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12-18 - The Silence of the Shepherds

          We have come to the fourth Sunday of Advent, the time of year in which we anticipate celebrating Jesus’ birth.  The birth of Jesus was a dramatic end God’s silence lasting some four hundred years. God had been silent for 400 years, having last spoken through the prophet Malachi.  Through Malachi God said that when He next spoke, it would mark the coming of the Lord.  God would bring forth a prophetic messenger having the power of Elijah to announce the Lord’s arrival.  And so, God spoke through an angel to Zechariah, that Zechariah, son, John, would be that messenger.  God spoke through an angel to Mary that she would bear the Son of God.  God spoke to Joseph reassuring Joseph that Mary’s child was of the Holy Spirit and Joseph must care for Mary and the baby. Moreover, God shared with Joseph that Joseph was to give Mary’s child the name Jesus and that Jesus would save the people from their sins.  Finally, God spoke through a multitude of angels to tell a group of shepherds that Jesus had been born.  God was true to his word.  The Lord had come.

          Jesus’ arrival here on earth was an odd mixture events of the world, of private matters, and of matters that were quite frankly out of this world.  The worldly event surrounding Jesus’ birth came about by a man named Caesar Augustus.  Augustus was unarguably then the most power man on the face of the earth. Augustus had called for a census, a counting of his subjects.  Within Israel, Caesar’s order caused the movement of people to the lands of their ancestorial tribe.  Mary and Joseph were both of the bloodline of David who was of the tribe of Judah. Mary and Joseph were living in Nazareth in the lands of tribe of Manasseh.  And so, Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to their ancestorial home of Bethlehem, of Judah, to be counted.  An inscription from a Roman Temple in Turkey reports that this census determined there were 4.2 million Roman citizens under Caesar Augustus. The census was the worldly event.         

          Amid the chaos of the counting of Augustus’ subjects, a very private event took place.  Luke wrote, “While they [Mary and Joseph] were there [in Bethlehem], the time came for the baby to be born, and she [Mary] gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She [Mary] wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them” (Luke 2:6-7).  The birth of a child is a private event that combines an odd mixture of personal pain for the mother with corporate joy for many over the promise in each child’s born. The birth of Mary’s son occurred in just that way.  Privately, painfully, and yet joyfully Mary gave birth.  But our Gospel writer, Luke, a physician by trade, reported an odd thing about this birth.  When born, the child was placed in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. Luke said the manger was used because Mary and Joseph could not find a guest room to accommodate them.  There were no vacant rooms for the couple and those who already occupied rooms were unwilling to give them up for Mary and her baby who was ready to be born.  Mary and Joseph were left to find shelter from the elements in a stable.  Casting Crowns, a Christian music group, in the song, While You Were Sleeping, described this private moment this way, “O Bethlehem, you will go down in history, as a city with no room for its king.”  The baby was born and laid in a trough.  It seems likely that Mary and Joseph  would have assumed that with the baby now born, they would soon leave Bethlehem as unnoticed as when they entered.

          Except we know Mary and Joseph’s son was no ordinary baby.  The birth of this baby was an out of this world event.  Mary and Joseph each had been told that this child was of the Holy Spirit and that this child was the Son of God, a savior of the people.  To be born a savior among the people, meant that this baby was born an enemy of those who hold power over the people. This baby was the Son of God, the one true God in heaven born into the lands of Caesar Augustus who had been proclaimed by the Roman Senate as the Son of God and savior of the world.  Caesar, the man, counted people as though he owned them.  For Mary’s baby to be the savior of the world meant Caesar’s similar title was that of an imposter.

This baby of Mary was the Son of God, the one true God in heaven born into the world of Satan, the ruler of this world.  Satan, the fallen angel, who sought to corrupt and poison the spirit and mind of anyone who desired God.  Here in the little town of Bethlehem, a baby lay in the manger, born into enemy territory with one mission, to save the people from Satan.  The birth of Mary’s baby happened in the middle of a worldly, yet private event, and was also an out of this world event.  The birth of Jesus has no parallel in human history.

          Luke then moved us from the baby in the manger within the city of Bethlehem to the night darkness in the hills surrounding Bethlehem.  There among the hills, Luke introduced us to shepherds, themselves living out in the elements, quietly keeping watch over their sheep.  Luke said, “An angel of the Lord appeared to them [the shepherds], and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they [the shepherds] were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them [the shepherds], ‘Do not be afraid’” (Luke 2:9-10).  Luke confronted his readers with a startling scene. Shepherds were quietly settled in for the evening making sure their sheep were protected from predators and thieves.  Then without warning, the small patch of ground around the shepherds lit up as if the noontime sun had suddenly appeared.  The shepherds squinted their eyes and they raised their hands to help peer into the light.  The light terrified the shepherds.  And then in their terror, a voice came from the light piercing the silence of the night. And the voice said, “Do not be afraid” (Luke 2:10a).  I am not sure the encouragement of the voice helped with the shepherds’ fear.  The shepherds were having an out of this world experience.  An angel, God’s messenger, had appeared to again break God’s silence.

          The angel said, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10b-11).  The words the people of Israel had longed to hear had been spoken to this group of shepherds.  God’s Messiah had been born, today, in the city just below them.  Messiah was Israel’s dream of restored glory under God. Israel would vanquish its enemies through the Messiah.  Jews would be free from the pagans and the profane of this world.  Conquest would soon be theirs.  The leader of the rebellion had been born in Bethlehem, the perfect spot.  Hallelujah!

          But.  There is always a but.  But then the angel said something odd and disturbing.  The angel said, “12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12).  What?  God’s anointed Messiah, the future warrior king, restorer of Israel’s sacred honor, would be found in an animal’s feeding trough.  That is humiliating.  The Messiah should be exalted not humbled.  The shepherds experience teaches us again that we cannot expect God to act in ways that fit our convention, our way of thinking.  Job expressed to God, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:3). God makes himself known, but there still is much mystery to God and we cannot judge how, when, and where God will speak to us.

          Before the shepherds could fully comprehend the angel’s words about the Messiah in the manger, the sky above the shepherds exploded with many angels praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14).  There it was again.  The unexpected phrase appeared, “peace on earth.”  The Messiah was to bring war and conquest, what is this talk about peace? God who had not spoken in nearly 400 years was sharing the essence of His new covenant.  It would be a covenant of peace.

          Luke shared that when the angels left the shepherds and returned to heaven, the shepherds hurried off to Bethlehem to begin their search of the city’s stables.  It was not long after, the shepherds found Mary and Joseph, indeed laying in the manger with a newborn baby boy.  The shepherds had gone from an out of the world experience and entered the very private experience of a couple with its newborn baby.  What was Mary and Joseph to think?  This group of shepherds barged their way into Mary and Joseph’s life looking for their newborn son.  And when the shepherds found the child, Luke said, “17 The shepherds spread the word concerning what [the angel] had been told them [the shepherds] about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them” (Luke 2:17-18). Apparently, the shepherds’ enthusiasm at finding the child attracted the attention of others.  The shepherds shared their out of this world experience to the amazement of those who heard the story. 

Amazed here means to wonder about what had been said or happened.  It is state of excited speculative chatter, sharing with others what could all this mean. 

In contrast to the excitement of speculation of others, Luke said, “19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).  Mary, the baby’s mother, knew the shepherds’ testimony was true and she did not need to speculate about the meaning of the shepherds’ out of the world experience.  Instead, Mary held onto what the shepherds said so that she could be encouraged by their testimony in the days, months, and years ahead.  Mothers are particularly good at treasuring and holding within themselves memories and experiences with their children.  It might be the first smile or giggle of their child, or a secret shared with their mother.  Luke reminds us that as wonderful and exciting as it is for us to hear about the coming Messiah, there was still unfolding the very human story of a mother and her child.

It is not an accident that Luke included this contrasting detail between Mary and the others who heard the shepherds’ testimony.  In doing so, Luke reminds us that every story, even the story of Jesus’ birth, has two dimensions to it.  There is the human story of mortal birth, life, things treasured, words pondered, joy, pain, and grief.  There is also the eternal story of sin, rebirth, salvation, pursuit of righteousness, heaven, hell, and destiny.  Both stories are important.  In living within worldly and private events, we must acknowledge and honor the human story. There is a great temptation for us to ignore the difficulties of the human story of another person and quickly redirect people’s attention toward the eternal story.  We say things like, “Don’t cry, God will bring good out of this situation.”  God did not treat Mary that way and we should not treat others that way.  God used the shepherds to provision Mary with words of encouragement, words to treasure in her heart, words Mary did not know then how much she would need to get her through the pain she would experience in her mortal life as her child fulfilled his destiny upon the cross.  So, when we minister to each other, let’s acknowledge each other’s human stories which are rich in joy and accented by pain.  Let’s first share the human story together. Then, when the time is right, we can help each other remember the full truth of the eternal story that we also live.

