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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Following God

We pastors love to talk about how we should all follow where God leads us.  I talk about it a lot, too.  And in theory, it’s something we all want to do.  But there’s a problem with following where God leads us, which is this:  sometimes God wants to lead us to places that we don’t want to go.  Sometimes God wants to lead us to do things we don’t want to do.  And we know that.  And that’s what makes it hard to really commit to following God.

I’m not talking about going to be a missionary in Africa or something like that.  I do believe God calls people do things like that, but I also believe that, most of the time, when God does that, God puts something in those people’s hearts that makes them want to do it.  It may not have been something they wanted to do initially, but the idea took root and grew in them until it became something they not only wanted to do but something they felt they had to do.  

What I’m talking about is the more mundane, ordinary things that you and I can be called to do.  Things like going to visit a friend when we’d really just as soon stay home.  Things like making a phone call to someone who you really might not even like very much, but who you know is going through a tough time and needs to know that someone cares.  Things like listening to someone’s litany of complaints about their health, about the situation, about life in general, when not only have you heard those complaints numerous times before but you have plenty of things to complain about yourself.

There are times when you and I are called to do those things, as well as numerous other, similar things that we really don’t want to do.  It can be in those little things that we find out whether we’re truly committed to following God.  It can be in those little things that we truly show our love for God.

So, think of something like that in your life.  I think we probably all have them.  What is it for you?  What are those things that you know you should do, but that you really don’t want to do?  Once you’ve thought of them, ask yourself this:  is it possible that these are things God is calling me to do?  Are these things that I need to do, even though I may not want to, if I’m really going to commit myself to following God?

I don’t know.  But I do know that a lot of our Christian faith is seen, not in the big, huge things that everybody sees, but in the small, seemingly minor things that very few people, if any, see.  The small, mundane, ordinary things are often where we truly show whether we’ve truly committed ourselves to following God.

So, I hope you’ll think about this and pray about this in the coming week.  Think about the small, ordinary things in your life that you know you should do, but that you really don’t want to do.  Pray about whether those are, in fact, things God is calling you to do.  If they are, and if we do them, we can take a significant step toward committing our lives to following God.


Saturday, January 13, 2018

Don't Settle

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, January 14, 2018.  The Bible verses used are Revelation 2:1-7; 3:14-22.


