Halloween

I have just returned from our church’s answer to Halloween.  A couple of hundred kids with their parents come for two hours to meet Bible characters (most wearing the same costumes used at Christmas), play games and eat hot dogs and candy.

Many were in the spook parade and came later and others either did their trick-or-treating, then came, or the other way around.  All in all, sugar was the main theme.

Why do it?  Give kids a safer environment.  Encourage parents to come with them and spend time with their kids doing kid things.  Give a tiny exposure to the Bible.  Perhaps that’s enough.   Continue reading Halloween

Faith is Work

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Psalm 119:137-144
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Luke 19:1-10

I want to share a passage from a book written in 1966 by Langdon Gilkey.  As a young man just before the war, he journeyed to Peking (Beijing) China to teach English and was caught there when the Japanese army took over the city.  In February, 1943 he and some 1,600 other foreign civilians were taken to camp to live out the war.  There, they were expected to organize themselves and run the camp within the walls.  The Japanese gave them small food allotments, but generally left them on their own.  The section I will quote comes from the chapter Saints, Priests, and Preachers and begins on page 163 of my first edition.

A community needs ethical people, but does the secular world need religious people?  Are the saints really good, is religious piety a requisite for communal virtue, do we need God in order to love our fellow man?  ….

I had to admit to myself that no easy answer to these questions could be found merely by noting the way in which different types of people, religious and irreligious, behaved….

The most important lesson I learned is that there are no cut-and-dried categories in human life, no easily recognizable brand names by which we can estimate our fellows.  Over and over “respectable people,” one of the commonest labels applied in social intercourse, turned out to be uncooperative, irritable, and worse, dishonest.  Conversely, many who were neither respectable nor pious were in fact, valiant.  At the same time, many obvious bums were just plain bums.  It was the mystery, the richness, and the surprise of human beings that struck me the most when I looked round at my fellows.

Perhaps the most surprising of all was Clair Richards.  She was a handsome, strong, self-sufficient, and possibly to some tastes hard-looking British woman in her thirties.  As she swirled around the camp in her tight skirts and low-cut blouses, you knew the moment you saw her that she enjoyed boing to bed with men.  But I must say, the frank and competent stare that met you when you spoke to her, plus her booming voice and rollicking laugh, tended to make a man, at least a young man, wonder more about his own capacities than about her obvious attractions.  Inevitably, stories of a lurid past in Peking and Tientsin [Tiajin], of her having been the intimate of leading industrialists and diplomats, followed in her wake.  How true or untrue these were, I shall never know.

[In 1944 a new director of Kitchen II, Row, was elected to stop theft and sloppy work.]

I was even more surprised when I found that it was Clair to whom he had given charge of women’s labor in the kitchen….  Despite her well-advertised labels, Clair had these virtues and to spare.  Clair, with Row, completely changed both the morale and efficiency of that kitchen force.  Looked upon by most of the pious as so wicked they were embarrassed to be seen talking with her she had in fact a higher moral character than they did.

Shantung Compound  Harper & Row  1966  New additions are still being sold.

 

Exposition

Habakkuk’s short prophetic work could almost be called the Reader’s Digest version of Jeremiah.  While that would be a disservice to Jeremiah, they did deliver the same basic message to the same people in the same general time period, along with Nahum and Zephaniah.  Put simply, you have sinned, you will be taken into captivity by Babylon, God still loves you and he will return you.

The big message for us is in the last words of today’s reading: the righteous will live by his faith.  The thing about faith that has always been so difficult for we humans to get is, we live it, we don’t just have it.  We always talk about having faith in the same way we talk about having a car.  We don’t have faith, we act in faith.

Habakkuk was not complaining about improper sacrifices at the Temple or about drinking milk with a roast beef sandwich.  He was after what was truly faith living.  Avigayil down the street lost her husband and has three kids to support.  What have you done to help her?  Natan‘el broke his leg and can’t work.  Have you taken care of the work for him?

