Archive for the ‘Faith’ Category

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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Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.”  He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father. So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”

Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.” Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” – Matthew 15:1-20


Today’s reading from the book of Matthew begins with the word “Then…” – which means we’re starting in the middle of the story. It begs the question, ‘what happened before then?’

What happened before then was Jesus was having a very rough week. A few days earlier, John the Baptist’s disciples came to Jesus and told him that his cousin had just been murdered by King Herod. John the Baptist was beheaded, and his head was presented to Herod’s stepdaughter as a gift in exchange for her dancing for his dinner guests.

When Jesus heard this news he wanted to be alone for a while. He needed time with his Father God. I think all of us can relate to this: there are times when the world is just too much and we need to be alone with God.  I think that’s why the song In the Garden means so much to so many people: it captures the feeling of being alone with God.

So Jesus got in a boat and went away from the crowds, towards a lonely wilderness on the other side of the lake. But the crowds followed Jesus on foot, skirting the shore of the sea of Galilee, so that when Jesus got to the far shore they were waiting for him. And Jesus looked at them, and he had compassion on them, and healed the sick. And then, because they were in the middle of nowhere and getting hungry, Jesus and the disciples collected up five loaves and two fish, and Jesus blessed the food, and Matthew says they fed at least 5000 men, not counting women and children.

When they’d all had enough to eat, Jesus blessed the crowd and sent them home, and told the disciples to get in the boat and leave Jesus there so he could be alone to pray. Jesus finally got that alone-time with his Father.

After night-fall, Jesus walked across the water and joined the disciples in the boat – which is a whole other story – and the next day they landed at Gennesaret, where Jesus was soon recognized and more sick people were brought to him for healing.

All these things happened in a span of just a few days! And in spite of everything, Jesus was still on his feet, still ministering, and still loving people in the name of God the Father. Then…

Then the Pharisees came, with the scribes. Side note on these two groups of people: In spite of what we read in Scripture, the Pharisees were actually popular in the day. They were the peoples’ pastors. They opposed the Sadducees, who were the elite, the “one percent” of their day, and many of the Pharisees’ teachings became the foundation of modern-day Judaism. The reason we tend to see Pharisees in a negative light is because Jesus often took them to task for being legalistic and for being hypocritical… and as we read in the Gospels, Jesus was right. But this wasn’t true of all the Pharisees all the time; some of them actually ended up becoming Christian believers.

The Scribes were essentially lawyers who specialized in the Law of Moses – that is, they specialized in the Ten Commandments and all that’s written in the first five books of the Bible. Back in those days there was no separation between church and state, so these experts in religious law could also draft contracts and give legal advice.

So the Scribes and Pharisees, Matthew tells us, arrived in Gennesaret from Jerusalem. They walked approximately 75 miles just to ask Jesus a question. And the question they asked sounds like something a nasty person would have written on Jesus’ Facebook page. They asked:

“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.”

They walked 75 miles to ask this?

In the Greek it’s clear the Pharisees are accusing the disciples of transgression. They’re referring to a religious tradition, handed down for generations, that all decent Jewish people wash their hands before eating bread. This is not hand-washing as we think of it, to remove dirt and germs. This is a brief religious ceremony requiring clean water and a silver cup and a short ritual of words and motions. It would have been impossible for those 5000 men, women and children Jesus had just fed, to come up with enough silver cups and clean water for everyone to wash their hands. And the Pharisees (as they so often did in scripture) completely missed the miracle and fixated on obedience to the letter of the law – or in this case, the letter of the tradition.

Two things I want to draw attention to here:

(1) the disciples were accused of breaking religious tradition. And it was true – they had. I want to ask this: have any of us ever broken a church tradition? I know I have. One Sunday shortly after being ordained I wore the wrong color stole – I wore a purple one when I should have worn a pink one. Priests are supposed to know better! But if you ever trip over a tradition like that, trust me, You.Will.Hear.About.It.  In my case, I didn’t hear about it from the people but from the other priests.


We all had a good laugh about it. But how many people, I wonder, have been put off by the church because they’ve been attacked for something silly like this? Or how many won’t go into a church because they don’t know how to ‘do church’? They say to themselves: “I don’t know how to pray. And when do I sit, stand, or kneel?” So I put this question to all of us: How can we make our churches welcoming and easy to get to know? How can we keep tradition in its place and not let it be a hindrance to people who are seeking God?

(2) The Pharisees are keeping the letter of the law – well, the letter of the tradition – but they’re completely missing the spirit of it. The point is to be clean before God. Washing hands doesn’t accomplish that.

By the way, Jesus never taught his disciples not to wash their hands. (And neither would I in this pandemic time – keep on washing your hands!)

