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Following the Preparation

These are my speaking notes from Tuesday night’s Baccalaureate at the Commodore Perry High School. Prior to the message, we read the entire book of Jonah as a reader’s theater with myself as narrator, four of the seniors as the captain of the ship, as Jonah, as the King of Noinevah, and as God, while the audience had a follow along ‘script’ and read all the parts of the sailors.

Here, then, was my message…

BACCALAUREATE SERVICE
Commodore Perry High School

June 2, 2015

CONTEXT:

Jonah………………………… Prophet in northern part of the ancient kingdom of Israel, following decades of Assyrian cruelty and brutality. HATES the Assyrians!

Assyrians……………………The bully nation in the ancient Middle East when Jonah was alive. They would not only conquer nations and exile their people, but they enjoyed being cruel and brutal.

Ninevah……………………..Capital city of the Assyrian Empire. According to the Bible, there were about 120,000 people living in the city when Jonah arrived there.

MESSAGE:

In chapter 1 we met Jonah. He has spent the time and effort to prepare to be a prophet for God and he has become God’s right hand man in the area where he lives. He’s ready to do whatever God asks… to go give God’s messages to whomever, and wherever, God sends him.

But, even though Jonah works for God, he has some reservations about doing his job whole-heartedly. He HATES the Assyrians. He HATES their ways and customs and cruelty.

So when God tries to send Jonah to give a message to the king and the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, Jonah LIKES the idea that God’s “gonna get them”!

But Jonah also knows that, despite all the talk of judgment by God, God always responds to repentance… God goes out of His way to look for a reason to NOT give sinners what they really deserve… In the church we call that “mercy”… Someone deserves to be punished, yet they aren’t given that punishment because the judge (in this case, God) decides to show them mercy. And with that mercy, they get another chance to do what’s right.

Jonah is certain that God will forgive them if they repent, so he decides that he will NOT warn them about the coming judgment God has threatened. If they aren’t warned, then they can’t repent. If they don’t repent, God will have no choice but to carry out the judgment. So Jonah runs away from God.

You, like Jonah, have been preparing for your life after graduation. But no teacher or administrator has ever been able to make you have the right attitude as you learned. If all you’ve done is do whatever was needed in order to graduate tomorrow night, instead of learning the deeper lessons and attitudes of being a responsible citizen, then life will be harder for you and you will need remedial education… And that comes from the school of hard knocks where you fail to learn from others and have to make ALL your own mistakes, and pay for your own mistakes.

You know, when you do get into your dream job, or the school you’ve selected, there will come a point when someone in authority will ask you to do something you don’t want to do. Running away or quitting is NOT the solution. Jonah learned that the hard way. Try not to have to learn that one the way he did.

Well, later in chapter one, there’s all these bad things happening to Jonah and everyone he happens to be around, because God is trying to get Jonah’s attention. Remember, you may be able to run away from a task or quit a particular job, but you never outrun God or outrun yourself. If you don’t deal with your own attitudes and emotions, you’ll find that you’ll keep having the same problems no matter what job you have or what school you’re in. And God will still be there trying to get you to let Him lead you in better ways than you could ever do on your own.

Chapter one ends with Jonah fessing up to the captain and others on the ship that he is the one that’s stirred up all the mess that they’re in. And he finds himself in the sea… and the ship is released from the storm and a big fish (yeah, it never says it was a whale) … a big fish comes and swallows Jonah whole.

It’s important to remember that sometimes, when we’ve messed up, we need to simply admit our mistakes and our sins and face the consequences.

Chapter two is a prayer that shows us what Jonah was thinking and feeling as he comes to regret his attempt to run away from what was right. He confesses it to God and God orders the fish to spit Jonah out on the beach.

When you do find yourself on the receiving end of consequences that you deserve, use it, like Jonah, to make things right… to the best of your ability. And that starts by admitting your mistake, or whatever it was… admit it to yourself and to God… for that’s when you will be able to see the hope.

