Friday, March 24, 2017
A priest was coming back to his rectory late one evening, when he was accosted by a robber who pulled a gun on him and demanded, "Your money or your life!" As the priest reached his hand into his coat pocket, the robber saw his Roman collar and said: "I see you're a priest. Never mind, you can go." The priest, surprised at this unexpected show of piety, tried to reciprocate by offering the robber a candy bar that he remembered was in his pocket. The robber replied, "No thank you Father, I’m Catholic. I don't eat candy during Lent."
In this Lenten season, we look in depth at the subject of temptation. It’s the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. The story shouts out a truth, the tempter and temptation is a reality. I disagree with psychology when it argues that Satan is a figment of the human imagination, or a psychological projection of the dark side of humanity or a symbol of the fear of the unknown.
Temptation is a universal human struggle. It’s not just a problem for people whose character is weak or for the young and immature. It is no respecter of age. If Jesus, the Son of God was tempted, then certainly you and I are vulnerable. Humanity’s struggle with temptation is depicted in literature in the classic story Faust. The protagonist, Faust, a legendary 16th century magician, alchemist and scholar, is unhappy with his life and makes a pact with the devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge, youthfulness and worldly pleasures.
Scripture teaches that temptations arise from our heart, that is, from our own inner sinful desires. That’s true. We have a bad idea, and temptation convinces us that it’s really not all that bad. But according to Scripture and the theological teachings of the church down through the centuries, temptation also arises from outside forces, from people, including the tempter, the personification of evil.
Sometimes we are tempted with something silly, like thinking about ordering a double extra-large chocolate malt topped with a mound of whip cream. Other times we are tempted with something that can literally change our lives for the worse. Embezzling from your company, or the church is one example. I have spoken to two employees who stole in churches I served and both said: “I needed extra money. I thought I would take it just once and then pay it back. I felt guilty. I had every intention to pay it back. But after I stole a second time, it became easier, and soon I didn’t give it a second thought.” Temptation can rationalize anything.
In the New Testament, the book of James says: “When tempted, no one should say, God is tempting me. For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does God tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.”
Scripture also says there is an important distinction between being tempted and succumbing to temptation. It is not a sin to be tempted; Jesus was tempted, but he didn’t sin. Sometimes people feel guilty because they are tempted. The sin is succumbing to it. Everyone has given into temptation except Jesus.
Further, the tempter cannot force you to yield to temptation. You cannot be bullied, or brow-beaten or coerced. Saying The Devil Made Me Do It, whether in humor or in all seriousness, is a falsehood. Jesus had freedom of choice out there in the wilderness. God has given us a free will. Ultimately, the decision to yield to temptation is our personal responsibility. We can’t blame it on what we ate for breakfast, or our parents, or our friends. Mark Twain said: “I can resist everything except temptation.”
Why does the tempter tempt? The Tempter wants to defeat God’s will in life and impose his will. So the tempter strives to redirect your path, to change your allegiance and loyalty, to undermine and erode your faith, and influence you to turn away from God. The tempter strives to both keep people from coming to faith in God and to cause believers to turn away from their faith.
As you think about your life during this Lenten season, is there a temptation have you struggled with? We need to be alert. Temptation is insidious. The tempter is deceptive and can make good look evil and evil look good, wrong look right and right look wrong. “Hey, it’s harmless, no one will get hurt. It’s the trend, it’s popular, you deserve it, don’t worry. Everyone is doing it, so why not?”
When we are in the midst of hardship and suffering, we sometimes ask: “Why me God? Why is this happening to me?” We doubt that God loves us. The tempter is an opportunist and strikes when we are weak, just like the deceiver tempted Jesus when he was hungry and tired after forty days of fasting. Temptation comes in all forms: food, excessive spending, uncontrolled anger, smoking, drinking, gambling, drug abuse, sexual temptation and harassment, laziness, allowing work to cause you to neglect your family, or dropping out of worshipping God in favor of another Sunday activity. Temptations test our loyalties, values and faith.
How do we deal with temptation? We must rely upon four things. Our conscience, which God has imparted to us from our birth, the wisdom of good friends, turning to prayer, and reading the Bible.
Which leads us out into the wilderness. In the first Temptation the devil tempts Jesus to turn away from God’s plan, God’s mission for the Messiah – the path of self-discipline, sacrifice, suffering, rejection, servant hood and the cross. The tempter tempts Jesus to use his power to satisfy his hunger by turning stones into bread. Jesus was hungry, what’s the problem? The problem is that if Jesus takes the easy way out now, it could cause Jesus to take the easy way out in the future. Could you see the temper saying: “Jesus you don’t need to bear the cross, God doesn’t really want that, you don’t need all that grief.”
God sent Jesus into the wilderness to fast for 40 days as part of God’s plan to prepare Jesus for his future mission. Like BUD’S is for Navy seals. God could tell Jesus when he could eat, not the tempter. Satan was trying to tempt Jesus to disobey God. Jesus replies: “One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
In the second temptation, the deceiver tempts Jesus with the prospect of worldly power, mastery and status, if Jesus will only bow down and worship him. It is the age-old sin of idolatry. “Worship me, says the deceiver and you will have it all.” But God sent Jesus to usher in the Kingdom and to redeem humanity by his obedience, suffering, death and resurrection. So Jesus rejoins: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
In the third temptation, the devil tries to entice Jesus to tempt God by leaping from the highest pinnacle of the temple. “What a feat, look at all the followers you will attract Jesus, do it.” Jesus retorts: “Do not tempt the Lord your God.” Temptation is the devil’s business. It’s not our business and it’s not God’s business. God doesn’t tempt his followers and we are not to tempt God. Jesus stays focused, centered upon God and His mission, and refuses to yield to temptation.
