1015) The Test (2/3)

Job Rebuked by His Friends, watercolor by William Blake (1757-1827)

     (…continued)  Job, however, has a very different view of the situation.  While agreeing that it is indeed God’s business to punish evil and reward goodness, Job is quite convinced that God is making a big mistake in his case.  Job certainly admits to not being perfect, but he argues that has he not done anything to deserve this degree of suffering.  He has no hidden faults, no secret sins, nothing at all out of the ordinary to deserve such extra-ordinary punishment.  Yes, God rewards good and punishes evil, but in Job’s case it is God who is in the wrong.  Job is so convinced of this that he demands a hearing with God to plead his case.

     The friends are appalled at Job’s arrogance for thinking that he can call God himself to account.  But Job knows what they do not know, that is that he has done nothing so terrible as to deserve this.  Therefore, Job’s severe pain and agony drive him to challenge even God.  But still, he does not curse God.  Job continues speaking to God, he makes his appeal to God’s goodness and justice, and at times, he even rests back into trust in God’s care.  Job remains a man of faith.  It is his faith in the presence of God and in the goodness of God that drives even his angriest words at God.  Jobs hangs to faith, but it is a faith that has many questions of God and insists that God explain himself.

     Job is one of the most popular books in the Old Testament because it asks the questions we all ask.  In times of particular suffering we have all asked in one way or another, “Why God is this happening to me?”  This is the second most important question in religion.  The most important question is, “Is there a God?”  If we do believe in God, the next logical question is, what is God up to in the world and in my life?  Is God on my side or not?  And if God is on my side and does love me, why does he allow such terrible things to happen.  On and on, for almost the entire book, Job asks these questions from every angle with great power and eloquence.

     And then, God speaks.

     God speaks, but Job does not receive the kind of response he was looking for.  God’s reply goes on for four chapters, beginning in the second verse of chapter 38 with a challenge of his own.  God thunders from the heavens, “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge.  Brace yourself like a man Job, now I have some questions for you and you shall answer me.  Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?  Tell me if you understand.  Who marked off it’s dimensions?  Surely you must know!  Who stretched the measuring line across it?  On what were the footings set and who laid its cornerstone?… Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth?  Tell me if you know all this?”

     Job is given not an answer, but a glimpse into the greatness and majesty of God, and he is humbled.  Job repents of his arrogant words, admitting he spoke of things he did not understand.  In the last chapter, God commends Job for his faith and restores his health and fortunes.

     The Bible tells us not only what to believe and what to do, it also tells us what to see, and how to see God, the world, our life, our death, and our actions.  The Bible teaches us a new way of seeing everything.  One of the important things the Bible teaches us to see is that there is a limit to what we CAN see. Job never finds out what we found out at the very beginning of the story.  He never learned of the conversation between God and Satan.  He was not told that all of his suffering was not a punishment for wrongs committed, but instead was a test of his faith, by God who had great confidence in Job.  (continued…)

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Job 3:11…13…26  —  (Job said), “Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb?…  For now I would be lying down in peace; I would be asleep and at rest…  I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil.”

Job 4:7-8  —  (Eliphaz said), “Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished?  Where were the upright ever destroyed?  As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it.”

Job 7:17-21  —  (Job said to God), “What is man that you make so much of them, that you give him so much attention, that you examine him every morning and test him every moment?  Will you never look away from me, or let me alone even for an instant?  If I have sinned, what have I done to you, you who see everything we do?  Why have you made me your target?  Have I become a burden to you?  Why do you not pardon my offenses and forgive my sins?  For I will soon lie down in the dust; you will search for me, but I will be no more.”

Job 13:3  —  (Job said), “I desire to speak to the Almighty and to argue my case with God.”

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Merciful God, grant us feeble people endurance in adversity.  May the wicked roots of envy and malice not grow in us.  Save us from being brought into temptation by Satan.  Grant us love towards friends and enemies that we may follow in your ways, by the example of your Son, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

–Miles Coverdale, English Bible translator and Bishop  (1488-1568)

1014) The Test (1/3)

Job, 1880, by Leon Bonnat  (1833-1922)

     Job was a good man, and as the story told in the Old Testament book of Job begins, it would seem that his goodness was well rewarded. He was not only a good man, but he was a wealthy man; ‘the greatest man in the East,’ says chapter one.  He had huge flocks, dozens of servants, good health, and a large and happy family.  That is how the story begins.

     Then the scene shifts from earth and into heaven, into the very presence of the Almighty God himself, where Satan stops in for a little visit.  God asks Satan, “What have you been doing?”  Satan says he has been out and about, roaming to and fro on the earth.  God asks Satan if he has seen Job, that good and righteous man with whom God is obviously very pleased.  “Yes,” says Satan, “I have seen him.”  But Satan was not as impressed with Job’s goodness, and said to God sarcastically, “Why shouldn’t Job be good and worship God?  You have given him everything and blessed him in every way.  Take it all away,” challenges Satan, “and Job will curse you to your face.”