In chapter three, Jonah DOES go to Ninevah and preaches the exact message God had sent him to proclaim: “Forty days from now Ninevah will be destroyed!”

Something a lot of folks miss here in this book is that Jonah is like the most successful preacher, pastor, prophet, evangelist ever! He is sent to proclaim God’s message to 120,000 people and THEY RESPONDED TO HIS MESSAGE! They repented of their evil ways and God, in verse 10, sees the change of heart these people have had and decides to offer them mercy.

Jonah is truly successful! Sometimes we can be successful, and still not have things right in our own lives… Jonah was still hoping to see God bring fire and destruction down on those people.

That’s where chapter four comes in, with the rest of the story. Jonah starts complaining to God… accusing God of not being fair. After all, if God was fair, everyone would get the punishment we deserve, right?

Jonah still hopes God will zap the Ninevites and destroy them… so he goes and waits to see what will happen. He sets up his tent (ok, it says a “shelter”, but for us that would be like a tent) and waits. God decides to teach Jonah about mercy and causes a shade plant to grow up to make it easier for Jonah as he waited. Jonah had a heart of gratitude over that.

But the Bible goes on to say that “God also arranged for the worm.” The very next morning after the plant grew up miraculously, there is now a worm that GOD sends to destroy the thing that Jonah likes.

Sometimes, God, or an employer, or a professor, has to do something or challenge something in order to try to get us to see things from the right perspective. Our minds always start from the idea that “of course I’m right.” Sometimes we need help to see a new perspective or to get a clearer picture of the reality around us.

Jonah SO needs a new perspective!

God even sends a blazing hot scorching wind! And the Bible says that Jonah was so disheartened that he wished he was dead. All in God’s attempt to get Jonah to face up to his bad attitude regarding people that God loves.

You know, when we set ourselves up against others, whether it’s in little ways or big, we set ourselves up against God. When we find ourselves hating someone, or an entire population of someones, we’re on shaky ground. Because the Bible tells us that God loves those others that we can’t stand.

Jonah learned that it’s not enough to be prepared for a task, you need to obey and actually do it.

Jonah learned that when you’ve made a mistake and everything seems all messed up, you need to own up to the mistake, face the consequences, and turn to God for help in turning your life around.

Jonah learned that just doing the minimum requirements of the job might produce results, but you don’t really get to enjoy those results.

Jonah learned that, in the final tally, it’s the way we treat others, our attitudes and our choice between hatred or love, that really make the difference… and WE will be the ones experiencing that difference… and even God will notice, and honor, that way of treating others…

It is my prayer, and my hope, that you, the class of 2015, will learn from Jonah’s mistakes and not necessarily have to personally make all those mistakes yourselves.

Face the future you’ve prepared for without running, with courage to own up to your own actions, to do the job required of you, and to always look at the people around you and how you impact and influence them.

And you will have a blessed and successful life, no matter what comes your way.

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Thankful in All Things

Last night, I was the preacher for the Lakeview Ministerium’s Community Thanksgiving Service at the Oak Grove Church not far from Clarks Mills. I repeated (!) a sermon I had used in 2006… Turns out the Bible hasn’t changed since then!

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Thankful in ALL Things
Philipians 4:4-8

Thanksgiving. I love this holiday. It’s one of the most peaceful, deeply spiritual holidays for me. Yeah, I know Christmas and Easter are the biggies in the realm of religious holidays, but this one is SPIRITUAL…. there’s no big religious festival, no ritual, no special call to worship prescribed in some book. In the Revised Common Lectionary there’s not even a special Thanksgiving set of passages like the other religious days.

It’s not a religious holiday, because it’s not one prescribed by the church… not the church throughout the ages, not the Roman Catholics, not the Eastern Orthodox churches, not the Protestant churches, not even my own United Methodist Church.

But it is a spiritual holiday… and for me it is a Holy Day.

Why? Because it calls each of us to consider our lot in life and to be thankful…But not even to just be thankful, but to go beyond being thankful and actually give thanks.  It’s wonderful to be full of thanks, but you gotta do something with all of that thanks or else it means nothing except a warm feeling.

