Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category

The next day the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there. They also saw that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. 

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.” – John 6:22-40


Today begins a series from the Gospel of John which will probably take us through the end of October – if you want to read ahead we’ll be focusing on John chapters six through eight over the next few weeks. This part of John’s gospel takes place is the middle of Jesus’ ministry, not the beginning or the end, so we’ll be seeing Jesus in action: talking with people, answering questions, doing miracles: “Life on the Road with Jesus”!

Today’s reading centers around the question “what do we do to do the works of God?” or to put it another way, “what is it God wants us to do?” In this passage Jesus will give three answers to the question: (1) don’t waste time on things that don’t last; (2) believe in Him (Jesus); and (3) trust that Jesus will accomplish God’s will.

That’s where we’re headed. But today’s reading begins with the words “The next day” – which of course begs the question “what happened the day before?”

The day before, Jesus fed 5000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. Then He went up on a mountain to pray while the disciples took the boat back to Capernaum. And then Jesus walked across the Sea of Galilee to join the disciples in the boat.

“I AM the Bread of Life”

The crowd, meanwhile, knowing there was only one boat, and that Jesus hadn’t gotten into it, went looking for Jesus but couldn’t find him. So the crowd headed back to Capernaum, and voila, Jesus was there! And they asked him, “when did you get here?!”

Jesus answers that they’re looking for him not because of his miracles but because of the free food –  and Jesus says “don’t work for food that perishes, but for food that endures to eternal life.” Of course Jesus is speaking symbolically, because all the food we eat is perishable (even Twinkies, eventually.) So what kind of food doesn’t perish? The clue is in the word work.  Don’t work for what perishes, but rather for what lasts.

What a great message to follow after Labor Day! What we do matters to God. What we do is important. What we say is important. Not because we’re earning our way into heaven but because we’re investing in the future. We’re building up riches in heaven. Jesus says in Matthew 6:19-21:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

The apostle Paul echoes this thought in I Timothy 6:17-19:

“As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”

So investing in the future can be done through good works, generosity, not hoarding but sharing… investing in people. Nothing we own, no money we have, will do us any good in the long run. We leave it all behind. But if we invest in the lives of others, we are investing in the kingdom of heaven. When we care for others, we are investing in God’s future.

There’s a second meaning Jesus hasn’t touched on yet, which is that Jesus himself is the food that lasts; Jesus himself is the bread from heaven. Jesus is going to get there in a moment, but for now, Part One is: don’t waste time or money on things that don’t last. Invest wisely in God’s future.

When Jesus says this to the crowd, their answer is, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” And Jesus answers: “This is the work of God: that you believe in him who he has sent.” No good work is worth anything unless faith in Jesus comes first.

And the crowd responds:

“What sign will you give us so we can believe in you?”

This crowd has just spent days traveling with Jesus, watching him heal, listening to him teach, watching him feed 5000 people with five loaves and two fish, and they’re asking for a sign?

But their question goes deeper than that. They go on to say, “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”  Translating this a more contemporary context, what they’re saying is: we’re descended from Abraham. We’ve been taught by Moses. Our ancestors ate God’s bread (manna) on their way to the Promised Land. So who are you?” In other words, are you on a par with Abraham and Moses?

Which is a legitimate question, and Jesus answers it: “it was not Moses who gave you bread from heaven” – which is true, God gave the manna – “but it is my Father who gives the true bread from heaven”. This is where Jesus begins to point to himself as the bread who comes down from heaven, a bread given by God to give life to all people.

And the crowd answers, “Lord, Kyrie, give us this bread always.”

And Jesus says plainly:

I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

And he says, “All who the Father gives me shall come to me, and any who come to me I will never cast out.” The Greek here is negative twice, in other words: “I will never, never cast out.” And, “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”

So Part Two is to believe in Jesus: not just in the sense of believing Jesus exists; not in the sense that there are pictures of Jesus on the wall; not even in the sense that we believe oxygen exists.

It’s more like the sense that we believe a chair will hold us when we sit down. It’s something we believe enough to take action on. To do the will of the Father is to trust Jesus with our lives.

That’s what we see God and Jesus doing: God and Jesus work together. What God plans, Jesus makes real. Even in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus prays, “Father if you will let this cup pass from me” he adds, “but not my will but yours be done.” The Father and the Son trust each other completely; and they invite us through the power of the Holy Spirit to enter into this relationship of total trust.

Part Three is to trust that Jesus will accomplish God’s will in our lives. This can be tough to do sometimes, especially when life is difficult: when loved ones get sick; when there’s a pandemic and the world is turned upside down. These things happen sometimes in a fallen world. But we can do the work of God by trusting that God’s got our backs.

God’s will is to bring as many of us as are willing into the kingdom, into eternal life. When we pray every Sunday “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done” this is what we’re praying for. And God will answer “Yes!” And Jesus will lose none of us. It is not up to us to keep holding onto Jesus, as if we have the strength to withstand all the storms in life. We don’t have to be strong enough, because Jesus is strong enough. Jesus will lose none of the ones God gives him. He will raise us up on that last day. That’s Part Three.

Over the next few weeks Jesus will talk more about this bread of life. For today, these three things are enough. (1) Let what we do with our lives be investments in eternity; (2) let us trust in Jesus and help others to do the same; and (3) let us live in the confidence that Jesus holds us and will never let us go. AMEN.


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Happy Labor Day weekend! It’s a strange year in which to celebrate Labor Day. Some of us have been working so hard we need more than three days off, while others would love to have even three days of work. For people who work full-time, we spend about a third of our lives at work; and one of the most difficult things to deal with in life is if we work in a difficult environment: a job where we share workspace with a bully, or have a boss who harasses people, or when we work for an organization that cuts corners and winks at shoddy workmanship.

(Fanfare for the Common Man – in honor of Labor Day)

Work is supposed to be a joy. The fact that so many people find it isn’t, is one more way we know we live in a fallen world.

As followers of Jesus we know what we do with our time matters.  We don’t work our way into heaven of course – it’s Jesus who brings us into God’s kingdom – but what we do matters to God. God has given every one of us gifts and talents to share with others. And God meant work to be a good thing.

In the Bible we see God working – and we also see human beings, created in God’s image, working just as our heavenly parent does. The fact that we can work is one of the ways in which we are like God!

This week I wanted to explore what Scripture has to say about work. One of the ways we pastors figure out what’s important to God is by counting the number of times God talks about something in the Bible. This is partly because God, like any good parent, knows that His children need to hear things more than once; and partly because in ancient literature the more an idea is repeated, the more important it is. Some of you might remember the old Monty Python skit: “thou shalt thou count to three… Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three…”  This is a great example of the way God repeats things in the Bible. So the more often God says something, the more important it is.

So I did some word counting.

The word labor appears 109 times in the Bible and the word work appears 414 times.

Just to compare: the word faith appears 275 times and the word love 586 times. So love is more important than work; and faith is more important than labor; but there’s some question about the relationship between faith and work – which seems to be an ongoing theological issue throughout the centuries!

Work is all through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, and if I read every verse we’d be here all day! So I’d like to share just a few of the verses where God talks about work.

The first thing we see in the Bible, in the book of Genesis, is God working. God is creating the universe and the earth and everything in them. God accomplishes all this in six days – however long a ‘day’ was back then – and then on the seventh day God rests. Genesis 2:1-3 says:

“Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it…”

This tells us that not only do human beings imitate God when we work, but we also need to imitate God and rest. Which means the idea behind Labor Day weekend is Biblical!

The next thing God did after the Sabbath was to give Adam a job. Genesis 2:8 says: “and the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed…” And a few verses later “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. (Gen 2:15) and then a few verses later, “out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” (Gen 2:19)

So the job of the first human being was to tend the garden and name all the animals. And human beings today are still doing that – farmers, and scientists, and explorers, still raising crops and still naming animals, all over the world. This planet was given to us by God to care for and to look after. That was our job from the beginning.

But after the fall, work became a curse: “by the sweat of your brow” we will live, God says. And in the book of Exodus it becomes something even worse: it becomes slavery. But God doesn’t abandon His people there.  In Exodus 5 we read:

“Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go…’” But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and I will not let Israel go.” (Ex 5:1-2)

We all know how that worked out for Pharaoh! Later on in Exodus, God gives Moses the Ten Commandments, and one of those commandments is about work. God says: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work…” (Ex 20:9) God is seeing to it that the kind of slavery the people suffered in Egypt would never happen again. And at the same time, in the Sabbath God gives the people a picture of heavenly rest, of God’s kingdom to come.

In the Old Testament, God called and gifted people to work to build the tabernacle and then the temple and all that was in them. God called and gifted people to make the plans, to build the structures, to make the furnishings, all the work. God also gave the people of Israel festivals three times a year in addition to Sabbath, in which they worship and do no work.

Also in the Old Testament, God’s people begin to discover a variety of careers. And God appreciates some but not others. Throughout the Old Testament God comments on the work the Israelites are doing. In Deuteronomy, God’s blessing on work is related to peoples’ willingness to be generous. God says: “Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work…” (Deut 15:10)

In the book of Kings the Israelites anger God by creating idols and worshipping the work of their hands. God says:

Because they have abandoned me and have made offerings to other gods… they have provoked me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched.” (II Kings 22:17)

In Psalms, David speaks about God’s work and ours. He says in Psalm 77: “I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD; I will remember your wonders of old. I will meditate on all your work… Your way, O God, is holy. What god is so great as our God?” (Ps 77:11-13) And in Psalm 90 he prays: “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands…” (Ps 90:17)

The book of Proverbs offers this advice: “Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established.” (Prov 16:3) and notes: “Honest balances and scales are the LORD’s…” (Prov 16:11)

The book of Ecclesiastes tells us that work can sometimes be a royal pain: “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.” (Eccles 2:22-23)  The writer goes on: “Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind.” (Eccles 4:4)

Meanwhile the prophets continue to grieve the fact that the people are worshipping idols and living unjustly. Jeremiah writes: “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages.” (Jer 22:13) And God says: “do not go after other gods to serve and worship them, and do not provoke me to anger with the work of your hands.” (Jer 25:6) …for goldsmiths are all put to shame by their idols; for their images are false, and there is no breath in them. They are worthless, a work of delusion; at the time of their punishment they shall perish.” (Jer 51:17-18)

As we come to the end of the Old Testament, God is still working, preparing to bring his son Jesus into the world. And Jesus also teaches us about work. He says things like:

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” (Matt 21:28-31)  (Jesus said this to the Pharisees to show how much what we do with our lives matters.)

Later on in Matthew Jesus says: “Blessed is that servant whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ and he begins to beat his fellow servants, and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know.” (Matt 24:46-50)

And in Mark, Jesus says, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” (Mk 13:33)

In the book of Acts the “work” of God is done by the disciples and the apostles as they spread the word about Jesus to all the known world. And Paul talks about work in almost every letter he writes. Just to give one example he says: “no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire..” (I Cor 3:11-15)  And Paul adds: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion [on] the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil 1:6)

Finally in the last chapter of the last book, Revelation, Jesus says: “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy. See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work.” (Rev 22:11-12)

I can’t add anything to all this, other than to say there are a lot more verses about work where these came from. If you ever have the inclination, run a computer search for the word ‘work’ in the Bible, and check it out for yourself.

In the meantime I hope this has been a blessing on this day when we celebrate – and rest from – our labors. AMEN.


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“Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” – although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized – he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

“A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”  The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

“Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.

“Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”

“Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.””John 4:1-42


For the past few weeks we’ve been looking at what Jesus had to say about the end times. Today we’re going to return to our plan of weekly scriptures. Every week the No Walls Faith Community Facebook Group posts scripture readings for the week, and when I follow this I find there’s always one passage that grabs my attention. This week it was John chapter four. [Getting Started readers – if you’d like to join the No Walls Facebook Group leave your Facebook name in the comments below and I’ll send an invitation.]

Whenever I read this passage in John it’s a blessing, and I pray it will be for you today too.

As the story opens today, Jesus and the disciples are traveling from Jerusalem in southern Israel to the region of Galilee in northern Israel. This would be a walk of around 80 miles – not quite as far as from Philadelphia to New York, but that gives us an idea. On the way they had to pass through a mountainous region called Samaria, and when they got there Jesus sat down by a well and sent the disciples into a nearby city to get food.

The well where Jesus sat down was a very historic spot. It reminds me of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia – it’s that kind of classic history. And like Jesus, when my family visited Philly we were getting hungry. Someone told us there was a tavern nearby where we could not only eat where Ben Franklin and George Washington ate, we could also eat the same food they ate, because the menu was all recipes from the 1770s. There were some unusual things on that menu, like corn chowder and venison with leeks, but it was very good. And it was an amazing thing to be sitting where the founders of our country sat and eating what they ate.

Jesus may have had a similar feeling sitting by that well, because this was the well dug by Jacob, grandson of Abraham: a well Jacob dug for his son Joseph, the same Joseph who was sold into slavery in Egypt and ended up being Pharaoh’s right-hand man and saving the family of Israel – and Egypt as well – during a famine. Joseph and Jacob never did make it back home to use that well, but on this day the Messiah, the one God promised Abraham would be a blessing to all nations, brought the story full circle and was sitting by this historic well.

