August 5, 1990
The Passover: Remembrance and Hope
Sometimes actions do speak louder than words! The Jewish passover spoke volumes about the faith of the Israelite people. Rather than entrusting its meaning to words alone, the passover acts out its powerful message.
What did this strange ceremony mean? Was it simply a relic from days gone by — a hold-over which had lost its meaning? The answer is found by looking at the story of the initiation of this rite in Egypt.
I. The passover reminded the participants of God’s mighty acts.
The passover was a ritual born out of the experience of the Israelites as they left Egypt. Moses warned Pharaoh that the first-born of each family would be slain by the death angel if the Israelites were not freed.
For the Israelites’ protection, specific instructions were given to insure that the death angel would “pass over” them. Each Jewish family was to choose an unblemished lamb for this meal. As they slaughtered the animal, the blood was to be smeared on the top and sides of the door to the house. Wearing their sandals, their traveling clothes, and holding their staffs, they ate the meal.
Each year after the Exodus, the ritual was to be re-enacted. They were to remember that the Lord had taken special interest in them and redeemed them from slavery and established them as a nation. The passover was a time to look back and remember God’s great act of redemption. But the passover was much more than a group of elderly Jews remembering the “good old days.”
II. The passover was an opportunity to teach the younger generation about God’s grace.
As the family prepared to share the passover, one of the children would ask, “What does this service mean?” This question provided the opportunity for the parents to recount God’s marvelous works in redeeming them from bondage.
The event was relived. Generations of Jewish families celebrated not only the rescue of their ancestors; in a very real and significant sense, they celebrated their own rescue. They were there when the Lord redeemed their people.
A danger of any ritual is the risk of losing the significance of the event it recalls. It may become a relic without contemporary significance. The passover attempts to negate this tendency by emphasizing that — whether one lived one year, one generation, or one thousand years after the exodus — the Jewish family gave thanks for their redemption.
III. The passover was an act of hope.
The passover functioned not only as a reminder of the past, it was an act of hope for the future. The same God who redeemed Israel in the past was expected to intervene in the present situation of the Jewish people. God would not forget His people! As He had acted in the past, so He would act in the future.
The passover tradition included this word of hope: “This year here, next year in the land of Israel; this year as slaves, next year as free.” The mighty acts of God in the past provide hope for the future. The passover provided an opportunity to experience the past and look to the future.
IV. The passover provides the context for interpreting the New Testament witness to Jesus.
Christian readers of these Old Testament narratives cannot avoid drawing comparisons between the passover lamb and Jesus. The writers of the New Testament — steeped in Hebrew tradition and history — emphasized this relationship. Jesus was the innocent, unblemished lamb, dying so that others might have redemption.
As the Exodus was the dramatic redemptive event in Hebrew history, Calvary is the redemptive event in Christian history. It was during the passover season in which He would die that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper as a ritual to commemorate His death.
The Lord’s Supper provides an occasion to remember the past, teach the younger generation, and look to the future with hope.
The Lord’s Supper provides an object lesson which emphasizes the heart of our faith. We believe that the death of Christ is the center of God’s redemptive acts. The Lord’s Supper provides a link to the past so that we can experience once again the presence of “the Lamb of God which takes away the sins of the world.” We look forward to the day when we shall experience His presence in its fullness.
Like the Hebrews, we are always in danger of forgetting our “roots.” In a day when Christians appear to be separated by trivial details, the Lord’s Supper reminds us of the center of our faith; Jesus died so that we might experience forgiveness of sins and fellowship with God. May we know more fully the God who reveals Himself and redeems humanity. (WTP)
August 12, 1990
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Have you ever been caught between a “rock and a hard place”? I have! This old phrase is used to describe a predicament where there appears to be no way to escape. It is akin to being between “the devil and the deep blue sea.” There are no easy answers.
This was the situation of the Israelites as they approached the Red Sea. In front of them was the sea, behind them were Pharaoh’s approaching chariots. What could they do? Where could they go? Had they escaped slavery only to be slaughtered beside the sea?
