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Thursday, April 19, 2018


You know by now that the United States launched a missile attack on Syria last week.  I’m not going to tell you what to think about that.  I’m not even sure what I think about it.  Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, obviously.  But it just seems to me that there are a lot of things having to do with this that I don’t know.  And that makes it really hard for me to have an opinion about it.

What I want to talk about, though, is my reaction when I first heard about it.  If you’re not interested in my reaction, feel free to stop reading.  Go on to the enclosed sermon, which has nothing to do with this.  But my reaction, when I heard about the attack, was basically, “Oh.  Okay.  Whatever.”  And I went on with what I was doing.

Understand, I’m not saying this was a good reaction.  I’m certainly not saying it’s the reaction you or anyone else should have.  I’m pretty sure it’s not the reaction I should have.  But if I’m honest, that was my reaction.  And to be honest, a week later, it still pretty much is my reaction.  I just have a feeling of detachment about the whole thing.

Why?  Well, part of it is simply my powerlessness in this situation.  I have no way to influence what we do in Syria.  I have no way to influence what Syria does in response.  Things will happen as they will.  I can pray about it, and I do and have.  I’m sure lots of other people have, too.  But what, if anything, God will do in response to those prayers is up to God.

But part of it, I think, is that I’m losing my ability to be very concerned about anything I hear on the news any more.  It seems like every day--for months now, maybe longer--we’ve heard something on the news that we’re told we’re supposed to be really, really concerned about.  And sometimes I truly have been concerned.  But I just can’t be concerned about everything.  Maybe I should be able to, I don’t know.  But I can’t.  I’m not sure anyone can.

It’s like I’ve become numb to it.  Or maybe immune is a better word.  If everything is a major concern, then nothing is really a major concern.  And then, when something comes along that I probably should be really concerned about, I just can’t do it.  It becomes just noise, part of the constant noise of daily living.  It’s not that I’m ignoring the current situation.  But I’m watching it with, again, somewhat of a detached feeling.

Again, I’m not promoting this as a good attitude.  But I don’t know what to do about it, either.  I don’t think it’s possible to force yourself to feel something you don’t actually feel, even if you think you should feel it.  

So I guess what I’ll try to do is what I’ve said before.  I’ll try to affect the things I can affect.  I’ll try to help the people I can help.  I’ll try to be there for the people I can be there for.  I’ll try to show love to the people I can show love to.  And I guess I’ll just have to put the rest of it in God’s hands.

But at least those are pretty good hands to put it in.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Creating Our God

The message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, April 15, 2018.  The Bible verses used are Exodus 32:1-8, 15-25, 31-35.