This story testifies to two powerful truths. First, it reminds us that God is merciful and present with us in those times when we are tempted and even when we surrender to temptation. Scripture says when we repent, when we confess our sin, God can be trusted to forgive us, to cleanse us from our wrong, and to empower us with a fresh start to begin a new day.
Second, this story inspires us, it shows us that we too can resist and triumph over temptation. We have the Holy Spirit to strengthen us in such times. Resisting temptation is not simply a matter of will power. It’s a matter of God’s power working in us.
Rick Warren in his book The Purpose Driven Life writes: “On our path to spiritual maturity, even temptation becomes a stepping stone rather than a stumbling block, when you realize that it is just as much an occasion to do the right thing as it is to do the wrong thing. Every temptation is an opportunity to do good. Every time you choose to do good instead of sin, you are growing in the character of Christ.”
In this season of Lent, the good news is that the Tempter and temptation does not have the last word. After trying to tempt us, but we resist, the devil will leave, like in our story, and angels will come and minister to us. Amen!
Friday, March 17, 2017
Actress Carrie Fisher died on December 27 last year. She was famous for playing Princess Leia in Star Wars. Just prior to her death, in an interview with Rolling Stone, Carrie Fisher was asked, "Do you fear death?" "No," replied Fisher. "I fear dying. Anything with pain associated with it, I don't like. And I've been there for a couple of people when they were dying, and it didn't look like fun." I think like Carrie, that most people will do whatever it takes to avoid suffering and pain in life.
I suspect most of you have experienced a personal tragedy or loss or trial at some time in your life. Why is there suffering? Why does suffering exist? The honest response is that there are no easy answers. Anyone who claims to have the answer is a person who has not pondered the question very deeply.
It’s the age old dilemma between good and evil. Let me summarize the debate between theists and atheists. Atheism says suffering and evil exist because there is no God. The existence of suffering and evil proves that God does not exist. Bertrand Russell argues that because of the prevalence of suffering and evil in the world, there is no all-good, all-powerful, all-present God. So Atheism does not have a problem with suffering and evil. It is present because there is no good force or power like God, to counter it. It runs rampant. Suffering, evil, death rules life. Therefore, life, human life, all life, has no value, no meaning, no purpose. Is suffering a problem? No, not at all. Atheism has no questions.
Conversely, theism or orthodox Christianity, the Christian faith, says God exists and God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good or loving and all-present. It says life has value, meaning, purpose because God is the author of life. It says life contains joy, goodness, humor, wonder, awe, and amazement. It says suffering and evil also exist. It says God is greater than suffering and evil, they are not co-eternal and co-equal in power. It says one-day God will destroy all suffering and evil in life. And yes, there are questions. Believers have many questions: Why did God allow evil to enter the world? Why does God continue to allow suffering and evil? What is God doing about suffering and evil today? Why hasn’t God put an end to suffering and evil? Yes, believers have questions, and again, there are no easy answers.
One natural question we ask when facing trials is why me? Or why this person? I have asked it. But there is another question: “Why not me?” Why should I escape pain and suffering?
In this Lenten season we examine this subject from a biblical perspective. First, adversity is inevitable because we live in a fallen world. God created human beings with a free will, which has resulted in sin. Sin or moral evil, that is rebellion against God, disobedience to God, is the cause of much of life’s suffering. We have the freedom to make good or bad, good or evil, wise or foolish choices. Further, accidents are a part of life, disease is a part of life, natural disasters and wars are a part of life. Second, God is present, not absent, but present in the midst of evil and suffering. Third, God has given us the gift of faith. And faith, trust, belief, assurance makes all the difference in how we cope with life’s trials.
As a pastor, I have stood beside families in nearly every kind of crisis imaginable, from the death of a loved one after battling cancer to fatal accidents to suicide to murder. As Christians we affirm that scripture has something to say about God in relation to life’s trials? Here are some basic biblical answers about God in regard to the question of suffering.
God understands the pain you and I experience in life. God can empathize with us. We don’t worship a God who is above the fray, pampered, coddled, living a sheltered existence in the celestial realm being fed grapes by the angels. We worship a God who entered this world fully human in Jesus Christ, who has walked our walk, who has experienced life’s suffering, who identifies with us, who is empathetic, who experienced loneliness, rejection, persecution and died an agonizing death on the cross for the sins of the world. The God whom we worship is no stranger to pain.
Scripture says the Lord is alive and with us in times of trials and will supply us with strength. God never leaves you alone. I Corinthians 10 says: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” This is a divine promise. God is with us and gives us strength and hope in times of trial.
Scripture says God works to bring good out of life’s trials. Romans 8:28 says: “God causes all things to work together for good for those who love God.” Biblical examples abound. Joseph’s older brothers sold him into slavery when he was a boy, but years later, Joseph rose to power in
Egypt, and when his brothers came to him seeking
food during a time of famine in Israel,
Joseph said to them: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”
The prophet Daniel was thrown into a lions’ den, but God rescued him; the prophet Jeremiah was tossed into a slimy pit and later rescued. The apostle Paul suffered from a physical affliction during his life which God didn’t heal, despite Paul’s prayers. Instead God said: “My grace is sufficient.” None of them were exempt from misfortune, but they kept the faith, they fought the good fight of faith, and God brought something good out of their adversity.
Scripture says suffering can be an opportunity to grow spiritually and in other ways. Trials can help you discover that you are stronger than you think. God has imparted to you a stronger character, a resilience, and the ability to endure more that you realize. Trials can become opportunities for us to mature. Romans 5 says: “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Trials can produce growth relationally, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Trials can inspire hope. God does a new work in us. God changes us amidst the pain.
