Sleeping in Church

The cardinal rule of preaching is “Never yawn during your own sermon.” My grandfather was a master of the art of sleeping in church. He was an elder in an Oklahoma congregation and felt it was his duty to set a good example for the flock. Each week, he would dutifully take his place on the first pew in front of the preacher. Unfortunately, PawPaw suffered from Parkinson’s disease and fell asleep whenever he sat down. This annoyed the preacher to no end!

The minister was a clever fellow, and he found an eight-year-old boy whom he hired to sit beside PawPaw and keep him awake. The preacher thought he had found a solution, but as soon as he began his lesson, PawPaw started to snore! As soon as the service was ended, the minister stormed down and seized the little boy. “I gave you a quarter to keep PawPaw awake,” he protested. “Yes,” junior replied, “but he gave me a dollar to let him sleep!”

The Bible is full of sleepers. The apostles fell asleep in the garden while Jesus prayed (Matthew 26). Eutychius fell asleep while Paul preached and fell out the window (Acts 20). Jesus’ letter to the church in Sardis warned them to “Wake up!” (Revelation 3:2) His commandment was especially appropriate for them. Every schoolchild knew the story.

Sardis was built on a hill surrounded on three sides by steep, almost inaccessible cliffs in the Hermus River valley. These 1,500 foot high cliffs gave the city its protection and made it a mighty fortress from which to control the surrounding region. Running below the town was the Pactolus River, whose gold-bearing sands gave the Sardinian kings their great wealth. In fact, King Gyges (687-652 B.C.) invented coinage!

Croesus, their most famous king, used his wealth to conquer the Greek coastal cities, including Ephesus. But, alas, after Croesus consulted the Delphic Oracle before going into battle with Cyrus, he lost his kingdom. Enraged, Croesus, in protest, returned to the oracle who had told him he “would destroy a great kingdom,” To which the prophet replied, “I didn’t say which kingdom.”

More to our point, Cyrus captured Sardis by stealth. It seems the king offered a great reward to any soldier who could find a way into the impregnable fortress. One of his men watched as a Sardinian guard accidentally dropped his helmet down the cliff, then slipped down a hidden path to retrieve it. Sardis fell that night when Cyrus’ men followed that path up and into the city (546 B.C.)

What is shocking is that the same thing happened two hundred years later when Antiochus the Great’s army did the same thing! Thus, the Lord’s injunction, ““Wake up! I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you” (Revelation 3:3).

PawPaw, the sermon is over. It’s time to eat lunch!

One Apostle Short

For forty days after his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples and family (Acts 1:3), leaving no doubt that he was alive. This was a hectic time for his followers. They left Jerusalem and walked seventy miles home to Galilee. Jesus met with them there beside the sea and on a mountain top. Then, perhaps, after settling their affairs, they returned to Jerusalem where they received their final instructions: “Do not leave Jerusalem but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about…. In a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4, 5). During this time, they worshiped him, were filled with joy, prayed in the Temple, and studied the Scriptures (Luke 24:52, 53).

It’s just as well that they had ten days before the promise was fulfilled. They had so much to think about and to prepare! Their world had been turned upside down. Jesus didn’t establish an earthly kingdom as they had expected. Their view of the Messiah was wrong. Now they needed to start over. They studied the ancient Scriptures with this new light. Peter discovered two insights that called for action. First, the fall of Judas had been prophesied nearly 1,000 years before (Psalm 69). Second, they began to understand their role as “apostles” and the need for twelve witnesses.

The word “apostle” (apostolos in Greek) means “someone who has been commissioned and sent as a special messenger.” The word is often used in a general sense (Barnabas is called an apostle in Acts 14:14), but in Acts 1, it refers to a particular group of “witnesses.” Peter realized there was a need for someone to take his place (Psalm 109). There must be twelve.

