Shadowed by Traditions

Readings for the day (Lectionary 31, Sunday, November 4, 2018):

Deuteronomy 6:1-9

Psalm 119:1-8

Hebrews 9:11-14

Mark 12:28-34

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

Halloween is a tradition that is fun for all ages.  This year our kids were so excited to carve pumpkins, that by the time Halloween finally came, the designs that they made were undetectable.  It’s a fun tradition that many people, especially children, look forward to.

Now I saw in this last week, that a group of people are trying to change this Halloween tradition.  They want the “official” day for Halloween moved to the last weekend of October, rather than on October 31st every year.  Their argument is that it will be safer and less chaotic because parents would not have to race home after work to bring their children trick or treating.  Which would allow for children to hit the streets earlier, when it is still light out.  Now if they hit the streets earlier for trick or treating, do you think that will mean they will come home sooner?  Or will they just have more time to get to more houses, which means more candy they can acquire and more candy they can eat?

An online petition has even been created, requesting that the White House change the official date of Halloween from October 31st to the last Saturday of October.  So far, 50,000 people have signed the petition.  My first thought was, this will never happen.  Halloween has such an engrained tradition in our society that moving the official day would be incredibly challenging to change.  October 31st is part of our culture.  It is part of who we are and what we do.  We dress up.  We hand out candy.  Those of us old enough to remember, we talk about the Halloween blizzard of ’91.  Can you have Halloween on any other day besides October 31st?

Traditions, like trick or treating on the night of Halloween, are hard to nearly impossible to change.  These traditions are so difficult to change because we enjoy them.  They give us something to look forward to.  They are predictable.  They bring us comfort.  They become part of who we are and what we do.  Traditions are like those home-cooked comfort foods that you enjoy.  You enjoy them because they make you feel good.

Plus, the strong attachment to traditions is nothing new.  For the first century Jews, their traditions were everything to them.  One of the reasons why Jesus ended up hanging on a cross is because he bucked the system.  He pushed against those engrained traditions.  He challenged the reasons for their traditions.  He wanted them to consider what was most important – their traditions or God’s Word.  Jesus tried to get them to consider God’s Word and His purpose for their lives as something greater than their traditions.

In the Gospel story we have for today, we are in the beginning of Holy Week.  Jesus has already entered Jerusalem with the crowd laying palm branches and coats on the ground as He rode in on a donkey.  Now the Pharisees and the Sadducees are trying to trap Jesus into saying something that will certainly condemn Himself.  Even their scribes are in on this corrupt plan.  A scribe, who is a legal expert, asks Jesus which commandment is first.  What he really wants to know is, out of the 613 of God’s laws, which one is the greatest and most important law.  Jesus answers with the Shema, quoting Deuteronomy 6, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”[1]  And Jesus doesn’t stop there.  He continues and says that there is a second greatest commandment, which is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[2]  This time Jesus was quoting from Leviticus 19.  The scribe is almost speechless.  He tells Jesus that He answered correctly and truthfully.  The scribe even calls him teacher.  Which means that the scribe is acknowledging that Jesus knows what He is talking about.

What Jesus is doing here is that He is challenging the people, especially the Pharisees and Sadducees, to realize what is greater and more important than their “sacred” traditions; which is these greatest commandments.  To love God, and to love your neighbor.  Following these two commandments is God’s ultimate desire for His people.  If you look back to the story of Moses when he was receiving the Ten Commandments from God.  These commandments are divided into two tables or sections.  Commandments one, two, and three deal with our relationship with God.  1. Have no other gods.  2. Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain.  3. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.  All three of these, when followed, help strengthen our relationship with God.  And when they aren’t followed, our relationship with God deteriorates.  So Jesus says, the greatest commandment…love God.  Work on your relationship with Him.  Get to know Him better.  Love Him.  Serve Him.  Obey Him.  The second table or section of the Ten Commandments includes the remaining seven commandments.  These seven deal with our relationship with our neighbor.  4. Honor your parents.  5. Don’t murder.  6. Don’t commit adultery.  7. Don’t steal.  8.  Don’t bear false witness.  9 & 10. Don’t covet.  When these commandments are followed, our relationship with our neighbor is strengthened.  And when they aren’t followed, we destroy our relationship with our neighbor.  So just as Jesus said, love God; He says, love your neighbor also.  Love your neighbor.  Serve your neighbor.  Care for your neighbor.

As Jesus is nearing the end of His earthly ministry before the tomb, He is making the point that His ministry, the mission of the church, the purpose for all the people of God, is not to follow traditions and keep them alive for the sake of keeping them alive.  But rather, this all comes down to relationships – a relationship with our God and a relationship with our neighbor.

As in the case of changing the Halloween tradition, what’s most important?  Is it more important to go out trick or treating on October 31st, the actual day of Halloween?  Or is it about parents spending time with their children running all over town knocking on doors and ringing door bells in costumes?