In some ways, it was easier 3,000 years ago because they literally knew almost everyone they came into contact with and could easily know their needs.  Today, we have to work at getting to know the people next door.  How can I know what they need if I don’t even know who they are?

The answer from Habakkuk is: find a way.  Faith goes into the unknown, the dark places we are afraid of and seeks out those who are hiding there.  Faith does not concern itself with the surface trappings of our lives.  We cannot hide behind our own ignorance.  With the Psalmist we must say, give me understanding that I may live.

I wrote in an earlier exposition that faith either exist or it does not exist.  The disciples had just asked Jesus to increase their faith and he gave the example of the mustard seed.  Here in 2 Thessalonians, Paul says, your faith is growing more and more.  Both statements are true, like so many theological concepts.  What Jesus wanted his disciples to understand was that they and we cannot measure how much faith we have, we can only act on the faith we have.  Paul adds that by acting on faith we receive more understanding so that we can live faith even more fully.

Zacchaeus is very much like Claire in the account from Gilkey above.  He was a social outcast because he, a Jew, worked for the hated Romans and collected taxes two, three, ten times what the Romans required, keeping the extra for himself.  He was wealthy beyond the dreams of working people, then or now.

We are not told much else about him.  He met Jesus and gave away half of his fortune.  (Don’t get distracted by asking why not all.)  Jesus said, today salvation has come to this house.  Zacchaeus acted.  He could not allow himself to simply say, I love you Jesus.  Not only did he give away more money than most people would make in a lifetime, he reformed.  From then on he would only collect the taxes plus enough for him to live on.  Greed no longer ruled his live.  What happened to him after that is lost to us.

But what is not lost is the next verses just after today’s Gospel reading.  While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once.  When the Kingdom of God comes, salvation will come with it.  Look back a paragraph to the statement Jesus made about salvation.

If Zacchaeus received salvation, a dirty, disgusting, money-grubbing, scumbag, surely salvation has also come to the rest of us.  To read ahead even more, the answer is, it depends on what we do with our faith, love, devotion to God.  God has entrusted me with a precious gift.  Will I use it, wear it out, and bring it back dinged up and dusty from meeting the needs of others?

 

Be righteous and do good.

Mike Lawrence

Blood Moon

Joel 2:23-32
Psalm 65
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

The twelfth hour was upon him with the sun setting behind the western clouds over the Great Sea.  Josiah, anxious that he not still be beyond the allotted distance for a Shabbat walk, hurried his way home.  The dark clouds to the east cleared away and, as he stepped through a clearing, he saw the top sliver of the rising moon.  It was in full eclipse as it rose, what astrologers called a blood moon.  The vision held him.  He stood engulfed in the revelation.  The blood red reminded him of the words of the prophet Yo’el.

“I will show wonders in the sky and on earth–

blood, fire and columns of smoke.

The sun will be turned into darkness

and the moon into blood

before the coming of the great

and terrible Day of Adonai.”

Joel 2:30-31

Visions of the past two days passed through his mind.  All the blood of the sacrifices at the Temple, the fires and smoke of the Altar, the arrest of the rabbi Yeshua, his execution on the cross, the strange darkness, the quake, and now this.  He actually shivered.  He stood rooted, unthinking, staring at the moon.  He tried to break the spell.  It could not mean the Day was upon them.

He chastised himself for thinking like a peasant!  He was a properly educated businessman.  He knew the Mashiach would overthrow the existing powers and reestablish the Kingdom of David.  Where were the signs for that?  There were none!  This Yeshua was dead.  It was all talk.

He carefully made his way home.

 

 

Exposition

Let’s get the blood moon out of the way first.  Joel is giving us a specific prophecy about the Messiah.  It deals with the time of the coming of the Son of Man to establish the Kingdom of God on earth.

