Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

To Break Every Yoke

Today let us examine two different yokes mentioned in the Bible. We begin with a prophecy from Isaiah. God’s people were complaining that he did not listen to them. He was not observing their fast. God answered them:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?   (Isaiah 58:5-7)

Israel was not keeping their covenant with God. Their leaders were keeping people in bondage3 by strict laws restricting their freedom while not really caring for them. Again from Isaiah:

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,

then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.   (Isaiah 58:9-10)

Why would we want to a yoke on another person? Perhaps we might say that this is a controlling spirit. Maybe, but what might be behind such a spirit. For Israel, I believe it was this: God was limiting his blessings and they were wondering why overlooking the obvious. They were breaking the commandments of God. Rather than looking at themselves, they sought to blame someone else. Jesus taught:

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”   (Luke 6:37-38)

Judgments and blessings are not compatible. When we cease to judge and return to God, the blessings come. Returning to the Isaiah prophecy:

The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;

and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.   (Isaiah 58:11-12)

Now let us look at the second yoke:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”   (Matthew 11:28-30)

As human beings, we will always be wearing a yoke in our present lives. Which yoke will be chosen? Unless we know Jesus, the first yoke will be chosen for us. The ones who attempt to yoke us are never satisfied. In some ways, they are under a bigger yoke.

Let us lay down our burdens at the cross and come under his Lordship. He will teach us a new way to live. And he will usher us into the Kingdom of God. The Apostle Paul characterized the Kingdom:

For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.   (Romans 14:17)

The kingdom begins now. It begins when we choose Jesus as our Savior and Lord. Our lives change. We will still experience conflict in our lives, but we have a promise that God fulfills through his Son Jesus. Jesus said:

 I have said this to you so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution, but take courage: I have conquered the world!   (John 16:33)

The Devil will try to steal our peace. But we must not let him by keeping our focus on Jesus and not our circumstances. The Apostle Paul wrote:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.   (Galatians 5:1)

 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become enslaved to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”   (Galatians 5:13-14)

When set free, our ministry is to live in this freedom for others to see. Jesus said:

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.   (Matthew 5:14-16)

People will be watching us. The Apostle Peter wrote:

 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear,[and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and respect.   (1 Peter 3:13-16)

 

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The Presentation

bellini2Purification

Today we celebrate The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple by Joseph and Mary. From the Gospel of Luke:

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, the parents of Jesus brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”  (Luke 2:22-24)

Let us look at this event as if it were part of a three-act play. This was the first act of purification – a ceremonial purification. Mary was considered unclean at the birth of her child, according to Jewish law. After a waiting period of about forty days, she and Joseph were required to offer up their son to God. Mary would then be considered pure and her child would be declared holy before God.

A ritual of ceremonial purification was not without meaning or significance. It was a rehearsal of a spiritual purification that was to come. Today, in many churches, parents present their children to God with the expectation that these children will be raised in the Christian Faith.

At the time of Jesus’ presentation the prophet Simeon blessed the family of Jesus and said to Mary:

“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35)

This prophecy foretold the second act of purification – a purification of the Law of God. Simeon prophesied that Jesus would bring about major changes in Judaism. Jesus said he did not come to set aside the law but fulfill it. The essence of the Law had to do with loving God and neighbor, but it had become merely an elaborate set of rules to follow. As the Word made flesh, Jesus demonstrated by his life the true righteous requirements of the law. God requires transparency and truth. We cannot cover up our sins with our “good deeds.”

Joseph and Mary were presenting Jesus to God in the Temple. Jesus would soon change the whole temple worship by becoming the temple himself. He would become the new Temple by satisfying all the requirements of the old one. His blood spilled on the cross, would become the atoning sacrifice for all our sins, once and for all.

From Hebrews we read:

Since God’s children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.   (Hebrews 2:14-15)

The last act of purification has to do with the purification of the saints. We read in Malachi:

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.   (Malachi 3:3-4)

The Apostle Paul writes that Jesus, by his atoning sacrifice, can present us pure before the Father:

And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him — provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.   (Colossians 1:21-23)

Mary and Joseph presented Jesus as holy to God. Jesus turned the tables. He gives Mary and Joseph and all saints as holy to God. Mary and Joseph offered up their son before God. God, the Father, offered His Son as a sacrifice for us all that we may be made holy before him. The Presentation of Jesus becomes our presentation. Jesus presents us spotless before the Father. He is the only one who can do that because he is the one who paid the price for our sins.

