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Aug 13 - Getting Out of the Boat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aug 6 - The Cross and Communion

            This week we enjoyed a fun week of Vacation Bible School with youth ranging in age from 5 years old to 15 years old.  The overall message of the week was simple: God created us and built us for a purpose.  Each day the youth of this church and those from the Saratoga church, sang, played, ran, studied, ate, and performed acts of kindness.  Each day and each activity reinforced God’s love for them and that God had a plan for their lives.  Each child was receptive to the message and agreeable to the next activity.  While Vacation Bible School is always physically tiring for the adult leaders, it is nevertheless always a spiritual boost to experience the wonder of God through the children.

            It would be an interesting social experiment to develop and present a Vacation Bible School for adults.  Think about that for a moment.  We would invite adults to attend church for 3 hours a day, Monday through Friday.  Each day they would sing songs, play games, study the Bible, make a craft project, have a snack, ask questions, make friends, and perform acts of kindness all centered on God’s plan for their life. 

What do you think?  Do you think adults would sign up for their own Vacation Bible School or would adults conclude such programs only for children?  I believe an adult version of Vacation Bible School could be a powerful spiritual experience.  I also suspect that such a program would fail at the start because few adults would ever attend because such a program would require adults to change.  Change is hard for adults.  As we move from childhood to adulthood, slowly but measurably we become more accustom to routine and habit and less inclined to change.  Some who study human behavior conclude that 90% of adult behavior occurs because of routines and habits.  Think about your days.  When you get up, when you eat, when you sleep, and what sequence you use to get ready for the day.  They are all based on routines and habits.  Now that is not bad because there are some good reasons and benefits to routines but we can take it to an extreme.  One of my wife’s cousins was very much a creature of habit with supper being the same week to week: Monday nights was chicken, Tuesday nights was ham steak, Wednesday nights was meatloaf, and so, repeated throughout the year.  Sometimes it takes the influence of children to shock us into changing such patterns of behavior.  I recall when my son was in elementary and middle school, he had a friend named Joshua.  Working with Joshua’s mother and father, we would get the boys together to play, which included occasionally staying for dinner.  Joshua was not the easiest of children to have around, so we wanted to make sure when he stayed for dinner that we served something he liked.  We discovered Joshua liked pizza, so we served pizza.  We also found on the days when Joshua stayed for dinner that we were busy, so we used paper plates.  After about the fourth time Joshua stayed with us for dinner, he blurted out at the dinner table, “Do you people own any real plates and do you eat anything other than pizza?”  Habit and routine had settled in.  As we continue to follow our habits and routines, we begin to see life as a continual need for convenience and to care for our bodies, possessions, and our comfort.  But such physical routines and physical habits also set patterns for the way we think, the way we receive information, and what is important to us.  We become less inclined to change.  If 90% of what we do is based on habits and the routine of life then our capacity to deal with the unexpected and to receive the good news that God has for rests in the remaining 10% of our life.

Jesus once told a story about that dealt with our capacity to change.  He said a rich man decided to have a great party.  He invited adults such as you and me to come to the party.  People who have obligations, commitments, routines, and habits.  When it was time for the party, one adult said, “I cannot come.  I just bought a piece of property and I need to spend my time checking on my investment.”  A second adult said, “I cannot come.  I just bought some animals and I need to spend my time seeing to their care.”  A third adult said, “I cannot come.  My wife and I were recently married and we need to spend time together.”  As we get older, we become more resistant to change and if we are not careful, we are going to miss the party God has planned for us.

We need to be open like children to the message of Christ; not because I say so but because Jesus said so.  “One-day people were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but Jesus’ disciples rebuked them.  When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.” (Mark 10:13-16)

Jesus called on his disciples to change and to receive Him and His good news with the wonder of a child.  Jesus called His disciples, and you and me, to realize the habits, routines, and patterns of religious life that we find convenient and comfortable must end in order to receive the tender grace of God.  The message of Jesus Christ was and is about relationships with God; not regulations.  It was and is a message about grace; not ground rules.  Jesus’ message was and is about embracing something new, it was and is about faith and prayer.  His was and is still a message of hope found in the change possible through the cross and through communion; both powerful symbols of God’s love for you and me.

 I wise and learned pastor once said, “Jesus had you and me personally in mind when He went to the cross.”  We read about that cross experience this morning in our Old Testament reading.  It is not a pretty scene.  The words of Psalm 22 were written hundreds and hundreds of years before Jesus was nailed to the cross, yet they describe His experience.  It was something Jesus had in mind to do for you and me.  He went through this ordeal so that our life could be changed from following stale religious practices that meant nothing to God and receive salvation, a relationship and purpose with God based upon forgiveness and love, that means everything to God. 

Today, rather than asking you to turn to the passages of the Bible I want to invite you to listen words of the Bible as a story.  We begin with the story of the cross from Psalm 22.  The author painted the scene for us.  I invite you to close your eyes and hear the story.  Allow that images to seep into your mind for a moment.  Feel the heat, the sounds, and the smells of that moment.  Remember, Jesus had you and me in mind when he went through this ordeal.  It was an experience He agreed to so that we could be changed.  It was His experience so that we would come into God’s presence.  “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads.  “He trusts in the Lord,” they say, “let the Lord rescue him.  Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.”  Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.  From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.  Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.  Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.  Roaring lions that tear their prey open their mouths wide against me.  I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint.  My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me.  My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death.  Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet.  All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me.  They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.” (Psalm 22:7-18)

That is the story of the cross.  You can open your eyes.  The cross is a powerful and awful story.  Jesus knew that.  Events that change us are always powerful and many times awful.  Jesus asked his disciples to pick up their own crosses and follow him.  It was a call to live a powerful life of change.  For the disciples to remember Jesus through their lives, to remember Jesus through your life and my life, Jesus did not ask us to remember the cross so much as he asked us to remember Him.

Our time today would not be complete if we did not also speak to the powerful remembrance of a changed life through the Lord’s Supper or communion.  Here too, Jesus had you and me personally in mind when He sat at the table for the Passover meal with His disciples.  Again, rather than asking you to turn to the passages of the Bible I want to invite you to listen to words of the Bible as a story.  I invite you to close your eyes and hear the story.  Allow that images to seep into your mind for a moment.  Sense the darkness outside the room, feel the heat and glow from the flickering oil lamps in the room, the sounds of quiet conversations, and the smells of the food on the table.  Remember, Jesus had you and me in mind when he interrupted the meal, gathering everyone’s attention, and “took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.”  Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it.  “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”  Do you feel the stillness of the room?  Jesus had just given over His body and blood for the benefit of His disciples, for you, and for me.  You may open your eyes.

