All Saints Day

All Saints Day by Vasily Kandinsky, 1911

In all times and every place throughout history God has specialized in taking imperfect or broken people and transforming their lives. On the Christian Calendar, November 1 is the day each year to remember the saints who have gone before us. This day is meant to be a way of not forgetting the people, friends, and family, as well as long-dead historical saints, who have made a significant impact in our spiritual lives.

All Saints Day is much more than a focus on extraordinary persons; it highlights the work of ordinary Christians who faithfully lived their lives and persevered to the end. We give thanks for the gift of how they daily lived their faith. We also remember that all believers in Jesus are united and connected.

Remembering is a prominent theme in Holy Scripture. Over a hundred times we are told to remember God’s covenant with people and redemptive actions on their behalf; to remember the needy and those less fortunate; and, to remember the significant persons who influenced us in our journey of faith.

“Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you.  Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7, NIV)

The saints of the past are an inspiration to us in the present. They serve us as a model of faithfulness in persevering in our Christian lives. Through biblical stories of very human persons being used of God, as well as reading biographies of godly people who were dedicated to God in service, we gain motivation and patience until Jesus returns.

Who were the people in your life that went out of their way to communicate God’s love to you with both words and actions?  Who were those persons who labored behind the scenes in prayer so that you and others would know Jesus? 

If any of those persons are still around, and you know where they are, remember them. Drop them a note. Express to them a simple thank you for their influence in your life. You will not only encourage that person – it will help you remember and re-engage with something in your life you may have forgotten or have just taken for granted for too long.

Gordon McDonald, a Christian pastor and writer, at the passing of a lifelong mentor, recalled his loyalty and the crucial counsel he gave in a crisis: “He was there when, many years later, my life fell apart because of a failure for which I was totally responsible. In our worst moments of shame and humiliation, he came and lived in my home for a week and helped me do a searing examination of my wife. I will always remember his words: ‘You are momentarily in a great darkness. You have a choice to make. You can—as do so many—deny this terrible pain, or blame it on others, or run away from it. Or you can embrace this pain and let it do its purifying work as you hear the things God means to whisper into your heart during the process. If you choose the latter, I expect you will have an adventurous future modeling what true repentance and grace is all about.’”

We truly stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us in faith and patience. We will continue to persevere and thrive in faith when we remember them and allow those here in the present to journey with us along this road of faith.

Today is an intentional day of remembrance. We remember answered prayer and salvation. We recollect the people who gave us the life-giving gospel message in both word and deed. We remember the death of Christ and recall that he said he is coming back.

All Saints Day by Kandinsky, 1913

It is sage to recall events of rescue and pull them forward into the present so that all God’s worshipers can taste and see that the Lord is good. This is exactly what the Apostle Peter did for a church which needed to recall and remember the mighty acts of God:

Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:2-5, NIV)

Our memories are accessed through symbols and with taste and sight. God uses symbols as a means of revelation. For example, when the Lord wanted to demonstrate the ugliness of sin and the cost of forgiveness, he told the Israelites to kill an animal and sprinkle its blood on their clothing and on the altar. It sounds awful. Yet, the worshiper never walked away from the experience scratching his head and wondering what it was all about because he encountered and tasted the drama of sin and redemption. His senses saw it, felt it, smelled it, and tasted the meat from it. 

Symbols have the power to access other parts of our being in knowing God. We are more than thinking beings; we are also emotional and sensory creatures. We need ordinary events, like shared meals, that include symbols and rituals. Every year faithful Jews gather to remember and re-enact the Passover – the story of how they were enslaved in Egypt, oppressed by Pharaoh, and set free by God. To this day pious Jews still remember the Passover by eating and drinking together and telling stories.

We need both words and sacraments. Therefore, holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas involve both verbal expressions of gratitude and love, and particular actions of kindness and gratitude in giving gifts and sharing food. Together, it all connects us to God, to one another, and to a history of God’s people. Jesus met his disciples in the Upper Room to celebrate Passover together. Jesus energized their time together by filling it with words and symbols of care and redemption. Jesus told the disciples about his upcoming death and provided symbols which reinforced the words. 