There are dozens, perhaps thousands, of web sites right now talking about the coming blood moons of 2014 and 2015.  The excitement is that there will be a total eclipse of the moon on Passover and Sukkot in both years, so some are saying that this heralds the Second Coming.

There are a number of problems with the 4 eclipse idea.  The technical issues are dealt with quite well in the following post.

http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2013/07/12/lunar-eclipses-cause-blood-moons

To summarize his points: a total eclipse occurs almost every year; few of them are seen as red; most are just dark; clouds often cover them; and a more Biblical point, it should be seen from Jerusalem if it heralds the coming of the Messiah.

I prefer to take the teachings of Jesus to heart on this issue; I will not know the time; it will come like a thief in the night.  In the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2, Peter began his great sermon by quoting this passage from Joel.  Peter makes it clear that Joel refers to what had happened to the man Jesus and that the sudden ability of the Apostles and disciples to preach boldly was part of Joel’s message.  Remember that Pentecost occurred 50 days after Passover without a blood moon (the moon would have been about 10 days shy of being full).

What is the rest of Joel’s message?  The context is important here.  The land of Judah has experienced a massive plague of grasshoppers that ate everything and Joel reminded the people that they had been unfaithful to God (yet again).  Repent and trust in God.  When the nation does return, Joel goes on, they can expect good rains and good harvests.  Stay right with God and good things will come.

Psalm 65 carries on with that message.  You care for the earth and water it, you enrich it greatly; with the river of God, full of water, you provide them grain and prepare the ground.  The idea of the river of God brings to mind the words of Jesus to the woman at the well, “Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I will give him will never be thirsty again!” Later in John we read, Now on the last day of the festival, Hoshana Rabbah, Yeshua stood and cried out, “If anyone is thirsty, let him keep coming to me and drinking!  This image of Jesus the Messiah as the living water comes from the Exodus account of God bringing water from the rock for the people, not for a day, but for 40 years.  Jesus is that Rock of our Salvation.

Hoshana Rabbah, the day of judgment, is the seventh and last day of Sukkot, generally called the Feast of Tabernacles.  Occurring in the fall, it culminates a series of important events beginning with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  The judgment written on Yom Kippur is not delivered until the end of Hoshana Rabbah.  Therefore, Jesus was inviting everyone to receive the living water before the judgment was issued.  There is powerful symbolism in the timing of Jesus’ words.

For Paul in writing to Timothy, judgment is at hand.  He has finished the race and expects to receive his reward.  He knows the living water.  He has tasted it.  He is ready to be poured out on the altar.  He has made his own sacrifice as did the Lamb of God.  He expects to take his own imitation of Jesus all the way to death.  Jesus lived in him so it is proper that his blood also be poured on the altar, symbolically at least.

Luke gives us a short parable of the Pharisee and tax collector sandwiched between the unjust judge and Jesus calling the children to his side.  At first glance, it seems to have no connection to the other readings for today.  Let’s see.

The stage-set for this little drama is huge.  The Pharisee goes up to the Temple and finds a safe place where the dirty common folk can’t touch him.  The tax collector quietly slips unseen to a solitary spot well away from the other men.  It is important to note that they are both removed from other people.

The priest, chosen by lot, has gone inside the Holy Place to offer incense on the Golden Altar, add oil to the Menorah, and tend the Golden Table of the Bread of the Presence.  That was the signal for the men in attendance to begin offering their prayers to God.  In Jesus day, it was done out loud, by everyone at once.  They could and did pray throughout the day right up to the time in the evening sacrifice when the chosen priest entered the Holy Place again.

In the Parable, we can hear the prayers of both the Pharisee and of the tax collector and Jesus tells us whose prayer is to be answered.  But we should notice some other important details.

The Pharisee was preaching to his neighbors, but the tax collector was talking to God.  He alone crossed his arms over his chest and beat himself for being unworthy to approach God.  Only women did that, as is still the case today in the Middle East.  This man was serious.  He wanted God to hear him and forgive him.

