660) Just a Ritual? (part three of three)

     

     (…continued)  The Sacrament of Holy Communion is a ritual, one of the central rituals of the Christian faith.  It was started by Jesus Himself to pass on the truth of who he was and what he was about to do.  Jesus began this ritual the night before he was to die.  He was having one last meal with his disciples.  It was, in fact, the traditional Passover meal.  That very evening he would be arrested.  That very next day he would die a horrible death on the cross.  And the following Sunday he would be alive again, risen and victorious over death and the grave.  That weekend, beginning with this meal, was to be the most important in all history.  The sins of all the people who ever lived would be taken to the cross in just a few hours.  The salvation of every human being who ever lived would be at stake.  In the resurrection, death itself would be defeated, opening the way to eternal life for all who would believe in Jesus.

     Jesus had to make sure that his followers would remember what he was about to do, and remember what it all would mean.  He had to find some way to pass on these great truths, and use them to build faith, stability, loyalty, and identity into His family for all time.  So what did he do?  He started a ritual.  He took the great truth and meaning of what he was about to do, and wrapped it up in a ritual for his followers to do over and over and over again– in order to remember him and to remember what he was about to do.  “THIS DO IN REMEMBRANCE OF ME,” he said.  Then he took bread and broke it, and gave it to his disciples and said, “Take and eat, this is my body given for you;” and then he took the cup and said, “Take and drink, this is my blood, shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins.”  Everything you need to know for salvation is all there in the few words of that simple ritual.  Jesus bled and died for you; for the forgiveness of your sins and for your salvation.  Believe that; remember that; and you shall be saved.  All you need to know and believe is right there, wrapped up in the words of that simple, but powerful ritual.

      In our sinful blindness, even such a great and wonderful gift as this can become an empty ritual.  We should not just be going through the motions.  If there is no meaning and no spirit in what you are doing, then the ritual is not what it was meant to be.  But what should we do then?   One thing we must not do is we must not disobey the words of Jesus and abandon or disregard this ritual that he so clearly commanded us to continue.  

     Rather, when we receive Holy Communion, we should listen closer to the words and think more carefully about what they mean–  ‘The body of Christ, given for you; the blood of Christ, shed for you.’  When others are communing, you have time to think about Christ’s suffering and death because of you and for you.  Use that time well.  Think of how Christ’s disciples betrayed, denied, and disappointed him– and then think about how you have disappointed Jesus.  Even so, he died for you, and continues to offer you his love.  Watch as the others go forward, and keep in mind the most important thing about each of them– and that is that they need too Jesus, and that Jesus died for them also.  You may not know them, or you may know them all too well, and perhaps are not even on very good terms with some of them.  But see them now as one for whom Christ also died, and one whom Christ has forgiven, and one whom Christ has commanded you to forgive.  There might be those in the congregation you are tempted to look down on for some reason or another.  But Jesus does not look down on them.  He died for them, too.  Who are you to think you are better?  That would be a good time to ask for God’s forgiveness for that, too.  These are just examples of the kinds of thoughts that can make communion more than an empty ritual, and keep it meaningful for you each time.  Jesus died to forgive you, and there is much in us all that needs forgiving.

     And then remember, as important as ritual is, it is not the main thing.  God’s love and forgiveness and salvation in Christ Jesus are the main things.  But the ritual of the Lord’s Supper is one of the primary ways that God has chosen to communicate that love to you.

     The world is changing fast– too fast.  But a ritual is a place where things stay the same, and there’s a comfort in that.  The promise of God’s love and forgiveness is always the same for you, and offered again and again to you in that same old ritual of the Lord’s Supper. 

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I Corinthians 11:23-25  —  For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you:  The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread,  and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Hebrews 13:8  —  Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

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Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof; but only say the word, and my soul will be healed. 

–Prayer based on the centurion’s words to Jesus in Matthew 8:8; used in the Roman Catholic communion liturgy

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659) Just a Ritual? (part two of three)

     (…continued)   The solution to the problem of ‘dead ritual’ is to find ways to put meaning back into the ‘traditional rites.’  We need not advocate the continuation of a dead habit, but the solution must not be to have no ritual at all.  Ritual is one of the important ways that we practice our faith and create our identity.

     Consider the importance of ritual and tradition in the Jewish faith.  The Jews are amazing.  They have existed as a people for almost 4,000 years, and for almost half of that time they have been without a country of their own.  In many times and places, they have had to exist without even a building to gather for worship.  They have been scattered throughout the world, they have been persecuted often, and Hitler was only the most recent of many leaders through history who tried to eliminate them completely.  Yet, no matter how scattered and persecuted they have been, they have been able to kept their identity, their Jewish faith and culture.  They did not ever disappear into other nations and cultures, as have countless other people groups who have been left without a homeland.  For example, do you know of any Ammonites, Moabites, Perrizites, or Hittites?  These are just a few other ancient people groups that were defeated in battle and pushed off their land, and then just disappeared as they married into and blended in with the conquering nation’s population.  But this never happened to the Jews.  They never blended in and have never lost their identity as a people.  They have a strong loyalty to their Jewish faith and heritage, and they have endured great suffering and upheaval.

