In studying for the sermon this week I was reminded that one of the pictures the biblical writers paint to depict darkness is that of a night without the possibility of dawn. 

The picture is cogent, especially considering that these ancient texts were written before the invention of artificial light, the time when people had to rely entirely on the light provided by the sun. For them, the idea of not seeing the sun for a prolonged period of time could be terrifying, in addition to being impractical, since it would incapacitate people from engaging in even the most trivial of tasks. 

So, when Isaiah speaks (chapter 9) about people walking in darkness, he uses that picture, alluding to the kind of night with no sunrise in sight, but it’s only a picture. What’s behind the metaphor is the reference to a period of utter desolation resulting from punishment by God due to the apostasy and rebellion on the part of His people. The darkness in that case is so thick that no one can imagine cutting through it and emerging on the other side. It is truly a night without hope of rising.

In our lives we sometimes are afflicted by a thick cloud of dark matter that threatens to devour us. Whether it’s divine retribution or simply the burdens of humanity, there is no denying that in those times we feel that we are about to succumb under the weight of sorrow. For some, it is depression, something people in the 18th century called “melancholy.” For others, it is the loss of a loved one, the open wounds of sexual abuse, the sting of rejection, the dart of betrayal, the sharp fangs of estrangement or the revolt of injustice. 

Darkness comes in all shapes and shades. The only constant is our poor soul, breaking like the timber of a ship beaten by violent waves. Some people call this “the dark night of the soul,” but a friend prefers to call it a “funk.” I like “funk,” except it almost makes what I am describing here sound like a cool thing, which it could never be. 

I felt somewhat like that yesterday when I heard the news of what was then thought to be an “active shooter situation” on the campus of Ohio State University. Except, that’s not how I heard the news because when I saw it flash through my phone only one thing mattered to me — where exactly is my niece? Soon, I heard from my terrified sister that my niece, a graduate student at OSU, was holed up in a lab somewhere on campus. 

Though only a couple of hours went by, our vigil felt like a dark night with no end. I was at the dentist, being evaluated for an abscessed tooth, the only time in the last few days when I was able to forget the physical pain — and I was not even numbed. 

These are the times when more than ever you keep repeating in your head: “she’s going to be okay.” And you pray the most “selfish” prayers ever invented. You ask God to end the agony and you feel ashamed that when it’s all said and done and you are finally able to connect with your niece, her emotive tone intuits a gentle: “don’t forget to pray for those who were injured.” You are embarrassed because you almost forgot about “the others.” Like a camera zoomed in on the subject of your picture, you open the lens up and suddenly realize there are others there that you were blurring the whole time. It is then that you realize that love may not be blind but it is definitely nearsighted. 

That was yesterday. Today was a different kind of “funk.” I woke up to the news that a plane carrying an entire professional soccer team from Brazil had crashed near Medellín, Colombia. 

The story would have been tragic regardless, but this one hurts like no other because it appears to give ammunition to those who posit the existence of an anti-hero, kill-joy, sadistic kind of a god (small “g”). 

Here you have a team made up of a bunch of young men that this year had ascended to the first division, the elite of football in Brazil, for the first time ever, a small team from a small town whose stadium only seats about 20,000. Against all odds, they were runners up in the national league, going against some of the richest and most popular teams in the nation. Not only that, they managed to win against two of the toughest teams in Argentina to advance to the final game of the South American Cup, which was going to be played in two days in Colombia. To call them the “Cinderella” team would not even come close. They were the Cinderella, the Maria turned Mrs. Von Trapp, the David against Goliath and the Joanne of Ark (minus the butchering by the British), all combined into an epic story of meteoric rise to glory without any hint from anyone that this was about to happen. These guys make the Trump election a mere yawn. They were the real “November surprise.”

But in an instant their feat and their dreams met the unforgiving hardness of the cold mountain. The plane crashed and our hearts with it. Young men, they were, in the rush of triumph, dreaming of millions of dollars through contracts in Europe somewhere. Or maybe just of a quite life with family. Many of them left young children. One had just found out he was going to be a daddy a couple of days before he got on that plane. Perhaps some of them just wanted to live the moment and soon go back to enjoying their families again. They knew that glory is so ephemeral. But did they know to what degree?

Back to the sadistic “god” (small “g”) idea. Five people, apparently, were found alive. One was a goalie. His family got wind that he was alive, but later on they found out he died in the hospital. Another goalie had to have a leg amputated and a defense player suffered spinal injuries that may render him paraplegic for the rest of his life. These are just the stories I heard, the ones that were plastered in the headlines. I am not brave enough to read about the others’ personal stories right now, including the journalists and family members who were onboard. Will do that after the shock subsides some. 

