Friday, May 5, 2017

I Doubt It! (John 20:19-31) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

The mother of a Christian family wrote to her son who was in his first year of college.    She asked how he was doing and reminded him to study hard and that he was in her prayers.  He wrote back: “Hi Mom, I like college. I’m making new friends, but I can’t believe how much you have to study.  I have been extremely busy with reading assignments and term papers and lab work, and I’m having a terrible time in one class.”  And then in a creative paraphrase of II Timothy 4:7 the son concluded: “I have fought the good fight, I have kept the faith, but I doubt if I'll pass chemistry. Your favorite son, John.”

Is it rare to have doubts? No, it’s something we must grapple with and live with every day.  It confronts us in all realms of life.  What do you have doubts about?   Is there one thing in particular that you have doubts about or many things?  How do you deal with your doubts?

For there is no shortage of things to have doubts about.  Like our safety as a nation in the light of terrorist attacks, doubts about the economy, about our elected leaders in government, is government really looking out for the welfare of the people?   We have doubts about job security and about decisions looming before us.  We have doubts at times in our marriage, or about a friendship, or about how we’re raising in our children.  We have doubts about our health.  Yes, doubt is no stranger.

Is doubt all bad?  No.  People have had self-doubts about whether they could achieve something or knew that others had doubts about them were spurred on to prove to themselves or others that they could be successful.  Doubt has been a positive motivator for many to reach higher, to excel, to persevere, and to succeed, whether in sports, in entrepreneurial endeavors, in careers, in inventing, in business, in education, in attaining goals.  Doubts can propel us to take risks and accomplish things we never dreamed possible.   I also believe a little skepticism is healthy.  Being gullible, na├»ve, overly trusting can sometimes as we know get us into trouble.

But the answer also depends on the nature of our doubts.  Doubts about what color to paint the kitchen is one thing; struggling with serious self-doubt about our abilities, our judgment or our self-worth is another thing entirely.  Not believing in yourself, losing faith and confidence in yourself, is something else indeed.   Struggling with deep doubts about being a parent, about being a spouse, about whether your marriage can be saved, about your competence at work or in school, can lead to pessimism, anxiety, and ultimately depression.  I don’t think it’s healthy to ignore your doubts.  We need to pay attention to them and examine them and deal with them.   Denial is rarely ever the right path.

What about doubts when it comes to our faith in God?   Scripture clearly shows that you should not berate yourself or feel guilty, or think you are spiritually weak when you ask hard questions or feel disappointed in God or angry at God or struggle at times with your faith.   Such times demonstrate an intellectually honest faith.   Just read the psalms in the Old Testament for examples of an intellectually honest faith.    Like psalm 43: “Vindicate me O God, defend my cause against ungodly people; you are the God in whom I take refuge, why have you cast me off?  Why must I walk about mournfully because of the oppression of the enemy?”  In other words, God where are you, why is this happening?

In II Corinthians we read: “For we walk by faith, not by sight.”  The apostle Paul writes: “Now, we see in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face.”  Anyone here ever feel like you are seeing dimly, when you’re trying to understand what God’s plan or purpose is for your life?   I have.  Christian faith is a living, breathing, organic relationship with God through Christ.  Faith is about trust and obedience.  And like any relationship, there is an element of the unknown, of mystery, of surprises, of questions, of disappointments, of unmet expectations.

Our faith ought to steady us, and often it does, but sometimes it does not.  Faith should instill confidence and peace, and often it does, but sometimes it does not.  Faith comes easy when the sun is shining and the sky is blue, but then the storms of life assail us.   When is your faith strong and joy filled?  When is your faith shaken?

I believe there is some of the disciple Thomas in each of us, myself included.  Thomas was a charter member of that 12 Step Program – “Doubter’s Anonymous.”  But just a minute, aren’t we all?   Thomas knows his own mind.  He saw Jesus buried.  He refuses to go along with the crowd. The problem was that Thomas had missed the celebration.  I hate when that happens.  He missed seeing Jesus’ spectacular appearance.   The other disciples tell him about seeing the Risen Lord, but he isn’t buying it.  Jesus once again appears to the disciples and this time Thomas is there.   Jesus says: “Have you believed because you have seen me?”  Thomas, I’m glad that now you believe I am alive.   Touch my hands and my side.  Jesus clearly loves Thomas.

But then the risen Lord says something no one sees coming: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  Jesus is saying there are blessings when we receive a revelation from God like Thomas and believe.   But Jesus says, you are also blessed by God when you have not seen and yet believe.

Doubt is a part of faith because our human understanding is limited.  Faith in God is rooted in belief, assurance, surrender, humility, respect, gratitude and knowledge.  But it’s not rooted in sight.  It requires trust and obedience.    Faith and prayer confesses that we cannot control God to answer our prayers, and aren’t there times when you wish you could?   Scripture says:  “Fight the good fight of the faith.”  Faith is worth the fight.  I think this is another way of saying doubt is real and it must be struggled with from time to time.

Doubts remind us of the vicissitudes of life.   Sometimes a day is filled with amazing blessings and surprises and beauty and joy and wonder and humor.   I remember our indomitable church member Jack Farris, who if you asked him how he was feeling, would answer: “If I felt any better I’d have to go see a doctor.”   And then tomorrow comes and we are hit hard with all kinds of problems.  We find ourselves questioning, “Why Lord, why?”

Does God abandon us in times of doubt?  No.  Author Robert Louis Stevenson was a sickly child who was burdened by ill health for most of his life.  He died at the age of 44.  From skeptical beginnings, his spiritual journey eventually led him to become a man of radiant faith.  He started by debunking the Christian faith as the “deadliest gag and wet-blanket that can be laid on man.”  He referred to himself as a youthful atheist.  As he grew older, he began to have what he referred to as “his first wild doubts about doubt.”  Later, he commented: “Tis a strange world, but there is a manifest God for those who care to look for him?”  Near the close of his life, he wrote: “Faith is a good word to end on.”   Yes, sometimes doubt eventually leads us to faith.

I like what Dr. Lewis Thomas writes: “Much of God’s light shines in darkness.  There is enough darkness in each of our lives to cause us to wonder what, in God’s name, is going on.  Yet we would have to affirm that there is enough light in our lives to enable us to trust even when we cannot grasp what a particular event means.”

