Author: Tom Letchworth

Rev. Tom Letchworth, Senior Pastor of Marion United Methodist Church Bro. Tom was ordained an Elder in the Little Rock Conference of the United Methodist Church in 1985. He has served First UMC in Paragould, (2007-2011), St. Paul UMC in Searcy (2002-2007), and First UMC in West Memphis (1995-1998) as senior pastor. He has also served Salem UMC in Benton as pastor (1985-1995), and St. James UMC in Little Rock as associate pastor (1983-1985). As a full-time local pastor in the beginning of his ministry, he served the Morrilton Parish (1980-1981). While attending Perkins School of Theology, he served the Maypearl/Venus charge in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The son of an Air Force chaplain, Bro. Tom has lived all over the world. He received the call to ministry while he was a member of Yucaipa UMC in California, where he started the candidacy process. He was introduced to Arkansas through his seminary internship at Pulaski Heights UMC and thus completed his candidacy requirements with the Little Rock Conference. From 1999 to 2002 he was appointed as a General Evangelist, during which time he added dramatic presentations to his sermons and preached/taught workshops in Missouri, Kentucky, Kansas, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, Tennessee, and Arkansas. He and his wife, Celeste, have written full-length plays published by Lillenas Drama (Nazerene Publishing House): Mysteries With a Message, Volumes I and II; and Meet Me at Luigi’s. They are also the proud “authors” of Sam, a creative writing graduate of the University of Arkansas, and Joe, a music graduate of Asbury University.

Epistle for March 26, 2017

START WITH SCRIPTURE:

Ephesians 5:8-14

CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

The Apostle Paul’s words in Ephesians are a reminder to those who have received a “wake up call” from God.  They had been in the dark sleep of sin. Now they are to:

Walk as children of light.

This is an apt metaphor, contrasting the darkness of sin with the light of God’s goodness and righteousness.

Earlier in this passage, Paul has defined some of the darkness to which his readers had been susceptible:

sexual immorality, and all uncleanness, or covetousness…. filthiness…. foolish talking…. jesting, which are not appropriate…(Ephesians 5:3,4).

And he makes a clear statement of warning:

Know this for sure, that no sexually immoral person, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the Kingdom of Christ and God (Ephesians 5:5).

But now, in this passage, we get a picture of the fruit of the Spirit, not unlike the more detailed fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23.  Here in Ephesians, Paul says:

for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth,  proving what is well pleasing to the Lord.

These are three qualities (goodness, righteousness, truth) that are near the pinnacle of the highest good (summum bonum) of the ethical life of the Christian.  The use of the word proving used by Paul may carry metaphorical weight.  The Greek word dokimazo is a term used to describe the testing of metals to determine their purity.  The goodness, righteousness and truth produced by the Spirit certainly pass that test!

Paul returns to the metaphorical contrast of darkness and light.  He urges his readers to:

 Have no fellowship with the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but rather even reprove them.  For the things which are done by them in secret, it is a shame even to speak of.

Not only are they to avoid the deeds of darkness, they are to reprove them and not even speak of those things.  There is a distinction between those who do these things and the deeds that are done.  Paul is not advising the Ephesians to reprove the doers, but reprove their deeds.  That may seem a fine distinction until we remember that even his readers were once guilty of these deeds of darkness.

We are reminded of his words to the Corinthian church:

Don’t be deceived. Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor male prostitutes, nor homosexuals,  nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor slanderers, nor extortionists, will inherit God’s Kingdom.  Such were [emphasis mine] some of you, but you were washed. But you were sanctified. But you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and in the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

Note the “before and after” effect.  That was then; this is now, because they are now children of light.

This may be a classic case of “hate the sin, love the sinner.”  And we might add a phrase:  “hate the sin because of what it does to the sinner.”

Paul asserts that when these things are reproved, they are brought to the surface:

 But all things, when they are reproved, are revealed by the light, for everything that reveals is light.

Finally Paul exhorts his readers:

  Therefore he says, “Awake, you who sleep, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

Based on the grammar of this passage, Paul is quoting God himself as the speaker.  God himself is exhorting the people.  Although there is no exact quote with these words from the Old Testament, there is some opinion that these words convey the same sense as the words of Isaiah 26:19 or Isaiah 60:1-3.  Still others suggest that this was a verse from a Christian hymn that may have been sung in the early church.  Or it may have been that Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was speaking these words on behalf of God.

The point is clear — those who were dead in the darkness of sin are urged to awaken to new life and bask in the light of Christ.  This is nothing less than a spiritual resurrection.

APPLY:  

There is clearly a “before and after” in the Christian life.  Back in the days of the Jesus Movement and the Jesus Freaks in the early 1970’s, a Christian might describe their lives as “B.C.” and “A.C.” — Before Christ and After Christ.

Paul skillfully uses the metaphor of darkness/death contrasted to light/life.  The person who once lived in darkness has “awakened” to the light of Christ. The deeds of darkness are overcome by the light.

The light is a powerful symbol for us of the spiritual life.  Jesus, the incarnate Word, has come into the world to bring the light:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness hasn’t overcome it (John 1:5).

Like Paul, the Apostle John urges Christians to walk in the light:

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7).

To walk with Christ is to walk in his light, and to walk in the paths of his truth, love and holiness.

RESPOND: 

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said:

Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.

This is consistent with Paul’s contention:

But all things, when they are reproved, are revealed by the light, for everything that reveals is light.

