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Feb 18 - Overflowing with Thankfulness

            We have been speaking the last few weeks about what it means to be a Christ-centered church made up of people living Christ-centered lives.  We learned that Christ-centered lives are rooted in the salvation from Christ and the hope he gives.  Being rooted means we know God loves us and will sustain us.  We know that if we allow Jesus into our lives we will think, talk, and act more like God’s own son or daughter.  We learned that Christ-centered lives are built up with the knowledge and experience of Christ.  That people living Christ-centered lives want to find one another not for any sense of protection but for the sense of joy and peace community gives.  We learned that Christ-centered lives are lives of faith and quiet confidence that God is true to his promises.  A Christ-centered life is lived always focused on the Prince of Peace.

Sadly, this week we heard the news reports of a young man who knew nothing of Christ-centered living.  Sadly, this young man knew violence and used that violence against his former classmates.  He killed three staff members and 14 students and seriously wounded many other students. 

The news media cites people saying how shocking this school shooting was; as though it is the first one to happen.  Should this event shock us?  People who do not follow the will of God began killing others starting with the very first family.  We must not forget, Cain killed Abel with his own hands and a rock.  From the lineage of Cain came a man named Lamech.  The Bible quotes Lamech saying to his wives, “A man hurt me, so I killed him.  I even killed a child for hitting me.”  Death came by Lamech’s own hands and a simple tool.  King Herod slaughtered all the young boys in and around Bethlehem in the hopes of killing the young child, Jesus.  Herod ordered soldiers to do his killing, this time using a sword.  The apostle Paul wrote, “28 People did not think it was important to have a true knowledge of God. So God left them and allowed them to have their own worthless thinking. And so they do what they should not do. 29 They are filled with every kind of sin, evil, greed, and hatred. They are full of jealousy, murder, fighting, lying, and thinking the worst things about each other. They gossip 30 and say evil things about each other. They hate God. They are rude, proud, and brag about themselves. They invent ways of doing evil. They don’t obey their parents, 31 they are foolish, they don’t keep their promises, and they show no kindness or mercy to others.32 They know God’s law says that anyone who lives like that should die. But they not only continue to do these things themselves, but they also encourage others who do them.”  We should not be shocked that within the world there are people who reject God and look to unleash violence upon others.  It has been going on shortly after God set the journey of humanity into motion.  Laws of man will not alter the desires of depraved minds of those who have rejected God; there will always be rocks to throw.

The author of our New Testament readings today, Paul, knew something about rocks and violence.  In his earlier days, Paul unleashed deadly violence upon Christians.  His weapon of choice was like that of Cain, a rock.  There will always be rocks; instruments to unleash violence upon others.  The apostle Paul learned and shared that the antidote to a depraved mind committed to do all manner of violence is a mind transformed by the love of Christ not the laws of man.  Paul said, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”  Paul was talking about a transformed life; a Christ-centered life is the antidote for all manner of depravity, murder, jealousy, fighting, lying, gossiping, parental disobedience, foolishness, unkindness, unmerciful acts, and all evil things.   There is no other way offer to us.  Only a Christ-centered life brings true peace.

Paul said, a Christ-centered life is rooted in Christ, built up in him, strengthened in him as we earlier spoke and now to that Paul added “overflowing with thankfulness.”

Thankfulness, or thanksgiving here, means an understanding and recognition of God’s blessings expressed in part through words but mostly expressed through living.  Jesus gave this illustration of the difference between false and genuine gratitude.  “10 Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee [a respected religious leader] and the other a tax collector [a despised traitor to the people of Israel]. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’”  13 ‘But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’  14 ‘I tell you that this man [the sinner], rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’”  Thankfulness is not about expressing a life lived better than other people or more privileged than other people.  That is arrogance.  Thankfulness begins with words of genuine humility and reverence for the life God has given us and gift of salvation for all eternity.  Our words suggest something about our inner life.  They are a little window into what we think.

            However, words alone do not reveal the full truth of our thinking.  There must be some form of outworking of beliefs.  James, the half-brother of Jesus, at once said, “14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? [James asks the question, “What if I stopped at words of thanks but never expressed it through my life?  Are my words of faith, of thankfulness, genuine?]  James continued, “Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

James was clear gratitude toward God must be more than words.  He used an example of sharing clothing and food with someone else in need as an attitude of gratitude.

            Now some people might say, “This is all fine but right now in my life I do not have something extra to give.  I do not have extra food or clothing or even money to place in the offering plate.  How then can I show my faith-based gratitude as I try to live out my Christ-centered life?”  It turns out everyone, regardless of their circumstances can show their thanksgiving toward God for free. 

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, first Paul said, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”  It does not cost anything to put a smile upon our face and rejoice that no matter what is going on in our life, you know that God loves you.  We can show our joy without even saying a word or reaching into our wallets.  Yet so many Christian look sour and glum.  Rejoice!  Second, Paul said, “Let your gentleness be evident to all.  The Lord is near.”  Gentleness is an outward display of our inner being.  Gentleness does not mean we just speak without shouting it means our demeanor is easy on others.  We display politeness toward others not because Mom or Dad taught us manners, but we show gentleness because we allow God’s spirit to move within us.  In our gentleness, we see the dignity in others just because they are human created in the image of God.  The apostle Peter said, “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.”  Gentleness is free.

      Paul continued with his third point, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  Prayer is free and freeing.  Prayer is a physical act of faith.  Some people have gone so far as to create their prayers around the acronym ACTS.  The begin with A for Adoration.  They give God praise and honor for who he is as Lord over all. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hollowed be thy name.”  Then follows C for Confession.  They confess the sin that has appeared or reappeared in their life so that they can turn the matter of the sin over to God.  Confession is an admission that sin is present and that only God can remove it.  “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”  T comes next for Thanksgiving.  They give thanks to God for being in their life and in the world that surrounds them.  “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.”  They rejoice before God because the spirit of God moves them to do so.  Remember our friend the Pharisees did not understand this point because he said, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers, - or even like this tax collector.”  In contrast, after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead he prayed, “I thank you that you have heard me.”  Finally, comes the letter S for Supplication.  Supplication is a bit of an old word and we do not use it in our daily life.  Supplication simply means a request.  We ask God for our needs and make him aware we have learned of the needs of others.  “Give us this day our daily bread…Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”  Prayer, whether done in the ACTS form or some other genuine approach, is a way of saying thank you to God and is an outward working of our gratitude toward God.  We do not need any money or other personal wealth to pray for our needs or those of another person.

