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Saturday, October 31, 2015


This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, November 1, 2015.

            God is big.  God is really, really big.  God is bigger and stronger and greater and more powerful than anything we can possibly imagine.  I mean, take the biggest, strongest, greatest, most powerful thing you can think of, take it times ten, and you’re still nowhere close to God.  God is so big and so vast and so everything that you and I are really not capable of getting our minds around just how big God is.
            That’s an awesome thing in a lot of ways, and yet in some ways it’s kind of a problem.  The reason it’s a problem is that you and I worship God.  Or at least, we try to, to the best of our ability.  But to worship someone, you have to be able to understand them, at least to some extent.  After all, how can we worship someone we cannot understand?
            And so we try to understand God.  And yet, in a lot of ways, we just cannot do it.  God is just too big, just too much, really, for us to ever understand.
            And that’s one of the things we’ve run into as we’ve done this sermon series on the Minor Prophets, a sermon series we’ve been calling “Who Are These Guys?”  And it’s something we run into as we look at the prophet Zephaniah.  Today, we read two sections of Zephaniah.  We read from the first chapter and the last chapter.  And the two readings seem to say two completely opposite things.
            The first part of Zephaniah prophesies destruction.  Destruction of pretty much everyone and everything.  God says, “I will sweep away both people and animals.  I will sweep away the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea…I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all Jerusalem…Be silent before the Sovereign Lord, for the day of the Lord is near.”
            There’s more of that sort of thing in Zephaniah.  Later we read, “The day of the Lord is bitter…That day will be a day of wrath—a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness…I will bring such distress on all people that they will grope about like those who are blind…Their blood will be poured out like dust…the whole earth will be consumed, for he will make a sudden end of all who live on the earth.”
            That’s the first part of Zephaniah.  But then later, in the last part of Zephaniah, we read something entirely different.  We read, “Sing, Daughter Zion:  shout aloud, Israel!  Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem.  The Lord has taken away your punishment…the Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm.”  And we also read, “The Lord you God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves.  He will take great delight in you…he will rejoice over you with singing.”
            And as we read both of these things in the book of Zephaniah, we get confused.  Because Zephaniah is not a very long book.  As we read it, it seems like we go from “God’s going to wipe everyone out and there’ll be nothing left” to “rejoice because God is here to save you” really quickly.  Basically, we go from one to the other in the turn of a page.
            And that’s why I say that God is too big for us to really understand, or even really to describe.  We try.  We say all kinds of things to try to explain or describe God.  We say, “God is love”.  We say, “God is peace”.  We say “God is fair”.  We say “God is just”.  We say “God is righteous”.  We say all these things, so many things, really that at first glance they seem to contradict each other.
            And that can be a problem for us.  We say “God is love”, but then we say, “Really?  Then how come God allows so many bad things to happen?”  We say, “God is just”, but then we say “Really?  Then how come God lets so many bad people do so well.  We say, “God is fair”, but then we say, “Really?  Then how come some wonderful people are taken from us at young ages and some of the worst people in the world live such a long time?”
            From our perspective, there are all these contradictions about God.  I’m not saying that they are contradictions, but it can seem like it to us.  There are just so many things we don’t understand.  It’s not that the things we say about God are untrue.  They’re all true.  And there are a lot of other things we say about God that are true, too.  But we try to take all those things and put them all together and look at what we have, and sometimes it seems like we still are not even anywhere close to having a picture of God that’s even coherent, much less one that’s understandable to us.
            That’s where faith comes into it, of course.  But you know, even that can sometimes be just kind of a pat, all-encompassing answer that really does not explain or satisfy us.  I mean, yes, faith is important, obviously.  But faith in what?  We get that we cannot completely understand God, but we feel like we need to be able to get some kind of handle on who God is if we’re going to worship God.  So what do we do?
            Here’s where I think Zephaniah and the other Minor Prophets can help us.  As we read Zephaniah, about eighty percent of the book is death and destruction and disaster and doom and desolation.  There are only three chapters in the book, but the entire first chapter is like that.  The entire second chapter is like that.  The start of the third chapter is like that.  We go from Chapter One, verse two, in which God says, “I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth” to Chapter Three, verse eight, in which God says, “The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger.”
            But that eighty percent of the book is not the most important part.  It is important, no question, but it’s not the most important.  Because then comes the last twenty percent of the book.  Chapter Three, verses nine through twenty.  In verse nine, God says “I will purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the lord and serve him shoulder to shoulder” and in verse twenty, God says, “I will bring you home.  I will give you honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes.”  And everything in between is similar.
            Now, that comes nowhere close to giving us a complete understanding of God.  But we’re told that everything in the Bible is there for reasons.  And I also think things appear in the Bible in the order they do for reasons.  There are reasons why, after all this death and destruction and disaster and doom and desolation, these last twelve verses show up.  And I may not know all of them, but I’m pretty sure I at least know one.
God wants us to know that there are some bad things that are going to happen.  In fact, there are some really bad things that are going to happen.  And we’re not going to be able to stop them.  And God’s not going to stop them, either.  Bad things are going to happen.  Period.
            But that’s not right.  It’s not “bad things are going to happen.  Period.”  It’s bad things are going to happen, comma.  And after the comma comes a “but”.  Bad things are going to happen, but the bad things are not going to last forever.  That’s why this last part is in the book of Zephaniah.  To make sure we know that, no matter how bad things get, there is still hope.  There is always hope, for you and for me and for the whole world.  God never leaves us without hope.
            Because that’s who God is.  God is all those other things, too, and God is a lot more things that we have not talked about yet, but God is also hope.  God is always hope.  God always has been hope.  God always will be hope.  You know why we say, “Where there’s life, there’s hope”?  We say it because where there’s God, there’s hope, and where there’s God, there’s life.  As long as we have God, we have life, and as long as we have God, we have hope.  God will never leave us without hope.
            God will always be way too big for us to understand.  Maybe in heaven we understand.  Even in heaven, though, I suspect that we really don’t understand.  I suspect it’s more that in heaven we experience God, and when we experience God we don’t have to understand.
But I don’t know.  What I do know is that no matter what happens, God will be there, and God will give us hope.  Bad things will happen, but the bad things will not last forever.  No matter how bad things get, there is still hope.  There is hope for you, and for me, and for the whole world.  Because, whatever else God is, God is always hope.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Lost and Found

