569) Were the Old Days Better?

     

     Ecclesiastes 7:10 says, “Do not ask, ‘Why were the old days better than these?,’ for it is not wise to ask such questions.”

     Do you ever ask that or wonder that?  Do you, perhaps, as the question implies, just take for granted that things were indeed better in the good old days?  Or, are you more comfortable with all the conveniences of modern life, happy for what you have had, but happy to be where you are at today?  I would imagine that in all of us there is a bit of a mixture.  But don’t waste your time, says the writer of Ecclesiastes, don’t even ask, “Why were the old days better than these?’” for it is not wise, he says, to ask such questions.

     The Bible is not opposed to looking back in gratitude for all of God’s past blessings.  In fact, the Bible itself does a lot of that sort of thing.  There are whole Psalms that retell the mighty deeds of the Lord on their behalf.  In the New Testament we are encouraged to trust God because we know from past experience that He has been faithful to us.  After all, the entire Bible itself is a retelling of the past; a retelling of that old, old story of God’s love for us?

     But the writer of Ecclesiastes has a point.  There the question asked is not just about looking back, but it is has to do with looking back wistfully, enviously even, at when things were better.  That we are told not to do.  Do not ask, it says, why were the old days better than these, for it is not wise to ask such questions.

     The Biblical writers always remember the past in a different way and for a different reason.  They don’t look back to remember how much better things used to be.  To do that would be to remember God’s blessings then, but to forget how God is continuing to bless us.  Rather, the Bible’s way of looking back is to look back for just one reason, and that is in order to look forward.  They look back, and they remember with thankful hearts what God has done, in order to proclaim the truth that we can trust God for our future.  And then immediately the Biblical writers go on to say that we can look forward to the new things that God is going to do for us in the days to come.  “I will do a new thing,” says the Lord through the prophet Isaiah.  “Create in me a new heart,” prays the Psalmist.  “The time is coming,” says the Lord in Jeremiah, “when I will make a new covenant with my people.”  And on the night he was betrayed, Jesus himself said of the cup of wine he was about to share, “This is the new covenant in my blood.”  Jesus was always looking forward, announcing the coming Kingdom of God.  “Thy kingdom come,” he taught us to pray; always future oriented, but based on past promises.  We look back so we can look forward.

     That is the message of All Saints Day, which is observed today.  All Saints, not just Saints Peter and Paul and Francis and Theresa and all of those famous ones, but all saints, all who have died with faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.  We look back and remember with thanksgiving all those great men and women in the history of God’s people; and we also remember our loved ones who are now with the Lord, or, as an old prayer says, those whom “Thou hast taken into thy nearer presence.”  So we look back at those lives with thanksgiving, and also no doubt, with a bit of sadness; but we do not ONLY look back.  Because of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, we are turned from looking back to looking forward; forward to when we will see all those folks again.  All Saints Day is a time to remember those who are dead, but also to look forward to a future beyond the grave, and of that time when all of God’s people of every age will be together, and everything will be made new.  

     No matter how good the good old days were, the best is yet to be.

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Ecclesiastes 7:10  —  Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?”  For it is not wise to ask such questions.

Isaiah 43:18-19a  —  (This is what the Lord says), “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.  See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?

Revelation 21:1a…5  —  Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”  Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

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REMEMBERING OUR LOVED ONES WHO DIED IN THE FAITH:

We give back to you, O God, those whom you gave to us.  You did not lose them when you gave them to us, and we do not lose them by their return to you.  Your dear Son has taught us that life is eternal and love cannot die.  So death is only an horizon and an horizon is only the limit of our sight.  Open our eyes to see more clearly, and draw us closer to you, that we may know that we are then nearer to our loved ones who are with you.  You have told us that you are preparing a place for us, prepare us also for that happy place, so that we may be with you always, O dear Lord of life and death.  Amen.

–William Penn  (1644-1718)

568) Too Many Distractions (part two)

 

     (…continued)  During a major league baseball game a few years back, a dog somehow got out onto the field and began wandering around, casually sniffing here and there as dogs do.  The game was stopped so that the dog could be taken off the field.  The umpires chased it, and called for it, trying to move it toward an exit.  Players were trying to grab it.  From the stands the fans were shouting a variety of things.  Some were saying angrily, “Get out of here you stupid dog,” others were saying kindly, “Here puppy, nice puppy, come here puppy,” and so on.  The dog became thoroughly confused, running here and there, not knowing what to do.  Finally, he just laid down on third base and refused to move.  A sports commentator summed up the scene well when he said, “The problem was that the dog could not hear any dominant voice.”

     Our world is filled with such conflicting voices, all clamoring for our attention, and all saying such different things about what is true and what is important.  What the Bible says can, in many places, look as foolish as it did to Paul’s Corinthian congregation where he had to argue for God’s Word saying, “the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men” (1 Corinthians 1:25).  That Greek and Roman wisdom so respected in Paul’s day is largely forgotten, but Paul’s words, this ‘foolishness of God,’ goes on in all its truth and power.  But it still has to compete with so many other voices, now more than ever, and we can be left confused.  But for those who will listen for it, that voice of the Good Shepherd still speaks, and can rise above all other voices.  But we do have to stop and listen for it.  The word of Jesus can be our ‘dominant voice,’ and we can put our trust in him and follow him.  “My sheep listen to my voice,” Jesus said adding, “I know them and they follow me.”  And then he finished by saying to those who do hear him, “I will give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.”