Against the sadistic “god” (small “g”) idea. Two players were injured. They couldn’t fly with the rest of the team. They thought perhaps that they were missing the opportunity of a lifetime. Instead, they gained a lifetime. But, if you insist, you may question the goodness of this fortuitous event for it is also possible that they might live with “survivor’s guilt” for the rest of their lives. 
So we are left to wonder: what purpose do these tragedies serve? To remind us of the brevity of life? But this could be accomplished without the loss of life, I am sure. To bring some closer to God? I’m sure, but perhaps some didn’t want to get that close… yet. The reality is that with my feeble mind I can’t conceive a logical scenario that would justify these horrific events, but this does not mean that I am blaming God (capital “G”) nor that I am denying that there is a purpose in this kind of suffering. By faith, I must accept that there is but I can’t spell it right now. Perhaps later, but I may never truly know while sojourning here. So, I will choose to suspend judgment because though my last name is Trindade, I am pretty sure there is no vacancy in the Trinity. 

Ah, and I also know that despite all appearances no darkness remains forever. In Genesis 1, God pierced the darkness with His word, “Let there be light!” Going back to where I started, in Isaiah 9 the darkness is broken with the appearance of a “great light,” a reference to the coming of the Messiah. 
It was 9:10 pm EST in Lititz, PA, when I started writing this post. Just for kicks, I checked. It was: 

5:10 pm same day Fairbanks, Alaska 

1:10 pm next day in Melbourne, Australia 

5:10 am next day in Krasnodar, Russia

4:10 pm same day in Waimea, Hawaii

8:40 am next day in Yangon, Myanmar (yeah, they have that weird half an hour thing going on for them)

3:10 pm next day in South Pole, Antarctica

2:10 am next day in London

12:10 pm next day Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea…

I know that’s not profound, but as I looked at the list above a thought came to me: with the precision of a clock, light is piercing darkness somewhere in the world right now. And this happens every day, without us having to work for it. This tells me that despite the appearance, ultimately darkness cannot win. Some day the light of the Son of God will shine brightly on every corner of the universe and that is the hope that baby of Bethlehem brought the world on Christmas night. 

Sometimes, what helps me rise the next day after a day of tremendous sorrow is the thought that Christmas is happening in a symbolic way every time the glorious light of morning rises. It’s a perennial reminder that whether personally or cosmically the dark night of the soul will some day come to beautiful end, (capital “E.”)

Pastor Ivanildo da Costa Trindade

Lead Pastor, Grace Church, Lititz, PA

Jesus stunned His followers one day when He said, “Stop worrying about your life.” Right… The guys who were following Him — they were married men with families they had left behind in Nazareth. Some of them had abandoned their businesses and put their lives on hold — for the sake of a dream. They were living from hand to mouth, so worrying was their natural state, just like it is ours. How could Jesus, then, say, “Stop worrying?” There must be some compelling reasons why He would state that.

Jesus didn’t spell out the reasons why worrying is a bad idea, but we get some hints from the text. Here they are:

Worry is Irreverent

Being consumed by anxiety is a mark of faithlessness. Obsessing about food and clothing was something that people without God were in the habit of doing, so when you are beset by worries, you are essentially living like an atheist. Jesus said, “Your heavenly Father knows that you need these things.” This, of course, was not an invitation to idleness. The birds of the air still had to go after their food, but the point is that like the flowers and the grass, they fulfill their nature and God provides for them. In the same way, people who fulfill their nature, namely trusting God for their needs and pursuing work instead of idleness, will realize that God will not fail them.

Worry is Irrelevant

Worrying does not change things. Fixation with problems will never help solve them. In fact, it may make the problems worse. That was Jesus’ point when He asked rhetorically, “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” In posing the question, Jesus was anticipating what modern scientists are telling us today. According to a recent study, even mild levels of psychological distress can increase the risk of death in a lot people. Most of us do not sign up for something that is patently irrelevant, but somehow we make an exception when it comes to worrying. It doesn’t make sense, does it?

Worry is Irresponsible

Instead of putting our energy into things that are constructive and lead to solutions, we end up getting paralyzed by our worries. We worry because we are not in control and when we think we are in control, we worry that we will lose control. Is there hope for us?

Yes, there is! The antidote to worrying is to concentrate on doing God’s will in all aspects of life. This decision to seek God first and occupy our minds with His priorities will free us up to lead a life that is characterized by positive action moving forward.

