[Jesus] came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them. -Luke 6:17-19
Access to the basics of life: Jesus told the devil in the wilderness that “Man does not live by bread alone.” (Luke 4:4) But we humans tend to start with concerns about what we will eat and drink, how we will find mental and/or physical healing, what we will wear, where we will stay, and where we can go.
Some Christians set up false choices around these matters, as if one should either live in this world or ‘graduate’ to some all-spiritual plane of passive trust in God. Jesus did not do that. Instead, Jesus Christ blended a holistic life of serving the Father in every good way while he was in the flesh, while at the same time being the eternal Son of God. The New Testament is full of counsel about how we may imitate Jesus in being whole persons who— whether or not we can walk and chew gum at the same time!— can live right in this world as servants of the invisible God.
With the SOUPer Bowl of Caring, this Sunday at Bethel, we invite you all to bring soups and other non-perishable food items to bless folks in our community who struggle with food insecurity. You may also bring gifts of money, which will go directly to the Elkton Food Pantry. Each month, our Elkton Food Pantry distributes enormous amounts of food to hundreds of local households. The food comes from individuals, local groups (including churches like Bethel), area stores sending surplus, and regional organizations like the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank. If you have concerns about whether the need is real, you are welcome to volunteer (I’ll put you in touch with the Food Pantry Director, Donna Fields) at the monthly food distributions and box-packing sessions, where you can witness for yourself. Thank God, our community is generous to meet needs.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead,
the first fruits of those who have died.
-1 Corinthians 15:20
Access to the basics of life: Jesus died and rose again to give us the victory over sin and death. “[F]lesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. ... For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. (1 Cor. 15:50, 53) Jesus Christ came out of divine love (“agapē”) to save us from perishing- that is, from dying (John 3:16). Some dying is of our fleshly bodies, and God sometimes gives blessed opportunities to postpone that dying. Some dying is of our spirits, and God also provides the antidote to that: Jesus’ healing power against unclean spirits that attack us humans, and God’s resurrection power that triumphs even over our bodily deaths. God gave us our fleshly bodies for our good, and God overcomes the corruption and death of our fleshly bodies by His life-giving Spirit.
This Holy Spirit, active in the church, empowers us to welcome people who are struggling in their fleshly bodies, as well as those who are struggling in their minds and in their spirits. We as a church have options to go “on the level,” like Jesus did (Luke 6:17). You are more likely to have heard of the “Sermon on the Mount”— Luke’s gospel tells of the “Sermon on the Plain.” For people who have trouble with steps and uneven places, the welcome of physical access into the church is a spiritual blessing of love. It conveys God’s message: All are invited, and there is a place for all in God’s house. You might say, it’s an “uplifting” message.
Sadly, many Christians, down through the generations, have picked up the notion that people with physical handicaps ought to stay at home rather than try to attend church services and other church activities. To my way of thinking, this lags behind the sweet movement of the Holy Spirit, which has been advancing human dignity, by stages, throughout my brief lifetime.
I am so thankful for the Americans with Disabilities Act and the many improvements it has generated.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”
David took hold of his clothes and tore them;
and all the men who were with him did the same.
They mourned and wept, and fasted until evening....
– 2 Samuel 1: 11 – 12
Out of the depths I cry to You, O LORD.
- Psalm 130:1
There is a lot of grieving going on in our world.
There is a lot of grieving going on in this week’s Scripture lessons. On a sunshiny day when your own cares are light, the grief of other people (and words of grief in the Bible) feel like “downers” to be avoided. In view of the events of this past year and a half, it is likely that you yourself have experienced grief and mourning recently.
I don’t pretend to be anybody’s expert on grief and mourning, but I can point out to you some of the many different things that bring them into our lives.
† Of course, everybody expects grief at the death of someone we love.
† We should recognize that grief arises when we lose anything that is personally important to us, such as a job, an heirloom, a friendship, or when
we lose a particular role in life (such as being a boss or being trusted).
† Unpleasant changes in our lives, including health problems and some effects of aging, can produce grief in us.
† The fear and worry over the prospect of such losses can itself give us grief.
