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Dec 10 - God Has An Announcement for You

            We have arrived at the second Sunday of Advent.  Hopefully, we are all trying to slowdown this season so that we do not miss what God has to say to us concerning the birth of Jesus.  Slowing down and getting the distractions removed from our lives is important so that we do not miss the point of Jesus’ birth.  Too many people are engaged in simultaneous conversations on the phone, writing emails, sending text messaging, watching television, and listening to a conversation from the person seated next to us.  The noise of the world and the distractions of the world are getting louder and louder.  [Phone call]

            We know it is getting harder today to get someone’s attention for very long.  God knows that as well.  That is why I believe He wants us to use such times as Advent to slowdown and listen because the announcement He has about Jesus’ birth changes everything about your life. 

Announcements are a funny thing.  In today’s world, the words, “I have a few announcements to make,” is trigger for everyone to stop listening and do something else.  Psychologists tell us that when we hear the word “announcement,” we stop listening for three reasons:

            First, we do not listen to announcements because we assume there is nothing in the announcement for us.  Our experience teaches us announcements are just a way of getting us to do something, go somewhere, or pay for something.  That is true of most human announcements.  God’s announcements though are different.  God’s announcements always change lives.

            Second, we do not listen to announcements because people making announcements use language that make it hard for us to understand.  Think about the announcements used by the government to let us know about the importance of major laws.  I will just give you three examples of laws announced by the government, “The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, The Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act, or the Evidence Based Policymaking Commission Act.”  Have your eyes glazed over with the string of words that make it difficult to understand the what is happening?  Those are human announcements.  God’s announcements are different.  God’s announcements always change your life and, if we listen, are easy to understand.

            The third major reason we do not listen to announcements is those making the announcement often present the information with no heart, no passion, or excitement.  If you have flown recently, you know what I mean when the safety announcements are given before the start of the flight.  No one puts their heart in the announcement and no one seems to listen.  God’s announcements are different.  God’s announcements always change your life, are easy to understand, and God puts his heart into his announcements.

            Earlier today, as we listened to the New Testament readings, we heard God make some amazing announcements.  The announcements concerned the birth of baby named Jesus.  At the heart of the announcement, God said, “I am bringing heaven onto earth.”  This is completely radical and something humans just had not experience.  Even today we are more inclined to think about things on earth going to heaven.  When we pray, we say that we are sending our prayers from earth to heaven, where God lives.  When someone dies, we say the deceased is now in heaven.  We are accustomed to things on earth going to heaven.  But God said in his announcements we heard today, “I am bringing heaven onto earth.” 

To announce this radical change, God used angels, beings from heaven, to let people on earth know heaven was on its way.  He sent an angel to a young girl named Mary.  Mary was engaged to a man named Joseph, but she was still a virgin.  The angel said to Mary, “Greetings, [Mary] you [who] are highly favored! The Lord is with you. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. He will be a king and his kingdom will never end.  [The child] will be called the Son of God.”  God’s announcement changed Mary’s life; she would become the mother of a new type of king.  A king whose kingdom would never end.  God’s announcement was easy to understand; “Mary, you are going to have a baby boy and give him the name Jesus.”   God’s announcement was exciting; Mary’s baby was God’s own Son.  This message was so radical, so unexpected, that Mary shook with fear.  The angel said to Mary, “Do not be afraid. For no word from God will ever fail.  God is with you.”  God said, “I am bringing heaven onto earth.”  In that moment, without distractions, Mary heard God.  And the fear she felt left her, and she said, “May what you say, happen just as you said.”  God’s announcement changed Mary’s life forever.  God spoke His announcement plainly.  God gave his heart in that announcement.  And Mary listened.

If God spoke to you right now, would you hear Him or are you too distracted to listen?  If God sent a messenger to you to speak God’s words to you, would you hear what God had to say to you or would you not really listen?  President Franklin Roosevelt complained that people just did not listen.  One day as he greeted people and shook their hand, he murmured, "I murdered my grandmother this morning." The guests responded with phrases like, "Marvelous! Keep up the good work. We are proud of you. God bless you, sir." It was not till the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, that his words were actually heard. Upon hearing the news, the Bolivian ambassador leaned over and whispered to the President, "I'm sure she had it coming."  This is a silly story that shows us how few people listen.  Compare that story with Mary’s story.  Mary showed us to listen to God, set aside fear, and then be prepared to experience God according to his word.

Mary quickly came to understand that listening to God’s words is something we struggle with doing.  Mary told her future husband, Joseph, that she was pregnant, and the child did not belong to any other man.  The child belonged to God.  Mary told Joseph that God said to her, “I am bringing heaven onto earth.”  But Joseph did not believe Mary’s words.  None of what Mary said made sense to Joseph and he could not see himself sharing his life with Mary.  But Joseph was a kind man and did not want Mary disgraced.  He just wanted to end their relationship privately.  After making his decision, God intervened with an announcement to Joseph.  Once again, God sent an angel to Joseph.  The angel said, “Joseph do not be afraid.  Take Mary home as your wife.  Her baby is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She is going to have a son.  You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”  God had again announced, “I am bringing heaven to earth.”  In that moment, without distractions, Joseph listened.  The fear he felt left him, and he did as the angel commanded, taking Mary as his wife.  God’s announcement changed Joseph’s life forever.  God spoke His announcement plainly.  God gave his heart in that announcement.  And Joseph listened.

Are we listening?  About a year ago, I met a group of people who were grieving the loss of loved ones.  I sat down next to a woman who came to the meeting alone.  I asked her who in her life died that she was there that evening.  She said her fiancé died.  I asked her, “Can you tell me about him?”  She responded very quickly, “Yes, I can tell you about him, but will you listen to me?”  I replied, “Of course, I would listen.”  She said, “That’s good, because most people may say they are interested in knowing about Robert but very few people listen.”  In the days of Jesus’ birth, many people would have said, “Yes, I am interested in hearing God tell his story,” but few actually listened.”

            So on the night of Jesus’ birth, God sent an angel to a group of people God was certain would listen to his announcement.  This time the angel appeared to several shepherds in the field.  When the angel appeared, the glory and radiance of God shone around the angel and it enveloped the shepherds.  The shepherds were terrified.  The angel said, “Do not be afraid.  I want to share some great news with you.  A baby was born today in Bethlehem.  He is from God.  You will find this baby wrapped in cloths and lying in of all places in animal’s feeding trough.”  Then before the shepherds could react the sky around them lit up with more angels singing and praising God and saying, “Glory to God and peace on earth.”

God had again announced, “I am bringing heaven to earth.”  Only this time, God was not speaking to Mary, the baby’s mother, or to Joseph, the man who would raise the baby into a man.  This time God spoke to some shepherds, ordinary people like you and me.  In that moment, without distractions, shepherds listened.  The fear they felt left them, and the shepherds did as the angel commanded.  They went to Bethlehem, saw the child, shared God’s announcement with Mary and Joseph and then their shared the news with everyone they met.  God’s announcement changed the shepherds’ lives forever.  God spoke His announcement plainly.  God gave his heart in that announcement.  And shepherds listened.

