1497) It’s Friday, But Sunday’s Coming

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     Shadrach Meshach Lockridge (March 7, 1913 – April 4, 2000) was the Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, a prominent African-American congregation in San Diego, California, from 1953 to 1993.  He was known for his preaching across the United States and around the world.

     In his classic message, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Coming!,”  Lockeridge expressed the pain and seeming defeat of the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, while hinting at the victory to come.  Christians celebrate the cross because the story does not end on that fateful Friday.  It does not end at the cross.  The irony of the cross was that the very instrument Jesus’ enemies used to defeat Him, became His greatest victory.  Little did they know when Friday ended that what would happen on Sunday would change the course of the world’s history.

     Here is a portion of that famous sermon by Lockridge.  As you read it (or hear an audio recording of it as Lockeridge himself preached it at the link below), just remember that regardless of what today brings, regardless of today’s problems, challenges, or defeats; Sunday’s coming! 

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It’s Friday.  Jesus is praying.  Peter’s a sleeping.  Judas is betraying.  But Sunday’s comin’. 

It’s Friday.  Pilate’s struggling.  The council is conspiring.  The crowd is vilifying.  They don’t even know, that Sunday’s comin’.

It’s Friday.  The disciples are running like sheep without a shepherd.  Mary’s crying. Peter is denying.  But they don’t know, that Sunday’s a comin’.

It’s Friday.  The Romans beat my Jesus.  They robe him in scarlet.  They crown him with thorns.  But they don’t know, that Sunday’s comin’.

It’s Friday.  See Jesus walking to Calvary.   His blood dripping.  His body stumbling.  And his spirit’s burdened.  But you see, it’s only Friday.  Sunday’s comin’.

It’s Friday.  The world’s winning.  People are sinning.  And evil is grinning.   

It’s Friday. The soldiers nail my Savior’s hands to the cross.  They nail my Savior’s feet to the cross.  And then they raise him up next to criminals.  It’s Friday.  But let me tell you something.  Sunday’s comin’.

It’s Friday.  The disciples are questioning.  What has happened to their King.  And the Pharisees are celebrating that their scheming has been achieved.  But they don’t know, it’s only Friday.  Sunday’s comin’.

It’s Friday.  He’s hanging on the cross.  Feeling forsaken by his Father.  Left alone and dying.  Can nobody save him?  Ooooh, it’s Friday.  But Sunday’s comin’.

It’s Friday.  The earth trembles.  The sky grows dark.  My King yields his spirit. 

It’s Friday.  Hope is lost.  Death has won.  Sin has conquered.  And Satan’s just a laughin’.

It’s Friday.  Jesus is buried.  A soldier stands guard.  And a rock is rolled into place.  But it’s  Friday.  It is only Friday. 

Sunday is a comin’!

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cikenKl92Og

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FRIDAY:

Luke 23:44-46  —  It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining.  And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.  Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”  When he had said this, he breathed his last.

SUNDAY:

Luke 24:1-6a  —  On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had preparedand went to the tomb.  They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.  While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them.  In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here; he has risen!”

John 20:19-20  —  On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”  After he said this, he showed them his hands and side.  The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

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EASTER PRAYER, 1766, by Samuel Johnson (1709-1784): 

Almighty and most merciful Father, before whom I now appear laden with the sins of another year, suffer me yet again to call upon Thee for pardon and peace.  O God! grant me repentance, grant me reformation.  Grant that I may be no longer distracted with doubts, and harassed with vain terrors.  Grant that I may no longer linger in perplexity, nor waste in idleness that life which Thou hast given and preserved.  Grant that I may serve thee in firm faith and diligent endeavor, and that I may discharge the duties of my calling with tranquility and constancy.  Take not, O God, Thy Holy Spirit from me; but grant that I may so direct my life by thy holy laws, as that, when Thou shalt call me hence, I may pass by a holy and happy death to a life of everlasting and unchangeable joy.  Amen.

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1454) Castles in the Sand

From Randy Alcorn’s devotional 60 Days of Happiness  (www.epm.org)

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“Wherever you go, there you are.”

      We bring ourselves to every situation, every encounter, and every relationship.  The unhappy person who leaves North Dakota in search of happiness in California will find more sunshine and less snow, but not more happiness.  The happy Californian who relocates will find that his happiness accompanies him. 

     Positive people experience adversity, just as negative people do.  Their expectations don’t control circumstances, but they do give perspective.  Optimists see more goodness and find redemptive elements even in the bad times.  Scripture says, “The hopes of the godly result in happiness, but the expectations of the wicked come to nothing” (Proverbs 10:28, NLT).  Likewise, Proverbs 11:23 states, “The desire of the righteous ends only in good; the expectation of the wicked in wrath.”

