Ecclesiastes 3:1-13; Romans 5:7-8 Memorial Day, which originated after the Civil War, commemorates the sacrifices of those who have fought and died in the American armed forces. It was in 1865 that Henry Welles, a druggist in the village of Waterloo, New York, suggested—at a social gathering—that honor should be shown to the patriotic dead of the Civil War by decorating their graves. A year later, a committee was formed to plan a day, and townspeople embraced the idea wholeheartedly. Wreathes, crosses and bouquets were made for each veteran's grave and flags were set at half-mast.
The first national official recognition of Memorial Day was issued by General John Logan, first commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. This was General Order No. 11 establishing "Decoration Day" as it was then known. The date of the order was May 5, 1868, exactly two years after Waterloo's first observance. And that year, Waterloo joined other communities in the nation by having their ceremony on May 30. In 1971, Congress made the last Monday in May the official national holiday.
According to the most recent estimate from the Department of Veteran Affairs, 651,031 Americans have died in battle. That number doesn’t take into account others, who died in theatre, but not in battle.
I spent some years as a teacher of U.S. History, have done some training of Navy chaplains, and so have researched our wars. Nevertheless, I was cut to heart to read again the statistics on the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Indian Wars, the War with Mexico, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Desert Shield/Desert Storm and, now, what the Department of Defense lists, as the ongoing conflict that is the Global War on Terror.
General Logan, in issuing General Order No. 11 said, "We should guard the graves [of those who died for us] with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security, is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or the coming generations, that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided Republic. If other eyes grow dull, and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remains to us."
Memorial Day. Interpreters have long noted the aura of sacredness that surrounds the day’s traditional observances. The Memorial Day Foundation offers many suggestions on how we might honor the fallen. Included in these a National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. local time to pause and think upon the meaning of the day. At that hour today, buglers across the country, will be playing “Taps” wherever they may be.
Memorial Day likely conjures up memories for all us. Some of my earliest memories, from my childhood, are of my father, a World War II veteran, marching in our town’s Memorial Day parade. I recall, as well, when I was in my twenties, standing by his flag-draped casket as he was honored by members of the local American Legion post where he’d served as commander for many years. But perhaps I am more acutely attuned to Memorial Day this time around because of a conversation I had some days ago with my son-in-law, a now-retired Special Operative with the Marines, a Raider.
Andrew, over his years of service, was deployed again and again to Iraq, Afghanistan and other of the most dangerous places in the world. And because he and others like him did and do the things they have done and continue to do, we can sleep more easily at night. Though I doubt he’d refer to it as such, Andrew regularly ministers to former soldiers who struggle to sleep as they relive—each night—horrific battles, as they see the faces of the fallen beside them, as they struggle to manage the mundanities of everyday life off the field of conflict.
On this Memorial Day, I will be weaving in and out of the reflections of two men who understand, from first-hand experience, that wars are fought on a wide range of battlefields. The first of the two is Roger Brady, a follower of Jesus Christ and a retired U.S. Air Force General. His words appeared in an article in Christianity Today magazine.
Those whom we honor this Memorial Day, he said, died serving something bigger than themselves—the transcendent ideals that make America the country we cherish. But for us as Christians, he added, this day should have an even more poignant meaning. Many of the same values that our nation should hope to nurture and many of the traits military members are challenged to embody are consistent with those perfectly modeled for us by our Savior. He was the quintessential example of service and sacrifice.
In his letter to the Roman church, the apostle Paul said, “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:7–8).
Before He went to the cross, Jesus showed us how to love each day. To the consternation of those watching him, he invited himself to the home of a hated tax collector named Zacchaeus, he challenged the hypocrisy of religious leaders by coming to the rescue of a prostitute, he exposed the meaninglessness of their religiosity by healing the sick on the Sabbath, and he challenged bigotry and insensitivity by publicly engaging in conversation with a Samaritan woman that His society said was unworthy of His time.
Brady reminds us that, as Christians, we are not only citizens of the United States but citizens of the kingdom of God as well, and our citizenship in that kingdom of God is a gift extended to us freely by God’s grace. Paul told the Ephesian Christians, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:8–10).
The society in which Jesus lived had many problems akin to what we see in the United States today. There was hypocrisy, bigotry, poverty, and oppression of the weak by the strong, and He condemned all of that. America is probably a better place than that for even the most marginalized of our citizens, but it is not always what it should be for all of us. As Christians, regardless of our earthly citizenship, this is part of the work He left for us to do. Is it our duty as Americans? Yes, it is—but even more so as citizens of the kingdom of Christ.
Most Americans will never serve in the military—less than one percent of our population does. And even among those of us who do, very, very few of us are asked to give that last full measure of devotion. So, what is the question for us on this day as we remember those Americans who died on our behalf? It is this—for what shall we live?
Brady reminds us that, whether we wear the uniform of our country or not, we all have a service to offer, a service to those ideals that reflect God’s universal truths and that our American ancestors captured in the formation of this country. Jesus has assigned the church to carry on His work. So, when evil strikes in the form of a school shooting or, when nature unleashes its fury and devastates property and lives, when children suffer, when people are hungry or homeless, when a virus strikes down a loved one, and people ask, “Where is God?!” we must be there and have them see Him in us.
We must bring His comfort and His healing to this world. When we live lives of service to those around us, we honor the God who saved us and we honor all those who gave that last full measure to secure for us all the things we enjoy in this nation. Some time back, I came across a publication from American Baptist International Ministries that contained an article by IM Missionary Bill Klemmer. Bill begins his article with a reference to Matthew 21: Speaking to His disciples, Jesus tells a parable of two brothers whose father asked them to do some work in the family vineyard. One said, “Sure, I’ll go”—but he never went. The other said, “No way”—but eventually he did as his father had asked.
Bill said his typical response to God’s calling would fit right into this story. Eager to please his heavenly Father, he would answer, “Yes, I’ll go.” But when the initial excitement had faded, his head would get in the way of his heart and he would rationalize, “The timings not right. I need to be better prepared. I’ll go after I finish this one thing.” Usually, Bill admitted, he behaves like the second brother, eventually going, but not always on schedule, sometimes reluctantly and often with timid, halting progress.
At the age of 22, he had a strong sense that God was calling him to serve in Africa as a missionary doctor, and he immediately answered, “Yes,” and took steps to follow through on that calling. Seven years later, having completed medical school and his residency, he had the skills necessary to answer the call. But, along the way, he’d gotten married, had children, gone into private practice and purchased a house. He suggested to God that the responsible thing to do was to save for his children’s college educations, pay off his mortgage, get practical experience and then go to Africa.
One day he and Ann were traveling in upstate Vermont when their train stopped dead in its tracks. In that moment, God led them to pray about the calling he’d heard years earlier. By the time the train started up again, they’d told God they would go. And six months later, they set out with three young children and a fourth on the way. They remained in Africa for seven years before returning to the United States for their first furlough. At that point, the last thing Bill wanted to do was to go back and keep serving. He was haunted by the memory of war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which had torn him away from his family and kept them apart for 11 long months. Surely, he thought, they’d done enough. Someone else could else could take a turn.
But after a year of visiting churches and sharing stories of God’s faithfulness, he couldn’t shake the call. So, they returned to the D.R. Congo, and over the next decade, the constant fighting there would grow to engulf much of central Africa, claiming an estimated 1.2 million lives in what would become known as Africa’s World War. When they completed their assignment in the D.R. Congo, they moved on to South Sudan, where yet another prolonged civil war was coming to a head with the ethnic massacre of hundreds of thousands.
Today, Ann and Bill are living on the Congo-Uganda border, which has been the epicenter of Africa’s second largest and deadliest outbreak of Ebola. Bill says he continues to contemplate his calling. Now that they’re in their mid-sixties, the children ask, “Isn’t it time for you to come home?” Their simple answer is, “Not yet. We still feel called to serve.”
He and Ann met, what Bill describes as, a “gifted evangelist and educator.” The man was on his way home to a town of half a million persons, a town that has been under attack by rebel militias for several years. Armed elements infiltrate the town at night, raping, pillaging, murdering, and burning homes. A U.N. force has been unable to prevent these attacks. So, Ann and Bill were surprised when the man spoke of his eagerness to get home.
Why? Why are you so eager to get back to a place that so many other people are fleeing?
“You see,” he said, “Jesus is coming back soon, and when He returns, I want Him to find me laboring in the field He assigned to me. I want to be where I am supposed to be—in the trenches—when Jesus returns.”
Last week, our nephew, Bernie, an R.N. contracted the coronavirus in the course of his work, and spent two weeks in the hospital on ten IV drips and many more medications. His breathing was managed via a ventilator. He was constantly dialyzed, and received additional interventions too numerous to recount...the team attending to him tried everything to save him. He went into septic shock a few days ago and succumbed to COVID-19. His wife, Jean, was allowed to be at his bedside as he went home to the Lord, and she wants to believe he was aware of her presence with him. If Bernie had survived, he would have been on a trache and in a nursing home for the remainder of his days. We're heartbroken. Five other family members (Jean, a nurse practitioner, three of their children, and Bernie's brother) all tested positive for the virus but are recovering. Bernie is one of more than a thousand healthcare workers who have died in the frontline fight against COVID-19. On this Memorial Day, I will be thanking God for his service and for the service of others who have died in this war.
We all pass through seasons and there is a time for every purpose under heaven. Someday we will find ourselves at the end of our lives looking back, and we will ask ourselves what it was all for. At that moment, I imagine we will all want to recall a life of service to something larger than ourselves, to children who needed our teaching and our example of service, to people to whom we gave a hand up in times of need, to friends and colleagues whom we comforted in times of sorrow, lives with whom we shared the many physical and spiritual blessings that have been bestowed on us. If we have lived that life of service, we will have fulfilled the challenge of the Savior when he said, “Whatever you did for one of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40).
So, on Memorial Day, and every day, we need to ask ourselves: for what shall we live? How are we doing at fulfilling not just the ideals of our American forefathers but those universal values set in place by the One who made us in His image, who sent His only begotten Son to secure our salvation, the One who “created us in Him to do good works?”
Let us not allow Memorial Day to pass by seeing it only as a day that marks the beginning of summer, a day off, a day to barbecue. May our use of the day include an honoring of those who, with their lives, have purchased our freedoms. Not only the soldiers who gave their lives on fields of battle, not only the frontline workers who have died in their service to others, but our Savior Jesus Christ who gave all on the cross that we might have freedom from sin, death and Satan. Take some time in silence today at 3, offering prayer for those who are in harm’s way around the world, giving thanks for those who have sacrificed all that we might be free, and opening ourselves to a word from the Lord about what call He might be placing on our lives at this very moment. Here is a prayer for the day: God of all our yesterdays, I am part of a people called to remember. Gifted with memory, looking back, I know who You are, what You have done for me in Jesus Christ, and, by Your grace, whose I am. God of my today, O come before You with praise and adoration. Your Spirit is here within me. God of all my tomorrows, time is in Your hand and I pray I may each day serve You obediently and joyfully. Eternal God, Alpha and Omega, I rest my past, devote my present and hope my future in You. Thanks be to God. Abiding and understanding God, I pray for those too busy, having too many things to do, who have lost the rhythm of life and have forsaken Sabbath rest. I pray for those who have so much crowding in their hearts of that which is not You, that they make no room for You. I pray for those too familiar with the Good News, too jaded, too preoccupied with that which is not You—those who have lost the quivering of the Holy Spirit at really hearing and being captured by the call and demand of the gospel. Lord, forgive me if I am one of these, and let me find my abundance in You. Save me from myself and guide me to Yourself. As I open myself to You, I pray You will gently fill me with Your light and Your Spirit. Help me to take each step trusting in You. Help me to walk Your path relying not on my own strength, but on Yours. Speak Your words to my heart, Lord. For Your guidance, Your healing, Your power, Your grace, and Your peace—I give You thanks. I pray that I might believe more fully, love more compassionately, and live in your Way more faithfully. I pray these things in the name of Jesus. Amen From the Chaplain’s Manual of the U.S. Submarine Veterans Organization comes this benediction for today:
God be in our head, and in our understanding; God be in our eyes, and in our looking. God be in our mouth, and in our speaking. God be in our hearts, and in our thinking. God be at our end, and at our departing. May the Lord bless thee and keep thee until we meet again. Amen!
