Search This Blog

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Living in Hope

This is the message given in the United Methodist Churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, February 23, 2014.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 5:1-12.

            Sometimes I think it would be nice to have lived back in Biblical times.  Do you ever think that?  I mean, think what it must have been like to have heard Jesus’ actual voice.  To have heard Jesus’ real words from Jesus’ own lips.  And then think about the times he talked to people one-on-one.  I mean, it would have been incredible enough just to have been a face in the crowd, just to be one of the people who heard Jesus’ message.  To get singled out by Jesus, to have a time when the Son of God was just talking to me, to have a time when Jesus had a message specifically for me.  That would be more incredible than almost anything I can imagine.
The thing is, Jesus does have a message specifically for me.  He has a message specifically for you, too.  As we come to the second in our sermon series, “God Has an App for That”, looking at the ways God gives us to help us get closer to God and to strengthen our faith, the one we’re going to look at today is the Bible.  The Bible is God’s message, given specifically for you and me.
            How many of us read that message?  I’m not asking for a show of hands or anything, but just think about it.  One of the things we claim to believe is that God inspired the writing of the Bible.  It is God’s message to us.  So how often do we actually read it?
            Now, my goal here is not to make anyone feel guilty.  I think guilt is a lousy motivator for us.  My goal here is also not to point fingers.  Before I became a pastor, I had some very long stretches in my life where I read the Bible seldom if at all.  Even as a pastor, I’ve had some stretches where I did not read it other than what I had to read in order to do my job.  
Also, I’ve said, and I continue to believe, that nowhere in the gospels can you find a time when Jesus commanded us to go and be Bible scholars.  Jesus said the greatest commandments are to love God and to love others.  Those are the main things we’re supposed to do.  If we were to say, “I don’t have time to go out and show love to people because I’ve got to read the Bible”, well, that would be a misuse of the Bible, don’t you think?
That’s not the only way we can misuse the Bible, of course.  There are people who will use the Bible as a weapon.  That’s what the Pharisees did in Jesus’ time, right?  Jesus went out and showed love to people by healing them on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees said, “Hey, you’re not supposed to do that.  It says right here in the Bible, you are to do no work on the Sabbath.”  They were so worried about the strict interpretation of the rules that they missed the whole purpose of why the rules exist.  As Jesus said, the rules are there to help us.  They’re not there to keep us from showing love to each other.  It’s a misuse of the Bible to look at it that way.
And then there are people who don’t believe, who’ll try to use the Bible to get us to go against God.  That’s what Satan did when he tempted Jesus in the wilderness.  Satan quoted the Bible to try to get Jesus to go against what God wanted.  And there are people like that around today, too.  There are lots of people who will quote the Bible to try to persuade us that our faith is nonsense and to try to get us to stop trusting God and stop believing in God.
You know why Jesus was able to resist Satan?  Because Jesus knew the Bible even better than Satan did.  For every quote that Satan could use to try to get Jesus to go the wrong way, Jesus could pull out a better one to resist.
And that’s one of the reasons why we need to read the Bible.  Because the world is going to try to weaken our faith.  Sometimes it will be people making a deliberate attempt to get us to give up on God.  But other times, it’ll just be life that weakens our faith.  
After all, we all have times when things are going wrong.  We all have times when things go against us.  We all have times when the world does not seem to make sense to us.  We all have times when it seems like we’ve done our best to follow God and do what God wants us to do, and our reward for it seems to be that we get knocked down.  And then we try to get up and we get knocked down again.  And when that happens, it can be really hard for us to keep our faith strong.
But that’s why we need to read the Bible.  Because when we do, we can see that nowhere does Jesus promise us that if we trust in God, we’ll have an easy life on earth.  I do believe that trusting in God makes our lives better, but not necessarily in a physical or a material sense.  Jesus certainly did not have an easy life on earth.  Neither did the Apostle Paul.  Neither did a lot of the Old Testament prophets.  Neither did John the Baptist.  Neither did more modern believers like Mother Theresa.  The Christians in the Middle East who are being killed for their faith right now do not have an easy life.  Again, that’s one of the ways the world uses to take away our faith.  It tries to tell us that if God loves us God should make our lives easy on earth.  But they cannot quote Jesus saying that, because he never did.
That does not mean, of course, that God will never help us while we’re on earth.  I can think of many times God has helped me.  I believe that God continues to help me every day of my life.  But God does not owe it to me to help me.  God does not owe me anything.  And if God should ever choose to stop helping me on earth, I hope I would continue to believe in God and trust God, because that’s what faith is really about.
We read the words of Jesus today.  These things Jesus said are part of his famous Sermon on the Mount, and are called the Beatitudes.  That’s a fancy word that just means “the blessings”.  Jesus was giving blessings to a lot of people, many of whom had been beaten down by life.  The poor in spirit.  Those who mourn.  Those who are persecuted because of righteousness.  Those who are insulted and slandered for their faith.
What did Jesus say to them?  He did not say, “Don’t worry, I’ll solve all your problems and make you rich.”  He said, basically, “Hang in there.  It’ll be okay.  God sees what you’re having to go through.  And God will reward you for it.  Your reward is the kingdom of God.  Your reward is the kingdom of heaven.”
That’s why God gave us the Bible.  God did not give us the Bible as a homework assignment.  God did not give us the Bible as a weapon.  God gave us the Bible to help us.  God gave us the Bible to give us hope.   God gave us the Bible so we would know that God sees what’s happening on this earth and that God cares about what’s happening on this earth.  God gave us the Bible so we’d know that God will be with us every step of the way on this earth, through the ups and the downs and everything in-between.  And God gave us the Bible so that we would know that, as long as we keep trusting God, God will take us through this life into the next life.  And that’s a life in which we will never be beaten down.  We will never be poor in spirit or in anything else.  We will never mourn, or be persecuted, insulted, or slandered.  In that life, we will have nothing but eternal peace and love and joy.
It can be intimidating to try to read the Bible if we’ve never done it, or even if we have.  But it’s not supposed to be.  The Bible is God’s gift to us.  God wants us to read it.  And God wants us to understand as much as we can about it.
So, get an easy-to-read translation of the Bible.  If you want, I can give you some recommendations.  Then, dig in.  Don’t feel like you have to read it front to back right off.  It’s okay to do it that way, but it’s okay to do it other ways, too.  You can start with the gospels.  You can start with the psalms.  You can start with Paul’s letters.  You can start with the proverbs.  You can even start by getting a book of the best-known or best-loved Bible verses.  Start with whatever way works for you.  But start.  Open up this gift that God has given us.
We’re not required to read the Bible to get to heaven.  We get to heaven by God’s love and mercy and grace and through our faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior.  But reading the Bible can help make our faith stronger.  Reading the Bible can help us feel God’s love and mercy and grace.  So use the app God has given us.  Read the Bible.  And feel the hope, both for this life and the next one.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Come Together

