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Saturday, May 28, 2016

That's What Friends Are For

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, May 29, 2016.  The Bible verses used are Job 2:11-13, 22:1-11, 21-30.
            We’ve been looking at the book of Job.  We’ve talked about how all sorts of terrible things have happened to Job, but that Job was able to handle all of it.  We’ve talked about how what helped Job handle it was that Job understood who God is—that God is better and wiser and stronger than he or any human being could ever hope to be, that God does not owe us anything, and that we have no right to judge anything that God does or does not do.
            But even so, Job was still living in terrible pain.  He still had painful sores all over his body.  His faith helped him deal with things, but it did not make the sores go away, and it did not make the sores any less painful.
            And before we go any farther, let’s just talk about that a little bit, because that applies to our lives, too.  Some of us are going through serious health problems, and others of us have loved ones who are.  And we have faith, and that helps, but it does not make the problem go away.  I’m not saying that it cannot.  God is all-powerful, God can do anything, and we all know of people who were miraculously cured of things.  But most of the time, that’s not how it works.  Most of the time, even though we have faith, we still have to deal with whatever illness or injury we’re dealing with.
            That was true for Job, too.  He still had to deal with the pain of those terrible sores.  And of course, word spread about what had happened to Job.  Job was a wealthy man, so it would not have taken long for the story of his ruin and misery to get around.  So three of Job’s friends—Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar—get together to go and sympathize with Job and to comfort their friend.
            They come, and they cannot believe their eyes.  We’re told that they could hardly recognize Job.  But they came, and they stayed.  And for that week, they just sat there.  No one said a word to Job.  They just stayed there and sat there with him.
            We’re not told what Job thought about that, but it may have been the best thing his friends could have done.  You’ve heard me say before that one of the best things we can do for people is just be there for them.  Just let them know that we know what’s going on and that we care.  And a lot of times, to do that, we don’t need to say a word.  All we need to do is be there.
            But so many times, we don’t do that.  And we come up with lots of reasons why not.  I’m too busy.  I don’t know them that well.  I wouldn’t know what to say.  I wouldn’t know what to do.  There’s nothing I really can do, anyway.  What good would it do for me to just go sit there when I cannot do anything?  On and on and on, with all these reasons why we should not go and be there for someone who’s hurting.  And don’t think I’m pointing fingers here.  The reason I know all those excuses so well is that I’ve made them many times myself.
            The point is that almost all of us make them.  We make them out of fear, out of discomfort, out of selfishness, or for any number of reasons.  But because we make them, we miss chances to help people who are hurting.  Because a lot of times, it does not matter how well we know someone.  It does not matter what whether there’s anything we can do to help.  It does not matter whether we know what to do or what to say.  Many times, the best thing we can do is the easiest thing to do.  It’s what Job’s friends did, at first, anyway.  It’s to just sit there and be with someone.  Not saying anything, and not doing anything.  Just being there and letting them know we care.
            You’ve heard me say this before, but I truly believe that’s the reason God put us into groups—so we could be there for each other.  Think about it.  God would not have had to have humans live in families.  After all, lots of animals don’t have families—once the young are grown, they go off on their own and don’t seem to have any feelings for their parents.  God would not have had to have humans live in communities—some animals do, but a lot of them don’t.  God would not have had to have us come together in churches to worship God—there are plenty of people who believe in God who don’t go to church very often. 
The reason God put us into families, into communities, into churches, is that God knows life can be awfully hard sometimes.  It’s too hard for us to go through by ourselves, and we’re not supposed to try.  We need each other.  We need to support each other.  We need to encourage each other.  We need to love each other.
That’s why we have a prayer emphasis on people who feel alone.  When all this happened to Job, he must have felt terribly alone.  Even his own wife had told him he should curse God and die.  Job must have felt as alone as it’s possible to feel.
Job needed his friends.  He need them to be there for him.  We all need people to be there for us.  And we need to be there for others.  Not to say anything, necessarily, but just to be there for each other.  That’s the only way we can all make it through.
            In fact, sometimes it’s when we open our mouths that we mess things up.  And that’s what happens with Job’s friends.  They start talking, and they go on and on and on.  Chapters three through thirty-seven are Job’s friends talking to Job, and Job responding to what they have to say.  We just pulled out a little snippet of it, less than one chapter.  You’re welcome.
            Job’s friends go on and on, but they basically have one message.  That message is this:  Job, you messed up.  The reason all this stuff happened to you is because of your sin.  You’ve sinned and God is punishing you for it.  The only way this is possibly going to end well for you is if you go to God and confess your sins and repent.
            Now, we’re not told anything about the motivation of Job’s friends when they said this.  I’m not going to assume any bad intent.  They may have truly believed what they told Job, and they may have thought it was something they needed to say.  I don’t know.
What I do know is that if there is anything less helpful that Job’s friends could’ve said to him, I don’t know what it would be.  What they said was not supportive, not encouraging, and not loving.  In fact, as we know from the first couple of chapters of the book, it’s not even true.  I mean, yes, the Bible tells us that we’re all sinners in need of repentance and forgiveness, but that’s not what’s going on here.  Job was not being punished by God for his sins.  Job is described as blameless and upright.  These things have happened to Job because God accepted a challenge from Satan.  Satan said that if all these things happened to Job, Job would curse God.  God agreed to let Satan do them, confident that Job would stay faithful.  Now, as far as we know neither Job nor his friends knew that, but Job knew enough to know that God was not punishing him for his sins.  He knew that what his friends were saying was not true.
            So that’s one lesson right there:  don’t assume we know what’s going on in a situation when we don’t.  But even if what Job’s friends were saying had been true, it would not have been very helpful.  If what they were saying was true, what they’d have been saying to Job is, Job, it’s your own fault that you’re in this mess.
            How any of us have ever been in a mess of our own making?  Yeah.  I’m not saying how often it happens, but it happens more often than I wish it did.  And when it happens, it’s really not very helpful for someone to come up to me and say, “Well, it’s your own fault that you’re in this mess.”  The chances are I already know that.
            It’s like the old story about the boy swimming in the river.  Have you heard this one?  This kid is swimming in the river and he accidentally gets into deep water.  He’s scared he might drown, so he starts hollering for help.  A man hears him and stops and starts chewing him out for being so careless.  The kid says, “Please, sir.  Save me first and scold me later.”
            When someone has things going wrong, telling them it’s their own fault that things are going wrong is not going to help them.  The chances are that they already know that.  And even if they don’t, assessing blame does not do any good.  Maybe later, after the crisis is over, there’ll be time to look at what happened and how things got to be the way they were.  But when someone’s in the middle of the situation, they don’t need us to help them assess blame.  They need us, again, to support them, to encourage them, to love them.  They need us to let them know they’re not alone.  They need us to let them know we care about them.  They need us to let them know that we’ll stand by them and do anything we can to get them through this situation.  Even if, as we said before, all we can do is sit there with them.
            When Job’s friends did that, they were doing the best thing they could do.  They were giving him support and encouragement and love.  They were letting Job know they cared about him.  They were letting Job know he was not alone.  Let’s follow that part of their example.  Let’s stop making excuses, and be there for each other.  That’s why God put us together—so we can be there for each other and love each other.