Paul’s words guided his brothers and sisters in living a life thankful for presence of Christ in their lives.  It is a life of generous giving even when it does not cost anything.  Now Paul was not willing to just speak these words to others, he invited others to see the outworking of his faith and to examine his life.  Paul said, “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. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.”  Christ-centered gratitude appears in the ways we relate to others.  Paul said there are eight measures we can see Christ alive in another person, and Paul held himself out for examination.  He said, “If I shared with you what was true, true about love of God, the salvation found in Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, then put these truths in practice.”  Do we share the truth with others?  Paul said, “If did those things that are noble, acts the encouraged others and lifted them out of fear, then put those actions into practice.”  Do we encourage others and lift them up?  Paul said, “If I did those things that were right, even when it may not have been in my best interests to do so, then do similar acts.”  Do we do what is right even when we do not think anyone is watching?  Paul said, “If I did those things that were pure and free from selfish desires and honoring of God, then do those things as well.”  Do we act with pure motives?  Paul said, “If I did those things that were lovely and brought a smile to your face, then do likewise to someone else and bring joy to them.”  Would others say of us, he or she is a lovely person who brings joy into my life?  Paul said, “If I did those things that are admirable and brought justice and mercy to others, then show mercy and seek justice for others.”  Are we merciful?  Are we seeking justice for those who cannot seek it themselves?  Paul said, “If I did those things that are excellent and showed my desire to give God the very best that I can give, then do the same.”  Do we give God our best?  Finally, Paul said, “If I did anything that was praiseworthy, meaning in that moment you could well imagine Jesus doing the very same thing, then do it yourself.”  Do we imitate Jesus?

When we do these things and act true, noble, right, pure, lovely, excellent, admirable, and praiseworthy, Paul says then “the God of peace will be with you.”  When we do all these things, then we are living a Christ-centered life overflowing with thankfulness for him.  Let us pray.

Feb 11 - Strengthened in Faith

            In the last few weeks, we have been talking about what it means to be a church and what it means to be a Christ-centered church.  We learned that a Christ-centered church is not an organization, it is not about a religious group.  A Christ-centered church is about ordinary people who believe that God gave the world the extraordinary gift of His Son, Jesus Christ.  Those who receive this gift seek transformed lives, changed that they may follow Christ so closely that they begin to resemble Jesus in his thoughts, words, and even in his actions.  When people act together in this manner, like Jesus, we then see emerge a Christ-centered church.

            We then began to explore if a Christ-centered church is ordinary people living a Christ-centered life, what then does that life look like?  To help us understand we turned our attention to words God inspired a man named Paul to write.  A man whose life Jesus completely transformed.  Paul said to the church in Colossae, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” That Christ-centered life receives the gift of salvation through Christ and reject the ideas that hope may be found in human traditions, crystals, astrology, pyramids, tarot cards, reincarnation, false gods, or in good works alone.  Paul said, as we read today, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted [in him] and built up in him, strengthened in the faith [in him] as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness [for him].”  Paul’s words are an expression of a complete Christ-centered life.  We must be first rooted in Jesus Christ; not traditions and philosophies.  Roots nourish, anchor, and sustain plants so that a plant may grow and fulfill their purpose.  In a comparable manner, a Christ-centered person is nourished, anchored, and sustained by the belief that Jesus is the Son of the living God who was born, lived among us, gave his life for us, was buried, and resurrected to new life as that we could be restored into a relationship with God and fulfill our purpose.  So the first mark of a Christ-centered life is to be rooted in Christ.  We must be built up in Christ.  We build up our knowledge and experience of Jesus through the Bible.  We build relationships with other believers.  We build the church through serving others.  We build our character as we let Jesus shine through us and allowing him to change us from within.  So the second mark of a Christ-centered life is to be built up in Christ.

            Today, Paul brings us to the third mark of a Christ-centered life; strengthened in faith in him.  What does Paul mean “strengthened in faith in Christ?”  First, let’s talk a moment or two about our strength.  Several years ago, I attended a leadership development program at the University of Notre Dame.  I cost $1,000 per day attend and the class lasted about 8 days.  The instructors and course material were first rate.  On the morning of the first day, one of the instructors, a man named Melvin, said you can measure a person’s strength in five ways: physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, and spiritually.  We understand that physical strength measures the limits of our bodies to do work.  Mental strength measures the limits of our minds ability to understand information and our surroundings.  Emotional strength measures the limits to accept our feelings towards someone or something.  Social strength measures the limits of how well we can relate with people.  Finally, spiritual strength measures the limits of our relationship to God; or whatever someone considers their ultimate reality.  The instructor said these five attributes, physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual strength, make the measure of any person.  He then said this, and this was the point he wanted to make, “Whichever is least of these measures sets the overall strength of the person.”  I thought, “What does he mean by that?”  He continued.  “Your potential in life is limited by your least strength.  You can be strong mentally, emotionally, socially, and spiritually but if your physical strength is low, that will limit your overall capacity to achieve whatever is before you.” 

Not wishing to be contentious and disagreeable student on the morning of the first of eight days, I politely objected to what Melvin said.  I said to him, “If we assumed for a moment his five measures of strength were correct, then only one of the five limits everyone’s overall strength.  Our physical, mental, emotional, or social strengths do not limit us because these are measures that humanity created for itself and continually redefines.  The only measure that limits our potential is our spiritual strength because this is the measure of who we are with our creator, God.  We can excel in our physical, mental, emotional, and social skills but if we lack spiritual strength we may be able to do remarkable things, in human terms, but we will never be the person God wants us to be.  Jesus said, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36).  Melvin did not agree with me and was unhappy with me. 

The point of this story is that our strength, our ability to be the person we are supposed to be is not based on how much weight we can lift, how much math we can do in our head, how many friends we can make, or on how in touch we are with our feelings.  Our spiritual strength sets our overall strength as a person.

Let me give a couple of quick examples.  After his baptism, Jesus did not eat for forty days and nights in the desert.  At the end of the forty days, Jesus was very hungry.  Jesus, though from heaven, was fully human as well.  Not eating for 40 days depleted his physical strength.  He was mentally alert to his surroundings and but his over all feelings were limited to just one; feelings of hunger.  Jesus was alone so there was no social strength from his relationship with other people.  He appeared very weak.  It was this moment of weakness that the devil attacked Jesus.  The devil tempted Jesus to regain his physical strength by turning stones into food.  Jesus refused.  The devil tempted Jesus to regain his social strength by worshipping him in exchange for the glory from all people.  Jesus refused.  The devil tempted Jesus to regain his emotional strength by jumping from the pinnacle of the Jerusalem Temple and let the angels catch him.  Jesus refused.  How was Jesus in this weakened state able to resist the temptations of the devil?  He was able because of his spiritual strength in God was very strong.  It was his spiritual strength that defined his overall strength not the weakness of his physical, emotional, or social strength.

The second example I wanted to share is the story of Desmond Doss.  Some of you might remember Desmond Doss held that his belief in God did not allow him to take another human life yet he volunteered to serve in World War 2.  The US Army punished Doss for his beliefs demanding he kill the enemy, yet Doss refused.  Instead, Doss offered to serve as an unarmed medic.  In the desperate battle against the Japanese Army for the island of Okinawa, Doss called upon his spiritual strength to save 75 of his wounded comrades from certain death.  You can see his story in movie, Hacksaw Ridge.  The person Doss became was not based upon his physical, emotional, mental, or social strength.  It was his spiritual strength, his connection with God that made him.

Spiritual strength.  The third mark of a Christ-centered life; strengthened in faith in Jesus Christ.  Spiritual strength shown through faith.  “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1) Psalm 23, a favorite piece of Scripture for many people, is an expression of faith.  The writer expresses confidence that God is present in every step and phase of his life: life on earth and in heaven, life that is good and life that is difficult.  Even though God may not be seen, the psalmist is confident, he exercises faith, that God is with him.