Below is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish Sunday, February 16, 2014.  The Bible verses used are John 20:19-29.

Welcome to a new sermon series!  Today we start a three-part sermon series called “God Has An App For That”.

As many of you know, the word “app” is short for application.  An app is something you download to a smart phone or a tablet or some other electronic device.  It lets you do something, or it helps you do it better.  There are all kinds of apps.  There are apps that help you figure out where you are or how to get where you’re going, there are apps that enable you to communicate with people, there are apps that let you follow sports or listen to music, there are apps that let you play games, there are apps for--well, just about anything you can think of.  And if you do think of something there’s not an app for, there probably will be pretty soon, because they come out with new apps almost every day.

Now, I know some of you may think this whole deal about apps for tablets and such is a new thing, but it’s not.  It’s talked about in the Bible.  God invented the tablet thousands of years ago.  God created two of them, carved ten apps on them, and gave them to Moses on Mount Sinai.  After all, God always has the latest technology.

But in this sermon series, what we’re going to look at are some of the ways, some of the apps, God has given us to get closer to God and to strengthen our faith.  And the one we’re going to talk about today is the church.  God has provided the church to us as a way of getting closer to God and strengthening our faith.

Now, it’s not going to come as a big surprise to anyone that a preacher is going to tell you that you should go to church.  But that’s not really what I’m talking about today.  I mean, yes, I do think people should go to church.  I certainly hope you find some value in coming to a worship service on Sunday.  I hope you find that it does help you get closer to God and that it does strengthen your faith.  But we all know that, as they saying goes, going to church does not make me a Christian any more than sitting in the garage would make me a car.  So when I talk about the church being one of God’s apps, I’m really not talking about going to church.

What makes God’s app of the church work is not just walking through the door on Sunday morning.  What makes it work is when we actually become part of the church.  What makes it work is when we become part of a group of believers who care about each other.  What makes it work is when we work together and pray together and love each other and then extend that love to others.

