Keep It Simple

I own a lot of Bibles. I especially like the simplified versions, like the New Century Version or the New International Readers’ Version. These Bibles use short sentences and common words to make scripture easier to understand.

This is nothing new. The King James Version was a simpler version than earlier translations. Our New International Version is easier to understand than the KJV. Then there’s New King James, New American Standard, The Message, the New Living Translation and the Good News Translation. Every Bible translation was meant to be simpler and more accurate than he one before it.

No translation is perfect. If you are doing a detailed study on history, ancient languages or deep theology, the simpler versions are probably not enough. But they work for most purposes because the Gospel is, at its core, simple.

Jesus made Jewish Law simple. The Law fills four books of the Old Testament. Jesus summed it up with two verses. “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,’” Jesus said in Matthew 22:37 – quoting Deuteronomy 6:5. “This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it:’ Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (from Leviticus 19:18) All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Paul made the Gospel message simple for Gentiles. “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified,” he said. (Galatians 2:15-16)

It might take a scholar to understand a complicated message, but even scholars appreciate plain English. If we take something simple and make it complicated, we are just showing off. We don’t talk and write to show off; we talk and write to share information. The best way to do that is to keep the message simple.

Churches fight over complicated details of the Bible. Like all Disciples of Christ churches, our church tries to keep the message simple. That makes it available to more people and gives us less to fight about.

Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and do you receive Him as Lord and Savior? It’s a simple question. I ask it every Sunday. Agreeing on that simple statement joins us all in one church. Accepting that statement inspires us to serve others and glorify God.

Invite your friends to church. Keep it simple. Hearts and minds aren’t changed by complicated explanations. Hearts and minds change when we accept the simple truth that God came to Earth as a human because God loves all humans. God made Jesus the Way back to the Father, not because we are good, but because God loves us. That’s why God keeps it simple.

Visible Faith

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

James 1:19-27 (NIV)

The first Protestants wanted to take the book of James out of the Bible. They believed that salvation was by the grace of God alone, and that faith was all we needed – but here’s a book that talks about works! Apparently, those Reformers finally realized that works in James are the evidence of faith, rather than a replacement for faith.

We can’t earn our way into heaven, but it does matter what we do. “You show me your faith without works, and I’ll show you my faith by my works,” James said. After all, what is faith if it doesn’t make a difference in our lives?

The Bible shows us what people are like and what God wants us to do about it. James said that if we hear the word and don’t do what it says, we’re like people who forget what we look like when we walk away from the mirror. If we lose our temper, then we forgot what we look like! We forgot that the Bible says that we are prone to anger and therefore have to practice self-control. If I hurt others with careless words – whether spoken, in an email or on Facebook – then I’ve forgotten what I look like! I’ve forgotten that words can bless or curse, and that God wants us to bless others.

It reminds me of the parable Jesus told about the servant who owed his Master a lot of money. The Master was about to throw the servant in prison and sell all of his stuff to get some of the money, but the servant begged the Master for forgiveness. The Master relented, but when that servant found someone who owed him a little money, he had his debtor thrown into prison. He forgot that he looked like a debtor, and that he should forgive like he was forgiven. Of course, the Master reminded him by throwing him into prison after all.

So what does faith look like? Faith looks like someone who has stage fright but stands up to address the crowd. Faith looks like someone who accepts another child into her home when it looks like she can’t afford one. Faith looks like someone who keeps knocking on the door, who keeps looking for a job, who won’t give up until he finds a way to support himself and his family.

Some people think that religion is impractical because it’s about that invisible world of God, the Holy Spirit, and faith. But these things are not invisible! We see God in the miracle of creation. We see the Holy Spirit in the many faithful Christians who keep reaching out to the lost and loving the unlovable. We see faith in that determination and persistence that keeps us not just setting goals, but reaching until we achieve them.

The book of James is the foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 Step programs. To recover, the addict has to remember what he looks like when he steps away from the mirror. He has to remember that one drink is too many and a thousand are not enough. He has to remember that a Higher Power – God – can restore him to sanity. He has to take steps. We walk by faith – but we’re walking, not sitting or lying down.

So, yes, we’re saved by faith, not by works. But faith is practical! You can see it. It does things – good things. It makes a difference in our lives and in this world.

