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Loving the Law

October 23, 2017

“’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’” (Matthew 22: 37-39).

People become lawyers for many different reasons.   I was first exposed to the study of contract and tort law as a claims adjuster after college and became hooked on the law. I enjoyed studying legal concepts and applying them to real life situations to solve problems and to help people. The cases I read in law school were even more interesting than most of the stories I read as an English major in college. As our children have heard me say many times over the years, I love the law. Loving the law is the subject of this week’s Scripture texts.[1]

Leviticus is known as the book of laws. The book contains hundreds of regulations relating to the everyday and temple life of the Israelites. The laws were inspired by God and written down by Moses out of God’s great love for his people—to instruct and to protect his people. But the book of Leviticus also foreshadows Christ. The sacrifices recounted in Leviticus were based on the concept that “it is blood that makes atonement for one’s life” (Leviticus 17:11; Hebrews 9:22). The vitality of a life is in the blood. At the heart of Leviticus is a verse that would be echoed by the one who shed his blood for us centuries later: “Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18b).

The psalms also extol the virtues of the law. The psalmist says that the blessed man delights “in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water . . . Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away.” (Psalm 1: 2, 4). The blessed study the law—the Word of God, life-giving and sustaining water–but the wicked lead faithless lives, drifting without direction, and are blown about like weightless chaff. In this context, the psalmist shows us that God’s law is life-giving and sustaining, not repressive. Its purpose is to help us and to protect us.

The Pharisees had classified over 600 laws and were proud of their knowledge of them. “One of them, an expert in the law, tested him [Jesus] with this question: ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ Jesus replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’” (Matthew 22: 35-40). In four simple declarative sentences, Jesus cleared out the dead vines and explained that there are really only two laws: love God and love others as yourself. If you obey these two laws, you will obey the rest, because all laws depend on love of God and love of others. Jesus brought them back to the main thing, which had gotten lost in the plethora of regulations.

This year is the 500th year anniversary of the Reformation, started by Martin Luther–a man who abandoned his law studies to become a monk. Luther was called a wild boar in God’s vineyard. But his goal was to clean out the dead vines to restore the vineyard to producing good fruit, not to destroy the vineyard.

From a faith perspective, you only need to remember two laws, which will result in your obedience of most other laws, will comfort you, and inject meaning into your life: love God and love others as yourself. Paul understood the importance of expressing our love for others in tangible ways, and assured the church at Thessalonica of his love: “Because we love you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our lives as well . . . For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God” (1 Thessalonians 2: 8, 11,12). Luther explained it this way in a Christmas message to his congregation: “You have Christ in your neighbor. You ought to serve him, for what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord himself.”[2]

Love God and love others as yourself.  Easy.  Now don’t you also love the law?

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost are Leviticus 19: 1-2, 15-18; Psalm 1; 1 Thessalonians 2: 1-13; Matthew 22: 34-46.

[2] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand (1950) Abingdon Press, p. 366

Chosen

October 16, 2017

He has chosen you.” (1 Thessalonians 1:4b)

Think back on the last time you were chosen for a job from a pool of applicants, or to be part of a team, to lead a team, to make a presentation, to perform a special task at work, to join a committee, to lead a group of children in Scouts or a church activity, to perform or otherwise showcase your artistic skills, to prepare a special meal, to spearhead an event, to receive an award, or were accepted by a school to which you applied. It is pretty special to be singled out for a specific purpose. Being chosen is the theme of this week’s Scripture lessons.[1]

About 150 years before Cyrus the Great ruled Persia, Isaiah predicted that Cyrus   would be chosen by God to free the Israelites: “This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I will take hold of to subdue the nations before him . . . to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut . . . I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the Lord, the God of Israel, who summons you by name” (Isaiah 45: 1-3).   God had chosen Cyrus by name, long before his birth for a specific task: to free the Israelites from Babylonian rule and to fund the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. God chose Cyrus for a special purpose before he was even born, and he fulfilled that purpose.

Paul tells us that God has chosen each of us for a special purpose: “For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1: 4). You are not studying Scripture by accident. You were guided by the power of the Holy Spirit to his Word. That is what Paul was telling the Christians in Thessalonica who came to hear his message. The gospel had taken hold of their hearts and minds and was transforming them as they came to know Christ more fully and understand what he had done for them. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians are as timely to us today as they were to his first century hearers.

