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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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[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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From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.  And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?   

“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”Matthew 16:21-28

In the decade of the 20s the nation is controlled by the elite, who in spite of being citizens of the country are in league with foreign powers. These leaders – no matter which house they belong to – betray the interests of the common people, even to the point of giving their tax money to their oppressors. The people protest. Keeping the peace and maintaining order becomes a chronic concern. And the leaders of organized religion, with a few important exceptions, are corrupt; many are in league with the elite who are running the country.

I’m not talking about the 2020s, or even the 1920s. This was the 20s. This was the world Jesus and the disciples lived in.

Humanity has made great technological progress since then, but where it comes to human nature not much has changed.

As it is today, people back then were worried and troubled to the point of taking to the streets. So when Jesus came talking about the Kingdom of God being on its way – this was good news!! God was on the side of the people; and people started to dream of getting rid of the corrupt leadership: the Sadducees, the Herod family, the Roman Empire itself.

And what hope they had! Last week we heard Jesus ask the disciples “who do people say that I am?” and “who do you say that I am?” and Peter answered, “you are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus confirmed this, and called Peter blessed because this had been revealed to him by God.

What a shock it must have been, then, when Jesus immediately began to teach his disciples that he was going to be killed by the religious leadership and come back to life three days later. It didn’t make sense to them. For starters, they missed the ‘come back to life’ bit – that really didn’t make sense. Being killed by the religious establishment was believable, but how could it be? Wasn’t Jesus the Messiah? The Crown Prince of heaven? The Son of the Living God? How could the Son of God die?

And especially on a cross? Crucifixion was familiar to the disciples: it was brutal. It was designed by Rome to dominate and intimidate anyone who wasn’t Roman. Jesus and the disciples grew up seeing streets lined with crosses, seeing people sometimes take days to die. Crucifixion was for the enemies of the Roman state: which made it illegal for the religious leadership of Israel to crucify Jesus; but their game plan was to get Pilate on board, and Pilate was the Roman governor, and that way they could get around the law.


Bust of Pontius Pilate

The disciples couldn’t even begin to imagine this. What they were hearing is their friend Jesus, their teacher, their Lord, talking about dying. And that simply couldn’t happen – could it?

Peter expressed what I think they were all feeling.  He pulled Jesus aside and said, “God forbid! Not you, this can’t happen to you!

Peter is often criticized for being hot-headed and quick with his words, but I think in this case the criticism is unfair. When Peter says “this must never happen to you” I think he means it with the very best of intentions. Peter loves Jesus. Peter loves God. Peter wants to see God’s kingdom come, just as Jesus had taught the disciples to pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” How can this happen if Jesus is dead?

The thing is Peter doesn’t see what God sees, not yet. His feelings for Jesus are very human. Jesus says as much. He says: “you’re setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

As I was thinking about this passage this week, I was reminded how hard it is, even for us today, to hold in our minds the thought of our saviour Jesus being whipped and ridiculed and tortured. We want to say “No no no this is all wrong. This isn’t fair!” Why should the Lord of peace suffer violence? Why should the Messiah who healed so many be broken? From a human standpoint it makes no sense and it’s terrible to imagine.

Jesus responds to Peter, “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block.” The phrase ‘stumbling block’ is used elsewhere in scripture to describe words or actions that turn people away from their God-given calling.

Jesus knows the road ahead of him. He knows it will be hard. Jesus doesn’t want to die; in fact in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus will pray, “if it’s possible let this cup pass from me.” Peter is tempting Jesus to abandon his role as Saviour; and Jesus loved God and loved us enough to do for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves.

To be a friend to Jesus in that moment would have been to stand by him, in silence if necessary, letting Jesus talk about what was coming, listening to him, setting him free to be who he was born to be. In this moment though it’s beyond the strength of any mortal. This is one time when Jesus will have to stand alone, because only He can do it. Only Jesus knows, as God knows, that his death will put an end to death; that his kingdom and his crown will be won through his self-sacrifice and his resurrection.

For those of us living in the 2020s Jesus has much to say in this passage: there are three things I want to focus attention on.

