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Could You Be Blind?

John 9:1-16

Satire is a very popular form of comedy in American culture. From shows like Futurama and The Simpsons to Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update and Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, satire is everywhere in our entertainment programming. It is always meant to be funny (although it often fails dramatically) but often, satire has a subplot of social criticism.

We come by a love of satire through our Western European roots. But, its beginnings in “media” go a long way back. In 1568, Flemish renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel produced a painting entitled, The Blind Leading the Blind. Many art historians consider The Blind Leading the Blind to be one of the “masterworks of painting for its fine, accurate detail and dynamic composition.”

The Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Bruegel

The Blind Leading the Blind by Pieter Bruegel

It is the earliest surviving painting to depict the Biblical of the blind leading the blind from the Gospel of Matthew (15:14). But, the painting is also political satire! It speaks to a time when the Spanish were attempting to enforce rule over the Netherlands and suppress the rise of Protestantism. As with all satire that is based on current events, the farther away from the events you are, the more difficult it is to understand. No one is really sure if the painting was in support of Protestantism or the Catholic church.

The story at its root, however, is unmistakable. Matthew relates an episode in Jesus’ ministry when the Rabbi said something that offended the Pharisees. When his disciples asked about it he said, Leave them; they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”

“Blindness” was one of Jesus’ favorite themes. This morning I want to look at an example that is found in the Gospel of John. Turn with me to John 9:1-16.

JN 9:1 As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

JN 9:3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. 4 As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. 5 While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

JN 9:6 Having said this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. 7 “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means Sent). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

JN 9:8 His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some claimed that he was.

Others said, “No, he only looks like him.”

But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”

JN 9:10 “How then were your eyes opened?” they demanded.

JN 9:11 He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”

JN 9:12 “Where is this man?” they asked him.

“I don’t know,” he said.

JN 9:13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. 14 Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. 15 Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.”

JN 9:16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others asked, “How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?” So they were divided.

May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.

You should be aware that this passage follows soon after Jesus’ statement in 8:12,  “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Jesus had healed the blind previously, but this man was “blind from birth.” It prompted the disciples to ask, “who sinned, this man or his parents?” It seems a callous question, but reflects the Jewish belief that if a person suffered from an ailment, it must have originated with the sin of their parents or grandparents. This is based on Exodus 34:7, which says, “he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”

But, Jesus was having none of it! From his viewpoint this was not a punishment but an opportunity to glorify God! His “night” was coming soon and Jesus was not going to miss this opportunity to heal bodies and minds! Jesus was certainly capable of healing this man without the mud mixture he used on his eyes. Perhaps it was an aid for the man’s faith. The blind man now had a reason to be a faithful participant in his own healing. He had to go and wash. Notice that Jesus did not even tell him that he would be healed! The walk to the Pool of Siloam was a walk of faith!

The man’s healing was so dramatic, so life-changing that people that knew him questioned if it was the same man.  “No, he only looks like him.” His change was so startling, that he had to reassure them that he was the man they knew! His testimony of the events was very simple. Just the facts! I did what Jesus said and then I could see!

Here is where the story takes a turn. The neighbors (perhaps fearing something was wrong) took the man to their leaders. What did the Pharisees notice about this event? What was important to the Pharisees? Not that the man was healed. Not that this Rabbi had incredible power. No! This Rabbi Jesus had (once again) broken the Sabbath law. Their unswerving adherence to their own understanding of Torah law brought them to one conclusion. “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” Their suspicions were confirmed. He does not understand our religion the way we do, so, therefore, God cannot be in what he does.

I do not know if you hear it, but I hear a familiar voice in this passage. Someone asked,

“How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?” That voice sounds like Nicodemus to me! We have no direct evidence of that. Except that Nicodemus had already spoken up for Jesus in the Sanhedrin in John 7:50-51. When he came to Jesus he said, For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him. This moment of compassionate healing gave the blind man an opportunity to express his faith. It also gave another  (perhaps Nicodemus) an opportunity to stand for Jesus.

This is one of those scripture passages that could be the foundation for many, many sermons. Luckily for you, today I am preaching just one! But, there are three lessons I want to point out.

First, Jesus asked the blind man to participate in the healing. Jesus called it the work of God;  “the work of him who sent me.” In order for God to be “displayed in his life,” Jesus asked him to walk across town with mud on his face. This was no small task for the blind man. That act of obedience bolstered his faith and gave him a message for unbelievers. Jesus can and will heal you of the “blindness” in your life! But do not surprised when he requires your participation! Take an active part in the spiritual life that Jesus has for you and you will able to testify to the love and care of God!

Secondly, when the hand of Jesus opens new spiritual eyes for you, do not be surprised if your friends and neighbors do not recognize you anymore! Under his healing hand, you have become a “new creature.” You will have work to do with which they are not familiar. You have the opportunity (while it is still day) to speak directly of the change Jesus has made in you. Do it boldly, because that is God being displayed in your life.

And third, when we become convinced that we know all the spiritual truth, there is a temptation to use our religious assumptions as a hammer! The men who were truly blind in this story were the Pharisees! They were so confident that they understood exactly what God wanted that they did not know the Son of God when they looked him in the face. As my favorite singer once said, “they forgot to remember, you might be wrong!”[i]

Using your spiritual assumptions to alienate and categorize people is a symptom of spiritual blindness. I am not saying that you cannot have certainty in your faith in Jesus Christ. What I am telling you is that we must be living lives of faith that express spiritual humility.

Participate in your salvation. Be prepared to be a new person! And live a life of spiritual humility and you will be a part of the work of God in the world.

 

[i] From the song You Might Be Wrong on an album entitled Pimps and Preachers by Paul Thorn 06/21/2010

Arguing With God

Clenched FistMany of us have seen the Hollywood movie Forrest Gump. It is the story of a man with limited intelligence but a very big heart. The movie follows the accidental experiences that bring him in contact with important people and events. We see those events from his simple, naive viewpoint.

One of the events he experiences is Hurricane Camille. He is out in the Gulf of Mexico on a shrimp fishing boat with his friend from the Vietnam War, Lieutenant Dan Taylor. Lt. Dan is in many ways Forrest Gump’s direct opposite. Gump is innocent. Lt. Dan is worldly. Gump is always lucky. Lt. Dan never is. Gump loves to run. Lt. Dan is a double leg amputee. While Forrest Gump believes in God, Lt. Dan says that he does not believe. When the two men are caught in the hurricane, Lt. Dan is lashed to the upper mast of the boat. Gump says, I was scared, but Lieutenant Dan, he was mad.”

