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Sunday, December 3, 2023
Sunday, November 26, 2023
Monday, November 13, 2023
Tuesday, October 24, 2023
Most of us are familiar with the story of the widow and her two copper coins, but perhaps less of us are familiar hearing her story in context of Jesus’s prior words. This widow is often held up an example, and she is, but not so much for her generosity but for her faith. She is 100% dependent on God for her life, and her act of giving is an example of that dependence. In stark contrast to the widow, we have the scribes, who are out to make a name for themselves.
Our story takes place after the last word game attack on Jesus, which was by the Sadducees. All those testing Jesus were done with them, but He was not done with them. We saw how He wouldn’t let the issue of the resurrection be dropped. He pushed not only the Sadducees, but all listening about the truth of the resurrection and His part in it. And then Jesus goes on to criticize the scribes. He specifically singles them out. We know that Jesus in the past has been critical of the Pharisees. Now it’s the scribes’ turn. His criticism comes in the form of a warning to His disciples of how not to be.
Jesus’s first warning has to do with the scribes walking around in long robes. But wait, you might say, “Pastor LaVera, you are wearing a long robe! That doesn’t seem like you are heeding Jesus’s warning!” Some pastors do think this way and won’t wear any garment which would distinguish them from the laity. Some, in my opinion, dress too casually, so that the sense of coming together in the presence of an Almighty and Holy God is diminished. There seems to be a lack of reverence in worship. But the practice of clergy wearing robes dates back to the OT Law, when very specific garments were required of the priests and Levites. These were to be worn as they were performing their official duties. The scribes, while scholars, were given no such instructions regarding the wearing of robes, but they wanted to be identified with the priests. My robe was conferred upon me at my ordination to the pastorate. You will not see me wearing this robe outside of the context of a worship service. In addition to it being a sign of my office, as a female member of the clergy, I have found it to be practical. Women generally tend to be judged more strongly on appearance than men. When I wear a robe, hopefully you are less distracted by how I look, what I’m wearing, whether or not I have gained or lost weight, and perhaps it is easier for you to focus on what the Spirit is saying through my words. Whether or not it is true, it does make me a little less self-conscious. That being said, unlike the scribes, you will never see me wearing this robe in the marketplace! There are occasions when you may see me wearing a clerical collared shirt out in public, even at the grocery store, but it would be because I am on my way to or from a pastoral duty in the public. Priests and clergy from other denominations often wear their collars all the time, because their call is to be always on duty all the time. While I consider myself always on call, I don’t consider myself always acting in an official capacity as a pastor, though all of us all the time represent Christ wherever we go and whatever we do. Sometimes we represent Hiim better than other times, but it is important for us to remember this.
The next three critiques have to do with attention seeking. The scribes even thought they deserved more honor than their parents. And while there is nothing about the duty to give honor to religious authorities in the 10 Commandments, there is one about honoring your father and mother. Remember that the 10 Commandments was given to adults, not children. Adult males in particular were responsible for keeping them for themselves and on behalf of their families. Now, we all want to be respected. We all appreciate being honored, but I hope we don’t go around expecting to be honored or acting like we are superior to others. As Jesus told in another warning, don’t seek out the chief seats at a banquet, but take lower seats until you are invited to take the more privileged spots.
And then we come to a really important criticism—“who devour widows houses.” How did they do this? The scribes are the lawyers. They charged fees for legal help. Sometimes these fees were extreme. I read that the case of the Navy Seals who were dishonorably discharged from the service for refusing the COVID vaccine was settled. They were awarded $1.8 million, 100% of which went for their legal fees. So they won, but not really. They can receive now an honorable discharge or they are free to reenlist, but as far as lost wages or time—zip. And these are mostly men still in their prime. But imagine a widow trying to get justice and having all her efforts go to legal fees. They also oversaw loans. If you couldn’t repay it, your property was seized. The scribes were also known to mismanage the estates of those widows who chose to dedicate themselves to temple service. If you were a widow with no heirs, you might not have anyone to take care of you, but you could dedicate yourself to temple service and be taken care of that way. Your estate, if you had any, would be taken. Remember Anna, the prophetess, who met the baby Jesus in the temple? We don’t know if her estate was mismanaged or not, but she was one of those widows who dedicated herself to temple service.