First, Jesus invites us – as he invited his disciples back then – to pick up our own crosses and follow him. Jesus says, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Or to shade the translation slightly differently: “whoever wants to save their life will destroy it, but whoever loses their life for my sake will discover it.” Actions can have unintended results; and how often have we seen people chase after success or power or money in order to make their life safe, only to destroy themselves in the process? Jesus says ‘it is foolish to gain the world and lose one’s own soul’; ‘but in giving away your life you will save it and find it.’

Second, to “take up your cross” is not an invitation to start going around looking for crosses to carry! It’s an invitation to give of oneself sacrificially to and for one’s neighbor. Quoting from James Boyce, Professor Emeritus of Luther Seminary, St. Paul MN:

[The] Messiah did not have to seek the cross; it was [brought] by those to whom his… mission of service gave offense, [and likewise] we are called to the unselfconscious love and care for those in need. Crosses will be provided…” [workingpreacher.org]

Third, it is difficult to meditate on what Jesus suffered. When we do, what we need to remember is Jesus loves us this much. Scripture says “he will see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied” (Isaiah 53:11). In other words, Jesus will look at you and me and say “it was all worth it”.  He loves us that much.

So to be wise in this decade of the 2020s we begin by knowing nobody loves us like Jesus: not our governors, not our congresspeople, not our elected officials, not any other powers that be, not our employers, not our counselors, not our financial advisors – none of them love us as much as Jesus does. Even our families, much as they love us, love with an imperfect love. Jesus loves us with a self-sacrificing love that gives the very last drop of everything he has in him in order to bring us with him into his kingdom.

In this decade of the 2020s – which has started out so very strangely – Jesus still calls us to follow him. To set aside our own interests, as he did, for the sake of others. To give our lives into Jesus’ hands – to lose our lives for His sake – in order to find them. Because for Jesus – and for us – the cross is not the end. It’s the beginning.

In this decade, as in every decade, we have a choice: between corrupt systems that are passing away, and God’s kingdom that is coming. The easy road leads nowhere; the hard road leads to glory.


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A few years ago I started a blog called Good News for a Change in which I hoped to share uplifting articles, encouraging news, and stories of people finding ways to accomplish good things. Sadly the blog fell by the wayside for a number of reasons but I’ve always liked the idea.

SO… with this post… I am reinstating Good News for a Change, not as a blog, but as a category within this Getting Started blog — which has a much longer history and larger readership.

The following was submitted by a fellow clergyman and written by a friend of his, Steve Farmer. Enjoy the good news! And anytime you have good news to share please do. Add a comment below, or send me a note back-channel and I’ll write up an article for you.

Steve writes:

“Back to work today, forgot my pass so locked bike outside Cannon Street [London] station. Left work at 6pm to find just the cut lock and no bike, resigned to never seeing my trusty stead again asked the station if they have cameras. A guy appeared waving at me, asked me to put the code into my cut lock. He replied ‘I have your bike’ with a smile I will never forget!! His name is Abdul Muneeb and he works for South Eastern Railways, he was on a break and saw a guy bolt cut the lock and challenged him to give it back, he then took it inside and waited 4 hours after his shift finished to personally make sure I got my bike back. The world needs more Abdul’s, he is a legend of a man and a credit to his employer.”


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A week ago today the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that our nation’s Dreamers will be allowed to stay awhile longer — that efforts to dismantle the DACA program were attempted illegally.

DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) protects people who came to the United States as dependent children from deportation. It also provides work papers for those who are old enough to legally work.

DACA recipients – or “Dreamers” – have grown up in the U.S., gone to school here, gone to college or learned a trade here, have not broken any laws, and in many cases have served in the military. They are people who embody “the American dream”.

This past week I received the following email from a Christian organization that supports legal immigration. It was written by Liz Dong, a Dreamer, who is head of the organization Voices of Christian Dreamers. Shared with permission.


“Like many people in my situation, I will never forget the day that I first heard about DACA. By the grace of God – and thanks to a lot of advocacy from brave young immigrants who were sharing their personal stories when I was not ready for that myself, not to mention many Christian leaders who were beginning to speak up for immigrants in ways guided by biblical principles – the DACA program was announced eight years and one week ago. I’d recently graduated from Northwestern University, which in itself was a miraculous answer to prayer as an undocumented student from a single-parent family, without a lot of financial resources and ineligible for federal financial aid. But even after graduation, I still could not work lawfully.