You have been chosen by God for a purpose, and as you live each day, and grow closer to him through your study of the Word and through your conversations with him, that purpose will begin to reveal itself to you–whether you are 19 or 90. God always has something in mind for you. His plan for you on this earth is not fulfilled when you retire from your day job, when your kids leave the nest, or at any other time of your life. When one phase of your life is completed, there is another in store for you. In that respect, life always poses new challenges and adventures. And for that reason, among others, we can be eternally grateful: “For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods” (Psalm 96: 4). And never think that God has finished his work with you because of your limited resources, physical or mental limitations. There are many things you can do to serve God no matter your age or circumstances.

Jesus knew that he was The Chosen One—the one to whom God entrusted our salvation. As such, he was well aware of the traps and snares set by those who wished to see him removed from the scene sooner rather than later. Some Pharisees prided themselves on being able to ask “gotcha” questions. One of those situations is recounted by Matthew: “The Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words . . . Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? . . . But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said: ‘you hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.’ They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’   ‘Caesar’s’ they replied. Then he said to them, ‘So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s’” (Matthew 22: 15-22).   Jesus was never deterred from his mission by the small minds that challenged him.

Being chosen for a team or for a job doesn’t mean that you won’t have challenges. In fact, usually the opposite is true. You were chosen for a task because of your specific God-given talents that will enable you to meet those challenges head-on. You’ve been chosen. What does God have in store for you?  It’s not a trick question. God will reveal his plans for you throughout your life as you seek him in his Word, through the people he puts in your path, and as you continue your conversations with him throughout your life. Let the adventure begin in your life and continue until you draw your last breath.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for the Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost are Isaiah 45: 1-7; Psalm 96; 1 Thessalonians 1; Matthew 22: 15-22.

Whatever

October 9, 2017

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—If anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Philippians 4:8

When our children were in high school, we frequently heard a slang phrase popular at the time: “whatever” —meaning “Whatever you say.” It was a throwaway word—often tossed out as a summary dismissal by a departing teen.  It was generally used to ignore a parent’s admonition or “words of wisdom.” As I was putting together Julia’s “Rites of Patches” quilt for her high school graduation, consisting of blocks contributed by friends and relatives, I came across a gold charm of the word “whatever” that I sewed onto a block. I wrote these words on the block with indelible ink: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—If anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” Philippians 4:8.  It was a much different use of the word “whatever” than the teenage slang. But both uses of the word sum up the theme running through the Scripture texts for this week.[1]

In the gospel text, Jesus describes a wedding banquet planned by a king. The king sent out a “Save the Date” notice. He sent many personal invitations, and then he sent out his employees to remind the invitees. They said “whatever,” or words to that effect, ignoring the gracious invitation: “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city” (Matthew 22: 5-7).   So the king’s servants gathered lots of folks from the streets and invited them to the palace for the wedding feast.

The king sent three invitations. He gave the invitees more than one opportunity to accept, just as God extends many invitations to us to join in a family celebratory feast—a metaphor for joining the family of God at a banquet that will last past the wee hours of forever. Is there anything better than spending an evening with loved ones and friends in a comfortable environment, eating delicious food, listening to wonderful music, laughing together and enjoying each other’s company? That is the image that Jesus gives us of heaven.   But to top it off, we will be in the king’s house–a royal palace–and he will be in residence.  His light will fill the great palace, and will warm our souls. Forever.  And ever.  And ever.

Who could refuse such an invitation? But we do, don’t we? We ignore the opportunities that come our way to join the celebration and to get the word out. We often shrug off his gracious invitations. “Whatever.” We do so at our peril, Jesus warns.

Paul uses the word “whatever” in a much different tone than the slang version. He uses it to tell us that whatever is beautiful, good, pure, admirable—we are to think on those things and fill our souls with the holy, the good and the beautiful. It will ease the pain of our earthly life, and will give us a “foretaste of the feast to come.” God sent his Spirit to comfort and guide us during our lives, and gave us his Word for the same reasons.

Tragedy sometimes strikes close to home. Fifty-eight precious souls were lost in Las Vegas on October 1, 2017 at the hands of evil. Among the many seriously injured that night were two deputy sheriffs from my Los Angeles County employee family.  We can’t totally escape pain, but God helps ease our pain and sorrow, and gives us much to look forward to. The psalm this week is Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need. He lets me rest in fields of green grass and leads me to quiet pools of fresh water. He gives me new strength. He guides me in the right paths, as he has promised. Even if I go through the deepest darkness, I will not be afraid, Lord, for you are with me. Your shepherd’s rod and staff protect me.” (Psalm 23: 1-4, Good News Translation).