I will not quote the scene “verbatim” because the language is pretty strong. But, Lt. Dan shakes his fist at the God he does not believe in and says, “Come on! You call this a storm? Blow! It’s time for a showdown! You and me! I’m right here! Come and get me! You’ll never sink this boat!”

As in most of the movie, things go amazingly well for Forrest Gump. They survive this confrontation with God and even become successful in the “shrimpin’ bidness.” Coming out on top is a theme of that movie, but confrontations with God are seldom successful. The experience of my life has been that when I have  (literally or figuratively) shaken my fist at God, he has used it as a “learning opportunity” for me. Those moments have been valuable for me, but they have seldom been pleasant experiences.

Mankind has been arguing with God since Adam and Eve! We all know how that turned out! We are going to look to the scripture this morning for a moment in time when the Children of Israel shook their fists at the God who brought them out of Egypt. We will take note of how it worked out for them!

Turn with me this morning to the Book of Exodus. Exodus 17:1-5.

EX 17:1 The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”

Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the LORD to the test?”

EX 17:3 But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”

EX 17:4 Then Moses cried out to the LORD, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

EX 17:5 The LORD answered Moses, “Walk on ahead of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the LORD saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”

May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.

God directed Moses to lead the Children of Israel out of lives of slavery in Egypt. God led them as a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day. He divided the water, they walked across on dry land and then as a finishing touch, God destroyed the pursuing Egyptian army by crushing them under the returning water.

Act of God upon act of God should have made it obvious that the God of their fathers was in charge of their futures! What was the first thing they did on the other side of the waters? Exodus 15:24. 24 So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?” When the water they found was bitter, God showed Moses how to fix the problem. And the people drank.

Two months later, they walked through the Desert of Sin and food was beginning to run out. When their stomachs began to grumble so did they. In Exodus 16:3, the people said to Moses, “If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” Moses brought the concern to God and what did God do? He made it “rain down” food from heaven! Quail and Manna; everything they needed. And the people ate.

They traveled on out of the desert of sin into an area called Wadi Refayid. A wadi is a watercourse that flows with water during the rainy season but is bone dry the rest of the year. When they arrived, there was no water. There is a clear pattern in this portion of Exodus. God was teaching them to trust him! When they were thirsty, he made the water fit to drink. When they were hungry, he gave them all the food they needed.

Now, in Meribah, they were faced with thirst once again. Had they learned that God would provide? They came to Moses grumbling, quarreling, in fact demanding, “Give us water to drink!”

They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”

As he had before, Moses went to God and asked for direction. God instructed him to take same staff that divided the waters to give them freedom, and strike the rock. “Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” Moses named the place Meribah (which means argue or quarrel) because the people tested the Lord there.

“Is the LORD among us or not?” After everything God had done for them, when they got thirsty, they questioned whether God was even there for them! We find the result of the people’s distrust expressed in the 95th Psalm. In Psalm 95:8-11 the writer speaks with the voice of God.

PS 95:8 do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah,
as you did that day at Massah in the desert,
PS 95:9 where your fathers tested and tried me,
though they had seen what I did.
PS 95:10 For forty years I was angry with that generation;
I said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they have not known my ways.”
PS 95:11 So I declared on oath in my anger,
“They shall never enter my rest.”

Because they refused to trust that God would care for them even though he had demonstrated it again and again, he waited for that whole generation to be buried in the sands before the people could enter the Promised Land. They were a people “whose hearts go astray.” God provided for them throughout their lives but they never received the reward.

We read these passages and we wonder about this people. How could they have been so blind to the providence of God? God took action to change their lives. He led them out of bondage, met their needs and simply asked them to be obedient. They could not do it!

We shake our heads and wonder, how could anyone be that self-absorbed? How could they only care about their stomachs and so miss the reward? You do not need to be a theologian to see where these questions are headed! If you read these Old Testament passages through the filter of the New, you will recognize that you and I have no right to shake our heads in wonder at how foolish these people were!

You may be thinking, “I don’t go around arguing with God!” But is that really true? Every time you ignore one of his precepts, every time you do what you want instead of what God instructs, you have hardened your heart as they did at Meribah!

You do not have to be Lt. Dan, shaking your fist at God to argue with him. All you have to do is trust your own wisdom (do it your own way) and you have become a grumbler. You have become a person whose heart has gone astray.

God has provided for us a savior and leader far greater than Moses in the person of Jesus. He has offered us a reward far beyond the “milk and honey” of the promised land. The next time you are tempted to put your self-interest ahead of God’s commands, I would suggest that you open that 95th Psalm and read it again.

The Psalmist said that the medicine you need for a hardening heart is worship! If you find yourself ready to argue with God, worship him instead!

Psalm 95

PS 95:1 Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD;
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
PS 95:2 Let us come before him with thanksgiving
and extol him with music and song.
PS 95:3 For the LORD is the great God,
the great King above all gods.
PS 95:4 In his hand are the depths of the earth,
and the mountain peaks belong to him.
PS 95:5 The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.
PS 95:6 Come, let us bow down in worship,
let us kneel before the LORD our Maker;
PS 95:7 for he is our God
and we are the people of his pasture,
the flock under his care.
Today, if you hear his voice,
PS 95:8 do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah…

Wait! He is Near!

‘Twas the night before Christmas
when all thro’ the house,
not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
while vision of sugar plums danc’d in their heads.

SaintNickThose are the first lines of Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” He published it anonymously in 1823. It may be the best-known verse ever written in America, and he got it all wrong!

It was 1960. It was the “night” before Christmas. I do not remember if my sister, Linda, came into my bedroom with the idea or if I went into her room. I do not remember, but it does not matter, the blame was distributed evenly. Here was the idea. We had been in bed a long time. Therefore, it just had to be Christmas morning. Why were mom and dad making us wait? They seemed to think you should sleep in on Christmas morning! What an absurd idea!

I was five years old and Linda was nine; old enough to reason this problem out. The best thing to do was to wake mom and dad up! But it could not be done directly, that would be too harsh. We needed to wake them gently and get Christmas started!

I am pretty sure it was Linda’s idea to sing Christmas carols. We crept halfway down the carpeted stairs and sat. There was a closed glassed paned door at the bottom of the steps and their bedroom was right across the hall. We figured we needed to sing loud enough to be heard through that door. We thought we were doing something nice; doing them a favor!