In the book of James, the author hammers away on the matters of trials and temptations, doubts and double-mindedness, untamed tongues, untamed desires, snobbery, and disharmony in the Christian community generated by jealousy, judgment and harmful critical speech.
James calls us to perseverance, to single-mindedness, to true wisdom as opposed to “conventional” (hear that as non-) wisdom. He urges us to walk the talk, to watch what we say, to be generous, to resist the pollution of the world, and to not just read or listen to the Word of God but to truly do what it says.
Now at the tail end of the book, James brings us back to the matter of testing, but he moves us in that direction in a somewhat unexpected fashion. He starts with a look at boasting and business. Now, business can be a trial as anyone who’s ever made or tried to make a living at it will tell you. My husband Gene, for example, could share with you a host of tribulations—and triumphs—attached to his businesses which, over the years, have ranged from commercial and industrial photography to one hour photo processing to a recreation center to bat barns to hovercrafts to hand warmers. But the day to day earning of an honest living is not the issue here. The issue is the making of plans.
James appears to be speaking to Christian business people who are under the assumption that so long as they maintain a good personal ethic, nothing more will be demanded of them as Christians. But, in that thinking, there lies a problem. The folks in our passage have decided where they’re going, how long they’ll stay, what they’ll do while there, and even what the outcome of their efforts will be. They’ve plotted and planned the future as if God didn’t exist. Now James has nothing against making plans but he does condemn the arrogance of those who think they can make their plans without reference to God.
The problem with these folks is not with what they do (assuming they are engaging in moral business practices, that they’re not lying and cheating and stealing). Rather the problem is with what they do not do. They’re a negative case study—or a study of the sin of omission—because: · They make wrong assumptions about their control over the future. · They fail to take into account their own mortality. · They don’t bring God into their planning. · They’re proud and boastful. · They brag that they have control over things over which they do not and · They fail to do the good they know they could and should do. So…if they’ve got their approach to planning all wrong, what, in fact, should they be doing? · Well, they should bring God into their planning. · They should plan with their mortality clearly in view. · They should keep a certain humility about the future and · They should think of their lives in terms of not just what they could get but in terms of what they could give.
The point that James is seeking to drive home in these verses is that we have no right to ignore God's will for our lives while we merrily go about planning and scheming for the future. We must recognize that we have no real control over what will happen tomorrow—or in the next minute for that matter—and that our lives are nothing more than a “mist” that appears for a while and vanishes. When we recognize who we are before God, we will see the need to consider the Lord’s will in everything we do.
Now while preparing this message, I came across a quote from William Penn, the founder of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and that quote has been bumping about in my head for the last few days: "Time is what we want most—but what we use worst." Time is what we want most—but what we use worst.
Another quote that’s always stuck with me is one from Bernard Berenson: “I wish I could stand on a busy street corner, hat in hand, and beg people to throw me all their wasted hours.” Time is what we want most—but what we use worst. God is the author of time. God is our Creator. How much time do you suppose we waste when we approach a day living as though God doesn’t exist?
When making plans, do we really live with James’ directive at the forefront of our thinking, our being, our doing?
Now, I should note that when James encourages us to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” he doesn’t mean, of course, that the simple repetition of these words in our prayers covers all our bases. The question that must be asked is really this: do we consciously place all our plans and hopes under the lordship of Christ, recognizing that He is the One who will either prosper or bring those plans to grief? Or are we more like the people in our passage who think that they, rather than God, are in the driver’s seat?
How much and what kind of control do each of us really think we have over our futures? Do you, do I think about our own mortality and what the Lord would have us accomplish in the time that’s been allotted to us? Do you, do I, do the good we know we could do? Do we look to each day and to the future with our focus primarily on what we can get or on what we can give, on what the Lord might want us to do or on what we want to do?
Someone has written: I have only just a minute. Only sixty seconds in it. Didn't seek it, didn't choose it. But it's up to me to use it. I must suffer if I lose it. Give account if I abuse it. Just a tiny little minute. But eternity is in it!
Let's spend a few moments thinking about the concept of time. First, time is not a tyrant. Time is a tool. Time is a tool used by God for the good of the believer. Just imagine, today, if you had a bank that credited your account each morning with $86,400 that carried over no balance from day to day and allowed you to keep no cash in your account and every evening canceled whatever part of the amount you had failed to use during the day. What would you do? Draw out every cent?
Well, you have a bank and its name is time. Every morning it credits you with 86,400 seconds! Every night, it rules off as lost whatever you have failed to invest to good purpose. It carries over no balances. It allows no overdrafts. That means the way in which you deal with time affects how much wealth you discover in human existence. If you greet each new day as a treasure house to be invested wisely, the progression from Sunday to Saturday turns into an exciting and exhilarating experience. By the same token, if you do not use time wisely, it will end up using you.
No matter who you are, where you live or what you do, your life is impacted most drastically by what you do with time and what it does with you. Will Rogers was once asked, "If you had only 48 hours to live, how would you spend them?" The cowboy philosopher replied, "One at a time." Such is the reality of time. Every day gives us 86,400 seconds and we must use every one of them as they come for they will never be seen again.
But, ironically, there is another side to this crucial issue for each of us. There is an altogether different dimension of time which only people of faith can ever know. There is a time which no clock can measure, but which itself measures how much abundance people find in life.
Beyond temporal time (world time), there is God's time. We must seek to discern when we are to wait and when we are to move. Only when we are connected to God can we know the difference. Time is not a tyrant, but a tool for the work of the Kingdom. In Romans 8:28, God has promised that He will work all things for the good of those who believe.
And, you know, God is always working in our lives turning our detours and roadblocks into doors of opportunities. God is always at work and though things may not appear to be moving as quickly or in the ways we’d like to see them move, if we’re really seeking God’s will, He may surprise us with something miraculous.
In 1945, a young associate pastor, named Cliff, married his fiancé, Billie. They had very little money but scraped up enough to take a honeymoon. When they arrived at the hotel, they were told it was now a rehabilitation center and not available to overnight guests. They hitchhiked to a grocery store several miles down the road. The owner was sympathetic to their situation and let them stay in a room above the store. The owner quickly caught on that they were Christians and referred them to a friend with a nicer place to spend the rest of their honeymoon.
During the week, their host invited them to attend a youth rally at a nearby Christian conference center. The regular song leader was ill that night so Cliff was asked if he might take charge of the music service. He consented and led the music before a young evangelist named Billy stepped up to preach. Cliff Barrows met Billy Graham that night and they formed a ministry team that preached the Gospel throughout the world for nearly 50 years.
Yes, Christ deals with us according to His timing. Christ possesses an acute, accurate and amazing sense of timing. When your plans don't seem to work out, maybe God has something better in mind for you. He certainly did for Cliff and Billie Barrows!
That is why George Herbert, the Anglican priest and poet, once wrote, "Teach me, my God and King, in all things Thee to see, and what I do in anything, to do it unto Thee." James is trying to teach us—in these precious verses—the importance of committing each day to God's purposes, God’s plans, trusting that He will indeed work all things for the good of those who believe.
It should fill each and every one of us with joy to consider that the Eternal One— God Almighty—wants to direct our steps, our paths. The reason we commit all our decisions and plans to God is because we know His wisdom, His knowledge, is infinitely greater, deeper and wider than our wisdom, our knowledge. Really, just how ridiculous is it for us to think we know better than God?
Now we might argue, however, about how much control God chooses to exercise in this world. There are Christians who believe that everything that happens is a result of God's will. Others are equally sincere in believing that God has created an ordered world that operates according to certain laws. These folks might say that, under certain remarkable circumstances, God intervenes, but that most things simply happen according to His laws.
Which way of thinking is correct? Whichever…we do know that however God chooses to act, His way is best.
According to an ancient legend a certain small village sought to strike a bargain with God. They had been experiencing many years of poor harvests. They thought they could improve on God's way of doing things. They asked God for permission to plan the weather for the next year's harvest. God agreed. Whenever they asked for rain, God sent rain. Whenever they asked for sun, God sent sun. That year, the corn and the wheat were higher and thicker than ever before. When harvest time came, however, the farmers discovered that the tall corn had no ear, and the thick wheat had no head of grain. And they complained bitterly to God.
God replied, "When you asked for rain, I sent rain. When you asked for sunshine, I gave sunshine. You never asked for the harsh north winds, however. Without the harsh north winds, there is no pollination, and with no pollination, there is no crop."
Now, we may not understand God's ways, but we know His heart for He has revealed it in Jesus. We know that God is for us. We know He can be trusted. We know His way is best. But, sometimes, if we’re honest, it strains our faith to affirm that. The ways of God are not our ways. Still we must trust in His divine care. He is in control and He will work all things for the good of those who believe.
Now there’s perhaps one more thing we should note before we wrap up today. There’s one thing that James is not saying. James is not saying that we are to passively accept whatever happens, calling that the will of God.
Do you know what I’m talking about? I’m talking about the person who caves in too easily when life gets tough. I'm talking about the person who is content to sit on his or her sofa whining, "Well, if this is God's will, I'll just have to accept it. If God wants me to have a job, He’ll open the right door. All I have to do is sit and wait on Him." The Christian faith has been given a bad name by people who excuse their timidity, their irresponsibility, or their outright laziness by blaming everything on God's will.
Remember Jesus said faith is not only about asking but seeking and knocking. He praised the widow who persisted until she got what she needed. He praised others who were doers, who were risk takers. The man with five talents who did something with his talent was praised, while the one who hid his talent in the ground was condemned. There is no support in all the Gospels or the epistles for the whiny kind of passivity that excuses every situation as God's will.
The Christian life is a life of action. It is a life of striving, of never giving up, of persevering. James opened his book by telling us that we should consider it pure joy when we face trials because that testing of our faith develops perseverance and perseverance must finish its work so that we may be mature and complete and not lacking in anything.
James concludes by saying, “anyone who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” Summarizing all the foregoing? · Bring God into your planning. And remember that He uses all things—even and perhaps especially, the greatest challenges—for your good. · Plan with your mortality clearly in view. None of us know precisely how much time remains for us. Invest your hours well. · Keep a humility about your future—all your plans will come to naught if God’s not in them. · Think of your life in terms of not just what you can get but in terms of what you can give and · Be careful not to sin—not only through the sin of commission— wrongdoing—but also through the sin of omission—failing to do that which you know you should do.
I’m going to play off that last point to make one final suggestion. We all know how we can sometimes be so preoccupied or deep in thought that we don't hear loved ones speaking to us even when they’re in the same room. This is why someone once wrote: “Spread love everywhere you go; first of all in your own home. Give love to your children, to your wife or husband, to a next-door neighbor…Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God's kindness; kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile, kindness in your warm greeting.”
Some time back, one of my husband's former students asked if she might visit to tell him how much his life lessons had shaped her life and, in turn, had shaped the lives of her children and their children. Her words arrived as precious blessings to be cherished.
