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Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Come to Jesus Moment

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, February 26, 2017.  The Bible verses used are John 1:35-51.
            We continue our sermon series “Beyond the Manger”, looking at the early life and ministry of Jesus.  Jesus has been baptized, he’s been tempted, and now it’s time for him to begin his ministry.
            Let’s stop for a minute and think about where Jesus is at this point.  He’s had the Holy Spirit descend upon him.  He’s heard a voice from heaven saying that he is, in fact, the divine Son, and that God the Father is well pleased with him.  He’s gone out into the wilderness, spending time fasting and praying.  He’s been working out, with the help of God the Father, exactly what he should do and how he should do it.  And then, at the end of working that out, he’s tempted by the devil.  But Jesus not only resists the temptation, he overcomes it and triumphs over it.  And he’s ready to take the next step to get started with his mission on earth.
            We generally think of that next step as Jesus calling the disciples.  And you know, this shows how sometimes we really need to take a closer look at some of these Bible passages that we think we know.  Because we all have said it that way:  “Jesus called the disciples.”  I’ve said it that way, too.  But if you look at John’s account here, which is the first five of Jesus’ disciples being called, Jesus actually only called one of them.  He accepted them all, of course.  He wanted them all.  But he was not the one who initiated things with four of the first five disciples.
            Look at how this works.  John the Baptist is standing there with two of his disciples.  Jesus walks by.  John the Baptist says who Jesus is.  And immediately the two disciples leave John the Baptist and start following Jesus.
            Those are the first two of Jesus’ disciples.  We’re told that one of them is Andrew.  The other one is not named.  We assume it’s the disciple John, the one who wrote this gospel, and that he simply did not want to use his own name.  There are other places in the gospel of John where he avoids using his own name, so we assume that’s what’s going on here.  But the point is that these first two disciples were not chosen by Jesus.  They chose to follow Jesus, not the other way around.
            And the third disciple, Simon Peter, was not called by Jesus, either.  He’s Andrew’s brother.  We’re told that after Andrew decided to follow Jesus, the first thing he did was go find his brother Simon Peter and tell him they’d found the Messiah.  Then it says, “and he brought him to Jesus”.  Jesus did not go find Simon Peter.  Andrew brought Simon Peter to Jesus.
            The next disciple is the only one of the first five that Jesus calls.  It’s Philip.  We’re told that Jesus “found” Philip, and said to him “Follow me.”  But then, look at what happens.  Philip goes and finds Nathanael and tells him they’ve found the one Moses and the prophets wrote about.  Nathanael is skeptical, but Philip just says, “Come and see”, and he does.
            So four of the first five disciples were not called by Jesus at all.  Two of them came on their own, after hearing what John the Baptist said, and the other two came because someone they knew brought them to Jesus.  And maybe you’re thinking, “So what?”  What difference does it make how they got to Jesus as long as they got there?  And in one sense, you’re right.  As long as we get to Jesus it really does not matter how we get there.  But I think there are some lessons here for us.  Because I think the way these disciples found Jesus mirrors the way we find Jesus today.
            Some of us are like Philip.  Some of us are just kind of going about our business, living our lives, and suddenly Jesus comes along and speaks to us.  It could be through a direct contact, actually hearing the voice of Jesus or of an angel.  That may seem far-fetched to some of you, but I’ve talked to enough people and heard enough stories that I believe it does happen that way sometimes.  Or, it could be the Holy Spirit speaking directly to our hearts and souls somehow.  But that’s one way we find Jesus--through the Lord taking the initiative and speaking directly to us.
            But there was only one of the first five disciples who found Jesus that way.  It was not the way it happened for the majority.  And I think it’s not the way it happens for the majority of us, either.  It’s great when it does, don’t get me wrong.  But for most of us it happens in another way.
            One of the other ways it happens is the way it happened for Andrew and John.  They were already following John the Baptist.  They’d heard John the Baptist’s preaching about repentance and forgiveness.  They’d heard him tell them that he was preparing the way for when the Savior came.  What that means is that Andrew and John had a background in the faith.  They were open to the message of salvation.  And when they found Jesus, the one who could give them that salvation, they were ready to follow him right then.
            Some of us are like that.  Some of us have grown up in the church.  We’ve heard the word preached.  We’ve heard about repentance and forgiveness and God’s love.  We’re open to the message of salvation.  And when we find Jesus, the one who can give us that salvation, we’re ready to follow.
            But some of us are like Simon Peter and Nathanael.  Jesus did not send us a direct message.  We did not grow up in the church.  We were not looking for the message of salvation.  But then, someone came along and told us about it anyway.  And they brought us to Jesus.  Maybe some of us were like Simon Peter, who seems to have come right away when his brother went to get him.  But some of us are like Nathanael, openly skeptical of what we hear.  And someone says to us, “It’s okay if you’re skeptical.  But come and see.  Come and see for yourself.”
            What this shows, I think, is that God has all kinds of ways of calling people to him.  God gives some people a direct message.  And that’s awesome when it happens, but it’s not something in our control.  God either does that or God does not, based on whatever reasons God may have.
            God calls some people through their parents or others making sure they grow up in the church and have a background in the church.  And that’s a wonderful thing, too, when it happens.  But if you’re an adult now, you either grew up in the church or you did not.  We cannot go back and change the past, even if we’d like to.  However we grew up is how we grew up, for better or worse.
            But sometimes, God uses people to call other people.  God used Andrew to call Simon Peter.  God used Philip to call Nathanael.  And God can use you and me to call people to God, too.
            Now, notice, God did not have Andrew and Philip call complete strangers.  Andrew was Simon Peter’s brother.  Philip and Nathanael don’t appear to have been related, but from the way it’s written they clearly knew each other.  The people Andrew and Philip went to were people they already had a relationship with.  Simon Peter knew he could trust Andrew.  Nathanael knew he could trust Philip.  That relationship had already been established.
            And notice, too, that Andrew and Philip did not use any fancy words to persuade Simon Peter and Nathanael.  Andrew simply told Simon Peter, “We have found the Messiah”.  Philip uses a few more words, but he basically says the same thing.  “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote.”  And when Nathanael is skeptical, Philip does not argue with him.  He does not go into a big spiel to try to persuade him.  He simply says, “Come and see.”  See for yourself.  We’ll show you what we’ve found, and you can decide whether I’m right or not.
            That’s all God asks us to do.  We don’t have to go onto a street corner and confront strangers with the gospel.  All God asks us to do is to go to people we know, people we already have some sort of relationship with, people who know they can trust us.  Go to those people, and tell them what we’ve found.  Tell them what our faith means to us.  Tell them how important our faith is to us.  Tell them how our faith helps us.  Tell them what this church means to us, how important this church is to us, how this church helps us.  And if they’re skeptical, we don’t need to argue with them or go into a big spiel to persuade them.  All we need to do is say, as Philip did, “Come and see”.  See for yourself.  We’ll show you what we have here, and you can decide for yourself whether we’re right or not.
            We won’t always succeed.  For all we know, Andrew and Philip might not have always succeeded.  Maybe they went to some other people and got turned down, we don’t know.  But we’ll succeed sometimes.  And when we do, we’ll have done what Jesus told us to do.  We’ll have made disciples of Jesus Christ.
            We come to God in all kinds of ways.  Sometimes God brings people to himself directly.  But sometimes, God uses us to bring people to him.  May we always be open to sharing our faith.  And when people are skeptical, may we always invite them to come and see.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017