Hark! the herald angels sing 
Glory to the newborn King.
Hark! the herald angels sing 
Glory to the newborn King. 

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

I do not remember how many times we repeated the sounding joy. But, I do remember dad opening that door at the bottom of the stairs. He stood there in his pajamas and rubbed his tired eyes. There was a memorable look on his face. It was an odd mix of anger, sleepiness and bemusement.

“Merry Christmas, daddy!”
“What are you doing?”
“It’s Christmas morning!”
“Yes, it is,” he said. “It’s Christmas morning, 2 AM! Go back to bed.”
“But, dad…”
“Go back to bed. You’ll have to wait a little longer.” We went back to bed and waited.

The season of Advent has arrived. It is an unusual time, perhaps unique to Christianity. It is a time for the spiritual discipline of waiting. In secular Christmas it is a time to rush, push, drive, tension, hurry, impatience, buy, buy, buy! The first day of secular the Christmas season is celebrated as, “Black Friday.” There is a warning in that!

But Christian Advent is a “counter-culture” season. It is a time for hope. Advent asks us to put ourselves into the shoes of the Jewish people of Jesus’ day. Advent teaches us the difficult lesson of patience. We know how this story goes, but we are asked to remember how it was for them. We cannot rush to the manger. Like the people of Israel, we must long for our savior and wait.

Our scripture this morning is from the Gospel of Luke. Luke 1:1-25.

5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. 7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.

8 Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.

11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. 16 Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous–to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

19 The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.”

21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. 22 When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.

23 When his time of service was completed, he returned home. 24 After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 25 “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.

Elizabeth and Zechariah had been waiting and hoping for years and years. They longed for the day when they would have children. For the Jewish people, their children were not just “their future.” In a way, they were like eternal life. The Children of Israel would continue through the blessing of children. But for Elizabeth and Zechariah it seemed to be a dead end. They must have felt that their hope would never be fulfilled. Exiled in the desert of waiting, they thought they would never see the promise.

Notice that Zechariah did not turn away from God because of disappointment. Where was he? He continued his work in the temple of the Lord. In fact, he was at worship when God broke through and made him a promise. The angel said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.”

With a miracle right before his eyes, Zechariah still felt the need to ask, “How can I be sure of this?” I am too old. My wife is too old. The world just does not work this way! I want a guarantee! Those are the questions that cost him his voice. God has a way for focusing our attention on his will and his way. Zechariah had his voice silenced until the promise was fulfilled. He was forced to be quiet and watch God at work.

If you sense a connection here with the story of Abraham and Sarah you are not mistaken. Abraham and Sarah’s promise was the sign of the first covenant. Zechariah and Elizabeth were seeing the beginnings of a new covenant. The Advent season is a reminder to us that we must wait for God to work his will. During these weeks, we should remember that there was a time that we were separated from him. We have been a people in need of deliverance! It is appropriate during Advent that we remember Israel’s desire for God to send his Messiah deliverer.

The Christian Advent season begins with the astounding announcement that our wait will be worthwhile; our hope is not in vain. The angel said, “Do not be afraid! Your prayer has been heard!” We serve a God that fulfills our deepest need and answers our prayers of longing.

What prayer remains unanswered in your life? What longing is seems unfulfilled? Do the obstacles seem too large? Are you afraid or in need? God has heard your prayer. When we draw near to God things begin to happen. Our lives begin to stir in what seems impossible ways! One writer has said, “From barren wombs to occupied tombs, life springs up where you would least expect it.”

Advent should teach us that God is in the business of bringing about the impossible. After lifetimes of waiting and longing, Advent is the first dawning of hope. God is at work in your life!

Wake up! Christmas is here, again!

This Is The End. No! Wait!

Why do some Christians spend so much time and effort trying to identify what is going to happen and when the end will be?

Why do some Christians spend so much time and effort trying to identify what is going to happen and when the end will be?

In 1555, an astrologer named Nostradamus published a book filled with prophecy. To this day, his followers believe that he predicted everything from the French Revolution to the attacks of September 11th. Nostradamus said that the world will end in 3786 or 3787. I am not too worried, and not just because I will be 1,831 years old then! I am not worried because end-times predictors have a terrible, terrible track record.

Baptist preacher William Miller said that the end would be 1844. That year came and went, but the world did not. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have their roots in the Millerite movement. They have predicted the world’s end in 1914, 1918, 1925 and 1975. The world did not end on any of those dates.

Jim Jones claimed the world would end on July 15, 1967. It did not. But, on November 18, 1978, he directed his followers to commit one of the largest murder-suicide events in modern history. On that day, 918 people died, including 276 murdered children.

The Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas, believed that they were living in the final days. Their leader David Koresh claimed, “If the Bible is true, then I’m Christ.” Jesus was never wanted on weapons charges, but Koresh was. The Davidian movement went up in flames. It was not the end of the world, but four federal agents, David Koresh and 81 of his followers died.

In 1997, Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, convinced members of the Heaven’s Gate group that the only way to avoid earth’s demise was to be rescued by a unidentified flying object. Their evacuation plan killed 39 people who committed suicide wearing arm patches that read, “Heaven’s Gate Away Team.” They thought they would be elevated to a new level, but they were not.

Harold Camping, a radio evangelist and prophet said that the second coming of Christ would be on October 21, 2011. He said the same thing about May 21, 2011 and before that a date in 1994. All of those dates, he predicted would be the end of the world. They were not.

December 21, 2012 was the end of the world, according to those who put their faith in the stone tablet calendars of the ancient Mayan civilization. It was not.

And so, here we are. Why are people so enamored with the idea of predicting the end of the world? Why is it that Christ’s return is at the center of most of these disastrous events?

Perhaps we should look at what Jesus said about the subject. Turn with me to Luke 21:5-19.

    5 Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, 6 “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”

    7 “Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”

    8 He replied: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, `I am he,’ and, `The time is near.’ Do not follow them. 9 When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”

    10 Then he said to them: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.

    12 “But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. 13 This will result in your being witnesses to them. 14 But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. 15 For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. 17 All men will hate you because of me. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By standing firm you will gain life.

May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.

Jesus and his disciples were in the courtyard of the temple. The disciples were marveling at the monolithic construction and the wealth that was on display. Jesus’ comment was that this would be totally destroyed.