            As Christians, we believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God.  We believe that it has timeless truths that are just as valid today as they were when they were written.  But at the same time, as we said last week, each book of the Bible was written at a specific time, and many of them were written for a specific audience.  In the case of the book of Revelation, that audience is seven churches in Asia.
            Chapters two and three of the book of Revelation contain a specific message from the Lord for each one of those churches.  We did not do all seven in our Bible reading for today just because it would’ve taken too long.  We heard two of them, the first and the last.  But we’re going to talk about all of them.
            Most of the messages take the form of the first one, the message to the church in Ephesus.  The Lord tells the church, look, I know you’re doing some good things.  I know you’ve been trying.  But I have something against you.  And you need to take care of it.  You need to repent of your sins before it’s too late.  And if you do, you’ll receive your reward.
            The Lord tells the church in Ephesus “You have forsaken the love you had at first.”  It’s not that they’re doing such terrible things.  But they used to have love for God and love for others.  They used to do everything out of love, and now they’re not.  They need to get back to that love they had at first.
            The Lord tells the church at Pergamum that they’re starting to chase false teachings.  The Lord tells the church at Thyatira they are allowing a specific false prophet to spread false teachings.  Both churches need to get serious and be clear about what is and is not acceptable for a follower of Jesus Christ.
            The Lord tells the church in Sardis that they started well, but now they’ve fallen asleep.  They’re dead, and they need to wake up.  They need to remember what they’ve been given by the Lord and repent of having stopped what they were doing.
            The Lord tells the church in Laodicea this:  “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish that you were either one or the other!  So, because you are lukewarm--neither hot nor cold--I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
Now, let’s think about all those things.  Doing good things but not out of love, allowing false teachings to be spread, not being clear about what is and is not acceptable for followers of Christ, needing to wake up and get back to doing what we’re called to do, being lukewarm, neither hot nor cold--what kind of people do those things describe?
To me, what those things describe is people who would say they believe in God.  People who would say they believe in Jesus Christ.  People who try to do good things and live good lives.  People who, if we knew them, we would say are good people.  We might even admire them and want to be more like them.
So, if that’s who those things describe, what’s so wrong about that?  Why is the Lord critical of that?  Why is the Lord so hard on people who you and I would think of as good people?
The thing is, what those things describe is people who just want to live a quiet, peaceful life.  They’re not going to do bad things, at least not intentionally.  But they’re not going to make any waves, either.  They’re going to do good things, they’re going to help people.  They’re even going to go to church sometimes.  But they’re not going to talk about their faith.  They’re not going to do anything to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.  They want to get along.  They want to fit in.  They’ll keep their faith, but they’ll keep it privately, so no one will get upset.
Now, I want to make a couple of things clear.  I am not standing here pointing fingers at anyone.  If I’m pointing fingers at anyone, I need to point them at myself.  Because I have done that many times.  I still do it far too often.  Because I want to get along, too.  I want to fit in, too.  It’s a natural human desire.  I fight it sometimes, but far too often I give in to it.  So if it sounds like I’m being critical of anyone else, please understand that I mean to be just as critical of myself.
And also understand why the Lord said these things.  The Lord did not make these criticisms just to be hard on people.  The Lord is not doing this out of anger.  The Lord does this out of love.  Verse nineteen says, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.”  God is not beating up on people just for the heck of it.  God is saying these things because God loves us.
But because God loves us, God does not want us to settle.  God knows God’s people can do better than this.  God knows that you and I can do better than this.  God knows that you and I need to do better than this.  God knows that the world needs you and I to do better than this.
Because here’s the thing.  There are a lot of things you and I talk about.  We talk about the number of people in our community who don’t go to church.  We talk about the decline of Christianity in the United States.  We talk about how, if the country is going to get back on the right track, we need to return to Christian principles.  I would guess that just about everyone here has talked about those things and similar things at one time or another.  And I have, too.
So how is any of those things going to be changed?  Well, they won’t be changed by people who don’t want to make waves.  They won’t be changed by people who just want to get along.  They won’t be changed by people who just want to fit in.  If any of those things is going to be changed, they’re going to be changed by people--people like you and me--who have the courage to stand up for what’s right and what’s wrong.  They’re going to be changed by people--people like you and me--trusting God enough to be willing to take chances, to be willing to risk people being upset with us or even being unpopular, in order to stand up for Jesus Christ.
It’s not easy.  In fact, it gets harder all the time.  When I was growing up in the small town of Delmont, South Dakota, it was assumed that everyone you met was a Christian and that everyone you met was part of a church.  People might ask which church you went to, but nobody asked whether you went to church.  It was just assumed that you did.  And so it was much easier to talk about Christian faith, because you figured the person you were talking to shared it.
That’s not the case now.  It has not been for some time.  There are more people in this community who don’t go to church than there are who do.  They may nominally be part of a church, but they don’t attend very often if ever.  We cannot just assume that everyone we meet is a Christian any more.  If we start talking about our Christian faith, the person we’re talking with may not share it.  In fact, the person we’re talking with may make fun of our faith and make fun of us.  That’s hard.  None of us wants to be made fun of.  We want people to think well of us.  And so, it’s harder for us to talk about our faith.  We tend to keep quiet about it, to keep it to ourselves.
It’s understandable.  And I do it, too.  But it needs to stop.  It needs to stop for all of us, including me.  Because you and I are not called to keep quiet about our faith.  The next-to-last sentence of Jesus on earth recorded in the gospel of Matthew is “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  Not “keep your faith to yourselves.”  But “Go and make disciples.”
That’s how we’re going to change the world: by going and making disciples.  It’s in the mission statement of the United Methodist church:  to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  If the world is going to change--if our community is going to change--it’s going to change by the people of God--you and me--going and making disciples of Jesus Christ.
And when we don’t want to do it, when we’d rather not take chances, when we’re worried that we’ll be rejected for doing this, we need to remember two things.  One, we don’t do it alone.  God will be with us.  I just quoted you the next-to-last sentence of Jesus on earth.  Here’s the last one:  “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  If we refuse to settle, if we’re willing to take chances and make some waves, if we’re willing to go and make disciples the way Jesus told us to, God will be with us.  And when God is with us, we know things will go the way their supposed to go.  Because with God, all things are possible.
And the other thing to remember is that we’ll get our reward.  Remember, there’s two of the seven churches I haven’t mentioned yet.  Here’s what the Lord said to the church in Smyrna.  “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer.  I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution...Be faithful...and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.”  And to the church in Philadelphia, the Lord said, “I know that you have little strength, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name...Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial...Hold on to what you have.  Those who are victorious, I will make pillars in the temple of my God.”
The people of the seven churches were all “good people”.  We’d have probably liked them.  God loved them.  That’s why God said the things God said to them--because God loved them.  God knew they could do better.  God wanted them to do better.  God knew the world needed them to do better.
You and I need to not settle for being “good people”.  God loves us.  God knows we can do better.  God wants us to do better.  God knows the world needs us to do better.
It’s not easy.  But we can do it.  God will be with us.  And if we do, if we are faithful to God, if we go and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, we will receive our reward.  And it will be awesome.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