I wrote last week about how, for all I that I don’t like winter, this winter has not been abnormally long at all.  Cold weather in December, January, and February are to be expected in this area.  It’s part of the deal.  It’s no good complaining about it, because it’s just the way it is.

Having said that, though, it sure was nice to have a week or so of warmer weather.  We know winter isn’t over—in fact, as I write this, snow is predicted for today--but at least we got a break from it.  A break like that gives us hope that, yes, winter will not be forever.  Spring is, indeed, coming.  We just have to be patient and wait for it.

It strikes me that, in a way, this is the approach Bible uses.  You know, when we think about the Bible, we tend to think of the verses that say that God is love and God is forgiveness and all that sort of thing.  And there are lots of verses like that in the Bible, and they’re great verses.  But there are a lot of other verses, too.  There are a lot of verses of woe and of judgment.  Especially in the Old Testament (but sometimes in the New Testament, too) there are times when the people abandon God and God allows them to suffer the consequences.  Much of the history of Israel and of Judah is of them being taken over by one country or another.  Much of that history is of the people of Israel being taken captive and forced to serve other kings and other countries.

But even in those times, God never leaves the people without hope.  The book of Isaiah is a good example.  Much of that book is judgment against Israel.  But every once in a while, there will be a few verses, even a chapter or two, to let the people know that God’s judgment against them will not be forever.  God will forgive, eventually.  There is a better day coming.  They just have to be patient and wait for it.

Being patient is not always my strongest suit.  I’m one of those people who prays, “God, give me patience, and give it to me RIGHT NOW.”  When things don’t happen the way I think they should, I get frustrated.  And sometimes I try to force things to happen the way I think they should.  Maybe you do, too.  Of course, that never works for me.  In fact, when I try to force things I tend to make them worse, because I’m trying to make things happen before it’s time for them to happen.

Being patient can be hard.  But it’s one of the keys to faith.  It takes faith to believe that God is going to act when we see no signs of God acting.  It takes faith to trust that things are going to work out right when we see no signs of them working out right.  One of my prayers, almost every day, is that God will help me be confident that God is going to act in God’s way and at God’s time, and that God’s way and God’s time will be better than my way and my time.  Then, I pray for God to help me do the best I can until God’s time comes.  Maybe that will help you, too.

It takes faith to be patient.  But it’s worth it.  God knows what He’s doing.  And God will act, in God’s way and at God’s time.  And when we trust that, we find out that things do, indeed, work out all right.  In fact, they usually work out a lot better than they would have if we’d gotten things to work out the way we wanted them to.  So let’s have the faith, and the patience, to trust God.  

