Sweetwater Presbyterian

Small in size, Big in Faith and Love

Gifted By God


Have you ever considered that the Lone Ranger was not really alone? He had his loyal indian, Tonto with him all the time. Robinson Caruso had his man Friday. Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway had a volley ball he named Wilson who became his trusty companion. The point being that God does not ever ask us to do things, ‘all on our own’. When it comes to the work of the church, God gathers us in community so that we are not alone, so we don’t have to do it all. If we follow the edicts of God, there are no ‘Lone Rangers’ when it comes to doing God’s work.
From the beginnings of the stories of God’s people it becomes obvious that God intends for us to be ‘part’ of the community of faith. Adam was not alone for very long when God realized he needed a companion - the actual Hebrew word means ‘help mate’. Noah had a family to help him, Abraham and Sarah had a myriad of servants to work with him, Jacob had 12 sons who did his work, Jeremiah had Baruch - we could continue on with every one of the ‘heroes’ we read about; all had people who traveled with them and who helped them in the work God gave them to do. None were ever asked to do it all by themselves.
In the scripture passage we read this morning from the book of Exodus, we read about
Moses. Moses was the leader God called to shepherd the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt. Remember the story: The people of God had lived in a beautiful, lush valley in Egypt for many hundreds of years. The Pharaoh of Egypt realized they were there and became nervous that such a large group of people could easily organize and take over the country. He also needed storage houses built to keep all his ‘stuff’. So he figured he could kill two birds with one stone by making these Hebrews his slaves - as slaves he would then have them under his control and they would be less likely to rebel and he would get his store houses built!
After suffering as slaves, the Hebrews cried out to God who called Moses to go to Egypt and free them. After several ‘discussions’ with Pharaoh and some miracles by God, Pharaoh agrees to let the people go and Moses begins to lead them through the sea and into the wilderness to ‘the promised land’ - a land God would give them for their very own where they could live together in peace as God’s people. But it was an arduous journey - these Hebrews had never lived in the desert before, they didn’t know how to survive on their own, they had never traveled and so this was all new for them and the leadership and guidance all fell on the shoulders of Moses. Not only was Moses trying to get this huge crowd of people to travel in new territory, to make sure they had food and water and what they needed, making sure that all was well when they set up camp and that they had everyone and everything when they broke camp and moved on, but he also found himself arbitrating disputes between the people.
After all these are just people, everyday people put into a new and often difficult situation, and what happens when people in these circumstances have to live closely together with other people? There are going to be issues between people and families and between families and other families and people and other people. Moses not only had to make sure the traveling part was going well, but he also became the one everyone went to to settle their disputes. So as you can imagine, Moses was worn out. He’s the travel director, the spiritual leader, and the counselor for all these travelers off on this long journey - about 2.4 million people.
At one point during the trip, the Israelites set up camp and found themselves camped close to where Moses’ father in law, Jethro, lived. So Jethro came over to visit Moses and spend some time with him. Very quickly Jethro sees all that Moses is trying to get done and says to him, “Moses, you can’t continue to do all this by yourself. You need some help. You have all these capable people around you who aren’t doing anything - let them help you.” And Moses’ answer was sort of something along the lines of “This is just the way it has always been and I really hadn’t ever considered any other way.

