Russell United Methodist Church
Monday, December 11, 2017
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December 10, 2017

Mark 1:1-8

“Do You Hear What I Hear?”    

One day, a king died. His servants spread the unbelievable news all over the palace. He had died in his bed of natural causes.

“Where did he go?" asked one of the king's children.

“Why, he went to Heaven, of course!” answered all the servants.

When the king arrived at the gates of heaven, he met St. Peter.  When he approached, Peter said to him, “I know you loved to travel and would go over the details of each journey. Every element was planned and anticipated. But you made no plans for heaven.  You heard about Jesus but you dismissed the idea because you were too important. The trip to heaven is a journey for which you made no preparation. You did not accept Jesus.  You did not join the community of faith.  You did not live the life.  You did not prepare for heaven.”

Someone said, “If we fail to prepare, we are preparing to fail.”  God did not want us to fail and miss the Gospel so He sent John the Baptist with a message of preparation.  When God was ready to send the Messiah, He didn’t want people to be taken by surprise so He sent a Messenger.  John the Baptist was that messenger and his task was to prepare people for the arrival of the King of kings and the Lord of lords.

But there was a problem and a challenge. Even before John began announcing the birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah had predicted he would be “a voice of one calling in the wilderness.”  Matthew, Mark, and Luke, in writing about John, described him as “a voice in the wilderness” or as appearing in the wilderness.  It is not clear whether it is John, who is in the wilderness, or whether it is the people who are in the wilderness and John went to preach to them.

We know the wilderness is a place where no one lives, a place where there is no human life, and a place where there is no civilization.  The wilderness is a symbol of desolation, isolation, and devastation. At the same time, the wilderness is a place of discipline, of preparation, of challenges. The people of Israel traveled through the wilderness from Egypt to the Promised Land.  The Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness before he began his ministry.  God was about to begin a new period of the Gospel.  The old world of might makes right would be no more.  It was love for God and the neighbor.

It is clear John was the voice in the wilderness talking to people who lived in the wilderness.   People in the wilderness are people who have drifted from God.  People in the wilderness are people who have wandered from their faith. They have become overburdened with the challenges of life that they don’t know what to do or where to go. While they are in the wilderness, people do not listen very well.  The voice of God is like a distant echo calling to them.  They hear it but it doesn’t make sense. 

People in the wilderness have a feeling of dissatisfaction.  A pastor served for many years in a local church before becoming a professor of pastoral care at the Moody Bible Institute. In 2007 he wrote a book called, A Stranger in the House of God, in which he talked about his experience in various churches. He wrote, “Most of the Christians I know are disappointed with their church, finding it either too traditional or too modern. The sermon is either too theological or not theological enough. The people are too cold to one another or too cliquish. In the end, the root problem is always the same. It is the people.”  This professor is right.  But the reason people have problems with their churches is because they are in the wilderness, drifting, wandering from God.  If people can’t find God and feel the spirit, is it possible they didn’t bring God and the Holy Spirit with them when they came to church.

John was the voice of one calling in the wilderness telling people to “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  People who are experiencing dissatisfaction will not have time for preparation.  John is telling us it’s time for preparation; the Lord is coming.  But they are frustrated.  They are worrying.  They have to go Christmas shopping.  They have to get a tree and go to the store and buy food and more food, toys and more toys, gifts and more gifts.  The more they buy, the more they are dissatisfied because they want more and they feel they don’t have enough.  Something is missing.  Do you hear what I hear?  I hear the voice of John the Baptist calling on us to “Prepare the way of the Lord” by making the paths straight.

When a path is not straight, it means it is crooked.  When we become dissatisfied, it is easy to become crooked, to find ways to satisfy ourselves.  When we become preoccupied with life that we forget to live, we can lose track of what is important.  We follow Christ for the miracles he brings and not for Christ himself.  Dissatisfaction keeps us from hearing God more clearly.

God is speaking to us. Can you hear what I hear?  John preached a Gospel of repentance and the forgiveness of sin. Can you hear John calling on us to practice confession and forgive one another? There was a tennis star named Boris Becker who was at the very top of the tennis world -- yet he almost committed suicide. He said, "I won the championship twice. I was rich. I had all the material possessions I needed.  Yet I was unhappy.”          There are so many who have it all, but they have a feeling of dissatisfaction.  Many are so empty that they cannot hear the Gospel that calls them to confession and repentance and forgiveness. The prophet calls on us to confess what we are feeling. Confess the dissatisfaction. Confess the emptiness. Confess that sometime God seems far away.  After we confess, we must repent and express regrets for our behavior. When we repent, God will forgive us and enter our lives and give us a new purpose for living.  Can you hear what I hear?  Can you hear John say, “Prepare the way of the Lord?  Repent and seek forgiveness.”

John was the voice of one calling in the wilderness.  That’s where most people are.  People in the wilderness do not only have dissatisfaction, they are experiencing discord.  Discord is when there is no harmony; discord is where there is no understanding.  Discord is where people do not listen to one another but focus on themselves.  Discord is a sign of confusion because so many other things are demanding and claiming our time. 

Somebody said there are wilderness Christians.  God leads us into the wilderness but God doesn’t expect us to remain there permanently. These wilderness Christians don’t want to leave the wilderness.  They enjoy feeling sorry for themselves.  They are in discord because their bodies are in the church but their minds and hearts are somewhere else.  They take their burdens to the altar and put them down asking God to take their burdens away.  As soon as they get through praying, they pick up their burdens and take them away because they don’t really believe God can do that for them. Wilderness Christians complain about everyone and everything, yet they contribute little or nothing to the mission of Christ. Wilderness Christians always see the negative side of things.  Sometimes we are led to the wilderness by depression; by things we have lost, by sadness and disappointments in life.  Other times, God leads us into the wilderness to teach us a lesson and give us strength.  Even Jesus was led to the wilderness for a time to preparation.  

A tour bus was journeying through Israel with a group of Americans when they saw a unique sight. An Israeli shepherd was carrying a lamb in his arms. The bus stopped to talk with the shepherd and to give tourists a chance to take pictures. A little boy asked the shepherd, "Why are you carrying that little lamb in your arms? Can’t he walk by himself?"

The shepherd smiled and said, "Oh, you don’t understand. This little lamb keeps wandering from the shepherd and I am his only defense against enemies. He would not listen to me. One day he fell and broke his leg.  His broken leg saved his life and now he is learning a lesson."

That’s exactly what the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, does for His sheep. When we wander away from His side, we walk away from our only defense. He finds us in our sin, takes us through brokenness and carries us until we are able to walk with Him once again.

John himself decided to go to the wilderness to preach, according to the text.  The people went to hear him.  John went to the wilderness to show the people what life in the wilderness was like.  When they found him, he baptized those who wanted to be baptized.  Then he said to them: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John led the people to the wilderness to prepare them for the coming Messiah.  The wilderness is a place of challenge, but it is also a place of preparation.  It is easy to miss the voice of God calling us when we are in the wilderness. Do you hear what I hear?  I hear the voice of God saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

There was a missionary who served in China before the days of Communism.  While she was there, the Communist revolution started and she didn’t know what to do.  She woke up one morning and decided to meet other missionaries to leave China.  But as she started her journey, she felt she had no apparent hope of reaching safety. A 13-year old girl tried to comfort her by saying, "Don’t forget what you told us about Moses in the wilderness," to which the missionary replied, "Yes, my dear, but I am not Moses." The young girl replied, "Yes, but God is still God."

Let us prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord.  Yes, we may be in the wilderness, but we will not remain there forever.  Our Lord is calling us through the Word and through the prophets.  Can you hear what I hear?  I hear an invitation to come, all who are tired and burdened.  I hear the blessed assurance that we are never alone.  I hear the comfort of the Shepherd.  I hear love that cannot be measured.  May God give the ears to hear what I hear. Amen. 

 

December 3, 2017

Mark 13:24-37

“Not Eye Service, Nor Lip Service, but Heart Service”    

 

         Some years ago, there was an article on the CNN website called, “What we do when the boss isn’t looking?”  The opening paragraph of the article read like this: "When the cat's away, the mice will play," is a term most people can relate to. When the manager is gone -- be it on vacation or just away from her desk -- some employees act like a teenager whose parents are out of town.

They sneak out early or come in late. They chitchat with co-workers more frequently, usually about nonwork-related things. They make personal phone calls, take extra-long lunches” (http://www.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/worklife/03/10/cb.when.boss.not.looking/index.html).

         Some employees act like children whose parents are out of town when the manager is not around.  Such employees can be said to give eye service.  They are eye servants.  Eye servants are those who work only when their supervisors are watching them.  As soon as the supervisor turns around, that worker begins to slack off.  Those employees who act like children whose parents are out of town also pay lip service to their bosses.  Lip service is when we are all talk but no action, when we say one thing and do another.  Lip service is pretending to believe a certain principle of value but never practicing it.

         In Mark 13, Jesus was talking about a time when the He, the Messiah would come again.  Today we enter the season of Advent, the season when we begin the preparation for the coming of Christ.  In the First Advent, Jesus came as a baby on Christmas Day, and that is what many people will focus on.  In the Second Advent, Jesus will come as the Messiah.  In the First Advent, Jesus came as the Lamb of God to take away our sins.  In the Second Advent, Jesus will come as the Conquering Lion of Judah.  In the First Advent, Jesus came as our Mediator and Advocate.  In the Second Advent, Jesus will come as a Judge to pass the Final Judgment.

         One question that the disciples were curious about was this:  When will this happen?  When will the Messiah return?  When will you come again? Jesus told them many strange things will take place.  He told them there will come false prophets; there will be natural disasters; there will be persecutions; there will be wars and rumors of war before people see the Son of Man come in the clouds with great glory and power.  Then Jesus said in verse 32, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

       Then Jesus said to them: Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.”  In Matthew 24, we find the same story but except Matthew added a little twist to it.  Matthew said there were two kinds of servants:  One who is faithful and just and the other who is a wicked servant.  This is how Matthew described two kinds of servants: “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? 46 It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. 47 Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 48 But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ 49 and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards.”

         The wicked servant was an eye servant. He pretended to work and be in ministry when he saw people looking at him.  In the presence of other Christians, she acted as though she was doing the Lord’s work.  But when no one was looking, it was a different matter altogether. The wicked servant paid lip service.  He sang the hymns, but did not believe them.  He read the scripture but they meant nothing.  He prayed but with empty words because his heart was not in it. 

I want to tell you today, the Christian life is not eye service, nor lip service, but it’s about heart service. We can see there are two kinds of Christians.  There are those who are eye servants and pay lip service, and then there are those who give heart service.  Jesus is coming back for the Second Advent.  But until that time, we will celebrate the First Advent at Christmas while waiting for the Second Advent.  While we wait for Christ, we must not be eye servants, paying lip service, pretending to be what we’re not. I’m sure you have heard of Frank Abigale Jr. The true story of his life is told in the movie, "Catch Me If You Can." He successfully pretended to be an airline pilot, doctor and lawyer. Before he was caught he cashed over $4 million of bad checks and he did all this before he was 19 years old.  Frank Abigale was a pretender.  He pretended to be things he was not.

We can’t pretend to be what we’re not.  Many people, especially children, love to dress up and play army or police. They go to the imitation store and buy the uniform and put them on. But they have never been through the training, never experienced the discipline and so they just pretend to be soldier or police. It’s sad that some people like to play Christian.  They dress up and act like Christians but their hearts are far from God.  You can’t fake it until you make it.

Jesus told us to be on guard and be alert.  You don’t know when the Lord will return. In other words, remain an active Christian not one who has fallen asleep.  We know when Christians fall asleep they become indifferent, uninterested, and unconcerned about the world and the things of God.  Jesus could come any time.

It’s sad there are some people who believe Jesus is not coming again.  There is a man who has devoted his entire ministry to the belief that Jesus is not coming again (http://www.angelfire.com/pa/greywlf/comingagain.html).  He’s going to be in for a surprise one of these days.  Jesus promised he would come again and we learn in the last few weeks that all the promises of God are Yes and Amen.  Jesus is coming again.

But like the wicked servant who thought Jesus was delayed so he began to abuse his fellow servants, there are some who think Jesus is not coming right away so they can do things and get away with them.  The last sentence of Mark 13 reads, “What I say to you, I say to everyone. Watch.” Like a soldier on guard watching for the enemy, we must be ever ready. We must be engaged in our faith.  We must be as active duty Christians at all times. The Christian life is not being an eye servant and it is not paying lip service.  It is heart service.

Heart service is sincere service. I agree that sincerity is an open heart that few people show.  I also agree that "Sincerity is to speak as we think, to do as we profess, to perform what we promise." There is an international Christian organization for men that is called, “Promise Keepers.”  This organization brings Christian men from all around the world.  One of their goals is to help men keep their promises as Christian men.  The men who belong to the “Promise Keepers” organization make vital promises to serve Christ, honor our Lord and remain men of integrity.

As believers, we must offer heart service to God and heart service is sincere service and sincere service is making sure we’re living the Word and to live the Word we must keep our promises.  We make promises every day.  When we get married, we made promises through the vows we took. When we became Christians, we promised to love, serve and obey Jesus at all times.  When we baptize our children or become baptized ourselves as adults, we make promises to raise our children as Christians or to remain faithful as disciples of Christ.  When we join the United Methodist Church, we make a promise to be loyal to the church by our prayers, our gifts, our presence and our service.

We don’t want to be like those employees who, when their bosses are out of the office, they behave as children whose parents are out of town.  We have been expecting Jesus for a long time and this has made some people believe he’s not coming. Unfortunately, because they think Jesus is not coming, many Christians become eye servants and they offer lip service to Jesus.  But the real Christians will offer heart service.  They are the ones who offer sincere service from the heart.  This is because they truly believe Jesus is coming again as he promised.  Advent begins today.  Let us be determined to celebrate Christmas the first Advent and to always remember there’s a second Advent when Jesus will come again.  May we all be active duty Christians, staying alert and awake as we live the Gospel and may God bless us all. Amen.


November 26, 2017

2 Samuel 12:1-10

“Can You Handle The Truth?”    

 

         “A Few Good Men” is a very popular movie.  The movie is mainly about the investigation of the death of a Marine private at the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, and the trial that followed. Two other marines were charged with the murder of their fellow marine and were court-martialed.  During the trial, the Defense Lawyer was Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise.  Another main character in the movie was the base commander, Colonel Nathan Jessup, played by Jack Nicholson. 

Towards the end of the trial, Lieutenant Kaffee called Colonel Jessup to the stand as a witness.  During questioning, Lieutenant Kaffee discovered a contradiction in the Colonel’s testimony where he said he wanted to help the dead marine but had ordered a “Code Red,” which meant violent punishment for marines who didn’t fit in.  When Lieutenant Kaffee asked Colonel Jessup if he ordered the “Code Red,” his lawyer told him not to answer the question. But Colonel Jessup said, “I’ll answer the question.  You want answers?” Kaffee says, “I think I'm entitled to them.” Jessup asked again, “You want answers? ”Kaffee yells, “I want the truth!” Jessup yells back, “You can't handle the truth!” Then he goes on to explain why it was necessary to order the death of another marine, because it saved lives.  In the end, Colonel Jessup was found guilty and arrested.

The line, “You can’t handle the truth” is one of most memorable movie quotes in American movies.  This line is important because it makes us wonder if we are confronted with our sinful words and deeds, are we able and ready to recognize them, to claim them, to admit them and to take responsibility for them?  This is what happened in the case of David.  After all the sins he committed against Uriah and against God, was he able to handle the truth?

God decided to confront David by letting him see his sin in the form of a parable. God sent Nathan, the Prophet who came to David with a story. In this story, there were two men living in a certain town.  One was rich and had a very large number of sheep and cattle.  The other was poor.  He was so poor that he had nothing except one little ewe lamb.  This baby lamb was special to him and it was his family.  He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children.  It shared his food, drank from his cup, and even slept in his arms.  It was like a daughter to him.

Nathan continued with his story and told David how one day the rich man received a visitor.  The rich man decided to entertain his visitor.  Instead of getting a sheep or cow from his huge number of animals he owned, he went and took the one lamb the poor man had, killed it and prepared it for his guest.  When David heard this story, he became outraged, and furious.  The Bible says, “David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die!  He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.’”

David was King of Israel and he was declaring judgment on the man who would abuse his power that way.  He was pronouncing justice on the person who took advantage of the poor because he was rich.  He had issued a decree:  The man who did this must die.  It was such a serious crime that it deserves capital punishment.  Not only must the man die, he must repay the poor man for his lamb four times over.  David was reflecting the Jewish concept of repentance and forgiveness.  According to the Jewish tradition, if a man committed a very serious sin, he can only be forgiven if he perform certain acts of atonement such as: acknowledging and apologizing for the sin, abandoning the sin, acting and speaking with humility, and restoring the loss he caused to the other person. This was the law and David was enforcing the full extent of the law.  The law generally did not call for the death of the perpetrator but David went as far as declaring death for this person.

Nathan then said to David, “You are the man!”  Nathan went on to deliver a message from God about how much God had done for David.  God anointed him, protected him from Saul, made him king over both Judah and Israel in a United Kingdom, and gave him everything Saul had and then some.  God even went as far as saying, “And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more.”  God exposed David’s sin so he could see it:  “You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own.  You killed him with the sword of the Ammonite.”  God brought charges against David.  He was charged with murder and adultery.  The verdict from the Judge of Heaven was guilty.  The punishment was death, destruction, and disgrace for David and his family.

David knew he was guilty.  He knew he had done all those things he was accused of.  He was the man in the parable, the rich man who abused his power and killed the poor man’s lamb.  He was the man without regards for anybody else.  His wealth and power made him arrogant.  He looked down on others because he thought he was better than everybody; he didn’t care how people felt about him.  He did what he wanted to.  He was rich and he was powerful.  But God saw everything and exposed the truth.  Now that he knew the truth about himself, what was he going to do about it? Could he handle the truth?

Not everybody in the Bible handled the truth the same way.  When Adam was confronted about eating the forbidden fruit in Genesis 3, Adam blamed his wife, Eve, and she blamed the snake.  Both of them refused to acknowledge and take responsibility for their sins.  In 1 Samuel 3, when God told Samuel to tell the priest Eli that God wasn’t happy with the way his sons were behaving and treating the Temple worship, rather than saying he was sorry, Eli said, “He is the Lord.  Let him do what is good in his eyes.” In 1 Samuel 15, when Saul disobeyed God, he tried to justify his action by saying what he did was for God, but Samuel told him, “Obedience is better than sacrifice.”

When David was confronted with the truth of his sinful behavior, David handled the truth well.  He took full responsibility for his actions.  The first thing David said was, “I have sinned against the Lord.”  That was an admission, a confession.  Not only did he stop there, he wrote an entire prayer asking for forgiveness.  Psalm 51 is that prayer.  David wrote: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.”  He continued, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. 4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge. 5 Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. 6 Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb; you taught me wisdom in that secret place.”

After confessing his sins and declaring God was just in the punishment against him, David pleaded with God and said, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.”  David was asking for purification, for reconciliation and for restoration.  David had handled the truth like a mature person of faith.  He has given us an example we can all follow whenever we fall short of the glory of God and God has shown our sins to us.

In 2001, when George W. Bush was President, he had a White House Public Liaison name Tim.  Tim had almost daily access to President George Bush for seven years and helped with managing information from the White House to the public. Then it all ended abruptly on February 29, 2008. A well-known journalist had revealed the surprising fact that Tim plagiarized 27 of the 39 articles he published. By mid-afternoon the next day, Tim's career in the White House was over.

Tim admitted his guilt and said the incident began "a personal crisis unequaled in my life, bringing great humiliation on my wife and children, my family, and my closest friends, including the President of the United States."  Tim was summoned to the White House to face the President. Once inside the Oval Office, Tim shut the door, turned to the President and said, "I owe you an..." President Bush simply said: "Tim, you are forgiven." Tim was speechless. He tried again: "But sir..." The President interrupted him again, with a firm "Stop." Then President Bush added, "I have known grace and mercy in my life, and you are forgiven."

After a long talk, a healing process was launched for Tim, which included repentance, reflection, and spiritual growth. "Political power can lead to pride," Tim later reflected. "That was my sin. It was one hundred percent pride. But offering and receiving forgiveness is a different kind of strength. That's the kind of strength I want to develop now."

For Tim, it was pride and stealing other people’s writings.  For David, it was murder and adultery.  For others, it might be a different sin.  But no matter what sin we have committed that led to the death and destruction of others, God knows and will call our attention to the truth of our actions.  When God confronts us with the truth, will we be able to handle it?  We can act like Adam and Eve who blamed others, or we can be like David who took responsibility for his sins.  As a result of David’s ability to handle the truth, his relationship with God was restored.  Despite the painful outcome of his sins, God was there to comfort him and help him along the way.

This week and every week, when the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sins, may we be ready to say, “Yes, Lord. I admit my shortcomings.  Have mercy on me, save me and restore me.”  When we do, because we are in Jesus Christ, the truth will set us free and we will be renewed. Amen. 

 

 

 

November 19, 2017

2 Timothy 1:1-14

“Guarding the Treasures of the Gospel”    

 

      Many years ago in England, a man named Laurence had a metal detector and would go around trying to find buried treasure.  He looked for months and months but found nothing of real value. On one beautiful November day, Laurence found something much better.  He found twenty-two thousand pieces (22,000) of Roman coins from the 4th century.  This was the biggest collection of coins ever found in Britain. Laurence quickly informed the authorities and the scientists were called to dig up the coins and remove them. While scientists and their crew worked on removing the coins, Laurence couldn't bring himself to leave the site. When a newspaper interviewed him later, about whether it was true, he admitted it and said, “I slept in my car alongside the coins for three nights to guard the treasure," he says. "Every night the archaeologists packed up and left, and I couldn’t go home and sleep thinking there was something of such significance sitting there in a hole in the ground.”

This man was willing to risk his life to guard and protect this treasure, this earthly treasure.  Today Paul is calling on Christians to guard and protect a greater treasurer, a divine treasure.  That treasure is our faith in the Gospel. In chapter one of his second letter to Timothy, his spiritual son, Paul told him he saw his faith in action, he knew it was sincere. This was the same faith he saw in Timothy’s grandmother Lois, and in his mother, Eunice.  Isn’t it wonderful when we can pass our faith to our children?  The way we pass our faith down to our children is not by inheritance, like we would pass on material things or money.  In some religions, children are born into the faith by virtue of their parents.  Christianity is different. God has no grandchildren and God has no great grandchildren.  Our children are not saved by virtue of our faith in God.  We must nurture them so that they will accept Jesus as their own personal Lord and Savior.  In verse 14, Paul wrote, “Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.” That is the NIV.  The NKJV reads, “That good thing which was committed to you, keep by the Holy Spirit who dwells in us.”  The NRSV says, “Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.” 

Paul was saying to Timothy, like he is saying to us today, Protect and Gospel.  The Gospel is a treasure; guard it.  Don’t let anyone take it from you. Don’t let anybody make you abandon your faith in Christ. Think about the history of our faith.  For more than 2,000 years, Christian has been in existence.  There have been efforts to destroy it through persecution and wipe it from the earth.  But because those faithful believers before us protected the faith and guarded the treasure of the Gospel, the Christian faith is still alive.  Christianity is the largest religion in the world today.

There are three major ways we can guard the treasures of the Gospel, according to Paul.  First, we must fan our faith.   In verse 6, Paul wrote, “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.”    When we light a charcoal grill with all the charcoals, we need to fan the flames of the grill or let the wind blow through it to burn brighter.  Our faith is like that.  We need to fan the flames of faith.  To fan the flames means keep our faith alive and to deepen our knowledge about it.  During the days of Timothy, some people accused Christianity of being a foolish faith because their God died on the cross.  What they didn’t realize was that our God is Lord of life and death; death has no power over us.

Today we have similar challenges.  There’s a book called, The Case for Faith written by Lee Strobel.  In this book, the author addressed some problems and objections people have with Christianity.  One of those problems is about suffering.  They say, “Since evil and suffering exist, a loving God cannot.” For example, a man took a picture of a mother holding her child who had died because there was no rain.  The man concluded because the child had died, that means God wasn’t a good God.  How can a good God not send rain so this child and mother could have food and water?  What these people failed to realize is that we humans have the power to end the suffering of one another.  Was there a town nearby that had water and didn’t want to share?  This is why in James 17:4, we read, “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn't do it, it is sin for them.”  When Christians fan the flames of their faith, they will realize we have been blessed to be a blessing.

Then there is the question of suffering itself.  Why is there suffering in the world? The book of Job teaches us that most suffering comes as temptations from Satan to destroy our faith.  God uses that temptation as a test of our faith.  Other times suffering comes as a result of our own sins.  When we disobey God, the result is usually suffering.  There is so much we don’t understand yet people try to blame God for everything that goes wrong.

A Christian professor gave the example of a bear caught in a trap.  A hunter comes by and wants to free the bear from the trap.  The hunter tried to win the bear’s confidence but the bear thinks the hunter is trying to hurt him.  The best way to help the bear is to shoot him full of drugs to calm him and open the trap door.  The bear doesn’t understand what the man is doing.  In the same way, we don’t understand suffering and why we experience it.  For many who don’t understand, they blame God for the suffering of the world.  We must guard the Gospel and help people understand God is not the cause of suffering.  God allows suffering to prove to Satan we who follow Christ will not give up our faith because we go through hard times; those who follow Christ will not suffer alone; the Good News is true and pure.  The universe was made for our good.  As we fan the flame of faith, we will deepen our understanding of God and understand that God wants only the very best for us.  These misinterpretations and misunderstandings of God can cause people to reject Christianity.  Just as Paul told Timothy, so he tells us today to fan into flame the gift of faith, which God has given us.  Keep it burning by studying the Word of God.  If we don’t know the Word, when people question us and object to our faith we will not be able to respond.  We must fan the flame of our faith.

The second way to guard and protect our faith is that, we must flaunt our faith. In verse 8, Paul wrote, “Do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner.”  To flaunt something is to put it on display, to show it off so the whole world will see it.  We must not be embarrassed by our faith.  A group of people went out to eat.  When the food came, one of them said, “Shall we scratch our eyebrows?” What this person was saying is, “Let’s pray without letting people know we’re praying.”  We must not be ashamed to pray in public.  It’s good to pray over our food because we don’t know the people who are preparing it; we pray over our food because we do want to be grateful that we have food to eat and that we do have the appetite as well. In Romans 1:16, Paul declared, For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.”  In fact, in Luke 9:26, Jesus declared, “Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” 

There was a boy whose mom only had one eye. He hated her.  She was an embarrassment to him. She cooked for students and teachers to support the family. 
One day during elementary school, his mom went to say hello to him and he was so embarrassed that he ignored her, gave her a hateful look and ran out. The next day at school one of my classmates said, "EEEE, your mom only has one eye!" 
He wanted to bury himself. He also wanted his mom to just disappear. He confronted her that day and said, "If you’re only gonna make me a laughing stock, why don’t you just die?"  His mom did not respond.  The boy didn’t even stop to think for a second about what he had said because he was so full of anger.  He wanted out of that house, and have nothing to do with her, so he studied real hard, got a chance to go abroad to study. 

Then he got married, bought a house of his own and even had kids of his own. He was happy with his life, his kids and the comforts. He had. Then one day, his mother went to visit him. She hadn’t seen him in years and she didn’t even meet her grandchildren. When she stood by the door, his children laughed at her, and he invited her in but was embarrassed to introduce his children to their grandmother.  After a brief moment, his mother quietly got up and left, and she disappeared out of sight. 

One day, a letter regarding a school reunion came to his house. After the reunion, he went to the old shack where they used to live just out of curiosity.  The neighbors said that his mother had died. He did not shed a single tear. They handed him a letter that she had wanted him to have. The letter read,

My dearest son, 
I think of you all the time. I’m sorry that I came to your house and scared your children. I was so glad when I heard you were coming for the reunion. But I may not be able to even get out of bed to see you. I’m sorry that I was a constant embarrassment to you when you were growing up. You see...when you were very little, you got into an accident, and lost your eye. As a mother, I couldn’t stand watching you having to grow up with one eye. So I gave you one of mine. 
I was so proud of my son who was seeing a whole new world for me, in my place, with that eye. 
With all my love to you, 
Your mother.

The boy was ashamed of himself.  How did he not know?  Why was he embarrassed for his wonderful loving mother who gave him one eye so he would have two eyes?  My friends, think about the suffering Christ endured on the cross.  The pain, the agony and the anguish were all because of us.  Christ gave his life that we may have eternity.  When we celebrate the Holy Communion, we usually say, “The Body of Christ which was broken for you.”  Yes, Christ’s body was broken when the whipped him and broke his skin with the whip.  His body was broken when he fell while carrying the cross.  His body was broken when they placed the crown on his head.  His body was also broken when they pierced him in his side.  He gave his life for us to have salvation.  This mystery has been entrusted to us to share.  We must not keep it a secret.  Let’s tell the whole world who Jesus is and what he did.

The third way to protect the Gospel is by being faithful to the Gospel.  In verse 11 and 12 Paul wrote: “And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. 12 That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.”   Our God is a faithful God.  The best we can do is be faithful to God.  There was an interview with the great Evangelist Billy Graham. The interviewer was fascinated by Rev Graham’s success as an Evangelist.  He asked Rev. Graham if he expected great rewards in heaven for the millions of lives he had impacted through his worldwide ministry. 
Billy Graham said that he was not sure of the extent of his own rewards, God is the final Judge, but he was certain that others would have greater rewards than he. He went on to say, “There is a faithful elderly woman who is right now on her knees praying for her little country church, her family, and her nation. For nearly 80 years, the sweet lady has been faithful to her Lord. She has been constantly praying, and reading the Bible daily.” To Billy Graham, that lady and many others like her will receive the greatest rewards in heaven. At the close of the interview, Billy Graham said these last words: "You see, we are not called to be successful. We are called to be faithful.”

Today Paul is calling on us to protect the Gospel and guard it. It is a treasure that we should not keep to ourselves.  The more we give of this treasure, the more we get back.  We live at a time when people will object to the Gospel.  Christianity lasted over 2,000 years and is the world’s largest religions because people before us protected the Gospel and shared it with us.  We must protect it in three ways:  We must fan the flames of our faith; we must flaunt it; and we must be faithful to our God who has always been faithful to us.  May the Spirit show us how. Amen.

 

November 12, 2017

I Thessalonians 5:1-11

“Onward Christian Soldiers”    

 

          The year was 1918.  World War I had been raging for four years.  Even before the Allied nations and Germany decided to end the war, all sides had agreed to end all hostilities on November 11, 1918.  This was a time of great sadness and great hope.  It was time of sadness because so many had died defending freedom and democracy.  But it was a time of hope because many thought it was the end of “the war to end all wars.”  In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson declared November 11th of each year as Armistice Day.  Then in 1938, Congress made it official with an act of law recognizing November 11th as a day “to be dedicated to the cause of world peace” and “a day to honor veterans of all wars.”

         A country singer name Billy Ray Cyrus has a song named “Some gave all.”  In this song, the chorus goes, “All gave some and some gave all. Some stood through for the red, white and blue. And some had to fall.” This is true.  Everyone gives something in times of crises.  Those who work in the factories, those who take care of the home, those who pray for the soldiers and welcome them home, all gave some.  But there are those who lost their limbs, other body parts, their minds and even their lives.  These are the ones who gave all.  Their service was a sacrifice on the altar of love for God and country.  We salute all Veterans on this day.

         Veterans Day reminds us that we do not live in a perfect world.  We live in a world where selfishness and greed for power can lead to anger, violence and war. Jesus did warn us in Matthew 24 that there would come a time when we will hear the noise of battles close by and the news of battles far away.  He told us that countries will fight each other, and nations will rise up against nations.

         We have seen in the history of the world the rise of many kingdoms and powers, each trying to dominate the world.  We remember from the Bible how the Babylonians and the Assyrians conquered nations and killed so many people.  We remember the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans and their domination of the world. We know in recent history, Communism, which does not believe in God, wanted to take over the world, and may still be trying to do so.  Recent history tells us how Hitler killed six million Jews and had plans to take over the world.  If it had not been the sacrifice of the brave soldiers fighting to defend freedom, we might all be under Hitler’s rule.

We do not live in a perfect world.  Saint Augustine, who was a bishop in North Africa during the 5th century, knew that our world was not perfect.  For this reason, he became one of the first to talk about how sometimes war can be justified.  Later, many Christian thinkers talk about the Just War Theory or Principles of a Just War. Some of these principles state: A just war can only be fought after all options are considered first.  A just war can only be fought to correct a wrong such as self-defense. The ultimate goal of a just war is to re-establish peace.  The weapons used in war must not be used against civilians. Civilians are never the targets of war, and every effort must be taken to avoid killing civilians. But we have seen lately how the weapons of war have been used against civilians in Las Vegas where over 50 people were gunned down and recently at a church in Tennessee where over 25 people were shot to death.

We know in the book of Revelation 12: 7-9, there was war in heaven when Michael and his army of angels fought against the dragon Satan and his army and threw them out of heaven. A more serious war is the spiritual war we Christians have to fight every day. What made a man want to shoot people from a hotel window or enter a place of worship and kill worshippers?  It has to be some darkness, a deep sadness that overtook their souls. If you look at all the cases where people shot and killed others, underneath it all are emotional and spiritual problems.  People call it mental illness.  The Bible calls it being possessed by a strange and evil spirit. We battle against anger, and rage, and bitterness, and disappointment.

People are saying maybe it’s time for Christians to attend churches with their guns.  They even said it’s better for the pastor to have a gun in the pulpit.  Is that what we want to turn ourselves into?  Think about all the accidents that might happen, with guns going off.  Think about how many children might get hurt trying to reach a gun that is nearby while their dad or mom is busy listening to the message or singing to the glory of God.  Our first answer is always prayer.  We will continue to pray to keep us awake and alert.  And if by chance some mad person enters the church to kill us, God will prepare us to face it; and if we die doing what we love, which is serving God, so be it.

In Matthew 25:1-13, Jesus told a parable about Ten Virgins who went to wait for a wedding party.  Five were wise and brought extra oil, which represents faith, while five were foolish and did not take extra faith.  So when the bridegroom was delayed, they fell asleep. When the bridegroom finally came, they woke up but the five foolish ones ran out of oil.  They tried to borrow oil from the five wise ones who refused because they didn’t have enough.  This parable represents Christian believers and we are encouraged to be alert, alive and prepared at all times. We must have enough faith for times when things might look like Jesus is nowhere around.

In First Thessalonians 5, Paul was talking about the return of Jesus and what that day will be like.  He said it would be like a thief in the night.  It will be totally unexpected.  Paul wrote, “When everything is quiet and safe that is when suddenly destruction will hit them.  It will come as suddenly as pains that come upon a woman in labor, and people will not escape.”  Then he went on to say, “But you, friends, are not in the darkness, and the Lord’s Day should not take you by surprise like a thief.”  Then in verse 6, Paul added these powerful words, “So, then, we should not be sleeping like the others; we should be awake and sober...we must wear faith and love as a breastplate, and our hope of salvation as a helmet.”

We look forward to the day when Christ will come again. Paul compared Christians to soldiers.  Breastplate and helmets are what the soldiers in the Roman army used to wear.  As we celebrate Veterans Day and remember all those military heroes who fought to defend this land and fought for freedom and democracy, I want to tell you, as Christians, you are also Veterans in the Lord.  We are soldiers of Christ.  Paul used this same language in Ephesians when he told them that our battle is against principalities and powers, of wickedness in high places.  Our fight is against those vices that lead to war.  Pride, selfishness, greed for power, and hatred for others have led to war.

         Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower, and all the generals, regular soldiers and other national and local war heroes fought against those who would seek to harm us, so we celebrate them on Veterans Day.  But there is another kind of war; there is the spiritual warfare that we must engage in each and every day.  Our enemy is Satan who is trying to steal our joy, kill our happiness, and destroy our relationship with Christ.  Satan wants to bring division within families, strife between friends, and confusion in the minds of our children.  We must remember we are soldiers of Christ.  As we celebrate Veterans Day, we also celebrate Jesus Christ, the greatest Veteran of all who fought a cosmic battle against Satan and defeated him.

         Our battle is every day.  In Ephesians 6 as he did in this reading, Paul wants us to put on the whole armor of Christ in readiness for battle.  In Ephesians 6: 14-20, Paul describes our armor this way: Truth as a belt around the waist, righteousness as our breastplate, shoes of readiness to proclaim the Gospel, faith as a shield, and sword of the Spirit of God.

         This is what the hymn writer was expressing in his hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers.”  The writer of the hymn said he wrote it for school children so that on one of the school festivals, all the children from the village schools could march around the village singing this song.  But the hymn has become a part of the church tradition with words that remind us that we are soldiers of Christ: “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before; Christ the royal Master, leads against the foe, forward into battle, see his banner go; Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before.

         In a recent newspaper article, a journalist wrote about war and Veterans Day. He wrote, “I believe warfare has always been one of the terrible scourges of humanity. But I'm overwhelmed with admiration for those people who answer their country's call when duty requires it.”  He went on to say, “War isn't about glory. It's about brutality and savagery and a sort of inhumanity.  But its other side brings about striking nobility in those who serve for a just cause. They are the ones who exemplify duty and sacrifice for the welfare and safety of others. And - human nature being what it is - we haven't yet seen "The war To End All Wars."

Duty and honor and responsibility are still noble ideals to which young people rise in the service of their country. I salute those who have served and I honor those who still answer their country's call of duty.”

         This journalist is right.  While we wait for the second coming of Christ, we must be alert.  As long as there are dictators and tyrants, as long as there are evil people, as long as women and children are threatened and freedom is placed at risk, there will be a need to stop the bloodshed.  War is not glorious; it is about the nobility of the sacrifice of those who stand in harm’s way for us.  The men and women in the military do it.  The firefighters and other heroes do it and we thank them.  Many of these brave men and women come home with post-traumatic stress disorders and other forms of mental illness.  We must not forget them because they have come home.  They will always remain our heroes.

         JR Martinez is a veteran of the Iraq war.  One afternoon, while on patrol, their humvee hit a land mine.  There was an explosion and Corporeal was burned over 40% of his body.  After 32 operations he is not the same, but he has a positive attitude.  Today he is a motivational speaker and helps to raise money for other veterans.  He was even a contestant on the TV show, “Dancing With the Stars.”  Corporeal Martinez reminds us all that war demands a sacrifice that makes some give their all.  May we continue to honor them for all they continue to do.  May we continue to be faithful soldiers for Christ as we fight our own battles each day. May we be ready for the day that Christ will come and say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Amen.

 

 

November 5, 2017

Hebrews 12:1-3

“The Communion of Saints”    

 

         There are thousands of organizations around the world.  These thousands of organizations have millions of members.  But there is one major difference between all these thousands of organizations and the church.  In all of these organizations, when one member dies, their membership in that organization ends.  But there is one organization that is different and that is the church.  As members of the Church, the Community of Faith, the Fellowship of Believers, the Body of Christ, we belong to the only organization in the world where our membership does not end when we die.  When we become rooted and grounded in Christ, our membership with the church continues even after we die.  This is because the membership of the church extends into heaven.  When we think about the church, it is both human and divine; it is both on earth and in heaven.  Today, on all saints Sunday, we celebrate the church on earth with its connections in heaven.

In the first century, as the church grew and expanded, the early leaders decided they needed a way to help those who were converting to the faith and coming to be baptized.  Before the new converts were baptized, they had to go through a time of instruction so that they would learn a little more of the faith they were joining and becoming a part of. The church leaders also wanted a way to maintain and preserve the essential doctrine of the Christian faith.  In order to meet these needs, the leaders of the early church put together what we know now as “The Apostle’s Creed.” 