The stories we have heard this day are about change.  A change from self and routine and habit to a life lived in and through the presence of God’s love.  Love that God shared in the person of Jesus Christ.  Love expressed through the cross and communion.  Let Christ change us.  Let us approach Him as a child full of wonder and possibility.  Seek Him knowing that God created you for a purpose.  Let us approach the cross and see the powerful message of Jesus through it.  Let us now approach the Lord’s Table, remember Jesus, and be changed.  Let us pray.

July 30 - God Is Love; Love Is Not God

       **OUR APOLOGIES - DUE TO A TECHNICAL ERROR THERE IS NO AUDIO TRANSCRIPT AVAIABLE OF THIS SERMON**

     Today’s message comes from the words of our New Testament reading from the letter we call 1 John, Chapter 4.  I took those words of Scripture and placed them into a “Word Art” generator.  This piece of computer software looks at how often a word appears and then generates artwork depicting those words.  The software will drop all of the inconsequential words such as “the, a, or, and, etc.”  The more often a word appears the larger and closer to the center that word appears in the piece of artwork.  Here is what our passage looks like expressed in word art.

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We see that the words “Love,” and “God” dominate the piece of artwork.  In fact, of the 133 words used to generate this piece of art, the word love appeared 27 times and the word God appeared 21 times.  The next most often used word was “abide;” used 6 times.  John, the man inspired to write these words obviously knew nothing of Word Art software but he did know something about the point he was trying to emphasis.  His focus was on love and God.  He summed up this passage with the very well-known phrase from verse 8, “God is love.”

            This phrase raises some interesting questions.  What does that phrase mean, “God is love?”  Does it also mean that “Love is God?”  If I did not know the phrase, “God is love,” would it make any difference to my life?  Now that do know the phrase, “God is love,” what difference does it make to my life?  Let’s see if we can answer some of these questions as we explore what God intended for us through this passage.  Please join me in turning to 1 John, Chapter 4, beginning at verse 7.

            Today’s words come from the Apostle John, a man who had an immense desire to know and understand God.  This John was baptized in the River Jordan by another man named John; John the Baptist.  That baptism changed John’s life.  Our writer, John, stayed along the banks of the River Jordan and listened to the words of John the Baptist: Repent and seek forgiveness for the kingdom of God is near.  Produce fruit that shows your repentance.  And the crowds asked John the Baptist, “What then should we do?”  In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?”  He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”  Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” (Luke 3:10-14)  It was a call to turn in this life toward God, seek God’s forgiveness and live ethically with all.  Today’s writer John, heard these words and he wanted to learn more from John the Baptist and so our writer became the baptizer’s disciple or follower.  Then one day, a man came to the River Jordan.  This man asked John the Baptist to baptize him.  The baptizer was unsure he should do so; not because the man’s request was insincere but because the man was already without sin.  This man was Jesus.  When our writer John met Jesus, Jesus asked John, “What is it you want?”  Our writer, John, replied with his own question, “Where are you staying?”  From that point on, our writer John stayed with Jesus becoming one of Jesus’ disciples.  Jesus captured the attention and imagination of John’s heart and desire to know and understand God.

            With a vast wealth of experiences with John the Baptist and Jesus, our writer John began with these words in verse 7, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.”  John, a seeker of God, a disciple of John the Baptist, an apostle of Jesus Christ, began with a powerfully simple life changing proposition, “Let us love one another.”  John’s fundamental conclusion after years of spiritual searching and following those chosen by God was that to engage in loving others was the human activity most resembling the character of God.  Why is love the chief aim in life?  Because, John said, “Love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.”  John found that love comes from God and to love others is the sole evidence of rebirth in the Spirit of God and of a personal relationship with God.

            “Let us love one another.”  When we hear the word “love,” there is a high likelihood we will misunderstand John’s point.  We know something about love, don’t we?  We also say things like, “I love you.  I love you more!  I love my dog.  I love NY.”  The list goes on.  We feel better within us when we express such love and we know that others feel better when they receive such love.  We know that the love we show and receive is essential for life.

            Let me illustrate for a moment just how essential such love is to our life through a real-life experiment from 1200’s.  Then Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick II wanted to know the original language of mankind.  Was that language Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or something else?  So Fredrick order a number of newborn babies to be imprisoned.  He assigned women to feed children, clean them, and bathe them.  However, the emperor order that the women not make any sounds or gestures of any kind in the presence of the babies.  The babies were to hear no other human sounds, expressions, or gestures of any kind. The emperor hoped that by doing so, the babies would grow and speak the language of God instilled in each person by birth.  Does anyone know what language the babies came to speak?  It was not Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or any other language at all because every baby died.  They did not die due to lack of food or bodily care.  They died because they did not receive love.  Their caretakers were forbidden any words, expressions, or gestures all of which communicate to an infant, love.  Love is the essential language of God shared with humanity.

So, this cruel experiment and our experiences means we know something about love.  That makes us comfortable to apply our experience to John’s words, “Let us love one another,” and draw some meaning.  We might, for example, take our sense of love and project it, concluding that the love John spoke about is the same ours except that John was talking about love that is just bigger.  But was the “love” John spoke about the same love as we have experienced? 

John’s experience was like ours in many ways and significantly different in this respect.  John sat with Jesus.  One day, as they sat together, Jesus offered a different view of love.  He said to John, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either.  Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back.  And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.  If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you?  For even sinners, love those who love them.”  Jesus told John, “Do not confuse the love I am talking about with the love anyone can show.  For everyone, even vile people, show love when love is returned.”  Jesus continued, “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he [God] is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.  Be merciful even as your Father is merciful.”  To love without first expecting that love returned is not of human origin; it is from the Spirit of God.  So the love that Jesus taught and John retold is fundamentally different from our human love.  Jesus was saying, “Loving in this manner [like God] is a sign that you have been reborn and you are a child of God.” (Luke 6:27-32; 35)

            So, when John wrote, “Let us love one another,” he did not mean love as we love from our own experiences but love in a manner learned from your father, God.  John wrote in verse 8, “Whoever does not love [in this manner] does not know God, for God is love.”  John arrived this conclusion by seeing, hearing, touching, feeling, and receiving God’s love in the person of Jesus Christ.