     “All right,” says God, accepting the challenge to put Job to the test, “Go ahead and do what you want to his fortunes, but do not harm Job.”  Immediately, the scene shifts back to earth, where Job is hit with one catastrophe after another.  His flocks are stolen or destroyed, his servants are killed and scattered, and all ten of his children are killed.  Yet, incredibly, Job remains faithful and says, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

     Then the scene shifts back to heaven again.  The conversation between God and Satan is repeated, with God pointing out Job’s goodness and continued faithfulness.  Not yet ready to concede defeat, Satan points out the fact that Job himself was spared any physical suffering.  So God agrees to continue the test.  This time God allows Satan to harm Job physically, with the only condition being that he must stop short of killing him.

      Once more, the story moves back to earth where Job is afflicted with a most painful skin disease, putting him in such pain and misery that before long he is soon wishing he was dead.  But he remains faithful.  His wife has had enough and encourages Job to give up.  “Curse God and die,” she says.  But Job will not hear of it, saying, “Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?”  He then goes outside of the city to bear his troubles alone, and there he sits in silent misery.  All of this takes place in the first two chapters of Job.  There are forty more chapters to go.

     Thirty-five of these remaining forty chapters are made up of a conversation between Job and some friends who come to be with him.  The friends first sit in silence with Job.  When the conversation begins, it centers on the question of why Job must endure so much suffering.

     Even though all the participants have the same theology and the same understanding of God, they disagree with great emotion and powerful words.  They agree that God is just, and that the way God deals with us is to reward goodness and to punish wickedness; always, and with mathematical precision.  Therefore, if things are going well for someone, they must be living a good and obedient life.  And, by the same rule, if things are going badly for you, that means you have been a bad boy or girl.  That is how the world works.

     With that belief firmly in place, the friends view of Job’s situation is that Job must have really done something terrible because he is really getting clobbered.  Therefore, they do all they can to get Job to admit to his sins and repent, so that God can forgive him and heal him.  (continued…)

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Job 1:8-12  —  The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job?  There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”   Satan replied. “Does Job fear God for nothing?  Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has?  You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land.  But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”  The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”

Job 1:20-22  —  (After all the disasters came upon his household and property…)  At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head.  Then he fell to the ground in worship and said:  “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart.  The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”  In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.

Job 2:9-10  —  (After Job himself is stricken…)  His wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity?  Curse God and die!”  He replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman.  Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”  In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.

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My dear Lord, I pray for the grace to meet suffering well when it comes upon me.  Let me bear pain, reproach, disappointment, slander, anxiety, and suspense as you would want me to, O Jesus, and as you have taught me by your own suffering.  Amen.

–J. H. Newman  (1801-1890)

1013) Forgiving the Enemy

     Jacob DeShazer was a young air force recruit in California when he first heard the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  Furious at what the Japanese had done, he resolved to retaliate personally.  In April of 1942 he got his chance.  He was selected to be a B-25 bombardier when Doolittle’s raiders made their daring attack on Tokyo.

Jacob DeShazer (1912-2008)

     During that dangerous mission, DeShazer’s plane went down and the crew had to bail out over enemy territory.  DeShazer was captured and spent the next 40 months as a prisoner of war, most in solitary confinement.  Three of his buddies were executed and another died slowly of starvation.

     With plenty of time to think, Jacob began to wonder what it was that made people hate each other.  He thought he remembered that the Bible had something to say about loving and forgiving our enemies.

     He asked his jailers for a Bible and eventually received one.  He read and reread it with fascination.  Ten days into his study, he asked God to forgive his sins.  “After that,” he said, “when I looked at the enemy officers and guards, I realized that if Christ is not in a heart, it is natural to be cruel.  My bitter hatred was then changed into loving pity.”  Jacob remembered Jesus’ words from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” and he asked God to forgive those who tortured him.

     Fourteen months later, in August of 1945, American troops liberated the prison camp that held Jacob DeShazer.  After the war, a chaplain on General MacArthur’s staff was looking for ways to heal the animosity between the United States and Japan.  He heard about DeShazer’s prison conversion, and had the story written and printed.  Before long, DeShazer’s story was being circulated in a pamphlet called I Was a Prisoner in Japan.

     There was also much serious soul searching in Japan after the war.  Japanese Navy pilot Mitsuo Fuchida was the chief commander of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He had advised against attacking the United States, but when given orders to proceed, he led the assault.

Mitsuo Fuchida  (1902-1976)

     Throughout the war, Fuchida was involved in hundreds of combat missions.  But his closest brush with death was on the ground in Japan.  He was in Hiroshima the day before the atom bomb was dropped there.  His life was spared because orders had come for him to go to Tokyo.

     When the war ended, Fuchida returned home.  One day he was given a copy of the booklet that told the story of Jacob DeShazer.  Intrigued, Fucida began reading the Bible.  Despite his upbringing in the Shinto religion, he came to believe in the Bible’s message and accepted Jesus Christ as his Savior.

