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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Don't Miss Out!

Are you a Christmas Eve person or a Christmas Day person?  In other words, do you have your big celebration on Christmas Eve, or on Christmas Day?

It’s funny how different families develop different traditions.  Wanda’s family was a Christmas Eve family.  They had their special meal and opened the presents on Christmas Eve.  My family was a Christmas Day family.  We opened the presents Christmas morning and had the big meal at noon.  Which is, of course, the proper way to do it.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the Christmas Eve church service with the story from the Bible and the candles and everything.  But you have to wait until Christmas morning to open your presents because Santa doesn’t come until you go to bed on Christmas Eve.  Everyone knows that.

Kidding aside, while it’s interesting to see how different families develop their own traditions, in the long run it truly does not matter.  Celebrate Christmas at whatever time works best.  What really matters is, what happens now?  What happens when it’s December 29th or so?

What happens for a lot of people is that they move on with their lives.  Yes, there are a few who’ll leave the Christmas decorations up for a few more days.  Some of us will decide that it’s still the Christmas season until Epiphany, which is January 6.  But then, a lot of people will move on.  Christmas will be packed up and put away.  We’ll go on with our lives as if nothing had happened.

And, for some people, nothing will have happened.  They’ll go back to living their lives like they did before Christmas.  They’ll have had a good time, they’ll have had some good food and maybe a nice time with family and friends, but that all they’ll have had.  Christmas will have had no impact on their lives.

That’s too bad.  I’m not mad at them or anyhing, and I don’t think God is mad at them, either.  It’s just that they’re missing out on so much.  If the coming of the Savior has no impact on our lives, if it’s just a good time that we have once a year and then move on from, we’re missing out.  We’re missing out on the chance to feel God’s Spirit in our lives.  We’re missing out on the chance to feel God guiding us, helping us through life.  We’re missing out on the incredible miracle of God’s love.  We’re missing out on knowing that we’re not God’s servants, we’re God’s children, and that God loves us the way good parents love their children.  God loves us so much that God, in the form of Jesus Christ, literally died for us.  That’s an amazing love to have in our lives.  It’s sad when people miss out on it.

I hope you’re not missing out on it.  If you are, please let me know, so we can talk about it.  If you know someone who is, please try to talk to them about it.  I know it’s hard to do.  It can be a difficult conversation to have.  But try anyway.  It’s important.  If we care about people, the most loving thing we can do for them is try to help them feel God’s love.

People have to make their own decisions, but we need to do what we can.  People need to know God’s love.  People need to accept Jesus as their Savior.  Jesus told us to go and make disciples.  Don’t let anyone you care about miss out.  And make sure you don’t miss out, too.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Not Just Today

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, December 25, 2016.  The Bible verses used are Luke 2:1-20.

When you look at the Christmas story, you can’t help but notice how many of the people in it were ordinary people.  They were people like you and me, going through their lives one day at a time, doing nothing particularly remarkable.  Then, all of a sudden, God called on these ordinary people and asked them to do some extraordinary things.  Today, on the day we celebrate the birth of the Savior, we’re going to take a look at the shepherds and their role in the Christmas story.
            If you want to get an idea of who the shepherds were, think of some of the cowboys who were in this country in the first part of the twentieth century.  I don’t mean the Hollywood version of cowboys, I mean the real thing.  I’ve had the privilege of getting to know a few people who, when they were young, were involved in some of that, and some of you have, too.  They have quite the stories to tell.
            Contradicting what Hollywood says, it was not a glamorous life.  It was a very hard life.  You were out in the elements constantly, no matter what those elements were.  In the summer, it was high heat and humidity.  In the winter, it was bitter cold and snowstorms.  There was everything in-between as well.  You found shelter whenever and wherever you could.  You did not get paid very much.  You were kind of looked down on by the higher-ups in society.  It was not the kind of life very many people actually aspired to live.
            That’s pretty much who the shepherds were, back in Jesus’ time.  They were better than the beggars—at least they were working for a living—but they were pretty much on the bottom rung of that part of society that was employed.  Those are the people to whom God chose to send an angel.  Those are the people God chose to be the first ones to know about the birth of the Savior.
            I’m sure that, on that first Christmas night, the last thing these shepherds expected was that they’d see an angel.  I don’t doubt they believed in angels.  Angels show up quite a few times in the Old Testament, and they’d have heard all those stories.  The thing is, though, that these shepherds knew they were considered low-class people.  They might have believed that angels could appear to people, but if they ever thought about it, they probably thought they were the last people on earth God would send angel to.
            Then, as they’re doing their jobs one night, there’s an angel in their midst.  We don’t know if this was Gabriel again, the one who appeared to Mary and Joseph.  The Bible just says it was an angel.  But just as every other time an angel appears in the Christmas story, the shepherds are terrified.  The angel tells them not to be afraid.  Then the angel says those words that many of have heard so often, the words we hear every time we watch the Charlie Brown Christmas show.  “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign to you:  You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.
            “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’”
            And that’s it.  That’s all the Bible says about the angels coming to the shepherds.  Do you think it really happened exactly that way?  I mean, I’m not saying the Bible is wrong or anything, but think about it.  If you read the words the angel said, it takes about thirty seconds.  If you allow some time for the appearance and disappearance of the angel and the heavenly host, it takes about a minute.
            Was that really it?  Did the angel say some more stuff that’s not recorded?  Did the heavenly host have more to say, too?  Or did this all really just take a minute or less?  Did the angel and the heavenly host just pop in, say their bits, and leave?
            If so, try to imagine how you’d feel if you were those shepherds.  You’d think you’d been seeing things.  You’d wonder if you’d fallen asleep and dreamed that.  You’d be hesitant to even say anything to the others.  You’d be afraid they might think you’d gone nuts if you even started talking about seeing an angel, much less a heavenly host.
            You look around at the others, and you notice everyone else kind of doing the same thing.  They all have strange looks on their faces.  Finally, someone says, “Hey, did you guys see something?”
            You go, “Well, uh, maybe.  What kind of something?”
            “Well, I don’t know, just sort of like, well, a person, kind of, but not exactly.  It was sort of like they had this light around them.”
            “You mean, like an angel?”
            “Well, now I’m not saying an angel, but, you know, now that you mention it, yeah, sort of.  I mean, I’m not saying it was an angel.  I’m just saying that, now that you’ve put that idea in my head, it did kind of look like an angel, in a way.  You know?”
            You go on like that for a while, and eventually everyone admits that they saw the same thing.  They all heard the same thing, too.  So, you all decide you’re going to go down to Bethlehem and see what the angel was talking about.  When you get there, there it all is, just like the angel said.  There’s Mary, and there’s Joseph, and there’s the baby, this baby who’s going to be the Messiah, the Savior.  In fact, that’s not really accurate.  The angel did not say the child is going to be the Savior, the angel said the child already is the Savior, even though he’s still a baby.  The angel did not tell the shepherds about something that was going to happen someday.  The angel told them about something that was happening right now, in their presence.
            The shepherds told everyone there what had happened, about the angel and the heavenly host and all that.  Everyone was amazed, as of course you would be.  Then, we’re told, “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”
            We never hear about these shepherds again in the Bible.  We don’t know what happened to them.  We don’t know what they did.  Again, though, try to imagine yourself as one of them. You’ve seen the angel.  You’ve seen a great company of the heavenly host.  You’ve seen the baby who is the Savior.
            You think things would just go back to normal after that?  I don’t.  Now, they may have stayed shepherds.  The prospects for career advancement for a shepherd were not that great back then, and they still had to make a living.  I don’t think they just went about their business, though.  Listen again to what the scripture says.  It says “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
            I don’t think that’s something the shepherds just did that night.  I think it’s something the shepherds did the rest of their lives.  I think they told this story every chance they got.  I think they glorified and praised God every time they could.  Every time they saw someone, they talked about this.  When they were by themselves, they talked about it to each other.  I think they re-lived this night and glorified and praised God every day that they remained on this earth.  That might even be how Luke knew about the story and included it in his gospel.  If so, that would make these ordinary, low-class people among the most important people who ever lived.
            There’s a lesson there for all of us, I think.  What those shepherds did is what all of us are supposed to do.  No matter what we do for a living, no matter what our job is, even if we don’t have a job at all, this is what we’re supposed to do.  As we go about our lives, we’re supposed to glorify and praise God always.  We’re supposed to talk about the Savior every chance we get.  We’re supposed to spread the story of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ all our lives, for whatever time we have left on this earth.
            Do we do that?  For most of us, the answer is no.  It is for me.  I don’t do nearly as good a job of glorifying and praising God as I should.  I’ll do it in church.  I’ll do it at a gathering where a prayer is expected.  But just as I go about my everyday life?  Not very often.  That’s probably true of a lot of us.
            The point is not to make anyone to feel guilty.  The point is that we need to change.  That’s the point of the whole Christmas story, really.  We need to change.  That’s part of why Jesus came to earth.  We need to change.  Jesus brought a message that said we need to change, that we need to turn away from our sins, that we need to glorify and praise God always.  It’s a message that was true two thousand years ago, and it’s a message that’s still true today.

