Wednesday, February 15, 2017

On Love (I Corinthians 13) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel


Hannah Peterson, 23 years old, was involved in a serious car accident just one month before her wedding in Ontario.  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.

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 Rome 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 Nancy 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

The Peace of God (Philippians 4:4-7) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

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 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 Cleveland, 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.

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 Cleveland. 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 peace.”

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

Make a Joyful Noise (Psalms 100 & 150) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

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 miss church, 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.

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.

Friday, January 27, 2017

A Time to Speak (Exodus 20:16; Matthew 21:28-32) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Is communicating with people easy?  Do you ever have communication problems?  A mother writes: “My husband and I were taking turns teaching our 4 year old daughter Sarah how to ride a training-wheel bike.  Every time I went with her, Sarah would bounce on the seat. I asked why she was doing that and she replied, "Daddy said."  “I told her, honey, you don't need to bounce."   I was curious about my husband's instructions.  A few minutes later, trying to encourage her, I said Sarah try to balance yourself a little more.  Immediately, she started bouncing again.”

The challenge of communication is constant.  The late Peter Drucker, called the Father of American Management, claims that 60% of all management problems were a result of faulty communication.  Without question good communication is critical?  We know that communication problems are a fact of life.  Sometimes the people closest to us, family members, close friends, are the hardest ones with whom to communicate. Have you found this to be true?  Do we find any help from Scripture about communication?  We do.

The first biblical principle is that words have power.   In the Old Testament, the book of Proverbs says: “Reckless words pierce like a sword.”  Proverbs also says: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”   Now that’s a sobering thought.   In the New Testament the letter of James says: “The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.  How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire.  And the tongue is a fire.  With it we bless the Lord and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.”

We certainly see this in politics.  Think of all the things that were said by President Trump, and Hillary Clinton and the candidates for president over the past year.   Incredible.  Our words can engender hurt and pain or comfort and healing.    Words unite and divide, words build up and tear down, words can coerce or care, and words can manipulate or collaborate.  Words can spread lies or tell the truth.

A man writes: “When I was eight years old I broke my arm playing football in the backyard.  When I was eleven I broke my leg playing sandlot baseball.  Both of these were painful experiences, but as I look back on them, I don’t remember what the pain felt like.  However, there are other scenes from my childhood - like the time at a Little League game when the coach yelled at me and told me I was an embarrassment to the team, or when my dad said I was stupid and that I would never amount to anything.  The pain of those moments remain fresh, even after all these years.”   Yes, death and life are in the power of the tongue.

Jesus wants us to be known for our graciousness.  As someone said: “Kind words cost little, but accomplish much.”

A second biblical principle is that God calls upon us to tell the truth.  We read in the letter of Ephesians – “Speak the truth in love.”  Proverbs 15 says: “Those who walk blamelessly and do what is right speak the truth from their heart.”  How we communicate the truth is equally as important as the truth we communicate; not out of anger, or spite, or jealousy or revenge, but in love.  God calls us to communicate to another person out of concern for this person.  And the ability to do this requires spiritual maturity.   It requires going to God in prayer, seeking God’s guidance and wisdom, before we engage in a difficult conversation.

Yes, there are sensitive and insensitive ways to tell the truth.  Like one Sunday in the greeting line after worship, a man shakes hands with the pastor and says: “Reverend, that sermon gave us food for thought, but we prefer fast food."  We are to speak up for truth when we witness injustice.  We are to speak up for truth when we witness corruption.  And this of course requires courage.

Can you think of examples in your life where you regret saying something to someone?  Yes, you can never take it back.   Do you recall when someone said something hurtful to you?  Can you recall when you spoke in a positive and constructive way to someone or someone spoke good words to you?  An author writes: “We create an environment for either good or evil with our words and we will have to live in that world we’ve created.”

It is amazing to me that out of 10 commandments, God includes two that warn us about false speech:  The third command says: “Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” that is, don’t dishonor God by disrespecting and abusing His name and the Ninth command: “Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.”   God is deeply concerned that people tell the truth in court, because without truthfulness there can be no justice.

But this command goes beyond the courts.  This command demands respect for persons.  We are commanded to respect other people and treat them fairly and we do so by speaking the truth.  A person’s reputation is a priceless possession.  To destroy a person’s good name is in a sense to destroy the person.  So this command also speaks to the destructive power of gossip, and slander, and defamation.  Propaganda and lies have led to wars and riots and genocide such as we saw in Nazi Germany.  And we see the terrible cost of false speech on race relations today.

I believe it’s a worthy goal to think before you speak, and to try to say the right thing at the right time or to keep from saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, although admittedly this is a work in progress.  Proverbs says: “He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity.”  And James says: “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.”

A third biblical principle is keep your word.   Jesus says be reliable.  Be dependable.  Honor your word.  Jesus was deeply concerned about how insincere communication was having a negative effect upon relationships.   Matthew tells a story about a father who had two sons.  The father went to one and said, “Son, go and work in my vineyard today.”  The son said, “No, I'm not going, but later he changed his mind and went.”  The father went to the second son and made the same request and the son answered: “Yes Sir, I will father, but he didn't go.”  Jesus asks the crowd, which of the two did the will of the father?  The crowd replies: “The first.”

This is a parable that all of us, including children immediately understand.  I remember my father telling me to mow the lawn or take out the trash or do the dishes and I readily said: “OK, just a minute,” but then got distracted and never got around to it.  After he badgered me, I finally did the chores, but without his badgering, it never would have happened.

Jesus is speaking about how paramount integrity is in our relationships.  What we say should match what we do.  Is that ever an issue for you?  Jesus expects consistency between what we say and what we do.   What we say should match our actions and what we do should match our words.  Jesus wants us to be Christ-like examples to others, and to honor our word, our promises, our commitment, to follow through on what we say to someone.   Say what you mean and mean what you say.  Let your yes be yes and your no be no.

We pay a big price when we don’t follow through.  We lose the respect, trust and confidence of others.  We are seen as persons whom you can’t count on or depend on.   People say: “She or he is a flake, you can't count on them.”  Conversely, when you keep your word, you gain the respect and trust and confidence of others, who feel you can be counted on in the best of times as well as in the worst of times.

A final biblical principle is to listen.   Someone said: “When it comes to communication, there are two kinds of people in the world - those who love to hear others talk and those who love to hear themselves talk.”   You can tell if someone is really listening to you, can’t you?  Of course it goes without saying that all of you are listening to the pastor this morning.  Communication is more than talking.   Listening is an integral and essential element of communication.   When we listen, we are showing respect, we are showing we value the thoughts, feelings and ideas of the other person.

The letter of James says: “Dear friends, be quick to listen, slow to speak.”  Ecclesiastes says: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven, a time to speak and a time to keep silent.”    Communication is so important.  May we strive to follow Jesus in our communication with others.  Amen!

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!