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Saturday, August 19, 2017

A Lesson in Humility

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, August 20, 2017.  The Bible verses used are John 13:1-17.

            We’ve been doing a sermon series going through the events of Jesus’ life in chronological order.  And so, we’re up to the events of the last couple of days of Jesus’ life.  Jesus has gathered the disciples to celebrate the Passover meal with him.  This is the night of what we now know as the Last Supper.
            It seems odd that John’s gospel is the only one that mentions Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.  The others all have the Last Supper, but they don’t have this part.  But it’s no less important for that, and the lessons it teaches us are no less important, either.
            At various times, I’ve asked you to try to imagine yourself present at various Bible events.  I’d like you to do that today.  You’re in the room with Jesus.  All the disciples are there with you.  You’re eating a meal.  Probably, given the timing of it, the meal you’re eating is the Seder, the ritual meal eaten in celebration of the Passover.  It’s a very important meal in Jewish tradition.
            You’re all eating this meal, and suddenly Jesus gets up.  You probably notice that, but don’t think much of it at first.  Then, Jesus starts taking his clothes off!  He walks over to where there’s a towel and wraps that around his waist.  He goes over to where there’s some water--maybe a pitcher, maybe a bucket, we’re not told where the water came from.  Jesus pours some water into a basin.  Then he goes around to each of the disciples, one by one, starts washing their feet, and dries them with the towel that’s around his waist.
            Are you picturing this?  Because to me, one of the most amazing things about this whole deal is that at this point, none of the disciples has reacted at all.  None of them has said, “What are you doing?”  None of them has said, “Why are you doing that?”  None of them has said, “Here, let me help you.”  None of them has said, “Jesus, wait a minute, you should not have to do that.  We’ll find someone else.”  They all just sit there.  Maybe they were so taken by surprise they did not know what to say.  Maybe they were scared to say anything.  Maybe they were afraid they’d look stupid if they said or did anything.  We don’t know why.  But they all just sit there.  Nobody saying anything.  Nobody doing anything.  They just sit there and let Jesus wash their feet.
            Until he gets to Peter.  We’ll get to that in a minute, but first let me remind you what foot washing was back then.  We’ve talked about this before, but think of the condition feet were in back then.  People did not wear socks and shoes.  Some people had sandals, but a lot of people went barefoot.  And they did not walk on paved roads, either.  They walked on dirt.  Or sand.  Or fields with plants on them.  And there were animals around, so there were plenty of things to step in, if you know what I mean.
            So feet were, for the most part, just plain ugly and disgusting.  They were filthy.  They were calloused.  They had sores and blisters sometimes.  Nobody wanted to have to handle feet like that.  It was the one of the lowest, dirtiest jobs around.  If you were the foot washer, you were about as far down on the list as you could be.
            So Jesus is doing this lousy, dirty job.  And the disciples just sit there and watch him do it.  Until he gets to Peter.  Jesus looks at Peter.  Peter looks at Jesus.  Peter cannot believe what’s going on.  He says, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”  
            Jesus says, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
            Peter still cannot believe it.  He thinks, I might not know everything, but I know Jesus--Jesus, the Savior, the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God--Jesus is not supposed to be washing people’s feet.  So he refuses.  He says Jesus will never wash his feet.
            Jesus, of course, responds by saying, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”  And Peter, on hearing that, responds in the most Peter-ish way possible.  He says, “Well, then, not just my feet, but my hands and my head as well.”
            John does not say so, but I have to think Jesus would’ve laughed at that.  Maybe some of the other disciples laughed, too.  It’s classic Peter being Peter.  It also shows, though, that Peter still does not understand what Jesus is doing or why.  And no one else there does, either.
            Jesus goes around, washing everyone’s feet.  Then he puts his clothes back on and sits back down.  And he says, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.”