            John wrote in verse 9, “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.”  God revealed love [a God-centered love] by sending Jesus and by the perfect life lived by Jesus.  Jesus did not show human love we are all capable of showing.  Jesus showed divine love only possible by those who know God.  What did that Godly love look like?  Verse 10, John wrote, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”  God sent Jesus, Godly love in human form, to us even though we were enemies of God engaging in sin.  God sent Jesus even though our nature was to strike God on the cheek, to steal from Him, and to turn away from Him at every chance He became inconvenient to our desires.  God did not send Jesus to take our sins because we had cleaned up our acts and would sin no more but God sent Jesus to take away sins and desire to sin more.

            John concluded again in verse 11, “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.”  John was challenging those who had accepted the gift of God’s love through Christ by saying, “You know God; love others like He loved you.  Love without expectation.  Love without reservation.”  But do we do that?

            Some time ago, I met a young man.  He is in his twenties.  He said he grew up in a home that was not religious or with churchgoing people but he now felt a desire to learn and to understand what he did not know.  He had passions and love in his life.  He loved those who loved him.  He wanted the best that he could give himself and his family.  He was a “good guy.”  As we got to know one another, he shared that he was engaged in a court battle with a very difficult person.  She too was in her twenties.  She was hardened by her upbringing and the lifestyle she chose for herself.  Over the next several months, I supported this young man by attending various court hearings with him to help him pass the time waiting for his case and by praying with him and for him.  During these months, this young man accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior.  Several weeks after accepting Christ, this young man had another court hearing.  When I arrived at the court house he told me the other person said she no longer wanted to fight with him.  She told him she was conceding.  I asked him, “Does this mean she wants to surrender her rights on this matter?”  He said, “Yes it does but that is not what I want.”  He said, "I want her to keep her rights; I just want her to exercise them responsibly.”  He said, “I want to be merciful because that is what I have learned [meaning what he had learned through Christ.]”

            When I first met this young man, he loved as anyone else loves.  Then he met Jesus Christ and came to know God.  What I saw and heard in the court room was a young man who wanted to love like God.  When he could have declared victory, instead he offered grace.  When he could have ended the dispute with someone who hates him and still does, he instead loved her, as God loves.  John wrote in verse 12, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”  In that dreary courtroom waiting room, I saw, for that moment, love perfected.

            “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”  If you want to others to know that God has touched your life, that you and God walk through life together, then love as He loves.  Let us know God is love and then “Let us love one another.”  Amen and Amen.

July 23 - Knowing God's Spirit

Every few years, a group will survey Americans to assess our religious and spiritual practices and beliefs.  A survey in 2014, found that Americans are less “religious” now than in prior years.  By being less “religious” in that survey meant that fewer Americans regularly attend worship services, pray, or even believe in God now than years ago.  I do not think those results surprises anyone.  In that same survey, the number of Americans believing in a “spiritual” life increased several percentage points.  Apparently, we are becoming less inclined to attend a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple but more inclined to believe in the spiritual world or life.  That spiritual life could range from belief in the Holy Spirit of God to a belief in the power of crystals or the power of a medium to speak to the dead.  The Washington Post newspaper even reported this week that the fiction series Harry Potter is now considered by some Americans as a sacred text; equivalent to the Bible.  The newspaper reported that two Harvard Divinity School graduates host weekly “church-like” sessions to discern the spiritual meaning of the Harry Potter books.  One attendee at their “church” said that searching the depth of meaning in the Potter series of books, “always gives me guidance in a way I didn’t know I needed.”  A poet once observed sarcastically, “We believe that all religions are basically the same, at least the one that we read was.  They all believe in love and goodness. They only differ on matters of creation, sin, heaven, hell, God, and salvation.”

What does all this mean to us?  For me, there are three quick observations we should make.  First, people have an understand that there is something more to human life than conception, birth, life, death, and dust.  There is something more to our human life than just our physical bodies.  There is a part of us which is spirit.  One Christian writer put this physical and spiritual existence this way, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”  Meaning the essence of our life, who we are, what is to become of us when our bodies cease to work, is that of a spiritual existence.  Second, when we are speaking about spiritual matters, our discussions can feel a little weird.  Our life experiences are overwhelmingly in the physical world.  We learn and interact through our sense of sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell.  Little to none of that experience helps us understand a spiritual life.  So it is difficult for many people to understand spirituality.  Third, the words “spiritual” or “spirituality” have no real meaning in our modern world.  As we noted, spirituality can mean anything from Christ to crystals, from saints to seances, and from the Lord’s Supper to the Long Island Medium.  We might think the range of views on spirituality is new, it is not.  Our ancient ancestors struggled with a similar diversity of views.  As a historical book, the Old Testament speaks to the existence of people claiming different spiritual understands as some believed themselves fortunetellers, magicians, witches, sorcerers, spellcasters, mediums, and wizards.

How then do we come to understand our spiritual life?  How do we navigate through the diverse thoughts created by humanity over the centuries about spirituality?  For those people who do not believe in God, there is no answer to such questions.  I have a cousin about my age that now lives in Florida.  We have not seen one another for many years, but we keep in touch through Facebook.  In looking at what she posts on Facebook, I can safely say she believes in a spiritual life.  But I would also say she believes in anything and everything; and thus believes in nothing.  Of her recent postings she said, “I ask that I may have faith to expect miracles.”  Having faith in miracles sounds like Christian prayer, but she concluded that thought with, “I ask that I may be used by the Universe to help change the lives of others.”  These words sound like a prayer to a thing called the Universe seeking it to give wisdom, strength, and courage.  The universe is a thing.  It is not a being, a somebody, who can inspire us, encourage us, or help us.  I think my cousin’s most recent Facebook posting summed up her spiritual life, “I don’t know where I am going, but I am on my way.”

I share these words a about cousin not to put her down for I do pray that God would touch her life.  But I share her words to show the hopelessness and confusion when we choose not to believe in God.  Now for those who believe in God, there is hope.  For God, has mercifully given and preserved over the centuries His story of humanity’s physical and spiritual life.  That story we call the Bible.  God’s story has two parts; the Old Testament, where God promises, and the New Testament, where God meets His promise.  There is much that story tells us about the spiritual life.  Today, I would like to mention just three things.

