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Saturday, February 17, 2018

Fighting Satan

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, February 18, 2018.  The Bible verses used are Revelation 11:15; 12:1-9, 13-17, 13:1-4, 6-18.

            As we continue our sermon series on the book of Revelation, we heard about seven angels who had seven trumpets.  The first six sound their trumpets, and all sorts of terrible things happen.  And yet, the people do not repent of their sins and turn back to God.
            Today, we hear about the seventh angel sounding his trumpet.  And we’re told there were loud voices in heaven, and they said, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.”
            Then a whole bunch of other stuff happens, and we’ll talk about that in a minute.  And as we talk about it, I need to be honest with you and tell you that I’m relying on what I’ve read about this.  Maybe you’ve read different things, I don’t know.  The meaning of some of it is not always clear.  But as we go through all this stuff, remember this.  When that seventh trumpet sounds, the kingdom of the world becomes the kingdom of the Lord and of His Messiah.  No matter what else happens, remember that.
            The next thing that happens is that we have a reference to the birth of Christ.  A woman is about to give birth to a male child.  An enormous red dragon, who we’re later told is Satan, is standing there, waiting to kill her child as soon as he’s born.  But God protects the child and the woman, and they go to a place of safety, prepared for them by God.
            There’s a war in heaven.  The angel Michael and other angels fight against Satan and angels who are loyal to Satan.  Satan is thrown down from heaven and hurled to earth, and the angels loyal to Satan are thrown down with him.
            Satan is enraged.  He continues to try to pursue the woman and her child, but he’s frustrated every time.  Because of that, we’re told, Satan “went off to make war against the rest of her offspring.”  That does not mean the other children of Mary.  It means “Those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.”  In other words, you and me, if we claim to be Christians.
            Let’s just stop there for a minute.  Because there are a lot of people, including a lot of people who claim to be Christians, including some very high-up and well-known people who claim to be Christians, who want to say Satan does not exist.  Some of you may believe that, too, I don’t know.  And to be honest, I’m not all that comfortable standing up here preaching about Satan.  And maybe you’re uncomfortable hearing about Satan.  Most of us like to come away from church feeling good.  It’s pretty hard to write a feel-good sermon about Satan.
But we’re reading the Bible, and all I can tell you is that the Bible is pretty clear on this point.  According to the Bible, Satan most certainly does exist.  We can choose to ignore that if we want to, but our ignoring the Bible does not change it.  The Bible says plainly that Satan does exist.  And it says Satan has a mission.  That mission is to come after you.  And me.  And anyone else who is a Christian.  Anyone who is trying to follow God, to do what God told us to do, anyone who proclaims Jesus as the Savior is one of Satan’s targets.
            Then we have the beasts.  Satan gives power an authority to a beast.  The beast has ten horns and seven heads and--well, you heard the description.  From what I’ve read, people at the time would’ve recognized the beast as representing the Roman government.  These were the days of the Roman Empire.  The Roman Empire was huge and it was powerful.  Remember, we read that people were saying, “Who is like the beast?  Who can make war against it?”  There was nothing on earth like the Roman Empire.  It looked like it was invincible.  We’re told that people worshipped the beast.  In other words, there were people who put their complete faith and trust in the Roman government, because it was all-powerful.
            Then we’re told of another beast.  It works on behalf of the first beast, and encourages people to worship that first beast.  I read that people at the time would’ve recognized this beast as representing the Imperial Roman cultic priests, who encouraged people to worship the Roman Emperor as a god.  
People are forced to receive a mark on their hands or their foreheads, and they cannot buy or sell anything unless they have that mark.  That, I read, represents an unofficial economic boycott of Christians.  If you were a Christian, and you refused to worship the Roman Emperor, you would not be allowed to participate in any sort of commerce.  You would not be able to buy or sell anything.  It was a way of trying to force Christians to publicly deny their beliefs and go along with the Roman government.
And finally, we have the number of the beast.  666.  We’re told it’s the number of a man.  We don’t know who the man is.  I saw some names suggested, but we don’t really know.  Some say it’s mankind generally.  We said early in this sermon series that seven was consider a number representing perfection.  Six, therefore, would represent imperfection.  Also, God’s number is three--God is referred to as the trinity, the three in one, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Six, being twice three, is sometimes considered to be man trying to be God.
So, now that we’ve heard all this, what do we do?  Well, we get back to the questions we’ve asked in other messages.  Why is this in the Bible?  What are we supposed to learn from it?  What does it tell us about God, or about ourselves, or about the world, or about our relationship with God?
Well, here’s what I think it tells us.  One thing is that Satan is out there.  Whether we want to admit that or not, the Bible is clear about it.  Satan is out there, and he’s not ready to give up.  In fact, Satan may think he’s winning.  But Satan is out there, and he’s coming after you, and me, and anyone else who claims Jesus as the Savior.
Now, I don’t say that to scare you.  I’m saying it because we need to be aware of this, and we need to be prepared for it.  Because Satan is not a cartoon character.  Satan is not Yosemite Sam wearing a red suit with horns and a tail.  Satan is a lot more subtle than that, and a lot sneakier than that.
Satan has all kinds of ways to come after us.  You may remember, in the fourth chapter of Matthew, all the ways Jesus himself was tempted by Satan.  Tempted to turn stones into bread, tempted to throw himself down from the temple and let the angels save him, tempted to rule over all the kingdoms of the world right now.  Satan tempted Jesus in various ways.  And Satan does that to us, too.
And one of those ways, which Revelation tells us about, is to put our faith in everything and everyone but Jesus Christ.  The specific example Revelation gives us is putting our faith in the government.  But as we said last week, people all around us are putting their faith in all kinds of things other than Jesus Christ.  People will put their faith in celebrities, in athletes, in generalized spirituality, in good works, in mysticism, in self-esteem and happiness, in all kinds of things rather than putting their faith in the one true God in his divine Son, Jesus Christ.
That’s Satan at work.  There may be other things going on, too, but one of the things going on is that Satan is at work.  Satan is active and is doing everything in his power to turn people away from Jesus Christ.  And it’s up to the Christians--to you and to me--to resist Satan’s power.  And as we said last week, we need to do more than just resist Satan’s power.  We need to rely on God’s power and do everything we can to turn people back to Jesus Christ.
Our Bible reading for today told us of a battle that took place in heaven.  The battle was won in heaven, but the war was not over and it is not over.  Satan was thrown down to earth and continued the battle here on earth.  And you and I, as Christians, are the ones who need to fight that battle.
I said earlier that it’s hard to write a feel-good sermon about Satan.  But there’s one thing you and I can feel good about, and here it is:  we’re going to win.  Remember where we started this message.  The very first verse we read today.  
The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said:  “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.”
Satan is still active.  But guess what?  God is still active, too.  God’s Holy Spirit is here with us.  God’s Holy Spirit is working is us and with us and through us.  And God is winning.  And God is going to win.  If Satan thinks he’s winning, he’s wrong.  The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah.  As Jesus says in Luke Seventeen, verse Twenty-one, the kingdom of God is in our midst.  And he will reign, forever and ever.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

