Tag Archives: unconditional love

God’s Gifts: promises fulfilled

given on Sunday, December 15, 2013

            Preparing today’s thoughts could have been very difficult due to the personal events of the past two weeks.  Yet, returning to life’s daily routine allows for the spinning, ever-changing world to slow down to a manageable pace.  And, who cannot help but sense the excitement and expectations that are part of Advent.

The seasons do not stop even for the calamities of life whether it is a destructive natural phenomena such as ice storms, hurricanes, and earthquakes or whether it is an international event such as the death of Nelson Mandela or whether it is a personal life event such as a scary diagnosis or a loss of a spouse, a parent, a child or even a friend.  The seasons continue racing along.

Advent began two weeks ago, and suddenly Christians face the clock.  Christmas is only 10 days away and the race is on.  The wish lists must be filled.  The cookies and candies need preparing.  And amazingly, as the days tick down, it all gets done.

What happens, though, when all the social hubbub crowds out God?  Generation after generation Christians look forward to Christmas, yet God’s gifts seem to be hidden below all the papers and bows, mixed up with tinsel and lights.  God’s gifts easily become lost.

God’s gift of life seems so basic that the significance of our own creation is lost.  Even as children are born, the new lives are viewed simply as a byproduct of an organic act; so many are even thrown away because the biological parents are lost in addiction.  God’s gift of life is tossed away.

For just a moment, put yourself into God’s position.  Out in the cosmos, the idea of creating a world leads you to create a garden and then you begin adding to the creation all the gifts we now know as the flora and fauna of our earth.  The creation is pleasing, but it lacks something.  And you realize that a garden needs attending, so the next creation is ‘adam (Hebrew) or humankind:

. . . the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.  . . . In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  . . . The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.  And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”  (Gen. 2:7-17, NIV)

God’s gift of life includes the gift of free thought:  New ideas.  Relationships.  Dreams.  Hopes.  New life.  Knowledge.  Choices—good and bad.

History records how well humans have handled God’s gift of life.  The choices made certainly have created this 21st century world filled with all the innovations of creative minds.  But this world is also filled with all the horrors of destructive minds.  God’s gifts were given along with responsibility.  God promised us a life filled with all that we need as long as we follow his rule.

God made promises to humankind to take care of us.  God gave us grace and turned humanity loose to tend to the garden.  Standing guard over us, God watches us, feeling joy with our successes and weeping at our failures.  Yet never has God gone back on promises.

The generations continue, history keeps recording humanity’s successes and failures, and God’s promises remain.  The third Sunday of Advent is a time to pause and reflect on God’s promises.  Has he fulfilled them?  Yes.  Has he given up?  No!

God’s promises remain steadfast.  God gives us grace.  Each one of us is loved unconditionally.  At no time is that love taken away.  God’s grace is a gift that keeps on giving, as the cliché states.

Accepting God’s gifts also gives us hope.  In our humanity, we make mistakes.  The story of Adam and Eve demonstrates that God’s grace is like a safety net protecting us from ourselves.  With that first bite from the tree of knowledge, God’s grace was tested.  God told them they would die if they ate from this tree, but with grace and unconditional love, they lived.

The choices we humans make ever since that first bite demonstrates God’s grace and unconditional love.  We learn to trust God.  We learn that when we make a mistake, God forgiven.  This hope that God loves us despite our mistakes gives us courage to continue forward.  Hope allows us to love one another unconditionally, too.

Scriptures record story after story of human errors being forgiven.  Stop and review the story of Abraham who listened to God and offered his own son as a sacrifice, trusting in God right along to the final moment when God provided a ram to replace Isaac as the sacrifice.

Hope turns into joy, another gift from God.  Abraham’s sense of relief and joy propelled him forward.  His life was not easy, but he relied on God.  Turning over one’s life to God provides a sense of joy immeasurable by any human standard.

The list of God’s gifts continues to grow.  We can create our own list of gifts received from God that is customized to our specific strengths and weaknesses.  Yet, opening that gifts of God’s unconditional love and grace provides a sense of joy that springs alive within us and radiates outward touching the lives of others.

