Tag Archives: Apocrypha

Meet the Maccabees

given on Sunday, April 28, 2013:  Sometimes we get so involved in the world about us, that we do not see how our Christian lifestyle is slipping away.  Here is my question, are we like the Maccabees or are we succumbing to the secular world?

April’s Apocrypha Lesson:  Meet the Maccabees

         Why in the world do we need to meet the Maccabees?  Reviewing the books in the apocrypha, I could not understand why there are four books of the Maccabees.  True, in the New Testament there are the first, second and third letters of John, but they are letters and each one has a specific purpose.  But the four books of the Maccabees simply do not follow any recognizable style or purpose that connects them.  The connection appears to be found in history.

The Maccabees were a priestly tribe.  As the Greek or Hellenistic Empire grew through the ancient world surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, cultures clashed.  The Maccabees struggled to maintain their Judean culture under the Greek rule.  The Greeks struggled to supersede the Jewish culture.  The story, as outlined in the four books of the apocrypha, is filled with the details of these clashes.

The Greeks outlawed the practice of circumcision.  The Jewish parents continued to practice it.  Defying the Greek law lead to the death of many Jewish parents.  Yet the Maccabees persisted and even when one leader died, the task of maintaining the faith continued:

1 Maccabees 2:49-50:  Now the days drew near for Mattathias to die, and he said to his sons:  “Arrogance and scorn have now become strong; it is a time of ruin and furious anger.  Now, my children, show zeal for the law and give your lives for the covenant of our ancestors.”  the NRSV

The apocrypha includes the works written during that time between the prophecy of Malachi and the birth of Jesus.  The stories continue to demonstrate how the Jewish people struggled to maintain their faith in God despite all the cultural challenges to their beliefs.

The first book of Maccabees includes the story of the Greek rulers taking over even the temples.  The Greeks forced themselves into the temples to put their own pagan gods into place.  They defiled the altars by placing the very types of sacrifices forbidden by the Jewish priests.  Greeks demanded taxes from the temple in order to have more money for themselves.  The stories continue to demonstrate how the Hellenistic culture was forced upon the Jewish culture.

Consider this:  How is our Christian faith being challenged by the secular world?  Are we able to demonstrate as much determination as the Maccabees did to protect our standards?  Are we able to withstand the constant pressure to give up our Christian practices?  Are we determined to protect our faith practices over the secular practices swirling around us?

The four books of the Maccabees shares how the faithful fought back.  The Jewish people refused to give in to the Gentiles now practicing the pagan religions or following the Greek culture.  The story turns into one of rebellion as outlined in the second book.

When the Greek leaders decided to enter the temple and confiscate the treasury, the Maccabees resisted.  The story of this family and all the sons who stood up against the Hellenistic demands and influences demonstrates faithfulness to a degree I cannot comprehend.  The brothers were tortured and killed before their mother, but even she defied the authorities encouraging her sons throughout the horrific ordeal and even through her own death.  These are the words she spoke to her seventh son as he was tortured and killed:

2 Maccabees 7: 27-29:  But, leaning close to him [her 7th son], she spoke in their native language as follows, deriding the cruel tyrant:  “My son have pity on me.  I carried you nine months in my womb, and nursed you for three years, and have reared you and brought you up to this point in your life, and have taken care of you.  I beg you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed.  And in the same way the human race came into being.  Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers.  Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again along with your brothers.”  the NKJV

I cannot imagine having the strength of faith, of character, to conduct myself so faithfully.

In the testimony of the seven sons and their mother, as recorded in 2 Maccabees, also brings to light two theological points that continue to be discussed today:  (a) the creation of the world from nothing, and (b) the possibility of life after death.  I was not surprised to learn this about the Jewish stand on creation, but I was surprised to hear the reference to eternal life.

Yet, the Maccabees’ stories continue.  After the death of the Priest Eleazar and his family, the next Jewish leader Judas, also called Maccabeus, continues the story further.  He becomes a strategic leader, gathering up the faithful secretly, creating an army that takes back the temple and purifies it for the Jewish people.  The historical record of Judas is considered proof that God listened to the Jewish faithful and guided them through the conflict successfully.

So why should we meet the Maccabees?  Today, as we find ourselves challenged to protect our own Christian beliefs and practices, the stories can give us models.  Hopefully no one will ever have to endure the horrendous forms of torture and death as Eleazar’s family, but we need to identify the challenges to our faith and find ways to strengthen our faith.

Humanity sees behaviors repeated in cultures worldwide, in all the different time periods, and yet today.  Just in the course of the last decade, stop and consider what secular changes challenge the Christian practices.

