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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Being Thankful

This is a week to be thankful.  There are a lot of things to be thankful for, of course.  We can be thankful for material possessions, and there’s nothing really wrong with that.  It’s good, actually to be thankful that we have food and shelter and clothing when many people don’t.  It’s good to remember that we’re fortunate and blessed to have things like that.  We should do what we can to see that others have them, too, and I’m sure many of you do.

We can be thankful for family and friends, too.  It’s important that we don’t take the people in our lives for granted.  It can be easy to do that, you know.  When we see people every day, when they’re a consistent part of our lives, we sometimes just assume they always will be.  We don’t stop and think about how fortunate and blessed we are to have those people in our lives.  We should stop and be thankful for that.  And we should, to the extent we can, be one of those people who is always there for others, too.

And, of course, we should be thankful to God.  There’s no wrong way to be thankful to God, really, but I think sometimes we don’t do it as well as we should.  Here’s what I mean.  Sometimes, we’re thankful for all the things God has done for us.  Or, we may be thankful for the things God is doing for us now.  We may even, as an expression of faith and trust, be thankful for the things God is going to do, because we know God is still active and that God is always faithful.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with any of that.  I would suggest, though, that we make a mistake when we limit our thanks to God to the things that God does.  We should also remember to thank God for who God is.  The things God does for us are directly related to who God is.  

God is lots of things, of course.  God is holy.  God is righteous.  God is perfect.  God is all-knowing.  God is all-seeing.  God is all-wise.  God is all-powerful.  God is almighty.  God is caring.  God is compassionate.  God is gracious.  God is forgiving.  God is merciful.  God is love.  God, truly, is more than we can ever express in language.

And we need to remember to be thankful for that.  Because if God was not all of those things, God would not do the things God does.  God would not have given us the life God has given us.  God would not have given us the chance for salvation and eternal life God has given us.

And that, of course, is the most important thing for which we should be thankful.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Don't Worry, Be Thankful

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, November 19, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Philippians 4:4-9.

