GOOD INTENTIONS

This is why I remind you to fan into flames the spiritual gift God gave you when I laid my hands on you. For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline. [2 Timothy 1:6-7 (NLT)]

rocky mountain national parkBritish mystery author Ruth Rendell often received letters from would-be authors who wanted to know how to get started. Her response was simple: “I tell them to stop writing to me and get on with it.” Author Jodi Picoult said when she can’t write a good page, she simply revises a bad one while pointing out, “You can’t edit a blank page.” If we want a page filled with words, we’ve got to sit down and write them.

Even when working for God, we need more than good intentions or even prayer. Ten years ago, I was part of a Christian women’s ministry that hosted a web site for twelve writers all of whom believed they’d been called by God to expand His kingdom through their writing. We were a diverse multi-generational group and the website offered links to our individual blogs. We regularly shared our prayer concerns with one another and rarely a week went by without a prayer request for divine inspiration for someone’s writing. Sadly, the ministry disbanded within two years because only a few of the writers ever wrote anything. Apparently, good intentions and even prayer were no substitute for actually sitting down and doing the work!

By simply leaving things up to God and giving Him the entire responsibility for our work, we yield to the temptation not to take any initiative. While God is the one who enables us and deserves the glory, we are His hands and feet here on earth and the ones who are called to do His work! Remember, the Israelites had to take the initiative by stepping into the Jordan River before God stopped its flow and they were the ones who marched around Jericho for seven days before God made its walls come tumbling down! I believe in the power of prayer but prayer alone didn’t get the Israelites across the river or defeat Jericho; the people had to do the walking and the wielding of the swords. In the same way, prayer alone doesn’t provide us with the words for a devotion, sobriety, a job, health, good grades, a thriving business, a successful marriage, a college degree, or a speaking ministry. God gives us the power, guidance, inspiration, and even victory, but we still have to do the work!

When we’re called by God, He will provide us with the talent, tools, situation, time, assistance, and spiritual gifts necessary for that task. The one thing He won’t provide is the finished product. He expects us to do the labor and, as powerful as prayer is, it is no substitute for work. When Jesus spoke of moving mountains and promised us, “You can pray for anything, and if you have faith, you will receive it,” He wasn’t offering us a magic wand to capriciously move mountains into the sea. If God really wants that mountain moved, however, He might just provide the shovel and tell us to start digging!

In Eden, God gave man the gift of work and a sense of purpose. After the fall, however, thistles and thorns appeared and man’s work became difficult. Work was still good; it just wasn’t easy. When faced with a garden full of weeds, we can pray those weeds will disappear and wait for divine intervention or, while praying, we can put on our work gloves and start pulling them out!

I consider it an error to trust and hope in any means or efforts in themselves alone; nor do I consider it a safe path to trust the whole matter to God our Lord without desiring to help myself by what he has given me; so that it seems to me in our Lord that I ought to make use of both parts, desiring in all things his greater praise and glory, and nothing else. [St. Ignatius]

Pay careful attention to your own work, for then you will get the satisfaction of a job well done, and you won’t need to compare yourself to anyone else. For we are each responsible for our own conduct. [Galatians 6:4-5 (NLT)]

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ORDINARY TIME

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. [Romans 12:1 (NLT)]

church - old world wisconsinI grew up in a church with hymn boards in the front of the sanctuary that displayed the liturgical church date and the day’s hymns. I loved seeing “First Sunday in Advent” because that meant there were only three more Sundays until Christmas. While “Lent” meant six weeks of no candy, “Palm Sunday,” with its promise of Easter (and Easter baskets) in just a week was always welcome. For most of the year, however, that sign was uninspiring. The weeks after Easter were simply noted as the first through the seventh Sundays of Easter until the arrival of Pentecost 50 days after Easter.