     Eventually, Mitsuo Fuchida and Jacob DeShazer met.  They became good friends, and for many years traveled together, speaking in churches about their experiences and their own conversions.  Tens of thousands of Japanese became converted to Christianity because of their story.

     It all began when Jacob Deshazer was moved by the example of Jesus Christ to forgive his enemies.

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“I read in Luke 23:34 the prayer of Jesus Christ at His death: ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’  I was impressed that I was certainly one of those for whom He had prayed.  The many men I had killed had been slaughtered in the name of patriotism, for I did not understand the love which Christ wishes to implant within every heart.  Right at that moment, I seemed to meet Jesus for the first time.  I understood the meaning of His death as a substitute for my wickedness, and so in prayer, I requested Him to forgive my sins.”  –Mitsuo Fuchida

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Matthew 5:43-44  —  (Jesus said), “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Luke 23:33-34a  —  When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals; one on his right, the other on his left.  Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Acts 7:59-60  —  While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”  When he had said this, he fell asleep.

Romans 5:10  —  For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!

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“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

–Jesus, Luke 23:34

1012) Lending a Hand (b)

     (…continued)  Twenty centuries ago the Romans did not know what to make of the early Christians who were so odd as to have only one God, but they were impressed by how the Christians helped each other and everyone else.  In most the monasteries of the middle ages there were rules about hospitality, and guests were always welcome for a night’s lodging and a meal.  This was crucial for many who traveled on foot at a time when there wasn’t an abundance of hotels and motels in every major city.  Congregations worship in a room called a ‘sanctuary,’ and that word originally meant a place of ‘refuge;’ refuge from the spiritual and physical storms of life, and, a place where one could receive help.  And today, when one thinks of a refuge for the homeless in the big cities, it is the Salvation Army that comes to mind first, a Christian group supported by other Christians, that tries to make sure the neediest among us have a place where they can be fed and clothed and housed.

     This all goes back to the teachings of Jesus.  We have a long tradition of giving ‘the cup of cold water’ in Jesus name.  Not every culture or religion has this emphasis.  Even in Muslim and Hindu countries, after natural disasters like earthquakes or hurricanes, it is the Christian relief organizations that are on the scene doing the most work.

     There is a connection in all this between the physical and the spiritual.  The old saying is “The way to a man’s heart is through his belly.”  That can also be the way to a person’s soul.  When someone’s family is starving, and someone else comes and feeds them, that means something, and it means even more to hear that they were given that food in the name of Jesus.  It meant a lot to us just to get help when our car broke down.  Imagine what it means to those whose lives are saved by Christian relief organizations.  The Great Commission to take the gospel to the ends of the earth has always gone hand in hand with this command to hospitality and to service.

     Tony Campolo has done Christian relief work in the Dominican Republic.  He tells of a Christian doctor he knew there, a young Dominican named Elias.  Elias was educated in the United States and could have stayed here, earning a big salary in Chicago and living a comfortable life.  Instead, he returned to his native country to work among his people in the very worst slums.  He is seldom paid, but when he does get a little money he spends it on medicines for those who can not afford them.  Day after day he works with the poorest of the poor, giving them the medical help they could never have otherwise afforded.

     One day, Campolo traveled with Elias, riding his old beat up truck into the heart of the slums.  There, Elias spent the day seeing patients, diagnosing illnesses, giving medical advice, and handing out medicine.  At the end of the day, Elias climbed up onto his truck, hooked up a crude loudspeaker system, and began to preach the gospel.  All the people loved Elias, so they came out of their shacks and gathered around to listen.

     Campolo then saw in the crowd a young man he had previously met at the state university.  This young man was a member of the Communist student movement on the campus.  He would come out to the slums to talk to the people about Communism and revolution, but hardly anyone would listen to him.

     Tony walked over to this young communist agitator and said in a teasing, but also serious way, “Hey, Pedro!  Elias has the ear of the people.  You better watch out.  He is going to win them all to Christ and then there will be no one left to follow you.”

     The young man then turned to Campolo and without smiling said, “What am I supposed to say?  Elias has earned the right to be heard.”

     Jesus said, “He who receives you, receives me.”  This is how Christianity has spread around the world.

     The New York Times has become increasingly negative toward conservative Christian groups.  Not long ago they published some articles criticizing even those Christian relief organizations that have done so much to alleviate suffering around the world.  Therefore, I was surprised a while back to see this quote by a New York Times columnist.  He said: “I have lost my cynicism about evangelical groups partly because I have seen them at work abroad.”  Can you imagine that?  He took the time to look at all the good that these organizations were doing around the world, and he became less critical.

     Jesus told us to proclaim the gospel and take the good news of salvation to the ends of the earth.  Jesus also tells us to simply help those who are in need; feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.  The church, both locally and internationally, has been very effective doing both.

