1140) This Too Shall Pass (b)

     (…continued)  In Luke 16 Jesus told a parable about a similar reversal of fortunes.  The story opens with a rich man who has everything, living in luxury every day.  At this rich man’s gate is a poor man, covered with sores and hungry.  Lazarus is so poor that he longs to eat what falls from the rich man’s table.  He longs for it, the parable says, but he receives nothing.  Jesus doesn’t say anything about the rich man giving the poor man even so much as a crumb.

     In time, both men die, and then the tables are reversed.  The rich man is in agony in hell, but the poor man is with the angels.  Jesus is encouraging his listeners to think beyond just today.  He wants us to see ourselves in this story, and to think about our eternal destiny.  The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to earth to warn his brothers about the terrors of the life to come in that terrible place.  But Abraham says no, that will not be done.  Abraham tells the rich man they have Moses and the prophets (the Scriptures).  If they won’t listen to God’s Word, Abraham says, they won’t be convinced even if someone comes back from the dead to speak to them.

      A little phrase that is repeated many times in the Bible is, “And it came to pass.”  Someone once had a ring made and had inscribed on it some words based on that little phrase.  As a constant reminder to keep this larger perspective on life, the inscription read:  This too shall pass.  Explaining the inscription, the person said:  “This too shall pass; when one is happy, this makes one sad; but when one is sad, this makes one happy.”  Things do keep changing.  When you are in troubled times, just hang on, things will get better.  But this also works the other way.  When all is well and you are happy, just wait, that too will change.  There is trouble ahead for everyone.

     But the Bible adds to this endless back and forth is the eternal promises of God.  We do get jerked around in this life, back and forth between bad times and good, between happiness and sadness.  And if this life is all there is, then the last act is a sad one, and it does end up badly for all of us.  Good King Azariah suffered from poor health for his entire life, and wicked King Jeroboam enjoyed success, prosperity, and luxury; but they both ended up dead and in the grave.

     However, the Bible is always telling us that death is not the last act.  Death does not have to be the end of the play for us, but for those who believe in God’s promises, death is nothing more than the end of the beginning.  The rich man and Lazarus both die, but that’s not the end of the parable.  Life goes on for both of them, and the parable ends not with the grave, but with Jesus’ command to hear and believe God’s Word now while you still have the chance.

     The Bible’s message is a word of hope like nothing else this world has to offer.  This world is filled with countless opportunities for fulfillment and enjoyment, but it will not last.  So the Bible calls us to a much larger world and a much bigger life.  Death, for those who believe in Jesus, is not the end of anything, but merely an interruption before we are ushered into the vastness of God’s greater kingdom.

     “He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,” Jesus said.  That’s what it means to be saved– not guaranteed prosperity here, not necessarily being healed whenever we ask for it here, not rewards and punishments handed out precisely according to our good and bad deeds here; but SAVED for all eternity in God’s home, far beyond the ups and downs, mysteries and injustices, problems and confusions of this brief life.

     If you enter Colorado from the east on Interstate 70 you will not, at first, impressed with the beauty of the state.  It will look like just more of the same empty, rolling plains that you have been coming across for a few hundred miles already.  But it would be a mistake to then conclude that Colorado is not a beautiful state.  You have not yet seen anything of the mountain lakes and streams, snow-capped peaks, towering forests, and the endless kinds of wildlife.  There is much to see and experience in Colorado, and a 15 minute drive in from the eastern border of the state does not even begin to hint at all that is there.

     In the same way, the few years of life we get in our little home on this little earth tell us very little of all the beauty and blessings that are ahead of us in the infinite magnificence of God’s eternal kingdom.  The apostle Paul once had a vision of heaven and wrote that it is far beyond even our wildest imagination.  It would be foolish to conclude from our limited experience here that God is not good or fair.  In this life God gives us only a glimpse of what there is to come.  Amos and Paul and Luke and all the other Biblical writers are always trying to open our eyes and broaden our perspective.  There is indeed another day coming, and even our best days here give just a hint of what that will be like.

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John 11:25  —  Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in me will live, even though they die.”

II Corinthians 4:18  —  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

II Corinthians 5:7  —  For we live by faith, not by sight.

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Thy Kingdom come.

–Matthew 6:10

Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus.

–Revelation 22:20b

1139) This Too Shall Pass (a)

     Amos was a farmer, called on by God to be a preacher to Israel, during the time of King Jeroboam.  This was a very good time for Israel in many ways.  The economy was good, the military was strong, its borders were safe, and the nation was at peace.  In the Old Testament book that bears his name, Amos describes these good times.  He describes the people as being secure and complacent.  They ate the finest food, lounged around on fancy furniture, listened to good music, and drank wine by the bowlful.

     But all was not well, according to Amos.  Israel was failing miserably as a nation in the most important way.  They were rich in every way, but they were poor in their spiritual life.  They had abandoned their God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt unto the good land that they were enjoying.  Not only had they forgotten the true God, but they had been worshiping all the false gods of the neighboring nations.  They even built altars to the detestable god Moloch, to whom they sacrificed infants by throwing them into fire.  Therefore, Amos’s message is not a happy or a hopeful one.  “Woe unto you,” he said, “for your lounging around and your feasting will come to an end.”