…and then along comes a Samaritan woman to get some water from the well. Jesus, being tired and thirsty, asks her for a drink. She answers him:

“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?”

(The apostle John inserts the comment that Jews don’t share things with Samaritans. The two groups of people consider each other unclean so they don’t eat from the same dishes.)

You and I, if we had been flies on the wall, probably couldn’t have told the difference between the Jews and the Samaritans. Jesus and this woman both would have looked to us like Middle Easterners, and their languages would have sounded the same to our ears. That these two groups of people hated each other would have struck us as silly, because we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference – which by the way is pretty much the way all prejudice looks from the outside.

What had happened between the Jews and Samaritans wasn’t even really their fault. The trouble between them started hundreds of years before when Israel was conquered and her people were taken into captivity. The northerners were captured by the Assyrians and the southerners were captured by the Babylonians. The Babylonians eventually allowed the southerners – that’s the Jews – to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple and worship there. The Assyrians forced the northerners to intermarry among nonbelievers, which had the result of compromising their faith as it was handed down from generation to generation – which was exactly what the Assyrians intended to do: they believed if you destroyed the faith of a people, you destroyed what holds them together, which means they’re conquered forever, and they’ll never rise up in rebellion. A word of warning for our time, is it not?

So by the time Jesus was born, the relationship between Jews and Samaritans had deteriorated to the point where they barely spoke to each other. And instead of reaching out to their northern cousins, and helping restore their faith, the southerners persecuted them and shut them out.

And now here’s Jesus – a man from Galilee, which gives this woman a little bit of hope (Galileans were northerners and were sometimes a little nicer to Samaritans than southerners) – but then he’s also been hanging out in Jerusalem so that’s not a good thing. Let’s just say she didn’t trust him. So she asks him how it is that a Jew asks a Samaritan for a drink.

Jesus answers by saying:

“If you knew who was talking to you and asking you, you would have asked him for a drink, and he would have given you living water.”

Living water: water that’s moving. Water that, unlike well water, hasn’t been sitting around collecting bugs. It’s fresh, it’s clean, it usually tastes better. But there is no living water in this semi-desert area. So what is Jesus talking about? “Where do you get this living water?” – that’s what she asks him. And then she reminds him of who he’s talking to: a descendant of Jacob, whose well this is.

Jesus answers:

“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water I will give will never be thirsty. The water I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

From where we sit in the 21st century we know Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit. But for this woman the concept was completely new. She realized very quickly she was talking to a holy man, and this conversation was about faith, not water, but beyond that she’s not quite sure what he’s getting at. But she does as he suggests: she asks him for living water. “Sir” she says – using the Greek word Kyrie, or Lord (as we would say today, ‘kyrie eleison’ which means ‘lord have mercy’). She is using a term of respect. “Kyrie, give me this water.”

Jesus answers, “Go call your husband and come back.”

Ouch! Here she thought she was talking to a nice young man about God and faith, and all of a sudden he hits her where it hurts the most. She says, “I have no husband” – and she leaves out the ‘kyrie’ this time.

Even today, two thousand years later, our society is still unkind to women who are unmarried or childless. It doesn’t matter if she’s never been married, or has divorced, or is widowed. It doesn’t matter if God has called her to be single. The apostle Paul teaches very clearly that it’s easier to follow Jesus single than it is married; and yet how many times in churches have we heard things like “ooh, she’s going off to the mission field by herself? If only God would send her a husband!” And I hear similar stories from single friends even outside the church – about how hard it is to be valued as an unmarried person. God honors women who are alone in life, even if society doesn’t. The prophetess Anna is just one example. She was a widow, and spent most of her life ministering in the Temple, and she was chosen to bless the baby Jesus when he was brought into the Temple.

Here at the well also, we see God honoring a woman who is unmarried. In this case, she’s got a triple whammy in society’s eyes: (1) she has had many men, (2) the man she’s with now isn’t her husband, and (3) she’s a foreigner to the Jews. Three strikes you’re out? Not with Jesus! Jesus is about to make this woman the world’s first Christian evangelist.

Jesus says to her: “Well said. You have had five husbands and the man you have now is not your husband. You speak the truth.”

And she answers, “Kyrie, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you [Jews] say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”

That’s a sticking point for the Samaritans. It’s at the heart of their pain where it comes to the Jews: for some reason in their eyes Samaritan worship is never good enough.

Jesus answers:

“Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

Jesus doesn’t water down the truth: worship as handed down from Moses is only found in Jerusalem. But that’s about to change. Because salvation is from the Jews – in fact salvation is from one particular Jew who is sitting right in front of her at this moment. The time has come to worship God, wherever we are, and wherever we’re from, in spirit and in truth.

The woman ventures a thought. She says: “I know Messiah is coming and when he comes he will tell us everything…”  And Jesus answers, “I am he.”  Or more accurately:

“I am”

which is the name of God.


And the woman runs off – forgetting all about her water jar – and goes to the city and tells everyone she meets:

“Come see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done! He can’t be the Messiah can he?” And the people of the city follow her as she leads them to Jesus.

Meanwhile the disciples are urging Jesus to eat, and Jesus is saying, “my food is to do the will of him who sent me,” and “look around, the field is ripe for harvest!” as the people of the town approach the well.

The apostle John says, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony.” And they ask Jesus to stay, and Jesus stays for two days – in a place where no Jew would stay. Jesus was not in any way put off by the fact that these people were Samaritans, or foreigners, or people who had never worshipped a day in the temple. In fact they received him much more warmly than the priests in the temple ever did.

So what can we take away from this passage today?

  • God uses unexpected people to do God’s work in the world. If any of us here think we can’t possibly be useful to God, think again. This Samaritan woman, who had five husbands and was now living illegally with a sixth man, was so low in the eyes of her neighbors that she came to draw water at noon (instead of first thing in the morning when it was cool) in order to avoid the catty looks and comments from the ‘proper’ women in town. She was the lowest of the low – but she was exactly what Jesus was looking for, because she was a woman who had faith and spoke truth.
  • Jesus shares with this woman God’s plan for the world: Salvation comes from the Jews, through the Messiah, but from now on the location of worship is in the Spirit – the Holy Spirit. Faith finds its source, its expression, and its destination in the Messiah: not in what people do in temple, not in a set of words or prayers, not in believing the right stuff, but in faith in God’s Son and in sharing the truth with others.
  • As we grow in faith we will find, as Jesus did, that our spiritual food – what sustains us – is to do the will of the One who made us. God designed each one of us for a purpose, and discovering and living into that purpose is the most fulfilling thing we can do in life. Anything else will disappoint. When we do God’s will we are investing in our eternal future. And if we invest for retirement in this life, shouldn’t we be investing for our future in eternity? And when we invest, we work with others, “for the saying holds true, ‘one sows and another reaps.’” We stand on a long line of very broad shoulders, and we need to be broad shoulders for the next generation.
  • Rejoice in God’s goodness! We have a God who chooses the lonely, the foreigner, and the outcast, and makes them the center of the plan for salvation for entire communities. Share in the joy of this Samaritan woman, and in the joy of her townspeople who came to know Jesus because she was a woman of faith and truth. AMEN.

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[Jesus said:] “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.Matthew 25:1-13

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25:31-46


Today we have the last in our mini-series on the end times teachings in Matthew’s Gospel. The Bible has a lot more to say about the last days but today’s reading wraps up what Jesus said about his return in Matthew.

Whenever I read Matthew chapter 25 it always reminds me of Kenneth Branagh’s autobiography Beginning. Ken Branagh is an actor probably best known in the States for playing Professor Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, but he first became famous for directing and starring in a movie production of Shakespeare’s Henry V and then writing his autobiography, all by the age of 25. The last line in his autobiography is a quote from Hamlet: “the readiness is all.” In the context of that quote, Hamlet is talking about facing death – facing the end – and the full quote is: “If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.”

That’s what Jesus is saying in this chapter: “The readiness is all.” The glory of God in the kingdom of God can be ours – if we are ready. And Jesus gives us three illustrations in this chapter.

The first illustration is the parable of the ten bridesmaids. In Jesus’ day, bridesmaids would meet either at the bride’s home or the groom’s home and wait for the groom’s arrival, and then escort him and light his way to where the wedding would take place. It was not unusual in those days for the groom to be late; life back then didn’t run on clocks and schedules the way we do. The bridesmaids should have anticipated the possibility. As it turned out, this particular groom was really late, even by ancient standards – the bridesmaids fell asleep waiting for him.

Don’t we sometimes find ourselves doing the same thing? We’re so looking forward to the arrival of our bridegroom Jesus, and we wonder what’s keeping him. But sometimes we fall asleep while we’re waiting, and there’s no criticism in Matthew for doing that. The problem comes when the call is finally heard: “Behold the Bridegroom!” – and all the bridesmaids are taken by surprise, and the oil lamps have been burning so long they’re almost out of oil.

The wise bridesmaids brought extra oil with them. The not-so-wise bridesmaids didn’t do that. So they said to the wise women, “Give us some of your oil.” But the wise ones said, “If we do we’ll run out. Go to the store and get more.” And they did, and while they were away the groom came and the wedding started, and they were shut out.

So our lamps – our light, the light we have within us – is spiritual light. The question, then, is how can we keep our lamps lit? How can we stay filled spiritually? There are a few ways:

  • Reading God’s word – being in the Bible every day and talking about it with others
  • Praying – both formal prayer and just chatting with God through the day
  • Spending time with God’s people – both in church and in daily life. The book of Acts says the early disciples were always together, ‘breaking bread together’ and praising God together. We need each other, to inspire and encourage each other
  • Doing what God created us to do. And that’s what the rest of this chapter in Matthew is about.

In the scripture passages above we skipped over the Parable of the Talents, but just for a quick summary: God gives every person gifts to invest in the world, and we are responsible for investing those gifts wisely. In the parable, the person with five talents makes five more; the person with two talents makes two more. Notice the person with two talents is not expected to make five: we don’t need to compare ourselves with others. It is enough to invest what we have. But the servant with one talent is afraid and hides his talent and does nothing with it, and Jesus calls him ‘wicked and lazy’ and takes away what little he has and gives it to the one with five.

Each one of us knows better than anyone what talents we’ve been given. (BTW if you’re not sure what your gifts are – and that’s not unusual – there are tools available to help discern that. Leave me a note in the comments and I’ll send some recommendations.) But how to we use what we have for God’s kingdom and God’s glory? How do we do what Jesus is asking us to do?

Jesus answer these questions – at least in part – in the third parable. This story about the sheep and the goats is a picture of the Judgement Day. Jesus says all the people from all the nations will be assembled in front of Jesus’ throne, and Jesus will separate them like a shepherd separating sheep from goats. And he puts the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Jesus has nothing against left-handers by the way: this is just a literary device, but in this particular story the right-hand side is where you want to be.

Jesus says to the sheep on his right: “Come, blessed of my Father! Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world.” God planned all this from the get-go. From the very beginning of creation God knew you and loved you and had glorious plans for you.

King Jesus says “come blessed of my Father” because “when I was hungry, you gave me something to eat. When I was thirsty, you gave me a drink. When I was a stranger, you welcomed me.” The word ‘welcomed’ in the Greek means not just ‘you said hi’ but ‘you included me’.

Jesus says, “When I was naked, you clothed me” – again the Greek implies more. It implies protection, like putting a curtain around someone so their nakedness can’t be seen. Jesus says, “When I was sick, you cared for me” – and again, the Greek implies more than the English translation. In fact the word in Greek is the word we get Episcopal from, which is usually translated bishop, which means overseer – in other words, you saw to my health care. You took charge of it. It’s like the parable of the Good Samaritan, who takes the beaten man to a hotel and gives the manager money and says, “do whatever he needs and when I come back I’ll pay you the balance.” That’s what it means to care for the sick. And Jesus also says, “when I was in prison, you came to me.”

And the righteous will answer, “Lord, when did we ever see you like this and take care of you?” And the King will answer, “truly I tell you, as many times as you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”

You want to know how to build up that reserve of oil? Feed the hungry. Give water to the thirsty. Welcome the stranger. Protect the naked. Care for the sick. Spend time with prisoners.

Does this mean we’re saved by the good things we do? NO. We are saved by grace alone through faith in Jesus alone. But if you want to build up the supply of oil, this is how it’s done. Not all of us are called to do all these things; not all of us are gifted in all these things; but all of us have gifts in something. Putting those gifts to use in the service of others is what builds up the oil supply. And it takes time. That’s why you can’t just pick up oil at the last minute, or borrow it from someone else.

Today in the year 2020 we live in very uncertain times. We need to be always ready. We don’t know when Jesus will arrive, but we know someday he will, and we need to be vigilant, we need to be watching, and we need to be doing what he created us to do. As Shakespeare said: “the readiness is all.” AMEN.