As we experience once again their story, let’s look for insights into our own stories.
I. Our lives appear to be a series of crises.
We live from one crisis to the next. Even when we experience victory, it appears that the celebration is hollow because we are waiting “for the other shoe to drop.” The Israelites had barely begun their pilgrimage to the promised land when they came to the Red Sea. And even when the crisis at the Red Sea was over, it was followed by an endless series of crises.
They found themselves in need of God’s assistance constantly. They needed water, they needed food, they needed direction, they needed protection. Living in the desert taught them a lesson which we often fail to learn — they needed God daily!
You and I are not immune from crises. Even when we can provide for food and water, life presents us with overwhelming challenges to our faith: our vocational choices, the pressures of our children, the challenges of modern life. Every day brings its own challenge.
II. We face obstacles which seem insurmountable.
The crisis at the sea is a pivotal event in Hebrew history. The sea carried tremendous symbolic meaning for the Israelites. It reminded them of their finiteness, their humanity.
Remember that the creation story begins with God bringing land out of the chaotic sea. The Israelites were “landlubbers.” They feared the sea and respected its power. This hostility toward the sea can even be seen in John’s vision of the new heaven and new earth. The sea will disappear; it will “be no more.”
It is significant that both the escape from Egypt and the entry into the promised land involved the miraculous crossing of a body of water. The Israelites were learning that their greatest fears were no match for their creator God! Perhaps you and I need to be reminded that the “giants” we face in our lives are not insurmountable. God is able to carry us through our conflicts.
III. God makes a way of deliverance.
For the Israelites, God provided a way through the sea. I would be dishonest if I led you to believe that God always delivers in this way. Sometimes God removes the obstacle. Sometimes God takes us around the obstacle. Sometimes God takes us through the obstacle.
It is within the context of a discussion of the lessons learned from the example of the Israelites that Paul affirms his faith in God’s power (1 Corinthians 10). God is faithful and will make a way. Sometimes we may be like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who went through the fiery trial without having even the smell of smoke on their garments. Other times God may provide deliverance, which has its cost. The Israelites walked on dry ground across the sea bed. I wish that it could always be like that. Yet my experience reminds me that sometimes our feet may get wet as we experience God’s deliverance.
IV. The Lord’s deliverance is a remarkable blend of the wonderful and the ordinary.
It was an ordinary shepherd’s rod which split the waters. Yet a mighty wind blew all night and kept the waters stacked in a heap on each side.
This narrative beautifully weaves the natural and the supernatural together. Israel was able to see the mighty hand of God at work in both the ordinary and the extraordinary, the natural and the supernatural.
The eye of faith allows us to see the hand of God where others only see coincidence or luck. Our faith reminds us that God knows us by name and that He has redeemed us for a purpose. Even when the events of life present obstacles to the realization of our God-given dreams, we believe that God’s purposes will not be frustrated. God will make a way! (WTP)
August 19, 1990
I have to admit that, while I eat daily, I’m not very comfortable living with a one-day supply. The more of the future that I can secure, the more comfortable I feel. My guess is that I am not alone in this. Few of us would like living on the edge of starvation. “One day at a time” sounds good in a song, but what about in real life?
I understand the panic of the Israelites. Who wants to starve in the wilderness?
I. Slavery has a debilitating effect on the human spirit.
The generation which followed Moses into the wilderness had been broken by the experiences of Egypt. Their enthusiasm for the journey to freedom was quickly extinguished by the rigors of the journey.
The Israelites remembered the security of slavery; they remembered the “flesh pots” and “bread aplenty” of Egypt. In Egypt their lives may have been hard, but at least there was certainty. Every day they followed the same routine without thinking or decision-making. In the wilderness life was filled with uncertainty.