            It’s the Sunday before Thanksgiving.  It hardly seems possible.  It seems to me like Thanksgiving should still be at least a month away.  And yet, here it is.  Soon it will be Christmas and then 2017 will be over.  And I just finally stopped writing 2016 on my checks.
            So, it’s time for the pastor’s annual Thanksgiving message.  And this presents kind of a challenge.  Not because of the topic itself.  There are all kinds of Bible verses to use about thankfulness.  But it’s like what I wrote in the church newsletter.  You’ve heard all this before.  Some of you have heard literally dozens of Thanksgiving messages.  You know we’re supposed to be thankful to God, not just at this time but at all times.  You know what it says in First Thessalonians Five, Eighteen:  Be thankful in all circumstances.  You already know all this stuff.
            The question is not whether we know about it.  The question is whether we do it.  And of course, the answer would be different for each one of us.  Some of us probably do live up to that statement of being thankful in all circumstances.  Others of us probably remember to give thanks when things are going well, but are not so good at feeling thankful when things are not going the way we want them to.  Others of us probably are not even very good at giving thanks when things do go well.  We’re all at different points on the spectrum.
            But no matter where we are, I think most of us could probably do better than we’re doing. Even if we’re really good at giving thanks, we can probably still get better.  If we’re not so good at it, we can probably get a lot better.  But how?  How can we get to where we really do live with an attitude of thankfulness, no matter what’s going on in our lives?
            Well, let’s look at what the Apostle Paul write in his letter to the Philippians.  Look at how he starts out.  “Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again:  Rejoice!”
            How many of us ever do that?  How many of us ever rejoice in the Lord.  Even if we sometimes give thanks to God, even if we are truly grateful for what God has done, how many of us actually rejoice in the Lord?
            In fact, how many of us even know what it means to rejoice in the Lord?  That word, rejoice, means to feel or show great joy or delight.  And those words, joy and delight, mean to take great pleasure.
            How many of us, when we think about God or when we pray to God, feel joy or delight?  How many of us, when we think about God or pray to God, take great pleasure in doing that?
            I’m guessing not very many of us, and not all that often.  And I base my guess, quite frankly, on the fact that I don’t feel those things that often.  Now, maybe that’s not fair.  Maybe you’re a lot better at this than I am.  Maybe you feel great pleasure and joy and delight every time you think about God and every time you pray to God.  I really hope there are some of us here who do.  If you do, that’s awesome.  That’s wonderful.  You probably don’t need to listen to any more of the message today.
            And there are times when I do feel those things.  But there are a lot of times when I don’t.  And so, for those of you who are still listening and feel like you can improve on this, what do we do?  How do we get that feeling of great pleasure and joy and delight?  How can we get to where we rejoice in the Lord?
            Well, let’s look at what Paul says next.  “The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
            The Lord is near.  The peace of God will guard your hearts and minds.  That would great, don’t you think?  To know that the Lord is near?  To have the peace of God guarding our hearts and minds?  I mean, that’s really what we all want, right?  If we felt the Lord near, if we felt the peace of God guarding our hearts and minds, we’d be able to do what Paul said.  We would not be anxious about anything.  And how awesome would that be?  To not be anxious about anything.  Because my guess is that almost every person here is anxious about something.  It may be a big thing or it may be a small thing.  It may be something that some people would think of as a small thing, but it’s a big thing to you.  
            It would be so wonderful to be able to get rid of all that anxiety.  It would be so wonderful to not have to worry about anything.  It’s our worries that keep us from feeling that the Lord is near.  They keep us from feeling the peace of God.  And because we cannot feel the Lord near, because we cannot feel the peace of God, we cannot rejoice in the Lord the way Paul tells us to and the way God wants us to.  And because we cannot rejoice in the Lord, we cannot live with an attitude of thankfulness the way we know we’re supposed to.
            But does saying that help us any?  Probably not.  Saying “do not be anxious about anything” is easy.  Actually not being anxious is hard.  How do we do it?
            Here’s what Paul says.  “In every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”  Paul says that if we do that, we will feel the peace of God.  And then, we’ll be able to rejoice in the Lord and live with an attitude of thankfulness.
            So let’s break that down a little farther.  What are we supposed to do?  Present our requests to God.  That means any requests.  There is nothing too big for God, but there is also nothing too small for God.  That’s one of the amazing things about God.  God loves us so much that God is interested in every aspect of our lives.  God is interested in the big things, but God is interested in the small things.  Remember, this is the God that knows the number of hairs on our heads.  Basically, if something is important to us, it’s important to God.  That’s not to say God will always do what we want, and we know that.  We have no ability to order God around.  But there is never a time when we request something of God and God says, “Ah, that’s not important.  I’m not interested in that.  I’m not gonna pay any attention to that.”  God is interested in everything.  God pays attention to everything.  Everything is important to God.  So, no matter what our request is, we can present it to God.
            By what method are we supposed to present these requests to God?  By prayer and petition.  And when are we supposed to present them?  In every situation.
            In other words, we don’t need to wait until we have a specific prayer time to talk to God.  It’s fine to do that, don’t get me wrong.  I have a specific prayer time of my own.  But we don’t need to limit our prayers to that time.  In fact, we’re not supposed to.  We can pray to God in every situation.  No matter where we are, no matter what we’re doing, we can pray to God.  We can present our requests to God.
            Now all that should help.  Knowing that we can pray to God at any time, that we can present our requests to God at any time, knowing that there’s nothing too big or too small for God to be interested in, that all can help us feel the peace of God.  It can help us be able to rejoice in the Lord.
            But here’s the big thing.  How are we supposed to present our requests to God?  With thanksgiving.  Paul says we should present our requests to God with thanksgiving.
            Think about that.  Present a request with thanksgiving.  Does that make sense?  I mean, I can understand being thankful after our request is granted.  But Paul says we’re not supposed to wait for our request to be granted to be thankful.  We’re supposed to be thankful as we’re making the request.  We’re supposed to present our request with thanksgiving.
            If we’re thankful to God as we’re making our requests to God, what does that mean?  It means that we trust God.  It means that, as we’re making the request, we trust that our request will be taken care of.  Whatever request we make, whatever the situation is, God’s going to handle it.  Once we’ve prayed to God about it, it’s over.  It’s in God’s hands, and we trust that God will take care of it.
            It’s trust.  It’s faith.  It’s believing that, once we’ve prayed, we can turn the situation over to God.  We can leave the situation in God’s hands.  Again, that does not mean God will do exactly what we want exactly when we want it.  That’s not what we’re thankful for.  What we’re thankful for is that we can trust God to do what’s right.  We’re thankful that we can trust God to do what’s best.  We’re thankful that we can trust God to take care of things and handle them in the right way, not just for us but for everyone involved.
            When we present our requests to God, we’re turning our problems over to God.  When we turn all of our problems, large and small, over to God, and when we do that with thanksgiving, knowing God will take care of them, we can feel the peace of God guarding our hearts and our minds.  Then, we truly will be able to rejoice in the Lord.  And then, we will truly know that the Lord is near.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

It's What You Celebrate

So the latest “controversy” appears to be over when it’s socially acceptable to celebrate Christmas.  On one side are people who love the Christmas season so much that they want to start celebrating it as soon as Halloween is over.  Their ready to hear the Christmas carols, put up the decorations, and start watching the Christmas movies on November 1, and would probably do it earlier if they could.