Some scribes charged fees for prayers. Rabbis could not legally charge for their teaching, and many were dual career. So, pastors shouldn’t get paid, right? Some churches believe this. They use minimally or informally trained elders who have other jobs to preach. But Jesus was financially supported in His ministry largely by women. We know this from Luke 8:1-3. Paul also said that the apostles had a right to be financially supported for their work and gives Peter as an example, even though Paul himself chose to partially support himself through his tentmaking abilities. He writes this in I Corinthians 9. But abuses still happen today. I think of multimillion dollar TV preachers who continue to seek donations and promise blessings and miracles for such gifts. The reason I left Grace Presbyterian was financial. It became painfully obvious they could no longer afford me even at half-time, but they didn’t want to fire me. At the time, it was required that ministers who were part of the pensions program also had to get health insurance through the denomination. That didn’t change until the 2016 General Assembly when the Minister’s Choice program was approved, allowing stated supply and lay pastors to accumulate pension credits without having to have health insurance through the Board of Pensions. This allowed me to continue serving Antioch Presbyterian Church for another couple of years and has continued to allow me to serve churches like Trinity.
The final critique is that the scribes prayed long prayers for appearances sake. Keeping public prayers short is generally a good idea, but there are certainly examples of powerful longer public prayers in Scripture. In fact, whole communal services dedicated to lament occurred with people praying for many hours as well as long services of praise. But generally, these prayers weren’t just given by one person. We have examples of saints and faithful believers who prayed for hours, but these prayers were largely private. Whether public or private, these good examples of long prayers were not done to put the attention on the person giving the prayer. They were not looking for admiration from a congregation. It is the motivation that makes the difference in prayer, not the length.
And then Jesus gives us the seriousness of His warning why not to be like the scribes—“for they will receive greater condemnation.” One of our interesting discussions last week was the intermediate states between when Christ returns and the new heavens and new earth are ushered in, when all the dead are raised, both believing and unbelieving—the righteous with new, glorified bodies to live in the New Jerusalem and the unbelieving to be resurrected and cast into the lake of fire. The Bible does point to intermediate states until the resurrection, but it is not clear exactly what they are. There is an intermediate state of punishment for the wicked, and it seems to have degrees. But it seems even believers will be judged in the intermediate state. James 3:1 says, “Not many of you should be teachers, knowing that we shall receive heavier judgment.” Whether the scribes were ultimately destined for the New Jerusalem or the lake of fire, we don’t know. Probably a mix of both, but James will most certainly be in the New Jerusalem, and yet he is aware of his accountability for what he has taught before Jesus. Though we don’t know all the details, we have heard again and again from Jesus Himself that what we do or don’t do matters. And those in positions of teaching the word of God will be judged more harshly, though not necessarily condemned. Romans 8:1 assures us, “Now, therefore there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Condemnation isn’t even a remote possibility for the believer.
And then the widow comes in with her two small copper coins. What she offers is only enough for one, small meal, but it is all she has. No one notices her, except Jesus, who points her out to the disciples. Her giving is both a willing gift as well as a sacrificial one. No one is compelling her to give. Who would care whether or not she kept this paltry amount or gave it? Jesus cares. He says her gift is greater and more important than all. Is she an example?
I saw this week where Donald Trump is no longer in the top 10 of the world’s richest people. His wealth is valued only at 2.4 billion and the cut off was 2.9 billion. Still Donald Trump could give away 80% of his assets to charity and still have more to live off of than all of us combined plus! His hypothetical 80% giving might not be as much of a gift as your 10% or 15%. When you still have nearly a half a billion in wealth, it hardly seems sacrificial. That’s not to say that giving away all that wealth couldn’t do great good in the world, because it could if given in the right way to the right places. But at the same time, he may or may not think about being dependent upon God for his life. He sure talks a lot from an “I”-centered point of view. And yet, whether or not he realizes it, he is just as dependent upon God for his life as you or I. But God wants us not only to recognize our dependence on God, but to live it out in faith. Is the widow an example to us? Her complete trust in God to provide for her and care for her, her holding loosely to earthly things, and her willing and selfless giving are certainly to be emulated.