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Matthew 10:40  —  (Jesus said), “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”

I John 3:17-18  —  But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?  Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

Philippians 2:4  —  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

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Lord God, your Son came among us to serve and not to be served, and to give his life for the world.  Lead us by his love to serve all those to whom the world offers no comfort and little help.  Through us give hope to the hopeless, love to the unloved, peace to the troubled, and rest to the weary; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978  (#141)

1011) Lending a Hand (a)

     Many years ago, my brother and I took our two high school age sons on a trip to the mountains of Colorado.  On the drive home, in the middle of Nebraska, our car started to choke and sputter.  We pulled off at the first exit, coasted in to a motel parking lot, and there it died.  We were lucky to have gotten off the highway and be at a place where we could stay.  We were unlucky in that the nearest town was about three miles away and it was early evening and nothing would be open anymore.  There wasn’t much to do but get a room in the motel and wait until morning; and then hope we found a good mechanic who had the time to look at our vehicle as soon as possible.  We had to find a repair shop and we were a bit apprehensive about how that would go.  On a previous vacation, we were in a similar situation and had a frustrating experience with an ornery and unreliable mechanic.  All day we waited while he kept saying he would be getting at it soon.  Then when he did get at it, he wasn’t much good, and my brother had to talk him into letting him do it himself with the guy’s tools.  We were hoping it would go better this time.

     Once we got settled into our room, I wondered if there were any Lutheran churches in the town we were near.  Perhaps there would be fellow Lutheran pastor who might be willing to help us out by sending us to a garage with a mechanic we could trust.  Maybe he would even put a good word in for us so we could get some prompt attention in the morning.  Maybe I would even know the pastor.  So I got out the phone book and found two Lutheran churches.  No pastors’ names or phone numbers were listed, but I thought I’d try the churches even though it was after hours.  A part-time secretary answered at the first church I called.  She had just stopped at the church office for a few minutes to pick something up.  I told her our problem and asked for the pastor’s phone number.  “He’s on vacation,” she said, “but perhaps my husband and I can help you.”  She asked what motel we were at and twenty minutes later they were there.  They were retired, they said, and would have time to help us out the next day.  They had already called a mechanic, a semi-retired friend who still did some work when he felt like it.  “He’ll help you in first thing in the morning,” they said, and the husband added, “I’ll bring my pickup and we’ll pull you into town.”  Things were looking better. 

     The next day they were there, right on time.  They pulled the car to their friend’s place.  The mechanic said he’d have us back on the road in no time.  We thanked the couple and thought they would be on their way, but then they said, “There’s no need for you to just sit around here; we want to take you out for breakfast.”  We were hungry and happy to agree to the idea, but we said we wanted to buy them their breakfasts.  They said “We’ll see about that.”  They took us all to a nice place for a big breakfast, and then insisted on paying for everything.  When we got back, the mechanic said that there would be a bit of a delay as he had to order a part and the truck would not be there with it for a couple hours.  So the couple said they would take us for a ride and show us the area.  As part of the tour they also showed us where they lived and where they hid their house-key saying, “We have to leave later today, but if there’s any trouble getting that part and you have to stay another night, just go on in and make yourself at home.”  Then we went back to the garage.  The part had come, the car was done, and we were on our way.  I am still amazed at the hospitality of those wonderful people.

     Jesus once said, “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me;…  and if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”  This is just one of many places in the Bible where we are told in simple terms to lend a hand and help each other out.  In Matthew 25 Jesus describes the scene at the last judgment where he says to those on his right, “Come on in, for when I was hungry you fed me, when I was naked you clothed me, when I was thirsty you gave me something to drink…” and so on.  He then adds, “Whatever you do to the least of these my brethren, you do it for me.”  

     In the Old Testament, God told the Israelites to welcome the stranger and to do good to the alien in their land, because they themselves were once strangers and aliens in a strange land.  And the prophets were constantly telling the people to deal justly with each other and to care for the poor, the widows, and the orphans.  This is a big theme in the Bible and you find something of it in every section of the Scriptures from beginning to end.  And this message has, for the last 2000 years, prompted and inspired Christians all over the world to have this heart of service and hospitality.

     Therefore, when we broke down with our car in a town where we don’t know anyone, I had good reason to think that by calling a church we might get some help.  There was no guarantee that anyone at the church would be willing, and there were probably other helpful people in that town, even if they don’t go to church.  But not everyone would help and I had an inkling that I would have my best chance with the church.  I am not the only one who thinks that way.  In fact, many times I have been on the other end of the phone for such requests.  I have had many calls at the church office for food, gas, lodging, or whatever, from strangers who, from past experience, knew that the church would help.  Most churches do.  It has been the heritage in the Christian church from the beginning, and it has been a powerful and positive witness.  (continued…)

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Matthew 10:40  —  (Jesus said), “ “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

Matthew 25:40  — (Jesus said), ““The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

James 2:15-16  —  Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?