When God Acts and We Don't Know

This is a busy time for me.  Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, which starts the season of Lent.  That means that I have an extra service to prepare each week, as we have Wednesday night services in Gettysburg during Lent.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m complaining about that.  After all, it happens every year.  Besides, I enjoy writing sermons and preparing worship services.  I don’t mind being busy doing those things.

The point is, though, that I get pressed for time occasionally.  And the other day, when I was feeling pressed for time, something happened that gave me some extra time that I had not anticipated getting.  It really helped me.  It wasn’t a huge thing--it wasn’t a life-changing event or anything--but it made things a little easier.  And so, I said a short prayer, thanking God for having given me some extra time.  

It then occurred to me to think how often that happens--that God does some little thing for us to make our lives a little easier.  It occurred to me to think about how awesome God is, that God does not just care about the big things in our lives, but cares about the little things, too.  And it occurred to me that I don’t thank God nearly enough for all the little things God does for me.

And then, I thought, I wonder how often God does things for us that we don’t even know about.  Times when we’re trying to do something and everything goes smoothly, with no problems.  Times when maybe we do have some problems, but the problems aren’t as bad as they might have been.  Maybe even times when something goes wrong, but it doesn’t go as wrong as it could have.  After all, one of my favorite quotes is from the author Cormac McCarthy, who said, “You’ll never know what worse luck your bad luck may have saved you from.”  God could work that way sometimes, too.

And then I had one other thought.  I thought, what if, when we get to heaven, they show us all those times.  All those times when God was doing things for us and we never knew.  All those times when God was actively helping us and we had no idea that God was even involved.  What if they show us something like a highlight reel of our lives, showing us how God was helping us every step of the way.

