When the Straight and Narrow Path Makes a Right Turn
When Little Red Riding Hood goes into the woods to visit her grandmother, her mum warns her not to stray from the path. That is the lesson. Christians called it “the straight and narrow path.” Even the Urban Dictionary, a dictionary of slang terms and phrases, recognizes “on the straight and narrow” to mean being moral and upright.
But if you search BibleGateway.com for the phrase “straight and narrow path,” you will get no results. If you search Google, you will be directed to Matthew 7:13-14: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
Christians also refer to “the path of righteousness.” BibleGateway.com returns no results with exactly that phrase, but there are three verses that express such an idea.
Proverbs 8:20 says, “I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice….” The speaker of the long passage in which this verse in imbedded is a personification of Wisdom, who is extolling the many blessings she has to offer humankind. Wisdom walks in the way of righteousness.
Proverbs 11:5 says, “The righteousness of the blameless makes their paths straight, but the wicked are brought down by their own wickedness.” Interestingly, the scripture doesn’t assert that there is a path of righteousness but that righteousness makes the path straight, that is, easy. Doing right makes things easier.
Proverbs 12:28 probably comes closest to expressing the idea of “the path of righteousness” with which we are so familiar: “In the way of righteousness there is life; along that path is immortality.” Matthew 7:14 echoes this idea.
There are a few other Bible verses that mention a “right” path.
Psalm 23:3 is the most memorable: “He [the Lord] guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.”
Proverbs 2:20 says, “Thus you will walk in the ways of the good and keep to the paths of the righteous,” that is, by avoiding temptation.
Proverbs 2:9 says, “Then you will understand what is right and just and fair—every good path.” This verse hints that there may be more than one single path to take.
Isaiah 26:7 says, “The path of the righteous is level; you, the Upright One, make the way of the righteous smooth.” This verse is similar to Proverbs 11:5. In that verse the path of righteous people is made straight; in this verse the path is made smooth. In both cases it is not the path itself that is righteous but the people who are behaving righteously, blamelessly.
Proverbs 4:18 abandons the metaphor of the following a path altogether. It says, “The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.”
Proverbs 2:12-15 gives the same warning that Little Red Riding Hood’s mum does: “Wisdom will save you from the ways of wicked men [or wolves], from men whose words are perverse, who have left the straight paths to walk in dark ways, who delight in doing wrong and rejoice in the perverseness of evil, whose paths are crooked and who are devious in their ways.”
We Christians throw all these scriptures in a blender and pour out the tried-and-true phrase “the straight and narrow path.” The path to heaven is narrow (from Matthew), straight (from Proverbs), and level (from Isaiah). Temptation can lead us off the path (from Proverbs again). The path of evil is crooked (Proverbs, again).
Unfortunately, considering the diversity of scriptures from which this concept is drawn, I think some people have come to have a very narrow idea of what “the straight and narrow path” is. They—maybe we—think there’s only one right way to be a Christian. There’s only one right way to live your life. Maybe we impose this belief on others. Maybe we impose it on ourselves.
Scripture itself tells us that there are many good paths. Remember Proverbs 2:9, which I read a few minutes ago, says, “Then you will understand what is right and just and fair—every good path.” And Proverbs 2:20 says, “Thus you will walk in the ways of the good and keep to the paths of the righteous.”
Admittedly, Matthew 7:13 only mentions one gate through which we enter and one road that leads to life. This is Robert Frost’s road less taken. In Matthew 7 Jesus advises his disciples to avoid the wide gate and the broad road where many—I dare say most—enter. That gate is ornate, maybe forged of wrought iron, ten feet high, hung with bronze medallions. The road ahead looks easy, paved and flat, with plenty of rest stops and refreshment stands along the way. Jesus cautions that only a few people will find the modest gate built into the wall. Maybe it’s a little overgrown. Maybe the hinges creak a bit. Maybe the path is grass-grown and littered with last autumn’s fallen leaves.
It’s hard to find the true way in a world of false promises.
And it’s not easy to stay on the path. A narrow path is harder to walk. Some translations of the Bible describe the path that leads to life not as narrow but as “hard” (English Standard Version) or “difficult” (Common English Bible.) Following Jesus isn’t easy, as we know. Doing the right thing isn’t always simple, safe, or welcome. But maybe being a Christian isn’t a tightrope act. Maybe we don’t have to worry quite so much about where we place our feet.
The true way, of course, the Gate through which we enter and the Way we follow, is Jesus himself. The Way was early Christians’ name for their movement.
But remember, this scripture doesn’t promise a straight road. If the track is narrow—if it isn’t always easy for us—it may still meander, wander, and explore. I know my path has.
Meanwhile, while Jesus is warning us that the right path is hard to find, narrow, difficult, and treacherous, Isaiah is promising that God will make the way level and smooth. Again, Isaiah 26:7 says, “The path of the righteous is level; you, the Upright One, make the way of the righteous smooth.” And Proverbs 11:5 says, “The righteousness of the blameless makes their paths straight….” Here straight doesn’t mean unswerving; it means the direct route, the easy way.
Importantly, righteousness comes first. Following the path doesn’t make you righteous. What makes us righteous? Following Jesus, wherever he leads. And when we do follow Jesus, the Way, then even difficult things are made easy. The narrow, hard path is made level and smooth. That is the result of our faithfulness.
Too often, I think, we lay a “path of righteousness” using paving stones we choose ourselves from scripture and tradition. Maybe we lay down the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, and the Beatitudes. But maybe we leave out those pesky minor prophets. Maybe we lay down misinterpretations, prejudices, and standards of behavior that we inherited. But maybe we leave out compassion or open-mindedness. Maybe we leave out mercy, even mercy for ourselves.
There is a right path. It’s wherever Jesus leads us. It’s possible to wander from the path and suffer the consequences, as Little Red Riding Hood discovered. Proverbs 2:20 warns us to avoid temptation so we won’t go astray: “Thus you will walk in the ways of the good and keep to the paths of the righteous.”
But I think sometimes we make “the straight and narrow path” straighter and narrower than it has to be.
And we follow it stubbornly.