(Almost) Everything Ends

In recent months, two towns in our area had landmark buildings torn down.  In Hoven, Holy Infant Hospital came down.  In Onida, the Fireside restaurant was taken down.

I’m always kind of fascinated to see a building torn down.  I don’t mean that I enjoy it.  It’s sad, really, and we’ll talk about that in a minute.  What I mean is that if I’m around, I can’t take my eyes off of it.  It’s such a sudden, shocking thing.  The day before, both of those buildings looked solid, sturdy even.  You’d have thought they’d last for decades of more.  And then, in a matter of hours, they’re gone.  It’s hard for me to believe.

As I said, I think it’s sad when a building comes down.  I know it’s just a building, but in a way it’s not.  It’s memories.  In the case of Holy Infant Hospital, children were born there.  People were made well there.  And I’m sure that in some instances people passed away there, too.  And when people passed by the hospital, those memories came back to them.  Yes, you can keep your memories, but you don’t have the building there to bring them to mind.  The reminder of those memories is gone.

The case of the Fireside is similar.  There were all kinds of celebrations held there.  People met there.  People went on dates there.  In some cases, people probably fell in love there.  People rekindled old friendships there.  There were all kinds of things that happened at the Fireside.  And again, you can keep your memories, but you don’t have the building there to bring them to mind.  The reminder of those memories is gone.  And that’s sad.

But when you think about it, it’s the way life is.  Everything has its time and everything ends.  Everything has to end sometime--otherwise nothing new would ever get started.  Things end, and that’s sad.  But then something begins, and that’s happy.  It’s true of everything.  Buildings.  Jobs.  Phases of life.  Life itself.  Even the world will end at some point.  Everything has its time, and everything ends.

Except for one thing.  God.  God is the one who never ends.  God is eternal.  God is the one who was, who is, and who is to come.  There is never a time when God was not, and there will never be a time when God is not.  It is always God’s time.  God never ends.

And you know what else will never end?  Our lives.  That is, if we believe in God and accept Jesus Christ as our Savior.  If we do that, our lives will never end.  We will receive salvation, and we will go on to eternal life in the presence of God.  And that’s definitely not sad.  That’s the happiest thing there could ever be.

It’s sad when a building comes down, but there always comes a point when a building outlives its usefulness.  It’s sad when our lives come to an end, but there always comes a point when our bodies outlive their usefulness, too.  But for Christians, when our lives end, something new gets started--eternal life in the presence of God.  And that’s happy.  In fact, that’s the ultimate happy!



Saturday, January 6, 2018

Introduction to a Revelation

This is the sermon given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, January 7, 2018.  The Bible verses used are Revelation 1:1-20.

