Search This Blog

Sunday, January 29, 2017

More Than Goodness

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, January 29, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 2:13-23.

            The Bible makes clear many times that Jesus did not have an easy life.  What we don’t stop and think about a lot of times is how hard his life was right from the beginning.  We don’t think about how hard Mary and Joseph’s life was at that time, either, or why it was that way.
            As we continue our sermon series, “Beyond the Manger”, looking at the early life of Jesus, we pick up the story right where we left off with it last week.  The wise men had come to see Jesus.  Herod had told the wise men to come and report to him where the young Jesus was, but the wise men were warned in a dream not to do that, so they went home a different way.
            As you might guess, that made Herod pretty upset.  Herod was the king, and he did not want to hear about some other king who might come some day to claim the throne.  So, Herod decided to take care of the problem before it came up.  Herod knew, from what the wise men had told him, that the new king was no more than two years old.  So, Herod decided to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were age two or younger.  That way he’d be certain to get the new king.  He’d get a lot of innocent kids too, of course, but Herod was not concerned about that.  All he cared about was that he make sure there was no other king around who could take power away from him.
            Of course, it did not work.  An angel appeared to Joseph and told him to take his family to Egypt, where they could get away from Herod.  So, in the dead of night, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, who probably was about two years old at this time, left Bethlehem and headed to Egypt.
            It was probably a hundred miles or more that they had to travel.  They most likely walked the whole way, carrying what few possessions they took with them.  Probably carrying Jesus, too, because again, he was only two years old or so.  It was definitely not an easy trip.
            And the thing is that when they got to Egypt, things probably did not get any better.  We’re not told anything about their time there, but think about it.  They were in a foreign country.  They had no particular rights there.  They probably did not speak the language.  They had no knowledge of local customs.  And most likely, they had not money, either, and very few possessions.  What do you do, if you’re Joseph?  How do you take care of your family?  And in case you’ve forgotten, that family happens to include the new king, the Messiah, the Son of God, the Savior of the world.
            Now, Joseph and Mary were good people.  But they had to be wondering what in the world was going on, don’t you think?  I mean, here they were.  A few years ago they were just two ordinary people living in Nazareth.  Two ordinary people planning to live an ordinary life.  They’d get married, they’d have some kids.  Joseph would make a good living for the family as a carpenter.  They’d be good people, well thought of in the community.  They’d live in Nazareth and probably die in Nazareth, hopefully after many long, happy years together.  A simple plan, but a good plan.  A plan for a good, quiet, happy life.
            And then God comes along.  And all of a sudden first Mary, and then Joseph, find out God wants them to be the earthly parents of the Savior.  And they’re a little bit skeptical at first, but they say yes.
            And then, all of a sudden, their lives are turned upside down.  They have to leave Nazareth and go to Bethlehem.  They can’t find a place to stay, and the Savior is born in a barn.  Finally, they get things together and they start to make a life in Bethlehem, and now they have to literally run for their lives.  They have to take this long, hard, treacherous trip, because that’s the only way their son will survive.  They have to go to Egypt, not knowing the language, not knowing anyone there, not knowing what in the world they’ll do when they get there.  
We’re not told how they felt about any of this, but it seems like they must have been scared to death.  Their plan for a good, quiet, happy life together was shot to smithereens.  They’ve had to endure all this hardship, all this misery.  They’ve had to be on the run, scared for their lives.  And none of this was their fault.  None of it was because they’d done anything wrong.  In fact, it was because they’d done things right.  They were in his mess precisely because they had chosen to follow God.
Think about that for a minute.  If Mary and Joseph had chosen to disobey God, to ignore the angel, none of this would’ve happened to them.  If they’d told the angel Gabriel to get lost, to go pound sand, to find somebody else, they would not have had to go to Egypt.  Most likely, they’d have been able to live that good, quiet, happy life they’d planned for themselves in Nazareth.  Their lives were going exactly the way they wanted them to go before God came along.  Then they surrendered their lives to God..  And life became a big, complicated mess.
Now, don’t get me wrong.  As far as we know, Mary and Joseph were faithful Jews before all this happened.  They were not bad, sinful people, or at least no more so than any of the rest of us are.  They were good people.  They did the best they could to live good lives.  But their troubles came about when they went from just doing their best to live good lives to specifically trying to do what God wanted them to do.  Their troubles came when they stopped just trying to be “good people” and started trying to surrender every aspect of their lives to God.
Which is precisely why so many of us have trouble so many of us have trouble doing that.  See, when our goal is just to be “good people”, we retain control over our lives.  We decide where we’re going to go, what we’re going to do, and when we’re going to do it.  But when we go beyond that, when we surrender every aspect of our lives to God, we give up that control.  We do what God wants us to do when God wants us to do it.  And that scares us.  If we surrender every aspect of our lives to God, who knows where that might lead?  It might do what it did to Mary and Joseph.  It might turn our lives upside down and make them a big, complicated mess.  We don’t want that.
Understand, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being a good person.  God wants us to be good people.  But that’s not all God wants.  God wants more from us than that.
When we look in the gospels, we can see that just being a good person is not enough.  In Mark Ten, Jesus meets a guy who wants eternal life.  And the guy says, I’ve done the things I’m supposed to do.  I’ve kept the commandments:  don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t give false testimony, don’t defraud, honor your father and mother.  I’ve done all that.  But what do I need to do for eternal life?  And Jesus tells him he needs to give up everything he has, to give up keeping control of his life, and follow Jesus.
In Luke Eighteen, Jesus tells about a guy who fasts twice a week, and gives a tenth of what he makes to the temple.  And Jesus says, that’s not enough.  It’s not enough for him to be a good person.  The guy needs to ask for God’s mercy.  He needs to give up control.  He needs to surrender his life to God.
Again, we should be good people.  But we should not settle for just being good people.  And it’s so tempting to do that.  I do it all the time.  It makes things so much easier if we just focus on trying to be good people, rather than focusing on surrendering our lives to God.
What if Mary and Joseph had done that?  What if they had just settled for being good people, rather than surrendering their lives to God?  They probably would’ve stayed in Nazareth.  Eventually, Joseph would probably have been one of the town elders.  He’d have been respected in the community.  So would Mary.  Everyone would’ve thought they were good people.  But they would not have been the earthly parents of the Savior.  We would never have heard of them.
Did you ever think that maybe, just maybe, the angel Gabriel might have gone to someone else before going to Mary?  Maybe, possibly, Gabriel asked someone else to be Jesus’ mother, and they said no.  The Bible does not say that, but the Bible does not specifically say that it did not happen, either.  Is it possible that someone else had the chance to be the earthly mother of Jesus, but refused?  That person was probably a good person, but they were willing to settle for being a good person.  They were not willing to surrender their life to God.
We often pray that God will help us open our hearts and our souls so that God’s Spirit can come in.  This is what we’re talking about when we pray that.  We’re praying for God to help us go beyond just being good people.  We’re praying for God to help us go where God wants us to go and do what God wants us to do.  We’re praying for God to help us do that even when the road God leads us on is a hard one.  Even when it leads to a place we did not want to go and never would’ve gone on our own.  Even when it takes us on a long trip where we don’t know whether we’re going to get there and have no idea what we’re going to do when we do get there.
Being a good person is important.  But if we truly want to call ourselves Christians, we need to follow Jesus Christ.  That means being a good person is not enough.  If we want to call ourselves Christians, we need to give up control of our lives and surrender them to Jesus.
It’s not easy.  But we can do it.  Mary and Joseph were ordinary people, and they did it.  With God’s help, we can do it, too.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017