Our beloved nephew, Bernie, an R.N., contracted the coronavirus in the course of his work and spent two weeks on ten IV drips and many more medications. His breathing was supported via a ventilator. He was constantly dialyzed and received other interventions too numerous to recount...the team attending to him tried everything to save him. He went into septic shock a few days ago and succumbed to COVID-19. His wife, Jean, was allowed to be at his bedside as he went home to the Lord, and she wants to believe he was aware of her presence with him. If Bernie had survived, he would have been on a trache and in a nursing home for the remainder of his days. We're heartbroken.
What should you be saying to your loved ones or to anyone who’s been kind to you or shaped you in some way? What would you say if you knew you only had five minutes left to live? Don’t waste time, say it today.
Hebrews 12:1-3 and 18-29 Richard Slyhoff, a Pennsylvania man who lived in the late 1800s, never cared all that much about God, never thought all that much about God, until he neared the end of his life. As he pondered his impending death, Slyhoff became convinced that he would have to face some form of eternal judgment. Did this fear cause him to repent and seek a relationship with God? No. Slyhoff had a better idea. He would hide from God instead.
He dug his burial plot in the shadow of a large boulder. According to Slyhoff’s beliefs, a great earthquake would occur on the Day of Judgment, and all the dead would rise from their graves. Slyhoff was counting on that earthquake to dislodge the boulder and cover his grave. In this way, he reasoned, on the Day of Judgment there would be no way he could rise from the dead, his tomb would be hidden from God’s eyes and he wouldn’t have to face judgment.
BUT, over the years, the boulder hovering ominously above Richard Slyhoff’s grave has shifted. Part of that movement is due to erosion, part is due to a tornado that moved it out of place. The boulder no longer hangs over Richard Slyhoff’s grave. When the Day of Judgment does come for him, as it will for all of us, he will be surprised to discover he no longer has a rock to hide under. Even if our theology doesn’t exactly match up with Richard Slyhoff’s, most of us would probably like to avoid paying for our sins. And, of course, there is a way to be cleansed of them—through the cross of Jesus Christ.
In recent days, we have been experiencing the earthquake that is COVID-19. Everything in our world has been shaken. As I write this, there are 4,750,064 confirmed cases in 213 countries and territories. The outbreak has created a global health crisis that has had a deep impact on the way we perceive our world and our everyday lives. Like me, you may be crying out to the Lord asking, “how long Lord?” Such a season of shaking…what are we to make of all of this? All of us want and need a safe place to stand when the earth begins to shake beneath our feet. We all want something solid to hold on to, something that will not deteriorate or shift when we are at our most vulnerable. Well, there is such a something and, even more, there is such a someone upon whom we can rely. In moving to address our deep concerns, I came across a message on earthquakes by King Duncan from which I’ve drawn the Slyhoff illustration and from which I’ll draw some other illustrations as well today. We turn first to Hebrews 12, verses 1 to 3 and 18 to 29.
EARTHQUAKES HAPPEN. Now, admittedly, physical earthquakes of any major size don’t happen very often in Maine. But the Maine Geological Survey does report that, in a typical year, this state does see several small earthquakes. Scientists, however, anticipate only about five earthquakes of 4.6-magnitude or larger in this area each century. The largest earthquake ever recorded in Maine, measuring a 5.9 magnitude, was centered in the Pembroke-Eastport area on March 21, 1904. Three earthquakes occurred in Maine last March, one centered near Old Orchard Beach with a magnitude of 2.7.
Though earthquakes are few and far between here, if we lived in California, things might be different. Some time back, after a year that included earthquakes, wildfires, extreme winds, record flooding, and even some funnel clouds, Los Angeles weatherman Fritz Coleman described California like this. He said, “California is more than a state, it’s an Acts of God Theme Park.”
Perhaps we will never experience a literal, physical earthquake, but we will all certainly experience times when our world will be shaken. But beyond the current coronavirus crisis, there could be problems in a marriage, perhaps. Dr. William Barker once noted that, since 1688, Lloyd’s of London has underwritten insurance on nearly everything. Lloyd’s was established originally to insure losses on ships and cargoes. Through the years, the syndicate has expanded to cover nearly every imaginable contingency. Lloyd’s settled claims in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, on the Titanic, and on thousands of less famous disasters. The company has written policies covering pianists’ hands, dancers’ legs, singers’ voices, and actresses’ faces. Coffee crops, space flights—the riskiest ventures have been protected by Lloyd’s underwriters.
But even Lloyd’s of London will not insure a marriage. Think about that. They will not insure a marriage. A wedding, yes. A couple can arrange to make sure the caterer will appear as scheduled, the musicians will perform as planned, and the photographer will take pictures as contracted. All the details of the ceremony may be covered by special policies. But a successful marriage cannot be insured by Lloyd’s or any underwriter anywhere. Sadly, as we’ve seen, many marriages do not survive.
There are other emotional and spiritual earthquakes. Ill health. Loss of a job. Loss of a home. Loss of mobility or sight or hearing. Loss of a pet. Loss of a loved one. Financial loss. Loss of innocence. Loss of social status. Loss of freedom. Loss of youth. Unplanned pregnancies. Injuries. Betrayal by a friend. The end of a dream.
Things seem to be going along quite smoothly, but then we feel the ground starting to move beneath our feet. And suddenly our whole world is violently shaken. Where shall we turn when such times come?
Some people lose themselves in their work when they feel the ground shaking. Or they turn to television or movies or work on the house or in the garden. Or they look to drugs or alcohol. These serve only to mask the hurt and, indeed, may complicate the problem.
Some people reach out to their friends. This can be helpful, particularly to reach out to a friend who shares your faith. It depends on the friend, of course. Some friends, even Christian friends, can give terrible advice. The best friend, perhaps, simply allows you to express your pain.
Some people try counseling. This may be more productive. Many people have profited from time spent with a professional counselor. That is true whether you are dealing with marital problems or grief or any other problem that is weighing you down. But still there comes a time when each of these solutions seems inadequate. Where do we turn then? We turn, of course, to our faith, to our Lord Jesus.
Now, it’s been said that, “The road to faith is paved with doubts.” True. But though we—who have called on Christ in faith—may have moments of doubt, may go through dry spells and dark nights, times when we’re not feeling His presence calming us and soothing us—we still cling to our Savior and Lord. Eventually, the doubts subside, the water of the Spirit slakes our thirst, the dark night opens onto a bright new day, and we feel His mighty presence as we draw near to Him in faith. Then, we may, as I have done, look back on those earthquake moments and chastise ourselves for ever doubting or succumbing to the dark night. We may look back and realize we didn’t need to struggle so if we’d only sought the Lord, the Lord’s will, and the Lord’s purposes in what we were experiencing.
Philip Yancey, in his book Reaching for the Invisible God, tells of his father‑in‑law, a Bible teacher and committed Christian. The older man’s faith troubled him in his final years. A degenerative nerve disease confined him to bed, preventing him from sharing in most of the activities he enjoyed. In addition to his own illness, his 39‑year‑old daughter battled a debilitating form of diabetes.
During the most severe crisis, he composed a Christmas letter and mailed it to family members and friends. He expressed his uneasy feelings about many things he had once taught. What could he believe with certainty? The old Bible teacher staked his faith on three realities and here is his list: “Life is difficult. God is merciful. Heaven is sure.” Those three things, he concluded, he could count on without reservation! When his daughter died of diabetic complications the week after he sent out this letter, he clung even more closely to those truths.
Life is difficult, said this wise Bible teacher. We know that’s true. That’s what earthquakes are all about. But then he adds the other two realities: God is merciful, and heaven is sure. That’s the testimony of the writer of Hebrews.
In our text for today, that writer contrasts Mt. Sinai in the Old Testament to Mt. Zion in the New. Mt. Sinai, where Moses received the Law, was a place where God came in power and judgment. The focus here is on terrifying warnings and severe penalties. The response to God’s presence on Mt. Sinai was fear. Here described is a “mountain . . . burning with fire . . . darkness, gloom and storm . . .” It was a mountain where people were given commandments “they could not bear . . .” Even Moses trembled when he came near the mountain.
But Mt. Zion is an entirely different place. Listen as the writer of Hebrews describes it: “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all people, to the spirits of righteous people made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
Here, the writer of Hebrews appeals to those who have come to a living faith in Christ to persevere. As the church of the firstborn, as those saints set apart to God, we must not imitate faithless Israel in the wilderness of Sinai. We have been covered in the saving blood of Jesus. Abel’s blood, spilled by his brother Cain, cried out for justice and retribution, whereas the blood of Jesus shed on the cross speaks of forgiveness and reconciliation.
This is the new unshakable kingdom of Christ about which he writes. It is life in the presence of God, where there is no fear. How do we find ourselves in such a place?
There are two truths that make the kingdom of God accessible to us: The first is the CHARACTER OF GOD and the second is the CROSS OF CHRIST.
WE ARE PART OF AN UNSHAKABLE KINGDOM BECAUSE OF GOD’S GREAT LOVE FOR US. No other religion on earth emphasizes the love of God as does the Christian. Our unshakable kingdom is impossible without God’s love.
At the beginning of the 20th century a clergyman named Frank Graeff was suffering from severe illness and depression. He felt that God was very far away. In desperation, he opened his Bible and stumbled on a verse from the book of 1st Peter and there read these words from chapter 5, verse 7: “Cast your care and anxiety on God, for God cares for you.” In that moment, God graciously came near and brought life to Graeff’s difficult circumstances. He still confronted tough times and though he might not have understood why God would allow those tough times nor how God could use those tough times for his good, what he did know, with certainty, was that God walked with him through them. As a response to this encounter with God, Graeff wrote the hymn, “Does Jesus Care?” Listen to the words from the first verse and refrain of this hymn.
Does Jesus care when my heart is pained too deeply for mirth and song; as burdens press and the cares distress, and the way grows weary and long? O yes, He cares; I know He cares, His heart is touched by my grief; When the days are weary, the long nights dreary, I know my Savior cares.
That is God’s character. That’s who God is. God cares about every one of us. God not only sees us in our need, but God’s heart is touched by our need. We do not have a God who is far off from us. Your marriage, your child, your finances, the one dear to you who’s suffering, the miserable circumstances you yourself may have worked yourself into, your every need—God knows. God cares. We have an unshakable kingdom, first of all, because of God’s character. The earthquake will end. He may shake the earth beneath us but what will remain is that which cannot be shaken.
WE HAVE AN UNSHAKABLE KINGDOM BECAUSE OF CHRIST’S CROSS AND WE CLING TO THAT RUGGED CROSS IN ANY AND ALL EARTHQUAKES WE ENCOUNTER. “You have come to God,” writes the author of Hebrews, “. . . to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood . . .”
In 1988, a devastating earthquake tore through the tiny country of Armenia, bringing down homes and buildings and destroying precious infrastructure. Fifty-five thousand people died in the aftermath. But great devastation creates great motivation; God made the human spirit to rise above tragedy with a selflessness that is simply breathtaking.
Out of the tragedy of the Armenian earthquake comes the story of Susanna Petrosyan, a humble mother who sacrificed herself to save her precious child. According to Associated Press reports, Susanna and her four-year-old daughter were trapped in the debris of their fallen home. As they waited for rescue, Susanna’s heart broke at the sound of her daughter’s cries. The little girl was so thirsty, and Susanna had no way to satisfy her. “It was then that I remembered I had my own blood,” writes Susanna.
Using a jagged shard of glass, Susanna slit her own fingers and allowed her daughter to drink some of her blood. For the next eight days, until mother and child were rescued, this was how Susanna sustained the life of her child. Sustained by her mother’s blood . . . That sounds strangely similar to what we believe about Jesus Christ.
Here is the Good News for the day. According to the writer of Hebrews, we are protected by Christ’s own blood, we are sustained by Christ’s own blood, we are brought into reconciliation with God by Christ’s own blood. We don’t need to hide from God and bury ourselves beneath a boulder. God loves us. Christ died for us. Don’t lose hope when you feel the earth trembling under your feet, regardless of what that earthquake might be. We are part of an unshakable kingdom. Christ has brought us into the Kingdom of God so let us be thankful and worship God acceptably with reverence and awe. Amen?