“DACA changed that for me: I was able to get a job and contribute, which is precisely what I’d always wanted. It’s allowed me to go on to graduate school, earning my MBA from the University of Chicago, and to work with the Evangelical Immigration Table for many years, mobilizing local churches to advocate.

“Last Thursday was another day I’ll never forget. That morning, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in such a way that – for the moment at least – DACA remains in place, despite administrative efforts to terminate it. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude – first and foremost to God, but also to you and others who have advocated with and for me and the many other Dreamers within your congregations and communities.

“I’d ask you now to keep praying and keep advocating – because while the decision is a huge relief, it’s not the end of the story. The majority of the Supreme Court found that the administration’s process for terminating DACA was unlawful, but not that they (or a future administration) could not terminate DACA by a more appropriate process. The only way for Dreamers to become citizens of this country, which a great many of us are eager to do, would be for Congress to pass permanent legislation.

“So, thank you for praying. Please don’t stop.

“Thank you for advocating. Please don’t stop. You can start by adding your name to this letter to Members of Congress, and by asking those you know (at your church, via email, on social media, etc.) to add their names as well.”

In Christ,

Liz Dong

Founder, Voices of Christian Dreamers

P.S. Dreamers like me are thankful after last week’s decision, but that’s not new. This video is our tribute to some of the people for whom we’re thankful, who have helped us along the way!

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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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“[Jesus] put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the servants of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

[A little later Jesus] left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!” – Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43


I was at a prayer meeting about a week ago and the leader asked everyone how they were doing, and one of the women responded and said she was feeling down. When asked why she hesitated for a moment and then sighed and said, “Why do all these bad things keep happening?”

I could relate to her question. I think probably most of us can.

And I think it’s good not to rush into an answer to that question. Apart from the fact there are no easy answers, the question itself can have so many shades of meaning. It could mean: I’m tired. (That’s what I’m hearing from my African American friends lately: ‘I’m so tired and I don’t want to talk about it any more.’) It could mean: I’m frustrated. I’m sad. I’m hurting. I’m angry. I’m weary. I wish the world wasn’t this way. I wish all the sick people could get well. I wish all the people who have died could come back to life. I wish all the unemployed people had jobs. I wish all the working people could get some rest. I wish people weren’t so prejudiced. I wish people would be kind to each other. I wish our world was a peaceful place. I’m weary of hearing bad news after bad news after bad news.

The longings of our hearts give insight into what we were created for – but that world isn’t here yet.

I think the ‘why’ question is the toughest question to answer. And if we’re feeling these things, there’s no way to avoid the feelings. We can’t dodge them; we can’t drown them out with busyness or with pleasures; the only real way out is through. The emotions need to be felt and expressed. For some of us that might mean joining a protest; for others it might mean writing a song or writing a letter to the editor or writing to an elected official, or even just talking to a friend. One way or another the feelings need to come out.

But as Christians, I hope the first thing we do is talk to Jesus about it. Jesus knew what it was to live in an age of sickness and violence and injustice. Where it comes to sickness, think of all the people Jesus healed – people who had no access to health care other than what Jesus had to offer. When Jesus walked this earth it was a violent time. This week in our weekly scripture readings we read about the martyrdom of John the Baptist – how Herod had John killed as a reward for Herod’s step-daughter’s dancing. John was Jesus’ cousin – and when Jesus was told the news, the first thing he did was head up into the mountains alone to pray and talk to his Father God. Jesus knew what unjust killing was all about. He has been where we are.

Jesus in his teachings addresses a number of these things. Jesus knew the words of the Psalm we read today (Psalm 8) that says: “out of the mouths of babes you have founded a bulwark… to silence the enemy and the avenger…” – it’s a verse that points to the Messiah.

Jesus knew the words that said “what are human beings that you are mindful of them… yet you have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor.” Jesus knew this is what human beings are created for. Jesus knew first-hand the glories of God’s kingdom, which is what we were made for.