Friday, May 27, 2016

Out of Control

I’ve been thinking about all the things that are happening in the world that I care about, but that are completely out of my control.  There’s the presidential election.  I care about how that comes out, but other than my one vote (which won’t come for some time) there’s nothing I can do to affect it.  It’s completely out of my control.  There’s the United Methodist General Conference, which took place in May.  I care about what happened there, but there was nothing I could do to affect it.  It was completely out of my control.  There’s the Minnesota Twins baseball season.  I care about how they do, and wish they would do better, but there’s nothing I can do to affect it.  It’s completely out of my control.

I could list other things, too, some of which are much more personal.  But the point is, what do we do about this?  How do we respond when we care about so many things, but so many of the things we care about are completely beyond our control?

One way is to simply stop caring about anything.  And there are people who do that.  There are people who get so frustrated about their chance of making any substantive difference about anything that has the slightest bit of importance that they simply say, “Forget about it” and decide to just try to go out and have a good time in whatever time they have.  I can understand why people do that.  It’s the result of feeling completely powerless.  We feel like no one cares what we think anyway, and we’ll never be able to change anything, so why even try?  Why get all worked up over something when we have no ability to affect it?

I understand why people do that, but I don’t think it’s what God wants us to do.  I can’t think of a single time in the Bible where God’s advice to someone was “Give up and quit.”  I can’t think of a time when Jesus said that, either.  There are lots of times in the Bible when the Lord spoke to people, but I don’t think there was ever a time when the Lord’s message was “Give up and quit.”