            Today we start a new sermon series.  For the next several weeks, we’re going to take a look at the last book in the Bible, the book of Revelation.
            A lot of people tend to shy away from the book of Revelation.  And I have too, at times.  There are reasons why.  For one thing, it’s not a book that’s easy to understand.  In many places, it’s not particularly straightforward.  There’s a lot of symbolism in it, a lot imagery that can put us off if we don’t take the time to try to understand it.
            For another thing, it’s not always a pleasant book to read.  There’s a lot of stuff about battles between good and evil.  There’s a lot of stuff about the end of the world as we know it.  That can be kind of scary.  It can also be a challenge to our faith.  I mean, we like the parts of the Bible that talk about God is love and God is forgiveness and God is mercy.  And those are important parts of the Bible for us to know.  God is all those things.  God is love and God is forgiveness and God is mercy.  But God is also some other things, and those things can kind of scare us sometimes.  Most of us don’t even like to contemplate the end of our own lives.  To think about the end of the world, or at least the world as we know it, is not something most of us want to do.  It makes most of us uncomfortable, to say the least.
            And then, too, there’s stuff in the book of Revelation that strikes us as just plain weird.   You’ve got living creatures with six wings and eyes all around.  You’ve got dragons with seven heads and ten horns.  And we’ll get into that stuff later in the sermon series, but when we first read it, we go “What in the world?  What’s all this about?”  And we’re tempted to just throw up our hands and give up.  We want to go back to John Three, Sixteen and Jesus’ parables and stuff that we feel like we at least have a chance to understand.
            And I suspect the Apostle John, who wrote the book of Revelation, knew that’s how people were going to react.  Because at the start of the book, the start of our reading for today, John goes out of his way to say this “is the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ.”  And then he says “blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written it it, because the time is near.”
            In other words, John is going out of his way to tell us that the book of Revelation is part of God’s word.  The book of Revelation is just as important as the book of Genesis or the Psalms or the gospels or Paul’s letters.  It’s a prophecy, just as important as the Old Testament prophecies.  The book of Revelation is just as important as every other book in the Bible.  And if we believe, as we say we do, that the entire Bible is the inspired word of God, then we need to not ignore part of God’s word just because we don’t understand it or because it might scare us.
            And besides, there’s one thing we always need to keep in mind as we study the book of Revelation.  No matter how scary things get, no matter how weird things get, there’s one thing to keep in mind.  God wins.  God triumphs over evil.  God wins.  And if you and I believe in God and accept Jesus Christ as our Savior, we win, too.  We win salvation and eternal life in the presence of God.  No matter what else happens in the book of Revelation, no matter what we may talk about in this sermon series, remember that.  God wins.  And if we believe in God and accept Jesus Christ as our Savior, we win, too.
            Verse four tells us that John is addressing this writing to “the seven churches in the province of Asia.”  Those churches are named, and that number seven is going to come up more as we go through Revelation.  In fact, it comes up later in this reading.  But it’s going to be important, as we go through Revelation, to remember that John was originally writing to a specific audience.  The reason that’s important is that it’s part of the reason why Revelation uses so much symbolism and imagery.  It’s believed that at least some of that symbolism is there to address the specific situation the churches in Asia were facing.  It was a dangerous time for Christians.  They were under the rule of Rome, and Rome was cracking down on Christianity.  Christians were being persecuted.  There are messages in Revelation that address that, but they’re written symbolically so the people in the churches of Asia would know what they meant, but the government would not.  
            But really, most of the Bible was originally written to a specific audience.  But still, it contains timeless truth that we can still benefit from.  And so, as we go through Revelation, we’ll again be asking the questions we’ve asked so many times.  Why is this in the Bible?  What does it tell me about God, or about myself, or about faith, or about my relationship with God?  What can I learn from all this?
            There’s almost always more than one answer to those questions, or course.  We can read a passage of the Bible for the twentieth time and suddenly learn something that had never occurred to us before.  But here’s what I want to focus on today, from Chapter One of Revelation.
            John sees Jesus Christ.  But this is not the Jesus Christ we normally picture.  Listen to how John describes Jesus.  He was like a human being, but:
The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire.  His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters.  In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword.  His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.
            We talk a lot about the humanness of Jesus while he was on earth.  I talk about it a lot, myself.  And I love the fact that Jesus did come to earth and live as a human being.  As we’ve said before, that humanness of Jesus is one of the ways we can know that the Lord understands what we go through as human beings.  God went through it Himself, in the form of Jesus.
            But it’s also important that we remember who Jesus truly is.  Jesus is not just the sweet, nice, gentle Jesus we like to think about.  Jesus is God--God the Son.  Jesus has power and glory that you and I cannot even imagine.  I don’t know if what John describes here is truly Jesus in all his glory.  It could be that Jesus had to tone it down, even here, partly so John could recognize him and partly so John could handle it.
            John says that when he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet as though dead.  He does not say why.  It may have been fear, it may have been humility, it may have been shame, it may have been worship, it may have been all of those things and more.  But listen to what Jesus says to John:
Do not be afraid.  I am the First and the Last.  I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever!  And I hold the keys of hell and death.
Jesus establishes for John who he is.  He says “I am the First and the Last...I am alive for ever and ever.”  That echoes what God had said earlier, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is, and was and is to come.”  Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet.  Saying God is the Alpha and Omega is another way of saying God is the first and last, just as Jesus is.  God is the one who is and was and is to come.  Jesus is alive for ever and ever.  Jesus is God--God the Son.
But Jesus tells John two other things.  First, he says “Do not be afraid.”  He is telling John, you don’t have to be scared of me.  Even though you are seeing me in a way you’ve never seen me before, even though you are seeing at least some of my glory and power, you don’t have to be afraid of me.  I am still your friend.  I still love you.
That’s an important thing for us to know.  It’s an important thing for us to remember.  And I think it comes in the first chapter of Revelation on purpose.  As we’ve said, there are a lot of scary things that happen in Revelation.  There are a lot of things that we don’t understand.  But as we go through all that, we always need to remember that Jesus is still our friend.  The Lord still loves us.  No matter what happens, that love will always be there.  We need to remember that.
And the other thing Jesus tells John is this:  “I hold the keys of death and Hades.”  I think that comes in the first chapter on purpose, too.  Jesus wants us to know that no matter how scared we get, no matter how many bad things may happen, no matter how many things we don’t understand, the Lord is still in control.  Jesus is the master over death itself.  No matter what happens, in death or in life, Jesus is there.  Jesus is in control of it all.  And because Jesus loves us, Jesus will take care of us through it all, if we only trust him and believe in him as our Savior.
It’s important for us to know that in our lives on earth, too.  Because there are a lot of scary things that happen on earth.  There are a lot of things that happen on earth that we don’t understand.  But no matter how scared we get, no matter how many bad things may happen, no matter how many things we don’t understand, the Lord is still in control.  And because Jesus loves us, Jesus will take care of us through our lives on earth, too, if we only trust him and believe in him as our Savior.
We’ve only scratched the surface of the book of Revelation.  Going through it is going to be an exciting, wild ride.  But as we go through Revelation, and as we go through our lives, let’s remember the things Jesus told John.  Jesus has great power and great glory.  He is the divine Son of God.  But we don’t need to be afraid.  Jesus loves us.  Jesus is in control.  And Jesus will always be there for us, through the end of the world and beyond.