Worrying is irresponsible because it sucks the positive energy we need to put into the Kingdom work God desires to accomplish in and through us. A worrier can never be a warrior for God. He who is mastered by the cares of the world will never be free to share in the cares of the world’s Master. He will always be in the minor league when God always intended for Him to play with the “big boys.”

Controlling our worries is a hard thing for the disciple to apply to his/her life, but we have no other choice. If we want to please God, we must choose to joyfully trust God first for everything in our lives. To fail to do so would be an anomaly for the true disciple. As the old theology professor, Henry Drummond, used to tell his students, “Do not trust Christianity unless you are willing to seek the kingdom of heaven first. I promise you a miserable existence if you seek it second.”

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33).

Time to get our worries under control!

 

Pastor Ivanildo da Costa Trindade

Lead Pastor, Grace Church, Lititz, PA

 

 

Hard to believe but I was in a church once where they read the name of the people who gave the biggest amount during the offering. Then they called a guy upfront and honored him for giving the biggest check of the night!

In Matthew 5:1-18, Jesus warns us against this perverse tendency we have to do things to be seen by others. He mentions three that deserve special attention. They are, in order, giving to the needy, praying, and fasting.

Today we may not have the practice of hiring a band to show off our brand of generosity, but do you ever brag about a good deed you did? Do you ever parade your piety? Jesus says that a good deed done to be seen by others is worthy of reward, but the reward is from men, not God.

The second practice, prayer, is even more challenging for us. Daniel prayed with his window open but it was not for show, it was more for a showdown. Do people today pray to impress others? Apparently yes. I was at a conference a couple of years ago in which a guy from Scotland went around offering long and elaborate “prophetic prayers” for all kinds of people. He spoke eloquently and everyone gravitated toward him because his prayers were “powerful.” I would say the church today needs “effective” prayers more than “powerful” prayers.

I have heard stories of people who accidentally walk in the middle of a private prayer and then they go on to repeat the words the person was praying in order to highlight how spiritual that individual is. Please do me a favor: If you ever walk into one of my prayers, leave immediately and don’t ever repeat the words you heard — you might be shocked at what you might hear me say. There is a reason only a few prayers in the Bible are quoted verbatim. Prayer is primarily a private conversation between the Creator and His creature. It’s not ever supposed to be a ritual in a spiritual pageant.

Fasting is being reinvented in our culture. The old costume is being replaced with trendy alternatives. One hears of a “social media fast” or a “caffeine fast.” We’ve turned fasting into fashion and what was supposed to be a spiritual exercise has turned into a self-improvement exercise. Instead of focusing on Deity, we focus on diet, and fasting turns even the most boring dude into some urbanite hipster, especially when he posts on Facebook that he’s going on a social media fast. Jesus would probably say, “Keep Calm and Just Do It.”

With all my sardonic reflections about these practices, I still find a deep sense of joy in reading this passage, and here’s where I find it: Jesus assures us that there is a reward when we engage in these activities, that is, when we do it for God. In other words, giving to the poor, praying and fasting always come with a reward — it’s only a question of who the rewarder is. Make sure your reward is from God and not the little man displaying your check to his congregation.

Pastor Ivanildo da Costa Trindade

Lead Pastor, Grace Church, Lititz, PA

Writing about love in this age of “Trumpillary” would be like writing about the comforts of heaven while sitting amidst the fiery flames of hell.

The negativity and bitterness, the shouting and coarse language, the empty rhetoric and rancorous debate — these things have so much dominated the news cycle that one would almost be forced to conclude that this is just how “normal” people behave in this neo-Judges age when “every man and woman does what’s right in his/her eyes.”

But that conclusion would be wrong. This is not “normal.” We shouldn’t let this display of carnality and immaturity be the standard bearer of what we used to call “civil discourse.” Go ahead and say it: It is NOT okay to ascend to power by lying, cheating and trying to completely annihilate your opponent. The “take no prisoners” philosophy should have no room in the fabric of this country we love so much.

But when it comes to the individual souls, it is a different story. Our main duty as followers of Christ is to pray faithfully for Hillary, Trump and others like them.

Last night I heard Hillary say that in order to be saved you need both faith and good works. Wrong… She needs to understand “salvation by grace through faith.” A while back Trump said he didn’t need to ask God for forgiveness because he doesn’t make mistakes. Wrong… He needs to understand the meaning of “in sin did my mother conceive me.”

Many of Hillary’s and Trump’s positions simply outrage me, but as a follower of Christ I have no right to personally lash out against these two individuals. I have a duty to pray for them and ask God to transform their hearts so they can think and act like Jesus some day. And in that sense, my heart is so filled with love and compassion for them that it brings me to the point of tears. Yes, when did you cry last for the souls of people like Donald and Hillary?