That would be pretty humbling, right?  I mean, I think going to heaven and being in the presence of God will be humbling enough, but this would make it even more so.  To actually see all the times when the almighty, all-powerful God was doing things to help little, puny, unworthy me and I didn’t even know about it.  To see all the times when God was helping me, protecting me, saving me, guiding me through life when I thought I was doing it all myself.  What an incredible experience that would be.  It would make us want to do nothing but be grateful to God and worship God all the more.

But we don’t have to wait until we get to heaven to have that experience.  All we really need to do is open our eyes and open our hearts.  All we really need to do is focus on God now.  All we really need to do is look back on each day and think of all the times when we knew what to say and knew what to do.  All the times when something could have gone wrong, but didn’t.  All of the times when things went more-or-less the way we thought they should go.  And then seeing God in all of those things, being grateful to God for what God has done, and recognizing that a God who loves us that much has to be worthy of our worship.

I’m going to try to do that this week.  I hope you will, too.  Try to see God at work in the day-to-day activities of your life.  Be grateful to God for the things God does for you.  And know that such a God is more than worthy of our worship.

God Deserves It

This is the message given on Ash Wednesday in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.

            In our last reading tonight, Jesus talks about doing good works.  “Acts of righteousness”, as our translation puts it.  Jesus talks about people who want recognition for their good works.  People who, when they give to the needy, “announce it with trumpets”.  People who, when they pray, stand in public places so that everyone can see their praying.  People who, when they fast, going without food, try to make themselves look as bad as they can, so everyone will know they’re fasting.
Jesus says that’s not how we’re supposed to do things.  He says that we should do our good works in secret.  If we give to the needy, were not supposed to let anyone know about it.  “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”  Not only are we not supposed to tell anyone, we’re supposed to keep it hushed up.  When we pray, we’re supposed to go into a room by ourselves and close the door, so no one can see us.  People who fast are supposed to do everything they can to keep looking good, so no one can tell they’re fasting.
            Now, most of us would probably agree with Jesus’ point here.  We know we’re not supposed to make a big show of our good works.  Most of us would probably say that we don’t make a big show of our good works.  And I think most of us would probably be right about that.
            We don’t make a big show of our good works.  And yet...there’s a part of a lot of us that does like to receive recognition for them.  We may not announce what we do with trumpets, but a lot of times, there’s a part of us that hopes what we did will be found out.  We may not advertise it ourselves, but we do sometimes think it would be kind of nice if somebody found out and we got some compliments for what we did.
            Now, my point here is not to point fingers at anyone.  Maybe you’ve never felt like this.  I don’t know.  I suspect there are some of us who have, though.  I know I have.  Wanting recognition and praise for the good things we do is a natural human thing.
            Why?  Well, there can be a lot of reasons.  It’s not necessarily that we want to brag.  It’s not necessarily out of arrogance or self-righteousness.  It can be that, of course, and when it is, that’s wrong.  The Bible tells us a lot about God’s opinion of arrogance and self-righteousness, and none of it is good.  In fact, there’s quite a bit in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, about God punishing people for those things.
            But I think there’s another reason we want recognition and praise for the things we do.  I think a lot of times, people are just looking for acceptance and affirmation.  
I think there are a lot of times when we, as humans, don’t have all that high an opinion of ourselves.  We may like to pretend that we do, but deep down, we don’t.  We wonder, am I a good person?  Am I living the way I should?  Are the things I’m doing good enough?  Is my life really meaningful?  Am I really a valuable human being?
We want the answers to be yes.  We hope the answers will be yes.  But we’re not sure.  We want someone to tell us so.  We want someone to tell us, yes, you are a good person.  You’re doing it right.  Your life is meaningful.  You do have value.  And so, we do these things, and maybe we don’t brag about them or anything, but we hope the word will get out somehow.  We hope people will find out what we did and think well of us.  We hope someone will tell us that we really did a good thing, so we can get that affirmation and acceptance that almost all of us want.
