598) A Life of Service and Thanksgiving

by Eric Metaxas, November 27, 2014 blog, at:  www.breakpoint.org 

     Between 2005 and 2012, Jason Brown lived what many people would consider to be the American dream.  He was a starting NFL offensive lineman, first with the Baltimore Ravens and then with the St. Louis Rams.

     In 2009, he signed a five-year deal with the Rams worth $37.5 million.

     Then he did what many would regard as unthinkable:  He walked away from another potentially big contract to become… a farmer.  But not just any kind of farmer.  Brown became the kind of farmer who embodies what it means to be thankful.

     After the Rams released him in 2012, other NFL teams contacted Brown about coming to play for them.  He was only 29 years old and could have easily played another two or three years and made millions more.

     Instead, he told his agent that he was through with football and was ready to pursue his real dream:  becoming a farmer.  His agent said he was “making the biggest mistake of his life.”  Brown’s reply was “No, I’m not.”

     Making the story even more difficult to fathom was that Brown had not grown up on a farm.  His father had been a landscaper who took his son with him on jobs.  Brown planned on learning how to farm from– are you ready for this?— YouTube and the internet, plus whatever advice other farmers might be willing to give.

     If this story sounds a bit quixotic (a colleague of mine says that the 1960s sitcom Green Acres came to mind when reading about Brown), there was nothing starry-eyed or impractical about Brown’s motivations.  As he told the Raleigh News-Observer, “I want to help people.”

     When he looks out at his 1,000-acre farm, he sees “youngsters learning how to fish” in its ponds, and fields “dedicated to providing fresh produce to shelters and food pantries.”

     As any farmer can tell you, things don’t always go according to plan.  Thus, “Many of the squash and cucumbers he had planned to give away were not harvested this summer because of heavy rains.”  Similarly, “The apple, plum and pear trees need time to mature.”

     But earlier this month, he harvested his first crop:  five acres of sweet potatoes, fifty tons, which he promptly gave away.  As Rebecca Page of the Society of St. Andrew, told a North Carolina television station, “”It’s unusual for a grower to grow a crop just to give it all away.”

   You’ve probably guessed what motivates Jason Brown.  If you haven’t, here’s a clue:  his farm is named “First Fruits.”  Brown’s former Rams teammate, All-Pro wide receiver Tory Holt, recalls Brown as “always being very strong in his faith.”  According to Holt, Brown “was very encouraging to everyone.”

     After his playing days were over, Brown decided that “it was time to start giving back… God has blessed us with this place, “ he said, “and I am to be a steward, to use all these good things to help other people.”

     To those who wonder why he walked away from football, Brown replies that “when I think about a life of greatness, I think about a life of service.”  As the News and Observer reports, “He is thankful for what he has been given and thankful for what he hopes to do.”

     And we are thankful for his example, which should serve as an encouragement to us all.

en1114hartman.jpg

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To read more and hear Jason Brown talk about his life and his farm go to:

http://www.newsobserver.com/2014/11/06/4300809_former-nfl-center-jason-brown.html?rh=1

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Proverbs 3:9  —  Honor the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops.

1 Samuel 12:24  —  But be sure to fear the Lord and serve him faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things he has done for you.

Luke 3:10-11  —  “What should we do?” the crowd asked.  John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

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Lord Jesus, who came not to be served by to serve, help us live useful lives.

Help us always to encourage, and never to discourage others; to be more ready to praise than to criticize; to sympathize rather than condemn.

Help us always to help, and never to hinder others.  Help us to make the work of others easier and not harder.  Help us to not find fault with the efforts of others unless it is our job to do so, or unless we are prepared to do the thing better ourselves.  Make us more ready to co-operate than object, and more ready to say yes than to say no when our help is needed.

Help us always to be a good example, and never a bad example.  Help us always to make it easier for others to do the right thing, and never make it easier for them to go wrong.  Help us always to take our stand beside anyone who is standing for the right.

Grant that our lives may be lights shining for you in this dark world.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

A Barclay Prayer Book, by William Barclay (1907-1978), page 244-245, (adapted).

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597) A Word of Warning (part two)

     The Parable of the Wicked Tenants; Matthew 21:33-43

     (…continued)  Knowing what we know about renting and owning, what can we say about that?  First of all we might want to ask, “What on earth could they have be thinking?”  Were those tenants insane?  Is that how it works: if you kill the owner, you get the land?  Who ever heard of that?  That maybe worked in the days of the caveman, or in the darkest depths of the uncivilized jungle, or in the Wild West days of the American frontier.  But this was the Roman empire.  It was a long time ago, yes, but Rome had a highly efficient, well organized, and strong government and legal system.  They had laws about land ownership and deeds to that land, they had judges and courts, and they had soldiers to enforce the laws.  What made those tenants ever think they could kill the landowner’s son and then get to keep the land?  The response of the people in verse 41 indicates that the landowner would be quite able to put a stop to such nonsense.  They said he would ‘put an end to those wretches,’ implying he had the legal means to do so.

     So what could they have been thinking?  Well, there is only one way to make any sense of it, and that is if they assumed that the landowner was too far away to make an issue of it all just yet.  Back in verse 33 it said that the landowner rented the place out in the first place because he was going away on a journey.  It doesn’t say where he was going or how long he would be gone, but the renters must have thought he was far enough away and would be gone long enough to make such a desperate gamble worth the attempt.  After all, the servants were all either dead or in the hospital, the son was dead, and well, maybe the old man wouldn’t be up to making the trip back just yet.  So they thought the land would be theirs, at least until someone showed up to make an issue out of it; and who knows, that might not be for a while.  Yes, the day of reckoning; the day of soldiers, eviction, arrest, perhaps even execution; would someday come.  But the landowner was so far away, and the time of reckoning so far off, that well, maybe they could live out a good number of days, perhaps even years, before the judgment would come.  Isn’t that just the way many people treat their relationship with God, thinking him too far off to have to worry about just yet?

     The Bible’s description of God’s relationship with each of us goes back and forth between grace and judgment. Both are in this parable.  This is certainly a very gracious and patient landowner, isn’t it?  These tenants are very bad men.  The landowner could have called in the authorities right after the first servants were beaten.  But he tries again, and then even a third time; and this time, sending, risking, his own son, for these thieves and murderers.  The first part of the parable is indeed filled with undeserved mercy and grace.  There is a word of comfort and hope there for everyone, no matter how great a sinner.  God is far more patient with us than we would ever be with each other.  “Can even a serial killer and cannibal like Jeffery Dahmer be forgiven and saved?,“ asked the confirmation student. “Yes,“ said the pastor, “If he repents of his sin and believes in Jesus, God’s own Son who died for us.”  And there were reports that Dahmer did repent and come to Jesus in prison, just before he himself was murdered.  Grace even Jeffrey Dahmer, even these wicked tenants?  Yes, says the parable.  So there is indeed hope for everyone, isn’t there?  This is a wonderful parable of God’s gracious longsuffering and patience.