“Take and eat – this is my body…. Take this cup – drink from it, all of you” (Luke 22:7-20). Rather than analyzing the bread and discussing the wine’s vintage, the disciples simply ate and drank. They tasted real food and drink. They also tasted real spiritual food. It is one thing to speak of God’s presence, and it is another to experience that presence through an ordinary shared ritual of bread and cup.

God is good, all the time; and, all the time, God is good. Jesus is our Emmanuel, God with us. Christ is present with us through our ritual of fellowship and food. When the sixteenth-century Reformer John Calvin was asked how Jesus is present to us at the Lord’s Supper he explained, “Now if anyone asks me how this takes place, I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret too lofty for either the mind to comprehend or my words to declare….  I rather experience it than understand it.”

The taste of real bread reminds us of the physical incarnation of Christ, and Christ’s humiliation and death. Drinking from the tangible cup reminds us of the bodily sacrifice of Christ, the drops of blood which Jesus sweat in Gethsemane, and the beatings, floggings, nails, and crown of thorns that caused the bleeding. Tasting the bread and cup when celebrating communion reminds us that our sins are forgiven, we are united to Christ, and we are united together. 

There are historical events which happened and are forgotten. Then, there are past actions which linger with continual results into the present. The incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and glorification of the Lord Jesus are past redemptive events which continue to exert powerful force into the here and now.

Saints throughout church history moved the message of Christ along and demonstrated for us that the past is alive in the person of Jesus Christ. Along with them we proclaim that Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ is coming again. And God has something planned for those who have gone before us, along with us, so that together we will experience the perfect righteousness of Christ forever. (Hebrews 11:39-40)

Believers are encouraged through word and sacrament to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ until he comes again. So, let us respond to God’s wooing invitation to eat and drink, to taste and see that the Lord is good through faith, hope, and love. For God is our refuge and strength, our ever-present help.

Genesis 31:22-42 – On the Run

Jacob and Laban by Nicola Grassi
Jacob and Laban by Italian painter Nicola Grassi (1682-1748)

On the third day Laban was told that Jacob had fled. Taking his relatives with him, he pursued Jacob for seven days and caught up with him in the hill country of Gilead. Then God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream at night and said to him, “Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.”

Jacob had pitched his tent in the hill country of Gilead when Laban overtook him, and Laban and his relatives camped there too. Then Laban said to Jacob, “What have you done? You’ve deceived me, and you’ve carried off my daughters like captives in war. Why did you run off secretly and deceive me? Why didn’t you tell me, so I could send you away with joy and singing to the music of timbrel and harp? You didn’t even let me kiss my grandchildren and daughters goodbye. You have done a foolish thing. I have the power to harm you; but last night the God of your father said to me, ‘Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad.’ Now you have gone off because you longed to return to your father’s household. But why did you steal my gods?”

Jacob answered Laban, “I was afraid, because I thought you would take your daughters away from me by force. But if you find anyone who has your gods, that person shall not live. In the presence of our relatives, see for yourself whether there is anything of yours here with me; and if so, take it.” Now Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen the gods.

So, Laban went into Jacob’s tent and into Leah’s tent and into the tent of the two female servants, but he found nothing. After he came out of Leah’s tent, he entered Rachel’s tent. Now Rachel had taken the household gods and put them inside her camel’s saddle and was sitting on them. Laban searched through everything in the tent but found nothing.

Rachel said to her father, “Don’t be angry, my lord, that I cannot stand up in your presence; I’m having my period.” So, he searched but could not find the household gods.

Jacob was angry and took Laban to task. “What is my crime?” he asked Laban. “How have I wronged you that you hunt me down? Now that you have searched through all my goods, what have you found that belongs to your household? Put it here in front of your relatives and mine and let them judge between the two of us.