     Disneyland claims to be the happiest place on Earth, but according to 60 Minutes (CBS, June 15, 2008), studies show the happiest nation on Earth is Denmark.  The United States, despite its greater wealth, ranks twenty-third, and the United Kingdom, forty-first.  What is Denmark’s remarkable secret to topping the happiness chart?  Low expectations.  The interviews on 60 Minutes demonstrate that Danes have more modest dreams than Americans and they’re less distressed when their hopes don’t materialize.

     The general view of life in Denmark is somewhat compatible with the Christian doctrine of the Fall: instead of being surprised when life doesn’t go their way, Danes are grateful that things aren’t worse, and they’re happily surprised by health and success.  If they have food, clothing, shelter, friends, and family, life seems good.

     There’s a biblical basis for both realistic and positive expectations.  We certainly live in a world with suffering and death.  But as believers, we understand that God is with us and won’t forsake us, and that one day in eternity we will be far happier than Denmark or Disneyland on even their best days!

      Worry is the product of high stakes and low control.  There’s no greater enemy of happiness.  There’s a subtle aspect to worry: if we care, we think we should worry, as if that will help somehow.  In fact, worry has absolutely no redemptive value.  When good things are happening, we’re worried that bad things will come.  When bad things happen, we worry that worse things will come.  Jesus asked, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” (Luke 12:25).  Nothing is more impotent than worry, and nothing so robs of happiness in Christ.

     Just after instructing us to rejoice in the Lord, Paul writes in Philippians 4:6, “Do not be anxious about anything.”  Worry is a killjoy.  It specializes in worst-case scenarios.  In contrast, God tells his children there is much that should make us rejoice:

  • He has already rescued us from the worst, which is eternal Hell.
  • Even if something terrible happens, he’ll use it for our eternal good.
  • Often bad things don’t happen, and our worry proves groundless.
  • Whether or not bad things happen, our worry generates no positive change.
  • The cause for all our worries—sin and the Curse—is temporary, and will soon be behind us. Forever.

     The command to rejoice is not mere pretense or unrealistic expectations or positive thinking.  Rather, it’s embracing our present life, which includes suffering.  But even before God wipes it all away, he gives us compelling reasons to rejoice.

     Jesus emphatically commands us not to worry (Matthew 6:25, 34).  But how can we avoid it?  A big part of it is adjusting our expectations based on his promises not only that all will be well one day in Heaven, but that he is at work here and now, lovingly accomplishing his purposes in our lives.

     Max Lucado (in And the Angels Were Silent) tells the story of a boy on the beach who eagerly scoops up and packs sand.  Using a plastic shovel and a bright red bucket, he creates a magnificent sand castle.  He works all afternoon, creating a tower, walls, and even a moat.  Not far away, a man in his office shuffles papers into stacks and delegates assignments.  He punches buttons on a phone and keys on a keyboard, makes profits, and builds his own castle.

     In both cases, time passes, the tide rises, and the castles are destroyed.  But there’s a big difference.  The boy expects what’s coming and celebrates it.  He’s eager for the waves to hit his castle.  He smiles as his castle erodes and turns into no more than formless lumps in the sand.  The businessman’s life also ebbs and flows, and the works of his hands are swept away.  If his castle isn’t taken from him, he’ll be taken from his castle.  But he chooses not to think about this.  Unlike the boy, this man is unprepared for what will happen.  While the boy has no sorrow and regret, the man does all he can to hold on to his castle and is inconsolable when his life or house or business slips away.

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     No matter what comes today or tomorrow, may these words from the Lord to his people Israel become our expectation of the life God ultimately intends for all his children: “I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11, CEB).

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Father of all happiness, we expect things to go our way, and are quickly disappointed when they don’t.  We look so many other places than to you for our contentment.  Help us to lower our expectations of a stress-free life while raising our expectations of who you are and the happiness you have for us not only forever, but now.  Deliver us from joy-killing worry, and empower us to ground our optimism on the breathtaking eternal realities you’ve promised us in Christ.  

–Randy Alcorn

1334) Not Understanding… Yet

Two quotes from The Key Next Door, 1959, by Leslie Weatherhead (1893-1976), Anglican pastor of City Temple in London.

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     Can we really hope to understand all that our heavenly Father does?  Can a toddler, whose father is a surgeon, understand that his father must make people unconscious, lay them on a table, and cut them with knives?  Can a child watching a building site, covered with cranes and cement and stones and rubbish, understand what the architect is going to do with it?  Can a child, confronted with a batch of black dots on a sheet of paper, realize that it is the music of Beethoven which will thrill the world as long as the world lasts?