      How have they been able to do this?  It has been by their traditions and their rituals.  Their feasts, rituals, observances, and Sabbath Day are kept meticulously by all serious Jews, and so wherever they are, they all share those common experiences and maintain their unique identity.  Even many Jews who do not even believe in God anymore, will often continue celebrating the Passover Feast because they know of the importance of that ritual in maintaining that connection to their fellow Jews.  Religiously, it is an empty ritual for one who does not believe in God.  But even then it still serves to build group identity and cohesion, and serves to pass on that identity.

      All of these Jewish traditions are very ritualized.  For example, the annual Passover meal has a specific menu and a specified table setting and even an order for conversation at the table.  The oldest son must say, “Father, why do we eat bitter herbs?”, and the father replies, “This is to remind us of the bitter sufferings of our ancestors in Egypt.”  Then to oldest son will say, “Father, why do we eat unleavened bread at this meal?,” and the father will say, “This is to remind us of the haste in which our ancestors had to flee Egypt,” because there was no time to wait for the bread to rise.  And so on through the meal.  Jews all do this just as they have been doing it for 35 centuries, and the ritual builds strength into their faith and into their community.  What is a Jew?  A Jew is someone who keeps the Passover.  Children grow up doing this every year and observing the Sabbath day every week.  Then when they are old enough, the habits are firmly established, and they cannot imagine being the one who will break the tradition after all those centuries.  And so the Jews have continued as a people, and the faith has been passed on, and the whole world knows about this small, but remarkable group of people.  Why?  Because their rituals have built in this powerful identity. 

     It is interesting to note that all the major Jewish feasts and rituals are celebrated not at church, but at home.  And while those rituals are building a solid Jewish faith and heritage, they are, at the same time building a strong family.  This wisdom applies to all families.  Sociologists find that one of the most important factors in building strong families is the presence of rituals and tradition.  These don’t have to be anything fancy, just simply those things that the family does together consistently.  For example, eating together is a most basic ritual that every family should try to together at least once a day.  For small children, tucking them into bed at night is an important ritual.  Best of all is if prayers are added to the bed-time and meal-time rituals.  By consistent worship and prayer parents are saying to their children, “This is important in my life and I hope it will be important for you too.  Continue in this habit.”

     Sociologists tell us that the more traditions and rituals there are in a family, the stronger that family will be– the more solid the relationships, the closer the members, the more loyalty to each other, and the better chance of values and beliefs being carried on.  There are no guarantees in any of this.  There are no guarantees in any part of life.  But ritual is a valuable and proven help to family life and the life of faith.  One sociologist, not even a Christian, after extensive research said, “I hate to admit it, but it is true:  The family that prays together, stays together.”  That’s the value of ritual.  It serves to keep us together, in families and in faith.   (continued…)

Family Praying Together

Jose Blanco  (1932-2008), Filipino Folk Artist

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Exodus 12:24-28  —  (After giving Moses and Aaron instructions for the first Passover meal, the Lord said):  Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants.  When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony.  And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’”  Then the people bowed down and worshiped.  The Israelites did just what the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron.

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Even Jesus observed the traditional rituals:

Luke 4:16  —  (Jesus) went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. 

Luke 22:8  —  Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.”

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Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, Master of the universe, who has kept us alive and sustained us, and brought us to this special time.

–A Passover Blessing

658) Just a Ritual? (part one of three)

     

     One of the big problems Jesus was always up against in his ministry was a religion that, in many ways, had lost its spirit.  Many of the Jews at that time were very meticulous about the proper rituals and going through all the right motions on the outside, but on the inside they were spiritually dead.  There was no life in their faith, no inner love for the Lord, and no spirit.  One time, Jesus even compared the Pharisees to whitewashed tombs, all clean and pretty on the outside, but what was inside was dead.

     But before we look down on the Pharisees, we better remember that there is a danger here for us too.  Going to church and saying your prayers can become an empty habit, and nothing more.  You just ‘go through the motions,’ but your mind and heart and spirit are not in it.  You rattle off the words of the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed, but your mind is miles away.  You stand up and sit down at all the right times during the worship service, but your heart is elsewhere.  There is always the danger that our faith, that powerful, intense, life-changing truth, will get smothered in ritual and tradition, and finally become nothing more than a habit that has lost its meaning.

