Friday, January 13, 2017

In My Father’s House (Luke 2:41-52) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Are there ever conflicts or misunderstandings between children and parents?  Is the Pope Catholic?   A frustrated father said to his teenage son: “When George Washington was your age, he had surveyed half of Virginia.”   His son replied, “And when Washington was your age, he was president of the country.”  Sam Levenson once said, “Childhood is a time of rapid changes.  Between the ages of 12 and 17, a parent can age thirty years.”  Robert Orben put it this way: “Sound travels slowly. Sometimes the things you say when your kids are teen-agers don’t reach them till they’re in their 40’s.”  My wife Nancy says: “God made teenagers so that parent’s will be ready when they leave home and go off to college.”

A mother was tearfully saying goodbye to her son who was returning to college after spring vacation, she pleaded with him to write often.  Another woman standing nearby gave this advice.  “The surest way to get your son to write home is to send him a letter saying, ‘Here’s $50.00 spend it any way you like.’  “And that will make my son write home the first woman replied?”  “Yes, indeed, you just forget to enclose the money.”

We are all concerned that our children and grandchildren grow up to be kind, mature, responsible, and moral individuals, with a strong work ethic, a clear sense of who they are, and with values and a Christian faith that shapes their character and their soul.

Our story from the Gospel of Luke is about Jesus and his family’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  It’s the only story in the New Testament that tells us about an incident in Jesus’ early life.  Jewish law stated that every adult male Jew who lived within 20 miles of Jerusalem was obligated to attend the annual Passover Festival.  Luke tells us that every year Jesus’ family traveled to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover.  This presumably was Jesus’ twelfth trip to Jerusalem.  By now he was becoming more comfortable with visiting this imposing city teeming with people from around the Mediterranean world at Passover.  In Judaism, a boy becomes a man when he reaches the age of 12.  He was expected to assume his religious obligations.  So this was a very special trip for Jesus and his family.  The distance from Jerusalem to Nazareth is about 100 miles.  That’s not far, except that your feet were the only mode of transportation, everyone walked.

When the religious festival is over, the family sets out on their journey homeward to Nazareth, but somehow Jesus is left behind.  Apparently the movie “Home Alone,” wasn’t about the only family who forgot one of their children. But it wasn’t through the parent’s carelessness.

In that day, such trips involved risks and dangers, so people traveled in large extended family groups.  Mary and Joseph were part of a large caravan composed of many relatives and friends.  The tradition was that the women, who watched out for the babies and children, started out early in the morning.  The men set out later because they walked faster and usually caught up with the women and children sometime in the evening.

As the late Scottish scholar William Barclay explains:  “No doubt Joseph thought Jesus was with Mary and Mary thought that Jesus was with Joseph, and they didn’t realize he was missing until it was evening.”    Perhaps you can identify a time when a similar situation occurred in your family.

Upon making this shocking discovery his parents immediately head back to Jerusalem.  Mary and Joseph search for 3 days.  Can you imagine how horrible that would be?  Finally, they locate Jesus in the temple.  They see him sitting among the learned rabbi’s and scribes, listening to them and asking questions.  This was clearly no ordinary twelve year-old boy.  Luke tells us that all who heard Jesus were astounded at his intellectual understanding and the insightfulness of his questions.

Mary, frantic by now, worried sick, asks what any frazzled mother would, “Son, why have you done this to us?  Your father and I have been terribly worried trying to find you.”  Some parents would have expressed it a little more graphically.  Jesus rather non-chalantly replies:  “Why were you searching for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  I can imagine his parent’s reaction to that reply.  “Why would he say that?”  You might expect Jesus to say: “Well, I looked all over for you, but when I couldn’t find you,” Or “I’m sorry, I just needed some time by myself,” or “Well I am 12, you know, I’m old enough to take care of myself.”

No, Jesus instead spoke about being in his Father’s house.  At that moment, his parents didn’t understand what Jesus’ meant.  But, we read, Mary treasured all these things in her heart.  I suspect there are some mothers here this morning who can readily identify with Mary.

What does this story say to you?  What does this story tell us?  First this story is about identity.   Now identity is a complex concept. It’s multi-dimensional, it’s about the character, it’s about personality, it’s about having a sense of self, knowing ourselves, it’s that inner core of a person which is consistent over time amidst a world of constant change. Was finding the answer to the question, Who Am I, difficult for you?    Identity is a complex process which is central to our personal, moral, spiritual and social development.

The late Dr. Erik H. Erikson, professor of Human Development at Harvard, writes about the six stages of Human Identify development, from infancy to adulthood.  He states that in adolescence the identity challenge is trust, trust in people and trust in ideas.  Developing trust in oneself and trust in others is key.  So the adolescent looks fervently for people, parents, other adults, peers, to trust in and also for ideas that he or she can believe in, and wrap one’s mind around.

In our story Jesus comes to an incredible realization.   He says to his parents: “Did you not know that you would find me in my Father’s house?”  Now that’s a typical teenager’s reaction, why are you questioning me, don’t you trust me?  Our initial reaction is to see Jesus’ words as an impertinent, the insolent remarks of a twelve-year-old adolescent to his parents.  In looking back as a father of two sons, I remember some of those times.

But in reflecting upon Jesus’ words, we see something much deeper, Jesus has found his true identity.  He gently but directly says God was his father.  “My Father’s House.” Here in the temple, at Passover, at the age of 12, when a boy became a man according to Judaism, Jesus publicly stated for the first time, his self-understanding, he was truly the Son of God.  He was declaring his unique and intimate relationship to God.   In a sudden blaze of realization, he was telling his parents who he was.  Jesus, this boy, this human being, was also one with God.