And now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
Isaiah 6:1-8 and Matthew 28:16-20 Last words are important. Last words are important. East Side Baptist Church is a little country church down in Perry County, Mississippi. It’s the church in which Maxie Dunnam came to faith in Christ under the preaching of Wiley Grissom, a pastor who preached the Gospel with power. The church is about 200 yards up the hill from the house where Maxie grew up and behind the church is a cemetery where Maxie says he’ll be buried someday.
His mother and father—whom in his adult life he affectionately called, “Mutt” and “Co-bell”—are buried there. On Co-bell’s tombstone are the last words she spoke to Mutt from her deathbed: “I’ll see you.” On his tombstone is his response: “I’ll be there.” A great witness to their confidence in eternal life and Heaven as their destination. Last words are important. Listen again to some of the last words of Jesus before His ascension into heaven:
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw Him, they worshipped Him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
These words of Jesus to His disciples are the marching orders that are to be followed until He returns. There is no more powerful motivational text for Christian mission and evangelistic zeal. It is Jesus' "Great Commission," His great assignment. Many individuals have received exciting commissions in their lifetimes. There was Michelangelo's commission to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Sir Christopher Wren's commission to build St. Paul's Cathedral in London, Walter Reed's assignment to stop yellow fever at the "Big Ditch" in Panama.
But, in my life and yours, there is this greatest of all commissions where God Himself turns and looks you and me full in the face and commissions us to work with Him on this life-altering project. It turns the street, the assembly line, the office, the kitchen, the mill, the classroom, the truck, and the retail store into an artist's studio where we may fairly affirm, "I'm here on assignment. My talent and time and money are needed. God has personally called me here to be His representative."
It's interesting that the Great Commission, written originally in the Greek, says, "As you go into all the world, make disciples." Gather more followers, call more people to eternal life in Jesus. Call people to repentance and faith and to unity with all believers in Christ's body, the church, and participate in the baptism that symbolizes that new birth. Teach others to live by Christ’s teachings, to serve in His mission, to pray for His kingdom. And then comes the conclusion, the powerful promise that undergirds the receiving of this Great Commission. "Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
That's the key—for us as for those first disciples. Not only does Jesus have all authority; not only does He send His followers out; but, above all, He promises always to be present. The Christian mission depends on Christ's presence.
God, the Father; God, the Son; God, the Holy Spirit. The triune God is the One in whose name we are baptized, in whose name we gather for worship, on whose mission Christ sends us, and on whose being Christ's promise to be always present depends. The Trinity is a difficult concept to grasp and people have tried to explain this revelation of God through everything from circles to triangles to trefoils, to three intersecting fish to the fleur-de-lis to water, ice and steam.
John Brokhoff, from whom I'm borrowing today, in tackling this challenge, recalled a four-faced clock in his hometown of Pottsville, Pennsylvania. As a boy, he said, he’d always been captivated by the clock because he wondered whether there were four clocks each with a face or whether there was one clock with four faces. If there was one clock with four faces, it was a mystery to him how that could work. Applying this to the Trinity, he found it helpful to consider God as a three-faced God: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. One God, three faces, all God.
Obviously, none of the methods we try can fully capture the three-in-oneness of God and I take a great deal in comfort in that. I like having a God I can’t put in a box. But for the sake of having a sermon and getting some sense of the Trinity, let’s—with Brokhoff —follow the track of the faces.
The first face we see is that of God the Father and one facet to which Brokhoff calls us is that we are to fear God. He laments that, in the last decade, there has been so much emphasis upon the love of God that we have lost the fear of God. We are to fear God not in terms of being afraid of Him but in terms of respect, awe, reverence, and adoration.
We are reminded that the Hebrews would not allow the name of God to be spoken and so they took out the vowels of his name to write only YHWH. They gave a substitute name for God: Adonai, translated "Lord." Their point: God is so great that human beings are not worthy to speak the holy name of God. In the Bible, people were not allowed to see God, not even Moses. The most Moses could see was the back of God. To look at the glory of God was like looking at the sun during an eclipse: It burned out your eyes to the point of blindness.
This lack of appreciating the greatness of God has affected our worship. Today, the church is experiencing a crisis in worship simply because we no longer have a God presented as worthy of worship, "worth-ship." It is when we have a God of greatness, majesty, and glory that we instinctively fall down before Him in worship, awe, and adoration.
We fear God not only because of His greatness but because of His power. We’ve lost this sense of God because contemporary folk think they have so much power. Why should we be impressed with God's power when we marvel at our weaponry, our instantaneous forms of communication, our astonishing medical advances, our satellites that can photograph a golf ball from a distance of eighty miles in the sky.
Ah, but then we see God's power sampled in nature: a hurricane, a tornado, or an earthquake. On Good Friday, 1964, there was an earthquake in Alaska. It was so terrific that mountains fell five feet, and a ridge of mountains moved laterally seven feet. The ocean floor, in an area 480 by 178 miles, rose fifty feet.
I’ll never forget the bridge I saw on a mission trip to Mississippi where I’d brought a team for post-Katrina clean-up. It looked like a giant had come through and just shoved this steel and concrete bridge so that it buckled up and jutted up and jutted up as far as the eye could see. The power of the hurricane inspired awe.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of God's power set forth in His creation. Because we have forgotten about God's power, we have lost confidence in the power of prayer. In the light of God's power, we ask, "Is there anything too hard for God?" God is able to fulfill His promises and He is able to answer our prayers. We may think a human problem or a human need is impossible of solution, but God is able to do the impossible.
Our fear of God is based upon God's holiness. On traditional altars were the words, "Holy, Holy, Holy." These words reminded worshipers of the otherness of God. To be holy is to be different. God is different from humankind. God is absolute purity, absolute goodness, absolute perfection.
We are not pure, we’re not good, we’re not perfect. We have all sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. We need to confess our sins—repent, turn from them.
In the Bible, we see individuals confronted with their sin. At the burning bush, Moses was told to take off his sandals because he was standing on holy ground and he was not perfect, not pure. When Isaiah saw God on a high throne and heard the song, "Holy, Holy, Holy," he fell down and confessed his sins. When Peter realized who Jesus was, he fell on his knees and cried, "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man." Because we have lost the holiness of God, we no longer fall on our faces and cry, "God, be merciful to me a sinner." When we recapture deep within us this sense of God’s holiness, when we confess our sins and receive mercy, then perhaps we’ll understand, on a different level, why we have reason to thank and praise our God.
Well, then we see the face of God the Son. God is not only Father, but He is also equally God the Son in Jesus Christ. You see, the God as Father we have been considering is far beyond us, totally other from us. God the Father is really incomprehensible and unapproachable. Human beings need Jesus as God in a human being. When we know God in Jesus, we not only fear God but love Him.
We can love Him because He reveals God the Father. By our own reason and with our puny minds, we cannot comprehend the nature of God. We’re reminded in this of Augustine who was trying to understand the Trinity. In a dream, he saw a little boy on the seashore trying to empty the ocean into a small hole with a sea shell. He asked the child what he was doing, and the boy answered, "I’m just emptying the ocean into this hole." Augustine laughed saying, "You can never do that!" Then God said to him, "Indeed? And you would empty the mysteries of the Infinite God with the little dipper of your thoughts?" Jesus is God in person. He brings God down to our comprehension. He becomes concrete and specific, a God who can be heard and touched. We need Jesus to reveal God the Father to us, or we would never truly know God.
We love God, too, because Jesus is the mediator between this awesome God and us. God is too great to be approachable. Who can stand in God's holy presence? Who dares to look at God? Who has the right words to say to God? It is utterly impossible for sinful us to get close to God. That is why we need a mediator, a go-between God in Jesus. Jesus takes our petitions to the Father. Jesus stands as our Advocate when we appear for judgment. Jesus makes all things right between God and sinful human beings.
Jesus is our redeemer. He makes sinners acceptable to God the Father. God is not only love but also justice. When God's laws and will are defied, there is a price to be paid. Justice must be satisfied. In our time, we have forgotten there is such a thing as the wrath of God. The wrath of God is the justice of God being applied to sinful human beings. The very integrity of God, the rightness and righteousness of God, forces satisfaction to be made of crimes committed. How can we make it up to God for our many sins? It’s impossible. God the Son comes to our rescue. He paid the price of our sins on the cross. Now when we accept Jesus as Savior, we are accepted, justified because God the Son died in our place and made full satisfaction to fulfill the demands of a just God. Here we see the love of God in that while we are still sinners Christ died for us. It is out of this love for us that we learn to love God in return.
Then we see the third face of God: the Spirit. God, the Father; God, the Son, and— equally God, God the Holy Spirit. If God the Father is unknowable and unapproachable, and if God the Son has left earth and is seated at the right hand of the Father in glory, where does that leave us? Well, God didn’t leave us as orphans.
He sent the Holy Spirit—Comforter/Advocate/Counselor. To have the Spirit is to have God in us, in our hearts, our minds, our persons. We are body and spirit. Our spirits are within our bodies.
One of the false teachings in the world today is pantheism. Pantheism is the belief that God is all and all is God. Panentheism, which is akin to this, is that God is in all and all is in God.
The Christian teaching, on the other hand, is that God is transcendent—other. But, God is also immanent, present within those who have received Christ as Savior. The Holy Spirit comes and resides within us. Thus, Jesus taught that a person must be born again, born of the Spirit—capital S.
It is God in Spirit who works in us to help us, to guide us into truth, to motivate us to do good, and to give us gifts by which we serve God. In 1st Corinthians, the apostle Paul tells us what those gifts of the Spirit are. In Galatians, he lists nine fruit of the Spirit.
When we think of the goodness and power and holiness of God, we are overwhelmed by His majesty. With Paul, we sing a doxology: "O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable are His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord; or who has been His counselor? Who has ever given to God that God should repay him? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen." When we think of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we want to explode and shout with joyous praise: "My God, how great Thou art!"
I pray you will embark on this day with the words of Jude and the words of the benediction that follows echoing in your mind: "... to the only God, our Savior through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority before all ages, now and forevermore. Amen." BENEDICTION But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And now unto Him who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you without blemish before the presence of His glory with rejoicing, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all ages, now, and forevermore. Amen.
James 5:7-12 Patience is defined as the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset. Persistence is a firm continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition. Perseverance is steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.
Patience. Persistence. Perseverance. How desperately we need these in our rucksacks today!!! The coronavirus and the resultant efforts to stem the tide of its dissemination have upended our lives. Grocery shelves are emptying. Businesses are suffering. The stock market is wobbling. In Maine, nearly 90,000 individuals, or roughly 13 percent of the state’s workers, have filed for unemployment since March 15 . While some restrictions on public activities have been lifted, protests are increasing. People are sick of and sick of hearing about COVID-19. Tempers are getting shorter and shorter. Patience is wearing thinner and thinner.
Patience. Patience seems a hard commodity to locate and not just because of a virus. For other reasons, it is sometimes hard to be patient. Frank Luchsinger tells of a woman who telephones him one day, choked with emotion as she reports, "Ray walked away from Day Care this morning." She is speaking of her husband, who is sinking into Alzheimer's and is in a wonderful day program in a community center.
"It's a very busy street. He's headed west; he knows we live that way. They spotted him at the bank and at the hamburger stand. It's been six hours. I'd have called earlier but I knew there was nothing we could do. Every time someone sees him, he's gone before the police get there. It's such a cold day. Do you think we could start the prayer chain?" Sometimes it's hard to be patient.