What follows is something I talked about during the children’s sermon last Sunday.  Some people said they got at least as much out of this as they did the regular sermon, so I thought I would share it with you, too.

Have you ever lost something important?  I remember a time back when I was a lawyer.  There was something I was working on, and there was a paper that I really needed to have.  I looked in the file and—I couldn’t find it.  I looked farther.  I still couldn’t find it.

I started to get worried.  I looked through the entire file, front to back.  I still could not find the paper I needed.  I looked through the file back to front.  I still could not find it.

By now, I was starting to panic.  I really needed to find that paper.  I looked through some other files that had been close to that file, thinking I might have put the paper in one of them by accident.  Still nothing.  I went through the entire file one more time.  I still could not find that paper.  It was like it had vanished.

I was getting frantic.  I decided to pray about it.  I’d like to say I prayed because I’m such a spiritual person, but in fact I prayed because I simply did not know what else to do.  I was going to be in big trouble if I could not find that paper.  So, I closed my eyes and prayed that God would somehow help me find that paper.  I opened my eyes, and there it was.  It was sitting right on top of the pile of papers on my desk.

Maybe you don’t believe that story.  I could not believe it myself, when it happened, but I swear that it’s true.  When I opened my eyes after praying, that paper was right on top of the stack of papers I had.  It was right in front of me.

I still don’t know how it got there.  Did God somehow magically make that paper appear on my desk?  I suppose that’s possible.  God can do anything—that’s part of the definition of being God—so God certainly could have done it that way.

What I suspect, thought, is that the paper was there the whole time.  I just had gotten so panicky and so frantic that I could not see it.  When I prayed, God calmed me down and helped me see things clearly.  And once God did that, I was able to open my eyes and see the solution to my problem, a solution that had been right in front of me the whole time if I’d just been calm enough to see it.

So if you have a problem and you don’t know what to do, I’d suggest that you pray about it.  Close your eyes, pray, then open your eyes and see what happens.  It could be that God will magically solve your problem.  But if not, there’s a good chance that God will help you calm down and see things more clearly.  And when we do that, a lot of times we’ll see that the solution has been right in front of us the whole time, if we’d just been calm enough to see it.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

A Wait Problem

The message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, October 25, 2015.  The Bible verses used are Habakkuk 1:12--2:3.