The Bible is a mirror that shows us how ugly humans can be, but also how much God loves us. In Jesus, it also shows us how God wants us to be. We won’t get there in this life, but if we walk by faith, we will get closer and closer, to the glory of God and for the benefit of all humankind. So go ahead, look in the mirror, remember who you are, and dare to be more like God wants us to be.


2018 Sonnet 76

I do not oppose wisdom and knowledge.
I dive deeply into both schools and books.
I seek the wise, even went to college.
I pray for guidance, judge no one by looks.

I say this not to make an impression.
I know that not all learning leads to truth.
Too many words in rapid succession
May merely rob your hearing of its youth.

I know that all I know is wasted words
Unless I use that knowledge to impress
The One whose hand created trees and birds.
My best learning, His measure of success:

God’s will be done below as up above
When knowledge serves to amplify the love.

2018 Sonnet 75

For fear that I perhaps have lost my touch
I write this sonnet just to throw away.
I’ve written many, like it very much,
But here of late I’ve had far less to say.

The muse has come and gone or, so it seems,
I pray she makes a U-turn and comes back.
Oh, Muse Mundane! Come give me sonnet dreams,
Or, short of that, forgive me as I hack

Together words whose virtue is just rhyme,
An essay that has rhyme, but no reason.
Although I used to write them all the time,
Walking in the rain through this dry season.

Hello, old friend, I’ve missed your 14 lines.
I’ve naught to serve, but please, come in and dine.

The Father’s Voice

Some Jews began to complain about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that comes down from heaven.” They said, “This is Jesus. We know his father and mother. He is only Joseph’s son. How can he say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”

But Jesus said, “Stop complaining to each other. The Father is the one who sent me, and he is the one who brings people to me. I will raise them up on the last day. Anyone the Father does not bring to me cannot come to me. It is written in the prophets: ‘God will teach them all.’ People listen to the Father and learn from him. They are the ones who come to me. I don’t mean that there is anyone who has seen the Father. The only one who has ever seen the Father is the one who came from God. He has seen the Father.

“I can assure you that anyone who believes has eternal life. I am the bread that gives life.”
John 6:41-48

I had a friend in grade school whose father would call him by whistle. The first whistle was my friends name: whenever he heard it, he would yell, “Sir?” The second whistle was either “Come home!” or “Just checking.” My friend knew his father’s whistle. Everybody in the neighborhood knew his father’s whistle.

That was back before cell phones and caller id. Today, we might know who’s calling by ringtone, or by caller ID. Back then, it was his father’s whistle. Sometimes people tried to trick my friend, but it never worked; he knew his father’s whistle.

They say that babies know their mother’s voices because they have heard them from inside the womb. My brother’s girlfriends used to think I was him when I answered the phone. That was a lot of fun. But his daughters never made the same mistake. They know their father’s voice.

In ancient Palestine, and even today in some places, shepherds take their sheep to public grazing lands. There might have been several shepherds and several flocks. But when it came time to take the sheep back to the sheepfold, the shepherd would call and they followed him. They knew his voice. Here’s what Jesus says at John 10:2-5:

“The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will not follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.”

There were other ways to direct sheep. You could use sheep dogs. You could use several hired hands to surround the sheep and keep them together. But a committed shepherd, a good shepherd, spent time with the sheep. He or she learned their habits and they, in turn, learned to recognize the shepherd’s voice. They knew the shepherd’s voice meant food and safety, so they follow the shepherd’s voice.

We hear a lot about being called by God. We say that a preacher, minister or missionary is called by God. But I’m here to tell you that every one of you is called by God. God found a way to get you here; you heard the Father’s voice, and it drew you here. You might not know that’s why you are here, but it is. And now, when we consider the teachings and character of Jesus, you hear the Good Shepherd. So on one hand, you have a choice about whether you want to join the flock, go out on your own, or follow another shepherd.

You have a choice about whether to stay or go, to follow or not. But to me, that choice is about accepting a gift. God has specifically called you, by name, and God must have a purpose for that. You have a choice about whether to follow or not, but God has a choice about whom to draw near. God has chosen you.