We do not listen to announcement because assume there is usually nothing in the announcement for us.  We don’t listen because the announcements are hard to understand and those making the announcement have no heart or passion in the announcement.  Well, God has an announcement for you and me.  He has been working to get humanity to pay attention to his announcement for over 2,000 years.  God wants you and me to slowdown and listen to this, his message, “I sent heaven to earth in the name of Jesus.  I did that because I love you and want you to live with me for all time.  Look at the manger scene.  See I brought Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds together.  Do not be afraid.  There is room for you at the manger as well.  If you listen to me and join them, I will change your life forever.”  God’s announcements change our lives forever.

We might say, “OK, God, I hear you and that your making promises to me, but what sort of life changing promise are you making?”  To our question, God has already replied, “When you are mine, you will always be able to hear my voice and know it is me.  You will follow me and I will lead you on the right paths through this world and to me in heaven.  I will give you eternal life.  Although your physical body will wear out someday, you will never die.  You outlive your body and you can live with me.  When you are mine, no one can take you from me.”  God’s announcements change our lives forever and are easy to understand.

We might say, “OK, God, I hear you but how do I know what you say is true?”  To our question, God has already replied, “I sent Jesus as heaven on earth.  As I told Joseph, Jesus came to forgive sin; that’s the only thing that keeps you and me apart.  Jesus took away your sins, those of the past, those you committed today, and yes, sadly, those you will commit tomorrow.  He took your sins with him to cross and there he He died.  They buried Jesus’ body hoping he would be forgotten.  How silly.  For Jesus was heaven on earth.  So, I raised him back into new life.  Because these things happened, you can know that I love you and my promises can be trusted.”

God’s announcements change our lives forever, are easy to understand, and are rich in passion.  God has an announcement for you and me found in manger.  Are we listening?  Let us pray.

Dec 3 - The Gift Must Be Opened

       On Christian church calendars, today marks the first Sunday of Advent.  Most churches have completed decorating their buildings with trees, garland, wreaths, candles, and lights.  It was not always this way.  The observance of Christmas, the celebration of Jesus’ birth, was not part of the early Christian church.  Christians did not celebrate Christmas together on December 25 until the year 440 and then it was only done as a religious service.  As Christianity spread throughout present day Europe, little by little local churches slowly introduced the decorative elements we have today.  Many of those who later left Europe in the 1600’s to come to the new lands of the Americas left the celebration of Christmas behind.  They were looking to model the early Christian church and feared Christmas had become too commercialized.  Their concern was that in the commercialization of Christmas, people would miss the eternal significance of the day. 

What do you think?  Do you think our ancient ancestors’ fears were correct?  I think for many people, they see the Christmas lights as a sign to increase their activities and make their lives full and busy with trees, baking, parties and shopping.  They see the countdown calendar toward Christmas as a sign that time is running out to get all things done; after all you only have 22 more days until Christmas – hurry up.  I wonder what it would be like if instead they saw the Christmas lights and said, “Oh, yes, the lights of Christmas are a symbol to remind me to slowdown and so that I can hear God afresh.  Oh, yes, the lights are a symbol to remind me of the wonder of God and that He is with us.  Oh yes, the lights remind me to say thank you God and treasure the gift God has given me.”  The countdown calendar is telling us, we only have 22 more days to complete slowing our lives down otherwise we will miss the entire point.  We should then see each Sunday of Advent is another sign to slowdown so that we can experience God.

Our Scripture readings today from Genesis and the Gospel of John should slow us down and cause us to think about what God has done.  We read today from the Book of Genesis.  These are the very first words of the Bible.  This book is, if you will, the Volume 1 of God’s story.  In Genesis 1 we read, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”  God caused there to be a beginning.  God is the source of beginnings.  Now listen to what God did to start things off.  Genesis 1, verse 3.  “And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good.”  God created light and it shone into the darkness as the first and unmistakable sign of God’s presence.  Oh, yes, the lights are a symbol to remind me of the wonder of God.  The God of beginnings.

Moving to our New Testament, Volume 2 of God’s story, we read from the Gospel of John these opening words, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginningThrough him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  Volumes 1 and 2 of God’s story start the same, “In the beginning.”  These words remind us that God is the God of all new beginnings.  Yet, as in Volume 1 of His story, God signals His new beginnings in Volume 2 the same way, with light. Oh, yes, the lights are a symbol to remind me of the wonder of God.

Now the light in the book of Genesis, God called day but what did God say of the light in the Gospel of John?  We continue in the Gospel of John, “There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the lightThe true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.”  The light that God spoke into existence had not somehow disappear, so the light God spoke about in the Gospel of John must be a very different light.  Light here is a symbol for a person who could shine light into the darkest of people’s lives.  The person coming would be a person of new beginnings.  So important was this person to come, that God sent a messenger named John to speak of this coming man of light.  John’s message was simple, “Slowdown and turn to God.  Be careful you do not miss His coming to you.  Slowdown and make your life ready for God has something wonderful for you.  It will be a gift from God to you.”  Oh, yes, the lights of Christmas are a symbol to remind me to slowdown and so that I can hear God afresh.  Oh yes, the lights remind me to say thank you God and treasure the gift God has given me.

How did the busy and preoccupied world react to the news of this man?  The Gospel of John said, “10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”  Oh yes, most people did not slowdown to see the coming of God’s gift.  They never experienced the light God intended for them and so they did not receive God’s gift.  Only a few slowed down enough to hear with their full being the message God had for them.  Only a few, let the light shine into their lives.  Only a few received the gift of new beginnings.  How sad to let the things of this world rob us of a gift from God, to become His child.

For those who did see and experience the light of God, this gift from God, they saw it this way, “14 The Word [God] became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth…Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”

These words may be hard for us to full understand.  But the message is simple.  God came in the person of His own Son and gave Him the name Jesus, the Christ, the one sent from God.  God wrapped himself with flesh and blood.  Jesus was the gift from God to the world.  It was God’s way of making himself known to all who would slowdown and receive the gift.

Now there is something interesting about a gift.  In the court system, there are rules about gifts.  The courts hold that a gift is not a gift unless there is evidence that three things happened. 

First, the person with the gift must deliver it to the person receiving the gift.  If I bought my wife a ring and placed it in the bottom of my sock drawer expecting it never to be taken out or discovered, the ring is not a gift.  I must deliver the ring to my wife in some manner.  God sent Jesus from heaven to the world and made known through the prophets of the Old Testament and the testimony of John the Baptist of the gift of Jesus Christ.  The evidence is clear; God delivered the gift. 

Second, the rule of law on gifts says the person giving the gift must intend to give it.  For example, a landlord who gives a key to his home or apartment to another individual giving them possession of the property is not giving a gift.  There is no intent by the landlord for the other individual to keep the apartment.  We read, “12 Yet to all who did receive him [Jesus], to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”  The evidence is clear, God intended to give Jesus as a gift.

Third, the rule of law on gifts says that final requirement for a valid gift is acceptance.  A gift can be delivered with the intent for another person to have it but if the gift is not received, the gift and the intent are lost.  The person receiving the gift must willingly accept it.  No one can force another person to accept a gift.  Although God is not bound by the rules of court, God will not force anyone to accept the gift of Jesus because He knows it would no longer be a gift.  The evidence is clear, many rejected the gift of Jesus; yet for those who did there was a new beginning to their lives as children of God.

