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Oct 15 - Love and Unity

Last week, we said that God’s plan for each person centers on love.  Now we cannot measure love on a scale.  We cannot buy or earn love and you cannot duplicate it.  Love is invisible; however, we can feel love.  Love is invisible; however, it can move and change what is visible.  We all can feel love. 

Perhaps a simple illustration might help.  About 17 years ago, my mother, who was living in a nursing home in Plymouth, Massachusetts, was in the last stages of Alzheimer’s disease.  I would visit her about once a month.  She no longer had the ability to speak and due to a broken hip was unable to walk.  She stayed in her bed.  Day and night had lost their distinction.  One day, my sister, who lived in Plymouth and could visit our mother often, called to report that my mother’s disease had progressed to the point where she did not recognize people, including my sister.  It was sad news.  A few weeks after that news, I visited my mother.  As I entered her room, my mother looked up at me.  Immediately, a smile came over her face and tears came down from her eyes.  Although the disease had captured much of my mother’s abilities, the invisible presence of love moved her mind and heart to respond.  Love is invisible but it is a powerful force in our physical world.

We have such capability to love and express love because who God loves made us in His own image.  God is always expressing His love for us and reaching out to us that we would know His love and respond to it.  In our Old Testament reading today from the Book of Jeremiah, we heard God express the manner and means He would love the people.  We read, “’The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant [I will express My love another way] with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors; the people broke that covenant.  [This time, instead of writing My words as rules upon stone tablets] I will put My words into their minds and the writing I will do will be upon their hearts.  [This will be new and they will new because] I will no longer remember the sins of the past.’” 

This and similar passage of Scripture give us reason to pause.  The passage says, God, whom we cannot see, will express love, which is, as we said, invisible.  Moreover, the record of this exchange of love will be found in our minds and our hearts, neither of which we can actually see ourselves.  Talk about a God moving in mysterious ways.  But at the time of His choosing, God did show His love in a very personal way.  To do this, God became most like us.  God sent Jesus to us, as God in human form.  Why?  To love people in a way that could be felt in their hearts and to teach people by transforming their minds with living word of God.  The mysterious way God showed His love was through the very real person of Jesus Christ.  We read throughout the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) that Jesus loved people. 

From the Gospel of Mark, a rich young man came to Jesus and asked, “I keep all the commands writing upon in stone, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  The Bible says, “Jesus looked at him [the man] and loved him. Jesus said, ‘You lack one thing.  Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me.’  At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.”  The man, who was willing to keep track of God’s commandments etched in stone, lacked the willingness to give his mind and heart to God and feel God’s love.  In this man’s case, money captured the man’s ability to love.

Jesus came to love.  The Gospel of John said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  To show the greatness of God’s love, Jesus laid down His life, that others, His friends, you and I would be moved to receive God’s Word into their minds and hearts. 

How do we allow the Spirit of God to move us?  Jesus explained this change in a person this way.  From Chapter 3 of the Gospel of John we would read, “There was a man named, Nicodemus, a prominent leader among the Jews. Late one night he visited Jesus and said, “Rabbi, we all know you’re a teacher straight from God. No one could do all the miracles you do without God.  Jesus said, “You’re absolutely right. Take it from me: Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what I’m pointing to—to God’s kingdom.  Nicodemus said, “How can anyone be born who has already been born and grown up? You can’t re-enter your mother’s womb and be born again. What are you saying with this ‘born-from-above’ talk?”  Jesus said, “You’re not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person gives authority to God – to His Spirit, the invisible presence who is able to move the visible, and receive a baptism into a new life—it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within that body is formed by something you can’t see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit.  So, don’t be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’—born again.”  If we want to feel God’s love in our lives we must receive Him and let Him change the spirit within us so that we move in the body in such a way as to honor God.

To receive God’s love and be born again, is not something your parents can do for you.  It is not something your friends can do for you.  It is not something that another person can force upon you.  I remember reading in Church history, a European king said if he won a battle he and his army would become Christians.  The king won the battle.  So, the king ordered his army to march along the edge of a river.  At the river’s edge, a priest stood with a branch full of leaves.  As the army marched by the priest dipped the branch into the water of the river and sprinkled the passing troops believing they were born again by God’s love.  This is not love.  Receiving God’s love means you do it.  In receiving God’s love, you are born again into a new being able to be moved in visible ways that show God is within you.

Now there is something interesting about receiving God’s love and being born again from above.  While the experience may be different for each person, all who receive God’s love are transformed into the image of Jesus Christ.  Now you might be saying to yourself, “Pastor, I just have a tough time believing that we are all made into the image of Jesus Christ.  I mean it is possible for me to be in the image of Jesus but not for some other people I know.”  My wife had a friend who used to like to say, “All the world is off except thee and me; and even thou art a little off!”  I know it is hard to believe, but God’s love changes us into the image of Jesus Christ.  And when we are all in the image Christ, then we have unity.  Think of it this way.  When a musician tunes an instrument, say a piano, he or she does so by tuning the keys to a standard such that the standard and the key play the same note.  If that musician tuned ten pianos that way, then the ten pianos would be united whenever they all played the same note.  That is unity and harmony.  So when we all accept God’s love we are all tuned to Him and thus have unity.

Jesus explained this interaction of love and unity.  We read about it in our New Testament reading from the Gospel of John, Chapter 17.  Please turn with me to John, Chapter 17.  This is part of a prayer Jesus made to God just before his arrest.  Jesus said in verse 13, “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they [my followers] may have the full measure of my joy within them. 14 I have given them your word.”  Jesus’ mission was to impart God’s word into the mind and hearts of his disciples.  In that transformation of these men, it was as if Jesus tuned them to be alike in their thoughts and hearts.  Now comes the challenging part.  God never intended for Jesus to stay in this physical world forever.  Verse 18, Jesus continued, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them [my followers] into the world.”  The plan was for the invisible love of God to be made know continually was through the message of the Gospel brought forward by Jesus’ disciples.  Those here today and who know anything of God’s word do so because of the work of one of Jesus’ disciples.  We are connected to the people hearing Jesus pray these words.  That was the God’s plan.

Jesus confirmed this plan as he continued in His prayer in verse 20, “My prayer is not for them [my followers listening to me] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message [that is you and me], 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 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.”  The prayer of Jesus was that the disciples would show the love He had for them to the world and that those who receive the love of Christ would continue to then share it with others.  In receiving that love from Christ, then each Christian would share unity with all other Christians.  Jesus said, “Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

You see friends, receiving God’s love and having unity with other Christians is God’s plan to continually show His love to the world. You and I are to be united and responsible to show God’s love in this world.  God’s invisible love becomes real and moves people visibly in the world.  Such unity cannot be forced.  Such unity comes only when we all give our lives over and accept the love of Christ.  When we are not acting united, love suffers.  A few years ago, a good friend where I had worked asked me if I would do the wedding for his son.  I said, “Before I agree to do so, I have one question.  Are your son and his fiancé both Christians?"” He said, “My son is a Christian but his fiancé does not believe in God.”  I said, “I am sorry.  I cannot do the wedding because it would not be a marriage built upon unity but would be wedding of disunity.”  The Bible tells us “You cannot have two instruments, tune one to a standard and leave the other untuned and expect the two instruments to play in harmony.”  It does not mean we cannot have a relationship with someone who does not believe in God; but we will never have the unity.

Jesus called Christians to live in unity and harmony.  Paraphrasing Jesus’ half-brother James, we learn that the Christian life of unity requires wisdom. James wrote, “Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.” [James 3:13-18] That is an illustration of community of unity and harmony that catches the attention of the world.  That is the invisible love of God made visible.