But then, what should we do?  If we can’t make a difference about these things, but God does not want us to quit, how do we proceed?

Well, I don’t think there’s a “one size fits all” answer.  The answer for you may be entirely different from the answer for me.  The first step, of course, is to pray.  And when I’ve prayed about this, I’ve felt like God has given me an answer.  It may not be the same answer God has for you, but I’m putting it out there for you to think about and see if it’s something that might help.

The answer God has given me, at least for now, is not to stop caring.  The answer God has given me is to change my focus.  The answer God has given me is to spend less time thinking about the things I can’t do anything about and spend more time thinking about the things, and the people, I can do something about.

The answer God has given me, at least for now, is to leave the great global and national issues to God.  My focus, instead, should be on the people around me.  What I believe God has said to me is, “Help the people I’ve given you to help.  Be there for the people I’ve given you to be there for.  Love the people I’ve given you to love.  Leave the rest to Me.  If there’s anything I need you to do on those great global and national issues, I’ll let you know.”

I truly believe that’s what God is telling me to do right now.  Could that change?  Sure it could.  God has already taken me from being a lawyer to being a pastor.  God could have something else in store for me.  I’d rather God did not—I love being a pastor, and I love being one here—but God’s plans are not our plans.  And if God does decide on a different plan for me, I need to trust God enough to follow it.

But for now, I’m going to do my best to do what God has told me to do.  I’m going to help the people God has given me to help.  I’m going to be there for the people God has given me to be there for.  I’m going to love the people God has given me to love.  Will I do that perfectly?  No, of course not.  I won’t even come close.  I expect to fail lots of times.  I’m sure lots of you will notice lots of times when I fail.  I sure don’t mean this to come across as arrogant or holier-than-thou on my part.  I’m going to have lots of times when I don’t do this, and you can certainly let me know when I fall short (hopefully in a nice way).  But I hope there will be at least some times when I do it right.

The reason I’m bringing it up, though, is so you can think about it.  Think about whether that might be what God is telling you to do, too.  Maybe it is, maybe it’s not.  I don’t know.  But think about it.  Think about whether God might be telling you to help the people God has given you to help, be there for the people God has given you to be there for, love the people God has given you to love, and leave the rest to God, at least for now.  After all, if enough of us just did that, the world might be a better place.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Judging God

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, May 22, 2016.  The Bible verses used are Job 1:20--2:10.