I can remember visiting the parsonage of an unmarried pastor with my wife many years ago.  He walked ahead of us into the kitchen, and turned on the light.  He said, “Wait just a minute before you come in.”   We stood with him in the doorway, and we immediately saw why he was warning us.

The counters, the kitchen table, and the floor, were covered with thousands of  tiny cockroaches that scurried away from the darkness back into the dark nooks and crannies of the kitchen!  My wife found it very difficult to enter the parsonage at all, let alone sit on the furniture!

I think of that incident when I think of the effect that the light of Christ has on sin.  Sin is sent scurrying away when his light comes near.

Perhaps another word about reproof is called for.  Paul tells us to reprove the deeds of darkness.  In our era of tolerance and pluralism, we may find it very difficult to follow these instructions.  We are taught to “mind our own business;” to “live and let live.”  Sometimes the only Scripture that people quote is when they are justifying their own sinful behavior — “Judge not, lest ye be judged!”

What a difficult dilemma.  Is a Christian to reprove those who are doing wrong?  Obviously, we are not in a position to judge anyone.  That is God’s prerogative alone.

However, we are able to assess the damage that sin does to people whom we love.  That becomes the fundamental question — do we love someone enough to warn them that the behavior in which they are engaged is spiritually, morally, and even existentially lethal?

We may all know  the familiar cliche, Love the sinner, but hate the sin.  I have learned to add a phrase — because of what the sin does to the sinner.

Lord, I know the darkness in which I once walked, and I thank you for the light  into which you have awakened me.  Empower me to walk in the light, and also to show others  that same light.  Amen. 

PHOTOS:

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Psalm Reading for March 26, 2017

The Lord is my Shepherd. He restores my soul.

START WITH SCRIPTURE:

Psalm 23

CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

Before David was a king, he was a shepherd.  This Psalm is a shepherd’s song.  We can imagine David the shepherd, gazing out over his grazing flock as the sun is setting, with a deep sense of serenity. The parallels between a shepherd’s watchful care of his flock and the Lord’s care for his people are obvious.

But for our purposes, we find a Psalm that begins as a kind of lyrical hymn developing the metaphor of God as Shepherd.  The Shepherd guides his flock along paths of righteousness  to peaceful, safe, green  pasture, and to still waters. This is an important detail.  Sheep tend to be shy of drinking from swift brooks.  Placid pools or ponds are more inviting to them.

This metaphor of water prevails when David says his relationship with Yahweh is like drinking the still waters:

He restores my soul.

Then in verses 4 & 5 the Psalm becomes a  prayer to God.  The third person becomes second person: no longer “He” but “You.” This more intimate voice occurs as the Psalmist describes God’s presence with him in the valley of the shadow of death, and also as he describes God providing protection and provision in the very presence of his enemies:

Your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.

The rod and staff are used to discipline and guide the sheep, but also to protect them from predators.

Obviously there is the comfort of provision, protection, and God’s presence in this Psalm.  But we also notice that he speaks of his head being anointed with oil.   Anointing with oil was used for healing and for cleansing in the ancient world, but in a Biblical context it was used to signify a holy office, such as a prophet, a priest or a king.  In our Old Testament lectionary reading for this week, David was anointed as king by Samuel (Click here to read the SOAR blog on 1 Samuel 16:1-13).

David sums up his supreme confidence in Yahweh that will endure in this life and forever:

Surely goodness and loving kindness shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in Yahweh’s house forever.

APPLY:  

Our most familiar acquaintance with Psalm 23 occurs at funerals. The reasons are self-evident — language that describes a comforting Shepherd who guides us through the valley of the shadow of death where we fear no evil, and then finally assures us that we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever is indeed reassuring in the face of death.

But we do well to notice that the Psalm also offers promises for this life:

goodness and loving kindness shall follow me all the days of my life

The provision, guidance, and protection are not postponed until death.  We need the Good Shepherd now and  at the hour of our death.

RESPOND: 

This is a Psalm that I can recite by heart, but it is also frequently my prayer — that the Lord will be my Shepherd, provide for my needs, restore my soul, protect me in the midst of danger, and be with me to the end of my life, and beyond.

Lord, I trust in You as the sheep trust their shepherd. Amen. 

PHOTOS:
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Old Testament for March 26, 2017

“For man looks at the outward appearance, but Yahweh looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7 World English Bible)

Start with Scripture:

1 Samuel 16:1-13

CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

Selecting a leader is a momentous decision under any circumstances.  Selecting a new king while there is still a king reigning on the throne can be perilous.

That is the mission with which Samuel is charged by Yahweh.  This is a moment fraught with danger for Samuel and for the one who is chosen to be king.  This is a potentially explosive political action that Samuel is asked to do.

Just a little backstory is required — after the conquest of Canaan by Israel around 1200 B.C., the tribes of Israel had been a loose confederation without a central authority.  There may have been a council of the elders of the tribes that met from time to time, but it wasn’t vested with much authority over the whole nation.

