Sunday, December 28, 2014

Biblical Truth

Biblical Truth
Matthew 2:1-18
Luke 2:22-38

            Yes, I know it’s a lot of Scripture.  It’s good for you—better even than spinach.  Reading these passages back-to-back will help you better understand the events after Jesus’ birth.
            In seminary we were warned not to “harmonize” the gospels—that is, to ty to fit them together to make one composite account.  People do this in order to—they hope—get a better picture of the life of Jesus Christ.  The gospels are not like a court trial, where different witnesses describe the same series of events from different viewpoints.  The gospels were written at different times, using different sources, for widely different audiences, and by people who had not witnessed the events—evidence that wouldn’t be admitted in any courtroom in this country.
            We must accept the gospels for what they are:  different accounts of the life of Jesus Christ, recounted orally for years and finally written down by people who decided they would be better preserved if there was a hard copy.  That’s why it’s important to read all four gospels, and to read them not for comparison, or a composite account, but to view—from four different sources—a complete picture of who Jesus was and how he lived.
            Today’s passages are a good case in point.  What happened after Jesus was born?  Matthew mentions wise men and a flight into Egypt to avoid Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.  Luke says nothing about either.  Luke, on the other hand, recounts a visit to the temple in Jerusalem, which Matthew omits.  Is it possible to piece together an accurate picture from these two widely different accounts?
            As a matter of fact, it is.  This is one place where it is possible to blend the two stories into one harmonious whole.  Let’s see how that might work.  Understanding Mosaic law helps.
            Firstborn males, whether human or animal, were to be consecrated to God (Exodus 13:2, 12).  Male children were to be redeemed with the sacrifice of a lamb, if possible, or with two turtledoves or pigeons if the family couldn’t afford a lamb. 
            Thirty-three days after the firstborn male child was born he was to be presented at the Temple.  This was for his consecration and his mother’s purification.  When Luke says, “And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses…,” this is what he was talking about.  Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus traveled to Jerusalem.
            Is that possible?  Yes, it is.  Bethlehem is approximately 5.5 miles from Jerusalem.  Even traveling as they would have (Joseph walking and Mary and the baby riding a donkey) it would have been an easy journey.  At the most they would have spent one night in the road.
            The wise men would have arrived in Bethlehem no less than a year after the birth.  We know this from two places in Matthew’s account.  First, the family had moved from the stable to a house (Matthew 2:11).  Matthew is quite clear on this point.  Second, Herod’s orders were to kill all male children in the region around Bethlehem two years and younger according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men! (Matthew 2:16).  By the time he realized he had been tricked, somewhere between one and two years had passed.
            So it’s entirely possible that, approximately a month after Jesus’ birth, the family traveled to Jerusalem and back, and then moved into a house.  This is where the wise men visited them, making our usual pictures of the manger scene incorrect.  By the time Herod found out he had been fooled, the wise men were on their way back home by an alternate route, and Jesus and his family were safely out of Herod’s reach, either in Egypt or on their way.  The pieces fit. 

Just don’t try to do this with the rest of the gospel stories.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Love Came Down at Christmas

Love Came Down at Christmas
1 John 3:1-3
Most of us know John 3:16 by heart—but just to remind you:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” 
Many Christmas carols speak about God’s love.  It’s easy to sing those carols.  It’s easy to quote Scripture.  It’s easy to do all the surface stuff that makes us look good, that makes us look like we’re “religious” (whatever that means)—easy to do the things that make other people respond positively to us.  But how deep does our belief really go?  Beauty may be only skin deep, but it’s possible for religion to be even shallower.
            When we talk about love coming down at Christmas, what do we mean?  What kind of love are we talking about?  What does that love do for us?  What does that love do to us?  Does it make a difference in our lives?  If so, how does Christmas love change us?
            I think Paul’s place in Christian history would have been secured if he had done nothing more than written 1 Corinthian 13—the “Love Chapter.”  Often used at weddings, where it can have real significance for a couple about to pledge their lives to each other, these verses accurately describe Christmas love.  Paul says:
            Love is patient and kind;
            Love does not envy or boast;
            Love is not arrogant or rude;
            Love does not insist on its own way;
            Love is not irritable or resentful;
            Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth;
            Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
            Paul wrote these words to a congregation that was tearing itself apart.  The members of the First Church of Corinth were squabbling over nit-picky little things—much like our congregations today.  Paul wanted them to stop fighting over nonessentials and love each other, just as God had loved all of them enough to sacrifice God’s Son for them. This is the difference Christmas love should make in our lives.
            Jesus Christ was born so that by his life, death and resurrection he might save the world.  Those of us tasked with spreading this good news don’t seem to be doing a very effective job of getting Jesus’ message across to the world.  Why haven’t we made a difference with the gospel?
 We haven’t made a difference because we’re too busy arguing over who has the right doctrines, and who says the right words in prayer, and who has the right formula for successful worship.  Just like that Corinthian congregation in the first century, we get so hung up on nonessentials that we lose sight of the objective of Christmas love. 
Look again at Paul’s “love list.”  When we speak about our faith, are we patient and kind with others?  Do we boast that we know the true Christian way?  Are we arrogant or rude in how we spread the gospel?  Do we insist that our interpretation is the right one and all those others are false?  Are we irritable about the way other churches worship or believe differently from us, or resentful that they seem to draw bigger crowds than we do?
“Love came down at Christmas,” the hymn says; “Love all lovely, love divine.”  Another Advent hymn begins, “Love divine, all loves excelling, joy from heaven to earth come down.”