“I have been with you for twenty years now. Your sheep and goats have not miscarried, nor have I eaten rams from your flocks. I did not bring you animals torn by wild beasts; I bore the loss myself. And you demanded payment from me for whatever was stolen by day or night. This was my situation: The heat consumed me in the daytime and the cold at night, and sleep fled from my eyes. It was like this for the twenty years I was in your household. I worked for you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your flocks, and you changed my wages ten times. If the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the Fear of Isaac, had not been with me, you would surely have sent me away empty-handed. But God has seen my hardship and the toil of my hands, and last night he rebuked you.” (NIV)

Jacob’s in-law issues did not magically disappear when he sneaked out of town with his entire family. I am glad God is faithful and acts on our behalf even when we are fearful with little faith. Far too often we do the right thing in the wrong way. It is far too easy to run away from people we don’t like. Yet, it is rarely so simple. Sometimes we plain need divine intervention to deal with people in our lives.

To Jacob’s credit, he obeyed God and headed back to the land of Canaan. However, he did it in a deceitful way which avoided confrontation. Out of fear of facing his father-in-law Laban and the worry of what might happen, Jacob got out of Dodge. It seems Jacob’s wife Rachel also acted out of fear by taking her father’s idols. Fear can cause us to have some skewed ideas and do some stupid things which get us in trouble.

“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” –Jerry Seinfeld

Laban found out what was going on with Jacob and was anything but a happy camper. He went after the upstart Jacob with gusto and finally caught up to him. Despite having the power and ability to deal severely with Jacob, Laban backs off because Jacob finally found his voice and took his father-in-law to task. Embedded in Jacob’s rehearsal of their relationship is the God who intervened and took care of Jacob when Laban didn’t.

Jacob Confront Laban by Jan Steen, 1669
Jacob Confronts Laban by Dutch painter Jan Steen, 1669

The lengthy dialogue between Jacob and Laban was a power struggle: Laban wanted to keep the status quo authority as family head over Jacob’s family; but Jacob asserted himself as having his own distinct household.  In the end, they ended-up on equal footing because of God’s intervention.  Whereas Laban had his own intentions for Jacob and his family, God had other plans.  It was God who enriched Jacob with a wealth of flocks and herds, even as he was being oppressed and intimidated by Laban.

The same God, who was with Jacob, is with you and me:

  • God is with us through difficulty, oppression, and injustice.

Now, it is commendable if, because of one’s understanding of God, someone should endure pain through suffering unjustly. But what praise comes from enduring patiently when you have sinned and are beaten for it? But if you endure steadfastly when you’ve done good and suffer for it, this is commendable before God. (1 Peter 2:19-20, CEB)

  • God does not give up on his people. We Christians are often living contradictions, like Jacob, who acknowledge God and give him glory but at the same time act out of fear and insecurity. Out of the compost of human sin, the sovereign God accomplishes his will.

Christ died for us when we were unable to help ourselves. We were living against God, but at just the right time Christ died for us… while we were still sinners, and by this God showed how much he loves us. (Romans 5:6, 8, ERV)

  • God cares both about what we do, and about why and how we do it. Ethics is the difference between morality and legality; and, between what I ought to do, and what is required of me. Jacob did what was demanded of him by God; yet, he did it out of fear along with unwise methods.

Anything that is not done in faith is sin. (Romans 14:23b, GW)

  • God’s intervention is needed. Without divine help, we are hopelessly lost. Furthermore, we continue to need God so we can deal with the unpredictable attempts of others to control us and push us into a mold outside of trusting in God.

Give all your worries to God because he cares about you. (1 Peter 5:7, NCV)

  • God instills confidence in us. After twenty hard years of service, Jacob returned to the land of Canaan prosperous and more confident in God than ever. Jacob’s trials with Laban gave him a growing sense of dependence on God. Jacob struggled, suffered, and endured – and came out the stronger for it.