I believe that in times of doubt God brings the right people into our lives.  God gives us the gift of the church, like the disciples, who were there for Thomas.  Our faith is strengthened through the faith and presence of other believers.   It has happened to me personally.  I have also seen this over the years in the church, when people in difficult times tell me how their faith is inspired and encouraged by the prayers, visits, calls, cards, love and support of fellow believers.  The Holy Spirit links your sprit with the spirit of other believers in such times.

Like the story of Hans, a professor at a seminary who was devastated by the death of his wife, Enid.  Hans was so overcome with sorrow that he lost his appetite, and became depressed and didn't want to leave the house. Out of concern, the seminary president, along with three other professors, paid Hans a visit. The grieving professor confessed that he was struggling with doubt. "I am no longer able to pray to God," he admitted to his colleagues. "In fact, I am not certain I believe in God anymore."   After a moment of silence, the seminary president said, "Then we will believe for you. We will pray for you."  The four men continued to meet daily for prayer, asking God to restore the gift of faith to their friend.  Some months later, as the four friends gathered for prayer with Hans, Hans smiled and said, "It is no longer necessary for you to pray for me. Today I would like you to pray with me."

Our Easter faith proclaims that God raised Jesus from death to life.  Easter means that new life, new beginnings, new surprises are not only possible but a reality.   Fate does not control our destiny; God is ultimately in charge of life.   God is the ruler.  Jesus is Lord.  Jesus is with us through His Spirit.  Yes, sometimes we say – “I doubt it.”  But there are also times when we say – “Lord, I praise you.” “I believe in you.”  Thank you Lord.” And God’s people said:  Amen!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Easter’s Amazing Power! (Luke 24:1-12) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A mother writes: “Our three-year-old daughter, Nicole said “I can’t wait for Easter.”  I asked her: Do you know what Easter means honey?  In her own sweet way, with arms raised high and a smile on her face, she shouted, surprise!" What a superb word to sum up the meaning of Easter!    

What a glorious morning!  From San Diego to Jerusalem, from Rome to Egypt, well over two billion Christian believers around the world are celebrating Easter, even amidst the political, social, military, and religious turmoil in our world.   We gather on this morning of all mornings to celebrate the greatest event in history, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.    No historical event has shaped the world like the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  God in Christ has not only dramatically impacted individual lives over the centuries, but has shaped and influenced the values, the intellectual foundations and history of nations, including our own.

Some of you have come here this morning with questions on your mind.  Is there hope?  Is life meaningful?  Is there reason for joy?  Is there more than this life?

The answer has arrived today; it’s a three-word message, Christ Is Risen!  It’s good news to those who have lost their joy.  Its good news for those lost in grief.  Its good news to those burdened by guilt.  It’s good news to those filled with fear.  It’s good news for those who have lost their way and are seeking a new way, a new purpose, a new direction for their lives.

In our story from the Gospel of Luke, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and other women arrive at the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with spices as was the custom.  Finding the stone rolled away, they enter the tomb, and are shocked to discover that Jesus’ body isn’t there.  A divine messenger tells them the incredible news; Jesus has risen from the dead.   The women think back and remember Jesus words about being handed over to sinners, and being crucified and rising from the dead in three days, and then hurry off to tell the apostles.   The apostles are skeptical at the news and Peter decides to rush to the tomb himself.  He sees the empty tomb and returns home simply amazed.

Jesus’ resurrection is a totally unexpected, irrational and illogical event.  The church has attempted to use intellectual arguments to convince people that the resurrection occurred. That Easter is true.  Like pointing to the existence of the Christian religion and people who claim the name Christian, the existence of the Christian Church, the existence of the New Testament, the practice of Sunday as well as weekday worship services, and the sacrament of Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper.   Would these exist today if Easter, the resurrection of Jesus was a hoax or falsehood.

Easter catches us off guard, like it did for those women who had gone at dawn to the tomb.  It was empty.  The impossible to conceive broke in upon them.  It blew apart their belief system, their mindset, their worldview.  No wonder they were amazed and afraid.  We would be as well. It was the defining moment for their lives.  The power of Easter altered the lives of these women, and these apostles, as it has for millions of believers down through the centuries.

Today, it seems, with our advances in communication, we regularly hear that someone has died, and then suddenly, they come alive.  In February, the Internet said that the iconic Canadian folksinger, Gordon Lightfoot, was alive!  Someone on Twitter had created a false rumor that Lightfoot had died.  The 71 year old singer famous for the song “If You Could Read My Mind” said: “Everything is good.  I don’t know where it came from; it seems like a bit of a hoax.  I was quite surprised to hear it myself, I feel fine.”  The stark difference of course, is that Jesus really died, truly died and on Easter morning, defeated the seemingly unconquerable power of death.

Because of the amazing power of Easter, we are confronted with the truth about Jesus!  Jesus’ resurrection was God’s vindication of Jesus’ life and teachings and death on the cross for the sins of the world.   God was authenticating Jesus as His only Son.   On Easter God reversed the crucifixion and placed his seal of approval on Jesus.  Easter was God’s act of justice on behalf of one who was sentenced and executed unjustly.  Easter confirmed Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God.  Easter confirmed the truth of Jesus’ healings and miracles and exorcisms.  Easter confirmed Jesus claims about having power over sin, death, and evil.   Easter confirmed the claims Jesus made about himself and his mission.

Jesus said: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me."    “I am the light of the world.”   “I am the lord of all.”    “I am the resurrection and the life.”  “I and the father are one.” (John 10:30).

Jesus was either who He said He was or He was the biggest liar who ever lived.  Easter declares that Jesus is who he claimed to be and that Jesus has the power he claimed to have.  No other religious leader of history has made such claims — not Ghandi, Confucius, Buddha, Mohammed.  They are all in the grave.  But Jesus Christ isn't.  His tomb is empty.  God raised Jesus Christ alone.

Second, because of the amazing power of Easter our view of death has changed.  We know this simple fact about life.  Life will come to an end.  There is death.  We well know that life is precious.  Life is fragile.  It is priceless.  We deeply grieve the death of friends and loved ones.  It breaks our hearts.   Every one of us must face our mortality.  You can’t turn to modern medicine to obtain immortality.   Death is real.

