Barabbas

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“They cried out again, ‘Not this man, but Barabbas!’” – John 18:40a

The crowds have gathered and before them stand three men. One is Pilate, the procurator of this neck of the Roman woods. On his left is Barabbas, a general purpose ne’er-do-well. Scripture describes him variously as a thief, a murderer, and an insurrectionist; suffice it to say you don’t want him coming over for dinner. On his right is Jesus, a carpenter turned traveling rabbi. The choice is given, who should be released? At once the crowds cry out, “we choose Barabbas!” When asked what they want done with Jesus they chant again and again and again “Crucify him…Crucify him…Crucify him…”

This scene is often discussed to show the fickleness of the crowd; the dangers of a mob mentality. On Sunday Jesus entered triumphantly into the city; the crowds welcomed him with the praise fill Hosanna’s. Now, not even a week has gone by and those same crowds are chanting a hate-filled crucify. Hosanna is replaced by crucify; praise becomes hate…it’s funny how it works isn’t it?

All of this is true enough, yet in the midst of this Holy Week scene, perhaps with a little grin on his face as the crowds cheer his name stands the figure of Barabbas. He’s pictured as one of the Holy Week bad guys. There’s Judas, and Pilate, and the Sanhedrin, and Barabbas. He stands as a completely undeserving beneficiary of the mob mentality before the presence of Jesus. Again, all this is true enough…but then there’s a great deal that Barabbas can teach us about the grace that flows to us from this man Jesus.

Frederick Buechner once observed that while the crowds chose Barabbas over Jesus, given the same choice Jesus would have chosen Barabbas over himself too. It’s one of those moments of pause isn’t it? Here stands a man who is as rotten to the core as he can be, Barabbas. He stands guilty indeed of death, even death on a cross. But Jesus, Jesus goes to the cross in the place of Barabbas. He doesn’t deserve this gift but it’s his none the less. It’s his not simply because the crowd chanted in praise filled tones the name of a wretched sinner over the name of Jesus; the gift is his because Jesus chooses a man like Barabbas to save.
Buechner goes on to observe that this whole scene shows us just what a savior truly does and, just how badly we need that savior named Jesus. It is he that chooses time and again to stand in the place of the horribly wretched, the decently awful, and the spectacularly sinful; from folks like me and you to those like Barabbas.

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Sermon Scribbles: Multitude

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“The whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen” – Luke 19:37b

A delightful image upon Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem; a “multitude” of disciples gather to give praise for what they’ve seen. Who are this multitude? Certainly there would have been some local onlookers; those unsuspecting types going about their daily lives who just happened upon this little procession. To be sure this triumphal entry is a mockery of the kingly processions folks of this day would have been accustomed to. There is no big war horse; only a small colt. There are no weapons; only palm branches and strewn cloaks. There are no soldiers; only a rag tag band scripture describes as a multitude of disciples. It’s this multitude that has me interested.

Simply put we have no idea how many people made up this multitude. Numbering in the hundreds or even thousands is unlikely. At best this may be only a few dozen folks following Jesus into the old city of Jerusalem. Who are they?

Well most certainly Jesus’ twelve hand picked disciples would have been there. Let’s meet the boys in the band shall we.

Leading off we’ve got Peter and Andrew. Now these two were brothers, fishermen by trade. The gospels suggest that Peter and Andrew were business partners of two other disciples, James and John. Having business partners might suggest that they were doing better than the average fisherman along the shores of the sea of Galilee but still not as well as James and John as we shall see in a bit. All in all they would be of average education and working class poor by our standards today; oh, and there’s the smell, fishermen always have a bit of an aroma about them.

Then there’s James and John both sons of Zebedee. Like Peter and Andrew they were fishermen though doing a bit better. It would seem that their father Zebedee was the founder of the business and James and John had perhaps taken over the day to day operations. These two were likely doing better than your run of the mill fishermen. They had boats and hired men and business partners. There wasn’t really a middle class at this time in history but they might would identify as middle class. Oh, lets not forget Jesus’ nickname for these two “Sons of Thunder.” It’s probable that they had some tempers; know anybody like that?