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[Jesus said] “So when you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; the one on the housetop must not go down to take what is in the house; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat.  Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a sabbath. For at that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘There he is!’– do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. Take note, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, ‘Look! He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look! He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather. 

“Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. 

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”Matthew 24:15-35


Fig Tree Branch in Spring

This week we continue our mini-series on what Jesus taught about the end times in the Gospel of Matthew. The passage above follows immediately after Jesus’ warning to the disciples not to be led astray by the things they see happening around them. Jesus warns that false messiahs and false prophets will come and will lead many away from God, so he warns the disciples to keep their focus on the kingdom of God and on Jesus himself.

That’s the prelude to this passage. Turning to today’s scripture reading…

Whenever I read these words of Jesus telling people to ‘flee to the mountains’ and not turn back, it reminds me of one of my seminary classmates from Sudan. Many of you I’m sure have heard about the civil war there, or at least have heard the name Darfur and you understand the tragedy that has happened there.  Darfur is in the west of Sudan and my friend was from the south, but both groups of people were under attack by the same soldiers from the north of Sudan.  My friend was a boy of around 10 or 11 when the soldiers came to his village. He was in the fields taking care of the livestock when he saw the smoke of his village burning and heard the gunfire. He knew if he went home he’d be dead. The best thing – the only thing – he could do for his village was to run, and hope to come back another day and help the survivors. So he left everything and ran. As he ran he met up with other children who were also running from the same soldiers: they became known as the “Lost Boys of Sudan”. They traveled on foot over 300 miles to Ethiopia where they found a refugee camp.

My friend grew up and eventually made it here to the States to go to school. I remember hearing his bishop asking him once what his plans were for after graduation. He said: “My Bishop, the soldiers of North Sudan destroyed my village and my family. My plans are to go back to Sudan, and find those men, and tell them about Jesus.” And that’s exactly what he did.

In many ways this story illustrates what Jesus is saying. Jesus is describing the fall of Jerusalem, which took place in the year 70AD. The attack by the Roman army was absolutely brutal. After a huge riot in the year 66AD, in which Jewish rebels took control of the city and kicked the Romans out, the Romans came back in force to put down the rebellion. They laid siege to the city – that is, they surrounded it and didn’t let anyone in or out – and this was during Passover when the city was packed with visitors. The people inside the city walls slowly starved to death. Things got so bad that parents started cooking and eating their own children. The Romans burned the Temple with worshippers still in it. And when the city fell there were so many dead the soldiers couldn’t walk through the streets without stepping on bodies.

Today all that’s left of the Temple Mount as Jesus knew it is one wall, which we know as the Western Wall or the Wailing Wall. It’s one of the holiest places in Judaism, where people from all over the world come to pray. The Romans also left the city walls standing, so the army would have a safe place to camp, but an eyewitness to the events said that looking at the city after the Romans were done, it was hard to believe anyone had ever lived there. And “standing in the holy place” – where the holy of holies had once stood – the Roman general now stood, requiring all to worship Caesar.

Jesus knew all of this was going to happen, and he warned his followers to run. Jesus said: when you see them coming, don’t even go back into the house to get your coat. If you’re in the field (like my Sudanese friend was) don’t turn back, don’t go home for anything. Run! The followers of Jesus who were living in Jerusalem when this happened became refugees. They were scattered throughout the Roman empire, and they took the gospel with them.

So verses 15-20 describe something that happened in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. But, often happens with prophecy, this passage carries a dual meaning. It also applies to the end times. When Jesus says “for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short” he’s not talking about the fall of Jerusalem, because those days weren’t cut short. There will be another crisis in the last days, and when it comes we also need to be ready.

This passage tells us there will be a significant sign just prior to Jesus’ return. Jesus calls it a “desolating sacrilege”. In Scripture this usually refers to some form of idolatry – worshiping something or someone that is not God. In our time today, I believe the greatest temptation is to idolatry. Many people are obsessed with what is not God: power, success, sex, feeling good, wealth, celebrities, fame, political beliefs – anything that captures our time and our hearts more than God is an idol.

One commentator puts it this way: the ‘desolating sacrilege’ “will involve a major affront to God played out at the expense of God’s people… [and] although we may not be able to specifically identify the sign today (he says), in the day of its revealing all believers will recognize it.” And personally I suspect Jesus’ saying about ‘where the corpse is, the vultures will gather’ will take on a fresh and specific meaning when this happens.

That ‘desolating sacrilege’ will initiate a time of great suffering, and Jesus warns us to run. What this escape will look like, we don’t know – but as the same commentator says, “don’t cross your bridges before they’re hatched.” Just remember God is in control and will not let the people of God be tested beyond our ability to endure.

So when times of trouble come, if someone says to you “here’s the Messiah” or “I know where the He is!” – don’t believe it.  Nobody knows when Jesus’ return is going to happen. Jesus says many false prophets and false messiahs will come. In the Greek it says “pseudo-prophets” and “pseudo-Christs” – we get the word ‘pseudo’ from Greek – handy word, yes? These pseudo-Messiahs will be doing great miracles, and showing great signs, so as to lead astray even God’s own people if that were possible.

Jesus says when he comes back there won’t be any doubts. There won’t be any mistaking it, and it won’t be secret knowledge. He says it will be like “lightning from the east that flashes to the west”. The whole earth will know when Jesus returns. Jesus says the sun and moon will be darkened, and the stars will fall from the sky, and all people everywhere will see him coming on the clouds in power and glory. And Jesus will gather his people from the four corners of the earth and from heaven – all of us – into his Kingdom.

Jesus says:

“from the fig tree learn this: when the branch is tender and puts out leaves, summer is near. So also when you see these things, know he is near.”

What Jesus says next about ‘this generation not passing away until all has taken place’ has caused all kinds of debates among Bible scholars. I think the best way to understand this is to understand that there are layers of interpretation. The generation of the disciples did not pass away before the fall of Jerusalem happened. When the final abomination happens, that generation also will not pass away. It’s layer upon layer. And there’s also some wiggle room in the Greek. The word ‘generation’ might also be translated ‘age’ – ‘this age will not pass away until all has taken place’. It could be many, many years. What’s important is that these words were meant both for the disciples back then and for us now. Jesus assures us that even though the world will pass away, his words will never pass away.

So what can we learn from all this? What can we take away?

First, pray. Jesus tells us to pray for pregnant women and nursing mothers during difficult times. This is something we can definitely do right now. And pray that when the end times come it won’t be in winter. If you feel – as many do – that we may be heading into the end times now, pray about that. Tell Jesus what it means to you and what your concerns are for yourself and your family and your community.

Second, be on guard against anyone who claims to know exactly when Jesus will return. The sign hasn’t been given yet. The desolating sacrilege has not happened yet. Be aware as the days grow darker the number of pseudo-teachers, pseudo-Christians, and pseudo-Messiahs will grow. Don’t give them the time of day. Test the spirits; hold up everything they say against the scriptures.

Third, live in hope. When Jesus does return, we’ll know. There won’t be any doubt. And what a day that will be: reunited at last with all the believers from our families, from our churches, from our history, from the old country, from the time of Jesus, from the time of Abraham. We’ll all be there, and Jesus will coming on the clouds with power and great glory. And you can take that to the bank. AMEN.









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As Jesus came out of the temple and was going away, his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. Then he asked them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Jesus answered them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

“Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.” Matthew 24:1-14


As we head deeper and deeper into this pandemic time I’ve heard people wondering – sometimes joking, sometimes seriously – if we could be heading into the end times. (My personal opinion is ‘not yet’ but of course I could be wrong.)

Which is why I wanted to jump ahead a few chapters in Matthew to the place where the disciples ask Jesus about the end times.

In the Bible we have basically two places to go to learn about the ‘last days’: (1) Jesus’ teachings in the gospels, and (2) the book of Revelation. Revelation was written to the persecuted church after the fall of Jerusalem, after the destruction of the temple which Jesus talks about in this passage. And Revelation is written to encourage people whose lives are very difficult – because the nation has been invaded and many of them have been scattered; they’ve become refugees. The Book of Revelation is meant to comfort them with the knowledge that God is still in charge and Jesus wins in the end, in spite of how things look.

Because Revelation is meant to be an encouragement in tough times, I’m thinking it might be a good place to go when we finish Matthew. If you like that idea – or if you don’t like that idea – please leave a note in the comments. I appreciate your feedback.

In the meantime let’s look at what Jesus has to say about the end times in Matthew, keeping in mind that unlike Revelation, Jesus isn’t trying to be encouraging here. Jesus’ purpose is to warn the disciples of dangers that lie ahead and to say “be ready”.

Note this is the last major teaching Jesus gives before his death, and it goes on for a few chapters. We’ll just be looking at the first couple paragraphs this week and we’ll do more in the weeks ahead.

To set the stage: this conversation takes place during the week between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. It’s the last week of Jesus’ life before the crucifixion. Jesus has been teaching in the temple, and he has had a number of confrontations with the scribes and the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

Our passage for today opens immediately after Jesus finishes reaming out the Pharisees for being hypocrites (Matt 23:13-37). Then Matthew writes: “as Jesus came out of the temple and was going away…”

You can almost imagine the dark cloud hanging over Jesus’ head. No matter what he says to these religious leaders they don’t hear him. Jesus has tried miracles, theological arguments, posing questions from scripture, you name it, but they keep on (as Jesus says) donating 10% of their “mint and dill” to the offering plate while overlooking the big items like “justice and mercy and faith.” (Matt 23:23)

And so Jesus leaves the temple. As he does, I imagine the disciples trying to lift his spirits by pointing out the magnificent architecture of the temple. Anyone who’s ever walked into a large church or cathedral – you know it has the effect of lifting the spirits and reminding us deeply of God.

But it doesn’t work for Jesus. Instead he answers, “Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

The disciples are silenced. Together they walk out the west gate of the city of Jerusalem, down the hill, across the Kidron Valley, through the Garden of Gethsemane, and up the side of the Mount of Olives. Here Jesus sits down on the hillside looking over the city of Jerusalem.

On the Mount of Olives there are a lot of olive trees (hence the name) – so the disciples probably fixed a snack which probably included olives, and olive oil (which was made there) which is great for dipping bread in. And then after awhile they returned to Jesus and ask the question that’s been on their minds all afternoon:

“Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

The disciples instinctively know Jesus is talking about the end times, and their question shows that they are convinced that Jesus is the Messiah. They’re expecting Jesus to make a move, to do something to initiate the kingdom of God. And they’re right: Jesus will make a move in just a few days, but the kingdom isn’t coming the way they expect it will. They’re still expecting a Messiah who will deliver Israel from the Romans and from the Jewish leaders who have lost faith.

But they begin to understand this as soon as Jesus starts answering the question. Jesus says:

“Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

Jesus packs a LOT into this one paragraph!

First and foremost Jesus says, “beware that no one leads you astray.”  Jesus actually warns against being led astray three times in his reply. When God repeats something three times, pay attention!

It raises the question how might a believer be led astray? The first thing Jesus warns against is people claiming to be the Messiah. As I was reading these words this week I thought to myself: there may be a lot of false prophets around these days, but we haven’t seen too many false messiahs lately. But then I Googled it and found out I was wrong. There’s a whole Wikipedia page full: “List of Messiah Claimants”. It includes Rev Moon of the Moonies, David Koresh of the Branch Davidians… for those of you in the UK, there’s David Icke and David Shayler… and for those of you in Australia there’s A.J. Miller. And there are a lot more world-wide. Being a false Messiah is big business these days.

And then there are false prophets. These are people who don’t claim to be the Messiah but who come to us in the name of Jesus teaching things Jesus would never teach. The apostle John writes:

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (I John 4:1)

And if that was true back then, how much more is it true now? Test the spirits always. Any teacher who speaks in the name of Jesus – including myself – hold the words up against scripture. Ask yourself: does this person give glory to God? Does this person lead you to want to know God more? Does this person love? The apostle John says:

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (I John 4:7-8)

The great Bible teacher Charles Simeon wrote in his commentary on this passage: “Let us above all things cultivate a spirit of love… [and] let us ask of God the assistance of the Holy Spirit.” These are the two sure ways of avoiding false prophets and false teachers: love, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

If you listen to a false prophet or a false teacher, you won’t walk away feeling love. You may walk away feeling proud, or feeling angry at people who aren’t carrying their weight. You may walk away with some of the greatest mic-drop comments you’ve ever heard in your life. You may walk away feeling frustrated that Jesus isn’t fixing the problems in the world. You may walk away feeling like you’ve found the most amazing pastor in the world, and you’re so lucky to know him, but your focus is more on the pastor than on Jesus. I knew a pastor a few years ago who said to his congregation, “don’t follow me, follow Jesus.” That’s a real pastor, because a real pastor leads you to Jesus.

Jesus said: Beware that no-one leads you astray from God. Jesus goes on to say:

“you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

I’m over 60 years old now and I can’t remember a time when there were NOT wars and rumors of wars in the world, or when there were NOT famines and earthquakes and other disasters (of which this pandemic is yet another).  I bet if you asked an 80-year-old they’d say the same thing. All these evils in the world have been in the world as long as there’s been human history. The thing is, with world-wide instantaneous media we now know more about these disasters, and much sooner, than people did in the past. I think that may be part of why it seems like they never stop. But Jesus says this is just the beginning.