But because of Easter it’s not the last word.   For life today and forever is in Jesus Christ, the hope for our life after death.  Scripture says:  “Whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord.”  Jesus made an amazing promise:  “There are many rooms in my Father’s house. I am going there to prepare a place for you, I would not tell you this if it were not so, and I will come back and take you to myself, so that you will be where I am.”  That’s a promise worth repenting for, that’s a promise worth turning away from self for, and that’s a promise worth turning toward Jesus Christ in faith for is it not?  Can I get an amen?

Third, because of the amazing power of Easter, the Risen Lord is continuing to change lives today.    Father Basil Pennington, a Roman Catholic monk, tells of a meeting he had with a Zen teacher at a spiritual retreat.  Each participant met privately with this esteemed teacher.  Pennington says the Zen teacher sat before him smiling and rocking gleefully back and forth.  Finally the teacher said: “I like Christianity.  But I would not like Christianity without the resurrection. I want to see your resurrection!”  “You are a Christian.   Show me what this means for you in your life and I will believe.”   Today, as always, people don’t just want to hear poetic words about Easter, they want to see the power of Easter, does it truly change lives?

The answer is yes.  We see the power of the Risen Lord in the witness of a family, a Christian family from Memphis, Tennessee, in the true story of Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy who take into their home a homeless teenage African-American, Michael Oher.  He has no idea who is father is and his mother is a drug addict.  "Clip from Blindside!!!!  Yes, Easter’s power continues to change lives today!  God amazing power not only changed the lives of Michael, but of the Tuohy family.

And not only in adults, but also in the lives of young people!  I close with a story from a Sunday school teacher:

“Once I had an eight year old boy in my SS class who was born with Down ’s syndrome.  His name was Philip.  He was a pleasant child--happy, it seemed--but increasingly aware of the difference between himself and other children.  And Philip, with his differences, was not readily accepted.

The class learned, they laughed, they played together and cared about one another, even though eight-year-olds don't say they care about one another out loud.  I also knew that Philip was not really a part of the group. Philip did not choose nor did he want to be different.  He just was. And that was just the way things were.

One Easter I had an idea for my class. I gave each child those things that pantyhose come in--the containers that look like great big eggs.  It was a beautiful spring day, and the assignment was for each child to go outside, find a symbol for new life, put it into the egg, and bring it back to the classroom. They would then open and share their new life symbols and surprises one by one.  It was glorious.  It was confusing. It was wild. They ran all around the church grounds, gathered their symbols, and returned to the classroom. They put all the eggs on a table, and I began to open them. All the children stood around the table.

I opened one, and there was a flower and they ooh-ed and aah-ed.  I opened another, and there was a little butterfly. "Beautiful," the girls all said, since it is hard for eight-year-old boys to say "beautiful." I opened another and there was a rock.  And as third-graders will, some laughed and said, "That's crazy!  How's a rock supposed to be like new life?" But the smart little boy who'd found it spoke up: "That's mine. And I knew all of you would get flowers and buds and leaves and butterflies and stuff like that. So I got a rock because I wanted to be different.  And for me, that's new life." They all laughed.

I opened the next one. There was nothing there. The other children, as eight-year-olds will, said, "That's not fair--that's stupid!--somebody didn't do right."  Then I felt a tug on my shirt, and looked down. Philip was standing beside me. "It's mine," Philip said. "It's mine."  And the children said, "You don't ever do things right, Philip. There's nothing there!"  "I did so do it," Philip said. "I did do it. It's empty. The tomb is empty!"

There was silence, a very full silence. And for you people who don't believe in miracles, I want to tell you that one happened that day last spring.  From that time on, it was different.  Philip suddenly became a part of that group of eight-year-old children. They took him in.  He was set free from the tomb of his differentness.  Sadly, Philip died last summer. His family had known since the time he was born that he wouldn't live out a full life span.   Many other things had been wrong with his body.  And late last July, with an infection that most normal children could have quickly shrugged off, Philip died.

At the funeral, nine eight-year-old children marched up to the altar, not with flowers to cover over the stark reality of death.  Nine eight-year-olds and I marched right up to that altar, and we each laid on it an empty egg--an empty, old, discarded pantyhose egg.

Jesus said: “I am the resurrection and the life, he that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live, for whoever lives and believes in me, shall never die.” “I was dead, but now I am alive forevermore; because I live, you shall live also.”  My friends, because of Easter Jesus is Lord and He desires to be the Lord of all our lives.  Halleluiah!  Amen!

Friday, April 14, 2017

A Living Sacrifice (Romans 12:1-2; I Peter 2:4-6) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

In the popular 1990’s television series “Seinfeld,” George Costanza attends a child’s birthday party at the apartment where his girlfriend, Robin, lives. A clown is providing entertainment. George suddenly says, “What’s that smell? Is that smoke?” He hurries into the kitchen, turns and runs out in a panic yelling FIRE, knocking over the clown, an old lady with a walker, and a couple of kids. “Get out of my way!” he screams, as he opens the front door of the apartment and races outside. In the next scene, George is getting oxygen from a paramedic.

Suddenly, the clown runs over to George and says, “There he is! That’s him!” Several angry children and moms gather round. “That’s the coward that left us to die!” The clown tries to hit George with an oversized show. George replies, “I was trying to lead the way. We needed a leader, someone to lead the way to safety.” Robin objects, “But you yelled, ‘Get out of my way!’” “Because as the leader,” George continues, “if I die, then all hope is lost.  Instead of castigating me, you should be thanking me.

But I saw you push the women and children out of the way in a mad panic.” Robin yells. “I saw you push them down. And when you ran out, you left everyone behind.” George refutes, “To the untrained eye maybe, I can fully understand how you got that impression. What looked like knocking down was a safety precaution. In a fire, you stay close to the ground. Am I right? That’s why I pushed them down. I risked my life making sure the exit was clear.” The fireman looks at George and says, “How do you live with yourself?” “It’s not easy,” George replies.