Now, I’m not saying that wanting that affirmation and acceptance is a sin, necessarily.  I think it can be, if it becomes too important to us.  But God understands how we human beings are.  God understands how we are better than we do, because God created us.  Wanting affirmation and acceptance sometimes is not necessarily wrong.  
But it’s not exactly right, either.  It’s really not what God wants for us.  God does not want us to seek affirmation and acceptance from human beings.  God wants us to seek affirmation and acceptance from God.
            The thing is, if our goal is to get affirmation and acceptance from human beings, all we’ll get is whatever reward human beings choose to give us.  If our goal is to get affirmation and acceptance from God, we’ll get whatever reward God chooses to give us.  And we know that God’s rewards are awesome.  God’s rewards are salvation and eternal life.
            But even that’s not really right.  Because getting a reward, even a reward from God, should not really be our goal.  We should not worship God and love God and have faith in Jesus as our Savior because of what we think we can get out of it.  If we look at it that way, that’s not really love, is it?  It’s bargaining.  God, I’ll do this for you if you’ll do this for me.  I’ll have faith in Jesus if you’ll give me salvation.  That’s not love, that’s a business transaction.
            That’s one of the reasons good works are not enough to get us into heaven.  God wants us to do good things, of course.  But God does not want us to do good things so that we can get to heaven.  God does not want us to do good things with the expectation we’re going to get something for it in return.  God wants us to do good things out of love.  Love of God, and love of each other.
            God does promise that our faith in Jesus will result in eternal life.  But God does not promise that out of obligation.  God does not promise it because God has to.  God promises that because God loves us.  God promises us that because God is the all-loving, all-caring, all-merciful, all-compassionate, all-gracious God.
            That’s why we should worship God.  That’s why we should love God.  That’s why we should have faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior.  Not for what we can get out of it.  Because of who God is.  Because God deserves our love.  God deserves our worship.  Jesus deserves our faith.  God does not owe it to us to give us salvation because of what we may have done.  We owe it to God to do what’s right, to worship God and love God, because of who God is.
            No matter how much we study the Bible, no matter how much we pray, no matter how many great scholars we read, no matter how much theology we read, I don’t think we human beings ever get anywhere close to really understanding all that God is.  We try so hard to capture it, we try so hard to come up with all kinds of words and phrases, trying to really put down on paper who God is, and I don’t think we even come close.  It’s not even really our fault.  It’s just that God is beyond our ability as human beings to truly comprehend.  We just cannot get our minds around all that God is.
            That’s one of the reasons Jesus came.  Jesus gave us a chance to know God in a way that we never could otherwise.  Jesus is God.  God the Son.  God in human form.  God with a face people could see and a voice people could hear.  God in a form you and I could relate to and could understand.
            Think of what an act of love that was.  God, the almighty, all-powerful God, a God who is beyond our comprehension, coming down to the level of a mere human being.  God the Son, giving up his place in heaven to live among we weak, sinful, imperfect human beings.  Doing that so that we could have some idea of who God really is.  That shows the incredible amount of love that God has for us.
            And that just shows all the more how much God deserves our love.  It shows all the more how much God deserves our worship.  That the almighty God would do something like that, would demean himself in that way, just for us.  It’s an awesome, incredible, mind-blowing thing that God has done for us.
            As we enter the time of Lent, let’s focus on that.  Let’s focus on how great, how awesome, how incredible God is.  Let’s focus on how worthy God is of our worship and our love.  And then, let’s give God that worship and that love.  Not because we want to go to heaven.  But because it’s the right thing to do.  Because God deserves it.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

