Big Jim Is Coming!

Scripture: Matthew 3:1-12 (Good News Translation)

1 At that time John the Baptist came to the desert of Judea and started preaching. “Turn away from your sins,” he said, “because the Kingdom of heaven is near!” John was the man the prophet Isaiah was talking about when he said,

“Someone is shouting in the desert,
    ‘Prepare a road for the Lord;
    make a straight path for him to travel!’”

John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair; he wore a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. People came to him from Jerusalem, from the whole province of Judea, and from all over the country near the Jordan River. They confessed their sins, and he baptized them in the Jordan.

When John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to him to be baptized, he said to them, “You snakes—who told you that you could escape from the punishment God is about to send? Do those things that will show that you have turned from your sins. And don’t think you can escape punishment by saying that Abraham is your ancestor. I tell you that God can take these rocks and make descendants for Abraham!10 The ax is ready to cut down the trees at the roots; every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown in the fire. 11 I baptize you with water to show that you have repented, but the one who will come after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. He is much greater than I am; and I am not good enough even to carry his sandals. 12 He has his winnowing shovel with him to thresh out all the grain. He will gather his wheat into his barn, but he will burn the chaff in a fire that never goes out.”

 = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Imagine, if you will, the Old West of America’s past. There is this rider coming into town as fast as his horse will carry him shouting: “BIG JIM IS COMING! BIG JIM IS COMING!”

People scurry about and run away, and within minutes the town is basically empty. It’s a ghost town, except for the barkeeper over at the saloon.

At the exact stroke of 1:00, there is this huge, mean-looking man who walks through the door of saloon. As he gets to the bar, he looks at the barkeeper and gruffly says: “Give me a whiskey!”

The poor barkeeper is scared almost out of his senses, but he grabs a bottle of whiskey and hands the whole bottle to the guy. The man bites off the top of the bottle and  downs the entire contents in one swallow.

The barkeeper ventures over and timidly asks: “You want another, mister?”

The guy looks up in astonishment and replies: “Are you kidding? I gotta get outta here! Haven’t you heard, BIG JIM IS COMING!”
You know, John the Baptist was looked at the same way as the man at the bar in that story.  People thought HE must be the Messiah that they had been waiting for centuries. But he was just the precursor… a forerunner. Sort of like seeing the previews before the feature presentation at the movies… you can get a glimpse of what the future movie will be about, but you cannot see the whole thing right yet. THAT was who John the Baptist was. Prophetic scripture says John’s purpose was to PREPARE THE WAY FOR THE LORD!

In 2004, when the Olympics came to Georgia, the whole city got a facelift. Bridges were repaired. Blocks of dilapidated buildings were razed and new structures were built. Roads were repaved. Entire buildings were repainted.

WHY?

Because “company was coming.”

We do that too when really important company is coming to our homes right?

Well, that’s what John the Baptist was doing. He came to help the people of God of the first century get ready for company. God Almighty was coming in human form: Jesus.

He called them to prepare by repenting; reexamining their spiritual walks, their spiritual lives.

Their ancestors had been set free from slavery to Egypt back in the days of Moses and brought into the promised land through the Jordan River by Joshua. But since that time, they had turned their hearts and become enslaved to sin. John offered them the chance to renounce sin as their master and re-enter the Jordan as a symbol of re-entering the promised land. Once again, to leave their enslavement in the waters of the Jordan.

Now, I realize, that many are wondering why I’m preaching about John the Baptist before Christmas. Because it’s ADVENT, the time of waiting, the time of preparation. And also because, even though Christians the world over are spending almost a month pretending that Jesus hasn’t been born yet, the truth is that he was born over 2000 years ago and grew up and John the Baptist prepared the people for his coming to the Israelites of his day. And then Jesus ministered to them and died for them and was raised to life for them to be their Savior, their Lord, their Master.

He died for US and was raised to life for US to be OUR Savior, OUR Lord, OUR Master.