Friday, February 17, 2017

No Short-Cuts

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, February 19, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 4:1-11.

            As we continue with our sermon series “Beyond the Manger”, looking at the early life of Jesus, we pick up right where we left off last week.  Jesus has just been baptized by John.  The Spirit of God descends and alights on him.  A voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
            And then, we’re told, Jesus went off into the wilderness and fasted for forty days.  I’m sure at least part of that time was spent in prayer, but I think Jesus was also trying to figure out what he was supposed to do next.  Yes, he knew he was the divine Son of God sent to earth to save the world, but just exactly how was he going to do that?  What’s the next step?  How does he proceed from here?  I would think he spent a lot of time in prayer trying to work that out.
            And while he’s doing that, the devil comes and tempts him.  Now Jesus is really hungry, obviously--he has not eaten for forty days.  But he’s also--well, not confused exactly, but uncertain.  He’s trying to figure out how he’s supposed to do what he’s supposed to do.  And it’s just then, when he’s both physically weak and uncertain about what to do next, that the devil comes and tempts him.
            So there’s a lesson for us right there.  It is when we’re weak that temptation hits us the strongest.  It’s when we’re uncertain about what to do that temptation is the hardest to resist.
            And this is true no matter where the temptation comes from.  I do believe that temptation can come from Satan or from demons, but temptation can come from other places, too.  Temptation can come from other people.  Temptation can come from inside of us, from our own sinful nature.  But wherever it comes from, this is when temptation hits us the hardest--when we’re physically weak and when we’re struggling mentally or emotionally.  That’s when temptation is hardest to resist.  And that’s when the devil came to Jesus to tempt him.
            But Jesus was ready.  Jesus was ready because the Spirit of God had come to him.  He was ready because he had spent those forty days praying and seeking God’s will.  He may have been physically weak.  He may have been uncertain about what to do next.  But he was spiritually strong.  He had opened himself up to the Holy Spirit.  He was determined to go where God the Father wanted him to go and to do what God the Father wanted him to do.  And so, no matter what his condition was, he was able to resist the temptations of the devil.
            And that’s what you and I need to do.  Because we have times when we’re physically weak.  Sometimes we’ve been working hard and we’re tired.  Sometimes we get sick, and sometimes the illness is something really serious.  Sometimes we get older and our bodies start to break down.  And sometimes we struggle mentally or emotionally.  That can happen for all kinds of reasons.  Life throws a lot of stuff at us, and we would not be human if it did not get to us sometimes.
            And that’s the time when temptation is likely to hit us the hardest.  But if we’re ready, we can resist.  And we’ll be ready if we’ve opened ourselves up to the Holy Spirit.  If we’re determined to go where God wants us to go and to do what God wants us to do, even if we don’t understand what’s going on or why, we can resist those temptations, just like Jesus did.
            But it can be hard sometimes.  Because temptations sometimes can be things that seem like they’d be really good things to do.  They just are not the way God wants things to be done.
            Here’s what I mean.  Look at what Jesus was tempted to do.  The first one is “tell these stones to become bread.”
            Nothing wrong with that, is there?  Jesus was hungry.  Why not make some bread?  It would not hurt anybody.  In fact, why not take this to a larger scale?  Why not make stones all over the place turn into bread?  Think of all the people Jesus could’ve fed that way.  I mean, we have the one time in the gospels where Jesus fed five thousand, but turning rocks into bread?  He could’ve fed five hundred thousand.  He could’ve fed five million.  He could’ve fed five billion!  I mean, just think of all the rocks there are in the world.  There’d be an almost unlimited supply of bread.  Why not do it?
            It had to be really tempting for Jesus.  After all, he knew how many hungry, even starving people there are in the world.  He must’ve wished he could feed all of them.  But what does Jesus answer?  He quotes Deuteronomy and says, “People do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
            Jesus could’ve fed everyone in the world.  It’s seems like that would be a good plan.  But it was not God’s plan.  It was not the reason Jesus came to earth.  Jesus did not come to earth to feed the world.  He came to earth to save the world from its sins.  There’d have been nothing wrong with feeding people, but it would’ve distracted him from his mission.  Jesus’ main purpose was not to take care of our physical needs, even though he sometimes did that.  Jesus’ main purposes were to teach us how to live and to save us from our sins.  Turning rocks into bread, while it might seem like a good thing to do, was not what Jesus was sent here to do.  And so, as tempting as it must have been, Jesus refused to do it.