            We are continuing our sermon series on the Minor Prophets, “Who Are These Guys?”  Today, we look at the book of Habakkuk.
            You’ve probably noticed, as we go through these minor prophets, that I keep saying, “We really don’t know much about this prophet.”  Today we take that to the max, because we pretty much know nothing about Habakkuk.  We really don’t even know how to pronounce his name.  Some people pronounce in HaBAKKuk while others pronounce it HABakkuk.  I remember when I was in seminary, I asked my professor what the correct pronunciation was, thinking he would surely know, and he told me, “We really have no idea.”  In fact, we don’t even know whether that was his real name.  Some think it may have been a nickname that comes from an Akkadian word “hambakuku”, which is the name of a plant.  Why he’d have had a nickname that was the name of a plant is not explained.
            Anyway, HaBAKKuk—or HABakkuk—delivered his message around 700 B. C., people think.  Its form is different from the other minor prophets we’ve looked at, in that it’s not a message delivered to a certain group.  Instead, it’s a conversation between Habakkuk and God.  We got a little of that conversation in our Bible reading for today.
            Habakkuk starts the conversation off with a question.  It’s a question that people have struggled with for thousands of years, ever since we became people, really.  Habakkuk looks at the world, and he sees all kinds of things going wrong.  He says, “Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds…the law is paralyzed and justice never prevails.  The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.”
            And then he asks the question.  It’s basically the same question almost all of us have asked at one time or another.  “Why do you make me look at injustice?  Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?...Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.  Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?  Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?”
            Almost all of us have asked similar questions.  The worse things get, the more we ask them.  Sometimes we ask them in a world context.  “Why are Christians persecuted?  Why is there so much poverty in the world?”  Sometimes we ask them in a national context.  “Why are there things like school shootings and other violence?  Why is there so much divorce and so many social problems?”  Sometimes we ask them in a local context.  “Why are we in such a drought?  Why is there so much crime?”  Sometimes we ask them in a very personal context.  “Why can I not find a job?  How am I going to pay my bills?  Will I ever find someone to love me?”
            Those are not all the same questions Habakkuk asked, of course, and I’m not trying to say that they are.  The way they’re all similar, though, is that they all deal with situations we think are not right.  They deal with situations where we don’t think things should be the way they are, and we don’t understand why things are the way they are.  And we don’t feel like we can do anything about them.  And so we cry out to God.  We say, God, you see the situation here.  You cannot like it.  There’s no way you can approve of what’s going on.  So why don’t you do something about it?
            There are natural questions to ask.  And I want to emphasize that there’s nothing wrong with asking them.  In a way, they show our faith.  If our faith was weak, we’d give up on God.  But instead, by asking these questions, we’re really running toward God.  We’re saying, God, I know you’re there.  I know you’re all powerful.  I know you’re good.  I know you can do something about this.  But you’re not.  Why not?  I still believe in you.  I just don’t understand.
            That’s the situation Habakkuk was in.  He did not lose his faith.  He says, “Lord, are you not from everlasting?  My God, my Holy One, you will never die.”  Habakkuk never doubts that God is there.
            And in fact, Habakkuk’s faith is even stronger than that.  He not only has faith that God is there.  He fully expects God to give him an answer.  He says, “I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts.  I will look to see what he will say to me.”
            And God gives him an answer.  Kind of, anyway.  God says, “the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false.  Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come.”  In other words, God says, things are going to be okay.  I’m going to act.  It’s just not time yet.  The time will come.  Wait for it.  Be patient.  It will come.  I’ll take care of everything when the time is right.
            That answer satisfies Habakkuk.  Does it satisfy you?
            It’s hard.  It’s hard to find that answer satisfying.  And it’s understandable why.  It’s not just that we tend to be impatient people, although that’s part of it.  But it’s also because we see all kinds of people who are hurting right now.  We see all kinds of people who are suffering right now.  Sometimes it’s people who are very close to us who are suffering.  In fact, sometimes it’s us, ourselves, who are suffering and in pain.
            When we’re hurting, when we’re suffering, or when people who are very important to us are hurting and suffering, it’s pretty hard to be patient.  It’s pretty hard to hear God say “wait”.  It’s pretty hard to hear God say don’t worry, I’ll take care of it eventually, when the time is right.  We think right now is when the time is right.  We think, “I don’t want to hear about how things’ll be all right in some great glorious day that I may never live to see.  I want God to take some action now!”
            But so often, that’s not how it works.  So often, God does not take action now.  Sometimes God does, of course.  I’ve had prayers answered in a very short period of time.  Maybe you have, too.  It’s really cool when that does happen.  It’s an awesome feeling when we pray for something and then just a little while later we see God answer our prayer.  It can really strengthen our faith to have that happen.
            But so often, God says to us what God said to Habakkuk.  God says that God is going to do something, but God is waiting for the “appointed time.”  God says, “Wait for it.  It will surely come.”
            How do we handle that?  I think one really good way to handle it is to do what Habakkuk did.  You and I need to stand watch.  We need to look to see what God will say to us.  And we need to look to see what God will do.
            I think that’s really important, because sometimes, God’s answer does not come all at once.  Sometimes, God’s answer comes a little bit at a time.  It comes at various times and in various ways.  And if we’re not standing watch, if we’re not looking for God’s answer, we may not see it.  We’ll think God is not answering our prayer when in fact God did give us an answer, we just were not looking for it and we missed it.
            I’ve been saying for a couple of years now that I believe God is doing something special here in the Wheatland Parish.  I still believe that.  I still don’t know exactly what it is.  But I see signs of it.  I see it in the tremendous growth in our Faith Builders children’s program.  I see it in the beautiful addition to the church.  I see it in the willingness of the volunteers who helped at the Hunter’s Breakfast last week and are helping at the Harvest Festival this week.  I see it in the tremendous faith and loyalty of so many people here.  There are lots of other ways I see it, too.  There are so many ways in which we can see God doing something special here.  But we have to look for them in order to see them.
            There’s one other way that I see this, too.  I see it in the number of people in our community who are not going to church anywhere.  I see it in the number of kids in our community who are not going to church school anywhere.  And the reason I say that I can see God doing something special through those people is that Jesus told us to go and make disciples of all nations.  Too many times we think of that as meaning we should be missionaries and go half-way around the world.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but we don’t have to do that.  We can be missionaries right here, in our own community.  These people who are not going to church anywhere, and these kids who are not going to church school anywhere, are some of the people we’ve been praying for in our prayer emphases. 
If we keep praying, if we stay faithful to God, if we do our best and trust God, God is going to answer our prayers.  The answer may not come when we wanted it to.  The answer may not come the way we wanted it to.  But it will surely come.  It’s already coming.  God is already answering our prayers.  We just need to keep watch and look for the answer, so we can see it when it starts to come.
            It’s hard to wait.  The worse things seem to be, the harder it is.  But if we stay faithful, if we do our best, and if we keep watch, we’ll see that God hears our prayers, that God is still in control, and that God will respond.  God will take care of everything when the time is right.  And when God does, it’s going to be awesome.

Friday, October 23, 2015


            This is the time for tournaments.  Next week, the high school football playoffs will start, and we found out today that both the Sully Buttes Chargers and the Potter County Battlers qualified for them.  High school volleyball tournaments start not long after that.  And in professional sports, the baseball playoffs are going on, which will soon lead to the World Series.

            It’s an exciting time for a sports fan.  One of the things that makes it so exciting is that in a tournament, you basically get one chance.  If you win, you advance.  If you lose, you’re done.  Period.  If you mess up, there are no second chances.  It doesn’t matter which team was better during the regular season.  You have to be the best now.  If you’re not, you’re out.

