In the Company of the Committed

In Galilee, they met Jesus on a mountaintop. Perhaps this was the same place where Peter, James, and John had seen Jesus transfigured talking with Moses and Elijah, but now, all eleven surviving apostles were there. For a little over a month, they had wrestled with what they had seen. Jesus had been crucified. He died. They were certain of that, but dead men don’t live again. Here on the mountain, they saw Jesus.

It was awesome. It was overwhelming, and Matthew tells us: “When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted” (28:17). Did you notice that last phrase: “some doubted.” Worship, even for the apostles, wasn’t monolithic. Their faith was at different levels. As we worship today, the same is also true. Some believers will revel in their relationship with God. Others are just beginning to experience God’s love, and most of us will fall somewhere between the two extremes. Today, I would like for us to think about the relationship between fellowship and worship.

Yesterday, I asked us to think about what the Lord has done for us individually. His gifts are two-fold: forgiveness – lifting the burden of guilt – and empowerment – the gifts of growth such as hope and contentment. Today, consider what God has done for us, all of us together.

Fellowship is one of the catalysts of worship. My eyes are opened as I see the Lord from your perspective. “I never thought of it that way!” “How did the Father help you through what I am experiencing?” and, most importantly, “You too?”

All too often, we are told to close our eyes and bow our heads when we should be confessing, praying, laughing, crying, and singing together! When Jesus died, Thomas separated himself from the others and missed seeing the resurrected Lord. He was forced to wait a week. Why didn’t Jesus just make a special appearance to him? Because we see Jesus best, we worship best in the company of the committed!

Fellowship and Social Distancing

This past week, covid-19 has exploded in my little hometown. Overnight we went from 3 cases to 15! That may not seem like many for those of you living in a big city, but in our rural, south-central Kansas community, it’s huge. As a result, we’ve had to close the church building doors (again) and rely on the internet for broadcasting our classes and worship.

While I’m glad we have those technological solutions, it’s just not the same. An “air hug” will never replace the real thing. Zoom will never replace a good old-fashioned potluck. Fellowship is the heart of the Christian community, and we are all suffering.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to different ways we can stay in touch. Of course, there is the phone, but we need to make sure to reach out to everyone in the congregation. That means calling people you might be uncomfortable talking with – or calling people you don’t know very well. Could it be this is an opportunity to make new friends? Don’t be shy; just say, “Hi.” (Hmm, could that be a bumper sticker?)

Recently, my family got together on Zoom. We are scattered from Ireland to Hawaii, but we could laugh and tell stories and see how we’ve changed. Imagine how difficult it would have been to have an in-person family reunion! There was a blessing.

One youth minister I know has started decorating sugar cookies. He and his daughter drive to people’s houses, leave the cookies on the porch and ring the doorbell. (Nothing says “I care” like homemade cookies.)

Many people are visiting folks in the nursing home – from outside the building. They get on their cell phones and talk through the window! One man even used a cherry picker to talk to his mom through a second-story window.

Texting is nice. You’re not interrupting since the recipient can read your message at their leisure, but all of us have some extra time on our hands. Why not write an old-fashioned letter and mail it? My mother-in-law, Dixie, is sending out beautiful homemade cards that people treasure. She was recently blessed when some children sent her a card in return. The cards were covered in crayons and stickers and wrapped in love. How precious!

I’m glad to say; fellowship is alive even when we are apart. Reach out and touch someone today! Well, don’t touch their hands. Touch their hearts!

When God Does Behave As We Expect

One of the most poignant scenes in the Gospels is when John the Baptist sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one?” (Matthew 11). Imagine this fiery prophet – a modern Elijah – languishing in Herod’s prison. Beside the Jordan, John boldly declared, “Behold the Lamb of God!” (John 1), but now he begins to doubt. I can imagine John asking, “If Jesus is the Messiah, why doesn’t he rescue me?”

Sometimes God doesn’t behave like we expect Him to. Who hasn’t asked, “Why is the Lord letting this happen to me?” That’s the story of Job. I don’t find Job very satisfying. It seems to declare, “God has His reasons.” Yes, but does He understand what I’m feeling? The New Testament answer is Jesus. Jesus left heaven and became a man. The Hebrew writer tells us he experienced everything we do – perhaps even that same feeling. After all, on the cross, he cried, “My Lord, My Lord, why have you forsaken me?”

If you’re feeling like that (especially in these days of isolation during the pandemic), consider this scripture. It’s a promise from God (and the Lord always keeps His promises!)

For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38 – 39)

Did Luke Make a Mistake?