            The second thing Jesus was tempted to do was to jump off the highest point of the temple and let the angels save him.  Think of how cool that would’ve been.  The temple, from what I’ve read, was about a hundred fifty feet high.  Picture that.  Jesus jumps down from a hundred fifty feet.  He lands beautifully, gracefully, totally unharmed, guided down by angels.  You think that would’ve gotten people’s attention?  Lots of people would’ve seen it, and they’d have spread the word far and wide.  Pretty soon everyone would’ve heard what Jesus did.
            Think of how many people would’ve come to believe in Jesus after that.  How could they not?  Anyone who could do that, and be surrounded by angels doing it, would have to be the Savior.  Think of all the time and effort Jesus could’ve saved.  He would not have had to go around teaching and preaching and working miracles.  They’d have believed in him right then and there.
            It had to be really tempting for Jesus.  But he refused.  Because if people had believed in him then, what would they have believed in?  A showman.  Someone who did things to call attention to himself.  Someone who all flash and hype.  They’d might have believed in him, but they would not have been listening to what he said.  They just would’ve come for the show, for the spectacle.  And to keep their attention, Jesus would’ve had to keep topping himself, to put on more shows, more spectacles, to keep people from getting bored and wandering off.
            Jesus could’ve attracted lots of followers with a spectacle.  It seems like that would’ve been a good plan.  But it was not God’s plan.  Jesus did not want people who were just there to see the show.  Jesus wanted people who were dedicated to loving God and loving others.  He wanted people who were willing to surrender their lives to God.  And so, as tempting as it must have been to attract people in this way, Jesus refused to do it.
            And finally, the third temptation.  The devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world.  He says they can all belong to Jesus, if Jesus will just worship Satan.
            We read that, and we think, “Well, of course Jesus won’t worship Satan.”  But think about this.  You’re Jesus.  The divine Son of God.  You can rule all the kingdoms of the world.  Think of all the good you could do for people.  You could end slavery.  You could end oppression.  You could end poverty.  You could end unfairness and inequality.  You could, almost literally, create heaven on earth for people.  And not just for now, but for thousands of years to come.  You could make life on earth better than anyone ever dreamed for billions and billions of people.
            That had to be so tempting.  Because, after all, Jesus had great compassion for the poor.  Jesus had great compassion for the oppressed.  Jesus had great compassion for those who were treated unfairly.  He could’ve put that all to an end.  Yes, he’d have had to worship Satan, but hey, if worshiping Satan meant helping all these people, how bad could it be?
            Well, pretty bad, actually.  Because what it would’ve shown was a lack of faith in God’s plan.  God had a plan for the salvation of the world.  God still has a plan for the salvation of the world.  It’s a long-term plan.  You and I don’t understand it.  We don’t understand how God’s plan for the salvation of the world can include so much poverty and oppression and unfairness.  
It seems like ending all that right now would be a better plan.  But it’s not God’s plan.  Satan gave Jesus a chance to end all that poverty and oppression and unfairness right now.  But Satan’s plan is not a plan for the salvation of the world.  Satan’s plan is for the oppression of the world.  Satan’s plan is for the slavery of the world, in this life and in the next one.  Jesus knew that.  So even though Satan’s plan had to be really tempting, Jesus followed God’s plan instead.
God’s plan is a long-term plan.  And when you think about it, what Jesus was really being tempted to do is take short-cuts.  Don’t let people stay hungry.  Feed them all right now.  Don’t take years to gather followers.  Get lots of them right now.  Don’t wait until someday to end slavery and oppression and poverty.  End it all right now.
And so many times, that’s what we’re tempted to do:  take short-cuts.  I need more money right now.  I need someone in my life right now.  I need a more fulfilling job right now.  I need a better car or a better house right now.
It’s not always things for ourselves, either.  It can be all kinds of things.  I fall victim to it for our church.  I want more people to come to church right now.  I want more kids in Sunday School/Faith Builders right now.  I want more money to come in so we can do more things right now.
The things we want are not necessarily bad things.  And they may even be things God wants, too.  But if they are, God has a plan for making them come about.  And it’s a long-term plan.  If we try to force things to happen before God wants them to happen, we’re going to fail.  If we’re going to succeed, we need to follow God’s long-term plan and not take short-cuts.  And the only way we can follow God’s long-term plan is to do what Jesus did:  let God’s Holy Spirit come into our lives.  Allow ourselves to be led by God’s Holy Spirit.
Jesus refused to take short-cuts.  God’s Holy Spirit was with him, he allowed himself to be led by the Holy Spirit, and he followed God’s plan.  If we open ourselves up to God, if we surrender ourselves to God, God’s Holy Spirit will lead us, too.  And then, we’ll follow God’s plan, with no short-cuts.  It takes time.  It takes effort.  It takes patience.  But when God’s plan comes together, the results are pretty awesome.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Part of the Deal

