy anyway - we can seek God’s grace even when we think there’s no chance to receive an answer. He will hear and He will be present in our circumstances and we will know the transforming power of His grace.
What about the attitude of Jesus in the second story? He followed a strange ritual, putting His fingers in the ears of the deaf man, spitting and then touching his tongue. This sounds like some sort of pagan practice; I can almost see the old witch doctor in a frightening feather mask and cape screaming some strange words at the demons causing the deafness and muted voice. Jesus healed with just a word, why the weird acts? Was Jesus reaching out to this man in a way he might understand? The same, perhaps, is true of the woman. She expected to be treated as a dog; anything else, even compassion, might have been frightening to her.
Even stranger in this story, however, is that Jesus told the man not to tell anyone about what happened. He also told the man’s friends. Yet, how can someone possibly keep silent when their tongue has been loosed? We don’t know how long the man had suffered, and I’m sure there were a million things he wanted to say. He would now be able to say thank you to his friends, I love you to his family. He would be able to hear the same words. He would be able to do business, earn a living. Jesus transformed His life. Yet, with all these wonderful things to say and hear, the most important would be praise to God for this incredible gift. When you are transformed by the presence of God, how can you remain silent?
Jesus crossed barriers and broke walls. He showed no favoritism. He healed; He changed lives. In these two stories, the ones who were healed were not even the ones who asked. The woman’s child was not there. The man could not speak for himself. Jesus healed because the woman and the friends trusted Him. They turned to Him for the sake of others.
Have you noticed what is missing in this story? There is no mention of faith in either story. Jesus often says something like, “Your faith has healed you,” or “Your faith has made you well.” Yet in these stories there is no mention of it at all. Faith is there; you can see it in the actions of the mother and the man’s friends. The ones receiving the healing are not the ones asking for it. The faith comes from others; they believed that Jesus could do something. They received the answer to their requests. Jesus brought transformation; He gave them healing and wholeness. He turned their world right side up. There is no mention of faith, but it is obvious that they believed He could make a difference.
Mark tells us that the more Jesus ordered the people to be silent, the more loudly they proclaimed God’s glory. They sang praise to God and they told everyone about the good things Jesus could do. They were so amazed and said, “He has done all things well. He makes even the deaf hear, and the mute speak!” This brings us back to the Old Testament prophecy from Isaiah. Jesus was, even from the beginning of His ministry, fulfilling the very things that were promised of the One who would restore Israel. And we see in the story of the Syrophoenician woman that Jesus’ power was not limited to Israel. Jesus would restore all people to God. Our faith makes us part of that salvation story: first as recipients and then as God’s hands sharing His grace with others, no matter who they are.
Faith does not justify sin. Faith admits our sinfulness and trusts in God's mercy. Faith recognizes that we are sinners in need of a Savior and that Jesus Christ is the one who has saved us. We might be able to point to a good life, but there are truly none of us who are good. Our good works will never save us, but James asks, “Do we have faith if we do not live as God has called us to live?” Do we have faith if we justify our sin? Do we have faith if we treat people according to what we see on the outside? Do we have faith if we seek what is best for ourselves rather than doing that which God has called us to do?
James follows up this treatise on favoritism with a comment about works. We are called by faith to a life of mercy. But if we do not show mercy, our faith is as good as dead. Mercy means loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. Mercy means loving our neighbor whether they are rich or poor, native or foreigner, healthy or sick, young or old. Mercy means being God’s hands, feet and mouth for them. It means being God's presence in the world so that the world will be transformed by His power.
When James asks “Can faith save you?” in relation to the good works he is describing, he isn’t suggesting that good works will save a person. What he is saying is that those who are saved, who live in the faith that comes from grace, will have the same mercy on those whom they see that need to be saved. When we see someone who is hungry or naked, we’ll offer them what they need. It is not enough to wish them well in their hunger and nakedness. James writes, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man says he has faith, but has no works? Can faith save him? And if a brother or sister is naked and in lack of daily food, and one of you tells them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled’; and yet you didn’t give them the things the body needs, what good is it?”
Faith without works is a dead faith, not a living faith. Just as the God who comes to save us does so in an active and powerful way, so too we are sent into the world to be God’s hands and share His grace with others. Isaiah talks about the work God is going to do in the world. The eyes of the blind will be open, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame shall leap like a dear and the tongue of the speechless will sing for joy. God will take those who can’t do things and make them people who can. Faith calls for action: seeing, hearing, leaping and singing! Faith is about praising God for His mercy and grace. And then it is about going out into the world to help others see, hear, leap and sing. God gives us the faith and in that faith we do.
We may wonder if God’s promises are meant for us, after all we know we are just like that woman. In our relationship with Jesus Christ He is Lord and we are dogs. Yet, because of God’s grace, that relationship is so much more than we deserve. Jesus is Lord, but we are His. He fulfills all God’s promises; He turns the world upside down, or right side up, for us. He transforms us. He heals us. He makes us whole.
Whatever His attitude about the people who disturbed His peace, Jesus was God’s presence in the world, not only in word but also in deed. He brought transformation. He gave sight to the blind, hearing to the death, feet to those who could not walk and voice to those who could not speak. He did this for us, too, even though we may not have ever thought ourselves as blind, deaf, lame or dumb. We were once prisoners to sin, but He set us free and brought us through the desert with life giving water. He gave us sight to see the truth. He gave us ears to hear His Word. He gave us feet to go out and He gave us voice to sing praises to God. He calls us to live our thanksgiving in very real and tangible ways, ways that will transform the world. He’s put the battery of faith in. Now turn it on and go. Praise God and do whatever you can to make a difference. Manifest the faith that has been given so that the world will see the glory of God.
Though Jesus repeatedly told the man to keep silent, his joy was so great he could not keep silent. The brief encounter with Jesus gave him the voice to speak and the ears to hear; he could not receive such a great gift without praising God. Hallelujah! Do we feel that same sort of joy? Do we receive God’s grace with such an enthusiasm that we can’t help but share it with others? Do we receive the answers to our own prayers and rush out into the world proclaiming the wonderful things God has done? Can you imagine singing today’s Psalm as you walk down the street? Even more so, can you imagine yourself living out that praise in very real and tangible ways, trusting that God can and does provide all we need? Is your faith a living faith that responds to God’s grace with active and joyful service?
The faith of the Jews could not save them because it looked to themselves for salvation. They did nothing for those who most needed the love and mercy of God. The faith of the Syrophoenician woman and the friends of the deaf man looked to Jesus. That is the faith that saves, the faith that looks at Jesus. But it is not invisible. It is the faith that actively reveals itself through loving our neighbors. James tells us that faith without works is dead. Faith in Jesus brings action. The woman sought Him out, asked Him to heal her daughter. The friends sought Him to touch Jesus. When Jesus made him hear and speak, they could not stop talking about it. In Christ we continue His work of breaking down walls, bringing hope to the weak and afraid, seeking Jesus to bring healing to those we love. Happy is he whose help is in the Lord.
“He said to the disciples, ‘It is impossible that no occasions of stumbling should come, but woe to him through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, rather than that he should cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be careful. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him. If he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in the day, and seven times returns, saying, “I repent,” you shall forgive him.’” Luke 17:1-4, WEB
There are posts on the Internet that show humorous autocorrect mistakes. Here is one example: “ ‘Are you doing The Nutcracker this year?’ ‘I am auctioning kids tomorrow... Suctioning... Ridiculous auto rectal... Birdseed!... I AM AUDITIONING KIDS FOR PLAY.’ ‘Wow. I am sorry I asked! Hahahahahaha.’”
We probably all have examples of times when we’ve mistyped something on a text that is misunderstood if not hilarious. This is even truer of those who use auto correct, something I don’t do. I turned mine off because it drove me crazy. It is not as convenient, and I find myself editing my texts often. As a writer, I don’t like to use many of the shortcuts that many people use in digital communication. I like to use proper grammar and spelling, even on those quick texts and unimportant emails. Those of you who have read my devotions for awhile know that I often make typos. Sometimes they are humorous. I don’t need my phone making it worse for me!
One of the hard things for me is that I learned to type on a qwerty keyboard and I want to touch key even on my phone. Unfortunately, my fingers are too big and I often hit the wrong keys. On a regular keyboard I can type well above average words per minute and I get frustrated. Hunt and peck just doesn’t work for me and for good reason. A keyboarding teacher once said, “Listen very carefully to me for the first few weeks and follow my directions exactly. It is very easy to get into bad typing habits.” Touch key typing is very fast and efficient when done properly. However a bad habit, such as hunt and pecking for certain keys, makes mistakes more likely and we cannot type as quickly as we should. Practice helps to create good habits and hopefully we can overcome the same constant mistakes that we make.
I have gotten into some bad habits over the years. Certain words are always misspelled. Take, for instance, the word ‘the’. All too often, it comes out as ‘teh’. My fingers get confused and hit the keys in the wrong order. Working on the computer makes mistakes like this easier to correct. This is where autocorrect can be a good thing. It forgives simple mistakes every time we make them. My computer program does make changes for me, and marks words it does not recognize misspellings so I can fix them. Unfortunately, there are other reasons for making mistakes. I am distracted from the task at hand when someone interrupts me and it causes me to err and there are times when I’m on a deadline that I try to type too fast.
In our Christian walk, there are many things that can cause us to slip. The expectations of this world are far different from what Jesus has taught. The desires we have for worldly wealth and success distract us from the tasks to which we have been assigned as servants in the Kingdom of God. Old habits die hard, and we tend to repeat those sins over and over again. At times we try to rush through our work because we have something better to do, yet in the process we do not do the job in a way that will glorify God.
The computer forgives my misspelling of the word ‘the,’ and I am paying more attention to the times I make the mistake. I try to do my work at a time when there is no one to distract me, and I pay extra attention to those words that are frequently misspelled. I try to do the work in a timely manner so that I am not forced to type too quickly. Even with all these precautions, I still make mistakes.
That’s the way it is with sin in our lives. We know our salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord, yet there are times when our actions do not always prove our faith. We make mistakes for many reasons: the world, our desires and misunderstanding all cause people to sin. Yet, Jesus warns us to be careful. Do your words or actions cause people to sin? Do you make them angry or bitter? Does your action cause hate, jealousy, or discord? Do you cause them to lie? Do you push them away from Christ to the worship of idols or the practice of witchcraft (manipulation)? How do you treat those who have sinned against you? Do you reject or forgive? How many times is enough? Seven? Jesus tells Peter in Matthew 18:22, “I don’t tell you until seven times, but, until seventy times seven.” Our forgiveness should be limitless. Our compassion should be continual. Remember, when someone sins against you, they are sinning against God. Yet Jesus died for them, too.
“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let’s go to Yahweh’s house!’ Our feet are standing within your gates, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that is built as a city that is compact together, where the tribes go up, even Yah’s tribes, according to an ordinance for Israel, to give thanks to Yahweh’s name. For there are set thrones for judgment, the thrones of David’s house. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Those who love you will prosper. Peace be within your walls, and prosperity within your palaces. For my brothers’ and companions’ sakes, I will now say, ‘Peace be within you.’ For the sake of the house of Yahweh our God, I will seek your good.” Psalm 122, WEB
What are you planning to do for the holiday weekend? This weekend is the last official weekend of summer, a time when families have one last fling. Some go on vacation to the beach, others to the mountains. Campers are headed for the parks. For those who have already started school, the three day weekend is a nice break and for those who begin next week this is the last chance to relax before the work begins. Most workplaces are a little more laid back during the summer since many people go on vacation and the work load is often lighter. The Labor Day weekend is the end of that. Unlike many other holidays, this weekend doesn’t tend to be a time of pilgrimage, when people flock to one particular place for a specific purpose. Labor Day is about having fun and relaxing, resting before getting back into the normal grind next week.
For many freshmen college students who are dealing with homesickness, this is a time to return home. It is almost like a pilgrimage. It is the first chance they have to see parents and siblings, and cuddle with pets. They are anxious for a home-cooked meal and a chance for Mom to do laundry. They want to sleep in their own bed and see their old friends. It is a joyous time, but in some ways it is also a difficult time because things aren’t always the same.
This isn’t a holiday that brings home many adult children, and it certainly isn’t a time known for pilgrimage, but any homecoming can be a joyous but also difficult time. Our empty nest is much different than the house my children left. I’ve rearranged furniture. We’ve changed the way we shop and the types of food we keep in the house. Their rooms are not their rooms any longer. A parent’s attitude is even transformed, especially that of empty nesters. It isn’t hostile, but parents without children living at home learn to live differently. They have freedom they haven’t had for a long time, and quite frankly as one in this position, I’m enjoying it.
It is not a surprise that a pilgrim might pray a prayer like the one in today’s passage. They are excited about the trip, excited about going to the Temple, just as a child is excited about going home. Yet, a pilgrim never quite knows what to expect. Will they find the place filled with joy or anxiety? Will everything be as it should? So, as we enter into this holiday weekend, let’s pray for those who are going home, especially for those who might find it is a different place, that there will be peace and joy.
“Therefore I urge you, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service. Don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what is the good, well-pleasing, and perfect will of God.” Romans 12:1-2, WEB
In today’s question, we are asked to look at what the world thinks about our faith. Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
We see a thousand different answers to this question today. He was a teacher, a rabbi, a miracle worker and a good man. He was a radical willing to stand up against the injustice of His day. He’s a friend, a comforter, a guide whose example we would do well to follow. These are good answers, but they by no means reach the depth of the truth of Jesus’ identity. Yet it is very tempting to see Jesus only as a perfect, incredible human being who can meet all our needs, to conform to the world’s expectation of Him.