And this isn’t just for Halloween either.  What about Thanksgiving or Christmas?  Thanksgiving is a little over two weeks away.  Christmas is only 51 days away.  Are you one that insists that Thanksgiving has to be celebrated on Thanksgiving day?  And likewise, Christmas has to be celebrated on Christmas Eve or Christmas day?  If so, which is more important, the tradition of Thanksgiving and the big turkey dinner, or the time gathering together with family and friends to share in a meal regardless of what day it is?  Or which is more important, the tradition of Christmas and the opening of presents, or strengthening your relationships with your friends and family by celebrating the birth of our Savior?

Traditions are good as long as they don’t overshadow the purpose behind the tradition.  For the first century Jews, that is exactly what was happening.  The act of carrying out the tradition was more important than what the tradition itself actually did.  Such as the tradition of temple sacrifices.  The forgiveness of people’s sins was to be done by making animal sacrifices to God.  Except the act of doing the sacrifice became more important than God actually forgiving people’s sins.

What about you?  Are you holding on to any traditions for the wrong reasons?  Are you letting any traditions overshadow the real purpose behind the tradition?  Remember that God’s ultimate desire is for you to love Him and to love your neighbor.  He cares more about you than about any tradition.  Jesus hanging on the cross proves that.  If traditions is what He cared most about, He wouldn’t have been hung on a tree.  But He did go to the cross, for you.  Not for some silly tradition.  He went to the cross to give you life because He loved you first.  Amen.

 

 

© 2018 Anthony Christoffels.  All Rights Reserved.

[1] Mark 12:30, NRSV

[2] Mark 12:31, NRSV

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Be Still. God is Your Fortress

Readings for the day (Lectionary 30, Sunday, October 28, 2018):

Jeremiah 31:7-9

Psalm 126

Hebrews 7:23-28

Mark 10:46-52

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

In July, I traveled to Germany to spend a week visiting and learning more about Martin Luther and the Reformation that began 500 years ago.  We visited the monastery in Erfurt, where he was a monk at.  I spent time in prayer in the same chapel that he celebrated his first mass at after he was ordained as a Catholic priest; which is in that monastery.  We visited the Wartburg Castle where he hid for safety and while he was there, translated the entire New Testament into German in less than 11 weeks.  We stopped in Wittenberg where he was a professor at the university.  We saw the house where he and his wife, Katie, lived and raised their family.  We took pictures by All Saint’s Church, also known as the Castle Church.  This is where Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of the church on October 31, 1517.  And we also attended a worship service, which was in English.  This service was at St. Mary’s Church, also known as the Town Church.  This is the church where Luther primarily preached at while he was in Wittenberg.

For Lutheran’s one of the most foundational hymns that we have is Luther’s hymn titled A Mighty Fortress.  We sing it every year on Reformation Sunday.  I picked this hymn to be sung at my ordination service.  And this hymn was the closing hymn to our worship service in Wittenberg.  As I was singing this hymn in the church where Luther preached, in the town where the Reformation all began, I couldn’t help but think about the words to this hymn.  And more specifically, what would have the people during Luther’s time thought about this hymn.  I picture this former monk, now priest and professor at the university, who has gone a little rogue, writing this hymn and presenting it to his congregation.  So on a Sunday morning he hands out a sheet of paper with words to a hymn and tells the people that he wrote a new hymn and he’d like to try it during worship.  First of all, I know how much you all enjoy trying new hymns.  So I can just about imagine what these people were thinking.  They were probably thinking something along the lines of, “Oh look, this crazy Luther has done it again.  He has gone and wrote another new hymn!”

Maybe they did think he was crazy.  But then again, maybe they thought his hymns really spoke some truth to their lives.  Luther based A Mighty Fortress off of Psalm 46 which doesn’t shy away from naming the harsh realities of this life.  During Luther’s time, living conditions weren’t great, and life expectancies were low; really low.  When you’re outlook on life is not that great, it becomes quite hard to have a positive attitude and to have any sort of hope in something better.  This hymn though, names the harsh realities of life, and provides hope for overcoming these challenges.

In the first verse, Luther uses a fortress or castle to describe our God.  In Germany there are many castles, some that are still in use today, most are museums or in ruins.  A fortress or castle is secure.  It’s solid.  It’s stable.  It provides a defense for those on the inside.  And it is our God who goes on the offensive, not us.  God is the one who is armed with the sword and the shield.  God is the one who wins and is victorious.  We actually don’t do anything.  This first verse is all about what our God is doing for us.

At the end of the first verse, the devil is arming himself for a fight.  And at the beginning of the second verse, Luther acknowledges that we have no strength comparable to the devil.  We don’t stand a chance.  We will lose.  He says that we will be lost and rejected.  Which is true.  We cannot stand up to the temptations of this life.  Sometimes we can resist that cookie or candy bar or pop.  But some temptations are just too strong for us to tackle on our own.  We need help.  We need some assistance.  We need a champion to come in and fight, as Luther says.  One whom God chooses to fight by our side.  One who fights with us and for us.  And for us as Christians, that victor, that champion, is Jesus.  Specifically, Jesus on the cross and then that same Jesus is standing outside of the empty tomb.