            That makes it really exciting, but it’s also kind of unfair.  A really good team can have a bad night.  A bad team can have a really good night.  And sometimes, it’s not that you played better or worse, it’s just that all the breaks went one way.  If they went your way, you’re thrilled, but if they didn’t, you’re disappointed.  You didn’t even get beaten, really, you just had bad luck the one time you needed good luck.

            Tournaments are exciting in sports, but it’s wonderful that God doesn’t work that way.  God doesn’t just give us one chance.  If we mess up, God gives us a second chance.  And if we mess up that one, God will give us a third chance, and a fourth chance, and a fifth chance.  God understands how flawed and imperfect we humans are.  God understands that we’re going to mess up a lot.  So God keeps giving us another chance to get it right.

            So if you’ve messed up some things in your life, ask God for forgiveness.  When we do, God will give us another chance.  Take advantage of that chance.  God will keep working with us until we get it right.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Whom? Nahum!

This is the message given in United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, October 18, 2015.  The Bible verses used are Nahum 1:1-14.

            We’re continuing our sermon series on the Minor Prophets called “Who Are These Guys?”  Today, we look at the book of Nahum.
            I’m guessing a lot of us did not even know there was a book of Nahum.  I can honestly say that this is the first time I’ve ever preached on the book of Nahum.  It may be the first time in the history of this church that anybody ever preached on the book of Nahum.  If you look in the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a set of agreed-on readings for use in Christian churches, there are zero readings from the book of Nahum.  Even the name itself sounds odd.  Nahum.  Sounds like somebody just sneezed.  Naaaa….HUUUM!  Gesundheit.
            As happens with a lot of the Minor Prophets, we know very little about Hahum.  We’re told he was an Elkoshite, meaning he came from a town called Elkosh.  Scholars think it was in Judah someplace.  Some speculate that it may be the town that later became known as Capernaum.  But we really don’t know.  We think this book was written somewhere around 625 B. C., but we don’t really know that, either.
            We’re told, at the very start of the book, that this is a prophecy concerning Nineveh.  If that town of Nineveh sounds familiar to you, it should.  Jonah, who we talked about a few weeks ago, was also given a prophecy to give to the town of Nineveh.
            What’s interesting about that, to me at least, is that Jonah made his prophecy somewhere around 775 B. C.  That’s about a hundred fifty years earlier.  Jonah gave Nineveh a prophecy that God was going to destroy them.  And at that time, the people of Nineveh repented of their sins and changed their ways.  And God forgave them.
            Now, it’s a hundred fifty years later.  And, as I said last week, we sometimes make the mistake of compressing that time element and not really understanding it or thinking about it.  We look at this, and we say, well, God gave the people of Nineveh a warning and they said they’d change.  Now they’ve gone right back to where they were.  What’s wrong with those people?
            But just like we said last week, a hundred fifty years is a long time.  A hundred fifty years ago it was 1865.  The Civil War was just ending.  There’s no one around today who was around in 1865, obviously.  There are very few people around who remember talking to anyone who was around in 1865.
            The thing is that we don’t learn from the past very well.  We especially don’t learn from the past if that past happened before we were born.  It seems like each generation of us has to learn and re-learn the same lessons.  That’s true today, and it was true for the town of Nineveh.  We don’t really know whether Nineveh followed through with its promise to repent after it heard Jonah’s prophecy, but if it did it did not stay on that course.  A hundred fifty years later, it was back where it had been.  And Nahum was given a prophecy from God against it.
            And unlike Jonah’s prophecy, the book of Nahum does not carry any word of another chance for Nineveh.  There’s nothing about Nineveh having a chance for forgiveness, nothing about Nineveh having a chance to receive mercy from God, nothing about maybe, perhaps, Nineveh could still be spared if it turned back to God.  All there is in the book of Nahum is God’s judgment and God’s vengeance and God’s wrath.
            So we read stuff like, “Nineveh is pillaged, plundered, stripped!  Hearts melt, knees give way, bodies tremble, every face grows pale.”  We read, “Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims!”  We read, “The fire will consume you; the sword will cut you down—and it will devour you like a swarm of locusts.”  And not only that, we read, “All who hear the news about you clap your hands at your fall.”  In other words, not only will Nineveh be destroyed, but the rest of the world will be happy about its destruction.
            It seems to me, as I think about the message of the book of Nahum, that there are a couple of ways we can look at it.  And it’s not that these two ways are mutually exclusive, because I don’t think they are.  As with a lot of the Bible, it’s really a matter of what we choose to emphasize.
            One way to look at it is that, at some point, we run out of second chances.  God had given Nineveh warnings.  God had sent them prophets.  God had given them all kinds of opportunities to change.  And they did not do it, not for very long anyway.  They just went on doing all the sinful things they’d been doing.  And eventually, the people of Nineveh ran out of chances.
And that does happen to us.  God gives us all kinds of opportunities to change.  Every day, every hour, every second, really, is an opportunity to change that God gives us.  Every day, every hour, every second, is a chance to turn back to God and live our lives the way God wants us to.  Not perfectly, because God knows we’re not capable of that.  But to the best of our ability.     
At some point, though, the clock runs out on us.  We run out of days.  We run out of hours.  We run out of seconds.  At some point, our life on earth is over, and we face God’s judgment.  And at that point, it’s too late to change.  We had our chances to change, and we either took advantage of them or we did not.  What’s done is done.
            That’s one way to look at it, and I think it’s legitimate.  I think everything I just said there is true.  But there’s another way of looking at it, too.
            As we read the book of Nahum, there’s one thing we do not read.  It’s true that in Nahum there’s nothing about Nineveh having a chance for forgiveness or mercy from God, or how Nineveh could still be spared if it turned back to God.  But you know what else there’s nothing about?  There’s nothing about Nineveh asking for any of those things.  There’s nothing about Nineveh asking God for forgiveness or mercy or another chance.
            But we do read this in Nahum:  “The Lord is slow to anger.”  And this, “The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble.”  And this, “God cares for those who trust in him.” 
            It’s not that God does not want to forgive us.  God does want to forgive us.  God has an incredible desire to forgive us.  But as we’ve said a few times now in this sermon series, God cannot be played for a fool.  When we’re not serious about changing, when we either don’t ask for forgiveness or do ask for it but have no intention of actually doing anything different in our lives, God knows that. 
God forgives, and God is eager to forgive.  But God’s forgiveness comes with an obligation to us to actually change and lead better lives.  Again, not perfect lives.  But better lives.  More giving lives.  More loving lives.  Lives that show our Christian faith.  It’s okay if we’re really trying to do that and we fail sometimes.  But if we’re not even trying, if we say, “Forgive me, Lord” and then just go on and do the same things over and over again and make no effort to do anything different, well, God knows that.  And God’s forgiveness may not come.  God still wants to forgive us, but God may not forgive us when we’re not sincere about asking for forgiveness.  The problem there is not with God, but with us.
God’s judgment is a part of the Bible.  It may not be the part we like to talk about a lot, but it’s still there.  It’s real, and ignoring it won’t make it go away.  And we know that, for each of us, the time to ask God for forgiveness is going to run out at some point.  None of us knows when.  It might be a long time from now, and for each one of us I hope it is.  But it might not be.  None of us is guaranteed tomorrow.  None of is even guaranteed today.
But God wants to forgive us.  God has an incredible desire to forgive us.  God wanted to forgive Nineveh.  But if we don’t ask for forgiveness, or if we do ask but are not sincere in our promise to change, God knows that.  And God’s forgiveness may not come.
So let’s go to God.  Let’s go to God with sincere hearts, with open hearts.  Let’s not try to hide anything from God.  We know we cannot do that, anyway.  Let’s give everything to God—our sin, our pain, our hopes, our dreams, our joys, our sorrows.  All of it.  Let’s give it all to God.
It’s not easy.  It’s not easy to open ourselves up that way.  There are things about each of us that we don’t want to admit to ourselves, much less admit them to God.  But God already knows them.  And deep down, we know them, too.
            So let’s go to God with sincere, open hearts.  Let’s ask God for forgiveness.  Let’s ask God to help us change.  Let’s ask God to overcome our own reluctance and our own resistance and help us change.  Let’s ask God to put God’s Spirit into our hearts.  Let’s do it now, today.  God is just waiting for us to.  When we do, God will forgive us.  And God will help us be the people God wants us to be.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