Trials can motivate us to turn to God and discover that God’s plans and purposes are at work in our lives even in the midst of hardships. And you will discover a true Friend and Lord: A Christian wrote: “You’ll never know that God is all you need until God is all you’ve got.” Romans 8 says: “I am convinced that nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
No, it doesn’t happen immediately or automatically. We are too emotional; we are in shock and grief. But by God’s grace, life’s trials can gradually lead us to a deeper and more profound appreciation for God’s love and guidance and peace. I know some of you have experienced this in your own life. I have as well.
Trials can help us to learn to appreciate the support and care of others. We grow in our thankfulness for the love and encouragement of friends, colleagues, family members, neighbors and the church community. Oftentimes their care and concern surprise us. People come through when we least expect it and in ways which simply astonish us. But it requires something on our part, having the humility to accept their offer of help, rather than reject it.
Trials can also make us more compassionate people. Sin keeps us self-absorbed. Trials can change us. I have found this true time and again. Have you? People who have known hardships are often the most compassionate and sensitive of all people. They have a depth, a discernment, an intuition, a sensitivity and empathy others lack. They can identify with what you are going through. They are the best people to talk with and pray with. They are non-judgmental. They know how to listen.
Trials can be a powerful witness to the grace of God. Other people see how you are dealing with your suffering in terms of your faith. God can use us to inspire, to encourage, to hearten, to motivate others in the times of their trials.
Yes, scripture has answers about God and the trials in life. But no, it doesn’t have all the answers. There are some answers that must wait until we meet Jesus Christ face to face in glory as the scripture says. In the meantime, despite our intellectual dissatisfaction, we must rely upon the character, the mercy and strength of God and the love and support of others around us.
What is the source of your comfort? When the Bible scholar N.T. Wright was asked what he would tell his children on his death bed he answered: "Look at Jesus. The Person who walks out of the pages of the Gospels to meet us is irreplaceable. He is always a surprise. We never have Jesus in our pockets. He is always coming at us from different angles … If you want to know who God is, look at Jesus. If you want to know what it means to be human, look at Jesus. If you want to know what love is, look at Jesus. If you want to know about suffering, look at Jesus. And go on looking until you're not just a spectator, but part of the drama that has him as the central character.”
You may be going through a trial right now. Know that God is for you, not against you; know that God is with you and not apart from you. May God grant us His grace, so that the genuineness of our faith, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Christ is revealed. Amen!
Friday, March 10, 2017
An author writes: “When I was a boy growing up in the Baptist church, I was told by the adults, "Baptists don't do Lent." But when I asked, no one knew why. I suspect now that it was an anti-Catholic thing. It was the old argument, "whatever they do, we don't!" Whatever the reason I think it is a great loss for any Christian not to prepare for Good Friday and Easter. Every spring baseball players’ prepare for the season with “spring training;” every spring people prepare for summer by doing "spring cleaning." So why shouldn't Christians prepare for the most important events in Jesus' ministry - what he did for us and the world on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, on Golgotha's cross and at the empty tomb? If it helps you, think of Lent as a kind of Christian spring training or spring cleaning.”
In light of this Lenten season, we turn to our passage from the O.T. Psalm 51. This psalm focuses attention on a critical aspect of our spiritual life. The psalmist begins by acknowledging the greatness, the awesomeness of God. “Have mercy on me, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy.”
He prays to God in humility and honesty: “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, cleanse me from sin.” He confesses His sin to God, he confesses His sin from birth, he knows that God desires truth and asks God for wisdom. He prays for God to purge him, to wash him whiter than snow, to blot out his iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God and put a new and right spirit within me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation.”
It is a prayer of repentance. The psalmist had turned away from God. He now seeks to turn back to God and once more experience the joy of walking with the Lord. The Bible says the first step in getting right with God is repentance. Repentance is a change of heart. “Repentance means we love our Savior more than we love our sin." “Repentance means we want freedom more than bondage.”
A man was praying with his pastor at the altar. He prayed the same prayer the pastor had heard countless times before. “O Lord, take the cobwebs out of my life.” Frustrated the pastor couldn’t help himself and interrupted, “And Lord, please get rid of the spider.” How often do we ask the Lord to forgive us of some sin, yet we leave the source of temptation in our life? The psalmist prays because he desires a changed heart and seeks to be in a right relationship with God. Do you need a change of heart?
The state of our heart is critical. Heart is a familiar concept in music. In 1960 Elvis, who inspired me to learn to play the guitar, sang a song titled Wooden Heart. Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to sing it. Listen to the words: “Can't you see I love you, please don't break my heart in two, That's not hard to do, Cause I don't have a wooden heart. And if you say goodbye, Then I know that I would cry, maybe I would die, cause I don't have a wooden heart. There's no strings upon this love of mine, it was always yours from the start. Treat me nice, treat me good, treat me like you really should, cause I'm not made of wood, and I don't have a wooden heart.”
Today we use the word heart in everyday conversation: “My heart is broken, my heart if full, my heart overflows, my heart is heavy, my heart is sad, my heart aches, my heart is happy.” Heart is likewise a concept that we see frequently throughout scripture. Ps. 24 says: “Those who have clean hands and pure hearts.” Hebrews 10 says: “Let us approach God with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience.” Matthew 22 Jesus says: “Love God with your heart, soul, strength, and mind.” In Matthew 15 Jesus says: “The things that come out of the mouth, come from the heart and these make a person unclean. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”
Medically, we know that having a healthy heart is crucial. Heart disease is a serious condition. This is also true emotionally and spiritually. Jesus is saying the spiritual condition of your heart is paramount. Jesus is saying repentance is the way to a healthy heart. The biblical teaching about repentance involves four aspects. True repentance in terms of the Bible is different than the popular notion of repentance. It involves not only feeling sorry for your sin inwardly, but also outwardly attempting to do what is possible to rectify it. Jesus began his ministry in Galilee by preaching this message: “The time is fulfilled and the
is at hand, repent and believe in the good news.” kingdom of God
Here are the four aspects of the biblical understanding of repentance:
· Feeling sorry, remorseful.