It’s been a warmer for the last week or so.  I lot of people like that, including me.  I’ve told you before that winter is my least favorite season.  Before this last week, we had a LOT of very cold days.  In fact, I heard a lot of people say something like, “This has really been a long winter.  I’ll be so glad when winter is over.”

Well, again, I’ll be glad when winter’s over, too.  I’m always glad when winter’s over.  But in fact, this has not been a particularly long winter.  November of 2016 was wonderful.  We had several days in the 60s and even a couple in the 70s.  The weather didn’t really start to turn until the first week of December.  And December around here is—guess what—winter!

Now, of course, it could still turn out to be a long winter.  We don’t know how long this warm spell will last.  We could have a cold March.  We could have snow storms into April.  It’s not the most common thing, but we’ve all seen our share of them. 

But as of right now, it has not been a long winter at all.  December is supposed to be winter.  January is supposed to be winter.  February is supposed to be winter.  I’m not saying you have to like it.  I don’t like it.  I wish we’d had those highs in the 60s and 70s all winter.  But we know that’s not how it works.  We know that December and January and February are going to be cold.  We know they’re going to windy—pretty much every month around here is windy.  And we know it’s going to be hard to get around.  That’s just part of the deal with winter in this area, and it doesn’t do any good to complain about it.

And that’s my point.  It’s no good to complain about things that are just part of the deal.  And we know that.  And yet, we do it.  We do it all the time.  I do it, too.  We complain about things that we know are just part of the way life works.

Now, I’m not saying this is a terrible sin.  But it doesn’t make a lot of sense.  And it’s kind of disrespectful to God, in a way.  To continue with our example, winter is the way it is around here because that’s the way God set up the world.  To complain about it is, in effect, to say that God messed up when God created the world this way.  It’s saying we know more about how the world should be set up than God does.

So, the next time it gets cold or windy or snowy and I start complaining about it, I’m going to try to remember this.  It gets cold or windy or snowy in the winter because that’s the way God set up the world.  And God knows a lot more about how the world should be set up than I do.  If I remember that, maybe I’ll quit complaining.  Maybe I’ll even remember what the Bible says.  “This is the day that the Lord has made.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Why Baptism?

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, February 12, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Matthew 3:13-17.

             Our sermon series is “Beyond the Manger”, looking at the early life of Jesus.  When we left him last week, he was twelve years old.  Now, as far as we can tell, he’s about thirty.
            That’s eighteen years of Jesus’ life that we know nothing about.  And, like many other things the Bible does not tell us, there’s not much we can do but accept that.  When we say that the Bible is the inspired word of God, one of the things we’re saying is that what’s in the Bible is what God has decided we need to know.  That’s not the same as what we’d like to know.  I’d love to know what Jesus was doing between age twelve and age thirty.  Wouldn’t you?  But we don’t, and we won’t unless we can ask about it in heaven.  And at that point, I suspect it won’t make much difference to us any more.
            As you heard, we deal today with the baptism of Jesus.  That’s mentioned in all of the gospels, but none of them go into detail about it.  In fact, Matthew’s version, which we read today, is the longest, and it’s only five verses.  But there’s a lot to unpack in those five verses of the Bible.
            For one thing, Jesus’ decision to be baptized by John was just that, a deliberate decision.  It was not something done at random.  It was not something done on a whim.  Jesus went well out of his way to make sure he was baptized by John.  It was about fifty or sixty miles from Nazareth to the area of the Jordan River where John was baptizing people.  And remember, Jesus would’ve had to walk the whole way.  There was some good, compelling reason why Jesus decided he needed to have John baptize him.
            We’re not told what that reason was.  John did not understand it, either.  In fact, we’re told that John basically asked him “What are you doing here?”  He said, “I need to be baptized by you, not the other way around.”
            Now, remember, even though Jesus had not started his ministry yet, John knew who he was.  Remember, John and Jesus were related, at least as far as earthly genealogy is concerned.  John’s mother was Elizabeth, who was a relative of Mary, and Mary went to see Elizabeth after she found out that she was going to give birth to Savior.  That story’s in the first chapter of Luke.  We don’t know how well Jesus and John knew each other, but it makes sense that Elizabeth would’ve told John about Jesus at some point.  And it makes sense that Mary would’ve told Jesus about John, too.
            So John knew who Jesus was.  And Jesus knew who John was.  And that’s why John could not understand why Jesus would be coming to be baptized by him.  And Jesus does not really explain it.  He just says, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”
            So John baptizes Jesus, and then comes the moment some of us have heard about so many times.  Matthew says, “Heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’”
            Do you think Jesus knew that was going to happen?  Do you think that, when Jesus made that fifty or sixty mile trip from Nazareth to the Jordan River, he knew the Spirit of God was going to descend on him and he was going to hear that voice from heaven?
            He could have, of course.  The Bible does not say one way or another.  But my guess is that he did not.  I don’t think Jesus knew what was going to happen when he was baptized.  He just knew that it was necessary, as he said, “to fulfill all righteousness”.  In other words, he knew it was what he was supposed to do.  He knew it was the right thing to do.  I don’t know that he expected all this to happen.  Maybe he did not expect anything to happen.  Maybe he did not even think about what might happen.  He just knew it was the right thing to do, and so he did it.
            And when you think about it, that really is one of the main reasons we baptize people today.  I mean, yes, we say that baptism is one of God’s means of grace, but what do we mean by that, really?  It means that baptism is one of the ways in which God’s grace comes into us and increases our faith, but that’s just describes what God does.  It does not explain why God would choose baptism as a means of grace.  It does not explain why God would tell us to be baptized and to baptize others.  It tells us what, not why.
            The fact is that we don’t know why God chose baptism as one of God’s means of grace.  I assume God could’ve chosen other things if God had wanted to.  God, being all-powerful, can put God’s grace into us by any method God chooses to use.  But baptism is one of the methods God chose.  And because God chose it, we assume that it’s right, and it’s what’s best, whether we can logically explain it or not.
            And so, we do it.  And we do believe that it’s important.  And we do believe it’s one of the ways God’s grace comes into us.  After all, the last words of Jesus on earth, as recorded in the gospel of Matthew, are “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
            Jesus told us that baptism was important.  And by his actions, he showed us that baptism is important.  And by what happened when Jesus was baptized--the Spirit of God descending on Jesus and the voice from heaven saying God the Father was well pleased with the divine Son--God the Father showed us that baptism is important.  It was important for Jesus Christ.  And it’s important for you and me.
            And if that’s not enough for you, then I really don’t know what to tell you.  Is baptism the golden ticket into heaven?  No, I don’t think so.  We’re saved by faith in Jesus Christ, and we are certainly capable of rejecting that faith even after we’re baptized.  We’re also capable of having that faith even when we have not been baptized.  After all, the thief on the cross next to Jesus was never baptized, and yet Jesus told him “today you will be with me in paradise”.
            But still, we know that baptism is important.  We know that baptism is one of the ways in which God’s Spirit comes into us, just as God’s Spirit came to Jesus at his baptism.  We know that baptism is one of the ways in which our faith is strengthened, even if we don’t understand how that works.  We know those things not because we can logically prove it, but because of Jesus’ words and Jesus’ example.
            What would’ve happened had Jesus not gone to the Jordan River to be baptized?  Would the Holy Spirit have descended on him at some other time in some other way?  Would God the Father still have been “well pleased” with him?
            We don’t know.  Jesus did go to the Jordan River to be baptized.  And he did that because it was proper.  He did that because it was what he was supposed to do.  He did that because he knew it was the right thing to do.  He did that because he knew it was what God the Father wanted him to do.
So for me, what this comes down to is two things.  One of them is faith, and the other is obedience.
            We accept the importance of baptism on faith.  We have faith that if Jesus did it himself, and if he told us to do it, then it must be important.  And we obey what Jesus said.  We obey because we know what Jesus knew.  We know that it’s proper.  We know that it’s what we’re supposed to do.  We know that it’s right.  And we know that it’s what God the Father wants us to do.
            When we baptize someone, we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen.  We don’t know if anything’s going to happen.  But we do it because we have faith in Jesus.  We do it out of obedience to God.  We do it because we believe that, if Jesus told us to do it, and if Jesus did it himself, then it must be important.  And we’d better do it, too, even if we don’t quite understand why or what happens when we do.
            Jesus was baptized because it was proper.  He was baptized because it was what he was supposed to do.  And when he did it, the Holy Spirit came upon him and God the Father said he was well pleased.  When we are baptized, the Holy Spirit comes upon us, too.  And when we baptize others, the Holy Spirit will come upon them.  And God will be well pleased, both with them and with us.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Does God Care About the Super Bowl?