It's Up to Us

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, February 11, 2018.  The Bible verses used are Revelation 8:1-2, 6-13; 9:1-6, 13-21.

            In our sermon series on the book of Revelation, we talked last week about the scroll sealed with seven seals.  Jesus Christ was the only one found worthy to break the seals.  He did so, and last week we talked about the opening of the first six seals and the devastation they brought.
            Today we talk about the opening of the seventh seal, and as you heard, things do not get better.  In fact, they get worse.
            The seal is opened, and there is silence in heaven for a half hour.  Maybe that doesn’t sound like very long to you, but think about it.  Have you ever just sat in total, complete silence, for a half hour?  Not doing anything, not working on something, not reading or anything, but just sitting in complete silence?  A half hour can be a long time when you do that.
            We don’t know the meaning of the silence.  Maybe it was anticipation.  Maybe it was dread.  Maybe it was to give everyone a chance to try to prepare themselves for what’s about to happen.  Because what’s about to happen is, in human terms, disastrous.
            A third of the earth is burned up, burning a third of the trees and a third of the grass.  A third of the sea turns to blood, killing a third of the creatures in the sea and a third of the ships.  A third of the waters turn bitter, poisonous, killing many people.  A third of the sun is struck.  So is a third of the moon.  A third of the stars go dark.  Locusts, with a sting like scorpions, descend on the earth and torture people for five months.  It gets so bad that people want to die and cannot.  Then a third of the world’s people are killed.
            Over the last year or two, we’ve seen a lot of natural disasters in the world.  We’ve seen hurricanes.  We’ve seen earthquakes.  We’ve seen wild fires.  We’ve seen floods.  We’ve seen mudslides.  And they’ve been terrible things, no question about it.  I’m not trying to minimize them at all.  But at the same time, the things we’ve seen in the last year or two are nothing compared to what the Apostle John tells us was in his vision in these chapters of Revelation.  I don’t think we can even imagine it.  
            We talked last week about how somehow, even though we may not understand it, these things are all a part of God’s plan.  As Jesus told the disciples, these things must happen.  And as we’ve said before, when terrible things do happen, that’s when our faith gets tested.  That’s when we find out whether this faith we claim to have is really real.  That’s when we find out whether we truly do believe in the goodness of God, whether we truly do have faith, whether we truly can continue to trust God, even when we don’t understand what’s going on or why.
            And in the vision John is given, human beings fail the test.  We’re told that
The rest of the people who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons; and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood--idols that cannot see or hear or walk.  Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts.
            Now, I think we have to be very careful about reading the things that are in Revelation, applying them to our current situation, and assuming that we’re in the end times.  It’s possible that we are, but all kinds of things are possible.  Jesus said that not even he knew when the end would come.  We may be in the end times now, but it’s possible that we’ll go on for hundreds, or thousands, or hundreds of thousands of years before the end times come.  We have no way to know.
            But when I think about that part we just read, where we’re told that no matter how many bad things happened people did not return to God, that people put their faith in just about everything but God, I cannot help but think about the situation we have here in the United States, and even in our own small communities that make up the Wheatland Parish.
            There are lots of us, right here in our communities, who put our faith in lots of things other than God.  Some of us claim to have faith in God but don’t actually think about God much as we live our daily lives.  Some of us have kind of a generalized spirituality, where we believe there’s something, something bigger than we are, but we don’t really know what that something is.  Some of us put our faith in “Mother Earth”, or in astrology, or in human beings.  Some of us put our faith in celebrities or athletes.  Some of us put our faith in science or politics.  Some of us put our faith in witchcraft or in ancient Greek gods, or in healing crystals or in all kinds of other things.  There are any number of so-called “religions” and “faiths” out there that people turn to rather than turning to God.
            These people are searching.  They’re searching for something to believe in.  They’re searching for something to make their lives make sense, to make the world make sense.  They don’t know what they’re searching for, but they know they need something.  And they’re looking all over the place to find it.
            And we have what those people need.  Not just in this church, but in the Christian church.  Those people need God.  They need to accept Jesus as their Savior.  Jesus told us that he is the way, and the truth, and the life.  Jesus told us that he is the way to heaven and eternal life.  That’s what those people need.  And until they him, they’re going to continue searching, searching for something that they need but cannot find anywhere else.
            You know that I’ve been asking you to pray for the children of our parish and for their parents.  In fact, some of you have probably heard me say it so often that you’re getting tired of hearing it.  But this is why.  There are a lot of kids in our community who are not part of a church.  They are not hearing about God’s love.  They are not getting the chance to accept Jesus as their Savior.  And if no one does anything about that, that means that there are kids in our community who are going to miss out on the chance for salvation and eternal life.
            I don’t like to think about that happening.  I don’t like to think about people I know, whether kids or adults, missing out on salvation and eternal life.  And I know you don’t like to think about it, either.  And I know none of us wants it to happen.  But if the people who are in the church don’t do something about it, who’s going to?  
It is literally up to us.  With God’s help, of course--we cannot do this or anything else without God.  But still, it is up to us.  Not because I want it to be.  Not because I think I or you or anyone here has some special talent or ability to reach people for God--in fact, a lot of us would probably say we don’t know the first thing about it.  But still, it’s up to us, because there is no one else.  There is no one else we can push this responsibility onto.  There is no one else we can ask to do it for us.  Jesus told us to go and make disciples.  He did not make it optional.  He said to do it.  Period.  The people of the church have to do this, because no one else is going to.
And we can.  Jesus would not have told us to do something impossible.  But with God, all things are possible.  And remember, when Jesus said in Matthew Twenty-eight for us to go and make disciples, he said something else.  He said, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Jesus did not tell us to make disciples and then leave us alone.  He will be with us when we do this.  God’s Holy Spirit will be there.  The Holy Spirit will show us what to do and tell us what to say, if we’ll only trust that Holy Spirit.
In our reading for today, John was shown a vision of a people who, no matter how bad things got, would not repent and turn back to God.  We don’t want to be those people.  And we don’t want the people around us, the people we know, the people we care about, the people of our community, to be those people, either.  But if things are going to change, it’s going to be the people of the church who change them.  And with God’s help, we can.  So let’s pray.  Let’s pray for God’s Holy Spirit to show us what to do and what to say.  And then, let’s pray for the courage to do it and to say it.  