            Jesus was telling them, and us, think about what I just did.  You know who I am, and yet I did not try to hold myself out as any better than you.  In fact, I held myself out as worse than you, because I acted like your servant.  So none of you has any business acting like you think you’re better than anyone else, either.  None of you should think you’re too good to serve others.
            Do you remember when we did the sermon series on the Minor Prophets a couple of years ago?  What was the thing God was always criticizing the people of Israel for?  Arrogance.  Thinking they were better than other people.  Thinking they were better than God.  Thinking they were so good they did not need God any more.  They were arrogant, and their arrogance brought them down.
            Now, hundreds of years later, it’s still a problem.  Jesus is still trying to fight arrogance.  He’s telling the disciples that they are not any better than anyone else, and they should not act like they are.  They should be willing to serve others, just as Jesus has served them.  They should act humbly, just as Jesus has acted humbly.  They should show humility, just as Jesus has shown humility.
It is really easy for us human beings to become arrogant.  We slide into it without even thinking about it.  We slide into it without even realizing it.  We slide into it with the best of intentions, sometimes.  But we still have it.  Any time we think we’re better than someone else, we’ve fallen into arrogance.  Any time we think we’re more valuable than someone else, we’ve fallen into arrogance.  Any time we think we’re more important than someone else, we’ve fallen into arrogance.  Any time we think our feelings, our opinions, our wants, needs, or desires are better or more important than those of someone else, we’ve fallen into arrogance.
            Now, that’s not to say that we should not recognize our own talents and abilities.  It’s okay for us to realize that we’re better at some things than other people are.  God has given each of us certain talents and abilities, and God wants us to use them.  But the fact that I might be better than you at something does not mean I’m better than you as a person.  You’re better than I am at a lot of things, too.
            The point is that, in God’s eyes, we’re all equal.  God does not have a rating system for our sins, and decide that some of us are lesser sinners than others.  In God’s eyes, we’re all sinners in need of repentance, forgiveness, and salvation.  And one of our goals should be to see people as God sees them, to the extent we can.  That means we need to try to see all people as equal as well.  Of equal value, of equal worth, and equally deserving of our love.
            And of course, that includes people we disagree with.  It includes people who don’t like us.  It includes people who treat us like dirt.  After all, this same Jesus who washed the disciples’ feet said that we are supposed to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  He said that if someone takes our coat, we should give them our shirt, too.  All of those people are equal to us in God’s eyes.  And we need to see them as equal to us, too.  Any time we don’t, we failing to do what Jesus told us to do.
            Is it easy to do those things?  Of course not.  But look at the people whose feet Jesus was washing.  They included Judas, who was going to betray Jesus.  They included Peter, who was going to deny three times that he even knew who Jesus was.  They included all the other disciples, who were all going to run away and abandon Jesus.  And Jesus knew all that.  Jesus knew exactly who the disciples were and what they were going to do.  And yet, even though Jesus truly was better than any of them, he did not behave that way.  He acted as their servant, and washed their feet.
            Jesus told the disciples, “I have set an example for you.”  He said, if I can do this for you, then you can do this for others.  If I don’t consider myself any better than you, then you have no right to consider yourself better than anyone else.
            When we’re tempted to think of ourselves as better than someone else--and we all are; when we’re tempted to think of ourselves as too good to do certain things--and we all are; when we’re tempted to feel arrogant and superior--and we all are; let’s remember the example of Jesus.  Let’s remember that Jesus, the divine Son of God, gave us the ultimate example of humility.
            The Apostle Paul told us that we are supposed to imitators of Christ.  This is one of the best ways we can do that.  Let’s do everything we can to practice humility.  Let’s do everything we can to serve others.  Let’s follow the example of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