            Any time is a good time to make that change.  There could be no better day, though, than this day, Christmas Day.  On this day, we are doing what the shepherds did.  We’re celebrating the birth of the Savior.  Let’s not stop with today.  Let’s do what the shepherds did tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that.  Let’s glorify and praise God every day of our lives.  Let’s spread the message of the Savior every chance we get, as long as we’re on this earth.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Defending Christmas

This blog post is a Christmas tradition, having appeared every year at about this time since 2009 at my prior blog.

            We are just a few days away from Christmas Day.  Among other things, that means it’s the time of year for pastors to complain about the secularization of Christmas.

            There are secular aspects to Christmas, of course.  There always have been. Some of them are fine.  There’s nothing particularly wrong with giving and receiving presents, as long as you don’t go overboard about it.  There’s nothing wrong with decorating trees and putting up Christmas lights.  In fact, I enjoy looking at them.   

The reason we celebrate Christmas on December 25 is not because Jesus was actually born on that date.  We don’t know the actual day on which Jesus was born, although there are various theories.  Some sources say the reason we celebrate Christmas on December 25 is that it was a time when there were already secular celebrations going on, centering on the winter solstice.  If so, then it might be more accurate to say that followers of Jesus have been trying to Christianize a secular holiday, rather than the other way around.

            Therefore, I really don’t think that, as Christians, we need to feel like we have to defend Jesus in some sort of war on Christmas.  In fact, the idea of Christians fighting a war over the birth of the Prince of Peace seems like a contradiction in terms.  All we need to do, as Christians, is make clear what it is that we are celebrating, regardless of what anyone else is doing.

            Let others wish us a “happy holiday”; we can still wish them a merry Christmas.  If some don’t want a nativity scene at the courthouse, we can still put one in our front yard.  More than three-fourths of Americans claim to be Christians.  If three-fourths of the houses in this country had nativity scenes in their yards, there’d be no need for one on public property.  In fact, we’d probably make more of an impact that way.

            We don’t need to get mad at people who want to secularize Christmas.  What we need to do is calmly, persistently, and lovingly make sure people know that, as Christians, we are celebrating the birth of Christ.  Then, in that same way, we need to make sure people know who Jesus is, why we worship him, and why others should worship him, too.  If we do that, our Lord and Savior will do the rest.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Getting Ready for Christmas

As I write this, it is exactly ten days until Christmas.  And I hear a lot of people talk about how they’re not ready for Christmas.  I sometimes say it myself, as I don’t have the Christmas Eve service prepared yet.

On the one hand, it seems kind of odd that, so often, we’re not ready for Christmas, as if Christmas kind of snuck up on us when we weren’t looking.  After all, Christmas comes on December 25th every year.  It has for about seventeen hundred years.  It’s not like we didn’t know when it was going to be this year.  And yet, somehow, we never seem to be quite ready for it to come, as if we thought maybe this year it would be December 28th or 29th or something.

But on the other hand, there truly is a sense in which it’s important that we get ready for Christmas.  Think of what we’re celebrating.  I mean, the trees and the gifts and the food and all that stuff is fun, and I’m not opposed to any of it, but think about what we’re really celebrating.  We’re celebrating the greatest gift there ever was—the gift of salvation.  We’re celebrating the birth of the Savior.  We’re celebrating God himself—because that’s who Jesus was, God the Son—leaving the splendor and majesty of heaven and coming to earth in the form of a human being.  A human being, subject to all the temptations and suffering of life that you and I are subject to.  Coming to earth, to live among us, to teach us, to heal us, to show us how we should live.  And then, ultimately, to die for us, taking the punishment that should have gone to us so that our sins could be forgiven and we could go on to eternal life.

We need to take some time to prepare ourselves to celebrate that.  We need to take some time to truly appreciate it.  We need to really think about what Christmas is actually all about.  If we don’t, we may still have a good time, but that’s all Christmas will be for us—a good time.  Some days to spend some time with family, share some gifts, and eat well.  Again, there’s nothing wrong with any of that, but all of those things are things that will pass.  A pleasant feeling, a good time, but then we move on.

Celebrating what Christmas is really about is not just a pleasant feeling.  It’s not something we just move on from.  Truly celebrating the birth of the Savior, thinking about who he was and who he is, what he did and what he still does, that’s life-changing.  It can change both our earthly life and our eternal life.  Because that’s what Jesus came to do—change both our earthly life and our eternal life.

So have some fun at Christmas, but also remember what it is we’re celebrating.  Embrace the life-changing spirit of Christmas this year.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

It Never Fails

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, December 11, 2016.  The Bible verses used are 2 Samuel 7:8-16 and Luke 1:30-38.