Yesterday was Pentecost Sunday which commemorates the receipt of the Holy Spirit by the early church [Acts 2]. A mighty wind filled the house where the believers were meeting, what looked like tongues of fire settled on each person, and everyone was filled with the Holy Spirit. Because of the uproar, people gathered, Peter preached, and 3,000 new believers were added to the church that day. Pentecost was the day the Christian church was born! On the hymn board in our church, Pentecost also was the last notable event for the next six months!

From then on, that board marked time by how many Sundays it was after Pentecost until the church year started over again with the first Sunday in Advent. For a child, those months between Easter and Advent pretty much lived up to their church name: Ordinary. It felt like we were just marking time until something important, like Christmas or Easter, happened. What I didn’t understand as a child is that Ordinary Time in the church year doesn’t mean dull or commonplace. “Ordinary” comes from the Latin word ordinalis and refers to numbers in a series. It’s called “Ordinary Time” because ordinal numbers are used to count the Sundays as they relate to major church celebrations like Easter and Pentecost.

Granted, days like Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost commemorate significant events in the life of Christ and the church but that doesn’t mean any other worship service is less special or significant. Rather than celebrating specific events such as His birth, death, resurrection, ascension, and the descent of the Holy Spirit, the season of Ordinary Time celebrates the presence of Christ in our lives throughout the year. It is during this in-between time that we learn, grow, mature, witness, and serve as we live out our faith in Christ. If we think about it, the really extraordinary events in our lives usually happen in ordinary times!

Nothing in Scripture demands observing the liturgical year—it just is a tradition followed by several denominations. Nevertheless, whether or not we observe Ordinary Time, our worship should never be ordinary, sporadic, or missing altogether. Too many of those who claim to be Christians are little more than “birth and resurrectionists.” The message of the resurrection doesn’t end once the eggs are found nor does the significance of the risen Christ stop when the last of the jelly beans and chocolate bunnies are eaten. The promise of our salvation doesn’t disappear when Easter dinner is finished only to reappear at Christmas and disappear again when the tree is taken down. Christ’s birth and resurrection bring us love, grace, peace, forgiveness, redemption, and salvation, not just on Easter and Christmas, but in every ordinary day of our lives. Following Jesus isn’t limited to two days a year and the gospel message isn’t limited to a few events in Christ’s life. None of the days He walked on earth were ordinary and every day with Him is extraordinary!

The discovery of God lies in the daily and the ordinary, not in the spectacular and the heroic. If we cannot find God in the routines of home and shop, then we will not find Him at all. [Richard J. Foster]

But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way. [John 4:23 (NLT)]

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SIMON OF CYRENE

Then he said to the crowd, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily, and follow me.” … As they led Jesus away, a man named Simon, who was from Cyrene, happened to be coming in from the countryside. The soldiers seized him and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus. [Luke 9:23, 23:26 (NLT)]

Simon Carries the Cross
Although Jesus spoke of carrying your own cross, it was Simon of Cyrene who carried His. Cyrene was in Cyrenaica, a land just east of Egypt in what now is Libya. We don’t know if Simon had resettled in Judea or if he was there just for the Passover. We only know that Simon had just come into the city from the fields (or countryside) when the soldiers pressed him into service. Carrying a 75-to-125-pound cross-beam (patibulum) of a Roman cross certainly hadn’t been in Simon’s plans that day but one didn’t refuse a Roman soldier.

If we’re supposed to carry our own cross, why didn’t Jesus carry His? Perhaps because that cross was as much Simon’s as it was Peter’s and John’s and yours and mine. That cross weighed more than 125 pounds because it carried the weight of mankind’s sins. It was at Golgotha that Simon surrendered the weight of his (and everyone else’s) sins to Jesus. Not only did Simon carry his own cross but Luke tells us specifically that Simon followed Jesus as he did it!

When they impressed Simon into service, it seems as if the Roman soldiers finally showed some compassion on the man they’d so mercilessly beaten earlier that day. Kindness, however, may not have been their motivation. Not everyone condemned to the cross survived the soldiers’ scourging but they’d been told to crucify Jesus. If He died before getting to Golgotha, they’d have failed at their task. The soldiers may have enlisted Simon simply to keep Jesus alive long enough so they could inflict more torture on Him!