            We’re in the second week of our sermon series on the book of Job.  Last week we talked about how God allowed Satan to take everything from Job—his wealth, his servants, even his children.  And we talked about how you and I react when things suddenly go very wrong, especially when, as with Job, it was through no fault of our own.
            Today, we’re going to talk about how Job reacted.  And more importantly, we’re going to talk about why Job reacted that way, and how taking Job’s attitude can help us handle it when things start suddenly going wrong.
            Just to remind you of where we left off last week, Job has had a series of messengers come up to him, one after another after another.  And he finds out that his donkeys have been stolen, his sheep have been killed, his camels have been stolen, his servants have been killed, and all of his children have died in a terrible accident.
            What did Job do?  He worshiped God. 
Think about that.  Job had just lost everything.  A large herd of animals was how people measured wealth in those days.  The number of servants you had were a measure of it, too.  And not only did Job lose every bit of wealth he had, all of his children were killed.  Some of you know how painful, how devastating that is.  And yet, Job’s response was to worship God.  And listen to what Job says:
Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart.  The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.
We’ll come back to that.  Because as bad as things were for Job, Satan was not through with him yet.  God tells Satan how Job stayed faithful despite everything, and Satan says well, of course he did.  He’s trying to save his own skin.  If something happens to him personally, then he’ll turn on you.
And once again God takes the challenge.  God tells Satan he can do anything to Job except kill him.  And Satan does.  Satan gives Job painful sores all over his entire body.
And what does Job do?  He accepts it.  And listen to what he says this time:  “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”
How many of us could do what Job did?  Maybe you could.  I don’t mean to judge you.  But I don’t know that I could.  I’d like to think so—I’m sure we’d all like to think so—but I have no great confidence about it.  To lose everything.  All your money.  All your children.  Your health.  To have every aspect of your life be nothing but pain and misery and sadness.  And to still accept it and worship God.
Now, those of you who know the story of Job know that later on, Job does start to feel like he’s gotten a raw deal here.  We’ll come to that later in this sermon series.  But Job was able to accept it longer than most of us probably would.  So, how was he able to do it?
When we look at his statements, I think we see two things.  Maybe we could see more, but we see at least two.  One of them is a complete acceptance of the fact that God is God and that we have no right to judge anything God does.  “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”
When I read that statement, what I read is a complete and total recognition and acceptance of who God is.  God is stronger than we are.  God is more powerful than we are.  God is smarter than we are.  God is in control of everything.  And because of that, God does what God does.  God does not have to answer to us for what God does.  We have no right to judge what God does.  We have no say in what God does, and there’s no reason for us to think we should have any say in what God does.  Those are decisions for God to make, not you and me.
Here’s the way it seems that Job looked at it.  He said, God gave me great wealth, good health, and a large family.  I did nothing to create that.  It was all a gift from God.  God decided, for whatever reason, to allow me to have all that.  And now, God has decided, for whatever reason, not to allow me to have it.  So be it.  I have no right to judge that, I have no right to question that, and I have no right to complain about it.  None of that was ever really mine to begin with.  It all belonged to God anyway.  All the time, even when I had it, it really belonged to God.  It was and it is God’s, and God can do with it whatever God chooses to do.
How many of us look at things that way?  How many of us look at everything we own as belonging to God?  How many of us look at even our good health, if we have it, as belonging to God?  How many of us look at even our children, if we have any, as belonging to God?
Now don’t get me wrong.  I know there are some of us who would say, and truly believe that we know the things we have, and our good health, and our children, are a blessing from God.  We may realize that they all came from God.  But I don’t think very many of us look at them all as belonging to God.  Most of us think, “That’s mine.  That’s my money.  That’s my stuff.  It’s my good health.  Those are my kids.”  And we also think, “And I’ll make the decisions about them.”  Even if we pray and ask for God’s guidance, we still think we have the right to make the decisions.  Those things belong to me.  They don’t belong to God.
And that’s why we would have such a hard time reacting like Job did.  We think of these things as being ours.  And if they were taken away from us, we’d be pretty upset about it.  Job was not.  Job knew they belonged to God, not to him.  And so, if God wants to allow them to be taken away, that’s all right.  It’s God’s decision to make.
The second way Job was able to handle this is shown in Job’s second statement.  Here it is again:  “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”
What that shows is that Job does not believe that Job does not deserve to have God give him anything good, and he does not believe that he has any right to expect God to give him anything good.  When God decided to bless Job, that was wonderful.  Job was very grateful for it.  But Job knew he had not earned those blessings.  Yes, he was a good and righteous man, but Job knew that God was far better and more righteous than Job could ever dream of being.  God did not owe it to Job to bless Job.  God did not owe it to Job to do anything.  Again, God does what God does and God does not have to answer to us for what God does.  And so, Job knew that if we accept blessings from God without complaint, then we need to accept those blessings being taken away without complaint, too.
How many of us look at things that way?  We’re always quick to say, “Why would God do this?” when things go wrong.  How many of us say, “Why would God do this?” when things go right?  Maybe we do sometimes.  I hope so.  But a lot of times we don’t.  And again, I don’t either.  We tend to just accept it when things go right, as if that was God doing what God’s supposed to do, as if it’s God’s job to make sure things go the way we think they should.  But when things go wrong, we tend to act like God’s not doing it right, like God has fallen down on the job somehow.  And we get upset with God about that.
See, what happens is that we try to judge God by human standards.  We don’t think about it that way, probably, but we do.  We want God to live up to human standards of fairness.  We want God to live up to human standards of justice.  We want God to live up to human standards of right and wrong.  And any time God does not do that, any time we decide something has happened that’s unfair or unjust or simply not right, we decide that God has failed, that God has messed up somehow.  Again, we’d never put it that way, but a lot of times, that’s how we feel.
Job did not felt that way.  Job was able to handle all these things that Satan did to him because he knew who God was.  God is all-powerful.  God is all-wise.  God is in control of everything.  God is the owner of everything.  And God has every right to do anything God chooses to do.  It’s not for us to tell God what to do.  It’s not for us to judge what God does.  It’s not for us to demand that God live up to human standards of fairness, or justice, or right and wrong.  It’s for us to accept what God does, because God is God and we are not.
That’s hard.  But Job did it, at least for a while.  And you and I can do it, too.
We’re all going to have times when things go wrong.  But if we remember that everything we have, and everything we are, belongs to God, we’ll be able to handle those bad things.  And if we remember that it is not for us to judge God, we’ll be able to accept whatever happens, the good and the bad.
God is God.  You are not.  And I’m not, either.  If we remember that, and truly take it to heart, we’ll be able to accept both the good and the bad, knowing that God is in control and that anything God allows to happen will be used by God for good.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Graduation Day