What then does it mean to accept God’s gift of Jesus?  What does God intend for us through that gift?  The gift means we have a right standing with God because we have been declared righteous before Him. This is a legal verdict, and it includes: pardon from the guilt and penalty of sin.  We are no longer God's enemy (Romans 5:1).  We have the love of God (Romans 5:5).  We have the Holy Spirit of God within us to move us from sin, to give comfort, to teach us, and guide us.  We are children of God with a new nature, in a new family relationship. We bear God's likeness (Eph. 1:4).  We have forgiveness of our sins – past, present, and future (1 John 1:9).  We have a purpose for living in praising God for his glory. We have abundant life and eternal life (1 John 5:11-13).  We have joy in all circumstances (Ps. 16:11; 1 Peter 1:3-9; 4:13,14).  We have countless "brothers and sisters" in the family of God and are "members one of another” (Romans 12:5).  We have one or more spiritual gifts-which are to be used to glorify God and edify the Body of Christ.  We have a future, wisdom, provision, guidance, protection, and freedom.  We have the presence of God with us and call to share His gift with others.  We have all this if and only if we accept the gift God offers.

The Christmas lights are on.  The first candle of Advent has been lit.  We now see the lights as a symbol to remind us to slowdown and so that we can hear God afresh.  The lights are a symbol to remind us of the wonder of God and that He is with us.  The lights remind us to slowdown and open God’s gift of Jesus Christ.  Will you do so?  Let’s pray.

Nov. 26 - The Sound of Silence

            Today’s message deals with one of the issues in life that can make us uncomfortable and anxious.  Our discomfort at this topic comes about because when this topic comes up we can get disoriented and fearful.  Today, we need to speak about the issue of [60 second pause] silence.  Silence.  It is a little unnerving to expect to hear something and be left in silence.  I was only silent for 60 seconds, but it seemed much longer to me; even though I was looking at a stopwatch.

Silence causes us to become anxious.  Some of you may have felt a little rise in your anxiousness.  You may have shifted a little in your seat or asked yourself, “What is going on?  Did I miss something?  Is the pastor OK?”  When I worked for the Federal government, I learned when interviewing people accused of wrongdoing to ask a critical question, let the individual answer, and then say nothing.  The longer I was silent, the more uncomfortable the person became prompting them to give more information in response to my question.  When confronted with silence that we do not expect, we will do things to break the tension of the silence.  In most cases, we interpret silence in a relationship as a sign of unspoken disapproval.  We are apt to say, “The silence was deafening,” meaning the silent response to what we did or said made it clear that our actions or words were not acceptable.  We know this “deafening silence” from our firsthand experiences.  For example, when a husband and wife get into an argument, one may choose to use the “silent treatment” and stop talking to the other.  It is a sign of disapproval and a signal that something needs to change.  Silence by one person in a conversation may also be a sign that they do not believe the other party is listening.  Why speak when the other party simply wants to talk without listening?  The silence gets the other person’s attention.

Today, I was silent for 60 seconds during this message and it seemed like a long time.  Today, we read from the last book of the Old Testament and from the Gospel of Luke from the New Testament.  The words from the Old Testament Book of Malachi are the last from God until He spoke through the angel to Zechariah as recorded in the Gospel of Luke.  The time span between God’s last words of the Old Testament and His first words of the New Testament was 400 years.  God was silent not for 60 seconds.  He was silent for 400 years.

In Malachi, God spoke to the people of Israel in a manner of closing a conversation.  He said, “Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire.  Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.  I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents.”  The conversation ended and the 400 years of silence, in the form of their being no prophets from God, began.

The world, however, was not silent.  The world is never silent.  During these Alexander the Great conquered much of the known world, including the lands of Israel.  The Greek culture and language became universal.  The Syrians arose to conquer the lands of Israel and sought to outlaw all forms of Jewish worship.  The Jews, under Judas Maccabee fought back and saved the nation and their religion.  Modern Jews still commemorate this event in their annual celebration of Hanukkah.  Not longer after the Jewish victory came defeat at the hands of the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus.  The Greeks brought a common language throughout the known world.  The Romans brought law and order as well as a highly developed system of roads.  The movement of ideas through language and the movement of people from one location to another had never been easier.  This combination of language, roads, and order gave the ancient people an Internet not unlike what we have today; a world ready for rapid and radical change.

The silence intensified the anticipation of a major change.  Historians of that time wrote that the Jews and Gentiles alike had a sense that a major figure of history was to be born.  The Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus each wrote that, “There had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated for men coming from Judaea to rule the world.”  The people of the world, Jews and Gentiles, were expecting something to happen and that a man would come from Judea to rule over the world.  (Suetonius, Life of Vespasian 4.5) (Tacitus, Histories 5) For the Jews, all that was left to learn was how would God’s silence would end.

God would end His silence at just the right moment.  We read from the Gospel of Luke the silence ended in the time when Herod was king of Judea.  The silence ended with a priest named Zechariah and to his wife Elizabeth.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were an old couple.  But the Bible said, “Both were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.”  Zechariah and Elizabeth were the very people of whom the prophet Malachi spoke.   God said through Malachi, “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.”  This couple remembered to do as God asked.

Luke wrote a bit more.  He said, “Once when Zechariah’s division of priests was on duty, he was went into the temple of the Lord to burn incense.  11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.”  The time was right for God to speak and act. 

God’s timing is one of the most difficult things for us to understand.  We want things to happen on our schedule.  We want God to answer us when we want an answer.  We want to feel God in our life no matter what we are doing.  We want God to speak to us in the simplest clearest ways possible.  These are all fine things to want and we should have them from God, but only if we had created God.  If we had created God, then we should expect answers when we want them and in the way we want them.  But we did not create God.  God created us.  Occasionally, God needs to remind us we are His creation.  When Job demanded an answer from God for Job’s troubles, God replied, ““Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?  Tell me, if you understand.  Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!  Who stretched a measuring line across it?  On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone— while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?  12 “Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place?  16 “Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep?  18 Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth? Tell me, if you know all this” (Job 38).  We did not create God, He created all of creation.

God who set all of creation into place chose this moment in the Temple with an old priest named Zechariah to speak through an angel and break the silence of four centuries.  The “angel said to him [Zechariah]: ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.”  You can almost hear Zechariah say to the angel, “Say what?  I’m going to have a son at my age by Elizabeth at her age!  Do you know how long ago I made that pray?  And now this is the time that God chooses to break His silence and to mark it by giving us, an old couple, a baby boy!  What is God thinking?”  Timing is everything and it is all up to God.

The angel continued.  “14 He [John] will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born.”  People will see John’s physical birth for what it is, a miracle.  Evidence that God is at work and moving through the people.  There can be no other explanation for Zechariah and Elizabeth to be able to have a baby.  The sound of Elizabeth’s new born baby crying would be the first sign God’s silence was over.

But more than the birth of John, it would be John’s purpose that said God’s silence had ended.  God’s had said through Malachi, “I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents.”  Now the angel says to Zechariah, “16 He [John, your son] will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”  The promise of God from hundreds of years ago would be met.  A new prophet would go among the people to turn their hearts, that is to cause them to repent and turn toward God.  The anticipation of the Jewish and Gentile world would be met.  A man would come from Judea to rule the world.  It would not be John, but John would tell the people of his coming.  God was moving and speaking volumes.  The man who would be coming was Jesus Christ.