Luke says that his parents did not understand what he said to them.  And as a parent I totally get where they were coming from.  If one of our sons had said this, I might have said, “Really, and I’m Elvis, you need some rest and if this continues, we’re going to see a doctor.”

Second, this story is about family.  It’s about God’s affirmation of the family, of the role and promise of the family, and the place the family plays in the plan of God.  In this story God has sanctified the family.  It affirms that God uses normal, ordinary, fallible families to form and shape and raise children.   Mary and Joseph immersed Jesus in the traditions of Passover and their faith.

Raising, providing for and protecting our family is a constant challenge.  When asked how he will handle his 12-year-old daughter's future boyfriends, NBA Hall-of-Famer Charles Barkley responded, "I figure if I kill the first one, word will get out."

As one writer said: “Families do not have to be picture perfect to be used of God.  Family life is at risk of being relegated to a low priority in our society.  The church needs to pray for and support families, inside and outside the church.  Families are not add-ons to other things in life; they are foundational, growing us into what we become.”  Parents and grandparents: never forget this, always remember it.

Even though Jesus knew he was the unique son of God, rather than going off on his own, he returned to Nazareth with his family.  We can imagine his life growing up in Nazareth.  His parents would have provided for his religious education.  We can imagine a home filled with love.  We can imagine Jesus as a boy working alongside his father Joseph in the carpenter shop, learning a trade.  Luke says: “Then Jesus went down with them and came to Nazareth, and he was obedient to them.”  Jesus, the son of God, grew up in a family.

As an individual and as a part of a family, God seeks to bring you into a life-giving relationship and to shape your identity.  The story concludes: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.  That is God’s desire you and for me.  Amen.

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Magi’s Story (Matthew 2:1-12) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

In January 2013, Sabine Moreau, a 67-year-old Belgian woman, set out on a trip to pick up a friend in Brussels, about 90 miles from her home.  But due to faulty directions she got from her car’s GPS, she drove all the way to Croatia—nearly 1,000 miles away. The journey took the woman across five international borders.  She stopped several times to get gas and take naps, but she kept pressing onward until she hit Zagreb, the capital of Croatia.  After a few days her son got worried and called the police, who located Sabine by following her bank statements. She told a Belgian reporter, "I was distracted. I saw all kinds of signs, first in French, then in German, and finally in Croatian, but I just kept following my GPS."  I think she was in what we call a zone.

Welcome on this Sunday January 1st, 2017, the beginning of our journey into a new year.   Whether you are ready or not, the trek begins today.  God says:  “I am a God of new beginnings!”    God says: “Last year is behind you, wipe the slate clean and begin with a fresh start.”   God says: “Don’t carry the burdens and baggage of last year with you.”    God says:  “Set a course, don’t be pushed and pulled and blown hither and thither by the exigencies and circumstances of life.”

In this context, we turn to the story of the Magi or Three Wisemen.  I think this story captures our imagination because we too are on a journey. No, we don’t ride camels, thank goodness, we have more comfortable modes of transportation, but we too are heading into uncharted territory.   What is this story saying to us?

The Magi’s story teaches that God calls us to lead purposeful lives.   Matthew says: “The wise men came from the East to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?  For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to worship Him.’"

The magi journeyed far for a single purpose, to find and worship the Messiah.  God calls us as Christians to live purposefully and intentionally.  We are to seek God’s priorities, God’s goals, God’s guidance, God’s will and light for our lives.  Start with hopes and dreams for the future. The Wise men’s journey was not an aimless and pointless meandering.  Ours doesn’t have to be either.   They moved forward with a sense of direction and with a destination in mind.  They could not predict where the journey might take them or what fortunes or disappointments or detours they would encounter along the way, but they relentlessly followed that star to the sacred place where they could worship the child born King of the Jews.

A poet said: “The future is an opportunity yet unmet, a path yet untraveled, a life yet unlived.  How our future will be lived, depends on the priorities and purposes of our lives today. The direction we take right now, determines where we will end up in the future.”

Having a direction certainly saves time, time isn’t wasted.  Having a direction reduces stress.  I would love a navigation app to get me in and out of hospitals without getting disoriented.  I am so grateful for my navigation app when I’m on the road.  I can reach destinations directly rather than driving around lost and confused, hunting for an address.  Except in those times when it says, recalculating, recalculating or lost signal.

Cecil B. de Mille said: “Most of us serve our ideals by fits and starts. The person who makes a success of living is the one who sees his goal steadily and aims for it unswervingly.” Hannah More said:  “Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off the goal.”  Proverbs 17:24 says: “An intelligent person aims at wise actions, but a fool starts off in many directions.”

You may already have a direction planned for this coming year.  You may sense that you are to continue the path that you walked last year.  Things are yet unfinished which need to be completed.  Or you may feel you have accomplished some important things, and it’s time to set some new goals.

In the book of Job we read: “We can choose the sounds we want to listen to; we can choose the taste we want in food and we should choose to follow what is right.  But first of all we must define… what is good.”  So a relevant question is, are my goals worth reaching for, are my goals worth pursuing, are they pleasing to God?

How do we set our goals?  How do we find our purpose or purposes for this coming year?  How do we figure out what we want to reach for or change or accomplish this year?   God says: “Life is more than thinking ‘I just want to be happy.”  God wants us to ask: “Lord, what do you want me to do with my life this year?”   Such a question always begins with prayer.  In the context of prayer, here are some practical ideas to consider:

THE INTELLECTUAL:  Ask yourself, “What do I want to learn this coming year?”  God gave you your mind.   Is there a subject you want to become knowledgeable in?  How about learning a new language?   Is there a new skill you want to acquire?  Maybe rock climbing, but then again, maybe not.  Proverbs 19 says: “Do yourself a favor and learn all you can.  Remember what you've learned and you'll prosper.”