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     Let us remember that we shall never feel so defeated, so depressed, so beaten, so cheated, as eleven men felt on Good Friday night.  Jesus had promised them the world!  They were going to rule in a kingdom.  Some of them were going to sit on His right and on His left.  Life was going to be marvelous.  They had become important.  They were going to do big things…  And then Jesus was arrested, tortured, and crucified.   We shall never feel as they felt then.  No, not even crippling disease, financial failure, the broken heartedness which comes from the loss of love, the desertion of friends, the death of dear ones, the injustice and disappointments of life— none of these could bring us so low as the Cross brought those eleven men.  

     And then—Easter dawn, a voice, a testimony, an appearance, and a certainty, and they knew that even His death did not matter as much as they thought.  But then again, in a very different sense, it did indeed matter gloriously, and became a new beginning instead of a dismal end.

     Do you remember that night when you were only a little child and somehow your doll got smashed, or your favorite teddy bear got burnt in the kitchen fire, or someone stepped on your toy train?  I doubt if we can really recover now the anguish of spirit we felt then.  The adults who looked on said that we should get over it, or they would buy us another doll or another teddy or another train.  But we did not believe we should ever get over it, and in the darkness of our despair we sobbed ourselves to sleep.  And yet, now, we know it did not matter as much as we thought.

     The day will come when we shall look back on disease and war, on disaster and misery, on pain and sorrow, or, deprivation and frustration, and say, “Well, it was awful at the time, but it didn’t matter as much as we thought.”  That moment will come.  We shall then adjust our perspective.  We shall then see those things—even death—as the little things, and the big things will be the hands of God that sustained you, the purposes of God that never let you go, and the love of God that will bring you at last to the place where you understand and are content; the place where in unbroken joy we will bless the hand that guided us and restored all that was lost.

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Romans 8:18  —  I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

II Corinthians 4:16a…17-18  —  So we do not lose heart…  For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are temporary, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

Luke 19:42  —  (Jesus said), “If this day you only knew what makes for peace—but for now it is hidden from your eyes.”

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Dear Lord, help us to get our perspective right so that we may see what matters most, and put our faith, trust, and hope in you alone.  Amen.

1288) Hoping for Help (part three of three)

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Based on my sermon October 16, 2016:

     In John chapter 16, Jesus is spending his last evening with his disciples before his crucifixion.  The disciples don’t know yet what is coming, but Jesus is helping preparing them for a huge disappointment.  Jesus said to them, “In a little while, you will see me no more” (he would die on the cross and be buried);  “and then,” Jesus said, “after a little while, you will see me” (when he rose from the dead).  But even after the resurrection, the time would be brief and Jesus would go to heaven.  They again would be left alone, without him.  Jesus went on to predict that they would grieve and weep and mourn— but then in the end, their grief would turn to joy.  Jesus then said, “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace.  In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart, for I have overcome the world.”  Jesus was preparing them for the shattering of many of their hopes:  he would no longer be with them, they would face great suffering as they took his message to the world, many people would reject their message, and most of those disciples would be killed.  But Jesus was offering them a hope and a help that went beyond this world and this life.  Jesus was assuring them that even though many of their earthly hopes would be disappointed, their ultimate and eternal hope in him would never be disappointed.

     Malcom Muggeridge was a British journalist who recorded the rising and falling of many 20th century political leaders, and the failure of their hopes for a better world.  For much of his life he was an unbeliever.  But late in life Muggeridge began writing about his fascination with Jesus, and at the age of 79 joined the Roman Catholic Church.  Describing two very different kinds of hope, Muggeridge wrote:

As Christians, we need not be discouraged when we see all around us the decay of institutions and powers, when we see empires falling, when we see the economy is such disarray, and when we see social program after program fail, or worse yet, create more problems.  That all need not lead us to despair.  Rather, it is precisely when every earthly hope has been tried and found inadequate, when every possible help from man has been sought and come to nothing, when every recourse this world offers has been explored and attempted to no effect, when the last ray of light and hope has gone out, and we are left in darkness—It is then, that Christ’s hand reaches out sure and firm.  Then Christ’s words bring their soothing comfort, and then his light shines the brightest, abolishing the darkness forever.  Thus, finding in everything else only failure and decay and anxiety, our soul is driven back to God.  (The End of Christendom, 1980, page 56)

     That is a good quote to keep in mind this election year.

