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Oct 20 - Purpose of Prayer

Genesis 3:1-13

The routine at night was endlessly repeated.  “George, it is time to get into bed,” my mother would say.  Once in bed, she would add, “Now it is time to say your prayers.”  My small voice would repeat, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray My Lord, my soul to keep.  If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord, my soul to take.  Amen.”  This prayer came from the book, New England Primer, first published for the American Colonies between 1687.  It is a memorable prayer even if it is a bit dreadful; all that dying in your sleep stuff.  But it was a prayer and one repeated by millions of children from Christian homes.

What is God’s purpose in asking us to pray?  Who started all this praying?

I want us to explore the answers to these questions and to explore prayer because prayer is vital to our faith journey and prayer is often misunderstood.  First, we must see that prayer is a private matter between a human and God.  Even that simple childhood prayer was between me and God alone.  Prayer is an intimate communication between a finite mortal being and an infinite immortal God.  Prayer is communion with God.  Prayer closes the gap between humanity and God.  Because prayer is communication between humanity and God, then prayer must be a dialogue, a conversation, in which each party speaks to and listens to the other.  Prayer is conversation with God.  The purpose of conversation is to develop and maintain a relationship.  Therefore, prayer is not about requesting blessings from God, as much as it is about furthering a deeper relationship with God.  If prayer is a conversation with God to deepen our relationship with Him, then we might learn something about prayer by looking at the example we have in the first prayer; the first conversation with God.  I invite you to turn with me in your Bibles to Genesis, Chapter 3, beginning at verse 1.

This passage starts strangely enough with a conversation between humanity and an evil being, Satan, represented by a serpent.  Satan has a reason to converse with us.  Satan’s communication with us always seeks to separate us from God.  The passage begins, “Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He [the serpent] said to the woman, ‘Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?’”  The serpent has initiated the conversation with the woman.  This is always the case with Satan.  The voice of temptation will come to us.  We do not need to look for temptation, it is always looking to speak with us first.  The serpent was smart and asked the woman about God’s instructions.  “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”  Temptation begins through the expressions of doubt as to what is truth about a very specific thing.  “It is not really going to matter if you gamble $20 dollars, is it?”  “It is not really going to matter if you have two drinks and drive home.  You’ve done it before, right?”  “It is not really going to matter if you skip church today, now is it?”  Temptation begins with a small question that challenges just a piece of a larger truth.  That is how you split wood for the fireplace.  You take a small metal wedge, place it against the large and strong log, and then you hammer on that small wedge into the wood.  Soon enough, the strength of that large log is divided.  This is how temptation works.  Something small is used to divide and reduce the strength of somethings large and strong.  The serpent said, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 

Verse 2, “The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”  The woman responded to the serpent clarifying that there is only one tree in the garden from which they must not eat.  God had told the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:16, 17).  It seems the woman added to God’s command telling the serpent that even touching the fruit from that tree could cause death.  This was not true.  As we will see in a moment, adding to God’s instructions, adding to what is in the Bible, can be just as dangerous as taking away from what God said.  For this reason, we Baptist hold that the Bible is the final authority for faith and practice.  We do not believe in making teachings from the church of equal weight to the words of the Bible.

Having received an answer to his question, the serpent said to the woman, “You will not certainly die, for God knows that when you eat from it [the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  Now that sounds tempting doesn’t it?  All I need to do is eat this fruit and I will be like God.  The woman then took a piece of fruit from the tree.  She held it in her hands.  She smelled it.  She looked at the fruit for blemishes.  One thing she noticed right away was that she did not die just because she touched it.  This was a belief she held that did not come from God.  This is the danger in manmade beliefs about God.  When we make things up about God and we are wrong about them, then it becomes harder for us to believe the things God did say.  That is why it is so important that we rely upon the Word of God and not the words of man for our faith journey.

Verse 6, “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.” 

This ends the scene in which the man and woman chose to navigate life in part without God and in part by ignoring what God had said.  Because they did not involve God in their decision, life as they had known it, life as it might have been, ended.  They saw things differently now.  The innocence they once felt in being naked with each other had turned to shame and suspicion.  They wanted to cover themselves up. This is a great illustration of what happens to us when we decide to go it alone and not have God in our life.  We have shame in our life.  We will be suspicious of others.  We will be easily tempted, again and again and again.

But even when we have chosen to walk away from God, something both marvelous and terrifying can happen.  God choses to talk to us.  I find that marvelous and frankly terrifying.  Look at verse 8, “Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.”  God was approaching the couple.  The couple knew the sound of God and they knew He was coming to engage in conversation with them.  This is God’s way.  God starts the dialogue with humanity.  God desires a relationship with us, and he initiates the opportunity for us to talk with Him.  If communication with God is prayer, then God we see here that God is one who initiates prayer with us and not the other way around.  God makes himself known and invites us to respond to him. 

Let’s watch how prayer works.  Verse 9, “God called to the man, ‘Where are you?’”  God took the initiative to start a conversation with the man and the first prayer, conversation with God, began with the most basic and universal question we face, “Where are you?”  Think about that question for a moment.  Where are you on your life journey?  Do you feel like you are at the beginning, the middle, or perhaps the end?  In this moment, are you where you expected to be 5 years ago?  Do you know where you will be 5 years from now?  Are you where you can fulfill the purpose for which God created you?  “Where are you?” is an important question from God.  This is a deeply spiritual question and we need to remember, “The human soul is not mass produced.  Each of us is unique, and each one’s purpose is unique.  Faith is the assurance that there is a dream and a purpose in life that each person can fulfill.”[1]  To know our purpose and fulfill it, we must have conversation, that is prayer, with God.  The really neat thing is that when we finally realize that fact and speak to God, we discover he was already been calling to us to speak to him with the question, “Where are you?”

Now, some might observe and ask, “If God is all knowing, why does He need to know where the man is?  Doesn’t God know where the man is?”  The answer is yes, God is all knowing and knows in this instance the man is hiding.  God asked the question, “Where are you?” so that the man could unveil himself to God and express what was within the man.  The same is true for us.  We tell God what is going on in our life, even though he is aware, because when we tell him, we become active in the conversation and show what we know about ourselves.  It is as though we have called someone for driving directions.  They ask, “Where are you?”  We might respond with where we are and the directions soon follow.  Or, we reply, “I do not know where I am.”  The other person then asks, “Tell me what you see?  Are there any signs or markers suggesting where you might be?”  That is a conversation in which we reveal something about ourselves.  I know a great many people who do not really know where they are spiritually, and so it is important for them, for us, to express any confusion and uncertainty to God in conversation with Him so that He can give us directions we would understand.  We are not mass produced we are unique and require individualized conversation with God.

Verse 10, ‘He [the man] answered, ‘I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.’”  This is prayer.  Conversation with God in which we listen to God’s invitation to speak, we speak, and then we listen to Him.  In this conversation, the man revealed that he knew God was present but was fearful of God because the man acquired knowledge God did not want the man to possess.  The man avoided speaking the simple truth; that he ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  The man does not say that simple truth.  Instead, the man spoke of the consequence of his action, without saying what he did.  The man said, “I heard you God, I was afraid, I was naked, so the right thing seemed to be to hide.”  The man was unveiling himself but only a little at a time. 

God was very direct in his part of this prayer.  Verse 11, “11 And he [God] said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?’”  The man’s attempts to avoid telling God what he did was not successful.  The man rejoined the prayer.  Verse 12, “12 The man said, ‘The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.’”  The man struggled to get to the truth, and he began to blame others for his circumstances.  “God,” the man said, “the woman you gave me started this whole thing.  I was doing just fine until you put her here with me.”  This mess that the man found himself in firstly God’s fault.  God put the woman with man.  Second, the man said, “That woman took the fruit from that tree.  I did not pick any of it.  She did.  Then she practically pushed that fruit into my hand.”  The second fault for the man’s situation, according to the man, was the woman’s fault.  She was to blame for picking the fruit and putting into the man’s hand.  It is not stated here but you can almost hear God said, “And?”  The man finally said, “And, I ate it.”  Finally, in the conversation with God, the prayer with God, the man answered God’s question, “Where are you?”  with man acknowledging “I sinned, so I hid.”  How often have we been part of similar conversations with other adults or children?  Someone says, “What happened here?”  People start to respond, “What? Something happened?  Of that, I’m, yeah, that is kind of a mess, but you should talk to …because they were here when it all started.”   We avoid simple truths about our role in the mess we find ourselves in. God cannot help us until we talk with him and acknowledge where we are and how we got there.