† Sympathy (compassion) and empathy for another person’s troubles can induce grief in us, too.
When we mingle with people of different cultures, we see different ways that each cultural group learned to express grief— or to refuse to express grief. Some groups have traditions of wailing loudly, while other groups teach grieving people to be stubborn in stony silence. In addition to the story of David’s grief over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan and the army of Israel, we can look at the gospel story about grief over the young girl who was dying, and who eventually died— before Jesus arrived on the scene (Mark 5:22-23, 38-39; see also the versions of this story in Matthew 9 and Luke 8). These reveal traditions of mourning that seem weird when we compare them to our own traditions surrounding grief.
In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published a book called, On Death and Dying. It triggered a worldwide conversation on many aspects of what happens when people die, and the grieving “process” which is a big part of it. Sadly, a lot of people who did not actually read her writings came to think that she gave a definitive list of certain stages that a person is supposed to experience in the “process.” What Kübler-Ross actually did was to observe the experience of many, many mourners and collect data on what they reported. In reality, everybody grieves in their own ways, depending on many personal and social factors.
The other week, we read in 1 Samuel 16:13 how the old prophet Samuel anointed young David to be the next King of Israel and “the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward.” However, as we read on through the stories of David’s adventures and suffering, we see numerous examples of how David was merely human like the rest of us: he made many errors and committed many sins. The presence of the spirit of the LORD did not stop David from being a flawed person, as are we all. In this week’s reading from 1 Samuel 1, we see grieving David lashing out in anger to kill the messenger who came, with the best of intentions, to inform David that Saul and the others had died. [Carefully comparing 1 Samuel 31 with 2 Samuel 1 reveals that David was probably reacting to incomplete and conflicting information about the deaths, too] I also think it is worth noting that David’s statements in 2 Samuel 1 show him to be much more upset about the death of his very dear friend, King Saul’s son Jonathan, than he was about any of the other deaths that occurred in that same disastrous battle (1 Samuel 31). In other words, his grief was supremely personal, as it would be for most of us ordinary folks.
Paul wrote this about the church as the Body of Christ:
If one member suffers, all suffer together with it;
if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
– 1 Corinthians 12:26
And Jesus said,
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
– Matthew 5:4.
Scriptures for Sunday, January 31, 2021:
1 Corinthians 8
... there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit ....
- Mark 1:23
This week in our Worship, we plan to offer Holy Communion. In our tradition at Bethel, this is a very “equalizing” ceremony, in which everyone gets the same bread and juice, passing the plate and the cup among the pews. Now, during the COVID pandemic, it is more equal than ever, because we are using those little, sterile, individually-packaged portions. But it is at the same time a little less equal, because now the Deacons attempt to bring the elements directly to each person, rather than having everybody pass the cups and plates to everybody else. There is something sweetly family-style about passing a plate of bread from neighbor to neighbor, down the row. We miss that aspect of doing things our “normal” way.
You are probably aware that, in many churches, the priest or minister gives the elements directly to each individual who presents herself or himself to receive it. That arrangement symbolizes the authority of the priest or minister over the lay people. But we don’t do it that way, here.
Authority is a dangerous thing.
We begin to experience authority as newborns, when we figure out that somebody has milk and a clean diaper that we want— NOW!! But do we get it how we want it, when we want it, every time we feel we need it ? That’s when the crying and fussing begins. And it seems like it goes on and on, because somebody always has the authority to bestow or to deny the things that we want.
In the story of Jesus showing up at the Capernaum synagogue (Mark 1:21-28), we see Jesus speaking to the people “with authority,” and his hearers were “astounded,” because they were not accustomed to teachers who taught like that.
And immediately, an unclean spirit spoke up and protested against Jesus. Huh ?!?
First of all, what is an unclean spirit ?
You have heard that we humans are gifted with free will, which means the authority to choose what we will do and say, and with what attitude. Maybe you have not recognized them, but there are other beings with whom we share this world, which do not seem to have physical bodies of their own, but which are able to dwell in the physical bodies of other beings in some way. Such “spirits,” if they are using their free will in an ungodly way, may be called “devils” or “demons” or “unclean.” Now that you think of it, you may realize that you know some people who are possessed with unclean spirits. Perhaps we Twenty-First Century people would call these demons “addiction” or “depression” or “bad temper” or something else— but the more you look at them, the more they show themselves. And they want authority. The unclean spirits want to dominate their victims and oppress them down to the ground.