The prophet Jeremiah warned the Israelites about this. Jeremiah 8:5 says, “They stubbornly hold on to their illusions, refuse to change direction” (The Message). I wrote a reflection on this scripture for my blog:
“My dog and I generally set out for our morning walk with a route in mind. But sometimes we have to change direction. We might be forced to change course to avoid an oncoming person or dog or construction truck. We might be diverted if the street is flooded or the sidewalk is closed. Whatever walk I envision, I have to accept the reality on the ground. The Israelites won’t accept reality, Jeremiah says. They cling to their illusions instead. They’re too stubborn to change direction. They persist in their pre-determined course even though they’re drifting off course. And they’re getting further away from God. When we walk in faith, we have to be willing to change direction to avoid temptation, obstacles, or danger—and, above all, to stay close to God.”
What if “the straight and narrow path” takes a right turn?
Then we have to have faith in geometry—and God. We know from geometry that we can draw a straight line between any two points. If we turn right—and yes, that’s a pun—there is still a straight line connecting us to God.
We don’t get to heaven by walking in “the straight and narrow path,” especially one we drew for ourselves or that tradition drew for us. We don’t get to heaven by being “on the straight and narrow,” as the Urban Dictionary defines it. In other words, we don’t get to heaven by our own good deeds. We don’t get to heaven because we follow all the rules. We get to heaven by God’s grace.
And if we take a wrong turn? Then again we have to have faith in God and geometry. Wherever we are, no matter how far off the road, it is still a straight line between us and God. That is God’s forgiveness. That is Jesus, the Way. He is the straight line to the Father.
So when “the straight and narrow path” takes a right turn, follow it! Don’t be stubborn. Don’t mistake the your path for the right one. See where God is leading you! See what new vistas open up! Sometimes staying on the path of righteousness means going in a new direction. The 23rd Psalm promises that God will lead us in the right path. The Way is wherever Jesus is leading us.
“‘Lead Me Not Into Temptation’ Doesn’t Mean We Don’t Have To Go Anywhere”
In what we call The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray “Lead me not into temptation” (Matthew 6:13). This plea implicitly acknowledges Jesus as our leader.
That is what it means to be a disciple of Christ. Jesus says so in Mark 8:34: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” He makes no bones about it: To be his disciple, you have to follow him.
Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John and the crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, and Judea (mentioned in Matthew 4, which I just read) literally followed him. They put down their nets, they left their boats, they deserted their workshops and vegetable plots—they walked away from everything to walk with the Lord.
For us, Jesus’s command (“Follow me”) is a figure of speech. We understand it to mean that we accept his teachings, obey the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, and above all try to live by Christ’s example.
This metaphor pervades the Old and New Testaments. From Deuteronomy, where God commands the Israelites that “It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere” (Deuteronomy 13:4) to Psalms, where the Lord laments, “If my people would only listen to me, if Israel would only follow my ways…” (Psalm 81:13) to the Gospels to Paul’s letters, in which he writes, “Follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1), we are exhorted to follow the Lord.
Not into temptation, we hope.
We trust Jesus to lead us along the right path (Psalm 23:3). Proverbs 2:20 says, “Thus you will walk in the ways of the good and keep to the paths of the righteous.” We will walk in the ways of the good and keep to the paths of the righteous if we avoid temptation.
But sometimes temptation lies right in the middle of the right path. Or we could say it like this: even when we do what God wants us to do, we may run into a stumbling block.
I think I can explain this best if I compare walking with God to walking my dog. My dog Lexi faces all kinds of temptation on her daily walk: other people, other dogs, empty food wrappers. I know she will have to face these temptations every time we go outdoors, yet I can’t keep her cooped up inside. Meanwhile, I’m leading her straight into temptation every time I take her for a walk.
This is the irony of following Christ. Jesus doesn’t let us stay cooped up indoors. “Go and make disciples of all nations,” he commands in Matthew 28:19. Go. He doesn’t say, “Stay put.” But out there, in the world, is where the temptations are.
We pray for Jesus not to lead us into temptation, but sometimes it seems like we follow him straight into it. Maybe following Christ means serving on a church committee where we can’t seem to avoid conflict with another committee member. Maybe following Christ means raising funds for a worthwhile cause, which kindles our greed. Maybe following Christ means achieving something significant for the community, and we boast of our achievement.
Maybe God led you to a certain line of work that made you well-off. Then you had to face the temptations of materialism.
Maybe God led you to befriend someone who was lonely. Then you may face the temptation to gossip about others.
Maybe God led you into a community where customs and values were different than your own. Then you face the temptation to judge or criticize.
Paul says this about sin in Galatians 5:19-21: “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery…[and] drunkenness, orgies, and the like.” In verse 20 he mentions two more obvious sins, idolatry and witchcraft; and in verses 20 and 21a he lists “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy.” The temptations that beset us are not always the “big” sins. Sometimes they’re downright petty. We pray “Lead me not into temptation,” but temptation is everywhere we go.
In trying to do what God has called us to do, in the very act of being faithful, we’re tempted to anger, selfishness, pride, and more.
The logical thing, if we want to avoid temptation, seems to be to steer clear of all worldly goods, any enjoyment, and other people. Yet even holy hermits living in the desert are tempted by pride and self-righteousness.
Anyway, if we avoid all relationships and all responsibility, we wouldn’t be following Christ; we’d be standing still.
Ephesians 2:10 says we are “…created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Jesus leads us to do good. We follow him when we feed the hungry, care for the sick, visit a friend. But even these righteous acts are fraught with temptation because we are human: imperfect, selfish, fearful, insecure.
Temptations lie right in path along which Jesus leads us.
Is it useless, then, to pray “Lead me not into temptation”?
No. First of all, we do want to avoid temptation whenever possible. It’s right to ask Jesus to steer us clear when he can.
But this prayer doesn’t only mean “Help me avoid temptation.”
In Psalm 69:14, the psalmist prays, “Rescue me from the mire, do not let me sink….” Sin is like quicksand: we can get stuck in it. We can get bogged down by temptation. It prevents us from moving forward, from following Jesus. So when we pray, “Lead me not into temptation,” we mean “Don’t let me get stuck in temptation.” In other words, lead me not into temptation but through it. The psalmist was confident of this when he wrote, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for [God is] with me” (Psalm 23:4). Jesus isn’t leading us into temptation when we follow him; he’s leading us beyond it. When we follow Jesus, our prayer is “lead me not into temptation but out of it.”