We read from the gospel of John today.  Think about what was going on at that point in John’s gospel.  Jesus has been killed.  The disciples don’t know what’s going to happen next.  In fact, they don’t know if anything is going to happen next.  They don’t know what to do.

        The women have come back from the tomb and said they’ve seen the risen Jesus, but the disciples could not go by that because, after all, these were women.  Seriously, that’s how the disciples probably looked at it.  At that time, a woman was not allowed to testify in court because the law said a woman’s testimony was unreliable.  So when these women come and tell them what, to be honest, was a pretty unbelievable story, they may very well have just dismissed it as a bunch of foolishness from a bunch of women.

So, there are the disciples.  Sad.  Confused.  Scared.  And what did they do?  They came together.  That’s what the first verse we read said:  “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together.”

They came together.  Because they knew that, whatever was happening, whatever was going to happen, they could not face it alone.  They needed to be there for each other.  They needed to support each other.  They needed to encourage each other.  They needed to help each other.  Whatever they were going to face, they needed to face it together.  When you think about it, that really was the first meeting of the first Christian church:  ten sad, scared, confused disciples locked in a room somewhere in Jerusalem, not knowing what would happen, but knowing they needed to be together.  Not exactly a bold, brave start to the church, is it?

But yet, somehow, it’s kind of fitting.  Because that describes all of us at some point in our lives.  Whether we’re Christians are not, that describes us.  We have times when we’re sad.  We have times when we’re confused.  We have times when we’re scared.  We have times when we don’t know what’s going to happen next to us, or even if anything is going to happen next.  And we don’t know what to do.

And God has an app for that.  And that app is the church.  When we feel that way, when we feel sad, or scared, or confused, that’s when we need to come together.  Because at those times, whatever is happening, and whatever is going to happen, we cannot face it alone.  God does not want us to face it alone.  God wants us to be there for each other.  God wants us to support each other.  God wants us to encourage each other.  God wants us to help each other.  Whatever it is that we’re facing in life, we need to face it together.

That’s why God created the church.  If we could do it by ourselves, there’d be no need for churches.  But we cannot.  Maybe we can sometimes, but not always.  No matter how strong we are, no matter how self-confident we are, no matter how self-sufficient we are, at some point in our lives each one of us is going to come up against something we cannot handle by ourselves.  We need each other.  That’s why God allows us to be a part of a church:  so we can have loving, caring people who will be there for us when we need them.

Now, some of you may have noticed that I said the first meeting of the Christian church was ten scared, confused disciples.  And you may have thought, wait a minute.  There were twelve disciples, not ten.  Well, you’re right, but remember, this after Jesus was killed.  So, Judas was no longer with the disciples, which cuts the number to eleven.  And then, remember, one of the disciples was not there.  Thomas.

Thomas was not with the other disciples at that first church meeting.  We don’t know why.  We’re not told where he was.  But whatever the reason was, it means he missed out on what the other ten got.  He did not have people who were there for him, at least not at that moment.  He did not have the support of the others.  He did not have the encouragement of the others.  He did not have the help of the others.  He had to face the sadness, and the fear, and the confusion, alone.

And what happened?  His faith got weak.  He doubted.  When the others told him what had happened, how they’d seen Jesus, how he had been raised from the dead, he would not believe it.  He could not believe it. He refused to take the word of the others, because he had not been a part of things himself.

And that’s what can happen to us when we’re not part of a church.  That’s what can happen to us when we don’t have people who are there for us, when we don’t have the support and encouragement and help of others.  Our faith gets weak.  We start to have doubts.  We don’t believe.  We cannot believe.  We refuse to take the word of other Christians, because we’re not a part of things ourselves.

God knows that you and I could never keep our Christian faith solid on our own.  And God has an app for that.  God’s app is the church.  Not just going to church.  Being part of the church.  Being part of a group of people who will be there for us when we need them.  Having their support and their encouragement and their help.  Knowing that, whatever we have to face, we will not have to face it alone.

I’m glad that you’re here in church today.  I hope you find that it helps you get closer to God and that it strengthens your faith.  But what I hope most of all is that you’ll be part of the church.  That you’ll be there for others, and that you’ll let other be there for you.  And then, that we’ll all join and bring other people in, so that everyone can take advantage of God’s app, the church, and face whatever life brings us together.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Perfect Day

This is the message given at the Oahe Manor Communion service Thursday, February 13, 2014.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 5:21-48.

