Thursday, March 27, 2014

Winter Storms, Spring Sun

     In the mountains, winter never leaves without a fight.  We have had some beautiful sunny days, with lovely cumulus clouds and warm breezes.  We sigh in relief and say, "Spring is finally here."  The hills have the green tint of grass and an occasional flower has poked up its little face to the sun.  Yet, today, BOOM!  Snow and wind and rain and more snow.  Winter has adamantly reasserted itself.  The clouds are veiled in shimmering dove grays and white and the snow line has dropped down as if December is back.
    I look anxiously at the primroses I planted in pots last week, hoping the very cold temperatures do not doom them to an early demise.  The bulbs I planted last spring are just poking up their thin green stalks, and I worry that winter may slap them silly and they won't make it.
    Yet, God's creation tells of His character: 
The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
    no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
    their words to the ends of the world (Psalm 19)

    God's creation speaks of Who He is, and how much He is involved with His world.  So, what is this season saying to us of His character?

     The cold may test us, but the sun always breaks through:  Yes, the snow and rain is unpleasant, especially if you have already felt the warmth of the sun, but the sun will eventually stay.  Time captures us and we chafe under its yoke, wanting winter to pass quickly and spring to stay.  It's easy to believe in Him when the sun is shining warmly on your face.  Yet, look at His creation:  the plants start to come up from their winter sleep because just enough sun has warmed the soil.  They rise in expectation of warmer days to come.  They rise because God keeps His promises:  the sun will break through, and the cold grip of winter will loosen.  Spring is a promise He keeps year after year.
     If you are in the winter of your life, He keeps His promises to stand by you in the storm, and to part the clouds.  The Son will break through and will rewarm your spirit.  Winter does pass:  

"See! The winter is past;
    the rains are over and gone.
12 Flowers appear on the earth;
    the season of singing has come,
the cooing of doves
    is heard in our land" (Song of Solomon).

     Hard, cold and blustery rain is necessary for growth.  I just visited some friends in Nevada where the rainfall is so minimal that even though a lot of soil is present, very little in the way of plant life is evident.  I saw hardly any green because the Washoe Basin is in the "rain shadow" of the Sierras.  Rain does fall--the huge amount of snow in the Sierras attests to that--but the storms cannot surmount the high summits of the peaks and the rain stays on the California side of the mountains, and barely makes it over to the Nevada side.   So, while I look outside my window at the blustery day we are having, with its cold wind and snowy rain, it is this very water that will supply the soil with moisture that will bring forth wildflowers and grass.  Growth requires rain and warmth.
     It is never easy to stand in a storm.  But that same rain that falls on your face is also falling on your faith:  it will bring growth.  He reminds us:  "Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deut. 31:6).

     Finally, keep singing.  The meadow larks are in full song right now.  The air is cold, the mountains are gray and the ground is cold and wet, and yet, listen...a meadow lark sings a praise chorus over the land.  The birds do not cease singing when the sun ceases shining.  If anything, the song adds a sweetness to the day.  The larks sing, knowing deep in their hearts that the sunny days are coming.  The goldfinches outside my window are a mottled yellow, gray and white, but they bounce around the feeders.  They know that their beauty is coming and in a few weeks, they will be golden jewels.  God put the song in their hearts for us to hear and be reminded of His work in us.  We may be mottled in plumage but we can still sing. 
     Watch and see what the Lord will do.   Meanwhile, here's what you can do:

"Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.
Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.
Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.
And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things" (Phil. 4).