But you are right, I am getting rather tired!” So Jethro came up with a plan for Moses to choose leaders from the people and have the leaders be in charge of a certain number of people. Those leaders would then take care of ‘their’ people and only would go to Moses if there were problems the leaders couldn’t handle. This would drastically reduce Moses’ work load and make for a more efficient way for the Hebrews to continue on their journey through the desert and to the promised land. By dividing up the work load, more people became involved in this journey and no one had to do it all themselves.
This was a model that came to be used as God continued to work with his people. When it comes time to build the Tabernacle, God’s mobile church, they gather people with different talents and different gifts and different abilities and together the Tabernacle gets built. When it comes to build the second Temple, the one after the original one was destroyed, God gathered workers from within the Hebrew people with various gifts and abilities and talents to do the work - and together the Temple was built. On and on through the story of the people of God we see God assemble people together of various gifts and together they accomplish what God needs done.
We even see this same pattern as Jesus gathers his disciples. Andrew had a gift for bringing people to Jesus, Peter had a gift for leadership, John was the spiritual one, Matthew was a writer, Judas was the money keeper....... Each had different gifts and abilities that benefited the whole group. And it was God who brought them together so that they could accomplish the job God intended for them to do - to learn and become the leaders of this new life of living as followers of Jesus. So each contributed to the group as they were able - each used their own gifts for the benefit of the whole.
Look around. We are a particular community of faith in this particular location in this particular time. We are the church of Jesus Christ. We are all different. We come from different places and different backgrounds and different traditions. We have different experiences and different things we have learned. But yet we all fit here together. God has gathered us here
because we are all different. And by bringing our different perspectives and our different histories and our different abilities together, we are able to accomplish the work God puts before us - together.
The Apostle Paul probably puts it the best when he has us remember that we are called the ‘body’ of Christ. And we are just like a body - the body has ears and eyes and feet and hands and a mouth and a heart and a stomach and all those other body parts. Each body part is different, each has a different job. The ears hear and the eyes see and the feet walk and stand and the mouth talks and the skin feels and it is only because we have all these different parts that we can truly function and do anything. Paul says “What would happen if all we were was an ear, or an eye or skin? What could we accomplish? Nothing....”
And so it is with the church - the body of Christ. We are all different, we all have different gifts and we all have different abilities and because each of us uses our particular gifts for a common purpose, we are able to carry out what we need to do.
Look around - we all take a part, we all contribute, no one has to ‘go it alone’, no one has to feel like a Lone Ranger, no one has to feel the pressure of ‘doing it all’ because just like Jethro when to Moses and said, “Let some other people help you!”, God says to us - “I gathered you together as my church, as my people. I collected those whom I knew could do my work. I gave you the gifts and talents and abilities you would need, and I gave you a purpose to fulfill in this community. I gave you each other - to work and live and love together. Each doing what they are able to do”
And it is together that we live out God’s will for us and this church.


Advent: The Refiners Fire

Advent: A Refiners Fire

Advent marks the beginning of a new church year and begins four Sundays prior to Christmas Day. During this season, the church prepares for the coming of Christ. While we make ready for the baby to be born in Bethlehem, this season is also designed to help us think beyond the birth and even beyond the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, to that time of expectancy when the Day of Christ will appear, when Jesus will return and the reign of God will begin over a new heaven and a new earth. Our waiting in anticipation during Advent in many ways is practice for our time of waiting when Jesus will return in all his glory, when the trumpets will blast and all eyes will look heavenward to see Jesus.
During Advent, familiar people and familiar stories return to our lives as we are awakened out of that long season of Ordinary Time - it is time to get ready; it is time to think of new possibilities; it is time begin to consider the hope and peace and joy and love that are associated with this season. It is time to prepare for the one who can make that hope and peace and joy and love a reality in our lives right now, in this life. Advent is so much more than just listening to the stories of Mary and Joseph and shepherds and angels, Advent is about anticipating the coming of the savior of the world - and how that affects our life. Advent is not just a time to sing Christmas Carols but to really consider what this time is all about and why God planned tings the way he did and what effect that has on us and the world around us.
Advent is not a time for passive waiting and watching. It is a time of opening up our lives to the call to “Get Ready”, “Prepare” for the newborn King is on his way.
And who better to jolt us out of our complacency than John the Baptist. We usually don’t think about John the Baptist as being part of the Christmas Story because John’s story takes place when Jesus is grown and is getting ready to begin his ministry. But the reason John is always included in the Advent story is because his message typifies the idea of the Advent.
About 30 years after the birth of Jesus, John appears one day on the banks of the Jordan River, a few miles from Jerusalem, and he begins to preach - “Prepare the way of the Lord!” . In Chapter 3, Matthew tells us that John’s message was
11 ‘I baptise you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’
Now I don’t know about you, but those words are pretty scary and don’t sound much like our Christmas story with a cute little baby, and angels and shepherds and peaceful nights….. In the ways of John the Baptist the coming of the Christ is something that strikes people with ‘fear and trembling’. In Malachi, the coming of the Messiah is called a ‘great and dreadful day” But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver - ever think of Christmas as a ‘dreadful day’ - not dreadful in the sense that you are worried you haven’t gotten everything done; all the presents bought and wrapped, all the decorations up, Christmas Cards sent, food gathered and prepared— but a dreadful day when you are under the threat of being put in a refiner’s fire!
Now a refiner’s fire is not a fire like a forest fire that burns everything in its path. A refiner’s fire is a fire that uses bellows to pump oxygen into the fire when makes the fire get as hot as possible, then the silver melts and the impurities rise to the top where they are skimmed off and thrown away. What is left is pure refined silver.
This doesn’t sound like a very comfortable process. Being heated up to 1700 degrees and melted and then having something scraped off doesn’t sound very pleasant and if this is what Advent is all

