Acts 7:44-53 – Pickle Barrel Christians

“The Holy Tent where God spoke to our ancestors was with them in the desert. God told Moses how to make this Tent, and he made it like the plan God showed him. Later, Joshua led our ancestors to capture the lands of the other nations. Our people went in, and God forced the other people out. When our people went into this new land, they took with them this same Tent they had received from their ancestors. They kept it until the time of David, who pleased God and asked God to let him build a house for him, the God of Jacob. But Solomon was the one who built the Temple.

“But the Most High does not live in houses that people build with their hands. As the prophet says:

‘Heaven is my throne,
    and the earth is my footstool.
So do you think you can build a house for me? says the Lord.
    Do I need a place to rest?
Remember, my hand made all these things!’”

Stephen continued speaking: “You stubborn people! You have not given your hearts to God, nor will you listen to him! You are always against what the Holy Spirit is trying to tell you, just as your ancestors were. Your ancestors tried to hurt every prophet who ever lived. Those prophets said long ago that the One who is good would come, but your ancestors killed them. And now you have turned against and killed the One who is good. You received the law of Moses, which God gave you through his angels, but you haven’t obeyed it.” (New Century Version)

Every year it’s a guarantee that some folks will complain about the weather. In the summer it’s too hot; in the winter, too cold. Can’t wait for autumn to come, then when it’s here, the murmuring comes out about how the weekend weather won’t cooperate with personal plans.

No matter the season, no matter the weather, somebody will be grumbling about it.

A big reason why I personally hold to the Christian Calendar with its liturgical seasons is that it helps shape me spiritually so that I can avoid being a stubborn complaining fool.

It seems like some folks have been baptized in pickle juice and inhabit a church resembling a pickle barrel. They have something negative to say about everything. And even when they acknowledge they don’t really understand something, they’ll still give a stone-faced retort, “I’m against it.”

They’re, ironically, surprised when they find themselves in a pickle.

The liturgical calendar, when properly observed, keeps us grounded in faith, hope, and love. There are plenty of things in this old fallen world which can take our eyes off our calling as Christians. Pandemics, politics, poverty, and pain can mess with us.

If we aren’t on solid spiritual ground, all the misfortunes of this life can take a significant toll on us. And for all the tangible things we see which creates angst within us, we miss the invisible God because our spiritual eyes are blind from all that vinegar in the pickle barrel.

Like the ancient Israelites for whom Stephen railed against in our New Testament lesson for today, we might become stubborn, hard-headed, and inflexible. We get lost in doing things our own way, and wanting our way, to the neglect of what God wants. 

Whenever that happens, there is damage to God’s people, God’s name, and God’s law. Rather than tongues being used for praising the Lord and encouraging others, God’s prophets who are calling us to holiness are verbally decapitated.

Anytime someone believes they have piously figured out everything, they will soon find themselves fighting against God.

The Lord of All has not called us to figure out every mystery and nail down each uncertainty. Those who claim to have done it are living in a pickle barrel. Perhaps they will eventually discover how large and immense God really is – much bigger than our puny thoughts and misguided practices. 

How then shall we live?

Let go of our illusions of power and privilege.

Submit afresh to the Lord for whom we must bow in all things. 

Open our spiritual eyes so that we can see the God who made the universe.

Take up our holy calling as Christ’s ambassadors, instead of expecting Jesus to be the ambassador for us.

If we can do that, then we are well on our way to seeing the grand and immense God of all.

So be humble under God’s powerful hand. Then he will lift you up when the right time comes.

1 Peter 5:6, ERV

The following practices can help us become more spiritually flexible and open to the Spirit’s work:

  • Stretch your faith muscle. Physical muscles which get little to no use will atrophy – which is why people who are confined to bed or with limitations need physical therapists to help work the muscles. Spiritually, if we are rarely or never in positions which work our faith muscle, then that faith will diminish and eventually atrophy. Faith is not static, but dynamic. It needs to be worked.
  • Breathe deeply. Proper breathing is essential in using our bodies. The same is true spiritually. Fear, worry, and anxiety cause us to have shallow breathing and unable to think straight. When we are amped-up about something, focus on doing some breath prayers, i.e., breathing in saying, “More of you,” and breathing out saying, “Less of me.”
  • Avoid extreme positions. A hyper-extended muscle will tear and cause a lot of damage. An acceptance of limitations and an awareness of our body’s true capacity prevents us from trying to do something our body simply cannot do. Our faith will not support extreme positions which alienate people and put God to the test.
  • Move more. Getting in bodily shape does not have to be dramatic and involve triathlons. Most of us simply need to get out of our chairs and move a bit more and we would be a lot healthier. Faith is mostly lived in the mundane daily decisions of life. Consistently taking small steps of faith each day will go a long way toward our spiritual health and vitality – not to mention helping us see a big God at work.
  • Listen. It is always best to listen to your body— only push it as far as it can handle, even if it is little by little. Many people would be better served if they would just listen to their gut and the spirit God put within them – rather than pushing themselves and others beyond what they can handle. Behind the attempt at doing too much is typically an issue of wanting the kind of control God possesses.