The word, “creed” comes from the Latin, “credo” which means, “I believe.”  The Apostle’s Creed begins, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”  The Creed ends with these words, “I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. AMEN.” The word, “catholic” means, “universal” and we’re saying, “I believe in the holy, universal church.”  After stating our belief in the holy universal church, we also say, I believe in “the communion of saints.”  What exactly is “the communion of saints?”

During the 2,000 years of the church’s existence on earth, millions of other Christians have been killed for their faith.  November 1st was set aside to remember all the saints of the church who were killed for their faith. In Acts chapter 7, we see the first martyr of the church was Stephen.  A martyr is someone who is killed because of their faith; they are also known as witnesses to the power of God.  They became known as “the communion of saints.” In Church History, the common saying was, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”  There were Christian believers who died from persecution for their faith so that the church would grow and become strong.  It is those believers we come to celebrate.   

On this day we also celebrate the lives of all those believers who lived their faith among us in our local churches; they passed away into glory and are now with the Lord Jesus Christ.  They are also saints because they were sanctified by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and served him until they died.  They are our friends, our parents, our sisters and brothers, our children, our relatives and all who belonged to the church. We believe those who have died in the Lord are with the Lord in heaven.  This is why at Christian funerals, the service is called, “The Celebration of Life.”  We who belong to the church on earth are still in fellowship and in relationship with the church in heaven. The church on earth and in heaven is the communion of saints.  We do not live our faith alone and in isolation.  We are connected to one another and to those who went before us.

         The letter to the Hebrews was written to a community of Christians going through a time of challenges and opposition.  Since the letter is to the Hebrews, many scholars believe the letter was written to Jews who had converted to Christianity and accepted Jesus as the Messiah.  It seems these Jewish Christians were under pressure to abandon their faith in Jesus and return to their old ways. 

Anybody who decides to follow Jesus will come under pressure to abandon his or her faith.  Today the church is under pressure to change to Bible to accommodate the world.  But I remember reading a church sign that said, “We do not change the message; the message changes us.”  As believers, this is important to remember that we must never change the message and the Word of God to fit the demands of the world. In Revelation 22:18-19 Jesus said, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. 19 And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.” The Gospel message is like yeast that you put in flour and the flour raises and becomes different.  We must put the Word within us and let it change us.

Unfortunately, there were people trying to change these Jewish Christians and so the letter to the Hebrews was written to encourage them to be strong.  The writer reminded them that Jesus was indeed the perfect High Priest who was greater than Moses.  This was a letter of encouragement for them to stay on the path of their faith.  As a way of encouraging them, the writer gave them a list of faithful believers that included Abraham, Noah, Moses and the prophets.  These heroes of faith, as we know them, were steadfast in their faith and never gave up.  Some even died for their faith.

After discussing the heroes of faith and how they gave uplifting examples and inspired other believers, chapter 12 opens with the words, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

It is uplifting to know we have a great cloud of witnesses with us as we strive to live our faith each day. Being IN CHRIST means we share a COMMON UNION bringing us into the COMMUNION OF THE SAINTS. Simply said; we need each other! Where there is no union there can be no communion. There is strength in numbers and to know we are not alone is inspiring. 

In Hebrews 12, the writer compared the Christian faith to a race. Hebrews 12: 1and 2 say, “Let us run with determination the race that lies before us. Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.” We have seen how, when a race is on, there are people on the sidelines cheering the runners on.  This is what the great cloud of witnesses is like.  While we are on earth, there are no spectators to this race of faith.  We are all in the race together.  But when we die, we join the organization in heaven and cheer those still on earth in the race. They are believers in heaven watching us and cheering us on the race of faith.  They are Moses and Daniel, and Stephen and Paul; they are Martin Luther the Protestant Reformer.  They are John Wesley and Charles Wesley cheering us on.  The cloud of witnesses includes all those who died from this congregation Carol Zimmerman and Heath Ferrie, Lorna Mack and Evelyn Haller, just to name a few, who are cheering us on so that we will finish the race and not give up. Listen and when we do something to the glory of God, you will hear the applause of the communion of saints. When we stumble and fall in the race, the communion of saints will never boo us but they will tell us not to give up but to keep on running. We know Jesus is at the end of the race to meet us, greet us, and welcome us home.

One of the popular things today is the idea of having a life coach.  A life coach is someone you employ to motivate you in your personal and professional development.  This person helps you clarify your goals and decide what you want to encourage.  On a regular basis, your life coach will call you to share advice with you, offer you guidance, help you plan, and hold you accountable for your actions.  Life coaches help people with confidence, self-esteem, relationships, career change, balancing life, self-care, living your purpose, anger and many other issues.  The communion of saints is like this life coach, encouraging, inspiring, motivating and challenging us to be our best.  It is like we all become a life coach for one another, building each other up, not trying to tear one another down.

Many years ago, two doctors from the University of Oklahoma were having dinner. One of them said to the other, “You know, I noticed that patients from two nearby towns have different health situation.  The people in the Town called Bangor seem to have a lot of heart problems and many have died from a heart disease.  But in the Town called Roseto, the people are very healthy.  I wonder what is going on?”

They decided to undertake research of the two towns to find out why one town was so sickly and had many heart problems whole the other one was so healthy. This set in motion a major research project.  The research showed that Roseto was made of about 3,000 people.  Every home in the town had three generations living in it and the sense of community was very tight.  They cared for each other, supported one another, and always encouraged one another. Teams of medical researchers spent time in Roseto, trying to determine why the rate of heart attack was so much lower than nearby Bangor. Was it diet? No.  People in Roseto shared a typical American diet. Was it genes? No, it wasn’t genes. Was it healthy habits? No.  People in Roseto smoked as much as people in neighboring towns and exercised as little as people in neighboring towns, and met the national average for obesity and high blood pressure. Was it the physical environment? No, there was no significant difference between Roseto and neighboring towns such as Bangor.  They couldn’t understand why this had been the case for over 50 years.

In the end health officials tracked the secret to good health in Roseto for its close sense of community and its very strong bonds of family and friendship. The head of the research team wrote in his report: “In terms of preventing heart disease, it’s just possible that morale is more important than jogging or not eating butter.”  The healthy relationships the people in Roseto had kept them healthy.  We have an effect on one another.  When we don’t live as a community, we can become sick.

We are blessed to belong to an organization that is eternal.  That organization is the church, which has no beginning and it has no end.  Jesus Christ brought the church from heaven and established it on earth.  Before he brought it to earth, Abraham, Moses, Samuel, David, all belonged to it.  Later, Stephen, the apostles, and all Christian believers who lived and died in the faith, joined them.  We are blessed to be a part of that organization. 

Today we remember that as we live the Christian life and run the race of faith, we are not alone.  We have a great cloud of witnesses cheering us, encouraging us, inspiring us.  That great cloud of witnesses is also known as the communion of saints.  Just as their membership in the church never ended so we know one day, if we keep the faith, we will join that group in heaven.  But today we celebrate them as we remember and recall their lives among us. Let us live union so that we will have communion. May the Spirit keep this unity unbroken until we meet again. Amen. 

 

October 29, 2017

Colossians 1:11-20

“Delivered from the Kingdom of Darkness”

 

A story is told of a family that woke up when they heard their smoke detector in the middle of the night; their house was on fire. The father ran into the upstairs bedroom of his children and carried his 18-month-old baby in his arms while dragging his 4-year-old son by the hand. They were halfway down the stairs when the little boy remembered that he had left his teddy bear in the bedroom, so he broke free from his father’s hand and ran back to the bedroom to retrieve it. In the confusion, the father didn’t notice that his son wasn’t with him until he got outside. By now the flames and smoke trapped the little boy in his second story bedroom. Smoke moved around him; there was darkness in the room. The boy coughed and cried out from the upstairs window, “Daddy, Daddy! Help me!”

His father yelled from below, “Jump out of the window, Andy! I’ll catch you!”

In the darkness and smoke, the little boy yelled back, “But, Daddy! I can’t see you!” His daddy shouted back, “That’s OK, son. I can see you! Jump!” In the darkness and confusion of your life, sometimes it’s very difficult to see God, but God sees you. This is very much the point Paul made in Colossians 1.

Before they met Christ, the people in the Colossian Church were in darkness when they met Christ. They were opposed to God.  They had their own guidelines for living and they lived for themselves.  Before they met Christ, they had their own religion and their own way of life.  They were like this boy caught up in a burning house, filled with darkness and smoke, with fire coming closer. People who don’t know Christ are caught in the Kingdom of darkness.  They are in danger in a burning house.  Fortunately for the Colossians, through the preaching of one of Paul’s friends, they heard the Gospel.  Hearing the Gospel was like this little boy saying to his father, “Daddy help me.”  God spoke to their hearts and told them to jump in His arms and they did.  God rescued them from the Kingdom of Darkness just like God rescued us.

Paul was in prison when he heard about what was taking place among the Colossians.  One problem was that the Colossian Church was placing philosophy over the Gospel.  The problem was that philosophy is a man-made attempt to make sense of the world.  Since philosophy was man-made, it couldn’t explain how Jesus could be fully human and fully God.  For them, when their God had a child by a human, the child was a demigod - half God and half man.  But with Jesus, he was fully human and fully God, complete in both natures.  This is wonderful because Jesus experienced pain and suffering to understand what we humans go through.  Jesus even experienced death and conquered death to prove we too will live again. 

When we pray about all the pain we go through, the pain on the cross when Jesus hung for three hours, held only by nails, was more than any of us will ever experience.  When we pray about family members telling us what to do, Jesus reminds us that one day at a wedding in Cana of Galilee, his mother saw there was no wine and talked him into making wine for the wedding party.  When we complain about friends who are not loyal, Jesus will tell us he understands because he had twelve close friends.  One of them denied him, another betrayed him, and the rest ran away when he needed them the most.  The Colossian Church was into philosophy, but philosophy could not explain the depth of the Incarnation.  God had taken them from the Kingdom of darkness, but they found themselves drifting back into it.

This is why Paul boldly wrote; Jesus is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. 18 And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence.”

The other problem the Colossian Church had was they wanted Christians to become Jews and Christians, living under the law and following all the Jewish rituals. Many Christians still struggle with what to do about the Old Testament.  The Old Testament is a Christian book; it is like the foundation of a house, without which the house wouldn’t be built. But it is important to remember we follow Jesus Christ.  The reason why we claim the Old Testament is because it predicted the coming of Christ.  We claim the Old Testament also because it helps us make sense of many things in the New Testament and to understand our faith better.  Jesus is our God, our Lord and Savior.  As I have said before, if two things in the Old Testament and the New Testament contradict each other, we go with Jesus.  Jesus is the standard by which we live.

In Matthew 5:38, Jesus himself said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’  Basically, Jesus was quoting Exodus 21 which reads, life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”  But Jesus changed it around: “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”  Many Christians misunderstand Jesus and think he means become a doormat and let people walk all over you. 

What Jesus means is demonstrated in what he did in John 18.  When Jesus was arrested, and taken to the High Priest for questioning, the High Priest asked him about his disciples and his teachings.  Jesus answered, “I spoke openly to the world. I always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where the Jews always meet, and in secret I have said nothing. 21 Why do you ask Me? Ask those who have heard Me what I said to them. Indeed, they know what I said.” When Jesus said that, one of the soldiers slapped Jesus with the palm of his hand and said, “Why do You answer the high priest like that?”  This is how Jesus turned the other cheek. Jesus answered him, “If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil; but if well, why do you strike Me?”  Jesus turned the other cheek by questioning the soldier’s behavior and wanted him to be accountable for his actions.  The Colossian Church had been delivered from the Kingdom of darkness and the law but they were trying to go back into it.

The third thing the Colossians were doing was that they acted as though Jesus was not enough for their salvation, that we Christians need more.  Paul wrote to clarify this point when he said, for it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, 20 and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.”  This means Christ is enough and He is all we need.  The blood of Christ has all the power of salvation and redemption.  Some believers think we can earn salvation.  The reality is no one can earn salvation.  Good works can’t pay for it.  All the money in the world can’t buy it.  Coming to Church cannot get you a ticket to heaven. Salvation is a free gift from God.   We do good works to show God how thankful we are.  We give to the mission of Christ because we want others to hear about the Good News as we did.  We come to church to testify of our commitment to Christ, to fellowship with other believers and to worship together.

One day a pastor was attending a children’s party at the Sunday school when he was called to visit a woman.  This woman’s world had fallen apart when her husband died.  She fell into a deep depression following the death of her husband in a car accident. She had withdrawn from everyone and shut herself in her bedroom with the windows and curtains pulled; she didn't communicate with anyone, including her children, because she said they reminded her of her dead husband. The minister left the party in a show of confetti, which the children had thrown at him. He brushed it out of his hair and from his coat as he prepared to call on the depressed woman.

When he arrived at the woman's house, he entered her dark bedroom and told her who he was, but there was no response. He could hardly see her sad form lying motionless on the bed. He tried to carry on a conversation with her, but she was unresponsive. He reached out to touch her hand, but there seemed to be no life in it. So he just sat with her in the dark silence for a time.

Then he decided to act. He wanted to see the woman face to face,

to read Scripture and pray. So he turned the bedside lamp on. The woman blinked and stared at him. As he took out his Testament, which he carried in the pocket of his jacket, and opened it, confetti fell from it all over the bed. After an embarrassing moment, the minister burst into laughter. And that did it. First a smile appeared on the woman's face, and then she broke into quiet laughter. She reached out her hands to the minister in the joy of resurrection. They prayed together and she left her darkness to return to the light.

It's so easy for even Christians to return to the Kingdom of Darkness during difficult days.  This woman was not the first and she won’t be the last.  We must remember that when Christ delivered us from the Kingdom of Darkness, it will try to come back and claim us.  But we must resist it.  The Colossians found themselves drifting back into false beliefs that Christ was not fully human and not fully God. Paul told them the fullness of the Godhead was dwelling within Christ. The also wanted to mix religions, but the Gospel frees us from the law by giving us a new heart and a new attitude. The Colossians also felt Christ was not enough for salvation, that they needed to do more. Paul told them Jesus was “the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.”

As we have been delivered from the Kingdom of Darkness, let us “live a life worthy of the Lord to please him in every way, bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of the Lord.”  When the darkness is trying to reclaim us, let us remember God our father is right there saying to us, “I can see you, child.  Jump into my arms.”  May the Spirit give us the power to hear the voice of God and the faith to jump back into the light. Amen.    

 

October 22, 2017

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

   “Being Examples and Samples of Christ”

         There is a difference between example and sample.  We give examples to prove a point of what we mean.  Examples help us to support statements we make.  A sample is a representation, a picture, a symbol of what the real thing is.  Examples help us understand something.  Samples give us an experience of it.  Examples help us clarify things.  Samples help us touch it.  Examples help us explain things.  Samples help us see them. Examples are given mainly in words.  Samples are in action. This is the point Paul made in his first letter to the Thessalonians.

         We have been studying the book of Acts.  In our study we saw in chapter 17 that when Paul went to Thessalonica he preached in the Jewish synagogue to tell them that God had already fulfilled the promise and sent the Messiah who was Jesus the Christ.  For three Sabbaths, Paul went to the synagogue and used scriptures to tell them about Jesus.  He told them, “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah.”  Many of the Jews believed.  Many of the Greeks believed also, but there were those who were jealous and started making trouble for Paul and his friends.  It was so difficult for Paul and Silas that they left the city at night.  By the time they left, Thessalonica had a strong church and Paul didn’t want to forget them.  He needed to encourage them to keep the faith.  Encouragement is so important in our faith.  Sometimes the journey can be tough but all it takes is a call, a kind word, a note, an email or text message to say, “Hey I was thinking about you.  Hope you’re well.  Stay strong.”  When we read or hear these words, they can lift our spirit.

         Paul began by thanking God for them and telling them he prayed for them regularly.  Isn’t it nice to know when someone is praying for us?  Paul went on to say, “Our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. 6 You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. 7 And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.”

         Paul remembered the challenges they experienced in Thessalonica and how they came under attack because of the Gospel.  He wanted them to stand strong for others to see so he reminded them of how they imitated Paul and Jesus during times of persecution.  He also reminded them of how they became role models for all the believers in Macedonia.

         This is the message for us today, that we should be examples and samples of Christ.  You know the word, “Christian” means “little Christ.”  We are all little Christs and for those who do not know the Lord, all they have to do is look at us and they should be able to see Christ in us and understand the Gospel.  A famous basketball star was quoted as saying, “I'm not a role model.”  There were many young children who wanted to imitate him and become like him, but he didn't want that responsibility. We don't have millions of people watching us but we do have some very important people watching--our families, our friends, our unsaved neighbors or co-workers. Are we being examples of Christ in our words and speech?  Paul accepted this responsibility. He told the Corinthians, "Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ." And this is the key for living a life worthy of imitation. Imitate Christ. Follow His example.  Let us show the world what Jesus was all about.

One Christian author wrote the following words about imitating Christ and being an example for him.  He wrote, “Jesus has many who love his kingdom in heaven, but few who bear his cross. He has many who desire comfort, but few who desire suffering. He finds many to share his feast, but few his fasting. All desire to rejoice with him, but few are willing to suffer for his sake. Many follow Jesus to the breaking of bread, but few to the drinking of the cup of his passion. Many admire his miracles, but few follow him in the humiliation of the cross.” We are little Christs and we must be examples of what Jesus is all about.”

In 1982, there was an assassination attempt on the life of President Ronald Reagan.  His Christian attitude made an impression on his daughter, Patti Davis.  She said President Reagan told her his physical healing was directly dependent on his ability to forgive John Hinckley, the man who tried to kill him. By showing her that forgiveness is the key to everything, including physical health and healing, he gave her an example of Christ-like thinking.

         Not only must we be examples, we must also be samples of Jesus.  In the early 1990s, a question became very popular among Christians.  That question was “What Would Jesus Do?”  This is expressed in the four letters, “WWJD.”  The question came from the book, “In His Steps,” which tells the story about a pastor who met a homeless man. The homeless man could not understand why so many Christians ignore the poor.  This homeless man told the pastor, “I heard some people singing at a church prayer meeting the other night, 'All for Jesus, all for Jesus, All my being's ransomed powers, All my thoughts, and all my doings, All my days, and all my hours.'”  The homeless man went on to say, “I kept wondering as I sat on the steps outside just what they meant by it. It seems to me there's an awful lot of trouble in the world that somehow wouldn't exist if all the people who sing such songs went and lived them out. I suppose I don't understand. But what would Jesus do? Is that what you mean by following His steps? It seems to me sometimes as if the people in the big churches had good clothes and nice houses to live in, and money to spend for luxuries, and could go away on summer vacations and all that, while the people outside the churches, thousands of them, I mean, die in apartments, and walk the streets for jobs, and never have a piano or a picture in the house, and grow up in misery and drunkenness and sin.” As a result of this discussion the pastor had with this homeless man, he challenged his congregation to spend some time living the question, “What would Jesus do?”  A group of men in the church agreed to never take any action without first asking, “What would Jesus do?”  If we asked ourselves that question every day, we would gradually grow into the form of Christ and behave more like him.

There is a story called, “The Happy Hypocrite.” It is a story about a man who was born with a face that was deformed. He grew up alone and lonely. When he became an adult, he decided to move from his town to begin a new life. On his way he discovered a beautiful mask that fit his face and made him look handsome. At first the mask was uncomfortable and he was afraid that people would find out who he really was, but he continued to wear the mask every day.  In his new hometown, he made many friends and fell in love. But one day a wicked woman from his old home came to his new town and discovered this man’s true identity. In front of his friends and fiancé, she forced him to remove his mask. When he removed the mask, it revealed a handsome face. His face had imitated the mask and his face took the shape of the mask.

Becoming a sample of Christ is like this. Go ahead and put on Christ. At first it may feel unnatural or uncomfortable, and maybe you may think, “Who am I trying to fool?” But every day just keep putting on Christ and every day you will grow to look more like him.

I think about John Wesley who, when he first started preaching, told one of his friends, “I feel uneasy preaching about faith when I don’t have any.”  John Wesley’s friend told him, “Preach faith until you have it and when you have it, you will preach faith.”  Do you feel you can’t forgive?  Just start practicing it and before you know, it will become second nature.  Do you feel you don’t have love for others?  Easy.  Keep practicing love and before you know you will find love pouring out of you.

To be examples and samples of Christ is to live in a way that we become the living Gospel.  When people hear us, they should hear Christ. When people are around us, they should feel the presence of Christ.  The church of Thessalonica remembered how when those who opposed Paul came up with lies about him, he didn’t fight back, he remained patient and explained the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Paul told them, “Your faith towards God has gone out, so that we do not need to say anything.”  Let us live in such a way that people say, “I can tell you’re a Christian by what you say and what you do.”  When this happens, we will become examples and samples of Christ.  May the Spirit help us do this.  Amen.    

 

October 15, 2017

Matthew 22:1-14

  “Heaven’s Dress Code”    

 

         In 2005, the Lacrosse women’s team from Northwestern University won the championship.  As is the practice, they were invited to the White House to visit President Bush.  When they took the pictures and publicized it, many people were shocked that four of the women standing in the front row with President Bush wore flip-flops.  For them, these four college students had violated the dress code of the White House by wearing flip-flops. 

         A dress code is the guideline for wearing the appropriate clothes at the appropriate time.  A dress code can be casual, formal, or business.  Some restaurants have a dress code.  They don’t allow t-shirts and sweat pants.  They prefer casual, business casual or formal dressing.  In some countries, when you visit, they tell you to observe public decency.  Different places may have a dress code.  Even heaven has a dress code.

         In Matthew 22, Jesus told a parable about the Kingdom of Heaven and compared it to a wedding banquet.  We already know the story, of how a certain King prepared a wedding banquet and then sent his servants to tell those who had been invited that dinner was ready.  But they ignored the servants and each went off to his own business.  Others seized the servant, beat them and killed others.

         Here’s the interesting thing.  From reading the story, you can tell these people received the invitation to the wedding banquet.  It also seems they accepted the invitation to attend the banquet. They sent in their RSVP, or “Please Reply” notices.  I know that because the King sent the servant to tell the guests the food was ready.  The king told the servants to say, “My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’

         So, why would people agree to attend a wedding banquet and then when the time comes they make excuses that they can’t attend?  They broke their promise easily.  Why?  They broke their promise because they are selfish and care only about themselves.  They don’t care that the King was disappointed.  They just didn’t consider the feelings of the King to be important.  Those guests cared only about themselves. The King became very upset and angry. The Bible says, “The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.”  He burned their city because they were arrogant, disrespectful, and selfish.  They abused his kindness.

We know the invited guests were the people of Israel.  We know the wedding banquet celebrated the relationship between Israel and God. In Isaiah 54:5, the prophet says to Israel, “Your maker is your husband.”  In Jeremiah 3:14, Jeremiah declared, “Return, faithless people, for I am your husband.  I will choose you and bring you to Zion.”  Whenever Israel worshipped other gods, the prophets compared them to a woman cheating on her husband and committing adultery. 

At Mount Sinai, Israel and God entered a covenant.  They made promises to one another to be faithful.  God was faithful but Israel broke her promises.  Just as God punished those who didn’t keep the promise they made, in the same way God punished Israel.  The Assyrians and the Babylonians defeated them.  They went into exile.  God burned their cities.

Jesus went on to explain how the King sent his servants and said, “Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ 10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

This means when the Jews broke their promises and rejected God, God went to find new friends.  The servants went to the street corners and highways and byways and found everyone they could find and invited them to the banquet.  Those from the street and from everywhere were the Gentiles.  We who are now Christians were invited to participate in a new covenant through Jesus.  We who were lingering along the streets and highways were invited to attend the banquet of heaven. We are the church, the Bride of Christ.  We who were not on the guest list are now the honored guests of the King of Heaven and the Lord of the Universe.

But to enter the banquet, which is entering heaven and being at God’s feast, requires a dress code. “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.  It seems everyone who entered the banquet hall was given a wedding garment to put over what they had.  Maybe this one man felt he didn’t need the wedding garment and he didn’t need to abide by the dress code so he refused it.  He could not explain why wasn’t wearing the wedding garment and why he didn’t abide by the dress code. “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

The wedding garment is the righteousness of Jesus Christ.  No one can enter heaven without it.  Some people claim they are good people but the only good we do comes from our connection to Jesus.  We will be disappointed if we rely on our good works to save us.  Good works do not save us; they only show the world that Christ has saved us.  Good works cannot pay our way into heaven; they only show the world that we have been given heaven and eternal life as our free gifts from God.  We can say, I help feed the hungry and so I should be allowed into heaven.  Are we feeding the poor to pay our way to heaven, or are we feeding the poor because Jesus has already offered us salvation through his death and resurrection.  We can say I attend church regularly so I should go to heaven.  Do we attend church regularly to gather points for heaven or do we come to church regularly because we are already saved and we want to fellowship with the community of faith.  Heaven has a dress code and that dress code is the righteousness of Jesus.  We must cover ourselves with the blood of Christ. 

In Egypt, when the people of Israel marked their houses with the blood of the lamb, when the angel of death came, it didn’t matter if there were three people or five people, whether there were tall or short people.  The Angel of death looked for the blood of the lamb on the house.  If there was no blood, the angel went in and took the life of the eldest son.  This is how it is with salvation in our faith.  No matter who you are, if you are not washed in the blood of the lamb and if you don’t trust the Lamb of God and the righteousness of Christ for salvation, there will be no salvation.  We can compare it with the robes we preachers wear.  The robe covers us and that is what you see.  In the same way, when we cover ourselves with the righteousness of Jesus, God will not see us as sinful as we are. God will see the righteousness of Jesus and we will be able to attend the heavenly banquet.

There was a lady who came forward during the invitation in one of his meetings to be saved. She was very sophisticated and refined. She had advanced graduate degrees, and was very articulate and intelligent. When she got to the front, the pastor asked her, "Why have you come forward, ma'am?” She said, "I want to go to heaven." The pastor sensed pride in her achievements and her goodness, so he asked an unusual question. He said, "Ma'am, do you realize that you are a hell-bound sinner worthy only of God's judgment."

She looked at him, shocked, and said, "Oh, no, I've been good all my life."

He said, "Well, in that case ma'am, you cannot go to heaven. Why don't you have a seat over there, because you can't be saved." Bewildered, she went to one of the front row seats. On the next verse of the invitation, she came up again and said, "Sir, I would like to be saved."

He said, "To be saved, you must have something to be saved FROM. To be saved is to be saved from SIN. Until you recognize that you are a lost, helpless sinner whose works are not good enough for God to accept, you cannot be saved. Jesus said, '...They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.'"  Suddenly it seemed to dawn on her. He said, "Ma'am, do you realize that you are a poor, lost, wicked sinner in need of God's grace and unable to add to his work on Calvary through any works or goodness of your own?"

Tears began to course down her cheeks as the shame for her sin overcame her soul. "Yes! I do."

"Then ma'am, now you can be saved."

You see, it was only when she realized her inability to get to God by her works that she was in a place where God could save her. That's where the sinner on the cross was. He prayed a prayer for Jesus to save him; a prayer based on faith in Jesus as God.

No one can go to heaven based on his or her goodness and righteousness.  In Isaiah 64 we read, “How then can we be saved? 6 All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all dry up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.”

In the hymn, “My Hope is Built,” one of the verses goes, When He shall come with trumpet sound,

Oh, may I then in Him be found,

Dressed in His righteousness alone,

Faultless to stand before the throne.

Heaven has a dress code.  It’s not casual, it’s not formal and it’s not our good works or because we think we’re good people.  The dress code of heaven is the righteousness of Jesus Christ.  When we put Christ on, we will be properly dressed and we will hear God say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  Heaven’s dress code is always available.  We just need to accept Jesus and his death on the cross for our redemption.  When we do, we will be welcomed into heaven and into the presence of God.  May we be ready for that day and may God bless us. Amen.

 

October 1, 2017

Matthew 16:21-27

“Getting Out of the Way”

 

         Thomas Paine was an American philosopher who was quoted as saying, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”  Simon Peter was one disciple who was able to lead and follow.  But it seems he was not able to get out of the way. Jesus and his disciples were at the region called Caesarea Philippi.   This is where he asked them who the Son of Man was?  There are two meanings for the idea of the Son of Man.  The first is where God called Ezekiel, the Son of Man.  It means, in that instance, a human being.  But in the book of Daniel, chapter 7, verse 14, Daniel had a vision.  He said, “In my vision at night, I looked and saw one like the Son of Man.” The Son of Man was a figure in Jewish history who was like the Messiah.  The Son of Man was the perfect man, the complete man, and the absolute, total, and flawless man.  Since Adam had fallen in the Garden of Eden, there had never been a perfect man. Daniel’s vision showed the future of Israel, where the Messiah would come.  Jesus was really asking the disciples whether the Messiah has already come and whether the prophecy has been fulfilled.

         In their answer, they said, some people believed “John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets” was the Son of Man.  Finally Jesus asked them about himself.  Who did they think he was?  Was he the Son of Man?  Was he the Messiah?  This is so important that we have a clear understanding of who this person is that we’re following.  In John 6:26, when a crowd came looking for Jesus, he said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”  Some people follow Jesus because of what they can get.  Others follow Jesus because their friends and family are doing it.  Just as Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say I am,” He’s asking us the same question: “What about you.  Who do you say I am?”  We all know how Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”   Jesus then said to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.  In other words, “Yea Peter! Good for you.  You did not say that from you own heart.  God inspired you to say it.”  You can imagine how Peter felt.  It is like your teacher, your boss, or you parent saying to you, “Good job.  I’m so proud of you.  God has spoken through you.  It makes us feel good to hear those uplifting words.  Peter felt the same way.  He was right.  Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ.

         Immediately after that, “Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

         We are all following Jesus but sometimes we become stumbling blocks to Jesus.  There was a young person who was really gifted in art and wanted to go to college and major in art because art will really make him happy and fulfilled.  His parents became upset and told him he should major in engineering because with art, he will never get a decent job.  He listened to them and studied engineering.  He passed and graduated, got a decent job but he was never happy.  After twenty years, he decided to return to art and studied animation.  After graduating, he was hired by a major television station to do art and animation.  His parents had stood in the way of his happiness.  They needed to get out of the way.  They were an obstacle to his happiness and his fulfillment. He pretended to love engineering when deep inside he was an artist.

         A philosopher once said, “We don’t see things as they are.  We see them as we are.”  This means we view the world and everything else from our perspective and from our personal beliefs.  So when Jesus said to the disciples he had to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die, Peter was thinking about himself.  If Jesus suffered and died, what would happen to them?  If Jesus were no longer around, how would they survive?  How would they enjoy this level of popularity?  “Never Lord,” Peter said.  “This must never happen to you.”

         Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”  Peter needed to get out of the way.  His understanding of the Mission of Jesus was not in line with Jesus.  He wanted everything to be roses.  But even roses have thorns.  The Christian life is a life of suffering and struggle.  Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for his or her soul? 27 

         Peter, who was called a rock, suddenly became a stumbling block.  He who was firm suddenly began to falter.  He who expressed deep faith suddenly fell from grace.  He wanted to follow Jesus without paying a price.  He wanted to become a disciple without self-denial.  It’s impossible.  Some years ago, at the Church of the Holy Cross in Midtown Manhattan, New York City was broken into twice. In the first break-in, thieves stole a moneybox that was situated near a votive candle rack. Three weeks later, the church was burglarized a second time. But this time, the thieves escaped with something much more valuable. They stole a 4-foot tall, 200-pound plaster statue of Jesus from the crucifix, but they left His cross behind. When interviewed by the media, the church caretaker, David St. James, expressed his confusion at this. He said, “They just decided, 'We're going to leave the cross and take Jesus.' We don't know why they took just him. We figure if you want the crucifix, you take the whole crucifix." In other words, David St. James was saying, "If you want Jesus, you take his cross, too."  These thieves left the cross behind because they didn’t understand the true meaning of Jesus.

         There are Christians who want to follow Jesus but they don’t want his cross.  They want to leave his cross behind.  Taking the cross of Jesus is self-denial.  Self-denial means we say, “Yes” to God and “No” to ourselves.   It is saying to Jesus, “It’s not my will but yours.”  It is humbly submitting my will to God’s will. Instead of getting angry, we realize that God is calling us to forgive even our enemies. We deny ourselves food to fast and show the Word of God is more important than bread. We deny ourselves sleep and rest to spend time with God in prayer and meditation.   If we can’t deny ourselves then we need to get out of the way of the Gospel.

            Once a preacher in a large city was driving and came upon some street sellers. Many of these street sellers were selling incense, candles, veils and rosaries. He also saw several small boys who were running about selling crosses. He heard them calling, “Crosses, cheap crosses for sale! Buy a cheap cross!” Too often many Christians want a cheap cross- a faith that is easy, that is all sweetness and light, one that makes no demands on our time or money or service. The cross of Christ was no cheap cross. Jesus gave up his throne in glory to come and live in this world of sin. He gave His life on a literal cross to ransom us from our sins.

         When Peter told Jesus not to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die, Jesus called him Satan.  Satan is the Adversary of God who wants to mess up God’s plans for us.  Jesus called Peter Satan because Peter was trying to destabilize God’s plans for human redemption and Salvation.  Today, we have the task of continuing the Mission Jesus left with us.  There are those who want this mission to be easy and convenient.  They want an easy road where they will have no challenges, no temptations, and no test of their faith.  We do not want Jesus to say to us, “Get behind me, Satan.  You are a stumbling block to me.”

         But there is the cross.  God demands high standards from us.  This is not a choice we have.  The only solution is to obey God.  The Ten Commandments are not Ten Suggestions or Ten Multiple Choice. They are Ten Commandments that God demands us to keep.  The Commandment to love our neighbor is not optional.  It is expected.  If we can’t follow these expectations God has, then we are standing in the way of the Gospel and of the Mission.  For those seeking to follow Christ, our disobedience can be a discouragement to them.  For those new to the faith, our unchristian behavior can make them abandon the faith.  For the children in Sunday watching our behavior, we can cause them to go astray easily.

         In his autobiography, Mahatma Gandhi wrote that during his student days he read the Gospels seriously and considered converting to Christianity. He believed that in the teachings of Jesus he could find the solution to the caste system that was dividing the people of India. So one Sunday he decided to attend services at a nearby church and talk to the minister about becoming a Christian. When he entered the sanctuary, however, the usher refused to give him a seat and suggested that he go worship with his own people. Gandhi left the church and never returned. “If Christians have caste differences also,” he said, “I might as well remain a Hindu.” That usher was an obstacle to the Gospel, standing in the way of salvation for others.  The usher’s prejudice not only betrayed Jesus but also turned a person away from trusting Him as Savior.

We must lead the way for Christ.  We must also follow Christ as he leads us.  If we don’t want to lead and we don’t want to follow, we need to get out of the way as the philosopher Thomas Paine stated.  You know what they say:  “If you’re not a part of the solution to the problem, you’re a part of the problem.”  Today, there is so much bad news from the world.  We the church must give the Good News from the Word of God.

May the Holy Spirit give us the strength to lead for Christ, and to follow his lead so that we will not be obstacles to the Gospel.  May God bless us all. Amen.    

 

September 24, 2017

Isaiah 62:1-5

“A New Chapter of Life”    

 

“Journeys end. Friends depart.
Every phase of life comes to an end.
But every end is also a new beginning.
It is a new chapter waiting to open.

It’s up to you what you want to think about,
The End or the New Beginning!!”

         This is how a poem goes.  The writer means every end means a new beginning and when one chapter ends, a new chapter begins. God had disciplined and punished Israel for their disobedience. God warned Israel not to ignore the directions to a happy and wholesome life. But they did.  As a result, God left them on their own without divine protection.  When that happened, the Assyrians defeated them.  The Babylonians destroyed the Temple and took the leading citizens into exile. For 70 years the people of Israel lived in Babylon, where they sat by the rivers and cried for their homeland.  For 70 years, they were not allowed to live in the land they considered home.  They vowed never to forget Jerusalem. Israel was God’s child who was called, chosen, and set aside for the special purpose of bringing the world to the knowledge of the true and living God. But they failed and they disappointed God.  But after 70 years, God was ready to renew the covenant and restore the relationship.

         When you read Isaiah 62, you sense a kind of excitement in God’s voice. You sense passion and compassion. You feel the emotion.  Like a man who had been separated from the woman he loved, who couldn’t wait to see her again. Or like a parent who had been away from their child for a long time, God was an excited parent. “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet, till her vindication shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch. The nations will see your vindication, and all kings your glory.”  You can tell that God really loved Israel.

When you think about it, this is exactly the same experience we Christians had with God.  God rescued us from slavery to sin and death.  After rescuing us from slavery to sin, we entered a covenant with God when we were baptized or confirmed.  In this covenant, God gave us the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and told us to bear the fruit of the Spirit.  Yet, we wandered away from God.  How often do Christians find themselves in exile from God?  Isaiah 53:6 reads, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way.” How often do we believers wander from God and go into exile? 

An article I was reading named six kinds of people who wander from God. There are the “Distracted Wanderers” who, because of their education or their job lose their focus.  They become distracted by material things. The second type is the “Discouraged Wanderers” who do not feed themselves spiritually as they should. When there’s a time of testing, they forget that during a test, God, who is the teacher, is usually silent, so they fail the test.  Thirdly, there are “Deceived Wanderers” who hear lies about Jesus and the Gospel, like those who claim Jesus was married. Some believe these lies without searching for evidence in the Scripture.  “Disillusioned Wanderers” are the fourth group who start their faith thinking that God will solve all their problems.  God never promised to solve all our problems.  The promise was to be with us and give us the strength to face any situation.  Then there are “Disgruntled Wanderers.” They become disappointed at others and angry because things don’t go as they want.  Everything must be their way or no way at all. The sixth group of wanderers is the “Divided Wanderers” who want to serve God and the material world. Their minds go in opposite directions and they always have doubts about whether faith is real (http://www.eagleflight.org/pastors-seminars/restore-me/313-prone-to-wander).

         But after drifting away from God and wandering into exile, God has come to renew the covenant with us and to restore us to fellowship with Christ and with one another.  The old has passed; the new is here.  We are no longer enemies of God.  We are friends and children of God.  As friends and children of God, we must be faithful to the covenant through Jesus Christ.

You know what’s interesting? We tend to think that when we become Christians, we are expected to produce fruit.  But Jesus said in John 15:8, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples.” Also in Matthew 7:17, Jesus said, “Every good tree bears good fruit.” 

There is a difference between producing fruit and bearing fruit.  The Holy Spirit is the one who produces the fruit.  In Galatians 5:22-23 we read, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.”  The Holy Spirit produces the fruit and all we have to do as Christians is bear the fruit.  In other words, after the Spirit produces the fruit, we receive it and Jesus expects us to carry it around.  We must show it to others, demonstrate it, exemplify it, prove it, reveal it, and display it for all to see. This is a part of our covenant, to accept the fruit of the Spirit and take it around wherever we go.

A seminary professor took a group of students to the Holy Land.  There they met a man who claimed to have memorized the Old Testament--in Hebrew! Needless to say, the astonished professor asked for a demonstration. A few days later they sat together in the man’s home. "Where shall we begin?" asked the man. "Psalm 1," replied the professor, who was a passionate student of the Psalms. Beginning with Psalm 1:1, the man began to recite from memory, while the professor followed along in his Hebrew Bible. For two hours the man continued word for word without a mistake as the professor sat in stunned silence. When the demonstration was over, the professor discovered something even more astonishing about the man--he was an atheist! Here was someone who knew the Scriptures better than most Christians ever will, and yet he didn’t even believe in God. This man knew the covenant but didn’t bear the fruit.  We Christians are called to know the covenant and to bear the fruit that comes with it.