· Admitting to God, ourselves and to the person that we have done wrong.
· Striving to change so that we don’t repeat the behavior or sin again.
· Seeking to repay the person wronged for the damage we have done. That is, striving trying to repair things, to make things right again with that person.
In our scripture passage from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is teaching about temptations to sin. He says if anyone puts a stumbling block before a child, it would be better if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. Jesus loved children. He is speaking about sinning against children. There can be severe consequences for anyone who intentionally hurts a child or leads a child astray.
And what does Jesus command if you sin? If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off, if your foot causes you to stumble cut if off, if you eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. How do we interpret Jesus' words? Should they be taken literally? No, I don't believe Jesus intended his teaching to be taken literally, and neither do other interpreters of scripture down through the ages. The reason is that Jesus often spoke in hyperbole. Like he does on the subject of judging others. “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but you do not notice the log in your own eye. You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, then you will be able to see the speck in your neighbor's eye.”
Many people in Jesus day were illiterate. Jesus employed imagery, symbols, metaphors in his teaching to paint word pictures in people’s minds. Jesus taught in parables and stories. Jesus wanted people to remember his teachings.
So we interpret Jesus' words about cutting off hands and feet figuratively. Basically, this is a word picture about repentance from sin. Jesus is calling people to repent from their sins. He is saying whatever is causing you to sin, whatever in your life is leading you to sin, separate yourself from it, sever yourself from it, cut it out of your life, remove it from your life. Both the psalmist and Jesus are speaking about the importance of repentance in the spiritual life.
The goal of repentance is to embrace, to receive, to accept God’s forgiveness and the joy of God’s saving grace. “Lord I repent, I am sorry for straying away from you, I am sorry for acting as if you don't exist, I am sorry for what I said or didn’t say, I am sorry for what I have done or didn’t do, make me right with you, bring me back to you O Lord. The aim of repentance is to return to the lord, our God.
God's priority for us, for you and me, is a clean heart, a new and right spirit within us. For when our heart is unclean, beauty or wealth or knowledge or power will not stop us from leading a sinful and even evil life. I don't have to give examples for you to believe this truth. Conversely, a clean heart, a life lived in and under God’s grace, will enable us to lead a life that is pleasing to God and that is constructive and loving and beneficial to others.
What is the spiritual condition of your heart? Do you need to pray the psalmist’s prayer of repentance? “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your Holy Spirit from me, restore to me the joy of your salvation and sustain in me a willing spirit.” Have mercy on me O Lord. Amen!
Friday, March 3, 2017
I called my bank the other day. Here is the gist of the conversation:
Hello, this is your automated customer service center. To continue this message in English, press 1, in Spanish, press 2. I punched 1. Please punch in your account number on your touch tone phone. I punched. Thank you. For account balance verification, please punch 1. To make a withdrawal, please punch 2. To question a charge, please punch 3. To apply for a credit increase, please punch 4. To speak with a customer service representative, please punch 5. To hear these instructions repeated, please punch 6. I punched 5. Thank you.
To speak with a representative about additional features of your card, please punch 1. To report a lost or stolen card, please punch 2. To speak with a reprensentative about any other problem, please punch 3. I punched 1. Thank you. I'm sorry, our office is currently closed. Please call back during normal business hours.
I pray God's office isn't closed. I pray this is not how it is when we go to God in prayer. No, I know it isn't. In fact, God our creator and Lord is proactive and reaches out to us in the course of our lives on earth.
In this light, let’s turn to our morning story which portrays a profound event in the life of Jesus’ and his disciples: the indescribable, the ineffable moment of Jesus’ transfiguration. Think, aren’t there moments in your life which are unexplainable? Extraordinary moments. We have difficulty putting them into words. Have you ever experienced such a time?
The joy at the birth of a child is one of those moments. The loss of a loved one is one of those moments. A brilliant sunset or sunrise is one of those moments. An early morning walk along the beach or in the mountains can be such a moment. Having your soul stirred by uplifting music is one of those moments. A moving worship service is one of those moments. When your child says “I love you” and wraps his or her arms around you is one of those moments. There are mountaintop and valley moments throughout life. They often surprise us. They arrive unannounced and change us in irreversible ways. They often move us to silence. Such moments touch the depth of our souls.
Our story from Matthew's Gospel is one such time. Jesus leads his disciples Peter, James and John to a high mountain. And once there, Jesus is suddenly transfigured before them; his face shines like the sun, his clothes become dazzling white, his appearance is radiant. Moses and Elijah suddenly appear and are talking with Jesus. Peter is awestruck and says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” Well I should say so. He was in the company of two former Jewish superstars. Moses, the great leader who led the Israelites out of slavery in
brought God’s 10 Commandments to them and the prophet powerful Elijah, who with
God’s power defeated the false prophets of Baal and ascended to heaven in a
chariot of fire. These are two giants in
Peter, understandably, wanted this magical moment to last forever. He offers to build three booths - one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Realizing they are standing on holy ground the disciples fall to their knees in awe. Then the story says: “A voice said, this is my Son, whom I love. With him, I am well pleased. Listen to him.”
What does this story say to you? I think it says God on occasion, leads us to high mountains. Jesus reveals special experiences from time to time, because we need moments of ecstasy in our spiritual life. I know I do. Life can be devastating. Life can threaten to crush us. Life can be frightening. We need mountain top moments that engulf us. We need glory moments, transcendent moments, special moments in which we sense the holy presence of God. We are created by God to live in fellowship with him and God knows we need such special times, sacred moments, along our spiritual journey.