From time to time leaders arose who came to be known as judges. The role of judge was not an official title or position. The judge was a dynamic, charismatic leader whose authority was obviously bestowed by God.  Usually they provided leadership in times of war, but they were also consulted in cases requiring some sort of arbitration.  There had been eleven men and one woman who judged Israel in the Biblical book of Judges.  In 1 Samuel, Eli the high priest of Yahweh at Shiloh was also said to have judged Israel for 40 years before his strange death (1 Samuel 4:18).  Samuel, who had been mentored by Eli from his childhood, soon was recognized as the new judge over Israel. When he was old, Samuel also made two of his own sons judges in Beersheba, but they proved less than worthy. Samuel was the last of the  judges over Israel.

It was around 1030 B.C. that Israel began to clamor for a king, in part because of the corruption of Samuel’s sons.  Samuel himself had a unique and close relationship with Yahweh, but evidently his sons didn’t.  The result of the first search for a king was Saul, from the tribe of Benjamin. Samuel himself anointed Saul as king.  Although Yahweh had chosen Saul to be king,  Saul lost his way as he grew older.  He disobeyed Samuel’s instructions and offered sacrifices that he wasn’t authorized to do. And he also apparently lapsed into paranoia.  It was time for a change.

Samuel regretted Saul’s poor decisions, and evidently had feelings of affection for his wayward king:

Yahweh said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel?”

Yahweh tells Samuel to fill his horn with oil for anointing a new king, and to go to Bethlehem, to the house of Jesse.  Jesse is of the tribe of Judah.

Samuel is justifiably afraid.  He knows that the paranoid Saul will kill Samuel if he finds out what’s going on.  So Yahweh provides a kind of ruse.  He is to take a heifer with him to sacrifice at Jesse’s home — the pretext is simply that he has come to worship.

We note that when Samuel arrives, the elders of Bethlehem greet him warily:

The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?”

Although Saul is king, Samuel is still  very powerful.  Even King Saul is intimidated by this holy man, who wields the authority of Yahweh himself.  Samuel assures them he has come in peace.

What ensues is almost like a kind of “beauty pageant.”   Samuel invites Jesse and his sons to the sacrifice, and he begins to assess the “talent.”  He is impressed with Eliab, the first son that he sees.  Samuel says:

 Surely Yahweh’s anointed is before him.

Yahweh advises Samuel to look below the surface:

But Yahweh said to Samuel, “Don’t look on his face, or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for I don’t see as man sees. For man looks at the outward appearance, but Yahweh looks at the heart.”

Yahweh’s appraisal of candidates for leadership isn’t based on superficialities but on character.

Jesse parades seven of his sons past Samuel, but Yahweh doesn’t give Samuel approval for any of them.  Samuel may be growing frustrated:

 Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your children here?”

There is just one more, the youngest boy who is a shepherd out in the fields.  We don’t know if this son was left out of the line-up because he was lowly regarded, or simply because he was  busy keeping the sheep.   Samuel refuses to let anyone sit and eat until this boy has been brought out as well.

As it happens, this boy is also a good-looking kid, although this presumably isn’t the reason he’s chosen:

Now he was ruddy, with a handsome face and good appearance. Yahweh said, “Arise! Anoint him, for this is he.”

The son of Jesse chosen to be anointed is David, the youngest of the brothers.  The anointing itself is a powerful spiritual moment.  We are reminded that anointing with oil was a ritual that was used to initiate priests and prophets, as well as kings.  But it is also a powerful symbol of the presence of God’s Spirit:

Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the middle of his brothers. Then Yahweh’s Spirit came mightily on David from that day forward.

Although Samuel leaves and returns to his home in Ramah, nothing is going to happen with David’s kingship for some time.  Saul remains firmly on the throne of Israel.  He may not even be aware of what has happened in Bethlehem. At least not yet.

There will be many events that must occur in David’s life before he takes his place as king of Israel. And David will prove himself loyal and submissive to Saul even to the end of Saul’s life, when Saul is killed in battle by the Philistines.  This may be indicative of the character that Yahweh could see in David long before he would become king.

APPLY:  

Selecting Godly leadership is not a matter for beauty pageants or “central casting.”  Godly character is what matters.

Samuel is instructed by Yahweh:

Don’t look on his face, or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for I don’t see as man sees. For man looks at the outward appearance, but Yahweh looks at the heart.

David certainly wasn’t perfect as a king.  He committed a grievous sin of adultery and murder (2 Samuel 11).  He was not permitted to build a temple to Yahweh because he was a man of war (1 Chronicles 28:3) .  But he sincerely repented of his sins.

And overall  he did live up to the description in the New Testament that he was a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22). He never sought to subvert Saul as king, but pledged his loyalty to his sovereign.  Even when Saul sought to take his life, David spared the life of Saul when David had the chance to kill him.  When David became king, he was victorious in war, and deeply devoted to Yahweh. He consolidated the restless 12 tribes of Israel and Judah into one kingdom, and inaugurated the golden age of Israel’s royal era.

Fortunately for all of us, God is able to fulfill his purposes through imperfect people – like us.

RESPOND: 

Over 37 years of ministry, I have had the responsibility for interviewing potential employees and candidates for ministry.  Together with committees, I have looked at dozens and dozens of resumes, references, credentials, and academic records.

I could only wish in some of those situations that the Holy Spirit had spoken to me in the same way that he spoke to Samuel.  Perhaps he did and I just wasn’t listening.

Of course it is possible for candidates to lie or deceive.  However, after all of the resumes, references, credentials and academic records have been reviewed, and competence and qualifications have been weighed, there is still one more question to be asked – what about character?