I’m wearing new socks today.  And you say, so what?  But you know, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of wearing new socks.  New socks feel different from socks you’ve worn before.  I can’t really explain in what way they feel different, they just do.  They just feel so right, so comfortable, so perfect.  It’s a really neat feeling.  I’d wear new socks every day if I could.

But of course, I can’t.  I can’t afford it, for one thing.  For another, it would be wasteful and, quite frankly, silly to wear a pair of socks once and throw them away.  So, I do what everybody does.  I wash my socks and wear them, and wash them again and wear them again, numerous times.  But you know, the second time you wear a pair of socks, it just doesn’t feel the same.  It feels like, well, just another pair of socks.  That specialness, that newness, is gone.  And they’ll never have it again.

You know, somebody really should invent something that would make old socks feel like new again.  I’d buy it, if it didn’t cost too much.  Maybe President Trump can get on that.  Let’s make socks great again!

This may seem like a stretch to you (stretch--socks--get it?), but I think our lives can be a little bit like that.  We start out brand new, as babies.  And we’re different from everyone else who’s ever been born.  And when we’re born, we’re sinless and perfect.

But we don’t stay sinless and perfect.  We start to make choices, and sometimes we make bad ones.  Sin enters our lives.  We get selfish, or we get lazy, or we do any of a number of other things that keep us from being the people we’re supposed to be, the people we once were.  We’re no longer those sinless, perfect people any more.  We just people.  Flawed, sinful, imperfect people.

But unlike a pair of socks, we don’t have to stay that way.  We can get back to the way we were.  All we need to do is go to God, repent of our sins, and ask for forgiveness.  When we do that, God washes away all of our sins.  But when God washes us, it’s better than Tide or Gain or anything else.  We not only are clean, we can be brand new again.  It’s a really cool thing.  I can’t really explain it adequately.  But it’s true.