This was the problem Israel had.  They knew the covenant but didn’t bear the fruit.  As a result, God allowed them to drift into the storm.  God allowed their enemies to raid their cities, ransack their homes and temple and take them into exile to Babylon where they stayed for 70 years.  But after a while, God says, enough is enough.  I have allowed my children to suffer way too long. I’m going to reach out to them, to make myself available again. Now I’m taking a stand.

This is what we see in the book of Isaiah starting from chapter 60.  In chapter 59, God condemns the sins of the people.  When the people heard that God had condemned their sins, they said in verses 9-15, “For our offenses are many in your sight, and our sins testify against us. Our offenses are ever with us, and we acknowledge our iniquities: rebellion and treachery against the LORD, turning our backs on our God, fomenting oppression and revolt, uttering lies our hearts have conceived. So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey. The LORD looked and was displeased that there was no justice.”

When the people confessed their sins, God heard their prayers.  You know, we have been assured in 1 John 1:9 that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  When God heard the people and knew they were sincere, we see a new message starting in chapter 60 and the rest of the book, we see a message of hope, of renewal and of redemption.  God was ready to begin a new chapter in the life of Israel.  This new chapter was one in which they would not ask, “Who is my neighbor?”  But rather, “How can I be a neighbor to all I meet?”

          A man named Sam received a brand new car from his brother as a birthday present. One day when Sam came out of the Mall, he saw a little boy walking around the shiny new car, admiring it.

“Is this your car?” The little boy asked.

“Yes,” Sam told him. “My brother gave this to me as my birthday present.”

The boy was astonished. “You mean your brother gave it to you and it didn’t

cost you anything? Boy, I wish…” He hesitated.

Of course Sam knew what the little boy was going to wish for. He was going to wish he had a brother like his brother. But what the little boy said surprised Sam all the way down to his heels. “I wish,” the boy went on, “that I could be a brother like that.”  The little boy didn’t say, “I wish I had a brother like that.”  No.  He said, “I wish I could be a brother like that.”

         It’s not about what other people do to you.  It’s what you can do for them.  It’s not what they say about you; it’s the kind words to say to them.  It’s not about anybody; it’s all about you and how you can live your life of faith for Christ. It’s about you and your relationship with Christ. Seventy years in exile was sufficient. This was enough already. God was rising up to their rescue and to their defense again. Through the prophet, God promised Israel would shine again like a blazing torch.  God will give them a new name, a new identity, and a new chapter. God lifted them up. Before long the people were released from exile and sent back home.  They went home and were able to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and repair the temple for the worship of God. This is wonderful.  God turned their mourning into dancing.

         To all these wanderers who find themselves in exile from God, the prophet declares to you today, and put your name where the word, “Zion” is and where you see the word, “Jerusalem” put your name in: “For [Jerome’s] sake I will not keep silent, for [Russell/Akeley’] sake I will not remain quiet,
till [their] vindication shines out like the dawn, [their] salvation like a blazing torch. The nations will see your vindication, and all kings your glory;
you will be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will bestow.”

         God is ready to write a new chapter in our lives.  This is 2017.  Whatever pain and suffering we experienced in the past, God is prepared to do a new thing.  The pain of death is in the past.  The sadness of broken relationships is so last year.  The personal struggles with pain and emotional hurts are all yesterday’s news. Thinking that we don’t belong or that we’re not worth it is no longer acceptable. Feeling all broken down, useless and rejected will not be the case this time.  God has already started this new chapter in life for us.

A businessman told the story of a warehouse property he was selling. The building had been empty for months and needed repairs. Vandals had damaged the doors, smashed the windows, and scattered trash all over the place. As he showed a prospective buyer the property, he explained that he would replace the broken windows, bring in a crew to correct any structural damage, and clean out the garbage. The buyer said, "Forget about the repairs. When I buy this place, I'm going to build something completely different. I don't want the building; I want the site."

That's God's message to us! When we became God's property, the old life was over. He made all things new. When we drifted from God and God came to find us, God no longer cared about the past; he looked to a glorious future for us. All He wants for us right now is to come to him and give him the permission to build. All we have to do is give Him the "property" and He will do the necessary "building."  If you feel you are far from God, we call you to come back to your redeemer.  If you feel you are in exile from God, God declares a new chapter for your life. How much longer will God allow us to suffer?  God is saying to us, “Enough is enough.  You have suffered too long. I am ready to begin a new chapter in your life.” 

“Journeys end. Friends depart.
Every phase of life comes to an end.
But every end is also a new beginning.
It is a new chapter waiting to open.

It’s up to you what you want to think about,
The End or the New Beginning!!”

In this new chapter, you will get a new name, a new identity and you will shine.  May this new chapter be ours and may God build our lives to glorify Him always, Amen.    

 

September 17, 2017

John 17:20-26

“If Your Heart is Like the Heart of God, Let Us Join Hands”    

 

One Sunday, John Wesley preached a sermon called, “The Catholic Spirit.”  For those who may not know, the word, “catholic” means universal.  When we recite “The Apostle Creed,” and say the words, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church,” we are really saying, “I believe in the holy, universal church.”  This holy universal church is one that can be found on every continent, in every nation from one end of the earth to the other.  When John Wesley preached his sermon on “The Catholic Spirit,” he was speaking about the universal, world-wide church.  Wesley was calling attention to one of the greatest problems the church has today, and it is the problem of disunity.

         Jesus knew the lack of unity was going to be a problem for the church.  He had seen it among his own disciples.  In Luke 9 and Luke 22, they argued over who was the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.  In Mark 10, James and John asked to be closer to Jesus, one on his right and another on his left.  If the disciples were arguing among themselves, what could they expect from Christians later on. So, before he made the ultimate sacrifice on the cross for our redemption, Jesus gathered the disciples in the Upper Room for the Last Supper.  During that time, he prayed for them.  Many have called this prayer, “The High Priestly Prayer.”  This is because the high priest is an intercessor.  He is the one who intercedes for the people before God.  The priest intervenes, mediates, and pleads with God for the people. 

In this prayer, which we find in John 17, Jesus asked God to glorify him because he had finished the work God sent him to do.  How many Christians finish and complete the work God has given them?  How many churches complete and fulfill the mission Christ has assigned us.  Do they even know why they exist?  We hear some Christians say, “That is our church,” or “this is my church.” This is not my church and this is not our church.  This is God’s church.  This church and every church belong to Jesus Christ. Some Christians treat their church as though it is their personal property.  It is not their possession and they don’t own it.  God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, and owns every church as well as every member of every congregation.

In our study of the book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, the author shared the story of the 1980 U.S. hockey team that won the gold medal at the Olympics.  All the players on the team were all college students that played for their respective college teams before being invited to play for the national team.  Each time they practiced, the coach noticed the players were not giving their best. The coach called each player and asked, “Who are you playing for?  Each player said he played for his college.  The coach asked the question again and again until the players realized what he was getting at.  One by one they answered, “I play for the United States of America.”

As a Church, Jesus is asking us the same question: “Who do you live for?”  Some may answer, “I live for my family, or I live for my job, or I live for my country.”  Jesus will ask the question again, “Who do you live for?”  The right answer will come out.  “We live for Christ, his church and his mission.”  That is the final answer.  Our purpose, our mission, our goal is to serve Christ.  Let us finish what we were born to do.

After praying for the disciples, Jesus then prayed for all believers.  This means Jesus prayed for every believer, including those of us living now; Jesus also prayed for those who will come after us. Jesus offered this prayer: “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”  He then added, “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.”

Unity is what Jesus prayed for and this is what all Christians are still struggling to find.  The single biggest need of the church today is for Christians to be united. This was what concerned John Wesley when he preached his sermon on “The Catholic Spirit.”  Wesley’s sermon was based on 2 Kings 10 where there was a political crisis after King Ahab was killed.  The new King was trying to restore order.  He came upon a man he wasn’t sure was a friend or an enemy so he said to him, “Is your heart right, as my heart is toward your heart?” And the man answered, “It is.” 

The king said, “If it is, give me your hand.”

For Wesley, this meant several things. First, is your heart right with God? Do you believe his being and his perfections, his eternity, immensity, wisdom, power, his justice, mercy, and truth? Do you believe that he now "upholds all things by the word of his power?"  If you do, then your heart is like the heart of God.  Let’s join hands to move the Kingdom of God forward. When we say the Apostles’ Creed, the first lines are, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.”  We share this belief that God created the heaven and the earth, and God created the universe and all people, Red, Black, White, Brown, Yellow, and the entire Universe.  When we were children, we learned the song, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.”  Do we believe that? 

Wesley then asked more questions: “Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, God over all, blessed forever? Is he revealed in your soul? Do you know Jesus Christ and him crucified? Does he dwell in you and you in him? Is he formed in your heart by faith? Having absolutely renounced all your own works, your own righteousness, have you submitted yourself unto the righteousness of God, which is by faith in Christ Jesus?” If you answer yes to these questions, then your heart is like the heart of God. Come, join with me; let us carry out the mission of Christ.

Wesley asked a third set of questions: “Is your heart right toward your neighbor? Do you love as yourself, all mankind without exception? If you love those only that love you, what reward do you have? Do you "love your enemies?" Is your soul full of goodwill, of tender affection toward them? Do you love even the enemies of God, the unthankful and unholy? Does your heart yearn over them? Could you "wish yourself" temporally "accursed" for their sake? And do you show this by "blessing them that curse you, and praying for those that despitefully use you, and persecute you?"  If your answer is yes to these questions, I am pleased to let you know, you have a heart like the heart of God.  Come and let us join hands to serve our Lord.

A heart that is the heart of God understands it has a role to play.  There are three persons in the Trinity.  The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are united in one Godhead.  The Father has the role of creating and sustaining the world.  The Son has the role of saving and redeeming the world.  The Holy Spirit has the task of teaching, guiding and counseling the world.  Each one fulfills the function without trying to be like the other.  This is what the church should be like.  There is a place for everyone and everyone has a place. Each one has a candle to make the world brighter.  Someone said, “Don’t blow out another’s candle for it won’t make yours shine brighter.”  We should not try to make others look bad so we can look good. 

Right now, the world is facing the fear of a nuclear war. There are earthquakes and hurricanes shaking the earth and causing disasters. The church needs to step up and remind the world of what David said in Psalm 46,

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.[c]

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall…

The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.

People need hope and assurance now because of what the world is experiencing.  The Church needs a united voice to say to them, “You may not be able to control all the events that happen to you, but you know who’s in control.  You may not be able to understand what’s going on, but we know the One who understands everything and can say, “Peace, be still.”  We can say to people, “You feel powerless right now, but place your life and your future in the powerful hands of God.” We can be the voice of Jesus because we have the heart of God.

Once there were two families who lived near each other. One family used to argue and quarrel all the time while the other family lived quietly and in peace. One day, feeling jealous about the nice atmosphere flourishing in the neighboring family, the wife told her husband:

“Go to the neighbors and look what they are doing for such well-being.”

The husband went and hid nearby and started watching the house where there was always peace and calm. He saw a woman who was wiping the floor in the room. Suddenly something distracted her, and she ran to the kitchen. At that time her husband rushed into the room. He did not notice the bucket of water, he kicked it and the water spilled.

Then his wife came back from the kitchen and said him, “I’m sorry, honey, it’s my fault because I did not remove the bucket from the way.  I was going to check on the bread you were baking.”

The husband said, “No, I‘m sorry, honey, it’s my fault, because I forgot about the bread I was baking.  In my hurry to check on it, I did not notice the bucket.  I’ll clean up the mess.”

The wife said, “Okay, I turned the oven off and took the bread out.  I will do the dishes since you are cleaning the floor.”

The man returned home, where the wife asked him, “Did you understand the reason why they get along so well?”

The man said, “Yes, I did. You see, when we have a disagreement, each of us wants to be right; for them, when they have a disagreement, each of them takes the blame on himself.” 

Think about what a community can accomplish if no one blames anybody for anything, but each one takes the blame on himself.  Just imagine what would happened if no one tries to be right just to have an advantage over the other?  If everyone looked for the positive in each situation and saw only people’s strengths, never their weakness, we will show the world what the heart of God looks like.

A number of years ago in Canada, a little two-year-old girl wandered away from her neighborhood. It was a cold, winter day. Her parents alerted the neighbors and they saw some tracks in the snow, but there were a lot of other tracks, so for several hours the searchers went in all different directions calling her name. They didn’t find her. A little before sunset one of the men said, "Instead of all working separately, let’s join hands and form a long line and walk through the field together. That way we cannot miss a square foot."

That’s what they did. They joined hands and together walked as one long line calling that little girl’s name. Tragically, they found her frozen body curled up. One of the men said with great anguish, "Oh, if we had only joined hands sooner.”  If the search party had joined hands sooner, they could have saved a little girl’s life.

Think about all the things we can save from death if we join hands.  We can save a dying world.  We can save struggling communities. We can save families that are falling apart.  We can save broken lives.  We can save damaged spirits.  We can save people that are held captive to sin.  Do we have the heart of God that cares so much for the world that He sent Jesus to be our Redeemer?  Do we have the heart of God to hear the cries of help from desperate people?  If you do, let us join hands to fulfill the mission God has called us to.  May the Spirit give us the power to overlook all the things that divide us and focus only on those things that unite us. Amen.

September 10, 2017

Matthew 18:15-20

“Jesus and the Road to Reconciliation”    

 

There is a flower called Lotus.  The Lotus is a beautiful flower that can be found in many parts of the world. But the start of this flower’s life is not as beautiful as one might imagine. It’s unlike many other flowers. The lotus first begins its life under water, making its home in lakes and ponds. This beautiful flower begins at the bottom of the pond, from the dirty and muddy bottom of the pond. It is surrounded by mud and dirt and by fish, by insects, and simply dirty, rough conditions.  Despite these conditions, the lotus flower develops strength, and pushes aside each of these dirty obstacles as it makes its way to clearer surfaces.

Gradually, the stem continues to grow, and the young flower makes its way slowly above the water, into the clean air, finally freeing itself from the harsh life conditions below. Then the lotus slowly opens each beautiful flower to the sun, enjoying the worldly beauty surrounding it. The lotus flower is ready to take on the world.  Despite being born into dark, filthy conditions, where hope for such beautiful life is uncertain, the lotus grows, rises above adversity. The lotus flower opens each petal to the air, not a stain or spot of mud remains on it. No dirt or mud sticks to the Lotus flower. The inner part of this flower has never seen a drop of mud or dirty water. It is pure, and bright, and beautiful.  The Lotus, which begins in dirt and mud, sits above the dirty and muddy water, pure and free from trash.

I believe this is how God wants us to live. Although we were born into a sinful world, a corrupt and immoral world of sin, God wants us to rise above the dirt and grime of the world; and like the Lotus flower, rise above it all so that the Spirit will protect us from getting stains on our souls.  One of the biggest challenges we have is in our relationships.  We human beings are relational beings.  From the moment we are born to the day we die, we are always in relationships.  Our relationships begin at home and then to our neighborhoods, extending to our churches, our larger communities, on to our cities, and states and stretching out into the world.  I believe in healthy relationships.  As I have said before, relationships don’t have to be perfect but they can be healthy.

Jesus understood that as long as we’re in relationships, we will disagree and we will rub each other the wrong way.  As long as we’re in relationships, there will be conflict.  Most times, people think conflicts begin between two or more people.  I believe conflicts begin in each of us.  Sometimes our days don’t begin right and things don’t go as we expect.  Anything that breaks up our routines and patterns can start a fire inside of us and cause a storm within.  That fire and that storm inside of us can make us feel bad and cause us to have a bad day.  When we have a bad day, it is so easy to lash out at people who had nothing to do with our bad day.  So you see, when the person at the bank or the supermarket looks at you wrong, or says something mean, remember, they are projecting on to you their issues that you had nothing to do with.  Don’t get upset.  See it from their perspective and say to yourself, “They’re having a bad day; I didn’t cause it and it’s not my fault.  But they need prayers.”

In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus showed us the road to reconciliation. Reconciliation is about restoring broken relationships.  Reconciliation is about rebuilding community; it’s about healing hearts that have been wounded and egos that have been bruised.  It’s about renewal of damaged friendships. The first step in reconciliation is to reach out in love. Jesus said, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother.” 

One pastor explained how at his church, one lady slapped another lady’s child in the nursery. When the lady found out about it she was furious, but she didn’t want to say anything. She simply refused to speak to the other lady. The pastor said he encouraged her to talk to the other lady about what had happened. When she reached out in love to the lady who had slapped her child, the other lady apologized and said, “I’m so sorry.   I don’t know what got into me.  I was having a bad day and took it out on your child.”  Soon, there were tears of reconciliation and their relationship was restored. If she had not reached out as Jesus directed, the relationship would have stayed broken.  We must reach out in love and harmony.  This is not always easy to do, but Jesus expects this of us.  Whoever said following Christ was going to be easy misled us.  Christ calls us to self-denial.  Deny your pride, deny your ego, and deny your hard position.  Reach out in love.

The Internet had a story about a woman whose husband kept coming home late from work.  He told her He was picking up extra hours for the family vacation.  She complained and complained.  He tried and tried but kept coming home late.  One day, after he came home late, she yelled at home and told him to sleep on the couch.  She refused to speak to him.  He sat on the couch and tried talking to her but she refused to listen to what he had to say.  The next morning, when she went to find him, he was dead.  He had died of a broken heart.

The second step in reconciliation according to Jesus is to reach out in friendship.  If the first step doesn’t work, Jesus said, “But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.”  This shows you want to restore the community.  This shows you want other people to add their wisdom and words of faith to encourage this person and let them know you value the relationship and you value being in community with them.  A broken community is a poisonous community.  It destroys relationships because it forces people to take sides.  It destroys the future because it does not give a Christian example for the youth and children to follow.  It can lead to health issues and spiritual problems.

The third step on the road to reconciliation is to reach out to the community and get the entire church involved.  Jesus said, “And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.”  Reach out in love, reach out in friendship, and reach out in faith.  The first time you reach out is for yourself.  The second time you reach out is for the friendship you share with this person.  The third time you reach out is for the church. Why do you reach out after the first and second time?  You reach out to free yourself from the pain and the hurt of not speaking to a brother and sister in Christ.

Jesus said when that doesn’t work - treat the person like a tax collector and a sinner or a heathen.  It’s easy to interpret this portion of the text to mean, avoid them and shun them and treat them with disgust because that is what most people of Jesus time did.  But Jesus spent time with sinners and tax collectors, so for me, this means keep praying for them, keeping speaking to them, and even forgiving them, especially when they think they have done nothing for which you should forgive them.

Jesus ended this discussion by saying,  “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.  19 “Again I say [c] to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven.20 For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”

The point Jesus was trying to make is that when a community of faith is not united, we lose our power.  Verse 20 says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name I am there in the midst of them.”  Those three words, “in my name” is the heart of this verse.  To be gathered in Jesus name means we are all on the same page with the same heart and mind that was in Christ.  When a community of faith is not united and we have people divided, it’s not possible to gather and worship in the name of Jesus.

The Corinthian Church had a problem of division. In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul wrote: I have been informed “that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas [b]”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?

         This lectionary reading for today is showing us the road to reconciliation that Jesus wants us to follow.  This road will be a blessing to us because it frees us from carrying unnecessary burdens.

 

A kindergarten teacher had decided to let her class play a game. The teacher told each child in the class to bring along a plastic bag containing a few potatoes. Each potato will be given a name of a person that the child hates. So the number of potatoes that a child will put in his/her plastic bag will depend on the number of people he/she hates.

So when the day came, every child brought some potatoes with the name of the people he/she hated. Some had 2 potatoes, some 3 while some up to 5 potatoes. The teacher then told the children to carry the potatoes in the plastic bag with them wherever they go for 1 week. Day after day passed, and the children started to complain due to the unpleasant smell let out by the rotten potatoes. Besides, those having 5 potatoes also had to carry heavier bags. After 1 week, the children were relieved because the game had finally ended.

The teacher asked: “How did you feel while carrying the potatoes with you for 1 week?” The children let out their frustrations and started complaining of the trouble that they had to go through having to carry the heavy and smelly potatoes wherever they go. Then the teacher told them the hidden meaning behind the game. The teacher said: “This is exactly the situation when you carry your hatred for somebody inside your heart. The stench of hatred will contaminate your heart and you will carry it with you wherever you go. If you cannot tolerate the smell of rotten potatoes for just 1 week, can you imagine what is it like to have the stench of hatred in your heart for your lifetime?”

     Throw away any hatred for anyone from your heart so that you will not carry burden for a lifetime.  We are always in relationships.  Relationships don’t have to be perfect but they can be healthy.  When there are broken relationships, Jesus showed us the road to reconciliation.  First, reach out in love.  Next reach out to friends, and third, reach out to the community.  Let us become like the Lotus flower.  It begins in the mud and dirt like we were born in sin.  But it rises out of the mud and sits above the surface of the water and no mud or dirt can ever stick on it.  We do this because we love Jesus.  May the Spirit give us the strength to stay on the road to reconciliation and may God bless us all. Amen.    

 

September 3, 2017

Romans 12:9-21

“God’s Expectations”    

 

Her name was Beth.  She was sitting at an airport terminal, waiting to board a plane. She was sitting there with several other people she did not know.  As Beth waited, she pulled out her Bible and started reading. After reading for a while, she suddenly felt as if the people sitting there around her were looking at her. She looked up, but realized that they were looking past her, in the direction right behind her. She turned around to see what everyone was looking at, and when she did, she saw a flight attendant pushing a wheelchair, with the strangest looking old man that she had ever seen sitting in it. The old man had this long white hair that was all tangled and looked like such a mess. His face was really, really wrinkled, and he didn’t look friendly at all. She didn’t know why, but she felt drawn to the man, and thought at first that God wanted her to witness to him. Then she heard a voice within say, “See how bad his hair looks.  I want you to ask him to brush his hair.” In her spirit she said to the voice, “Oh, God, please, not now, not here. You can’t expect me to go to this total stranger and ask him to brush his hair.”

“That is exactly what I expect you to do,” the Spirit said to her. 

She answered, “I’m sorry but it’s so embarrassing. I can’t do it.”

No matter what she did, she couldn’t get the man off of her mind.  A restlessness stirred within her.  She could read anymore, she couldn’t think clearly; all she could think about was this old man.  If she waited any longer, she would lose the opportunity to demonstrate the love of God to this man. Before she knew it, she felt herself standing up and walking towards the old man. She went and knelt down in front of the old man, and said “Sir, May I have the honor of brushing your hair for you?”

He said “What?”

She thought to herself, “Oh no, he’s hard of hearing.” Again, a little louder, she said, “Sir, May I have the honor of brushing your hair for you?” He answered, “If you are going to talk to me, you are going to have to speak up, I am practically deaf.” So this time, she was almost yelling, “Sir may I please have the honor of brushing your hair for you?” Everyone was watching to see what his response would be. The old man just looked at her confused, and said “Well, I guess if you really want to.”

She said, “I don’t even have a brush, but I thought I would ask anyway.”

He said, “Look in the bag hanging on the back of my chair, there is a brush in there.” So she got the brush out and started brushing his hair. Beth was a mother of a little girl with long hair so she had lots of practice getting tangles out, and knew how to be gentle with him. She worked for a long time, until every last tangle was out.

Just as she was finishing up, she heard the old man crying, and she went and put her hands on his knees, kneeling in front of him again looking directly into his eyes, and said “Sir, do you know Jesus?” He answered, “Yes, of course I know Jesus. You see, when I met my wife, told me she couldn’t marry me unless I knew Jesus, so I learned all about Jesus, and asked Him to come into my heart many years ago, before we were married.” He continued, “You know, I am on my way home to go and see my wife. I have been in the hospital for a long time, and had to have a special surgery in this town far from my home. My wife couldn’t come with me, because she is so weak herself.” He said, “I was so worried about how terrible my hair looked, and I didn’t want her to see me looking so awful, but I couldn’t brush my hair, all by myself.”  Tears were rolling down his cheeks, as he thanked Beth for brushing his hair. He thanked her over and over again. She was crying, people all around witnessing this were crying, and as they were all boarding the plane, the flight attendant, who was also crying, stopped her, and asked, “Why did you do that?” And right there was the opportunity, the door that had been opened to share with someone else, the love of God. We don’t always understand God’s ways, but be ready, He may use us to meet the need of someone else, like He met the need of this old man, and in that moment, also calling out to a lost soul who needed to know about His love.

God’s expectations are not always easy.  They can put us in awkward, uncomfortable situations.  We remember in the book of Acts, chapter 8, how the Spirit told Phillip to go and speak with the Ethiopian official in his chariot.  Phillip could have said, “No, God. I don’t know this man and you can’t expect me to go and witness to him.”  But instead, Phillip obeyed God’s expectations. That made a difference in the life of this man who took Christianity back to Ethiopia.  God’s expectations will challenge us and take us outside of our comfort zones.

In this passage, there are two kinds of divine expectations:  The personal expectations and the social expectations.  Verses 9-13 are God’s expectations for how we are to behave and conduct ourselves.  In verses 14-21, we find God’s expectations for our life within the community or in our society.  Expectations are related to goals and achievements; they have to do with things that are supposed to happen.  Divine expectations are the things God knows are supposed to happen to keep the church on track.

First you have the personal expectations God has of us. In his letter to the Romans, Paul shared with the church what some of God’s expectations were.  He had written so much about love, especially to the Corinthian church that he wanted to describe what love was like in action.  He wrote, Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”

It must begin from within.  There must be a personal commitment to remove all negative and ugly things from within us. In Psalm 139, David knew the personal struggle it takes to do what is right.  He wrote in verses 23-24, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. 24 See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”  Research has shown that people are more likely to help others when they expand their ideas of the “in-group.”  There has to be a change within us before we can reach out to others.  A person who sees the world in two categories of “Us versus Them” will not be willing to help others.

It has been said that there are three kinds of Christians: Those already in a storm, those leaving a storm, and those about to enter a storm." And how we respond to the storm it will demonstrate our walk with the Lord. Or even more specifically, how we respond to the storm can serve as evidence that we even know the Lord.   Before we can cope with disasters of all kinds, whether they are natural or man-made, whether they are spiritual or physical, we have to be ready within.

The first expectation God has of us that we check ourselves, examine inside of us to see if there are beliefs, attitude, tendencies, mindsets that need to change.  We can reach out to help people if we think they don’t deserve to live.  God’s first expectation is that we begin with us.

God’s second expectation is that we reach out and extend a hand to those in need.  Paul wrote, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. [c] Do not be conceited.  17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath.”

It was amazing to see how the city of Houston came together when Hurricane Harvey hit the city.  People are caring for one another.  People, who, a week before, may have been shouting words of hate at one another, forgot their differences and came together to provide shelter for those who were forced out of their homes and had nowhere to go.  Citizens from around the country took their boats and went through various neighborhoods to rescue people who were stranded.  That is love in action.  Ordinary people made donations, joined relief groups, handed out water, served hot meals and are ready to remain as long as it takes to get the city of Houston back on its feet.  That is God’s expectations.  That is love in action.

There was a five-year-old girl named Jenny. One day when she and her mother were checking out at the grocery store, Jenny saw a plastic pearl necklace priced at $2.50. She wanted that necklace so her mother bought it for her.   Jenny was so happy she wore that necklace every day. The only time she didn’t wear them was in the shower. Her mother had told her that they would turn her neck green! Jenny’s dad saw how much she loved that necklace, even though it was only two dollars fifty cents.

One night when he finished reading a story to her, he asked, “Jenny, do you love me?”

“Oh yes, Daddy, you know I love you,” the little girl said.

“Well, then, give me your pearls.”

 

“Oh! Dad. I don’t want to give you my pearls!” Jenny said. “But you can have Rosy, my favorite doll. I love these pearls too much.”

“Oh no, darling, that’s okay.” Her father smiled.  A week later, her father once again asked Jenny after her story, “Do you love me?”

“Oh yes, Daddy, you know I love you.”

 

“Well, then, give me your pearls.”

 

“Oh, no Daddy, not my pearls! But you can have my toy horse.”

“No, that’s okay,” her father said and smiled. “God bless you, little one. Sweet dreams.”

Several days later, when Jenny’s father came in to read her a story, Jenny was sitting on her bed and her lip was trembling. ” Here, Daddy,” she said, and held out her hand. She opened it and her beloved pearl necklace was inside.  “You can have my pearls,” she said as she let it slip into her father’s hand.

With one hand her father held the plastic pearls and the other he pulled out of his pocket a blue velvet box. Inside of the box were real, actual, beautiful pearls that cost hundreds of dollars.  Jenny’s father had had them all along. He was waiting for Jenny to give up the cheap stuff so he could give her the real thing. You see, that is how it is with GOD. He is waiting for us to give up the cheap things in our lives so he can give us beautiful treasure. 

Like Beth who didn’t want God to embarrass her, we sometimes want our faith to be comfortable and easy.  Like Jenny who thought her $2.50 pearl was so valuable, God expects us to hand over to Him the cheap things we consider so important so he can give us the real ones.  If we allow God to embarrass us, we will be able to fulfill some of God’s expectations.  If we hand over our cheap stuff, our fears, our uncertainties, and everything that keeps us from living up to God’s expectations, if we turn all those over to God, God will give us the real deal to live up to God’s expectations of us and be the Christians God wants us to be with real faith.  May God bless us on our journey. Amen.    

 

August 20, 2017

Psalm 133:1-3

  “Teamwork Makes the Dream Work” 

  

         I was on the Internet recently and came across this quote: “Team work makes the dream work.”  I looked closer and I learned it is the title of a book by John Maxwell.  Maxwell also made the following statement.  He said, “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” King David agreed with him in Psalm 133. Maxwell also said, “Teams come in all shapes and sizes. If you’re married, you and your spouse are a team.  If you are employed by an organization, you and your colleagues are a team.  If you volunteer your time, you and your fellow workers are a team.”  John Maxwell went on to say, “Every day, in some way, you are a part of a team.  The question is not ‘Will you participate in something that involves others?’ The question is, ‘Will your involvement with others be successful’?”  We could ask that question in different ways. Will our involvement promote or hinder the team?  Will we be a part of the problem the team is dealing with or will we be a part of the solution?

David understood the importance of teamwork.  He became king over a divided kingdom.  When David became king, Israel was not a unified kingdom.  The tribes were not united because belonging to the tribe was more important than being an Israelite. They were proud to belong to the tribe of Judah, or Benjamin, or Reuben.  When David became King, he unified all the tribes into one glorious and powerful kingdom.  Israel became a military and an economic power.  He was to that period what the United States is today.  Israel became a superpower during David’s reign.  Israel experienced a Golden Age of great wealth, great prosperity, and great learning.  Many scholars believe it was during David’s reign that scribes began to compile the Torah, the Books of Moses. This is why the disciples asked Jesus in Acts 1, “Lord, will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?”  They were asking about David’s Kingdom.  The kingdom of Israel during the rule of David was very successful because the people were united. 

David realized teamwork made the dream work.  It will take teamwork to make our dream work.  The dream we are working towards is not my dream, it’s not your dream; it is God’s dream, God’s mission.  Everything we do is about God and what God wants.  When I preach I must interpret God’s Word and not my own.  When we gather to worship, we sing praises to God, not to you or to me.  John Maxwell wrote, “One person seeking glory doesn’t accomplish much; but the result of people pulling together is great success.”

David was looking back at how far the people of Israel had come.  He reflected on how great everything was.  So he wrote the word we read today as our Scripture text.  There are three things we learn from this passage.  The first thing is that Unity is not the same as uniformity.  David wrote, “How good and pleasant it is, when God’s people live together in unity.” When something is good, it has a purpose; it benefits people.  When something is pleasant, it makes people feel good.  Unity is different from uniformity.  Uniformity is when we all act alike, when we all think alike.  When things are uniform, everything or everyone looks alike – there are no differences.  Uniformity does not allow room for differences.  Uniformity requires people to like the same foods, to read the same books, like the same kind of movies, and listen to the same kind of music.  Yes, there is some level of uniformity among us because as United Methodists, we all worship one Lord, celebrate the same faith and have one baptism. We are uniform in our beliefs and behaviors, but we are different in how we worship.  Some people love the good old hymns of the old days while others prefer the contemporary Christian songs.  Some people will only read the King James Version of the Bible, while others have all kinds of versions and Bible translations.  Some people have to take their Bible with them as a hard copy.  Others download the Bible on the Smartphone. We are different, yet we are united in our faith.

Real unity is when we recognize we are different in our outlook and accept our differences.  When it comes to baptism in the United Methodist church, some people do immersion, others recognize sprinkling, and others prefer pouring.  But we accept all three forms of baptism.  When we live in unity, each person brings their individual differences and together we form a great team for God, a team where Jesus is Lord.   Revelations 7 tells us that even in heaven, there are differences and diversity. Revelation 7:9 reads, After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.”  That is unity right there.  We have God’s dream to fulfill in this church, in this district, in this conference and around the world.  It takes teamwork to make the dream work.

The second thing about unity is that it is consecrated not desecrated. We read in Psalm 133 that unity “is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe.” We know that Aaron was a high priest and oil was used to consecrate priests, kings and prophets.  Oil was God’s way of consecrating people and things to set them aside for His use only.  The oil that was poured on Aaron was not just a touch; it was a generous flow that was enough to roll from his head to his beard and to the collar of his robe.  He was covered in sacred oil.

When Christians live in unity, we celebrate and honor God.  Just as God consecrated people, places, and things, so God has consecrated unity as a gift to the church.  We become covered in God’s anointing and consecration. This is enough to inspire us to consecrate ourselves for God. We are on the same team.  We have the same owner! We have the same coach and the same Spirit within. We all work for God.  We have the same purpose, which is to make God’s dream a reality.

Unity among God’s people is consecrated for the good of the world.  We who are God’s people are in community together.  We are not just servants; we are friends of God.  I read a poem about differences between servants and friends:  The poem went:

Servants of God raise their hand to be called on. Friends of God are called by the Hand of God.
Servants of God do work for God. Friends of God do work with God.
Servants pray their work will succeed. Friends succeed as they pray for their work.
Servants serve from their commitment. Friends serve in their surrender.
Servants come and go as they please. Friends are pleased to come and stay.
Servants are faced with ministry problems. Friends are faced with ministry opportunities.
Servants teach the Bible Story to others.  Friends are the Living Bible Story to others.
Servants want to be led in ministry. Friends lead in ministry.
Servants love the Ministry. Friends love Jesus in the ministry.
Servants serve under their supervisor. Friends serve God alone.
Servants see their ministry as small. Friends see the world as their ministry.
Servants of God are excited when they succeed. Friends of God are excited to make others succeed.”

         Teamwork makes the dream work.  God’s dream is for the Christian church to live together in unity.  Unity is not uniformity.  Unity is consecration and desecration.  The third point about unity in this text is that unity is refreshing, not depressing.  The text says unityis as like the dew of Hermon falling on Mount Zion.”  On many mornings, when we wake up, it’s easy to see and feel dew on the grass.  In Ephesians 4, Paul encouraged the church in Ephesus to remain united.  He wrote, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called;one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

         Paul encourages us to also listen to and be guided by the Holy Spirit.  When we listen to the Spirit, we will watch our words.  Some say, “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.”  I don’t think that is true.  Words can build us up and words can destroy us. Words are very powerful.  Think about all the children whose parents told them they were no good and will amount to nothing and how those words hut them.  Think about all the times you received negative criticism and not a positive word.  Those were hurtful times.  That is why Paul wrote, “Do not use harmful words, only helpful ones, the kind that build up and provide what is needed.”  Helpful words are refreshing not depressing.  Sometimes the pain we feel in ourselves is what we extend to others. 

It is when we admit we are weak that we will know God’s power.  When we say, “It’s impossible.”  God says, “All things are possible with Me.” When we say, “I can’t do it.”  God says, “You can do all things through Christ.” When we say, “I’m too tired. God says, “Come to Me, I will give you rest.” When we say, “I’m always worried and frustrated.” God says, “Cast all your cares on Me.” When we say, “I can’t figure things out.”  God says, “I will direct your steps.” When we say, “I’m not able.” God says, “I am able.”  When we say, “I’m not smart enough.” God says, “I give you wisdom.”  When we say, “I feel all alone.” God says, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”

The church is God’s team.  The salvation of the world is God’s Dream. God has entrusted His dreams to us to bring it to reality.  We have the power but it takes teamwork to make the dream work.  This means the church must be united. We learned from David in Psalm 133 that unity is good and pleasant.  However, unity is not the same as uniformity. Unity is consecrated not desecrated. And unity is refreshing not depressing.  Jesus expects us to function as a team because only then will we make the dream work.  May God bless us all. Amen.    

 

August 13, 2017

Matthew 14:22-33

  “The Journey to the Other Side”    

 

         This entire chapter fourteen is connected.  The chapter opens with the arrest and execution of John the Baptist.  John the Baptist was the forerunner for Jesus.  He was the one who announced the coming of the Messiah, declaring that everyone should prepare the way.  When Jesus began his mission, John knew his assignment was over.  When Jesus heard that John was arrested and killed, he knew his mission was about to get serious and soon, he would have to face the cross.  He knew he had to intensify his preaching, his teaching, his healing and his miracles.  He knew the Gospel had to be told everywhere so people would understand the Gospel and accept him as their Lord and Savior.

         Following the death of John the Baptist, his disciples went for the body and buried it.  Then they went and told Jesus.  When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew from the crowd and went to a private place.  I’m sure Jesus went to grieve and to prepare himself for what was ahead.  But the crowds did not give him any space.  They were so desperate for healing and for the Word of God that they followed him on foot to find him.  Jesus saw the crowd and realized he would have no time to himself so, without complaining, he taught them and then he fed them.  He gave them spiritual food and then physical nourishment.  That day, Jesus fed about twenty thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish.   The Bible said there were five thousand men, not counting women and children.  What if we counted the women and children?  Let’s say each man had a wife because marriage was a requirement among the people of Jesus days; that would be ten thousand people.  Now imagine each couple had at least two children.  That was a nice size crowd.

         But as soon as the people left, Matthew used the word “immediately” to describe how quickly Jesus gave the instruction to the disciples: “Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd.”  Jesus had allowed himself to be sidetracked from his goal of trying to spend time alone in prayer.  Sometimes we will be forced to deviate from our journey to stop and help someone as Jesus did.  But as soon as the crowd ate, before he dismissed them, he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side.  I’m sure Jesus wanted to pray about what happened to John the Baptist.  Jesus also wanted to pray about the future of His mission and his ministry.

         I believe this act of sending the disciples to the other side was very symbolic and very meaningful.  Sending them to the other side of the lake was a message to them; it was a lesson for them.  John the Baptist was dead, the mission was in full swing, the ministry was moving at full speed, and they needed to show the faith necessary to participate in this mission.  The journey to the other side meant the disciples had to move from doubt to faith, from fear to courage, from uncertainty to Blessed assurance, from questioning themselves to having confidence, from wondering who Jesus was, to declaring that he was the Son of the Living God.

         The disciples had to get ready.  The Gospel was new and it was different from anything they had ever seen or experienced.  If they wanted to be a part of this glorious Gospel, they had to move to the other side. They had to leave the side of legalism where they obeyed the law because they felt obligated and forced to do so; they had to journey to the other side of Love where they obeyed because they loved the Lord.  If you look at chapter 15, you will see the other side included ministry to the Canaanites, people who were Gentiles.  This was to be a universal Gospel, not confined and restricted to the Jews but for the whole world.  In our Bible study, we have been looking at the book of Acts and we saw how the Holy Spirit set Paul and Barnabas aside for work among the Gentiles.