about then I don’t think I’d be too happy about this season. But that is how this anticipation, this waiting is presented to us as we understand what scripture teaches.
“Prepare yourselves” John the Baptist says, “Get ready for the coming of the Messiah because he is going to be like the refiner’s fire and we are going to be like the silver…” Makes you kind of wonder about Advent - We just want to decorate and light candles and sing Christmas Carols and go shopping… And then John the Baptist erupts into our lives and tells us to approach this Messiah with fear and trembling; prepare yourself because you are about to be refined like silver - the great and dreadful day of the Lord is coming!
Malachi not only says that we will refined like silver, but we will be scrubbed with lye soap. I don’t know whether you have been scrubbed with lye soap, but it is a very uncomfortable experience!
I had a grandmother who was obsessed with cleanliness. When I would go to her house, I admit I would get dirty. I’d play down by the river and in the dirt up behind her house and at the end of the day she would put me in this really hot water in a claw foot bath tub and get out her bar of lye soap and this old bristle scrub brush and she would scrub the dirt off and at least the top two layers of skin - or that is what it felt like. I dreaded that time in the bathtub.
Prepare the way of the Lord - and what that means is that we are to be refined in the fire; we are to be scrubbed down and then you will be ready for the coming of the Lord.
The idea of Advent is being the idea of being prepared, being made ready, and not just for the coming of the Lord on Christmas, but the purpose of Advent is to make us think about that time when the Jesus will come again - that time we call “The Second Coming”. When Jesus will come back and declare his Kingdom here on earth for ever and for ever. The passage we read form Matthew earlier speaks of this time when Christ will come again. Jesus warns that this day will take the whole world by surprise. As in Noah’s time, people will be going about their everyday business - eating and drinking, marrying and having families, working and playing with no awareness of God’s impending judgment Jesus says they will be like a house owner who fails to anticipate when the burglar is going to break in. Jesus says that not even the angels or even Jesus himself knows when this coming Day of the Lord is going to happen but we should be prepared. Because Jesus says, those who are prepared will be saved and those who are not will be perish.
Remember that the birth of the Messiah, 2000 years ago, was just as much a surprise to the people as Jesus talks about the time when he will return. 2000 years ago God’s people weren’t ready - even though they had all the information they needed to recognize the coming of the baby Jesus, even thought they had been anticipating this event since the time of Moses, they had become complacent and lax in their relationship with God and that is why, according to John the Baptist, they were unable to recognize the Messiah when he arrived.
And how are we prepared? By submitting to the refiners fire and allowing God to scrub us down with lye soap; by realizing that Advent is not about sitting back and just waiting, but about dedicating ourselves to work with God to allow him to get us ready. Our life with Christ is all about transformation; of allowing ourselves to be transformed to become more Christlike. And it isn’t easy; it takes fire and lye soap as God removes the impurities in our lives and scrubs us down to rid ourselves of our selfishness. That is what Advent is to be - a time to make up our mind to allow ourselves be transformed.
We are all on a journey. A journey to be more like Christ; to grow in our understanding of who God calls us to be as his children; of learning what it means to be a witness to the love and grace of Jesus Christ showered upon us. This process is not going to happen on its own. It is not going to happen by us just sitting back and waiting; of anticipating its happening. It takes a refiners fire; it takes a scrubbing down, it takes a time of hearing and listening and preparation - preparation of our very selves just like we prepare our homes and our sanctuaries for the coming of the Messiah at Christmas.
Advent is a new beginning and new beginnings are good times for us to start. So in anticipation of the coming of Jesus, let’s truly own those words of John the Baptist - let us Prepare for the coming of the Lord because if we prepare; if we work on getting ourselves ready then it won’t be a day to fear; it won’t be a dreaded day - but a day where we can truly experience the hope, peace , joy and love of the Messiah.

What is good?

What is Good?