Our culture is ambiguous; it sends mixed messages. On the one hand, it says that the goal of life is materialism, fame, status, power, wealth, pleasure. These are the values one should aspire to.  We see examples all the time of greed, avarice, narcissism, and selfishness.  We hear people say “me first” “live for yourself,” and “my individual rights above everyone’s.” He who dies with the most toys wins reflects our culture. Our culture further confuses celebrities with true heroes. But is being famous and wealthy, the same as being a hero or being a role model? Of course not, because sacrifice is about character and dedication toward others. Having intelligence or talent has nothing to do with a sacrificial life.

On the other hand, sacrifice is an American value, grounded in our Judeo-Christian ethic. Our culture also promotes the high values of altruism, self-sacrifice, commitment, big-heartedness, service above self. We see these values manifested in people’s generous giving to charities, in service clubs, in organizations, in churches, in the outpouring of generosity to victims of natural disasters around the world, in the sacrifice of the men and women in the military, in community-wide searches for missing persons, in volunteerism, and in runs and walks to raise money for worthy causes like cancer, autism, heart disease, and Parkinson’s disease. We see it in the generous aid our government provides to countries around the world.

Think about this question, “Can you sacrifice too much for someone?” Are there limits? I’m not speaking about donating a kidney, or financially helping someone with their education, or even giving your life for someone in danger.  I am speaking about situations I’ve seen over the years, as a pastor, where grown children and grown grandchildren take advantage of their parents or grandparents.  They continue to ask for money for this or that reason. They just keep asking and pressuring and make parents or grandparents feel terribly guilty. Asking can become a form of manipulation. It can drain the resources of the giver. It enables underachievement rather than inspiring motivation and ambition. Sometimes, the hardest word to say is “No” rather than “Yes.” Saying no takes courage, strength, and prayer.

Who has made a sacrifice for you? The truth is that everyone here this morning has benefited from someone’s sacrifice: their time, their resources, their wisdom and knowledge, their patience, their talents and skills, their protection, their sympathy, their encouragement, their love, their faith. People who sacrifice for us inspire us to want to do the same for others. Thank you Lord for the sacrifices of others on our behalf. Can I get an AMEN?!

From a Biblical and faith perspective, the willingness to sacrifice stems from the desire to please God; it’s an expression of love, of thanksgiving to God, of a desire to serve Christ. It shows that we know who we are—persons made in God’s image and persons forgiven and redeemed by God’s amazing grace, through Christ’s life, death on the cross, and resurrection.  Yes, sacrifice is indeed a noble value of our Judeo-Christian tradition.

Romans 6:13 says, “Give yourselves completely to God, every part of you. You want to be tools in the hands of God to be used for His good purposes.” I Peter 2 says, “Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God, through Jesus Christ.” Romans 12 says, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

In Old Testament times, priests would sacrifice animals in temple worship. They would kill an animal, place it on the altar, and offer it to God. In the Prophetic Tradition of the Old Testament, in prophets like Isaiah, Micah, and Amos, God also summoned the Jews to live sacrificial lives: “To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.” Early Christians began to curb animal sacrifice, and after the Jewish temple was destroyed by the Romans in 64 A.D. the early Christians heard Jesus’ call to offer themselves as living sacrifices, daily laying aside their own desires, to follow him, putting their energy and resources at God’s disposal and trusting in God’s guidance. God calls us, you and me, to be living sacrifices, that He might accomplish His purposes through us.

Superficial love never requires sacrifice. Genuine love always requires sacrifice. You cannot truly love somebody—your spouse, your friend, your child, your grandchild, your neighbor, you cannot love God—without sacrificing, without a cost, without giving up something.

Do you ever feel unappreciated when you give of yourself, when you sacrifice for someone, when you do the right thing? You start thinking, “Why bother? What’s the use? Why make the effort? Nobody cares. Nobody notices. No one says ‘Thank You’.” When you sacrifice to help other people, know this, God sees your actions. God knows your attitude. The Bible says God sees your witness, God remembers your witness, and God will reward your witness.

I read a story about a doctor in Birmingham, Alabama. On January 28, 2014, in the dead of winter, Dr. Zenko heard that a patient at Trinity Medical Center had taken a turn for the worse. The patient needed surgery, no other surgeon was available and the patient had a 90 percent chance of dying. Driving wasn’t an option because of the snow and ice. Emergency personnel were busy.

So the 62-year-old doctor faced these brute facts and proceeded to take action. He put a coat over his hospital scrubs and started walking, six miles in the snow, from Brookwood Medical Center to Trinity Medical Center. Along the way, he fell and rolled down a hill, but got back up. He finally arrived at Trinity, performed the surgery, and saved a patient’s life. In a later press conference, the doctor was asked why he did it. He said, “It really wasn’t that big of a deal. Any good doctor would have done the same thing. The patient was dying and that wasn’t going to happen on my shift.” Why is it that people who sacrifice for others are often so humble?

What contributions are you going to make with your life in the years you have left? What is it that gives significance, meaning, and purpose in a life? Giving your life away is the greatest thrill of life. It’s the secret of significance. It’s the key to happiness. The truth of scripture is clear: to save our lives we must lose them, in giving we receive, in dying to self we find true life, in servanthood we find greatness.

How can we learn to be a living sacrifice? First, worship God! Prayer changes us. Worship changes us. God’s Spirit changes us. Psalm 50:23 says, “True praise to God is a worthy sacrifice.”

Second, love and serve others! Jesus gave His life for us. Because Christ first loved us, we too should love one another. I John 3:16 says, “We ought to give our lives for each other.”

Third, share Good News with others. Share your faith with others. Hebrews 13:15 says, “With Jesus’ help we will continually offer our sacrifice of praise by telling others the glory of His name.”

Following Jesus opens up a new way of life. Where in your life today is Christ calling you to make a sacrifice? Amen!

Friday, March 31, 2017

I Am the Door (John 10:1-10) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

One poet wrote: “There are two doors, the first door leads to an amazing life, and the second door is the one keeping you from getting to the first door.”  The poet Carl Sandberg wrote: “An open door says, “Come in.”  A shut door says, “Who are you?

A door is a significant part of a house isn’t it?   I doubt if you would want to live in a place where there was no front door.  It is the portal or moving barrier which allows people to enter or leave.  There are a dizzying number of door designs today.  People spend a lot of money and time in selecting their front door.  Some of the types of doors include Arched doors, Barn doors, Dutch doors, Double doors, French Doors, and Panel doors.