Why twelve? Biblical numbers are significant. Three represents heaven – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Four represents the earth – North, South, East, and West. Thus, three plus four equals seven: the number of completion. Three times four is twelve. Think how many times this number is found in the Bible: twelve tribes, twelve patriarchs, twelve judges – the list goes on. Peter realized there must be twelve witnesses to the Christ. Because of that, Peter lays down some very specific qualifications for the new apostle. He said:

“So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” (Acts 1:21 – 22)

Notice that this was a one-time action. Later, when one of the other apostles, James, was killed, there was no replacement (12:2). The Church was to be built on the foundation of twelve stones. Two men were nominated: Joseph Barsabbas and Matthias (1:23). Early Christian writers suggested that both of these men had been part of the group of 70 that Jesus sent on the “limited commission” (Luke 10), but we have no way of proving that for certain.

With my love of stories, I wish we knew more about Matthias. Did God see something in him that He didn’t see in Joseph Barsabbas? Was Joseph hurt that he wasn’t selected? What did Matthias do after standing with the eleven on the day of Pentecost? Did he go on great missionary journeys like Paul? Some have even gone so far as to say Peter made a mistake. They believe Paul was God’s choice of a replacement for Judas, but I don’t think so. Peter pointed out the need for a witness – the need for twelve witnesses – at the beginning of the New Age.

Seven is the perfect number. Six is one short of perfection; thus, 6-6-6 means “incomplete, incomplete, incomplete.” Likewise, eleven would have been one short. On Pentecost, when the sound of the “mighty rushing wind” (Acts 2:2) died down, twelve men testified. Their witness is still true: Jesus is the Chosen One! Jesus is Lord!

House Hopping

Long before “Lawnchair Larry” (the man who attached 45 weather balloons to his lawn chair and flew to 15,000 feet into the controlled airspace near Long Beach Airport in 1982), cameraman Al Mingalone made history. On September 28, 1937, he was assigned to “jump over a house” using a parachute harness and hydrogen-filled weather balloons for a commercial entitled “House Hopping.” He was to film the whole thing with his movie camera.

Unfortunately, the highest Al was able to jump with this rig was 25-feet. Dusk was approaching. Al told the crew to attach a safety line and add five more balloons. This was more than enough to do the job. Mingalone rocketed to the end of the tether (a clothesline tied to a car bumper), the line snapped, and Al disappeared into the low clouds seven hundred feet above. From there, the wind quickly carried him away.

Al’s father and the film crew jumped into an automobile and chased after him. A local priest, who happened to be a crack shot, grabbed his high-powered 22 and joined them. They followed Al for the next hour as he soared first for the Atlantic Ocean and then back inland.

During the chase, Mingalone remembered he had a pair of scissors in his pocket and tried to haul himself up to reach the lines holding the assortment of balloons, but it was no use. “I’d entered the lower bank of a quick rising fog and couldn’t see a thing. I tried to pull myself up the ten feet to the balloon lines. Partway, cramps grabbed me, and I stopped. A sudden squall struck. I was jerked backward and dropped to the end of my harness. My camera fell free. Having lost twelve pounds of ballast, I shot skyward again. My clothes were wet. The air was cold and raw. I must have been about 700 feet off the ground. After nearly an hour had gone by, I saw the car.”

Father James J. Mullen of St. Margaret’s Church jumped out of the car with his rifle and stood on the golf course of Old Orchard Beach, Maine. He shot twice, piercing three balloons “and Al, balloons and all, came down on a farm in North Kennebunkport.”

The story has a happy ending. Mingalone had dropped the Bell & Howell movie camera into a potato field. It was recovered, and Bell & Howell used it to promote their product’s durability. Al’s film made as the accident took place was awarded “Best Domestic Newsreel Scene of the Year” by the National Headliners Club, and he went on to make commercials for Camel cigarettes (“He grabs his meals as he can, but getting the picture comes first! ‘With Camel’s help,’ Al says, ‘my digestion always stands up under the strain.’”)

