A Disciple Like Zechariah

Normally, there is a difference between the sermon of the week and the blog posted for the week. This week, this was not possible due to Thanksgiving and the fact that I was at Advent @ Arlington, where there was a guest speaker, Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth, the cousin of Mary the mother of Jesus. I tried to take good notes, and here is approximately what was said:

Good morning! Let me introduce myself. My name is “Zachariah.” Many of you have never heard of me, for I am primarily known as the father of John the Baptist. I’ve come here this morning to help you understand a little bit more about my walk as a disciple of God, which I hope will help you in your discipleship walk.imgres

Your pastor told me that you have the custom of reading scripture before the sermon, and so I am going to read you my story before I tell it to you. Here is how the Gospel of Luke tells the first part of my story:

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old. Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”  Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time” (Luke 1:5-20).

Prayer: God of Miracles: Come to us today and open our hearts as we hear the story of the birth of John the Baptist. Convict us. Convert us. Make is wholly your people. In Jesus Name, Amen.

Zechariah: A Committed Disciple

On the surface, you may not think that we have much in common. I lived long time ago during the reign of Herod the Great, King of Judea (Luke 1:5). I was a priest and a descendent of Aaron (v. 5) As a priest, my job was partially to serve in the temple courts. I offered sacrifices and performed Jewish ceremonies. We priests maintained the Temple as the center of the Jewish religion.

My wife and I lived a few miles out of Jerusalem in a small place, where I had a plot of land and also worked growing food for our family. My wife’s name was Elizabeth. Elizabeth and I were both raised as devout Jews. We tried as best we could to obey the laws of Moses (v. 6), which is why we are referred to as “righteous” in your Bible. We were not perfect, but we tried to obey the instructions of Moses. Unfortunately, we were childless (v. 7). As was common in our society, our friends and neighbors considered us to be cursed by God.

Encountering an Angel

One day, when my team of priests was on duty at the temple, I went in to burn incense on the altar of God (vv. 9-10). [1] Outside, there were a number of worshipers praying (v. 10). As I began to burn the incense, an angel from God appeared to me, standing right beside the altar upon which I was burning incense (v. 11). When I saw this magnificent being, unlike anything on earth, I was filled with fear (v. 12). The angel, recognize my fear and said, “Do not be afraid Zechariah. Your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give you a son and you are to name him John” (v. 13). The angel went on to tell me that this son of mine was going to be a joy not just to me, but all the people of our country (14-15)

By the time the angel finished, it was obvious to me that he was talking about a mighty prophet, because he said that my son was to never drink wine or any fermented drink and would be filled with the Holy Spirit of God (v. 15). My son was to go before the Lord God in the spirit and power of our Prophet Elijah, and turn, the hearts of children to their fathers and the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of righteousness (v. 17). [2] My son was to prepare the way of the Lord, which I took to mean that he would be the one to announce the Messiah in the Spirit of Elijah as foretold by our prophets.

Human Unbelief

This is where you and I may have more in common than you suppose. As a Jew, I knew all about the miraculous birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah in their old age (Gen. 16:1, 17: 1-21; 18:9-15; 21:1-8). I also knew about the birth of the Prophet Samuel, despite the infertility of his mother, Hannah (I Samuel 1:1-20). Therefore, you would think that I would understand the power of God to open a barren womb. Nevertheless, I replied to the angel indicating that this was not possible, since I was an old man and Elizabeth was beyond the childbearing years (v. 18).

The angel must have realized my wavering faith. He announced to me that his name was “Gabriel,” which means “one who stands in the presence of God” (v. 19). He told me that he had been sent specifically to me, and since I did not accept the promise of God as it had been given to me, I would be silent until the day my child was born (v. 20). Then, the angel disappeared.

Outside the temple, the crowd was amazed. They realized that something had happened in the temple, because I kept trying to tell them about the angel by making signs but I couldn’t speak (vv. 21-22). imgres-1When I returned home I stayed there for a time, since my time of service in the Temple was completed that very day. Elizabeth became pregnant just as the angel had foretold, and she was very happy (23-24). For five months after she became pregnant, Elizabeth remained in the house (v. 24). Mary, the mother of Jesus, visited her during the time of her pregnancy (vv. 39-56). Since I could not speak, we learned to communicate through signs and writing. Eventually, I was able to let her know that our son should be named John.

God is Faithful to His Promise

When the day came for our child to be born, sure enough, we had a son (v. 57)! Everyone in the community was glad for us, because they realized that God had opened up Elizabeth’s barren womb and showed mercy to us, removing the curse that left us childless (v. 58). It was a miracle and everyone knew it.

On the eighth day, as is customary among my people, friends and family gathered to circumcise our child. All of our friends and relatives wanted to name him “Zechariah” after me and over thirteen important people in our nation’s history, including the prophet Zechariah, who wrote one of the most important books in your Bible (v. 59). [3] However, Elizabeth spoke up and said, “No, he is to be called John’” (v. 60). No one in our family had ever been named John before. After arguing for a while, they came to me and asked what I wanted to name the child. I wrote down “His name is John” (v. 63). At that very moment, I was able to speak and began to praise God. Our neighbors and family were filled with awe (vv. 64-5) and people talked for days about what happened in our household. It was obvious to everyone that this was going to be a special child (v. 66).