You know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So, let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. (James 1:3-4, NRSV)

God loves us enough to not always give us an easy out because he is concerned for our walk of faith and our education in grace. So, may you discover the intervening God and exercise trust through those times when others give you a hard time.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship as a pathway to peace; taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that You will make all things right if I surrender to Your will; so that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen.  –The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr, 1951

Matthew 28:1-10 – Fear Not

Death Swallowed Up in Victory

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the tomb. Look, there was a great earthquake, for an angel from the Lord came down from heaven. Coming to the stone, he rolled it away and sat on it. Now his face was like lightning and his clothes as white as snow. The guards were so terrified of him that they shook with fear and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Don’t be afraid. I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He isn’t here, because he’s been raised from the dead, just as he said. Come, see the place where they laid him. Now hurry, go and tell his disciples, ‘He’s been raised from the dead. He’s going on ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.’ I’ve given the message to you.”

With great fear and excitement, they hurried away from the tomb and ran to tell his disciples. But Jesus met them and greeted them. They came and grabbed his feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Go and tell my brothers that I am going into Galilee. They will see me there.” (CEB)

The Resurrection of Christ from death has changed everything – especially when it comes to fear.  In this season of Eastertide, we discover and explore the vast implications of what it means to possess a new life.  Because Christians serve a risen Savior, this newfound awareness brings courage and confidence.  Fear isn’t something we can simply exercise willpower over.  Rather, fear begins to give way to the presence of God among us.  Consider just a few of the many references to this in Holy Scripture:

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9, NIV)

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6, NIV)

“So do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10, NIV)

“God has said, ‘Never will I leave you;
never will I forsake you.” So, we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?’” (Hebrews 13:5-6, NIV)

Believe it, or not, the Bible tells us 365 times to not be afraid.  Maybe that’s not a coincidence that we can quote a verse every day of the year about our own fearfulness in the face of so much of the world’s cruel circumstances.

When it comes to fear and bravery, God does not so much command us to be courageous, as he wants us to draw from the great reservoir of bravery within.  That is, God has already created us strong, as creatures in his image.  We just need to get in touch with what is already there.  And the reality of Easter awakens and calls forth that life.

We can act with boldness and overcome fear because Jesus is the pioneer of our salvation.  He is the One which enables us to draw from the deep well of courage….

“So then, since we have a great High Priest who has entered heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we believe. This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all the same testing we do, yet he did not sin. So, let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.” (Hebrews 4:14-16, NLT).

You and I really can face the fears in front of us.  You can surmount the adversity you are in the middle of – not because of some words I say, but because Christ has risen from death.  He’s alive, and his presence makes all the difference.

St John Chrysostom
“Let all therefore enter into the joy of our Lord. Let rich and poor dance with one another.” –St John Chrysostom

The following is an Easter homily from the fourth-century preacher St. John Chrysostom to the Church of Constantinople:

“Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.

He destroyed Hades when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said,
“You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below.”

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
O death, where is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!”

Click Because He Lives sung by Guy Penrod as we are reminded that the living Christ makes all the difference today.

God with Us

God with Us

I haven’t always been a Christian.  I know what it is like to feel alone and feel like there is no God, as if I were in a deep, dark pit with no way out and no one there to hear.   I resonate with David in Psalm 40 when he said that God “lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.”

I have had many people have often asked me the question: “where is God?” in reference to their own slimy pit experience.  What I have learned since in my own dark night of the soul is that God was there all the time.  So, in response to that question of where God is, I can say with both confidence and compassion that he is right here, weeping with you; he is right here, walking alongside you; he is right here, sitting beside you; right here with you if you will have the eyes of faith to see.  I know God is here because it is Christmas; God came down and moved into the neighborhood with us in the person of Jesus, Emmanuel, which means God with us (John 1:14).

It was not just Mary that was pregnant with Jesus, but history itself was pregnant because the time had fully come for the kingdom of God to break into this world through a child who would save the people from sin, through an infant, Emmanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:1:21).

