Doing What is Really Important!

The Lord we worship is a God who puts up with a lot of us. How does God deal with it? God responds to our many misgivings with love and grace. The the true essence of gratitude is that our God gives us love and grace.

In his letter to Timothy, Paul states, “First of all, then, I ask that requests, prayers, petitions, and thanksgiving be made for all people. Pray for kings and everyone who is in authority so that we can live a quiet and peaceful life in complete godliness and dignity. This is right and it pleases God our savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. There is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, the human Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a payment to set all people free. This was a testimony that was given at the right time. I was appointed to be a preacher and apostle of this testimony– I’m telling the truth and I’m not lying! I’m a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.” (1 Tim. 2:1-7 CEB)

In the Scripture above the statement “I ask” means more than simply asking. “I ask” is a translation of a word centered on personal involvement in what the request desires. The original word indicates deep concern and desire. Used here I believe it is spiritually dangerous to ignore the request due to the results and consequences implied.

In this passage, Paul urges first of all (meaning of first importance) that we pray for all people. I would let this sink in for a moment. If we are believers, people of faith, part of God’s family the church, we have an obligation, a duty that we are urged to perform. It is not something that is forced or commanded because to do so would go completely against the nature of God.

But isn’t it natural to do something asked of us by the One who gave his life so that we might have a life? Why would we need to be urged to do this? Why would we need to be told, “first of all?” Why we may ask. I believe the reason is that there are many who believe that have allowed the world to stunt their spiritual growth.

Far too many believers have lost the vision for God and have grown complacent about responsibilities God gives us.” We may do our religious duties but we lose the delight. We are called to care. A call to care is a call to prayer. It is also a call to share, with others, what we know is true about Jesus. We are instructed to tell what he means to us. In this, we find the true power of gratitude. In this, we do what is really important.

This passage of Scripture is most likely written to the church at Ephesus. The church at Ephesus started as an outreach to the members of the synagogue but quickly became a gentile-dominated church. Then church at Ephesus became an influential church, a wealthy church. However, its success became its undoing. It became a church that thought of itself as special in an elitist manner. It was a church that became judgmental.

The Apostle John pastored this church after Timothy. The church’s failure to do what was important took center stage when John sends a letter to the church recorded in the second chapter of the book of Revelation, “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” They had forsaken their first love. This is not a way to be grateful to God.

I often wonder how most church-going people would define a relationship with Jesus? It is a relationship of familiarity? Is it a relationship of culture (good people go to church bad people do not)? Is it a relationship of habit? God says it needs to be a relationship of love, of first importance. The kind of love expressed in caring, praying, interceding for others.

This is the way to be thankful. If Jesus is active in our lives, then there will be evidence of first love or else there will be an emptiness. A relationship with Jesus is established by faith, but it is sealed by the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit will not let us ignore our responsibilities. The spirit of God is always moving within us, but the spirit of self and of evil is always close by.

We can stifle the Spirit, we can grieve the Spirit. The Spirit will urge us to do what is of first importance, we will be urged to do what really matters. We can resist the Spirit, we can learn to ignore the inner voice. We can hide behind religion, activities, or just make excuses or comparisons with others so that we don’t look as bad. We can be like the Ephesians. God’s grace is beyond measure but we can reach the point where our love grows cold. This is where the demonic would like for us to be.

The cure, the prevention, the recovery from a lack of love is to pray for others, actively lifting them up to God. This brings us to the second thing that really matters. As the current situation in Ukraine reveals. We must pray for our leaders.

There are also those who love our former president and some who love our current president. There are easily as many who don’t. There are probably some with very strong opinions for other politicians, local, state, and national. There are those who some like and who some loathe. That is fine. This is a country of rights and choices. However, like or dislike we are told to pray for our leaders. This has nothing to do with politics or power. It has everything to do with peace. It has everything to do with what God says is important. We should pray for our political leaders to have compassion. We should pray for them to have a conscience. We should pray for them to have conviction. We should pray this for politcal leaders all over the world. We should pray that they will be open to the leadership of Christ. This is our duty as a thankful, grateful people.