What Can I Say?

So you all know about what happened in Charlottesville last weekend.  Lots of people have weighed in on it.  I’ve been wondering what, if anything, I should say.  I thought about not saying anything, for a few reasons.  

For one thing, as you know, I try not to get involved in political issues.  This may not be a purely political issue, but it certainly has political aspects to it, and those aspects seem to be becoming more and more prominent as the days go by.  

For another thing, as I said before, lots of people have weighed in on this issue.  I don’t know what I can say that hasn’t already been said many times.  I can’t really see how adding one more voice to the cacophony that was already going on will do any good.  

For a third thing, some (not all) of what I’ve heard and read came off as telling others what they have to think and how they have to feel.  As a result, it sounded rather self-righteous and holier-than-thou.  That’s not to say it was insincere, but arrogance is a sin, too, and it’s one that God seems to have a lot to say about.

So, since I’m not sure that I have anything useful to say, I just want to remind everyone, including myself, of Jesus’ words.  This is from the gospel of Luke.  It’s Luke 6:27-31.

But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

As you think about the events of last weekend, as you hear all the commentary about it, as you see it turned into a political football, as you decide what your reaction to all of this should be, remember the words of Jesus.  Make your decision accordingly.  I’ll try to do that, too.  If we follow Jesus’ words, we won’t have to worry about the sin of arrogance or any other sins.  When we follow Jesus, we’re always going in the right direction.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Beauty of Creation

I’ve told you before that summer is my favorite time of year.  Well, this just may be my favorite time of summer.  Why?  Because the sunflowers are in bloom!

Maybe, to those of you who’ve lived around here all your lives, seeing the sunflowers is no big deal.  But nobody grew sunflowers where I grew up.  I mean, there were a few scraggly wild sunflowers, but nothing like what we have around here.  I think the first time I ever saw an actual field of sunflowers was when we took a band trip to North Dakota when I was in college.  That was in October, though, so the time of their true beauty had long since passed.

If you get a chance, take a look at a field of sunflowers in bloom.  The bright gold contrasted with the dark green is just incredibly beautiful.  And the uniformity of it--all the sunflowers the same height, in perfect rows--is incredibly beautiful, too.

When I see something in nature that beautiful, it convinces me all the more, not just that God exists, but that God loves us.  Because, if you think about it, God would not have had to make sunflowers look that beautiful.  God could’ve made sunflowers grey.  God could’ve made then a dull, ugly sort of brown.  God could’ve made sunflowers look any way God chose.  But God chose to make them look beautiful.  

The beauty of a field of sunflowers--the beauty of anything in nature--is a gift from God.  It’s a gift to us.  It tells us that God enjoys the act of creating, that God likes to create things that are beautiful, and that God likes it when we enjoy and appreciate the beauty of the things God has created.

And by the way, that includes you and me, too.  God enjoyed creating you.  God created you to be beautiful, and God likes it when you enjoy and appreciate the fact that you are beautiful, too.  Even if others don’t think so, God thinks so.  And God wants you to think so, too.

There is beauty all around us, if we stop and look for it.  Try to see the beauty of everything around you.  And try to see your own beauty, too.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

God Sent Us

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, August 6, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Luke 19:41-44.