     But we must think clearly about this, because the usual way of dealing with this problem has only made things worse.  We know that ritual and tradition can become empty and dead, so we begin to react negatively to those words.  We say, “Oh, its just a ritual.”  Or we say, “Rituals and traditions are not all that important.  It is what’s in my heart that counts.”   Or, “We don’t need to be legalistic about going to church every Sunday.  A person should go to church because they feel like going, not just out of habit.”  And there is some truth in all of this.  Faith should indeed be more than habit and tradition and ritual.

     However, the solution is NOT to be found in getting rid of the rituals, habits, and traditions.  People might complain that the ritual is dead, and so they stop taking part in the ritual; and then, there is nothing left at all.  We Lutherans like to say that we are not legalistic about going to church every week; but for many, not being there every week has very rapidly led to not being there at all.  In many Lutheran churches, the only place where there is any growth is in the growing list of inactive members.  Many churches, even growing churches, face problems of declining attendance when neither the habit nor the faith is passed on to the next generation.  Ritual, tradition, and habit can become empty.  But it is deadly to end that all and replace it with nothing.  (continued…)

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Matthew 23:27-28  —  (Jesus said), “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

Isaiah 29:13  —  The Lord says:  “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.”

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Almighty God, you have surrounded us by a great cloud of witnesses– those who have followed you in lives of faith in the past, and now rest from their labors.

As you strengthened them in their time, strengthen us now.

Inspire us to throw off all that weighs us down and the sin that clings so closely.

As you sustained them, keep us running in the race that lies ahead,
fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.  Amen.

657) When the Foundations are Destroyed

     

Rushford, Minnesota, August 19, 2007

From a sermon given the following Sunday.

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     Seven years ago my wife and I bought the house in which we are now living, and I am very happy to report that in all that time, that house has not moved even one inch.  It continues to sit there, solid as can be, on the same foundation it was built on.  It hasn’t moved a bit.

     That is what houses are supposed to do, and for the most part we never even give it a thought.  You all woke up this morning, and sure enough, there was your house, in the very same place as it was when you went to bed last night.  Our cars, expensive as they are, come and go.  The items within our houses get moved in and around and out again.  Even the people that live in houses come and go.  Houses get sold and the previous owners move out and new folks move in, or, people in the house die and the house goes on to others.  But the house usually stays right there through all the many changes, solid as can be on its firm foundation.

     But not always, as we’ve been seeing on the news this week.  You’ve probably seen the pictures; portions of homes hanging out over a washed out river bank, houses washed onto railroad tracks, lop-sided houses with the basements caved in, houses out in the middle of the road.  I saw one couple on TV talking about being in the house when it started to move.  They had gone upstairs where they thought they would be safe from the rising water.  But soon the whole house was lifting up off of its foundations, and moving off the yard and down the road, or I should say, down the river, swollen as it was to include everything around it.  That uprooting of something so solid will have an impact on them for the rest of their lives.

     Psalm 11:3 asks, “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do, O Lord?”  It goes on to speak of the Lord as our refuge.  Other Psalms speak of the Lord who sustains us and restores us.  The destruction of our foundations certainly forces upon us the big questions of life, questions that we might otherwise be distracted from by the hassles and routine duties of day to day life.  The people in Rushford have had those routines disrupted and their entire lives turned upside-down.  They are probably wondering what there is in life that can be depended on.  If the very foundations of your house are not even solid and secure, what is?

     The writer of the book of Hebrews was writing to a people very familiar with the God of the Old Testament– a God who was known to ‘shake the foundations’ once in a while.  As you know, the Old Testament has something to say about a really big flood, sent by God Himself, for the very purpose of shaking the foundations.  And God does that kind of ‘shaking’ quite often in the Old Testament.  With with that in mind, listen again to these words from Hebrews 12:26 where God says, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.”  It goes on to say:  “The words ‘once more’ indicate the removing of what can be shaken– that is, created things– so that what cannot be shaken may remain.  Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God with reverence and awe.”

     That is something to think about.  God himself will, at times, shake the temporary foundations, if that is what is needed to return us to those foundations which cannot be shaken.  So we might well ask, ‘Is that what the people in Rushford needed?’  Were they, in Southeastern Minnesota, more in need of the reminder than those of us here in South Central Minnesota?  Does God decide ahead of time who will get how much rain, and then dole it out on the basis of who deserved a much needed rain on their crops, and who, on the other hand, deserved a devastating flood?  And if that is the case, how can it be that all those who needed the reminder to turn to God happen to live in the same area?  Who can even begin to say how this works?