But Jesus was also realistic about the evils in our world. And he was very familiar with the question “why?” Why in a good world created by a good God do so many things go wrong? Jesus answered that question by telling a story about a farmer. He says: a farmer plants good seed in a wheat field; but after he does, someone who hates him comes and plants weeds in with the wheat. And when the wheat plants start to grow the weeds grow up with them.

As anyone who’s a gardener knows, weeds don’t just look ugly. They are ugly. They will kill any healthy plant they can. Weeds choke out healthy plants, make it impossible for them to breathe. They make it impossible for the good plants to become what the good farmer meant them to be.

Jesus says God is the farmer. God planted good seed – that’s anyone who loves God and loves God’s people. And the one who planted the weed seeds is the enemy of God – called the devil, though I don’t think we really have a clear concept of what this creature is. (The devil is not somebody running around in a red jumpsuit with a pitchfork. The Bible says the devil is an accuser, who likes to masquerade as an angel of light. The book of Revelation tells us when this creature is revealed at the end of time we will all be amazed at what we see. Till then we need to keep our focus on Jesus.)

And the weeds in the wheat-field are the children of the evil one, who Jesus calls ‘evildoers’. And the farmer – God – says ‘don’t tear them out yet, because if you do, you’ll tear out the good with the bad. You’ll tear out the wheat with the weeds. Let them grow together until the harvest…”

That’s why there’s all this evil and pain in the world: because the weeds haven’t been removed yet. And we who belong to God, we still need to grow and mature and be fruitful in spite of the fact all these weeds are in the way.

The farmer says it won’t always be like this. Someday the weeds will be gone. In the meantime, how does one tell them apart – the wheat and the weeds, the children of God and the children of the evil one? It’s not always easy to figure out, because all of us are human, and all of us make mistakes, and all of us have times when we’re confused, or when we’re in the process of learning and growing.

In a way it’s not ours to judge between the wheat and the weeds: Jesus says in the end the angels will do the sorting. But at the same time, it is ours to be wise: and if we ask, God will give us wisdom through the Holy Spirit. There’s an old song that says we shall know God’s voice “by the holy harmony which his coming makes” in us. There is a peace, when we’re led by the Spirit, that can be experienced nowhere else.

And when it’s all over, Jesus says, and the weeds have been removed, “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father.”

We are Kingdom People. We are citizens of a foreign land. This world is not our home. As the old hymn says, “we’re just a-passin’ through.” The countries we live in are only temporary citizenships. Our permanent citizenship is in a land we haven’t seen yet; but we’ve met the King, and He is the king of glory, and it will be a land of beauty and righteousness and peace and justice, where the King will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

“The righteous will shine like the sun” – that’s God’s promise. In these dark days, we remember the words of our Lord, and keep our eyes on Him.  AMEN.



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Old Testament Reading
“Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.  2 Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.  3 “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.  4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.  5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?  6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?  8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.  9 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,  10 if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.  11 The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.  12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.  13 If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;  14 then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”Isaiah 58:1-14

Gospel Reading
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand.  2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him.  3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.”  4 Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent.  5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.  6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.Mark 3:1-6

Jesus heals the man with the withered hand


This week we continue our series on the Sabbath and what it means to keep the Sabbath.  This is a subject that’s very close to my heart because I’ve discovered over the past few years there is a great blessing, and a sense of emotional and spiritual stability, in keeping the Sabbath.

With the crazy schedules many of us keep, sometimes we have to observe the Sabbath on a Tuesday or a Friday instead of the weekend, and that’s OK. The important thing is to find one day a week in which we do no work, and spend that day with God and with family and friends, or even alone sometimes, recharging our batteries and enjoying all the gifts God has so richly given us.

So far in our Sabbath series we’ve seen in the book of Genesis how God made the world in six days and rested on the seventh day and therefore declared the seventh day holy. Whether you interpret creation as six literal days or six thousand thousand years is beside the point – the point is God rested on the seventh.  And God taught people to do the same in memory of what God had done.

God wrote this command into the Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” This is Commandment Number Three.  And God said on the Sabbath everyone is supposed to rest: God’s people, the children of God’s people, anyone who works for God’s people, any animals belonging to God’s people, and any foreigners who are living in the same land as God’s people. Everyone is to rest and enjoy the gifts God has given.