     King Jeroboam was a wicked king.  In II Kings 14:24 we learn that he “did evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not turn away from the sins of his father.”  Yet, God blessed the reign of this wicked king.  Verses 26 and 27 say that God saw how the people had been suffering and God saved them through this Jeroboam.  This wicked king, therefore, was blessed by God with a long and prosperous reign.

     This becomes all the more striking when, in the very next chapter of II Kings, we read about another king.  The nation had been divided by civil war many years before this, and while Jeroboam was king in the northern kingdom of Israel, a man named Azariah was the King of the south.  Unlike King Jeroboam, King Azariah was a good and godly man.  Chapter 15:3 says, “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father had done.”  

     So was this Azariah blessed by God for his faithfulness?  It does not appear that he was.  Verse five:  “The Lord afflicted the king with leprosy until the day he died, and he lived in a separate house.”  There is no further explanation given; just that this good king was afflicted by God with this most dreadful disease.  So, Jeroboam, the wicked king, has one of the most prosperous reigns in Israel’s history, and Azariah, the good king, lived out his days in illness and isolation.

     What’s going on here?

     Well, first of all, we learn from this that the Bible is a realistic book.  If everybody in the Bible who did the right thing had all the best things happen to them, and everyone who was wicked had nothing but trouble, we would have to say, “Well, that’s not how life is.  This is not a realistic book at all.”  But the Bible tells it like it is.  We can all think of people like Jeroboam who are very bad, but get all the breaks; or, like Azariah, are good people, but seem to have nothing but trouble in this world.  What we read in the Bible is indeed true to life.

     But more needs to be said.  The Bible not only describes life as it really is, but it is also, always, telling us that there is more to life than what we see.  The Bible is always broadening our perspective, always reminding us not to think only of ourselves and only of today, but to remember God and to remember eternity.  The Bible tells each of us to remember that there is another day coming.  For some people that will come as good news, and for others, that will be bad news.  

     The nation under Jeroboam were enjoying good times; but the blessings God had bestowed upon them did not inspire them to return to God with gratitude or faith.  They continued with their wickedness and injustice.  Therefore, God sent Amos to condemn them for enjoying their luxury at the expense of the poor in the land, as they were enslaving some of their own people.  God told Amos to tell them that the good times would not last.  Predicting their defeat by their enemies in battle and their being sent away into a faraway land, Amos said that when the bad times do come, “You will be the first to go into exile, and your feasting and lounging around will end.”  King Jeroboam was riding high for now, but, said Amos, his wickedness would, in the end, bring him down into ruin. 

     Azariah, on the other hand, being the good and faithful king that he was, would certainly have been familiar with the words of another good and faithful king, his ancestor king David.  David was the author of these wonderful words of hope in the 23rd Psalm:  “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you, Lord, are with me… Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  FOREVER.  When one has an eternal promise like that, one need not be discouraged by even a lifetime of leprosy.  There was another day coming, and so while Jeroboam had reason to fear the future, Azariah had every reason to be hopeful.  (continued…)

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II Kings 14:27  —  …The Lord… saved them by the hand of Jeroboam son of Jehoash.

Amos 6:6-7  —  You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph.  Therefore you will be among the first to go into exile; your feasting and lounging will end.

II Kings 15:3…5a  —  (Azariah) did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father Amaziah had done…  The Lord afflicted the king with leprosy until the day he died, and he lived in a separate house.

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Into your hands I commit my spirit;
    deliver me, Lord, my faithful God.

–Psalm 31:5

1138) Whom Shall I Fear?

Martin Luther King, 1964

Martin Luther King, 1964

By Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), in Strength to Love 

     The first twenty-four years of my life were years packed with fulfillment.  I had no basic problems or burdens.  Because of concerned and loving parents who provided for my every need, I sallied through high school, college, theological school, and graduate school without interruption.  It was not until I became a part of the leadership of the Montgomery bus protest that I was actually confronted with the trials of life.  Almost immediately after the protest had been undertaken, we began to receive threatening telephone calls and letters in our home.  Sporadic in the beginning, they increased day after day.  At first I took them in my stride, feeling that they were the work of a few hotheads who would not fight back.  But as the weeks passed, I realized that many of the threats were in earnest.  I felt myself faltering and growing in fear.

     After a particularly strenuous day, I settled in bed at a late hour.  My wife had already fallen asleep and I was about to doze off when the telephone rang.  An angry voice said, “Listen, nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you.  Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.”  I hung up, but I could not sleep.  It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once.  I had reached the saturation point.