             As we approach Christmas, we’ve been looking at the Old Testament prophecies of the coming of the Savior, and how those prophecies came true in the story of Jesus.  Today we look at the statement that Jesus would be a descendant of David.  The way this often shows up in the Bible is that Jesus is from “the house of David” or from “the line of David”.
            This prophecy appears in the second book of Samuel, but it was actually made by the prophet Nathan.  Nathan lived in the tenth century B. C., so this prophecy came about a thousand years before Jesus was born.
            This was at the time that David was the king of Israel.  King David asked Nathan whether he should build a great temple for God.  At first Nathan gave him the go-ahead, but then the word of God came to Nathan.  God, speaking through Nathan, tells David, I did not ask you to build anything for me and I don’t want you to.  Instead, I’m going to do something for you.  I’m going to make your name as great as anyone on earth.  And, God says, “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.”
            And just like we said last week, this prophecy was remembered.  It was carefully written down and copied.  It was passed on from one generation to the next.  Even in the time of Joseph and Mary, when Jesus was born, people remembered it.  They knew that, when the Savior came, he would have to be from the line of David.  After all, the Savior would be the king forever, and David’s family would be the kings forever, so the Savior had to come from David’s family.
            When the angel is speaking to Mary, the angel reiterates that promise.  The angel tells Mary, “the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end”.
            That’s why, at the start of the gospel of Matthew and in Chapter Three of the gospel of Luke, you get these long lists on genealogies.  Those genealogies establish that Jesus was, in fact, descended from David, at least as far as his earthly parents were concerned.  In fact, they both go back even farther than David.  Matthew traces Jesus’ ancestors all the way back to Abraham.  Luke traces Jesus’ ancestors even farther back, going all the way back to Adam.
            That’d be pretty cool, right?  To be able to trace your ancestry all the way back to Adam?  Let’s see do that!
            But you know, we look at all this today, and we say, well, so what, really?  I mean, it might be interesting to see that Jesus really was descended from David, and that the Old Testament prophecy came true.  We can maybe see why that was a big deal to the people back then.  But what difference does it make to us now?  This was a long time ago.  Why does it matter to us today if Jesus was descended from David or Saul or Ahaz or Ish-Kabibble?  
            It matters, I think, simply because it was a promise from God.  And we need to be able to trust God’s promises.  That’s one of the bases of our faith, after all:  that God’s word is true and that God’s word can be trusted.  As the old song says, we need to stand on the promises of God.  If God’s promises cannot be trusted, if God can break God’s word, then how do we trust anything we know about God?  How do we trust that God is good and that God is love and that God is merciful?  How do we trust that Jesus really did come to save us from our sins?  After all, if God’s promises cannot be trusted, if God cannot be trusted, then how do we believe any of the stuff we’ve heard about God?  
It might not matter to us whether Jesus was descended from David.  But it does matter to us whether God can be trusted.  It does matter to us that God’s word is true.  After all, what was the last thing the angel said to Mary?  The thing that convinced her to go along with being the mother of the divine son of God?  The angel said, “For no word from God will ever fail.”
That convinced Mary.  Does it convince us?  Do we really believe that we can trust God with everything, including our lives?  Do we really believe that no word from God will ever fail?  And if we say we do, how many of us really live our lives that way?
You know, if you continue with the story of Luke after what we read today, you read a lot of things that Mary did and that Mary said.  You read about Mary going to visit her relative Elizabeth.  You read a beautiful poem, a song really, from Mary about the greatness and glory and holiness of God.  You read about the trip to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus.  You read about Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to be circumcised.  You read all this stuff, but you know what you don’t read?  You don’t read anything about Mary being worried about anything.  You don’t read anything about her being fearful of what might happen.
That’s pretty remarkable.  Especially when you think about the situation Mary was in.  A single woman, pregnant, with no way to explain her pregnancy other than a miracle of God.  Having to make a long trip to Bethlehem, either on foot or, possibly riding a donkey, when she was about to give birth.  Having to give birth to her child in a stable, a barn.  And yet, Mary never seems to have worried about any of it.  She had the promise of God, given to her and everyone else by the prophet Nathan, and reiterated by the angel.  And that was all she needed.  She believed that if God had said this was the way things were supposed to go, then they would go that way, and it would be all right.  She believed what the angel had said, that no word of God will ever fail.  And so, Mary trusted God with everything.  Even her life.
Would you like to have that kind of faith?  I think we all would.  It would be wonderful, would it not?  To be able to face anything and not have any worries, not have any fears.  To be in a really difficult situation, maybe through no fault of your own, and just trust that it’s all going to work out.  To be able to turn everything over to God.  Even our life.  And to have complete and total trust that God will take care of things, that they will go the way they’re supposed to go, and that things will be all right.
We’d all like to have that kind of faith.  And we can.  We can trust God with our lives.  After all, as we said last week, Mary was nobody special.  She was an ordinary person when God called her.  A person like you and me.  And she was able to have that kind of faith.  So if Mary could do it, we can do it, too.  So why don’t we?
Let’s think about it.  If someone asked us whether we agree with the statement “No word from God will ever fail”, most of us would probably say that we do.  And yet, with all the promises God has made to us--promises to be just and righteous and compassionate, promises to love us and forgive our sins, promises to take us to heaven if we believe in Jesus Christ--and numerous other promises as well--we still have trouble living our lives as if we believe that.  We live our lives thinking that we have to take care of things ourselves, rather than trusting God to take care of things for us. We claim to believe in those promises, and we claim to believe that no word of God will ever fail, but too often, we don’t live our lives that way.
And please, don’t think I’m pointing fingers here.  Too often I don’t live my life that way, either.  But how do we get there?  How do we get to where we don’t just say we believe in the promises of God, but actually live our lives in a way that shows we really believe those promises?
I think the way we do it is to get as close to God as we possibly can.  After all, would you trust someone you did not feel close to?  Would you have faith in the promises of someone you did not spend much time with and did not feel like you knew very well?  We only trust people we feel close to, and the closer we feel to someone the more we trust them and the more faith we have in them.
So we need to get as close to God as we can.  We need to read God’s word, so we can see what God’s promises actually are and can see all the times in the past when God has kept those promises.  And we need to pray to God.  And when we pray, we need to not just give God our list of requests.  I mean, it’s okay to do that.  God says we can make requests of God.  But that should not be all we do.  We need to spend some time opening ourselves up to God.  We need to open our hearts and our souls to God, so God’s Spirit can come in.  We need to give God the chance to speak to us.  We need to give God the chance to let us know what God wants us to do.
If we get close to God, we can know what God wants us to do.  And if we know God’s promises, and if we see all the times God has kept God’s promises, then we can know, as the angel said, that no word from God will ever fail.  We can not just believe it in our heads, but we can know it in our hearts.  And then, we can live our lives as if we truly believe it.  We can ahead and do what God wants us to do.  And we can trust that, when we do, things will go the way they are supposed to go.  And then, we can trust God with everything.  Even our lives.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Cue the Christmas Music!

It’s the Christmas season.  Well, technically, it’s the Advent season.  A lot of my pastor friends, who go by the liturgical calendar, would say that it’s Advent until Christmas Day, and that the Christmas season comes after that, up until Epiphany.  And technically, from a liturgical standpoint, they’re right.  But the rest of the world says it’s the Christmas season, and I don’t see much point in arguing with the world about it.

And besides, if I call it the Christmas season, then I can start listening to (and singing along with) Christmas carols.  That’s one of the aspects of the Christmas season I like the most.  I love singing the old carols.  They don’t necessarily have to be religious—I love “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night”, but I also love “Jingle Bells” and “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas”.  I even enjoy some of the novelty Christmas songs, like “Christmas on Christmas Island” and “Oh I Yust Go Nuts At Christmas”.  There are a few Christmas songs I don’t care for, but not that many.  For the most part, Christmas songs carry a message of love and peace and hope, and how can we not want to hear that message?

