MAUNDY THURSDAY: THE ROOSTER CROWS

“Don’t be so sure,” Jesus said. “This very night, before the rooster crows up the dawn, you will deny me three times.” Peter protested, “Even if I had to die with you, I would never deny you.” All the others said the same thing. [Matthew 26:34-35 (MSG)]

Ballenburg roosterThere’s a therapeutic riding center across the highway from one of the churches we attend. Along with horses, barn cat, and dog, they have a rooster. No matter what the time of day we’re there, that rooster crows. Every time I hear that bird’s loud “cock-a-doodle-do!” I remember Jesus’s words to Peter and ask myself, “Have I denied my Lord today?”

I can’t say I blame Peter for his betrayal. He was there when Judas, along with Temple guards and a contingent of Roman soldiers armed with swords and clubs, arrived in Gethsemane. Peter saw them man-handle and arrest Jesus. Peter was the one who impulsively drew his sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave. Although Jesus healed the man, Peter had to be afraid as he stood around the fire with the servants and guards in the high priest’s courtyard. Would he be the next one arrested? His name may have meant “rock,” but his behavior was anything but rock-like that night.

Would I have been braver and more faithful than Peter or would I, too, have denied Christ? I’m ashamed to say that I probably wouldn’t have behaved any better than did Peter. I often deny knowing Jesus, and I’m not even afraid of being arrested. I deny Him when I ignore His call to service, remain silent when I should speak, or speak when I should remain silent. I deny Him when I hold a grudge, withhold forgiveness, judge others, and act prideful, spiteful or self-righteous. I deny Christ when I do what I know is wrong, when I don’t do what should be done, when I accept what I know He wouldn’t, and when I take credit for His gifts to me. Unfortunately, there are many ways we can deny knowing Jesus.

Lord, forgive us for the times we’ve denied being your servant. Fill us with your Holy Spirit so that our denials become affirmations and our lives give testimony to your saving grace.

All this time, Peter was sitting out in the courtyard. One servant girl came up to him and said, “You were with Jesus the Galilean.” In front of everybody there, he denied it. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” As he moved over toward the gate, someone else said to the people there, “This man was with Jesus the Nazarene.” Again he denied it, salting his denial with an oath: “I swear, I never laid eyes on the man.” Shortly after that, some bystanders approached Peter. “You’ve got to be one of them. Your accent gives you away.” Then he got really nervous and swore. “I don’t know the man!” Just then a rooster crowed. Peter remembered what Jesus had said: “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” He went out and cried and cried and cried. [Matthew 26:69-75 (MSG)]

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AND TO GOD WHAT IS HIS!

“Should people cheat God? Yet you have cheated me! But you ask, ‘What do you mean? When did we ever cheat you?’ You have cheated me of the tithes and offerings due to me. You are under a curse, for your whole nation has been cheating me. Bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there will be enough food in my Temple. If you do,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, “I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won’t have enough room to take it in! Try it! Put me to the test!” [Malachi 3:8-10 (NLT)]

blue flag irisWhen I was a little girl, I once went to mass with my Roman Catholic cousins. Before leaving for church, my mother pressed two shiny quarters into my hand. “For the offering,” she reminded me. Part way through the service, long-handled offering baskets were extended down each row and people dropped their offering envelopes and money into them. “Who will know?” I thought as I reached into my pocket and pulled out just one quarter for the offering. Almost immediately, another basket came down our row. “God saw me!” I thought in a panic. “God knows I was holding out on Him and now the priest has sent the basket back.” I quickly reached into my pocket for the second quarter. As I dropped it into the basket, I heaved a great sigh of relief; I was safe from Hell for at least one more day. My only consolation was that I clearly wasn’t the only sinner; other people had dropped money into that second basket. Looking back, I think the second basket probably was for a special offering of some kind. To my child’s mind, however, that second basket was for those of us who hadn’t given God what belonged to Him.