What difference is this love making in our lives?  How has being in touch with Christmas love changed us?  How do we stack up against Paul’s list of love’s characteristics?  Christmas is getting close.  We’d better start loving.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Our Prophetic Duty

Our Prophetic Duty
Isaiah 40:1-11
            We tend to think of prophets as old men with long grey beards and absolutely no sense of humor—right?  On the other hand, when was the last time you actually saw a prophet?  But if you did see one, that’s probably what you’d expect.
            The clearest picture we have of a biblical prophet is of John the Baptist.  Matthew tells us he wore some sort of garment made of camel’s hair and a leather belt.  We can be pretty sure it wasn’t like the camel’s hair sport coats or topcoats we find today in elegant men’s wear stores; and the belt was probably closer to a leather thong than something you’d buy in one of those places.  Matthew says he ate locusts and wild honey—certainly not the kind of diet we’d go for.  We can imagine the rest of his appearance wasn’t any less wild, living as he did in rough conditions by the riverside.
            Perhaps this picture of John the Baptist has colored our image of all other prophets, but I rather doubt it.  I would guess the ancient Hebrew prophets didn’t care much about how they looked.  They had been given a message to deliver, and that message came straight from God.  Their only concern was to make sure they obeyed God’s commands.  I suspect they didn’t take much time to make sure their wardrobe was up to date, or their hair was neatly cut and coiffed.  I may be wrong, but I don’t think so.
            If this description of a prophet’s appearance is accurate, then Isaiah was no exception.  Let’s assume that when he appeared in public he attracted attention.  People looked at him with awe (if not reverence), and were inclined to listen to him if only because of the shock value.  Did his appearance have any effect on how his message was received?
 One thing we know for sure about Isaiah:  he was an excellent poet.  So much of his writing is in verse form.  It’s one of the reasons I love to read him.  Today’s passage is no exception.  We’re not hearing Isaiah’s voice here, but God’s, and God is speaking not to Isaiah but to members of the heavenly council.  These other-worldly beings have been called together by YHWH, the Lord of hosts and the Holy One of Israel.  He gives them instructions.
            “Comfort my people.  Speak kindly to them.  Tell them conditions are going to be better from now on.  Their iniquity is pardoned, and their sins forgiven.”
            One of the members of the council cries out: “Prepare the way of the Lord.  Smooth out the path.  Repair the road.  Don’t leave any rough spots.  Straighten it so the King’s passage—and the way of God’s people—will be easy.”
            Another voice tells Zion to shout out the good news.  God is returning to Jerusalem.  YHWH will once again dwell in the Holy City.  The voice says, “Behold your God.”  God comes with the strength of a warrior and the gentleness of a shepherd.  This combination of strength and compassion may be confusing to those who don’t know God, but to those who follow Christ it’s perfectly understandable.
            I believe Isaiah’s message was meant to describe more than the Israelites’ return from exile.  I believe it was delivered for the ages, and that includes us.  We are expected to prepare the way for those who need to return to God.  God expects us to make the way easy for them, not to throw obstacles in their path.  God expects us to say, “Behold your God.”  We are to prepare the way, then show the way through the words we speak and the way we live. 

            And here’s the best part:  we don’t have to dress outlandishly or eat weird things.  All we have to do is be ourselves—redeemed followers of Christ.  God’s prophets.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

People Look East

People, Look East
Jeremiah 23:5-6
            Many of the newer hymnals contain the Advent hymn, People, Look East.  The words were written by Eleanor Farjeon, who is better known for the hymn Morning Has Broken.  The first verse of her Advent hymn says,
                                People, look east, the time is near of the crowning of the year.
                        Make your house fair as you are able, trim the hearth and set the table.
                        People, look east and sing today:  Love, the Guest, is on the way.

            The second verse tells us to nourish the seed which has been planted because, “Love, the Rose, is on the way.”  In the third verse the stars are asked to light the sky, for, “Love, the Star, is on the way.”  Finally, the angels are told to announce the birth of this wondrous Child, since, “Love the Lord, is on the way.”
            For centuries the prophets had been promising the arrival of a Messiah, someone who would save Israel.  It was natural for people to misread the prophetic texts and expect a military leader, one who would restore Israel to the status it had experienced under the reigns of David and Solomon.  Those were glory days indeed, when conquests and treaties enlarged the tiny kingdom—heady stuff for such a small nation to be able to play such a large part in the affairs of the region.  Who wouldn’t want to return to such a past?
            It’s no wonder that most of Israel—including most of the leaders of the nation—missed the coming of Jesus.  Who could imagine that God intended the Chosen One to live out a seemingly ordinary life, moving through all the stages of humanity from birth, through maturation, to adulthood, to an early death?  That couldn’t possibly be the path the Savior of the nation would follow!
            I believe God delights in surprising us.  How many of us have prayed for patience only to be confronted with every slow driver in town just when we need to get somewhere in a hurry?  How often has God fulfilled our prayer requests in ways we could never imagine?  How frequently do we fail to see the future that God is leading us into?
            Jeremiah prophesied during the Babylonian exile.  He spoke out against the wicked, wrong-headed leadership of his country.  He tried to speak truth to power when power didn’t want to hear truth.  For his troubles he was mocked and imprisoned.  Still, he persisted.  He had been given a message from God, and he was going to deliver it no matter what happened to him.
            “Behold, the days are coming,” he said, speaking the word of the Lord, “when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch.”  The tree of Jesse, which had produced David and Solomon, had been cut off and become a dead stump.  The line of Davidic kings had ended.  There was no one left to sit on the throne of David, no descendant who could be considered to be of royal blood.  Who, then, might this “righteous Branch” be?
            “He shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land….And this is the name by which he will be called:  ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”
            If the people, from the leaders on down, had listened carefully to Jeremiah, they would have heard the repeated use of the word, “righteousness.”  Jeremiah did not promise a king who would make Israel and Judah powerhouses in the Middle Eastern political scene.  He foretold a different future for Israel.  The stump might seem to be dead, but a shoot would spring from it, revitalizing Israel and bringing salvation to her people and all the nations of the world.