And you would think that would be the end.  The verse even ends with, “Christ Jesus, mighty Lord, God’s only Son, adored.  He holds the field victorious.”  End of story.  Jesus wins.  What more is there to say?  Except, for Luther, Jesus won final victory over the grave 1,500 years earlier.  And he sees that people are still struggling.  They are still dealing with addictions and hardships and famines and infidelity.  So what has changed?  Has Jesus winning final victory over the grave done anything good?  Was it actually final?  How can something that happened 1,500 years earlier be viewed as good news in the time of the Reformation?  How can this good news about Jesus’ final victory over death be seen as good today?

As Luther goes into verse three, he begins to answer these questions.  The verse begins, “Though hordes of devils fill the land all threat’ning to devour us.”  Not just devils, but hordes of devils.  Meaning – many or a large group of them.  And they are all threatening to get us.  To devour us.  It appears that this would be the end for us, the devil winning.  But the verse goes on to say that we don’t tremble.  We stand unmoved.  We will not be overpowered because God’s judgment will prevail.  It must prevail.  It does prevail.  All because of God’s Word.  Yes, his word of judgment which defeats the hordes of devils, but God’s Word that is found in Jesus Christ comes to our aid.  He fights by our side.  So that the addictions and hardships and famines and infidelity will not win.  Jesus wins.  He wins final victory.  He did so nearly 2,000 years ago.  And He is still winning final victory today.

Just like in Luther’s time, we will not see complete relief from the hardships of this life.  But through our faith and trust in God, we are given the strength, the perseverance, the ability to get through those hardships.  Psalm 46, which A Mighty Fortress is based on, ends by saying, “Be still and know that I am God.”  Even though there are hardships.  Even though it appears that society is going in a direction that you might not agree with.  Even though it seems that we are doomed to fail, the Psalmist, aware of all of this, simply says, “Be still.”  In this fast paced world, it is quite hard for us to “Be still.”  And yet it is in the stillness where we can realize that God is in control and that in the end Jesus will have final victory over all.  Amen.

 

 

© 2018 Anthony Christoffels.  All Rights Reserved.

Cutting with Precision

Readings for the day (Lectionary 28, Sunday, October 14, 2018):

Amos 5:6-15

Psalm 90:12-17

Hebrews 4:12-16

Mark 10:17-31

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

Some of you know that I am left handed.  How many of you are left handed?  If you’re left handed then you understand the difficulties of living in a right handed world.  Handwriting from left to right results in leaving ink marks on your hand, and on the paper leaving smear marks that makes it look like a 4 year old was writing.  Or coffee mugs that have designs or sayings on them that when held by the handle with your left hand are backwards.  Or carefully and strategically finding the “safe” place to sit at a table when you eat with a group so that you don’t bump elbows with the right handed person sitting to your left.  If you’re left handed, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  And if you’re right handed, you just don’t get it.  You probably think that I’m weird and complaining about the littlest of things.

But it’s true.  There are many things in our world that have been created for the majority of people who are right handed.  And a perfect example of this is, the scissors.  Have you ever tried to use a scissors to cut something using your left hand?  I have.  And so has every other left handed person.  It is nearly impossible to cut something.  And in the few moments when you actually can be successful in cutting something, it is by no means straight or perfect or precise.

Some people are very steady with their hands and can make some of the most intricate and precise moves.  I can do some detailed work that requires some precision, like putting some details into a wood project.  But give me a right handed scissors and you better not have any grand expectations of seeing a masterpiece when I’m done.  Because it’ll never happen.

Our readings today, especially the reading from Mark’s Gospel and from Hebrews are about precision.  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus talks about the precision of threading a camel through the eye of a needle.  And the writer of Hebrews talks about the precise cutting that God’s Word does as a two edged sword.  The writer of Hebrews is somewhat of a mystery.  The majority of the book is a sermon and some of the theories on the authorship of this sermon include: Paul, Luke, Barnabas, or Apollos.  But none of these theories are convincing enough for Biblical scholars.  So it is left as an unsolved mystery as to who wrote Hebrews.  In the sermon, the writer says that God’s Word is living and active; that God’s Word is a two edged sword.  Now the two edged sword is often used as a metaphor to mean that something can be both favorable and unfavorable.