This question follows encounters a series of encounters. The Pharisees and scribes were determined to find reasons to be rid of Jesus Christ. He was showing signs of being the Messiah, but He was not living up to their expectations. He was not the Messiah they wanted. He was not the Messiah to fulfill the Old Testament promises as they understood them. He was not the Messiah who would do what they wanted Him to do. So, they tried to trick Him into making mistakes that would either cause the Romans to end His ministry or that would cause the people to reject Him. They managed to be rid of John the Baptist; now they needed to be rid of Jesus.
We also see Jesus feeding both the five thousand and the four thousand. He fed Israel and He fed the world. In between, Jesus was questioned about His interpretation of the traditions and the commandments. The Pharisees and scribes accused Jesus of not living according to God’s Word, but Jesus turned their accusation on themselves. Though they claimed to be living the righteous life, they were willing to set aside God’s commands for their traditions. This led Jesus into a teaching about what really defiles a person. They don’t want to believe in Him, so they demand signs from Jesus. “If you are really who you claim to be, prove it to us.”
Isn’t that what the world wants from Jesus today? They are willing to accept that Jesus was a teacher and a rabbi. Some are even willing to believe in the miracles. They embrace Jesus as a radical or a friend. They are willing to follow the teachings of Jesus that fit their world view. But they refuse to go so far as to say that Jesus is a Messiah and they reject the fact that Jesus is LORD, the Son of God.
Yet, this is exactly where we need to be. We cannot conform to the world’s understanding of Jesus Christ. Next week Jesus will ask the same question of us. This is a much harder one to answer unless we fall to the temptation to accept Jesus as the world sees Him. To call Him more than rabbi and friend means giving up ourselves. It means following the good and perfect will of God. It means offering our whole selves as a spiritual sacrifice.
“They were bringing to him little children, that he should touch them, but the disciples rebuked those who were bringing them. But when Jesus saw it, he was moved with indignation, and said to them, ‘Allow the little children to come to me! Don’t forbid them, for God’s Kingdom belongs to such as these. Most certainly I tell you, whoever will not receive God’s Kingdom like a little child, he will in no way enter into it.’ He took them in his arms, and blessed them, laying his hands on them.” Mark 10:13-16, WEB
I read an article called, “When She Was Three.” It was the musings of a man whose youngest daughter turned four years old. He was remembering the joys of having a three-year-old in the house. He was father to several and noted that he’d had a three-year-old for several years, but since this child turned four he would never have that particular joy again. He talked about the little things they do that can be annoying but are delightful at the hands of toddler like bringing handfuls of dandelions as a gift. He recalled the number of times he watched the same show or read the same book. He recalled the questions, the many questions beginning with the word “Why?” He recalled her first encounters with death. He especially remembered the incredible moments his three-year-old shined the light of Jesus.
Those of us who had a three-year-old understand. It is a magical time of life. Three-year-olds are just beginning to know independence but are still completely dependent. They remember things we don’t even realize they witnessed. They have learned things we do not think it was possible for them to know. To watch a three-year-old is to see an imagination in action. The writer of the article talked about how his daughter sang “Jesus Loves Me” during the Eucharist, despite other music playing, because it was the one hymn she knew by heart. He added, “If she has any organizational skills, she may even get some folks around her singing, too.”
The most beautiful sound in church is a child singing “Jesus Loves Me” even if it has nothing to do with what is happening around them.
Children who attend church learn by repetition the liturgy and music and things of God like the Lord’s Prayer and the hymns of praise. Even when they don’t know what is being said or can’t read the prayers being said, they know the pattern of worship. Sunday in church a three-year-old responded to the end of a prayer a heartbeat after the rest of us with a loud and enthusiastic “Amen.” It made me smile. We might think he had no idea what he was saying, but children know in their hearts the joy and peace of God’s grace much better than any adult. According to Matthew, Jesus said, “See that you don’t despise one of these little ones, for I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” We think we know so much about God, but children are so close to Him that they have not yet forgotten that He is their Father.
I smiled as I read that article because I remembered my own three-year-olds. It was a long time ago, but I can still feel their little hands reaching for mine. I can still feel their weight on my lap as we read a favorite book for the hundredth time. I can still see their faces covered in spaghetti sauce. I still call coleslaw cold slop because I hear her voice mispronouncing the word. I can still see my son giving communion to his herd of stuffed animals one afternoon. The sound of “Jesus Loves Me” and “Amen” rings in my ears, returning me to my own childlike relationship with my Father in heaven. Jesus welcomed the little children into His presence with enthusiasm because they love Jesus and know the way to heaven is to trust in Him.
Lectionary Scriptures for September 12, 2021, Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 50:4-10; Psalm 116:1-9; James 3:1-12; Mark 9:14-29
“For the Lord Yahweh will help me. Therefore I have not been confounded. Therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I won’t be disappointed.” Isaiah 50:7
I recently had lunch with a friend and her husband. He is a talker, so much so that neither of us were able to get a word in edgewise. He had an answer for everything and usually managed to add his story or opinion even as we were speaking ours, never giving us a chance to finish. He was so quick with an answer it was obvious that he wasn’t even listening.
Don’t we all know someone like that? They are so busy thinking about what they will say next, planning their answer to our statements, preparing to one up our thoughts that they don’t even hear. More often than not this leads to a misunderstanding of the point we were trying to make. I read a meme this morning cautioning against this pattern of communication. It said that if someone is telling you a story, it is important to listen instead of interrupting with your own. When people open themselves up to you, to tell you a story or reveal something about their life, they need to unburden themselves. By interjecting your own story diminishes their story and forces them to hide it away where it can cause problems in their heart and their minds. So much depression exists because too many people have no one willing to listen.
Someone once said you have two ears and one mouth for a reason: to listen twice as much as you speak. When someone unburdens their hearts and minds by telling you a story, it is not because they want your two cents worth. They don’t need advice. They don’t even need an answer. They just need to know that someone is willing to listen. Really listen. Sadly, I’m not sure many people really know how to listen anymore. We are much too distracted.
The psalmist writes, “I love Yahweh, because he listens to my voice, and my cries for mercy.” To love God for listening is a very human response. Who are the people we truly enjoy spending time with? They are the ones who listen. Even if they have no answers to our problems or no possible way to fix whatever is wrong, we appreciate their compassionate presence and listening ears.
We wonder about this, though. How do we know that God is even listening? Do we know because we see prayer answered? Or do we believe because of His promises? Love for Jehovah comes not only because our prayers are answered; it is manifest in our lives because God is there present and listening. God has never promised that we would not suffer or face difficult times. However, He has always promised to be near those who love Him and that He will listen to those who cry out to Him.
The Psalm follows a pattern. First the psalmist praises the Lord. In this case the praise is because the psalmist knows that God is listening. Then the psalmist describes his difficulty. Finally, the psalmist speaks words of thanksgiving and praise. This is a powerful pattern for us to follow when we pray: we begin with a hope-filled prayer and praise God for His compassionate mercy. This is based on faith and trust that God is present and that He hears, even if we have not seen evidence of His presence. We know by His promises that He is near, and we trust that He hears our cries. Once we worship Him and acknowledge His presence, then we approach Him with our needs. Finally, we sing thanks and praise to God for His mercy, whatever may come to us.
The psalmist talks of death, yet it is not necessarily the physical death of his body. We all face death throughout our lives. Broken relationships, unemployment, illness, and other difficulties can be seen as deaths. Death can happen when something about our circumstances changes and impacts our life. When we are disappointed or when we must leave something behind, it is like our hopes and relationships have died. It is then, especially, that we cry out to the God we know is present and listening. For God hears our cry and delivers us from death by His mercy and His grace.
We see repeatedly in the Old Testament, and the New, that God’s people do not always have the easy life. David was threatened repeatedly, even by his own sons. The prophets were constantly in danger, rejected, and ignored. Most of the apostles died martyrs’ deaths. They followed Jesus with faith and trust and knew in the end that God was in control. He even went before them as the Servant who died at the hands of those who refused to believe He was sent by God.
I worked in retail; I began as an employee who worked the floor and the cash register, but eventually joined a management training program. I worked as an assistant manager, learning everything I needed to know from the senior store manager. It was a good program, very informative while also giving me the hands-on experience I needed to do my job well leading the employees of my own store eventually.
I always felt it was important to be an example to the employees. A retail store requires people to do all levels of work. We need people with accounting skills to take care of the money as well as people who can mop the floor and clean the bathrooms. We need people who can unload a truck or unpack a box. A well run store has people who can determine future needs, ordering the right amount of merchandise that will sell through each season. We need people who can keep the shelves clean and organized. All these tasks are vital to the success of the store.
Sometimes it was necessary for management to step in and do every job. In other words, there were times when the janitor was not available to deal with an emergency, so we grabbed a mop to clean up a mess. If the crowds were overwhelming the cashiers, we jumped on a register to help ease the load. If a truck with an extra-large load showed up at the back door, we lent a hand. A willingness to do the hard work gave management credibility. If some smart aleck kid refused a job saying, “You do it,” I could easily answer, “I have; now it is your turn.” There is nothing I didn’t experience, and the employees knew it. They also knew that I was the boss, and they had their own job to accomplish.
The lesson from Isaiah is a servant song; the servant had been chosen to bring hope to God’s people. Some prophets were given a word of warning or a word of discipline, but this prophet was given a word of hope for those weary from living amid suffering and pain. This servant knew what it meant to suffer. He was persecuted, humiliated, insulted. He was shamed, but without shame. Though he experienced this suffering, he never turned from his calling. He persevered through it, trusting that God was there with him.
We identify this Suffering Servant as Jesus Christ, who was persecuted, humiliated, and insulted, but He never wavered. He went to the cross, took on sin, death, and the grave for our sake. We can trust that His promises are true and that He is worthy to be our Savior. He stood firm on God’s Word, then lived so that we would see the truth and be comforted by those words. We may suffer, but with ears that hear we can find hope despite it all.
The focus of the scriptures this week seems to be on the mouth, on the words we speak. Isaiah said, “The Lord Yahweh has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with words him who is weary.” The psalmist said, “I called on Yahweh’s name.” James reminds us that we are able to bless and to curse with the same mouth and that we will be judged accordingly, so we ought to be wary of becoming teachers.
Our words matter. We might learn that old song, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” but words do hurt. Words cause broken relationships. Words condemn people. Words lead people down the wrong and perhaps destructive path. When we speak, but even more so when we teach, we give people words that might even change their lives. We might give them encouragement, direction, and knowledge. But our words can cause discouragement and guide people in the wrong direction. Our words can impart false or wrong knowledge.
There are writers who include shocking truths about the Church and its history in fictional novels that have been taken as truthful facts. These facts have been proven false repeatedly, but one writer’s excellent mystery has been taken as more like non-fiction than fiction. Too many people have given the falsehoods legitimacy. I even attended a function where the guest speaker quoted the book extensively to convince a room full of Christian women that they should follow a different path.
Our words matter. Every word we write and every word we speak can have an impact on somebody, and not always in a good way. Our words plant seeds that grow and can spread destruction to others. A parent that yells or a teacher that responds in anger may not directly or immediately affect a child, but repeated negative comments can bring about change. See how easily peer pressure can lead a teenager into dangerous decisions.
Peter and the disciples were called to be teachers and they did as Jesus commanded them to do. We should not cringe at speaking as God calls and guides us, always remembering that He is always by our side. There are times when speaking the truth might be dangerous. It might be politically incorrect. It might go against the popular consensus of the day or stand diametrically opposed to societal expectations. It might even take us to a cross. Yet, we are called by faith to confess that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, to take up whatever cross we may face and follow Jesus, blessing and not cursing so that our lives will bear good fruit to the glory of God.
Praise, supplication, and thanksgiving: this is how we approach God in prayer. Unfortunately, our mouths are not always filled with praise, supplication, and thanksgiving. I had a very bad habit when I was a student teacher. I tended to get frustrated and angry with my classroom filled with children who were constantly making noise. In anger I would raise my voice and shout “Shut up!” This did not go over well with the teacher who was mentoring me. “Shut up” does not help the situation and yelling is even less helpful. My attitude made the children respond negatively, rather than positively. Instead of getting quiet, they got louder. Instead of listening, they turned on their neighbor. My teacher had a very quiet voice and could somehow calm the chaos with a whisper.
My positive example as a retail manager was much more powerful than my raised voice and poor choice of words.
I was once acquainted with a young lady on the Internet who had decided that she was a prophet. I’m not sure what evidence proved this, but she sought out others she thought were prophets in chat rooms to discuss the things of God. She was impressed one day with the things I said and we struck up a conversation outside the chat room. She was young and willing to learn, and for some reason had decided I was a prophet, too. She looked to me for advice and understanding. Though I have never considered myself a prophet, I saw the conversation as an opportunity to help her understand her vocation in God’s kingdom.
She sent me several teachings that she had written, and quite frankly they were horrific. Not only was the theology questionable, but the writing was terrible. She had no grasp on spelling or grammar. Her sentences were confusing and sometimes incoherent. She was young and passionate, and she truly believed she was doing what God had called her to do. I encouraged her, but since she had sent me the writings for review, I gave her some honest opinions about them. I believe I was gentle but firm, showing her ways she could make the teaching stronger and easier to understand. I showed her biblically where she was in error. I even rewrote some of the text to make it usable for her ministry.
