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Saturday, December 30, 2017

Three Hundred Sixty-five Blank Pages

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, December 31, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Isaiah 43:15-19.

            It’s New Year’s Eve.  Tomorrow, it will be a new year.  2017 will be over.  It will be 2018.
            When you think about it, New Year’s Day is probably about the most arbitrary holiday we have.  There’s no real reason the year needs to start on January first.  It could start on April twelfth or July ninth or October twenty-first.  And there’s no real reason to make a big deal out of the start of a new year anyway.  There’s nothing special that we’re commemorating.  There’s nothing important that happened on this day.  We simply turn a page on the calendar.  We change one digit in the way we track the years.  That’s it.  It’s no big deal.
            But when you think about it some more, turning that page on the calendar is kind of a big deal.  Because when you turn that page, the next page is blank.  In fact, there are three hundred sixty-five blank pages.  Do you ever think of a year that way?  Three hundred sixty-five blank pages.  And each one of us is going to write a story on each one of those pages.
            And the things is, each of those stories is going to be different.  There will be some common elements--elements of comedy, of tragedy, of drama, of warmth.  Elements of all the things that make up life.  But how much of each of those elements there will be, what order they will come in--that will be different for each one of us.
            And there’s one other thing that’s going to be different for each one of us.  That’s how we handle all those elements of life.  And that may be the most significant difference of all.  Because we know, as the author of Ecclesiastes tells us, that in life there’s a time for everything.  Weeping and laughing, mourning and dancing, love and hate--there’s a time for all of those things.  And the chances are that all of those things will show up on some of those blank pages that are stretching in front of us in this new year.
            So, how do you feel about that?  Are you happy, eager, looking forward to what’s going to happen, to how you’re going to fill those three hundred sixty-five blank pages that make up 2018?  Or are you worried, apprehensive, fearful of what may happen, of what those pages may hold?  Or, are you just kind of blasé about the whole thing, just kind of neutral, figuring that whatever happens is what’s going to happen and that’s just the way it is?
            I’m not saying that any of those attitudes is wrong.  It’s not like our outlook on 2018 is sinful, whatever it is.  But I think God tells us how God would like us to feel in our reading from Isaiah for today.
            Listen to this part of our reading again:
I am the Lord, your Holy One, Israel’s Creator, your King.  This is what the Lord says--Forget the former things, do not dwell on the past.  See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
To me, God sounds excited in that passage.  God is eager to do something new.  God is so fired up about this new thing God is going to do that God can hardly wait to get started on it.  And God wants us to get just as excited about this new thing that God is going to do as God is.  I think you can just sense that excitement in the words God says there.
            And it makes perfect sense to me that God would be excited about this.  I mean, think of a time you decided to create something.  You were excited about it, too, right?  We’re always excited when we decide to create something.  And the farther we get into it, and the more we can see that it might turn out to be something good, the more excited we get.  And as it starts to really take shape, we just can hardly wait to show it to someone.  And of course, when we do, we’re hoping they’ll be just as excited as we are about it.  We want them to share the excitement we feel over this thing that we’re creating.
            I think God feels that same way.  I mean, God must enjoy creating, right?  God created this world and everything in it.  And God did that with care.  God did that with love.  God did that with attention to detail.  Think of all the things that have to be just right for the world to be the way it is, for the world to work the way it does.  When God created the world, God created a hundred, a thousand, a million things that would work together in just exactly the right way for everything in the world to work right.  You only do that when you love to create.  God loves to create.  And God is happy when we appreciate God’s creativeness.
            Our future, our 2018, is going to be created by God.  Yes, the things we do have an impact on it.  The things other people do have an impact on it, too.  But if we truly mean what we say in our prayers, if we really mean it when we say “Thy will be done”, if we really surrender to God’s will and allow God’s Holy Spirit to lead us and guide us through life, our 2018 will be created by God.
            So I think that, in large part, how we feel about those three hundred sixty-five blank pages that will make up our 2018 depends on how much we trust God.  Do you, do I, trust God enough to allow God to write what goes on those three hundred sixty-five pages?  And do you, do I, trust God enough that we believe whatever God writes on those pages will be good, will be right, will be best not just for ourselves but for everyone else, too?
            This is not a rhetorical question.  I want us all to think about it.  Including me.  We know what the answer should be.  We know we should trust God with those three hundred sixty-five pages.  But the question is not should we trust God.  The question is do we trust God.
            Because the truth is that it’s not always easy.  It’s not always easy to trust God.  Each one of us, sitting here today, has hopes and dreams of what 2018 might bring.  We may not have told anyone about them.  We may not have even really thought them through ourselves.  But we have them.  They may not be for anything fancy or special.  They might be--we might have hopes of getting a better job or a new relationship or better health.  We may have hopes that things will get better for a loved one.  But our hopes may just be that our lives will continue on the same path they are right now, because we’re happy that way.
            But whatever it is, we all have hopes and dreams of what 2018 might bring.  That’s natural.  But our hopes and dreams for 2018 may not be the same as God’s hopes and dreams for us in 2018.  They might be, but they might not.  God may have an entirely different plan for those three hundred sixty-five blank pages.
            Now, sometimes we can see that God’s plan is a lot better than ours.  When that happens, we eagerly jump on God’s plan.  But sometimes, we cannot see that.  In fact, sometimes we don’t understand God’s plan at all.  Sometimes God’s plan makes no sense to us whatsoever.  Sometimes we look to the heavens and say, “God, seriously?  This is your plan for me?  This is where you want me to go?  This is what you want me to do?  For real?  How’s that ever going to work?”
            It’s okay to ask questions like that.  For one thing, asking questions like that helps us be sure that what we see really is God’s plan.  Asking those questions can clarify in our mind if we really are being led by God, or if there’s something else going on here.  
For another thing, God never minds if we ask honest questions.  Remember the story of God telling Moses to go to Egypt and tell the Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go?  There’s page after page of Moses questioning God.  And God does not get mad at Moses for asking those questions.  God just patiently answers them all.  God does not mind if we ask questions.
But, just as with Moses, there comes the time where we realize that God has answered all our questions.  And there’s only one thing left to be decided.  Are we going to follow where God is leading us or not?  Are we going to trust God enough to follow God’s plan, even when it’s different from our plan?  Do we have enough faith in God to follow God’s plan even when we don’t understand it and even when, maybe, it really does not make any sense to us?
God has given us the gift of 2018.  Three hundred sixty-five blank pages.  God wants to do a new thing for each one of us on those pages.  It is springing up even now.  May each of us trust God enough to allow God to write on each of the three hundred sixty-five blank pages that will make up our 2018?