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 O Lord Jesus Christ, who when on earth was always occupied by your Father’s business:  grant that we may not grow weary in well-doing, and give us the grace to do all in your name.  Amen. 

1010) Instant Gratification (2/2)

“What do you mean it is going to take forty-five seconds to cook in the micro-wave?  I want it now!”

–Homer Simpson

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    (…continued)  ‘Instant gratification’ is what we might want, but seldom does it do us any good.  Oftentimes, as it says in Romans five, it is suffering that produces strength and character and perseverance and hope.  The desire for instant gratification is understandable, but when answers to prayers or the fulfillment of our desires is delayed, we would do better to trust God’s delay than to insist on what we want right now.  This is easy to see in the story of the prodigal son or in the letter from Pamela.  It is not as easy to see if you are waiting for answers to prayers on healing, relief from pain, or worries about a loved one.  Very often it seems that what we want right away should also be what God wants; and if what we want does not happen, we might wonder if God really cares about us.

     The book of Joshua tells a story very different from the parable of the prodigal son.  The prodigal son demands and receives instant gratification, but the book of Joshua tells of gratification delayed; of a promise of God, a firm and solid hope, that was a long time in coming.

     The book of Joshua begins with the Israelites finally, again, ready to enter the promised land.  God had miraculously freed them from slavery in Egypt, but that was forty long years ago.  The journey from Egypt to the promised land should have lasted only a few months.  Four decades earlier, after that few month journey, they were about to enter the new land.  But their lack of constant lack of faith and ongoing disobedience, even while God was working for them great miracles of deliverance, finally resulted in God’s punishment.  God said their entrance to the promised land would be delayed until that entire disobedient generation was dead.  There would be no ‘instant gratification’ for them.

     So for forty years they had to wait, living not in the lush promised land of abundant crops and fruits and blessings galore, but in the harsh, hot wilderness, eating the same bland food, manna, every day.  Finally now, says Joshua 5:11-12, they are about to have their hopes fulfilled and eat from the rich produce of the new land.

     Forty years was a long delay, but it was not wasted time.  During those years in the wilderness, a nation of people of faith and character were being built, and they entered the new land a far stronger people than they were before.  The instant gratification ruined the character and life of the prodigal son and of Pamela, and made them unable to endure the troubles that inevitably come into everyone’s life.  But the disappointing delays for the people of Israel gave them something far better than instant gratification.  It built into them a faith in God that gave them the strength to withstand anything.  And they remained faithful and strong– until their faith and character were again weakened by the good life in the new land, and they fell away from God.  Such is our sin.  It so often happens that the more we are blessed, the worse we get.

     The main theme in both stories is the enveloping grace of God.  In Joshua, God had delayed his promise, but he did not go back on it.  The Israelites, as a stronger and better people, did enter the promised land with all of its many blessings.  And the father of the prodigal son is like the Heavenly Father, granting every blessing, though undeserved; and then even when those blessings are not appreciated and wasted, welcoming back with forgiveness his repentant son.

    These two stories, like so many in the Bible, are lessons in trusting God, even when it looks like his promises are delayed; and, of returning to God in faith, even when we have not made the best use of the blessings that we have received.

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Instant gratification has long term consequences.

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Joshua 5:6  —  The Israelites had moved about in the wilderness forty years until all the men who were of military age when they left Egypt had died, since they had not obeyed the Lord.  For the Lord had sworn to them that they would not see the land he had solemnly promised their ancestors to give us, a land flowing with milk and honey.

Romans 5:3b-4  —  Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.

Psalm 119:71  —  It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.

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Lord, here I am, do with me as seems best in Thine own eyes; only give me, I beseech Thee, a penitent and patient spirit to wait for Thee.  Make my service acceptable to Thee while I live, and my soul ready for Thee when I die.  Amen.

–William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury  (1573-1645)

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Lord, teach me the art of patience while I am well, and enable me the use of it when I am sick.  In that day either lighten my burden or strengthen my back.  Make me, who so often in my health have discovered my weakness in presuming on my own strength, to be strong in my sickness when I rely solely on your assistance.  Amen.

–Thomas Fuller, English clergyman and historian  (1608-1661)

1009) Instant Gratification (1/2)

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     A young woman in Los Angeles wrote her mother in North Dakota the following letter:

Dear Mom,

     I know you haven’t heard from me for a while, and I have not been very good about returning your calls.  I am sorry about that.  I just got sick of you and dad always lecturing me about money and saving for the future and not going so far into debt and all that.  Even when I came back to visit dad on his deathbed, he had to bring it up and I didn’t want to hear it.

      But you both were right.  Mark lost his job six months ago and has not been able to find work and now we are losing our house.  Not only that, but we are getting a divorce.  All we do is fight about money and blame each other for the mess we are in.  We both made plenty of mistakes, but we won’t admit that to each other.  We disagree on everything, especially on what to do about our debt.  But we do agree on going our separate ways and starting over alone.