A young couple wants one thing most in life—to have a child. They wonder why God has not chosen to bless them with a pregnancy. Both are successful professionals but this brings little satisfaction. Now their marriage is beginning to suffer under the strain. Sometimes it's hard to be patient.
A family with several children sits in a fast food restaurant learning that Happy Meals don't necessarily bring happiness. Children's meals are all mixed up on the table and while a haggard dad tries to sort out whose meal is whose, the littlest one eats part of a meal that doesn’t belong to him. Tempers flare. Sometimes it's hard to be patient.
I've heard it said, and I imagine my husband, Gene, would likely say it's true that sometimes it's hard to be patient with your spouse. Socrates wrote, "By all means, marry. If you get a good wife, you'll be happy. If you get a bad one, you'll become a philosopher... and that is a good thing for any man."
We've heard it said that marriage is a three-ring circus: engagement ring, wedding ring, and suffer-ring. It has also been suggested that marriage is not a—it’s a sentence; that marriages are made in heaven, but so are thunder and lightning. Sometimes, it’s hard to be patient.
It's hard to be patient with our vocations. Certain credentials are required, then experience, then a measure of the right timing and perseverance. Someone not particularly deserving is promoted to the job we want, or we receive damaging and unfair criticism or we are exposed to unrelenting demands resulting in unending stress.
And it’s hard to be patient with our health: that long illness we did not anticipate, medical treatment that doesn’t work out, conflicting opinions, escalating expenses, wear and tear on our loved ones.
And it’s hard to be patient in this time of COVID-19.
"Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength" we read in Isaiah, but when you're waiting and weary, it's hard to be patient.
James writes, "Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord.” Look to the example of the farmer who, in James’ day, waited for the fall rain in early October or early November that was necessary to prepare the hard ground for sowing and to enable the seed to germinate. Later the farmer would wait for the spring rains that would come in April and May; these were vital for the grain to ripen and mature. Be patient like the farmer. Stand firm. Wait on the Lord.
Patience: if you were to think for a moment about some of the synonyms for the word “patience,” what might come to mind would be words like: waiting, holding on, hanging in there, keeping up the fight, and persevering (though, in the Greek, perseverance is a more active word than patience). Patience, remember, is a capacity. Perseverance, an action.
Lyman Coleman and Richard Peace opine that, as Americans, we’re not very good at handling stress and demonstrating patience. Our tendency is to act, to think that we can deal with any challenging situation and make it go away. If we can’t, our next line of defense is to go away ourselves. Fight or flee. The idea of hanging in there, of staying in a challenging situation because that is where we are supposed to be, is not necessarily our strength. Of course, sometimes flight may be the only sane answer. We can’t say, without exception, that in all situations the best thing is to hang in there.
One must always attend to the Lord’s leading, wait for Him, and while waiting, stand firm, like Job.
That was James’ word to the church in 1st century Jerusalem and it’s the word to us today. Though Job was not a patient man and frequently expressed his exasperation with the Lord, James wants us to emulate him in his perseverance: despite the disasters and difficulties that came into his life and the relentless attack of his “friends,” Job kept his faith and did not abandon his trust in God. Job’s dependence upon and waiting upon the Lord brought him extraordinary results. Learn from Job.
James, in chapter 1, verse 2, tells us that whenever we face trials of any kind, we should consider these nothing but pure joy because the testing of our faith produces perseverance (steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success) and, if we persist and let perseverance have its full effect, we will wind up mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
John Ortberg in his book, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, reminds us that any truly meaningful accomplishment will require perseverance. “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, the writer of Hebrews said. In other words, just don’t quit. We might have to endure through times of confusion or doubt, times of loneliness, even times when all seems lost. And we should keep in mind that suffering alone does not produce perseverance, only suffering that is endured in faith.
James, in the verses preceding the ones for today, catalogued some of the Job-like misfortunes the folks of his day were enduring: failure to be paid for their labor, being used to bring opulence to a few while personally being forced to live in poverty, abuse in the courts and more. James counseled them not to retaliate, not to become like those who were oppressing them.
The Lord’s coming is near, he says to them. The Lord’s return will change everything.
Now we might note here that there are three words in the New Testament used to describe the Second Coming of Jesus. The first is epiphaneia (in the English, epiphany). It describes the appearance of God or the ascent to the throne of an emperor. The second word is apokalupsis (the English, apocalypse); this carries the meaning of unveiling or revelation. The third word—which is used here—is parousia. It describes the invasion of a country or the arrival of a king. Taken together, these three words give the sense of what will occur when Christ returns. Jesus first came to this Earth quietly as a baby in Bethlehem. When He comes a second time, it will be in awe-inspiring power as the rightful King. In great might and glory, He will claim His people.
While we wait, James said, look to the example of the farmer who knows he can do nothing to hasten the arrival of the rains. The rains will come when God sends them. We sow a seed, we pull the weeds, we do our part to protect the crop, but there is a limit to what we can do. God must do the rest. God must manage the growth. God must work all things together for our good.
While we wait, the temptation might be to slip into inappropriate survival modes or, more specifically, the temptation might be to adopt the ways of the world. Resist such temptations, James tells us. For one thing, don’t take your frustrations out in grumbling.
Now while groaning in the face of suffering may be appropriate, grumbling at one another is not. Bickering, fault-finding, back-biting, nitpicking, grumbling against others is a form of judgment. And here in James and elsewhere we are told not to judge or we too will be judged.
And grumbling is so often misdirected. We’re upset about something over here…but we take it out over there. In stress situations, it may work like this: we feel pressure but we’re powerless to do anything about it. It comes perhaps from someone we dare not cross. We can’t express our anger and resentment directly, so we do it indirectly. We complain to those around us, often to those dearest to us. We may walk around cranky. We may blame them. In any case, our grumbling does nothing but create tension.
What compounds this is that we can then become chronic complainers, chronic grumblers; we can move our attention away from praise. It’s like the big sheet of paper and the little smudge. You lose sight of all your blessings to focus on the little smudge. That little smudge may work into you in such a way that you become a chronic complainer, focusing always on what’s “wrong” and not on what’s “right,” focusing on the blisters, ignoring the blessings.
Someone who could have done that, someone who could have gotten himself bogged down in smudges was Abraham Lincoln. If you want an example of someone who never got tired of trying, he’s your guy. Born into poverty, Lincoln was faced with defeat throughout his life. He lost eight elections, failed twice in business and suffered a nervous breakdown. He could have quit many times—but he didn't and because he didn't quit, he became one of the greatest presidents to sit in the White House.
Once, after losing an important Senate race, he said, "The path was worn and slippery. My foot slipped from under me, knocking the other out of the way, but I recovered and said to myself, ‘it's a slip and not a fall.'”
He didn’t blame others or use his tongue to tear down others, instead he spoke the truth of his convictions. This is what James is addressing in verse 10. Here he celebrates the men and women who have spoken truth—the prophetic word—in God’s name.
Lincoln, like those prophets, persevered—and because he did our nation survived a great crisis. Here is a litany of a man who never stopped trying:
In 1816—His family was forced out of their home. He had to work to support them. In 1818—His mother died. 1831—Failed in business. 1832—Ran for the state legislature—lost. 1832—Also lost his job—wanted to go to law school but couldn't get in. 1833—Borrowed some money from a friend to begin a business and by the end of the year he was bankrupt. He spent the next 17 years of his life paying off this debt. 1834—Ran for the state legislature again—this time he won. 1835—Was engaged to be married; his sweetheart died and his heart was broken. 1836—He had a total nervous breakdown and was in bed for six months. 1838—He sought to become speaker of the state legislature—He was defeated. 1843—He ran for Congress and lost. 1846—Ran for Congress again—this time he won—went to Washington and did a good job. 1848—Ran for re-election to Congress—lost. 1849—Sought the job of land officer in his home state—he was rejected. 1854—Ran for the Senate of the United States—lost. 1856—Sought the vice-presidential nomination at his party's national convention—got less than 100 votes. 1858—Ran for the U.S. Senate again and again he lost. 1860—He was elected President of the United States.
It was Abraham Lincoln's belief in the providence of God that allowed him to keep his balance and turn repeated setbacks into eventual victories.
To be formed and transformed through trials, the place to start is with mini-trials. When someone interrupts you, you can practice graciously holding your tongue. When a co-worker borrows something and doesn’t return it immediately, you can practice patience. When you have a headache, you can discover that it is possible to suffer and not tell everybody about it. As simple as it sounds, the place to start being formed by trials is with the mini variety.
But we need to add persistence for the large trials. Perhaps you might identify the greatest challenge of your life right now, or a dilemma you’re about ready to give up on. Make a commitment that you are going to relentlessly persist through prayer. Perhaps the challenge is relational. Is someone you love far from God and you’ve given up hope? Is it a pattern of sin in your life that you haven’t been able to break and you feel as if you’ll be in its grip forever? Is it a new habit you would do well to cultivate? Is it a family rupture that’s been going on for years?
You don’t keep the faith and attend to these things through sheer strength of will alone but through trusting in, relying on God.
So…what’s the scoop with the last verse in this passage? It seems a bit oddly placed but it’s not.
The last verse in our passage has sometimes been taken to mean that we should not swear an oath of allegiance to a flag or an oath to tell the truth in a courtroom, but that’s not what James is addressing here. James is not condemning oath-taking of this sort: we find plenty of instances of people taking appropriate oaths all throughout scripture from Exodus to Matthew to Romans to Hebrews.
It would seem James had a two-fold purpose here. First, to warn against the flippant use of God’s name to guarantee the truth of what is spoken. Phrases like: “I swear to God that…” or “As God is my witness, I’ll…” are, in part, what’s in mind here.
Then there are the oaths, the promises, and the boastings we sometimes may be tempted to utter. An example to consider from scripture is found in the experience of Peter who once talked about how faithful he was going to be to Jesus: “Lord if everybody leaves You. I will not leave You. Lord, if I have to die to save You, I’ll die in Your place.”
Then when the crucial moment arrived, Peter said about Jesus: “I don’t even know the man.” This was the same man who had sworn to follow Jesus to death. You see James is saying that, in the Christian life, patience, persistence, and perseverance are not manifested in grand verbal promises but by quiet talk that follows through. Our patient endurance will be shown not in words but in endurance through trials and testing.
So…bottom line: Remember that any truly meaningful human accomplishment will require patience, persistence and perseverance. Allow these to do their work in you, confident that if you do, you will wind up mature in the faith, complete, lacking in nothing. Keep going, stop grumbling, don’t quit. If you fall down, get up. Don’t be an empty talker; just run the race set before you. Learn persistence in the mini-trials and you’ll have greater strength to move through the larger trials. And remember that all of this is not done through the sheer strength of your own will but through trusting in God to use all things for our good to grow us up in Christ Jesus our Lord. AMEN? You might wish to lift the following as your prayer: Lord, I know that there is nowhere I can go where You are not and yet often I go about my days without ever giving a thought to Your presence, essentially turning a deaf ear to You, paying no attention to you, overlooking you, discounting you, neglecting you, ignoring you. I do so at my own peril. You are an ever-present help in the midst of troubles. You love me with a love that will never let me go. May I love you and demonstrate my love for you by using the times of discipline to move to greater depths of faith in you. May I embrace the week ahead, being diligent in my labor, kind to my neighbor, generous to the discouraged, patient with my family, loyal to my Savior. May I study the scriptures, be faithful in prayer and—in all things—trust the Lord. I pray in the name of my Savior Jesus Christ. Amen
Contingent Contentment or Contentment in Christ? Psalm 42; Philippians 4
Max Lucado, in the Anxious for Nothing Bible Study, for which you’ll find a link of the front page of this website, offers two words in the third session that served as the inspiration for the message I’m posting today. "Contingent Contentment" is the kind of thinking that starts with the “I'll be happy when…,” “I'll be happy if…” I’ll be content when I marry. I’ll be happy when I have a child. I’ll be content when I get a new job. I’ll be content when I move to a new community. I’ll be happy when I get a new car. In every instance, contentment is based on circumstances.