The disciples had to journey to the other side of inclusion, to embrace everyone from everywhere who accepts the Gospel.  They had to move from seeing themselves as servants of God to where they would see themselves as children of God.  They had to move from being a social club to being a Church.  They had to move from being a group, to being a team.  They had to move to the other side, to the side of Jesus Christ.  During the American civil war, somebody asked President Abraham Lincoln whether God was on the side of the Union. President Lincoln said, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side.”  When we come to Jesus, we have to abandon our old views, our old thinking, our old way of living and journey to the other side, where Jesus sends us.

         The disciples left around the evening, before it became dark.  The Bible tells me it was “Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them.” That means they spent all night on the lake.  It is believed the lake was called Lake Tiberias or the Sea of Galilee.  The Lake is 13 miles from the North to the South so it was a large lake.  Before Jesus went to find them, the waves were rough.  The boat was rocked and beaten by the strong waves.  You see my friends, going to the other side isn’t always easy.  We have to experience stormy days as we travel to the side where Jesus wants us to be.  The other side is about transformation and reformation, it’s about conviction and conversion, it’s about revolution and modification; it’s about changing our lives for the better.

Change doesn’t come overnight.  Paul was converted and in three days was a new person.  For others, it was a gradual process.  Moses traveled with the people of Israel for 40 years and still had issues with obeying God. David knew how much God loved him yet he disobeyed God. Martin Luther was already a monk before he experienced the power of the Holy Spirit that changed his life.  John Wesley was already a priest when he had his heart-warming experience.  Judas felt it after he betrayed Jesus; by then it was too late. There will be stormy challenges; there will be difficulties but keep on moving. 

Jesus knew what the disciples were experiencing so he decided to go and find them.  Jesus will come and find us when we are in trouble, but as Jesus walked on the water towards the disciples, they saw him coming towards them and were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. don’t be afraid.”

28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

29 “Come,” he said.

Why did Peter ask to come to Jesus on the water?  Jesus had already told them he was the one and they should not be afraid.  Was he asking for proof that it was really Jesus?  Do we need proof that Jesus is who he is, that God is real? A Gospel song says, “I don’t need proof; I feel him in my soul. Peter wanted proof so Jesus told him to come.  Peter stepped out on the water, into the rough waters, into the rough waves and began to walk towards Jesus.  Peter walked through his troubles, he faced his challenges; but soon, the waves looked like they were too great for him.  Soon, he felt the waters were overcoming him, and he became afraid.  When he became afraid, he began to sink.  When we become afraid, that is when we sink.

 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”  The biggest problem Christians have is doubt.  When we doubt, we defeat ourselves.  When we doubt, we lose our faith. When we doubt, we sink into our troubles.  But when we call on the Lord Jesus and say, “Lord save us,” He will do so.  When they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” 

The journey to the other side is the journey to transformation, a journey to a new life.  It is a journey from doubt to faith, from uncertainty to belief.  On this journey, there will be rough waves and challenging times, but we will arrive with Jesus. I know you have heard about David Wilkinson, the Pennsylvania pastor who was moved by a Life magazine photo of teenage street criminals. These teenagers who belonged to gangs were on the dark side.  Pastor Wilkinson felt compelled by the Holy Spirit to go talk to the young gangsters and help them journey from the darkness of violence to the light of God’s love. 

However, he found himself on the dark, dangerous streets of one of Brooklyn’s worst housing project where he met a laughing teenage “warlord” who took out a switchblade, expecting the country preacher to run in fear.  This teenager was called Nicky Cruz.  Instead, Wilkerson told Nicky Cruz that even if sliced into little pieces, each one of them would love the kid. Wilkerson did not give up but kept praying and working with Nicky.  The journey to the other side was not an easy one but eventually Nicky gave his life to Christ.  Nicky’s life was never again the same.  Cruz became an author and evangelist based in Colorado Springs where he is leading the outreach to street kids. He regularly speaks in crusades worldwide – often with Wilkerson’s son, Gary.

Wilkerson died in 2011 in a traffic accident, he was seventy-nine.  When Wilkerson died, Cruz said, “It’s like somebody who was not only my spiritual father, but much more than that is gone.”  He spoke at Wilkerson’s funeral and said, “I’ve always felt badly that I wasn’t closer to my own father.”  

Pastor Wilkerson had to journey from his comfort zone to the dangerous streets of New York.  Nicky Cruz had to journey from his life as a gangster to the new life in Christ.  It was a tough trip, but in the end, Pastor Wilkerson arrived with Jesus.  In the end, Nicky is still traveling with Jesus as he reaches out to other gangsters.

Where is God calling you to journey from this day?  Where does Jesus want our journey to take us? Let’s ask the Spirit to direct our path and show us where Jesus is sending us.  May we be ready to face the storm and trust him, knowing he will come to us when we need him.  Amen.    

 

August 6, 2017

Matthew 14:13-21

  “You Already Have What It Takes”    

 

         Have you ever asked yourself whether you have what it takes to do something?  Did you ever wonder if you have the skills, qualities, and abilities to be a follower of Jesus, a leader or someone special? A 22-year-old Virginia woman named Lauren discovered one day that she was stronger than she realized. Lauren was a recent university graduate and still at home living with her parents.  One Saturday morning she went outside to ask to borrow the car.  She didn't hear her dad, so she went back inside and asked her mom where he was.  Her mom said her dad went out to work on the car.

When Lauren went outside to look again for her father who was 52 years old, she found him stuck under the BMW.  It seemed the way he was moving the car with his wrench, the jack slipped and it fell on top of him. He was unconscious and his arm was caught over his chest.  Lauren was shocked to see him in that condition.  Without thinking she tried to rescue her father. She didn’t know where the energy came from.  She later said, "I just literally lifted up the car. It was like a table with a short leg. I kind of balanced it back out and shifted enough to free my dad," Lauren said.

Once her father was freed from beneath the car, Lauren began doing chest compressions.  She didn't even get through a full set before he started breathing again. She called an ambulance and her father was taken to the hospital where he was being treated for five fractured ribs and other broken parts. He has also lost some feeling in his right arm but got it back in a few months.  One friend told her, “I didn’t know you had it in you.  You have what it takes to be a superhero.”  Lauren admitted she was not a superhero, just a daughter who didn’t want to lose her father. 

         Sometimes we find ourselves in situations that overpower us, situations that are bigger than who we are.  When these situations occur, it’s so easy to feel we can’t cope and we have to way to handle it.  But when we look inside ourselves, we will find we already have what it takes to make a difference.  Think about Moses.  In Exodus 3, when God called him to go to Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go, Moses said to God, “I am nobody.  How can I go to the king and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”  Whenever you think you are nobody, remember God’s answer to Moses.  God said, “I will be with you, and when you bring the people out of Egypt, you will worship me on this mountain. That will be the proof that I have sent you.”  When God is with you, you have what it takes to face the most powerful force on earth.  When God is with you, you have what it takes to be a leader.

         Moses was still unsure.  Maybe he doubted himself because he remembered he was fugitive from justice.  He felt he was powerless, empty, and had nothing to offer.  Moses said to God, “But suppose the Israelites do not believe me and will not listen to what I say. What shall I do if they say that you did not appear to me?”

         God then asked Moses, “What are you holding?”  Moses probably forgot he had a shepherd staff, the stick he used to guide the sheep.  What good was that in front of Pharaoh? Moses told God it was a walking stick. The Lord said, “Throw it on the ground.” When Moses threw it down, it turned into a snake, and he ran away from it. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Reach down and pick it up by the tail.” So Moses reached down and caught it, and it became a walking stick again. The Lord said, “Do this to prove to the Israelites that the Lord, the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has appeared to you.”  Moses already had what was needed to be a leader to the people of Israel, yet he kept making excuses and refused to go on God’s mission.  God picked him because God knew he already had what it took to lead the Israelites.

         On this day, as Jesus was hanging out with his disciples, he heard the news that John the Baptist had been executed by Herod.  Jesus left that place and went to a quiet place where he could be alone.  People grieve differently.  Jesus grieved the death of John the Baptist by going to be alone.  But the crowds did not care.  They followed him on foot from all the towns.  When he saw the large crowd of more than five thousand, he had compassion on them.  There is a difference between pity and compassion.  To have pity is to feel sorry for someone.  To have compassion is to feel sorry to do something about it.  So Jesus did.  He healed the sick.  The people had met Doctor Jesus, a doctor who never lost a single patient.  The Doctor was in and he healed everyone who was sick.

         The Bible says, “As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

16 Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

         The disciples said to him, “We have ONLY five loaves of bread and two fish.”  They made sure they included the word, “Only.”  They meant they didn’t have enough to feed everyone.  It was too little.  Insufficient.  Inadequate.  They forgot they were talking to Jesus.  It was this same Jesus who had healed the sick.  They were there in chapter 9 when Jesus raised from the dead, the daughter of Jairus.  They were present with Jesus when the woman with the issue of blood touched him and was healed.  They saw Jesus do amazing, incredible and miraculous things.  Yet, they wanted to send the people away so the people could buy their own food but Jesus refused to let that happen.  Jesus even said to them, “You give them something to eat.”  In other words, “You already have what it takes to feed these people.”  In Luke 17:6, Jesus said, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this Mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’ and it will obey you.” They even said to Jesus, “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish.”  But if they had looked inside themselves, they would have discovered the faith that Jesus required us to have.  It was already there.  They had what it took to be true disciples.

         “Bring them here to me,” Jesus told them.  They didn’t ask any questions.  They didn’t say, “What can you do with such small amount of loaves and fish?” They obeyed because they believed.  They acted because they trusted. “And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.”

         They had faith in them.  They went to bed every night not knowing whether they would die before waking up. They woke up every morning and faced the day, not knowing whether they would end the day.  They ate food that was offered to them, not knowing whether it was good or bad.  They had what was necessary to be good disciples.

         Have you ever questioned your own Christianity?  Have you ever wondered whether you were good enough to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ, whether you have the faith of Evangelist Billy Graham?  Have you ever asked yourself whether you’re a good Christian, whether you’re living up to God’s will?  Let me assure you, you already have what it takes to be a true, real, and strong Christian.  Like Lauren who lifted the BMW off her father, you have inner strength to help others lift the darkest clouds from their lives.  You may doubt yourself like Moses because of past things in your life.  But just as God used what Moses already had in his hand, God will use what you already have in yourself.  Think about David when he met Goliath.  Saul tried to put armor on him, but David could not move.  The armor was so heavy.  He went and faced Goliath in the strength of the Lord and with what he already had.  He had his sling shot and he had his skill and swinging it.  David picked five rocks, represented five letters, J-E-S-U-S, to take into battle with him.  With his sling, he defeated Goliath, and brought down the giant.

         We are God’s children.  In 1 Peter 2:9, Peter said to us, But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”  We are not ordinary people.  We’re extraordinary because we belong to Jesus Christ.  We already have what it takes to go on God’s mission, to defeat any giant and to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”  You already have what it takes to feed more than five thousand people with your kind words, to build people up with words of encouragement, to change situations with your prayer.  You already have what it takes to keep moving on.  May the Spirit give us the eyes to see what we have that Jesus can bless for the good of others. Amen.    

 

July 30, 2017

Romans 8:31-39

"A Strong Alliance"  

 

During World War II, a passenger ship set sail from Great Britain to a port in New York City. The Captain of the ship was afraid of enemy vessels and that they might come under attack.  He asked a friend who was the commander of a warship about what to do. The Commander said to the Captain of the passenger ship, “No matter what happens, sail straight ahead. Do not turn left or right -- sail the ship straight ahead -- continue on-ward, heading straight towards the intended port and your destination.”   The captain of the passenger ship agreed.

After several days of sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, which was filled with submarines, and enemy vessels of all kinds, the Captain spotted an enemy destroyer nearby. Nervously he grabbed the handset and called for assistance. The calm voice that came back was his friend, the Commander of the British warship. The Commander replied, "Keep on straight, do not deviate from the mark, just sail the ship straight ahead. Everything will be just fine. Just keep on going - straight ahead.”

After a couple more days the ship pulled safely into the great harbor of New York City. Shortly after arriving, the captain of the passenger ship look and saw the great British battleship pulled into a port behind the passenger vessel. His friend the Commander called him and said, “You did not see us, but we were right there sailing right behind you, ready to come to your defense if anyone had attacked your ship. The Captain realized that while he did not see the British Battleship, she was there, standing by ready to come to his defense if necessary.

This is what the reading from Romans is talking about.  In our Bible study of the Book of Acts, we read about how Paul and Barnabas came under attack because they were proclaiming the Gospel.  In chapter 14, while Paul was telling a group about Jesus, some enemies of the Gospel came and began to poison the minds of the listeners.  Before long, people who were excited about the Gospel turned against Paul and Barnabas because of the lies.  The same people grabbed Paul, dragged him outside the city, and stoned him.  When they thought he was dead, they left him alone.  When they arrived back to their home church in Antioch, one of the main things Paul told them was that, “We must go through many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.”

Not only was Paul beaten, dragged and stoned, he was jailed.  In 2 Corinthians 11, this is what Paul said about his sufferings and hardships: “I have been in prison more frequently, been flogged more harshly, and been exposed to death again and again.24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?

But no matter what he went through, Paul wrote: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”  But while we are going through all of these hardships, with enemies on every side, we have a strong alliance.  That strong alliance is with God.  In every battle we face in life, it is important to have someone we can count on.  We are at war.  Our faith is engaged in a spiritual battle.  While we are at war, we do not fight alone.  We have an army of angels on our side.  We have each other.  Above all, we can count on our Lord and Savior Jesus to fight with us. We have a strong alliance.  We do not fight our spiritual battles alone.  Like the Commander of the battleship who told his friend, continue in a straight line to your destination, so we find God saying to us, "Continue on the straight and narrow path to your destination."  I’ll be right with you to defend and protect you when you come under attack.  For us believers, it is not “if” we come under attack, but when we come under attack.  There will be gossip and lies, there will be sicknesses and death, there will be fear and anxiousness, there will be sad days and gloomy days, there will come those times when it will seem as though the whole world is against us and that we have no one to turn to.  But when these days come, remember what Paul wrote in Romans 8: “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” 

And here’s the best part.  Paul wrote, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?”  Paul answered this question and said, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. No matter what we go through, God will never let go of us.  We must never let go of God.  We must hang in there.  When you ask people how they are doing, some of them like to say, “I’m hanging in there.”  I want to say to us today, “Don’t just hang in there. Hold on to God’s unchanging hands.  Hold on to the Power of Love.  Hold on to the Grace of God.  Hold on because we have a strong alliance with God and with one another.

There is a 10-year-old boy named Xander Rose living in Canada.  Xander was a victim of bullying.  His mother said bullies had been harassing her son since the start of the school year.  He even received death threats from some of the other kids.  His mother reached out to Xander’s school and its board, a local children’s welfare group and the parents of other students. But the abuse only got worse over the past year. “It’s been crazy,” she said. While her son was being bullied, three teenagers committed suicide during the year. 

Xander’s mother could not take it anymore. She didn't want her son to "become another on that list." She had reached out to the school, social agencies, politicians and police, but felt she was getting nowhere with her son's bullying.  Her son began to withdraw.  He didn’t want to go to school and he didn’t even want to leave his room most days. His mother was afraid something bad would happen to him.  She decided to do something about it. That's when she contacted an American bikers group called Defenders of Children. The group then contacted bikers in Xander’s hometown who arranged the ride.

On a school day, over 200 bikers picked him up at his home and let him rumble with the Brotherhood. The group then formed two lines on either side of Rose and personally walked him to the front door of the school. The kids got the message.  No more bullying.  His mother said, "Hopefully, he'll know that he has support outside the school, and there are people who value the good things in him, and it's not constantly a negative.”

One of the leaders of the group said the bikers will be happy to accompany any student who's feeling threatened. He said, "We want the kids to know they're safe going to school," said Basso. "We are going to provide them with a wall of leather and steel."  Xander had a strong alliance.

But imagine the alliance we have with God when the devil and his demons try to bully us.  God have thousands of angels available to walk with us, to be with us, to show we are not alone.  As one of the prophets said to his friend, “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” 

We have a strong alliance.  Let us call on this divine spiritual support in our time of crisis.  Let us not be paralyzed with fear.  Let us not run and hide from problems and challenges.  Let us not feel defeated.  Let us not feel we have been overcome by problems.  Paul ended this chapter by saying, 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

God is our commander and He says, “Travel the straight and narrow road and don’t turn left or right.”  God will be with us the whole time.  Our Commander has an army of angels more powerful than two hundred bikers.  Just call and see what happens.  We must go through many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.  But we have a strong alliance to help us through.  May the Spirit help us remember to call upon our support in time of need.  Amen.    

 

July 23, 2017

Matthew 13:24-30

“A Strange Mixture in the Kingdom of Heaven”    

 

Several years ago in Kentucky, a man walked into a Dairy Queen, placed his order and then paid for it with a $200 bill. The cashier gave him $198 in change and he drove away. The cashier took the $200 bill and placed it in the draw with the other cash.  At the end of the day, the manager came to collect the cash and noticed that something didn’t seem right about this $200 bill, maybe because it had a picture of former president George Bush on one side and a picture of the Whitehouse on the back with an oil well in front and funny signs in the lawn. This was a counterfeit bill that this man had passed off as a real bill.  The cashier placed it with the other real bills until the manager came at the end of the day and noticed it. Police were able to track down the man and he was arrested for theft by deception.

This is how Jesus described the Kingdom of Heaven.  When you look at this parable in Matthew 13, there was a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

         The Kingdom of Heaven is the same as the Kingdom of God.  Matthew uses the concept Kingdom of Heaven because good Jews are not supposed to take the name of the Lord God in vain.  Good Jews will not even write out the name of God completely.  Some will put three dots to symbolize God, while others will write, “G-d” for God.  When Matthew wrote Kingdom of Heaven, he meant the Kingdom of God.

         The Kingdom of Heaven is where we find the will of God, and where God has supreme authority.  Jesus prayed, “Thy Kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  So, the Kingdom of Heaven is in Heaven.  It is also here on earth.  The Church is the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God.  This parable is about the Church.

         Jesus planted good seed.  The Gospel is the good seed.  People received it and were born again.  The field is the hearts of all those who heard the Gospel and accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior.  The parable went on to say, “But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away.”

         A pastor told a story about how One day Satan sent some of his demons from the bottomless pit to do as much harm as possible to Christians. The first demon returned and said he sank a ship full of Christians caught in a storm on the sea. “You did them no harm,” said Satan “for they all went straight to heaven.” The second demon said he set fire to property and destroyed much wealth that belonged to Christians. “You done them no harm.” he said “for their losses make them all the more determined to fight against us.” Finally a third demon said he succeeded in putting to sleep a large number of Christians. Satan smiled and all the host of devils shouted their approval.

         There are good people in the Church, but while everyone was sleeping, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the good wheat.  When the Bible speaks about sleeping, it can be a symbol of laziness; it can mean wickedness; it can mean spiritual indifference; it can also mean not being prepared for the tricks of the devil.  But everyone fell asleep.  Everyone allowed themselves to be fooled.  They allowed sin to creep in the church.  The Bible has a list of people who will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven and who will not be saved.  Read Revelations 21:8.  Read 1st Corinthians 6:9-11 because it lists people who will not inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.

         We are all in the Kingdom of Heaven.  We see each other, but we do not know who is the good wheat and who is the bad weed.  There may be some who want to start pointing fingers.  But Jesus warned us in Matthew 6 not to judge others because God will judge us by the same measurement they used to judge them.  In Liberia we say, “When you point one finger at someone, you have three fingers pointing right back at you.”  Rooting out the bad seed is God’s responsibility, not ours.

         The servants, who in the case are the angels, went to God and said, “Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest.”

         Letting the wheat and the weed, or the wheat and the tares grow together is a strange mixture in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Nobody knows who’s who?  Nobody knows who is a righteous person and who is the antichrist. We cannot tell just by looking at someone. Only God knows the heart.  Only God sees what we do in secret or when nobody is looking. Let them grow together.  The people we’re so sure of going to heaven might be the ones that end up in hell.  I heard about a church member who died and went to hell.  It was so hot he decided to walk through the streets of hell.  As he walked, he came to a small house and decided to go in.  When he entered this house in hell, he saw his pastor.  He was shocked and asked, “Pastor, what are you doing here?”  The pastor put one finger to his mouth and said, “Shhh…the bishop’s in the next room.”  There is a strange mixture in the Kingdom of Heaven, a mixture of sheep and goats, of wheat and tares, of saints and sinners, of good and evil. Let them grow together until the harvest.  When the harvest comes, it will be Judgment Day.  Some of us may not even know whether we are wheat or weed, sheep or goats, true or fake, real or counterfeit.  Some may feel they are both, but only God knows.  The time is coming when Jesus will return and it will be harvest time.  We are a part of that strange mixture in the Kingdom of heaven.

Until the harvest comes, we have an opportunity to examine ourselves to remain true to our calling, true to who we are and not let the devil steal our faith from us. An American Pentecostal preacher named Cornwall was invited to speak at a renewal conference in Germany after the war, but Cornwall had a deep seated grudge against the Germans and simply threw the invitation into the trash.  When his wife emptied the trash, she saw the invitation, pressed it out and put it on his desk again. It haunted him for days as he avoided it. Finally the Spirit won and he reluctantly agreed to go.

When he arrived in Germany, he was not happy to be there especially when he saw they held the conference in the former headquarters of the SS, Hitler's elite guard. Old hatreds and disgust stirred up in him.  He didn’t want to be there. He had spent two days before the conference praying and fasting and preparing and avoiding the Germans.

On the first night of the Conference he went down to speak and was offended by his translator.  She was everything a German was and he couldn’t stand her. He preached without feeling anything. The sermon was badly delivered, badly received and died a natural death. He returned to his room and decided to go back to America the next day. Full of humiliation and emotion he cried himself to sleep. In the night, he awoke to demons screaming in his mind. You don't belong here! You have no authority here! Go home!

Experienced in spiritual warfare, Cornwall recognized the attack and figured it had to do with the demonic history of the SS in the building, and immediately rebuked the demons in Jesus name. Three times the demonic voices woke him; three times he rebuked them. After the third time he got up and asked God what was happening and why his prayers weren't sufficient and the demons kept returning. The Lord spoke immediately: The demons are tormenting you because you really don't have any authority here. You have no authority here because you don't love these people. Your authority to minister is related to your love for those you minister to. Now you can go on hating these people, pack up and go home tomorrow; or you can let me love them through you.

Cornwall acknowledged his deep dislike for the people; he admitted he was judging these people.  He faced himself and recognized he hated these people. Too embarrassed to go home, he confessed his sin and asked God to love through him the Germans who he despised. He knew he needed a miracle of grace. Immediately he was overwhelmed by the Spirit of God and filled with Christ's love for the Germans. Having spent two days avoiding the Germans and refusing to eat with them, he could not wait for breakfast. He rushed downstairs to the line for the breakfast and greeted and hugged everyone in the food line.  When he got to his translator he gave her a big kiss and hugged her.

Immediately she pulled back and yelled: “You hate us!”

“No, no,” he replied. “That was yesterday, today I love you.”
Judson Cornwall preached that morning and the power of God was on his words. 
At the end of the sermon there was a huge line of people wanting to speak with him personally, something he usually avoided; but he sensed God wanted him to be attentive to the people individually. One by one, people came and thanked him for helping them to forgive the Americans, whether because they had lost loved ones in combat against them or in the bombing raids. 

This pastor, who was a good soil and a sheep of God, was becoming a weed, one of the goats.  But through God’s Grace, he was saved from being among the unwanted ones, doomed and destined for hell.  There is a strange mixture in the Kingdom of Heaven.

This strange mixture is you and I. Whether we are real or counterfeit, I don’t know.  But God, who knows each of us, sees right through us.  Let us keep examining ourselves and like Pastor Cornwall, ask God to overwhelm us.  Let us step aside and allow the spirit of God to work through us for the sake of the Kingdom.  May we be true to the Gospel and true to Christ.  May we remain the faithful good seed of the Kingdom and may God bless us all. Amen.    

 

July 16, 2017

Isaiah 43:16-21

“Learn from the Past but Look to the Future”    

 

There is a story about how many years ago, the King of Sweden was having personal doubts about God.  The king was skeptical about God’s existence and he wasn’t sure whether to believe that God divinely inspired the Bible. He called the bishop of the most powerful church in Sweden and asked him to provide evidence about God’s existence. He also asked the Bishop to give proof that God was the divine author of the Bible. When the Bishop arrived, the King told him he had set aside 10 hours to be enlightened on these matters. The Bishop told the King that much time would not be necessary because all he needed to do was to say two words. The King asked, “What words might those be?” The Bishop replied, "The Jews."  The King was curious and wanted to know more.  The Bishop explained, “When God wanted to restore the relationship that Adam and Eve broke in the Garden of Eden, He decided to choose one person who would have descendants and those descendants would bring the entire world to the knowledge of God.  That one person was Abraham.”  The Bishop went on to describe how God rescued Abraham’s descendants, the Hebrews, from 400 years of slavery in Egypt, parted the Red Sea and let them walk through to freedom. Then the Bishop told the King of how God led the Jews through the wilderness for 40 years to the Promised Land.  Over the years and decades and centuries, the Jews have gone through so many different historical experiences, but they are here today as historical evidence that the Bible tells their story and we’re now a part of that story.

This is exactly the point the Prophet Isaiah was trying to make to the people of Israel.  This was the point in the lives of the Israelites when many of them felt down and depressed.  This was a new country, with a different language and different culture. They could no longer worship at the Temple. They were in exile, away from their beloved Jerusalem and they wondered if they would ever return to the city they loved so much.  Many wondered if they would die in exile.

We all know the feeling.  You and I have also experienced those days when we wonder where God is. It seems that nothing is going right in our lives. It seems like there’s no contact with God- we pray, and prayer doesn’t seem to go very far. We want to ‘feel’ God’s presence, and we don’t. The darkness comes and it seems we can’t see the light. We want some wisdom or suggestions on how to face a situation and what we do only makes it worse. We want guidance, or comfort, or a word, but there is nothing. We might wonder where God is.

All of us have been in exile from God at one point or another.  When we have committed a sin that brings shame on us and on our families, we feel we’re no good and that God has pushed us away, but in reality, we are the ones who went into hiding like Adam and Eve did when they disobeyed God.  God had to come looking for them because they were at the usually fellowship spot.  That is exile from God. 

When a couple received the news that their son had been killed in a motorcycle accident, it was too much for them to bear.  They had been active members in their church but the death of their son hit them hard.  Friends from church prayed with them, visited them and counseled with them.  But they drifted farther and farther away from God and soon they could no longer hear the voice of God.  The husband found himself deeper and deeper into the bottle and was arrested several times for drunk driving.  The wife found comfort in her pain killer pills, which she took every day to numb the agony she was feeling.  Soon they both got divorced and gradually descended into darkness.  They eventually died and left one other son to care for himself.  Yes, there are dark days when we can feel we are in exile from God.

The Word of the Lord came to Isaiah after he saw how the people of Israel struggled in exile.  He told the people, “This is what the Lord says—
 he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, who drew out the chariots and horses, the army and reinforcements together, and they lay there, never to rise again, extinguished, snuffed out like a wick: ‘Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.’”

God was saying to them, remember all the times I was in your life, how I rescued, redeemed and delivered you.  God reminded them of how He freed them from captivity in slavery.  God is also reminding us of how He freed us from captivity to self, to sin, captivity to power, to greed and to hatred.  Just as the people of Israel were powerless to help themselves, so we were powerless in the grips of forces much too strong for us.

God also told the Israelites about the time He parted the Red Sea and they walked through.  That was such a powerful moment.  It was a moment of their new birth.  Just as all new babies enter the world, so the people of Israel entered a new life through water.  And when their enemies tried to pursue them, the water swallowed them and the sea became their graves.  God reminds us of how we received redemption when we least expected it.  It wasn’t through our own power; it was through the power of God that we were able to rise above our hurts and pains.

That was in the past.  There were lessons to learn from our past.  God was there. We were never alone.  There were glorious times and God celebrated with us.  There were times of pain and God felt it with us.  God says to us, as He told the people of Israel, I was there with you during those difficult times.  I was there walking alongside you.  Like the poem, “Footprints in the Sand,” God carries us through the stormy days.  Look at the past.  Yes, through it all, God was there.  Learn from the past.  In what ways did you contribute to your own problems?  What can you do differently?  Were you too busy for your family?  You can change that.  Did you not have enough time to spend with God?  That can be different. 

Learn from the past.  More importantly, look to the future.  The past can tell us how we got here, but it can’t tell us where we go from here.  The past can show us God was with us and so we know God will not abandon us; God will be in the future with us.  Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. 19 See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. 20 The wild animals honor me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen,21     the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise.”  This is what Isaiah told the people who were in exile.

You can find hope in your darkest hour through the faithfulness of God. A man named Harry experienced this for himself. For years Harry had been a successful publisher of materials for churches. Everything in his life seemed to be perfect: A lovely home, a family, a solid future; but all this suddenly collapsed. Harry's wife told him she was leaving him. She was in love with someone else. Harry was shocked and broken. He tried to cope, work, continue with his life, but this tragedy was too devastating. Despite all the other good things in his life, Harry felt like a complete failure with nothing to live for. 

He was on the road to meet with a church leader about their anniversary publication. When he arrived early, Harry sat down in the fellowship hall. Suddenly, he began to think about suicide. His life was over. All was finished. As he sat at a table, he began to cry intensely, holding his head in his hands. The more Harry wept, the more he was convinced that his life had ended. He would continue no more. He was beaten. It would be so easy to end it all. 

In total despair he looked up, and noticed a faded poster on the far wall. In that picture was the image of a man in the same despair Harry was going through -- Head in his hands in complete anguish. Then, as Harry studied the poster further, he noticed a smaller image in the lower right corner of the poster: Three crosses, on a hill, surrounded by a dark sky. Beneath the center cross these simple words were inscribed, "I know how you feel; I've been there myself." 

While staring at those words, Harry fell to his knees and prayed, "God, help me." Suddenly God touched Harry with a new flood of hope. He got up telling himself, "I'm going to beat this thing. I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me." Harry got on with his life. And today he is serving the God who came to him in his moment of greatest trial. 

Harry saw Jesus in his past, when he was successful.  When his wife left him, he felt exiled from God.  He was no longer the person he thought he was.  How could he go on?  But God allowed Harry to see that they had a history, that God was with him during good times, and God was still with him during dark times.  When he thought there was no future for him, God showed him that he was not alone.  God knew what he was going through and so God allowed him to arrive early, and led him to the fellowship hall where there was the poster of Christ telling him, “I know how you feel. I’ve been there myself.”

The God of Israel who brought them through more than 3,000 years of history is the same God who is Jesus Christ.  Today he reminds us to look to the past and learn from it.  But even more importantly to look to the future and know that God is already there, prepared to give us peace of mind and reasons to live.  May the Spirit always remind us that we serve a God who was with us in the past, a God who is with us now, and a God who is in the future waiting for us.  Amen.    

 

July 9, 2017

Matthew 11:1-6

“Our Christian Identity    

 

While walking through the forest one day, a man found a young eagle that had fallen out of his nest. He took it home and put it in his barnyard where it soon learned to eat and behave like the chickens. One day a zoologist passed by the farm and asked the farmer, “Why do you have the king of all birds confined to live in the barnyard with the chickens” The farmer replied, “Since I have given it chicken feed and trained it to be a chicken, it had never learned to fly. Since it now behaves as the chickens, it was no longer an eagle.”

The Zoologist said, “Still it has the heart of an eagle.  It can surely be taught to fly.” He lifted the eagle toward the sky and said, “You belong to the sky and not to the earth. Stretch forth your wings and fly.” The eagle, however, was confused. He did not know who he was, and seeing the chickens eating their food, he jumped down to be with them again.

The Zoologist took the bird to the roof of the house and urged him again, saying, “You are an eagle. Stretch forth your wings and fly.” But the eagle was afraid of his unknown self and world and jumped down once more for the chicken food. Finally, the Zoologist took the eagle out of the barnyard to a high mountain. There he held the king of the birds high above him and encouraged him again, saying, “You are an eagle. You belong to the sky. Stretch forth your wings and fly.” The eagle looked around, back towards the barnyard and up to the sky. Then the Zoologist lifted him straight towards the sun and it happened that the eagle began to tremble. Slowly he stretched his wings, and with a cry of victory, flew away into the sky.  Here was an eagle that forgot its own identity.  It forgot who it was made to be.  It forgot what its purpose in life was. 

John the Baptist had been jailed.  Shortly after Jesus began in his ministry in Matthew 4, Herod arrested John and locked him up. Herod divorced his own wife, took his brother’s wife and married her.  John told Herod this was wrong and immoral to take his brother’s wife. Some people get upset with the truth.  No matter how you tell it, they don’t want to hear it. Herod didn’t like John telling him the truth so he arrested John and jailed him.

While John was in jail, he heard stories about Jesus.  There were great stories; there were amazing and wonderful stories.  John decided to act on what he had heard.  He knew he was the forerunner to the Messiah.  He knew that he was the one sent to prepare the way for the King of kings and Lord of lords. John knew that when Jesus began his ministry, his own ministry would be over.   Was Jesus the Messiah or was he just another prophet?  Jesus was more than just another prophet; He was the Son of the Living God.

John decided he had to confirm this.  He sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see:The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

John was asking Jesus to identify himself?  Who are you?  How will we know you are the Messiah, the One who is to come?  By what words and acts will we identify you to know who you really are?  Jesus sent a message back to John and gave him a list of the things that were taking place and left it to John to decide for himself whether Jesus was the Messiah or not.  In another Gospel account, when John heard of Jesus, he said, “He must increase while I must decrease.”

The way in which Jesus identified him is the same way people will identify us as followers of Christ.  Jesus is our identity; he also gives us our identity. When we’re around, the blind will receive their sight.  People who lack spiritual understanding will soon begin to understand the deep meaning of life. People who have dislike for other people suffer from spiritual blindness.  Those who treat others as objects need the touch of Jesus and we the Body of Christ must step in because it’s our identity to help people gain their spiritual eyesight.

When Christians are around the lame will walk.  People who behave like crooks will get new steps.  The spiritually lame go to the wrong places and those places lead them to destruction. Many years ago, there was a missionary named Amy Carmichael. One night this missionary had a dream in which she was sitting by the campfire. As she watched the flames of the fire soar into the sky she said that she could see a grassy place, a clearing in the jungle, and many people were walking across it towards a terrible cliff.

There was a mother with a little girl holding on to her skirt walking towards the edge of the cliff, and no one said anything to her. She fell over the cliff, and Amy could hear their screams as they dropped to their death. Then she saw a little boy walking towards the same edge of the cliff, and he was blind, just as the mother and the little girl had been blind. As he was walking to his death Amy thought, “Why doesn’t someone say something to him?”

As the boy fell over the cliff, he grabbed hold of a little tuft of grass and screamed for help. But no one came, and finally he, too, plummeted to his death. And there were thousands of others, all of them blind, and all of them were heading towards the cliff, too.  In her dream, Amy Carmichael said, “I cried from the depths of my soul, `Why doesn’t someone tell them about the cliff and warn them of their danger?’ Then, she said, I heard the voice of God saying, `Whom shall I send?’ And I said, `I’ll go. I’ll go.’ `All Right,’ said the Lord, `then you’re my messenger.’  God sent Amy Carmichael to India where she saved many lives.

The world is full of spiritually blind people and people who are spiritually crippled.  There are many people in the world who are also spiritually deaf and dumb, all going to the same cliff and heading right over the edge.  When we ask why isn’t someone telling them about the Gospel and about how to save themselves, we hear the voice of God asking us, “Who shall I send and who will go for us?”  We who follow Christ know it’s our mission, our purpose, our identity to show people the love of God and show them there is a better way and a better path than the one they’re on.

There was another missionary named James that God sent to his own neighborhood. You see, for some like Amy, God sends them half way around the world.  For others, like James, God sends them to their own backyard. This missionary began to work with a group of teenagers in his neighborhood. Many of these teenagers had long hair and ripped jeans.  Others came with a history of drug addiction. But He loved them all; he listened to them, and one by one baptized them into Christ. 

One day a rich member of the church asked, “Why are you spending so much time with the hippies--those long haired, sad looking bunch of no-good young people you have been meeting with?” 

James answered, "Those are not ‘a sad looking bunch of no-good young people,’ they are children of God. You are talking about my brethren in the Lord." 
The rich man told James, "They look to me like something the cat dragged in." 
And James replied, "They look to me like someone the shepherd brought home.” We have our identity as Christians.  Our identity is to be like Christ.  We do not want to be like the eagle that lost its place and thought it was a chicken. 

Who are you? You are a Christian.  I am a Christian. We are mighty in the Lord, full of power and grace.  We can do great things through Jesus Christ our Lord.  We are like the missionary Amy Carmichael who has seen pain, the blindness, the crippled lives, the struggle of people who don’t know the Lord and we want to help them.  We are like the missionary James, sent to our own neighborhood to work with the young and the old.  We do not see something the cat dragged in; we see people the Shepherd sent to us.

This is our identity: to love all and hate none, to encourage and build with words, to offer hands of friendship, and to work together as a team.  This is our identity, to decrease so that Jesus will increase because it’s not about us; it’s all about the Lord.  Who are you?  You are a child of the king, a part of the royal priesthood, a holy nation set aside to lead the world to the throne of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Believe it. Claim it. Live it.  May the Spirit give us the power to do so each day. Amen.    

 

July 2, 2017

Romans 13:1-8

  “One Nation, Under God”    

 

         In 1954, for the first time, the Congress of the United States approved a bill, which was signed into law, to add the words, “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.  Many believe it was because of the threat of communism that made the American people want to declare to the whole world the belief in God.  As a result, the Pledge of Allegiance goes, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands; one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

         Today, a great debate is taking place in this country about whether to keep the words, or remove them.  Atheists want to have the words “Under God” removed from the pledge. As recently as 2011, an Atheist challenged the words in court but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against him and declared the words acceptable to remain in the Pledge of allegiance (http://www.ewtn.com/vnews/getstory.asp?number=113929). 

         When Americans recite the Pledge of Allegiance and say the words, “Under God,” the idea, they are saying that the existence, the rights, and power of the state can be found not in the human mind but in the Creator.  In other words, the right to rule and the authority of the state come from God.

         This is the same point Paul made in Romans chapter 13.  Paul wrote this letter to the citizens of Rome and to every Christian living under any kind of political authority.  The Today’s English Version puts it this way:

                  Everyone must obey state authorities because

                  No authority exists without God’s permission,

                  And the existing authorities have been put there by God.

Paul went on to say, “For rulers are not to be feared by those who do good, but by those who do evil…because they are God’s servants working for your own good.”

         If we believe God is the King of the Universe and Jesus is Lord of all, then it is important to remember that all leaders serve under the rule of God and at the mercy of God.  The Bible has many references about nations being under the rule of God and what happens to those nations that abandon God and turn their backs on God. 

When the King of Egypt tried to defy God in the Book of Exodus, we know what happened to him and his people and his army. In the Book of Daniel, chapter 4, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream. This same Nebuchadnezzar who had built a golden statue and commanded everyone to worship it, this same Nebuchadnezzar who threw Daniel’s three friends in the fiery furnace because they refused to bow down and worship the golden statue, this same Nebuchadnezzar had this dream.