When we do this we are praying for peace. We are praying for justice. We are praying that evil will not prevail. When Jesus was being tempted in the wilderness, Satan came to him and said, all the kingdoms of the world are mine. Jesus did not dispute this. We need to pray that Satan’s influence is limited. We should remember how he moves to create chaos in the political systems of our world.

These are things that please God. These are things that show that we not only talk the talk but walk the walk. It means we have begun to awaken to the importance of every human soul. And are thankful to God for every person. Paul tells us that when we are a people of true faith, a people of intercessory, caring, concerned prayer, and our hearts are in tuned with the heart of God wanting everyone to know (that is not just right-thinking but right thinking and doing) we can experience the growing presence of the Kingdom of God in our lives, then God sees this a being good, not good as opposed to be bad, but good as in being spiritually beautiful, in being morally righteous, in being immersed in the best. This is what pleases God. Is this not the least we human beings can seek to give God in light of what God has done for us? Is this not a good way of showing our thanks.

Paul states God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit wants all to be saved. Now some would say this is a one-time event. If this is what you believe the Bible teaches, good. Who am I to disagree. However, I have come to believe salvation is more than an event. I believe salvation is a process. Most times, in the Scripture, the word “saved” is a Greek infinitive. This tense is expressed in a past action that is still ongoing.

What God desires is that we understand so that we can live a life of being saved and saved and saved and saved. This is a reason to be very grateful. Each day, each encounter of life is an opportunity to live in grace, grow in grace, depend on grace, and blessed by grace. I believe if a person is not being saved, they are in a state of being lost, separated, ignorant of the truth of grace. They are in need of our prayer. I fear there are too many people in this state. 2 Peter 3:9 explains the desire of God in the negative, “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” The word for want (desire) is tied to the event. God’s desire is that this event, perishing, does not happen but that repentance will happen, restoration will happen, unity will happen, that love will happen.

I think it is important think about this. Who is going to perish if they do not enter and remain in the ongoing saving relationship with Jesus? It will be someone’s child, mate, parent, or friend. Do you want someone praying for the people you know and love? Do you want someone to be reaching out to them? Would you not be thankful if there are people who take this opportunity and responsiblity to heart? Should we not do the same? This is doing what is really important! This is showing we are faithfully thankful and grateful to our Lord and our God.

There is a song from the community of Taizé I often sing in prayer. It is a simple song. Its this message says, “In the Lord I am ever thankful In the Lord I will rejoice Look to God Do not be afraid Lift up your voices the Lord is near Lift up your voices the Lord is near.”

Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

Luke 4:1-13 Two Spirits, Two Choices

I once used an electric bread machine to bake bread beneath the pulpit during a sermon on Jesus being the bread of life. I will never do that again. A preacher’s words cannot compete with the smell of fresh bread around 11:30 on a Sunday morning. It is rumored that a local restaurant sold out of hot rolls for lunch that day. We live and hopefully, we learn.

Now, in your imagination, imagine what the smell of fresh bread would be like after going forty days without eating? Would you be tempted to eat some fresh bread if you had the ability to get your hands on some? I would not be tempted; I would give in and eat. Jesus, who could have turned the stones into bread, (after all he turned water into wine) did not give in. Do you think Satan thought he would? Absolutely, yes. Remember, the Devil thought he could overthrow God.

What motivated Jesus to say no? Jesus’s motivation was the will of his Father. The will of God. Some might say, “Jesus was God.” Yes, Jesus was God but he was also human and suspectable to all we are suspectable to. The writer of the Book of Hebrews under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are– yet he did not sin.” (Heb. 4:15 NIV)

I have a question for you, do you think Satan or Satan’s servants seek to find your weakness so that you will give into temptation? The Bible seems to indicate this to be true.  The Apostle Paul writes to the Christians in Thessalonica, “I was afraid that in some way the tempter had tempted you and that our labors might have been in vain.” (1 Thess. 3:5 NIV)

Now, temptation is not always from supernatural forces. Our own rebellious nature can also lead us to go against the will of God, but we must not take demonic influence lightly. I made that mistake and have paid dearly for it. I fully agree with Paul’s words, “But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.” (Gal. 6:1 NIV)

What we learn from this encounter in the wilderness is, “Because he (that is Jesus) himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Heb. 2:18-3:1 NIV) Jesus’s actions are always in our best interest.