            In a sense, Israel might be excused for not recognizing Jesus as the Messiah.  He wasn’t what they expected.  We know too much to be allowed to make that mistake.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Upsetting the Fruit Basket

Upsetting the Fruit Basket
Luke 1:39-55
            When I was in early elementary school, my minister parents were responsible for the youth group (along with almost every other program) in the church they were serving.  I was an only child, so they took me along to youth group meetings rather than leave me at home.  After all, anyone who might babysit me would be at church.  I got to play the games and do many of the other activities the teenagers participated in even though I was much too young.
            One game we played was called “Upset the Fruit Basket.”  We were divided into two teams, one standing on each side of the fellowship hall.  We were all assigned the names of fruits, one person from each team with the same name:  two apples, one on each team; two oranges, one on each team—you get it. 
            In the middle of the room was an object, something easily grabbed and picked up.  My father would call out a fruit:  “Pear!” and the two people who were pears would run out, try to grab the object, and get it back to their side before being tagged by their opposite number on the other team.  Sometimes Dad would call out two fruits just to make it interesting.  Once or twice a night he’d say “Upset the fruit basket!” and everyone from each team would rush to the center.  It was a complete free-for-all.  That’s what made it fun.
            Everything about Jesus’ birth upset the fruit basket.  The whole sequence of events turned society upside down.  There is no doubt that God intended it that way, and made sure that’s what happened.
            The angel Gabriel bypassed the king’s palace and the homes of all the rich citizens of Judah, and instead visited a young girl from the working class who wasn’t yet married.  Gabriel told Mary that she was pregnant even though she was a virgin—and completely sure of her virginity.  Mary’s betrothed, the carpenter Joseph, had every right to break the agreement he had made with her family, but God made sure that didn’t happen. 
            It sounds as if Mary’s family might have had some doubts about her innocence.  Luke tells us she went into the hill country to visit her older cousin Elizabeth, and she went “with haste.”  It’s just possible Mary’s family decided she ought to leave town for a while to save both her reputation and theirs.
            Whether or not that is true, Elizabeth, pregnant herself (and quite old to be having her first child), greeted the young mother-to-be with joy, and so did the infant she was carrying.  Luke says the baby “leaped in her womb” at the sound of Mary’s voice.
            Mary was so excited at this that she broke into song.  Her song, called “The Magnificat” because of the opening words in Latin (Magnificat anima mea—“My soul magnifies the Lord”) is another example of upsetting the fruit basket.  Listen to some of her words.  God has:
“looked on the humble estate of his servant.”
“scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;”
“brought down the mighty from their thrones;”
“filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.”

            When we read these words we should have no doubt that God takes a special interest in the poor, the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the downtrodden—as should we.  God’s intent in sending Jesus was to upset the fruit basket.  That’s our mission, too.

Sunday, November 23, 2014


Ephesians 2:14-16
            I have long been a fan of Robert Frost.  Many of his poems speak powerfully to me.  “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Fire and Ice,” and “The Road Not Taken” are some of my favorites, although it’s difficult to overlook “Choose Something Like a Star,” and…but you get the idea.
            One of my very favorites is “Mending Wall.”  Perhaps this poem means so much to me because, as a teacher, one of my goals is to break down walls—walls within people that prevent them from learning, as well as walls between people that prevent them from using their knowledge to create a better world.
            As you might gather from that last paragraph, “Mending Wall” is not about building walls at all, although that’s the activity the two men are engaged in.  It’s really about tearing walls down.  Frost wrote the poem in first person singular, making himself one of the characters in the story. 
The setting is New England, Frost’s home ground.  The countryside is dotted with walls made of the stones which are so plentiful in the area.  Many of these stones can be found lying about, while others are unearthed by farmers as they seek to make the land usable for growing crops.
            The Frost character and his neighbor meet on a spring day to repair the wall that separates their properties.  The stones have been dislodged by winter weather, which heaves the ground up in some places and depresses it in others.  Frost sees no need for the wall, since his property is covered in apple orchard and his neighbor’s in pine trees.  He tells the neighbor that his apples won’t come over and eat the pine cones.  The neighbor can only reply, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
            Frost’s most important point, I think, is found in lines 32-36
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.