Luke concluded that for their part, “20 The shepherds returned [to the hillsides] , glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told” (Luke 2:20).  The shepherds returned to their silence, and we know no more about them.

What more can we learn from this tale of the shepherds?  It is a tale that we have heard many times before and, perhaps, even acted out in a church play.  Today, I would like us to see three things. 

First, we with worldly events occurring all around us.  Some of those events are exciting, others are disturbing.  That was certainly the case in our reading today as Caesar Augustus caused a census to be taken moving Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem.  There are many Caesars in the world today, each believing they are the power.  Today’s story reminds us that world events may not always be as they seem because God uses worldly events to further His interests.  God used Caesar’s census to bring about His Messiah.  Caesar’s census may have recorded 4.2 million people, but it did not record that God had invaded Caesar’s kingdom with just one person, a Savior, Jesus Christ.  That Savior, Jesus, would overturn the kingdom of Caesar and will overturn all other kingdoms of this earth.  We need to keep that in mind whenever we are disturbed by worldly events.

Second, we live out our life primarily through private events.  We are born, we learn to walk, we go to school, we get married, we have children, we attend funerals, and we die.  Except for the Caesar’s of the world, these events are private events. Mary and Joseph had a private life into which we have been given a window.  Mary and Joseph become engaged, became married, gave birth to Jesus, watched Jesus grow, and had other children.  Mary and Joseph had no idea of the significance their private lives would have on the world and neither do we concerning our own lives.  We should never diminish anyone’s importance to the work of God’s kingdom, including the work that you and I do.  We are people of a small church living out private lives with each other and yet we do not know how our lives will ultimately impact the kingdom of God.  And so we must be faithful to live that life, in its private moments, as though it matters to God because it does.  That is what Mary and Joseph did and so must we.

Finally, meeting God in the Scriptures, in the baptismal pool, walking along the beach, seated in the park, worshiping in church, or in our dreams is an out of the world experience that is available to us all.  The shepherds experienced God in a place, time, and manner that they never predicted. The same is true for us.  We need to remain open to how and when God will speak to us.  He does not often speak as He did to the shepherds with this searing light at night.  More often, God will speak to us through that still small voice.  And so, we need to listen for God’s voice and not be afraid of it.  I have experienced God breaking the silence and infusing me with hope.  I know he will do the same for you.  I know this because God infused the shepherds with hope and announced His intention to bring us each peace to all who would seek him.

These are the things we can learn from this story of the shepherds.  So, let us then find peace within the worldly events, the private moments we share, and may we find peace with an out of the world experience with God, His Son, Jesus Christ, and His Holy Spirit.  Amen and Amen.

12-11 - The Silence of Joseph

          The last two weeks we have been exploring how God broke His silence and brought the news that He was sending His anointed one into the world to bring salvation to all.  For 400 years God had been silent.  The last words God spoke through the prophet Malachi proclaimed that “I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents” (Malachi 4:5-6).  God then broke his silence by sending the angel Gabriel to an old man, a priest named Zechariah, telling Zechariah that he and his wife, Elizabeth, would have a son, named John, who “will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous” (Luke 1:17).  John was not the anointed one of God.  John’s mission would be to announce God’s Messiah had come.

          After breaking the silence with Zechariah, God broke His silence again sending the angel Gabriel to a young woman named Mary to tell her that through the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary would give birth to the Son of God.  Unknown to Zechariah and Elizabeth, God had acted and even before their son, John, had been born, God was bringing about the Messiah. The news from the angel to Mary was wonderful and terrifying.  Mary’s child brought forth by the Holy Spirit would be the Son of God.  This moment in time was the highest spiritual point for any human being.  And as awesome as the news was from the angel, Mary nevertheless found herself in the little town of Nazareth, in Galilee, in Judea, in Israel, pregnant and engaged to be married to a man named Joseph.  The Hebrew Scriptures were quite strict about women who were pregnant and not married.  With Mary engaged and pregnant, family, friends, neighbors, and the authorities would assume that Mary was no longer a virgin.  The Law of Moses said that such women should be “brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done an outrageous thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you (Deuteronomy 22:20). It was a difficult moment for Mary as she needed to share her story with Joseph for under the Law of Moses, for Mary’s fate was in Joseph’s hands.

          Mary told her story to her husband to be, Joseph.  Mary shared about the angel and that her child would be a king and would be called the Son of God.  But all Joseph heard from Mary was “I am pregnant.”  Joseph could not accept Mary’s story.  All Joseph knew was that Mary was pregnant and the child was obviously not his child.  Joseph chose to receive Mary’s news with despair and disbelief.  Joseph was reshaping his experience by rejecting Mary’s good news that the Son of God was to be born.  Disbelief in God’s Word always reshapes our life experiences for the worse.

          Mary, needing assurance, remembered that the angel told her that her cousin, Elizabeth, was pregnant.  Elizabeth was old, well beyond bearing children.  No one brought news that Elizabeth was pregnant.  Surely, something as miraculously as Elizabeth’s pregnancy would have been news to share.  But no such news had reached Mary because unknown to Mary, Elizabeth had been in seclusion for the past 5 months.  No one other than Zechariah, Elizabeth, and God knew Mary was pregnant.  Mary hurried to see Elizabeth desperate for confirmation the angel’s news that Elizabeth was pregnant.  Mary needed reassurance.

          Luke shared with us that Mary hurried to find Elizabeth.  When Mary arrived and entered the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary called out to Elizabeth.  “41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her [Elizabeth’s] womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she [Elizabeth] exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you [Mary] among women, and blessed is the child you [Mary] will bear! 43 But why am I [Elizabeth] so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your [Mary] greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she [Mary] who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!’ (Luke 1:41-45).  Mary received the assurance she needed that the Lord’s promises were true.

          This little story of Mary and Elizabeth is a terribly important one. Mary had a mountaintop experience with the angel, a spiritual high.  The angel told Mary she was highly favored and that she, Mary, would bear the Son of God. Then Mary shared her news.  Likely first with Joseph and she experienced a spiritual low.  Joseph rejected Mary.  Joseph’s unbelief was not only shaping Joseph’s experience but was reshaping Mary’s experience. 

Every one of us goes through moments of spiritual highs in which our faith seems so strong and then it seems in an instant that spiritual high can evaporate, and we are in the clutches of a spiritual low.  That was certainly Mary’s experience, but then Mary remembered a small statement made by the angel.  Elizabeth was pregnant.  That small statement was God’s way of letting Mary know that He had made provision for Mary’s renewed spirit.  Mary went to Elizabeth and found God’s Word to be true.  In knowing the truth of God’s Word, Mary’s spirit soared again. The same is true for us.  Even in our spiritual lows, God is making provision our renewal.  God is equipping people through the Holy Spirit to bring comfort, reassurance, and guidance to help lift us from the hole in which we find ourselves.  These people are not likely to knock on our doors and say, “I am here to help.”  They might but it is not likely to happen that way.  But the people God has provisioned for us, to bring us out of the spiritual lows, will always be found in the body of Christ, His church.

The Apostle Paul saw the reality of God’s provision through the church this way.  “27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And God has placed [God has provisioned] in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues” (1 Corinthians 12:27-28).  You and I are part of God’s provisioning for each other and for those who are in need but not yet here.  You and I are instruments being empowered by the Holy Spirit to bring reassurance of the truth of God’s Word to those who are experiencing spiritual lows.  We need to let that sink in for a moment.  You and I are empowered by the Holy Spirit to help reshape the spiritual life experience of another person.  That is an awesome thought, responsibility, and blessing.  If people can feel God’s love, a love made incarnate, full and complete, in the caring people of the church, people they see, touch, and hear, then they are assured of God’s presence.  They can know that God hasn’t abandoned them.  In you they see God.

In you those who need reassurance see and experience God’s provision.  Mary found in Elizabeth the reassurance she needed that God’s Word was true.

While Mary sought and was enjoying the presence of Elizabeth, we turn our attention back to Joseph who had rejected Mary at the news of her pregnancy.  Joseph was distraught.  The Jewish tradition of the time was that Joseph’s father, Jacob, and Mary’s father would have arranged Joseph’s and Mary’s marriage.  For girls, needed to be at least 12 years old for marriage.  For boys, needed to be at least 13 years old. We do not know the ages of Mary and Joseph but they could have been very young by our way of living today.  The two fathers would have agreed upon an amount of money Mary’s father would have received for losing a daughter to marriage. Once the agreement was settled, the couple was considered engaged but were not permitted to have sexual relations until after the formal marriage ceremony.

