An Education Like None Other
7th Sunday after Epiphany – February 19, 2017
My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart, 2 for they will prolong your life many years and bring you peace and prosperity. 3 Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. 4 Then you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and man. 5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; 6 in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. (Proverbs 3:1-6)
It was the middle of the night. The boy who had just been thrust into the role of king had begun his reign. Everyone expected big things. But the boy must have wondered: Could he possibly live up to the incredible reign of his father – King David? Could this boy accomplish everything that was expected of him? He began his reign with a list of things to accomplish – 1) Maintain peace 2) Carry out the worship that David, his father, had so meticulously arranged 3) Build the temple of the Lord.
In the middle of the night, all of these expectations and requirements must have weighed down this poor boy, Solomon, this sad son of David. And as is often the case when the world weighs heavy, the Lord came. “The Lord appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream.”
That was probably for the best. Had the Lord appeared to Solomon in all of his glory, Solomon would have been destroyed! But here in the night, in a dream, the Lord could talk to this tired, overwhelmed king. But they didn’t just talk about the weather. The Lord came to Solomon to offer him something that, as far as we know, the Lord never offered to anyone else in the history of mankind. The Lord said to Solomon: “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”
What would you have asked for? If the Lord came to you in the middle of the night, tonight, and said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you” – what would you ask for? Now, I think we know the proper answers to give. “Pastor, I would ask God to strengthen my faith” or “Pastor, I would ask God to give faith to everyone who doesn’t have it” or “Pastor, I would ask God to go back in time and fix all the bad things that have happened.”
Those sound like good, Christian answers. But let’s be honest, there are other things you want more. There are things you want just for yourself. What if God gave you the things you spent the most time thinking about? What if God gave you the things you spent the most time doing? That would certainly change your answer to God’s question.
I spend quite a bit of time thinking about football and basketball, what if God only gave me football skills or basketball skills or wrestling ability? That might seem great at first, but that isn’t a longterm blessing.
Maybe you think a lot about getting enough money to pay the bills, or to buy something big – that new car, that new home, that vacation. What if that was what God gave you? A new car! A new home! Those are great blessings, but they don’t last.
We don’t have time to go through the entire list of what we spend out time on – listening to music, thinking about how much people like me (or don’t like me) or the ultimate drain of time and thought – Facebook! What if God just gave you one of those things? I hope that you would agree with me when I say – what a waste!
When you ask the Lord for something, it had better be something that matters – something that lasts. But we’re not always so good at that. We spend our time on things that aren’t important. We get angry and emotional about things that don’t really matter.
So what does matter? What should we ask God for? Let the boy, Solomon, show you the right answer: “Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.”
When Solomon could ask for anything he wanted, he asked for wisdom. Listen to what the Lord thought of that: “The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. So God said to him, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be.”
But that wasn’t all. Out of love the Lord gave Solomon even more: “Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for—both wealth and honor—so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings.”
The Lord gave Solomon everything he wanted. But even more than that, God gave Solomon everything he needed to be a good and faithful king. Yet even with that incredible wisdom, Solomon was tempted to spend his time and talents on the things of this world. Later in his life, he got caught up in worldly riches and worldly women and worldly power.
When it comes to the things of this world – be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it. But it is what we didn’t ask for that gave us anyway. Before we were ever born, before we were ever able to ask for what really mattered – a Savior – the Lord gave us one anyway. In his ministry, that Savior, Jesus, continued to give people the things they needed, not necessarily the things they wanted. He strengthened faith before he healed the sick. He preached the word far more than he handed out free bread. And he went to the cross, even though no one at the time understood why.
Jesus suffered and died for your sins before you were even alive to commit them. He won heaven for you even before you ever knew that you needed it. And he continues to give you the wisdom he gave Solomon. He continues to give you and me an education like none other.
It is that education that Solomon imparts to us this morning in our first lesson. “My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart, for they will prolong your life many years and bring you peace and prosperity.” Wise words from the wisest of kings.
But those words aren’t just for you. They are for your children, too. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” That means that the decisions you make on a daily basis are far more important that we realize. Will I have a family devotion tonight, or will we just watch tv? The answer is far more important that we realize! It can ultimately mean the difference between the strengthening of our faith or losing our faith.
Should I take 10 minutes to read a few verses of God’s Word or just spend that extra 10 minutes on Facebook? These are choices that matter! Should I bring my kids to their sporting events on a Sunday morning, or to church? Which is more important? Which will help you and your children to “not forget [God’s] teaching”?
Things like tv and sports and Facebook aren’t evil in and of themselves – but they are dangerous choices when they threaten to take over your spiritual life. Solomon found that out the hard way. The Lord doesn’t want that to happen to you, too. Keep God’s Word at the center of your family’s life – not the peripheral. Keep reading and studying that word of God. And watch, as the Holy Spirit continues to strengthen you faith and the faith of your children. As Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Amen.