To do the will of God, we must have a growing awareness of a big unlimited God who cannot be contained in a tent or a building; and a small, limited self who is dependent upon God.

This will take relaxing the puckered pickle face and opening to greater flexibility. If you are not in the habit of following the Christian Calendar through the year, now is a good time to start. After all, nobody wants to smell like they just crawled out of a pickle barrel.

Holy God, heaven is your throne and the earth your footstool. You cannot be kept within any one church or any single place.  You are much too big for that!  Forgive me for my small thoughts of you and my weak faith. I humble myself before you so that you can live in and through me for the sake of Jesus. Amen.

Deuteronomy 9:15-24 – The Dark Underbelly of Sin

“Golden Calf” by John Bradford

Moses continued: “So, while the mountain was blazing with fire I turned and came down, holding in my hands the two stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant. There below me I could see that you had sinned against the Lord your God. You had melted gold and made a calf idol for yourselves. How quickly you had turned away from the path the Lord had commanded you to follow! So, I took the stone tablets and threw them to the ground, smashing them before your eyes.

“Then, as before, I threw myself down before the Lord for forty days and nights. I ate no bread and drank no water because of the great sin you had committed by doing what the Lord hated, provoking him to anger. I feared that the furious anger of the Lord, which turned him against you, would drive him to destroy you. But again, he listened to me. The Lord was so angry with Aaron that he wanted to destroy him, too. But I prayed for Aaron, and the Lord spared him. I took your sin—the calf you had made—and I melted it down in the fire and ground it into fine dust. Then I threw the dust into the stream that flows down the mountain.

“You also made the Lord angry at Taberah, Massah, and Kibroth-hattaavah. And at Kadesh-barnea the Lord sent you out with this command: ‘Go up and take over the land I have given you.’ But you rebelled against the command of the Lord your God and refused to put your trust in him or obey him. Yes, you have been rebelling against the Lord as long as I have known you. (New Living Translation)

I’m really glad there was no social media back in the day when the Israelites made the golden calf idol. Most people tend to post flattering pictures of happy families and wonderful experiences. Somehow, methinks the ancient Israelites would have tried to make the whole thing at Mount Sinai look like some party we would envy going to.

But there’s always a dark underbelly to all the glitter and photoshopped pics. And God sees and knows it all.

God is full of grace, steadfast love, and covenant commitment. Yet, this does not mean that God is okay with disobedience and people doing whatever the heck they want to do. The Lord has anything but a shoulder-shrugging “meh” attitude toward hedonism. 

In fact, grace only exists because of sin. Where there is boundless grace and compassion there will be found bucket loads of self-absorbed behavior. And, oh my, was there a load of it among the ancient Israelites! They were characterized as stubborn, rebellious, and idolatrous. It’s the kind of stuff that evokes the ire of God.

Genuinely godly people share God’s heart and interests. That is, what upsets God, upsets them; and what makes God pleased, makes them pleased. Moses was in sync with God. So, he was visibly angered by the people’s idolatry. Moses confronted the people with going far astray from the Lord. And, what’s more, Moses showed that his heart reflects God’s heart by immediately engaging in an extended time of fasting and prayer on their behalf – forty days and forty nights.

Lackadaisical attitudes and approaches toward God are a dime-a-dozen with many so called believers. There is little to no sustained, prolonged, and focused times of prayer and fasting among both individuals and groups of people. Many folks are simply too busy indulging in revelry with their idols of money, sex, power, and perfectionist control. 

Until we are cut to the heart with this present darkness of empty souls and vacuous spirits, which run to everything and everyone but God, there will be no entering the Promised Land of peace, love, and joy in the Holy Spirit. 

The dark underbelly of sin needs to be turned over so that it can be exposed to the purifying light of God’s glory. The worms of guilt must be unearthed, spread before the heat of the Son, and destroyed. The heavy load of shame needs to be jettisoned and thrown into the fire of God’s wrath.

The glory of the Lord is almost upon us, and the season of Lent is nearly here. So, let us make a solid spiritual plan for the forty days leading up to Easter for prayer and fasting on behalf of our own wrongdoing and shortcomings, as well as for the sin of the world.

Holy God, idolatry brings about your wrath because you cannot stand the lack of love in the world. I bow before you and bend the knee to your sovereign reign in my life. Please lead me in your way of righteousness and have mercy on those trapped in darkness so that we might see you, through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen.