Now that the man had unveiled himself, “13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”  God is starting a prayer with the woman.  The woman responded to God’s invitation and said, “The serpent deceived me.”  The woman was trying the blame game that the man tried.  She said, “God, the serpent you created, he deceived me.”  Again, from God there is an unspoken “And?”  The woman responded, “And I ate.”  Finally, in the conversation, woman acknowledged the simple truth, “I sinned, so I hid.”

Prayer is not complicated; it is communication between one woman or one man and God.  Prayer is private and intimate.  Prayer is about us unveiling ourselves to God and God revealing himself to us.  Prayer should be the place where we express our deepest concerns first, not last.  Prayer is where we lay before God what is in us, not what ought to be in us.  Prayer is initiated by God, so when we do speak to God, it is because He has already spoken to us.  These truths we learn from the first recorded prayer. 

I want to wrap up today’s conversation at this point and encourage you to pray.  Listen for God calling you to talk with him.  Then talk to God, simply and truthfully.  Listen to Him.  Let him ask you, “Where are you?”  It is OK if you do not know, because God knows.  I think you and He will have a marvelous and maybe terrifying conversation.  Either way, you will be better for it.  So, please pray.  We will talk more about our conversations with God next week.  Amen and Amen.

[1][1] Wolpe, David, Making Loss Matter; Creating Meaning in Difficult Times, (Riverhead Books; New York; 1999), 71.

Oct 27 - Prayer - Understanding God

Genesis 18:16-33; Genesis 19:1-29

Last week, we began talking about prayer.  We explored the origins of prayer and concluded that prayer is any conversation with God.  We learned that God, and not us, initiates prayer.  He starts the conversation with us.  Those conversations with God, those prayers, are intimate and personal because each soul is unique; souls are not mass produced.  Like all intimate conversations in life, their purpose is not so much about a specific request we have as much as those conversations are about developing a deeper relationship.  When we think about the most famous men and women of the Bible, we find they have two things in common.  First, they had a deep, personal relationship with God.  Second, these men and women were changed because of that relationship with God.

One man who had a significant relationship with God was a man named Abram.  Abram lived in the city of Ur, which what is now modern-day Iraq.  Abram was the son to a man named Terah; a man who worshipped many Gods.  Terah moved his son Abram and their combined families from the city of Ur, to the city of Harran, in modern-day Syria.  While in Harran, God initiated a conversation with Abram.

“The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.  I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’  So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.”  (Genesis 12:1-4a)

We see again that God is the initiator of communication with humanity.  He talks to us in order to draw us closer to him.  Abram heard God and responded by doing as God asked him to do.  Abram moved his family and eventually settled in the lands later called Israel.  To identify Abram as changed by his encounter with God, Abram became known as Abraham.

            One day, three men appeared at Abraham’s campsite.  Abraham and his wife, Sarai, extended hospitality to these men giving them shade from the sun and food to eat.  Our Old Testament reading today begins at the point where the three men are readying themselves to leave Abraham’s presence.  One of the men is not a man strictly in the human sense because he is Lord God.  We pick up the story at Genesis 18, beginning at verse 16.  I invite you to turn to that passage.

            “16 When the [three] men got up to leave, they looked down toward Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way.”  Sodom was a city nearby Abraham’s campsite.  Abraham had once freed the people from Sodom after a conquering army had taken them as enslaves.  Abraham’s nephew, a man named Lot, who traveled with Abraham from Harran lived in Sodom.  Abraham knew the people of Sodom very well.

    “17 Then the Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? 18 Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. 19 For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”  This is the Lord God speaking his mind to himself.  A conversation with yourself is called a soliloquy.  God was engaged in a soliloquy.  So the next time someone says to you, “Were you just talking to yourself?”  You can say, “No.  I was engaged in a soliloquy just like God.”  In God’s soliloquy, God was wondering whether He should tell Abraham ahead of time what God was about to do.  I do not think it was a real debate in God’s mind as much as God revealing the reason for sharing his thinking with Abraham.  God knew Abraham would become a great person of faith and that Abraham could only achieve that standing if Abraham understood God’s thoughts.  God’s soliloquy informs us that God wanted Abraham to understand God’s thoughts and righteousness and justness.  God did not want Abraham to misunderstand.  We want the same thing in our conversations with those near to us.  We want to be understood and that nothing we say be misunderstood.  This is God’s desire for our relationship with Him; that we would understand him and not misunderstand him.  That is one reason God speaks to us through prayer.

            We come to verse 20, as God initiated conversation, prayer, with Abraham. 20 Then the Lord said [to Abraham], “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21 that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”  God revealed to Abraham two important pieces of information about God.  First, some human behaviors cannot be tolerated by God.  Second, even when human behavior grieves God, God is willing to initiate conversation with those engaged in such behavior to redeem them.  God was sending the two other men with him, angels actually, to Sodom and see if the sinful people would repent, that is to turn toward God giving up their ways of the past and be redeemed by God.

            Verse 22, “22 The [two] men [who were with the Lord God] turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord.”  God initiated his communication with the people of Sodom through his two angels and informed Abraham about his plan.  Then we see in verse 23, Abraham responded to God’s invitation to pray, to converse, with God and in doing so Abraham shared his own thought processes with God.  “23 Then Abraham approached him [God] and said: ‘[God] Will you sweep away [destroy] the righteous with the wicked?’  Abraham, familiar with the people of Sodom, had concluded God was going to destroy the city and all its inhabitants.  God had only said He was making inquiry.  But Abraham thought he knew the people of Sodom well; he just did not know God as well.  So Abraham continued.  “24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?”  God did not yet respond to Abraham’s question before Abraham continued.  This too is very typical of our prayer patterns.  We engage in a conversation with God stating what is on our mind and then we move on without waiting for God to respond.  Abraham continued, “25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”  Abraham could not imagine the righteous being treated the same as the wicked and criticized God for even thinking of doing such a thing.  But we note, God only said he would approach the people of Sodom.  The idea of destroying Sodom was first mentioned by Abraham.

            God decided to play along with Abraham.  “26 The Lord said, ‘If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”  After this initial exchange, Abraham acted as though he had changed God’s mind and had an opportunity to make it more likely that the city of Sodom would be saved.  Abraham asked, “How about 45 righteous people, would you save the whole city for 45?  God said, “Yes.”  Abraham and God then continued, “How about 40? Yes.  How about 30?  Yes.  20? Yes.  “32 Then he [Abraham] said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”  He [God] answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”  Abraham was done.  He was satisfied that he had caused God to act rightly in that if only 10 righteous people were found, God would spare them by not destroying the city.  Apparently, Abraham was fine if only 9 residents were found to be righteous in Sodom and they died with the unrighteous. “33 When the Lord had finished speaking with Abraham, he [the Lord] left, and Abraham returned home.”

            The exchange between Abraham and God reveals something important to us.  Abraham was unsure about the character of God and so Abraham started to measure God’s thinking against the way Abraham’s thoughts.  Abraham started his bidding at 50 righteous people should be enough to save the city.  God said, “OK, if that is what you think.”  Then Abraham started testing God reducing the number downward stopping at the number 10.  Each time, God said “OK.”  Through this exchange, Abraham revealed much about his own thinking but learned next to nothing about God’s thinking.  Rather than asking God what God planned to do and why, Abraham used his time with God to accuse God of not being as righteous as Abraham.  In the end, Abraham did not learn in conversation with God, what God intended to do.

            So what did God do?  If we continued reading in Genesis 19, we would find that the two angels arrived in Sodom and were greeted by Abraham’s nephew, Lot.  Lot invited the angels to eat and sleep in his own home.  While the angels were dining with Lot, all the men of Sodom arrived at Lot’s house and demanding that Lot send the men to them so that they could rape the two men.  The scene painted in Genesis 19 is disturbing.  Lot pled with the men of the city to turn back from their desires, but the men brushed aside Lot’s pleas calling him a foreigner and threatening to harm him.  God had received his answer as to the evil and wickedness of the city.  The city failed to repent.  The inhabitants rejected as foreign the idea that their behavior was sinful and wicked.  They rejected God.  Their actions were both understood and could not be misunderstood.