            We’re in the second week of our sermon series on Humor in the Bible.  We talked last week about how God has a sense of humor, and I still believe that.  The thing is, though, that not all of the humor in the Bible comes from God.  Some of it comes from human beings.  And unfortunately, a lot of that humor comes from some of the dumb things we human beings say and do.
            As always, we need to put these stories in context.  At this point, Moses had led the people of Israel across the Red Sea and into freedom.  He went up on Mount Sinai, and God gave him the Ten Commandments to take to the people.
            But what we forget is that that’s not all God gave Moses on Mount Sinai.  God gave Moses a whole lot of other rules and regulations for the people, too.  God also gave Moses some detailed instructions for how tabernacle was supposed to be built, as well as the things that are in the tabernacle.  So Moses was up on Mount Sinai for about a month and a half, getting all these instructions from God.
            But while Moses was up on the mountain, the rest of the people were down at the bottom, waiting.  And they waited, and they waited.  And Moses did not come back down from the mountain.  And eventually, they got tired of waiting.  And they gave up on Moses.  We’re told that they said, “As for this fellow Moses, who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”
            That, in and of itself, would’ve been bad enough.  I mean, it sounds like the people of Israel were not very grateful for what Moses had done.  They’d been slaves in Egypt for generations.  And here’s Moses, going to the great and powerful Pharaoh, and defeating him, and leading the people of Israel to freedom.  But now, what appears to be just a handful of months later, they’re referring to him as “this fellow Moses”, as if he was just some guy.  And they’ve given up on him.
            But the really bad thing is not that they gave up on Moses.  The really bad thing is that they gave up on God.  Because Moses had told them, and they knew, that it was really God who had defeated Pharaoh and led the people of Israel to freedom.  And in fact, just before Moses went up the mountain, in Chapter Twenty-four of Exodus, we’re told that all the people said, “Everything the Lord has said we will do” and “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey.”
            Apparently those were just words.  They may have meant them at the time, but they had no commitment to them.  Because now they say to Moses’ brother, Aaron, “Come, make us gods who will go before us.”
            Now that’s sad, but in an absurd sort of way that’s funny.  I mean, think of it.  “Hey Aaron, make some gods for us.”  Make a god.  The definition of a god--not the God, not the God we worship as Christians, but just a god generally--is “a superhuman being or spirit worshiped as having power over nature or human fortunes”.  They want Aaron--a human being, the brother of Moses--they want Aaron to create a superhuman being that has power over nature and has power over their lives?
            I mean, what would make them think Aaron could do that?  What would make them think any human being could do that?  How in the world would someone go about creating a god?  It’s ridiculous.
            But, Aaron does it, or at least tries to.  He takes a bunch of gold and melts in down into the shape of a calf.  And he puts the calf on an altar and tells everyone this is their god, the god that brought them out of Egypt.  And apparently, the people go for it.  I mean, this is ludicrous, They actually believe that this thing Aaron made, this thing that wasn’t even around when they were brought out of Egypt, is the god that rescued them from Egypt.  If you were there watching this, what could you do but laugh at it?  It’s beyond belief.
            But that’s not the funniest part of this.  The funniest part is when Moses comes down off the mountain and asks Aaron what in the world he thinks he’s doing.  Aaron says, “They said to me, ‘Make us gods who will go before us’...So I told them, ‘Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’  Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it in the fire, and out came this calf!” 
Is that not hilarious?  Think about what Aaron is saying.  He basically says, hey, don’t blame me.  I don’t even really know what happened.  I took a bunch of gold, threw it in the fire, and--shazam!  All of a sudden this calf was there!  It was nothing to do with me.  I did not do it.  The calf was just--there!  Who knows how these things happen?  It just did, somehow.
            Is that not the dumbest excuse you’ve ever heard?  Little kids do better than that, don’t they?  What can you do but laugh at that?  It’s just such an outrageously stupid thing for Aaron to say.
            I have to think Aaron knew how stupid that sounded.  I think Aaron probably knew, deep down, that what he’d done was wrong.  I think he probably knew it while he was doing it.  But he’d convinced himself that it was okay.  And now, when everything came crashing down around him, the flimsiness of his reasons because obvious to him and to everyone else.
            But as we’ve said, the humor in the Bible is there to make a point.  What’s the point here?  Well, let’s think about it.
            When the people of Israel could see that God was actively working for them, they were all in with God.  Yep, Lord, we’ll do everything you want.  You’re our God.  We’re your people.  You just tell us what to do, and we’ll do it.  We’re with you God.  All the way.
            That’s what they said when they could see God actively working for them.  But then Moses went up the mountain.  And the people could not see God actively working for them.  God was working for them--God was giving Moses all kinds of instructions for what they should do.  But the people could not see that.  They could not hear it.  They could not feel it.  And they could not trust God enough to believe that God was still working for them even when they could not see it or hear it or feel it.  And so, within about a month and a half, they turned away from God.  They turned away and worshiped something they had created themselves.
            Do we ever do that?  It’s easy for us, too, to follow God when we can see God actively working for us.  But when we cannot see it, when we cannot feel it, do we still trust God?  Or do we turn away and worship something we’ve created ourselves.  Probably not a golden calf.  But material wealth, maybe?  Or pleasure, or leisure time?  Or maybe we worship our own skills and talents and abilities, rather than trusting God?  Or maybe we follow what society tells us to do, rather than trusting what God wants us to do?  Do we ever create our own “golden calf” to worship, instead of trusting God?
            And when we get caught doing that, when things come crashing down around us, when something happens where it feels like God comes along and asks us what in the world we think we’re doing, do we ever do what Aaron did?  Do we ever say, well, don’t blame me.  It was not my fault.  I had nothing to do with it.  It just--shazam!  It just happened.  I don’t know how.  It just did.  Do we ever respond to God like that?
            I said I think this is funny story, and I do.  But at the same time, any time you and I start to think that we’re smarter, or better, or more faithful than the people in these Bible stories, we’re setting ourselves up for a fall.  It can be hard to trust that God is still active in our lives when we can’t see or feel what God is doing.  It can be very tempting to give up on God when that happens.  And sometimes, you and I can give in to that temptation.  We turn away from God.  We start thinking we have to do things ourselves, that we have to take care of ourselves.  It can be easy for us to give up on God, and to create our own “golden calf” to worship.  And sometimes it does not take very long for us to do it.  
            We know, deep down, that we should not do that.  But we do it anyway.  And we convince ourselves that it’s okay.  And then, when things come crashing down around us, the flimsiness of our reasons become obvious, both to us and to everyone else.
            Is there a golden calf in your life?  Is there one in mine?  If so, let’s get rid of it.  Let’s destroy it, burn it, grind it into powder the way Moses did.  Let’s trust God.  Let’s trust that God is active in our lives, even if we don’t see that or feel it for a while.  God has promised never to abandon us.  God has a plan, even if we don’t know what it is.  If we’re not hearing from God, it could be that God is waiting for the right time.  Or, it could be that we’re just not listening, because what God is saying is not what we want to hear.  But God is still there, whether we’re aware of God or not.  And God works everything for good for those who love God.
            Let’s get rid of our golden calves.  Let’s trust God.  Let’s be faithful to God.  Because we know God will always be faithful to us.

