December 16, 2018 -John the Baptist, Repentance and O, Come Emmanuel!

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In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’” (Isaiah 40:3)

John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.  People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan.  Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

 

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.  And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3:1-12 (NIV)

Repent. It’s not a word we like to hear.  It means we need to change our outlook, our opinions, our view of others.  It’s a word that says we not only need to identify our sins, but to confess to God and others that we fall short.  We’re not doing things correctly- too much we have done should have been left undone, and so much left undone that we should have done.  The apostle Paul shows us in Romans 7 that as long as we live in the “not yet” world, we will struggle with the dilemma of being both God’s saints and sinners who sin.  We can’t just straighten up and “fly right,” but we trust that Jesus has done for us what we are not capable of doing for ourselves.

Repentance is more than “I’m sorry I got caught,” or even a mia culpa. It is a deep desire to turn from our sins, a gift of the Holy Spirit that promises that in our baptism our sins are drowned and washed away from us every day.

John the Baptist points out that Abraham’s children are the children of the promise- the children who God has raised up in Christ.  John the Baptist points us to Christ, the one who was far greater than him.

In this season of Advent, we not only celebrate Jesus coming to us as God-with-us, we also look to His return to this earth.  The end of days as we know them and the re-creation of heaven and earth can and will occur at any time, but there is no cause for those who belong to Christ to fear.  Since we who trust Jesus know that we are baptized, named and claimed for Him and that He has won the victory over death, Satan, evil and hell, we look forward to that day.  The day of the Lord is near.  Repent and turn to Him.  He provides us with all we need, now and in the world to come.  O, come, o come, Emmanuel.

August 30, 2018- Pray for Wisdom and Repentance, and Trust God

 

apostle jamesCount it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. James 1:2-8 (ESV)

Sometimes the Book of James gets a bad rap because it challenges us to put the rubber to the road. James is so passionate about the actions that are the result of faith because he’s talking to early Christians who are going through all kinds of trials and persecution.

While at first glance it may seem he is emphasizing the importance of our behavior and our works, James really is telling us that our faith, which is a gift of God, is what gives us the ability to overcome and grow from trials.  We trust that God will get us through, that God will give us the wisdom and the strength to endure.

Godly wisdom that comes from the Holy Spirit is available to us for the asking. There is precedent for believers to ask God for wisdom.  Solomon’s prayer before ascending his father David’s throne was a prayer for wisdom- wisdom rather than wealth or long life or earthly power- and God granted it to him.

In that night God appeared to Solomon, and said to him, “Ask what I shall give you.” And Solomon said to God, “You have shown great and steadfast love to David my father, and have made me king in his place. O Lord God, let your word to David my father be now fulfilled, for you have made me king over a people as numerous as the dust of the earth. Give me now wisdom and knowledge to go out and come in before this people, for who can govern this people of yours, which is so great?” God answered Solomon, “Because this was in your heart, and you have not asked for possessions, wealth, honor, or the life of those who hate you, and have not even asked for long life, but have asked for wisdom and knowledge for yourself that you may govern my people over whom I have made you king, wisdom and knowledge are granted to you. I will also give you riches, possessions, and honor, such as none of the kings had who were before you, and none after you shall have the like.” So Solomon came from the high place at Gibeon, from before the tent of meeting, to Jerusalem. And he reigned over Israel. 2 Chronicles 1:7-13 (ESV)

The challenge of applying the wisdom God grants us is found in the paradox we all live  under. The brokenness and imperfection of this world is due to the effects of the Fall. In this world we still live under the curse of the garden.  Our suffering and our failures are magnified by the result of sin, both the collective sins of humanity and the individual sins we commit often without even realizing it.

Solomon may have been the wisest man who ever lived save for Jesus, but Solomon didn’t always apply the wisdom he was given.  In Solomon’s later years he fell into the worship of his foreign wives’ idols, which led to the division and disruption of the kingdom of Israel after his death.

Jesus has broken the curse of the garden.  Jesus walks with us through the valleys of shadow. He knows the way through them. We share in His death in this world, but we also will share in His resurrection.  We can trust Him for the wisdom and strength we need in this life, just as His earthly brother, the apostle James, teaches us.