     Muggeridge echoes the words of Paul who, during a difficult time in his life, wrote:  “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life itself.  Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death.  But this happened so that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead…  We have placed our hope in him that he will save us”  (II Corinthians 1:8-9…10b).

     Now, just in case none of this applies to you, and all of your hopes and dreams are being fulfilled and everything is going well for you, that’s great, praise God from whom all blessings flow.  And if you believe the fulfillment of all your hopes and dreams is still in the future and you are working hard toward those goals, then by all means go for it, as Paul says in Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord.”

     But at the same time, do not get your entire faith, hope, and well-being wrapped up in the things of this world.  It is easy to fall into that trap.  Remember that whatever you have or get will be only for the time being.  So when the disappointments come, as they always do, remember that one hope that will not disappoint you.  And when everything you ever hoped for and worked for is slowly stripped from you by old age or failed health– remember, that if your deepest hope is in Jesus, the best is still yet to come.  And even in those times at the cemetery when it seems all hope is gone, we are still not out of hope, for it says in God’s Word, “Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (Romans 14:8b).

  So be ready to give up on all your false and temporary hopes– you fill feel much better.  But don’t give up on your hope in Jesus; and you will be all right, now and forever.

     “I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from?  My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”

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Lamentations 3:25-26  —  The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.

Zechariah 9:10  —  “Return to your fortress, you prisoners of hopeeven now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.”

Ecclesiastes 12:13  —  Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter:  Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.

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Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they can find their rest in you.

–St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), in Confessions

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1287) Hoping for Help (part two of three)

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Blue Ridge Mountains; Symmes Chapel, Cleveland, South Carolina

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Based on my sermon October 16, 2016:

     (continued…)  Look again at these verses from today’s Psalm, Psalm 121:1-2:  “I will lift up my eyes to the hills– from where will my help come?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

     From where will my help come?  That’s a good question.  Where do you think our help going to come from?  Does anyone think it is going to come from the Republicans or the Democrats this year?  I don’t think so.  Talk about ‘giving up hope!’  Good grief, what a mess we are in.  If your main hope is in our political process, then this is a great year for you to learn a lesson about the disappointments of false hopes.  You will certainly “feel much better when you give up that hope.”

     Of course we have been richly blessed as a nation, and of course we want to hope for the best for our nation, and of course we need to pray for our leaders, and of course we should do our best to be good citizens and vote and serve our communities in whatever ways we can.  But if this is your main hope, and if this is where you think your help will come from, and if you expect anything better than an ongoing mess, you will be disappointed.  Listen to these words from Psalm 146:3-4:  “Put not your trust in princes, or in earthly, human rulers, in whom there is no help.  When their breath departs they return to the earth, and on that day their plans perish.”

     Psalm 121:2 tells us that our help comes from the Lord, who made the heaven and the earth.  That is the kind of help we must look to and depend on.  But we need to remember what kind of help it is that God offers.  When the Bible tells us that our help comes from the Lord, it does not necessarily mean that His help will come riding in on the results of the 2016 presidential election, or any other election. 

     And if we are in for bad times as a nation, that does not mean God is not God, or is not there, or is not good, or does not answer prayer.  In 1865, after what was by far the worst four years in American history, Abraham Lincoln said that the horrific Civil War might well have been the judgment of God on the sins of this nation.  Then, quoting the Old Testament, Lincoln said, “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”  (Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865.)

     God is not obligated to bless the United States of America.  We have been blessed, and as Christians we continue to pray for those blessings.  But then, we leave it in God’s hands as we pray ‘Thy will be done.’  And sometimes, it is the will of God to not bless, but to judge and to punish.  And who are we to say what we deserve?

     When we read the promises of God’s help as in Psalm 121, we have to ask what kind of help it is that we receive from God.  We might want God to help by making everything go well for us all the time.  But God wants something different for us and from us.  God wants our faith, our attention, our obedience, and our hearts, for now and for all eternity.  Sometimes, God may get our attention by blessing us, and sometimes, God may have to withhold those blessings in order to get our attention. 

     God, the maker of heaven and earth, does not owe us anything.  If we take what God has given us, and then choose to ignore or despise God, He is free to take it back.  God does not want us to turn away from Him and be lost for all eternity.  Therefore, allowing all of our smaller hopes to be frustrated, disappointed, and destroyed might be, in the long run, what is needed to keep us faithful to God, so that we can be with Him for all eternity.

     Our ultimate hope must be in God, and in no one or nothing else.  And as we trust God to help us, we then must also trust that God knows what kind of help we need, even though what we get may not be what we want.  We are God’s children, says the Bible, and children do not always know what is best for them.  Sometimes God can help us best by hindering us, lest we begin to take His good help for granted and forget all about Him.  (continued…)

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Psalm 121:1-2…7-8 (KJV)  —  I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.  My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth…  The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul.  The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.