Imagine a story so powerful that it would make a man with three doctoral degrees (one, in medicine, one in theology and one in philosophy) leave civilization with all of its culture and amenities and depart to the jungles of darkest Africa? Imagine a story that so transformed a man who was recognized as one the the most talented concert organists in all of Europe that he would go to a place where there were no organs to play. What story would so motivate a man that he would give up a teaching position in Vienna, Austria, at one of the most prestigious schools in Europe, to go and deal with people who were so deprived that they were still living in the superstitions of the dark ages. What would make a man give up the luxury of being honored and celebrated and wealthy to give up his life for the betterment of a people he didn’t even know. This man was Dr. Albert Schweitzer and the single story that so radically altered his life was a parable Jesus told. According to Dr Schweitzer, the parable we read this morning of the Rich Man and Lazarus was that story. Albert Schweitzer read that parable and saw the Rich Man in himself and that was not who he wanted to be, so he gave it all up and left the life that he knew, the life the world considered successful, and went to live with the truly unfortunate - those who lived in the the despairs of poverty - intellectual, physically and spiritually.
The Rich Man and Lazarus saw each other every day. Of course there would be no contact between them because if the Rich Man touched Lazarus he would become unclean and that would be most inconvenient since the Rich Man would then need to to to the temple and sacrifice something and then go through the required ritual washings. Every day as the Rich Man walked out of his gate, he would see Lazarus sitting there, starving, covered in sores and the Rich Man would hold back his robes to make sure that he completely avoided this poor beggar.
The Rich man was a man of comfortable living. He was not ‘rich’ in the Bill Gates sort of rich, but rich in our middle class sort of rich. He had a home and lived comfortably not really wanting for anything. He was self-indulgent and if we are honest most of us are. The Rich Man was a connoisseur, a love of the arts, one who knew and appreciated the ‘nice’ things in life, he enjoyed the nice restaurant, the great vacation. The Rich Man dressed in purple - this is point out because purple was only worn by those who could afford it and few could. His underwear was made of linen- again just another way of letting us know that the Rich man lives a comfortable life. The Rich Man has enough food that he can give leftovers to the dogs in his house.
The difference between these two men is made as obvious as possible as Jesus tells the story. Lazarus, in contrast to the Rich Man, is homeless. he is a cripple. He barely survived day to day, living off the scraps of food people throw him - less food that the dogs in the Rich Man’s house. He is covered in sores and is so helpless that he can’t even fight off the dogs who come each day and lick his sores.
Both men die. And we are told that Lazarus goes to heaven where he is held and comforted in the arms of Abraham and the Rich Man goes to hell where he is in torment. But I want you to think about this story not as an indictment against the Rich man; this is not a story condemning the Rich Man because he was rich - it was a story condemning the Rich Man because he was so self-absorbed he couldn’t see the needs of Lazarus and was unwilling to give his precious crumbs for this poor fella. But what I really want you to see is this is a story of hope; hope for Lazarus who suffered his whole life and ends up on the comforting arms of God, never again to suffer, to to be in pain or to be hungry. It is a reminder for us that no matter how bad things may be, we have hope. That even if we don’t live a ‘comfortable’ life, we are a people of hope. That is all Lazarus had - was hope. He had no security other than to know that God loved him - and in the end Lazarus will be the one with eternal security.