     William Pitt was only 24 years old in 1783 when he became the Prime Minister of England and leader of the British Empire, making him at that time one of the most powerful men on earth.  Pitt died at the age of 46, after 23 years of leadership in parliament, 19 of those as prime minister.  He was a political genius and a natural leader.  Pitt’s best friend was William Wilberforce, another political genius who dedicated his whole life to ending the slave trade in Great Britain.  Both men were deeply involved in politics.  Wilberforce left time to listen to the voice of Jesus, whereas William Pitt did not.  Wilberforce shocked Pitt when he told him he had become a Christian.  William Pitt thought it was a foolish decision, and argued with Wilberforce about it.  Wilberforce, talking about this later in his life, said, “William Pitt tried to reason me out of my faith, but his weak arguments showed that his deep involvement in politics had left him little time for religious reflection.”  Pitt lived a life of incredible accomplishment, but left little time for the voice of the Good Shepherd.

     Many people are like William Pitt having one great distraction, others may have a hundred little distractions, but distracted we are, and for many, there remains little time for any thoughts of God or eternity.  Most folks do not choose to become atheists, but in practice they become atheists all the same, living as though God did not exist.  Our constant concentration on the here and now soon renders any thought of eternity irrelevant and unimportant.  There is only so much room in our head and so much time in our day, and if we fill our time and our heads with the things of this world, there will be no time or room left for any thought of the next world, or of the Lord who calls us to life in that heavenly kingdom.

     Puritan minister Richard Baxter advised his people with these words:

You must be sure that you know what is most important and most necessary, and you must let some of the rest go.  Know Christ, and you will know enough.  Know how to get to heaven, and you will have knowledge enough.  Remember the one thing needed.  Other things may be desirable and interesting to understand, but this you must understand, or you are undone forever.  If you had enough time, it might be interesting to learn everything in the whole Encyclopedia, but life is short, and we are dull; eternal things are necessary, and your souls are precious.  Hear, then, the word of the Lord, that voice of the good shepherd, and he will give you eternal life.

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I Corinthians 1:25  —  The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

Luke 10:41-42  —  “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Hebrews 12:12a  —  Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.  And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith…

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St. Bernard was traveling with a poor, uneducated farmer, who boasted, “I’m never distracted when I pray.”  Bernard objected, “I don’t believe it.  Now let me make a bargain with you.  If you can say the Our Father without one distraction, I’ll give you this mule I’m riding.  But if you don’t succeed, you must come with me and be a monk.”  The farmer agreed and began praying aloud confidently, “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name . . .”   Then, after pausing for a moment, he asked St. Bernard, “Does that include the saddle and the bridle, too?”

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Almighty God, you pour out your spirit and grace on all who desire it.  Deliver us, when we draw near unto you, from cold hearts and wandering thoughts, so that with steadfast thoughts and kindled affections we may worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

567) Too Many Distractions (part one)

          Tom Wolfe is a best-selling American author.  As a young man he worked for a newspaper.  Then he wrote ten non-fiction books.  He then wrote four novels, all which were very successful and made him famous.  He has also written hundreds of essays and articles.  He is now well into his 80’s and most would consider his life one of great accomplishment.

     But Tom Wolfe is not impressed with himself.  He thinks he could have done better.  He said he was not as focused on his work as he could have been.  Rather, he says, he has allowed himself far too many distractions.  What has been the cause of these distractions?  He blames much of it on the many conveniences of modern life that are supposed to save time and labor, but he doubts if they do that.  Cars do get us from point A to point B faster, but now we are on the go more, and much of our life is wasted, he would say, behind the wheel.  Think of the millions of hours spent in traffic every morning and evening rush hour.  The telephone makes communication so much quicker, but it can also interrupt one’s life and work with endless drivel– think telemarketing and political calls and surveys.  Computers speed things up a bit, but studies show astounding amounts of work time spent on computer games, social networking, and surfing the internet.  This is not to even mention the television, which could have been so useful in making education more efficient, but without a doubt has had a profoundly negative impact on the whole learning process.  He says we diddle around here and there with all these time and labor saving devices, and then at the end of the week we wonder where all our time went.  Tom Wolfe exaggerates and overstates his case, but you get the idea.  I am not about to get rid of my car, telephone, television and computer, but he has a point.

      To further explain why he is not impressed with his own literary output, Tom Wolfe refers to a French writer, Honore de Balzac (1799-1850).  Wolfe writes, “In light of my own meager output after 55 years of writing, I have become interested in this French writer Balzac, who published 60 books between the ages of 30 and 51.  I am convinced,” Wolfe goes on, “that the reason this genius was so productive was that he had NO time or labor saving devices whatsoever, not even a typewriter.  And so he dropped nothing and went nowhere to see anyone on a moment’s notice.  He did not stop to call anyone in Paris or London, and the phone never interrupted him.  He either wrote a note by hand, or said ‘the heck with it,’ and kept working.”

