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Friday, March 16, 2018

God And Family

This is the message given in the Wednesday Lent service in the Gettysburg United Methodist church on Wednesday, March 14, 2018.  The Bible verses used are Mark 3:21-22, 31-35; Matthew 19:23-30.

            In these Wednesday night services, we’ve been talking about all the things Jesus sacrificed during his time on earth.  We’ve talked about how Jesus gave up his life in heaven and gave up his home town.  Tonight we talk about something else Jesus gave up:  his family.
            Now of course, we know that Jesus was truly the Son of God.  But still, he had an earthly family, too.  There was his mother, Mary, and his earthly father, Joseph.  He also had four brothers, who we heard about last week:  James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon.  He also had some sisters, although we’re not told their names.  As far as we can tell, they were all living Nazareth, as Jesus did for most of his life.  And as we said last week, just like in our South Dakota small towns, a lot of the people who lived in Nazareth were related to each other somehow.  So Jesus probably had various cousins, aunts, uncles, and so forth there in Nazareth, too.
            Jesus knew that he was the Son of God and that his true Father was in heaven.  But still, his earthly family must have meant something to him.  After all, he’d known them for all of his life on earth.  Mary and Joseph had taken care of him since he was born.  You’d think he must have felt close to them.  And his brothers and sisters, too--you’d think Jesus would’ve felt some sort of affection for them.  Not everybody feels close to their family, of course, but most people do.  And with Jesus being fully human as well as fully divine, it seems reasonable to think Jesus would’ve had the same feelings toward his family that most of us humans have.
            I wonder, did Jesus’ family know who Jesus really was?  Did they know that he was the Messiah, the Savior, the divine Son of God?  It seems like Mary should’ve known, at least.  After all, before Jesus was even born, the angel Gabriel came to Mary and told her who Jesus was going to be.  We read that story during Advent every year.  Did she tell any of the rest of Jesus’ family about that?  Did she tell his brothers and sisters?  For that matter, did Jesus ever tell them who he was?  I mean, it’s hard to imagine that Jesus would just walk away and leave Nazareth without giving them some sort of explanation.  But if he did explain it to them, the Bible does not tell us about it.
            Maybe Mary or Jesus did tell them, and they simply did not understand.  It would be a pretty hard thing to accept, don’t you think?  I mean, if you have brothers or sisters, think about how that would be.  This person you’re related to, this person you’ve known all your life, all of a sudden tells you that they’re the divine Son of God?  How would you react to that?  There were people in my family who were not too sure I knew what I was doing when I told them I was going to go to seminary and become a pastor.  I don’t know what they’d have done if I’d claimed to be the divine Son of God.  They’d probably have thought I’d gone nuts.
            Which, it appears, is exactly what some of Jesus’ family thought.  In our first reading for tonight, we’re told that when they heard about what Jesus was doing “they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”
            That had to be hard on Jesus.  He probably understood it, but it still had to be hard.  Here he was, doing what he was supposed to do, doing what God wanted him to do.  He was trying to save people from the consequences of their sins.  And his own family did not believe in him.  In fact, they thought he’d gone crazy.  I would think that must have really hurt Jesus.
            You know, in our society--in most societies, really--we elevate the idea of the family to a really high place.  Sometimes we elevate it to the highest place.  You’ll hear people say “My family is the most important thing in the world to me.”  “I would do anything for my family.”  Now, there are families and there are families, and we don’t always honor that high place for family in the way we live our lives.  But even if not, we at least honor the idea of the importance of family.  If our family is not that way, a lot of times we wish it was.
            Now, it’s obviously not wrong to care about your family.  But it’s interesting, I think, that Jesus never said that our earthly family should be the most important thing to us.  What Jesus said, pretty consistently, is that the most important thing to us should be doing God’s will.  And he also said that you and I need to be willing to do what Jesus did.  We need to be willing to give up anything, even our family, in order to follow God.
            When Jesus’ family came to get him, thinking he was nuts, they could not get through the crowd.  So they sent word for someone to tell Jesus they were there.  When Jesus hears his mother and brothers are there, he says “Who are my mother and my brothers?...Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
            And in our reading from Matthew, Jesus goes even farther.  He says, “Everyone who has left...brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children...for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.”
            There’s a time in Luke where Jesus says something similar, too.  In fact, he says it twice.  Jesus is trying to get people to follow him.  And we read, “He said to another man, ‘Follow me.’
But he replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’  Still another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.’  Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.’
            Now, I don’t think Jesus was telling us that we all need to hate our families.  But at the same time, he does not mince words about it, either.  No matter how much we may love our families, we need to love God more.  No matter how important our families are to us, God needs to be more important.  This is not one of those times where Jesus is vague.  This is not one of those times where people heard what Jesus said and were not sure what he meant.  Maybe it’s partly because of the experience Jesus had with his own family, I don’t know.  But Jesus was totally and completely clear about this.  Nothing, not even our families, should be as important as God.
            How many of us can say that’s true for us?  To be honest, I don’t know if I can.  I don’t know that I’ve ever been asked to choose between my family and God.  I said that some of them wondered if I knew what I was doing when I went to seminary, but none of them opposed me.  In fact, once they saw I was committed to doing it they were very supportive.  And all of you have been very supportive of me going to see my parents every few weeks, and you’ve done a lot to support Wanda when I have to be gone sometimes.  I hope that, if I was put to the test, I would choose God, but I don’t think I can say for sure that I would, because I’ve never been tested.
            You see, this is where claiming to be a follower of Jesus gets tricky.  Because if we mean it, if we truly say we’re going to follow Jesus, then we need to be willing to do what Jesus did.  Jesus was willing to leave his earthly family in order to follow God’s will.  And you and I, if we truly are followers of Jesus, need to be willing to do the same if that’s what God wants us to do.
            And as I said, I cannot say for sure that I can.  I’ve never been tested.  But it is something I need to be aware of.  It’s something that all of us need to be aware of.  Again, the point is not that we should all hate our families.  The point is that they should not come before God.  Nothing, not even our families, should be as important as God.  That was true for Jesus.  It needs to be true for you and me, too.
            Jesus says, “Follow me.”  Jesus says, be willing to leave everything behind to follow me.  Jesus says don’t even take time to say good-bye to your family.  Follow me.  Jesus says if you want to be my brother or my sister, then you need to do God’s will.  Whoever does God’s will is my brother or sister.
            That’s what Jesus said.  I have no reason to think he did not mean it or that he was not serious about it.  To be honest, I hope I’m never put to the test on this one.  I hope you’re never put to the test, either.  But we need to be ready.  Because if we ever are put to the test, we need to pass it.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Choosing Heaven