When the priest entered the Holy Place, it was the most important act of the morning and evening sacrifices of atonement for the nation.  Once atonement had been achieved, it was safe and proper to petition God.  So, every day hundreds of men stood before the Temple and prayed, sang, worshiped, or just stood and felt the Holy Presence.

All four of these readings deal with atonement.  Atonement can only happen if a perfect lamb, or Lamb, is killed.  The blood of the lamb is collected and sprinkled on the four corners of the altar, and the remainder poured out at the base of the altar.  By that process, the living waters are released by God and God’s people can live good lives.

The blood moon is a part of the sign that the pure and Holy Lamb of God has made the final Atonement.  His blood has been given for the whole world.  The moon reflects that sacrifice back to the whole earth.  The sacrifice was made once.  There is need for only one blood moon.

 

Bible quotes used are from the Complete Jewish Bible.

Be righteous and do good.

Mike Lawrence

Turn Your Ears to the Truth

Jeremiah 31:27-34
Psalm 119:97-104
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

Dathan could still taste the smoke.  He woke screaming this night and every night, sweating even as he shivered from the cold.  The dream was always the same.  Fires boiling dark, putrid smoke through the streets.  The inhuman screams of his flaming neighbors.  The flash of sunlight as the sword passed through the body of his boy, his Hashub.

That was months ago and in another land.  Now, in Babylon, he really was trying to make a new life, but it was so hard.

Yes, God had to punish his people for their sins.  He could not disagree.  It was justice.  But Hashub who had studied the word of God, even accepting the words of that wild prophet, Jeremiah, why did God take him?

Jeremiah.  Now he was saying Judah and Israel would be reunited and returned to the promised land; that there would be a new way of writing the covenant with God.  No longer would it be enough to memorize the word, they would have to live it out every day.  What did that mean?

Dathan crawled from his pallet and stood looking at the stars, his teeth tapping the rhythm of his chill.  Even in this strange land God’s stars looked the same.  He must truly be eternal.

 

Exposition

The message of God through Jeremiah is that God has redesigned the marriage contract, even though His bride broke the vows.  It is not a new contract, but one on the pattern of Hosea and his marriage to Gomer.  God is husband to an adulterous people, yet He chooses to remain true to His commitment.

For our part, the new contract calls for us to internalize the Word of God.  We can no longer do whatever we want through the week, then sing praises to God for one day.  This marriage must be a full time commitment.

In the days of the old covenant, a man put in his 40 hours at work, putting up with a nagging boss and surly coworkers so that he could go home to a nagging wife and surly kids.  He looked for any excuse to get out of the house.

Now, a man treats everyone as though they are angels of God.

The reading from Psalms 119 stresses the importance knowing the Word of God.  But we must do more than just study.  With the psalmist, we must say, I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me.  Now it is personal.  God teaches me the right path.  How can I turn from that teaching?

Paul gives Timothy and us a deeper understanding of instilling the Word into our lives.  Timothy had an advantage of being taught the scriptures from childhood, but that was not enough.  Without faith the scriptures are dead.  Unless we use the knowledge every day, it will die within us.  The Word is a living entity.  Like a plant seed, it has to have a medium for growth plus daily nourishment.  If we allow the Word to grow within us, the Word will take over and control our lives.

Modern Americans have been exposed to thousands of stories of alien life forms imbedding themselves into human bodies and controlling their activities, always for evil.  Sometimes, the alien is portrayed as the devil and mere humans have no way of preventing his takeover.  That is not what Paul is talking about.

God created angels to do the work and humans to be His companions.  To be true companions, He gave us the same abilities He has to think, create, comprehend, and decide; especially to decide what is right.  By the way, the devil cannot take over a person without permission, nor can God.  God made us with our own defense system from outside attack.

Knowing what is right in this world is difficult.  It’s a bit like hitting a moving target while riding in a moving target; or like some video games when the bad ones come from all directions and the highest score is hidden among them.