On the other side are people who say no, that’s not acceptable.  They love Christmas, too, but they say that there’s a time and a place for it.  They say we need to make sure we take the time to celebrate Thanksgiving.  We need to take the time to be thankful for all that God has done for us.  They believe that if we start celebrating Christmas too early, it won’t be special any more.  They believe we’ll lose the meaning of Christmas if we don’t wait until December to celebrate it.

What do I think?  I think you should do whatever you want.  We all have enough rules that we have to follow in this world without adding more rules to them.  If you want to start celebrating Christmas on November 1, go ahead.  In fact, if you want to celebrate Christmas in October or September, it’s fine with me.  And if you want to wait until December to start, that’s fine, too.  That’s what I personally prefer--much as I like Christmas music, I’d get tired of it by Christmas if I started listening to it this early.  But that’s just me.  If you won’t get tired of it, then fine.  Start listening to Joy to the World any time you want.  The world can certainly use all the joy it can get.

But here’s the thing.  Whatever you choose to do, make sure you involve God in it.  If you start celebrating Christmas now, that’s fine, but don’t just spend the extra time celebrating Santa and Rudolph and Frosty.  Spend the extra time celebrating the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ.  And if you choose to wait until December to celebrate Christmas, don’t spend the time from now until Thanksgiving watching football and eating pumpkin pie.  Spend that time giving thanks to God for all that God has done for us.

I don’t care when you start celebrating.  But I do care what you celebrate and how you celebrate it.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with the secular celebrations of life.  But make sure you make time for religious celebrations, too.  Make sure God is involved in all your celebrations of life.  Make sure God is involved in the rest of your life, too.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Power of the Holy Spirit

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, November 12, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Acts 1:3-11.

