Tag Archives: Gospel of Matthew

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 – – –

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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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Call To Me…

Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.” –Jeremiah 33:3 (NIV)

Last month I had the chance to sit in on one of the adult Sunday School classes here in my new church setting. The discussion was already underway, so I just listened and discovered they were talking about Romans and someone had drawn a comparison to something in Ezekiel. The idea raised was pretty interesting so I decided to look it up later on. But when I actually made it to some alone time that evening, I accidentally opened up to Jeremiah, chapter 33 to be specific. And verse three (quoted above) just captured my heart and mind!

And that quick, I “heard” God offering me that same opportunity he had given to the prophet some six centuries  before Jesus’ birth.

Jeremiah had been arrested and confined in Jerusalem during the time that the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzur had besieged the city. Jeremiah heard God’s calls for the nation to repent, and he faithfully shared those divine messages, but they fell on deaf ears. Furthermore, the leadership of his nation, King Zedekiah, wasn’t listening to sound counsel, nor was he turning to God to repent and do things God’s way. Jeremiah had to have  moments of doubt and wondering and grief and sorrow over what he could see was coming for his beloved land.

Now-a-days we are half-way around the world and over two and a half millenia have passed since Jeremiah’s day. I have days when I wonder what’s going to become of this land I love so much. Nobody seems to want to hear the call to repentance that God still extends to all. The leadership in our political parties and in official government positions seem intent at times to not only reject God’s ways, as laid out in the Bible, to actively promote the violating of any “rule” God might have laid down. Some of us have been wondering where this is all going to end… especially in light of what seems like hopeless choices for the election of various officials throughout our governmental system… or even our church organizations, allegedly “the people of God” and yet seemingly intent on turning our back on anything God has asked of us… at least if it involves repentance from sin.

This verse, as it JUMPED OUT at me that night, reminded me that my first responsibility in those moments of wondering about the future, or my country, or even my church, is not to cry out in frustration or to vow to vote for this one or that one or to try to come up with my own plans to “keep the peace.” Rather, Jeremiah 33:3, reminds me that my PRIMARY responsibility as I look around at all that’s happening is to…

… simply call out to God.

“Call to me and I will answer…”

And that quickly, the anxiety begins to lift a little and Jesus’ inviting words flood back into my memory:

28 Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”   —Matthew 11:28-30 (NIV)

Jeremiah, even though he was facing overwhelming odds and great certainty that everything was falling apart, could call out to God and lay down his burdens before his lord. As I look at the uncertainty of my life, my nation, my health, my church denomination, my wife and children’s futures, my finances, even my own mental health… I can call out to my God and lay out all my burdens before Him… and give those burdens to him! He’ll take on those burdens and give me rest… and hope… and peace… even in a world that seems like its going to pot.

Oh yes, Lord! Remind me again and again that there is NO reason for me to carry all my cares, concerns, and burdens alone. Remind me to CALL to you and then lay these other things down to you as I simply draw closer to You, to learn from you and hear You. And I can then trust You to answer me and show me Your ways… even though I cannot see them from here. AMEN!

 

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End Times Requirements

(sermon notes)

The Bible is FILLED with references to the END TIMES…

In the OLD Testament: “The Day of the Lord”

In the NEW Testament: “The Second Coming of Christ”

Are there requirements for those of us who desire to be on the Lord’s side when it comes to those END TIMES?

How did the Disciples and the New Testament writers see themselves?

Because that is probably a good indicator as to how WE ought to see ourselves.

JESUS

“whoever wants to be first among you must be your servant

(Matthew 20:26) (NIV)

“Well done, good and faithful servant

(Matthew 25:21 +) (NIV)

PAUL

“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus”

(Rom. 1:1) (NIV)

“Paul & Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus”

(Philippians 1:1) (NIV)

“Paul, a servant of God”

(Titus 1:1) (NIV)

JAMES

“James, a servant of God”

(James 1:1) (NIV)

PETER

“Simon Peter, a servant & apostle of Jesus Christ”

(2 Peter 1:1) (NIV)

JUDE

“Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ”

(Jude 1) (NIV)

THE REVELATION TO JOHN

“This is a revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants the events that must soon take place.”

(Revelation 1:1) (NIV)

In every one of these places where the English NIV translation reads: “servant” the New Testament, written in Greek, actually has the word: doulos. While the NIV translates it as “servant”, doulos is better translated as “slave.”