At just the right time in history Jesus was born. The coming of Christ into the world was not a matter of chance or coincidence. His coming was part of God's divine plan established before the foundation of the world. The people were spiritually hungry, and God was preparing the world for the arrival of His Son.

We are soon to celebrate the arrival of God’s Son sent to the earth in God’s way at God’s timing.  God broke His silence in a wonderful and powerful way.  What will we make of this occasion?  Will we be still enough in our hearts not to miss the point of Jesus’ coming?  Will we take upon ourselves the awareness and need for us to be silent that we might hear what God is saying to us.  God said, “Be still and know I am God” (Psalm 46:10).  Let’s make and take the time this year to be silent before the Lord that we might hear him.  Remember, it sounds something like this [15 second pause.]

Now to hear God in our own silence, we need to remember what God sent John to do.  He sent him to get the people to turn toward God.  This year, let’s take the time to be silent but also to turn toward God.  Let’s be a person of prayer, like Zechariah.  Let’s be a person of patience, like Elizabeth.  Let’s read the promises of Scripture.  Let’s read about those promises met in the New Testament.  Then when we are ready, in our silence and face to God, let’s see what he has to say to us.  We might just discover the voice of Jesus Christ, the man who came as promised giving life and breaking the sound of silence. Let us pray.

Nov. 19 - Thankfulness

Thanksgiving Day in the United States will soon be upon us.  We will celebrate the day by watching a parade on television, eating a great feast, spending time with our families, catching an afternoon nap, watching some football, and, perhaps, by doing some Christmas shopping.  Thanksgiving Day is America’s second favorite holiday.  It is second only to Christmas and beat third place Halloween.  In my childhood home, Thanksgiving was one of just a few days of the year in which the meal began by saying blessing.  My older sister always said the blessing and it was the same time.  “Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.”  I guess that was done to make it clear to God that we were thankful and that we knew the official Roman Catholic prayer. 

Each of you have memories of the traditions you followed in celebrating Thanksgiving Day.  There is something comforting in following traditions.  Traditions connect us with our past and the customs of our parents and grandparents.  Feeling a sense of connectedness to our family for most people is the good part of traditions.  But sometimes our traditions trap us into the past and keep us from seeing the realities of the present and the possibilities of the future.  Why is this?  Because our traditions necessarily focus our attention on looking back as things were and have been and not on what stands before us nor on what could be. 

If I had stayed focused on the traditions of my family, I would be offering grace, a prayer of thanks, just a few meals during the year instead of having the blessing of offering thanks to God at every meal.  Those few minutes of prayer before a meal, whether at home or in public, are a blessing because they stop all activity.  In those moments, we stop thinking about the past, we think about what is right before our eyes, and whatever we might think lays ahead in the future.  In those moments, we recognize the presence of God and those at the table.  We give ourselves time to pause and remember that God is with us and we are with Him.  In those moments, we can remember our commitments to support one another when we said earlier, “I will pray for you,” and we can pray right then.  Sometimes we must break with tradition of the past to see and experience the joy God intends for us in the present and the possibilities of the future.  And in the freshness of our joy, comes our thankfulness to God.

Our New Testament passage today is about a different sort of Thanksgiving Day and the breaking of traditions.  In the breaking of traditions of the past, one man saw the bright hope with God in the present moment and true thankfulness poured out.  I would invite you to turn to this Thanksgiving Day story from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 17. 

We will begin at verse 11 as Luke sets the scene for his readers.  As we read this passage, we will need to know that we are beginning to move toward the climax of Jesus’ public ministry.  The time has come for Jesus to make his final entry into Jerusalem where the crowds will shout praises of honor to him and then a few days later another crowd will shout “Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!”  Jesus and his disciples are moving toward the final act of his horror of his death, the sadness of his burial, and the overwhelming joy of his resurrection.  Luke wrote, “11 Now on his [Jesus’] way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee.”  Samaria and Galilee were two parts of ancient Israel that shared a border; much like New York State shares a border with its neighboring states with one major difference.  The people of Galilee and Samaria despised each other, even though each group had a common set of ancient ancestors.  They detested one another, even though the foundation of their religious beliefs were common.  They avoided each other, even though the God they both worshipped said, “Love one another.”  Jesus, a Jew from Galilee, heading to Jerusalem, the center of Jewish religious life, was threading his way along the border between two groups of people who despised, detested, and avoided one another.  In doing so, Jesus was breaking the traditions of both the people of Galilee and Samaria.

Luke continued, “12 As he [Jesus] was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him.”  Luke does not say which village or whether the village was in Galilee or Samaria.  The key point was that before Jesus could enter the village, ten people met him.  The ten had two things in common; they were all men and they all had leprosy.  Within this group of ten, there are no distinctions.  We do not know which of the men were single or which were married.  We do not know which of the men were skilled craftsmen, which ones were poets, or which ones were scholars.  They were all men with the serious incurable illness of leprosy and with that they were all equal.  All the titles and barriers that may have separated them when they were healthy disappeared when they all became ill.  Death and serious incurable diseases have a way of making us equal.

Luke continued, “They [the ten men with leprosy] stood at a distance.”  Leprosy is a serious skin disease that damages the skin, nerves, limbs, nose, ears, eyes, and face of the afflicted.  As the disease progresses, tissue loss occurs resulting in the loss of fingers, toes, and cartilage throughout the body.  Leprosy is contagious and so the tradition of Jesus’ time was to isolate all those with leprosy away from those who were healthy.  From a religious perspective, leprosy, like many diseases, was thought a sign of God’s disfavor upon a sinner. Thus, the healthy and righteous among the village excluded the contagious diseased sinners from living in the village.  Under Jewish traditions, once isolated for leprosy, the only way to re-enter society was to show evidence to the priest of a healing.

We can understand the practice of isolating the sick because we have seen it play out in our lifetime.  A few years ago, the Ebola virus infected a handful of people.  Near panic ensued.  The first cause of action was to isolate these people from the rest of society.  The distinction between the patients with the illness disappear and the isolation of these few had a calming effect on society. Thus, the men with leprosy stood at a distance from Jesus lest they upset the calm that was present with their isolation.  Verse 13, as the ten men with leprosy saw Jesus, they “called out in a loud voice, ‘Jesus, Master, have pity on us!’”

This group of ten was unanimous and spoke with one voice with one request from Jesus; “show us pity.”  The men’s request suggests that even in their isolation they knew something about Jesus.  The men knew his name, “Jesus.”  They knew Jesus to be a great teacher, “Master.”  The men knew he had the power to help them and they ask for pity or more actually mercy.  Mercy is an unmerited compassion.  Verse 14, “When he [Jesus] saw them [the men with leprosy], he [Jesus dismissed them saying] said, ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’  And as they went, they were cleansed.”  Cleansed here means the disease and the disfigurement from the disease was gone.  At this moment, the men were the same.  Men who were disease free.  The unity of this group was soon to end.  Each man would be able to return to his own home, his family, his profession, and to his tribe.  Those things, the old divisions, that made the men different before the disease would return.

In verse 15, we learn of the stark difference within the group.  Verse 15, “One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.” There were ten who were the same.  Nine went in one direction, the direction the priests, the direction of their traditions, and never looked back.  One saw his healed body and went in a different and new direction.  He went in the direction of the reality of the present and the possibilities of the future.  He went toward Jesus.  That one was a Samaritan; someone taught at an early age to despise, detest, and avoid Jews like Jesus.  The other nine were Jews and they stayed with tradition.

