February 17, 2020- Fasting, Joyful Giving, and Freedom- Isaiah 58:6-14, Matthew 6, Mark 12:41:44

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“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.

And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.

And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.

“If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 58:6-14 (ESV)

Spiritual disciplines such as fasting, whether it be from food or from activities or the use of certain things such as TV or technology can be helpful for us to refocus ourselves on Bible study, prayer and service to others. During the season of Lent, which is beginning soon, some people choose to give up a vice such as smoking or alcohol or chocolate or of buying a $5.00 latte every morning. There is nothing wrong with making such sacrifices in the proper context- if one is stopping smoking and donating their smokes money to the food pantry, or taking the time they normally would have used to watch banal reality TV shows to go pay a visit to the shut-ins at the nursing home, those can be fine spiritual disciplines.

However, God knows the real intent behind our actions, and we being sinners who sin, nothing we do is out of a pure motive. Even our most noble actions are tainted with sin- the idolatry of ourselves, and the love of being recognized for what we do.

Jesus had a lot to say about the Pharisees who did their good deeds out in the open for all to see, and gave out of their abundance, again, for all to see. In Matthew 6 Jesus teaches us, But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

The monks in the movie, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” didn’t gain anything by chanting in Latin and banging themselves on the head with boards. Their “holiness” that was supposed to be displayed by self-injury didn’t benefit anyone, and if anything, it only made them look silly.

If we decide to engage in a fast from something for a time, or to engage in something charitable that we normally don’t do, it should be meaningful and helpful for our own spiritual growth and for the benefit of others. And if we toot our own horns for all to see how “good” we are, that ego stroking we get from others is a rather shallow reward. It is better to give in secret and in ways not everyone can see, as Jesus teaches. He sees everything, especially the gifts given to others from our poverty, and the kindnesses shown when no one else is watching.

Jesus is not talking as much about the fruits of our actions (although it is true that where there is faith there will also be works, just as where there is light, there is also heat) as He is the condition of our hearts. Apart from Him there is nothing good in us- the self-serving motive takes over and we are all about ourselves.

And he (Jesus) sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” Mark 12:41:44 (ESV)

In Jesus’ eyes the widow who gave all she had, the two coins, was giving in the way that Jesus wants us to give- sacrificially and without counting the cost ahead of time.

This passage from Mark’s gospel has been misused to guilt people into greater financial contributions to the church. Giving to our church is important, but like giving in any other area, our gifts must come as part of a joyful response to the love and care God has given us first.

Jesus has set us free from the penalty our sin deserves. He did not count the cost of our redemption and salvation. Our response is what flows from a grateful and contrite heart. We love because Jesus loved us first.

Jesus gives us the gift of the Sabbath- the gift of His word and how it brings life as He works in and through us. We get to read the Bible. We get to worship. We get to love others as Jesus loves us.

Lord, help us to be honest with You and confess that we are sinners and that we deserve nothing, even though You offer us everything. You gave Your life on the cross so we can have life forever with You. Create in us clean hearts, free to be loved by You and to share that love and share Your gifts freely and joyfully with others. Help us to be kind. Help us to forgive. Help us to be more like You.

December 21, 2019 Advent 21, Luke 21- The Widow’s Mite, Destruction, War, and the Coming of the Son of Man

widow's mite

Read Luke 21.

Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box,  and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them.  For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” Luke 21:1-4 (ESV)

At this time of year we are often concerned with giving gifts.  Most of us are giving out of our abundance.  It’s neither good nor necessary to give lavish gifts we can’t afford to people who already have too much stuff to begin with.  It is good to give generously and to those who have a genuine need.

God doesn’t need anything of ours.  Even if we were to have the resources to build a fine cathedral or to give large sums of money to the church, we don’t give in order to earn favor with God.  Jesus has done that for us as a gift.

Giving is an act of faith.  Some of us are capable of giving much, but others of us can only give a widow’s mite.  The motive behind our giving is our faith.  Do we trust God with all that we have and all that we are? (the answer is no, we can’t…)

The rest of the chapter is not very cheery.  Jesus foretells the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and of the things that will come to pass in the end times.

And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” And they asked him, “Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?” And he said, “See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them.And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.” Luke 21:5-9 (ESV)

It can be said that there have not been too many periods of time that the world (especially the Middle East) has been peaceful.  Since Jesus walked the earth there have been countless empires that have risen and fallen.  There have been wars, skirmishes, tumults and takeovers, coups, assassinations, intrigues and so much more man-made evil and violence. We long for peace and we pray for justice and mercy, only to see more wars, corrupt governments and injustice go merrily along.

We hear those who come to the table with false gospels- the false gospel of prosperity, the false belief that there is salvation in “social justice,” the name-it-and-claim-it, “best life now” self-help preachers, or the cults led by false prophets such as Jim Jones or David Koresh who claimed to be God, but were anything but. Jesus has warned us against those pseudo-christs that cannot save.

Christian people will face persecution for speaking out for Jesus.  In some places believers are martyred simply for standing up for Jesus and not backing down from their faith..  Jesus has warned us about this also:

This will be your opportunity to bear witness.  Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death.  You will be hated by all for my name’s sake.  But not a hair of your head will perish.  By your endurance you will gain your lives. Luke 21:13-19 (ESV)

The Holy Spirit will give us the words to say if we are persecuted for our faith.  Jesus is faithful.  In the grand scheme of things, He has promised to keep us faithful to Him.

“And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luke 21:25-28 (ESV)

There will always be war and dissent in this world, at least until Jesus returns.  The natural disasters, wars and other unrest will only escalate until that day. Yet our hope, Jesus is coming to redeem us and remake our world. For believers, this will be a day of great joy.