Friday, April 13, 2018

All the People Living for Today

I’ve told you before how much I love the music of the 1970s.  Recently I was listening to my favorite satellite radio station, The Bridge, which plays that sort of music.  The song “Imagine”, by John Lennon, came on.

It’s a simple, beautiful, well-crafted tune, but it’s the words I want to talk about.  Maybe you know them.  In case you don’t, or in case you’ve forgotten them, here’s the first verse.

            Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

As I was listening to the song, a thought struck me.  We really don’t need to imagine this any more.  Don’t get me wrong, I certainly believe there’s a heaven and a hell.  But we don’t need to imagine a society in which people don’t believe that.  We don’t need to imagine people who are living only for today.  We don’t need to imagine it, because we’re living in it.

Polls show that a large number of people in this country do not believe in heaven.  An even larger number don’t believe in hell.  We do have a large number of people who, as the song says, are living for today.

Has it made society better?  Do we have this utopian society that John Lennon thought we’d get?  Well, that’s a matter of opinion, I suppose.  But I don’t think so.  I don’t think a lot of people do.  Certainly there are some ways in which society is better than it was in 1971, when this song was written.  But there are a lot of ways in which it’s worse, too.  And to the extent that society is better, I think you’d have a hard time making the case that the improvement was caused by a decline in religious belief.  

“All the people living for today” does not automatically lead to everyone loving each other and caring for each other.  In fact, in many people, it leads to a sense of drift, a sense that life has no purpose and no meaning.  That, in turn, can lead to all sorts of bad behaviors, because if life has no purpose and no meaning, then it really does not matter what we do.

Is religion perfect?  Is the church perfect?  No and no.  The only one who’s perfect is God.  As soon as you get humans involved, no matter how good their intentions, things get messed up.  There has been harm done in the name of religion, and in the name of the church, and I neither deny nor defend that.  But I think most of us would say religion, and the church, do a lot more good than harm.  In fact, even some atheists have been forced to admit that religion is, on the whole, a good thing for society.

But there are always ways in which we need to do better.  So let’s focus on opening our hearts and souls to God’s Holy Spirit.  Let’s so our best to follow God’s will.  “All the people living for today” is not the way to utopia.  But all the people living for God just might be.

Friday, April 6, 2018

What's Really Important

I wrote this on Easter Sunday.  Easter, as with all of our major religious holidays, has taken on a secular tone these days.  And I’m not going to be a Grinch and say that this is all bad.  I have fond memories of coloring eggs when I was a kid.  I remember Easter egg hunts and Easter baskets.  Chocolate bunnies were awesome.  And I’ve already told you how much I used to love Cadbury Crème Eggs.  I was not a huge fan of the marshmallow Peeps, but hey, you can’t have everything.

And of course, we always had a big meal on Easter.  We’d have the traditional Easter ham, but we’d have lots of other things, too.  My mom loved to cook.  We usually have another kind of meat as well as ham, especially if we had company coming, just in case someone didn’t like ham.  We’d have potatoes, of course.  We’d have corn and beans, and maybe another vegetable as well.  There’d be one or two fruit salads, at least.  There’d be fresh bread or buns or crescent rolls, or a combination thereof.  And of course, there’d be at least four or five different desserts.  And after the meal, we’d usually turn on the radio and listen to the ball game.

So, I have a lot of good memories of all the secular things about Easter.  But at the same time, in between getting our Easter baskets and having the big Easter meal, we would always go to church.  Always.  We would always get there early, and we would always stay late.  We’d stay late so Mom and Dad could visit with people.  My brothers and I would go play in the grassy lot next to the church or, if we were told not to get our good clothes dirty, we’d wait in the car, rather impatiently, for Mom and Dad to finally be ready to go home.

But the thing is, we did not just make a point of going to church at Easter.  We went every Sunday, without fail.  Dad was a farmer, and he always had work to do, but he always made sure he took the time to go to church with the family.  I could probably count on one hand the number of times Dad missed church, and it was inevitably because cattle had gotten out and had to be rounded up.  And Mom would never miss, ever.