Psalm 42 was composed by someone who is longing for the good ole days and lamenting his current circumstances. He is filled with discontentment. The writer, is a worship leader as well as a member of the Korahite choir. The Sons of Korah were the descendants of Levi who sang in the temple. The psalmist is now in exile in the land of the Jordan River. That river lies north of the Sea of Galilee and contains many waterfalls as it cascades southward. The psalmist tells us that he is feeling overwhelmed by the spiritual “waves and breakers” that have “swept over” him.
He recalls leading groups of people to worship, singing songs of thanks! Those were special times—but the psalmist is singing a different song today. Today, his heart is broken and he can’t seem to locate God. With this background, hear the beginning words of the psalm:
“As the deer pants for streams of water, so I long for you, O God. I thirst for God, the living God. When can I go and meet with Him? Day and night, I have only tears for food, while my enemies continually taunt me, saying, "Where is this God of yours? My heart is breaking as I remember how it used to be: I walked among the crowds of worshipers, leading a great procession to the house of God, singing for joy and giving thanks—it was the sound of a great celebration! Why am I discouraged? Why so sad?”
Can you remember a mountain-top moment of worship? I can remember many. I remember a retreat on the Maryland shore with some Stephen Ministers I’d trained. We’d gathered around the Lord’s Supper, and all of us were taken to a place of deep emotion in worship that moved us to tears, bonded us together, and warmed us to our cores. I remember a Maundy Thursday service and the depth of intimacy and overwhelming love I felt for the Lord and for members of the congregation as I knelt to wash their feet. I remember blessed times when folks have come forward in services to receive Christ as Savior; I remember sacred moments in a baptismal pool. I remember my great joy and relief when I went forward to proclaim my own belief in Jesus as Savior at a Billy Graham Crusade in Boston, Massachusetts. I remember the moment I received spiritual assurance and tangible confirmation of my call to pastoral ministry.
There are moments while praying from the pulpit when the presence of the Holy Spirit has been so palpable that I’ve felt transported. There are moments even in nature when I’ve heard the Lord in the whisper of the wind.
All of these mountain top experiences have something in common: I could feel in every fiber of my being the presence of God. The moment, the time in worship, was good not because it was entertaining or emotional but because the Spirit of the Living God—His grace, His mercy, His mysterious majesty—surrounded me and often surrounded the assembly.
You may remember, as well, moments in worship, communion with God, like this. Perhaps you also remember days you didn’t bother to worship because you just didn’t have it in you. Not that you were lazy or wanted to do something else—no, you just felt numb and cold inside. No matter how loud you sang or how catchy the songs—even if the preaching was right on target—something was missing. Think of a deer in a desert, panting for water, crying as it looks for water, unable to find even a trickle of a stream to quench its thirst.
That’s the way the psalmist describes his spiritual state. He is dry and parched. He’s not thirsty for water but for God. His soul is thirsty. He longs to be near God—to experience a refreshing stream but instead he’s in the desert. Tears, salty tears, are the only drink he can find, but saltwater only increases one's thirst.
No songs of praise come from his parched lips. His swollen, red eyes see no sign of God’s face. He is only blinded by the sun. And there isn’t even an edifying voice of a fellow worshipper speaking a psalm, hymn, or spiritual song to spur him on to love and good deeds. In the desert, his tragedies are instead exploited by an unbelieving world that taunts with sneering questions, "Well, where's your wonderful God now?! Can't you see how hollow all religion is? Give it up!"
But even more troubling questions can come from those who profess to be Christians: “Why do you think God abandoned you like this? Maybe it’s something you did? Maybe there is some unresolved sin or pride in your life? How is it that you’ve fallen out of favor with God?”
And then there’s another question that we sometimes hear: “If you don’t feel close to God, who do you suppose moved?" That last one is actually a good question. If you were to ask that of our Psalmist he might surprise you and say—well it seems to me that God did!
The psalmist feels abandoned and forgotten. Being forgotten is one of the worst feelings. Being forgotten means being alone and defenseless before enemies and the forces of nature. Being forgotten means losing stability and security— nowhere is safe, darkness surrounds.
The psalmist wants to know why God has thrown him aside. He is lost in darkness; enemies have taken advantage of his misfortune. And he feels shame—an embarrassment for God. He has praised God like an adoring child praises a Father— confident in the Father’s goodness and boasting that the Father can do anything! And then, in the moment He is needed most, it seems the Father isn’t there. And the child is—abandoned. All the praise and boasting about the Father becomes… embarrassing.
Whose psalm is this? Who are the children of Korah?
Any of us who feel thirsty for God’s presence. Anyone who hears people say, "Where is Your God?" because something terrible has happened. Those who find themselves in oppressive surroundings as family members or co-workers insult them for their faith. And those who feel stressed and disappointed because God hasn't seemed to do much to help them out of a difficult situation.
“Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise Him again—my Savior and my God!...Each day the Lord pours His unfailing love upon me, and through each night I sing His songs, praying to God who gives me life…’O God, my rock,’ I cry, ‘why have you forgotten me? Why must I wander around in grief[?]…I will put my hope in God! I will praise Him again—my Savior and my God!”
This psalm and the song “His Eye is on the Sparrow” is for the thirsty, parched souls who long for God—those who long to be immersed in His mercy and rescuing grace.
Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come, Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home, When Jesus is my portion? My constant friend is He: His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me; His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me. “Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear, And resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears; Though by the path He leadeth, but one step I may see; His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me; His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me. Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise, When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies, I draw the closer to Him, from care He sets me free; His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me; His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
Like the psalm, the song starts off with a little self-talk: Why am I discouraged? Why am I so sad?
Despair is a vicious thing. It’s a sort of auto-immune disorder of the soul. It attacks your soul, then turns your soul against you for feeling sad. But the chorus in both the hymn and the psalm yields to hope. The thirsty soul decides to become a pilgrim. Like the deer, the psalmist is going to sniff out the source of water.
I will put my hope in God! I will praise Him, my Savior and my God!
Being a pilgrim means accepting the wilderness, but settling for nothing on the journey except the deep waters of God. That’s why we need this psalm—to send us on our pilgrim journey, to prepare us for the spiritual life. Too many people settle for poison in the wilderness, contentment based on contingencies. "Feeling better has become more important to us than finding God."
In his autobiography, When You Can’t Come Back, Dave Dravecky (a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants who lost his pitching arm to cancer) says that he "learned that the wilderness is part of the landscape of faith, and every bit as essential as the mountaintop. On the mountaintop, we are overwhelmed by God's presence. In the wilderness, we are overwhelmed by His absence. Both places should bring us to our knees; the one, in utter awe; the other, in utter dependence."
Jesus once spoke to a thirsty woman in the wilderness of Samaria (John 4). She felt far from God and so it isn’t strange that she asked, "Where is God?" She had heard from her family—the generations before her—that God was on His holy mountain—Mount Gerazim. But she’d heard from her enemies that God lived in a big house in Jerusalem. “Where is God?” she asked.
Jesus wasn’t surprised by the fact that she’d had five husbands and that the man with whom she was then living wasn’t her husband. Like many of us who long for God, she’d turned to other people, other circumstances, other avenues looking for satisfaction. She was thirsty, and so when Jesus spoke of living water—deep water—that not only satisfies thirst but taps a spring of gushing water in the soul—she wanted it! Like a deer panting for water!
Scott Hoezee recalls having seen a bumper sticker that featured the picture of a telescope along with the words, "If you see God, tell him I'm looking for Him." This psalmist would appreciate that bumper sticker. But in this psalm, as in so much of our experience, you can't always find God with the "telescope approach." Sometimes we try to scrutinize our present circumstances to see if we can locate precisely where God is, hoping we can zero in on Him the way a telescope zeroes in on a star. But it doesn't always work that way.
To stick with the astronomy analogy for a moment: some of you know that when stargazing, the best way to see some stars is to not look directly at them. Because of the way our eyes are designed, faint objects can be seen best when you look askance from them. Look just to the side of a dim star and you will suddenly see it in your peripheral vision.
Sometimes faith is like that, too. It seems to have been the case for the writer of Psalm 42. Unable to locate God in the present moment of crisis and pain, he instead looks to the past. Not only was the psalmist able then to see God in the past, but somehow it energized his hope in the present moment too. By looking just to the side of his current circumstances God appeared in the "peripheral vision" of his soul once more. A simple act of remembering turns this psalm around and transforms this poem from an ode to despair into a statement of bold faith and audacious hope.
How does this work, I wonder? What's the mechanism that can take a distant memory of something God once did and use it to re-tool the present? It is finally a mystery how God's Spirit can use the past to give us hope for the future. But it happens.
It seems we sometimes struggle in knowing where to "find" God in certain moments, particularly in moments of great pain or uncertainty. We don't always know what God is "up to" or why it seems our prayers are going unanswered—only the truly arrogant or impious would ever dare to claim they always know what God is doing and why. Often, we just don't know. But perhaps the recovery of our hope doesn't depend on making sense of each moment. Maybe in life's darker, deeper valleys it is our memories of who God is and what He has done that can pump a little air back into our deflated balloons of hope.
We are on a pilgrim's journey, and when trekking through the wilderness, aching with thirst, we must continue to trust the Lord is with us and that He will—as we seek Him—bring us to deep waters that will wash over us, soak us, and cleanse us. On the journey, we sing:
Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come? Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home? When Jesus is my portion, my constant friend is He: His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me; His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
Why are you so discouraged, the psalmist asks? Why are you so sad? Put your hope in God! We will praise Him again—our Savior and our God!
But, you know, if we will not admit our pain, we can’t deal with its consequences. It’s no wonder that the first step in any twelve-step program is to admit the problem, whether it is alcoholism or drugs or something else. No pastor, therapist, counselor or friend can help those who will not admit their need for help. Folks can’t help if you won’t let them help. Is there a sense in which you feel isolated from God and God’s purpose today?
Perhaps the problem is your sin, and the first step is honest confession and contrition. Perhaps, like the psalmist, you have been oppressed by others in their sin; now you are innocent of guilt but nonetheless suffering its consequences. Are you dealing with pain or fear that you feel God should have prevented or healed? Are you facing physical or financial setbacks that God has not remedied? Stress in your marriage or family that God has not lifted? In what way do you feel far from God today? Don’t wander off. Cling and pray specifically for what you need.
Cling to the memories of what God has done, cling to the unchanging, always loving nature of God. Cling to the Word of God, cling to other folks of faith, cling to what Jesus did on the cross, cling to hope.
You know, Christians have worshipped God not only in brightly lit sanctuaries, not only in soaring Gothic cathedrals or in the splendor of Saint Peter's basilica in Rome. Christians have also gathered together in catacombs and prison cells, on the run from Communists in China, and on sinking ships in the Atlantic. Christians have shared the body and blood of Jesus not only while organs played fugues by Bach but also while air raid sirens cut the air outside the church with their shrill warnings of Nazi bombers over London.
Again and again, often in dark circumstances where they could no more see God on the move than could the poet of Psalm 42, Christians have remembered Jesus—they've glanced to the side of any present darkness to recall the cross and what that cross has meant throughout their lives. And as they've done so, they have again and again discovered that Jesus is no mere memory—He's here! He's alive!
And so, stop settling for contingent contentment, being happy only when all the circumstances have lined up according to your desires. Instead, trust God, hope in Him, and know that His is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. If you are depressed and feeling all alone, Psalm 42 validates what you're going through as an experience well-known to all people of the faith, and it can help you express your honest pain to God. I can also remind you that God is with you, God uses all things for the good of His people and—like the apostle Paul—you can learn to be content regardless of your circumstances. You can do all things through Christ who gives you strength.