     But even if we don’t have all those answers, we can take to heart the lessons of Hebrews 12.  The much needed rain did come to us as a great blessing, and it has not yet turned against us in the form of floods.  But we can be certain that we will each get our turn at having our foundations shaken.  Everyone gets their turn at this shaking in one way or another, be it storm or illness or disappointment or failure or conflicts, or any of the afflictions we may face.  In fact, as the verse says, everything that can be shaken will one day be removed, for in death we ourselves will be removed from all that we have and know.  Therefore, it is for all of us to heed the Word of the Lord there which says, “Look then to what remains, what cannot be shaken, and therefore, let us be thankful that we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken.”  When everything else is shaken, taken, washed away, burned away, or destroyed, there is still something that remains– that eternal kingdom of God, promised to all who believe.  Every time the foundations are shaken can be a time to look deeper at and for that kingdom of God.  The Psalmist prayed, “What can the righteous do when the foundations are being destroyed?”  God answered that, and every prayer, of everyone in every time and place, by sending Jesus Christ; and Jesus shows us the way to that everlasting kingdom which cannot be shaken or destroyed.

     The hymn When Peace Like a River was written in the mid-1800s by a man named Horatio Spafford.  Not many of us have had our foundations shaken and our lives turned upside-down by tragedy like him.  He and his wife and four daughters lived in Chicago.  They were going to England for a vacation, but the husband was delayed by business.  The wife and four daughters went on ahead.  He was to follow on a later ship.  The ship that this family was on sunk in a storm, and most on board perished at sea.  His wife survived, but all four of their daughters drowned.  As soon as he heard of the tragedy, the grief-stricken father took the next ship across the Atlantic to join his distraught wife.  As the ship passed over the area where his daughters were lost at sea, a deeply shaken Horatio Spafford was thinking about that ‘kingdom that cannot be shaken,’ and was inspired to write this great hymn of faith and hope.  In the first verse he wrote of his time of agony, describing it as “when sorrows like sea billows roll.”  But then he adds, “Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, it is well, it is well, with my soul.”

     The contrast is between what can be shaken, this fragile life of ours in these temporary bodies, and what cannot be shaken, our eternal soul.  In this life, the sorrows can roll over us in waves, and sometimes does– but all can still be well with our soul, which is held in God’s eternal hand no matter what happens to us here.  Thus, even though filled with grief, Spafford could write, “It is well, it is well, with my soul.”

     With God, the surface of things can be filled with turbulence and sadness; but at the deepest level, our souls can be at peace.  We can have what the Bible call that ‘peace that passes all understanding.’  But without God, even if everything on the surface is going well, there will be in our hearts a deep anxiety; anxiety because the clock keeps ticking, our days are numbered, ‘everything will be removed,’ and without God, there is no hope of anything more.

     Put your trust in that foundation that cannot ever be destroyed or shaken.

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Psalm 11:3  — If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?

Hebrews 12:25-28  —  See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks.  If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven?  At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.”  The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.  Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God with reverence and awe.

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God’s Word forever shall abide,

No thanks to foes who fear it.

For God Himself fights by our side,

With weapons of the Spirit.

Were they to take our house,

Goods, honor, child, or spouse;

Though life be wrenched away,

They cannot win the day,

The Kingdom’s ours forever.

–Martin Luther, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, verse four.

656) Radical Islam, Secularism, and Christianity

By John Stonestreet, January 15, 2015, for  www.breakpoint.org

     G.K. Chesterton once said, “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”  Well, if that is indeed the test, then recent events in Paris prove that radical Islam fails miserably.

     The horrific attacks in France were sparked by cartoons published by the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.  Throughout the years, many of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons have mocked various religions and religious beliefs, including Muhammad and Islam, something that outraged radical Muslims.  For example, an imam in London (that’s right—London), Anjem Choudary, wrote in the wake of the massacres that the twelve victims brought their deaths on themselves.  Said Choudary, “It is time that the sanctity of a Prophet revered by up to one-quarter of the world’s population was protected.”

     On one level, of course, Christians can agree that mocking the religious beliefs of others is deplorable.  In fact, we face that kind of mockery ourselves.  Who can forget the piece of so-called art produced by Andres Serrano in which a crucifix was immersed in a jar of urine?  In more recent days, the exhibition of blasphemous nativity scenes has become something of a pop culture trend.

     So we can identify with the outrage that many Muslims feel when their religion is mocked.  Yet, while people of good will may disagree about the degree to which freedom of speech should allow blaspheming the sacred, this incident provides a stark contrast between the worldviews of Christianity, secularism, and radical Islam.

