Well, the Christmas season is quickly winding down. We’ve enjoyed some engaging worship services and conversations throughout Advent, we celebrated the birth of Jesus once again, and many of us have gathered with family at planned events, and some maybe even had unexpected, surprise holiday guests – hopefully both of these brought fun and joyous times, but, unfortunately, that isn’t always the case.
And now, after the high of the pre-Christmas, Christmas day and New Year’s rush of activities, for many it seems like the darker days of winter are really settling in. And I’m not just talking about the less light, and colder temps, although those are cause enough for depression in some people. I’m also talking about the news that greeted us over the holiday, once again leaving many reeling from the emotional, cultural, and political upheaval within our country and around the world.
Though 2000+ years have passed, at times like this, it seems that not much has changed in the world. There is still plenty of violence in our communities and across the country, that echoes the larger incidents of world leaders trying to exert their dominance over other countries through militaristic force, nuclear arms testing, threats of embargoes and sanctions, etc.. As a result, fear reigns supreme in too many peoples’ lives; many are homeless, hungry, and fleeing from the militaristic and terroristic responses – hoping and praying that where their unscheduled journeys take them will bring them to a safer place to live, one that will even provide an opportunity for a fresh start, a good life. Their flights mirror the one that the holy family made into Egypt in order to avoid King Herod’s vengeful acts. Into this world, the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings has been born once again.
Today, we pause to celebrate Epiphany and the end of our Christmas season. Today, like on other days of Epiphany, we want to continue the sharing of good news of Christ’s birth. We want to talk about the coming of the Magi and the gifts that they brought. We want to hear of the gifts we receive through Jesus coming – Hope, Peace, Love and Joy. Yet, there is that very disturbing story of King Herod’s response enmeshed with the Magi’s visit. We try to ignore it, but it’s still there. We go so far as to not read those verses at all, or just read the ones where the Magi visit King Herod’s palace in Jerusalem asking to see the “one born King of the Jews.” We cut it off after King Herod tells the Magi that the new “King” can be found in Bethlehem, and to let them know his exact location once they have found the “little king” so he can go and pay his respects, too. Yet, unfortunately, there is much more to the story – a much darker side of the story that lurks in the unread verses just begging us to pay them attention, to heed their warning.
This week as I was reading chapter 4 “Where is the King?” from Timothy Keller’s book, Hidden Christmas, I expected that the text was going to focus on the Magi, their journey to see and pay homage to the “King” – not a king of their own culture or choosing, but one that God had placed before them, whose star they had read about and often wondered about, until finally they witnessed its dawning for themselves. The Magi willingly chose to follow the star’s path and see if the historical writings they had talked about and passed down for centuries were true; to seek out the one whom God has sent into the world, to save the world.
That’s what I had expected to find within the pages of the chapter. I guess I should have anticipated Keller would take the chapter to a place that was more radical and pushed me to a deeper exploration than I had previously contemplated on this familiar text. I didn’t expect that Keller would flip the story on me and focus the chapter on King Herod – and humanity in general.
I have struggled with this information all week and was not sure what I would share with you until I started typing this message on Thursday morning. Here are a few things that Keller points out in Chapter 4 that kind of slapped me across the face, and made we want to run in the opposite direction, to loudly proclaim that they were false.
Another point that I really struggled with was when Keller indicated that very few, if any people truly and sincerely seek after God (p69). Keller says that Christian theologians respond to this statement in 2 ways:
This is exactly what Keller is talking about in today’s chapter and message. We all rebel and deny God that final piece of ourselves.
As we begin a new year, may we be brave enough to fully open our hearts and minds to God’s presence in our lives, to let God fully transform us into the amazing, strong, loving people that God sees and knows us to be. May our lives fully reflect the light of God’s grace and love.
If we are brave enough to let this happen, then we will help fulfill what John writes in his 1st chapter…. “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him….to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:3b-5, 10-13)
This year…. Let God into your life and let your Light Shine.
Together the darkness of our world cannot overcome the light and love of God in Christ, in us.
Keller, Timothy, Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ, Chapter 4: “Where is the King?” Viking – Penguin Random House, LLC/New York, NY, 2016, p63-78.
On this “in-between” week, I thought we would do something fun for our message. We’ve all heard of Hallmark’s “25 days of Christmas” or their “Countdown to Christmas.” Today, we are going to chat about the 12 days of Christmas.
We all have heard and sung the catchy and crazy accumulative Christmas song about the 12 days of Christmas and the many gifts our “true love” gives to us. We have even heard Jeff Foxworthy’s spoof on this song. It’s fun to sing, if a bit confusing. There are several versions of “the gifts” out there – especially as you get higher up in the days.
So, let’s take a look at the song, and explore each of the days’ gifts.
When are the 12 days of Christmas?
The earliest known written version of the “12 Days of Christmas,” which was printed without accompanying music, goes back to 1780 and the English children’s book, Mirth With-out Mischief. However, many scholars believe the poem is French in origin and started out as a game to test memory that revelers played at Twelfth Night parties. The song can be a bit challenging, especially if you have been enjoying the Christmas spirits a bit. The rules were that if you forgot the words, you’d have to give your opponent a kiss or grant them a favor (Gleeson).
Over the years, the cumulative verse poem, “where each patterned verse contributes to a longer narrative” – shifted and changed over the centuries. It wasn’t until 1909, when English composer Frederic Austin added music to the poem (Gleeson).
Some even believed that this poem/song was written and used as an “underground catechism” to help share the important tenants of the Catholic faith in England during the period of 1558 to 1829 when Parliament finally emancipated Catholics in England. During this time period, it was prohibited by law for ANY to practice their faith – private OR public. It was a crime to BE a Catholic (Stockert).
There is varying information on this claim. So, whether you believe this is true or not, using the 12 Days of Christmas song to help young people and adults alike remember important parts of our faith is a pretty creative way to do so. Let’s take a look and see:
Each verse of the song begins with: On the # day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…… According to the articles I found on-line,
We are going to take a look at the song verse by verse without repeating the previous days. We will sing the verse, then pause briefly to talk about the Christian “meaning” given to it according to Dennis Bratcher’s article posted in 2005. We will do that through all 12 days, then we will repeat Day 12 and test our memories and go through all of the 11 previous days. So, let’s start the song.
On the 1st day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: A partridge in a pear tree.
On the 2nd day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: 2 Turtle Doves.
On the 3rd day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: 3 French Hens.
On the 4th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: 4 Calling Birds.
On the 5th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: 5 Golden Rings.
On the 6th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: 6 Geese A-laying.
On the 7th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: 7 Swans A-swimming.
On the 8th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: 8 Maids A-milking.
On the 9th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: 9 Ladies Dancing.
On the 10th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: 10 Lords A-leaping.
On the 11th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: 11 Piper’s Piping.
On the 12th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: 12 Drummers Drumming.
Well, it’s a good thing they didn’t include this language in the poem, it would be very hard to sing the verses. But, it is extremely useful in helping us boil the key elements of our faith down into easy to remember chunks.
Let’s sing the song one more time starting with Day 12 and adding each of the previous day’s gifts as the song invites us to.
The next time you hear or sing the song, 12 days of Christmas, remember that there is always more to a song that just what the lyrics share. The meaning behind the words has a story to tell. And for those of us who are Christians, there is definitely more to the story. We are to remember that the core reason we celebrate this holiday – this HOLY DAY – is because God Loved us so much that God was willing to give us the ultimate gift – God’s self, wrapped up in flesh and bone, in the form of a vulnerable baby whom we could all love and grow with as we forged a closer relationship with God through him. I hope this Christmas has provided you with the opportunity to renew that relationship once again.
May it be so….. AMEN
Bratcher, Dennis, Article “The Twelve Days of Christmas” published in 2005. http://www.crivoice.org/cy12days.html
Gleeson, Jill, article “Here’s What to Know About the 12 Days of Christmas Meaning”, printed Nov 20, 2019. https://www.countryliving.com/entertaining/a29832797/12-days-of-christmas-meaning/
Stockert, Hall (Father), article “Origin of The Twelve Days of Christmas” An Underground Catechism https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/library/origin-of-the-twelve-days-of-christmas-10885?keyword=&mt=b&loc=9006758&n=g&d=c&adp=1t2&cid=8641161795&adgid=90568226081&tid=dsa-19959388920&gclid=Cj0KCQiA0ZHwBRCRARIsAK0Tr-rwcmLzyQNTaaVDc9x-INGTWTle5dIVtB_23kK2WVw821mGC384aKEaAkoeEALw_wcB
On this, our final Sunday in Advent, it’s appropriate that we talk about Joy. And what better way to talk about Joy, than to visit with Mary and hear her beautiful song of joyous praise to God, found only in the Gospel of Luke.
Why do we visit with Mary every year in the 3rd or 4th week of Advent?
“Luke tells us a lot about how Mary responded to the angel Gabriel’s visit and message,” Timothy Keller says in his book “Hidden Christmas.” He believes “it is to hold her up as a model of what responsive Christian faith looks like” (p81).
So, how does Mary respond?
When she is told that she is going to have a baby – God’s baby – does she just say: GREAT! I’m thrilled to be of service….. or does she have a different response?
It’s a little bit of both. Yet, her “I’m thrilled to be of service” comes a little bit down the road. (Keller, p81).
Luke tells us that Mary was first “perplexed and pondered” the angel’s greeting to her: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” (v29) (Keller, p81).
When we think about how Mary’s questioned and asked the angel for clarification, we can see that “responding in faith is a whole-person experience that includes the intellect,” not just the heart. No one can ever accuse Mary of responding in any way like “blind faith” (Keller, p81).
Last week I mentioned that Jews do not believe that God could (or would) ever become a human being (Keller, p82). So, it’s easy to see why Mary would be perplexed and question what she is hearing from the angel.
Doubting and questioning, are important parts of being faithful and can be seen and heard in many forms in the Bible.
What kind of doubter are you?
Keller tells us that “Mary’s faith happens in stages.” He says, “Christian faith requires the commitment of our whole lives. While it is possible, few go from being uncommitted to being fully committed in a single stroke” (p83).
Mary’s 1st response was that of “measured incredulity.” She questioned what she was hearing. And the question she asked, was one that invited further information; it sought to engage in a conversation to learn more – “How can this be?” (Keller, p84-85).
Mary’s 2nd response is “simple acceptance.” She says, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (v38). I would bet that Mary isn’t truly convinced that God is going to make her pregnant through the Holy Spirit, and that the child she will give birth to will be God in human form. Still, she is willing to take the chance, to say “Yes” to God, and to allow herself to be used for God’s purpose (Keller, p85).
I think this is where we, humans, fail. We want to only make a decision “for God” if, and only if, we can clearly see, hear, feel, and/or experience the truth and reality of God – rationally, emotionally, and personally. But that isn’t “faith” is it? Faith is believing and acting even without tangible proof that something is real. “Sometimes, we can only do what Mary does – just submit and trust, despite our fears and reservations” (Keller, p85). Sometimes we have to take the “leap of faith,” trusting that God will not let us fall.
Mary’s final response to her visit with the angel comes only after she arrives at her cousin Elizabeth’s house. When Elizabeth greets Mary and proclaims, without pre-knowledge, that Mary indeed carries the messianic child in her womb, Mary is finally convinced that she has truly experienced an encounter with God, and that she is indeed favored. Mary is finally able to “exercise faith from the heart” as her joy bubbles forth in her beautiful song, the Magnificat, where she gives voice to her joyous praise for God, making connections to what God has done, and is doing, through her – a simple, poor, peasant girl from Galilee – and the promises God made centuries ago to Abraham, that God would save all people through him and his descendants. Mary’s response has gone from simple submission, to giving her heart completely and joyfully (Keller, p86) to God.
Mary’s final response is one of deep wonder. She is not thinking about the costs to herself. Instead, she has been caught up wholly – her thinking is convinced, her feelings captivated, and her will gladly surrendered. In her song, we can hear a sense of amazement in her words: that God has chosen her – “he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me” (v48-49) (Keller, p88).
Keller points out that “true faith is not something that you simply decide in yourself to exercise. We are incapable, on our own, of simply believing in Jesus. God has to open our hearts and help us break through our prejudices, doubts, and denials (p87) before we can truly believe.