Because I did a sermon series on revelation recently, and because I had a lot of funerals recently, and because Easter is coming up, I’ve been thinking lately about what heaven might be like.  None of us knows, of course.  Revelation does tell us some things, but we don’t really know whether we’re supposed to take that literally. 

The thing is, if we’re going to think about heaven at all, we have to think about it in terms we can understand.  But it may not be possible to describe heaven in terms that we, as humans, can understand.  Our perspective is limited to what we’ve experienced.  We’ve never experienced heaven, so we can’t have any sort of perspective on heaven. 

We still think about it, though.  You probably do, too.  No matter how we picture the details, we tend to think of heaven as a place where we’ll be happy.  I mean, it wouldn’t be heaven if we weren’t happy, right?  And of course, when we think of being happy, we think of things that make us happy.  And because, again, the only perspective we can have is our human perspective, we tend to think of doing in heaven the things that make us happy on earth.  For me, that might be singing or watching ballgames or riding my bicycle.  For others it might be gardening or working on machinery or quilting or having coffee with friends or any number of other things.

That’s probably not how it works, of course.  And it’s probably lucky for us that it doesn’t.  I mean, I love sports, but I don’t know that I’d want to watch ballgames for all eternity.  That’s probably true of the things you enjoy, too.  You like doing them, for a while, but you probably wouldn’t want to do them for all of eternity.

And so it struck me:  what if that’s the final test?  What if, when we die, we’re offered a choice? One choice is that we can do everything we’ve always wanted to do, everything we’ve always loved to do, everything that has made us happy on earth.  The other choice is that we can walk through the gate and go to be with God.  What do you choose?

That’s probably not how it works, either.  But that’s kind of the choice the world offers us, when you think about it.  There are a lot of times when we have the chance to do something that might very well make us happy, in the short term.  But we know it’s not what God wants us to do.  And so, we have a choice.  Do we do the thing that will make us happy in the short term?  Or do we hold firm to our faith and stay with God?  What do we choose?

We get many chances to make that choice.  None of us makes the right choice all the time.  But let’s dedicate ourselves to doing so.  Let’s dedicate ourselves to making the right choice.  Let’s make the choice to stay faithful to God.  It may not make us as happy in the short term.  But in the long term, it’ll be worth it.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

God Wins--And So Can We

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, March 11, 2018.  The Bible verses used are Revelation 21:1-11, 21:22-2:5.