            We can point to all kinds of walls where this has been true:  the Berlin Wall; electronic walls erected by dictatorial governments to keep out radio broadcasts or the internet; walls of lies erected by those who don’t want the truth to be known.  In each case, something penetrates the wall, tears it down and allows everyone to see and hear clearly.
            Paul understood this.  In Ephesians he was speaking specifically of the wall in the Temple that separated the inner court from the court of the Gentiles.  This wall was low enough to see over, with gaps big enough to see through.  Its purpose was not only to declare, “No admittance!” to the Gentiles, but also to rub their noses in the fact that they weren’t allowed inside.  “Hah!” it proclaimed, “You are not one of the chosen.  You must stay on the outside looking in, while we enjoy all the benefits of being insiders.”
            Paul says that Jesus Christ has broken down “the dividing wall of hostility,” making all people one in him.  We have been reconciled to God, made members of one body through the cross, thereby destroying hostility and breaking down the walls hostility creates.

            God calls us not to erect any walls that separate people from each other.  Rather we are to be about the business of breaking down the barriers that divide us from each other, uniting all in Christ Jesus, and making us all one with God.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


Matthew 28:19-20
            Evangelism can be difficult.  Most of us don’t want to make fools of ourselves by saying the wrong thing to people and being told to go away; or getting into an argument; or appearing to be stupid because we don’t know what we’re talking about; or perhaps worst of all, being ignored.  So we may, if we know someone really well, suggest that they might want to visit our church, but we almost never tell them about our own experience with Christ, or ask about theirs.
            Part of the problem is that evangelism has gotten a bad name from some who have been, shall we say, overly dogmatic.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, white missionaries from Europe and America fell into this category.  They went to places like Africa, India, and the Far East and tried to remake the inhabitants into copies of themselves.  Instead of learning as much as possible about those they were trying to win for Christ, speaking to them in terms they would understand, and adapting the gospel message to their culture, they came in like bulldozers, intent on tearing down societies that had been in place for thousands of years and constructing little European or American copies in their place.
            Paul, the first Christian missionary, knew better.  Instinctively, it seems, he understood that you can’t change a person’s culture—nor is it necessary—in order for that person to become a Christian.  This is particularly interesting in light of Paul’s background.  Remember, he was a Jew, a member of perhaps the most separated group of people in the then-known world.  Jews were to have absolutely nothing to do with anyone not a Jew.  Everything Jewish was right and good.  Everything not Jewish was to be avoided.  Also, Paul had been educated as a Pharisee, a member of the strictest subgroup within Judaism.  Pharisees were the most isolationist of the isolationists.  This is why he felt such a determination to persecute Christians.  They were, in his sight, enemies of Judaism, even if they were Jews.
            So when we read about his visit to the city of Athens (Acts 17:16-34), we should be surprised—shocked, really—to find him speaking of Jesus Christ in language that seems conciliatory—perhaps even downright pandering—to the pagans he was addressing.  How could he do that?  Why didn’t he just say, “Look!  You’ve got it all wrong.  There aren’t many gods.  There is only one God, and Jesus Christ is God’s son.  Stop what you’re doing and change the way you worship or you’re going to hell!”
            Sound familiar?  That’s what too many of our missionaries have done in the past.  Some of our American preachers still do it.  When this way of approaching indigenous peoples was coupled with an attitude of white superiority it gave Christianity a bad name.  No wonder large parts of the world have been slow to accept Jesus Christ as Savior. 
            You can’t browbeat someone into salvation.  In most cases you can’t scare them into it either.  You have to speak in words and images that listeners will understand, respecting their traditions and culture, and allowing them to see how the Christian message fits with what they already believe.  That’s what Father Jean de Brebouf did with the Hurons in North America.  In his Christmas carol, ‘Twas In the Moon of Wintertime he used images that Native Americans could understand and relate to, speaking to them in their language of the love and power of Jesus Christ.

            After all, Jesus told his disciples to teach people to observe all that he had commanded them, not harangue them into submission.  And Jesus’ message begins with love.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Supreme Human Arrogance