Keller also reminds us of the gift that we too receive from God: “Every Christian is like Mary” he says. “Everyone who puts their faith in Christ receives the Holy Spirit” (p89).
If we are to be like Mary, we must have faith that:
NOTE TO SELF: You must remember – even though we willingly put our faith and trust in God, this does not mean everything will go easy for us. Look at Mary…..her life wasn’t easy; it wasn’t all sunshine and happiness. Her “Yes” to God brought her plenty of ridicule, public humiliation, fear, and suffering (Keller, p98-99).
Yet, in spite of all that happens, Mary remains faithful to her God. Would we/Do we remain faithful in the face of similar situations?
However, faith should be somewhat easier for us, than it was for Mary. One reason we can give ourselves to Jesus more freely, is because: We know the ending of Jesus’ life-story. We know that all he did, all he suffered and endured was for our benefit, and was out of LOVE for us. We know that Christ walks with us through the darkest times and eventually brings good out of all it (Keller, p95-98). And because of this, we can more easily trust that God is with us always.
Today, we raise our voices in Joyous Praise for all that Christ has done for us, is doing in us, and will continue to do through us. With the courage of Mary, may we willingly offer ourselves as faithful servants of our Lord, so that God’s will may be accomplished for all people.
May it be so….. AMEN
Keller, Timothy, Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ, Chapter 5: Mary’s Faith. Viking-Penguin Random House LLC/New York, NY, 2016, p79-99
Some have argued that the supreme miracle of Christianity is not the resurrection of Christ from the dead, but (is actually) the incarnation (Keller, p44).
Now, there’s a “churchy” word that we often throw around at this time of year without defining. We assume that we all “known” the word, but do we?
What is the Incarnation?
Timothy Keller has a few different ways of defining the Incarnation in his book.
Because of the Incarnation, we are given the opportunity to have a real, intimate, and lasting relationship with God in Jesus.
This is very different from what the Jews believe. They believe in a God who was both personal and infinite, who was not a being within the universe, but was instead the catalyst of its existence and transcendent above it (Keller, p42).
In the Old Testament, God appeared as a smoking furnace, a pillar of fire, and as a whirlwind or tornado (Keller, p53). The closest we would get to visibly seeing God was to encounter one of God’s many messengers like both Mary and Joseph did.
Back in Exodus 38, while on Mt Sinai meeting with God, Moses asked to see God’s face, and he was told that if he were to look directly at God, it would kill him. He was told, at best, that he could glimpse God’s back after God had passed him by (Exodus 38:18-23) (Keller, p53).
Yet, numerous centuries later, Jesus Christ – by his life, by his claims, and by his resurrection – convinced his closest Jewish followers that he was not just a prophet telling them how to find God, but was God himself, come to find us (Keller, p42).
If Moses were to walk into our sanctuary today and hear us talking about the Incarnation, and listen to our various scripture readings like these through Advent and Christmas:
I imagine Moses would be stunned! Keller says that he believes, “Moses would cry out, Do you realize what this means?! This is the very thing I was denied! This means that through Jesus you can meet God. You can know God personally and without terror. God can come into your life. Where’s your joy? Where’s your amazement? How can your lives NOT be changed?!” (p54).
I think Moses’ shock would be spot on. I really don’t think we are surprised and amazed with the idea, much less the reality, that God came to us in the form of a human infant, so that we might have a real relationship with God’s self in Jesus. That God willingly became vulnerable and ordinary – he became fully human just like you and me (Keller, p47-48); that God emptied himself of his glory, of his divine prerogatives (Keller, p48); and willingly suffered so that we might be able to better connect with God.
This God – the one who lived like us, who has experienced the darkness, rejection, pain, and suffering we go through, and then some – is a God who truly understands us and we can trust in God’s love and care for us (Keller, p52-53).
What do you think…..
If you answered YES to any of the above questions, then why don’t we live and act more like Jesus taught us?
Maybe, it’s because we can only read about and hear stories about Jesus. We have never experienced Jesus as a living, breathing person. So, it’s hard to really wrap our head around the idea that he is real. We want to believe he is, but…… part of us holds back a bit.
It takes a lot of courage to truly believe in Jesus as a living breathing human being, who is also God come to be with us and save us from ourselves and the troubles of our world.
It takes a lot of courage to not just truly believe, but to live like we believe – as faithful disciples of Christ. I know your thinking – what do you mean it takes courage to let our lives reflect Jesus’ teachings and ministry?
If we have the courage to live as faithful disciples, following Christ’s teachings. Then, we must set aside our “right to self-determination”. We must have the courage to do the things that our culture tells us we shouldn’t – deny ourselves of our own will, and trust in what God is calling us to do. As a disciple of Christ, we must trust that God will guide us in what we should be doing, how we should be acting, and what we should be saying. We must trust that in the end – all will be well, that God will take the good and bad choices we make, the kind, hope-filled, chaotic, and hot mess areas of our world and work them for good. (Keller, p58-59)
Most of all, we must have the courage to admit that we need God – that we cannot in order to be our best selves - to live our lives successfully, happily, and abundantly – we need God’s loving and guiding presence in our lives (Keller, p61).
Where do we get the courage to truly believe and follow Jesus; to know that we can give our entire life over to God and we will be better for it?
We look to Jesus himself. We must pause to consider what it must have taken for him to willingly come to be with us: to become mortal and vulnerable so that he could suffer, be betrayed and killed for us. To remember that on the cross, he felt every human emotion of betrayal, fear, and pain – just as we would. Yet, Jesus/God felt it was all worth it. Jesus chose to go through all of this out of LOVE for you, for me, for every human being past, present and future around the world (Keller, p61).
The true and ultimate gift we receive from God is LOVE – unconditional, unselfish, unstoppable, unimaginable LOVE.
May this year be the one that you truly come to know deep in your heart and soul God’s LOVE for you, and may it bring you hope and peace. May you offer that same love back to God and pass it on to others.
Keller, Timothy, Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ, Chapter 3: The Fathers of Jesus. Viking-Penguin Random House LLC/New York, NY, 2016, p40-62.
In today’s US culture and society, how do we identify who and what is valuable, important, most sought after, and what makes one “successful”?
Back in the early days of the US, people often would ask, “Who are your people?” Your family heritage – who your ancestors are, where you come from – was really important. I suppose in some circles that still is the case today, but not so much for the average US resident.
Matthew’s gospel account of the birth of Jesus starts by providing a long, seemingly tedious genealogy (Keller, p20). It’s Jesus’ “resume” of a sort. Matthew feels it’s very important that we know “who Jesus is” and where he comes from (Keller, p29), that his family line goes all the way back to Abraham.
In this way, Matthew reminds us that “Christmas is not simply about a birth, but about a coming, and that God had planned for the arrival of his Son before God even created the Earth. This genealogy shows the extent God was willing to go in order to foreshadow the great person Jesus would be throughout the course of history. And he does so by rooting him firmly in history” (Keller, p20-21).
In Jesus’ time and in the early days of the US, genealogical listings, or resumes, were meant to impress onlookers with the high quality and respectability of one’s roots (Keller, p29) – one’s ancestors.
Matthew’s listing does the very opposite with Jesus. Rather than listing only the “important” people, his genealogy includes some “questionable” ones. So, his genealogy is shockingly unlike other ancient ones.
In ancient patriarchal societies, a woman was virtually never named in such lists. So, Matthew’s inclusion of 5 women in Jesus’ family tree is quite shocking. They are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the wife of Uriah, and, of course, his mother Mary. They can be considered “gender outsiders” (Keller, p29).
Another point of oddity and difference, is that most of the women in Jesus’ family tree were Gentiles: Tamar and Rahab were Canaanites and Ruth was a Moabite. It’s interesting that Matthew – a presumed devout Jew would include them, since to the ancient Jews, these nations were considered “unclean,” and to be avoided. So we can consider these women “racial outsiders” (Keller, p30).
Why would Matthew make such a point of including these women in Jesus’ family tree? Why didn’t he include the other women – like Sarah, Rachel, and Leah? Why only this 5?
Matthew wants us to take a closer look at the stories of their lives, to see what they have to tell us, and listen to how they can speak to who Jesus is.
When we do look at their stories, we see that they represent “some of the most sordid, nasty, and immoral incidents in the Bible.” So, how can these stories help us better understand Jesus?
Based on their stories, these individuals could be called “moral outsiders” - they were adulterers, adulteresses, prostitutes, and involved in questionable family relations, etc. Even Jesus’s “prominent male ancestors – David and Judah – were moral failures” Out of this dysfunctional family comes the Messiah (Keller, p31).
Interestingly, these individuals – the cultural, racial, and gender outsiders – would have been identified among those “excluded from the presence of God by the Law of Moses.” Yet….they are ALL publicly acknowledged as the ancestors of Jesus (Keller, p32).
Matthew does this specifically “show (us) that people who are excluded by culture, by respectable society, and even by the “law of God” can be brought into Jesus’ family.
Here is these stories from Jesus’ family tree, we see that good can come out of dysfunction and tragedy. We are reminded that your family history does not need to dictate who you are or what your potential is. Who and what you become is your choice.
I believe that Matthew also included these stories to assure us that we can be – and are – part or Jesus’ family tree. If we “repent and believe in him, the grace of Jesus Christ can cover our sins and unite us with him” (Keller, p32).
The amazing fact is that while culture and society may have deemed these individuals’ outsiders, “ceremonial unclean” and should be avoided lest they contaminate others, in Jesus that thinking is turned around. His holiness cannot be contaminated. In fact, Jesus’ holiness infects us by our contact with him. Matthew claims that “all who come to him – regardless of who you are and what you have done, no matter how morally stained you are – he can make you as pure as snow” (Isaiah 1:18) (Keller, p32).
Here lies the good news for us today….. We are ALL included in Jesus’ family. Even before Jesus was born, God had already included everyone in Jesus’ family tree – cultural/ethnic/racial, gender, and even moral outsiders, all became insiders, all became family in him.
This is the good news that the birth of Christ brings to us this Christmas season - the gift we receive is God’s unconditional acceptance, forgiveness, and love for us. There is nothing that we have done, or could do, that can or will separate us from God’s love in Christ.
The Christmas message is of the coming of Christ, being born into human flesh to live among us once again, so that we may come to know, understand, and believe in the gift of God’s love for us. To know that WE are ALL part of Jesus’ family tree, and that our place in it was decided before we were even born.
This gift alone can bring peace into our lives. The peace that allows us to set aside all our worries and our doubts about the future. We know that in Christ we have nothing to fear in our future - death has been overcome, our struggles will be used for good, our tears will turn to laughter, and we will have eternal life with the One who created us and continually seeks to transform us, the one who endlessly redeems us and who forever walks beside us, guiding us from darkness into light.
This Advent and Christmas season: may you accept God’s unconditional love and forgiveness, and deeply know God’s peace in your life.
Keller, Timothy. Hidden Christmas – The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ. Penguin Random House/New York, NY, 2016, Chapter 2: “The Mothers of Jesus,” p20-39.
Here we are at the start of a new church year. The church is decked out in its holiday finery and we are ready to start our journey to Bethlehem once again. This year, we will be using Timothy Keller’s book, “Hidden Christmas – the Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ” as our main resource for our Advent and Christmas season.
What are some of the first indicators that Christmas is coming – soon?
Lights are definitely one of the first indicators that Christmas is coming. They start to appear everywhere - lights on trees, candles in windows, and hanging on houses. Some twinkling and some steady – multi-colored (or hued), as well as in cool and bright whites. Everything seems as if it is wrapped in millions and millions of stars (p5), giving the world a more “magical” look.
Keller reminds us that Christmas is the only Christian holy day that is also a major secular holiday – arguably our culture’s biggest. This results in two different celebrations – each observed by millions of people at the very same time (p1).
For Christians, of course, lights are not just decorative; they are symbolic.
When you think of light, what does it mean or represent for you?
For centuries, light has represented these things. Many would place a candle in their windows to guide family members home or lost travelers to safety. Lighthouses have been used to help keep ships on course and to guide sailors into safe harbors. Firelight has always brought warmth and sustenance to those who use it.