Song of Zechariah

imagesAs I began to speak, I was filled with the Holy Spirit and began to prophesy (v. 67). This surprised everyone. I was not a prophet; I was a priest. I was never gifted with the ability to foresee the future or speak inspired words. I sacrificed animals and performed religious rites. Yet, in that moment I was able to speak the very words of God to those around me. I began to praise God and thank Him, because I knew that in my son, John, was someone special. I knew that John, being a Levite like his parents, would not be the Messiah. But I did believe that John was to announce that God had provided for the salvation of our people in the birth of a son of David, someone from the house and linage of King David. I eventually came to believe that Messiah was Jesus, who was the son of Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary.

I had no way to speak about the coming of the Messiah except that for me it meant my people would be saved from all of our enemies and God’s kingdom would be established, a kingdom of holiness and righteousness. As I looked down my son, I began to praise and prophesy about him. Here are the exact words that I said:

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them.

He has raised up a horn of salvation for us  in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies  and from the hand of all who hate us—to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear  in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death,to guide our feet into the path of peace” (Luke 1:68-79).

These words of mine have become famous as “The Song of Zechariah.” Priests, monks, nuns, and others repeat these words every day all over the world. Although I did not believe Gabriel when he first appeared to me, God was gracious and showed mercy to me and, through Elizabeth and me, to all of my people—and even to you.

My Closing Words

As I said in the beginning, I am more like you than you might imagine. Although I was a religious leader and trained to serve God in his temple, I still had to learn what it really means to have faith. Like many of you, I thought faith was an idea or some belief I accepted as true. Like some of you, my faith was something I believed I had inherited from my parents and their parents. It was not until the angel appeared to me, not to Abraham or to someone else who would have to have faith, but to me, did I come to understand what faith is.

During those long months of silence, I had plenty of time to ponder what it means to have faith. I realize that faith was not about what we know but about trusting in God, so that what we believe in becomes present to us in our hearts even though we may not yet have received what faith promises (Hebrews 11:1-2). I can’t tell you how many times during the nine months Elizabeth was pregnant I could hardly believe that the promises of God were true. However, in my silence, and in my thinking, I came to trust God.

There was a second thing I realized as a result of what happened to me. I was a priest. Naturally, as a priest I spent a lot of time at the Temple. In addition, I knew all of the liturgies, the customs, the sacrifices, and the holidays of my people. When the Bible describes me as a “righteous person” part of what they mean is that I was able to live as Moses had asked that priests live. However, in my moment of testing, when an angel of the Lord appeared to me personally, all of that did not help me believe. I have come to understand that rites and rituals, as important as they are, are no substitute for faith. It’s important that we bring our children to church, or in my day the Temple, but Temple or church attendance is no substitute for faith. It’s important that we try to do the right thing in life, but moral behavior is no substitute for faith. Faith is a living relationship with the living God. It changes everything. It certainly changed my life.


Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] After many generations of descendants of Aaron, there were too many priests to have all of them working in the temple at the same time. Therefore, there were twenty-four “divisions” or teams of priests who took turns serving in the temple. It was a great honor to burn incense during this service, so this was a day of honor for Zechariah. See, William Barclay, “Luke” in The Daily Bible Study Series Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1975), 9-10.

[2] The phrase “wisdom of righteousness” is important, for it is one of the places in Scripture were it can be seen that the ancient Jews did not see the teaching of Moses as something different (religious truth) and separate from the kind of wisdom that brings success in life. True wisdom is found in the “Torah,” or “instruction,” “teachings,” or “law” of God.

[3] See, Harper’s Bible Dictionary Revised and Updated (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 2011), among other sources.

A Disciple is Thankful

imagesA great quality we can develop as Christians is thankfulness. In one of his earliest letters to the Thessalonians, Paul wrote, “We always give thanks to God for you and pray to God for you” (I Thessalonians 1:3). In his last letter, he writes to Timothy, “How I thank God for you, Timothy” (2 Timothy 1:3). In between, Paul often—almost always—gives thanks to God. In Ephesians, he says, “Always give thanks for everything to our God and Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20). Paul learned to be thankful in all situations and conditions of life (Philippians 4:11-12). We live in a land of unbelievable prosperity; but few are thankful, truly thankful, to the One who made it all possible. This is too bad because thankfulness is a virtue and a gift of the Spirit of God.

Thankfulness in All Circumstances

Our text for this blog is from Second Timothy. Second Timothy is not a book many of us read; however, it is a surprisingly important letter. While researching this passage, I came upon the following quote from John Calvin:

“This book has been more profitable to me than any other book of Scripture—and it is more profitable to me every day. If anyone examines this book carefully, there can be no doubt they will experience the same effect.”  [1]


Second Timothy is very likely Paul’s last letter. imgres He was in prison, probably in Rome, where he would soon be martyred. [2]  Almost alone and nearing the end of his life, he wrote this letter to Timothy. Timothy was an important person in the New Testament Church. He is listed as the co-writer with Paul of Second Corinthians, Philippians, First Thessalonians, Second Thessalonians, and Philemon. In addition, two letters, First and Second Timothy are addressed to Timothy. These two pastoral letters contain Paul’s most intimate conversation about the church and its leadership.