The Samaritan looked at his body and knew he did not need the tradition of the priest to look at him so that he could rejoin his place in society.  His eyes had seen something far greater than a healed body; he had seen the face of God.  This one Samaritan could not help but praise God.  The words of praise burst from his mouth because he knew God’s grace was upon him.  He approached Jesus only this time he did not keep his distance from Jesus.  This time he threw himself at the feet of Jesus.  This is a physical act of worship.  The Samaritan knew the power shown by Jesus over this disease meant Jesus was not just a miracle worker; Jesus had power over creation and only one person held such power, God.  The Samaritan lay in the dust before Jesus as a sign of worship, an act reserved for God.  Then the Samaritan did something no one else in the New Testament had done before.  Luke recorded, the Samaritan thanked Jesus.  No other Gospel writer records a healed person offering words of thanks.  This moment along the border of Samaria and Galilee may well be the first Thanksgiving Day following the birth of Jesus Christ.

As the scene became still again, “17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed?  Where are the other nine?  18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?”  Jesus moved his audience by the numbers.  Ten cleansed, nine hurried back to their old life, and only one came to embrace and praise God for his new life.  The healing so exhilarated the nine men that they overlooked the far greater miracle of who Jesus was and what God was doing through him.  They missed the point that the priest no longer decided one’s standing before God, Jesus did.  Religious worship as an act of praying to an unknowable and distant God who may or may not be interested in the fate of a single man was over.  Here, in this moment, one man saw that God sent Jesus into the world to see God’s saving intent if one had eyes to see, ears to hear, and an open and receptive heart to discern God at work.  This man’s desire to praise God in the presence of Jesus with a heart of gratitude showed the new way to worship.

            By tradition, Jesus should have despised, detested, and avoided this man but he did not do so.  Instead, Jesus received the acts and words of thankfulness from the Samaritan man and dismissed him for a second time.  Jesus said in verse 19, “Then he said to him, ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well.’”  Jesus acknowledged something about this man from Samaria; he was a man of faith.  A man who placed his life into the hands of God.  In doing so, God not only healed his skin disease, but he healed from sin and redeemed him.  Without faith, there can be no thanksgiving.

            The man arose and went forth to share his new life of faith with others.  Traditions did not mean as much to this man because he had seen the face of God and felt the newness of the call on his life.  In faith, we too should “run the race that is before us and never quit. We should remove from our lives anything that would slow us down and the sin that so often makes us fall. We must never stop looking to Jesus [this is the reality of our present moment]. He [Jesus] is the leader of our faith, and he is the one who makes our faith complete. He suffered death on a cross. But he accepted the shame of the cross as if it were nothing because of the joy he could see waiting for him. And now he is sitting at the right side of God’s throne. Think about Jesus. He patiently endured the angry insults that sinful people were shouting at him. Think about him so that you won’t get discouraged and stop trying” (Hebrews 11).  This is a life lived by faith seeing the reality of God through Jesus with us in the present, rich with possibilities for the future.  When you celebrate Thanksgiving Day this week with your traditions of the past, do not overlook the greater miracle, the greater blessing of having Jesus with you and in you in the present and for all eternity.  Live in this faith and celebrate thanksgiving to God.  Let us pray.

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            This week, we must pause to speak of the horror of the shooting in a little church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.  Twenty-six lives ended last Sunday morning as a group of Christians worshipped before the Lord; another twenty-people injured by one or more gunshot wounds.  A small town in Texas of just a few hundred people lies devastated.  For a time, the politicians will rise and speak of the tragedy last Sunday in a little Baptist church in the country.  For a time, the television pundits will talk about faith and prayer of those people; even if the pundits do not believe in either.  For a time, others will clamor for greater gun control.  For a time, people on Facebook will argue and exchange vicious words claiming and counterclaiming that white people committing such acts are mentally ill and those of color who do likewise are terrorist.  This will be only for a little while.  Then these people will forget about a little Baptist church in a small Texas town because they who are so loud today about the events of last Sunday will move on to the next sensational story.  They will never take the time to contemplate why this man shot and murdered these people as they worshipped the Lord.  They will not take the time because they may not like the answer they find.

            Twenty-six people died in church last Sunday and another twenty were serious injured, because one man chose evil over good.  It is that shockingly simple.  One man chose evil over good.  The choice between evil and good is as old as humanity itself.  From the most ancient of histories, we know about the choice between evil and good.  We know because of the story of two men; Abel and Cain.  One man, Abel, had honored God with worship from his heart.  The other man, Cain, neither honored God nor worshipped him.  Instead, Cain was breaking fellowship with God.  God saw Cain, knew what was happening, and felt Cain’s sin against God.  What did God do?  He went in private to Cain.  “Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry?  Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”  God, wounded by Cain’s sinful behavior, sought to restore the relationship between he and Cain.  God is always on a mission of peace and reconciliation.

            We know well that “8Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’  While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. Cain had chosen evil over good.  Cain had chosen to kill the one who worshipped God.  The parallels with Sutherland Springs, Texas are plain.  “Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’  ‘I don’t know,’ he replied.  ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ 10 The Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.’”  I believe last Sunday from a small town in Texas, the blood of many cried out to God as those who worshipped God were slain.  Why?  Because one man refused God’s offer of peace and reconciliation and instead chose and desired evil over good.  The presence of evil makes us uncomfortable because we are vulnerable to choosing evil ourselves. 

In the New Testament Book of James, we would read, “13 Whenever you feel tempted to do something bad, you should not say, ‘God is tempting me.’ Evil cannot tempt God, and God himself does not tempt anyone. 14 You are tempted by the evil things you want. Your own desire leads you away and traps you. 15 Your desire grows inside you until it results in sin. Then the sin grows bigger and bigger and finally ends in death.”

            What then is the answer to evil in our presence?  The Bible is most clear on this matter.  Psalm 34:14, “Depart from evil and do good.  Seek peace and purse it.”  Romans 12:21, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  Now, we might be tempted to say, “This is a fine and noble notion of overcoming evil with good, but how in the world can I be expected to take on such a task?”  The simple answer is God does not expect you to take on such a task of singlehandedly overcoming evil in the world, because He already did that.  God sent Jesus Christ to overcome evil, to overcome sin, through Jesus death on the cross.  Jesus resurrection from the dead is evidence that work has been done and that Jesus has the victory.  When we accept God’s work, we become citizens of His good and peaceful kingdom.

            The work God calls you and me to do is to be good citizens of his kingdom and preserve the peace He has brought to the world.  The Bible says, we are “to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”  We are to make every effort to keep the unity with others, just as God made every effort to keep the unity with Cain.

            We heard Jesus speak to this call on our lives as citizens of the kingdom in our New Testament reading today from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 18.  In verse 15, Jesus said, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you.”  Jesus is speaking to his followers and encouraging them to realize that in our humanness we will make mistakes, we will sin, and sometimes we will sin against other followers straining the unity between us.  It happens.  We make choices that cause others pain, sometimes unintentionally and other times on purpose.  We chose behavior that mocks Christ and we sin.  We dishonor our marriage with angry words or cheating.  We dishonor our parents with backtalk or defiance.  We dishonor our friends with words that degrade them or actions that deceive them.  In all these cases, we gave way to the temptation of sin and chose to place our desires above truth and peace.  Everyone here today has sinned.  The Bible says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”  We all sin.  The Apostle Paul explain the conflict in his life between good and evil between saint and sinner this way, “18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”  We all sin.

