Category Archives: Lectionary

Children of the Light

Zephaniah 1:7,12-18
Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

 

Allow me to put in a plug for the NIV Bible. As you may have noticed, I use numerous English translations on this blog site because I look for the one passage that not only gets the sense of the Greek and Hebrew but puts it into English phrasing that paints the best picture of the meaning. The only problem is, it is best for me. You may need one of the others.

In 2016 the NIV put out another version, the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. The footnotes and extra materials concentrate on the influence of the culture on the text. It is not the best or the only study Bible, it is one more that gives us another look at the Word of God.

In reading the two New Testament passages in this version, I found a very useful chart in chapter 5 of 1 Thessalonians. It contains a parallel listing of Matthew 24 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11. A quick look at the chart shows that Paul knew the message of Jesus, and he stayed true to the message.

Today’s reading of Matthew comes at the end of that important chapter 24. The whole of the chapter deals with the end times; with the Second Coming. Even so, it is an extension of what Jesus was saying in chapter 23. Our lesson of two weeks ago came from there. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preachNIV The rest of the chapter continues along that theme.

Jesus moved into the End Times in chapter 24, ending it in chapter 25 with three parables: the Ten Virgins of last week’s reading, the Ten Talents of today’s reading, the Separating of the Sheep and Goats of next week’s reading.

Last week’s message was, be ready. This week’s message is, do God’s work while you can.

Each of the three servants in Jesus’ parable had a chance to work for their master, but only two of them did so. The one who did nothing faced judgement.

But also notice that the other two did not succeed on the same level. To change the metaphor, imagine they were in a race where one finishes first and the other finishes second, but both are declared winners.

About thirty years ago we took two of our kids to a summer track meet. It was 100 degrees as other parents’ kids began the age 10 and under 10,000 meter walk. Yes, walk. I have no idea how long it took for the first-place finisher to cross the line, but we still sat in the heat watching the young kids walking around the track. Every one of them finished—everyone a winner.

God expects us to take risks. He wants us to share the Good News that He loves every person on earth. He does not want us to hide that News. Each of us should be doing what we can as we live our lives in a world that does not respect the Goodness of God. Don’t be surprised if we stand before God in judgement and all of us receive first place metals.

 

Read my earlier comments on this theme here.

 

Be righteous and do good.

Mike Lawrence

With the Trumpet Call of God

Amos 5:18-24
Psalm 70
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

 

Paul was a Pharisee, and as such he believed in life after death. Most Pharisees could have written this: Now we don’t want you, my brothers, to be in any doubt about those who “fall asleep” in deathPhillips But Paul put Jesus the Messiah into the description. Only a Pharisee who believed that Jesus was the long-promised Messiah could write, if we believe that Jesus died and rose again from death, then we can believe that God will just as surely bring with Jesus all who are “asleep” in himPhillips

Paul was not attempting to describe the end of time. That was left for John’s Revelation. Paul wanted the good church people to rest assured that those who died were taken care of. We must remember that in the first decades of the church—before it was even called a church—people believed that the Messiah would return to earth in their lifetimes. As people of the faith began to die, there was fear that they would not be saved at the Second Coming. Paul makes it clear that earthly death has nothing to do with being taken up with Jesus. Paul even assured us that the dead would be first before the living.

Jesus’ parable is about the Second Coming also. His message is: be ready. At weddings in the Middle East, then and today, young women were chosen to attend the bride—today’s bride’s maids—by joining the procession through town to the house of the groom’s parents. It was a great honor and to fail could result in a woman to be ostracized, certainly for some years at the least.

For us, the punishment for not being ready is missing our place in the heavenly wedding banquet. It is like missing the last flight to Rio. The party will go on without us.

Notice that today’s parable is part of a series dealing with the return of Jesus. We have no idea when that will be, but we must be ready, and being ready is not just about waiting by the front door. It is about doing God’s work while we wait. We are not expected to do it perfectly. Jesus will make it perfect.

If Jesus were walking with us today, he might want to use the Special Olympics in a parable. On the local level, everyone is declared the winner. The one who ran the 100 meters in 12 seconds gets a blue ribbon, and the one who comes in in 3minutes and 22 seconds gets a blue ribbon.