Now, as I read that, you probably noticed Jesus was using kind of a pattern here.  All those statements of Jesus started out with something like “You have heard that such-and-such” and then went on with Jesus saying, “But I tell you so-and-so.”  The first part of the statement, the “you have heard such-and-such” part, was Jesus stating what Jewish law required.  The second part, the “But I tell you so-and-so” part, was Jesus telling the people of his time, and telling us, how we should live.
One of the things that got Jesus in trouble while he was on earth is that he sometimes did not follow the strict Jewish laws.  What people did not realize, though, is why he sometimes did not follow those laws.  It was not that he did not believe in law.  It was not that he thought he was above the law because he was the Savior.  Jesus was not trying to get away with anything by not following Jewish laws.
The reason Jesus sometimes would not follow Jewish laws is that he realized people were using those laws the wrong way.  People were only concerned with following the letter of the law.  No more and no less.  That meant that, while people would do what the law required, people would do no more than the law required.  They were acting out of duty and legality instead of acting out of love.
Listen to what Jesus tells them here.  He says it’s not enough to just not commit murder.  It’s not enough to just avoid killing somebody.  He says that, as Christians we’re not even supposed to be angry with anyone.  He says it’s not enough to just not commit adultery.  He says that, as Christians, we’re not even supposed to look at someone of the opposite sex with any kind of sexual thoughts.  He says we should not take an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth, even if the law allows it.  Instead, Jesus says that, as Christians, we are not supposed to get into a fight with anyone at all.  Jesus says it’s not enough for us to love our neighbor and hate our enemies.  Jesus says we need to love even our enemies.  He says we need to pray for those who persecute us.
Jesus was not saying we should ignore the law.  Instead, Jesus was saying that, as Christians, we’re held to a higher standard than just doing what we have to do under the law.  As Christians, we should do more.  As Christians we’re not supposed to just not hurt people.  We’re supposed to love them.  We’re supposed to help them.
The things Jesus is telling us to do here are not easy things.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve had times in my life when I’ve been angry with people.  Sometimes I still do.  I’ve had times where I got into fights with people.  They’re not physical fights, because, well, look at me.  I’d get beaten up.  But I’ve gotten into arguments with people, and sometimes I still do.  I don’t know that I have any real personal enemies that I can think of at the moment, but there are certainly people who are enemies of the United States.  I cannot honestly say I love those people.  These things Jesus is telling us to do are really hard.  And then, making it even harder is the last line in this section.  Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Let’s see the hands of everyone in here who’s perfect.  Yeah, my hand does not belong up, either.  I’m not perfect.  I don’t suppose any of us is.  And yet, that’s what Jesus tells us to do:  be perfect.  We’re supposed to be perfect in the same way that God is perfect.
So what do we do with these sayings of Jesus?  I don’t think we can just ignore them, because we’re told that Jesus said them, and we claim to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and is our Savior.  And yet, it seems impossible to actually follow them.  Is Jesus telling us to do something that’s impossible?
Well, here’s how I look at it.  See if this helps you.
A major league baseball team plays one hundred sixty-two games in a season.  To have a perfect season, a team would have to win all one hundred sixty-two games.  As a practical matter, there’s no way any team can win all one hundred sixty-two games.  They cannot even come close.  The most any team has ever won is one hundred sixteen, which is a lot, but that still means they had forty-six losses.  They were nowhere close to winning every game and having a perfect season.  And each team knows that at the start of the season.
And yet, every time a team takes the field, their goal is to win.  They know they won’t win every game--again, no one has ever come close to doing it.  Still, every day, that’s their goal.  Their goal is to win every game, even though they know they won’t do it.
I think that’s how it needs to be for us.  We know we won’t live perfect lives.  And yet, every day, that should be our goal.  We know we won’t do it, but still, that should be our goal.  Our goal should be to live a perfect life every day, even though we know we won’t do it.
That’s the standard we’re called to as Christians.  Now, God will forgive us when we fail.  If we go to God and ask for forgiveness, God will give it to us.  But we should not use that forgiveness as an excuse to not try to be perfect.  Every day, we need to try to be perfect.  Every night, we need to ask God for forgiveness for failing.  And the next day, we need to try to be perfect again.  And the next night, we need to ask God for forgiveness for failing.  And on and on and on.

As Christians, we’re called to the highest standard possible:  the standard of Jesus Christ.  We won’t reach it.  But if we do our best to reach it every day, God will see it.  And God will bless our lives in ways we cannot imagine.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

No Limits

This is the message given at the ecumenical service at Oahe Manor Sunday, February 9, 2014.  The Bible verses used are 1 Corinthians 2:1-16.