A different translation may also help us understand Matthew 6:13 better. The New International Readers Version renders it as “Keep us from sinning when we are tempted.” This translation acknowledges that there will be temptations, but God can help us resist them.
In fact, God is already prepared to help us out. Consider the Israelites who followed Moses out of Egypt and into the desert. When God led the Israelites into the desert, he knew they would be tempted by hunger, thirst, doubt, and despair. He couldn’t keep them enslaved in Egypt any longer, yet he knew how difficult the exodus would be. So he blessed his people with miracles to help them along the way: a pillar of smoke, a pillar of fire, water from a rock, manna and quails.
God knows that following Jesus isn’t easy, either. He knows that we will be tempted by “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy,” as Paul says. So God blesses us with his grace along the way: mercy, forgiveness, kindness, goodness. Temptations litter our path, but we don’t have to give in. We can pray “Help me resist temptation.”
We followers of Christ can’t stand still. We’re led into the world, to do good according to Christ’s example. There will be temptations along the way. Praying “Lead me not into temptation” doesn’t mean we won’t have to go anywhere. Jesus will help us avoid some temptations. He will lead us through others so that we don’t get bogged down. And he will help us resist the temptations that we have to face.
“Lead me not into temptation” doesn’t mean we don’t have to go anywhere—but God walks with us on the journey he’s taking us on.
“Bread and Stones”
I want to reflect this morning on this very familiar story of Jesus’s temptation in the desert. I had a great spiritual insight—as I have most of my great spiritual insights—when I was walking my dog.
One day when I was walking my dog I thought I spotted a hunk of bread lying on the ground. That wouldn’t be so strange: raccoons frequently filch food from open dumpsters and leave it strewn across the neighborhood. I reached down to snatch the bread from under Lexi’s nose so that she wouldn’t eat it. I thought it was food. But it was a rock. It was a rock that looked like a hunk of bread. I’d been deceived.
Lexi has been tricked, too. Once she grabbed a rock in her mouth. She immediately dropped it when she realized it wasn’t good to eat. Appearances aren’t deceiving for dogs; they rely on their sense of smell. I wonder if that rock smelled like food. Or maybe Lexi hoped so hard that the rock was food that she tried it anyway.
The difference between bread and stones ought to be obvious. Bread seems to be the opposite of stone. Bread is soft, aromatic, and edible. Stones are hard, mineral, inedible, indigestible.
Nevertheless, I think, sometimes, that we mistake stones for bread in our spiritual lives. We’re searching for something to give us sustenance, to enrich our lives and feed our hearts. Sometimes we don’t recognize what can nourish and sustain us and what cannot. We can be deceived by our fear or our desire. We can mistake a rock for a hunk of bread. We can convince ourselves that stones are the Bread of Life.
We don’t have the power to turn stones into bread, like Jesus did. The temptation for us is not to turn stones into bread but to mistake one for the other. We say, “Stone, bread, what’s the difference. They look the same to me.”
When Satan tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread, he appeals to a human being’s most basic need. We need food to survive. After forty days of fasting in the wilderness, Jesus was hungry. He was, in fact, starving. He would have been experiencing shrinking of his vital organs, anemia, reduction in muscle mass, consequent weakness, mental fatigue, and lowered body temperature combined with extreme sensitivity to cold on those chilly desert nights. The temptation just to have a bite of food was a real temptation.
But Jesus doesn’t say to Satan, “Sure, I’m hungry, but I trust God to provide for me.” He doesn’t cite the manna that God sent the Israelites in the wilderness. Instead he says, “Bread isn’t enough.” Jesus says to Satan, “Sure, I could turn these stones into bread. I’ve got the power. But it isn’t worth it. That life, the bare minimum, just staying alive, that isn’t good enough.”
I wouldn’t want to live on bread alone, either. I’m a bit of a foodie, actually. I love to cook. I even like to buy groceries. I like to examine every apple and choose the best one. I admire a beautiful yellowfin tuna steak. I love farmer’s markets and roadside farm stands. I like to try new restaurants and exotic dishes.
My interest in food exceeds basic survival. Humans need calories from food for energy—they don’t have to be served with a raspberry vinaigrette reduction. Humans thrive when they eat nutritious food, including plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and sufficient protein. Vitamins and minerals help our bodies’ systems function properly. Again, these foods can be very basic and simple.
But for most middle-class Westerners, food is invested with all sorts of meaning beyond basic survival. Eating is a social activity, whether it’s having a cup of tea and a scone with a friend or sitting down to a family meal at the holidays. My family eats dinner together every night. We all share something about our day and talk and laugh together. Food is part of our celebrations, and it can be a comfort.
Even my interest in new foods, new recipes, and new food experiences is a way—for me—of experiencing the diversity and wonder of God’s creation, of diverse cultures and ecosystems and the creativity of the human mind. Cooking is an art, one that I appreciate as much as painting or writing.
So when Jesus says, “Man shall not live by bread alone,” I get it. As long as I have a choice, I wouldn’t want to live on bread and water. That’s what prisoners in storybooks are fed. It’s the barest minimum. I want to eat plums off the vine in the hills above Travnik, Bosnia; I want to eat muesli and yogurt at a bed-and-breakfast in Vaxjo, Sweden; I want to eat hamburgers on my back deck with my husband and kids.
Of course Jesus didn’t mean that we shouldn’t eat bread alone but should have butter and jam and eggs and fruit and orange juice, too. But when we think about the difference between a hunk of bread and Thanksgiving dinner, we can understand the difference between merely surviving and living a rich, full, meaningful life. We all understand what Jesus meant, that Life is more than staying alive. Our lives have meaning and purpose because we dedicate them to God. Food nourishes our bodies, but God’s Word nourishes our spirits. We live by God’s Word.
And when we mistake untruths, lies, falsehoods for God’s Word, we’re mistaking rocks for bread. We’re mistaking stones for the Bread of Life.