THE PHYSICAL: What will improve your health this year?  A change of attitude?  Lose some weight?  Go to bed earlier?  Get a physical.  Get on an exercise plan?  Change your eating habits.  Find a way to relieve some stress.  Proverbs 17 says: “Being cheerful keeps you healthy.  It is a slow death to be gloomy all the time.

THE SPIRITUAL:  What will deepen my relationship with God?  Join a prayer group, join a bible study, get involved in a service ministry, worship faithfully, join the choir or Sounds of Worship.  The Bible says: “Grow in spiritual strength and become better acquainted with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

THE SOCIAL:   Whom will you reach out to?  Positive relationships are critical in life.   Rather than being alone or isolated, friendships meet deep seated needs.  You love God by loving others and serve God by serving others.  Whom would you like to spend more time with?  Write down someone who needs your encouragement.  God may be calling you to spend more time deepening a particular friendship.   Share your faith with someone, invite them to church.  The Bible says: “God has given you some special abilities; use them to help each other.

For example, you may decide to focus more on your family this year.  Last year you were very involved in the church or community but this year you think there are some family issues which need to be addressed.  

I recall the story of Rev. Robert Schuller who visited 14 cities in one week to promote one of his books.  His office notified him that when he got home, he was scheduled for a luncheon with the winner of a charity raffle for a “lunch with Robert Schuller.”  He prepared to squeeze the luncheon into his crowded schedule, and was stunned when he learned who had bid to have lunch with him.  He knew the $500 represented the individual’s entire savings; it was his own daughter.

Finally, the Magi’s story says God sends stars to guide us and we are to follow them to our destination.  “The Magi set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.”

God sends stars to guide us along our journey.  We are not heading out alone.  God desires to lead each of us to those destinations that are important.  What are some of these stars?  The words of the Bible, inspiration, prayer, talking with others, discovering something we are passionate about, dreams.  Sometimes stars take the form of needs, problems which arise, challenges before us.   Remember God’s purposes can be short-term or long term, a single purpose for the year or multiple purposes within a year.

And please here this.  When you face those times where there appears to be no light, no star, no direction, then fall on your knees and pray: “God help me to trust in you now more than ever.”

I close with this quote: “And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown, and he replied:  Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God.  That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” Amen!

Friday, December 30, 2016

What’s In a Name? (Luke 2:1-21) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

What’s in a name?  Not much really.  It’s just a word, a sound, a label.  Names tend to capture our attention at different times in life, even at Christmas.  Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus, in the nondescript town of Bethlehem, 2000 years ago, is the largest celebration around the world each year.  It’s astounding.  His birthday brings out massive crowds and traffic jams in places like Rome, New York City, Chicago, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, and Jerusalem.  And like all babies, after this child was born, his parents gave him a name.

The Gospel of Luke says: “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”

Perhaps names are after all important   We get rather attached to them.  Parents trying to decide on what to name their newborn is a big undertaking in our culture.  A five-year old boy who lives next door to our home, is always surprised when I say, “Hi Daniel.”  He replies, “You know my name?”  I’m thinking yes Daniel, because you told me your name a few times.

We are sensitive about people mispronouncing our names or calling us by the wrong name.   Our identity is wrapped up in our name.  Names are critical in genealogy,  when exploring  one’s heritage, one’s family tree.   To be called “Hey you” or “You, over there” all your life would be dehumanizing.

Why did your parents select your name?  We are often called different names by people over time, pet names, nick names, etc.  Upon returning to San Diego where I was born, after we had been away for 33 years, during which people called me Alan, it sounded strange to once again hear friends I grew up with calling me” Al.”

Why did you choose certain names for your children?  Matthew, our first son is named after the first book of the New Testament.  We decided not to name our second son Mark because we knew we would go through life with people asking - “So where are Luke and John?”  While watching Olympic speed skater Eric Heiden during the 1980 Olympics, we decided we liked the name Eric and chose that name for our second son.

Yes, names are important.   A minister friend told me about a wedding he officiated at.  Afterward, the family approached him and said: “Pastor, it was a beautiful wedding, but our daughter’s name is Jennifer not Janet.”  Names are sometimes rooted in the family, like Johnson, the son of John.  Puritans in 17th century New England gave their children names that reflected Christian virtues, like Purity, Prudence, Chastity and Charity.  Children are named after occupations like Shoemaker or Baker.  Today, naming a child after an occupation doesn’t fit quite as well: “This is my son Project Manager or this is my daughter software engineer.”

The Bible employs numerous names for Jesus.    In fact, there are over 200 names and titles for Christ found in the Bible.  Don’t worry, we won’t review them one-by-one.  A mother writes: “While watching the movie The Ten Commandments on television, our four-year-old daughter Melissa learned that one of God's names in the Old Testament is Yahweh, which is best translated "I Am That I Am."  During the following week, true to her contrary style, Melissa strode about the house announcing: "I'm not that I'm not.”

Today, Christmas Day, we pause to reflect upon the names for the child born in Bethlehem. The Gospel writer John called him Logos, the Word, the Light, and also, the Son of God.  Matthew called him the King of the Jews.

The Gospel writer Luke called him Jesus!  “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”   The contemporary song writer Bill Gaither wrote a song titled: "Jesus, There's Just Something About That Name."

Jesus in Greek literally means "Savior” or” One who Saves," a name which shows forth God’s purpose in sending Jesus to the world, to bring salvation, to save us from our sins.

Scripture says the wages of sin is death.   Jesus saves us from sin, guilt, evil and death.  God forgives our sins in Jesus and reconciles us to Himself.  Jesus saves us from self-centeredness and sets us free to love others.  Jesus saves us to give us a new beginning, a new start in our lives.  Jesus saves us from darkness and brings us into the light.  Jesus saves us to love God and to love others.  That’s why God sent Jesus, to bring salvation to the world.