Mary’s news to Joseph of her pregnancy meant the marriage could be terminated.  The Gospel of Matthew said, “19 Because Joseph her [Mary’s] husband was faithful to the law [of Moses], and yet [Joseph] did not want to expose her [Mary] to public disgrace, he [Joseph] had in mind to divorce her [Mary] quietly” (Matthew 1:19).  Joseph was conflicted.  Joseph wanted to follow the Law of Moses and end the marriage but Joseph did not want to expose Mary to the death penalty of the law.  Joseph wanted to follow the command of justice but to temper justice with mercy.

Joseph remained silent about Mary’s pregnancy and the conflict within his own spirit.  In the silence of the night, and in conflict of his mind, Joseph laydown to sleep.  During Joseph’s sleep, “20 An angel of the Lord appeared to him [Joseph] in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She [Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he [Jesus] will save his people from their sins.’  22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’)” (Matthew 1:20-23).  An angel had visited again.  First to Zechariah about the birth of his son John, then to Mary about conceiving Jesus, and now to Joseph concerning the baby within Mary’s womb. Each time, the angel began by addressing fear of those he visited.  The angel invited Zechariah, Mary, and Joseph to each let go of their fear.

Fear is such a powerful emotion. Fear separates us not only from each other.  Think about it for a moment.  If we are afraid of someone, we do everything we can to avoid them.  That is the human level of fear.  But fear also separates us from God.  Fear talks us out of moving forward with God and causes us to believe our best days are behind us.  Fear focuses our attention on our doubts and hurts our self-esteem.  Fear keeps us in bondage until something worse comes along. But we need to remember, we only fear things that have not yet happened.  Because what we fear has not yet happened, we can reshape our experience.  Mary reshaped her experience with fear through the reassurance of Elizabeth and Joseph’s experience with fear was reshaped by God through an angelic messenger.  Both Mary and Joseph, as well as you and I, can remain in our fear or we can accept the encouragement to life that God offers.  What will we choose?

          Matthew shared with us that, “24 When Joseph woke up, he [Joseph] did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus” (Matthew 1:24-25).  Joseph had contemplated divorcing Mary quietly to avoid bringing further shame upon Mary over her pregnancy.  Now, Joseph, assured that he was part of God’s plan, decided to take Mary as his wife and thus take upon himself the shame that would have been given to Mary alone.  The Law of Moses had penalties for men who forced themselves upon virgins.  There is little doubt that family, friends, and neighbors would have heaped shame upon Joseph for breaking the engagement requirement for celibacy.  But Joseph willingly took the shame of wagging tongues and waving fingers because Joseph no longer feared.  The Apostle Paul would later ask, “If God is for us, who can be against us?... 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies” (Romans 8:31b, 33).

          What are we then to do with Mary and Joseph’s story?  Let’s begin with Mary’s part of today’s story, with Mary’s suffering and in need of reassurance.  Mary’s suffered rejection by Joseph who was to be Mary’s source of support and strength in a world that would be hostile to Mary’s pregnancy.  There are people in our lives who are suffering.  People who need reassurance.  When we participate in the sufferings of others as they wrestle with their pain, we are providing the comfort of the Holy Spirit and we model, we imitate, Jesus Christ.  It is a powerful and privileged moment to enter the suffering of another.  When we are invited into someone’s suffering, we should do as Moses did before the burning bush.  Moses removed his shoes for the ground he entered was holy.  When we entered the suffering of another we are entering holy place.  It is a holy place because when you enter another person’s suffering, you find that Jesus is already there ahead of you.  It is a supreme privilege to give to another the provision God placed in you ahead of time.  We must provide with reverence.  For the love you bring to suffering individuals is more than a mere reflection of God’s love.  It is God’s love.

          The season of Advent can be a wonderful and joyous time of year, but it can also be a time of great suffering for those who have been brought low by life’s hardships and difficult circumstances.  If you are suffering, you are not here by accident.  You are here because God led you here and we are glad you are here because God has provisioned this church to be a source of God’s comfort, reassurance, and love.  If you are on a spiritual high, the reason for that is God has equipped you ahead of time to be a provision to others.  You need to extend yourself and share the sense of God’s presence and love within you to others.  Do this not in a smothering sense or in an over-the-top “lovey dovey” sense, but in the sense of communicating to others that they are valued, precious, and loved by God.  You cannot remove the pain from another, but you can reshape their suffering. Elizabeth could not remove the pain Mary would experience from others over Mary being pregnant before marriage, but Elizabeth could remove some of Mary’s suffering.  If you are on a spiritual high, equipped by God for this very moment, then be God’s gift and ease the suffering of others.

          Let’s conclude briefly with Joseph’s part, a conflicted mind.  Joseph was conflicted between a sense of Mary’s betrayal, a desire for justice, and a deep conviction that mercy should be extended. In conflict, Joseph chose to lay down. Joseph did not act while conflicted or emotional about the situation.  Joseph paused and sought rest.  In his rest, God could then speak to Joseph and to help Joseph through his fears. This Advent, we would be wise to do likewise.  We should not exhaust ourselves by overdoing but instead we should find time to rest and allow God to work on us.  People are generally more open to the movement of the Holy Spirit during the seasons of Easter and Christmas.  But if we are in constant motion running from one task to another, we will never be able to receive what God has for us.

          Joseph lay down and rested.  In his rest, Joseph learned that Mary had not betrayed Joseph but had instead honored God. Knowing the truth allowed Joseph to reunite with Mary.  The truth equipped Joseph to face the burdens that lay ahead without concern for what others would think of him.  This Advent season, we should be open to God and take the time and let God reveal to us the truth about whatever conflicts our minds.  Once we are no longer conflicted, then we should act in the truth of God.

          It is my hope that each of us will come to know that God has made provision for us to have abundant life in the present and for all eternity through the child God brought forth through Mary and who was fathered on earth by Joseph. This is the blessing of this season. In our low points, let us receive the story and be assured of God’s love.  In our high points, let us share the story and live it out to relieve the suffering of others.  In our conflict, let the story teach us the truth that we can go forward without fear. Amen and Amen.

12-04 - The Silence of Mary

          Last week, we spoke about the fact that God was silent with the people of Israel for 400 years.  For 400 years, God did not speak through a prophet, priest, king, or angel.  And then God broke his silence and spoke through the angel Gabriel to a priest named Zechariah while Zechariah was refreshing the incense in the holiest place of the Temple in Jerusalem.

          The angel, Gabriel, revealed to Zechariah that the time had come for God to bring into this world the anointed messenger that God had promised.  The anointed messenger was one who would be a servant and would establish a new covenant.  And with that new covenant, God’s salvation plan would be given.

          After 400 years of silence, God spoke to Zechariah.  What a privileged experience for Zechariah.  God, through the angel, said that Zechariah and his wife would have a baby named John, who would come in the power of the prophet Elijah and announce the presence of the anointed one of God on earth. But Zechariah’s unbelief changed that experience.  Zechariah said to the angel, 18 “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years” (Luke 1:18).  Zechariah spoke as though God did not know he and his wife, Elizabeth, and their age. God knew everything about Zechariah and Elizabeth as he does you and me.  Zechariah’s question of God, “How can I be sure of this?” suggests that Zechariah may not know God as well as Zechariah thought he did.  For God is faithful, true, and wise.  Sometimes, when we pray, we may speak to God as though God does not know us, and we do not know God.  I think this is one reason why Jesus would later tell his disciples to pray beginning this way, “Our Father...”  The prayer Jesus taught us to pray reminds us that with God we are in an intimate father and child relationship.  Before one word of adoration or petition is uttered we are acknowledging we know and are known.  The words, “Our Father…” encourage us to fully enjoy and embrace the presence of God and thus shape every experience by sharing what we are going through with our father in heaven.

          Zechariah misplaced his standing with God and the wonderful privilege to have God speak to him.  And so, the angel Gabriel told Zechariah, “20 And now you [Zechariah] 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 appointed time” (Luke 1:19-20).  The angel left Zechariah in the silence of the Holy of Holies.  I can imagine Zechariah calling out to the angel, “Wait come back!”  only to be met with silence from his own mouth.  Zechariah could hear just fine but he could no longer give voice to anything he had experienced or felt.

          Luke said, “21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple” (Luke 1:21).  Outside the temple, worshippers were praying and awaiting Zechariah’s return to them.  That must have been quite the reunion.  Luke said, “22 When he [Zechariah] came out, he [Zechariah] could not speak to them [the worshippers]. They [The worshippers] realized he [Zechariah] had seen a vision in the temple, for he [Zechariah] kept making signs to them [the worshippers] but remained unable to speak” (Luke 1:22).  There is little doubt that when Zechariah returned the worshippers, fellow priests, and family knew something dramatic had happened.  Zechariah, was fully able to hear the worshipper’s questions, but he could not tell them of the wonderful news.  How different Zechariah’s reunion with those worshippers would have been had Zechariah believed the good news of the angel.  Oh, how much joy there would have been in those conversations. Instead, Zechariah’s unbelief had brought silence to those hungry for good news.  And so, it is with us.  Our acts of unbelief, when we act contrary to God’s desire, we are then not able to share the good news of our experience with God.  Our voices go silent as well.  Unbelief robs us of what our experiences might have been.