First, the opening words to God’s story (Genesis 1:1-2) says, “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.”  The mention of the Spirit of God shows that the spiritual dimension to life was present before the physical world itself.

Second, God’s story (Psalm 139:7-10) says, “Where can I go from your Spirit?  Where can I flee from your presence?  If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.  If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”  This passage shows that God’s Spirit is always with us.  God’s Spirit is not a silent observer but is active in our lives able to guide us and hold us fast.  This means that the Spirit of God can give us wisdom, strength, courage, and the ability to do what is right, no matter what our circumstances.  These words also tell us that the Spirit of God is not a thing but a being, a someone, not a something.

Third, God knows we are physical beings and we need that physical contact to help us learn and believe.  If then we looked at our Old Testament (Isaiah 11:1-6) reading today, gave God promised we would see the Spirit of God lived out in a physical life.  The words say that God will send someone.  “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.  (This is a poetic way of saying someone will be born from the family tree of a man named Jesse who was the father of Israel’s greatest king, David.)  Of this person, “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.  He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.”  God promised to send someone to live guided only by the Spirit of God.

Since these truths come in the Old Testament (promises), then we would find God’s promise met in the New Testament.  Today, we read from the letter 1 John; a letter written by a man who followed Jesus.  John began that letter with these words, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.”  John’s point was that Jesus who was with God in the beginning, who was with the Spirit of God in the beginning, came to earth in a manner that John and others could experience through their senses of seeing, hearing, and touching.  John said that person, Jesus, was the Word of life, the one person, filled with the Holy Spirit, able to give us wisdom, understanding, counsel, guidance, redemption, and righteousness promised by God.

Now in John’s day, there were people who claimed Jesus to be someone other than what John claimed him to be.  That is true today.  Just briefly, we could note then and today Jewish people deny Jesus was the Son of God.  Today, the Muslims acknowledge Jesus as a prophet of God whose teachings were superseded by the final prophet, Muhammed.  Today, the Jehovah Witnesses believe Jesus was an angel and that you can only be saved by obedience to their publication, The Watchtower.  Today, the Mormons believe Jesus and Satan are brothers.  They believe in the Bible as reinterpreted by their founder Joseph Smith who claimed to discover the correct view of God inscribed on golden plates buried centuries ago on a farm in central New York.

With so many different and conflicting views, how are we to know what to think about Jesus and the Spirit of God?  Our New Testament reading today offers us some help.  Please turn with me to 1 John 4, beginning with verse 1.

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”  John, having lived with Jesus, now inspired by God, suggested that his readers test whether what they heard or sensed was from God because there were many frauds among them.  The same is true today.  Putting something to the test to figure out if it is a fraud is something we see in our everyday travels.  Many retail stores equip their cashiers with a special pen to mark currency they receive to see if it is genuine or counterfeit.  At the checkout line those are the only two choices: either the currency is true or fake.

John offered a similar test to see if the spirit or teaching was true or fake.  In verse 2, John wrote, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus, is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world.”  True or false: Is Jesus from God or not?  Was Jesus sent by God with the Spirit of understand, wisdom, counsel, might, and fear of God or not?  True or false:  Is Jesus the person who God said, “This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased?”  True or False: Is Jesus the person who God also said, “This is my Son, listen to Him!”  John’s first test is simple: Is Jesus being acknowledged and glorified as the Son of God or not?  If yes, then the Spirit moving that person is from God.  If not, the spirit is not from God.  So when I read my cousin’s thoughts about the universe being able to grant me power to help others, I know that is not of the Spirit of God.

The second test of knowing God’s Spirit, is in the next set of verses.  “Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.  They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them.  We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”  John’s point was Christians have within them the Spirit of God to use to test the teachings even of those who claim to be Christians.  Meaning each person here has the right and duty to check and challenge any teaching about Jesus against the teachings of Bible.  This is true of every sermon or Bible study you hear or take part in.  The Holy Spirit is there to guide you, encourage you, and equip you to test the truth of every teaching; including any you hear from me.  It is only that testing that keeps us from sliding into mistakes and missing the mark.  Our church receives requests from outside groups or people saying they are Christian who want to speak from the pulpit on Sunday mornings about their beliefs.  Rarely, are they willing to be tested in advance about what they believe.  Without that testing, I am unwilling to have them speak because it is unknown what spirit moves these people.  We need to know the Spirit of God and embrace Him.

For when we know God’s Spirit, when we know truth, we can approach God and ask those important questions of life.  I want to offer you one of those important questions to consider this week.  Ask God, “What do You want me to do?”  That is a question we can ask each day when we get up, “What do You want me to do?”  Do not think that question too far in the future.  Think of that question more along the lines, “God, what is the next right step You want me to take in my life today?”  Be open to God’s Spirit when you ask that question.  God’s Spirit will be with us to guide us, to encourage us, and hold us fast.  Then when God answers that question, when you feel that step is from God, then act.  Take that next right step.  I believe if you do you will find your life enriched and enriching of others with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Amen and Amen.

Everything Starts Small

I wanted to begin our time together with this thought: everything in life begins small.  A child is conceived.  Life begins as a single cell unable to be seen by the human eye alone.  Yet that small cell grows and a baby is born.  With proper care and time that baby will continue to mature through childhood, the teen years, and into adulthood.  We have all experienced this growth process and have seen it in others.  We see this as a normal and rewarding experience. 

Everything is life begins small.  Sometimes though the experience of growth is abnormal and disturbing.  Fourteen years ago, my father died of a cancer than overwhelmed his body.  No one saw this coming.  He showed no symptoms of the cancer until diagnosed.  He died two weeks after that.  Yet that cancer too began as just a single cell unable to be seen by the human eye alone; yet that cell grew to become many and took my father’s life.  Many of you have had similar experiences.  This shows us everything begins small but how things grow matters.  In the first example, growth was in the right way and brought life; in the other example, growth was in the wrong way and took life.

With those thoughts in mind, let’s turn to our Old Testament passage from the first book of the Bible, Genesis.  The title Genesis, comes from the Greek, geneseos, which means “birth.”  So, we are exploring the birth of humanity and our relationship with God.  Today we are looking at Chapter 4, starting with verse 1.

“Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.’”  Everything starts small; a child is conceived, named Cain.  “Next she [Eve] bore his [Cain’s] brother Abel.  Everything starts small; a child is conceived, named Abel.  “Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.”  The younger boy grew and became a shepherd.  The older boy grew and became a farmer.  This is what we can see about these two young men.  By all appearances, the men are equal; they productive people.  Yet we know nothing about what was going on inside minds and hearts of either man.

Verse 3 begins to give us some understanding of these two men.  “In the course of time, Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel for his part brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions.”  Cain and Abel now present themselves to God.  Each brought what they had produced; one a farmer and the other a shepherd.  Cain, the farmer, brought some fruit.  There was nothing special about the fruit; it may well have been just some of which Cain had no need.  Abel brought the firstlings of the flock.  Abel brought the best he had; his best, choicest, and fattest animals.  These were the animals a shepherd would want to keep and to breed to make his flock stronger and larger; but Abel gave them over to the Lord.

The Bible continues, “And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So, Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.”  God looked at the heart of each man.  God saw that Abel grew to have a vibrant spiritual life, a love of the Lord, and desire to give God his very best.  Abel expressed that life in the exceptional quality of his offering.  In modern language, we might say, “Abel talked the talk and walked the walk.”  God then saw that Cain had little regard for his spiritual life, had not grown to love the Lord, and kept the best of his life to himself.  Cain expressed that shallow regard for the Lord first by bringing an offering of little or no quality.  Cain may have talked the talk by making an offering to God but he did not walk the walk.  When Cain realized his actions unmasked his inner character, Cain then showed how shallow spiritual life was by becoming angry on the inside and outside. 

Cain’s behavior points out one of the criticisms against the church and many Christians.  The charge of being a hypocrite; saying one thing and doing the opposite.  When we say one thing and do the opposite it unmasks our inner character.  There is a story of a woman driving along in her car when police pulled her over.  The officer asked the woman for her driver’s license and registration.  The woman gave the officer the documents and said, “I do not know why I was stopped.  I was not speeding and did not run any red lights.”  The officer replied, “That is true.  But I did see you shake your fist at another driver, blast your horn at a second for not at once proceed when the light turned green, and then you gave the finger to another driver you thought was going too slow.”  The woman asked, “Is any of that a crime?”  The officer said, “No ma’am. But after seeing you do all that I thought this might be a stolen car because you have a bumper sticker that says, “Jesus loves you and so do I.”

God does not like hypocrisy any more than anyone else.  In verse 6, God challenges, Cain’s hypocrisy.  “The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen?  If you do well, will you not be accepted (walk the walk)? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”  Anger is a cancer.  It starts off small and left to its own it will grow and take the life of a person.  We all have gotten angry over something or with someone.  If we do not remove that anger from our lives, then it becomes part of us to the point where people might say of us, “Oh, he is an angry man or she is always so angry.”  They do not mean something just made us angry.  They mean we are angry all the time about everything.  Anger never gets better with time.  God always seeks us to move away from anger and to grow toward life and love.  This is what God was doing with Cain.  He was seeking to redeem Cain and have him grow spiritually.

In verse 8, we see what has happened with Cain’s anger.  “Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field.’  And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.”  Everything in life begins small but how it grows is most important for growth is either toward the good to bring life or toward the bad to take life.  Adam and Eve had two sons; Cain and Abel.  Both started small.  Both grew into productive people.  That is what we could see.  What we could not see at first was that Abel grew with God in love and life.  Cain, on the other hand, grew away from God, contracted a cancer of sin, selfishness, and anger.  That cancer took life.  The Bible says, “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit.”  Everything in life begins small but how it grows is most important and shows itself by the fruit that it bears: giving of life or taking of life.

Now, you might be saying, “Pastor, I see your point, but I am not about to go kill anyone like Cain did.”  Fair enough.  But before we feel too comfortable about being different from Cain, before we say we are free from being labeled a hypocrite, it would serve us well to spend a few minutes looking at the Cain and Abel story through another perspective.  This time, let’s look at the story through the eyes of a man named John.  Please turn with me to the letter in the New Testament entitled, 1 John.  We will read from Chapter 3. 

An apostle of Jesus wrote 1 John; meaning Jesus specifically chose John to follow him for about three years.  John heard all of Jesus’ teachings.  He saw Jesus heal many people.  He saw Jesus hang on a cross.  Before Jesus died, Jesus told John to care for Jesus’ mother.  After Jesus rose from the grave, alive, what we call the resurrection and celebrate on Easter Sunday, John spent 40 more days with Jesus learning and understanding the meaning and purpose of the resurrection.  God’s Holy Spirit entered John’s life and inspired John to write the Gospel of John, the three letters, 1 John, 2 John, and 3 John, as well as the Book of Revelation.

John, like few others in the history of humanity, knew well Jesus, God in human form.  John wrote in 1 John, Chapter 3, starting with verse 11, “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.”  If you wanted to know the simplest message of hope Jesus asked us to share with other people, that is it; “Love one another.” To love requires action.  Love requires growth towards giving life.  To love requires not only that we talk the talk but that we walk the walk.

John continued in verse 12 with the Cain and Abel story.  “We must not be like Cain [that’s a strong warning] who was from the evil one and murdered his brother.  And why did he [Cain] murder him [Abel]? Because his [Cain’s] own deeds were evil and his brother’s [Abel’s] righteous.”  Cain and Abel each started life the same yet Abel grew spiritually toward righteousness, meaning being right before God.  Cain did not grow right before God.  Cain left himself open to grow in selfishness, anger, and evil.  He did not seek God in his life. 

Now many people in the world today would say, “I still feel all right standing next to Cain.  I may not be like Abel seeking God but that does not mean I think I am chasing evil.”  You see, however, those who think that are using the wrong measurement system.  They are measuring themselves with Cain. Using the wrong measurement system can lead to horrible consequences.  Let me illustrate.  An Air Canada jet was to fly from one city to another.  Before takeoff, the crew needed to know the weight of the fuel onboard to make sure they had enough.  The onboard fuel calculation system was not working; so, the pilots did the calculation by hand.  When they did the calculations, they got mixed up between English measurements (pounds) and Metric measurements (kilograms).  Not realizing their error, they took off with half the fuel needed for the journey.  A couple of hours later, at 30,000 feet, the plane’s engines stopped because they were out of fuel.  The pilots had used the wrong measurement system.