Deuteronomy 9:6-14 – Remember and Learn

Moses and the Masks by Israel Tsvaygenbaum, 2002

So, understand this: It’s not because you’ve been living right that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess. You are impossible to deal with!

Never forget how you made the Lord your God angry in the desert. You’ve rebelled against the Lord from the day you left Egypt until you came here. Even at Mount Horeb you made the Lord so angry that he wanted to destroy you. When I went up on the mountain to get the stone tablets, the tablets of the promise that the Lord made to you, I stayed on the mountain 40 days and 40 nights without food or water. Then the Lord gave me the two stone tablets inscribed by God himself. On them were written all the words that the Lord spoke to you from the fire on the mountain on the day of the assembly.

At the end of the 40 days and 40 nights, the Lord gave me the two stone tablets with his promise on them. He told me, “Leave right away. Your people whom you brought out of Egypt have ruined everything. They’ve quickly turned from the way I commanded them to live. They’ve made an idol for themselves.”

The Lord also said to me, “I’ve seen these people, and they are impossible to deal with. Leave me alone! I’ll destroy them and wipe their name off the earth. Then I’ll make you into a nation larger and stronger than they are.” (God’s Word Translation)

Significant things happen on mountains in the Bible. In the anticipation of Transfiguration Sunday, in which Christ’s glory is revealed on a mountain top, today’s Old Testament lesson reminds us of a great mountain event. And it was not all bunnies and butterflies. 

The book of Deuteronomy is a restatement of the Law. Moses recalled and recounted an oral history of Israel. They were about to enter the Promised Land, and Moses wanted the people to remember and never forget God’s saving actions and God’s Law. 

Forty years earlier, God graciously met with Moses on the mountain and gave him the Ten Words (Ten Commandments). However, the ugly truth was that, while Moses was with God on the mountain, the people became impatient, insolent, and rebellious. They degenerated into a chaotic mass riot who quickly worshiped an idol. Definitely not Israel’s best moment.

In restating Israel’s Law and history, Moses wanted the people to remember the Mount Sinai event in all of its foulness and degradation. It was important for them to not forget how stubborn and pig-headed their parents and grandparents were in running from the one true God to a false god. The people needed to avoid the sins of the previous generation so that they could enjoy God and thrive in the new land being given to them.

It does no one any good to whitewash the past or to altogether ignore it. 

Whether it is one’s personal past, a previous generation, or even a national history, we must face the sins of our forebears, to remember and not forget. We must neither be so extremely individualistic that we disconnect ourselves from our generational moorings, nor be dismissive of past sins – as if they have no influence upon us today. 

Mountain experiences can either be glorious, turn very dark, or a bit of both. We are meant to learn from them all, to remember and not forget.

Yet not all remembered. Which is why, over a millennium later, the New Testament issued it’s own remembrance and warning so that we will learn and not forget – contrasting the two mountains of Sinai and Zion:

Unlike your ancestors, you didn’t come to Mount Sinai—all that volcanic blaze and earthshaking rumble—to hear God speak. The earsplitting words and soul-shaking message terrified them, and they begged him to stop. When they heard the words— “If an animal touches the Mountain, it’s as good as dead”—they were afraid to move. Even Moses was terrified.

No, that’s not your experience at all. You’ve come to Mount Zion, the city where the living God resides. The invisible Jerusalem is populated by throngs of festive angels and Christian citizens. It is the city where God is Judge, with judgments that make us just. You’ve come to Jesus, who presents us with a new covenant, a fresh charter from God. He is the Mediator of this covenant. The murder of Jesus, unlike Abel’s—a homicide that cried out for vengeance—became a proclamation of grace.

So don’t turn a deaf ear to these gracious words. If those who ignored earthly warnings didn’t get away with it, what will happen to us if we turn our backs on heavenly warnings? His voice that time shook the earth to its foundations; this time—he’s told us this quite plainly—he’ll also rock the heavens: “One last shaking, from top to bottom, stem to stern.” The phrase “one last shaking” means a thorough housecleaning, getting rid of all the historical and religious junk so that the unshakable essentials stand clear and uncluttered.

Do you see what we’ve got? An unshakable kingdom! And do you see how thankful we must be? Not only thankful, but brimming with worship, deeply reverent before God. For God is not an indifferent bystander. He’s actively cleaning house, torching all that needs to burn, and he won’t quit until it’s all cleansed. God himself is Fire! (Hebrews 12:18-29, MSG)

The old adage from the late philosopher, George Santayana, stated in his 1905 book, The Life of Reason, is true: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it!”