            Today we end our sermon series on the earthly life of Jesus.  I hope you’ve enjoyed it and learned some things from it.  I know I have.  Looking at Jesus’ life in this way has shown me all kinds of things I’d never thought about before.  I hope it’s done that for you, too.  
We called this sermon series “From the Manger to the Cross”.  Actually, though, we extended it beyond the cross.  The last few weeks, we’ve been dealing with the appearances of the resurrected Jesus.
            Today, we deal with the last one.  We’re told that Jesus gave the disciples many convincing proofs he was alive.  He appeared to them over a period of forty days.  He spoke to the disciples about the kingdom of God.  He told them to stay in Jerusalem until the time they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit.
            We’re told that they asked whether, at this time, Jesus was going to restore the kingdom to Israel.  Jesus answered that it was not for them to know that.  Then he said, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
            And then he was gone.  Did the disciples know Jesus was going to leave right then?  Did they know they would never see him on earth again?  Nothing tells us that they did.  In fact, the way they reacted, staring up into the sky, makes me think they probably did not.  They may have thought, or at least hoped, that Jesus would come back again.  But of course, he did not.  At least, not yet.
            It must have been a tremendous reunion in heaven when Jesus got back there, don’t you think?  I mean, try to imagine how Jesus would’ve felt.  The divine Son of God, finally free of his human body, reunited with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit.  The three in one were truly one again.  That must have been something.  There probably was as much rejoicing in heaven at that as there’s ever been about anything.
            But meanwhile, the disciples were back on earth.  And they did not know what to do.  All they knew was that they were supposed to stay in Jerusalem and wait until they were baptized with the Holy Spirit.
            I wonder if they had any idea what that meant.  To be baptized with the Holy Spirit.  They knew what a regular baptism was, of course.  But what would it mean to be baptized with the Holy Spirit?  Did they understand?  Would we?  I mean, we talk about the Holy Spirit, but do we know what it would mean, what it would be like, how it would change us, if we were actually baptized with the Holy Spirit?
            Jesus did say one thing about it.  Jesus said they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them.  But of course, the disciples may not have known what that meant, either.  Jesus did not say any more about it.  It sounds cool and all, but what kind of power?  The power to do what?  They did not know.
            I wonder if we know, either.  I mean, we talk about the Holy Spirit in church.  We talk about needing to open our hearts so that God’s Holy Spirit will come in.  We talk about asking God’s Spirit to lead us and guide us.  
But we don’t talk very often about getting power from the Holy Spirit.  We tend to think of the Holy Spirit as a spirit of love or a spirit of kindness or a spirit of forgiveness and mercy.  And of course the Holy Spirit is all those things.  But the Holy Spirit is so much more than just that.  The Holy Spirit is all the things God is, because the Holy Spirit is God.  One of the persons of the trinity:  God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  So anything we can say of God we can also say of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is perfect.  The Holy Spirit is righteous.  And the Holy Spirit is almighty and all powerful.
We make a mistake when we forget about the power of the Holy Spirit.  We don’t mean to--I’m not saying it makes us terrible people or anything.  But forgetting about the power of the Holy Spirit can keep us from truly following the Holy Spirit.  And that keeps us from serving God and showing love to God as well as we should.
            What’s one of the main things that keeps us from truly opening ourselves to God’s Holy Spirit?  Fear, right?  That fear can take a lot of forms.  It can be fear of the unknown.  It can be fear of having our comfortable lifestyle upset.  It can be fear of looking foolish.  But whatever that fear is, it comes down to the same thing:  we don’t truly trust God’s Holy Spirit.  And one of the main reasons we don’t trust God’s Holy Spirit is that we don’t think enough about the power that God’s Holy Spirit has.
            God’s Holy Spirit is all-powerful, because God is all-powerful.  That means that there is nothing God’s Holy Spirit cannot do.  And that means that there is nothing that we cannot do if we allow God’s Holy Spirit to work in and through us.
            Here’s an example.  We’ve been talking for some time in church about the need to reach the unchurched people of our community, especially the unchurched children and their parents.  And I know some of you have done some things to try to do that.  And I know sometimes you’ve succeeded at it.  So please don’t take this as me criticizing anyone or saying that no one’s doing anything.  I know a lot of people are doing things.
            But one of the things that keeps us from reaching these unchurched people--and I’ve heard this from a lot of people--is that we think we don’t know how to do it.  We say, “I don’t know how to get people to come to church.  I don’t know what to say.  I don’t know what to do.  I don’t even know how to start.  I just cannot do it.  I don’t know how.”
            Now, understand, when people say this, I think they’re being completely honest.  Because I can say the exact same thing.  I don’t know how to get people to come to church, either.  And you know what else?  I don’t think there’s anyone who does.  Believe me, I’ve been to a lot of seminars and workshops on reaching unchurched people.  I’ve read a lot of articles and books on it.  If there was somebody out there who had the magic formula for reaching unchurched people, if there was some program we could adopt or some five-step model we could use to reach unchurched people, everybody’d be using it.  And all the churches would be reaching so many unchurched people that we’d all have to hold extra services to fit them all in.
            But here’s the thing.  God does not expect you and me to reach unchurched people.  What God wants from us is to trust God’s Holy Spirit.  What God wants is for us to open ourselves up to where God’s Holy Spirit is leading us.  Where we go wrong--where I go wrong--is when I think I’m the one who has to figure out how to reach the unchurched people of our community.  I don’t.  All I need to do is rely on God’s Holy Spirit.  All I need to do is to be open to allowing God’s Holy Spirit to lead me and guide me.  That’s all you need to do, too.  If we do that, God’s Holy Spirit will give us chances to reach unchurched people.  And when those chances come, God’s Holy Spirit will show us what to do and tell us what to say.  That’s how much power God’s Holy Spirit has, if we’ll only allow God’s Holy Spirit to work in and through us.
            If you read further in the book of Acts, you see that God’s Holy Spirit worked in and through the disciples in all kinds of amazing ways.  They were able to speak in tongues.  They were able to heal people.  Most importantly, they were able to reach all kinds of people for Jesus Christ.  They really were Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem and in of Judea and Samaria, just like Jesus had told them they would be.  They reached thousands of people and started a movement that still continues two thousand years later.
            None of these things were things the disciples knew how to do.  Peter, James, John, all the rest of them--they were lost when Jesus left them and went back to heaven.  They did not have a clue what to do.  But when they allowed the power of God’s Holy Spirit to work through them, they were able to do all kinds of things they never dreamed they could do.  They were able to do things most people would’ve said were not possible.  And in fact, the disciples would’ve agreed that these things were not possible if they’d tried to do them by themselves.  They were only possible because the power of God’s Holy Spirit was working through them.  Because with God, all things are possible.
            A lot of times, when we think about reaching unchurched people, we feel like we don’t have a clue what to do.  But when we allow the power of God’s Holy Spirit to work through us, we can do all kinds of things we never dreamed we could do.  We can do things most people would say are not possible.  But they are possible if we allow God’s Holy Spirit to work through us.
            So let’s focus on opening ourselves to God’s Holy Spirit.  Let’s allow God’s Holy Spirit to work through us.  When we do, God’s Holy Spirit will work in and through us in all kinds of amazing ways.  Because with God, all things are possible.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Keep On Dreaming