            God is big.  God is really big.  God is bigger than anything you or I can ever imagine.  I mean, think of the biggest thing you can possibly think of, take that times two, and then take it times ten, then take the square of that, and you’re still nowhere near how big God is.
            Because God is so big, there are a lot of different ways in which we can view God.  It’s like the old story about blind men trying to describe an elephant.  One feels his trunk and describes him as being like a snake, one feels his ear and describes him as being like a fan, one feels his side and describes him as being like a wall, and so forth.  Each one describes the elephant differently, depending on what part of the elephant he feels.
             That’s how it can be with us and God.  There are so many different aspects of God that we can never understand them all.  God is holy.  God is righteous.  God is perfect.  God is all-seeing.  God is all-knowing.  God is powerful.  God is mighty.  God is just.  God is fair.  God is gracious.  God is merciful.  God is love.  On and on and on.  These are just a few of the words we could use to describe God.  And the way we’ve experienced God influences which of those words we choose to describe God.
            Some people believe in a vengeful, wrathful God.  Some people believe in a God who is eager to punish us for our sins.  They see God, in effect, as sitting in heaven with a big red pen, ready to pounce on us and send us to hell if we step out of line.
            I hope you don’t see God that way, because I don’t think that’s how God is.  I don’t think it’s how Jesus portrayed God, either.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I do believe that heaven and hell are both real.  I do believe that people go to both places.  But I don’t think God is eager to send us to hell.  And one of the things that shows that is our reading from Luke today.
            Jesus is looking at the city of Jerusalem.  This is a few days before he’s going to be arrested and crucified.  Jesus knows what’s going to happen.  He knows what’s going to happen to him.  He also knows what’s going to happen to Jerusalem--that it’s eventually going to be overthrown and its temple destroyed.  He knows that disaster is about to overtake the entire nation of Israel.
            But Jesus takes no delight in that.  In fact, he’s sad about it.  He’s so sad that he cries over the city of Jerusalem.  He says of Jerusalem “if you had only known on this day what would bring you peace.”  He knows all this disaster could have been prevented, if only the people had believed.  God wanted to help them.  God wanted to take care of them.  God wanted to bring them salvation.  And they refused it.  Jesus says, “You did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”
            If God was a vengeful God, if God was a wrathful God, if God was a God who is eager to punish us, God would never have sent Jesus to earth in the first place.  The whole point of Jesus’ coming is to give us a way to avoid punishment.  The whole point of Jesus’ coming is to give us a way to escape the consequences of our sin.  God is not sitting in heaven waiting to pounce on us and punish us if we step out of line.  God is eagerly waiting, hoping that we’ll accept Jesus and avoid punishment.  As John Three-Seventeen says, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”  And God is sad when we don’t accept that salvation.  God cries when we don’t accept that salvation.
            But God has given us free will.  And that means that God gives us the ability to make choices.  And that includes making the choice to reject the salvation offered through faith in Jesus.  That’s not the choice God wants anyone to make.  And so, while it makes God sad when we make that choice, it also makes God determined.  It makes God do everything God can do, short of forcing us, to convince us not to make that choice.  God has done a lot of things to convince us not to make that choice.  Including, again, sending the divine Son, Jesus Christ, to from heaven to earth.
            But God did not stop there.  Because God still does not want anyone to reject the salvation that God offered us through faith in Jesus Christ.  So God continues to send people to earth to encourage people to accept that salvation.  God sent you.  And God sent me.
            I hope that everyone here has made the choice to accept the salvation offered through faith in Jesus Christ.  But we should not stop there.  Because we know that there are people, right here in our community, who have not made that choice.  That should make us sad, just like it makes God sad.  But it should also make us determined, just like it makes God determined.  It should make us do everything we can do to convince people not to make that choice.
            Now, as I’ve said before, God does not want us to be obnoxious about this.  We should not badger people or point fingers in their faces or anything like that.  And there are a few people in the world who do that, and sometimes they get on television and stuff.  But that’s not who most of us are.