With Thanksgiving, as we have it here in America, our government asks us to give thanks to God….yes, I said the government asks us to give thanks to God.  They may not highlight that aspect, but that’s where it comes from isn’t it?  You go to Canada and this week is not Thanksgiving week. You go to Mexico and this week is not Thanksgiving week.  You go to Britain and this week is not Thanksgiving week. You go to Israel, the one place where God’s religious holidays are still observed, at least in part, and you’ll find that this week is not Thanksgiving week. Only in America, where we are ONE NATION UNDER GOD.

Why do we celebrate Thanksgiving?  If I ask school children, they might tell me stories of pilgrims and Indians and a cold winter and then a fruitful harvest and a big feast with plenty to spare and the pilgrims proclaiming a day to give thanks to God.  Yep.  That’s part of what we remember this week.

After that first harvest was brought in, it was the Governor of the colony, William Bradford, in 1621, who proclaimed a day of thanksgiving and prayer.

It was an American President over two hundred years years later that asked us….”to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November.”  And he did not ask us to just to be thankful, but listen to President Lincoln’s actual words about this day. He wanted us to have a day of thanksgiving: “…as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens…”

And every year since then, whichever President is in that office has asked us to do the same thing. And so we celebrate Thanksgiving… and we give thanks and praise to GOD, because our governmenthas asked us to.

Separation of church and state? Yeah, right.

Now, before you think this preacher is getting too strange, I just want to clarify something here.  I am not complaining that the government calls us to prayer.  I happen to like that a whole lot. 

(Although I’m not convinced that even us Christians use it as a day of prayer and giving thanks.  Unfortunately for many of us, if you watch us on this Thursday, you would think the day should be called THANKS-PIGGING, instead of Thanksgiving.)

My concern is much more Christian…. not governmental.

You see, I am afraid that since we find Paul and others reminding us so often to “give thanks” and then even the government of the United States has to set aside a day for us to give thanks, that maybe it is a sad indicator that we, the Christians, instead of entering the gates of our Lord with praise and entering His courts with thanksgiving, are actually nothing more than an ungrateful bunch of hypocrites.

Let’s take a minute, shall we, and just do a reality check. Now, being a good Christian pastor, I won’t ask you to raise your hands, but just consider with me the following items:

ØWhen we pray, are we praising and thanking God…or just asking for stuff and for blessings or healings or whatever? Are we thankful people?

ØWhen we are at church, are we in an attitude of gratefulness and worship…or are we looking for what someone else does wrong or does that annoys us? Or checking to see if the preacher makes a mistake? Are we thankful people?

ØWhen we meet with the other people in our town are we focusing on the positives and the good things, the things someone has done well and praising them for a good job…or are we sitting there like vultures just looking for a weakness so that we may attack? Are we thankful people?

ØDo we look around us in this country where we have the right to select our leaders, worship as we desire, and even are encouraged unwittingly by the government to have days of thanks and prayer and to praise God for a great land where we still live as One Nation Under God…  or do we deliberately badmouth and curse our leaders rather than pray for them? Are we thankful people?

The passage of Scripture I read a few minutes ago that says “THINK ON THESE THINGS” isn’t just a nice suggestion… It is Scripture. There is a life-giving, life-fulfilling dimension of following the principles of Scripture. If we were to look at all aspects of our lives through the glasses of this Scripture, we truly could give God thanks and praise in all of life… no matter what may come our way… Because we would see things as God sees them.

It all boils down to a pretty easy mind-picture for me:

Imagine with me that we are at the mall in some other community where no one knows us and we are walking into a bookstore. There’s the magazine section off to our left. We walk towards it and there are all kinds of magazines there, aren’t there?

I am waiting for my wife to shop for whatever it is she’s shopping for. I am bored stiff and so I have come to look through the magazines…. If I find one I really like, I may even pay money for it so that I can keep it.

What magazine to choose?  