Security seems to keep cropping up in these Exodus narratives as a significant motif. This slave generation preferred the security of slavery to the chance of freedom in an unknown land. The fear of the “unknown” seems to have put the “known” quality of slavery in a new light. They came to believe that security was found in “flesh pots” which they could see. They were not willing to take the risk of a new way of thinking.
This issue continues to be a common occurrence in our lives. Even addictive behaviors and habits provide some “constancies” that have a certain measure of security. Addictions share many similarities with physical slavery. Persons addicted to drugs or destructive behavior often seem to lose the ability to dream of a better day as well as the will to change. The alcoholic would rather continue his addiction than face the ordeal of drying out.
This tendency is not restricted to chemical addicts. Each one of us has our own “bottle” which gives us a sense of security. It may be your job. It could be your retirement plan. It might be your confidence in your own ability to prosper. These crutches give us security which we want so desperately.
Yet the Exodus experience was one of learning to trust the Lord for daily needs. After a month of traveling in the wilderness, their provisions were gone and they had to learn to trust in the Lord. The generation which came out of Egypt could not make the transition in their understanding of security.
II. The wilderness experience taught a new generation a new way of life.
One of the first lessons to be learned in the wilderness was the concept of “daily bread.” The Lord provided manna daily for the Israelites to gather. Regardless of the amount that a person gathered it would always measure an “omer.”
The tendency to look for security in provisions continued to plague the older generation. They tried to stockpile the manna for the future and found that any manna which was stored became infested with worms.
The futility of trying to provide for the future has been experienced by each of us. Our attempts are frustrated by the events of life. Jesus warned of the danger of trying to secure the future with material possessions. Rather than “storing treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal,” we are admonished to “store treasures in heaven” and trust the One who cares for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field (Matthew 6:19-34).
The younger generation was schooled in the wilderness to find their security in the daily provisions from the Lord. I still struggle with this concept. My culture has taught me to take care of myself, to provide for tomorrow. Perhaps my problem is that sometimes I think I can take care of myself. This may be the reason that from time to time the Lord reminds me I am not self-sufficient. I remember this every time I repeat the model prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” (WTP)
August 26, 1990
What Do You Think of Jesus?
Our opinions about Jesus are diverse and varied. Some people acknowledge He was a great teacher; some think He is a mythical character who never really existed. To some folks Jesus is divine, to others He was a fraud. Our text for today focuses on Peter’s statement of faith in Jesus as the Christ.
I. Peter’s confession of faith is a personal affirmation.
The context for this confession of faith is the growing controversy over the identity of Jesus. Jesus asked the disciples about the public perception of His identity. The disciples gave Him the commonly accepted opinions. Some thought He was another Elijah, Moses, or prophet.
Then Jesus moved the discussion closer to home: “Who do you think I am?” Peter answered for the group; “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This confession is a personal statement of Peter’s faith. It was his personal response.
Inevitably, you and I have to move beyond the opinions of our neighbors, family and friends to make our own decision of faith.
II. Peter’s confession was revealed from God.
Jesus affirmed that this great statement of faith was not simply Peter’s idea, nor was it received from other people. This statement of faith was revealed to Peter by the Father. Neither natural intellect, wisdom, nor insight is capable of producing faith. Faith is a response to God’s self-revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ.
III. The church is built on people who profess Jesus as the Christ.
Peter declared his understanding of Jesus’ identity and was immediately confronted by this tremendous task. He was to be a part of the church which Jesus was building. This assembly of believers was to become an invincible army which even the gates of Hades could not withstand.
God chooses to use fallible, imperfect people to carry on His work. Their redeeming quality is their faith in Jesus.
IV. This profession of faith carries with it responsibility.
Peter was given the keys to the kingdom. Because of his faith in Christ, he was responsible for the stewardship of this good news. As people of faith, we are responsible for opening the door for others to experience the kingdom of God.
V. Peter’s understanding was limited but sufficient.
This passage is immediately followed by another dialogue between Jesus and Peter. As Jesus began to foretell His impending death in Jerusalem, Peter rebuked Him for even suggesting such a destiny.