I realize the world is not like that today.  For one thing, there are a lot more things to do on Sunday than there used to be.  For another, people travel a lot more than we did when I was growing up.  My point here is not to criticize anyone.  The world I grew up in no longer exists, it’s not coming back, and it does no one any good to live in the past.  We have to live in the world that actually exists, not the world that we wish existed.

The point is that my parents raised me with the idea that church is important.  And in doing that, they raised me with the idea that worshiping God is important.  And kids need to be raised with that idea today just as much as they needed to when I was young.  Maybe more.

Again, I understand that I grew up in a different time.  I have no way to know how my parents would’ve raised me if they were raising me now.  But it’s still important to raise kids with the idea that church is important, and that worshiping God is important.  And if, for whatever reason, you don’t take your kids to church regularly, then you need to find some other way to raise them with those ideas.

If there’s a way that I can help with that, let me know.  I’m open to ideas.  I’m open to doing anything I can to help you with this.  Not because I want a bigger church, but because this is one of the most essential things for a church to do.  Raising kids with the idea the church is important, and that worshiping God is important, is one of the most significant things we will ever do.

If you enjoy some of the secular things life has to offer, that’s okay.  But remember what’s really important.  Make sure you, and your kids, keep God as the most important thing in your life.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Miracle of Easter

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, April 1, 2018.  The Bible verses used are John 20:1-18.