            Tomorrow is high school graduation in both Gettysburg and Onida.  It’s an important day, of course.  It’s a day that some people will never forget.  For the most part, those people are called “parents” or “grandparents”.  Sometimes, they’re called “great-grandparents”.

            For the students themselves, though, this day will probably not be all that memorable.  If that seems wrong, let me ask you:  how much do you remember of your high school graduation?  Maybe you’re different from me, but I remember very little of mine.  I remember the speaker because it was Bill Janklow, who was the state attorney general at the time.  But I can’t remember anything he said.  I can’t remember who came to my graduation party, other than my parents.  I can’t remember the moment that I received my high school diploma.  I really can’t remember much of anything of my high school graduation.

            I suspect, though, that if you asked my parents, they could probably tell you a lot about that day.  They could tell you what I said in my valedictorian speech (I have no idea).  They could tell you who gave me my diploma (I don’t know).  They could tell you each person that was at my graduation party.  They could probably even tell you what they served.  My high school graduation was a much bigger deal for them than it was for me.  And I suspect that will be true of a lot of parents this week, too.

            There are a lot of reasons for that.  I think one of them, though, is that as we get older, we start to savor moments more.  When we’re young, we’re too busy living our lives, going from one thing to the next, to stop and savor the moment we’re in.  As we get older, though, we start to realize that life is not all that long.  The moments we have become more important to us, and we try to remember everything about them, because we don’t know how many we may have.

            Neither of those approaches is wrong.  In fact, they’re really both appropriate for their time.  When we’re young, it’s appropriate that we move from one thing to the next.  It’s appropriate that we spend our time just living our lives.  We don’t want young people weighed down with the thought that life is short.  Their lives are just beginning.  We need young people to be enthusiastic about their lives.  But when we’re older, it’s appropriate that we start to feel the passage of the years, and that we start to appreciate things more. It shows, once again, how right Ecclesiastes is when it says that there is a time for everything, and that God has made everything beautiful in its time.

            So, if this week’s graduation high school seniors don’t appreciate the day as much as their parents and grandparents do, it’s okay.  Let them keep looking forward to the next thing.  In fact, encourage them to do that.  They’ve still got lots of next things ahead of them.  And some of those next things just could be amazing.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Beginning of Faith

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, May 15, 2016.  The Bible verses used are Job 1:1, 8-19.