The Greek word which Matthew uses for Jesus is “Christ or Christos” which is a title, and means God’s Anointed one.  Messiah in Hebrew, and Christ in Greek are titles, both meaning God’s anointed one. God’s anointed Jesus to be the spiritual leader of Israel, the one the Jews were long awaiting.

Christ brings God’s Kingdom on earth, not a political kingdom, not a military kingdom, but a spiritual kingdom.  One enters God’s kingdom through conversion, by making a confession of faith in Christ as one’s Lord and Savior.  Christ came to be your leader, your ruler, your king, your deliverer.  God anointed Christ to lead us and guide us and empower us through the struggles and disappointments and decisions of our daily lives.

Another name Matthew uses is Emmanuel!  We read: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and they will call him Immanuel which means ‘God with us.’”  This is a name about Jesus’ presence and power.  It’s no wonder the angel said; “Do not be afraid.”  You lose your fear when you know God is near you each and every day of your life.  Immanuel says you are not alone: God is with you. God is for you, God is within you.  It means we have the opportunity to walk daily with God.   We can have a personal relationship with God in Christ.

Each name for Jesus is special, meaningful; each name highlights a particular aspect of Jesus’ identity and mission.   No one name can contain him.  No one name can explain him.  No one name can limit or hold him.  There is power when you call upon this name, the power to change your life, the power to save, the power to lead, the power to begin again, the power for renewal, the power for liberation.

Today we celebrate the story of the love and power of God come down from heaven as a newborn baby named Jesus.  It’s a story which can’t be bound to a single name, because Jesus is too great.  Jesus is greater than any one name.    Jesus is instead magnified by the names given to him.   What’s in a name?  Perhaps more than you can imagine.

I close with this quote from Philippians: “God gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the father.”   Amen!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Simple Gifts (Philippians 4:15-20) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

In case you're stressed about getting ready for Christmas, with all the shopping, cleaning, and putting up Christmas decorations, one company is trying to help.  Tesco, a British supermarket company, posted an ad for a new job - a Christmas Light Untangler.

The company's website offered the following description for the 36-hour-a-week job: "This new position will offer you the chance to run the unique in-store service with a friendly, flexible approach and making a genuine difference to the little things that matter to our customers this Christmas.  The first duty includes managing the Christmas Lights Untangling stand.  Candidates should be able to untangle 10 feet of Christmas lights in less than three minutes as well as check the bulbs for signs of breakage. The ideal candidate would also "be passionate about Christmas."   Finally, someone to help untangle those Christmas lights from last year.

In the fourth century the church established Advent and Christmas to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  It wasn’t long before carols were written to celebrate Jesus’ birth.   For 1,700 years Christians around the world have celebrated Jesus' birth at Christmas.

When it comes to Christmas, we naturally think of gifts.  What’s the worst Christmas gift you’ve ever gotten?  An article in Time magazine presented stories of people who had received questionable Christmas gifts.

One woman shared that for years, her mother-in-law had bought the other daughter-in-law an expensive makeup or perfume, and then she gave this daughter-in-law the free gift that came with it.   Another reader shared how she had received a waffle iron from her husband.  He said: “Now you can start making waffles for me.”  She asked so whom was this gift for anyway?

Focusing on the message of Christmas, the reason for the season, is always challenging.   There is the competition between preserving the historical and spiritual story of Christmas and the pressure of consumerism.   We hear on the one hand - focus on Jesus and the spiritual message of the Christmas season and on the other hand, buy, buy, buy the latest and greatest.  It is the tension between worshiping and honoring Jesus and consumerism.  We hear stories of shoppers who in the rush for a sale actually trample over other shoppers.  Is that a sign that things have gotten out of control?

As Jesus’ followers, we must stay focused on the core message, the central meaning of this season: the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, Emmanuel, the Son of God, the Savior of the world, the Word made flesh, that God became a human being in Jesus of Nazareth.

One of the traditional things we do at Christmas is to exchange gifts.  Is this appropriate?  Absolutely.  After-all, Jesus was God’s gift to the world.  And the Magi brought gifts to the Christ-child.  But we can also get overwhelmed with the expense and pressure of gift buying and giving.   Children can have unrealistic expectations about gifts.

Parents can feel tremendous guilt, competition and the burden of buying the newest and most popular gifts.  Today we are going to take a new look at an old idea, simple gifts.

There is an old Shaker song: It’s a Gift to be Simple.  Someone revised the words years ago.  “It's a gift to be simple; it's a gift to be kind. It's a gift to smile and to share a happy mind.  It's a gift from the Father when we go on our way, with a joyful song at the start of the day.  But the gift to be simple and the gift to be kind, are the gifts which only a very few will find. Yet these gifts from the Father can be found every day, if we look to him and his will we obey.  Love! Love! It's a gift to be kind. It's a gift when we smile, when we share a happy mind.  Love! Love! We go on our way, with a joyful song at the start of the day.  Love! Love! It's a gift to be kind. It's a gift when we smile, when we share a happy mind. Love! Love! We go on our way, with a joyful song at the close of the day.”

Simplicity.   What does this mean to you?   Simplicity, according to the Bible, is rooted in some basic convictions.  It’s believing that everything belongs to God, that everything you are and everything you have is a gift of God, being truly thankful for God’s grace, understanding that you are dependent upon God for each breath you take and each day you live, knowing that you are to take care for your possessions, but not to be possessed by them, not to become a slave to material things, and trusting that God desires for you to share your resources with others.