Thursday, February 8, 2018

God and the Super Bowl

The Super Bowl was last Sunday.  I watched the game—maybe you did, too.  If you’re an Eagles fan, I’m sure you were pretty happy about the outcome.  If you’re a Patriots fan, I’m sure you weren’t.  If you’re just a football fan, you probably enjoyed what was a close, interesting game.  If you’re not a football fan, maybe you didn’t watch it at all.  Maybe you couldn’t care less about the Super Bowl, had no idea who’s even playing, and had no desire to watch even one minute of it.

Whatever your feelings, it’s okay.  There’s nothing wrong with watching the Super Bowl, but there’s nothing wrong with not watching it, too.  We’re all different.  To each his own.  There are a lot of people who do watch it, though.  This year is was around one hundred eight million.  That’s a lot of people.

One of the things people will wonder about sometimes is whether God cares about the Super Bowl.  My answer is yes, but let me explain.  I’m not suggesting that God is a sports fan.  Nor am I suggesting that God is sitting in heaven rooting for one of the teams.  I also suspect that God thinks we devote more time and money and passion to sports generally, and the Super Bowl particularly, than we should.  I still think God cares about the Super bowl, though, and here’s why.

I start from the fact that God loves us.  Because God loves us, the things that are important to us become important to God.  God may not care about the Super Bowl because it’s the Super Bowl, but God cares about us, and so God cares about the things we care about.

Here’s what I mean.  My wife, Wanda, has zero interest in watching sports.  I don’t think she’d ever watched a ball game of any sort before she met me, and should I meet an untimely demise she will probably never watch another one.  Yet, because Wanda loves me, she watched the Super Bowl with me.  And she rooted for the team I rooted for.  In the same way, she wants the Minnesota Twins and the Minnesota Vikings to win their games.  Not because she cares about the games or about those teams, but because she cares about me.  She knows these things are important to me, and so they become important to her.

If Wanda, who is a mere human being (although clearly an exceptional one), can have that much love, how much more love must God have?  God, after all, is love.  All love comes from God, as it says in 1 John 4:7.  God has more love than any human being could ever have.  So, because so many people care about the Super Bowl, I think God loves us enough to care about it, too.

That’s true of all the other things people care about, too.  I think God is interested in music and art and all the other things people enjoy.  That’s why God gave us those things--so we can enjoy them.  God wants us to enjoy our lives.  God wants to enjoy them in certain ways, of course.  God wants us to enjoy them in ways that are good for us and for others, not in ways that are harmful to ourselves or others.  But God still wants us to enjoy our lives.  That’s why God gave us things that would help us enjoy them, such as music and art and, yes, sports.

So, if you watched the Super Bowl, I hope you enjoyed it.  If you didn’t watch it, I hope you enjoyed doing whatever you did.  But know that, whatever you’re interested in, God is probably interested in it, too.  Because God loves you.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Things Must Happen

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, February 4, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Revelation 5:1-6a, 6:1-17.

