Tag Archives: salvation

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.”

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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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End of Year Review

As I write this, the calendar still reads “2015.” My usual end of the year pattern is to review what I have (or haven’t) been able to do during the year, so I can look ahead at the new year and make plans. As a Christian, that also means some serious time praying as I do my end of year tasks.

I’ve also been looking at my mistakes and mess-ups in 2015. I know it’s a shocker to most, but I’m not perfect. (It shocked me too!) As I’ve looked back at some of my choices, I’ve been reminded that I, like everyone, needs to ask forgiveness at times. If it wouldn’t cause more harm, we need to ask forgiveness of individuals we have hurt by our behaviors, choices, and mess-ups. But we also need to be asking God for forgiveness.

The other day I sat down at the piano (I can only play one note at a time… and very slowly at that!) and just started looking for a hymn that would be about repentance… you know, saying “I’m sorry for my sins, Lord, would you please forgive me?”

I stumbled into # 351 “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior” and was captured by the second verse:

Let me at Thy throne of mercy

Find a sweet relief,

Kneeling there in deep contrition;

Help my unbelief.

 

And its refrain goes like this:

Savior, Savior, hear my humble cry;

While on others Thou art calling

Do not pass me by.

 

The Christian idea of forgiveness, requires that we first repent of anything God calls sin. And that idea of repentance requires that we are actually sorry and intend to not repeat that sin. That’s the idea of “contrition.” You are so sorry that you did that sin (whatever it was), that it hurts you to even remember that you did it, AND you desperately want forgiveness from God.

I just sat there at the piano and continued to pluck out tunes as I “walked through” the next couple of dozen hymns and then I realized that even the titles alone help to remind us of the process of repentance and forgiveness:

    “It’s Me, It’s Me O Lord, Standing in the Need of Prayer” (# 352) Too often we’re busy looking at the others around us who REALLY need to repent… But we are responsible for ourselves and how we stand before God.

     “I Surrender All” (# 354) If we really want complete forgiveness, we need to repent and surrender completely. We can’t hold anything back from God.

     “Just As I Am, Without One Plea” (# 357) I can’t wait until I get my act together before getting right with God, I need to come just the way I am and then (through the surrendering) he will change me into what he wants me to be. We see that in the physical when we don’t expect people to get all cleaned up   before they take a bath or a shower. Jesus is the one who makes us clean spiritually, AFTER we come ‘just as we are.’

     “My Hope Is Built” (# 368) I can do all this because my hope for forgiveness isn’t based on the number of prayers or good deeds I do in order to earn forgiveness. Rather, my hope is built on the idea that Jesus took care of the requirements for me to be forgiven… assuming I really want to be forgiven (there’s that repentance again).

     “Blessed Assurance” (# 369) If I confess my sins and repent, I AM forgiven! I don’t have to wonder IF I’m really a Christian or IF I will go to Heaven, I can have assurance of it!

     “Victory in Jesus” (# 370) As I continue this process of repenting when I sin, and surrendering my ways to His ways, then I can face temptations and possible sins and find that I don’t have to “fall” every time I’m  tempted. I can have victory over sin!

With the spiritual “new start” and clean slate” that comes from repentance, starting a new year can truly be a new start as well!

Happy New Year!

 

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Can Two Walk Together…?

“Do two people walk hand in hand if they aren’t going to the same place?” — Amos 3:3, The MESSAGE

“Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” — Amos 3:3, KJV

During February, the world around us looks to Valentine’s Day and focuses on romantic love. I think back to 1991 when I was still planning on asking Gay to marry me… I knew what I wanted… that we be husband and wife… but it wouldn’t work unless she said “YES.” She had to agree or else we could not walk together through the rest of our lives.

And since she had point blank said NO when I asked the first time in 1983, I wasn’t absolutely sure how the night would go. (Actually, she emphatically said: “It’s nice to be that special someone, but it’ll never happen!”) She was heading for college and I still was trying to find out what I was going to do (and trying to avoid anything to do with ministry!) Seven years would pass with her graduating college and getting a teaching job, while I went to whatever job I could, in whatever town I could find it, in order to “find myself.” We could not walk “hand in hand” because we weren’t “going to the same place.”

Tonight, when I stumbled onto this passage from Amos, I mentally traveled back in time to 1991. I had moved to Corry where she was a music teacher and I was a youth director for one of the United Methodist churches. We had now been friends for 13 years and God had done much in directing and guiding each one of us and I was almost done with my undergraduate degree. For six months now, we had been hanging out and talking, visiting and doing stuff together… not dating, but just being friends… talking, laughing, and spending time together.

I asked her dad if I could ask her to marry me, I bought a ring, and proudly showed everyone I knew… except her. And I went to her house and “popped the question.” The nervousness I had, the suspense between my asking and her responding, the almost heart-bursting jubilation, joy, and excitement when she finally said “Yes” are still with me.

All of those memories reminded me how invested and interested I was in being on exactly the same page as she was. I hung on her every word… especially that three letter word: “Yes”.

But as I reflected on this Bible verse more, I could sense the Lord saying there was at least one more application of life-giving blessing in this passage for us this February… not just romantically walking together but also our walk together with Christ. Jesus came and invited us, the church, to be his “bride.” Each of us, individually, are asked to be his and to make him our own. He has popped the question and waits for each of us to respond. How can we walk together for all of eternity if we’re not agreed? How can we walk together if we’re going to the same place?