Here is where we hear the devils start to squeal: where Jesus shows up, or somebody who is working for him, the unclean spirits understand that in the contest of authority, they will LOSE to Jesus every time. Because, as Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 28:18). He is Lord of all.
In Jesus’ ministry, he proved his divine authority again and again. But he always gave human beings their free will, to either cooperate with him or not. On one particular Passover festival weekend in Jerusalem, Jesus even gave them their free will to drive him out of their city and nail him to a cross to die. Between that Friday and Sunday, the devils may have thought that they had overcome his authority. But we know what happened on that first Easter morning. The dirty work of those unclean spirits was overturned, and Jesus arose in power: authority. But not before the demons had their day. God, for reasons we can only struggle to comprehend, let them have their will for that brief while. Weird, huh ?
Sometimes, we followers of Jesus are able to exercise godly authority in ways of blessing and righteousness. We may, at times, have the heavenly grace to love people, to liberate people from bondage to sin and death, to proclaim good news to the poor. But other times, we abuse our free will by judging other people, squelching them, failing to recognize the dear child of God who is crossing our path under their heavy burden.
As Paul told the church at Corinth: “Take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”
- 1 Corinthians 8: 9
Scriptures for Sunday, January 24, 2021
Psalm 62: 5-12
Jonah 3: 1-10
1 Corinthians 7: 29-31
Mark 1: 14-20
I am writing on a day of human political power, when one leader goes away and another takes his place. As you probably know about me, I resist the temptation to tell you what I think of these individuals and their parties. But as a Christian pastor, I believe I must tell you the bottom-line truth about them: they are not God. They are merely human beings, with all the foibles that go with the flesh. We may prefer this or that policy, we may like this personality and dislike that one, but in the end, they are only mortals as we are.
We Christians and Jews and Muslims proclaim the sovereignty of God, Who is above all our human situations, Who is infinitely superior to us all in in holiness and righteousness. And we Christians proclaim the Lordship of Jesus, who baffled us by sacrificing his Divine life for us mortal sinners.
This psalm is linked with David, who ascended from shepherd boy to king of Israel, but— oh my!— he was all-too-human.
Trust in Him at all times, O people;
pour out your heart before Him;
God is a refuge for us. [Selah]
Those of low estate are but a breath,
those of high estate are a delusion;
in the balances they go up;
they are together lighter than a breath.
- Psalm 62: 8 – 9
Scholar Robert Alter comments on verse 9, above. First, he notes that the word translated “breath” is the same word that is used over and over in the Book of Ecclesiastes, “vanity.” Alter adds, “the poet... invites us to visualize all of humanity being placed in one pan of a scales and a mere breath in the other. The pan with humankind would rise higher, for even breath is more substantial.”
In our human politics and society, don’t we see enough of “vanity” ?
I bring you these thoughts not to scorn or mock our leaders, but instead to challenge you to cling fast to the One Who is utterly real and all-powerful and Who loves us and Who saves us far beyond anything we humans can do, or vote for.
Further, I want us to invite our groups and our leaders to stay humble and repent frequently. As comedian Robin Williams said, “Politicians are a lot like diapers, they should be changed frequently, and for the same reasons.” As should we all. Whenever we forget that we are sinners in need of repentance, God raises up somebody like the prophet Jonah to remind us.
When Jonah finally rinsed off the fish-spit and obeyed God, the people of the wicked, pagan city of Nineveh responded by humbling themselves before God: Their king gave the command: “Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change His mind; He may turn from His fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” Jonah 3: 8 – 9
Today, many people are upset or enthused about the change of political leadership. But how can we get appropriately upset and enthused about changing our own attitudes and behavior ?
