Category Archives: Bible

Can I help you?

As a pastor for the past 21 years, I would LOVE to be able to see exactly what my listeners in the congregation are thinking… and where they are in their faith journey to help steer my praying (my private praying mostly, but also the public prayers) and to guide my sermons to help where people really are. HOWEVER, we can’t see these thought bubbles in real life! We only have two resources in this: people sharing directly with the pastor about concerns, questions, and struggles, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. 
Because of the Holy Spirit, we do “get it right” quite often as we follow the Spirit’s leading and “nudging.” But what JOY when people talk directly with us and we can work directly with the Spirit to meet needs, offer clarification, provide comfort, extend a listening and caring ear, and pray personally with someone. 

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Filed under Bible, Church Leadership, Grief, prayer, Reflection, Response, sermons, worship

Faith AND Works?

When I grew up, many people tried to claim that all I had to do was believe in Jesus and pray the sinner’s prayer and I was good to go… forever. While that’s a great starting point, I was challenged by James’ words: “So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.” -James 2:17 (NLT)

And today, I ran across this Christian writer from antiquity who summed up the knowledge part of faith and the role of the “works” of faith really well:

“Even though knowledge is true, it is still not firmly established if unaccompanied by works. For everything is established by being put into practice.” – St. Mark the Ascetic, Philokalia, vol. 1, p 126, #12.

Maybe “faith put into practice” is a better way of thinking about faith and works! If our faith is based on on our head knowledge, it’s dead! But if we can put the faith we believe into practice, then we’re REALLY living out our faith!

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Filed under Bible, Church Leadership, Devotional, Reflection, Response

Eyes

As a child, one of the Sunday School songs started like this: “Be careful little eyes what you see…” and it reminded us that what we look at, affects our thinking, which affects our actions, which becomes a spiritual issue as well. Similar verses warned our ears and what we listen to, our hands and the things we choose to do, and finally our feet and where we choose to go.

I have been repeatedly returning to Psalm 119 over the past four or five months every once in a while and yesterday I got caught on verse 37: “Turn away my eyes from looking at worthless things, And revive me in Your way.” (New Living Translation).

I was immediately reminded of how many times I go online for some legitimate reason and “accidentally” find myself still online 20 minutes, an hour, or even several hours later. I need to redeem the time… and Facebook and Twitter can be tools and even very helpful, but they can be the door in to a longer, more wasteful, worthless online experience.

And it’s EVERYTHING we allow into our minds and hearts, isn’t it? Internet, video games, books, comics, magazines, songs (and lyrics), and the list could go on for quite a while…

Couple that with a crazy “selfie” picture that I had taken a couple of weeks ago when I had shaved my beard down and a new graphic reminder of this verse was born.

Enjoy… or be freaked  out… but heed the Scriptural truth.

psalm-11937-mixed-rendition

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REFLECTION: Romans 7:14-25

I know what I WANT to do, but I keep messing up. I want to do what is right. But my natural sinful tendencies are always with me. So like The Elephant & The Executive , I have to constantly choose to follow my head (where God’s will is clearly known) rather than my gut level natural reaction (which is always run by my sinful nature ).

The ONLY way to do that is to continually keep going to Christ… He alone can make a difference. That’s why David’s prayer pf repentance in Psalm 51 keeps emphasizing that which only God can do for him: have mercy, wash, cleanse, create, renew, restore, & save.

God has to CREATE something new in me. There will be NO pure heart without HIS involvement. It’s not about self-help or my will or my commitment. It’s me going back to Him constantly!

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Messianic Job Description

Many Jews of Jesus’ day were looking forward to the coming Messiah, the “Anointed One” who would save them. But they pictured being “saved” as being freed from Roman rule politically.

Check out Isaiah 61, one of the many passages that describe what the anointed one was to be about when he came to earth…

isaiah61_1

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me,
    for the Lord has anointed me
    to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted
    and to proclaim that captives will be released
    and prisoners will be freed.
He has sent me to tell those who mourn
    that the time of the Lord’s favor has come,
    and with it, the day of God’s anger against their enemies.
To all who mourn in Israel,
    he will give a crown of beauty for ashes,
a joyous blessing instead of mourning,
    festive praise instead of despair.

The focus isn’t directed toward the religious or the chosen… but rather the Anointed Messiah, Jesus, would be concerned with the poor (they get good news), the brokenhearted (they get comfort), the captives (they get release), the prisoners (they get freed), the mourners (they get hope along with God’s blessing and a crown of beauty and a praise party).