Light in the Bible is also symbolic more than literal. In our Isaiah text when we hear of God’s light dawning on a dark world, the prophet is referring to the sun. And, of course, sunlight brings illumination to things we couldn’t previously see in the dark of night. Sunlight also symbolically represents life, truth, and beauty. The sun gives life (Keller, p10) to all things that grow and breathe. Night time is like a little death – everything goes into a time of dormancy, of rest – but sunrise is when everything awakens and is vibrantly alive once again.
We have defined “light,” but what about darkness? How do we define “darkness” in the Bible? The word “darkness” refers to both evil and ignorance (p6).
How/where do we see darkness in our world?
Keller says another understanding of “darkness” is the “way our world is in the dark and no one knows enough to cure the evil we are suffering here (p6).
So, where is our hope? Are we just stuck with the world the way it is? Is there anything we can do?
Here lies part of the problem. Vaclav Havel, 1st President of the Czech Republic, says – too often we/humanity think that WE can solve the problems of our world. “Pursuit of the good life will not help humanity save itself, nor is democracy alone enough,” he says. “A turning to and seeking God is needed. The human race constantly forgets that they are NOT God, and that we cannot save ourselves,” Havel says (Keller quoting, p8).
Keller tells us that the message of Christianity is that: “Things really are this dark, nevertheless, there is hope!” (p10).
So where does our hope come from?
The Christian message is all about hope. The prophet Isaiah says: “on those living in the land of deep darkness, a light has dawned (shined).” (9:2). When we look at the words closely, we can see that the light has dawned upon the world – it didn’t come from within the world. We are not the source of the light. The light is outside of this world; it comes from God. Remember, God alone has the life, truth, and ability to bring the hope that we lack and cannot generate ourselves. Isaiah tells us that the light of life has come, “for to us a child is born, a son is given” (9:6-7). The child brings the light; he is the light (Keller, p10).
We hear these words from Jesus, himself in John 8:12, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
Isaiah tells us that this child is the light for all people because he is “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (9:6b).
As we begin our journey with Mary and Joseph once again – a path that will take us to a dusty stable in Bethlehem where we will kneel with shepherds beside a manger in awe that God chose that couple, that place and time and us to witness his entrance into our human existence as a beautiful, vulnerable infant.
Each year at Christmas, and every day in between, we receive this amazing, awe-inspiring, unconditional gift: “for to us a child is born, a son is given” (9:6-7). The gift is ours for the taking, all we have to do is be willing to:
In doing so, we are given the gift of new life through the inbreaking of God’s light in our lives. We are able to have HOPE, no matter how “dark” things seem, we can trust that God is always with us because: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:1-5). Nothing that life tries to dish out can steal our HOPE or our LIGHT as long as we allow God to guide our days and watch over our nights.
My friends, As you enter into the Advent Season, may your feel and know the warming presence of God’s light and love in your life.
May it be so – every moment of every day and night….
Keller, Timothy. Hidden Christmas – The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ. Penguin Random House/New York, NY, 2016, Chapter 1: “A Light Has Dawned,” p5-19.
Today marks the end of our church year. On this last Sunday of the church calendar, many are celebrating “Christ the King” or “Reign of Christ” Sunday. We celebrate this day each year, but does it really mean anything anymore? If so, then what?
Do you/do we actually recognize and proclaim Jesus as our “King”?
What does it mean for us to see and claim Jesus as our “King”?
Intellectually we “know” that Christ/God is supposed to be the ruler, the head, of our lives. But, logically, emotionally, and putting that into practice is a different thing for many of us.
Our Colossians text reminds us that Jesus is to be the center and of primary importance in our lives (Matthews). That means, Jesus should come first – and everything else (yes, I do mean everything) that we think, say, or do should be filtered through the lens of Jesus and the ways he teaches us to live and love.
As Christians, we say we are “believers” and “followers” of Jesus. Let’s take a closer look at those terms. There is a difference between being a “believer” and being a “follower” or “disciple” of Christ.
Which are you? Are you a believer or a follower/disciple – or do you fall somewhere in between?
Choosing to believe in and follow Jesus is a big-time “game-changer” (Matthews). Living a life patterned after Jesus isn’t easy. As Neta Pringle states “being a Christian is not simply a matter of fitting Jesus into our present way of thinking (or living).” Instead, it means taking on a whole new way of life – of how we see, think, feel, and act towards everyone and everything (Matthews).
Too often we prefer to “fit Jesus into” our life. We mold and shape Jesus and stuff him into a box where it’s “easier” for us to believe, and where there isn’t much expected of us to do, think, feel, or speak differently. We want to pick and choose when and how we act in ways Jesus teaches us.
Today, we are reminded that there is more. There is more to being a believer and follower of Christ. When we claim the title/name of Christian, we are saying that we are willing to be part of Jesus’ team; we are willing to change our focus of the way we see and approach life. We are willing to take “risks” for others on Jesus’ behalf. We are willing to do our part to help heal and transform our world.
When we intentionally change our focus from what the politicians, society, and media/social media of this world tells us we should be looking at and what’s important – to zero in on what God tells us, through scripture, that we should be focusing on, we are transferred, moved, and transported from earthly kingdom of the US to the kingdom and reign of God. Life in God’s kingdom is very different than what we are used to, and when we focus on living in God’s kingdom – on earth as it is in heaven – our lives as we have known them in this world change for the better (Matthews).
We have allowed ourselves to relax our focus and have slid back more towards believers than followers or disciples of Jesus. Our doing is more of the giving – money, things – rather than actual hands-on and face-to-face assistance of others. Or when we do engage, it’s because people come us, rather than us meeting them where they are and how they need us to be there for them.
Maybe we needed a break. I get that, and so does God. Every form of ministry has a life cycle. They ebb and wane based on the energy level of those supporting them. Once ministries start to wane, it’s often time to set them aside for a while and find new things that give us energy and joy. As Christians – as believers and followers/disciples of Jesus – we are called to not sit back and wait for others to come to us – but to go out, reach out, and meet others where they are in their need.
So, while we may be in a time of “resting” we also need to take do some reassessing and planning for our next run. We need to re-examine what is important to us, listen for what ministries God is calling us to participate in, and then re-engage with our community with more energy and love. We will be doing some of this in the 1st quarter of 2020.
As we read our Colossians text, we don’t only hear words of challenge. We also hear words of comfort. These same words that comforted the people of Colossea almost 2000 years ago, still offer comfort to us today: “in Jesus, we see God’s plan for Creation – that all suffering and brokenness and sin in the world can be gathered up in Christ, who has room for all of us, for all the brokenness of the universe as well.” Not only is that brokenness and sin gathered up, but it is “properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies,” through Jesus’ death on the cross (v19-20, the Message, E. Peterson).
Kate Matthews, in her commentary, tells us that Elizabeth Barrington Forney uses a wonderful image of “the fine print” – like the small print of a legal contract that represents the comprehensiveness of Jesus’ reign over every detail of human existence. In the fine print, we are reminded that none of us – not one single human being – is too insignificant to be watched over by Christ. We are all important and precious in God’s eyes.
I don’t know about you, but that is the best news I could ever hear. I can let down my guard and finally admit that I need someone else’s help, that I cannot go it alone, and if left to my own decisions I will make some major mistakes – some that I don’t feel I can recover from. But in Christ…..all things are recoverable. All things can be made well once again. And only Christ can make that happen.
This is truly something to celebrate. I think Eugene Peterson says it best, “You don’t walk away from a gift like that!” You would be crazy too. Instead, “you stay grounded and steady in the bond of trust, constantly tuned in to the Message, careful not to be distracted or diverted.” We can rest and gather our energy because the one who creates, us, is the One who has redeemed us, and is the One who will faithfully stand by us through thick and thin, seeking to strengthen us, guide us, and help us transform the world through love.
Today’s celebration of Jesus’ role in and rule over our lives is even more poignant when we remember that next Sunday beings a new Advent and Christmas season – a time of anticipation and joy of God’s love for us. God loves us so much that God was willing to enter into our lives, taking on flesh in all its vulnerabilities, so that we could be brought to wholeness of life once again.
May the week ahead be one of celebration and joy for the gifts of life and love we have been given. As we gather with our families and friends around the table once again, be sure to take the time to count your blessings and give thanks and praise in all things for what God has given.
Matthews, Kate. Commentary and Bible Study “Reign of Christ”, based on Colossians 1:11-20, for November 24, 2019. www.ucc.org/weekly_seeds
Peterson, Eugene. “The Message” (MSG) transliteration of scripture, Colossians 1:9-23. The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson
This Sunday we are celebrating “All Saints” day. Each year, “All Saints” Day falls on November 1st per the Catholic and several Protestant church calendars, including ours. We celebrate it on the Sunday closest to that date.
What is the purpose of this day, and why do we celebrate it each year?
When we hear the term “Saints,” who do we think of?
What do you think about that comment? Do you agree or disagree?
Bolz-Weber says that what makes us the saints of God, is not our ability to be saintly, but rather God’s ability to work through sinners.
As we think about the “saints and sinners” in our lives, let’s look at the “saint” side first…..
Who are some of the people who helped to shape your curiosity and faith in Jesus when you were young?
What do you remember most about that person(s)?
Did they attend church regularly?
Did you attend church regularly when you were young?
Do those early memories of church and your “church family” play into why you are here today?
I’d like you to close your eyes for a moment and imagine those individuals who have influenced your faith around you right now.
Some of you, were born into and raised in this very church family. But the rest of us, come from different places, some of us even different faith traditions. Every time we enter this sanctuary, we bring our history, our cultures, and our faith traditions with us. We also bring the presence of all those individuals who have influenced our faith. They join us as we gather to worship God, as we delve into the bible stories, and explore the messages that God has for us today – here and now, in this place we call home – our Hayshire neighborhood and our wider York, PA community.
And we can’t forget the “sinner” side of things, either. Some believe that the lives they have lived make them a bad influence, a “black sheep” of the family, it keeps them on the outside looking in. That if they were to dare attempt to enter the doors of a church, God would strike them down – or at least one of the people would see them for what they are and turn them away.
These individuals want to believe that they too can be loved by God, but feel that the bad decisions and mistakes they have made, make them exempt. What do you think – are they beyond God’s reach?
Reality is, the gospel is a story of a God who came to us through Jesus – who loved without bounds, forgave without reservation, and said that we (each of us) have the power to do the same. This gospel, this good news, cannot be destroyed by all the stupid mistakes (and bad decisions) that we have and will make. Bolz-Weber reminds us that “while we are in perpetual need of God’s grace, we are assured that Jesus died for our sins – every last one of them. So there is nothing – nothing – we have done (or will do) that God cannot redeem (Accidental Saints, p10, 18).
Our Ephesians text this morning echoes this. It reminds us that “the church” as Paul knew it “is made up of those who chose to hope in Christ, who chose to hear the word of truth, and who chose to believe” (Schertz, p232).
Paul reminds us that we are all interconnected in this life of faith. He proposes a way in which God, through Christ, brings all who believe into unity: unity in the present moment, and unity across time. For some, this may be a broader concept of church than we have originally talked about (Drummond, p230, 232), but our lives of faith did not come to be in the bubble of this very time. In fact, they transcend time.
A few minutes ago, we remembered those people who have helped shape our faith into what it is today. They are gathered around us today as we worship God and remember those who have now joined their ranks within God’s “great cloud of witnesses.” Those individuals will continue to be a part of our faith, just as we hopefully will be a continual influence and part of the faith of children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and the generations to come.
Today, as we lift-up the names of our beloved ones who have joined the “gathering of spirits” on the other side of the veil, we remember that we are all one in Christ. Our time, too, will come to become a part of the great cloud of witnesses that will spiritually surround those who remain behind. Until then…..
May our faith be a beacon of hope,
leading others into a closer relationship with God.
Bolz-Weber, Nadia (Rev), Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People. Convergent Books/New York, 2015.
Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 4. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Westminster John Knox Press/Louisville, KY, 2013, p230-235.
Today, we venture into the story of Zacchaeus. What do we know about him?
There is something interesting going on in the story. Zacchaeus has very obviously heard about Jesus and is anxious to finally see him. He knows that he won’t be able to talk to Jesus, but just to see him – and maybe even hear him speak, if he is really lucky. That would be great.