Our story says that God speaks, God communicates with his people! God spoke that day on the mountaintop and the undeniable implication is that God continues to speak to believers today. A young mother writes: “My 3-year-old son, Ian, enjoys the Bible story about Samuel hearing God's voice at night. One evening after reading the story to Ian, I asked him if God had ever spoken to him. To my surprise, he answered, "Yes." "What did God say to you?" I asked. Ian thought and then said in his deepest voice, "Ian! Go to bed!" That explained why Ian settles down more quickly when I'm outside his room and tell him to go to bed.”
Scripture tells of how God spoke to Elijah in a cave out in the middle of the wilderness, not in the wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in a still small voice. Other translations say - “God spoke in a gentle whisper, in the sound of sheer silence.”
God is either alive or God is dead. Our Easter faith announces that God is alive. God loves us with a passionate and unconditional love and reaches out and intervenes in our lives. Scripture says: “God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”
A Christian writes: “I knew that it was God speaking to me because I was in tune with my inner spirit and my spirit suddenly became light. Years of heaviness were lifted from me. I heard God’s forgiving and accepting voice. A new yet wobbly courage started to live in me, and I became comfortable in my own skin, in my own circumstances. I felt safe and certain and grateful. Nothing around me had changed, but everything was different. I knew it was God’s voice speaking because I could smile once again.”
Second, the story of the transfiguration says this – listen! Why should you and I listen to Jesus? Because God commands it: “This is my Son, whom I love. With him, I am well pleased. Listen to him.”
Jesus is the Word of God. Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Jesus is the way out of darkness into the light. Jesus is the way out of despair to hope. Jesus is the way out of fear to courage. Jesus is the way to discover purpose and meaning. Jesus is the way into the
. Jesus is lord over all other rulers and
authorities in the world. Christ is the
Head of the Church and is present in both Word and Spirit. Kingdom
We should listen to Jesus in prayer, in worship, in meditation, in the teachings of the Bible, through the words of other trusted believers, because Jesus sees things about our lives that we don't see. Because Jesus is concerned about the life you and I are leading.
When artist Sir James Thornhill was painting the inside of
Cathedral, he began walking backward to get a better view of his work. As he inched back, his left foot stood just
on the edge of the scaffold, and he was in danger of falling and breaking his
neck. His helper, instead of screaming
at him, took a brush, quickly dipped it in the paint, and splashed it on the
wall. The artist rushed forward to
reprimand his helper, but when the helper explained his action, Thornhill was
exceedingly grateful. The helper saw
something Thornhill did not see. There
are elements in life that Christ sees that we do not. So we need to go to him, to spend time with
him, to listen to Jesus.
This coming Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of our journey through the season of Lent. Keep alert, keep your eyes and ears, your heart and mind open, for you never know when the Lord will lead you to a high mountain. Amen!
Wednesday, February 15, 2017
Hannah Peterson, 23 years old, was involved in a serious car accident just one month before her wedding in
. She broke her pelvis in three places, punctured
a kidney, broke some ribs, and suffered a concussion. Despite being temporarily confined to a
wheelchair; Hannah was determined not to let the accident affect her Wedding
Day on August 25, 2016. When it came
time to walk down the aisle, her fiancé Stuart, tenderly carried her. Ontario
Hannah said that despite her predicament, the only emotion she allowed herself to feel on the day was joy. Because of her injuries, Hannah sat in a wheelchair during most of her wedding, but she said: "I was determined to stand for my vows." "That was difficult, even with Stuart holding me up.” Hannah has continued to heal and after two months is able to walk around the house using a cane. She added: "Stuart has never left my side during all of this. He was strong for both of us. He always made me see how blessed I was."
We are thinking about love today because Tuesday is Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day is named after a real person. He was a Catholic bishop who lived in
in the 5th century. He was young, handsome,
wealthy and passionately in love with his fiancé. As the wedding day was drawing near the
Roman emperor declared that all Christians were guilty of treason. To escape punishment, they had to worship the
Roman Emperor and declare "Caesar is Lord." As a Christian, Valentine affirmed that
Jesus alone was Lord. He refused to
worship the emperor. He was summarily
arrested, tried, and condemned to death.
While awaiting his execution, Valentine wrote love letters to his
fiancée, assuring her of his never-ending love.
On February 14, 259 A.D. he was martyred for his faith.
What does it mean to love someone? Is that a simple question? We turn to the New Testament where we find not one, but three different Greek words for love. The first is philos from which is derived our word
Philadelphia. It refers to brotherly love or sisterly love. It symbolizes the love between family members
or the love between friends. It refers
to the love Brigitte and her teachers have for the children of our preschool.
A second Greek word for love in the New Testament is Eros, from which our word erotic comes. It refers to romantic love, passionate love, sensual desire. It is a love that is attracted to someone because of the qualities that person possesses: a free spirit, beauty, cuteness, lovableness, personality, intelligence. Both of these biblical words for love are grounded in our feelings for one another.
The third Greek word is agape. Agape love is not grounded in feelings. It is grounded in principle, in faith, in obedience to God. It is love in action. It is a giving, not a receiving love. It is a unilateral, not a mutual love. It is helping a person you may not like. It is reaching out to someone because of their need, not because you care for them. It is giving money to a cause because you believe in the cause, not because you personally know those who will benefit from your act of charity. “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death, your right to say it.” I think that is a contemporary example of agape love.
Agape love is about doing the right thing, the good thing, acting justly out of obedience to Jesus, rather than acting out of emotions. It is a decision one makes to honor someone. It is love motivated by the power and love of God in our lives. Agape love is loving like God loves. By grace through faith, God gives us the ability to love like God does.
Our passage from I Corinthians 13 uses the third word, agape, when it speaks about love. It reveals love’s qualities and virtues. As you listen, think about how you have expressed agape love to someone or how someone has expressed agape love to you.