Now in the case of God’s Word as a two edged sword, the Word can be unfavorable.  Unfavorable for us and unfavorable for our neighbors.  The Hebrews writer says that God’s Word divides, it judges, it reveals everything that is hidden – even those things that we wish would remain hidden and never seen.  For certain aspects of our life, we strive to keep things out of the public eye.  I recently got a notification that the Facebook data breach included my account.  The notification said that the following information might have taken: my phone number, my email address, my birthdate, and where I live.  Things that were supposed to remain private were made public without my consent.  Things that are private are to remain private; especially your personal information.  But with God, it’s different.  He has full access to all of your personal information.  You can’t hide anything from God.  You can try, but it won’t.  God knows every sin, every shortcoming, every failure.  He knows it all, and with God’s Word as a two edged sword, the unfavorable side is that He knows and remembers everything.  And as a result, we are called to confess our sins and repent of those actions that have hurt ourselves and others.  Confession isn’t fun because it is opening up a wound.  Confession opens our hearts to God, fully and completely exposing us to God for the true sinner that we are.  And when we don’t confess our sins, when we don’t admit to ourselves and to God our shortcomings, it is like putting a Band-Aid on an open wound.  The wound will eventually scab over, but it won’t fully heal unless it heals from the inside out.  Confession opens the wound up, making it possible to heal from the inside out.

Which leads us to the favorable side of God’s Word as a two edged sword.  The writer of Hebrews first talks about how God’s Word judges and divides with great precision, but the writer continues by showing how God’s Word which is made flesh in Jesus Christ, sympathizes with us in our weaknesses.  That God’s Word is filled with mercy and grace, boldly helping in times of need.  As a result, we receive healing and restoration from our Heavenly Father through the forgiveness of our sins.  In the church, we call this the absolution.  The wonderful words that declare us forgiven of our sins through the sacrifice of Jesus, our great high priest.  If confession is what opens up our hearts, opening up the wounds and exposing our true sinful selves, then the absolution is the healing that is brought to those wounds; allowing us to be healed from the inside out.  Absolution without confession is like expecting to be healed without medicine or any medical intervention.  It’s not helpful and it certainly will not get you very far.  Similarly, confession without the absolution is also not helpful.  In fact it is quite harmful to confess and admit you’ve screwed up, but never hear those promising words of forgiveness.

God’s Word is a two edged sword, precisely cutting us to the heart, exposing our sinful wounds and revealing our true identity.  God doesn’t do it this to show how awful we are, but rather to show how much we need Him.  And more precisely, how much we are in need of a savior.  Jesus on the cross was no accident.  It was a very precise move by God.  He was bridging the otherwise infinite gap between Himself and humanity.  Sceptics will say that’s impossible.  It’s impossible to save poor, helpless sinners who cannot help themselves.  Not for God though.  They also say that a camel cannot go through the eye of a needle.  It is impossible.  Not for God though.  “For mortal it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”[1]  Including the precise cutting away of all your sins to bring you healing, wholeness, and make you righteous before God.  Amen.

 

 

© 2018 Anthony Christoffels.  All Rights Reserved.

[1] Mark 10:27, NRSV

Boxes Don’t Work!

Readings for the day (Lectionary 26, Sunday, September 30, 2018):

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

Psalm 19:7-14

James 5:13-20

Mark 9:38-50

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

If you were here a few weeks ago, the Gospel reading was the eight verses that precede the reading for today.  However, the way the lectionary divides the reading up makes it appear that there are two different stories going on.  But that’s not true.  This is the same story.  The same people.  The same setting.

To refresh your memory, Jesus is traveling with His disciples and He gives them the second of three predictions about His death and resurrection.  He tells them that He is going to be betrayed, killed and three days later, rise.  But the disciples of course don’t understand any of this and instead argue amongst themselves over who is the favorite and best disciple.  So to get their attention, when they stop traveling for the day, Jesus takes a child in His arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Now that is where the lectionary ended this reading.  Today’s reading picks up with the next verse.  Keep in mind, however, that this is still the same store.  The same people.  The same setting.  So we can assume that this child that Jesus took in His arms, is still there.  We are not told that the child left.  So this child is still in Jesus’ arms when John interrupts Jesus while He is teaching to ask about someone who he noticed was casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but who wasn’t a part of their group.  It would seem that what John is most concerned about is having complete control of the work they are doing.  This person that John saw wasn’t one of the disciples or a close follower of Jesus.  John wanted to control the situation because this person was doing work in Jesus’ name but he wasn’t an insider.  He wasn’t part of their group.  Plus John figured Jesus would be concerned about this too.  So if he interrupts Jesus while He is lecturing the disciples on how they screwed up, AGAIN, then maybe, just maybe, this would redirect Jesus on to a different topic and He would forget all about what the disciples were arguing about.  Nice try John.  It didn’t work.  In fact, the whole idea backfires on him.  Instead of Jesus being glad that John was concerned about the whole thing, Jesus said, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  Don’t stop or prevent people who are trying to help our cause.