That’s the real message of Christmas isn’t it? That’s the real message of HOPE! Not that Jesus is a powerless little baby that WAS a long time ago. NO, but rather Christmas is about how that helpless baby grew up, showed us how to live, and then died for us, was raised to life by God, ascended into Heaven and IS STILL ALIVE EVEN NOW! AND HE IS THE LORD!! He’s no longer helpless and all we have to do is feel the joy of new life and new birth. Rather, we are called into relationship with the grown up, crucified, resurrected, and ascended LORD!

And the time of waiting, for US, isn’t to see Him come as a baby in a country 10,000 miles away in an insignificant little town in a third world country. The truth is that we wait for HIS RETURN to the earth, not as a baby, but as Lord, as the Coming Conqueror who will put an end to sin and death, fear and suffering and pain. We wait for His coming.

The question for us is the same question John the Baptist was asking: Are you prepared for the soon coming of the Lord??

But more too… Are those around us prepared? It wasn’t enough for John to be prepared, for he surely was. He wanted to see his fellow countrymen and women prepared as well. How about us?

Are we prepared for Christ’s return? Are we ready to see Him, either in His second coming or by going to Him through death?

How about our families? Our friends? Our co-workers? Are they prepared? The Bible doesn’t have much of a pretty picture for those who are not. This is important stuff… ETERNALLY!

Before Christ came into his ministry as deliverer and savior, God sent John to prepare the way. Before Christ comes again, before our fellow workers, friends, and families met Christ, God has sent you and me as the modern-day John who warns others: “Are you ready?”

 – – – First preached at Spartansburg & Parade Street UMCs Dec. 6, 1998 – – –

Leave a comment

Filed under Advent, Church Leadership, sermons

Christmas Offerings


A year ago on this date, our family went to a Christmas party for pastors and their families. After the party we went into the sanctuary of the host church and just sang Christmas carols and worshipped our Lord Jesus. When we were getting ready to leave, adults started talking and visiting, and little Miss Elizabeth got bored (quickly) and started looking around. We hadn’t taken an offering that night, and she’s been in worship enough to know we usually “pass the plates.” So when she saw the empty plates, she walked around giving folks a chance to give to Jesus. 
So many people expect the church to meet their needs; MY kind of music, MY kind of ritual or casual style, MY pastor ‘feeding’ me. But our granddaughter, still a month before we finally were allowed to adopt her, had caught one of the keys of real worship: Real worship is about what we bring to church to GIVE to God. Clear back to Old Testament times we read how the people worshipped by taking an offering to give to God (a bull, a lamb, a bird, some of your grain perhaps). Other than that, you would bring your praises and singing, your prayers, and a heart that was ready to listen for God to speak in your heart. And then worship continued as you went home and lived for God according to His ways as much as you were humanly able. 

As I look at this picture of our granddaughter/daughter with her attempt to mimic the missing piece of worship that night (in her eyes), I am reminded that as we approach Christmas and as we approach any Sunday worship gathering: What gift am I giving to Jesus? How about you? What will you give him?

Give him your teachable heart. Give him your listening ear. Give him your excitement and praise and joy. And yes, give him whatever physical or financial offering you feel he’s leading you to give. And there’s one more thing you COULD give… Give him the one silent, unspoken, often unrecognized gift you can offer: the gift of giving God your time by simply being present. That’s often one of the hardest parts because there are lots of good activities and good groups that decide to make competing programs, practices, and fundraisers at the exact same time as the time your church has worship services. For you to give your time is truly a sacrifice. Which is how worship started so long ago. 

What will you give Jesus this year for his birthday? Give him your best!

Leave a comment

Filed under Church Leadership, holidays, Methodist, worship

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Bible, holidays, Newsletter

Good Grief!

I love being an American. The freedoms, the pride, the heritage, the beauty of this land. They stir my heart.

But when it comes to this area of dealing with death and grief… our American culture fails pretty badly.

To start with we are a death-denying culture… Until a big crisis or disaster, we don’t talk about death. We act immortal, like nothing we ever do will hurt us and we can live forever.

And IF something happens that DOES capture our attention in this area, and death hits our own families or perhaps a famous person like Dale Earnhardt or Robin Williams or Princess Di, we couch our feelings and emotions in our own little mythologies… Trying to comfort each other with phrases about how God needed another angel so that must be why that particular person had to die. And our attempts at helping the one struggling with grief usually boils down to well-meaning, yet useless phrases like, “Be strong for your kids,” or telling parents who’ve lost a child: “Well, you can have more” or telling a young boy who’s lost a dad that he’s got to be the man now… and “men don’t cry.”