Jude, also called Judas (not Iscariot) and his brother James, son of Alphaeus are next up. We know little about James though Jude for whom a letter is named was likely a Jewish nationalist. Jewish nationalists were none to happy about the occupation of their homeland by Rome; to say they wanted them out was putting it mildly. Now to be sure most Jewish folks would want the Romans out, but their zeal for this would be to varying degrees. Jewish nationals were somewhere on the more passionate end of the spectrum, though there were others who would make them look mild. It’s likely that James, while not identifying as such would have a certain soft spot for the position because of his brother.

While Jewish Nationals would be passionate they paled in comparison to the Zealots. Zealots weren’t just card carrying anti Romans, they were weapons stashing, confrontation stirring, just give me a reason to start something serious anti Romans. They were looking for a fight and had the weapons to pull it off. Jesus had two of these gentlemen in his merry band. The first was Simon Zelotes; we know little about him besides this one fact. The other was the more well known in Judas Iscariot. He, like other Zealots, was looking for a Messiah that would resemble Gen. George Patton. It’s little surprise then that he would betray Jesus being that Jesus was nonviolent. We’re also told in the Gospels that Judas was something of a thief.

Matthew was a tax collector. Now tax collectors were hated by the Jewish people because they were turncoats. These fellows were good Jewish boys who went to work for the Romans preying on their Jewish brothers and sisters. The Romans would get the tax collectors to get money from the Jews, any amount the tax collector added on the top was theirs for the keeping. These would be unsavory types who knew where to find you and how to make you pay, think Luca Brasi with sandals.

We wrap it up with Bartholomew, Philip, and Thomas. Little is known of these three except for Thomas who is forever branded as a doubter. Might we say of them that they are relatively unremarkable?

So this was part of Jesus’ multitude. Some smelly fishermen, freedom fighters, a hated tax collector, a doubter, and some completely unremarkable fellows. Oh, we should probably also mention that they ranged in age from possibly as young as 14 to maybe 30 or so. It doesn’t really seem like the group you’d want to assemble to clean your yard let alone change the world with. I’ve often wondered what it would be like in the evenings around the campfire; what sort of conversations would they have? I bet they were heated…no pun intended.

But there were likely more. In a piece of artwork decorating the church commemorating the Triumphal entry at Bethphage in the Holy Land we see, as Scripture describes it, a multitude of figures. There’s a shrouded fellow known as Lazarus, the dead man with a stench who’s now alive. There’s Mary the pregnant virgin. Mary and Martha, the bitter sisters as their name suggests in the original languages, might be there as well. Can you imagine Martha trying to make this all the more orderly while Mary is mesmerized by the sight? But who else might be there? Widows and poor people; former lepers and those born blind or deaf or mute; there’s children and the elderly; people who were healed or taught or challenged. There may be a pharisee like Nicodemus, possibly a tax collector like Zacchaeus or even someone like the lawyer or the rich young man both who questioned Jesus.

The point is this, those accompanying Jesus would indeed be a multitude. They would make no sense. They wouldn’t think the same, look the same, act the same. In fact, they may not even get along. This group would be all wrong in so many ways, completely unremarkable, far from the best and brightest and certainly not the holiest or most pious. They are all here, assembled as a multitude for one reason and one reason alone. They are here because of the mighty deeds of power that Jesus has done. They have seen them with their own two eyes, they have felt the impact echoing through their lives. They are here, they are remembered not because of themselves but because of Jesus. And that story continues on into our lives. We gather on Sunday morning, we go out into mission, we are people of inherent worth and value not because of ourselves but because of Jesus. On palm Sunday morning we join with the multitude of disciples lifting our voices in praise of the mighty deeds of power that we have seen and felt.
Do you hear it; the parade goes on. It started at Bethphage all those years ago, it wound its way down the mount of olives and in through the gates of the city. It marched up to the hill called Golgotha and into the tomb. Out from the tomb this parade sprung and out to the ends of the earth. The praises of God’s never ceasing work goes on. Do you feel them? The rocks and trees, the birds and seas, voices holy and voices sinful sing it out, and you’re a part of this multitude.