Well, we hear how the crowd is so thick around Jesus that Zacchaeus can’t even catch a glimpse of him. I imagine that he is super frustrated with the fact that he may not even get the chance to see this amazing prophet who he has heard so much about.
For whatever reason, Zacchaeus, feels the deep need to see Jesus, and he decides that the crowd isn’t going to prevent him from what he has set out to do. So, in spite of his designer clothes and fancy shoes, he sees a sturdy tree up the road a bit – clearly in Jesus’ path – and he decides to run up to it and start climbing. From up there, he will be able to clearly see Jesus. He doesn’t even stop to think of what everyone will say about his actions. “Who cares?!” He thinks to himself. “They talk about me anyways, so what’s one more thing to add to the list?”
Now, here’s where the story gets really interesting!
Once again, we see how those who are looking for, who are seeking Jesus, actually find out that he was, in fact, seeking them all along (Stamper).
One of Jesus’ great quirks was that he always noticed those in the crowd who were in need of companionship or healing, and he extended an invitation for them to spend time together.
Why would Jesus invite himself to Zacchaeus’ house?
Why wouldn’t he? Zacchaeus’ position as a tax collector made him one of the people whom the rest of society avoided and outright shunned. Tax collectors were definitely among the “lost” whom he came to seek and save (Stamper).
Of course, Zacchaeus was shocked and filled with great joy at the prospect of spending time with Jesus and having the honor of Jesus coming to his home.
Unfortunately, he isn’t allowed to feel that joy for very long. The crowd, stunned by Jesus’ statement, doesn’t remain speechless for long. They quickly become angry and vocally judgmental.
Why? Why do they care at all who Jesus spends time with?
Does it matter whether Zacchaeus responded to Jesus’ presence and apparent unconditional acceptance of him, that he has a “change of heart” about how he had been living – or that he has always been quietly compassionate to those in his community and has been funneling half of his income anonymously to those who needed it most?
Many scholars believe that the first option is the better, cleaner translation. That Zacchaeus’ generosity was a “new-found trait” because Jesus singled him out and spent time with him. Most believe that “repentance must/should include matters of the wallet as well as the heart” (Lose).
Yet, how would it change our perspective if option 2 was the true reading of this story – that Zacchaeus had been quietly compassionate all along?
Let’s think about it a slightly different way: You have just won the PowerBall. It doesn’t matter whether you won the basic amount of $42 mil or one of the jumbo jackpots of $500+ mil. You won!
Sometimes we want others to know what we are doing with our money – who we are donating to and why. One reason for that is because our actions, generosity, and reasoning can influence others to do the same.
Sometimes we don’t’ want others to know because we are very private people and don’t like to be in the limelight. We want to truly help others, but those we help don’t need to know where it comes from. We aren’t anyone special, we aren’t better than them. We were just in the right place, right time, and lucky enough to have won and can now offer help to some who need it desperately.
Reality is – money talks. Money is news. People want to know who’s winning the big jackpots – because if it’s a hard worker like them, then there is hope that they too could get lucky and solve their own financial problems, make life easier for themselves, for some of the people they love, and even for others within their community or the world.
Yet, for many of us, money is not something that we are comfortable talking about. We’re even told that it is not something that should be talked about in “polite” company, but it is an essential part of living in today’s world.
There are over 2000 Bible verses referencing money and our use of it. That makes it the #1 topic mentioned in the Bible. Love – which we proclaim is the core message of God and Jesus – is mentioned only ~300 times.
I believe, like many, that money and our use of it is such an important topic. It is one of the few things that can cause us to forget that we are to love people, to put them first in our lives – NOT money or things. It can become the center of our focus for life – having money, getting more, and acquiring all the things we want. Because those who have money, have the power. People come to them and beg for help.
Yet, it reality, money is only important in the sense that we need it to provide for our own basic needs and the basic needs of everyone around the world. It can make our lives easier, more comfortable, and give us the “extras” we want – like extra clothes, nice house, nice car, vacations, etc.
But, we need to remember that money doesn’t buy our true security in life. Money can’t prevent us from getting sick or keep us from experiencing tragedies and loss. Nothing can.
Only God can provide us with the spiritual security that will enable us to have courage and hope even in the darkest times. For nothing is impossible – to face or overcome – with God by our side.
The apostle Paul reminds us that: the key to true happiness in life is having God in your heart, and “to be content with what you have” (Philippians 4:11). The majority of people will experience plenty and need in their lifetimes. May you always be content with what you have at all times – knowing it is more than enough for your happiness. For when you have love – love of God, love of family and friends, you are truly rich.
Lose, David, Commentary on Luke 19:1-10, published for 10/31/10 and 10/30/16. www.workingpreacher.org
Stamper, Meda, Commentary on Luke 19:1-10, published for 11/3/13. www.workingpreacher.org
After our final Elephant in the Pew series message on “Is there a Hell?” I had a conversation with Cathy Sherry about sin and repentance. In the Christian tradition, and here at Hayshire, we include a time of Confession and Assurance of Grace as a part of our regular weekly worship liturgy. While we recognize that it is important for us to name and ask forgiveness for the sins we perform in our lives, we usually just “go through the motions” of doing so during our weekly worship. I don’t think we truly take it seriously, or maybe even see that it is necessary for our lives.
Why do we include a communal time of Confession each week?
Each week, our bulletin states that there is a time of silence between our communal confession and the assurance of grace. Why? What is that time intended for?
Remember, I mentioned in my Elephant in the Pew Message on “Is there a Hell?” that: “Every act we do in our lifetime leaves an imprint on our souls. The good we do brightens and elevates our soul, and every wrongdoing leaves a stain that needs to be cleansed. And if at the end of our life, we leave this world without fixing the wrongs we have done, our soul is unable to reach its place of rest on high” (Marin, 08/25/19).
So, weekly, we provide a brief time of silence to be with God, and to confess where we fall short in our faithfulness to God. Yet, we often find this “quiet” time uncomfortable and hard to hold. I think, in part, because we don’t really know what is expected of us in that time. We become restless and our brains become hyper active, preventing us from opening ourselves to quiet contemplation or conversation with God, even for a minute. Or it could be hard to do this because we know there isn’t much time. It’s also harder because we are in a crowd with others around us who are also uncomfortable, fidgeting, whispering, etc. Plus, the fact that it feels even longer when you are standing up here trying to lead worship. Every second feels like 10 or more. So, depending on how comfortable our liturgist is with “quiet” and being up front, the time between our confession and assurance can be really quick (only a few seconds) or a bit longer (a minute or so).
Regardless, our time of communal Confession is a model of what we should be doing as individuals on a regular basis.
Do you take time regularly – daily, weekly, monthly – to actually engage in confession before God? I would bet most of us don’t. Why?
I would bet it is because we hate to focus on the negatives, we hate to actually name what we do wrong. Or, maybe it’s because we don’t think that we really do that much wrong. At least not enough wrong for regular confession. Shouldn’t confessions be for the big stuff – you know the big, blatant ones – like stealing, cheating, lying, physically harming others, etc.?
And if you are like me, you are your own worst critic and it is too easy to name what you think/feel you are doing wrong. You don’t need a specific time to sit and list them all, you beat yourself up on a regular basis as an ongoing practice. If that is the case, then this message is really for you, because confession is not just about naming where we fall short or go wrong, it’s also, and more importantly, about forgiveness – specifically, God forgiving us and washing us clean once again.
Cathy went on to say, “If you want, you can actually take your message on sin and forgiveness to the next level. You can help the congregation explore the need for regular confession and the release it can bring to our hearts and souls. At the end of September, she said, Judiasm celebrates Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish “new year” – where they have a ritual called Tashlich, in which they cast off their sins and beginning again. You might want to look into it.
So, I did. Judaism celebrates the “new year” in a way very different from the rest of the world. How do you celebrate the “new year”?
Many of us also make resolutions for the “new year.” Things that we want to do to make our lives better. What happens to the majority of those resolutions? They are forgotten or given up on within a short period of time, and life goes back to “normal.”
In Judaism, the transition from one year to the next is a bit different. In fact, it has a very deep and important role in the way the devout live.
Rosh Hashanah is one of the “High Holy Days” that Judaism practices, and is started and with the blowing of the shofar. The blowing of the shofar represents the trumpet blast that is sounded at a king’s coronation. Its plaintive cry also serves as a call to repentance. Let’s listen to the sound of the shofar as our hearts and minds are called into a time of preparation for true engagement with God.
(YouTube clip – blowing the shofar https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJwfsYxDgJ4)
The shofar is blown periodically throughout the day as those gathered within the synagogues share prayers, singing, and enter into a time of deep, personal contemplation of the way that they have lived and acted over the past year, and the very changes that need to be made in their life moving forward.
Yet, just like for us, Judaism is not all about time within the synagogue spent in prayer, singing, listening to readings. There is a time when their faith must be put into practical use, it must be lived.
So, as evening approaches, the community gathers for a ritual “Tashlich” service or a time of “casting off” – a time to rid themselves of the weighty sins of their actions and behaviors over the past year.
The community gathers near a body of water – “usually a running body of water such as a sea, river, stream, lake, or pond.” One Jewish commentator stated that “a bucket of water will do if you are unable to make it to another location” (Hirschhorn).
The scripture of the day often points towards water’s role in God’s plans for forgiveness of God’s people:
For us, Christians, we could add:
This ritual of Tashlich allows one to cast off their sins and release their hearts and souls of the weight they have carried over the past year, and enter into a new chapter of life, a new year with a fresh start in their relationship with God. Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez says that “Judaism sometimes get so abstract and so lost in words. It’s nice when you can just throw it away into the ocean. It’s very powerful.”
Today is a time of living into our faith, a time of experiencing, for ourselves, the amazing love and transformation of God. As we move forward with the rest of our time together, we will share in a communal confession and hear the assurance of grace from our God. This will be followed by a time of personal contemplation – while we hear the words of our closing hymn – “If I have Been the Source of Pain, O God”. As we listen to the choir sing this hymn, and maybe even sing along ourselves, I ask you to prayerfully identify within yourself at least one (1) specific sin you wish to let go of – to totally cast out of your life, to be free from. As the choir sings, and Laine plays for us, when you are ready, you may quietly exit and cast off – drop the weighty rock of your sins – into either this bin up here, next to me, or in one of the vessels located at the doors in the back.
As you drop your rock into the water, quietly name your sin(s) and say “God, I offer this to you. Create in me a clean heart, and place a right spirit within me.”
Sisters and brothers……
May God bless you and keep you this week.
May God refresh your spirit
And bring you peace.
Hirschhorn, Linda. Writings – Tashlich (5773), copyrighted 2012. www.lindahirschhorn.com/writings/tashlich.html
Marin, Brenda K. Rev, “Is there a Hell?” sermon, 08/25/19 Elephant in the Pew series.
Wittner, Michael, article “Tashlich: A time to cast away sins as we start the New Year,” September 7, 2018. Jewishjournal.org/2018/09/07/Tashlich-a-time-to-cast-away-sins-as-we-start-the-new-year/
Today’s text in 1 Timothy focuses on prayer. I know, not another one. You’ve heard sermons and messages before on prayer. “It’s not that complicated,” you’re thinking. And, you are correct – prayer isn’t complicated. But have you stopped to think about: Why we pray? Are there different ways we can pray and when should we use them? Or even, do our prayers really matter in the long run?
Our 1 Timothy text answers these questions. Sometimes it’s good to slow down, come back to the basics, and review them once again. So, let’s do that.
If someone just learning bout Christianity and the basic practices that are part of our faith came to you with these questions about prayer, how would you answer them:
Prayer is one of the building blocks of our faith. In fact, our 1st Timothy text in Eugene Peterson’s transliteration, The Message, spells it out in easy, plain language – “The first thing I want you to do is pray. Pray every way you know how, for everyone you know.”
The writer of 1 Timothy, who is presumably Paul, tells us that Prayer is the most important thing that we can do in our lives. It is so important that we should pray all the time, and not just for ourselves and for our loved ones and friends, but for everyone – we know and even those we don’t know. For those we “like” and even for those we don’t like. For Paul – everyone means everyone in the world – no exceptions!