     I got out of bed and began to walk the floor.  Finally I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee.  I was ready to give up.  I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward.  In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I determined to take my problem to God.  My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.  The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory.  “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right.  But now I am afraid.  The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter.  I am at the end of my powers.  I have nothing left.  I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

     At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced him.  It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth.  God will be at your side forever.”  Almost at once my fears began to pass from me.  My uncertainty disappeared.  I was ready to face anything.  The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.

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Psalm 118:5-7a  —  In my anguish I cried to the Lord, and he answered by setting me free.  The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid.  What can man do to me?  The Lord is with me; he is my helper.

Psalm 27:1-3  —  The Lord is my light and my salvation– whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life– of whom shall I be afraid?  When evil men advance against me to devour my flesh, when my enemies and my foes attack me, they will stumble and fall.  Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though, war break out against me, even then will I be confident.

Psalm 23:4 — Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 

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In all time of our tribulation; in all time of our prosperity; in the hour of death, and in the day of judgement, spare us, good Lord.  

—Book of Common Prayer,  The Litany

1137) The Trinity (d)

     Christians believe, as do Jews and Muslims, that there is one God.  But unlike Jews and Muslims, Christians believe that within that one God are three separate and distinct persons; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Not even the most brilliant theologians have understood this concept of a three-in-one God, but anyone who takes Jesus own words seriously is left with this difficult description of God.  If you feel the need to comprehend completely the nature of God, you are going to be in trouble on this.  But if you, like the disciples and early Christians, are sufficiently impressed by a man who rises from the dead, then you, like them, will be happy to believe in Jesus as Lord, and accept what he had to say about the nature of God– whether or not you can comprehend it.

     Jesus prayed to the Father as if the Father was someone else, but then he said, “I and the Father are one.”  When Jesus was dying he committed his spirit into the hands of his heavenly Father, even though he had said, “I and the Father are one.”  Jesus said, “Believe in me and you too shall live,” and he rose from the dead.  If we think mathematically, we are puzzled.  We think we will have to decide which it is, one God or two?  The resurrection of Jesus gave the highest authority to everything he said, and the disciples believed in what he said about God, whether or not the math worked for them.

     Who led them into this belief?  In John 16:13 Jesus said, “When the Spirit of Truth comes, He will guide you into all truth.”  It was, therefore, God the Holy Spirit who led them into that truth, that’s who.  The disciples, good Jews that they were, must have said to each other, “Who?  What’s this, another God?  How is this going to work?”

     But again, the authority of the risen Jesus forced them to deal with it.  Finally, after a couple centuries, the church said, “We give up on trying to figure this out. We are just going to go by what our Lord told us, and so “We believe in God the Father… and, we believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord… and, we believe in the Holy Spirit.”  One God and three persons within that one God.

     Any questions?  Yes, of course there are questions.  But the Bible says that we are saved by believing in Jesus; we are not saved by fully comprehending the nature of God.  So if you believe in Jesus, and you are not overly bothered by the fact that the nature of God is beyond your limited understanding, you will be all right.

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John 1:1-4…14  —  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind…  The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 8:23-25a  —  (Jesus said), “You are from below; I am from above.  You are of this world; I am not of this world.  I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins.”  “Who are you?” they asked.

John 18:36  —  Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.  If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders.  But now my kingdom is from another place.”

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1136) The Trinity (c)

     John begins his account of the life of Jesus with the same words that begin the very first book of the Bible.  The books of Genesis and John both start with the phrase “In the beginning.”  “In the beginning,” says Genesis 1:1, “God created the heavens and the earth.”  “In the beginning,” says John 1:1, “was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”  The Word was Jesus.  The next two verses go on to say, “He was with God in the beginning and through him all things were made.”

     Of the four Gospel writers, John is the one who delves deepest into abstract theology and philosophy.  John was writing a half century after Jesus rose from the dead, and the church was by that time firmly established in many places in the Roman empire.  Also by that time it had begun to face some sophisticated criticism from unbelievers, and also some distortions of the message from within the church by misguided believers.  John wrote not only to retell the story of Jesus, but to respond to some of these new challenges.

     He begins his account by symbolically referring to Jesus as ‘the Word.’  Jesus had taught the disciples that he and the heavenly Father were one and the same.  Jesus also taught the disciples that he was not ‘just born’ in Bethlehem, but that he had existed from the very beginning of time with God; and was, in fact, God.  The birth of the little baby Jesus in Bethlehem was the result of God’s decision to visit his Creation.  Not only that but there would be still another visitor, not in the flesh, but in spirit.  In John 14:26 Jesus said, “The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things.”  This gets us into mysteries beyond our understanding.  But the New Testament accounts leave us with a description of God that we call the doctrine of the Trinity; one God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The words are familiar, but not even the most brilliant theologians have fully comprehended it.

     Yet, when you think about it, the complexity of this mysterious doctrine of the Trinity adds to the credibility of the Christian claims.  John and all the disciples were going out proclaiming the Gospel of the salvation to be found in Christ Jesus, whom they had seen risen from the dead.  That message is incredible enough.  So incredible, that many have argued that this Jesus did not rise from the dead, but that the disciples were inventing a new religion.  But if that was the case, they certainly would not have invented a complication like the doctrine of the Trinity to go with it.  This doctrine of the Trinity made their job, and the job of every Christian preacher and teacher since then, much more difficult.  This is not the sort of complication anyone would invent, and especially not if they were trying to make their case more convincing.