Word for the way: peacemaking

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“Blessed are the peacemakers” – Jesus

“Promise me you won’t get into the middle of this.” That’s what my mother said to me just before I got out of the car to go to the Donald Trump Rally at Lenoir Rhyne University in Hickory, NC. “Sure thing” I said and off I went. I shouldn’t have made that promise.

I was at Lenoir Rhyne to stand with my Bishop and my brothers and sisters in Christ. I wasn’t pro-the Donald; to be honest I don’t really agree with much of anything he has to say. Then again I wasn’t really there to protest either. It’s not really my thing, I’m more interested in standing for what I’m for than against. So what was I for? I was for Jesus. I was for the ideas of Grace, Mercy, Forgiveness, and love.

For a time all was well. The supporters supported, the protesters protested, and the Christians sang and prayed. It wasn’t until after the auditorium was filled to capacity and the doors shut that the real fun began. Where once there had been a hundred or so feet of grass separating the groups now they converged upon one another. Rival signs like banners of war waved as shouts and taunts flew through the air…it seemed to start all at once with both sides being the instigators.

We pastor types wearing our clergy collars and singing our hymns found ourselves between two groups of angry folks, Mr. Trump’s supporters on one side and his detractors on the other. There we were, a thin line of Christians linked arm in arm singing “Jesus Loves You” for all we were worth. It was scary. It was scary because their anger was real. Other Trump rally’s had fallen into chaotic violence; would it happen here as well? I was right smack dab where mom didn’t want me…in the middle of a powder keg.

Blessed are the peacemakers, that’s what Jesus said. I’d heard those words in church countless times; but now, with the church outside her four walls in the midst of shouts and taunts and anger those words raced through my head and took on a whole new sensation. I never knew being the peacemaker Jesus called us to be would be so knee shaking, heart pounding scary.

As we stood there linked arm in arm between these two groups who needed only the smallest provocation to erupt the irony was not lost on me that Mr. Trump had indeed gotten a wall built. We stood there walling off one group from another. The difference between Mr. Trump’s wall and ours was that ours was built not of stone and mortar but of the living stones of our flesh and blood. Our wall, while separating folks for a time, had the ultimate purpose of preventing further escalation so that one day these two groups might become one again. Perhaps our wall was something of a bridge?

It’s a funny thing about those two groups as I’ve thought about them hours later from the safety of my home. They’re both so very similar. Sure they have different life stories, different ideas about how to move forward; but at the end of the day they have something linking them together that they may not even realize. In all honesty both groups, Trump’s supporters and his detractors, feel forgotten. They both feel forgotten by the political elites, the talking heads, the powers that be. Both are forgotten in so many ways from Wall Street to the Main Street’s of any town USA. Both feel forgotten and both are angry about that. Time and again our go to answer is to find a group of people to blame for our lot in life. It’s easier to bear if you’ve got someone you can shake your fist at; that’s the common knowledge at least. Both groups, the supporters and the detractors, have been told the other is the problem and now here we were, a thin line of Christians linked arm in arm amid the mayhem.

At one point I heard someone call out “hold the line.” I have no idea who called it out or who they were instructing to hold the line; was it us? I thought of God commanding the seas in Job’s account of creation, “here shall your proud waves be halted, here shall they go and no further,” it’s my own heart translation. There was the church between two raging seas. Jesus said that by faith we can move mountains; I wondered if faith could hold back the relentless waves of the sea…we would find out.

This is where we needed to be; this is where the church is most fully the church. Christ calls us outside our sanctuaries to create sanctuaries in the midst of wildernesses so often filled with hate and anger and chaos. So often today the church is considered irrelevant. Out of touch and useless in a world that has moved on. Well today my friends I have seen with my own two eyes that the church is anything but irrelevant and out of touch. Today I saw a church that spoke peace to a growing storm, just like Jesus did all those centuries past on a sea in Galilee. Today I saw a church reach out in healing touch choosing to make well that which is sick, just as Jesus did in times past along the highways and byways of lands holy. Today I saw a church teach the ways of grace, mercy, and love, just as Jesus did on the hillsides of of places far away. Today I saw Jesus and I saw him in the church gathered outside a chapel named Grace at Lenoir Rhyne University.
You may well want to call us dreamers or naive or too young or too old. But I know a God who time and again has chosen dreamers and the naive; I know a God who has time and again named and claimed the too young and the too old; I know a God who has time and again walked with all the wrong people and through them has shown the ways of love and forgiveness and mercy and grace. I know a God who can create everything out of nothing and yet still chooses you and I, flaws and all, to be his co-workers in making all things new. Jesus calls us out into the chaos, blesses us, and then sets us to work peacemaking.