            Jesus said when our brother or sister sins in public, then we must go to them in private.  The King James Version of the Bible goes as far as to say, “If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone.”  This means that if someone sins against you, you are the one to take the first step of restoring the peace and to do so in private.  This is the demanding work for citizens of the kingdom.  To go to someone who has hurt you so that you can restore the relationship is not easy.

            Because we all sin, Jesus set forth a way we as citizens of the kingdom of God here on earth can help preserve the peace.  “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you.”  Some years ago, my wife and I attended a church in Mechanicville.  A man in that church became angry with my daughter.  I no longer recall the reason for his anger.  This man knew Scripture better than I, taught Sunday school for years, sang in the choir, and helped in many ways in the church.  He came to express his anger toward my daughter by coming into a room and graciously greeting each person in the room by name; except for my daughter.  He would make an obvious effort to ignore that she was present, as though she did not exist.  His public behavior mocked Christ and was a sin against my daughter.  Like many people, I had hoped that his behavior would change on its own and there would be no need to address him about it.  Unfortunately, he would not change.

One day, I decided to follow Jesus words, words that model God reaching out to Cain.  I sought out the man who was engaged in sinful behavior in the hopes of restoring peace.  I found my chance to talk to him in private.  I spoke to this man about his behavior.  I did not ask him about his motivations or reasons.  I calmly but with measured words explained his behavior was hurtful to my daughter and was killing any witness that he understood Christ.  He listened, grew quiet, and then repented.  We prayed and then he went, sought out my daughter, and apologized.  Christ was to restore the unity.  Jesus said in verse 15, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.”  Jesus’ Spirit led me to say in private what needed saying and He was there to restore peace to this man.  That day, with God’s grace we had the power to choose good over evil.  We did not work on world peace that day; we worked on peace within our own relationships with other believers in Christ.  This call for unity is important for our church, it is important where we live, where we work, in our families, and very much so in our marriages.  Unity in following Christ in these relationships makes the goodness of Christ very real to the world that surrounded by evil.

 The story I shared had a happy conclusion in which a private conversation led to peace.  Jesus knew though that not all such private conversations would lead to peace.  There are many examples of Christian relationships falling apart because the first conversation fails.  Having failed once, we stop short of the goal of unity.  We say things like, “Let’s just agree to disagree.”  That is just another way of saying, “Let’s just agree to install a permanent barrier in our relationship and be separated.”  This is not peacemaking, this is “peace faking.”  Another way we stop short is we simply end the relationship.  We say things like, “We are still friends, we just went our separate ways.”  This is not peacemaking, this is “peace breaking.”  In verse 17, Jesus said, “But if they will not listen [to you in that private conversation – do not give up – do not walk away], take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen [do not give up], tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church [do not give up], treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

Some years ago, at that same Mechanicville church, the church secretary became angry with my wife.  One day, the secretary was watching the young children in a separate room during the worship service.  When the service was over, the secretary blocked the door into the room preventing the children from leaving or parents from retrieving their children.  She wanted to finish a lesson with the children.  The parents were understandably anxious that they could not enter or see into the room.  Becky spoke to the secretary and told her she could not prevent parents from accessing their children.  The secretary became enraged and vowed never to speak to Becky again.  True to her word, for several weeks the secretary refused to speak or acknowledge my wife’s presence.  Efforts were made to address the secretary’s behavior, but she would not yield.  One evening, the Board of Trustees, acting on behalf of the church asked to meet with the secretary.  The chairperson of the board with other members present calmly walked through the facts and behaviors.  The secretary did not dispute anything said.  The chairperson acting for the church said, “You need to change your behavior as it is not acceptable as an employee or member of the church.”  The secretary said, “I will not change.”  She had refused to listen to the church.  The chairperson’s response was measured but quick.  He said, “Then you are fired.”  The church had spoken and began treating her as outside the kingdom.  The secretary wept, then acknowledged her behavior was not of the kingdom, agreed to seek forgiveness, and was restored in fellowship.  She was able to choose good over evil.  Unity in following Christ makes the goodness of Christ very real to the world that surrounded by evil.

Each person here today who has accepted Jesus as Savior and Lord is a citizen of His kingdom.  This is your primary identity.  As such, you are an ambassador of Christ.  Wherever you go, you stand for the goodness of Christ.  Wherever you go, you stand as an example of a person called to choose good over evil.  Wherever you go, Christ calls you to restore peace and unity in your relationships so that others will come to know the peace of Christ.  Let each of us, “Depart from evil and do good.  Seek peace and purse it.”  “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”  Amen and Amen.

11/05 - Is Jesus Your Friend?

            The Bible’s account of the creation of earth records for us that God saw all He had created and said it was good.  He then created a man in His own image and set the man in the garden.  Soon thereafter God said, “It is not good for man to be alone.”  So, God created woman in His image.  The man and woman began the first human relationship.  From that moment forward to this very moment, we humans began defining ourselves and others in terms of our relationships to one another.  The first man, Adam, was husband to the first woman, Eve, and she, wife to him.  The man and woman were defined and described by their relationship to one another, husband and wife.  Some months ago, I attended a family reunion for a member of one of the congregations.  I only knew three of the 30 people present.  As introductions occurred throughout the afternoon, I was introduced by the nature of my relationship to the people from the congregation.  The phrase most often used in introducing me was, “This is my pastor.”  That is the relationship.  The person it met was introduced to me as, “Pastor, this is my brother, or sister, or cousin, or nephew, etc.”  We define ourselves and others in terms of our relationships.  There are the immediate family relationships: wife, husband, mother, father, brother, sister, son, and daughter.  There are the more distant relationships: coworker, boss, employee, barber, hairdresser, doctor, lawyer, and the list of relationship titles is endless.  But one the most important and defining titles of relationship we can ever receive or ever give to another person is that of friend.

            Think about what it should mean when someone introduces you as a friend.  They are saying, “I want you to meet someone whom I know and who knows me.  I want you to meet someone in whom I trust, who is a confidant, and person whom I enjoy the time I share with them.  I want you to meet someone that is not family but someone whom I have chosen to love as much or more than family.”  That is the true definition of friend. 

Our Old Testament reading today gave us wisdom about friends.  From the Book of Proverbs, we read, “One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”  Even many centuries ago, people understood that unreliable friends are not friends at all because when you call upon the help of an unreliable friend, you will find yourself ruined.  Unreliable friends will not endure your grief, discomfort, or difficulties when you are most in need of a devoted friend.  That piece of Scripture that gives the stark warning about an unreliable friend also gives hope about a friend who will be there even more so than a brother.  The Bible expresses that there is hope in our grief, discomfort, and difficulties because there is a friend whose bond to us is more affectionate than we would find in our own bloodline as with a brother or sister.