The idea was nearly inconceivable. The courtyard in Herod’s time was bigger than 20 football fields. The mountaintop had been flattened with huge stones to build it up; stones the size of tractor trailer trucks weighing from 100 tons to as much as 628 tons. The temple itself was about the equivalent of a modern 10 story building. It dominated Jerusalem’s “skyline.” The idea of its physical destruction was absurd!

The disciples asked for a sign. They do not seem to ask out of disbelief, but more out of  a need to understand this better. Jesus’ response was remarkable. Instead of telling them what to watch for as a sign of the end of the age, he told them what they should expect their lives to be like in the days ahead. His predictions are not directly connected to the end of the age. Instead they are a warning about what it will be like to be a follower of Jesus in the days and years ahead.

Look at his warnings. The first is, “do not let yourself be tricked by false leaders.” Jesus described them as people who would announce themselves claim authority and predict the end of time. Jesus told them not to follow them. Then he told them not to be concerned about news of war and revolution. Those events were bound to happen. But they were signs of the imminent return of Christ! “…the end will not come right away.”

In verse 10, Jesus lists events that will happen in general terms; wars, earthquakes, famines, pestilences; frightening events that they would view as signs. These events had happened in the past, they happened in Jesus’ lifetime and now he told them they would happen in the future.

But is that what Jesus wanted them to be prepared for? No! What they should be concerned about was standing firm with their faith in Jesus Christ. They were going to face persecution, criminal trials and prison because of their faith in Jesus. He promised to be with them. Jesus told them that it would divide their families and eventually some of them would die because they believed in him. But they should not fear physical death because “by standing firm you will gain life.” Jesus warnings did not focus on watching for the end. Instead, they focused on standing firm in their faith in Jesus.

In Matthew 24 and 25, Jesus made it clear that no one knew when his return would be. No one when the end would come, “not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matt 24:36b). All of his parables in those chapters deal with not knowing when the master will return, but being ready anyway.

So why do some Christians spend so much time and effort trying to identify what is going to happen and when the end will be? After three failed attempts at pinpointing the day of Christ’s return, radio preacher Harold Camping finally apologized and admitted that his attempts had been sin! He said, “We humbly recognize that God may not tell his people the date when Christ will return, any more than he tells anyone the date they will die physically.”

Why would an attempt to predict the end be a sin? Well frankly, because it may show that instead of putting your faith in God and the grace that gave us Jesus, you are attempting to take control. If you are focused on living for Jesus and sharing his love with others why would you need to predict the date and time of the end of the world?

Our quick review of some famous prophecy disasters makes it obvious that the announcement of the end is often an opportunity for a leader to gain notoriety and to exercise control over others.

In Matthew 20:25-26, Jesus described spiritual authority in a way that Jim Jones or David Koresh did not recognize.

25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant…

Instead of worrying about future dates and times, we should be working for Jesus today. Take his advice. Follow his direction. Remember his instruction to his followers. Do not be fooled by confident false leaders. Do not be frightened by astounding events. Do not be discouraged by persecution and rejection. Instead, stand firm in your faith and remind the world of the love of Jesus. In that way, the world will know that you belong to him and you can let God do with this world whatever is pleasing to him.

Appropriate Ambition

1-timothy-6-6-682x1024When you are raising children, you have to make decisions constantly; decisions about what is good for them and what is not. There are so many of them that sometimes you do not seem to have time to think about them. So, you pick your battles! Sometimes you allow things to happen and if you stopped to think about it I think you would have no idea why! I am not talking about important matters. For those, you have to be careful. I am talking about things that are probably harmless.

Let me give you an example. The Tooth Fairy. We always did the Tooth Fairy “thing” with our kids. I never gave it a moments’ thought. We told the kids that when they lost a tooth, they could put it under their pillows and while they were sleeping, a mysterious ethereal being would slip undetected through the house, invade their undefended personal space and slip money under the pillow in exchange for the tooth.

What were we thinking? It is a wonder they were not all sleep deprived! We told them that the reward for allowing their safety to be compromised was cash! I do not want to imply that Aaron was not smart, but for some reason the cost for this charade got higher and higher with each child!

I heard a story about a little girl whose name was Rachel. Every time Rachel lost a tooth, the Tooth Fairy brought her two dollars. It seemed like a good deal! Then one day Rachel stayed over at a friend’s house and the friend happened to lose a tooth. The next morning there was a $10 bill under the friend’s pillow. Stunned, Rachel turned to her friend’s mother and said, “Mrs. Kraft, would you do me a big favor? Would you please call my mom and tell her which Tooth Fairy you use?”

All of a sudden, two dollars was not enough. We cannot blame a mythical creature because this is an example of human nature. God has blessed us with all that we need, but when we see someone else that has more, we are no longer happy with what we have.

Our scripture this morning is from 1st Timothy 6:3-10 and 17-18 (NIV). Paul was in the throws of dealing with an issue that followed him wherever he planted new Christian churches.

1st Timothy 6:3-10, and then 17-18.

3 If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, 4 he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions 5 and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.

6 But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9 People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

Then in 17 and 18 he said this.

17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.

May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.

Paul’s letters to Timothy were his personal instructions and advice for a young man that he cared very much about; a young man in a leadership role in the fledgling Christian churches. Paul had seen all kinds of resistance to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, from personal jealousy to physical violence. The problem that he fought most often concerned people who wanted to teach a different message and call it the Gospel. It is a problem that has never been solved.

In this passage, Paul warned Timothy to watch for these false teachers and gave him some identifying marks to look for. These people were conceited. They seemed to enjoy controversy and arguments. They left behind themselves envy, strife, malicious talk, suspicion and constant disagreements.

In verse five, he said that these men thought their form of godliness would bring them financial success. This may seem strange to us. There is a strong tradition in Protestant churches of spiritual leaders leading financially humble lives. That is not true in all Christian churches and it is certainly not true in the “health and wellness” evangelical churches of the last 20 years. It was also not true of the spiritual leaders of the Jewish faith in Paul’s day.

The Jews believed that wealth was sign that God had blessed you. Jesus directly challenged that idea when he said in Mark 10:25. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Paul told Timothy to be content with what he had. All you really need, he told him, are the basics; food and clothing. Paul said there was a danger in wanting more. He said that people get themselves into trouble all the time by struggling to get rich. Verse 10 is one of those commonly misquoted scriptures. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. It is not “money is the root of all evil,” as is so often quoted. The love of money leads to evil and grief. You would have to be blind to the world around you not to see that as the truth.