It is obvious as we read this passage that Peter’s understanding of Jesus’ messiahship was limited. Peter had visions of a resurrected Davidic monarchy which would end the occupation of the hated Romans. Jesus’ perspective was much broader than a nationalistic vision of independence.
As I read this passage I am reminded again of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:7: “We have this treasure in clay pots.” The message of the good news is given to messengers who are often limited in their understanding of the grace of God. Yet God has a lot of experience with using imperfect vessels.
Peter had a faith which was limited in scope, yet his faith was anchored at one central point. Peter believed that Jesus was the Christ. This central ingredient is crucial.
You and I may not have all the answers to life’s questions; we may not understand the intricacies of doctrine. Yet this experiential confession of faith puts other issues in perspective. God is building His church with people who have one basic commitment: Jesus is Lord! (WTP)
September 2, 1990
Let’s Be Different
We have two choices in life. We can be like everyone else or we can be different from everyone else. There is an unbelievable amount of pressure on each of us to be like other persons. If you have had a teenager around your home, you’ve observed that fact.
Perhaps you have experienced that second morning of school when your eighth grade daughter wouldn’t come out of her room. You remind her that it’s time to get ready and that breakfast is on the table but she still doesn’t come. When you open the door and speak with parental authority, she wails, “But I don’t have anything to wear!”
You are tempted to wave the department store charge slips in her face. You can picture the clothes hanging in her closet, the one that she would “just die” if she didn’t have this week. You know that she has plenty of things to wear. She just doesn’t have what she knows her friends will be wearing on that day.
None of us escape that pressure. Pre-schoolers are deprived unless they have the same toys as all their friends. College students must have a car in order to survive on campus. Young adults expect a house like everyone else in the community. Older people want to retire and enjoy living just like everyone else.
A customer was complaining loudly at the car rental counter of the airport. He was irate because he had reserved a black auto but had been given a white one. The clerk assured the man that there wasn’t a black model in town. With abusive language the man turned from the counter in disgust. Everyone could observe the motto on his t-shirt: “The one who dies with the most toys wins.” Everyone is under pressure to be like everyone else.
Sometimes we decide just to be different. Parents want the teenager to wear nice clothes but the kid opts for one purple and one green sneaker. The city posts a thirty-miles-an-hour speed limit, but the traffic moves at forty. The circle of friends of one couple are all being divorced, yet this couple stays together no matter what. Church people seem a lot like everyone else in the world, so I’m going to be as different as I can and constantly talk about how religious I am. We don’t want to be like everyone else, so we will be the opposite of everyone.
These are just two ways to be — like everyone else, or as different from everyone as we possibly can. There is yet another way of living, described by Paul in his words to the Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
The key choice is not whether we shall be like others or different from others. The most important decision is to whom we shall belong. Shall other persons determine, either positively or negatively, what our lives shall be? Or shall our lives be patterned after the will and purpose of God?
This is not an easy choice. It is tough to be transformed by God. When a person decides to become a Benedictine monk, he is accepted for a one-year probation. During that year, the clothes the probationer wore into the monastery are kept hanging in the room assigned to him. Anytime of the day or night, whenever he chooses, the monk’s habit can be removed and the old clothes put on again. The decision must be tested and must be deep and final before the transformation really takes place.
Paul challenged the Romans to be molded, not by the things of the world, but by the things of God. He wrote: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
That is the way to begin the process of transformation. Will we be molded by the models of the commonplace, or by the models of a divinely ordered universe? Will we be transformed into that good and acceptable and perfect reality that is life indeed? (HCP)
September 9, 1990
That’s What It Says!
Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
These words by one of America’s best loved poets, Edna St. Vincent Millay, underline the truth of our text. Love is not all. It cannot bring health, although true love can contribute to physical well-being. Love cannot fill the empty stomachs of the poor, although true love can contribute to the feeding of the hungry. Love cannot lift one out of the storms of life, but true love can contribute to the floating raft that will enable someone to survive a little longer.