            We come to the end of our sermon series on the book of Revelation.  Satan has been defeated.  Judgment day has come and gone.  And for those whose names are found in the book of life, we reach the happy ending.
            There is a new heaven and a new earth.  The old earth is gone, and we assume the old heaven must be, too.  The Holy City, the new Jerusalem, comes out of heaven.  And then, we’re told, “God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”
            That is about as awesome a thing as I can imagine.  In fact, I really cannot imagine it.  A new heaven and a new earth.  A new creation, basically.  Unspoiled by sin.  Everything the way it’s supposed to be.  Everything the way God intended it to be from the beginning.  And God himself lives with us.  I mean, that’s just an incredible thought.
            And it goes on.  We talked a couple of weeks ago about all the people in our parish who are grieving.  That won’t happen any more.  It says, “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
            The old order of things has passed away.  A lot of times at funerals we read the passage from Ecclesiastes where it says there’s a time for everything.  Everything, including weeping and mourning and killing and hatred and war and death.  But that’s not how it’s going to be in the new heaven and the new earth.  None of that is going to exist any more.  The old order, the order that said pain and sadness and death are an inevitable part of life, that order has passed away.  None of those things will ever be a part of life again
            God says, “I am making everything new”.  Everything.  Then God says, “To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.  Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.”
            Then we get more of a description of the Holy City, the new Jerusalem.  It is made of the finest jewels and metals.  Gold, rubies, pearls, all kinds of things like that.  There’s not a temple in the city because there’s no need for one.  The Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are there.  There’s not even a need for the sun or the moon, because God’s glory give the city all the light it needs.  The gates will never be shut, because there’s no need to protect the city.  There’s nothing bad to keep out any more.
I just want to read a few of those verses to you again, because I think this is so awesome:  
Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city.  On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month.  And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  No longer will there be any curse.  The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.  They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.  There will be no more night.  They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light.  And they will reign for ever and ever.
Maybe I should just end the message there.  I mean, this is going to be awesome.  Think of how the Apostle John must have felt.  After all these terrible, horrible, awful things he’s seen, and after all the battles between the forces of God and the forces of Satan that he’s seen, to now see this picture of beauty, of glory, of majesty.  Of just complete and total perfection.  John must have just been awestruck. 
You know, I said at the beginning of this sermon series that when we read the Bible, we always need to ask why the things we read are in the Bible.  We need to ask what we’re supposed to learn from them.  Really, we could ask that of the entire book of revelation.  Why was John given this revelation?  Why did God choose to reveal these things to John?  Why did God want us to know these things?
I cannot know, obviously.  I cannot pretend to understand the mind of God.  But here’s what I think.
When we look around at the world, there are a lot of things going on that seem really bad.  And, in fact, this has been the case throughout a lot of history.  It was true in the time John received this revelation and wrote it down.  It’s been true a lot of times since.  And it’s true today.
I think God gave John this revelation, and told John to write it down, so that we would know some things.  God wants us to know that God is aware of the bad things that are happening in the world.  God wants us to know that God is in control of those things, and that God is allowing them to happen.  And in fact, God wants us to know that, for God’s plans to come to fruition, for things to go the way they’re supposed to go, these things are necessary.  These things need to happen.
We wish God would’ve told us why, but God did not tell us that.  But here’s what God did tell us.  God told us that these things are not going to last forever.  Evil may look like it’s winning.  Satan may look like he’s winning.  Satan may even truly believe he’s winning.  But he’s not.  Satan is only succeeding to the extent God allows Satan to succeed.
And Satan’s time is running out.  We don’t know how long it will last, but it’s running out.  Satan’s days are numbered.  There is going to come a time when God no longer allows Satan to do anything.  There is going to come a time when Satan is completely and utterly destroyed.  He will have no power whatsoever.  God is going to win.  And God wants us to know that.
But that’s not all.  God wants us to know that, if we stay faithful, we’ll win, too.  We will have our names written in the book of life.  We will be able to live in the new Jerusalem.  You and I and everyone else whose name is written in the book of life will see that incredible city that’s made of the finest jewels and metals.  We’ll see that river of life.  We’ll see the light of the glory of God.  We’ll see all of that--if you and I stay faithful.  If you and I continue to live our lives the way Jesus told us to live them.
And it’s important for us to know that.  Because, you know, staying faithful to God in this world is not easy.  It’s easy to say.  It’s easy to say that we believe in God and accept Jesus as the Savior.  It’s easy to say those things.  But truly living our lives in this world the way Jesus told us to live them is not easy.  It’s hard.
The fact is that the world does everything it can to keep us from living the way Jesus told us to.  And because Satan is still allowed to work in this world, Satan is part of that.  If we live the way Jesus told us to live, we’ll be told that we’re too judgmental.  We’ll be told that we think we’re better than everyone else.  We’ll be told that we’re hypocrites because we’re not perfect.
That’s not all.  We’ll be told that we’re old-fashioned, we’re out of step with the times.  We’ll be told that we’re missing out on all the fun.  We’ll be told that we’re too legalistic, that we’re too bound by rules.  We’ll be told that all we really need to do is be nice to everyone.  The world will tell us all kinds of things to keep us from living the way Jesus wants us to.  And sometimes it’ll be people who claim to be Christians who say these things.
We hear all that stuff, and it’s really tempting to give in to it.  A lot of times, giving in to it would make us more popular.  And sometimes, doing things we should not do, living in ways we know we should not live, does sound like it would be more fun, in the short-term.  It’s tempting to listen to those voices that say go ahead, do it.  It would not hurt anybody.  Besides, God wants you to enjoy your life.  Forget the rules.  Just be nice and have fun.  It’ll be okay.
It’s tempting to listen.  And God knows that.  That’s why God wants us to know that, if we stay faithful, if we live our lives the way Jesus wants us to, if we resist the things the world tells us, we’ll win.  We will have our names in that book of life.  We will live in that new Jerusalem, and we will see the glory of God.  We will win.
Life in this world is not always easy.  We sometimes have to go through a lot, and we sometimes have to put up with a lot.  But God is still in control, and God is going to win.  And if we stay faithful to God, and if we live our lives the way Jesus wants us to, you and I will win, too.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Resisting Temptation