Winston Churchill, restating the phrase for the British House of Commons in 1948 said, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

Let us, then, ascend the mountain with Jesus and learn from him. And let us descend into the valley of the world remembering Christ’s words and ways for ourselves and for the next generations of believers.

God of history, your sovereign reign and rule extends to all creation and has existed for all time. You know the sins of my past, the heart of my present, and the soul of my future. Do not let me forget my sins, not because you hold them over my head, but because your grace has saved me from them all through Jesus Christ, my Savior. Amen.

Mark 6:45-52 – Facing Fear

Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.

Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out because they all saw him and were terrified.

Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened. (New International Version)

Sometimes, we are afraid – even terrified. And Christians aren’t immune to the feeling of fear and terror.

The truth of the Christian life is that it is a herky-jerky process of three-steps-forward, two-steps-backward, not always knowing with certainty everything we encounter.  

The expectation that we will have a consistent upward trajectory of spiritual development with no scary experiences is wrongheaded and misguided. Throw into the mix that our self-awareness is often skewed, and that we have difficulty assessing ourselves with any accuracy, and voila! we have a recipe for the true human condition.

Doubt, fear, failure, and stubbornness aren’t just endemic to other people – it also characterizes many Christians, as well. We will face severe storms in life. They will be harsh. We will wonder if we’ll even make it out alive, or not. And it may very well seem like Jesus is nowhere to be found. Then, when he does show up, we don’t recognize him, and it scares the bejabbers out of us.

This was the experience of Christ’s disciples, who too often reflect our own stories of faith and fear all rolled up in one person. Today’s Gospel lesson is this: Our fears and foibles do not need to define us because Jesus is Lord over the water, the weather, the wondering, the waiting, the wildness, and our own whimsical natures of seeing miracles accomplished in others, then not believing it can happen in our own lives.

So, what are we really afraid of? Failure? Fear itself? Death? Irrelevance? Loss? Change? Perhaps, everything? Yes, all of life is a risky scary business. There are no guarantees, except one: Christ is present with us, whether we are aware of it, or not.

If the worst scenario you worry about in your head would actually come to pass, it will still never change the reality that God loves you and is with you.  And it will not stop Jesus from assuring us of his presence and climbing into the boat to be with us.

We don’t have any accounts of Jesus freaking out in fear, or when other people flip out in their own fear. Jesus was a person of prayer, completely grounded in his relationship with the Father.   

Jesus made his disciples get into a boat and go out on the lake – all the while knowing what they were about to face with the weather. Even though the disciples were doing God’s will by going out on the lake, they were not spared from adversity. In fact, Jesus wanted them to experience the storm because it is through the storm that we really learn faith and to face down our fears. 

There is no shame in being afraid. We all experience it. And there is no shame in admitting we’re scared. Where shame exists, our instinct is to run away like our ancestors Adam and Eve and hide, thus hiding ourselves from the grace that could be ours.

Being out on the middle of a lake during a storm did not prevent Jesus from being present with the disciples – he just walked on the water to be with them. Even though the disciples had just seen and participated in the miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand, they were not looking for another miracle – which is why they did not recognize Jesus and were afraid when they saw him.

Jesus never chided his disciples for their fear, or their hard hearts. He simply invited them, with the tone of grace and mercy, to not be afraid. And the Scripture is replete with continual encouragements to not be afraid because of God’s presence. Along with psalmist, we can say:

But when I am afraid,
    I will put my trust in you.
I praise God for what he has promised.
    I trust in God, so why should I be afraid?
    What can mere mortals do to me? (Psalm 56:3-4, NLT)

I sleep and wake up refreshed
    because you, Lord,
    protect me.
Ten thousand enemies attack
from every side,
    but I am not afraid. (Psalm 3:5-6, CEV)

When I called, you answered me.
You made me bold by strengthening my soul. (Psalm 138:3, GW)

Ultimately, fear has to do with disconnection. It is to feel powerless, separated from any resources, unable to do anything about what is presently staring us in the face and scaring us.

Yet, when we have an awareness and a sense of connection with Jesus, there are unlimited resources of grace to accept, cope, and transcend any and every storm we find ourselves in the middle of.

May the risen and ascended Christ, mightier than the hordes of hell, more glorious than the heavenly hosts,
be with you in all your ways. 

May the cross of the Son of God protect you by day and by night, at morning and at evening, at all times and in all places.

May Christ Jesus guard and deliver you from the snares of the devil, from the assaults of evil spirits, from the wrath of the wicked, from all base passions, and from the fear of the known and unknown. 

And may the blessing of God almighty – Father, Son, and Spirit – be upon you and remain with you always. Amen.

*Above painting of Jesus walking on water by Brian Whelan

**Above Orthodox icon of Christ walking on water

***Above painting: Christ walking on the sea, by French artist Amédée Varint (1818-1883)