What I believe we need to know more than anything is that God is with us!  God is so great that he is not somehow trapped in heaven; he can come down; he wants to come down; he did come down, literally becoming one of us – he is Emmanuel, God with us.

God did not come to this earth with a big advertising campaign letting us know of the grand opening, or with a huge and expensive party to draw attention.  Neither did God come through a rich and powerful family.  Instead, so that he would fully relate to us, to genuinely be with us, he came in through a lowly stable.  There are many theologians and scholars who articulate this truth for all kinds of curious intellects of how this could take place, that God became man.  Yet, sometimes it simply takes a personal story, a testimony so to speak, to bring clarity.  Bono is the lead singer for the pop/rock band U2.  He tells of a time when he returned to his native Dublin, Ireland for Christmas and, on a whim, decided to sit in a church service.  At some point in the worship, he came upon the great realization, with tears streaming down his face, of what it is all about; he says,

“The idea that God, if there is a force of Love and Logic in the universe, that it would seek to explain itself is amazing enough.  That it would seek to explain itself by becoming a child born in poverty, in manure and straw, a child, I just thought, ‘wow!’  I saw the genius of picking a particular point in time and deciding to turn on this…. Love needs to find a form, intimacy needs to be whispered…. Love has to become an action or something concrete.  It would have to happen.  There must be an incarnation.  Love must be made flesh and dwell among us.”

God has descended to our messy, mixed up, broken world, standing with us in our suffering and shame, plunging head long into our pain and hurt and loneliness.  Biblical scholar, Paul Louis Metzger, has wisely pointed out that a God who is simply nice and decent would take pity and send some help, maybe an angel or a prophet – at least some sage advice for us.  And, we would respect that, maybe even be satisfied with it.  But the good news is that God went far beyond nice and decent.  On this very day God became a naked baby.  He was a fetus, then an unwanted pregnancy, then a slimy, screaming baby – he grew up and ended up a criminal, stripped naked, tortured by those who knew not who he was, and condemned to die.  There is nothing nice and decent about that!  It was done for us.

Perhaps you are not feeling close to God this holiday season, but rather far from God.  Perhaps this holiday season brings you more sorrow than joy.  Perhaps the weight of a situation that seems beyond your control has caused you immeasurable worry and concern.  Maybe you are wondering where he is.  I will tell you:  he is right here.  And he is waiting for you to respond to his coming, his Advent, his incarnation.  Throughout the New Testament Gospels Jesus is presented as God with us.  He was with the disciples when the storm struck and threatened their lives, and he rebuked the wind and the waves and saved them; Jesus was with his people as they were rejected by others for preaching that the kingdom of God had broken into this world through the Emmanuel.  Jesus is not an idea, not a myth, not a historical figure to be debated, not a nice guy with some pithy wisdom; he is Emmanuel, God with us!  And he is with us to the point that whatever happens to us, happens to him.

Since he is here, since Jesus is Emmanuel, now is the time to recognize him for who he is.  God with us means that God is here!  Since he is present with us, we can and must respond to his presence by admitting that we have made a mess of things through living by the illusion that we are in control of our lives and living as if he weren’t here at all.  But God is here, and he is looking for us all to center our lives on the person of Jesus, and to give up going our own way and instead pursue knowing God in Christ.

Maybe you are a person who has gone to church all your life, and like me years ago, are familiar with the baby Jesus and Advent wreaths and Christmas carols and worship services.  Yet, you have not come to the point in your life where you seriously and deliberately responded to the presence of God in Jesus and devoted your life to him so that everything centers on him and not you.  One of the realities of Christmas is that God is calling us all to feel the impact of the baby Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, and to let that joy fill our souls to overflowing.  The Christmas story is a story of invitation.  We are invited into the story of Jesus.  Come and see the angels singing glory to God; come and see the shepherds praising God for what they have seen and heard; come and see Mary and Joseph rejoicing in the birth of Jesus; come and bend down and see the smelly, lowly manger, and you will see God with us.   You are invited into a new life.