     Rather, this complex picture of God is what the disciples were left with after the amazing visit of God Himself to the earth in the person of Jesus.  And why should it surprise us that the exact nature of God is beyond our understanding?  How could we, who are so little, ever expect to fully understand God, who is so big and magnificent and wonderful?

     John was not trying to invent something new.  He was simply presenting the truth of God as it was made visible to him in Jesus and taught by Jesus.  He saw Jesus work miracle after miracle, he heard Jesus say that he was God, and then he saw Jesus killed, and then alive again, risen from the dead.  John’s Gospel is his attempt to tell the story as he saw it, explaining it the best he can within the limitations of human language and understanding.

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C. S. Lewis on the Difficulties of Christianity:

“There is no good complaining that these statements are difficult.  Christianity claims to be telling us about another world, about something behind the world we can touch and hear and see.  You may think the claim false; but if it were true, what it tells us would be bound to be difficult– at least as difficult as modern Physics.”

“If Christianity was something we were making up, of course we could make it easier.  But it is not.  We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions.  How could we?  We are dealing with Fact.  Of course anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about.”

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“We are talking about God.  Why do you wonder that you do not understand?  If you do understand, then it is not God.”

–Augustine

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Not being able to fully understand God is frustrating but it is ridiculous for us to think we have the right to limit God to something we are capable of comprehending. What a stunted, insignificant god that would be!  If my mind is the size of a soda can and God is the size of all the oceans, it would be stupid for me to say He is (or, should be limited to) only the small amount of water I can scoop into my little can.

–Francis Chan

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John 12:16  —  At first his disciples did not understand all this.  Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.

John 14:26  —  (Jesus said), “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”

John 10:37-38  —  (Jesus said), “Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father.  But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.”

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Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;

Praise him, all creatures here below;

Praise him above, ye heavenly host;

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.  Amen.

–The Common Doxology, 1674, Thomas Ken

1135) The Trinity (b)

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     (…continued)  #2) GOD THE SON, JESUS OUR SAVIOR.  Eventually, all that God has given you will be taken away.  But that is not the end of the story.  In the second article of the Creed, we say we believe in God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Jesus died and rose again from the dead, promising that by believing in Him, we too may rise from the dead.  John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, so that whoever believes in Him should not perish (that is to say, should not lose everything), but have everlasting life.”

     When we look to God, we look at Jesus, through whom we have been reconciled to God, says the Bible, through whom we now have access to God’s grace; Jesus, who at just the right time, says the Bible, died for the forgiveness of our sins.  We experience Jesus as ‘the face’ of God for us.

     When I pray, I do not pray to an abstract philosophical concept of a Supreme Being or Force.  When I pray, I am able to visualize in my mind a person; in fact, I see a young man with a beard and a kind face, because that is how Jesus has been painted.  We don’t know what Jesus looked like, but we are able to pray to a person, a person who is also God, but someone who has walked on this same earth, and breathed this same air, and felt the same kinds of pain and grief and frustration as we have.  Within the Biblical portrayal of the Trinity, there is this richness in the ways we experience God both as the all-powerful Almighty God the Father, and also, as Jesus Christ, our brother and our friend.  Therefore, we can sing both Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty and What a Friend We Have in Jesus.  When we feel in our hearts and minds that longing for God, either in gratitude for what has been given, or in desperation over what has been taken away, it is Jesus our Savior who has provided the way back to our Father, and through whom we approach the Triune God.

     #3)  GOD THE HOLY SPIRIT.  The third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is spoken of in the third article.  The name of that Holy Spirit is joined the to name of the God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ in Matthew 28:19 and II Corinthians 13:13.  In John 16:13 Jesus said that he would send the Spirit in order to guide the disciples into all truth– but we might sometimes wonder about that.  We know that it doesn’t always work that way.  Nowhere in the world is the church anywhere close to possessing ‘all truth.’  The Spirit does guide us into truth, and the opportunities are always there, but God has given us a will and a mind of our own.  And that will and mind, now corrupted by sin, may receive or reject what God aims to do in our heart.  We experience the Holy Spirit as the one who leads us into truth, bringing us to Jesus.  But our faith will always be incomplete.  The Spirit continues to work in our hearts and minds, and we must constantly do battle against sin, and the devil, and the world.

     How this all works is a mystery which even the Biblical writers struggle to explain.  But when we are talking about the will, we are in the realm of the Holy Spirit’s work.  “The Spirit will guide you into all truth,” said Jesus, and in the catechism, Martin Luther described the Spirit’s work in these words:  “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in my Lord Jesus Christ or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctifies and preserves me in the one true faith.”  Luther struggled to understand and explain this just like ever other theologian before and after him, but all of them put together are only scratching the surface of the truth of this mystery.  