A little note here on the definition of the word ‘hope’. We think of hope in the context of wishing. I ‘hope’ it won’t rain tomorrow - meaning “I wish it won’t rain because I want to go on a picnic’ or “I hope that paycheck gets deposited so I can pay my bills.” or something along those lines. For us ‘hope’ means something we desire should happen. But in the wording of scripture, the word ‘hope’ means something that is promised. When we say “Our hope is in Jesus” we are saying that in Jesus we are promised that we will be with him forever. Remember the hymn “Our hope is built on nothing less that Jesus blood and righteousness”. While Jesus is something we desire, we don’t have to worry about whether or not it is true. We desire it not to rain, but it still might because we have no control over the weather. But our ‘hope’ being in Jesus means that we are promised, we are assured’ that our eternity rests in Jesus. So keep that in mind and whenever you read the word ‘hope’ in the Bible substitute the word ‘promised’. Our ‘promises’ are in Jesus Christ - so we don’t have to wish for them and wonder if they are going to happen - we are promised and that is what our faith is based on - it is truly believing that we are promised, what we hope, is true. Believing with every fiber of your being that what we know about the love and grace of Jesus is true - and that like Lazarus some day we will end up in heaven in the comforting arms of God. Not a ‘hope’ in our definition of the word - but an assurance.
The Jeremiah story we read today is also about hope. It is an example of what true hope is really all about. The story goes like this: Jeremiah is called by God to tell Israel that they have messed up to the point that God is going to let them suffer the consequences of their disobedience to God. The people of God have just gotten lazy and complacent. Like the Rich Man in our story before, the people of Israel have everything they need - food, shelter, all the creature comforts that make you feel like you are secure in what you have. And when you have everything you need, God is just less important. The Rich Man went through the motions of doing everything he thought he was suppose to do, he went to Temple, he participated in the feasts and festivals required by God and so did the Israelites. They were doing all the right things; they did everything they were suppose to do. But their heart just wasn’t in it. Their hearts and their loyalty were somewhere else. And that isn’t good enough for God - God wants our whole attention; God wants first place in our lives. And when that doesn’t happen, God will allow us fall. And that is what Jeremiah is telling the Israelites - ‘Because of your nonchalant attitude, I am going to let Babylon come in and take you captive and take you back to Babylon and turn you into slaves’ because God knows that when that happens you will realize where your help really is - in God.
But then God tells Jeremiah to buy a plot of land. Why would you buy a plot of land if you knew you were about be captured and taken away to another country? Because this was God’s way of showing them that God will restore them back to their land - God will bring them hope again. This plot of land because a symbol of their hope - the promises of God to never give up on his people. Once they realize that is truly important in life, God will bring them home.
God knows what really is good for our lives. God knows what will bring us peace and contentment and a true feeling of purpose and self worth. God knows that the only real good is in him and when we put our trust in him - and him alone.
That is a really hard thing to do. We don’t understand it; we have been taught that our security is in what we work for and what we earn and in what we do - so all of our energy and thought and work goes into we ‘we’ do. But God says - if you really want a good life, just trust in me. You’ll have everything you need and you will be able to live a truly happy, contented, peaceful life and you will be held in my arms for all eternity.
Dr. Albert Schweitzer never looked back. He left everything that made him secure; gave up everything he had and went to Africa to be faithful to what God had done for him. He knew his hope - the promises of his life - was in following Jesus. And that is all that mattered.
What is good? What is a good life? Putting things in the right perspective and knowing for sure that our hope is in Jesus and nothing else.

Reformation Sunday


Background Information

The year 2017 marks 500 years since a monk in Germany, Martin Luther, published his 95 theses or complaints against the Catholic Church and launched the Protestant Reformation, a momentous religious revolution whose consequences we still live with today. The Reformation divided the church into Catholic and Protestant and transformed millions of people’s understanding of their relationship with God.
It was Oct 31 this reformation began. Today, every year, is recognized as Reformation Sunday - the Sunday closest to Oct 31. But this year is a special celebration - this year is the 500th anniversary of that great occurrence which created for us the ability to worship as we do today; created for us the means to be able to understand God as a God of grace.
Our service today will honor God as we recall the events of this reformation centered about the three men who made the biggest difference for us. Because we recognize that it is only through God’s work, God’s guidance, God’s inspiration, could these reformer have done what they were able to accomplish.
Let us celebrate today, God’s great work, in reforming His church.

The History Behind the Reformation - Martin Luther

Before we begin this look at the Reformation, I want to remind you that the Catholic Church of the time leading up to the Reformation, is not the Catholic Church of today. After the Reformation, the Catholic Church itself, took a long hard look at itself and corrected many of the abuses that brought about the Reformation. The Catholic Church of today in many ways is the reformed Catholic Church.
But we have to talk about the Catholic Church in order to understand the Reformation and the work of Martin Luther. From the beginning of the church after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, there was just one church. We are use to umpteen denominations and independent churches and big box churches. In the beginning there was only one. If you went to church, you went to a Catholic Church. That was your only option. The Pope was in control of the church and whatever the Pope said was done. Also we have to know that the Catholic Church controlled most of the governments in Europe.
So here you have a church that has so much power - it controls all of Christianity and it controls the political governments. Now what happens when you have that much power? Power corrupts - even if it is the Pope; even if it is a man of God; power corrupts.
The Pope decides to build the Vatican and of course to build something that elaborate you need money. So the church came up with all these clever ways to raise money. Being a part of the church and getting to heaven became about money. I won’t go into all the ways the church took money from people, but the biggest money maker was selling of what was called indulgences. An indulgence was a piece of paper that said you could go to heaven. The church convinced people, remember there were no Bibles then for people to read so they only knew what the priests told them, that in order to get to heaven they had to have this piece of paper. And if you didn’t have that piece of paper on you when you died, you went straight to hell. So not only would you buy your piece of paper, your family members would buy pieces of paper for you just in case; and they would buy pieces of paper for already deceased family members, just in case and the Catholic Church was rolling in dough while the general public was living in poverty because they were spending all their disposable income trying to buy their way to heaven.
That practice, along with a lot of other distortions of what the Bible taught, defined the Church the first of the church into the 1500s.
Then, a young monk named Martin Luther because a university professor at Whittenburg University in Germany. Because he was a professor, he was allowed to actually read the Bible. And it was eye opening to him and he realized that the teachings of the church, especially this idea of indulgences, was contrary to what the Bible teaches. He, in fact, found 95 things the Catholic Church was doing contrary to God’s word.