The Super Bowl was played last Sunday.  It was an exciting game, if you care about football.  A lot of people do care, of course, and some of them care a lot.  But there are others who don’t care at all.  And that raises the question:  Does God care about the Super Bowl?

My answer is yes, but let me explain it.  I’m not suggesting God caused New England to win the game.  I’m not suggesting God is in heaven rooting for one of the teams.  And God might well think that we waste too much time and too much money on the Super Bowl, and on many other things, time and money that could be much better spent in serving God.

But I still believe God cares about the Super Bowl, and here’s why.  God cares about the Super Bowl because God loves us.

When you love someone, the things that are important to them become important to you, right?  The things they care about become the things you care about.  And there is a large number of human beings who care about the Super Bowl.  There is a large number of human beings to whom the Super Bowl is important.  And because God loves us, the things that are important to us become important to God.  The things we care about become things God cares about.

And because God loves us as individuals, it does not take a large number of people being interested in something for God to be interested in that something.  In fact, it only takes one.  To put it another way, it only takes you.  If you are interested in something, God is interested in it, because God loves you.  If you care about something, God cares about it, because God loves you.

And what that means is that if there is something on your mind, something bothering you, God cares about that.  Even if you think it’s a small thing.  Even if you think it’s a silly thing.  Even if you think it’s something that shouldn’t bother you.  If it bothers you, God cares about that.  And God wants to help you.  And so, you can go to God with that thing, no matter what it is.  You can pray to God about that thing, no matter what it is.

We often say that there’s nothing too big for God to handle.  That’s true, but there’s another side to it.  There’s also nothing too small for God to handle.  There’s nothing too small for God to be interested in.  There’s nothing too small for God to care about.  There’s nothing too silly for God to care about.  After all, God is the God of everything.  The big, the small, and everything in-between.

You and I can go to God with everything.  No matter how big, and no matter how small.  So whatever it is that may be troubling you, whatever it is that may be on your mind--big, small, or in-between--go to God with it in prayer.  God will be interested.  God will care.  God loves you.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

A Process of Becoming

This is the message given in the United Methodist churches of the Wheatland Parish on Sunday, February 5, 2017.  The Bible verses used are Luke 2:39-52.