The other thing Christmas songs do is evoke memories.  All music does that, really, but Christmas music especially does.  I can remember singing some of these carols at Christmas programs when I was a kid.  I can remember singing them at any number of candlelight services. I can remember we had my grandmother’s funeral the day of Christmas Eve and how that night, wanting to make everyone feel better, I sat down at the piano and played some Christmas songs.   I can even remember a Christmas Eve when I was alone, and I sat down at the piano with the hymnal and played and sang every Christmas song in it, including some I didn’t know, and how much better it made me feel.

Christmas music, and really all music, is a gift from God.  Like all gifts God gives us, it can be misused.  People can send terrible messages through music, and sometimes they do.  But people can also send wonderful messages through music, and most of the time that is what we do.  And the message of Christmas is about as good a message to send through music as there can possibly be.

So I hope you’ll enjoy some Christmas music this year.  Start playing it now, and keep playing it through Christmas and through New Year’s.  Heck, play it through Valentine’s Day and beyond if you want to.  Why not?  The message of Christmas does not end on Christmas Day.  There’s no reason the music of Christmas has to end then, either.

But whenever you start it, and whenever you end it, enjoy the music of Christmas.  Even more, though, take to heart the message of Christmas.  “Christ, the Savior, is born.”  “Let heaven and nature sing!”

Saturday, December 3, 2016

God With Us

This is the message given Sunday, December 4, 2016 in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish.  The Bible verses used are Isaiah 7:10-14 and Luke 1:26-38.

            In this season of Advent, we’re looking at Old Testament prophecies that told about the coming of the Savior.  Those prophecies did not just say that a Savior was coming.  They were very specific about how the Savior was coming.  These prophecies said, in effect, “Here’s how you’re going to be able to tell if the person you’re looking at really is the Savior.”  Today we look at one of the big ones, the virgin birth.
            When we’ve grown up in the church, or when we’ve heard the Christmas story lots of times, we sometimes take the virgin birth for granted.  We use the term “Virgin Mary” so often it’s like the word “virgin” was part of her name.  We forget what an incredible, unbelievable thing the birth of Jesus Christ to a virgin truly was.
            I mean, think about this.  Imagine that you were Mary.  Not “The Virgin Mary”, just Mary.  You’re not a famous person.  You don’t come from a wealthy family.  You’re nobody special or important.  Except, of course, to Joseph.  You’re very special and important to him.  He loves you and he’s going to marry you.  But he’s just a common, ordinary person, too.  Just like you are.  Two common, ordinary people who plan to live a common, ordinary life together.  Joseph will make an ordinary living as a carpenter.  You’ll have some kids.  Raise a family.  Hopefully, grow old together.  Two common, ordinary people living common, ordinary lives, just like any number of other people do and have for thousands of years.
            And then, one day, this angel, Gabriel, comes to you.  That, in and of itself, would be shocking.  An angel, coming to see you?  Common, ordinary Mary?  And then, this angel tells you that you’re going to have a baby.  I mean, not a baby with Joseph, someday, after you’re married.  You’re going to have a baby now.  And Joseph’s not really going to have anything to do with it.  This baby is going to be conceived with the Holy Spirit.  This baby is going to be the Son of God.
            What would you think, if you were Mary?  Would you believe it?  It’d be pretty hard to, right?  Even having an angel come and tell you this, it still would be hard to believe.  In fact, you might wonder if you were seeing things, even hearing things.  You might wonder if you were dreaming or if this was an hallucination.  You might wonder if you were going crazy.  It would be really hard to believe.
It would’ve been hard for anyone else to believe, too.  Even Joseph had a hard time with it.  That’s why the prophecy from Isaiah was so important.  “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel”.  Immanuel.  A name that means “God with us”.  And that’s who Jesus was:  God with us.  And suddenly, Mary realized that she had been chosen to fulfill that prophecy from Isaiah.  She was the virgin Isaiah was talking about.  She was going to give birth to the Son of God.
            But then we think, “Well, so what, really?  Why is this virgin birth so important?  I mean, yes, it was really something for Mary to be the fulfillment of this prophecy made hundreds of years earlier, but how does it affect our lives now?  What do we make so much of a deal about the virgin birth?  What difference does it make to our faith today?”
            It makes all the difference in the world.  If Jesus was not born of a virgin, if Jesus was just a baby born from a human mother and a human father, the way every other human baby is, then Jesus is simply a human being.  He might be a good human being.  He might be a wise human being.  He might be a very kind, very loving human being.  But still, he’s just a human being.  Not the Savior.  Not the divine Son of God.  Just another human being.  Someone who lived and someone who died.  Someone who had interesting story, but just another human being.  Someone to admire, maybe.  Someone even to try to be like.  But still, not the Son of God.  Not the Savior.  Just another human being.
            A virgin birth is hard to believe.  It was hard to believe two thousand years ago.  It’s hard to believe now.  There are a lot of people who don’t believe it.  There are even some people who call themselves Christians who don’t believe it.  So, the question is:  do you?
            I hope you do.  If you don’t, I’m not sure what to tell you.  I can point you to the passage from Luke that we read.  I can point you to a similar passage in Matthew that tells the story from Joseph’s point of view.  But if you don’t accept that, I’m not sure what else I can tell you.
            Except for this.  This prophecy from Isaiah.  This prophecy that came about seven hundred years earlier.
            And you know, when you read that prophecy from Isaiah, it really is striking.  Isaiah has told Ahaz, the king of Israel, to ask God for a sign that will prove that God is faithful.  And Ahaz refuses to ask for one.  And God, speaking through Isaiah, says okay, I’m going to give you a sign anyway.  At some point in the future, a virgin is going to give birth to a son.  And that son is going to be called Immanuel, God with us.  Because that son, in a very real way, is going to be me, with you.  God, living with human beings.
            God went out of God’s way to make this prophecy through Isaiah.  And then, the prophecy was handed down.  It was carefully preserved in scrolls.  Carefully copied into new scrolls when the old ones got worn.  Handed down orally, from one generation to the next to the next.  For roughly seven hundred years.
            We gloss over that, too.  Seven hundred years.  Think about how long seven hundred years is.  Seven hundred years ago it was the year 1316.  There was no such thing as the United States of America.  Not only had Christopher Columbus not reached America yet, he had not even been born yet.  There was no such thing as the Methodist church.  There was not even such a thing as the Lutheran church.  There were no protestant churches at all, in fact.  There was the Roman Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox church, and that was it as far as Christian churches.  In fact, the English language did not even exist in a form that you’d recognize it in today.  If you don’t believe me, try reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the original.  And in fact, Chaucer had not yet been born in 1316, either.
            The point is that seven hundred years is a long time.  And that’s how long before Jesus this prophecy of the virgin birth was made.  And it was preserved, handed down from generation to generation, for all that time.  There would, at some point, be a child born of a virgin, and that child would be God, come to live with human beings.  Immanuel.  God with us.
            The people of Israel had waited seven hundred years for this prophecy to come true.  As long a time as that is, they did not give up.  They kept believing.  They kept teaching it to their children.  Mary’s parents believed it.  They taught it to her.  Mary believed it.  I’m sure it never in her wildest dreams occurred to her that she was going to be the virgin in the prophecy, but she believed it.  Joseph believed it, too.  And it was their belief that helped them be able to accept that this prophecy was going to come true through them.
            We talked last week about how God has a plan for the salvation of the world.  The thing is, God’s plans are rarely short-term plans.  They can be, and sometimes they are, but a lot of times they’re not.  After all, we’re talking about the eternal God here.  We’re talking about a God for whom we’re told a thousand years are like a day.  Seven hundred years is a long time for human beings, but it’s less than a day to God.
            God’s plan for the salvation of the world is a long-term plan.  We don’t know how long it’s going to take.  But God has given us some sign posts along the way.  One of them was the prophecy, seven hundred years before the fact, of a child born of a virgin who would be God in human form, God with us.  And another one was the fulfillment of that prophecy through the birth of Jesus Christ to a virgin.   Mary.
            The fulfillment of a prophecy from seven hundred years earlier is an incredible thing.  But then, the virgin birth of Christ was an even more incredible thing.  It was a miracle.  It’s something that could only happen through the divine power of God.
            If Jesus had been born with a human mother and human father, he would’ve just been another human being.  But he was not.  He was born of a virgin through the power of the Holy Spirit.  He truly was Immanuel.  God with us.  He truly was the divine Son of God, born to save us all.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Tentative Plans