This is not a matter of eliminating a candidate because they have made some mistakes in the past.  That would eliminate all of us from consideration for almost any position.  But chronic vulgarity, dishonesty, and poor choices should be a clue about a person’s moral trajectory.

Unlike Samuel, we may not be able to receive a divine glimpse into someone’s heart – but we can still use common sense when we choose employees – or leaders, for that matter!

Lord, we are faced with decisions every day about people.  We don’t want to judge them; but we are compelled to be discerning about who will lead our churches, our boards, even our country.  Give us that spiritual discernment to see the heart of those we choose, and those we elect.  Amen. 

PHOTOS:
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Gospel for March 19, 2017

“Christ and the Woman of Samaria” by Pierre Mignard [1681] is located at the North Carolina Museum of Art.

START WITH SCRIPTURE:

John 4:5-42

CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

Sometimes physical and cultural context are a large part of the meaning of Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus has been on the road since beginning his ministry.  Following his encounter with Nicodemus by night (Click here to read the SOAR from last week’s Gospel lectionary reading — John 3:1-17) which occurred in Jerusalem during Passover, Jesus has moved on through Judea, returning north.  On the way, he ventures into Samaria, near Sychar. (Sychar may have been the ancient city of Shechem, the capital of the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel prior to its conquest by Assyria in 721 B.C.)

Sychar was not far from Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim, which were also famous for the renewal of God’s covenant with Israel under the leadership of Joshua  some time around 1200 B.C.   The encounter described here occurs at Jacob’s well, outside the city. The history of Jacob’s well goes back even farther in Biblical history, to the age of the Hebrew Patriarchs.

The irony here is that despite the storied history of this place for the Jews, it is now territory occupied by the Samaritans.   We are reminded that the Samaritans were introduced into the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians after 721 B.C. in order to repopulate the area.  They had adopted some of the aspects of the religion of the Israelites, and even had their own version of the Torah (adopted from the first five books of the Old Testament).

However, there were sharp differences.  For the Samaritans, the location of worship was Mt. Gerizim, not Jerusalem.  Josephus, the Jewish historian from the first century A.D., tells of a magnificent Samaritan temple built on Mt. Gerizim.  Also, the Jews regarded the Samaritans as an inferior race with a subpar religion.

Jews avoided contact with Samaritans if at all possible.  Think of the caste system in India, or segregation laws in the Old South in the United States in order to get an idea of the attitude of Jews toward Samaritans.

Jesus is thirsty.  This small detail reminds us that though John is careful to exalt the nature of Jesus as the only begotten Son of God, Jesus is also human.  He sits to rest by the well given by Jacob to Joseph, according to local lore.

While the disciples go into the town to secure food, Jesus is left alone.  And around noon, a Samaritan woman comes to draw water.  This in itself is not odd.  Drawing water and carrying it on one’s shoulder into town in a large pitcher was definitely woman’s work in that male-dominated society, where gender roles were very clearly defined.

What is odd is that she comes at noon.  Normally, women came to the wells later in the evening as the day was cooling.  It was likely a social event for gossipping and visiting about the events of the day.  This woman comes alone, during the heat of the day.  We find out why shortly.

What is also odd is that Jesus engages her in conversation, even asking her for a drink since he has nothing with which to draw water.   This is odd first because she is a Samaritan, and Jews and Samaritans normally avoided interactions.  It is also odd because she is a woman, and a Jewish man simply did not initiate conversations with a woman he didn’t know!  When the disciples later return from foraging, it is this  they note more than the fact that she is a Samaritan:

They marveled that he was speaking with a woman…

When Jesus asks for water, it is the woman who notes that he is breaking all the rules of social taboo.  She asks warily:

“How is it that you, being a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)

It then becomes clear why Jesus is speaking to her —  it is he who has living water to offer her.  Their dialogue is fascinating.  Jesus is offering a spiritual gift, playing off the metaphor of water; the woman is very literal. When Jesus tells her he can give her living water, she says he has nothing to draw with, so how can he draw living water?

There is a play on words here.  Living water usually suggests running water, like a spring or a brook. Obviously this would be fresher than the water in a well, and preferable.  Jesus, of course, is talking about living water as a metaphor for the abundant life that he offers. But in this dialectical method so familiar in the Gospel of John, this truth about living water is gradually discovered rather than baldly stated.

The woman is still skeptical of him:

 Are you greater than our father, Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself, as did his children, and his livestock?

Jesus then reveals the key to understanding what this water would mean to her:

Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again,  but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never thirst again; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.

As with so many of the images and metaphors that Jesus uses to describe himself and his gift of eternal life, this image is packed with meaning —  the living water he offers will completely satisfy the soul, and will be a source of inner refreshment continuing forever.

The woman continues to stubbornly stick to a literal interpretation of his words:

 “Sir, give me this water, so that I don’t get thirsty, neither come all the way here to draw.”

So Jesus goes deeper in order to confront her more directly with her own life and past:

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered, “I have no husband.”

Now it becomes clear why she has come alone to the well at the hottest time of the day —  she doesn’t want to have any conversation with the other women from town.  It comes out that not only is she not married, she has had five husbands, and she is currently  living with a man to whom she is not married.  It is unclear whether she had been widowed five times or had been divorced.  All of this would have been exceedingly scandalous in that time and culture.  What is astonishing is that she doesn’t tell Jesus any of this —  he discerns it spiritually, and tells her about her own life!