Doors are important symbols in the Bible.  Psalm 84:10 says: “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than live in the tents of wickedness.”  James 5 says: “Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged.  See, the judge is standing at the door.”  Revelations 4:1 says: “After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open and a voice said, come up here and at once, I was in the spirit and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne.

Today we continue our journey through Lent, a 40 day period in which we prepare ourselves spiritually for the celebration of Easter.  Jesus referred to himself using fascinating metaphors or figures of speech.  I am the Bread of Life, I am the Light of the World, I am the Good Shepherd, I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, I am the True Vine, I am the Resurrection and the Life, I am the Door or Gate depending on the English translation of the Greek.   Each one of these metaphors gives us a glimpse into the true nature and mission of Jesus.  The door is an appropriate image for Jesus as we reflect upon our relationship to him during Lent.

In Jesus’ day, shepherds would take the sheep far from villages out to graze in the hills and meadows. They would stay away for months at a time.  At night the shepherds would search for a sheltered area in a hillside surrounded by natural walls that provided protection.

The only unprotected space was the entrance to the sheepfold.  There was no door to that entrance, and once the shepherd put his sheep in the fold for the night, he would literally lay down across the opening.  No wild animals could enter the sheepfold nor could any sheep leave without stepping over the shepherd.  He was both a protector and gatekeeper.  So the shepherd himself literally became the door or gate to the sheepfold.

Jesus says the gatekeeper calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has brought the sheep out, he goes ahead of them and the sheep follow him because they know and trust his voice.  Jesus says, if anything enters the sheepfold by climbing in, rather than coming through the entrance, you could be sure they were thieves or animals.

Doors have two functions, to exit through or to enter.  Let’s take a look at those two functions. 

First, when you exit through a door and shut it, you leave something behind.  In this Lenten season we need to ask, what do I need to leave behind me?  It is critical that we acknowledge those things: failures, memories, disappointments, hurts, worries, things that are weighing you down, dragging you down, holding you back.  Our scripture is saying turn to the grace and mercy of Christ and shut the door on them.  Too many times we dwell upon such things, we fret over them, we obsess over them, and they become baggage.  We become hoarders and allow them to pile up.  What things do you need to leave behind you this Lenten season?  What is keeping you from being true to yourself, true to Christ, realizing your potential, being all that you can be?  Jack Parr said: “My life seems like one long obstacle course, with me as the chief obstacle.”  Jesus brings forgiveness.  Go to him and ask forgiveness for your past and you will experience a restoration of life.

But a door is also something you enter.  It is a way out of the drenching rain into a place where it is dry, a way out of the cold into the warmth of shelter, a way from harm’s way into a safe place.  “I am the door, whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture.”  Jesus says: “I am the door into God’s kingdom, into God’s family, into salvation, into eternal life, into green pastures, into life.”

I recall going to a magnificent and massive church in downtown Los Angeles.  When I got there the door was shut and a little sign beside the door read, “Ring the bell and someone will help you.”  I rang the bell and nothing happened.  No one came.  I then walked around the building and tried a couple of doors, all of them were locked.  I began to feel frustrated.  What kind of a church is this?  What an unfriendly place.  Finally, I came back to the front door and was about to leave, when another person walked up and rang the bell.  Nothing happened and I felt a little smug.  But she did something I had not done, she reached down, turned the doorknob and it opened.  Was I surprised.  It was open all the time and I had not even tried to go in.  Doors don’t usually open by themselves.

Yes, there are doors before you and before me in this life.  Doors of opportunity, doors of possibility, doors of service, doors of grace.  God wants you to enter them, but sometimes we don’t try them, we don’t attempt to open them and they remain closed to us.  What door or doors is God putting before you?  It takes faith to open doors, it takes courage to open doors, it takes trust to open doors.  Jesus is saying I have put doors before you.  Jesus is the most important door. The choice is yours.  Will you open it?

What will you find?  You will find pasture.  You will find beauty.  You will find faith.  You will find a loving person, you will be fed and spiritually nurtured.  You will find spiritual and emotional freedom from those forces and powers which try to enslave you.  You will enjoy a peace which passes all understanding amidst the ambiguities of life.   You will find the joy of the Lord that is our strength.  You will find meaning and purpose for your life today and hope for tomorrow.  You will discover what it means to be loved unconditionally and forgiven and accepted.  You will hear a call to go beyond yourself to love others and to serve Christ, using your talents and abilities.

Jesus says, I am the door to salvation!    Jesus is the only way to salvation and everlasting life.   Jesus is the door to God.  Jesus is the door to life.  Jesus came to show us who God is, to tell us who God is and to forgive us through his death on the cross into order to bring us back to God.   It is through Jesus that we meet God and enter into a personal relationship with God.   Jesus says: “Whoever enters by me will be saved.”

Jesus is speaking to all who feel apart from God, who want to believe but find it hard, who feel excluded or isolated, who feel rejected, who are lonely, who are lost, who feel unworthy or worthless, to all who are searching for truth and meaning and hope.  Jesus says: “I am the door. I welcome you.  Come and enter through me.”

I close with this quote from the book of Revelation.  The Lord says: “Listen. I am standing at the door knocking, if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you and you with me.”

I invite those who feel so moved to pray with me: “Lord, I am a sinner in need of your power, your forgiveness and promise of eternal life. I believe you are the door to life.  You are standing at the door of my heart knocking.  Lord, I open the door of my heart, because I want you to come into my life as my lord and savior.  I will follow you with all my heart, soul, strength and life.”  Amen!

Friday, March 24, 2017

Enduring Temptation (Matthew 4:1-11; James 1:13-15) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A priest was coming back to his rectory late one evening, when he was accosted by a robber who pulled a gun on him and demanded, "Your money or your life!"  As the priest reached his hand into his coat pocket, the robber saw his Roman collar and said: "I see you're a priest. Never mind, you can go."   The priest, surprised at this unexpected show of piety, tried to reciprocate by offering the robber a candy bar that he remembered was in his pocket.  The robber replied, "No thank you Father, I’m Catholic. I don't eat candy during Lent."