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Do the Math! The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

    In studying the parables, I like to look at what Jesus is teaching before the story.  In Matthew 18, Jesus calls a little child whose humility demonstrates what is essential for greatness in heaven.  He denounces those who would cause these "little ones" to sin  and how if any part of you causes you to sin, get rid of it.  He continues with "See that you do not look down on one of these little ones," and how their angels in heaven are always watchful.  He tells a parable about a man who diligently searches for one sheep who has wandered off from the flock, and how His Father is "not willing that any of these little ones should be lost."
     Wow.  Children, who are the weakest members of any society, have a special place in Jesus' heart.  Their love and faith brings a smile to the Father's heart, and they become a model for us.  Jesus then starts to teach about if a brother sins against you, what are you to do?  Most people do not have that child-like humility, and if we want to serve Him, forgiveness must be part of our daily lives.  Listen to Jesus' plan of restoration:  “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’  If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector."
     We are obligated to tell our brother or sister about their sin--not an easy task, but essential for the Kingdom of God to function on a sin-corrupted planet.  In fact, before Jesus goes on to talk of the power we have to loosen or to bind, we have to be forgiving.  
     We have to see sin for what it is:  it binds people, it blinds people, and it confines people.  We have to handle the sinner with wisdom and compassion, knowing their soul is in danger. Why?  We have the power of God, but it is to be used for the Kingdom, not pridefully, but to warn, love and forgive:  "Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.   Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
     Another wow. We have His presence, His power and His prerogative. I am sure that the disciples are feeling quite empowered at this point... Look at what we can do! We have this amazing power, brought to us by the Son of God! We are humbled and yet, look at what we can do!      Stop. Peter, whose sensitivity to Jesus is quite profound, realizes that with all this power comes responsibility. He suddenly feels some urging by the Spirit. He is probably harboring some anger or hurt at a fellow believer, and senses the incompatibility between his sin and Jesus' words: "Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, 'Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?' Jesus answered, 'I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.'"  

    You have the power to bind and to loosen, but the greatest power you can unlease on behalf of the Kingdom is forgiveness.   
     Then Jesus tells this parable: 

     “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.  As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him.  Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
     At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
     But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
    His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
     But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.  When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
     Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.  Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 

     In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.  This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
     Jesus is saying that forgiveness is not based on the level of the offense itself, how much it has hurt you or how much remorse (or lack thereof) has been shown by the one who has transgressed.  The standard of forgiveness is Who is offended:  God Himself.  
     The king takes what people owe him very seriously.  One of his servants owes him a lot and Levitical law allows for such a person to be sold off for seven years, to pay the debt.  It is the modern equivalent to the bank repossessing your house or car due to non-payment.   
    The next servant sees the king's righteous judgment against the first servant.  He senses the king's judicious ruling and begs for mercy.  He wants to pay the debt but needs more time.   The king goes even further than that: He cancels the debt altogether.  The servant walks out a free man.  It is the king to whom he owed and it is the king that forgives the debt.  The king is satisfied and so should the servant be as well.
     But nooooo.  The servant goes out and finds another servant who owes him a far lesser amount.  He chokes the guy, aggressively demanding money.   This guy also begs for time.  If the forgiven servant is debt-free, then why is he so aggressive?  The money owed to him is his own; he need not use it to pay the king.  He has the guy thrown into jail--no mercy, no time extension, no willingness to extend any grace.  The parable could have ended there.
     The king reenters the scene, due to the other servants telling him of this servant's aggressive action.  The king quickly hunts this servant down, for the servant's meanness is a transgression ultimately against the king.  The king's mercy is to be evinced in how this servant treats others.  The servant's unmerciful attitude is thwarting the values of the king.  The king is angry and reminds him of just how large the debt was and how much mercy this servant thus received.
     When we forgive, we must keep our debt in mind as we examine the debt owed to us by someone else.  We have been forgiven much...our King paid the debt we owe with His life.  Yes, we have been hurt, wronged, violated...but when we compare the enormity of the mercy He gives us, what others owe us is rather small. 
    Jesus cried out to forgive the very ones who had nailed Him to the cross.  He forgave the Romans, the Jews and, you and me. 
   We have every right to demand payment from the ones who hurt us. But as we look into the face of the King upon the cross, we need to hear the words:  "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
    We have been forgiven much.  Now, go out and bring the Kingdom of God's mercy to others.

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