            Once the inhabitants of the city made know the desires of their hearts, the angels said to Lot that he and his family was leave the city with the angels for the Lord would destroy the city.  With Lot, there was his wife and their two daughters; a total of four people.  God made provision for these four individuals to escape the city and destruction.  If we were to continue to read the story, we would find that Lot’s wife disobeyed the Lord’s instruction and did not survive the destruction of the city.  Lot’s daughters, even after surviving the destruction of the city, engaged in vile and evil behavior of their own.  In the end, we conclude that of the inhabitants of Sodom, there was only one righteous man.  His name was Lot.  God made provision for Lot, the only righteous man, to escape the judgement upon the wicked.  Just one.

            What then do we learn?  We learn that God wants us to know how he thinks and that we have confidence to share our “God experiences” with others.  God wanted Abraham to remember their conversation, their prayer time, and see that God did not and would not judge the righteous as the wicked.  God had no intention of judging the city unless they rejected Him; which they did.  And God had no intention of judging the righteous with the wicked.  God’s intention was and is to save the righteous from judgement, even if there is only one righteous person to be found.

            God is so committed to redeeming people from judgment that God sent his only son, Jesus, to bring that message of hope.  Jesus’ first sermon consisted of nine words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  Repent means simply to turn toward God and follow God.  God made following him easier for us by giving us Jesus.  In Jesus, a person who could be felt, touched, and seen, we could more easily understand God and not misunderstand him.  With Jesus, we could more easily follow the path toward righteousness.  Jesus told a story about how to know God’s thought of always pursuing us.  “Now the tax collectors and sinners [evil doers] were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’  Then Jesus told them [the tax collectors and sinners] this parable [or story]: ‘Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent”  (Luke 15:3-7).  This is how God thinks – How marvelous it is when people turns to him, even if it is only one.  God sent Jesus that we would understand him and not misunderstand him.  God is the righteous judge and he will judge evil, but God is merciful and seeks us to repent before their judgement.

            We have a wonderful God and a wonderful opportunity to know God through our conversations, our prayers with Him.  God gave us Jesus that through him we could escape judgement.  Have you answered God’s invitation to accept Jesus?  God is waiting on each of us to talk with him and listen to him.  I trust you and I will find the time to talk to God this week.  Amen and Amen.

Sep 22 - Thy Will or My Will

Matthew 6:5-14

Luke 11:1-4  

Have you ever asked yourself this question, “Why am I here?”  The words, “Why am I here?” are simple and yet those words can result in a very complex set of answers.  At the highest level, the question, “Why am I here?” can cause us to contemplate the purpose of our life.  At the lowest level, the question can cause us to wonder why we are here in the sanctuary at this moment in time.  Whether we choose to think of the question, “Why am I here?” at the highest level, the lowest level, or somewhere in between, the answer ultimately involves an expression of someone’s will or choice.  Am I here because of my will or someone else’s will?  In this regard, our entire life is a matter of choices or expressions of someone’s will.

            There are some Christians who believe that everything in life, every action, every reaction, has been ordained and determined ahead of time by God’s will.  By this they believe that all choices of life are God’s choice from the simplest decision as to the next words out of our mouth to the manner and moment of our death.  All will is God’s and we have no will of our own. 

Other Christians believe that God set everything in motion and gave humanity the power to make choices and then, God walked away.  By this those Christians believe that all choices in life belong to us.  That all choices are our will and God’s will is not involved in the affairs of our life or the world. 

These two groups of Christians then would have us believe that we are here because we chose to be here or because God chose to exercise his will over us and place us where we are.  Those views are at very different ends of the spectrum of Christian thought.

“What then is truth and why does it matter?”  By whose will are you here; God’s will or human will?  I believe the answer to that question is found in the words and in the prayers of just one person named Jesus.  I want to begin with a few words from Jesus.

One day Jesus was speaking to a group of people.  Some of the people were his apostles, some were followers, and still others were antagonists of Jesus.  On this occasion, Jesus took the opportunity to explain who he was and why he was here.  Jesus said, “38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day” (John 6:38-40).  Jesus words tell us two very important things.  First, God sent Jesus from heaven to earth.  This tells us that God did not simply set the wheels of the world in motion and walk away.  God is involved in the world and sent Jesus for a purpose.  Second, Jesus answered the question, “Why am I here?”  Jesus said that he was God’s son sent by God to bring a message of hope which is God’s will.  Jesus came to do only what God willed even though Jesus possessed a separate will of his own.  Jesus exercised his will and chose to make his will the same as that of God’s.  Jesus’ words then tells us God is involved in the world and that God has a will of his own and we have a will of our own.  Now, you might be thinking, I know I have a will of my own, this is not a revelation.  This may be true enough, but do we understand how to exercise our will in the right ways?

The great figures of the New Testament struggled with exercising their wills in the right ways.  The apostle Paul wrote, “15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do… 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” (Romans 8:15, 18b-20).  Paul understood he had a will independent of God’s will.  Paul knew that God’s will for his life was good, but Paul struggled to do what God wanted.  But Paul had little trouble doing what Paul wanted.  So knowing we have a will separate from God’s is not the same as exercising God’s will as our own.  It is a struggle.

To help us a bit on this matter of exercising our will either along with God or independent of God’s will we go back to some additional words of Jesus.  On another day, Jesus sent his disciples gather up some food.  When Jesus’ disciples returned to him they said, “‘Rabbi, eat something.”  32 But he [Jesus] said to them [his disciples], ‘I have food to eat that you know nothing about.’

33 Then his disciples said to each other, ‘Could someone have brought him food?’  34 ‘My food,’ said Jesus, ‘is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work’” (John 6:31b-34).  Jesus, it seems, was nourished and sustained by doing God’s will.  Jesus valued doing God’s will as much as anyone of us values eating; it was life sustaining and enjoyable.  I am sure many of you have had the experience of doing what you are sure God wanted you to do.  In those moments when I have done so, I feel such a joy and lightness and freedom that I do not feel I need sleep or food.  I believe this is the experience Jesus was sharing with his disciples.

            Sadly, though we mere mortals are slow learners about exercising our will, about choosing to do God’s will.  Jesus tried another way to explain the experience of following God’s will.  One evening, Jesus was teaching in a house filled and overflowing with people.  “31 Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived.  Standing outside [the house], they sent someone in to call him [Jesus].  32 A crowd was sitting around him [Jesus], and they told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.’  33 ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ he asked.  34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mark 3:31-34).  Jesus was redefining family relationships.  God sent Jesus to do God’s will.  Anyone else, anyone of us, who would do God’s will was therefore an intimate family member of Jesus; a mother, brother, or sister.  Biological family no longer determined someone’s ancestry or inheritance.  Instead, choosing to exercise your will consisting with God’s will makes a child of God with all the rights and privileges that brings.  Think about that for a moment.  You are as close to God as Jesus when you act as God would act.

            From this we learn that we have a will and God has a will.  We can choose to exercise our will or God’s will.  When we exercise God’s will, then our being is sustained and satisfied.  When we exercise God’s will we are as close to God on earth as we can get.  How then do we learn to experience the joy, satisfaction, and closeness to God as we exercise our own will?  The answer is simple in method but often it is difficult for us to put into practice.  The answer to knowing how to exercise your will consistent with God’s is done prayer.  When we pray, we are seeking a most intimate relationship between God and ourselves.  Jesus prayed.  He even prayed for the strength to conform his will to God’s.

One evening, Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane.  There among the olive trees, Jesus prayed to God.  It was a difficult moment for Jesus for he knew people were coming to arrest him and that once arrested they would crucify him.  Jesus was deeply disturbed and sad as we might feel the moment we learn that someone very close to us had died.  Jesus entered the garden, and he “fell with his face to the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.’  [The cup was the entire experience upon the cross.]  40 Then he [Jesus] returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. ‘Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?’ he asked Peter. 41 ‘Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.’  42 He [Jesus] went away a second time and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.’  43 When he [Jesus] came back, he again found them [his disciples] sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing [‘Not my will but Thy will be done].” 