Thursday, January 4, 2018

It's a New Year!

Well, we made it through 2017!  It is now 2018.  A new year!

I think New Year’s Day is my favorite of all the non-religious holidays.  And no, it’s not just because there are a bunch of football games on TV that day.  That doesn’t hurt, of course, but that’s not the reason New Year’s Day is my favorite non-religious holiday.

It seems to me there’s something almost magical about the New Year.  In fact, I even kind of like just writing the date.  1-1-18.  The first day of the first month of the year.  Symbolically, it’s like everything is starting over again.  We know it doesn’t, really—we will all carry baggage from the old year into the new one—but for a little while, it seems that way.  That’s why we make New Year’s Resolutions, after all.  There’s no reason we could not resolve to change our lives on May twenty-fourth or August twelfth.  But symbolically, it just seems right to let January 1—1-1—be the day that we decide things are going to change.

When we hit January 1, we have three hundred sixty-five days of the new year stretching before us.  Anything could happen in those days.  Literally, anything.  You could become famous.  You could become wealthy.  You could make new friends and form new relationships.  All kinds of things could happen to you in the three hundred sixty-five days of the new year.

And that’s true in our journey of faith, too.  Literally anything could happen in those three hundred sixty-five days.  You could introduce someone to Jesus Christ in those three hundred sixty-five days.  You could help someone who’s going through a crisis of faith.  You could be there for someone when they need someone.  Your love of God could become deeper.  Your love of your neighbor could become stronger.  You could do almost anything in the three hundred sixty-five days of the new year.

There’s something else that could happen in those three hundred sixty-five days.  Jesus could come again.  Do you ever think about that?  Don’t get me wrong, that’s not a prediction.  Do I have any reason to think Jesus will come again in 2018?  No.  But I also don’t have any reason to think Jesus won’t come again in 2018.  I have no way to know, one way or the other.  What I do know is what Jesus told us.  Jesus told us to be ready all the time.  Are you?  Am I?

If we’re not, the time to get ready is now.  So let’s make that our New Year’s Resolution:  to be ready for the second coming of Jesus Christ.  Let’s resolve to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Let’s resolve to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Let’s resolve to truly accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and our Savior.  Let’s resolve to go and make disciples of Jesus Christ.  Let’s resolve that, in 2018, we will truly be deserving of the name “Christian”.


Let’s take advantage of the three hundred sixty-five days that are stretching in front of us.  Let’s make 2018 the year when we do everything we can to live up the name of “children of God.”

