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Generosity Flows from a Thankful Heart

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And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Luke 19:5-10
 
I love Jesus’ interaction with Zacchaeus. A grown man gets so excited about something that he climbs up into a tree. Zacchaeus is so happy to be in Jesus’ presence, and he doesn’t care what anyone has to say about it. Jesus doesn’t care, either, and he accompanies Zacchaeus to his home. Zacchaeus was the opposite of a generous man, an Ebenezer Scrooge of sorts. He would take what he wanted from people, and he would use his position as a tax collector to be able to justify it. He knew it was wrong, but he didn’t care to act differently.

That is, until he met Jesus. When he met Jesus, everything changed. He met Generosity itself: God, willing to look past sin, greed, and selfishness to see a “son of Abraham” desperately in need of love.

Zacchaeus was so thankful to have received Jesus into his house that he changed in that moment. He wanted to be generous, like Jesus. And it started with money. He restored the money he stole- he didn’t really need it all anyway. But I am certain it went much further than a commitment to be honest with his finances and bless others financially. I am certain Zacchaeus started opening his heart and home to people as well. Generosity flows from a thankful heart, and once generosity has broken out in our lives, it cannot be contained.

Are you holding something back from others? Are you holding something back from God? Jesus is working his way deep into your life, and he is coming into your home. This Thanksgiving, be certain that Jesus is at table with you. He has invited himself into your home, and he is showering his abundant love and joy on you. He wants you to know the generous and contagious joy of God. Maybe you’ve already experienced the freedom that comes from thankfulness. If not, practice by giving thanks for all that you have received. When we give thanks for all we have received, we realize we need to be giving in the same way. Zacchaeus realized it, and he is a witness to us of the joy that flows from generosity, and the generosity that flows from thankfulness, and the thankfulness that comes from being in the presence of Jesus.

Jesus, you are with us. As we gather for our Thanksgiving celebrations, no matter how big or small our tables are this year, we know you are with us. We invite you to be at the center of our Thanksgiving, and bless us with the joy that comes from knowing you. Remind us that every day is a day to give thanks for the blessings you bestow, and we will be celebrating eternally the Feast that will never end in your presence. Amen.


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Good Old Days

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They sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.”  And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.  But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping.   Ezra 3:11-13  (ESV)

This is a description of the celebration at laying the foundation for rebuilding the temple after some 50,000 Jews returned from captivity in Babylon.  Just as Isaiah and Jeremiah had foretold, the Persian ruler Cyrus allowed Jewish exiles to return to their land with the temple artifacts that Nebuchadnezzar had confiscated when he destroyed Jerusalem.  But things got a little weird.  While the majority of the people expressed their joy with shouts of praise to God, those who had been deported as children and could remember the grandeur of the temple Solomon built wept aloud at this poor imitation.  You couldn’t tell celebration from sadness, we’re told.

Maybe that sounds a bit like Thanksgiving this year.  Like the old-timers in fifth century BC Jerusalem, some of us long for the good old days.  There was a time when Americans knew whom they were thanking at Thanksgiving.  The country was more Christian, more patriotic, more united.  Families were stronger.  Jobs were more secure.  Movies were more moral, and people worried less about crime.  And unlike this year, extended families once gathered around a Thanksgiving table.  There may well be some tears mingled with thanks this year.

We can learn something from the people of Ezra’s day.  When we look back at a life that seems in retrospect better than the now, thank God for the blessings we may have taken for granted.  When we look around at the challenges that confront us in the current culture, remember that we are God’s people on his mission.  When we look ahead, do so confident in the Lord’s promises and trusting in his love.  And then look up, always look up.  The God who gave us his Son to be our Savior is still in control.  The challenges we face, we do not face alone.  And the reasons for joy, for hope, for purpose in life remain the same.  As Ezra’s contemporary, Nehemiah, wrote: “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”  (Nehemiah 8:10)

PRAYER: Thank you, Lord, for the blessings we have taken for granted.  Thank you for your presence amid our anxieties.  Thank you for the forgiveness and eternal life that Jesus earned for us.  Now help us to live thankfully, rejoicing simply because we are your children.  Amen.

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Forgive Others

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“For if f you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you,  but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”   Matthew 6:14-15

Does forgiveness flow through you?  Or just to you? 

In a former church, we pastors used to sit down with kids who were getting ready to be confirmed.  It wasn’t an “examination” as much as it was a conversation about faith, what they’d learned, and what it meant to be a confirmed Lutheran.

One of the questions I liked to ask was this:  “If you refuse to forgive others who sin against you, will God still forgive you?”  Invariably the answer I would get would be, “Oh, of course He’ll still forgive me…even if I’m not willing to forgive others.”

Really?  What does Jesus say?

Jesus gives us a pretty stern warning here.  Don’t expect to be forgiven if you refuse to forgive others.