To know God’s will is to pray for the courage to receive God’s will and then do it.  We might not have recognized this truth but this is what we did earlier in our worship service when we prayed together the Lord’s Prayer.  This is what we heard in the scripture readings today from the Gospel of Matthew and of Luke.  Taking the two accounts together, we read, “One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John [John the Baptist] taught his disciples’” (Luke 11:1)  “‘This, then, is how you should pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10 your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  11 Give us today our daily bread.  12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one’” (Matthew 6:9-13). 

This the most common form of the Lord’s Prayer.  In this church, we say these words together each time we gather for worship.  We could have a whole series of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer but for today I want to note just three things.  First, common prayers and ancient prayers like the Lord’s Prayer are helpful because those prayers remind us important Christian beliefs.  Second, however, common prayers repeated over the centuries create a risk that we will hear what we are saying as just words to be repeated and not a prayer intended to bring us closer to God.  If we listen carefully, all churches have developed a rhythm to the way we say the Lord’s Prayer.  We all pause and use similar inflections on the words, almost regardless of the church we might attend.  This leads us to the final point, are we really listening to what we are saying and asking God to grant in response to such prayers.  “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth.”

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth” is a prayer that God would change us to be like Jesus and that we would only ever do God’s will.  “Not my will, but your will [God] be done.”  What are we saying?  Many people limit their understanding of this part of the prayer as only asking God that we could come to accept the difficulties of life as Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane.  “Lord, give me strength to accept the cross that is before me.  Thy will be done.”  That cross that we equate as God’s will could be an illness, a divorce, an imprisonment, or any other disagreeable thing in life.  Lord, let me bear up under what has happened to me.  If that is true, then should we also look at the blessings in life as an act of God’s will being fulfilled.  “Lord, give me the humility to accept the beauty that you have placed before me this must also be an act of your will.”  Is not the beauty in our life also God’s will?  That beauty could be food to eat, a friend who shows us love, a breathtaking sunset, wisdom from a wise counselor, a smile we may coax from a grumpy person, etc.  The list of blessings that pour over our lives that can be seen as God’s will are endless.  Becky and I experienced God’s will in this sense when on a couple of occasions we sat on the beach in Maine looking at the ocean with its endless waves gently braking on the shore and the brilliant sunlight sparkling on the ocean surface.  It was magnificent and that moment of nature reflected God’s will on earth.  Praying for more of those blessings makes us more aware when they are presented to us.

This leads us to our final point.  God is able to do anything, but God chooses to work through people to accomplish much of his will.  So, when we pray, “your will be done on earth,” we are asking God to move within us to do His will here on earth.  We are asking God to change our minds and hearts to be aligned with his desires and, here is the hard part, then do the work of His kingdom.  We are asking God to give me Jesus fully that I could go and offer hope, healing, and comfort not just to those I like but to those who do not like me.  We are asking God take the words out of my mouth when I say, “I am going to make it my business to make sure that what I think is right happens.” and soften them to say, “My food is to do the will of God; My desire to join my brother Jesus and do what he is doing.”  What we are saying in our prayer is, “Your will be done – by me – now!”

Have you ever asked yourself this question, “Why am I here?”  You are here, in this sanctuary, because you aligned your will for this moment to be the same as God’s will.  The choice we have to make from this moment forward is who’s will shall I follow.  Shall it be my own, the will of someone else, or shall we say together in prayer to God, “I am here that ‘Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ – by me – now.

Sep 1 - Judas - More than a Betrayer

John 13:1-30

This summer we have been exploring characters of the New Testament.  We looked for a few weeks at Jesus’ apostle Peter, then a woman named Lydia, and last week we looked briefly at man named Apollos.  This week, I would like us to explore a mysterious figure of the New Testament, Jesus’ apostle named Judas Iscariot.  Judas is mysterious because he was an intimate personal witness of the life of Jesus and yet betrayed Jesus.  As Christianity grew, the use of the name Judas fell out of use because his name connotates darkness and wickedness.  In fact, the name Judas became a noun used to describe peepholes or other devices used to spy on someone.  This is because observing someone without their consent is considered an act of betrayal.

I admit it is a little odd to speak of Judas in a sermon because Judas is always described in the New Testament as the betrayer of Jesus.  And that fact can make us ask, “What can I learn from the life of a betrayer that will help me in my faith journey?”  Let’s see what we might learn from Judas’ life.

We first hear about Judas in a list of men Jesus called to be his disciples, his apostles.  The Gospel of Luke says, “One [of those] day[s] Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. 13 When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles: 14 Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, 15 Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, [who became a traitor] (Luke 6:12-16).  The first thing we learn is that after prayer, Jesus chose Judas to be an apostle, Jesus’ personal representative.  We learn further from the Gospels of Matthew and Mark that Jesus then gave each apostle the authority to preach, drive out demons, and heal every sickness and disease (Mt. 10:1; Mk. 3:14, 15).  Judas was only one of 12 individuals in the world chosen and empowered by Jesus to exercise the power of God.  Once invested with this power and authority, Jesus sent Judas and the eleven other apostles out into the world and said, “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give” (Mt. 10:7, 8).  The apostles, including Judas, went out into the world, two-by-two, doing as Jesus instructed.  “When the apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done” (Luke 9:10).  Judas was a preacher and healer in the name of Jesus.  What an amazing experience that must have been for Judas.  Here Judas was called by Jesus into ministry.  He was a witness to miracles and transforming teachings of Jesus.  Judas was commissioned by Jesus to preach and to heal, and Judas did just that.  Excitedly Judas returned to Jesus and shared everything he had done.  Have you ever daydreamed about what it would be like to have the power to heal another person’s body?  I have.  I have thought about how marvelous it would be to be able to touch another person and remove cancer, end Parkinson’s disease, heal someone’s spirit, and on and on goes the list.  I have dreamed about that life.  Judas lived that life.

After Judas and the other apostles returned from healing, Jesus continued to teach them in private and to share his ministry with them in public.  One time, Jesus said to them, “Things will surely happen that will make people sin. But it will be very bad for anyone who makes this happen.  So be careful!  If your brother or sister in God’s family does something wrong, warn them. If they are sorry for what they did, forgive them. Even if they do something wrong to you seven times in one day, but they say they are sorry each time, you should forgive them.”  The apostles said to the Lord, “Give us more faith!” (Luke 17:1, 3-5, ERV).  Judas listed to Jesus and heard the warning that things happen in life that cause even the best of people to sin.  But Jesus said something so reassuring. “All is not lost when you sin.  You can repent and receive forgiveness.”  Judas heard the warning that things cause us to sin, but you can repent and receive forgiveness.  We need to hear those words for ourselves and we need to apply them to one another.  We do not have to daydream about having the power to forgive another person.  We have that power to heal broken and damaged relationships.  To use that power, we must be able to say, “I am sorry,” and we must be able to say, “I forgive you.”

            The response by Judas and the other apostles to this good news was to ask Jesus to, “Give us more faith!”  Give us the faith to do what you ask of us.  Give us the faith to believe that we do not need to keep secret sin but that we can bring in forth into the light and be forgiven.  Give us faith to truly forgive others.  Judas and the other apostles were on a faith journey in which their lives were being transformed into the very likeness of Jesus and they shouted for even more.  Judas was having a spirit filled experience with the Lord developing in wisdom and faith.

            We learned from our reading today from the Gospel of John that Judas had a position of trust.  He oversaw the money purse for the group.  Judas kept account for the money received, the money spent, and for holding onto to the money as the group traveled.  Judas was trusted by the other apostles. 

But something happened to Judas and his authority over the money purse.  One day, a woman poured an expensive perfume over Jesus.  The perfume was worth a year’s wages.  “[But one of his disciples], Judas Iscariot, [who was later to betray him,] objected [to this woman pouring out this expensive perfume], ‘Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.’ He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it” (John 12:4-6).  It seems that at some point, probably after Judas’ death, the apostles came to learn that Judas had his hand in the money purse to use for himself. 