In verses 17 and 18, Paul told Timothy to teach his people to put their hope in God who provides us with everything. If they wanted to be rich, it should be in good deeds. They should be generous and quick to share what they had.

There are a number of places where Paul’s teaching about faithful Christian living comes into direct conflict with conventional thinking in this American culture. Most Americans think self-reliance is an important character trait. Those same people probably think that a “healthy” dose of ambition is a good thing.

I went to a career councilor once and after an extensive battery of personality tests, he told me that he was concerned that I was not “ambitious!” His presumption was that if you were not straining to “get ahead” in life, you were probably lazy! The idea that a person could be “content” never even entered his mind! You see, his definition of “ambition” focused on a better job, more pay, a bigger house and a new car. That was his definition of success.

If the desires that drive your life are those material things, you may indeed get them. But, that is all you will get. There is so much more. Remember, anything that turns you away from God, is sin. If you love money, you cannot love God. If you are focused on getting ahead, you are in danger of leaving God behind.

Do not be confused about what I am saying. It is not a sin to think you need a raise or a better job. Christian living is about having your priorities straight. What is most important to you?

The Apostle Paul had been the pinnacle of success in his day and culture. Then, Jesus changed his priorities. Listen to what he said to the Philippians and ask yourself, what is important in my life?

Here is what he said in Philippians 3:7-8 and 14.

7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ…

14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

That is an appropriate ambition!

Is It Just Spiritual Window-dressing?

rms-queen-mary-timothy-buloneIn 1936, the Cunard Line launched what was then the largest passenger ship in the world. At 83,243 gross tons, she was the largest ship and the fastest ship traveling back and forth from Southampton to New York at a recording setting speed of 31 knots. During World War II, the ship was converted to a troop carrier and at the close of the war it returned to passenger service.

In the spring of 1956, the Smith family made a foggy voyage from Southampton, England to New York aboard the Queen Mary, so the ship has a place in my family history. The ship was retired in 1967 and has been a floating tourist attraction in Long Beach, California ever since.

When the ship was being refurbished for its new role in Long Beach, they needed to remove its smokestacks to complete the work. They were to be repainted and put back in place. The smokestacks were 36 feet long and 23 feet wide. The front stack was 70 feet tall and they went down in size to the rear which was 62 feet tall.

When they were removing them, they discovered that the nearly inch thick steel of the smokestacks had corroded on the inside very badly. Thirty layers of paint on the outside was (in some places) all that was holding them up. A beautify exterior covered a crumbling interior. External appearance was hiding the decaying internal reality!

This morning we will be looking at the book of Isaiah. The 58th chapter tells us that Isaiah was asked to point out the same problem to the people of his day. No, you will not find cruise ships in Isaiah! But you will find a warning about trying to cover a decaying spiritual life with a coat of ritualistic paint! Turn with me to Isaiah 58 I hope you will forgive me for reading all of it, but it is important that you hear the full context.

Here God’s message to Israel through the prophet Isaiah.

1 “Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
3 `Why have we fasted,’ they say,
`and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying on sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?

6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter–
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The LORD will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

13 “If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath
and from doing as you please on my holy day,
if you call the Sabbath a delight
and the LORD’s holy day honorable,
and if you honor it by not going your own way
and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,
14 then you will find your joy in the LORD,
and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land
and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”
The mouth of the LORD has spoken.

May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.

Pity the prophet of God that had to bring “bad” news to the people. The Children of Israel often heard from prophets. From Obadiah in 840 BC to Malachi in 420 BC, Israel and Judah heard a continuing series of warnings of judgment and opportunities for mercy. Often, they were “called out” for blatant disobedience and sin. In this case, however, Isaiah exposed the decay of blackening hearts.

The people were attempting to put a pious paint job over the rot, but God would not be mocked and could not be fooled. He said,

They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
`Why have we fasted,’ they say,
`and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’

On the outside, they looked like they were seeking God. They looked religious! How were they doing that? How were they looking religious? They were going through the religious motions.

Isaiah’s message speaks of two specific practices that I am certain the people thought were their spiritual responsibility. They thought they were meeting that responsibility. But, God said, “Who are you kidding?”

The first of the two was a day of fasting. Fasting was an important part of the Jewish faith. The most important fast day was the Day of Atonement (or Yom Kippur). It was the day that the high priest entered the Holy of Holies, once each year to seek forgiveness for the sins of the people. A day of fasting was an important day on the Jewish calendar.

But these people were only going through the motions. The day that was supposed to be focused on their relationship with God was instead marred by strife and even violence. Isaiah told them that God knew that their displays of humility were only for show because of their actions on the following days!

They finished fasting and went back to being greedy, intolerant, malicious bullies! God wanted worship that led to lives of justice sincerity and generosity. If they would worship with sincerity, he told them he would rebuild their lives and their nation.

First was his concern about their fasting, but second seems to have been a concern about the Sabbath. They treated the day that God had made holy as if it was any other. They went where they wanted, did and said as they pleased. God instructed Isaiah to tell them that the “Lord’s holy day” should be honored and full of delight. If they would do that, he would,

cause you to ride on the heights of the land
and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”
The mouth of the LORD has spoken.

The Children of Israel went through the motions without dealing with the real issues. When they thought God was unresponsive, they wondered what is wrong with God?

Have you ever caught yourself doing that?  “God, things aren’t going my way. Why aren’t you blessing me? You said you would!” When you leave this place, has the time you have spent here mean anything? Acts of worship that have no effect on your daily life are simply empty acts. They are just another coat of pretty paint on the rusting, rotting structure of your life!

The word “integrity” has two meanings in English. It means being honest and having strong moral principles. But, it also means being “whole and undivided.” You see, God wants spiritual integrity from us. You cannot be one person at church and a different person during the week! God desires for us to live lives that are a great deal more than putting on religious appearances. It is more than just going to church talking Christian jargon or being politically correct.

Spiritual integrity is when our personal relationship with Jesus expresses itself in compassion for those who are in need around us; spiritual and physical need. When your life outside church matches your life inside of church, you have spiritual integrity.

14 then you will find your joy in the LORD,
and (he) I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land
and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”
The mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Will You Help Yourself?

Pharisee&Tax Collector_WebThe Bible is so rich in wisdom that people love to quote it when they want to support a point or to express what they are feeling. The problem is that what is often quoted is not really what the Bible says or it is not from the Bible at all!

I have for you today, the “Top 10 List” of frequently used quotations that people think are in the Bible. I think some of them may surprise you!