The Lord is my shepherd; [His relationship with God sets the course for his entire life.]  I shall not want.  [Confidence] He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters.  He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake.  [Confidence that joys of life come from my Shepherd, the Lord.  Confidence that all the strength I have in my body, physical, mental, emotional, and social comes from my shepherd, the Lord.]  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil; [Confidence that I can face the inevitable pains and adversity of life here on earth.]  For you are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.  [He is confident his Shepherd is present.]  You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over.  [Confidence that at the very moment others mock him for his faith, God blesses him with a spiritual banquet, anoints him as though he were a king among men, and gives love in abundance.]  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord Forever. [Confidence of an eternal reward of being in the Lord’s presence.]

Now we see how faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.  Paul said to us today, “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.”

            We read in the Gospel of Matthew how one man placed his faith in Jesus.  A centurion, a Roman army commander of 100 men, approached Jesus confident Jesus could help.  The centurion said to Jesus, “Lord my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”  Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”  The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”  When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.”  The centurion was confident, he had faith, Jesus’ power to heal was spiritual not physical.  Then Jesus said to the centurion, ‘Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.’ And his servant was healed at that moment.”

Shall we live a Christ-centered life with such faith?  So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted [in him] and built up in him, strengthened in the faith [in him].  We can be one of the most well put together people on the planet being physically strong, mentally sharp, emotionally secure, and socially connected and neglect our spiritual life and we will have missed the point of our life completely.  We will never know the peace and joy God wanted us to experience on earth without strength in faith.  We will never experience the love and serenity of eternal life in heaven without faith in Christ.  Yet when Jesus becomes the center of our life, the perfecter of our faith, we are made strong.  In this spiritual strength, we let go of what hinders us and we pick up his plans for our life and allow him to guard our hearts, trust in his care for our needs, and feel and share love in ways we could not have imagined.  We then fulfil our purpose.  Let us be rooted in Christ, built up in him, and strengthened in our faith in him.  Let us pray.

Feb 4 - How Would Anyone Know

            I read in a newsfeed the other day of a young man named Jeffrey.  He is 17 and a Boy Scout.  The report said, Jeffrey completed his Eagle Project, at age 13.  Recently, Jeffrey completed his final merit badge.  That was his 138th merit badge.  There are no more to do.  Jeffrey has been very busy with Boy Scouts.  The report did not give much more information about Jeffrey, so we do not know much about him.  We do not know what motivated him to complete his Eagle Scout project so young or what motivated him to do all the merit badges.  We only know that something motivated him.

            What motivates us to do things, whether completing merit badges or going to school or going to work, says a lot about who we are and how serious we will be in our endeavors.  I worked with a man who was an US Army paratrooper.  They trained hard; making many practice jumps.  The parachutes they used were prepared by another squad.  Each parachute that squad packed had a card with the name and signature of the person who folded and packed the chute.  At random times, the Commanding Officer of the unit who select a parachute, check the signature card, and then order the person who signed the card to use in the chute in jump from the airplane.  The Commanding Officer wanted to motivate those responsible for packing the parachutes to always do their very best.

            What motivates us matters.  What motivates us speaks to our character and shapes the person we become.  Our New Testament Scripture told speaks to motivations and character.  The reading came from the Gospel of Matthew and are the words of Jesus recorded some two thousand years ago.  Jesus presented his thoughts in the form of a story rather than a lecture or group of sayings.  There is power in telling a story.  We all learn by telling stories.  That is how we learn about our families; people tell us a story.  It is by telling stories that one scout learns about another or about the adventures one can have in scouting.  Scouting might benefit from a 139th merit badge focused on storytelling.

            Jesus said in verse 31, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.”  In the opening to the story, Jesus speaks of himself, “the Son of Man,” returning to separate all people of all nations into one category or another much like a shepherd separate sheep from goats.  There will be two groups: sheep on the right and goats on the left.

            Jesus continued.  “Then the King will say to those on his right [the sheep], ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’” 

This is a most compelling statement for the king to make because in ancient kingdoms everything belonged to the king.  The king should be the last person hungry, thirsty, alone, naked, sick without someone to care for him, and it would be absurd to find the king imprisoned.  As we will see, the king’s words do not make much sense to those listening to the king.

Jesus continued with his story.  “Then the righteous [the sheep] will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’”  The righteous, represented as sheep, had been serving people.  They fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, welcomed those who were alone, gave clothing to those in need, helped those who were sick, and visited those who were in jail.  They did all these things but never once when caring for other people did they see the king among those in need.

Jesus continued the story.  “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”  The righteous people to the king’s right served those in greatest need.  They served people who they knew could not repay the debt of service.  Rewards, honor, and recognition did not motive these people.  Love motivated them.  The Jewish commentary on the Hebrew Scriptures says, “The whole worth of a kind deed lies in the love that inspires it.”  Love of others inspired the righteous to act.  Our reading today from the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures said, “One who loves a pure heart and who speaks with grace will have the king for a friend.”  In Jesus’ story, the king was pleased with those to his right.

Jesus then turned his attention to those on his left, the goats.  Jesus said, “Then he [the king] will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’”  Those on the left did not serve as did those on the right.  Selfishness motivated this group.  Those on the left will answer “‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’”  Those on the left would have gladly served the king if they saw him in need because they knew it would be in their best interests to do so.  45 “He [the king] will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”  “Then they [those on the left, the goats] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous [those on the right, the sheep] to eternal life.”

The king was able to see into the heart of each group.  He could see that one group loved those in need and served them as though they were the king.  The desire for honor did not motivate them, meaning they were happy to serve others even if no one else ever knew they had done so.  Love motivated them.

The heart of a reverent life to God is serving others without motivation of recognition.  The heart of the Boy Scouts is the desire to recognize the needs of others and act.

Recently, I had the opportunity to take part in an Eagle Scout Board of Review for Ian Davis.  Members of the Council asked Ian questions about his life as a Scout.  When did he start?  When did he finish?  What leadership positions did he hold in the troop?  What was his Eagle Scout project?  What was his favorite merit badge to do and which was his least favorite?  When the council finished with their questions, the leader asked if I had any questions to ask of Ian.  I had only one question, “How would anyone know?  If someone did not know you and your background with the Boy Scouts how would they know you were an Eagle Scout?”  By this I did not mean Ian could show them his Eagle Scout credentials.  I was interested in what would people see about Ian that so was different from others Ian’s age that it would be obvious the true essence of Boy Scouting had become part of Ian.  How would anyone know?  Since Ian’s reply was personal I will not share his exact words, but the essence of his answer was people might conclude he was an Eagle Scout because of his desire to serve, to help, and to teach.

How would anyone know?  That question applies to each of us as well.  How would anyone know we look to be reverent?  How would anyone know love motivates us?  How would anyone know that we willingly serve the least in our community as though they were a king?  Let us pray.