     The endless opportunities we have these days to do so many different things so quickly, has become also the means for endless distraction and diversion.  Of course, we need to do something with all that extra time that we save, and watching TV or surfing the net is more appealing than cutting and hauling the wood to heat the house, or pumping and carrying every bit of water that we need.  But does anyone think that our lives are more relaxed and calm today than 100 years ago when people did have to do everything by hand?

     None of this is new to you, but I want to point a few things this means for our spiritual life.  The Bible says that we need faith and Romans 10:17 tells us that faith comes by hearing.  And in order to hear anything, we have to take the time to listen.  In John 10:27 Jesus says, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me.”  Christians are big on the hearing of God’s Word.  That is how we find out about God– about what God has done for us, about what God will do for us, and about what God expects of us.  In Jeremiah 23:16 God tells the people who they should be listening to.  “Don’t listen,” God says, “to the false prophets who are filling you with false hopes.”  But, he implies, that is indeed who everyone is listening to. “Who,” Jeremiah asks, “listens and hears the word of the Lord anymore?”

     “My sheep,” Jesus said, “ listen to my voice, and they follow me.”  The challenge to anyone who wants to follow Jesus today is that there are so many other competing voices.  We are nearing the end of another political campaign, with all sorts of competing voices, competing with each other and competing for our attention, while crowding out other important matters.  And politics is just one of many distractions.  There is all the other news, along with sports, and entertainment, to name a few things; along with the necessary voices concerning job and career; and also all the opportunities for pursuing personal interests, be it history, reading, travel, cooking, decorating, and so forth; with magazines and television channels and books and websites and experts in every area, all there for you to listen to and learn from.  And, we must listen for and keep up with all the information about health care options and insurance, financial management and investments; and of course, hearing from and keeping in touch with family and friends, in person, on the phone, by letter or by email.  There are a lot of voices out there competing for our attention.

     Therefore, it becomes difficult to sit still for even a 15 minute sermon without the mind wandering about, thinking about all the many other things going on in life; much less, sitting still for 10 minutes of personal devotional time each day.  And yet, where else can the Lord God Almighty get a word in edgewise?  As Jeremiah says, “Who has listened and heard God’s Word?”  (continued…)

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Romans 10:17  —  Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.

John 10:27-28  —  (Jesus said), “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.”

Jeremiah 23:16…18  —  This is what the Lord Almighty says:  “Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes.  They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord… Which of them has stood in the council of the Lord to see or to hear his word?  Who has listened and heard his word?”

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O God of Peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, that in quiet and confidence shall be our strength; by the might of Thy Spirit lift us, we pray, to Thy presence, where we may be still and know that Thou art God; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord.  Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

566) An Open Door (part two)

     (…continued)  There are other similar verses.  In John chapter 14 Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father but by me.”  In Acts 4:12 Peter says of Jesus, “Salvation is found no where else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”  And in John 10 Jesus condemns those thieves and robbers who try to get into his fold by any other way than through him.  Jesus is the door, the way to God.

     You can take such language in a number of ways.  To some, this may sound arrogant, exclusive of others, and narrow-minded.  As Christians, we do believe that Jesus is the only way to God, and we believe that because that is what Jesus himself said.  And the proper way to believe that is with a great deal of humility.  That is, if we really understand and believe what the Bible says about our own sinfulness, then we cannot imagine that people like us would have any other way to God except through Jesus.  So to recite such verses that say Jesus is THE DOOR to heaven, is not to brag to others saying, “See, we are right and you are wrong.”  Rather, it is to say, “I am so much in the wrong before God that only in Jesus do I have any hope of being saved.”

     Someone might say, “Who do you Christians think you are?  Are the only ones who know anything God?”  Our response would have to be, “I think I am what the Bible says I am– a lost sinner, one who is alone and without hope, except that Jesus died for me and says that I can belong to him.”  Is that arrogant to believe that we are sinners, lost and without a leg to stand on before God, and unable to come to God on our own?  When as Christians we tell people about Jesus, we are not saying that we are smart and good, and that everyone else is dumb and wicked.  The message is that we and everyone else are all alike in the most important way; we are all sinners standing in need of God’s freely given grace, offered to us all in Christ Jesus.  And the door is wide open to everyone.

     Someone might say, “Why do I need Jesus?  I’ll be okay in the afterlife, I’ll get in without Jesus?”  But then the question is, “Get in where?”  Who else, besides Jesus, has offered such a gift of eternal life, and then backed up the promise with his own resurrection from the dead?  What other door is there?  Who else has demonstrated such power over death?  And if such power over death is to be found only in Jesus, we should be happy to accept His invitation.

     Martin Luther said that to tell another person about Jesus is not an act of superiority or arrogance, but of humble love and concern, like one beggar telling another beggar where to find food.  

     I have many happy memories of friendly conversations around that big table at our neighbor’s house years ago.  It was such a welcoming place.  The door was always open.  And that is the wonderful image of the welcome that is always there for us in Jesus.  “I am the door,” he said, “You can come in by me.  The door is always open to everyone.”

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John 14:5-6  —  Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?”  Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”

Acts 4:12  —  Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.

John 6:67-68  —  “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.  Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

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THE ANCIENT JESUS PRAYER:  

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.