          Luke shared with us, “23 When his [Zechariah’s] time of service was completed, he [Zechariah] returned home. 24 After this his [Zechariah’s] wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months [she] remained in seclusion. 25 ‘The Lord has done this for me,” she [Elizabeth] said. “In these days he [God] has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people’” (Luke 1:23-25).  Zechariah made his way home to be with his wife, Elizabeth, unable to share with her what had happened in the temple.  Sometime later, a month, six months, or year later, we do not know, Elizabeth felt something within her change.  Elizabeth had never felt these sensations before.  Elizabeth felt was life within her.  What she felt was not just life of a developing baby but also the presence of the Holy Spirit.  How joyous a feeling it was to know that God had answered prayer and that the shame heaped upon her by her family and neighbors was lifted.

          But.  There is always a but.  But rather than immediately share what she knew to be true with others, Elizabeth waited. Elizabeth knew what was true but her body would not show that truth for some time to come.  Sharing her news now would only invite the scorn and ridicule of the unbelievers upon Elizabeth.  And so, Elizabeth waited silently in seclusion until the time was right. Elizabeth was wise and showed us that sometimes we need to wait for the right moment to share the work the Holy Spirit is doing within us or through us.  We need to take time of discernment before we speak into the unbelief of family and neighbors.  And so, Elizabeth joined her husband, Zechariah, in the silence.

          Meanwhile, God was prepared again to break His silence. Luke wrote, “26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary” (Luke 1:26-27). The movement of God had shifted dramatically.  God had first sent the angel Gabriel to an old man, Zechariah, to tell Zechariah that his prayer for a son had been answered.  For years, Zechariah and Elizabeth had tried, hoped, and failed to have a child.  The pregnancy of Elizabeth would remove the shame Elizabeth experienced from her family and neighbors. 

Now, God had sent Gabriel to an engaged young woman, named Mary, who had never once had sexual relations. Here, God would announce to Mary she would become pregnant was well.  Only for Mary to be pregnant now would bring shame upon her from her family and friends.  The shift in scenery is breathtaking and shows us that God knows His people thoroughly.

          Luke wrote, “28 The angel went to her [Mary] and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.’  29 Mary was greatly troubled at his [Gabriel’s] words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel [Gabriel] said to her [Mary], ‘Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God’” (Luke 1:28-30).  Gabriel approached Mary who was on her own, in her own silence.  Gabriel began by inviting Mary, as he had with Zechariah, to reshape her experience with God.  Gabriel said to Mary, “You are loved by God.  Let go of your fear.”  I think Gabriel’s words to Mary are words we all need to hear and follow.  “You are loved by God.  Let go of your fear.”  The scene I see here for us is the angel is saying, “Let the presence and knowledge that God loves you overpower the grip you have on whatever is troubling you so that God can remove that fear from you and place His hand within yours.  If we could do that, if we could allow God to remove our fears, God will reshape our life experiences in whys we just could not have imagined.  “You are loved by God.  Let go of your fear.”

          Gabriel continued with Mary.  “31 You [Mary] will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him [Jesus] the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:31-33).  The first bit of news here for Mary was overwhelming.  She would have a child, a boy, who would be a king, seated by God onto the throne of David.  What a wonderful revelation for Mary to consider that someday she and Joseph would have a son who would grow up to be king.  I am sure if we studied historical literature, there are other accounts of women believing they would have a son who would one day grow up to be king.  But there was something troubling and confusing about the way Gabriel had shared this news.  Gabriel’s words and ways made it clear that Mary’s pregnancy was not someday.  Mary’s pregnancy was today, now.  Mary wondered, “How will this be since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34).  Mary had let go of her fears and believed Gabriel’s words, but she did not understand how her pregnancy would come about.

          It was here that Gabriel revealed the news to Mary that the entire world was about to change.  In fact, nothing in the world was ever or will ever be the same because of what Gabriel had to say.  Luke wrote, “35 The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). The Holy Spirit would come to Mary. The Holy Spirit, the same one found in Genesis 1:1-2, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”  The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, that same one at creation was about to act and bring about Mary’s pregnancy.  That same Holy Spirit becomes part of every believer enabling the believer to properly hear God’s Word and moving and empowering the believer to act.  This is the way of God’s Spirit.  He moves and acts through people such as Mary, through you, and through me.

          Gabriel said that the child to be conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit would be more than king.  The child would be holy and called the Son of God.  To be holy is to be set aside and untouched by sin.  No one since the creation of Adam and Eve had been brought into this world sinless and thus holy.  How could this child be and remain holy?  Gabriel answered that question by revealing the boy, Mary’s child, would be the Son of God, that’s how.  The world would never be the same because the Son of God was coming into the world.

          We need to let that news sink Mary heard sink in a little bit. Mary heard the Holy Spirit would cause her to become pregnant with a boy who would be God’s own son.  That is the occasion and the news Mary received when Mary let go of her fears.  That is the news Mary was to celebrate.

          How is this moment celebrated today?  We give gifts and regift some of those gifts to family and friends.  We decorate our homes.  We say, “Merry Christmas,” or are we back to “Happy Holidays,” I forget.  We post on Facebook sayings like, “Jesus is the reason for the season.”  Our stockings are hung by the chimney with care.  We sing songs such as “White Christmas,” or “Feliz Navidad.”  But do we ever speak as directly as Gabriel did? “Celebrate, God Changed Everything.” Or do we greet one another saying, “Rejoice, the Son of God Has Come.”  We do not. But this is what Gabriel said to Mary and the power of God changed everything, not just for Mary, but for you and me.

          How then should we think about these two divergent scenes we witnessed today involving Zechariah and Elizabeth, an old couple who become pregnant with their son, John and this young virgin woman, Mary, who became pregnant through the action of the Holy Spirit with the Son of God?  Let’s remind ourselves that these things all happened because of and through just two words, “Our Father.”  Our Father, God, expressed His will and desire through Gabriel, through the Holy Spirit, through Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary.  What was God’s expressed will?  God’s will was that we would know that He loves us, each and every one of us.  And in that love God wanted to reshape every human experience we have had and will ever have.

          God wants us to see that He sends his Holy Spirit to work through those who are old, those who are young, through new born babies, and even through those who have been conceived but not yet born.  No one is outside the reach of God’s love or outside God’s power to bring good news to the world.

          God wants us to see that unbelief at his message of good news renders us mute unable to be a conduit of peace and joy to others.  We must not let unbelief rob us of what can be.

          God wants us to see that this season is not about packages, bows, and ribbons.  This season is on of rejoicing because God so loved the world that he sent his Son. The Son of God came into the world not to condemn it as some had hoped but instead to save it and thus bring hope.

          God wants us to loosen our grip on fear so he can replace it with peace.  God wants us to discard shame heaped upon us by others and replace that the sensation of the Holy Spirit working within us.  To feel the Holy Spirit within you is knowing life abundant and eternal is growing within you.

          So let us receive then all that God wants us to receive and let God take us wherever He wills.  “Celebrate, God Has Changed Everything.”  “Rejoice, the Son of God Has Come.”  Amen and Amen.

11-27 - The Silence of God

          “4 Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees, and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.  5 See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction” (Malachi 4:4-6). (30 Seconds of Silence)

          Silence.  Today, I was silent for just 30 seconds after I read the passage from Malachi.  I was silent for only 30 seconds, but that silence was beginning to feel a little awkward.  You might have asked, was there something wrong?  Did I miss something?  You might have wondered why is the pastor not speaking?  Thirty seconds of silence can seem like an eternity. We participated in that little social experiment because after God spoke through the prophet Malachi the words “or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction,” God went silent. God went silent not for 30 seconds, 30 days, or even 30 years.  God went silent for 400 years. 

For 400 years, God did not speak through a prophet, priest, king, or angel to the people of Israel.  Four hundred years was also the same amount of time Israel was enslaved in Egypt before God raised up Moses to free the Hebrew people from Egypt.

How might we think about 400 years?  Well, 400 years is the length of time between the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock and today.  A lot has happened in America in the last 400 years.  Consider that our ability to relate to the people the Pilgrims of Plimouth Plantation is marked by a single event, Thanksgiving Day feasts.

For 400 years, Israel was left to mediate on God’s final words, “4 Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees, and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.”  For 400 years, Israel was called to be faithful and wait upon the timing of God. These words from Malachi closed the composition of the Hebrew Scriptures, what we now call the Old Testament.