Let me illustrate. There is nothing that comes even close to provoking more outrage in me than the issue of protecting the life of the unborn. When I hear Hillary talk about it, that’s the only time I would be tempted to smash my T.V. to pieces, if my wife would let me… And yet, even at that moment when something so raw wants to come out of me and do damage, I look at the human being making that statement and am filled with compassion for her — she’s been blinded and she needs to see the light. I have tears for the millions of little ones vanished by violence and I have tears for the millions of grownups who will appear before God one day and give an account for their actions. May God have mercy on them!

But remember: We too will give an account to God some day. Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” He didn’t give us an exception clause that would apply to certain people, like former Cleveland Brown’s owner Art Modell, for example!

Now, obviously, that doesn’t necessarily mean I will become best friends with these two. Neither does it mean that I have to agree with all or any of their ideas and policies. Quite the contrary; I must remain vigilant and speak out against ideas that are contrary to God’s standards, but I must be careful that in the process of doing it I don’t act uncharitably toward them or their supporters and thus become just like them. We are not called to hate, we are called to love. We must find a way to love even people like these two. And if I need to be convinced of that, all I have to do is to look at myself in the mirror and repeat after me: “God loved ME!!”

The only time that it would be okay not to love those who disagree with me and behave radically differently from me would be the time that God would cease to love me. But that, I know, is not going to happen, so I might as well start learning to love the unlovable. God did it with me. But this is only possible by divine enabling. We can’t do it on our own power.

Looking at the foot of the cross, Jesus saw his tormentors and forgave them. Lifting his eyes unto heaven, as the first stone hit his body, Stephen followed in Jesus’ footsteps and forgave the stone throwers. He also prayed for them. That was and is supposed to be the norm for the disciple of Christ, not the exception.

While we lament the loss of civil discourse and dread having to walk into the polling place with our hearts torn by the choices afforded us, one thing we must not do — we must not let bitterness steal the joy we have in Christ and we must never forget that the sovereign God is still large and in charge.

Let’s look to our standard bearer, the One who, according to Matthew, “… causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

And let’s remember that all of us, without exception, also had to be forgiven of something that would be enough to send us to hell. Come to think of it, my need for forgiveness does tend to emerge, like daily. Thank God for the reconciliation and restoration He provides us in Christ!

Pastor Ivanildo da Costa Trindade

Lead Pastor, Grace Church, Lititz, PA

Bill Burk, the man God used to bring my dad to Christ, used to employ a simple litmus test to determine if a man was truly interested in the Gospel or not. He would schedule a day to come and study the Bible with the man. On the appointed day, if the man was there waiting for him, he would take it as a sign of interest; if he was out tending his field or hunting his game, he would go on to the next house. End of conversation.

Bill was a big believer in the binding nature of words and in the fact that words truly reveal the intent of a person’s heart. And I know that approach worked well with my dad, who was somewhat methodical from the day I was aware of his existence. Not sure how well it would work with an illiterate fisherman who hadn’t even seen a calendar his whole life, let alone made an appointment with someone. But that’s for another day. One has somehow to prioritize feeding his family as well…

Bill’s practice derived from an application of Jesus’ words, “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.'”

In this day and age when truth is like an endangered species, this is a great reminder to all of us. The religious leaders of the day had come up with all sorts of creative ways to get around the obligation of an oath. To speak in today’s terms, they could be seen with their fingers crossed, if the camera turned to show their backs, whenever they were promising to do something of significance. Their words became meaningless and they did all of this while sounding extremely pious.

In rebuking their misuse of oaths, Jesus reaffirmed the pervasive nature of God’s presence in all of our transactions, since He said that any kind of oath was ultimately invoking the Creator, because He owns everything. His rebuke also declared once and for all that the integrity of one’s inner being is infinitely more important than keeping appearance. One can get around promises in clever ways but one can never get clever enough to fool the Creator.

But instead of pondering the meaning of this teaching, we find ourselves arguing about whether Jesus was talking about taking an oath in a court of law, cursing or taking the Lord’s Name in vain — interesting topics, but not the subject of this text.

Here, Jesus is concerned with what we told our school teacher when we failed to bring our homework, after promising her “it will be done by tomorrow.” He wants to know if “the check is the mail” when we say it is. He cares about our failures to come to our kid’s soccer games, after we said you would be there for the umpteenth time. The applications are endless.

The world would be a better place even if only those who call themselves Christians spoke “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” Jesus expected nothing less and nothing more from His disciples. And Bill Burk apparently understood that.