565) An Open Door (part one)

   

Warner Sallman (1898-1968), Christ at Heart’s Door, 1942

     

     An unlocked and open door is very inviting.  We once had some next door neighbors who never locked their doors, and they always had the coffee pot on.  Our little town did not have a cafe, but our neighbors had a big table in the center of their kitchen, and someone was always sitting at it.  Neighbors wandered in and out all day, and sometimes the owners weren’t even home.  It was a very welcoming place, and I remember many friendly conversations there.

     Another person I often visited did not have such a welcoming place.  She was a widowed farm wife who had moved into an apartment in town.  She was a nervous person anyway, and, her apartment was in a bad part of town so she had something to be nervous about.  There had been some robberies in her building while she lived there.  So her doors were never unlocked.  I would set a time for a visit, and would always be there on time.  When she came to the door, I could see the peephole darken as she made sure who it was.  Then I heard the unlocking begin– first a chain, then the deadbolt, then the doorknob lock; and then the door would open a crack so she could make sure it was me, and then one more chain.  I understood her fears, but it wasn’t a very welcoming way to begin a visit.

     The Bible often uses the image of open and closed doors.  “How does one get from this world and this life, into heaven?,” is a very important question; and the New Testament answer is simply, through the door.  And where is this door?  According to John 10:9 it is not a matter of ‘where’ but ‘who.  Jesus himself says there, “I am the door, and if anyone enters by me he will be saved.”

     Throughout this tenth chapter of John, Jesus is going back and forth between using sheep as an image for people, and, just talking about people.  Some translations say ‘gate’ instead of door because that fits better with the image of sheep, but a door is what people usually use, and so I am using the RSV translation ‘door.’  Verses 26 and 27 make it clear what Jesus is talking about here when it says, “My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me.  I give them eternal life and they shall never perish and no one can take them out of my hand.”  Jesus is talking about eternal life in heaven.  And how does one get there?  Through the door, he says.  “I AM the door,”says in verse 9, and then Jesus adds, “whoever enters through me will be saved.”

     This image of a door is used several times in the New Testament, and in several different ways.  In John 10 Jesus says ‘I am the door.’  In Revelation 3:20 Jesus says he is standing at the door and knocking.  The famous Sallman painting above is of Jesus doing just that, standing at a large wooden door and knocking, with his head slightly tilted as he listens for a reply.  That painting is based on this verse, which in its entirety reads as follows:  “Jesus said, ‘Here I am.  I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in…’”  In the very next chapter, Revelation four, we see again a door used as an image, and in yet another way.  There begins John’s vision of heaven, and it begins with these words, “After this I looked, and before me was “a door standing open to heaven.”  Then followed his 18 chapter vision of heaven and the end times on earth.  Earlier, in Revelation 3 verse 8, Jesus says, “See, I have placed before you an open door that NO ONE can shut.”  In Acts 14:27 there is a similar message in which Paul proclaims that “God has opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.”  These are different images, but they all present the same wonderful message.  These verses say we can come to God anytime.  The door is always open and we are always invited.

     There is one more verse about ‘doors’ in the New Testament.  This one does not give such a pleasant image as the other ones do.  It is found in a parable of Jesus in Matthew 25, the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.  The wise ones brought enough lamp oil for the long wait, and the foolish ones did not.  At the very beginning Jesus had announced it was a parable about the kingdom of heaven, and the point of it all was that we need to be prepared for when Jesus returns, or, when in death, we return to him.  When the time comes in the parable, the foolish ones were not prepared, and verse 10 then says, “And the door was shut.”  In verse 11 they plead, “Please open the door.”  But in verse 12 there is this reply, “I tell you the truth, I do not know you,” and the door remained closed and locked and they did not get in.  Therefore, said Jesus, “Keep watch, for you do not know the day or the hour.”  In other words, the door is always open, yes, but don’t neglect it.  Do not fail to enter it.  Do not say NO to this wonderful invitation, because someday, the door will be closed.  Jesus words in the Gospels go back and forth between welcome and warning.  “Come on in,” he says, “Everyone is welcome.  Everyone!”  But Jesus also says, “Do not refuse this invitation.”  (continued…)

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John 10:9a  —  (Jesus said),  “I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved…”

Revelation 3:20  —  (Jesus said), “ Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”

Revelation 4:1a  —  After this I looked, and lo, in heaven an open door!

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Lord Jesus, give us the grace to follow you, the Way, to learn from you, the Truth, and to live in you, the Life.  –Erasmus

564) The Law Written on Our Hearts (part two)

   

     (…continiued)  Grandma Nell’s choice to die with forgiveness rather than bitterness directly changed the lives of her doctor and her daughter.  It also had an indirect effect on the lives of all that doctor’s future patients, all the many people her daughter served, and on her grandchildren who she would never meet, but who heard about how she died and would also be affected by that story of faith and courage.  These powerful and profound changes, the effects of which go down through generations, are not the kinds of things that can be legislated or enforced, no matter how many laws we get on the books.  These kinds of actions and effects must come from the heart, and it is those kinds of actions that are most powerful.

     In Jeremiah 31:31-32 two types of law are described:

The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel…  It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke that covenant.

     What covenant was that?  What covenant did they get when they came out of Egypt and then broke?  That was the ten commandments and all the other laws that God gave them; law after law written down in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; laws covering everything from killing and adultery, to when how to rotate your crops, to the correct and lawful way to clear mildew off the walls of your house.  But this covenant and these laws, says the Lord, were broken.