So the next time you put on your socks, think about how they felt when they were new.  And think about how you felt when you were new.  Because you can have that feeling again.  Just go to God, repent of your sins, and ask for forgiveness.  And you’ll feel even better than if you’d just put on a new pair of socks.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017


I did the public address announcing at the Battler Invitational wrestling tournament a week and a half ago.  I enjoy public address announcing, but a phenomenon took place that I’ve noticed at other events that I’ve done public address announcing for.  There were several times when people came up and asked me questions about the tournament, even though I was not a tournament official.  The phenomenon is this:  if you have a microphone in front of you, people assume you must be well-informed and know what you’re talking about.

This was not true in this case.  I really don’t understand wrestling and probably knew less about it than anyone else there.  But because I had a microphone in front of me, people assumed I must know all there was to know about it.

I think this happens more often than we’d like to admit.  You go to a public meeting, and someone’s introduced as an expert on a particular topic.  You don’t know him, you don’t know anything about him, you don’t know much of anything about the subject he’s talking about.  But he’s up there with a microphone in front of him, so he must really be an expert, right?  Or we turn on the TV and see a politician talking about something.  We don’t know whether he really knows what he’s talking about, but we don’t know much about it, and he’s up there, he’s in front of a camera, and he has a microphone in front of him, so he must be an expert.  Or we turn on a talk show and somebody’s talking about something.  We don’t know whether they know what they’re talking about, we may not even know who they are, but we don’t know much about the subject, and they’re up there in front of a camera with a microphone in front of them, so they must be an expert, right?

That applies to pastors sometimes, too.  Look at me on Sunday morning.  I’m standing behind a pulpit.  I have a microphone in front of me.  A lot of times, that’s enough for people to assume I’m well-informed and I know what I’m talking about, whether I actually do or not.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I do try to know what I’m talking about.  I do think about these things and I have reasons for what I say.  But I certainly wouldn’t consider myself an “expert”.  I try, but I make plenty of mistakes.

The point is that we should never just blindly accept something someone says simply because they’re an expert.  God gave each one of us a brain, and God expects us to use it.  If an “expert” tells you something that doesn’t make sense to you, don’t believe it just because they’re in front of a microphone or a camera.  Don’t automatically dismiss it either, of course.  But think about it.  Check things out.  Get yourself informed.  Maybe, when you look into it farther, you’ll decide that what the expert said was right.  Or maybe you’ll decide that the expert was full of baloney.  But either way, you’ll know what you think and why you think it.  That’s much better than believing something just because an “expert” told you to.

There are a lot of frauds in the world.  There are also a lot of people who are well-intentioned, but are simply wrong about a lot of things.  And there are a lot of people in both of those categories who seem to be able to get behind microphones and in front of TV cameras.  So be sure to use the brain God gave you the way God intended you to use it.  Don’t believe anything just because an “expert” said it.  Do your homework.  Become informed.  And make your own decisions.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Jesus Is The King

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, January 22, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 2:1-12.

