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The Song of Mary

Luke 1:46-55

The gospel according to Luke starts out by Gabriel announcing to Zechariah that even in her advanced age, Elizabeth, Zechariah’s wife, was going to give birth to a son, who is to be named John. Six months later, Gabriel announces another miraculous birth, this time to Mary. He tells her that even though she has not had any relations with a man, she would become pregnant and bear a son, who will be named Jesus.

Gabriel makes it clear that this son of Mary will be the long-awaited Messiah, by telling her,32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Gabriel also tells Mary that her cousin, Elizabeth, is miraculously with child, so Mary visits Elizabeth. When Mary greets Elizabeth, John leaps in her womb, and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth (and John) confirms that the child Mary is carrying is the long-awaited Messiah. Mary reacts by praising God through the song found in vv. 46-55.

In the first three verses, Mary praises God for choosing her for His purposes. Although she was in low standing from a societal point of view, she will now be considered by future generations as blessed.

The rest of the song anticipates that what He has done for Mary, He will do for the poor, the powerless, and the oppressed of the world. It also speaks about how all of this is what was promised to Abraham and to his descendants.

Reversal seems to be a major theme – The proud are scattered; the powerful are brought down; the lowly are lifted up; the hungry are filled with good things; and the rich are sent away empty. Although these actions are yet to come, the past tense is used. This signifies that what God promises are as good as done.

In content, Mary’s song echoes the song of Hanna, found in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. Hanna was barren and God intervenes and gives her a child, and in her song of praise, she also sang about reversals to come. Although God’s people are being oppressed now, there will come a time when this will all change.

Reading through Luke, it appears that Mary did not have an easy life. Joseph, her husband is mentioned as being there when Jesus was twelve years old, but once Jesus starts His ministry at the age 30, Joseph is no longer mentioned. Presumably, Joseph passed away sometime between those two milestones.

After Elizabeth’s affirmation that her son is the Messiah, there were other affirmations – the shepherds coming to them in Bethlehem, Simeon and Anna at the temple dedication. It would be natural for Mary to assume that Jesus will someday reveal himself as the Messiah, sit on the throne of David and free Israel from Roman rule.

The only ominous sign Mary received was from Simeon in Luke 2:34-35: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Once Jesus left home to start his ministry, Mary would start to hear about Jesus speaking of his arrest, torture and execution. This must have been perplexing to her and difficult. Then she would witness this happening, with her son dying a horrible death on a cross. Until the resurrection, the only glimmer of hope Mary could cling to would have been Jesus’ words about coming back to life after his death.

Once the resurrected Jesus appeared, Mary understood why Jesus had to die, and that God’s promises of a reversal is still to come. Although it did not happen during her lifetime, she knew that someday, it will.

Now that we are past Thanksgiving and the next big celebration is Christmas, what things occupy your thoughts?

When I was a child, the anticipation of Christmas started when the Sears “Wish Book” arrived in August/September. We got to put in requests for what items we wanted, and we would most likely get one of them on Christmas morning. Gathering of family and friends were secondary, since they only took time away from playing with our new toys.

As a parent of young children, I would think about what presents to get the kids, as well as where to have Christmas dinner and who to invite. Also, there were church related things to plan out. Do we have a service on Christmas Eve?  Christmas morning? Do we try to do some sort of outreach during Christmas? Christmas program?

As a grandparent, the focus shifts to grandchildren – Asking their parents as to what we should get them. How to best have gathering with family and friends as to not disrupt too much from the grandkids playing with their new toys.

There is nothing wrong with us anticipating these things and planning them out. However, there are also things that we could learn from Mary’s song. She does not even mention the birth of Jesus in it. What the song does is praise God for not only the things He has done, but mostly for things that He will be doing in the future.

There is nothing wrong with celebrating the birth of Christ – After all, in Luke 2, we see the heavenly host celebrating. However, we need to remember that the heavenly host was praising God in celebrating the birth of Jesus. So, in our celebration of Christmas, praise of God should be prominent in what we do.

 As Mary sang her praise in anticipation of what God was going to do, she was determined to do her part in God’s plan. We should also be praising God for not only what He has done for us, but what He will be doing in the future, and we too should be determined to do our part in God’s plan.

We can’t help but to be thinking of our family, friends, and especially the little ones in our lives, as Christmas approaches. But let us keep our focus on God and praising Him for what He has done for us and what He is planning to do in the future. Let us take this opportunity to be witnesses for Jesus, and let those around us know that Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior of the world.

(the above is a summary of the message shared with us by Shun Takano at our worship on November 27, 2022.)

Urgent Need….from Rachel Wolff

(The following is a communication from Rachel Wolff…. and describes a special fund raising effort that she is involved in on behalf of her good friend in Nepal. Please read and if possible, follow the link to her Go Fund Me page to help with this urgent need.)

Happy Thanksgiving from Nepal to our friends and family far and wide. We are grateful this year for our wonderful church here in Kathmandu, which brings together Christians from all over the world to worship and fellowship. This includes refugees who have fled persecution from neighboring countries because of their decision to follow Jesus. It has been eye-opening to fellowship with these courageous families, building a life in Nepal while hoping some day to start permanent new life in third countries like Canada, the US, etc.