The Courage to Make Love Known
6th Sunday after Epiphany – February 12, 2017
Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him. 16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:15-18)
“Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble!” Those were the words of three witches in Shakespeare’s famous “Scottish Play.” Supposedly, they were telling the future to a general named Macbeth. They prophesied that Macbeth would become a Scottish noble, and then a Scottish king. Understandably, Macbeth we delighted to hear the news. He had always wanted to be king.
But how could he make this future happen? How could he realize his ambition? At the strong, decisive encouragement of his wife, Macbeth does the unthinkable. In the dead of night he snuck into the king’s tent and killed him. Soon after, Macbeth was crowned king.
But as his ambition grew, so did his anxiety. Everywhere he looked he thought he saw assassins willing to kill him, as he had killed others. Macbeth’s sin and guilt began to weigh so heavily on him that he began to go insane. He desperately wanted to wash his hands of his murders. And in one of his most telling quotes, Macbeth looked at his hands and cried out, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?”
But Macbeth’s wife felt no guilt or remorse. “A little water clears us of this deed.” But it didn’t. No water to cleanse away Macbeth’s guilt. The countless murders on his hands would mark him forever. Macbeth’s ambition eventually was his undoing. His wife killed herself, and then an enemy killed Macbeth. It was, just as those witches predicted – “toil and trouble.”
Now this play is considered one of Shakespeare’s best – even though its main characters decent into anger, despair and murder. But the brilliance of Shakespeare is that his characters are so very real. They have ambition. They have flaws. They are selfish and arrogant and sinful. Say what you will about Macbeth, at least he was honest about his sins: “Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires.”
Macbeth might seem like the devil himself, but the sad fact is that he also looks a lot like us. No, I don’t think you have killed any kings in your life. But we do have Macbeth’s selfish ambition, and his pride, and his arrogance. We all want things in this life. And there are times when we are willing to get them through unsavory means.
When I see something I want, I am tempted to take it for myself. When I see a person in a higher position than myself, I try to bring them down below me through gossip. And when someone has wronged me, I burn with hatred toward that person. All of these sins, and we are guilty of all of them, match us up to someone like Macbeth. He may have been more outright with his sins, but we have walked his path of selfish ambition, arrogance, pride and anger too.
Jesus himself reminds us that these sins are not inconsequential. They matter. “You have heard that it was said to people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that everyone who is angry with his brother without a cause will be subject to judgment.” Our second lesson stated the same thing: Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.”
Now, I know what you’re thinking – I have my temper under control. I don’t want anything that anyone else has. I’m not overly arrogant, or overly ambitious for that matter. So what do I have to worry about?
The problem with sin is that we cannot remove it from ourselves. We are stuck with it because we are born with it. We are like a mixing bowl with all sorts of ingredients in us. And there in the middle of it is our sinful nature. We often think: “If I just try harder I can get rid of these sins.”
But sin in your body is like the wrong ingredient in a mixing bowl. You can stir all you want, for as long as you want, but you can’t stir sin out of the other ingredients. You can’t stir things apart at all. In fact, the harder you stir the more you mix everything together.
We can’t rid ourselves of these sinful ambitions, selfish desires, and sinful anger. And even if we could, we have a long list of sins that bear our name. Macbeth summarized that sad truth when he said, “What’s done cannot be undone.” At least, not by us.
There was a lot of hand wringing and hand washing when Jesus came into the world. He was the only character in this entire historical story who wasn’t like Macbeth. There was no arrogance, or sinful anger, or selfish ambition. In fact, Jesus epitomized the opposite. He remained perfectly humble. He lived for others. He came to serve.
Surrounded by Macbeths, like the Jewish leaders, Pontius Pilate and the Jewish mob, Jesus said nothing in his defense. He simply declared who he is: the Son of God. And in his ambition to rise above the guilt of crucifying an innocent man, Pontius Pilate did something that was very Macbeth-like. He washed his hands, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.”
Wash as he might, Pilate would never be innocent. He couldn’t wash the stain of his sins away no more than Macbeth could. We couldn’t either. But that is why Jesus came. That is why he went to the cross. That is why Jesus bled. And “the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”
Jesus’ sacrifice led John to write those beautiful words for us this morning: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” It also changes our selfish, inward focus into a faithful desire to serve one another. “Let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” And through the power of the Holy Spirit, that love can show itself, even to the point of death: “And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.”
It takes faith and courage to make a selfless love that like known. May the Lord continue to help us to live as humble, washed believers…declaring each day what we sang a moment ago…
“Sin, disturb my soul no longer: I am baptized into Christ!
I have comfort even stronger: Jesus’ cleansing sacrifice.