            So if you’re not aware of our current sermon series, you probably wonder what in the world that pastor is up to.  We’re almost a month after Christmas, and here we are talking about the wise men.  What’s up with that?
            Well, our sermon series is “Beyond the Manger”, looking at the early life of Jesus, to the extent we know about it.  We talked about the circumcision of Jesus and his presentation at the temple when he was forty days old.  So this is the next thing we know about--the visit of the wise men to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.
            We usually talk about this story in the context of the nativity scene, with Mary and Joseph still at the stable and Jesus still a baby in the manger.  But as some of you know, that’s not the way most people think it actually happened.  After the wise men saw the star, it took them a while to figure out where they were headed, and then to get to Jerusalem and talk to Herod, and then to get to Bethlehem and find Jesus.  The generally accepted view is that Jesus might have been as much as two years old when the wise men finally got to Bethlehem.
            That, of course, means that Mary and Joseph and Jesus all stayed in Bethlehem for as many as two years.  We don’t know why they stayed there that long.  After all, the reason they went from Nazareth to Bethlehem was because of the census.  Did the census really take two years?  Or was there some other reason they stayed that long?  And when they left Nazareth, did they know they were going to be gone for two years?  Or did they think they’d be coming back soon?  There are all kinds of questions we can think of about all this, and we don’t have any answers to them.
What we do know is an interesting story.  We have these wise men, or magi as our verses call them.  They want to worship the new king, whose star they’ve seen.  They go to Jerusalem and tell King Herod about it.  The king was worried, he asked his advisers where the Messiah would be born and found out it would be Bethlehem.  So, the king sent the Magi to Bethlehem to find the new king and report back to him.  They found the king, they worshiped him, they gave him gifts.  Then they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, and they went home.
            And that’s it for the wise men.  We know nothing more about them.  They don’t show up anywhere else in the Bible.  They’re not even in any of the other gospels.  What’s in these twelve verses are everything we know about the wise men.
            And again, we have all kinds of questions.  We don’t know where the wise men came from, other than “the east”.  We don’t know how they knew the star they saw was a sign of the coming of the king of the Jews.  We don’t know how they found the house Jesus was in.  I mean, yes, the star stopped over the place where the child was, but a star, up in the sky, would not lead you to a specific house.  There are so many things about this story that we just don’t know.
            But of course, that’s true of lots of stories in the Bible.  As we’ll see in this sermon series, it’s true of the life of Jesus.  There are all kinds of things about Jesus’ life on earth that we’d like to know and we don’t know.  The Bible, as the inspired word of God, tells us the things God decided we need to know, not the things we’d like to know.  And we don’t have much choice but to be satisfied with that.
            But that raises the question:  why did God decide we needed to know about this story?  I mean, yes, it sets up the story of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus going to Egypt, and we’re going to talk about that next week, but it seems like there has to be more to it than that.  So, as we often ask, what is it that we’re supposed to learn from this story?
            Well, one thing it gives us, as we talked about a few weeks ago, is that it’s a confirmation of an Old Testament prophecy.  Micah had said that the Savior would be born in Bethlehem.  That’s what the king’s advisers were quoting.  It’s how Herod knew to send the wise men to Bethlehem.  It seems a little surprising that the wise men did not know it, since they were, after all, supposed to be wise.  But then, as we’ve already said, we don’t know where they came from, so maybe the prophecy of Micah was not known where they lived.
            It’s not a small thing to have confirmation of the Old Testament prophecy.  It would’ve been really important to people at the time.  But I think there’s more to this story than that.
            Look at what the wise men asked.  “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?”  Think about what that says.  It’s present tense.  Jesus was born king of the Jews.  In other words, Jesus was the king of the Jews from the moment he was born.  They did not ask about the one who is going to be king of the Jews.  They did not ask about the one who someday will be the king of the Jews.  They asked about the one who has been born as the king of the Jews.  The one who is the king of the Jews right now, today.  The one who, therefore, is the Savior right now, today.
            And the wise men confirmed that view with their behavior.  When they saw Jesus, they bowed down and worshiped him.  Even though Jesus was two years old or less, these wise men, these people who we sometimes refer to as having been kings themselves, bowed down and worshiped this little kid.
            We take that for granted, but it’s an amazing thing.  Think of some little kid you know who’s like one or two years old.  Can you imagine bowing down before him and worshiping him or her?  Can you imagine treating that little kid like a king?  And yet, that’s what these wise men did.  They treated Jesus with all the respect a king should have, even when he was just a little kid.  And the reason they did that, again, is that they knew Jesus actually was the king already.  He was not a little kid who was going to be the king.  He was already the king right at that moment, and had been since his birth.
            And the gifts they gave Jesus, the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, showed that, too.  Now, some people find a lot of symbolic importance to the gifts they gave, and that may very well be right.  But Matthew does not mention any symbolic importance to them.  Matthew’s point is that these are expensive gifts.  They are the kind of gifts you’d give to a king.  And again, the fact that the wise men gave these gifts to Jesus showed that they were treating him as a king right at that moment, because that’s what Jesus was.
            So why’s that important?  Why is it important to know that Jesus was the king right from birth, and that the wise men treated him that way?
            What’s important about it is that it shows Jesus was not like any earthly king.  An earthly king would not take over until the old king was disposed of.  If you were the son of an earthly king, you could not become king until your father had died.  If you were not in the royal line, you might become a king by conquest, by war, but you still had to get rid of the old king somehow.  There could only be one king at a time.
            But Jesus did not have to wait to become king.  Jesus did not have to wait until his father died, because his father was God the Father.  Jesus did not have to dispose of the old king, because he was not taking over for some other king.  That’s what Herod was afraid of, and we’ll talk about that more next week, but Jesus did not want to dispose of Herod.  He had no interest in Herod’s kingdom.  Jesus’ kingdom, as he himself said, was not an earthly kingdom.  Jesus did not care about earthly kingdoms.  Jesus cared about the kingdom of God coming to earth.
            And Jesus was not like an earthly king in another way.  Earthly kingdoms end.  Just as an earthly king has to wait to become king, an earthly king has to give up his kingdom some time.  Even if he has no enemies, he will die at some point.  And at that point, his reign as king is over.
            Jesus’ kingdom does not end.  Just as Jesus did not have to wait to become king--he simply was the king--Jesus did not have to give up his kingdom, and he did not.  Jesus’ kingdom continues now, today.  And it will continue tomorrow, and the next day, and the next week, and on and on and on.  Jesus’ kingdom will continue forever.
            What the story of the wise men tells us is that Jesus is the king.  Think about the truth of that statement.  Jesus is the king.  That’s a statement that has been true for over two thousand years.  Jesus is the king.  That statement was true when Jesus was born.  Jesus is the king.  It was true when the wise men saw Jesus.  Jesus is the king.  It was true all through Jesus’ life.  Jesus is the king.  It was true when Jesus was killed and when he rose again.  Jesus is the king.  It’s a statement that is still true today, and it’s a statement that always will be true.  Jesus is the king.