The first thing that comes to my mind is the simply the attitude to maintaining a day of worship, a day of rest.  First blue laws were written, then loop holes developed (such as how alcohol can be sold on Sundays).

A second one which is much more recent, that is filling up Sundays with athletic competitions.  Even if one is accustomed to practicing worship each Sunday, now kids athletic competitions are schedule throughout the day.  The importance of worship is lost.

In reading through the various study materials concerning the Maccabees, I stumbled across this little piece of history:  When the Greek were trying to instill their culture, after capturing the temple, they built an arena for athletic competition.  It was built in a position that placed it above the temple.  This clearly demonstrated the attitude the Greeks held toward the Jewish faith—athletics first, faith comes lower in the priority list.

I could not help but see the parallel in today’s secular world.  Athletic competition and even the practices for it seem to have more value in our society than our faith does.  Consider how much players are paid versus how much the religious leaders are paid.  Figure out how much money fans spend on tickets, parking passes, clothing and even food in order to attend a sporting event and compare that to what happens tithing in our churches.

Meeting the Maccabees in the first two books is different from meeting them in the third and fourth book.  The last two books have entirely different writing styles and purposes.  The third book is a novel.  This is surprising since it is published as though it were part of the historical narrative.

Another reason including a novel is surprising is that today typically novels would not be considered a reading for faith development.   Yet, when I read through Father Tim’s stories from Mitford, I found lessons in faith.  In fact, his favorite verse was Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him [Christ] who strengthens me.”  the NKJV.  This is a verse that guides me through each and every day, and it was the basis for an entire series of novels.

Finally, there is the fourth book of Maccabees.  Another entirely different style of literature, this book is a series of biographical sketches on various martyrs or heroes in the Jewish culture.  In fact the New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha indicates that these stories are “part moral treatise, part funeral oration.”  Another words, they are like eulogies in today’s culture.

“The value?” you might ask.  Every culture has historical personalities that have led the people to understand how to live.  We have legends in our American culture like Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jane Adams, and the list goes on.  There are legends from other countries and cultures like Gandhi or Dr. Schweitzer.  And think of all the Jewish, Catholic, and Protestants who died during World War II, all have stories that guide us in our daily lives.

This week was the day to remember the holocaust victims.  Having just finished the movie and discussion over Schindler’s List, the examples of all the people who died helping one another explains one more time why providing literature like the fourth book of Maccabees can be inspirational.

Meeting the Maccabees may seem more like a history lesson, but knowing history helps us to prevent repeating the tragedies of the past and to encourage us to maintain our faith, our principles, and our Christian lifestyle.  Knowing the history of the Maccabees and the many other faith-based cultures can develop our personal resolve to live a God-centered, faith-disciplined life despite all the secular pressures in our culture today.  The stories provide us hope, too.  Hope that our lives serve as models for future generations wanting to transform the world into a Christian community where God’s grace reigns forever and ever.

Closing prayer:

Dear God,

Day after day we struggle.

We find ourselves challenged

by demands at work, at play and at home.

Sometimes we feel weak and tired

unable to fend off the secular influences.


Day after day we resolve to put our faith in you.

We wake up to grey skies

yet we know the sun still shines.

We feel so tired as the day fades,

but we know night’s rest renews.


Day after day we begin anew.

Thank you for your grace

when we tire or make mistakes.

Thank you for inspiring words

written generation after generation.


Guide us each and every day.

Be with us as we battle

challenges to our faith.

Help us to be models of faith

transformed by your love.         –Amen


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Apocrypha lesson: Don’t Be Idle About Idolatry

given on Sunday, April 14, 2013 (The second of the April Apocrypha series.)

The Letter of Jeremiah or Baruch 6:1-6, 36-40, and 70-73 of the Apocrypha the NRSV,ACE

(italics added for emphasis only)

A copy of a letter that Jeremiah sent to those who were to be taken to Babylon as exiles by the king of the Babylonians, to give them the message that God had commanded him.

The People Face a Long Captivity

Because of the sins that you have committed before God, you will be taken to Babylon as exiles by Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Babylonians. Therefore, when you have come to Babylon you will remain there for many years, for a long time, up to seven generations; after that I will bring you away from there in peace. Now in Babylon you will see gods made of silver and gold and wood, which people carry on their shoulders, and which cause the heathen to fear. So beware of becoming at all like the foreigners or of letting fear for these gods[b] possess you when you see the multitude before and behind them worshipping them. But say in your heart, ‘It is you, O Lord, whom we must worship.’