            Today we start a new sermon series on the book of Job.  Job is one of those books that a lot of know a little bit about, but that most of us have not actually read.  We’re not going to read all of it in this sermon series—after all, it goes on for forty-two chapters—but we are going to hit some of the high points.  And we’re going to start with the very first chapter.
            I want to deal with one thing quickly, before we get into the story itself.  You’ll hear people discuss whether the story of Job is something that actually happened, whether Job was a real person who had to deal with all the things we’re going to talk about, or whether this is simply a story designed to teach us about God.  My opinion is—it does not matter.  Think what you want to about that.  Whether Job was a real person or not is not the issue.  As I’ve said before, when we read things in the Bible, the question we need to ask is:  why was this included in the Bible?  What I am supposed to learn from this?
            As we look at the story of Job, that’s what we’re going to focus on.  What are we supposed to learn from Job’s story?
            In this first chapter, we meet Job.  Job is a righteous man.  He’s described as blameless and upright.  We’re told that he feared God and shunned evil.  Then we learn about a conversation between God and Satan concerning Job.
            We’ll come back to that conversation.  Right now, I want to focus on the story from Job’s perspective.  Here’s Job, this righteous, blameless, upright man.  A man who appears to be as good as it’s possible for a human being to be.  And God has blessed him with great wealth.  He has a large number of sheep, camels, oxen, and donkeys.  He has lots of servants.  He also has a large family—seven sons and three daughters.  But Job did not let that wealth go to his head.  Again, he continued to fear God and shun evil.
            So Job’s sitting at home one day, and a messenger comes up to him and tells him that all of his oxen and donkeys have been stolen.  And no sooner does he hear that than another messenger comes up and tells him that all his sheep and all his servants are dead.  And no sooner does he hear that than another messenger comes up and tells him that all his camels have been stolen, too.  And no sooner does he hear that than yet another messenger comes up and tells him that all of his children have been killed in an accident.
            Now, maybe you think you’ve had some bad days.  Think about this.  In a way it almost sounds comical to hear it described that way, but think about it.  Think about if you were Job.  You had been on top of the world.  And now, suddenly, you’ve lost everything.  All of your wealth is gone.  All of your children are gone.  I know some of you have lost children, and you know what a terrible, painful thing that is.  Job lost all ten of them at once.
            We’ll talk about how Job responded to this next week.  For today, I want you to think about how you would respond.  How would you feel?  I mean, you’d feel awful, obviously, but what would you feel about God?   How would you react to God if everything you had, including all of your children, was taken from you in one fell swoop?
            There are all kinds of ways we might react.  We might react with anger.  We might react with questions.  We might react with acceptance.  We might do all those things and more at various times.
But one thing we would probably do is ask the question:  why?  Why did all this happen?  That’s the question almost all of us ask whenever something like this happens, right?  Whenever there’s an accident, whenever something bad happens that was out of our control, and sometimes when bad things happen that are in our control, we look to God and ask:  why?  Why, God?  Why did this happen?  Even if we don’t blame God for it, even if we don’t think God caused it to happen, we know, because God is all-powerful, that God could have kept it from happening if God had chosen to.  But, for whatever reason, God did not choose to keep it from happening.  God allowed it to happen.  And we want to know, why?
            Eventually Job wanted to know why, too, and again, we’ll talk about that in the future.  But in this case, we, as readers, know why.  In the context of Job’s story, we’re told this was the work of Satan.
            Satan, in this story, basically gives God a challenge.  God tells Satan what a wonderful person Job is and what a wonderful servant of God Job is, and Satan says, well, sure he is.  Look at what you’ve done for him.  You’ve made his life easy.  You’ve given him everything he could possibly want.  Take all that stuff away from him and he’ll turn on you in no time.
            And God takes the challenge.  He tells Satan, okay, take it all away from him.  Do anything you want.  You cannot harm him physically, but you can do anything else to Job you want to do.  And we’ll see what Job does.