Many Christians believe Paul converted Timothy’s family.  At least be discipled Timothy. Timothy joined Paul during his Second Missionary Journey (Acts 16:1-3) and was a partner of Paul’s from that time foreword. During the Third Missionary Journey, Timothy was active in helping the Macedonian church (Acts 17:14). When Paul went on to Athens, Timothy later joined him there (18:5). Timothy was with Paul at least a part of the time he was imprisoned in Rome (Col.1: 1; Phil. 1:1; Phile. 1). At the end of Second Timothy, Paul gives his most touching personal invitation for Timothy to come quickly before winter (4:21). Paul seems to foresee that his death is immanent, and most scholars believe Second Timothy to be his last letter. Timothy was like a son to Paul, a son in Jesus Christ.

Here is how Paul begins the letter:

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, in keeping with the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, To Timothy, my dear son: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. I thank God, whom I serve, as my ancestors did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God (2 Timothy 1:1-8, NIV).

Paul: An Apostle of Thankfulness

Second Timothy really is a wonderful book. Throughout the book, it is obvious that Paul is suffering. He is a prisoner in Rome, and many people he knew and loved have deserted him (4:9), betrayed and harmed him (4:14), and are ashamed of him (1:8). He is so beaten down that he believes that his life is being poured out like a drink offering  (4:6). He knows that he will soon die (4:17). imgres-1Nevertheless, Paul is thankful for Timothy, for Christ, for the church, and for what he has been given to do by Christ.

This thankfulness of Paul is not a new thing. Paul is almost always thankful. I read the beginning of First Thessalonians at the beginning of this sermon. Most scholars believe that First Thessalonians is the earliest of Paul’s letters. In between First Thessalonians and Second Timothy, we have thirteen or so letters of Paul. Of those letters, Paul expresses thanksgiving in some way in all but three. [3] Most often, Paul ties thanksgiving with his prayers for the people of the church, as if Paul’s thankfulness derives from his prayer life—something we might emulate. [4] Prayer almost always results in thankfulness.

Paul is thankful in prison, in times of stress, when he is abandoned, when the Gospel has been betrayed, and because he has developed this quality he can say, I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:12). We need to develop this kind of thankfulness.

Real Blessings

There are things that may appear to be blessings that are not really blessings at all. So much time in our culture is spent on thinking that blessings are things or accomplishments, or pleasurable experiences. It is a blessing to have some things, but there are things that are not blessings at all—food is a blessing, but too much food is not, wine is a blessing, but too much wine is not, physical health and the ability to exercise is a blessing, but too much exercise is not. Money, possessions, pleasure—all the things that our society worships—are not necessarily blessings. In fact they can be the reverse.

In connection with Salt & Light, I’ve been doing a study of blessings and what constitutes the blessed life. imgres-2I think almost everyone wants to live the blessed life, but few people in our day and time have any idea what it means to be blessed or to live the blessed life. Blessings and the blessed life have their root in God. Over and over again in the Old Testament fellowship with God, following God, and imitating God are connected to blessing and the blessed life. Listen to how Psalms begins:

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers (Psalm 1:1-3, ESV).


God is the source of blessings, which is why we have a hymn entitled, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” [5] God is the author not just of some of our blessings, or of our spiritual blessings, God is the fount of every blessing. It is God who created the world, gave us the gift of life, sustained us until today, sent his Son to show us the way to fellowship with the Father, and gave himself for us on the Cross.

We live the blessed life when we live out the life of a disciples and are thankful for God, for the Good News that God loves all human beings and wants them to live with him forever, for the gift of life, for our families and loved ones, for our faith, for the fellowship we have in our church and in the Christian community, for the sense of purpose in life, for the hope we have because of the cross of Christ and for the promise of the resurrection. The blessed life is a thankful life!

Consequences of Losing our Thankfulness

One of the saddest things about our nation is the loss of thankfulness for our ancestors, for the faith that sustained them, and for the blessings we have even though we do not have everything we could each imagine having. Recent disregard for our Constitution and for the sacrifices others made for our freedoms because of perceived flaws in their beliefs or behavior are symptoms of this lack of thankfulness for the past achievements of our ancestors, as we have the capacity to do better, which it is likely we do not!

As we have become increasingly secular, increasingly materialistic, increasingly hedonistic, and increasing therapeutic as a society, we have become obsessively self-centered and increasingly unbalanced. 5-Unhealthy-Reasons-for-Staying-with-a-Narcissist-RM-722x406During a conversation this week the pastors were talking about our increasingly narcissistic society—a society in which everyone is focused on themselves and they desires. A narcissistic, self-centered society cannot possibly be a happy, blessed, our even stable society. [6]

You might ask what would a narcissistic society look like? The answer is, “It would look a lot like our society.” The consequence of losing our humility and our sense that our blessings come from God results in a culture of self-centeredness, in which people seek their own happiness at the expense of others. A narcissistic society is a society alienated from God and from others. A narcissistic society is one in which there are many broken relationships as people focus on themselves. A narcissistic society is a society in which there is discord caused by various class and social conflicts as each part of society feels “entitled” to more. A narcissistic society is a society in which there is violence, both domestic and social, caused by the anger at not having others recognize our “right” to money, power, and pleasure. A narcissistic society is a society very much like the one we are creating and have been busy creating for many years.