According to the NLT Study Bible, doulos (Strong’s: 1401) “… refers to a person who is the property of another person. A slave can be bought, sold, inherited, leased or jointly owned. This language is also used figuratively to identify something that exercises power over a person (e.g. “slave to sin”). In the NT, believers are often identified as slaves of Christ Jesus, with an emphasis on their identity with, obedience to, and humble service for their master.”

NLT Study Bible (Tyndale: 2008) p. 2222

So… The attitude of the disciples and the writers of the New Testament was one of being SERVANTS, or more accurately, SLAVES. Ones that looked to their Master for direction, guidance, and commands.

As Servants of Jesus, what is expected of us as we approach the End Times?

In Luke 12, verses 35-48, we see a series of four servant/slave pictures that Jesus uses to emphasize the expectations of his followers as the end times get closer to the end.

As servants (or slaves) of Christ, looking for our role as we approach the End Times, we are expected to:

1. Be Ready for His Coming

35 “Be dressed for service and keep your lamps burning, 36 as though you were waiting for your master to return from the wedding feast. Then you will be ready to open the door and let him in the moment he arrives and knocks. 37 The servants who are ready and waiting for his return will be rewarded. I tell you the truth, he himself will seat them, put on an apron, and serve them as they sit and eat! 38 He may come in the middle of the night or just before dawn. But whenever he comes, he will reward the servants who are ready.”

–LUKE 12:35-37 (NLT)

As servants (or slaves) of Christ, looking for our role as we approach the End Times, we are expected to:

2.       Be on Guard for the Enemy

39 “Understand this: If a homeowner knew exactly when a burglar was coming, he would not permit his house to be broken into. 40 You also must be ready all the time, for the Son of Man will come when least expected.”

 –LUKE 12:39-40 (NLT)

As servants (or slaves) of Christ, looking for our role as we approach the End Times, we are expected to:

3.       Be Ready to Be Caught By the Master Doing Your Job

41 Peter asked, “Lord, is that illustration just for us or for everyone?“

42 And the Lord replied, “A faithful, sensible servant is one to whom the master can give the responsibility of managing his other household servants and feeding them. 43 If the master returns and finds that the servant has done a good job, there will be a reward. 44 I tell you the truth, the master will put that servant in charge of all he owns. 45 But what if the servant thinks, ‘My master won’t be back for a while,’ and he begins beating the other servants, partying, and getting drunk? 46 The master will return unannounced and unexpected, and he will cut the servant in pieces and banish him with the unfaithful.

— LUKE 12-42-46 (NLT)

As servants (or slaves) of Christ, looking for our role as we approach the End Times, we are expected to:

4.       Be Aware of What the Master Wants… and Do It

47 “And a servant who knows what the master wants, but isn’t prepared and doesn’t carry out those instructions, will be severely punished. 48 But someone who does not know, and then does something wrong, will be punished only lightly. When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required.

 — LUKE 12:47-48 (NLT)

SUMMARY:

As servants (or slaves) of Christ, looking for our role as we approach the End Times, we are expected to:

  1. Be Ready for His coming
  2. Be on Guard for the Enemy
  3. Be Ready to Be Caught Doing Your Job by the Master
  4. Be Aware of What the Master Wants… and Do It

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Forgiveness follows Repentence

Earlier this month, at a pastor’s retreat at Olmsted Manor, our district superintendent walked through chapters 39 – 45 of Genesis. We followed Joseph, as a slave, as he was promoted and then betrayed in Potiphar’s house, then was taken to prison where he was again promoted, but then forgotten, and eventually remembered and promoted again to “chief of staff” over Pharaoh’s kingdom.

By chapter 42, Joseph’s brothers, who had originally betrayed him and sold him into slavery, show up in Egypt trying to find grain to buy in the midst of the great famine. Because of Joseph’s new position, they have to come to him to try and buy food. He of course recognizes them, but they have no idea that he is the one they now once so badly mistreated.

Now, I don’t know if he was just trying to jerk their chains a bit or if it was again God helping to orchestrate a few lessons for the brothers on empathy and perhaps conviction, but chapters 42, 43, and 44, are an account of Joseph’s brothers experiencing what it is to be unfairly accused, unjustly detained, and contemplating the pain of grief their father had to experience at Joseph’s loss so many years ago. And now, they find that this unknown Egyptian leader may actually force them to grieve their father again at the loss of another son, Benjamin, as he is accused of villainy and now must stay in Egypt as a slave.

In verses 33-34 of chapter 44, Judah, who had been the one to hatch the idea of selling Joseph as a slave (Genesis 37:26-27), unknowingly pleads with Joseph that he be allowed to take Benjamin’s place.