A Long-term God

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, October 11, 2015.  The Bible verses used are Micah 4:11--5:4.

We are about in the middle of our sermon series on the Minor Prophets, called “Who Are These Guys?”  Today we look at the prophet Micah.
            We don’t know just a whole lot about Micah.  We’re told he came from a place called Moresheth, but we really don’t know where that was.  Scholars think it was somewhere in the Jerusalem area, and that Micah’s ministry probably took place in and around Jerusalem.  Since Micah’s message is about Jerusalem that certainly makes sense, but we really don’t know that for sure.
            We’re told that Micah was given his message during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah.  That’s not terribly exact, because those three kings had reigns that spanned fifty-five years.  Still, it means that Micah must have lived somewhere in the vicinity of seven hundred B. C., give or take thirty years or so.
            When we look at Micah’s message and compare it to the other Minor Prophets we’ve talked about so far, there’s a sense in which it’s kind of same old same old.  God, through Micah, is pronouncing judgment on Samaria and Jerusalem.  And when we say “pronouncing judgment”, of course, we mean telling them of their coming destruction.  That term “judgment”, in this context, is never something good or even something neutral.  God’s judgment, in the Old Testament, is never, “Hey, you guys are doing great!”  No, when God pronounces judgment through a prophet, the judgment is always going to be bad news for the people being judged.  The people have ignored God, they’ve worship other gods or not god at all, and now they’re going to have to pay the penalty.
            So we read God saying things to Samaria and Jerusalem like, “I am planning disaster against this people, from which you cannot save yourselves.”  And, “I will pour her stones into the valley and lay bare her foundations.”  And, “Then they will cry out to the Lord, but he will not answer them.  At that time he will hide his face from them because of the evil they have done.”  And, “Zion will be plowed like a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble, the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets.”
            That’s some tough stuff.  And there’s a lot more of it.  But then, in the middle of all that, in about the middle of the book, comes the part we read today.  God has told the people all these terrible things that are going to happen.  Jerusalem is going to be destroyed.  It’s going to look like the bad guys have won.
            But God says the bad guys will not win.  It may look like they’re winning, but they’re not.  They may think they’re winning, but they’re not.  God says, “They do not know the thoughts of the Lord; they do not understand his plan.”  God says, never mind what it looks like.  I’m still in control here.  I have a plan.  Everybody’s going to think I’ve abandoned Israel, but it won’t be true.
            And then God says this, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel; whose origins are of old, from ancient times.”
            Do you recognize that?  I mean, not just because we read it a few minutes ago.  Did it sound familiar to you?  It should.  We read similar words every year at Christmas.  They’re from the gospel of Matthew.  The wise men come to see King Herod.  They tell him they’re looking for the king of the Jews that’s just been born.  Herod goes to the chief priests and teachers of the law and asks them were the Messiah is supposed to be born.  They tell him, “In Bethlehem in Judea, for this is what the prophet has written:  ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”’
            So think about this situation.  God is pronouncing judgment on Samaria and Jerusalem.  If you heard God’s message of judgment and believed it, what would your reaction be?  You’d pretty much give up, right?  You’d have no hope.  You’d think, it’s all over.  God is abandoning us.
And yet, at the same time God gives them that message, God says that it’s going to be okay.  God says, it may not look like it’s going to be okay, but it is.  God says, I have a plan.  It’s going to be bad for a while, but not forever.  There’s going to be a Savior, and he’s going to come from Bethlehem.
            Remember, we think this message came to Micah somewhere around seven hundred B. C.  So that means that seven hundred years before Jesus was born on earth, God already had it all planned out.  And not just in round numbers, either.  God had all the details planned out.  God knew, seven hundred years before it happened, that Jesus was going to be born, and that he was going to be born in Bethlehem.
            God told people about Jesus’ birth seven hundred years in advance.  We gloss over that time element sometimes when we read the Bible.  Seven hundred years.  Think about how long seven hundred years is.  Seven hundred years back from today was the year 1315.  There was no United States of America.  Christopher Columbus had not even landed yet here yet.  There was no such thing as electricity or indoor plumbing.  The printing press had not even been invented yet.  Seven hundred years is like thirty generations ago.  Our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents were around seven hundred years ago.
            What I’m trying to say is that seven hundred years is an incredibly long time.  And yet, seven hundred years before Jesus was born, God had everything all planned out.  In fact, God had it all planned out a long time before that, too.
            Here’s the point.  You and I look around at the world, and we see all kinds of things that seem to be going wrong.  And by the way, that’s true no matter what you’re political leanings are.  I have friends from all over the political spectrum, and they all see things happening that makes them think everything’s falling apart.  It’s different things, but they all see things that convince them that it’s all going wrong for the world and it’s all going wrong for our country and everything is in decline.
            And sometimes it seems like that in our own lives, too.  Sometimes we look out our lives and we see all kinds of things that seem to be going wrong.  It can feel like our lives are falling apart, that it’s all going wrong for us and that everything in our lives is in decline, too.
            But the thing about God is that God is a long-term God.  And sometimes, God’s plans take a long time to come about.  That can be hard for us to deal with, because as human beings, we tend to be short-term people.  We don’t want to hear about a seven-hundred-year plan, because we cannot really understand seven hundred years.  We can barely understand seventy years.  When things start happening that we don’t like, we don’t want to hear about seven hundred years or seventy years or even seven years.  We don’t even want to hear about seven days.  We want to see action now.
            That’s how the people of Samaria and Jerusalem felt, too.  That’s how they felt when this judgment God pronounced started actually coming about.  They did not want to hear about a seven-hundred-year plan.  They wanted to see things get better now.
            And God said, I know.  But it has to be like that for now.  These are things that have to happen.  But it’s not going to last forever.  I have a plan.  Eventually, it’s going to be okay.  That’s what God says to us, too.
            And we say, but God, look around.  It’s not okay.  Nothing’s happening.  The plan’s not working.
            And God says, it will.  Eventually, it will.  Trust me.
            And so, as so often happens, that’s where we are.  At a question of trust.  We have God’s promises in the Bible, the promises that say God is still active and that God is in control and that God will ultimately win and that eventually everything will be the way it’s supposed to be.  And then we look around and see things that don’t look right and things that don’t seem to be going the way they’re supposed to go.  And we cannot see anything happening to stop it.  We look for things.  We want to see them.  But we cannot.  And again, this is true whether we’re talking about the world, the country, our church, our own lives, or lots of other things.
            God is a long-term God.  God has had things all planned out for hundreds of years.  In fact, God has had things all planned out since the world was created.  That’s not to say that everything that happens is the will of God, because God allows us to make choices and those choices have consequences.  But God has a plan, and God is working to make God’s plan come about.  God has been working for hundreds of years, thousands of years.  God has been working ever since the universe was created.  In fact, God was working before the universe was created.  And God is still working now, today.  God has a plan, and God will do whatever is necessary to make sure God’s plan eventually comes about.
            God is a long-term God.  Can we trust God enough to be long-term people?  If we can, we’ll see all kinds of incredible and wonderful things happen.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Dreams of a Bear

I originally wrote this for a different blog, but decided to post it here as well.  I hope you enjoy it.

T.C. Bear sat by his locker. As he took off his uniform for the last time this year, he reflected on the season just completed.

The boys had played well this year, much better than expected, even if they hadn’t made the playoffs.  He felt good about that. For him personally, it had also been a good season. He had entertained lots of people. He seemed to be as popular as ever, especially with the kids. Terry Ryan had assured him that the club would pick up his option for 2016. Not a bad season at all.

Still, now it was over. Time to lay in some supplies and get ready to hibernate. Oh, he'd set his alarm to get up for TwinsFest and the Winter Caravan. He might even make a personal appearance or two. For the most part, though, it was time to rest after a long season.

That was okay. He didn't mind sleeping through the long Minnesota winter. Except for one thing. Except for The Dream.

It wasn't a bad dream; quite the opposite, in fact. It was always pretty much the same. The Twins were playing in the World Series. It was Game Seven. It was the bottom of the ninth, and the Twins trailed by three runs. The first two batters went out. Then, a rally. A bunt single, a strikeout/wild pitch, and a hit batsman loaded the bases. A home run would win the game.

