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A WORD FOR TODAY, September 20, 2023
Lectionary Scriptures for September 24, 2023: Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost: Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 27:1-9; Philippians 1:12-14, 19-30; Matthew 20:1-16
“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Philippians 1:21, WEB
There is a post that circulates on the internet of hidden messages in brand logos. The smiley arrow below the word Amazon points from A to Z because Amazon carries everything from A to Z. The empty space between the E and X on the FedEx local is an arrow that points forward, suggesting that their deliveries move in the right direction. The “t-i-t” in Tostitos is designed to look like two people sharing a chip with a bowl of salsa on a table. Wendy’s collar in the logo for the hamburger chain spells “Mom.” These hidden messages become obvious once you know they are there, it is hard to believe that you didn’t see it in the first place.
I think that happens with spiritual things, too. People have spent lifetimes searching for something, not even knowing what they need. They try every sort of spiritual practice or device, jumping from one religion to another, trying different types of tangible items in the hope of filling the hole in their hearts. The self-help aisle at the bookstore is filled with hundreds of ideas, and the Internet is overflowing with people trying to convince us that they have the answer. They seek God, but in all the wrong places. They refuse to see Him as He is.
The blessed ones are those who seek Him where He might be found. When they find Him, they often wonder how they could have missed seeing Him. They become passionate about faith because they finally see what they have been seeking for a long time.
There is something incredible about a person who has that passion for Jesus. A German man named Count Zinzendorf had the motto, “I have one passion; it is Jesus, Jesus only.” He was passionate for Christ, constantly desiring His presence. He lived during the 18th century, a time when Christians were being exiled from Bohemia and Moravia. He allowed the exiles to establish a community on his estate. They called this place Herrnhut that means “Under the Lord’s Watch.”
He understood the necessity and the power of prayer, and his passion was passed on to the community of Moravians. In 1727, twenty-four men and women covenanted to hold to constant prayer, each member of the group taking one hour a day. This small but committed prayer team grew as others joined and their community was strengthened by unceasing prayer. They met together once a week to share prayer requests and encourage one another. Eventually this constant prayer led to greater outreach when Zinzendorf suggested they send missionaries to other nations.
That prayer meeting lasted a hundred years. Over three hundred missionaries were sent around the world. The Moravian fervor touched the lives of two men in England, John and Charles Wesley, bringing them to Christ. These two men had a significant impact on the Christian church, in music and in preaching. The Moravians’ passion for Christ and for lost souls had an impact on the Church around the world, playing a role in the Great Awakening, a revival that spread through Europe and America. These twenty-four people who began to pray unceasingly touched the lives of millions. The results of their prayers will last for eternity.
Seeking the LORD and calling on Him is spending time in prayer. Count Zinzendorf and the Moravians realized that God is always present with us and that they should be in prayer without ceasing. Not only did they have this group of people interceding constantly, but they also lived within a community of believers that practiced lives that showed the fruit of prayer. They lived like the early Christians in Acts, having everything in common, spending time together in fellowship and worship. They had a heart for spreading the Gospel and did what was necessary to bring Christ to the world. They knew the great gift of salvation and they were willing to follow their Lord Jesus anywhere. They dwelled in God’s Kingdom on earth. Their passion manifested itself in awesome ways. They sought the Lord where He would be found, and their lives revealed Him to the world.
Every so often someone announces that the end of the world will happen on a specific day. One day my husband read a headline about another “prophet” and his prediction that Jesus was coming in just a few days. I said, “That’s ok. I’m ready. Come, Lord Jesus.” The reality is that no one knows the day or the hour, so I still made plans for the next day. I used to joke that as long as people predict the end of the world, God will keep putting it off. He can’t have some human reading His mind, now, can He? I joke, but as I’ve grown older, I know that I’m ready. Jesus’ return would certainly solve a lot of our problems, wouldn’t it?
I may be more than willing to see the end of the world, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready for this life to be over. There is still so much to do. Our Sunday school class is just beginning a study on the book of Romans. My children have not gotten married nor had children. There are places I want to go, things I want to see. Someone (or a lot of someones) still needs to hear the Gospel and be saved. There are events I want to attend, vacations I want to take. There are paintings I want to paint and books I want to write. I can’t do it all in a few days.