This is the first point of departure from faith that we see in Judas’ story.  It probably started as a little thing.  Sin always starts small.  Judas wanted something for himself and used a small amount of money from the group’s money purse for himself.  It probably was not a lot of money the first time.  After taking the money, Judas waited a bit and then realized that no one knew he had used the group’s money for himself.  Sin had entered Judas’ life and he felt like he was getting away with it.  He did not do as Jesus called for by confessing his sins and receiving forgiveness.  Instead, Judas wanted more money in the purse so that more could be taken.  Sin is like a strong acid.  Acid eats through whatever it touches making things weaker in the process.  Sin eats through beliefs and faith as well as the image of God that resides within us.  We become weaker.  The only way to become strong again is to confess our sin and allow God’s forgiveness to heal the damage done by sin.  The Bible tells us, “If we confess our sins, he [Jesus] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).  In some Christian traditions, such confessions are made to a priest as God’s representative who will grant (or not grant) forgiveness.  We Baptist are different.  We believe we have access to God the Father though Jesus the Son.  We are free to go to Jesus and confess our sins to him and ask for forgiveness.  It is not the role of the pastor to grant (or not grant) God’s forgiveness.  Judas had the perfect opportunity to express his sin to Jesus, to repent of his actions, and receive Jesus’ forgiveness and healing.  Instead, of seeking forgiveness, Judas went further into sin.  That is the funny thing about being tempted to sin.  There is nothing wrong with being tempted to sin.  Everyone has been and will continue to be exposed to sin.  But each temptation to sin always comes to an end.  Either the temptation to sin ends with us moving closer to God and denying ourselves the temptation or we follow the temptation and commit sin. 

After losing out on being able to sell the perfume poured onto Jesus’, Judas [14 Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot]—went to the chief priests 15 and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver.16 From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him [Jesus] over” (Matthew 26:14-16).  Thirty pieces of silver was about one month’s wages.  Judas had moved down a dangerous track in sin from healer, to thief, to conspirator.  Judas had not just stopped growing with Jesus, Judas was now walking away from Jesus. 

What we see unfolding before us is Jesus’ warning being lived out.  “Things will surely happen that will make people sin.”  Something happened to Judas and sin began to corrode his faith.  The sin was not noticeable to other apostles.  This is the normal progression of sinful living upon the faithful.  Sin, at first, is like an adulterous affair.  The sin, the affair, is done in secret while maintaining appearances to others that things are as they should be.  Judas was having an affair of sorts with sin.  Jesus was no longer his exclusive love.  Judas had developed another love on the side that was growing larger by the moment.  Was it the love of money, or love for power, or love for rebellion, or love for Satan himself that attracted Judas?  We do not fully know because it is not important to know Judas’ motivations or whatever he perceived as his justification for walking away from Jesus.  A learned pastor wrote, “We sinners are so backwards that we try to justify ourselves by some condition which preceded the sin.  Motives console us.”[1]

There is not one of us here today that is immune to the seduction of temptation and the corrosive nature of sin.  As Jesus said, we must be on guard for if our faith in the Lord is not growing, then our faith is getting weaker making us vulnerable to walking away from God.  There are many who are not here today who have done just that.  They were once strong in their faith but have little by little absorbed more and more of the toxic nature of worldliness that eats away at their faith.  Our learned pastor wrote again, “We sinners are so backwards!  We invert the true source of our justification.  It isn’t some preliminary cause, some motive before sin that justifies me, but rather the forgiveness of Christ which meets my repentance after the sin.”[2]  We all must own our sin, however we decided to bring it into our lives.  And we must repent of it directly to Christ and receive his forgiveness.  Jesus offers that forgiveness to you, to me, and he offered that to Judas.

This brings us to the climax to Judas’ sin as it unfolded in our reading today.  Jesus, Judas, and the eleven other apostles were gathered for the Passover meal.  In the middle of the meal, Jesus gently washed the feet of Judas and the others.  It was an act of kindness, love, and humility.  While Judas’ feet may have become clean, there was no change or cleaning of his heart.  There was no confession of his secret sin.  Our reading said that after washing the apostles’ feet, “Jesus became visibly upset, and then he told them why.  ‘One of you is going to betray me.’  22-25 The disciples looked around at one another, wondering who on earth he was talking about. One of the disciples, the one Jesus loved dearly, was reclining against him, his head on his shoulder. Peter motioned to him to ask who Jesus might be talking about. So, being the closest, he said, ‘Master, who?’  26-27 Jesus said, ‘The one to whom I give this crust of bread after I’ve dipped it.’ Then he [Jesus] dipped the crust and gave it to Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot. As soon as the bread was in his [Judas’] hand, Satan entered him.  30 Judas, with the piece of bread, left and it was night.” (John 13:21-27, 30).

            Judas, the apostle of Jesus, the preacher, the evangelist, the healer of  every illness and disease, trusted treasurer, then thief, conspirator, and betrayer let the dark desires of his heart be ruled by Satan and he went out into the night with a piece of bread, the symbol of Jesus’ offer of forgiveness in his hand.  In a moment, you will be offered a piece of bread from the Lord’s Table.  Jesus gives it to you and me as an offer of forgiveness and healing from whatever sin has come into our life.  Let us not be like Judas and leave here with the bread of forgiveness in our hand.  Let us instead take the bread life and be nourished in our faith.

[1] Wagerin, Walter, Reliving the Passion, (Grand Rapids, MI; Zondervan, 1992), 46.

[2] Ibid.

Aug 25 - Church Matters

Acts 18:24-28

Welcome church to the church that together we can be about the church.  I suspect to some of you may feel my opening sentence fails to pass the grammar test because of the repetitive use of the word church.  But let’s think at that sentence for a moment.  “Welcome church,” is proper because you and I together are the church.  We are a congregation of Christian believers and seekers of God.  This use of the word church to describe a congregation is the third most common definition of church found in Webster’s Dictionary.  “Welcome church to the church.”  These words are expressing a welcome to the congregation to the physical building we call church.  The church is a building established for public worship.  This use of the word church is the most common definition of church in the dictionary.  “Welcome church to the church that together we can be about the church.”  The last use of the word church refers to those engaged in the ministry of the Gospel.  In many circles, church used in that way means specifically work that is to be done by clergy such as a priest or minister.  But we Baptists are a different breed.  We try to follow what the Bible says, and we believe it says everyone is charged with engaging in the ministry of the Gospel and not just those folks called reverend, pastor, minister, or whatever other title someone wants to use.  “Welcome church to the church that together we can be about the church,” means “welcome folks to this place of worship that together we can fully share the message of hope.”

I wanted to begin our time together talking about the multiple uses of the term church because often people in the world say, “Church does not matter anymore.”  Considering the varied definitions of church, how are we to interpret the statement “Church does not matter anymore.”  Does the person saying that mean, “The congregation (you) do not matter anymore.” Or does that person mean to say, “The building does not matter anymore.”  Or does that person mean to say, “The ministry of hope that we carry out does not matter anymore.”  It is difficult to know the mind of those from the world who say, “Church does not matter anymore.”

We are equally faced with statements, “I’m a Christian, but I do not need church.”  Does that person mean to say, “I’m a Christian, but I do not need you (other Christians).  Or does that person mean to say, “I’m a Christian, but I do not need public worship.”  Or do they mean, “I’m a Christian, but I do not need to be engage in the ministry of hope.”  It is equally hard to know the mind of Christians who chose to live and speak like the world.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am here today to assure you church matters.  You matter!  This public worship space matters!  And the ministry of hope matters to God and may matter to other people more now than at any other time in history!  You, this space, and our ministry together matters because hope is needed now more than ever.

Last week, I was in a meeting of folks working on a conference to bring the government agencies, non-profit service providers, and the faith community together to work cooperatively to end homelessness in Saratoga County.  As we talked about the needs of the homeless, the non-profit providers said the people need food, housing, transportation, and money management skills in order to overcome their circumstances of homelessness.  Then there was a pause in the construct of the list of needs of the homeless and the leader of the group asked, “We have heard from the non-profit agencies, but what does the faith community think is the biggest need of homeless people?”  I responded, “They need hope.  It is the same need we all have.  Hope.  Without hope, people struggle and wonder, what is the point of living?”  That response led to collective efforts of government, non-profit groups, and faith communities to relabel our efforts to be called “Partners in Hope.”  Church matters because church (fellowship, worship, and ministry) matters because in its simplest form and in its totality, church offers hope.   

In the beginning of the Christian church, the focus was all about sharing the hope found in the good news of Jesus’ life, death, burial, and resurrection.  We read today from the book of Acts which records for us the life of the early Christians.  Among the early Christians was a man named Apollos.