What then do we say when we come to realize that all Christians do not live in harmony and that there is evidence of disunity?  We see that all the time, don’t we?  If there is disunity in the church or in a Christian home, then there is a problem with love because unity is based upon love.  Jesus’ disciple Peter who heard Jesus’ prayer for the unity of all Christians said, “Above all, love each other deeply because love covers a multitude of sins.”  I do not often cite the Message rendition of the Bible, but I did like the paraphrasing of Peter’s words, “Most of all, love each other as if your life depended on it. Love makes up for practically anything. Be quick to give a meal to the hungry, a bed to the homeless—cheerfully. Be generous with the different things God gave you, passing them around so all get in on it: if words, let it be God’s words; if help, let it be God’s hearty help. That way, God’s bright presence will be evident in everything through Jesus, and he’ll get all the credit as the One mighty in everything.”  Our life is all about receiving God’s love, becoming born again, being united with one another, and then making God’s love clear by sharing His words and by showing that bright presence in an otherwise darken world.

God loves you and me.  God sent Jesus to us that through Jesus we would see God’s love and be united to Him.  God sent Jesus to us that through Jesus we would be united with one another.  Jesus sent his disciples and he sends you and me to live in His love and unity.  There are many convincing and persuasive logical arguments for Christianity, but the most powerful testimony is a life of love and unity.  What is the word of Christ without an example?  You and I are Christ’s chosen example of love and unity.  Now, let’s joyfully live as that example.  Amen and Amen.

Oct 8 - Love - God's Plan

            This morning we sang the hymn “Amazing Grace.”  It is one of the most recognizable Christian hymns, regardless of language.  The message of the hymn is one of hope.  The message is that regardless of the circumstances of life, God’s mercy is there for us.  Often, we sing this hymn at funerals because it brings us comfort.  This week in America, there were 59 more unexpected funerals to plan.  Fifty-nine of our fellow Americans died last Sunday and another 500 injured in a shooting in Las Vegas.  No doubt, some of those fifty-nine funerals including the playing or singing of Amazing Grace. 

The President and others called the shooting an act of pure evil.  Statements about evil and evil acts cause many to ask, “If God exists, then why is there evil in the world?  If God exists, then why didn’t He simply stop this man from firing the first bullet?”

These are not easy questions to answer.  But if the Church does not take on such questions, who will?  If we in this church community do not stand in contrast to evil, how then shall others outside this community understand that there is hope in this world?  Jesus said of those faithful to God, “You are the light of the world.  A city on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket.  Instead, they set it on a lampstand, and it gives light to everyone in the house (Mt. 6:14-15).  When the world is the darkest, the Church must stand brightest in the community and in the home.  When the world experiences pure evil, the Church must present God’s plan of love in the community and in the home.  How then do we answer the tough questions of evil and stand bright as hope in the community?

The shooting in Las Vegas was called evil by many; and it was evil.  What then is evil?  While evil is real, we are unable to describe evil without comparing it to something else.  Most definitions say evil is the absence or the opposite of something described as being good.  That sounds a little abstract.  Let’s consider evil using something with which we are more familiar.  Let’s consider this illustration, a hole in anything does not exist by itself.  It exists only in other things.  If we make a hole in a piece of cloth, a shirt, or pair of pants, the hole exists only because a piece of the cloth is missing.   A hole then corrupts the original cloth.  A cavity in a tooth only exists as an absence of what was once there.  Evil is real; but we know it as a corruption of what is good.  The shooting in Las Vegas is evil because it is a hole in what we hold to be good.

What then is good?  The Church believes that God is the author of what is good.  We believe that God created the heavens and the earth, all of nature, and then made humans, man and women, in His image.  When God saw what He had created, He said it was good.  Creation was without corruption, without evil.  If you will, there were no holes or cavities.

In that perfect and good creation, God said to the man and woman, “You are free to do anything you want.  You may eat of anything in the garden except that you must not eat the fruit from the tree in the center of the garden.”  God gave man and woman the ability to sustain their lives and the free will to choose how to live.  Why did God give them the freedom to choose?  In a single word, love.  God made people in His image and wanted people to love Him.  But love cannot act coercively.  Neither you nor I can force someone to love us.  For love to be love we must be freely given or freely rejected.  I have met and talked with thousands of people in my life.  I have never met one person who does not want love.  My two-month-old grandson who cannot yet speak wants love.  All babies do.  They want someone to hold them, comfort them, and talk to them.  Even an infant knows when someone is loving them and they respond it.  We never lose the desire for love no matter what happens in our life.  The Bible says, “God is love.”   Therefore, to be of the image of God, God gave us the will and freedom to make choices, including the choice to love or not to love.  When God saw what He had created, including the ability to choose and to love, He said it was very good.  Creation was without corruption, without evil.

So, in perfect creation, man and woman chose to love and live.  Then one day, they choose not to love what God had asked of them.  They chose to eat the fruit from the tree in the center of the garden.  The name of that tree was “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”  In using their free will, the man and woman corrupted creation by disobeying God.  The first couple put a hole in the cloth of creation.  We know this story well.  But we need to note something very important.  God did not intervene and stop the man and woman from eating the fruit, even though God knew how harmful that decision was for all of creation – God did not stop them.  Nor would God later stop Cain from killing Abel.  God did not stop David from stealing another man’s wife and having that man killed.  Instead, God moved in story after story to encourage people to use their free will to make a choice to love and to reject evil.

From our Old Testament reading today from the Book of Jeremiah, we read about God’s plan for us to make the choice to delight in what is good.  Jeremiah said, “31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people…I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

God’s plan, revealed through Jeremiah, was and is to show his love in an extreme way that would overwhelm us.  His desire is for us to see His love for us in a very personal way that we would choose to receive and love God not just with our minds but into our hearts.  Coming to love God then we could then choose love one another. How would God make this new covenant with His people?  By what means would God overwhelm us?  God would come Himself but in human form so that we could see Him born and see Him grow.  God would come surrounding Himself with flesh and bone so that people could see Him, touch Him, talk with Him, and listen to Him.  A Christian philosopher once wrote, “Persons are superior, in kind, not only to all things but even to all ideas, I need a person to whom I can give myself and thereby find myself.”  God came as person to whom we could choose to give ourselves, to love, and therefore, to know in our hearts not only the person of God but the person God wanted us to be.

We read about God’s unfolding His plan in our New Testament reading today, “16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  God acted in love by coming to a world full of people who were choosing to be angry, disappointed, vengeful, meanspirited, and selfish.  He came into the world that He might overwhelm it by His love and people would choose to believe in Him and His love.  In that believing, each person would be reborn into a new life forever with God.

Although the world was full of sin, the Bible tells us, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  God did not come into the world to take away our ability to make choices.  He came into the world in the person of Jesus Christ to show us the better choice of love. 

During His time on earth, Jesus loved those who were unloved by others.  Jesus loved those who followed Him.  He even loved those who hated him.  He healed the bodies, minds, and spirits of those who showed even the smallest amount of faith.  While He stopped the winds and waves on the Sea of Galilee, He never once intervened and stopped any person from doing anything.  He never once took away anyone’s ability to make a choice.  He did not take away Judas’ choice to love him or betray him.  He did not take away Peter’s choice to deny Jesus or stay with Him.  Jesus did not take away the choice of Pontius Pilate to judge him, to have him whipped, or have him crucified or to love Him and set Him free.  He did not take away the choice of the soldiers to pound nails into his hands and feet or thrust a spear into his side.  “For God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

We might argue Jesus could have or should have stopped his own execution.  But Jesus would not do so because to do so would strip people of their own will.  Those people then would not know either what is good or what it means to love.  You see the Bible says, “Anyone who does not love [or cannot love] does not know God [or cannot know God], because God is love.”  Jesus would not take away anyone’s ability to love and thus their opportunity to know God.