I don’t have to be perfect. I don’t have to save lost souls by the thousands. I don’t have to quote Bible verses at the drop of a hat.

I need to be in the race, to show up and be ready.

 

Read my earlier comments on this theme here.

 

 

Be righteous and do good.

Mike Lawrence

Do As They Say

Micah 3:5-12
Psalm 43
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
Matthew 23:1-12

 

Here is a simple test. With which of the following do agree?

  1. God is sovereign, and humans have free will.
  2. Angels and demons exist.
  3. The human soul will live after earthly death.
  4. A person must live a pure life.
  5. Only free will exists in this world.
  6. Angels and demons do not exist.
  7. We should share our property with others.
  8. We are all responsible for what happens in the world.
  9. We must worship every day, as well as study the Bible.
  10. We should never pay taxes to the government.
  11. Violence is proper when done for a good cause.
  12. Non-Christians should not be allowed to live in the US.

These are all reworded beliefs of the major Jewish groups of Jesus’ day. The group most often mentioned in the Gospels is represented by the first three questions—the Pharisees. Questions four through six represent the views of the Sadducees. The Essenes are represented in questions seven through nine. And last three questions are positions of the Zealots.

Historically, the Sadducees ceased to exist after 70 AD with the destruction of the Temple. Most Sadducees were priests. With no Temple, they had no reason to exist. They lived, but they had to learn to do other work. They also became more like the Pharisees.

The Essenes disappeared from history at about the same time for much the same reason. The difference was, the Romans killed most if not all of them. They were the group who wrote and hid the Dead Seas Scrolls.

It took the Romans several centuries, but they did finally root out most of the Zealots, though there have always been a few among us.

You may have been surprised that you agreed with any of the positions of the Pharisees, but the reality is that they have become the standard for both Judaism and Christianity. That is why Jesus instructed us to, do what they tell you and follow their instructionsPhillips

He also, for reasons he described, told us not to copy their actions. They said what was right, but did what was wrong.

But the Pharisees do not have a monopoly on hypocrisy. Americans donated $390 billion to all charities in 2016, with 40% of that going to religious groups (education, mostly universities, was second). There is great debate about how much of that money goes to feed the poor, etc. We do have records that show 40% goes for staff salaries.

If I give $1,000 to my church, can I take pride in the fact that only $100-200 will actually help the needy? Or is that position hypocritical? Should I give another $1,000 directly to organizations that feed people, help them rebuild after hurricanes, etc.?

We cannot push aside such issues, they lie at the very heart of Jesus’ words in today’s reading. The Seneca tribe in New York State takes pride in spotting the member who is wearing ratty clothes and driving the most beat-up car, and knowing that he is the tribal chief. Do I really need a $50,000 car to drive to WalMart?

 

Read my earlier comments on this theme here.

 

 

Be righteous and do good.

Mike Lawrence

The Gospel of God

Leviticus 19:1-2,15-18
Psalm 1
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

 

Most of us can wrap our minds around the Ten Commandments (as found in Exodus 20), but the other 611 commands are not always so meaningful. (By Jewish count, there are 613 commands. The people heard God speak the first two of the Ten, so those are traditionally added to the 611. That means the total, including all the Ten, is 621 commands.)

In verse 19, we read, as an example:

“’Keep my decrees.

“‘Do not mate different kinds of animals.

“‘Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed.

“‘Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of materialNIV

 

You may notice that we Americans have violated all three of these commands, so what was God trying to say? Basically, God is saying that there are some natural boundaries in the world and I want you to stick to them. I want you to show respect for my creation and thus, respect for me.

Later, God commanded that the priests of the Tabernacle and Temple wear robes woven of linen and wool, violating verse 19. He also commanded that every man wear a prayer shawl with four zit-zits (tassels) made of two materials. Here, God is saying that the commands are different when they deal with what is Holy.

While I’m on the subject of God’s commands, let’s look at the word some people love: abomination. It is sprinkled throughout the King James translation but is not so common in more modern translations.