     But we must not ignore the next part.  When the son himself is rejected, the patience ends and judgment comes.  Make no mistake about it, here, and from the first pages to the last pages, the Bible warns us that the judgment will come.  Without repentance, the only hope that the wicked tenants had was that the landowner was far away, and would not return for a very long time, and that’s not much of a hope.

     The Bible tells us that God is very close to us.  God is in our heart.  God is in his Word.  The very hairs of your head are numbered, said Jesus.  God is very close to you.  And that is good news; that is, if you want God close to you.

     But if you are like the wicked tenants, and you want to live without God in your life, and want to reject his word and promise for you; then, it will not be very good news to hear that God is close to you.  Then your only hope would be if God was far away, and would not bother with you, and you would never have to face God.  If one has this attitude toward God, then the parable comes as a harsh warning.  For just like the tenants owed the rent to the landowner, we owe God our very lives and obedience and faith– and the day of reckoning will come.

     This warning is not only for unbelievers.  As believers in Jesus Christ, we may take comfort in the first half of the parable.  We do want the Lord close to us and gracious to us.  That is good news and the source of our hope.  But we are not perfect yet, and the sinner that remains in us may not want God watching too closely, all the time.  Do you really want God seeing everything you do and hearing everything you say?  He does see and hear all things, you know.  So the word of warning here is for us, too.  God is not far away, but is always very close.  In that Word is our comfort when we are troubled; but at the same time, that Word means to trouble us when we become too comfortable in our sin.  

     May God give us the grace and the faith and the obedience to live our lives in such a way that we find his presence comforting and not troubling.

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Hebrews 9:27-28  —  Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.

Acts 16:30-31a  —  He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”  They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…”

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

–The ancient ‘Jesus Prayer’

596) A Word of Warning (part one)

     (Jesus said), “Listen to another parable:  There was a landowner who planted a vineyard.  He put a wall around it, dug a wine-press in it and built a watchtower.  Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went on a journey.  When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.

     “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third.  Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way.  Last of all, he sent his son to them.  ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.

     “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir.  Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’  So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.

     “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

     “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”

     Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:  ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?  Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”

–Matthew 21:33-43

An old woodcut of this parable.

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     Jesus told this parable almost 2000 years ago.  Sometimes old Bible stories require much background information in order for modern day hearers to understand the setting; but that is not the case this time.  The situation described is a familiar one.  It has to do with the relationship between a landowner and some renters.  Most people have had some experience with this kind of relationship; either as a renter of a place to live or some land to farm, or as an owner of a house or land being rented out, or both.  We all know how this works; and we all know that one of the key ingredients in making such a relationship work is that the rent has to be paid.  If the rent is not paid, there will be trouble.  Perhaps there is a good reason for one or more missed payments, and things can be discussed and worked out.  But if not, there will first be gentle reminders, then firm deadlines, then penalties, and perhaps even evictions, lawyers, and time in court.

     That is all bad enough, but in this parable things get even worse.  The servants who were sent to the tenants to collect the rent are not given any excuses, nor is there any discussion at all.  They are beaten, and one is even beaten to death.  More servants are sent, and they are treated the same way.  Finally, the landowner sends his own son, quite sure that he will be treated with more respect.  But he too is killed.  “So now what?,” Jesus asks his hearers, “Now what will happen?”  The answer is obvious.  It is time to get rid of those renters, even bringing them to ‘a wretched end,’ says the crowd.  After all, enough is enough.

     “That is right,” said Jesus, and then he applied the parable to his listeners, saying, “Therefore, I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”  How’s that?  Taken from who; and given to who?  The answer is obvious, isn’t it?  It will be taken away from the Jews who are rejecting the ‘cornerstone,’ and given to the Christians, right?  But wait.  First of all, there weren’t any Christians yet.  Everybody Jesus was talking to that day was Jewish.  They were in the temple, it said earlier, and only Jews were allowed in the temple.  And, among the crowd were opponents and supporters of Jesus, and even his own disciples.  Almost all of the first believers in Jesus were Jews, so who did Jesus mean when he said ‘the kingdom of God will be taken from you?’

     We have to look at who Jesus was talking to, and to do that we have to go back to verse 23 where this debate began.  In that verse Jesus was being challenged by ‘the chief priests and elders of the people.’  Others were listening, but it was Jesus’ debate with these challengers that continued on into these verses.  Thus, it is far too simple to say that the kingdom was taken away from the Jews and given to the Christians.  That division came later in the story.  But for now, what is going on is a debate within the Jewish community about who Jesus is, and whether or not he was the long awaited Messiah.  Jesus was telling the leaders there that day that they were wrong.  Just like the leaders in the Old Testament were so often wrong in failing to recognize God’s true prophets, those leaders who were trying to trap Jesus were wrong in failing to recognize Jesus as God’s promised Messiah.  That was a problem back then, and not something we are debating anymore.  Christians have, by definition, made up their minds on who Jesus is, so there is no need to go on about that point.

     But there is something else in this parable that must considered. Keeping in mind what you know about owners and renters, look again at verse 38.  The renters have already beaten up two sets of servants, some of whom even died.  Now, the owner is sending his own son, thinking he will be respected.  “But when the tenants saw the son,” says verse 38, “they said to each other, ‘This is the heir.  Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’”  (continued…)

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O Lord Jesus, grant us always, whatever the world may say, to content ourselves with what you will say, and to care only for your approval, which will outweigh all worlds; for Jesus sake.  Amen.

–Charles George Gordon  (1833-1885), British colonial administrator

595) The Hammer of God (part three)

THE HAMMER COMES DOWN

     (…continued)  (The next morning the curate went) hurrying down to the study, where he found the old rector already at work.  He had imagined that it would be humiliating to tell about the sorry state of affairs among the believers, but the rector viewed it all matter-of-factly and was not greatly disturbed.  The carriage was ordered and a message was sent to the deacon.

     At nine o’clock the parsonage buggy carried them south on the highway…   When the rector’s carriage entered the village the most terrible oaths and curses could be heard from the direction of Daniel’s farmyard.  When they came nearer they saw that most of the Vánneberga farmers with the women folks and dogs were gathered outside of Daniel’s cattle barn, where a one-horse cart stood waiting.  The excitement was extreme, and blows could be exchanged at any moment…

     The rector swung his carriage into the yard.  The effect of his arrival was enormous.  Everyone was dumbfounded and stood there in complete silence.  Slowly and clumsily the rheumatic old man stepped from his carriage and stood in the mud, his head sunk deep in the collar of his fur coat.