In this Lenten season, we look in depth at the subject of temptation.  It’s the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. The story shouts out a truth, the tempter and temptation is a reality.  I disagree with psychology when it argues that Satan is a figment of the human imagination, or a psychological projection of the dark side of humanity or a symbol of the fear of the unknown.

Temptation is a universal human struggle.  It’s not just a problem for people whose character is weak or for the young and immature.  It is no respecter of age.  If Jesus, the Son of God was tempted, then certainly you and I are vulnerable.  Humanity’s struggle with temptation is depicted in literature in the classic story Faust.  The protagonist, Faust, a legendary 16th century magician, alchemist and scholar, is unhappy with his life and makes a pact with the devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge, youthfulness and worldly pleasures.

Scripture teaches that temptations arise from our heart, that is, from our own inner sinful desires.  That’s true.  We have a bad idea, and temptation convinces us that it’s really not all that bad. But according to Scripture and the theological teachings of the church down through the centuries, temptation also arises from outside forces, from people, including the tempter, the personification of evil.

Sometimes we are tempted with something silly, like thinking about ordering a double extra-large chocolate malt topped with a mound of whip cream.  Other times we are tempted with something that can literally change our lives for the worse.  Embezzling from your company, or the church is one example.  I have spoken to two employees who stole in churches I served and both said: “I needed extra money. I thought I would take it just once and then pay it back.  I felt guilty. I had every intention to pay it back.   But after I stole a second time, it became easier, and soon I didn’t give it a second thought.”  Temptation can rationalize anything.

In the New Testament, the book of James says: “When tempted, no one should say, God is tempting me. For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does God tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.”

Scripture also says there is an important distinction between being tempted and succumbing to temptation.  It is not a sin to be tempted; Jesus was tempted, but he didn’t sin.  Sometimes people feel guilty because they are tempted.   The sin is succumbing to it.  Everyone has given into temptation except Jesus.

Further, the tempter cannot force you to yield to temptation.  You cannot be bullied, or brow-beaten or coerced.  Saying The Devil Made Me Do It, whether in humor or in all seriousness, is a falsehood.   Jesus had freedom of choice out there in the wilderness.  God has given us a free will.   Ultimately, the decision to yield to temptation is our personal responsibility.  We can’t blame it on what we ate for breakfast, or our parents, or our friends.  Mark Twain said: “I can resist everything except temptation.”

Why does the tempter tempt?  The Tempter wants to defeat God’s will in life and impose his will.  So the tempter strives to redirect your path, to change your allegiance and loyalty, to undermine and erode your faith, and influence you to turn away from God.   The tempter strives to both keep people from coming to faith in God and to cause believers to turn away from their faith.

As you think about your life during this Lenten season, is there a temptation have you struggled with?  We need to be alert.  Temptation is insidious.  The tempter is deceptive and can make good look evil and evil look good, wrong look right and right look wrong.  “Hey, it’s harmless, no one will get hurt.  It’s the trend, it’s popular, you deserve it, don’t worry.   Everyone is doing it, so why not?

When we are in the midst of hardship and suffering, we sometimes ask: “Why me God?  Why is this happening to me?”  We doubt that God loves us. The tempter is an opportunist and strikes when we are weak, just like the deceiver tempted Jesus when he was hungry and tired after forty days of fasting.  Temptation comes in all forms: food, excessive spending, uncontrolled anger, smoking, drinking, gambling, drug abuse, sexual temptation and harassment, laziness, allowing work to cause you to neglect your family, or dropping out of worshipping God in favor of another Sunday activity.  Temptations test our loyalties, values and faith.

How do we deal with temptation?  We must rely upon four things.  Our conscience, which God has imparted to us from our birth, the wisdom of good friends, turning to prayer, and reading the Bible.

Which leads us out into the wilderness.  In the first Temptation the devil tempts Jesus to turn away from God’s plan, God’s mission for the Messiah – the path of self-discipline, sacrifice, suffering, rejection, servant hood and the cross.    The tempter tempts Jesus to use his power to satisfy his hunger by turning stones into bread.  Jesus was hungry, what’s the problem?  The problem is that if Jesus takes the easy way out now, it could cause Jesus to take the easy way out in the future.   Could you see the temper saying: “Jesus you don’t need to bear the cross, God doesn’t really want that, you don’t need all that grief.”

God sent Jesus into the wilderness to fast for 40 days as part of God’s plan to prepare Jesus for his future mission.  Like BUD’S is for Navy seals.  God could tell Jesus when he could eat, not the tempter.  Satan was trying to tempt Jesus to disobey God.  Jesus replies: “One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

In the second temptation, the deceiver tempts Jesus with the prospect of worldly power, mastery and status, if Jesus will only bow down and worship him.  It is the age-old sin of idolatry.  “Worship me, says the deceiver and you will have it all.”  But God sent Jesus to usher in the Kingdom and to redeem humanity by his obedience, suffering, death and resurrection. So Jesus rejoins: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

In the third temptation, the devil tries to entice Jesus to tempt God by leaping from the highest pinnacle of the temple. “What a feat, look at all the followers you will attract Jesus, do it.”  Jesus retorts: “Do not tempt the Lord your God.”  Temptation is the devil’s business.  It’s not our business and it’s not God’s business.   God doesn’t tempt his followers and we are not to tempt God.  Jesus stays focused, centered upon God and His mission, and refuses to yield to temptation.

This story testifies to two powerful truths.  First, it reminds us that God is merciful and present with us in those times when we are tempted and even when we surrender to temptation.  Scripture says when we repent, when we confess our sin, God can be trusted to forgive us, to cleanse us from our wrong, and to empower us with a fresh start to begin a new day.

Second, this story inspires us, it shows us that we too can resist and triumph over temptation.   We have the Holy Spirit to strengthen us in such times.  Resisting temptation is not simply a matter of will power.  It’s a matter of God’s power working in us.

Rick Warren in his book The Purpose Driven Life writes: “On our path to spiritual maturity, even temptation becomes a stepping stone rather than a stumbling block, when you realize that it is just as much an occasion to do the right thing as it is to do the wrong thing.  Every temptation is an opportunity to do good.  Every time you choose to do good instead of sin, you are growing in the character of Christ.”

In this season of Lent, the good news is that the Tempter and temptation does not have the last word.  After trying to tempt us, but we resist, the devil will leave, like in our story, and angels will come and minister to us.  Amen!