Love is patient! It is grounded in self-awareness, an awareness of your own imperfections and flaws and foibles. It is rooted in humility. It knows relationships take time. It acknowledges that people are a work in progress. Patience means we make allowances for another’s shortcomings because we are acutely aware of our own. We allow time for another person to grow and learn from their mistakes just as we are growing and learning.
I strive to give thanks every day because I know
is more patient with me, than I am of her.
I am still enrolled in Patience 101 and hope to graduate to Patience 102
someday. Patience is a vital dimension
of love. Can I get an amen!
Love is kind! Kindness expresses love in pragmatic ways. Kindness is helping another person simply because that person is in need. Kindness means you are willing to share your time and resources without expecting anything in return. Kindness is a phone call, listening, a visit, a gift, taking a meal, watching someone’s children, inviting to church, standing up for someone, helping financially. Ephesians 4:32 says: “Be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God has forgiven you.” Yes, kindness is a vital dimension of love.
Love is secure! Love is mature. Love does not envy others; it isn’t boastful, resentful, rude or arrogant. Envy and jealously reveal insecurity. A loving relationship does not keep secrets or keep a record of wrongs or hurts against another. Love forgives and let’s go and moves on. Love says: “I will stand by you. I am there for you.” Such commitment is possible when we are in a secure relationship with God in Christ. We can love because we know God loves us. Being secure is a vital dimension of love.
Love is generous. It doesn’t insist on its own way. Someone said there are four kinds of relationships. First, take and take relationships. I take from you and you take from me; I use you and you use me. Second, give and take relationships. I give and you take. Know any relationships like that? Third, fair exchange relationships or quid pro quo; you do this for me, I’ll do that for you, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. Fourth, give and give relationships, relationships which are agape centered and God-centered, where both people are willing to share, to sacrifice, to compromise as an expression of their love for one another.
Agape love is pro-active, it takes the initiative. It is not afraid to give first or to forgive first or to apologize first. God was pro-active. Scripture says: “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Jesus gave himself to us before we even knew him.” Love is based in truth and honesty. It is not deceptive. Love values integrity. Loving involves being vulnerable, even risking one’s life for another. I think of the exemplary men and women of our military and the stories of heroism which we often hear. To give one’s life for another is the ultimate act of agape love.
Love endures forever. It perseveres. It’s tenacious. It honors commitment. It doesn’t quit or run away at the first sign of trouble. It bears all things, and believes, and hopes. It grows in wisdom and rises above childish thinking and expresses itself in mature and responsible ways.
I close with this story. Roger Zerbe suffered from early onset Alzheimer's disease. His wife, Becky, remembers a journal entry he left on her pillow after a particularly troubling bout of forgetfulness. “Honey, today fear is taking over. The day is coming when all my memories of this life we share will be gone. In fact, you and the boys will be gone from me. I will lose you even as I am surrounded by you and your love. I don't want to leave you. I want to grow old in the warmth of memories. Forgive me for leaving so early and painfully.”
Blinking back tears, I picked up my pen and wrote: “My sweet husband, what will happen when we get to the point where you no longer know me? I will continue to go on loving you and caring for you—not because you know me or remember our life, but because I remember you. I will remember the man who proposed to me and told me he loved me, the look on his face when his children were born, the father he was, the way he loved our extended family. I'll recall his love for riding, hiking, and reading; his tears at sentimental movies; the unexpected witty remarks; and how he held my hand while he prayed. I cherish the pleasure, obligation, commitment, and opportunity to care for you because I remember you.”
To love another is an amazing privilege and honor. Indeed, it’s a gift from God. “These three remain, faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.” Amen!
Tuesday, February 14, 2017
A man went to visit his psychiatrist. He said: “Doctor I am anxious all the time. I can’t sleep at night.” The doctor said: “I am finding it difficult to understand the source of your anxiety. You have a luxury townhouse, a motor home, three cars, a powerboat, and you’re planning another trip to Hawaii.” The patient replied: “Yes, I know, doctor, but I only make $100.00 dollars a week.”
What worries you most today? There is certainly no shortage of things to be anxious about. There is insecurity about the future, rapid and overwhelming social change, political turmoil, economic uncertainty, fretting about relationships, concern about the costs of education, worries about our health, radical Islamic terrorism, natural disasters, crime, the challenges of raising children, climate change, and maybe I better stop before you all go home.
It’s no wonder people search for peace of mind. It’s an age old quest. Where do people search for peace? In money and the dream of financial security, in the comfort of food, in plastic surgery, in denial and avoiding problems; in drugs and alcohol, in nutrition and exercise, in meditation and religious faith, in the life of the mind, in music, in travel, in nature, in self-help books, and staying busy to name but a few. You decide which of these examples are healthy and which are unhealthy pursuits? Jesus spoke about peace in his teachings. He often said Peace be with you. Isn’t that a beautiful word? Peace. What did Jesus mean?
First, the peace Jesus speaks of does not mean being completely free from life’s problems or the absence of conflict or adversity or sorrow or escaping the storms of life. God’s peace is an in-spite of peace. In spite of disappointments, and in spite of uncertainty and difficulties, God promises peace.
Second, Christ’s peace is not something that the world can give. You can’t buy it or manufacture it or import it. You can’t order it on Amazon.com. which frankly surprises me because you can order everything else there. Peace is a gift of grace. God’s peace is a gift to his followers. Jesus said to his disciples; “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.” It comes only from God and the world cannot take it away. God’s peace is a different peace; it’s a unique peace, a peace from above. God’s peace can surprise us and come when we least expect it.