He had a dream in which he saw a tree grow up to be high and mighty, more powerful than all the trees in the world.  This tree grew so big that it reached the sky and could be seen by everyone in the world.  The leaves were beautiful, according to the Bible; it had lots of fruits and provided shade to all the creatures. This tree represented King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.  But while the King was watching this tree in his dream, an angel came from heaven and shouted out: “Cut the tree down and chop off its branches; strip its leaves and scatter it fruits.  Drive the animals from under it and the birds out of its branches. But leave the stump in the ground with a band of iron and bronze around it.  Leave it there in the field with the grass.”

When Daniel explained the dream, he made it known that King Nebuchadnezzar was the tree and that God was going to punish the King and make him insane and crazy for seven years where he will live among the animals and eat grass like one of them.  Why?  God wanted Nebuchadnezzar to “admit that the Supreme Creator controls all human kingdoms and that he can give them to anyone he chooses.”  After seven years, God would restore the king when he will acknowledge that God rules all the world” (Daniel 4:19-27).

David knew that God was King of the entire universe when he wrote in Psalm 82: 8, “Come, O God, and rule the world; all the nations are yours.”  David was right.  All nations are under God.  This is what Paul was saying and this is what the Supreme Court of the United States meant when they chose to include the words, “One nation, under God.”

In 1964, using as his title, “The Great Society,” President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered the commencement address at the University of Michigan. He said, “The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning.”

President Johnson went on to say,

“The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce, but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community. It is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what it adds to the understanding of the race. It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.

But most of all, the Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.”

My friends, the great society is a nation under God. A nation under God is one that recognizes human rights and human dignity.  A nation under God sees worth and value in every human being.  A nation under God will not discriminate against women and children, but will treat them all with respect. It was their belief in God that led the founding fathers of America to write in the Declaration of Independence the following words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

It is God who gives these natural rights the Declaration of Independence talked about.  It is God that provides nations a moral framework that guides the leaders to seek liberty and justice not for some but for all.  It is God who gives leaders wisdom to follow the path of truth and equality.  It is God who directs the decisions of all authorities and if they listen, they will walk in the path of righteousness and compassion. 

America is a nation that is Under God.  It is because America is Under God that is why in 1945, the Allied forces liberated Europe from Hitler’s rule and saved millions of Jews from extermination.  It is because America is under God that is why President Eisenhower believed in the existence of the United Nations where all nations of the world, no matter how small, can have a voice and be heard.  It is because America is Under God that is why missionaries from this great land went into all the world to carry the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  It is because America is Under God that is why local churches and local leaders did everything in their power to support those missionaries wherever they went.  It is because America is Under God that is why President John F. Kennedy believed in the Peace Corps and sent young people around the world to educate students and share the American way of life.

A nation under God will always be a great nation because they will recognize that God is King and Jesus is Lord of all.  Paul said, “…No authority exists without God’s permission…because they are God’s servants working for your good.”  This is the key to being under God because God is good; a nation under God is for the good of the people.  God is concerned about the poor. God is concerned about justice. Above all, God is Love and a nation that is under God will be good, care for the poor, accept justice for all and be loving.

That is why it is important for the Church to constantly remind all nations, as David wrote in Psalm 24, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it belong to the Lord; the world and those who live in it are his.  He built it on the deep waters beneath the earth and laid its foundations in the ocean depth. You read also in Psalm 19 where God’s glory is proclaimed throughout creation: “The heavens declare the glory of the Lord…day to day pours forth speech and night to night reveals knowledge.”

We in the Church have the responsibility to let the nations of the world know that they are all subject to the authority of God and all leaders must hear that they have been given power to protect God’s people, to nourish God’s children and do good.  If the nations and leaders of the world fail to serve under God, Mary’s song will come true when she sang after she was told she would be the mother of Jesus.  Mary sang, among other things, “The Mighty One has done great things for me…He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart.  He has brought down leaders from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble.”

         As the United States celebrates 241 years of existence, let us remember it was God that made this nation great.  It was the faith of the founding fathers that made America stand tall in the world.  It is because America declares itself as a nation under God that is why it is a super power today.

         Make no mistake about it, there will be those who will continue to fight to remove the words, “Under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance and make America less religious and more secular.  But the Church must remain steadfast in preaching the Gospel in season and out of season, in every way possible.  We who are followers of Jesus Christ must always pray for God’s guidance to stand up in the face of this quiet persecution and declare that God is King of the world and Jesus is Lord and Savior of all.  We are a nation under God and God will use us to do great things in the world.  Happy Birthday, America. May God continue to bless you and crown yours with good things from sea to shining sea, in the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.    

 

June 25, 2017

Romans 8:31-39

  “Inseparable from God”    

 

         There is a really powerful commercial made by the United States Navy.  In this commercial, a little girl stands with her mother and father in a circle.  Standing all around them are the bravest, toughest, smartest people you have ever seen.   The circle becomes wider and wider as others such as sailors, pilots, Navy Seals, doctors and other military persons join.  The circle is so wide that it extends beyond the building where the little girl and her family are standing.  At the end of the commercial, a voice says, “To get to you, they have to get past us.  America’s Navy.” (https://youtu.be/ThImmlN-I8s).

         When I watched that commercial, I felt safe and secure from any enemy attacks.  I felt America was protected by the bravest and the best in the world. I also felt this is what Paul is telling us about God.  If we accept God’s offer through Jesus Christ and become believers, God will place us in the middle and surround us with protection so that no harm will come to us.  And I can almost hear God say, “To get to you, they have to get past me.”  This is powerful to know we have a God who cares so much for us.  This is exactly the message we have in Romans 8:31-39.

         Paul began his discussion in the previous chapter, chapter 7, were he wrote that those who were once under the Law could not obey it.  We broke the Law over and over and became sinners.  But through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we have been freed from the Law to obey God on our own, not by force but by our own choice. The Law was the Old Covenant, written on stone tablets, but the Law of the New Covenant is written on our hearts. In Jeremiah 31:33 where God said the New Covenant will be written on the hearts of all who believe so that we shall willingly love God and love one another. 

         Although the New Covenant Law of God is written on our hearts, Paul says there is a war going on inside of us.  Here is what the war looks like inside of us. In Romans 7:19,  we read, “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”  At the end of chapter 7, Paul asked a question and provided his own answer.  This is the same question we all ask ourselves and the same answer we must give.  Paul wrote, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  We are all sinners – poor worthless and blind.  We are helpless to save ourselves, no matter how hard we try.  But with Paul, we celebrate the victory of Good News: “Thanks be to God, who delivers us through Jesus Christ, our Lord.”

Since we have been delivered, redeemed, and rescued, we have been placed in the heart of God where we are inseparable from God.  No one can reach us, no one can touch us, and no one can harm us. Paul put it this way: “Therefore, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Isn’t it reassuring to hear that no one can condemn us because we are in Jesus Christ? We are now children of God who live within God and God lives within us. As Christians, we are well situated in God and inseparable from God. No one can condemn us. To get to us, they will have to get past God. 

We are inseparable from God?  God will never let us go, no matter what.  If we run, God will run with us.  If we cry, God will cry with us. When we are in pain, God shares our pain. Wherever we go and whatever we do, God is always with us. I know this can sound a little troubling to know that God follows us wherever we go.  A teenager said, “I want God to go with me wherever I go, but when I go to a night club, I want God to wait outside because I don’t want Him to see what goes on in there.  When I go to the movies, I want God to wait in the lobby because some of the movies I watch aren’t the kind He’ll approve of. And especially, I don’t want God there when I visit my girlfriend.”  

Sorry, friends.  We are inseparable from God and God is with us no matter where we go or what we do. As Christians, we can agree we are on God’s reality show.  You know how on those reality shows the cameras follow people around and record everywhere they go and what they do?  We all have our own reality shows in heaven.  It may be called, “Following the Followers of Christ,” or even “Keeping Up with the Kennedys.” Since God loves us so much and we are inseparable from God, everything we do is recorded in the Book of Life.  In Revelation 20:12 we read, “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.” 

As Paul continued his discussion, he gave us the best part about being closely connected to God.  He wrote: “If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?”

There are great benefits to this deep love God has for us. Isaiah gives us this promise:

“No weapon formed against you shall prosper, and every tongue which rises against you in judgment you shall condemn.
This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is from Me,” Says the Lord.”

 

Jeremiah 29:11 offers us this assurance:

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

 

We are in God’s care and God will never let us go.  God’s love is stronger than a mighty magnet and will keep us close.  No matter what happens, we are safe in God’s heart.  Paul ends the chapter by declaring, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

There is a story of a couple that had a deep and strong love for one another.  One day, the husband had an accident that caused his face to become badly deformed.  He was so embarrassed by his face that he locked himself in a room and refused to come out.  His wife loved him very much and tried everything possible to get him to come out of his room.  He refused and she had to send his food through an opening in the door. This wonderful wife tried everything in her power to convince her husband she loved him just as he was, no matter how deformed he was.  But her husband still refused to let her into the room or come out of the room.

Finally she went to a plastic surgeon and told him about her husband’s condition.  She explained how badly the accident had disfigured him and his embarrassment kept him locked in for days, and weeks and months.  The plastic surgeon agreed to help her husband and went back to their home with the wife.  Her husband, still ashamed of his look, refused to open the door.  The plastic surgeon spoke through the door and assured the man of how good a plastic surgeon he was.  Still, the door refused to open and the plastic surgeon left.

The wife was beside herself and didn’t know what to do.  One month later, she went back to the plastic surgeon with a new idea.  The plastic surgeon wasn’t sure he liked this new idea, but he went along with the woman to let her husband know the decision she had reached.  When they got to the room that had been locked for days and weeks and months, the plastic surgeon spoke to her husband and said, “Sir, your wife has asked me to perform a plastic surgery to disfigure and deform her face to become like you.  She loves you so much and feels inseparable from you that she is willing to change her face to look like you.”

There was silence.  Then the key in the door turned and the door opened.  The deformed man came out with tears running down his face.  Did his wife love him that much to disfigure herself?  He didn’t think anybody would care about him like she did.  Her love for him had opened a door that had been locked for almost a year.

This was how it was with God.  God loved us so much that He became like us and took our form in the person of Jesus Christ.  His life, death and resurrection were all to show us how special we are.  When we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, God receives us, gives us a big hug, and places us in His Heart of Love. When we are in God’s heart, we are safe.  To get to us, they have to get past God. No harm can come to us and nothing can separate us from the Love of God.

When we think about how special we are to God, we should feel safe and have a peace of mind.  We are in a good place.  We are in a strong place.  We are in God.  May we always remember that we matter to God, and to God, we will always be inseparable.  Amen.    

 

June 18. 2017

Romans 5:1-5

"Reconciliation with God, Our Father"    

 

         Earlier this month, Pope Francis encouraged all Christians who wanted to deepen their faith and their relationship with God to call God, “Father.” This is important because it allows for a personal relationship with God.  When you think about the parables Jesus told with fathers in them, you can see why.  In the parable of the Prodigal son, we sometimes overlook that it’s more about the forgiving father than about the drifting son.  In Matthew 21, there’s another parable where a father had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

Jesus then asked the question, “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

Jesus was focusing on our obedience to God and how sometimes we promise God but never follow through while those who refuse to promise actually end up being obedient.

            And how can we forget that when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, he told them to address God as Father, “Our Father.” God is indeed our Father, and sometimes we can behave like stubborn children.  When God says, “Yes,” we say, “No.”  When God says, “Turn right,” we turn left.”  This disobedient tendency comes from a sinful nature. As far back as the days of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, when they violated the laws of God and disobeyed God’s instructions, they became offenders, wrongdoers and rebels.  The Christian Church believes that the acts of disobedience by Adam and Eve affected every one of us.  We call it Original Sin. Original Sin means that we were created with freedom to choose between accepting God’s will for our lives, or to reject it; but we have a tendency to reject God.  We have developed a sinful nature ever since the days of Adam and Eve.  This sinful nature is a desire to always want to become self-centered and do what we want instead of what God wants. When we wake up each day the first thing we should do is stop and praise God for a new day and for waking us up; but instead, many people simply get out of bed and go on with their lives.  When we have a choice to forgive someone as God wants us to, or have revenge, isn’t there a tendency to go for revenge? When we are driving on the highway and we know the right thing is to stay within the speed limit, how many people over the speed limit hoping no police officer is around. We are encouraged to read our Bible regularly but most times we just let it sit there and gather dust. Think about the decisions people tend to make and majority of the time they will pick the choice that is not the will of God. 

Somebody said, “Decisions are the hardest things to make especially if it’s a choice between what you should do and what you want to do.”  In many cases, people make decision based on what they want to do not what they should do based on God’s laws. 

Just like it was with Adam and Eve, our disobedience to God destroys our fellowship and our relationship with God.  Our disobedience is a crime against God and deserves punishment. Imagine being in a court room where we have been convicted of disobedience to God and the penalty is death.  We deserved death as punishment.  Death is existence apart from God.  Death is separation from God, being out of fellowship with God. 

But God desired to have that friendship back and so demanded the sacrifice of animals once a year as a substitute for the people.  We call it the atonement.  The lamb that was sacrificed represented us and it was our substitute.  By spilling the blood of the lamb, it meant our blood was spilled in punishment for our crime against God.  Finally, God decided to take upon Himself the human form in the person of Jesus Christ.  He became the highest sacrifice, pure and spotless, without blemish.  He was also the perfect High Priest worthy of offering this sacrifice to redeem us, restore us, and save us. But instead of sending us to the electric chair or giving us lethal injection, God sent Jesus to die on the cross for our redemption so that we would live. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and our faith in him, our heavenly Father has justified us. 

This is why Paul wrote in Romans 5:1-5, “Therefore since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast of our hope of sharing the glory of God.”  The word, “justified” in this passage is used as a legal term.  The word, means, “to be declared innocent,” to be “set free” and be declared righteous.” We have been justified and been made right in the sight of God.  This is related to a court case where people who are accused are brought before the judge and declared guilty of offending God.  But since Jesus died for our sins, in our place, and we have accepted him as our Lord and Savior, although we are guilty of sin, of rebellion, the verdict against us is, “”Not Guilty.” This is a wonderful feeling to be declared, “Not Guilty” because we believe in Jesus Christ.  Not Guilty because have been redeemed by his blood. Not Guilty means God has removed the sentence of death.  God has overturned our conviction and we are no longer subject to death.  We are free to live and live only for God.    

         Since we have been declared, “Not Guilty” because of our faith in Jesus, we are now innocent people, we are now justified people, we are now righteous people because we have been washed in the blood of the Lamb.  Our sins have been forgiven and washed away by the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.  We have now been reconciled to God.  This means our friendship and fellowship with God have been restored.  This means we are back in the Garden of Eden where we can enjoy closeness with God again.  This means we are no longer offenders, wrongdoers, and rebels against God.  We are like the prodigal son returning home to the warm and loving embrace of his Father and hearing his father rejoice because his child came home.  This is something only a Father can do and our loving Heavenly Father has done this for us.  God has brought us back to Himself.  Since we have been reconciled and reunited with God, we must also work to become reconciled and reunited with one another.

         There is a story about two brothers. These brothers lived on farms next to one another, but they had a conflict that was deep and they hurt each other with harmful words.  Before their conflict, they had often shared their resources, but they stopped being kind to one another; there was nothing left but bitterness. One of the brothers, we will call, John, answered a knock at his door. It was a carpenter. The carpenter asked if there was any work to do.  John said that there was something he could do. He took the carpenter to where his and his brother’s properties met. He showed the carpenter how the other brother had taken a bulldozer and created a creek where the meadow used to be. John said, “I know he did this to make me angry. I want you to help me get even by building a big fence so I won’t have to see him or his property ever again.”  So the carpenter worked hard all day. When he reported back to John, John noticed there was no fence. The carpenter had used his skill and built a bridge over the creek instead of a fence. John’s brother saw the bridge and was quite moved that his brother would do such a thing. The two brothers met in the middle and embraced. They saw the carpenter packing his tools and asked him to stay a while and do more work. The carpenter replied, “I’m sorry, but I have other bridges to build.”

         This is what reconciliation is like.  We and God were not on speaking terms.  We had walked away from God and wanted to do what pleased us the most.  We had built a fence between us and God and that fence extended to our relationship with other people around us. But God sent Jesus to come and show us a better way.  Jesus came and built a bridge that connected us to God again.  When we became connected to God, that same bridge also connected us to other people.  Jesus built the bridge of reconciliation.  We must follow his example and continue to build bridges of reconciliation wherever we go.  We must build bridges of reconciliation in our homes, with our extended family, in our churches, in our communities, and everywhere.

         The Rev. Billy Graham said, “The number one problem in the world is isolation, estrangement, and division. We have rich versus poor, white versus black, labor versus management, conservative versus liberals, east versus west, but Christ came to bring reconciliation and peace.”

         Paul went on to say because we are reconciled and have made peace with God, we have hope of sharing in God’s glory.  Our future is bright so that no matter what kind of troubles we experience, we will boast in them.  Why?  As Paul put it, “Trouble produces, endurance, endurance brings God’s approval, and his approval creates hope.  This hope does not disappoint us, for God has poured out his love into our hearts by the means of the Holy Spirit., who is God’s gift to us.”

         Yes, my friends, God is more than just our Judge and our King.  The Judge and King is also our Father; this is a special relationship we enjoy when we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior. As we celebrate Father’s Day, let us remember all that God our Father has done to restore friendship and fellowship with Him.  Let us work to restore friendship and fellowship with one another. As we experience God’s forgiveness and enjoy the reconciliation Jesus brought between God, and us may we practice reconciliation with others we meet who have wronged us, in Jesus name, Amen. 

 

June 4, 2017

Acts 2:1-21

The Power of the Holy Spirit

 

        A man went to his pastor and said, “Pastor, believing in the Holy Spirit is the most difficult of all Christian doctrines.”  “Why?” his pastor asked him.  The man said, “Well, we know God is the Creator and Jesus is the Son who came in human form, but with the Holy Spirit, you can’t see it and I don’t know what form it takes.”  The pastor asked the man, “Can you see pain?”  The man said, “No, but I can feel it.”  The pastor asked him again, “Can you see happiness?”  “No,” the man answered, “But I can feel it.”  The pastor said, “That is exactly what the Holy Spirit is like.  You can’t see it, but you can feel it.  Also,” the pastor went on to say, “The Holy Spirit is God and takes different forms as it wants to.”  The man went away feeling better and made it his goal to ask for the Holy Spirit to come into his life and show him how to live better.

         I’m sure many Christians struggle with the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Trinity.  The pastor was right that the Holy Spirit was God and could take any form.  When Jesus was baptized and came out of the Jordan River, heaven opened and the Bible says the Holy Spirit came upon him in the form of a dove.  This is one of the few times in the Bible when we see the three persons of the Trinity together at the same time.  So we represent the Spirit as a dove. 

         On the Day of Pentecost, something amazing happened.  Before that day, the apostles had been quiet and were going about their daily lives.  Before ascending into heaven in Acts 1, Jesus had gathered them together and told them to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit.  Earlier in the book of John, Jesus promised the Holy Spirit who would be their Helper, their Counselor, and their Teacher.  Jesus told them, “I will ask the Father and he will give you another Helper, who will stay with you forever.  He is the Spirit, who reveals the truth about God.  The world cannot receive him, because it cannot see him or know him, because he remains with you and is in you.”

         The Bible says Jesus appeared to the apostles for forty days after his resurrection.  According to Acts 1, He appeared to them many times in ways that proved beyond doubt that he was alive.  We know that there are roughly fifty days between the Passover and Pentecost.  Pentecost was also called the Feast of Weeks, which they celebrated because God told them in Exodus 23:16, “Celebrate the Festival of Harvest with the first fruits of the crops you sow in your field.”  This was a harvest festival and because Jesus stayed 40 days before ascending to heaven, we can say the Holy Spirit came within 10 days after Jesus left. 

         On the day of Pentecost, all the believers were together in one house.   I’m sure they were together for the Harvest Festival but something bigger was about to take place.  Just as Jews from all around the world had gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover when God launched the new covenant through the death of Jesus as the Lamb of God and the perfect High Priest, so now God was about to do a new thing.  As the believers were gathered, the Bible says, “Suddenly there was a noise from the sky which sounded like a strong wind blowing, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.  Then they saw what looked like tongues of fire, which spread out and touch each person there.  They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and they began to talk in other languages, as the Spirit gave them power to do.”

         This time, the Holy Spirit came in the form of fire, so sometimes we represent the Holy Spirit that way.  Even the symbol of the United Methodist Church, the cross and the flame, represents the Holy Spirit keeping the Church burning with zeal for the mission of Christ.  When the Holy Spirit came, it gave them power.  It gave them new Life in Christ.  It brought the new birth for all of them.  Some people say Pentecost is the Birthday of the Church.  I believe Pentecost is the New Birth of the Church.  It was the day the Church was born again.  Jesus started the church with the 12 disciples and those who followed him and believed.  When Jesus died and rose from the dead, he continued to meet with the 12 disciples as the church.  After he left, they replace Judas, who had killed himself, and they were acting as the Church, but it was a Church without power; it was a church that needed a second touch.  That second touch came with the Holy Spirit and gave the Church new life. 

         This new life gave the power.  Before the Holy Spirit, they were afraid to speak publicly about Christ.  After the Holy Spirit came, the disciples began speaking the languages of all the people gathered in Jerusalem.  This was a sign that the Gospel is Universal and that it must speak the languages of the world.  Today we see that is true because the Bible has been translated into more than 2,500 languages and the Gospel has been taken to every country in the world and preached in languages that the people can understand.  That is the power of the Holy Spirit.

         Simon Peter, who had been fearful of the Jewish leaders, suddenly developed a strange courage that made him stand up and preach a powerful sermon.  His sermon showed the people that Jesus was indeed the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.  Peter’s sermon was so powerful that about 3,000 people were converted that same day.  The Church was born again in the power of the Holy Spirit.  In the days and weeks to come, Peter and John would continue to preach the Word.  They were arrested and jailed but they still continue to preach the Gospel.  They were arrested and beaten but they still preached about Christ.  They were no longer afraid.  That is the power of the Holy Spirit.

         They continued to preach and the Church continued to grow and expand.  The apostles were so excited about Christ that nothing could stop them.  They were changing the world wherever they went.  When Paul and Silas joined the team of Jesus, they continued to preach everywhere.  When they got to Thessalonica in Acts 17:6, they were accused to “turning the world upside down.”  In reality, the world was upside down and they were turning the world right side up.

         Jesus came into an upside down world and offered us the Gospel that would turn it right side up.  The early Church started out in an upside down world and preached the Gospel that turned it right side up.  Today, we as the Church must continue to preach and live the Gospel a world that is upside down so that we can turn it right side up.  How do we know we live in an upside down world?  We live in an upside world because profits come before people, because we love things and use people.  We live in an upside world because we focus more on material things and less on the Kingdom of God, we measure our value by how much we have in the bank, not by our relationship to Christ; we define ourselves by where we live not by belonging to Christ.  It is said,  “If a man is filled with anger, then anger controls his life. If a man is filled with greed, then greed dominates his life. If a man is filled with lust, then lust governs his life. If a man is filled with love, then love influences all he does. And if a man is filled with the Holy Spirit, he is controlled by the Spirit - it is, if you will, "control by consent."

A man named Bill White was working In California with volunteers from several different churches on a Saturday.  They were doing projects to serve the city. At lunch time, Bill walked down a narrow side street when he saw about 50 church volunteers all dressed in yellow shirts, coming from one of the sites where they had just fixed the roof of a house, painted the inside, brought new furniture and mowed the grass in the yard.  Bill walked six or eight houses away when he saw a married couple working in their own yard. He stopped to tell the man and the woman how nice their garden looked.  The woman asked him what they were doing down the street. Bill told her that they represented a band of churches united in their desire to serve the city. Then they continued to talk about how that neighborhood had been radically transformed by these Christians' simple acts of goodness. When the woman's husband saw Bill's yellow "volunteer shirt," he turned off his water hose from watering the garden and came over to Bill and said, 'I love your heart. Where can I get a heart like yours?'"  Bill simply replied, "We got our hearts from Jesus, and he would be glad to give you one like his, too." And before he left, they had a great conversation about the unparalleled gospel of Jesus Christ and his power to change hearts, homes, neighborhoods, and cities. 

That is the power of the Holy Spirit.  It takes out the old hearts and gives us new ones. It transforms lives and creates a new people.  You may not be able to see the Holy Spirit, but when it comes you will experience something different.  And of course, you will see it at work in the lives of believers who show their love for one another.  The Holy Spirit has power and has given it to us to make a difference in our community and around the world.  This week and in the days to come, may we feel the Spirit and may others see it through our mission and ministry for Christ, Amen.    

 

May 28, 2017

1 John 5:9-17 

“The Power of Personal Testimony”    

 

     One of the strengths of the United States is the legal system.  In the American legal system, everyone, no matter how rich or how poor, is entitled to due process under the law.  Also, under American law, “Everyone is innocent until proven guilty.”  When a case is tried, what lawyers do is to present evidence, and many times that evidence includes the personal testimony of people.  Personal testimony is powerful because when we give personal testimony, we are not giving hear say. We testify to facts of what we saw, what we heard, and what we experienced.  There is power in personal testimony because it says the witness knows what he or she is talking about. 

         This is what this passage is talking about.  First John is one of the epistles.  It was believed to have been written by John the beloved disciple later known as John the Elder.  There was a division in the church.  There were those in the church who believed Jesus was fully human and fully divine with two natures in one person.  Another group said Jesus had one nature, the divine nature.  This group believed Jesus could not have been human because the physical world was evil.  They believed that since the physical world was evil, Jesus was not really human but only looked human and as such he did not suffer and even did not die on the cross.

         With these two views of Christ, people argued among themselves as to who was right.  John was concerned about these divisions and he wrote to remind them that not everyone will see things the same way.  But no matter how different the views are on issues, one thing they must always do is love one another.  Throughout this letter, John wrote about the greatest commandment, which was to love God and love one another.  You see, when we love one another, we may sometimes disagree, but still remain agreeable.  We may see things differently and still respect one another.  We may be on two sides of an argument, but that does not mean we should become enemies.  We just have different views on issues.

         In chapter 5, John is setting the record straight.  While he encouraged the church to love one another even in disagreements, John explained the truth of the Gospel that indeed, Jesus was fully human and fully divine; two natures in one person.  This has been the teaching of the church from the very beginning and there were witnesses to this.  John said to them, “Jesus Christ is the one who came with the water of his baptism and the blood of his death.”  John went on to say, “And the Spirit Himself testifies that this is true, because the Spirit is truth.  There are three witnesses: The Spirit, the water and the blood; and all three gave the same testimony.”

         What John is saying is that Jesus was both human and divine.  He was divine because when he was baptized, the heaven opened, according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Spirit came down on Jesus in the form of a dove and those standing by heard the voice of the Father saying, “This is my son, whom I love.  I am pleased with him.”  There were eye witnesses to the divine nature of Jesus and to the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, when they appeared in the same place at the same time.  There were eye witnesses to the power of Jesus when he healed the sick, raised the dead, even Lazarus, fed the five thousand and walked on water.  Jesus was divine and people testified to it.

         But Jesus was also human.  This is the problem some people in John’s church had and some today still have.  They deny the human nature of Jesus but John is saying when Jesus was crucified, he bled on the cross and they saw the blood.  If Jesus had not been human there would be no blood because ghosts don’t bleed.  Jesus bled when they forced him to carry his cross, when they beat him with the whip, and when they placed the crown of thorns on his head.  When they pierced his side with the spear, blood and water poured out.  We know this because John was there and he witnessed it.  As a result, he was the only Gospel writer to include that incident. 

All who were witnesses to the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus gave their personal testimonies.  As they shared their personal testimony of their time with Jesus, they eventually wrote them down in what we have today as the New Testament.  Those personal testimonies of Jesus flowed to the early church and those in the early church felt the power of the Holy Spirit.  Those in the early church shared their personal experiences of how their lives were changed when they accepted Christ.  Throughout the centuries, from generation to generation, as people heard the Gospel and accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior, they also had personal experiences with Jesus.

One of the most powerful ways of sharing the Gospel is to give your personal testimony.  The woman at the well went back to her village and told the people to come and see a man who had told her everything she had ever done.  Her personal testimony led them to invite Jesus to their village and they, too, were converted.   After spending two days in that Samaritan village, the Bible says many more believed.  They told the woman, “We believe now, not because of what you said, but because we ourselves have heard him and we know he is really the Savior of the world.”

 Paul the Apostle was able to share about his personal experience on the road to Damascus when Jesus called him and spoke to him. Although he used to persecute the Church, but when they saw how he was a changed man, the church believed him and accepted him. There is power in personal testimony.

John went on to say, “We have God’s testimony, that Jesus is his son. So those who believe in the Son of God have this testimony in their hearts.”  Each of us needs to have our own personal testimony about the power of Christ in our lives.  It is important that we experience Jesus for ourselves.  It is alright for me to say, “Our Father.”  But it is more important for me to say, “My Father.”  It is good for us to know the Shepherd Psalm, which is Psalm 23.  But it is more important for us to know the Shepherd himself.  It is wonderful to let others know that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.  But it is more important to know, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” 

Yes, we must tell the whole world that Jesus is the Savior of the world, but we must first experience the salvation and saving grace of the Lord.  The world needs to know about the Grace of God, but first we need to have the” blessed assurance that Jesus is mine, O what a foretaste of glory divine.”  Of course, let us go out into the world, from our homes and families, to our neighborhoods and friends, to tell them that Jesus can change lives, but we must first experience the transformation in our own lives.  There is power in personal testimony because you can speak for yourself and from experience.

That is why John was trying to tell those in the church who were not sure whether Jesus was human and divine that he personally witnessed Jesus bleed on the cross.  He was there.  He saw it.  He was a witness.  It was not hear say.  It was because of the testimony of people like John and the disciples that the church developed the Nicene Creed in the 4th century.  In that creed, the church declared, “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.”

We all know the story of John Wesley how he was a priest in the Anglican Church.  Wesley was preaching but he had not experienced the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.  He even came to America as a missionary but failed and returned to England.  But as he struggled with himself, Wesley finally experienced the love and forgiveness of God.  It was on May 24, 1738 that Wesley went to a prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street in London.  While he was at this prayer meeting, he heard some read Martin Luther’s commentary on the book of Romans.  When Wesley heard what Luther had to say, he later wrote, "I felt my heart strangely warmed..." Wesley had believed before, but now he had an assurance, he was given this direct, immediate, overwhelming experience and testimony by the Spirit, the sealing of the Spirit, and his ministry was transformed. He said that before this experience he had had the faith of a servant, but now it was that of a son.

If we were called to court today to be witnesses about the power of Christianity, about the love of God, about the salvation Christ offers, will we have a personal testimony to give?  I believe we will because I have seen it here in this church and in this community.  The life of each person here has shown that truly God is love by the way you love and care for one another.  It is because of the power of personal testimony to the Love, Power and Grace of God that the world is being saved today.  May we always keep that faith and be ready to share with others.  May the Spirit use our personal testimony to win others for Christ, in the name of Jesus we pray, Amen. 

 

May 21, 2017

Acts 17:13-21

“Looking for God in All the Wrong Places”

 

        In the book of 1 Kings chapter 19, the prophet Elijah ran away from Queen Jezebel.  After he ran away from Queen Jezebel, he hid himself in a cave. God decided to show Himself to Elijah.  God said to him, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” While Elijah was standing, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.” 

         God was about to reveal Himself to Elijah and Elijah was looking for God.  Elijah was looking for God, but he was looking for God in all the wrong places.  He thought God was in all the great and mighty elements.  Instead God was in the still small voice, in the whisper and the soft voice.  Like Elijah, people continue to look for God in all the wrong places.  One reason why people look for God in the wrong places is because they want God to do what they want. The people of Athens were among those looking for God in all the wrong places.

         Paul arrived in Athens where the people loved to discuss philosophy.  From morning until night, they gathered around discussing, arguing, and talking about the different kinds of philosophy.  Paul heard the discussions but he also saw the idols these very smart people had constructed to worship.  Paul went to the Synagogue to proclaim the Gospel and he also went into the marketplaces to listen and learn about the people.  When he started discussing with the Greeks about their different philosophies, they were confused because they had never heard such ideas before. 

Yes, the Gospel will confuse those who have never heard it before.  It goes against anything reasonable yet it is the highest truth.  The Greeks to hearing about their gods would sleep with human women and have children by these women; those children would be half human and half divine.  But in the case of Jesus, he was conceived by the Word of the Lord and he was the Word of God.  This made him 100 % human and 100% God.  This confused the Greeks.  I’m sure Paul talked about original sin and how the sin of Adam affected all of us like a deadly virus or like a bad gene.  It baffled many of his listeners.  Paul also shared with the them Atonement, how the death of Christ on the cross brought salvation to the world.  This made them scratch their heads.  Everything Paul told them sounded strange to them.  I can only imagine when he talked about the resurrection, how it just didn’t make sense.  How could someone die and come back from the dead?  No one they knew had ever come back from death.  They believed there was no coming back from the world of the dead.

Finally, they could take it no longer take it.  They grabbed him and took him to a place called the Areopagus or Mars Hill.  This was a huge rock in Athens that was like a court.  At this location, a group of wise men listened to any charges or accusations against someone.  They said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.”

What I like about these Greeks is that they were curious to know more.  They didn’t dismiss Paul’s ideas as nonsense.  They gave him a chance to explain himself.  So many people dismiss the Gospel without hearing more.  Sometimes I wish people could just try Jesus for one year and see what kind of person he is.  If they try Jesus for one year.  After one year, if they don’t find salvation, then I can say they really didn’t get to know the Lord.

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”  Paul surely did proclaim to them and helped them understand were to find God.

In life, there are so many people looking for God in all the wrong places.  Sometimes they don’t use the word God; they might use words like happiness, purpose, meaning, and the like. They say they are looking for happiness, looking for meaning, and looking for purpose.  But only God can give us happiness, give us meaning and give us purpose.  People who look for God in the wrong places are looking for a god who will obey them.  They don’t want a god who will tell them “No this is not good for you,” or “No this will harm you.”  They want a god will tell them everything they want to hear.  This, of course is idol worship.  Martin Luther said when we place other things before God, they become our god with a small “g.”  They treat God as a magician.  They view prayer as magic words.  They say a prayer and they expect God to obey them.  They don’t want to live in God’s image.  They have created God in their own image.  They want God to serve them.  They want a god to do their will.  This is looking for God in all the wrong places.

One website listed some places where people seek for happiness, seek for meaning or seek purpose.  Some people look for God and happiness in alcohol and drugs.  There have been news stories of how teenagers have died from an overdose of drugs.  They find meaning and purpose in the bottle and in pills but all the alcohol and drugs do is make them sick. Others look for God and happiness in their appearances. They spend millions of dollars on products to keep them looking good.  There are those who worship their jobs

There was a CNN story about a man who calls himself the AntiChrist.  According to CNN, The minister has the number 666 tattooed on his arm.  But this is not your typical minister. De Jesus, or "Daddy" as his thousands of followers call him, does not merely pray to God: He says he is God. He claimed that "The spirit that is in me is the same spirit that was in Jesus of Nazareth.”

De Jesus' claims of divinity have angered Christian leaders, who say he is a fake. His followers have protested Christian churches in Miami and Latin America, disrupting services and smashing crosses and statues of Jesus.  He preaches there is no devil and no sin. His followers believe he can do no wrong in God's eyes. The church calls itself the "Government of God on Earth" and uses a seal similar to the United States.

Antichrist is the best person in the world," he says. "Antichrist means don't put your eyes on Jesus because Jesus of Nazareth wasn't a Christian. Antichrist means do not put your eyes on Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Put it on Jesus after the cross."

And de Jesus says that means him.

So far, de Jesus says that his flock hasn't been scared off by his claims of being the Antichrist. In a show of the sway he holds over the group, 30 members of his congregation Tuesday went to a tattoo parlor to have 666 also permanently etched onto their skin. He may have influence over them, but his followers say don't expect them to go the way of people who believed in other false Christs. Just by finding de Jesus, they say, they have achieved their purpose.( http://edition.cnn.com/2007/US/02/16/miami.preacher/index.html).

         Do you know people who are looking for God and they are looking for God in the wrong places?  They have created god for themselves and they worship false gods.  Paul helped the Greeks understand that the worship of idols was wrong. They were arguing over false and misleading ideas.  Paul helped them by clarifying their mind.  Let us look for God in the right places and the only right place is in Jesus Christ the Word of God.  May the Spirit open our eyes to see the truth. Amen

 

May 14, 2017

John 9:18-20

“Through the Eyes of Parents”    

 

A little boy named, Kevin was playing football in his backyard.  He threw the ball and "CRASH!" went the glass from the window as it broke on the back porch. Kevin stared at the broken window. He could hardly believe it. He didn't know He could throw a football that far. The throw had been a nice one, but it went right through the back-porch window. He guessed he shouldn't have thrown it toward the house, he thought as he ran up to see what had happened.

He started thinking to himself. Looking at the mess he thought, Mom and Dad are going to be mad at him when they get home. And he'll probably have to pay for the new window, and I hardly have enough money to buy Mom's birthday present. Maybe, just maybe I won't have to tell them I did it. If they ask me, I'll have to tell them, but if they don't ask me, then maybe it won't be like lying.

Then something popped into his mind. He remembered what his Sunday school teacher had said just the week before. They had been reading in Acts about Ananias and Sapphira and what happened to them when they lied. "Boys," their teacher had said, "telling the truth is so very important. There is no such thing as 'a little white lie' in God's sight. Those who are not Christians think nothing of lying about something if it will help them. But the penalty that fell on Ananias and Sapphira shows what God thinks about lying. Yes, boys, a lie is an awful thing, and often it is just the beginning of a path of sin. Also remember that an acted lie is just as bad as a spoken lie. Someday one of you may be tempted to hide something by keeping quiet. In God's sight that is just another way of lying. When Satan tells you to keep quiet, ask God to help you to tell the truth and not sin by keeping quiet. He will help you to do what is right and pleasing to Him."

Just then Kevin's parents drove into the driveway. As Kevin went around to the front, he asked God to help him tell the truth.  Kevin's father immediately saw that something was bothering him, "What's wrong, Kevin?" he asked.

"I broke the back-porch window with my football, and I'm really sorry."

"How did it happen?" asked his father.

"I threw my new football toward the house, and it went lots farther than it has ever gone before ... then SMASH! I'll pay for the new window, Dad."

"That's all right, Kevin," said his father, putting an arm around Kevin's shoulder. "Accidents happen. I'm just glad that you came and told me about it right away."

As they talked more about it, Kevin told him how he almost didn't say anything about the window. But then he remembered what his Sunday school teacher had said -- that keeping quiet is another way of lying.

"Son," said his father. "I'm glad to see that you've learned a lesson today. It's so easy to lie even without opening your mouth. I hope you've learned something else too. When you're tempted to do something wrong, ask God for help to do what is right. Never think you can do it by yourself.” they will always remember to tell the truth.  When children live with the truth, they get to become honest.

         When we raise the children right, they will always to the right thing.  John 9 tells us about a man who was faced with a tough choice.  He had been born blind.  He grew up not appreciating the beautiful colors of the rainbow, the colors of nature, and the different shades of people’s skin.  Maybe that was a blessing in disguise and then he couldn’t discriminate based on skin color.  Maybe for one day, God could make the whole world blind so that we will discover people for who they are.