As some of you know, I’ve been on a low-carb diet for some time now.  I started on June 1 of last year and have lost about twenty-eight pounds.  A low-carb diet is not hard to do--it doesn’t take any special foods or anything.  The main thing it takes is determination.  It takes staying away from the foods you know you shouldn’t eat, even though they taste really, really good.

I had been sticking with this diet pretty strictly.  Then, last Friday, I cheated.  Wanda and I were in Wessington Springs, where we used to live, and we went to visit an elderly friend of ours.  She had just made some cookies and offered us some.  I could not see my way clear to tell a ninety-year-old lady that I wouldn’t eat one of her cookies, so I took one.

Now, one cookie is not going to make me gain a bunch of weight back or anything.  The point is, though, that after giving in, after eating that one cookie, I really wanted another one.  In fact, I really wanted a lot of them.  I started craving all these things--cookies, cake, ice cream, brownies--that I had resolutely not been eating for months.  I have not--so far--given into it again, but it is a lot harder to resist.  Having given in to temptation once, I became a lot more susceptible to giving in to it again.

Don’t get me wrong--I’m not saying that eating that cookie was a sin or anything.  In fact, I still rather think I did the right thing.  The point is, though, that once we give in to something, it becomes a lot easier to give in to it again.  And it strikes me that this is how sin works in our lives. 

We give in to it once.  We do that under “special circumstances”.  Circumstances that allow us to convince ourselves that it’s okay, that it was even the right thing to do.  And then, we start wanting to give in to it again.  Sin becomes a lot harder to resist.  If we give in to it once, it becomes a lot easier to give in to it again.  Each time we give in to sin, it becomes easier to give in to it again and again and again.  At first, we make excuses for ourselves for why it’s okay.  Eventually, we stop making those excuses and just do it.  We don’t even think about whether it’s right any more.

So, the next time you feel yourself tempted, think about that.  Think about how giving in once, no matter how much we may justify it, makes it much easier to give in the next time.  In fact, it makes us want to give in the next time.  Think about that, and resist the temptation.  Yes, we can repent and ask God for forgiveness, and God will give it to us.  But our lives are a whole lot easier if we don’t give in to temptation in the first place.  After all, as it says in James 4:7, “Submit yourselves, then, to God.  Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Leaving Home

This is the message given in the Gettysburg United Methodist church Wednesday, March 7, 2018.  The Bible verses used are Mark 6:1-6.