We can certainly relate to John.  We like control.  We long for control.  We feel more comfortable when life is happening on our terms, on our timeline, under our control.  We like to have control of our life.  But the reality is, is that many parts of our lives are out of our control.  Take this year’s harvest for example.  And when that happens, when we don’t have a sense of control of our own lives, we tend to turn to attempts at controlling someone else’s life.  But we all know that NEVER works.  When counseling couples before they get married, I tell them that the only person they can change is themselves.  They will not be able to change their spouse (or anyone else for that matter).  And yet for some reason, even though we know that controlling other people never works, that doesn’t stop us from trying.  And then when we realize that it really doesn’t work to control someone else’s life, then we turn to trying to control God.  As if controlling God is easier than controlling our neighbor’s life.  John was uncomfortable with someone from outside their inner circle doing healings in Jesus’ name.  John thought that only the people who have been with Jesus since the beginning should be able to do that work.  John was trying to put God into a box.  It is very easy as a church to put God into a box.  You’ve used or heard the phrases, “We’ve always done it that way.”  Or, “We’ve never done that before.”  We, too, get uneasy with God acting in ways that are outside of our expectations and norms.  It is uncomfortable for us for God to work outside of our box.  Much of Jesus’ ministry, though, was showing that this just doesn’t work.  That God does not and will not fit into a box of our own fabrication.  Jesus interacted with Gentiles and Samaritans and lepers and tax collectors and demon possessed people and anyone else who knew that they were a sinner and in need of redemption.

Our God does not fit into any size box.  And Jesus continuing His lesson to the disciples, says that not only will a box not contain the actions of God, but the odds will certainly not be in anyone’s favor if they get in the way of God’s actions and become a stumbling block.  Jesus says all of this while still holding this child in His arms.  He says that if anyone becomes a stumbling block for this little one (or any little one for that matter), it would be better if a great millstone were hung around your neck and thrown into the sea.  Better?  Having a huge rock tied to your neck and thrown into the sea would be the BETTER punishment for being a stumbling block for others?  Jesus is so annoyed with His disciples right now.  They have begun their journey to Jerusalem for His crucifixion and they STILL don’t get it.  They think this ministry is about them.  It’s not!  It’s not about them.  It’s not about us.  It’s about God’s love for His children.  And there is no one who understands true love more than a child who is picked up and held in the loving arms of a parent or grandparent because they fell down and hurt themselves.  Jesus uses children as an example on how we ought to love God, because children get it.  Children understand true, simple, no strings attached kind of love.

Jesus’ point is that He cares about people.  He cares about all people.  That is, all people who know that they are sinners.  People who know that they have screwed up and should be thrown into the sea with a great millstone around their neck – or maybe even something worse.  Jesus doesn’t care about who is the greatest.  He doesn’t care about how you compare to your neighbor.  Jesus doesn’t care how much money you have or what car you drive or how fast run.  All Jesus cares about is saving the people whom He loves from the punishment for their sins.  That’s it!  That’s what Jesus is most concerned about.  He is most concerned about you, and your well-being.  More so your spiritual well-being, than your physical well-being.  But nevertheless, Jesus cares about you!  And He is heading to Jerusalem to show you just how much He really does care about you.  Jesus didn’t go to the cross for Himself.  He went to the cross for you.  To save you.  To forgive you.  To free you.  Not out of obligation, but out of love.  So no matter how this harvest turns out in the end, God’s love for you is so great and He cares about you so much, that as a child of God, He picks you up in His arms and holds you tight; no matter what!  Just as Jesus did while He was talking to His disciples.  You are loved by God.  Amen.

 

 

© 2018 Anthony Christoffels.  All Rights Reserved.

Confusing GETTING with GIVING

Readings for the day (Lectionary 25, Sunday, September 16, 2018):

Jeremiah 11:18-20

Psalm 54

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

Mark 9:30-37

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

In the Gospel reading today, we have skipped over the transfiguration; that is, the trip that Jesus took with three of His disciples, Peter, James, and John up a mountain to reveal His true purpose, revealing His true identity.  While the four of them are away, the nine remaining disciples are trying to heal a boy who is being tormented by an evil spirit.  They are unable to heal the boy, but when Jesus returns, with the littlest of effort, He heals the boy, completely casting out the evil spirit.

After this, Jesus leaves that area with His disciples.  On their journey, Jesus tells the disciples that He will be betrayed, crucified, and die, but three days later He will rise again.  Jesus is trying to prepare His disciples for what is about to happen.  In fact, this is the second of three predictions of His passion.  Despite speaking plainly to His disciples; they don’t get it.  They don’t understand it.  All it does is confuse them.  Instead they argue about who is the greatest among themselves.  Jesus is trying to have a serious conversation with His closest friends and all they end up doing is arguing with each other.  Their friend just told them that He was going to die a horrible death and all they can think about is arguing over who is the greatest.  It’s like telling your children that you are going to die and all they care about is who is going to get your car when you’re gone.

They don’t get.  All they are doing is thinking about themselves.  All they care about is what they are going to get out of this.  They want the recognition and the praise.  They want to be considered greater than their peers.  They don’t care about what Jesus said earlier about His death and resurrection.  They only care about themselves.

