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The Godly Widow

Friday, October 22, 2021

I’m fond of saying that too often, the Lord’s church in America does a great job of attending to the spiritual needs of married people with kids at home and a not-so-great job of attending to the spiritual needs of everybody else.  This is unfortunate for a couple of reasons.  It’s not particularly helpful for Christians who aren’t part of the favored group, and it ignores what the Bible has to say to those people too.

Among those neglected in this way are widows.  The Scriptures have a lot to say about widows in 1 Timothy 5:3-16.  True, much of this text is taken up with a discussion of whether a widow is worthy of church support, but along the way, Paul identifies several characteristics that a widow must possess to be righteous.

This teaching, though often overlooked, is extremely relevant.  We have many widows in this congregation as well as many other single people who are kind of in a widow-ish position.  Even the rest of us will find many things to benefit us here.  With this in mind, then, let’s consider what the Scriptures say about the godly widow.

First, the godly widow HOPES.  According to 1 Timothy 5:5, she puts her hope in God.  Yes, obviously, all of us should put our hope in God, but I think this is particularly important for widows because it defines their purpose.

Let me explain.  Many women, especially in the church, spend their adult lives taking care of others.  They get married, and they take care of their husbands.  They have kids, and they care for them and generally keep the household running smoothly.  Many times, a widow has had to deal with her husband’s prolonged illness, tending to his every need.  Now, though, he’s gone, and there’s nobody left to take care of.  What do you do now?

Paul gives us the answer.  Rather than focusing on caring for your family, you shift your focus to inheriting eternal life.  Just like you used to get up every day and make sure that the food was cooked and the dishes were washed and the laundry was run, now you get up every day with the goal of making sure you receive your reward.

Second, the godly widow PRAYS.  1 Timothy 5:5 describes her as continuing night and day in prayer.  Here too, I think Paul is calling widows to a perspective shift.

Most adult women live busy lives.  In addition to all the household stuff we’ve already discussed, many of them work outside the home too, and they have all sorts of other responsibilities to boot.

For most widows, 90 percent of that stuff isn’t happening anymore.  Indeed, you may be the aging parent that others are tending!  That leaves a whole, whole lot of time, time that often hangs heavy on widows’ hands.  What do you do with it?

Easy.  You pray.  You pray a whole, whole lot.  You pray for every good thing you can think of, God’s blessing on your family, God’s blessing on the church, God’s blessing on each member of the church, and for you yourself to grow up into the image of Christ.  All that time isn’t a burden.  It’s a gift.  Use it well.

The beauty of prayer is that it’s something that every Christian woman of sound mind can do.  I know that some of the sisters here don’t have much physical capability left.  They’re simply not strong enough to carry out the acts of service I’ll be talking about later.  However, everybody who is capable of comprehending this sermon is capable of prayer, and even if we can’t work anymore, God sure can!

Third, the godly widow ENTERTAINS.  As per 1 Timothy 5:10, she shows hospitality.  This is another consequence of widows having more time and fewer people on their hands than they used to.  Lauren and I entertain a lot, but let me tell you, it’s not easy, especially for her!  We have to fit in prep around the rest of our schedules, and we have two lovely children who are determined to make as much mess as possible while cleaning up as little as possible.

For many widows, hospitality is much easier.  You by yourselves don’t make as much mess as your husband and kids used to, and you have more time available to prepare.  I think the widows here easily could be at the forefront of welcoming strangers to our congregation.  I know that some of you are more introverted than others, and that the thought of inviting people you don’t know into your home makes you quail.

However, that’s why there are many members in the Lord’s body.  If you’re not up to the task of making dinner conversation by yourself, there are extroverted Christians in this congregation who will happily do it for you.  Invite them over along with the visitor, and sit back and watch them do their thing!

Basically, the point is this:  if widows in the first century were known for hospitality, widows in the twenty-first century can be too.

Similarly, the godly widow SERVES.  1 Timothy 5:10 describes her as having washed the saints’ feet.  As we know from our study of John 13, this was not a mere ritual.  Rather, foot-washing was a humble, gracious response to the problem of filthy first-century streets making others’ feet filthy.  Worldly people in that time considered foot-washing demeaning; godly widows considered it an opportunity to serve.

So too, godly widows today can be women who do what needs doing.  In a congregation this size, there’s always something to do!  There are meals to be prepared.  There are welcome cards to visitors to be written.  For that matter, there are cards to everybody to be written.  There are children’s Bible classes to be taught.  There are outsiders to invite to services.  The list goes on and on.  If you’re out of ideas for something else to do, ask the elders, and they will be delighted to make suggestions!