Paul Molitor needed a pinch-hitter. He looked down the bench. Then he looked up the bench. Then he looked under the bench. Then he looked into the stands and pointed. "T.C!" he shouted. "Grab a bat! You're in the game!"

T.C. clambered down the stairs and leaped gracefully over the railing--as gracefully as a bear can leap, anyway. He grabbed his trusty bat, the bat with which he had won so many mascot home run derbies. He stepped into the batter's box. He worked the count to three-and-two. Then, BAM! He connected and sent the ball high and far, over the fence and into the Minnesota night. It was a grand slam! The Twins won the World Series!

It was a wonderful dream, really. Except....

He had talked to Paul Molitor many times, and the answer was always the same. Bears were not allowed to play in the major leagues. Nothing T.C. said could change his mind. He pointed out that such blatant discrimination was against the spirit of the Constitution. He pointed out that times were changing, and that many people now considered being a bear to be a legitimate lifestyle choice. He pointed out that, after all, Prince Fielder and Pablo Sandoval were allowed to play. None of it mattered. Molitor stood firm. Bears could not play in the major leagues, and that was that.

Someday, T.C. vowed, this would change. Someday he would live in a world where a creature was judged, not by the texture of his covering, but by the content of his character. Someday he would live in a world where bearophobia was a thing of the past. Someday.

Now, though, he was getting sleepy. It was time to hibernate. Because you can discriminate against a bear, you can try to keep him down, but there are two things you cannot do to a bear. You cannot break his spirit, and you cannot take away his dreams.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Say Yes to the Lord

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, October 4, 2015.  The Bible verses used are Jonah 1-2.

            Our sermon series on the Minor Prophets has been called “Who Are These Guys?”  But if there’s one minor prophet that people know about, it’s Jonah.  Lots of people, even people who would not consider themselves Christians, have heard about the story of Jonah and the whale, or the “big fish” if you prefer.
            Now, let’s get one thing out of the way right off.  You’ll hear people discuss whether this story is literally true or if it’s simply a story.  As far as I’m concerned, you can think whatever you want to about that, because to me that question misses the point.  The point is, what are we supposed to learn from it?  Because really, that’s the question we should ask about all the Bible stories.  The stories that are in the Bible are not just there as matters of historical fact.  The Bible is the inspired word of God.  God, acting through people of course, wanted certain stories in the Bible to teach us things.  So the questions we should as are things like:  What does this story tell us about God?  What does it tells us about ourselves?  What does it tell us about our relationship with God?  What does it tell us about how we should live our lives?
            So let’s take a look at the story of Jonah with those questions in mind.  And as we do, it’s kind of interesting that, alone among the Minor Prophets, the main focus of the book of Jonah is not the prophecy that Jonah is given to deliver.  You remember, when we’ve looked at these other books like Joel and Amos and Obadiah, the focus of the book was the specific prophecy that they were given by God to deliver to certain people of a certain nation.  That’s not true here.  The prophecy is part of it, obviously, but the book really deals more with how people reacted, both to the prophecy and to the call by God to deliver it.  It deals with how God reacted to all this, too.
            So Jonah is told by God to go to the city of Nineveh and preach against it.  And Jonah runs away.  We’re not told why at this point.  Later Jonah gives a reason, and we’ll come to that, but right now all we’re told is that God told Jonah to do something and Jonah ran away.
            Does that strike a chord with anyone?  I’ll bet it does, if we’re honest about it.  I’ll bet most of us, if we really think about it, can think of a time when God told us to do something and we tried to run away from it.  It may not have been as big a deal as what Jonah was told to do, but I’ll bet there was something.  Maybe we felt God calling us to go help someone who needed some help, and we made an excuse and stayed home instead.  Maybe we felt God calling us to pick up the phone and call someone who we thought might be lonely, but we told ourselves we were too busy and did not do it.  Maybe there was something going on at the church that we felt God calling us to help with, but we decided we did not want to be bothered and besides, somebody else would probably do it.  We could go on and on and on.
            If we’re really honest, and we really dig, we can probably think of lots and lots of times God told us to do something and we ran away.  And the thing is, sometimes we get so good at running away that we don’t even realize we’re doing it.  We start to feel that prompting from God, and we shove it out of our minds before we can even start thinking about it.  We don’t even want to consider doing what God is prompting us to do.  We don’t want to admit it, but we’re running away, just like Jonah did.  You might say we and Jonah are in the same boat.