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Defending Christmas

I have posted this on my blog every year since I wrote it in 2009.  It seems crazy to me that 2009 was eight years ago.  On the other hand, what I wrote then still seems relevant to me.  It's a few days after Christmas, instead of a few days before, but the rest still works.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 23, 2017

God Will See You Through

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, December 24.  The Bible verses used are Luke 2:1-7.

            What we read this morning was the part of the story of the first Christmas Eve.  At the time, of course, no one knew it was Christmas Eve.  Nobody knew it was anything.  It was just another day, a day just like any other day, as far as anyone knew.
            Now for Mary and Joseph, it was not just another day.  It was the day their baby, their first child, was going to be born.  And you know, it’s interesting, considering how big Christmas is for us today, that the Bible really does not make a big deal out of it.  The gospels of Mark and John don’t even deal with it.  We don’t get any of Jesus’ birth story there.  As we talked last week, Matthew just deals with it very briefly, about eight verses.  Luke is the only one of the gospel writers that goes into any detail at all about that first Christmas.  And when you really look at this story, you realize that there are a lot of things about it that we don’t know.  There are also some things we think we know that the Bible does not actually say.
            We know that Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem shortly before Jesus was born.  That was a trip of about seventy or eighty miles.  It’s estimated that it would’ve taken them at least four days, on foot, to make that trip.  Of course, Mary was not far from giving birth, so she may have needed to rest more frequently, which would’ve made the trip longer.  We always illustrate their trip with Mary riding a donkey, but the Bible does not mention a donkey.  For all we know, Mary and Joseph may have both walked all the way, carrying whatever provisions they could.
            The Bible does not say anything about whether they were traveling with anyone or if they were on their own.  It makes sense that there might have been some others there.  The road from Nazareth to Bethlehem was a dangerous one, with both wild animals and human criminals lying in wait for travelers.  There’d be safety in numbers.  Besides, Mary and Joseph cannot have been the only ones who had to travel to Bethlehem, the city of David, for the census.  It seems like there would have to have been some others.  If so, they probably would’ve traveled together.
            We always imagine Jesus’ birth as having come the first night after Mary and Joseph got to Bethlehem.  And that may be how it worked out, but the Bible does not say so.  Luke simply says, “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born.”  They may have already been in Bethlehem for a while, we don’t know.  We don’t know that Jesus was born at night, either.  We know the angel appeared the shepherds at night, but that does not necessarily mean the baby was born then.  
            The chances are that Joseph and Mary were not the only ones who could not find a room, either.  Bethlehem was a small town.  And of course, back then there was no such thing as a hotel the way we think of them now.  There were people who had a few rooms they would rent out.  There probably were not a whole lot of rooms available under the best circumstances, and of course there was no way for people to call ahead and make a reservation.  I would imagine there were lots of other people who took whatever shelter they could find.  Some probably could not find any, and simply had to camp out in the open.  Joseph and Mary may have been among the lucky ones, really.  At least they had shelter.
            So why am I going through all this?  Well, a couple of reasons.  One of them is to just make the point that when we read the Bible, we need to be a little bit careful.  There are a lot of times when we assume things that the Bible does not actually say.  Sometimes our assumptions may be justified, but sometimes they’re not.  And when they’re not, when we start thinking that the Bible says things it does not actually say, we can run into trouble.  And I’ve been guilty of that, too, sometimes.  I’m trying to get better about it, but it’s something most of us do sometimes.  And it’s a trap, because it can lead us to think we’re following God’s word when we’re not.
            But the other point is one we’ve made before.  When we read these stories in the Bible, we need to not get bogged down in all the little details.  Instead, we need to always keep a few questions in mind.  Why is this story in the Bible?  What am I supposed to learn from it?  What does this story teach me about God and about faith in Jesus Christ?
            So, what do you think the answers are?  Because this story could easily have been left out of the Bible.  As I said, Mark and John do leave it out.  Matthew deals with it very briefly.  So why is the story of Jesus’ birth in the Bible?  What are we supposed to learn from it?  What does this story teach us about God and about faith in Jesus Christ?
            I’m sure I don’t have the whole answer.  But here’s what I think is at least part of the answer.
            Jesus truly was born as a human being.  He was not an angel.  He was not a supernatural being.  Yes, he had some special powers as the divine Son of God, but he was also fully human.  And he was not born to wealthy people living in a palace.  He was not born to people who were important or well-known or special.  He was born to ordinary people, who lived ordinary lives.  And in fact, he was born in conditions that were not very pleasant at all.
            Why is that important?  Because all this tells us one thing about Jesus Christ:  he understands.  He knows what it’s like to leave as a human being.  He knows what it’s like to live an ordinary human life.  He knows what it’s like to have to work hard.  He knows what it’s like to have to struggle.  He knows what it’s like to be a kid.  He knows what it’s like to be an adolescent.  He knows what it’s like to be an adult.  Jesus knows what all of that is like, because he experienced it himself.  Jesus understands the things we go through as human beings.
            And because Jesus was human, Jesus also understands our emotions.  He understands our feelings.  He knows what it’s like to be angry or frustrated.  He knows what it’s like to be depressed.  He knows what it’s like to feel alone.  He also knows what it’s like to be happy.  He knows what it’s like to feel love.  He knows what it’s like to be happy or sad, to laugh or to cry.  Jesus knows all those things, because he went through them all himself.  Jesus understands everything we feel as human beings.
            And because Jesus understands that, we know that God understands it, too.  Because Jesus is God--God the Son.  Anything Jesus knows, God knows.  Anything Jesus understands, God understands.  So whatever you’re going through, know that God understands it.
            But why is that important?  I mean, it’s nice, I guess.  It’s nice to know that God understands what we’re going through.  But how does that help?  How does God’s understanding change anything?  After all, we still have to go through what we’re going through.  What difference does God understanding it make?
            Well, in a sense, we all have to answer that question for ourselves.  Because what our answer is depends on how we see God and on how much faith we have in God.  If we think God really does not care about us much, if we think God just sits in heaven observing things and not doing anything about them, if we think God is not involved in our day-to-day lives, then it probably makes no difference at all.  We’ll still think we have to get through whatever we’re going through on our own.
            But if we believe that God does care about us, if we believe that God loves us, and if we believe that God does get involved in our day-to-day lives, then it makes all the difference in the world.  It does not mean that God will magically take us out of our situation and solve all our problems.  But it does mean that, whatever we’re going through, we can count on God to help us get through it.  God will help us get through and God will see us through to the other side.  It’s like what it says in the Twenty-third Psalm.  “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”  God does not promise to keep us out of the dark valleys.  God just promises to be with us when we’re in those dark valleys and help us get through them into the light.
            We think, now, that Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are supposed to be days of joy.  But they were not completely days of joy for Joseph and Mary.  Yes, I’m sure they were happy that their son was born and that he was okay, but the circumstances of Jesus’ birth were not exactly what first-time parents would have in mind.
            Joseph and Mary went through some tough times.  What we read today was only part of it.  But through all their tough times, they knew that God was with them.  They knew God would help them get through their tough times, and that God would ultimately bring them into the light.  And God will do that for you and me, too.
            I hope this Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are days of joy for you.  But if they’re not, know that God understands.  Know that God will be there for you.  And know that, whatever you may be going through, God will see you through it.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Christmas Feelings