            Well, now we’re really getting into it.  As we continue our sermon series on the book of Revelation, we’re getting to the parts now that can be hard to deal with.  They make a lot of people uncomfortable.  They make a lot of pastors uncomfortable too, which is why you probably have not heard a lot of sermons about it.  But as we said at the start of this series, if we say we believe in the Bible as the inspired word of God, we need to deal with the entire Bible, not just the parts we like.  So, here we go.
            The Apostle John is being given a vision.  At the right hand of God he sees a scroll.  There’s writing on both sides.  It’s sealed with seven seals.  There’s no one to found who’s worthy to open the seals.  And John begins to cry.
            We’re given no indication that John has any idea what’s on the scroll.  I wonder, if he had known what would happen when the seals were opened, whether he’d have been crying.  He might’ve preferred the scroll to stay sealed.  But we’ll come to that in a minute.
            Because someone is found who’s worthy to open the seals.  The Lion of Judah.  The Root of David.  The Lamb who had been slain.  Jesus Christ.  Jesus is worthy to open the seals.  And he starts to do so.
            I know some of you are familiar with the four horsemen of the apocalypse.  It’s something we don’t hear a lot about these days.  I think people more familiar with them years ago than they are now.  But if you’ve ever heard that phrase, this is where it comes from.  As the Christ opens the first four seals, a horse and a rider appear each time.  And what they represent is not good, at least not in our eyes.  Conquest.  War.  Famine.  Death.  These are the plagues, the bad things that are going to happen as the end of the world approaches.  Which is why I wonder whether John knew what was going to happen when the seals were opened.  
            When the fifth seal is opened, the martyrs make an appearance.  The people who have been killed because they stood up for the word of God.  And they ask when their murders are going to be avenged.  They want God to get going and wipe out evil now.  But they are each given a white robe and told to wait.
            Then comes the opening of the sixth seal.  And there’s an earthquake larger than any earthquake anyone has ever seen.  And everyone goes to hide.  They are desperate to get away, because they know God’s judgment is coming.  As it says, “The great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?        
One of the things we always wonder about is why God allows bad things to happen.  Now, understand what I said there.  I said God allows bad things to happen.  I did not say God causes bad things to happen.  Many of us--maybe most of us--have had some really bad things happen, either to ourselves or people we care about.  I’m not saying God pointed a finger and said “This bad thing is going to happen to you now.”  But if God is all-powerful, as we believe, then God could stop bad things from happening.  And God chooses not to, at least much of the time.  And we wonder why.
            But what our reading for today shows is that allowing bad things to happen is part of God’s plan.  As it says in the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, there’s a time for everything.  Including a time to weep and to mourn.  A time to die.  A time to kill.  A time to hate.  A time for war.  Ecclesiastes tells us there is a time for all those things.  And it also tells us that God has made everything, which must include all those things, beautiful, in its time.  God has made things like death, killing, hatred, war--God has made all those things beautiful in their time.
            To me, that means that God allowing all of those things must, in some way, be part of God’s plan.  And we’re also told, in Romans Eight, Verse Twenty-eight, that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
            And again, it is not God causing these things to happen.  It’s God allowing them to happen.  The fact that the Christ is the only one worthy to open the seals shows that God has power over those bad things--conquest, war, famine, and death.  And when the seals are opened, God does not command that conquest, war, famine, and death take place.  Those things are simply set free.  They are allowed to happen.  The forces that cause these things are given the ability to do what they wish to do.  God does not require them to do those things.  God simply has stopped restraining them.
            And you may remember that Jesus told us all this would happen.  In Matthew Six, Jesus says, “you will hear of wars and rumors of wars... Such things must happen...Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.  There will be famines and earthquakes in various places.”  Jesus told the disciples all this.  But Jesus told them one other thing.  Jesus told them, “Do not be alarmed...Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but whoever stands firm to the end will be saved.”
            These things must happen.  We run into that phrase time and time again.  In Revelation, in Ecclesiastes, in Matthew, in other places.  These things must happen.  Again, in some way, a way that does not always make sense to us, these things apparently are all part of God’s plan.  This is the way it needs to go.
            Why?  We don’t know.  We could speculate.  In part, I suspect it has to do with some of the qualities of God that we tend to ignore.  You know, we like to think about God as being a loving, caring, forgiving, compassionate God.  And that’s all true.  God is all of those things.  But what we don’t like to think about is that those things are not all God is.  We don’t like to think about God’s wrath.  We don’t like to think about God’s judgment.  Now don’t get me wrong--I’m not saying God is up in heaven with a big red pen, just waiting to catch us making a mistake so God can punish us.  But Jesus spoke about a day of judgment, and so does the book of Revelation.  And we forget that at our eternal peril.
            I suspect God’s righteousness, God’s justice, God’s holiness, are all tied it up in why these bad things must happen.  That’s not a full explanation, and I don’t intend it to be.  Only God knows that full explanation.  God just told us that these things must happen, and if we believe in God then we don’t have much choice but to accept that.
            It sounds kind of scary, when we think about all these bad things happening.  That’s one of the reasons we don’t like to think about God’s judgment--it scares us.  We know, deep down, that we’re not the people we should be.  We try to hide it, a lot of times.  We try to pretend that we’re pretty good.  We try to convince ourselves that what we’re doing is okay, that we’re doing the best we can.  After all, we tell ourselves, God does not expect us to be perfect.  God knows we’re going to mess up.  It’s okay.
            But deep down, we know it’s not true.  I mean, we may be pretty good, in human terms.  But we know we could do better.  God does know that we cannot be perfect, but God also knows that very few of us are truly doing the best we can.  Most of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, know we have plenty of room for improvement.  Most of us have lots of times when we don’t follow God as well as we should.  We don’t trust God the way we should.  We don’t love our neighbors the way we should.  We know how unworthy of God’s love and forgiveness we are.  No matter how many excuses we try to make for ourselves, deep down, we know.  And we know that God knows, too.
            And so, when we think about God’s judgment, we get scared.  But we don’t have to be.  The disciples were probably scared, too, when Jesus started talking about all this stuff in the gospel of Matthew.  But remember what Jesus told them.  “Do not be alarmed...whoever stands firm to the end will be saved.”
            That’s what it comes down to.  Standing firm in our faith to the end.  Not making excuses for ourselves, but repenting of our sins and asking for forgiveness.  Not being perfect people, but standing firm in our faith.  Continuing to believe in God, no matter how many bad things happen.  Continuing to believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior, no matter how desperate the situation may be.  Continuing to love our neighbor, even when our neighbor does not seem to deserve our love.  Standing firm in our faith, no matter what.
            Because the worse things get, the more tempting it is to give up on God.  And the worse things get, the more the world tries to get us to give up on God.  And the worse things get, the more Satan tempts us to turn away from God.  
            But God is always there.  No matter how bad things get, God is always there.  No matter how bad things get, Jesus Christ is still the Savior.  The same Christ who was worthy to open the seals and allow these terrible things will, in the end, triumph over them.  And because of that, you and I do not need to be alarmed.  We don’t need to be scared.  All we need to do is what Jesus said.  Stand firm in our faith.  If we do that, we will be saved.  We will have eternal life.
            God has allowed some bad things to happen.  And God is going to allow still more.  We don’t know why.  But we do know that we don’t have to be scared.  If we stand firm in our faith, we will be able to stand up to God’s judgment.  And we will be saved.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Importance of Stuff