This week we move into what the Psalms and Prophets have to say about the Sabbath. As we soon discover, there’s a problem: the people refuse to rest.  This is true in spite of the promises and warnings the prophets give down through the years.  For example, God says through Isaiah:

“…all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant —  7 these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer…” (Is. 56:6b-7a)

God says through Jeremiah:

“Thus says the LORD: For the sake of your lives, take care that you do not bear a burden on the sabbath day…” (Jer 17:21)

God speaks through the prophet Amos, talking about a people who can’t wait for Sabbath to be over so they can start selling things at high prices and cheating the poor. God says:

“Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land,  5 saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, 6 buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” 7 The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.” (Amos 8:4-7)

All through the Old Testament prophets are reminding the people over and over that the Sabbath must be observed in order for society to be just and fair.

I tripped over something amazing on Google this week. It’s an article about Yom Kippur and the Sabbath by Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, a leader in Conservative branch of Judaism. (I’ve edited a good bit for time and space but recommend the entire article. [words in square brackets are my notes]) She writes:

“The obligation to observe Shabbat [that is, Sabbath] demands that every person and animal, merely by virtue of being alive, be entitled to a day every week to experience rest, plenty and safety. This was a radical vision… in the time of Isaiah [here she refers to the passage from Isaiah at the top of this article] It is an equally far-reaching concept today. The vast majority of the world’s people are too poor and too oppressed to… take a day off from work. Even in our own communities, there are many who can’t afford a day of rest.  The genius of Jewish tradition is that… Shabbat is an obligation, which – in order to be fulfilled – requires an entirely different social structure. […] In Jewish thinking, a day of rest is not a human right derived from an abstract notion…  Rather, it is a religious obligation, emanating from a concrete notion of what we are required to do for each other…”

In other words, in order to keep the Sabbath, society needs to be fair. Last week I mentioned that if you’ve heard of the saying ‘no justice, no peace’ – what God’s word says is ‘no Sabbath, no justice’. Rabbi Schonfeld’s words are what I meant by that. She wraps up her thoughts by saying:

“In order to practice… Shabbat, a panoply of ethical social systems must be put in place. That is why Shabbat is described… as… a taste of the world to come…”

In this imperfect world Sabbath will never happen perfectly. But it’s a vision to bear in mind as we celebrate the Sabbath and look forward to God’s kingdom and the joy that will be ours.

If anyone’s wondering why a Christian priest is quoting a Jewish rabbi: the Old Testament is the holy book of the Jewish people, and they’ve been practicing Sabbath a lot longer than we have! Besides, Jesus was a Jewish rabbi…

And if all this sounds a bit ‘heavy’ and feels kind of foreign, let me bring us back to familiar territory. Our second scripture reading is from the Gospel of Mark, and it tells the story of what happened when Jesus healed someone on the Sabbath.  You remember how the story goes: Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and a man came in who had a withered hand. In those days most people made their living working with their hands, so this man would have suffered not just a hand that didn’t work… he would have been limited in the work he could do, and therefore his life was limited.

The religious authorities – who had just gotten done scolding Jesus’ disciples for picking wheat and eating it on the Sabbath – were watching to see if Jesus would heal on the Sabbath. They were stuck on keeping the letter of the law (“do no work”) and completely missed the spirit of the law: justice and mercy.

Remember what Rabbi Schonfeld said about the connection between Sabbath and justice: that on the Sabbath “everyone is entitled to rest, plenty, and safety.” Is this man with the withered hand going to receive ‘rest, plenty and safety’ from Jesus or from the religious authorities?

Jesus calls the man forward. And he looks over at the religious experts and he says:

“Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath, or to do harm? To save life, or to kill?”

And they looked at him in silence.

Jesus looked at them in anger and in grief: these were the men who were supposed to be teaching God’s people – by their word and example – what God is like. And their hearts were hard as stone, unmoved by the man’s pain.

But Jesus was moved. And he said to the man, “stretch out your hand.” And he did, and the hand was made whole.