            Of course, running away did not work for Jonah.  It just caused him more trouble.  And eventually, running away really does not work for us, either.  Because, as Jonah found out, there really is nowhere we can run that God cannot find us.  And God will find us.  God always finds us.  And God won’t quit working on us until we say yes.
            So that’s one lesson we need to take from Jonah’s story.  When God is calling us to do something, we need to say yes.  Running away won’t accomplish anything.  God will keep after us until we eventually have to say yes anyway.  All we’ll have done by running away is cost ourselves some time and some trouble.
            But of course, Jonah’s story does not end when he said yes.  If you’ve read the rest of the story, you know that Jonah eventually did go to Nineveh and proclaim God’s message to them.  He went through the city saying, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”  And this brings us to another difference between Jonah and most of the other Minor Prophets.  The people Jonah was talking to, the people of Nineveh, believed him.  They declared a fast, they asked God to forgive them, they promised to change their ways, and they begged God for mercy.  And it worked.  God was merciful.  God did not destroy the city of Nineveh.
            Now, you might think Jonah would be pleased about that.  But instead, Jonah was upset.  In fact, he was more than upset, he was angry.  He says to God in Chapter Four “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, while I was still at home?  This is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish.  I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
            Think about what Jonah’s saying here.  He’s saying, darn it, I knew if I gave them this warning they’d change their ways and you’d forgive ‘em.  I did not want you to forgive these people.  These people don’t deserve your forgiveness.  If you had not sent me here to warn them, they would not have changed and you’d have given them what they deserve.
            Now, we could talk about how Jonah should’ve been gracious and compassionate too, just like God was, and what it says about Jonah that he was disappointed that God was not going to wipe out the people of Nineveh.  But that’s not the direction I want to go here.
            What I want to talk about is this:  when we say yes to God, we have no guarantee that what we want to happen is actually going to happen.  In fact, what happens may turn out to be the exact opposite of what we wanted to have happen.
            Have you ever had that happen?  You thought you were doing the right thing, you thought you were doing what God wanted you to do, and then what happened was nowhere close to what you wanted to have happen?
            It’s frustrating, right?  And this is not necessarily done with bad intent on our part.  We may very well be convinced, just as Jonah was convinced, that what we wanted to have happen was the right thing.  We may be convinced that what we wanted to have happen was what God should have wanted to have happen.  And yet, it did not happen.  And we wonder, what’s going on here?  What’s the point of trying to follow God?  We tried to do the right thing, we tried to do what God wanted us to do, and nothing worked out the way we think it should have.  In fact, it worked out the exact opposite way.  What good did it do us to say yes to God if this is what happened?
            The thing is that when we say yes to God, God does not guarantee us any specific result.  In fact, God often does not tell us anything about what’s going to happen.  For the most part, God did not tell the Minor Prophets what was going to happen when they gave the messages God told them to give.  God sometimes gave them some information, but often God did not.  God just said go to these place, talk to these people, and tell them this.  That’s it.
            That can be frustrating.  But if we look at it the right way, it can also be kind of freeing.  Because what it tells us is that, when we say yes to God, we are not responsible for what happens as a result.  God is.  God does not call us to be successful, at least not as humans would define those terms.  God calls us to be faithful.  God calls us to be faithful and to do our best to serve God and love God.  If we do those things, God will take care of what happens next.  And if we do those things, we will be successful in God’s eyes, whether we’re successful in human terms or not.
            When we try to fight God, when we try to ignore God, when we try to run away from God, we can make things really hard on ourselves.  But when we say yes to God, all kinds of things can happen.  And sometimes, wonderful things can happen even though those wonderful things were not part of our plans.  When Jonah said yes to God, he helped save a whole bunch of people even though he really did not even want to.  Think what he might have been able to do if he’d said yes to God willingly, rather than grudgingly.
            Let’s stop fighting God.  Let’s stop ignoring God.  Let’s stop trying to run away from God.  Let’s stop making things hard on ourselves.  Let’s say yes to God, and let’s say yes willingly.  When we do, all kinds of wonderful things may happen.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Fear of Flying