            In our Wednesday night services, we’re looking at the sacrifices of Jesus.  We know that Jesus sacrificed his life on earth, dying on a cross, taking the punishment that should have gone to us for our sins, making it possible for our sins to be forgiven.  But Jesus sacrificed other things, too, and we’re looking at some of those other things.  Tonight, we look at something else Jesus sacrificed.  He sacrificed having a home.
            As we know, Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  Then, because his family was on the run, trying to escape King Herod, they moved to Egypt and stayed there for a while, maybe as much as two years.  But they moved back to Nazareth when Jesus was about three or four years old.  And Jesus lived there until he started his ministry, which we think he did around age thirty.
            It’s pretty safe to say, then, that Nazareth was really the only home Jesus had ever known.  Now, Nazareth, in Jesus’ time, was a small town.  People think it had around four or five hundred people.  So, smaller than Gettysburg.  Smaller than Onida.  Probably more-or-less the size of Hoven.  And, like a lot of our small towns, many of the people who lived there were related to each other.
            That’s the town Jesus grew up in.  We don’t know anything about his early life, but we assume that he was probably pretty much like the other little kids in Nazareth.  I mean, maybe he did not get into trouble as much as some of the other kids--he might have been different in that way.  But it’s not like he was out preaching and teaching and baptizing when he was six years old or something.  At least, it sure seems like we’d know about it if he had.
            So, Jesus presumably would’ve done what a lot of other little kids did.  He’d have played games like hopscotch and jacks--they had games similar to that back then.  He’d have played with whistles and hoops.  Maybe Mary and Joseph had to tell him to stop blowing that whistle and be quiet, I don’t know.  
As he got older, he’d probably have gone to help Joseph at the carpenter shop.  Eventually, he took over the shop from Joseph.  I read that tradesmen wore symbols so people could immediately recognize who they were and what they did.  For a carpenter, it was a wood chip behind the ear.  It’s kind of interesting to picture Jesus walking around with a wood chip behind his ear.
We’re told in the Bible that Jesus had four brothers.  You heard their names:  James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon.  These would not have been the same James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon who later became Jesus’ disciples.  I assume those were probably common names at that time, so there may have been lots of men with those names.  There’s also a reference to sisters, although we don’t get their names.  It appears that Nazareth was their home, too.
So that was Jesus’ life through age thirty.  Living in the same town he’d grown up in.  Knowing everybody there, the way you do in a small town.  Probably not leaving it very often, because travel was not very easy.  An annual trip to Jerusalem for the Passover, and maybe sometimes trips there for various holy feasts.  Probably living by a routine.  Get up, have breakfast, go to work, eat lunch, work some more, come home for supper.  Maybe relax a little in the evening, then go to bed and do it again the next day.  A life just like most people’s lives.
Most of us can relate to a life like that.  Some of us have lived here in Gettysburg pretty much all your lives.  And of those who have not, some of us have lived here quiet a long time now.  And we live a life pretty much like Jesus’ life.  It’s easier to travel now, but most of us do what Jesus did.  Get up, have breakfast, go to work, eat lunch, work some more, come home for supper.  Relax a little in the evening, go to bed, do it again the next day.  And most of us are pretty much okay with that.  I mean, we might complain about our jobs--most of us do that once in a while.  But they’re okay, and we’re used to them.  We’re used to the life we have, and we’re comfortable with it.
Jesus was probably comfortable with it, too.  But he knew it was not going to last forever.  We don’t know at what stage he knew that, but at some point along the line--maybe when he was young, maybe when he was older--Jesus knew who he was at what he was supposed to do.  He may not have known exactly when it was going to happen, or he may have.  But Jesus knew he would have to give up his quiet, comfortable life in Nazareth.  He knew he was going to have to do what he’d been sent here to do.  He knew he was going to have to set out on the road--a road that would, inevitably, lead to his death on a cross.
Think about how that must’ve felt.  He did it willingly.  He did it because he knew it was what God the Father wanted him to do.  But still, Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine.  I assume he’d have had some of the same feelings you and I would have.  Now, maybe he was eager to get started--the thought of starting a new adventure can energize us sometimes.  But he also may have been kind of scared.  He may have been kind of reluctant to leave.  He knew it was what he was supposed to do.  He knew it was what God the Father wanted him to do.  He did it willingly.  But he still may have wished he did not have to do it.  He may even have been kind of sad about it. 
Could you do it?  Would you do it?  Would you just walk away from the only life you’d ever known?  Would you just walk away from your job, from your home town, from your family, from your friends?  Would you just walk away from everything and go into an unknown future?
There are some of us here who’ve packed up and moved, of course.  We’ve left our home towns for something different.  But most of the time, we left knowing what we moving toward.  We left knowing that we were moving to something better.  We moved because it was our choice.  We may have felt God prompting us, but still we made the ultimate decision.  We sat down and weighed the pros and cons and made the decision that moving was what we wanted to do.  And we made the decision having some idea what was waiting for us.  We might not have known all of it, but usually, when we move, we know what our new job is going to be and where we’re going to live.
Jesus did not have that.  Jesus walked away with no place to live.  He walked away alone, maybe not having any idea who he’d meet along the way.  He gave up the certainty, the solidity, the quiet calmness of life as a small-town carpenter, for an unknown future.  The only thing he may have really known for sure about it was the ending, and that ending was not a pleasant one.  That ending was dying on a cross.  When you think about it, that was quite a sacrifice Jesus made.
And if he ever thought about going back to his old life, our Bible reading tonight probably ended that thought.  Jesus goes back to Nazareth, back to his home town.  We’re not told why he went there or what kind of reception he thought he’d get.  But it was not good.  Jesus taught in the synagogue, and the reaction of the people was “Who does he think he is, anyway?  What’s he doing up there, acting like he’s so smart and so holy?  He’s no better than the rest of us.”  Jesus was rejected in his home town.  He was rejected by the people he’d grown up with and had known all his life.  Even if he knew it would happen, even if he was expecting it, it had to hurt.
Leaving home, leaving the only life he had ever known, leaving all of his friends and family behind, was quite a sacrifice Jesus made.  He made it because he knew it was what God the Father wanted.  And he made it out of love.  Love for God the Father, and love for you and me.
God the Father asks us to do things sometimes, too.  And sometimes, they require sacrifices of us.  Those sacrifices may not require us to leave behind our entire way of life, although they may, too.  But those sacrifices may require us to give up our quiet lifestyle.  Those sacrifices may require us to step out in faith.  Those sacrifices may require us to give up the certainty we think we have in our lives and take a chance on an unknown future.  And those sacrifices may require us to risk rejection, too.
It’s not easy to do that.  It may not have been easy for Jesus.  It’s no more easy for us.  Stepping out in faith, trusting God, leaving the comfortable and the familiar behind, trusting Tod to take care of us in an unknown future--that’s all hard.  It’s especially hard when we don’t know how things are going to go.  It’s also especially hard when we have no guarantee of what we’d call a happy ending.  Following God the Father certainly did not lead to a happy ending for Jesus.  Again, it led to death on a cross.
But you know, that’s not really true.  Jesus’ death on a cross did lead to a happy ending.  Jesus death was hard and painful and awful.  I don’t mean to minimize it at all.  But it led to Jesus’ resurrection, conquering death itself not just for himself, but for all of us.  It led to the chance of salvation and eternal life for everyone, if we accept Jesus as the Savior.  That’s about the happiest ending there could be.
And if you and I follow God the Father, if we go where God wants us to go and do what God wants us to do, we’ll have a happy ending, too.  That happy ending may not happen on earth.  But if we stay faithful to Jesus and follow God, we most certainly will have a happy ending in heaven.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Judgment Day

