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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.

Thursday, November 10, 2016


Both the Sully Buttes Chargers and the Potter County Battlers won their district volleyball tournaments.  They played each other in the regional tournament on Tuesday, which Sully Buttes won.  Both the Sully Buttes Chargers and the Potter County Battlers reached the semi-finals in the state football playoffs.  That’s some pretty good seasons by our local sports teams.

This success is wonderful, of course.  But it got me thinking about sports and the importance we place on them.  You all know that I love sports.  But I’ll be the first to admit that we can make them too important in our lives.  We are, after all, talking about something that we’re supposed to do for fun, for entertainment.  Yes, there are some people who make their living from sports, and that obviously makes it more important for them.  But for the rest of us, sports are simply supposed to be for enjoyment.  They’re a pleasant diversion, a distraction from the problems of our lives.

We can still root for our teams, of course.  That’s especially true when we’re talking about small-town high school sports, where we know some of the kids and know some of their families.  We have kids from our churches involved in those games, and we have other kids whom we know, or whose parents or grandparents we know.  It’s only natural that we should want them to do well, and that we should want their teams to win.

But of course, there are other people in other towns.  And there are people who know those kids and their families.  There are people who go to church with those kids, and who know their parents or grandparents.  And they want their kids to do well, and what their kids’ teams to win, just as much as we want our kids to do well and our kids’ teams to win.

The thing about sports, though, is that everybody cannot win.  In every game, somebody wins and somebody loses.  It’s a lot of fun to win, and it’s never any fun to lose.  One of the lessons sports teaches us, though, is that in life we’re not always going to win.  Sometimes, we’re going to lose.  We won’t always have things go our way.  We won’t always get the things we want.  We need to learn how to handle that, and how to come back next time and try again.

However, there’s one area of life in which one person winning does not mean someone else loses.  That’s our faith in God, and our belief in Jesus as our Savior.  One person having faith does not mean someone else cannot have faith.  In fact, the goal is for all of us to have faith.  The goal is for all of us to “win” with God.  The goal is for all of us to get the championship trophy.  For a Christian, that trophy is feeling God’s Spirit with us on earth and then going to be with God in heaven.

There have to be losers in sports, but we can all be winners with God.  All we need to do is believe in God and accept Jesus as our Savior.  When we do that, we’ve won.  And then, we can do all we can to help other people win, too.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Way Out

This is the sermon given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, November 6, 2016.  The Bible verses used are Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:5-16.
            This is the second week of our sermon series, “God So Loved the World”.  We’re looking at the most popular bible verse, at least as determined by, John Three Sixteen.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  But what we’re doing is looking at the context of that verse and trying to put it into more perspective.
            We talked last week about Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus about what it means to be born again.  This week, we look at what comes right after that.  Nicodemus asks Jesus to explain a little farther, and Jesus says, basically, look, I’ve been telling you about earthly things, things that you can see and hear and touch for yourself, and you won’t even believe me when I tell you about that.  If you won’t believe me when I tell you about those things, how are you ever going to believe me when I tell you about heavenly things?  Those are things that I’ve seen, because I came from heaven, but you haven’t seen them.  And then he says this:  “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
            And again, as I keep saying, this is why context is so important.  Because if we don’t understand the context of Jesus’ statement, it’s pretty confusing.  Nicodemus, and the other people around him, would’ve known what Jesus was talking about when he talked about Moses lifting up the snake.  But most people reading that today go, “What?  What’s that about?  What’s this about Moses lifting up a snake?  And what’s it got to do with Jesus?  Why is Jesus comparing himself with a snake?”  
Well, what Jesus was talking about is what happened in the story from the book of Numbers that we read.  This story takes place after Moses had saved the people of Israel from slavery under the Pharaoh of Egypt.  Now, the people are wandering in the wilderness, which they would do for forty years before God allowed them to go to the Promised Land.  
We gloss over that sometimes, but think about it.  Forty years in the wilderness.  Think about how long forty years really is.  I was still in high school forty years ago.  Some of us were not even born forty years ago.  Forty years, in terms of a human life, is a long time.  And that’s how long the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness.
I think I’d probably be in kind of a bad mood if I had been wandering in the wilderness that many years.  And the people of Israel were in a bad mood.  They started complaining to Moses.  But while they were complaining to Moses, they were really complaining about God.  After all, none of this was Moses’ fault.  It was God who had decided they should wander in the wilderness for forty years.  And the reason God decided that is because the people of Israel had not trusted him and had refused to go into the land God had promised them.
Remember, that was God’s original plan.  Moses would lead the people of Israel out of Egypt and Moses would lead them to a fertile, prosperous land.  But when they got to that land, there were people already living there.  That scared the people of Israel, and they did not trust God enough to believe that God would take care of them if they went to the land God had promised to give them.  So, God said that if they did not trust God enough to go where God had told them to go and to do what God had told them to do, they would not get another chance to go there for forty years.
So now, they’re somewhere in the middle of that forty year period.  And they’re not happy.  And they still don’t trust God enough to believe that God’s going to take care of them.  And they sin.  They speak out against God.  And so, because of their sin, venomous snakes come and start killing them.
That got the attention of the people of Israel.  They realize that what’s happening to them is nothing more than what they deserve for their sin.  And so, they confess their sin and turn back to God.
And what does God do?  God gives them a way out.  God tells Moses to make this bronze snake and put it on a pole.  If someone gets bitten by a snake, all they need to do is look at that snake on the pole, and they’ll live.
And at this point, some of you are probably thinking, “So what?  What’s this got to do with John Three, Sixteen?  What’s it got to do with God loving the world and giving us eternal life?
Well, here’s the thing.  All of us, every person alive on this earth, is a sinner.  That’s what the Apostle Paul said in his letter to the Romans, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  And God does not look at us the way we look at ourselves and others.  God does not weigh sins on a scale and say, well, this person’s sins are worse than that person’s sins but not as bad as this other person’s sins.  God looks at each one of us and sees the same thing--a sinner.  That’s as true of us today as it was of the people of Israel thousands of years ago.  We are all sinners.  And, just like with the people of Israel thousands of years ago, we’ve all had times when we have not trusted God as much as we should.
This is why the idea that we need to be good enough to get to heaven does not work.  None of us could ever be good enough to get to heaven.  Being good enough to get to heaven would mean we’d have to be perfect, because heaven is where God is and God is perfect.  And none of us can do that.  We can try, and we should try.  We should try to be as near to perfection as we can get.  But we’re never going to get there.
We cannot get to heaven by being good enough.  What we deserve from God is punishment for our sins, just as the people of Israel deserved punishment for their sins.
But God gives us a way out.  Just like God did for the people of Israel, God gives us a way out.  For us, that way out is not a snake on a pole.  For us, the way out is Jesus on a cross.
The people of Israel could look to a bronze snake on a pole and be healed physically.  You and I can look to Jesus on the cross and be healed spiritually.  Just as the people of Israel did not have to suffer the consequences of their sins, you and I don’t have to suffer the consequences of our sins.  All we need to do is look to Jesus.  All we need to do is believe in Jesus as our Savior.  And we will be saved.
That’s how much God loves the world.  Because God did not have to do that.  God could have required us to suffer the consequences of our sins.  If God had done that, there would have been no reasonable argument that it was unjust or unfair.  We’d have been getting what we deserve, just as the people of Israel would’ve been getting what they deserved.
But God loves the world--God loves us--God loves you and God loves me--so much that God does not give us what we deserve.  Instead, Jesus took what we deserve.  By dying on the cross, Jesus suffered the consequences of our sins so that we don’t have to.
God loves the world so much that God does not give us what we deserve.  Instead, God gives us much better than we deserve.  God gives us the chance for salvation and eternal life.  He did that through the life and death of Jesus Christ.  All we have to do is look to Jesus.  All we need to do is believe that Jesus Christ is our Savior.  And we will be saved.  No matter what we’ve done.  No matter who we’ve been.  No matter how bad humans may consider our sins to be.  All we need to do is look to Jesus and accept him as our Savior.  When we do that, the consequences of our sin are gone.  And we receive eternal life.
“God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  God sent Jesus into the world to take the consequences that should’ve gone to us.  We are still sinners, but we are healed.  And we don’t have to look at a snake.  All we need to do is look to Jesus.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Election Thoughts