Love is not all. Love is not everything. But love is something; it is more than nothing at all. In a world where so many are unloved, and there are so many who are unlovable, there is no greater need than for expressions and experiences of love.
You may have heard that story about the child living in a children’s home who took a trip each day to the edge of the grounds. A supervisor, being suspicious, followed the child. Watching from a distance, the supervisor observed the child placing a note in a tree. The adult went to that tree after the child had left, found the note, and read it. “To whom it may concern: I love you.” There is a desperate need for each of us to find persons we can love. There is a desperate need for us to find persons who will love us.
Paul expressd it, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet’ and any other commandment are summed up in this sentence. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:8-10).
We can love others because we are afraid. We may fear they will turn against us, harm us, that their illness will be our illness, their pain our pain. We might love our neighbor because it is written in the laws of God, and if we do not something terrible will happen to us. Or we can love others because we know how deeply and completely we have been loved.
The truth of that love is displayed on the Communion Table whenever we observe that sacrament. Here are the signs of God’s love. There is bread, and the cup. But how much more is signed in those common realities of life. There are the signs of God’s redeeming love for all persons. Someone said that God wanted to show His love for the world and held out His hands wider and wider until they were shaped like a cross.
God loves us so much that He sent His only Son Jesus Christ, offering Him up even to death itself. Most of us experience that love of God when some person loves us.
That is the way in which I experienced God’s love. I shall never forget the day when the stress of graduate school was more than I thought I could endure. One of my professors walked toward me at a coffee break. I despised him. He was rough, uncouth, demeaning and belittling so many of us, and especially me. I tensed, expecting the worse. But as he came close, his arm went around my shoulder and he said, “Harold, we care about you.”
I suspect that you have experienced the love of God in much the same manner. And there is someone somewhere who will never know the love of God except that you be the messenger of that love. (HCP)
September 16, 1990
If Someone Has Hurt You …
Simon Isenthall, a famous Jewish writer, wrote a remarkable short story in 1976 entitled “The Sunflower.” It was an autobiographical account of an experience he had had thirty years before when incarcerated in a German concentration camp.
While on a work detail turning a barn into a field hospital, he was stopped by a young German nurse. She guided him to a young man whose head was wrapped with a bloodsoaked bandage covering both eyes. Grabbing for Isenthall’s hand, the young man finally caught it with a death grip and cried out, “I must talk to a Jew before I die!”
“I am a Jew,” Isenthall responded.
The young German said, “My SS troop was sent to burn down a Jewish house. After it was set on fire, the family ran out of the house, and we gunned them down. I cannot get it out of my mind. I know I am about to die. Will you forgive me?”
In his short story, Isenthall writes: “I jerked my hand away and went out the door without a word. … That bothered me for thirty years.”
Then he ended the story in a most unusual way. He told of asking thirty-two different people to comment on his reaction. They were Jews and Gentiles, young and old, men and women. Out of the thirty-two polled, the majority said that he had done the right thing — he should not have forgiven. One of them even said that the young soldier should have gone straight to hell.
As the story is told in Matthew 18, one of Jesus’ disciples apparently needed to forgive someone else. Peter brought the issue to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me, up to seven times?”
The rabbis of the time taught that a person should forgive another person three times. So Peter, feeling magnanimous, doubled that and added one for good measure. But Jesus said, “I tell you not seven times, but seventy times seven.”
It was Jesus’ way of pointing out the exaggerated and uncharacteristic nature of forgiveness. Whatever you want to say about the precise quantity of forgiveness referred to by Jesus, He clearly meant to point out that Christian forgiveness must always exceed what is natural or expected. Jesus was not concerned about how many times you are called on to forgive another person. He is concerned that forgiveness occurs unexpectedly and to an unexpected degree.