So, we try and do that, right? Okay, maybe we aren’t as good at it as we would like to be, or that God would like us to be. But, we try and hold all of those we know in prayer – especially when they are going through a tough time.
So, how do you understand prayer? Is “praying” passive or action-oriented? WHY?
So, why doesn’t this feel like it’s very action oriented?
Because we want – maybe even feel the need – to do something, to make things better, easier, to “fix” the situation for those we care about. But in reality, can we do that? Maybe – but not too often.
Too often there is nothing that we can humanly do to “fix” or make a situation better. So then, all we really can do is pray, to offer them up to God, and ask that God be with them, care for them, help them with their current situation. Prayer is an action we choose to take.
This text is also a lesson in discerning what is truly called for us to do in response to a situation. First and foremost, we can and should offer a prayer to God about the situation, the person; to ask for God’s guidance, wisdom, and direction; and then move to do something more physical if appropriate. And maybe the only next appropriate action we can take is to be present with them – sit with them, listen to them, hold their hand, etc. so that they know that they are not alone.
Paul tells Timothy in v8 that he recognizes this is difficult for all of us. He knows how much we want to physically act first then, and only after we have exhausted all possible physical actions, resort to prayer and words if the physical doesn’t “fix” things.
As Christians, we must remember to do the opposite. We must first pray and invite God into each and every situation, then and only then move to do more physical things – if appropriate, if necessary. Only by doing that, will we be able to respond in the way that is needed most. Sometimes we move to physical action too quickly, out of a sense of our own anxiety and need, rather than because the other person’s situation truly calls for it, or they even want us to “help” in more direct ways.
Paul reminds us that prayer is not a “one way fits all” – all people and all situations – kind of practice. No, Paul says we shouldn’t pray in the same way each time – but use a variety of methods. There are multiple forms of prayer that we can utilize depending on the situation, and that we should be comfortable with all of them. These different types of prayers help us cover everyone and everything we should be praying for. In fact, he provides several examples.
One commentator calls the methods mentioned by Paul in v1 as “SPIT” prayers: Supplications, Prayers of Petition, Intercessions and Thanksgiving.
Paul also states in v3-4 that the real reason we should be offering prayers is because “it is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior” and because God “desires everyone be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (NRSV). Peterson says that the “truth we’ve learned is that there is one God and only one, and one Priest-Mediator between God and us – Jesus, who offered himself in exchange for everyone held captive by sin, to set them all free” (The Message).
The good news we hear this morning is that:
So, my friends…. PRAY and Pray often. Pray in all ways that you know and even when words fail you. Open your hearts and lives to God, and see what amazing things await you and those around you.
May it be so….. AMEN
Erwin, Jim. Blog post, February 8, 2015: 1 Timothy 2:1-8 Godly Prayer. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jimerwin/2015/02/08/1-timothy-21-8-godly-prayer/
Peterson, Eugene H. The Message, Copyright 1993, 2002, 2018.
When you read something or hear someone tell you a story, can you see it play out in your head?
Today’s text includes two familiar stories. I want to take a closer look at parts of them, but with a twist. This morning, I would like you to find that switch in your brain that allows your imagination to run like a TV or movie screen, and flip it “on”.
For me, I find that when I can envision something, almost as if I am seeing it on a screen, or as if I am in the room with the actual people, that’s when it impacts me the most.
By locating ourselves in today’s stories, it will help us to understand more about the story. Maybe even have new insights into those who disagree with Jesus, maybe why they disagree (Craddock, p184), as well as some other aspects of the story. So, let’s try it.
I’m going to read the 1st story of our Luke text again and this time, as you listen, I want you to join the story. I want you to think about, imagine where you see yourself in it. Where are you sitting, and who do you associate with the most?
(READ Luke 15:1-7 again)
So…. where do you fit in this story? Let’s think about what it’s like to be with each of the main characters/groups. What would it be like to be…
I think we all have been “lost” before – geographically speaking, anyways. Maybe you’ve even been lost mentally – unable to learn or grasp something, or at least struggling to have it make sense for you.
But have you ever felt like you were emotionally and/or spiritually lost?
Going back to the previous comment, that the “good news” is we are sought – and found by God on a daily basis. These parables show us exactly that, and they can bring us comfort and the assurance that we are important to God.
They show us that, like the good shepherd or the woman with the coin, whenever one of God’s beloved ones gets lost, goes astray, God immediately goes into search mode and tirelessly searches for the one them (Debevoise, p70). God searches until they (we) are found and brought back home.
When you think about it, it seems so easy for us to wander away from God and to get caught up in what the media, peer pressure, our culture and economic structure tells us is important. Because of the decisions we make, our actions – or inactions – we can become so filled with regret, hurt, and fear, that we are unable to undo our mistakes, to retrace our steps, or make it right (Debevoise, p72). We get so lost to God, and even ourselves, that we struggle to find our way back home again (Debevoise, p70).
Fortunately, Jesus reassures us, with these parables, that God is a step ahead of us. Home is already waiting. Love’s door is open to us (Debevoise, p72) – and always will be. We just need to turn our hearts and minds back to God, to allow ourselves to be “found” by the one who continually seeks us.
It’s great to be “found”. And like the tax collector and sinners in today’s story, it’s great to know that we can be, and already are, forgiven; that we have a place where we will always be welcomed and loved.
But what about the Pharisees and scribes? Their community is being turned upside down by those who they don’t feel should be welcomed in. To them, Jesus’ parables are NOT “good news.”
Is there any merit to the old adages: Birds of a feather…..You are the company you keep….Or, if you lie down with swine, you can expect to get dirty?
If we are, in fact, known by the company we keep, then Jesus has completely thrown the community into a panic (Debevoise, p68). They are concerned for the very moral and ethical structure of their community. And they all thought that, Jesus, as the proclaimed Son of God, should be also very concerned about the same things they are. Yet… here he is inviting seedy people – the homeless, sick (mentally, physically, and spiritually), as well as the shady politicians, tax collectors, local hoodlums, thieves, drug pushers and prostitutes to dinner. That really cannot be a good idea, can it? (Craddock, p185)
Jesus’ only response to their questions is to tell these parables. And to top it off, Jesus ends the stories with “Just so (you know), (I’m here to) tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (v10).
The stories are not just about individuals needing to turn or return to God. They also seem to be about the delight, the excitement and joy of the seeker (Jesus/God) finding the lost and bringing it back home where it belongs. In fact, the finder’s joy is so great that they call their neighbor’s together to help them celebrate their good fortune (Craddock, p186).
This final verse also tells us that for every person – each of us, and every other person alive – who finds their way to, and more importantly back to, life in close relationship with God there is a celebration in heaven.
Jesus invites his critics to join him, and all of heaven, in celebration of find the lost. Here we see that JOY is at the heart of the gospel. Finding and restoring the lost gives pleasure to God, as well as to all who are about God’s business (Craddock, p186).
Yet, through these parables we see that the Pharisees and scribes don’t join in the celebration. They don’t seem to “get” that they should be sharing in that same joy.
So, for those of us, like the Pharisees and scribes, who feel some should be excluded from God’s presence and blessing, and that their coming to join the community is not cause for celebration, these parables are a challenge for us to “repent” to “turn back” to God’s ways rather than our own understanding. These parables are about us learning to rejoice in what God values most – a relationship with each of God’s beloved ones (Bader-Saye, p72).
Today, Jesus reminds us today that the true nature of repentance is not to feel bad (about what we have done, or not done); it is to change one’s mind, (one’s perspective or understanding of what is right – in God’s eyes) (Nixon, p73).
So, I guess the big question for today is…..Who are the sinners – in today’s stories, in life as a whole?
Answer = the ones who need their minds changed.
For us as Christians, True repentance happens when our minds are changed to such a degree that we cannot see a community as a whole until all are included and none are “lost” (Nixon, p73) - or excluded.
One day soon, may we all share in this prayer:
Gracious and Amazing God, have mercy upon us, sinners. Give us the courage to open our hearts and minds fully to you, so that we may be found. Give us the wisdom and compassion to open our eyes to see all of your people through your loving eyes.
May it be so….. AMEN
Craddock, Fred B. “Luke” – Luke 15:1-32, Luke 15:4-10. Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2009.
Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 4. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2010.
When you hear the word “clay” – what do you think of?
How is pottery different from clay?
What does a potter do?
Have any of you ever worked with clay?
Have you used a “potter’s wheel” before?
What’s it like working with clay?
Does the item you are working on come out right, perfect each time?
What happens when it doesn’t turn out right, or just falls on you?
Pottery is a beautiful form of aft. Interestingly, art and Christianity have a lot of similarities. “Art doesn’t fundamentally lie in the creation of the material (medium) to be used. The material is a given – it is to be understood, practiced upon, cherished, for sure, but not created. Art lies in the recreation of that material in a new form.
Christianity is not about imaging something perfect, called creation, and straining to get ourselves back to that ideal state. It’s about taking the material of humankind, the surrounding world and universe, and exploring the form of a relationship between God and us, and contemplating the governing idea that God, the artist, will go to any lengths to restore that relationship” (Wells, S.).
In our Jeremiah text, we once again find the image of the potter and clay. This image goes all the way back to the beginning of humanity. In Genesis 2:7, we hear how God formed humans from the dust of the ground. We were fashioned specifically and carefully by the Creator, the grand Potter, in God’s own image.
Art – painting, making music, sculpting, working clay on the wheel, etc., is often thought of as one-sided. The artist has the idea, the grand design, and works the material before them to meet the image they envisioned, right? The paints, the clay, the musical instrument don’t have a say ibn what they become do they? They are intangible, so they can’t have a role in the creative process…..or can they?
Art is actually a very relational process. The artist becomes immersed in the medium they are working with. It is almost as if the material speaks with the artist, or as artist, Michelangelo Buonarroti said: “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there. I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” (goodreads.com/quotes)
I think that the creation of humanity followed a similar process. God’s own hands gathered the dust of the earth, dampened it, worked it, and shaped it just right, before breathing life into each of us.
Ever since, God has allowed each person to live and function on their own – independently and collectively, making good choices and bad. Over the years, God remains in close contact with each of us. Sometimes, we can hear God and feel God’s movement in our lives clearly. Other times, we believe we can go it alone, that we don’t need God’s guidance or “interference” in our lives, and we drift further away from God, and often from each other. God doesn’t give up on humanity, though. God continues to remain close to us. The relationship doesn’t end because we believe that we don’t need anyone, even God.
Yet, “the very manner in which God speaks to the people through prophets is intrinsically relational. Thanks to Walter Brueggemann in particular, the church is waking up to the fact that Old Testament prophetic language is not neutral or merely descriptive but expressive, engaging, committing – always seeking to evoke a response. Precisely because the language seeks a response, its working will depend on the nature of that response” (Wells, J.).
Here in our Jeremiah text, we see that give and take, the interchange and co-creative actions and expressions of humanity (the clay) and God (the potter). Like clay, we are meant to remain soft enough, malleable or flexible enough to be shaped and reshaped by the circumstances around us. Frequently, though our lives seem to become misshaped, brittle, chipped, and broken; they can even fail or fall apart on us.
Through it all, God continues to try and offer up warnings to us when we venture into unhealthy decisions and territory, just like God did to the people through Jeremiah. Sometimes, God must use tactics and people that will produce a reaction; that we will wake up and respond – hopefully we will realize where we have ventured into dangerous territory (physically and emotionally), where we have gone astray spiritually, repent and turn towards God once again.
By doing so, by turning back to God once again, by admitting that we are malleable clay, that we do need the grand potter in our life to help shape us and mold us, God is able to full re-engage with us and will become hands-on in our lives once again, seeking to rework us, mend our wounds, strengthen our resolve, and reshape us into faithful, useful servants and vessels once again.
My friends, we come from dust and to dust we will return at some point in our lives. In the meantime, we are to remain as malleable flexible clay formed into useful and faithful vessels of God’s spirit and love – each individually shaped and continually re-shaped by the potter’s hands.
May it be so…..AMEN
Wells, Jo Bailey, “Blogging toward Sunday.” https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2007-09/blogging-toward-sunday
Wells, Samuel, article Christ the artist, we the portfolio, printed in February 1, 2017 issue of Christian Century. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/faith-matters/christ-artist-we-portfolio
Have you ever noticed how much Luke’s Jesus loves to eat? There are more references to eating, banquets, and being at table in Luke than in any other gospel (pastorsings.com).