Apollos was a native of Alexandria, Egypt.  In the ancient near east, Alexandria was an intellectual center of the ancient world with a great collection of books.  Apollos traveled from Alexandria and was now in the city of Ephesus along the coastal plain of what is now modern-day Turkey.  In our reading today, we are told that Apollos “was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures.  He had been instructed in the way of the Lord (Jesus).  And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.”  Apollos was a Christian who was sharing the news of hope as he moved from Alexandria to Ephesus; a walk of 1,800 miles.  Apollos was a powerful speaker and he knew well the Old Testament.  Apollos knew about Jesus and taught accurately for as much as he knew.  But when it came to the subject of baptism, Apollos knew nothing of Jesus’ command to be baptized as an expression of faith in Jesus and through that faith and baptism to have the Holy Spirit led the believer in a new life.  A new life in a congregation, in public worship, and ministry of hope.

One day, Apollos began to speak boldly in the synagogue; a place of public worship.  In the crowd that day, was a Christian couple named Priscilla and Aquila.  They were Jews expelled years earlier from Rome by an edict of the emperor.  They had become Christian after hearing about Jesus through the teaching of another missionary, named Paul.  When Priscilla and Aquila heard Apollos preach, they noted his deficient understanding about baptism.  We have a good picture that Apollos was in the pulpit of the public worship space (church), preaching to the assembled group (church), about the ministry of hope in Jesus (church).  Apollos was uniformed or misinformed about the ministry and two members of the church realized it.  Right away, we see that church matters to the faithful.  None of us, including pastors, are faultless in our understanding of God and the Scriptures.  We need each other.  For this reason, I believe it is practically speaking impossible to follow the ways of Christ and not be a part of church, in all its expressions.  I do not believe you can be a Christian and not need church.  To believe you can be a Christian and remain separate from other believers is contrary to the example of Jesus.  It is contrary to the example of Jesus’ disciples.  To believe you can be a Christian and not need church is contrary to teachings of the Bible itself.  The world and worldliness are just too strong and to influential for us to avoid the pitfalls of evil by going it alone.  There are also far too many other belief systems drawing people away from God for us to go it alone.  Church matters to our spiritual development.

Priscilla and Aquila knew Apollos was a gifted preacher, but he was lacking in his understanding.  Our reading says, Priscilla and Aquila took Apollos aside, meaning in private, to explain to him the way of God more accurately.  What a great teaching for us about church.  When we hear something that is not quite right, we have a choice.  Ignore it and let the person go on thinking incorrectly or speak up and help them.  This couple could not ignore the misunderstanding of Apollos about baptism.  So, they spoke up but in a manner of Christian love.  They did not shout aloud their concern and embarrass him, nor did they go to everyone around Apollos and point out his deficient understanding.  Instead, they went to Apollos in private that he may know the way of God more accurately.  This is a great example of the way we should conduct ourselves in all our dealings with one another.  If we have a problem with someone, we need to practice Christian ethics in dealing with it.  We need to address the matter.  We should not go around telling others we are going to address this privately.  That is almost the same as addressing in publicly.  Likewise, if the matter is resolved in private – leave it there.  Do not share with others that we addressed an issue privately and now it is resolved.  Apollos learned and the church (congregation, public worship, and ministry of hope) grew stronger.

Apollos then lived out his story as a more complete messenger of hope.  Living out the story of hope then is the role of the church.  It is the role of this church.  Together, God has called upon us to be the church where no one loses hope.  Together, we are the presence of Jesus Christ in this given spot.  Every person here shares in being the presence of Jesus.  It is together that we speak about God and together we worship God.  It is together that we grow in life and we talk with one another about how God is shaping us into the image of Jesus.  It is together that we celebrate every small victory in life and together we walk with one another through the difficulties and trials of life.  We are the living hope of God because we are the presence of Jesus Christ in this spot at this time in life.  We are partners in hope with Jesus and one another.  That was and is God’s plan; there is no backup or alternative plan.

In 2018, a music group Cochren & Company, released a new song called Church, with the subtitle, “Take Me Back.”  It is a song of hope for those returning to church and to those seeking the hope of the church.

The song says in part: “Take me back, to the place that feels like home.  To the people I can depend on.  To the faith that's in my bones.  Take me back.  To a preacher and a verse.  Where they've seen me at my worst.  To the love I had at first.  Oh, I want to go to church.  Tried to walk on my own but I wound up lost.  Now I'm making my way to the foot of the cross.  It's not a trophy for the winners.  It's a shelter for the sinners.  And it's right where I belong.  I want to go to church.  Oh, more than an obligation.  It's our foundation.  The family of God.  I know it's hard.  But we need each other.  We're sisters and brothers.  Take me back.”

Welcome home church to the church that together we can be about the church.  Being a church where no one loses hope is not about being an exclusive club or group.  We must always be open and reaching out to others and explaining with grace why they see hope within us.  When others see hope in us, they are seeing Jesus.  We have hope because of Jesus.  People will see that.  When others see hope in us, we have become an instrument of God. 

It pleasing to be here, that we are a church, worshipping in church this day, and that we are a church engaged in the ministry of hope.

Aug 11 - Peter - Forgiven, Restored, and Called

John 21:15-19

Acts 4:1-15   

The last few weeks we have been exploring the life of a man from the New Testament named Peter.  Last week, we saw that Peter pledge to defend Jesus from all enemies, even if it cost Peter his own life.  Then within a matter of a few hours, we saw Peter deny ever knowing Jesus not one time but three times.  Today, I would like us to complete our review of Peter’s life by exploring what happened to Peter when Peter encountered Jesus again following Peter’s denials.  The conversation between Jesus and Peter was a powerful one for through it we can feel Peter experience his denial of Jesus but see Jesus forgiving Peter.  We could feel Peter deny Jesus again, but see Jesus restoring Peter.  We could feel Peter deny Jesus a third time, but see Jesus calling Peter.  Jesus’ and Peter’s conversation is important to us because we learn that God’s love compels Him to forgive, to restore, and to call each person who will receive Him.  God’s love transforms lives.

We do not talk enough about love; God’s real love.  We need to talk more about love.  Allow me to give you an illustration.  A couple of weeks ago, I participated in a two-day training program called, ASIST, Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training.  This training equips attendees to intervene in the life of someone who has become suicidal.  There were 32 people in my class.  Thirty-one people who were social workers of various stripes and one church pastor.  We learned that people who have suicidal thoughts often feel alone, isolated, and hopeless for the future.  We learned strategies to talk to suicidal people and to help them develop choices to keep themselves safe.  When the two days of training had been completed, the instructor asked the entire class, “Suppose you intervened and kept someone from suicide, what services could your agency offer to that person to help them move forward with their life?”  A couple of the social workers stood up and gave long and impressive lists of life skill training programs, workshops, and seminars offered by their agency.  I squirmed a bit in my seat because I thought the point was missed.  Life is not about programs, workshops, and seminars.  So, I stood up and said, “We offer love.”  The room was very quiet after I spoke because I think people know life without love cannot be sustained.  We just do not talk about love; genuine love.  And yet the Bible speaks over and over about love.  “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2).  “Do everything in love” (1 Corinthians 16:14).  “This is my command: Love each other” (John 15:17).  Finally, Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43, 44).

Jesus words about love were carefully chosen.  He said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy but I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  While Jesus’ statement is about love, he showed how special God’s love is by included one of the most important words in our language.  That word is the word “but.”  I have spoken of this word in previous sermons.  Whenever we see or heard the word, “but,” we should pay attention because that small word is full of power.  The word but is intended to have the audience ignore what is said before the word “but” and give extra attention to the words that comes after the word “but.”  We might say in a tongue in cheek way, that what follows your “but” is most important.  Let me offer an illustration.  Two people get into a heated argument.  Harsh and angry words are exchanged.  The two people separate from each other for a time.  Then one person goes to the other and says, “I am sorry that I said some harsh things to you, but you made me angry when you said...”  You can fill in the blank from your own experience.  The speaker offered an apology in the first part of the sentence and then took the apology away by using the word but leaving the focus on the second part of the sentence; that the fault lies with the other person.  Hear the sentence again.  “I am sorry that I said some harsh things to you, but you made me angry when you said....”  The focus is on words following the “but.”  This is the essence of Peter’s experience with Jesus from today’s Bible reading.  Peter had denied Jesus, but Jesus forgave Peter.  The focus is forgiving Peter.  Peter denied Jesus again, but Jesus restored Peter.  The focus is Peter’s restoration.  Peter denied Jesus again and again, but Jesus called Peter.  The focus is on giving Peter a mission.  Why would Jesus forgive, restore, and call Peter?  Simply because Jesus loved Peter.