Supreme Human Arrogance
James 4:13-17
            It is rare that I write on the same passage twice in a row.  However, I’m working my way through the Epistle of James (once again) in my own devotions, and these verses have really captured my attention.  Sometimes, as I journal in the morning, I find myself digressing, wandering from a direct interpretation of the passage with which I’m working, and “riffing” (taking off in a new direction) on the verses.  Such is the case here.  I trust that I will not go so far afield that I change the meaning of James’s words.
            “As it is, you boast in your arrogance.  All such boasting is evil.”
            What kind of boasting is James concerned with here?  What arrogance is he talking about? 
            James has been telling his readers that for them to make plans for the future without giving God credit is foolish at best, and totally misguided at worst.  Instead of saying, “Tomorrow I will…,” we should say, “If God wills, then tomorrow I will….”  Of course, we frequently forget to do this.  Perhaps it’s all right to say, “Tomorrow I will…” as long as we acknowledge in our minds that even as near a future as the next twenty-four hours is completely in God’s hands.  Even though we may not begin statements about the future by saying, “God willing,” we must at least think it.
            We display our arrogance when we assume total control of our own lives without depending on God.  When I believe I can do a better job of running my life than God can, I not only fail to give God the credit for my ongoing life, but I substitute my own will for God’s leading, most often going in the wrong direction. 
            Do I dare to imagine that I can do a better job of running my life than God can?  Am I so audacious that I assume I know better than God what is in my best interest?  Often this attitude begins with a statement such as, “I have a right to do what I want.”  I assume too much importance for myself if I feel my rights outweigh obedience to God.
            As usual, Shakespeare said it better than anyone.  In Act 5 of Macbeth, he has the title character say, “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.”  Doesn’t that put me in my place! 
God is eternal.  God sees the entire history of the universe, past, present and future as a panorama.  He knows what’s best for me, how my life fits in to the universal scheme.  
I am temporal.  My life exists within time, bounded by my birth and my death.  I can know only what has already happened, and can see no further ahead than this moment.  When, exercising my ego, I presume to know more than God, I indeed become a very poor actor, strutting and fretting upon life’s stage as if I were a main character, when all I am is a bit player who can be written out of the script in a moment, as easily as taking an eraser to a pencil marking.
Poor me, the walking shadow, incapable of learning from past experience that whenever I take charge of my life I make a mess of it.  Poor me, an insignificant character in the drama of life, who wants to upstage not only more important actors, but the playwright as well.  Poor me, who not only can’t learn his lines, but doesn’t even know his place.

Yet, whenever I take control and bungle my life, and then come to the realization that I can’t do as good a job as my Creator at running my affairs, God waits to take charge again.  When I ask forgiveness, and put my life back into God’s hands, the play turns out all right.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Human Arrogance

Human Arrogance
James 4:13-17
            How we love to plan for the future!  Sometimes I wake in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep because I’m planning what I will do the next day—or the next week, or the next month.  I’m sure many of you have had the same experience.  We can’t help it, I guess.  We don’t like surprises, at least not that kind, and so we organize our lives in advance as best we can.  We know things won’t always go according to our plan, but we want the assurance that at least there is a plan, even if it has to be modified as we go.
            James reminds us how little control we have over our lives.  He’s talking about financial deals—buying and selling and making a profit—but he could be talking about any plan.
            “Tomorrow I’m going to begin painting the house.  I’ll have to get the paint in the morning, make sure my ladder is still safe…”
            “Let’s see; the kids have their swimming lessons after school.  That will leave me time to do the grocery shopping for the weekend.  I’ll have to be at the pool by…”
            “The weather report looks great for Saturday.  I’ll call Jim and Ed and Bob and see if we can make up a foursome for golf.  If we can get an early enough tee time…”
            James says, “Don’t bother.  You don’t have any idea what tomorrow may bring.  Your life is merely a mist, like the morning fog that appears and then is gone—vanished so suddenly that we can barely remember it.”
            Remember the story Luke relates (Luke 12:16-21) about the rich fool?  A man had such a large harvest that his barns wouldn’t hold it all.  Instead of doing something useful with the excess, like giving it away to those who really needed it, he had his servants tear down the barns and build bigger ones.  Then he relaxed, and said to himself, “Now I’m set for life.”  What he hadn’t counted on was that he would die that night, and never get to enjoy all that wealth.
            It is possible that the epistle of James was written by Jesus’ brother.  If so, we can imagine him traveling with Jesus (although not one of the twelve) and hearing the stories Jesus told and the lessons Jesus taught.  Many of James’s lessons sound very much like those of Jesus.  James doesn’t say here, “You fool!” as Jesus did, but he says much the same thing.
            “Don’t say, ‘tomorrow I will do such and such.’  Rather say, “If the Lord wills, then tomorrow I will….” 
            Good advice, don’t you think?  We know from the news reports we see and hear every day how tenuous is our hold on life.  Just recently we heard that Oscar Tavaras, a promising young baseball player for the St. Louis Cardinals, was killed in a car crash in his home country.  He had his whole life ahead of him.  He might well have become a star in the game he loved so passionately and played so well, but his life ended in a moment.
            James says that advanced planning, without giving God the credit for our lives, is supreme arrogance.  Since we have no control over the length of our lives, how can we presume to plan in advance without saying, “If God wills, then…?”

            James ends the passage by saying, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”  We show our sinful nature when we fail to acknowledge that all we are, and all we have are gifts from God—gifts that can disappear in a moment.  We owe God the thanks of acknowledging the Father as the source of all good gifts.

Saturday, October 11, 2014


Ken Sipley will be on vacation for the next two weeks, so there will be no new posts during that time.  Please feel free to re-read some of your favorites, and let him know what you think.