One such family, who have become dear friends to us, have an urgent need that we’ve felt led to supportHannah* (names changed for safety in case ever forced to return to their home countries) needs urgent surgery in Dallas to correct a rare and painful spinal condition that the American surgeon has assured her is completely treatable. Chris and I would be grateful if you’d take 5 min to read Hannah’s story below and spread the word to your church, friends, and others. We hope to raise the required amount rapidly so Hannah can make the trip and start her road to recovery.

Thank you, friends! May your Thanksgiving be richly blessed,

Rachel’s friend Hannah needs rare surgery, organized by Rachel Wolff

Rachel E. L. Wolff

I Have Faith in God

Acts 27:21-38 

Paul gave his defense in front of Festus and Agrippa, and their conclusion was that Paul had done nothing unlawful and that he could have been set free, if it were not for the fact that Paul had exercised his right as a Roman citizen to appeal to the emperor.

Under guard, Paul’s journey to Italy by sea begins. The winds were against them, and it took much longer to reach Fair Havens. Paul advised against continuing because of the dangerous conditions, but the pilot and the owner of the ship thought they could make it to Crete, where they could spend the winter, so they head out.

But they ran into a violent storm, and they had to throw the cargo overboard. The storm was persistent, and they could not see the sun nor stars for many days, and they started to think that they were not going to make it.

An angel appeared to Paul assuring him that he, as well as all on board, will make it safely to land. Paul urged them to eat some food, since they had not been able to eat for 14 days.

The next morning, they thought they were going to make it, but the boat struck a reef and started to sink. The soldiers planned to kill the prisoners, so that none would escape, but since the centurion wanted to keep Paul safe, he stopped them. They all jumped overboard, and all 276 passengers of the ship made it safely to land.

There are several things that stand out about Paul in this chapter. When everything is going wrong and people are assuming the worst and expecting to die, Paul calms them down and even gets them to eat. And when the soldiers are about to kill all the prisoners so that they cannot escape, the centurion saves them because the centurion does not want Paul to die. Without Paul, not all 276 people on board would have survived this voyage.

Verse 1 tells us that the name of the centurion who was put in charge of Paul and the other prisoners on this trip was Julius. It appears that Paul and Julius had established some kind of a rapport, since verse 3 tells us that “Julius treated Paul kindly, and allowed him to go to his friends to be cared for.”

The passage does not tell us how Paul established this kind of a relationship with the centurion. However, Paul’s own writings can shed some light on this.

1 Corinthians 10:33 . . . just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved.  

2 Timothy 2:24-25  And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient,   25correcting opponents with gentleness. 

Titus 3:1-2  1Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work,   2to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone.

It does not mean that just because we treat others as Paul teaches, that we will be able to establish good relations with people. However, if we do not follow Paul’s teachings, it would be very difficult to establish any sort of relationship with the people we encounter. It is good to remember that there are no coincidences when it comes to God – We need to consider everyone we come across in our lives as someone God intended us to encounter.

When all seemed lost, Paul witnesses to the people, telling them what the angel of God told him – That not only Paul will make it to Rome, but that also not one of them would perish. He then declares that he has faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. He then proceeds to encourage everyone to eat, which gives further belief that Paul expects everyone to live.

Paul ends up saving the lives of everyone on board through his faith in God as manifested in his words and his actions, as well as with the relationship he has established with the centurion.

What can we learn from this? In this instance, Paul had the advantage of an angel appearing to him and assuring him that all on board would be saved. Paul basically just had to believe it and announce it to the others with confidence that God can and will do what He says.

For us, when we are in the midst of some crisis, we normally do not have an angel appearing to us as to what is going to happen. So, we are not able to confidently stand and tell others that they are all going to come through the crisis just fine. We are not able to tell people that they are going to be healed of their disease or find a new job or that a war can be avoided.

However, even if angels are not sent to us to tell us what is going to happen, we do have the Bible and the Holy Spirit to help us interpret it. Although the Bible does not tell us about what is going to happen in our lives, it does tell us some very important things. Things like being assured of an eternity with the Lord once this life is over, and the fact that God had created us to do works for Him, to spread the good news of the Kingdom and of Jesus Christ. Once we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we can be assured of these things, to the point where we can confidently declare that “I have faith in God”.

And if we live our lives as if we really have faith in God, then this is going to affect the people around us, both Christians and non-believers alike. This is how Paul lived, and we can also, with the help of the Holy Spirit.

(the above is a summary of the message shared by Shun Takano with us during our worship on November 13, 2022.)

Could Have Been Set Free!

Acts 26:24-32

After being imprisoned by Felix for two years, Felix is succeeded by Festus, who decides to consult with King Agrippa. Paul is brought in front of Agrippa and starts his defense. He tells of his background – how he grew up in a strict Jewish sect and was a Pharisee. He was so convinced that Jesus was not the Messiah, he persecuted Christians, sending them to prison, and then condemning to death. He was so eager to punish them, he even went chasing them into foreign cities.