Keep this psalm and Philippians 4 close by you each day. And, finally, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received, do; and the God of peace be with you. Amen.
On this "Easter," so often celebrated with delicate bunnies and fragile eggs, I want to speak instead of "Resurrection Day" and the powerful, power-filled Jesus, the Risen Prophet-King, the Roaring Lion, the Holy Lord of Lords. My dear friend, Tom Graffagnino, in his brilliant—and all too timely—treatise on the troubled No Border Land that is our Western World, reminds us that: “Jesus was much more than the Nice Guy from Galilee with innovative, helpful hints for righteous living. Jesus stilled the stormy Sea of Galilee at one point with a word, but He made life-threatening, tsunami-like spiritual waves everywhere else. He came to rock humanity’s boat. He did so two thousand years ago, and He still does it today…We may first encounter baby Jesus, ‘meek and mild’ in the manger, but that is not where He would leave us. Obviously, the ‘All You Need is Love’ Jesus is very popular today. That Jesus fits the mold that the world cherishes and approves…This Jesus Much-Preferred is always agreeable, always friendly, ‘progressive,’ and fashionably up-to-date. [In centering on this innocuous, inoffensive Jesus]… much of the church in the Western world has been…swamped by the lukewarm waters of compromise and mesmerizing higher critical doubt…We expect our under-shepherds in the pulpit to coddle us with easygoing tales…We demand soothing half-truths…and have abandoned the teaching and preaching that brings sinners to their knees…Thinking ourselves wise (sensitive, caring and fair), we have become fools. For convenience’s sake, we have melted down the penetrating, razor sharp, double-edged sword of truth and fashioned for ourselves psychological, snub-nosed butter knives instead.” And while all too many pastors have given in and have been serving up snacks of milk, cookies, and entertaining stories rather than banquets of deep spiritual truth and doctrinal meat, our society and even our natural world, of which we had been made stewards, have been dying slow and painful deaths. In 1983, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian historian, who drew the world’s attention to the evils of the Gulag, lamented: “As a survivor of the Communist Holocaust, I am horrified to witness how my beloved America, my adopted country, is gradually being transformed into a secularist and atheistic utopia, where communist ideals are glorified and promoted, while Judeo-Christian values and morality are ridiculed and increasingly eradicated from the public and social consciousness of our nation. Under the decades-long assault and militant radicalism of many so-called ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ elites, God has been progressively erased from our public and educational institutions, to be replaced with all manner of delusion, perversion, corruption, violence, decadence, and insanity.” Much of our world has endeavored to shut God out of the very world He created, and many—in so doing—have wound up in their own shaped-to-fit gulags, prisons of their own making. We have been experiencing a famine of hearing the Voice of God. Sensing our nation slouching towards Gomorrah, many have been lifting hands in prayer pleading, “God help us!! Help us turn from our wicked ways!! Restore our land!!” Today, I believe, God is answering those prayers through the trials and isolation brought on by COVID-19. He’s been removing and/or shaking the supports on which we have long relied: jobs, homes, money, friends, families, full bellies, global markets, health systems…He’s made clear to us that we are not in control. I have been praying for many years that God would bring a revival to rival any and all that have gone before. Never did I imagine God might do this by shaking us to the core with trials that are now encompassing the globe. Charles H. Spurgeon, in his devotional Morning by Morning, suggested that some of God’s graces would never be discovered if it were not for trials. He wrote: “Hope itself is like a star—not to be seen in the sunshine of prosperity, and only to be discovered in the night of adversity…It was but a little while ago that on your knees you were saying, ‘Lord, I fear I have no faith; let me know that I have faith.’ Was not this really, though perhaps unconsciously, praying for trials? For how can you know that you have faith until your faith is exercised? Depend upon it. God often sends us trials that our graces may be discovered, and that we may be certified of their existence. Besides, it is not merely discovery; real growth in grace is the result of sanctified trials…Is not this the reason why He is contending with you?” A few Sundays ago, I posted a sermon entitled, “The Reset Button,” and as the weeks of isolation have gone by, I’ve become even more convinced that God is using this time to reset our personal and corporate lives and to reset our world and all its components. Our personal and societal flaws have been laid bare, and we’ve been given eyes to see what we’ve become but also—what we might yet be. God is resetting the biosphere and calling us to lament how cruelly we have treated the extraordinary world with which He, the Creator, has gifted us. As Julio Vincent Gambuto has well summarized: “A carless Los Angeles has clear blue skies as pollution has simply stopped. In a quiet New York, you can hear the birds chirp in the middle of Madison Avenue. Coyotes have been spotted on the Golden Gate Bridge. These are the postcard images of what the world might be like if we could find a way to have a less deadly daily effect on the planet.” Robin Wright, in a March 23 New Yorker column noted: “The novel coronavirus has swept the globe at a time when more people are living alone than ever before in human history. The trend became noticeable in the early twentieth century, among industrialized nations; it accelerated in the nineteen-sixties. In the United States, the numbers have almost doubled over the past half century, according to the research aggregator Our World in Data. In 2019, twenty-eight percent of households were single-person—up from twenty-three percent in 1980. Stockholm may represent the apex of this trend: in 2012 sixty percent of households in the Swedish city had only one person. Psychologists note the difference between living alone and loneliness.” Wright concluded, “I live alone and have no family, and usually don’t think much about it. But, as the new pathogen forces us to socially distance, I have begun to feel lonely. I miss the ability to see, converse with, hug, or spend time with friends. Life seems shallower, more like survival than living.” Many, in this time, are becoming increasingly anxious and depressed as they worry about the potential loss of homes, incomes, loved ones, and financial security. Ami Rokach, a psychologist in Canada, said she believes it’s a blessing that the coronavirus has hit the Western world. “For the past century,” she told the New Yorker columnist, “human life has focused increasingly on money and material belongings, which, especially with technology, has led to neglect of human relationships. Now that we’re suddenly stuck at home, the best means of surviving, psychologically and biologically, is to interact with people by whatever means available. She wonders if we might come out of this time of isolation with strengthened interpersonal bonds, having realized how important these are to our health. I wonder if we might come out of this time of isolation with strengthened bonds with the person of Jesus Christ, having realized how important He is to our health. Isolation? Hmmm? It was on the third day that Jesus rose from isolation, resurrected from the dead. In Beyond Belief to Convictions, Josh McDowell, Bob Hostetler and David H. Bellis tell us that “Jesus broke the power of death by rising from the grave…[He] pierced the kingdom of darkness with a penetrating light.” “Christ’s resurrection victory over death and despair not only broke the power of death for all of us who trust in Christ as Savior but also provided the means for us to receive a whole new perspective on life. Though we may endure pain, grief, and suffering here on earth, because Christ’s death was followed by his resurrection, we can know that such things are temporary—and that much greater things await us. Because of the Resurrection, we are destined to live forever in new bodies on a new earth, an existence that will be so enjoyable that anything ‘we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory [God] will give us later.’ For we ‘wait anxiously for that day when God will give us our full rights as his children, including the new bodies he has promised us’ (Romans 8:18, 23). “We have the answer to where we are going in life, and in death…With a belief in the Resurrection, we can face life’s difficulties with the conviction that no matter what, ‘if God is for us, who can ever be against us?’ (Romans 8:31). We can be assured that God has not lost control and will not abandon us (see Romans 8:32). We can be confident that He is not punishing us or condemning us (see Romans 8:34). And we can know that He still very much loves us (see Romans 8:38).” How long will it take us, how long will it take you, to rise to new life? We will never return to the old normal, and we should give great thanks for that blessing. The old normal wasn’t working. F. B. Meyer reminded us that “Our Lord is constantly taking us into the dark, that He may tell us things. Into the dark of the shadowed home, where bereavement has drawn the blinds; into the dark of the lonely, desolate life, where some infirmity closes us in from the light and stir of life; into the dark of some crushing sorrow and disappointment. Then He tells us His secrets, great and wonderful, eternal and infinite; He causes the eye which has become dazzled by the glare of earth to behold the heavenly constellations; and the car to detect the undertones of His voice, which is often drowned amid the tumult of earth’s strident cries. But such revelations always imply a corresponding responsibility—that you are to speak in the light—that you are to proclaim upon the housetops. We are not meant to always linger in the dark, or stay in the closet; presently we shall be summoned to take our place in the rush and storm of life; and when that moment comes, we are to speak and proclaim what we have learned. This gives a new meaning to suffering, the saddest element in which is often its apparent aimlessness. ‘How useless I am!’ ‘What am I doing for the betterment of humankind?’ ‘Wherefore this waste of the precious spikenard of my soul?’ Such are the desperate laments of the sufferer. But God has a purpose in it all. He has withdrawn His child to the higher altitudes of fellowship, that he may hear God speaking face to face, and bear the message to those at the mountain foot.” Meyer concludes his message with this: “There is no short cut to the life of faith, which is the all-vital condition of a holy and victorious life. We must have periods of lonely meditation and fellowship with God. That our souls should have their mountains of fellowship, their valley of quiet rest beneath the shadow of a great rock, their nights beneath the stars, when darkness has veiled the material and silenced the stir of human life, and has opened the view of the infinite and eternal, is as indispensable as that our bodies should have food. Thus, alone can the sense of God’s presence become the fixed possession of the soul, enabling it to say repeatedly, with the Psalmist, ‘You are near, 0 God.’” If you have never welcomed Jesus into your life as Lord and Savior, I’d invite you to lift the following words in prayer that you may do so. Those who already have a relationship with Christ, may pray these words as well to affirm that blessed reality. Dear Lord Jesus, I know am a sinner. I am sorry for any sins I have committed— knowingly or unknowingly—against you. I want to turn from my sin and follow you all my days. I believe you died for my sins and I accept your sacrifice in my place. I now come to you and receive you as my Savior and Lord. It is in the name of Jesus I pray. Amen And now beloved of God, you must build yourselves up in your most holy faith; seek wisdom for the living of these days in God’s Holy Word, the Bible; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; and wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. Now unto Him who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you without blemish before the presence of His glory with rejoicing, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all ages, now, and forevermore. Amen. Sources: Graffagnino, Tom. No Border Land: Finding Grace in a Dark and Dying World. Grand Rapids: Credo House, 2020. Spurgeon, Charles H. Morning by Morning. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000. Gambuto, Julio Vincent. “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting.” Medium. 2 April 2020. <https://medium.com/@juliovincent/prepare-for-the-ultimate-gaslighting-6a8ce3f0a0e0> Wright, Robin. “How Loneliness from Coronavirus Isolation Takes Its Own Toll.” The New Yorker. 23 March 2020. <https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/how-loneliness-from-coronavirus-isolation-takes-its-own-toll> McDowell, Josh, Bob Hostetler and David H. Bellis. Beyond Belief to Convictions. Carol Stream: Tyndale House, 2002. Meyer, F.B. Streams in the Desert. 11 April. <https://www.crosswalk.com/devotionals/desert/streams-in-the-desert-april-11th.html>
WELCOME HAPPY MORNING!!!!!!
Welcome Happy Morning! John 20:1-18; 1 Corinthians 15:1-8
Welcome Happy Morning, age to age shall say. Hell today is vanquished, Heaven is won today. Lo! The dead is living, God forevermore; Him, their true Creator, all His works adore. Come then, true and faithful, Now fulfill Thy Word! Tis Thine own third morning, Rise O Buried Lord! Show Thy face in brightness. Bid the nations see. Bring again our daylight; Day returns with Thee. Welcome happy morning, age to age shall say; Hell today is vanquished. Heaven is won today. Amen? Amen!!