Jesus must have sensed the sheer incredulity of His disciples at His answer. So He told a parable to explain forgiveness.
Jesus explained, “The kingdom of heaven is like the king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.” The king ran his fingers down the list of debts owed to him by his servants and decided he wanted everyone to pay up.
At that time, servants were not houseboys waving fans to keep flies off the king. Servants could be men of enormous responsibility. Today, we might call them cabinet-level members of the government.
The first one to enter was a man who owed the king 10,000 talents. It is difficult to estimate the extent of that debt. However, all the taxes collected by Herod the Great when he was King of Israel amounted to only 800 talents each year. All of the gold in the Ark of the Covenant was only 30 talents.
Ten thousand talents, then, was probably the amount of money held on deposit in the largest bank in the Roman Empire. We would say that this man owed the king the equivalent of Ft. Knox. He owed him approximately $30-$50 million. Since a day’s wage was 17 cents, he owed roughly the equivalent of our current national debt!
Jesus tells us that since the servant was not able to pay, the king ordered that servant, his wife, his children, and all that he had be sold to pay the debt. The situation was an absolutely impossible one. Even if the servant and all his assets were sold, the proceeds from the liquidation would not have equaled one ten-thousandth of what he owed the king. It was clear that this servant needed mercy, grace, and forgiveness.
The servant did precisely what most of us would do — he fell on his knees and begged! “Be patient with me and I will pay back everything,” he cried (v. 26).
The king took pity on the man, canceled the debt, and then let him go. Moved only by his compassion, the king wiped his slate clean.
It is clear that this is a story about the sovereignty of God and how He relates to us. Every one of us has been given the stuff of life. Time, money, energy, connections, influence, contacts — all are gifts.
So, this is the story of each of us. We have taken what was given and used the gifts for our own selfish purposes. When we are caught, we make our plea: “Just give me time, Lord, I will make it up to you.”
The problem with our sin is that it places us in an impossible situation, like the one in which the king’s servant found himself. Apart from the mercy of God, there is no way to take back the effects of our sin. We cannot ever make it up to God.
The gospel, however, reminds us that the debt has been handled. Jesus paid the debt on the cross. The debt has been forgiven — fully, freely, finally, and forever!
It’s hard to imagine the relief the servant felt unless you yourself have been forgiven a huge debt. Yet when the servant left the king, he did not act the way you would expect him to respond. Instead, he went out and disgraced the grace he had been given!
According to Jesus, he “went out and found one of his fellow servants.” There is an emphasis upon the word “found.” It means that the friend did not merely cross his path. The servant deliberately went in search of his friend.
This friend owed the forgiven servant one hundred denarii, or about seventeen dollars in today’s currency. That equalled about one hundred days’ wages — a sum most men could have handled, if given enough time.
Suddenly, however, the man with the huge debt was now a stern creditor. We are told that he grabbed his friend by the throat and began choking him, saying, “Pay me back what you owe me — now!”
The contrasting scenes are ironic. Only a moment before, this servant had been treated with dignity. Now, he is humiliating another man whose debt is trivial compared to his own. What’s more, even his own words are thrown back in his face: “Be patient with me and I will pay you back” (v. 29).
But something had happened to the servant. He actually has his friend thrown into prison until he can pay his small debt. He ruined his friend’s life forever over a trivial debt. Debtor’s prison was such a futile institution. You could not get out until you paid your debt, but since you could not work until you got out, there was no hope!
Here’s the point of the story. Jesus knows that we will all be slighted, offended, betrayed, and hurt by other human beings. He knows that we will react in some fashion. But He wants us to remember something very important before we react.
After we have experienced the grace and forgiveness of the Lord Jesus Christ, we must then live it by forgiving one another. Comparing what others have done to you with the enormity of what God has forgiven you is like comparing the Pacific Ocean with a backyard pool. There is no comparison.
Seven times, indeed! How absurd!