When we go on a family vacation, no matter where we are at, we always seek out a church to worship in.  This summer we had two different camping trips and for each Sunday we went to a local church.  Two churches.  Two completely different experiences.  The first church, we entered late.  We under estimated how long it would take to drive to the church from our campsite.  So we walked in during the first hymn.  We snuck in the back and joined the other 30 some people in worship.  After the worship service, even though we were late and our children were not quite, almost every single member introduced themselves to us and welcomed us into their church.  They asked who we were; wanting to get to know us.  We weren’t going to stay for coffee, but they were so welcoming and so friendly and they invited us, so we stayed.  We left that church feeling like we had met more of the body of Christ.

The second church we attended this summer was a much different experience.  We arrived early enough this time to find a seat before worship began.  There were about 40-50 people in worship, and after the service was done, not a single person came up to us to even say, “Hi”.  Not a single person introduced themselves or welcomed us into their church.  We even had to find our own bulletins on a table when we first entered the church.  So we did not stay for coffee.

Now which church do you think was like the disciples, selfishly thinking about themselves?  Which church was welcoming like Jesus did by welcoming the little children?  Where are you at?  Which church are you more like?  The first church, which went out of their way to introduce themselves to people who entered their church that they didn’t even know?  Or are you more like the standoffish church that doesn’t say anything to people they don’t know?  Which church do you think Jesus would be proud of?

Jesus knew what the disciples were doing on the road.  He knew that they were arguing and He knew what they were arguing about.  But when Jesus called them out on it and asked them what they were arguing about, they couldn’t even own up to it.  They couldn’t be honest and tell Jesus what they were arguing about.  Instead they were silent; sheepishly saying nothing.  Since the disciples weren’t saying anything and Jesus already knew what they were arguing about, He takes a little child, placing the child in His arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”[1]

The disciples were so concerned about figuring out who was the greatest that they missed the entire Gospel message.  If you are so concerned about yourself and determining how well you rank among your friends and neighbors, then you have missed the entire point.  When you are focused on yourself, you will ignore those who are most in need.  You like to think you’re great, amazing, and wonderful.  But the reality is…you’re not.  I’m not.  But Jesus is!  Jesus is great, amazing, and wonderful.  He is the one who should get all of the glory, all of the fame, all of the praise.  So when we stop paying attention to ourselves.  When we stop focusing so much on our own needs, we open ourselves up to be able to see our neighbor and all of our neighbor’s needs.

Which church do you want to be?  Do you want to be the self-centered church that ignores visitors and newcomers?  Or do want to be the welcoming church that pays more attention to their neighbor’s needs than their own needs?

The disciples wanted greatness and all Jesus was trying to give them was grace.  All the disciples wanted to do was argue about how they could GET something.  All Jesus wanted to do was GIVE them something.  When we confuse GETTING with GIVING, and focus more on how much we can GET instead of how much we can GIVE, we have missed the point.  Then we are only in it for ourselves and not for the sake of our neighbor.  We give as we have received.

And we have been given something pretty amazing.  We have been given a wonderful gift, God’s grace.  We have been given God’s grace, that even though we are broken, self-centered sinners, He has sent His Son to die and rise.  He is sending His church to preach about this death and resurrection.  He is sending His Holy Spirit to convict you of your sin and hear Christ’s righteousness for you.  Our God does all of this so that when a little child comes into your midst, you’re not caught up in who you think you should be, but instead your eyes are opened to see the needs of the weakest in your midst.  God’s grace is for you.  It is.  It is for you.  And God’s grace is for your neighbor, too.  Amen.

 

 

© 2018 Anthony Christoffels.  All rights reserved.

[1] Mark 9:37, NRSV

Sacrificing Everything

Readings for the day (Lectionary 23, Sunday, September 9, 2018):

Isaiah 35:4-7a

Psalm 146

James 2:1-17

Mark 7:24-37

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

When I was in high school, I really wanted a job at the local grocery store.  I already had grocery experience, so it just seemed like a no brainer.  So one day after school, I went and personally handed by application to the owner and manager of the store.  He took my application but told me that he didn’t have any openings check back in another week.  So I did.  I returned a week later…he gave me the same answer.  I returned again a week later and again got the same answer.  I returned again about a month after originally turning in my job application and he told me that he was selling the store and that the new owner and manager would be handling all of the new hires.  Within a week after the ownership was changed, I received a phone call to start the next day.  Persistence pays off.

That’s true for many things.  If you want a particular job, you need to be persistent in showing just how much you want to work.  If you want good grades, you need to be persistent in your studies.  If you want a good harvest, you need to be persistent in caring for your crops and plants.  If you go to the doctor and the diagnosis that is giving is unsettling for you, do you A. Go home, accepting the diagnosis for what it is assuming that this doctor has made the correct diagnosis.  Or B. Go line up another appointment with another doctor to get someone else’s opinion.  Maybe you’ve already been in a situation like this where you seek out another doctor’s opinion.  Persistence pays off.