While all Israel waited, generations were born and died.  Battles were fought and wars lost.  Alexander the Great conquered the lands of Israel bringing with him a Greek language that would become known throughout the known world. The Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek causing the knowledge of God to be known everywhere.  Julius Caesar would later conquer the lands bringing with him Roman roads interconnecting the known world as well the Roman version of law and order.  The Jewish people were in the lands of Israel and now everywhere in the empire were able to worship and travel bringing with them the knowledge of God upon whom they were waiting.

And what were the Israelites waiting for?  Israel was waiting for the person they would call Messiah even though the formal name “Messiah” appeared nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures.  In the days of God’s silence and conquest by one empire after another, the Jews desired that God would anoint, would literally smear with oil, a new king for them.  A king, a ruler, visible and powerful endowed by God with special gifts and powers.  A king at whose coming would mark the end of time for all humanity.  The faithful of Israel would be exalted and enjoy the blessings of God’s anointed king.  And divine judgement, God’s judgement, would be upon the unfaithful, the pagan, and the profane. 

The Israelites believed that God’s Messiah would be born in Bethlehem but that his appearance as the Messiah would be sudden, and that all at once he would be there appearing as a victorious ruler.  From the day of his birth until he appeared, the Messiah would be hidden by God and then brought out of concealment with a suddenness. And so in the silence of God, all Israel waited, refining their concept and construct of the kingly and political Messiah.

God had indeed promised to send His anointed one to bring about God’s will for Israel and the world.  Moses had recorded God’s words concerning the anointed one.  “18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. 19 I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name” (Deuteronomy 18:18-19).  The anointed one would speak the Words of God.

The anointed one of God was revealed to the prophet Jeremiah this way, 31 “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.”  A new covenant, a new commitment from God would be forthcoming and delivered through the person of God’s own choosing.

The prophet Isaiah was perhaps the most profound in sharing with Israel the coming anointed one of God.  1 “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.  2 He will not shout or cry out or raise his voice in the streets.  3 A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.  In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; 4 he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth.  In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”  9 See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you” (Isaiah 42:1-4, 9).  The anointed one of God would be a servant.  Humble and obedient to the will and direction of God.  Unyielding in his desire to bring the God of hope into the lives of all.  And God would announce the arrival of His anointed one.  There would be no reason to wonder or guess whether God had acted in accordance with His plan.

          Finally, Isaiah gave a description of the anointed one of God, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).  The humble servant would indeed have divine power and authority for who other than someone anointed by God could be described as counselor, God, Father, and Prince able to bring to the people a renewed sense of wonder, power, eternity, and peace.  That certainly could not come from a king or political leader soaked in the blood of his enemies.  The anointed one of God, the true Messiah that God said would come was vastly different from the Messiah envisioned by the Jews as they sat in the silence of God.

          What can we make of the story of promises and expectations of anointed one of God for our life? Let’s consider just a couple of things. First, let’s deal with the silence. Silence, when silence comes about at our direction, can be very satisfying.  Allow me to illustrate.  I love my youngest grandsons dearly.  When they visit with us for the day, it is a high impact, high noise level occasion. So, when they go home, it is nice for my wife and I to choose to have a few moments of silence just to collect your thoughts.  On the other hand, if you are anxiously waiting for the phone to ring with news that a loved one’s surgery went well, or a loved one has arrived safely to their destination and that phone remains silent against your will, then the silence is deafening and makes us anxious.  We begin to imagine all sorts of unpleasant possibilities amid the silence. From these illustrations concerning silence, we can see that what we experience is not limited to the experience. What we experience or how we experience something depends largely upon what we do with that experience.  In the illustration on silence, we can use the silence to calm ourselves or we can use it to upset ourselves.  This means that God has given us the capacity to reshape our experience by what we do with that experience.

          It was not a surprise to God that God gave all Israel a period of silence.  In preparation for that silence, God said, “4 Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees, and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel” (Malachi 4:4). It would appear that God wanted Israel to use the period of silence to draw in his words of promise and life found in the Hebrew Scriptures.  It was not God’s intention for Israel to anxious or to fill the silence with new words and new thoughts about how God would end His silence in the manner Israel came to desire, with a Messiah king, political leader, and warrior.

          I think everyone of us has experienced silence in our life with God.  Perhaps we have prayed for something specific, and God did not answer our prayer in the manner we desperately wanted.  If this is our experience, it is a profound experience. But our experience is not just what we experience.  Our experience includes what we do with our experience.  For example, we might then conclude from our experience that God is no longer speaking to us, God is silent, and so we reshape our experience by going silent ourselves with God.  Or we might, as the Israelites did, and start filling in the gaps in our experience from our fertile minds.  Either way, we are actively reshaping our experience to be more inwardly upsetting than it started out to be when our prayer seemingly went unanswered.

          What then might we do if we feel God is silent toward us?  Perhaps if we dove into God’s Word, we might see how others reshaped their experiences when faced with similar circumstances.  For example, we might read in 2 Samuel 12 that David had a son by Bathsheba.  David’s child had become gravely ill.  Scripture says, “16 David pleaded with God for the child. He [David] fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth on the ground” (2 Samuel 12:16).  But the child died.  When David learned of his son’s death, “20 David got up from the ground. After he had washed, put on lotions and changed his clothes, he [David] went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. Then he [David] went to his own house, and at his request they [David’s servants] served him [David] food, and he ate” (2 Samuel 12:20).  David reshaped his profound experience of silence from God by worshipping God and taking care of his own needs.  There is little doubt that David was hurting at the death of his son, particularly so since David’s own behavior led to the child’s death.  But David, in his grief experience, reshaped that experience by turning ever closer to the God who seemed silent toward him.

          Are you experiencing something that is having a profound effect on your life?  How are you reshaping your experience?  Is God involved in reshaping your experience?  I would encourage you to think this week about how God can and will reshape your experience.  If you are not sure how to involve God, ask a trusted Christian friend or give me a call.  You are not alone in this experience because ultimate through every experience God wants to reveal the hope that He has for each and everyone.

          It was hope itself that caused God to end His silence that began at the end of Malachi.  God promised he would announce His plan before He started it.  We read earlier today the full account of God’s first announcement since Malachi captured for us in the Gospel of Luke.

          In Luke, that first announcement from God came about in the place the Jews believed that God and earth comingled, in the Temple of Jerusalem, in the Holy of Holies.  An old man, a priest named Zechariah, was at the altar of God to refresh the steady burning of incense.  For Zechariah, to burn incense in the altar, was a once in a lifetime experience.  Luke wrote, “11 An angel of the Lord appeared to him [Zechariah], standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him [the angel], he [Zechariah] was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him [Zechariah]: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah” (Luke 1:11-13a). The angel, a messenger from God, was inviting and encouraging Zechariah to reshape his experience with a divine messenger first by letting go of his fear.  That is such an important message for us today and such an important message of the Advent season.  Let go of your fears and let God speak to you.

          The angel continued with Zechariah, “Your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him [your son] John. 14 He [John] will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his [John’s] birth, 15 for he [John] will be great in the sight of the Lord. He [John] is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he [John] will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is [John] born. 16 He [John] will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he [John] will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:14-17).  The angel confirmed to Zechariah that even though God had been silent these past 400 years, God was nevertheless attentive to prayers, including those of Zechariah.  Moreover, the angel assured Zechariah something great was about to happen through Zechariah’s son, John, for the angel repeated God’s last words from Malachi in which God promised, “5 See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.  6 He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents” (Malachi 4:5-6). God had chosen John to come in the power of Elijah and bring joy, delight, and rejoicing because God’s salvation plan was unfolding in their time.

          What an amazing experience for Zechariah! But.  There is always a but!  But Zechariah chose to ignore the words of the angel to let go of his fear and instead chose to reshape his experience with doubt in God’s plans, timing, and God’s selection of Zechariah and his wife.  “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’” (Luke 1:18). Isn’t it amazing.  God spoke after 400 years of silence and all Zechariah can say is, “Are you sure you have the right guy?”  And so, Zechariah’s unbelief reshaped his experience of this divine announcement.

          “19 The angel said to him [Zechariah], ‘I am Gabriel!  I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you [Zechariah] and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you [Zechariah] 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 appointed time” (Luke 1:19-20).  The silence of God broken by the voice of the angel Gabriel would return because of Zechariah’s unbelief.  Unbelief silenced the good news of joy, delight, and rejoicing that was possible.  Unbelief shapes our experience in life, but never for the better.  God designed us to be in fellowship with Him and for us to know that He always hears us and desires ultimately for us to receive good news from Him.  Unbelief changes that experience.

          What then do we do with these scenes that bridge 400 years from the Old Testament to the New Testament and ends one silence and starts another?  I would like us to consider and remember this is the season of Advent.  This is the season in which we read stories about God ending His silence and bringing forth good news.  This is a season of stories of prayers answered and a season of coming joy, delight, and rejoicing in God’s salvation plan.  But here is the question.  Will we allow what God has done to reshape whatever we are experiencing this season?  Or will we be like Zechariah and turn away from God’s announcement by saying, “Are you sure this good news is for me?”  Whatever our choice this Advent, we will reshape whatever we are experiencing by how incorporate or lay aside the good news of God’s unfolding plan.  God’s plan was and is unchanged.  God’s plan is to bring us hope.  Let God’s hope reshape your life so that, “The God of hope may fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13).  Amen and Amen.