She was shocked. In the end I realized that she wasn’t looking for advice. She wanted me to fawn over her wonderful work and tell her that she really was a prophet. I couldn’t do that; she needed to hear the truth because she would be judged by her teaching. She was playing a dangerous game and if she was going to play at being a prophet, she needed to know her errors and experience God’s grace in a way that would help her to be merciful in her teaching. She responded with an attack on my own writing, but she did so with no foundation in the scriptures. Her faith was eclectic and mix from many different religions; she based her rebuke on teachings from outside the Christian faith. It made me sad to think that someone might be led astray by her teaching and that she would discover the judgment that comes from teaching a false gospel.
James wrote, “Let not many of you be teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive heavier judgment.” Prophecy and teaching are closely related and are often mentioned together in the scriptures. Some people are gifted at proclaiming the message of God’s Kingdom, while others are gifted at explaining it. It is vital that churches find those who are gifted in teaching so that the congregation will learn how to apply the lessons learned from those who prophesy. These are gifts, not something we can grasp for ourselves. They are given by God, and though we can develop the gift, we can’t learn how to be a prophet or teacher if God has not first called and gifted us to that work. We might think that we want to prophecy and teach, but we won’t succeed if God is not calling us to that vocation.
Too many people try to be something they aren’t called or gifted to be. They try to teach, but leave their students confused and doubtful. The young lady in the chat room boasted that she was a prophet, but her words proved her wrong and she refused to accept the words of others. I was not the only one who tried to encourage her to seek God’s purpose for her life. She had other gifts that would glorify God, but she was so focused on being a prophet that she missed the blessed life God had for her.
Finding our place in God’s kingdom requires a connection with God. We must listen to Him, trust in Him, and let Him guide us in the way He wants us to go. Have you ever lived in a place with too few electrical outlets? We had that problem in one house, and we had to unplug the toaster to plug in the can opener. It was often frustrating, especially when I forgot to switch the plugs. Sometimes during the morning rush, I put bread in the toaster then moved on to some other task. After a few moments I realized that I never plugged in the toaster. It won’t work without electricity.
Jesus, Peter, James, and John were on the Mount of Transfiguration when the crowds began to gather around the rest of the disciples. A man approached hoping that they might heal his boy who had been possessed by a demon. Jesus and his disciples were quickly gaining notoriety because of the miraculous works they were doing. The disciples had been sent out earlier to heal and preach the kingdom. When they returned from that experience, they were excited by the power and amazed at the things they could do. They saw people transformed before their eyes. They thought they could do anything. People were flocking to these men who could do such incredible deeds, even without Jesus around. The disciples were basking in the glory.
This man’s child was possessed by a particularly difficult demon. It rendered the child speechless and often threw him to the ground in violent convulsions. It has even tried to kill the child by throwing him into dangerous situations such as water or fire. The disciples were unable to cast the demon out of the child. Jesus asked what was happening when He came back down from the mountaintop. The man was desperate. Jesus rebuked the evil spirit, and it left the boy so violently that the child fell to the ground and appeared dead. Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet. The boy was healed.
Later, the disciples asked why they were unable to cast the demon from the child. The disciples had lost sight of what gave them their power and began to take for granted the gifts given to them. They were not asking God to heal him through prayer; they were trying to do it on their own volition. Just like the unplugged toaster that will not work, the disciples could not bring healing without that connection to their power source: God. The disciples needed to pray, to stay in constant touch with God. They were seeing and doing incredible things, but they were being distracted from the work of faith by the glory of this world.
The disciples were so confident of their ability to do the work from their previous successes that they forgot the most important thing: that Jesus is the source of their power. They did not take the time to pray, to ask God into the situation and to call on Him for the power to do His work. They tried to do it themselves. We do the same thing.
There’s a picture that makes the rounds occasionally of an iceberg from the side. The water level is near the top, showing only a small portion of the iceberg. The overwhelming majority of the iceberg is normally unseen below the surface. The words on the picture state that a pastor’s sermon is just the tip of the iceberg, and that the preparation is most of the work. In other words, your pastor put hours of prayer and study into that twenty-minute sermon you heard last weekend.
I know a pastor and who has done some mentoring of pastors in training. He approached one in the days leading up to a preaching opportunity and asked to see her notes. She didn’t have any; she thought she would just let the Holy Spirit speak through her. She approached the podium that day with great expectations but stumbled over every sentence and left the congregation bewildered and unfed. She was disappointed and asked my friend, “Why didn’t God put the words into my mouth?”
She forgot that it takes more than confidence and opportunity to share God’s Word. We must be prepared through prayer and study. We must be familiar with the text and everything about it. We must know who is speaking and who is listening. We must know how the thoughts fit together so that we can apply it to the world in which we live. We must be prepared. God doesn’t just fill us with words in our mouth, but through study and prayer He fills every cell of our being with His Word. An adlib sermon can work, but not without hours of preparation.
We usually focus on the work Jesus did in healing and casting out demons, but the disciples did amazing things, too. In Mark 6, Jesus sent the Twelve out into the countryside to take the message of the Kingdom of God. Their work made an impact and many followed them when they returned to Jesus. There was so many that Jesus had to find a way to feed them all. I've always thought that they were simply coming because Jesus was there, but Mark tells us in 6:33 that many who saw the disciples and recognized them. It wasn’t just about Jesus any longer, it was also about those who were helping Him with His work.
In today’s story, however, they got a little kick in the butt because they couldn’t do what they had done. They couldn’t heal the child and they did not understand. Where was their power? Why couldn’t they do this one small thing after they had done so many other amazing things? Jesus answered, “This kind can come out by nothing, except by prayer and fasting.” The disciples who had been so recently successful had forgotten that their power did not come from themselves, but from the One who has all the power. They approached the problem without first seeking God in prayer. We all do sometimes, don’t we?
He can and does make an impact through us, but we must begin by seeking Him in prayer before we try. It will never be our power or knowledge or abilities that makes anything happen. God’s power, word, and Spirit makes things happen. We will be judged when we speak; sometimes we will disappoint those who have expectations beyond our ability. We might face persecution, rejection, and death. Whatever we do in word or deed in and for God’s Kingdom, let us always begin with prayer, seeking God’s purpose, word, and power. It takes so much more than what we see on the surface to accomplish God's work; the world might follow us because they see tip of the iceberg, but we know that without the unseen majority of the iceberg we would be nothing.
We will get there when we listen for God’s voice in our life, but it all begins with trusting that God is present and listening to our prayers even when it seems like He is nowhere to be found. We may have experiences like David, the prophets, and the apostles who were threatened, in danger, rejected, ignored, and even died as martyrs. We are to follow Jesus with faith and trust, knowing that in the end God is in control. Jesus went before us as the Suffering Servant who died at the hands of those who refused to believe He was sent by God. We are invited to follow Him through His cross, to join in His work with the promise that He will be with us through it all, listening to our cries and answering out of His great and wonderful mercy.
God is about to impact the world through us, just as He did with the Suffering Servant. It takes prayer, of course, because without Him we can do nothing. The Lord will help us, so let’s live in a way that brings forth blessing from our mouth rather than cursing. He will not disappoint us and we will not be confounded. God will make the world around us better by His Word of grace that we speak by His power.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’” Revelation 21:1-4, WEB
Death hits us differently.
I was about sixteen years old when I had my first personal experiences with death. I probably knew people who died when I was younger, but I was either too young to remember or I didn’t attend any of the funerals. The first death I remember was the mother of a mentor. I didn’t know the mother but attended the funeral for the sake of my mentor. An uncle died a few weeks later. I wasn’t close with this uncle but did visit regularly and so it hit me a little harder. It wasn’t long after that when a very close friend of mine was killed by a drunk driver. That death hit me the hardest. She was my age. Her life was too short. She didn’t have enough time to accomplish the great things that she was capable of accomplishing. Her death also triggered fear. If she could die at sixteen, death was a greater possibility than I ever imagined.
I have had to grieve many people in the forty plus years since my friend’s death. Some were expected, like elderly relatives who were ill. Others were shocking. The deaths of my parents were the hardest, but no death is easy. Sometimes death takes a long time, which gives us time to get used to it. It is never easy, but somehow long illnesses give us a chance to come to terms with the loss of our loved one. Other times it comes suddenly, like my friend.
I have always had cats; pets teach us many things, but most of all they teach us about death. Six months ago we lost one of our cats. He was nearly seventeen years old and had been dealing with feline old age issues for some time. The day came when we knew we had to let him go. Animals do not show pain the same way people do, and sometimes we don’t even realize they are hurting. You can sometimes see changes like less playfulness or appetite, but it is hard to understand the cause. We all have moods.
Our elder cat’s death was sad, but it was a bit of a relief because we knew he was struggling. We still had two others, and though no cat can replace another, they had each other and we were a happy family. I was at the kitty store a few weeks ago and they had a bunch of kittens; each one was adorable. I joked with my husband that I was going to bring a few of them, home. It was a joke; we had a conversation about taking a pet break so we could have more freedom. We though, however, that we had a lot of years before we would have to worry about it. The two are nearly twelve and in good health. The girl was zooming around the house just a week or so ago.
She seemed ok even a few days ago but we noticed she wasn’t eating as usual. She was sleeping more. I noticed a change in the litter box. Then we noticed her breathing was labored. We though she was constipated. I called the vet and we were able to get her in immediately. The doctor took x-rays and found that she had fluid in her lungs. He thought it might be heart issues or a tumor. We could have spent thousands of dollars to understand what was happening, but it wouldn’t help and she would suffer. I went to the vet hoping it wouldn’t cost a fortune to unstop her and left without her. I never expected to have to put her to sleep. It hit us all so hard because it was so unexpected. We had time to say good-bye to our elder cat a few months ago, but we had no time this time. My husband and son both dropped what they were doing to be at the office with me and our kitty in those last moments.
Death is a consequence of our human frailty. When Adam and Eve believed the word of the serpent above the word of the Lord, death became a physical necessity. Adam and Eve were frightened by their knowledge to even be in the presence of the holy and powerful God. God was being merciful when He cast them out of the Garden of Eden and away from the Tree of Life. Death is the better fate than an eternity afraid of God.
Yet death was never God’s intention for His people. He wanted us to have life and to have life abundantly. He wanted us to live in His presence forever with all those He created to be our companions. Even though Adam and Eve sinned, thus making all flesh perishable, God overcame death and the grave so that we might live as He created us to live, in His presence for all eternity. Jesus overcame death on the cross, and by that cross we are welcomed into His kingdom forever.
Physical death is a certainty; we will experience death as long as we live. We will mourn over those who have died, but for Christians death is not a certainty anymore. In Christ we live even when our bodies die. We will shed tears of grieving in this life, but God promises us through John that the day will come when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes; there shall there be no more mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.
“Answer me when I call, God of my righteousness. Give me relief from my distress. Have mercy on me, and hear my prayer. You sons of men, how long shall my glory be turned into dishonor? Will you love vanity and seek after falsehood? Selah. But know that Yahweh has set apart for himself him who is godly: Yahweh will hear when I call to him. Stand in awe, and don’t sin. Search your own heart on your bed, and be still. Selah. Offer the sacrifices of righteousness. Put your trust in Yahweh. Many say, ‘Who will show us any good?’ Yahweh, let the light of your face shine on us. You have put gladness in my heart, more than when their grain and their new wine are increased. In peace I will both lay myself down and sleep, for you, Yahweh alone, make me live in safety.” Psalm 4, WEB
As we draw near to the anniversary of shocking events of September 11, 2001, I was thinking about our state of mind in those days. I thought about repeating the post from September 12th, but then looked at the previous day. What were our concerns on September 10th? For me, apparently it was road construction. Ironically, this is still a problem for me despite being twenty years later and six hundred miles away.
There was major road construction happening on both roads leading from our house in Jacksonville to Little Rock. The contractors were doing their best to prevent traffic delays, but some inconvenience is always inevitable when the roads are being repaired or replaced. The road to the west was four lanes and traveled through a very busy business district. There were strip malls and other commercial properties for miles. The traffic was controlled by stoplights and there were many cross traffic turns. During rush hour this road was extremely busy. A mile and a half of the road was being resurfaced, and there is no convenient detour available.
Road construction is often done at night to avoid the dangers and traffic problems it would create during the day. We might wonder how they can see, but if you have driven through road work at night you know that they use very bright lights to illuminate the work area. It is much safer for the workers to be there at night. There are fewer cars on the road, and the bright light brings attention to the work area. In the daytime, it is easy for road workers to disappear in the normal hustle bustle of life.
In that writing on the day before 9/11, I commented on the concerns of many Christians that evil is overtaking our society. This concern is no less today than it was twenty years ago. Evil is called good and vice versa. Children are maturing much too quickly. Social media puts them in a place where decisions about drugs and sex come well before they are old enough to really understand the consequences. Political correctness and tolerance are opening the doors to acceptance all sorts of worship, turning people from the truth that is Christ. Many Christians are afraid to be in this world today, so they reject it and live in a bubble surrounded only by Christian things. Unfortunately, this means that we are not being a blessing to those who need to see the light of Christ. We get lost and risk falling prey to false piety and false teachers who teach a false gospel.
There was something about our attitude in the days after 9/11. All over the country churches opened their doors for special prayer services. Americans took time to focus on God, to seek His comfort, protection, and guidance. There were stories from New York of people who risked their lives to search the wreckage for survivors. One doctor rode his bike from the other end of New York and stayed on the site for days. All over the country, people gave blood and money to help with the effort. We could fill books with the Americans have drawn together for a common purpose and are proving themselves to be strong and unified.