The way I see it, God has called me, and God has placed me under the care of Jesus. I didn’t call myself, but God called me. It is not my business if someone says they don’t hear that voice or sense that call. I can’t know someone else’s heart. “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?” Paul said in Romans 14:4. “To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”

And, the way I see it, God has called everyone else here. I might wish God had called someone else, or more people. I might wonder why God called this person or that person. But we are following Jesus, and we were given to Jesus by God. We aren’t following each other.

When I’m in church, I look around and I’m in awe. I know that I am in the presence of people who have been chosen and called by God to be here. I also know that there are people who were called but stayed home, people who got distracted by something else. But whatever else I might think about the people around me, I have to remember that God is in charge, and God called them here. They were drawn by the Father’s voice. No one was forced to come to church; everyone comes because God has called them.

In today’s scripture, Jesus is in essence releasing those who don’t believe, and telling them to leave the followers alone. You don’t know me because you aren’t my sheep, he says. My sheep follow because they know me. The message is for those who want to hear it, and that’s why they follow.

Psalm 95 says that the LORD is our God, and we are the flock under his care. In the New Testament, Hebrews quotes that Psalm: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.” Hebrews says to encourage each other as long as there is a day called “Today.” We are encouraged to soften our hearts, to be willing to grow and change under Jesus – in other words, to follow him.

If you ask me, we’re the lucky ones. We hear his voice, and we’ve responded. Some people might not hear that voice, and others might harden their hearts and ignore it. “But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today’, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the end. As has just been said: ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.’”

Here’s the takeaway; this is my point. I have awesome respect for God’s call, for God’s choices, and for God’s people. They are the people here. They are all the people here.

I grew up a rebel against the church in a very religious community. My high school classmates are shocked to hear that I’m in the ministry, because for so long I hardened my heart. Some of them wonder if I was really called, and others question the wisdom of God to call someone like me.

I don’t dare question the wisdom of God. If God calls someone like me, someone like you, someone like those other folks, into the church, then God must have a plan and a purpose. I know that God doesn’t want to change just one of us; God wants to change all of us. “Today, if you hear his voice…” Do you hear his voice? Has the Father called you?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We Have ONE Job …

The people saw that Jesus and his followers were not there now. So they got into the boats and went to Capernaum to find Jesus.

The people found Jesus on the other side of the lake. They asked him, “Teacher, when did you come here?”

He answered, “Why are you looking for me? Is it because you saw miraculous signs? The truth is, you are looking for me because you ate the bread and were satisfied. But earthly food spoils and ruins. So don’t work to get that kind of food. But work to get the food that stays good and gives you eternal life. The Son of Man will give you that food. He is the only one qualified by God the Father to give it to you.”

The people asked Jesus, “What does God want us to do?”

Jesus answered, “The work God wants you to do is this: to believe in the one he sent.”

So the people asked, “What miraculous sign will you do for us? If we can see you do a miracle, then we will believe you. What will you do? Our ancestors were given manna to eat in the desert. As the Scriptures say, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

Jesus said, “I can assure you that Moses was not the one who gave your people bread from heaven. But my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. God’s bread is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

The people said, “Sir, from now on give us bread like that.”

Then Jesus said, “I am the bread that gives life. No one who comes to me will ever be hungry. No one who believes in me will ever be thirsty.”

John 24-35 ERV

There’s a popular joke circulating these days where the punch line is, “You had ONE job!” There’s even a website: It shows a children’s book that says “Five bananas” – only the picture shows SIX bananas. You had one job! It shows a door that opens out of the second floor, with no stairs. You had one job! It shows a red crayon with “yellow” printed on its red wrapper. You had one job! Sometimes we mess up the simplest things.

And I know the feeling. At a Bible Study, a friend Susan asked me to pray for her husband. This was a great and fervent prayer. “Dear God, we ask your richest blessings on my friend Brad. I pray you will give Brad good fortune in his job search. I pray you will protect Brad and Susan as they go through this financial challenge. Draw them closer together, and strengthen their marriage.” It went on and on, as you might imagine. “Lord, I pray that Brad will feel your presence for all his days. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.”