As some of you know, when I write a letter or send an email, I often end with “Have a great day!”  And I mean it.  I sincerely hope, when I say that, that the person I’m sending the letter or email to will have a great day.

I know, though, that sometimes they don’t.  No one has a great day every day.  No one has a great week every week.  Life has its ups and downs.  That’s just the way life works.

As I write this, we’re just four days from Christmas.  Christmas is, of course, a joyous time for a lot of us.  A lot of us, but not all of us.  If you’ve lost a loved one recently, if you’ve had a serious health setback, if you feel alone, or for lots of other reasons, Christmas probably does not feel all that joyous for you.

Now, I could tell you that the Bible tells us to be thankful in all circumstances, and that no matter what’s going on in our lives we can still be happy because we have Jesus as our Savior and so have salvation and eternal life.  I could tell you that, but I won’t.  The chances are you already know that--you don’t need me to tell you.  And maybe, deep down, you are grateful for that.  But sometimes, when we’re in the middle of something, knowing that doesn’t seem to help a whole lot.  We feel like it should, we try to make it help, but it just doesn’t.  And then, sometimes, we start to feel guilty about the fact that we’re not feeling joyous about Christmas, and of course that just makes things worse.

On the other hand, those who do feel joyous about Christmas sometimes feel guilty about that, too.  Because they know that there are people who are hurting at Christmastime.  And they may want to help, and they may even try.  But sometimes, there’s just nothing they can do.  And that’s where the guilt comes in, because they feel like it’s not right for them to feel joyous when there are so many people who don’t and who can’t.

So, to those of you who feel joyous at Christmas, and to those of you who don’t, I want to say this:  it’s okay.  Whatever you feel, it’s okay.  God understands.  I’m sure God likes it when we can feel joyous at the thought of the birth of the Savior.  But I’m also sure God understands why sometimes we don’t and sometimes we can’t.  And God is okay with it either way.  After all, God created feelings, just like God created everything else.  God understands our feelings better than we understand them.  So whatever we feel God understands it.  And God also understands that we cannot instantly and automatically change how we feel, even if we want to and even if we feel like we should.  God understands that, as they saying goes, we have to feel the way we feel until we don’t feel that way any more.

But know this:  whatever you feel at Christmas, or any time of the year, God is with you.  That’s what “Emmanuel” means, after all:  “God with us”.  And God is with us.  God rejoices with us in our good times.  God comforts us and mourns with us in our bad times.  And God loves us and is with us all the time.  No matter what we do, no matter how we feel, God is always with us.  God is with you, right now, no matter what you may be going through or what you may feel, good or bad.

So this Christmas, whether you’re happy or sad, don’t feel guilty about it.  But if you do feel bad, know that we are here for you.  Know that we love you and we want to be there for you, too.  And know that it’s okay.  God loves you, no matter what.

Have a blessed Christmas.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Faith Over Feelings

This is the message given in the Onida and Agar United Methodist churches on Sunday, December 17, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 1:18-25.