     “God’s peace, dear Christians,” he said quietly.  “You ought to be ashamed.  What would you have me think of you?”

     He motioned to one of the men to come nearer.  “I am sure you are impartial, Edvin,” he said.  “Tell me what this all means.  Does it have something to do with the cow that was slaughtered here yesterday?”

     Yes, that was it.  After a few brief questions the rector had learned the salient facts.  Daniel was just now set to take half of the cow to the market.  The others had watched him load the cart.  The atmosphere had been irritating…   The rector nodded quietly…

     “I’ll not leave Vánneberga until this whole matter is settled.  Olsson,” he said, turning to the deacon, “will you go out and get Karl-August?”

     Slowly the old rector crossed over to the house, and stepped uninvited into Daniel’s parlor.  He seated himself on the sofa.  Fridfeldt stood at the door.

     “Let Karl-August come in now!” (said the rector), “And bring in a Bible.”

     Karl-August came in, together with Daniel’s old Bible in its brown leather binding.

     “Fridfeldt,” said the rector, “will you open the Bible to the next to the last chapter of The Revelation of St. John, the eighth verse I think it is.  Let me see it.  Now place the Bible on the table.  Karl-August, put your finger on the eighth verse.  Can you make it out?”

     “Yes, Pastor,” said Karl-August, wondering what it was all about.  “It is here at the bottom of the page.”

     “Good!  Answer me one question, Karl-August.  Did you know that the cow was sick when you sold her to Daniel?  No, do not answer yet.  Read first what is written where you are holding your finger.”

     Karl-August bent forward and stumbled through the verse:  “But the fearful and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolators, and all liars, shall have their lot in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone:  which is the second death.”

     “Good.  Now you see yourself in what company a liar lands–among the unbelieving, the idolators, and the whoremongers in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone.  Think now before you answer.  Did you know that the cow was sick?”

     Karl-August had shrunk together and looked even smaller than he was.  Against dark stubble, his skin looked pale and yellow.

     “Yes,” he whispered.

     “Praise God for that,” said the rector.  “Now there is hope for your soul.  Now we’ll both lend a hand in settling this matter.  What is the first thing for you to do?”

     “Ask God for forgiveness,” whispered Karl-August, without looking up.

     “Good, and then?”  It was as though the rector were conducting a catechization.

     “Give back the money.”

     “Splendid!  And what more?”

     The last requirement was more exacting.  The man writhed in agony.  He could not get it over his lips.

     “I suppose I’ll have to help you, then, though you ought to be able to say it yourself.  You must ask Daniel for forgiveness.  Are you willing?”

     “Ye–es.”  Karl-August was all atremble.  Fridfeldt felt an infinite sympathy with him.  This was indeed penitence that hurt.

     “God bless you, Karl-August.  Now the angels of God rejoice, for now a lost little brother has found his way home.  Go home now and get the money.  Let me next talk with Daniel.”

     The door opened, and was closed again.

     Daniel stood pale and tight-lipped before the rector.

     “You have been shamefully cheated, Daniel,” said the old pastor.  Then followed a pause.  “Now things are going to be set right again.”

     Daniel looked up in surprise.

     “Karl-August is going to return the money.  He has already gone to get it.”

     Daniel’s face brightened perceptibly.

     “And he is going to offer you his hand as a sign that he is asking you to forgive him.  Will you take his hand and the money and let everything be forgotten?”

     “Gladly,” said Daniel.  He could not have dreamt of anything like this.

     “Well, then, that matter is cleared up, and you have been vindicated.  And that is good and well.  But now there is another person by whom you have been shamelessly cheated, and this has to do with greater sums.  This has to be cleared up so that the wrong is righted.”

     Daniel had a perplexed look.

     “You see, Daniel, last Monday there was a great council in heaven, much like the one mentioned in the book of Job (the first two chapters).  The good Lord said, ‘The Adversary (the Devil) has had much to say of late against one of my servants down in Vanneberga, and I shall have to put him to test in order to discover if there is any truth in all this talk about his love of money and his greed for a thick wallet and many fat cows.’   And then God sent along a poor little crofter who begged to buy a bundle of hay.   And God said to His angels, ‘Now you will see that my servant is honest and faithful and will let the man get his bit of hay cheaply.’   But the Devil also stole away and reached Vánneberga and sat down by the window and whispered, ‘Don’t be a fool now, Daniel.  If there is no fodder to buy, the cow must be sold, and you can’t buy a cow as good as this one every day and at such a price.’  Then there was a tenseness in heaven, and all the angels wondered if Daniel at Vánneberga would allow himself to be deceived by his worst enemy.  Well, Daniel, how did it go?  Did you allow yourself to be deceived?”

     Daniel was silent.

     “Daniel, Daniel,” said the rector, “now the heavenly Father is looking at you again.  Last Monday He was pretty much discouraged about you.  Will He be so again?  It’s hard to speak sometimes, Daniel, but it can be much worse if one keeps silent.  Answer me now:  Did you let the devil deceive you last Monday?”

     “Yes, Pastor, I did.”

     “God be praised for that word, Daniel,” continued the old pastor.  “That is the most significant testimony to the power of God that you have given for a long time.  Well, Daniel how shall we now be able to right this matter that you let yourself be deceived when God put you to the test and asked you to help a poor neighbor?  Don’t you think it would be best if we helped him today instead?”

     “What have you in mind, Pastor?”

     “This is what I have in mind.  Karl-August is not a rich man.  He has suffered a great loss in being forced to slaughter his best cow.  How much do you think the meat is worth?  What would you have gotten for the half of beef you planned to sell today?”

     “Perhaps fifteen riks-dollars.”

     “And what is the price of a new cow?”

     “Between fifty-five and sixty-five.”

     “I suggest that you keep the half of the meat which I understand your wife is already salting down.  Pay Karl-August fifteen riks-dollars for that when he returns the purchase money.  If we reckon the cost of the other half at fifteen, he will still be short twenty or thirty dollars before he can buy another cow as good as this one.  Now, then, let us take up a collection.”

     He took out his billfold.  “I will give five dollars.  How much will you contribute, Daniel?”

     “Ten,” said the farmer, who had already put his hand inside his coat for his pocketbook.

     “What remains we can surely pick up in the village.”  With a nod toward Fridfeldt, he added, “Now you may call them in.”

