I find this to be one of the simplest commands in Scripture, but also one of the most difficult to follow. I mean look, we all can rejoice in the Lord sometimes. It's Sunday morning, you've had a great week, it's sunny and warm, you're feeling the Spirit, absolutely you can rejoice in the Lord anyways. But when it's cold and rainy, and you just had a fight with your spouse the night before, and you don't want to get out of bed, maybe then it's hard to rejoice in the Lord? The key for us, and I know this is much harder to do than to say, is to find ways to celebrate God even when we are down. For instance, when we lose someone important to us, we rejoice in the promise of eternal life. When we have an off week, we celebrate that God has walked with us every day of that bad week. It's not easy, and frankly it takes diligent effort, but by working at it, we can truly begin to worship God always.
I've been in a lot of churches over the years, and in those churches I've seen a wide variety of conflicts. And I'll tell you something, major conflicts in the church usually wind up one way. Either everything is forgiven, or the church is irreparably damaged and divided. The dividing line that separates the former from the latter? Love. Churches which practice the idea that we should love one another can weather all storms. Yes, there will still be conflict. Someone will believe the anthem should be in one place and someone else will believe it should be elsewhere, and suddenly its the most important thing in the whole world. But churches that practice love will eventually remember that these disputes pale in importance compared to our command to love one another. This is not only true of churches, but other relationships as well. Relationships with a solid foundation of love can weather mighty storms, because at the end of the day they remember what is most important.
In the past, I've had people come to me saying that they weren't very good at praying. In some ways, I don't think they're right about that. When people say they aren't good at praying, what they tend to mean is that they can't find fancy enough words, which is unnecessary. God doesn't care how fancy our language is. But what a lot of people could use help with is in knowing what to pray about. Sometimes, we pray about the little things, but struggle to articulate our deeper spiritual needs. However, God knows what we need, and even if it is just the faintest stirrings of our heart, He will hear it and act upon it.
A few years ago, I pulled what I consider to be a bit of a trick on people in a Bible Study. I asked, "Who is the Son of God?" Of course, people responded "Jesus." "Now then," I said, "Do you consider yourselves children of God?" Well of course people agreed with that statement. So then I said "Are you not also the son (and daughter) of God?" That one stumped people, as well it should. It seems like sacrilege to give ourselves that title which was bestowed upon Jesus. Part of that is a deficiency in language, as "Son of God" is an incomplete description of Jesus' relationship with God. It does however help us to see what an exalted role human beings have in creation. In the grand scheme of things, our lives are brief, but God knows each one of us and loves each of us as a parent loves a child.
As many of you know, I have a child at home who is nearly two years old. One very important developmental step for young children is to realize that other people's needs are just as important as their own. Very young children seem to believe everyone around them is there to serve them, but in time they recognize that other people are important too. Unfortunately it seems like sometimes this is a lesson they forget as adults! We are often so focused on our own needs that we rarely stop to take a second to consider others. what if another person's needs were equal to our own? What if their needs were even more important? Would we have the strength and humility to value them above ourselves?
How do you start your day? Do you start it with a fresh cup of coffee? A newspaper? Maybe a healthy, well-rounded breakfast? What do you think is the most healthy way to kick off your day? All of the above is all well and good, but there's an even better way to start your day: prayer! What if we were to kick off each day with the above verse? We would be asking God for two primary things: first, to wake us by reminding us of his unfailing love. I don't know about you, but being reminded of my God's unfailing love is a great boost to start my day! Second, we'd be asking for guidance for the day ahead. This is even more important. It would say that at the start of the day our top priority was to know what God wanted of us every moment of the day. So what do you say: why not try this prayer when you wake up tomorrow?
This verse is actually rather complex, and deserves to be broken down. It all basically revolves around patience. In the first half of the verse, we hear tale of God's patience. We hear that God longs to be gracious, and that He shows constant compassion. What this means is that God continually waits for us to get our acts together. He constantly wishes to reward us, but also wants us to make ourselves worthy of His generosity by repenting of our sins and following Him. The second part involves our patience. Sometimes God's rewards do not always show up on the schedule that we expect. This can lead to frustration and disillusionment. Isaiah cautions against that, asking us to be patient in waiting for the blessings of God, just as He is patient with us.
One of the things that most divided the early church was the issue of circumcision. The apostles of Jesus believed that being circumcised was an important step to becoming a Christian. In essence, they believed that to become a Christian, one must first become Jewish, as this was the only way to Christ. In the long run, however, they lost out to Paul, who argued that while there was nothing wrong with circumcision, it was unnecessary. Before the coming of Jesus, it was necessary to belong to this group and practice its rituals. However, Jesus eliminated the need for intermediary steps or complex loyalty rituals. All that Jesus asks of us is faith, and for that faith to express itself through love.
I've always felt that the key to this verse is the final word: instruction. There's a lot of questions people have about things like intelligence. Why are some people intelligent and others not intelligent? Is it nature or nurture? Well, I'll tell you one thing: I don't believe anyone is born foolish. I believe we are all given a clean slate. Now some people may be able to learn things quickly, while others learn slowly, but the speed at which one learns is not what determines your wisdom. Wisdom is not the speed of learning but rather the willingness to learn. If you have the ability to learn but don't exercise it, then what use is it?
Do you remember your first love? Do you remember that desire you had to always be with the person you loved? We are called to have similar feelings of love towards God. We are asked to think about Him before we go to sleep at night, and for Him to be the thing we think about when we wake up in the morning. Our spirits, our souls, yearn to be with God and to connect to God. Sometimes the din of the outside world dims our ability to feel our soul reaching out to God, but understand that in the deepest place in our hearts, this is what we are feeling.