Jan 28 - Built-up In Christ

When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars
This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius
Age of Aquarius
Aquarius
Aquarius

Harmony and understanding
Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelation
And the mind's true liberation
Aquarius
Aquarius

 

            Some of you may remember that song, Aquarius.  The 5th Dimension sang that song onto the hit charts in 1969.  It remains on some lists of the greatest songs of all time.  The song came from the musical, “Hair,” produced at the height of the Vietnam war and anti-war protests.  It was a turbulent time in our country.  The song promises harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding, and no more falsehoods or derisions.  Who could argue against such an ideal way of living.  How would such a world come about?  Through golden living dreams of visions, mystic crystal revelation, and the mind’s true liberation, Aquarius.  What does that all mean, the Age of Aquarius?

Some suggest that the Age of Aquarius is a reflection that earth moves into a new sector of the galaxy every 2,000 years.  Having inhabited the sector that is identified with the constellation of Pisces, the fish, for the past 2,000 years, the earth moved into a new sector of the galaxy, governed by the energies of Aquarius.  It has been said that the age of Pisces was the era of Christendom, whose symbol for Christ was also the fish.  The New Age of Aquarius is an era of fresh spiritual awakenings, no longer exclusively defined by Christian traditions.  Aquarius, the water bearer has replaced the fish.  Accordingly, it is a new era of many forms of religious expression, tolerance for the other, and endless options of spirituality and personal power; the age of Aquarius. 

This new age sort of thinking is quite ancient as it depends upon the belief in astrology with the position of the earth among the stars and other planets having control over our destiny.  This thinking, along with other approaches to life, have taken hold in our country with a great many people saying they have a strong spiritual life, they just do not believe in God.

Spirituality to many people is much like dining at an all you can eat buffet.  You go through the buffet line and look over the selections available and you choose a little bit of many items.  Your plate of food will be not be exactly the same as anyone else’s plate of food.  You eat those parts you enjoy, throw away what did not please your taste buds, and return for some of the same things and few new one items.  People are building their own personal spiritual beliefs in a comparable way; a little bit of Christianity, some Buddhism, a dash of Judaism, some astrology, a sprinkling of karma, and you have a personalized belief system in the age of Aquarius.

The idea of personalized belief system is not a new one.  We read today about the age of Aquarius or systems like it in our New Testament reading to the church at Colossae.  Paul warned his friends, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” 

The warning is just as valid today.  Hollow and deceptive philosophies are everywhere.  They often have a mask of kind words, even words about God.  But the philosophy of such leaders and groups is not Godly.  It is subtle and can be quite deadly.  Consider one group that was thought to be a model congregation.  They built a heated swimming pool for underprivileged kids. They rented horses for inner city children to ride. They gave school scholarships and housing for senior citizens. They even had an animal shelter and medical facility, an out-patient care facility, and a drug rehabilitation program.  National politicians wrote the leader was an "inspiration to us all." “He knew how to inspire hope. He was committed to people in need, he counseled prisoners and juvenile delinquents. He started a job placement center; he opened rest homes and homes for the mentally challenged; he has a health clinic; he organized a vocational training center; he gave free legal aid; he founded a community center; he spoke about God."  Who is this group?  Well, they are all dead.  Who is this leader?  Well, he is dead too.  His name was Jim Jones, founder of the Peoples Temple Christian Church.  The coroner said most of the 780 people of that church died because they drank the Kool-Aid laced with cyanide.  Paul might say the cause of death was deception.

            In our reading today from the Book of Colossians, Paul spoke about avoiding deception and said, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted [in him] and built up in him, strengthened in the faith [in him] as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness [for him].”  From this passage, we said last week that a Christ centered life is one rooted in Christ.  We acknowledge that Jesus saved us from our sin and the eternal death, a separation from God, that sin causes.  We saw that we need to have Jesus at the very center of our thoughts, words, and actions.  Today, we see that Paul said the next part of a Christ centered life is to be built up in him.

What does that mean, to be built up?  The Greek word Paul used for built up means “you finish the structure of which the foundation has already been laid.”  The foundation is accepting Christ as our savior and yet realizing that we have a purpose to serve now.  To live the life God wants us to live in the here and now requires that we be built up in Christ.  In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that we read today, Paul said, “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”  The more we are built up not just in knowledge of Christ but also in experiencing the extreme dimensions of His love, the more we have the presence of God in us, and the less likely we will fall for deadly deceptions.  “We should expect that in the quest for spiritual life many people will embrace options that are, to put it no more strongly for the moment, less than what would actually be best for them. People who have been starved for water for a long time will drink anything, even if it is polluted.”  The point is that we must be built up in the knowledge and experience of Christ so that we can know what is good for us and what is a deception of the truth and harmful to us.

There is a deception that plagues this country and it has the greatest impact on the youth.  Many parents have grown fond of saying, “I don’t make my kids go to church; I want them to make up their own minds about religion.”  This is deceptive thinking for two reasons.  First, the statement assumes that keeping children out of church means that the parent has isolated the child from all religious teachings.  This is not true.  In culture and in school, children are constantly exposed to the religions of self-centeredness, atheism, secularism, humanism, skepticism, pantheism, and the list goes on and on.  Keeping children away from church does not isolate them from religious thought so that they are better equip to make their own decisions as adults.  It retards their development and makes them more vulnerable to drinking the Kool-Aid.  Secondly, the statement, “I don’t make my kids go to church; I want them to make up their own minds about religion,” is deceptive because children are exposed to Christianity without ever going to church.  Unfortunately, the examples of Christianity they hear about in the news and social media is not Christianity at all.  At best the examples, are mild forms of Christian thought and at worst, the very worst of human behavior placed in a wrapper of Christianity.  Exposure to this type of distorted or false Christianity is like receiving a vaccination.  You get a small dose of something so that you build up a tolerance against the real thing.  That is what is happening to our children.  How will our children know the difference between the water of life and Kool-Aid if they never know and experience the pure water of Christ?

This is why we continue with Sunday School even when it is challenging to do so.  We want the children to have a proper foundation in faith and to built up in Christ.  This is also why we present options for adult Bible studies because we adults are just as vulnerable to error as the children.  If we have any hope of living a Christ centered life we must be built up in Christ, continually, and that requires work on our part.

Now some of you may not believe what I am saying about the necessity of being built up in Christ.  That is a good thing, so long as we are both willing to let Jesus decide what is the right way to think, speak, and act.  So, I offer you Jesus’ words from John, Chapter 5, verse 24, “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.”  If we want to be built up in Christ and have the life he wants us, then Jesus is saying we cannot separate ourselves from understanding what Jesus said and the love He expressed for us in His words and actions.

To be built up in Christ means that we let Christ make His home in our heart where the fruits of his life in us can begin to grow.  When that happens, we have an increasing sense of rest and hope.  We desire to know Christ more.  We start reading the Bible more and more.  We want to spend more time with other Christians because with them we find support and loving correction when it is needed.  When we are seeking to be built up in Christ we are much more aware of injustices and prejudices, including the ones we engage in.  We find joy in serving others and we begin do things that are not quite like our old self.  We are able to release our anger towards circumstances and other people.  We are able to apologize for our conduct and talk more about Jesus.  When we invest in Christ and learn and experience what he said, then we are built into a person with the fullness of God.  This is who were are supposed to be when we live a Christ centered life.