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Three Hundred Sixty-five Blank Pages

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, December 31, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Isaiah 43:15-19.


            It’s New Year’s Eve.  Tomorrow, it will be a new year.  2017 will be over.  It will be 2018.
            When you think about it, New Year’s Day is probably about the most arbitrary holiday we have.  There’s no real reason the year needs to start on January first.  It could start on April twelfth or July ninth or October twenty-first.  And there’s no real reason to make a big deal out of the start of a new year anyway.  There’s nothing special that we’re commemorating.  There’s nothing important that happened on this day.  We simply turn a page on the calendar.  We change one digit in the way we track the years.  That’s it.  It’s no big deal.
            But when you think about it some more, turning that page on the calendar is kind of a big deal.  Because when you turn that page, the next page is blank.  In fact, there are three hundred sixty-five blank pages.  Do you ever think of a year that way?  Three hundred sixty-five blank pages.  And each one of us is going to write a story on each one of those pages.
            And the things is, each of those stories is going to be different.  There will be some common elements--elements of comedy, of tragedy, of drama, of warmth.  Elements of all the things that make up life.  But how much of each of those elements there will be, what order they will come in--that will be different for each one of us.
            And there’s one other thing that’s going to be different for each one of us.  That’s how we handle all those elements of life.  And that may be the most significant difference of all.  Because we know, as the author of Ecclesiastes tells us, that in life there’s a time for everything.  Weeping and laughing, mourning and dancing, love and hate--there’s a time for all of those things.  And the chances are that all of those things will show up on some of those blank pages that are stretching in front of us in this new year.
            So, how do you feel about that?  Are you happy, eager, looking forward to what’s going to happen, to how you’re going to fill those three hundred sixty-five blank pages that make up 2018?  Or are you worried, apprehensive, fearful of what may happen, of what those pages may hold?  Or, are you just kind of blasé about the whole thing, just kind of neutral, figuring that whatever happens is what’s going to happen and that’s just the way it is?
            I’m not saying that any of those attitudes is wrong.  It’s not like our outlook on 2018 is sinful, whatever it is.  But I think God tells us how God would like us to feel in our reading from Isaiah for today.
            Listen to this part of our reading again:
I am the Lord, your Holy One, Israel’s Creator, your King.  This is what the Lord says--Forget the former things, do not dwell on the past.  See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
To me, God sounds excited in that passage.  God is eager to do something new.  God is so fired up about this new thing God is going to do that God can hardly wait to get started on it.  And God wants us to get just as excited about this new thing that God is going to do as God is.  I think you can just sense that excitement in the words God says there.
            And it makes perfect sense to me that God would be excited about this.  I mean, think of a time you decided to create something.  You were excited about it, too, right?  We’re always excited when we decide to create something.  And the farther we get into it, and the more we can see that it might turn out to be something good, the more excited we get.  And as it starts to really take shape, we just can hardly wait to show it to someone.  And of course, when we do, we’re hoping they’ll be just as excited as we are about it.  We want them to share the excitement we feel over this thing that we’re creating.
            I think God feels that same way.  I mean, God must enjoy creating, right?  God created this world and everything in it.  And God did that with care.  God did that with love.  God did that with attention to detail.  Think of all the things that have to be just right for the world to be the way it is, for the world to work the way it does.  When God created the world, God created a hundred, a thousand, a million things that would work together in just exactly the right way for everything in the world to work right.  You only do that when you love to create.  God loves to create.  And God is happy when we appreciate God’s creativeness.
            Our future, our 2018, is going to be created by God.  Yes, the things we do have an impact on it.  The things other people do have an impact on it, too.  But if we truly mean what we say in our prayers, if we really mean it when we say “Thy will be done”, if we really surrender to God’s will and allow God’s Holy Spirit to lead us and guide us through life, our 2018 will be created by God.
            So I think that, in large part, how we feel about those three hundred sixty-five blank pages that will make up our 2018 depends on how much we trust God.  Do you, do I, trust God enough to allow God to write what goes on those three hundred sixty-five pages?  And do you, do I, trust God enough that we believe whatever God writes on those pages will be good, will be right, will be best not just for ourselves but for everyone else, too?
            This is not a rhetorical question.  I want us all to think about it.  Including me.  We know what the answer should be.  We know we should trust God with those three hundred sixty-five pages.  But the question is not should we trust God.  The question is do we trust God.
            Because the truth is that it’s not always easy.  It’s not always easy to trust God.  Each one of us, sitting here today, has hopes and dreams of what 2018 might bring.  We may not have told anyone about them.  We may not have even really thought them through ourselves.  But we have them.  They may not be for anything fancy or special.  They might be--we might have hopes of getting a better job or a new relationship or better health.  We may have hopes that things will get better for a loved one.  But our hopes may just be that our lives will continue on the same path they are right now, because we’re happy that way.
            But whatever it is, we all have hopes and dreams of what 2018 might bring.  That’s natural.  But our hopes and dreams for 2018 may not be the same as God’s hopes and dreams for us in 2018.  They might be, but they might not.  God may have an entirely different plan for those three hundred sixty-five blank pages.
            Now, sometimes we can see that God’s plan is a lot better than ours.  When that happens, we eagerly jump on God’s plan.  But sometimes, we cannot see that.  In fact, sometimes we don’t understand God’s plan at all.  Sometimes God’s plan makes no sense to us whatsoever.  Sometimes we look to the heavens and say, “God, seriously?  This is your plan for me?  This is where you want me to go?  This is what you want me to do?  For real?  How’s that ever going to work?”
            It’s okay to ask questions like that.  For one thing, asking questions like that helps us be sure that what we see really is God’s plan.  Asking those questions can clarify in our mind if we really are being led by God, or if there’s something else going on here.  
For another thing, God never minds if we ask honest questions.  Remember the story of God telling Moses to go to Egypt and tell the Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go?  There’s page after page of Moses questioning God.  And God does not get mad at Moses for asking those questions.  God just patiently answers them all.  God does not mind if we ask questions.
But, just as with Moses, there comes the time where we realize that God has answered all our questions.  And there’s only one thing left to be decided.  Are we going to follow where God is leading us or not?  Are we going to trust God enough to follow God’s plan, even when it’s different from our plan?  Do we have enough faith in God to follow God’s plan even when we don’t understand it and even when, maybe, it really does not make any sense to us?
God has given us the gift of 2018.  Three hundred sixty-five blank pages.  God wants to do a new thing for each one of us on those pages.  It is springing up even now.  May each of us trust God enough to allow God to write on each of the three hundred sixty-five blank pages that will make up our 2018?