During Sunday's sermon, while talking about the shepherds in the nativity story, I described sheep as dumb animals. I stand by this description. But I've got to admit, it's easier to call sheep dumb animals in theory than it is to describe them as dumb when they are compared to human beings! In this passage, we are compared to sheep. Now don't go getting defensive here, I'm not calling you dumb. The sheep are not unintelligent on their own terms, they are merely unintelligent when seen from the perspective of the shepherd. So it is with us. We are more intelligent than the animals, but our intelligence pales in comparison with God. Recognizing this, and gaining the humility that accompanies such a recognition, is important. It makes us realize that even when we think we know where we need to go, there is someone out there who is far better equipped to guide us.
What's the most important part of Sunday morning worship to you? Is it the sermon? The children's moment? The hymns? I bet if we did a survey we'd get a bunch of different answers to this question. I'd like to share one possible answer that I don't think gets mentioned nearly enough: the prayers of the people. For those who don't attend the church, here's what we do. Every Sunday, I'll carry the microphone around the church, and ask people for joys and concerns. We'll hear about relatives who have passed away, and kids cast in the school play. We'll hear about God's miraculous healing touch, and people who still need God's healing. The important thing is we share them. When someone else is celebrating, we celebrate along side them. When someone else mourns, we share in their grief. This is a true blessing, and one of my favorite parts of the service.
I'm guessing at some point that you've heard America described as a melting pot. The truth is, Christianity is also a melting pot, moreso than almost any other religion. Think about it; Islam was a religion that primarily applied to the Arabic people. Judaism was as much an ethnic group as a religion. But Christianity appealed to people of all ethnicities and religions. However, there is a twist to that. When one is baptized into the Christian faith, one does not have to give up one's previous life. However, you are expected to make all those identities secondary to your identity as a Christian. Your ultimate allegiance has nothing to do with skin color or nationality; your ultimate allegiance is with Christ Jesus and his followers.
I actually think this verse is a really good ethical guide. Imagine a situation you might be in with another person. You're trying to decide what to do. Now imagine that the person is Jesus. Does that make the decision any easier? That guy in the street. He looks scraggly. Old torn clothes, hasn't showered in a while, unshaven. You don't know if you feel comfortable approaching him and offering him help. Then you think about it; what if that was Jesus? Would that make you more likely to approach him? Of course, and that's what Jesus intended with this illustration.
I want you to do some imagining with me. Imagine if you will that the religious customs that existed when Jesus lived were still alive today. I am thinking specifically about the temple. Say that your life was still the same in every way, save for the fact that you believed the presence of God could only be experienced in a building in Israel. That is only one change, but it radically shifts our religious perspective. Israel is a good distance away, and only the wealthiest among us would be able to make trips to worship God there. However, Jesus came and did away with that belief. He let people know that he was greater than the temple. And the most amazing thing is that we can communicate with Jesus from anywhere; from Norwich, to Israel, to Antarctica, we can feel the presence of God anywhere! I for one am thankful to not be tied to one building or area, but instead to experience God anywhere.
I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that all of you have, at one point or another, sat around a Thanksgiving table and participated in the tradition in which people share the things they are thankful for. I love this tradition; we take far too little time to count our blessings, name them aloud, and share them with family and friends. But I must tell you, merely sharing the blessings is not enough. The question should not simply be "for what am I thankful," but also, "and to whom do I give thanks?" The answer to that question (and I'm sure you're shocked) is God. God is the giver of all gifts, and it is to Him that we give thanks. Make sure and mention this at your next Thanksgiving meal!
This quote serves a very important reminder for us. The earliest Christians risked their lives for their Christian faith. Simply for believing Jesus died for our sins, they risked some of the most gruesome deaths of their time. But there's an important element of this that we don't usually consider. They risked death not only for their own personal holiness, but also so that they could preserve Christ's church for future generations. We often talk about our country, and we have our freedoms because soldiers died for said freedoms. But how often do we think about the fact that we are Christians because early Christians died to preserve the faith?
Elsewhere on my website, you can hear my sermon from this last week, where I talked about the importance of everyone contributing to the work of the church. While on Sunday I was speaking more broadly about serving on various boards or committees, I think one of the best things we can do is to help build up other Christians. Think about it like this. Say you went to eat somewhere and ordered a sandwich. For some reason, you are given a free second sandwich. Now the first sandwich filled you up, so you have no need for the second sandwich, but you know someone who needs a sandwich. Would you give it to them? Of course! Sometimes we're overflowing with spiritual blessings. Sometimes, we feel like the tank is empty. What's important is that when we feel overflowing, help to fill up those who may need a bit of a pick-me-up!
George Santayana famously said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, but like many quotes, he really just gets credit for creative phrasing of a sentiment that has existed for a long time. This verse from Jeremiah is a prime example of that. The history of Israel was cyclical. The people obeyed God for a while, then turned their back on Him. Without God, they suffered. Then they turned back to God, whereupon they were rescued. Over and over again this happened, and the people never learned the lesson to keep faith. Of course, many of us get stuck as well, both in our personal lives and in our nation. The patterns become clear, but we ignore history and repeat the same mistakes. What destructive patterns exist in your life, and how can you break them?
I felt that this verse was very appropriate for today since today is election day. As I've said earlier on this blog, at least 50% of you won't be happy after today, and realistically, even out of those voting for the winning candidate, a good number of people will find themselves dissatisfied. That's okay. Dissatisfaction is acceptable. What is unacceptable in the eyes of God is failing to respect the government. Even if we do not like the current government officials, we are called to be good citizens, to obey the laws, and to not break the rules. In doing so, we honor God and the authorities that He has allowed to govern over us.