I saw a quote on facebook the other day.  It was short, and I’m sure the person who posted it meant well.  Here’s what it said:  “Die with memories, not dreams”.

Now, I know what the quote is trying to say.  It’s encouraging people that, if there’s somewhere you really want to go, something you really want to do, then go there and do that.  Don’t put it off so long that you never get to do it at all.  I understand that, and there’s nothing really wrong with it.

But at the same time, it kind of bothered me.  I happen to think dreams are important.  I think they’re important no matter what our age or position in life.  I would not want to die without dreams.

The thing is, when you think about it in this context, what are dreams?  They’re things you want to do.  They’re things you want to be able to accomplish.  Having dreams means you’re still looking forward.  Having dreams means you still have things you want to do with your life.  Dreams, really, are one of the things that give meaning to our lives.

As we go through life, of course, our dreams change.  When I was a kid, I dreamed of being a major league baseball player.  It quickly became clear that wasn’t going to happen, so I dreamed of being a baseball broadcaster.  As I grew up, I dreamed of being a lawyer and became one.  I sometimes dreamed of being a judge or even a state supreme court justice.  God had a different plan, so I started dreaming of being a pastor and became one.

I no longer have grandiose dreams.  I don’t dream of being a bishop or anything like that.  I don’t even dream of being the pastor of a large church.  I love the things I do and I love where I do them.  I don’t want to do anything else.

I do still have dreams, though.  My dream now is to keep my heart open to wherever God might be leading me.  Does that sound self-serving, like I’m patting myself on the back for it?  I don’t mean it to be.  I’m not saying that I always succeed at doing this.  A lot of times I don’t.  But it’s something I pray about frequently, and it is my dream.

I hope it’s your dream, too.  All of our situations are different, of course.  There are some things we cannot do, some opportunities that are denied to us.  But I still hope this is your dream.  Because no matter how many things we cannot do, there are still things we can do.  No matter how many opportunities are denied to us, there are still opportunities that we do have.  As long as we’re here on earth, God has reasons for us to be here.  And if we pray for God to help us open our hearts to wherever God might be leading us, we’ll usually find that God will answer that prayer, often in a way we didn’t expect.

So keep dreaming.  Keep praying, too.  Open your heart to wherever God might be leading you.  You might be surprised at what God has in store for you!

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Jesus and the Nobodies

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, November 5, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Luke 24:13-35.