Whatever the soldier’s motive was for conscripting Simon, theologian John Piper posits that God put Simon there for Jesus. Let us remember that the man who healed the sick, turned water into wine, fed a multitude with a boy’s lunch, gave life back to Jairus’ daughter, and called Lazarus out of the tomb had the power to stop his suffering at any time that day. If we thought Jesus’ anguish was great the previous night while praying to do God’s will, His agony that day was far worse. If we thought Jesus’ temptation to yield to Satan was great in the wilderness, it was even greater as He stumbled toward Golgotha. Angels, however, ministered to our Lord in the wilderness and an angel strengthened Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. In the same way, did God have Simon carry the cross as a way of helping and sustaining His Son so that Jesus’ obedience would not falter?

God works in amazing ways and maybe Simon of Cyrene was placed on that roadside at just that time for just such a purpose! Could God have placed us somewhere today so that we can serve as one of His ministering angels?

The Spirit then compelled Jesus to go into the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan for forty days. He was out among the wild animals, and angels took care of him. [Mark 1:12-13 (NLT)]

“Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” Then an angel from heaven appeared and strengthened him. [Luke 22:42-43 (NLT)]

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LOVING OUR NEIGHBOR

Then they took the man who had been blind to the Pharisees, because it was on the Sabbath that Jesus had made the mud and healed him. The Pharisees asked the man all about it. So he told them, “He put the mud over my eyes, and when I washed it away, I could see!” [John 9:13-15 (NLT)]

great blue heronIt’s easy to assume the Pharisees were irate just because Jesus had worked on the Sabbath but, for these sticklers for the law, it was as much about how He healed the man! Spitting on the ground on the Sabbath was forbidden because plowing was one of the 39 types of work prohibited on the Sabbath! Using their convoluted logic, that meant that digging any hole was prohibited and, when spittle landed on soil, it might cause a small dent in the ground (which would be digging a hole) and dislocate a small amount of dirt (which would be plowing)! Compounding Jesus’ violation of the law by both healing and plowing, He made mud. Kneading, defined as joining small particles into a mass using any liquid, was another of the 39 kinds work prohibited on the Sabbath. Jesus broke this law the moment his spittle wet the dust; the mixing of his spittle and the dirt together to make mud was an additional offense! To them, the restoration of sight meant nothing when compared to His many transgressions of the law!

When Jesus healed a man who’d been lame for thirty-eight years, it also was on the Sabbath. [John 5] Once healed, Jesus specifically told the man to pick up his mat and walk. Carrying anything more than six feet in a public place, however, was prohibited on the Sabbath. When the Jewish leaders accosted the man for carrying a burden, he explained that Jesus told him to do so after healing him! Again, the Pharisees were more concerned about work being done on the Sabbath than the miraculous healing that occurred!

In all, seven Sabbath healings are mentioned in the gospels. Although Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law in private, the rest of His Sabbath healings were done right in front of His critics. When He healed the man with the withered hand, the crippled woman, and the man possessed by evil spirits, Jesus was in the synagogue and He was having dinner at the home of a leading Pharisee (possibly a member of the Sanhedrin) when he healed a man suffering from dropsy (edema).

Like His other Sabbath healings, this didn’t appear to be a life-or-death situation and, for all we know, the man was there as a way of entrapping Jesus into another violation of the law. Nevertheless, after asking the Pharisees if it was right to heal on the Sabbath and not receiving an answer, Jesus healed the man and sent him on his way. He then exposed His critics’ hypocrisy by asking which of them wouldn’t rescue his son or cow if they were to fall in a pit? His question exposed their convoluted thinking since rescuing an animal from a pit on the Sabbath was acceptable even to the Pharisees! In fact, a primary principle in Jewish law is preventing tza’ar ba’alei chayim, the suffering of living creatures, and the Talmud specifically permitted rescuing an animal in pain or at risk of death and even permitted moving prohibited objects to relieve their pain. Yet, the Pharisees seemed unwilling to have compassion on their fellow man!