     We do not need to fully comprehend the Trinity.  We only need to keep looking to Jesus, and the Holy Spirit will take care of the rest.  But we do need to keep looking to Jesus, and then, somehow, it is the Holy Spirit that moves within our hearts to respond in faith to all that our Creator and Savior has done for us.

     Father, Son, and Holy Spirit– the three persons of the Trinity and the three ways that we experience God’s presence in our lives.  Our belief in the Trinity is not a theological problem to be solved.  Rather, it is a description of three of the ways God blesses us with his presence.  It is for us to believe in and acknowledge that presence of God; being grateful to God our Creator, looking to Jesus for forgiveness and salvation, and being open to the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and minds.

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Genesis 1:26a  —  And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…

Matthew 28:19  —  (Jesus said), “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

II Corinthians 13:13  —  The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

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MORNING PRAYER of John Stott  (1921-2011):

Good morning, Heavenly Father; good morning, Lord Jesus; good morning, Holy Spirit.  Heavenly Father, I worship you, creator and sustainer of the universe.  Lord Jesus, I worship you, Savior and Lord of the world.  Holy Spirit, I worship you, sanctifier of the people of God.  Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. 

Heavenly Father, I pray that I may live this day in your presence and please you more and more.  Lord Jesus, I pray that this day I may take up my cross and follow you.  Holy Spirit, I pray that this day you will fill me with yourself and cause your fruit to ripen in my life:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, three persons in one God, have mercy upon me.  Amen.

1134) The Trinity (a)

     In the doctrine of the Trinity we are faced with how little we are able to understand the greatness and complexity of God.  We begin our worship service each Sunday morning “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” but the Bible tells us there is only one God.  “Hear, O Israel,” says Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”  One God.  That was simple enough for a few thousand years.  But then Jesus came saying things like “I and the Father are One,” and at the same time, praying to the Father, even as he died.  Then Jesus said he would send the Holy Spirit, so we have another distinct person.  Yet, insisted Jesus, still one God.  

     So have you got that?  Do you understand?  Of course you don’t understand.  This is God we are talking about here, and why would anyone think they would be able to understand God?  We have in the Bible convincing eyewitness accounts of people who experienced the presence of God.  That much we can know.  But to know ALL about God, and to understand God fully, is not something we can reasonably expect to manage.

     However, we have all experienced God in our lives, and we have experienced God in three primary ways.  And those three ways that we know and experience God, are also the three ways that we know about God in the Trinity.  There are three persons in the one God that we believe in, three articles to the Creed, and three parts to this meditation– each having to do with how we know and experience God.

     #1)  GOD THE CREATOR.  Some might want to argue the point about how all of us have experienced the presence of God.  You might say, “I have never ‘felt’ God’s presence.  I believe in God, but I am not like some people who talk about how they just feel that Jesus is with them every step of the way.”  Well, I’m with you on some of that.  I have heard some amazing stories of how people feel, and even hear and see God’s presence.  But I don’t have any stories like that to tell.  

      However, we can all point to the effects of God’s presence.  How?  Well, to begin with, you are here, aren’t you?  In the first article of the Apostle’s Creed, we say we believe in “God the Father Almighty, CREATOR of heaven and earth.”  In the catechism we learn that means we believe that “God has created me and all that exists, that he has given and still preserves to me my body and soul with all their powers, and that God provides me with food and clothing, home and family, daily work, and all I need…”  Everything we have and are is the result of God’s creation, whether or not we feel that or acknowledge it.  That is how we first experience God– as God the Father, Creator of everything.

     The Lord God Almighty has given you everything.  That is one way we experience God.  But the Lord also takes things away, doesn’t He?  Have you ever had anything taken away– a blessing, a hope, an opportunity, a job, your good health, a loved one?  Directly or indirectly, it is God who gives everything, and, in the end, it is God who takes everything away, or allows it to be taken away.  Job in the Old Testament, after losing everything said, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”  Getting things taken away is always painful, and we then ask “Why God?”  

     But we may as well also ask why God gives us anything in the first place, or, why did he even create us?  Out of love, you might say, and you would be right.  But what if that love is not returned, but is despised and rejected– what then?

     I have read about the huge and elaborate birthday parties some wealthy parents give for their children.  These parties can cost over $10,000.  As you might well imagine, these children, who for years have been on the receiving end of this kind of extravagance, often turn out to be quite spoiled.  An article I read described one father who was having a hard time with his soon to be 16-year old daughter.  He was pleading with her to accept his offer of either a brand new car for her birthday, or, a $15,000 birthday bash with all her friends.  But this spoiled daughter was in no mood to negotiate, and was defiantly insisting on getting both.  The father said, “Please won’t you take one or the other; that is all I can afford right now, and haven’t I always given you everything?”  His daughter replied, “Yes, daddy, you have always given me everything, and so what makes you think you should stop now?”  Yikes!  Aren’t you already feeling sorry for the poor guy who is going to marry that little princess?  The point is, when we are allowed to always receive and never asked to give, we do not become grateful and content.  Rather, we just want more.  We can become ruined and lost souls, without character or virtue or discipline or love or gratitude.