     We should have listened to Dad all those times he told us to be more careful about our money.  But we both had such good jobs, the credit was easy, and we had no trouble paying all the monthly bills for school loans, house and car payments, credit card payments, and payments on the loans we took out to do all the traveling we did.  I did not want to have to be like you, waiting so many years to enjoy life and then having only a short time with Dad to enjoy what you worked so hard to save.  We wanted to have it all right now.  I was sure we were better off in these times than in the old days.  I thought we were more secure and we did not have to go by the same old rules you did.  Besides, we didn’t have four kids to worry about like you did, so we thought that the money would never run out.

     I am sorry about the big fight we had after Dad’s funeral.  I hope you can forgive me for all the mean things I said.  How thoughtless of me to add to your grief at the worst time of your entire life.

     If you can forgive me, I have to ask you for a big favor.  I need a place to live for a while.  Not only are we getting a divorce, but we have to file bankruptcy.  And not only that, but my company is making cutbacks, and I am also losing my job. There is no work out here, and there is no way I can afford to live in this city.  I just need to have a place to stay for a while until I get things figured out.  Can I have my old room back for a few months?  I am so sorry.

Your foolish daughter, Pamela

     What got Mark and Pamela into trouble was the desire for instant gratification.  They knew what they wanted and they wanted it now.  The key to such instant gratification is the credit card; something my grandparents never had, what I did not get until I was well into my 30’s, and is now aggressively marketed to 18 year-olds.  For some young people who have never had to wait for anything, the instant gratification available with a credit card is considered a basic necessity of life, no less necessary for survival than food and water.  But life is not designed to guarantee instant gratification, and for someone used to such a luxury, even a small bump on the road can cause the bottom to fall out.

      There were no credit cards at the time of Jesus, but human nature was the same. People then, as now, had huge desires that craved fulfillment, but often needed to be resisted.  Jesus once told a parable about this very thing.  It was the parable of the Prodigal Son, his desire for instant gratification, and what happened when he did receive everything he ever wanted.  ( Luke 15:1-2…11-32)

     Usually, if a son wants to take over the family farm, he first of all stays home and helps his father on what is still the father’s farm.  As time goes on, he can begin to buy into that farm, or perhaps, buy it outright, and then make payments to his parents as long as they live.  A farm is a lifetime investment now, and it was no different in Bible times.

     What you don’t ever see happening is what happened in this parable of Jesus.  In his parables, Jesus would often set up an outrageous situation in order to make a powerful point about the outrageous, amazing grace of God.  “There was a man who had two sons,” Jesus begins, and we find out later the man is a farmer.  Then, says Jesus, the younger of these two sons said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the estate.”  “Excuse me,” the father could have said, “an estate is settled after a person is dead.  As you can see, I am not dead, so if you ever want any part of this estate when the time comes, get back out to the barn and help your brother finish the chores.”  That is what any normal father would say to such a rude request.  But this father says, “Okay.”  

     Now, a farmer’s assets are not primarily in cash, but in the land.  Therefore, to give his son half of the estate would have meant selling off a fair amount of land.  But this father does just that, or as the text says, “He divided his property between them.”  So either the father or the son sold the property, because by the next verse the son gathered up his wealth and took it to a distant country.  That is what you call instant gratification.  One half of this father’s entire lifetime investment is cashed in and given to this rude son, all at once, to do with as he pleased.

     A mature and wise son could have seen this as an opportunity.  Perhaps he did not want to be a farmer, but he could have used this wealth to buy a business that did suit him and at which he could work at to support him and his future family.  But this was not a wise son.  Rather, he was very foolish and so, says verse 13, “He squandered his wealth in wild living.”  What was built up over a lifetime, was lost very quickly.  Then, as for Pamela and her husband, the economy changed.  Verse 14: “After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.”  

     Then he, like Pamela, “came to his senses.”  He decided to repent of his wrongdoing and return home.  There, his father welcomed him with open arms.  (continued…)

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Matthew 5:45b  —  …(Jesus said), “Your Father in heaven causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

Luke 15:11-12  —   Jesus continued:  “There was a man who had two sons.  The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’  So he divided his property between them.”

Luke 15:21  —  (Jesus said), “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’”

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Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your child.  Forgive me, for I want to come home.

–Based on Luke 15:21

1008) The Book

By Al Rogness, from The Word for Every Day, 1981, Augsburg Publishing House, page 234.

     The Christian church really has but one book.  Of course thousands of books have been written about the faith, but all draw from one book, the Bible.  The Bible is the basis for our faith.

     We who are Christians believe that the Bible is different from all other books.  It is not an encyclopedia where you can look up information about birds or stars.  The whole world of chemistry and biology, for instance, is not in this book.  God gives us this kind of knowledge largely through studies in science.