            When you think of Jesus’ time on earth, who do you always think of as being with him?  The twelve disciples, right?  Peter, James, John, Andrew, Thomas, all the rest of them.  These were Jesus’ closest associates while he was on earth.  These are the ones who were with Jesus the most.
            But the twelve are not the only disciples Jesus had.  There were lots of people who would’ve called themselves disciples of Jesus.  A disciple, after all, is simply a follower.  There were lots more people than just the twelve who were followers of Jesus.
            We meet two of them in our story today.  Now, this was obviously after Jesus was crucified.  It’s after the tomb was found to be empty.  Two people are leaving Jerusalem, walking toward a town called Emmaus.  The only thing we know about Emmaus is that it was about seven miles from Jerusalem.  It apparently was a small town--in fact, it’s referred to as a “village”.  It’s apparently not a very important place--this is the only time in the Bible that it’s even mentioned.  We don’t know why these two people were going there--maybe they lived there, maybe they had business there, maybe this was just a stopping place on the way to somewhere else.
            And of course, you just heard the story.  They’re walking along, discussing all the things that have happened--Jesus being arrested and killed, the empty tomb, the rumor that Jesus was still alive.  Jesus joins them, but they don’t realize that it’s Jesus.  They start telling Jesus what’s happened, and Jesus explains things to them.  And that must have taken some time--we’re told that “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself”.
            They invite Jesus to stay with them.  Jesus takes bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and gives it to them.  At that moment, they recognize Jesus.  And immediately, he vanishes.
            We’ve said before that, when we read things like this, we need to ask the question:  Why is this in the Bible?  I mean, yes, it’s another appearance of the resurrected Jesus, and that in and of itself would make it noteworthy.  But is that it?  Is that the only thing we’re supposed to learn?  Or is there more to this event than that?
            Well, obviously, I would not have raised the question if I did not think there was.  So let’s look at this event a little closer.
            There are two people walking down a road to a village called Emmaus.  One of them is named Cleopas.  So who was Cleopas?
            Basically, he was nobody.  This is the only time in the Bible Cleopas is ever mentioned.  Over the years, all sorts of things came to be said about him, trying to make him out to be an important person.  One story said he was the brother of Joseph, Mary’s husband.  Another story says that he was also known as Alphaeus and that he was the father of one of the disciples.  But the fact is that the only things the Bible tells us about him are that he was a follower of Jesus, that he and another person were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus on the day the empty tomb was found, that Jesus appeared to them, and that they apparently were known to the twelve disciples, because they knew where to find them and were welcomed in when they went back to Jerusalem after Jesus vanished.
            So that’s Cleopas.  Who was the person with him?  He’s even more of a nobody than Cleopas.  We have no idea who he was.  We don’t even get his name.  In fact, we don’t even know if he was a he!  Again, the only things the Bible tell us are that this person was a follower of Jesus, was walking with Cleopas from Jerusalem to Emmaus, the Jesus appeared to them, and that, again, they were apparently known to the twelve disciples.  That’s it.
            Cleopas was nobody.  His companion was even less.  Except for one thing.  Both of them were followers of Jesus.  And that was enough.  That was enough for Jesus to come back and appear specifically to them.  It was enough for Jesus to spend what must have been quite a bit of time with them.  In fact, it was enough for Jesus to explain all the things said in Scripture about himself, going back all the way to Moses and the prophets.
            What an awesome thing that must have been.  They say, later, that their hearts were burning inside them when Jesus was talking to them.  That must have been the most incredible thing that ever happened to these two people in their lives.  To have the resurrected Jesus explaining the Scriptures to you.  
I mean, I know they did not know it was Jesus, but they had to know it was somebody pretty special.  Imagine Jesus, with all the knowledge he would have, knowing things that no human being would know, explaining the Scriptures.  Explaining them in a way that no human being possibly could.  And imagine him doing that specifically for you.  Not as part of a lecture, not with you standing in the crowd, but explaining them personally to you.  That must have been incredible.  That must have been life-changing.  And Jesus did that, not for a king, not for the Jewish elders, not for the Pharisees or the ruling council or anybody like that.  Jesus did that for two nobodies.  Cleopas and someone who’s so much of a nobody we don’t even learn their name.
Do you ever feel like you’re a nobody?  It’s pretty easy to do.  We don’t live in a place that most people would consider important.  Very few people outside of South Dakota have even heard of it.  In fact, even in South Dakota, I run into a lot of people who don’t know where it is.  It’s just a small town.  A village, really.  Sort of like Emmaus.
And most people would not consider any of us to be very important, either.  None of us here is special.  None of us here is famous.  Outside of our families and a few friends, most people would not know our names or know anything about us.  We’re just a bunch of nobodies here.  Sort of like Cleopas and his companion.  
It’s easy for us to think of ourselves as nobodies from nowhere.  And when we do, we wonder if God could really care about us.  I mean, we say it all the time.  We talk about how God is love and how Jesus was sent to earth for the forgiveness of our sins.  And a lot of us believe it, at least in general terms.  But did Jesus truly die to save me?  An unimportant person like me?  A nobody from nowhere like me?  Could God really love me that much?
Society considers all of us a bunch of nobodies from nowhere.  Just as it sounds like society considered Cleopas and his companion a couple of nobodies from nowhere.  But to Jesus, Cleopas and his companion were not nobodies from nowhere at all.  They were God’s precious children.  They were Jesus’ important followers.  And Jesus was willing to spend all kinds of time with them.  He was willing to explain all the Scriptures that talked about him.  He was willing to stay with them until they came to understand and believe.
That’s how Jesus looks at you and me, too.  We are not nobodies from nowhere.  Nobody is a nobody to Jesus.  There is no such thing as a nobody to Jesus.  To Jesus, each one of us is important.  To Jesus, each one of us is special.  To Jesus, each one of us is one of God’s precious children.  Each one of us is Jesus’ important follower.  Each one of us is the most important person in the world to Jesus.  And Jesus wants each one of us to understand and believe, just as he wanted Cleopas and his companion to understand and believe.
Jesus came specifically for all of us nobodies.  Jesus came specifically so that all of us nobodies from nowhere could be saved.  Now don’t get me wrong.  Jesus loves everybody.  Jesus wants the rich and the powerful and the famous to be saved, too.  But that’s the point.  In Jesus’ eyes--in God’s eyes--we’re all the same.  Wealth, status, power--none of that means anything to God.  To God, each and every one of us is a sinner in need of love and forgiveness and salvation.  And that’s why Jesus came to earth--to offer each and every one of us sinners love and forgiveness and salvation.  God loves each one of us that much.  God loves you that much.  And God loves me that much.
So if you ever think of yourself as a nobody, know that you are not.  Not to God.  To God, you are the most important person in the world.  To God, you are so important that the divine Son of God came to earth to die so that your sins could be forgiven.  To God, you are so important that God offers you the chance for eternal life.  And all you need to do is accept it.  All you need to do is accept Jesus Christ as your Savior.
Society said Cleopas and his companion were nobodies.  Sometimes it seems like society says you and I are nobodies, too.  But Cleopas and his companion were incredibly important to Jesus.  And so are you.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Doubt and Belief