In our story today, Jesus has just finished feeding 5,000 men plus women and children.  So let’s just say 12,000 people.  And then he terrified his disciples by walking on water in the night.  Then as they came ashore Jesus healed many in the marketplace, got into an argument with the Pharisees about what is and is not considered “clean.”  Finally Jesus flees Galilee to get a break.  He heads north towards Tyre and Sidon; a Gentile region.  The Jewish people have seen the healings that Jesus has done.  Plus they just got free food from Him.  And the Pharisees keep complaining and arguing with Jesus about what He is doing.  All Jesus wants is a break.  So he flees to a non-Jewish area, hoping that maybe, just maybe, people there won’t know who He is and what He is capable of doing.

Even though Jesus enters a house trying to escape being noticed, He is spotted by a woman.  A Gentile woman.  She immediately comes over to Jesus, bows down and begs Him to heal her daughter.  Remember Jesus is trying to be on a little vacation here.  He has turned the phone off and put a “Do not disturb” sign on the door.  He doesn’t want to be bothered.  So Jesus tried to dismiss her saying, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”[1]  Meaning, Jesus came to feed the Israelites, God’s chosen people.  This woman was a Gentile, someone who was not part of God’s covenant with Abraham.  All Jesus wants is a little rest, so He basically says, “My mission is for the Jews, and you’re not a Jew, so leave me alone.”

And like any parent would do, she does not accept that answer.  Her daughter is suffering from an unclean spirit and she has heard that Jesus can help.  So she fights back and being persistent she says, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”[2]  Meaning, even though you may have come only for the House of Israel, couldn’t you spare just a little bit to heal my daughter?  Jesus, amazed by this mother’s faith, tells her that the demon has left her daughter.

This mother believed in something.  She believed that her daughter could be healed by Jesus.  She believed in something, even though it meant sacrificing everything.  That is, unlike Colin Kaepernick in the new Nike commercial this week.  A multi-million dollar quarterback has not sacrificed anywhere near everything.  He might believe in something, like making a few million dollars on a two minute ad, but he has not sacrificed everything.  This mother though, for the sake of her daughter’s health, was willing to approach a male, Jewish, religious leader and beg for His help.  Culturally this was wrong on so many levels, but she’s a parent and as a parent she would do anything, even sacrificing everything she had to get her daughter well again.

Persistence does pay off.  Whether it is for a job or grades or a harvest or an answer from a doctor, or even getting your child well again.  Being persistent pays off in the end.  The same is true in our faith.  We must be persistent in our faith.  We must be persistent because the devil is also persistent in tempting us each and every day; trying to turn us away from our trust in God.  Hold tight to what you believe in.  Be persistent in your prayer requests.  Be diligent in your study of God’s Word.  Be insistent in doing what God has called you to be and do.  Don’t be complacent.  Complacency creates problems.

As James says in his letter, “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”[3]  Of course as Lutherans we know that our salvation is not dependent on our works.  As Paul says in Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.  For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works.”[4]  We are saved and given the promise of eternal life as not just any gift from God, but THE gift of God.  As in the greatest gift we could be given.  And this gift is not dependent on our works.  It is not dependent on what we do or don’t do.  But we have been created in God’s image for the purpose of doing good works.

Martin Luther once said, “God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.”  God doesn’t need our good works of kindness.  He desires our persistence in confessing our sins, talking to Him through prayer, and studying His Holy Word.  But He doesn’t need our good works.  Our neighbors on the other hand DO need our good works of kindness.  Our neighbors need us to be persistent in living out our Christian calling to be disciples of Jesus.

So how persistent are you?  Are you willing to believe in Jesus, following His command to make disciples of every nation, even if it means sacrificing everything?  Are you willing to try something even if it means you might fail?  This ministry that Jesus calls us to is one that calls us out of complacency and into a life actively living out the Gospel for the sake of our neighbors and for the sake of God’s Kingdom.  We believe in Jesus because He is the one who truly knows what it means to sacrifice everything.  Sacrificing everything for you!  Amen.

 

 

© 2018 Anthony Christoffels.  All rights reserved.

[1] Mark 7:27, NRSV

[2] Mark 7:28, NRSV

[3] James 2:17, NRSV

[4] Ephesians 2:8-10a, NRSV

Boldly Curious

Reading for the day (Sunday, June 17, 2018):

Exodus 1:8-14; 3:1-15

 

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

 

I can’t remember when, but at some point during my childhood, my parents replaced the front door of our house.  I’m sure it got replaced because was not very efficient and needed an upgrade.  Although, I don’t even remember what the old door looked like.  The new door is a solid white color with a half circle window towards the top of the door.  A window that only tall people can look out of.

This window is perfect for anyone who is tall and curious.  This house is at the top of a hill on a dead end street.  So growing up, this location was ideal for my brothers and me to play in the street and not have to worry about many cars coming up the street.  But living on a dead end street at the top of hill was not ideal for learning how to ride a bike.  Trying to keep your balance as you ride along the hill sideways proved to be difficult.