Our New Testament reading today said that when Jesus came into the world, light shined in the darkness.  But many people loved the darkness more than the light because their deeds were evil.  The events last Sunday in Las Vegas show us that some people still choose the darkness.

“If God exists, then why is there evil in the world?  If God exists, then why didn’t He simply stop this man from firing the first bullet?”  The answer is this: because God exists there is love in the world.  Because God exists there is good in the world.  Without God, we would not know what is good and we would not experience love.  Because God plan for us is based upon love, He would not intervene and not take away our will to choose.  He will not take away our choice to hold fast to what it good or to reject what is good.  Because if God took away that choice then He would have taken away love; the one desire we all share.

31 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. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 37 No, 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.”

            God’s plan is love.  We must not shrink away and hide because of the choices of other people to look for evil.  Instead, the role of the Church and the role of each Christian is to burn bright with the light and love of Christ so that the world may know and see love.  “You are the light of the world.”  “Let your love be real [because God is love and is real.]  Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.”  Amen and Amen.

Oct 1 - Having Fire In Your Bones

            This past week I had several good conversations with people about the future.  We shared about our current circumstances and strong desires to work toward new and better ways of living for ourselves, our families, and our church.  A sense of passion seasoned those conversation.  Passion is that deep desire, a hunger, to reach for something greater than exists in the moment.  Passion is one of those feelings that excites us and pushes us to move beyond difficulties of the moment.  I think deep down we all want to be passionate about the future.  Sometimes though present circumstances can leave us feeling more downbeat than upbeat.  Today, I would like us to look at some people who moved from despair about the present circumstances to a passionate love of the future.  How is that possible?  How could these people go from feeling hopeless to feeling hope-filled?  There must be some explanation for it.  There is.  Let’s begin by looking at the first circumstance of change with our good friend the prophet, Jeremiah.  Please turn with me to Jeremiah, Chapter 20, verse 1.

             As we have talked the last couple of weeks, Jeremiah was a prophet.  God charges a prophet to warn people to change their present behavior so that their future is assured.  Prophets see the present as God see it and yearn for a bright future living under God’s promises.  No one likes prophets because prophets call out people’s bad behaviors and prophet’s words demand change.  Priests on the other hand see the present and yearn to keep it like the past.  Tradition and keeping things unchanged is their desire.  A clash between the prophet, Jeremiah, and the priest, Pashhur, is about to happen.  Jeremiah had told the people that disaster was coming because the people were “stiffed neck and refused to listen to his words.” Verse 1 of Chapter 20 of the Book of Jeremiah says, “Now the priest Pashhur son of Immer [A-Mare], who was chief officer in the house of the Lord, heard Jeremiah prophesying these things.  Then [priest] Pashhur struck the prophet Jeremiah, and put him in the stocks that were in the upper Benjamin Gate of the house of the Lord.”  The clash between priest and prophet has begun with the priest throwing the first punch.  After beating the prophet, Jeremiah, Pashhur, the priest, then put Jeremiah in the stocks.  Now, we might think of stocks as those used in colonial America where you put your head and hands through some holes.  Stocks held the person for public humiliation and shame.  In ancient Israel, stocks fixed in place the hands and feet of the individual so that the body would be in a distorted or twisted position.  For Pashhur, the stocks were an instrument of torture designed to break the will of the person.  So, in this exchange, the priest concerned about preserving the past into the present beat and tortured the prophet concerned about changing the present for an assured future.  Jeremiah’s circumstances have become very difficult.

            Many of us know what it is like to face difficult circumstances.  We may have found ourselves as though we were in Pashhur’s stock.  Someone held us in an abusive relationship.  The pain of an illness twisted our body.  Perhaps, our pain came from being brought to court.  Maybe, our pain was the mental anguish because we were separated from family or from losing someone in death.  Pain, twisting pain, can come into our lives from many sources.  Such pain, whether physical, mental, or emotional depletes, discourages us, and can break our will.  We and Jeremiah then are no different.

The Bible says that the next day Pashhur released Jeremiah from the stocks.  Jeremiah told Pashhur, the priest, that the desire to hold fast to the past and preserve it in the present meant that danger and death awaited Pashhur and all who followed the priest.  The two men parted company and then, in the privacy of his own thoughts, Jeremiah poured out his despair and discouragement.

Verse 7, “O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.  I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me.  For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “Violence and destruction!”  For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.”  Jeremiah had arrived at a low point in his life.  He was sharing with God, “Because of your call on my life, I have become a joke.  People laugh at me and make fun of me all day long.”  No one wants to be the mocked, ridiculed, and humiliated.  When I worked for the Federal government, humiliation at the hands of another person was the most frequent reason someone would report wrongdoing of another.  Humiliation is a deep wound.  Jeremiah felt wounded and mocked for doing what God asked of him.  “Every time I speak, I shout. I am always shouting about violence and destruction.  I tell the people about the message that I received from the Lord.  But they only insult me and make fun of me.”  At that moment, it seemed to Jeremiah that God was not walking with him.  Jeremiah was at that point where he seemed ready to give up on the call God placed on his life and that it would be easier on him if he just stopped speaking.

How about you?  Have you ever felt like Jeremiah?  Have you felt weary and tired of moving forward because it just seemed like doing so was pointless?  Have you ever felt your will broken because those you thought loved you only made fun of you for dreaming about a better future?

Jeremiah, mentally and emotionally spent, in pain from physical torture, bruised from a beating, lay still for a moment believing perhaps that to speak no longer was the best thing to do.  In that moment of silence, something happened.  God entered the scene to restore the spiritual strength of Jeremiah.  We are mind, body, and spirit.  We can be mentally and physically tired but what decides whether we take that next step in life is our spirit.  God knows us well for God is Spirit.  We see God working upon the spirit of Jeremiah in verse 9, “If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name, then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot!”  Jeremiah in trying to be silent and not follow what God wanted felt the Spirit move within his body in such a many that he likened it to having fire in his bones.  Jeremiah could not hold within him what God wanted Jeremiah to do.  This is passion and it came about because the Spirit of God had overwhelmed Jeremiah.

Verse 10, Jeremiah said, “For I hear many whispering: ‘Terror is all around! Denounce him! Let us denounce him!’  All my close friends are watching for me to stumble.  [They whisper] ‘Perhaps he can be enticed, and we can prevail against him, and take our revenge on him.’”  But Jeremiah, even though he was physically tired and twisted from torture, even though he was mental exhausted from disappointment, had been spiritually strengthened by God and verse 11, he saw again the truth of his circumstances, “But the Lord is with me like a dread [or mighty] warrior; therefore, my persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail.  They will be greatly shamed, for they will not succeed.”  Jeremiah had moved from discouragement about the present to passion for the future because he saw that God was with him.  And Jeremiah went as far as to say in the beginning of verse 13, “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord.”

 Hopelessness cannot exist when we are in God’s presence.  It is our spiritual strength that decides the course of life.  It is our spiritual strength that gives us fire in our bones.

Let’s look at another example of spiritual empowerment from the New Testament.  Please turn with me to the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 24, beginning at verse 13.  As we enter this story, Jesus was dead but his body was missing.  Those who had followed Jesus were in despair.  All they hoped for was gone.  They were physically, mentally, and emotionally drained.  The circumstances of the present seemed bleak and unbearable. 

Two of Jesus followers were walking along the road from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus.  A person walked up to the two along the road, in verse 17, we read, ‘And he [the stranger] said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad.  Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’  He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth.’”  Jesus’ two followers told the stranger the reason for their hopelessness.  Jesus, their friend, had been the person they thought would lead the Jews to defeat the Romans.  Instead, the Jews arrested Jesus and gave him to the Romans who killed him.  Now they learned Jesus’ body was gone and angels said he had been raised from the dead; but they did not believe it.