     Fridfeldt called in, not only Karl-August, but also the deacon and the other men who were outside.  It took only a brief moment to conclude the matter.  The penitents did not have to say anything.  The rector spoke for them.  Handshakes were exchanged, the purchase money returned, and in a few minutes the collection was completed.  Karl-August burst into tears when he received the money.  The rector spoke briefly on the words, “Ye are the body of Christ, and members one of another.”  There was an atmosphere of quiet and solemnity, in sheer contrast to the yells and curses that had greeted them as they entered the village.

From The Hammer of God: A Novel About the Cure of Souls, by Bo Giertz, 1941, (from chapter two, ‘Springtime in March,’ pages 211f; translated by Clifford Nelson, copyright 1960, Augustana Book Concern).

 Bo Giertz  (1905-1998)

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1 Corinthians 12:25-27  —  There should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.  If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.  Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

2 Corinthians 13:11  —  Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice!  Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace.  And the God of love and peace will be with you.

Psalm 133:1  —  How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!

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PRAYER BASED ON MARTIN LUTHER’S SMALL CATECHISM EXPLANATION TO THE SEVENTH COMMANDMENT:

O God, you command us not to steal.  May we so fear and love you that we do not take our neighbor’s money or property or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his property and means of making a living; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

594) The Hammer of God (part two)

     

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CONFRONTATION AT THE MILL

     (…continued)  The mill was at the brook above the church village.  The noise of the big wheel could be heard from afar…  The nearer the three came to the mill, the more uncertain the pastor felt.  It would not be easy to charge a religious man with dishonesty without clear evidence.

     Inside the mill room a pale light glowed.  There sat Karl-August, his coat collar turned up, his legs stretched out, and his hands deep in his pockets.  Two other farmers slouched sleepily over the rough table.

      Erik Svensson stepped in alone and greeted.  “So, there you sit.  Will you come outside a while?”

      Karl-August got up and followed.   When he caught sight of Fridfeldt he shrank back.

      “Is it you, Pastor?  Are you out so late?”

      “Yes, Karl-August,” said Fridfeldt with an attempt at calmness and authority, “and on an important errand.”

     “One would think so, at this time of night,” Karl-August answered nonchalantly.

      “Yes, Karl-August, it is a matter that concerns God’s church.  It affects the good name and reputation of the faithful.  You know, of course, that the cow you sold Daniel yesterday died this morning?”

      “Yes, I have heard that they had to slaughter her.”

     “And you know, Karl-August, that she had drunk some poison.”

    Karl-August looked toward the side.  It was impossible in the dim light to make out the expression on his face.

     “What are you saying, Pastor?  Are they so careless with such things at Daniel’s place that the cattle can get at them?”

     “Karl-August,” said the pastor, helplessly, “you must not become angry, but this affair looks very bad.  All the worldly scoffers will surely link the sale of the cow on Monday and her sudden death this morning and will draw the conclusion that one brother in the congregation has deceived the other.  Such offense must not be allowed.”

      “That is surely nothing to take offense at, Pastor.  If in God’s providence it was Daniel rather than I who had to slaughter, then it only upholds the poor man’s right.  Besides, he got the cow so cheap that he’ll lose no more money on the slaughtering than he can well afford.”

     Fridfeldt hardly knew what to say or do.  “But my dear Karl-August, Daniel is going to sue you.  The matter will come to court.  There will be gossip and trouble without end.”

     A hint of sarcasm played on Karl-August’s lips.  “And that you believe, Pastor!  I must see it first.”

     Fridfeldt became more and more convinced that the man was guilty.  But he did not know what to do.  He looked toward the bridge.  There was the sound of hoof beats on the oak planks.  The white spot on a horse’s nose showed and in a moment a wagon stopped.  The men had stepped into the darkness under the overhanging roof.  The driver noticed the men at the wall and came closer for a look at them, as he greeted, “Good evening!”  It was Daniel.  It gave the pastor quite a turn when he recognized the voice.

     “So here you stand”, said Daniel.  “And the pastor, too, and Karl-August.  Well, I have really been waiting for you.  Strange how long it sometimes takes to grind two sacks.  Or maybe you didn’t want to come home until Daniel was asleep.  But now I have found you after all, and now the matter will have to be settled.  Will you give me back my money, or won’t you?”

     “But listen, good friends!”  It was the pastor who answered.  “As believing brethren, we must settle this matter peaceably.  I have just offered Karl-August an honorable solution.  Certainly no one will say that it was his intention to deceive.”

     “Yes, I claim that it was,” shouted Daniel.  “He has always been a sneak and a fox, and this thing has been premeditated fraud from beginning to end.  To come and make it appear that he needed help and to beg for mercy, and all the time wanting only to cheat his neighbor!  That is a thing so base that he ought to go to the penitentiary for it.”

     “Jonsson, Jonsson!” shouted the pastor.  “Do not throw stones!  Neither of you is without guilt in this affair.”

     “What are you saying, Pastor?  Have I any blame in the matter?  Have I not paid honestly for the cow?  Didn’t we settle on a price?”

     Now the pastor was ready to despair.  “But Jonsson, you know it is a sin to refuse to sell a little hay to your neighbor, saying that you couldn’t do without it yourself, and then nevertheless buy the cow and put it in your barn.  You know what is written, ‘Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.'”

     “Sin?  Is that sin?  One can see that our pastor is pretty young and doesn’t understand business matters,” said Daniel, quite undisturbed.

     That was too much for the pastor.  He took hold of the lapels of Daniel’s overcoat and shook him.

     “But man,” he said, “don’t you understand that this will end in hell?  Can’t you see, Jonsson, that your heart is just as unconverted as any drunkard’s or adulterer’s can be?  Don’t you realize that you are the equal of harlots and thieves when you shut up your heart against a brother in need?”

     This was the end of Daniel’s patience, too.  He tore himself loose from the pastor’s grip.

     “Did you say unconverted, Pastor?  That a minister should say that to me!  I’ll tell you one thing, Pastor, before you had outgrown your baby shoes, I was saved and born again, and I’ll not let a state church preacher call me a whoremonger, drunkard, and thief.  I could sue you for that, too.  But now let’s settle this business.  Karl-August, do I or don’t I get my money back?”

     Karl-August backed a bit to a position between the pastor and the deacon.  “You ought to be glad the cow died on you, since you didn’t have a wisp of hay to feed her.  The meat is yours and the money is mine.  You can have that settled by the court.”

     “Then there will be a lawsuit!” shouted Daniel.  The next moment he turned away and got into his cart.  The whip flashed, the ice crunched under the wheels, and he was swallowed up by the darkness.

     The three men stared at one another.  Karl-August had slowly slipped into the mill house.  It was evident that he felt that the matter had been discussed with finality.  There was nothing else to do than to go home.