Conclusion: Salt & Light

article-2234781-16151600000005DC-3_634x473When I was writing this month’s church newsletter I mentioned that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I have unusually fond memories of Thanksgivings as a child, a youth, and an adult. It so happens that my most vivid memory is of Thanksgiving 2000, my father’s last Thanksgiving. It was not a perfect day, but we had a nice meal, talking, and played our traditional hard fought game of World Domination. My brother, as usual, won.

I mentioned another memory in the newsletter. This is a memory of a picture I saw at a family reunion many years ago of my Shepherd uncles and part of my Mother’s family celebrating Thanksgiving 1945. The picture was taken of my mother and her cousins. It is an old black and white photo. The men are still in their uniforms. It was a cloudy day. The farmland is cold, dark, and bleak. However, the smiles on their faces say it all—they are just so thankful that the war is over and the family is together again.

IMG_0009My mother was born in 1921. She grew up in a home in which she was abused by her mother. By the time she was eight, our nation was in the midst of the Great Depression. By the time she turned twenty-one, America was in World War II. When the boys got home, that is by Thanksgiving 1945, it was pretty obvious that the world was not going back to the way it once was. Of the six young people in the picture, exactly one would be able to survive on the family farms. The rest would leave and start over.

The suffering was not over: there would be Korea, health issues, accidents, Vietnam, several recessions, the drug culture, and children who fell into bad habits. Nevertheless, I cannot remember a Thanksgiving in which both my parents were not thankful. At the end of Mom’s life, she was still thankful despite all the bad things she endured.

My mother and father were not overtly religious most of the time, but inside they had a deep and abiding faith that kept them thankful and going on. We need to develop these same qualities in our day. Like Paul, we need to develop a thankfulness that is not dependent upon current circumstances. We need to remember that true blessings may take a generation or more, even many generations, to fully emerge. We need to remember that we are only tenants of this good earth, not its permanent owners. We need to remember that our hope is with God, who we will enjoy forever. In remembering our blessings, we will become a truly thankful people.

Copyright, 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] John Calvin, “Commentary on Second Timothy” in Calvin’s Commentaries vol. 21 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, Reprinted 1993), 183 n. 1. This is a good place to note that I believe this letter to be apostolic and that conviction has grown during my twenty-five years of ministry. It is a personal letter to a young disciple by an aging mentor and bears the imprint of the relationship of Timothy and Paul on almost every page.

[2] See, Thomas C. Oden, “First and Second Timothy and Titus” in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1989), 12.

[3] This is not the place to get into the scholarly debate about whether Paul wrote all the books attributed to him. Even in the ancient church it was not clear that Paul wrote Hebrews. In my mind, the debate is bound to be inconclusive and is not productive, since we can never really resolve the issues. Only in I Timothy, Galatians, and Titus is there no expression of thanksgiving.

[4] See, Romans 1:8; I Corinthians 1:4-9; 2 Corinthians 4:15; 9:12; Ephesians 1:15-16; Philippians 1:3-6; Colossians 1:3-6; I Thess. 1:2-3; 2 Thess. 1:3-4; 2 Tim. 1:3-5; Philemon, 1:4.

[5] “Robert Robinson, wr. “Come, Thou Fount of every Blessing” Nettleton in The Hymnal for Worship and Celebration (Waco, TX: Word Music, 1986), 2.

[6] A narcissist has an excessive interest in his or her self. The result is selfishness; a craving for satisfaction of one’s own ego needs to the detriment of others, a craving especially for power, pleasure, or plenty. Such people have little empathy for others. There have been many books written about the increasingly narcissistic nature of our culture.

Are You Ready: Wise and Foolish Disciples

I’ve mentioned before in this blog that this summer we returned home only to find that lightning had struck our house! In the end, we replaced a number of appliances. However, before we replaced the appliances we tried to have them fixed. In order to have them fixed, we called repairmen. My father was pretty handy around the house, and fixed almost everything that was broken. Unfortunately, I did not inherit his talent. Therefore, whenever anything breaks we have to call the repairman. Whenever we call the repairman, he or she will say something like, “He’ll be there sometime between 8 AM and Noon Monday or Tuesday of next week.” Most of the time, this doesn’t bother me because Kathy stays home and waits for the repairman to come; however, that is not always the case. After hours of waiting hoping the repairmen will come early, there’s always the temptation to run an errand, or walk around the pond, or do something to eliminate the boredom. Sure enough, if I ever fall victim to these temptations and do something besides wait, that is the exact time the repairman comes and I miss him.

imgres-1This weekend, we had a men’s retreat that focused on what we do in the “dash” of our lives. The dash metaphor is taken from the fact that tombstones list our day of birth and our day of death with a dash in between. Yet, those two dates matter much less than what we do in the meantime—in the dash so to speak. [1] The life of a disciple is similar: from time to time, and at the end of our lives, we do experience the presence and power of God. There are times of great spiritual excitement and growth. They are great. However, we also spend time waiting—and that time makes up most of our lives, indeed the most important part of our lives are spent in the dash. A part of the difficulty of the “dash” is that we must remain faithful at times when God may seem absent or uninterested.