            In all of the forty-two chapters of the book of Job, it apparently never occurs to Job, or to any of his friends, that this might be the reason why all these things happened.  It never occurs to him that this stuff happened because God and Satan were testing him.  He cannot figure out why it did happen, and he and his friends come up with all kinds of ideas, but never did Job or any of his friends consider that maybe this was some kind of test that God and Satan were doing to prove something.
Now, maybe you think it was pretty hard on Job, and his family for that matter, to be used in this way.  It does kind of seem like that.  But again, the question is, what are we supposed to learn from this?
            We all have had times when bad things have happened, either to us or to people close to us.  And sometimes, those things happen to us through no fault of our own, just as Job was not at fault for all the things that happened to him.  And we don’t understand what’s going on.
            But here’s the thing.  Through all this stuff that happened, God did not abandon Job.  It may have felt to Job like God had abandoned him, but God did not.  God was aware of everything that was happening to Job.  And yes, God did allow it to happen.  But here’s what Job did not realize:  God had a reason for allowing it to happen.
            God was not punishing Job by allowing this stuff to happen.  God was planning to use it for God’s glory.  And, ultimately, for Job’s glory, too.  Job had no clue about that at the time, but God was planning to use all these things that happened to Job for Job’s glory as well as for God’s.  God did not make them happen—God did not require Satan to do what Satan did—but God knew that no matter what Satan did, God would be able to use it for God’s glory and Job’s.
            So what can we learn from this?  We can learn that sometimes, no matter how good or upright or blameless a life we lead, bad things are going to happen.  God never promised to keep bad things from happening to us.  We can learn that, when those bad things happen to us, it is not God punishing us, and it is not God abandoning us.  God sees what has happened.  God knows what has happened.  And yes, God has allowed it to happen.
            But God has a reason for allowing those bad things to happen.  We may not realize it.  We may have no idea what the reason is.  No matter how hard we try to look for a reason, the real reason may never occur to us, any more than it did to Job.  But there still is a reason.  God never does anything for no reason, and God never allows anything for no reason.
            Sometimes, the stuff that happens to us seems like it’s pretty hard on us.  But God is going to us it.  God is going to use it for God’s glory.  And, ultimately, God is going to use it for our glory, too.  We may have no clue about that at the time, but God is going to use the bad stuff that happens to us for our glory as well as for God’s glory.
            I’m also confident that, as I’ve been saying all this stuff about bad things happening, that some of you have a specific thing in your mind, something that happened to you or to someone close to you.  I can think of some specific things, too.  And some of you are thinking, “What reason could God possibly have for allowing that to happen?  How could God possibly use that for God’s glory?  And how in the world could God possibly use it for my glory?”
            I don’t have the answer for you.  You may never know the answer.  I may never know the answer, either.  Job did not find out the answer until the forty-second chapter of the book, and even then he did not find out the whole answer.  He never knew anything about the challenge between God and Satan.  He did not understand how this had been used for God’s glory as well as his own.  He just knew that it had been.
            And that’s all I can tell you.  Whatever the thing is you have in mind, I don’t think God caused it, any more than God forced Satan to treat Job the way he did.  But God allowed it to happen.  And somehow, in some way, God is going to use it for God’s glory and for your glory. 
If you don’t believe that right now, that’s okay.  Come back next week, when we talk about Job’s response to everything that happened.  For now, at least hold open that possibility.  Whatever that bad thing is that you’re thinking about, at least consider that God might be using it for God’s glory and for yours.  Even if you cannot see how, just give God the benefit of the doubt, at least for now.
Because when we do that, when we give God that benefit of the doubt, we are at the beginning of faith.  And that’s the time, when we’re at the beginning of faith, that God often chooses to show us some incredible things.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