We have been given a promise, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to humankind. And God is faithful; God will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, God will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” (1 Cor. 10:13)

Notice how Satan approaches Jesus. He tries to appeal to Jesus’s ego, tempting Jesus just as he did the first human beings. He tries to make it sound like he trying to make it easier on Jesus. He tries to question Jesus’s faith,. He asks Jesus if it is really true the angels will lift you? Why go through all this misery. The power has been given to me to influence this entire world. I will bestow it on you if you just recognize my mercy and bow before me. Would this not be easier?

This is how the evil one works. Evil uses tools of deception, illusion, manipulation, to twist the truth just enough to make what is offered sound OK or at least easier. Do not be deceived. Satan never looks out for our good. We are merely items of derision and contempt for who evil wants to inflict pain, suffering, and death. There may seem to be a bit of pleasure, goodness, or desire but it is only to set us up for destruction.

Note, however, that Jesus has a counter. Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit. It is the same Spirit that the Lord has sent to all believers as an advocate, a comforter, the one who brings God’s gift of consolation to us.

This is how the enemy works. When the demonic think we are weak, the enemy will propose to us apparent pleasures, making them imagine sensual delights and pleasures in order to hold them more and make them grow in their vices and sins. Yet, because of God’s love, the Holy Spirit uses the opposite method, troubling our minds and hearts and working on our conscience through the process of reason.

When we are seeking to be in the will and service of our God our Lord, it is the way of the evil spirit to trouble, sadden and put obstacles, disquieting with false reasons in order to create doubt and discouragement. When this happens, the Holy Spirit seeks to give us courage and strength, consolations, tears of trust, inspirations, and quiet, easing our worries, and helping us stand and overcome all obstacles, so that we can sustain our service in the will of God.

Would it not be wonderful to be able to always listen to the Holy Spirit? Yet, when we engage in the human tendency to be willful rather than willing, our own nature can make us deaf to the Spirit’s work in our lives. If we become complacent in our spiritual practices, if we allow ourselves to be dominated by our own self-interests, or if we have made it a habit of not being alert and continuously giving in to temptation, then we make it easy on Satan.

God has given us a tool, a guide, a source of strength to help us. It is God’s own word. The Psalmist states, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (Ps. 119:11 NIV) This is what Jesus turns to counter the lies and manipulation of Satan.

Another tool we have is prayer. Jesus instructed his disciples and us to pray, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. (Matt. 6:13 NIV) God hears this prayer. God answers this prayer if our prayer is sincere. The Lord’s Prayer, the model prayer, has helped me more than anything else in my spiritual walk. When we take this prayer seriously and pray it faithfully, we do grow in our faith. Scripture and prayer are our basic tools against temptation. If we neglect them trouble is soon to come.

Note what happens at the end, “When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.” This battle is not over. Satan and the forces against humanity do not give up in this world. They did not give up against Jesus and they will not give up against us. We need to believe and understand this struggle is constant, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph. 6:12 NIV)

Evil is always looking for an opportune time to get at us. Evil will do whatever it takes to bring about our downfall if it can. It hates God so it hates what God loves, us.

So, we are warned, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. (1 Pet. 5:8-9 NIV)

This is a battle we can win. How many times have you experienced pain, sadness, suffering, or grief because you gave in to temptation? How many times have you wished, “if only.” We cannot push a reset button, but we can change our willfulness to willingness by accepting the ultimate gift from God, Jesus as our Lord. This is how we can win. I am so thankful for the promise of God, “for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. (1 Jn. 5:4-5 NIV) God will help us. Through Jesus Christ, we can, “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and God will come near to you. (Jas. 4:7-8 NIV) The choice is yours.

Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany

Exodus 34:29-35 The Gift of Glory

Whether you realize it or not, it is very likely, no, almost certain that God has touched your life and you may not be aware of it. If you are aware, has such an event changed you and led you to be more active in your caring for others?