            If you were in church last week, you may have noticed that our Bible reading was the same one that we read last week, the story of Jesus’ birth in the gospel of Matthew.  This won’t be the same sermon you heard last week.  There’s another aspect of this passage I want to talk about.
            Matthew starts his gospel by tracing Jesus’ earthly lineage back from Abraham through David and then on up to Joseph, who Jesus’ earthly father.  It was important for Matthew to do that because the prophecy had been that the Messiah, the Savior, would be of the line of King David.  After he does that, Matthew goes on to tell us Jesus’ birth story.
            But this is not the birth story we hear the most.  This is not the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary and the trip to Bethlehem and “No room at the inn” and the stable and all that.  Matthew’s tells the story very quickly and efficiently.  Mary and Joseph are going to be married, but are not married yet.  Mary is pregnant.  Joseph knows the child cannot be his, but he does not want to publicly disgrace Mary, so he plans to end things quietly.  Then an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him to go ahead with the marriage because the child is from the Holy Spirit and will save the people from their sins.  Joseph wakes up and does what the angel told him to do.
            And that’s it.  It’s no wonder this is not the version of the Christmas story we usually hear.  There’s no drama in it.  There’s no emotion.  There’s no Hallmark Channel warmth or tears or anything.  It’s just the facts.  It’s not easy to make the Christmas story boring, but Matthew just about manages it.  Why would Matthew choose to tell the story this way?
            I think part of the reason has to do with the way people looked at faith back then.  We’ve talked about this before, but in Old Testament Jewish society, emotions were not the main focus of faith.  Instead, the emphasis was on obedience.  It was on doing your duty to God.  You did what God wanted you to do because it was God who wanted you to do it.  God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-wise.  You are not.  So, if God said to do something, you were supposed to do it.  Period.
            And that seems to be the perspective Mary and Joseph had on this whole thing.  When Mary found out what was going to happen, she says “Let it be to me according to your word.”  When Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant, Joseph’s first thought was to do what he thought God would want him to do.  And when he found out the truth, he again tried to handle the situation the way God wanted him to, doing what the angel said.  The reason we’re not told what Joseph thought, or how he felt, is mentioned because to Matthew, none of that was important.  What was important, in the case of both Mary and Joseph, is that they obeyed God.  Mary and Joseph did their duty to God.
As I said, that’s kind of an Old Testament idea.  It kind of fell out of fashion later on.  It certainly has fallen out of fashion now.  Our life today is all about feelings.  It’s all about emotions.  Doing something we don’t want to do, because it’s our duty to do it, is not something we talk about very much.  We’re told we should follow our hearts.  We should do what makes us happy, not do things just because it’s our duty to do them.
            And don’t get me wrong, feelings and emotions are important.  When we talk about God’s love for us, that’s a feeling.  That’s an emotion.  And when we talk about loving God and loving others, we’re talking about feelings and emotions, too.  And I’m not suggesting that we should do things that will make us unhappy all our lives.
            But the thing is that our hearts are not always reliable guides.  Have you noticed that?  Have you ever followed your heart and discovered it led you down a path that was not all that great?  I suspect some of us have.  In fact, sometimes following our heart can take us to a place that it’s not good for us to go at all.  Sometimes, following our heart and doing what we thought would make us happy gets us into all kinds of trouble.  I think a lot of us, if we’re honest about it, can think of times when that’s happened.
            Being happy is important, no question about it.  But being happy is not the ultimate goal in life, at least not for a Christian.  For a Christian, the ultimate goal in life is to do God’s will.  The ultimate goal in life is to trust God and be faithful to God.  Now, I believe that doing God’s will and trusting God and being faithful to God will make us happy.  But even if sometimes it does not, it’s still what, as Christians, we’re supposed to do.
            Did agreeing to give birth to the Savior of the world make Mary happy?  Did she follow her heart when she did that?  We don’t know.  She knows it’s an honor.  She knows it’s a blessing, in a way.  But did it make her happy?  We’d like to think so, but we’re really not told.  Did having to go to Bethlehem when she was ninth months pregnant make Mary happy?  Was she following her heart when she did that?  I doubt it.  Did having to give birth in a barn make Mary happy?  Was she following her heart then?  Probably not.
And how about Joseph?  Did taking Mary as his wife in this situation make Joseph happy?  Did he follow his heart when he did that?  We don’t know.  We’d like to think so, of course, and we can make an argument that it did, but we really don’t know.  We’re not told how Joseph felt.  Later on, we’re told that Joseph had to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt for a while to get away from King Herod’s army.  Did that make Joseph happy?  Did Joseph follow his heart when he did that?  Probably not.  And of course, here was Joseph, trying to take care of a wife and raise a son that was not actually his.  Did that make him happy?  Was he following his heart then?  Again, we’d like to think so, but we really don’t know. 
That’s the thing.  We’re not told anything, anywhere in the Bible, about how Mary and Joseph felt about any of this.  All we’re told is that they did God’s will.  All we’re told is that they had faith and were obedient to God.
            And maybe that’s enough, you know?  Maybe that’s enough.  I’m not saying that we should shut our brains off and just follow things blindly.  God gave us brains and God expects us to use them.  I’m not saying we should ignore our feelings, either—our feelings came from God, too.  And it’s certainly all right to want to be happy—I don’t know anyone who does not want to be happy.
            But in the end, there are always going to be things we don’t understand, no matter how hard we try.  And there are always going to be times when our feelings are confused or lead us in the wrong direction.  And there are times when the things that make us happy in the short term will wind up being the exact wrong thing for us to do in the long term.
            And so, maybe just doing God’s will, just having faith and trusting God and being obedient to God, is enough.  Doing the will of God will never lead us in the wrong direction.  Trusting God will keep us headed in the right direction even when we don’t understand.  Being faithful to God may or may not make us happy in the short term, but being faithful to God will always be the right thing for us to do in the long term.
            I’m sure Mary and Joseph did not understand what was going on here, not really.  I would think their feelings must have been very confused.  And I would think that this whole situation did not make them all that happy.  It certainly was not the way they’d planned for their married life to start out.  But none of that mattered.  They put all of that aside.  They knew what God wanted them to do.  And they did it, no matter what their feelings or emotions might have been.  We don’t know whether Mary and Joseph followed their heart.  What we know that they did their duty.  Mary and Joseph did their duty to God.
            And it was enough.  It was enough for Matthew, when he wrote his gospel.  And it was enough for God.
            And it’s enough for us, too.  Trusting God, being obedient to God, being faithful to God, and doing our duty to God are enough for us.  We may or may not be following our hearts when we do that.  But we will be following God’s heart.  And God’s heart is always reliabl

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Bless the Lord?

Do you ever read the psalms?  I do.  Well, you probably guessed that.  It’s part of my job, really.  But as I was reading the psalms, I suddenly thought of something.  There’s a phrase that appears repeatedly in the psalms.  That phrase is this:  “bless the Lord”.

Sometimes it appears in just that form.  Sometimes it’s a variant, such as “I will bless the Lord” or “blessed be the name of the Lord” or something similar.  But the thought is the same:  you and I are to bless the Lord.

Did you ever think about what that means?  More importantly, did you ever wonder why we’re supposed to bless the Lord?  I mean, when we think of a blessing, we usually think of some good thing we’ve been given.  So, it’s easy to understand why we should thank God for the blessings God has given us.  But how are we supposed to bless the Lord?

Think about it.  What good thing could we ever give God?  God is all-powerful.  There is nothing we can do for God that God could not do without our help.  In fact, it would probably be easier for God to do things without our help.  Most of the time, you and I probably just get in the way.  God allows us to help, but that’s for our benefit, not for God’s benefit.  God does not need you or me to accomplish God’s purposes.

I can think of only one thing we can do for God that God cannot do without us.  We can give God love.

Love is the one thing we can give God that God cannot give himself.  I mean, God may well love Himself.  I don’t know.  That seems like a strange thing even to write, that God loves Himself.  But even if God does love Himself, loving yourself is not the same thing as getting love from others.  So it seems to me that the one way we can bless the Lord is to give the Lord our love.

So, in these days leading up to Christmas, let’s focus on that.  Let’s focus on giving God our love.  Not just saying the words--anyone can do that.  But really feeling love for God in our hearts.  And of course, if we really feel love in our hearts, that love will be shown in our actions.  So let’s feel love for God in our hearts, and let’s show that love in our actions.  Maybe, if we focus on it in these days leading up to Christmas, we’ll start to get into the habit of it and be able to continue it into the new year.

So let’s love the Lord our God.  Let’s bless the Lord.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Get Up and Do It!

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, December 10, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 1:18-25.