Most of the time, when we’re dispensing our own brand of seeming wisdom, we’re more likely to simply avoid anyone that we know is dealing with grief.

They feel the pain of loss, and we feel badly for them, we want them to feel better, so we either want to say “the right words” that’ll make them feel better and make their grief go away or we don’t want to be around them because we’re afraid we’ll say something that will make them feel worse… and then we’ll feel worse. So we don’t talk about it.

I’m reminded of a poem I once heard that talked about this uneasiness we feel, especially in America, and how hurtful it is for people to respond that way…

“The Elephant in the Room”

There’s an elephant in the room.
It is large and squatting,
so it is hard to get around it.
Yet we squeeze by with “How are you?”
and “I’m fine” …
And a thousand other forms of trivial chatter.
We talk about the weather.
We talk about work.
We talk about everything else –
except the elephant in the room.

There’s an elephant in the room.
We all know it is there.
We are thinking about the elephant as we talk together.
It is constantly on our minds.
For, you see, it is a very big elephant.
It has hurt us all.
But we do not talk about the elephant in the room.
Oh, please say her name.
Oh, please say “Barbara” again.

Oh, please, let’s talk about the elephant in the room.
For if we talk about her death,
Perhaps we can talk about her life.
Can I say “Barbara” to you and not have you look away?
For if I cannot, then you are leaving me
Alone …
In a room …
With an elephant.

Paul, in First Thessalonians, chapter 4, writes that he doesn’t want the Christians there to be “ignorant” about those who “have fallen asleep”… those who have died… But his reason is more than to just give knowledge or to be theologically clear… He says that he wants to clear up the confusion surrounding the death of Christians so that the Christians there who are still alive won’t “grieve as others do who have no hope.”

Essentially, Paul is filling us in that there is a Christian way of grieving… there can be “Good Grief.”

If grieving is the process of coming to terms with the feelings of loss… and then finding the comfort we so desperately need so that we can move on with the rest of our life… then part of the question is where do we find that kind of comfort… or as Paul said it… that kind of HOPE… that kind of help.

As Christians, instinctively, we turn to the Scriptures… and the Scriptures declare:

“My help comes from the Lord”

The first way God can help us in times of grief or trouble, is through the Scriptures. We read in the Bible what it has to say about death, about dying, about what follows this life, about what happens to those who die in the Lord… to those who die as believers in Jesus Christ.

In the Bible we find that those believers who have already died are called a “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1)… and the Bible describes those dead believers as ones who are watching us here like spectators in the grandstands, rooting and cheering for us as we complete our part of the relay race of faithful living.

In the Bible, we find comforting words like Isaiah 57:1 where it says that “The righteous man perishes, & no one lays it to heart; devout men are taken away, while no one understands. For the righteous man is taken away from calamity.” And in Revelation 14 we read:

“And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” –Rev. 14:13

In the Bible we read that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (II Cor. 5:8)… and that when we find ourselves in that resurrection of the dead when we find ourselves before our Lord, we shall be like him as he is… And we know what that will be like because the Bible says that Jesus’ resurrection was the “firstfruits” the downpayment and example of what our resurrection will be like… You want to know what it’ll be like in that final resurrection… you look at what Jesus was like after his resurrection…

Notice, he knew the people around him and they were able to recognize him… and he wasn’t relegated to some lower status as an angel… one who simply serves God and His creatures… No, to die and be resurrected is to step into the inheritance of the kingdom… not become mere lowly angel…

Not only does the Bible help us understand what happens after death for the believer… but it points us to how to find the comfort and help we need in times of our own grief and loss.

We read words like these:

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

 [2 Corinthians 12:9a; KJV]

“Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also… I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you… Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”   [John 14:1-3, 18, 27; KJV]

 

“Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine. When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.”                                                         [Isaiah 43:1b-2; KJV]

Well, if the first part of “Good grief” is the truths of Scripture, the second component would have to be prayer.