This widow is also the prime example of what Jesus condemned in the scribes. Her house has been devoured. Jesus noticing her is as much a lament of her state as it is praise of her faithful generosity. If she doesn’t join temple service, if she is not helped by the temple or others, if God doesn’t miraculously provide for her needs, she will soon die. She has nothing left and nowhere to go. Woe to those who prey on the poor in the name of God! The treasury was used for various things, much of it for the building. Extra biblical sources talk of 13 different collecting boxes, called “trumpets” that echoed when you dropped your coins in. One was for wood, another for incense, another for care of the golden vessels, etc. Herod’s temple wasn’t completely finished, and as we are keenly aware, maintenance is always needed and is often costly. And there are costs occurred for the maintenance of worship itself. Still, some temple funds were supposed to be set aside particularly for widows and orphans, and it was to be a priority fund, not a secondary fund. God through the prophet Jeremiah condemned religious leaders especially and the people in general for not obeying the God-given duty to care for widows and orphans. In Jesus’s day, this command continued to be neglected, at least in part.
Let’s bring it home. We have a building which we can’t afford. We have several widows in this congregation. I would hate to see us be a church that spends its resources on a building over using its resources to grow the Kingdom of God. This is not to say buildings don’t have value, even this one. We provide a site for the Scouts to meet. We know that there are several churches in Havelock that have had the Scouts and don’t particularly we want them back, but we value them as an important part of ministry. The Scouting program is not a ministry in and of itself, but ministry takes place in the context of Scouting as we have many leaders who are strong Christians. Christ is modeled in the lives of believers, in conversations with participants and in practices incorporated. Some of these young people would have little to no Christian witness other than through encountering faithful Christians through the Scouting program. But is keeping a building for the Scouts the most faithful way we as Trinity Presbyterian Church are called to be stewards of God’s resources? Is there a different way we can serve Scouting and do even more to promote the kingdom of God? To that end the session continues to work on turning our property from a liability to an asset.
Wednesday, October 4, 2023
Long before the Last Supper, Jesus associated Himself with bread. In John 6, He declares Himself as the “Bread of Heaven” and the “Bread of Life”, words which we associate with Communion. These are part of the “I Am” statements of Jesus. Jesus has already introduced Himself as the “I Am” to the woman at the well. He did not tell her that He was the Living Water, only that He is the source of living water. No, His self-introduction to her was simply, “I Am” after she said, “I know that Messiah is coming who will teach us all things.” Jesus identified Himself as Messiah and God. This treatise about bread by Jesus takes place after the feeding of the 5000+ people. A group went the next day looking for Jesus and couldn’t find Him, but eventually caught up with Him in Capernaum. It may have taken a day or so to make that trip by foot. They want to see what Jesus can do next, but Jesus shows them that what they need is Him, not simply what He can do or even what He teaches. On this World Communion Sunday, when we come to the table, we acknowledge our need for Jesus Himself.
Jesus is the gift of life and sustenance. Jesus gives living water, but He is the Bread of Heaven and the Bread of Life. The living water probably and rightly reminds many of us what Jesus does for us in baptism. In the picture of water, Jesus emphasizes the joy that comes from life. But in Communion, we do not eat bread with water, but with the fruit of the vine. Though Jesus calls Himself the True Vine, He does not call Himself the fruit of the vine. Rather we are to bear the fruit as we are connected to Him. At the Last Supper, Jesus tells us that the cup symbolizes the new covenant sealed by His blood. Though I won’t focus too much on the cup in this message this morning, both the bread and cup remind us that Jesus is God giving Himself to us that we might have life.