In short, opportunities to serve abound.  I don’t think every widow should be doing all of these things, but I do believe that every widow should be doing as much as she can physically handle.  There’s nothing sadder than a sister in Christ who complains that her life is meaningless but is choosing not to do any of the things that would make her life meaningful.

Finally, the godly widow HELPS.  As per 1 Timothy 5:10, she helps the afflicted.  There are a lot of different ways I could take this, but in particular, I want to consider the Titus 2:4 responsibility of older women to teach the younger women.

I’ve heard a lot about this one from both sides.  Lots of younger women in the church insist that they can’t find older women to teach them, while older women in the church insist that they can’t find younger women who want to be taught.  I wonder if the problem here is a misconception about what teaching should look like.  If the older women try to “teach” by going up to the sister wrestling her screaming child in the lobby and telling her how she kept every one of her 27 children under perfect control back in 1975, that’s not going to go over very well!

Instead, we should note that the first thing older women are supposed to be teaching is love, and I don’t know of any way to teach love other than showing love.  Widows, if you want a younger woman to listen to you, be her friend first.  Listen to her.  Spend time with her.  Help her make it through life.  Soon enough, you won’t have to bring up the things you want to talk about because she’ll be asking you about them first.

Paul's Bait-and-Switch

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Most Christians struggle with self-righteousness.  In our heart of hearts, we want to be justified on our own merits instead of relying on the grace of God.  The former would allow us to believe that we are good; the latter forces us to acknowledge that we are not.

Consequently, even as we deplore the sins of others, part of us wants to savor them.  We compare the sinner to the perfection of God’s law and inevitably find them wanting.  However, rather than doing the same for ourselves, we use the sinner for our new standard of comparison. 

They cheated on their spouse.  I’ve always been faithful to mine.  They got drunk.  I’ve spent my life stone-cold sober.  They dress like a tramp.  My attire wins smiles of approval from the church dragons.  And so forth.

Looks like I’m a pretty good person after all, doesn’t it?

This self-righteous perspective is a deadly spiritual problem.  Jesus spent His ministry skewering the Pharisees for trusting in themselves that they were righteous.  However, perhaps the most devastating exposé of self-righteousness in the entire Bible appears in the first two chapters of the book of Romans.  There, Paul baits a trap for the self-righteous and clobbers them when they walk into it.

The trap works so well in part because the bait itself is powerfully reasoned and true.  It is nothing less than Paul’s description of the degradation of the Gentiles in Romans 1:18-32.  Their moral failure began with a refusal to honor the God so evident in creation.  From there it led to sexual immorality, generalized wickedness, and endorsement of the wickedness of others.

This argument would have been red meat to a pious Jew living in the godless city of Rome.  For that matter, it is still red meat to us.  We see the same symptoms of moral decay in the people around us.  They don’t honor God.  They practice sexual sin and lead reprehensible lives.  They praise the lawlessness they practice.  How frequently do we shake our heads at those who call evil good?

Then, in 2:1, Paul springs the trap.  He already has observed in 1:20 that the ungodly are without excuse.  Now, though, he says the same thing to their judges.  All of us are without excuse too.  When we condemn others because of their sin, we condemn ourselves too--because we do the same things that they do.

Maybe I’m not adulterous, drunk, or immodestly dressed, but on my own merits I’m still a sinner.  All of us are.  Just as I can justly condemn them for violating God’s law, so too can someone justly condemn me for violating different parts of the same law.  Do I really want the lies I’ve told to come up on the day of judgment?  How about my outbursts of anger at my spouse?  How about my love of judging others while overlooking my own sin?

Self-righteousness is alluring, but it’s a luxury that none of us can afford.  Puffing ourselves up when we consider the sins of others turns us into a target for the wrath of God.  Only acknowledging our own failures and entrusting ourselves to the mercy of Jesus will lead us to inherit eternal life.

Natural Relations

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Though the battle is over these days (at least as far as wider American society is concerned), the past couple of decades saw a great deal of strife over the practice of homosexuality.  In their ultimately successful assault on Biblical morality, gay-rights proponents adopted three main strategies:  rejecting the authority of the Bible altogether, redefining Biblical ethics to make same-sex relations acceptable, and critiquing the Biblical arguments against the same.

In the third category, critics liked to attack Paul’s claim in Romans 1:26-27 that homosexual intimacy was unnatural.  They pointed out, correctly, that various animals, from our supposed cousins the bonobos on down, engage in male/male or female/female sex.  Still other animals are hermaphroditic or able to change their sex.  Because these things exist in nature, they reveal that same-sex sexual behavior is natural and that Paul is just a big dumb ignoramus.

As satisfying as such a conclusion is to opponents of traditional morality, it fails to reckon with Paul’s argument or what he means by “natural”.  Romans 1:26-27 is far from a prooftext.  Instead, it is part of his famous description of the degradation of the Gentiles that takes up the back half of Romans 1.