There are moments in the life of every human being that American psychiatrist and theologian Gerald May calls unitive moments. Ignatius of Loyola called them consolations without cause. Someone else described them as peak experiences. I am sure there are many other terms that could be used to describe these powerful events that we humans have a hard time describing and likely are experiences we have of God breaking into our lives in a moment of supernatural grace. Perhaps such experiences are a means by which God draws us to the truth. I deeply believe God wants us to experience God’s existence and reality.

In Romans, Paul writes, “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse.” (Rom. 1:20 NRS)

I call such experiences mini-Moses moments. I say this because I am certain the ones I have had have been gifts of God’s presence to me when I needed assurance and guidance. Moses had the burning bush and the mountaintop experience with God. Mine have been moments of insight and change that have deepened my walk with the Lord.

Encounters with God can change us for the better. Such divine encounters should produce a change that is not just a selfish experience but an experience that should help equip us to help others. Moses did not have his encounter with God out of some selfish motive, but as one who was called upon to aid God’s people. Moses had no idea that his face glowed when he returned to the others, but it confirmed to the people that what Moses was going to tell them came from God and that they needed to pay attention. Moses spiritual experience was for the good of others.

There is another instance of Moses glowing on a mountain top. This time it is long after Moses had died. Jesus, along with three disciples, encounter Moses and Elijah in what is called the Mount of Transfiguration. Matthew, Mark, and Luke give testimony of this event. Luke tells us, “Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” (Lk. 9:28-31 NRS) This experience was not for the good of Jesus, though it did help him prepare for what was to come, but for the good of the disciples, for the good of us that we might have a glimpse of the glory of God.

In our passage, God speaks to Moses as to what God is going to do for the Hebrew people. God has given Moses instructions to share with the others on the best way to live their lives and practice their faith, not for the purpose of dictatorial control but out of deep compassionate care. In Luke, Moses talks with Jesus about what God is going to do for all of humanity through Jesus’s giving his life out of God’s love. Both events give us a glimpse of what it means to be in the presence of God’s glory. Both indicate God can break into human history in surprising and amazing ways.

I imagine most of us, if not all of us, will not have such dramatic mountaintop experiences. But we will encounter God. I doubt if the encounters we will have will make our faces glow, but they can make our hearts glow. What can we learn from these events? What possible meaning can they have for us as we go about our everyday lives?

First, I believe these events remind us never to take God for granted. In the story from Exodus, fear grips the people as they are surprised by what happens to Moses. In the New Testament mountaintop event with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, Matthew tells us, “When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.” (Matt. 17:6 NRS)

Fear is a natural human reaction when we are surprised by something dramatic over which we have no control. However, we need to remember that time after time in the Scripture when people have a divine encounter, God sends the message, “Do not be afraid.” God is not about fear but about love. Yet be sure of the truth is that it is a fool who does not respect the power of God and God’s sovereignty. The Psalmist says it well, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.” (Ps. 111:10 NRS) God does expect us to respond to his decrees and commandments. Even the purest of love expects accountability. Love cannot thrive when it is taken for granted. A relationship cannot grow when it is taken for granted. To do so is to make a grave mistake.

Second, this event reminds us that God communicates and authenticates the directions God gives. Moses’s glowing face gave evidence that Moses had been with God. The people had been enslaved in a foreign land. They had been surrounded by the false gods of their oppressors. They had been influenced by the morality and ethics of that culture. They need to be liberated from this negative mental and spiritual slavery as much as they needed to be liberated physically. God, through Moses, was giving them parameters. God was giving them guidance. God was giving them much-needed directions on how to live and love. In this passage, we find that it is the message from God more than the sign that is important. Moses covers his face with a veil because he did not want to distract from what God was saying.

These accounts recorded in the Bible, these accounts that reveal the glory and power of God, give us parameters, guidance, and directions as well. They allow us to learn. They give us a means of comparison.

In many ways, the church today is like the Hebrew people of Moses’s day. We too need to be liberated mentally and spiritually. We too need to be made aware that God wants to encounter us. This is why we all have these mini-Moses moments.