The crowd following Jesus was looking for what they could get out of Him. They were not looking for Him. Jesus says, “You seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.” Furthermore, we know this because many of them quit following Him after this speech. Some wanted to kill Him. Even His disciples said, “This is a hard saying.” How many of you have been in a relationship with someone who was only out to use you? Maybe someone you thought was a friend, maybe a family member, maybe someone you were genuinely trying to help, maybe someone you dated? How did it make you feel about yourself and about that person? Did it affect your relationships with other people? No one likes being used, including Jesus. Are you chasing Jesus because of what you can get from Him or are you pursuing Jesus for Himself, for what He willingly offers to you and wants you to have?
When the crowd hears Jesus tells them they should desire the food that gives eternal life, not food that perishes, they ask, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” In other words, what must we do so that we can get this bread from heaven which gives eternal life? The answer is simple yet profound. “Believe in God and the One whom He has sent.” Believe, as Ernst Haenchen puts it, “that Jesus is the One sent from God, and in Him God is represented and made presence.” There is only one work that we must do—believe in Jesus. Believe in who is He—that He is God, that eternal life is found in Him, that He is Life. Unlike the woman at the well who responds quickly upon hearing Jesus say, “I am”, even running back to her village to tell others about the Messiah, this crowd is slow to respond. Instead of faith, they ask for another sign, another sign having to do with physical food—like the manna that fell from heaven in the Old Testament. You see, this crowd knew the story from the Midrash that in the last days, manna from heaven would again fall, but they make some mistakes. First, they attribute the giving of manna to Moses instead of to God the Father. Jesus corrects them and goes on to say that the Father gives the true bread from heaven. Now they decide it is something they want, so they ask Jesus to give it. This is their second misunderstanding. The Bread is Jesus. He is the gift. He is eternal life. Jesus affirms the prophecy, but lets them know that it is fulfilled in Him. He is the manna. He is the bread of heaven, sent by God the Father in the last days. How much does Jesus have to prove Himself to you before you believe Him? Do you want Jesus always, or only when you are desperate or it serves your convenience or your purposes? Jesus is the gift! Jesus promises not to cast out anyone who comes to Him. Like last week, we hear Jesus promising resurrection and putting Himself at the center of it. Jesus affirms life and life to come.
Early Christians were accused of cannibalism because of the Last Supper. The recitation of Jesus’s words, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink of His blood, you will not have life within you,” caused outsiders to believe that some kind of human sacrifice was happening. Even the Jews who heard Jesus say these words were confused by them. They didn’t know how they could possibly do this. In fact, it was especially offensive when Jesus said that we must drink His blood. Eating and drinking blood was forbidden by the Mosaic law as recorded in Deuteronomy 12:23, “for the life is in the blood.” Even in the Book of Acts, as recorded in Acts 15, the prohibition against blood was one of three laws that was passed on to the Gentile believers. The life is in the blood. Jesus’s blood had to be shed for us to give us life.
Today’s passage is the key passage on which Catholics base the doctrine of Transubstantiation, that in the mass when the words of institution are given, the bread, which is called the Host, actually becomes the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. They take the words that Jesus says in this passage literally. They do not take all of Jesus’s other I Am sayings as literally as this one, such as “The True Vine,” “The Good Shepherd,” “The Door of the Sheep”. However, the doctrine of Transubstantiation is quite ancient. One of the earliest clear teachers of this doctrine was Justin Martyr who died in 165 AD. As Reformed Protestants, we too believe that Jesus is the Host at the Communion meal, but we generally do not call the bread the Host. Our Host remains unseen by our physical eyes, but He is still present. We believe that Jesus feeds us with Himself without the bread literally becoming the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. We believe the bread and cup are representative of Jesus’s real presence with us and that this sacrament is more than just a memorial ordinance. We affirm that in this meal, the power of Christ is transferred to us. That being said, we welcome all baptized believers to the table because we believe in the one body of Christ, and the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, and because the table does not belong to Trinity Presbyterian Church, but to Jesus Christ, who invites His own to come.