Friday, March 17, 2017

In Times of Trial (Romans 5:1-5; I Peter 1:6-7) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Actress Carrie Fisher died on December 27 last year.  She was famous for playing Princess Leia in Star Wars.  Just prior to her death, in an interview with Rolling Stone, Carrie Fisher was asked, "Do you fear death?"  "No," replied Fisher. "I fear dying.  Anything with pain associated with it, I don't like.  And I've been there for a couple of people when they were dying, and it didn't look like fun."   I think like Carrie, that most people will do whatever it takes to avoid suffering and pain in life.

I suspect most of you have experienced a personal tragedy or loss or trial at some time in your life.   Why is there suffering?  Why does suffering exist?  The honest response is that there are no easy answers.   Anyone who claims to have the answer is a person who has not pondered the question very deeply.

It’s the age old dilemma between good and evil.  Let me summarize the debate between theists and atheists.   Atheism says suffering and evil exist because there is no God.  The existence of suffering and evil proves that God does not exist.  Bertrand Russell argues that because of the prevalence of suffering and evil in the world, there is no all-good, all-powerful, all-present God.   So Atheism does not have a problem with suffering and evil.  It is present because there is no good force or power like God, to counter it.   It runs rampant.  Suffering, evil, death rules life.  Therefore, life, human life, all life, has no value, no meaning, no purpose.  Is suffering a problem?  No, not at all.  Atheism has no questions.

Conversely, theism or orthodox Christianity, the Christian faith, says God exists and God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good or loving and all-present.  It says life has value, meaning, purpose because God is the author of life.   It says life contains joy, goodness, humor, wonder, awe, and amazement.  It says suffering and evil also exist.  It says God is greater than suffering and evil, they are not co-eternal and co-equal in power.  It says one-day God will destroy all suffering and evil in life.  And yes, there are questions.  Believers have many questions:  Why did God allow evil to enter the world?  Why does God continue to allow suffering and evil?  What is God doing about suffering and evil today?  Why hasn’t God put an end to suffering and evil?   Yes, believers have questions, and again, there are no easy answers.

One natural question we ask when facing trials is why me?  Or why this person?  I have asked it.  But there is another question: “Why not me?”  Why should I escape pain and suffering?

In this Lenten season we examine this subject from a biblical perspective.   First, adversity is inevitable because we live in a fallen world.  God created human beings with a free will, which has resulted in sin.  Sin or moral evil, that is rebellion against God, disobedience to God, is the cause of much of life’s suffering.  We have the freedom to make good or bad, good or evil, wise or foolish choices.   Further, accidents are a part of life, disease is a part of life, natural disasters and wars are a part of life.    Second, God is present, not absent, but present in the midst of evil and suffering. Third, God has given us the gift of faith.  And faith, trust, belief, assurance makes all the difference in how we cope with life’s trials.

As a pastor, I have stood beside families in nearly every kind of crisis imaginable, from the death of a loved one after battling cancer to fatal accidents to suicide to murder.     As Christians we affirm that scripture has something to say about God in relation to life’s trials?  Here are some basic biblical answers about God in regard to the question of suffering.

God understands the pain you and I experience in life.  God can empathize with us.  We don’t worship a God who is above the fray, pampered, coddled, living a sheltered existence in the celestial realm being fed grapes by the angels.  We worship a God who entered this world fully human in Jesus Christ, who has walked our walk, who has experienced life’s suffering, who identifies with us, who is empathetic, who experienced loneliness, rejection, persecution and died an agonizing death on the cross for the sins of the world.  The God whom we worship is no stranger to pain.

Scripture says the Lord is alive and with us in times of trials and will supply us with strength.  God never leaves you alone.  I Corinthians 10 says: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.  God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”   This is a divine promise.  God is with us and gives us strength and hope in times of trial.

Scripture says God works to bring good out of life’s trials.  Romans 8:28 says: “God causes all things to work together for good for those who love God.”  Biblical examples abound.  Joseph’s older brothers sold him into slavery when he was a boy, but years later, Joseph rose to power in Egypt, and when his brothers came to him seeking food during a time of famine in Israel, Joseph said to them: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”

The prophet Daniel was thrown into a lions’ den, but God rescued him; the prophet Jeremiah was tossed into a slimy pit and later rescued.  The apostle Paul suffered from a physical affliction during his life which God didn’t heal, despite Paul’s prayers.  Instead God said: “My grace is sufficient.”  None of them were exempt from misfortune, but they kept the faith, they fought the good fight of faith, and God brought something good out of their adversity.

Scripture says suffering can be an opportunity to grow spiritually and in other ways.  Trials can help you discover that you are stronger than you think.  God has imparted to you a stronger character, a resilience, and the ability to endure more that you realize.  Trials can become opportunities for us to mature.  Romans 5 says: “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”   Trials can produce growth relationally, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.   Trials can inspire hope.  God does a new work in us.  God changes us amidst the pain.

Trials can motivate us to turn to God and discover that God’s plans and purposes are at work in our lives even in the midst of hardships.   And you will discover a true Friend and Lord:  A Christian wrote: “You’ll never know that God is all you need until God is all you’ve got.”  Romans 8 says: “I am convinced that nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

No, it doesn’t happen immediately or automatically.  We are too emotional; we are in shock and grief.  But by God’s grace, life’s trials can gradually lead us to a deeper and more profound appreciation for God’s love and guidance and peace.  I know some of you have experienced this in your own life.  I have as well.

Trials can help us to learn to appreciate the support and care of others.  We grow in our thankfulness for the love and encouragement of friends, colleagues, family members, neighbors and the church community.  Oftentimes their care and concern surprise us.  People come through when we least expect it and in ways which simply astonish us.  But it requires something on our part, having the humility to accept their offer of help, rather than reject it.

Trials can also make us more compassionate people.  Sin keeps us self-absorbed.  Trials can change us.  I have found this true time and again.  Have you?  People who have known hardships are often the most compassionate and sensitive of all people.   They have a depth, a discernment, an intuition, a sensitivity and empathy others lack. They can identify with what you are going through.  They are the best people to talk with and pray with.  They are non-judgmental. They know how to listen.