“But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth.But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Luke 21:34-36 (ESV)

As we come closer and closer to the celebration of Christmas- the Incarnation, Jesus coming to earth as a helpless child, we remember that Advent is also about being ready and awake for Jesus’ return.  He is the One Who holds us up and makes us able to stand. We pray that in Christ we will stand firm and that we will join the everlasting celebration on that day when He returns in glory.

April 3, 2019- The Widow’s Mite, the Shema, and the First Commandment-Mark 12:41-44, Deuteronomy 6:4-8, Matthew 22:34-40

poor widow

And he (Jesus) sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box.  For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” Mark 12:41-44 (ESV)

Jesus’ account of the poor widow isn’t meant to guilt trip us into putting all of our money in the collection plate. Jesus isn’t really even talking about just our money.  While we should be good stewards of what God provides us, and we should be mindful of our giving of time, talent and resources to the mission of the church, Jesus is really talking about the First Commandment and what it is to take it seriously.

We can all agree that the shema – which is the primary prayer and petition of the Jewish people- is good.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.  You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.  You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. Deuteronomy 6:4-8 (ESV)

Jesus underscores the shema as being the foundation of God’s Law as well:

But when the Pharisees heard that he (Jesus) had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:34-40 (ESV)

So the question Jesus asks of us is, “Do you really love God with all your heart and soul and mind? Do you really love other people like you love yourself?”

The answer to this question is, “No, we don’t.”

We don’t love God with all our heart and soul and mind – and we certainly don’t love others like we love ourselves because we can’t. No matter how hard we may try, we fall short.  Cats meow, dogs bark, and sinners sin.  As long as we live this life in these imperfect bodies, we will still be subject to the curse of sin. We are powerless to love perfectly, and we cannot love God and others in and of our own strength.

We can only love God and others, as imperfect and fallen as we are, by the grace of God in Christ.  We, like the poor widow, have nothing to offer God but ourselves in our weakness and poverty.   Jesus loves God, and loves fallen humanity perfectly in a way we are not capable of.  He gives us the faith we need to be able to give even our imperfect selves.

This isn’t to say that the Law is a bad thing. The Law is a good thing because it shows us our desperate need for Jesus.  Jesus lived out the Law perfectly, not only in love toward God, but also in love for us.  He gave His life- which was all that He had here on this earth- so that God would see us as being justified under the Law.  He freely took the punishment that brings us peace (Isaiah 53:5.)

That is what love is, and why it is so difficult for us to trust God so fully that we give freely of ourselves for the good of others. In Christ, we know love.  In Christ – by His grace, through faith, we are free to give all that we are and all that we have to Him.

June 6, 2017 – Courage in Generosity- 1 Samuel 25:18-19, 1 Kings 17:8-16

 

Generosity

Then Abigail hurried and took two hundred loaves, two skins of wine, five sheep ready dressed, five measures of parched grain, one hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of figs. She loaded them on donkeys, and said to her young men, “Go on ahead of me; I am coming after you.” But she did not tell her husband Nabal. 1 Samuel 25:18-19 (NRSV)

Not only did Abigail respond in a crisis, but she responded generously, and with prime provender. She didn’t pack up the generic mac-n-cheese or last week’s stale potato chips.  She sent the very best of her household’s goods- not leftovers, not expired canned beets and dented cans of creamed corn, but the good stuff.  She brought out the stuff you would serve to your own family and friends.

It takes a certain amount of selflessness to give others the prime stuff we would rather keep for ourselves. But it is true courage in generosity to give the best of ourselves to others, even when it is at risk of our own personal loss.

Many of us are not wealthy as Abigail was. Many of us are at places in our lives in which we don’t have abundance to give freely and to be generous from.  It is good that God Himself is the source of all good gifts.  Even if we think we have nothing to give, God provides.  It is often when we come to the end of ourselves and of our resources that God gives to us and through us, just as the story of Elijah and the widow illustrates:

Then the word of the Lord came to him, (Elijah) saying,  “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.”  So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.”  As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.”  But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.”  Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son.  For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.  1 Kings 17:8-16 (NRSV)

elijah-and-widow-of-zarephath

It takes courage to be generous when we have very little. But God can multiply that very little and make that very little to be something very significant.

God calls us to come as we are, to bring what we are able, and to let Him make us His heroes through our generosity.

 

 

December 23, 2016- Bringing Gifts-Matthew 2:10-11

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“When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.  On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Matthew 2:10-11 (NRSV)

There’s a saying that it’s more blessed to give than to receive.  How do we really feel about that statement though?

Sometimes it’s really easy to focus on our own needs and lose sight of what those around us might be going through.  It’s easy to be so focused on one’s financial or material needs that it’s hard to remember that another person could benefit even by a blood donation at the Red Cross, or a by donation of clothing or furniture that we aren’t using anymore.

It’s even easier, when we are suffering and in pain, to wall ourselves off and not be aware of the ways we might be able to alleviate the pain and suffering of others. In so doing, we just become more deeply mired in our pain and more stuck in a bad situation. We often have no idea how much joy we could give- and receive- by reaching out to someone who might also be in pain or suffering.

Yet in giving, and in gratitude, we receive far more than we could think to ask for.

The wise men brought Jesus precious and expensive gifts, and this was a beautiful act. Yet there is no gift they could have brought that would compare to the gift He came to give us.

How can we be a blessing- and receive a blessing- by giving today?  Not necessarily materially or financially, but how can we give a gift of service, or care, or time?