            In fact, I think most of us go the other way.  I think, too many times, we’re scared of talking about our faith.  We’re scared of talking about God.  We’re afraid someone might be offended if we bring up the name of Jesus.  Or we’re afraid that we’ll be rejected.  Quite honestly, I’m not sure what we’re afraid of, but we sure seem to be afraid of it.  And I feel that, too.  Even when people know I’m a pastor, I sometimes hesitate to bring up my faith in public.  I can do it here, from the pulpit, when everyone expects it.  I can do it if someone comes to my office and wants some advice or help.  But in regular conversation with people?  Not so much.
            Now, if that does not apply to you, that’s great.  If you’re out there talking to people about your faith, and doing it in a loving, caring way, that’s wonderful.  I hope you’ll keep doing it.  But too many of us don’t.  We seem to have bought into this idea--and it’s an idea that seems to be taking hold more and more in our society--that religion should be a private matter.  Yes, we can have faith, but we should keep it to ourselves.  We should not bring it up in public.  You can have your beliefs, but don’t talk about them with anyone else.
            That’s not what Jesus said.  In fact, it’s the exact opposite of what Jesus said.  Jesus said for us to go and make disciples.  Can you think of a way to make disciples of Jesus Christ without talking about our faith in him?  I cannot.
            And no, it’s not enough for us to just show our faith by our actions.  Don’t get me wrong, our actions certainly should show our faith.  Our faith in Jesus Christ should make us live differently.  It should make us act differently.  It should make us speak differently.  Our faith in Jesus Christ should influence every aspect of our lives.
            But that’s not enough.  We need to tell people why our lives are different.  We still need to tell people why our actions are different.  We need to tell people why our words are different.  We should not be silent about our faith in Jesus Christ as our savior and just expect people to figure it out by looking at us.  We need to tell them.
            Look at it this way.  If there was ever a person on earth whose actions were Godly, it would be Jesus Christ, right?  If there was ever a person whose faith made him live differently, whose faith made him act differently, whose faith made him speak differently, it would be Jesus.  So, did Jesus stay silent about his faith and expect people to just figure it out by watching him?  No!  Of course not!  He talked about God.  He talked about God all the time.  So if Jesus, who lived a perfect, sinless life, did not just rely on the way he lived, if even Jesus needed to talk to people about faith, why would we think that we, as imperfect and sinful as we are, could just rely on the way we live and not need to talk to people about faith?  That’s not how it works.
            Now, is this easy?  No.  I’m not standing here telling you it’s easy.  It can be hard.  If you’re kind of a shy person anyway, it can be even harder.  But you know what?  There’s only one way it’s going to start getting easier, and that’s if we start doing it.  It’s if we start trying.  The only way to get over our fears, to get over our silence, the only way to start talking about our faith to people is to actually do it.  Look for openings in conversations.  Be aware of the chances that come up in everyday life to talk about faith.  We don’t have to force it—God will provide those chances to us, if we look for them and take advantage of them when they come up.
            Now, it’s okay if we want to practice for a while.  It’s okay if we want to start by talking with somebody safe, somebody we know won’t get mad at us.  It’s okay if we do role playing exercises.  Whatever it takes is fine.  But the point is that we need to do it.  We need to do whatever we can to bring people to faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior.
            And don’t forget to pray about this.  There are times in the gospels when Jesus tells the disciples, don’t worry about what you’ll say when situations come up, because the Holy Spirit will tell you what to say.  You and I can rely on the Holy Spirit, too.  If we open ourselves up to God and let God lead us, God’s Holy Spirit will teach us how to talk about our faith.  And the more we do it, the easier it will get.
            God is sad when people don’t accept Jesus as their Savior.  But while God won’t force us, God is determined to do everything God can to encourage us to accept Jesus.  That’s why God sent you and God sent me.  It should make us sad, too, when people around us don’t accept Jesus as their Savior.  But it should also make us determined.  Let’s be determined to do everything we can to encourage everyone in our community to accept Jesus as their Savior.  It truly is a matter of eternal life and death.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