It is beginning to dawn on her that Jesus is no ordinary man.  She calls him a prophet —  and this becomes an occasion for theological discussion of the differences between the Samaritans and the Jews:

Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.

Jesus doesn’t use this opportunity to bash the Samaritans, or to proclaim the superiority of Jewish worship.  Instead, he points out that soon worship of the Father will transcend religious and ethnic boundaries.  At that time neither Mt. Gerizim nor Jerusalem will be the center of worship:

You worship that which you don’t know. We worship that which we know; for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour comes, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such to be his worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

It is to the Jews that God has revealed the law, and it is through their history that the prophets have spoken, and it is from their bloodlines that Jesus has come.  But their role has been to prepare the way for all nations to come to God.  This is in keeping with the prophetic vision that Israel was a nation of priests (Exodus 19:6)  whose ultimate role was to bring all nations to God:

I, Yahweh, have called you in righteousness,
and will hold your hand,
and will keep you,
and make you a covenant for the people,
as a light for the nations. (Isaiah 42:6).

However, Jesus makes it clear that all who seek to worship God are those who do so in spirit and truth.  Those who respond to the truth that Jesus brings will not be limited by nationality, ethnicity, or culture.  Those whom the Spirit of God summons, and who are drawn to the truth of Jesus, will belong to him, regardless of their origins or gender —  or their dubious past.

This woman seems to suspect that something deeper is here.  And so she says —  perhaps timidly:

 I know that Messiah comes, he who is called Christ. When he has come, he will declare to us all things.

The rumors of a coming Messiah must have been in the air.  Of course, there were Messianic prophecies in the Hebrew Bible.  I can’t say how prevalent these expectations were for the Samaritans.  But a Messianic hope was obviously current even among the Samaritans.

And for the first time, Jesus speaks absolutely clearly about who he is:

Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who speaks to you.”

Prior to this moment, others have borne witness that he is the Son of God (John the Baptist in John 1:29-34); and Jesus has spoken of himself as Son of God in the third person.  Now he owns it — that he is indeed the Messiah.

This is interesting.  Perhaps because she is a Samaritan, his witness to her must be more direct.  She doesn’t have the benefit of the Hebrew Bible.  And when speaking to a Samaritan, Jesus doesn’t have to worry quite so much about the presuppositions and expectations that the Jews have piled on to the idea of the Messiah.

It may well be that that this is the very first of the famous I am statements of the Gospel of John.  These statements, such as I am the bread of life (John 6:35), I am the light of the world (John 8:12), and several more, are unique in this Gospel.  They suggest a direct correlation to God’s disclosure of his divine name to Moses in Exodus 3:14:

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM,” and he said, “You shall tell the children of Israel this: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

This name is called the Tetragrammaton (the Four Letters) that describes Yahweh’s eternal and immovable character.  In John’s Gospel we have been told that Jesus is the Word become flesh (John 1:14), which means that God himself has become human (see John 1:11-4).  And Jesus makes the correlation even more clear in John 8:58:

Jesus said to them, “Most certainly, I tell you, before Abraham came into existence, I AM.”

By telling the Samaritan woman I am he, meaning the Messiah, he may also be conveying the deeper truth that he is God incarnate, preexistent before the creation of the world.

No doubt, this has been a lot for this woman to take in.  And at this moment, the disciples arrive.  There is a transition, as she returns to the city —  leaving her water pot behind in her distracted haste!  She is on a mission to tell everyone she can about this remarkable man who knows everything about her.

As mentioned earlier, the disciples are taken aback that Jesus is speaking to her, but they have already learned not to question their master:

no one said, “What are you looking for?” or, “Why do you speak with her?”

They urge Jesus to eat the food they’ve procured. And this becomes a teachable moment for them. He says:

 “I have food to eat that you don’t know about.”

Once again, Jesus encounters literal-minded folks who have trouble grasping his metaphors.  Has someone else brought him food?

Jesus must spell it out:

Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work.”

The will of the Father for Jesus is for him to fulfill his mission as Messiah —  and that includes extending the Good News of eternal life to this Samaritan woman.  This is what feeds his soul.

Jesus then employs an agricultural metaphor so they can begin to grasp the urgency of the work ahead of them all.  He quotes what sounds like a proverb, suggesting there is plenty of time (four months) until the harvest.  But he tells them that if they have the eyes to see it, the fields are ready now to be harvested.  The harvest, of course is not wheat or barley, but people.  People are to be gathered in for eternal life.

He also seems to restrain any false pride the disciples might have.  He says that those who sow and those who reap may rejoice together, but he tells them:

 I sent you to reap that for which you haven’t labored. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.

Jesus doesn’t make it clear who has sown the seed —  the patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament, perhaps? —  or perhaps he is speaking of the spiritual preparation that has been made not by human agencies but by the work of God’s Spirit?  In any event, the credit for the  “crop” belongs to others —  the disciples have the blessing of participating in the joy of the harvest.

Once again, the scene shifts, as the Samaritan woman returns to the well —  bringing many Samaritans with her.  She has enthusiastically testified about Jesus’ insight into her life, and posed the question:

Can this be the Christ?

And then there is more evidence of the harvest of which Jesus spoke, which is beginning to explode exponentially:

From that city many of the Samaritans believed in him because of the word of the woman, who testified, “He told me everything that I did.”