Third, the peace of God comes from knowing, claiming and remembering your identity. Say to yourself – “I am a child of God.” “I was baptized into God’s family.” That’s your identity. You belong to God, you belong to God’s family, you are known by God, you are created in His image, you have abilities from God. God loves you. Your sins are forgiven through Christ’s death on the cross, before you were God’s enemy, now you are God’s friend. It’s knowing that God is for you and not against you. You are free to accept yourself because God accepts you as you are.
How do we know God knows us? Listen to the Psalmist: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up. You discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.”
Fourth, the peace of God comes when you believe you are living in accord with God’s purpose. You believe you are living the life God wants you to live. You trust that God is working out his purposes in and through your life. You know God is using you for His ends. You know you are loving and serving and worshiping and witnessing in the light of your faith. You are confident that God is carrying out His will in your life for His glory. Having an identity and a purpose rooted in God, is basic to experiencing God’s peace.
Fifth, scripture says: “Rejoice always, again I say rejoice.” Even in dark and disturbing times, you are able to perceive rays of light, glimmers of light, surprises of grace, unexpected blessings, small joys where you can praise God. Make it a habit to be alert in your spiritual life. In prayer let God know everything in your heart and everything that is on your mind.
The letter of Philippians says turn your worries into prayers; worry less, pray more. Rejoice in the Lord and pray daily. Is that rationale? Is this logical? When we are dealing with the peace of God we are dealing with a mystery. It is a mystery which transcends our understanding. You may think – “How come I feel O.K. when things around me are not O.K.? Am I sick?” Despite things swirling around you, you have an inner calm. The peace of God is a blessing which goes beyond our understanding. It’s alright if you don’t understand it. You and I don’t have to. All we have to do is open our hearts and minds, receive it and experience God’s peace.
Sixth, what is the aim of God’s peace? Philippians says: “The Lord is near, do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayers and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God and the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
God’s peace will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Your heart will be calm rather than troubled, minds will find courage, rather than being afraid. The peace of God stands like a sentry to restrain life’s hostile and negative forces and offer serenity in place of conflict and courage in place of fear. God’s peace puts our anxious thoughts at rest. It puts our anxious hearts at rest. It is a peaceful confidence and a peaceful rest. It is a time of quiet when things around you are in an uproar. It is an inner assurance, a feeling of tranquility. How long does it last? That’s up to God. God’s peace is a sense of well-being which comes from the presence and graciousness of the Holy Spirit. Can you recall such times in your life?
The peace of God means different things depending upon your circumstances. Like when God grants you inner forgiveness, when you have struggled with a memory which has plagued you with guilt, or when you suddenly feel an inner-strength, an inner-power to face and overcome something that was sapping your strength. Something you thought would surely defeat you. It is like a time when you are suddenly filled with hope, where once you were trapped in despair.
Do you want to experience God’s peace? Then learn to know Jesus better, walk closer with Jesus. Spiritual peace is a by-product of your faith, and Christ’s power, presence and inspiration in your life. Our spiritual journey with Christ is where we learn to know him, love him, confess to him, and follow him. God’s peace arises out of a commitment to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.
The late Christian author Catherine Marshall wrote:
My friend had a spiritual experience aboard a plane bound for
, waiting for takeoff. As she settled into her seat, she noticed a
strange phenomenon. On one side of the airplane a sunset bathed the entire sky
with glorious color. But out of the window next to her seat, her friend could
only see a sky dark and threatening, with no sign of the sunset. Cleveland
As the plane's engines began to roar, a gentle Voice spoke within her. "You have noticed the windows. Your life, too, will contain some happy, beautiful times, but also some dark shadows. You see, it doesn't matter which window you look through; this plane is still going to
. So it is in your life. You have a
choice. You can dwell on the gloomy picture. Or you can focus on the bright
things and leave the dark, ominous situations to Me. I alone can handle them
anyway. The final destination of being at home with me is not influenced by
what you see and hear along the way. Remember this and you will experience my
I close with the blessing of Aaron, the brother of Moses: The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you, the Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you and grant you His peace. Amen!
Friday, February 3, 2017
One Sunday morning in church, the older
Pastor glared at the young new
worship leader they had just hired. It
was the worship leader’s first Sunday. The
pastor said to the congregation: "Please
disregard our worship leader’s instruction when he said: “During the next hymn,
I want you to clap your hands, stomp your feet, and boogie till you drop.”
This morning well over a billion people around the world will go to worship God in cathedrals and chapels, sanctuaries and schools, storefronts and living rooms or gather in the great outdoors.
I prefer the phrase “Going to worship” rather than “Going to church.” It’s a subtle difference I agree. Why? Going to worship implies going to do something, going to participate in a sacred activity. Going to church focuses on going to a building, a location. The question Christians face each Sunday is: “Am I going to worship God this morning?”
Now there are 168 hours in a week. And it has inspired me over the years at how many believers worship God regularly each week, but it also has amazed that other people can’t commit to spending one hour a week or even one hour a month worshipping God. I realize there are good reasons for having to
, no question, but
I have also heard many excuses. I am not
going to insult you by giving examples of the difference between them; you are
intelligent people and you know the difference. miss
What is worship? What does it mean to worship God? The word is derived from the Anglo-Saxon language and it means “to ascribe worth.” To worship God is to ascribe to God supreme worth. It is as the Psalmist says, “to give unto the Lord the glory due His name.”
Who is God? God is that which nothing greater can be conceived. The 16th century Reformer, Martin Luther wrote: “If you have a God, you must of necessity worship Him.” “Oh, God, I believe in you, thou art my God. You are worthy to be glorified.” If worship acknowledges God’s supreme worth, then worship is the expression of our faith, our belief, our love for God.
Christian worship is our faithful response to the living God, the triune God: God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Worship expresses our trust and gratitude for God. It expresses our thankfulness for what God has said and for what God has done, is doing and will do. Worship is an encounter between people of faith and the living God. We worship God privately and publicly. But worship is always personal, a personal encounter, with a personal God.