 

 

March 6, 2018- Housecleaning- 2 Chronicles 29:1-11, 30-31, 35-36, Matthew 12:43-45

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Hezekiah began to reign when he was twenty-five years old; he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Abijah daughter of Zechariah.  He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, just as his ancestor David had done.

In the first year of his reign, in the first month, he opened the doors of the house of the Lord and repaired them.  He brought in the priests and the Levites and assembled them in the square on the east.  He said to them, “Listen to me, Levites! Sanctify yourselves, and sanctify the house of the Lord, the God of your ancestors, and carry out the filth from the holy place. For our ancestors have been unfaithful and have done what was evil in the sight of the Lord our God; they have forsaken him, and have turned away their faces from the dwelling of the Lord, and turned their backs. They also shut the doors of the vestibule and put out the lamps, and have not offered incense or made burnt offerings in the holy place to the God of Israel.  Therefore the wrath of the Lord came upon Judah and Jerusalem, and he has made them an object of horror, of astonishment, and of hissing, as you see with your own eyes. Our fathers have fallen by the sword and our sons and our daughters and our wives are in captivity for this.  Now it is in my heart to make a covenant with the Lord, the God of Israel, so that his fierce anger may turn away from us.  My sons, do not now be negligent, for the Lord has chosen you to stand in his presence to minister to him, and to be his ministers and make offerings to him.”

King Hezekiah and the officials commanded the Levites to sing praises to the Lord with the words of David and of the seer Asaph. They sang praises with gladness, and they bowed down and worshiped.

Then Hezekiah said, “You have now consecrated yourselves to the Lord; come near, bring sacrifices and thank offerings to the house of the Lord.” The assembly brought sacrifices and thank offerings; and all who were of a willing heart brought burnt offerings.

Besides the great number of burnt offerings there was the fat of the offerings of well-being, and there were the drink offerings for the burnt offerings. Thus the service of the house of the Lord was restored. And Hezekiah and all the people rejoiced because of what God had done for the people; for the thing had come about suddenly. 2 Chronicles 29:1-11, 30-31, 35-36 (NIV)

(Jesus said): When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So will it be also with this evil generation.” Matthew 12:43:45 (NIV)

Housecleaning is a necessary evil for most of us. Most people do not enjoy the process of cleaning, especially when it entails scrubbing grungy, dirty, sticky things that are caked with grease and grime, and throwing away useless clutter and trash.  Cleaning is work. Most people do enjoy being in clean and wholesome surroundings even though we might not like the process of getting to that clean state.

Hezekiah was one of the “good Kings” of Judah. He listened to God’s call to clean up his kingdom- to get rid of the idolatry, to clean up the temple and get rid of all the nasty practices and filth that the kings before him had tolerated and in some cases encouraged.  Hezekiah was also entrusted- and empowered- by God to restore the practice of regular worship to the kingdom of Judah.

There are some important things that we learn about spiritual housecleaning in these passages. The first thing that we learn is that spiritual housecleaning- becoming more like Jesus- or sanctification– is something God wants for us, and He is the one who empowers us and calls us to do it.

The first thing that the priests do in the passage from 2 Chronicles is to carry out the filth. Before we can get our space back to a clean and wholesome environment, we have to take out the trash.  To clean the kitchen one must scrape the dishes, wash the dishes, clean the counters, sweep and mop the floor, and throw away the scraps.  We don’t prepare a fresh meal amidst the trash and leftovers of the last meal. Otherwise fresh food might get contaminated by something that was spoiled.

When we clean up the kitchen, we don’t clean it up to just look at it and enjoy its cleanliness. We clean up the kitchen so that we can prepare healthy and tasty meals, and so that we can serve and nourish our families and friends. We have to clean up often too, because no sooner than we clean things up, they get dirty again.  It’s part of life.  Cleanliness requires maintenance.

God wanted the people of Judah to clean up their act- not just to look pretty- but so that they would be free to serve Him and each other. God gives them- and us- the ability to come close to and serve Him. It is a joy and a privilege to serve God, rather than a duty or a burden.