But why is it so subtle today? Why do our faces not glow when God touches us? Think about it for a minute. What would happen if our faces did light up? What would happen? Well, for one thing, fear. Not a fear of God, but a fear of us. The sensation of the glow would overpower the purpose of the encounter. It would make the focus more on us than on God. The experience would be desired more than the purpose for which it is given. Too many people pursue spiritual experience more for themselves than for the good of others. I believe this is why Jesus said to those who were seeking a sign from him as recorded in Matthew and Luke, “An evil and adulterous generation demands a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” (Matt. 16:4 CSB)

We have a sign. We have a means of understanding those unitive moments, those times of consolation without cause. We have the Scripture that can guide us to understanding and to the understanding that, “For God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor. 4:6 CSB)

Look inside yourself the next time God touches you and see if the light shines in your heart. If it does, God is calling you to be the instrument through which God brings freedom. Amen.

A New yet Ancient Path

I recently had an email discussion with a pastor I know. I was aware of this pastor’s connection with the denominational education structure we are associated with and wondered if there was a possibility of including a study program in spiritual direction in the curriculum of these institutions. The pastor’s response was, “It would be a new path.”

I have come to believe new paths are sorely needed. The heresy of Christian nationalism (the title itself is an oxymoron) has corrupted many churches. Racism is still a struggle within the church. Materialism is the dominant worldview being adopted by culture after culture. Fear and anger are the motivators behind much of our politics. The church, despite its attempts to be more “relevant,” is continuing to lose members and fail in its directive to be salt and light. Yes, new paths are needed.

Spiritual direction, not the new age version that is a mixture of pop psychology and esoteric desires, but spiritual direction grounded in orthodoxy and practices that have stood the test of time is not a new path but a neglected ancient path that can provide a deeper understanding of the will of God. Spiritual direction that is Christ-centered and Spirit-empowered has so much to offer our age. People may have lost confidence in the church and its clergy but our inborn need for God has not changed. That need for which we are created is not going to go away. Personalities cannot fill it. Styles of worship cannot satisfy it and “relevance” will not deepen the relationship God desires to have with us. Only true seeking, within the context of willingness rather than willfulness, will lead us to find that which our hearts are longing.

Many people memorize Romans 12: 2, “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.” (Rom. 12:2 CSB) Yet, I wonder, do they understand what that word discern means? How do we discern what is the will of God? The Apostle John counsels and warns us, “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits 1 to determine if they are from God.” (1 Jn. 4:1 CSB) How do you test the spirits? This is where the practice of spiritual direction can help.

We human beings have an amazing ability to self-deceive. We can be easily misled and manipulated by spirits many do not even believe in. Much of what we find in the New Testament is Jesus battling against such spirits. There is a spiritual battle going on around us. The enemy is not any particular human group or conspiracy. Our enemy is not other people. The Scripture, God’s word, tells us, “our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens.” (Eph. 6:12 CSB) We can be certain that our being destroyed by these forces is not God’s will but is happening due to human ignorance and arrogance. Spiritual direction is about humility. It is about helping one another journey through the valley of the shadow of death. It is about equipping the saints.

I can only hope that a new path will include an ancient path that can help us to live in the power of the Kingdom of God. A kingdom where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

Genesis 45:3-11, 15 Faith, Time, and Understanding

Betrayal, this very word may bring up mean memories. Mean memories are those that can still elicit negative emotional responses in us. Mean memories can hurt, shame, depress us. Mean memories are painful.

Betrayal is painful to experience and painful to remember. I apologize if my talking about this word has made you uncomfortable. Sometimes the difficult things in life, the painful things, can help us grow the most spiritually.

If I were to ask for a show of hands of how many of you have experienced betrayal or perceived betrayal in your life, I believe most every hand would be raised. In a world as selfish, materialistic, and competitive as ours, betrayal happens all the time.

When the betrayal comes from someone close to you, someone who you love, and who you feel should love you, it can really hurt. I cannot even imagine how Joseph felt the day his brothers took away the coat he was so proud of and threw him into a pit. I cannot even imagine the fear he likely felt as his brothers sold him into slavery. The Scripture tells us there were relational difficulties in the family, but the hatred and jealousy of the brothers seem so disproportionate to the vileness of their actions. But then again, no one can hurt you more than someone to whom you are close.