So how do we eat Jesus’s flesh if we do not believe the bread and cup literally become His body, blood, soul and divinity? How do we eat Jesus’s flesh and drink His blood if not literally? First, Jesus says it starts with God the Father. We can’t even begin to do this if God hasn’t drawn us to Jesus first. Second, most of us do not eat things while they are still alive. Even if you eat something raw, you want it dead first. Once again, we see Jesus referring to His sacrificial death. In verse 51, He says, “And the bread also which I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh.” German theologian A. Schlatter taught. “What we have to do with His flesh and blood is not chew and swallow, but that we recognize in His crucified body and poured out blood the ground of our life, that we hang our faith and hope on that body and blood, and draw from there our thinking and willing.” We unit our lives to Christ’s; for we have no life without Jesus. Friends, to eat and drink of Jesus is to depend on Jesus for your very life. And it is to do the will of Jesus. When the disciples came back with lunch for Jesus and saw Him at the well with the woman running away, they wondered if He had eaten, but He replied, “My food is to do the will of the One who sent Me.” In John 6:38, Jesus affirms, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” As Jesus did the will of the Father, He was satisfied and lacked nothing. In verses 56-57, Jesus says, The one who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me and I in Him. As the living Father sent e, and I live because of the Father, so the one who eats Me will also live because of Me. St. Ignatius of Antioch equated eating Jesus’s flesh and drinking His blood to being united with Him through martyrdom. St. Ignatius was bishop of the church in which the apostle Paul was discipled, not during Paul’s time, but shortly after as He was martyred in 110 AD. Knowing he was going to be executed, St. Ignatius wrote to the Roman church:
I have no delight in corruptible food, nor in the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became afterwards of the seed of David and Abraham; and I desire the drink of God, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life.
In these last days of his life, St. Ignatius declared that Jesus was everything to Him. He needed nothing but Jesus nor was there anything that mattered but Jesus. To do Jesus’s will is enough. Follow Jesus. Finish His work of being and making disciples. Embrace the way of the cross for the promise is eternal life and resurrection! May Jesus be everything to you.
Tuesday, September 26, 2023
Monday, September 18, 2023
I don’t know that anyone enjoys paying taxes. I just paid my 3rd quarter, and it was not a small chunk of change! And yet, I think we can agree that at least a portion of our taxes goes to things that benefit us. In today’s passage, we see that Jesus’s enemies are trying to set another word trap for Him to fall into. They ask Him if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not. Jesus shows in His answer that although taxes are legal, our duty to God as God’s image bearers is the most important thing.
The religious leaders have just heard a parable spoken against them. They know that they can’t do anything to Jesus, so they are hoping that they can get Jesus to say something so that Pilate will have cause to put Jesus to death. If Jesus said paying tax was wrong, they could report it to the Roman authorities. After all, there was a rebellion against Rome over the poll tax in 6 AD led by a man named Judas. His rebellion was short-lived as he was killed by the Romans. Gamaliel mentions this rebellion in Acts 5:37. Despite the fact that the parable Jesus told indicated that the rule of Rome wasn’t going to come to an end soon as everyone had hoped, the expected answer to the question is that Jesus is going to say taxation is wrong, but even if he goes along with taxation, the hope is that He will lose a good chunk of His support, for the tax wasn’t popular among the common people. We have seen how tax collectors were among the most disliked of people.
Jesus could have answered with a list of Scriptures from the Law and the prophets about the responsibility to pay tribute as part of covenantal obligations. He could have traced how God’s people were conquered as a result of their disobedience. But Jesus does not give a long historical and theological discourse. Instead, He asks for a denarius. They provide one. Jesus doesn’t have one, but someone else does. When Peter had answered a different time that Jesus paid taxes, this one the temple tax, Jesus had to send Peter to catch a fish with a coin in its mouth, to cover the amount of both Jesus and Peter. A denarius was the exact amount of the debated poll tax or head tax—the tribute each person, 14 years or older, had to pay annually to Rome. It was equivalent to a day’s wages, certainly not excessive. The fact that they had a coin showed that they were participating in the economic system that they were claiming was unjust. Furthermore, the coin had Caesar’s picture on it with an inscription “son of the deified Augustus.” On the back was a picture of his mother Livia with an inscription “high priest.” It could have been argued that possession of the coin violated the second commandment against idolatry, having a graven image, esp. since Caesar was worshipped. No one was arguing about whether it was right to possess and use money. Remember that we have already heard that these religious leaders were “lovers of money.”