Once again, when it comes to the law, Jesus made it abundantly clear that every other law is subordinate to the greatest one of loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves. The next time we see someone in need, along with asking, “What would Jesus do?” we might also ask, “What would I want done for me in a similar situation?”

Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets. [Matthew 7:12 (NLT)]

Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. [Matthew 5:17 (NLT)]

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KEEP HOLY THE SABBATH DAY

Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. … For in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy. [Exodus 20:8-10a,11 (NLT)]

orchidIt’s hard to think of our omnipotent, invincible, and unstoppable God getting tired after a mere six days of work but Scripture tells us He “rested” on the seventh day. The Hebrew word translated as rested, however, is shabath, meaning to stop, cease, or desist. Rather than God resting because He was exhausted; God simply stopped! I suspect it’s because He wanted to enjoy His finished creation. Picture Him sitting in the Almighty’s version of a La-Z-Boy chair, looking out at the magnificence of the universe—breathing in its aromas, tasting its sweetness, hearing its song, and delighting in its beauty.

In Exodus, when God gave the Israelites the Sabbath Day, He was telling His people to do the same thing—to stop and appreciate His blessings. Imagine how strange the fourth commandment seemed to a people who’d been enslaved by the Egyptians and cruelly oppressed by Pharaoh. They hadn’t enjoyed a day free of work in their entire lives and now they were commanded by God to do just that.

While the Bible doesn’t specifically list the kinds of prohibited labor, it alludes to several areas of work and, in the writings of the Talmud (the oral law), we find 39 kinds of work specifically forbidden on the Sabbath. Through the years, however, the rabbis further defined those 39 prohibitions with hundreds of subcategories. For example, no sewing includes no gluing, welding, or stapling; the ban on lighting a fire means that no fuel can be added to an existing fire; and no building includes not pitching a tent. The Sabbath, however, was meant to be a gift rather than a burden. Along with its prohibitions, the Talmud also encourages Sabbath activities such as temple attendance, singing Sabbath songs, reading the Torah, sleeping, hospitality, spending time with family and friends, and even marital relations!

I have a Jewish friend, the head of a large law firm, who works long hours six days a week. Friday afternoons, however, he turn off both phone and computer, stops billing over $600 an hour, and strictly observes the Sabbath. The Talmud’s many restrictions mean he and his family must plan ahead and prepare for their holy day. He has to leave work early enough Friday to be home well before sunset, the Sabbath food is cooked on Friday, the table is pre-set, lights are turned on or set on timers, the refrigerator light bulb is unscrewed, and even toilet paper and paper towels are pre-torn (since tearing is prohibited).

As they follow their Sabbath rules, my friend and his family are reminded of the holiness of the day. For them, the Sabbath isn’t a day of unreasonable restrictions because it’s about more than ceasing from work. It is a special day of rest, relaxation, peace, family, food, fellowship, worship, Scripture, and even a few board games. On a day wholly dedicated to God and peace, anything that could possibly interfere with the restful spirit of the day is avoided. For 24-hours there’s no television, radio, computers, phones, video games, or social media. Moreover, as a day designed to soothe the frayed nerves and exhaustion that come from a week’s work, there’s no talk of things like business, money, COVID, politics, the war in Ukraine, children’s grades, family conflicts, or the high price of gas!

My Jewish friend’s Sabbath is beginning to sound quite pleasant. Rather than a day of prohibitions, he sees it as a day of respite from the world and a way to reconnect with the Lord. Perhaps our Sabbath should be more like his— a day filled with worship, gratitude, retreat, prayer, and rest—a day to mindfully spend time with family, friends, God, and His word.