We all need and seek friends in our lives.  The Bible speaks to friends and friendship over 170 times.  In Exodus 33:11, it says, “The Lord would speak to Moses face-to-face, as one speaks to a friend.”  Proverbs 17:17, “A friend loves at all times.”  We read from the New Testament, the Gospel of John, Chapter 15 the ultimate conversation about friends.  Please turn with me to John 15, beginning with verse 9.

Jesus was speaking here to His disciples.  In just a short while, the religious authorities and Roman governor would arrest, try, and crucify Jesus.  Hear, Jesus’ words.  “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.”  We see that Jesus related his identity to his relationship with God.  God to Jesus is his Father.  “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.  Now remain in my love.10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.”  Jesus was laying out the unity and community God desires.  In God’s eyes, love which is invisible sustains life and obedience to God’s Word which is visible proves love.  God loved Jesus and Jesus lived the life God asked him to live.  Jesus loved his disciples and He asked his disciples to live the life He asked them to live.  This is God inspired unity and community.

Now if you have been at church for the last few weeks, you might be sensing a theme in the last set of sermons on love, unity, community, and working to end divisions among Christians at home and in church.  Pastors often speak of such matters after it is obvious a problem has arisen.  That is not my reason for doing so.  I do so in hopes of modeling Jesus.  Look for a moment at verse 11.  Jesus said, “I have told you this [I told you about God’s love and His desire for life, unity, and community] so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”  Jesus wanted his disciples to live with joy even though he knew trouble and difficulties not present at that moment would be in their lives.  You see when we face trouble and difficult circumstances in life, as we all have and we all will, how we deal with those situations depends upon what we bring into them.  Entering difficult and trying circumstances without knowing God loves you, without a united church behind you, and without the community of Christians, doubles your sorrow.  Yet when we face difficulties knowing God loves us, knowing there is a church backing us up, and knowing that a community of Christians to walk with us, then the sorrow and burden becomes shared and together we can still have hope and experience joy.

Psalm 23, one of the most beautiful passages of Scripture shows us the order in which God wants to work in our life.  Listen to the sequence of the words and hear the love of God first, the acknowledgement of troubles in our life, the assurance that God is with us, the hope that lies ahead, and the joy we can have in all circumstances.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. 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.  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.  You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the Lord Forever.”

            I trust you heard in the Psalm the sequence of love that God has in store for us as provision for whatever is ahead of us.  Jesus reiterated God’s plan in his own words and then said, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”  Jesus loved his disciples and was equipping them for life.  We need to carry that love and hope into every relationship and circumstance of life.

            Knowing God’s sequence of love, unity, and community, what specific action does Jesus ask of his disciples?  He said this in verse 12, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”  Jesus was saying I did as God does, now you do as I have done: “Love each other as I have loved you.”  These eight words, “Love each other as I have loved you,” define what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.  Christianity is not simply believing the right things (though this is important).  It is not simply living an ethical life (though this is important too).  Being a Christian is living a life in which “love” sets you apart from the world.  To love as God loved Jesus and Jesus loved his disciples is a supernatural and mystical experience.  To live such a life requires that we have a continual and supernatural relationship that gives us the power to love unlike the world.

            Jesus Christ offered that very relationship to his disciples by changing the nature of his relationship with them.  Look at the next verses.  “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends14 You are my friends if you do what I command.  15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”  Jesus changed his relationship with his disciples.  Jesus, the Son of God, no longer would identify his disciples as servants or subordinate.  Instead, Jesus would identify his disciples as his friends.  Let that sink in for a moment.  Jesus, a being fully human and fully God would from this point forward introduce his disciples to others and to God as his friends.  It would be as if Jesus was introducing them to the world by would saying, “I want you to meet someone whom I know and who knows me.  I want you to meet someone in whom I trust, who is a confidant, and person whom I enjoy the time I share with them.  I want you to meet someone that is not family but someone whom I have chosen to love as much or more than family.  Here is my friend.”

Jesus showed the continuing significance of being his friend in verse 16.  He said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit —fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.”  This was the continuing supernatural relationship the disciples would need.  What fruit were they expected to bear?  What fruit would last?  Jesus answers these questions as he completes his thought in verse 17, “This is my command: Love each other.”

            Some of you here today may not know what it is like to experience the love of God because you have not received Jesus offer of friendship.  It might surprise you to know that researchers discovered that about half of regular church attenders have not received Jesus’ offer.  They may even attend church regularly for 10 years or more.  This was my life for several years.  I attended but had not received.  I came to church but did not count Jesus as my friend.  My relationship with Jesus was too distant, too stiff, for me to call him friend.  Does this describe you?  If it does, I am glad you are here today because I want to talk to you about having such a relationship with Jesus. 

We define ourselves in terms of our relationships to others.  Yet, we know that those relationships are temporary.  People we love die.  Marriages end.  People move away.  In the end, there is only one thing that is permanent.  It is our relationship with God.  Once we have a relationship with God, that connection cannot be broken. 

How do we make that connection?  We make that connection through a man whom I know and who knows me.  He is someone in whom I trust, who is a confidant, and person whom I enjoy the time I share with him.  He is someone who is not family but someone who chose to love me as much or more than family.  His name is Jesus.  To all who will receive Him, to those who believe in Jesus’ name, he gives the right to become his friend.  In friendship, Jesus gives eternal life and his friends will never perish and no one can snatch away his friendship.

If you have never received Jesus as your friend, I invite you to do so today.  Invite Jesus to live within your heart.  If you are not sure what to say to make that happen, you can repeat these words after me, “Dear God, I invite Jesus Christ into my life as my Savior and Lord.  As my Savior, I ask Jesus to save me from the effect of my sins.  As my Lord, I receive Jesus as the center of my life and give Him control of it.  Thank you, Jesus, for making me one of your friends.  In Jesus’ name I pray.  Amen.”

If that was your prayer today, rejoice because you now have a permanent and personal relationship with God, through Jesus.  Jesus knew this would be a crucial decision in your life and, so he set up a reminder of his friendship.  On last night before Jesus gave his life for his friends, he ate with them.  While they were eating, Jesus “took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his friends, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”  20 In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you, my friends.”  Jesus wanted you and me to remember his offer of friendship is in the present and lasts forever.  As we take the bread and drink from the cup, let us remember Jesus is our friend.  He will stick closer to us than a brother.  To show that Jesus is our friend, let’s do what he asks of us and let’s love one another.  Let us pray.

Oct 29 - Are You Wise or Do You Have Wisdom

            A few years ago, Becky and I decided that we would try leasing our vehicles rather than buying them.  Recently, I exchanged leased vehicles.  One of the interesting things about exchanging vehicles is the new vehicle incorporates the latest gadgets.  For example, my previous vehicle had a camera built into the rear of the vehicle.  Whenever I put the vehicle in reverse the camera activated and the scene behind the vehicle appeared dashboard screen.  In the new vehicle, the camera now displays what is behind me and shows lines showing where the car is heading based on the alignment of the front wheels.  Separately, there is radar built into the rear of the car to detect and alert me to people or other vehicles moving toward my car that may not be visible in the three mirrors and camera.  Finally, there is radar in the driver and passenger side mirrors to look for cars that are on my left or right that are not visible in the mirrors.  When the radar detects such vehicle visual and audio signals sound to alert me.  I am sure many of you have vehicles with similar gadgetry.