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, October 29, 2017.  The Bible verses used are John 20:19-29.

            The phrase “Doubting Thomas” is part of our culture.  Even people who have no idea who Thomas was and have no idea where the phrase comes from are still familiar with it.  If someone is a skeptic, if they never want to believe anything, if they always demand more proof, we refer to them as a Doubting Thomas.
            As I read that story, though, it seems to me that Thomas has gotten a bum rap.  Yes, he had doubts, but no more doubts than any of the other disciples.  And yet, we’ve come to read this story as Jesus criticizing Thomas for his lack of faith.  I think when we read the story that way, not only are we unfair to poor Thomas, but we miss a valuable lesson that comes from that story.
            These Bible verses pick up exactly where we left off last week.  In the morning, that first Easter morning, Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene.  She has told the disciples that she’s seen the Lord.
            Now, it’s evening.  The disciples are in a locked room, out of fear of being arrested.  Jesus appears to them, says peace be with you, shows them his hands where the nails had been pounded through and his side that was pierced by a sword, the disciples are overjoyed.  Jesus breathes on them and says “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
            So all the disciples believe Jesus is alive.  Except Thomas.  He was not there when Jesus came.  We don’t know why not, but he was not there.  The disciples tell him about Jesus being alive, but he says “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
            A week passes.  The disciples are all back in the same locked room.  This time Thomas is there.  Jesus again appears to them, says peace be with you, shows Thomas his hands where the nails had been pounded through and his side that was pierced by a sword.  And Thomas is overjoyed.  
            Do you see why I say Thomas got a bum rap?  What Jesus showed Thomas was exactly the same thing he had shown the other disciples a week earlier.  When Thomas was not there, Jesus had shown the other disciples his hands where the nails had been and his side that was pierced.  None of them believed he was alive before they saw that.  Thomas did not ask for any more proof than any of the others had, and he did not get any more proof than any of the others got.  And yet, poor old Thomas is the one who gets criticized.  Thomas is the one whose faith is said to be weaker than the others.  Thomas is the one who for two thousand years has been called the doubter, whose very name has been turned into a negative.  If just does not seem fair.
But of course, you know why we look at it that way.  It’s because of what Jesus said.  After Jesus shows Thomas his hands and his side, Jesus says to Thomas, “Stop doubting and believe.”  And then he says, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  It seems like Jesus himself singled Thomas out for criticism.
            But I was thinking about this.  That first time, when Jesus appeared to the other disciples without Thomas--why do you suppose Jesus did that?  I mean, I assume Jesus would’ve known that Thomas was not there.  Why would Jesus choose to appear then?  I mean, surely there must’ve been some other time Jesus could’ve appeared to the disciples, sometime when they’d all be there.  It’s almost like, that first time, Jesus deliberately excluded Thomas.  Why would Jesus do that?
            It could’ve been a coincidence, I suppose.  Maybe this was simply the time Jesus needed to appear to the disciples, and whoever was there was there and whoever was not was not.  I doubt that, though.  It’s possible, but it’s just hard for me to believe that Jesus would leave something like this to chance.  It seems like there must’ve been some reason why Jesus appeared to the others without Thomas being there.
            I wonder if, perhaps, Jesus thought Thomas would have enough faith to not need to see for himself.  I wonder if, maybe, the reason Jesus appeared to the disciples without Thomas there is that Jesus thought that, out of all the disciples, Thomas might be the only one who had enough faith to not need to see for himself.  Out of all the disciples, Thomas might be the one who could believe without seeing.  When we look at it that way, it looks like Jesus thought Thomas was the disciple who had the most faith, not the least.  And Jesus’ words to Thomas are not so much a criticism as they are an expression of disappointment.  Not that it was wrong for Thomas to want to see for himself, really.  It was just that Jesus was hoping Thomas had enough faith to not need to.