These two followers saw the future as pointless, just as Jeremiah once saw the future, just as we sometime see the future as pointless.  These followers were in pain.  Their lives had been twisted out of shape by the cruel death of their friend on the cross.  They were heading home to be silent about the future they once expected in and through Jesus.

Just as the case with Jeremiah, it was at this low point that something happened.  God entered the scene, again.  This time God was in the form of Jesus Christ, the stranger along the road.  Verse 27, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he [the stranger] interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”  The Spirit of God was filling these sad and disheartened followers along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus.

  A little while later, the three are seated at a table to share in a meal.  Verse 30, “When he [the stranger] was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes [the eyes of Jesus’ followers] were opened, and they recognized him [the stranger was Jesus]; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem.”  These followers, so defeated by the death of Jesus, were spiritually renewed knowing that Jesus had risen from the dead. 

The spirit of these followers was made new because they recognized that God in the person of Jesus was with them.  They had hope and passion about the future.  They could not be silent.  Even though it was in the dark of night, these followers ran back to Jerusalem to share the good news with others.  When they arrived in Jerusalem they “told what had happened on the road, and how he [Jesus] had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread (35).”

Many of us know what it is like to face difficult circumstances.  We may have found ourselves as though we were in Pashhur’s stock.  We may have found ourselves as though we were walking down a road sad that the future we hoped for seemed out of reach.  We and Jeremiah and the two followers on the road to Emmaus are all the same.  We need to know that God is with us and will walk with us through the difficulties of life.  The Apostle Paul would later write, “We have troubles all around us, but we are not defeated. We often don’t know what to do, but we don’t give up.  We are persecuted, but God does not leave us. We are hurt sometimes, but we are not destroyed…We never give up. Our physical body is becoming older and weaker, but our spirit inside us is made new every day (2 Cor 4:8-9;16).”

God sent His Son Jesus to walk with us.  God sent Jesus to be tortured for us.  He sent Jesus so that we would be spiritually renewed.  Jesus gave us the bread and the cup to remind us that He is with us and that in Him we can have the passion of life.  We too can have fire in our bones and our hearts can be burning within us with the love of God.  But must seek God’s renewal of our spirit every day.  Come, let us all be renewed at the Lord’s Table.

Sep 24 - Are You On The Right Track

            The warm weather we are having made me think about some things we did as kids in the summer.  I remember playing outside a lot, without adult supervision, or at least we did not think we were being watched.  With the kids in the neighborhood, we would often play games that required choosing sides.  We would some technologically advanced methods of choosing people.  Everyone would form a tight circle putting one foot forward.  One kid would knee within the circle, tapping a finger on each person’s shoe as they sounded out “Ennie meenie miney mo, caught a tiger by the toe, if he hollers let him go, out goes y-o-u.”  It was very scientific but it did not allow for participation or decision making by those forming the circle.  So, we moved to a move advanced selection process by reciting the limerick to “Engine, engine number 9, going down the Chicago line.  If the train falls of the track, do you want your money back?”  The person to whom you were pointing when you say "back" answered either "yes" or "no.”  The person doing the calling would then then spell out the answer: "y-e-s spells yes and out you do go" or "n-o spells no and out you do go."  These were innocent times.  It was perfectly fine to use a silly and random method to choose side or finding out who was “it” in a game of tag.  But the innocence of youth and games eventually gives way to the reality of making life choices.

When we make life choices such as field of study in school, people to date and marry, places to work, places to life, medical options, end of life decisions, we do not want to leave those choices to pure chance.  Can you imagine choosing a spouse or making a medical decision by the “Ennie meenie miney mo,” method?  We would never do that.  We would want to use our intellect, gained wisdom, our senses, and our intuition to make a decision that could or would affect our life for years to come.

Yet many people are willing to use methods of chance in making decisions that will affect every part of their life on earth and their eternal life.  That comes in when people decide whether to believe in God, whether to listen to God, or whether to do what God asks – all of which affects every moment of our life here on earth and for all eternity.  Last week, we started looking at our lives through the lens of the prophet Jeremiah and his message to the people of Israel that they were on the wrong track.  Jeremiah came to challenge the people pointing out that they were playing games of chance with their mortal and eternal lives.  This week I would like us to look at some specific words God led Jeremiah to speak to the people.  Let’s turn to the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament Book of Jeremiah, Chapter 7, beginning at verse 1.

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, ‘Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the Lord.’  Thus, says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: ‘Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place.  Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’’” God sent Jeremiah to the great symbol of the Jewish faith, the Temple in Jerusalem.  There God told Jeremiah to tell the people two very important things.  First, the people must change their ways of thinking and their ways of acting.  Second, the people must stop deceiving themselves and believe that God is with them simple because they entered the Temple with His name on it. 

We see first that Jeremiah’s words address the people’s conduct before coming into the Temple.  He said to the people the way they were thinking and acting outside the Temple may seem right to them and may feel good them, but it was all wrong to God.  This is some shocking news but it is not new.  If we read other parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, or the New Testament, or this morning’s newspaper, we would find people always wanted to decide for themselves what is right and good.  I have no doubt that the leaders of North Korea believe it is right and good to starve its citizens to divert resources to build nuclear weapons to use against other nations.  I have no doubt that hardliners on the political left and right in this country believe their opposing views are the only ones that are right and good.  When people decide what is right and good apart from God considers right and good, it becomes a game of chance and ends badly.

Second, the people believed that the Lord was present with them in the Temple.  God was saying through Jeremiah.  “I am not here with you in this Temple because you are not with Me out there in the world.  You shout over and over, ‘This is the Temple of the Lord.’  But you deceive yourself because I will not be present until you change.”  Jeremiah was pointing out the people were living a life separated from the love for one another yet believed that in the Temple they were assured of God’s love for them.  The people were living a life on the surface that said, “I am in the Temple of the Lord and therefore, I am a right before God.  But when I leave the Temple I am free to behave as I please.”  The word of God says, “You must love the Lord Your God and love one another.”  You cannot love God and hate people.  That would be neither good nor right.  Likewise, you cannot love people and hate God or pretend He does not exist.  That would be neither good nor right.  The people in Jeremiah’s day were deceiving themselves and many people today, within the church and those outside the church, are deceived believing they can partition their life between loving God or loving people.

Jeremiah words were a little general in nature, so to help people understand he gave them some very practical tests about what is good and right.  Verse 5, “For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.”  It is here that God made clear that God, and not men and women, decides what is right and good.  God said you must act “justly one with another.”  The Hebrew word for acting justly is mishpat; meaning to act in a righteous manner, to act in a manner fitting of the character of God.  How can we know what is just and right to God if we do not know God?  How can we know what is fitting the character of God if we pretend He does not exist or we claim we believe and then do not follow His ways?  God’s plan for our lives begins with a commitment to amend our ways and our doings and to act justly, to act with the character of God toward one another.  God through the prophet Jeremiah told the people they must change their ways in the present so that they may have a future.

The prophet Jeremiah had a bit more to say at this moment.  He looked at the people as they entered the Temple complex listening to the words of the priests explain to the people what they must say and do within the Temple.  In verse 8, Jeremiah said, “Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail.  Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations?  Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?”  Jeremiah called out his fellow countryman for their misdeeds. 