There are actually seven Hebrew words that have been translated as abomination. They each have a somewhat different meaning: a moral stench, unclean, disgusting idol, to pollute, a filthy idolatrous object, something disgusting, and detestable. Apparently, the KJV translators preferred to use one (Elizabethan) English word for most of the meanings.

The first use was in Genesis 43:32 stating that it was an abomination (disgusting) to the Egyptians to eat with the Hebrews.  The first use in Leviticus is 7:18 regarding the eating of meat sacrificed. The second use is in 11:10 saying that the eating of any animal from the waters that does not have both fins and scales is an abomination; so, no more catfish, shrimp, crabs, and crawdads.

Many Christians like to pick and choose from the 621 commands of God, arguing that they were important 4,000 years ago, but are no longer necessary. The problem is: which ones are no longer necessary? Has God said, “Throw out these, but keep those?”

Enter Jesus.

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees they came up to him in a body, and one of them, an expert in the Law, put this test-question: “Master, what are we to consider the Law’s greatest commandment?” Phillips

Notice that the question came from an expert, a supreme court justice. Also, notice that the question assumes that some of the 621 rules are more important than others. The Pharisees were about the only people who tried to follow all of them. Most people avoided killing people and eating catfish.

Jesus may have been thinking, “This test is too easy.”

Jesus answered him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind’. This is the first and great commandment. And there is a second like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. The whole of the Law and the Prophets depends on these two commandments.” Phillips

 

The first quote comes from Deuteronomy 6:5 and the second from Leviticus 19:18b. Do not make the mistake of assuming he surprised the Pharisees with this answer. The two verses were linked together and quoted daily by most devout Jews of the day, and still today.

That is the Gospel of God.

How does it work in practice? If you invite 20 people to dinner, be sure to ask each if they like shrimp before you serve it. If in doubt, serve chicken.

 

Read my comments on these NT readings here.

 

Be righteous and do good.

Mike Lawrence

All the Gods of the Nations

Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

 

Great is Yahweh, worthy of all praise,

More awesome than any of the gods.

All the gods of the nations are idols! NJB

Civilization began about 5,000 years ago. It was a time when wandering people found places along rivers where grain was available, and they decided to build permanent houses. Because food was more readily available, they had time to devote to religion. Nomadic people carried gods with them, but in a settled environment, they decided there must be a god who was specific to that place. They continued to worship all the old gods while placing their city god above the others.

God chose the Hebrews to carry the message to the world that there is only one God. They struggled with the concept, but after Babylon took to it with determination, if not perfection. By the time of Jesus, there was no open worship of other gods within Judea or Galilee, but secret worship did occur to some extent.

Today, worship of national gods occurs, even within Christian churches in America. Witness the struggles that divide our country along the lines of abortion, women’s rights, minority rights, political parties, military power, support for the poor, and others.

Notice with all these that Christians are often the most outspoken, and that they take differing sides. When our support for one side becomes a religion, we have set up a new god.

What is the difference between being involved in the world and worshiping a god of the world? If you find yourself spending as much time on the issue as you do in communion with God, you may have divided religious loyalties.

For example, the two basic sides politically in America are represented by the Republican and Democratic parties. There are small splinter and subgroups, but those two run the country. In some churches, it is dangerous to declare membership in the Democratic party. Only the Republican party is on the side of God. In other churches, the Republicans believed to want to send all the poor to Hell.

When we forget that each side is partially right, that neither side gets it perfectly right, that we must work out a compromise that both sides can live with; only then can our political system do what it is supposed to do.

Jesus was neither a Democrat nor a Republican, and probably would be neither if he walked with us today. For him, as it should be for us, America is of little importance. We only live here for a short time, and we must participate in life here as best we can, but our real lives and loyalties belong elsewhere.

What is important while we live here is the well-being of all 7.5 billion people who share this planet with us. If I can vote for people who are respectful of everyone, then I am doing the best I can in this country. Mostly, I vote for candidates who show compassion on many, but rarely all people.

Read my comments on these NT readings here.

 

Be righteous and do good.

Mike Lawrence