            Our sermon series is “Beyond the Manger”, looking at the early life of Jesus.  When we left Jesus last week, he was about two years old.  He and Mary and Joseph went to Egypt to escape King Herod, who wanted to kill him.  After Herod died, they went back to Nazareth and, we assume, tried to pick up their lives again.
            The next thing the Bible tells us is ten years later, when Jesus was twelve.  And we’ll talk about that story in a minute, but don’t you wonder what happened to Jesus in those ten years?  And don’t you wonder what Jesus was like when he was a kid?  Was he like any other normal kid?  Did he run around with his friends?  Did he play with toys and misbehave and get into trouble occasionally? 
I mean, I know we’re talking about the divine Son of God here, but still, we say that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine.  A little kid misbehaving once in a while is not sin.  A little kid misbehaving once in a while is a little kid being a little kid.  It’s what they do.  Sometimes it’s how they learn.  Mary and Joseph obviously knew who their child was, because the angel Gabriel and the shepherds and the rest had told them.  But would an outsider, just observing Jesus growing up, have known there was something different, something special about him?  Or would Jesus have looked like just another little kid running around Nazareth?
We’ll never know, of course.  So now Jesus is twelve.  And understand, a twelve year old back then was considered a lot closer to being an adult than a twelve year old is today.  He would not have been considered an adult yet, but he would not have been that many years off.
But Jesus was still growing up, and he was living with his parents.  And every year, when the time of Passover came, they would go to Jerusalem to celebrate it there.  That’s what good Jews did, at least the ones who lived within a reasonable distance.  I’ve read that it was about a five day trip from Nazareth to Jerusalem.  By this time, Mary and Joseph probably had some other children, too, because we know from other passages of the Bible that Mary and Joseph did eventually have other children.  They go to the Passover festival, they do all the things they’re supposed to do, and they head for home.  Jesus is not with them, but they’re not too worried about that.  They’re in a big group, and Jesus is not a little kid any more.  He’s around somewhere.  They’ll find him later.  
But then, night falls, and they cannot find him.  They go around to all the people in the group.  “Have you seen Jesus?”  No one’s seen him.  So they head back to Jerusalem, and can you imagine how panicked they must have been?  I mean, it would be horrible to have your child be lost under any circumstances, right?  But you’re the parents of the Savior, the Messiah, the divine Son of God.  And you’ve gone and lost him!  What’s God going to say about that?
They search.  And think of how hard that search would’ve been.  Jerusalem was a city.  You read wildly differing estimates of how big it was, but it’s not like it was a small town.  And of course, you had no mass communication back then.  You could not put out an Amber Alert or something.  You could not even put someone’s picture on a milk carton.  All Mary and Joseph could’ve done was go house to house, building to building, asking people if they’d seen Jesus.
It took three days.  Three days of wondering where Jesus could be.  Wondering if they’d ever see him again.  Maybe wondering if, somehow, this could be part of God’s plan.  Then, they find him in the temple courts.  We don’t know why they went there, but they find Jesus there.  And he’s talking with the teachers like he’s their equal.  Asking them questions, responding to their questions, and amazing everyone with his understanding.  And when his parents tell him how worried they’ve been, he says, “Why were you searching for me?  Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”  But of course, Jesus went back to Nazareth with Mary and Joseph and continued to mature and grow in wisdom.
As usual, there are a lot of things we can take from this story.  But one of the things that has always interested me about Jesus is this:  at what point in his life on earth did Jesus really understand who he was and what he was supposed to do while he was here?
Some might say that he knew from the moment he was born.  And I cannot dispute that because, after all, we are talking about the divine Son of God here.  If you believe that even as a baby Jesus knew who he was and how his life was going to go I have no basis to argue with you.
What I suspect, though, is that Jesus had to go through a process of understanding who he was.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I still believe, as I said a couple of weeks ago, that Jesus was the Messiah, the king, from the moment he was born, just like the wise men said.  And he may have had some sense of that right away.  But I think he still had to grow, he had to develop, he had to mature.  After all, it was not until he was about thirty years old that Jesus started his ministry.  I have to think that he made good use of that time.  I think there’s some sense in which Jesus had learn how to be who he was supposed to be, who he was sent here to be.
I think there’s even a sense of that throughout Jesus’ ministry.  Early on, he has times when he gets angry and frustrated with people, including the disciples, when he tells them things and they just don’t get it.  But by the end, Jesus appears to be more sad when people don’t understand.  He’s resigned to it, understanding that that’s simply the way people are, that it’s really not their fault, and that, in the final analysis, that’s why he was sent here to save us--because we’d never be able to do it on our own.
I think there’s a sense in which that’s the journey we all go through as we go through life.  We start out with some sense of who we are.  But we need to grow.  We need to develop.  We need to mature.  We need to learn how to be who we’re supposed to be.  We need to learn how to be who we’re created to be.
And that’s not always an easy process.  It was not always an easy process for Jesus, and he was the divine Son of God.  It’s certainly not an easy process for you and me.  A lot of stuff happens to us along the way, and sometimes that stuff knocks us off the path of becoming who we’re created to be.  And sometimes it can take a long time to get back on that path.
As many of you know, it took me a long time to figure out how to be who I was created to be.  And I’m not saying I’m there yet.  Certainly I have a lot of things to improve, a lot of things to work on.  But what I mean is that I was forty-seven years old before I became a pastor.  And before that happened, I did a lot of things to try to find some sense of meaning, some sense of purpose in my life.  Some of them were work-related and some of them were not.  But I had a sense that I was not yet who I was supposed to be, that there was a hole in my life, and I was trying to fill it with all sorts of things.  I had to learn how to be who I was created to be.  And it was not always an easy process.
Now, the point here is not to hold myself up as a role model.  The point is that this is something that happens to a lot of us.  We take a long time to learn how to be who we were created to be.  And it’s a struggle sometimes.  We know there’s a hole in our lives, and we try to fill it with all sorts of things.  And sometimes we get angry and frustrated, both with ourselves and with other people.  And sometimes we get sad.  And sometimes it takes us a long time to get on the right path.
And so, for me, thinking about Jesus’ life in this way gives me a lot of hope.  I hope it gives you hope, too.  Because if even Jesus had to learn how to be who he was supposed to be, and if even Jesus struggled to do it sometimes, then it’s okay for us to struggle, too.  It’s okay for you and me to have trouble figuring out who we were created to be.  It’s okay if we need to grow, to develop, to mature.  And it’s okay if we don’t have it all figured out by the time we’re thirty.  It’s okay if we don’t have it figured out by the time we’re forty-seven.  It seems to me that Jesus was continuing to grow, to mature, to develop, right up until the end of his life on earth.  And I think you and I can expect to do that, too.
But think about what helped Jesus in his struggles.  It’s what he told Mary and Joseph when they found him in the temple.  He needed to be in his Father’s house.  He needed to stay as close to God as he could.  He knew that if he did that, God would help him figure it all out.  God would show him how to be who he was supposed to be.
And that’s what we need to do.  We need to stay as close to God as we can.  If we do that, God will help us figure it out, too, just as God the Father did for Jesus.  God will show us how to be who we’re supposed to be, who we’re created to be.  And then, it’s just a matter of following where God shows us to go.
            Life is a journey.  It’s a process.  And sometimes it’s a struggle.  But if we stay close to God, God will help us through those struggles.  God will show us show us how to be who we’re created to be.  God will be there every step of the way, just like God the Father was for 