     The Bible is God’s book, and God reveals himself in it.  He does not tell us everything about himself in this book, but he does tell us all that we need to know about him.  It is an old book.  The last parts were written at least 1800 years ago.  If you’re studying aeronautics, you certainly will not go to the Bible.  But for knowledge about God, an old book may be better than a new one.  Plato’s dialogues and Shakespeare’s plays are old too, but they remain the best of their kind in every university of the land.  And the Bible, an old book to be sure, is in a class by itself.  It is the Word of God.

     The strange thing about the Bible is that God uses it as a door through which he comes to us.  It is almost as if he leaps out of the pages to enter our hearts.  Or, think of the Bible as a lake.  You sit on the bank fishing for knowledge about God.  Suddenly God himself— not knowledge about him— takes the hook and pulls you in.  God catches you.

     By far the most important fact about the Bible is that Jesus Christ is in it.  Luther said that the Bible is like a cradle holding Jesus.  If you are starting from scratch to read the Bible, you should probably first read the four Gospels, the accounts of Jesus’ life and sayings.  Something remarkable then will happen; you find that Jesus is more than the total of what he said and did.  Jesus himself becomes the Word.  You not only learn about God through him.  You know God and are brought to him through Jesus.

     It is when we do more than hurry through a few verses— as we frequently do— and begin living with and loving certain parts of the book, it is then that it becomes alive for us, and we begin to know it as a great treasure.

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II Timothy 3:16-17  —  All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

John 1:1-5…14…16-18  —  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…  And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…  From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.  The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  No one has ever seen God.  It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

Romans 10:17  —  So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.

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

–Martin Luther

1007) Love Never Fails? (part two)

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     (…continued)  Margaret was crushed.  She could not believe what she was reading.  She did not know what she would do or how she could tell the children.  For days she could not talk to the children about it.  Finally one of the children said, “Mommy, is something wrong?  Did something happen to Daddy?  You seem so sad and we have not received any letters for a very long time.”

     “Yes,” she replied, “there is something wrong.”

     “Is Daddy not coming back?,” they asked.  

     “No, he is not coming back,” she replied.

     “Why isn’t he coming back?” they asked.  

     “He has fallen in love with somebody else in Japan and he is going to stay there with her,” said their mother.

     The little ones could not understand it.  All they knew was that they were not going to see their daddy anymore.  Finally, one of the children said, “Mommy, just because daddy doesn’t love us anymore, does that mean we can’t love him anymore?”  

     The mother thought about it for a while, and then finally she said, “No, we are allowed to love him.”

     Then one of the children said, “Will you please write to daddy and ask him to keep writing to us because we still love him?”  

     Love persevering.

     And so even though the mother did not feel very much like continuing the contact, she did so for the boys’ sake.  Every letter would break her heart.  It turned out her husband was going to quit the army and marry the 15-year old servant girl who had been working for him.  As time went on, he had some children by that marriage, and life went on for all.  

     A few years later Margaret received another shocking letter.  “Dear Margaret,” it said, “I am sorry I have to write this to you, but I have cancer and do not have long to live.  I do not have any money saved to support my family in the future, there are no jobs, and I don’t know how they will survive.  Would it possible for you to save some money every month after I die, and send it to my family here to help them?”

     Margaret’s first reaction was anger, as one might well expect.  But as she held the letter, she kept thinking back to what her little boy had said many years before: “Just because he doesn’t love us anymore, does that mean we aren’t allowed to love him?”  So she wrote back and said, “I don’t have any extra money to send.  I would if I could, but you have to understand that we are barely surviving here.  But this is what I will do.  After you die, you can send your wife and children here to America.  I will teach them the language and help them to become self-supporting.  They can come into our home and live with us.  I will help them.”

    After his death, the man’s Japanese family came and lived with the American family that he had abandoned.  Margaret taught them English, got them on their feet, and eventually they were able to support themselves.  

     Love is patient, love is kind, it is not self-seeking, it keeps no record of wrongs.

     Margaret ended the article saying: “I had two choices.  I could have looked back upon my life and cursed that man every moment for what he had done to me.  I could have kept my anger alive, and thus, find myself broken and battered twice over.  Or, I could thank God for giving me the privilege to let His light shine in one very dark place in this world.”

     Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.

     I don’t know what Paul was getting at when he said ‘Love never fails,’ but I think this might be an example of what he meant.

     This is indeed an incredible story.  You might wonder if it is even true or if someone made it all up just to sell an article.  I have sometimes wondered if those magazines take the time to check out the truth of their stories.  

     But I know such forgiveness and love is possible because I knew a family with a similar story.  The experiences of the family I knew differed in many of the details from the Guideposts story, but it was the same in all the main points.  There was a loving family, and then adultery, separation, divorce, and then a death.  In the family I knew, it was the abandoned husband and his new wife who came and helped the former wife after the death of her second husband, leaving her with two small children.  I did the funeral for the young man who died, and in the weeks and months that followed I saw much of the two families and how they worked together.  It was an amazing thing to see, and a testimony to the whole community of the power of Christian love and forgiveness and service.