The Bible tells us that if we seek God, we WILL find Him… When we look for God in prayer, He WILL be found by us. (Jeremiah 29:13-14)

In another place, we are told that God says of us: “He shall call upon me and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him and honor him. (Ps. 91)

And again we read: “If you abide in me and I in you, you shall ask what you will and it shall be done unto you.” (John 15:7)

If we want to know His help, his comfort, we have only to ask…. and God will be with us… In fact, at Christmas time we hear how one of the names of Jesus is “Emmanuel”… which means God Is With Us. (Matthew 1:23)

Part of the “good” experience of grief we can have as Christians is through our seeking God in prayer.

The third component of this “Good Grief” I want to share with you this morning comes from the body of Christ itself… through the people of God, the believers.

In the book of Romans we read that as children of God, as followers of Jesus Christ, we are expected to “rejoice with those that rejoice & weep with those that weep…”

God, through his people, weeps with us, even as we stand in line to pay our respects, or bring food to the family so they don’t have to cook or buy groceries in the midst of those crucial first days when they are just coming to grips with the enormous loss in their lives.

God is with us, in a baby’s laughter, which is so contagious… so wonderful, so releasing… And we hear God reminding us that life and love go on.  I can’t tell you the number of times when God has used the children and the babies as a healing touch from Himself during the days leading up to the final goodbye to a parent, grandparent, brother or sister.

But God is especially with us, through his people, when we sit around and remember the good things of our life together with the one we’ve lost. We share the stories… We share the memories… even the heartbreaks.

That’s why it’s such a ministry for churches to offer funeral dinners, not as a fundraiser, but as a ministry… because after the final goodbye… it’s time for the people of God to help those who’ve lost a loved one to remember the ways that God touched their lives and the life of the deceased… That way, no one ever gets left in a room alone with an elephant.

God is with us when we, the brother or sister in Christ, takes time out to just listen… not to give the right answers… but to be the right listener… Even though the grieving person may sometimes not make sense or may repeat themselves. Sometimes, it’s just hanging out with someone… and sharing silence… together.

Part of our healing comes as we sepnd time together with the rest of the body of Christ… that’s why it’s so important to remember to include those who’ve faced loss in our plans…

And just one more word about grief and loss, particularly as Christians, before we wind this up…

It’s not just the death of a loved one that leads us into grief is it?

There are all kinds of deaths and losses in our lives… even as Christians.

Death of a marriage, estrangement of a son or daughter… or parents… loss of health… loss of a job… and more…

These all lead us into grief… and, as Christians, there is a “Good Grief” available as we turn to the truths of Scriptures, turn to God in prayer, and turn to our brothers and sisters in Christ and let them help us walk through the pain of grief and loss.

This morning, I want to especially invite anyone who is especially feeling the sting of grief, the effects of loss, whether because of death or some other loss… I want to invite you to pray with me… Please feel free to come to the altar rail and I’ll pray for you here and now… Maybe that prayer is right there where you are in your pew… and maybe you want to just jot me a note that says “Pastor, I’m facing that kind of pain, the pain of grief, in this situation… or that…” or maybe you just want to let me know you’d like to talk later…

Perhaps, you realize that you’re in the throes of grief and loss, but have never accepted Jesus as your Lord, your Savior, and so you don’t feel His comfort… you’re missing out on His help. Remember, God Himself said He’d be found if you just started looking for Him… Ask Jesus to come into your life and heart and make you one of His children.

Leave a comment

Filed under Church Leadership, Death, Grief, sermons

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.

Leave a comment

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

Blessed To Be A Blessing

This morning’s Scripture Text, Genesis 12:1-7, along with the rest of the passages that talk about Abraham and his relationship with God, may very well be the “key” to understanding the Old Testament, and the New Testament as well.

Our understanding of how God relates to his chosen people, the children of Israel, and later, by spiritual adoption, to the church, can all be traced back to Abraham and his relationship with God.

A basic understanding of the dynamics and tensions in our current world situation, as shown nightly on the evening news, can be traced as well to this point in the Holy Scriptures; for the Christian, Jewish, and even Muslim religions trace their history back to Abraham.

Several themes that we see throughout Scripture, have their birth here.