         We don’t know this man’s name.  But one day, something amazing happened to him.  He was walking along the road and heard a discussion about him. Why was he born blind?  He had probably wondered about the same thing.  Was God punishing him, and if so why?  Was it something his parents did?  Why was he forced to live in darkness his entire life?  He heard Jesus say, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned that he was born blind.  But this happened that the works of God might be displayed through him.  What did that mean, anyway? 

         That the works of God might be glorified through him?  Yes, the works of God was glorified through him. He was now an adult.  How he lived and survived to this point, it was only through the power of God.  It didn’t appear as though he needed someone to help him.  He was on his own, by himself.  While it was through the power of God, his mother also had to take some credit for this because God used her.

         According to the Jewish tradition, a woman’s position in the family depends on her having a son.   A woman who had no children was viewed as being punished by God.  This is why Hannah in the book of 1 Samuel prayed so hard for a child, not only a child but also a son. Children, especially sons, were viewed as a blessing from God.  Think about the children of Jacob.  Jacob had 13 children, 12 boys and one girl named Dinah.  Yet we know of the 12 tribes of Israel based on the 12 boys.  So you can imagine the joy this woman felt when she had a son.  Her son would be a supporter of God’s kingdom.  Her son would be a defender of his people.  Her son would be a supporter of the family.  Her joy of having a son was quickly turned into sadness when she discovered the baby was blind.  She probably asked herself, “Why me, God?  Why?  What did I do?”

         Yet, I believe, this mother continued to love her son.  True mothers are always there for their children from the beginning to the end, giving them the words of wisdom they need. Just like this mom who took her daughter to school on the first day of first grade. The little girl stood by the front door with butterflies in her stomach. She told her mom her biggest concern: “How will I make friends?” She asked. Her mom knelt by her little girl, gave her a big hug and gave her the advice she carried with her throughout her life.  Her mom said: “Be Switzerland.” As you know, Switzerland is a country that is neutral.  It does not take sides in any war and it avoids all military engagement.  Switzerland is a country that’s friendly with every other country.  When her mom told her to “Be Switzerland,” she meant, be friends with everyone. Treat everyone equally and fairly. For all of her life, that girl lived by those words. Even as she graduated from college to become a part of the real world, on that first day of the rest of her life, as she nervously faced new responsibilities, she knew she would whisper two words to herself: “be Switzerland.”

         Like a good mother, this blind man’s mother didn’t abandon him.  She raised him in the love and comfort of her home.  She taught him to be independent because he walked wherever he needed to go.  He didn’t have a disability; he had a different ability.  One thing he did learn was to tell the truth and be honest.  So, on this day when he was blessed to encounter Jesus, and it is always a blessing when you encounter Jesus.  You never leave the same way.  He will touch your life and change you and transform you.

         The blind man allowed Jesus to hold his hand.  He didn’t know what was happening, but he suddenly felt cold, wet mud covering his eyes.  Then he heard Jesus say, “Go wash in the pool of Siloam.”  The man was obedient.  The voice was kind, gentle and yet firm.  The man was confident he had heard the voice of God: “Go wash in the pool of Siloam.”  He managed to find his way to this pool with a name meaning, “sent.”  He had been sent to the pool.  Jesus had been sent to save the world and to heal him.  He went because he knew where it was.  He had probably been there before.  He went in obedience and washed the mud from his eyes just as Jesus had instructed. When he washed his eyes.  Suddenly, he saw light; he saw things; he saw people.  He could see.  For the first time in his life, he could see the beautiful, glorious colors of life around him.

         Everybody was happy for him.  Those who knew him said, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” Some claimed that he was.

Others said, “No, he only looks like him.”

But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”

10 “How then were your eyes opened?” they asked.

11 He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”

         Some wanted to know, “Where is this man who healed you?”  You would think they wanted to meet Jesus and thank him and give him the key of the city for this great humanitarian work.  Some people only want to meet Jesus out of curiosity.  They don’t want healing or salvation.  But everybody seemed happy about this man’s great blessing that he who was blind could now see.  Everybody seemed happy except one group: The Pharisees. They were very unhappy that Jesus had healed a man on the Sabbath.  The Sabbath was a break from work and even from doing good, according to the Pharisees.  So, they investigated the healing as though it was a crime.  They accused Jesus of not being from God but the man who was born blind insisted Jesus was a prophet.

         The Pharisees didn’t like the answer the man gave so they called his parents.  They called his parents to identify their son as though he was a dead body that needed identification.  “Is this your son?” they asked. “Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?”   “We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind. 21 But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 That was why his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

         The parents, especially his mother, were pleased their son could see.  God had restored their blessing to them.  But they knew they were on dangerous ground when the Pharisees asked how is it that their son could see.  They had taught him to be honest and truthful.  They trusted him to tell the truth.  Through the eyes of the parents, through the eyes of the mother who raised her son, she knew he was a man of integrity.  She knew that children learn what they live.  She knew if a child lived with honesty, they learn truthfulness. If a child lived with encouragement, they learn confidence.  They told the Pharisees, “He is of age.  Ask him.” For the Jews, from the age of 12, a boy became a man and entered the age of responsibility.  Through the eyes of the parents, of the mother, she knew she had raised him right.

         When the Pharisees accused Jesus of being a sinner, the man said, “Whether he is a sinner or not, one thing I do know, I was blind but now I see.”  But they pressed him again.  “How did he open your eyes?”  The man was frustrated by their behavior, as though they were not listening.  He said to them, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?”  The man finally saw why Jesus had been so harsh with the Pharisees.

The Pharisees said to him, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! 29 We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.”

30 The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. 32 Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

         Of course they threw him out of the synagogue. Later he met Jesus who gave him true salvation.  His parents were proud of him.  Through the eyes of his parents, especially his mother, they helped him to understand that they could do so much.  Like the poem, they raised him so he would understand,

I gave you life, but I cannot live it for you.

I can teach you things, but I cannot make you learn.

I can give you directions, but I cannot always be there to lead you.

I can allow you freedom, but I cannot account for it.

I can take you to church, but I cannot make you believe.

I can teach you right from wrong, but I can't always decide for you.

I can buy you beautiful clothes, but I cannot make you lovely inside.

I can offer you advice, but I cannot accept it for you.

I can give you love, but I cannot force it upon you.

I can teach you to be a friend, but I cannot make you one.

I can teach you to share, but I cannot make you unselfish.

I can teach you respect, but I can't force you to show honor.

I can grieve about your report card, but I cannot doubt your teachers.

I can advise you about friends, but I cannot choose them for you.

I can tell you the facts of life, but I can't build your reputation.

I can tell you about drink, but I can't say NO for you.

I can warn you about drugs, but I can't prevent you from using them.

I can tell you about lofty goals, but I can't achieve them for you.

I can teach you kindness, but I can't force you to be gracious.

I can warn you about sins, but I cannot make your morals

I can love you as a daughter or son, but I cannot place you in God's Family.

I can pray for you, but I cannot make you walk with God.

I can teach you about Jesus, but I cannot make HIM your Savior.

I can teach you to OBEY, but I cannot make Jesus Your Lord.

I can tell you how to live, but I cannot give you Eternal Life.

         Kevin, who broke the window of his house when he threw a football, told the truth because his parents had taught him and because his Sunday school also reinforced it.  The man who was born blind was grateful to Jesus for giving him his sight.  When he was questioned, he was honest to tell the Pharisees the truth and even defend Jesus when he had to.  Through the eyes of parents, through the eyes of mothers, the children are special.  They know what they have taught them; and they know when the time comes for them to face the test, they will pass it with flying colors.  May all our children make us proud.  Through our eyes, they are always special.  So we are when God sees us.  Happy Mother’s Day and may God bless us all. Amen.    

 

April 30, 2017

Luke 24:13-35

“Returning to the Place of Hope”    

 

A group of students visited a mental institution to observe different kinds of mental illnesses. One of the individuals with mental illness was a really sad case. He was referred to as “No hope Carter.”  “No Hope Carter” was a victim of a deadly disease and he was going through its final stages when the brain is affected. Before he began losing his mind, his doctors told him there was no cure and that his disease would destroy him. He begged for a ray of hope but was told the disease would run its course and then he would die. Gradually his brain deteriorated and he became more and more downhearted and miserable. Two weeks before his death he paced in his small room. He was in mental agony and his eyes stared blankly. Over and over he spoke two words, “No hope! No hope!”

This is what the disciples felt after the death of Jesus.  Even after the resurrection, many of them still felt like No Hope Carter.  Jesus was alive.  He had been raised from the dead.  But he did not walk the streets like he used to.  They still did not see the Kingdom of God, although it was already inside of them, planted like a tree by the river.  They did not see the overthrow of the Roman Empire as they expected, but that process was already starting.  They didn’t see the Temple destroyed and built in three days but it was actually a spiritual temple; the old rule where we controlled everything in our lives was giving way to the new where God was in charge.  But the disciples didn’t see all the things Jesus promised and so they thought it didn’t happen.  Jesus would appear and disappear, reappear and disappear again.  The disciples were not sure what to make of this new situation.  They were not with the popular crowd.  They had to live ordinary lives now, quietly, and many days behind closed doors.  They were really like No Hope Carter.

All this took place in the city of Jerusalem.  Jerusalem was the city of Hope, where dreams were born, where leaders were made.  Jerusalem literally means “City of Peace.”  The City of Peace also gave them Hope.  Jerusalem was the city of David and the City of the Most High.  The situation was so bad that two of the friends of Jesus decided to leave the city of Peace, to leave the city that gave them hope.  They went to Emmaus.

These two friends of Jesus were leaving Jerusalem, where they had experienced the joy of being with Christ.  They were leaving Jerusalem where they had witnessed the power of Christ, where they had a meaningful relationship.  They were leaving Jerusalem where their hopes for a better future for themselves and for Israel began.  It was in Jerusalem, the city of peace and hope that they saw Jesus enter the city as a conquering King.  They were excited.  They were ready.  And it seems, just as their hopes and dreams of the future began in Jerusalem, everything died in Jerusalem.  Was there anything left in Jerusalem? 

The day was almost ending when they decided to leave Jerusalem to go to Emmaus. It seems they were leaving the place of peace and hope. The disciples were feeling a sense of hopelessness and despair.  A military chaplain described hopelessness as to be hopeless; to have no hope, to give up all hope or expectation.  This chaplain went on to say, To believe that there is nothing but this material world we live in — that there’s no God and no “us” beyond this life — is true despair. If we are a series of cosmic accidents that will cease to exist — a creation with no creator — then we have no purpose and our lives are absolutely meaningless.   

As these disciples left the Jerusalem where their hopes were born and died, they discussed among themselves the events of the weekend leading to the death and resurrection of Jesus.  One thing they remained faithful to is to never travel alone.  Always find someone you can talk to about the bitter and difficult situations in your life.  This kind of sharing can be therapy for you.  Don’t keep it in.  Get it out.  Open up and express yourself. 

So these two brothers in the faith were walking to Emmaus, away from Jerusalem.  As they walked they talked. As they talked, Jesus appeared and walked with them.  When we are baffled, perplexed, and confused about the things that have stolen our joy and killed our hopes, Jesus will appear to us, walk with us and talk with us.  When Jesus appeared to them, he asked them what they were talking about.

They responded by asking him a question: “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened here these last days?”  Jesus asked, “What things?”  Jesus already knew but he wanted to hear from them.  Then they opened up.  You can imagine the excitement they had when they told Jesus what they believed happened.

They said, “About Jesus of Nazareth. He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22 In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24 Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.”             

They told the story as though they didn’t believe Jesus was alive.  “Some of our women amazed us when they didn’t find his body.”  Then they said, the women told them “they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive.”  They added, “Some of our companions went to the tomb but they did not see Jesus.”  The last words they said were, “they did not see Jesus.”  In other words, we keep hearing these rumors he’s alive but no one has seen him.  What are we to believe?  We don’t know whether it’s true or not.  Is Jesus alive or did something happen to him?

By this time, Jesus explained everything to them and said, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

They still didn’t recognize him until they arrived at their destination in Emmaus.  They knew there was something special about him so they begged him to stay with them because it was already late, and he did.  That evening, as they sat to eat, they recognized him in the way he gave thanks, broke the bread and gave it to them.  This was Jesus! He was alive!  He was right there with them.  As soon as they recognized him, he disappeared.  They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” 

They knew it was late.  They had convinced Jesus it was too late to travel but they didn’t think about that.  They decided to return to Jerusalem, to return to the place of hope.  When you have such Good News, nothing will stand in your way of sharing it with others.  They returned at once, without hesitation, to Jerusalem. They returned to the place of Hope.  When they got there, the others said, “It is True.  The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.”  And these two who had walked from the place of hope, had returned to it and shared their personal experience with the others.  It is true.  The Lord was alive.  They had experienced him.  They had returned to the place of Hope one more time.

Before they experienced Jesus, they had heard rumors and hearsay and second hand information.  Now they had experienced Jesus for themselves.  Christianity is personal.  Each believer must experience Jesus for himself or herself.  As I said before and I say again, “God has no grandchildren. God has children.”  Each person must accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior and become a child of God. 

Sometimes in life, when things are dark and we can’t see our way through, Jesus comes to us and explains to us all we need to know.  When that happens, we will return to the place of hope and believe again.  The Christian writer, John Maxwell wrote about what hope does for people:  He said,

Hope shines brightest when the hour is darkest.


Hope motivates when discouragement comes.
Hope energizes when the body is tired.
Hope sweetens while bitterness bites.
Hope sings when all melodies are gone.
Hope believes when evidence is eliminated.
Hope listens for answers when no one is talking.
Hope climbs over obstacles when no one is helping.
Hope endures hardship when no one is caring.
Hope smiles confidently when no one is laughing.
Hope reaches for answers when no one is asking.
Hope presses toward victory when no one is encouraging.
Hope dares to give when no one is sharing.
Hope brings the victory when no one is winning.
          There was a little boy named Michael, whose baby sister was born with a serious condition and was placed in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at the hospital. Michael was four years old. As days passed, Michael’s little baby sister became sicker and doctors seemed to think there was no hope. They told the parents to be prepared for the worst. Michael’s parents made arrangements with the local funeral director. But Michael kept begging his mother to let him sing to his sister who was in the Intensive Care Unit. Children are not allowed in this unit, but his mother was determined to let Michael see and sing to his sister.

Michael’s mother dressed him in an oversized scrub suit and marched him into the ICU. The head nurse recognized him as a child and yelled, "Get that kid out of here now. No children are allowed in this unit." The motherly instinct became very strong and Michael’s mother said to the nurse, "He is not leaving until he sings to his sister." Karen led Michael to his sister's bedside. Michael gazed at the tiny infant losing the battle to live. After a moment, he began to sing: "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine; you make me happy when skies are gray."

Instantly the baby girl seemed to respond. The pulse rate began to calm down and become steady. With tears in her eyes, Karen told Michael to keep singing. "You never know, dear, how much I love you, please don't take my sunshine away."  Michael's little sister began to relax as rest, healing rest, seemed to sweep over her. Karen told Michael to keep on singing. By this time, tears had conquered the face of the bossy head nurse.

Michael kept singing, "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, Please don't take my sunshine away."  The next day...the very next day...the little girl was well enough to go home.

Whenever we feel like No Hope Carter or like the disciples who were confused, we may want to leave that place of hope, which gave birth to and nurtured our faith.  Jesus will bring us back through words or even through a song from a child.  God wants us to never leave that place of hope; but when we do, we must return to that place of hope and keep on believing.  May God bless us all. Amen.    

 

April 23, 2017

John 20:19-31

“What Will it Take to Believe?    

 

            There was a famous radio preacher named J. Vernon McGee.  One day a woman wrote J. Vernon McGee and told him: “Our preacher said that on Good Friday, Jesus didn’t die; He just fainted on the cross and that the disciples nursed him back to health. What do you think?" McGee replied, "Dear Sister, get a group of your friends and beat your preacher with a leather whip for thirty-nine heavy strokes. Nail him to a cross. Hang him in the sun for six hours. Run a spear through his heart. Put him in a tomb without air for three days. Then see what happens."

         One of the reasons why the historical accounts in the Bible have lasted this long is because they are eyewitness reports.  A testament is that which is truthful and factual.  A testament is also tangible, concrete proof.  It is related to a testimony, which is a first-hand validation and confirmation of facts.  It is not hearsay; it is not second-hand information. It is not a rumor.  It is reality.  It is a fact.  It is the truth as it actually happened.  So when we talk about the Old Testament and the New Testament, we are talking about the evidence and testimony of eyewitnesses.

         When the church fathers were trying to decide which books to include in the Bible, they had several guidelines.  One of those guidelines is that the book had to be written by a recognized prophet or apostle.  Some false prophets and apostles wrote books and named them after the real prophets and apostles; close investigation revealed those books were fake so the church rejected them.

The Bible is a book written by eyewitnesses. It even includes stories about people who doubted the resurrection.  Thomas was one of those persons.

It was late that Sunday evening, on the day Jesus was resurrected.  Mary had gone to the tomb very early to anoint the body of Jesus, but Jesus wasn’t there. He had won victory over death and was no longer in the grave. She was looking in the wrong place.  The angel even asked her why she was looking for the living among the dead.  This tells us we should be careful where we go.  Some places are   spiritually dead and they are for spiritually dead people. We don’t want to be seen in those places.  They do not promote the Gospel and we will not find Christ there. Mary went and told the disciples the grave was empty.  Peter and John ran to see and realized she was telling the truth. The disciples went back home but Mary stayed behind.  While she was crying outside the tomb, she saw two angels and then Jesus appeared to her. He told her to let the disciples know he was alive.

At this time, the disciples were in hiding because they were afraid the Jewish leaders might come looking for them to arrest them just as they had arrested Jesus.  As they gathered together, Jesus suddenly appeared and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  This is a wonderful thing about Jesus.  No matter where we are, Jesus knows our conditions and he understands our situations.  He knows where to find us. The disciples were lost and confused; they did not know what to do next.  The Lord and teacher they followed, who gave them so much hope for the future was gone.  But when we think we have reached the end and we want to give up hope, Jesus shows himself and appears to us.  He told them, “Peace be with you.”

         Peace be with you.  This means, “Don’t be anxious, don’t be afraid.” It also means you are now complete and can find wholeness in Christ. In John 14:27, when they were in the Upper Room, Jesus had told the disciples, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you.  I do not give peace as the world gives.  Do not be worried and upset; do not be afraid.”  With the peace of Christ, they could face any situation.  With the Peace of Christ, we will be able to face any trials and tribulations for Christ without fear because the Spirit gives us the strength.

         After giving them peace, Jesus showed the disciples his hands and his side.  They saw the marks of the nails in his hands and they saw where the spear had torn open his side.  They saw the marks.  This was the same Jesus who had died and was now alive.  The disciples were filled with joy at seeing the Lord.  Jesus gave them his peace again. He promised the Holy Spirit and told them he was sending them into the world just as God had sent him, Jesus into the world.  The disciples had a glorious time visiting with the Lord. 

But one disciple, Thomas, was not with the rest when Jesus came.  Where was he?  Where did he go?  We don’t know.  Some people miss blessings because they were not with the group at Bible study or at prayer meeting.  Thomas was one of those who missed the blessing of seeing the risen Lord when he first appeared to the group.  But when he came, the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.”  But Thomas said to them, “Unless I see the scars of the nails in his hands and put my finger on those scars and my hands in his side, I will not believe.”  Did Thomas doubt the disciples and thought they were teasing him or pulling a prank on him?  Or did he doubt the reality that Jesus was truly alive?  Thomas wanted to see before he would believe.  What would it take for him to believe?

One week later, the disciples were together again behind closed doors, still afraid to move about freely.  Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  He immediately turned to Thomas.  How did he know what Thomas said?  Jesus was not there when Thomas said those words.  But because Jesus is God, he knows everything about us.  What we say and do in secret, our Lord knows.  He knew about the Woman at the well.  He knew that Judas would betray him.  He knew that Peter would deny him three times.  Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves; so he heard what Thomas said.

He turned to Thomas and said to him, “Put your finger here and look at my hands; then reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Stop your doubting and believe!”  Thomas was convinced immediately.  He had seen Jesus.  He saw the scars in his hands and on his side.  He had seen and so he now believed. Thomas was so moved that he said, “My Lord and my God!”  But Jesus said to him, “Do you believe because you see me?  How happy are those who believe without seeing me.”

Thomas needed proof and hard evidence for him to believe.  He needed something concrete to believe.  The other disciples had already told him they had seen Jesus.  Why did he doubt them?  They belonged to the inner circle of the friends of Jesus.  It was their own social network.  When you belong to a social network, one quality you all need is trust in one another.  Thomas didn’t believe his friends although they were all excited and explained to him how the Lord showed us.  Thomas still had his doubts.

An issue of Christianity Today magazine has an interesting article on doubt. The author (Mark Buchanan) tells of meeting a man who called himself a skeptic. He asked if the man had ever read the Bible. The man answered, “No, not really. I told you, I’m a skeptic. I don’t believe it.” The author’s response: “This is not skepticism. This is a refusal to investigate, to scrutinize, to ponder deeply.”

What will it take to believe that Jesus is the Christ the Savior of the world? When the woman at the well met Jesus and believed him, she told the people in her village about Jesus, they believed her.  Later they met Jesus themselves and were convinced even more.  When Andrew met Jesus, he went and called his brother, Simon.

Believing Jesus is about trust.  We believe the Bible today because we trust those who wrote it. We also trust those who compiled the list of books to be included.  We trust that the stories are true. We trust those among us who have taught us about the faith.  Above all, we trust that everything Jesus said and did is real.  What will it take to believe?

One reason why the Christian faith is still going strong is because we believed the testimonies of those witnesses before us who saw and heard Jesus. Our faith allowed us to trust the eyewitnesses before us who shared their testimonies in the Gospels and in the epistles. These letters and the gospels in the Bible have been preserved and passed on for each generation of believers to know the story of our faith. We did not say, I want to see Jesus with my own two eyes before I will believe. 

I have seen Jesus in the eyes of children.  When you wake up each morning and you can see the sunrise, hear the sounds of nature, and feel the morning breeze, Jesus is alive and present with you.  When you feel the pain of one who lost a relative, Jesus is alive and present.  When you are moved by compassion to help someone in a really tough situation, Jesus is alive and present.  When you stand up for the poor and downtrodden, Jesus is alive and present.  When you reach out to those in need, you are telling them that Jesus is alive and present.

Just as the disciples told Thomas that Jesus was alive, so our actions as Christians and everything we say can let people know that Jesus is alive.  When we work together as people of God, the world will know Jesus is alive.  When we seek that which is good and true, we are communicating to the whole world that Jesus is alive. 

We have had the Old Testament and the New Testament for over 2,000 years.  They had given us eyewitness reports about the life and resurrection of Jesus.  Today, we can be the testaments that people see to believe that we serve a true and living God.  What will it take to believe Jesus is alive?  It will take the trustworthy witness of the church; it will take our commitment to truth and justice.  It will take our mission to rescue the perishing and care for the dying.

Let us continue to give people reasons to believe Jesus is the Christ the Son of the Living.  That is all it takes to believe.  May God bless us all. Amen.

 

April 16, 2017

Luke 24: 1-12

“Seeking the Living Among the Dead”

 

There is a book called, “Looking for God in all the wrong places.”  The writer talked about how we look for God and salvation in the wrong places, the wrong people, and the wrong things.  She wrote that we human beings really want to be validated by others and so we look to our husbands and wives, our special people, our children, our friends, and even our employers to make us feel good about ourselves.  She said that she once worked for an employer who was abusive to her employees.  She insulted them and told them to be grateful they had a job.  Those who worked for her accepted the abuse because the job was their survival and some even went home and abused their spouses and children because of them.  When the author was about to leave the job, she went to the boss and expressed herself and let her have it.  The boss admitted she was that way because she had a rough childhood and so she had to take care of herself first.  Those who stayed were seeking hope of a better life in the wrong place.

         There is a bar in Grand Rapids, Michigan that was started by a former pastor.  This minister says the bar tries to mix beer and the Bible for a lively discussion to reach the un-churched.  Really? Isn’t this another example of looking for God in all the wrong places?  This is what happened to the women who followed Jesus.  They went to find God in the wrong place. 

         The Bible tells us          that very early on Sunday morning; the women went to the tomb with spices they had prepared to anoint the body of Jesus.  Somebody should have reminded them that Jesus did say he would be crucified and would rise again on the third day.  The disciples, Peter, James, John and the Twelve should have remembered all the times Jesus predicted his own death and assured them of his resurrection.  Were they suffering from some kind of spiritual amnesia?  Why did they not believe?  Was it because they were in denial about the death of Jesus since some of them may have seen him as a political king who would give them political power?  Peter probably wanted to become the Secretary of State.  Judas would have preferred to be Secretary of the Treasury.  But Jesus was not a political king, but a King of kings who controlled all realms, even the political ones.

         In Matthew 17, after the Transfiguration, Jesus made it clear that he would be put to death but would be raised up again in life.  There are many other passages of scripture where Jesus made it clear about his death and resurrection, but the disciples wanted to hear what they wanted to hear and so they missed the opportunity to understand the real mission of Christ.  Are we like that today?  How many of the promises Jesus made to us in the Bible do we believe and take seriously?  Or do we hear them and they roll over us without sticking?  The women expected Jesus to still be dead.  The disciples were still in hiding out of fear that the Jewish leaders would come and get them too.  But when the women arrived, they found the stone had been rolled away and the tomb was empty.  They were shocked, astonished, dumbfounded, puzzled, perplexed, and amazed.  Where was Jesus?  Suddenly, two angels, two messengers from God appeared to them.  The angels were so radiant and bright that the women were afraid and they bowed down to the ground.  Just as angels came to announce that Jesus would be born as King of kings so now angels were announcing Jesus was alive to rule as Lord of lords.

         The angels asked the women, “Why are you looking among the dead for the living?”  The King James Version put it this way: “Why seek ye the living among the dead?”  The angels went on to say, “He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was with you in Galilee that ‘the Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.”  “Then they remembered his words and went to tell the disciples, who themselves forgot and thought the women were crazy and talking nonsense when they told them what the angels said.   Why did the disciples doubt the women?  Was it because they were women?  It doesn’t matter who brings the Gospel; if it is true, it will be true from the north, south, east, and west. What will it take for people to believe all the promises Jesus made are true?  How long will it take before people realize all the promises in the Bible are real and will come to pass?  To paraphrase lines from a great song, How many times must a man look up before he can see there is much more to this world than earth, sea, and the sky? Yes, 'n' how many ears must one man have before he can hear the Gospel is real to give his life to Christ? Yes, 'n' how many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died without knowing Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.  The answer is not blowing in the wind; the answer is right there in the Bible.  The answer is to have faith in Jesus; the answer is to love one another.

         We serve a living God.  The chorus of a popular Christian song goes, “My God’s not dead, he’s surely alive, he’s living on the inside, roaring like a lion.” When Job was experiencing his times of testing and temptation, he continued to believe in God.  In Job 19:25-27 he said, “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes – I and not another.  How my heart yearns within me.”  That is the faith we need to have that our Lord is alive and that one day we will see him face to face.  Do you have that faith and hope today?

         Easter is the most amazing day of the year for Christians because we celebrate the glorious resurrection of our Lord.  The resurrection is the heart of the Christian faith.  The resurrection is what makes Christianity different from all other religions because we have a risen savior who has given us proof that heaven is real, proof that that there is life after this life, proof that God is a God of the living not of the dead because one day we will see those we love and it will be a great reunion again.  The resurrection was so important that the early Christians used to greet each other like this: One would say, “The Lord is risen.”  And the other person would answer, “The Lord is risen, indeed!”

         When some in the early Church questioned the resurrection of the Lord, Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:12-14, “But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?  If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.  And if Christ has not been raised from the dead, our preaching is in vain, and our faith is useless.”  Paul went on to affirm that Jesus is alive.  This is the joy of our faith that we serve a risen and living savior.

         We know where all the graves of all other religious leader are, but there is no grave for our Lord and Savior because we serve a living God, a risen Christ.  Are we still seeking the living in dead places and in dead traditions?  Do we still believe the dead tradition that the church is this building when in reality the church is the people of God, the community of faith?  Do we still believe people must come to church to hear the Gospel?  While this is the place to hear the spoken word, we can use what my professor, Dr. Leonard Sweet called TGIF, which doesn’t mean “Thank Goodness It’s Friday” but Twitter, Google, Internet, and Facebook.”  We can use YouTube and all the other social media to get the Word of God out.  Do we still believe the only way to do missions is to go overseas?  What about right here among us, in our community? 

         We must see the living Jesus in places that are alive, in the eyes of a child, in the playful laughter of children, in the change of the seasons, even the storm that takes out our power  reminds us of how powerful God is.  We must see God in the homeless and refugees and remember Jesus himself was homeless and a refugee in Egypt when Herod tried to destroy him as a child.  We must see Jesus in the suffering Christians of Indonesia, in Egypt, and many other parts of the world.  We must see Jesus when two or three are gathered in his name. 

We must have the faith of the six-year-old boy who, when his Sunday school teacher asked all her students to bring something in their Easter eggs to represent Easter, he brought an empty egg.  One little girl had a spring flower in her egg, another little boy had a cross, while a third child had a butterfly to symbolize Easter.  Little Harold’s egg was empty. The teacher praised each of the other children for what they brought, but she didn’t say anything about Harold’s empty egg. Harold looked at her with anticipation and said, "Mrs. Wilson, you didn’t say anything about my egg!" Mrs. Wilson said, "But, Harold, you don’t have any reminder of Easter in your egg." Harold replied, "Uh-huh! It’s empty just like the tomb of Jesus!"

The empty tomb with its stone rolled away is a powerful reminder that even death could not keep Jesus in the grave.  Like Paul we can say, “O death, where is your sting?  O grave, where is your victory?”  May the Holy Spirit open our eyes to seek and find God in all the right places and may we celebrate our risen savior today and always, Amen. 

  

April 9, 2017

Matthew 21:1-11

“Ready to be saved”

          

President Dwight Eisenhower made a distinction between things that were important and things that are urgent.  When it comes to things that are important, there is a deadline, but there’s no hurry and no rush.  For example, it’s important to plan for the future, but when there’s an emergency, it is urgent that we make a decision because it might lead to life or death.  A pastor invited people to the altar for a time of healing.  A group of people came and were kneeling at the altar.  The pastor went from person to person, asking them if they believed in Jesus, if they wanted to accept him as their Lord and Savior.  There was one sick old man in the group.  When the pastor got to him, he asked the old man whether he believed in Jesus Christ.  The old man said, “No.”  The pastor asked whether he was ready to receive Jesus as his Lord and Savior.  Again the old man said, “No.”  The old man had heard the sermon, responded to the invitation for healing, but was not ready to accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.  His healing was important.  His salvation not urgent.  He was not ready to be saved.  It is like someone in a burning house, the firefighters are there to rescue them and one older person in the house says, “I’m not ready to be rescued from the fire.”  Or someone on the Titanic while it was sinking saying, “I’m not ready to be saved from this sinking ship.”  How many people want to address their short-term problems because it’s important but they don’t see their long-term salvation as being urgent?

         The people of Israel were ready to be saved.  And Jesus was ready to save them.  The salvation of the human race was not important to God; it was urgent.  Someone said, “God so loved the world He didn’t send a committee.”  It was urgent enough that God Himself came in the person of Jesus Christ.  The people of Israel were drowning in sin just like the world today. When David wrote in Psalm 38:4, “My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear.”  Basically, David was saying, “I’m drowning in my sins.”  The people of Israel were drowning in their sins.  They had the Ten Commandments that talked about false worship, idolatry, misusing God’s name, violating the Sabbath, dishonoring parents, murder, adultery, stealing, lying, and coveting. In the Beatitudes, Jesus added more sins to the list.  He added lust.  This means not just committing adultery but even thinking about it.  Jesus also added anger and hatred to murder because this can lead to taking someone’s life. In Galatians 5:19-20, Paul wrote, The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Think about the different list of sins from the Ten Commandments, from Jesus and from Paul, the people of Israel broke every one of them. They were drowning in sin; these are the things that can separate people from God and lead to eternal death.

         Jesus knew they were drowning just as he knows we are drowning and so he came to rescue them just as he wants to rescue us.  The mission was urgent.  For three years, he prepared the disciples to continue the work after he laid the foundation.  For three years he taught people how to live after they were rescued.  When the moment of truth arrived, Jesus knew he had to go and face his death in Jerusalem.

         When the moment of urgency arrived, Jesus sent two of his disciples to the nearby town to bring two donkeys they will find tied.  Jesus told the disciples that when anyone asked why they were taking the donkeys they should say, “The Lord has need of them.”  Another translation says, “The Lords needs them.”  I agree with the translation that says, “The Lord has need of them.”  This is because the Lord does not need anything.  God is self-sufficient and self-sustaining.  To say the Lord has need of them means the Lord wants to utilize them for this specific situation.

         The Lord sent for not one of the donkeys but both of them.  In my pastoral letter for April, I wrote: “God doesn’t need our permission to use what we have.  We are caretakers and managers of everything we have in our possession.  Lent is a time to exercise greater self-denial and reducing our attachment to the material world.  When the Lord needs what we have, He will find ways to let us know; we should be alert for such moments.  Whether it’s our homes for a Bible study or prayer meeting, our cars for mission trips, our time to volunteer to care for children or at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen, and our money to pay for things to promote the Kingdom of God, we should be like the owner of the donkeys.  The only response from this owner was consent.  He agreed, without a doubt or hesitation, to send his animals with the disciples because the Lord needed them.”

         The book of Matthew tells us that the disciples placed their robes on the donkeys for Jesus to sit on.  I’m not sure how Jesus could ride two donkeys, but the Bible says he used them both so I believe it.  When it comes to the Bible, I agree with those who say, “When God says it, I believe it, that settles it.”

         In his moment of urgency, Jesus took his victory ride into Jerusalem.  The Bible tells us A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

         The word, “Hosanna,” as we know, means, “Save us, Lord,” or “Save us now.”  The people of Israel sounded like they were ready to be saved.  But the salvation they were looking for was a political salvation.  They were looking for a political kingdom.  For Jesus, if we get spiritual salvation and if we usher in the Kingdom of God, everything else will fall in place.  They wanted to overthrow the Romans, but Jesus wanted them to overthrow the sins in their lives.  They wanted the Kingdom of David to come back but Jesus wanted them to embrace the Kingdom of Heaven.  They were focused on the wrong things and wanted salvation from the material world but the spiritual world is more serious and needs our urgent attention.

         There is a story of a man that got saved as a young adult. He was so excited about Christ for the first couple of weeks, he told everybody the difference Jesus had made in his life. One Sunday night he was at his church and they sang this song, "Rescue the perishing, care for the dying, snatch them in pity from sin and the grave, weep over the erring one, bring them to Jesus, tell the poor sinner that Jesus can save." He heard that song and he got so excited that as soon as the service was over he rushed up to the pastor, and said, "Pastor, I'm ready." 

The pastor said, "Ready for what?"  He said, "Man, I'm ready to go rescue the perishing--let's do it!" 

The pastor looked at him and said, "Well, that's not something we really do, that's just a song we sing." It wounded that man's spirit for many years until he realized that the normal Christian life is to be excited about rescuing the perishing.

         So many people are ready to be saved from themselves and from the conditions they placed themselves in.  When Jesus entered Jerusalem, he was ready to save the world.  Today we enter Jerusalem with Jesus.  Today we are among the crowd welcoming our Lord. Today we welcome Jesus waving our hands and offering our hearts.  Today we offer Jesus not only our robes and jackets, we offer him our hearts. Today we, too, are saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David.  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna in the Highest.”

         So are we ready to be saved?  If we are, saved from what?  Praise be to God we who attend this great church have already accepted Jesus as our Lord.  We still want the Lord to save us from ourselves and the things we do.  We still struggle with our ego.  We still struggle with materialism.  We still struggle with lust. We still struggle with jealousy.  We still struggle with sin.  We want our Lord to save us from sin and death.

         Today we welcome Jesus as the King of Kings and Lord of lords.  May he take up residence in our hearts.  May he remain the Lord of our lives.  May he show us exactly what to save us from.  We embrace you Lord.  Hosanna! The Lord will save us from our sins and bring us closer to God.

         In the end, people in the crowds, those who didn’t know Jesus asked, “Who is this?”  The answer was clear: “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”  When we grow in the faith and when Jesus lifts us up, people will want to know who it is that has done this great thing in our lives.  We will boldly proclaim, it was Jesus Christ of Nazareth who had done this great thing and saved our lives.  In that way, we will give God the glory for this Palm Sunday and every day of our lives. Amen. 

  

April 2, 2017

John 11:1-44

“Encountering God who Gives Life”    

 

          We live in a sick world.  Our world is physically sick.  We have been afflicted with the Zika Virus, the Ebola virus, the AIDS virus, Mad Cow disease, and all kinds of diseases.  Our world is emotionally sick.  We have sick relationships, sick people who are full of animosity for one another, and are willing to sell even babies for money.  Our world is spiritually sick.  We find salvation in unusual places and unhealthy ways.  In Revelation 3, there is a church that Jesus called “lukewarm.”  This is a church that was neither hot nor cold.  Jesus told them, “So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I will spit you out of my mouth.”

         There is a disease called, “Pica disease.”  This disease gives people a desire to eat strange and unusual things.  This disease also gives people an appetite to eat things that are not food.  Some people eat toilet paper, dirt or chalk while others eat wood toothpicks, coal, or rubber. There was a woman with this disease who didn’t smoke but she would eat the ashes from the cigarettes her husband smoked.  She would follow him around when he smoked and collect the ashes to eat them.  

         There is such a thing called “spiritual pica disease.”  This is when we desire things that do not help us spiritually or emotionally.  Our world is full of people with the spiritual pica disease. We don’t know what kind of disease Lazarus had, but he was a sick man, but he had two sisters who cared deeply about him. They sent a message to Jesus about their brother.  It’s nice to have someone who will take your troubles to the Lord and intercede on your behalf.  We must pray for those we care deeply about.  Martha and Mary sent a message to Jesus and said, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”

         When Jesus heard the message, and trust me, Jesus hears every message we send.  He does not have a telephone but his messages are always clear.  So Jesus said to the disciples, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Jesus meant that death would not be the final decree for Lazarus.  In the same way, Jesus is saying to us, no matter what we go through, death and total destruction will not be our end.

         Jesus didn’t send a message back to the sisters. I wonder what they were thinking when they didn’t hear back. Has Jesus forgotten about us?  Will he answer our request?  Sometimes it seems our Lord is delayed, but he’s remembers us.  Sometimes it seems he’s late, but he’s always on time.  In fact Jesus stayed a little longer before going to visit the sisters.

         Jesus arrived after Lazarus had been dead for four days. This is very important.  In Matthew, Mark and Luke, it was the cleansing of the Temple that was the final straw that made the Sanhedrin decide to arrest and execute Jesus, but for John, it was bringing Lazarus back from the dead that was the final straw which made the Sanhedrin decide enough was enough; Jesus must die.  What is amazing about this is that Jesus comes to Bethany after four days.  Jews believe when a person dies, the spirit wanders for three days.  During these three days, resurrection is possible.  After the fourth day, Jews believe the resurrection is not possible.  It was this miracle of miracles, not the cleansing of the temple, which led to the death of Jesus.  Also, John is the only one who tells this story.  Truly, Martha and Mary encountered God who gives life.

         But Jesus specializes in the impossible.  Jesus can do the incredible; He’s the Master of the unbelievable.  Abraham knew that.  Hannah realized that. Gideon experienced that.  Our God is a way-maker.  He can make a way out of no way.  He is the light in the deepest darkness.  Even if it had been seven days or longer, our Lord is the one who gives life.  The Old Testament reading from Ezekiel 37, the prophet saw a valley of Dry Bones and through the mighty power of God, the dry bones lived.  Our God is a life-giving God.