     Erik Svensson was the first to break the silence.  “You must not be angry with Daniel, Pastor.  That is just his way.  He can’t help it and doesn’t mean anything bad with it.  It will soon blow over.”

   Fridfeldt said nothing.  It was not the abuse heaped upon him that disturbed him most, he had deserved that.  He had gotten excited, and he had been a poor curer of souls.  What really crushed him was the insight he had just received into the weaknesses of believers.  Was it really like this behind the pious words, the warm prayers, and the hearty singing?  In what could one then put his trust?  Where really was the border line between believers and the children of the world?…

     Now they had reached the village, where their roads separated.  “Pastor,” said the deacon, “it might be well for you to talk it over with the old rector and ask him to go there tomorrow?”

     “Would you come with us?”

     “If the rector wants me.  If so, let me know.  I’ll stay home tomorrow.”  They shook hands and separated…    (continued…)

From The Hammer of God: A Novel About the Cure of Souls, by Bo Giertz, 1941, (from chapter two, ‘Springtime in March,’ pages 211f; translated by Clifford Nelson, copyright 1960, Augustana Book Concern).

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Proverbs 19:22b  —  Better to be poor than a liar.

Psalm 120:2  —  Save me, Lordfrom lying lips and from deceitful tongues.

Proverbs 12:22  —  The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy.

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PRAYER BASED ON MARTIN LUTHER’S SMALL CATECHISM EXPLANATION TO THE EIGHT COMMANDMENT:

O God, you command us not to bear false witness against our neighbor.  May we so fear and love you that we do not betray, slander, or lie about our neighbor; but defend him, speak well of him, and explain his actions in the kindest way; through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

593) The Hammer of God (part one)

The next three meditations will be a story from the a 1941 book by Swedish pastor and bishop Bo Giertz:  The Hammer of God: A Novel About the Cure of Souls (from chapter two, ‘Springtime in March,’ pages 211f; translated by Clifford Nelson, copyright 1960, Augustana Book Concern).

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Pastor Fridfeldt is the new young minister (‘curate’ in the story) at the Vanneberga, Sweden parish.  His enthusiastic and powerful preaching has led to a revival in the parish, and Fridfeldt is pleased to see so many church members repent of their sins and begin to live a true Christian life.  In this story, he is shocked to see that not everyone is living the upright and holy life that he thought they were, and when he is called in to settle a dispute in the parish, he fails miserably.

The old senior pastor of the parish is not named in the story, but is simply referred to as the ‘old rector.’  Fridfeldt likes his senior pastor, but he’s not sure the old rector is adequately ‘filled with the spirit.’  Fridfeldt learns, however, that the old pastor knows how to apply God’s Word to his people.  

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PROBLEM IN THE PARISH

     Erik sought out the church warden before the meeting and told him the story of certain sorry events that had taken place.  They agreed to talk it over with the pastor…  When they had had their coffee, the church warden presented the matter in a straightforward manner.

     “We wanted to tell you, Pastor, that something very distressing has happened among the believers, something that will create offense if it becomes known.”

      Fridfeldt looked up with concern.   “What could that be?  Among the believers?”

     “It is Daniel and Karl August in Vánneberga who are at outs.”  The curate knew them both.  Daniel was the richest man in the village.  He owned a farm of about 160 acres, as he seemed to remember from the records.  He was a pillar among the believers and had been present also this evening.  Fridfeldt remembered the man’s broad shoulders as he had taken note of him at the prayer meeting.  Karl-August, on the other hand, was a poor man and lean of body; he was the owner of barely fifteen acres.  Tonight, contrary to his usual custom, he had been absent.

     The church warden continued.  “Karl-August came to Daniel’s place last Monday and asked to buy some hay.  He can only feed two cows, and because of the poor crops last summer has scarcely enough for them.  Daniel answered that he did not have a wisp of hay more than he needed himself.  Karl-August pleaded, ‘If I can’t buy hay, I’ll have to slaughter the cow.  She is a good milker,’ he said, ‘and I’ll get nothing for the meat if I have to butcher now at the end of the winter.’  But Daniel refused to help him.  Then Karl-August said, ‘If you won’t sell me any hay, you must at least buy the cow.  I simply can’t slaughter such a fine cow.’  So they bargained, and Daniel got the cow real cheap.  He paid in cash, and fetched her on Monday evening.  On Tuesday the cow took sick, and this morning they had to slaughter her.  The cow must certainly have drunk something poisonous, seeing she had been burned black inside.  Now Daniel is abusive and tells everyone that Karl-August knew all about this and had cheated him with intention.”

      “How can he believe that?” asked the pastor.  “Karl-August had first tried to buy feed for the cow.  That ought to be evidence enough.”

      The church warden’s eyes fell.  “That is not altogether certain, Pastor,” he said, without looking up.  “Daniel has his own way in business.  Karl-August is no beginner either, for that matter.  It could be that Karl-August cooked up the whole story about the hay just to make Daniel unsuspecting and so be able to free himself from blame afterward.”

      “But that is surely preposterous,” cried the pastor.  “That would be falsehood for deception beyond end.  And how foolish it would be, besides!  If Daniel would only have been willing to sell him the hay!”

      The church warden shook his head sadly.  “Karl-August certainly knew that Daniel would never sell any hay for a cow he had good prospects to buy at a bargain.  There was no risk in this transaction.”

     Leaning over, the pastor gripped the edge of the table so firmly that the tips of his fingers were white.   “But this is too terrible.  It can’t be as you think.  Karl-August is certainly man enough to know that the matter would be found out.”

     “Yes,” said Erik Svensson, “I am sure he understood.  That’s why it was so fortunate for him that Daniel got possession of the cow as he did.  It is not exactly honorable for a rich farmer not to have a bit of hay left over for a poor renter’s beast and then force him to sell, and in the next place buy the cow himself at a bargain and have enough hay to keep the animal himself.  Most anyone would have borne the vexation and have forgotten it, rather than make an affair of it.  But Daniel has his own way in business matters, and now he is irritated and does not care about anything, but says he will sue Karl-August unless he gives him his money back voluntarily.”

     The curate had sunk back on the sofa and sat with his head bowed in his hand.  What was this?  Could such things really happen?  And among God’s children?  He saw the two men with his mind’s eye:  Daniel, heavy-set and coarse, with plump features and sharp eyes.  He had often testified at the meetings and spoken of the necessity of being separated from the world.  And Karl-August, had he not constantly urged young and old to give themselves to God?…

     He looked up, and asked, “Where was Karl-August tonight?”

     “They say he is at the mill,” said Erik Svensson.  “That could very well be, because the miller is working night and day since the water started flowing down there again.  But I think there were special reasons why Karl-August made his visit to the mill just tonight.  It’s likely he didn’t want to meet Daniel at the prayer meeting.”