There is a certain tribe of Polynesians who keep the shrunken heads of their enemies hanging in the doorway of their huts. The purpose of this strange custom is to remind one another from generation to generation to remain angry at their enemies.
Many of us hang things in our hearts just like that. They are tokens of bitterness to remind us to stay angry and unforgiving toward someone else.
Yet forgiveness is a foundation for a vital Christian life.
Jesus tells this parable to demonstrate that it is an act of grace to clear the situation and get it completely out of your life.
The parable has a sober final act. Other servants saw the whole incident between the two friends — others always see, or find out, don’t they? Now, if these servants had been merciful themselves, they would have come to their friend’s aid and paid the debt. Instead, they ran and told the king what they saw. “You know that man whom you forgave 10,000 talents? You aren’t going to believe this, but he had a friend thrown in jail who owed him one hundred denarii!”
For the first time in the story, the king is angry! When he was betrayed — sinned against — he wasn’t angry. Yet when he found out that the one whom he had forgiven himself had refused to forgive, he became angry indeed.
What follows is the “divine must,” that is, the moral of the story. “Should you not have mercy on your friend just as I had mercy on you?” the king asks (v. 33). The “should” in the Greek New Testament is actually a “must.” It is a divine imperative. If we know grace, we must forgive. We must want to forgive.
Forgiveness is never an end in itself! Forgiveness is intended to bring two persons who have been separated back together again! Unless you and your foe come together, forgiveness has never really taken place!
Jesus said that the king delivered the unforgiving servant “… to the torturers until he could pay all that was due to him” (v. 34). Some of you know the torture of unforgiving-ness. In fact, Jesus also indicated that the heavenly Father delivers each of us to the torturers of our souls, if we are unwilling to forgive — from our hearts — those who have hurt us (v. 35).
If someone has hurt you, forget it — if you can. Otherwise, forgive them! Those are the only choices open to the Christian! (GCR)
September 23, 1990
A Most Faithful God
Moses is up on the mountain with God. The people are in the valley below. That is the way religious life seems to so many. The leaders are in close communication with God, while the rest of us are left alone in fear. The story reported in Exodus 32 is easy to understand for those of us who have been left in the valley.
Aaron is in charge. Yet he is not Moses, and he is not the object of the same confidence that the people have for Moses. Aaron is not the leader.
The people seem to wonder where God is as surely as they wonder where Moses is and when he is going to come back. They remember the actions of their God in Egypt and at the Red Sea. The remembering intensifies the loneliness and the longing for God.
The solution is easy — “Let’s make a representation of God to go with us. Then, we can remember Him more easily, and we will know we are not alone.” Aaron agrees readily, and makes the plans for just what the people want.
We are accustomed to leaders like that. The people have a wish, and the leader does what they want whether it is right or wrong — whether it’s for the best or the worst.
Out comes a golden calf, fashioned from the gold earrings and jewelry that has been hidden away since they left Egypt. The calf may not solve all their problems but it is a symbol and they can rejoice in their worship and exult in the presence of what they can see and feel and observe. They don’t have to wait on some hidden God who speaks mostly to Moses, if at all. Their cry has been answered, even if only by their own creation.
Henri Nouwen tells of a novel, Less Than Zero, that describes the moral and spiritual poverty of the wealthy and successful in a modern U.S. city. The children and youth of the families cry out for someone to care — to be with them, to hold them, and to give them a sense of belonging. Don’t we all?
God tells Moses up on the mountain what is going on in the valley. In disgust God refers to the people in the valley as “your people” — the people of Moses. Exodus 32 offers the intercession of Moses for the people of God — pleading that God not abandon the people, even in their sin and the abject meaninglessness of their lives. The argument of Moses is clear.
Moses asked God: How can you expect the people to be faithful, if you are not faithful? Those are not the words of the Scripture, but the meaning is there. The implication for the Book of Exodus, for the future history of this story, is clear as well. There is an implied question to the Hebrews of the past and the present: If God is faithful, shouldn’t His people be faithful as well?