He then talked about how he met the risen Jesus on the way to Damascus, who told Paul that he would testify for Him to both Jews and Gentiles, so that they might receive forgiveness. In obedience, Paul preached to those in Damascus, then Jerusalem and throughout the countryside of Judea, and to the Gentiles. And now, Paul is preaching to King Agrippa.

After this, Agrippa, Festus and Bernice all agree that Paul has done nothing wrong under Roman law, and that Paul could have been released, had he not appealed to the emperor.

Although Paul believed he was doing the right thing by appealing to the emperor, it turns out that had he not done so, he would have been released.  Instead, Paul remains a prisoner, and will have to travel to Rome under guard and make an appeal to the emperor.

Sometimes, even if we did things that we thought were the Lord’s will, we end up in situations that are worse than had we not acted. When that happens, we tend to wonder what went wrong and what we should have done differently. When bad things happen to us, we immediately focus on our situation and wonder how we are going to get out of it.

Paul doesn’t seem to think like this. He acts as if the unexpected bad things that happen are opportunities to witness for the Lord. He first thinks of ministry, rather than how to get out of the tough situation.

How would our lives look different if we are able to take the same approach that Paul did? Instead of crying over “spilt milk”, we could be seeking means to use the situation to witness for the Lord.

Sometimes things happen unexpectedly and we’re not sure what to do about it. Our tendency might be to fight the situation if we don’t like the direction. Or go with it if it seems good to us. But if we choose solely based on whether it seems good for us, then we may be passing up an opportunity that the Lord is giving us.  It is always good to not lean on our own understanding, but to pray about it and give the Holy Spirit a chance to guide us as to what the Lord would have us do.

Paul ends up sailing for Rome in autumn of 59AD, and reaches Rome in the spring of 60AD, after many adventures. He will stay under house arrest in Rome for 2 years. This means that because he appealed to the emperor, Paul spends at least an additional 2.5 years as a Roman prisoner.

On the surface, this does not sound like a positive outcome for Paul. However, at the same time, Paul accomplished many things for the Kingdom of God through the appeal to Rome. He witnessed and preached to rulers, soldiers, Jews and Gentiles. He healed and witnessed for the Lord through his actions during crisis, as well as saving lives.

During his two years in Rome, he wrote four letters that are part of the New Testament – Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon. These letters would minister to believers for centuries to come.

A few years prior to this, around 57AD, Paul wrote the letters to the Roman church while he was in Corinth. In it, he expressed his desires to visit the Roman church on his way to Spain. This became a reality when he finally reached Rome.

Paul’s main desire for his life was to be a witness for Jesus Christ through words, deeds and behavior. He did the best in trying to have his steps be guided by the Holy Spirit. Whether he took the right steps or not, he ministered as best as he could through all situations and places in which he found himself.

We all make many decisions in our lives that affect our lives. Sometimes we make it for selfish reasons, other times we make it thinking that we are following the Lord’s will. Sometimes things happen in our lives that are unexpected and not under our control, and yet, change greatly the course of our lives. Some of these are large, but many times, it is a series of small changes. Each one of us can look back on our lives and see the cumulative effects of all these course changing events that got us to our present situation. We can anticipate that there will be more of these to direct our paths going forward.

Although we can’t change the past, we can learn from it. Instead of making decisions based just on facts, we can be in prayer and see how the Holy Spirit might guide us. But even when we are not sure at the moment that we are making the right decisions, be confident that the Holy Spirit will help us to witness for the Lord, even if we didn’t make the best choice.

We should take to heart what Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 4:2 – proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.

Whatever situation we find ourselves in, whether the time is good or bad, proclaim the message. This is the attitude that Paul had, and so should we.

(the above is a summary of the message shared with us by Shun Takano during our worship on October 30, 2022.)

To the Emperor You Will Go

Acts 25:1-12

After Paul made his case to Felix, Felix kept Paul in custody, but gave him some freedom and allowed his friends to come and see him and take care of his needs. Felix was familiar with Christianity, and his wife was Jewish, and they would speak with Paul about faith in Jesus Christ. Paul also discussed things like justice, self-control and the coming judgement, which frightened Felix. Felix kept Paul imprisoned for two years, hoping that Paul would give him money, but that never happened. Then Felix was succeeded by Festus.

Festus travels to Jerusalem and the Jewish religious leaders give him a report against Paul and ask Festus to have Paul brought to Jerusalem. They were planning to ambush Paul along the way and kill him.

When Festus returned to Caesarea, the Jews also came down from Jerusalem, bringing many serious charges against Paul. Paul defends himself and declares that he has committed no offense against the Jewish laws, the temple, or against the emperor.

Festus asks Paul whether he wants to go to Jerusalem and be tried before Festus on these charges. Paul wisely states that he wants to appeal directly to the emperor, and Festus and the council agreed that this should be so.

After this, King Agrippa and Bernice arrived in Caesarea to welcome Festus, and Festus decides to consult with Agrippa. Agrippa wants to meet and hear Paul, so that was arranged, and Paul defends himself, as well as giving his testimony about Jesus Christ.