Cleopatra’s seductions enslaved Mark Antony, and as the two of them traveled through Syria, she conspired to use Antony to gain control of the whole region. In one example, she accused King Lysanias of Abilene of working with the Parthians – the mortal enemy of Rome. Therefore, Antony put Lysanias to death about 35 B.C. (See Josephus Antiquities 15.88 ff.)

In the last of the list of men Luke uses to date the ministries of Jesus and John is Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness (Luke 3:1, 2).

However, if Mark Antony killed Lysanias about 35 B.C., how could he be alive some 60 years later “in the fifteenth year of Tiberius”? Skeptics have used this “mistake” to cast doubt on Luke’s truthfulness.

The Roman Empire and the Parthian Empire bordered each other. In the period between the Old and New Testaments, the lands of the Bible served as a buffer between these two giants. 

To the north of Mount Hermon, neighboring the city of Damascus, was the country of Abilene. Although, after killing Lysanias, Antony gave Abilene to Cleopatra, apparently, she allowed the son of Lysanias, Zenodorus, to lease the kingdom from her. A few years later, Abilene was given to Herod the Great. When Herod died, parts of Abilene were given to Herod’s son Philip and the rest was granted to a second Lysanias, possibly the grandson of the slain king. The existence of this second Lysanias was merely hypothetical until modern times.

Two inscriptions were discovered in Abila, the capital of Abilene. The first was found in 1737 by the famous English traveler Dr. Richard Pocock, and a second was discovered in 1912. They refer to Lysanias the tetrarch (not king) and are dated in the reign of Tiberias.

Besides being a historical sidebar, why is this important? Can we trust the Bible? If it is truly the “Holy Bible,” it is different from every other book. One of the simple tests is the Bible’s truthfulness. For years the veracity of Luke’s history has been questioned.[1] The story of Lysanias is just another warning about rushing Luke to judgment. I trust my Bible!


[1] Just two other examples include the census of Quirinius (Luke 2:2) and calling the city fathers of Thessalonica “politarchs” (“city authorities, Acts 17:6). Quirinius actually served twice as the governor of Syria, and now there is ample archaeological evidence supporting the term politarchs in Thessalonica.

Man Eating Bugs

As I prepare for my lessons, there is always far more material than I can use, and it makes me sad just to put the information away in a file somewhere. For example, this week, I am preaching on one of my favorite characters, John the Baptist. Mark tells us:

Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey (Mark 1:6).

The prophet Elijah wore a camel’s hair coat with a leather belt (2 Kings 1:8). By his distinctive garb, John told everyone he was a prophet following in Elijah’s footsteps. His diet is another matter.

As I began digging into Entomophagy (the practice of eating insects for food), I discovered a whole new subculture complete with gourmet recipes (See the Eat a Bug Cookbook or Man Eating Bugs: The Art and Science of Eating Insects.) You can even order “Salted Locusts” (15-gram packages for $12.95 on Amazon). Wikipedia reports, “At the home stadium of the Seattle Mariners baseball team, grasshoppers are a popular novelty snack, selling in high volumes since they were introduced to concession stands in 2017.”

Eating bugs sounds repulsive to most Americans, but they are commonly consumed around the world. In fact, four different kinds of locusts are kosher (see Leviticus 11:22). One chef in Jerusalem is taking advantage of the recent plague to add locusts to his menu. Chef Moshe Basson says, “Locust has a taste reminiscent of quail, somehow. And sunflower seeds. Those familiar with the taste of shrimp will recognize that flavor, also.” He adds, “They’re more appetizing if you pull off the head, the short legs, and wings. The long legs are relatively plump, like chicken legs.” [1] He suggests, “Drop them into a boiling broth, clean them off, and roll in a mixture of flour, coriander seeds, garlic, and chili powder. Then deep-fry them. Pan-frying is another good option, and they are “crunchy, tasty and sweet,” says Basson, when mixed with caramel and sprinkled into a meringue.[2]

I doubt that is how John the Baptist prepared them, but it makes you think.

[1] https://www.greenprophet.com/2013/03/feasting-on-locusts-a-recipe-from-moshe-bassons-kitchen/

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-21847517

Looking for Good News

Both John the Baptist and Jesus preached the same message: “Repent for the kingdom of God is near” (Matthew 3:2; 4:17), so it seems strange that we hear so little about the kingdom in most churches. Perhaps democratic Americans are averse to kings and kingdoms, but Jesus went about “preaching the good news of the kingdom” (4:23).

Let’s begin at the breakfast table. Some of us get our news from the internet, while others unfold newspapers as we sip our coffee. Have you noticed, we rarely read about good news? I suspect we begin our days with the news for the same reason we drink our coffee. It gets our blood boiling! Shootings, scandals, murder, and mayhem – our world is in chaos! As the elections approach, the candidates promise things will be good again, but were they ever as good as we remember? Anyone longing for the good ol’ days doesn’t remember dentistry from the 1950s, polio, smallpox, or segregation!