In some fairy tales, giants eat rocks. Author Raul Gutierrez wrote a story called “The Giant and the Rock.” It goes like this.
“Not so long ago, out near the edge of the world, lived a hungry giant. One fine day the giant’s friend, a normal sized boy, noticed a very large, very round rock buried in his field. This particular giant liked to eat rocks so the boy asked his giant friend to make a deal. ‘Dig up that rock and you can eat as much as you want,’ suggested the boy, ‘just take the rock away from here.’ The giant started digging and eating and digging and eating until he had dug up so much of the world that the boy got nervous. ‘Please giant, stop digging!’ So the giant stepped into the deep hole, pulled the huge round rock from the earth and held it up over his head. ‘How high can you throw that rock?’ yelled the boy. And the giant threw the rock high in the sky where it got stuck. Now we call that rock the moon, and that hole the giant dug, was filled by rain and became the ocean. This was all a very long time ago. And the giant? Well, he liked that moon rock so much that every now and then he takes a big bite. Look up in the sky, if you’re lucky you’ll see it.”
This is a charming story. But we’re not giants. We can’t eat stones. We need bread.
If we’re tempted to mistake stones for bread, we can also be tempted to substitute stones for bread because we think that’s all there is. We know they aren’t bread, but we don’t know where to find something better. We resign ourselves. We lose hope in the abundance God promises in John 10:10.
If I can refer to folklore again, many Russian fairy tales feature this twist. In many Russian fairy tales the heroine has to wear out three pairs of iron boots, wear down three iron staffs, and eat three iron loaves. To the heroine this seems impossible. She knows the difference between a loaf of bread and a loaf of iron. She knows she can’t eat iron. She despairs—BUT she perseveres in her quest. And in the end, the loaves are consumed, usually by magic.
Sometimes we feel like we’ve been given iron loaves or stones for bread—nothing that sustains or nourishes us. We’re starving. We want bread—we want the Bread of Life—but we despair. However, we, like a fairy tale heroine, can persevere. We can pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” And then Jesus turns our stones into bread. God provides for us, manna in our wilderness. It’s not magic, it’s God’s grace.
Jesus trusted this when he was tempted by Satan. He knew he didn’t live by bread alone, but he was hungry. He needed something to eat. It looked like stones all around him, but he believed there was bread somewhere. God would provide in due time. Maybe he was hoping for manna and quails. Maybe he was hoping for a heavenly banquet. Maybe he was simply hoping for someone kind who would feed the hungry. The point is he was hoping. He didn’t give up. He didn’t eat the stones.
Jesus’s answer to Satan—“Man shall not live by bread alone, but from every word that comes from the mouth of God”—quotes from Jewish scripture. [Liturgist] read this passage from Deuteronomy 8 earlier. When we’re in the wilderness, when we’re surrounded by stones, God will deliver his people. Verses 7-9 say, “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing….” God blesses us with more than bread. He blesses us with figs and pomegranates and olives and honey. He blesses us with abundance.
Unfortunately, we sometimes forget who blesses us. We’re tempted to believe that we turned stones into bread all by ourselves. We start to believe that the blessings we enjoy are of our own making. Deuteronomy 8:12-14 warns, “When you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God….”
Jesus could have turned the stones into bread, but then he would have been relying on himself instead of God. If Jesus had turned the stones into bread, Satan would have said, “See what you can do? You’re full of power! You can do anything!” He wanted to trick Jesus into believing that his power was his own. That’s a temptation that we face, too. Of course Jesus the Christ never forgot that everything he had been given came from God. As he told Satan, he lived by God’s Word.
I suspect that when we think we’ve made bread, it’s really stones. That is, whatever we can provide for ourselves is inadequate, not true abundance, not the Bread of Life.
Rocks are not food. Stones are not bread. We’re tempted to mistake stones for bread. We’re tempted to substitute stones when we can’t find bread. We’re tempted to believe that we turned stones into bread, but really they’re stones. We’re tempted to succumb to indifference, despair, and pride. We close our eyes to truth, accept lies, set ourselves up as gods.
But when we resist temptation—when we turn to God instead of away from him—we will taste and see how good the Lord is. John 10:10, which I referenced before, says, “Christ came that we may have life, and have it abundantly.” Bread and figs and pomegranates and olives and honey, plums and muesli with yogurt and hamburgers on the deck and family and friends and celebration and comfort—truly the Bread of Life.
Sermon for November 15, 2015: Why Did the Christian Cross the Road?
These are familiar stories: “Jesus Sends Out the Seventy-Two,” “The Parable of the Good Samaritan,” and the story of Mary and Martha. We’ve heard them time and time again, but we don’t usually read them all together. They seem to be about different things. Yet I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Luke arranged them together in his Gospel.
First let’s review what each of these stories is about.
In “Jesus Sends Out the Seventy-Two” (Luke 10:1-4), Jesus gives his disciples encouragement, a warning, and instructions for going forth to witness to the gospel.
In “The Parable of the Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:30-35), Jesus answers the question who is our neighbor.
In the story of Mary and Martha” (Luke 10:38-42), Jesus teaches what is better.
Now let’s compare the first two stories.
In Luke 10:4 Jesus tells his disciples not to greet anyone on the road. “The Parable of the Good Samaritan” is a story about a priest and a Levite who cross over to the other side of the road. Based on Jesus’s instructions in verse 4, we might expect this story to extol the priest and the Levite. They didn’t greet anyone, just as Jesus commanded. In fact, they avoided someone.
But of course we understand that the priest and the Levite are the villains in Jesus’s story. They should have stopped to help the man on the road. The hero of this story is the Samaritan, who does stop to help. We are told to “Go and do likewise”—be like the Samaritan.
Do these two stories contradict each other?
No. We have to understand what Jesus meant when he said, “Do not greet anyone on the road.”
In the previous verse (3) Jesus says, “I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.” We could interpret this to mean that the disciples are in danger on the road. Maybe they should steer clear of others to avoid being beaten or robbed.
On the other hand, Jesus doesn’t seem particularly precautious. In fact, he tells his disciples not to prepare for the journey: “Do not take a purse [money] or a bag or sandals.” And in verse 7 (which Tim didn’t read), he tells the disciples to rely on the hospitality of others: “Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you….” Jesus asks his disciples to trust to God to provide what they need. Surely they can trust to God to keep them safe as well.