. . . 36 They cannot save anyone from death or rescue the weak from the strong. 37 They cannot restore sight to the blind; they cannot rescue one who is in distress. 38 They cannot take pity on a widow or do good to an orphan. 39 These things that are made of wood and overlaid with gold and silver are like stones from the mountain, and those who serve them will be put to shame. 40 Why then must anyone think that they are gods, or call them gods?

The Foolishness of Worshiping Idols

Besides, even the Chaldeans themselves dishonour them; for when they see someone who cannot speak, they bring Bel and pray that the mute may speak, as though Bel[a] were able to understand!

. . . 70 Like a scarecrow in a cucumber bed, which guards nothing, so are their gods of wood, overlaid with gold and silver. 71 In the same way, their gods of wood, overlaid with gold and silver, are like a thornbush in a garden on which every bird perches; or like a corpse thrown out in the darkness. 72 From the purple and linen[a] that rot upon them you will know that they are not gods; and they will finally be consumed themselves, and be a reproach in the land. 73 Better, therefore, is someone upright who has no idols; such a person will be far above reproach.

The Sermon

Did you realize that we have entered Tornado Season?  The weather forecasters are certainly busy reminding us that we need to be prepared.  I drove past one house a few blocks away who received a “family chest” to be installed in their house.  Then I opened up the Methodist Reporter to see Joplin’s rebuilt UMC church was used on Easter Sunday for the first time since the tornado in May 2011.

What connection could all this make with writings in the apocrypha?  I connected back to the apocrypha’s Letter of Jeremiah, sometimes referred to as Baruch.  On the first read through, I struggled to find any sense of value in the book.  Then I visualized the destroyed Joplin of two years ago and thought just how quickly all those people lost their most prized possessions.  How do they lose everything and keep their faith?

Jeremiah may not be a weather forecaster nor did he live through a tornado.  What Jeremiah was predicting was just as devastating as Joplin’s tornado.  His people needed to listen to his prediction because their lives were about to be dramatically changed.  The Israelites were being relocated to a different country, Babylon, which was a pagan culture.

As a Jewish prophet, Jeremiah warned against fighting Nebuchadnezzar, but in the apocryphal letter, his warning is against idolatry.  As the Israelites are being forced to move to Babylon, they were going to be in direct contact with the gentiles’ worship of idols.  Such influences would challenge the Jewish faithful and risk leading them into idolatry, too.

The body of the letter is focused on the description of idols and how they are made, worshiped and used.  The verses, which end each section, are key to Jeremiah’s arguments:

  • Verse 5:  So beware of becoming at all like the foreigners or of letting fear for these gods[b] possess you when you see the multitude before and behind them worshipping them. But say in your heart, ‘It is you, O Lord, whom we must worship.’
  • Verse 40:  Why then must anyone think that they are gods, or call them gods?
  • Verse 73:  Better, therefore, is someone upright who has no idols; such a person will be far above reproach.

Granted, the Letter of Jeremiah or the book Baruch is not a matching writing style to the Book of Jeremiah that is included in the Old Testament.  Yet the work of a prophet is not always as polished as one might expect.  The incident, the forced move or exile of the Israelites into Babylon, called for immediate and dramatic attention, similar to the weather alerts that appear on our televisions today:  hence, the correlation of the apocrypha’s letter of warning to today’s public broadcast of impending severe weather.  Do we take cover or do we just sit back and wait?  Are we prepared to ‘weather the storm’ (pardon the cliché)?  Is our faith God-centered or filled with idols?

Idolatry was a continual concern of the faithful.  References to idols, graven images, and inappropriate behaviors are found throughout the Old and New Testament; therefore, it should be no surprise that it is in the apocrypha, too.  There should be no surprise that the concern over idols is also in the New Testament, either.  Paul refers to concerns about idolatry in several of his letters to the early churches:

  • Colossians 3:5-8  Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.[b] These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life.[c] But now you must get rid of all such things
  • Ephesians 5:5  Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

Maybe today, the 21st century, while we listen to forecasters warning us to take cover in severe weather, maybe we should hear Jeremiah’s warnings.  Think how lives are changed, how your life can be changed, in the flash of the moment a tornado touches down and destroys all you have held dear and neatly gathered in your house.  Could you let go?

In the Bible, idols refer primarily statues, often made of wood and dressed up in gold or silver.  The objects were transported with the people.  They kept them in places of honor; in fact, temples were built for them.  Even the Jewish temples could become a form of idolatry.  For these reasons, Jeremiah prophesized against idolatry.