He wrote these down, nailed them to the door of Whittenburg Church.
And in a side note and in a wonder of how God works things together, this was the same time and the same place Gutenberg invented the printing press so he prints these 95 these and circulates them. Needless to say the Catholic Church is pretty upset and making a long story short, Luther is excommunicated and people began to leave the Catholic Church and follow the teachings of Luther - and the protestant church is begun.
Luther also translated the Bible into German, which Gutenberg printed, and now the normal person could read scripture for themselves. They began to understand the concept of Grace and their ability to pray to God which they never thought they could do. This was a radical change in people’s understanding of their relationship with God and why you can sit here today and know that you are showered with the Grace of God, able to pray whenever you want and knowing that your relationship with God has nothing to do with how much money you give the church.

More Reformation History - John Calvin

A few years after Luther had begun his great reforms, a young priest in France also gained access to scripture and began to read it for himself. He read the writings of Martin Luther and understand what Luther was teaching was a true representation of God’s teaching.
So John Calvin leaves the Catholic Church and writes what is known as Calvin’s Institutes where he takes what the Bible teaches and gleans from it what God teaches about himself and how we, as God’s people, are called to understand and how we are to live and work as God’s people and how we are to function together as the church. Calvin’s reforms had a sweeping influence on this new Protestant Church. It is because of Calvin that we worship the way we do, that we govern ourselves as we do.

The Story of the Reformation Continues: John Knox

A young Scottish priest of the Church of England through a set of circumstances which could only have been orchestrated by God, ended up in Geneva where he met and began to study under John Calvin. Knox took what he learned from Calvin back to Scotland where he fought not only the Catholic Church which had taken over Scotland from the Church of England through the leadership of Mary, Queen of Scots but Mary herself. iKnox was able to fight for and win the Reformation of the church in Scotland where the Presbyterian Church became the national church of Scotland and from there moved to the United States. We are here in this church today worshipping under the grace of God because Luther stood up for what he believed in, Calvin took Luther’s teachings and worked them into a theology and Knox took that information and began the church we know today.