Should a guilty conscience seize me Since my baptism did release me
In a dear forgiving flood, Sprinkling me with Jesus blood.” Amen.
Serve Substantively and Sincerely
5th Sunday after Epiphany – February 5, 2017
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? 8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
There is no getting around it – there is a lot of sadness and grief in the Bible. We can point to a lot of individuals who experienced pain and suffering throughout their lives – but one man seems to summarize it better than any other. King David was a man who had been abandoned, pursued as a fugitive, and betrayed by his own son. In the midst of all of these painful experiences, David poured forth his feelings in the psalms. He also detailed his repentant actions. “I put on sackcloth and humbled myself with fasting…I went about mourning…I bowed my head in grief.”
Those actions sure seem genuine. To put on sackcloth meant wearing a type of burlap covering that could be painfully uncomfortable. To place ashes on one’s head was meant to show both disgrace for sin and repentance of that sin. To go about mourning and holding one’s head down meant the person was very sorry for what he had done.
David did all of those things. But he also did something else: he fasted. To fast meant that David refused to eat. Sometimes a fast meant only drinking water. Sometimes it meant only eating a little bread for months. Other times, it meant not eating anything at all.
You’ve fasted, although you probably don’t call it that. Last night you went to sleep and you didn’t eat anything during that time. Then, this morning, you “broke your fast” and ate. That’s why we call that meal “breakfast.” You broke your nightly fast.
The Old Testament Israelites were “professional fasters.” They could fast at the drop of a hat. They could stop eating for long periods of time. And they were good at it. When the Israelites were sorry for their sins in Samuel’s day, they fasted, and God saved them. When King Saul had died in battle, all of Israel fasted. When King David’s son died in infancy, David fasted.
Like sackcloth and ashes, like crying and holding your head down, fasting was meant to show God in action the repentance of your heart. But fasting is a strange thing. It was never actually commanded in the the laws God gave Moses. It seems to have come along later. And maybe there was a good reason why God never commanded his people to fast.
You see, fasting was such an overt show of repentance that people took notice. Over time, fasting was no longer just a show of repentance. It became the end in and of itself. Did you say something sinful? Quick fast for a day and everything will be fine. Did you hurt someone in anger? Have a quick two-day fast, throw on some sackcloth and ashes, and it will no longer be a problem. Fasting in Israel was quickly getting out of control.
By the time of the prophet Isaiah and our first lesson, God had had enough of Israel’s fasting. The people were complaining to God, saying, “Why have we fasted…and you have not seen it?Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?”
This morning God gives his answer. “On the day of your fasting, you do as you please.” God even gives examples. “[You] exploit all your workers…your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.” Believers were fasting at the beginning of the day and physically fighting each other by the end of it! Clearly Israel’s train of righteousness had gone off the tracks. So God summarizes what this fasting really meant: “You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.” Then he continues with the words from our text: “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes?”
And then God concludes with a memorable conclusion to Israel’s regrettable fasting: “Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?” Clearly it wasn’t, at least, not in God’s sight.
Now, we don’t do much fasting these days. And after seeing Israel’s struggles with fasting, perhaps it is good we don’t. But we have other outward shows of righteousness that have taken the place of fasting.
Maybe you come to church every Sunday. Maybe you are a regular in Bible Class. Maybe you sing the loudest in church. Maybe you help on every church committee with every special project. Those are great things! But then the devil creeps in. As long as you come to church, you’ll be fine the rest of the week. As long as you sing loudly in church, you can say whatever you want outside of church. As long as you come to Bible Class, you can do as you please every other day.
Insert your temptation into the words of God in Isaiah, and it puts you in your place. “Is that what you call worship? Is that what you call living for Jesus?”
There was nothing shallow about Jesus’ perfect life. It couldn’t have been easy for him to live that perfect life. On one side he was tempted by the devil and the crowds of people to give up. On the other side Jesus was tempted by the good-looking Pharisees to just do the outward show.
Yet Jesus’ love for you and me meant he had to live a genuinely perfect life and fully suffer on the cross for our sins. There was nothing shallow or showy about that. It was complete suffering, more painful than any sackcloth, more humiliating than any ashes and worse than any fast. Jesus wasn’t sorry he had to suffer for all the sins we have to be sorry for.
And that is why Jesus came – not to fast, but “to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke.” And that is what Jesus sends us out to do: “to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood.”
That is what you and I are called for. You see, when God first came to call Isaiah, God asked this question: “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” By the grace of God, Isaiah answered the call with those famous words: “Here am I. Send me!”
We hear that same call, and we answer with those same words: “Here am I. Send me!” But we aren’t the only ones. This morning God reminds you that he does the same thing. When we genuinely call to him in the midst of pain and sadness, and sin and guilt, he genuinely answers. “Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.” Amen.