Jesus doesn’t stop with “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” He goes on to add, “And to God, the things that are God’s.” By asking about the image on the coin, Jesus is reminding His audience that they are God’s image bearers. They were created in the image and likeness of God. Wherever we go and whatever we do, we bear God’s image. We belong to God. We represent God. We carry God with us. As image bearers of God, we are called to give our lives to and for God.
Jesus also reminds us that God’s reign is bigger than Caesar’s. Everything belongs to God. Caesar falls under the reign of God. Though paying tribute is legitimate, obedience to Rome or any authority must be measured first against obedience to God. The apostle Paul reminds us of this in Romans 13:1-7. READ We do have to submit to the governing authorities, because God put them in place. Their role is to punish evil, execute justice, and protect the people, and support the common good. But this doesn’t mean that they always stick to their role. Caesar may get our money, but God gets our hearts, our minds, our bodies, and our wills, along with our stuff, remembering that the first fruits belong to God.
Governments are not perfect. There will be no perfect government until Christ returns to reign on earth. Earthly governments are made up of flawed human beings, most of whom aren’t even disciples of Jesus, but that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t ordain and direct them. Still they will do evil things. Both Jesus and Peter told us to expect the governments to persecute followers of Jesus even to the point of martyrdom. They warned us to not be afraid, to be prepared to stand strong, and to trust that the Holy Spirit will be our guide and voice. We prepare ourselves by staying close to Jesus through prayer, learning the Scriptures, and learning how to hear and obey the Holy Spirit. Faithful Christians make good citizens because they are submissive, work hard and ethically, and care about their fellow human beings, and yet the gospel is a threat to those who thirst for power because the way of the gospel is the way of humility and not power. There is always a higher power who comes first, and it’s not those in control or who want control, but it is God Almighty. This is why Christianity is hated around the world despite all the good done by Christians.
There are times when civil disobedience is necessary. Toward the end of our peacemaking Bible study series, the group watched a 2-part documentary on non-violent resistance. People united together in civil disobedience were able to tear down and stand against evil regimes, like apartheid in South Africa, resistance against the Nazis in Denmark, the overthrow of military dictatorship in Chile, the overthrow of the communist regime in Poland, the end of segregation here in the US. We see an examples of nonviolent civil disobedience in the book of Daniel both when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to bow down to the golden statue of Nebuchadnezzar, and when Daniel opens his window and prays toward Jerusalem against the edict to pray only to the emperor. Remember that God comes first, so when governments grossly violate God’s demands for justice, it’s time to resist. If rulers demand obedience to a law that directly violates God’s commands, it’s time to resist.
God must always come first in our lives. We belong to God and we bear God’s image. Regardless of what regime is in power wherever we live, our true citizenship is in heaven as Paul reminds us in Philippians 3:20. And we are commissioned to be Christ’s ambassadors, representing the kingdom of heaven on earth. As ambassadors that means that our job is not to try to escape from or disengage from civic duties, but to engage from a biblical point of view, with the gospel as our message. We are to act like God acts, for indeed God acts through us. We are to value what God values. We are to be Jesus’s voice, hands, feet, eyes, ears, and heart in the world. We carry God with us wherever we go. As we are reminded of the original way that God created us, we also remember the original mandate, to care for the earth, to make it fruitful and productive, to live into God’s goodness. And we ought to value our fellow human beings as well, because whether they believe in Jesus or not, they too are made in the image and likeness of God and deserve dignity. Treating people the way we want to be treated is hard enough, but what if we treated people as if they were Jesus? In Bible study today, we are finishing up our discussion of the Matthew 25 passage where Jesus compares Himself to the “least of His followers,” and that doing or neglecting to do basic, although often inconvenient things in service to others is the way we treat Him. Jesus’s command to “render unto God the things that are God’s” reminds us to look for the image of God in others. Sometimes it’s hard to see. This is turn ought to cause us to examine ourselves. Is the image of God easy to see in us, or is it hard to see?