  • A chosen people,
  • Abraham’ “seed,”
  • Separating ourselves from the evil in the world,
  • following God’s leading…even when we don’t understand where He’s taking us,
  • the need for sacrifice if we are to truly worship God. It starts here.

What is it that is so important? What happens that opens up the mystery of the scriptures?

Just this: God Almighty, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, makes a promise to his friend Abraham.

A promise. Actually a covenant.

While I don’t intend to delve into all of the depths of the Abrahamic Covenant this morning, I do want to zero in on a couple parts of Abraham’s story.

First, how God calls him, and then on one portion of that covenant between God and Abraham. We don’t know a lot about Abraham before he was 75 years old. We know his name was originally “ABRAM” which means high father, but that God later honors him with a new name: “ABRAHAM” which means father of multitudes.

Chapter 11 of Genesis tells us his family tree and that the family originally came from a city called “UR” down near the Persian Gulf. We are told in Gen. 11:31 that Abraham’s father “TERAH took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to [the town of] Haran, they settled there.”

I suspect that Terah and his family already knew this God personally. For them to hear God tell them to leave their home, and then for them to actually get up and get moving, suggests that they might actually have known Him somehow. I wonder if some of the family stories about a loving, caring God who wanted relationship with His created people had been handed down generation to generation from Adam and Eve all the way to Noah had continued to be told and remembered after the ark by his descendants, all the way to Terah.

And the call of God comes to Terah’s family while they in UR to go to Canaan, but they got about halfway and settled down.  How many times are we like that? We hear God calling us to do something or we know that he wants us to do something, and we get started, but somewhere along the way get distracted and get comfortable and never quite finish the job.

I can understand that. I am told that I was like that with my parents when I was growing up. I was always the obedient son, you know, but on occasion, very rarely I’m sure, but on occasion, I would be asked to do something (like clean my room) and I would start, like a good obedient child should, but I’d get distracted by the missing comic book I had been looking for and had just found, or by a newly refound missing toy, or a book, or a ball, or whatever. (Actually, it didn’t take much at all to get me distracted.) But the end result was, I never finished the job…on my own.

And no matter how good our intentions, no matter how obedient our beginnings, it only counts in the final tally if we finish the task. The family stops in Haran and Terah dies there.

But God reissues the call, like a loving patient parent reminds us to get back to our assigned task, God speaks to Abraham to GO and offers him this covenant. And Abraham obeys.

Look again with me, if you will, to our first exposure to that covenant: Genesis 12:1-3.

The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you;  I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth  will be blessed through you.”

The key is right there in verse 2: “I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.”

“I will bless you… and you will be a blessing.”

Ever since Adam’s sin in the garden of Eden, sin had played havoc on all living creatures. The curse of sin allowed sickness, disease, stubborness, jealousy, perversion, arrogance, meanness to become daily partners with the very people that God had intended to have a constant, daily friendship with.

And when He found a man who was hungry for that kind of relationship with God, He began opening up the gates of Heaven.

All of the basic foundational principles of the Bible are here. God wants to have a daily friendship relationship with his people. He wants to bless them…he wants to have a daily friendship relationship with US. He wants to bless us.  But sin continues to separate us from God and, basically, ties God’s hands. He provides the way for us to have relationship with him, but we must choose to accept that. Abraham had to continue on with sacrifices of animals as temporary sacrifices. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is our sacrifice and we need only accept Jesus as our Lord and savior.

But the fact remains, God wants to pour out blessings on us. But catch the reason why… “I will bless you… and you will be a blessing.”

It’s not JUST that He loves us and wants to bless us…He loves ALL.

What does John 3:16 say again? For God so loved who?  Not just the Jews. Not just the Christians. The world. The WHOLE world! Because he loved the world, he sent his son Jesus Christ to die in our place.

But he chooses us, the people of God, in the same way that he chose Abraham and his descendants, the Israelites. He chooses us to bless SO THAT WE CAN BE A BLESSING TO OTHERS. We were never meant to just be blessed. WE are blessed so that we can bless others… so that God, through us, can change lives that are still bound by sin.

I love the way the Apostle Paul words it in the New Testament…

Galatians 3:13-14 (NIV) Christ redeemed us… in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.