         The disciples thought it was over for Lazarus.  He was a hopeless case.  In fact the disciples reminded Jesus that the Jews wanted to stone him the last time he was in the area.  But when people think it is over for you, that is when God comes.  When people think your case is a hopeless, losing case, that is when God surprises everyone.

         When Jesus arrived, Lazarus had already been in the grave for four days. When Martha heard that Jesus had arrived, she ran out to meet him.  It was no longer about her brother.  She was just happy Jesus was here.  His presence always gives joy, peace and consolation during our most difficult times.  “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Then she went one step further and said to Jesus,  But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

       When Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again,” Martha was trying to be realistic when she said, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”  When Jesus is ready to bless us, he gives it to us in the now.  Some blessings are for the future and others are for right now.  Jesus wanted to bless Martha and Mary right there.

         Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

         Martha then went to get Mary.  When Mary came, she said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  It was such a moving tribute to the faith Mary had in Jesus that it touched Jesus to the core to see how much the family of Lazarus loved him.  And the shortest verse in the Bible reveals to us the humanness of our Lord: “Jesus wept.”  Jesus feels our pain.  He understands our anguish, our loss, our disappointments, and our problems.  Jesus weeps for us and with us.  But there were haters and doubters.  Haters will always hate and doubters will always doubt. Some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

         Jesus went to where they buried Lazarus.  Martha was concerned that the body was already starting to decay.  This didn’t matter to Jesus.  He had the power to give life and he was ready to show it. Jesus told her, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” 

         Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” Lazarus who was dead, came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.”  This was the greatest miracle they had ever seen.  A man who had been dead for four days, a man who had started to decay, was brought back to life.

         No matter how much people may dismiss you and think it’s all over for you, our God is a life-giving God.  He will speak truth and life into you and you will rise again.  Lazarus was dead, so they wrapped him in burial clothes.  You know, we dress differently for different occasions.  When we're going to a football or basketball game, when we’re going on a picnic or to the supermarket, when we’re going to church, even when going to a funeral.  Lazarus was dressed for his funeral.  Jesus brought him back to life, but he was still wrapped up in those clothes.

         When Jesus gives us new life, he wants us to get rid of the old burial clothes we were wrapped up in because they can slow us down. Are there people you know who are still wrapped up in their burial clothes?  Jesus gave them life years ago, but they are still tied up in clothes that restrict them.  Jesus said to those standing by, “Untie him and let him go.”  We who are standing by have a responsibility to help untie people and free them. We can do this through prayer, encouragement, and with uplifting words.

         Several years ago there was a headline in a Toronto Newspaper, which read: "Dead Man Walks into His Own Funeral." Apparently, this man named Dan had walked off his job as a welder without telling anyone where he was going.

He had been missing for several days when his brother had mistakenly identified a badly disfigured corpse, which had been hit by a train, as Mr. Dan.

The story reads: "Dan S., age 49 had shocked his sister out of her skin Thursday morning when he came shuffling up her street in east end Toronto, while the rest of the family were paying their respects to the man they thought was Mr. Dan S. laid out in a nearby funeral home.

His sister had been too upset to attend.

'I sat there on the steps screaming,' said his sister.

He asked, 'Why are you so upset?'

His sister replied, 'Everyone's at your funeral.'"

When Mr. S. showed up at his funeral, the first thing he did was go into the reception area, which was filled with food and drink...

...and so...

...he popped open a soft drink and then walked into the chapel where the memorial service was taking place.

A man from the funeral home asked, "Who are you?"

Mr. Squires replied: "I'm the guy you got laid out there."

Fortunately, the real Mr. Dan S. was still alive.  How many people are still spiritually and emotionally dead? Jesus is a life-giving God who calls us forth from the dead.  We have new life in Jesus. May we claim it knowing it is a blessing.  May we live free from grave clothing.  May we celebrate life each day in Jesus name, Amen.

 

March 26, 2017

John 9:1-41

“Encountering the One Who Helps us Make Sense of Life”    

 

           There are many things in life that don’t make sense.  Why do people who belong to religions fight the most wars?  Why do many people who follow Jesus, the King of Love, have so much hate in their hearts?  Why is there no cure for cancer?  Why are babies born with sicknesses? Why do children die?  Why are people born blind?  This was the issue the disciples struggled with in this chapter.  In the previous chapter, Jesus had an argument with the Jews about his identity.  As if to complicate matters more, Jesus did something that baffled the Pharisees even more.

         Jesus was walking along when he saw a man who was born blind. His story must have captured everybody’s hearts and minds.  It was common knowledge.  This was likely what made the disciples ask Jesus the question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  This was a question about cause and effect.  There is a cause for everything and everything has a cause.  It was a common belief among the Jews that if something bad happened to you, it was because of something you did or something your parents or grandparents did. In Exodus 5:20, God said, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”  So they believed this man who was born blind was being punished because of something he or his parents did. 

That didn’t make sense.  Did he sin while he was in his mother’s womb?  Maybe his parents did something to cause their son to be born blind.  What could they have done?  Did they forget to go to the temple on one of the high holy days and make an offering to God?  Did they forget to pay their tithe to the temple?  Did they not sing loud enough during worship?  If our children were punished because of our sins, or if we were punished because of what our parents did, every one of us would be crippled in one way or another.

         But they forgot that Jeremiah said there will come a time when people will no longer say, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes; the children’s teeth are set on edge.”  So Jesus said to the disciples, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned that he was born blind.  This happened that the works of God should be revealed through him.”  How will the works of God be revealed through a man born blind?  Here was an adult person who had been blind from the day he was born.  How did he survive to this stage?  It has to be because of God.  When we see people with handicapping conditions, we tend to feel sorry for them, yet we know God has done great things through their lives.

         Jesus is showing us that God sees people with handicapping conditions as equally valuable to him just as those who are normal.  Throughout the ministry of Jesus, we see him demonstrating the power of God to those who needed it the most-the blind, the deaf, the crippled, and sinners.  Those who were physically disabled and spiritually challenged benefitted the most from the power of God through Christ. 

         Jesus is also teaching us that God’s power is at work through people with handicapping conditions.  Helen Keller was born healthy, but when she was two years old, she suffered a sickness that left her blind, deaf, and mute.  But through the inspiration of her teacher, Ann Sullivan, Helen Keller became an educator, an activist and a journalist. God’s power was working through her.  Stevie Wonder was born blind, but he developed an amazing musical ability.  His music produced 26 Grammy Awards.  The power of God was working through him. A New Jersey boy was born without arms, so he learned to play the trumpet with his feet. The power of God was working through him. President Franklin D. Roosevelt became infected with polio.  This dreadful disease stole his ability to walk, but that did not stop President Roosevelt from becoming the only president in American history to serve four terms of office and become one of the greatest presidents in the history of the United States (http://kizaz.com/2014/02/03/6-people-with-major-disabilities-who-succeeded-in-life/).

We see the power of God at work through people with handicaps. Their setbacks give them the strength to make a comeback. Their obstacles made them overcome their handicaps.  Their stumbling blocks became their steppingstones to great achievements.  It doesn’t make sense that people are born with or develop handicaps. But God uses their handicaps to prove they are capable people. We can only look at what they accomplished and say, “It was only through the power of God.”  Neither they nor their parents sinned to bring their conditions on them. Just as Jesus worked through the man born blind, these conditions happened so that God’s power was revealed through them.  Finally, this made sense.  It wasn’t God who made the man to be born blind.  It happened; but God used the man’s condition to His honor and glory.

         Jesus then said, “I must do the works of Him who sent me while it is day.  The night is coming when no one can work.”  Then Jesus spat on the ground, made clay with the saliva and anointed the man’s eyes with the clay.  He sent the man to go and wash in a pool called, “Siloam,” which means, “Sent.”  Here it doesn’t make sense that Jesus would use his spit and clay from the ground to heal a man when he could have spoken the words of healing to give this man his sight.

But it’s so interesting how Jesus treats everybody differently.  Sometimes they brought people to him.  At other times he called people to himself.  Some he healed with words, others with a touch; some had prayer beforehand, some did not. Some were healed from a distance, and some very close. Some were healed in private, some in public. Some sought Jesus out, some were sought out by him-so we should not expect Jesus to treat any two of us the same way.  If you wonder why your friend’s prayer was answered while you may still be waiting, there is a reason for that; and only God knows why.  The important thing is that Jesus will notice us no matter where we are.

After the man was healed, people who knew him were confused.  How did that happen?  It didn’t make sense.  This man they had known all his life was now a different person, a transformed person.  There are many things in life and about our faith that don’t make sense.  Our baptism doesn’t make sense.  There is no magic in the water but it symbolizes our new birth.  The Holy Communion doesn’t make sense.  How will eating the wafer and grape juice become spiritual food to nourish our souls?  But as we believe, as Jesus told the woman at the well, “The water I give will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”  Heaven doesn’t make sense.  Astronauts have travelled in space but they have not seen heaven.  Yet we know it is real and it exists.  Jesus told us he was going to prepare a place for us so that where he is we may be also.

Lives are transformed every day. It doesn’t make sense how this happens, but it does through the power of the Holy Spirit. Bob was a teenager who was very depressed. He wanted to die. He experienced thoughts of taking his own life. He ended up in the hospital for 10 days and was told he had manic depression or bipolar disorder. Fortunately for Bob, someone reached out to him in his desperate time and told him about the love of God as expressed through Jesus Christ's death and resurrection. That was 30 years ago. After treatment and counseling, today he considers himself a healed helper, made well through the process of healing and renewing of my mind over many years.

For eleven years Sarah was harassed on a daily basis. She feared going to school. It left marks on her — mostly on her soul.  One day she burned a cross into her arm hoping it would help ease her pain.  Her life wasn't always that bad. Her father would come down every summer to spend a week with them. That stopped in grade six and she never saw him again. The last time he called she yelled at him and said she never wanted to speak to him again. Her life got worse after that.

She would pray to God every night to let her die. She even planned her death many times. She took overdoses of medicine. She even ran out into the street once hoping a car would hit her. But something happened to her that gave her hope back — God. Through Jesus, Sarah found hope in life once more.

There are many things in life that don’t make sense.  Why are there wars?  Why do we have epidemics like AIDS and Ebola?  Why is there so much hatred in the world? Why are children born and then die?  Why are people born blind?  All these things do not make any sense, but we Christians are blessed to know the One who makes sense of everything.  For the man born blind, God didn’t make him blind, but God was able to use his condition to show that even people with handicaps have value and gifts.  If things don’t make sense, turn to Jesus. He will tell you that God is glorified in all of your circumstances.  Keep the faith.  See God in all you do because you will encounter Jesus, the one who makes sense of everything.  May he bless us all. Amen.

 

March 19, 2017

John 3:1-17

  “A New Beginning”    

 

         One day Jesus went into a village where some people brought to him a man who had been born blind.  Before he healed the man, he took him by the hand and led him outside of the village. The Bible says when Jesus had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, he asked the man, “Can you see anything?”  The man looked around and answered, “I see people walking like trees.”  Jesus had to touch the man a second time before he could see people as people, and he saw everything clearly.  Before he sent him on his way, Jesus said to him, “Don’t go back into that village.”

         The story of this man is the story of every Christian.  This is my story.  This is your story.  This is story of how you and I were blind people.  We were spiritually blind.  We were blind to the things of God. When we believed the universe revolved around us, we were spiritually blind.  When we were confused about what’s right and what’s wrong, we were spiritually blind.  When we treated people like things and objects we were spiritually blind.  When we fail to acknowledge it was God who has been with us through all the challenges of life, we are spiritually blind.  To be spiritually blind is dangerous and deadly.  This is because we are like people driving in a strange city without a map and we don’t know where we are going.

         This is the whole point of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus.  Nicodemus was a powerful man in the Jewish community. This is because he was a member of the Jewish ruling council.  They were the smartest people in town.  Although he was a smart man, he was confused about what Jesus was teaching.  When did he hear Jesus teach?  Maybe he was in the temple or in a crowd one day when Jesus preached about being born again.  Whatever it was, he wasn’t brave enough to ask Jesus publicly.  So he went to find Jesus at night.

         We can criticize Nicodemus all we want, that he was a man who went to find Jesus at night.  The important thing is that he went to find Jesus.  This is what matters.  No matter how we do it, we must find Jesus.  We must search for Jesus.  Nicodemus had to ask around and I’m sure he had to use all his contacts to locate Jesus.  This is how important it was.  It was so important he was willing to embarrass himself by letting the disciples see him.  But he went to find Jesus.  I encourage all to seek and find Jesus.  Maybe you prefer Christian movies, maybe social network is your interest, or Christian books or discussions or sports…no matter how, find Jesus and get others to go with you.

         Nicodemus came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”  He called Jesus, “Rabbi.”  This is recognition of a Jewish leader that Jesus was a teacher, a professor.  This is a title given to one who is recognized for his deep knowledge.  Nicodemus also said Jesus was performing signs that were from God.  For many Jews, those who were considered true prophets prove themselves to be true by signs from God.   

Nicodemus was saying that the leaders of the Jewish high council recognized Jesus as a Rabbi.  The real question is if they knew him to be a rabbi and one who performed signs, why didn’t they recognize him?  Do you know people like that who know Jesus is real but they refuse to follow him and worship him?  The religious leaders knew Jesus was real and that he was the Messiah, yet they refused to believe

It became even more confusing when Jesus said, “Unless a person is born from above, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”  Nicodemus was baffled and asked, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born again?”  Jesus tried again and again to help Nicodemus understand the new and spiritual birth, but Nicodemus was still perplexed.  Finally Jesus asked, “Are you a teacher of Israel and you don’t understand this?”

To understand this truth about the new birth is to have a new beginning.  The new birth is for our eyes to be opened and we see ourselves as we really are and we see things as they really are.  The truth of the matter is that everything is spiritual in nature.  We are spiritual beings having a human experience.  Our real essence is that we occupy this body as anyone lives in a house.  We are more than this body.  We are spiritual beings.  Everything is spiritual.  Our schools are spiritual.  Our justice system is spiritual.  Our government is spiritual.

If you read Revelation chapters 1 to 3, where Jesus sent messages to the churches, each message was sent to the angel of the church.  Some say when Jesus said, “To the angel of the church in Ephesus,” it meant the pastor of the church.  Pastors are many things, but I do not believe pastors are the angels of a church. I like the view taken by a professor (Walter Wink) who said that nations, cultures, social institutions, even companies are controlled by angels, some of these angels are fallen angels who use these entities for their own interests. The angels of a church are the spiritual presence, the spiritual essence, and the spirituality of the church.

When we are born again, we will experience a new beginning. We develop new eyesight, the spiritual sight. Spirituality is everywhere.  In the Bible, everything was connected to the spirit.  When people were sick, they were described as possessing a spirit.  We have to learn to see the spirit at work in our lives and in everything.  When we see people are angry all the time, they seem to be overtaken by a strange spirit.  When we see so much violence, it seems like those involved in it are not themselves. It is like a strange force (spirit) has taken over their lives.

When we come to Jesus and accept him as our Lord and Savior, we become transformed and we gain a new perspective.  Instead of becoming disappointed in people who don’t live according to our expectation, we can become more understanding of their situation.  When we see someone we don’t know, yell at us for no reason, we should realize something is taking place in their lives that we don’t understand.  When we see so much hatred in the world, Jesus wants us to realize that there is a foul spirit that is causing this chaos.  When we see beyond the surface, we will understand the deep roots of social problems. 

         Jesus took a while in this discussion with Nicodemus to help him understand the deep dimension of spirituality.  He wanted all people to have a new beginning, a new birth.  This new birth is a new way to live.  It is being different when everybody is behaving the same.  This new beginning is a new chapter, a new page, a new day, a fresh start. It’s so important that Jesus was willing to do everything in His power to spend the entire evening with Nicodemus.  This conversation seemed short, but you can tell the conversation was a long one, especially after Jesus asked, “Are you a teacher of Israel and you do not understand these things?”

         It is important for everyone to experience the new birth and have a new beginning.  This is more than repenting of sins and agreeing to be different.  It has to do with a new worldview, a new perspective, and a new outlook.  This is all about lifting us to a place where we see things differently.  It is like standing at the top of the mountain and looking at the world.  Jesus wants everyone to find his or her way to this special relationship to experience the spirit.  God is willing to give us all the time we need.  One day, we will be judged based on what we did with this knowledge and how we really tried to experience this view of life, which will ultimately lead to our salvation.

It’s like this.  A young man was drinking heavily and decided to go for a swim at a California beach. Fortunately, an older man was watching the young man as he entered the water and did not come back up for air. The older man ran to the struggling young man and saved his life. 

A few years later, that same young man was standing in court facing a sentence on drug charges. Suddenly, the young man realized that the Judge was the very same man who saved his life when he was drowning years earlier. He looked at the Judge and said, "Sir, don’t you recognize me? You saved my life...don't you remember?" The Judge nodded his head and then looked at the young man and said, "Young man, then I was your savior...but now I am your Judge.”
         In the same way, we were like people drowning in our ocean of sin.  We were lost and confused, like Nicodemus was.  Jesus came to try and rescue us.  For those who were rescued, we needed to find this person who rescued us and find out how to remain saved.

Like the man born blind, we were blind to the truth of God. Like the person drowning, we were drowning in sin.  Jesus took us out of our situations and told us not to go back there.  He wanted us to discover new pathways and a spiritual reality.  Nicodemus came in search of that new path and that new spiritual reality.  Jesus told him he had to be born again.  Are you born again? 

As we strive to understand what it means to be born again, to have a new beginning, we pray the spirit will open our spiritual eyes and help us understand what Nicodemus struggled with. As John wrote, The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”  Let us celebrate each day the new beginning and the new birth. Amen.

 

March 5, 2017

Matthew 4:1-11

  “Temptations Prove Our Essence” 

  

         The military special forces have some of the toughest training in the world.  Some of this training involves holding your breath under water for long periods of time or training in temperatures that are 22 degrees below zero.  Other training includes crawling under fire or on sharp rocks with little clothes on.  All these intense trainings are made so soldiers can prove that they have the right stuff and they are capable of defending the homeland. These soldiers are tried and tested.  They are prepared for battle.

         In the same way, when Jesus was getting ready to begin his ministry of the bringing Good News to the world, he had to be tested to prove he was ready.  He had to prepare for the opposition of the Pharisees.  He had to prepare for the Sadducees and teachers of the law. Every day we must prepare for those who criticize the church; those who doubt our sincerity and our purpose; those who call us names.  Just as Jesus prepared for his spiritual battle, we must prepare ourselves on a regular basis.

If Jesus had failed, the world would have been doomed. If Jesus had failed, the world would still be lost and there would be no love in the world.  Jesus had to win so he went through the most rigid test. After his baptism, Jesus was led into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  The devil is the accuser of God’s people.  The devil is the one who tries to sabotage God’s plans for the world.  The devil doesn’t want God to save the world so He puts obstacles in the way. God may have something positive planned for you, but the devil will come and confuse you and make you doubt. The devil comes to steal, kill, and destroy.  The devil is the Tempter.  But every time he brings temptations, God turns them into tests.  God uses these temptations to test us and make us prove our essence, that we are ready for the spiritual battlefield.

         The entire universe was resting on Jesus to pass the test.  The first man, Adam had failed in the Garden of Eden.  The complete man, Jesus was in another Garden, the Garden of Gethsemane, to make a choice.  But first he was sent to the wilderness.  We know when the Bible speaks of wilderness it means a time of divine discipline.  The wilderness is a place and time of preparation.  When God took the people of Israel through the wilderness for forty years, it was to prepare them to enter the Promised Land. God has some of us in the wilderness, preparing us for our Promised Land. The wilderness is also a time to strengthen our relationship with God.  Both David and Samuel were called while they were young.  God used their growing up period to develop strong connections with them.  God is strengthening the relationship with us as we grow in grace.

         So, Jesus was led by the spirit into the wilderness. Sometimes the Spirit takes us aside to a quiet place to prepare us for what’s ahead.  While in the wilderness, the devil came and tempted Jesus but God turned it into a test.  The devil tried to get Jesus to sell his body, sell his mind and sell his soul.  The first test the devil brought was about the physical desires of Jesus.  The devil knew Jesus was hungry after fasting for forty days and forty nights.  He knew Jesus was at his lowest point.  This was his point of physical weakness. The devil said to Jesus, “Turn stone into bread and eat.”  In other words, “Satisfy your physical desires.”  You are hungry.  You have the power. Turn these stones into bread for yourself.  Basically, Satan was trying to get Jesus to give in to lust, to sell his body.

         Lust is an intense desire in the human body.  Lust can be a desire for physical intimacy that gets out of control; lust can also be a strong desire for material things, or a deep thirst for power.  Our physical desires can burn like fire and destroy us if we don’t control them.  Imagine a man driving a chariot with 20 wild horses that are going out of control.  They can destroy him.  Lust is like these wild horses out of control.

         A Methodist pastor told the story about how he and his family moved into a house after they built it only to discover it was infested with mice.  They bought glue traps with a strong scent that attracts the mice.  When the mice stepped on the trap they got stuck, they died and he got rid of them.  One day he found one of the mice struggling to free itself; it was even chewing on its own foot to get free.  This pastor wrote that lust is like that. It looks good and smells good but it’s deadly.

         Temptations prove our essence. Satan wanted to destroy Jesus by getting to him. Each day, Satan tempts us but God uses it to test us.  Satan says, “I will bring them down.”  God says, They will not give in.  They will prove they are my disciples, that they are my people.  They will prove their essence.  Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 8:3 and said to Satan, “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”  Jesus used scripture to defeat Satan.  We must know the Bible and use it to win victories over the devil.

         After losing to Jesus on the physical level, Satan went to the mental level. He took Jesus to Jerusalem on the highest point of the temple.  Then he said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.”  Satan didn’t stop there, he also quoted scripture, “He will command his angels concerning you. And they will lift you up in their hands, so you will not strike your foot against a stone.”

         Satan made Jesus question his own identity as the Son of God and misinterpreted the Bible.  Satan always makes us question our identity as Christians and children of God.  “If you are the Son of God….”  If you are a Christian, why are you going through hard times.  If you are a Christian, why did you get sick?  If you are a Christian, why did you have that accident? If you are a Christian, why are you broke? Satan plays mind games with us.  He makes us question our own faith and our Christian identity.  Worst of all, he misinterprets scriptures.  Psalm 91 which Satan was quoting said, “He will command his angels concerning you. And they will lift you up in their hands, so you will not strike your foot against a stone.”  The last part meant, if you hit your foot accidentally, God will send angels to protect you from falling.  He didn’t say if you throw yourself down, God’s angels will catch you.  No.  If you throw yourself down, you will fall, break a leg or another part of your body and even die. 

ABC News reported the story of a Pentecostal Pastor who was bitten by a snake and died. He belonged to a group of pastors who believe that to "take up serpents" is a form of religious expression. In the King James Bible, Mark 16:18 says, "They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them."

         But Jesus told Satan by quoting another scripture, “Do not put the Lord to a test.”  In other words, “Don’t test God.”  God doesn’t need to prove Himself to anyone.  God did not compete for this position.  He became God because He is self-sufficient, all-mighty, all-knowing, eternal, immortal, and more.  Jesus proved His essence.  He did not sell his mind to the Devil.  We must not allow Satan to play mind games with us.  We must not allow Him to make us question our identity as Christians, as believers, as followers of Christ and as children of God.  We don’t need God to prove Godself to us.  God has proven in many ways that He is real and is alive. 

Satan failed to get Jesus to sell his body.  He failed to get Jesus to sell his mind.  Then he tried to get Jesus to sell his soul.  He took Jesus to a high mountain, showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor and said, “All this I will give you if you will bow down and worship me.”  To worship anything or anyone other than God is to sell your soul.  In Mark 8:37, Jesus asked, “What will a man give in exchange for his soul?” 

Satan wanted Jesus to worship him just as he wants us to bow down to him and worship him.  A Christian writer listed some ways Satan keeps us from worshipping God. Satan makes the world look beautiful, attractive and desirable.  Then it makes us focus on the things of this world and forget that heaven is more beautiful than earth. Satan keeps reminding us that those who worship the Lord have often faced danger, loss and suffering. Satan also fills your mind with unimportant and distracting thoughts while you are attempting to worship.

But Jesus simply answered, “Get away from me Satan.  You shall worship only the Lord your God and serve him only.”  We need to dismiss Satan every time he tempts us.  Just say, like Jesus did, “Get away from me, Satan.

Satan tempted Jesus in three ways.  He tried to get him to sell his body, to sell his mind, and sell his soul.  He wants the same from us.  He is the Tempter, but God is saying to him, you can tempt my people all you want.  I will turn it into a test and they will pass.  Like military special forces going through tough training and preparation, you are God’s special forces against the devil.  Stand strong.  Temptations are only there to prove our essence, to prove what we’re made of.  We will win this battle as Jesus did.  Watch out for temptations of the Body, temptations of the mind and Temptations of the soul.  They are meant to bring you down but if you win, you will prove you are made of the right stuff.  May the Holy Spirit be our guide and strength during this time of Lent. Amen. 

  

February 26, 2017

Mark 9:2-9

“Mountaintop Experience for Ministry in the Valley” 

  

          On Wednesday, we will begin the season of Lent.  Lent marks the period when Christians begin a 40-day journey with Jesus as he prepares for the agonizing suffering of the cross. Lent is about the atonement and how Jesus reconciled us to God. It is a time of preparation, reflection, purification, discipline to deepen our understanding of what Christ endured on the cross for our redemption.  As we increase our understanding of the deep and abiding love that God has for us by sending Jesus to die in our place, we will draw closer to God and love Him with our entire being.

         We can use the comparison of a court room to explain how important the atonement is.  Imagine being arrested for serious crimes.  The crimes are so serious that the charges describe them as capital crimes.  We know that the punishment for capital crimes is death.  We go to court. There is no jury; there is only one King, who is also the Judge. The evidence is presented through video proof and we see ourselves on camera committing those crimes.  We can’t deny them because we are clearly guilty.  The verdict is declared as guilty and our sentence is death.  The execution is immediately following the sentencing.  As soon as the sentence of death is announced, the officers come to take us to the firing squad, the electric chair, or the place for the lethal injection.  Just as the officers take our arms, the Judge tells them to wait. The King, who is also the Judge feels compassion for you and wants to save you.  But the sentence has to be carried out according to the law.  There is no way out.  The heart of the King is moved because he loves you so much he doesn’t want to see you die. The King has one son that he loves so dearly.  He turns to His son and says, “Son, I don’t want to see Jerome or Patty, or Dwedor, or Jack or James die. Will you take their place?

         Since the Son is so obedient to his Father, the King, he says, “Father, if it’s possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not mine will, but your will be done.”  The Judge says, it is my will, Son.  Please die for this person.  The Son agrees.  He is brutally beaten before they execute him.  All this happened because God loves you and me and the entire world so much that He gave his only begotten Son.  When you see the intense suffering the Son had to go through for me and you, will we not feel deep appreciation and profound love for the Son and for the King for letting His Son die in our place?

         This is what happened at Lent.  We talked about Original Sin and how the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden affected all of us.  They rebelled by disobeying God.  By their actions, they lost their purity and their perfection.  They became people who wanted to do wrong and bad things all the time.  If given the choice between good and evil, right and wrong, self and others, they would choose evil over good, wrong over right, and self over others. Lent is a time when we remember how Jesus saved us from ourselves, from self-destruction.  Lent is a time we strive more and more to live the life of God according to God’s will. 

We Christians have accepted that all of us are sinners and have fallen short of the glory of God.  We believe that Christ’s death saved us from condemnation to hell.  By accepting Christ’s death and resurrection as our own, we agree to live according to the Gospel and to become children of God.  This is a wonderful thing that the King has now adopted us and we have come to live in the palace in the Kingdom of God.  Jesus knew from the day he was born that he had one purpose and that purpose was to obey God’s will.  Jesus knew his mission was to preach the Gospel and show people the heart of God, the mind of God, and the will of God for our lives.  He also knew that one day he would have to face the ultimate goal of being crucified for us. 

After three years of his earthly ministry, Jesus realized the time was coming when he would be arrested, go to a false trial with false witnesses and he would be condemned to death.  The moment of truth was coming.  In Mark chapter 8, Jesus told his disciples about his suffering and death.  The disciples found it hard to believe and accept.  Six days after telling them about his suffering and death, Jesus took Peter, James, and John up to a high mountain, where they were alone.  As the three disciples looked, Jesus was transformed and transfigured.  His clothes became shining and whiter, whiter than anything that they had ever seen.  The disciples also saw Elijah and Moses talking with Jesus.  It was a sight to behold.  The disciples saw the three men talking but the Bible doesn’t say they heard what they talked about.  I believe this was a moment of divine consultation.  Jesus was meeting with two of the greatest spiritual leaders in the history of the entire world.  These were special people. In 2 Kings, chapter 2 we read that Elijah did not die but was taken into heaven by a chariot of fire.  In Deuteronomy 34:5-6, we are told that Moses died in the Land of Moab and God Himself buried Moses. To this day nobody knows where God buried Moses. Few spiritual giants in the Bible are as special as Moses and Elijah.  These were the two men of God who came to talk with Jesus.  I guess they came to prepare him for the suffering that was coming and to assure him the angels would continue to minister to Him.

We don’t know how long Jesus talked with Moses and Elijah but as soon as they left Jesus, Peter spoke up. “Teacher, it is good we are here.  Let us build three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”  The experience on the mountain was so overwhelming that the disciples didn’t want to leave.  Peter wanted to build three tents of three tabernacles to worship the three men.  But actually, he should have suggested building one tent to worship Jesus because only Jesus alone is worthy of worship.

As Peter was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them.  Then they heard the voice of God from the cloud and God said, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen. Listen to Him.”

         The disciples had received a testimony directly from God that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God.  The visit of Moses and Elijah and the declaration of God was the inspiration Peter, James and John needed.  If they ever had any doubts in their minds, God was making it plain and Jesus was not pretending to be the Messiah, he was the real deal.  How many people in their day and time were fortunate to see Moses and Elijah who were in heaven with God?  This was a blessing and yet God needed to show them the Gospel was real and salvation was true.  Peter was so inspired that he wanted to remain on the mountain top.  Have you ever had a mountaintop experience and you didn’t want it to end or you didn’t want to leave the place where you were?  Maybe it was watching the sunset or the sunrise and you saw how beautiful it was?  Maybe it was a sudden revelation of God in an event?  It could have been in a nature park, or a healing, being at a retreat, reading a book, listening to a song and all you wanted to do was just sit? My friends, when God comes to us and inspires us about the truth of the Gospel, He does not want us to remain in our prayer rooms or at our retreat centers.  We have mountaintop experiences so that we will work in the valley.

 

Some years ago at a Baptist Convention, people began to notice a man hanging around the grounds. He did not look like he had just stepped out of your typical Sunday school class. His clothes were old and torn; they looked like something even the Salvation Army or Goodwill would throw away. He looked like he had not shaved for a long time. His shoes had holes in them and worst of all, this young man did not smell like these good Christian people.  They said to one another, “Surely, this young man was clearly not one of us, not the kind of person you normally see at Christian campgrounds.”

What did the young man do? Not much, really. He did not approach anyone. He did not harass anybody. He did not ask for money. He mostly just hung around. When chapel services were held, he would walk across the front and sit down. When classes were under way, he would lie down on the grass nearby. And when meals were being served, he would stand on the dining hall porch, not far from the long lines of people clutching their meal tickets. No begging, no demands, just standing around. No one offered him anything to eat.

At the end of the week they announced that there would be a special speaker for the closing service, and that he would speak on the theme, “Inasmuch as you have not done it unto one of the least of these, you have not done it unto me.” They promised that the audience would truly remember this message. The hymns were sung, the prayers were prayed, the choir sang, and the special speaker approached the podium. Who do you think was that special speaker? Who brought that memorable message? That scruffy young man! That hang around bum with the worn-out clothing, the messy beard, and the offensive smell! It turns out that the young man was a young pastor who had been asked to play a part by the organizers of the conference. And his message pierced and stabbed as he said to the crowd, “No one tried to include me in anything. No one asked me if I needed help. No one invited me to the dining hall. No one sat down to listen to my story. A few put religious tracts into my hand. One or two pulled out a dollar bill and gave it to me. But most of you turned your eyes and pretended not to see me. My appearance offended you, and you left me out.”

Our faith is not to be confined only to Sunday and it is not only for this church building.  We who follow Christ must know that we have been called out of the world to go back into the world and the inspiration God gives us when we have mountain top experiences should be to give us the power to help those who live in the valley.  As we begin Lent this week, may the Holy Spirit help us to see that Christ inspires us so that we can help others.  May Christ show us how to love more in his name, amen.
 

February 19, 2017

Mark 9:38-50

“Divine Directions for Spiritual Sojourners”

          Around the 1990s the GPS or Global Positioning System became popular among drivers.  As you know, the GPS is a navigation system. It can give your location and it can give you directions get to your destination.  This device allows the user to know where they are and where they want to go. The GPS has become so popular that many people no longer use paper maps to get directions for long trips.  In some cars, there is a system that can tell operators when there is an accident or a breakdown and where to locate the car.  The GPS is good for many things and there are some parents who use the GPS to track their children’s whereabouts.

         Sometimes people tend to trust their GPS more than they trust their own instincts and their own intelligence. There are many stories about how people followed their GPS into disaster.  There’s one involving two girls who ended up driving into a lake – because their GPS told them to! The girls in question survived the incident but divers were needed in order to help recover the Mercedes from the lake using a tow truck. Then there was the driver who was sent on a company business trip from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to deliver some goods?  He followed his GPS several hundred miles into Maryland and West Virginia before he realized he was lost.  He said all this happened because his GPS told him to do so.

         Just like these drivers using their GPS on the roads, every human being is a traveler and a sojourner.  A sojourner is a person who is living temporarily in a place and will move on someday.  A sojourner is a traveler who is moving from one point to another. Jim Reeves sang the sojourner’s song with the words,

This world is not my home I'm just a-passin' through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
The angels beckon me from heaven's open door
And I can't feel at home in this world anymore

 

We are all sojourners on this earth. When we visit the airports, we see two major signs that say, “Arrivals” and “Departures.”  We know in life, there will always be arrivals and departures.  Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life is a journey, not a destination.”  In other words, what we do between our arrival and our departure is what matters and what will determine how well we face our departure and how well we reach our destination.  We Christians are not just ordinary travelers or sojourners, we are spiritual sojourners.  A well-known Catholic priest once said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience.  We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” As we travel on this journey to our destination, Jesus offers us some divine directions in our text for today.

         As Jesus was ministering to the people one day, he overheard an argument among his disciples about who was the greatest among them.  Isn’t that interesting?  They were all servants and followers of Christ, yet some of them felt they were greater than others?  But when he asked them what they were arguing about and they would not answer. I’m sure this was because they were ashamed and embarrassed.  But Jesus said to them, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”  He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”  Children are among the most defenseless in society; they are also the ones most victimized and so if we can welcome the least, most helpless people, we will welcome Christ. We can welcome them by protecting and defending them. This is a divine direction: We who are spiritual sojourners should protect and defend children from abuse.

         Shortly after that, John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” Jesus said to John, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.  Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.”

         Jesus was saying to them that those who belong to Christ are on the same team.  This man that John saw was not with their group and so he tried to stop him.  But Jesus was teaching him and the rest of us, we may not all attend the same congregation or come from the same background.  But as long as we all believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, the Son of God and Savior of the world, we must support one another.  It’s not about me and it’s not about you.  Everything we do is to give all the honor and glory to God through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

A father was having a particularly stressful day at work. So, he decided to take off work a few hours early to watch his son play soccer. His son’s team was made up of boys and girls who were still trying to learn how to play the game. After a few minutes, the coach blew the whistle and called the players over to talk with them. He said, "Look guys, you can’t win if everybody runs after the ball. You have to play your position, then wait for a teammate to pass the ball to you." The Lord used the words of that soccer coach to help that businessman understand that he had been so busy trying to solve everyone else’s problems, that he wasn’t playing his own position. The next day he went back to the office and suggested some new ideas, and after passing them back and forth from their different positions, these men and women were able to find solutions and new approaches to their business goals. We are all team players for Jesus.

         John Maxwell has a book called, The 17 Essential Qualities of a Team Player. Some of the qualities he listed for all of us who are team players for Jesus are being “adaptable, collaborative, committed, competent and dependable,” among others.  Each day, we should ask ourselves, are we team players?  How can we contribute to the game to glorify our Lord?  Are there things we need to change about ourselves to become better team players? When Jesus said, “Whoever is not against us is for us,” he was giving us divine directions.  We’re on the team of Jesus.  Let’s work together.

         What Jesus said next is a warning about acting in ways that would cause children and weaker Christians to fall away from the faith.  You see, friends, someone once said, “Your actions are so loud that I cannot hear a word you say.”  Or as St. Francis of Assisi put it, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.”  He was saying we must proclaim our faith first in our actions and then in words.  When Christians argue with one another as the disciples did about who was the greatest, this can be an obstacle to the young ones and those whose faith are not strong.  They will say, “Why do I want to be a Christian and follow Christ when I see those church folks arguing all the time about who is the greatest among them?”

         Jesus went on to say, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.  And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell.”

         When Jesus said this, he didn’t mean it literally.  He wanted us to think about those things and people that are close to us.  Some people have a right hand man that may cause them to turn against God.  Sometimes our habits, lifestyles, behaviors, traditions, and way of life are as close to us as our hands, feet, and body parts.  We make them a vital part of our lives.  But if our habits, addictions, behaviors, traditions, lifestyles make us lose our faith, we should cut them off.  It is better for us to enter Heaven without them than to keep them and be thrown into the fires of hell.

         The chapter ends with Jesus saying to his disciples, “Salt is good but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again?  Have the salt of friendship among yourselves and live in peace with one another.”  This is a very powerful divine direction for us spiritual sojourners.  Salt gives a pleasant flavor to our meals.  Let our presence be like a pleasant flavor or even a pleasant aroma within the community.  We are called to be the seasoning for life and to season everything we touch so that people will enjoy them.

         The Bible is our GPS for life and living.  God who gave us this GPS knows our location and can help us get from one point to another.  As we continue our spiritual sojourn and our earthly travels, let us remember to pay attention to this heavenly GPS.  This is one GPS that will not cause us to lose our way and travel several hundred miles off course or into dangerous waters.  The divine directions want us to not argue about who is greater or more important than the other; we are to welcome all, especially children who are important to Christ.  We must continue to be team players for Christ, get rid of all those things that are close to us that want to take us down the road to hell, and to remain the salt of the earth.  These are some divine directions for spiritual sojourners.  May the Spirit empower us to be obedient always, amen.

February 12, 2017

Deuteronomy 30:15-20

"Freedom and Responsibility"

One night four college students were out partying late night and didn’t study for the test, which was scheduled for the next day. In the morning, they thought of a plan. They made themselves look dirty with grease and dirt. Then they went to the Dean and said they had gone out to a wedding last night and on their way back the tire of their car burst and they had to push the car all the way back. So they were in no condition to take the test. The Dean thought for a minute and said they can have the re-test after 3 days. They thanked him and said they will be ready by that time. On the third day, they appeared before the Dean. The Dean said that as this was a Special Condition Test, all four were required to sit in separate classrooms for the test. They all agreed as they had prepared well in the last 3 days.

The Test consisted of only 2 questions with the total of 100 Points.