Well, time marches on.  We got done with Thanksgiving, and now it’s time to get ready for Christmas.  Last Saturday it sure didn’t seem like Christmas weather—it was in the 50s, bright sunshine, no wind.  Now, though, that has all changed.  Monday through Wednesday we got a bunch of snow with very strong winds, and really just today is when things are getting back to normal.

But really, that’s nothing unusual around here.  If there’s one thing we know about the weather it’s that it will change.  And if there’s another thing we know about the weather, it’s that we’re going to have cold and snow at some point.  Sometimes we have it at many, many points.  That could happen this year, or it might not.  We’ll just have to see.

The weather we have this time of year means that all of our plans are actually tentative plans.  For example, we were supposed to take Wanda’s parents to Sioux Falls Monday.  We knew that was a tentative plan.  Had it turned out that the weather was better than what was forecast, we’d have gone.  As it did turn out, we didn’t.  But up through Sunday, there was no way for us to know.  We just had to wait and see.

But you know, that’s really kind of a Biblical attitude, when you think about it.  James writes that it is arrogant to say that tomorrow we will do this or that.  What we should say, James writes, is “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that”.  James reminds us that none of us is ever promised tomorrow, that our lives are “a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes”.

Now, that’s not to say that we should never make a plan beyond today.  It’s pretty much impossible to live our lives that way.  But we should remind ourselves that our plans are, in fact, tentative plans.  They are dependent on a lot of things.  And one of the things they are dependent on is God’s will.  I wonder sometimes if maybe the weather we have around here is God’s way of reminding us of that.

There’s another aspect to James’ statement, too.  It’s not just that our plans depend on God’s will.  It’s that, in making our plans, we should be trying to do God’s will.  If we open ourselves to God’s leading and God’s guidance, if we make our plans with the goal of doing God’s will, there’s a lot better chance that we will actually end up doing what we planned to do.

So, I have a plan for what I’m going to do today.  If it’s God’s will, I’ll do it.  If it’s not, I’ll do something else.  But either way, our prayer should always be, “Thy will be done”.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Our Part in the Plan

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, November 27, 2016.

            Welcome to our Advent sermon series!  Believe it or not, Christmas Day is exactly four weeks from today.  So to prepare ourselves to celebrate the coming of Jesus, we’re going to look at some of the Old Testament prophecies of the coming of the Savior, the Messiah.
            A lot of us are kind of aware of these Old Testament prophecies, but we don’t really think about them very often.  But they really are important, because these Old Testament prophecies are part of the proof that Jesus was who he said he was.  They’re also part of the way people recognized Jesus and were able to believe that he was who he said he was.  One of the reasons the birth of Jesus happened the way it did was to fulfill those Old Testament prophecies.  That’s true of other aspects of Jesus’ life, too, but in this Advent season, we’re going to focus on the prophecies that refer to Jesus’ birth.  There are a lot of them, more than we’ll be able to cover during Advent.  But today, we’re going to look at a prophecy that said there would be a messenger to prepare people for Jesus’ coming.
            We’re looking at the book of Isaiah, chapter forty.  Now, as some of you may know, the book of Isaiah is not the most fun book to read.  It’s an important book, and there’s a lot of good stuff in it, but a lot of it is Isaiah telling the people of Israel that they’re going to lose their independence and be taken over because they have not done what God wanted them to do.  They’ve disobeyed God and abandoned God, so now God is going to leave them to their fate.
            But every once in a while, there are some verses to give the people of Israel hope.  And we’re looking at some of those verses today.  God tells them that there will come a time when their sins have been paid for.  And one of the ways they’ll know that is that there will be a voice calling:  “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God...The glory of the Lord will be revealed, and the people will see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
The voice that was calling turned out to be John the Baptist.  He was the one whose words we heard in our second reading, the reading from Luke.  John the Baptist lived in the wilderness, and he was preparing the way for the Lord.
            If you read about who John the Baptist was, he really sounds kind of strange.  We’re told that he wore clothes made out of camel’s hair.  He ate locusts and wild honey.  I mean, you read about him, and he actually sounds like kind of a nut.
            But he was not a nut, and he was not treated as a nut.  People came from all over the countryside came to see him.  And yes, there may have been a few who came out just to see him, just for something to do, but there were thousands of people who heard and believed his message.  And one of the reasons they heard and believed is because they knew about the prophecy from Isaiah.  They recognized that he was the one who was calling in the wilderness.
            And what was his message?  His message was about the need to repent of your sins and ask for forgiveness for them.  His message was of the need to be baptized, to be made clean.  He was telling people that they needed to get themselves straightened out, to get right with God.  
In other words, he was preparing the way for Jesus, helping make a straight highway over which Jesus’ message of salvation could travel.  It was not a literal highway, not one for Jesus to physically walk on.  The “highway” was the people themselves.  People who would be ready to hear Jesus’ message and help him carry it forward.
Now, maybe you’re thinking, but why would Jesus need that?  After all, Jesus was the Son of God, right?  He had divine power.  Why would he need someone to prepare the way?  Why would he need someone to get things ready?  Why did Jesus need help from John the Baptist or anyone else?
The reason, really, is that God has a plan.  God has a plan that has been going on for thousands of years.  And it’s a plan that will continue for however many years it is until Jesus comes again, whether that’s next year or a hundred thousand years from now.
We don’t always know what the plan is.  But we do know that God has a plan.  And what’s involved in a plan, any plan?  A plan, whether it’s a plan for taking a trip or for making Thanksgiving dinner or for growing crops or for the salvation of the world, always requires an orderly sequence of events, right?  It requires that certain things need to happen at certain times.
If we’re going on a trip, we figure out when we’re going to leave, what route we’re going to take, where we might stop along the way, when we’re going to get there, how long we’re staying, and when we’re going to come back.  If we’re making Thanksgiving dinner, we figure out what we need, we get all the stuff together, we mix things at certain times, we put things in the oven at certain times, all that sort of thing.  If we’re growing crops, we figure out when we need to have the seed, when we need to plant, all the kinds of things you do.
And God’s salvation of the world has a plan.  That plan requires certain things to happen at certain times.  Jesus needed to come at a certain time, he needed to do certain things, and he needed to be crucified at a certain time.  Remember when Jesus would say things like “My time has not yet come” or “The time has not yet arrived”?  Jesus knew there was a plan, and that things needed to happen at certain times.
And the messenger, John the Baptist, needed to come at a certain time and do certain things.  He needed to prepare things for Jesus.  He needed to get the people ready for Jesus’ message, so that when Jesus spread the message things would go the way they were supposed to go.  And Isaiah needed to let people know that a messenger would be coming.  And he did.
So here’s the point.  God had a plan for Jesus’ life.  God had a plan for John the Baptist’s life.  And God had a plan for Isaiah’s life.  Each one of these people was a part of God’s plan for salvation.  Each of them needed to do certain things at certain times for God’s plan of salvation to go the way it’s supposed to go.
And so do you.  And so do I.  Think about that.  You have a part in God’s plan of salvation.  And so do I.
I hope you believe that.  So many times, we think that God only has a plan for the great and the powerful.  Sure, God might have a plan for a great prophet like Isaiah.  God might have a plan for John the Baptist.  God obviously had a plan for Jesus.  And God might have a plan for people like Billy Graham and Mother Teresa and people like that.  But God would not have a plan for me.  After all, I’m nobody special.  I don’t do anything that makes any difference.  Yes, maybe I can make a little bit of a difference for my family and my friends, but that’s not going to affect the world.  It certainly is not going to make any difference for God’s “Plan of Salvation”.  That’s for the important people, not me.
But that’s not true.  You are a part of God’s plan for salvation.  And so am I.  Each one of us is a part of God’s plan for salvation.  Each one of us has a role to play.
We play that role in all kinds of ways.  We play it in the things we say.  We play it in the things we do.  We play it in the way we live our lives.  We play it as individuals, and we play it as a church.
We talked a couple of weeks ago how inviting someone who’s not going to church anywhere to be a part of our church is the kindest, most loving thing we can do for them.  This is why.  It’s because you and I are a part of God’s plan for salvation.  This church is a part of God’s plan for salvation.  Jesus told us to go and make disciples of all the nations.  We may not have the ability to get to all the nations, but we sure have the ability to get to the people here.  And we can do it.  You can do it.  I can do it.  God wants us to do it.  There’s no better time than now, as we approach Christmas, to do it.
And God will help us do it.  God will show us the way.  If we pray for God’s guidance, if we pray for God to show us the way to reach these unchurched children and unchurched parents, God will do that.  God will put them into our path, and God will give us the words to say.  All we need to do is trust God.
Isaiah was part of God’s plan for salvation.  So was John the Baptist.  So are you.  And so am I.  Let’s pray for God to show what God wants us to do to be part of the plan.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Feeling Thankful