Our sacrament of Holy Communion comes from this tradition of sharing meals together. During this sacrament, we remember that one of the last things Jesus did before being arrested was to gather with friends and family to eat and celebrate Passover. So, it’s no wonder that those closest to Jesus, who go on to start the fledgling Christian church movement, started every gathering by sharing a meal together and talking about their time with him. Maybe this was also the beginning of church potlucks.
Even today, in our daily lives, we often gather with friends and family around tables.
Why are shared meals around a common table so important?
When you gather at home over a big meal – holiday, or special event
During holidays and special events, who comes and sits around your table?
Today, we hear, how Jesus spends the early part of this particular dinner party watching those gathered. He notices that they are spending a lot of time and energy on trying to maneuver themselves into the best seats at the table. He realizes that even these religious leaders and elite, are caught up in the Roman structures of societal position and trying to get ahead.
I imagine that Jesus shakes his head and heaves a sigh. It seems so easy for everyone to set aside God’s ways as they attempt to secure their position within society. Why is that? Do we do that today? Sure we do.
So, as the food is served and everyone settles down to eat, Jesus seizes the opportunity to speak. He states that God has a very different idea of how things work – then and now. He tells those gathered for dinner that they should be inviting those whom society deems last and excluded; that those individuals are first and included at God’s table, rather than the individuals who can do you favors and help you get ahead (pastorsings.com).
Jesus’ comments seek to urge both the host and attendees toward true generosity, real hospitality that expects nothing in return. He reminds them that God’s ways are very different from societies, and that they belong to God first and for most. Through quoting scripture, Jesus cautions what could happen if they try to take the best seat in the house without invitation to – they will be asked, publicly, to move. Not what anyone wants to have happen. Rev. Rachel Hackenberg quoted Sirach in today’s Daily Devotional for the UCC saying, “Pride was not created for human beings” (Sir 10:18), not even for those who cloak their pride in humility and bad seating hoping to be recognized and invited to a better place at the table.
Jesus also reminds those gathered that they are not to look at others by what they can do for them, but to look and truly see them for who they are in God’s eyes. And as God’s faithful servants, they should naturally seek to help those who have a need – who are hungry, thirsty, and homeless – rather than hanging-out only with and serving our friends, family and others who have plenty or can give us a leg up.
For Jesus, hunger and justice go hand-in-hand. Fred Craddock puts it this way, “Bread (food) was (and still is) important; in fact, where some eat and some do not eat, the kingdom is not present” (Matthews quoting Craddock). The Kingdom of God is present when all have enough, when everyone shares and sees to the needs of others, and when all are treated equally.
Jesus also says, that when we see and meet the needs of others, we will be blessed.
What do you think that means?
How are you blessed by helping others – by participating in our food support programs for the Northeastern Food Bank and packing bags at Hayshire Elementary?
Hayshire professes to be, and wants to continue to be, a place of extravagant welcome for all people. Terms like Extravagant Welcome and Radical Hospitality are often used interchangeably. Gary Peluso-Verdend reminds us that the Greek word for “Hospitality” is philoxenia, which means “love of the stranger.”
Are we providing an Extravagant Welcome, offering Radical Hospitality – are we loving others in our surrounding community?
I believe we “love” very well when we can collect things for others, or do things from a distance. But how well do we do when people come to us? How are we at initiating that radical hospitality – seeing the need and meeting it – outside our walls and with people we don’t know?
Jesus’ rule of thumb for the Kingdom of God etiquette and banquet dining practices was not just for his own time. It is still a teaching that we should be putting into practice today.
What would the world be like if we spent more time sitting down together and sharing a meal with those we don’t know, or don’t agree with, rather than fighting and saying hateful things about each other?
My friends, God’s table is about relationships and peace. It’s about always showing “love” – kindness and compassion – to strangers and making them friends, or at least known acquaintances. It’s about making room for and celebrating the differences in our lives. And it’s those differences that bring such a richness and depth to our world. If we seek to honor those differences and see them as strengths rather than weaknesses, our world will be a better place.
As we come to God’s table once again this week to gather and eat, we do so seeking to embrace the love of the one who gives us life and in whom we are beautifully, wonderfully, uniquely, and fearlessly made.
May it be so….. AMEN
Matthews, Kathryn, “Open Table” bible study and seeds for thought on Luke 14:1, 7-14, September 1, 2019. www.ucc,org/weekly-seeds.
A Pastor Sings, “Where Will You Sit – Sermon on Luke 14:1, 7-14”. https://pastorsings.com/where-will-you-sit-sermon-on-luke-141-7-14/
We have reached the end of our summer Elephant in the Pew series and our final questions are once again about Hell. They are: If God forgives everyone, then why does hell exist? ...and What is the nature of hell?
Hell is one of those topics that we love and hate to talk about. There are movies and TV shows that depict the end of the world and what the punishments of hell might be like. We all have opinions about Hell – whether it truly exists, what it might be like, and who should go there and for what reason.
There has been a lot of debate by the scholars as to whether or not Hell is real. It seems that we could debate the topic ourselves, because it was on our list last year during our Elephant series, too.
Many believe that hell is very real, and that we are all in danger of ending up there if we don’t repent and change our ways. Others believe that hell was created as a scare tactic centuries ago to try and keep the population in check and easier to manage – and therefore irrelevant in today’s world.
When we look at scripture, we will find texts that support both sides, and how you read those texts can sway you one way or another. Logically, it’s hard to say what is true or not, because there is no tangible proof one way or the other. Plus, we don’t know anyone who has been there and came back to tell about it. There are no stories of individuals having near death experiences saying that they have been to hell. We only have stories of “heaven” encounters. The happy, light filled, family reunion, walk with Jesus stories. We don’t have anything that proves there is another possibility, a darker possibility. So, that could mean a few things:
Reality is all humans are imperfect, we all sin (do wrong) in some way or another – and some of us more boldly than others. If you were to read Dante’s inferno, you would, most likely, find a place for yourself within his 9 circles of hell, and a description of the torment or punishment you are destined for.
Yet, as Christians, we are reminded that Jesus’ death on the cross made it possible for us to avoid eternal punishment. We are assured that we will be able to reside with God in eternal joy and peace – if we profess our faith in God.
In this life, humanity has created a system of laws that help keep our behaviors “in check” or “balance”. We know that there are consequences for our negative actions and behaviors here on earth. Yet what about once our bodies give out? Are there eternal consequences for the way we live in spite of our profession of faith?
In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells us there are consequences for our actions and our inactions:
34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” AND
41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me…
Jesus tells both - “Truly I tell you, just as you did/did not do it to one of the least of these, you did/did not do it to me. 46And (those who did not do) will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous (those who did) into eternal life.”
The majority of scholars agree that Hell, in part, is life without God, or living outside of the presence of God. Without a relationship with our creator, without a connection to the source of all life, we will eventually wither and die. That in itself is an eternal punishment.
What is the duration of our punishment? Is the “punishment” for eternity, as the Matthew text states, or is it for a shorter period of time?
Again, the Bible has texts on both sides. Such as the story of Sodom and Gomorrah – 2 real towns located on the southern tip of the Dead Sea, their physical destruction was a once a done thing. You can see the remnants of them still today. So there “eternal” destruction is symbolic for a punishment that has eternal consequences (Reagan). It is meant to be a warning to others as to what will happen if you live a certain way. For people who live near the remnants of these 2 cities, the warning is still very real.
Since our roots come from the Jewish tradition, I looked for information on what they truly believe about Hell. I found the train of thought from the Chabad Lubavitch, a Hasidic spiritual revival movement within the Jewish tradition, very interesting. When asked if Jews believe in Hell, one individual responded in this way:
“We believe in a type of hell. Hell is not a punishment in the conventional sense; it is, in fact, the expression of a great kindness.” Punishment as kindness, really? How so? I wondered. I understand that parents punish their children out of love and to help them learn proper behavior, what not to do so they won’t be hurt, etc., but to see punishment as a kindness? That’s a stretch.
The article continued to say, that “The Jewish mystics describe a spiritual placed called Gehinnom – usually translated as “hell,” but a better translation would be the Supernatural Washing Machine. Because that’s exactly how it works. The way our soul is cleansed in Gehinnom is similar to the way our clothes are cleansed in a washing machine.”
Let’s take a sock for example: “If you were a sock and thrown into boiling hot water and flung around for half an hour, you might start to feel that someone doesn’t like you.”
Yet, “We don’t put socks in the washing machine to punish them. We put them through what seems like a rough and painful procedure only to make them clean and wearable again. The intense heat of the water loosens the dirt, and the force of being swirled around shakes it off completely. Far from hurting your socks, you are doing them a favor by putting them through this process.
So, too, with the soul. Every act we do in our lifetime leaves an imprint on our soul. The good we do brightens and elevates our soul, and every wrongdoing leaves a stain that needs to be cleansed. If at the end of our life, we leave this world without fixing the wrongs we have done, our soul is unable to reach its place of rest on high. We must go through a cycle of deep cleansing. Our soul is flung around at an intense spiritual heat to rid it of any residue it may have gathered, and to prepare it for entry into Heaven.
Of course, this whole process can be avoided. If we truly regret the wrong we have done and make amends with the people we have hurt, we can leave this world with clean socks” (Moss) and hearts.
Wow, now that’s an interesting thought. “Every act we do (or don’t do) in our lifetime leaves an imprint on our soul. The good we do brightens and elevates our soul, and every wrongdoing leaves a stain that needs to be cleansed.” I think that is one of the best explanations I have heard yet for the connection between the cause and lasting effects of how we choose to live.
We all recognize that we have some “dirty laundry” in our lives. Things that we need to do some cleaning on. Maybe it’s well hidden, but often it’s still there just like a stinky, dirty pair of socks left forgotten on the bottom of the laundry bag. It can hide for a while, but eventually it will come out.
With this thought in mind:
My friends, no matter where you are on your spiritual journey, know that God is on your side and willing to guide you and help you along the way. Remember…..nothing is impossible with and through God.
May it be so….. AMEN
Moss, Aron, article Do Jews Believe in Hell? Printed on https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1594422/jewish/Do-Jews-Believe-In-Hell.htm
Alighieri, Dante, “The Divine Comedy” translated by Allen Mandelbaum. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, Penguin Random House/New York, NY, 1995
Considine, Kevin P., article Faith in Real Life, published on www.uscatholic.org/print/30965
Reagan, David R. (Dr), article The Nature of Hell, printed on christinprophecy.org/articles/the-nature-of-hell/
Psalm 11 Song of Trust in God
1 In the Lord I take refuge; how can you say to me, ‘Flee like a bird to the mountains; 2 for look, the wicked bend the bow, they have fitted their arrow to the string, to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart. 3 If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?’
4 The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven. His eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind. 5 The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked, and his soul hates the lover of violence. 6 On the wicked he will rain coals of fire and sulphur; a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup. 7 For the Lord is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face.
Romans 6:15-23 Slaves of Righteousness
15 What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, 18and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.
20 When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. 22But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. 23For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Here we are in week 4 of our Elephant in the Pew Series and our question is: Where did Adam and Eve go after they left the Garden?
The Bible is pretty cryptic about the life of Adam and Eve after they are kicked out of the Garden of Eden. In fact, it tells us nothing about where they go, other than the fact that God “drove out the man” and that God placed cherubim with flaming swords east of the Garden of Eden to prevent Adam and Eve from having access to the tree of life (v24).
The Bible goes on to tell us of the birth of two of Adam and Eve’s sons, Cain and Abel. We can also read of Abel’s death at the hands of his brother Cain.
This is the beginning of humanity’s downfall into a life of major depravity that eventually leads to the flood and the destruction of everything and everyone who is not with Noah and his family on the ark.
So, within scripture, we span several generations and centuries of life in a matter of a few pages and chapters, and that leaves plenty of room for speculation. We aren’t told about many of the details of life. Naturally, we want to know all the details.
Well, Googled the topic and looked through my commentaries – especially the Jewish ones – and there isn’t a lot out there that seems to tell us the “story” of Adam and Eve’s life after the garden.