This is why Jesus tells us that while repenting (turning away from sinful thoughts and actions) and cleaning up our act is good and necessary, once we have repented and gotten ourselves clean, it is also necessary for us to embrace the purpose God intends for us. Otherwise, given human nature, we will fall back into our old bad habits, and worse. Becoming more like Jesus is a journey, and it is a process.  As God’s church, during the season of Lent we engage in repentance- a good spiritual spring cleaning as it were.  We don’t repent and ask Jesus to “clean us up” to look pretty.  We do this intentionally so that we can more fully embrace and engage ourselves in following Jesus and being God’s people.

Many of us probably heard the expression, “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop,” from our mothers and/or grandmothers. If we don’t occupy ourselves with good and wholesome things, we will find not-so-wholesome things with which to occupy ourselves. Children are great examples of this principle.  When children are not occupied with a purposeful task, the odds are that they will find their ways into mischief.  We are all subject to finding mischief!

Service is the spiritual discipline of doing good things in the world by serving others.  We begin our spiritual housecleaning by asking the Holy Spirit to clear our minds and hearts of the crud- bringing ourselves to Jesus in repentance. We continue our sanctification (letting Jesus conform our hearts and minds to His will) by letting God show us how we can serve Him and others by keeping our minds and bodies occupied with good and wholesome thoughts and deeds.

God gives us His great and free gift of salvation in Jesus. He gives us the gifts of repentance and forgiveness. He also gives us the heart to serve others and to live according to His purpose for us. How can we serve God today?

February 14, 2018 – Ash Wednesday-Remember God NOW- Ecclesiastes 12:6-7, Matthew 12:43-45

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Remember him—before the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Ecclesiastes 12:6-7 (NIV)

Today Lent begins. Traditionally Lent is a season of examination, repentance, sacrifice, and getting our priorities straight. If we accept the challenge, Lent can be a time of great spiritual growth for us. This Lent begins a journey- a journey with Jesus to the Cross.

It is interesting that Solomon, the Teacher, implores us to remember God NOW. Surrendering to God and getting closer to Him is not something to be checked off the bucket list at the last minute, but something to do NOW, before the bucket list comes into play.

Ash Wednesday is an opportunity for us to reflect not only on our mortality and our sins and all the ways we fall short of God’s expectations for us, but it is also a time to reflect on how we “do life.” Yes, we should confess and repent (repent means: to turn away from) of our sins.  As we reflect upon our sins and repent, we should also be mindful that turning from sin and those things that fail to glorify God has another essential component.

When we give up something harmful, what beneficial, God-honoring thing do we take up?  There is a great deal of truth to Grandma’s old saying, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”  If we aren’t intentionally pursuing the things that God intends for us, we will occupy ourselves with any old thing, and given human nature, many of those idle things do not bring glory to God.

Jesus put it this way: “When a defiling evil spirit is expelled from someone, it drifts along through the desert looking for an oasis, some unsuspecting soul it can bedevil. When it doesn’t find anyone, it says, ‘I’ll go back to my old haunt.’ On return it finds the person spotlessly clean, but vacant. It then runs out and rounds up seven other spirits more evil than itself and they all move in, whooping it up. That person ends up far worse off than if he’d never gotten cleaned up in the first place.

“That’s what this generation is like: You may think you have cleaned out the junk from your lives and gotten ready for God, but you weren’t hospitable to my kingdom message, and now all the devils are moving back in.” Matthew 12:43-45 (MSG)

There’s no sense in cleaning house and cleaning up our lives unless we surrender our lives to God to put them to good use. The discipline of surrender is simply inviting Jesus to clean us up, and then inviting Him to move on in.  He’s the one at work here, not us. Grace, love, and joy happen when we let go and let Him in. He actively brings about God’s kingdom through us here on earth.

How are we responding to the grace of God NOW? Are we honestly praying the most difficult petition of the Lord’s Prayer- “Thy will be done?”  Are we listening to the Holy Spirit when He responds?