11-20 - Our Journey

          This week, our nation will once again celebrate Thanksgiving Day.  We will do so through countless family gatherings in which turkey, stuffing, potatoes, squash, and pies will be consumed in great quantities.  When I was growing up, Thanksgiving Day was one of four family meals in which grace was offered and wine was served, even to the kids.

          I grew up in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  So, it was easy to remember the origin of the tradition of Thanksgiving Day, as historians had attributed the day to the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation.  We were taught in school that in 1621, the Pilgrims celebrated with a huge feast their thankfulness to God for the provision of sufficient food.  There is some truth to tradition.  The Pilgrims did hold a large feast, lasting upwards of three days, in the fall of 1621 to celebrate the bounty of the harvest.  But the more traditional way the Pilgrims made their appeals to God known and celebrated God was through fasting not feasting.  I suspect a National Day of Fasting would not catch on very well in our country.  There was, as far as I could tell, only one such day.  That was on March 30, 1863, at the call of then President Abraham Lincoln. Since there is no money to be made in fasting, it is hard to get corporate sponsors.  And so, in some ways we have written an obituary for the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation to read simply as “Founders of the Thanksgiving Day Feast.” In some ways it would be like having my own obituary read, “He liked blueberry pie.”  I would hope there is more to the story than what we liked to eat.

          There was more to the Pilgrims than just a feast in 1621.  While we do not need to make heroes of the Pilgrims, we might see another dimension to these people that would be more profitable to us. There are two dimensions I would like us to explore today.  The first deals with the desire to know the Word of God.  And the second was to see themselves living out the Word of God.

          As to the first, coming to know the Word of God, we should understand the culture of the times for the Pilgrims.  The Pilgrims lived in the late 1500’s where the freedom to practice one’s religious beliefs did not exist.  The state, the king, set the religion for all the people.  That was your choice.  In England, where the Pilgrims largely came from the state religion changed at times between Roman Catholicism and the Episcopal or Anglican Church.  The change occurred whenever the new king or queen so decided.  We might think of it this way.  After a presidential election in the United States, the one authorized religion of the country could change.  It might switch from Roman Catholic to Baptist to Presbyterian depending upon who was elected.

          This is the situation in which these would be Pilgrims grew up.  But in there growing up one thing distinguished this group of people.  They wanted to know God’s Word.  There was a deep desire to know what God said.  Bibles printed in English were hard to come by.  That seems strange to us because we can go online and read a couple dozen translations in English, for free.  The Pilgrims had to work hard, save money, and forgo necessities of life to buy an English language Bible.  This was the nature of these people.  They were hungry to know what God said.  They read the Bible daily.

          We, in our culture, read the Bible.  A recent survey showed that 50% of all Americans read the Bible on their own or outside of a worship service.  Yes, we are faithful in reading the Bible but there is a footnote to that 50% statistic.  Regular reading of the Bible was defined in this survey as three or four times in one year. Only about 10% of all Americans read the Bible on their own outside or outside the worship service on a daily or near daily basis.

          The truth is:

  • All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
  • Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. (Psalm 119:105)
  • But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4)
  • For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

The Bible, God’s instruction for our life, matters but if God’s Word remains unread, it will not impact our lives.  The Pilgrims were fond of reading the Bible and found relevance to themselves, particularly in the passages of New Testament book entitled, Hebrews.

That brings us to our second point of learning from the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims saw themselves as living out the Word of God.  Let’s look at the opening to Chapter 11 of Hebrews that had such meaning to the Pilgrims.

          Hebrews, Chapter 11, begins, “1 Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for” (Hebrews 11:1-2). Faith, to live a life in faith, is a life of confidence lived without seeing, without holding, without possessing the very thing we want the most but believing it will be ours some day. Living by faith reshapes our thinking and our expectations from having control over every element of our destiny in which we worry constantly about losing whatever we hold tightly. Instead, we depend upon promises of what has not yet been received in full.  The Apostle Paul wrote more about faith than any of the New Testament writers.  Paul offered words about faith in well over 100 different verses.  Faith, living out God’s Word, was fundamental to Paul’s existence.  Faith was an acknowledgment of what God had promised and accomplished, giving reason for confidence in the promises not yet fulfilled.

          The writer of Hebrews, many think it was Paul, continued, “3 By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible” (Hebrews 11:3).  “By faith,” means that while we were not witnesses to the creation of the universe nor can we prove the origin of the universe, by faith in God, we accept as truth that the world was formed at God’s command.  This simple statement means that God has always existed, God chose to create that which exists for His purposes, and God remains outside His creation.  The statement, “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command,” is simple and yet foundational to our view of the world.

          We see that having that foundational level of faith is important as our journey in faith continued.  Hebrews continued, “4 By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he [Abel] was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his [Abel’s] offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead” Hebrews 11:4).  By faith Abel brought God an offering and Abel’s offering was better than Cain’s offering.  By faith, with confidence in God’s presence and existence, Abel returned to God the best of his flock as an expression of gratitude to God.  Cain lacked faith and that lack of faith appeared as a meager offering, as though, Cain gave a “Just in case God does not exist I want to keep the best for myself, offering.”  Because of faith, Abel was judged by God as righteous because Abel was seeking God to be first in his life.  Abel lived out his life in faith that God created the universe, and that God was not just present in Abel’s life but that God was accessible to Abel.

That faith journey continued.  “5 By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: ‘He could not be found, because God had taken him away.’ For before he [Enoch] was taken, he [Enoch] was commended as one who pleased God. 6 And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:5-6).  Enoch had faith that living a righteous life would be rewarded by God, not in wealth and health but in continuous life with God even when life on earth was completed.  Enoch built upon the faith of Abel who believed God existed and that we could use our lives to bring honor to God for all time.

The writer of Hebrews continued with, “7 By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith” (Hebrews 11:7).  By faith, with confidence, Noah understood that God had limits to the sinfulness of humanity.  When that limit had been reached, Noah understood, had faith, that God would address unrepentant sin and save the righteous people.  Noah built upon the expressions of faith of Abel and Enoch acknowledging the existence of God, the accessibility of God in the present, the reward that would be given to the righteous, and the punishment of the unrighteous in their sins.

We are beginning to see that faith can be viewed as building upon the progressive relation of God.  We see next that, “8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he [Abraham] was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she [Sarah] considered him [God] faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man [Abraham], and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore” (Hebrews 11:8-12).  Abraham went where God asked him to go because Abraham had confidence that God existed, that God was trustworthy, that God was present, God was accessible, God could be pleased, God would fulfill his promises no matter how improbable they might seem, and God would lead those who are faithful into a life beyond what they could see.

The Pilgrims understood and accepted that faith came in layers and that we can be encouraged in our faith by the testimony of others.  The Pilgrims, in reading the Bible, wanted to live and experience God in the same manner as their predecessors.  The Pilgrims wanted to express their faith in the purity of the manner of the Bible and not through the commands of some churchman whether Catholic or Episcopal.  The Pilgrims saw that opportunity in America and so the Pilgrims chartered two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell, to carry them in faith across the ocean.  Twice the Speedwell almost sank and needed repairs.  The Pilgrims decided to take as many of their group on the Mayflower and travel alone.

The Pilgrims were acutely aware that the book of Hebrews that spoke of faith by Abel, Enoch, and Abraham also said, “13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:13-16). The Pilgrims saw that the heroes of faith never realized the ultimate satisfaction of the promised life in this lifetime.  That did not matter to the ancients of faith.  For them, to know the ultimate promise of God existed was sufficient for their faith. And so, the Pilgrims left their country of origin for a new land with its opportunity to know and live out God’s word.  The Pilgrims understood their city was not Plymouth or any other man-made system, it was ultimately to live righteously as strangers in this world and be united with God in that heavenly city.  This was the essence of knowing God’s word and living in accordance with it.  This is the legacy of the Pilgrims.

What is your legacy?  Will your legacy be like the one I joked about earlier, “He liked blueberry pie?” Or will your legacy be more like the real pilgrims?  Will our legacy, together be, that we walked in faith as strangers to the world because we sought to walk in the righteousness of God?  What will be the response to others as we gather on Thanksgiving Day? How will people respond to our presence? Will they see in us a love of God’s Word and a desire to live it out?  What is the legacy we are building on this journey?  I want to encourage all of us to examine ourselves and see where we stand on this faith journey.  We can then ask ourselves, “Am I a Pilgrim on a journey of faith?”  If not, it is not too late to jump aboard the ship and set sail anew.  Amen and Amen.