I think the injunction against greeting others is a warning against something else.
Matthew Henry’s famous Complete Commentary says this about Luke 10:4: “Not that Christ would have his ministers to be rude, morose, and unmannerly; but, (1.) They must go as men in haste, that had their particular places assigned them, where they must deliver their message, and in their way directly to those places must not hinder or retard themselves with needless ceremonies or compliments. (2.) They must go as men of business, business that relates to another world, which they must be intent in, and intent upon, and therefore must not entangle themselves with conversation about secular affairs.”
So Jesus’s instructions to his disciples are intended to prevent dilly-dallying. The message the disciples carry—the Good News—is too important not to be delivered. It is more important than anything else.
Now let’s consider the priest and the Levite described in “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.” They were leaders among the Jewish community. They had important work to do. The priest served at the temple. The Levites, too, had hereditary religious duties at the Temple. They were descended from the tribe of Levi, chosen by God in the days of Moses to serve the Lord. The priest and the Levite believed their work was too important to be delayed for someone on the road.
Besides diverting them from their work, to touch a bleeding man would have made the priest and the Levite ceremonially unclean, unable to perform their duties until they underwent a ritual cleansing. That would have taken even more time away from their service to God, which they believed was more important than anything else.
Yet the priest and the Levite do the wrong thing when they cross over.
How do we reconcile Luke 10:4 with Luke 10:30-35? When are we supposed to go along our way, and when are we supposed to stop?
This is the question posed in today’s third story.
Martha has important things to do. The Son of God—and his entourage—have come for dinner. Martha wants to honor Jesus by preparing a gracious meal. Honoring the Lord seems like the right thing to do.
But Martha is “distracted,” as the Scripture says. She’s “worried and upset.” Martha wanted to honor Jesus, but she’s lost her sense of purpose among the myriad tasks she has to do. The work became an end unto itself. Mary, meanwhile, is sitting at Jesus’s feet, listening to him speak.
This story is often interpreted to mean that stillness, reflection, or prayer are better than work. It to reminds us to slow down.
That is the opposite message from the one in today’s first two stories. In Luke 10:1-4, Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples to sit still. He tells them to get to work spreading the Good News. And in “The Parable of the Good Samaritan,” the priest and the Levite are condemned for not doing something, for not taking action. In both of those stories, Jesus tells his followers to get to work. Spread the Gospel, he says. Help the hurt. God’s work is more important than anything else.
So does the story of Mary and Martha contradict these two stories?
No. Jesus’s admonition to his disciples in Luke 10:4 and to Martha in Luke 10:41-42 are really the same thing. Don’t greet anyone, he tells his disciples. Don’t busy yourself, he tells Martha. He’s saying, Don’t get distracted.
Jesus doesn’t want his disciples to get distracted on their way. Jesus sees that Martha is distracted by her work. Her tasks aren’t wrong to do, but they’re preventing her from tuning in to Jesus. The priest and the Levite in “The Parable of the Good Samaritan” make the same mistake. Their work—their religious duties—distract them from doing what God actually wants them to do.
In Luke 10:4 Jesus is saying, “Put my word above everything else.” Sometimes that means doing something. The disciples traveled from town to town. The Samaritan rescued an injured man. Whatever our task it, it should be meditation in action. But if our busy-ness interferes with God’s message—either delivering it or receiving it—then we’ve gone astray, like Martha, like the priest and the Levite.
This is where Martha went wrong.
God calls us to action. But first we have to listen, to get our instructions, as the disciples did in Luke 10:4 and as Mary did in Luke 10:39. Then we’ll know what to do.
We’re being asked to decide. The stewardship campaign here at St. Paul’s is wrapping up. How will we allocate our time, our talents, and our financial resources? A new community outreach program is starting soon. How will we support it? How will we support our church’s ongoing ministries? And the holidays are fast approaching. How will we make them holy days?
Do we cross to the other side of the road? Do we keep going, or do we stop? What serves God, and what is a distraction from God? What is meditation in action, and what is just busy-ness?
We can’t know until we’ve sat at Jesus’s feet. Here we are.
Each of the three stories in Luke 10—despite their apparent differences—is about the things that distract us from God. I think this is why Luke grouped them together in his narrative. Jesus warns the disciples against idle chit-chat. He warns the expert in the law against a narrow focus on duty and regulations. He warns Martha against unnecessary busy-ness. In each story Jesus puts the Word of God—his very self—above all else.
This is how we reconcile Luke 10:4 with “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.” This is how we reconcile Luke 10:1-4 with the story of Mary and Martha. This is how we know when we are supposed to go along our way. This is how we know when to cross the road and when to stop. We put the gospel above all else, above petty distractions and duty and cares.
Why does the Christian cross the road? Why do you cross the road? Do you cross the road to avoid doing whatever God has called you to do? Or do you cross the road to avoid distraction and temptation? Do you cross the road to bring God’s word where it needs to be heard? The Christian crosses the road to deliver a message of hope.
Sermon for September 13, 2015: “Mothers of Faith”
The Bible is sometimes criticized for being too patriarchal, but there are actually lots of interesting female characters who are mothers. Eve, of course, is the mother of us all. Sarah was the mother of Issac, who was born to her when she was 90 years old. Rebekah was the mother of Jacob and Esau. She helped her son Jacob trick his father and steal his brother’s birthright. Moses’s mother Jochebed hid her son in a basket among the reeds to save him.
There was also Naomi, mother-in-law to the widowed Ruth. There was the mother whose baby King Solomon ordered to be cut in half to resolve a custody dispute. You remember that she surrendered her claim rather than let the baby be killed, and then Solomon knew that she was the baby’s true mother. In the New Testament there was Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, and also Herodias, who advised her daughter to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. And of course there is Mary, mother of Jesus the Christ.
Today I want to look closely at three stories about mothers who each demonstrate faith in a profound way. They are examples to all of us as each of us strives to be ever more faithful to God.
The first story is about Zebedee’s wife, the mother of the disciples James and John. It comes from Matthew 20:20-23.
Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons [James and John] and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”
Zebedee’s wife is bold. Maybe it seems outrageous to us that she would ask for such a thing, for her sons to be given positions of authority when Jesus comes to power. What makes her think her sons deserve such an honor? Verse 24 says, “When the ten [the other ten disciples] heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers.” Maybe we are, too.
Yet Jesus isn’t angry. He doesn’t chastise her. He simply says, “To sit at my right or left is not for me to grant.” Perhaps he understands that a mother wants to secure her sons’ futures. After all, James and John gave up their jobs as fishermen to follow Jesus. Being a disciple is an uncertain career at best. We can sympathize with their mother hoping that some good will come out of her sons’ whim.
Of course Mrs. Zebedee misunderstands Jesus’s purpose. He’s not going to overthrow the government. She thinks he’s going to reign on earth, but his reign is in heaven.
Nevertheless, Mrs. Zebedee acts in faith because she isn’t afraid to ask. Maybe she asks for the wrong thing, but she is bold in her faith in Jesus. She must have believed that he would listen to her, or she wouldn’t have asked at all. She must have seen that he was kind, or she would have been afraid. She must have believed that he is gracious and merciful, or she wouldn’t have bothered. She had hope in Jesus.
We have to ask ourselves: Do we believe that God will listen to us? Do we believe that he is gracious and merciful? Are we bold to ask God for the favors he can bestow?
The second story is about Hannah, Samuel’s mother. This is also a story about a woman who asks for something from God. I’ll read an abridged version from 1 Samuel 1.
There was a certain man from Ramathaim whose name was Elkanah. He had two wives; one was called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.
Year after year Elkanah went up from his town to worship and sacrifice to the Lord Almighty at Shiloh. Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice, he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb. Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. Her husband would say to her, “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?”
Once when they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah stood up. Eli the priest was sitting on his chair by the doorpost of the Lord’s house. In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. And she made a vow, saying, “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life.”
Eli the priest, who has observed her, said to her, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.”
In the course of time Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel—which means “heard by God”—saying, “Because I asked the Lord for him.” Then she said to her husband, “After the boy is weaned, I will take him and present him before the Lord, and he will live there always.”
After Samuel was weaned, Hannah took the boy with her, young as he was, and brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh. They brought the boy to Eli the priest, and she said to him, “Pardon me, my lord. As surely as you live, I am the woman who stood here beside you praying to the Lord. I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord.”
This is an amazing story. After years of disappointment and ridicule, Hannah’s faith is finally rewarded with a son…and she gives him up. She is so thankful to God that she gives her son to God in gratitude. When he is three—the age that children were weaned in ancient times—she takes him to the priest and leaves him there. She doesn’t just dedicate her son to God and take him home. She doesn’t promise that he will become a priest when he grows up. She surrenders him completely to God. She doesn’t get to watch Samuel grow up; she doesn’t get to hear him laugh. This is Hannah’s great act of faith—not believing that God would answer her prayer, but responding to God’s graciousness with such deep and unselfish gratitude.
We have to ask ourselves: How do we respond to God’s graciousness? What can we give to God in gratitude?
There is one more reference in 1 Samuel to Hannah, in 2:18-21. Scripture says, “Samuel was ministering before the Lord—a boy wearing a linen ephod. Each year his mother made him a little robe and took it to him when she went up with her husband to offer the annual sacrifice. Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, saying, “May the Lord give you children by this woman to take the place of the one she prayed for and gave to the Lord.” Then they would go home. And the Lord was gracious to Hannah; she gave birth to three sons and two daughters. Meanwhile, the boy Samuel grew up in the presence of the Lord.”
Today’s final story comes from John 2:1-11. This is the story of Jesus changing water into wine. His mother plays an important part in the events.
On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.” “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.” They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.” What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
In some ways, this is a strange miracle. Why does God choose to demonstrate his power in such a small thing? At this wedding at Cana, Jesus doesn’t heal anyone or cast out demons or raise the dead. Most of his other miracles will be of this kind. Healing miracles are understandable. Jesus is doing something good, something compassionate and merciful. Why turn water into wine so that drunk guests can keep drinking?
And why does Mary, Jesus’s mother, involve herself in the host’s problem? Why does she think, “Maybe Jesus can do something about this”? He hasn’t done any miracles before.
This is how Mary demonstrates her faith. She believes that God can do something. She never asks Jesus for a specific solution to the problem; she simply says, “They have no more wine.” And she tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” She’s clearly leaving it up to Jesus to handle the problem. She turns things over to Jesus.
And Mary’s faith was rewarded. Although at first Jesus asserts that his “hour has not yet come,” Mary’s persistent faith in him seems to make clear to him that in fact the hour is now, that God is at work in this very moment. Mary believes that God can act, and she believes that he acts in our lives in every moment. Her reward is more than wine; it is the revelation of God’s power.
We ask ourselves: Do we trust that, no matter what the situation, God can do something about it? Do we turn our insolvable problems over to him? Do we believe that he is acting in our lives in every moment?
These three women and mothers—Mary, Hannah, and Zebedee’s wife—stand as examples of faithfulness to us all. Zebedee’s wife has the faith to ask of God what she seeks. Hannah has the faith to respond in selfless gratitude for what she receives. Mary has faith that God can always do something in our lives. May God bless each of us to live in faith like these women. Amen
Sermon for July 19, 2015: "Children of God"
Do you remember when you were a kid that grown-up—maybe your grandmother or your great-aunt or a sweet older lady in your church (I’m looking at you, Bets!)—who said, every time she saw you, “You’re getting so big!” or “You must have grown six inches since I saw you last!” In Tyler’s case, this might be true.
Maybe now you’re that grown-up, amazed by the growth of the children in your life
When my grandmother used to remark how much my kids were growing, I used to answer, “Yep, that’s what kids do.” That is what young human beings are programmed to do. It’s in our DNA. But we all know that good nutrition and exercise help them achieve their potential. That’s where the grown-ups in our children’s lives play a part. We provide healthy food and room to play; we take them to parks and to pools and on bike rides. We drive them around to soccer practice and karate lessons.
Today we celebrate the spiritual growth of the children of St. Paul’s. We adults have a part to play in our kids’ spiritual growth as well. And today I thank each of you for playing your part in these children’s lives.