     The pastor had gotten up.  He walked stormily back and forth…

     “Cannot the differences between the two parties be settled peaceably?”

     “That is just what we wanted to ask you, Pastor,” said the church warden.  “The simplest way would be if we could persuade Karl-August to return the money and take the meat.  Someone should speak to him about it as soon as possible.”

     The pastor seemed to hesitate.  “Will one of you go with me tomorrow?”

     “I believe Karl-August is still waiting at the mill for his flour,” said Erik Svensson.  “It’s not far to go.”  He looked at the pastor hopefully.

      “If you’ll go with me, we’ll go immediately,” was Fridfeldt’s prompt decision.  Yet he felt terribly uncertain.  What should he really say to Karl-August?  (continued…)

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#7-10 OF THE TEN COMMANDMENTS :

Exodus 20:15  —  You shall not steal.

Exodus 20:16  —  You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

Exodus 20:17  —  You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.

                                 You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his servants, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

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A PRAYER BASED ON MARTIN LUTHER’S SMALL CATECHISM EXPLANATION TO THE NINTH COMMANDMENT:

O God, you command us not to covet our neighbor’s house, or anything that is our neighbor’s.  May we so fear and love you that we do not desire to get our neighbor’s possessions by scheming, or by pretending to have a right to them, but always help him keep what is his; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

592) Christ the King

FROM YESTERDAY’S SERMON:

     A pastor from a nation in Africa was telling me about politics in his country.  He said the political groups are divided not only by political differences, but they are also from different tribes.  Their tribal heritages go back many centuries, and these deep loyalties to their own tribe and their age-old conflicts with other tribes, add great complexity to the political process in a nation trying to form a democracy.  They are trying to emerge from many centuries of a dictator king, followed by twenty years of an oppressive communist government.  Now, they are trying to form a democracy, but it is difficult, he said.  He added that in some African nations, like Rwanda, these tribal differences have erupted into violence with terrible results.  Then he said, “It is so much better here in the United States, where even if you belong to different political parties and have huge political differences, you can still get along as friends and neighbors.”

     Yes, I thought, that is good when we can do that, and I hope we do not lose that ability.  But it seems every election becomes more divisive and angry, with very strong opinions and plenty of bad feelings on both sides.  Political news and commentary has, on many programs, become a form of entertainment, and to keep the ratings high the commentators become very one-sided, often exaggerating the worst aspects of the opposition.  They go out of their way to become negative and controversial.  I used to like to discuss politics, but I don’t enjoy it as much anymore because it has become more and more difficult to have a friendly discussion over differences of opinion.  Discussions have become so much more negative, emotional, and even bitter.  I hope this is not a sign of things to come, and I hope we do not lose what my African friend admires about us:  our ability to live together with our differences and with peace and good will in a free and open and democratic society.  

     A while ago, I read a poem that gives a wise perspective on these things.  I did not keep it, so I cannot quote it exactly, but I can give you the gist of it.  The setting was in Ireland, and the Irish had just won their independence from the rule of the English. There was a big parade and everybody was cheering the freedom fighters as they were about to take over as the new leaders.  But included in the poem were a few words from one common laboring man to another.  “Well, my friend,” he said, “we can cheer all we want today, but tomorrow it will be back to breaking stones for us, won’t it.”  He was saying that even though the English were out and the Irish had self rule, the day to day life for the laboring man would go on pretty much the same.  Yes, it is important to vote, and yes, good leaders and good government are very important; but it is a mistake to attach any sort of ultimate value to such a thing as politics.  As the Bible says in Psalm 118:  “It is better to rely on the Lord, than to put your trust in rulers.”

     Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the church year.  The focus of this day is looking to Christ as our ultimate ruler and the one on whom to depend for our deepest hopes and dreams.  For all the hype and all the energy and all the strong feelings that go into the election process, the political process is always flawed and incomplete and frustrating.  There is no way that all the promises can be kept, and each election brings disappointments; certainly to the losers, but also, usually to those who are victorious.

     In today’s Gospel reading (Luke 23:33-43), Jesus is proclaimed King of the Jews.  But that proclamation was made on the cross. There was a sign that said This is the King of the Jews, and that sign was nailed up over where Jesus was hanging on that cross. It was put there by Pilate, perhaps to mock Jesus, perhaps to irritate the Jewish leaders, and perhaps for both reasons.  But for whatever reason it was put there, there it was for everyone to see and make fun of– which they did.  The soldiers saw it and said, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.”  It certainly looked like more of a joke than anything else.  Kings have power, but Jesus did not seem to have any power at all.  Rather, he was being executed by those who had the power.

     Yet, those who were listening to what Jesus was saying from the cross heard a man who looked like he was very much in charge, even from there.  Pilate and the religious leaders had put Jesus on trial that very day, as if they had the power to be judge over him.  They had judged him to be guilty and worthy of death.  But then, from the cross, it was Jesus who did the real judging; and in his very first words from the cross, he declared them all guilty.  The judgment was made indirectly, for you have to be guilty before you need forgiveness; and the first words of Jesus from the cross were, “Father, forgive them, for they know do not know what they are doing.”

     One of the criminals on a cross next to Jesus was so impressed by that prayer that he became a believer in this King who could rule even from a cross.  With great faith, that thief said to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”  Jesus, speaking of that ‘other Kingdom,’ not of this world, replied, “I tell you the truth, today you shall be with me in paradise.”

     Month after month in the campaign we heard from the candidates all sorts of promises about cleaner government, fairer taxes, better health care, a safer world, better education, a stronger economy, and so much more.  Those are all important matters, and I hope everyone in every office will be able to keep all their promises.  But most of all, I want a King in my life who can do for me what Jesus did for that thief, promising him on his dying day that he would be all right, and that Jesus would keep him safe, in paradise, for all eternity.  That must have seemed impossible; but Jesus proved to everyone that he would be able to keep such a promise when, on the third day he rose from the dead.

     Pilate and Caiaphas and Annas and all the others who seemed to have the power on that weekend when Jesus went to the cross, all passed from the scene rather quickly after that.  But Jesus, who they thought they were eliminating, is still the King of all creation.

     The story of Napoleon is one of the most incredible in all of history.  In just a few years he rose from being a minor officer in the army to being the ruler of France and conqueror of almost all of Europe.  Upon being named emperor of this vast empire, Napoleon’s mother had a brief, but realistic reply.  She rolled her eyes and said, “Well, I wonder how long this will last.”  It turned out to last not very long at all.  There were a few great years, but then a rapid decline, and finally, an early death; and that was the end of that little tyrant.  That is how it goes for all earthly rulers; and that is why the Psalmist tells us not to put our trust in them.