The Apostle John knew nothing of the English and Metric measurement systems, but he did know about how God measures and sees the world.  God measurement system is love.  John is encouraging us not to measure ourselves against Cain.  Remember John said, “We must not be like Cain.  We must not measure our actions against Cain but measure ourselves against love. 

Look at verse 15, “All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.”  Hate is now murder.  Some people do hate other people.  If you do not think so, just go onto either a very liberal or very conservative social media site and read what they write about each other because there you will find a lot of murders because they hate.  We might still be saying, “I think I am still all right because while I may not like some people, I do not think I hate them.”  We need to remember though that our measurement is love.

John continued and wrote, “We know love [our measurement system] by this, that he [Jesus] laid down his life for us [Jesus died for John, you, and me out of love] —and [therefore] we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”  Now that is a tough standard of love.  Jesus loved us even when we did not love Him.  Jesus loved us even when we were enemies of Him.  Jesus asked God to forgive those who were nailing Him to a cross as they were do it because of love.  Jesus willing gave his life so that others, you and me, could grow and live in peace with God and one another.

This is our measurement system of love; the person of Jesus Christ.  John gave us a practical illustration of love.  He wrote, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”  John said if we claim Jesus, if we claim His love for us, then how can we not give up what we own when others are in need.

In verse 18, John said to us, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.  And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him.”

Everything in life starts small and grows.  This day let us be committed to growing closer to God not just by our words but most importantly by our actions.  Let us set love as our measurement system to guide our thoughts, words, and actions.  Let us grow toward life and leave behind our selfishness and our anger.  Let us crawl, walk, and then run toward God who is love.  Let us pray.

A Fork in the Road; Now What?

            Major league baseball player and team manager, Yogi Berra, played on a ten World Series champion teams for the New York Yankees. Off the field, Yogi Berra’s wit and humor made him a welcomed speaker and beloved character.  Berra was known for his confusing quotes such as “Baseball is 90% mental; the other half is physical.”  “Why buy good luggage, you only use it when you travel.”  “You can observe a lot just by watching.”  Berra’s most famous quote was “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”  Berra authored a book by that title which began with these words, “Throughout life you come to serious forks in the road.  Decisions.  Which path do you choose?  Sometimes it’s tough.  People are always afraid of making the wrong choice.”

            We can all relate to the idea of having to make tough decisions for ourselves.  Which path should I choose?  Which job offer should I take?  Should I have another drink?  Should I drive or give the keys to someone else?  Should I marry him?  The number of decisions and choices we need to make is staggering.  We are constantly coming to a fork in the road of our lives and having to decide, “Do I go to the left or do I go to the right?”  There is a scene from the book Alice in Wonderland where Alice came to a fork in the road.  While pondering aloud, “I wonder which way I ought to go,” Alice encountered Cheshire Cat.  Alice asked the cat, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"  With a toothy grin the Cheshire Cat responded, "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to."  With innocence on her face, Alice replied, "I don't much care where –" And Cheshire Cat interrupted Alice mid-sentence and said, "Then it doesn't matter which way you go.” 

We all recognize that we do not live our lives in a fairytale or cartoon.  We recognize decisions have consequences.  I recently visited with a young man in jail who understands this principle better than most people.  The hardness of his living conditions requires him to make tough decisions.  This is no fairytale experience and there will be many forks in the road ahead for him that will decide his destination. 

We recognize that it does matter where we want to go with our lives.  To arrive where we want to be or achieve what we want to achieve then we must know which fork in the road to take so that we can get there.

            People have always needed a sense of their destination and which road to take.  Our ancient ancestors needed such sense of direction.  Fortunately, God understands our needs and gave wisdom and commands for decisions in our lives.  He has a destination in mind for humanity; it is to be with Him.  We find some of the earliest evidence of God’s desire in our Old Testament reading today came from the Book of Leviticus.  This book is the third book in the Bible.  The first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) are called The Law.  In the Hebrew traditions, these five books are called the Torah.  The Torah begins the revelation of God to humanity and gives God’s commands for living a life in harmony with Him and with one another.  God gave these laws to correct decisions by men and women who came to a fork in the road and chose the path of disharmony with one another and separation from Him.

            We read these words this morning from Leviticus, “You shall not steal.”  When you come to that fork in the road where you could take someone’s property, God said, “Leave it alone.”  He continued, “You shall not deal falsely.”  My father was a plumber.  For one customer, he had to replace a tankless hot water heater in a boiler.  The tankless heater is a series of copper coils.  There was scrap metal value in those copper coils.  My father and brother, who was about 8 at the time, went to a scrap dealer to exchange the heater for cash.  My father put the heater on a scale to figure out the weight of the copper and the corresponding payment for it.  As my father placed the heater on the scale, my brother spoke up and asked, “Dad, don’t you think we should let the water out of the heater before we weigh it?”  There is a practical lesson in God’s words, “You shall not deal falsely.”

God said, “You shall not lie to one another.  And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.”  I remember when I worked for the United States Government, I investigated people accused of some wrongdoing.  Almost without exception, whenever that person said to me, “I swear to God, I did not do this thing,” later I would find they were lying.  God understood our desire to lie and to shield those lies within a covering of His name.  God said, when tempted to take that fork in the road, do not do so because it leads away from me.

In an abbreviated form, God continued in Leviticus saying, “You shall not defraud your neighbor.  You shall not abuse the deaf or place objects in the path of the blind.  You shall not be unjust.  You shall not slander your neighbor.  You shall not hate in your heart.  You shall not take vengeance.  One of the hardest ones for many people, “You shall not bear a grudge.”  If God was inspiring people to write those words today, the writer would probably put those words all in capital letters, underline them, and use a bold and italic font, “YOU SHALL NOT BEAR A GRUDGE.”

Those are some of the forks in the road God said do not take because they lead to disharmony with others and we lead you away from Him.  In that passage, God outlined two forks in the road that He wants us to take: “You shall fear (or revere) your God.  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Why did He include these words?  Because the destination God wants for each of us is to love Him and one another.