In a resource, What Does the Bible Say About . . ., the idolatry of ancient time is discussed in contemporary terms:

Perhaps you tend to think of an idol as a figure made from wood or stone to which primitive people pray and offer sacrifices.  But the Lord defined what an idol is when he told Ezekiel that it is something that a person puts before him in a way that causes him to stumble into iniquity (Ezek. 14:4).  Idols are not just the cared objects that sit in pagan temples; they are the godless cravings and commitments that rule in our hearts.  (p. 213)

As the resource continues the discussion about idolatry, a clear shift from the ancient times when Jeremiah issued verbal warnings to the Israelites to today’s world when forecasts are made via various media. The concept or definition of idolatry is modified:

Today’s increasingly secular society may seem to have little in common with the world of Jeremiah’s day.  . . . [Today] An idol is anything that is sacred to a person, in that it defines self-worth, becomes controlling center of life, and takes priority over all other loyalties.  (p.214)

Today’s world is different, true, but the commandment said, “Have no other god before Me.”  An honest evaluation may reveal how seriously that commandment is broken.

Stop and consider exactly what you value.  The weather forecasters have predicted a highly active tornado season for the Midwest.  Tornado survivors probably have an answer for what they center their lives.  Are we ready to have our lives ripped apart and refocused?  Or can we refocus our lives without damaging the things we own?

Today, as we continue to wait for the warm, sunny days of Spring, find the time to refocus your lives.  Ask yourself whether or not you are practicing idolatry in one form or another.  Ask yourself how your faith would survive a tornado.  Ask yourself what defines your life.  The resource, What Does the Bible Say About . . . , asks:

What would be an idol for you?  What do you hold “sacred” in the sense that it defines who you are, controls your life, and is the last thing that you would ever let go?  (Ibid.)

Maybe your answers are not idol-centered; maybe they are God-centered.  You probably see the world as temporary, as home for now.  You may love your family and value them before anything else on the earth.  You may worry about the business, the machinery in the barn, the lives of your cattle, even the form and shape of the trees around your home.  You may value the pictures hanging on the walls, the videos of kids and grandkids, the antiques passed down through the generations.  But, are they idols or are they just the stuff that accents your lives?

If a life-altering experience occurs today, tomorrow, or a year from now, is your life God-centered?  What do you need to do to be more faithful?  What idols do you need to get rid of?  How can you redefine your faith so when the forecast becomes a reality, you can let go and let God?

Jeremiah sent warnings.  He used every different way he could imagine to refocus the Jewish people’s thinking for the difficulties living in a pagan society.  Some listened, some did not.

Fortunately we do not perceive ourselves living in a culture that teems with idols—or do we?  Do we idolize our professional sports teams, the actors and actresses winning Academy Awards, the houses we must have, the latest devices, the cars we drive?

The list can go on and on, but if we remain God-centered, we are prepared to let go and let God be in charge.  We do not have to worry about the tornadoes forecasted for the spring season.  We do not have to worry if floods destroy our homes.  We can prepare, but we do not have to let our world control our lives.

Last week, we praised the Lord for our lives.  Today, we evaluate what we focus on in our daily lives.  We review how well we live God-centered lives.  We prepare to defend ourselves from the secular world as well as the natural disasters.  We look toward God and his promise of eternal life.

The words of advice are around us, whether in the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, or the New Testament.  Advice is available through all the ancient means and now through the 21st century media, too.  But, when all else fails there is that key communication tool that supersedes all those humans have created—prayer.

Dear God,

Each week we struggle to remain focused on your power.

We witness the destruction of natural forces,

But we also witness the power of faith in those who suffer.

Prepare each of us here to manage the challenges

To our daily lives, to our property, and to our faith.

Guide us through the words of scripture,

Of prophets, of Jesus, of apostles, and of Paul.

Help us heed the warnings from the prophets of old

But also the forecasters and sages of today.

Let each of us serve one another in love, too,

So others may learn of Your grace

And the promise of eternal life.  –Amen





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A is for Apocrypha; P is for Psalms

given on Sunday, April 7, 2013

Every once and a while an idea just starts bubbling up in the brain, and no matter what you do, you cannot get rid of it.  Several weeks ago, even before Lent, I started wondering about the apocrypha.  Never had it been included either in Bible studies or in Sunday school classes, or even mentioned in sermons.

Yet, somehow I wanted to know what was locked away in this series of Biblical books.   Maybe the term Biblical does not apply because the books certainly are not included in our common versions of the Bible.  Still I could not shake the questions and the ideas that seemed to be flooding my brain.

Even though Lent demanded attention and then Easter called for more traditional readings and sermons, I could only subdue the raging in my head until time had come to consider post-Easter sermons.  That is when the phrase exploded—A is for Apocrypha!  Post-Easter means April and the A’s had come together—A is for Apocrypha.