On Amazon, I found a few resources. One that seemed to fill in some of the blanks is “The First & Second Books of Adam and Eve – the Forgotten Books of Eden Series,” edited by Rutherford H. Platt, Jr, in 1926.
Platt indicates that his writing “is simply a version of a myth or belief or account handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation of mankind…… This is the most ancient story in the world – it has survived because it embodies the basic fact of human life…the conflict of Good and Evil; the fight between Man and the Devil; the eternal struggle of human nature against sin” (p5). While found in the works of numerous near East, ancient writers, this version given in Platt’s book “is the work of unknown Egyptians. Parts of this version are found in the Talmud, the Koran, and elsewhere, showing what a vital role it played in the original literature of human wisdom” (p6).
A 2nd resource I found is entitled, “The Life of Adam and Eve,” which is translated from a Latin text, Vita Adae et Evae” and has been translated by B. Custis with the assistance of G. Anderson and R. Layton. This translation from the Latin has a lot of similarities to Platt’s text.
Platt writes how Adam and Eve, once driven from the garden were led to a new residence called the Cave of Treasures, where they were to live out their days.
For Adam and Eve, moving into the cave was like moving to a different country for us. The land beyond the gates of the garden were very different. They “saw the broad earth spread before them, covered with stones large and small, and with sand” (Platt, p11). Definitely not the lush almost tropical like environment that they had been living in.
According to Platt, every new experience, every little change brought a couple of responses from Adam and Eve:
To better understand, we need to look at Genesis 2:4-25, where we read about the life of Adam and Eve in the Garden in a bit more detail. In this portion of the extended creation story, we see the deep and communal relationship that God has with them. God visits them daily, spending time walking and talking with them. They forge a deep bond together. That bond is severely tested on a particular day when the seeds of doubt and of independence are sown within Eve’s heart and mind when Satan, in the guise of a serpent entices her to try the fruit of the Tree of Life – which God had pointedly forbidden them to eat. Upon tasting the forbidden fruit, Eve’s and Adam’s eyes are opened, they receive knowledge of right from wrong just like the divine beings. And, just like for us today, Adam and Eve learned there were consequences – harsh and lasting ones – for their disobedience and rebellious actions.
After their expulsion from the Garden, in Platt’s writings, we see that God continues to look out for and provide for Adam and Eve. God doesn’t break the relationship even though they have disobeyed God’s commands. The relationship continues, but in a slightly different way.
Platt tells us how Adam and Eve’s days are filled with trying to regain their former place within the garden. They beg God for forgiveness and to let them back in. God patiently, but firmly tells them that their exile will last 5,000 and 500 years, and they would not be readmitted into the garden, God’s kingdom, until the time when “One would then come and save him (Adam) and his seed (children)” (Platt, p12).
Platt tells us that approximately 7 months pass from the time that Adam and Eve were walked out of the Garden for them to come to terms with the fact that they will not be returning to the Garden anytime soon. Throughout those 7 months, Adam and Eve spend most of their time grieving, praying, worshiping, fasting, and begging God for forgiveness.
Also, during those 7 months, Platt indicates that Satan does his best to tempt and further separate Adam and Eve from God’s way. He appears in numerous disguises, plays various tricks on them, and while Adam and Eve start to fall for some of them, God intervenes and “rescues” them over and over. When trickery doesn’t work, Satan tries – and fails – numerous times to kill them.
One thing remained consistent throughout Adam and Eve’s time away from the Garden – God is always with them. At no time did God abandon them. In spite of what they had done, God continued to provide all that they needed – shelter, safety, food (once they are ready to eat it), a place to work, and eventually children to bless their lives.
According to Platt, it was 223 days, or 7 months and 13 days from the time they left the Garden, before Adam and Eve began to start a family (p172), or to “be fruitful and multiply” as God told them to do upon their creation.
Here in Platt’s writings, we find out that Eve gave birth to not just the boys we are familiar with, but at least 2 girls as well. Cain was born along with a twin sister named Luluwa. When the twins were 40 days old, Adam and Eve made an offering to God on behalf of their son; and at 80 days they made an offering on behalf of their daughter.
A couple of years later, Eve gives birth to Abel and his twin sister Aklia. Following their birth, Adam and Eve repeated the cycle of offerings and blessings before God for their new son and daughter.
As the children grew older and stronger, Platt says that Cain was hard-hearted and continually disobedient to their father, while Abel was meek and obedient to Adam. It is said that Cain ruled over Abel.
As the children aged, Satan makes a reappearance and tries to lead both of the young men astray. Abel repels Satan’s efforts by praying to God, who responds and drives Satan away. But, Cain became susceptible to Satan’s manipulations. He believed Satan when he is told that their parents love Abel more than him (Platt, p179-180).
That sounds familiar. Not much has changed in family life today. Sibling rivalry is still strong, and often one child feels less loved than another.
Unfortunately, Platt tells us that the evil one (Satan) remained in the heart of Cain, and worked on him until his jealousy overcomes him. And at the age of 17 ½, he ends up killing his younger brother Abel (15). Why? Because God seemed to favor Abel over him – the first born. As a result of Cain’s jealous and violent actions, he is punished. The most difficult part of his punishment was his permanent removal from God’s presence.
Platt tells us that it is 7 years after the death of Abel that Eve conceives and gives birth to their 3rd son, Seth.
In a lot of ways, not much has changed since Adam and Eve’s time. Life is not easy for us. Families often have difficulties, and relationships are broken apart. We often feel that we live outside of God’s presence, yet in reality, God is merely waiting for us to open our hearts and minds and invite God back into our lives.
Scholars claim that we, like Adam and Eve, are always seeking to return to life in the Garden. We are grieving the loss of our deep and abiding connection with God. We long for the carefree days of abundant blessing when our ancestors once lived inside God’s realm.
Today, we recognize that we are one step away from that Garden. As promised to Adam and Eve – the One, God’s Word made flesh, came to live among us, put on skin and lived within the parameters of human existence outside of the Garden, and died for us that we might be redeemed and find our way back home.
So….How do we return to life in the Garden? By making God our first priority. By opening the channels of communication and inviting God into our lives. By relying on God to provide for all our needs and guide us to live our best lives. By reclaiming our baptisms and our identity as God’s beloved children.
My friends, let today be your first day fully back in God’s presence.
May it be so…… AMEN
Genesis 3:8-13, 22-24
22 Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’— 23therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 24He drove out the man; and at the east of the Garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.
Platt Jr, Rutherford H., The First & Second Books of Adam and Eve – The Forgotten Books of Eden Series. Abela Publishing/London, UK, 2012.
Here we are at week 3 in our Elephant in the Pew Series. Over the last two weeks, we have talked about: Why bad things happen to good people, especially the innocents, and how God’s Grace is a true gift in our lives.
This week’s topic asks us to stop and think about the way we prioritize our lives and where God and our faith fits in them. So, let’s start by thinking about this:
What are your daily/regular tasks?
Do you bring God into your everyday life/routine?
If you were asked to choose, what would be your first priority?
Does it/do they always come first?
Most likely not. We might like to think it is that way, but reality tell us that our priorities can change as life changes – especially when there is a crisis, illness or emergency.
I want you to honestly think about this next question:
Where does God fit into your life - What # would you give God on your list of priorities?
Why does God fit below family – kids/spouse, even friends, etc.?
In our Matthew text Jesus tells us that God alone must come first in our lives. Yet, we know that there are very few people, if any, in the world who can claim that they always – always put God first.
Laine sent me this topic/question to me last year right after our Elephant series. She worded it like this: “I can’t claim that I love God more than my family. Shouldn’t God come first? The hierarchy for me is family and close friends, then God, then everything else. I’m sure I’m probably not the only one that feels this way. How should we navigate those feelings?”
This is a big question for each of us. It hits right to “How do we live faithful lives in the midst of our crazy busy schedules and world?” I think we can all relate to this, and as we just mentioned, for each of us, God doesn’t get the top slot in our priorities – BUT God does usually get within the top 5.
The moment I read Laine’s questions in her e-mail, the “safety speech” that you hear a flight attendant give popped into my mind – specifically the part about the oxygen masks. I feel it is a critical rule of thumb for us when we are looking to figure out where God should fit in our lives. It goes something like this:
In the event that cabin pressure changes and your oxygen mask drops from the compartment above you, please put on your oxygen mask before helping the person sitting next to you.
This seems totally counter-intuitive for a parent and most people who are “helpers,” like I am. How many of you would follow the instructions as given and help yourself before helping another more vulnerable person sitting next to or year you?
Why would you want to make sure you take care of your own need before you helped someone else - even your own child?
In the case of the oxygen mask, it’s pretty obvious when you really think about it – you can’t help anyone else if you can’t breathe.
Why should we consider the need to put God before even our children/spouse/partner?
Again, the answer seems simple again – yet is so difficult for us in practice: Without taking time to refresh and renew ourselves, we cannot be at full energy to help others. If all you ever do is GIVE to others and put others first, then what happens to you? You become empty. Even Jesus took time apart to pray and rest before he dove back into meeting the needs of the people around him.
So, where, when do you go to be replenished? Who gives to you?
Just think how much easier your days and life would be if you spent a few minutes a day being replenished by God and inviting God into your life – into your concerns, fears, disagreements, moments of hurt – rather than going it alone and focusing on solely meeting others’ needs.
This quote by St. Francis de Sales is a great reminder for all of us: Everyone needs at least 30 minutes a day in prayer, unless you are busy – then you need 1 hour.
I know that some of you are thinking that “I’m too busy to give God that much of my time.” I get it – really, I do. Sometimes I find myself falling into that mentality – the type A: I’ve got too much to do, I’m the only one who can do it, and it must get done as quickly as possible – so I put my head down and push through the tasks until the list is cleared. Yet, because I don’t take time for myself, it’s harder than it has to be. I find myself feeling more stressed, anxious, and tired. I get cranky, I’m not truly able to be fully present to others, and I often end up run down and/or sick at the end of the list.
So, over the last few years, I have been intentionally carving out time for “self-care” and time to spend with God. It doesn’t have to be a lot of time, or needs to be taken all at once. I find that spreading out my connection with God throughout the day helps a lot. I’ve learned to keep it simple.
What does God offer us that could really help us get through our daily challenges – of being a parent, being a spouse/partner, employee or boss, etc.?
My friends, the reality is that God is with us every second of every day. It’s is we who push God away or down in our lives believing that we can go it alone. Putting God first is not difficult. It may even be the easiest thing we ever do. Pushing God away and going it alone is the most difficult thing we do.
Just like relearning how to breathe properly, putting God first must be a conscious, intentional, and mindful act in the beginning. With practice, it will quickly become an unconscious act as we come to accept that God is and always will be with us.
We will begin to notice more quickly when we don’t invite God in – when we try to go it without breathing in God’s life-giving spirit and energy properly. When we try to rely on our own limited power and authority rather than letting God’s limitless resources take the lead.
So, my friends…..make God a habit. Start intentionally putting God first. Invite God into your everyday and immerse yourself in the renewed, refreshed life that only God can give you, and allow yourself to become the best person, parent, spouse/partner, friend, boss, employee, beloved child of God you were created to be.
May it be so….. AMEN
Here we are at week 2 in our Elephant in the Pew series. Let’s start by thinking of the many gifts/blessings that God has given us. Let’s name them – How has God blessed you, what gifts has God given to you?
Today, we are talking about another true gift from God….. Grace – forgiveness of our sins, compassion, kindness, unconditional love, wholeness. God often sends a messenger – a stranger, a friend, a colleague – to be the bearer of grace in our lives. Grace is one of those categories that it is hard to say….that is grace, or this is a perfect example of grace. It’s much easier to identify/see after the fact, and even then it can be a bit mysterious and slippery. Many (all?) of these things we have not earned, maybe don’t even deserve, but God has blessed us with them anyways.
As we heard in our readings a few minutes ago, there are also several other terms/words that usually get paired with “grace” that it might be helpful if we define them.