As Christians, we won’t need weather balloons to soar into the sky. The Apostle Paul tells us:

For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:15 – 18).

Owls

The other night I stepped off my porch and had the feeling I was being watched. I stopped and looked around, and there he was: a great horned owl! It was a majestic bird just perched and watching me. It was a little unsettling. He wasn’t anxious. The owl seemed to know it all. The great horned owl is mentioned in the Bible according to the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible:

Large owl, standing nearly two feet tall. The color is mouse gray with gray-brown spots and black stripes. As one of its names indicates, it has tufted “ears” and is sometimes called the great horned owl. It feeds on rodents, such as rats and mice. It winters in Israel among ruins and in groves. The great owl may be the owl mentioned in the Bible among the birds of desolation that will inhabit devastated Edom (Is 34:11 NASB margin).

That’s interesting but hardly inspiring. I don’t think I’ve ever preached about “devastated Edom.” On the other hand, according to Josephus, owls played a significant role in King Herod Agrippa I’s story.

Agrippa was raised in Rome and was a boyhood chum of the future Emperor Caligula. Once, as they were riding along in a carriage, Agrippa told him it was a shame that Emperor Tiberius was living so long. He wished Tiberius dead so Caligula could become Emperor. Sadly, the driver heard these words and reported them to Tiberius. The Emperor ordered the arrest of Agrippa, who was put in chains, even while Agrippa was wearing his royal purple robe. Later in chains, Agrippa was leaning against a tree amid the other prisoners on his way to prison. An owl was sitting in the tree, and a German prisoner told Agrippa: “I think it fit to declare to thee the prediction of the gods. It cannot be that thou shouldst long continue in these bonds; but thou wilt soon be delivered from them, and wilt be promoted to the highest dignity and power, and thou wilt be envied by all those who now pity thy hard fortune; and thou wilt be happy till thy death, and wilt leave thine happiness to the children whom thou shalt have.” Then the German prisoner warned Agrippa: “But, do thou remember, when thou seest this bird again, that thou wilt then live but five days longer.”

Shortly afterward, Tiberius died, and Caligula became Emperor. Caligula jokingly replaced the iron chains of Agrippa with one of solid gold, granted Agrippa his freedom, and ultimately made him the first Herodian king since his grandfather, Herod the Great.

Now we come to Acts chapter 12. Shortly after becoming king, Agrippa beheaded the Apostle James. Then he arrested the Apostle Peter intending to do the same. We know how an angel freed Peter. Later, in the same chapter, Agrippa appeared before an assembly in Caesarea. Josephus agrees with the book of Acts. The crowd called Agrippa a god, and King Agrippa was struck down with worms and died (Acts 12:20 – 24). Josephus adds these details. Agrippa appeared before the crowd in a silver robe. The sun was reflected off his robe as he was speaking and blinded the crowd. They declared Agrippa was a god, and the impious king didn’t deny it. Josephus goes on: “But, as he presently afterward looked up, he saw an owl sitting on a certain rope over his head, and immediately understood that this bird was the messenger of ill tidings, as it had once been the messenger of good tidings to him; and fell into the deepest sorrow. A severe pain also arose in his belly and began in a most violent manner.” Agrippa died.

My owl flew away silently in the darkness, as owls do, and I checked my stomach. No pain!

Big Shaggies

I have loved buffalo (bison) since I was a kindergartner in Wichita. My aunt taught me how to draw them using a buffalo nickel, and I drew them on everything. On my way home to St. John from Great Bend, Kansas, I decided to stop and take pictures of a little herd of buffalo outside town. When I pulled off onto the road’s shoulder, there was a man with a truckload of hay at the gate to the buffalo pasture. He had just arrived, and the animals were excited. Suppertime! They came running. I introduced myself and asked if I could take some photographs. Bob said, “Sure, but can you help me first?” He asked me to drive his truck into the pasture while he made certain none of them ran through the gate onto the highway while he closed it.