The biblical understanding of simplicity means that people are more important than things, that you measure your value, your self-worth on being a child of God, not by the material things you own.   It affirms that whether you live or die, you belong to God who loves you, who created you, who knows you, who forgave you on the cross and who will bring you to be with Him in the life to come.  It reminds us that we came into this world with nothing and that we will die with nothing.

Is it possible to simplify your Christmas?   Well, I don’t know, what do you think?  I think so. I hope so.  Our scripture passage gives us reason to pause.

In the letter to the church at Philippi the apostle Paul expresses his heart-felt thanks to the people of the church.  Philippi was not a wealthy church.  The gift would have been modest – a little money, personal letters, some food, medicine, some clothing.  Paul is deeply moved.  He writes: I have been paid in full; I have received more than enough, “I am fully satisfied now that I have received the gifts you sent.”  He describes the gifts as a “fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.”  The church gave him gifts in gratitude for Paul's ministry.

What is God’s word today about simple gifts in this Advent-Christmas season?  I believe God is saying pay extra attention to people.  Spend time with them; take time to listen, to see, to feel this Christmas.

First, make a list of some people in your life.   You know the song: “He’s making a list, checking it twice.”  Making lists is traditional at Christmas!  Think about close people, your wife or husband, your children, your grandchildren, your parents, your grandparents, your aunts or uncles, your brothers and sisters, your friends, a neighbor, or a colleague at work.

But what about people you wouldn’t normally include: your dentist or doctor or accountant or lawyer, your dermatologist or acupuncturist, your barber or hair-stylist, a police officer or firefighter, someone in the military, a teacher, a favorite waiter or waitress, the people who pick up your trash, your gardener, your computer technician, a cashier at the grocery store, your auto mechanic or plumber or electrician, your mail carrier, the teller at your bank or babysitter.   Our lives unquestionably are far richer because of the support and services of these people.  God brings some truly remarkable people into our lives on a regular basis.   And we know we sometimes take these people for granted.

Second, give them a simple gift.   What is a simple gift?  I’m going to suggest some things, but I want you to use your imagination and decide for yourselves.   Make an effort to express your appreciation this Advent/Christmas season in simple ways.   You never know how meaningfully you can touch someone; you never know what joy you can bring to someone when you surprise them with a simple gift.

Like a handwritten note or email, telephone call, conveying a word of affirmation, appreciation, of encouragement or gratitude. “I want you to know I thank God for you.” “I want you to know how grateful I am for you.”   “I want to thank you for what you meant to me this year.”

Simple gifts, like taking time to listen carefully to someone whom you normally wouldn’t listen to.  There is the gift of hospitality, inviting someone to your home for a meal or out to lunch.  You can invite someone to come to our Christmas Eve services.  You might offer to drive a neighbor to church or to go shopping.  You might bring someone a cake or pie or plate of raw vegetables or fruit or hummus. You may offer to help someone complete a project or to help someone hang lights on their house.  You can visit a person during their recovery from surgery or make a long overdue apology to someone.  You might call someone you haven’t talked to for a while.   You can always ask someone for to forgive you.  You can strive to reconcile with someone whom you have been alienated from, spend time praying for someone and asking God to touch their lives or buy socks for homeless people through CCSA.

So how can we be the sort of giver that ennobles?  How can you and I be a gift to someone on Christmas?  There’s a question to ask yourself – “How can I be a Christmas gift to someone?”   Offer a simple prayer: “Oh God may I not let this Christmas be all about me.  May this Christmas be all about you and others. Christ, help me to see you, to hear you, to feel you this Christmas.  Dear Jesus, inspire and empower me to guide others to see you this season.

This sort of thoughtfulness, spiritual maturity, and love is only possible if we embrace Christ as the King, our King, whose throne was a manger.   That’s when we’ll have a Christmas where Christ is the center of the season.

Can we simplify Christmas just a little?  Can we give some simple gifts to others in the name of Jesus Christ?   I truly believe, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that we can.  Maybe, just maybe, we can try something a little different this Christmas.  Amen!

Friday, December 9, 2016

Your Prayer Has Been Heard (Luke 1:5-20) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Is Christmas about buying gifts?  Is Christmas about shopping?   Columnist Dave Barry writes:

“Your normal man, at this point in the Christmas season, has purchased zero gifts.  He didn’t even manage to get an acceptable gift for his wife last year.   He did give her something, but he could tell by her reaction that she had not been dreaming of a car emergency kit, even though it was the deluxe model with booster cables and an air compressor.  Clearly this gift violated an important rule, but the man had no idea what this rule was, and his wife was too upset to tell him.”

“A survey on men's attitudes about Christmas shopping may provide useful information for women.  Many men dread holiday shopping so much, that instead of going Christmas shopping, 89 percent would rather see their favorite sports team lose.”

And yet according to the Bible and our Christian faith, Christmas was originally not about our giving gifts to others.    We get so focused on giving to others at Christmas, on what to give our children or grandchildren, or friends or worthy organizations, that we forget the original intent of Christmas

The first Christmas was about getting ready, about preparing to receive, to receive the gift of the coming Messiah.  The focus on the first Christmas was this - God is a giver.  God gave to the world His Son.  God gave the gift of salvation through sending Jesus, born in Bethlehem, as the Savior of the world.  Christmas is about preparing our lives spiritually to receive, to celebrate, to honor God’s amazing and loving gift.

Christmas asks the question – what does it mean to receive the gift of Jesus as your personal savior and the savior of the world?  The heart of Christmas is about being beneficiaries, about fully embracing God’s astonishing gift, God’s promised Messiah, named Jesus, the greatest gift humankind has ever received.