Word for the Way: Story

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“Jesus, looking at him, loved him” Mark 10:21a

My Grandmother has this great piece of needlework in her kitchen that I always love to look at, it reads, “God is watching you, but he understands.” It’s always given me comfort. The reminder that God is watching you is often given so that we’ll behave and walk the straight and narrow. There’s always a tone of judgment there. But the addition of the words “but he understands” gives a whole new meaning. God understands the struggles and the hardships; he looks at us in love, even in our less than glorious moments just as he looked on in love to the rich young man in his less than shining moment. God looks at us with love, always.

This past Sunday in my sermon I mused on how judgmental we all can be…especially us comfortable, decent, middle class types. I observed how often it happens that we can be in a grocery store and see the person in front of us pull out a WIC card or some other form of government assistance. What do we do? We start making note of what all is in their grocery cart and passing judgment on their need or lack thereof for those items. We look to see if they have on bright and shiny shoes, if their clothes are nicer than our, their cell phone newer…shoot we even track them in the parking lot to see what kind of car they drive. Sure we make excuses for our behavior, but when we really boil it all down we’re passing judgment on them. (FYI, passing judgment is God’s domain not ours, treading on God’s domain is sin…just so you know)

Well, a few days later I find myself in Sam’s club picking up a few things. I kept seeing a young woman riding around on one of those carts to help the disabled and elderly. Eventually I was behind her in line. Now, lets just say that she and I were different from one another and that old Adam in me, mister sinnful himself reared his ugly head. I noted that she was young and didn’t seem to have any noticeable physical ailments that would impede her from walking. “Why was she using this when a seemingly more deserving person might be doing without?” I thought. Was she lazy? Maybe a freeloader?

Then it hit square between the eyes, this is what I had talked about on Sunday. It’s kinda rough when your own sermon gets you. As I thought more about it I realized, I didn’t know the first thing about this young woman’s story. Instead I was standing silently by passing my judgment on her, and that’s sin plain and simple.
Every one of us has a story to tell. Buried beneath the surface there’s a story of pain and sorrow; joy and happiness; successes, failures, triumphs, heartbreak and all the rest. Everytime I hear a story from someone I walk away changed, impressed by the sheer magnitude of a life lived. Hearing a story of someone is like watching a master artist paint a painting. You are the canvas, your story is the paint, and the God who watches over you is the painter creating his masterpiece. You are God’s masterpiece and God looks upon you with love. I think that’s why God wants us to consider each other as nothing less than a beloved Child of God. As we go out may we struggle to no longer look upon one another with our judgment and instead know that behind each face is a story.

Sermon Scribbles (take two): The Judas Principle

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“But Judas Iscariot, one of [Jesus’] disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’” – John 12:4-5

Here’s the thing about preaching, some weeks you have to really work to figure out how to preach a text, other weeks it comes to you quickly, then there are the occasional weeks where you get too many ideas to preach and not enough sermons. This is one of those weeks.

I call this the Judas Principle. I’ve long been fascinated by it. In the text Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with costly oil. At this sight Judas objects noting that the oil could be sold for a great sum and the money given to the poor. Sounds good, right? Who doesn’t want to help the poor? Well, John continues with a little editorial comment informing us that Judas really wasn’t interested in helping the poor at all, he was a thief and had his eyes on a pretty big score.

What I find interesting about this is how deeply it resonates with my own lived experience. In every church I’ve ever been in there’s always debate about money. It’s a normal natural thing. Having a church and doing ministry costs money. What I’ve noticed, and you may have noticed this too, is that not everyone always agrees with how monies are spent. Just about everyone can identify some form of spending in their church that they believe to be frivolous. Now, when they voice their dissatisfaction what do you think I almost invariably hear them say? That’s right, why are we wasting money in this way…it could go to help people in need. Mind you, these folks may not really be concerned about those in need…shoot they may have never before uttered a word about helping the poor and needy; but now, in the face of an expenditure they don’t like all of a sudden they’re Mother Teresa.