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, March 4, 2018.  The Bible verses used are Revelation 20:1-15.

             We’re on the next-to-last week of our sermon series on the book of Revelation.  And as you heard, there’s a lot of stuff happening.
            You might remember that, a couple of weeks ago, we talked about the beasts.  In the section right before the one we read today, a heavenly warrior, thought to be Jesus Christ, comes and defeats the beasts.  The beasts are thrown alive into a fiery lake of burning sulfur.
            Then comes the part we read today.  An angel comes down from heaven holding the key to the abyss.  If you remember when we talked about the opening of the seventh seal on the scroll, one of the things that happened is that an angel opens this abyss.  Now, what we assume is that same angel takes the devil, Satan, throws him into the abyss, and locks it.  Satan cannot deceive anyone for a thousand years.  Then, it says, he must be set free for a short time.
            That seems kind of odd, doesn’t it?  Satan is imprisoned.  He’s under control.  He cannot get out.  He cannot deceive anyone.  He is completely powerless.  Why not leave him that way?  Why let him out?
            Well, I’ll tell you--I don’t know.  The greatest Bible scholars say the same thing:  we don’t know.  There are theories, of course.  Could it be that God is giving Satan, even Satan, one last chance to repent and ask for forgiveness?  Could it be that God wants to demonstrate God’s great power, that God has complete control even over Satan and that Satan can only do what God allows Satan to do?  Could it be that, during that thousand years, some people will waver in their faith and God is allowing them to make a choice who they will serve?  These and many other theories have been offered. You may think some of them make sense, or you may not.  But the fact is that we simply don’t know.
            Christ will reign during that thousand year period.  The souls of the martyrs, the one hundred forty-four thousand that we talked about last week, will be priests and will reign with Christ.  We’re not told what actually happens during that thousand year period, but it has to be the most wonderful thing the world has ever seen, at least since Eden.
            But at the end of that period Satan is set free.  We have the reference to Gog and Magog, which appears to be a reference to a prophecy in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel.  The prophecy was that Gog, of the land of Magog, would attack Israel with a huge army, but would be defeated by God.  The reference to that in Revelation appears to indicate that Satan is going to amass a huge army to attack God’s people.  But again, that army is going to be defeated by God.  Satan will be thrown into the same lake of burning sulfur that the beasts are, and they will be constantly tormented forever.
            And that sounds like a happy ending.  But it’s not, at least not for everybody.  Then comes the day of judgment.  The dead stand before the throne, and the book of life is opened.  Everyone is judged according to what they have done.  If someone’s name is in the book of life, great.  But, it says, “All whose names were not found in the book of life were thrown into the lake of fire.”
            So, two things I want to talk about.  First, this statement that “Everyone is judged according to what they have done.”  When we heard that, some of us may have thought, wait a minute.  I thought we were saved by our faith, not by our deeds.  What’s the deal about being judged by what we’ve done?”
            Well, we are saved by our faith.  But it’s like what the apostle James wrote.  Faith without deeds is a dead faith.  It does not mean anything.  Our faith, to be real, must be shown by the things we do.  It must be shown by the way we live our lives.  It must be shown by the way we treat each other.  Including those we don’t like very much.  Remember, Jesus said to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  Jesus said to treat others the way we’d like them to treat us.  Not the way they do treat us, the way we’d like them to treat us.  How well we do those things shows how strong our faith is.  God does not expect perfection--God knows we’re not capable of perfection.  But God expects us to do our best.  And when we fail, God expects us to acknowledge that, ask for forgiveness, and try again.
            But the other thing to remember is simply this--we will be judged.  You and I and everyone else.  We will all stand before that great white throne, and we will be judged.  There will be some whose names are not found in the book of life.  And there will be serious consequences for them.
            We don’t like to think about that.  We try to deny it.  In fact, you’ll hear some very prominent and very well-respected Christian leaders tell you that many roads lead to heaven, that hell does not exist, that a loving God would never allow any of His children to go to hell, and all kinds of similar things.  Some of you have probably heard that.  Maybe some of you believe it, I don’t know.