#10 - “The lion will lay down with the lamb.” That is a misquote of Isaiah 11:6. It actually says,

   6 The wolf will live with the lamb,
   the leopard will lie down with the goat,
   the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
   and a little child will lead them.

#9 - “A fool and his money are soon parted.” This not a Biblical reference at all. Thomas Tusser wrote that line 1573, in his volume Five Hundreth Pointes of Good Husbandrie.

#8 - “This too shall pass.”  That phrase comes from a Muslim Sufi from Persia, sometime during the middle ages!

#7 - The Seven Deadly Sins. In 590 AD, Pope Gregory confirmed a list of sins that came from a 4th century monk. They included wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. The Bible, however, says that all sin is deadly!

#6 - “Money is the root of all evil.”  First Timothy 6:10a says, For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

#5 - “Pride comes before the fall.” Proverbs 16:18 actually says,

   “Pride goes before destruction,
   a haughty spirit before a fall.”

#4 - “Charity begins at home.” Originally, the phrase was written by the Roman comic writer Terence. Sir Thomas Browne penned the English phrase in 1642.

#3 - “To thine ownself be true.” It is not from the Bible, but from William Shakespeare in Hamlet.

#2 - “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” There is great deal in the Bible about cleanliness, but not this saying! Its beginnings in English are probably from Francis Bacon with alterations by John Wesley.

#1 - “God helps those who help themselves.” This saying has been quoted so often it is difficult to find its beginnings. Algernon Sydney, wrote it in an article titled, Discourses Concerning Government.

Then it was popularized by Ben Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanac (1757) But, in 6 BC, Aeschylus said, “God loves to help him who strives to help himself.” That was probably a paraphrase of a story about Hercules declining to help a man with a stuck wagon. In the ancient story he says,

   “Hercules will not help
   Unless you make some effort to help yourself.”[1]

The Lord helps those who help themselves. The phrase is not Biblical and worse, it is the jaws of the trap of self-righteousness. Turn with me if you will to the Gospel of Luke. Luke 18:9-14 is a story that Jesus told that shows the result of the trap of self-righteousness.

9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: `God, I thank you that I am not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, `God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.

In this section of Luke, the writer presented his reader with a number of Jesus’ stories that described the difference between those who would see the Kingdom of God and those who would not.

In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the difference could not be more stark. Luke introduced the story with a note that identified to whom the parable was directed. It was pointed at those, “who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else.”

The stark difference was between two men; a Pharisee and a tax collector. In general terms, Jesus was talking about the pinnacle of Jewish religious society and the dregs of secular culture. The Pharisees (the lawyers) stood for strict obedience to the Torah. Tax collectors were often purely thieves and worse, they conspired with the Roman government to profit for themselves. They were as different as they could be. One was respected and one was rejected.

Both these men came to pray and the confident Pharisee began in gratitude. But the gratitude he expressed was self-exaltation. “Thank you that I am better than this guy!” He did not thank God for the blessings of his life. He thanked God but took credit for his own blessings! “I am not like other men!” To prove that, he quoted his resume to God. “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

Then the tax collector “stood at a distance.” With physical evidence of humility, he confessed his sin and asked for mercy. Jesus told his listeners that the hated law-breaking tax collector went home “justified before God.” Not so the Pharisee.

In John 12:43, Jesus said that the Pharisees “…loved praise from men more than praise from God.”While the Pharisee praised himself for all to see, the tax collector humbled himself with no show or fanfare.

As Jesus so often did, he turned conventional wisdom on its head. The man who seemed righteous received only the praise of men. The man who was clearly a sinner went home justified. Jesus’ original listeners must have been confused by this topsy-turvy story. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”The more I study the message of Jesus, the more certain I become certain that this is a central theme.

You are wondering I am sure, how this connects to the phrase, “The Lord helps those who help themselves.” Allow me to think with you about this for a moment or two. If you accept that “proverbial” wisdom and structure your lifestyle around it, what is the end result? The obvious result is a certain level of self-reliance.

For most of our history Americans have had a love affair with “up-by-your-bootstraps” self-reliance. Ask the man-on-the-street and you will get little argument. Self-reliance is a positive character trait. But, in our relationship with our Savior, self-reliance is dangerous.

Obviously, to grow more self-reliant you must grow less reliant on others. If you continue unabated in a “help myself” style eventually, you will find yourself congratulating yourself for what you have done for yourself. The grace and blessings of God are then a distant memory.

We walk a fine line here! There is some truth in the old saying and we do sense that there is something good in it. Certainly, it is true that God will help those who seize the initiative and help themselves. Sometimes that help comes in the form of stopping them dead in their tracks! God also helps those who are unable to help themselves.

The fact is, that the gospel of Jesus Christ says that you are not capable of helping yourself when it comes to your relationship with God. In Romans 3 (22b-24) we read that, “There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

You cannot boot-strap lift yourself out of the pit of sin! Only reliance on Jesus can do that! If your desire is to help yourself, the place to start is by putting your faith in Jesus, our savior!

Did You Forget Something?

There’s an old story about two men walking through a meadow. They were engrossed in a conversation and were paying little attention to the grassy field they were walking through. Suddenly, they heard a snorting noise and realized they had gotten into a field with a bull. Head down, pawing the ground it was clear that the bull was angry.

Head down, pawing the ground, it was clear that the bull was angry.

Head down, pawing the ground, it was clear that the bull was angry.

They turned and began running for the nearest fence. Side-by-side they ran, doing their best to escape. The storming bull followed in hot pursuit. It was obvious to the men that they would not make it. Breathlessly, one man said to the other, “Pray, John, cause we’re in for it!”

John answered in full stride, “I don’t know how to pray out loud!”

“But you’ve got to,” the first man said.

Huffing and puffing, John replied, “Then I’ll say the one my father taught me.”

“O Lord,” he called, “For what we are about to receive, may we truly be thankful.”

Gratitude. We all know we should express it and not just in emergency situations! But it’s easy to forget!

Turn with me to the letter to Luke 17. I would like to think this morning about an expression of gratitude found in Luke 17:11-19.

11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”

When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.

One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him–and he was a Samaritan.

17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.

Leprosy was a dangerous disease in Jesus’ day. With no medicines to treat what we now call Hanson’s Disease, the only way they had to deal with this infection was isolation. Leviticus 13 has a long section on diseases of the skin and how they should be diagnosed by the priests. It was the priest’s job to determine if an abnormality was actually an infectious disease. The only treatment they had was isolation! A person could be rechecked by a priest and be declared clean. Often, however, a lifetime of being an outcast was in their future.