To begin, the apocrypha is published in between the old and the new testaments and usually only in Catholic Bibles.  Why?  Turns out that the dates the various books are written are between 400 BC and Christ’s birth.  Apparently the gap really does not exist because various religious manuscripts surfaced during that time and were commonly accepted by the Jewish leaders.

Today we opened our service with Psalm 150; a glorious hymn of praise that we frequently include when the tone of our worship is full of energy and excitement.  The tone reverberates the loud music that is listed within the lines.  As April begins and we finally see the promise of spring, the promise of God’s gift of eternal life, Psalm 150 lifts us up from the worst of winter and makes us want to jump for joy.  A is for April, but P is for Psalms of Praise!

As Christians we recognize that Psalm 150 closes the book in the Old Testament.  Studies of Psalms explains the breakdown of the book into various themes and are arranged in an order that journeys the reader through the emotional ups and downs typically associated with David’s life.  Some are written by David, some are not.  But buried in the apocrypha is Psalm 151.  Why?

The Bible is a foundation for our faith.  We read it for guidance, for understanding, for God because he can speak through the words to guide us in our daily lives.  The Old Testament is what the Jewish people read.  The New Testament is added so the story of Christ completes or bridges our earthly life to eternal life.

Psalm 151 is different from those in the Old Testament.  It is autobiographical, written by King David, explaining God’s choice of him over his brothers.  Look back at those verses 1-4:

I was the smallest of my brothers,
the youngest of my father’s sons.
He made me shepherd of his flock,
ruler over their young.

My hands made a flute,
my fingers a lyre.
Let me give glory to the Lord,
I thought to myself.

The mountains
cannot witness to God;
the hills cannot proclaim him.
But the trees have cherished
my words,
the flocks my deeds.

Who can proclaim,
who can announce,
who can declare the Lord’s deeds?
God has seen everything;
God has heard everything;
God has listened.  —the CEB

The first verses of the psalm show who David is—a shepherd, a musician, an average guy who seemingly does not have the same qualities of his brothers.  Yet it is David that God chooses rather than any one of his brothers who most would identify as leaders of a nation.

Some translations of Psalm 151 consider the four verses the complete psalm.  But the scroll on which this psalm was found included the other two verses:

God sent his prophet to anoint me;
Samuel to make me great.
My brothers went out to meet him,
handsome in form and appearance:

Their stature tall,
their hair beautiful,
but the Lord God
did not choose them.

Instead, he sent and took me
from following the flock.
God anointed me with holy oil;
God made me leader for his people,
ruler over the children
of his covenant.  —the CEB

These three verses refer back to the story of David and Goliath.  They are written as autobiographical—in first person—so it does not follow the typical pattern of the 150 psalms already included.  In fact, one reference explains that the scroll on which the psalm is written was ripped.  There has been no way to assure scholars that verse 7 completed the psalm or whether there were more that have been lost.

Is there a message in Psalm 151?  Certainly.  God chooses those to serve.  David may not have felt he was worthy to be called in comparison to his own brothers, but he answered the call.  And in the verses 5 and 6, he explains that by referring back to his battle with Goliath.  He was the smallest, most unlikely of his family to become the leader that he did.  God called him, God anointed him, and God made him leader of the Israelites.

Are we hearing God’s call?  Maybe we do, but we do not believe in ourselves enough to answer.  All too often we ignore God’s calling.  All too often we talk ourselves out of acknowledging God’s call to us personally.  God knows the gifts he provides us, God goes with us wherever we go, and God gives us the strength to handle the whatever we must as long as we believe.

April is renewal.  Easter was the beginning of a new chapter in Christianity.  And just like A is for Apocrypha and P is for Psalms, there is more for us in April:

R is for Reading scriptures;

I is for Inspiration from the scriptures; and

L is for Listening to the Word of God.

The Old Testament spoke to the ancient tribes of Israel; the New Testament speaks to Christians since the beginning of the Church.  What lies in the Apocrypha is a mystery to the Protestants, but has been speaking to the Catholics and the Greek Orthodox faithful.  Therefore, A is for APRIL, a time of renewal, of exploration, and of listening to the stories of the Apocrypha, too.

Dear Eternal Father, Author of Our Lives,.

Open our minds to the stories in the scriptures.

Open our hearts to the messages Your Words share.

Keep us curious as we seek understanding.

Keep us faithful to Your commandments.

Use us to reach out to others in need of Your grace.

Use us to demonstrate Your love to one and another.

As the scriptures tell us the story,

Let us tell the story, too, so others may be transformed.  –Amen

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