I am going to close today with two statements.  First, “When the moon is in the Seventh House and Jupiter aligns with Mars then peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars.  This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius.  The age of “Golden living dreams of visions, mystic crystal revelation, and the mind's true liberation.  Aquarius.”  Second, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”  One statement is Kool-Aid laced with death.  One is the water of life.  Do you know which statement brings life and are you being built up in that life each day?  Let us pray.

Jan 21 - Christ Centered Church

Last week we began a conversation about what it means to be church.  We found that church, as Jesus conceived of it, was not an organization or a place.  Church is people.  People who hold a simple belief that Jesus is the Son of the living God sent to earth to bring God’s peace to all the people of the world.  But in the earliest days of church, Jewish leaders attacked the church.  These leaders forced the church to flee city of Jerusalem where church began.  For the men and women who did not flee, the Jewish leaders dragged them from their homes and imprisoned them.  When the Jewish leaders learned the church was growing in other parts of the countryside, the leaders sent people to find those churched people, so they could put an end to the church.  Well, we are here today in the Latham Community Baptist Church.  So, on the surface it would appear the persecution of the church was hugely unsuccessful.

But does our presence here mean we are a Christian, followers of Jesus, or that we are indeed a church?  The simple answer is “No.”  Our presence in a building called a church does not mean we are either Christian or that we are a church any more than if we lived in a garage would mean we had become a car.  Where we are, does not matter.  The factor that defines who we are, is what or who is the center of our life.  Whatever is at the center of a person’s life, whatever is most important, regardless of their circumstances or location, motives a person’s thoughts, words, and actions.  That is true of every human being. 

We could easily think of things that are at the center of people’s life.  Money, fame, popularity, power, alcohol, drugs are a few things at the center of some people’s lives and motivate the inner person.  These particular factors make people restless because those driven by such things as money, fame, popularity, power, alcohol, drugs never have enough, no matter how much they have.  Other things in life drive us such as family, friends, caregiving.  Still other factors can be incredible simple.  Let me give you a more poignant example to consider.  After World War II, thousands of European children lived on the streets and fended for themselves.  Eventually, aid workers placed the children in camps where they could receive food and shelter.  But these children were unable to sleep at night.  They no longer knew the comfort of a parent that would care for them and they worried that they would not have anything to eat the next day.  Food and fear motivated them.  One day, a camp worker decided to give the children a piece of bread to hold at night while they slept. Holding the bread, the children were able to sleep peacefully. The bread reminded them that they had eaten that day and that they would have food to eat the next day.  Food was at the center of their life and simply holding onto bread gave them peace.  This example makes our words of prayer, “give us our daily bread,” most powerful.

Whatever or whoever is at the center of our lives decides who we are.  Today, we read two passages from the New Testament that dealt with the centerpiece of one man’s life and his pursuit of peace.  The man’s name was Saul.  We might recall that last week we talked about Saul with the open words from Chapter 8 of the Book of Acts which reads, “Saul approved of his execution.”  To recap, it seems, a crowd of Jews, encouraged by Saul, attacked the church in Jerusalem and executed Stephen, a man who believed Jesus was the Son of the living God and shared his beliefs with others.  Protecting the traditions of Judaism was at the center of Saul’s life and motivated his thoughts, words, and actions but Paul had no peace in his pursuit.  So restless was Saul’s desired to destroy the church that he asked the Jewish leaders to send him from the city of Jerusalem to the city of Damascus in modern day Syria to attack the church in Damascus.  On the way to Damascus, Jesus, from heaven, revealed himself personally to Saul that Jesus was God’s Son, and Jesus changed Saul’s restless heart.  Rather than seeking churches to destroy them, Saul began seeking churches to build them up and make them stronger.  Saul was a new person because Jesus became the center of his life.

Let’s take a look at what happened in Saul’s life with Christ at its center.  I invite you to turn to the Book of Acts, Chapter 9, starting at verse 19.  The passage begins, “Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus.  At once Saul began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.  All those who heard Saul were astonished and asked, ‘Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this [Jesus’] name? And hasn’t he come here to take them [the church] as prisoners to the chief priests?’  Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah [the Son of the living God].” 

Jesus had forgiven Saul and gave Saul a new life and new heart.  Some who knew Saul naturally doubted him.  They wondered aloud, “Has Saul really changed?”  Now, here is the truth we need to speak.  When Jesus Christ touches us, and we accept him as Lord and Savior, people who knew us before Jesus will ask, “Have you really changed?  Aren’t you still the same person who used to gossip, or do drugs, or make fun of Christians, or cheat on your partners, or, or, or?”  People from Saul’s past challenged Saul.  People will challenge us as well when we receive a new life in Jesus Christ.  The truth we can share with them is yes, with Jesus at the center of my life, I am changed.  I will make mistakes like I did in the past, but I am forgiven.  I am not better than anyone else, just better off because I have peace with God. 

If we read further, at verse 26, we find that “When he [Saul] came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple.  But Barnabas [a respected disciple] took him [Saul] and brought him [Saul] to the apostles. He [Barnabas] told them [the apostles] how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him [Saul], and how in Damascus he [Saul] had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus.”  Those hurt by Saul were unsure he was a believer in Jesus Christ.  That is true of us as well.  People whom we have hurt or disappointed may not trust that Christ is in us.  We need the strength of other believers to speak for us and to encourage us.  This is part of being a church.  In Saul’s case, a trusted member of their group, Barnabas, gave testimony on Saul’s behalf that Saul had changed.  Saul would later express this acceptance of a new life this way: If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.”

Saul knew the joy of forgiveness, new life, and the peace of being reconciled in peace with God and others when he accepted Jesus and invited Jesus to be the center of his life.  The church, other believers, need to celebrate and focus on the new life in others.  We see in verse 31 because Saul accepted Jesus and the church accepted Saul, “The church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened.”

“The church enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened.”  I love hearing those words for they have become my prayer for this church.  God’s words here are not about a stronger building or a better place for people to meet.  The words of the Bible mean the church, ordinary people, married, single, widowed, men, women, children, workers, students, poor, wealthy, are at peace with God, with their pasts, with their present, with their future and with each other.  What a wonderful expression of a Christ centered church!

How then does a church have such peace and strength?  Since church as Jesus thought of it is people, then for a church to have peace, a church must be Christ centered.  For the church to be Christ centered, the people must be Christ centered.  What does a Christ centered life look like?  What sort of experience is it to live a Christ centered life?  Some people in the early church thought a Christ-centered life meant you had to live in extreme ways.  Some thought you must live away for all other people, all wealthy, and all physical comforts.  In the early church, a 20 years old man named Anthony, left everyone to live in a desert believing there he could be safe from all temptation and live only for Christ.  Another young man named Simon lived on top of a tall pillar for 35 years in the ancient city of Antioch as a means of a showing a Christ-centered life.  Anyone interested in forming becoming the church in a desert or upon a pole?  I do not think this is what Jesus had in mind.  Instead of living a life separated from people, I want us to explore what it means to live with other people in a Christ-centered fashion.  To start us off, I would like to look at the words God inspired Saul to write to a church in the ancient city of Colossae.  Please turn with me to the letter we call Colossians.  We will look a bit at the opening to Chapter 2.