In the days following 9/11, I encouraged my readers to stay constantly in prayer. Vengeance is God’s, but we have been given the authority and responsibility to bring justice in this world. I’m not sure that we managed to do so, but we know that God will one day make all things right. Even now, twenty years later, we need to continue to pray for wisdom and God’s guidance for those who will be burdened by the responsibility of leadership in our world. It may not be our task to ensure that things have been made right for those who have suffered at the hands of evil, but we can join in the work through prayer and sharing the Gospel message.
We are God’s and we will one day stand face to face with our Savior, basking in His glory and worshipping Him for eternity. But for today, we must continue to do the work we have been called to do. We cannot allow the enemy to paralyze us, nor should we stand idle as we watch for our hope to be revealed. Remember who you are, whose you are and be ready to meet your Master by serving Him in spirit, truth, and flesh. Our work for His Kingdom is our daily sacrifice and our true worship.
Our concerns on 9/10 might have been road construction, a concern of ours to this day. But the question we ask as we prepare for the twentieth anniversary of that horrific day is what attitude will we have in the coming days? Will we focus on the daily annoyances of daily life like we were on 9/10, or will we turn our gaze on God and seek His will for our lives as we did on 9/12? Will we grumble about traffic or worship God and trust Him to comfort, protect, and guide us daily to do what is right in the world?
The road workers do their best to complete the work as quickly and efficiently as possible. They work in the darkness using the light to guide and protect them. When the work is complete, the sun will rise on a new road, which will benefit every traveler. As for our Christian walk, we cannot be afraid to do our work in the darkness of this world. After all, we have the light that is Christ to guide and protect us from every danger. Soon the day will dawn and the morning star, which is Christ, will reign. Until then we must rely on Him to be the light in this darkness and continue to work for His glory.
“I will give you thanks with my whole heart. Before the gods, I will sing praises to you. I will bow down toward your holy temple, and give thanks to your Name for your loving kindness and for your truth; for you have exalted your Name and your Word above all. In the day that I called, you answered me. You encouraged me with strength in my soul. All the kings of the earth will give you thanks, Yahweh, for they have heard the words of your mouth. Yes, they will sing of the ways of Yahweh, for Yahweh’s glory is great! For though Yahweh is high, yet he looks after the lowly; but he knows the proud from afar. Though I walk in the middle of trouble, you will revive me. You will stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies. Your right hand will save me. Yahweh will fulfill that which concerns me. Your loving kindness, Yahweh, endures forever. Don’t forsake the works of your own hands.” Psalm 138, WEB
Last week Jesus ask the disciples the question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” In others, Jesus wanted to know what the world thinks about Him. This week He turns the question around to us, “Who do you say that I am?” This is a much harder question to answer because to call Him more than rabbi and friend means giving up ourselves. It means following the good and perfect will of God. It means offering our whole selves as a spiritual sacrifice.
Matthew 16 describes a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. Matthew was a brilliant rabbi who did not just report the events surrounding Jesus’ life and ministry; he wove a story that pointed toward the purpose of Jesus’ life. In the first part, Matthew introduces us to Jesus. He tells us about His nativity and youth, as well as His relationship with John the Baptist. In the second part, Matthew shows Jesus proclaiming the message of His life, and how He is followed by the crowds. They see the parables in action. Jesus teaches and then gives the people very real examples of the lessons. The second part ends with today’s Gospel passage: the confession of Peter. From this point forward in Matthew’s story, Jesus sets His feet toward Jerusalem and the cross.
Jesus wondered about the scuttlebutt. “What are they saying out there about me?” The disciples told him about all the theories. Then Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” For just one moment, Peter saw Jesus clearly and confessed faith in the Savior of the world. It wasn’t of his own doing. Peter’s confession of faith was not something parroted from what other people thought about Jesus. It was not from the teachings of the Pharisees and Sadducees; it was not a fearful assumption from a king and it was not a guess from those who knew the stories of the Old Testament. It was a confession of faith hewn by God’s own hands. And on that rock, Christ would build His church. Peter didn’t confess faith by His own knowledge or ability. It was God Himself that revealed the truth to him.
Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ is only the second time since the birth story in Matthew that Jesus was referred to with that title. The first time was when John was in prison; he sent his followers to Jesus to ask if He was the Messiah. Jesus told them to report to John what they had seen and heard. His identity as the Christ, the Messiah, was wrapped up in His ministry. It was the proof John needed. The healings and the stories revealed to the world that Jesus was the One for whom they waited.
Peter confessed his faith that Jesus is Lord, but Jesus’ relationship with the people went downhill from that moment. They want something different than what He is willing to give. The miracles and stories continue, but they are more pointed as Jesus moves toward the cross. Jesus refuses to be what they want: an earthly king that meets their physical needs. He is the Anointed One who will fulfill all God’s promises.
Peter seems to stand alone as he makes his confession of faith, but while he was the first, Peter is standing for the whole body of Christ. The other disciples except Judas eventually came to understand Jesus and His purpose. The disciples saw Jesus as the revealed Word of God in flesh, the Savior, the Son. They became sons of God by faith, hewn by God’s own hand, and so do we.
We are Easter people, living because Jesus finished the work He was sent to do. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ has been revealed to us. We can know who Jesus is and understand what He means to us today. He still asks us the two questions. He asks, “Who does the world say that I am.” There are a thousand different answers to this question. To the world He was a teacher, a rabbi, a miracle worker, and a good man. He was a radical willing to stand up against the injustice of His day. He’s a friend, a comforter, a guide whose example we would do well to follow. But the question that truly matters is this week’s which He asks each of us: “Who do you say that I am?”
By God’s grace we will answer that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
Now, today, we join with the psalmist, the people of Judah, Paul and Peter and the other disciples, and every generation of the Church throughout time in the chorus of thanksgiving. We can rest in this promise, for God is faithful. We are sent forth in faith to be God’s witnesses, to tell the world that Jesus is the Christ through whom God fulfills every promise. Today and every day sing praise and thanksgiving to God, confessing faith in the revealed Word of God in flesh, faith that He has hewn by His own hand so that we will go out into the world and share the story of Jesus so that by His grace they will confess faith in Him, too.
“Sing to Yahweh a new song, for he has done marvelous things! His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him. Yahweh has made known his salvation. He has openly shown his righteousness in the sight of the nations. He has remembered his loving kindness and his faithfulness toward the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. Make a joyful noise to Yahweh, all the earth! Burst out and sing for joy, yes, sing praises! Sing praises to Yahweh with the harp, with the harp and the voice of melody.” Psalm 98:1-5, WEB
Today is Holy Cross Day, a festival to celebrate the triumph of the cross. The cross stands as a witness to our sin and God’s 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.
God revealed His salvation in love and faithfulness to His people Israel, and through them His salvation was revealed to the nations. The whole creation is invited to sing a new song with joy for the marvelous things He has done. God saved Israel so that His righteousness would be revealed to the whole world. They were not saved for themselves or by their own works, but for the glory of God.
God’s way of salvation seems ridiculous to us. Take, for example, the work in the wilderness. Poisonous snakes were biting the people of Israel. They were dying in large numbers, and they cried out to the Lord. “We have sinned, because we have spoken against Yahweh and against you.” What could possibly have been so bad that they should suffer such a terrible calamity? They became discouraged and grumbled about the hardships of the wilderness. They wanted to know why they were brought out of the comforts of Egypt to die in the middle of nowhere. They were hungry and thirsty, and they wanted to go home. They saw nothing good ahead of them and even despised the manna from heaven. I'm not sure my response would have been much different.
Their grumbling was sinful because they rejected God’s grace. Their life in Egypt was not comfortable. They were slaves. God delivered them from bondage and was leading them to the Promised Land. He protected them from the dangers of the wilderness and from their enemies. He fed them with heavenly food. God graciously did marvelous things for His people, and they rejected it all.
So, God sent the snakes. This story is inconceivable for us because it doesn’t make sense. Why would the God who has promised to protect His people do this? It is a strange way to encourage repentance. It worked though; Israel cried out to Him, “We have done wrong. Save us!” He answered, but again we wonder about His answer. Rather than removing the evil things harming His people, God commanded Moses, “Make a venomous snake, and set it on a pole. It shall happen that everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” Why not just remove the snakes? Why make it so much harder to be saved? The bronze snake was a symbol of what was to come.
One of the most common complaints I hear from non-Christians is the question of suffering in the world. “Why does God allow good people to die?” they ask. That’s the error, isn’t it? Jesus tells us that there are none who are good. We are sinners in need of a Savior and on our own we reject the grace of God. We always look for something we think is better than what we have. We turn away from God our Father and try to do things our own way. Jesus Christ, however, was the perfect Son of God. He was sent as a bronze snake in the desert of our world to be lifted high to provide the salvation those who have been bitten by sin, death, and the devil really need.
It seems to me there should have been an easier way. Couldn’t God just get rid of all the bad stuff? Couldn’t the all-powerful God create a utopian world where there is no sin or devil? We are reminded, however, that Adam and Eve walked with God in Paradise, and they still turned from Him. The Israelites had everything they could possibly need, and they grumbled about God’s grace. We are no better. Rather than take us out of the world, God gives us something to look toward for salvation, His Son. “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.”
The pole on which Jesus was lifted was the Holy Cross. That is where we will see God’s salvation. Unfortunately, there will always be someone who rejects God’s grace.
I wonder how many Israelites died from those snakebites in the wilderness anyway. They whole idea of looking at a bronze serpent for salvation is absurd. Looking to the cross for salvation is equally ridiculous. Many reject it because it is too ridiculous to believe. As Paul says, the cross is foolishness to those who are dying. Intelligent people don’t fall for myth or live their lives around such folly, or so they tell me. But God does not do what we expect. One day two thousand years ago, He turned the world upside down by lifting the Savior on to the Holy Cross for all to see.
It was first the Jews and then the Gentiles who heard the Good News of Christ crucified, that they might look to Him to be saved. Since that day we sing a new song, a song of joy for the most marvelous thing He has done. Jesus is the right hand of God, the Holy One who revealed the salvation of God to the world by being the Savior on His Holy Cross. Sing to the LORD!
Lectionary Scriptures for September 19, 2021, Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost: Jeremiah 11:18-20; Psalm 54; James 3:13-4:10; Mark 9:30-37
“But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’” James 3:6, WEB
The deuterocanonical book “The Wisdom of Solomon” was written for Hellenized Jews in Alexandria, people torn between the life of faith and the tempting cultural life in Alexandria. It was exciting to live there, with fascinating mystery religions, cults, astrology, and other interesting religious perspectives that seemed better than a life of servanthood and of suffering. It is very easy to get caught up in a world full of excitement and pleasure. It is naturally human to be on top and to be part of the crowd. These Hellenized Jews would probably have joined in the cry, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Wouldn’t we all like to live by this doctrine, too?
The truly faithful are persecuted in this type of society. They are outsiders, they are unwilling to go along with the crowd. The faithful are considered weak because they willingly submit to a life of servanthood, and they are inconvenient to the life the wicked want to live. They are both the doormats and the stumbling blocks in this world. The writer of the Book of Wisdom says, “He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others and his ways are strange.” (NRSV) This is the very reason that the righteous become victims of the wicked.
The Old Testament lesson is a brief personal lament by Jeremiah the prophet over the suffering he faces. It is difficult enough to be persecuted by the world and the powerful, but his own family wanted to destroy him. He was being persecuted because he preached about their unfaithfulness; they broke the covenant and were cursed by their guilt. Despite God’s saving grace, leading them out of Egypt, they turned from Him and would suffer exile. Jeremiah was not even to pray for the people or to offer a plea for them. They’d gone too far to be saved from the consequences of their rebellion.
I imagine that Jeremiah would have preferred being ignorant; no one really wants to be a prophet in the first place. Jeremiah’s words fell on unwilling ears. He was opposed on every side. His words brought the wrath of the leaders on his head, but they had the potential of destroying his family who would also suffer God’s wrath. His family schemed to destroy him, to stop his words to protect their lives. A plot against Jeremiah would have had a positive impact on those who perpetrated it. They would have found favor with those in authority and may have been elevated for their courageous acts against the prophet. The Lord made this conspiracy known to Jeremiah. Jeremiah probably would have preferred to remain ignorant of this, too. Who wants to know that their family is trying to destroy them or that their loved ones care more about getting ahead than caring for family?
We’d rather be ignorant. That does not mean we like to be stupid, or that we are anti-intellectual. We simply prefer not to know some things. We don’t want to ask the hard questions. We don’t want to know what was going on under the surface. We don’t want to find out that the people we trust are not trustworthy. We don’t want to find out that we are wrong. We don’t want to know the truth if that truth is hard.
This brief passage from Jeremiah is a personal lament by the prophet over his suffering. Jeremiah is honest with God. He is hurt and angry, so he asks God for vengeance. We know this is not the way we should be dealing with our enemies, but we understand, don’t we? We know that as Christians we are called to love our enemies and face persecution with trust and faith. We can’t help, though, to empathize with Jeremiah and wonder whether we have good reason to ask for a little vengeance.