Listen to the prayer of Rev. Silvester Beaman, the pastor from Wilmington, Delaware, who gave the benediction at the presidential inauguration:
“We will give justice to the oppressed, acknowledge sin, and seek forgiveness, thus grasping reconciliation. In discovering our humanity, we will seek the good in and for all our neighbors. We will love the unlovable, remove the stigma of the so-called untouchables: we will care for our most vulnerable: our children, the elderly, the emotionally challenged, and the poor. We will seek rehabilitation beyond correction. We will extend opportunity to those locked out of opportunity. We will make friends of our enemies. We will make friends of our enemies. [sic] People, Your people, shall no longer raise up weapons against one another. We will use our resources for the national good and become a beacon of life and goodwill to the world. Neither shall we learn hatred anymore. We will lie down in peace, not make our neighbors afraid.”
A lot of that means repentance.
Jesus began his ministry by proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near: repent and believe the good news.” Then, as we will discuss this week, Jesus called ordinary people to follow him. He wanted them, and us, to proclaim it to our own selves and to our neighbors.
Scriptures for Sunday, November 15, 2020
1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11
Matthew 25: 14-30
In the week of our Annual Meeting, I was reading this week’s lesson from 1 Thessalonians and then I read on a little further. This word from Paul is far better than anything I could hope to write, so I decided to lay it out here, in hopes that you will enjoy it and celebrate the way that we fulfill it:
[E]ncourage one another and
build up each other,
as indeed you are doing.
But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters,
to respect those who labor among you,
and have charge of you in the Lord
and admonish you;
esteem them very highly in love
because of their work.
Be at peace among yourselves.
And we urge you, beloved,
to admonish the idlers,
encourage the fainthearted, help the weak,
be patient with all of them.
See that none of you repays evil for evil,
but always seek to do good to one another and to all.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing,
give thanks in all circumstances;
for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not despise the words of prophets,
but test everything;
hold fast to what is good;
abstain from every form of evil.
- 1 Thessalonians 5: 11 – 22
Thank You to all of you who showed up, and to all of you who get involved in the work of the church. It can make us nervous and it can take up quite a chunk of our time, but the benefits are out of this world ! (ha!)
I’m writing to you on Veterans’ Day, which brings me many different kinds of thoughts.
You have probably noticed that the majority of the men who regularly attend Bethel are military veterans. It doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to connect those two facts. People who have served a cause greater than themselves are more likely to go on to serve other causes greater than themselves. It’s also a generational thing: the younger folks are much less likely to be veterans, and also somewhat less likely to be “joiners”— to find fulfillment in group activities. Observing this connection between being veterans and faithfulness to the church begs the question: How can our congregation be built of faithful people in the future ?
I am proud of the veterans I know, and those I have known in the past. I love to listen to their stories and the extraordinary, hard-won life-lessons they’ve learned. I have no doubt that sometimes our nation needs fighters to achieve good goals for us and for humankind.
At the same time, I continue to be troubled by the differences between the Old Testament message about violence and the message of Jesus and the Apostles. In the Old Testament, it seems that God often commands His chosen people to fight—literally, physically fight— against human enemies. But in the New Testament, Jesus goes meekly to his death and tells Peter, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52) And, much more fundamentally, he tells his followers, “I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.... Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you....” (Matthew 5:39, 44) These and numerous other instructions in the New Testament are the reason why, in the early centuries of Christianity, Christians urged one another not to become soldiers. But as their governments “converted” to Christianity, the church’s teaching about military service shifted.
For my part, I am thankful that many of you answered the call to serve this nation in the military. I believe that your service has made the world a better place and accomplished some righteous purposes.
This week’s Old Testament lesson is quite a war story, though a weird one. Deborah, a Judge and Prophetess in Israel, called a veteran named Barak, to get him to lead an army of liberation against Canaanites who were oppressing their people. When Barak replied that he would do it only if she went with him, Deborah prophesied that “there will be no glory for you in the course you are taking....” But Barak was OK with that. He did his duty. (Judges 4:6 – 24)
Scriptures for Sunday, November 8, 2020
Joshua 24: 1-3, 14-25
Psalm 78: 1-7
1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18
Matthew 25: 1-13
The foolish said to the wise,
“Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.”