            A few years ago we conducted a tournament to see who the favorite Bible character of the parish was.  Mary, Jesus’ earthly mother, won the tournament.  Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, got knocked out a couple of rounds in.
            And that’s kind of the way we think of Mary and Joseph.  Mary gets all the publicity.  There’s way more in the Bible about Mary than there is about Joseph.  Joseph is around for the first couple of years of Jesus’ life, and then he’s never mentioned again.  Oh, there’s that story about Jesus at age twelve being left behind at the temple and his parents looking for him, but Joseph is not named in that story.  Mary is, but not Joseph.  
That’s really how the Bible tells the story.  Mary is the main parent of Jesus.  Joseph is just kind of an afterthought.  The gospel of Mark does not even mention him.  The gospel of John only makes a couple of references to “Jesus, the son of Joseph”.  
And here’s another thing.  Remember last week, when we talked about Mary?  We talked about a quote from Mary, what Mary said in response to the angel telling her she would be the mother of the Savior.  That’s not the only quote from Mary in the Bible.  In fact, later in Luke there’s an entire song from Mary.  You know how many quotes there are from Joseph in the Bible?  Zero.  None.  We are not given one sentence, one word, not even one syllable uttered by Joseph.  For all the Bible tells us, Joseph might never have said a word in his entire life.
But here’s the thing.  We may not know anything Joseph said.  But we know several things Joseph did.  And every time we’re told something Joseph did, Joseph obeyed God.  He did not hesitate.  He did not ask questions.  He simply did what the Lord told him to do.
Look at our reading for today.  Joseph finds out that Mary is going to have a child.  He’s not sure what he should do.  An angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him to go ahead and take Mary for his wife.  And we’re told, “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.”
Joseph heard from an angel a couple of other times.  When Herod is trying to have the young Jesus killed, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream again and tells him to take Mary and Jesus and go to Egypt.  And we’re told, “So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt.”
And when Herod died and it was okay for them to return, an angel again appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him to go back to Israel.  And we’re told, “So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.”
We’re never told anything Joseph said.  We’re never told anything Joseph thought.  We’re never told anything Joseph felt.  But we are told what Joseph did.  And each time, what we’re told is that Joseph was obedient to God.
I have to think that there were times Joseph really did not want to do what the angel was telling him to do.  It could not have been easy to take Mary for his wife.  Even assuming he loved Mary, there were still going to be all the questions, all the rumors, all the gossip about the two of them, with Mary getting pregnant before they were married.  
It could not have been easy to take Mary and Jesus and go to Egypt.  Think about it.  They were leaving behind everything they owned other than what they could carry.  They were going to a place where they probably did not know anyone.  They may not even have known the language.  Would they be accepted there?  What were they going to do there?  How would Joseph make enough money to take care of his family?  Where would they find a place to live?  This was quite a thing Joseph was told to do.  And he got up and did it.
And it could not have been easy to go back to Israel, either.  We’re not told how long they were in Egypt, but people think it may have been up to two years.  Think about that.  They’d probably gotten established in Egypt by that time.  Joseph may have even had a good business for himself as a carpenter.  And now, here they are, having to leave everything behind again.  Yes, they were going home, but it had been a long time since they’d been there.  Would they be accepted when they came home?  Would Joseph be able to re-establish his business?  Were they going to have to find a different place to live, again?  But again, Joseph did not let any of that stop him.  An angel of the Lord told him to do something, and he got up and did it.
Joseph did not know what was going to happen when he did all these things.  The angel did not tell him the future.  The angel does not say that after Jesus is born they’ll need to go to Egypt, and they’ll be there a couple of years, and then they’ll be able to come home again.  In fact, the angel does not give him any assurances at all.  The angel never says, “Don’t worry, God will protect you.”  The angel never says, “God will reward you for your faith.”  The angel never even says, “God will be with you wherever you go.”  The angel just tells Joseph, “Do this.”  And Joseph gets up and does it.
And when you think about it, what we get up and do is really the bottom line of our faith.  It’s not about what we say.  It’s not about what we think.  It’s not about what we feel.  It’s about what we do.  Faith is acting in obedience with what the Lord wants us to do.
Now don’t get me wrong.  Our words are important.  But if our actions don’t back up our words, our words are meaningless.  Our thoughts are important.  But if we don’t put our thoughts into actions, our thoughts are meaningless.  Our feelings are important.  But if our feelings are not translated into actions, our feelings are meaningless.
This is what the apostle James was getting at when he made the statement, which I’m sure many of you have heard, that faith without works is dead.  It’s important to have good thoughts and good feelings, but if we stop there, our thoughts and feelings are worthless.  They don’t do anyone any good.  Our thoughts and feelings are only worth something if they’re translated into actions.
You’ve probably noticed that I often pray for God to lead us and to guide us.  I believe that God wants to lead us and guide us.  But God leading us won’t do any good if we don’t follow where God is leading us.  God guiding us won’t help if we don’t go the way God is guiding us to go.
It’s not always easy.  It was not always easy for Joseph.  It’s not always easy for you and me, either.  It takes a lot of faith to truly put our lives in God’s hands.  It takes a lot of courage, sometimes, to do the tough things God sometimes asks us to do.  It takes a lot of trust to go wherever God wants us to go, to do whatever God wants us to do.  
Joseph followed where God led him.  Joseph went the way God guided him.  And these were some incredibly important things God was leading Joseph to do.  Think about it.  Just like we said about Mary last week, Joseph does not appear to have been anyone special or powerful or important.  And here he was, this ordinary, common man, trying to protect his family.  Protecting the life of the Savior of the world!  And who was he protecting them from?  Common, ordinary Joseph, this one guy, is protecting his family from King Herod.  A powerful king with a big army who would’ve had Joseph killed without even thinking twice about it.
The Bible appears to treat Joseph as an afterthought.  But if you think about what Joseph did, you can see that he was not an afterthought at all.  God chose Joseph to be the earthly father of Jesus.  God put every bit as much thought and care into the selection of Joseph as God did with the selection of Mary.  The obedience of Joseph, the faith of Joseph, were incredibly important in the story of Jesus.  Joseph’s faith, expressed through his actions, is every bit as amazing as the faith of Mary that we talked about last week.
There are things that God wants you to do.  And there are things God wants me to do, too.  We may not always know what they are, but a lot of times, we do.  We probably don’t know our entire future, just as Joseph did not know his entire future.  But a lot of times, we do know what the next step is that God wants us to take.  The question is what our response would be.
Once Joseph found out the next step, he got up and did what God wanted him to do.  May we have the faith, and the courage, and the trust, that Joseph had.  May we be obedient to God.  May we see what God wants us to do, and may we get up and do it.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Christmas: Now More Than Ever

Do you ever watch the news and wonder what in the world is going on these days?  For a while, it seemed like every week brought another natural disaster:  hurricanes, earthquakes, forest fires, etc.  Now, it seems like almost every day brings an allegation of sexual misconduct among famous people, including some of our governmental leaders.  In between, we have constant threats of war, threats of terrorism, mass shootings and attempted mass shootings, constant turmoil in Washington, D. C., and all kinds of other things that make us just shake our heads.  And just yesterday, natural disasters took another turn in the spotlight with a major fire in California.