The story of Joseph is a story of one tragic event after another. His brothers sell him into slavery. He is taken from his land into Egypt where he is sold to another person. While a slave in this person’s home he is falsely accused of doing something he is completely innocent of and put into prison. While in prison, he helps another person who promises to help him but then forgets. Even though he found ways to be helpful and successful in slavery and in prison, I doubt that life was very pleasant.

What makes this story even more difficult is that Joseph is faithful to God. Joseph trusted God. And even though he is faithful and trusting, he still has these bad things happen to him. This does not seem right. It does not seem fair.

If we are honest, when bad things happen to good people, people who love God, the question of why often arises. Where was God? Why did God let this happen? Does such a question mean that we are not faithful? No, it means we are human. It means we are limited in our understanding. It means life does not always happen as we think God should make it happen. It means we are not God.

Why is there suffering? Why is there disease, sorrow, grief, and pain? Why do divorces happen? Why do families fight? Why do bad things happen to children? Why does God allow violence? These questions arise out of the fact that we are made from love, and it is hard to justify love in the midst of so much evil and hurt.

Such questions, such experiences can make people resentful and angry. Such questions and experiences can harden hate and deepen doubts. Such questions and experiences can ruin lives, but not Joseph. Why was Joseph not angry or bitter? Why was Joseph not vengeful and vindictive?

The only answer that was possible is the relationship Joseph had with God. Joseph trusted God even when times were bad. Joseph held on to his faith even when it was hard to understand why he had to face the difficulties which came his way through no fault of his own. Do you think Joseph ever asked why, why me God? If he did, it would not be a sign of losing his faith.

Remember the words of the most righteous, good, and innocent man, Jesus, who said while nailed to a Roman cross, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk. 15:34 NRS) These same words were uttered by a man called a man after God’s own heart, King David. Psalm 22 begins with, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” (Ps. 22:1 NRS)

True faith trusts despite situations. True faith holds fast regardless of circumstances. True faith expresses itself knowing God loves and God’s love will not be driven away by our lack of understanding of what God is doing.

Do you understand there will be times in your life that you will not fully understand what God is doing? Do you understand that every day of your life there are risks you cannot perceive? There are dangers you cannot predict. There is an enemy who is constantly trying to deceive you, manipulate you, use you to foster its diabolical desires? It is not if but when. If you have not learned to turn to God, to trust God, to have faith despite circumstances and situations you will be in trouble. If you do not know God loves you and that all things will work out for good because the Lord knows and is active you will have an even more difficult time. You will be in desolation. Being in desolation without support deepens the hurt and pain.

God used Joseph to prepare Egypt for a coming long-term famine. This saved countless lives. God was also going to allow Joseph to save his own family from starvation. Joseph likely did not know this while all the bad and unfair things were happening, but when his brothers come before him when he is second in command of all of Egypt it is not revenge or anger that wells up in him. It is understanding.

He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.

Joseph’s faith gives him a gift. His faith gives him understanding. His faith gives him love. His faith gives him the power of forgiveness. Joseph can give his family life in a time when death seemed to have the upper hand.

I know I have faced what I believed was terrible unfairness. I have experienced great betrayal. I failed miserably in my understanding until the love of God gave me another chance, another opportunity to trust and love. Yes, the mean memories still arise, and I experience still experience the pain of my failures however now I can view them through the eyes of God’s faithfulness and love and they no longer can drag me down. In fact, I can now see the good that God was doing.

The path of faith is never easy, but life itself is not easy. Bad things will happen. Pain will come. Faith, however, will lead to understanding.

Paul writes, “And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Rom. 5:3-5 NRS)

In this world with so many mean memories, this is how we can deal with difficult questions and challenging realities. In faith, we never walk alone.

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Jeremiah 17:5-10 Cursed or Blessed?

There is a book, Silent, by Shusaku Endo, in which there is a character, Kichijiro, who continually confesses to being a Christian but then continually betrays Christians either for reward or to save himself. He does this several times. Each time, however, he finds forgiveness in a priest who befriends him.

I am sure there are many of you who have felt the sting of betrayal. I am sure there are many of you who have had your trust dashed by those whom you put that trust in. I am sure it is possible that you have been taken advantage of by someone more than once.