Isaiah spoke of the celebratory feast that will be prepared for the faithful when evil is overthrown: “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, . . . on this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples . . . he will swallow up death forever. . . The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces . . . in that day they will say, ‘Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us’” (Isaiah excerpts from 25: 6, 7, 8, 9).

Envision arriving at a dinner party at the home of cherished friends after a long and taxing week. You are welcomed warmly by your hosts at the door. As you move into the home, you are delighted to see the beautiful table the hosts have set with care for their guests in preparation for a special evening. There are vases of cut flowers everywhere. The table is covered with a white linen cloth, and the places are set with napkins, silver, fine china and crystal that sparkle and gleam in the candlelight. As you take in the aroma of the roses on the tables and hear the soft music wafting from another room, the week’s concerns slowly recede. The host hands you a crystal flute of champagne. You see your name on a place card on the table. Your hosts prepared and looked forward to your arrival! They prepared a special place for you.   David describes the feast that God has prepared for us, even as we face our enemies: “You prepare a banquet for me, where all my enemies can see me; you welcome me as an honored guest and fill my cup to the brim. I know that your goodness and love will be with me all my life; and your house will be my home as long as I live.” (Psalm 23:5-6, Good News Translation).   God protects us from our enemies and sets a place for us at the table. After long and hard fought battles on earth, we will be rewarded with a banquet in the palace. We will be drinking the best vintage from God’s own cellar, and will be released from the mental and physical pain, worries, and anxieties that plagued us on earth. The king himself will welcome us, and will wipe away our tears. We will be reunited with our loved ones in Christ and enjoy a never-ending banquet in a warm and loving atmosphere.

Don’t ignore God’s invitation to join in the celebration. Come to the banquet, enjoy the feast, and stay forever.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost are Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4: 4-13; and Matthew 22:1-4.

 

 

Trinity Vintners–Estab. Before All Worlds

October 2, 2017

The use of vineyard and grape vine metaphors in this week’s Scripture lessons brought back memories of a few idyllic days we spent being driven though the hills and vineyards of Tuscany in early May, listening to the beautiful music of the blind Italian tenor, Andrea Bocelli. During our drive through the countryside around San Gimigiano, we stopped at a local vineyard and met the owners. Their son, Corrado, served us a multi-course lunch paired with their wines and olive oils. The grapevines have been cultivated on their family’s estate for many years. Growing grapes for wine is as much a science these days as growing any other crop. Cultivating good grape vines and knowing when and how to harvest the grapes involves a combination of soil conditions, geography, climate, the type of vines chosen, and many other factors. As with anything worth doing, years of knowledge and experience go into making good wine.

The Old Testament Scripture text[1] from Isaiah is called “The Song of the Vineyard”: “I will sing for the one I Iove a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines . . . Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit . . . When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad? . . “ (Isaiah 5:1-2, 4-5). Isaiah sang a song of promise—of a beautiful vineyard painstakingly cleared and planted with the best vines available. He engages his audience in the imagery, drawing them in and then taking them to the surprise ending of the bad grapes produced and condemnation of the vineyard workers. But who are they? Who are these workers who ruined the crop? They were his audience. They were the leaders of the nation Israel. They were given the best vines and conditions by the holy vintners, and they squandered it.

The psalmist plants the seed of hope for a new vineyard that God will plant. His pleas to God for the restoration of “The man at your right hand” (Psalm 80:17) can be understood in the context of the day to refer to Israel, whom God calls his “firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22), but also as a reference to the Messiah and a plea to revive us today: “Return to us, O God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see! Watch over this vine, the root of your right hand has planted, the son you have raised up for yourself . . . Then we will not turn away from you; revive us, and we will call on your name” (Psalm 80: 14-15, 18). God has given us a second chance. His Son planted a new vineyard. God sent his Son to atone for our sins, and then his Spirit to remain with us.   He encourages us to work in his vineyard and to produce good fruit with the gifts he has given us.