Despite the lament and imprecation, Jeremiah’s words show deep trust in God. God does not always answer our prayers as we wish, but we pray with faith that God is willing to listen to our ranting and our anger and that He will make all things right. Jeremiah trusted God enough to be honest with Him, to speak the words that he felt and to admit his desires. This display of anger and lament did not bring God’s wrath on Jeremiah; God answered with mercy and grace.
The early Christians experienced persecution, too, and Jeremiah’s words helped them as they tried to understand their suffering. They had faith enough in God to speak their fears and their anger, knowing that God will listen and answer. He gives strength to those who call Him, even when the cry is one of anger and lament. He lifts us up and brings us through our troubles, forgiving our sin and giving us the grace to go on.
Matthew Henry tells us that the key to today’s psalm rests in the title. “For the Chief Musician. On stringed instruments. A contemplation by David, when the Ziphites came and said to Saul, ‘Isn’t David hiding himself among us?’” The Ziphites were traitors, men who turned David over to Saul, whose intent was to kill David. Saul knew that David was God’s intended king, but he thought that if David were dead he might be able to hold on to his reign. He relied on men like the Ziphites to betray David.
David was experiencing much the same persecution as Jeremiah, the threats came from people who were close. He was hiding among them, suggesting that he trusted them to protect him. He was betrayed, but David was able to lift his voice to God, crying out for salvation from his enemies.
David sings, “Save me, God, by your name.’ We all know name droppers, and perhaps do a little name dropping ourselves. Knowing the right people can get us a better table at a fancy restaurant or it can get us free ice cream at the local grocery store. Knowing the right people can get a road fixed more quickly or it can get a child into a better school. We rely on the clout that comes from the right name when we are job hunting or when we are making a major purchase. My Dad was once able to get me a better deal on a car and a friend once got me a discount on an electronics purchase; all I needed was their name.
The name of the Lord is the manifestation of His character and accessibility to His people. We cry out to Him by His name, and He hears our prayers. Light Jeremiah, David calls out for vindication. He also asks God to judge him according to His own strength (the strength of God) not according to the strength of David's life or importance. Vindication will come not because David has done anything particularly important but because David is the chosen one of God. Vindication will come not to the glory of David, but to the glory of God.
David trusts that God is his helper. In this psalm David began with a cry for help, then a confession of trust in God, and finished with a vow to offer thanksgiving and praise. David was confident that God would save him from his enemies. He comforted himself in the knowledge that God is faithful to His promises. We can do the same thing. When we are persecuted, we too can cry out to God with our worries and fears. Like David, we can do so with the assurance that God hears our prayers and is our helper.
We need to be careful that we don’t call every hurt or disagreement is a matter of persecution. Ralph Waldo Emerson is reported as saying, “Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.” Ben Carson said, “Just because somebody happens to disagree with you about something doesn’t mean that they become your mortal enemy and that you should try to destroy them and destroy their life and destroy their family.” Morgan Freeman is quoted as saying, “Just because I disagree with you does not mean I hate you. We need to relearn that in our society.”
Persecution exists and we might experience it. God knows and He responds appropriately. are human. We are all sinners. Sometimes we are wrong. David was the great king of Israel, beloved of God, but he was not perfect. We are just like David, and he reminds us to trust that God knows what is right. He will make all things right in the end.
Jesus warned the disciples, “The Son of Man is being handed over to the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, on the third day he will rise again.” They were afraid to ask Jesus what He meant because they didn’t want Jesus to know that they didn’t understand. Like the rest of us, though, they probably didn’t want to know. It is so much better to be ignorant, to be blind to the troubles that surround us.
They also did not want Jesus to know what about their conversation. Were they embarrassed by the immaturity of the conversation? Were they beginning to see that being part of the king of God meant sacrifice and self-giving and they weren’t ready for that kind of commitment? They did not want Jesus to know that they were arguing over which one of them is most important. In other similar stories, they want Jesus to tell them who will lead at His side. Who will be the CEO? Who will be the General? Who will be the boss? They want to know and understand the hierarchy of the ministry. But they didn’t want Jesus to know that they were asking this question.
Jesus sat down to explain that greatness in the kingdom of heaven was not as it is in the world where the rulers seek fame, power and possessions. In the kingdom of heaven, the least are the greatest. Welcoming a little child is like welcoming God Himself, and if they want to be first they must be the last and servant of all.
Notice how the disciples are quiet about what Jesus wants them to know, but they are very vocal when they are thinking in their own terms, according to their own wisdom. We all have a skewed idea of what makes a truly wise person. We think in terms of flesh, earth, natural things. Jesus wants us to see something greater, something beyond ourselves.
Martin Luther and other reformers understood that there are two kingdoms: the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God. They believed that God ruled both kingdoms, but He did so in the kingdom of the world through temporal authority. The left hand of God is found in the hands of kings and presidents, church leaders, bosses, parents and others who hold positions of authority. These temporal authorities have the power to rule through law, including the use of military power as necessary. The right hand of God rules the spiritual, and this authority is not given to man, but to the Holy Spirit whose power is the Gospel. A Christian can (and should) serve in the kingdom of the world but should never allow the kingdom of the world to usurp the authority of the kingdom of God. Notice that church leaders are appointed to rule in the kingdom of the world,
Martin Luther wrote, “God has ordained the two governments: the spiritual, which by the Holy Spirit under Christ makes Christians and pious people; and the secular, which restrains the unchristian and wicked so that they are obliged to keep the peace outwardly... The laws of worldly government extend no farther than to life and property and what is external upon earth. For over the soul God can and will let no one rule but himself. Therefore, where temporal power presumes to prescribe laws for the soul, it encroaches upon God’s government and only misleads and destroys souls. We desire to make this so clear that every one shall grasp it, and that the princes and bishops may see what fools they are when they seek to coerce the people with their laws and commandments into believing one thing or another.”
Luther also said, “We are to be subject to governmental power and do what it bids, as long as it does not bind our conscience but legislates only concerning outward matters... But if it invades the spiritual domain and constrains the conscience, over which God only must preside and rule, we should not obey it at all but rather lose our necks. Temporal authority and government extend no further than to matters which are external and corporeal.”
It is hard to hear that we should willingly lose our necks, particularly in a world where many Christians are being beheaded. While we might not be experiencing this kind of persecution in America, Open Door USA reported in January of this year that an average of thirteen Christians a day are dying for their faith. I suspect that number is rising. Many of my readers are from Nigeria, and we have heard the frightening stories of what happens to Christian girls at the hands of extremists there. None of us would choose that kind of life.
We might not choose it, but by choosing Jesus we are laying our lives on the line for Him. And when we are at even greater risk when we actively participate in the Kingdom by sharing the Gospel with others. It is a matter of trust, of course. Do we, like David, trust that God will make everything right even when it seems like everything is out of control? Are we willing to face persecution for His sake, humbling ourselves for His glory?
The disciples were thinking like politicians on that road through Galilee. They were arguing with one another about who was the greatest. In other versions of this story, some of the disciples insisted on being Jesus’ right hand and left-hand men. They wanted to be part of the ruling party and felt they deserved it. They saw themselves as better than the others and thought Jesus should appoint them to the positions of power and authority. Jesus had another way.
He lifted a little child onto His lap and told them they should believe in His words the way a child does, without fear or worry or anxiety. They should just act in faith, doing what it is they’ve been gifted to do while trusting that God will make it work to His glory. Children aren’t afraid to hold someone’s hand when they are crying. Children don’t worry about whether or not they have the right words, they speak from their hearts. Children talk about Jesus and God and love and peace and hope in a way that we no longer understand because we have lost our innocence.
The disciples did not yet understand, but then do any of us? We still want to live in that world where we “Eat, drink and be merry” or chase after the prize in war and in peace. Who wants to be persecuted when going along with the crowd can be so much fun? Who wants to be a servant when there’s a chance for a position of power and authority? Perhaps we don't really want to be ignorant, but we'd rather follow our own wisdom. James writes, "Whence come wars and whence come fightings among you?" We become involved with conflicts and disputes because we follow our cravings rather than trust in our God. We ask for the wrong things. We seek pleasure and in doing so we turn from God. We are motivated by our flesh rather than our spirit.
They would be persecuted. Most of the disciples would be martyred. It is not a life any of us choose. Jesus reminded the twelve that they do not need to be the best or the first or the greatest, they simply need to believe. That’s the kind of humility Jesus is looking for in our lives. The humble Christian is a servant that does not seek gold, power or fame, but who walks and works in faith that God will accomplish His good work in our lives. The world will think we are ridiculous, they will persecute us because we do not live as they expect, but we can trust that God will get us through to tomorrow.
The passage from James includes ten commands calling us to action in rooting out the sin of pride in our lives. Pride is what causes us to chase after gold, power and fame. Humility, the opposite of pride, leads us in a life of service to others.
First, we submit to God. Submitting to God means trusting in Him. It means seeking His wisdom, being meek. We often misunderstand the word “meekness” to mean weak, but the reality is that meekness is the humble understanding that you are not the greatest. Greatness does not come to those who force or manipulate others. True greatness comes to those who do what they are called to do in a way that glorifies God. He will glorify them for their faith. Humility is trusting that God will accomplish His work through us as we go about life doing what we can do, even if it means risking everything.
Next, we must resist the devil. You see, the devil is clever. Too many people, Christians included, have fallen for the lie that the devil doesn’t exist. The world laughs at the image of a red creature with horns and a tail, saying it is just ridiculous to think anything like it exists. The truth is that Satan himself has created that image to fool those who want to remain ignorant of the spiritual battle that is raging all around us. Then, when you don’t believe he exists, the devil convinces you, slowly but surely, that all that God talk is ridiculous. And so you believe his word over that of God. We must resist!
Third, James writes, “Come near to God.” This means that we should daily take time to be in His presence. We can resist the devil are more easily if God’s Word is on our lips and in our hearts. Daily prayer, study of scriptures, worship and service in His name will give us the strength and the power to resist.
Fourth we are to wash our hands. This is not a statement about good hygiene, but rather points back to the practice of the Old Testament priests. They were required to wash their hands before they could approach God in the tabernacle. The next command “purify your hearts” continues this thought. Washing our hands symbolizes spiritual cleansing. Washing our hands is then an outward act showing the inward cleansing. We wash our hands and purify our hearts of sin by confessing that which we have done and failed to do in thought, word and deed. By admitting our sinfulness, we open ourselves to God’s grace and forgiveness.
The next three commands come together: we are to lament, mourn, and weep. They may sound like they are redundant, but as is true of so much of the ancient languages, there is always subtle shades of meaning that are not quite visible in English. In Greek, the word that is translated “lament” means “be afflicted” or “endure hardship.” James is calling us to be willing to accept the consequences of our sin. We are to mourn sinfulness, which is our failure to live up to the expectations of our God. And finally, we are to weep. There is more to this than simply crying; we are to wail. While cleansing our hearts is an inner confession, wailing over our sin is a public, outer confession. These are all acts of repentance, a recognition that we are not the greatest in anything.
We, like those in the days of the early church, treat our sin casually. Just as we reject the idea of the devil, we reject our wrongdoing is sin. We dismiss as sin those things which don’t hurt others. We justify our actions even when they don’t line up with the Word of God, rewriting the scriptures to fit our desires. Just as we laugh at the idea of the devil, we laugh at those who call us to repentance, and we embrace our sin with joyful glee. We do what the world says we can do even when it leads us away from our God, and we do so with joy because the worl’'s idea of life is so much more satisfying than the life that risks death and persecution. James calls us to change our laughter into mourning and our joy into gloom.
Finally, James says, “Humble yourselves.” This returns us to James’ quote of Proverbs 3:34 in verse 4:6, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” The other nine commands bring us to the point of receiving God’s grace. When we are humbled, we can embrace the kingdom of God which begins with forgiveness and ends in the fulfillment of God’s promise of eternal life. None of the other commands have any value unless they lead us to rest in God’s grace fully and completely. That’s true humility.
The humble Christian is a servant that does not seek gold, power or fame, but who walks and works in faith that God will accomplish His good and perfect work through our lives.
We are no different than the disciples, or the people in Jeremiah’s day. We still want to win. We still want to be the one at the top. We still want to be the most important one in the kingdom. But Jesus says, “Whoever receives one such little child in my name, receives me, and whoever receives me, doesn’t receive me, but him who sent me.” God sometimes shows us what we don’t want to know, but He promises to bring us through the hard times. Jesus showed us the child because a child trusts without condition. Can we? Or would we rather ignore the truth?
“Don’t think that I came to send peace on the earth. I didn’t come to send peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man at odds against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me isn’t worthy of me. He who doesn’t take his cross and follow after me isn’t worthy of me. He who seeks his life will lose it; and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 10:34-39, WEB
Free? What's the catch? We get mail in our post box almost every day advertising a “FREE GIFT.” We see the same advertisements in the newspaper. Our first impulse is to read the small print. After all, there is no such thing as a free lunch. What do we have to do to get the free gift? What 900 number must be called? Do we need to buy $1000 worth of garbage? Will we have to commit to a two-year lease at a condo in South Florida?
A dear friend came to our house one day with something she purchased. She saw it in the store, thought of me and wanted me to have it. “Why?” I asked. “I thought you would enjoy having it,” she answered. “How much do I owe you?” I asked. “Nothing, it is a gift,” she said. “Thank you,” I said, but then I tried to think of something nice I could do to “pay her back.” After all, if she gave me something she must want something in return, right?