So Susan leans into me and I think she wants to hug, but she just wants to whisper. “His name is not Brad!” she said. “His name is STEVE!” I can imagine her thinking, “You had ONE job …”

We humans are so distracted, so scatterbrained. I’ll bet some of you have your own examples of a simple mistake that had a big impact. I’ve had pound cake made with salt instead of sugar. I’ve ended my day to discover I was wearing shoes from two different pairs. At my wedding, they gave me and my groomsmen the wrong tuxes and we didn’t know it. We were an odd looking wedding party. You had ONE job …

You might say that Jesus had ONE job. His job, simply put, is to forgive our sins so we can enter the Kingdom of God through faith in him. Fortunately, Jesus did his job; if it doesn’t work, it’s our fault, and not his. “God loved the world so much that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him would not be lost but would have eternal life.

We have a lot to do, but in a spiritual sense, we have ONE job. Our scripture today shows people who saw Jesus feed 5,000 with a few loaves and fish. They were so impressed, they tried to make him king. They did not see him walk on the water that night, but they did ask, “Teacher, when did you come here?” Jesus said they had come not because of the miracles, but because of the food. Jesus told them not to seek food for the body, but spiritual food. They wanted that spiritual food, which Jesus said only the Son of Man could give them. So they wanted to know, “What does God want us to do?” Jesus might have said, “Well, you have ONE job …”

“The work God wants you to do is this: to believe in the one he sent.”

In the original language, the people had asked about workS – plural – and Jesus told them about THE work – singular. To believe; that’s the job God wants us to do. If we can do more, that’s great, but if we don’t believe, then we might find Jesus saying, “You had ONE job …”

“What miraculous sign will you do for us?” they asked. “If we can see you do a miracle, then we will believe you.” It wasn’t enough that he fed 5,000 from one little boy’s lunch. Some of them had seen healings as well, even resurrections. And here they are asking for another sign. I guess they wanted to see the miracle up close, just to be sure that this was the Son of Man. Jesus reminded them that he had God’s seal of approval and that they shouldn’t need another sign. And when they asked, “Well, where’s the bread?” Jesus said, “God’s bread is the one who comes down from heaven. … I am the bread of life.”

A lot of people were offended because Jesus claimed to come down from heaven, when they knew full well who his parents were. It was a spiritual claim, not a physical one. Later that day, he said, “If you do not eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no real life in you.” He told them flat-out it was symbolic, spiritual, not physical, but a lot of people got offended and left that day. They were so close. They had ONE job …

Now, believing is more than saying we believe. If we believe, then we take the whole package. We believe in taking up our cross and following him. We believe in loving one another, our neighbors, and our enemies. And if we believe it, we do it. We demonstrate it by our love for others, but it all starts with believing in the ONE whom God has sent. Remember, we have ONE job …

We humans get antsy, don’t we? We look for something else to do. We want to fix each other, teach other, lead each other, maybe even judge each other – and that goes double for people outside the church. But we are never told to do that!

The book of Romans gives us a lot to work with if we want to judge other people. Paul tells us, “The righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith,” then God’s wrath is revealed against a long list of sins, and I guarantee every one of us is guilty of one or more things on the list. Then, Paul closes the list with this: “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” (Romans 2:1)

We might think it says we can judge the sins we do not commit, but it doesn’t. It says that we can’t judge others because we are also guilty – of envy, malice, strife, gossip, boasting, or something else on the list. James said the same thing – that when we judge the law, we are not keeping the law. (James 4:11) “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you – who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12)

And, of course, even Jesus says, in the sermon on the mount: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” That is not our job. Vengence is not our job; that belongs to God: “Vengence is mine, I will repay, says the LORD.” We have one job: To believe in the one whom God has sent.

So when we testify to others, I suggest we don’t get into squabbles over the details. We’re all sinners, and as James said, whoever What must others do to be saved? They have one job … Faith in Jesus Christ leads to so many other things, and they won’t happen without faith in Jesus Christ. It looks like God has a whole host of assignments for us, but it all starts with, rests on, depends on and stems from faith. We have one job … to believe in the one whom God has sent.

It would be great to cleanse the world of all sin and unrighteousness. Unfortunately, none of us is qualified to do that. “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8) Only Jesus can take away our sin: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) So vengeance is God’s job, and forgiveness and purifying are Jesus’ job. What’s our job? I think we’ve covered that. We have one job: “The work God wants you to do is this: To believe in the one He has sent.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, may we do the work that God wants us to do. Amen.