And now, in the middle of all this, here comes Christmas.  A time when we celebrate the birth of the Savior.  The Light of the World.  The Prince of Peace.

It seems incongruous.  It doesn’t seem to fit, somehow.  With all this stuff going on, it doesn’t seem like there is much light in the world.  There doesn’t seem to be much room for a prince of peace.  The forces of darkness seem to be winning.  How can we celebrate Christmas when everything in the world seems to be going wrong?

The thing is, this is the time when we need to celebrate Christmas all the more.  This is the time when we need the hope of the Savior more than ever.  This is the time we need to keep our faith all the stronger.  This is the time we need to keep the love of God front and center all the more.

Because if there’s one thing I know, it’s that human beings are not going to solve all these problems by ourselves.  Don’t get me wrong, we have a role to play.  I’m not suggesting we should just sit back and do nothing.  We always need to do whatever we can to make the world better.  That’s part of what loving our neighbor is all about. 

But a lot of these problems (not the natural disasters, obviously, but the others) are the result of human nature.  The bad side of human nature, but still, human nature.  We are, as human beings, imperfect, broken, fallen, sinful people.  I’m not saying we’re all evil.  The thing is, human beings have the capacity for great good and for great evil.  In the darkest times, the good that is in human beings cannot be completely done away with.  But in the best times, the evil that is in human beings cannot be completely done away with, either.  Evil is still lurking within us, waiting for a chance to come back and take control.

So the only way the world is really going to change is for human nature to change.  And the only way human nature can change is for God to bring about that change.

That’s why we need to celebrate Christmas now more than ever.  Because Christmas is proof that God can change the world.  We know God can change the world because God already did change the world.  That, in essence, is what we celebrate at Christmas:  God changing the world.  God proving God’s love to us.  God sending a Savior to give us a chance for forgiveness and salvation and eternal life.  God telling us that we don’t have to live in sin and misery.  We can have new life, both in this world and in the next one.  All we need to do is what Jesus told us to do.  All we need to do is accept Jesus as our Savior, show that acceptance by loving God and show that love by loving our neighbors and spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.

God has changed the world.  And God is going to change the world again.  If all of us, as Christians, do our part, we know God will do God’s part.  And the world will change again, in ways that we cannot even imagine.

So celebrate the birth of the Savior.  Have faith in the Prince of Peace.  Because Jesus is still the Light of the World.  As John 1:5 says, “That light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  And it never will.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Amazing Faith

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, December 3, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Luke 1:26-38.

            What we read today is one of the most-loved Bible passages of the Christmas season.  It’s one of my favorites, too.  It’s a story of a miracle, of course.  It’s a story of an ordinary woman being called to do something extraordinary.  But at its heart, this is a story of great faith and of great trust.
            Let’s look at Mary.  Now, you will read in some places the unequivocal statement that Mary was a young woman, really still a girl, barely into her teens.  And that’s possible.  It would not have been uncommon for a young, teenage girl to be engaged to be married at that time.  But we have no real way to know that.  She certainly was not elderly, because she was still alive more than thirty years later when Jesus died on the cross.  But there’s nothing that says Mary could not have been in her twenties or even in her thirties.  We simply do not know.
            But regardless of her age, here she is.  For all that we can tell, she was an ordinary person.  We’re not given any indication that her family was wealthy or important or special in any way.  The one thing we’re told is that she was a relative of Elizabeth, who was about to become the mother of John the Baptist.  But that’s it.  Again, as far as we can tell, Mary was simply an ordinary person, with nothing at all remarkable about her.
            So she’s going about her daily business, and suddenly an angel appears in front of her.  And the angel says, “Greetings, you who are highly favored!  The Lord is with you.”
            We’re told that Mary was greatly troubled at his words, and wondered what kind of greeting that might be.  I would think she was all that and then some.  Can you imagine how you’d feel?  You’re doing whatever you do every day, and all of a sudden an angel appears?  And apparently there was no doubt in Mary’s mind that this was an angel.  We don’t know how she knew, but she clearly knew.  Her mind must have been spinning.  What in the world is going on?  What does an angel want with me?  Why would I be highly favored?  What does that even mean, that I’m highly favored?  What’s this all about?
            The angel apparently knows what Mary’s feeling, because the angel goes on to tell Mary not to be afraid because she’s found favor with God.  And the angel then says the words we hear every year around this time.  “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
            Mary’s head must have still been spinning.  Can you imagine how you’d feel?  An angel comes along, out of the blue, and tells you that you’re going to have a son.  And not only that, but your son is going to be incredible.  He will be called great and the Son of the Most High.  He’ll have the throne of David.  He will reign forever.
            Now, if Mary believed this--and since she apparently knew she was talking to an angel she probably did believe it--this had to be incredible news.  But still, imagine it.  How would you feel if you were told that your son, who was not even born yet, was going to be called great, the Son of the Most High?  That he’ll have a throne and will reign forever?  Angel or not, you’d have to wonder how in the world this was all going to happen.
            And Mary wonders about all that.  But she goes a step before that.  She says, hey, wait a minute.  You’re talking about me having a son, and I’m a virgin.  How is this going to happen?
            The angel, of course, answers with some more familiar words.  “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.  So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”
            And then comes the part that always amazes me.  Mary answers, “I am the Lord’s servant.  May it be to me according to your word.”
            To me, this is more amazing than the virgin birth.  I mean, the virgin birth is a miracle, and it is amazing.  But as Christians, we know that God can do amazing things.  God can do miracles.  I don’t mean to take anything away from God, but God’s in the miracle business.  It’s what God does.  It’s who God is.
            But Mary.  Mary was an ordinary person.  And she is told all these incredible, unbelievable things by an angel.  And I don’t know that she really understood any of it.  She almost certainly did not understand how all this stuff could possibly happen.  I don’t imagine she knew all the hardships that awaited her, either.  And yet, she goes along with it.  And she does so willingly, obediently, with no complaint whatsoever.  She says, “I am the Lord’s servant.  May it be to me according to your word.”  That’s pretty amazing.  That’s an amazing faith.
            What if Mary had said no?  Have you ever thought about that?  Because I assume she could have.  There’s nothing in the Bible reading that indicates God was going to force Mary to do this even if she did not want to.  What if she’d said no?  Would the angel have done more to try to convince her?  Would the angel have crossed Mary’s name off the list and gone on to a second choice?  What would’ve happened?
            Well, we’ll never know.  And while I do believe Mary could’ve said no, I also believe she was chosen by God because God knew she was not going to say no.  God knew that Mary was the right choice.  And while I’m sure Mary had all kinds of good qualities that made her the right choice, one of the main one was the amazing faith Mary had.  Mary, this ordinary person with extraordinary faith, would be willing to say yes to something she did not understand.  And she would never regret her choice.  No matter what happened to her, no matter how hard the road was, no matter what other people thought or did, she would still do what God wanted her to do.  She would trust God enough to follow God down any road God wanted her to go, no matter where that road might lead.
            And it was probably not an easy road.  We know the story of Jesus’ birth in a stable, but there’d have been a lot of tough things before that.  How’s Joseph going to react to this story?  Is he going to believe it?  Would you?  If you were a guy engaged to a woman, and she tells you she’s pregnant, and you know the child cannot be yours, would you believe that she had never been unfaithful to you, that this was a child that was being born of the Holy Spirit?  
            And what about the rest of your family?  What about your friends?  What about all the people in town?  Every time you walk down the street, hearing the whispers, being shunned by all the so-called “respectable” people.  Maybe even telling some of them your story, and having none of them ever believe you.  Basically being an outcast among people you’d known all your life.  That would be an incredibly hard thing.
            But Mary did it.  She put up with all of it.  And as far as we can tell, she never regretted her decision to do it.  She had put her complete faith and trust in God.  She knew that this was all happening because she was following God’s will.  And she knew that God would take care of her, and make everything work out the way it was supposed to, no matter how hard things might get.  Through it all, Mary continued to put her complete faith and trust in God.  She continued to have her amazing faith.
            But when you think about it, what Mary did is what each of us is called to do.  We may not have a conversation with an angel.  But we are called to follow God’s will.  We are called to put our complete faith and trust in God.  You and I are called to have amazing faith, too.
            And we’re called to do that no matter what God’s will is.  We’re called to do that even if God’s will is something incredible, something that seems impossible.  We’re called to do that even if we don’t really understand what God’s will is.  We’re called to do that even if we don’t understand how hard things are going to be.  We’re called to do that even if things get really, really hard.  We’re still called to follow God’s will.  We’re still called to go down whatever road God leads us down.  And we’re still called to trust that, if God is leading us down a road, then it must be the right one.  We’re called to continue down that road as long as God wants us to, no matter where that road takes us.  We’re called to put our complete faith and trust in God.  You and I are called to have amazing faith.
            It’s not an easy thing to do.  Because God sometimes does call us to do some hard things.  God never promises that our lives will be easy if we follow God.  Mary’s life was not easy.  Jesus’ life was not easy.  Most of the greatest heroes of the Bible led lives that were not easy.  But no matter how hard it got, they continued to follow God’s will.  They continued to put their complete faith and trust in God.
            Mary was an ordinary person.  But she had an amazing faith.  She put her complete faith and trust in God.  She followed the road God led her down, no matter how hard it got.  And she did so willingly, never regretting her choice to say yes to God.
            You and I are ordinary people.  But we can put our complete faith and trust in God, too.  We can follow the road God leads us down, no matter how hard it gets.  And we can do so willingly, too, never regretting our choice to say yes to God.  You and I can have what Mary had.  We can have amazing faith.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Drifting Away