Yet, I’m ready. Anything that will come after Jesus’ return will be greater than all the great things I still look forward to experiencing. Jesus is preparing a place for those who love and believe in Him. The eternal banquet will be filled with an overabundance of the best food and drink, more delicious and satisfying than anything on earth. Jesus’ returns means that we will join together for an eternity of worship and praise of the One who has saved us. Yes, I’m ready. Come, Lord Jesus.
It will be great, but we can’t count on it happening when we hope or expect. God knows the right time. He knows who still needs to hear the Gospel message and Jesus won’t come until the last ear has heard the Good News. We would do well to live as the Moravians, in constant prayer, sending people to share God’s grace in word and deed, and living in a community that is visibly faithful to Jesus. It isn’t always easy, especially in a world that seems to be turning farther and farther from God. It might be hard, but even in our suffering we can be bold and confident that God is making His grace known. The easy way is to hide our faith.
We don’t get it. How can Christian suffering make other Christians confident in the Gospel? As a matter of fact, it seems as though many Christians today have decided that it would be better to be silent than to suffer the ridicule and frustration that we meet when we try to share our faith with the world. A woman lost her job just for saying “God bless you.” Children are suspended from school for wearing “Jesus loves you” t-shirts and teachers are fired for reading their bibles during their free time away from the children. Business owners are fined for making business choices that reflect their understanding of the scriptures.
American Christians have not yet had to deal with the suffering that Paul experienced: prison, beatings, and even death. We know Christians are suffering all over the world, in places like Africa and China, but that is far away and completely removed from our experience. It is much easier to just go along with expectations of the world around us than to stand firm on what we believe. After all, why would we risk our lives and our livelihoods when it is just as easy to say “Have a nice day” or wear a different t-shirt? We can even find ways to remain principled in our business dealings while minimizing risks. We aren’t willing to be one who suffers for the Gospel if we can avoid it.
Paul was writing to us as much as the Philippians when He wrote, “Now I desire to have you know, brothers, that the things which happened to me have turned out rather to the progress of the Good News; so that it became evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest…” The Christians in Philippi saw the impact Paul made, which had an impact on the entire congregation. His imprisonment really did make them more confident in the Lord.
It wasn’t his suffering that made a difference; it was that Paul lived for the glory of God. The Church grew because Paul knew that God could make incredible things happen whether his circumstances were good or bad God. Paul simply trusted God and the people of Philippi learned from his example. It wasn’t his death or his suffering that encouraged them, it was the way he lived his life. Paul lived in the Kingdom of God even as he waited for the Kingdom to come.
The Christians that eventually became the Moravian Church were persecuted, Martin Luther’s forerunner Jon Hus was from that region and was burned at the stake, yet they knew the best way to live faithfully to God was to be visible to the world. The impact of Jon Hus is beyond measure. Christians who suffer know they aren’t alone. Paul and the saints of every age trusted God to impact the world with their lives even if they died for His sake. We live in the hope of the things to come, and I admit that I cry out almost daily, “Come, Lord Jesus,” but there is a reason we are still waiting. In good times and in bad, we are here to glorify God by sharing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the world. There is someone God wants to hear the Good News, so it is up to us to continuing speaking the words that they might hear.
Paul wanted Jesus to come again. To put it bluntly, Paul wanted to die. He wasn’t suicidal, but he knew that life would be so much sweeter in eternity. “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” I feel the same way. However, Paul knew that it was not yet time for him to be with his Lord Jesus. He still had work to do; he still had Christians to encourage. He was, as they say, between a rock and a hard place. He wanted to be with Jesus, but he knew that his life had purpose. “But if I live on in the flesh, this will bring fruit from my work; yet I don’t know what I will choose. But I am in a dilemma between the two, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Yet, to remain in the flesh is more needful for your sake.” He fought his martyrdom as long as he could so that he could continue preaching the Gospel and teaching the Christians how to live. He shows us that we are not left stranded and abandoned to the chaos and suffering that is in the world today. God is with us now; He will come again, but until that day we can trust in His presence as we live today.