Now I’ve heard stories about how dangerous buffalo are. They are unpredictable. The National Bison Association writes about controlling them: “You can lead a bison anywhere he wants to go.” “These are my pets,” Bob said, and so I drove the feed truck into the pasture. The buffalo quickly surrounded the truck and started munching on the rolls of hay, even before Bob could unload them. Should I get out? Bob seemed happy walking among them, and he didn’t tell me not to, so I gingerly got out. They stopped eating. My heart skipped a beat. They looked at that big Nikon and me, and I saw tomorrow’s headline: “Foolish Preacher Gored by Bison!” Here in front of me, and beside me, and behind me, were thousand-pound critters with horns! Then they smiled a buffalo smile, licked their lips with long purple tongues, and went back to eating. Bob laughed and told me, “Just move slow, and don’t look aggressive, and you’ll be fine.”

It was a wonderful experience, and there is a lesson for all of us. How often do our preconceived notions control us? Jan met a woman at the library the other day who was terrified because two black men innocently walked past her on the sidewalk in Wichita. I remember listening to an old German lady in Berlin spewing curses on the “dirty” Turks in her town. Japanese look down on Koreans. During the Great Migration of the Dustbowl days, Californians use to make “Okies” sit in the balcony at the movies. Even Christians are not immune from prejudice, and it makes me sad. The Apostle Paul wrote:

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:27 – 28).

Perhaps it’s time to get out of the truck and meet some “big shaggies” in person!

Knights of the Lord’s Table

I loved being a Cub Scout! I wore my little blue and gold uniform to school on meeting days and decorated my bedroom with scouting memorabilia. I especially loved making crafts out of popsicle sticks (because you had to eat the popsicles first). There were all kinds of special events, from the pinewood derby, where you carved little wooden race cars, to the knights of the round table where you made cardboard armor.

That image of the knights of the round table will help us understand the Apostle Paul’s imagery in Romans 6:12 – 14.     

Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace (New Revised Standard Version).

The picture Paul paints is of a soldier standing before a king. He offers himself and his weapons in service to his master. Today, we need to ask two questions. First, who is your Lord? As Bob Dylan sang, “You’ve got to serve somebody. It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’ve got to serve somebody.” The second question may require a little more thought. “How can the parts of my body be used in service to the Lord?” Imagine what God can do with your tongue, your eyes, your hands, your feet, and your heart!

I’m going to go enjoy a popsicle while I think about it.

Top Five Snakes in the Bible

It was a chilly spring day as Jan and I were hiking in the woods not far from our home in Connecticut. Then we saw it: a blue and black snake in the middle of the trail. It was so cold; the cold-blooded snake was barely moving. Jan stooped down. “Can I touch it?” I wasn’t sure. I had never seen a snake precisely like this one. The diamond head looked like a poisonous rattler, but it had round eyes. The dangerous snakes I had seen had “squinty” eyes. I took my camera out and snapped several pictures; then, I moved close to try for a dramatic close-up. Jan reached out and touched its tail. That’s when I knew it wasn’t a friendly garden snake. As fast as lightning, it struck my lens, and Jan jumped so high the neighboring airport picked her up on radar. Here is my list of the top five snakes in the Bible.

5 – Brood of Vipers (Matthew chapters 3 and 23)

The fifth snake in our top five list isn’t a snake at all. It’s worse! John the Baptist and Jesus shared the same message in their preaching: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” They also loathed hypocrites whom they both called “You brood of vipers.”

4 – The Snake in the Parable (Matthew 7:10)

“Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent?” A rock can resemble a biscuit (please, no comments about my baking!), and both fish and snakes have scales. The point Jesus is making is, God is a good Father and gives us good things. The Lord isn’t the source of the bad things in our lives!