Decisions, decisions, decisions.  What we decide depends upon our intended destination.  I once asked a group of youth an eerie question.  I said, “Suppose you were walking through the woods by yourself and you became lost.  As you walked along, not sure of which way to go, you came to folk on the trail and now you needed to decide which way to go.  You stood at that fork in the trail for a long time.  You stared at your feet collecting your thoughts and hoping for some inspiration as to which way those feet should go.  As you raised your head a little you noticed two men before you.  One man was dead laying on the ground.  The other man was alive and standing.  Now, comes the question.  ‘Which man will you ask directions from: the dead man or the man who is alive?’  With a desire to say, ‘Well, duh,’ the kids politely said the man who is alive.

This is the essence of the New Testament.  Whom shall we ask guidance to live the life God wants for us, to arrive at the destination He wants for us?  Shall we seek the truths of God from those who are dead like Mohammad, Buddha, Krishna, Confucius, or Joseph Smith founder of the Mormons, just to name a few?  Or shall we seek the truths of God from Jesus who is alive?

The answer to that question depends upon the destination you seek.  If you wish to live as Alice in Wonderland with no destination in mind, then it does not matter who you seek the truth from: dead men or Jesus.  If, however, you care about your destination, if you care about your children, parents, your neighbors and your God, then it matters whether you seek the truth from dead men or Jesus, the living Son of God.  The New Testament section of our Bible is the story of Jesus and gives us the understanding about the truth of God.  Today we read from the letter called, 1 John.  It is a letter written by a man who followed Jesus.  A man who walked with Jesus, sailed in a boat with Him, ate with Him, listened to Him, saw Jesus arrested, stood at the cross as Jesus hung there to die, and witnessed Jesus death.  This same man, John, entered the empty burial tomb of Jesus when he learned Jesus was no longer there.  This same man, John, saw Jesus alive again.  He walked with Jesus.  Ate with Him and listened to Jesus.

This same man, John, shared his experience with others including us and told us the truth about Jesus: He is alive.  In our passage from John’s letter that we read earlier today, John said, “The darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.”  The darkness of not knowing the truth about God was over and the light, the understanding of God, was shining through in the person of the living Christ, Jesus.

John was saying we have come to a fork in the road.  One path leads to darkness, hopelessness, and despair.  The other path leads to the light of God, the love of God, and the opportunity to love others.  John was saying to know which path to take, I know I have chosen the right path, I have placed my faith in the man, Jesus, who stood alive before me at that fork in the road.  John said, “I trust in Him and have chosen to follow that path and I am walking in the light.”

I know some of you struggle with following Jesus.  You are not entirely sure you understand what it all means to follow Jesus.  You may even struggle with understanding all there is to the Jesus birth, life, death, burial, rising from the dead, and being lifted up in body to heaven.  Know this; you are not alone.  I struggle with fully understanding all that God has given to us as well.  Any pastor who says he or she has no doubts or struggles with understanding God and His ways is not being honest with themselves.  Here is what I hold onto through these struggles and doubts.  With my limited human mind, I do not need to understand or pretend to understand all that I could be known about God.  What I need to know is the difference between darkness and light.  What I know is that when I came to that fork in the road I chose the path with Jesus in my life, and began I am walking in the light.  Because I walk light, Jesus will show me those parts of my life I need to change to be more like Him.  He will help me through those moments of doubt and struggle.  He will show me how to love.  John said to people like me and you, “Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling.”  There is no cause in stumbling from reaching the destination of being with God now and forever because we walk in the light.

If you have watched the news lately, you have seen people come to a fork in the road over an eight-month-old baby boy named Charlie Gard.  Charlie is in a British hospital.  Charlie has a rare disease and has been on life support since March.  The path the hospital wants is to remove Charlie from life support and allow him to die in the hospital.  The path Charlie’s parents want is to offer Charlie experimental treatment in the United States.  The British and European courts have sided with the hospital saying that the laws of Parliament require all medical treatments and life-saving and life-sustaining measures to end and “to allow Charlie to die with dignity.” 

Although we are spectators in this affair, there are some things we can draw into our life through Charlie’s circumstances.  We do not have dignity because of the way a court allows us to die or because of some act of Parliament or Congress.  We have dignity because God made us in His image.  We have dignity and a destination because God loved us so much that He sent His one and only Son so that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.  We have dignity, destination, the love of God, and a life that can be lived in the light of the truth.  We have this choice because as John wrote, “I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven on account of Jesus name…I write to you, young people, because you are strong and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.”  “Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world...And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.”

“Throughout life you come to serious forks in the road.  Decisions.  Which path do you choose?  Sometimes it’s tough.  People are always afraid of making the wrong choice.”  You have or will come to a fork in the road about your life’s destination.  There are only two paths to choose.  One toward the darkness; toward worldliness.  One toward the light; toward God.  The living Christ, Jesus, stands at the fork of that road, ready to forgive you and to walk with you in the light.  What now will you do?  Let us pray. 

July 2 - The Fellowship of Christians

            I attended a meeting earlier this week where there was a mixture of attendees.  At the meeting, there were a few pastors of local churches and a group of civic minded people.  The meeting gave the civic minded group an opportunity to describe to the pastors their work and their cause.  Like most causes, the desires of this group are noble.  Like most causes, the aim of this group fuels the passion of its members to foster change.  Like most causes, the goals fosters sympathy among its members for those whom they seek to serve.  I believe these observations are common among all groups united by a cause. 

As I reflected on these observations, I began to wonder, “How are Christians like this civic minded group and how are they different?”  I noted there are some similarities between Christians and civic minded groups.  Both have wants, goals, and aims that seem noble.  There is passion among Christians and group members with sympathies toward those they serve.  On these measures, Christianity and a civic minded group seem to be very much alike. 

While Christians share much in common with civic minded groups, I believe what distinguishes Christians from other groups matters.  I would like to explore those differences through our New Testament reading in the Book of 1 John, Chapter 1.  I invite you to turn with me to that passage in your Bible or in the pew Bible.

A follower of Jesus, whom we know as John, wrote this letter.  John began by citing for the first distinctive element of Christianity that sets it apart from all other groups of people.  John wrote, “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life, this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us.”  The first major distinctive about Christianity over all other groups is the eternal nature of Christ.  John said he was sharing with his readers that Christ “was from the beginning,” meaning Christ was before time even began.  John shared that Christ has eternal life with the Father, God; meaning Christ is forever.  Being a Christian, a follower of Christ, then means that our desires, aims, and goals deal with our present life and for all eternity.  This is a major difference with civic minded groups which only deal with the temporary things of life; better housing, a cleaner environment, better health care, etc.  This are all temporary in nature.  Because Christ was before time and is forever, Christians focus on the present and the eternal life.