     Love does fail, but love can also persevere.  Granted, most situations do not work out this way.  Others work out in other ways.  Many do not work out at all.  The stories above worked out only after someone died.  In many situations, even when one tries to be loving, the other only wants to be mean.  In many other situations there is no love at all.  Sin has made this a wicked and messy world.  In both of the above stories there were actions that were sinful and unloving, but there were also actions that were full of incredible Christian forgiveness and love that brought healing.  

    I Corinthians 13 describes what Paul learned about love from the life of Jesus.  Those like Margaret, who have been inspired by the example of Jesus to find ways to do what is most loving, make the world a better place.  We must keep that in mind, for it is what our Lord has commanded us to do.

     “Love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus said, “and do for them what you would want done for you.”  In doing so we, like Margaret said, are given the opportunity to shine the light of Christ in some very dark places.

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I John 4:7a  —  Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.

I John 4:19  —  We love because he first loved us.

John 15:13  —  (Jesus said), “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

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My God I love you, believe in you, and trust in you.  Help us to love one another as you love us.  Amen.

–Mother Teresa  (1910-1997)

1006) Love Never Fails? (part one)

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I CORINTHIANS 13

 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails.  But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.  When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.  When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.  For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love.

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     I Corinthians 13 has been called the Bible’s love chapter.  The Bible is filled with descriptions of God’s love in action, and His commands for us to love one another.  But it is here in these 13 verses that Paul really defines and describes what Christian love is all about.

     Paul begins his description with several ‘ifs,’ each describing wonderful abilities or accomplishments.  If, he says, I have great spiritual powers, such great faith as to even move mountains; and if, he says, I am very generous and give everything I have to the poor; and even if, he says, I am willing to sacrifice my life; even if I am willing to do all that, if I do not also have love, Paul says, it is all worth nothing and I gain nothing.  In the last verse, he says love is the greatest attribute of all.  And in between the opening verses, and that concluding verse, Paul describes what Christian love is and does.  He uses words like patience and kindness, truth and trust, hope and perseverance.  That is what love is like, says Paul, and then he adds a few words about what love is not like.  Love does not envy and it does not boast and it is not proud.  Love is not rude, not self-seeking, not easily angered, and keeps no record of wrongs.  That’s a powerful list, and each word is worth pondering for a while, thinking about how one does or does not fulfill that call to Christian love.

     But it is a wicked world, and such love is not always returned.  So there is one phrase in this chapter I wish Paul would have explained a little more because I’m not sure what he meant.  I am not questioning the Bible, and I’m sure Paul could clarify my problem with this otherwise wonderful passage.  I’m just saying there is one part I don’t understand.  In verse eight Paul says, “Love never fails.”  This is where I have the problem.  As I said, it is a wicked world, and I see love failing all the time, don’t you?  There is love that is not returned, love taken advantage of, love betrayed, love denied, and love rejected.  We see love failing all over the place.  Jesus himself faced the rejection of the love he wanted to show.  That doesn’t mean we stop loving.  It certainly did not stop Jesus.  Every act of love makes the world a better place, and our Lord commands us to be loving, as He Himself is.  But it does not seem realistic to say love never fails.  

     I am sure Paul would have a good answer to my question.  Perhaps he means when both people in a relationship have a love like the love he describes, they cannot fail; or perhaps he means that God in heaven will remember and honor every act of love; or perhaps he means that love in general will not fail to make the world a better place.  Any of that could be possible.  But he doesn’t say that, and I would like a more complete definition because I am sure every one us can tell of love or good deeds given that did fail to get love or good will in return, and, we can no doubt remember our own failures.  Love does fail.

     Paul isn’t here to clarify this, but I am reminded of a story that was in Guideposts magazine some years ago.  It was written by a woman whose children were now grown and on their own.  Many years before, early in their marriage, she and her husband were living on the West Coast.  He was in the army and they had two small children.  About the time that the boys were starting school, the army sent that husband and father to serve in Japan for a year.  It was a close family and they were dreading his absence for that long, but they all promised to write back and forth often.  The husband did write regularly and his wife and children loved to read the letters.  They also always wrote, and all were counting the days until his return.

     But then all of a sudden the letters from Japan stopped coming.  One week, two weeks, three weeks; there were no letters.  Finally a letter did come to the wife which said, “Dear Margaret, no matter what I write here you are going to be brokenhearted before this letter is over.  I am sorry, Margaret, but I will not be coming back home.  I have fallen in love with someone here, and we are going to get married.  Please tell the children that I will not be returning.”

     Love failing.   (continued…)

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Almighty and most merciful God, who hast given us a new commandment that we should love one another, give us also grace that we may fulfill it.  Make us gentle, courteous, and patient.  Direct our lives so that we may each look to the good of others in word and deed; for the sake of him who loved us and gave himself for us, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen. 

–B. F. Westcott, Bishop and Bible scholar, (1825-1901)