            It’s Easter Sunday!
            All week in all of our special services, we’ve read all the bad stuff.  Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane, asking God to spare him from what he knows is coming, but yet agreeing to do it if that’s God’s will.  Jesus being betrayed.  Jesus being arrested.  Jesus being questioned.  Jesus being beaten and tortured.  Jesus being humiliated.  Then, Jesus being killed.  All the bad stuff.  All the stuff we’d really like to skip over, and that sometimes we do skip over.  And now, finally, we get the payoff!  We get the celebration!  The tomb is empty!  He is risen!
            And that’s cool and all.  But the payoff does not work if we skip over the bad stuff.  It’s only because we know all the bad stuff that the miracle of Easter really seems like a miracle.
            Think about it.  If we skip from Palm Sunday to Easter, what do we have?  We have Jesus riding into Jerusalem in triumph, hearing the cheers of the crowd, being proclaimed the king, and then Jesus rising from the grave in triumph, seeing the amazement in the faces of everyone as they see that Jesus lives.  Jesus goes from triumph to triumph.  And again, that’s really cool, but it’s not reality.  Jesus did not go from triumph to triumph.  Jesus went from triumph to tragedy and back to triumph. 
If we skip over the tragedy, we lose the meaning of the triumph.  We lose the miracle of Easter.  Easter becomes just a nice holiday to hunt eggs and eat chocolate bunnies.  And not that there’s anything inherently wrong with hunting eggs and eating chocolate bunnies, but if that’s all we get out of it, Easter becomes just another secular celebration.  The miracle of Easter is lost.  It’s only through the sadness and shame of what human beings--people like you and me--did to Jesus that we can truly appreciate the glory and the triumph of this Easter day.
Mary Magdalene was not able to skip over the tragedy.  She was there.  She was there when Jesus carried his cross through the streets.  She was there when they put Jesus on the cross. She was there when the notice Pilate prepared, the one that read, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” was attached to the cross.  She was there when the cross was raised up.  And she was there when Jesus died.
Can you imagine how she must have felt?  Mary Magdalene was one of the closest followers of Jesus.  She had been traveling with Jesus for some time.  She had seen Jesus work miracles.  She had seen him say and do all sorts of amazing things.  And now she was saw him die.  She had to have been devastated. 
But even in her devastation, even in her despair, Mary Magdalene kept her faith.  At least, she kept it enough to do her duty.  She went to the tomb on that first Easter Sunday to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.  In the Jewish faith, there were certain rituals that you were supposed to do when someone was to be buried, and Mary went out there to start doing them.  
She finds the stone rolled away and Jesus’ tomb empty.  And that just made her feel worse.  She had no idea what had happened.  What she thought was exactly what she said to Peter and John, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
And that, in its way, is also an expression of faith.  Now, granted, Mary did not know that Jesus had been raised.  In fact, the thought that Jesus had been resurrected, that he was alive, does not seem to have occurred to her.  But still, how does Mary Magdalene refer to Jesus?  She calls him “the Lord”.  She doesn’t say, “They have taken Jesus out of the tomb.”  She says “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb.”  Even though she does not know what’s happened, even though she thinks Jesus is dead, she still calls him “the Lord”.  Despite everything, Mary Magdalene still believes that Jesus is “the Lord”.
And then, of course, Peter and John went running out to the tomb to see.  They saw that Mary was right, the tomb was empty.  But then, after they saw that, they left.  But Mary Magdalene stayed.  We don’t know why she stayed.  But it seems to me that this is an expression of faith, too.  This was the last place she had seen Jesus, and so she was going to stay there.  She was going to stay in the last place Jesus had been, just in case he came there again.
And of course, he did.  And at first, Mary did not know who he was.  But then, she did.  And her faith was rewarded!  Jesus was live!  And in an instant, her despair turned to joy like Mary Magdalene had never felt in her entire life.  
But suppose Mary Magdalene had not gone through the tragedy.  Suppose she had seen Jesus ride into Jerusalem in triumph on Palm Sunday, and then had left town for a week.  She knew nothing of what happened.  She did not hear about his betrayal or arrest or death or any of that.  And then she comes back to town and sees Jesus.  Would she have had the same reaction?