            But that’s not what the Bible says.  Sometimes I wish it did.  I don’t like to think of anyone not getting eternal life.  I don’t like to think of anyone going to hell.  I don’t know if the description of a “lake of fire” is intended to be taken literally, but even if it’s not, hell is obviously a terrible, awful place to be.  I don’t want to think of anyone being there.
            But what I wish the Bible said does not matter.  My wishes do not change the Bible. My wishes and wants and desires do not change God or God’s Word.  And God’s Word says, pretty clearly, that the way to heaven is by faith in Jesus Christ.  God’s Word says that hell does exist and that there are people who go there.  If some people disagree with that, if some people deny it, I don’t know what to tell you.  Your argument is with the Bible, not with me.
            The day of judgment is coming.  I don’t know exactly when it will come, but it is coming.  And the only time we have to get ready for it is the time we have on earth.  And none of us knows how much time we’re going to have on earth.  It’s been said that one of the most dangerous lies we tell ourselves is that we have time.  We don’t need to think too much about our faith now.  We don’t need to worry too much about our salvation now.  We can wait.  We have time.
            We don’t know that.  None of us knows that.  The time for us to get ready is now.  We don’t know that we’ll have time tomorrow.
            So, what should we do?  Well, since we’re all here in a Christian church, I assume we all have some level of belief in God.  So, the first thing we should do is pray.  Pray that God will help us.  Pray that God will strengthen our faith.  Pray that God will help us take the words Jesus said seriously.  Pray that God will help us feel love for God and love for each other.  Pray that God will help us love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  Pray that God will help us treat people the way we’d like to be treated.
            And pray that God will help each of us truly accept Jesus as our Savior.  Now, understand, I’m not saying you have not done that.  But again, we’re told that we will be judged according to what we have done.  So we need to do everything we can to make sure our lives reflect that we have accepted Jesus as our Savior.  Again, not perfectly, but as well as we can.  And we can only do that with God’s help.
            And then, pray that God will help us do the other thing Jesus told us to do:  go and make disciples of Jesus Christ.  We talked about this a couple of weeks ago, but if we take this seriously, if we truly believe what it says in Revelation, then we have to realize that there are people around us, people we know, whose names are not in that book of life.  And again, I don’t like that.  I wish it was not that way.  But all I can tell you is that it’s what the Bible says.
            But if we don’t like it, then it’s up to us to do something about it.  It’s up to us to do what we can to bring people to Christ.  And I understand how hard that can be to do.  I understand how uncomfortable it can make us to even think about it.  And I understand how unqualified and just plain incompetent we feel when we do think about trying it.  I understand all that.  I’ve used all those reasons many times to try to avoid doing this.
            But as we’ve said before, Jesus did not make this optional.  Jesus did not say go and make disciples if it’s easy for you.  Jesus did not say go and make disciples as long as you feel comfortable doing it.  Jesus did not say go and make disciples if you feel qualified and competent to do it.  Jesus said go and make disciples.  Period.
            But if we still don’t want to do this--and again, I understand why we don’t--think about this.  We talked about this a couple of weeks ago, too, but if we don’t do this, who will?  I don’t mean we in this church, I mean we who claim to be Christians.  Again, if we take what Revelation says seriously, there are people around us whose names are not in that book of life.  Trying to do something about that, even if we feel like we don’t know what we’re doing and even if we feel like we’re not very good at it, has to be better than nobody trying to do anything.  And again, if you and I, the people of the church, don’t do anything, who will?  
            And here’s the other thing to remember:  we don’t do it alone.  God will be with us.  If we do our best, God’s Holy Spirit will tell us what to do and what to say.  Because the truth is that’s the only way to make disciples, anyway.  You and I cannot do it alone.  We can only do it through the power of God’s Holy Spirit.
            Our reading from Revelation makes it clear.  A day of judgment is coming.  You and I need to be ready.  And we need to do everything we can, through the power of God’s Holy Spirit, to help other people be ready, too.