     But the next verse, verse 33, says there will be a new covenant:

This is the covenant I will now make; I will put my law in their minds and I will write it on their hearts.  I will be their God and they will be my people.

     This is a different kind of law.

     The written law is still necessary to protect us and to restrain us– for all of us do resist that law that God has put into our hearts and seek our own gain.  And the more we resist that inner law, the more written laws we will need, and the laws become so cumbersome that one can hardly make a move, no matter how sensible it might be– as in the case of Ruth and Bernice.

     When you borrow money and buy a house, there is a huge stack of papers to sign, covering every loophole and contingency, because no one can depend on strangers automatically doing the right thing.  But when two good friends get together to help each other out, they do not need a mountain of papers to regulate the proceedings, because they both trust in their mutual good will to be able to adjust to any bumps in the road.

     The written laws of the Old Testament go on and on, page after page, and reading it all is tiresome.  But in the New Testament, Jesus, the bringer of the new covenant is able to describe the law of the heart in just a few words.  On one occasion, he was asked what was the greatest law.  Jesus responded by saying that the whole law can be summed up in two commandments.  The greatest law was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul.  And the second greatest commandment, Jesus said, was to love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments, he said, all the books of the law and the prophets are based.  In another place, he described what it means to love your neighbor as yourself.  What he said there has become known as the golden rule– simply, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

     And then this ‘new covenant’ that Jeremiah says is coming has one more aspect to it.  It was referred to by Jesus himself on the night before he died when he offered the disciples the cup and said, “Take and drink, this cup is the NEW COVENANT in my blood, given and shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sins.  This do in remembrance of me.”  It is that love and that forgiveness, so dearly bought and so freely given, that changes our hearts, and then inspires us to faith and love and obedience.  Grandma Nell’s forgiveness changed a doctor and a daughter, and then a grandson who never even knew her.  God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ changed the whole world.

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Deuteronomy 30:10b  —  Turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Matthew 22:35-40  —  One of them (a Pharisee), an expert in the law, tested him with this question:  “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”  Jesus replied:  “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Luke 6:31  —  (Jesus said), “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

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Grant us, O Lord, the blessing of a mind stayed on you, so that we may be kept in a perfect peace which cannot be broken.  Let not our minds rest on any created thing, but only on the Creator; not upon goods, things, houses, lands, inventions of vanities or foolish fashions; lest, our peace being broken, we become cross and brittle and given over to envy.  From all such deliver us, O God, and grant us your peace.  Amen.

–George Fox  (1624-1691),  Founder of the Society of Friends/Quakers

563) The Law Written on Our Hearts (part one)

     Ruth and Bernice were unmarried sisters and members of a church I used to serve.  They were in their 80’s when I knew them and had lived together almost their entire lives.  The only time they did not live in the same house was in World War II, when Ruth was in Europe serving as an army nurse, and now, in their last years, when Bernice was in a care center.  Bernice was already in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s disease when I came to that church, so I never heard her speak or even saw her out of bed.  Death would have been a great blessing for Bernice, but death would not come.

     One of the reasons death would not come, was that whenever Bernice got sick, she would be rushed to the hospital by ambulance and everything would be done to make her better.  And she would get better, or, I should say, her body was kept alive; only to go back to laying in bed in the nursing home with that vacant stare.  Ruth could not understand this.  She had asked time and again that nature be allowed to take its course and that Bernice be allowed to die.  She wasn’t asking that Bernice be given an injection to make her die, and she wasn’t asking that food and water be withheld.  Ruth simply said, “My sister has lived a good life and she is ready to die.  When she gets pneumonia, can’t the disease just take its course and mercifully end her life?  It is time, can’t you see?  I’m her only living relative, and I know this would be her request.  I was a nurse all my life, and this is how we used to do things.  Why can’t someone just use some common sense here?”

     “Well,” said the nursing home administrator, “it is not our decision.  She is under the care of a doctor, and we cannot go against the doctor’s orders.”  

     “Yes,” said the doctor, “I know how it was years ago, and it was better then.  But it isn’t that way anymore, and if I just let someone die, I could be sued.  Yes, I know you wouldn’t do that, Ruth.  But that is what everyone says, and then they change their minds, and I’m in court.”

     “We’re sorry,” said the hospital administrator, “we understand your request, and we do have a policy that allows us to sometimes let people die, but your sister does not meet the requirements.  We have our rules and the insurance companies have their rules and Medicare has its rules and the doctors’ insurance companies have their rules and the state has its rules.  So we’re sorry, Ruth, but our hands are tied.”

     I’m not saying this is how it always is.  This was years ago and the law is always changing, and even then, different people had different experiences.  But this was Ruth’s experience.  Law was piled upon law, and regulation upon regulation, and there were policies and more policies.  Sometimes the law did provide needed clarification and consistency and protection, but much of it was in place only to guard against litigation.  Because of the fear of litigation, the primary concern all the way down the line became not to provide the best and most sensible care, but to make sure no one got sued.  

     John Adams once said that a good society depends on the moral and upright character of it citizens, and if the people lack that, no number of laws can maintain peace and order.  For Ruth and Bernice, the laws that intended to help and protect people became not a help, but a burden.