It's Up to Us

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, May 8, 2016.  The Bible verses used are Acts 1:6-14.

Today we come to the end of our sermon series, “The After Party”.  As you heard, we’re talking today about Jesus’ ascension into heaven, as told to us by Luke in the book of Acts.
            As often happens, I’m struck by the incredibly matter-of-fact tone the Bible takes in describing an incredible event.  Let me just read verse nine again.  “After Jesus said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.”  I mean, that sounds like it was a perfectly ordinary thing.  It’s about like saying, “After we’re done with worship today, I’m going to get in the car and go home.”  Like it happens every day.  No big deal here.  Same old same old.
            Think about what that must have been like for the disciples.  As far as we know, they had no reason to think Jesus was going to leave them on that particular day.  We know, because Luke tells us, that Jesus was on earth for forty days after his resurrection, but we have no indication that the disciples knew Jesus would leave after forty days.  In fact, we don’t know whether the disciples knew Jesus was leaving at all. 
Really, the question they ask Jesus right before this—“Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”—sounds to me like they expect him to be around for a while.  And the way it reads, it’s about thirty seconds after they ask that question that Jesus leaves.  He says, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  And then, he’s gone.  Taken up, and hidden by the clouds.
Imagine you’re one of the disciples.  I think I’d just be standing there with my mouth hanging open.  I mean, think of it.  You were just talking to Jesus.  You were having a conversation.  And suddenly, he’s gone.  Vanished in the clouds.
What do you suppose they thought?  At first, they probably did not think anything.  They were stunned.  Then they started thinking, okay, now what?  Maybe Peter, James, and John had a flashback to the transfiguration, when they saw Moses and Elijah with Jesus and a cloud covered them all.  They stand there for a while, just looking up at where Jesus had been.  Where did he go?  When is he coming back?
And then, apparently out of nowhere, two men dressed in white appeared.  And that’s presented very matter-of-factly, too.  Who were these guys?  Were they angels?  Maybe, but the Bible does not specifically say so.  It simply describes them as two men.  And the disciples don’t seem particularly startled to see them.  Maybe, after Jesus dying and being resurrected and appearing to them several times and then vanishing into a cloud, maybe after all that nothing much surprised the disciples any more.  Anyway, the two men are there.  And they say to the disciples, what are you doing waiting around here?  What are you looking up into the sky for?  Jesus is not there.  He’s gone up to heaven.
So, eventually, the disciples left.  And can you imagine the conversations they had along the way.  At first, they were probably silent, stunned by what they’d seen.  Then one of them speaks.  Maybe it was Peter—after all, it seems like he always had something to say, no matter what the situation was.  And then the ice was broken.  Everyone starts talking, in tones of awe and wonder and probably a little fear, too.
They start out by talking about what they’ve just seen and heard.  And maybe that was enough conversation on the road home.  But when they get back to the place they were staying, the start talking about other things.  They talk about all the things Jesus told them.  They talk about what Jesus said were the two greatest commandments, to love God and to love each other.  They talk about the mission statement Jesus gave them, to go and make disciples of all nations.
And somewhere along the line, they realize that now it’s up to them.  Yes, Jesus is coming back, sometime, but they don’t know when it will be.  And they realize that until Jesus does come back, whenever that is, they’re in charge.  They’re in charge of spreading God’s word and showing God’s love.  They’re in charge of making disciples of Jesus Christ.
That’s a pretty awesome responsibility they had, you know?  So, what did they do?  They prayed.  They “joined constantly in prayer”, as our reading told us.  And eventually, they received power from the Holy Spirit.  And then, they went to work.  They started doing what Jesus told them to do.
We talked last week about how we, too, are disciples of Jesus Christ, so what Jesus told the disciples to do now applies to us.  That means that now, it’s up to us.  You and me.  The men, whether they were angels or whatever they were, are saying to us what they said to the disciples.  They’re saying, what are you doing waiting around here?  
We’re the ones who are in charge now.  You and I are in charge of spreading God’s word and showing God’s love.  You and I are in charge of making disciples of Jesus Christ.  Not just us here in this church, obviously.  Us along with everyone else in all the other Christian churches in town and around the world.  But still, it’s up to us.  Jesus told each one of us to spread God’s word and show God’s love.  Jesus told each one of us to go and make disciples of Jesus Christ.
It’s a pretty awesome responsibility we have.  So, what’s the first thing we should do?  Pray.  We’ve had a prayer emphasis for a while now on the unchurched families of our parish, both the unchurched children and the unchurched parents.  I know that a lot of us having been praying for them.  But please, keep praying.  Pray for God’s guidance, so that we will know what to do and what to say, so we can reach those unchurched families.  It’s okay to pray that God will help us reach other people too, of course.  We don’t mean to slight anyone with this prayer emphasis.  But we know that children have a special place in Jesus’ heart, and they should have a special place in our hearts, too.  Please pray that God will touch our hearts and theirs, so we can reach those unchurched families for God.
If we pray with open, sincere, honest hearts, and if we’re willing to follow where God leads us, we will receive power from the Holy Spirit, just like the original disciples did.  There may not be tongues of fire that appear on us, the way it happened with the original disciples, and you can read Acts Chapter Two if you want to know more about that story.  But we will receive power from the Holy Spirit.  If we dedicate ourselves to God and are truly willing to follow wherever God leads, God’s Spirit will come into our hearts and into our lives and we will be able to do things we’ve never imagined, because all things are possible with God.
And after we’ve prayed, and after we get that power, we need to do what the original disciples did.  We need to go to work.  And again, I know a lot of people here have been working.  I know there are a lot of people here who are trying hard to share God’s word and show God’s love.  And we’ve seen some things happen.  And we’re going to see more things happen.  So please, keep doing it.  Keep working. 
And don’t get discouraged if things don’t happen in the way we planned or as quickly as we wanted.  I’m sure there were times when things did not happen the way the original disciples planned, either.  And I’m sure there were times when things did not happen as quickly as they wanted.  And they probably got discouraged sometimes.  But they did not quit.  They kept working.  They trusted God enough to know that if they did what they were supposed to do, God would make things work out the way they’re supposed to work out, even if that was not the way they had planned or on the time schedule they had in mind.
The original disciples gave us the perfect formula, really.  At first, they were waiting for Jesus to come back.  But then they realized he was not coming back right away, and that now it was up to them.  So they prayed.  In response to their prayer, that got power from the Holy Spirit.  And then, they went to work.  And God helped them start spreading the gospel across the entire world.
That formula worked for the original disciples.  And it will work for us.  Pray sincerely, openly, and honestly.  If we do, both as individuals and as a church, we’ll get power from the Holy Spirit.  And if we then go to work, God will help us spread the gospel across our entire parish and beyond.
We know what to do.  So let’s do it.