More Than Kindness

There’s a quote I’ve seen a lot on the internet lately.  It’s attributed to the Dalai Lama.  I have no idea whether he actually said it.  He may have, but there are a lot of quotes that get mis-attributed or just plain made up on the internet.  The point, though, is that a lot of people are posting this and seem to agree with it.  Maybe you agree with it, too.  The quote is this:  “My religion is very simple.  My religion is kindness.”

When we first read that, it sounds nice.  Who’s opposed to kindness?  I’m in favor of kindness myself.  Kindness, according to the dictionary, means “the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate”.  And certainly, we should all be friendly, generous, and considerate.  In other words, we should be kind.

But is that really all there is to religion?  I don’t think so.  Jesus did not talk a lot about being kind.  Jesus talked about love.  Loving God and loving your neighbor.  There are important differences between kindness and love.  Love may include kindness--after all, the Apostle Paul told us that love is kind--but love is so much more than that.

When you think about it, kindness really does not demand all that much from us.  Kindness is something that can be done on an impulse.  Kindness is happening upon someone who needs help and helping them.  Kindness is seeing an ad on TV about children in India and sending some money.  Kindness is going to the hospital or the nursing home to visit a friend.

All of those things are good things to do.  Again, I’m not here to criticize kindness.  I’m all in favor of it.  But all of those things are one-time things.  We do them, and they’re helpful.  They may make somebody feel better.  They may make us feel better, too.  But after we’ve done them, we can go on about our business. 

Love is different.  Love requires a commitment.  Loving our neighbor means seeking out ways we can help them.  Loving our neighbor means helping them even when it’s not convenient for us.  Loving our neighbor means not just being there for them today, but being there for them tomorrow and the next day and the next week and the next month.  Love does not allow us to do a one-time thing and go on about our business.  Love requires a commitment.

Loving God requires a commitment, too.  Loving God means looking for ways to serve God.  Loving God means loving our enemies and praying for people who persecute us.  Loving God means going and making disciples of Jesus Christ.  And it means not just doing these things once in a while, when it’s convenient for us.  It means making these things part of our everyday life.  It means treating people with kindness, too, but it means so much more than that. 

Love means something else, too.  Love, sometimes, means telling people things they don’t want to hear.  Love, sometimes, means bringing people up against some hard truths.  Love, sometimes, means telling people that it’s not a good idea for them to continue to do the things they are doing.  Love, sometimes, means telling people that they need to repent of their sins, ask for forgiveness, and turn their lives over to Jesus Christ.

Those things may not be perceived as “kind”.  But they are loving.  I am very fortunate that I’ve had people in my life who loved me enough to tell me things I did not want to hear.  I am very fortunate that I’ve had people in my life who loved me enough to bring me up against some hard truths, to tell me I should not continue to do some things I was doing.  Sometimes I still need that.  And of course, I still need to repent of my sins, to ask forgiveness, and do more to turn my life over to Jesus Christ.

Again, I’m all for being kind.  But if we want to call ourselves Christians, we need to be more than kind.  We need to love God and love our neighbor.  And we need to go and make disciples of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Awareness of God

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, July 30, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Luke 21:5-36.