Jesus says:

“Then they will hand you over to be tortured (some translations say ‘oppressed’ or ‘afflicted’ – it may not be specifically torture) and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name.”

Jesus doesn’t say this to make us paranoid. And it doesn’t mean every Christian on earth will die a violent death. It means for all of us it’s a possibility, and we need to count the cost. We need to be aware that people in the past have given their lives for the sake of the gospel, and in some countries today people still do give their lives rather than deny Christ, and we may be called to do the same.

As a result, Jesus says, “many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.” Again, Jesus’ concern is that we not be led astray. Don’t let anything come between you and Jesus. Don’t let anything in your life be more important than Jesus.

Jesus continues: “because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold.”

Brothers and sisters, we live in a time of lawlessness. I don’t need to go into the details of what this means to us today. When Jesus speaks of lawlessness, he’s speaking of the Ten Commandments and he’s saying people aren’t obeying them. And many of our laws today have their roots in the Ten Commandments: thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness in court – these laws are still on the books today.

The problem with living in a time of lawlessness is it’s dangerous. Safety goes out the window and it becomes every man for himself, every woman for herself. And the bottom line result is that love grows cold, because everybody’s looking out for themselves. It’s not safe to love any more. This is the greatest tragedy that can come to any people, to lose the ability to love. God is love, and if love is too dangerous then we’ve lost God. We’ve left God behind.

And isn’t that exactly what we’re seeing going on around us during this time of pandemic? People afraid that their rights are being taken away; people afraid to go to the grocery store because others don’t love enough to put a mask on? We see young men dead in our streets, we see broken storefronts, and at our borders we see children being torn away from their parents, while our national leaders are so immobilized by the disgust they feel for each other that they can’t even work together. And the question is, where is love?

When lawlessness has the upper hand, it takes great courage to keep on following Jesus, to keeping on loving, to keep on offering hospitality to people we come in contact with, no matter who they are, no matter where they come from, in the name of Jesus.

Jesus says, “the one who endures to the end will be saved.” That is, the one who stands their ground. That’s a word of encouragement.

And Jesus also says:

“This good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.”

People are working on this as we speak. There’s a group called Wycliffe Bible Translators here in the US and also in the UK and Ireland who are working on translating the Bible into every language on earth. They’re aiming to have at least one book of the Bible in every language by the year 2025 – which is ambitious, but it also indicates they’re getting closer. Having the good news proclaimed throughout the world won’t take a whole lot longer.

So I’d like to end today by recapping Jesus’ advice to the disciples, because it still very much applies to us today. Beware no one leads you astray. No matter what happens, stay close to Jesus, look for his love, listen for the Spirit.

Don’t be alarmed by what you see and hear. I know that’s not easy: but be aware whatever we see on the news, God already knows, and God is still in charge. Don’t be alarmed – but also understand that as society becomes more lawless ‘the love of many will grow cold’. Don’t let your love grow cold.

As one young writer for Christianity Today wrote last week, what we listen to forms us and shapes our lives. If we listen to anger, anger will grow in us. If we listen to sarcasm, sarcasm will grow in us. If we listen to pride, pride will grow in us. If we listen to fear, fear will grow in us. But if we listen to Jesus, the Lord of Love will grow in us. Who and what do we want to be formed by?

Hold on to Jesus – the King of Kings the Lord of Lords, and the Lord of love – with confidence and with assurance, and don’t let go. AMEN.


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Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.Matthew 16:13-20


Today I want to talk about GLORY: the glory of Jesus, the glory of God.

The dictionary says glory has to do with “high renown or honor won by great achievements” and/or has to do with “magnificence or great beauty”.

In today’s scripture we see both. That’s why I chose Non Nobis Domine as our prelude today: “not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name be the glory.” In this passage from Matthew we see the glory of Jesus and the glory of God the Father as they draw the disciples closer and further into the Kingdom.

Matthew begins the story by telling us Jesus and the disciples are in the region of Caesarea Philippi. There were lots of towns named Caesarea back in those days – it was a way of honoring Caesar, to name a town after him – so a town needed a second name so you knew which Caesarea you were talking about. Caesarea Philippi was in northern Israel near the border of Lebanon and Syria in what is today called the Golan Heights. And the town had a shrine to the Greek god Pan.

Let’s just say Jesus and the disciples were far from home, both physically and spiritually.

Jesus probably brought the disciples here to spend time with them away from the crowds, and to begin to teach them that he would need to go to Jerusalem soon and be crucified.

So in the opening verse, Jesus puts a question to the disciples. He asks: “Who do the people say I, the Son of Man, am?” Jesus frequently talks about the “Son of Man” in the Gospels – by which he means himself – but this is the only time where Jesus specifically identifies himself as the Son of Man. The title Son of Man comes from the book of Daniel where the prophet writes:

“The Ancient of Days (that is, God) gave to the one like a Son of Man ‘dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom… shall not be destroyed.’” (Daniel 7:13-14)

That’s glory for you!

In answering Jesus’ question, the disciples offered a number of possibilities. They said: some say John the Baptist come back to life. Some say Elijah. Others say Jeremiah or one of the prophets.

These answers weren’t really so far off. The people believed in resurrection; and John the Baptist was fresh on their minds, having been killed only a few weeks before; in fact King Herod himself thought Jesus was John the Baptist reincarnated. So the crowds were right in sensing something in common between Jesus and these men of great faith. They sensed a glory in this son of a carpenter.

But then Jesus asked the disciples; “who do you say I am?” (and he’s asking all of them; the ‘you’ is plural).

This is an important question for us too. Every person on the planet will someday need to answer question: who do you say Jesus is?

All of a sudden the disciples fall silent. And then Peter speaks up and says: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

Notice Peter says the Christ. Christ is a title, not a name. Kind of like when you say ‘Queen Elizabeth’: ‘Queen’ is the title, ‘Elizabeth’ is the name. With Jesus, ‘Christ’ is the title and ‘Jesus’ is the name.

We also get the word ‘christen’ from ‘Christ’. ‘Christen’ means to anoint; but back in those days they didn’t christen babies, they christened future kings, and they did this by pouring oil over their heads. And when God christened someone, when God anointed someone, God not only gave them a title but also gave them the ability to do that job, to fulfill that role.

Side note: Peter also calls Jesus the ‘son of the living God,’ in contrast to all the dead idols in this town devoted to Pan where they were. There are lifeless idols in our own time as well: things people worship that are not gods and have no power or life in them. They are lifeless idols; Jesus is the son of the living God.

Jesus the Christ has been christened the future king. This is why Jesus and the disciples, whenever they traveled, preached the message: “the kingdom of God is near! Change course and believe the good news!” This wasn’t theology they were preaching – the future King was really there!

“And we beheld his glory,” the apostle John says, “the glory of the one and only Son who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

So to sum up, Peter is saying that Jesus is the Crown Prince of Heaven, the Son of the Living God.

And Jesus answers: “you are blessed!” – meaning that only God could have given Peter that answer. And this is true of anyone who believes. If you know that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed King, the Son of God – then God alone has revealed this to you. How this happens is different for each one of us. Some people come to this knowledge by reading the Bible; some come through friends; some through nature; I’ve even heard of one person who came to this knowledge by trying to disprove it. But whatever happens – the moment of realization when the truth breaks over your awareness and you realize that Jesus is everything he claims to be and more – this comes from God. It comes when God’s spirit touches your own, and life is never the same from that point on. (By the way, if you’ve never experienced this certainty, pray about it – it’s a conversation God loves to take part in!)

Jesus said to Peter: “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” The word ‘revealed’ in Greek is apekalupsen (sp?) – it’s the word we get ‘apocalypse’ from, and it means ‘revelation’ (which is why the last book in the Bible is called Revelation – it’s when Jesus is finally crowned as king and revealed in all his glory.)

Jesus also says to Peter: “I say to you: you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Peter and rock is a play on words in Greek: Petros, the name Peter, and petra, the rock. “You are Petros and on this petra I will build my church.”

We also need to look at the word church because the church as we know it didn’t exist yet, so what was Jesus talking about when he talked about church? In Greek the word is ekklesian – which is the word we get ecclesiastical from, which in our day basically means ‘having to do with the church’.  But in the Greek the word means assembly or congregation or group (of Christ-followers). In other words, in Greek the word church has to do with people not real estate.

Many of us have discovered this, or re-discovered it, especially during this strange pandemic time: the church truly is not the building; the church is the people. You are the ekklesian, by the grace of God, by the revelation of God, by the blessing of God.  Whenever you say “Jesus is the Christ” you build up and strengthen and become part of the foundation of the church. This is the rock on which the fellowship is built, and the forces of evil cannot overcome it.

Jesus then says to Peter:

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

There’s been a lot of confusion and disagreement about the meaning of this verse. Let me start by saying this: when Jesus says “I will give you the keys of the kingdom…” the word ‘you’ is singular. Jesus is talking to Peter and only Peter. He’s not talking to the other disciples and he’s not talking to us in the 21st century. Just Peter.

Basically what Jesus is doing is handing off the leadership of this new Jesus movement to Peter. Just as Moses handed off leadership of the Israelites to Joshua before they crossed into the Promised Land, Jesus is handing off leadership to Peter. It’s just a few weeks before his crucifixion. Jesus knows his followers will need someone to look to, someone to help this ekklesian hang together. After Jesus’ ascension Peter gathers the believers in Jerusalem; Peter preaches on the first Pentecost; Peter becomes the lead spokesperson; and Paul defers to Peter’s leadership even though Paul has a better education and a higher social status.

After his resurrection, Jesus will tell Peter three times, “Feed my sheep. Feed my lambs.”  Jesus knows the early church will need leadership. And Jesus knows we need leadership in our time too. Pray for this. Pray, in our difficult time, that Jesus will raise up leaders for our time who will be as faithful and as blessed by God as Peter was.

And then after all this, Jesus ordered the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ!

Why would Jesus keep this a secret? This question has kept theologians busy for 2000 years… and I have nothing to add to what they’ve written. Maybe the time wasn’t right to tell the crowds. Maybe telling too many people might in some way have detoured the road to the crucifixion. Maybe, like the disciples in next week’s lesson, they weren’t ready to understand that the Messiah had to die. Peter himself suffered three days of doubt and darkness on that crucifixion weekend – and if his faith could be shaken, what would it do to other peoples’ faith? It could be any of these things, but we really don’t know.

For today the important question is: who do we say Jesus is? The answer to this question is life-changing. And when we answer, do we answer in words only, or in actions as well?

In the meantime, today we celebrate Jesus’ glory: the glory of the only Son of the Father; the glory of the coming King; the glory of the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Non nobis, domine; not to us O Lord, but to you be the glory.




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The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Then he left them and went away. 

When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread.  Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”  They said to one another, “It is because we have brought no bread.” And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!” Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.Matthew 16:1-12

There’s an old saying about predicting the weather: “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning.” In our reading today Jesus says something along these lines to the Pharisees and Sadducees. He says:

“When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’  And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.”

How true is this still in our own time?

Today’s reading from Matthew centers around two competing parties: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Life in Jesus’ time was different from ours in a lot of ways, but one thing we have in common with the people back then: religious and political differences could get nasty. And the Pharisees and the Sadducees were the two parties to choose from back then. (Actually there was a third party, the Essenes, but they got about as much press in the Bible as our third parties do in the news today.)

Since we find ourselves today being torn apart by party politics, this passage is very relevant to us – and we can learn much from how Jesus handled the situation.

The first thing we notice is that both the Pharisees and the Sadducees missed the point of Jesus’ ministry completely. In fact, opposing Jesus was just about the only thing the two groups agreed on! So they got together and confronted Jesus by demanding that he show them a sign from heaven.

Now Jesus had just spent three days healing people, and feeding over 4000 men (plus women and children) with seven loaves of bread and two fish. What more sign did they want?  Truth is, they really didn’t want to see a sign; they were testing Jesus to see how he would react under pressure.

So what was it that made the Pharisees and Sadducees oppose each other?

It’s complicated.

But like most arguments of this kind, there were a few issues that kept bubbling up to the surface.

For starters, the Sadducees were stuck on the letter of the law. Whatever the issue at hand was, if it wasn’t written down in the books of Moses (that is, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, or Numbers) – if it wasn’t in one of those five books they didn’t believe it. The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed in an “oral tradition.” In other words, when God gave Moses the law, not everything was written down. God also spoke to Moses, and these words were passed down to the priests and the prophets by word of mouth.

Included in these oral teachings was the concept of the afterlife. The Sadducees did not see anything about life after death in the books of Moses, so they didn’t believe in resurrection. They believed when you died that was it. The Pharisees disagreed.