Are you Ready?

Luke 12:35-48 is a difficult passage. The first five verses are about servants generally. The second seven versus are a response to a question asked by Peter (v. 41). Both passages emphasize the importance of diligence in a servant, though the second part deals with leaders as much as with disciples. With that background, here is our text for the week:

Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like servants waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the middle of the night or toward daybreak. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the middle of the night or toward daybreak. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. Peter asked, “Lord, are you telling this parable to us, or to everyone?” The Lord answered, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whom the master finds doing so when he returns. Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose the servant says to himself, ‘My master is taking a long time in coming,’ and he then begins to beat the other servants, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers. “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked (Luke 12:35-48).

The Importance of Wise Diligence

Downton Abbey is not as popular as once it was, but for the time it was necessary for me to schedule my Sunday night Bible study so that we could be home in time to see each episode! As you probably know, Downton Abbey is the story of the wealthy Crawley family through several generations in the early 20th Century. My two favorite characters are Mr. Carson, who is the head Butler, and Mrs. Hughes, who is the head housekeeper. The two of them symbolize the dignity and efficiency of British butlers and housekeepers at the height of the British Empire. Their quiet love for each other, diligence, and loyalty to their employers have been my favorite part of the story. [2]

Jesus told many parables in which he speaks of good and wise servants, comparing them wicked and foolish servants. For example, Jesus tells parables that are designed to show us that scribes and Pharisees, who claimed to be serving God, were not good servants. He told parables in which wicked servants kill the master’s son (Luke 20:9-19). He told parables in which wise servants faithfully invest the master’s money (Matthew 25:14-30). Today’s text is a parable about what it means to be a faithful disciple of Jesus, and to take seriously our responsibilities for other disciples.

imgresIn the ancient world, for a man do physical work, he had to grab the edge of his robe and tie it around his waist. This was known as, “girding your waist.” In the New International Version, this idea is translated, “Be dressed and ready for service.” I happen to like the older translation better, but the idea is the same. In order to do any kind of work, we need to be dressed and ready to work. A wise servant is ready at all times to meet any legitimate request from his or her employer, or in Jesus’ day, “Master.” In this particular story, like the Parable of the Ten Virgins, we are reminded that Jesus may need us and come to us at any time (Matthew 25:1-13). Therefore, we should be about our masters business and ready to serve him at any time. Spiritually speaking, this means that we need to be filled with God’s Wisdom by the power of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, we will not be properly equipped to serve Christ.

The Importance of Being Filled with the Spirit

In the Parable of the Ten Virgins, and in today’s parable, Jesus urges believers to keep their lamps burning. In the ancient world, lamps were often shallow bowls made of pottery. (Our church’s Salt & Light logo incorporates that ancient symbol in its flame.) Because lamps were small and shallow, it was necessary to keep them filled with oil. Without oil, a lamp would go out and leave a person in the darkness at an inopportune time.

images-1From ancient times, oil has been a symbol for the Holy Spirit. In other words, this parable begins by teaching us that a servant is diligent and wise because he or she remains filled with the Holy Spirit. Discipleship is not a matter of works, although it involves doing good works. Discipleship is a matter of grace as God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, works in our lives empowering us to live the Christian life.

There is an element of discipline in discipleship; however, more important than discipline is a disciple’s continued attachment to the master by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is why Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches if a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 13:5). Our attachment to God is through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit that comes into our lives as we believe in God and open our lives to the enlightening and empowering grace of his love and wisdom. We simply cannot live out the Christian life without the Spirit of God helping us. When we attempt to do otherwise, we always fail.

The power to live out the Christian life comes from God by the power of the Holy Spirit. I am sure that we’ve all had the experience of beginning a Christian work by the power of the Holy Spirit but ending up trying to do it our own power. It never works. We always burn out. It is only when we come back to God and allow God to fill us again so that we find the ability to continue. This week, we had another retreat. A member and I went to Alabama to spend two days at a convent. My special prayer was that God fill me with his Spirit again because you cannot live the Christian life successfully on your own.

The Reality of Accountability

The hardest part of this text for modern ears involves the passages relating to the master’s judgment. [3] Jesus describes the faithful and wise manager as one the master finds diligently serving his fellow servants when he returns. Jesus also describes two other kinds of servants:

  1. First, he describes a servant who notes that the master has taken a long time in returning, concludes the master will not return, beats the other servants, and eats their food (Luke 12:45). In very harsh language, Jesus says the master will simply cut such a person to pieces in the judgment (v. 46).
  2. There is a second kind of servant, however. This servant is simply clueless. This kind of servant never bothered to learn what the master wanted and so does not fulfill the master’s bidding. The servant is also punished, though not as harshly (v. 48).