But the wise replied,
“No! there will not be enough for you and for us;
you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” -Matthew 25: 8 – 9
Last week in ZOOM Sunday School, we were reading in John chapter 13 about Jesus tenderly washing the feet of his disciples. The question came up, Why is that story only found in John’s gospel ? It seems to be so important, when Jesus commands the disciples to do the same for one another, and to love one another. Why are the four gospels so different from each other ? They all share some things in common with each other, but each one also includes a number of stories and sayings that are unique to itself.
Since Advent, last Fall, we have read a lot of Matthew’s gospel. This gospel has a peculiar kind of Jewish focus, with emphasis on ways that Jesus’ life, ministry, and sacrificial death fulfill the ancient Jewish prophecies. And, as I pointed out in a sermon, recently, sometimes in Matthew (for example, Matthew 22:1-13), we hear stories or parables from Jesus that have a more bitter, un-godly tinge to them.
This week’s gospel lesson is that story of the wise and the foolish virgins, Matthew 25:1-13. This story has some themes in common with stories Jesus told in Luke’s gospel (21:6-36), and with warnings that Jesus gives in various parts of John’s gospel, but its tone is much more stark than the others. Jesus is talking to the crowds in Jerusalem about destruction which would take place in the future, and how faithful people should prepare themselves to be on God’s side when all things get sorted-out. Over the centuries, preachers have interpreted the “oil” for the lamps as the grace which God imparts to His people.
So, on the surface of the story Jesus told, it appears that the ‘wise virgins’ are being harsh toward the ‘foolish virgins.’ Does Jesus mean that God’s prepared people should be cold and rude to the unprepared people around us ? Is it right for us to tell them, “Go, get your own oil !”
The real-world truth is, there is no substitute for each person getting grace directly from God. A Christian may graciously reach out to some desperate soul in an attempt to help them be ‘saved,’ but the One who ‘saves’ is not the Christian: rather, it is the Christ. He is the “Oil Dealer,” the only One Who can supply what you need. The best that a Christian can do is to effectively connect the other person to the heavenly “Oil Dealer,” the God of Grace.
The old song put it this way:
Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning !
Give me oil in my lamp, I pray !
Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning,
Keep me burning ‘til the break of day !
So here we are, in the wake of a national election, wondering how things will be sorted-out. What does the future hold for our nation, for our Commonwealth, for our community ? We Christians are supposed to be the ‘wise virgins,’ un-stained by the world, spiritually prepared to go into the Bridegroom’s house whenever the moment may come. How are we doing ? Are we as nervous and up-shook as the worldly people around us ? Or are we well-oiled and serene, confident that the Oil Dealer has supplied our need ?
In our local congregation, we are also at a moment of decisions, with our Annual Meeting coming, this Sunday. With the onset of the Corona Virus Disease- 2019, we ‘punted’ our Annual Meeting from the third Sunday in May to the second Sunday in November. Our meeting this week will lack some of the trappings we have come to expect: everyone gathered, close together, in one room; the remnants of a pleasant little meal in our bellies; the satisfaction of being face-to-face with our church’s elected leaders, to get answers to questions and to make fresh suggestions; and more. We will be missing some saints who cannot be among us in the flesh at this time. And it’s November, for heaven’s sake, not May! Talk about a time change ! This is ridiculous !
All the while, the Bridegroom is still on His way, to open the door and lead us into the wedding banquet. How can we ever be ready ?
Let us pray for God to give more grace.
... [w]e will be with the Lord forever.
Therefore encourage one another with these words.
- 1 Thessalonians 4: 17 – 18
Scriptures for Sunday, October 18, 2020
Exodus 33: 12-23
1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10
Matthew 22: 15-22
The folks who sat patiently in their cars in the Bethel parking lot in the rain to experience worship, this past Sunday, narrowly missed hearing me sing these four verses [as I had forgotten to bring the words outdoors with me]:
Come, sinners, to the Gospel feast;
Let every soul be Jesus’ guest.
You need not one be left behind,
For God has bid [invited] all humankind.
Sent by my Lord, on you I call;
The invitation is to all.
Come, all the world! Come, sinner, thou!
All things in Christ are ready now.
His love is mighty to compel;
His conquering love consent to feel,
Yield to His love’s resistless power,
And fight against your God no more.