Through his use of vineyard metaphors, God is communicating to us that he puts us in places where we can thrive, and gives us the tools we need. It may not be in Tuscany, but wherever you are, you have been put in that place for a reason. God has a plan for you, and will equip you with the best vines and tools available. The Holy Spirit opens doors, but you must walk through those doors. The Holy Spirit gives you gifts and tools, but you must pick up those tools and use them. You need to work the vineyard. You need to put in the sweat equity. You need to put your heart and soul into the work. If you do, you will bear the good fruit that God has in mind for you.

The gospel lesson continues the theme of God’s vineyard. Jesus, the vintner’s son, has arrived. An audience has gathered to listen to him.   He looks beyond them in the outskirts of Jerusalem and sees a vineyard on a hillside. The master storyteller tells a tale about a landowner who leased his vineyard to some farmers, with the understanding that he would harvest the fruit. The tenants killed the servants the landowner sent to harvest the fruit, so the landowner sent his son to take care of the matter. But the tenants killed the son as well.   In telling this story, Jesus was exposing the plot of the religious leaders who would kill him. God is the landowner, who leased his vineyard to the tenants—the Jewish religious leaders. The servants were the prophets and priests who remained faithful to God. God finally sent his only Son to us in love, but he too, was rejected. Jesus is imploring us to be faithful servants and to continue to produce good fruit. He asks us to return the good fruits of our labor to him.

Paul says that his goal is to know Christ, to be like him, and to do what Christ wants him to do. Whatever task God has in mind for you—keep at it. Go through the open door and use the talents and the tools you are given. Paul tells us “I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it [his goal]. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me . . .” (Philippians 3: 13-14). Like Paul, we have all done things that we regret, but Paul encourages us to close the door on the past. Get rid of the guilt and set your mind on what is ahead—your hope in Christ Jesus.

Wine is a key element of the Sacrament of the Eucharist. When we are joined with Christ in the Sacrament, we receive his Spirit and are transformed into his body in the world. We become his workers in the vineyard by carrying his love into the world. God sent his Son to work the vineyard, and left us with his Spirit. The Trinity Vintners are master vintners who know what they are doing. They have been at it for millennia. We are blessed to receive an incomparable vintage every time we partake in the Sacrament and when we meet him in the private cellar of our hearts in prayer. It is their gift to us—a legacy to us to carry into the world. God invites and challenges you to share the blessings of the fruits of Spirit with those around you.  Will you accept the invitation, and the challenge?

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost are Isaiah 5: 1-7; Psalm 80: 7-19; Philippians 3: 4b-14; Matthew 21: 33-46.

Leader and Lord

September 25, 2017

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.” Philippians 2:3

An article in the Harvard Business Review begins as follows: “Want to demonstrate that you have what it takes to be an effective leader and have people follow your direction? Be humble!”[1] The article goes on to explain that if you want to make your organization the best it can be, you need to use your leadership for “something other than self-aggrandizement.” The author took a page out of God’s playbook, the Bible. This week’s Scripture lessons teach us that humility is an important quality in a person. And it is an essential characteristic of a great leader.

Scripture includes many examples of humble leaders, the most obvious of which is Jesus. When he entered Jerusalem on a donkey a few days before Passover, the people hailed him as the conquering hero they expected as a descendant David, the great warrior who defeated Goliath. But instead, he was the suffering servant leader described by Isaiah: “He was treated harshly, but endured it humbly” (Isaiah 53:7, Good News Translation).

Paul explains the mind-boggling reality of Jesus’ humility and how we should apply his example to our own lives: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant . . .” (Philippians 2:5-7).[2]  It’s hard for our human minds to grasp the concept that God, who created the universe, not only humbled himself to become a mere mortal, but not once used his powers to his own advantage. That, in itself, is a powerful argument for his divinity. None of us could pass that test.

We can identify more with Bruce Nolan, Jim Carrey’s character in the movie Bruce Almighty, who used his newfound powers for personal gain—to wreak revenge on enemies, to acquire material things, and to try to influence others to love him.

We are anxious to exert our knowledge, superiority, and authority over others. We want them to know that we have special privileges, a higher salary, a superior position, or access to places, people, or power that they lack. When I appear in court it is very evident who has the power—the judge, who sits on the bench elevated above everyone else.   Any lawyer worth her salt knows not to argue with the judge.

But some people in authority don’t lord it over others or draw attention to their superior position—they are just one of the folks. They are the most effective leaders. They are the ones who coax the most from their people. Like Jesus. Jesus started the most significant revolution the world has ever known. Yet he remained a strong but humble person to the end.

