Sunday, November 29, 2015


Luke 1:26-38
            We usually think of fifteen-year-old girls as sophomores in high school, attending classes, eating in the cafeteria, playing in the band or singing in the choir, playing sports, laughing with friends, being grown up one minute and childish the next—all the things we see in adolescents today.  We find it difficult to imagine a girl that age as a wife and mother; but it wasn’t always so.  In fact, in the history of humanity, our current picture is very recent.
            For thousands of years young teenage girls were expected to marry—frequently much older men—and to keep house and have and care for a family.  They were raised that way.  They were trained that way.  They understood from a very early age that this was their future. 
Most girls accepted—even embraced—such a life.  What else did they know?  What else did they see around them?  What other role models did they have?  The only alternative was to be an old maid of twenty, their lives half over, with no future, no one to care for them, no prospects except loneliness and—too frequently—poverty.  Who would choose that life?
            This is why Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Leah.  Once Rachel, the younger, more attractive sister was married, Leah didn’t have a chance.  No man would be willing to accept her as a bride.  Laban had no choice.  He either found a way to marry Leah off, or he would be responsible for her for the rest of his life.  Who could blame him?  Certainly not the men and women of his culture.  They saw him not as a cheat, but as a wise and loving father, concerned for his daughter’s welfare.
            Like Hodel and Chava, Tevye’s second and third daughters (Fiddler on the Roof), most young girls dreamed of a husband who would love them, cherish them, and care for them, a handsome young man of good character who would enrich their lives. 
Some girls, like Tzeitel, Tevye’s oldest daughter, had seen enough of life to know that this dream was not often realized.  More frequently the husband chosen for them (marriages were arranged by parents) would be a man looking for a second wife after the first had died from excessive childbearing and housework.  He would be set in his ways, needing a housekeeper and someone to care for the children already a part of the family, as well as to produce more.  He would be busy at work, with little time for romance.  This, unfortunately, was the way of husbands and wives.
How fortunate, then, was Mary, whose family had chosen for her a kind carpenter named Joseph.  Yes, he was older than her by a good few years.  Yes, he already had children by his first wife.  But this man seemed to be a good prospect.  He looked at the young girl he was about to marry with love in his eyes.  He treated her with respect.  If she had to marry an older man, this one was exceptional.
Luke tells us that once Gabriel explained the origin of the child she was to bear she became a willing participant in the plan.  “Behold I am the servant of the Lord,” she said.  “Let it be to me according to your word.”  When the angel first appeared to her, however, she was “greatly troubled.”  I believe that was an understatement. 
Mary must have had moments of doubt, both before and after the annunciation.  She must have thought out carefully how she was to tell Joseph.  How do you explain to your husband-to-be—as well as your family and the entire town—that you are pregnant, but it’s not illegitimate? 
She had to have worries, concerns, misgivings, even if we’re not told of them.  How could she not have been disturbed by the prospect?

How would a fifteen-year-old girl react today?  

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Body and Soul

Body and Soul
1 Corinthians 6:19-20
            I love to cut out or copy things I find in books, magazines or newspapers for “future use.”  Trouble is, I don’t always identify the source.  I do the same thing with phone numbers, writing down the number, but without a name or reason for saving it.  I have four items I copied from some book.  They’re called simply, scraps.  I have no other identification for them.
            “You are always dragging me down,” said Soul to Body. 
            “Dragging you down!” replied Body.  “Well I like that!  Who taught me to like tobacco and alcohol?  You, of course, with your idiotic adolescent idea of being ‘grown up.’  My palate loathed both at first:  but you would have your way.  Who put an end to all those angry and revengeful thoughts last night?  Me, of course, by insisting on going to sleep.  Who does his best to keep you from talking too much and eating too much by giving you dry throats and headaches and indigestion?  Eh?”
            “And what about relationships?” said I.
“Yes, what about them?” retorted the Body.  “If you and your wretched imagination would leave me alone I’d give you no trouble with them.  That’s Soul all over; you give me orders and then blame me for carrying them out.”
            My father and I were having a conversation once, and I mentioned how much trouble I was having disciplining my mind.  He said, “Yes, the mind is the most difficult part to control.”  We don’t have to read too far into the Bible to find out the truth of that statement.  Eve wasn’t tempted by her body, even though the fruit appealed to her senses.  It was her mind that Satan messed with, telling her that she would not die as God had warned, but that she would instead be able to think like a god.
            Cain, the people of Babel, Jacob, David, Ahab—all sinned first with their minds, then their bodies.  It was their minds that gave their bodies the orders to sin—just as the “scrap” says.
            For all Paul says about the sins of the flesh, telling the churches to avoid them, I believe he comes nearest the truth when he talks about the mind.
            “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).
            “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).
            “…and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self…” (Ephesians 4:23).
            Paul knew what my father knew:  sin begins in the mind.  The body is the instrument through which the sinful thought is put into action.  When Paul says, “…do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?” he understands perhaps better than we do about the warring natures within us.  “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19).
Paul identifies clearly the source of our inner conflict.  Our mind, ruled by our ego, wants its own way.  “I have a right to do what I want,” our ego asserts, even though the Holy Spirit, residing in us, constantly reminds us of our calling as God’s temple. 