     That doesn’t mean that none of them can ever be trusted, nor does that mean that the political process can do nothing at all.  Our form of government has brought to this nation great blessings of peace and prosperity, and we can thank God for that and for those who have struggled to bring us to this point.  Some forms of government are better than others.  Some candidates are better than others, and it is our freedom and privilege to decide and vote as a people on who we trust the most to do the best job.  But even at its very best, politicians and government will never satisfy our deepest needs.   We need a different kind of ruler and a different kind of kingdom for that.

     Politics, like the Bible, is full of promises; but the promises in the two realms are of a completely different nature.  While the political process is worthy of our attention, and it is our duty to take part, it is not where our ultimate hope lies, and we can be glad of that.

     The purpose of politics is to make the best of a bad situation, that is, to keep the peace in a world in which sin is always attempting to rule.  But it is Jesus who brings the forgiveness of sins.  Political solutions and the politicians themselves are always of a temporary nature.  But Jesus, even from the cross, is able to speak an eternal word.  And the promises of politicians will at best be kept only partially, and perhaps not at all.  But the promises of God are sure and certain and for all eternity.

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Psalm 118:8-9  —  It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in humans.  It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes.

King Tut; once a powerful ruler

Psalm 146:3-4  —  Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.  When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing.

Psalm 118:14  —  The Lord is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation.

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EVENING PRAYER TO OUR KING:

Glory to Thee, my God, this night

For all the blessings of the light;

Keep me, O keep me, King of Kings,

Beneath Thy own almighty wings.

–Thomas Ken

591) Healed!… Of My Desperate Need to Be Healed

     Recently I ran across an old videotaped recording that contains a fascinating conversation between two men, Tim and Greg.  Thirty years ago, when the conversation was recorded, both men were in their middle 30’s, and both were teachers at the same college.  At about the same time, they were both diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer.  Both men were dedicated Christians and prayed for healing, and both had many others praying for them.  Everything about their two situations was almost identical; except for one thing.  Tim, apparently in answer to the many prayers, received a miraculous healing of his disease.  The doctors could not explain it, but his cancer was gone, and he sat there strong, healthy, and with a long future ahead of him.  Greg, however, received no such healing, and he was dying.  He sat there thin, weak, and full of the cancer that would, in a mere two months, end his life.  Tim began the conversation by expressing his gratitude to God for the healing he received.  He then asked Greg how he felt about not being healed.  Tim said, “Greg, don’t you think God is being quite unfair about the whole thing, healing me and not you?”

     This is how Greg responded:

Well, in order to say something is unfair, you have to know everything about both situations.  Our situations look similar, and so it looks to us to be very unfair.  But God sees far more of the whole picture than we do, and perhaps God sees some differences.  Perhaps you and I, or those around us, have different things to learn by what is happening to us.  Perhaps there is someone you know who will be brought to faith in Jesus because you were healed.  And perhaps someone I know will be strengthened in their faith by seeing how I face death.  I am content to leave the answers to my prayers in God’s hands, knowing that He alone sees everything, and knows far more than we do.  Besides, we get a rather short time of it here on this earth anyway, no matter how long we live.  But the promise of God is that we will live again, forever, in a better place.  So I am not going to fret over missing out on a few extra years here.  We both have a whole eternity of life ahead of us.

     I am impressed by Greg’s calm and faithful acceptance of his disease and approaching death.  He spoke of death with courage and confidence; without any bitterness or fear, and without a hint of jealousy over the miracle Tim received.  Rather, he chose to speak about finding meaning in his suffering.  Perhaps, he thought, God intended that some important purpose would be served by his death.  I believe he was right about that.  I know my own faith was strengthened by Greg’s testimony even now, thirty years after his death; and perhaps his words will have an impact on you also, along with the many others over the years who saw the video.

     Greg was encouraged by God’s long-term promise of eternal life, and it was in that context that he viewed his short-term suffering and early death.  Greg was receiving some rough treatment, but he knew the end of his story would be good.  There is much in the Bible and in life that we do not understand, but the Bible is not so much about smooth sailing and perfect understanding, as it is about remaining faithful until the end; an end which, for the Christian, is always a happy ending.  Greg’s story indeed had a happy ending, ending not in death, but in the heavenly home that was prepared for him by Jesus his Lord and Savior.

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From another young man who whose prayers for healing were not answered with a long life on earth:

“I have been healed of my desperate need to be healed.”

–Dave Busby, quoted in a speech given by a close friend of his.  

Dave Busby died in 1997 as a young man after a life-long battle with cystic fibrosis.

Dave Busby

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Psalm 31:15a  —  My times are in your hands.

Isaiah 55:8-9  —  “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.  “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

2 Corinthians 12:7b-9  —  In order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

John 14:1-3  —  (Jesus said), “Do not let your hearts be troubled.   You believe in God; believe also in me.  My Father’s house has many rooms…  I am going there to prepare a place for you…  I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

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PSALM 31:1-3, 5, 9-10, 14-15a:

In you, Lord, I have taken refuge;
    let me never be put to shame;
    deliver me in your righteousness.
Turn your ear to me, come quickly to my rescue;
be my rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save me.
Since you are my rock and my fortress,
    for the sake of your name lead and guide me.
Into your hands I commit my spirit;
    deliver me, Lord, my faithful God.

Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress;
    my eyes grow weak with sorrow,
    my soul and body with grief.
My life is consumed by anguish
    and my years by groaning;
my strength fails because of my affliction,
    and my bones grow weak.

But I trust in you, Lord;
    I say, “You are my God.”
My times are in your hands.

590) Something Strange (part two)

 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.   But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.  –1 Peter 4:12-13   

     (…continued)  Nero was not able to eliminate the Christian community in Rome.  In fact, it grew stronger in the face of persecution.  The faith of the believers was not only strengthened, but the church grew in numbers by doing as their Lord commanded– returning good for the evil that had been done to them.  They were given many opportunities to do so.

     Crowded and unsanitary conditions in ancient cities, along with a lack of understanding of how germs spread illness, made disease a constant threat.  Sometimes, diseases would spread out of control, and plagues could wipe out half of a city, or even half of a nation’s, population.

     Several decades after Nero, one of the worst of such plagues hit Rome.  The wealthy immediately fled to their country estates.  Even the less wealthy often fled, heading to the country to take their chances at living off the land rather than face the prospect of dying a horrible death by small pox.  Victims would begin by having a high fever, then there would be severe back and stomach pains, and then vomiting.  Then would come the ‘pox’– open, running sores all over the face, down the throat, into the eyes, and over the hands and feet.  There was no treatment in those days, and it was very contagious.  Families would flee the city, leaving their sick loved ones behind, rather than risk also getting the disease.