Of course not.  It would not have been any big deal to her to see Jesus.  I mean, she’d have been happy to see him, of course.  But there would’ve been no reason for her to feel joy.  She’d never have known anything any different.  It’d be like if I saw you last week at the Palm Sunday service and then saw you again today.  I’m happy to see you, don’t get me wrong.  But there’d be nothing unusual about it.
Here’s the point, or actually two points.  The first point is that if you and I skip from Palm Sunday to Easter, we miss out.  We miss out on the joy.  We miss out on the wonder of Easter.  We miss out on the miracle of Easter.  That Jesus loved us enough to allow himself to be betrayed, to be arrested, to be beaten, to be humiliated, to be killed.  And he did that for us, for you and for me.  Jesus willingly took the punishment for our sins, so that you and I would know that our sins can be forgiven and that we can have salvation and eternal life through our faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior.
Because, you know, that’s the real miracle of Easter.  Jesus rising from the dead was, indeed, a miracle.  No question about it.  But the even greater miracle is that Jesus allowed himself to be killed in the first place.  The even greater miracle is that, knowing exactly who we human beings are, knowing how weak and sinful and unloving and selfish we human beings are, Jesus still thinks we are good enough, and important enough, and valuable enough, that he would go through all of that for us.  Knowing exactly who we are, Jesus still died for us.  Jesus died to give us the chance for salvation and eternal life.  That’s the greatest miracle of Easter.  And if we skip from Palm Sunday to Easter, we miss that.  We miss out on the tragedy, but we also miss out on the miracle.
And here’s the other point.  I would venture to say that most of us here have had some sort of tragedy in our lives.  If it did not happen to us personally, it happened to someone we’re close to and someone we care a lot about.  And if you have not had that happen yet, the chances are that it will happen at some point in your life.
We wish that life was not that way.  We’d like to skip over the tragedy.  Sometimes we ask why God is putting us through it.  We ask why God does not take the tragedy away. 
That’s okay.  If you remember, Jesus asked that God take the tragedy away from him, too.  Jesus prayed that, if there was some other way for the salvation of human beings, God not make him go through the suffering and death.  No one, not even Jesus, wants to go through a tragedy.  It’s okay if we pray for God to take that away from us.
But ultimately, Jesus realized that God the Father wanted him to go through with it.  And sometimes, that’s what we realize, too.  Sometimes we pray for God to take us out of a situation, and God says no.  God tells us we need to go through the situation.  We may not understand why.  Jesus may not have understood why.  He may have, of course--he was the divine Son of God, after all--but I think it’s possible that, as he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus did not understand why the salvation of human beings had to come this way.  But he understood that it did.  And that was enough for him.
And it needs to be enough for us, too.  It’s hard.  I know it’s hard.  When we’re going through a tragedy, we don’t understand why God would tell us we need to go through it.  And while it’s always hard to go through a bad situation, it’s even harder when we don’t understand why.  It’s hard for us to say, as Jesus did, that for whatever reason, it’s God’s will that I go through this, and that’s enough.
But remember, it was only by going through the tragedy that Jesus achieved his ultimate triumph.  And that can happen for you and me, too.  If you’re going through a bad situation right now, it’s entirely possible that it’s only by going through it that you will achieve a triumph later.
It’s not easy to see that when we’re in the middle of it.  It’s not easy to have that much faith.  But we know God is there.  We know God is great.  We know God is good.  And we know that God has plans and purposes that we know nothing about.  We also know, as it says in Romans Eight, Twenty-eight, that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him.”  It may be, just as it was for Jesus, that it’s only by going through a tragedy that you and I will achieve our ultimate triumph, too.  It may be that, if we skipped over our tragedy, we’d miss out on our own miracle.
We’d love to skip from Palm Sunday to Easter.  But if we do, we miss out on the miracle of Easter.  We’d love to skip the tragedies in our own lives.  But if we did, we’d miss out on the miracles of our lives, too.  And as hard as it is to go through tragedies, it would be even worse to miss out on the miracles.
May God bless each and every one of us.  And may none of us miss out on miracles.  Both the miracle of Easter and the miracles of our own lives.