Today, and each day of Advent, we need to evaluate how well we are sharing God’s unconditional love with others.  We need to ask ourselves if the grace God provides us is modeled in the grace we give to others.

The generations recorded in the Old Testament provide a testimony to how well God’s human creations implemented God’s laws.  Failures seem to outnumber successes, but God never gives up hope.  Over and over God tried to help; and when all else failed, the prophets warned the people.

The Old Testament prophesized or referred to a coming Messiah in 44 different scriptures.  In Isaiah, the prophecy of a Messiah is recorded in nine different ways (Fairchild 2013).  When the Christmas story is recorded in the New Testament, it answers the prophecies.

Isaiah 7:14:  Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

Matthew 1:23:  “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

God’s gifts never fail.  The Word tells the story.  Advent allows us to relive the expectations of the faithful throughout history.  We never tire hearing the story over and over again because we receive hope and joy from God’s gifts.  We demonstrate God’s unconditional love and grace with our own gift giving.  And that gives us one more gift—joy, represented by the third candle on the Advent wreath.

As we continue to mark off the days until Christmas, keep God’s gifts in mind.  Prepare your heart for the final gift of the season—the purest, Jesus Christ, son of man and son of God.

 

Closing prayer:

Dear loving and giving Lord,

In the midst of our holiday season,

            help us to remember the greatest story ever told.

As we rush from place to place,

            keep us safe along the bustling streets.

When we greet the faces of family and friends,

            let the love and grace given by you, shine.

In those moments when sorrow sneaks in,

            translate the loss into heart-felt memories.

With each Christmas carol we hear and sing,

            hear our praises and our thanks.

With each card we send or we open,

            spread a little more Christian love.

            Thank you, Lord, for the gifts we receive

                        today, tomorrow, and forever.  –Amen

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God’s Gifts: The Fruit of the Holy Spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-control

given on 2nd Sunday of Advent, December 9, 2012

Scripture:  Galatians 5:16-26                  the CEB

     16 I say be guided by the Spirit and you won’t carry out your selfish desires. 17 A person’s selfish desires are set against the Spirit, and the Spirit is set against one’s selfish desires. They are opposed to each other, so you shouldn’t do whatever you want to do. 18 But if you are being led by the Spirit, you aren’t under the Law. 19 The actions that are produced by selfish motives are obvious, since they include sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, 20 idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, 21 jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that. I warn you as I have already warned you, that those who do these kinds of things won’t inherit God’s kingdom.

     22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified self with its passions and its desires.

     25 If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit. 26 Let’s not become arrogant, make each other angry, or be jealous of each other.

 

         Have you ever received one of those holiday baskets of fruit?  In the middle of December, someone would giveus a basket of fruit.  My mental image is always the little red basket wrapped up in red or green cellophane, gathered at the top with a bow tied on.  The basket would take a place of honor, usually on the dining room table, untouched—at least for a few days or maybe even a week or more.

At first a basket of fruit was just a ho-hum type of gift.  There were no toys in it, no candy, just fruit.  It was easy to ignore it sitting on the table because it was not something on my wish list.  And it did look pretty sitting on the table.  Oddly, even Mom and Dad did not open it and begin eating the grapefruit or the bananas or the apples.  For those first few days, the basket took a place of honor, sitting on the table almost like part of the Christmas decorations.

Gift giving is such a tangible way of sharing love between one and another.  God’s gift of his son was tangible, too.  Jesus was born, grew up, and ministered to the world so that we might receive the ultimate gift of eternal life.  No doubt eternal life is a gift that keeps on giving, but sometimes it seems so far out of reach that we fail to accept the gift and treasure it.  God’s gift is often pushed away and sent to the table just to look at rather than open and use.

God’s fruit basket was also delivered that first Christmas.  Remember that God is in three parts:  the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  The fruit basket is delivered to each and every one of God’s children through the Holy Spirit.  The fruit basket provides us the immediate result of loving God by loving one another.  It is unwrapped the minute we accept God’s grace, believe in Jesus, and join in the Christian family.