     Secularism has no framework to understand the reaction of radical Islam, because the only thing sacred in secularism is personal autonomy.  And following that “all religions are alike” line of reasoning, many secularists fail to distinguish between religions.  So you’ll hear, as we did in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, comparisons between radical Islam and Christianity.  The most ridiculous comment perhaps in the history of MSNBC was uttered the other night, when First Look Media’s Eric Bates compared Jerry Falwell suing pornographer Larry Flynt in the 80’s with radical terrorists executing people in France, and all while host Alex Wagner nodded approvingly.  So appealing to law is the same as committing murder?

     But the massacre in Paris is a perfect example of how Christianity differs from Islam, especially radical Islam.  The Paris terrorists thought they were defending the honor of Muhammad and were being faithful to Islamic teachings by killing blasphemers.

     Christians are called, however, to respond to insult—and even blasphemy—in a different way.  Writing after the attack, Dr. Bill Brown, a mentor and friend of mine and former president of two Christian colleges, noted that “Christ never demanded that his ‘honor’ be defended.  He told Peter to put down his sword when he attempted to protect him…  He told his disciples that the world hated Him so they should be prepared to be treated badly as well (John 15:18-25).”

     As Chuck Colson said, “Christians don’t impose our views on anyone.  We propose…  The Christian Church makes a Great Proposal, inviting everyone to the table, regardless of color, ethnic origin, background, or economic status.  We’re inviting people to consider a worldview that works, that makes sense, through which people can discover shalom and human flourishing.”

     The Kingdom of Christ, my friends, advances through love, not through compulsion, intimidation, or even legitimate outrage.  The God of Christianity invites people.

     That’s not saying we shouldn’t speak up for the truth.  Of course we should, and our Lord was never shy about this.  But as the Apostle Paul also said, when we speak truth, we do so in love, because following Christ is the way of love.

     “The beautiful truth,” Bill Brown says, “is that the history of the faith is filled with those who once spoke violently against Christ and then, overwhelmed by grace, embraced Him as Savior.

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I Peter 3:13-17  —  Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?  But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed.  “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.”  But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord.  Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.  But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.  For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.

John 18:11  —   Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away!  Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”

John 15:18-21  —  (Jesus said),  “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.  If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own.  As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.  That is why the world hates you.  Remember what I told you:  ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also…  They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me.

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A PRAYER FOR UNBELIEVERS:

O Lord Jesus Christ, upon the Cross You did say:  “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  And this surely, O my God, is the condition of vast multitudes among us now.  They deny that there is a God, but they know not what they are doing.  They renounce all faith in You, the Savior of man.  They mislead the wandering, they frighten the weak, they corrupt the young.  Others, again, have a wish to be religious, but mistake error for truth; they go after fancies of their own, and they seduce others and keep them from You.  They know not what they are doing.  But You can make them know.  Teach them now, open their eyes here; before the future comes.   

–John Henry Newman

655) Whatever Gets You Through the Night

“I’m not unmindful of man’s seeming need for faith; I’m for anything that gets you through the night, be it prayer, tranquilizers, or a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.”

–Frank Sinatra  (1915-1998), quoted in Frank Sinatra: My Father, by Nancy Sinatra, 1986, p. 201

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     John Lennon (1940-1980) expressed the same view in his hit single Whatever Gets You Through the Night.  The song went to the top of the charts in the United States and Canada in 1974, and included these lines:

Whatever gets you through the night, it’s alright, it’s alright…

Whatever gets you through your life, it’s alright, it’s alright
Do it wrong or do it right, it’s alright, it’s alright…

You can listen to Whatever Gets You Through the Night at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HNNxeovdN5U

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      Can that be really all they want?  Wouldn’t they want to get farther than just ‘through the night?’

     Jesus offers to get you much farther.  In fact, Jesus will get you all the way through the dark night of death and the grave, to the bright morning of eternal life in heaven.  Sometime soon, all our nights and days on this earth will be ended, and what then?  Not even tranquilizers or a bottle of Jack Daniel’s will be of any help when that inevitable day arrives.

      Because of what Frank Sinatra would dismiss as my ‘seeming need for faith,’ I prefer to put my hope in the kind of promises expressed in the verses and prayers below.

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Psalm 30:1-5 (portions):  

I will exalt you, Lord,
    for you lifted me out of the depths...
Lord my God, I called to you for help, and you healed me.
You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of the dead...

Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.

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Psalm 90:12  —  Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

Isaiah 26:9a  —  My soul yearns for you in the night; in the morning my spirit longs for you.

Psalm 23:4a  —  Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.

Job 35:9-10  —  People cry out under a load of oppression; they plead for relief from the arm of the powerful.  But no one says, ‘Where is God my Maker, who gives songs in the night.’

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Psalm 42:5, 8:

Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Savior and my God.

By day the Lord directs his love,
    at night his song is with me—
    a prayer to the God of my life.

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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; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, so that you also may be where I am.”