3 – The Snake that Bit the Apostle (Acts 28:4)

A poisonous viper latches onto Paul’s hand as he makes a fire for the survivors of a shipwreck (Acts 28:4). Everyone expects him to die, but they have a new respect for him when he doesn’t. “The trouble for biblical interpreters today is, there are no poisonous snakes on Malta. So where did this snake come from, and how did the Maltese know the viper was deadly? According to The Times of Malta (February 19, 2014), the Islanders have several explanations.

One is that Paul’s preaching caused all the venomous creatures on the island to lose their venom. Another theory is the snake was the Leopard snake, Zamenis situla, which is venomous in southern Europe but not on Malta.” A third theory is the poisonous vipers on Malta have since gone extinct. The best explanation is, “The notorious horned viper, Vipera ammodytes is deadly and inhabits southern Europe and Turkey. It has been known to hitch a ride on ships and is an excellent swimmer, or it could have ridden one of the planks from Paul’s ship to shore. The islanders, who often traded with the mainland, would have instantly recognized the viper by its horns and reacted as Luke recorded in Acts.”

2 – Nehustan: The Bronze Serpent

The people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died (Numbers 21:4 – 6).

As a cure, the Lord had Moses make a bronze serpent and lift it up. When people were bitten, they could look to the serpent and be healed. Centuries later, that bronze serpent became an idol and had to be destroyed (2 Kings 18:4).

1 – The Serpent in the Garden

Without a doubt, the most famous serpent of all deceived Adam and Eve in the Garden (Genesis 3). It was the devil incarnate.

Our blue snake turned out to be an Eastern Diamond Back, but my advice is still the same. Give serpents – especially talking snakes – a wide berth!

Mission Impossible

The Impossible Task

I love studying at the public library. First, I love books, but people also have a chance to ask me questions and talk. This past week, a young mother asked me an insightful question about John 18:6.

When Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the brook Kidron, where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, for Jesus often met there with his disciples. So Judas, having procured a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. (John 18:1 – 6)

It’s only mentioned in John’s account. Did you see it? “They drew back and fell to the ground.” It’s a detail the other gospels pass over. What would cause the soldier to fall to the ground? Did Jesus blast them with some miraculous power? No. Were the soldiers afraid of a dozen Galilean fishermen armed with two swords? That’s not very likely. What happened?

To answer that, we need to use our sanctified imaginations. It was Passover. That means there was a full moon illuminating the streets and walls of Jerusalem. It was quite late at night. They had searched all over Jerusalem. They first searched for Jesus at John Mark’s home, probably the scene of the Last Supper (Mark 15). Judas also knew about the Garden of Gethsemane, and so the soldiers followed him through the city walls, down the Kidron Valley, and up into the olive groves. Have you seen an ancient olive tree? They are thick and gnarly and look very sinister – even in daylight. Can you imagine what the trees must have looked like by the light of a full moon? Now think about what the soldiers knew about Jesus. He performed miracles. He healed the sick, raised the dead, walked on water, had power over demons. “How are we going to arrest such a man?” If they were Jewish, they might have remembered the story of Ahaziah and Elijah. The king sent fifty men to arrest the prophet:

Then the king sent to him a captain of fifty men with his fifty. He went up to Elijah, who was sitting on the top of a hill, and said to him, “O man of God, the king says, ‘Come down.’” But Elijah answered the captain of fifty, “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.” Then fire came down from heaven and consumed him and his fifty. 

Again the king sent to him another captain of fifty men with his fifty. And he answered and said to him, “O man of God, this is the king’s order, ‘Come down quickly!’” But Elijah answered them, “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.” Then the fire of God came down from heaven and consumed him and his fifty. (2 Kings 1:9 – 12).

The third captain was wiser, fell to his knees, and politely asked Elijah to spare his life and the lives of his fifty men and come with him peacefully. If the soldiers sent to arrest Jesus knew this story when Jesus showed no fear in the garden, it would be no wonder they would back away and fall down on their faces – a detail only mentioned by John, who was an eyewitness. Aren’t you glad he did? Thanks for the question!