I hope you all have a very happy and blessed Thanksgiving.  The thing is, it can be hard to feel thankful sometimes.  It’s hard to be thankful if you’ve lost a loved one recently.  It’s hard to find things to be thankful when you or someone you love has a serious health problem.  It’s hard to feel thankful when you’ve lost a job, or have financial problems, or are having problems in a relationship.  It’s hard to find things to be thankful for when you cannot do the things you used to be able to do, the things you want to do.  It’s hard to find things to be thankful for when you’re struggling to find a purpose for your life.

I cannot know what it’s like to feel what you feel.  But I have had times when I struggled to find a purpose for my life.  We all have times when we wonder whether, in the current terminology, our lives matter.  We all have times when we wonder whether our lives make any difference, whether very many people would care or even notice if we were no longer here.  And when we feel that way, again, it’s hard to be thankful.

But here’s what I know.  God has a purpose for every person who is on earth.  That is true, it has always been true, and it will always be true.  If you are reading this, you are on earth.  Therefore, you have a purpose.

And if you cannot figure out what your purpose is, here’s what I’d suggest to you.  Don’t worry about it.  Pray about it, talk to God about it, but don’t worry about it.  When we open our hearts and our souls to God, when we pray for God to guide us and to show us what to do, God will always do that.  It may not come as a voice from heaven, but if we keep our eyes open and pay attention, we will eventually see a way in which God is answering our prayers.  And then, we will see that our lives do have a purpose, even if it is not the purpose we expected.

And in the meantime, just live your life.  Do the things you do.  Pray for your family.  Pray for your friends.  Pray for our country and for the world.  Be pleasant to people.  Give people a smile.  Do something nice for someone.  Ask someone how things are going, and really listen to their response.  And if you pick up on something that makes you think things are not going very well for someone, ask a little further, and listen a little harder.  Be there when someone needs someone to talk to.  Be kind to someone for no reason.

If you do those things, you’ll eventually learn what God’s purpose is for your life.  In fact, you may find out that doing those things is God’s purpose for your life.  Because if we all did those things, the world would probably be a better place. 

And that would really be something to be thankful for.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

God's Love Endures Forever

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, November 20, 2016.  The Bible verses used are Psalm 118.