Which leads us to our story about Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist.  They were getting on in years.  They came from good families.  Zechariah held a respected position as a priest in Jerusalem.  They were righteous before God, they had a good reputation in the community, they had a good marriage.    They knew God had greatly blessed them.   But buried beneath it all was an unyielding desire – the desire for a child.  No, they were not unique in this desire, many people before and since, can identify with it.

One day Zechariah was chosen to enter the holy temple of the Lord and burn incense while a gathering of people prayed outside.  This was an esteemed honor.  As he was going about his priestly duties, suddenly the angel Gabriel appears to him.  Zechariah was afraid, which you would only expect if you were confronted by an angel.  Gabriel announces to Zechariah: “Your prayers have been heard.”  His wife Elizabeth would bear a son and they were to name him John. 

Gabriel exclaims: “You will have joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth.” Zechariah responds, “How can this be? My wife and I are old. How can it be that my prayers are answered?” Rather than shouting: “Praise God, thank you Lord, my prayers have been answered, hallelujah,” Zechariah replies, “Really, I just can’t believe, I rather doubt it, my wife and I are too old.”

Zechariah makes two big mistakes: never doubt the word of an angel, and never comment on your wife’s age.   He is totally skeptical as we might be too.  Zechariah had reluctantly accepted the fact that their time to be parents had passed them by. He and his wife had come to accepted their fate.    Gabriel announcement sent a shock wave into their world.

Gabriel tells Zechariah that since he did not believe this good news, he would lose his voice and not be able to speak until their son John was born.   Now that was serious.  I mean how can a priest do priestly things without a voice; I can relate to that.   And anyway, shouldn’t a priest, a man of God, believe that God has the power to answer prayer?  I mean who wants to listen to a priest who has more doubt than faith, who questions whether God can truly answer prayer?

It was the custom for the priest after being in the holy of holies in the temple to go out and declare to the people the great blessing of Aaron. “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you.  May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”   But not that day, there would be no Aaronic blessing, because Zechariah could not speak.

I don’t know about you but there is something about Christmas which takes one’s breath away, words escape you.  The God of the universe became one of us and one with us as a human being in Jesus of Nazareth full of grace and truth.  Yes, this certainly qualifies as an ineffable moment.

So Zechariah does not utter a single word for nine months.  But perhaps God’s removing Zechariah’s ability to speak wasn’t a curse, but ultimately a blessing.  For sometimes we can only truly appreciate a spiritual moment, when we are quiet, when we are listening and not so busy talking.   Sometimes only in a time of silence is it possible to reflect upon, to appreciate and behold a miracle of God.

Maybe God wanted Zechariah to ponder his encounter with Gabriel in depth?  Perhaps God wanted to teach Zechariah something: never give up on God, never question what is possible with God, never lose faith and hope in the power of prayer. Maybe God was testing this religious man.  What do you think?

Have you ever stayed up late at night and stared at Christmas lights?  Have you ever walked around your neighborhood in the quiet of night to look at the stars and lights and decorations around you?   Have you ever sat at a table for Christmas dinner, surrounded by people who are laughing and telling stories, and in a private moment, you realize that these people too are Christmas gifts?   Sometimes it takes silence to truly appreciate God’s miraculous gift at Christmas.   Yes, perhaps God’s removing Zechariah’s ability to speak wasn’t a curse after all.

I suspect Zechariah as a husband and priest, underneath it all, had lost his ability to hope, to hope in God.  A life without hope is a dreary life indeed.  And God wants us, God wants you and me, to be a people of hope, a people who share hope, who perceive God’s blessings, and who bless others, and encourage others to believe in God and to believe in prayer.  Thus, the question for this season is: What does your life speak to those around you?  Does it speak of disappointed expectations or does it speak of blessing and hope?

Don’t allow these coming weeks to be filled with just busyness and noisy activity and talking.  Find some quiet moments, spend some time in silence, receive the gift of Christ once again into your heart and see the miracle of what Christ is doing in your own life.  And may your life and the words you speak be of hope, faith, love, peace, encouragement and wonder.  The world needs believers, not only at Christmas, but throughout the entire year.

During your Advent and Christmas journey, may God bless you with moments of silence as well as with shouts of joy.  For this is a season to prepare for the promise of the Messiah.  Amen!

Friday, December 2, 2016

You Don’t Know When the Time Will Come (Mark 13:32-37) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Christians start your engines.  Perhaps that is a good slogan for today.  We have scarcely      recovered from our Thanksgiving meal, we are still catching our breath, we are just finishing putting things away, Black Friday is a frightening f because you put yourself in harm’s way fighting crowds and already it’s the First Sunday in Advent which leads us to Christmas.   But ready or not, Advent is upon us.

Advent is the time we prepare for the coming of the Lord Jesus.  It is a season of waiting, watching and expectation; a season where we look to the future.  Are you curious about the future?  I think human beings in general are interested in the future.  What is going to happen in the future?  What will the future hold?   What are the first 100 days going to be like with a new Commander and Chief?  We think about and sometimes worry about our own future, the future of our family, our children and grandchildren, our church, our nation and of our world.

Christ is coming!   A biblical word which captures the spirit of Advent is Maranatha!  It is an Aramaic word.  It means “Come Lord” or “Our Lord, Comes”.  It is both a prayer and an affirmation of faith which has emboldened Christians down through the ages.  Advent says the future belongs to God.  Wow you got to worship God and learned a little Aramaic too.

Do you think about Jesus coming?  Robert Lee imagines the different headlines we might see on the day of Christ’s return:  Time Magazine might read: “He’s the Man of the Millennium.”   The National Enquirer might say: “Christ Comes Back and He’s Seen Elvis.”  And the headline for Atheist Monthly would simply read: “Oops.”

Some people are inherently optimistic about the future?  They are filled with hope.  They see a light at the end of the tunnel.  They envision a better future for themselves and their children and the world.