Thursday, February 2, 2017


The Bible tells us that rather than saying “Tomorrow I will do this or that” we should say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”  I got an example of that this week.

Wanda and I had a nice plan for last Friday and Saturday.  Friday we were going to go to Pierre to have lunch with some pastor friends and their spouses.  Then we were going to go to Blunt to spend some time with Wanda’s parents.  Then, we’d go to Onida for Supper with the Pastor, then go back to Blunt to spend the night.  Then, on Saturday, we’d go to Armour to visit my parents, coming back to Blunt Saturday night.  Then we’d get up on Sunday and work our way back to Gettysburg, conducting our usual Sunday worship services on the way.

It was a good plan.  We liked it.  And Friday morning, we started to put it into action.  I gassed up the car, picked up Wanda, and we headed down to Pierre.  And about ten minutes later, we turned around and headed back to Gettysburg.  The wind, which hadn’t seemed all that bad in town, was blowing snow across the road.  A lot of it.  And some of it was sticking to the road, making it icy.  And so our plans changed.  We did not go to Pierre, we did not go to Blunt, we did not go to Onida, we did not pass Go, we did not collect two hundred dollars.  Instead, we stayed in Gettysburg the rest of Friday and all day Saturday.  We had a plan for Friday and Saturday, but it turned out that God had a different plan.

This has happened a lot in my life.  I make a plan, only to find out that God has a different plan.  At one time, my plan was that I’d work for the state in Pierre all my life.  God had a different plan.  At one time, my plan was that I’d be a lawyer in Wessington Springs for the rest of my life.  God had a different plan.  At one time, my plan was that I’d stay in North Sioux City for many years.  God had a different plan.  Right now, my plan is that we’ll stay in Gettysburg.  Will God have a different plan?  I guess we’ll see.

Now, the moral of this story is not that we should never make plans.  It’s really not possible to live your life that way.  But we need to remember that our plans are always subject to God’s will.  And that’s what our goal should always be:  to follow God’s will.

That can be tricky.  Sometimes we convince ourselves that our plan has to be God’s will.  And sometimes, we get really frustrated when it doesn’t seem to be working that way.  I’ve had times where I was completely convinced that what I wanted must be what God wanted, and I could not understand why things were not going the way I wanted them to go.  But eventually, sometimes after a long period of beating my head against the wall, I realized that I’d gotten too carried away with what I want, and I need to pull back and seek God’s will, rather than my own.

There’s nothing wrong with having plans.  But we always need to remember that our plans are subject to God’s plans.  If it is the Lord’s will, I’ll follow my plan.  But if it’s not, I hope I’ll follow God’s plan.  And I hope you will, too.