Jesus stayed in Sychar among the Samaritans for two days, and many came to faith.  Only now it wasn’t second hand information:

They said to the woman, “Now we believe, not because of your speaking; for we have heard for ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world.”

APPLY:  

There are multiple applications possible from this multi-layered account of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman.  Perhaps the simplest approach is simply to say that no matter what the culture says about us —  Samaritan, woman, second-class citizen, outcast —  what Jesus has to say about us is far more important.

Jesus actually engages with this woman.  We might imagine her in her own city walking about in public with downcast eyes because of her reputation.  But he actually dialogues with her, and then offers her the living water of eternal life that comes from himself.

And this woman with the tarnished reputation and the moral issues, who has perhaps been seeking solace and meaning from various men, now sees that Jesus is the source of true life.  And she finds the courage to return to the streets of her city and boldly exclaim:

Can this be the Christ?

Jesus knows our lives and our failures also; and he comes to us and says:

whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never thirst again; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.

RESPOND: 

There have been a few difficult times in my life when I have sought counseling from wise pastors or therapists.  These were moments of humility for me, when I realized that I didn’t have all the answers, and I needed help.  I found these sessions helpful.

But when I think about this Samaritan woman’s opportunity to have a face-to-face conversation with the Wisdom of the Ages, Jesus himself, I can only say —  how fortunate she was!

Jesus knew how to ask the right questions that help this woman confront her own mistakes and past failures.  He does not judge her, but enables her to draw her own conclusions about who he is and whether he can help her find meaning and authentic life through him.

When we come to faith in Jesus, we have the same opportunity —  the Lord of All Life, who understands and knows us better than we know ourselves, questions and listens to us with the deepest of empathy and love.  He listens to us with empathy because he has been in our shoes, as the Word made flesh.

The author of Hebrews says it this way:

Therefore he was obligated in all things to be made like his brothers, that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people.  For in that he himself has suffered being tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted (Hebrews 2:17-18).

Our Lord, our past sometimes becomes all that we can think about, and influences the way we live our lives everyday, like the woman who came to the well.  Thank you that you meet us where we are, and if we listen to you and turn to you in faith, you provide meaning and purpose that exceeds anything we have previously known. Help me to share your meaning and purpose with others as the woman at the well did with her neighbors in Sychar. Amen. 

PHOTO:
Christ and the Woman of Samaria” by Pierre Mignard is in the Public Domain.

Epistle for March 19, 2017

START WITH SCRIPTURE:

Romans 5:1-11

CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

The Apostle Paul explores some of the positive consequences of being justified by faith.

As the old saying goes, “when you see a ‘therefore’ in Paul’s epistles, ask yourself ‘what is it there for.’”

So, if we back up a little and scan the first four chapters of Romans, we see that Paul has very systematically explained his doctrine of justification by faith.

Briefly summarized, what he has taught is that no one, Jew or Gentile, can be saved by works of the law, because:

 all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

God’s answer to human sin is to send his Son to pay the full penalty of the consequences of sin through his death on the cross.  So, through faith in Christ, those who believe are made righteous as a gift of grace for Christ’s sake.

What then is the consequence of faith in Christ?  Here is one:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we  have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,  through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we  boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.

In other words, those who have trusted in Christ enjoy peace with God because they no longer fear the consequences of sin— death and the wrath of God.

Not only do those who trust in Christ not need to fear death, but they also have the hope of sharing the glory of God! 

Paul continues with even better news:

And not only that, but we  also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,  and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Note that Paul doesn’t promise that there will be no suffering when one is justified by faith.  Rather, suffering can be a part of the process that God uses to enable the believer to grow in Christian maturity.

We can certainly see this truth, realized in Paul’s own life. He records his own sufferings as an apostle — he has been flogged, beaten with rods, stoned, shipwrecked, in danger, hardship, imprisoned (2 Corinthians 11:23-27).  And he even speaks of a personal affliction, which remains a mystery to modern scholars.  He asked God three times to remove this thorn in the flesh. 

God did answer Paul’s prayer, in this way:

he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power  is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

Clearly, for Paul, justifying faith brings peace with God and hope for sharing in the glory of God, but also enables the believer to endure and even grow and triumph  as the result of sufferings.  This therapeutic process, that leads from suffering to endurance, which produces character, finally is manifested in hope.

And the Holy Spirit is described at work in this whole process:

because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

This love of God, like peace with God, is also a fruit of justification by faith.

Paul then delves a little deeper.  He points out that justification is not intended for the worthy, the wealthy, the wise, or the winsome.  God’s grace is a gift for the weak!

For while we were yet weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man. Yet perhaps for a righteous person someone would even dare to die. But God commends his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

This is certainly counterintuitive.  To die for a good man, or a good cause might be considered noble, even heroic.  But for Christ to die for the ungodly says everything about the overwhelming love of God for even the ungodly sinner.

There are, then, other positive consequences of justification:

  • We will be saved from God’s wrath through him. 
  • Because of Christ’s death, we are no longer enemies of God.  Those who are justified are also reconciled to God.  Where they were estranged, God and sinner are now united:

 we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we will be saved by his life.

  • And the result of this reconciliation is joy.

The consequences of justification by faith are phenomenal —  from ungodly sinners to reconciled children of God.  Those who have received this new, reconciled relationship with God are at peace with God, and even suffering and adversity can be viewed as a path that God can use to create hope in those who believe.