According to Paul, this decline began with the failure of the Gentiles to honor God.  As per Romans 1:19-20, this failure is their fault, not God’s.  In the physical creation, He gave them all the evidence they needed to see His power and divine nature.  They saw and recognized the truth, but they put it out of their minds because they didn’t want to thank and glorify Him.  They chose the gods they had made over the God who made them.

Similar logic is at work in vs. 26-27.  The women who burn for women and the men who burn for men aren’t operating in the absence of evidence of divine intent.  Instead, just like the idolaters of the preceding verses should be reasoning from the evidence of the creation but have refused to do so, those engaged in unnatural relations should be reasoning from the evidence of natural relations but also have refused.

We are the handiwork of a wise, intentional God who expects us to honor His intent for us.  That intent isn’t evident in bonobos or oysters or any other members of the animal kingdom.  We don’t live like animals live or eat like they eat; why should we take our guidance in sexual matters from them either?

Rather, we learn what is natural for us by reasoning from the evidence of our own bodies.  The body of the man is clearly made to complement the body of the woman, and vice versa.  That is the sexual union for which we have been created.  It is equally clear that women aren’t meant to go with women or men with men.  It is not our natural purpose, and it is not what God wants us to do.  If He had wanted us to behave differently, He would have created us differently.

It is possible to endorse same-sex relations, and it is possible to submit to the will of God as revealed in His creation and His word.  It is not possible to do both.  The world around us has made its choice, sure enough, but before we decide to walk the same path, we ought to remember what God has said about where it leads.

You--Yes, You!--Are Responsible for Caring for the Needy

Friday, October 01, 2021

The older I get, the more I appreciate the law of unintended consequences.  It posits that every time you act, there will be a result that you anticipated and a result that you didn’t anticipate.  The members of the human race tend to focus so hard on what they want to accomplish that they don’t see what they will accomplish without intending to.

I think this principle has been at work in the non-institutional churches of Christ ever since the brotherhood controversies of the 1950s and ‘60s.  In that time, many preachers argued—correctly, I think—that churches are not authorized to provide for the needs of the world’s poor.  As the saying goes, general benevolence is to be a work of individuals, not a work of the church.

In many churches, this preaching and teaching accomplished its end.  Even now, I am part of a congregation that does not go beyond what has been written in the way it spends the Lord’s money.  However, I believe it also accomplished something its adherents did not intend—a neglect of the individual Christian’s responsibility to care for the poor.

When I was growing up, I heard countless sermons on “the issues”.  These sermons relied on texts ranging from the familiar (“Let not the church be burdened!” in 1 Timothy 5:16) to the obscure (“Hock their horses!” in Joshua 11:6).  I learned that James 1:27 does not authorize the church to act, but I heard much less about what it meant for my actions.  When it came to the poor, “If a man does not work, neither should he eat,” received much more play.  I wonder if, even as brethren were careful to separate the work of the church from the work of the individual, they conflated the work of the individual and political activism.

As I have written before , it is difficult to know how to apply the law of Christ in the voting booth.  It is simple to know how Christians should care for the poor and vulnerable.  James 1:27 is a good start.  So is Luke 12:33.  So is everything that the Bible says about mercy.

Honestly, this is a struggle for me, as I think it is for many Christians.  I don’t want to get played by a con artist.  I struggle with the extent to which many poor people are responsible for their own problems, and therefore may not deserve help (Note:  if you are giving something to someone who deserves it, that is justice, not mercy).  By God’s grace, though, I think I’m making progress.

I assemble with many Christians who are better at this than I am, but I think we all have room to grow here.  We have to be more concerned with showing compassion and less concerned about looking foolish.  We must learn to see more clearly the value that Christ places on everyone. 

This has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with His call to discipleship.  No, general benevolence is not a work of the church, but it has to be our work as individuals—filling the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of everyone we encounter.  There are lots of ways for us to do this, but every one of us needs to be doing something.  When God has been so merciful to us, we must show mercy to others.

Psalm 6

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

O Lord, do not rebuke me
Nor in Your anger speak,
But come to me with mercy,
For I am worn and weak.
O Lord, I need Your healing;
My bones are filled with fear;
My soul is greatly troubled;
How long till You appear?

Turn back, O Lord, and rescue;
In lovingkindness, save;
The dead do not remember
Nor thank You from the grave.
My sighs have made me weary;
I drench my bed with woes;
My eyes have swelled with sorrow,
Exhausted by my foes.

O sinners, leave my presence;
O foes, depart from me;
My prayer has been accepted;
The Lord has heard my plea.
He hears the supplication
I offer to His name;
Their scheming will be baffled;
Their plots will end in shame.

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