            But here’s what I think is the real point.  Jesus appears to the disciples without Thomas.  They all believe.  Thomas does not.  So what does Jesus do?  Jesus comes back.  He comes back specifically for Thomas.  Jesus comes back specifically so that Thomas can see and believe.
            Think about that.  The twelve disciples were down to eleven, of course, because Judas had betrayed Jesus.  Ten out of the eleven believed.  That’s ninety-one percent.  Pretty good.  But Jesus was not going to settle for that.  Jesus wanted each and every one of his disciples to believe.  He was not going to give up until each and every one of his disciples believed.  As long as there was even one who did not, he was going to do whatever it took to make that one believe.  Each and every one of his disciples was that important to Jesus.
            And each and every one of us is that important to Jesus, too.  Because most of us have doubts at one time or another.  We may try to hide them from others, we may try not to think about them ourselves.  But we still have them.  It may seem like everyone around us in church believes, and we’re the only one who doubts.  But we still have those doubts.  We might wish we did not have them--for all we know, Thomas may have wished he did not have them.  But the doubts are still there.
            Jesus does not want us to go on with our doubts.  Jesus wants us to believe.  And Jesus is not going to give up until we do.  It does not matter if everyone around us believes and we’re the only one who has doubts.  Even if we were the only person on earth who had doubts, that would not matter to Jesus.  As long as there’s just one of us who does not believe, Jesus is going to do whatever it takes to make that one believe.  Each and every one of us is that important to Jesus.
But the thing is, you’re not the only one who has doubts.  Lots of us do.  Some of the greatest Christians in the world have confessed to having doubts at one time or another.  Mother Teresa said she had doubts.  Billy Graham has said he’s had doubts.  A lot of us are in the position of the man Jesus talked to in Mark Chapter Nine.  A man asked Jesus if he could heal his son.  Jesus says what do you mean, if I can?  He says, “Everything is possible for one who believes.”  And the man responds, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
            We believe, and yet we don’t.  We believe, and yet we have doubts.  And Jesus understands that.  He understood the disciples’ unbelief.  He understood Thomas’ doubts.  But Jesus did not want them to stay in unbelief and doubt.  Jesus wanted them to believe.  And Jesus did everything he could to help them believe.
            It would be nice if Jesus would appear right before us, just as he did with Thomas and the other disciples.  And of course, Jesus could do that.  But for most of us, it probably won’t happen.  That does not mean, though, that the Lord has abandoned us.  If we look around us, we can see God at work in all kinds of ways.  And if we look at our own lives, we can see God at work in all kinds of ways, too.
            I don’t know what those ways are for you.  Here are just a few of them for me.  God was at work when, coming out of law school, I took a job in Pierre rather than one in Laurens, Iowa.  God was at work when, without us even knowing each other, Wanda took an apartment directly across from mine.  God was at work when, out of the blue, we got a call offering us the chance to move to Wessington Springs.  God was at work when, through a series of events that would take too long to go into now, we felt God calling us into the ministry.  And I believe that God was at work when the Dakotas Conference sent Wanda and me to this parish.
            If you think about your life, I suspect you can think of those moments, too.  Those moments when God was at work in your life.  Those “coincidences” that just all lined up perfectly for things to happen the way they did.  That’s God at work.  That’s Jesus doing whatever it takes to make each one of us believe.  That’s Jesus saying to us what he said to Thomas.  “Stop doubting, and believe.”
            So, it’s okay if we have doubts.  But let’s not stay stuck in our doubts.  Let’s look for all the times in our lives when God has shown up.  Let’s look for the times when God is showing up now, leading us and guiding us.  Let’s look for all the ways Jesus is saying to us “Stop doubting, and believe.”
            Our doubts are real.  But God is more real.  If we trust God, and if we look for the ways that God is at work. God will give us the faith to overcome our doubts.