Thursday, March 1, 2018


Well, this has been quite a week.  I had a funeral last week Thursday and two of them Friday.  This week I had one Tuesday and one Wednesday.  I hadn’t had a funeral all year, and then I had five of them in seven days.

My point in saying that is not to have you feel sorry for me.  Handling funerals is part of my job.  You obviously wish you didn’t have to do them, but we all know that death is a part of life.  And in a way, handling a funeral can be satisfying.  It’s a good feeling to be able to be there for someone when they’re going through a tough time and feel that you may have been able to help them through it, at least a little.

My point is that there are a lot of grieving families in our community.  They’re all around us.  And it’s pretty much a constant thing.  Both the Onida Watchman and the Potter County News have two to four obituaries pretty much every week.  That means there are two to four families in each of our communities every week who’ve lost a loved one.  And because no one gets over grief in a week or a month, those two to four families are added to the people we already have in our community who are grieving.  That’s a lot of people, right where we are, who are dealing with grief every day.

So, what do we do?  Well, a couple of things.  One, if you are grieving, know that you’re not alone.  There are a lot of people around you who have gone through what you’re going through.  Some of them still are going through it.  That does not end your grief, of course.  It may not make you feel any better about it at all.  But sometimes it does help, a little, to know that other people have been through what you’re going through.

Two, the fact that there are people who’ve gone through what you’re going through means there are people out there who will understand.  We’re all different, of course.  We all grieve in a different way.  But still, there are people who can help you go through your grief, because they’ve been through it or are going through it.  You don’t have to go through it alone.

Three, those of us who are not grieving need to be more understanding and accepting.  Not just of people who are grieving, but of everyone.  Because we don’t know what someone else is going through.  There are people around us who are grieving and we don’t even know about it.  There are people around us who are going through lots of other things, too.  Most people, at least in this area, don’t advertise their problems.  You ask someone how they’re doing, and they say, “Fine.”  But inside, they may have all sorts of turmoil going on in their lives that you know nothing about.  So, if someone says something we don’t like, or acts in a way we don’t like, let’s remember that we have no idea what they’ve gone through or are going through that led them to say or do that.  Let’s try to accept each other as we are.

Death is a part of life, and we know that.  But it’s still a blow when it happens to someone we love.  And we don’t get over it in a day, or a week, or a month.  So let’s all be there for each other.  Let’s support each other and encourage each other.  Let’s love each other.  As I recall, that’s what Jesus told us to do.