Yesterday, I wrote about Jesus’s response to the Pharisees that we should “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” [Matthew 22:21] Sometimes we forget that there was more to His response. Jesus added that we should “give to God what belongs to God.” Jesus was speaking of more than our tithes and offerings or little girls who hide quarters in their pockets.

Since Caesar had minted those silver coins with his name and picture on them, Jesus said they were Caesar’s. Let us never forget that God created us in His image and His mark is on us. By Jesus’s reasoning, that would seem to mean that we are God’s! His words were a not so subtle reminder that God wants our lives used for Him and for His glory. It’s not just our finances, but also our time, talent, hearts, worship and obedience that belong to God. Do we truly give God all that is His? Does He have all of us or are we keeping something hidden in a pocket?

Giving is more than a responsibility—it is a privilege; more than an act of obedience—it is evidence of our faith. [William Arthur Ward]

The heavens are yours, and the earth is yours; everything in the world is yours—you created it all. [Psalm 89:11 (NLT)]

You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.” [2 Corinthians 9:7 (NLT)]

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RENDER UNTO CAESAR

Then Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and give to God the things that are God’s.” [Matthew 22:21b (NCV)]

green heronSome things never change and, aside from death, it’s said that taxes are the only other sure thing in our lives. Along with a poll (or head) tax, the Romans had a variety of other taxes including customs taxes, property taxes, import and export taxes, crop taxes, toll bridges, sales tax, and special taxes when there was a war or building project to finance. Sounds a bit like nowadays! Yesterday was April 15, the day the IRS demanded what is theirs. When you put “the” and “IRS” together you get the word “theirs” and, once we’ve filed our taxes, it sure feels like the government considers most of what’s ours to be theirs!

When the Pharisees joined with the Herodians and asked Jesus if it was right to pay taxes to Caesar, they weren’t asking for accounting advice. Both groups wanted to trap Jesus into saying something that would get Him into trouble either with Rome or the people of Judea. Since paying taxes was a painful and costly reminder of their subjection to Rome, saying yes would anger his own people. If he said no, he’d infuriate the Herodians (Jews who supported Rome), be reported as an insurrectionist, and could be executed for treason. There was no good answer.

It’s foolish to try to outsmart God and Jesus gave the perfect answer. He asked whose portrait was on the coin. Caesar’s picture was on the denarius, the coin of the day, along with these words: “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, Son of the Divine Augustus.” With Caesar’s picture and title on it, the coin that deified the emperor clearly belonged to him. Jesus told the people to give to Caesar what belonged to Caesar and to God the things that were His.

Jesus told us we should pay the government what rightfully belongs to it; like it or not, our obligations to the government and the services it provides must be met. Following good and honest accounting advice is wise and no one wants to pay more than his due. There is, however, a fine line between tax avoidance and tax evasion. While there are some people who would never describe themselves as thieves, they think nothing of cheating on their taxes. They don’t call it theft but theft it is. Unfortunately, some of us dishonor God when preparing our taxes by fudging, misreporting, manipulating, or conveniently forgetting income. The term “creative accounting” doesn’t change what it is: stealing.

Some citizens justify tax cheating by saying they don’t approve of the way the government spends tax money. That’s a convenient excuse. Something tells me, no matter which party is in power and how the government spends, as long as they were expected to pay taxes, they’d never approve of the government’s expenditures. So, as much as we disliked doing it, yesterday we rendered unto to Caesar the things that are his. While we didn’t enjoying doing it, let us remember that laws and taxes are the price we pay for living in a civilized society.