11-13 - Righteousness Completed

          We have come to our final message on this series as we have looked at Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount found in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapters 5 through 7.  We have explored that the center of Jesus’ sermon, the central theme, was Jesus’ desire for each of his followers to understand the joy of God’s righteous and living a righteous life.  In being righteous, Jesus said we would be equipped and qualified to live at peace not just with those who love us but even with those who are adversarial towards us.  Jesus emphasized that to live rightly necessitates practicing our faith everyday through prayer, mediation on God’s word, study of God’s word, through service to others in the name of Christ.  Jesus taught us also of the need to ask, seek, and knock to acquire daily the righteousness of God so that we can then know how to treat others.

          In coming to the end of his sermon, Jesus had two final points for his disciples and us.  First, Jesus, the Messiah, said other people would come claiming to be him, the Messiah, but the false prophets would be offering a very different message.  Jesus said, “15 Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:15-20).

          False prophets would follow Jesus.  What might be some of the traits of a false prophet? There are many traits but there are three that we should keep in mind.  First, false prophets preach that life is an easy for those who are faithful. False prophets deny that life is often hard, and they deny that the road the faithful travel is narrow.  Living the Christian life is one sense easier than other paths because we need to only listen and follow one voice, Jesus the Christ. But the Christian life can be hard because troubles in life do not disappear for the faithful.  We still experience pain, illness, and death. Being a Christian does not vaccinate us against such trouble.  The Christian life is hard too because the culture that surrounds the faithful follower of Christ is opposed to Christ.  The pressure to conform to the culture is enormous and unrelenting.  False prophets tell our children that God is a myth and that belief in God is for those who are emotionally weak or for the simpleminded.  False prophets try to undercut the need to discipleship in Christ.

Secondly, false prophets make all religions the same.  Namely, false prophets say that if there is a God, all religions lead to the same God.  This brand of false prophets claims that failing to accept the truth that all religions lead to God is the source of all wars and the loss of untold human life.  These prophets encourage believers in Jesus to adopt religious practices from other traditions to create your own truth and your own version of God.

A third hallmark of false prophets differs significantly from the first two distinctives. In the third hallmark, the false prophet claims that he or she has a unique personal relationship with God in which God has revealed secrets known only to them.  These prophets claim that through them and their continual relationship and communication with God, their followers could enjoy health and wealth now and grace for the afterlife.

          An American singer named Ray Stevens, penned a song about this type of false prophet.  He wrote and sang:

Woke up this mornin', turned on the t.v. set.
There in livin' color, was somethin' I can't forget.
This man was preachin' at me, yeah, layin' on the charm
Askin' me for twenty, with ten-thousand on his arm.
He wore designer clothes, and a big smile on his face
Sellin' me salvation while they sang Amazin' Grace.
Askin' me for money, when he had all the signs of wealth.
I almost wrote a check out, yeah, then I asked myself


Would He wear a pinky ring, would He drive a brand-new car?
Would His wife wear furs and diamonds, would His dressin' room have a star?
If He came back tomorrow, well there's somethin' I'd like to know
Could ya tell me, would Jesus wear a Rolex on His television show.


Ray Steven’s song conveys the message through humor that false prophets seek to acquire from the faithful followers of Jesus respect, admiration, and mostly money.

The number of false prophets causing believers in Jesus Christ to doubt, causing others to believe that any belief system is from God, or who are able to preach and can clay on the charm seeking more and more money for themselves is frightening but their existence is not unexpected.  Jesus said most clearly, “15 Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matthew 7:15).

          Ferocious wolves were something Jesus’ audience would have understood.  Raising sheep was a major industry of Jesus’ day.  For many of us, we do not understand what Jesus means when ferocious wolves attack.  We might think ferocious wolves would approach a flock and take from it a single sheep, the oldest or most feeble that could not escape the wolves.  But that is not what wolves do.  Wolves attack the whole flock all at once.  The wolves try to kill dozens of sheep in their attack either by biting and tearing at the flesh of the sheep or by causing the sheep to panic into a corner so tightly that the sheep suffocate.  News accounts abound in which just a couple of wolves killed well over 100 sheep in a single attack.

          The false prophets do the same thing to our fellow brothers and sisters.  They panic believers into running from the Lord.  They bite from our brothers and sisters’ finances until they are bled dry. We can know wolves are among us if we are walking in faith with Jesus and support one another with our collective knowledge of God’s Word and the leading of the Holy Spirit.  We should challenge all teachings offered to the fellowship of believers to include the teachings from our pastors.  We must work together to protect each other from the false prophets that abound.

          Having concluded his teachings with the warning on false prophets, Jesus left his audience with a parable to help them understand the significance of his words of his sermon.  Jesus said, “24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-27). 

          There are a couple of keys to this parable that bear our time and attention.  First, Jesus said, “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine.”  We need to hear firsthand the words of Jesus Christ because Jesus is our Savior and Lord.  We need to hear Jesus’ words by reading what Jesus had said and meditating of what Jesus had to say.  Jesus’ words reflect his mind, his will, and his character.  And since Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God, Jesus’ words reflect the mind, will, and character of God.  And so we must listen.

          Second, if we listen to what Jesus said then we should also do what he said.  What did Jesus say to do just in this Sermon on the Mount?  Jesus said:

  • Rejoice and be glad (5:12).
  • Let your light shine before others that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (5:16).
  • Go and reconcile with your brother or sister (5:24).
  • Settle matters quickly with your adversary (5:25).
  • If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away (5:29).
  • Let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no (5:33).
  • Do not resist the evil person but turn the other cheek (5:39).
  • Love your enemies and pray for them (5:44).
  • Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (5:47).
  • When you give to the needy, give in secret (6:3-4).
  • When you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father (6:6).
  • Forgive your debtors (6:12).
  • Store up for yourself treasures in heaven (6:20).
  • Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink (6:25).
  • Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness (6:33).
  • Do not judge (7:1).
  • Ask, seek, and knock (7:11).
  • Enter through the narrow gate (7:13).
  • Watch out for false prophets (7:15).
  • Hear my words and put them into practice (7:24).

There is more Jesus encouraged us to do but these were the expressions that were just sitting on the surface of the text.  The imperative from Jesus was “Listen quickly and act fast.”

          Why must we heed Jesus’ Words and to do so with a sense of urgency?  Jesus explained it this way.  Our life is a process of building.  As adults we begin building our lives with careers, homes, children, and grandchildren. We are all builders of one sort or another.  Knowing we are builders, Jesus said that there are two types of builders in the world. There is the wise builder and the foolish builder.  The character of the wise builder is one who follows Jesus and seeks the righteousness of God.  The wise builder incorporates and weaves God into every aspect of their life starting from the foundation, and they do not stop.

The other builder is the foolish builder.  The foolish builder is one who does not follow Jesus and is thus considered in the eyes of God to be unrighteous.  Righteousness is not a building material used in the construction of their house. 

Jesus said each builder can build a home, a life if you will.  In many ways, and on many days, the home, the life, of the wise and foolish builder even look very much alike.

          But as Jesus had said earlier in the sermon, God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike.  The rain falls on the house of the wise builder and the foolish builder alike.  When the rains come, when the moments of troubles of life come to the righteous and the unrighteous, the difference between the wise and foolish builder will be apparent.  And when death comes to each builder, the differences become permanent.  For when trouble comes, when death comes to the wise builder, he or she shall be intact because the foundation of their life was in Christ.  In that moment of death, the wise builder’s life continues with God in heaven.  The fate of the other builder, the foolish builder, is far different.  This builder had no firm foundation under their life.  As a result, their home, their life, is swept away with a great crash. There is nothing to salvage.  All is lost.

          Jesus words are somber, more somber than what most pastors would use to conclude a sermon.  But Jesus was making a point that we do not want to miss.  It is not enough in life to study or know what Jesus said.  We must also do what Jesus said to do, and to do so not just because what Jesus said to do is good advice.  We do so because Jesus’ words are the life-giving words of God.

          There is much that Jesus said in his sermon on that gentle hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee.  The people who heard Jesus’ words were amazed and astounded by the authority with which Jesus spoke and the promises he had made.  For in Jesus’ words rests the framework for a joyful life even amid the storms that we know will pass through.  Jesus’ words equip us to live at peace with ourselves, our family, our neighbors, and even those people who struggle to live peaceful with us. Jesus’ words equip us to reconcile with others when we or they stumble. 

I am learning that knowing what Jesus said and putting it into practice brings peace to me and sense of relief.  Knowing God will forgive my shortcomings as I earnestly seek to better follow Jesus gives me comfort that no matter what, I am loved.  Knowing that my days of eternity will be spent in heaven with the company of God is such a joy in the present.