Jesus, by the way, took the Pharisees’ side on this issue. In a debate with the Sadducees, Jesus quoted the book of Exodus saying:

“Concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what God said to you: “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?’ He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” (Matt 22:31-32)

The other really big difference between the Pharisees and Sadducees was cultural in nature – and these issues are still with us today.  The Sadducees were the “One Percent” of their day. They were the richest, best educated, most powerful people in the country. In a world where there was no ‘separation of church and state’ the Sadducees held both religious and political power. (However unlike the “one percent” of our day, the Sadducees were not business tycoons. There were no Bill Gates-es or Mark Zuckerberg’s back then. Their power was strictly in politics and religion.)

The Pharisees on the other hand, while they tended to be well-educated, tended to also have sort of blue-collar backgrounds. They were smart, and they worked hard, and they studied hard, and they achieved success through real effort. And for these reasons they were popular among the people. But because the Pharisees had an oral tradition of interpreting scripture, and there was more than one oral tradition, their theological debates could get really deep, and could easily veer off-course.

Jesus spoke some of his hardest words against the Pharisees, even though he agreed with them more often than He did the Pharisees. Maybe that’s because the Pharisees’ mistakes were more dangerous. Think of it this way: If something is half-true and half-lie, most people will say, “that just doesn’t sound right.”

But if something is 95% true and 5% lie, people will often swallow the lie along with the truth. (This is the real danger of “fake news”.) The Pharisees got it mostly right most of the time. This is why Jesus said “do what they say but not what they do.” With the Pharisees things could get just a little bit twisted sometimes and end up in a place that God never intended.

One other important difference between the Pharisees and Sadducees: the Sadducees, in spite of the fact that they were closely tied to the temple – you could almost think of them as being like the College of Cardinals in the Vatican (not that they were Catholics – these men were very Jewish!) – but the Sadducees served in the temple in the same way that Cardinals serve in the Vatican. They were officials whose job it was to lead or assist in worship.

In spite of these temple duties, in spite of their close proximity to the things of God, the Sadducees were head over heels in love with Greek philosophy. In Jesus’ day, the teachings of the Epicureans and the Stoics were the ‘in thing’; Socrates and Plato were a few hundred years before, and still had some influence but not as much. Anyway, the Sadducees were far more influenced by Greek philosophers than they were by the scriptures. The Sadducees thought Greek philosophy was the height of sophistication and intellectual achievement. It was classy… brilliant… exclusive… the crème de la crème, befitting the minds and lives of the “one percent”. It didn’t matter to them that Greek philosophy was in no way related to what Moses wrote or what God commanded – and in some ways was opposed to both.

The Pharisees saw the Sadducees’ love of Greek philosophy basically as turning their backs on God’s word. And Jesus and the early disciples – particularly the apostle Paul – tended take the Pharisees’ side on this one.

So in Jesus’ day the Jewish people were being encouraged to divide and attack each other along these party lines – much as we are being encouraged to attack each other today.

Because of this, Jesus’ words to his disciples are as important to us today as they were to the disciples back then. When Jesus has a moment alone with them, he said to the disciples: “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Notice Jesus does not take sides. And he doesn’t waste time sifting through their various arguments. He warns the disciples to stay away from both.

Jesus doesn’t explain the yeast remark, but I suspect it has to do with the possibility that mastering these complex teachings puts a person at risk of puffing up with knowledge the way yeast puffs up bread. At any rate the bottom line is: Beware of it. Steer clear of it.

So a few thoughts on how to do that in our time:

When you’re dealing with modern-day Sadducees – the “one percent”:

  • Be aware that the world’s philosophies may be attractive and may contain some truth, but their source is not God and at some point you’ll probably have to part company with them in order to be true to Jesus.
  • Be aware that anyone who loves church because it’s in a beautiful building – or who loves worship because it is a dramatic presentation that catches the emotions – is completely missing the point. The church is God’s people and worship is how we express our love for God.
  • Be aware that the Sadducees were wrong in thinking this life is all there is. The God of the Old and the New Testaments promises eternal life to all God’s children.

When you’re dealing with modern-day Pharisees:

  • Be aware that centuries-old traditions handed down from generation to generation may be meaningful, but they’re not on the same level as God’s word. And think of all the traditions that have been handed down for hundreds of years that we’re having to fix in our generation: hundreds of years of tradition in which black people and women were not allowed to pray or speak out loud in church. Hundreds of years tradition in which people thought forgiveness only comes through a priest and not directly from Jesus. Hundreds of years of tradition in which people thought that if you’re rich it’s a sign that God likes you, and if you’re poor it’s because you’ve offended God. Hundreds of years of tradition in which people thought all you have to do is believe and you’ll be saved – and it doesn’t matter how you live after that. Beware of traditions that cause harm to God’s people.
  • Watch out for hypocrisy. Do religious teachers practice what they preach? Do they preach peace and then go out and attack people who disagree with them? Do they preach giving but never give themselves? Do they preach sexual purity and then go off and have an affair? Do they preach God as the Creator of the world and then don’t care about the environment? I could go on…

All these things to watch out for cut across party lines: they did in Jesus’ day and they do today. Jesus never fits into anybody’s box, praise God. He’s not supposed to.

Our job, as people who love Jesus, is to listen to him and follow him as best we can.  And wherever the various parties of our day turn away from God’s goodness and the truth of our Lord Jesus, our job, if we can, as we can, is to help steer things back on course.

Our job is to be God’s people, first and always. No apologies and no compromises.


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“After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down.  Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel. 

“Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.” The disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?” Jesus asked them, “How many loaves have you?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.”  Then ordering the crowd to sit down on the ground, he took the seven loaves and the fish; and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all of them ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. Those who had eaten were four thousand men, besides women and children. After sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan.”Matthew 15:29-39


Ancient Mosaic of Loaves and Fish

Today’s reading from Matthew isn’t as ‘heavy’ as the scriptures we’ve been looking at the past few weeks. In fact, today’s reading is so overshadowed by the “Feeding of the Five Thousand” from a few weeks ago that most Bible scholars don’t even bother talking about this passage. But these words are worth hearing because they give us stories of hope and of love – stories to encourage us in our daily lives.

So far in our series Matthew has described the death of John the Baptist; Jesus’ need to have some “alone time” with God after his cousin’s murder; the crowds who mean well but don’t allow Jesus that “alone time”; confrontations with the scribes and Pharisees; and finally a seaside getaway for Jesus and the disciples in a foreign country where, in spite of Jesus’ best efforts, he is still recognized – and he finds, in a conversation with a Syrian woman and a Gentile, a faith unlike any he’s seen so far.

So in today’s reading, Jesus returns from that seaside getaway encouraged by faith, refreshed, and ready to start ministering again.

As Jesus and the disciples leave Tyre and Sidon, they pass north of the Sea of Galilee and then turn south into a region called the Decapolis (Greek for ‘Ten Cities’). Some of this region was part of Israel; much of it was not; and these ten cities were essentially Greek settlements in the region. Many of the cities were not controlled by the Herod family of regional rulers but by Rome directly.

This is important to us because in a crowd from this region many of the people were probably not Jewish. In last week’s reading Jesus made it very clear that he was sent to the people of Israel – but he ended up healing the daughter of a Gentile. In today’s reading, where it comes to a rather mixed crowd, Jesus doesn’t ask where they’re from. We are beginning to approach the end of Jesus’ life and ministry, and the door to the Gentiles is beginning to open. This may explain why Matthew comments “they praised the God of Israel”.  This was not a pro-Israel rally; rather it was an outreach to people on the periphery of Israel who hadn’t heard the good news yet.

So here’s what happened.

First, Jesus came to teach. Matthew tells us he went up a mountain and sat down. In those days (unlike today) teachers sat and students stood. So Jesus sat where he could be seen and heard and he began to teach.

And great crowds came to him: the Greek says ochloi polloi – literally a bunch of crowds. A crowd of crowds. People of all kinds, coming by the hundreds. And they brought with them everyone they knew who needed healing. Jesus came to teach; they came to be healed: and sometimes there’s not a whole lot of difference; but Jesus clearly came because he wanted to share the good news, and he ended up sharing it in actions as well as words.

Matthew tells us the people brought the lame (who would have had to be carried); the blind (who would have had to be guided); those with various physical handicaps; people who couldn’t see; people who couldn’t hear; people who couldn’t speak; and many others with a variety of physical challenges. The people laid them all at Jesus’ feet, and Jesus healed every one. The Greek for ‘healed’ here is therapeuo, the word we get therapy from. So whatever therapy they needed, Jesus provided.

And the crowd was astonished, Matthew says. Even though they came having heard about Jesus’ miracles, even knowing what Jesus could do, when they witnessed it with their own eyes, they were blown away. They saw the lame walking, even dancing! They saw the blind able to see and the deaf able to hear and to speak. And they praised the God of Israel.

This went on for three days. Can you imagine a weekend retreat with Jesus Himself? Jesus met every need in the crowd. And after three days, he looked at his disciples and said, “I can’t send these people home on an empty stomach – we’re in the middle of the wilderness here – they might not make it home.”

And the disciples answer, “Lord, where are we going to find food for so many in a place like this?” Basically they’re saying the nearest Mini-Mart is, like, 30 miles away. What are we going to do?  Jesus asks, “What do you have?” And they answer, “seven loaves of bread and a few small fish”.


So Jesus tells the people to sit down, and gives thanks for the food that is there, and gives it to the disciples to pass around. And everyone eats until they’re satisfied. And when the meal is over, the disciples gather up seven large baskets full of broken pieces. In other words, they ended up with more food than they started with! And the head-count for the meal was 4000 men, not counting women and children.

After the meal Jesus dismissed the crowds, and then he and the disciples returned to the Sea of Galilee and took a boat to Magadan on the western side of the lake.

So Matthew tells us about three days of healings, and thousands of people fed in the wilderness where there is no food – and in the very next verse we find the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to Jesus demanding he give them a sign.  That’s where we start next week.

So as we look at this week’s passage: What a mountaintop experience! Which is something we all need from time to time. Most of the time, most of our lives, even when there’s joy, life is a lot of work. And sometimes,  like in days of pandemics, our days can be tough, tinged with darkness. Sometimes we just need to spend some time alone with Jesus (even if it is with four thousand of our best friends).

We also see that Jesus calls people apart from the world when he teaches. Sometimes Jesus needs to take us out of our everyday circumstances so we can hear His voice.

And we also see that Jesus has the power to heal. This was true back then, and it’s still true today. This is why we bring each other to Jesus in prayer, and why we pray for each other every Sunday.

I should mention there’s a lot of controversy in the churches about faith healings, and while I don’t want to spend a whole lot of time on the subject I’d like to speak to it briefly. Do miracles still happen today? Yes. Do they always happen? No. Even when Jesus walked this earth not every person in Israel was healed of every disease. Why do miracles happen for some people and not for others? I don’t know. Sometimes God chooses to heal us the old-fashioned way – through doctors and nurses – and this has its purposes. For example, if I hadn’t been in hospital last year, our Facebook group No Walls Faith Community never would have come into being, because I got the inspiration for the group when I was in the ICU.  God moves in mysterious ways sometimes!

One thing I can tell you for sure: God is in control, and God knows what we need even before we ask. And Jesus proves this by providing a meal for this crowd, unasked-for, before they need to go home.

Another thing that’s for sure: Jesus has the same compassion for us that he had for that crowd. This amazes us, just like it amazed them. Our physical needs, and the physical needs of our neighbors, are of great importance to God.

Another thing that’s for sure: we were meant to pray for each other – to bring each other to Jesus – just like this crowd did for their friends. And when prayers are answered, we give all the praise and glory to the God of Israel, just like this crowd did, and to the King of Kings whose Kingdom is coming.

One more thing that’s for sure: looking at those seven loaves of bread, and what was left over: if what we have seems small in our eyes – if what we offer God seems insignificant – in Jesus’ hands it will be more than enough. Pray for this.

So today’s story is a foretaste of the kingdom of God, where Jesus will reign, and where there will always be enough, and where people from all races and nations will praise God together, healed at last. Amen and AMEN.


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Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.Matthew 15:21-28


The story we hear about in Matthew’s gospel today is a strange one. It’s also troubling. It leaves us with a lot of questions, especially the question: did Jesus really call this woman a dog?!?

But let’s start at the beginning.

Matthew says “Jesus left that place” – so we’re not at the beginning of the story, and we need to back up and figure out where we are. Last week Jesus was in Gennesaret, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. He had just had a confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees about what it means to be ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’.

In today’s reading, Jesus has left there and traveled to the region of Tyre and Sidon. This is important information. It tells us Jesus and the disciples walked 50-70 miles, either over a mountain range or around it; they have left the region of Galilee, and in fact have left Israel, and they are now in Gentile territory. Tyre and Sidon are a pair of busy seaport towns on the Mediterranean coast, where Jesus is trying to travel incognito. He wants to keep his whereabouts a secret, and as far as we can tell, he succeeded…

…until this woman arrived. And she Would.Not.Shut.Up.  She followed Jesus around shouting “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David…” and asking for help for her daughter. She made noise. She persisted. And she was annoying the heck out of the disciples, who came to Jesus and said, “please send her away, she keeps following us around!”