“Cheer up,” said one man to his terribly seasick friend aboard a ship, “seasickness never killed anybody.” “Don’t tell me that,” was the reply. “It’s only the hope of dying that has kept me alive this long!” This is merely a joke, but I have to admit that I’ve felt that way myself.
A few years ago, my family gave me a trip on one of the gambling excursions in the Gulf of Mexico. The boats leave port in the morning, travel to international waters and put down anchor. They serve a tremendous meal on the way out and then stay anchored for hours so that the guests can enjoy the slot machines and tables. I was a little concerned about seasickness, but I took some medicine, and I was doing very well. I enjoyed lunch and got ready to spend some time in the casino. Everything was fine while the boat was moving forward, and I did not think about taking more medicine.
I went into the casino when it opened and sat down at a machine with my roll of quarters. The boat was not very large and there was no air circulation inside. The smells of cleaning products permeated the air. Add to this the fact that the boat was no longer moving forward, just bobbing up and down in the gulf waves. I began to feel nauseated and dizzy, so I quickly found a bathroom and then went out onto the deck where I would be free from the overpowering stench of ammonia. The shady chairs were all taken, but I found a bench where I could sit for a moment, hoping that I would soon feel well enough to get up and get something to drink so I could take some medicine. I couldn’t move, so I sat for hours staring at the horizon. Unfortunately, it was a cloudless day and I also ended up with a horrible case of sunburn. At that moment, death would have been a relief!
Now, we must be careful when we talk about death in such cavalier terms because a wish for death makes us wonder if the person is suicidal, willing to take their own life rather than live with the suffering. Chaplains and nurses in old age homes often hear the residents wish for death. They are lingering in a life that seems pointless and without value. They can’t do anything to help others as they are so helpless themselves. They are often living with extreme pain or discomfort. They have no hope for a better life in this world. I have often wondered how many people died of loneliness during the pandemic, how many believed that death would be a relief.
Paul was suffering. He’d been imprisoned and he did not know what would happen to him. The people who might have been able to help him were unwilling. His Christian congregations had no power or authority to set him free, but they were able to give him aid. The letter to the Philippians was a thank you note to them for gifts they sent to help him. It might have seemed to the readers at first that Paul was suicidal, wishing for death. Yet, his letter is so full of hope. He has hope because his life is centered on Christ; whether he lives or dies, Christ is his life. He knew that if he died, he would gain, but if he lived, he could continue the work Jesus had called him to do.
That’s what Paul hoped for the people of Philippi. They would face suffering in their own lives. There are those who were against the Gospel of Jesus Christ and some, or many, Christians would be arrested, imprisoned, and even killed for their faith. Paul’s word of encouragement to the community is the hope that they would stay centered on Christ, too, just like he has whether he was preaching, traveling, or imprisoned. If they were united around Christ Jesus, they would have the same joy in the good times and the bad. They would be fruitful together, able to face death (which is gain) or life which is for the sake of God’s glory and the increase of His Church.
Let’s be honest with ourselves and with God: there are just some people we’d rather not share in that joy of eternity. Quite frankly, we don’t want our enemies to know God’s forgiveness or ours. We withhold God’s grace from those we have judged unworthy. We don’t think it is fair that someone can lead of life of willful disobedience to God and His Word and then make a deathbed confession and find their place at the banqueting table in the house of the Lord forever.
The landowner in today’s story made a deal with the first workers: they would work for the day and receive a day’s wages. A denarius, a day’s wage, was enough to feed a man’s family. It sounds like a ridiculously small amount to us, but it was enough. The workers agreed, gladly. They were happy to have the work. The landowner returned to the corner and discovered more workers throughout the day, each time hiring them to work in his fields. He made no agreements with those later workers, but they were happy to have the work. When the day was over, the landowner paid each worker a day’s wage, one denarius. He gave each worker enough.
We are incensed by this story because we believe the person who worked more deserved more. What is right in this situation? The first workers agreed to the wage and when they agreed they felt it was right. Yet, they grumbled when they discovered that the last also received a day’s wage for their work. “It’s not fair.” “We have rights.” But what is right in this situation? The landowner decided that the living wage was right and just in this situation. Perhaps it was generous, but it was also right. Can a man live on less than a denarius a day? Can he feed his family?