It All Begins with Prayer

It All Begins with Prayer
Acts 1:12-14
            It all begins with prayer.  Everything of value begins with prayer.  Jesus knew this.  That’s why he left his followers occasionally and went off by himself to pray.  He knew he needed to communicate with his Father.
            For generations the children of Israel prayed to be freed from the captivity and tyranny of Egypt.  God heard their prayers and called Moses to lead them to freedom.
            For generations—centuries—Israel prayed for God to send the promised Messiah to lead them to a brighter future.  Finally, in God’s own time, Jesus was born—the Messiah God had promised, even if he wasn’t the one Israel expected.
            When the disciples tried unsuccessfully to heal a boy with an unclean spirit Jesus told them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
            When Jesus asked in Gethsemane if he could avoid the torture and death he knew lay ahead of him, it was undoubtedly communion with his Father that gave him the strength to endure.
            When Jesus said farewell to his disciples, he told them to wait in Jerusalem for the gift of the Holy Spirit.  While they waited, Luke tells us they devoted themselves to prayer.  We know what happened—Pentecost and the change from disciples to apostles.
            Several times in his letters Paul tells his readers he is praying for them.  Often he  asks for prayer for himself and his companions.  He understood the value of prayer to the success of his ministry.
            James tells the believers to whom he writes (James 5:13-15) to pray for the one who is sick, anointing the person with oil and asking God for healing.
            Prayer.  Nothing happens without prayer.  We can have the best of intentions.  We can work diligently to bring about the results we want.  We can recruit the greatest minds to solve problems.  All these are good, but without prayer, they won’t accomplish much.
            Do you want to see your church grow?  Pray for God to open up opportunities for members to witness to God’s saving power and God’s efficacy in changing lives.
            Do you need leadership for your youth programs, your women’s association, or your men’s group?  Ask God to speak to those whom God would call to lead those ministries.
            Are you running out of Sunday school teachers; or, conversely, do you have teachers but no classes for them to teach?  Ask God to raise up committed Christians to teach, and to instill in people the desire for Christian education.
            It all begins with prayer.  Setting loose the worker bees in your church won’t do it.  They’ll only burn themselves out droning away at the task you’ve set them to. 
It all begins with prayer.  Developing elaborate plans to bring people into the church, or starting leadership classes, or opening up new Sunday school classes or study groups will fall flat unless sufficient preparation time is spent in prayer, asking God for direction and blessing.
It all begins with prayer—and not just by the minister or ministers.  God wants a praying people, and that includes all of us.  No matter what we do to earn a living, our calling as Christians is to pray—pray constantly and deeply for whatever need your church has.

It all begins with prayer.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Everything Happens for a Reason

Everything Happens for a Reason
Romans 8:18-28
            “Everything happens for a reason.  Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can come together.”
            So said that eminent philosopher, Marilyn Monroe.  Yes, I know, we don’t usually think of her as having had thoughts this deep.  Part of that is because of the image Hollywood created for her.  Part of it is our natural prejudice.  We believe anyone that glamorous can’t be smart as well.  How wrong we can be!
            We might also have a difficult time believing she said this because we know things didn’t turn out so well for her.  Despite her glamor (or perhaps because of it) her life story is not a happy one.  Still, the quote is attributed to Marilyn Monroe, so we have to accept that at some time, in some set of circumstances, she did say it.
            Many people say, “Everything happens for a reason.”  It’s a way of finding meaning in difficult situations.  When it seems things aren’t going right for us, someone will try to cheer us up by telling us there must be a reason for the tough times we’re going through.  Trouble is, when we’re in the midst of those tough times, it’s hard to see anything good about it.  Someone saying there must be a reason doesn’t usually make us feel much better.
            Paul was trying to help the Christians in Rome see that the suffering they were forced to endure might mean that God was working in and through their difficult circumstances.  In Romans 8:18, we hear Paul saying, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”  Whatever happens to us in times of trial will be surpassed by what God has in store for us in the future. 
Paul places the Roman believers’ troubles in perspective.  He says that all creation is waiting for God’s future, and not waiting patiently, but groaning as if in terrible pain.  Our suffering is merely a part of the universal suffering that will continue until Christ’s return. 
Even our prayer life can suffer as a result of this creation-wide trial.  Paul spends several verses assuring his readers that the Spirit understands the trouble we often have communicating in prayer, and intercedes for us before God’s throne.
Let’s go back to the second part of Ms. Monroe’s quote.  Remember?  She says, “Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can come together.”
Is this reassuring?  Does it help us to know that when our lives—or a significant part of them—crash and burn it may be clearing the way for something better?  Can we be sure that whatever lies ahead will be an improvement?  Don’t we know people who lost their jobs, their home—practically everything in the last recession—and haven’t yet seen the light at the end of the tunnel?  Isn’t this just a rosy-colored lens we look through to convince ourselves that something better must lie ahead.
Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  We know there are people who hit a major bump in life and never overcome it.  Whether it’s an economic downturn, an incurable disease, or the loss of a loved one, there are situations that look hopeless.  How do we see God’s hand here?  Can we see God’s hand here?