Like I said, living on a dead end street is usually pretty quiet.  Although, every once in a while, there would be a car that would not see the street sign that said “No Outlet” and they would drive up the street thinking that they could get to the next block.  And so, when you’re sitting in the living room in the evening and you hear a vehicle coming up the hill, what do you do?  Continuing to sit, watching your favorite show on TV?  Or get up and go look out the window to see who it is?  And which is easier, pulling the curtain back or simply taking a little peek out of the little window at the top of the new door?

Would you consider yourself to be a curious person?  How curious?  Curious enough to get up and peek through a window to see what’s going on?  Or curious enough to not only get up and peek, but get up and go right outside to see what’s going on?  If you’re anything like me, you’re fit more in with the first one.  You’re curious.  You want to see what is going on, but you don’t necessarily what others to know that you are looking.  That’s why you peek through small windows or pull the curtain back just enough to sneak a peek.  Like my children trying to sneak a peek into our bedroom when we are trying to get Christmas presents wrapped.

Today’s story is the beginning part of the Moses story.  First some background information.  The Israelites are in Egypt, away from their homeland because of a famine that led them to Egypt where there was food.  There was food in Egypt because of Joseph, one of Jacob’s sons, had earned favor with the king of Egypt.  So with the famine, Jacob’s whole family was invited by Pharaoh to live in Egypt.  And not just invited to live in Egypt, but to settle in the best part of the land.  Because of Joseph, Jacob’s family was respected and honored throughout the land of Egypt.

Fast forward a generation or two and a new king rose to power in Egypt.  This king did not know Joseph and all of the work that he did in saving not only the lives of the Israelites, but also the Egyptians.  Since this new king didn’t know any better, he viewed the Israelites as a threat – something to be controlled or they would control the Egyptians.  So Pharaoh ordered that the Israelites would all become slaves and do heavy labor.

It is during this generation that Moses is born.  Moses was born an Israelite, but raised in an Egyptian palace as Pharaoh’s grandson.  One day after killing an Egyptian for beating one of his own people, an Israelite, Moses fled the region because Pharaoh sought to kill him.  While he was away, Moses got a job as a shepherd.  One day, he was on Mount Horeb tending to the flock when he noticed a bush on fire.  But this fire was different than other fires.  There were flames of fire coming out of this bush, but the bush was not burning up or being consumed by the flames.  Moses was curious!  He couldn’t ignore this mysterious bush.  He had to go check it out, to see what was going on.

And what do you think Moses’ curiosity looked like?  Did he hide behind another tree or bush and gently push the branches back to sneak a peek at this bush that was burning?  Or did he walk right up to it to see what was going on?  All we know from Scripture is what Moses said after he noticed the bush.  Moses says, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”[1]  We don’t know how he approached the bush, but I know how I would have approached the bush – similar to how I peek through the window at my parent’s house to see who is driving up the dead end street.

How curious are you when it comes to your faith?  Are you curiously shy – sneaking up just to get a small little peek at what’s inside?  Or are you boldly curious – confidently looking around and asking questions that come to mind?  If you’re curiously shy, then you’re one who sneaks a peek at worship – you come to hear a scripture reading or three, listen to a 10 minute sermon and then go home.  If you’re boldly curious, then you’re one who hears those same scripture readings and listens to the same 10 minute sermon, but then goes home thinking about what you’ve heard and going deeper into your own study of God’s Word.  Curiously shy keeps us from getting engaged in the text.  Whereas, boldly curious opens the door for us to become more engaged in God’s Word and to enter into a deeper relationship with our Lord.

It is curiosity that takes us further into an encounter.  If you’re curious about what is going on in your neighborhood, if you’re curious about what is going on at work, at school, at home, then your curiosity will drive you to get more information.  You’ll talk to people.  You’ll read the news.  You’ll ask questions.  Where there is curiosity, there is the potential for something more.  Without curiosity, you will gain no further information.  But as long as you are slightly curious, there is the potential for something more.

As we see in the story of Moses, our God works through curiosity.  When God saw that Moses stopped and turned towards the burning bush that is when God called out to him.  Through curiosity, God continues to reveal more about Himself and the more we know about God, the deeper our faith and trust is in Him.  Which brings us into a closer relationship with our Lord.

Our God not only loves you and cares about you, but He is also boldly curious about you.  He desires a close relationship with you.  As God told Moses regarding the Israelites, He knows their suffering.  He has observed their misery.  He has heard their cries.  And He has come down to deliver them from their oppression.  Our Lord knows our sufferings.  He has observed our misery.  He has heard our cries.  And through the birth of His Son, Jesus, He has come down to deliver us from that with oppresses us, our sin.

This God that we confess our belief in, is not only boldly curious about us, He is also a god of action.  God not only hears, but acts.  He heard the cries of the Israelites as they were slaves in Egypt.  And He acted by using a curious man named Moses.  We trust that our God also hears our cries for help and He acts by using curious people like you and me to carry out His mission as we answer the call to be boldly curious for the sake of God’s Kingdom.  Amen.

 

 

© 2018 Anthony Christoffels.  All rights reserved.

[1] Exodus 3:3, NRSV