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Eternal God, whose Son Jesus Christ said,
‘Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid;’
Take away our fear of death;
bring us to the place he has gone to prepare for us;
and give us his peace for ever.   Amen.

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O Lord, support us all the day long of this troubled life, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work is done.  Then, Lord, in your mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Cardinal John Henry Newman  (1801-1890)

654) The Two Shall Become One

A WEDDING MEDITATION

     Jesus said:  “A man will unite with his wife, and the two will become one.  So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Let no one separate, then, what God has joined together.”

     “The two will become one.”  Those are old and familiar words, but what do they mean?

     I am reminded of a discussion in a seminary class many years ago.  We were talking about heaven, and one of the students asked our elderly professor if people who were husband and wife on earth would be together in heaven.  I still remember his wonderful answer.  He said, “I don’t know how that will work.  The Bible doesn’t really tell us enough about it.  Jesus said there would not be marriage in heaven, but I think we would have to be together in some way.  I sure hope so.  Dorothy and I have been through a lot together, and so much of what I am today is tied up in my relationship with her.  I don’t see how that can just end in death.  If that relationship did not continue in some way, I don’t even know who I would be anymore.  Jesus says the two will become one, and we have.  After all these years, our lives are completely interwoven.”  That is what those words mean.  Those two individuals did, in fact, become one.  He could not even imagine who or what he would be apart from that relationship.

     It takes a while for that kind of connection to develop.  That is why those other familiar words are in the service, those words which the two of you will say to each other, “To have and to hold… until death parts us.”

     Jack Nicholson is a great actor and fun to watch in the movies, but he is not much of a role model.  He will tell you himself that he is crude and obnoxious and selfish, and proud of it.  It is not surprising that he is difficult to get along with.  He was married and divorced years ago, and has since been in and out of several relationships, and has had countless one-night-stands.  He has been a world-class womanizer, unable and unwilling to commit to any relationship.  Jack Nicholson is not the kind of guy you would go to for advice on how to have a successful marriage.  But he said something a while back that does testify to the goodness and rightness of the marriage commitment.  He has lived what some would consider an ideal life– plenty of money, willing women available anytime, anywhere; and no chains, always free, never bound by any commitments, and no one telling him what to do.  But he is well past 70 now, long past his prime, and living alone.  He likes being alone, he says, and he can still have a good time whenever he wants, but he has regrets.  I saw him talking about that in an interview.  I don’t remember his exact words, but he said something like this: “I should have stayed with someone.  I’m alone now, and that’s okay much of the time.  But I am alone with my memories.  I have had a good life, and it would be nice to have someone with me now who had shared that life, and we could have all those memories together.”

     To use Jesus’ words, Jack Nicholson is thinking it would be nice if he could ‘be one’ with someone.  My old professor’s life was probably not as full or exciting as Jack Nicholson’s, but he had something better; and more to look forward to.

     Mike and Julie, today the two of you will become one by the promises that you make to each other.  That process takes a lifetime to complete, but it is your whole life you are promising to each other.  “Until death parts us,” you will say.  You will promise to love and comfort each other; and to cherish and honor each other; for better or worse, in sickness and in health, for the rest of your lives.  Those are also ‘old words,’ and some of them are unpleasant words to have to hear and consider on this happy day.  But sooner or later, some, or all, of those words apply to every marriage.

     I am reminded of what Michael J. Fox’s wife said after hearing of her husband’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease when he was only thirty.  She described them crying together, and her saying to him over and over the words of her wedding vows– “in sickness and in health, in sickness and in health.”  She is famous and gets quoted, but around the world, millions of other couples are quietly and faithfully fulfilling those same vows every day, in all kinds of circumstances.

     Mike and Julie, we wish you the best on this day as the two of you become one.  May God be with you and you with him in your life together.

Jack Nicholson

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Matthew 19:4-6  —  “Haven’t you read,” Jesus replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’  So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

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God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, bless, preserve, and keep you; the Lord mercifully with his favor look upon you; and so fill you with all spiritual benediction and grace, that ye may so live together in this life, that in the world to come ye may have life everlasting.  Amen. 

–Marriage Blessing from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer

653) How God Feeds Us

     

     Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” teaching us not only how to pray, but reminding us as we pray that every bite we eat is from God.  So how is it that God goes about feeding us?  If he so desired he could, as Martin Luther once said, “make vegetables grow on my table or a fried chicken fly into my mouth.”  But God has chosen a more indirect route.  He has chosen to feed us all by our own work, and what’s more, by our working together.  I think about all the people who had to work so that I could have my bowl of Cheerios this morning: the farmer, the trucker, the manufacturers, the inventors of the machines that make and box Cheerios, the business managers, the store-owners, the shelf-stockers, and the check out person (just to name a few); not to mention that I had to work to get the money to buy that box of Cheerios and the milk to go with it; and, the people in my congregation had to work so they could bring their offerings, so I could be paid.  Not only that, but some of the members of my congregation are farmers, whose work it is to grow the food that starts the whole process again.  God is God, and could have made it all simpler by just making the food grow on our table.  But God provides the sun and the rain and the soil, and then he depends on the likes of you and me to do the rest.