What we sometimes forget is that we are all children of God. We should all always be growing in faith like children do. We should have the same hope and expectation for ourselves and for each other that we have for our children.
A few minutes ago Ben read this verse of scripture: “We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing.” Paul wrote these words to the church at Thessalonica. Every church should strive to be a church that deserves to have the same said about it.
But it’s hard to measure our growth in faith. We can’t measure it in inches like we do Tyler’s height.
But I’m betting that Tyler doesn’t measure himself very often. He just eats and sleeps and does his thing, and he grows naturally, without even noticing it.
This is the advice Paul gave Timothy: “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you. Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress” (1 Timothy 4:13-15).
Paul didn’t advise Timothy to measure his own progress day by day. He said, “Do what you’re called to do, study Scripture, share your gifts, and everyone else will see how your faith is growing.”
It’s the growth that others see in us that matters.
If we do what we’re called by God to do, study the Scripture, and share our gifts with others—individually and in missions—then we will grow in faith. And if we give each other the same opportunities to learn and to share our gifts that we give our children, then everyone will grow in faith.
Do you remember the story of Clifford the Big Red Dog? Clifford was the runt of the litter, but Emily Elizabeth, the girl who adopted him, loved him. Emily Elizabeth’s father warns her that Clifford may be too small to survive the winter, but Emily Elizabeth hopes and believes that he will grow. And the next morning, he’s a little bigger. And in a few months he’s the size of a house!
Emily Elizabeth’s love and hope and faith help Clifford grow. That’s how we help our children and each other grow here at St. Paul’s. And there’s no limit to how deep and wide our faith can become!
We all remember Peter Pan, who declared, “I WON’T grow up.” Here’s what Paul says to the Christians at Corinth who wouldn’t grow up: “Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready” (1 Corinthians 3:1-2).
We don’t want to be that kind of Christian, an “infant in Christ” who isn’t ready to receive the fullness of the grace of God. We want to grow in faith and in wisdom and in understanding and receive in turn everything God has to give us.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then [when perfection comes] we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
At the same time, we remember the verse that Ella read: “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18:18).
We understand this verse to mean that we must have a child-like faith. We must be trusting. We must have open hearts. We must have a sense of wonder. We must not be cynical.
And I suggest that a child-like faith is also a growing faith, for growth is one of the key features of childhood. Kids grow, as I pointed out to my grandmother. We receive the kingdom of God knowing that we’re too small for it right now—that we’re mere infants, as St. Paul said—but trusting we’ll get bigger. Maybe the kingdom of God feels too big for us, but we grow into it. We grow into Christ the way Ella grew into her too-big shoes.
1 Peter 2:2 says, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.”We begin with a little faith—maybe the size of a mustard seed—and we grow, day by day, imperceptibly, until everyone may see our progress.
Our progress isn’t a straight line, by the way. These kids don’t grow a few inches and then shrink a few inches, but our faith does progress in stops and starts. Sometimes we’re more child-ish than childlike.
We’re stubborn. We want to have our own way. We don’t want to do what we’re told (by God). We don’t want to face new challenges. We won’t resist temptation. We don’t extend forgiveness. We’re worldly, instead of living by the Spirit, like those “infants in Christ” at Corinth.
Luckily, we’re here to help one another, the way we’ve helped and guided these children so far. Like Epaphras of Colossae—to whom Paul refers in Colossians 4:12—we are “always wrestling in prayer for [one another], that [each of us] may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured.”
And we have all the saints standing behind us: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service,so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ,” as Paul assures us in Ephesians 4:11-13.
We teach our children to look to the figures of the Bible and the Church as role models; we adults can look to them for direction and inspiration, too.
And finally, we know that it is our responsibility to teach our children right and wrong, to help them when they make missteps, to “speak the truth in love.” Paul says that we must do the same for one another: “Speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).
We are all children of God. We should pray for, teach, help, and encourage one another the way we pray for, teach, help, and encourage the children of our church.
We want our children to grow in faith. So we tell them to read their Bibles, to pray, to trust in God, and to do what’s right. We pray for them, and we praise them.
We want each other to grow in faith, too. So we should encourage one another to read our Bibles, to pray, to trust in God, and to do what’s right. We should pray for one another, and praise one another. And if each of us reads our Bible, prays, trusts in God, and does what’s right as well as we can, then we will grow in faith without even noticing that we’re doing it.
But others will see God in us. And others will see God in this church.
Let’s strive to live in faith so that every time somebody sees us they say, “You’ve grown six inches in faith since I saw you last!”
Sermon for April 12, 2015: "Finding Easter After Easter
Did anyone find any Easter eggs this morning?
The tradition of the Easter egg hunt was instituted by Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer. By the nineteenth century, Easter egg hunts were widespread in Germany. They’ve since become a beloved tradition around the world. Why?
Easter is a season of seeking. Children hunt for eggs. The disciples sought Christ’s body. Christ’s body was missing.
Do you feel like Jesus is missing? Do you seek him today?
When I was reading about the tradition of Easter egg hunts, I found this quote from Reverend MaryJane Pierce Norton, Associate General Secretary of Leadership Ministries at the General Board of Discipleship. She stated, “There’s something about going to hunt the eggs just as we might go to hunt for Jesus in the tomb. And when we find them it’s that joy that the women had when they reached the tomb first and found that Jesus was no longer there."
Except I don’t think the women were joyful to find that Jesus wasn’t in his tomb. They were upset and confused. Even after the angels declared that he had risen from the dead, the disciples weren’t sure what that meant. They were afraid. They locked themselves in their room. And the disciples on the road to Emmaus were discussing and debating events because they didn’t understand it, either. For them all, the joy came later.
Maybe you did feel joy on Easter morning. But sometimes it’s hard, after the high emotion and pageantry of Easter Sunday—the beautiful flowers, the beloved hymns, the ringing anthem—to hold on to that feeling of God’s intimate and immediate presence. We can feel let down. When things go back to normal, it can be harder to feel close to God.
Like marshmallow Peeps, Easter seems to go stale.