The story of Sir Thomas More is known to many of us through the drama, A Man for All Seasons. In the drama, Cardinal Woolsey comes to visit More, who has stood up to the king and all the king’s court and is now in prison. The Cardinal says, “You’re a terrible regret to me, Thomas. If you could see facts flat on, without that terrible moral squint of yours … you could have been a statesman.” More replies, “Can I help my king by giving him lies when he asks for truth?”
Later, when More’s daughter comes to visit and asks her father to compromise his stand for truth and justice, More says, “When a man makes a promise, Meg, he puts himself in his own hands, like water. And if he opens his fingers to let it out, he need not hope to find himself again.” Sir Thomas More does not yield to the king.
God is faithful when we are at our worst. Can we, in response to the faithfulness of God, be anything less than faithful to our Lord? (HCP)
September 30, 1990
“I Will” or “I Won’t”
The past few years haven’t been good ones for the church, have they? The marketing of religion on television has been rocked with scandal. First, the Jim and Tammy Bakker embarrassment; then the Jimmy Swaggart accusations. My denomination (The United Methodist) has been devastated by accusations that one bishop had an extra-marital affair, another died with AIDS, and one of our state’s most successful pastors fled the state with all sorts of unanswered questions about the alleged attempted murder of his wife. These things haven’t helped the church, have they?
Many of us are tempted to ignore those stories, tempted to go on with business as usual. We are urged by some to announce that all those problems are the choices of selected individuals and the facts have nothing to do with any of us. But the nature of the Kingdom of God binds us together in one body, so that “when one part suffers, all suffer.”
I do understand that when one part of the human body is weakened, or broken, or paralyzed, the remainder of the body must work that much harder, be that much stronger, to fulfill the functions of the part that doesn’t work well. The same is true of the Body of Christ.
The verses from Matthew’s gospel that serve as our text have something to say in these circumstances. Jesus tells of a man who has two sons. When the father asked the first to work in the vineyard, he said he would but didn’t. The other was also asked and said he wouldn’t but he did. The point of the parable is in Jesus’ question, “Who was the faithful son?”
We can claim the role of the father. We can look at our congregation, at our denomination, at our group of churches from the point of view of the father. We can make our own judgments about those who say they will but don’t and about those who say they won’t but do.
We can place ourselves in the place of one of those two sons as well. We can say “Yes” and live “No.” Or we can say “No” and live “Yes.”
Members of my denomination are asked some very specific questions about our support of the congregation. Each person is asked, “Will you be loyal to this expression of God’s church, and support this congregation with your prayer, your presence, your gifts, and your service?” Those are questions to which we can say “Yes” but live a “No.” And those are questions to which we can say “No” but live a “Yes.”
“Will you uphold the church in your prayers?” Pastors should pray for and with our people. Some maintain a list of their members and pray specifically for certain members every day. Any Christian could have a personal list of those to remember in daily prayer. The ministry and mission of the church should be remembered in regular times of prayer by all.
“Will you uphold the church by your presence?” The music and preaching may not be as slick as those on television but the place for a Christian is to be worshipping with some of God’s people week after week.
“Will you uphold the church by your gifts?” We each have gifts. Some of our gifts may be expressed with money and resources. Other gifts are given through the use of our talents and skills.
“Will you uphold the church by your service?” Each of us has one ability or another — the ability to be an administrator, the ability to be a teacher, the ability to be a caring, loving person. Those abilities sum up all the possible services that a church can perform. We must ask if we are using our abilities in the service of God and His church.
Which one of the sons will each of us be? (HCP)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: William T. Pyle, Assistant Professor of Supervised Field Ministry, Southeastern Baptist Seminary, Wake Forest, NC; Harold C. Perdue, Development Officer, Texas Methodist Foundation, Austin, TX; and Gary C. Redding, Pastor of North Augusta Baptist Church, North Augusta, SC.
August 5, 1990