            There’s a lot of scary stuff going on in the world.  Some of us have scary stuff going on in our own lives, too.  And sometimes it seems like that scary stuff can overwhelm us.  If it feels like it’s going to overwhelm you, remember this statement:  Jesus is the king.  No matter how scary life gets, Jesus is the king.  And Jesus will prevail, because his kingdom lasts forever.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Isn't That Amazing?

We live in a pretty amazing age.  We take for granted so many things that we could never even have done just a few years ago.  Recently, I had a couple of examples of this.

The Gettysburg church is going to have a concert around Valentine’s Day, and we were looking for a two-part version of the song “Scarborough Fair”.  Now, years ago we’d have had to make all kinds of calls.  We probably would’ve wound up calling every music store in the area, including ones in Sioux Falls and Rapid City, asking if they had a copy of that song arranged for two voices.  Today, I went to Google and searched under “Scarborough Fair two part sheet music”.  I had a printed copy of a song in about two minutes and would’ve had it even sooner if I hadn’t had to register at the website that offered it.  Not only that, it was offered for free.  Amazing.

The other thing is a tremendous thing for someone like me, who loves baseball.  I discovered that if you go to and search for “classic baseball radio”, you can find literally hundreds of radio broadcasts of old games.  I’ve listened to some games from the 1968 World Series.  I’ve listened to a game from 1965 in the Astrodome when it was the first year of the first domed stadium.  As I write this, I’m listening to a Twins game from 1973 when Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, and Rod Carew were all playing for the Twins and Nolan Ryan was in his prime for the California Angels.  And again, it’s all free.  Amazing.

This is not intended as a criticism of the old days.  It’s also not intended to say that there aren’t problems here in the new days.  What I am saying, though, is that there are some pretty amazing things that are happening right now.  We should take some time to notice them and appreciate them.

And that’s true of the things God does, too.  We sometimes look at all the problems of the world and wonder what God’s doing.  But God is doing amazing things every day.  The sun came up this morning, didn’t it?  Could you make that happen?  God did.  God makes the earth keep turning and brings the heat and the cold and the snow and the rain and the sunshine.  But God is not just the God of nature.  Every day, God answers prayers and gives us help and courage and strength.  God gives us love and grace and mercy.  And if we believe in Jesus as our Savior, God gives us eternal life.  And again, it’s all free.  Amazing.

It may be a little late for New Year’s resolutions, but if you feel like making one, I’d suggest you resolve not to take the things God does for granted.  Take some time to notice and appreciate those things.  Be grateful and thank God for them.  Because they are all free, and they are all amazing.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Confirmation Class

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, January 8, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Luke 2:21-38.