There will be an election held next week.  You may have heard something about it.  I’ve said in the past that I’m not going to talk about politics, and I’ve explained why.  But today, I want to give you my predictions for the results of the election.

The morning after the election, the sun will rise in the east.  This may come as a surprise to some, who seem to believe that the world will come to an end if their side does not win.  It won’t.  Some candidates may be preferable to others, but neither is going to cause the end of the world.  That will happen when God decides it’s going to happen and not before.

The country will continue to have lots of problems.  That’s true no matter who wins.  We are electing a president, not a magician or a wizard.  No matter how well-intentioned the winner may be, and no matter how hard they might try, there is no magic formula for solving the problems facing the country.  These problems did not come about overnight, and they will not go away overnight.  And in fact, some of them will never be solved, at least not by humans, because they come from flaws that are deeply rooted in human nature.  We can make progress sometimes, but they will only be solved when God decides to step in and solve them.

My happiness will not be determined by who wins the election.  Yours should not be, either.  Yes, the government has a lot of power.  Yes, it can, to a certain extent, make things better or worse, easier or harder.  But if we are looking to the government to give us happiness, we are going to be disappointed.  The Declaration of Independence says we have the right to pursue happiness.  It does not guarantee that we will be happy.  The government cannot make us happy.  Happiness comes from inside of us.

Jesus will still be the Savior.  Too many people seem to think their salvation will come from Washington, D. C.  It won’t.  It never has.  It never will.  That’s true regardless of which party is in power.  Again, the government has a lot of power, but it does not have the power of salvation, whether we’re talking about earthly salvation or eternal salvation.  The President of the United States is not our Savior.  Neither is the Congress or the Supreme Court.  Salvation comes from faith in Jesus Christ.

God will still be in control.  It can be hard to believe that one.  We look around at all the things that are happening in the world, and it seems like nobody’s in control of anything.  We wonder, if God is in control, why is God allowing all these things to happen?  That’s where faith comes in.  In a recent sermon I talked about times when it looked like something terrible had happened, but eventually God brought something good out of it.  We never know what plans God may have, and we never know how things that appear terrible to us may be used by God for good in the end.  It can be hard to trust God that much, but I do believe that God remains in control, and will remain in control no matter who wins the election.  And in the end, God will win.

So, support your candidates.  Inform yourself and go vote.  But know that whatever happens, things will be okay in the end.  Presidents come and go.  God is eternal.