            In our sermon series on the earthly life of Jesus, we’ve come to the events of Holy Week.  As we said last week, in the actual Holy Week, we tend to go right from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday.  We skip over the events of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.
            There are a couple of reasons we do that.  One is just the lack of time.  There’s a lot of stuff that happened in that time frame, and even with extra services there’s only so much of it we have time to talk about.
            But I think there’s another reason we tend to skip over these things.  See, at this point, Jesus knows his time is getting very short.  He knows he only has a few days left to tell people everything they need to know.  And so, as you may have already noticed in recent sermons, Jesus’ tone becomes a lot more serious.  He’s talking about real life and death matters.  And not just earthly life and death.  He’s talking about eternal life and death matters.
            And what Jesus says about those things sometimes makes us uncomfortable.  Today, for example, Jesus is talking about the end times.  He’s talking about Christians being persecuted for their faith.  He’s talking about Christians being betrayed by their families and their closest friends.  He talks about a time of punishment, when all kinds of disasters are going to happen.
            Quite frankly, a lot of times, we’d rather not deal with that.  And I fall into that trap, too.  It’s a lot easier to hear about God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes will not perish but will have everlasting life.  It’s a lot easier to hear about how God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but to save the world through him.  It’s a lot easier to hear about how the two greatest commandments are to love the Lord your God and to love your neighbor as yourself.  And to be honest, it’s a lot easier to preach those things, too.
            But that’s a trap.  And we fall into it at our peril.  Now don’t get me wrong.  All those things I just mentioned are very important.  We need to hear those things sometimes, and I need to preach them sometimes.  But we cannot just stop there.  When Jesus said the things we read from Luke Twenty-one, he was not talking to himself.  He was not talking just to make noise.  In fact, this is the last long speech of Jesus’ that Luke records.  This was one of Jesus’ last chances to tell the disciples, and us, things we need to know about what’s going to come before the end.  So I think it’s really important that we hear and pay attention to what Jesus had to say.
            You already heard it, but let me repeat a few of his words.  “Many will come in my name, claiming ‘I am he’ and ‘The time is near.’  Do not follow them.”  “Nation will rise against nation...There will be great earthquakes, famines, and pestilences.”  “They will lay hands on you and persecute you.”  “There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people.  They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations.”
            It’s possible, of course, to hear or read those words and apply them to today.  And some people do that.  They believe that we’re in the end times now.  If you believe that, I’m not going to argue with you.  Your beliefs on that, either way, are your beliefs, and there’s no way to prove who might be right or wrong.
            Jesus’ point, though, was not to say a specific time when the end times were going to come.  In fact, he once said that even he did not know exactly when the end times would be, that only God the Father knew that.  His point, though, was that it could happen any time.  It could happen a hundred thousand years from now, but it could happen this year.  Or this week.  Or today.  We don’t know.  And because it could happen at any time, we need to always be ready.  “Always be on the watch” is how Jesus put it.  Be prepared at all times, so whenever the final judgment comes we’re ready for it.
            Now, that does not mean that we should constantly be scanning the skies looking to see if Jesus is coming.  But what it does mean is that we should live our lives with the awareness that Jesus could come at any time.  And it means we should live our lives with the awareness of God working in and through us, leading us and guiding us.  We need to live our lives with an awareness of God’s presence at all times and in everything we do.
And the way we can do that is to open ourselves up to God’s Holy Spirit.  Truly open our hearts and open our souls to God.  I know I’ve said that before, but it’s one thing to say the words and another thing to mean them, and it’s still another thing to put them into practice.  I may say the words, but I fail at doing it many times.  Maybe you do, too, I don’t know.
            It can be hard for us live with that awareness of God in our lives.  Jesus knew that.  He knew why, too.  Listen to what he says:  “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness, and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap.”
            That word “dissipation” is one we don’t use much any more.  In fact, I don’t know when the last time is that I have used it.  But here’s what it means:  it means squandering.  Frittering away.  Wasting.  Misspending.
            How many of us do that with our time?  Squander it.  Fritter it away.  Waste it.  Misspend it.  Maybe you don’t, I don’t know.  But if you don’t, I envy you.  Because I do.  That’s the trap.  We think we have plenty of time.  That each day, each hour, each minute, is not all that important.  That we don’t have to think about God right now.  We can do it later.  There’s no hurry.  We can get right with God some other time.  
Maybe you and I do have plenty of time, but maybe we don’t.  And that may have nothing to do with the end times.  Even if the End Times are a long way off, each of us will have our own personal end time, when we leave this earth and face judgment.  And none of us knows when that day will be.
            Now, understand, I’m not saying we can never take any time to relax, that we can never get any rest.  Even Jesus took some time to rest.  We need to unplug once in a while, to recharge our batteries, to refresh ourselves.  But even then, we should not just be frittering away our time.  We should not be wasting it.  Even in our relaxation time, we need to live with the awareness of God in our lives.  We should not take a vacation from God.  We should not take a vacation from being Christians.
            Look at what else Jesus says can be a trap.  We get weighed down with “the anxieties of life”.  Boy, do we ever.  We worry about all kinds of things, don’t we?  And I’m not being critical of that.  Life does have anxieties.  We worry if we have enough money to pay our bills.  We worry if we’ll keep our health.  We worry if we’ll have and keep people in our lives who love us and care about us.  We worry if we’ll find and keep jobs that give us some satisfaction.  We worry about the people we care about, too, and whether they’ll have all these things.
            Now to some extent that’s normal.  None of those things is an unreasonable thing to be concerned about.  But sometimes we get so concerned about the “anxieties of life” that we let God get crowded out.  We stop living with that awareness of God in our lives.  We don’t intend to.  Sometimes we’re even praying to God.  But we stop feeling that connection to God.  We stop feeling God with us.  We stop feeling God working with us.  We stop trusting God to guide us and help us through life.  Again, we don’t intend to.  But we let these worries, these concerns, these “anxieties of life” get to us.  We let them get in the way of our relationship with God.  We let them get in the way of our ability to have faith in God and trust God.
            As I said, Jesus knew this could happen to us.  And he told us what to do about it.  He put it into the context of being persecuted, but I think it applies to all of these things.  And besides, let’s face it, when these anxieties, these concerns, these worries get the best of us, it feels like we’re being persecuted, right?  Not in a physical sense, but in an emotional and psychological sense.
            So here’s what Jesus said:  “Make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves.  For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict….Not a hair of your head will perish.  Stand firm, and you will win life.”
            If we trust in Jesus, you and I can avoid these traps.  We can avoid the temptation to dissipate our time, to fritter it away.  We can avoid the temptation to let the worries and concerns and anxieties of life get the best of us.  We can rely on Jesus’ words.  We can rely on Jesus’ wisdom.  We can be aware of God’s Holy Spirit with us always, guiding us and helping us through life.  We can live that awareness of the presence of God at all times.
            So let’s do it.  Let’s open our hearts and our souls to God.  Let’s feel God’s Holy Spirit leading us through our lives.  Then, we’ll be ready.  Whether the End Times come or our own personal end time comes, we’ll be ready.  We will stand firm.  And we will win life.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Power of Prayer