Income tax returns are the most imaginative fiction being written today. [Herman Wouk]

So you must yield to the government, not only because you might be punished, but because you know it is right. This is also why you pay taxes. Rulers are working for God and give their time to their work. Pay everyone, then, what you owe. If you owe any kind of tax, pay it. Show respect and honor to them all. [Romans 13:5-7 (NCV)]

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THE ROAD TO HELL

PythonI don’t want Satan to outwit us. After all, we are not ignorant about Satan’s scheming. [2 Corinthians 2:11 (GW)]

The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis, is a series of letters written by a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, Wormwood, a demon-in-training. Screwtape, acting as Wormwood’s mentor, advises the novice tempter on ways to acquire the soul of a nameless young man known as “the patient.” Wormwood, like many young people, is both enthusiastic and impatient. He hopes to win the man’s soul quickly by having him sin on a grand scale with an act of deplorable wickedness. Screwtape, however, points out that the patient succumbing to the many little temptations of life are what will eventually corrupt him. The experienced demon points out that evil on a petty scale will seep into the man’s relationships, prayer life, and view of the church and that, says Screwtape, is the way to capture a soul.

Lewis’ book reminds us to keep alert regarding Satan’s plots. It’s easy to be confident about not becoming terrorists, murderers, blackmailers, bank robbers or kidnappers because we’d see those satanic schemes a mile away. It’s the little things like pique, exhaustion, fear, disillusionment, annoyance, disappointment, over-confidence, or boredom that can give Satan a foothold in our lives and blind us to his presence. Once he’s gotten in the door, he provides us with temptations to gossip, bicker, ridicule, lie, cheat or covet and nudges us with discontent, restlessness, and a dash of envy so we want bigger, better and more than our neighbor. He encourages unforgiveness, self-importance, jealousy, and intolerance and then tells us we’re not being boastful, selfish, petty, hypocritical, greedy, self-righteous or vain. He tells us what we want to hear—that the end justifies the means, the crowd can’t be wrong, or that no one will know! He subtly encourages us to put other activities before prayer or Bible study and to put other relationships before our relationship with God.

Make no mistake about it—Satan and his forces are out and about and we must never forget it. He knows our weaknesses, doesn’t play fair, and won’t announce his presence or tell us his plans. Whether the enemy crushes us with one blow from a wrecking ball, a few swings of a sledge hammer or patiently chips away at us with a chisel makes no difference to him; he just wants to defeat us.

You will say these are very small sins … The only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy [God]. It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. [Screwtape to Wormwood, from “The Screwtape Letters” by C.S. Lewis]

So place yourselves under God’s authority. Resist the devil, and he will run away from you. Come close to God, and he will come close to you. Clean up your lives, you sinners, and clear your minds, you doubters. [James 4:7-8 (GW)]

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SEEING THE ERROR

For false messiahs and false prophets will rise up and perform signs and wonders so as to deceive, if possible, even God’s chosen ones. Watch out! I have warned you about this ahead of time! [Mark 13:22-23 (NLT)]

white ibisYesterday, I wrote about Cyrus Teed, the Koreshan Unity, their strange theology, and Cellular Cosmogony: the belief that the earth is a hollow shell and the entire universe exists inside that shell. Whether he was a charlatan or insane fanatic, Cyrus Teed claimed to be immortal. When he died in 1908, his followers kept his body in a bathtub for five days and waited for his resurrection. Rather than rising, Teed began to stink and authorities forced his corpse to be buried. Nevertheless, many of his followers faithfully waited another thirteen years for his return.

When it became obvious his second coming would never come, membership in the Koreshan Unity began to decline (the belief in celibacy not helping their numbers). By 1961, when it was clear the community would not survive, its last four members deeded the remaining 305 acres of Unity land to the state.

Hedwig Michel was the last of the Koreshans. In 1982, reporters asked if she still believed in Cellular Cosmogony and she replied, “Well, I did believe it until I saw the boys walking on the moon.” That moon walk took place in 1969, 61 years after Teed’s failed resurrection and several years after Sputnik and Explorer 1 launched, Alan Shepherd flew into space, and both Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn orbited the earth in spacecraft. Yet, Hedwig Michel held fast to her Koreshan beliefs until she saw Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon.