     But now imagine another daughter, a pre-schooler, also in a foul mood.  The mother says, “Here sweetie, do you want this?”  But the toy being offered is taken by the girl and thrown on the floor, with loud and defiant crying.  “How about this?” says the mother offering a book, but that is also taken and thrown on the floor, with more tears.  Then the mother, picks up the toy and the book and threatens to take them away.  Then comes louder cries and stomping of the feet.  “Okay,” says the mother, “one more chance,” returning the book and the toy, only to see both thrown on the floor once again.  Now finally, the mother has had it.  She picks up the book and the toy, takes them away, and goes about her business, ignoring the even louder cries.  The little girl’s fit goes on and on, but the mother pays no attention.  Finally, the little girl sees that she is getting nowhere, and goes up to her mom quietly and asks for a hug.  The little girl is quiet now and wants her mother’s love.  Now, she is ready to obey her.  Do you see what happened?  Only by getting something taken away was the little girl’s attitude changed.

     “The Lord giveth and the the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”  How can we know what is best for us?  That little girl did not know what was best.  She didn’t even know what she wanted.  The Bible says we are all such foolish and sinful little children before God.  God not only sees much more than we do, but also has all eternity to make things right, even if we think things are not fair or right at the present moment.

     Let us trust God in what he gives and in what he takes away.  

     This is the first way we know and experience God– as Creator and Giver and Judge, and One who will, in time, because of our sin, take away all that He has given.  (continued…)

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Deuteronomy 6:4  —  Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.

John 10:29  —  (Jesus said), “I and the Father are one.”

John 16:13a  —  (Jesus said), “When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

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O Father, my hope; O Son, my refuge; O Holy Spirit, my protection.  Holy Trinity, glory to Thee.

—Eastern Orthodox Church Liturgy

1133) The Fruit of the Spirit

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     The Bible teaches us how to live not only by giving commandments, but also by the listing of important moral virtues.  In Galatians 5:22 Paul wrote:

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

If only everyone had such qualities!  Life would be so much better.  But as much as we might desire those virtues, no one can claim to have mastered them.  Paul himself knew what a struggle it was to do the right thing all the time, as he wrote in Romans 7:15:

I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate, I do.

Paul was a good man; but as his own letters show, he had problems with patience and gentleness and love, to just name a few from the list.  Paul had a short fuse, could be very harsh, and he lamented his failure to be loving with those with whom he disagreed.

     But Paul had no desire to give up and say, “Oh well, I am forgiven, I’ll do what I want.”  That is what some were saying in response to his preaching, so in Romans six he corrects this misunderstanding.  After describing the wonderful gift of God’s freely given grace, he said:

What shall we say then; shall we go on sinning so that we can get more grace?  Absolutely not…  We must not let sin be our master.  (from verses 1, 2, 14)

In other places Paul described the Christian life as a battle against Satan, against temptation, and against our own sinful will.  He calls us to a lifelong struggle to do the right thing in grateful obedience to the God who saves us and calls us to himself.

     Max Lucado wrote a little meditation on Galatians 5:22.  He began by describing his early morning prayer time:

It’s early.  It’s quiet.  My coffee is hot.  The sky is still black.  The world is still asleep.  It won’t be long and this peace and quiet will be exchanged for the noise of the day.  The calm of this solitude will be replaced by the phone ringing, by places to go, by people to meet.  The refuge of this quiet, early morning prayer time will be invaded by duties and dilemmas and decisions.  For the next twelve hours, I will be exposed to the day’s demands.  But for a few moments, I have an opportunity to receive God’s Word, and so I read: “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  Well, now I can make a choice, a choice to hear and obey that word, or to ignore it.  Because of God’s love for me, I choose to do my best to hear his word and obey it, and I pray for his help and guidance.  And so I choose…

     Lucado then goes on to list how he chooses to practice each of those nine virtues.  I will go through that list, using some of his words and some of my words.

     First, choose LOVE.  The Bible says, ‘Since God has loved us, we also ought to love one another.’  If God loves that person I cannot get along with, and commands me to love him or her also, who am I to despise them?  I may, this day, have to disagree with and oppose other people, but I will not hate them.  I will approach all my relationships with as much good will as possible.  I choose to try and understand people, see the best in them, and remember that they too are children of my heavenly Father.

     Choose JOY.  I choose to be joyful by being thankful.  One can choose to be filled with resentment and bitterness at all that one does not have, or, one can choose to be grateful for all which God has given.  Gratitude fills one with Joy, so I will choose to be grateful.  This is expressed in a little saying I once saw: Get Rich Quick: Count Your Blessings.  Count the blessings you already have, and you will see how rich you already are.  This is choosing to be joyful.