If Jeremiah’s was talking to us, his words might sound like this: “Will you steal and cheat?  In your anger, will you murder other people either with your words you say to them or with your hands? Will you lust after another person in person or through pornography? Will you falsely accuse other people of all sorts of things? Will you place sports, your job, entertainment above knowing Me?  Will you believe in karma, crystals, and astrology and not just in Me?  If you commit these sins, do you think that you can come into this house and say, “We are safe,” just so you can back and do all these terrible things?  You have made My church into a gang’s hideout or crib.”  God’s words of prophesy are hard to hear but prophets speak about the present condition so that we may have a future.  The people of Israel did not listen to Jeremiah’s words then and they suffered for many years.  Foreign armies conquered the land and removed the people from it.  Only after the people changed their ways and sought what was right and good did God allow them to come back to the land and to the Temple.

But we humans are always interested in doing things our way and over time the people drifted off the mark again.  Six hundred years after Jeremiah stood in the Temple courts another man of prophesy entered Jerusalem.  He created quite a stir as He entered the city gates.  The Bible, the Gospel of Luke, says, “Then he, like Jeremiah, entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; and he said, ‘It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer; but you have made it a den of robbers.’”  The person who said these words was Jesus of Nazareth.  He reminded the people and the religious leaders the God was the source of right and good.  If we read further in the Gospel of Luke, we would find that “Every day he [Jesus] was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him; but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard [Jesus say].”

God does not want us to be ignorant of what is good and right.  He calls us to know Him and love Him.  He said through Jeremiah, “I will put my law within them [My people], and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”  This is a great promise from God.  He promised that one day He would forgive all wrongs, all sins, from those who would seek Him and follow Him.  God would forgive in such a manner that He would not even remember the offense.  We hold that Jesus was the Son of God who came to bring the God news of forgiveness.  Jesus forgave the sins of men and women through Israel and then on the evening before His death Jesus said, His blood would be poured out as a new covenant for the forgiveness of sin.

To follow Jesus and know God forgives all sin changes our life in the present and assures us of the future.  To believe and love in Jesus and then love other people as He loved us assures that we know what is good and right.  To know what is right and good is to live at peace with God and one another.

Our life in the present and our future should not be built upon the “Ennie meenie miney mo,” method of chance.  God’s way is that we should know God and know what is good.  That we should do justly, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.  This is why, we dedicate our children to God; committing to do all we can to share God with them.  We become faithful with church so that we can worship God with others, be challenged by hearing His word proclaimed, and we can develop into the living body of Christ.  This is why we serve others by teaching children, care those in need, and we step out of the church building and minister to those who do not know God and His love for them.

In a silly limerick, engine, engine, number 9, went down the Chicago line and fell of the tracks.  Your life is not a silly limerick; it is precious in the sight of God and He wants you to know the life He has for you in the present and for all eternity.  Please, do not leave to chance whether you are on the right track.  Come and seek what God has for you.  Amen and Amen.

Sep 17 - God Is With Me

For the next few weeks, I would like us to spend a little time touching upon the story of the life of a man named Jeremiah.  I think there is much we can learn through Jeremiah as to the way God works in and through our lives.  We read the opening words this morning from the Old Testament Book of Jeremiah in which the intersection of God and Jeremiah’s life first unfolded.  I would invite you to turn to that passage, Jeremiah, Chapter 1.

The opening verses give us a little background about Jeremiah.  “The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah [Hill-ki-a], of the priests who were in Anathoth [Ana-thought] in the land of Benjamin, to whom the word of the Lord came in the days of King Josiah [Joe-sigh-a] son of Amon of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. It came also in the days of King Jehoiakim [Ja-hoy-a-kim] of Josiah of Judah, and until the end of the eleventh year of King Zedekiah [Zed-a-ki-a] son of Josiah of Judah, until the captivity of Jerusalem in the fifth month.”  So, as we struggle through the Hebrew names and family relationships, we find out that Jeremiah comes from a family line of priests.  The role of the priests was to preserve the worship traditions of the past and keep the activities in the Temple and synagogues running in good order.  In that culture and even some cultures today, the occupation of the father set the occupation of the children.  My father was a plumber, so culturally I should be a plumber.  I am not; however, my brother assumed the family business and he is the plumber.  Many, if not all of us, understand the notion of children following in the footsteps of their parents.  Jeremiah, son of son of Hilkiah [Hill-ki-a], should become a priest.  To do otherwise, would be going against the wishes of the family and culture.  Jeremiah lived during a time in which God’s people had drifted far from what God intended.  They did not honor God.  They had become crueler than ever, less loving, some people were even willing to murder their own children as a sacrificial offering to new gods in their lives.  If you read the newspapers for a few days, I am not sure that the times we live in are all that much different.  People were interested in doing what pleased them.

Jeremiah, was about 20 years old at this point in the story of his life and was ready to move forward as a priest, trying to hold onto the traditions of the past dealing with a few of the more faithful followers.  We enter this morning’s text at verse 4 with Jeremiah’s own words, “Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’”  Let’s think about that for a moment.  God had a plan for Jeremiah’s life even before Jeremiah’s conception.  Once conceived and growing in the womb of his mother, God blessed Jeremiah and set his life apart to be a prophet to the nations.  Jeremiah was not to follow in his father’s footsteps as a priest, he was to be a prophet. 

A prophet is unlike a priest.  A priest preserves the past.  A prophet seeks people to change in the present so that they would have a future.  A priest speaks to a few who think themselves faithful.  A prophet speaks to those who think themselves faithful and to the unfaithful alike calling all to change the direction of their life and live a new life honoring God.  Over the course of history, people admired priests.  People have never admired or liked prophets.  But here, God had spoken and chose this young man, this nobody would be priest, to speak God’s words to the people.  God had a plan for Jeremiah and God has a plan for your life and mine.  While we may not be called to be a prophet, there is little doubt from Scripture that we are each called of God.

Let’s see what happens as God’s news to Jeremiah sinks in.  “Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”  The human side of Jeremiah came to the surface; Jeremiah wants no part of being a prophet disliked by many.  He would rather be a priest admired by a few.  “Lord, you must be confused!  I am but a boy.  I do not know what words to say.  Who will listen to me?  Lord, you need to find someone else to do this task.”  Jeremiah offers up his first excuse for not doing what God wants him to do; he is but a boy of 20; not qualified for such role of prophet of God.

We like to offer excuses, don’t we?  Why do offer excuses?  Perhaps, we are afraid of failure or we doubt that we will be successful.  Perhaps, we just cannot see how this will work out so we do not want even to start.  Perhaps, we are just more comfortable doing nothing or feel we are too tired to do anything more and we hope that someone else will do it.  Jeremiah wanted God to excuse him and we are very much like Jeremiah.  But God was not interested in Jeremiah’s excuses and He is not interested in our excuses.  Verse 7, “But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you.’”  God was not interested in Jeremiah’s excuse about his age.  Yes, Jeremiah was young but God had called Jeremiah for this purpose. 

God was also not interested in Jeremiah’s other excuse, “I do not know what to say!”  God’s reply to that excuse, “‘and you shall speak whatever I command you.  Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you’, says the Lord.  Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.’”  God cutoff Jeremiah’s other excuse, that he would not know what to say to the people.  God said, “I have put my words in your mouth.”  God sought to comfort Jeremiah and reassure him that God did not intend for Jeremiah to walk through life on his own but that God would be there each step.  God would give Jeremiah the words he needed to say.  God needed Jeremiah to say them.

We too are like Jeremiah.  We create our line of defenses with our excuses as to why we cannot possible do something that God wants us to do.  Our first excuse is usually in the form of the extreme statement “I am too…”  “I am too busy, too afraid, too tired, too old, too young, or I am too unsure.”  When those excuse fails we start in with the next line of excuses which deal with our deficiencies; the “I don’ts…”  “I don’t know what to say.  I don’t know how to do it.  I don’t think I am the best for this task.  I don’t have the education or training.”  The message God gave Jeremiah and gives to each of us is stop focusing on your excuses.  God is saying, “I am the one who is calling you into service.  Give to Me your time and I will give you the strength to do the job.  I will give you the patience to deal with the situation.  I will give you the words to say.  But you must trust and have faith in Me as I have already placed faith in you.”  God does not ask us to go it alone.  This is the perspective we need to have when we answer the call God has placed on our lives.  We never go it all; we always go with God.