I did not preach last Sunday.  The reason I did not preach is that I was in Armour, where my parents live in a nursing home.  Wanda and I have been boxing up the stuff that was in their basement.  They’ve had water in their basement, and it’s a continuing problem.  There’s a moldy smell, which probably means there’s mold there, so the basement has to be re-done.  Which means, of course, that we need to get all the stuff out of the basement so the construction guys can do their work.

The amount of stuff a person accumulates over the course of a lifetime is amazing.  It’s even more amazing, of course, if you’re the sort of person who never wants to throw anything away.  But all of us do this to one extent or another.  We all accumulate an awful lot of stuff.  I’ve done it, too.  Wanda and I must have thrown out fifty garbage bags of stuff when we moved here from North Sioux City six and a half years ago, but we still have tons of stuff.  We should get busy throwing it out, but we probably won’t.  It will probably stay right where it is until someday we move again, whether that’s through re-appointment or retirement.

Human beings place a high value on stuff.  I’m not criticizing that.  I’m just stating a fact.  Some of you reading this have had to move from your house into an apartment or a nursing home.  When you did, you had to dispose of a lot of stuff.  And I’m sure that was hard.  Because in many cases, stuff is not just stuff.  It’s important to us.  Some of it is stuff we need.  Some of it is stuff that we don’t strictly need, but stuff that makes our lives easier or more enjoyable.  And some of it is stuff that has meaning to us.  We get sentimental over stuff, because stuff leads to memories, and memories are important to us.

There’s nothing wrong with having stuff.  Probably all of us have more stuff than, strictly speaking, we need, but it’s not for me to say how much stuff you ought to have.  That’s up to you, or at least it’s between you and God.

There’s nothing wrong with having stuff, but there can be when our stuff becomes too important to us.  The Bible tells us “Where your treasure is, there your heart is also.”  (Matthew 6:21).  If stuff is what we treasure, then our heart will be with our stuff.  Instead of us owning our stuff, our stuff starts to own us.  That’s not good.  It’s not good for our heart to be with our stuff.  Our heart needs to be with God.

So this week, let’s all think of our relationship with our stuff.  Do we own our stuff?  Or does our stuff own us?  If it’s the latter, let’s doing something about that.  Let’s break the chains that bind us to our stuff.  Let’s make sure our hearts are with God.