     Choose PEACE.  Paul perhaps had in mind what Jesus said:  “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  The nations of the world might be at war, and there is not much I can do about that; but I can choose to make peace with those around me.  I will try to see the best in people, I will be quick to forgive, and I will not use my conversation to sow the seeds of anger and distrust among others.

     Choose PATIENCE.  A little patience by even one person in a relationship will make for a more peaceful relationship.  Patience gives one time to see and understand the other person’s point of view.  Patience will help one think of the best way to respond, as in Proverbs 15:1:  “A gentle answer turns away wrath.”

     Choose KINDNESS.  “Be kind, be kind;” said the old Scottish preacher, “for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”  Nothing endears you more to other people than simple kindness.  An old friend died a while back, and what I remember about him most was his kindness.  He always had a kind word for everyone, and if he ever spoke of others, it was in kindness; and he was loved by all.

     Choose GOODNESS.  I will go without something before I take it by dishonest gain.  I will be content to be overlooked before I will boast.  I will try to see my own fault before I accuse.  I will be truthful.  I will always choose goodness.

     Choose FAITHFULNESS.  I will keep my faith in God first in my life above all other things, and I will make all my choices and decisions in obedience to God.  I will be faithful to other people.  I will keep my promises.  People will not have to question my word or wonder about my commitments.

     Choose GENTLENESS.  I will look at Jesus as my model.  Jesus had the most important gift of all to give to the world, but would not force it on anyone.  He came in gentleness to offer, to persuade, and to encourage; but not to manipulate, abuse, or force his way or his will.  If Jesus can so respect the freedom and dignity of others, I can choose such gentleness.

     Choose SELF-CONTROL.  There is a battle within us to choose to do what is right and not what is wrong.  Sometimes it is difficult to know what is the right thing to do, but usually not.  Usually we know what we ought to do and the battle is to just do it.  The self, our own sinful self, needs to be controlled if we are to live lives obedient to God.  Paul concludes his list with Self-control, the virtue that is the key to living by all the other virtues.

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    Lord, give me the help and guidance I need to practice these virtues in all my actions in today.  For those ways I succeed in doing these things, I will give you thanks.  For those many times I fail, I will seek your grace.  When the day is done, I will rest in your peace, and tomorrow morning I will recommit myself to the same choices.

–Max Lucado (adapted)

1132) Church Growth in Nepal

By Eric Metaxas, May 12, 2016 at: http://www.breakpoint.org 

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Christians in the United States and Europe are often discouraged by what they see as a church in decline, with a decreasing number of professing Christians and a shrinking influence in Western culture.  But in many parts in the world the church is seeing astounding growth, as we see in this article from Breakpoint.

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     If you were asked to name the places where Christianity is growing the fastest, you might respond “Africa” and/or “China.”

     And you’d be correct.  The explosion of Christianity south of the Sahara is so great that a colleague of mine is surprised whenever he meets a West African immigrant who’s not a believer.  Christianity in China is growing so rapidly that, by one scholar’s estimate, there will be more Christians in China than in any other country by 2035.

    But there are other, less-known places where the Good News is being heard and received.

     One of these is Nepal.  When Americans think of Nepal— if they ever do— what comes to mind is an exotic blend of the Himalayas, “wind-swept prayer flags,” and temples, lots and lots of Hindu temples, with a few Buddhist stupas thrown in for good measure.

     Until recently, that would have accurately summed up Nepal’s religious scene.  In 1951, Nepal’s census showed no— that would be zero— Christians in the country.  Ten years later, it showed just 458.

     Forty years later, the number had risen to 102,000 and ten years later, in 2011, it had risen to 375,000.  What’s more, according to a report by the International Institute for Religious Freedom, Nepalese Christian leaders believe that this last figure underestimates the number of Christians by a factor of six:  instead of 375,000 Christians there are closer to 2.3 million.

     That would put the percentage of Christians at nearly 10 percent and rising, as opposed to the government’s claimed 1.5 percent.  While Nepal is officially a secular country, it has an overwhelming Hindu majority that, historically, has tolerated a small Buddhist minority that poses no threat to the country’s Hindu identity.

     By way of protecting this Hindu identity, Nepal’s interim constitution states that “no person shall be entitled to convert another person from one religion to another and shall not take actions or behave in a way that would create disturbance in another’s religion.”

     This of course effectively outlaws evangelism.  Yet Nepalese are converting to Christianity in large numbers.

     Part of the reason is that the law is difficult to enforce.  A larger part is that Christians have stepped into areas of need that neither the government nor the Hindu majority can or even will serve.

     As is the case in India, many of the converts to Christianity come from the lower castes.  Even though, as in India, discrimination on the basis of caste is illegal, centuries, if not millennia, of custom and practice aren’t reversed by the action of a parliament sitting in the capital.

     What makes a difference in the lives of these people is other people whose own faith not only rejects the idea of caste but also insists that in ministering to the “least of these,” they are ministering to God himself.

     In yet another parallel to India, Nepalese Hindu activists aren’t pleased by the results.  So much so that they may be willing to manipulate census figures.