Psalm 19:9b  —  The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

Romans 5:1-5  —  Therefore, since we have been justified through faith,we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.  And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.  Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.  And this hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

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Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they can find their rest in you.

–St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), in Confessions.

1286) Hoping for Help (part one of three)

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Based on my October 16, 2016 sermon:

     “I feel much better now that I’ve given up hope.”  I first saw this saying on a button several years ago and I have thought about it many times since.  When I googled it today I learned that this was the title of a 1984 book by Ashleigh Brilliant.  (Yes, that is his real name.)

     As it stands, that statement is not at all consistent with the message of hope that Christians have in Jesus.  The Bible speaks of having hope, not giving up hope.  But there is at least a grain of truth in the saying, a grain of truth that is applicable to our faith and is consistent with the Bible.

     It all depends on how you answer one very important question: “In what do you put your hope?”

     Hope, in and of itself, is neither good or bad, true or false, wise or foolish.  It all depends on what you are hoping for.  The Bible offers the one and only lasting source of hope—faith in Jesus Christ.  All other hopes are either temporary or false.

     It is usually a good thing to have some kind of hope to keep you going.  But quitting your job because you bought a lottery ticket and you are hoping to win big and there is no need to work when you are going to get 268 million dollars– would not be a good idea.

     The Bible condemns all our false hopes because they keep us from our best and true and ultimate hope.  The Old Testament prophets condemned the way their kings ignored God and put all their hope in their armies.  Jesus was critical of the hopes people placed in their money or power or prestige.  In fact, the whole Biblical salvation history makes it clear that God is more than ready to destroy our false hopes, and bring us to ruin and destruction if that is what it takes to bring us to the true hope of salvation.

     And just because one is a Christian does not mean their deepest hope is in Jesus.  Many Christians believe in Jesus and possess the greatest hope and security possible, but then in their daily lives keep on clinging to all sorts of false hopes; and then they get all the disappointments that come with that.  We all do this.  We all have our temporary and unreliable hopes.  Parents hope for kids that won’t disappoint and hurt them, kids hope for parents that will not misunderstand them, and husbands and wives hope their partner that will always see things their way.  Farmers and gardeners hope for just enough rain each year, but not too much.  We hope for a predictable economy so we can know where we are at from now on, and we hope for no setbacks, financial or otherwise.  We hope for neighbors that will not irritate us, a job that will always please us, and that time would slow down a bit and not keep flying by us so fast.  Can you see why we are always getting disappointed?

     We all have lots of things we hope for, and many of them are false hopes.  It’s not wrong to hope for any of those things; but we do need to realize that the hope offered in God’s Word is a different kind of hope.  And nowhere does the Bible guarantee a life without disappointment.

     The saying “I feel much better now that I have given up hope” has nothing to say about our hope in Christ.  We do not want to give up on that hope.  But it has much to say about our false hopes.  We spend so much of our time hoping for the time when better things will come our way, that we often forget about all the blessings we already have.  In giving up on our desperate hopes for something more or different, we can actually begin to feel better by appreciating what God has already given us.

     Oftentimes, our hopes become unrealistic expectations, and can lead us into despair instead of hope.  For example, a wife lives in daily disappointment and frustration because her husband is not as interesting as he used to be or as understanding as she had hoped; she forgets to be thankful that he has always been a good provider, is a good father to their children, and is faithful to her.  A young man envies his friends who all have jobs where they seem to work a lot less and earn a lot more; he fails to be thankful for the job he does have, and the fact that he does really like many things about it.  A teen-age girl was hoping she could start on the basketball team, and lives in misery because she spends most of the time sitting on the bench; she forgets that she does have an easier time getting good grades on her schoolwork than all of her friends.  You can probably make your own list for your own life.  None of this means anyone should give up on working for a better life.  But as we work toward our goals we must not lose sight of the blessings already given.

     And no matter how hard we work or how bad we want something, the disappointments and crushed hopes do still come our way.  And as we make the necessary adjustments to reality, we might even find ourselves agreeing with the ‘brilliant’ words of Mr. Brilliant: “I feel much better now that I have given up hope.”  The less we hope for and expect, the less we will be disappointed.  Again, this is not the whole truth, but does contain a grain of truth.  We dare not put all our trust in our earthly hopes, because even if all those best hopes are fulfilled, it is always, only, for just a little while.

