First, God

First Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 64:1-9

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Mark 13:24-37

Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18

 

There is an important passage in chapter 63 leading up to today’s Isaiah reading. Beginning with verse 17, we read,

Why, Lord, do You make us stray from Your ways,

And turn our hearts away from revering You?

Relent for the sake of Your servants,

The tribes that are Your very own!

Our foes have trampled Your Sanctuary,

Which Your holy people possessed but a little while.

We have become as a people You never ruled,

To which Your name was never attachedJSB

God is given credit for forcing the Chosen People to sin. This is not the only Biblical passage to blame it on God.

We still to that today. I wouldn’t need to sin if God gave me the things I need. God makes life too complicated. The list of sins is too long for anyone to remember.

But, as we read on into chapter 64, we see, No eye has seen [them], O God, but You, Who act for those who trust in YouJSB This is a common pattern in the laments of the scripture. We complain, but we complain to God. We place God first, even as we question, “Where is God?”

Notice the difference between that question, “Where is God?” and “Is there a God?” In the first, I know that God exists, I have simply misplaced Him. But in the second question, there is room for the possibility that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob does not exist. And further, that no other god exists either.

I can understand why people take that position. I have never seen God, nor can I prove that the things I’ve seen that I believe come from God, do come from God. I cannot prove God, but I can believe in God. Once I believe, I can see all the proof I need.

Jesus invited us to accept everything he said as coming from God. He told us several times that he was both the Son of Man and the Son of God. His Word, his Gospel, his Good News, will never die. Jesus told his followers about his coming death, but reminded them, Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass awayNIV

He also told us that to see God is easy, look at Jesus. Accept his words. Do the things he did.

 

Read my earlier comments on this theme here.

 

Be righteous and do good.

Mike Lawrence

On the Right or On the Left?

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 95:1-7a
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

 

This passage in Matthew haunts me more than any other. It leaves no room to hide. Either I feed the hungry or I don’t. If I send a $100 check to Famine Relief, Inc., am I covered, or do I need to give $1,000—more? Do I need to fly to Juba, South Sudan, and help distribute food? How can I be sure I will stand on the right side when the Son of Man sits on his throne?

Christians through the ages have struggled with variations of this dilemma. What does God expect me to do to get into Heaven?

Of course, that last question is a bit misleading. We generally talk about going to live with God and His Son in Heaven, but the Bible tells us we can expect to live in the New Jerusalem on the New Earth. Still, what does it take?

The answer is—I must accept with all my heart and soul that God is my Master; that I must love God and I must love every other human on the planet.

God is not a bookkeeper. There is no double entry listing of the money I made and the money I spent to feed people. There is no naughty/nice list.

Luke 10:27—Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourselfNIV That is what God keeps tabs on.

If I sit down in December and figure up what I need to do to lower my 2017 taxes and see that writing that $1,000 check will lower my tax bill, I’m not sure that qualifies as love.

If I write a check for $100 because I want to give $1,000, but simply don’t have it, well and good.

 

Read my earlier comments on this theme here.

 

Be righteous and do good.

Mike Lawrence

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