            We welcome you to a new year and a new sermon series.  We’re calling this sermon series “Beyond the Manger”.
            Too many times, when Christmas is over, we just move on.  We leave the baby Jesus in the manger and go on to something else.  But this year, we’re not going to leave the baby Jesus in the manger.  We’re going to look at all the stuff that happened after Jesus’ birth.  And as you heard, we’re starting with Jesus being presented at the temple.
Now first, we’re told that Jesus was circumcised when he was eight days old.  Then, we’re told of Jesus being presented at the temple of the Lord.  This happened, according to Luke, “when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses”, which would have been forty days after Jesus was born.  That means that at some point in those forty days, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus made the trip from Bethlehem to Jerusalem.  
That was not a long trip--it was about six miles.  But, of course, Mary and Joseph would’ve had to walk it, carrying Jesus, so it’s not like it was really easy.  You and I would probably be really upset if we had to walk six miles carrying a baby.  But back then, it was just the way things were.  People were used to walking everywhere they needed to go.  It was no big deal.
So Mary and Joseph walk the six miles from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, and then walk some more until they get to the temple.  They buy the required sacrifice.  And while they’re there, they meet two people.
The first was a man named Simeon.  Simeon lived in Jerusalem, and he had been told by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he saw the Savior.  This day, this day when Mary and Joseph are presenting Jesus at the temple, the Holy Spirit told him to go to the temple courts.  We don’t know if the Spirit told him why, but he went there.  And he saw Jesus.  And as soon as he saw Jesus, Simeon knew that this was, in fact, the Savior he had been kept alive to see.
And as you read what Simeon said, you get the impression that Simeon understood, far better than most people at that time, just who the Savior was going to be.  Most people at that time thought the Savior would be a great king, someone who would return Israel to power as a great nation.  But look at how Simeon describes Jesus:  “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”  And then he tells Mary:  “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.  And a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”
Simeon understood that Jesus was not going to be a political leader.  He was going to bring salvation to both the Gentiles and the Jews, but that salvation would be spiritual salvation, not a political salvation.  And he would cause “the thoughts of many hearts” to be revealed, both for better and for worse.  Simeon understood exactly what kind of Savior Jesus was going to be.
And then we meet Anna.  Anna was a prophet.  She was eighty-four years old.  We’re told she had lived with her husband for seven years after their marriage and had been a widow ever since.  Assuming she was married young, as was often the case at that time, Anna may have been a widow for sixty years or more.  I know there are people here who’ve lost spouses, but think of that.  To be a widow or a widower for sixty years.  That’s a long time to be alone.
We’re told that she never left the temple, but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.  We don’t know how long she’d been doing that.  It was not necessarily for the whole eighty-four years she’d been a widow, or even for most of those years.  But it seems like it must have been a while.  And just as Simeon finishes talking, Anna comes up, gives thanks to God, and starts telling everyone about this child who’s going to be the Savior.
So what’s the point?  Why is this story in the Bible?  Is it just an interesting story, a little piece of the life of Jesus, or is there more to it?  What are we supposed to learn from this?
Well, I’m sure there’s more than one thing we can learn from it.  There almost always is, when we read the Bible.  But here’s the one I want to focus on today.
Have you ever had a time when you felt like God was giving you a message?  Or, have you ever felt like the Holy Spirit was leading you to do something, or to say something, or to go somewhere?  Or maybe you did not recognize it as the Holy Spirit, but you just felt like there was something inside you telling you that you needed to talk to some specific person, or go to some specific place, or do some specific thing.  You did not know why, but you just had this strong feeling that this was what you were supposed to do.  
Have you ever had that?  I think probably most of us have, at one time or another.  And probably most of us have followed that prompting, at least some of the time.
But here’s the thing.  Sometimes, we get that message, or we follow that prompting--we do what we’re led to do, we go where we’re led to go, we say what we’re led to say--and it seems like nothing happens.  And some time goes on, and nothing continues to happen.  And we start to wonder.  Did God really give me a message?  Was the Holy Spirit really leading me to do that, or say that, or go there?  Or was it something I made up, something I imagined, something that came out of my own head or from someone else and I just fooled myself into thinking it was from God?
When that happens, we need some confirmation.  We need to get some kind of a signal, some kind of sign.  We need something to encourage us to stay the course, something to let us know that yes, we really did get that message from God.  We really were led by the Holy Spirit.  God really did speak to us, and God really is going to be faithful and keep the words God said.
God does not always give us that confirmation, and God does not promise that God will give it to us.  Sometimes we’re asked to have faith and to trust and to keep believing.  But sometimes, God will give us that confirmation.  God will give us that encouragement.  God will give us a signal, a sign, that we really did get that message from God that we thought we did.
That’s what happened here.  Look at Mary and Joseph.  The angel Gabriel had told them that their child was the divine Son of God.  They’d listened, and they’d believed.  They’d gone everywhere they were supposed to go, they’d done everything they were supposed to do.  But still, they had to wonder.  You know, it had been several months, at least, since they’d heard from Gabriel about who this baby was going to be.  They had to be thinking, you know, our baby looks like any other baby.  He acts like any other baby.  Is he really going to be that special?  Are we really going to be raising the Savior of the world?  
And then, when they take Jesus to the temple, here come Simeon and Anna.  And they say, yes.  Yes, your child is going to be that special.  You really are going to be raising the Savior of the world.  All that stuff that Gabriel said is really true.  You really have received a message from God, and God will be faithful to God’s word.  That had to be a huge relief to them.  It had to feel so wonderful, to have someone come along and confirm that they really had received a message from God, that things were going the way they were supposed to go, and that they really could trust God’s promises.
You and I have been given messages from God, too.  There are places were supposed to go, words we’re supposed to say, things we’re supposed to do.  That’s true for us as individuals, and that’s true for us as a church.
And a lot of us have been doing them.  Some of us have been doing them for a long time.  And sometimes, we don’t seem to see any results.  We wish a Simeon, or an Anna, would come and confirm God’s message for us.  We wish they’d come and tell us that we really have received a message from God, that we really are doing what we’re supposed to do, that we really are going the way God wants us to go.  We wish they’d say things are going the way they’re supposed to go, that we really can trust God’s promises.
Well, we don’t actually get Simeon and Anna.  But I think there are signs all around us, if we look for them.  I can’t speak to each person’s individual calling, but look at our parish.  Look at the number of kids we’re reaching in the Onida Sunday school and in Faith Builders.  Look at the people who are starting to come to church here who were not before, and the people who are coming more often than they used to.  Look at all the kits we send to the mission fair every year.  There are signs of all kinds of good things going on here, if we look for them.
Does that mean everything’s perfect?  Of course not.  Far from it.  We have challenges.  We’ll always have challenges.  Mary and Joseph had a lot of challenges, too, as we’ll see as we continue this sermon series.  God never promised us everything would be smooth and easy.  