     Sometimes that whole complex system of working together breaks down.  The problem could be as simple as someone running out of money before the paycheck comes; or it could be as complex as a corrupt government, a nation at war, and a drought, all working together to create a famine resulting in the starvation of millions.  What then?  Well, says the Bible, then God expects people who have enough to share from their bounty with those who have nothing; and, says Paul in II Corinthians, this is “not so that others might have it easy while you are hard-pressed, but that there might be equality.”  He then added, “At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, and then someday in turn their plenty might have to supply what you need, so that he who gathered much does not have too much, and he that gathers little will not have too little.”  John the Baptist said, “If you have two shirts share one with the person who has none, and if one has extra food, they should do the same.”  And Jesus said in Matthew 25 to those who he was welcoming into heaven that when they fed the hungry, it was as if they were feeding Him, because the poor and the needy and the hungry are his brothers and sisters.  Sharing what one has, has always been at the heart of what it means to be a Christian.

     The question of why there is so much suffering in the world is a huge theological question, and there are many ways one can respond.  But one of the most important answers is that God has called on us all to take care of each other, and He has given us a free will to say yes or no to that call.  When we say no, there is a part of that suffering that is not relieved.  There is enough food in the world to feed everyone.  God has done His part and has provided.  The challenge is for people everywhere to be just and fair, and to share.

     There are people who would go hungry if it wasn’t for the work of local food shelves.  And there are people who are not truly needy and take advantage of the system, thus robbing from those who really do need the help.  In a sinful world, helping  your neighbor can be complicated and difficult; but still, we are commanded to do so.

     There was a time when each of us had to depend on others to feed us.  Perhaps we never had to go to a food shelf or a international relief organization, but we were all at one time babies, and we then most certainly had to be fed.  And someday you might be in a nursing home and not even able to hold your own spoon, and someone will have to feed you then, too.  God has made the world in such a way that we need each other even to eat:  for a time, we need parents; at all times we depend on everyone who works in the farming or transportation or food industry; and sometimes we might have to depend on the good will and charity of others.  If you don’t have to depend on any one else’s charity right now, give thanks to God for being born on the right part of the globe.  Many are not so fortunate, and must depend on the good will of Christians around the world.  God has set up the world in such a way that we need to depend on each other, and we need to be willing to share our blessings.

     Some need help, but we all need to have the opportunity to help– so that we can learn how to give, learn how to serve, and learn how to be the children of God we were created to be.

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Psalm 145:15-16  —  The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time.  You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.

Zechariah 10:1  —  Ask the Lord for rain in the springtime;it is the Lord who sends the thunderstorms.  He gives showers of rain to all people, and plants of the field to everyone.

Matthew 5:45b  —  (Jesus said),  “God causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the righteous.”

Luke 3:11  —   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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A TABLE PRAYER THAT REMEMBERS THOSE IN NEED:

Dear Lord, thank you for this food.  Bless the hands that prepared it.  Bless it to our use, and us to your service.  And make us ever mindful of the needs of others.  Through Christ our Lord we pray.  Amen.

652) The War on Christians

By John Stonestreet, January 21, 2015, at:  www.breakpoint.org  (Colored letters below will link you to more sites)

While the civilized world rightly expressed outrage over the slaughter of 12 cartoonists, the plight of 100 million persecuted Christians is largely ignored.

     While in 2014 the days of throwing Christians to wild beasts in the arena may be behind us, the persecution of Christians around the world isn’t.  In fact, the number of our brothers and sisters subjected to imprisonment, torture, and death for their faith in just the last twelve months dwarfs the number who suffered during the entire tenure of Nero.

     As a new report from a leading ministry to the persecuted church shows, last year was one of the most violent on record for believers worldwide  and 2015 could be worse.

     Open Doors International released its World Watch List earlier this month, ranking the top 50 most dangerous and difficult countries for Christians to live in.  Here are the results.

     For the 13th year in a row, North Korea ranked as the worst persecutor of Christians.  Amid executing relatives and presiding over the disappearances of his political rivals, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has reserved his special wrath for Christians.

     Open Doors estimates that 70,000 believers are currently imprisoned for their faith in this hermit kingdom.  And considering North Koreans outside of jail live in a state of semi-starvation, I shudder to think what it’s like behind bars.