     UNC professor and columnist Mike Adams tells a different kind of story.  Adams never knew his grandmother.  She died of cancer in 1962 just before he was born.  He writes of her death:  “Grandma Nell’s death at the age of 48 was probably the result of a mistake by a physician who removed a cancerous organ during a previous surgery.  Later, when another organ was consumed by cancer, the doctor was consumed by guilt.  He concluded that he should have also removed that other organ during the previous surgery and thus, would have saved her life.  After it was too late, he tearfully apologized at grandma’s bedside.”  He would not have had to do that.  No one would have known the difference.  But, Adams says, “That was back when doctors were able to speak honestly to their patients instead of guarding carefully everything they said because they had to worry about litigation.”

      Grandma Nell, however, had no intention of suing anybody.  Learning that she would die at the age of 48 was devastating news, and she had to face her own personal loss and despair.  But because she was a person of faith, and because the doctor was a good doctor who simply made what turned out to be a bad call, she had no desire to add to the doctor’s misery.  She wanted to make sure that the doctor was all right, and knew that he was forgiven.  During the advanced stages of her illness, she even wrote him an uplifting letter that he kept in his office desk for the rest of his career.  When Nell died, the doctor cancelled his appointments and went to the funeral.  There he told Nell’s daughter, Mike Adams’ mother, that for years as a doctor he had to give bad news and console patients, but that Nell Myers was the only patient who ever tried to console him.  He said that Nell’s good will and forgiveness changed his whole life and career.

     Mike Adams said that his mother was also changed by the way her mother died with such dignity and forgiveness and courage.  She had been tempted to respond to the tragedy with anger and self-pity, but when she heard the doctor’s tearful account of Nell’s loving treatment of him, she too was changed.  She decided that if her mother’s faith could give her that kind of strength in the face of adversity, that in itself was conclusive proof of the power of the Almighty.  She too became a believer in God and decided that her mother’s death would inspire her to that same kind of love and good will and service to others.  And Mike Adams remembered his mother as one who was always ready to serve others– collecting groceries for the needy, serving at church, writing to prisoners, collecting money for various charities, etc.    (continued…)

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Isaiah 28:13  —  So then, the word of the Lord to them will become:  Do this, do that, a rule for this, a rule for that; a little here, a little there— so that as they go they will fall backward; they will be injured and snared and captured.

Psalm 119:34  —  Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law and obey it with all my heart.

Psalm 40:8  —  I desire to do your will, my God; your law is within my heart.

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O Lord, give us more charity, more self-denial, more likeness to you.  Teach us to sacrifice our comforts to others, and our likings for the sake of doing good.  Make us kindly in thought, gentle in word, generous in deed.  Teach us that it is better to give than to receive; better to forget ourselves than to put ourselves forward; better to minister than to be ministered to.  And to you, the God of love, be glory and praise forever.  Amen.

–Henry Alford  (1810-1871), Dean of Canterbury Cathedral

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Prayer of a Chinese woman, recently converted to Christianity:

We are going home to many who cannot read.  So, Lord, make us to be Bibles so that whose who cannot read the book can read it in us.  

562) God’s Wrath on the Wrongdoer

        “I don’t get mad, I get even,” is what we used to say on the playground, trying to sound tough as we plotted our revenge.  The Bible, however, has a different approach to the matter.  “Love your enemies and pray for those who hurt you,” it says.

     But then it also says something else.  Romans 12:19 says, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”

     What’s this?  God will seek the revenge?  We should ‘leave room for God’s wrath’ and let God repay the evil?  Isn’t God supposed to be all-loving and forgiving?  What’s all this talk about wrath and revenge?

     First of all, the Bible is indeed clear– if someone does me harm, I should not try to get even.  Instead, I am to return good for evil and leave the paybacks, if there are to be any, to God.  In that same section it says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.  Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everybody…  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good…  and if your enemy is hungry, feed him…”

     These are nice ideals, but it is fair to ask, does any of this work in the real world?  Or do we just pay lip service to these kinds of nice thoughts on Sunday morning, knowing full well that it will have little application to our life on Monday morning?  Will thieves stop robbing us if we don’t stop them?  Will murderers cease killing just because we treat them nicely?  Will ISIS stop beheading people if we ask them politely?  Won’t evil run amok if we leave it unrestrained and unpunished? 

     The answer is, of course it will.  Sinners con’t stop sinning out of the goodness of their hearts, because for one thing, our hearts aren’t good.  So how can we who live in the real world follow Paul’s advice to never avenge ourselves, advice which seems so other-worldly and impractical?  If we don’t stop evil, who will?

     The answer to that question is in the Bible verse I began with.  Who will stop evil?  God will.  God will stop the evil.  And how does God do that?  Well, there are a few ways he does that, but this meditation will be about how God deals with evil through his designated representatives.  God’s designated representatives in the world to fight evil are described in Romans chapter 13, where Paul writes:  “Be subject to the governing authorities, because they are God’s servants, established by Him, to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.”  There’s that word wrath again, and Paul is telling us here is that one of the ways God brings his wrath upon the wrongdoer is through the governing authorities.  In other words, the government has something to do with stopping evil, by God’s own design.

     But as soon as one starts talking about government things get complicated, so I’ll illustrate this with a less complex setting– the family.  