            There were sixteen verses in that reading, but I want to just focus on one of them.  Verse nine.  It says “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived--those things God has prepared for those who love him.”
            To me, that’s a really profound verse.  Because I think that too often, you and I allow ourselves to be defined by our limitations.  In other words, we spend way too much time focusing on the things we cannot do.  We do that in the church all the time.  We think, “Well, we’re just a small church.  We don’t have much money.  We really cannot do a whole lot.”  We do it in our personal lives, too.  We think, “Well, I’m only one person.  I don’t have much money or much power.  I really cannot do a whole lot.”
            While I don’t know this for a fact, I suspect that in here, it’s even easier to be defined by your limitations, because you’re reminded of those limitations every single day.  There are all kinds of things you used to be able to do that you cannot do.  There are all kinds of things you used to be involved in that you can no longer be involved in.  And I’m sure that bothers you.  You would not be human if it did not.
            But while it’s natural to be bothered by our limitations, we need to not let those limitations define us.  We need to not be so focused on the things we cannot do that we miss the chance to do the things we can do.
            I assume most of here, maybe all of us here, claim to be Christians.  And a Christian is supposed to serve God.  Not because God will send us to hell if we don’t, but because we love God and we believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior, and because of that we need to serve God.  And that need to serve God never goes away.  We’re never allowed to retire from being a Christian.  No matter how old we are, no matter what our physical condition is, if we claim to be Christians, we still love God, we still believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior, and we still need to serve God in some way.
            Do we need to be realistic about that?  Of course.  God does not ask us to do things we cannot do.  God is not going to ask you or me to go run a marathon, or to lift heavy things, or to anything else that we physically cannot do.  God does not ask us to do things we cannot do.  But God does ask us to do as much as we can do.
            And while we need to be realistic, we also need to remember who the God is that we serve.  We serve the God who created the universe out of nothing.  We serve the God who made it rain for forty days and forty nights.  We serve the God who produced food for the Israelites when they were starving in the desert.  We serve a God for whom the impossible is possible.  In fact, we serve a God for whom the impossible is not even hard.
            And that’s where our bible verse comes into it.  God has prepared things for us that are beyond our ability to understand.  God has prepared things for us that no eye has ever seen.  God has prepared things for us that no ear has ever heard.  God has prepared things for us that no human mind has ever conceived of.
            So while we need to be realistic about our limitations, we should not place those same limitations on God.  We serve a God who is not limited by anything except God’s own decisions about what’s right and what’s wrong.  The only limitations God has are the ones God creates.  God can, literally, do anything God chooses to do.  We should not place limitations on God.
            And we also should not place limitations on what we can do with God’s help.  Because that’s simply another way of placing limitations on God, the same God we just said had no limitations other than the ones God creates.  Our verse says that God has things beyond our imagination planned for those who love God.  If you love God, that means you.  And, it means me.
            I know some of you probably have a hard time believing that.  You look at yourself and at your condition and you think, “What could God possibly have planned for me?”  Well, I don’t know what God has planned for you.  I don’t know what God has planned for me, either.  What I can tell you is that eight years ago, I had no idea that God was planning for me to become a pastor.  It did not seem like a realistic thing for me to do.  But God was not limited by my definition of what was realistic.  And here I am.
            God is not limited by your definition of what’s realistic, either.  So stay open.  Most of all, keep your heart open.  God gives each one of us chances to serve God every day.  That’s true even when you live in the manor or the villa.  God gives each one of us chances to serve God.  Sometimes, those ways to serve are things we never dreamed of.  But if we pay attention, we’ll notice them.  And if we trust God, we’ll follow through on them.  We’ll stop putting limitations on ourselves.  Instead, we’ll trust the leading of God.  Because nothing is impossible for God.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Heart Burn

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, February 9, 2014.  The Bible verses used are Luke 24:13-35.