Pastor Ivanildo da Costa Trindade

Lead Pastor, Grace Church, Lititz, PA

“For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:18).

Some people have read the end of this verse and concluded that Christians today are still obligated to follow the Law of Moses. They take the “until everything is accomplished” to mean “until the end of the world,” meaning until then the Law is still in effect.

Think about the practical implications of that, especially for guys who were not circumcised at birth. Ask Timothy, Paul’s protégé, about it. He was already an adult when Paul circumcised him. I think it’s safe to say that if we are concerned about men being AWOL in the church now, the situation would be exponentially worse if discipleship required “defleshship.” Think about sharing the gospel with another guy and having to transition from “God has a wonderful plan for your life” to “and that plan includes circumcision.” Not even the JW’s could sweeten that deal!

Okay, let’s get serious now. That expression must mean something else. Paul gives us a clue in Romans 10:4 when he said, “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”

Notice, Paul did not say “Christ is the end of the Law,” as so many incorrectly quote this passage. The text says, “Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness.” The Law didn’t end with Christ, for even today it still serves a purpose of showing us our sinfulness and our need of a Savior. But the Law took on a new meaning after Christ.

Here is what I mean. The Law was no more than a pointer, reminding us that we need God’s righteousness. And in this sense, Christ is the “end” (Greek “telos,”) to which the Law pointed. He was like the red dot on your GPS display signaling your destination.

So, with that in mind, it’s safe to say that “until everything is accomplished” refers to the Messianic age, beginning with the advent of Christ outside of Bethlehem, all the way to His future coming in glory to set up the new heavens and the new earth. In Christ the purpose of the Law was painted in high definition, ultra 4d resolution type of screen. He disclosed the full meaning and purpose of the Law.

But the best is yet to come. God will bring every little detail that Moses and the prophets wrote about to fruition. His justice will cover the earth. His dominion will have no limits. His enemies will be conquered and His Son will reign supreme for eternity. And that’s His story and He’s sticking to it.

And my friend, if that doesn’t excite you, I don’t know what will!

Pastor Ivanildo da Costa Trindade

Lead Pastor, Grace Church, Lititz, PA

In 312 A.D. something really consequential happened to the Church. It was the year the emperor Constantine embraced Christianity. Whether he actually converted or not is a debate for the ages, but he did manage to bring Christianity from the shadows to the spotlight. His vision to conquer under the sign of the Cross became associated with the Church for a very long time.

The immediate effect of Constantine’s conversion, in addition to making every Pope and prelate rich, was that a religion that had been marked for extinction was suddenly elevated to the status of state religion, whether officially or not. The Church moved from the margins to the center and gradually Jesus and His teachings moved from the center to the margins.

From that day forward Christians have looked to a “savior” from the seats of power. The Church has been associated with power and wealth; the cross, which was an instrument of humiliation before, now became a banner under which Christian armies fought to conquer other people.

Jesus’ teachings on the ethics of the Kingdom, which is embodied in the sermon on the mount, were sanitized and domesticated to fit the narrative of a dynastic Messiah. They were no longer for the regular follower, only for a selected few. Or maybe they were only for the age to come; or perhaps given as an ideal to make the very point that we can’t really get there.

It is time for us to reclaim Jesus and His teachings to their place of preeminence in our lives. Let’s recognize that while there is still an aspect of the Kingdom that has yet to be realized, Jesus meant for His followers to live the ethics of the sermon on the mount in the here and now.

Constantine, and all the great minds of Church theology that legitimized his view of Christianity, managed to transform Jesus into this iconic figure that must be feared and revered, but from a safe distance, of course. He became much like the Catholic Church’s many saints at the time.

As a result of that, it was very possible to worship Jesus but not necessarily follow Him. They bowed in humble adoration but when it came to the stuff about praying for those who persecute you, they bowed out. They lingered by the train of His kingly robes but when the King stripped down His royal garb and touched lepers, they were no longer willing to hang around.

And if we are not careful, we too can let the same thing happen to us today — we can leave Jesus on the altar instead of carrying Him into the road with us; we can make Him possible but not portable. And God forbid we should go looking for somebody else, maybe another Constantine, to help us feel safe as we practice our faith. That would only detract us from the mandate to be salt and light to people who desperately need to know that Jesus has the answers to all their perplexing questions.

Time to un-radicalize the sermon on the mount and let Jesus be king again, not in a palace but in our hearts, not in an altar but in the daily decisions we make about living for Him and engaging Christ’s other friends.

 

Pastor Ivanildo da Costa Trindade

Lead Pastor, Grace Church, Lititz, PA