As we look at this letter, we might know that Saul’s change of life through Christ was so complete and so thoroughly different that he chose to use a second name he was known by: Paul.  In verse 2, Paul said his goal in praying for and writing to churches was that “They may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.  I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments.”  Paul’s opening point was so simple that it seems silly to say it.  A Christ-centered life begins with recognizing Jesus Christ as a personal treasure from God.  This means you have a personal relationship with Jesus and you recognize that Jesus is not just part of our life, he is the center of your life.  For whatever is at the center of our life will decide our thoughts, words, and actions.  That is where Jesus wants to live. Paul observed in verse 5, “I delight to see how disciplined you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.”  It was clear from the way the people of Colossae thought, spoke, and acted that they recognized Jesus Christ as the center of their life.

We might ask, “Well, what does that mean that ‘I know Christ,’ or I have recognized Christ?”  Paul said in verse 6, by this I mean, “You received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted [in him] and built up in him, strengthened in the faith [in him] as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness [for him].” 

Today, let’s take only the first image Paul gave that a Christ-centered life is “rooted,” in Jesus.  The root of a plant has four functions: first, the roots collect water and nutrients; second, the root anchors the plant to the grounds; third, the root stores nutrients; and fourth, the root gives the plant the ability to spread.  Paul said to have Jesus at the center of your life you must be rooted in him.  A Christ-centered life then is rooted in recognizing that Jesus Christ died on the cross to take away our sin. Oh, there is that word again, sin.  Pastors today are not supposed to use that word because people do not want to hear it.  But we need to realize that we are sinners and that our lives have not been lived according to God. We have, do, and will miss the mark.  Rooted in Christ means we recognize Jesus took away our sins.  From this we become convinced, and perhaps touched in our heart, of God’s immeasurable love for us in His Son. The depth and reality of that experience is securely set, as we each alter or make amends for any living that we can tell has not been pleasing to Him.

            Saul, now Paul, moved from missing the mark to living as a Christ-centered person.  He was rooted in Jesus Christ and recognized that Jesus took away his sin and gave Paul grace to be a new person.  Paul knew Jesus forgave his mistakes even when he encouraged others to kill Stephen and drag others to prison.  If Jesus forgave Paul such acts, do you believe there are things in your life Jesus would not forgive you?  Be assured Jesus will forgive you if you acknowledge him before others. 

If you have never said before the church, other believers, “I accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior,” I want to encourage you do that today.  Just come up front and join me as we sing our final hymn.  If you have never been baptized as an adult to show the depth and reality of your commitment to Jesus, then I encourage you to demand that be done for you.  Just come up front and join me as we sing our final hymn.  We want to celebrate new life in Christ.  Our prayer for each other is that we would begin to lead a Christ centered life and thus this would be a Christ centered church.  Amen and Amen.

Jan 14 - Be the Church

            Soon we will have our annual church business meeting.  At hearing those words, I could sense the excitement in the room turn electric.  Of course, I jest.  Most people dread the idea of a church business meeting because experience has taught them such meetings are a setting in which “the minutes are kept and the hours are lost.”  I read of one church that had a 45-minute heated discussion whether the new file cabinets for the church office should be black or brown.  Once settled on the color, they went ahead to discuss whether the cabinets should be 3, 4, or 5 drawers.  Another church battled over what type of green bean to serve in church fellowship meals.  I suspect that you could share some stories about epic church meetings that you attended.

            I believe we dread church business meetings because deep down we sense that in those meetings we are not talking about church in the context Jesus desired.  I mean, do we really think that Jesus wanted us to be passionate about the color of file cabinets or types of green beans or any other example that comes to your mind?  I do not think Jesus meant for us to talk passionately about such matters and call it church.

            What are we to do?  I suppose that we could simply not have church business meetings.  While that choice has a certain appeal, there are decisions which for legal reasons we must meet and address as a congregation.  If we must then have church meetings, then we should understand what it means to be a church.

            New York State religious law says a church is an organization “created to enable its members to meet for divine worship and other religious observances.”  To our state government, a church is a thing.

            The manual used by local tax assessors says a church is a building and land owned by a religious organization.  To our local government, a church is a place.

            Did Jesus intend that church would be either a thing or a place?  Jesus said little about church.  But what he said was important.  So, let’s look at what He said.  I invite you to turn to the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 16, verse 13.  This is a major turning point in Jesus’ ministry and His teaching to his followers.  It is also the only place where Jesus describes the meaning of church.

            We begin at verse 13.  “13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”  [Jesus used the phrase “Son of Man” to describe himself.  So he is asking, “Who do people say I am?”  Verse 14, “They [the disciples] replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”  The disciples had spoken to many people who heard Jesus speak and perform miracles.  Some of the people must have said to Jesus’ disciples, “Tell me, I think he is John the Baptist come back from the dead.  Am I right?”  Or they said, “This Jesus is a prophet sent from God like Elijah or Jeremiah.  Isn’t that right?”  The people were thinking in historical terms believing God had chosen to send them another prophet.  Jesus was a prophet, but he was far more than that.  So, Jesus asked his disciples in verse 15, “But what about you?” [“Never mind what the crowds say.”]  “Who do you say I am?”  There was a moment of silence as some disciples looked to the ground hoping they would not be forced to answer.  Others looked at other disciples silently encouraging others to speak up.  Then Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Peter had said it, Jesus was not just a prophet, it was the Son of God having the most intimate and deeply personal connection with God.  He was the person God promised the people of Israel centuries ago to bring the Hebrew people glory on earth and peace with God.

            Again, silence must have settled on the group.  Peter’s statement was both exciting and dangerous.  It was exciting to think they stood in the presence of God’s son and dangerous because nothing in their life could be concealed from him.  Verse 17, Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.  And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”  Simon, now named by Jesus as Peter, which translates to the word, “rock,” spoke the truth.  It was a truth that God gave Peter to speak.  In response to this truth, Jesus spoke these words, “On this rock, I will build my church.”

            Two questions began in that moment and continue to this day.  What did Jesus mean by “on this rock?” and what does he mean by “church?”  Many scholars hundreds of years after Jesus spoke these words concluded that Jesus used a word play naming Peter as rock and thus the words, “on this rock,” meant Jesus was assigning Peter as his successor here on earth.  This is the theology of the Roman Catholic Church who consider Peter as the first Pope and all successor popes as successors of Peter and Jesus and have authority over the church.  There is certainly some merit to that argument, but I think there is a more powerful and universal understanding to Jesus words.  The rock that Jesus spoke of upon which he would build his church was not the person of Peter but upon the revelation from God of which Peter spoke.  “Jesus, you are the Messiah and the Son of the living God.”  This is the cornerstone for every follower of Jesus Christ.  We cannot be a Christian if God does not reveal to us that Jesus is his Son.  Once reveal, we cannot be a Christian without confessing, meaning saying aloud, that Jesus is the Son of the living God.  Those two truths contained in Peter’s response to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?” are the rock of faith.