For the most part, the Koreshans were an educated lot and, when walking through their settlement, I wondered why they clung to their strange theology and pseudo-science for so long. Then again, while it’s easy to recognize the folly of someone else’s ideas, it’s not so easy with our own. Jesus warned us about false prophets but not all of them are as obvious as Cyrus Teed. At some time or another, we all may have believed in the wrong person or ideology or held on to erroneous viewpoints or prejudices. Perhaps, we still do.

Why do people continue with false beliefs or follow false prophets? Perhaps, it is easier to believe a lie than admit our thinking could be wrong. The Koreshans gave up their homes and personal possessions to devote their lives to Koreshanity. Like them, could we stubbornly cling to certain beliefs or biases because admitting our error might mean we’ve wasted opportunities, time, energy or even money? For many years, the Koreshan Unity prospered, having 7,500 acres of land and more than a dozen businesses. Skepticism and doubt probably don’t thrive in well-being and, like Teed’s followers, we’re unlikely to question what appears to be successful, even when we suspect it could be wrong. With such a strong sense of community, some Koreshans may have been afraid to abandon their sect and step out on their own while others may have feared ridicule from outsiders if they admitted their error.

Like those die-hard Koreshans, do we have blind spots? Are we unwilling to examine some of our beliefs in the light of God’s truth? While it’s never easy to admit we’re in error, it’s easy to know God’s truth. If we’re not loving God, loving all of His people, and walking in the way of Jesus, we’re in error. When our attitude, values, principles or opinions don’t line up with God’s word, they’re wrong. For Hedwig Michel, it took seeing men walk on the moon’s surface before she accepted the falseness of Koreshanity. What will it take for us to see any falseness in our lives?

For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths. [2 Timothy 4:3-4 (NLT)]

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THE SA MEETING

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. [1 Timothy 1:15-16 (RSV)]

Canada geeseReading Paul’s words acknowledging his sinfulness makes me picture a meeting of the Pearly Gates chapter of a 12-step support program called Sinners Anonymous (SA for short). The meeting would be well attended simply because sinfulness is an undisputed characteristic of all mankind and we are all guilty before God.

Paul would get the meeting started by introducing himself and claiming to be the worst sinner of them all: “I’m the sinner once known as Saul. I persecuted Christians and stood by while people stoned Stephen.” The hymn writer might disagree. “I’m the wretched sinner John Newton. Blind and lost, an ‘infidel and libertine,’ I was a slave trader.” Then the disciple would rise and introduce himself: “Hello, my name is Thomas and I’m a sinner. I abandoned the Lord when he was arrested and then doubted his resurrection.” A nameless man from the back of the room might speak: “I was there at His crucifixion but I, too, am a sinner. My life was spent in crime.” Perhaps the gospel writer would speak next: “I’m the sinner Matthew; as a greedy tax-collector, I was both traitor and thief.” The priest would introduce himself: “I’m Augustine: a sinner who once abandoned the faith for paganism, used and abandoned women, and lived a life of debauchery.”  A matronly woman would announce, “I’m Martha and a sinner who often became so busy with life’s mundane details that I failed to put our Lord first.” Peter would jump up and say, “I’m worse! I’m such a sinner that I denied our Lord, not once, but three times!”

If there were a heavenly SA group, however, it wouldn’t be called Sinners Anonymous; it would be Saints Anonymous! The same people would be there and the same sins would have been committed but the introductions would be quite different from the ones I presented. While all those at that SA gathering were sinners, their sins were forgiven and their faith in Jesus would have made them saints. Instead of identifying themselves as sinners and listing their sordid transgressions, the attendees would introduce themselves as the redeemed children of God whose sins had been forgiven and forgotten. As members of the body of Christ, they’d introduce themselves as saints, not sinners!

Like Paul, we’re all sinners but, like Paul, through our faith in Jesus Christ, we’ve been reborn. We may be sinners but we’re also saints. Thank you, God!

There is no saint without a past, no sinner without a future. [Augustine of Hippo]

May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. [Colossians 1:11-14 (RSV)]

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