As some of you know, I was traveling last week.  I had some church meetings in Mitchell and also was able to see some family.  But then, I had to make a trip to Columbus, Ohio, by airplane, something I haven’t done for about seven years.

I hadn’t missed it.  I don’t like flying much.  It’s not just the hassles that always come as part of flying, although that’s part of it.  I just really don’t like to fly.  I get nervous about it.  You can give me all the statistics you want to about how safe flying is and how you’re actually more at risk driving or doing a lot of other things.  I know all that, and I believe it.  But it doesn’t help when it comes time to get on the plane. 

So, I was rather nervous about the whole thing.  I prayed about it, but I was still nervous.  I was nervous for days in advance.  And yet, when the time came to actually do it, nothing could have been easier.  There were no delays.  There was no particular turbulence.  The planes left when they were supposed to and landed when they were supposed to.  Everything came off completely without incident.   

I was happy about that, obviously.  But I also felt a little foolish.  Here I’d done all that worrying, and it had all been for nothing.  My worrying had been a complete waste of time.

That’s how things often go in life, isn’t it?  We face a situation that makes us uncomfortable.  It scares us.  We think of all the things that could possibly go wrong.  We spend days, sometimes weeks, sometimes months or even years, worrying about it.  But then, the time comes to actually do it, and a lot of times everything works out just fine.  And we’re happy, but we also feel a little foolish for wasting all that time worrying.

Why do we do that?  Well, there are lots of reasons, but I think one of them is that we don’t trust God enough.  We say we do, but a lot of times we don’t.

Now, understand, I’m not saying that if we just trust God everything will work out the way we want it to.  There are all kinds of times in our lives when things don’t work out the way we want them to.  You’ve had that happen and so have I.  That’s not what I mean here.

You see, trust in God does not mean trusting that everything will work out the way we want it to.  Trusting God means being okay with whatever happens.  Trusting God means we believe that, no matter what happens, God is still in ultimate control.  Trusting God means accepting both the good and the bad.  Trusting God means trusting that God has plans and purposes that are far beyond our human understanding.  Trusting God means not demanding that God justify to us the things God does.  Trusting God means trusting that, no matter what happens, God is still there, God still loves us, and God will help us through.

If I’d had that kind of trust, I wouldn’t have wasted so much time worrying about my plane trip.  If we all had that kind of trust, we all wouldn’t waste so much time worrying about things.  So, whatever you may be facing, my prayer is that you’ll trust God, and that through that trust, you’ll be able to let go of whatever worries you may have.  That’s my prayer for myself, too.