In Paul, we see someone who is totally committed to doing the work that the Lord has assigned to him. Back in Acts 9, the Lord reveals the plan He has for Paul to Ananias – To bring Christ’s name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.  As Ananias was ministering to Paul, he informed Paul what his role is to be for the Kingdom. Paul also was told that there will be much suffering as he goes about doing this work.

From the beginning, Paul was informed that this was not going to be an easy life for him. In fact, Paul recounts his experience in 2 Corinthians 11:24-27.

 24Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; 27in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. 28And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. 

Paul continued to preach that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and the Savior of the world, knowing that this would put him at odds with people in power that could do him harm. He witnessed in front of angry Jewish mobs, Jewish religious leaders who determined to kill him, Roman governors, and Roman appointed kings. Knowing that if he continued to witness for Christ, things would not work out well for him – yet, he continued to preach.

What made Paul such a great witness for Christ? It was his faith in Christ, his dependance on the Holy Spirit, and his knowledge that he was created to do Kingdom work. He understood that if he put his personal desires and goals aside and devoted himself to doing the work the Lord appointed to him, that he would find true joy, peace, and meaning for his life, as well as the assured promise of eternity with the Lord.

What about us? If we were told that if we accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior, there might be suffering and your goal in life will change from chasing your own dreams to doing the Lord’s work, would we have accepted that? Well, Jesus did tell us that – It was not just to Paul.

It is written in Matthew 16:24-26 24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?  This is recorded in the other gospels also.

Paul encountered situations where there was injustice and hatred and ridicule. And yet, Paul didn’t bother trying to strike back or avoid these encounters. Each time, he took it as an opportunity to tell people about Jesus Christ and how he came to believe.

The sufferings that we might encounter in trying to do the Lord’s work are probably nothing compared to what Paul went through. Yet, the temptation to avoid hardships or difficulties will be there, unless we rely upon the help of the Holy Spirit.

The next time we are feeling overwhelmed or timid or reluctant about doing the Lord’s work, remember Paul and how he lived his life for the Lord. Also remember that the same Holy Spirit that helped Paul is also living within us.

True joy in this life is going to come not from chasing our own dreams, but by being in the will of the Lord Jesus.

(The above is a summary of the message shared by Shun Takano during our worship on October 23,2022.)

Resurrection

Acts 24:10-21

I have a hope in God—a hope that they themselves also
accept—that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous.

Paul’s accusers, along with Paul, were called in front of Felix, the governor. Tertullus, the attorney for the high priest and the elders spoke about how Paul was a leader of the Christians and that not only was he agitating the people, but that he was profaning the temple.

Paul was then given a chance to defend himself.  He denied the charges and told Felix that his accusers cannot prove any of their charges. He stated that all he was doing was worshipping and that he was not disputing with anyone nor stirring up the crowd.  Basically, according to Paul, it came down to the fact that Paul believed in the resurrection of the dead, while some of the accusers did not, and that was the reason he was put on trial.

So let us look a little closer about the resurrection of the dead.  When we hear the word, we tend to first think about how Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead.  This was not simple coming back from the dead, only to die again later, like Lazarus, or any of the people who we hear about coming back to life after their heart stops.  Jesus’ resurrection was permanent – He came back to life bodily and will not die again.

We also think about the resurrection of the believers. The Bible promises to us that if we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we also will be bodily resurrected and live eternally with God and our fellow believers.

What about those who die without accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior – Do they simply become extinguished?  They are resurrected also – Paul states in v. 15, “. . . there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous”.

This means the everyone will be resurrected. The difference is that the believers will live with God once they are resurrected, while the nonbelievers will live without God.  The Bible speaks of this place without God as dark and agonizing, where the fires do not cease and there will be gnashing of teeth – Definitely not a pleasant place.  Eternity without God is not something you would wish for, for yourselves, your loved ones – probably not even your enemies.

The last part of the book of Revelations, chapter 20, depicts the scene where the dead are judged. Everyone is going to be judged according to their works. Presumably, everyone is going to be judged as failing to meet God’s standards. It sounds like each person will know that they have failed to be judged as worthy and should be thrown into the lake of fire. But then the book of life is mentioned – anyone whose name is found in that book will not be thrown into the lake of fire.

So, how does anyone get their name into the book of life?  It is simply a matter of faith – Faith in Jesus Christ. Anyone who accepts Jesus as their Lord and Savior will have their names written into the book of life.

I am aware that many loved ones and friends, as far as I know, have passed away without coming to a saving faith in Jesus Christ.  But I know that most of them did get an opportunity to hear about the Lord. So, my hope is that sometime before they died, even if it were in the last seconds of their lives, they had a change in heart. This hope is based on the fact that the Lord does not wish for anyone to perish, and that every chance would have been given. The Bible tells us that the return of Jesus is being delayed so that more people are given the chance to come to faith in Him.

We know that there is nothing we can do for those who have already passed away. However, we should take seriously the task of telling the living about Jesus Christ – How He is the Son of God and the Savior of the world.