Oddly, life is like that video game.  Playing the game for the first time nearly always results in being ‘killed’ early one, but the player figures out what went wrong and does it right the next time.  We have the same chance to study the Word and apply it correctly the next time.  Unlike a video game, we can never learn enough to make it to heaven on our own skills.  If we could, God would not have needed to give us the Word.

At first glance, the reading in Luke might not seem to fit with the theme of the other three.  Let’s take a closer look.  These verses are part of a larger encounter which begins with another question from the Pharisees (17:20).  ‘When will the kingdom of God come?’  Jesus short answer is: ‘The kingdom is within you.’  The translation of the Greek may also read, ‘The kingdom is among you.’

Either way, Jesus identifies himself with the Kingdom.  When we take all his teachings together, The Kingdom is here and there, now and later, on earth and in heaven.  If we accept the Word and let it guide us, we are walking in the Kingdom already.

Jesus then moves to the parable of the Judge and the Widow to illustrate the importance of daily contact with God.  We generally think of prayer as giving God a list of the things we want, thinking that surely one or two will be granted.  What we should want is to listen to God.

In Jesus day, the Temple collected money for the widows and orphans.  Anyone who qualified could apply and receive assistance.  But like most governmental operations, they had a long list of rules about who qualified and how to select those people and how much money they should get.

This story is about a widow who was not being treated fairly.  Understand that a woman living alone in ancient Jewish society simply had no way to make money honestly.  Generally, a widow would move in with family who would care for her, but that was not always possible.

This woman needed help and she would not be ignored.  The judge tried to, but finally had to give in and grant the woman’s petition.  Pray without ceasing.

But let’s look at the story from another angle.  This reading is completely within the teachings of Jesus, so I’m not bending it too much.

The woman is God and the judge is you and me.  God bombards us with petitions to do justice, but we try to ignore His words.  Like the judge, we have greater things on our minds than the piddling justice thing.  What the woman/God wants is for the judge/us to listen and obey.

It might surprise you to learn how often the Old Testament speaks of caring for the widows and orphans, or more often, not caring for them.  Justice is not hunting evil doers.  It is caring for the people we meet every day, watching for the little ways we can make their lives easier, always ready to give food, clothing, shelter, money, a warm smile, a hug.

Be righteous and do good.

Mike Lawrence

Praise God No Matter What

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Psalm 66:1-11
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

Jacob was about as low as a man can get and still be alive.  He had done the same thing almost every day for four months.  Morning again, campfire started, stinking tents belching lice ridden soldiers by the thousands; the same ugly faces, the same complaints, the same smells, the same Union Army.

With a small business, a wife and two children, he had taken little interest in the Southern Rebellion.  Drafted in Brooklyn City, trained and sent to southern Maryland to guard against an invasion, he was sick of it.  Every day he vowed to stop eating the weevil infested hardtack, but hunger always won out.  Every day he gagged on the half rotten pork and beef.  Every day he spent more time at the latrine than any human should.

Maybe today was the day he would slip away like a few others had.  Maybe he would be able to evade the deserter squad and live to see his wife again.  Maybe today.

There was Herman.  Singing.  How could he do that?  Every morning singing hymns like maybe God was actually listening to him.  Jacob’s family had never done with church, but here he was learning church hymns because he couldn’t avoid it.

“Hey, Herman.  Why you always singin’?  We in the deepest hole in Hell.  Ain’t nonethin’ to be happy about.”

“You right about one thing.  I ever visit Hell, I spect it be a mite nicer’n this.  But you wrong about happy.  Happy is having God beside me and He is always beside me so I always happy.”

“I’d be happy to have clean clothes and decent grub.  Nice slice of fresh butchered pork might make me sing a hymn.”

“I’d be happy with that too.  Nothin’ wrong with good grub.  But I ain’t starvin’, so I thank God for the hard tack.  At least we can throw it at the Rebs and knock ‘em out.”