There is nothing wrong with the tradition of “giving something up for Lent.” Sacrifice is a beneficial discipline for Jesus followers.  Yet along with giving up harmful things, and/or getting rid of the clutter, we are called to take up our own cross and live surrendered and sacrificially as we follow Jesus.  We are called to live the God-life NOW, not as something to check off our bucket list, but as something to embrace NOW, because our time here is fleeting and not at all guaranteed.

Life on this earth is a limited time offer. We are called to get out there- NOW- and live it in response to God Who has given it to us.

 

 

February 7, 2018- The Chief of Sinners, and the Only Savior- 1 Timothy 1:15-17, James 2:10, 1 John 1:9

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This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. 1 Timothy 1:15-17 (NKJV)

The apostle Paul has an interesting back story. Here was the Pharisee Saul, a guy with a reputation for killing Christians- who by the transforming power of God became the apostle Paul, who was arguably the most powerful and influential Christian thinker and writer of all time.

Paul ended up having to endure much for the sake of his faith in Jesus. He endured prison, persecution and according to historical tradition, (though not recorded in Scripture,) died as a martyr by beheading.

How many of us could claim to be Chief of Sinners? It’s a good bet all of us have some pretty long lists. Some translations of the verse above from 1 Timothy say, “Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.” (NIV) or “of whom I am foremost.” (NRSV) It is the same message, just a bit less poetic.  If anyone is feeling sin-free (which is unlikely,) the apostle James reminds us that everyone who violates just one little teeny part of the Law violates all of it.

For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. James 2:10 (NIV)

The title of Chief Sinner falls upon every one of us.

In the Lutheran tradition we tend not to be terribly overbearing on the sinner label, because we focus upon the grace of God in Christ, and that is a good thing.  If being a sinner were the end of it, then we would all be nothing more than the Chief of Sinners, just like Saul / Paul was, but without any hope of being transformed into saints of God.

Confession is indeed good for the soul, and it is for our own benefit to stay in conversation with God in prayer and meditation. Confession is one of the most difficult of the spiritual disciplines, but it is well worth the initial discomfort and squirminess. It is a good idea for us to confess to God and to a trusted believer who can pray for and with us, but it is God alone who forgives us.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9 (NIV)

The interesting part of this is that God didn’t say, “I only forgive this, but not that.”  He says we are both forgiven and purified. Our God is far bigger than our sins and failures.  He can overcome anything.

Everyone who follows Jesus has the potential to transform the world around him or her. God can overcome our sorry back stories, our most tragic failures, and outright sins and work in and through us to encourage and inspire others.

Lent is coming soon. Lent is a season of penitence, but it isn’t about punishment. Lent should be seen as being cathartic- a time for getting rid of old garbage so we are free to take in what’s healthy and good and beneficial. Rather than seeing Lent just as a time of “giving up something,” why not see if the Holy Spirit would like us to take up something edifying for ourselves and others?   When we Chief Sinners confess our sins, and surrender ourselves to Jesus, we are forgiven and purified, set free for God’s purpose- so what does that mean in practical application?

January 17, 2018- Changing God’s Mind?- Jonah 3:1-10, Ephesians 2:8-11

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Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”

Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it.  Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”  The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:

“By the decree of the king and his nobles:

Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence.  Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. Jonah 3:1-10 (NIV)

The story of Jonah – whether we take the entire story as literal fact or as an allegory intended to teach us about our purpose, and about God’s grace- is a hopeful story for us. It has a lesson for us about how God views our enemies, too.

Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh. The first time God asked Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah got sidetracked and decided to go the opposite way (Jonah 1-2) which didn’t end well for Jonah.  Jonah ended up in Nineveh the second time God asked him.  Sometimes God has to ask us a few times before we get the hint that we need to go where He leads us, even if we don’t particularly want to go there.  Jonah didn’t think the Ninevites deserved saving, but God had other plans for them.

Some people have brought up the question of whether or not God changes His mind. Given that we know three basic qualities of God- that He is omnipotent (all powerful), omnipresent (everywhere at the same time in all times and places), and omniscient (all knowing), it would be safe to say it is unlikely- though not impossible- that God changes His mind.

Sometimes, like wayward children, we have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the place where our heavenly Father intends for us to be.