There is a saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice shame on me.” If this is true then I have been shamed many times in life. Most of the time when I have had my trust betrayed it is because I trusted others more than I trusted God. I made a decision based on human wants and desires without seeking discernment from the Holy Spirit before I acted. I made the wrong choice.

Jeremiah tells us, “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the LORD.” To be cursed means that nothing good can come about. To be cursed is to be doomed to failure.

The reality is if we put our moral and spiritual lives in trust of our own abilities or in the abilities of others we will end up in trouble. Why, because as Jeremiah speaks for God, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” The human heart is deceitful. The heart, in our poetic understanding, is the place of love, commitment, trust, of life, and of hope.

So, how can the heart be deceitful (the Hebrew word carries the meaning of being like a steep, curving, treacherous road)? How is it deceitful? It is deceitful because we are susceptible to illusions and deceptions in our hearts due to our finite limitation and our desire to run our own lives, to be our own gods.

It also says the heart is sick (incurable). What does this mean? It means we human beings have a propensity of questioning God. It means when we put our trust in humanity (our own or others) we tend to make the same mistakes repeatedly.

Just think back on your own life. How many times have your desires, your wants, led you to make a bad decision, a painful choice? The enemy of humanity knows the weaknesses of our hearts very well and is more than willing to use them to tempt us and enslave us.

Augustine, the brilliant Christian philosopher/theologian said, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You (that is rest in God).” Augustine knew this from his own experience, and we should know this as well. The human heart is full of longings. We want to be loved. We want to succeed. We want to be happy. The problem is that it is easy to look in all the wrong places and settle for a lie rather than God’s love.

God has given us the ability to make our own choices, but there is a downside to this ability. The downside is that we can make the wrong choice.

How many choices do we make that work against our relationship with God? Do we know? Do we even care? Sometimes choices are not easy to make. Sometimes our.

Jeremiah speaks of choosing who we should trust in our life, who we should decide to follow. Jeremiah puts life’s most important choice into context. Hear these words and reflect upon them. Blessed is the person whose delight is in God’s guidance. The word blessed comes from a Hebrew word meaning fortunate. It expresses the idea of being favored by God.

God says he will intercede and guide a person to that which is best in life. But note the word blessed is followed by actions avoided before it gets to the delight it brings. These actions avoided are brought clearly into the picture as we look at the passage that offers the other choice.

And what causes this choice to ensure a negative choice? It is to depend on humanity to be our Savior. It is to believe that we can trust our natural nature to work to our benefit. What a corrupt heart sees as a benefit can in reality be a curse.

The enemy wants us to believe a lie. The enemy wants us to believe somehow, we can overcome death and suffering on our own. The enemy wants us to believe we can be self-dependent and believe in our own strength and we do not need to love God. These false beliefs can and will push us into a pit of regret and sorrow.

The Hebrew word for “understand” is a word that means to enter into a relationship, of being part of what that which you are aware. In other words, being completely vulnerable. We cannot do this on our own because of our moral and spiritual deficiencies. Again, I believe you know how easy it is to deceive ourselves. I hope you know how hard it is too honest with ourselves. (Speaking to men, because I am one, we know how easy it is for us to put off seeing a doctor when we need to do so. We can easily self-deceive to our own detriment) So, what do we do?

Verse 10 gives us the answer. God searches the heart. Please note this is not a matter of checking our lives, not a matter of checking our works, but our hearts. If God can check our hearts, we should be most grateful and accepting because God knows our hearts better than we do. God cares more about us than we do about ourselves.

To be blessed is to discover the happiness of being spiritually healthy. We can be like trees along a stream. We can have deep roots to protect us from the storms. We can have the light and the depth of God’s word nourish us. We can grow more aware of our perspectives and perceptions and have God change our hearts to see the good and find the satisfaction that the enemy would keep from us. This is part of God’s rewarding us. This opens up a path to a much better life regardless of our circumstances and situations.

There is a verse that has become popular. The verse also is found in the writings of Jeremiah. This verse says, For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. (Jer. 29:11 NRS) This is what God offers. What does “being cursed” offer except for a dark, contentious, failure of life. The choice is ours.