Let’s talk about the task God had for Jeremiah.  We read in verse 10 God saying to Jeremiah, “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”  God saw that spiritual life of the people was corrupt.  They now longer followed Him with their hearts; even those who did follow were superficial.  How do we relate to Jeremiah’s assignment?  Many of you have had experience with repairing your homes.  You know that when the wood in our homes rots, you cannot paint it and pretend it is better.  When the wood becomes rotten, you need to pull it down and rip it out to end the rotting.  Once the rotten wood is removed, then and only then can you build again.  Jeremiah’s mission was to call for a rebuilding of the spiritual life of the nations.  He was to speak God’s words to pluck out, pull down, destroy and overthrow all that was rotten.  Once removed, then he was to speak the words of rebuilding and replanting.

God’s words given to Jeremiah speak to us today.  We cannot expect to have the spiritual life God intended for us to have by following the world and simply putting a smile on our faces.  The views of the world are corrupt, that is not new.  Corruption has existed in the life of men and women since Adam and Eve.  What we need to remember is that unless the rot of the world is pluck out, pull down, destroyed, and overthrown, God cannot build us up and give us new life and purpose.  The Apostle Paul said, “Do not be conformed to this world.”  [Do not believe that the popular thoughts of the day are right.  Do not believe in the idea “If it feels good do it.”]  Instead, Paul said, “Be transformed [completely changed] by the renewing of your mind.”  [Pluck out, pull down, destroy, and overthrow the from mind the worldly thinking.]  Because then “you will know what is good and acceptable and the perfect will of God.”  We are very much like Jeremiah and the people of his day.  There is corruption of ideas about God.  That is why God sent Jesus to show us the way to God.

As we look again at Jeremiah, we see evidence of Jeremiah’s transformation.  Verse 11, “The word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘Jeremiah, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘I see a branch of an almond tree.’  Then the Lord said to me, ‘You have seen well, for I am watching over my word to perform it.’  The word of the Lord came to me a second time, saying, ‘What do you see?’ And I said, ‘I see a boiling pot, tilted away from the north.’”  Jeremiah was beginning see the world and what was coming to it as God had saw it.  In Christ, in following Christ, we will be transformed and see the world through His eyes.

Having seen as the Lord, God said to Jeremiah, “Stand up and tell them everything that I command you.  They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the Lord.”  Is it not comforting to know that when we follow God’s will we have the promise that God is with us?  That assurance is nothing the world understands, it is a blessing only to those who believe in God and follow Him.  Our New Testament reading today from the Gospel of Matthew affirmed these words to us through the voice of Jesus.  Jesus said to His disciples, “As you are going make followers of all the people you encounter.  Baptize them.  Teach them everything I taught you.  And you can be sure I will be with you always; even to the end of time.”

Everyone here today has been called by God.  He has called each of us out of the world.  He has a plan and purpose for your life and mine.  Because we are all still here, we have not yet fully completed the call God has placed upon our lives.  If you are doing what God has called you to do, then keep on doing it.  If you are like me, there are somethings I believe I am doing that God has called me to do and somethings I am not yet doing, then we need to stop making excuses.  We need to stop making the excuses of excess, “I am too old, too tired, too busy.”  We need to stop making the excuses of being deficient, “I don’t know how to do what you want God.  I don’t see how this will work out.  I don’t know that I have the skills to do that God.”  We need instead to remember God is with us and He will give us what we need.

God said to Jeremiah, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you.”  To another leader, Joshua, God said, “No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you.” I will not leave you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous.”  Jesus said to the apostles to make disciples, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  To Paul, the Lord said, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, 10 for I am with you.”  I want to encourage you each day this week when you wake up, say to yourself, “God is with me.”  Think about those words as you face the challenges of life and work, “God is with me.”  Think about those words as you review with God what He wants you to do.  When you encounter someone in need remind yourself, “God is with me,” and then offer hope.  When you find those things in your life that are unpleasing to God, those things that need to be pluck out and pull down, remember God’s words, “I am with you.”  When we reach for our bag of excuses, just remember God’s words, “I am with you.”  Let us this week, begin to build and plant as God would have us do knowing that “God is with us.”  Amen and Amen.

Aug 28 - Becoming Part of the Sign of Jonah

            About 42 years ago, Universal Pictures released a Steven Spielberg summer blockbuster movie.  It was about a man-eating fish.  The movie, Jaws, excited and terrified movie audiences because once engulfed in the jaws of the fish, a Great White Shark, there was no escape.  There was only death.  The central character of the movie was Sheriff Martin Brody who worked through others to kill the shark that threaten the lives of the people of Amity Island.  Behavioral researchers have studied the impact this movie had on moviegoers.  The researchers found that half the people who watched this movie changed the way they spent their time swimming at the beach.  The impact was so profound that some people reported making such changes up to seven years after having seen the movie.  Researchers found people changed because they were afraid.

Our Old Testament reading today also involved a man-eating fish.  The scene was from a time about 750 BC.  The Book of Jonah chronicles the story.  We might at first think the central character was Jonah, after all the book bears his name.  But Jonah was not the central character.  We might think the fish that swallowed up Jonah was the central character to the story, but it was not.  The central character to the story was God.  It was God who worked in and through the life of Jonah.  It was God who worked in and through the life of the great fish.  It was God who had a purpose in mind to deal with the sinfulness of the inhabitants of the city of Nineveh.  It was God who had the greatest desire to see the change of heart and behavior by Jonah and of the inhabitants of the city of Nineveh.  It was God who put the story in motion and used it as a sign to others.  Some 750 years later, it would be God’s Son, Jesus, who would remind His followers and enemies of the power of the sign of Jonah for their lives.  We are now another 2,000 years later and God still intends for us to understand the power found in His story through the sign of Jonah.

            Let’s begin today by looking at the story of Jonah.  Please feel free to turn with me to Jonah, Chapter 1.  The story began this way, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai [Am-it-tie]: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’ But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.’”  Jonah was a Jew living near the town of Nazareth.  Nineveh was a large city found 720 miles to the east of Nazareth in what is now modern-day Iraq.  Tarshish was about 2,500 miles to the west of Nazareth in modern-day Spain.  Rather than moving toward Nineveh, Jonah set out to go as far away as possible.  It would be as if God asked you to go to Boston, Massachusetts and you instead bought a train ticket for Los Angeles, California.

            I find the opening to the story of Jonah instructive about the most natural way humans respond to God’s clear instructions.  We pray for God’s instruction every Sunday, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  We want to know God’s will.  I know of many occasions where Christians have said, “If only God would send a giant post-it note from the sky to tell me specifically what I must do; then I would do it.”  Jonah heard what God wanted and he went the opposite direction.  I wonder how much we are like Jonah.  Would we really follow the directions on the “big post it note” from the sky or would we follow it only if we agreed with what God written in the note.  The opening scene from Jonah should cause us to pause and ask, “Am I being obedient to God or am I following Jonah?”

            The scene shifts in the story of Jonah as God intervenes again.  “Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up.  All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.”  The frightened crew prayed to their gods and threw the cargo overboard, but nothing changed.  The crew found that when they were in jeopardy, their false gods offered no hope.  The same is true today.  In our world, when we are in jeopardy, the false gods of our life such as money, science, medicine, and possessions surround us and still offer us no hope.