1)     Your Name __________ (1 Points)

2)     Which tire burst and became flat_____(99 points)

Options – (a) Front Left (b) Front Right (c) Back Left (d) Back Right

Here were four young college students who had to choose between preparing for a test and going to a party. They knew they were smart but they didn’t realize their dean was smarter. He accepted their excuse and the lie they made up about going to a wedding and getting a flat tire and all. A writer said, “We are free to choose our actions, but we are not free to choose the consequences of those actions.” These students were free to lie but they were not free to tell the Dean how he wanted to administer his test.

Freedom is a value people cherish. God made us as free beings. In the Garden of Eden, God clearly told Adam and Eve, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” If you read the text closely, God said to Adam and Eve, the day you eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “you will certainly die.” God didn’t say, “I will kill you.” God said they would die. There is a difference between killing and letting die.

Sometimes it seems as if God is cruel and kills people for disobedience. In reality, when we disobey God, there are consequences. People talk so much about being free. “I’m free to do what I want.” Yes, we are free to do what we want, but freedom comes with responsibility. We are free to obey or disobey God, but there are consequences to our actions.

Before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, God sent some last instructions through Moses. One of the things God said to them was this: “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.”  God was saying to them, you are free to choose between the choices of life and prosperity on the one hand, and death and destruction on the other hand. God showed them the narrow stairway to heaven and the wide-open highway to hell. If they accepted the will of God, they will live long and prosper, they will be blessed above measure; they will have peace that passes all understanding. But if they disobeyed God, the choice was death and destruction. It wouldn’t be God who was going to bring death and destruction upon them. They would invite it upon themselves.

The path of God is always positive and bright. In Philippians 4:8, Paul wrote: Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” If we choose what is true, we will never be false to anyone and lies will never be a part of us, but we must choose to live the truth. If we choose what is noble and honorable, there will be no cheap tricks in our lives. If we choose what is lovely, we will find ways to brighten the lives of others. If we choose what is admirable and worthy, we will make the lives of those around us a little better. If we choose what is excellent, we will understand nobody’s perfect but we’re all striving to do better. If we show kindness to others, even the blind will see it and the deaf will hear it. These choices are before us every day. These choices take place in our relationship with God and with one another.

God told the Israelites, “But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, 18 I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.” Again, don’t miss this powerful point in the text. God didn’t say, I will destroy you. God said, “You will certainly be destroyed.” It is the negative path we choose that will destroy us. The choices we make will hurt us and bring us pain. God wants only the best for us so he calls on us to be obedient to Him so that these negative, disobedient choices we are free to select will not bring us pain and misery.

Some people are unhappy because they choose to be unhappy. Some people enjoy making others feel bad to make themselves look good. Then there are those who love to step on others for them to get ahead. God has given us the power and freedom to choose, but with that freedom comes the responsibility. One day, at a large company, when all the employees reached the office, they saw a big notice on the door on which it was written: “Yesterday the person who has been hindering your growth in this company passed away. We invite you to join the funeral in the room that has been prepared in the gym”.  In the beginning, they all got sad for the death of one of their colleagues, but after a while they started getting curious to know who was that man who hindered the growth of his colleagues and the company itself.

The excitement in the gym was such that security agents were ordered to control the crowd within the room. The more people reached the coffin, the more the excitement heated up. Everyone thought: “Who is this guy who was hindering my progress? Well, at least he died!”  One by one the thrilled employees got closer to the coffin, and when they looked inside it they suddenly became speechless.  They stood nearby the coffin, shocked and in silence, as if someone had touched the deepest part of their soul. There was a mirror inside the coffin: everyone who looked inside it could see himself.

There was also a sign next to the mirror that said: “There is only one person who is capable to set limits to your growth: it is YOU.” You are the only person who can revolutionize your life. You are the only person who can influence your happiness, your realization and your success. You are the only person who can help yourself.  Your life does not change when your boss changes, when your friends change, when your partner changes, when your company changes. Your life changes when YOU change, when you go beyond your limiting beliefs, when you realize that you are the only one responsible for your life.

God sets before us each day, the freedom to live abundantly or to live unfulfilled lives, to enjoy the peace that passes all understanding, or to suffer from fear and anxiousness, to be a neighbor to all we meet or make the world run away from us. Each day we have the freedom to make the days count and make a difference, or pull into our shells like the turtle. We are free to do with the seconds, minutes, and hours God blesses us with each day, or we can throw them away while complaining that life is unfair. We are free to do with our time what we want, but with freedom comes responsibility, with actions come consequences. God is saying we can choose life or death. God is not going to kill us, but the choices we make can cause our death and destruction. God is not going to destroy us; we can destroy ourselves by our freedom of choice.

An unknown author wrote the following poem called, “I Have a Choice About Today.” The poem goes:

I woke up early today, excited over all I get to do before the clock strikes midnight. I have responsibilities to fulfill today and I am important. My job is to choose what kind of day I am going to have.

Today I can complain because the weather is rainy or I can be thankful that the grass is getting watered for free.

Today I can feel sad that I don't have more money or I can be glad that my finances encourage me to plan my purchases wisely and guide me away from waste.

Today I can grumble about my health or I can rejoice that I am alive.

Today I can cry over all that my parents didn't give me when I was growing up or I can feel grateful that they allowed me to be born.

Today I can grieve because roses have thorns or I can celebrate that thorns have roses.

Today I can mourn my lack of friends or I can excitedly embark upon a quest to discover new relationships.

Today I can complain because I have to go to work or I can shout for joy because I have a job to do.

Today I can complain because I have to go to school or eagerly open my mind and fill it with rich new tidbits of knowledge.

Today I can mumble sadly because I have to do housework or I can appreciate that I have a place to call home.

Today stretches ahead of me, waiting to be shaped. And here I am, the sculptor who gets to do the shaping.

What today will be like is up to me. I get to choose what kind of day I will have!

 

          Life or death, happiness or sadness, joy or darkness are my decisions to make today and every day. May the Spirit give us the strength to look on the bright side of things, reach out for more life, and love Jesus completely. Amen.

 

 

February 5, 2017

1 Corinthians 2:1-12

 

“Simplifying the Gospel”

 

During the 20th century, one of the greatest theologians of the time was Karl Barth. He is best known as a productive writer. His book, Church Dogmatics took more than thirty years to complete and is more than six million words long in 14 volumes. Late in his career Barth made a visit to the United States and lectured at the University of Chicago. A popular story is that he was asked a last question before leaving the podium. The question: “What is the most important insight to God you have ever discovered?” Barth, who was way up in years, paused for only a moment, smiled, and answered, “Jesus loves me this I know; for the Bible tells me so.”

Here was a well-educated theologian and seminary professor who had written so many books simplifying the Gospel in the song that children sing. The Gospel is not complicated. It is straightforward. Although we who attended seminary have been given the hard version. I knew a guy who would say he was going to “Proclaim the Kerygma” instead of saying “I’m going to preach the Gospel.”

This is the point Paul the Apostle was making in his first letter to the Corinthians.  He wrote: “And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.” Paul then went on to say, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

There are two ways to keep the Gospel simple. The first is being a witness. Corinth was a Greek city-state. Before the church was established in Corinth, it was a place of many gods. It was also a place where Greek philosophy was popular and everybody tried to use logic and reason to explain everything. When Paul said, “I don’t come with eloquence or human wisdom, “what he was saying to them was, “I don’t come as a philosopher but as a witness to the Gospel of Jesus.”

People believe the stories of eyewitnesses. Paul had experienced the love of God and the salvation of God. He was one who persecuted Christians when Jesus met him on the road to Damascus and changed his life. He understood what it was to be a changed person. He could testify to the power of the Gospel to make a difference in his life.

When you go to share the Gospel with someone, one of the first questions they likely ask themselves is, “Why are you talking to me about Jesus? What has he done for you that he can do for me?” When Paul went to the Corinthians, he told them about how a light from heaven knocked him off his horse and he was blinded for three days. When his eyes were opened, he became a new man and had been empowered by the Holy Spirit. He became fearless. He had been given power through the Holy Spirit and he went on several missionary journeys. It was Paul’s testimony that converted many.

Everybody who is a Christian has a personal testimony of how they met Jesus and their relationship with the Lord. How did you become a Christian? That is your testimony. If you have been a Christian for over five years, has your faith grown? If so, what happened to make your faith grow and become stronger in the Lord? Are you like a tree planted by the river whose roots are deep? How did your faith get so deeply rooted? That is your testimony. It does not require long and fancy. When you tell your story, you simplify the Gospel by your testimony.

It is said Evangelist Billy Graham was preaching at Cambridge in England when he was active. For three nights, he tried to make his preaching academic and enlightened but with no effect. The people were not responding. This was Cambridge, England, a city of academics and intellectuals, why were they not responding. Graham finally realized that presenting the intellectual side of faith was not his gift. We have been discussing gifts in our Bible study and this shows the importance of knowing your gifts and your strengths. He started preaching the simple message of Jesus rescuing people from sin. He even shared about what God had done in his own life. The results were amazing. Hundreds of university students accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior. His preaching was simple and clear and people understood that.

The first way to simplify the Gospel is through our testimony. The second way is through the demonstration of God’s love, grace, and power. Paul wrote in verse 4: “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.”

In America people say, “Talk is cheap. Put your money where your mouth is.” This means show me, prove it, and demonstrate it to me. In 1 John 4:20 we read,
“If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. John was saying if we love God, we will demonstrate it in concrete, practical ways. There is a book called, “The Five Love Languages” in which the author explained to married couple five ways to demonstrate their love. The five love languages begin with words of affirmation and encouragement where we always use words that build and use positive words to lift each other up. We can demonstrate our love for God the same way, through words of praise to God for all the glorious blessings we receive. It’s easy to criticize and tear people down but we want to focus on the positive. Let’s offer each other kind words each day.

The second language of love is quality time. We should not become so busy that we forget the ones at home. There was a pastor of a very large congregation who decided that within a year he would visit every member of his congregation. At the end of that year, he stood in the pulpit and asked if there was anybody in the congregation he had not visited. One hand went up. It was his wife. He had spent so much time visiting the members that he forgot his own wife. Quality time, whether it’s with our families or with God, or with the church, is a demonstration of the Gospel. God wants quality time with us.

The third language of love is giving gifts. It doesn’t have to be a special occasion to buy gifts for one another. You remember that song, “No New Year’s Day to celebrate, in fact it’s just an ordinary day; I just called to say, ‘I love you.’” We can demonstrate the Gospel every day. It doesn’t have to be New Years, Thanksgiving, Christmas, or a birthday to give gifts. Taking flowers to those at home, calling to see how a friend is doing, visiting those who are sick, welcoming new people into the church are just a few wonderful ways to simplify the Gospel.

Acts of service is the fourth language of love. Several years ago, a young man with AIDS started attending a local church. When he introduced himself, he told them he had AIDS. This was a time when not much was known about the disease and people were scared. The men’s organization welcomed this young man, Fred and made him feel at home. The sickness slowly began to claim Fred’s life but every time he came to church, the people reached out to him with love and acceptance. Eventually Fred became too sick to leave home. One day he called one of the men named John to come over. John and his dad went to see how they could help Fred. He told them he wanted to go to church. John and his dad tried to convince Fred he was too sick to go to church. But he kept insisting, “No I want to go to church.” John and his dad managed to get Fred to church. It was Fred’s last Sunday on earth. He died that week. John and his dad, the men’s organization, the entire congregation demonstrated the true love of God to Fred. Later that day, before he died, Fred told John and his dad that the church was the only place where he felt loved and accepted and where he spent his last Sunday in fellowship with people who cared about him.

The fifth love language is physical touch. For couples, this is easy. But for a church, it can be challenging for some. Yet we know Jesus healed by touching people and one woman who touched the hem of his garment was healed immediately. When we hold hands and sing, it is a demonstration of God’s love. After church, people greet one another with hugs and handshakes.

These five love languages are clear demonstrations of the Gospel. We are called upon to simplify the Gospel. The way we simplify the Gospel is not by a multitude of words, but by our testimony about what God has done in our lives, and by demonstrating the Gospel in our relationships with others.

A pastor was asked if he could summarize the entire Gospel in one sentence what would that be? The pastor answered, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that whosever believe in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.” That is from John 3:16.

Yes, we know there are theological terms such as the Incarnation, Immaculate Conception, the Synoptic Gospel, justification, sanctification and so on to discuss the doctrines of the faith. But we can learn from Paul the Apostle who told the Corinthians he did not go to them with eloquence or human wisdom. He went with his testimony. Our testimony can speak volumes. Paul also told them his message and his preaching was not with wise and influential words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.

May the Holy Spirit give us the courage to simplify the Gospel by testifying about what God has done for us and demonstrating the Gospel in our relationship to others. May God bless us all. Amen.

 

January 29, 2017

Micah 6:1-8

“The Offering God Expects”

 

There was a young man who told his pastor he would promised God a tithe of his income if God would bless his career. So, they prayed for God to bless his career at work. At that time, he was making $400.00 per week and tithing $40.00. In a few years, his income increased and he was tithing $500.00 per week. He called on the pastor to see if he could be released from his tithing promise. His promise to God was costing him too much now and it caused him pain to give $500 each week. The pastor replied, "I don't see how you can be released from your promise, but we can ask God to reduce your income to $400.00 a week, then you'd have no problem tithing $40.00.”

This young man had a misunderstanding of the meaning of offering. In the Bible, there were five kinds of offerings. The Burnt Offering, which we find mainly in Leviticus 1, 6, 8 and 16, was an act of worship. It was also to make atonement and reconciliation. Usually an animal such as a ram was killed as a substitute for the person. This meant instead of God killing us right there for our sins, the ram took our place as a substitution.

The Grain Offering was the second kind. This is where the worshippers offered food grain, flour, olive oil, baked bread to recognize that it was God who provided for their farms to produce crops and animals to multiply. This was like a Thank Offering to say to God, “Lord, it was only because of you that our farms produced a bountiful harvest and our animals multiply; and because of you we have food to eat.”

The third offering was the Peace Offering. Worshippers brought any kind of animals that had no defects and offered it to the Lord.  The purpose was for fellowship and deepens the relationship with God and the community. Parts of the animals were given to the priests and later the community would eat together.

The Sin Offering involved the sacrifice of an animal to receive forgiveness for unintentional sins such as manslaughter, lying to save yourself, cheating on your taxes, lusting in the heart after a beautiful woman or a handsome man. This offering also provided cleansing from things that defiled the people.

The Trespass Offering also known as a Guilt Offering included paying a fine for sins people committed against others. If one person borrowed money or destroyed the property of another, they had committed sin against God because whatever we do to hurt one another hurts God.

So you see, an offering was a way of confessing and seeking forgiveness. It was a sign of repentance and a sign of shame and apology. The offering is also a way of praising God, of celebrating the goodness of God, of thanking God for everything. The offering is like a little boy who wanted to give his dad a birthday gift. He went to his father’s closet, took a necktie off the rack, wrapped it as a present and brought it to him and said, “Happy birthday, Dad.” His father took the little boy, picked him up, give him a hug and said, “Thanks you son.” When we give to God, we take something wonderful that belongs to Him already and we give it to him as though it was ours in the first place. God is so kind that he delights in the gifts we give him, even though we couldn’t give him anything if he had not first blessed us with it.

In Micah 6, God is telling Israel about the kind of offering He expects from them and from us. The setting is like a courtroom where the witnesses are the elements of nature and nature itself. God begins in chapter 6 by saying, “Hear, you mountains, the Lord’s accusation; listen, you everlasting foundations of the earth. For the Lord has a case against his people; he is lodging a charge against Israel.”

Why is God bringing a case against Israel? This is because God was demanding of Israel that which they promised. God and Israel entered a covenant at Mount Sinai where God agreed to love, protect, save and care for Israel; for their part, Israel agreed to love, worship and serve God alone faithfully. Israel was being unfaithful and so God was holding them to their word.

Just as Israel and God entered a covenant at Mount Sinai, so we entered a covenant with God at Calvary’s mountain where Jesus was sacrificed and offered for our sins. God expects us to hold our end of the bargain. God demands that we keep our agreement. But the people seemed to be confused as to what kind of offerings to bring to God. In Micah 6-7, we hear the people asking, “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

God was not pleased with the way the people were worshipping and bringing their offerings.  They were paying lip service to God. It was like the pastor who had a dream and God showed him his congregation singing. The people were singing but no sounds came from their mouths. Only one little girl could be heard. When the pastor asked what happened, God said the people were not singing from their hearts. When they were singing, some were thinking about lunch. When the pastor was preaching, another group was thinking about the football game or about the new car they had bought. I wonder if GOD showed me our congregation, will there be any sound from us?

The Israelites started asking God what kind of offerings did He want? Did he want burnt offerings of thousands of rams? Did God want thousands of gallons of Olive Oil? Did God want them to sacrifice their own children? But they were missing the point. In Psalm 50, we find the answer to their questions: “I bring no charges against you concerning your sacrifices or concerning your burnt offerings, which are ever before me. I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, 10 for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. 11 I know every bird in the mountains, and the insects in the fields are mine. 12 If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it. 13 Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?”

The prophet Micah then declared to the people the kind of offering God expected. He said, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

The first offering God expects is for us to act justly. Justice in the Bible means living according to God’s standards. It also means wishing for everybody that which you want for yourself. Justice means living according to the Beatitudes, which is our Gospel lesson for today. Justice means ensuring everyone enjoys life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Justice means “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Justice means treating everyone fairly. Justice is an expression of love. Jesus put it this way: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

Not only should we act justly, we must love mercy. A man and his family were traveling late one night. The man wanted to get home and was not paying much attention to his speed. Suddenly the dreaded BLUE LIGHTS appeared in his mirrors. The man tried to think of some excuse as to his speed when the officers came up to his window. As the officer shined his flashlight in the man's face he looked at him. The officer then placed the light on the passenger. It was the man's wife and she was 7 months pregnant. Then the officer saw the baby in the car seat. Then he looked in the back seat and noticed 3 sleeping kids. The officer then looked in the back of the station wagon and saw there were 2 dogs wagging their tails. Then the officer returned the light to the man driving the station wagon. Sir, I see you cannot afford a speeding ticket. You better slow down with that precious cargo.” The policeman quietly turned and walked away, got in his car and drove away.

The third offering God expects of us is that we walk humbly with him. A great evangelist said, “Be humble or else you will stumble.” I heard of a professor in Liberia who had two doctorate degrees and insisted that people should call him, “Doctor, Doctor.” He was long on degrees but short on humility. John the Baptist was a man with humility. Imagine he was the preacher and prophet of the time but when Jesus came he had to get out of the way. It took a lot of humility for him to say, “I must decrease so he will increase.”

There was a pastor who began a new assignment with a local church. The first thing he did when he got in the pulpit was to spend half of his sermon talking about his own weaknesses and shortcomings and how the congregation can help him. That’s humility. We pastors sometimes have the hardest time seeking help because we have become so used to helping people. We don’t realize when it’s time to seek help for ourselves. Humility is knowing we don’t have all the answers and pointing people in the right direction. Humility is being aware that God is the source of all the gifts we have and so we point to God when people praise us. All Christians must walk in humility with God. I must remember that when people come to Christ, it is not I but the Holy Spirit working through me. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 3:6, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but it is God who makes it grow.”

Every day we make offerings to God. God will accept our food and money and gifts because the church will use them to carry on the mission of the church. No matter how much we offer, let us offer knowing we are giving God what already belongs to God. The offerings God really expects from us are the offering of justice to all we meet, the offering of mercy to others, and ourselves and to walk with God in humility. Amen.

January 22, 2017

 

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

“Giving Credit to Whom Credit is Due”

     A local newspaper asked Christian pastors to write an article and answer one question. That question was, “What would you like to see change in your faith or spiritual tradition during the next 10 years?” The most popular answer to that question was that the greatest need Christianity has today is the need for Christian unity. Throughout the history of our faith, unity has been one of the greatest problems we, as followers of Jesus Christ, have ever experienced. The things that have divided us have ranged from theological differences, such as whether we are saved by Grace or do we have to work out our own salvation. Other things that divide the Church are such things as “Once saved always saved,” or can we lose our salvation? Should we baptize in the name of the Trinity or only in the name of Jesus? At baptism should we sprinkle, pour, or immerse people in water, or should baptism be by immersion alone?

        

  There have been some serious theological issues that have divided the Church. Then there have been some not so serious issues that destroyed unity in the church. Churches have divided over whether the pianist should sit to the right or the left side of the podium, over whether the Lord's Supper should be served from the front to the back or the back to the front, over trying to decide whether a kitchen should be a part of the church building or not.

 

There is a story of how Christian disunity expressed itself. Two men met on a plane and one man asked the other, "Are you a Christian?" 
"Yes I am." 
"Wonderful! Are you Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox?" 
"I’m a Protestant." 
"That’s great. So am I. Tell me, what kind of Protestant are you?”

 

"I am a Methodist." 
"This is a miracle! Are you a United Methodist, a Free Methodist, or a Wesleyan?”

“I am a United Methodist from the old Methodist Episcopal Church.”

“Interesting.  Are you from the Southern Methodist or the Northern Methodist?

“I am from the Southern Methodist group.”

With that the first man ceased to smile, turned away and refused to speak any further to that heretic. 

          This is one of the problems the Corinthian Church had to deal with. They had many problems and one of those problems was division and a lack of Christian unity. In chapter 3, Paul is calling attention to the kind of division they had. In Acts, chapter 18, we see that Paul and Apollos were very active in starting the Corinthian Church. Apollos was described as a man who was very eloquent and had deep knowledge of the Scriptures. He was enthusiastic about the faith but he knew only the baptism of John. Two other believers invited him to their home and explained to him more about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Both Paul and Apollos were gifted preachers and wonderful teachers, but the people in the Corinthian Church decided to take sides. One group said they would follow Apollos. Another group said they would follow Paul. There were two factions in the Church. You know, when there are factions in any church, there will be disagreements and arguments. I can only imagine how deep the disagreements were and how loud the arguments sounded. Everybody was holding on to his or her positions. One group insisted Paul was a better preacher than Apollos. Another group said Apollos preached better than Paul, and so the division continued.

          So Paul wrote to them and asked, “After all, who is Apollos? And who is Paul? We are simply servants of God.” Paul went on to write, “Each one of us does the work which the Lord gave him to do: I planted the seed, Apollos watered the plant, but it was God who made the plant grow.” Paul added, “The one who plants and the one who waters really do not matter. It is God who matters, because he makes the plant grow.” Paul described himself and Apollos as “partners working together for God.”

          This message reminds us that the Church does not belong to anyone of us, yet it belongs to all of us because we are all God’s servants working together for the glory of God. Jesus Christ founded the Christian Church and it belongs to Him. As we carry out the mission of Jesus Christ, we will win souls and many will come to Christ because of the saving Grace of Jesus Christ. It is important to remember we were not the ones who converted people and brought them to the Church. Conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit. We must not take credit for God’s work and what God is doing among us. We must give credit to whom credit is due. We must say like John the Baptist, “I must decrease so that Christ will increase.” It’s not about me. It’s not about you. In Luke 17:10, Jesus gave us the attitude we should have as servants of God. Jesus said, “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'"

          In his letter to the Philippians, Paul described what unity in Christ is like. In Philippians, chapter 2, Paul wrote, “make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature of God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!”

          We are all on the Management Team of Jesus Christ. We are all servants together. We practice the priesthood of all believers. We support one another. We pray for one another. If one person succeeds, we all succeed. If one person has challenges, we must encourage that person. This is God’s work, not mine. It’s not about me. It’s all about God. We are a church where Jesus is Lord and God gets all the glory. Jesus is the Author and Finisher of our faith. The credit goes to God for the wonderful things he has done and is doing among us. Like Paul said, some of us may plant seeds of kindness and generosity. Others may water it with love and compassion and forgiveness. When we see the fruits of our labor, we can only say, “Praise be to God for his blessings on us.” I will not take credit for it. We must give credit to whom credit is due and the one who deserves all the credit and recognition is God. We are only servants.

          There is an interesting story about how Mahatma Gandhi almost became a Christian and how the church lost an opportunity to convert him. Writing in his autobiography, Mahatma Gandhi wrote that during his student days, he read the Gospels seriously and considered converting to Christianity. He believed that in the teachings of Jesus he could find the solution to the caste system that was dividing the people of India. The caste system in India is like a class system where they had four major groups: The intellectuals, the soldiers, the business owners, and the manual workers. So one Sunday Gandhi decided to attend services at a nearby church and talk to the minister about becoming a Christian. When he entered the sanctuary, however, the usher refused to give him a seat and suggested that he go worship with his own people. Gandhi left the church and never returned. “If Christians have caste differences also,” he said, “I might as well remain a Hindu.” Exclusion divides and brings dishonor to the name of Christ.

          What is the most serious issue facing Christians today? I feel it is division, or the lack of unity. We are all followers of Jesus Christ. We are all called by Him to serve together. When Christ comes again, he will not be coming back for denominations. He will be coming back for the Church, which is his bride. He will be coming back for a community of the faithful. May the Spirit of God, which gave us “one Lord, one faith and one baptism help us see beyond ourselves and realize that we are one in Christ and help us to give God the credit and recognition for all good and wonderful things in our lives. Amen.

 

January 15, 2017

John 1:29-42

The Power of Positive Connections

There is a common saying that goes, “Show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you are.” This means the people we spend a lot of time with can influence us one way or another.  Some years ago, the New York Times published an article title, “Are your friends making you fat?” (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/13/magazine/13contagion-t.html). In that article, the writer reported that research showed how many times we do things because our friends are doing it. One woman used to smoke but didn’t see it as a problem because most of her friends were doing it. As they grew older, some of her friends decided to stop smoking. She felt uncomfortable leaving the group to smoke a cigarette every time she and her friends went out. She decided to quit. She and her friends had stopped smoking because one person took the lead. Research has shown that “good behaviors – like quitting smoking or staying slender or being happy – pass from friend to friend almost as if they were contagious viruses.” The same was true for bad behavior. If you spend time with a group that smokes, is overweight, or is unhappy, the chances are that you will smoke, become overweight or become unhappy. The research also showed that “Happiness was more contagious than unhappiness.” This means there is power in positive connections. If you are connected to the right people, the positive people, you will think and be positive.

I believe this is what John the Baptist wanted to do. He understood his mission was to prepare the way for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He knew he was not the focus of attention and it wasn’t about him. He was more about shining the light on Jesus than on himself. This is something all Christians can learn. When we pastors preach and people are inspired, rather than giving praise to God, it’s tempting to feel a little puffed up and think it was our own smartness. Or when a congregation is growing, it’s easy for some members to feel it is the ministry they do that is giving the church growth. It is important to always remember it’s not about me, it’s not about us. Everything we say and do must give honor and glory to our Lord Jesus.

John began to announce to the people, “A man who comes after me has exceeded me because he was before me.” John went on to say, “I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.” When John said he did not know Jesus, what he meant was he did not recognize Jesus was the Anointed One, the Messiah. He knew there would come a Messiah. He knew the prophecies about the Anointed One had been fulfilled but he wasn’t sure who exactly it was.

On one occasion, when John baptized Jesus, he saw the Holy Spirit descend upon him and heard the voice of God declare who Jesus was. It was then that he realized this was the Messiah. If we ever want to know where the presence of Christ is, or where we can see God at work, we must ask God’s spirit to show us. Just as God showed John who the Messiah was, God will show us what we need to know.

John knew that with the arrival of the Messiah, his mission was over. His purpose was to prepare the way for the Anointed One. The Anointed One was here. His assignment was to announce God was coming. In Jesus God was fully present. John knew his time of death was near. But he had disciples and wanted to make sure they continued in the way of righteousness and on the path of truth. John wanted his disciples to receive the power of positive connection. The company we keep or the people we spend most of our time with can help us or hurt us.

One day, people came and asked if John was the Messiah. He said he was not. They asked whether he was Elijah. He said no he was not. So they asked, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” John used the words of Isaiah to answer them:  “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”

The Pharisees asked John why he was baptizing if he was not the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet. John said to them, “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” After that, for two days in a row, John was with his disciples when he encountered Jesus.

On the second day, when John was with his disciples, he saw Jesus passing by. He said to his disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” When John said to them, “Behold, the Lamb of God,” the word used for “Behold” means “look at,” “see,” “don’t miss this,” or “Be sure to see this.” John was describing an opportunity his disciples could not miss. This is the Lamb of God. This is the one the prophets spoke of. This is a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet the Messiah, the Anointed One. John was telling them his time was up and they were to follow the Messiah who would take them into paradise and eternal life. He was sending them to receive the power of a positive connection.

Connections are very important. Positive Connections are even more important. Many times in life, we don’t succeed by our technical know-how alone, but by our technical know-who. People we know and are connected to can help us get ahead. If we know the Lord, we know the best. When Jesus came, people had been looking for the Messiah. John didn’t recognize him at first. But when he did, he wanted to make sure his disciples were connected to the Messiah. The disciples heard John say, “I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.” There is nothing greater than the personal testimony. If you want to convince somebody about anything, especially the Gospel and its power, you need a personal testimony. If you want to tell people about forgiveness, you have to testify about how God forgave you. If you want to tell people about God’s love, tell them first about how you experience God’s love. How can you tell others about salvation when you don’t feel you have been saved? John gave his personal testimony about Jesus.

So the next day, when he saw Jesus again, he wanted to leave his disciples in the divine care of Christ so that they will remain connected to divine power. This is something we should all strive for, to be connected to Jesus and help all our family and friends get connected as well. There are many benefits to being connected to Jesus. When John told his disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God,” they started following Jesus. Jesus saw them and asked a question. One benefit of being connected to Jesus is we will find the answer to the question Jesus asked the disciples. In the New Revised Standard Version, the question is, “What are you looking for?” In a world where people are focusing on material things and popularity, this is the question for us: What are we looking for? Are we desperate for attention? Are we trying to feel important? In our everyday lives, the question comes to us in another way, What do we hope to accomplish by the things we do? As Jesus put it, “What are you looking for?”

In the New American Standard Bible, the question is, “What do you seek?” Other translations read, “What do you need?” or “What are you seeking?” If we will follow Jesus, we must ask ourselves this question. It has to do with why we are following Jesus in the first place. Is it because others are doing so? Is it because we will look righteous and moral in the eyes of others? Soon others will be looking for Jesus and he knew what they already wanted. Many crowds followed Jesus mainly because of the free food he offered. The religious leaders followed Jesus to set him up, have him arrested and crucify him. Why are we following Jesus?

When Jesus asked them the question, the disciples answered by asking permission to visit him: “Where are you staying?” On one level, the disciples want to know where Jesus lives. They wanted to develop a personal relationship with him. You do not go to someone’s home unless you develop a close, personal relationship with him. The second benefit of being connected to Jesus is we get to spend time with him. In Psalm 27, David said he wanted only one thing from God.  He wrote:

 

One thing I ask from the Lord,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life.

 

 

The disciples wanted to go where Jesus was staying to learn more about him, to discuss with him the serious questions of life, to be in the presence of God. Not only did they want to know his physical location, they wanted to know where he was spiritually. What were his views on God, his position on heaven, and his stand on peace and justice? They had many questions and they soon discovered Jesus was the answer to all questions they had. As we spend time with Jesus, we will grow in our relationship with him. We will say, as prayer goes, “Day by day, dear Lord, three things I pray: To see thee more clearly, love you more dearly, follow you more nearly day by day.”

The third benefit with being connected to Jesus is that we can tell others about it and bring them into that same relationship we have. One of the two who spent the day with Jesus was Andrew, Simon’s brother. As soon as he got the chance, he went to find his brother and said, “We have found the Messiah.” It was like saying we have found the solution to life’s problems. We have found the answer to death. We have found the greatest treasure ever known to human beings. We have found the answer to depression, to anxiety, to hatred, to war, to racism, to sexism, to abuse of all kinds. We have found the Messiah.  

Andrew took his brother Simon to Jesus. Jesus took one look at him and said, “You are Simon, son of John, but you are to be called Cephas.” Cephas is the Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, for Rock. Later when the Bible was translated into Greek, the word became Peter, which means Rock. Jesus looked at Simon and saw his true essence and gave him a new name.  When we meet Jesus, he sees our true essence and gives us a new name that He knows.

Show me your friends, and I’ll tell you who you are. If you hang out with other Christians, I know you are connected to the Messiah. Through that connection, you will find the first benefit of being connected to Christ is that he is the answers to all of the pressing questions you have? Whatever you’re looking for in life, you will find it in Jesus. The second benefit is that you will always be in the presence of the Lord and you will generate rays of sunshine and peace to others. The third benefit is that you can bring others to salvation. That is the power of being connected to Christ. Amen.

 

January 8, 2017

Matthew 3:13-17

“Christian Initiation”

                   Initiation is a process of accepting others to become a full part of a group. It is when you want to belong to an association or an organization and for you to be fully admitted into that organization or association, you have to be initiated. Initiation is a ceremony that takes a person from being outside to being inside. It is like going through a door to join others who belong. There was one student in college who wanted to join a fraternity. During his time in college they noticed he didn’t grow any facial hair. As a part of his initiation when he wanted to join the fraternity was that they took a sharpie marker and drew a beard and mustache on his face. They told him he had to wear that on his face for a whole week. Every morning he had to draw it back on. Some initiations have been worse than that.

          Different groups have different initiation rituals. Even in Christianity, we have our initiation rite. It is called baptism. In the early Church things were different. First of all, it was a great risk to accept Jesus and become a Christian. There were some Roman emperors who hated the faith and blamed Christians for the problems of Rome. These emperors made life difficult for Christians by arresting them and torturing them to leave the faith. In those days, before becoming a Christian, you had to ask yourself if you were ready and prepared to die. If you were not prepared to give up your life for Jesus Christ, don’t waste your time to become a Christian. I wonder if today those who accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior were told that death and dying for Christ was a part of being a Christian, how many would actually convert.

          Before going through Christian initiation in the early church, there were times of preparation, instruction, and testing. The time of preparation took about three years. This was a time of learning about Jesus and his way, and what it would take to be a member of the Christian community and included prayer, fasting, and service to others.  This period also included instruction about the belief of the faith. People in the community watched to see if you behaved as a Christian. When the leaders felt the converts were ready, they were initiated by water baptism. Baptism usually took place at Easter.

Early on Easter morning, the converts went to rooms with pools, where they stripped off their old clothing. They were anointed with oil, and stepped into the waist-deep waters. The bishop submerged each candidate three times - in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. When they emerged they were no longer catechumens but newly baptized Christians. They were given new white robes, anointed again with oil, embraced in a sign of peace, and given a lighted candle. They were then led to a room in which the Eucharist was celebrated, and they received Communion for the first time.

It was our Lord Jesus who started it for the Christian faith. Baptism was already a strong part of the Jewish faith. Throughout the Old Testament, we see water as a symbol for cleansing, for renewal, for repentance, and for new birth. In the book of Exodus, the priests were supposed to wash themselves before beginning their service. God brought the people of Israel from slavery to freedom through the Red Sea. Today, the Jews still use water baptism as a way to mark new beginnings and to celebrate fresh starts. When John was baptizing, it was to call people to repentance. Those who came to John to be baptized were Jews seeking to participate in a ritual bath of cleansing for repentance and renewal.

You can imagine the shock on John’s face when he looked up one day and saw Jesus coming to be baptized. John knew about Jesus. He knew they were cousins and that Jesus was born six months after he was born. When John heard that Jesus was preaching and healing people, he said to the crowd in John 3:30, The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom stands by and listens for him, and is overjoyed to hear the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must increase while I must decrease.”

This is something that all Christians and all preachers need to learn to say: “He must increase while I must decrease.” It’s not about us. Sometimes you hear Christians say, “This is my church or this is our church.” I’m sorry to tell you but the church is not my church and it’s not our church. The church belongs to God. Jesus is the head of the Church, the foundation upon which our faith is built. Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of all things, but one who has no beginning and has no end. Even before Jesus came to be baptized, John told the crowds, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” We must decrease so Jesus will increase.

This is why when Jesus came to be baptized, John said to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you. And do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus wasn’t baptized because he was sinful or because he had any reason to repent. Since baptism symbolizes and marks the start of a new chapter in a person’s life, Jesus was baptized to mark the start of his ministry, the beginning of his mission. Ever since then, Baptism has become Christian initiation.

Baptism is the Christian initiation that gives us new live, a new beginning, and gives us a new start. Baptism is a reflection of what is taking place or what has already taken place in your heart. Since it’s all about the repentance in your heart and our acceptance of Jesus Christ, it doesn’t matter how much water we use. For some Christians, immersion is the only form of baptism. We United Methodists recognize three forms of baptism: sprinkling, pouring, and immersion. It’s about your heart, not about the water. The water is only to tell the world what the Holy Spirit is doing in your life.

There are some Christians who believe only in adult baptism. We United Methodists believe in infant baptism because we believe parents can intercede for their children and Christ will save them. In Matthew 9 and Luke 5, there was a man named Jairus whose daughter was sick and died. He went to Jesus and Jesus brought his daughter back to life. Jesus did that because her father interceded for her. Through allowing our children to be baptized, we are interceding for them. We are also saying we will become responsible for raising them to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

This Christian initiation is the start of our new life in the Lord. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” Many years ago, a man who used to work for the Ford Motor Company became a Christian and was baptized. Shortly after he got saved, the Holy Spirit convicted him of his need to make repayment for some car parts and tools he had stolen from the company before he had become a Christian. The next morning he brought everything back to his employer, explaining how he had just been baptized and wanted to make things right. His boss was surprised so he sent a telegram to Mr. Ford, who was out of the country, and asked him how he should handle the situation. Mr. Ford sent an immediate reply: “Get the Detroit River ready, we may need to baptize the entire city!” Yes, baptism is Christian initiation that shows we have new life in Christ.

Let me clarify that there’s no magic in the water. Baptism is a symbol. We United Methodists call it, “An outward sign of an inward grace.” In other words, when the Holy Spirit convicts us of sin and we repent, we are baptized to show the world that something has taken place in us. If there is no repentance, we will be like the little man who wanted to get baptized because others were getting baptized. He went to the river and the preacher dipped him in. His wife asked him, “Do you feel anything?” “Yep,” he answered, “I feel wet.” Without conviction and repentance, we will go to the river as sinners, go under as sinners, and come up as wet sinners.

Baptism is also important because it symbolizes we have been buried with Christ when we are immersed or when water is poured on us.  A six-year-old boy and his family were going to support his grandmother who was going to be baptized. They had tried to tell the 6 year old grandson what was happening, how Grandma was dying to sin and being baptized into Christ and so Grandma was placed under the water, signifying her death, and she was brought back up, representing her resurrection. As soon as Grandma came out of the water, the 6 year old looked around and then leaned over and whispered to his dad, “Daddy, how are they ever going to get Grandma up on that cross?” The little boy thought they were going to literally hang his grandma on the cross. If that were the case, how many would come to Christ?

But it is the case because even though we don’t have to hang on the cross, we still have to die with Christ. Paul wrote in Galatians 3:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  Paul says in Rom. 6- “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism. For we know that our old self was crucified with Him, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin.

Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. Jesus did not have to repent of his sins because he was pure and perfect and had no sins. Jesus was baptized to mark the start of his ministry, the beginning of a new day, the launch of His Gospel Ministry. You remember after His baptism, the Holy Spirit appeared, the Voice of God the Father was heard, and Jesus was ready to begin. There was no looking back. May the Spirit help us remember our own baptism and remind us that our Christian initiation was the beginning of new life in the Spirit. May we always live for Christ. Amen

 

January 1, 2017

 

Matthew 2:13-21