Our cleansing is not a ceremonial cleansing. No, we must allow Jesus to change and direct our hearts. God gave us this promise through the Prophet Ezekiel:

I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.   (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

The Apostle Paul wrote:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.   (Romans 12:1-2)

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Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Walk Humbly with Your God

Micah prophesied that a day was coming when we would walk with God:

In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s temple
shall be established as the highest of the mountains
and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall stream to it,
and many nations shall come and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”   (Micah 4:1-2)

God has called all of us to walk with him. God wants our companionship. He wants our friendship. From Micah we read:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?   (Micah 6:8)

There was a time when a walk with God was standard for each day.  We read in Genesis:

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

Adam and Eve rebelled against God. Yet God still wanted to walk with them. However, Adam and Eve now found their sin would be exposed to God and they hid from him. (We can hide, but God sees everything at all times. Nothing escapes his vision.) Because of their sin, Adam and Eve bore great shame. They did not feel worthy to stand in God’s presence.

The psalmist asked:

Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle?
who may abide upon your holy hill?

Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right,
who speaks the truth from his heart.    (Psalm 15:1-2)

To walk with a holy God we must be holy. How does one do that? Are we able to make ourselves holy? Are we able to cleanse ourselves from all our unrighteousness? No! But there is good news. God can do it. We read in 1 John:

 If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.   (1 John 1:9)

Adam and Eve did not have the benefit of the cross. We can approach God because of the atoning sacrifice of his Son Jesus. In Hebrews we read:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested[a] as we are, yet without sin. 1Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.   (Hebrews 4:15-16)

If we have access to God, are we walking with God? Walking with God is more than believing in God. It has to do with our seeking God. We read in Hebrews:

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would approach God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.   (Hebrews 11:6)

Do we seek God daily? Do we seek him with all our hearts? Do we desire to be with him more than anything in this life?

You will seek the Lord your God, and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul.   (Deuteronomy 4:29)

Do we seek God daily? Do we seek him with all our hearts? Do we desire to be with him more than anything in this life? Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount:

Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.    (Matthew 6:33)

Jesus also said in the same sermon::

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.   (Matthew 5:3)

How could people who are poor be rich? They are the people who know that they need God every moment of their lives.

The Apostle Paul wrote:

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”   (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

If we boast that we walk with the Lord then we are not walking with him. Micah again reminds us:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?   (Micah 6:8)

Walking with God is being in a friendship with God. Being in fellowship with God is obeying God. Jesus prayed for his disciples:

Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words, and the word that you hear is not mine but is from the Father who sent me.   (John 14:23-24)

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.   (John 15:12-14)

Have we laid ourselves down? That is the only way we can keep God’s commandments. We cannot do it on our own. The New Covenant with God in Christ is a covenant only God can fulfill. Striving is no longer required. What God asks us to do is what God empowers us to do.

The Apostle Paul asked God to remove a weakness he found in himself. God answered:

but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.   (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

Shall we walk with the Lord? Shall we abide in his presence? To “abide” is to live, continue, or remain; so, to abide in Christ is to live in Him or remain in Him.

Now by this we know that we have come to know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we know that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk in the same way as he walked.   (1 John 2:3-6)

Let us walk the way Jesus walked with the Father. He was never out of touch with God.

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Conversion of Saint Paul

the-conversion-of-saint-paul-bartolome-esteban-murilloFrom Darkness to Light

Saul was on the road to Damascus to arrest Christian believers. While en route he experienced one of the most dramatic conversions recorded in the Bible. In his own words:

“I was traveling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, `Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’ I asked, `Who are you, Lord?’ The Lord answered, `I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles– to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ ”  (Acts 26:12-18)

Well, that was Saul. He was persecuting Christians. Do we have any zealous people in the Church today who are crushing their fellow parishioners? Well, that is another story.

What about those who have grown up in the Church? Do they need a conversion experience? We need to understand that the Apostle Paul did grow up in the Church. He grew up in Judaism which was the only church in his day. The rest of the world was pagan. He was living by the rules. He was educated in the best rabbinic tradition. Here is how he described himself:

Circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.  (Philippians 3:5-6)

I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.  (Galatians 1:14)

We understand, of course, that this was the way Saul described himself before his conversion. How did he express himself after his conversion?

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.  (Romans 7:15-19)

Paul goes on to say:

Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!   (Romans 7:24-25)

Conversion opened Saul’s eyes to reality. His religion had failed him. He needed more than religion. His Lord Jesus Christ did not fail him:

But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.  (Philippians 3:7-11)

Saul became the great Apostle Paul who wrote two-thirds of the New Testament. Does his testimony speak to us today? What is our testimony? Are we merely rules enforcers or are we ambassadors for Christ? The lost in this world are counting on us to witness the love and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul was a rules enforcer who grew to understand God’s mercy and loving-kindness. He prayed for the Church in Ephesus:

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.   (Ephesians 3:16-19)

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