 I see some of the titles: People, Us, Seventeen, Biblical Archaeology, Reader’s Digest, Billy Graham’s Decision magazine, Guideposts, US News & World Report, Teenbeat, Newsweek, Playboy, Penthouse… and the list goes on, because there are hundreds of magazines.

Now, do I begin picking up each and every magazine, reading it cover to cover?  NO! Because for me, some of those titles are AUTOMATICALLY ruled out, because they are advocate and support behaviors and actions that are contrary to what I believe.  I won’t even consider buying them and I won’t even considerlooking inside them. I do not want my mind filled with the images that are contained in their pages.

That’s EXACTLY what Paul’s saying here, my brothers and sisters.  Every single day of our life, in every waking moment, we will choose things for our mind to dwell on and to think about.  And Paul says we, as Christians, need to be keeping our minds on the things that are true, pure, right, holy, friendly, and proper. The things that are worthwhile and worthy of praise.

To allow our minds to focus otherwise is a direct contradiction to what we as Christians are to do.

It would be just like you or I going into that bookstore and making poor choices in our magazine reading. 

That’s how we can easily become thankful again… by deliberately choosing what we’re going to focus on in our minds, in our thoughts. Rather than looking for negatives (which is SO easy), we’re going to start focusing on the things in our lives the way God does…by looking for the good in each situation, the lovely, the pure… by looking for the “thanksgiving” moment in each situation… the part of the situation that we can turn into a praise to God.

Yeah, we’ll still encounter people who annoy us and do things wrong…they may even do a job differently than we like.  And they may even do something in the church in a way that we think is ridiculous and so very inefficient. Oh well. Too bad.

God didn’t ask you or I to be his efficiency experts, we weren’t called to right all the other Christians in the world… let alone stand as their judge.

Rather, we were called to shine a light… so that everyone who sees us will want what we have.  If all we do is focus on the bad and focus on the faults of other people, then all the others will see in us is vinegar…. and instead of drawing others to our churches and to our God, we will see them staying away from us like the plague.

Paul hits this message pretty hard and pretty personal… because it’s a message that we seem intent on forgetting.  God is to be approached with praise and with the giving of thanks… and we are to approach our very lives with praise and the giving of thanks… and that’s pretty hard to do if we’re looking for the what’s wrong around us. 

Let’s approach this Thanksgiving time, and then the season of Christmas which so quickly follows, with the positive, affirming, praising, thankful approach.

And maybe we won’t need the government to remind us to give thanks.

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God of Judgment OR God of Mercy

This was my devotional for the September 2010 newsletter from our Reynoldsville church…

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Jeremiah 9:3-9 (New Living Translation) God explaining why Judah ought to be destroyed:
“My people bend their tongues like bows to shoot out lies. They refuse to stand up for the truth. They only go from bad to worse. They do not know me,” says the LORD. “Beware of your neighbor! Don’t even trust your brother! For brother takes advantage of brother, and friend slanders friend. They all fool and defraud each other; no one tells the truth. With practiced tongues they tell lies; they wear themselves out with all their sinning. They pile lie upon lie and utterly refuse to acknowledge me,” says the LORD. Therefore, this is what the LORD of Heaven’s Armies says: “See, I will melt them down in a crucible and test them like metal. What else can I do with my people? For their tongues shoot lies like poisoned arrows. They speak friendly words to their neighbors while scheming in their heart to kill them. Should I not punish them for this?” says the LORD. “Should I not avenge myself against such a nation?”

As I write this devotional, the Mix house is in full swing getting ready to head back to school. There are preparations to make and things to buy: new clothes, crayons, pencils, a bookbag, and more. But ultimately, the most needed preparation for school cannot be purchased at a store: an eagerness to learn. As my son begins first grade, there is an abundance of that commodity, so we’re just about set!