     Let’s say little brother hits big sister.  Now big sister has at least three options.

     Option #1 is she can just ignore it.  If she does that, she runs the risk of little brother hitting her again– and again– and again.  That’s how these things work.  If the violence is allowed to work to bad guy’s benefit and go on without consequences, the aggressor will become bolder and even more wicked.  In time, little brother may really hurt big sister.  Obviously, that is not a good outcome.  Option one, to just ignore the injury, is not a good idea; not for big sister who is getting hit, and also not for little brother who, if unrestrained, will just get worse, and may turn out to be a thoroughly bad person.

     What else can big sister do?  Option #2 is that she can hit little brother back.  This is, of course, what the Bible says not to do.  ‘Do NOT avenge yourselves,’ it says.  But let’s say big sister doesn’t want to go by the Bible, and, since she is bigger, she is able to pound the daylights out of little brother, and perhaps even injure him.  This is not a good outcome either, and, goes to show why it’s not a good idea to leave vengeance in the hands of the wronged party.

     So what else could big sister do?  You already know what option #3 is because that’s what usually happens.  Big sister goes to Mommy and complains that little brother has hit her.

     Now Mommy probably doesn’t want to have to deal with this, but she must.  She would rather that her kids play without hitting, but when the hitting starts, she knows she has to get involved.  So what follows is a little trial.  Mommy asks the accused if he hit big sister.  Little brother insists that he did no such thing.  In a courtroom, this would be called, “pleading not guilty.”  In the family, its called ‘telling a big fat lie’ (at least in this case).  Mommy has already examined the forensic evidence, and she has seen the red mark of a chubby little hand on big sister’s cheek.  So, Mommy pronounces the sentence:  “Go to your room,” she says, or perhaps, “Sit in the corner,” or perhaps, worst of all in the mind of little brother, she might say, “Give your sister a big hug and apologize.”  Justice is done and the evil is stopped, at least for the time being.

     This is not Mommy’s favorite part of being a parent, but she knows she has to do it.  It is part of her job.  Mommy is, to use Paul’s words, “a servant of God, there to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.”  Parents are the ‘governing authorities’ in their families, which is why the fourth commandment does not tell us to love our parents, but to HONOR them.  Honor includes love, but it is more than love.  It also means, as it says in the catechism, that we are to respect parents, obey them, and serve them.

     This little domestic situation is really a miniature of what government is supposed to do, according to the Bible.  If we as individuals are not to avenge evil, then who will stop it?  God will stop it through his designated representatives– parents in the family, and, in the larger society the governing authorities, who are servants of God to ‘execute wrath on the wrongdoer.’

     If some stranger on the street mugs you, you don’t run to Mommy.  You call the police, because they are the arm of government authorities appointed by God to deal with that kind of problem.  Police, judges, juries, soldiers, and armies– these are all servants of the government to restrain evil.  That is why, says Paul, we are to be subject to the governing authorities.  We don’t have to like them.  But we do have to respect, honor, and obey them.  Their job is to protect us from each other, and from outside threats.  It is not their job to forgive the wrongdoer, and we do not expect them to be non-judgmental.  Their job is to judge and punish the wrongdoer.

     Governments do many things.  Sometimes they do horrible things, like commit mass murder against their own citizens.  Those authorities who do that will have to answer to God.  Other times governments do very good things, like build roads and maintain schools.  And sometimes governments do downright silly things.  But God has authorized the governing authorities to do one thing above all else– to execute his wrath on wrongdoers so that evil may be restrained, and the citizens of that government be protected.

     It also must be said that the authority of a government is limited by God.  If the governing authorities tell us to do that which is contrary to the Word of God, then we must not obey.  In Acts chapter four Peter and John were told by the authorities to stop telling others about Jesus.  The disciples refused to obey them, saying, “We must obey God and not men.”

     As citizens under the authority of government we are called to vigilance and to virtue.  Virtue is more than just abiding by the law because we are afraid of what might happen to us if we don’t.  Virtue is doing the right thing freely and without coercion.  It is what the Lord wants from us, and the Founding Fathers of this nation said many times that liberty cannot survive without a godly and moral people.

     These are just a few words on just one aspect of what the Bible says about the governing authorities; and it doesn’t even begin to answer the question of why God doesn’t stop all the evil– except to say that He someday will.  In the meantime, the good news is that Jesus sends his Holy Spirit to us to lead us and to guide us into all truth and obedience.  Jesus, who was, you remember, crucified by the governing authorities, now lives and reigns in heaven.  All authority on heaven and on earth is now His, says the Bible.  And when Jesus comes again in glory, the kingdoms of this world will come to an end and our home will be in the kingdom of God, and Christ shall reign forever and ever.

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Romans 12:17-19  —  Do not repay anyone evil for evil.  Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written:  “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.

Romans 13;1a…4  —   Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established…    For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.  But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason.  They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

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Oh God, Almighty Father, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, grant that the hearts and minds of all who go out as leaders before us, the statesmen, the judges, the men of learning and the men of wealth, may be so filled with the love of thy laws and of that which is righteous and life-giving, that they may be worthy stewards of thy good and perfect gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Knights prayer, 14th century

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561) Will There Be Coffee in Heaven?