            One of the things about living in a small town is that wherever you go in town, you run into people you know.  When you go to the store, or go to the cafe, or go to the game, or wherever, you’ll see people you know and people who know you.  To Wanda and me, that’s one of the really cool things about living here.  One of the things we did not like about being in the Sioux City area was that we’d never see anyone we knew when we went to the grocery store.  Even the checkers seemed like they were different every time.  We like being in a place where we know people and where people know us.
            But you know, even when you like that, it’s kind of nice once in a while to go where you can be anonymous.  And as we finish our sermon series, “Road Trip!”, that’s one of the neat things about a road trip.  For a week or two, you can go someplace where nobody knows you.  We would not want to do that all the time, but just for a little while, for a break, it’s kind of a nice thing.
            Once Jesus’ ministry started, of course, he never had that.  Everywhere he went, people know who he was.  He was a celebrity.  We read last week about when he entered Jerusalem and all the people were cheering for him, but that was just one of the many examples of when Jesus attracted a crowd.  People followed him everywhere.
            The only way Jesus could talk to anyone anonymously was to die.  And that’s what happened in our reading for today.  This is pretty much the last road trip Jesus took on earth.  It was on the road to Emmaus.  It took place after Jesus had died and was raised from the dead.  
As our scene opens, two people are walking along the road.  We have no idea who they were.  We’re told one of them was named Cleopas, but we have no idea who Cleopas was.  There are theories, but that’s all they are.  We’re told nothing about him here, and he never shows up in the Bible again.  We’re not even told that he’s a he:  Cleopas appears to be a male name, but nothing in the Bible says Cleopas could not have been female.  But at least we get Cleopas’ name.  We don’t even get the name of the other person.
So they’re talking about the events of the day, about Jesus having been crucified.  And then, Jesus shows up and starts talking to them.  They don’t recognize him.  We’re told “they were kept from recognizing him”, which would indicate that maybe Jesus had done something to disguise himself or something, but in fact it probably would not have taken much to keep them from recognizing him.  I mean, if I knew that someone I cared about had died, and all at once they came up and started talking to me, I probably would not recognize them, either.  I might think that they looked kind of like my old friend, but I would not think it was my old friend, because, well, I knew my friend was dead, so it would not be possible.
Jesus asks them what they’re talking about, and they cannot believe it.  How can he not know?  I mean, this would be like if it was September 12, 2001 and we were talking about the Twin Towers collapsing and someone comes up and says, “Hey, what are you guys talking about?”  How could somebody not know this?  But still, they tell Jesus all about it.
At least, they tell Jesus about it to the best of their ability.  They tell Jesus what’s happened, but they don’t tell him what it means.  They cannot do that, because they don’t understand.  So then Jesus starts explaining it to them.  He tells them the meaning of everything that’s happened.  He goes back to Moses and all the prophets, explaining to them how through Jesus all those old prophecies have come true.
And they still don’t know who he is.  But, they invite him to spend the night with them.  They sit down to eat.  Jesus takes bread, gives thanks, and breaks the bread, just like what happened at the Last Supper.  And then, suddenly, they recognize Jesus.  And then, just as suddenly, Jesus disappears.
Why did he do that, do you suppose?  Why, when they recognize Jesus, does Jesus disappear?  We’re not told.  The thing is, though, it’s okay.  It’s okay because, as Cleopas and the other person say, their hearts were burning within them while Jesus talked with them and opened the Scriptures to them.  And they could not wait to go and tell others what had happened to them.
It was quite a journey of faith the followers of Jesus went on.  When Jesus was around, when he was preaching and teaching and everything, his followers were really excited.  Their faith was really strong.  But then, things went bad.  Jesus was arrested.  Jesus was killed.  And the faith of his followers became really weak, almost non-existent.  They pretty much gave up, thinking it was all over.  
Then, Jesus came to them.  And even though they did not know who he was, just the fact that he was there made their faith stronger.  Then, they started to understand some things, and their faith got even stronger.  And when they recognized him, their faith got stronger still.  It got so strong that, even though he left immediately, his leaving did not weaken their faith.  They now knew who Jesus was.  And they knew that, even though he was not physically present, he would be with them in their hearts through the Holy Spirit forever.
Does that sound a little bit like the journey of faith we go on in our lives?  I think it does, at least for some of us.  We start out, young in our faith, and we get really excited.  Our faith gets really strong.  But then, we start to have trouble.  We start to have problems.  Life beats us down.  We get discouraged.  And our faith gets pretty weak.  In fact, sometimes, it feels like our faith is pretty much non-existent.  We start to give up, thinking it’s all over.
And then, Jesus comes to us.  We may not know who he is at first, but just the fact that he’s there makes our faith stronger.  Then, we start to understand some things, and our faith gets even stronger.  And then, we recognize him, and our faith gets stronger still.  It gets so strong that, even though Jesus is not physically present, that does not weaken our faith.  Because now we know who Jesus is.  And we know that he will be with us in our hearts through the Holy Spirit forever.
You know, one of the things we talk about sometimes is how to tell the difference between God’s will and our will.  Because we can be really good at fooling ourselves sometimes.  We humans can rationalize almost anything if we want to badly enough.  We can be really good at convincing ourselves that what we want to do is what God wants us to do.  We may not be able to convince anyone else, but we can convince ourselves, and that’s all we need to do.
But I think what Cleopas and the other person experienced shows us how to tell the difference.  When we are in the presence of God and we feel that burning in our hearts, then we know.  We know that what we’re feeling actually is real.  We know we’re not just fooling ourselves.  We know it because we feel God in our hearts and in our lives.
You see, there’s a reason Jesus could not go anywhere and be anonymous while he was on earth.  God does not want to be anonymous.  We’re not supposed to go through our lives not knowing who God is and what God does.  God has no desire to be an unknown God or an anonymous God.  We’re supposed to come to know God and to love God.  We’re supposed to do that with our all of our hearts, all of our minds, all of our souls, and all of our strength.  Every bit of our selves, everything that makes us who we are, is supposed to know God and to love God.  That’s what God wants.
And maybe that’s why Jesus disappeared when Cleopas and the other person recognized him.  Because once we know who Jesus is, once we know him and love him with all of our hearts, all of our minds, all of our souls, and all of our strength, once our hearts burn within us, Jesus has nothing more he needs to do.  The Holy Spirit takes over and leads us the rest of the way.  Then, we do what Cleopas and the other person did.  We go and tell others what’s happened, and we encourage them know God and love God, too.
God does not want to be anonymous.  As Christians, we’re not supposed to be anonymous, either.  So let’s do what Cleopas and his friend did.  Let’s welcome Jesus into our hearts and into our lives.  And then, let’s go and tell others what’s happened, so they can welcome Jesus into their hearts and into their lives, too.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Here's Our Chance