It is not a good idea to focus on the punishments. Jesus is using a form of hyperbola common in Scripture to emphasize that unfaithful, harsh, lazy, and foolish servants will not be rewarded for their behavior. This passage, like the passage in which Jesus says it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven should not be taken literally, but should be taken as a way of Jesus emphasizing the importance of what he is saying and the dangers of disobedience.

imgresNot long ago, Kathy shared with me a graphic that describes what are sometimes called, “Carnal Christians.” On throne of the Carnal Christian’s life is him or herself. Jesus is present only on the periphery of the Carnal Christian’s life. He or she may attend church or Bible studies, they may be active in some areas of service, but their faith is not central to their life. It is simply one among many ways such a person finds fulfillment. In many ways, the Carnal Christian is no better off than an unbeliever: out of fellowship with God, such a person is also out of fellowship with other human beings and with nature. They are even out of fellowship with their own deepest needs. The result is discord, frustration, alienation, and broken relationships. The random dots in the illustration represent the disorder of the Self-Directed Life.

There is a natural accountability in life. If we do not put Christ at the center of our lives, inevitably we put our selfish desires and ourselves on the throne. When we do this, we suffer the consequences. It is not that God is judging us, like a harsh unfeeling human judge. Instead, we are simply receiving the consequences of our own decisions. The judgments of the unfaithful servants are just what happen when we do not really and truly follow Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Blessing of Wise Disciples

The element of God’s grace, and the blessing of wise and faithful servants, is emphasized in two places in today’s reading. In the first half of our parable, when the master returns and finds his servants waiting for him, instead of asking them to serve him, he has them recline at the table for a banquet, and then unexpectedly serves them (Luke 12:37)! We would imagine that the reason the servants were awake late when the master returned from the wedding banquet was to serve the master! It turns out, however, that God, after returning from the wedding banquet of his church, blesses his servants, the members of that church and serves them.

In the first part of the parable, Jesus returns to a metaphor he often uses. The Kingdom of God is like a Great Banquet in which a master invites everyone to attend and blesses everyone who attends, rich or poor, deserving or undeserving, socially acceptable or not socially acceptable (Matthew 22:1-14; Luke 14:15-24). All those who respond to the master’s invitation are invited to the banquet and the master serves them.

In the second half of the teaching, when the master returns and finds his servant faithfully serving others, he blesses such a servant and puts him or her in charge of everything that he possesses (Luke 12:44). This is reminiscent of the Parable of the Talents, where the faithful servants are put in charge of even greater things because of their faithfulness in smaller things (Matthew 25:14-30).

On a basic level, our text is about disciples, and especially Christian leaders, faithfully living out the task of being a disciple, bringing others to Christ, and discipling them—undertaking the task of feeding God sheep. Historically, it is about the failure of the scribes, the Pharisees, and the priests to properly feed the people of God (Matthew 21:33-46). Christ desires his servants, the Church, to do a better job. [4]

The Christian church has always seen today’s text as concerning the return of Christ and the final judgment. However, on a deeper spiritual level, this parable is about the coming of Christ into our lives at unexpected times and in unexpected ways. It is about the little judgments that we all receive due to our unfaithfulness. It is about always being ready to give account of ourselves in every circumstance.

imgres-1Once again, there is a counterpart to the little graphic that I mentioned earlier. In this graphic Christ is on the throne of our lives. As a result, our lives are well ordered spiritually, and we are filled with the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, self-control, and the other gifts of the Spirit (See, Galatians 5:22-25). Just as the judgments of life are the natural result of unfaithfulness to God, the blessings of life are the natural result of our faithfulness to God. When we are filled with God’s spirit and living wisely on the basis of God’s love shown to us in Christ, we are blessed and we will naturally share this blessing with others.

There are two endings to today’s parable: The first half ends with Jesus saying, “You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Luke 12:40). The entire teaching is with Jesus saying, “From everyone who is been given much, much will be demanded; and from one who has been entrusted with much more will be asked” (v. 48). Both of these our reminders of what God will do for us if we faithfully live out our calling to be Spirit empowered followers of Christ.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, Linda Ellis, “The Dash” (1996). The key part of this text goes like this:

“For If our hearts are full of love/throughout our journey here,/we’ll be loved by all who knew us/and our memory they’ll hold dear./And when we die, these memories/will bring grateful, loving tears,/to all whose lives were touched/by the dash between our years.”

This is a poem I recommend everyone read. it can be found in numerous places on the internet. The founder of our church often reads this poem at funerals, which is where I first heard it.

[2] See, Downton Abbey, Masterpiece Theatre, BBC J. Fellows, R Eaton, N. Marchant, & G. Neame (Executive Producers (New York: PBS, 2010- Present).

[3] The second half of the parable, involves Jesus responding to Peter’s question, Lord, are you telling this parable to us, or to everyone?” (v. 41). In response, Jesus turns his focus to a chief steward who is left in charge of the household and is responsible to feed the other servants.

[4] In other words, those who have received the forgiveness of sins, been baptized, received the Holy Spirit and been instructed in the ways of God ought to faithfully proclaim that Gospel and help others receive the benefits of God’s wisdom and love.