Ouch.

He punctuates this particular teaching with a story later in the Gospel of Matthew: The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.  In that story, a servant is forgiven his whole debt by his Master, the equivalent of millions of dollars, but then that servant goes out and has his fellow servant thrown into prison for not paying back a few dollars’ worth of debt. 

The implication is clear:  how can we refuse to forgive such a small debt of sin to our neighbor when God has forgiven all of our sins!  The story ends with weeping and gnashing of teeth – never a good thing.

God expects us to be willing to forgive others, and as Jesus taught Peter “not seven times, but seventy times seven.”  (In other words…every time they need it!).

God help us to find those unforgiving areas of our heart so that He might melt our coldness with the warmth of His forgiveness and grace.  To the end, that forgiveness might always flow through us, not just to us.

Heavenly Father, despite all of our sins, we sometimes struggle to forgive others.  Remind us of your unlimited grace, and help us to share it with others be forgiving whatever grievances they may have against us.  For Jesus’ sake, Amen. 

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Rejoice in the Lord

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Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.  God, the Lord, is my strength.  Habakkuk 3:17-19  (ESV)

A memory from family lore is the time my four-year-old brother, urged to say thank you for a gift he didn’t want, said to relatives: “Thank you for the no candy.”  If that sounds like what Habakkuk said in the verses above, we may miss the point.  Sure, we could have a cynical Thanksgiving this year after covid-19 lock-downs, financial hits and political anxieties.  Habakkuk reminds us that when you tally up the bad stuff, there is far more good stuff with our God.  The Lord is our salvation and the strength of our life.

Maybe when material blessings of health, wealth and happiness are diminished, it’s easier to thank God for his presence and his promises.  Maybe when this life seems a bit bleak, the next life becomes more dear.  This Thanksgiving, let’s just thank God for who he is, what he’s done for us, and what he has in store for us.  When current hardships occupy too much of your thoughts, remember the blessings of the past and the eternal life ahead.

And if you want to think about what you don’t have this Thanksgiving, include a whole lot of bad things from which God has spared you.  Thank God for the illnesses you haven’t suffered, the financial destitution you didn’t experience, and the family heartaches that aren’t yours.  Above all, thank God that eternal condemnation doesn’t describe your future because Jesus endured that for you.  Thank God that you don’t have to wonder whether God loves you, because Jesus’ cross screams how much he loves you. 

Maybe this Thanksgiving is about what God has spared us, not just what he’s given us.  Take joy in the God of your salvation.  He is your strength.

PRAYER: Forgive us, Lord, for shallow thankfulness in the past and for faithless worries in the present.  Focus our hearts on your goodness and mercy, on blessings we don’t deserve and heartaches we haven’t endured.  Forgive our griping and negativism; but heal our hurts and show us your love.  All this we ask because Jesus has made us your dearly loved children.  Amen.

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One Spirit

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Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ.  Then…I will know that you stand firm in one Spirit. Philippians 1:27 
 
It is odd on one hand, to think of this body of Christ to which we belong…as one.  To drive down the road and see a Methodist church over here and a Roman Catholic church over there and a Lutheran church over here and a nondenominational church over there would seem to indicate that we are anything but one.  And to be sure, there are differences between us.

The differences that exist between Christians and Christian churches can come from a couple of angles.  One reason is the legitimate, understandable differences in the way we interpret Scripture.  To be sure, Christ doesn’t want it that way.  But some will look at a particular passage or truth of Scripture and interpret it one way, while others will understand it another way.  We band with those who see it in the same way and are thus distinct from the others who see it differently.  Again, it is because of sin and the inability to understand Scripture perfectly that this happens.  But at least this reason for differences has some integrity.  More unfortunate is when differences exist because Scripture isn’t being considered anymore.  When those within Christianity make social popularity or acceding to the current societal trends the determiner of what is believed and taught, we can certainly understand why there would be distinctions.

But when we speak of the Christian Church, we distinguish between the Visible Church and the Invisible Church.  What we’ve been talking about, with denominations and congregations with distinct views is the visible church.  And in the visible church, there is no oneness.  But theologically, there has always been the categorization of invisible church as well.  This church, the invisible church, is comprised only of believers who have something most important in common.  We believe in God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and know that Jesus died and rose again so that we would be forgiven and saved.

Here, in the invisible church, we are one, or, as Paul says in Philippians 1:27, we are one Spirit.  This is how the Nicene Creed can refer to us as “one, holy, Christian, and apostolic church.”  Despite all of the external differences, we as Christians, all of us, are one in what matters most, believing in salvation through Jesus Christ.  In this oneness, we rejoice!
 
Prayer: O Lord God, we pray for the day that all Christians will be united in all the truths of your Word.  But until then, we rejoice that you have granted us all a common faith in Christ as Savior, and look forward to our eternal life together.  In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.

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