     But more needs to be said.  (continued…)

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Ecclesiastes 2:1-11 (portions)  —  I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.”  But that also proved to be meaningless…  I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly…  I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives.  I undertook great projects.  I built houses for myself and planted vineyards.  I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them.  I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees...  I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me.  I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces.  I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well; all the delights of a man’s heart.  I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me…  I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure.  My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil.  Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.

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Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they can find their rest in you.

–St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), in Confessions.

1031) Past, Present, Future (b)

     (…continued)  This difference between looking back or looking forward is the very thing that the apostle Paul describes in Philippians chapter three.  Beginning with verse four Paul describes all the things in his past that molded him into the faithful Jew he had become:  he was born into the people of Israel, he was circumcised on the eighth day according to tradition, he was an expert in the law, enthusiastically faithful, and faultless in his righteousness according to the Jewish legal requirements.

     But now, Paul says in verse seven, he is glad to forget about all that for the sake of knowing Jesus.  What is more, (verse eight) he would gladly give up all in the past, “considering everything a loss,” in exchange for the greatness of knowing Christ as Lord and Savior.  Then, in verses ten through twelve, he is completely future oriented, saying, “I want to know Christ, I want to become like him, and I want to attain the resurrection from the dead, pressing on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”  This forward looking, future oriented approach is made even more clear in next two verses where he says, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

     Paul had been proud of his past.  It was, in fact, his proud religious heritage that made him persecute the Christians who he believed posed a threat to his traditions.  But then Jesus appeared to Paul, and Paul became a believer.  Now Paul would live for Jesus and the future hope of seeing him again.  Now, everything Paul would do would be done with this future goal in mind, this heavenward call and promise of Christ Jesus.  So, says verse eight, he will gladly give up all things here on earth for that future hope.  He will gladly give up even life itself to proclaim and live for that promise, because as he says in Romans 14:8, whether we live or die we belong to the Lord.

     The stories men and women tell of time spent in the most desperate circumstances all point to the same truth– people can endure almost anything if they have at least a shred of hope for the future.  Jews in concentration camps, prisoners of war, and political prisoners held in solitary confinement, all have been able to endure years of hunger, mistreatment, and even torture, if only they were able keep alive the hope of a future release and a return to their homes and families and freedom.  But without that hope, the spirit dies and the body withers and fails.  People who find themselves together in those types of situations are often from a wide variety of backgrounds; but the determining factor for their survival was not their past, but what they hoped for in the future.  If they believed all they had to look forward to for the rest of their life was to die in that miserable prison, they had every reason to give up; and if they did, they died.  But if they were able to keep alive the hope that there would be a better life ahead, they would find the strength persevere, and were far more likely to survive.

     Most people do not have to live in such terrible conditions, but even the best of lives are far from ideal, filled with anxieties and troubles galore; and all to what end?  Remove our Christian hope and there is not much to look forward to in the long run.  But with this Christian hope, every day can be lived to its fullest.  To feel you must greedily grab all you can out of life because this is all there is, becomes a desperate way to live.  But if this life is only the opening act of a much longer play, we can be more able to, as the old saying goes, “Let go and let God.”

     It is a rather unusual historical fact that the African-American slaves so readily took to the religion of their white owners and masters.  Even in the midst of the worst cruelty, the slaves did not despise, but rather embraced the religion of their tormentors.  This is not what you would expect.  But the slaves saw in Jesus one who was himself oppressed, and who endured his sufferings with courage and strength; and could do so because he had his hope set on the future.  “In a little while you won’t see me,” he told the disciples, which is a fact of life.  In a little while none of us will see each other at all.  “But,” said Jesus, “then in a little while you will see me again.”  There was that future hope that changed everything.  There were 400 years of slavery in the South, and for all those generations of slaves this world offered little hope.  But Jesus gave them, and us, a future hope that can shape and influence and determine every part of this life.

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Philippians 3:12-14  —   Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.  Beloved, I do not consider that I have yet made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies aheadI press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

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Almighty God, draw our hearts to you, guide our minds, fill our imaginations, control our wills, so that we may be wholly yours.  Use us as you will, always to your glory and the welfare of your people.  Amen.