When the Pharisees tried to trick Jesus into a statement they would have considered blasphemous by asking him under whose authority he was acting, Jesus asked them this question: “’John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven or from men?’” (Matthew 21: 23). They discussed it among themselves and concluded that they couldn’t answer the question because if they said it was from God, they would have to believe him, and if they said that his authority came from men, they would incur the wrath of the people. So they said, “We don’t know” (v. 27). Jesus answered: “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things” (Matthew 21: 27). Jesus’ authority came from who he was. He didn’t need to hang a shingle listing degrees after his name. His earthly connections were practically non-existent by choice. And he didn’t even take the opportunity to tout his superiority over the religious leaders who sought to discredit him. He simply outsmarted them.

Another leadership virtue that Jesus taught was responsibility. Jesus taught that we will each be held responsible for our own actions on the day of judgment (John 12:48). This was a new concept in Ezekiel’s time.  A preacher and a prophet, Ezekiel lived in the 6th century B.C. during the dark days of the Babylonian captivity.  His congregants believed that they were being punished for the actions of their ancestors, causing them to become fatalistic and irresponsible. After all, what difference did it make if they would be punished anyway for actions outside of their control? But Ezekiel taught them that each person is punished for his or her own sins, not for the sins of one’s ancestors: “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, . . . every living soul belongs to me . . . the soul who sins is the one who will die.” (Ezekiel 18: 4). You will not be punished for the sins of your parents or grandparents, but for your own sins. It was a message of hope, and helped restore personal responsibility. Not one to shirk responsibility, Jesus bore the burden of every sin of every person who had lived and would live. He bore our sins so that we may be absolved.

A leader creates a culture of responsibility when he or she takes responsibility for his or her mistakes. We all make mistakes, and owning up to them is the sign of a strong and secure leader, just as humility is a sign of a strong leader.

Even though Ezekiel and Jesus taught that we will each be held responsible for our own actions, Jesus paid the price to remove the burden of our sins. If we go to him, confess our sins and are truly sorry for them, God will forgive us.  Don’t be like the character in a Father Brown episode who responds “Sorry, Father, I have a train to catch,” when he tells her it is not too late to confess.   Don’t be that person.  You can take another train, but don’t put off your confession.  Your confession also links you to Jesus’ example of humility and taking responsibility for your actions.  The God of the Universe not only humbled himself to become a mere mortal, but his love for us is so great, so vast, so incomprehensible, that he went to the cross for you and for me.  Yes, he modeled leadership.  But Jesus was more than a great leader.  He is Lord.  Lord of all.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] John Baldoni, Harvard Business Review, September 15, 2009, “Humility as a Leadership Trait.”

[2] The Scripture texts for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost are: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25: 1-10; Philippians 2:1-4, 14-18; Matthew 21: 23-27.

Eclipse of the Son

September 18, 2017

Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.” (Isaiah 55:6).

A large swath of the country recently viewed a complete eclipse of the sun. It reminded me how we sometimes feel about God. We sense that his Son has been eclipsed by other things in our lives–hobbies, activities, television, social media, parties, sports —things that gobble up our time. Feelings of fear, anger, sadness, confusion, loneliness, and helplessness can also cause a full eclipse of the Son. We prioritize activities and let our emotions take priority over the time we spend in prayer, worship and mediation. And we wonder why we feel so empty. God seems to elude us, sometimes temporarily, sometimes for a very long time.

But God isn’t hiding from you. It is more likely that you have not sought him out lately and spent time with him–that you are hiding behind a calendar full of activities or emotions.  Isaiah tells us that if that if we seek the Lord, he will be found, that he is near to us. “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near” (Isaiah 55: 6).[1] Spend time with him. Ask him to send his Spirit to fill you, to envelope you with his love and assurance.

David confirms that when we seek him, he will be there with us and will keep us safe: “One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple. For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock” (Psalm 27: 4-5).   David assures us that when we asked to be ushered into his presence, he will transport us to his house, open the door, and hide us in his house where we will be safe.

Using almost the same sequence of events (ask, seek, find or keep) Jesus promised that all who seek him will find him and the door will be opened; we will find shelter in his house: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7: 7-8).