And the apostle Mark tells us, “The Pharisees went out immediately and conspired with the Herodians… how to destroy Jesus.”

It’s like Jesus said: “what is lawful on the Sabbath? To heal or to kill?” The law that tells us “don’t work on the Sabbath” teaches us that showing mercy is the highest form of obedience.

Today on this Sabbath day there are people who are giving up their Sabbath in order to heal: our medical workers, our emergency responders. They’re not resting: but Jesus says what they are doing is fulfilling the law. (May God grant them the opportunity to rest in the near future.)

In the meantime the rest of us can observe the Sabbath. We can set aside one day a week to remember God’s creation and enjoy God’s rest. We can thank God that even in the middle of this strange time we are richly blessed, and we can enjoy God’s “rest, plenty and safety.”

This is the heart of the Sabbath and a taste of God’s kingdom to come. 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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Scripture Reading:  Matthew 28

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.  For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.  But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.  Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.  Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.  Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The Lord is risen indeed, hallelujah!

This, by the way, is one of the few things all the disciples agree on.  When we read the Gospels we often see Jesus’ disciples disagreeing with each other, and it’s not unusual for the gospels themselves to give different versions of the same story. This only assures us the disciples were human —  imperfect people like all the rest of us. But after the resurrection the disciples were willing to stand in front of religious leaders and rulers and put their lives on the line to say “Jesus is alive”. The disciples went to their graves rather than deny what their eyes had seen and what their ears had heard.

Here in Matthew’s gospel, Matthew highlights three things:

  1. The two Marys meet an angel
  2. The guards are given a story
  3. Jesus is reunited with the disciples

According to the other gospels, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were bringing spices to the tomb for the burial of Jesus. They were stunned by the events they’d witnessed on Friday and they’re grieving. And then the earth moves – literally! – as an earthquake shakes the ground and an angel appears and rolls back the stone in front of the tomb.

Angels are not cute little fluffy things we see in decorations. Matthew says, seeing the angel, the guards trembled and passed out cold. The women were probably about to do the same when the angel called them by name and told them, “don’t be afraid. You’re looking for Jesus who was crucified. He’s not here! He has risen, as he said he would. Come and see!” The angel invites them to check out the empty tomb. Now they’re really scared.

The angel says “go quickly and tell his disciples! And tell them Jesus said he’ll meet them in Galilee.”

Just so we don’t miss it, in saying this, God is changing the way things are done. In ancient times women were not allowed to give testimony. The testimony of two men could convict someone in a court of law, but not the testimony of women. On this day, on this first Easter Day, in the power of Jesus’ resurrection – God appoints two women to give testimony to the disciples and to the world: the Messiah, God’s savior, is alive.

As the women were on their way to the disciples, they run into Jesus Himself, and fall at his feet, and worship him. And he lifts them up gently and says “don’t be afraid, go tell my brothers the good news. I’ll see them in Galilee.”

The second thing that happened is: the religious leadership of Jerusalem heard the testimony the guards gave. They heard about the angel and the earthquake and Jesus walking out of his grave. Of all the people in this Easter story, it seems like they’re the only ones who aren’t surprised. Inconvenienced, maybe… but not surprised. Jesus himself had said “they won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31b)

It’s not that the religious authorities didn’t know who Jesus was. They did. Nicodemus, the Pharisee, admitted this when he came to see Jesus in John chapter 3. He said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” (John 3:2) Nicodemus became a believer. In fact Matthew tells us he helped Joseph of Arimathea take care of Jesus’ body after the crucifixion.

So the religious leaders knew – but they would never allow it to be spoken. They gave the guards a bribe. Under ancient law, a guard who failed in his duty was supposed to receive the punishment that the person he was guarding was going to get. So for example if the prisoner was on death row, if the prisoner escaped, the guards themselves would be killed. What would happen to a guard who allowed a dead man to escape – I don’t think they had a law for that one! But the religious authorities gave the guards a generous bribe and said, “tell people you fell asleep and his disciples stole the body while you were sleeping… and if the governor asks any questions we’ll cover for you.” And that’s what they did.