Let’s revisit our New Testament reading from earlier today and listen in as Jesus speaks to Peter.  Please turn with me to the Gospel of John, Chapter 21, beginning with verse 15.

As we enter this scene, we find that Peter and six other disciples with Jesus on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  They had just finished breakfast.  “15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”  Let’s pause there for a moment.  First, notice Jesus refers to Peter as “Simon, son of John.”  Jesus referred to Peter in this manner only one time previously.  That occurred when Jesus first met Peter.  John tells us, “And he [Andrew] brought him [his brother, Simon] to Jesus.  Jesus looked at him [Simon] and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter)” (John 1:42).  Jesus began this conversation with Peter along the shores of the Sea of Galilee by referring to him in the manner Peter was known before he met Jesus.  This must have grabbed Peter’s attention.  Jesus’ words were penetrating Peter’s being.  “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”  These meaning the other disciples.  “Peter do you love me more than these [other disciples] do [love me]?”  It is a reflective question about the inner heart of Peter.  Jesus question may have reminded Peter that when Jesus told his disciples that one of them would betray him, Peter said, “Though they [the other disciples may] all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (Matthew 26:33).  With those words of bravado, Peter was saying his love for Jesus was greater than the love of any other disciple for Jesus.  Peter’s words condemned the other disciples.  And yet, it is not hard to imagine that Jesus’ words “Do you love me?” brought Peter’s words of denying Jesus into Peter’s mind.  A servant girl had come up to Peter and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” Peter said, “I do not know what you mean” (Matthew 26:69-70).

Now, after Peter’s denial of Jesus, Peter was being asked by Jesus, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these [other disciples] do?”  Peter thought for a moment taking in his bravado and denial of Jesus and said quietly, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”

This was a humbling experience for Peter.  Peter had denied Jesus.  Now Jesus wanted to know if Peter still loved him.  “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”  When we express our love for another person, especially for the first time, we wonder how that person will respond.  Will our words panic them or please them?  Peter wondered how Jesus would respond to Peter’s expression of love.  After some quiet moments, Jesus responded, “Feed my lambs.”  The Greek word used for feed means literally to provide nourishment and tend while grazing.  Jesus was telling Peter to care for Jesus’ disciples.  Peter must have felt relieved the conversation was over.  Jesus had received Peter’s love and Jesus called Peter back into his life.  Peter had denied Jesus, but Jesus had forgiven Peter.

But the conversation was not over.  Verse 16, “Again Jesus said, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  Peter must have wondered, “Why is Jesus asking me this question again?”  Perhaps, Peter recalled his second denial of Jesus.  Matthew recorded Peter’s second denial this way, “Then he [Peter] went out to the gateway, where another servant girl saw him and said to the people there, ‘This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.”  He [Peter] denied it again, with an oath: ‘I don’t know the man!’”  (Matthew 26:71-72).  Again, the strength of Peter dried up before the voice of servant girl and he denied ever knowing Jesus.  Peter now had to sit quietly and think about Jesus’ question, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  After a few moments, Peter said quietly, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”  After a moment of quiet reflection on those words, Jesus said to Peter, “Tend my sheep” (John 21:16).  Peter affirmed he loved Jesus, the person he once denied ever knowing.  In response, Jesus commanded Peter to tend those most precious to Jesus, his flock, Jesus’ congregation.  This was a position of authority that before his denial Peter was told would be his.  Peter had denied Jesus, but Jesus had restored Peter.  I can imagine that Peter was relieved, believing this conversation was over.

But the conversation is not over.  Look at verse 17, “He [Jesus] said to him [Peter] the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he [Jesus] said to him the third time, “Do you love me?”  Scripture said Peter grieved.  In the Greek language of the original Gospel writings, the word used for grieving was λυπέω, lypeō, lü-pe'-ō, which means to be sorrowful, or to be thrown into sorrow and sadness.  Peter was crushed and he began to weep.  Perhaps Peter remembered the emotion of his third denial.  You see Scripture tells us, “After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you too are one of them [Jesus’ follower], for your accent betrays you.”  Then he [Peter] began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know the man” (Matthew 26:73-74).  And after Peter’s third denial, Peter left his accusers and wept bitterly.  Now again on the beach in Galilee and Peter grieved because Jesus asked him for a third time, “Do you love me?”  Having collected himself enough, Peter replied to Jesus, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to Peter, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:17)  Peter’s response carries an admission that nothing is hidden from Jesus.  Jesus knew the painful denials, for Peter had denied Jesus again and again, but Jesus called Peter to care for those who would become part of Jesus’ church.

Peter’s painful past has been dealt with and Peter had been reconciled and made right with Jesus.  Peter denied Jesus but Jesus forgave Peter.  Peter again denied Jesus but Jesus restored Peter.  Peter denied Jesus again and again, but Jesus called Peter.  The forgiveness, restoration, and calling not because of Peter’s love for Jesus, but because of Jesus love for Peter.

Now here is the good news.  Jesus wants to do the same for you and me.  Jesus wants to remove the poison of sin from each one of us and gives us a new task, a new meaning to life.  “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6-8).

Suppose for a moment, you were sitting on the beach with Jesus beside you.  And Jesus said to you, “Do you love me?”  What behavior or disappointment in life might that cause you to recall?  Think about.  Now give it over to Jesus and do not carry it any longer because Jesus will forgive.  If after you have done that, Jesus asked again, “Do you love me?” what would come to our mind this time.  Think about it and give that moment of denial or disappointment over to him.  Jesus will restore you.  Finally, if Jesus asked a third time, “Do you love me?”  what then would come to mind.  Give that over to Jesus and he will call you to do great things for the kingdom of God.

Jesus promises to forgive, restore, and call each person who comes to him.  We may think we are not worthy but God’s word says to us, “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

I am glad you are hear today.  We have only one thing to offer you and that is “the love of God.”  Let us pray.

Jul 28 - Walking with Peter in Faith and Fear

Matthew 14:22-33

            As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I thought it would be a good idea for us to explore some characters from the Bible to see how their lives and their experiences could help us in our walk with God.  The first character I chose for us to explore was a man named Simon, who Jesus nicknamed Peter.  We explored Peter’s first encounter with Jesus along the River Jordan and Peter’s first words of the New Testament when Peter asked Jesus to fish on the Sea of Galilee.

            Today, we have a chance to join Jesus and Peter, again on the Sea of Galilee.  The scene we are going to look at is found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John.  It was an important event in Peter’s life but as powerful a moment that it turned out to be, Peter never spoke of it.  Peter is never quoted as telling the story to others except to say that in all he experienced with Jesus, Peter became convinced Jesus was the Son of God.  Sometimes, I think we get more interested in the details of the miracles described in the Gospels than to recognize the central point of the miracles and the entirety of the Gospels was to have us see that Jesus is the Son of God.  In the Gospel of Matthew, a Roman officer at the crucifixion of Jesus summed up Jesus’ life this way, “Surely, he was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54).  The opening verse of Mark’s Gospel says this, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).  The ending of the Gospel of John says, “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30).  Jesus’ followers and the Gospel writers came to believe that Jesus was and is the Son of God.  They believed God exists.  They believed that God sent Jesus, his Son, with a message of hope for all people.  They believed Jesus was different from all other people in part because of what they saw Jesus do but primarily they believed in the specialness of Jesus because he was raised from the dead.  Because of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection from the dead, they believed Jesus’ claims that he was the Son of God.  They trusted Jesus’ words that in believing in him they would be freed from the penalty of sin because he, Jesus, paid that penalty.  None of Jesus’ followers could prove to an atheist that God existed.  They believed God existed based upon faith.  None of Jesus’ followers could prove to those who believed in God that Jesus was God’s Son.  They believed Jesus was the Son of God based upon faith.  How someone comes to believe in God or Jesus has never changed over the centuries.  We only believe in Jesus because we have faith.  We cannot argue or force anyone else to believe either in God or in Jesus as his Son.  These are faith decisions.  So in this regard we are very much the same as those who saw Jesus in person, including Peter.  A life with God is based on faith.