But if we keep doing what we’re supposed to do, if we keep going where God wants us to go, things will go the way they’re supposed to go.  God will confirm God’s message to us in any number of ways.  God really is speaking to us.  And God’s word is always true.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Dream On

A new year is always kind of a cool thing.  It’s not as big to me as it used to be--it’s been years since I stayed up until midnight to welcome in the new year, for example--but it’s still kind of cool.  

I mentioned this in the children’s sermon this week, but a new year kind of reminds me of when the school year started, and you’d get these blank writing tablets.  Remember that?  I don’t know if kids get those any more--maybe they use electronic tablets now--but that blank writing tablet was always something I looked forward to.  It was kind of exciting.  I mean, I wasn’t jumping up and down and screaming--I wasn’t that much of a nerd, quite--but it still was kind of exciting.

See, a blank writing tablet held all kinds of possibilities.  I could take notes for school in it, of course, but I could also do all kinds of other things, things that were actually fun.  I could write stories.  I could write skits or music.  I could keep a diary in it.  I could keep track of baseball statistics in it.  There were all kinds of things I could do with that blank writing tablet.

When you think about it, a new year is kind of like that.  It’s got three hundred sixty-five blank pages in it.  We can write anything we want to on those pages.  We can do normal, responsible things, and we should do those things.  But we can also do fun things.  We can allow ourselves to dream.  We can use our creativity.  We can let our imaginations wander.  We can express our thoughts and feelings.  There are all kinds of things we can do with those blank three hundred sixty-five days that we call a year.

I hope you’ll do some of all of those things.  The message this week was about allowing ourselves to dream, to think about the wonderful things that could be, and then behaving as if we believed those things can actually happen.  That’s what I’d encourage us to do this year.  Think of some wonderful things that could be, and then act as if you believe they can happen.  Because if we all act as if we believe that wonderful things can happen, and if we ask God to help us make those wonderful things happen, and if God wills that those wonderful things will happen, then they will.  We, working with God, can make all kinds of wonderful, incredible things happen.  Because all things are possible with God.

All things are possible with God, and all things are possible in a new year.  Let’s believe that wonderful things will happen in 2017, let’s act in accordance with that belief, and let’s ask God to help us make those wonderful things happen.  If we do, then when I sit down a year from now to write a letter like this, we’re going to have a lot to celebrate!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Start of Something Big

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, January 1, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Micah 5:2-4 and Luke 2:1-7.