This is the time, no more delay!
This is the Lord’s accepted day.
Come thou, this moment, at His call,
And live for Him who died for all.
Charles Wesley published this poem, along with twelve other verses I’ve omitted here, in 1747.
I understand that it may feel unnerving, to be addressed as “sinners.” I hope you understand that, from God’s point of view, we are all sinners, except that through the love of Jesus He graciously chooses to forgive our sins. And this invitation in this poem is to not only come to be forgiven, but mainly to come enjoy the presence and abundant hospitality and generosity of God— a feast!
I want to give you a heads-up about the Old Testament lesson for this week. It contains some difficult and probably contradictory sayings, which I feel we would all do well to ponder. Specifically, we will be considering Exodus 33:12-23. In my sermon, last Sunday, I touched on the fact that Moses had been up onto the mountaintop with God seven times, by the time we got into the middle of Exodus 32. What was he doing, up there? Exodus tells us that God spoke to him there (Exodus chapters 19 – 34). Moses went up that mountain to meet with the LORD for the ninth and last time in Exodus 34:4-29 when he made and wrote on the stone tablets the laws of God.
The thing that bothers me and countless Bible students, down through the past three thousand years or so, about the story of Moses is, Did he actually see God, or not ? Why does Exodus 33:11 say, “The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another,” but Exodus 33:23 God says, “you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen” ? And the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy which tell stories of Moses contain numerous other examples of this contradiction. Check out Exodus 24:9-11 !
The desire to see God’s face is deep and widespread across the world. The old Negro Spiritual says,
If I could I surely would
stand on the rock where Moses stood.
— that is, to see God, up close.
When we come together for Worship, there is a yearning to see God’s face as well as each other’s. That’s one reason it seems so strange on a Sunday morning, to look out at cars in the rain with their windows rolled up: can’t even see the human faces.
May we somehow see the face of God ?
In Exodus, just before that ninth and final trip Moses made up onto the mountain, the LORD said to him, “you have truly gained My favor and I have singled you out by name.” (Exodus 33:17) Immediately after this, Moses sought and received permission to “behold Your [God’s] Presence.” Wow! If that’s the key to being allowed to see God, can the rest of us receive permission, too ?
In our lesson this week from 1 Thessalonians 1, Paul says to the people in that church, “we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that He has chosen you....” (verse 4) Paul went on to say what the Thessalonians had done right: “you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead— Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming." (verses 9-10). In the same way, God chooses us.
Also, in 1 John 4:12 we read, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and His love is perfected in us.”
I believe this is the key to seeing God.
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The Scriptures for this Sunday, July 19, 2020 are
Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Have you had enough of this ?
Are you ready for it to be OVER ?
(You can fill in the blank— whatever “this” is— but I bet I have an inkling of an idea, what you may be thinking of….)
Join the club ! — a club that includes St. Paul and Jesus Christ and all the great prophets and heroes of the Bible. They often talked about The End. They used a variety of different expressions when they referred to it, but they kept coming back to this subject.
As a rule, Jesus and Paul and the prophets looked forward to The End in a positive light. While they knew that it would be very bad, or at least seem very bad, for some people, The End is actually a good thing because God is in charge of it. The End does not come because humans are ready for it or want it: The End comes because God says it’s time.
This week, we have four examples of Bible characters looking forward to The End.
Here’s St. Paul, writing to people in Rome around 1,970 years ago: I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:18) You see that Paul and his ancient audience had their fill of troubles, but Paul was trying to draw the Romans’ attention to what God held in store for all of them after The End. In his earliest letters, such as 1 Thessalonians, Paul expressed a belief that Christ would return very soon, and God would cut short the troubles that Christians were facing before that generation of believers had (literally) died out. But by the time he wrote the letter called “Romans,” he had stopped trying to predict how soon The End would come. Nevertheless, Paul was still sure that The End would be good for people who live as children of God.