Lutheran Book of Worship, Augsburg, 1978

1030) Past, Present, Future (a)

     In his ground-breaking work on the human mind, psychologist Sigmund Freud taught that by delving deep into your past life you could learn how your early childhood experiences created the person you are today.  While much of Freud’s work is no longer accepted, it is now assumed by many that what you are as a person today is largely a product of your past experiences.  Are you the hard-working, responsible type?  That is because you are an oldest child, and the oldest child is often given more responsibilities and more discipline and the expectations are higher; therefore, they turn out to be more responsible.  Are you likable but irresponsible, always trying to be funny?  That might be because you are the youngest in the family and you decided at an early age you had to act up if you wanted to get a little of the attention.  Are you fussy, neat as a pin, quick to go after even the smallest piece of dust?  Well, that’s because that’s how it was in your home, and to this day you can’t stand a mess.  Or, on the other hand, it could be because you were raised in a messy and unorganized house, and your neatness now is a reaction against how you were raised.  Either way, and in many other ways, this can be made to work, and whatever you are can be explained by how you were raised and other past experiences.  That, anyway, is the theory. We are a product of our past.

     While we know our minds are too complex to be explained by any one theory, we certainly do understand the importance of our past and the way we were raised.  After all, isn’t that the hope of all parents, that they do the right thing and raise their children in a proper way, so that they can have some positive influence on their children’s adult life?  As every parent knows, kids will go their own way, and there is no way you can perfectly pre-program the desired results; but we do have some influence.  Even so, parents can control only a part of what a growing child experiences.  And, no matter what experiences any one has, there is also, always the matter of one’s own God-given free will.  Certainly, your past is an important part of who you are, but it is by no means the only part.

     But another big part of what goes into making you who you are is your future.  This isn’t thought about as much, but we may, in fact, be shaped more by our future than by our past.  Let me illustrate how this happens.

     Brothers Peyton and Eli Manning are great NFL quarterbacks.  Their past probably had something to do with this, being the sons of a professional quarterback Archie Manning.  The Mannings were a sports minded family, always playing something out in the yard, and the boys learned much from their father.  Eli says that their father encouraged them, played with them, and taught them, but he did not force them to play any sports at any level.  The boys were allowed to make their own choices about school activities and future plans.  Did they want to pursue this interest in football as encouraged by her father, or, would there be other interests that they would want to pursue?

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 02: (L-R) NFL play...

Peyton, Archie, and Eli Manning

     Children don’t always move into something just because their parents are encouraging it.  I went to school with several farm boys.  Some wanted nothing more than to get done with school and go farming.  Others, couldn’t wait to graduate, go to college, get into some other kind of work, and never again have to look at another cow, pig, chicken, or bale of hay.

     The Manning boys chose to keep playing football, and somewhere along the line, after making that choice, the future began to be a more important influence than the past.  No longer were just playing football in the back yard because that is what their dad liked to do.  Eventually, they were playing football because out ahead in their future, they could see themselves in the NFL, just like their dad.  That future hope began then to shape and determine everything they did and every decision they would make– how to spend their free time, where to go to college, who to have as friends, what to eat, how to exercise, and everything else.  Their past experiences shaped them, but now, their future hopes were determining much of what they did.  In their past they were exposed to football and developed a love for it.  But it was the future hope of a career in football that turned the game into something more than the leisure-time activity that it is for most people.

     You don’t have to be a pro football player to know how this works.  Parents might encourage their teenage son to get a job.  Because of how he was raised, he might already be a hard worker and more than happy to do so.  Therefore, his past is a factor, and then with his own free will he chooses to go along with the idea.  But before long, something more important than anything else comes into play.  There is the future goal of a car that can be purchased, and while the boy is working, he is counting how fast the money is adding up and how soon his future goal will be realized.  His present life is being thus determined not so much by the past anymore, as by the future.  (continued…)

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 Philippians 3:12-14  —  Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.  Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

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O Jesus, fill me with your love, and I pray, and use me a little for your glory.  I pray that you accept me and my service.  Amen.

–David Livingstone  (1813-1873)

997) Nowhere Else to Turn

Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990) was a British reporter in the U.S.S.R. in the 1930’s.   Here he describes two episodes which provide contrasting insights into life after the Russian Revolution.  Muggeridge had initially admired the revolution; then he saw the results of two decades of communist rule.  The Communists promised hope to the nation, but instead brought ruin and despair and fear, along with the deaths of tens of millions of their own people.  One scene of the suffering is described in the first paragraph.  The second paragraph describes how people then turned to their only real hope.