But the Pharisees are accusing Jesus of allowing his disciples to break religious tradition. Jesus doesn’t answer this. He doesn’t waste time trying to help the Pharisees understand where he’s coming from. Instead, Jesus answers by saying the Pharisees commit greater transgressions – they transgress God’s commands – with their traditions.

And Jesus gives an example. He says: One of the Ten Commandments says “honor your father and your mother”. But the tradition of the Pharisees and scribes says that a child can say to an aging parent “any help you might have had from me is given to God” – that is, given to the temple or the synagogue – and then that person need not take care of their father or mother. Honoring one’s parents in the Old Testament began with providing for their physical needs and went from there. So Jesus says: “you revoke the word of God for the sake of your human tradition.”

Jesus then turns to the crowd and says:

hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of it.”

The disciples pull Jesus aside and say, “do you know the Pharisees were scandalized by what you said?” And Jesus answers, “every plant my father has not planted will be uprooted.” This echoes the passage we read last week, the parable of the wheat and the weeds – that pictures God as a farmer who plants good seed, and then an enemy comes along and plants weed seeds. And they grow up together for now so that the good plants don’t get pulled up with the weeds. But – as Jesus says – every plant the Father has not planted will be uprooted.

Jesus says: Let them go. Give it up. They are blind guides; and if the blind lead the blind they will both fall into a pit. This is a hard word from Jesus. He’s basically saying, “Don’t even try with them.” How sad is that, when Jesus says about somebody, ‘don’t even try’?

Peter says “Lord I don’t understand” – which is a great prayer to pray when you’re feeling confused. So Jesus explains: what goes into one’s mouth enters the stomach, passes through the intestines, and is dropped into the latrine. (That’s literally what the Greek says.) But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and that’s what defiles a person, because out of the mouth comes evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false testimony, blasphemy and abusive language.

You’ll notice Jesus doesn’t rank these sins. He says all of them equally begin with evil thoughts, or as the Greek says, in the inner dialogue we have within ourselves. The things we say to ourselves when we’re alone with our own thoughts – that’s where all sins begin.

So two things I’d like to take from this passage today:

  1. Let’s pray – for ourselves and for others – that God will cleanse our hearts and sweeten our words. That God would make what comes out of our mouths worth being heard, helpful to others, kind, loving, and just. Pray for that.
  2. Remembering the Pharisees – and how their hypocrisy often made God’s people feel like they didn’t belong in the synagogue – for those of us who are still in the church, let’s give some thought to the questions: what traditions do we have that might invalidate a command of God? What doctrines do our churches teach that are man-made and not God-made? For example, does the church’s tradition of holding up marriage and children as the Christian ideal have the effect of minimizing the involvement of single people? Divorced people? Widows and widowers? Does it make childless people feel like second-class citizens in God’s kingdom? That’s just one example of how a church tradition might get out of hand.  And where it comes to doctrines – nowhere in the Bible does it say Lent must be purple and Pentecost must be red. That’s all human-made. Having the “wrong color” is not a sin.

That’s just for starters. As Jesus says, the real issue is in the heart. Our work on our hearts will be life-long, but thank God we don’t have to do the work by ourselves. We have a Father who loves us, we have Jesus who died for us, and we have the Holy Spirit to guide us. And we have Christian brothers and sisters to help. So let’s ask the tough questions, and welcome the outsider, in the name of our Lord Jesus. 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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A Reading from the Law: Numbers 11:16-17, 24-25a, 26-29
So the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied…

Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”

A Reading from the Prophets: Jeremiah 31: 31-34
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,  says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

A Reading from the New Testament: The Story of the First Pentecost: Acts 2:1-21, 37-39
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

“You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know — this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. For David says concerning him,

‘I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
moreover my flesh will live in hope.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One experience corruption.
You have made known to me the ways of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’

 “Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying,

‘He was not abandoned to Hades,
nor did his flesh experience corruption.’

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers,  what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”


That’s a lot of scripture this morning! But sometimes I think it’s good for a preacher to just step back and let God speak.

Pentecost is often called the birthday of the Church, not in the sense of religious institutions, but in the sense that this is the day when God’s promise to make Israel a blessing to every nation and people group came true. This is the day when people everywhere, no matter where in the world they came from, no matter where they’ve been, are invited to believe in Jesus the Messiah and to be baptized into the family of faith.

The readings we heard from the Old Testament – the Law and the Prophets – talk about God’s longing to have spiritual unity with God’s people. In the reading from Numbers, we see Moses choosing seventy elders to help lead the nation. God says: “I will take some of the spirit that is on you (meaning Moses) and put it on them.”