            It’s Thanksgiving Sunday.  That means that, as a pastor, I’m supposed to put together a message about being thankful to God.
            But the thing is, you know that.  You know you’re supposed to be thankful to God.  You don’t need me to tell you.  There’s nothing new about it.  We know the statement in First Thessalonians that says we should be thankful in all circumstances.  Every week when the offering is brought forward we sing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow”.  There’s nothing new I can tell you about the need to thank God.  There’s just doing it.
            But sometimes that’s hard.  I mean, it’s easy to say “be thankful in all circumstances”.  It’s easy to sing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow”.  It’s easy to say all those things.  But doing them, feeling them, that’s the hard part.
            It’s hard because a lot of us are having trouble feeling thankful right now.  Our parish has been hit pretty hard with deaths this year.  I’ve already done as many funerals as I’ve ever done in one year, and there’s more than a month to go.  And there are any number of other people who are suffering from serious illnesses.  There are others who have seen the breakup of their marriages, who’ve lost jobs, who had all kinds of things happen that make it hard to be thankful.
            The fact is that there are a lot of bad things that happen in life.  And I’m not going to stand here and tell you that you should be thankful for them.  Yes, we talked a month or so ago about how God can bring good out of anything, even bad things, and I do believe that, but that thought is not much help when we’re in the middle of the bad things.  It may give us some hope for the future, but right at the moment, we’re still suffering.  And when we’re suffering, platitudes about being thankful in all circumstances don’t really help much.
            That’s why we read Psalm 118 today.  Now, that’s a psalm that says we should be thankful to God.  The first verse and the last verse both say, “Give thanks to the Lord.”
            But look at why we are supposed to give thanks to the Lord.  We don’t give thanks because of anything specific that God has done.  We don’t give thanks to the Lord because God has done things for us.  We don’t give thanks to God for having blessed us with health or wealth or peace or joy or anything like that.  I mean, we should give thanks to God for those things, but none of those things are why psalm one hundred eighteen says we should give thanks to God.
            We are told to give thanks to God for two reasons.  One is because God is good.  That phrase appears twice in the psalm.  And of course, God is good, and we should give thanks that God is good.  But what’s the number one reason we should give thanks to God?  It appears five times in the psalm, four times in the first four verses.  We are to give thanks to God because “his love endures forever”.
            And that, really, is what it comes down to.  Because those are the things that we know we can always count on.  Those are the things that will always be there.  Those are the things that will last.  Again, it’s important to thank God for the things God has done, but the foundation of our thankfulness to God is not the things God has done.  The foundation of our thankfulness to God is the things God is.
            Think of it this way.  If our thankfulness to God is based on God giving us good health, what happens if we suddenly don’t have good health any more?  If our thankfulness to God is based on how much money we have, what happens if we lose that money?  If our thankfulness to God is based on a feeling of inner peace and joy, what do we do if something happens to take away our inner peace and our joy?  And all of those things can happen to us at any point in our lives.
            But God is good.  God always has been good.  And God always will be good.  And God is love.  God always has been love.  And God always will be love.  As the psalm says, his love truly does last forever.
            That’s the foundation of our thankfulness to God.  God is good and God is love.  That’s the main thing we should be thankful for.  Because God’s goodness and God’s love will always be there for us, no matter what happens and no matter what our circumstances are.
            The author of psalm one hundred eighteen does not have things always go his way.  In fact, it sounds like there are a lot of things that did not go his way.  He talks about “being hard pressed”.  He talks about how “all the nations surrounded me...they swarmed around me like bees”.  He says, “I was pushed back and about to fall”.
            Have you ever felt like that?  Like you are really hard pressed?  Like enemies are surrounding you, swarming like bees?  Maybe not human enemies, but pressures, problems, worries, fears, anxieties?  Have you ever felt like those things were swarming like bees around you?  Have you ever felt like you were being pushed back and you were about to fall?
            I think probably a lot of us have felt that way at one time or another.  Maybe some of us feel like that now.  If you do, do what the author of the psalm did.  Rely on God.  Cry out to God.  Feel God’s presence with you.  Let God give you courage and conquer your fear.  Let God be your strength and your defense, as the psalm says.  Because God is good, and God is love.  And God’s goodness and love will help carry you through, no matter how bad things look at the time.  That does not mean all our problems will completely disappear, but it does mean that God will help us deal with our problems and get through them.
            But you know, we say all that, and it sounds kind of like a platitude, too.  “No matter what your problems are, just rely on God and everything will be okay.”  But all of us have times when things are not okay.  And sometimes, it seems like things are never going to be okay again.  And we may say God is good and God is love, and we may even believe it, but at that moment it does not help.
            The thing is that because God is good and God is love, God understands that.  God understands that it can be hard to just relax and trust God when it seems like all kinds of things are going wrong.  God understands that it can be hard to be thankful when that happens.
            So this Thanksgiving, if you’re not feeling all that thankful, it’s okay.  Don’t beat yourself up for it.  Don’t try to force yourself to feel something you don’t feel.  It’s okay.  God’s not mad at us when we have trouble feeling thankful sometimes.  God understands it.  Again, God understands us better than we understand ourselves.  God understands, and God won’t hold it against you.  It’s okay.
            But even if you cannot feel thankful, my prayer is that you still know that God is there.  My prayer is that you still know that God is good.  My prayer is that you still know that God is love.  And my prayer is that you still know that God’s love endures forever.
            Psalm one hundred eighteen repeats that line four times in the first four verses.  And so, if you’re having trouble feeling thankful, I’d suggest you repeat it, too.  It’s not a magic formula, but try it.  See if it helps.  No matter what may happen, know that God’s love endures forever.  When we’ve lost a loved one, God’s love endures forever.  When we’re battling a serious health problem, God’s love endures forever.  When we’ve lost a job, God’s love endures forever.  When we have no sense of inner peace, God’s love endures forever.  When we’re feeling hard pressed by worries and concerns, God’s love endures forever.  When pressures, problems, fears, and anxieties are swarming around us like bees, God’s love endures forever.  When we’re being pushed back and we feel like we’re about to fall, God’s love endures forever.  Throughout all the trials of life, and even beyond death, God’s love endures forever.
            Life is not always easy.  In fact, sometimes life is very hard.  But God is good.  And God’s love endures forever.  My prayer is that, whatever you may be feeling now, and whatever may happen this Thanksgiving and beyond, you will know that.  And not only that you will know it, but that you will feel it.  God is good.  And God’s love endures forever.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

What Life Is All About

Last week Thursday, I had the honor of performing a funeral in Cresbard.  Cresbard is not part of our parish, of course, but I was filling in for the pastor there, who had to be out of town.  That meant I was doing a funeral for someone I did not know.  But I learned about her, and what I learned is that she was an “ordinary person”.  What I mean by that is that she was someone who made a big impact on her family and her community, but she did it quietly.  She did it by being there for people, by helping people, by showing love to people.  She had a tremendous influence on many people throughout her life, and she never knew it or even particularly thought about it.  She was just living her life the way she thought she should.  She was one of these extraordinary “ordinary people” that make our lives what they are.  I’ll be you know someone like that.  In fact, maybe you are someone like that.

Friday, I had the honor of giving the invocation and the benediction at the Gettysburg Veterans’ Day program.  That was another day of celebrating “ordinary people”.  People from farms or from small towns, people who have done great things and don’t even know it.  People who were willing to risk their lives, and in some cases give their lives, to protect the freedom of others whom they have never met and never will meet.  Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  What, then, do we say about someone who will lay down his or her life for someone who he doesn’t know, and in fact will lay down his or her life for some people whom they probably would not like if that did meet them.  What our military personnel do and have done is truly incredible.

Saturday, I had the honor of being the master of ceremonies at the Gettysburg Snow Queen competition.  Yet another celebration of “ordinary people”, in this case the girls at our local high school.  These “ordinary people” are incredibly talented and intelligent.  Each one of them is involved in a long list of things at the school, in their church, and in their community.  I would read off all the things these girls did, and then would come the line “in her spare time…”  I wonder where they ever find spare time, with all the things they do.  You hear so much negative about young people, and then you see young people like this, and it tells you that most of what you hear is simply not right.

Sunday, we had a concert at the Gettysburg church.  There was some vocal music, but most of the concert was keyboard duets featuring Pauline Brehe and Gail Larson.  Pauline has been the church pianist at the Agar United Methodist church (sometimes with help, sometimes not) for eighty years.  Gail has been the church pianist at the Gettysburg United Methodist church (sometimes with help, sometimes not) for fifty years.  One hundred thirty years of church music shared for an afternoon.  Again, “ordinary people” with extraordinary talent and an extraordinary willingness to use it to serve God.  It was such a privilege to hear them play together.

Four days in a row of celebrating extraordinary “ordinary people”.  And yet, if you turn on the news, you won’t hear anything like any of that.  You’ll hear about the election and its aftermath.  You’ll hear speculation about who’ll be in President Trump’s cabinet.  You’ll hear speculation about what the Democrats will do.  You’ll hear speculation about what the Republicans will do.  You’ll hear how the markets are reacting to the election, how foreign countries are reacting to the election.  In short, you’ll hear about politics.

Now, I’m not saying politics are unimportant.  But there is so much more to life than that.  Politicians can do things that affect our lives, of course.  But politics is not what life is all about.  What I experienced Thursday through Sunday, that’s what life is all about.  Those are the important things in our lives.  Those are the things that make life truly worthwhile.  Not politics.