We must remember above all else that we serve a God who goes through the troubled times with us.  God is there, even in the worst situations we can imagine, right beside us, sharing them with us and giving us the strength to pull through.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Completing the Work

Completing the Work
Matthew 28:16-20
            I love to wander through gift shops looking at wall plaques.  I never buy any.  If I bought all those that catch my attention, the walls of our house would be covered with them, and my wife would be furious.  Instead, when I see one I really like, I copy down the message, then find a way to use it in a sermon or blog.
            On a trip this summer I came across a message that really spoke to me.  Rabbi Tarfon said, “You are not obligated to complete the work, nor are you free to abandon it.”  I quickly reached for pen and paper.
Might God have said to Jesus, “You are not obligated to complete the work, nor are you free to abandon it?”  We know that’s likely what happened.  Jesus certainly didn’t finish God’s work while on this earth, but he never abandoned it either.  In Gethsemane, when he prayed that, if possible, the torture and death he faced could be avoided, his Father might have said in reply.  “No, it’s impossible.  You are not free to abandon the work for which you were sent.”
            Jesus himself may have said words to this effect before his ascension.  The gospel writers give us differing versions of those last days.  They only show us snapshots of that time, and not a full picture.  Was Jesus enjoying what he knew was his limited time with his closest followers?  Did he try to give them as much advice as he could cram in before his departure?  Certainly both might be true.  We can imagine those times, but we can’t have full knowledge of what happened.
            Matthew tells us Jesus met his disciples for the last time on a mountain in Galilee, where he gave them his final instructions.  He let them know in no uncertain terms that they were to carry on the work he had begun.  We learn from Luke that they were told to wait in Jerusalem for the gift of the Holy Spirit.  There they would receive a more complete idea of what they were to do.  Matthew tells us that Jesus gave them marching orders before he left them.  The disciples were to go into all the world, preaching and teaching the things he had imparted to them, baptizing and making disciples.
            They could not possibly anticipate what that would entail.  They certainly couldn’t anticipate what the gift of the Holy Spirit might be.  I imagine it didn’t matter to them.  All that mattered was the sadness they felt at losing their Master, and a vague idea of the work he had given them.  We find out from Luke (in Acts) how that work progressed during the early part of the first century.
            The disciples did not complete the work Jesus had given them to do, nor did they abandon it.  In many cases their endeavors cost them their lives—given willingly in God’s service—but they never stopped doing the work to which they were called.
            Down through the ages this message has been transmitted.  “You are not obligated to complete the work, nor are you free to abandon it.”  Apostles, martyrs, church leaders, ordinary Christians, rank upon rank, have taken up the challenge and the work, knowing they would not complete it, but could not abandon it.
            Now it is our turn.  We are the latest of those who have taken up Jesus’ challenge.  We have been given a work to do.  We know it will not be completed in our lifetime unless Christ returns before we die.  We also know we can’t plan on that.  Assuming that there will still be plenty to do after we’re gone, we soldier on, serving in our part of the vineyard, willingly spending our lives in God’s work, without a thought of abandoning it.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Heart and Mouth Agreement

Heart and Mouth Agreement
Romans 10:9-10
My father was a great fan of the King Arthur legends.  He got me interested at a fairly early age, and I’ve never lost the fascination.  I remember reading once that there are still people in England who believe that King Arthur will return some day.  This belief is reflected and fueled by two literary sources:  T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, and H.G. Wells’ Perelandra, the middle book of his trilogy which begins with Out of the Silent Planet.
Arthur is not a king who is validated by history—that is, we have no written historical record of his reign.  His capitol, Camelot, is a vision of an ideal place to live.  In the musical of that name, Lerner & Loewe have Arthur describe a country where even the weather wouldn’t dare to be anything but perfect.  In the end, Camelot goes the way of all utopias, doomed by the foolish, selfish acts of humans; but while it lasts, it is beautiful. 
Several years ago I stumbled upon a copy of one of the great Arthurian books, Le Morte D’Arthur, by Sir Thomas Mallory.  It tells much more of the Arthur story than most people would ever want to know, but I am enjoying it thoroughly.   I keep it on my nightstand, and whenever I’m ready for bed before my wife, I read a few pages.  It isn’t the kind of book you can read quickly from cover to cover.  It must be sipped like a fine wine, not chugged like a can of soda.  In part this is because the story is a complex one.  In part it’s because the English is old-fashioned.  Many of the words different from those we use, and the text lacking in punctuation such as quotation marks.
Now that I’m nearing the end, I find myself slowing down, not rushing to finish as I do with most novels.  I already know the ending, so there’s no surprise waiting for me there.  Instead there’s the sadness of the destruction of a beautiful society, and I’m not ready to see that happen.
In the part I’m reading now, most of the Knights of the Round Table are off on a quest to find the Holy Grail (which they refer to as the Sangreal), the cup which Jesus shared with his disciples at the Last Supper.   Those of us who know the story know that only one knight, Sir Galahad, is pure enough to find the Sangreal, but as we follow different ones through their adventures, we enjoy their stories for their own sakes.  The knights frequently encounter holy men (hermits, monks, and others who are devoted to God’s service).  These men interpret their dreams and adventures, and give them advice on how to live better lives.
One such holy man gives one of the knights a piece of advice that we all should heed.  He says, “Look that your heart and your mouth accord.”  He wants the knight to be sure that what he says reflects what he feels.
Paul does somewhat the same thing in these two verses from his letter to the Romans.  He makes the point that belief and confession are both necessary and sufficient conditions for salvation.  We must confess and believe in order to be saved; and confession and belief are the only things we need to do to be saved.
But our hearts and minds have to be in complete accord.  We have to believe with our hearts and confess with our mouths.  One or the other is not enough.  It doesn’t matter which comes first (the order in verse 10 is the opposite of verse 9), but we have to do both.