     But the Christians of the city did not flee.  They stayed behind to care for their own loved ones, and then also for those who had been left behind by others.  They would go through the city with carts, picking up the sick and dying, and taking them back to makeshift hospitals.  There they would do their best to keep them comfortable in their last days.  Many of the Christians, having been exposed to the pox, also got the disease and died.

     Soon it became apparent that not everyone would die.  Even with minimal care, some would recover; and much to the surprise of their loved ones, were still alive when they returned.  This love and service and self-sacrifice by the Christians had a profound effect on people, and many joined the Christians.  Such courage in the face of death also bore witness to the Christians’ belief in the resurrection from the dead.  By acting on the commands of Christ, without regard for their own welfare, this small Christian group unexpectedly became the dominant cultural group.  

     Chaos and death in the streets during the plague.

     Peter’s encouragement to be faithful even in the face of suffering and death bore much fruit in the early church.  He was, in fact, only passing on what he had learned from Jesus himself who had said, “Whoever seeks to save his life shall lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake, shall find it.”

     The Romans, fleeing the cities during the plague to save their own lives, were part of a dying culture.  But the Christians, willing to stay even if it meant losing their own life, would continue to live and grow and spread around the world, long after the glory of the Roman empire had come to an end.

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Mark 8:34b-36  —  (Jesus said), “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.  What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”

Revelation 14:12-13  —  This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus.  Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this:  Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”    “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”

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Lord, teach me to be generous.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labor and not to ask for reward,
save that of knowing that I do your will.

St. Ignatius  (1491-1556)

589) Something Strange? (part one)

     The New Testament book of I Peter was written to encourage Christians in the early church who were suffering severe persecution.  I Peter 4:12 says:  “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.”  They would have had reason to think what they were suffering was indeed strange.  It certainly was excessive.

     Peter was writing during the flare up of persecution under the Emperor Nero.  Nero was among the worst of the Roman emperors, and stories of his cruelty, violence, and insanity are astounding.  The church in Rome had been growing rapidly during his reign, and unfortunately, the Christians attracted his attention.  They were an unpopular minority, unwilling as they were to give their ultimate allegiance to Rome and the Emperor.  The early confession of faith, ‘Christ is Lord,’ was considered treasonous since the emperors had, by that time, declared their own divinity.

     In 64 A.D. there was a horrific fire in Rome that burned for over a week, destroying much of the city.  It was rumored that Nero, in his madness, had started the fire himself, and then casually played his violin as he watched the city burn from a safe distance; thus, the saying, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.”  It was never proven that he did start it, and the violin story might have been a false rumor.  Historians disagree on the question.  Either way, Nero was at the time blamed, and needing a scapegoat, he blamed the Christians.  The Romans, eager to see someone punished for the destruction, were more than happy to see this new religion selected for the persecution.  Nero never did have any qualms about having people killed, so Christians were rounded up and put to death in a variety of ways.  The crowds at the coliseum were always anxious for new forms of entertainment, so while the Christian men faced the usual crucifixion, women and children were dressed up in animal skins and pushed out into the arena to be torn to pieces by wild dogs.

     It was at this time that Peter wrote, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.”  Peter was not writing from a safe distance.  He too would in time be rounded up in this same persecution, and was crucified (upside-down at this own request, because he did not feel worthy to die in the same way as his Lord had died).

     St. Peter’s Crucifixion, by Caravaggio (1571-1610), Rome, Italy

     So Peter said, ‘Don’t be surprised, Jesus also had to suffer; why should we expect to be exempt?’  In verse 13 he went on to say, “Rejoice, that you may participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.  If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you…  So if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.”

     It is sobering to think about these words in the context of when they were first written.  Peter was encouraging people to remain firm and not renounce their faith, if given the chance; and they usually were given the chance.  After all, the knowledge of friends and neighbors abandoning the faith to save their own lives would certainly be discouraging, and would lead to more denials.  Peter knew what it was to deny Jesus, and he, for one, would not do that again (Mark 14:66-72).  But by remaining firm, and encouraging others to do the same, Peter was sending them to their doom; sending them all, children included, to vicious and violent deaths.  Yet, he held before them the vision of a greater future glory.

     Keeping in mind the details of Nero’s persecution, consider these words (5:6-11):  “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.  Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.  Be self-controlled and alert.  Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.  Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of sufferings.  And the God of grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast.  To him be the power (and not Nero), for ever and ever.”

     Most did stand firm.  There are incredible stories from this time and the later persecutions of the courage of the believers to stand firm, and to not renounce their faith, even in the face of death. One example is Polycarp who was killed for his faith (in a later persecution), and in his last words reflected the kind of determination and faith that Peter encouraged.

     Polycarp was 86 when he was arrested.  He was a kindly and likable old man.  The Roman authority in charge of sentencing him was reluctant to kill him, so he gave Polycarp several opportunities to renounce his faith.  “Old man,” said the Roman governor, “renounce your faith, swear by Caesar, and save your life.”  Polycarp refused.

     “Just renounce Christ,” said the Roman, pleading, “and I will set you free at once.”

     Polycarp replied, “For 86 years I have been Christ’s servant, and he has never done me wrong.  How can I blaspheme my king who has saved me?”

     The Roman went on, now in a threatening tone, “I have wild beasts,” he said, “I will throw you to them.”

     “Go ahead,” said Polycarp, “call them out.  I am ready.”

     “If you do not fear the beasts,” said the Roman, “then I will burn you alive.  Change your mind, old man, or I will prepare the fire.”

     Polycarp answered, “The fire you threaten will burn only for a short time, and then I will be gone and the fire extinguished.  But there is a fire that you know nothing about, the fire of the judgment to come and of eternal punishment, the fire preserved for the ungodly.  Why do you keep hesitating?  Might you want me to tell you how you can be saved from that fire?”

     Now angered, the Roman ordered that the fire be built.  As it was being lit, Polycarp prayed this last prayer: “Heavenly Father, I thank you that you have counted me worthy to suffer for the sake of my Lord Jesus Christ, and I give you thanks that I may partake in the promise of eternal life.”  What Polycarp said in his last words is very similar what Peter had said in verse 13: “Rejoice that you may participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”  (continued…)

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I Peter 4:12-16…19  —  Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.  If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.  If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler.  However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name…  So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.

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THE LAST PRAYER OF POLYCARP:

Heavenly Father, I thank you that you have counted me worthy to suffer for the sake of my Lord Jesus Christ, and I give you thanks that I may partake in the promise of eternal life.