            In one way though, we, at least in the United States, are very different from those who saw Jesus in person.  The original believers in Jesus believed by faith who Jesus was by overcoming their fear in believing.  For the early Christians, to believe in Jesus as the Son of God was a risky decision.  Believing in Jesus put their livelihood and life at risk.  If the religious leaders of the day did not attack you for your beliefs, the governmental authorities, the Romans, would and did attack.  The original believers had to deal with their fear.  We are a little different because we can believe, we can have faith in Jesus, without fear to life and limb.  And yet, for many people today, fear still prevents faith.  Fear of being different, or thought to be strange, or uneducated, and the list goes on keeps many from believing in God and Jesus.

            So we know, faith and fear have a relationship.  Faith and fear are opposite sides of the same coin.  In a coin toss, only one side of the coin can be showing.  If we are in fear, then faith is not present.  If faith is revealed, then fear is covered.  Peter had to deal with fear and faith.  Even though we can believe without fear that someone will arrest us or harm us for believing, we too must deal with our own fear and faith equation.  Let’s begin with the faith and fear of the disciples and Peter with words from Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 14, beginning at verse 22.

            As we enter this scene, Jesus had just fed 5,000 people with a few loaves of bread and some fish.  Verse 22, “Immediately [after the miraculous feeding] Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd.”  The Jesus and his disciples were traveling back and forth and along the shore of the Sea of Galilee by boat.  Jesus told his disciples to leave by boat for the other side of the sea and he would join them later.  Verse 23, “23 After he [Jesus] had dismissed them [the disciples and the crowds], he [Jesus] went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.”  Jesus took time to be alone to pray.  He did not want the distractions of people and noise to interfere with his time with God.  We should keep in our minds the image of Jesus praying alone and quiet as an example of we should be doing as well.  The story continued, “Later that night, he [Jesus] was there alone, 24 and the boat [with his disciples] was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.  25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them [the disciples in the boat], walking on the lake.  26 When the disciples saw him [Jesus] walking on the lake, they were terrified. ‘It’s a ghost,’ they said, and cried out in fear.”

            And the disciples cried out in fear.  Our story begins with fear.  Fear is something we all know about.  No one had to teach us to express fear; we know what fear is from the day we are born.  In fear, a newborn will cry out.  We later learn how to apply fear to different circumstances than just the discomforts of a newborn.  So fear is part instinct, part learned, and part taught.  Fear comes when we believe there is a threat to us.  Think for a moment that you are alone one night in a neighborhood that looks rough.  You are not sure where you are, how you got there, or where exactly to go.  You have no phone.  So you begin to walk cautiously down the street in the hopes you are heading toward safety.  You are anxious, you are fearful of the unknown, and then across the street from you stands a dark building.  Every little noise seems like a very large noise.  Suddenly, the door to the building across the street bursts open and there stands, six large teenage boys who shout words at you that you did not understand.  The six large boys start running toward you yelling and screaming that you should not to move.  Do you perceive them threat?  I suspect everyone here would feel threatened.  In response to the threat, you are in fear and you begin to prepare yourself to deal with this threat.  Your body tightens up.  Your heart starts beating faster.  You are listening more intently.  The boys come up to you and encircle you from all sides.  Now that they are only inches away from you, they seem much bigger and stronger looking.  They are laughing; not with you but at you.  You are in fear.  Finally, one of them speaks to you and tells you they saw you walking down their street alone.  They know you are not from here.  The boy speaking then says, “We decided we needed to leave our Bible Study to see if you needed some help in getting home.”  What did they say?  They left their Bible study to help you to get home safely.  I suspect everyone here would breathe a sigh of relief because you believe, you trust, you have faith, that these boys are not a threat; they are, in fact, going to provide you safety.  This little story teaches us that fear and faith have a relationship.  It also teaches us that being we believe being a Christian matters and that just saying, “You are a Christian” should be the source of comfort to others.  So we should be telling others we are Christians more often than we do.

            So fear is something we know and Jesus’ disciples were in fear because they believed Jesus was a ghost.  Who else could walk on water than a spirit?  Certainly, a man could not walk on the surface of the water. The disciples believed Jesus to be a ghost or a spirit.  Historians tell us that people in Jesus’ day believed that the bottom of the Sea of Galilee was a portal, a doorway, to the underworld of the dead.  The disciples may have perceived a spirit had escaped the underworld and was now threating the lives of the disciples; just like we might have perceived those 6 teenage boys presented a threat in our story from a couple of minutes ago.

            The screams and cries of the disciples altered Jesus that the men were afraid.  Verse 27, “But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”  Fear cannot exist when trust or faith is in play.  Jesus’ words, at this point, changes nothing of the very real circumstances his disciples face.  It was dark.  The wind was howling.  The waves were rough.  The men were tired.  And they were afraid.  But Jesus said, “Take courage.  It is I.  There is no reason for fear.”  In a reassuring manner, Jesus was inviting his disciples to calm their bodies (Take Courage), to control their thoughts (It is I), and to confront their fears (Do not be afraid).  Reality had not changed but trust or faith is being brought into play.  By example, a child may be in bed asleep, but a disturbing dream scares them, and they scream out.  A parent enters the room and soothes the child reassuring them it was all just a bad dream.  The parent tucks the child back into bed, rubs the child’s head, and says, “It is OK, everything will be all right.”  The child goes back to sleep because they trust the comforting reassurances of the parent.  The parent has invited the child to calm their body, control their thoughts, and confront their fears.  Trust or faith in the parent is being brought into play.  We can understand that scene.  The same is occurring here between Jesus and his disciples.  Jesus was inviting all his disciples to bring trust or faith into play.

            Now we come to the lesson about trust, faith, and fear uniquely from the disciple, Peter.  In verse 28, we read, “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”  Peter wanted to trust Jesus even further, but he wanted to extend himself only if Jesus invited him to do so.  29 “Come,” he [Jesus] said.  Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he [Peter] saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”  31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” 

Peter was doing so well.  He stepped out of the boat.  This is a wonderful illustration of faith replacing fear.  Peter charged with faith walked on the water, making his way toward Jesus. But then Peter looked away.  Peter’s perspective changed; following Jesus’ call was no longer his focus.  Peter switched his attention to the wind and waves.  Peter’s purpose no longer was to reach Jesus but his purpose became avoiding the winds and waves.  Peter’s faith was replaced by fear and he began to sink in the water.  When Peter acted in faith, when he trusted what Jesus told him to do, Peter became more and more like Jesus, even being able to walk on water.  But when Peter went back to his old ways of being concerned about the winds and waves, all was lost, and Peter sank.

Now came a crucial moment in the story.  Peter was sinking under the waves.  His life was at risk.  He had only time enough to make one choice for safety.  He could either ask for help from his fellow shipmates or he could call for help from Jesus.  Peter cried out, “Lord, save me!”  31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him.  In Peter’s most desperate moment of fear, Peter placed his faith in Jesus to save him – and Jesus did so.  “32 And when they [Jesus and Peter] climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him [Jesus], saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Fear and faith had a relationship in Peter’s life, and it has a relationship in your life and in mine.  This causes us to ask ourselves, “What do I fear?  Who do I fear?”  Think about those questions for a moment.  With those thoughts of fearful things in our minds, I am going to invite you to calm your bodies, control your thoughts, and confront your fears with these words from a man named Jesus who stands beside you at this moment.  “Take courage.  It is I.  Do not be afraid.”  The man Jesus knows about your fears and mine.  This man Jesus knows we worry about living, pain, uncertainty, loneliness, disease, strife, and that these winds and waves of human life toss about and make life difficult, frustrating, and even pointless.  This man Jesus knows that God is above all these things and like a loving parent wants us to know, “It’s OK.  Everything will be all right.”  This man Jesus knows that our fear can eased and replaced by faith; not faith in ourselves or others who are in the same boat as we are in.  But by placing our faith or trust in God for our lives in the present and for all eternity, the winds and waves of life that toss us in fear will be stilled.  All we need to do to replace our fear with faith is say the words of Peter, “Lord, save me!”  Immediately, this man Jesus will reach out to you and grab hold of you.  Why will Jesus do so?  Because this man, Jesus, is the Son of God.  Have faith.