Look that your heart and your mouth accord.  This advice is good for any course of action we pursue, but it is absolutely essential for our relationship with God.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


Luke 12:13-21
I met a traveler from an antique land,
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert.  Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains.  Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, the author of Ozymandias, perfectly captures the image of one who thinks more highly of himself than he ought.  We see a king who was sure his reign would last forever.  Perhaps he believed his loyal subjects when they addressed him with those words:  you know,  “O king, live forever….”  Perhaps he had deluded himself into believing that he alone among humankind could cheat death.  Whatever his mindset when he ordered this statue built, it didn’t prevent him from going the way of all flesh. 
It is interesting that Shelley shows us only the statue lying in ruins, only partly visible.  There is nothing left of the king’s works.  All that can be seen is the pedestal with the inscription and the legs, and a head which conveys the frown and sneer of one who believes he has conquered the world.  “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair,” Shelley has him say; but there are no works to look upon.  Except for the ruins of the statue, all that the observer can see is sand stretching endlessly.
Many Scripture passages caution about an egotistic approach to life.  The author of Ecclesiastes speaks about the vanity of earthly pursuits.  Several of the psalms warn against putting too much faith in things that have no permanence.  Jesus told his followers that earthly treasure wasn’t worth accumulating.  The parable Luke relates is also an excellent warning.
Anyone who works the land knows the joy that comes with a bumper crop and the agony of a poor yield.  When the land produces plentifully, celebration is in order.  The man in Jesus’ story felt the need to do more than celebrate.  He had a storage problem:  his crop was so plentiful that his barns wouldn’t hold it all.  What should he do?
Those of us who are community oriented might suggest that he give what he doesn’t need for himself and his family to people who could use more food on the table.  Certainly this man would have more than one neighbor less well off than he.  Why not share the wealth so everyone can benefit from his fertile land?
The man obviously had no concern for his poorer neighbors.  Instead of sharing with them he decided on a building project.  He had his servants tear down his perfectly good barns and build larger ones; then he sat back to enjoy the prosperous life he felt he deserved.
We know what happened next.  Not just his soul but his life was required of him.  “Fool,” God said.  “Who gets to enjoy the plentiful harvest now?  Not you.”

I’m afraid there’s a little Ozymandias and a little of the man in Jesus’ story in each of us.  We want to accumulate as much as possible, set up our own little kingdom, and enjoy watching people envy us.  They may—but that’s not what counts in the eternal scheme of things.  What counts is what we do to serve our neighbors in Jesus’ name.  

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Isn't That Just Like God?

Isn’t That Just Like God!
2 Kings 5:1-14
            Do you remember the story of Naaman?  He was the commanding general of the army of Syria.  The king held him in high esteem because he had led the army so successfully.  He seemed indestructible.  Nobody could best him at his chosen profession.  He was on top of the world.  Then he discovered he had leprosy.
            Today we don’t hear much about leprosy, or think much about it either.  It is a disease that has been contained.  There are medications that are so effective that the effects have been minimized.  No longer are lepers forced to live in isolation from the rest of civilization.  Gone are the days when they were condemned to live alone or with others so afflicted until they died.
            But in biblical times leprosy was feared—so feared that any skin condition was suspected of being leprous.  Any rash, any skin inflammation was cause to ban the afflicted person from all contact with others. 
And Naaman was a leper.
            There was in his household a young girl who had been taken captive from Israel.  She had occasion to say to her mistress, Naaman’s wife, that the prophet Elisha could cure her master.  Upon hearing the welcome news, Naaman did the only thing that made sense to him.  He went with a letter of introduction from his king to the Israelite king—who panicked.  He knew he couldn’t cure Naaman.  He was sure this was a plot hatched to give the Syrian king an excuse for going to war and conquering Israel.
            Elisha heard of the king’s dilemma and said, “Send him to me.  I’ll cure him in God’s name.”
            Here’s the best part of the story.  When Naaman came to Elisha’s house, the prophet didn’t even go out to see him.  He sent a servant to tell him to dip himself in the river Jordan seven times.  Naaman was furious, first at being ignored, and second at being given so simple a task.  But one of his servants persuaded him to try the cure—and it worked!
            Isn’t that just like God to use someone as insignificant as a servant girl to spread the good news?  We complain because we haven’t got the right skills, or the right opportunity, or the right clothes to do God’s work.  All she did was open her mouth in witness to God’s healing power.
            Isn’t that just like God to humble us when we are feeling too sure of ourselves?  When we think we’re something pretty special, God finds a way of letting us know we still have a few things to learn.  Naaman arrived at Elisha’s door with all the pomp of the greatest general in the region, only to find himself face to face with a servant who delivered an unpalatable message.
            Isn’t that just like God to give us a task that has absolutely no glamor at all?  Naaman was ready to do some mighty deed to impress God with his abilities.  Instead, through Elisha, God told him to take a bath.
            Isn’t that just like God to work in the humblest of circumstances, and through the humblest of people to bring about the results God wants?  The kings in this story were helpless to cure Naaman of an illness that would have separated him from his family, his profession, his friends—from all he held dear.  Servants delivered the messages that brought Naaman to the place where he could be healed.

            Isn’t that just like God to choose us, people with no special talents, no great abilities, to carry the gospel to the world?  Isn’t that just like God to equip us to do the work we are called to do?