Love and Happiness

The message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Friday, March 30, 2018.  The Bible verses used are John 19:17-38.

            The hymns we’ve done today may not have been all that familiar to some of you.  They’re certainly not among the most popular or happiest hymns we sing.  We don’t sing them very often, and the fact is that we don’t like to sing them very often.  They’re sad hymns.  They’re hymns that tell of the killing of Jesus Christ.
            Which, of course, is why we sing them today.  Today is Good Friday.  Today is the day we celebrate the death of the Savior, Jesus Christ.
            And that’s an odd phrase, is it not?  We celebrate the death of the Savior.  Is there any other religion that celebrates the death of its leader?  I cannot think of one.  They may commemorate it somehow, but celebrate it?  If there’s any other religion that does that, I’m not aware of it.
            And of course, the reason for that is that Christianity is the only religion whose leader did not stay dead.  And we know that.  We know that both Jesus’ death and Jesus’ resurrection were part of God’s plan for our chance for salvation.  And because we know that, we celebrate.  We don’t celebrate the fact that Jesus was tortured and killed.  We celebrate the fact that Jesus had the courage and the faith and the love to follow the plan of God the Father, even though he knew he was going to be tortured and killed.  We celebrate that God’s plan was followed and came true.
            It’s interesting, though, that nobody was celebrating at the time.  Obviously the disciples were not celebrating.  They were hiding, on the run, scared for their lives.  But no one else seemed to be celebrating, either.  Even the people who were directly involved in Jesus’ death do not seem to have been happy about it.
            Pilate was not happy.  We’re told that he was afraid of Jesus.  He tried to get out of having Jesus killed.  He told the people he could find no basis for the charges against Jesus.  He tried to get the people to let him release Jesus to them.  But ultimately, Pilate could not stand up to those who wanted Jesus killed.  But even in that, he had a notice attached to the cross that said, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”.  Pilate was not happy at all about the role he played in this.
            The Roman soldiers probably come the closest to being happy about this.  They divided up Jesus clothes, each taking a share.  But even in that, they did not take any particular joy in Jesus being killed.  It was just a job to them.  It was one of their duties as soldiers.  You can just hear them shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Jesus lives, Jesus dies, it’s all the same to me.  I get paid the same either way.”  The soldiers were just out there doing their jobs and getting what they could for it.
            Even the Jewish leaders don’t seem to be happy.  You’d think they would be, right?  After all, they’d finally gotten what they wanted.  They’d been trying to figure out a way to kill Jesus for a long time.  Now they’d finally gotten it done.  And yet, if they were happy, if they were celebrating, the Bible does not tell us about it.  In fact, the main concern of the Jewish leaders seems to have been just to get this over with as quickly as possible.  They went to Pilate and asked to have the legs broken of those who were being crucified, so they’d die faster.  And I understand that they wanted the bodies taken down before the Sabbath, but still.  It sounds like the Jewish leaders were not proud of what they’d done.  They just wanted to put the whole thing behind them as fast as they could.
            I don’t think Jesus was very happy on that first Good Friday.  I suspect, and I hope, that despite that pain, Jesus found some satisfaction in the day.  Because after all, this was the day Jesus won.   Jesus withstood all the temptations he had been subject to while he was on earth, and they were pretty substantial temptations.  He withstood the temptation to run away or to shut up when things got hard.  He withstood the temptation to compromise or to water down his message.  He withstood the temptation to use his divine power to establish an earthly kingdom, as so many people wanted him to do.  He withstood all those and many other temptations.  Jesus stayed faithful to the plan God the Father had laid out for him.
            But still, I doubt that Jesus was very happy at the time.  How could he be?  No one would be happy about being tortured and killed.  Jesus was killed in a very painful way, and that was done deliberately.  And don’t think that Jesus, as the Divine Son of God, could not feel pain.  He could and he did.  Jesus went through agony on the cross.  We probably don’t think about that often enough--the incredible pain that Jesus went through just to save sinners like you and me.
            It’s kind of odd, when you think about it.  Here’s this day that we now call “Good Friday”, and yet at the time, it looks like no one thought it was good.  Literally, nobody.  As far as we can tell from the Bible, no one was happy on that first Good Friday.  It’s like the sadness of the day was so profound, so pervasive, that it affected everyone, even the people who were making it happen.
            These days, it seems like society puts a very high value on happiness.  You can read all kinds of quotes from all kinds of people telling you that the most important thing in life is to be happy.  That we should do whatever makes us happy.  That if something makes you happy, then it does not matter what anyone else thinks.  Society tells us that nothing should be more important than our happiness.
            That’s not a Biblical concept.  Jesus did not say that our main goal should be to be happy.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being happy.  I’m a pretty happy person myself.  I think God likes it when we’re happy.  But Jesus did not say “Do whatever makes you happy.”  Jesus did not say happiness is the most important thing in life.  Jesus said the most important thing is that we love God.  Jesus said the most important thing is that we love our neighbor.  Jesus said the most important thing is to treat others as we would like them to treat us.  Jesus said the most important thing is to go and make disciples.
            Now, if those things make us happy, that’s great.  And I hope they do.  But even if they don’t, we’re still supposed to do them.  Jesus did not say love God if it makes you happy.  Jesus did not say love your neighbor if it makes you happy.  Our happiness has nothing to do with it.  These are things we’re supposed to do because Jesus told us to do them.  And because Jesus is the divine Son of God, this is God telling us to do those things.  And that, in and of itself, should be enough reason for doing these things--because God told us to.  Whether they make us happy is irrelevant.
            Now again, I hope doing these things does make us happy.  But it won’t, at least not all the time.  Quite honestly, there are times when I really don’t feel like showing love to my neighbor.  There are times when I know I should go and do something to help someone, but I’d really rather stay home and watch the ball game.  There are times when I know I should go and visit my parents in the nursing home in Armour, but I’d really rather not make that eight-hour round trip.  I may, after it’s all said and done, be glad that I made myself get up and do those things anyway, but at the time, getting up and doing what I’m supposed to do does not always make me happy.  And maybe that’s true for you sometimes, too.
            Jesus was not happy that he had to die on a cross.  In fact, he prayed that God the Father would let him avoid doing it.  But when the time came, Jesus did it anyway.  Jesus did what God the Father wanted him to do.  Jesus did it out of love--love for God the Father and love for each and every human being who’s ever been or ever will be.
            That’s the example for us to follow.  There are times when God asks us to do something and we’re not happy about it at all.  In fact, sometimes we might pray that God would let us avoid doing it.  But when the time comes, we need to do it anyway.  We need to do what God wants us to do.  And we need to do that out of love--love for God and love other human beings.
            There’s nothing wrong with being happy.  But happiness should not be the ultimate goal for a Christian.  The goal of a Christian should be to follow wherever God leads us, even if he leads us to a cross.  That’s what Jesus did.  That’s what God wants us to do, too.