As ones who self-identify as followers of Jesus, his disciples of this modern era, are we about those same things? Are we spending a majority of our time, treasures, and ministry reaching out to those to whom the Anointed One was sent to minister to?

Why not?

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Dreading Christmas?

“Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign: Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and you shall call his name Immanuel.”

—Isaiah 7:14

Christmas is almost here again & people are pretty much doing one of three things: they’re looking forward to it, ignoring it, or dreading it. If you’re one of the ones looking forward to the holiday, you probably are one who has some very specific memories attached to Christmas from your own past. And it seems the day just can’t get here fast enough. (Just ask any 7 year old!)

It only takes a mild case of procrastination for one to ignore Christmas: “I’ll worry about Christmas when I get done with these other things.” And of course, you never get done with the other things in time. So this action eventually turns into dread.
For those dreading it, I suspect it may be financial. These are tough times. Yet Christmas is still coming.
But some that may be dreading Christmas have a much deeper reason than just finances. You see, there’s been a story going around for a while now that Christmas is actually a celebration of JESUS. And for those who, for whatever reason, hate Christianity and anything to do with Jesus, the Christmas holiday becomes almost a horror. You have to hear that name. The songs of old talk about the ‘new born king’ who is laid ‘away in a manger’ bringing ‘Joy to the world’ are just too much.
Often, these are the people who push aside the “Christ” of Christmas and opt for some “Happy Holidays” instead. And in the past seventy years or so, our society has even developed a whole canon of ‘Happy Holidays’ music so that Christmas can be celebrated without all that Christ talk. So now we hear the music of White Christmas, of Rudolf saving Santa, of Frosty and his magic hat, of grandma in a hit & run accident with a reindeer, of chestnuts being cooked by a fire, of a kid who wants teeth as a gift, and of another kid who’s misbehaved so much that he expects nothing for Christmas. And there’s even a few that are so suggestive that I’m embarrassed to even write about them.
What on earth do these songs have to do with Christmas? Very Little. And Lots. They have very little to do with the gift of a savior given by God Himself; sending his one and only son to live and die and be raised again.
But they also have a lot to do with Christmas because the savior who was born came to a world that wasn’t Christian and didn’t really even realize how much they needed a savior. They didn’t know God. They didn’t even know that they didn’t know him… let alone care.
The gushy, warm feelings of imagining a peaceful land without war is about as close to heaven as many people can ever get. In fact, without Jesus, it is as close as ANY of us could ever get. But with Jesus in our lives, we CAN know the peace of God.
Besides, the influence of Jesus Christ on the world around us is still pretty pervasive. Courts and marketplaces may have walked away from many of our earlier, Christian practices as a nation, but people the world over still know Christmas as a day of peace and hope, whether they know Jesus or not.
The first Bible passage I quoted, from Isaiah 7:14, is in the midst of God delivering Judah’s King Ahaz from an attack by a foreign army. God tells the king he’s going to deliver him from his enemies and he allows the king the privilege of a special sign as proof that God will keep his promise. Ahaz tells God “No.” He doesn’t want a sign. But the Lord gives him a sign anyway, so that everyone will understand that it was GOD ALMIGHTY who really rules and reigns. God’s sign describes a young woman who will give birth and have a miraculous son. And it goes on to describe how the birth, and life, of that child will be a reminder of God’s care for his people in Ahaz’s kingdom. In fact, whoever that little child was in Ahaz’s day, he didn’t grow very old before the enemies of Ahaz were no longer even nations! The child’s name was Immanuel. His name literally meant “God is with us!” Every time Ahaz (or anyone else) said this child’s name, they were reminded how much God was with them and how he had delivered them from their enemies. What a reminder! What a gift! What a gracious and loving God!
And yet, like so often in Scripture, God had a double meaning in that sign of the child. Yes, it referred to someone that Ahaz would have been able to see in his day (if not, then God would have been a liar). BUT God also was looking ahead to another day when another young woman, this one an actual virgin, would conceive and have a baby who would also be called Emmanuel… the very one that would save us from our sins.
And that second child, Emmanuel (from Greek) or Immanuel (from Hebrew) was truly more than just a reminder that God was with us… He literally was GOD WITH US!
In the midst of our day in and day out stuff that happens, even when it seems so ungodly and even hostile or painful, God is still with us. When the finances are tight, when the neighbors cause trouble, when things aren’t going well at work, God is still with us.
And, like Matthew did with a verse in Isaiah written to a king about an invading army, God will take seemingly unimportant things from our pasts and our surroundings and open up spiritual truths to us… helping us to see that God really is here with us at all times and in all places if we’ll turn to him.
And so it is that the world feels the ‘warmth’ of the season and celebrates as best as it can with “Happy Christmas’ and ‘Feliz Navidad,” and yet doesn’t realize that there’s more to the story. But as they see that story and peace exhibit itself in our lives, then they too will want what we have… and they won’t just have to imagine.

“Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.” —Matthew 1:23

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FLASH BACK: Half-Full or Half-Empty

On this Halloween 2016, a FLASH BACK to one of my classic posts: “Half-Full or Half-Empty from October 2006… and the essence of last week’s Sunday morning sermon…

 – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

waterFor this week’s sermon, I started with an object in hand: Half a glass of water. My question to the congregation was simply, “Is it half-full or half-empty?”

The answer of course, depends on your perspective… the way you choose to view the glass.

Are you an optimist? Then it looks half-full to you, doesn’t it?

Are you a pessimist? Then it looks half-empty, doesn’t it?

It all depends on your perspective!

There is only one glass, only one quantity of water, yet there are two different views you could have regarding that glass and that water. You could believe it to be half-full or you could believe it to be half-empty. And both answers seem to be acceptable answers and both seem to be right. It all depends on your perspective.

During this next couple of weeks, everyone around us will be focusing on the fun and festivities of Halloween, and many of us here in this sanctuary right now have already made plans for what our family will be doing that evening.

Halloween can be a lot of fun. If you are allowing your children to go trick or treating or to a Halloween party or whatever, I hope it is a fun event. It ought to be.

Throughout my adult life I have run the gammet on what I believe with Halloween as a Christian. When I worked at the Olean General Hospital as an orderly, I guess I still didn’t think about it too much. Somehow I would always end up working on October 31st, and the tradition was to dress up as a character of some sort. The only one I remember was that I spent one Halloween night (3:00 to 11:00) dressed as a modern prince. You know, three piece suit, cape, sash, crown, rings, dress shoes. Trying to do my job in that get up was a royal pain, to say the least. Especially when a patient died and, as the orderly, I had to take her to the morgue… dressed up in a suit… on Halloween night… and there was a full moon to boot.

Other years, as I’ve come to understand some of the realities of what all happens on Halloween night, like the razor blades, the drugs, the occult practices, I’ve refused to participate in the day at all. I had more of a fear of all the occultic stuff I guess.

Bit by bit, though, I have come to understand that it’s my perspective that makes the difference. Just like that glass of water… half-full or half-empty… it depends on your perspective.

I COULD look at Halloween as an evil holiday, originally instituted as a druid festival with heavy emphasis on the occult. I COULD focus on the druid “Lord Of Death” that supposedly sent evil spirits out on the night before ALL HALLOW’S DAY to roam the earth in search of food which, if not given, would cast an evil spell on the person who would not help. I COULD focus on the masks and costumes the Celts wore to try and convince the Lord of Death that they were just one of his spirits, so he should leave them alone.

And all of those things are true. They are the reason behind our “give us a treat or we’ll play a trick on you” attitude of trick or treat and our dressing up in costumes. But I think that just might be the wrong perspective. That’s fear speaking.

We have been taught as Christians that we are in the world but not of it. We have to be a part of the world. We’ve been called to be in the world… rubbing shoulders with the everyday people, with sinners, with mean people, and yes, even with those who don’t understand us or our Lord. We, as Christians, will continue to encounter those people every day, because we are IN the world. But we don’t have to be LIKE the world. Because we’re the ones who know the HOPE that there is through Jesus Christ.

Jesus said in his sermon on the mount, that we are to be salt. (Matthew 5:13) Salt is never very good on its own, but it always changes the taste of the food it is put on. And the salt itself never gets to really choose what food it will affect…it has the same effect on every piece of food it touches… it makes it more salty. It gives it a new taste.

I guess that’s where I am now with my understanding of my responsibility as a Christian when it comes to Halloween. I must be salt and help change its flavor. I need to help redeem this holiday like Christians in the past helped to redeem midwinter pagan rituals and gave rise to our current birthday celebration for Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

What does that mean, in practical terms, for me as a Christian then? I have discovered two practical ways that I can help redeem this holiday as a salty Christian. I’ll take the good of this holiday and focus on that and draw people’s attention to the truth.