O what a blessing is Sunday, interposed between the waves of worldly business like the divine path of the Israelites through the sea! There is nothing in which I would advise you to be more strictly conscientious than in keeping the Sabbath day holy. I can truly declare that to me the Sabbath has been invaluable. [William Wilberforce]

Keep the Sabbath day holy. Don’t pursue your own interests on that day, but enjoy the Sabbath and speak of it with delight as the Lord’s holy day. [Isaiah 58:13a (NLT)]

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FROM TAX MAN TO SAINT – Part 1

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at his tax collector’s booth. “Follow me and be my disciple,” Jesus said to him. So Matthew got up and followed him. [Matthew 9:9 (NLT)]

St. MatthewAlthough Mark and Luke call him Levi, there is no doubt that Levi and Matthew are the same man. He may have had two names, as did John Mark or was known by two different names as were Peter (Simon), Thomas (Didymus), Jude (Thaddeus), and Nathanael (Bartholomew). It simply may be that, like the Apostle Paul (Saul), he was known both by his Greek name of Matthew as well as his Hebrew one of Levi.

When considering how Jesus can change a life, I think of Matthew as the poster boy for rebirth and change! It’s in Capernaum that we first meet the man who would become the writer of the gospel bearing his name. Sitting in his tax booth, he is known as Levi the tax collector. In 1st century Judah, tax collectors (called publicans) were the lowest of the low and fiercely hated by their countrymen. Acting as revenue agents for Rome, Jewish tax collectors were considered collaborators. Since they could demand more than what was required, they also were thought of as thieves! Some even accepted bribes from rich businessmen to overtax their competitors and drive them out of business. Their decisions were backed up by Roman soldiers and the people were at their mercy.

Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (c. 15 BC-50 AD) vividly described why Jews hated their countrymen who became publicans. Philo explained that the Romans “deliberately choose as tax collectors men who are absolutely ruthless and savage, and give them the means of satisfying their greed. These people…leave undone no cruelty of any kind and recognize no equity or gentleness…as they collect the taxes they spread confusion and chaos everywhere. They exact money not only from people’s property but also from their bodies by means of personal injuries, assault and completely unheard of forms of torture.”

Even though the Torah prohibited borrowing, lending, or being a party to a transaction that involved charging another Jew interest, a favorite device of the tax-collectors was to advance money to people unable to pay their tax and charge exorbitant interest. The publican became a loan shark and the tax became a private debt to him, which may explain Philo’s mention of the injuries they inflicted.

While none of us like the internal revenue, put in the context of 1st century Judah, we can understand why publicans were despised in Jesus’ day. The Babylonian Talmud ranked them alongside “murderers and robbers.” Tax collectors weren’t allowed to exchange their money at the Temple treasury and were excommunicated from the synagogues. The rabbis taught that tax collectors were disqualified witnesses in court, society outcasts, and disgraces to their own family. They even considered it lawful for a Jew to lie in almost any conceivable way to avoid paying the tax collector! It’s no wonder that the religious leaders were outraged by Jesus’ association with publicans.

Nevertheless, in spite of (or because of) Matthew’s unsavory reputation and unpopularity, Jesus called the publican to follow Him and that’s exactly what the tax man did! This was such a scandal that the 2nd-century anti-Christian philosopher Celsus actually used the fact that Jesus had “scum” like Matthew among his disciples as evidence against His divinity.

We don’t know if Matthew was as evil as some tax collectors; at the same time, we can’t reconcile his choice of career with being upstanding and righteous before meeting Jesus! While we’d love to know why he so readily deserted his tax booth, we don’t. We do know that by abandoning his business to follow Jesus, Matthew gave up wealth, job security, and his few friends and co-workers. The disciples who’d been fishermen could always return to fishing if following Jesus didn’t work out for them but Matthew had no Plan B. If he returned to Capernaum, he would be jobless and penniless. Already a pariah in the community, the publican couldn’t expect a warm welcome home from the people he once exploited! When Matthew recorded Jesus’ words about releasing our grasp on earthly things, losing our old lives, and picking up the cross, he knew exactly what our Lord meant by those words.

Jesus says, “Follow me!” to everyone. Are we as willing as Matthew to do just that?

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.” [Matthew 16:24-25 (NLT)]

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