Jesus, meanwhile, is ignoring the whole situation – which is very unlike him. It’s almost as if Jesus took this trip into Gentile territory for a mini-vacation and he’s sworn off work for a few days. He’s taking a break from the constant demands for healings and miracles and verbal sparring matches with religious authorities. Even Jesus needed a few days off now and then: he was as human as we are, as well as being the Son of God. So was this trip into Gentile territory meant to be a long weekend away?

Or was it that God sent Jesus there specifically to meet this woman? That’s possible too. Jesus had been confronted with a lot of people lacking faith the past few days. Maybe the Father knew his Son needed some time with someone who really believed in Him.

We don’t know for sure. What we do know is that this woman was (a) a foreigner, from a country that Israel was not particularly friendly with; (b) a Gentile, not Jewish, and therefore (one would assume) of a different religion; (c) had a daughter who was in serious trouble; and (d) most importantly, knew who Jesus was. In fact she understood who Jesus was even better than the disciples did at this point!  Listen to her words. She says to Jesus: “Have mercy on me Lord” – literally kyrie eleison in Greek (some of you raised in certain church traditions may recognize those words).

Then she calls Jesus Son of David” – the name given in Old Testament prophecies to the one who would be the Messiah, the King of Kings. How did this woman, a foreigner and a Gentile, know to call Jesus this? How did she, born and raised in a nation of unbelievers, have greater faith than people who had been raised to keep an eye out for the Messiah? She must have been listening very carefully to the stories coming out of Israel about this man.

She also becomes proof of what Jesus said to the Pharisees in earlier verses: “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth” because what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart. By Jesus’ standards, this woman’s heart was far closer to God than the hearts of the scribes and the Pharisees.

We also notice this woman is not coming to ask Jesus for favors for herself. Her plea is for her daughter, who is suffering greatly from demonic attacks. The Bible gives no further detail on what precisely that meant; only that her daughter was in bad shape. And what mother would not put everything on the line for the sake of her child?  That’s exactly what this lady does.

Jesus’ first reply is a hard word: he says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

There is an element of truth in these words: Jesus’ mission was to the people of Israel. The Messiah was to be the redeemer of Israel. It would be up to his disciples – including us – to carry Jesus’ message to the rest of the world.


But that didn’t mean Jesus had no dealings with non-Jews. So she ignores his answer and presses on. She kneels in front of him – prostrating herself as one would before a great king or a Caesar, and says simply, “Lord help me.”

Jesus’ reply is condescending at best, and there’s really no other way to interpret it. He says:

“It is not proper to take the children’s food and throw it to little dogs.”

I suspect – and this suspicion is shared by some religious scholars, particularly those who come from minority backgrounds – I suspect that Jesus is speaking not so much his own opinion as he is reflecting prejudices of his day. As one Bible scholar puts it, “We see ourselves mirrored in Jesus’ attitude, but not our best selves.” Jesus speaks this opinion for a moment so that he – or in this case, she – can comment on it.

The answer the woman gives shows the depth and richness of her faith. She says: “Yes Lord; yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Her words (1) acknowledge that Jesus is the Master; (2) point out that her request is a tiny crumb of a thing compared to the greatness of Jesus’ power; and (3) that even if she can’t claim the rights of a child she can at least claim the rights of a family pet. She knows Jesus will say ‘yes’. She knows, somehow, that her prayer is already in the process of being answered…

…which Jesus confirms by saying, “Woman, how great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Imagine how refreshing this conversation must have been for Jesus, especially after all the hassles of dealing with the Pharisees! And what a wonderful thing to come to a foreign country and find oneself refreshed by the faith of a foreigner. As Proverbs 25:25 says: “Like cold water to a weary soul is good news from a foreign land.”

For us, hearing this story 2000 years later, what can we take from this passage? Four things I want to draw attention to today.

  1. As we read Scripture, remember who we are. All of us have been adopted into God’s family. All of us should equally, in the words of one seminary professor, “take our places on our knees… shoulder to shoulder with this woman; side by side with all the outcasts, the wounded, the hungry, the lonely, the homeless.” The vast majority of us everyday believers around the world have more in common with this woman than we do with the disciples.
  2. This woman was from Syria — a country that has been in the news in the past few years because of a civil war there and the millions of refugees who have fled for their lives. With a few exceptions, the nations of the world have responded to this crisis of hunger and homelessness by closing their borders and saying essentially “we can’t take what belongs to the children of our own people and give it to Syrian dogs”. Consider how Jesus makes an example of this kind of thinking, and how the faith of the Syrian woman overcomes it.
  3. This woman shows us how to have great faith – faith that trusts Jesus, and knows Jesus for who he is, and knows that Jesus will always do right. This faith is available to anyone, no matter who you are or where you’ve been.
  4. Don’t give up on prayer. If at first it seems like God isn’t listening, keep asking, keep asking. Jesus is the King of Heaven: his abilities and his mercies are so great that healing a child’s illness is just crumbs under his table. So keep on keeping on with prayer – because our God is a God who delights in mercy. AMEN





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In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. (Acts 1:1-14)


This Sunday is both Memorial Day weekend and Ascension Sunday. It’s not unusual for these two holidays to land on the same weekend, which I’ve always thought was kind of appropriate: partly because I think we Christians should have a Memorial Day of our own, in which we remember those who have given their lives so that we could hear the good news of Jesus and His kingdom; and because Ascension Sunday is a remembrance of the completed work of our Lord Jesus: his death, and his resurrection, and the time he spent with the disciples afterward. Jesus’ work on earth is complete now, and it’s time for Him to go home to God his Father.

We can barely begin to imagine what this means for Jesus. Meanwhile I wonder if the disciples were thinking: Why doesn’t Jesus stay here? Why doesn’t he confront the people who put him to death and say “Look! It didn’t work. I’m still here.”?

But as Jesus once said, “‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” (Luke 16:31) And where it comes to the Ascension, as Jesus once said to the disciples in John’s gospel, “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7) For some reason the Holy Spirit can’t come to God’s people while Jesus is still on earth. I don’t understand how that works but I take Jesus’ word for it. So at the Ascension Jesus returns home to God. And next Sunday we celebrate Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ departure is the beginning of the church and the church’s mission.

Taking a look then at our passage from Acts chapter 1: Luke begins with the words “In the first book” which refers to Luke’s gospel. Luke has a way of describing events that makes you feel like you were actually there, so I’m glad he gave us two books. Luke continues the story he started in his Gospel, writing the book of Acts to tell us what happened with the disciples after Jesus went home to God.

Before Jesus departs, he gives the disciples some last instructions. He says to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the promise: “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit in just a few days.”

The disciples respond by asking:

“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

This question is a very human question, but it’s also proof that after all this time the disciples still don’t get it. They believed – as most of the nation of Israel believed at that time – that the Messiah would restore the throne of David. The Messiah would get rid of the Romans and put a Jewish king back on the throne of Israel to restore the glory that was once the kingdom of Israel.  There was a time in Israel, long past, when the military might of King David and the wisdom of his son King Solomon were legend throughout the then-known world. Israel was prosperous, secure, and blessed.  It was a golden age, and they believed the Messiah would bring back that glory.

Jesus’ reply doesn’t really answer the question the disciples are asking, and yet at the same time it does.  The kingdom of which Jesus is king is not of this world. Jesus is the heir of David – he was born into the family of David, and Matthew goes to great lengths in his Gospel to prove this. But at Jesus’s trial when Pilate asked, “are you a king?” Jesus answered:

“My kingdom is not of this world. If [it were] my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over… But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” (John 18:36)

The disciples knew this intellectually but it hadn’t quite sunk in to their hearts yet. They were still looking for someone to rescue the nation, to restore justice to its politics, and glory to its reputation.

People ever since have made the same mistake. As one commentator writes: “Others have gone into excruciating detail in mapping out the [periods], based on Daniel or Revelation or the Trinity… We’ve seen no end of regimes, theologies, churches, and governments claiming history on their side… flip-flopping between messianic hopes and Armageddon panic.”

Even in our own day, in this coronavirus time, the internet and Facebook and Twitter are full of rumors that this virus marks the beginning of the end times and that Jesus’ return is close at hand.

Just like the disciples on Ascension Day, people miss the point: Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. As Jesus said to the disciples, ‘it is not for us to know the times or periods God has set by God’s own authority’. Only God knows the timetable. Jesus said in the book of Matthew: “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Matt 24:36)

Jesus does however give the disciples one very important piece of information: their job is to be witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. And that assignment is ours as well: to be witnesses in our towns, in our regions, and world-wide. We are to carry the good news that Jesus is King to every people and tribe and nation.

Every person on this planet was made by God, redeemed by God, and is loved by God. So our job is to share with our next-door neighbors; with people from New Jersey, Ohio, Louisiana, and California; and with people from Africa and Mexico and the Ukraine and Russia and China. God loves them all. God loves us all. Jesus’ cross, and resurrection, and ascension are God’s expression of love for us. So if we know Jesus, our assignment is to be a witness. To live in faith, and not in fear. To live generously, not holding back. To lift up hope when the world feels hopeless; and where the world sees only darkness, to bear witness to the light.

Jesus promises us that one day God’s justice will be brought to bear on all sin and evil; that God’s mercy will be poured out, and God’s people will be raised to new life in a city where no lamp is needed because God is its light.

For now, our witness begins when the Holy Spirit comes. So in this moment, we see the disciples returning to Jerusalem, to an upper room, together with the women, including Jesus’ mother Mary and Jesus’ brothers. And they spend time in prayer. Luke says “they devoted themselves to prayer.” Because in prayer they could keep on being with Jesus.

And so can we. The Holy Spirit is about to come. Pentecost is next Sunday. Someday Jesus will return to earth the same way he left. For today it’s enough to pray, and to know with confidence our Lord and Savior – and our best friend – sits on the throne in the kingdom of God. AMEN.


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Old Testament Reading
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: These are the appointed festivals of the Lord that you shall proclaim as holy convocation, my appointed festivals. For six days shall work be done; but the seventh day is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation; you shall do no work: it is a sabbath to the Lord throughout your settlements. (Leviticus 23:1-3)

Gospel Reading
[Jesus said:] “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20)


Over the past few weeks we’ve been looking at Sabbath from a number of different angles: from the Old Testament, from the New Testament, from the Gospels. Today we bring it into the present. How is it possible to keep God’s commandment to observe the Sabbath in today’s world?

The quick answer is “most people don’t these days.” People who attend worship look around at empty pews and say “why?” People who find other things to do on the Sabbath say “why not?”

BTW this is true for every religious tradition. Every faith-based institution I’ve ever been in deals with the questions ‘how do we pass on our religious traditions to the next generation?’ and ‘how can we persuade people these traditions are important and worthy of our time?’

Here’s the thing: Keeping the Sabbath is not a tradition. It’s a commandment. It’s one of the Big Ten. And if the other nine are still valid: if it’s still true we worship God and not idols, we respect our parents, we avoid killing, stealing, lying, cheating and coveting – what makes us think Commandment #3 isn’t relevant anymore?

There’s a second rub: some people look at the Ten Commandments and say “well the God of the Old Testament was a legalist, and the God of the New Testament is a God of love.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The God of the New Testament who loves people dearly, loved people just as dearly in the days of the Old Testament. God doesn’t speak the Ten Commandments in the voice of a dictator but in the voice of a loving Father teaching his children how to thrive in the world.

That’s why Jesus says in our Gospel reading for today, “Don’t think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Jesus gives us a living picture of what obedience to the law looks like… and then he says “follow me.”

As we saw last week, Jesus and the Pharisees had some serious differences over how to obey the Sabbath laws. The Pharisees were like lawyers: they would pull apart every single word and every single phrase and try to prove things. Jesus, on the other hand, would heal people on the Sabbath, even though it was considered work, because it was the loving thing to do.  Jesus accused the Pharisees of “straining out gnats and swallowing camels.”  The Pharisees would give away 10% of everything they owned, right down to the spices on their spice racks, but then they would go out and make plans to frame and murder Jesus on the Sabbath. Gnats and camels, right?

So all of this is a backdrop to our world today. Two thousand years later people tend to forget that Jesus is Jewish, and that the God of the Christians is also the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So while we are different from our Jewish brothers and sister in the present time, Jewish teachings and traditions can give us amazing insights into our life of faith.

With that in mind, I want to share with you some of the teachings of Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin and his book To Be a Jew, which talks about how to live the Jewish life in modern society.

In his chapter on keeping Sabbath, he starts out by saying that keeping the Sabbath is the only one of the Ten Commandments Jewish poets have written poems about. Love songs, in fact. The poets call the Sabbath day “a bride – radiant and beautiful” “The Sabbath Queen – charming and pure”. Do you get the feeling they’re seeing something we’ve missed?

Here’s what else they say: The Sabbath is “a glorious release from weekday concerns, routine pressures, and even secular recreation.” It is “not just a day of rest but a holy day, a day set apart; the high point of the week; the day around which all other days revolve.”

Is this what Christians think of when we think of Sunday?