One of my favorite authors is Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran ordained pastor who is also a recovering alcoholic. She is outspoken, blunt, and even raw at times in how she preaches the Gospel. She, like each of us, is proof that God chooses often the broken to be the best spokespersons for the Gospel and Grace. Nadia’s writings and sermons are deep and extremely thoughtful. I can, too often, see myself reflected in what she has to say – especially the parts where she struggles to be faithful to God’s call. She has several sermons on Grace, and I would like share some of her thoughts on what Grace to her/for us.
Nadia says, “God’s grace is not defined as God being forgiving to us even though we sin. Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings. My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God’s grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word… it’s that God makes beautiful things out of even my own mess. Grace isn’t about God creating humans and flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail, then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace - and say, ‘Oh, its OK, I’ll be the good guy and forgive you.’ It’s God saying, ‘I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new’” (quotable quotes: Bolz-Weber - Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/958748-god-s-grace-is-not-defined-as-god-being-forgiving-to).
That sounds a lot like what we talked about last week from The Shack. We, humans, in our acts of “independence” often do things that harm ourselves, others, and our planet. When tragedy strikes, we often ask “Why God? Why did this have to happen? Why didn’t you stop it or prevent it from happening at all?” Grace is God’s response. As Papa says in The Shack: I do not make bad decisions, hurts, and horrible tragedies happen; yes, I could have prevented them, but I respect your independence and work within your parameters. I am able to bring good from those same bad decisions, hurts, and tragedies. The pain and suffering is not the final answer. My love and grace is.
Another one of Nadia’s perspectives is that: “Grace helps me to recognize that I have bad vision. Grace is a lens through which I can look through to see myself and others - through this beautiful pure love of God. I don’t have to create this lens, God creates it. The beauty is that nothing else can tell me who I am, who others are. Just God alone – not the world around us, not other people, just God” (Facebook post, “The Work of the People” interview with Bolz-Weber on grace and the "accidental saints" God uses to remind us who's we are. Download this video: http://bit.ly/1L1Xz7d TWOTP subscription info: http://bit.ly/1hlMOx8).
We all have “bad vision” as Nadia says. We all have let the media, social media, advertising, and others tell us who we are, how we are supposed to be, whether or not we are successful, and what it takes to be successful and stay that way.
Nadia goes on to say that “this is why we have the Christian community – because we are great forgetters. We forget that it is God alone that can tell us who we truly are and who God is – not the world and people around us. In some ways,” she says, “Christian communities are places of de-programming, where we go to remove the programming that the world tries to fill us with about our true identity and about God” (Facebook post, “The Work of the People” interview with Bolz-Weber on grace and the "accidental saints" God uses to remind us who's we are. Download this video: http://bit.ly/1L1Xz7d TWOTP subscription info: http://bit.ly/1hlMOx8).
It takes regular practice to start to “recognize” and see God’s grace, Margaret Felice says. “The first step is getting out of yourself, to stop focusing only on your own concerns, and by simply observing the world around us.” She says, “I am more likely to be gobsmacked by grace at a random moment during the day than to experience it deeply during times of intentional prayer” but it is important to be intentional and “disciplined about making time for prayers so to balance the two opportunities of finding God in the everyday” (Rossi).
Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany says, Grace “in its most fundamental sense, is the gift of God’s own self. God is free to give us graces in various modes or forms and every kind of grace offered, if freely accepted – which is always necessary – draws the receiver into the very life and mystery of God. The real gift is when we spot those moments as they happen, aware of God’s presence in the day-to-day moments of our lives” (Rossi).
So, if Grace is a lens through which we can begin to see our true selves, and the truth of each other and our world, then –
What is God trying to show you, tell you about yourself?
As Felice mentioned, it takes regular practice to start to recognize God’s presence, God’s grace in hindsight, and even more to truly see and feel it in the moment. It is in Christian Community that we learn these skills and can see the gift of God’s presence and grace in our lives on a regular basis. Sometimes, ok - often, we need others to point out where God has “shown-up” for us, or where we need to “let go” to get out of our own way and God’s way.
I leave you with these questions today:
Together, may our “Grace Lenses” become clearer and more focused. May we learn to be more attuned to God’s presence and movement in our lives. And, with the help of God and each other, may we allow ourselves to be transformed more closely to the image we were created to be – bearers of God’s grace and love.
May it be so…… AMEN
Bolz-Weber, Nadia – quotes and comments from resources as listed above.
Rossi, Tony, blog posting “Opening Yourself to God’s Grace.” https://www.patheos.com/ blogs/christophers/2016/01/opening-yourself-to-gods-grace/
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
Romans 3:22b-24 and 5:1-2
3 22For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,
Results of Justification
5 1Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
Today, we start our “Elephant in the Pew” series, and our first topic is a heavy one – one that troubles many of us: Why do bad (horrible) things happen to good people, especially innocent children?
So, let’s start there – Why do you think bad things happen to good people?
Unfortunately, nowhere in scripture does God promise that we will NOT experience bad things, or be victims of horrible incidents. What God does promise to always be with us through it all.
Do bad things ever happen to bad people?
Maybe we need to think about how we define “good” and “bad”.
Our definition of good and bad is pretty subjective. It seems like it’s up to each person to decide for themselves. So what happens when something we perceive as “good” turns out to be “bad” for us and vice-versa?
That upsets our entire understanding of how things are supposed to be. I mean – do you think you could ever see cancer or murder as something good? No probably not, but good can come from it.
Our perception of “good” and “bad” is a moving target. And to make things worse, there are billions of people each determining what is good and what is bad (evil). And when our good and bad clashes with our neighbor’s, fights and argument ensue and even wars break out (Young, p135). The root of our problem is “judging” without truly knowing the other, the circumstance, and seeing things only as one way – good or bad – as an “either/or” situation rather than even holding onto the possibility of there being a “both/and” option.
Yet, we know that the “both/and” option already exists. Scientists say that red wine is “good” for your heart, yet we know that too much of it, is ultimately “bad” for your health. Or, losing a job/home is “bad,” yet it can force us to look for new opportunities, try something we never even thought of previously, and maybe even finding out that life is even better than what we had before.
When I saw this question on my list, my mind went directly to the book, and now movie, “The Shack” by William P. Young. Have you ever read the book or watched the movie?
It is thoughtfully written in a Jewish “midrash” kind of tradition where a person explores, and writes into the “gaps,” created by the scriptures and additional texts available, in order to “fill in the story.” As I was reading the book again, while preparing for this message, I was struck by the imagery of God and the words describing the Trinity, God’s actions and God’s purpose for us – humanity.
If you have never read the book or watched the movie, you should. It really makes you stop and think about how we perceive God and our response to God. It helped me realize that I still have a small perspective of God – try to keep God in a nice and tidy box, which is just ridiculous – and how much I am missing out on my relationship with God and in life because I have never fully explored who God is and what I was created to be. This story is definitely worth revisiting on a regular basis. It’s a great inroad for meditation. Through this story, God invites you to enter into a deeper knowing, a co-union with God’s self.
Another great reason to read this book, or watch the movie, is the core of the story itself. The story is about one man’s (Mack’s) deep struggle to come to terms with the loss of his 6-yr-old daughter, who was abducted and killed by a serial killer. Like so many of us, Mack’s story reveals how he “believed” in God, right up to the point that he felt God failed him and his daughter – because God didn’t stop something horrific from happening.
Mack’s relationship with God is very “broken,” and in his grief, he challenges God, accuses God of abandoning him and his daughter, and even goes so far as to judge God guilty and to blame for what happened.
Sound familiar? Has something like that ever happened to you or someone you know? When tragedy strikes, too often our faith is shaken, maybe even shattered rather than deepened. We turn away.
God’s response is to invite Mack to spend a weekend together, to get to know God deeply, to truly understand what really caused of all his pain, and to seek healing.
At the heart of this story is Mack’s – our – understanding of God.
This story and our question for today also stems from our understanding of “free will” – our ability to choose for ourselves what is right and wrong for us.
Sarayu (Spirit) tells Mack that our problems started when humanity chose independence (free will) over a relationship, co-union, with God. It all began when Eve pulled the apple from the tree and she and Adam ate of it, believing they knew better than God what was right for them. That choice to eat from the tree of knowledge tore the universe apart, divorcing the spiritual from the physical (Young, p135).
Since that fateful event, humanity has been on a path that has separated us from love, believing we could independently discern what was right or wrong, good or evil, attempting to play God – believing that we can prevent or control bad things from happening.
“When you chose independence over relationship, you became a danger to each other,” Sarayu says to Mack. “Others became objects to be manipulated or managed for your own happiness. Authority, as you usually think of it, is merely the excuse the strong use to make others conform to what they want. In a self-centered world,” she says, “it is the excuse to inflict pain on others” (Young, p123).
“And with authority, there comes the need for rules/laws and someone to enforce them,” said Jesus. Thus creating an opportunity for abuse and the infliction of pain and suffering. “That’s one reason why experiencing true relationship is so difficult for you,” Jesus said (Young, p122).
As a result of our human experiences, our trust in the goodness of God has been set aside. Instead, we too often see God as either testing us, punishing us, or even worse, as unconcerned, uninterested, or even ambivalent to our pain and suffering, to our need.
At one point over that magical weekend, Mack is given the opportunity to judge God and humanity. He is told that he must decide who is responsible for all the pain and suffering in his life, in the world, and who should be punished for it. In that moment, Mack finally is able to vent some of his anger at God, but he also must face that his anger at God is the safer option than the blame he has placed on himself, the crushing guilt he wears as a heavy blanket for not being there to protect his daughter.
As the weekend visit with God unfolds, Mack discovers who God truly is. He realizes that his “image” or understanding of who God is wrong and needs to change. As often happens when we are face-to-face with those who have hurt us, or those whom we deem our “enemies,” we often learn that we have more in common than we thought; that they aren’t the evil we made them out to be in our heads. We must reframe our image of them. Yet, our pre-conceived notions run deep and are often hard to change – especially when we have been deeply hurt. In our pain, we too often assume the worst of God (Young, 176) and we place the blame of our hurt not only on the perpetrator, but on God for not preventing the event in the first place.
Mack finally sees and accepts that God is not to blame for what happened to his young daughter. In a conversation with Jesus, he asks the final and ultimate question….. “Why did this horrible act have to happen to my daughter?” Jesus replies that it didn’t have to happen. “Did she have to die so you could change me?” Mack asks Papa. “Whoa! That’s not how I do things” Papa quickly replies. “Stories about a person willing to exchange their life for another are a golden thread in your world, revealing both your need and my heart” Papa said. “But I wouldn’t be here now if she hadn’t died,” Mack states. “Just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes. That line of thinking only leads to false notions about me” Papa replied (Young, p183).
The death of Mack’s young daughter happened as a result of the choices – the independence – one human exercised. Choices that we all are faced with and make each and every day. Choices that too often can result in inflicting pain on others rather than seeking to help, uplift or love.
Then Jesus tells Mack that God was with his daughter through her horrible ordeal. That she was never alone, through any of it, and that she knew she wasn’t. She knew God’s peace and comfort (Young, p173).
My friends, this is what we all want to hear and believe – that no matter how badly we “mess up” or the bad choices we make, God will not abandon us, nor will God punish us for our actions. “Sin is punishment enough” said Papa (Young, p120). Rather, Papa tells Mack, “You (humanity) were created to be loved. So, to live as if you were unloved is a limitation. It’s like clipping a bird’s wings and removing it’s ability to fly. Pay has a way of clipping our wings and keeping us from being able to fly. Pain, if left unresolved for very long, can almost make you forget that you were ever created to fly in the first place” (Young, p97).
In Young’s book, we hear the Triune-God say that in order for us to find true peace and happiness, we must “re-turn” to God. We must let go of our own ideas of control, of being able to discern or judge right from wrong, and to let go of the need for power, authority over others and everything, and to seek/submit ourselves to a loving relationship – a co-union – with God (Young, p147).
By re-turning to God, and fully engaging in the circle of God’s love, we place our total trust in God’s will for us and God’s innate goodness. From that relationship and place of comfort and security, we are able to face all the challenges, disappointments, pain and suffering that life can dish out because we know that God is with us through it all.
How is your relationship with God?
Are you ready to take it to the next level?
God is inviting you to re-turn and enter the true circle of life
May it be so……AMEN
Young, William P., “The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity.” Windblown Media/Los Angeles, CA, 2007.
28We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.