A Disciple has a Different Way of Life

As I was preparing this blog, I read a story about a young boy. His mother made a special dessert for a party the family was giving. She told her son not to eat the desert because it was for dinner later. When he was discovered, he explained that his teeth accidentally got caught in the desert while he was smelling it! [1]

Human beings are pretty much alike. We get similar kinds of trouble. The story of the little boy and the dessert is cute. The trouble we adults get into is not so cute. In fact, the results of our falling into temptation can be devastating for ourselves and everyone around us.imgres

Not long ago, someone sent me a prayer request that was almost identical to a prayer request many years ago. Some years ago, a Houston magazine ran a story about a young executive. She was pretty, bright, and professional. She worked long hours. Naturally, there was a lot of tension. She began to drink to unwind. Over the course of time, the drinking got worse. Her marriage ended. Her drinking got worse. Her job performance suffered. Her drinking got worse. She lost her job, and her new job was not nearly so good as her last job. Her drinking got worse. She drifted from job to job and relationship to relationship. One day, she hit someone and killed them driving while intoxicated. She was indicted for manslaughter, convicted, and a promising career was over.

This blog is about temptation and how a serious Christian lifestyle can protect us from temptation and its results. We should pray, “Deliver us from evil;” however, we should also live in such a way that we are likely to be delivered. Too many of us are like the young Augustine who is said to have prayed that God would deliver him from temptation, but not yet.” [2] We want to see Heaven if there is one, but we don’t want to give up our secret sins. We want to be seen as Christians by our friends and family, bet we don’t want to take the steps that will truly change us deep in our hearts.

Life After Baptism

In Luke chapter 3 Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River. When Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit came upon him like a dove and a voice from heaven verified that he was God’s Son, with whom God was well pleased (Luke 3:21-22). imgresThen, immediately, the Holy Spirit led him into the wilderness for a time of tempting (4:1). Our text today is from Luke, chapter 4, and I will begin reading with the first verse:

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.” The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.” The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. For it is written: “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time. Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him (Luke 4: 1-15).

The Temptations of Life

All of us some of the time (and some of us a lot of the time!) face temptations. These temptations can be great, like the story with which I began, or small. They can have significant impact on our lives or the impact can be pretty insignificant. However, the impact is never without its dangers: The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is the story of temptation, self-centered action, and consequences. It’s also a story that illustrates how serious consequences can be from seemingly small actions.

Hopefully, today’s story is one with which we can relate. We are tempted, and Jesus was tempted.images Unfortunately, this is also a story we can avoid applying to our lives. When we read of Jesus’ temptations, we can mistakenly believe that these temptations were for Jesus alone, and we will never be faced with anything like them because we are not the Christ, the Son of God. We could not be more wrong.

There are three temptations set out it the story of Jesus’ temptation:

  1. The temptation to turn rocks into bread;
  2. The temptation to worship the devil to receive the kingdoms in the world; and
  3. The temptation to cast himself off the top of the Temple, and allow angels to catch him as he fell.

Although these three temptations may seem far from us, they involve three kinds of temptation we all fall into. I would describe them like this:

  1. The temptation to live solely on the basis of our physical and emotional needs;
  2. The temptation to worship success or accomplishment; and
  3. The temptation to put God to the test.

You may think you don’t do these things; however, in one way or another, we all do.

Jesus was human just like we are. After 40 days of fasting, he was hungry. It would’ve been easy to see this first temptation as harmless—kind of like Samantha in Bewitched. [3] If you remember the show, then you remember that Samantha was forever swearing that she would never use her magical powers again, only to do so whenever she got herself in trouble. When faced with temptation, we can be like Samantha. We say we will never do it again, but we can’t resist the temptation to take a shortcut. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts in the life of a discipleship.

This temptation is about more than bread. It’s about our human tendency to do almost anything, moral or immoral, to meet our physical and emotional needs. Psychologists who have studied human behavior have seen that our fundamental drives are so powerful that they can cause us to do things we believe immoral or which we otherwise would never do.

Bread can be more than just physical bread. It can be our normal desire for friendship, for marriage, for intimacy, for relaxation, for a sense of well-being. There is nothing wrong with any of these things except when we ignore the spiritual and moral side of our character in seeking to fulfill our natural desire.

The second temptation is the temptation to make an idol of success, power, or money. Once again there’s nothing wrong with success, power, or money; however, we are often tempted to corners just to get ahead. We say to ourselves, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” We have a natural tendency to make an idol of success and slowly but surely fall to the temptations we face. Those of us who are naturally competitive or desire success are especially vulnerable to this temptation.

Finally, there is the temptation to throw ourselves off the temple walls to see if God will save us. This is one many people may at first denied applies to them. However,  we’ve all known people who disregarded common sense, saying, “I’m just trusting God.”  Often, these are spiritual people who want to be seen as spiritual and in contact with God in a special way.

Whenever we take a dangerous or foolish  course of action—a course we know is not advisable—and then say to ourselves, “I’ll just trust God,” we are putting God to the test. If my doctor tells me that I have diabetes and I should not eat sugar or drink again, and I ignore him, I am throwing myself off the temple walls. If you sit down and think about it, there are many ways we put God to the test.