In these opening verses, John also said that God revealed Himself, He made Himself known through Christ.  God did this in such a manner that John and the other followers of Jesus heard Him, saw Him, and touched Him.  John and others experienced the presence of Christ.  They followed God in human form.  Being a Christian then is not about following a cause, a book, or a thought process; being a Christian is about following the person of Jesus Christ.  We might ask, “What purpose is there in following Jesus?”

John gave an answer in verse 3.  John wrote, “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.  We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”  John revealed here the purpose of Christianity: fellowship.  John used the word fellowship twice.  First, John said there is fellowship among Christians.  Second, John said there is fellowship with the Father, God, and with his Son, Jesus Christ.  What then is fellowship?  Is it friendship?  Is it sharing a meal?  Is it singing songs together?  Just what is fellowship?

Fellowship among Christians means that we are to be people who love; but love not in the physical or romantic sense. Fellowship is a love for another person because we see them having dignity because the image of God is within them.  The Bible describes this Christian-to-Christian fellowship, this love, this way: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.  (1 Corinthians 13:4-8) Christian fellowship then is not a passing association of people who share some common sympathies for a cause.  It is about you sharing deeply in the lives of another person such that their joys become your joys, their sorrows become your sorrows, and their needs become yours.  Christians encourage one another, urge each other on toward what is good, they grow together and they build their lives together.  This is the life of Christian fellowship that John invites others to experience.  As Christians, we want to create and share cooperatively this type of fellowship with each person here.

            The second experience of fellowship John cited was between each Christian and God through Jesus Christ.  This type of experience and community is unlike anything found in a civic minded group.  John was speaking about connecting your life with Jesus.  The Bible describes this sense of fellowship this way: “You accepted Christ Jesus as Lord, so continue to live following him (imitate Jesus).  You must depend on Christ only, drawing life and strength from him. Just as you were taught the truth, continue to grow stronger in your understanding of it. And never stop giving thanks to God.  Be sure (Be careful) you are not led away by the teaching of those who have nothing worth saying and only plan to deceive you. That teaching is not from Christ. It is only human tradition and comes from the powers that influence this world.” ( Colossians 2:6-9)  This sense of fellowship here is that as a mortal human being we can have a relationship with Jesus.  Now think for a moment about the person who is or was closest to you in your life.  As you got to know that person, as you spent time with that person, your understanding of the world changed a little.  That person shared with you how they saw things in life and how they heard the words of others expressed.  John was saying, when you have fellowship with God through Jesus, you will see the world through His eyes and listen to what others say through His ears.  We will know God in a way we could not have known before and we will know how God wants us to love and live in ways we had not believed possible. When we follow Jesus, and experience Him in our life, we begin to know the fullness and the love of God.

            God understood that having fellowship with Him was difficult for people to understand; that is one reason God sent Jesus to live among the people.  And John understood that people who did not walk with Jesus might find it difficult to know what that experience felt like.  So, John gave an illustration in verse 5, “This is the message we have heard from him [Jesus] and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.”  All throughout the Bible, light symbolizes purity and goodness, while darkness symbolizes sin and evil.  John’s point was that God and His son, Jesus, are light and that being in Jesus presence was like always being in pure light.  There is nothing impure about following Jesus and the fellowship He offers us with God.  John was encouraging his readers and us to trust Jesus and be with Him not just Sunday morning, but every moment of every day.

            Now at that time not everyone thought and behaved as John encouraged.  He said in verse 6, “If we say that we have fellowship with him [If you say you’re a Christian] while we are walking in darkness [while we do sinful things and do not imitate Jesus], we lie and do not do what is true.”  If we say, “I am a Christian,” and then live in a manner unworthy of Christ means we are a liar.  As a young child, I lived in a neighborhood where everyone knew each other.  On our street, was one family all sisters.  Each lived separately in their own home.  They would go to church together several times a week; and yet their reputation was that they were nasty towards one another during the week, in the car going to church, and in the car on the way home from church.  I wonder at times would John say to them, “You go to church as though you have fellowship with God; then you destroy each other when you are outside the church building.  You are all liars.”

            What is the remedy for lying?  John said, “But if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”  John’s message was clear.  Move your life from darkness and walk with Jesus in the light.  We call that repentance.  That is the remedy for living with lies.  When we genuinely walk with Christ, sins committed in the darkness are removed and the experience of fellowship with God and with other Christians blooms.  We do not need to feel hopeless or trapped by our past.  John emphases this point in verse 9, “If [When] we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 

In some traditions, one confesses their sins to a priest or minister who serves as an intermediary to God.  In the Baptist tradition, we believe in the confession of sin directly to Jesus.  He is the one who restores the fellowship with God; not some other human being.  We do not need to make this confession complicated.  We need only say, “Jesus, I am sorry that I didn’t live worthy of You when I …  Please forgive me and lead me away from the temptation to do that again. I want to walk in the light.”

Jesus understood that those who would follow Him would need a way to remind themselves of the love He had for them and the desire for those who loved Him to love one another.  So, on the evening in which Jesus was betrayed into the hands of evil men, a moment of great darkness, Jesus offered a simple way of experiencing fellowship with God through Him and fellowship with one another.  Jesus took bread, He blessed it, and gave it to His followers and said, “Take and eat; this is my body.”  Jesus was inviting his followers to remain in fellowship with Him and one another.  Then Jesus took the cup of wine.  He blessed it, and gave it to His followers and said, “Take and drink; all of you.  This is my blood shed for the forgiveness of sin.”  Jesus was inviting his followers to enter fellowship with God through Him by having their sins forgiven.  This day, we have the same opportunity to remember Jesus, to refocus on the light, to shed the darkness of sin in our lives, to draw closer in fellowship with God, to draw closer in fellowship with one another, and to share the light of Jesus with others so that they too will know the glory, the peace, the love, and fellowship of Christians and fellowship with Jesus Christ.  Let us come to the Lord’s table to remember Jesus.  Let us pray.

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