Randy Alcorn has written several books on heaven.  The following piece is adapted from his blog at  http://www.epm.org

     “Will there be coffee in Heaven?”  Someone may say, “I sure hope so.”  But it’s a statement that few would attempt to defend biblically.

     But consider the facts.  God made coffee.  Coffee grows on earth, which God made for mankind, put under our management, and filled with resources for our use.  When God evaluated his creation, he deemed coffee trees, along with all else, to be “very good.”  Many people throughout history have enjoyed coffee.

     God tells us that he “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17).  Does “everything” include coffee?  Paul also says, “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5).  Again, does “everything” include coffee?

     Given these biblical perspectives—and realizing that caffeine addiction or anything else that’s unhealthy simply won’t exist in Heaven—can you think of any persuasive reason why coffee trees and coffee drinking would not be in Heaven?

     Will heaven have fewer resources for human enjoyment than Eden did or than this fallen world offers?

     In Heaven, we will “drink . . . from the spring of the water of life” (Revelation 21:6).  God will prepare for us “a banquet of aged wine . . . the finest of wines” (Isaiah 25:6).  Not only will we drink water and wine, we’ll eat from fruit trees (Revelation 22:2), and there’s every reason to believe we’ll drink juice made from the twelve fruits from the tree of life.  So, along with drinking water, wine, and fruit juice, is there any reason to suppose we wouldn’t drink coffee or tea?  Can you imagine having a cup of coffee with Jesus in Heaven?  If you can’t, why not?

     If for health reasons you shouldn’t drink coffee now, then don’t.  But aside from personal preference, the only compelling reason for not having coffee in Heaven would be if coffee were sinful or harmful.  But it won’t be.  If drinking coffee would be unspiritual in Heaven, then it must be unspiritual now.   And unless someone’s a caffeine addict, under bondage to coffee and not to Christ, or if a person’s health is at stake, there’s simply no biblical basis for believing drinking coffee is sinful.  Those who shouldn’t consume caffeine now will be freed from addiction in Heaven.  Adverse health effects simply won’t exist.

     Those who for reasons of allergies, weight problems, or addictions can’t regularly consume peanuts, chocolate, coffee, and wine—and countless other foods and drinks—may look forward to enjoying them in Heaven.  To be free from sin, death, and bondage in Heaven will mean that we’ll enjoy more pleasures, not fewer.

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Genesis 1:31a  —  God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.

1 Timothy 6:17  —  Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.

1 Timothy 4:4  —  For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.

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A PRAYER BEFORE YOUR MORNING COFFEE:

Dear Lord, so far today I am doing all right.

I have not lost my temper, been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish, or self-indulgent.  I have not whined, complained, cursed, or eaten any chocolate.  I have not charged anything to my credit card.

I will be getting out of bed in a minute, and I think that I will really need your help then.  

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560) Reduced Expectations

Stephen Hawking as a brilliant and healthy young man.

In 1963, when he was twenty-one, Hawking was diagnosed with ALS and given just two years to live.  It might be that Hawking’s illness helped him become the noted scientist he is today.  Before the illness, Hawking had been a lazy student.  He still did well because he was so intelligent, but because of the lack of time he spent on his studies he almost failed to get into Cambridge.   “I was bored with life before my illness,” he said.  “There had not seemed to be anything worth doing.”  With the sudden realization that he might not even live long enough to earn his Ph.D., Hawking poured himself into his work and research.

Hawking in 2011.  He is now seventy-two.

Stephen Hawking survived, finished his Ph. D., and went on to become the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, the chair held by Isaac Newton in 1663.  He retired in 2009 after 30 years in that position.  He is regarded as one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Einstein.

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Stephen Hawking is not a Christian, but his illness taught him somethings about gratitude and expectations that are very consistent with a Biblical approach to life.  He said, “My expectations were reduce to zero when I was 21.  Everything since then has been a bonus.”  Christians believe that all of life is a gift of God.  Each day and everything we have is a free and undeserved bonus.

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     When you expect nothing, a tree is gorgeous, and just looking at it is a privilege.  When you can’t even move your hands anymore, even tasting food becomes fantastic.  The sunset, or a butterfly, or anything that God made becomes wonderful.

      One of the reasons many people are depressed is that life so often disappoints us.  We are somehow led to expect 80 years of uninterrupted bliss, and if we receive anything less we feel cheated and that life is unfair.  Our level of expectations for life is so high that nothing in reality can ever measure up to it.

     Instead, we should, like Stephen Hawking, expect nothing; and then say, “Lord, whatever you will give me I will receive with joy and thanksgiving.”

     Instead, we expect a big house, no physical problems, that our children are going to get along without any difficulties, and so on.  We have allowed our level of expectations to color everything we have and do.  The Bible commands gratitude as the antidote to unrealistic expectations.

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James 1:16-17a  —  Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters.  Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights…

Philippians 4:11b-13  —  I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

Colossians 2:6-7  —  So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

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Grant, Lord God, that in the middle of all the discouragements, difficulties and dangers, distress and darkness of this mortal life, I may depend on your mercy, and on this build my hopes, as on a sure foundation.  Let your infinite mercy in Christ Jesus deliver me from despair, both now and at the hour of death.  Amen.
–Thomas Wilson  (1663-1755)