First of all, I can emphasize the good things, while taking a stand against the evil. As our children have grown, we have deliberately allowed them to dress up for the Halloween parties at school, and let them go to select neighbors’ houses for trick or treat… but never were they allowed to hide their faces behind a Freddy mask or dress as a goblin, a witch, or a vampire. We reject that part of the ancient traditions of Halloween of trying to convince the evil one that we are just another demon spirit so that hopefully he’ll leave us alone. The Bible says that Jesus Christ is greater than any other spirit. And followers of Christ have nothing to fear.

So we could allow our girls to play dressup, and still take a stand against the false belief that we must fear the evil spirit lord. In fact, for this next weekend’s costume party out at the church camp, thrown by the youth group for ALL of the church, my kids will have the option to be dressed up if they want, without a mask, without the evil disguises. And without the fear.

One year one of the girls decided to be an angel and the other was Sleeping Beauty. One time Michele was Pocahontas and Sarah was a skunk. They dressed up and had fun. And they can again this year as well.

And yes, if kids come to our door this year for trick or treating, we’ll have a treat for them… not because we’re scared of the repercussions if we don’t, but because my Bible speaks of generosity, and “suffering the little children.”

The other aspect of what I need to be doing as a Christian when it comes to Halloween is to recognize the underlying spiritual message of this holiday.

The message of today’s modern Halloween is still spiritual, and I don’t just mean the occultic influences…. it is a pre-occupation with death… and what comes after we die. Just take a look at the decorations in the stores, on homes, and on the TV… We have ghosts and skeletons and gravestones and the un-dead (whatever that’s supposed to be). We hear of evil spirits and witches and “bubble, bubble, toil, and trouble.” And Hollywood always seems to have a new thriller/horror movie out that packs the movie theatres.

Halloween, and the time leading up to it, is the one time of year that our society says it’s OK to deal with death. And seemingly everyone becomes fascinated with it. My responsibility as a Christian, trying to be salt and redeem some of this holiday, is to recognize the spiritual hunger that I see during this Halloween season.

Because we all hunger for a reality in the spiritual world. We long for there to be forces at work on our behalf in the spiritual dimension. We have a society that literally cries out in abandon at Halloween for there to be an answer to death… to spiritual life. And they fall back on “ancient wisdoms”. They try to control the spirit world on demand, they try to conjur and channel and image. They look for spiritual truth.

And so often, we Christians deny there’s any spiritual dimension to the day (or we go the other extreme and refuse to even acknowledge it). I believe we have a responsibility to acknowledge the spiritual hunger… because we are the ones who have the bread of life… Jesus Christ as our Lord and our Savior.

And we are the ones who know the most about death… because Jesus came back from there and said,

 

I am the resurrection and I am life.
Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.
I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last, and I hold the keys of hell and death.
Because I live, you shall live also.

We have nothing to fear from death, because Jesus defeated death. All death has left, is fear.

Knowing that we would have trouble understanding this, Jesus, just before he went to Calvary, took the disciples aside and spent some time with them explaining what was on the other side of death and how to face it on this side during our lives. He didn’t say we had to wear evil disguises and hide our faces. No treats or offerings to demon spirits were needed. He simply said that we shouldn’t be afraid… and then went on to tell us about the other side of death, for those who allow Jesus to be both their Lord and their Savior. He simply said:

 

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me. In my father’s house, there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.
Because I live, you also will live.
Peace, I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.
Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

When Jesus spoke of us as salt, he never expected us Christians to just act like Christians when we are at church. He spoke of us as salt so that we would get a clear picture of our role in this world. We help even the bad stuff seem better. Not by sugar coating evil nor by compromising our standards, but by recognizing spiritual hunger and offering spiritual bread… a life with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Because, when all is said and done, and the final analysis is in, it is JESUS that this Halloween minded society is looking for. The questions concerning spiritual forces are answered when Jesus proclaims I AM THE WAY. And in all our uncertainty, Jesus answers even our unspoken, unuttered questions, by declaring I AM THE TRUTH. And our questions concerning death and the afterlife are answered when Jesus reveals: I AM THE LIFE.

I have a mission this Halloween… to redeem what I can of the good, take a stand against that which is evil, and to lift up the truth of Jesus Christ.

Because you see… the glass really is… half-full.

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Filed under Bible, Church Leadership, Death, holidays, sermons