     What’s happening in Nepal is good news, indeed.  It’s also a reminder that Islam does not have a monopoly restricting religious freedom, especially when it comes to Christians.  Recently, a Lutheran pastor was found murdered in the Indian state of Jharkhand.  His death is believed to be a part of a larger pattern of anti-Christian violence by Hindu nationalists.

     So, in addition to thanking God for the spread of the good news to unlikely places, please keep these vulnerable brethren of ours in prayer.

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Psalm 22:27-28  —  All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lordand all the families of the nations will bow down before him, for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations.

Isaiah 45:22  —  Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.

Matthew 28:18-20  —  Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

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O God of all the nations of the earth, remember the multitudes who, though created in thine image, they have not known thee, nor the dying of thy Son their Savior Jesus Christ; and grant that by the prayers and labors of thy holy church they may be delivered from all superstition and unbelief and brought to worship thee; through him who thou hast sent to be the resurrection and the life to all men, thy Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Francis Xavier, Missionary to India, Japan, and Borneo (1506-1552)

1131) “These Words are Your Life” (b)

     (…continued)  The Jews did as they were told to do way back in the days right after their time of slavery in Egypt.  At that time, they did not yet even have a land.  There was no land, no temple, no king, not anything yet.  All they had was the miracle of freedom won for them by God, and the promise of the land to which Moses was leading them.

      At the end of his life, Moses taught the Hebrews how to live as God’s people, and then told them to remember his words.  His instructions are recorded for us in the book of Deuteronomy.  Here are some words from chapter eleven:

Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Write them on the door-frames of your houses and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land that the Lord swore to give your forefathers, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.

     Remember these words, said Moses, so that ‘your days in the land may be long.’   They were a couple interruptions, but the Jews are now still on the land Moses brought them to 33 centuries ago.  During those interruptions, which they always interpreted as punishments for leaving God, they survived as a people by remembering the book.

     Well, so what?  We aren’t Jews, so what does any of this have to do with us?

     We believe in Jesus, and Jesus was a Jew, and he said he was the fulfillment of everything the Jews hoped for and believed in.  Not only that, but Jesus said he was here to be the fulfillment of all the hopes of all people of all nations and times, just as God had intended way back in the beginning of the Old Testament.  We see our New Testament as simply the continuation of the story begun in the Old Testament.  So that old book is our book too, and the stories in it are our stories too, and though we are not the physical descendants of those people, Paul himself says in the New Testament that by faith we are their spiritual descendants.  The command of Moses to fix these words in your hearts and minds are, therefore, commands to us also.  We also learn what it means to have faith by hearing the stories of the Old Testament people of faith. 

     We learn from the story of Solomon that even if you are given every blessing and have every opportunity handed to you on a silver platter, you can still mess everything up if you are not faithful.  From the story of David we learn the even the best of God’s faithful people make mistakes, but can then be forgiven and life can go on.  From the story of Job we learn that even a very good person can suffer terrible tragedy and get very angry at God, but faith can survive.  From the story of Gideon we learn that even a ‘nobody’ can, with God’s help, do great things.  From the Psalmist we learn that even in the deepest despair God is with us and will bring us through.  From Samson we learn that even a guy who made all the wrong moves could still, by faith, come through at the end, be blessed by God, and finish well.  From the liar and cheater Jacob, we learn that it really is true that ‘what goes around comes around,’ but then, one might still receive an unexpected and undeserved blessing.  From Abraham we learn that faith can live and thrive even without understanding.  Abraham was in the dark about most things, most of the time, but he trusted God, and acted on what he did know, and he was blessed.  From Habakkuk who prayed over and over again, ‘How long, oh Lord,’, we learn that we might have to wait a very long time for God to answer our prayers, but we can trust that in the end He will come through for us with what is best.  

     Some of these are lessons that can be learned from every day life, but in the Bible, all lessons are lifted up into the higher level of our eternal destiny with God.  One can live their whole life by the lessons in these old stories.  So hold on to these words, said Moses, to the people way back then and to us.  “These are not just idle words,” he said in another place, “They are your life.”

     All of those Old Testament stories are, of course, just a prelude to that most important story of all, the story of Jesus.  That story provides the firm foundation Jesus was speaking of when he said, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice, is like a wise man who built his house on a rock.”

     Believe this story, Jesus tells us, and you shall know how to live, and you shall live, now and forever.

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Deuteronomy 32:46-48  —  (Moses said to the people), “Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law.  They are not just idle words for you— they are your life.  By them you will live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.”

Romans 4:16  —  Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring— not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham.  He is the father of us all.

Matthew 7:24-25  —  (Jesus said), “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.”

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Heavenly Father, we pray that you so nurture us in your Word that our lives may please you, and that other people may be attracted to you by our godliness.  May your commands and promises be written into our hearts, and constantly kept in our minds.  May your Word be for us far more precious than our own life and whatever else we cherish on earth.  Help us to live and act accordingly.  Amen.

–Martin Luther