I’m not so sure that everyone feels that way anymore. As a matter of fact, many people expect the free lunch, the free gift, the free anything. They are so sure they deserve it that they are boldly demanding it from others. There is a whole category of “workers” who call themselves “influencers.” These people have taken to social media with a confidence that is stunning. They send out messages to businesses and seek collaboration. That means that the business sends product or offers services for free and in exchange the social media influencer will post pictures and glowing reviews so that the business will get “likes” and possibly business from their recommendation.
One particularly audacious influencer sent a request to a top hotel in a foreign country with their offer. This influencer had a few thousand followers over multiple platforms. The hotel’s social media reach far exceeded the influencer’s. What good would a few clicks on some relatively unknown person on the internet do for the most popular hotel in a region? Would it be worth thousands of dollars of freebees? The hotel owner asked the influencer about all the people who serve them during their free vacation. “What will the maid who cleans your room gain from this? What about the farmer whose food you will eat in our restaurant? The receptionist who checks you in? The bellhop who carries your luggage? Will they feed their family with the ‘likes’ you promise?”
These influencers think their promises deserve whatever they want from everyone they ask. They expect the free gift. When they are rejected, they get angry and threaten that their negative reviews will destroy their business. The businesses they target are rarely uncharitable. As a matter of fact, I suspect most of them would give free items to the right people. Most businesses are generous to donate to charities. They give discounts to help people in need. We can’t demand or expect it from them, especially when the request is not coming from someone with wrong motives.
God is looking for influencers. He is looking for people who will share His grace on social media and in their daily lives. He wants witnesses and He has given the greatest gift to those who are willing to shout His Good News from the mountain tops. His salvation is free. I thought my friend would expect something in exchange for her gift, but God has no expectation. Yet, His salvation is not cheap. We are reminded by the Cross that Jesus died to win our forgiveness and restore our relationship with our Father. That is the greatest cost of all.
We are also reminded, however, that though the gift is free it isn’t cheap in another way. Jesus calls us to follow Him, to take up our cross and follow Him. Life in Christ is not easy. It is not perfect. It is filled with unexpected difficulties, costs. We might be persecuted, even by our family. We might lose our jobs. We might lose our friends. We will still experience sickness and death. The price we pay for this free gift could be martyrdom. The blood of many Christians over the past two thousand years, including today, testifies to this truth. But the gift of Jesus’ sacrifice is greater than anything we can do or will experience through our faith in Him. His grace is reason to become an influencer for Him, even if it means nothing good will come of it in this life because we will find true life in Him forever.
“Now therefore let Pharaoh look for a discreet and wise man, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint overseers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt’s produce in the seven plenteous years. Let them gather all the food of these good years that come, and store grain under the hand of Pharaoh for food in the cities, and let them keep it. The food will be to supply the land against the seven years of famine, which will be in the land of Egypt; so that the land will not perish through the famine.” Genesis 41:33-36, WEB
September is National Preparedness Month. You may have seen reports on the news about how to survive a disaster. A disaster can happen at any time during the year, but September seems to be a dangerous month for many places across our country. Coastal states deal with the threat of hurricanes and wildfires are more likely after a hot dry summer. Tornadoes occur mostly in spring and summer, but happen any time during the year with the right conditions. Winter is coming and a blizzard or freeze can be disastrous. Earthquakes and floods can happen anywhere at any time. There isn’t a place or a time that is completely safe from disaster, so everyone should be prepared.
The experts recommend that everyone should have a disaster preparedness kit. Lists are available all over the internet, or you can buy kits premade. The first item on the list is water, at least one gallon a day per person for at least three days. Next is a three day supply of non-perishable food. A battery powered or hand cranked radio is helpful to get vital updates. The lists include flashlights, batteries, a first aid kit, a whistle to signal for help, dust masks to help filter contaminated air, moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties for personal sanitation, a wrench or pliers to turn off utilities, local maps, cell phone with charger. We probably have all those things around our houses, but could you find it quickly if needed? Can you find your flashlight if the lights go out and will the batteries be good when you do?
Most recommendations include items specific to people and families like prescription medications, glasses, infant formula, diapers, pet food and water for your pet, copies of important documents such as insurance policies, identification, and bank records, warm blankets for each person, a complete change of clothing, personal hygiene items and items to entertain children and adults who may spend a lot of time waiting. There are many other practical items that are helpful, too, like a fire extinguisher and bleach. The items necessary to have on hand depend on your location and the possible disasters you might experience.
This kind of kit is a huge investment. They can cost hundreds of dollars and can take a lot of space a home. Have you tried to store twelve gallons of water? Who can invest so much and leave it unused? We need to constantly check the kit because even non-perishable food and bottled water have expiration dates. Those who are living day to day and paycheck to paycheck do not have the money to keep extra food in the pantry. They are the ones least likely to get through a disaster unscathed because they probably don’t even have those things available in their homes on a good day and they certainly can’t afford to have duplicates packed away in a kit.
Thankfully, most of us are generous and compassionate; we are quick with aid when disaster strikes. Whenever something happens like a hurricane, flood, tornado, fire, earthquake or blizzard happens, we send donations of food, water, clothes, blankets and other things that are needed. We open our wallets with incredible generosity. But I like the suggestion found on the bottom of one Preparedness list. “Once you have prepared your kit, consider putting a second one together for a household that might not be able to afford to purchase the supplies. Or, have a drive at your church or in your neighborhood.” Perhaps think about those who suffer before disaster strikes so that they will be able to meet anything with peace of mind.
Joseph was given an incredible gift: he was given a vision of the future through Pharaoh’s dream that allowed Egypt to prepare for a drought that would affect the entire world. Joseph was assigned the task of gathering the food that would eventually be used to save lives. We don’t have the warning that Joseph had when disaster strikes, but we live in a world full of surprises so we should always be prepared for what might happen. Joseph always trusted God and God proved to be faithful; he had peace even when he was in bad situations. Joseph was able to be generous to his own family who were suffering along with the rest of the world. In the end, he credited God everything in his life, good and bad. It is impossible to have something for every possibility, but let us always remember that trusting God will give us peace to get through everything, because His kit is filled with faithful Christians able to do whatever is necessary to get us through our suffering.Top
September 20, 2021
“Yahweh reigns! He is clothed with majesty! Yahweh is armed with strength. The world also is established. It can’t be moved. Your throne is established from long ago. You are from everlasting. The floods have lifted up, Yahweh, the floods have lifted up their voice. The floods lift up their waves. Above the voices of many waters, the mighty breakers of the sea, Yahweh on high is mighty. Your statutes stand firm. Holiness adorns your house, Yahweh, forever more.” Psalm 93, WEB
Two weeks ago we asked the question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Last week we asked “Who do you say that I am?” Today’s question is similar, but slightly different. It comes from the Matthew’s report of the Triumphant Entry when the city asked, “Who is this?” It is a question of Jesus’ identity but it comes from the point of view of someone who has not heard of Him.
I was with my mother and a friend, and we were on our way home from a meeting rather late at night. It was a long drive and we stopped at a service area to use the restroom and grab a snack. There was a fancy looking bus in the lot, set apart a little bit, but obviously the transportation of someone important. We asked, “Who is this?” pointing toward the bus. We didn’t think we’d get an answer, but the clerk was excited to give away the secret. After all, this guy was in the know about a famous person that was stopping in his store! It was Rick Springfield. He was on tour with his music, but he was also famous at that time for playing Dr. Noah Drake on the hit daytime drama “General Hospital.”
We were thrilled. I loved Rick Springfield. So, we stood halfway between the bus and the store, hoping that we’d catch a glimpse. We did, and he was kind. He walked out of his way over to us, talked to us for a few minute, and signed some autographs. We didn’t realize what a sacrifice this was for him at the time. He had performed at a concert that night, so he was tired, but that wasn’t the worst of it. It was the anniversary of his father’s death and the loss was still weighing on him. It was hard to believe, at first, that we were really so close to the star. We couldn’t risk missing the possibility of meeting him if it was true, so we believed and we waited.
Jesus entered Jerusalem to the shouts of the crowds. He had a reputation. His fame went before Him. Yet, not everyone had heard of Him. There were strangers in Jerusalem, people who had just come from great distances for the celebration of the Passover. They had not yet heard the stories. “Who is this?” they asked. The crowd answered, “This is the prophet, Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”
I wonder what that answer meant to those who were asking the question. Prophets were a dime a dozen in those days, and Nazareth was nothing particularly special. Did any come to believe, or did they simply scoff at the idea that Jesus was worth such a commotion? If they had not heard the stories, the fact that He was a prophet from Nazareth would have meant nothing. I wonder if those who were excited to see Jesus tried to tell the strangers more. Did they talk about the stories and His claims? Did they try to build Him up to get the strangers more excited about his presence?
How would you answer the question “Who is this?” for someone who has never heard of Him?
The Psalmist defined Him as King over all of creation. The Lord reigns. Jesus Christ asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” It is vital that we answer the question personally, by faith, prayer and understanding. Peter’s answer was “the Christ of God.” It was not very long after that confession that Peter denied knowing Jesus. In today’s world, it seems many people are willing to confess Jesus as Christ just like Peter but are just as likely to deny Him before others. Are we willing to answer those who want to know who Jesus is? Are we willing to tell them that He is the King over all creation? Are we willing to say that He is the everlasting God?
Faith is a paradox. We first must realize that God is bigger than we can ever define, but we must define Him for ourselves and then be willing to answer those who wonder who He is. It isn’t easy, and some will scoff at our answer. It is impossible for God to be so big that He doesn’t fit in the all the universes and yet small enough to fit in the flesh of one man and in our hearts. Yet, this God is clothed with majesty; He is more than we can imagine and has done more than we can desire. Who is this? This is Jesus of Nazareth, who is more that just a prophet, He is God incarnate, the Savior of the world.
“As Jesus passed by from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax collection office. He said to him, ‘Follow me.’ He got up and followed him. As he sat in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard it, he said to them, ‘Those who are healthy have no need for a physician, but those who are sick do. But you go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’” Matthew 9:9-13, WEB
Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Matthew.
Ezekiel was called by God to go speak to a rebellious people: his own people. God said, “Whether they listen or not, you must go speak.” I think all of us who have dealt with teenagers know exactly how Ezekiel felt that day. We know what it is like to talk to someone who is deaf to our every word. We all wonder why we bother; they are bound to do their own thing anyway. Much of our society has decided that is true, so has recommended we just do whatever we can to protect them while they do the things we hope they won’t do.
But God was not willing to let Ezekiel whitewash His message to the people. “Don’t talk around the truth, this is a time of mourning and woe.” He gave Ezekiel a scroll on which His word was written. “Eat the scroll, then go speak to Israel.” The words on the scroll were not pleasant; they were bitter and unwanted by the people. But to Ezekiel, it was sweet as honey, for God’s word is always true. Ezekiel was not being sent to strangers or foreigners, but to his own family and friends. They had lost their way, had rebelled against the One True God. They were not willing to listen to God anymore and they would reject Ezekiel also. But God filled Ezekiel with the truth on that scroll and made him strong to stand against the obstinacy of the people. Even if they did not hear, they would know that Ezekiel came from God.
So, how do we talk to those who are not willing to listen? The passage from Ezekiel tells us that we are to be filled with God’s Word because there we will find strength and courage to do as He has called us to do. Though God does not call us to eat a scroll, He fills us with Himself as we partake of His word in worship, sacraments and study of the scriptures.
We do not know much about Matthew before he was called to follow Jesus, but the likelihood is that he wasn’t a good and righteous guy. At the very least his fellow Jews considered him a traitor because he worked for Rome. Most tax collectors demanded more than the required amount, thus getting rich off the poor. Matthew must have had some wealth, in today’s passage he held a large party with Jesus, the disciples and many tax collectors.
Jesus called a hodge podge of strange men as His disciples, but Matthew is perhaps one of the most unusual choices. Tax collectors were outcasts from the Jewish people, sinners in their eyes because of the work they did. The Pharisees were offended that Jesus would eat with them at the dinner Matthew held. Peter, James, John and Andrew were hardworking men, earning their living at fishing. Matthew just sat around at a desk and took people’s money. Who would even listen to him? Even if he was an observant Jew, he was not credible because of his work for Rome.
Yet, just like Ezekiel, God called Matthew to speak to the very people who would not listen: his own. The Gospel credited to Matthew is written to Israel and we see in the stories and lessons Matthew’s deep desire to show his people that Jesus fulfilled all their hopes for the Messiah. Of those called by Jesus, Matthew probably gave up the most to follow Him. He gave up wealth and position to become a servant.
Though he wrote to his own people, he’s the only Gospel writer to tell the story of the first Gentiles to seek the Lord Jesus. The story of the Magi from the East shows that Christ came for the whole world, not just the Jews. Matthew’s Gospel most clearly demonstrates that God’s love reaches well beyond the walls we build. Matthew also teaches us how to honor and protect the relationships we have with one another in Christ. He is the only Gospel writer that uses the word “church.”
Matthew understood what it meant to be saved by God’s grace. He was the least likely disciple and the one who gave up the most. He wouldn’t have done it on his own accord. He was changed by the One who loved him, had mercy on him and called him into this new life of faith. I can almost imagine Matthew sitting on the floor next to Mary soaking in the words of Christ and praying, “Teach me, O God.” He wanted to know what it meant to be a disciple and he wanted to share it with his people.