For whatever reasons, it seems that society has lost its manners. Behaviors that would have been considered rude and unacceptable a few years ago have become common place. It has become much more unpleasant. From experience, once these lines are crossed, societies don’t revert back so easily. We can expect that it will steadily get more crass, ill-mannered and violent.

Physically, this world has some truly beautiful places, and yet, we know that it is also in a fallen state. The Bible tells us that in the end, a new earth will take its place. Whether this means that this earth will be renewed and restored to the original state, or a brand new one will replace this one, it is going to be a far lovelier place.

As unpleasant as this world can be, for those whose name is written in the book of life, they can be comforted to know that this is the closest to hell that they are going to get.  But for those whose name is not on the book of life, this world is going to be the closest they are going to get to heaven.

Like Paul, we believe in the resurrection of the dead. We also have been told that after resurrection, only those with their names written in the book of life are going to avoid the lake of fire and be able to spend eternity with God and other believers in a new earth.

So, like Paul, let us commit to telling as many people as we can, as many times as we can, about the saving grace God is offering us through His Son, Jesus Christ.  It is not always easy, but the Holy Spirit will provide us with the words, love and power as needed.

(the above is a summary of the message shared by Shun Takano during our worship on Sunday, October 16, 2022.)

No One Can Serve Two Masters

Luke 16:1-13

Last week in the news we heard of various labor problems between workers and unions representing them: teachers in Seattle and Kent, nurses in Minnesota, the large railroad companies…. there was collective bargaining, tense talks…. and talk of strikes.  Even when we read the news, we all have opinions – about wages, pensions, strikes, general conditions, reasons for economic problems, etc. If we’re really honest, we know that these are NOT simple matters. The economy…. and money issues…. are complicated!

It was true in the time of Jesus as well. A huge gap between the rich and the poor. A Jewish prohibition against charging interest for loans, and many other issues not so different from our own.

Today’s passage may be one of the most difficult of Jesus’ parables. All through Luke we’ve struggled with our relationship to money and riches as we’ve read the texts and sought to understand the words of Jesus.

A rich man hears that his money manager is cheating him. He tells him to give a final account because he is being fired. The manager thinks to himself “I’m not strong enough to do actual labor, and I’m too embarrassed to beg, how should I avoid this disaster?” He decides to cook the books of his master’s debtors, in order that they would all be indebted to him and welcome him once he was fired.

I’ll admit that I don’t really understand this parable completely. I’m not positive exactly what Jesus meant. I can only guess.

But here are the verses that raise some problems:

Verse 8

8 “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.”

What does shrewd mean? Why was the manager commended? Why is he praised?

We can only assume that he is not praised for further cheating his master (!), but for acting shrewdly…. “using the system”.

The commendation is directed not toward the manager’s cheating, but “because he had acted shrewdly” (v. 8) regarding what he cared most about – money, and for saving himself from a personal catastrophe. 

Perhaps we could interpret the verse more positively like this:  “If worldly people are so shrewd regarding something as insignificant as “worldly wealth”, should not believers be even more shrewd about the “true riches” of the kingdom of God? 

Or stated slightly differently: “If people of this world are smart and cunning (creative and active) …. shouldn’t believers also be willing to work hard and use every opportunity at one’s disposal to further the kingdom?”

Verse 9

9 “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

This is maybe the most troubling and difficult verse. Surely, this cannot mean that we should used money gained by cheating in order to buy friends and influence people.

Instead could we interpret it more like this: – “to be willing to work within this ‘unequal, often unjust economy’ to help others, to do justice…. in order to “gain treasure in heaven”. Matthew 6:19 / Matthew 25, etc. Now granted, that’s not exactly what the text says….it is an admittedly generous interpretation. But it is at least conceivable and surely in line with other texts in Luke.

Verse 11

11 “So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?”

This may be the key to this passage. Said differently, “If you’re not able to handle insignificant things like possessions and money wisely, how are you going to make good decisions about “real” treasure…. spiritual treasures?”

Verse 13

13 “No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”

As in other places in Luke…. what is required is an absolute devotion to Jesus and kingdom values. Just like we were told to “hate our families” we are told to “hate money”. Not that we are not involved or can’t own any….only that we cannot be enslaved to it… treat it as a master.

So where does this difficult parable leave us? What are we to learn from Jesus’ story? Here’s my attempt at a couple of answers:

Conclusions:

  1. Money is complicated – no simple answers in scripture.
    1. Should we get rid of all of it? Yes, there are literal statements to this effect, but no standard response is observable.
    2. Should we equate great wealth with great blessing and approval from God? Again, there are many biblical examples where this is stated or inferred. But there are also as many texts which would point in a totally different direction.
    3. Is tithing the right answer? Is it sufficient? Here too, scripture (especially the old testament) would affirm this. But Jesus never taught it explicitly – and most of his references to tithing in the new testament are negative in meaning. Instead, Jesus seems to emphasize not 10%, but always 100%!
    4. In short, there doesn’t appear to be “one size fits all” when it comes to money and finances.
  2. Money must serve the Kingdom… we must NEVER serve Money.  Our only Master can be God.
    1. Jesus doesn’t seem to romanticize the poor, nor does he stigmatize the rich.
    2. In verse 14ff he criticizes the Pharisees for being “lovers of money”. They justified themselves and their wealth….through appearing righteous, but God knew their hearts.  14 The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15 He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.”