Don’t blame your body for following orders.  Instead, renew your mind in the Spirit.  

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Winners and Losers

Winners and Losers
2 Corinthians 4:7-12
            Perhaps you’ve seen the sign in offices or other places where you do business.  It reads:  “I never make misteaks!”
            Oh, if only it were true!  Over the years I’ve made so many misteaks—sorry, mistakes—that sometimes I think I’ve got a corner on them.
            But I’m not alone.  Look at the records of some of the greatest baseball players of all time.
·        Babe Ruth—714 homeruns in his career; for 39 years a record.  He also struck out 1,330 times.
·        Ty Cobb—held the record for most stolen bases until 1982.  He also held the record for being thrown out the most times:  38 in 1915.
·        Cy Young—the man for whom the outstanding pitcher award is named.  He holds the record for most lifetime wins:  511.  He also holds the record for losses:  313.
·        Hank Aaron—the man who broke Babe Ruth’s home run record with 755.  Aaron also holds the record for hitting into the most double plays.
·        Walter Johnson—until recently held the record for most batters struck out by a pitcher.  He also holds the record for hitting the most batters:  204.
·        Roberto Clemente—struck out four times in one All-Star game, still a record.
·        Sandy Koufax—pitched four no-hitters in his career but couldn’t hit the ball.  He holds the record for striking out the most times in succession:  12.
·        Reggie Jackson—Mr. October.  Clutch hitter extraordinaire.  Struck out 2,000 times in his career—the equivalent of striking out every time at bat for four full seasons.
            Still feeling badly about the number of mistakes you make?  An excellent hitter in baseball bats somewhere around .300-.330 for a season.  That means he makes an out more than two-thirds of the time he’s at the plate.
            When I was beginning my ministry someone said to me, “God doesn’t expect us to be successful.  God expects us to be faithful.”  In their own way, each of the above players was faithful.  Each one kept on going to the plate—or to the mound—inning after inning, day after day, season after season.  In the end, each was considered a star because he kept playing, kept hitting well or pitching well, and did so faithfully throughout his career—even when things weren’t going well!  Imagine what might have happened if one (or more) of them had quit after the first time he struck out, or lost a game!  We would probably not even remember his name.  Certainly he would have never appeared in the record book.
            There is a wonderful story about Robert the Bruce, the great Scottish leader.  He had just been badly defeated in battle for the sixth time, and had fled to a cave where he sat, alone and depressed.  He watched as a spider tried to string a line to begin a web.  Time after time the spider failed, and time after time he tried again.  On the seventh time he was successful.  Robert took the lesson into his next battle and won.
We are indeed jars of clay—with feet of clay.  We cannot be successful all the time in this Christian life; but God doesn’t expect us to be.  We fail and try again, fail and try again, until with God’s help we succeed.  This is how we win at being a Christian, not by being perfect—we can’t ever achieve that level—but by trying, and trying, and trying again, until we overcome the clay which holds us back and win the reward that God holds in store for us.

Don’t worry about being successful.  Just be faithful.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Fifty-Seven Pennies