So last week I took almost three days completely off.  I did a few things Wednesday morning, and helped with the Onida community Thanksgiving service at noon.  But after that, I did not come back to the church until Saturday.  I went to Armour and spent Thanksgiving with my parents.  We came back Thursday night, but Friday we went to Pierre and did some shopping and some visiting.  We did visit some people from the parish, so some of it could be considered work, I suppose.  Still, I was completely out of my routine.  I left the church on Wednesday at 11:00 a.m. and did not come back until Saturday morning.

I found it kind of hard to get back into my routine when I came back.  Don’t get me wrong about that.  I still very much enjoy the things that I do as pastor, and that includes the office work.  I did not resent having to go back and do it.  I just felt kind of--off.  Like it was strange to be back in the office after a few days away.  Like something was not quite right, somehow, even though I did not know what or why.

You know what got me back on the beam?  It’ll probably seem obvious once I tell you.  Prayer.  I have a regular prayer time during the morning.  It’s actually a prayer walk--I walk around the outside of the church, praying as I go.  During that prayer time, I got back in touch with God, and I felt right about doing my office work again.

I realized, at that moment, that I really hadn’t prayed very much while I’d been gone.  I’d said prayers during meals.  I’d prayed briefly at various times.  But I had not had a concentrated prayer time where I could really focus on feeling close to God.  And because I had not done that, I had drifted away.  Not far away, but the process had started.  I needed to have that concentrated prayer time to feel close to God again.

It’s amazing how easy it is for us to drift away from God, and how quickly it can happen.  It was only two and a half days, and it’s not even like I had totally ignored God in those two and a half days.  I had not intentionally moved away from God.  I had simply drifted away, without even realizing I was doing it.  In the short time of two and a half days, I had drifted away, and I needed to get back.

Do you ever start to drift away from God?  As I found out, it’s easy to have it happen.  It happens without us meaning to let it happen.  It can happen without us even realizing it’s happening.  Maybe you’ve had it happen to you.  Maybe it’s happening to you now.

If it is, pray.  Get back in touch with God.  Find some time for some concentrated prayer, where you can focus on feeling close to God.  It does not necessarily have to take a long time.  It might, but it might not.  It takes however long it takes.  But try it.  Try going to God and truly opening yourself up to God.  I suspect if you do, you’ll start to feel close to God again.  That feeling of having drifted away will be gone.  You’ll feel God with you again, leading you, guiding you, helping you through life.

It’s easy to drift away from God.  But it’s not that hard to get back.  God wants to be close to you.  Focus on getting close to God again.  

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Waiting for God

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, November 26, 2017.  The Bible verses used are John 1:1-18.