Just like my asking Gay to marry me, if she had not agreed, or hadn’t bothered to even respond, then there would have been no wedding and no walking together… Not because I didn’t ask and invite, but because of her lack of positive response. And NO response IS a response.

When it comes to Gay and me this second time I asked, eight years later… she did say yes, and we were married May 18, 1991. I’m certain she has often thought that “this wasn’t what I thought I was signing on for” as we’ve faced difficulties and moves and illnesses. She had even warned me on the night she accepted my proposal that she had no intention of ever moving from place to place to place. But she had weighed her choices, she made her decision, and she has faithfully stuck by me through thick and thin, change after change after change…

And because she also said YES to Christ, when my call to pastoral ministry became clear, she did end up moving with me… although I think that was a sign of her love for Christ even more than me! Almost 17 years later, we still walk together… because we daily choose to say yes to each other again… one more time… for another day… and we say yes to Him one more time, for another day.

How about you and Christ? He’s asked and invited. Have you responded? He’s waiting for a decision… and hesitating or not giving a response IS a response just as clearly as if you’d said NO.

Are you walking with Christ?

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End of the Beginning…

On Thursday evening, June 7th, my daughter Michele graduated from the DuBois Area High School.

There were 300 or so in her graduating class, so of course she didn’t know all her classmates, but in the four years she attended DuBois (since our arrival in DuBois in 2003) she had worked hard to establish some friendships and to meet the requirements to succeed in school.

Michele has a mild learning disability, inherited from both of her biological parents. She’s a smart girl, it’s just that she simply has to really want it in order to succeed. She has to work harder than the so-called ‘normal’ kids in order to learn what comes so easy to others.

Three Peas in a Pod: RoseAnn, Lyndsay, & Michele
The thing is… my Michele, despite her disability, did it! She knew what she wanted (a high school diploma) and she kept working and trying and even asking for help when she needed it from Mom, Dad, friends, or teachers. I can’t tell you how much pride I felt when they called her name and awarded her that diploma. Like so many others, I was one of those camera happy daddies running around taking pictures… from various spots in the gym… because I was so proud of her! (I won’t post ALL of them, but if anyone wants to see them all I’d be happy to show you!!!!!)

At one point we got into a conversation about why do they call graduation “commencement?” After all, commencement means to start something, not end something, right?

And of course, we talked about her years in elementary school, middle school, and high school were just the beginning of her learning years… not the end of her learning. Graduation night was simply the beginning (or commencing) of her role as an adult learner responsible for her own lessons and her own mistakes.

Already, some opportunities in life are closed to her. She didn’t join gymnastics while in school (at any age), so being an Olympic gymnist is out. It’s just not going to happen. She didn’t go out for the football team, so the NFL is out of the question. It’s too late to change those choices… those outcomes have already been determined for the rest of her life because of the choices she did, and did not, make while a student in school.

I share all of this, not just to brag about my fantastic kid (although I’m enjoying that part!), but because it’s made me think some.

As pastors, we often get to preside over funerals, which could be compared to a ‘commencement’ of a new chapter in a person’s eternal life. Just like graduation is more than an ending, but rather a much bigger beginning, so also is death (and the ceremony that follows) more of a new beginning than just an ending of a life.

And in the same way that a person’s choices in high school affect the outcomes and opportunities available to them after graduation… so also a person’s choices in this life affect the outcomes and opportunities available to them after death. We are all heading for Hell unless we choose to make a change in direction while here in this life. IF while we are here, we yield control of our lives to Jesus Christ, and allow Him to direct us and lead us, then, according to the Bible, our faith in Christ will be the ‘ticket’ into Heaven.

We don’t know a lot of the details about Heaven or Hell. Even the Bible doesn’t tell us much. The biggies are that Hell is being separated and alone… from everyone else and separated and alone from God. Eternity in isolation… just remembering our regrets and our ‘could have’ moments. And the Bible says that it’s more painful and tormenting than being burned non-stop in sulfur.

The Bible also tells us about Heaven a little bit. A place where we are with God and embraced by the hosts of heaven and all those who have died before us who had chosen Jesus as the one they would follow, rather than just do things their own way while living this life. Heaven is described as joy and peace and a sense of God’s Presence… and never being alone again.

We read that Heaven was God’s plan for everyone… and Hell was His invention to keep the devil and those who rebelled against God away from Him… Not just as a punishment, but because they each had personally chosen to break fellowship with God and go their own way… so there was no place in Heaven where they could be away from Him…

If I read the Bible right, then it teaches that God never meant for anyone to go to Hell… but for those who rebel against God and choose to do things their own way, He allows us the free-will to walk away from Him… even though that means they walk away from Heaven as well.

The problem is, we ALL have rebelled against God. We ALL have walked away and done our own thing. There is no room in Heaven for ANY of us… without some help.

Just like my daughter had a disability that meant that she needed to ask for help in order to be successful in school, so also each of us needs to ask for help in order to change the direction of our eternal life… we need help if we’re going to change and stop being rebels against God.

Knowing that, Jesus made all the arrangements we would need… We simply ask Him for help! He has taken care of everything… all we have to do is believe in Him and ask Him to help us… to ‘save’ us.

In school, Michele learned that she couldn’t do it on her own and she asked for help… and won the prize of a high school diploma. In life, I hope that each one reading these words realizes they too need help if they are going to change from being rebels against God to being friends of God… and all we need to do is ask Jesus for help… and we change the outcome of our life after death in that moment.

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