The lyrics of this hymn I just shared with you were written in the sixth century by Venantius Fortunatus—truly from age to age it is the same. We do welcome that happy morning when Jesus Christ rose from the dead.
Jesus was acknowledged then as Conqueror of Sin, Death and Satan as He is today, as He always will be. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. He is the risen Lord, the eternal Lord.
This day confronts us with a question: how can we be certain that all of this is true? How do we know that Jesus—who claimed to be the Messiah, the Savior, God enfleshed—how do we know that He wasn’t some lunatic or that He wasn’t a liar? The crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension are either elements in the world’s greatest hoax—or the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension are the most important events ever for humankind.
So, what do we have for proof of the claims of Jesus?
Well, first there are the prophecies all fulfilled in Jesus: more than 300 prophecies written hundreds of years before Jesus appeared on earth, prophecies recorded for us in, what we now call, the Old Testament in books from the Psalms to Zechariah to Micah to Isaiah. Detailed prophecies. Even those referring to the place and time of His birth in—specifically— Bethlehem. The Hebrew “Beth-lehem” means House of Bread. The Bread of Life was born in Beth-lehem. And at His birth, he was placed in a manger, a feeding trough. And, each time, we observe the Lord’s Supper, we celebrate with the bread and the cup of salvation representing His body and blood.
Other prophecies point to His birth by a virgin. His ministry in Galilee. His roles as prophet, priest and king. His triumphal entry into Jerusalem astride a donkey. His betrayal by a friend and, to the penny, the amount of money for which He would be betrayed.
We have the prophecies that the money would be returned for a potters’ field, that false witnesses would come forward to accuse the Messiah. We have accountings, hundreds of years before they occurred, of all the incidents surrounding His death—that He would be mocked and spat upon; that His hands and feet would be pierced; that He would be given gall and vinegar to drink; that soldiers would cast lots for His clothes; that the Messiah would pray for those who were crucifying Him; that not a bone of His would be broken; that He would be buried with the rich; that He would rise from the dead and ascend into heaven.
Then we have the witnesses to the resurrected Jesus. From 1st Corinthians 15 and elsewhere, we learn that Jesus, after His resurrection, appeared to Mary of Magdala, to Peter, to several women as they ran from the tomb, to two disciples on the Emmaus Road, to ten disciples in the Upper Room, to seven men at the Sea of Galilee, to eleven disciples on a mountain, to more than 500 people at one time. And then there are the details leading up to the crucifixion.
The agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Gethsemane” translates from the Hebrew: oil press. Oil was crucial in the diets of the people of the time, lamps were lit with oil, oil was used in healing and prophets, priests, and kings were all anointed with oil in ceremonies of consecration. Jesus (in the Hebrew Yeshuah, which means “Deliverer, Savior.” The Messiah (which translates to the English, “Anointed One”), gathered up into Himself the triple functions of prophet, priest and king and this Messiah, who fed the multitudes, who brought light into the darkness, and who healed in body, mind and spirit--this Messiah came to the Garden of Gethsemane and prepared to undo the damage done by the inhabitants of the first garden.
After this time in Gethsemane, there would be His arrest and His sentencing to death by the Roman Empire. Death by crucifixion, the most horrific, painful means of execution ever devised. The following events at the site of the crucifixion help verify that Jesus was dead: The Roman soldiers did not break Jesus' legs, because they "saw that He was already dead" (John 19:33). The soldiers plunged a spear into Jesus' side, and from it came both water and blood (John 19:34). Medical experts say that if He were not already dead, this alone would have killed Him.
When Joseph of Arimathea asked for the body of Jesus so that he and Nicodemus could bury Him, Pontius Pilate ordered a centurion to verify that Jesus was dead (Mk. 15:43-45). The Roman governor would not have released the body to Joseph if the centurion had not been certain that all signs of life were gone. And you can be sure that an officer in the Roman army would not have made a mistake about an important matter like this in his report to such a high official as Pilate.
Joseph and Nicodemus prepared the body for burial according to Jewish custom. This included wrapping it "in a clean linen cloth" (Mt. 27:59), anointing the body with "a mixture of myrrh and aloes" (Jn. 19:39), and placing it "in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock" (Mk. 15:46). It seems obvious that any sign of life would have been detected by these bereaved friends. Surely, they would not have buried a breathing Jesus.
The Pharisees and chief priests met with Pilate to discuss what had occurred. They made such remarks as "while He was still alive" (Mt. 27:63). Soldiers were ordered to secure the grave with a seal. In addition, guards were placed on duty to prevent the disciples from coming to "steal Him away" (v.64). The Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities knew beyond doubt that Jesus was dead.
After His body was wrapped, it was placed in a rock cave before which a huge stone was rolled. Geologists from Georgia Tech went to Jerusalem some years ago to study just how large this stone had to have been to cover the four and a half to five-foot doorway that would have been standard at the time.
The stone, they estimated, would have weighted 1 ½ to 2 tons. This stone would have been sealed with clay and stamped with the Roman signet. To tamper with a Roman seal was punishable by death, by crucifixion. The tomb was heavily guarded—remember, this was the Roman Empire—the most well-trained fighting machine that has ever walked the earth. Because of the stature of Jesus and the controversy surrounding Him, we can surmise there would have been a pretty substantial detail guarding the tomb. Again, well-armed, well-trained. And they themselves would likely have been executed if they failed in their duty.
Could the disciples have eluded the guards—the well-trained fighting machine who would have faced death for this? Could the guards have slept through or allowed the disciples to remove the two-ton stone, unwrap the 100 pounds of grave clothes, fold them up neatly, lift the body and carry it away? Come on!
And then we have the witness of the disciples. They had dedicated the better part of three years to following Jesus. In the hours after Jesus’ death, they were probably asking themselves if they all hadn’t made a huge mistake. Even though Jesus had told them He would die, they’d just never gotten it. They hadn’t understood; they hadn’t bargained on the cross. And so, they were in hiding, fearing for their lives. But, then something happened to change them overnight from cowering and quivering individuals into bold, fearless proclaimers of the name Jesus. So bold, so fearless, so determined to spread the word, that we’re here today to talk about what they did, what they saw 2,000 years ago. So bold, so fearless, so changed—that they were willing to give their own lives—and they did— so that we might know their Jesus.
They had been so afraid they had been cowering behind doors but then— on the third day after the crucifixion—John tells us one of the women who had followed Jesus made her way to the tomb. Mary of Magdala had left behind her life of sin for a new life as a disciple of Jesus. She believed Him. She loved Him. And then He died on the cross.
Mary witnessed His death and she was there when His lifeless body was taken down and placed in the tomb. And so, she returned to the place of interment early in the morning on the third day and found, to her amazement and fear, that the stone had been rolled away. She ran to tell the disciples, and her announcement to Peter and John was like a pistol shot that started the race to the tomb.
Verse 4 in John’s gospel tells us that, when John reached the tomb, he stopped short. He peeked in but he didn’t cross the line. Instead, he squinted to try to see inside. Now, while John hesitated, Peter crossed the line. He went right into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there as had John from the outside.
Our gospel writer, John, in our passage for this morning, now uses four Greek words all translated “saw.” Mary and John “saw” at a glance (the word used for how they saw is blephei). Then Peter “saw” (the-o-rei), carefully examining the details, theorizing.
Peter noted the cloth that had wrapped Jesus’ head was separate from the other grave clothes. It even had a rolled-up appearance. The Greek word used in description suggests it was coiled or rolled as though the head around which it had been wrapped had suddenly dematerialized and vanished. Peter saw all of this like a detective, examining the details, looking for clues. He was trying to figure out what “they” had done with the body when “they” had taken it. He was puzzled that they would have left the grave clothes.
Then John went into the tomb. Again, he “saw” but this time the Greek word that is used is eiden, a physical seeing, a mental understanding, a spiritual knowing. While Mary and John had initially just glanced, while Peter was theorizing, John now had a flash of insight. Comprehension.
Verse 8 says John saw and believed. What did he believe? He believed that Jesus rose from the dead. He understood that Jesus was not carried away by some weird soldiers who had taken the trouble to unwind and rewind the grave clothes. John had crossed the line. Faith is going across the line, seeing, believing, and then acting on that belief. John believed what he believed based on what he saw in the tomb. Only later did all the disciples come to understand from scripture why Jesus had to follow this route. The point here is that they didn’t make up a story of resurrection to fit a preconceived understanding of scriptural prophecy.
So this day we celebrate—this happy morning—calls us to the tomb to confront the reality of death and to make a decision about what kind of relationship we want to have with death. We are asked to decide whether we will allow the fear of death to have a grip on us or whether we will, instead, embrace the eternal life that is offered to us only by the resurrected Jesus Christ.
Let us return once more by the tomb. John and Peter have gone off to ponder the questions and Mary remains at the tomb sobbing and sobbing. But, as she looks again into the tomb, she sees two angels now seated where Jesus’ body had been. And they ask her, “Woman, why are you crying?” Her reply was essentially the same she had given to Peter and John just moments earlier, “They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put Him.”
Then she sensed someone else near her. She turned and saw a man whom she assumed was the gardener. And He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Perhaps she couldn’t see clearly through her tears, perhaps her grief and fear kept her from seeing, but, initially, we’re told she failed to recognize that the one to whom she was speaking was the risen Jesus. Finally, He called her by name as He does each of His disciples and she felt a tug on her heart. She knew this was Jesus, alive and standing before her.
Then Jesus said a surprising thing: “Do not hold onto me for I have not yet returned (or ascended to the Father). Perhaps this was Jesus’ way of telling Mary that her life could never return to what it was. Mary would have to let go of the incarnated Jesus so that He might complete His work and send the Comforter, the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. She would have to truly trust the risen Lord. That’s something we all need to remember on this Resurrection Sunday. There are some things we just can’t hold on to. Many of us have perhaps remained entombed for years, wearing death and sin like grave clothes—bound by regrets, anger, unresolved guilt, fears, unforgiveness. These must be stripped away in order for us to fully display the light that will draw others unto Jesus.
We who have welcomed Jesus as Savior can leave the tomb; we can let it go to claim the abundant life that Jesus has for us now. Jesus Christ is alive and new life is available to everyone who calls on His name.
While tears of joy were streaming down Mary’s face, Jesus told her: “Go to my brothers and say to them ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
Mary went to the disciples to share the good news. “I have seen the Lord,” she said. And the Greek word now used for seeing is e-o-raka. This fourth Greek word for seeing has come into the English language as eureka and is defined as the word “used to express triumph upon the discovery of something.” In the case of Mary, the something was not a something, but a someone. Mary had discovered the risen Lord Jesus Christ. And because this risen Lord had conquered death, Mary had discovered new hope, new meaning, new life. Well, more accurately, these had been given to her, for salvation is the gift of God. We receive not of our own efforts so that no one can boast.
My most fervent prayer this morning is that we, and all with whom we might share the news, might see as Mary saw on that first Resurrection morning, that we might be filled with the full triumph of discovery as the eyes of our hearts comprehend that on this day we have been confronted with the reality of death and it’s alright because Jesus has conquered death. Jesus has risen from the dead and that makes a difference for us now and forevermore. For we, who believe, have new life from the very first day of our new birth and we will rise to live eternally with our Savior and Lord. Welcome Happy Morning, age to age shall say. Hell today is vanquished, Heaven is won today. Lo! The dead is living, God forevermore; Him, their true Creator, all His works adore. Come then, true and faithful, Now fulfill Thy Word! Tis Thine own third morning, Rise O Buried Lord! Show Thy face in brightness. Bid the nations see. Bring again our daylight; Day returns with Thee. Welcome happy morning, age to age shall say; Hell today is vanquished. Heaven is won today. Amen.