Friday, March 30, 2018

It Took Love

This is the message given in the Maundy Thursday service in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish.  The Bible verses used are John 18:1-14, 19-24, 28-40; John 19:1-16.

            We read about the things Jesus went through on that first Maundy Thursday.  Being arrested.  Being bound.  Being questioned.  Being beaten.  Being questioned some more.  Being beaten some more.  And, finally, being sentenced to death.
            When you think about it, it’s incredible that he went through it all.  For one thing, Jesus had done nothing wrong.  He was completely innocent of everything he was accused of.  And Jesus knew that.  You heard how he said, “If I said something wrong, testify as to what is wrong?”  And his accusers could not do it.  They could not testify to anything that Jesus had said or done that was wrong.
            It goes even further than that.  When Pilate asked the Jewish leaders what the charges were against Jesus, they could not tell him.  All they could say is, “If he were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.”  Not only could they not prove that Jesus had done anything wrong, they could not even say what they were accusing him of doing wrong.
            It’s such a mockery of justice, when you think about it that way.  Not only was Jesus declared guilty based on no evidence, Jesus was declared guilty without anyone ever saying what he was guilty of.  Jesus was not crucified because of anything he said or did.  Jesus was crucified simply because of who he was.
            And for another thing, Jesus did not have to go through with this.  There are any number of ways Jesus could’ve avoided being killed.  He could’ve just not gone to Jerusalem in the first place, right?  I mean, he knew what was going to happen when he went there.  Jesus could’ve gone somewhere else, or stayed where he was.  If he had, he would not have been killed when he was, and maybe he would not have been killed ever.
            Or, Jesus could’ve stopped Judas from betraying him.  He knew what Judas was going to do.  He told Judas, “What you are going to do, do quickly.”  And really, Jesus would not have had to do anything himself.  All he’d have had to do is say to the other disciples, “Hey guys, guess what Judas is going to do.”  They’d have taken care of Judas right then and there.  He would not have been able to go anywhere and betray anybody.
            Or, after Judas left, Jesus could’ve hid out somewhere.  He could’ve avoided the garden of Gethsemane.  Jerusalem was a big city even back then.  There had to be plenty of places to hide and plenty of people who’d have hidden him.  Or, he could’ve just left town.  It was night, after all.  He could’ve gotten away before anyone knew where he’d gone.
            Or, he could’ve allowed the disciples to fight.  Peter wanted to.  He cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant, Malchus.  He was ready for a fight.  And I’m sure the other disciples were, too.
            Or, Jesus could’ve called for divine help.  In fact, in Matthew’s version of events, Jesus tells Peter, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”  
            Or, Jesus could’ve tried to cut a deal with the Jewish authorities.  I have to believe that if he’d been willing to compromise, if he’d been willing to recognize the authority of the Jewish leaders, if he’d agreed to apologize for breaking the Jewish laws, they’d probably have been willing to let him go.  Or, at the most, give him a mild punishment, rather than having him killed.
            So many ways Jesus could’ve avoided this.  And you know, don’t you think it had to be tempting?  I mean, Jesus knew what was in store for him.  He knew how hard it was going to be.  He knew how painful it was going to be.  He knew how humiliating and degrading it was going to be.  Knowing what was in store for him, knowing he’d done nothing to deserve it, knowing that he could avoid it easily, don’t you think it was tempting for him to do that?  I do.  I don’t see how it could not have been.
            Think of what it took for Jesus to resist that temptation.  It took courage, for one thing.  Some people say this is the ultimate definition of courage--to make a choice to face a danger that you don’t have to face.  After all, if you have no choice but to face something, that’s not really courage.  That’s just doing what you have to do.  But if you could avoid the danger, and yet you turn and face it, that’s courage.  It took a lot of courage for Jesus to allow himself to be arrested and tortured and killed.
            It took a lot of faith, too.  Now, maybe you say, well, he was Jesus.  He knew who God the Father was.  He knew how things were supposed to go when he died.  Of course he had faith.  And there’s truth in that, of course.  But at the same time, you and I know who God the Father is, too.  And we know, through our faith in Jesus Christ, how things are supposed to go when we die.  And yet, could you do what Jesus did?  Could you willingly give your life, even though you did not have to?  I don’t know that I could.
            But the main thing it took was love.  Love for God the Father.  And also, love for human beings.  Love for us, for you and for me.
            Jesus loved God the Father so much that he was determined to do what he was supposed to do.  He was determined to do it simply because God the Father wanted him to do it.  In telling Peter to put his sword away, Jesus says, “Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”  In other words, Jesus tells Peter, this is all part of God’s plan.  And I’m going to follow God’s plan.  I’m going to do what God the Father wants me to do, what God the Father sent me here for.  I’m going to do that no matter what the cost to me is.
            That’s love.  That’s incredible love.  To do what God wants you to do, no matter what the cost to yourself might be.  Even if it’s the ultimate cost--death.  To go through what Jesus went through, even though he could’ve avoided it, just because it was what God the Father wanted him to do.  It shows a tremendous love for God the Father for Jesus to have been that obedient.
            But it took love for us, too.  Because even though Jesus knew what he’d been sent here to do, there had to be times when he thought, “Is it worth it?  Are they worth it?”  After all, Jesus had been observing human beings up close and personal for over thirty years.  And over the last three, he’d observed all kinds of things about them.  And just in the last week, Jesus had seen a lot of human beings doing a lot of terrible things.  In fact, just in this night, Jesus saw betrayal, fear, hatred, violence, injustice, ignorance, and cruelty, just to name a few.  Jesus saw all the worst things about humanity.  The thought must have crossed his mind, “Do I really have to go through with this?  Do I really have to give my life to save them?”
            And as we’ve said, he did not have to.  But he did it anyway.  He did it out of love.  Love for you and love for me.
            Jesus knew everything about human beings.  He saw all the worst things about us.  And yet, Jesus loved us so much that he gave his life for us.  He took the punishment for our sins.  He took the punishment that should’ve gone to us.  And he did it willingly, even though he did not have to.  That’s incredible love.  Jesus has incredible love for each one of us.  Jesus has incredible love for you.  And Jesus has incredible love for me.
            Soon we’ll be sharing Holy Communion.  We’ll eat the bread and drink the juice, as some of us have done so many times before.  We’ll ask for God’s grace to enter into us, as some of us have done so many times before.  We’ll ask for God’s forgiveness, as some of us have done so many times before.
            And those are all good things to do.  And we should do them.  But remember what Jesus said when he gave the first Communion.  He said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
            So, as we share in Holy Communion tonight, let’s do that.  Let’s take Holy Communion in remembrance of Jesus Christ.  Let’s remember the courage Jesus had.  Let’s remember the faith Jesus had.  And let’s remember the love Jesus had, both for God the Father and for each of us.  And as we take Holy Communion, let’s be truly grateful for what Jesus did for us.