            Why do I believe faith is the rock of which Jesus spoke and not the person of Peter?  Listen to Jesus words:

·         Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. (John 5:24a)

·         My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and the Father are one.” (John 10:27)

·         “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

·         Therefore, everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 10:32)

There is no mention of Peter or any religious organization.  The rock is the revelation that Jesus is the Son of the living God and a profession of that faith before others, just as happened with Peter.

            Even Peter in his own words professed again that Jesus is the foundation of salvation.  He wrote, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God has great mercy, and because of his mercy he gave us a new life. This new life brings us a living hope through Jesus Christ’s resurrection from death. You have not seen Christ, but still you love him. You can’t see him now, but you believe in him. You are filled with a wonderful and heavenly joy that cannot be explained. Your faith has a goal, and you are reaching that goal—your salvation.”  Even Peter says the rock upon which everything depends is not Peter but in the faith and profession that Jesus is the Son of the living God.

            Jesus said, “On this rock, I will build my church.”  The church then rests upon the rock of faith and profession in him as the Son of the living God by all those called by God, just like Peter.  If faith and profession in Jesus is the rock of the church, what then is the church?  That is a big question and in some ways made challenging because the gospel writers record only one other time Jesus used the word church and Jesus’ use of the word church was not used to describe what it meant to be church.

Our insight into church then comes from the examples we see immediately after Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.  I invite you to turn to the Book of Acts, Chapter 8, verses 1 through 3.  Our passage begins abruptly, “Saul approved of his execution.”  Who is Saul?  Whose execution did he approve?  If we read Chapters 6 and 7, we would read that an angry crowd of Jews killed a man named Stephen.  Why?  Because Stephen professed before others that Jesus is the Son of the living God and encouraged others to follow Jesus.  These words enraged the crowd because they did not believe in Jesus and wanted to silence Stephen.  Saul, a young leader of the Jews, encouraged the crowd to act.  Chapter 8, verse 1, “Saul approved of his [Stephen’s] execution.”

            We continue to verses 2 and 3, “And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they [the church] were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except for the apostles.  Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him.  But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.”  In historical terms, these are the first references to the church.

            First, we read, “And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they [the church] were all scattered.”  We see the church was neither a place nor an organization.  You cannot persecute things and places and you cannot scatter things and places across the countryside.  You can only persecute people.  The Jews, led by Saul, began to persecute and drive away from Jerusalem people who believed and said Jesus was the Son of the living God.  But that was not enough, “Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.”  We see most clearly the church was people professing Jesus as the Son of the living God.  Just people.  No buildings except their own homes.  No organization.  No power in government.  Just people guilty of only one charge, they believed in Jesus.  They were the church within their homes and within the places they worked.  These people shared with other people what they believed.  They were not secretive about their beliefs.  Saul had no problem finding these people, the church.  These people wanted to live the life Jesus asked them to live.  We will talk more about that in the weeks ahead.  They simply wanted to be the church.  For that, Saul dragged these people off to prison for the crime of being the church.  We will talk more about Saul on another day.

            We know then the church is not a place, it is not an organization, and it is not about green beans and filing cabinets.  The church is people standing on the cornerstone of faith in Jesus as the Son of the living God.  The church is people unashamed and freely living out that faith and sharing the cornerstone of their faith in their homes and places of work.  If being the church, a person of faith, became a crime today, would there be enough evidence to convict you and drag you off to prison?  Would the authorities know to find you in your home because it was there you shared your faith?  Would the authorities find you in your workplace or school because it was there you shared your faith?  Would they know to look for you in the marketplace because you shared your faith there?

            Each person comes into this world naked and unchurched.  All of life is a mystery and we depend upon the instruction of others to survive and thrive.  God sent Jesus to build His church, his people that they would believe in Jesus and in God who sent him.  Jesus gave those who believe the privilege and responsibility to be the church and share their faith.  Let’s be the church with passion and purpose.  Amen and Amen

Dec 31 - What Are You Waiting For

            The season of Advent for 2017 is officially over.  We wait until December for Advent to begin and then it is over on Christmas Day.  We will wait again until December 2018 to observe Advent once again.  Waiting is one of the things in life we must come to accept.  Americans wait no less than 32 minutes whenever they visit a doctor; hence, the term, waiting room.  We wait 13 hours every year on hold for customer service and 38 hours each year waiting in traffic.

            When I was graduating from college, I went for a job interview at Electric Boat, the maker of nuclear powered submarines.  Electric Boat was considering me for an engineering position in a structural analysis unit.  I met with the boss of the unit.  He was a gray-haired man who sat in a windowed office overlooking a large room with two rows of desks.  Each row had ten desks all facing the boss’ office.  The desks furthest from his office were empty and waiting for new employees.  Older employees occupied the desks nearest his office.  The scene suggested that as employees retired or quit, people who move forward, one step closer to the boss’ office and someday perhaps becoming the boss.  I turned down the job offer because it appeared everyone was just waiting for the person ahead of them to leave so they could advance.  It seemed like such a small thing to do with one’s life.  I was also convinced that if I did choose to work at Electric Boat that with two lines of desks, I was sure would choose a desk in the slower lane.

            Waiting is an important part of our life.  What we are willing to wait for reveals a lot about us.  Our New Testament reading today speaks to the act of waiting as seen through the eyes of a man named Simeon.  This passage reveals a lot about Simeon and what he was willing to wait for and how he chose to wait.  This passage reveals a lot to us about the question, “What Are You Waiting For?”

            I invite you to turn with me to the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2, starting at verse 25.  Jesus was born to Mary and her husband. Joseph.  It was time for the presentation of Jesus in the Temple by his parents.  Mary and Joseph were meeting the requirements of the Jewish traditions by presenting Jesus before God as a recognition that Jesus was God’s gift to them.  At the same time Mary, Joseph, and Jesus arrived at the Temple, God was moving in the life of a man named Simeon.  Verse 25 says, “25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout.”  What does it mean that he was righteous?  It meant Simeon lived with honesty and integrity in all his dealings with his family and neighbors.  He honored his parents.  He held his anger.  He did not steal or cheat another.  If married, he honored his wife and stayed faithful.  He did not speak harshly to or meanly about others and he did not envy what other people had.  Many people today would say he was a good man. 

Today, many people think that being “good,” being a righteous person in that sense is the way to live.  They believe if they live that way, then there is no reason to be concerned about such matters as God.  But God spoke on this very matter in the Book of Malachi.  God said, “Will a mere mortal rob God?  Yet you rob me.  You rob me of tithes and offerings.  You speak arrogantly about me saying, ‘It is useless to worship God because I did that and did not gain anything from doing so.’”  God said, “One day, you will learn the difference between someone who follows God and someone who does not.”  Luke said Simeon was a righteous man and a devout man.  Simeon did not rob God.  Simeon followed God.  He honored God above everything else.  He respected the name of God and did not use it falsely.  He honored the Sabbath and kept God’s commands.  God calls us to love our neighbors and love Him.  God calls us to be righteous and devout.  Simeon was righteous and devout.