APPLY:  

The practical application of the doctrine of justification by faith means that we are now at peace with God, and we share in the glory of Christ.

But what may be of inestimable comfort to those who suffer is the process that transforms suffering into hope:

suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,  and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Perhaps an analogy from athletics, or music, or any discipline that requires some form of sacrifice might be helpful.  A certain amount of suffering is necessary in order for the athlete, or the musician, to master a discipline — running, lifting weights, practicing scales, etc.  And the more “suffering” the athlete or musician experiences, the more they increase their physical or mental endurance.

Suffering and endurance produces experiences that build character.  Character is what remains when an individual has experienced stress and difficulty, and has emerged stronger and wiser.  A kind of “baptism by fire” like that which tempers steel.

And the character that has been produced by suffering has very likely taught the individual that hope overcomes even the toughest situations.  Paul certainly experienced hope in the midst of terrible suffering.

And we have the assurance that in the midst of all that we experience in the Christian life:

God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Whatever we may experience, God’s love will sustain us.

RESPOND: 

I must confess that I have not suffered much in comparison to many other people.  Although I have witnessed profound suffering in others, and ministered to many as a pastor, I have been spared the real depths of tribulation that are possible in this world —  so far.  I have filed away Paul’s description of suffering that leads through endurance to character and finally hope.  I suspect I may well need this doctrine in the future.

However, I certainly can identify with what Paul has to say about Christ’s death for the ungodly and the sinners.  While I may not know much personal suffering, I do know what it is to be a sinner and to need a Savior.

Paul’s words about Jesus’ love for me resonate deeply:

 But God commends his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

What I could not do for myself Christ has done for me. From one who was an enemy of God, I have been made into a child of God.  There is an old saying that tries to get at the meaning of this work of reconciliation:

He came to pay a debt He didn’t owe because we owed a debt we couldn’t pay.

All the stocks and treasuries and real estate in the world is insufficient to pay our debt, whether we are Rockefellers or Buffets or Gateses or Trumps.  Because all are sinners, only the blood of Christ is sufficient to pay our debt.

Our Lord, you have accepted me for the sake of the cross.  And with your acceptance comes peace and hope, no matter what may happen in the future.  Thank you for reconciling me to yourself in a way that I could not do.  May I live now as your child.  Amen. 

PHOTOS:

"Romans 5" by Amydeanne is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Psalm Reading for March 19, 2017

Psalm 95

Photo by Adam Theo of delicious food at Camp Clark’s Thanksgiving celebration in Afghanistan, 2011.

START WITH SCRIPTURE:

Psalm 95

CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

This is a Psalm of praise that extols Yahweh as creator and Lord over all things; but the Psalm also reminds Israel that Yahweh  is their shepherd who guided them through the wilderness of Sinai after their escape from Egypt.

The Psalm begins by exhorting the people to sing, and:

shout aloud to the rock of our salvation!

This reference to Yahweh as the rock provides an interesting symmetry for the Psalm.  In verse 8, the Psalmist makes reference to Meribah and Massah in the wilderness, where Yahweh instructed Moses to strike the rock and release water for the people to drink (Click here to read the SOAR notes for this week’s Old Testament Lectionary reading —Exodus 17:1-7).

The people are exhorted to enter into the presence of Yahweh with thanksgiving and singing —  and the Psalmist lists the qualities that elicit worship:

  • For Yahweh is a great God, a great King above all gods. This is not an endorsement of the polytheism surrounding the Israelites amongst the Amorites, Canaanites, and the like.  There are gods worshiped by other nations who are idols —  of these, the Scriptures declare they are no gods at all. But there is also the strong possibility that the gods to which the Psalmist refers are the angels of Yahweh’s heavenly court, over which he reigns supreme.
  • Yahweh has control and ownership over the deepest recesses of the earth, the highest mountains, the sea, and the dry land — he is creator and owner of all things.

In verse 6, he repeats his call to the people to

worship and bow down.
Let’s kneel before Yahweh, our Maker

Now, his attention turns to Yahweh’s relationship with his people.  He has changed focus from the cosmic to the earthly:

This King and Creator is also their Shepherd who cares for the people:

 for he is our God.
We are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep in his care.

And then the Psalmist appeals directly to the people.  Prior to this, he has been speaking in the third person plural:

Let’s sing to Yahweh.
Let’s shout aloud to the rock of our salvation!
….We are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep in his care.

Now, his exhortation becomes second person:

Today, oh that you would hear his voice!
Don’t harden your heart, as at Meribah,
as in the day of Massah in the wilderness,
 when your fathers tempted me,
tested me, and saw my work.

Note the shift.  The Psalmist was speaking for himself of Yahweh; now the voice becomes that of Yahweh himself speaking to the people.  Yahweh speaks of his grief over that generation of Israelites:

Forty long years I was grieved with that generation,
and said, “It is a people that errs in their heart.
They have not known my ways.”
Therefore I swore in my wrath,
“They won’t enter into my rest.”

So, this Psalm, that begins with praise and thanksgiving, extolling Yahweh as Creator and Shepherd, ends on a note of warning.  He reminds the Israelites that like their ancestors they too have been blessed, but they too may lose that blessing.

APPLY:  

This Psalm reminds us never to take God’s grace for granted.  We have every reason to worship and extol God as our Creator and Savior and Protector, just as the Israelites did.  His acts of creation alone are enough to provoke us to wonder and praise.