As soon as we open God’s gift of grace and that of his Son, we also open the gift of the Holy Spirit’s fruits.  Just like the fruit baskets that are given out over Christmas, the Holy Spirit’s fruits are life sustaining and enriching.  The fruit basket represents all the vitamins and tastes and textures from all regions of the earth.  The Holy Spirit’s fruit can do the same thing and it is never completely consumed.

The scripture from Galatians lists the fruit:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  These are the character qualities that stand out among those we know are filled with the Holy Spirit.  These qualities make all the difference in the world between those who believe and those who do not.

Interestingly this fruit keeps us healthy in the midst of a world that seems to thrive on evil.  The list in Galatians 5:20, written in A.D. 49-50, is a list that mirrors the evil we continue to see yet today, 2,000 years later.  Sometimes it feels as though the world is spinning out of control and there is no way to stop the insanity.

But there is.  Remember that God’s gift of his son was his way of transforming the Jewish faith into one that was simpler, love-filled, and available to everyone—not just those who were identified as the ‘chosen’ ones, those of the Tribes of Israel.  Just three years of Jesus’ ministry truly did transform the world.

God’s love was unwrapped, used, and then crucified so that we might receive eternal life.  The Holy Spirit’s basket of fruit was given when we accepted Christ and chose to follow God’s New Covenant.  The fruit of the Holy Spirit cannot be destroyed unless we fail to open it and use it.

Take the cellophane off the basket and see what it offers.  Mary Slaughter has done this and created a study book, Following Jesus, where she defines the fruit:

  • Love—the ability to unconditionally accept and love others, even when you may not feel like it.
  • Joy—a deep, inner gladness gained from an intimate relationship with Christ; often found in the midst of difficult circumstances.
  • Peace—an inner harmony and sense of well-being because we know God has accepted us; even during conflict or distress because we trust that God has everything in control.
  • Patience—ability to exercise restraint and calmly persevere in waiting on God; accepting consequences, endures the wrong of others, bears injuries and suffering while refusing to retaliate.
  • Kindness—treating others with openness, sensitivity, and love; Christ-like way of treating others with compassion, mercy, friendliness, and loyalty.
  • Goodness—able to know right from wrong, to do good to others, and to expose evil and injustice; work for social justice (must work hand-in-hand with kindness).
  • Faithfulness—unshakable loyalty to God; displayed by being trustworthy, reliable, and responsible, carrying out commitments to God and others.
  • Gentleness—demonstrating consideration and thoughtfulness; requires openness, humility, and a teachable spirit.
  • Self-control:  taking responsibility for one’s self and exercising discipline to avoid sin; resulting in a lifestyle appealing to God and bringing the support and power of the Holy Spirit to prevent and/or overcome excesses.

Wow!  Opening the fruit basket provided by the Holy Spirit is amazing, but I guarantee that each one of us who has known the life-sustaining qualities these fruits provide us already knows that.

When one looks back over this list of fruits, there are names of people in our lives who have exemplified them.  Apply a mental test and see just how many of these character qualities describe people you admire.  Compare them to others you have met who fail to exhibit these qualities.  Do you see who is Christian and who is not?

Now, take the mental test one step farther:  Which of these character traits describe you?  Have others complimented you for any of them?  Do you struggle with any of the traits?  How do you think these fruits have enhanced your life?

God through the Holy Spirit has given you a fruit basket.  You must open it or it will rot and go to waste.  You must take steps to keep it fresh and replenished or your life will feel empty.  This is one Christmas gift that requires opening on a daily basis.

Opening such an invaluable gift will sustain you, but it will also make it possible for God’s grace to expand even further.  Opening up the Holy Spirit’s fruit and using them will result in our giving God’s love to others.  It will make a difference in this world.

Others will see what a difference God makes.  It will provide grace to those who need God in their lives.  It will reflect what a difference Jesus makes in our lives so others can see God in us.  And, in time, we will transform the world by loving one another because we have opened up God’s gift given by the Holy Spirit.

Dear God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,

Thank you for the gifts you have given us.  They are gifts that transform lives.  The gift of your Son continues to give love to us.  The gift of the Holy Spirit is so personal and fills our world with fruit that overflows our basket and leaks out onto others.

Thank you for those around us who have shown us how to use the gifts each and every day.  The quality of these gifts are reflected in all that we do.  As we continue to unwrap your gifts, may others find their gifts, too.