            This is kind of an unusual year.  Most of the time, the Sunday after Thanksgiving is the first Sunday of Advent.  But this year, just because of the way the calendar falls, we have a Sunday in between Thanksgiving and Advent.  It’s kind of strange.  Thanksgiving is over, but Advent is not here yet.  So, while we might like to start celebrating the coming of the Savior, we have to wait.
            As I thought about that, I thought about how long the people of Israel waited for the Savior to come.  Old Testament prophecies about the coming of the Messiah go back at least to seven hundred B. C., maybe earlier.  That means the people of Israel had been waiting for the Savior to come for at least seven hundred years.
            And we’ve talked about this before, but sometimes, when we look back this far into history, we lose sight of how long a time seven hundred years is.  In our minds, it all kinds of falls into the category of “a long time ago”.  We don’t think about how long it was between seven hundred B. C. and the coming of Christ.
            Think of it this way.  Seven hundred years ago was 1317.  Seven hundred years ago most people thought the world was flat.  Seven hundred years ago there were no gasoline-powered engines, no steam engines, no power of any kind, really, other than human power and horse power.  And I mean actual power from horses, or donkeys, or oxen, or whatever animal you might have.  Seven hundred years ago there was no such thing as the printing press.  Anything that was written was written by hand.  Seven hundred years ago Europeans had no idea that there was such a thing as the Americas.  That’s how long seven hundred years is.
            And that’s how long the people of Israel had been waiting for the Savior to come.  And of course, during that time, there were lots of false Saviors.  There were lots of people who claimed to be the Savior who were not.  There were lots of people in whom the people of Israel invested their hope, only to be disappointed.
            I’m sure some people probably gave up.  I mean, seven hundred years is a very long time to wait for something.  We think seven years is a long time to wait.  In fact, sometimes we think seven months or seven weeks or even seven days is a long time to wait.  Waiting for seven hundred years--I don’t think you and I can even imagine what that’s like, to wait that long for the promise of God to be fulfilled.
            And even after Jesus came, a lot of people had a hard time believing it.  And if we think about it, we can understand why.  I mean, have you ever really, really wanted something to happen, and you kept waiting and hoping for it to happen, and then it finally did, and you had trouble believing it?  You had to pinch yourself.  You had to keep reminding yourself.  You just could not believe that this thing you had wanted for so long was actually real.
            That’s the position some of the people of Israel were in.  They wanted to believe Jesus was the Savior, but--could it really be true?  After all this time--seven hundred years--could he really be the one we’ve been waiting for?  After all the disappointments, all the false Saviors we put our hope in only to find out it was not true--could Jesus really be the one we’ve been waiting for at last?
            That’s the context the apostle John was dealing with when he wrote his gospel.  Yes, there were some who already believed, but there were a lot who did not.  They could not believe that, after seven hundred years, the one they had waited for had finally come.
            And so, John starts his gospel by trying to explain to people who Jesus was.  And what does he say?  Well, we’ll get to it in a minute, but first, we need to deal with how John refers to Jesus.  He calls Jesus “the Word” and later calls him “the Word made flesh”.  In other words, Jesus was sent to earth as God’s message, God’s truth, God’s word to us.  So in that Bible reading, when you hear the phrase “the Word”, know that he’s referring to Jesus.
So what does John say?  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Jesus existed from the beginning.  In other words, when Genesis says “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”, Jesus was there.  And it’s not that Jesus was there with God, it’s that Jesus is God, God the Son.  Jesus is not some guy who was born two thousand years ago.  Jesus is eternal, because God is eternal.  Jesus existed before this world was ever created.  Jesus will exist after this world is gone.  Jesus always was, always is, and always will be.  That’s who Jesus is.
And the reason that’s important, or at least one of the reasons why it’s important, is to explain why they had to wait seven hundred years for the Savior to come.  As we said, seven hundred years is an incredibly long time for us.  When your life span is, at best, a hundred years or so, seven hundred years seems like a really long time.  But when you’re eternal, seven hundred years is nothing.  It’s the blink of an eye.  Psalm Ninety tells us that a thousand years are like a day that has just gone by to God.  So seven hundred years, to God, is really no big deal.
There are a lot of other things John said in our Bible reading today.  Jesus is the true light.  As John puts it, “the true light that gives light to everything was coming into the world.”  “To all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God--children...born of God.”  There are a lot of good sermons in that passage we read this morning.
But I want to keep the focus on that time of waiting.  Seven hundred years, at least, from the time of the first prophecy of the Savior to the time Jesus came.  And let me tell you why.
The Bible tells us some things about the second coming of Jesus.  Not as much as we’d like to know, but some things.  And one of the things it tells us is that, in its own words, Jesus second coming will be “soon”.
Now, it does not define “soon”.  But most of us would think it means sometime before two thousand years have gone by.  And so, people wonder about that statement.  If Jesus was supposed to come again “soon”, where is he?  Why has he not come yet?
And when we look around at the world right now, we see a lot of things that make us think maybe it’s about time.  Look at all the disasters we’ve had in the world.  For a while there, it seemed like there was not a week that went by without a hurricane, or an earthquake, or a big forest fire, or a devastating mudslide, or something.  And look at all the threats of war.  Look at all the accusations of immorality about our elected leaders.  We see all that, and sometimes we think “If Jesus is going to come again and set things right, maybe it’s about time he did it.”  We wonder why God has, for so long, allowed so many things to happen that just do not seem right.  We wonder why God does not step in and do something about it.  We wonder what God could be waiting for.
But the thing to remember is that we have no idea what “soon” may mean to God.  Two thousand years?  Two thousand years is nothing to God.  Two thousand years is the day before yesterday, or the day after tomorrow.  Two thousand years is an incredibly long time on a human scale, but it’s nothing on God’s eternal scale.
We don’t know how much longer it will be.  It could be another two thousand years.  It could be another two hundred thousand years.  Or it could be two hours.  We don’t know.
And so, we wait.  We don’t know how long we’ll be waiting, just like the people waiting for the first coming did not know how long they’d be waiting.  We wonder if it’ll come in our lifetime, just like the people waiting for the first coming wondered if it would happen in their lifetime.  And sometimes we’re tempted to give up, just like people waiting for the first coming were tempted to give up.
But don’t give up.  Because Jesus is coming again.  And we need to be ready.  Even if Jesus does not come in our lifetimes, we still need to be ready.  Because if Jesus does not come to earth in our lifetimes, we will go to meet him.  And we need to be ready for that, too.  Because we don’t know when that day is going to come, either.  But we know it is going to come.
            In human terms, it took a long time for the Savior to come.  Seven hundred years or more after the first prophecy.  People did not understand why it took so long.  Some of them gave up.  But the Savior did come, and the world changed forever because of it.
            In human terms, it’s taking a long time for Jesus to come again.  Two thousand years since the first mention of it.  Some people don’t understand why it’s taking so long.  Some people are tempted to give up.  But the Savior will come again, and again the world will change forever.
            May we all be ready for that day when it comes.