So how do the Jews observe Sabbath? First off, they observe it from Friday night to Saturday night. For most Christians it would be Saturday night to Sunday night. But notice it is from night to night – a full 24 hours.  And if for some reason you can’t rest on Sunday – for instance, if you work on Sundays – you can observe on another day. The day of the week isn’t as important as choosing one day every week and remembering the Sabbath.

The big rule for the Sabbath is that no work is to be done. People sometimes feel this is restrictive, as in ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that.’ But it’s not meant that way; in fact the opposite – it’s meant to set us free from all the pressures to get things done. Rabbi Donin says there are two things to keep in mind on the Sabbath:

  1. Remember the creation of the world. A few weeks ago we read that God created the world in six days and then rested on the seventh. When we observe Sabbath we remember creation. We remember that creation is God’s, not ours, it doesn’t belong to us, and we don’t control it. (I think maybe this pandemic has been a reminder to us of just how much we don’t control – and that can be a scary thing, especially for people who are used to being in charge of their lives.) But on the Sabbath we put God’s work back in God’s hands and remember that any authority we have is only borrowed. God is the master.
  2. Remember the Exodus from Egypt. Freedom from slavery – which is a foretaste of the freedom from slavery to sin that the Messiah brings. The Sabbath means freedom from service to human masters, whether they be masters of soul, mind, or body. Sabbath freedom extends to our employees, our animals, and any foreigners living among us. Sabbath is also, as Rabbi Donin says, “a weekly protest against slavery and oppression.” He says it’s no surprise that tyrants throughout history have tried to abolish the observance of the Sabbath.

Therefore what is forbidden on the Sabbath is basically anything “in which people produce, create, or transform an object for human purposes.” It does not forbid physical exertion: as the Rabbi says, “you can tire yourself out on the Sabbath so long as you’re not doing anything constructive.”

Coming closer to home, we sometimes find our hardest taskmasters looking back at us in the mirror. “I gotta get this done!” “This has to be finished!” And we play just as hard as we work. For most people Sundays have become just one more day to run around from place to place, practice to practice, from event to event… a catch-up day that we dash through and then slide breathlessly into Monday morning just to do it all over again.

Sabbath is the right to stop. Sabbath is the right to say, “no.”  “For the next 24 hours I am a free person. There is nothing I must do.”  It’s not just a holiday, it’s a holy day.

So how does one keep Sabbath in today’s world?  There are lots of ways, lots of variations. I think what I’ve said so far gives a good foundation. As Christians we are not required to keep Sabbath the way our Jewish neighbors do – in fact most of us would find it impossible because we don’t know the history or the language. But speaking as someone who has been observing Sabbath (after a fashion) for a few years, let me just toss out a few pointers.

  • Keeping Sabbath is so good!! I look forward to the Sabbath. I count down the hours. I understand why those poets call Sabbath something to fall in love with. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
  • The good Rabbi points out: Sabbath must be prepared for. You can’t just stop. You have to get ready. Sabbath includes a meal, and you need to have the meal ready before Sabbath starts. It’s a family meal; but if you don’t have family with you, then friends are welcome. As the Rabbi says, “prepare as though you were receiving a distinguished guest.” Set the table and put out the best dishes. Prepare your best meal. It doesn’t have to be fancy but it has to be good. Clean the house. Put away all work. Be ready.
  • All this needs to be completed before sundown. Twenty minutes before sundown, the oldest female member of the family lights the Sabbath candles with a prayer. A translation of the traditional Jewish prayer is: “Blessed art thou O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us to kindle the Sabbath lights.” After this the people at the table greet one another with the words “Shabbat Shalom” – ‘Sabbath peace’
  • On the table, along with the meal, are two unsliced loaves of Challah bread and a Kiddish cup of wine. The head of the household blesses the children (each one by name), then blesses the wine and the bread. Hands are washed, then the meal is shared.
  • Sabbath worship is the following morning.
  • No work is done from the time the candles are lit before dinner until at least three stars are visible in the sky the following evening.

There are a lot more Sabbath traditions – I recommend reading more about it – but I think keeping just this much captures the spirit of Sabbath which teaches us, through joyful experience, that God truly is in control and blesses us richly.

God said through Moses: “For six days shall work be done; but the seventh day is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation; you shall do no work.”

Jesus said: “I am the Lord of the Sabbath.”

For those who want to know and love Jesus more, keeping the Sabbath is a wonderful way to do it. If you observe Sabbath already – keep going! And if you don’t yet, I pray you’ll give it a try. There are blessings to be found. AMEN.


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“At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat.  When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

“He left that place and entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.”  (Matthew 12:1-14)

Jesus Heals

Jesus heals on the Sabbath

This Sunday we continue our series on the Sabbath. So far in the series we’ve looked at the Old Testament: we’ve seen how God introduced the idea of the Sabbath – the seventh day of the week, being a day of rest – in the opening chapters of Genesis. We’ve seen how God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt and gave the Ten Commandments, the third of which was “to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” God explains that on the Sabbath no work is to be done, wherever God’s people live, and this includes children, employees, animals, and people from foreign lands. Everybody gets a day of rest every seven days. The Sabbath became for them the foundation of fairness and equality and justice in their society, as well as a time to enjoy God’s gifts.

We’ve also seen how quickly Israel fell away from keeping the Sabbath. People became impatient to make money, and they complained, “when will the Sabbath be over?” All through the Old Testament the prophets plead with the people. They warn the people if they don’t put God first, and stop oppressing workers and foreigners and anybody else they can take advantage of, God would deal with the nation.

The people didn’t listen, and they ended up in exile in the land of Babylon for seventy years. After seventy years God brought them home; but things were never really the same again. And because of the experience of the exile, keeping the Sabbath became something the people did out of fear instead of love for God.  The religious leaders made long lists of rules – things people could and could not do on the Sabbath. For example a person could only walk so far on the Sabbath day, about half a mile. People weren’t allowed to cook on the Sabbath. It was against the law to start a fire on the Sabbath. It was forbidden to buy or sell, or to carry things, or build things, or make things.

In fact the rabbis identified 39 categories of forbidden activities, with dozens of rules under each category. For some people it became like a game of “what can we get away with on the Sabbath?” but for most people it was “do what they tell you and stay out of trouble.” Either way it robbed the people of the pleasure of being with God and enjoying God’s gifts. The Sabbath – the foundation on which their social justice was built – had become a foundation for injustice.

It’s like Jesus said in Matthew chapter 23:

“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” (Matt 23:2-4)

So by the time Jesus begins his ministry, the Sabbath had become a burden almost too great to bear. The joy had been lost. And this is where we pick up the story in the scriptures this morning.

As I looked at the Gospels this week, I noticed there are only two types of scenarios in which the Sabbath is mentioned: (1) at Jesus’ crucifixion, because it took place just before the Sabbath; (2) in connection with Jesus’ preaching, teaching and healing – and his being criticized by the Pharisees for it.

Many of the Gospel scenarios begin with Jesus in the synagogue, reading God’s word and teaching from it. It was common practice back in those days for traveling rabbis like Jesus to be ‘given the mic’ so to speak and to be asked to guest-preach. Preaching is not forbidden on the Sabbath, even though it’s work. Jesus points this out to the Pharisees in Matthew 12:5: “have you not read in the law that on the sabbath day the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless?” Even though ministry is work, because it helps others, because it brings people and God closer together, it is not forbidden on the Sabbath.

In our scripture reading for this morning, we see Jesus and the disciples going through a wheat field and eating on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees criticizing them for it. In this scenario the disciples are breaking Sabbath law in two ways: (1) they were not allowed to harvest on the Sabbath; and (2) they were not allowed to prepare food on the Sabbath. So the Pharisees point out this problem to Jesus. And Jesus tells the Pharisees they’re mistaken… for a whole bunch of reasons.

  • Jesus starts by saying human need is more important than keeping the letter of the law. The disciples were hungry. This wasn’t just a bunch of friends looking for something to graze on, on a Saturday afternoon. They were legitimately hungry.
  • Jesus points out King David himself broke a bigger law when he and his men were hungry. David helped himself to the Bread of the Presence. This was bread that was kept in the sanctuary, in front of the Holy of Holies. It was part of worship, and could only be eaten by priests. But Jesus says when David and his men were in need it was right for them to take it and eat.
  • Jesus points out the priests themselves break Sabbath when they serve in the temple or in the synagogue on the Sabbath; but God allows this because it is a service to the people.
  • Jesus points out God says “I desire mercy not sacrifice” – in this case, mercy on the hungry. Feeding hungry people is an act of mercy, that is permitted even on the Sabbath. And finally
  • Jesus says “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Jesus claims the greater authority.

All this poses a problem for the Pharisees. Jesus is challenging their perception not only of what he does but who He is. Some of the Pharisees are beginning to catch on: Nicodemus, for example, comes to Jesus later and says “we know you’re the Son of God.”  Others begin to understand that Jesus is claiming to be the Messiah, but they’re not having it. This dichotomy between religious leaders who truly love Jesus and those who just ‘act religious’, sadly is still with us today. I’ll talk more about that some other day. For now I’ll just say that, in general, people who are always pointing fingers (like the Pharisees do in this story) are doing it to promote themselves rather than God.

Back to the story. Later the same day, Jesus goes to the local synagogue and he is invited to speak. And while he’s speaking, a man with a withered hand comes in. This raises another Sabbath issue: is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?

Jesus does not deny that healing is work: it is. His argument is that any one of us whose animal is injured on the Sabbath would take care of that animal immediately. Jesus says:

“Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep!” (Matt 12:11-12)

Who would argue with that? I know if my cat was sick on a Sunday I’d be down at the vet’s. Of course you take care of someone who is sick or injured on the Sabbath! The Sabbath was never meant to be an excuse for apathy.

But the Pharisees, hearing this, went out and conspired against Jesus. They started plotting Jesus’ death. Is this not a violation of the Sabbath? The Law says “thou shalt not kill” – how much clearer can God get? How can they take the Sabbath – something meant for blessing – and use it as an excuse for murder?


Ironically, of all the religious groups in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees probably understood God’s law best. Where it came to the other groups: The Sadducees had compromised with the culture to the point that most of the time they missed Jesus’ point entirely; the scribes were petty bureaucrats; and the chief priests were essentially a family dynasty. But the Pharisees actually listened to God’s word and wrestled with it. Their mistake was in thinking it was possible to satisfy the requirements of the law – that is, to be so perfect, they could be holy in God’s eyes. They missed the point of the Old Testament: that by faith Abraham was reckoned as righteous; by faith Moses led the people through the desert; by faith David confronted Goliath. Keeping the law perfectly is impossible for imperfect human beings. The whole point of Scripture is grace, not law. Mercy, not sacrifice.

Back to the synagogue: I love Luke’s description of Jesus teaching in the synagogue.  All the Gospel writers say Jesus was a powerful teacher – to hear him speak; that he taught with authority; that people were moved and lives were changed when Jesus taught. But rarely in the Bible do they actually describe Jesus teaching. Luke does in chapter four of his Gospel. He writes:

“When [Jesus] came to Nazareth… he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21)

Can you imagine hearing Jesus speak these words? Luke says “They were astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority.” (Luke 4:32) The Lord of Life – and the Lord of the Sabbath – comes in person and says, “this is the year of the Lord’s favor”.  God has provided. The Messiah is here. The kingdom of God is at hand.  This was Jesus’ central message, wherever he went: “the kingdom of God is at hand.” The kingdoms of this earth are passing away. God’s future is on its way. That’s what Sabbath looks forward to, and gives us just a taste of.

So our take-aways for today: in the Gospels, the Sabbath is always linked to the preaching of the Gospel – the proclaiming of God’s kingdom. And it is also always linked to healing. It is a day of rest – rest blessed by God and shared with others. Rest that brings healing – both to those who are resting, and to those who being cared for. In the Gospels, whenever Sabbath is mentioned, Jesus is healing. Always. And Jesus is teaching grace – God’s grace and mercy for all of us. As we rest on this Sabbath day, let’s look forward with joy to the eternal Sabbath ahead of us with the Lord Jesus in His Kingdom. AMEN.

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The Lord said to Moses at Mount Sinai, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord. For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest. Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.

“‘Count off seven sabbath years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years. Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields.”Leviticus 25:1-12

Last week we started a series of teachings on the Sabbath. God introduces us to Sabbath in the second chapter of Genesis; and in Revelation, the description of God’s kingdom is (in part) a description of the Sabbath; so Sabbath is a central concept throughout the Bible.

Last week we saw God teaching Israel about the Sabbath while the people were still wandering in the wilderness after being set free from slavery in Egypt. God told Israel the seventh day of the week was a day when no-one was to work. This was partly to remember that God rested on the seventh day after creating the world; and partly to begin to teach a people who had been slaves for 430 years what it’s like to not have to work. The people needed to know – as we need to know – that they had the right to say ‘No, I’m not working today. Today is God’s day.’

For the next few weeks we’ll be looking at what God teaches Israel – and us – about the Sabbath. We’ll look at the Old Testament, the Psalms and Prophets, the New Testament, and how the sabbath is practiced today.