And then finally Jesus is reunited with his disciples, in Galilee. Matthew says “they worshiped him, but some doubted.” Was Matthew speaking of “Doubting” Thomas? Maybe… but I don’t think Thomas was the only one.  I find it comforting, though, that even the people who knew Jesus best had a hard time wrapping their minds everything Easter means. Wrapping their minds around life after such a horrific death… wrapping their minds around Jesus dying for our sins and then walking out of the grave alive. If we have doubts from time to time we’re in good company. And it doesn’t disqualify us from being followers of Jesus.

Jesus’ words to the disciples back then are for us as well: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

This is our resurrected Lord. This is his word to us, and this is our joy. Happy Easter!


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Somewhere around 600BC (give or take a few decades) the prophet Daniel wrote these words from exile in Babylon. The words seem very timely as our season of Lent and repentance comes to a close this year:

In the first year of Darius son of Xerxes (a Mede by descent), who was made ruler over the Babylonian kingdom—in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the Lord given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years.

So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed:“Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our ancestors, and to all the people of the land.

“Lord, you are righteous, but this day we are covered with shame—the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem and all Israel, both near and far, in all the countries where you have scattered us because of our unfaithfulness to you. We and our kings, our princes and our ancestors are covered with shame, Lord, because we have sinned against you. The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him; we have not obeyed the Lord our God or kept the laws he gave us through his servants the prophets.

All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you. Therefore the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against you. You have fulfilled the words spoken against us and against our rulers by bringing on us great disaster. Under the whole heaven nothing has ever been done like what has been done to Jerusalem. Just as it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come on us, yet we have not sought the favor of the Lord our God by turning from our sins and giving attention to your truth.The Lord did not hesitate to bring the disaster on us, for the Lord our God is righteous in everything he does; yet we have not obeyed him.

“Now, Lord our God, who brought your people out of Egypt with a mighty hand and who made for yourself a name that endures to this day, we have sinned, we have done wrong. Lord, in keeping with all your righteous acts, turn away your anger and your wrath from Jerusalem, your city, your holy hill. Our sins and the iniquities of our ancestors have made Jerusalem and your people an object of scorn to all those around us.

“Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant. For your sake, Lord, look with favor on your desolate sanctuary. Give ear, our God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act! For your sake, my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.” (Daniel 9:1-19)

And the apostle John writes these words to describe the events of the first Maundy Thursday:

It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.”
For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. I am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen. But this is to fulfill this passage of Scripture: ‘He who shared my bread has turned against me.’ I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am who I am. Very truly I tell you, whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me; and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me.” (John 13:1-20)

The word “Maundy” in “Maundy Thursday” comes from the Latin ‘mandatum’ which means ‘command’ — referring to Jesus’ “new commandment” that we “love one another” which appears in verses 34 and 35 of the same chapter of John.

Jesus’ teaching has been from the beginning, that love for God and love for neighbor is the fulfillment of all the law and the prophets. In Matthew 22:37-40 Jesus tells us: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Praise God for this! Because the law of Moses, as given to us in the Old Testament, is complex, difficult to understand and impossible to keep. Love on the other hand is… well… also difficult to understand and to keep, but at least the message is clear and direct. And more than that, Jesus gives us — through His life, through His death on the cross, and through His resurrection — a living example to follow.

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Reading from the Psalms: Psalm 118: 19-29

Open for me the gates of the righteous;
    I will enter and give thanks to the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord
    through which the righteous may enter.
I will give you thanks, for you answered me;
    you have become my salvation.
The stone the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
    and it is marvelous in our eyes.
The Lord has done it this very day;
    let us rejoice today and be glad.

Lord, save us!
    Lord, grant us success!

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
    From the house of the Lord we bless you.
The Lord is God,
    and he has made his light shine on us.
With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
    up to the horns of the altar.

You are my God, and I will praise you;
    you are my God, and I will exalt you.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his love endures forever.


Gospel Reading: Matthew 21:1-17

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”  This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

“Say to Daughter Zion,
    ‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
    and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”  The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”

The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant. “Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him.

“Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read,
“‘From the lips of children and infants
you, Lord, have called forth your praise’?”

And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night.


Palm Sunday is sort of a strange holiday even during normal years. During normal years, at many churches, children would lead in a procession of palms, and most churches would celebrate Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem; but the service would end in the shadow of the cross.  What began in joy would end in gathering gloom.