How about you? Have you been blessed by God? Salvation? Physical blessings? Relationship blessings? Financial blessings? Blessings of physical strength or special skills?

If you HAVE been blessed, then God has deliberately chosen you to be His way of blessing others. Not that you have to give away everything and live in a cave in the desert, but rather you and I DO have a responsibility to share the blessings we have received with those others in need when we become aware of their need.

Leave a comment

Filed under Church Leadership, sermons

Whose Job Is It?

Back home, in my home church, the Shinglehouse UMC, the bulletin each week listed the pastor, the organist, and then listed: “Ministers: All The People.”

That basic idea is also one of Methodism’s foundational beliefs: that everyone who follows Jesus is a “minister.” And a few of those ministers are asked to be pastors as well.

That little church had captured that. The pastor is there as servant, administrator, and preacher, but most of the ministry of the church actually comes from the lay people who sit in the pews each and every Sunday.

In John 13:3-17, we read how Jesus got up from the table and took off his outer clothing. Kneeling down like a servant, he washed the feet of all the disciples.

Now, this is the last night before his crucifixion. The Twelve still don’t ‘get it’ that he’s about to die, so he tries one more time to remind them of key lessons. He chooses this idea of serving and ministering to others as one of those keys. And Jesus goes about it in a way that they cannot forget. He, the leader, the master, the teacher, the KING, starts acting like one of the lowest of slaves. He gets down and washes their feet.

HE serves THEM!

Verse 4 reads: “so he got up from the table…”  and he washes their feet. Later in verse 26, he is back sitting at the table and dipping the bread. Jesus shows them, and us, that service can sometimes be inconvenient; maybe even in the middle of a meal. Now, this was arguably the most famous meal in history (The Last Supper). Yet, by his own example, we see that even a meal is no excuse to keep us from serving others.

When I was growing up, my Grandma Mix really demonstrated this. I remember the big Sunday dinners  when she was up & down, back & forth, throughout the meal; making sure there were enough potatoes or meat or beverage or vegetable. If she saw that one of us needed something, especially my Grandpa, she would drop her fork, with food still on it, to go get whatever was needed.  Then she would return to her plate.

That’s what Jesus did here. Even though it’s the middle of the meal, he stops eating and takes off his outside coat, rolls his sleeves up (so to speak), grabs a towel, and starts washing feet.

Sometimes service as His disciple will be equally inconvenient, yet still necessary. Yet how many times do we say, ‘Sure, but just wait for awhile, I’m busy now.’?

ALSO, notice that he washes Judas Iscariot’s feet too. They sit down to the meal, Jesus gets up, washes feet, and then goes back to the meal. That’s when he says that the one who will betray him is the one he gives the bread to, and then Scripture even records Jesus talking to Judas. There is no question about it: Judas was there when Jesus washed feet.

How many times do we say we want to serve Christ, but then refuse to serve some just because they’ve  hurt us in some way?  Unfortunately, we are more likely to say something like “If that’s the way she’s going to be, then just see if I ever try to help her again!” Yet here is Jesus, who already knows what Judas is up to and what he’s about to do, and he still serves Judas!

And lest we think that this is just a message for just the “church leaders” on how to serve their church and their God, look towards the end of this passage in John 13:

15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

ANY of us who call ourselves followers of Christ are his disciples and are called to follow his example.  We are to be involved in service; through the local church and as individuals. How has he equipped you to help this church serve those around us?

Throughout this month our Nominations & Lay Leadership Committee will be recruiting people to serve on the 2017 Ministry Team. Where does God want you? Has he called you to a specific ministry?

It reminds me of the story I once read about “Who’s Job Is It?”

This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody. There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done. (author unknown)

Jesus is our example here. We are to serve. We are to serve even if it’s inconvenient. We are to serve even those whom we don’t like or who hurt us. But how we serve speaks of how we love our Lord.

(Adapted from the Sunday morning sermon on September 18, 2016 and used as the pastor’s letter for the Carmichaels: First United Methodist Church newsletter, October 1, 2016)

Leave a comment

Filed under Church Leadership, Methodist, sermons