Today we look at the Old Testament.  Shortly after introducing Israel to the sabbath, the Israelites came to Mt. Sinai, and here God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. The commandments were written in the form of a treaty. You and I in the 21st century, when we read the Ten Commandments, tend to hear them as a list of things to do and not do. But people in the ancient world would have recognized the treaty format right away. It was a special kind of treaty: one usually used by conquering kings to enforce a new set of laws on a people they had just conquered.

Only God had a twist: rather than conquering Israel, God had conquered Egypt. Now God comes to Israel saying essentially, “I have conquered your enemies and set you free. If you want to be my people these are my terms.” Who would say ‘no’ to an offer like that, from someone who has set you free from slavery? Of course Israel said yes.

From a Christian perspective today, these events give us a picture of how God rescues people – anyone who trusts in God. God rescues people from slavery to sin, by the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. How appropriate this scripture is for the season of Easter!  Just as God broke Israel’s chains, God breaks the chains of sin by the power of the cross. And anyone who thinks we’re not slaves to sin should try not sinning for just one day. It’s impossible. We can’t free ourselves, but God can free us. And just as Israel passed through the waters of the Red Sea on their way to the Promised Land, we also, when we become believers, pass through the waters of baptism to become God’s people. In Jesus Christ, God wins victory over our enemy and sets us free.

So at the foot of Mount Sinai, God gave the treaty: the Ten Commandments. God says to Israel: If you will be my people, I will show the world my glory through you. And my wisdom will shine in the eyes of all people whenever you obey my laws. And here are the laws:

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods but me. 

“You shall not make for yourself an idol… you shall not bow down to them or worship them…

“You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God…

“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.  For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. (Ex 20:2-11, edited)

Notice God gives the Sabbath law before all the laws dealing with justice issues: honoring father and mother, not killing, not cheating on a spouse, not stealing, not lying in court, not desiring what belongs to someone else. Today, in our time, murder, adultery, theft, and perjury are still illegal. But we’ve forgotten the Sabbath: and the Sabbath is the foundation of all the others. If we don’t have the right to say ‘no’ to the world and ‘yes’ to God; if we don’t have the right to worship God and spend time enjoying God’s company and God’s gifts – the other laws lose their meaning and our ability to keep them. God knew that; and that’s why – after loyalty to God Himself – the Sabbath law comes first.

The Sabbath is God’s gift to God’s people: it is God’s glory and our freedom.

Notice what else this law says. Not only are we set free – but our children are set free. And anyone who works for us is set free. Most people these days don’t have servants: but we have employees, and we have public servants, people who serve us all. I don’t need to detail at a time like this how valuable public service is: in coronavirus time, we are all so aware and so grateful for those who serve the public good. These people also are children of God and they also need to be set free one day a week. And God doesn’t stop there. Animals are not to work on the Sabbath. I love that God gives rights to animals in the law! And last but never least, the resident alien is not to work: the immigrant and the foreigner who lives among us are to be blessed on the Sabbath day, and set free, and treated as one of us.

So what does it mean to ‘keep the Sabbath holy’?  That question has been debated ever since Moses came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments. Not because God’s meaning is unclear; but because human beings have been trying to find a way around this commandment since Day One.

One would think a commandment to take a mini-vacation every seventh day would be the easiest, most agreeable commandment to obey! But there’s always someone who would rather make a little more money than take a day off. There’s always someone who would rather have a nicer car, or some new clothes, or do a little schmoozing, and can’t wait just one more day.  What it really comes down to is: people don’t trust God to provide for their needs.

Back in ancient Israel, when God said “you have six days go out and pick up manna, but on the seventh day there won’t be any so on day six, gather twice as much, so you will have something to eat on the Sabbath” – there were people who simply wouldn’t trust God and insisted on going out on day seven and hunting for manna, when there wasn’t any, just as God said.

The Sabbath Day is God’s treat. The Sabbath is like a little miniature foretaste of life in God’s kingdom in heaven – where everything we need is ours and more. But if we don’t listen to God and stop working, we miss it. And so do our children, and the people who work for us, and our animals, and the foreigners who live among us.

Sabbath is so important that God warned the people of Israel: in the future, if you decide to ignore the Sabbath, your enemies will come and desolate the land. “Then the land shall enjoy its sabbath… while you are in the land of your enemies…” (Lev 26:34)


God doesn’t want this to happen any more than we do. But it underscores how essential the Sabbath is. Sabbath so much more than just a day off. The Sabbath is the foundation of all God’s laws on justice.  You’ve heard the saying ‘no justice, no peace’?  God says: ‘no Sabbath, no justice.’ In Deut. 5:15 God says: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” The Sabbath is God’s foundation for our freedom; and without freedom there can be no justice.

You want to know why people are so overworked and underpaid? Why it feels like we’re on a treadmill that never slows down? Why it feels so incredibly foreign and unsettling when we’re forced to stop like we have been recently? It’s because we’ve lost the Sabbath.

In this strange time I’ve heard many people saying, ‘when we get back to normal, there are some changes that need to be made. We need to do things differently.’  And they’re right. This tragedy, this pandemic, has pulled back the curtain. It has allowed us to see through the smoke and mirrors… it has allowed us to see the powers of this world at a complete and total loss, pointing fingers at each other because they can’t think of anything more useful to do.

This strange time has helped us re-focus on what’s important and what isn’t; on what brings healing and what doesn’t. And if we’re listening, we can hear God’s voice calling to us in this time and saying, ‘return to me and I will provide… and I will give you rest unto your souls.’

At this point you may be thinking, “Sabbath sounds wonderful but it sounds like a lot of work! We’d have to change how we live.”  Well… yeah, it’s kind of like changing your diet (which admittedly I’m still working on.) You can’t change your diet if you don’t buy different food at the grocery store. It just takes a little planning. Same thing with the Sabbath. A little bit of prep time – a few to-do items before the weekend – and a Saturday or Sunday of ‘not working’ not only becomes possible but it becomes a joy you don’t want to live without. It becomes a point in life where for just a moment our lives touch eternity.

This coming week, think about the Sabbath. Pray about it. And if you decide to try keeping the Sabbath, write to me and tell me about it, let me know how it’s going.

Sabbath blessings to you and yours. AMEN.

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This reading takes place shortly after Israel left Egypt and was wandering in the wilderness. The people were having problems finding food and were complaining against God and against Moses.

“Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”  […]

13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14 When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15 When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. 16 This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Gather as much of it as each of you needs, an omer to a person according to the number of persons, all providing for those in their own tents.’” 17 The Israelites did so, some gathering more, some less. 18 But when they measured it with an omer, those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed. 19 And Moses said to them, “Let no one leave any of it over until morning.” 20 But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul. And Moses was angry with them. 21 Morning by morning they gathered it, as much as each needed; but when the sun grew hot, it melted.

22 On the sixth day they gathered twice as much food, two omers apiece. When all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, 23 he said to them, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy sabbath to the Lord; bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning.’” 24 So they put it aside until morning, as Moses commanded them; and it did not become foul, and there were no worms in it. 25 Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a sabbath to the Lord; today you will not find it in the field. 26 Six days you shall gather it; but on the seventh day, which is a sabbath, there will be none.”

27 On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, and they found none. 28 The Lord said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and instructions? 29 See! The Lord has given you the sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you food for two days; each of you stay where you are; do not leave your place on the seventh day.” 30 So the people rested on the seventh day.  (Exodus 16:4-30, selected verses)

The Word of God for the people of God ~ Thanks be to God


For a long time now I’ve been wanting to write a series on Sabbath, but I’ve never had time to give it my full attention until now.

Most of the time when I’m working in a church I follow the lectionary for sermon topics on Sundays. The lectionary is a calendar of scripture readings that basically makes it possible to read the entire Bible in three years. The lectionary is a good thing for the congregation because they won’t end up hearing just the pastor’s favorite scripture passages. And it’s a good thing for pastors because it challenges us to dig into parts of God’s word we might not otherwise study.

But every now and then I think it’s good to take a break from lectionary and focus on one topic in order to really dig into it. So for the next few weeks I’ll be digging into the Sabbath – what the Bible has to say about the Sabbath, and what God has to say about the Sabbath.

I think talking about the Sabbath is very timely.  Before the COVID pandemic hit, everybody I know was overbooked, overscheduled, overworked, and on a treadmill we felt like we couldn’t get off.  Many people I know were working six days a week, some even seven. Everyone I knew was desperately in need of a Sabbath.

Then when we were told to shelter at home, in some ways (at first) it felt like a vacation: it was a time to stop work and just hang out with family and neighbors. But that feeling didn’t last long. As time has gone on, we’ve discovered that staying at home seven days a week is hard work. And it’s not the kind of work we’re used to, so we’re having to learn how to do it effectively. Working from home (if we’ve been able to bring our jobs home) requires amazing amounts of self-discipline. Some of us are now home schooling; some have taken on part-time jobs because our full-time jobs have disappeared; some are worried about parents and grandparents, and are running errands for people who can’t. But for all of us, this strange time is stressful, worrying, scary. And the longer it goes on the more we sense the need for a break.

I was reading a news story about the pandemic over in Great Britain, how the lockdown is going over there (they’re much in the same situation we are) – and the author mentioned a man who, he said, “just needed to get away from the wife and kids for a little while.” So he got in the car and drove halfway across the country (which in England is around 175 miles round trip) – anyway he drove around 90 miles to Cornwall, a seaside resort, just to look at the ocean and feel free. That is, until the authorities pulled him over and said basically, “you’re not supposed to be out driving around the country” and sent him home.

For that man, that one day of driving was like a Sabbath. It was a break from the work of the week, even if the work of the week was just staying home and taking care of the family. It was a time of rest and refreshment.

So what exactly is the Sabbath?  In the Bible it’s a very important concept. Moses taught about it, the prophets talked about it, the Psalmists wrote songs about it, Jesus got into debates with the scribes and Pharisees about it.

Simply put, in Hebrew, Sabbath (or shabbat) means ‘rest’ – not in the sense of sleep, but in the sense of ‘ceasing from all labor’. The word ‘sabbath’ is also related to the Hebrew word shiva which means ‘seven’ – as in, the seventh day of the week.  Scripture tells us in the second chapter of Genesis, after God had finished creating the heavens and the earth, and all the animals, and finally human beings – it says in Genesis:

“And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.” (Genesis 2:2-3)

The laws for the Sabbath – what the people were supposed to do and not do on the Sabbath – were spelled out in the Law of Moses, around the time the Ten Commandments were given. But even before the Ten Commandments were given, God taught the people of Israel the rhythm of the seven-day week with the Sabbath as the seventh day.  Early in Exodus, during that time when the people had just left Egypt and were entering into the wilderness, and they were learning about manna, the bread from heaven that God provided, God taught them about Sabbath in the scripture passage at the beginning of this post.

So God was teaching the people, even before the law was given, that the Sabbath was a special day – a day when God would provide, and a day in which no work was to be done.

This was the beginning of God teaching the people about freedom. The people of Israel had spent four hundred and thirty years in slavery in Egypt. Now they were free, but they had no idea what freedom meant. Think about it: For us, 430 years ago was the year 1590. In the 1590s here’s what was happening: William Shakespeare was publishing his first works. The first tulip bulbs were flowering in Holland. Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII, was queen of England. The first water-closet was invented by Sir John Harington, from which we get the name ‘john’ for the bathroom.

That’s how long ago 430 years is. Imagine – if you can – being part of a group of people who have been slaves for 430 years. For all those generations not having the right to say ‘no’ to their taskmasters.

Sabbath is, above all, the right to say ‘no’. No, I will not work today. No, you can’t require it. No, what I do for a living is important, but it’s not as important as Who I live for.  Today, on the Sabbath Day, I belong to God, not to my boss, not to the government, not to the demands of commerce. On the Sabbath a person does not earn money or spend money.

Sabbath is a freedom the people of Israel struggled to understand. It didn’t come naturally to people who had been slaves for so long. It doesn’t come naturally to us either. When we stop working it feels strange, it feels like something’s missing.

Some of us are old enough to remember the ‘Blue Laws’ – back when it was illegal to work on Sundays. I’m not advocating a return to Blue Laws: there were a lot of problems with them, particularly for people who had to work on Sundays, like emergency responders and health care workers and people who supply food to the homebound. I can remember back then working on Sundays as a kitchen worker in a rest home. It was needed work, so it was permitted. But God help me if I forgot to buy gas on Saturday night, because no gas stations were open on Sundays!

Blue laws were finally done away with. But people forgot the reason they’d been written in the first place: they came from an understanding that human beings need a day of rest once every seven days. It’s how we’re made. Taking that day off is important – just like exercise and eating right – it’s necessary for good health, both physically and mentally. And more than that, it’s a day when we can say ‘no’ to the demands of life and ‘yes’ to God’s provision for us and our loved ones.

Sabbath is God’s freedom and God’s riches poured into our lives. We’ll take a look at this in more detail in the next few weeks. Till then – may you seek the Sabbath, and may you find it, and enjoy its rest and its peace in the days ahead.


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