This is the message given in the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, February 2, 2014.  The Bible verses are Luke 19:28-44.

            We’ve been doing a sermon series called “Road Trip!”, looking at things that happened to Jesus and the disciples while they were on the road.  You know, we usually think of a road trip as something that’s fun.  We’re going to go to different places, we’re going to see different things, we’re going to do things we don’t usually do, and we won’t really have to worry about anything.  And we usually have people we really care about along with us:  our family, or maybe some close friends.  We think of a road trip as something we’re really going to enjoy, something we’ll look back on with happy memories for a long time.
            And I’m sure there were times when Jesus’ life on the road was like that.  He did, after all, have the disciples with him, and those were people he really cared about.  He cared about everyone, of course, but these were the closest friends Jesus had while he was on earth.  And they did go to different places and see different things.
            Still, I suspect there were times when Jesus’ life on the road was anything but fun.  After all, it was not exactly a worry-free, carefree time for him.  He was constantly teaching, constantly healing.  Everything he did, or at least everything he did that we know about, was done with a reason and for a purpose.  Jesus never really had a time when he could just let go and relax, and least not for very long.
            And even though the disciples were the closest friends Jesus had on earth, I suspect Jesus was lonely a lot of the time.  Because even though the disciples believed in him, they never really understood him.  They never really understood who he was and what he was doing.  That’s probably one of the reasons we read about times when Jesus went off by himself to talk to God the Father.  There just were some things he could not talk about with the disciples, because there was no way he could make them understand.
            And there’s one other thing that makes Jesus’ time on the road different from the road trips we take.  For us, a road trip is a temporary thing.  We’ll be gone for a week, maybe two, maybe a little longer.  But then we come home.  And usually, we’re happy to be home.  We may not like having to get up early and go to work and all that, but even so, there’s a part of us that’s happy to get back into our regular routine.
            Jesus did not have a regular routine to get back into.  Jesus did not have a home to go to.  We read last week about how he said that foxes have holes and birds have nests, but that he, the Son of Man, had nowhere to lay his head.  Jesus knew that his road trip was not going to end happily.  His road trip was going to end up on the cross.
            And in our reading today, Jesus is nearing the end of the road.  This is a reading we usually have for Palm Sunday, where Jesus is making his triumphant entry into Jerusalem.  And the crowd is going nuts.  They’re cheering for him, they’re spreading their cloaks in front of him, sort of like rolling out the red carpet, you might say.  We’re told they were shouting, “Blessed is the king, who comes in the name of the Lord!  Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
            And of course Jesus knows that all this cheering, all this excitement, all this spreading of cloaks and all the rest, does not mean a thing.  He knows that in just a few days, all these people are going to abandon him.  Some of them are even going to demand that he be killed.  Even his closest friends, the disciples, are going to abandon him.  All this cheering, all this applause, and it’s all totally meaningless.
            How would you feel, if you were Jesus, and you knew all that?  I don’t know about you, but I think I’d be pretty mad.  I’d be ready to chew them out.  All these people claiming to love me, and none of them are going to stand by me.  Not only that, but if I had Jesus’ power, and I got mad, I’d--well, I’m not sure just exactly what I’d do, but I don’t think anyone would want to be in the way when I did it, I’ll tell you that.
            But that’s not what Jesus did.  Jesus did not use his power to do anything to these people.  He did not chew them out.  He did not even get mad.  What did he do?  He cried.