Are we lovers of money? Are we slaves to money? Or are we servants of  God, lovers of God who leverage our money and  possessions shrewdly….on behalf of the Kingdom?

(the above is a summary of the message shared during our worship time on September 18, 2022.)

The Plot to Kill Paul

Acts 23:11-22

After being told that Paul was a Roman citizen, the tribune wanted to find out what Paul was being accused of, so he called a meeting of the Jewish leaders. Paul caused a rift between the Pharisees and the Sadducees by emphasizing that this was about Paul’s hope of the resurrection of the dead.  Since the Pharisees believed in the resurrection and the Sadducees did not, this caused a dissension between the two groups. The Pharisees ended up taking the stand that they found nothing wrong in Paul, and things started to turn violent. The tribune, fearing for Paul’s safety, took Paul back down into the barracks.

That night, Jesus came to Paul and told him that the plan was for Paul to testify for Jesus in Rome. So, now Paul knew for sure that somehow, he will eventually reach Rome.

Meanwhile more than forty Jews vowed to kill Paul, and that they would not eat nor drink until that task was accomplished. Their plot was to ask that Paul be brought to the council, and they would ambush him on the way.  But the son of Paul’s sister heard about it and told the tribune, who snuck Paul out to take him to Caesarea to meet with the governor Felix.

Due to v.11, both Paul and the readers know that Paul is going to make it to Rome, regardless of how much the enemy tries to prevent it by placing roadblocks in the way.

The first roadblock comes in the shape of the conspiracy to ambush Paul on the way to the council meeting. This is thwarted by the intelligence gathered by Paul’s nephew and the actions of the Roman tribune. Sometimes help comes from unexpected places. In this chapter we see the Pharisees siding with Paul, as well as a Roman tribune.

Paul understands that he will get to Rome, but he is probably going to endure hardships along the way. The only thing that is promised to him by God is that Paul will be a witness for the Lord in Rome. There is no promise of peace, prosperity or longevity in Paul’s earthly life. Yet, Paul seems content and determined to do the Lord’s will.

From the early stages of his life as a Christian, Paul expected hardships for his life going forward. If we look back to Acts 9, where Saul’s conversion to Paul happens, we see the Lord telling Ananias about His plans for Paul – “. . . for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”  Ananias most likely informed Paul about what the Lord said about him, and Paul, being a devout follower of God, seemed to have accepted this as his role in life, as long as he was alive in this world.

Along with Paul’s sense of duty to do the will of the Lord, he also was convinced that this life is not all there is. There is an eternity that can be spent with the Lord and other believers, where there will no longer be suffering or having to deal with sins of yourself or others. This becomes apparent in his letters to the various churches.

Does this mean that Paul lived in misery? It does not seem to be the case. We see deep relationships he established with other believers who valued his fellowship and grieved when he parted. Paul didn’t pursue joy, but he found joy in doing the will of the Lord.  He did not pursue fame or fortune, so his contentment did not depend on those things.

We share with Paul the knowledge that if we have Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we are assured of eternity with God and brothers and sisters in Christ. Regardless of what happens to us in this life, there will be eternal life that will be far better than this one.

Unlike Paul, we don’t have an inkling of where our final destination on earth will be – Our Rome. However, we do know that wherever our final earthly destination might be, all along our journey, we are to be witnesses for our Lord Jesus Christ.

J. R. R. Tolkien was a contemporary of C. S. Lewis.  They were both professors at Oxford and members of the Inklings, which met on Tuesdays to discuss and critique the literary works of fiction they were working on. Works such as “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “The Lord of the Rings” would go through this honing process.

I first read “The Lord of the Rings” while I was in college, and it is still one of my favorite series of books – Probably have read it more than seven times.  I was glad when Peter Jackson finally made a cinema version that captured the essence of the work. I always saw the journey of Frodo, the hobbit, as representing what our walk in faith should be. Frodo was not the strongest or the wisest, but he understood that a task that he did not want, nor was qualified for, fell into his lap and that it was his duty to try to carry it out. He was pretty sure that he would fail, but he understood that other people’s lives and peace were at stake. He sets off with a group, but things happen, and they get separated. People he thought he was going to depend on either betray him or part ways. He also gets unexpected help from others along the way.

We are probably more like Frodo than we are like Paul.  However, we and Paul share the same Lord and the same conviction that we are here to do the Lord’s will – To be witnesses of Jesus Christ, wherever and whenever we are.  Sometimes we receive help from unexpected places, and at other times, we are to be the unexpected help to others.

Let us be like Paul and not worry about the plots that might be against us, but be confident that the Lord knows what He is doing as He sends us along on our journey – A journey that is assured to end in the presence of the Lord.