On the other hand, think about the good news of the kingdom of God: the end of evil, the end of chaos and fear – a new heaven and a new earth.

Let’s take a moment today and look around for some good news. It could be we haven’t tried to find it in so long, we’ve forgotten what it looks like!

Excuses

The Business Insider (Australian edition) asked, “Have you ever snuck off from work early? If you answered ‘No,’ you’re probably lying.” [1] Here are the top excuses people gave:

1. Pretending to be unwell — 68%.2. Having a doctor or dentist appointment — 57%.
3. Family member ill — 25%.
4. Avoiding bad weather and associated transport issues, such as snow — 23%.
5. Collecting children from school — 13%.
6. Being concerned about others at work catching my illness — 11%.
7. Broken boiler — 6%.
8. Taking a pet to the vet — 6%.
9. Family member or flatmate being locked out — 4%.
10. Going to vote — 2%.

Since these excuses were used in Australia, I had to wonder about people claiming they had to leave work early because of snow, but who am I to judge? Buzzfeed News regularly prints “bad excuses.” Here are some excuses High School student have used:

Once during my high school spirit week, it was “superhero” Thursday. I didn’t have a costume and didn’t have time to buy/ make one. I had a genius idea. I skipped school that day, and then on Friday, everyone was demanding a reason why I wasn’t at school, and my excuse was, “I was here; I just came as the Invisible Woman.”

I used the excuse that I missed the bus for months until the school caught on that I lived across the street. I could see my high school from my porch.

And finally, as a Batman fan, I liked this one:

I once signed out of school because I didn’t want to be there, and the excuse I put on the books was, “Gotham City needs me.”

I’ve been preaching for over 40 years, and I’ve heard my share of excuses from people for not attending. (I wonder what answers you would give these people? Write to me: John@JohnMcKeel.com. )

  • “The church is full of hypocrites.” (Answer: “We always have room for one more,” or “If you are letting a hypocrite come between you and God, he’s closer than you are.”)
  • “I’m against organized religion.” (“Perfect! We’re highly disorganized.”)
  • Church people hate women/gays/divorced people/ethnic groups/interracial couples/insert group here. (“Ouch!” What would you say?)
  • “I don’t believe in God.” (“That’s okay. God still believes in you.”)
  • “Church people are too judgmental.”
  • “I’m just not being fed.”
  • “Ten years ago, someone at some church somewhere was really awful to me.”
  • “I feel like I need to get right with God before I can come to church.” (“It’s not going to happen.”)

“Churches just want my money.” (“No. God wants all of you! The church can survive without your money (we’ve been around for 2,000 years), but you will be more likely to thrive if you’re willing to share it with others.” [2]

Jesus has heard enough excuses! (Do you remember the parable in Luke 14?) It’s time for honesty.

  [1] Downloaded October 17, 2020, from https://www.businessinsider.com.au/the-most-common-excuses-people-use-to-get-out-of-work-early-2017-6

[2] Thanks to the www.doubtingbeliever.com for some of these answers.

Got a Second?

“Just a sec,” she said, but I wonder if she understood what that means. “The official definition of the second was first given by the [International Bureau of Weights and Standards] at the 13th General Conference on Weights and Measures in 1967 as: ‘The second is the duration of 9192631770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom.’” After reading that definition in Wikipedia, I’m still not sure I know what it means!

Originally, a second was derived by dividing a day into 24 hours. An hour is 60 minutes, and a minute is made up of 60 seconds. Therefore, a second is 1/86400th of a day. Of course, the length of a day isn’t an exact measurement, so a second is only an approximation, or what scientists call apparent time. Clocks, being scientifically calibrated, measure mean time. That’s still too hard for me to understand, so let’s look at some examples:

If you drop a rock, it will fall 4.9 meters (16.08 feet) in one second. A meter-long pendulum will swing one meter in one second. Wikipedia continues, “the fastest human sprinters run 10 meters in a second; an ocean wave in deep water travels about 23 meters in one second; sound travels about 343 meters in one second in air; light takes 1.3 seconds to reach Earth from the surface of the Moon, a distance of 384,400 kilometers.”

Seconds are divided into smaller parts. A 10th of a second is a decisecond. A hundredth of a second is called a centisecond. Most of us have heard of the millisecond (a thousandth of a second). There follows the microsecond (10-3 S), the nanosecond (10-9 S), the picosecond (10-12 S), femtosecond (10-15 S), attosecond (10-18 S), and the zeptosecond (10-21 S). Do not confuse the yoctosecond (10-24 S) with the yottasecond, which equals 31.7 quadrillion years!

