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Good Old Days

round green fruits
 
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

black cross statue
 
“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

thankful blessed signage
 
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

religious stained glass
 
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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Prayers

man wearing long sleeved shirt sitting
 
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”  (Matthew 6:5-8)
 
My prayer life is a work in progress.  Truth be told, I’ve struggled with it my whole life.  I admire those whose prayers seem to come so naturally.  I guess part of it is an occupational hazard: pastors are so often called on to say prayers in public that are supposed to be eloquent and “put together.”  <sigh>

But I’ve learned something: It’s not about trying to impress God with my prayers.  That’s not the point.  He wants me to be honest, straight-forward, and sincere.  And so my prayers have gotten much shorter!   In fact, when I don’t know what to pray, I tend to repeat the Kyrie:  “Lord, Have Mercy.  Christ, Have Mercy.  Lord, Have Mercy.”

I’ve also learned that when it comes to prayers, the old Nike slogan is probably best:  Just do it!  Maybe it’s a few words in the car on the way to work; a few moments of silence after the dinner prayer to thank God for other blessings besides the food; a heartfelt plea in the middle of the work day for help, for strength, for mercy!  Instead of waiting for your prayer life to be all that it can be, perhaps just work on talking to your Father whenever you can with whatever words you can muster.

As much as my prayer life is a work in progress, I’ll assure you of this much: the older I get the more I realize what a privilege it is to come to my God in prayer, knowing that He hears me for Christ’s sake.

It’s not about impressing God or others.  It’s not about fancy or voluminous words.  It’s about a relationship with a Dad who loves you and hears and answers.  God help us to pray!

Heavenly Father, You have invited us to pray and promised to hear and answer.  By Your Spirit, increase in us the desire to turn to You in all circumstances.  Help us to see prayer as a gift of Your Grace.  In Jesus’ name, Amen. 

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