            Today we close out our sermon series on Old Testament prophecies of the coming of Jesus.  We’re looking at the Savior being born in the town of Bethlehem.
            Now, that’s something that just about everybody knows.  Even a lot of people who are not Christians could tell you that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  And as you heard, it does fulfill an Old Testament prophecy, the prophecy of Micah.  Micah says, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
            If you’re wondering about it being called “Bethlehem Ephrathah”, what I read is that this term was used to distinguish the town from another town called Bethlehem.  Sort of like referring to “Gettysburg, South Dakota” so people know you’re not talking about Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  And of course, as we know, Jesus, the Savior, was in fact born in Bethlehem.
            Have you ever wondered why Bethlehem?  I mean, yes, it fulfills the Old Testament prophecy, but why did God tell Micah to say Bethlehem?  Why did God decide the Savior should be born there?
            When Jesus was born, Bethlehem was a town of less than a thousand people.  It was smaller than Gettysburg.  It may have been smaller than Onida.  When we sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, we’re getting it exactly right.  Bethlehem was a “little town”.  It’s no wonder there was no room at the inn for Mary and Joseph.  There probably were not very many inns at all.  With lots of people coming to town for the census, and with not very many rooms available even under normal circumstances, one suspects Joseph and Mary were not the only ones who were not able to find much housing at that time.
            But that does not answer the question of why God would have Jesus be born in Bethlehem.  In fact, it makes it even more strange, that Jesus would be born in such a small town.  Why not Jerusalem?  It was a city.  It had forty thousand people.  Besides, that’s where all the major religious festivals were held, so the people there were used to handling crowds.  And Jerusalem was only about six miles from Bethlehem.  Seems like it would’ve been a lot easier to have Jesus born there.  Or, for that matter, why not have Jesus be born in Nazareth?  Think of all the trouble Mary and Joseph would’ve been saved, if they could’ve just had Jesus be born in their home town.
            Well, we’ve talked before about how hard it is to know the mind of God.  But even though we can never fully understand God, we need to try.  And you know, as I think about this, it seems to me that God’s choice of Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Savior is perfectly consistent with the way God works.  It seems like most of the time, God uses people and places that were otherwise insignificant and does great things through them.
            Think about Moses.  Who was Moses?  He was a nobody.  He was a Hebrew born to slaves in Egypt.  He was not even supposed to live.  His mother put him in a basket and set him out in the Nile River to try to hide him from the Egyptian authorities that were trying to kill all the Hebrew male babies.  And God took him and made him the greatest leader the Israelites ever had.
            Think about David.  Who was David?  He was a nobody, too.  He was a shepherd.  When the prophet Samuel was told to go to David’s father, Jesse and select one of his sons to be the next king, Jesse did not even bother to include David as one of the sons Samuel could choose from.  He was the youngest son.  He was a nobody.  Jesse assumed one of his other sons would be chosen, not David, of all people.  But God chose David, and God made him a great king who ruled over Israel for years and won all kinds of battles.
            We could go on and on with this sort of thing.  Think about Mary and Joseph?  Who were they?  They were nobodies.  We really don’t know much about either of them, except that they’re the earthly parents of Jesus.  We know Joseph was a carpenter.  We know they came from Nazareth and that Nazareth is where Jesus grew up.  And Nazareth was basically no place, too.  Remember when Jesus was choosing the disciples?  This is in the first chapter of John.  Jesus chooses Philip, and Philip goes to get Nathanael.  He tells Nathanael “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph!”  And Nathanael’s reaction is “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”
            I think it fits right into God’s pattern to have Jesus be born in little Bethlehem.  Think of all these people we’ve talked about.  All these nobodies from nowhere.  God turned them into somebodies who are remembered thousands of years later.  And the places they lived are now considered historic shrines.
            None of this happened because they were so great.  All of it happened because God is so great.  And that brings me to this.
            You know that we’ve had a prayer emphasis on the unchurched children and the unchurched parents or our parish.  And we’ve had some success.  If you were here a couple of weeks ago, you saw all the kids at our Christmas program.  For a church this size we’re doing quite well.
            But of course, we can always do better.  So think about this.  Maybe you consider it a dream.  Maybe you consider it a fantasy.  And maybe it is.  But that’s okay.  It’s good to dream sometimes.  So just think about this.
            What if--what if--what we’ve seen so far is just the very beginning of what God wants to do with this church?  What if our prayer emphasis not only succeeds, but succeeds far more than we ever thought it would?  What if we start reaching all kinds of kids, and all kinds of parents, with the gospel of Jesus Christ?  And what if those kids and those parents then go to other towns, and do the same thing there?  What if what we do here starts a movement that expands all over the state, and then all over the conference, and then all over the country, and then all over the world?
            Now, some of you are probably hearing that and thinking I’m nuts.  Well, you would not be the first people to think that.  But seriously, think about it.  Every great movement has to start someplace with somebody, right?  If God could start a worldwide movement that’s lasted for two thousand years in a little town like Bethlehem, why could God not do it here?  We always say that nothing is impossible for God.  So why do we put limits on what God can do and where God can do it?
            But maybe you don’t believe that could happen.  Maybe you believe this is just a dream, a fantasy of mine.  Okay.  But even if you don’t think something like that could ever happen here, think about this.  What would happen if we all started behaving as if we thought it would?
            What would happen if each one of us in this church started behaving as if we believed that God was going to do something incredible, something special, something wonderful, in this town, and that God was going to use our church to do it?  Do you think that would give us more confidence?  Do you think that would give us more enthusiasm?  Do you think that would encourage us to take some steps out in faith?  Do you think, maybe, we’d make more effort to find people who are not going to church anywhere, and invite them to come to church here?  Do you think, maybe, we’d be more determined to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ?  Do you think we just might be more willing to look for chances to show God’s love and to share God’s word with people?
            Now, don’t get me wrong.  I know there are a lot of people here who do a lot of things for this church.  Some of you have been doing them for many years.  And I know there are people here who do take steps out in faith, who do invite people to come to church, who do look for chances to show God’s love and share God’s word.  Please don’t hear this as a criticism of anyone, because that’s not my intent at all.
            This church has done great things.  This church is doing great things.  But the point is, this church can do even greater things.  As great as this church’s past has been, it’s future can be even better.  There’s no reason it cannot be.  Our best days can be yet to come.  If we all open ourselves to God’s leadership and God’s guidance, and if we all follow where God is leading us to go, all kinds of amazing things can happen.
            All throughout the Bible, God chooses nobodies from nowhere to be great.  No reasonable human being would’ve chosen Bethlehem as the birth of the Savior.  But God did.  Probably no reasonable human being would choose Onida, or Agar, or Gettysburg for greatness either.  But God might.  If we all trust God, and if we all follow where God leads us to go, anything can happen.  After all, as Jesus said, all things are possible with God.