A friend of mine pointed out the shortest perceivable moment of time is the time it takes for a stoplight to turn green and the California driver behind you to honk his horn! 

For our devotional today, I’d like you to think about three times in the Bible. God created the world in seven days. We shall all be changed in the blinking of an eye, and, in heaven, time shall be no more.

Surprising Friendship

Mark and Tom were “best buds” all through High School. They played football together. They hung out together, double-dated, and seemed inseparable. They couldn’t imagine being apart, so they decided to be roommates in college. The only problem was, they had never spent the night in the same room, and it turns out Tom had a terrible snoring problem. It was awful. The walls would shake, and Mark was certain the next breath would be Tom’s last. Poor Mark couldn’t get any sleep. After the first week, people were beginning to think Mark was a druggie. His eyes were red. He was falling asleep in class. He had no energy and looked terrible.

Finally, one night as he was lying awake staring at the ceiling while Tom “sawed logs,” Mark had an idea. He pulled back his covers, tiptoed over to Tom’s bed, bent down and gave him a big smoochy kiss, then sprang back into his bed as Tom sat bolt upright – and watched Mark sleep like a baby all night long.

Friends. They’re great. C.S. Lewis once observed, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather, it is one of those things that give value to survival.” Lovers see each other face-to-face while friends stand shoulder to shoulder.

However, it seems to be an unhappy fact of life that in our mobile, rush-rush society, friendship is either superficial or non-existent, and that may be one of the great tragedies of our time.

Don’t you remember having a “best friend” in school or a buddy in the service? Do you remember laughing, working, telling stories, and helping one another? But often, something gets in the way. We go off to school or get married or invest in our careers, and friendships get sacrificed or grow cold.

Well, it’s time for that to change! It’s time to focus on friends and revive relationships. Let’s make some new friends and invest in old ones!

It’s Not Grey — It’s Silver!

In churches, I’ve noticed there are Youth Ministries, Young Adult Ministries, conferences for Young Parents, Marriage Enrichment Seminars, and on and on and on. The culture of youth is very much alive in the church. When it comes to ministry for those of us with silver hair, we are shuffled off with euphemisms: “Senior Saints,” “Young at Heart,” and so forth. We no longer believe “Gray hair is a crown of splendor;” (Proverbs 16:31). It seems when someone retires from business, they also retire from service!

This is entirely wrong, and the 92nd Psalm illustrates this.

The righteous will flourish like a palm tree,
they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon;
planted in the house of the Lord,
they will flourish in the courts of our God.
They will still bear fruit in old age,
they will stay fresh and green,
proclaiming, “The Lord is upright;
he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him” (Psalm 92:11 – 15 NIV).

Consider palm trees and cedars for a moment. They are contrasted with the grass in verse 7: “the wicked spring up like grass.” In the Bible, a cedar tree is the symbol of strength and prosperity. People line their closets with cedar planks. Doesn’t it smell wonderful? Likewise, palm trees bear clusters of fruit that can weigh over 300 pounds! The Psalmist declares, “They still bear fruit in old age; they will stay fresh and green.”

How is that possible? For those of us with silver hair (it’s not grey – it’s silver!), when we look in the mirror, we may not feel entirely “fresh and green.” The person staring back is hardly the person staring out! Inside, I am still young and alive, even though my outsides tell a different story.

Think about the story of Caleb. As a young man, he was one of the twelve spies sent to scope out the land of Canaan. Caleb and Joshua were the only two who brought a favorable report. After wandering in the wilderness for forty years and fighting a war of conquest for another six years, it was time to receive for the Israelites to receive their inheritance. No one wanted to live in the mountains. The land was harsh and still largely unconquered.

Caleb was to receive his inheritance first. He was 85 years old. Surely, he should have a quiet little place beside the lake, but listen to his speech:

Lo, I am this day fourscore and five years old. As yet I am as strong this day as I was in the day that Moses sent me: as my strength was then, even so is my strength now, for war, both to go out, and to come in. Now therefore give me this mountain! (Joshua 14:10 – 12 KJV)

How is this possible? Where does this strength come from in our old age? The Psalmist tells us. By “proclaiming, ‘The Lord is upright; He is my Rock!’” (Psalm 92:15) Don’t focus on the wrinkles. Focus on the strength of the Lord! Moses was 80 years old when he led the Exodus (Exodus 7:7). Daniel served 70 years! (Daniel 1:21) Zechariah and Elizabeth “were well advanced in years” when they raised John the Baptist. The best is yet to come!