I don’t have any big faith-related point to make, except maybe this one.  God has created an incredible, wonderful world.  And God created some incredible, wonderful people to live in it.  You are one of those people.  Just by living your life, by doing what you know you’re supposed to do, by being there for people and helping people and showing love to people, you are making an impact on the world that you will never know, an impact that will last long after you’re gone.

You may think of yourself as an “ordinary person”, but you’re not.  You’re a child of God.  And every child of God is extraordinary.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Most Loving Thing We Can Do

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, November 13, 2016.  The Bible verses used are John 3:16-21.

             Our sermon series has been about the most popular verse in the Bible, at least according to searches at  It’s found in the gospel of John, Chapter Three, Verse Sixteen.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but shall have eternal life.”
            We read that verse, and that’s usually where we stop.  Or, perhaps, we’ll go on to the next verse, verse seventeen.  Jesus says, “For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
            And we stop there.  Because that’s really all we want to know.  That God sent the Son into the world to give us eternal life.  That God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but to save the world.  That’s where many of us would like Jesus’ message to end.
            Quite honestly, I’d like Jesus’ message to end there, too.  But it does not.  Jesus had more to say, and here it is:  
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.  This is the verdict:  Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.  All those who do evil hate the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deed will be exposed.  But those who live by the truth come into the light, so that it may be see plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”
We don’t like to hear that part of Jesus’ message.  I don’t like to hear it, either.  I don’t
like to hear about people being condemned, because when Jesus talked about people being condemned, he was talking about people being condemned to hell.  And he was talking about them being in hell for eternity.  And if you take the concept of hell seriously, if you don’t think of Satan as a cartoon character in a red suit and really take Satan and hell seriously, you would never want anyone to go there ever.
            We don’t want to think of God sending anyone to hell.  We say to ourselves, “God would never send someone to hell.  God is love.  God is merciful.  God is forgiving.  A loving, forgiving, merciful God would never send someone to hell, right?”
            Well, yes and no.  In a sense, that’s right.  God does not send people to hell.  People send themselves to hell, because they refuse to believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior.  That’s what Jesus meant we he said that the son had not come to condemn the world, but those who do not believe are condemned already.
            It’s a continuation of what we talked about last week, really.  We are all sinners.  We have all done things we know we should not have done and we have all failed to do things we know we should have done.  We have all failed to love each other the way Jesus told us to.  We have all failed to trust God the way we should.  We have all fallen short of who we should be, who God created us to be.  We deserve punishment for that.  But God offers us a way out.  If we simply believe in God and accept Jesus as our Savior, we will be saved.  We will not be given the punishment we deserve.  Instead, we will be given eternal life with the Lord in heaven.
            But there are people who refuse to believe in God.  There are people who refuse to accept Jesus as their Savior.  What happens to them?  Well, again, what did Jesus say?  Jesus said, “whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son”.
            Now, let me make clear that this is not Jeff Adel saying I think I have the right to say who goes to heaven and who goes to hell.  God decides that, not me.  And I’m quite sure that God does a lot better job of it than I do.  
            And let me also make clear that those things we said about God a little bit ago are all true.  God is love.  God is merciful.  God is forgiving.  God is compassionate and caring and gracious and all sorts of other things.
            Because of that, I’m quite certain that God takes no delight in it when someone condemns themselves to hell.  In fact, I’m quite certain that it’s the last thing God ever wants to see.  God does not want anyone to ever condemn themselves to hell.  God would love it if everyone believed.  That’s why God gave us a way out of hell through belief in Jesus.  That’s why Jesus told us to go and make disciples of all nations.  That’s why, as sinful as we are, God welcomes us into God’s presence.  God is eager for us to go to God, confess our sins, ask for forgiveness, and proclaim our acceptance of Jesus as our Savior.
            But, as much as God would like us everyone to love God and accept Jesus, God is not going to force us to do that.  God allows us freedom of choice.  Because God knows that love that is forced is not real love.  Love can only be love if it’s a choice.  And that means we have to have the choice to not love God.  And as long as that choice exists, it’s inevitable that some people will make that choice.  It’s a very sad thing when that happens.  
            So how does this all play out in reality?  Well, again, that’s for God to decide, not me.  But I will say this.  God knows everything there is to know about each one of us.  God knows things about us that we, ourselves, don’t know.  God knows the number of hairs on our heads.  In fact, not only does God know things about us that we don’t know, God also knows all the things about us that we’ve tried to hide from ourselves.  God knows all those thoughts and feelings that we’ve buried deep inside ourselves.  God knows all those thoughts and feelings we have that we try to ignore and try to forget that we even have.  God knows who we are and God knows all the things that happened to us to make us who we are.  
God knows all of that and more.  And God takes all of that into account.  How does that all work out?  I don’t know.  But again, God is love.  God is merciful.  God is forgiving.  God is compassionate and caring and gracious and all sorts of other things.  And because of who God is, I am convinced that God is going to do everything in God’s power, short of taking our freedom of choice away from us, to avoid allowing us to condemn ourselves to hell.
But God is not going to take away that freedom of choice.  God is going to allow people to choose not to believe.  And God is going to allow them to accept the consequences of that choice.  God is going to allow us to condemn ourselves if that’s what we choose to do.
So what does that mean for us?  It means that we need to take seriously what Jesus said to us.  Not just about eternal life and condemnation, but everything Jesus said.  Including what, according to Matthew, was the last thing Jesus told us before he left the earth.  “Go and make disciples of all nations.”
This is what we mean when we talk about reaching out to unchurched people.  We’re not doing this so we can have a bigger church.  Yes, having a bigger church would be cool, but not for ourselves.  Not so we can brag about what a growing church we have.  I don’t want this to be a bigger church just so I can be the pastor of a bigger church.  If that’s what I wanted I’d ask the District Superintendent to move me to Sioux Falls or Rapid City or Pierre or someplace.  That’s not what I want.  I like it here.
But would I like to see this church grow?  Yes!  Because that would mean we’re reaching more people for the gospel.  It would mean we’re getting more and more people to make the right choice.  It would mean more and more people are not condemning themselves to hell, but are accepting eternal life with Jesus.  That’s why we need to reach out to unchurched people.  We don’t do it for ourselves.  We do it for them.  We do it because reaching an unchurched person with the gospel is the most loving, caring thing we could ever do for someone.
You know people who are not going to church anywhere.  So do I.  Some of you have them in your own family.  So do I.  Let’s do what we can to reach them.  Not in an obnoxious way.  Not in a way that makes it sound like we think we’re better than they are.  Not in an arrogant way or an offensive way.  In a loving way.  In a caring way.  In a way that says we have something we want to share with them, not for our benefit, but for theirs.
We can do that.  You can do that.  I can do that.  It’s not always easy.  But we can.  If we pray to God to show us how, God will show us how.  If we pray for God to give us the courage and the love to actually do it, God will give us the courage and the love to actually do it.  Will we always succeed?  No.  Even Jesus did not always succeed.  But we’ll succeed sometimes.  And even if we just reach one, that still more than zero.  Remember what Jesus said about the rejoicing in heaven over just one person who believes.  With God’s help, each of us can help make some of that rejoicing happen.
God did, indeed, so love the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but shall have eternal life.  Let’s do everything we can to encourage everyone to make the choice to accept eternal life through Jesus.  It’s the most loving thing we can do for them.