This morning though, this idea of being an eager learner came back to me while getting ready to have my own devotions. I try hard to NOT have my own personal devotional reading of the Bible be the same as searching the Bible in preparation for a sermon or a Bible study, so as I poured my coffee and headed to the table I was thinking: “OK God, is there some passage you want to lead me to this morning?” And as I laid my Bible down on the table, it fell open to the ninth chapter of Jeremiah.

I started reading through the chapter and was literally drawn to the short little Hebrew poem in verses 23 and 24:

“This is what the LORD says: ‘Don’t let the wise boast in their wisdom, or the powerful boast in their power, or the rich boast in their riches. But those who wish to boast should boast in this alone: that they truly know me and understand that I am the LORD who demonstrates unfailing love and who brings justice and righteousness to the earth, and that I delight in these things. I, the LORD, have spoken!’”

God warns that there isn’t a good enough reason in ourselves to boast to others. The only reason we ever really have to boast is that we know Him! And then He gives us another peak at what He’s truly like: a God of never failing love and mercy who will none-the-less make sure there is justice and righteousness. By our choices and actions, we determine which way He’ll respond to us: mercy & forgiveness for those who have repented of their sin and judgment in order to establish justice for those who do not.

Did you catch that? God WANTS to be known to you and to me as a God of mercy and forgiveness MORE than as a God of judgment!

The phenomenal thing about this little poem about God’s real desires is that it follows a very hard passage (Jeremiah 9:3-9) where He is laying down the law so to speak. It’s like He’s in a courtroom detailing for the jury (which is also Him) why judgment and destruction are appropriate for the people of Judah based on these horrible actions they’ve committed.

THAT’s when He throws in this reminder that even though they may deserve judgment and vengeance, HIS hope is that they will repent, turn their back on their evil intentions, and ask for forgiveness. Because God would rather be gracious and merciful.

And in the midst of this I am reminded it’s not just our school kids that need an eagerness to listen and to learn… it’s ALL of us!

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Standing In The Gap

    “Fed up, God decided to get rid of them— and except for Moses, his chosen, he would have. But Moses stood in the gap and deflected God’s anger, prevented it from destroying them utterly.”   
                                           — Psalm 106:23 (The Message)
    “I looked for someone to stand up for me against all this, to repair the defenses of the city, to take a stand for me and stand in the gap to protect this land so I wouldn’t have to destroy it. I couldn’t find anyone. Not one.”     
—Ezekiel 22:30 (The Message)

     Oh God, how many times are we, your chosen people in this day and age, the very ones you’re waiting for so that we can “stand in the gap” to turn away your anger like Moses did? Like you kept wanting someone to do in Ezekiel’s day, and you never did find someone who would?

     Is this the explanation of how it is that you could “change your mind” in the Old Testament stories? I wonder if in every situation where people faced Your judgment, that it was always your intention to grant mercy to them IF someone would simply “stand in the gap” in order to “turn away your anger.” The judgment is deserved, but you’d rather offer grace and mercy and forgiveness… if someone would just intervene and intercede.

     You judged the people in the desert and they deserved to die…but Moses intervened, he stepped in and pleaded desperately for them… and for his sake, you showed them mercy. You didn’t give them what they really deserved….

      You judged the people in Ezekiel’s day and sent Ezekiel with your message and kept waiting for someone on the receiving end of that message to step in and plead for mercy for your people… and no one did… and so the judgment was carried out.

      Today, the world around us clearly has walked away from your ways. If you’re truly a righteous and just God, then You have to judge us… our people, our land, our nation… You’ve sent your warnings. Is the seeming pause we sense just a God-given chance for us, your chosen people, to “stand in the gap” and plead for our friends and neighbors and relatives? To plead for mercy? To pray for forgiveness?

     O God… we modern American Christians are more likely to condemn those around us than we are to be an advocate for them. We see their sin and think “God’ll get you for that!”

     We are SO wrong! Forgive us O God and change our wicked hearts! Give us the compassion and love of Moses that he felt for his friends and neighbors and relatives. Teach us to stand in the gap!

—from Pastor Dayton’s devotions for the Reynoldsville Men of Promise breakfast, March 21, 2007

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