We remember Matthew because he was one of the disciples and the writer of the first Gospel. He was a man who humbled himself before God and lived his new life for the sake of his people. He risked much, lost everything and yet gained the kingdom of heaven by faith. Through his story we see the grace of God so clearly; we see that salvation is given to all who hear His word and believe. Through his Gospel, we see how much he loved his people and how he longed for them to believe that Jesus truly was the One for whom they had waited so long. Through his story we see that it is worthwhile to speak when God tells us to speak, even when we do not think anyone is listening, for God can touch even the most untouchable people.
Scriptures for September 26, 2021, Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 104:27-35; James 5:(1-12) 13-20; Mark 9:38-50
“For whoever is not against us is on our side.” Mark 9:40, WEB
There is an ancient Jewish folktale about two beggars and a king. Each day the two beggars went to the king’s palace to ask for food, and each day the king gave them both a loaf of bread. The first beggar thanked the king for the bread, the second thanked God for making the king wealthy enough to be charitable. The king was upset that the second beggar never thanked him for the bread.
One day the king decided to punish the second beggar for his ungratefulness. He ordered the baker to fill one loaf of bread with valuable jewels and to give it specifically to the first beggar. “That will teach the beggar a lesson.” The baker was extremely careful to give the right loaf to each beggar: the one filled with jewels to the first beggar, the loaf only to the second. When the first beggar felt the weight of the loaf, he thought there was something wrong with it and asked the other beggar to exchange loaves. The second beggar was always gracious and willing to help a friend, so he agreed. Later, when he ate the loaf, he discovered the jewels.
The next day only the first beggar appeared at the gate of the king. The king asked the baker if he gave the right loaf, and the baker assured him that he did. Then the king asked the beggar what happened to the loaf that he’d been given. He told the king that it felt hard and poorly baked, so he gave it to his friend. The king realized that all good things truly come through God. Only God can change the circumstances of men; not even a king can change God’s will.
In today’s Old Testament lesson, Moses complained to God that the people were ungrateful and complaining about their circumstances. “Why have you done this to me?” he cried out to God. “You have made them a burden I cannot carry.” So, God agreed to appoint helpers; he told Moses to choose seventy elders to help carry the burden of leadership. When God anointed the seventy with the spirit, they prophesied. However, there were two other men who had remained in the camp over whom the spirit also fell. They also prophesied.
A young boy heard the prophesying; he went to Moses and told him about the two in the camp. When Joshua heard about this, he told Moses to go stop them: they weren’t among the chosen! But Moses knew that God was in control. He couldn’t stop someone that was given the spirit any more than he could choose those who would receive it.
Tradition suggests several reasons for why the two were not at the tent of meeting. Some think that Eldad and Medad were afraid of rejection or they did not feel that they were worthy of the honor. Others say that because there were twelve tribes there was no easy way to appoint seventy elders. Which tribes would willingly relinquish a place in the council of elders? So, perhaps Moses chose six leaders from each of the twelve tribes and then made seventy-two lots, seventy with the word ‘elder’ and two blank, letting God weed out the two who were not chosen. According to some sources, Eldad and Medad selected the blank lots. If this is the case, then God decided to bless them apart from the lots.
God is not limited by our sense of order or by our fears and uncertainties. Those two men received the Spirit because God chose them to be leaders. Tradition holds that Eldad and Medad gave the most incredible prophecies that day. They say that Eldad prophesied that Moses would die before entering Canaan, that it would be Joshua to lead the people into the Promised Land. Medad is said to have prophesied about the quail. We don’t know why they weren’t among the other leaders. God doesn’t seem to care. They were His chosen and they were given the gift of the Spirit. Joshua was upset that about the men prophesying, but he may have been even more upset about the prophecies. He wanted it to stop. Moses answered Joshua’s request, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all Yahweh’s people were prophets, that Yahweh would put his Spirit on them!”
We are reminded that God knows the deepest parts of our hearts and the most hidden secrets of our lives. He knows more about us than we do. He knows His will and His purpose and His plan. We don’t always understand, and we tend to complain about the gifts that have been given to us, especially when we think they are a burden. We try to make things better like the beggar who wanted what he thought was the better loaf of bread and the Israelites who wanted more than manna. Yet, in the end we discover that what God has planned is the most miraculous thing that could happen. We are reminded that we should be grateful to God because He is the source of all good things.
Our scriptures this week cause us to consider how we determine who had the power and authority to do the work of the kingdom in this world. All too often we are quick to point fingers at those who are outside our circle like Joshua, complaining that they should not be able to prophesy because they aren’t part of our crowd. “Lord, stop them” we say.
We have to consider why we are questioning their gifts. There might be a valid reason for rebuke or correction. Yet, if they are doing the work in Jesus’ name as Jesus has commanded, might there be another reason for our irritation? Are we jealous because they are doing things we can’t do? Are we frustrated because they stand outside our understanding of God? Are we offended because they do not fit into the mold we have established? This is what we should cut out of our lives or else our salt will lose its saltiness and there will be no peace.
The television show “Everyone Loves Raymond” was filled with interesting interactions between many unique characters. Debra (Raymond’s wife) and Marie (Raymond’s mother) had a stereotypical in-law relationship, rife with conflict embedded in humorous situations. Marie constantly pointed out Debra’s faults while Debra did much of the same. The difference between the two was that Marie pointed out the faults to Debra’s face, but Debra usually held her tongue until she was out of earshot and then she laid it all on Raymond.
A person can only take so much before they explode. On one episode, Debra finally had enough of Marie’s constant criticism, so she returned the favor. Debra began pointing out Marie’s faults. Marie took the criticism hard and asked why Debra hated her. Debra responded, “I was just trying to help you the way you help me.” Marie answered that her help was truly helpful while Debra’s was just hurtful.
Criticism can be good and it can be bad. A person can make valid and helpful comments about a person and the comments can be received as either criticism or suggestion. If the person receives the comments personally as if they are being humiliated, the comments will be seen as criticism and the response will be negative. If the person receives the comments as a learning moment, as a chance to make things better, the response will be entirely positive. This can seriously damage relationships. Sometimes, like in the relationship between Debra and Marie, there is a tension that makes it hard to get along.
Imagine the impact the Israelite’s complaining had on Moses. God had done amazing things in that one year, one month and one week. He parted the Red Sea, killed the Egyptian army, provided water, manna and quail in the desert. At the foot of Sinai He proved His power and He gave the people His Law. He was with them as they traveled, in the cloud by day and fire by night, leading them out of slavery to fulfill His promises. He had saved them and was taking them to the place He gave to their father Abraham, but by the third day all they could think about was how inconvenient it was. God was teaching them how to trust in Him, but they quickly (in three days!) fell back into their old ways, desire and arrogance. They thought they knew better than God and they complained.
Moses was displeased. “Why did you make me the leader of these troublesome people?” Moses asked God; he didn’t know what to do. He knew the reality of the slavery because he had risked his own life to lead the people out of Egypt. He knew the dangers of returning. He knew the blessings of following God. “Why did you stick me with this mess?” he wondered to God. Moses took the criticism personally and he took his frustration out on God. He was given the responsibility to care for this crowd, both Israelites and non-Israelites, and he found it difficult to deal with their grumbling. “If this is what I have to put up with, God, just kill me right here and now.” He wanted the easy solution; he looked for the extreme answer to his problem. Instead, God decided to appoint and anoint other leaders to be his helpers.
James gives us three life situations and the appropriate Christian response. What should we do in the midst of suffering? We should pray and praise. Though it is hard to praise God while we are facing difficult situations, we will find blessing in the midst of it if we keep our eyes on God. What should we do when we face illness and dis-ease? We should seek the healing and forgiving power of God that is found in the church through the authorities anointed and appointed to do the work.
Finally, what should we do about error? We are called to bring light to the truth, to point out the errors and sins of our brethren. However, how we do so will make a difference. Will we present these words in a tone of criticism or an act of grace? Will we speak in a way that admonishes and restores people or will we do it in a manner of condemnation and alienation? It is not helpful to constantly criticize because it will either cause the other to deem themselves unworthy or will sever the relationship between the two. In the interactions between Debra and Marie, they both made valid points about the other, but they never found a way to do it that makes a difference. God calls us into fellowship together to help one another grow and mature in faith.
What would you do if someone wanted to pay you for a day’s worth of work with salt. The most expensive salt in the world is called Amethyst Bamboo 9x which is a Korean delicacy that costs nearly $100 for an 8.5 ounce jar. While this might have value, would you feel like you received a fair wage? Rock salt costs about $58 a ton. Where would you put all that salt and what would you do with it? Table salt is about fifty cents a pound, so it would take a huge quantity for us to think we have received our just reward. How would you use it all, especially since doctors agree that too much salt is dangerous for our health?
Salt was in use in ancient times, but it was much more valuable because it was much less available. The Phoenicians were the first to use salt from the sea, flooding the plains with saltwater and allowing it to dry. Then the salt was harvested and sold to other nations. High output production helped to depreciate the value of salt. In the United States, the difficulty with salt production was not finding the salt but transporting it from place to place. Morton Salt solved this problem by having salt plants all over the nation.
However, in Jesus’ day it was very expensive, perhaps worth even more than gold. Soldiers were paid in salt and slaves were traded for salt. This is why we have phrases such as “salt money” and “he is not worth his weight in salt.” Salt was used for flavor, but even more so it was used as a preservative and to seal covenants. If salt was used during a meal, it represented a relationship of loyalty, protection and hospitality. As a matter of fact, the ancient Greeks had a saying that “no one should trust a man without first eating a peck of salt with him.” A peck is about eight quarts. By the time two men ate that much salt, they would know each other very well.
When Jesus said to the disciples, “Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another” He was referring to the salt covenant. They were the salt “salted with fire” by God. Through them, God was revealing His kingdom to the world, and through them He was establishing the covenant of loyalty, protection and hospitality. “But if salt has lost its saltiness...” Jesus said. If salt has lost its saltiness then we can’t do what we are called to do. And if we do not live at peace with one another, how can we possibly share the peace of Christ with the world?
Jesus makes some shocking suggestions in today’s Gospel lesson. Does He really expect us to cut off our hand or our foot, or gouge out our eyes? He is not asking us to go around amputating our body parts for the sake of some spiritual transformation. Instead, He is using some extreme examples of what it means to turn our life around for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It isn’t easy. As a matter of fact, it is very hard. It might even hurt.
Take the experience of John in this lesson. John was part of Jesus’ inner circle. He was even somewhat concerned about his future in the ministry. John was probably one of the most adamant last week when the disciples were discussing the least and the greatest. He’s on record elsewhere in the Gospels seeking to be Jesus’ right-hand man.
The Gospels also tell us that the disciples were often inadequate at doing the miraculous things Jesus was doing, the things that Jesus was telling them to do. They saw success in ministry, but they also saw failure. Earlier in Mark 9 the disciples were unable to exorcise a demon from a little boy. They must have felt humbled and humiliated in front of the crowd that had such high expectations of them.
They saw someone who was not part of their circle doing what they were unable to do: drive out demons. I can imagine what they were feeling. I have felt it myself. It is called jealousy and it is quite a powerful emotion when it comes to our work in God’s kingdom, particularly when we are passionate. When we see someone else able to do what we can’t seem to accomplish, we wonder “why me? We wonder why God would call us to a position and not give us the ability to do the work. We wonder if we have properly discerned our calling. And we wish others couldn’t do it.
It is hard to deal with jealousy. It forces us to look at ourselves with a humble heart and at others with grace. It forces us to see other people through God’s eyes, to see that they too have been gifted with power and authority, even if they are not part of our crowd. It forces us to realize that we are not the most important thing in God’s plan. Jealousy makes us bitter, and bitter salt does not provide flavor or preservation to the food. So, Jesus tells us to cut it out of our life.
Joshua and John had the same reaction to the people with unexpected gifts. Moses answered Joshua and Jesus answered John, “Don’t stop them.” Were they jealous for Moses or Jesus’ sake, or for their own? Joshua was Moses’ right-hand man, and now there were seventy others called to leadership. Was there room for even two more? John was part of Jesus’ inner circle, Jesus’ closest friends. John even asked Jesus if he could be His right-hand man when He ruled. There were already twelve leaders. Was there room for more? What would happen if the disciples were never able to drive out demons, or heal, or impact the world? Would someone more gifted take their place? It was a very real fear for them, as it continues to be for us.
Jesus said, “Don’t stop them. Whoever is not against us is for us.” Perhaps this sounds backwards. We usually say, “Whoever is not for us is against us.” This limits our allies to those who are part of our circle. Jesus turns our thinking upside down. He tells us that we need not be concerned about those who are not against us. There were enough people against Jesus. Jesus assured them that they would not have to worry. “There is no one who will do a mighty work in my name, and be able quickly to speak evil of me.” Deeds of power came by the Spirit of God. If they had that Spirit, they could not work against the will and purpose of God.
In last week’s Gospel text, Jesus made it clear that they should be servants to one another. In this story, Jesus continues the thought to include the outsiders, “the rabble.” We learn that we shouldn’t doubt what God can do, for God does what He knows to be right and good, whatever our expectations. We are called simply to trust Him and to follow where He leads us because it is the right way to go.
We are reminded how to keep our focus where it belongs: in God and His Word. James tells us that if we are suffering, we should pray. How easy it is, however, to hear the voices of those around us who grumble about problems, who make it seem like the best solution is the extreme solution. How easy it is for us to get caught up in the attitude that complaining is the way to get through our pain. James tells us that if we are happy we should sing songs of praise. Do we? Do we really praise God when we are experiencing good times? Or do we forget that God is the source of all things good? Do we thank the king and forget that even the king’s gifts come from God? Do we get caught up with the voices that tell us that our triumph has come by our own power and take the glory for ourselves? Finally, James tells us that if we are sick we should seek the help of the elders who will pray for our healing. We will know healing and forgiveness as we keep our focus on the God who provides both in our good times and in our bad.