Jonah told the crew that his disobedience was the source of the storm and suggested that the crew throw Jonah into the sea, that in doing so the sea would become calm.  “13Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. 14 Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.” 15 Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. 16 At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.”

A ship’s crew of pagans, saw the awesome power of God to raise a storm and to silence the storm.  In their seeing, the crew believed in the God of Jonah and worshiped Him.  God called Jonah to be obedient and preach repentance to the people of Nineveh; yet, God first used Jonah’s disobedience to bring repentance to a crew of pagans.  This reminds us that no one is beyond the reach of God to be of use.  The circumstances forced Jonah to testify about this relationship and faith in God, and to admit his disobedience.  Because of Jonah’s behavior, men who may never have acknowledged God did do.  They heard Jonah’s testimony and saw the truth of God.  Now, I am not suggesting we disobey God, but there is great power in our personal testimony and confession of sin before other.  When we acknowledge God in all circumstances people sit up and take notice.  This last Friday, I delivered the eulogy for my brother-in-law.  The words moved many people.  But I think what touched them more than anything else was the testimony of hope we have in Jesus Christ even in the darkest moment of grief.  People are hungry for us to speak genuine words of hope that come from our personal experience with Christ.  Jesus’ follower, the Apostle Peter said, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”  Jonah, even in his disobedience, was prepared to give an answer to the crew about his faith and testimony about God.  We must likewise be prepared.  We need to be prepared and willing to give testimony.  People are hungry to hear your story, even if it comes from a moment of disobedience to God.

Jonah found himself adrift in the calm sea.  The boat that offered safety was moving away from him.  Jonah was helpless and his life was no longer dependent upon what he could do in his own power.  If he was to live, it would be only through God’s power.

Verse 17, “Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”  It seemed that things for Jonah just deteriorated.  Instead of walking the road to Nineveh as God asked, because of his disobedience Jonah was below the surface of the sea.  One of the important lessons we need to hear often is that we are free to make any decision we want to make; we just need to remember that someone else will decide the consequences of our decision.  We can choose to play hooky from school or from work, that is our choice.  However, someone else, our teachers and our bosses will decide the consequence of our decision.  We can choose to cheat on our taxes or exams, but others will decide the penalty we will face for doing so.  Jonah decided to disobey God and it would be for God to decide the consequence.

If we had continued to read from the book of Jonah, we would learn that from inside the fish Jonah prayed to God acknowledging the goodness of God and praying for his own salvation.  As Jonah concluded his prayer, Scripture says, “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry ground.  Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.’  Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.”  God gave Jonah a second chance.  This time, Jonah obeyed God.

            God is the God of second chances.  Maybe you feel like there was something God placed on your heart to do and you have not done it.  Take the second chance.  Pray to God, hear Him affirm that He wants you to do that, and, if affirmed then do it.  The greatest threat to our church is not in anything we may lack by the measure of the world such money, people, and talent.  The greatest threat to our church is being timid.  If we are too afraid to speak and act as God leads us, we are no different that Jonah running to Tarshish.  We are not obedient to God when we are timid.  Is there something God is moving you to do?  Is there something God is moving you to share with others?  Is there something God is moving you to speak about in the church?  If so, then let’s not be timid, let’s choose to follow God.  Let’s speak and do as He asks.

            Now Jonah was on dry land at the city of Nineveh.  God gave Jonah a simple message to preach, “Repent or in forty more days the city of Nineveh will be no more.”  The man coming out of the fish had a simple message, “Repent.”  It was time for Nineveh to take a second chance.  Now the people of Nineveh could choose whatever they wanted, stay as they were or repent from doing evil.  As with all choices, someone else, this time God, would decide the consequence.  The people of the city repented and the God who is compassionate spared the city and all its inhabitants. 

In God’s efforts to spare the city of Nineveh from destruction, God did not use any other sign or wonder to convey his message of redemption than a man named Jonah.  There was no heavenly sign or marvel to capture people’s attention.  God just used powerful words from a simple man, Jonah.

In God’s efforts to spare the entire world from destruction, God used His Son, Jesus.  We read in our New Testament, “As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation.  It asks for a sign.  [Those who opposed Jesus wanted some wonderous heavenly display brought at Jesus’ command so that they could know for sure Jesus’ message was from God.]  This really is not true.  Jesus opponents would not have believed even a sign in heaven, but is sounded like a good thing to ask.  Jesus said, “but none [no sign] will be given it except the sign of Jonah.  For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation…”[Those seeking to escape destruction had only one choice; believe in the words of Jesus Christ or not.  Either way, Jesus would be either their Savior or their Judge and He would decide their consequence.]  “Jesus said, ‘The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is here.’”

The greater sign than Jonah is Jesus Christ.  He is the reason and cause of hope for all persons.  Asking for some sign in heaven as proof is not belief at all.  We must either choose Jesus as our Savior, Lord, and invitation for fellowship with God, or choose any one or more gods of our own creation.  The choice of Jesus should be from love and not fear.  Fear, like the researchers of the movie Jaws found, makes us timid to go into the water.  Fear makes us think only of ourselves.  Love on the other hand, makes us bold and encouraged by hope to serve others and to go into the whatever environment Jesus calls us to join Him in.  When we choose Jesus, we have a story to tell and a mission to carry out.  When we choose Jesus, we become part of the sign of Jonah.  Let us not be the Jonah who disobeyed God but let us be the Jonah without fear and share in love and respect with others the reasons for the hope that we have.  Amen and Amen.

Aug 13 - Getting Out of the Boat

            The setting for our New Testament reading today involves people in a boat, people out of the boat, and the sea.  This is a rich story offering readers from ancient to modern times several important teachings.  Today, I would like us to explore the response by the disciples to the appearance of Jesus walking on the water next to them.  And in our exploration, see just one of the messages this passage offers to us.  For in our exploration, we will find eleven disciples who faithfully stayed in the boat.  And one disciple who in faith ventured out of the boat.  If you were in that same boat, would you stay or would you step out?

            Before you answer that question, let’s take a look at the passage from God’s Word, the Gospel of Matthew that describes the situation.  Please turn with me to the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 14, beginning at verse 22.

            Today’s words come from a man named Matthew.  Jesus called Matthew to leave his work as a tax collector and follow Jesus.  Most, if not all the other eleven disciples, were fishermen.  The 12 disciples of Jesus had just watched Jesus pray over five loaves of bread and two small fish and then offered it as meal for 5,000 people.  Everyone ate until they were full.  For perspective, for 5,000 people to eat and be satisfied would need about 1½ trailer trucks full of food.  And even at that, when everyone finished eating the food offered by Jesus and there was still 12 baskets of leftover piece of bread and fish.  It was a stunning miracle that no doubt left the people and disciples taken back and just in wonder.  Who was this person who could pray over a few ounces of bread and fish and God would multiply it into tons of food?  Certainly, there would be a desire to ask Jesus questions about this miracle and to celebrate in it.  Yet when we come to our passage from Matthew, we read in verse 22, “Immediately he [Jesus] made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he [Jesus] dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.”  As soon as they finished the meal, Jesus set out to get people on the move.  He sent the disciples in the boat to set a course for the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  They were moving across the water alone with their thoughts about the what had happened and what it meant to their lives.  Jesus sent the crowd to walk home to think about Jesus’ teachings and the meal presented to them.  Jesus himself was on the move up the mountain to pray to God.  It was a big day.  Jesus showed his disciples something about himself.  He was not simply a man able to heal people; he was a man who through faith changed the lives of thousands of people.