(the above is a summary of the message shared by Shun Takano during our worship on Sept. 11, 2022)

To Hate One’s Family and Life…

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life–he cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:26

In our text for today (Luke 14:25-33) Jesus is traveling with a large crowd. Why are these crowds following Jesus? We get used to the stories, but it’s important to remember that what Jesus is doing in his ministry is absolutely astounding and surprising. Casting out demons, healing the sick, speaking with authority and even demonstrating power over nature – calming the winds and the waves with a word. People are flocking after this new teacher.

But suddenly, almost as if to warn the crowds – or to challenge the crowds – he begins talking about the cost of being a true disciple. Sure it’s fun to follow the crowd when there’s a show, when there are miracles, when healings are happening! But Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem – to die on a cross. So he lays it out clearly – there’s a real cost to following Jesus!

He states three things that are required:

  • You must hate your family and your own life. (father, mother, brother, sister) 
  • You must take up your cross
  • You must get rid of all of your possessions  

Let’s look at each of these as they seem pretty severe.

Hate your own family  

Throughout the old and new testaments there are passages where “hate” and “love” are used as a comparison or a method of teaching. An earlier passage in Luke where Jesus says that “no one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or love the one and hate the other” shows how these words were used hyperbolically to make a point.

No one hearing Jesus that day would actually have thought that he was requiring them to emotionally hate their families. The clear commands in the Torah to honor your father and mother, and to love your neighbor as yourself (surely this would include family members!) would seem to rule out a literal meaning of Jesus’ words.

A look at the parallel passage in Matthew 10:37, where Jesus teaches about the conditions for discipleship, may also be of help here. “If anyone loves their family more than me, they are not worthy of me.” It’s clear that Jesus is stating things strongly in order to make a comparison between commitments and allegiances. To be a disciple of Jesus will mean that an allegiance to him will be absolute, will need to supersede any ties to family – no matter how important those may be.

Take up your cross 

Most biblical scholars are not even certain how the crowds hearing Jesus’ statement to “take up one’s cross and follow me” would have understood that phrase. For those of us reading it today, we immediately associate the phrase with the cross of Calvary, the cross upon which Jesus died. It has even entered our common lectionary – “to bear one’s cross” – as a common way to indicate the acceptance of one’s burdens and trials. The crowd that day was of course pre-Calvary and therefore we’re not certain how they would have understood it.

An earlier passage in Luke 9:23-25 also uses the phrase. Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”

Along with the added word DAILY, this passage indicates a regular and steady acceptance, not only of one’s own burdens and trials, but the willingness to take on the burdens and struggles of others in some form. Remember that even Simon of Cyrene carried the cross upon which Jesus would be crucified.

Being a disciple sounds like hard work! Because of that, Jesus gives us two practical examples:

Building a tower:

If anyone is planning on building a tower (or any other structure) it’s important to first consider the supplies and resources that one has. Do I have enough time, labor, lumber, and sufficient budget to cover all the expenses? Will I be able to complete the project? Who wouldn’t sit down and take time to consider these issues?

Going to War:

And if a king or nation plans to wage war against another king or nation it would be important to first consider the size and strength of one’s own army compared to that of one’s foe. How many soldiers, horses, spears (tanks, guns, ammunition) will it require in order to defeat the enemy? Maybe we should come to some peaceful agreement instead? Who wouldn’t sit down and take time to consider these issues?

In the same way, it’s important to truly understood the sacrifices required in order to become a faithful disciple.

Get rid of all your possessions

“In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.

Seriously? All of them? What is Jesus saying here?

Most people in Jesus’ day did NOT give up all their possessions. When the early church was living communally (Acts 2), people were not giving up everything. Selling one’s property and sharing it with the community did not appear to be a requirement but was done voluntarily. (Ananias & Sapphira)

This, too, is an extreme way of saying that our thoughts about possessions must change! The idea that we are owners of anything needs to be called into question. We are stewards of God’s blessing, not owners!

A recent story I read in preparing this message may help us understand (taken from Debi Thomas, writing for Journey with Jesus):

A group of people are taking a voyage on a large cruise ship with many levels and cabins. A passenger on the lowest level decides to dig a hole in the floor of his cabin. As the water begins to rush in, people come running and demand “What are you doing??! He answers: “This is my cabin. I paid for it.” In the end the ship sinks.

This is admittedly a silly and oversimplified story. But it speaks to Jesus’ command for us to get rid of our possessions.

When we answer Jesus’ call, when we become his disciple, we are now on a large ship, the kingdom of God ship. “My cabin” no longer exists. I’m connected to everyone else and what I do with my cabin is connected to everyone else’s well-being. Jesus’ call on my life is absolute and that includes the things that I call “my own”, whether it be time, talent, or stuff.

So, what are we to make of these three severe requirements for discipleship? Our faith, walking with God, WILL involve sacrifice and sometimes difficulties. Jesus asks us to subordinate, to renounce anything that we own, value, love, or depend on…. MORE than God.

Can we own possessions without being possessive? With open hands….. as stewards?

Can we have a single-minded allegiance to Jesus…without being small-minded and exclusive toward others that are different than us?

Can we daily consider not only our own trials and struggles, but those of others?