A Temptation Killing Lifestyle

The best place to begin in thinking about how we, like Jesus, can resist the temptations of our culture and live balanced, wise lives is to  remember and understand this story. When Jesus was confronted by the devil, He was in the wilderness fasting and praying, driven there by the Holy Spirit. In other words, Jesus was in a time of deep fellowship with God. If we are to avoid temptation we also need  to be in a deep, constant fellowship with God.

The first  habit of the balanced life we can develop is the habit of prayer, even the habit of prayer combined with fasting. We can begin and end our days in prayer. We can pray regularly during the day. We can take special times to pray. Prayer is always the first and best line of defense against temptation.

The second thing we can do to protect ourselves against temptation is to read and memorize Holy Scripture. Three times the devil tempted Jesus, and three times he responded by quoting from the Old Testament. When tempted to turn stones into bread, he remembered that human beings do not live by bread alone (Deut. 8:3). When tempted to worship the devil and receive all the kingdoms of the world, he remembered that we are commanded to worship God alone (Deut. 6:13). When tempted to perform a miraculous sign and have angels rescue him, he remembered that we are not to test God (Deut. 6:16). Jesus was saturated in Scripture. He had memorized it, and even more importantly, he had lived it until it had become a part of his whole being. [4]

Third thing we can do is center our days and weeks in worship. Scripture assures us that Jesus was in the habit of worship. He worshiped in the Temple in Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-52; Matthew, 21:12; Luke 21:37; John 2:13-22). He worshiped in the synagogue of his hometown (Luke 4:16). In Acts, we are told that the early disciples continued the practice of worship in the temple, in synagogues, and in homes. [5] The apostle Paul was accustomed to worshiping in local synagogues. [6] Public, communal worship is a time of fellowship, of song, of learning, of prayer, and of strengthening so that we can meet the pressures of life. We should not develop the habit of skipping church and find other times to worship in our homes and in special times of retreat.

A Way of Life that Ends in Eternal Life

images-1 I almost entitled this blog “Sacramental Living.” Our text today begins just after Jesus institutes the first sacrament, baptism. In baptism, we remember the mystery of the new life we have in Christ and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit we receive because of our faith in Christ. Our lives should be a constant act of worship, not just on Sunday morning, but every day (Romans 12:1-4).

This Sunday in our church, we  celebrated the Lord’s Supper. Jesus instituted a second mystery by which we celebrate his continuing presence with us by the power of the Holy Spirit. In a way, the Christian life should be lived from mystery (Baptism) to mystery (the Lord’s Supper), to mystery (eternal life)

As we gather around the Lord’s Table to have our faith fed, as we pray together, as we sing together, as we hear the word together, and as we share our lives together, we are gathered into the mystery of God. This mystery feeds our faith and endows us with the courage and fortitude to continue to walk the way of Jesus. It is a way that does not end with a tomb, but in the glorious light of eternal life.

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer faced the gallows, he said to those who would kill him, “This is the end–for me, the beginning of life.” [7] The way of resisting temptation is not always easy; however, it is the way to life.


Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Jerry Shirley, The Gospel of Jesus: Swordfight in the Desert (Grace Baptist Church, March 2006). I have changed the story, but the inspiration for the story was this sermon.

[2] Lex Loizides, “Augustine’s wayward prayer!” at www.lexloiz.wordpress.com (October 15, 2008). The actual quote from the Confessions is “Make me chaste but not yet.” Augustine led a promiscuous,pagan life before his conversion. He had a mistress by whom he had a child. His mistress became a Christian before his conversion. The Son died at the age of sixteen after himself being converted.

[3] Bewitched, created by Sol Saks, starring Elizabeth Montgomery and Dick York and Dick Sargent, and Agnes Morehead (1964-1972). More recently, a movie was made from the television show. Nora Epron, et all, wr, Bewitched dir. Nora Ephron, starring, Nicole Kidman, Will Ferrell, Shirley McLaine (2005).

[4] In the book, Path of Life: The Way of Light and Love (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014) and in a book on discipleship I am writing, I emphasize the notion of tacit understanding and indwelling practical knowledge in daily life, in the search for wisdom and in the life of a disciple. I am, of course, indebted to Michael Polanyi for this concept, which he outlines in many of his works. See for example, Tacit Understanding (Glouchester, MA: Peter Smith, 1983). The life of a disciple is one of constantly indwelling the story of Christ until one  becomes like Jesus.

[5] See, Acts 2:45; 2:46; 3:1; 3:11; 5:12; 5:42; 6:9; 6:42; 9:20; 9:11; 9:36-4; 10:1-8; 12:12; 13:14-15; 14:1; 17:1; 17:10; 18:4; 18:19; 18:26; 19:8; 20:17.

[6] Id.

[7] History.Com, April 8, 1945:www.history.com/this-day-in-history/defiant-theologian-dietrich-bonhoeffer-is-hanged (Downloaded October 29, 2015). One might see in Bonhoeffer’s resistance to Hitler and refusal to stay in the United States near the beginning of World War II and teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York a resistance to temptation that ended in a kind of sacramental life lived in service to his fellow Germans. For Bonhoeffer, the temptation was to put his safety and career above what God called him to do.