     Executions for crimes of owning Bibles or evangelizing are commonplace.  News agencies reported last year that Kim Jong-un personally sentenced 33 church planters to death.

     “Christians,” explains Open Doors president David Curry, “are the No. 1 enemy of the state in North Korea.”

     And that’s just one frontier in the battle between the Gospel and modern Neros.

     In west-central Africa, the Islamist group Boko Haram has just leveled several towns, with Christians as their new target of choice.  Militants have ambushed worshipers in at least a half a dozen churches on Sunday mornings, and human rights groups report a Christian body count of over 3,000 in Nigeria alone.

     And then there’s the Middle East.  From Iraq and Syria to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Christians are suffering for their faith on a scale not seen in living memory.  Some of the world’s most ancient church communities have been wiped out or displaced by the rise of ISIS, and tens of thousands of Christians have fled the Islamic State’s onslaught—most likely never to return home.

     “We have seen the sharpest jump in violent attacks against Christians in the modern era,” says Curry, estimating that upwards of 100 million Christians worldwide are suffering persecution as we speak.

     “[And] while the year 2014 will go down in history for having the highest level of global persecution of Christians in the modern era,” Open Doors elaborated, “current conditions suggest the worst is yet to come.”

     Now I know it’s easy to shrug and say, “Well, what can I do about this?”  But we’re not helpless—not by a long shot.

     Christians in America have options for extending help to our hard-pressed brethren by supporting organizations devoted to serving the persecuted church and pleading her cause—organizations like Open Doors, Voice of the Martyrs, and International Christian Concern.  So please, get involved. We’ll link you to all of these ministries at http://www.BreakPoint.org.

     And of course, we need to pray—all the harder as the situation worsens.  And while you’re praying, remember this:  The same Gospel that Nero thought he could extinguish went on to conquer his empire.  His fires died—but the Holy Spirit’s fire did not.  And as the Apostle John wrote, very likely in the context of Nero’s persecution, Christians who confessed their Lord despite the cost “triumphed… by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.”

     So take action with me.  And folks, don’t despair.  If the gates of Hell and Rome can’t prevail against the Church, modern persecutors don’t stand a chance.

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I Corinthians 12:26  —   If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

Revelation 12:10-11  —  Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:  “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah.  For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down.  They triumphed over him (Satan) by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.”

Mark 13:13  —  (Jesus said), “Everyone will hate you because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”

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Almighty God, who has taught us through your Son Jesus Christ that those who follow Him may be persecuted; strengthen, comfort and encourage all those who suffer harassment, violence, imprisonment and even death for being followers of Jesus.  We pray for those who persecute your people; may their hearts be turned towards you through the faithful witness of those they persecute.  Protect members of the families and church communities of those who are persecuted and bless the work and ministry of the organizations that support those who are suffering and seek to be a voice of persecuted Christians.  Through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

651) Doing What You Can– Now

By William Law (1686-1761); adapted from A Practical Treatise Upon Christian Perfection

     Eugenia is a good young woman, full of pious dispositions.  She is intending, if ever she has a family, to be the best mother ever.  Her house shall be a school of religion, and her children and servants shall be brought up in the strictest practice of faith; and she will spend her time and live in a very different manner from the rest of the world.

     It may be so, Eugenia.  The piety of your mind makes me think that you intend all this with sincerity.  But you are not yet at the head of a family, and perhaps never will be.  But, Eugenia, you now have one maid, and you do not even know what religion she is of, or if she has any faith at all.  She dresses you for church, you ask her for what you want, and then leave her to have as little Christianity as she pleases.  You turn her away, you hire another, and she comes and goes, no more instructed or edified in religion by living with you than if she had lived with anybody else.  And all this comes to pass because your mind is taken up with greater things, and you reserve yourself to make a whole family religious, if ever you come to be the head of it.

     You need not wait, Eugenia, to be so extraordinary a person.  The opportunity is now in your hands.  You may now spend your time and live in as different a manner from the rest of the world as ever you can in any other state.  Your maid is your family at present.  She is now under your care.  Be now that religious governess that you intend to be, tell her about Jesus, encourage her to pray, take her with you to church, bless her with your conversation, fill her with your own notions of faith and piety, and spare no pains to make her as holy and devout as yourself.  When you do this much good in your present state, then you are that extraordinary person that you intend to be; and till you thus live up to your present state, there is but little hope that the altering of your state will alter your way of life.

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Luke 21:1-4  —  As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury.  He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins.  “I tell you the truth,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others.  All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all that she had to live on.” 

Matthew 25:23  —  His master replied, “Well done, good and faithful servant.  You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.”

Proverbs 11:25  —  A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.

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O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor:  Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection, and thus may show forth in our lives what we profess by our faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Book of Common Prayer