Thank you, God, for those who teach us about your gifts.  Help us to learn more in an effort to guide others in opening their own gifts.  Use us this holiday season to deliver the gifts and make sure they are opened so others may be transformed, too.  –Amen.

Scripture:  9-10 What would be an adequate thanksgiving to offer God for all the joy we experience before him because of you? We do what we can, praying away, night and day, asking for the bonus of seeing your faces again and doing what we can to help when your faith falters.

     11-13 May God our Father himself and our Master Jesus clear the road to you! And may the Master pour on the love so it fills your lives and splashes over on everyone around you, just as it does from us to you. May you be infused with strength and purity, filled with confidence in the presence of God our Father when our Master Jesus arrives with all his followers.  –I Thessalonians 3:9-13. the MSG

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Telling the story: Jonah and the whale

given on Sunday, January 29, 2012

Telling the Story:  Jonah and the Whale

Jonah—all four books for the entire story

         What if. . .  This is one of those questions that simply keep coming to mind while reading Jonah.  Every time I stop to reflect on the story and the details, the same thoughts go racing through my head:  What if?

The story of a man being thrown overboard and scooped up by a fish and then thrown up on a beach simply defies reason.  To find the lesson in Jonah’s story one must get past the story itself.  The sensational, unbelievable record of events almost destroys the significance of the lesson.     This is the problem with Jonah’s autobiographical story even if he was an identified, accredited prophet of the time.  References to him appear as early as 2 Kings 14:25 and later in Matthew 12:39-41.         Jonah was not a sorcerer or soothsayer just shouting out strange predictions.  He was identified as a Jewish prophet.

Why, then, does the story continue to baffle us and cause us to avoid it rather than learn from it?  It goes right back to the problem of the fish.  In our 21st century world, the idea of being swallowed by a big fish—which is in all likelihood a whale—just defies all our scientific knowledge.  The big “What if” really gets in the way of the story’s message.

In an effort to get past the story’s fantasy element, I found that the “What if” needed to be addressed.  What if the honest report by Jonah himself is true?  What if the big fish were something other than a whale, for instance a porpoise?  What if the story were written like science fiction rather than a factual report?  What if Jonah was afraid that the lesson would not be heard unless he had a tall tale to explain it?

When all the “What if” questions are listed and acknowledged, the lesson of the story does not change.  Remember that the Old Testament has served as the textbook for the Israelites.  It is the history book, the law book, the literature book, the medical journal, and the sociological reference text.  Everything that the young people were taught was based on the writings we now refer to as the Old Testament.  The teachers were the priests as well as their parents who were taught the same lessons.

Maybe the whale was a porpoise that lifted Jonah up out of the depths of the sea and guided him back to shore.  Maybe Jonah used a tall, tall tale to get the attention of the listeners/readers.  Maybe Jonah is the first entry into science fiction as a genre.  Maybe Jonah’s story is factual because God is capable of supernatural events(one resource suggested that the acid from the fish’s stomach turned Jonah’s hair and garments bright white).  The point is that the story’s theme, the main idea, or the lesson to learn is the same regardless of how the story is told.

The main idea is that when God calls you, you should answer.  As I read through the resource materials, one line jumped out at me—especially after last week’s lesson to look at problems through God’s eyes.  The phrase that captured my attention was “when you run away from God.”  Those few words are not the key verse from the book, which most resources report as Jonah 4:11 . . .

But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”   (the NIV)

The story itself seems to have this overarching theme—you cannot run away from God.

Whether you read the King James Version, the Message, the New International Version or even the Apologetics version, all focus on the purpose of God sending Jonah to Nineveh and on Jonah’s attempt to get away from doing what God told him to do.  Everything in the story demonstrates what happens when you run away from God.  Even the verb run can be changed and the message remains the same—try walk, turn, swim, sneak, slide, avoid, hide, ignore.  The fact is that if you turn away from God, you cannot escape his attention.

God is omniscient.  He knows all.  He can do anything.  But he also gave us free will.  What we do with all that we have is our choice, but when you turn away from God there are consequences.  As parents we can see this is a concrete manner when we think of how we try to teach our children right and wrong.  We protect them, but we also have to let them go.  When we witness them making a mistake, can we fix it?