Can I see how committing myself to Jesus, will mean committing myself to ALL others?

Jesus’ words earlier in Luke 9:24 may be a good summary:

“For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.”

(the above is a summary of the message shared during our worship on September 4, 2022.)

Paul’s Testimony

Acts 22:1-21

In Acts 21, while Paul and his companions were in Philip’s house in Caesarea, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea and told them that when Paul gets to Jerusalem, the Jews would bind Paul and turn him over to the Gentiles. Paul goes to Jerusalem, the Jews attack Paul and Roman soldiers had to keep the mob from killing him. Paul asks permission from the Romans to speak to the mob, and Paul gives his testimony to the Jewish mob.

The reason why the crowd was so riled up was because they were told that Paul was teaching others to break away from Jewish traditions and even defiled the temple by bringing Gentiles into it. Paul starts out by establishing his credentials as a Jew:  He considers himself a Jew and he was well trained in the Law by one of the great teachers of the law, Gamaliel, and that he was a staunch defender of their religion and persecuted the Christians, believing that Jesus was a false messiah and that His followers were defiling God and the Jewish religion.

Having established his Jewishness, Paul goes on to describe his conversion:  How on the road to Damascus he was hit by a blinding light. How the risen Jesus spoke to Paul and told him to go to Damascus where he will be told what he is to do.  When he got to Damascus, how Ananias told him that Jesus had called him to do missionary work among the Gentiles.

Although Luke didn’t write this passage to give us a model for how to give our testimony, we could learn from it.  Before going into how he became a Christian, Paul established identity or commonality with the audience. Once this common ground is established, he then proceeds to the conversion account.

So, how successful was this approach for Paul in this instance? In verse 22, we are told that the crowd decided to kill Paul. This is a good reminder to us that just because we are doing what the Lord led us to do, that our desired outcome is not guaranteed. As the Lord’s servant, all we can do is what we are led to do, and not worry about the outcome – That is up to the Lord.  Is it possible that some in the crowd came to know the Lord through this, but much later? We just don’t know, but like in the parable of the sower, the important thing is to sow the seeds.  The seeds may not grow into fruitful trees, but there is no chance of that, if the seeds are not sown.

When we look at Paul’s account of his conversion, we see that it was not just about Paul coming to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. He saw and heard things that he could not on his own and he was given a calling – a vocation. Now that he was accepting Jesus as Messiah, he also now knew that his calling  was to testify about Christ to the Gentiles.

This is what Paul writes in Ephesians 2:10: “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” 

We might think or hope that the reason we came to believe in Christ was so God could shower us with His love and goodness so that we can live a happy life on earth as well as in eternity. If we just focused on that, we may forget that we were called to do His works on earth. Further, doing His works may include misunderstandings, oppositions, hardships, and even death.

When God created Adam and placed him in the garden of Eden, the first thing he gave him was a vocation, a calling – to take care of the garden.  When Paul was shown the light, he was given a calling. What is our calling?  According to Acts, the Holy Spirit was given to us so that we can be witnesses to people near and far that Jesus is the Son of God and the savior of the world.

Each of us are given different roles to play.  We can trust that the Holy Spirit will guide and direct us to the who, what, when and where.

One thing that caught my attention about Paul’s testimony is that he specifically brings up Stephen. Acts 8:1 tells us that a young man named Saul was there when Stephen was stoned to death and that he approved of their killing him. This Saul was the pre-conversion Paul, and he was helping by keeping the coats of the men who were murdering Stephen, so that they could throw the stoned harder and better.

The stoning of Stephen occurred about 30 years prior to Paul’s testimony in this passage. Thirty years ago from today (2022) would be 1992. What do we remember from 1992?  Some events from 1992:  Riots in LA due to the acquittal of those who killed Rodney King; Johnny Carson hosts his last Tonight Show; Hurricane Iniki devastates Kauai; Toronto Blue Jays become the first non-U.S. team to win the World Series; the first smartphone, the IBM Simon, is introduced; Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia dissolved.  When pointed out, we remember these things, but would not have otherwise remembered them.

We tend to remember major events in our lives. We also remember things we regret doing, and the killing of Stephen seems to be one of those things that Paul remembered. Otherwise, he would not have included it in his testimony.

Once Paul became a Christian and tried to live according to his calling, he probably felt a kinship to Stephen.  Stephen was performing his calling when he was killed. Not only was he willing to go through hardship and even death for his calling, but the last thing he asked His Lord to do was to forgive those who were stoning him.

Paul was not using this memory of Stephen to beat himself up or play “what if” games – It was a reminder of his great sinfulness and in contrast, the great love of God that would forgive his sins and even give him a calling for the Kingdom. This sense of appreciation fueled Paul’s dedication to his calling, even to the point where he now stands where Stephen did – giving testimony to who Jesus is, even if it meant arrest and death.

When memories or reminders of our past sins come into our minds, don’t try to wipe it out or ignore it. Use it as a reminder of God’s great capacity to love, forgive and use us, regardless of our sins. This should energize us to commit to our calling – a calling that our great and loving God gives to each one of us.