Now to be sure I’m not calling these folks thieves; I have no doubt I myself have proved the Judas principle a time or two and you probably have too. What I am saying is all to often we simply aren’t honest with ourselves and others that their might be church and ministry expenses that may well be fine and good we just don’t like them…we need to own that. All too often we can’t be honest with ourselves and others, we can’t own our own biases and dislikes, and instead we shuffle or own shortcomings onto the poor…and Lord knows they don’t need anything else heaped upon them.
In place of the Judas Principle try to bear in mind that the mystery of Christ, his church, and the ministry done is larger than you. Some things will be done that you like and others that you don’t like; some things will come easy for you and others will challenge you. Through it all though Jesus is Lord.

Sermon Scribbles: WWJD

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“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing” – Isaiah 43:18-19a

Have you ever seen those little WWJD bracelets? WWJD, meaning “what would Jesus do?” were all the rage when I was in youth group. I guess it’s a good thing when Jesus stuff becomes a fad, but then again, fads are passing and Jesus never goes away. WWJD asked kids, and adults, to wonder in the midst of all life’s circumstance how Jesus would respond in a given situation and then to respond in the same manner. It’s a good idea; I mean can it really be bad if we’re asking folks to share the mind of Christ and walk in his manner? Of course not. None the less I have a little problem with WWJD. WWJD puts Jesus in the past. What would Jesus do? How about what does Jesus do. See, here’s the thing, Jesus is living and active; he’s not dead and gone.

One of the challenges I see from people of faith, myself included, is that we’re all too often focused on the past. What God did back when; rather than what he’s doing now. Our church really was great at one time; rather than God is doing something new and exciting here. This is how we do it; rather than how can we do this now? I’m reminded of the event of Jesus’ ascension; it’s so very instructive for the church. The disciples are all gathered together looking into the sky after Jesus ascended…they’re looking back. The angels come and say to them “why are you doo doo birds looking there? Come on, let’s go! There’s work to be done.” Admittedly that’s the new revised Jonathan version of the Bible. When we focus all of our effort and attention backwards, in the past, we miss what amazing things God’s doing here and now, in the present, and how he’s leading us to a bright future.

The people Isaiah is speaking to have this problem. They are so focused on the past that they cannot even begin to see what it is that God is preparing for them now. It’s a great little text. Isaiah starts with something so familiar to them; he recounts for them the story of the Exodus. This is their story, it’s a crowd favorite, it never falls flat. They tell it again and again and again. I can almost picture the scene, Isaiah starts to tell the story and they all look at one another knowingly nodding their collective heads. “Gee willikers, wasn’t that swell when God did that!” (Did I just turn the people of Israel into Walley and the Beaver?) Then Isaiah hits them with a bomb. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” Wait, what? That’s right. This was a great and wonderful thing that God did, and yes, it is indeed right to think on it and remember it…but not at the expense of paying attention to what God is doing now in the present. God’s going to do a new thing says Isaiah. Stop focusing all of your energy and attention in the wrong direction. Stop looking back, turn around for heaven’s sake a see how God is lowering the mountains and raising the valley’s and sending waters into the desert right before your very eyes.

It’s funny, there’s so much that can separate us from the love of God in the here and now. Sure we all know that there are plenty of bad things that can separate us. Drugs, food and drink, theft, adultery and the like. But here’s where it gets hard. There are plenty of really good things that can separate us from God. Our focus on our own efforts at being a really good person, our volunteer work, our past understanding and appreciation of God, even our families…all of it can serve as a separation from God and what he’s doing in the here and now. Take Paul for example, in the week’s text from Philippians 3:4-14. He lists his resume and it’s all really good stuff, except of course for that whole business of persecuting the church…that’s never a good thing. But by and large every bit of it, good as it may be, can serve as a barrier to Christ. Yet Paul says that all of his gains he considers both loss and rubbish because of the all more surpassing knowledge of Christ active not only in Paul’s past, but in the now and on into the future.