And that’s in a normal year.

This year it feels like the gloom has already gathered. The powers of pain and sickness and death have already been turned loose on the earth. As one Facebook meme says: “This is the Lentiest Lent I’ve ever Lented.” And it’s only Palm Sunday – things get darker from here!

I have a feeling Holy Week this year is going to feel very dark.

I also believe and hope and pray this Easter will be exceptionally joyful, in unexpected ways.

But we’re not there yet.

Today is Palm Sunday, we find ourselves in the crowd – waving the palm branches, singing “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

And isn’t it wonderful to hear the words of Psalm 118? “Open the gates of righteousness that I may enter through them…” “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone…” “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord…” “the festal procession with branches…” – all these words written hundreds of years before Jesus was born – looking forward to Palm Sunday and the day Messiah would come.

That’s what the people are saying in Matthew’s gospel. “Hosanna! (which means “save us now”). “Behold your king comes to you, humble and riding on a donkey…” was what the prophet Zechariah had predicted. This is God’s anointed! This is the King! That’s what the crowd is shouting, and that’s why the priests are telling them to shut up: they don’t want the people going around saying Jesus is the Messiah, even though they know it’s true.

So Jesus arrives in the temple – and instead of leading a coup (as the people expected) he goes to the temple and turns over the tables of the money-changers who have been cheating the people as they try to worship God. Jesus says to them: “it is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer – but you’ve made it a den of thieves.’” Jesus is far more interested in confronting oppression and injustice, and in bringing people close to God, than he is in claiming earthly power – because Jesus knows all power is his: it’s been his in the past, and it will be his again in the future.

Jesus has only temporarily set aside his royal power to become one of us. And it will only be a few more days before that power is his again.

And so we head into Holy Week: rejoicing that the King is here, just as the disciples did back then. And like them, we have no idea what lies ahead; but we know who holds the future.

Hosanna to the King of Kings! AMEN.

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This coming Wednesday, February 26, is Ash Wednesday.

For some of us who follow Jesus, this is a day we observe every year: a day to attend worship and receive ashes and be reminded that “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

For some of us who follow Jesus, Ash Wednesday is an odd tradition that some churches observe “but we don’t, because faith isn’t about observing special days, it’s about loving Jesus every day.”

For some people Ash Wednesday is simply the beginning of Lent: the time of the year when we “give up” something in honor of what Jesus gave up for us.

But where does Ash Wednesday really come from, why did it start, and what does it mean to believers today?

Ash Wednesday dates back to early in Christianity’s history, when Lent was a time for new believers to give up their old ways and learn how to live as Christians, and for those who had walked away from the faith to return to it. The forty days of Lent was a time to grieve over wrongs done with prayer and fasting and receiving ashes.

But the practice of putting ashes on oneself as a sign of mourning dates back before Jesus. In the Old Testament, the prophet Daniel wanted to ask God why the people of Israel were still captive in Babylon. Daniel writes: “Then I turned to the Lord God, to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.” (Daniel 9:3)

And in the New Testament, Jesus reproached people who witnessed his miracles and refused to believe: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” (Matthew 11:21)

So Lent is a time to grieve over our sins and discover new ways of walking by faith. And Ash Wednesday, which begins Lent, is a solemn reminder of our mortality and our need to be reconciled with God.

So how do believers today observe Ash Wednesday? In the churches that observe it, the tradition is to fast (refrain from eating) until sundown, attend worship, and receive ashes on one’s forehead in the shape of a cross. (Some churches no longer practice fasting because of health issues.)

In the Roman Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday is an obligatory day of fasting and abstinence; Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Moravian, and other Protestant churches hold services but don’t necessarily require attendance or fasting. (Eastern Orthodox churches begin Lent on a Monday and so don’t observe Ash Wednesday.)

For me, I think the most poignant and meaningful word in the Bible about fasting – and one that brings me to repentance –is this passage from Isaiah, where God says:

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?  Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly…” (Isaiah 58:5-8)

So how do you observe Ash Wednesday? Or how would you like to? Feel free to share a few thoughts.

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