A week and a half ago, we were incredibly dry in Gettysburg.  So, on Monday of last week, I spent much of the day posting songs on facebook that had to do with rain.  “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”, “Rainy Day People”, “Rainy Days and Mondays”, etc., etc.  I called it a virtual rain dance.  And, sure enough, early Tuesday morning it rained.  And Wednesday morning it rained some more.  And Friday night, it rained some more.

So, did my virtual rain dance cause it to rain?  Well, no. I don’t really think so.  But it does bring up a point, which is this:  to what extent, if any, do our prayers change what happens?  Or, to put it another way, can we influence God with our prayers?

There’s no question that we try.  Lots of people have been praying for rain.  When someone we care about is sick, we pray that God will heal them.  When someone loses a job, we pray that God will help them find another one.  But do our prayers influence God?  Does God act differently because of our prayers?

I don’t know.  On the one hand, I don’t believe that God is waiting to hear from me before he plans His day.  On the other hand, Jesus told us that we could pray for the things we want and that God knows how to give good gifts to God’s children.  On the one hand, I don’t think God says, “Well, if Jeff prays for this person to be healed I’ll heal them, but if not, well, too bad for them.”  On the other hand, I do pray in all the situations I mentioned in the last paragraph, plus a variety of others.  I must think something is going to happen as a result of my prayers or I wouldn’t bother.  And the fact is that I truly do believe that prayer has power, and I believe that I have seen God at work in answer to prayer.

The bottom line, I guess, is that there’s a lot about prayer I don’t understand.  The reason for that is that there’s a lot about God I don’t understand.  Maybe you feel the same way.

But here’s the thing:  it’s okay.  We’re not expected to understand everything about God.  In fact, if you think about it, it’s not possible for us to understand God.  If you think about who God is:  the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful, omnipotent, omnipresent, perfect God--the God who can be everywhere at once and see everything at once and hear everything at once, the God who exists at the same time in the past, present, and future--how in the world could you and I, as puny and weak and small as we are in comparison, possibly understand God?  There’s no way.  A god that we could understand would not truly be God.

The Bible never tells us that we need to understand everything about God.  It never tells us that we need to understand everything about prayer.  It tells us that we should pray and that we should trust God.

So that’s what I’ll do.  I hope it’s what you’ll do, too.  Continue to pray.  Continue to pray for the things and the people that are important to you.  Remember to give prayers of thanks as well.  Continue to believe prayer has power.  But also remember to pray the words that Jesus told us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer, including these four:  “Thy will be done.”

We can and should bring our concerns to God.  Then, we should trust God, knowing that God knows best, that God loves us, that God is good, and that in the long run, God always wins.  And if we truly believe in God, if we truly trust God, and if we believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior, then in the long run, you and I will win, too.  Because, after all, the power of prayer is really the power of God.