How is life different when Jesus becomes more than a past reality? In what sorts of ways might you act now knowing that Jesus is living and active in your life? So many throughout the Bible acted in ways that seemed obscure and even down right odd because they knew that God was more than just a past reality; they knew that he was acting for us today and tomorrow. Noah built an ark when there was no rain or water; Joshua marched around the walls of Jericho; Mary anointed Jesus’s feet with her only possession of value. All these and more did what made no sense because they knew that Jesus was active not only in a past tense way but also in the present and even future tense.
Let me close with this thought, God said that he would send water to the desert; so what do you do? Wait and see if it happens and if it does great, but if it doesn’t then no harm no foul? Or do you dig ditches in the desert to collect those waters of blessings when they’re sent into the desert? It sure might seem odd to dig ditches in the desert to collect water…but then again, following Jesus has always been a bit odd. So, what ditches do you, or your church need to dig so that the God who is alive and active may fill them with waters of blessing?

After the Sermon; parting thoughts from the Prodigal Son

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God’s always putting together a party in the Bible. Be it the original garden party in Genesis, the mountain top festivities of Isaiah, or the marriage supper of the Lamb in Revelation. God’s all about throwing a party. Jesus was all about a party, in fact, he had a certain reputation shall we say. People saw him as a glutton and a drunkard. Even his parables are filled with party images. The stumbling block the older Prodigal brother faces is that he doesn’t get to choose the guest list at his Father’s party. Here’s the thing, God is planning the greatest, most amazing party ever; you can’t even imagine it. John tried to describe it in the book of Revelation and struggled to. God is planning a party; rest in the knowledge that you are not in charge of the guest list, but celebrate that you are on God’s guest list.

Word for the Way: Growth

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“I will make them and the places around My hill a blessing And I will cause showers to come down in their season; they will be showers of blessing. Also the tree of the field will yield its fruit and the earth will yield its increase, and they will be secure on their land Then they will know that I am the LORD, when I have broken the bars of their yoke and have delivered them from the hand of those who enslaved them.” – Ezekiel 34: 26-27

All around where I live I see these silos with trees growing out of their center. They dot the landscape like quiet sentinels bearing witness to what once was but is no longer. We still heavily identify as an agricultural community; but not like we once were. Where once there were many farms, now there number is fewer. An exodus of sorts has occurred; farms have closed and folks have moved to where there are newer, better, or simply other opportunities. All that is left are these silent monuments; a majestic reminder of the past filled with new life sprouting from its core.

As I look at them along my way I can’t help but stare at their oddness. It seems at first glance an unlikely place for a tree to grow. Yet here they are. These silos with their new found tenants remind me of a simple truth; life finds a way. These silos would seem to be done for; they’ve spent their years of usefulness and now sit alone to crumble away. Yet a new purpose has been unexpectedly found for them. Once they stored the fruit of the harvest; or they stood by full to the brim with nourishment for livestock. Now they’ve been re-purposed by God into nurseries for fledgling trees.

How wonderfully they fulfill this purpose! The soil at their center is rich and fertile. Their walls protect the budding saplings as they grow. Light and water are funneled to roots desperate for nurture. With time these trees breach the tops of their silo nurseries; a canopy unfurls and what has been growing in secret is now present for all to see. It’s funny how growth works; so much can happen that is unseen until, one day, the fruits of so long a process are there before your eyes. Now birds can nest in it’s branches, onlookers can marvel at the sight of new life, lungs can be filled with the gift of the breath of God…poised and ready for his praise. Life finds a way.

That’s a core theme of the Bible, despite sin, death, and the devil; despite all that is around us that says contrary, life finds a way. Life for the people Ezekiel was prophesying to wasn’t pretty or easy. Yet despite it all we find these words from Ezekiel, words of hope and promise and life. God will cause showers of blessing to come down, trees will yield fruit, the earth its increase, security and deliverance for all; blessing will be found where there was none nor seemed to be any hope of any.
Life finds a way. When all seems finished and done; life finds a way. When usefulness seems spent and death waits around the corner; life finds a way. When memories fade and hope runs thin; life finds a way. God sends showers of blessing upon the barren and parched soil of our lives and slowly, secretly the miracle gathers strength until one day, at long last laid bare before eyes we see the toil of God’s fruitful work, the blessing of growth.