Competing Voices


There are so many voices in our world today telling us what to do and what to buy and what to think and even how to understand God. And if you listen to all these voices you will just be spinning around in circles. We hear one thing today and next week or next year we will hear exactly the opposite. We just get to the place where we really don’t know what to do or what to think; who do you listen to?
Sometimes we think that this problem of competing voices is something that only has happened in our day and time. We are inundated with competing voices from a variety of sources and it does make it difficult for us to know what to think and do and who to trust. But it is not anything new. Most of the letters that we find in the New Testament written by the Apostle Paul have to do with discerning what voices to listen to.The Apostle Paul would just get a church up an running and have them in what scripture calls ‘right thinking’. He would think all was going well and would move on to another church and right behind him were traveling groups who would come into those churches and try to convince them that what Paul had taught them was wrong and they needed to think differently. Confused the people would contact Paul - which would take longer back then with no email or texting or twittering and spotty mail service - and ask him what to do. Paul would always respond and often very curtly and sometimes even angrily and always with frustration! These are the letters we find in the New Testament. We even have recorded that he lost some churches to these false teachers who gave in to the competing voices.
Before Paul Jesus contended with the same issue. The religious leaders were teaching the Jews their own ‘brand’ of what God had said to them - their own interpretation of how God had said they should live and believe. Jesus tried to correct their wrong thinking and we see what happened to him....
All those prophets we find in the Old Testament - what were they all talking about? Their message was simple - quit listing to the people around you and get back to listening to what God really says! So we see that this has been a problem of competing voice has been around since the beginning of God’s people.
Which leads us to the account of what happened to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, To set the event up - Shadrack, Meshach and Abednego are friends of Daniel - of lion’s den fame. This takes place during the time when the Hebrew people have been captured and removed from Israel and taken to Babylon and made slaves. While most of the Hebrews became ‘outside’ slaves doing field work and such, some of the brighter young men had been taken into the palace of the king of Babylon and trained to work in the palace in a variety of positions. They were more than servants; these young men were actually taught to work in more administrative positions and as such became part of the kings court. They would work closely to the king, even eating with the king. Some of the previous employees in the palace became jealous of these boys and tried to think of ways to get rid of them. Their religion was the quickest way to attack. Up to this point, the king had been very impressed with the work and intelligence of these Hebrews so he allowed them to practice their faith as they needed to, including their dietary restrictions and their insistence of not working on the Sabbath. The first thing the opponents to the Hebrews did was to convince the king that there shouldn’t be ‘special diets’ and that everyone should eat like the king. The king, who was pretty weak and laid back, said ‘Sure!’ and so it became a law that everyone needed to eat what the King ate. The Hebrews refused and so they didn’t get eat at the dinner table. But God protected them and they became even stronger because they stuck by their principles. Since this didn’t work, the Hebrew opponents then convinced the King he was a god and that everyone should bow down to him and if they didn’t, they should be killed. The Hebrews wouldn’t bow down to the King and the King said, “Then you will have to die”. Daniel ends up in the lions den and Shadrack, Meshach and Abednego said, “OK, We would rather die than go against how our God has told us to live.”
The King is really, really mad now. So he sentences Shadrack, Meshach and Abednego to be thrown into the fiery furnace. The king is so mad that he orders the fiery furnace to be hotter than normal and it is so hot that the people who threw Shadrack, Meshach and Abednego into the furnace were burned up by the heat. It appears that the furnace was made such that the King could see into it and he is so mad at Shadrack, Meshach and Abednego he wants to watch them burn. But they don’t burn - he sees them walking around and to the King’s surprise, someone is walking around with them. We know that this was one of several Old Testament appearances of Jesus - the Son of God. In the midst of the fiery furnace the shepherd was there.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for though art with me..... We are struggling this week with again an act of violence that just grieves us and makes us wonder about God - how could God allow such a thing to happen - people killed, people maimed, people now living in fear. First thing we have to understand - that as the people of God we don’t have the ‘why’ answers. We know that God loved us so much that he gave us free will - freedom to choose good or freedom to choose evil. God did not make us to be little robots who only do what God wants us to do. Then God gave us his word in scripture and says to us - “learn this and apply it to you life and if you do that then you will know how to live in peace with one another. And if you don’t listen to my words, if you choose to listen to the competing voices of those who don’t think my word is important or who twist my word to make it mean something it doesn’t, this is what you can expect in this world - evil and violence and a general disrespect for life.”
I want you to consider for a moment what would have happened if Shadrack, Meshach and Abednego had not survived the fiery furnace. Remember when they went in the furnace they were fully expecting to die. They had no expectation that they were gong to survive. Because they had faith that regardless of what happened, God would take care of them, they were willing to do it anyway.
This is a great thing that happened to Shadrack, Meshach and Abednego, surviving the fire, but what about the people who don’t survive? What about the people who are killed in senseless acts of violence - and certainly getting thrown in a fiery furnace is an act of violence just like bombs and shooters and those wielding knives. What about the people whose lives are changed forever because they are injured in a way that affects them for the rest of their life?
That’s when we need to hear the voice of the shepherd who says to us - I will give you everything you need, I will take you beside still waters, I will lay you in green pastors, I will restore your soul. So don’t live in fear. Nothing, nothing, will happen to you that I will not be there with you.
And while we don’t like to think about death, Jesus, the shepherd, our shepherd, tells us that even if that is what happens, even when we die, he will be there to hold us and guide us to a place with such a feeling of joy and worship and singing and no more pain and no more tears......
The greatest gift God gives us is to give us a life where we don’t have to live in fear - are we going to suffer? Are we going to have problems? Are we going to have devastating things happen to us? Are we going to live with disappointment? Yes. Being a follower of God is not an insurance policy against ‘bad stuff’.
But what God has given us is a way to live and cope and be at peace with whatever happens - to just cry and grieve and then just let Jesus hold you.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Believe the good news, the voice of the Shepherd, that through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, he
is with you, no matter what. And never let the voices around you steal that promise from you.