When you sincerely ask God to enter your life, and seek his presence with an open heart, you will find the Spirit of the Son within you. You will experience the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  Jeremiah emphasizes that we need to seek him with our whole being, with our whole heart: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).  God doesn’t want our half-hearted, lukewarm, milk toast, tepid, cursory looks.  He wants our full attention, our full commitment.

All of us feel at one time or another that God is hiding from us–that he has been eclipsed by other things. But Paul assures us that even when we don’t sense his presence he is using us: “What happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel” (Philippians 1:12).  We aren’t always aware that he is using us. Sometimes just being in a particular place at a particular time is part of his plan—a piece of the puzzle that will ultimately play a part in his plan for salvation.

Jesus promised that all who seek God will be ushered into his presence, whether you are a life-long Christian, or were just baptized last week: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20: 16).  Is that fair?  Consider this. Those who have been laboring their whole lives in service to God have received many spiritual benefits from that relationship throughout their lives. They have received the comfort and assurance that only God can bring through good times and bad.  Those who just joined the family have not had those benefits. Yet, God promises them the same heavenly reward, where they will finally rest in his arms.

Some years ago, I saw a friend at the market who had been recently diagnosed with an aggressive brain cancer. She was in the throes of chemotherapy, and was understandably afraid for herself, her husband, and their three teenagers.  I knew that she was a believer, but her fear fueled a terrible bitterness and anger, clearly eclipsing the Son.  She was in a very dark place.  Several months later, when she was dying, and spending more time in prayer, she spoke of how she sometimes felt as if she was resting in Jesus’ arms.  She described how lovely and wonderful it felt.  She was looking forward to resting in his arms forever.  And isn’t that where we all want to be at the end of our lives–resting in the everlasting arms?

When you join the family of God, you enter into a relationship with God. You build on that relationship by spending time with him, just as you maintain your relationships with your earthly family and friends.  He wants more from you than an hour on Christmas and Easter.  Seek him today with all of your heart, and bask in his love and friendship.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for the Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost are Isaiah 55: 6-9 Psalm 27: 1-9; Philippians 1: 12-14, 19-30; Matthew 20: 1-16.

Seventy Times Seven

September 12, 2017

You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done . . .” (Genesis 50:20)

Can you remember a time in your life when someone committed a great wrong against you–defamed you, lied about you, or hurt you in some way for his or her personal gain that was very difficult to handle at the time, but that led you to a place that ultimately proved to be a blessing? That’s what happened to Joseph. His brothers were so threatened and jealous of him that they threw him into a pit too deep to escape from, and left him for dead—going home and lying to their father about what really happened.   He was rescued from the pit, sold into slavery, barely escaped with his life after his owner’s wife falsely accused him of attempted rape, imprisoned, and ultimately ended up being the equivalent of the Prime Minister of Egypt. That’s what Joseph meant when he told his brothers: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done” (Genesis 50:20).

David was chased for years by Saul, and yet he echoes this truth and praises God: “Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit.” (Psalm 103:2-4).[1]

Paul also tells us “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). In the midst of life’s most difficult challenges, we are assured that if we love God, he will make something beautiful of it. Paul was no stranger to challenges and difficulties. He was imprisoned, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, robbed, and persecuted by Jews and Gentiles alike (2 Corinthians 11: 23-25). He adds: “And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of all my concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11: 26-28).

After all of that, he was still able to say “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty . . . I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Excerpts Philippians 4: 11b-13).

Even though we must deal with difficult people in our lives, Paul warns us that are not to judge others, but to keep the faith: “Why do you judge your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat“ (Romans 14:10). Peter asked Jesus “‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times but seventy times seven.’” (Matthew 18:21-22).  After President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky became public, Hilary Clinton famously said “In the Bible it says you have to forgive seventy times seven. I want you all to know, I’m keeping a chart.” She said it tongue-in-cheek, because Jesus’ point was that you don’t keep score—even in forgiving as many wrongs as seventy times seven, or 490.

Is there someone who has been making your life a living hell for years? The examples of Joseph, David, Paul, and others help get us through the most difficult circumstances of our lives, and teach us the importance of forgiveness. If we can get past the slings and arrows that are thrown our way, we will be open for the wonderful path that God has set before us. God’s blessed assurance will help keep us calm and reassured that Jesus will come through—that he will make good on his promises.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost are Genesis 50: 15-21; Psalm 103: 1-12; Romans 14: 1-12; Matthew 18: 21-35.