Here’s Jacob (“the Grasper”), fleeing from his brother toward a place he’d never been before— a trip he made more than 3,500 years ago: “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God….” (Genesis 28: 20-21) Jacob had taken part in a big ol’ mess of a soap opera in Canaan land, plotting with his mother to cheat his brother Esau and fool his elderly father Isaac. But in this moment, Jacob expressed faith that God could bring his tangled web of a story to The End with some sort of a “happily ever after.” At least at that moment recorded in verses 20-22, Jacob “the Grasper” envisioned that it would be God Who would pull his loose ends together.
In our gospel lesson this week, Jesus tells the crowd another parable about seeds sown in a field, but in this story, an evildoer puts weed seeds out there where the good seeds are trying to grow. Later, when his disciples asked him what the story meant, Jesus told them that “the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. … Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” (Matthew 13:39-40, 43) For over 1,800 years, Bible readers have been trying to understand exactly what Jesus meant by that expression, “the end of the age.” The English language borrows from the Greek the actual word Jesus used— “aeon” – but it’s not a precise word, it’s a vague word. So Jesus doesn’t give us a calendar date or a clock time, but he does give us this: those of us who stick with God’s side will be doing just fine after The End.
Perhaps our psalm for this week gives us the sweetest and the most relatable vision of The End:
Trying to imagine all of God’s information and wisdom and all God’s plans, the psalmist gives up and says,
“I come to the end — I am still with You.”
Scriptures for Sunday, May 3, 2020
Acts 2: 42-47
1 Peter 2: 19-25
John 10: 1-10
Doggone, it! I always love to spend Good Shepherd Sunday morning with you-all in church. Good Shepherd Sunday rolls around each year on the fourth Sunday of Easter. Each year, the gospel lesson for this Sunday is a different “sheep and shepherd” message of Jesus from John. This year: John 10:1-10.
Like many of you, I’m impatient, fenced in like a sheep in a sheep-fold because of the virus threat. I want the sheepdog, er, virologists with God’s help, to defeat the vile germ and leave us safe and free. And I don’t want the sheepdog to punch the clock with the wolf at the end of the workday and go home, to come back another day to do it all over again. I WANT THAT VARMINT, er, virus, EXTERMINATED WITH EXTREME PREJUDICE, ONCE AND FOR ALL.
Sam Sheepdog, Ralph Wolf
created by Chuck Jones for Warner Bros., 1953
But this week I read the Scriptures again and realize, again, that real life has always been more complicated, and frustrating, than a Looney Tunes short.
1 Peter 2:25 : You were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
It seems that we live in a universe where there is a Shepherd and Guardian: however, in this universe, it is up to us “sheep” to keep choosing to follow and stay with our Shepherd and Guardian through a long series of threats and challenges.
And if our stories are like those of our elders, one of the challenges we will go through is death… but not the cartoon variety death, where the wolf falls for a mile, goes SPLAT!!, and shows up again in the next scene. No. The kind of death that the world believes is final.
Like some of our elders, we know The LORD is my Shepherd, and He is with me through the valley of the shadow of death. For good reasons, Psalm 23 is probably the most popular psalm. We all live in or near the valley of the shadow of death, whether that’s our own death or someone we love. We know Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me. God uses His “rod” to hit anything that would try to steal us out of His flock. God could also use His “staff” for hitting enemies, but it has that crook at one end so God can pull us back when we’re getting dragged away from His flock. Comforting.
Keep in mind, we and God are not attacking or resisting material, physical people or things: Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12) That is, our real enemies are spiritual forces which are trying to attack us spiritually, trying to drive us or drag us out of God’s flock.
Please take some time to list whatever influences (think: influenza, an unseen force) may be working to separate you from God now. What about temptations of our bodies? For one list of these, check out Galatians 5:17-21, “the works of the flesh.” Other spiritual forces against us include pride and aimlessness. They can take you away! When you discover any of these enemies messing with you, run to the Good Shepherd. On your way to Him, you can also call your pastor (a junior shepherd who works for the Good Shepherd) and your trusted, godly friends. We are part of God’s flock, too, and we really don’t want to lose you.
And pray to stay close to our Good Shepherd. To some degree, that is up to each of us. I hope it helps you to be part of the church, where we strive to be that spiritual flock, like the early church described in Acts 2:46-47, having glad and generous [or “simple”] hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.
Rev. Dan Bassett