James also reminds us that we have the responsibility to keep our brothers and sisters focused on the right source. If we see someone falling into the trap of following the rabble, we are to remind them of God’s Word and to help them turn back to the right path. We tend to avoid any sort of criticism or judgment because we are afraid to seem intolerant. We are afraid they will take it the wrong way. While it is true that we must be aware that our criticism and judgment can alienate or condemn, our role as Christians is to call people to repentance so that they might know the forgiveness of God and be reconciled with Him and all of God’s creation. We are called to help one another see our sin and turn from it so that we will all dwell in the fold of God’s loving arms. It is easier to let the crowd go their own way. It is much harder to trust that God has a plan that will lead us to a Promised Land that is better than anything the world has to offer. It may seem like a burden, but it is by God’s gifts that we are able to do what He has called us to do.
Today’s Psalm is a song of hope of how it can be with the world and all created beings living in the shadow of the Most High, trusting Him to provide all they need. In a perfect world, all of God’s creation will look to Him for food and all good things. In a perfect world, there is no anger or hatred, no war or violence, no tears or pain. Even the sea monsters - the leviathan - frolic in the ocean, leaving the ships to travel safely from port to port. In a perfect world, all creatures live together in fear of God and tremble in His presence, not because they are afraid but rather humbled by His magnificence. Unfortunately, the world has not been perfect world since Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden. We have not feared God or looked to Him for all we need. Yet even in this there is hope, “You send out your Spirit and they are created. You renew the face of the ground.” He gives His Spirit to those He chooses; He can choose to give it to as many as He pleases. He knows the hearts of those who will live in humble obedience to His Word, and He equips those He calls to do His work in the world.
He that is not against Jesus is not against us, and therefore is for Jesus and for us. We are no better than the rabble who instigates or the crowd that follows. We are no better than Joshua and John. We fail. We follow the wrong people. We complain and doubt and desire our own way. We want to be satisfied and we seek the wrong things to satisfy us. But God has called us to a new life in Christ. He has forgiven us, given us gifts and sent us into a world that needs to hear the Gospel. They need what we have to give. Let us always trust that God will use us to share His grace, even when everything seems to be out of our control. Here’s the secret: all is well when everything is out of our control because God will always be faithful and make all things right according to His good and perfect will.
“If then you were raised together with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, our life, is revealed, then you will also be revealed with him in glory. Put to death therefore your members which are on the earth: sexual immorality, uncleanness, depraved passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. For these things’ sake the wrath of God comes on the children of disobedience. You also once walked in those, when you lived in them; but now you also put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and shameful speaking out of your mouth. Don’t lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old man with his doings, and have put on the new man, who is being renewed in knowledge after the image of his Creator, where there can’t be Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bondservant, or free person; but Christ is all, and in all.” Colossians 3:1-11, WEB
Fairy tales often have their roots in the stories we find in scripture. Biblical concepts have a timeless authority that touches the people who read them, particularly when they are written in a language they understand. Many of the parables that Jesus told were addressed to a people who understood farming. They identified with the story in a way that made the spiritual concept real to them. However, those same stories get lost on the streets of a large city because the people do not understand farming.
Over the generations, writers have taken the Biblical concepts and rewrote them for the people of their age. “Jack and the Beanstalk” speaks about how the weak can overcome the mighty with the right gift. “Little Red Riding Hood” shows us how evil tries to dress itself up to deceive us, but that we can see the truth through the disguise. Today, those stories would revolve around computers or other aspects of modern life.
“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is a story of transformation. In the beginning of the story, the dwarfs live a life separated from anything else. They are greedy and self-centered; they do not understand about love or service. Their home is messy and they are hungry because they do not care for each other. They own a diamond mind and apparently have great wealth, but they are poor in spirit. Snow White comes into their lives and they are transformed. She teaches them to love and to care for each other. Then, when she is attacked by the evil queen and suffers, they love her so much that they suffer with her and they fight for her.
The Israelites were the chosen people of God, but they lived like the dwarfs, self-centered and without love. Jesus Christ came and people were transformed. Through His death and resurrection, Jesus changes us into new people and we are to live in a new way.
When Snow White fell asleep by the wicked power of the queen, the dwarfs could have gone back to living as they did before they knew her. Instead, they continued caring for each other and Snow White. They put aside their greed and messy living for that new life. Does your walk with Christ show the same transformation? Have you put aside the practices of the evil nature, or do you still walk in the ways of greed, idolatry, anger and lies? Paul goes on in this chapter to tell us how our life should look – filled with love, forgiveness, peace and thankfulness – bound together in unity as Christ’s body, His Church. “Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father, through him. (Vs. 17)
“Jesus answered, ‘A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. By chance a certain priest was going down that way. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite also, when he came to the place, and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he traveled, came where he was. When he saw him, he was moved with compassion, came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the host, and said to him, “Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return.”’” Luke 10:30-35, WEB
There is a photo circulating of four young men pushing an elderly woman in a scooter to her home. She lives in a nursing home went shopping nearby and her scooter broke down. To make matters worse, the store was downhill from her home and it was raining. These four young men took time out of their day and gave of their resources to help the woman in need.
The parable in today’s passage is set in a conversation between a lawyer and Jesus. The lawyer wanted to know what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Luke specifically tells us that the lawyer was trying to test Jesus. We don’t really know if he was sincere about wanting to get into heaven. It is possible that he was a Sadducee and didn’t even believe in eternal life. It is interesting that this parable is the first time in Luke that the idea of eternal life is even raised. It also comes later in the rest of the Gospels. Had the lawyer heard Jesus talk about it, or was he just trying to make Jesus take sides?
We do know that he was versed in the scriptures. Jesus turned the question back to him. “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” Jesus not only asked for a quote; He asked for interpretation. The lawyer combined Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 to answer with the most basic reading of the Law of God. “Love God and love your neighbor.” Jesus agrees that this is a right answer and commends the lawyer to that life. The lawyer, of course, wants to justify himself and asked, “Who is my neighbor?” The parable is Jesus’ answer.
The lawyer wanted a debate about who they should love. It is easy to love our family and those who are like us. The Jews believed that they were meant to be separated from others, that they would be made unclean by non-believers. Even worse, however, is that they despised the Samaritans because they were half-breeds. They had Jewish ancestry but followed a different (though the same) religion because they worshipped at a different Temple. The Samaritans were hated and did not deserve any mercy or help. This is what made the story so shocking to that lawyer. Jesus wasn’t willing to have the debate about who is a neighbor; He simply pointed out that anyone in need deserves our time and resources.
The most beautiful part of the story of the boys and the elderly woman is that it is a story without borders: male and female, young and old, black and white. Those five must have seemed an odd vision to anyone watching. It was a hard task. Those scooters are heavy and the woman’s had flat tires. The scooter kept shorting out and the motor kept trying to stop the wheels, so they repeatedly had to stop to put it back into neutral. It was pouring. They had no idea they were being filmed, but they did the hard work out of concern for the woman.
One of the boys was interviewed and he said that they didn’t see themselves as Good Samaritans or heroes. They were just neighbors helping another neighbor. They knew they did a good thing, but they were just being part of the community, being helpful in a simple way. That’s what it means to be a good Samaritan, though, isn’t it? The Samaritan in Jesus’ story went above and beyond by giving his time and resources for the care of a stranger, but so did those boys. They’d already had a tough day at a very physical job, but they gave the woman everything they had physically. We may not think we are doing anything particularly heroic, but your willingness to give your time and resources mean the world to the person in need.
We usually read this story in context and focus on the attitudes of those who did nothing or who were trying to justify themselves, but I wanted to focus on the Good Samaritan and his willingness to give everything for the sake of another, without concern for any borders. It is a story of one person helping another person in need. This should be our story every day. In the end the lawyer realized he had no argument; he learned the lesson that the one who has mercy is the true neighbor. Jesus then told him and us, “Go and do likewise.” You may not think you are a Good Samaritan or hero, but your willingness to give your time and resources could mean the world to the person you help no matter how small the task.
“How shall I come before Yahweh, and bow myself before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will Yahweh be pleased with thousands of rams? With tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my disobedience? The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O man, what is good. What does Yahweh require of you, but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:6-8, WEB
The question for this week is “Which is the greatest commandment in the law?” as found in Matthew 22:36. Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37, WEB) Jesus continued the thought with the second commandment, that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, as we see in the story of the Good Samaritan.
We all love the children’s sermon because sometimes we get far more out of it than we do the sermon preached from the pulpit. It is fun to watch because none of the little ones are able to sit still for long. After a few minutes, they start to wiggle and squirm, looking every which way but at the teacher. During the children’s sermon, the children often play with the railing, wave at their parents, wander around climbing the stairs or rolling around on the carpet. It can be uncomfortable for the one trying to teach because it seems as though they are speaking to a disinterested audience, but somehow those little ones manage to say something that strikes us deep in our souls and they seem to remember everything we say.
One Sunday, the point of the message was how to love God based on Jesus’ answer about the greatest commandment. The heart is considered the center of a person’s being. The soul is the whole person. The mind is their will and emotions. So, we are to love God completely with everything we are. During the children’s sermon, the teacher asked the children to point on his body to where they would find his heart, soul and mind. A child named Thomas approached to point to Antony’s soul, and with great confidence pointed at the bottom of his shoes. The congregation broke out in laughter.
Thomas’ answer made us chuckle, but it was filled with truth. When we love God with our heart, soul and mind, that love is manifested in our thoughts, words and deeds. If we love God with our whole being, then the things we think will glorify Him. If we love God with our whole being, then we will speak the words that glorify Him. If we love God with our whole being, then all we do will be for His glory. You’ve heard the phrase, “Walk the walk.” Perhaps our souls are not located on the bottom of our feet, but the world witnesses the work of Jesus Christ in our lives by the way we walk the walk. When we live according to the first commandment, manifesting the second commandment comes naturally.
As Christians, we are called out of darkness into the light and life of Christ Jesus to live according to the great commandments. We are to love God with our whole being, but this isn’t a matter of making sacrifices. When we walk the walk, we have mercy on our neighbor whether they are family, friend or foe. When we walk the walk, we show the world our love of God and He is glorified. Most of all, it is in walking the walk that we show God that we love Him with our whole selves.
Today, love God by having mercy on your neighbor. Meet their needs of comfort, protection, food and shelter. Meet those needs in whatever manner you are able, but do so in every thought, word and deed. Meet those needs by the power of God in the name of Jesus for the glory of God the Father.
“How lovely are your dwellings, Yahweh of Armies! My soul longs, and even faints for the courts of Yahweh. My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Yes, the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young, near your altars, Yahweh of Armies, my King, and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house. They are always praising you. Selah.” Psalm 84:1-4, WEB
I once read an article written by a woman whose husband was in the military. She talked about the dream of all military families to have that one house that would be theirs for a long time, “the forever house.” As a transient military family, she knew what it was like to have to pick up an entire life and move it to another state or another country for a few years. Just as some people might be getting settled into their home, a military family is packing up again. Her husband had recently left the military and they were in what she thought would be their “forever house.” But she didn’t feel like it.
It had been a year and a half, she said, and there was no chance they would be leaving for a while. She thought she finally achieved her dream. They did work on the house most military families wouldn’t bother doing: long term, expensive upgrades that they hoped to enjoy for a very long time. You get used to moving, though, and she was beginning to feel antsy. She wondered if she’d ever really be able to enjoy the house they chose to grow old in.
I understood what she meant. Bruce had also recently retired when I read that article. We were in a house for six years. We planned to stay in Texas. At first we wanted stability for the kids through High School and we were thankful that Bruce’s career ended early enough so that they could spend those years at the same school, so that they could graduate with friends they’d known for at least a few years. We planned to stay in that house for at least seven years. It turned out to be over eight. There was good reason to move; Bruce’s job was a long commute. They kids were grown and we could easily pick up everything and move.
Well, it wasn’t quite as easy because we had been in one place for a long time. It is amazing how much you collect when you aren’t purging your house every few years. When we began looking for our new house, our realtor talked about resale value. By then I was ready for a “forever house.” I told him repeatedly, “I am going to die in this house,” and I had other priorities for the house we would buy. We found a great house and I still have no plans to move to a new one. Of course, with the children gone, it is almost too big for the two of us, but we are happy to stay here for awhile, at least.
I suppose you could say that this is our “forever house,” the place where we hope to spend the rest of our days together. Yet, I’m not sure that any house in this life can be really called our “forever house.” We can plan to stay in one place for the rest of our lives together, but will we? What if Bruce is offered a job in some other city? What if we decided to move closer to our family in Pennsylvania? What if both the kids decide to live near one another in another part of the country? Do we want to stay here? What if God calls us to do something else? We don’t know what He plans for us tomorrow.
We need a home. We need a place where we can lay down our head and keep our stuff safe from the weather. But even the homes that have been in a family for a long time have been passed from one generation to another are temporary. We won’t live forever even if we are able to live in one home for a very long time. So, as we are enjoying our home for today, there is a forever house on which we will rest our hope: the dwelling place which God has prepared for us. This is a place where we will go one day, but we need not wait until that day to abide in it, for the Kingdom of God is now and then, here and there, our present and future dwelling place in which to sing praises to God Almighty.