            So, what is the point of these gizmos and gadgets?  Very simply, these devices are trying to make me a more informed or wiser driver.  Each device, in one way or another, addresses a blind spot.  We know that blind spots exist in a vehicle because there are areas that are obstruct the driver’s view.  To correct our understanding of what is going on around us, car companies are giving us tools to give us information to reduce the blind spots as we maneuver our vehicles.  The information from these gadgets makes us wiser; but only if we use the information.  We still can choose to ignore the information and alerts and decide to turn the vehicle into that blind spot.  I can attest to people driving into blind spots.  Yesterday, a young woman drove her car into the side of my vehicle as I was passing Nemer VW.

Vehicles are not the only places in life where we have blind spots.  Every person has blind spots in their life.  Each of us runs some of our life out of ignorance to what is going on around us.  We are blind to the consequences our behavior has on us and those around us.  Some people we meet in life behave as if they are “aggressive drivers.”  They can be threatening, loud, abrasive, and thinking only of themselves.  Every person here today and outside our community has blind spots.  There is a name for those blind spots.  We call it sin.

Now I know in certain circles pastors should not talk about sin anymore because doing so makes people uncomfortable.  It might surprise you just how uncomfortable Americans are about the subject of sin.  Here are the results of a recent survey of Americans on sin:

  • 5% of Americans say, “I am a sinner, and I am fine with that.”
  • 8% of Americans say, “I am not a sinner.”
  • 10% of Americans say, “Sin does not exist.”
  • 15% of Americans say, “I prefer not to say.”
  • 28% of Americans say, “I am a sinner, and I depend on Jesus to overcome that.”
  • 34% of Americans say, “I am a sinner, and I work on being less of one.”

These results are quite stunning.  Nearly, 40% of all Americans believe there is either no such thing as sin or if it does exist they are sinless, or sinful, or ignorant and regardless of the category, that is just fine.  These percentages get even higher when you ask these questions of people under the age of 40. 

Of the 60% of Americans who acknowledge the existence of sin and believe that something must be done about it, one-half want to resolve the sin in their life by working harder.  Using willpower or other personal means about one-third of all Americans will conquer sin on their own. That gets us down to 28% of all Americans who believe sin exists, who believe that they sin, who believe that sin is an affront to God, and believe that only Jesus can remove sin from their life.  So, we have some survey opinions about the blind spot in our life, sin.  But do these results make us any wiser?  Do these opinions help us fill in our blind spot?  I am not sure how you answer those question.  I feel better informed but no wiser.  It still seems that if all we relied upon was the opinions of others, we would likely just move through life with the blind spot called sin. 

What then can we do about this blind spot called sin? I believe first we must recognize that we cannot see what is in our blind spots unless we look, or someone tells us what is in our blind spot.  Can any of us see behind us without turning our heads, looking in a mirror, or having someone or something tell us what is back there?  The answer is of course we cannot.  So, we need some help.  Second, we need to have someone or something in which we can trust to tell us what we ourselves cannot see.  However, if we cannot see fully because of our blind spots, can we really expect another person with blind spots see for us?  I do not think so because the blind cannot lead the blind or else both will fall into the pit.  We need to look outside ourselves.  I am sure it comes as no surprise to you that we should place our trust in the Bible to understand sin.  God who is without sin, who has given and preserved His word in the Bible is the only one who can help us with sin. 

Our Old Testament reading today from the Bible said in part:

Praise the Lord, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

Following the analogy from my earlier remarks, the Bible is our radar for life now and for eternity.  The Bible gives us information and warnings to keep us from danger; to keep us from being blindsided.  The Bible is God’s Word and gives God’s view of our life.  God said we all struggle and fall to sin.  There are no exceptions.  It is as if God took a survey on sin.  In His Word, the Bible, He answered all the questions on sin this way, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  No exceptions. In life, we may not always know the right answer, but we can be sure of wrong answers.  Despite one-third of all Americans believing they are sinless, or there is no sin, or they have no clue if it exists, the idea that no one sins or there is no sin is an easy to understand wrong answer.

            Where then is our hope?  Our Old Testament told us something very comforting and important.  It says, “God made know His ways to Moses and His deeds to Israel.”  God revealed His power and strength to the people of Israel through signs and wonders.  God brought about the plagues upon Egypt.  God protected and lead the people as a column of fire and smoke.  He parted the Red Seas.  God gave the people of Israel manna and quail to sustain them.  The list goes on and on.  God made known His deeds to Israel so that they could know God exists. 

But God made known His ways to Moses.  To Moses, God invested a personal understanding of God’s mind, character, and thoughts.  We would read in Exodus, God called to Moses.  Moses said, “Here I am.”  God replied, “‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.’ At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.  The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt… So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey…10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.’  11 But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’  12 And God said, ‘I will be with you.’”  God was showing Moses His ways.  God wanted someone to know more about Him than just His deeds, God wanted to Moses to know the mind, thoughts, and character of God.  Why?  God wanted Moses to begin filling in the blind spots of sin.  God did this for Moses and gave such insight that Moses could describe to the people of Israel through the Law, what is sin.  God did these things, showing His power to Israel, and His ways to Moses, out of love.  God did not want His people, Israel, to be just wise, He wanted His people to have wisdom so that they would not fall into the pit of sin.

Even with the wisdom of God unfolded before the people through the Law of Moses, the blind spots of sin, still corrupted life.  Why?  Because people defined a “holy” life by doing the external things God asks; while ignoring the inner life.  That sort of life was described with these words, “You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside are full of greed and self-indulgence.  First, clean the inside of the cup and dish, so that the outside may become clean as well.”  Recognizing our blind spots, God sent His Son Jesus to personally guide us, to personally lead us, and to personally remove sin from our lives.

Jesus was and is the person of Wisdom.  How and why?  God’s Word again tells us.  Jesus said, “I can do nothing by Myself, unless I see God doing it.  For whatever God does I also do because God, My Father, loves Me and shows Me all He does.”  God revealed His ways to Moses.  Jesus not just knew God’s ways, His inner thoughts, Jesus’ ways were God’s ways.

We read today in the New Testament that even those who hated Jesus, in their hatred, admitted the relationship between God and Jesus.  The reading said, “‘Teacher we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?’”  The Pharisees were outwardly “holy” and inwardly blind to their own sinful nature; yet in an effort to trick Jesus they acknowledged Jesus’ standing with God.  “Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, ‘You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.’ They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’  21 ‘Caesar’s,’ they replied.  Then he said to them, ‘So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.  22 When they heard this, the Pharisees were amazed. So, they left him and went away.’”

Jesus point was simple.  He does know the ways of God.  They are not ways built upon external appearances.  God’s ways are transformative from within.  How can we have the wisdom of Jesus that removes from us the blind spots toward sin?  We can have such Wisdom when we choose to accept Jesus as Lord of our life.  In that moment, God invests within us His Holy Spirit to lead us in the ways of God. 

The Bible also says that the effect of sin is death (separation from God).  “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  The remedy for sin is not as some would have us believe: claiming we do not sin, saying we sin and we are good with it, claiming we can work hard enough to overcome sin.  These are blind spots.  The only remedy for sin is accepting Jesus Christ and living with God’s Wisdom.  We each must ask ourselves, “Am I Wise in that I know about Jesus or do I have wisdom because He is the Lord of my life and removes the blind spot of sin?”  Let us pray.