As parents we might be able to stop a problem before it happens, but many times we cannot.  In fact, some parenting means allowing the children to take a risk and accept the consequences in order to learn the lesson.  The experience may cause us heartache and pain, but we cannot always assure our kids safety.  We cannot live their lives, even if they do turn away from our guidance.

God is our parent.  He watches over us, he guides us, and he wants us to follow him throughout our earthly lives.  When we step away from Him, he knows.  He surely experiences the same heartache we do in a similar situation.  Imagine when he watched Nineveh turn away from Him and become corrupt.  He held on to hope that they would correct their errant ways, but he needed a voice to get their attention.

Jonah, a respected Jewish prophet, was called to serve as God’s spokes person in Nineveh.  Surely someone who has spoken for God would be a good choice to send to Nineveh.  Jonah was experienced and God knew he would listen to his call.  But Jonah ran away from God.

Running away from God does not work!  Jonah shows us what happened to him.  What a frightful mess!  Regardless of what the method, Jonah was washed back up on shore and knew he had to go to Nineveh.  The task God called him to do had to be done, so Jonah did it.

Nineveh was totally out of control.  Corruption was rampant and everything evil.  The Jewish people did not want anything to do with the Assyrian people.  They were not Jewish, they were Gentiles and if their evil ways destroyed themselves, so be it.  But now Jonah followed God’s direction and did go to Nineveh.  And Nineveh heard Jonah’s message and repented.

One would think that the story would end there—a job well done.   Oh no, Jonah was not pleased.  He disagreed with God’s decision not to punish the people of Nineveh.  He thought that the evil behaviors and corruption needed punishing; so when God showed mercy towards the people, he took off and fumed.

Despite all the success Jonah had in Nineveh, he was dissatisfied.  He did not understand how forgiveness works.  He was human and disagreed with God.  God’s acceptance of the repentance of Ninevites demonstrates the power of love.  As parents, we accept our kids’ repentance; so we should be able to understand God’s acceptance.  We welcome them back into our fold/family.  Jonah had to experience a personal lesson out in the desert to complete the lesson.

Even though he ran away a second time because he was disgruntled with God’s decision to love the Ninevites, God demonstrated the lesson with the vine and the worm.  This leads to the key verse as a conclusion to Jonah’s story of what if you run away from God:

10-11God said, “What’s this? How is it that you can change your feelings from pleasure to anger overnight about a mere shade tree that you did nothing to get? You neither planted nor watered it. It grew up one night and died the next night. So, why can’t I likewise change what I feel about Nineveh from anger to pleasure, this big city of more than 120,000 childlike people who don’t yet know right from wrong, to say nothing of all the innocent animals?”  (the Message)

We all have our personal Jonah story.  What if God called you to share your story with your enemy, would you?  Maybe you do not think you know any Ninevites; but if you stop and review your history, I bet you can spot them.  Could they be old neighbors?  Could they be a different ethnic group?  Could they be those in a different social or financial category?  Could they be a different political party?  Could they be ex’s?  Could they be the black sheep in your family?

God calls us to tell our story and to love one another.  What if we really did that literally?  Would telling the story and demonstrating the unconditional love that God provides us transform this world?   Evil and corruption are next door to us as well as on the opposite side of the globe from us.  Do we want to continue living quietly in our homes protecting ourselves from the influences of the world?  Or do we want to do all that we can for all those we can in all the different ways that we can in order to transform the world?

Jonah’s story teaches us.  The way the story is told does not have to be scientifically based; we just have to see that it is the same story then as it can be today.  God calls us to love one another in order to transform the world.  If we run away from God’s call, then evil and corruption win.  Our challenge today is to identify our own Ninevites and then figure out how to tell them the story in a way that transforms their own lives, too.

Dear Omniscient God,

You know our lives, our hearts, and our dreams.

You have given us skills and talents to use

In telling your story to others living in darkness.

Guide us to open our hearts and minds

That we might learn how to tell our stories.

Help us to turn our fears, hesitations, and uncertainties

Into a story of God’s love in action.

Amen.

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