Leviticus 13:45-46 says,

45 “The person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out, `Unclean! Unclean!’ 46 As long as he has the infection he remains unclean. He must live alone; he must live outside the camp.

Those who where “unclean,” could only find solace in each other. That seems to be the situation in this passage of scripture. The ten men with leprosy kept their distance from the rabbi and his followers, as the law required.

They called out to Jesus not asking directly to be healed but asking only for “mercy.” Jesus instructed them to go and “show yourselves to the priests.” The only reason that a leper had to go into the city where the priests were was if they were already healed. If they were, the priest could declare them healed and end their isolation. If they went into the city with leprosy there would be trouble!

You see, it took faith to follow Jesus’ command! Notice that Jesus did not heal them and then they went. They were healed as they went, as they obeyed.

Verse 14 says that the group was “cleansed.” The Greek word is “katharizo” meaning to be made clean or free from filth. All of them had been unclean outcasts. They did as Jesus told them and they were clean. Nine continued into the city to receive their “freedom” from the priests.

But, one did not. One man came back, “praising God in a loud voice.” He praised God and thanked Jesus. He gave credit to God and gratitude to Jesus. Verse 15 says that he came back when he saw that he “was healed.” This Greek word is “iaomai.” It is a more general word that means he had his health restored.

It is a subtle difference, I know. However, the implication is that this man was made well in more ways than simply the legalistic concerns of the priests. His wellness brought him back in gratitude.

Obviously, the nine heading for a “clean bill of health,” were Jews. Luke makes a point of telling his readers that the man who returned in gratitude was a Samaritan. Jews wanted nothing to do with Samaritans and avoided them more than most “gentiles.” When they were unclean, it did not matter. Now that Jesus had made them “clean,” there was still a difference! A Jewish person at the time would have still considered him “unclean” simply because he was a Samaritan.

Jesus noticed!

17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

“Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

It is interesting. The word for “made well” used here has a salvation connotation. It means to be saved from disease! Your faith has saved you!

Every time I see a passage like this, I am reminded that it is about me and it is about you, too! Jesus made it clear, his purpose was to save the lost. He was not on earth to save only the Jews or only the gentiles. Jesus said, 32 … “when I am lifted up from the earth, (I) will draw all men to myself.” All. I will draw everyone to myself, not just Jews and not just gentiles. Not just the righteous but also the sinners. All.

Jesus has made it possible for you and I to be healed (made well). We have been spiritually cleaned by his sacrifice. The question we must ask ourselves is this; am I one that returns in gratitude? Do I praise God and thank Jesus? Or, am I one of the nine who simply goes through the motions even though I have received this great gift?

When I drop my daughter, Heaven, off at school, she hands me her book bag when I get her out of the car. She parrots back the reminder we have used so often, “Say thank-you!” She reminds me that I need to be thankful. She is right!

If someone holds open a door for you I am certain that you immediately say, thank-you! Jesus sacrificed himself for you. He gave up his life so that he could open eternity’s door for you. Do you walk through and forget to thank him? I certainly hope not!

I would like to suggest two ways to show our gratitude to God for what he has done for us.

First, simply tell him. In conversation with God tell him thanks! Do you talk to God regularly” Thank him!

Secondly, open the door to eternity for someone else. You need not make the sacrifice. It has already been made. All you must do is to show them Jesus’ love simply and politely.

For what we are already receiving, I hope you are truly thankful.

Insurance or Assurance?

Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith.

Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith.

There has been a lot of talk this week about health insurance. You know that already, unless you have been asleep all week and some of us wish we had been! Because of the October 1st roll out of health insurance exchanges it seems like everyone is talking about it.

I found some statistics that helped me understand why the topic is so huge. The average hospital visit in the United States cost $15,734. That is the highest cost in the world! Germany’s average cost came in second at $5,004; one third of ours. With that mind, and remembering that 57.5 million Americans went through at least part of this year with no health insurance, it is easy to see why the internet and phone lines are jammed with people.

I have noticed that as you drive west out of Clarksburg, West Virginia, there is a billboard for a local insurance agent. On it, he advertises his product, but the word “insurance” is crossed out and the word “assurance” is written over the top. Insurance and assurance. The English language is tricky. Words that seem to be very similar can have very different meanings. I have not heard anyone out there clambering to get into the “assurance marketplace!”

Insurance is “coverage by contract whereby one party undertakes to guarantee another against loss by a specified contingency or peril.” No one in that industry would want you to put it this way, but selling and buying insurance is like placing a bet that something will or will not happen. Assurance, on the other hand, is not a product to be bought and sold. It is a state of being! “The state of being sure that something will happen or that something is true. You cannot buy that in any marketplace! But, you can surely have it! Today’s scripture will tell you how.

Turn with me to the letter to the Hebrews.

Hebrews 10:11-23.

11 Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. 13 Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, 14 because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:

“This is the covenant I will make with them
after that time, says the Lord.
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds.”

17 Then he adds:

“Their sins and lawless acts
I will remember no more.”

18 And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin.

19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.

May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.

The writer of Hebrews (and we are not certain who that was) was communicating with a group of people who had come to Christ from Judaism. He reminded them of something that they already knew. In the system they had come from a priest, multiple priests, who held their positions because of their genealogy, performed ritualistic duties over and over again. “Day after day,” the writer said. The purpose of the sacrificial ritual was to seek forgiveness from God. The writer here made it clear that the ritual was ineffective.

The one perfect priest who could offer a perfect and therefore effective sacrifice was Jesus.

He told them that because of that perfect sacrifice, they were being made holy. He cited the “new covenant” prophecy passage from Jeremiah 31, which told them that repeated sacrifices were not enough. What was important was on the inside; their minds and hearts. They had been forgiven and were being made holy. Because of that fact, they could come into the presence of God.

In the old sacrificial system, only the Chief Priest, after much prayer and cleansing ritual could pass “through the curtain” and into the Devir; the Most Holy Place. In the temple, it was the place of God’s shekinah glory. What the Chief Priest could only do once a year, the believer could do because Jesus’ sacrifice had opened the way. Because of that sacrifice, he told them that they could be in the presence of the almighty God, not with fear and trembling, but with “confidence.”

They had been held at a distance for the entire life of the Children of Israel. Now he said, “Step right up! Your faith gives you full assurance! The one who promised is faithful!