We put our human experience into this story and turn the discussion to questions about a living wage and whether it is fair for an employer to pay the same wage to two people who work significantly different hours. In a sense we are reminded that even the human landowners have the right to be as generous as they please, as long as they uphold their promises. That’s what happened in this story. The first to be hired, however, expected that if the landowner was so generous to the ones hired last, then they would be worthy of even more. They thought it was unfair that they all earned the same payment, but there was nothing unfair about the landowner. He fulfilled his contract.
As we look at this story from a spiritual perspective, the wage is an eternity in God’s presence. How could we possibly expect anything greater than the promise? Is there anything greater than an eternity at the feet of our Lord God Almighty, worshipping Him and singing His praise? How can God give anyone any less? Why do we worry so much about what others deserve when our focus should always be on the God who has promised us everything? As the psalmist says, “All I ask is to dwell in God’s house all the days of my life.” The promise that will be fulfilled the day Jesus returns is already ours in the present. We dwell in God’s house in the here and now by faith in Jesus Christ and we have access to God’s grace through Him.
Faith is manifested is in complete and absolute trust in God. Have you ever known anyone who had a certain peace and joy no matter their circumstances? They can praise God even when struggling to get through each day because of health issues, financial difficulties, or other problems. They smile when they should be in tears. They laugh when they should be angry. They love and trust God even when it seems as though He has abandoned them. The prayer of the psalmist has been answered in their lives; they are dwelling in the house of God today.
Paul’s suffering gave the Christians in Philippi a reason to be confident in the Lord because God did a good work in that prison. It is possible many came to be saved because of his joy in the midst of his suffering; at the very least they looked at the Christians with a new understanding. Each one, despite any harm they may have caused to Paul and the other Christians, were given the chance to know the Lord God Almighty, to experience His grace and receive His forgiveness so that they might, too, spent eternity dwelling in the house of the Lord.
It wasn’t easy for the Philippians. They still experienced persecution and even death. The same is true for us. For Paul, the Gospel of Jesus Christ creates an expectation of life for himself and for others who have heard the Good News. He expects that Christ will be glorified whether he lives or dies, is free or imprisoned. Paul also expects that those who have come under the grace of God will live the life worthy of the Gospel, the life that expects Christ to be glorified in good times and bad. The life lived in faith will always glorify God with confidence.
God has granted us the privilege of believing in Jesus and suffering for Him. What does this mean for us today? For some, it means everything that goes wrong in their life is some statement by God about sin or His response to our actions or lack of action. For others, every burden is a cross to bear, the suffering they have been called to do for God. Yet, the suffering Christ calls us to is like that of Paul to go out into the world and share the message of forgiveness and mercy with those who are dying in their sin. It isn’t easy to preach repentance to those who are our enemies. It might mean we will be dealt with unjustly and we might just feel like we would rather die than see their salvation.
God’s generosity may not seem fair to us from our human point of view, but His ways are higher than our ways. He can’t give less than everything to anyone who trusts in Him, whether faithful for a lifetime or a minute. He is generous beyond our imagining and has more than enough for us all. No matter what we face, whether good or bad, we can know by faith that we will dwell in God’s house today, tomorrow, and forever.
How blessed are we that we have received the grace that made us part of God’s kingdom. That grace has given us strength and courage, hope and peace, joy and love that makes our life worth living. We have that grace to get through the bad times and help us do what is good and right in the world. That grace gives us the wisdom to treat our neighbor with respect and to value them as God does. Don’t we want to share that with others so that they don’t have to wait until that last minute to have what we have enjoyed our whole lives? Who knows, we might just discover our enemies make wonderful friends.
Let us trust God because our bold proclamation of the Gospel can impact the world in ways that we would never expect. Jesus could come and the world could end today, but it could happen in a thousand years. We might want Jesus to come today, but He has plans we can’t even imagine and people who still need to hear the Gospel message. Our hope is that the day will come when we will gain the eternal life He has promised, but for today has invited us to live in Him, sharing that same promise with others even those we think do not deserve His grace.
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