 

Exposition

Jeremiah’s words must have jangled the already frayed nerves of the Hebrews.  They had gone through the long siege of Jerusalem and the long march into captivity.  Now they were being told they were to become model citizens of the very country that attacked them.

As always, God delivers a message to the people who first hear the words and he delivers a message to us as well.  God makes his Words timeless.

To the Hebrews, He says, ‘You are being punished.  Settle in for the long haul.  Learn to do what is right.  Think about your mistakes.  I have said that you will return to the Promised Land, but for now you must make the best of the bad times.’

Let’s be clear, God did not say to become Babylonians.  When we read these words in the context of the whole Bible, He said, ‘Become good Hebrews.’

For Americans today, the message is the same.  We live in a foreign land.  Our true home is the Promised Land, that New Jerusalem John pictured so dramatically in Revelation.  To be good Americans is not the same as being Americans.  We can never be Americans when America is wrong.  We must always be citizens of Heaven first and citizens of America second.

But doing that is not always so easy.  There is currently strong debate over national health care and Christians on both sides (or the two main positions) have reasonable arguments based on the Bible.  I’m not going to take a position here except to stress how important it is that we consider all that God has said.  In addition, it does not matter to a citizen of Heaven what happens.  We will live a life of joy with or without health care.

Verse 11 of the Psalm reading: You brought us into prison and laid burdens on our backs.  And yet, we praise God.  No matter what happens.  Bankruptcy, infidelity, divorce, children gone wild, disease, hunger, God is with us and wants a better life for us and will give us that life in the New Jerusalem.  Now, the evil one is at work in our lives, but we praise God for what is to come.

Paul said this is my Gospel for which I am suffering.  Paul was a citizen of Rome and was often beaten and imprisoned illegally.  Romans were treated differently than others under the law.  Yet, he only used that status when it would bring praise to God.  He suffered so that others could see how devoted he was to God.  He claimed Roman citizenship when that would praise God.

Paul had been on his way to a safe, wealthy, pleasant life.  His family had enough money to send him to study under the most famous rabbi in history.  He, at a very young age, had an important position in the Temple hierarchy.  None of that was important to him after he meet Jesus.  He gave up the easy life so he could suffer for God.

When Jesus met ten lepers, interesting things happened.  They called to him, calling him Master, the only time that was done in Luke.  Jesus did not approach or touch them.  He simply told them to go to the priests.  Nothing was said about healing or faith.  Jesus walked on with the crowd of disciples, perhaps 200 people.

Since they were at the border between Galilee and Samaria, the ten men were probably from both regions.  Being unclean, they had nothing to fear from each other.  The Samaritans had to walk at least 30 miles to Mt. Gerizim to have the priests give them the ritual cleansing and the Galileans had to walk some 50 miles to Jerusalem for the same.

Samaritans had a temple at Gerizim where they offered sacrifices to Yahweh.  They accepted only the Torah, the first five books, as scripture and rejected all other writings and oral teachings.  That is why Jews in both Galilee and Judea looked on them with such scorn.

The Samaritan who returned to praise God and thank Jesus almost surely did so within minutes or hours.  He could not have made the two day walk, done the week of ritual, and walked back in much less than two weeks.  The story suggests immediacy.

The Samaritan is kneeling at the feet of Jesus, possibly even touching his feet, but he is still unclean because he did not go to the temple.  For Jesus, that’s not a problem.  He wonders out loud why the other nine aren’t there.  Jesus spent his life on earth in constant contact with the unclean of the world.  All he said to the man was your faith has made you well.  Yet, all ten men were healed.  It would seem that they all had faith in Jesus, but only one came to thank both God and his Son.

I assume the other nine made their way to one or the other temple for the rituals and were able to rejoin society and their families.  I like to think they praised God at some point.  That is what this lesson is about.

Never forget to praise God.  If times are bad, thank God it’s not worse.

Be righteous and do good.

Mike Lawrence