The Books and the Parchments

In the Apostle Paul’s last letter, he asks Timothy:

When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. (2 Timothy 4:13)

Paul was no longer under house arrest. This time, he was in a Roman prison, and we can imagine how horrible it must have been. Damp, cold — the words “bring the cloak” are touching, but the last phrase tells us about Paul’s character. A mind like his needed stimulation! The word translated “books” refers to fragile papyrus documents, and the “parchments” were valuable leather scrolls.

It is interesting how our reading materials have changed over time. The earliest documents, like the Ten Commandments, were chiseled in stone. The Babylonians wrote on clay tablets and baked them in the sun. Later came the papyrus documents formed from ribbons of pith taken from the Nile River plant’s stem. The ribbons were laid side-by-side horizontally, and a second layer was added vertically. Finally, the whole sheet was soaked in muddy water and pressed together while it dried. Most of the New Testament was probably written on this fragile material. The next great innovation was parchment – fine leather scrolls and books.

Have you thought about how difficult it would be to use a scroll? They were unrolled with one hand and wound up with the other. It would be challenging to follow a series of scripture readings during a sermon! The book form was a tremendous innovation. Sheets were folded and stitched together, then bound between two covers. Now it was possible to turn the pages and follow along. They were much more convenient to use in studying the Word of God. For two thousand years, the form reigned and filled the great libraries of the world. In our generation, we’ve seen the next big step in the evolution of books: the digital age.

I was slow to adopt an electronic library. I love the feel of a fine book. Leather covers with gilded pages, fine type, and flowing fonts are a work of art, but when Jan and I moved aboard our sailboat, we disposed of most everything. That included most of my library. It was indescribably hard for me to part with the thousands of books that formed my carefully collected and cherished library. However, they would never survive a life at sea. I never thought I would preach again, but God had other plans.

In San Diego, I was called to fill the pulpit in my childhood church. Now I was desperate for a library, but my loving wife, the librarian, introduced me to electronic books. Today I have more books on my cell phone than I ever had on my selves!

The advantages of an electronic library are clear. I can take my study with me anywhere. While I wait in the hospital for a member’s surgery to conclude, I can study, read, and research. It is so easy to search for topics electronically. As I get older, my eyes are getting weaker, but I can easily enlarge the print in electronic books to any size with the flick of my finger. The list of wonders goes on and on.

On the other hand, when the power goes out during a winter storm, like Paul, I may find myself looking for “the books and the parchments.” What do you think? Are you using eBooks now, or are you holding on to hardbacks?

What’s Your Motivation?

I’m getting older, and I found myself in the doctor’s office for a stress test. That means the nurse attaches a dozen electrodes to different parts of your body using Super Glue that will require a week’s worth of scrubbing in the shower to remove. Then you are asked to step onto a treadmill and walk briskly while they “monitor your vitals” – that’s another way of saying “documenting the heart attack you are about to have.”

At the far end of the treadmill was a motivational poster of some stairs climbing up from the beach. I understand it was a reference from the movie “Something’s Gotta Give.” Jack Nicholson is told he will be healthy enough for sex if he can climb the stairs. I didn’t know that at the time. It just wasn’t very motivating, and I told the nurse, “Stairs! Stairs? Are you kidding me? I’m a diabetic. Stairs won’t motivate me to pass this test! Put a double-bacon cheeseburger up there, and I’ll run to the moon and back!”

She stepped out of the room for a moment and came back in with a color copy of a double-bacon cheeseburger and taped it over the stairs. I passed the test with flying colors.

So, what motivates you to be a disciple? Are you on a quest to meet the Lord? Are you thinking of heaven and your eternal reward? Are you inspired by the amazing love we have in Christ? I often wonder what led those men and women to willingly forfeit their lives rather than deny their Lord. What’s your motivation? Drop me a line!