Other people are filled with dread about the future, they are pessimistic and anxious.   They believe the problems in our world with the environment, terrorism, disease, and war will only increase and bring a future filled with darkness and disaster.

How do you see the future?  And yet, in spite of our questions, our uncertainty and our fears, Advent says - Don't lose heart, stay the course, hold on, you have a bright future, a hope-filled future because the future belongs to God and God’s plans for the future will be fulfilled.

Advent announces that Jesus is coming!  Do we know precisely when?  Despite some who claim they do know the day and the hour, those who make such predictions are at best misguided and at worst deceivers.  You must always be on the alert for false prophets. No, we don’t know.

Advent declares that Jesus is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end.  Life has a purpose.  History has a direction.  The world is headed somewhere.  Everything in the world is temporary.  There is an end time for history.  The earth as we know it is coming to a close and a new earth will dawn.  We are not just accidents in an empty universe.  The universe sis not just a random occurrence.

The Stoics of Roman times believed human history was an eternal treadmill.  Every 3,000 years civilization would be destroyed by some catastrophe.  Then history would start over once again.  That cycle of world destruction and rebirth would repeat itself forever.  Advent says No!  God has a plan and pattern for all human life.  The culmination of God’s great plan will be the coming of Jesus Christ.

Pastor Steve Brown tells about a car he saw one day parked along the side of the road while he was driving home.  It was the ugliest car he had ever seen.  It had a large gash on its side, the windows were all smashed, the roof was dented in, one of the doors was held together with bailing wire, several body parts were missing, the rust had eaten away most of the paint and what little paint was left was of different colors.  But the most interesting thing about the car was the bumper sticker.  It said: “This is not an abandoned car; the owner will return.”   The message of Advent is that this is not an abandoned world and you are not an abandoned person.

We read in I Thessalonians: “Now concerning the times and seasons brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you.  For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”

Jesus says in the Gospel of Mark: “You will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”  “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father.  It is like a man going on a journey when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.  Keep awake, watch, for you do not know when the master of the hour will come, in the evening, or at midnight or at cockcrow or at dawn.”

Who are those servants left in charge?  We are.  You and I are.  Christ has put us in charge.  We each have a work to do.   And while we work we are to be on watch, to keep awake.  The days are coming.  We are to await that day and that hour.

Finally, Advent says the days are coming when the Messiah will bring shalom throughout the land.   The 8th prophet Isaiah envisions a future time of peace throughout earth.  Here his prophecy: “God will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”  Isaiah says further: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox, the nursing child shall play over the hold of the asp.  They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

A Christian woman recalls her trip to Israel and a holy moment, when she experienced a foretaste of the peace Christ will one day establish on earth.  She writes:

“We walked through the dusty streets of Bethlehem town and soon came to the entrance to the Church of the Nativity. We stood in line for what seemed like hours, winding our way downward into a series of caves.

Once there, I was hushed by the holiness of it all. There were candles lit here, there, and everywhere. Hundreds of people were on their knees in prayer, scattered about on the cold, damp floor. We made our way to the traditional cave of the birth where we read Matthew's story once again. Soon we were singing. "O Holy Night," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and "Silent Night."

Right there in a church that has been ravaged by war and terrorism and today is owned by four different religious groups, we prayed for peace.  As we left, I passed by all the pilgrims yet again. Some were from Germany, Poland, or Italy and others from England, Spain, or China. They, too, sang and prayed.  Anger and violence wrestled about in all our worlds, but in that moment we had all come together in Bethlehem to worship and celebrate the Prince of Peace who was working shalom into the folds of our lives, as he will, until the day he returns to work it into all things, once-for-all.

I too as have some of you experienced that moment of peace, serenity, in a cave under the Church of the Nativity where Jesus was born.  Yes, we justifiably question whether peace in our world will ever become a reality.  While we await, the scriptures, and our Christian faith, remind us that we too can experience today a foretaste of Christ's coming peace.   The prophet Isaiah says: “God will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on him, because he trusts in God.”

Peace comes when we trust in God's control of events and circumstances, of both our yesterdays and our tomorrows.   Nothing is beyond the control and will of God.  Advent stirs our hearts.  It declares that the future belongs not to evil, not to sin, but to God.  Jesus is coming to establish an unimaginable world.  C.S. Lewis writes: “When the author appears on stage, you know the play is over.”

I close with these inspiring words from the Book of Revelation: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, see the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them as their God, they will be his peoples and God himself will be with them, he will wipe every tear from their eyes, death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will cease, for these things have passed away.”   Amen 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

I Give You Thanks (Psalm 100) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

You may have heard this story before, but I think it’s worth hearing again.   A couple days before Thanksgiving, a father living in Phoenix telephones his son in New York and says: “I hate to ruin your day son, but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing.  45 years of misery is enough.”  “Dad,” his son shouts, “what do you mean, what are you talking about?”  “We can’t stand the sight of each other any longer,” the father says.  “We’re sick of each other and I’m tired of talking about this so you can call your sister in Chicago and tell her.”  Frantic, the son calls his sister who explodes on the phone.  “Like heck they’re getting divorced, she shouts, I’ll take care of this.”  She phones her Father and says: “You’re not getting divorced.  Don’t do anything. We’ll both be there tomorrow.”  The father hangs up, turns to his wife and says: “It’s OK honey, they’re both coming out for Thanksgiving and paying their own fares.”

Thanksgiving, our national fall festival, will soon be upon us, a day set aside for our nation to pause and give thanks.   Let’s go back for a moment in history.  We remember the Pilgrims, who sailed from England to Plymouth Mass, in 1620.  A year later they celebrated a feast in the autumn of 1621, after a year of sickness and scarcity. They celebrated together with the local Indians, to give thanks to God for their first successful harvest.  Half their number had died, they were people without a country, but to these people of strong Christian faith, this was a joyous outpouring of gratitude to God.