            We move now to verse 26, “He [Simeon] was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him.”  We now have an added dimension to the character of Simeon.  Simeon valued one thing over all other things because he was willing and persistent about waiting for something.  Luke said Simeon was awaiting “the consolation of Israel.”  We should ask, “What is the consolation of Israel?”  In our modern language, consolation suggests we receive something in response to our grief.  Someone visits us offered comforting words or a card after a death in the family.  They consoled us or offer consolation.  Another common use is consolation means something awarded to someone or a team after not achieving first place.  Those coming in second or third place receive a consolation prize.  It is usually a small gift to ease the pain of not reaching the top goal.  Consolation to us means comfort.

            Luke’s use of consolation is far grander.  The consolation of Israel was not a small prize or kind words offered in grief.  In fact, the consolation of Israel was not something at all, it was someone.  The consolation of Israel that Simeon waited for was the person called Messiah.  The Messiah was the person sent by God to bring the kingdom of God to the people of Israel and to reveal salvation for all people.  The consolation of Israel was another title for this person who would reveal the difference between those who followed God and those who did not.  There was nothing Simeon expected in life that could be greater than the Messiah.  If we asked Simeon, this righteous and devout man, “What are you waiting for Simeon?” he would have answered, “The Messiah.”  God blessed Simeon with the Holy Spirit to guide him and comfort him in his time of waiting. 

In verse 26, we read, “It had been revealed to him [Simeon] by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.”  Simeon lived his life with great confidence knowing that God would keep his promises.  God would send his Messiah.

Starting with verse 27, Luke brought us to a God arranged meeting.  “27 Moved by the Spirit, he [Simeon] went into the temple courts.”  On this day, when the time was right, God moved Simeon to the Temple.  God was saying, “Get up now Simeon, to the Temple.  Drop everything else you are doing or care to do and get there this moment.”  Now Simeon could have said to himself, “I am too tired.  I was just there yesterday.  I need to rest.  I need to be at home today.”  There are countless reasons why Simeon could have done something other than going to the Temple.  We are all faced with Simeon’s situation every day.  We feel moved to do something and yet there is that tug on our life saying, “Why bother? Don’t you want to do something else?”  One time I was counseling someone following the death of a loved one.  The person’s grief seemed consistent with other people I had met but there was something different in their mannerism that day.  Toward the end of our planned time together, I felt moved to ask some deeper questions about the subtle differences in the way they were acting that day.  I knew these questions would be hard for the person to answer.  The questions would extend our time together, and depending upon that person’s answers they might change everything else I had planned that day.  But this time, I followed the moving within me, silenced the other concerns in my mind, and asked those deeper questions.  The person revealed they were having seriously deep and dark thoughts.  They had decided it would be all right if they took their own life.  The person had a plan to use a very specific knife to open their veins and bleed to death.  They were ready.  We talked a bit and they I asked if it would be all right if I kept this knife for them.  I would keep it at the church and whenever they wanted the knife back, I would meet them at the church and return it to them.  The person thought for a moment and said that sounded like the right thing to do.  Plans changed.  In that moment, nothing else was more important than to walk with this person through grief and spend the time to secure that knife.  I believe it was one of those moment in life in which I followed the leading of the Holy Spirit and silenced the lesser concerns I had about the day.  I am sure there were many other days I chose not to following the Holy Spirits lead.

Simeon followed the leading of the Holy Spirit, and “When the parents [Mary and Joseph] brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him [Jesus] in his arms and praised God, saying: 29 ‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace.  30 For my eyes have seen your salvation, 31which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.’”  Simeon had seen and held God’s Messiah.

Can you image Simeon’s feelings at this moment as he held baby Jesus?  The sense of closeness to God and privilege to hold the Messiah.  Now, here is the thing.  We can share that same experience.  Jesus offers to you and me the privilege of holding onto him.  That is why Jesus came to earth.  Jesus says to us,

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”

“If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

We can be like Simeon and hold onto the Messiah as the guardian of our life and know the salvation of God.  One time the Apostle Paul stood before others to tell of his acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah.  The light of Christ blinded Paul and the Holy Spirit moved a man named Ananias to go to Paul in his blind state.  Paul recalled, “Then Ananias said to me: ‘The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. 15 You will be his witness to all people of what you have seen and heard. 16 And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.’”  Paul stopped waiting.  He got up.  Was baptized and lived his life as a righteous and devout follower of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.  This is what Simeon did as well.

Simeon’s example and Ananias’ question should be on our minds as one year ends and a new one begins.  What are you waiting for?  We could ask ourselves that same question five ways:

WHAT are you waiting for?  God’s desire is that we would rejoice in his Messiah and live a righteous and devout life.  So, what thing, event, or information do we lack, that we must waiting upon, before holding onto Jesus and receiving his Holy Spirit?

 What ARE you waiting for?  Perhaps, in response to the first reading of the question we cannot name anything that we lack but we have not committed to a  lived for Christ; righteous and devout.  So, what is the reason to delay or to procrastinate?

What are YOU waiting for?  Maybe we know others who found it uncomfortable to live a life for Jesus because their friends, family, or classmates did not understand them or made fun of them?  Maybe others say, “I am a person of science, facts, and repeatable truths, I cannot say I believe in God!”  Fine that is what others say.  Faith is not about the things other people think and say.  Faith in Jesus as the Messiah and Savior is a personal decision.  So, the question comes back not who do others say Jesus is but who do YOU say he is.  If you believe he is the Messiah, the Son of God, what are YOU waiting for?  Ananias would say, “Get up and be baptized.”   

What are you WAITING for?  Perhaps, we do not really have any reason for our inaction other than we do not feel worth of Jesus.  We might think, as I once did, we need to get our lives in order and be better before accepting Jesus.  I need to be good so that my accepting Jesus makes sense to others.  Friends, Jesus died for us when we were sinners.  He came because none of us are good enough on our own.  There can be no reason to wait to get good because on our own we cannot.  Listen again to Ananias’ words, “Get up and be baptized.”

What are you waiting FOR?  When we accept Jesus as Messiah, Savior, and Lord of our life he gives us the Holy Spirit to guide us and teach us to live a life that is truly righteous and devout.  We have joy in worshipping God through Jesus Christ and we want to share that blessing with others.  We might ask, “Well, what else is there to come?  Is there something to wait for?”  The answer is yes.  Christians wait for the coming again of the Messiah.  In that day, all struggles of life end and the perfect peace of heaven is with us forever.  Only Christians wait for such a day of rejoicing when Christ shall come again.  Will Jesus come in our lifetime?  Only God knows but that should not persuade us from being excited about Jesus coming again.

So, let’s start the year like Simeon, willing to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit that we could hold onto Jesus the Messiah.  Let’s deal with Ananias’ question with all its different emphasis, “What are you waiting for?”  Think about the question.  Talk to God about it.  But do not wait too long before getting up and holding onto Jesus, becoming empowered by Him to live and share a righteous and devout life before God and others as we wait for Jesus to come again.  Amen and Amen.

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