            He did not cry for himself.  He did not cry because of what they were going to do to him.  Jesus did not feel sorry for himself at all.  He felt sorry for the people.  He cried because of the chance they were missing.  Here was their chance for peace, and for salvation, and they were missing it.  And they were going to miss it.  And it made Jesus sad.
            You know, sometimes people have the idea that God is a vengeful, punishing God.  We get the idea that God is watching everything we do, just waiting for us to do something wrong so God can nail us for it.  I don’t think God works that way, and our reading for today is one of the reasons I don’t think so.  If ever Jesus had a reason to be angry with people, it would be here, knowing that soon he was going to be killed.  But Jesus was not angry.  He was sad.
            I think that’s how God reacts when we turn away and do our own thing instead of following God.  God is not angry with us.  God is sad.  God is sad for us. God is sad because of the chance we’re missing.  God knows that if we would just live our lives the way God wants us to, if we would just say the things God wants us to say and do the things God wants us to do, our lives would be so much better.  God knows that if we would just trust God and let God guide us and direct our lives, we would be so much happier.  We would have so much less to worry about if we would just turn our lives over to God instead of insisting on doing things our own way.  We have this wonderful chance to live lives of peace and joy, and we’re missing it.  Not always, not a hundred percent of the time, but a lot of the time.  And it makes God sad.
            Now, don’t take this the wrong way.  There are passages in the Bible that talk about the day of judgment, and that talk about condemnation, and I believe in those passages, too.  God is loving and forgiving, but God is also just and righteous.  But while I believe those passages, I don’t think for a minute that God enjoys condemning anyone.  I don’t think for a minute that God wants to do that.  That’s why God gives us chance after chance after chance to turn around, to trust God, to follow God.  God never gives up on us.  God keeps working on us, and working with us, even when we turn away, even when we refuse to believe.  God always stands ready to forgive us and to welcome us back into God’s presence.  Not only is God ready to do that, God is eager to do that.  God wants to do that for us.  God wants us to take advantage of that chance to live lives of peace and joy that God offers us.
            But God gives us free will.  God allows us to make choices.  The people of Jerusalem had a choice.  They could have chosen to stand by Jesus.  They could have chosen to really believe the words they said when they welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem.  But they did not.  And because they did not, Jerusalem was destroyed, just as Jesus said it would be.  Jesus took no joy in predicting the destruction of Jerusalem.  It made him very sad to do it.  But it was not the result of what Jesus did.  It was the result of the choice the people made.
            We have choices to make, too.  We can choose to stand by Jesus.  We can choose to really believe the words we say when we claim to accept Jesus as the Son of God and as our Savior.  We can choose to really mean it when we pray, “Thy will be done.”  We have that choice.  But we also have the choice not to mean those words.  If we don’t, that choice will have consequences.  God takes no joy in enforcing those consequences.  It makes God very sad to do it.  But it’s not the result of what God does.  It’s the result of choices we make.
But here’s the good news.  It’s not too late for us.  It’s not too late for you, and it’s not too late for me.  We can turn our lives around.  Again, it’s not that we’re all terrible, horrible people, but we can do better.  We can truly living our lives the way God wants us to.  We can truly say the things God wants us to say and do the things God wants us to do.  We can truly trust God and let God guide and direct our lives.  We can turn our lives over to God and stop insisting on having our own way.  We can stop missing out, and truly live lives of peace and joy.  We’ll still have problems, of course, but we’ll have peace and joy anyway, because we’ll know that God is there with us, despite our problems.
            God has given us an incredible chance to live lives of peace and joy.  Let’s take advantage of that chance.  Let’s stop missing out.  Let’s turn our lives over to God.  When we do, the results may truly astound us.