And when that happened, the seventy elders prophesied. But Joshua, who was Moses’ right-hand man, was jealous for Moses’ sake. Moses, on the other hand, was overjoyed to see God’s spirit being poured out on others, and he says, “would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!”  I think Moses’ words reflect what is in God’s heart. It IS God’s plan that one day the Lord’s spirit would be poured out on all the Lord’s people.

Then we hear the words of Jeremiah, who was prophet during a time when Israel’s rebellion against God reached its peak. Jeremiah was the prophet who witnessed the fall of Jerusalem and the captivity of the people in Babylon. In his book of Lamentations he pours out his tears at the fate of his people. But in today’s reading we hear words of hope for a future still far off. God says through Jeremiah: “I will make a new covenant with my people… not like the covenant I made before, which they broke.”

The ‘covenant’ here refers to the treaty between God and Israel, which is summed up in the Ten Commandments. God says to Israel through Jeremiah “you broke the treaty. You haven’t lived up to your side of the bargain” – things they agreed to do like having no other gods, honoring their parents, treating neighbors and foreigners and the poor with compassion. God says, “you haven’t done these things” – BUT! There will come a time, “says the Lord, when I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts… no longer will they… say to each other, ‘know the Lord’ for they shall all know me…”

This was God’s plan from the very beginning. Moses spoke about it; Jeremiah spoke about it; and finally, over 3000 years after Moses, Pentecost happened. God had Pentecost in the works for a long time.

So what does this mean for us today?  For us, Peter’s words are still true. These are the ‘last days’ – not in the sense that the book of Revelation talks about last days, but in the sense that we’re a lot closer to the end of time than Moses was, or than Jeremiah was. These are the ‘last days’ Peter is talking about in which God would pour out his Spirit on all flesh. Both men and women prophesy; young and old see visions and dream dreams; from the highest to the lowest God pours out his Spirit and the people will prophesy.

The word ‘prophesy’ basically means to speak God’s truth in God’s way, or to speak God’s truth into a given situation. One person I know who has a particularly strong prophetic gift can tell when a person is lying by listening to God’s spirit, and the he corrects that person gently and speaks the truth. (And if that doesn’t prove to a person that God exists…!) The gift of prophecy is not about predicting the future but it’s about serving God and serving people by speaking God’s word.

All of this is possible by the power of the Spirit after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension.

When Peter said all these things to the people in the book of Acts, they were “cut to the heart” and asked “what should we do?” And the answer Peter gave is still true for us today: “repent” – that is, change course or change direction – “and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Anyone who is reading this today who believes in Jesus but has never been baptized, please send me a note by private message. Baptism is a gift God wants you to have, and you don’t want to miss out on it.

And for anyone who is reading today who, like myself, was baptized as a baby – we were too young to remember our baptisms. Often times we feel uncertain about the gift of the Holy Spirit, which in the Bible usually comes with baptism. We don’t remember what happened that day, and that can make talking about the Holy Spirit confusing when we become adults. That’s why some churches – like Pentecostal churches – teach a second baptism, a ‘baptism in the Spirit’. That’s also why some churches don’t baptize babies, but rather wait until a person is old enough to confess Jesus Christ as Lord before baptizing them.

I’m not going to get into all these debates between the churches. What I can tell you is this: the Holy Spirit is real. The Holy Spirit is not a ghost. The Spirit is the “third person of the Trinity” (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). We’ll talk more about the Trinity next Sunday on Trinity Sunday. The Holy Spirit is that aspect of God that is able to enter into human beings, to become part of our awareness, to help direct our thoughts and actions, to teach us what the scriptures mean. The Spirit also gives us spiritual gifts, and the apostle Paul talks about these in his letters to the Corinthians, the Romans, and the Ephesians. The Spirit gives different gifts to different people; we don’t all get the same spiritual gifts, but we all get some.

What I can also tell you is: God wants us to have and use these spiritual gifts. So if you’re not sure how the Holy Spirit works in your life, pray about it, and keep praying until you get answers. And if you find yourself sort of feeling ‘stuck’, it may help to have someone pray for you or with you.

Where it comes to receiving the Holy Spirit in your life, don’t be afraid or ashamed because of whatever tradition you grew up in. If you have questions about the Holy Spirit, or about how the Spirit moves in your life, don’t let them go unanswered. Ask your pastor, ask a friend, ask me if you like. But don’t miss out on all that God has to give you, and through the Spirit, all that you have to give the world. AMEN.