However, we also must not presume on his grace and mercy.  To test God may take at least two different forms.  One is to whine and complain and doubt his ability to provide for us, the way that the Israelites do at Meribah and Massah.  The other test comes when we put ourselves in danger with at-risk behavior and expect God to take care of us anyway.  Eventually, God may leave us to ourselves if we continue to seek our independence from him.  We must not harden our hearts against God’s love and correction.

RESPOND: 

There have been times in my life when I was absolutely sure my faith in God was absolutely sure.  Times when I looked at the stars or the majesty of the mountains, or felt his Spirit moving in my life. And I thought I could never fall away.

And there have been times in my life that I was full of doubt, when I experienced what St. John of the Cross calls the dark night of the soul; when I felt that I was tottering on the edge of the abyss, about to fall in.

I think that Psalm 95 captures that experience, and warns us of the “mood swings” that are possible even for those who believe.  We can experience the abundant life that God gives, but we can also find ourselves hardening our hearts and testing God, as the Israelites once did.

The Apostle Paul also warns us:

Therefore let him who thinks he stands be careful that he doesn’t fall (1 Corinthians 10:12).

But, lest we feel queasy and insecure in our faith, he also offers this word:

God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted above what you are able, but will with the temptation also make the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it (1 Corinthians 10:13).

We must be humble about the possibility that we are liable to fall; and yet claim the bold confidence that God is able to keep us from falling.

Lord, you are worthy of praise and worship.  I realize this every time I wander in the woods, or look at the stars, or ponder what you have done in Christ and through the Holy Spirit.  May I never stray from your side; but I know that only by trusting in you and obeying you is that possible.  Keep me close. Amen. 

PHOTOS:
"Psalm 95" by Adam Theo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license.

Old Testament for March 19, 2017

“Moses striking the Rock” [photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.] This is a detail from a stained glass window in St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh.

Start with Scripture:

Exodus 17:1-7

CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

This account seems incredible to the modern believer.  It is not incredible because of the miracle recorded here, but because of the murmuring and complaining of the Israelites that precedes it.

Consider what they have already witnessed.  The Israelites, enslaved by Egypt, had ringside seats to the cosmic battle between Yahweh and Pharaoh.  Pharaoh had resisted Moses’ plea to release Israel from bondage, and when he had refused, the plagues changed his mind.  Then, when Pharaoh changed  his mind yet again and sent his chariots chasing after Israel, Yahweh parted the Red Sea so Israel could pass safely to the other side.  The Egyptian war machine had been virtually destroyed when the waves poured over the chariots.  And when the newly liberated Israelites complained of hunger in the wilderness, Yahweh provided manna and quail.

Surely by now they have sufficient evidence that Yahweh could protect and deliver them, and make provision for them.  And yet, we are told that after they had encamped in Rephidim, they quarreled with Moses about water.

Granted, they are thirsty.  But instead of trusting Yahweh after all they had seen, they complain!  Moses sees that they aren’t merely quarreling with him — they are testing Yahweh.  The people are accusing Moses of putting the lives of their children, their livestock and themselves at risk for death.

Moses appeals to Yahweh when confronted with this crisis.  This isn’t the first time he will do so, nor the last.

Yahweh tells him to strike a rock in Horeb with the very same rod he had used to strike the Nile.  The symbolism shouldn’t have been lost on them.  The same rod that was used to pollute the water of the Nile with blood now is used to provide clear, fresh water.  The same Yahweh that delivered them from Egypt is also the same who will provide for them in the wilderness.

The names Moses gives this place are intended to be a warning to the Israelites.  Massah means testing, and Meribah means quarreling.  Here, the Israelites had tested Yahweh, asking the pointed question:

 Is Yahweh among us, or not?

They had received their answer.  But the lesson would stick with them only until the next crisis occurred.

APPLY:  

Why are God’s people so quarrelsome?  Why does our memory of God’s mercies and grace seem to have so short a shelf life?

The answers to those questions seem to lie in our human nature — we can be extremely ungrateful for God’s mercies in our lives when our own comfort is compromised.

Perhaps the more pertinent question is, why does God put up with our fickleness and faithlessness?  The answer is simply that God loves us.  But we do well to remember that though he is patient, his patience has its limits.  He may well allow us to reap what we ourselves have sown by our quarrelsome, doubting behavior.

RESPOND: 

There is an old joke that seems to fit here.  A man had built his house in a flood plain.  He was a man of faith, so he didn’t worry.  When a flood came, a rescuer came in a jeep and offered to drive the man to safety.  The man said, “No, God’ll take care of me.”

As the waters rose to the first floor, another rescuer came and offered him escape.  The man said, “No, God’ll take care of me.”

The flood waters rose to the second floor.  The man climbed onto his roof.  A rescue helicopter came and pleaded with him to be rescued.  He shouted, “No, God’ll take care of me.”

The waters covered his house, and he drowned.  When he arrived in heaven, he asked the angel why God abandoned him.  The angel answered, “We sent you a jeep, we sent you a boat, we sent you a helicopter…..”

Why must we test God and quarrel with his answers to our prayers?  He is more willing to save us than we are to receive his help.

Lord, forgive me for testing and quarreling with you.  You have never failed your people, and you have never failed me.  Forgive me for failing you.  Amen. 

PHOTOS:
Moses striking the Rock” by Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.