Can you feel the assurance? When the Children of Israel came to the temple, day after day and ritual after ritual, their sacrifices were like insurance payments! You and I both know that we trust our insurance companies to only a limited extent! We expect them to hold up their end of the bargain. Most people I know, however, do not have relationship with that corporation! The only “relationship” is a contract! What we have with God is a great deal more than a contract! Because of the sacrifice of Jesus, we are in “covenant” relationship with him. “He who promised is faithful!”

That is the origin of our assurance! Assurance is the certainty that Jesus is truth and that he has already opened an eternal relationship with us. “Assurance” beats in “insurance” every time!

In 1873 Phoebe Knapp was visiting the already famous hymn writer Fanny Crosby. The two were good friends and Knapp, who was a musician, was having an organ installed in her home. While the work was ongoing, she was visiting Crosby and found herself playing a new tune on the piano.

She asked Fanny Crosby, “What do you think the tune says?”

Crosby paused, thought and replied, “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine.”

We all recognize that old hymn immediately!

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
O what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.

When you put your faith in Jesus, he can and will be your assurance; your Blessed Assurance.

The Right Way to Mix Religion and Politics

Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus

Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus

You have probably heard the phrase, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.” The phrase is commonly used when you want to say that someone is focused on pleasurable or unimportant matters when there is actually a crisis going on. If you “fiddle while Rome burns,” it means you have the power to do something about a crisis, but you simply do not care about anyone but yourself and so you do nothing to help.

The story behind the idiom goes back to the year 64 AD when a terrible fire swept through the Rome destroying a huge swath of the city. The emperor at the time was, of course, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. The phrase would have you believe that Nero simply did not care about his subjects. Nero has become the epitome of selfish political leaders because of this saying!

There are, however, a couple of problems with the saying. First, Nero did not have a “fiddle.” The violin has its origins about 800 years after Nero. But, the main thing is that Nero probably did not neglect his duties. His political enemies even said he set the fire! The facts are that he provided help for homeless Romans and began a program to rebuild the city. He was, however, no hero! The politics of Nero’s day makes Washington DC look like kindergarten!

Nero’s mother, Agrippina, connived Nero’s succession to emperor and poisoned Emperor Claudius so that Nero could take power. Nero then poisoned his rival Britannicus and had his own mother put to death in 59 AD. He divorced his wife, who seems to have been simply a political stepping-stone and then later had her executed and married his mistress. He later kicked the mistress to death! He blamed the fire on a little known religious sect known as “Christians” and began a creative campaign to kill as many of them as possible.

Meanwhile the empire was in turmoil with revolts from Briton to Judea. In 68 AD, his own Praetorian Guards revolted against him. He fled from Rome and the senate declared him a public enemy. Nero committed suicide on June 9 in 68 AD.

Can you imagine what it was like for Christians in the Roman Empire during Nero’s reign? He was having them summarily executed or using them for lion food in the Coliseum. Many Christians today believe they are engaged in a “culture war” against leaders and influences with whom they disagree. Can you imagine how Christians must have felt in Nero’s day?

Well, you do not have to “imagine.” When the Apostle Paul was writing his letters, who was the emperor? Yes! Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. Turn with me to 1st Timothy 2:1-7 and we will take a look at Paul’s instructions to his protégé, Timothy, concerning the right way for Christians to be involved in the politics of his world.

1st Timothy 2:1-7.

1 I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone– 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 5 For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all men–the testimony given in its proper time. 7 And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle–I am telling the truth, I am not lying–and a teacher of the true faith to the Gentiles.

May the Lord add his blessing to the reading of the Word.

Paul used the phrase “first of all” indicating that the first priority. He also said he urged him. That word means that he pushed him to do it repeatedly. The beginning of this paragraph states both the importance of his instruction and the strength with which he made it. He “urged” Timothy as a first priority to be in prayer for “everyone.”

Paul used four words to describe the aspects of the spiritual communication he was requesting. Four words for prayer: requests (what is desired or needed), prayers (both public and private), intercession (conversation aiding others) and thanksgiving (recognition of what God had done). Paul told Timothy to pray this way for everyone, but specifically for kings and authorities. That “wide net” included everyone who had authority over Timothy. Everyone.

At the top of the heap was Emperor Nero. Imagine that? Paul had been imprisoned in Rome in 59 AD. He was probably in Macedonia when this letter was written. But, he returned to Rome and was jailed again. He was eventually put to death by Nero. He had no earthly reason to want God to bless the Roman authorities. But, he had spiritual reasons for God to bless them. He instructed Timothy to pray for the authorities (first) so that the Christians who lived under their authority could live in peace and quiet, in godliness and holiness. He prayed for blessings on those who imprisoned and eventually killed him so that Christ’s kingdom could take root!

Just in case Timothy thought this was a burden, Paul drove home the point by saying that it was good and it would please God. Verse 4 says that God, “…wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” All men! Not just the ones that agreed with him or supported his point of view; all men. God wants all men to be saved.

Verse five is very important. God’s plan included only one person to bridge the gap between himself and mankind. That mediator was the man Christ Jesus. Paul said that that fact was the reason God sent him to proclaim the good news. It is hard for us to imagine, but God wanted even Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus to be saved!

Now, what does that mean for us? Paul did not urge Timothy to take up a picket sign and protest the sinful excesses of the civil and military leaders that surrounded him. He did not tell him to become politically active because there was no such thing! In the first century AD, citizens had no political power. Paul, Timothy and the Christians of their time could not be politically active! They were having a hard time just staying alive!

Some people have used this passage to say that Christians should be silent when it comes to governmental issues. That is not an appropriate use of the scripture. Neither is it appropriate for Christians to degrade their spiritual witness with inappropriate political action. Some of the most extreme examples are the protests of the Topeka, Kansas, Westboro Baptist Church. They have become infamous for protesting at the funerals of American service members who have died in the line of duty, claiming that God struck down U.S. soldiers because the nation tolerates homosexuality. That kind of action pollutes the witness of every well-meaning Christian!

You have the right as an American citizen to be active in the politics and governance of our nation; a freedom that Timothy did not have! But, you have the same responsibility that Timothy had as well. You should be praying for the leaders of our cities, counties states and our nation. Do not be tempted to think that prayer is not enough. Pray for our nation’s leaders. Pray for the salvation of the lost.
How should a Christian mix religion and politics? With patient, consistent and continuous prayer.

3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

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