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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The disciples respond by asking:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Jesus Heals

Jesus heals on the Sabbath

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

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

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

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

It’s like Jesus said in Matthew chapter 23:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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 is the second in a series of online worship sermonettes being offered weekly in the No Walls Faith Community Facebook group. If you’re interested in seeing the video or catching Sunday morning’s live stream look us up on Facebook. Online worship is organized using the Book of Common Prayer‘s Family Morning Prayer service.)

Today’s Scripture Readings: Exodus 34:1, 4-9; Ephesians 6:10-19

As I did a couple weeks ago, I’m looking at a couple of passages that were in this past week’s Lenten Devotional, that I felt speak to where many of us have been these past few weeks.

The reading from Exodus takes place shortly after God set Israel free from slavery in Egypt. God led them through wilderness to the foot of Mount Sinai to meet with them; and what God says to Israel, the people would have recognized as being in the form of a treaty. Usually this kind of treaty was made between a conquering king and a subject nation: “I’ve conquered you and now if you want peace you will do this…” but instead God says “I’ve conquered your enemies the Egyptians and I want you to be my chosen people, a royal priesthood…”  The people are thrilled and say “yes, whatever God says we will do.” And God’s treaty with them is what we know today as the Ten Commandments.

Moses goes up on the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, but he is delayed 40 days coming back down, and the people get antsy and start to wonder of Moses has disappeared. So they make a golden calf to worship – breaking the first of the commandments – and Moses returns down the mountain just as the party is heating up. We may remember the scene from the Charlton Heston movie The Ten Commandments: God is angry, Moses is angry, and he smashes the tablets of stone and God executes justice.

Ultimately God forgives, and Moses goes back up the mountain, which is where our reading today begins.

The Lord said to Moses, “Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. Be ready in the morning, and then come up on Mount Sinai. Present yourself to me there on top of the mountain. No one is to come with you or be seen anywhere on the mountain; not even the flocks and herds may graze in front of the mountain.”

So Moses chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones and went up Mount Sinai early in the morning, as the Lord had commanded him; and he carried the two stone tablets in his hands. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”

Moses bowed to the ground at once and worshiped. “Lord,” he said, “if I have found favor in your eyes, then let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as your inheritance.” (Exodus 34:1-9)

Moses has asked God: “May I see your glory?” and this is God’s answer. And isn’t this a question we’ve all wanted to ask at one time or another? “God, I wish I could see you. I wish I could see your greatness. I wish I could take a break from all the sadness and sorrow in the world and just be with You for a little while.”

God says to Moses: “yes, but…”  God’s greatness is so great, and God’s goodness is so good, and God’s purity is so pure, that for humans to see God face to face – we can’t survive it, not as we are now in this life. In the next life, yes – “we will be changed” as the apostle Paul says. But in this life seeing God face to face is too much, it would overwhelm us. So God says to Moses, “I will hide you in the cleft of a rock, and put my hand over you to protect you as I pass by, and you will see my back.” (this is where we get the text for our opening hymn for today: “He Hideth My Soul… in the cleft of the rock that shadows a dry, thirsty land…”)

He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock
That shadows a dry, thirsty land
He hideth my life in the depths of his love
And covers me there with his hand

The rock represents Jesus; God hides us in Jesus so that we can survive meeting God face to face someday. But back to Moses…

As God passes by God describes God to Moses: “The LORD, the LORD” – that is, “I am, I am” – which is the translation of the name God speaks to Moses. God IS.  If we ever have doubts about God, all we need to do is remember God’s name!

God continues with the self-description: God merciful and gracious,“slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation.” And Moses bows down and worships.

So how do we live for a God like this in a time like this?

The apostle Paul gives us some ideas when he compares the life of faith to a soldier wearing a suit of armor in our reading from Ephesians:

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel…” (Ephesians 6:10-19)

Paul says: “Put on the whole armor of God so you’ll be able to stand. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood but the authorities and cosmic powers of this present darkness.  Therefore…  Fasten the belt of truth around your waist.”  Truth is what holds everything else up, so to speak. Without truth we are…exposed!  “Put on the breastplate of righteousness.” – Doing what we know is right protects our hearts. “Put on the shoes of the gospel of peace.” We stand in God’s truth, in Jesus’ message of hope and faith and love, when we share these things. “Pick up the shield of faith…” that is, trusting God’s word, “…and the helmet of salvation.”  Knowing God is merciful, knowing God accepts us and forgives us, protects our minds from doubt. “And the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God…” The only offensive weapon in a Christian’s armory is God’s word: nothing more… nothing less. “And pray in the Spirit at all times.” Pray for those in need; pray for those who minister to us; and pray for those who have asked for our prayers.”

Go into the week ahead in God’s strength, sure that God IS, and we belong to God.


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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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