But Easter is a season of seeking. When Jesus vanished from his tomb, he left an emptiness in his place. The disciples didn’t understand what had happened. They searched for Jesus. We know what happened on Easter Day, but perhaps there is still an emptiness. We too search for Christ. Christ left the tomb so we could find him again in life. We’re supposed to spend the Easter season—the fifty days between Easter Sunday and Pentacost—seeking for Christ.
Any child in Sunday School can tell you that Jesus is in heaven and in our hearts. But we wonder, Where is he in tragedy? Where is he in failure? Where is he in the world? Jesus isn’t lost. That’s not why we’re looking for him. We’re lost, sometimes. And sometimes we can’t find Christ even when we know he’s there.
So Easter is a season of seeking.
Easter is also a season of finding.
The children found the eggs we hid. Jesus isn’t even hiding from us. The empty tomb was a revelation, not a concealment.
My son Ben refers to the Easter egg hunt here at St. Paul’s as the Easter egg “harvest” because the eggs are so easy to find. There just aren’t enough good hiding places for three thousand eggs, so many of the eggs are just lying in the grass, lying in doorways, lying along the halls. Kids don’t have to search for them so much as scoop them up.
Easter is a season of finding.
The disciples found the grave clothes laid aside. Death had been denied. Of course the disciples didn’t understand that then. They had found what they were looking for; they just didn’t know it. Sometimes we just don’t know what we’re seeing. Until we see Jesus for ourselves. Jesus appeared to his disciples when they were locked in their room for fear of the authorities. Jesus appeared to two followers on the road to Emmaus when they were discussing the events of Easter Day. Easter is the season of Jesus finding us. Easter is the season of seeking and finding. Seeking is act of faith. Seeking—searching, wondering, questioning, even doubting—is not a lack of faith. It is an act of faith. Matthew 7:7 says, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” The inverse is also true. If you don’t seek, you won’t find. If the women hadn’t sought Jesus on Easter morning, they wouldn’t have found him risen.
In last week’s Peanuts comic strip, Linus, looking out the window, sees Snoopy, dressed as the Easter Bunny, hiding eggs in the yard. Lucy is watching TV. Linus says, “The Easter Bunny is out in our front yard! He’s hiding eggs all over the front lawn.” Without looking up, Lucy says, “Sure he is.” Linus says, “I think I’ll go out and gather up all the eggs.” He comes in with an armful of Easter eggs and says to Lucy, “You miss a lot when you sit and watch TV all day long.”
If you don’t seek, you aren’t keeping Easter. If you do seek, you will find.
Finding is also an act of faith. We have to believe what we see. The disciples on the road to Emmaus were crazy to believe that it was Jesus Christ himself who broke bread with them. It defied everything they thought was true. We have to believe in forgiveness, mercy, compassion, hope, and love when we see it, even though it may seem unbelievable to us in a world full of hatred, selfishness, grief, and despair.
So how do we find Easter after Easter? As we each seek Jesus in this Easter season, here are three things to keep in mind that, I believe, will help each of us find him.
I begin with a confession: I am the kind of person who eats all her Easter candy before Easter. My mom used to say about our Easter candy, “When it’s gone, it’s gone.” She hoped to discourage us from finishing our candy all at once.
But the sweetness of God’s Easter promise is never finished. Joy in Christ is not a once-in-a-year occasion. We don’t have to try to hold on to that Easter Sunday feeling or ration it or stretch it out. Instead, it is renewed for us day after day, like manna for the Israelites. We have to have faith that we can feel the joy, the elation, the confidence of Easter Sunday on any day because every day is God’s day. In fact, we should expect it.
If the Easter Sunday feeling has gone stale for you like a marshmallow Peep, then switch to chocolate. Chocolate has a shelf life of one year. It will last.
So, we will find Easter if we trust that the sweetness and joy aren’t gone. It’s always there to be found. That’s one.
Two, know that God’s Easter promise unfolds in our lives day by day. Easter is not a single day nor a single moment. Just as spring continues to fulfill its promise to fullness day by day, so God fulfills his Easter promise to fullness day by day in our lives. Spring doesn’t arrive in an instant. Neither are we made perfect in an instant. God’s work in our lives is continuous. As John Wesley put it, we are “going on to perfection.” We’re not there yet.
So, we will find Easter if we recognize its slow unfolding. Be patient with Easter.
Three, expect the unexpected. Like the undiscovered Easter egg we find when the egg hunt is over, we find Jesus unexpectedly. The disciples on the road to Emmaus didn’t recognize Jesus until he broke the bread. They didn’t expect him to appear to them there. The disciples in the locked room didn’t expect anyone to come through the barred door. Jesus can come to us anywhere.
And be warned: Jesus may not look like we expect him to. Mary didn’t recognize the man in white standing near the tomb; she thought he was the gardener. Maybe Jesus is your gardener, or at least, the gardener may reveal Christ through his actions. We never know who will speak that word of love we need to hear. Jesus can come to us through anyone.
So, we will find Easter if we’re open to the unexpected. Easter may not be what you think it is.
But perhaps you feel like you’ve found Easter already. Perhaps you’re still experiencing the joy of Easter morning. Praise God. Now—how can you experience the joy more fully? How can you live more completely into God’s Easter promise?
I have two suggestions.
First, expect more. Don’t go thinking that you’ve found all the eggs already. At our house, we hid thirty-two eggs. The kids searched until they’d found them all, and then they knew that there weren’t any more. But there is no limit to God’s blessings. Psalm 21:6 says, “Surely you have granted him unending blessings and made him glad with the joy of your presence.” In Malachi 3:10, God says, “See if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.”
We’re going to need a bigger basket.
Second, give more. No one hides Easter eggs for themselves to find. Here at St. Paul’s, adults and youth hid eggs for kids to find. Half-way through the egg hunt, we hid more eggs for the kids to find. This attitude of wanting to give more, of not being satisfied that we have given enough, is the attitude God wants us to take. Like God himself, we should pour out so much blessing on others that there won’t be room enough to store it.
Everyone is going to need a bigger basket this year.
Acts 17:27 says, “God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him…” The verse ends with this reassurance: “…though he is not far from any one of us.”
Easter is a season of seeking and finding. We seek in faith. Finding is the hope that sustains us.