Perhaps prayer and supplication and spiritual disciplines- especially the disciplines of confession and repentance, serve to bring us closer to God’s mind and heart?  After all, Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy will be done.”

Perhaps the message here is that God finds a way to get to his people, and to accomplish His purpose through them?

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:8-11 (NIV)

The apostle Paul teaches us that our life and our purpose are gifts of God. We are made by God for God.  So are the people that we don’t like so much. God wants our attitude to align with His attitude-which isn’t always such an easy prayer to pray.

How does this particular epiphany influence our attitude regarding the people around us, and our own place and purpose in God’s world?

August 28, 2017 – Ebenezer, The Lord, Our Help – Judges 21:25, 1 Samuel 7:3-13

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In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes. – Judges 21:25 (NRSV)

Then Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Astartes from among you. Direct your heart to the Lord, and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.”  So Israel put away the Baals and the Astartes, and they served the Lord only.

Then Samuel said, “Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the Lord for you.”  So they gathered at Mizpah, and drew water and poured it out before the Lord. They fasted that day, and said, “We have sinned against the Lord.” And Samuel judged the people of Israel at Mizpah.

When the Philistines heard that the people of Israel had gathered at Mizpah, the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel. And when the people of Israel heard of it they were afraid of the Philistines. The people of Israel said to Samuel, “Do not cease to cry out to the Lord our God for us, and pray that he may save us from the hand of the Philistines.”  So Samuel took a sucking lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to the Lord; Samuel cried out to the Lord for Israel, and the Lord answered him. As Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to attack Israel; but the Lord thundered with a mighty voice that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion; and they were routed before Israel. And the men of Israel went out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, and struck them down as far as beyond Beth-car.

Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah, and named it Ebenezer; for he said, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” So the Philistines were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel; the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel.  1 Samuel 7:3-13 (NRSV)

 

Today’s reading takes us back to the end of the time of the Judges. At that time, even though God had put judges in place to govern the people, they responded to the judges’ instructions and warnings by getting their freak on with foreign gods, and by doing whatever they felt like. There was no king, and people did what they wanted to (Judges 21:25.)

We can take a cue from the Fall (Genesis 3) that when human beings decide to just do whatever they feel like (especially when it comes to things God specifically has forbidden) that it is going to turn out bad.  It did turn out bad for Israel in the time of the Judges.

Samuel was in a special position. He was the last of the Old Testament Judges, and the one who would anoint the first two kings of Israel- Saul (who made a mess of it) and David, the unlikely shepherd boy who became the first great king of Israel.

Samuel starts out by reminding the people of what they should already know, and where their first priority belongs. False gods are exactly that- false. They can’t do anything for us other than separate us from the One True God.  This is important for us to remember too even though our idols aren’t golden calves or fertility gods.  Anything that we set up as first priority in our lives- the thing we turn our hearts toward- becomes our god.  In today’s society we tend to worship at the altar of ourselves, and that never ends well.

Samuel also intercedes on behalf of the people. Sometimes we can’t face our challenges alone.  Sometimes we are threatened and afraid, like the Israelites were terrified of the Philistines. We derive strength and courage in the prayers and support of other believers.  Samuel, as the leader of the people, also offers a sacrifice, which is a foreshadowing of the sacrifice that Jesus has made for us.  We don’t go around sacrificing lambs today because in Christ there is no more blood sacrifice, but there is still an element of sacrifice when we intercede for others.  We give of ourselves and we make ourselves vulnerable when we genuinely act on behalf of others.  When we come together in God’s strength we often find the impossible becomes possible.

Intercessory prayer- praying for and with others- connects us to God in a powerful way. Not only does God hear our prayers, but we respond to God and others when we pray for and with others.

It’s also important for us to remind each other of our place in God’s story and of our heritage. The word “Ebenezer(not to be confused with Ebenezer Scrooge from the classic story A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens) means, “The Lord, Our Help.”

The memorial stone that Samuel set up was not meant to become an idol, but to remind people when they saw the stone that our help- our very existence and being- comes from the Lord. When we view sacred art or the beauty in nature we are reminded of God and how He is in, with and through His creation.

We can always look to our Ebenezer, God, Our Help, and set our hearts on Him.