“Now therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord in place of the boy; and let the boy return with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the suffering that would come upon my father.”

Officially at least, everything in chapter 44 is aimed at punishment of Benjamin, and by extension, the other ten brothers. But in that moment of confession and penitence, Judah offers himself up for a younger brother, and for his father’s sake, and breaks the power of intended punishment. Punishment, at its best, is to teach a lesson. Judah and the other culpable brothers have shown that they have remorse for their past and have indeed learned their lesson. Our sin(s) do have an impact on our lives, even when others seemingly don’t know about our sin. (Scripture never tells us if they ever fessed up to their father about how Joseph happened to end up in Egypt.)

A couple things jumped out at me this time. First, my choices, sinful or not, WILL have consequences. There are no victimless sins. Ever. Judah and his brothers faced the consequences of their sin in Egypt, even if only for a short time. But Joseph spent years in the midst of the consequences of their sinful choice. Jacob, their father, spent some 13 or more years needlessly grieving the loss of his son, because of their sin. And they faced over a decade of living with his grief and daily being reminded that they were the cause of all that grief. And I’m sure, based on their later penitent conversation, that they spent that time racked with guilt that they had no way of easing.

Paul, in First Corinthians 5, says that those of us who are Christians, are called to a “ministry of reconciliation.” As you read more of the New Testament you come to understand that while Paul is immediately talking about reconciling people with God, there’s also a ministry of helping to reconcile people with people as a way of drawing ourselves closer together and closer to God.

It hit me that if I, as a Christian, really want to become closer to God, then I have a responsibility to do the best I can in being reconciled with the rest of God’s people around me.

That’s essentially what Jesus was teaching in Matthew 5:21-26. He starts by talking about anger with someone else and then talks about the moment we leave them and head towards God. In his day, it was making a sacrifice or presenting a gift in the Temple, but in our day it might be that we go to church, or Bible study, or try to pray. If we truly want to draw closer to God, then that reconciliation thing has to happen… as much as we can. Jesus actually said:

“So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24)

And of course, “brother” and “sister” aren’t referring to genealogically related individuals alone.

Is there anything in your past keeping you from drawing even closer to God? Is there anyone who has suffered because of you or your sin? Have you tried to make things right with them? If not, that’s your next right thing to do!

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Deny Yourself (But What’s Your REAL Motivation?)

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”   

–Matthew 16:24 (New International Version)

Growing up. I had no idea what Lent was. But by the time I became an adult I had learned that it was a time on the Christian calendar to re-examine our own hearts and make sure we were really walking out our faith… and not just talking about it. In that way, we could be prepared to really celebrate Easter.

It was a few more years before I actually took serious the idea of giving up something for Lent, as a way of “denying ourselves” like the Scripture commands us to do. In some years, I have given up chocolate, desserts, or certain activities. I can’t say that it ever made much of a difference in my life. And I don’t think I’m the only one like that either. The organist at one of my earlier churches regularly gave up watermelon for Lent… not that she could have even found a watermelon in the winter/spring days of Lent. It just didn’t make much of a difference in her life. The idea is supposed to be that we select an extra spiritual practice to add to our daily lives so that we can leave less room for sin in our lives and actually get closer to God… and at the same time, we become healthier spiritually and physically. Thus people have chosen to participate in extra activities like fasting, praying, Bible studies, and even Lenten lunches.

At one of the Lenten lunch this year, the Rev. Beth Creekpaum challenged the Christians gathered together to go beyond just giving up something as a way to improve our own spiritual or physical health. Instead, she shared a Christ-like suggestion that originally came from Pope Francis: Let’s pick up an extra spiritual practice for Lent this year that goes beyond ourselves. It’s ok to fast and pray and such, but let’s add things like taking the money we saved while we fasted for a meal and donate that money to a food pantry. Or perhaps use the time we would have spent watching mindless TV and spend that time visiting someone who’s shut-in. Maybe we could even run an errand for them while we are at it. Or shovel their sidewalk. The possibilities are endless!

Lent has just started and continues into the beginning of April. It’s not too late to select some way of denying ourselves and drawing closer to Christ. But let’s then use that time or money we’ve saved to turn around and bless someone else that Jesus loves.

Pastor Dayton

 (Originally appeared as my pastor’s letter in the March 2015 issue of The Flame, the newsletter of the Clarks Mills United Methodist Church, Clarks Mills, PA)

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