Thursday, December 28, 2017

Defending Christmas

I have posted this on my blog every year since I wrote it in 2009.  It seems crazy to me that 2009 was eight years ago.  On the other hand, what I wrote then still seems relevant to me.  It's a few days after Christmas, instead of a few days before, but the rest still works.


 We are just a few days away from Christmas Day.  Among other things, that means it’s the time of year for pastors to complain about the secularization of Christmas.

There are secular aspects to Christmas, of course.  There always have been. Some of them are fine.  There’s nothing particularly wrong with giving and receiving presents, as long as you don’t go overboard about it.  There’s nothing wrong with decorating trees and putting up Christmas lights.  In fact, I enjoy looking at them.  

The reason we celebrate Christmas on December 25 is not because Jesus was actually born on that date.  We don’t know the actual day on which Jesus was born, although there are various theories.  Some sources say the reason we celebrate Christmas on December 25 is that it was a time when there were already secular celebrations going on, centering on the winter solstice.  If so, then it might be more accurate to say that followers of Jesus have been trying to Christianize a secular holiday, rather than the other way around.

Therefore, I really don’t think that, as Christians, we need to feel like we have to defend Jesus in some sort of war on Christmas.  In fact, the idea of Christians fighting a war over the birth of the Prince of Peace seems like a contradiction in terms.  All we need to do, as Christians, is make clear what it is that we are celebrating, regardless of what anyone else is doing.

Let others wish us a “happy holiday”; we can still wish them a merry Christmas.  If some don’t want a nativity scene at the courthouse, we can still put one in our front yard.  About three-fourths of Americans claim to be Christians.  If three-fourths of the houses in this country had nativity scenes in their yards, there’d be no need for one on public property.  In fact, we’d probably make more of an impact that way.

We don’t need to get mad at people who want to secularize Christmas.  What we need to do is calmly, persistently, and lovingly make sure people know that, as Christians, we are celebrating the birth of Christ.  Then, in that same way, we need to make sure people know who Jesus is, why we worship him, and why others should worship him, too.  If we do that, our Lord and Savior will do the rest.