Fifty-Seven Pennies
Luke 18:16
            Just a little girl.  Just an ordinary little girl.  Nothing to make her stand out from all the other little girls in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  In fact, she was one of the insignificant ones—one of the poorer residents of the city, part of a poor family living in a poor neighborhood.  Yet as happens so often, God used her to bless millions.
            She wanted to join a Sunday school, but was told there wasn’t enough room for all the children who wanted to attend.  How many times have the poor been told there was no room for them?  It seems I remember a baby born in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago whose family couldn’t find room.
            Two years later the little girl became sick, and—quite possibly without proper medical care—in a couple of weeks she died.  Under her pillow was found a small, tattered book containing 57 pennies and a piece of paper on which she had written, “To help build the Little Temple bigger, so more children can go to Sunday school.”
            Someone had the foresight to bring the 57 pennies and the note to the pastor of the Little Temple, who told the story to his congregation.  A story like this doesn’t stay quiet for long.  Soon it reached the newspapers, who spread it far from Philadelphia—in fact, all across the country.  As you can imagine, the story of the little girl, her pennies, and her desire to see the Sunday school grow touched many hearts.  The pennies grew—and grew, and grew.  How much did they grow?
            The Little Temple church has been replaced by a much larger church, one that seats 3,300 worshipers and has lots of room for Sunday school classes.  But her pennies didn’t stop with the church.  There is also Temple University, with an enrollment today of over 37,000 students on seven campuses and sites in Pennsylvania and on international campuses in Rome, Tokyo, Singapore and London.  In addition there is Temple Hospital, one of the region’s most respected academic medical centers.
            All from the humble beginning of 57 pennies.
            Her name was Hattie May Wiatt.  She died in 1886.  The pastor’s name was Russell H. Conwell.  With her vision and her “seed money” he was able to build a large church, a respected center of learning, and a hospital, all dedicated to serving humanity.  What mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow!
            God can use anyone, anywhere, any time.  It isn’t necessary to be rich, or have a position of power, or influence within a community.  All that is necessary is to have a vision and act to make it become a reality.  God doesn’t promise that all of us will be as successful as Hattie May Wiatt, but God does promise to use even our humblest efforts to bring about God’s kingdom.
            Listen to the words of Reverend Conwell:  “[The one] who can give to this city better streets, and better sidewalks, better schools and more colleges, more happiness, and more civilization, more of God, [that one] will be great anywhere!”  By this definition, Hattie May Wiatt achieved greatness.
            God waits to use you.  Whatever your gifts, whatever your economic or social status, whatever your age, whatever your education level, God wants to take you and use you to grow the kingdom of heaven here on earth.

            What are you waiting for?  Start collecting your pennies!”

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Messiah Is Among Us!

The Messiah Is Among Us
Matthew 28:16-20
            I’ve come across a treasure trove of stories recently, many of which have got me thinking in new directions.  Over the next few weeks I’ll share some of them with you.  I do not know who wrote this story, so I can’t give credit, but I am grateful to the author.
            There was an ancient and famous monastery which had fallen on hard times.  Formerly its buildings had been filled with monks, and its large church had resounded with the sound of many voices. Now the monastery was nearly deserted.  A handful of faithful brothers shuffled through the cloisters, singing and praying with heavy hearts. 
            At the edge of the monastery woods an old rabbi had built a little hut.  He went there from time to time to pray and fast.  No one from the monastery ever spoke with him, but when he appeared the word would be passed:  “The rabbi walks in the woods.”  Whenever he was in residence the monks felt sustained by his prayerful presence.
            One day the abbot of the monastery decided to visit the rabbi and open his heart to him.  As he approached the hut, he saw the rabbi standing in the doorway with outstretched arms in welcome.  It was as though he had been waiting for this occasion.  They embraced as brothers.
            The rabbi gestured for the abbot to enter.  In the midst of the room was a plain wooden table with an open Bible.  As they sat in the presence of the Holy Scriptures, the rabbi began to cry.  The abbot could not contain himself and also began to cry.  They filled the hut with the sounds of their sobs.
            After the tears had ceased and all was quiet, the rabbi said, “You and your brothers are serving God with heavy hearts.  You have come to ask a teaching of me.  I will give you this teaching, but you can only repeat it once.  After that, no one must say it aloud again.”  The rabbi looked solemnly at the abbot and said, “The Messiah is among you.”  They embraced again, then the abbot left without a word and without looking back.
            The next morning the abbot called the other monks together and told them he had received a teaching from “the rabbi who walks in the woods.”  Once they heard it, the teaching was never to be spoken aloud again.  He looked in turn at each of his brothers and said, “The rabbi says the Messiah is among us.”  The monks were startled, but remained silent. They left the room and went about their daily business.  No one ever mentioned the teaching again.
            Almost immediately the monks began to treat each other with increased reverence.  Visitors to the monastery were deeply touched by their love for each other.  People came from far and wide to be nourished by the prayer life of the brothers.  Young men began asking about becoming part of their community.  The rabbi no longer walked in the woods, but the monks who had taken his teaching to heart were still sustained by a prayerful presence.
            How would our lives be different if we knew the Messiah was among us?  How would we behave at work?  At school?  How would our family life change?  Would we begin to treat our family members with the same reverence that the monks shared with each other?
            How would our churches change?  Would we worship differently?  How would committee meetings and board meetings be different?  Would our love for each other be so overwhelming that visitors would notice?  Would there be an end to the bickering that frequently divides us?  Would people want to join our fellowship?
            What would change if we knew the Messiah was among us? 

He is!