Faith is a funny thing though.  Faith for it to have meaning in our life must tested otherwise it may not be faith at all.  Jesus disciple’, Paul, said, “For we walk by faith, not by sight.”  Faith requires action and movement forward, walking of you will, even when we cannot see the complete path or the finish line.  James, Jesus’ half-brother, said, “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”  Faith to be faith must combine with movement, risk, and trust.  Jesus healed many people but in each case, the person asked for Jesus to help them believing that he could do so.  In the asking, these people received healing.  The Bible records many times Jesus saying to these people seeking to be healed, “Your faith has healed you.”

Stepping away from miraculous healings for a moment, in a small way, we benefit today from the faith of other people from the past.  Those who first formed this church and built this building all those years ago could not foresee who would sit here now or the missions this church would be called to serve.  However, in exercising their faith, the founders responded to God’s call and gave their time, treasure, talent, and tears to plant this church.  Faith needs action.

As we continue in the today’s passage, we see that Jesus was on the mountain and the disciples were in the boat.  This was the first time the disciples were separate from Jesus.  The disciples were going it alone.  Let’s see how it was going for them.  “When evening came, he [Jesus] was there [on the mountain] alone, 24 but by this time the boat [with the disciples], battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.”  The disciples, experienced fishermen found themselves on the sea at night with the wind working against them.  They seem to be as far from their starting point as they are from the landing point.  It is a physically challenging time.

Matthew, onboard the boat, said, “And early in the morning [other text suggests it may have been between 3:00 am and 6:00 am] he [Jesus] came walking toward them [the disciples] on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.”  The disciples were tired.  It had been a long night against the winds and waves.  Now someone saw Jesus walking on the water and concluded it is a ghost, a spirit sent against them.  Fear overcame one disciple and then many.  Fear is contagious and fear replaces our sense of faith.

Matthew continued, “27 But immediately Jesus [sensed their fear] spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’”  Jesus was saying, “Do not replace your faith with fear; I am with you.”  Now came the response from the boat, “Peter answered him [Jesus], ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29 He [Jesus] said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.”  We are now seeing action and movement by one of the disciples.  Peter, an experienced fisherman and boat owner, stepped out of comfort of his setting to walk by faith in response to Jesus.  Each step Peter took the closer he came to Jesus.  Peter had been prepared in faith to act, he had purpose, and his perspective on the scene was simple; follow Jesus’ call and trust.  This was a marvelous scene of faith overcoming fear.  The other eleven disciples stayed in the boat, perhaps frozen by a mixture of fear and anticipation.

Matthew, from his position in the boat, wrote, “30 But when he [Peter] noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’  Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith [You, the only one who showed a little faith], why did you doubt?’”  Peter was doing so well.  He stepped out of the boat, walked on the water, making his way toward Jesus, then Peter looked away.  Peter’s perspective changed; following Jesus’ call was no longer his perspective.  Peter switched his perspective to the wind and waves.  Peter’s purpose no longer was to reach Jesus but was to avoid the winds and waves.  Peter’s faith was replaced by fear and he began to sink in the water. 

Jesus rescued Peter and together they got boat.  The test of faith; a faith shown by action was over.  “32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him [Jesus], saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’”

I like this scene of people in a boat moving along a sea and the conflict presented when one is invited to leave.  It is a great story of faith in action and the setting on the sea brings me back home to my childhood living along the ocean.  When I read this passage, I was reminded of a time in high school when my friend, John, and I acted on the sea without preparation, without purpose, and without perspective.  One sunny day, John and I took his father’s brand-new $22,000 boat for what started out as a cruise around the harbor of Plymouth, Massachusetts.  Before too long, John was piloting the boat out of the harbor and into Cape Cod Bay.  We were heading south going parallel to the sand dunes and beach when John turned and headed directly for the beach.  He asked me to go to the bow of the boat and when the water got very shallow John turned off the boat’s engine and told me to jump out of the boat to soften the landing on the beach.  Not being prepared to follow John’s direction, unsure of our purpose, and focused at first on not getting my pants and sneakers wet I hesitated for just a few moments.  When stopped hesitating and I jumped in the water, it was too late.  We had come to rest on the sand of the beach.  Normally, that would not have been a problem except we neglected to realize the wind was pushing our boat onto the beach and the tide was going out away from the beach.  This meant we could not move the boat and the water was disappearing from under the boat.  Soon we were separated from the sea and surrounded by sand.  This was before the days of cell phones.  So I walked the three miles to my house to let everyone know we were alright and to call John’s father to tell him we had beached his brand-new boat.  I found someone to drive John’s father back to the boat where he and John waited some 12 hours for the tide to come back and lift the boat from the sand.  Whatever mission John and I were on that day failed because we acted without preparation, without purpose, and without a proper perspective.  Faith without action is dead.  Action without preparation, purpose, and perspective is not faith either; it is reckless.

So, as I thought about this scene from Scripture and my childhood memories, I came to the conclusion that there are only two spiritual boats that people will find themselves in today.  The first boat is a popular one and is very crowded.  The first boat is for those who are on a spiritual journey going somewhere, anywhere, or nowhere.  People in this boat seek the wisdom, pleasures, and comforts of this world.  They are spiritually unprepared for anything.  They are not sure of their purpose, and their perspective, the focus of their efforts, is unclear.  The pilot of this boat has a history of running the boat onto the sand.  The people in this boat are nice enough and occasionally willing to act to the benefit of others; just sometimes they act too late to do any good or to keep the boat from hitting the beach.  The people on this boat either do not believe in faith or are unsure what faith means.  I would suggest to you that if you find yourself in this boat, it is time to move and join the passengers in the second boat. 

The second boat is for people on a spiritual journey with Jesus Christ.  They are on a journey toward God Himself.  There is enough room on this boat for everyone.  It is not always easy sailing on this boat.  Sometimes the winds and waves make sailing difficult.  But Jesus has a message for those in this boat.  He says, “Take heart and do not fear.”  Jesus also invites those in this boat to become more like Him.  Through our faith, Jesus has prepared those in this second boat for great things.  He says to each passenger, “Come.  Step out of the comfort of that boat and walk beside me, even in the storm.  Step out of the security offered by others and put your faith into practice.  Keep your eyes focused on me.”  To step out involves movement, risk, and trust and the reward of becoming more like Christ.

For those who are in the second boat, we need to remember that we are no better than the people in the first boat.  We are just better off.  We have accepted Jesus as the Son of God and that means we have a purpose and a destination for our lives.  It does mean though that we are called to act in that faith and when called, to act and get out of the comfort of the boat.  It means that we have to risk our time, talent, treasure, and tears for other people.  I believe that everyone here today is being called to move, to act and to minister in Jesus’ name.  The range of actions is varied and requires us to seek the benefit of others.  Three years ago, I felt Jesus call me to begin counseling those who are experiencing the loss of loved ones.  This meant I had to step out of the comfort of the boat and follow Jesus into the storm of other people’s lives.  I know that is not the last call I will hear.  Some here today have felt similar calls to step out of the boat and minister in Jesus name in public and private ways.  Perhaps today, Jesus is calling you to do something outside the comfort of the boat.  Maybe, He is calling you to speak to a family member about changing boats and joining you in ship of faith.  That can be a fearful thing to do; but know that Jesus is with you.  Maybe, Jesus is calling you to help someone on the street where you live overcome a difficulty in their life.  Please don’t fear.  Don’t resist his call.  Move as Jesus is moving you.  Maybe, Jesus is moving you to pick up the phone and call people in the congregation to encourage them in their faith.  It may only be that you can call one person per week and spend 10 minutes with them.  I can assure you if Jesus is moving you in this way, you will be an enormous blessing to others.  You and I have a purpose and destination.  Whatever Jesus is placing on you to do; do it.  Act in faith.

This week, let’s listen to what Jesus is saying to each of us, “Take heart, it is I.  Do not fear.  Now come, step out of the boat and follow me.”  Amen and Amen.