In the midst of a brutal Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, established a special day called Thanksgiving.  He wrote: “I invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father.  And I recommend that they fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty’s hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as may be consistent with the Divine purpose to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and union.”

Clearly, the origin of Thanksgiving Day was not merely a generic day of gratitude, but a day to specifically give thanks and praise to God and to seek God’s intervention in bringing reconciliation and healing amidst our War Between the States.

I, like you, am grateful for many things.  For my wife, for my family, for friends, for serving as pastor at PBPC.   What are you thankful for?   I am also thankful for our American time tested process of changing the highest office of the land, the President of the United States.  It is an orderly and peaceful transition.  Yes, the campaigns by both candidates were spirited, to say the least.  But rather than power being changed by a coup, by assassination, by wars, by violence, we heard how President Obama and President-elect Trump met for a private conversation for over an hour.  Power is handed over from the current president to the incoming president.  And now as one administration is moving out of the White House and another is moving in, we await the final step, the inauguration scheduled for January 20, 2017.  However you feel about the outcome of the election, you must respect the orderly and smooth transfer of power in some 73 days.

The Bible exhorts you and me as people of faith to give thanks to God.  Psalm 100 says: “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.”  We are to give thanks because the God we worship is good and because his love is steadfast.  In Psalm 138, listen to how this poet jubilantly expresses his faith: “I give you thanks O Lord, with my whole heart, before the gods I sing your praise; I bow down toward your holy temple, and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness.  On the day I called, you answered me; you increased my strength of soul.”  This psalmist had prayed to God for inner-strength, for God to lift his soul, and deliver him from some ordeal and God answered his prayer.  Has God answered a prayer you have made for inner-strength and courage in a difficult situation?  Has God ever delivered you from a threatening or troubling situation?

In the letter of I Thessalonians, we hear this exhortation: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  Why have a thankful heart in all circumstances?   God knows that giving thanks and being thankful is good for our character as human beings and for our faith as God’s people.  If we have a thankful spirit, we can perceive special blessings, small miracles, new possibilities, second chances, hints and flashes of God’s amazing grace through unexpected people and events.     If we lack a grateful heart, we miss these things.

How does God desire for us to give thanks?  To worship Him, to pray, to express thankfulness in words and actions.  It is after-all Thanks-giving, not Thanks-taking.  One example is churches which are planting community gardens all around the country including Northminster Presbyterian Church in Clairemont.  Some churches in New Jersey have become part-time farmers, growing more than 300,000 pounds of food for needy people last year.  Christians are supplying a critical need for families who rely on food banks and soup kitchens, where fresh fruits and vegetables are often in short supply.   What a glorious way of giving thanks.

Reflect for a moment on these key biblical truths.  First, a thankful heart can reduce stress in your life by making you more content with who you are and what you have.  You will be freer from the anxiety that goes with being resentful and dissatisfied.  Second, a grateful heart can increase joy by enlarging your sense of God’s abundant blessings.  Focusing on blessings, for which you are grateful, helps to develop a sense of just how much there is to be thankful for.  Third, a grateful heart builds relationships.  Thank-less, ungrateful people repel; thankful, appreciative people attract other peoples.  Expressing our gratitude to others draws us closer to people and them to us.  Fourth, giving thanks for the gift of life brings us ever closer to the Giver of life, to God.   Fifth, if we cannot learn to be a thankful person, we can become bitter and callous and insensitive toward others. Further, we can become totally self-absorbed and thereby develop an attitude of entitlement and narcissism.  Praying steadily to God, walking humbly with God, sharing with others builds a thankful spirit.

A thankful heart can positively affect the people around you.  It can influence their attitudes, their identity, their spirit, their self esteem, their behavior.   Like the story about a couple named Larry and Jo Ann.   The author writes:

“One day, a most extraordinary event took place.  The husband Larry said to his wife: “Jo Ann, I’ve got a magic chest of drawers.  Every time I open them, they’re full of socks and t-shirts and underwear.  I want to thank you for filling them all these years.   Jo Ann stared at her husband over the top of her glasses.  “What do you want, Larry?”  “Nothing, I just want you to know I appreciate those magic drawers.”  This wasn’t the first time Larry had done something odd, so Jo Ann pushed the incident out of her mind until a few days later.

Jo Ann, that was a great dinner,” Larry said one evening.  I appreciate all your effort.  Why, in the past 15 years, I’ll bet you’ve fixed over 14,000 meals for me and the kids.”  A few days later, Larry said: “Jo Ann, the house looks spiffy.  You’ve really worked hard to get it looking so good. Thanks Jo Ann, for just being you.”

Jo Ann was now growing worried.  Where’s the sarcasm, the criticism, the impatience she wondered.  Whatever was wrong, Larry didn’t get over it.  Day in and day out he continued focusing on the positive.  Jo Ann’s step was now a little lighter, her self-confidence higher and once in a while she hummed.  She didn’t seem to have as many blue moods anymore.  She rather liked Larry’s new behavior.  That would be the end of the story except one day another most extraordinary event took place.  This time it was Jo Ann who spoke. “Larry, I want to thank you for going to work and providing for us all these years.  I don’t think I’ve ever told you how much I appreciate it.”

The author continues: “Larry has never revealed the reason for his dramatic change of behavior.  No matter how hard I pushed for an answer; it will likely remain one of life’s mysteries.  But it’s one I’m thankful to live with.  You see, the author writes, I am Jo Ann.”

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.”   May God bless you and yours on this Thanksgiving!  Amen