People respond to God in worship in a variety of ways. A young mother writes: “An elderly woman was sitting with eyes closed and hands raised in prayer and praise. Our three-year-old son was standing on my lap in the pew in front of her. Suddenly, he turned around, raised his arm, and gave her a high-five!”
The Bible says: “God is a Spirit and we must worship God in spirit and in truth.” Worship flows in two directions: the downward movement of God’s revelation and presence and the upward movement of our response to God in Christ through the Spirit. Worship is the response of our whole being to God’s amazing love and mercy.
According to the Bible and the tradition of our Christian faith, both individual and community worship are necessary in the Christian life. Now this differs from the opinions of some in our culture today. Some people say: “I can worship God at the beach or at home reading the newspaper or on the golf course. I don’t need to go to church.” That’s of course our culture talking, not our Biblical/Christian tradition. Can you really play golf and worship God at the same time? Not the way I play golf that’s for sure.
The letter of I Peter says: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Psalm 22 says: “Yet you God are holy, enthroned on the praises of your people.”
God is here. We are standing on sacred ground. God invites you to worship Him. God desires for you to worship Him. God is glad you have come to worship Him. God is open to your joys and concerns, your gladness and needs.
What is the tone or mood of worship? It’s a celebration. The psalmist captures it beautifully: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into His presence with singing. Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name. For the Lord is good, His steadfast love endures forever and His faithfulness to all generations.”
The psalmist says: “God made you, you belong to God; you are His people and the sheep of His pasture.” Worship says God is my creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. I am here to thank God and honor God. To worship anything else in this world is idolatry. Many things compete for our worship and allegiance in this life. The first commandment is: “You shall have no other gods before me.” This commandment is as applicable today as it was 4,000 years ago. Worship is praising God.
Like the story of a poor, elderly lady who sometimes visited a church. The elders of the church were always embarrassed when she did, because she got so excited in the service. She would shout “Praise the Lord,” “Hallelujah.” That was more than the dignified members of this congregation could stand. One Sunday morning the elders greeted her at the door and promised her a brand new heavy coat for the winter months if she would not shout in the service. She agreed, and took a seat near the front of the sanctuary. She held her silence at first, but as the pastor got into his message, and as the choir enthusiastically praised God, she was overcome with joy, stood up and shouted – coat or no coat, Amen!
We worship because God sent his son Jesus to earth, to live for us, to die for our sins, to save us, to forgive us, to restore us to fellowship with God and to promise us eternal life. Worship is the heart of the church. Like the heart beating in your chest, worship is the heart-beat of the church’s life. And music is that life-blood which courses through our veins, lifts our souls, and stirs our hearts. And I am so appreciative of our music here at PBPC. Everything – our desire to learn, to give, to witness, to serve arises out of our worship of God.
Does worship require spiritual discipline? Absolutely. There are so many things that compete for our time on Sundays. To worship takes spiritual discipline. What is your attitude when you come to worship? Are you coming expectantly? We offer ourselves to God in humility and gratitude and love because in Jesus Christ’s life, and death on the cross on Good Friday and resurrection on Easter, God first loved us. Jesus says: “Love God with your heart, soul, strength and mind.” In the 17th century, in Puritan New England, it was customary for preachers to preach two to three hour sermons. It may have taken a little more spiritual discipline in their day than in our day.
God is deeply concerned about the attitude we bring to worship. God invites us to offer to Him our doubts and struggles, as well as our joys, to listen and to raise our voices. God says: “Come to seek my will for your life, come and draw closer to me, come and seek my power to change things about yourself.”
We worship as a member of God’s family. Worship is individual yes, but it’s also communal. It is both/and. This is where our culture differs from our Biblical and Christian tradition. Our culture says you can worship by yourself, you don’t need the church. Christian tradition and the Bible says worship is communal, the celebration of the family of God, the body of Christ. The psalmist says: “We are God’s people.” It’s a time to celebrate that we belong to the same family of God. We are spiritual brothers and sisters.
In worship we find encouragement and support. We pray to God for one another, for our community and our world. We sing together and affirm our faith in Christ together. We laugh together and cry together when fellow members have passed on. Worship reminds us that we are a covenant community. We are stronger together than separately. In worship, we are saying: “You are my brothers and sisters in Christ, you are important to me; I have come to worship with you as members of my spiritual family.”
When we worship we witness to others. Worship is also a witness to God. Going to worship shows others that you value God, you value the church, and that God is central in your life. Going to worship demonstrates to God, to the congregation, to neighbors and friends that God is important to you. It says we care about one another and God.
I truly believe God blesses us in the context of worship. God surprises us with His grace. I have heard many times: “
Pastor, I just feel
better after I’ve been to worship; it gets my week started off right.” Frances Roberts wrote: “Rejoice in the
lord always, for as you rejoice and give thanks, you release heaven’s treasures,
and shower upon your head the blessings of a delighted Father in heaven. Nothing so thoroughly delights the Father’s
heart, as the praises of His children.”
The meaning of Christian worship is captured brilliantly by the 19th century Danish theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. He wrote: “Worship is a drama. Some people think of God as the director, the worship leaders as the actors, the stage as the chancel and the people as the audience. Worship is a drama. However, the stage is the sanctuary, the worship leaders are the prompters, the people are the actors and God is the audience.”
Make a joyful noise. I close with psalm 150: “Praise the Lord, Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament. Praise Him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his surpassing greatness. Praise him with trumpet sound, praise him with lute and harp, praise him with tambourine and dance, praise him with strings and pipe, praise him with clanging cymbals, praise him with loud clashing cymbals, let everything that breathes praise the Lord.” Amen.