          So let us all be amazed by the words of Jesus. Let us be attentive to what Jesus said and do what Jesus asked us to do.  I think if we could do that, we would truly be glad and rejoice.  Amen and Amen.

11-06-Righteousness Received

          Sabastian Maniscalco is a comic who likes to poke fun at everyday life.  One of Sabastian’s comedy sketches describes the difference between the way we respond to an unexpected knock on the door to their home today versus 30 years ago.  Sabastian observed that 30 years ago, a knock-on door was a cause for excitement and happiness within the home.  Everyone in the family went to the door to see who had come for a visit.  Folks opened the door and hoped that it was company that they would like to welcome into our home.  There was a desire to share hospitality with the unplanned arrivals.

          Now when our doorbell rings or there is a knock on the door, everyone goes quiet in the house.  Who could that be at the door?  Folks spend effort now to see who has arrived.  A check is done on our phones and see if the doorbell captured on video who is standing on the stoop.  Folks peek out the side window to see if the person is familiar to us or if they are someone we want to receive.  This is, of course, if the house is not in a gated community or in a building that has security before anyone can reach our door.

          I make mention of this distinction because the words from Jesus we read earlier today, “7 Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7), are immediately at odds with much of our contemporary culture. In culture of Jesus’ day, families, villages, and tribes of people needed to work together to ensure their mutual survival.  We spoke last week about being thankful for the provision of the daily bread.  Food, gathering enough to eat, was the central task for each and every day.  Hospitality and sharing with others of your immediate family, extended family, village, tribe, and even traveler passing by was expected.  However, in our culture, virtual every household has food in a refrigerator and pantry and as many as 40% of American households have two or more refrigerators or freezers.  We live with a great deal of self-sufficiency and independence.  As a culture, we don’t expect anyone to knock on our door to asking or seeking much of anything.

          In the Gospel of Luke, we would gather some insight into the idea of dealing with the unexpected knock on the door.  Jesus told this parable, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ 7 And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need” (Luke 11:5-8).  A friend traveling through knocks on a neighbor’s door seeking shelter and something to eat.  The person receiving that friend had no food to offer but would not stop until he found a friend who had some to share.  In Jesus’ day, people asked, sought, and knocked to fulfill their needs.  So, Jesus words to his audience had immediate meaning.  We tend not to ask, seek, and knock these days. We tend to point and click.  We let Amazon, Grubhub, Doordash, UPS, and FedEx fulfill our needs.  Independence in life feels very empowering and is very much the hallmark of success in our culture.  But there is a downside to an independent lifestyle.  In our independence in living, we can develop a lack of reliance on God for anything.

          So, we need to step out of our culture to think through what Jesus was saying to his audience when he said, “7 Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).  Jesus was, of course, talking to his audience about adapting their habits of survival of the body and follow the same approach for their spiritual life by placing reliance on God to meet their spiritual needs.  Jesus was saying, “Take the mindset that you have in which you ask, seek, and knock as part of your everyday habits with each other to sustain life, and apply that mindset toward your relationship with God as you pursue righteousness from God.”  7 “Ask and keep on asking and it [God’s righteousness] will be given to you; seek and keep on seeking and you will find; knock and keep on knocking and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7 AMP). Jesus wanted his audience to see that seeking God’s righteousness was even more important to their lives than asking or seeking the next morsel of bread and that God alone was the source of that provision.  No matter how “good” our family is or how nice our neighbors appear to be, we cannot receive the righteousness of God from another other than God.  “6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6).

          Jesus’ words are strange to our culture today as we discussed because of our independence and Jesus’ words are strange because many believe they are a “Good Person,” and do not need God.  If you don’t believe that someone is a “good person,” just ask them. They will tell you.  In the Gospel of Luke, we would read Jesus’ response to the “Good Person” argument. “18 A certain ruler asked Jesus, ‘Good Teacher [You who are essentially and morally good], what shall I do to inherit eternal life [that is, eternal salvation in the Messiah’s kingdom]?’ 19 Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call Me good? No one is [essentially and morally] good except God alone’” (Luke 18:18-19). Since God alone is good, then for us to be good in any sense, we must ask, seek, and knock for that goodness from God alone.

          This is why Jesus told his audience on the hillside, 7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).  Jesus was not talking here about getting anything or everything from God.  Jesus was talking about being filled with the righteousness from the kingdom of God.

          To illustrate to his audience the wisdom and generosity of God, Jesus offered this illustration.  “9 “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil [sinful by nature], know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-11).

          Jesus was saying to his listeners, “You are sinful by nature but not so sinful that when your children are hungry and ask for food you will give them stones to eat.  You know enough to give your children bread or fish to satisfy their hunger.  If sinful people know that, how much more will God, who alone is good, give good gifts to those who seek him?”  Jesus had promised earlier in the sermon, “6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6).

          God is prepared to give good gifts to those who seek his righteousness and his kingdom in the now.  What might those gifts include?

God gives salvation, the forgiveness of sin, and the promise of eternal life.  Moreover, we learn in the book of James that, “5 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. 6 But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind” (James 1:5-6).  So, God is prepared to give us pure wisdom.  God gives us “the fruit of the Spirit [which] is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23a). These are just some of the good gifts that are available to us from God, but we must ask, seek, and knock.

          Asking for, seeking out, and knocking to access the good gifts of God makes us more like Christ.  Having the grace and wisdom of Christ, we are then able and qualified to share the good news of what we have received, how we received it, and from whom we received it.  This is what Jesus was emphasizing to his audience.

          Jesus then concluded this part of his sermon with these words, “12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). As children we were taught to refer to Jesus words here as the Golden Rule, “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” 

The Golden Rule has existed in many different expressions throughout history.  In ancient Egypt, the rule was, “That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another."  In India, the rule was, “Do not do to others what you know has hurt yourself.”  In ancient Greece, the rule went like this, “"What you do not want to happen to you, do not do it yourself either.”  In ancient Rome, the rule was, “Treat your inferior as you would wish your superior to treat you."

          But there is a problem with the Golden Rule as we were taught it as a child or as developed in other cultures, ancient and modern.  The abbreviated version of Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount we were taught, “Do onto others as you would have them do to you,” and the other versions all make the individual taking the action the sole determiner of what is good or not hurtful.  Nowhere is God found in the Golden Rule regardless of its form or origin.  Jesus never said we should determine what should be done.  Jesus never said anything like that, in fact, Jesus said the opposite.

          Jesus made his statement after encouraging and commanding his disciples to seek an understanding of goodness and righteousness from God alone.  With the wisdom and righteousness of God, Jesus followers could then know the perfect will of God.  Knowing then the perfect will of God, Jesus’ disciples were equipped to do onto others as you would have them do to you [as though they also knew the perfect will of God.] In this form of the Golden Rule, the actor is not the determiner of what should be done.  Instead, God determines what is good.

          To emphasize the point that God determines what is right and good, Jesus said in full, “12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”  To do what God desires means that the actor has fulfilled the entirety of the ethical behaviors of the Old Testament.  Jesus had said a bit earlier in this sermon, 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).  Jesus came to fulfill the promises of God’s Messiah and to fulfill the Law and the Prophets in their ethical treatment of others.  Jesus, God in the flesh, was the actor in treating others in the true righteousness of God.  Jesus is rich in the wisdom and grace of God and thoroughly able to exhibit the fruit of the Holy Spirit with “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22) was showing and treating people with the grace of God.

          The Golden Rule as it is taught to children and sold on various forms of merchandise is nice but it is incomplete because as presented it eliminates God from the equation.  That was never Jesus’ intent nor is it a viable way for the followers of Jesus to live.

          In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus would teach his disciples and us something about the righteousness of God that would go far beyond what any follower could ever do.  Then, one evening, years later, Jesus showed what God’s righteousness looked like in full bloom.  Just before Jesus was arrested, Jesus took bread, and he blessed the bread.  Jesus gave that bread to his friends and said, “I want you to take this bread and eat it because the bread is my body.”  The disciples were hungry for righteousness and Jesus wanted to fill them as had been promised.  So, Jesus gave them the bread as a reminder that their desire for righteousness, their hunger, could be satisfied by taking in all Jesus ever said and did.  Jesus was fulfilling the sum of the Law and the Prophets by blessing those who hungered for righteousness.  In a similar manner, Jesus took the cup of wine and blessed it.  He gave the cup to his disciples who were thirsty for righteousness.  Jesus quenched their thirst with his own life-giving blood.  Jesus did things for his disciples that we would never do for others.  Jesus did these things as a way of expressing the depth, breadth, width, and height of God’s love.

          In a moment, we can participate in Jesus’ gift of the bread and the cup.  But to participate, we must be humble of enough to ask, to seek, and knock upon the door to Christ.  If we do, we will receive good gifts from the good God through our savior and Lord, Jesus Christ.  Do not feel like a stranger to God.  He is home and will be excited to hear you knock on His door.  Let us pray.