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     I tried to describe it all— the abandoned villages, the absence of livestock, neglected fields, everywhere famished, frightened people and intimations of coercion, soldiers about the place, and hard-faced men in long overcoats.  One particularly remarkable scene I stumbled on by chance at a railway station in the gray early morning; peasants with their hands tied behind them being loaded into cattle trucks at gunpoint;… all so silent and mysterious and horrible in the half light…

     In Kiev, where I found myself on a Sunday morning, on an impulse I turned into a church where a service was in progress.  It was packed tight, but I managed to squeeze myself against a pillar whence I could survey the congregation and look up at the altar.  Young and old, peasants and townsmen parents and children even a few in uniform— it was a variegated assembly.  The bearded priests, swinging their incense, intoning their prayers, seemed very remote and far away.  Never before or since have I participated in such a worship; the sense conveyed of turning to God in great affliction was overpowering.  Though I could not, of course, follow the service (it was in Russian), I knew little bits of it; for instance, when the congregation says there is no help for them save from God.  What intense feeling they put into these words!  In their minds, I knew, as in mine, was a picture of those desolate abandoned villages, of the hunger and the hopelessness, of cattle trucks being loaded with humans in the dawn light.  Where were they to turn to for help?  Not to the Kremlin and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, certainly; nor to the forces of progress and democracy and enlightenment in the West.  Honourable and Right Honourable Members had nothing to offer, (nor did) the radical free press.  Every possible human agency was found wanting.  So only God remained, and to God they turned with a passion, a dedication, a humility impossible to convey.  They took me with them; I felt closer to God then than I ever had before, or am likely to again.

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PSALM 46:1-2a…6-7…9-11:

God is our refuge and strength,
    an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear...

Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
    he lifts his voice, the earth melts.

The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress…

He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.”

The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

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Lord, have mercy.

Christ, have mercy.

Lord, have mercy.

Kyrie eleison, An important prayer in Christian liturgy from earliest times.

996) The Valley of Vision

     There is much in the Bible that tells us what to do: be honest, be faithful, love and serve your neighbor, do not lie, do not cheat, do not steal, and so forth.  One of the best known parts of the Bible is the Ten Commandments, that very important list of things that we should do, or, not do.  There is indeed much in the Bible about what we should do.  

     But there is probably even more in the Bible about what we should see.  For example, II Corinthians 5:16 tells us we should no longer see other people from a worldly point of view.  For another example, the world says, “You can have it all;” but God in the book of Proverbs says, “It is better to have only a little and have peace, than to have great wealth and nothing but strife” (Proverbs 17:1).  From a worldly point of view, when you get old and your health is gone, you are done for.  But from God’s point of view, even at the end of our days we can say with Paul, “Brothers and sisters, our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11).  I Samuel 16:7 tells us that even though from a worldly point of view people are judged by their outward appearances, God looks at what is in the heart; again, a different way of seeing.  From a worldly point of view, the time comes for us all when our time is up and as the old expression goes, “We haven’t got a prayer.”  But with God, no matter how hopeless the situation looks one always has a prayer.  Jesus, beaten and hanging on the cross, with the life quickly draining out of him, still had a prayer.  He prayed, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

     The Bible tells us all kinds of things to do, but first of all, it tells us how to SEE– how to see the world, and life and death, and other people, and everything from a whole different point of view.  And then, with that whole new way of seeing, we are led into the wisdom to obey in those things God has told us to do.

     Many years ago, Howard Thurman was the dean of the chapel at Boston University.  He was the grandson of a slave and often told stories that he had heard from his grandmother about living in slavery.  One of the things she told him was the importance of the slaves of going to church on Sunday.  Decades later, she could still remember well how her old slave preacher would so powerfully tell the story of Jesus resurrection from the dead, and then describe the promise of how we too would live forever with him in heaven.  And then the old preacher would take off his glasses, look straight into the eyes of the congregation, lean over the pulpit, and say to them in all seriousness, “Slaves, I want you to remember, you are not any man’s property.  You are the children of God Almighty, and no one can ever take that from you.  Never forget that.”  Sunday after Sunday, he was preaching into those people another point of view– not the worldly point of view, but God’s vision; and in their desperate and sad situation, that made all the difference.  With that new way of seeing they could live and die with hope and courage.

     Even in the deepest and darkest valley, we can know God is with us, and that gives us an entirely different way of seeing everything.

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Psalm 23:4  —  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Ezekiel 37:1-3  —  The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.  He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry.  He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

Habakkuk 3:17-18  —  Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LordI will be joyful in God my Savior.

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The Valley of Vision

Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly, Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
where I live in the depths but see thee in the heights; hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold thy glory.

Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up, that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart, that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit, that the repenting soul is the victorious soul, that to have nothing is to possess all, that to bear the cross is to wear the crown, that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.

Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells, and the deeper the wells the brighter thy stars shine;
Let me find thy light in my darkness, thy life in my death,
thy joy in my sorrow, thy grace in my sin,
thy riches in my poverty thy glory in my valley. 

–From The Valley of Vision, 1975, a collection of prayers by the Puritans edited by Arthur Bennett.