Trials can be a powerful witness to the grace of God.  Other people see how you are dealing with your suffering in terms of your faith.  God can use us to inspire, to encourage, to hearten, to motivate others in the times of their trials.

Yes, scripture has answers about God and the trials in life.  But no, it doesn’t have all the answers.  There are some answers that must wait until we meet Jesus Christ face to face in glory as the scripture says.  In the meantime, despite our intellectual dissatisfaction, we must rely upon the character, the mercy and strength of God and the love and support of others around us.  

What is the source of your comfort?  When the Bible scholar N.T. Wright was asked what he would tell his children on his death bed he answered: "Look at Jesus. The Person who walks out of the pages of the Gospels to meet us is irreplaceable.  He is always a surprise. We never have Jesus in our pockets. He is always coming at us from different angles … If you want to know who God is, look at Jesus.  If you want to know what it means to be human, look at Jesus. If you want to know what love is, look at Jesus.  If you want to know about suffering, look at Jesus.  And go on looking until you're not just a spectator, but part of the drama that has him as the central character.”

You may be going through a trial right now.  Know that God is for you, not against you; know that God is with you and not apart from you. May God grant us His grace, so that the genuineness of our faith, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Christ is revealed.   Amen!

Friday, March 10, 2017

Have Mercy on Me (Psalm 51:1-12) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

An author writes: “When I was a boy growing up in the Baptist church, I was told by the adults, "Baptists don't do Lent."  But when I asked, no one knew why.  I suspect now that it was an anti-Catholic thing. It was the old argument, "whatever they do, we don't!"  Whatever the reason I think it is a great loss for any Christian not to prepare for Good Friday and Easter.  Every spring baseball players’ prepare for the season with “spring training;” every spring people prepare for summer by doing "spring cleaning." So why shouldn't Christians prepare for the most important events in Jesus' ministry - what he did for us and the world on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, on Golgotha's cross and at the empty tomb? If it helps you, think of Lent as a kind of Christian spring training or spring cleaning.”

In light of this Lenten season, we turn to our passage from the O.T.  Psalm 51.   This psalm focuses attention on a critical aspect of our spiritual life.   The psalmist begins by acknowledging the greatness, the awesomeness of God. “Have mercy on me, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy.”

He prays to God in humility and honesty: “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, cleanse me from sin.”  He confesses His sin to God, he confesses His sin from birth, he knows that God desires truth and asks God for wisdom.  He prays for God to purge him, to wash him whiter than snow, to blot out his iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God and put a new and right spirit within me.  Restore to me the joy of your salvation.”

It is a prayer of repentance.  The psalmist had turned away from God.  He now seeks to turn back to God and once more experience the joy of walking with the Lord.  The Bible says the first step in getting right with God is repentance.   Repentance is a change of heart.  “Repentance means we love our Savior more than we love our sin." “Repentance means we want freedom more than bondage.”

A man was praying with his pastor at the altar.  He prayed the same prayer the pastor had heard countless times before. “O Lord, take the cobwebs out of my life.”  Frustrated the pastor couldn’t help himself and interrupted, “And Lord, please get rid of the spider.”  How often do we ask the Lord to forgive us of some sin, yet we leave the source of temptation in our life?  The psalmist prays because he desires a changed heart and seeks to be in a right relationship with God.  Do you need a change of heart?

The state of our heart is critical.  Heart is a familiar concept in music.  In 1960 Elvis, who inspired me to learn to play the guitar, sang a song titled Wooden Heart.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to sing it.  Listen to the words: “Can't you see I love you, please don't break my heart in two, That's not hard to do, Cause I don't have a wooden heart.  And if you say goodbye, Then I know that I would cry, maybe I would die, cause I don't have a wooden heart.  There's no strings upon this love of mine, it was always yours from the start.  Treat me nice, treat me good, treat me like you really should, cause I'm not made of wood, and I don't have a wooden heart.”

Today we use the word heart in everyday conversation: “My heart is broken, my heart if full, my heart overflows, my heart is heavy, my heart is sad, my heart aches, my heart is happy.”  Heart is likewise a concept that we see frequently throughout scripture.  Ps. 24 says: “Those who have clean hands and pure hearts.”  Hebrews 10 says: “Let us approach God with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience.”  Matthew 22 Jesus says: “Love God with your heart, soul, strength, and mind.” In Matthew 15 Jesus says: “The things that come out of the mouth, come from the heart and these make a person unclean.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”

Medically, we know that having a healthy heart is crucial.  Heart disease is a serious condition.  This is also true emotionally and spiritually.  Jesus is saying the spiritual condition of your heart is paramount.   Jesus is saying repentance is the way to a healthy heart. The biblical teaching about repentance involves four aspects.   True repentance in terms of the Bible is different than the popular notion of repentance.  It involves not only feeling sorry for your sin inwardly, but also outwardly attempting to do what is possible to rectify it.  Jesus began his ministry in Galilee by preaching this message: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the good news.”

Here are the four aspects of the biblical understanding of repentance: 
·         Feeling sorry, remorseful. 
·          Admitting to God, ourselves and to the person that we have done wrong.  
·          Striving to change so that we don’t repeat the behavior or sin again. 
·         Seeking to repay the person wronged for the damage we have done.  That is, striving trying to repair things, to make things right again with that person.

In our scripture passage from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is teaching about temptations to sin.  He says if anyone puts a stumbling block before a child, it would be better if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.  Jesus loved children.  He is speaking about sinning against children. There can be severe consequences for anyone who intentionally hurts a child or leads a child astray.

And what does Jesus command if you sin?  If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off, if your foot causes you to stumble cut if off, if you eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out.  How do we interpret Jesus' words?   Should they be taken literally?  No, I don't believe Jesus intended his teaching to be taken literally, and neither do other interpreters of scripture down through the ages.   The reason is that Jesus often spoke in hyperbole.  Like he does on the subject of judging others.  “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but you do not notice the log in your own eye.  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, then you will be able to see the speck in your neighbor's eye.”

Many people in Jesus day were illiterate.   Jesus employed imagery, symbols, metaphors in his teaching to paint word pictures in people’s minds.   Jesus taught in parables and stories.  Jesus wanted people to remember his teachings.

So we interpret Jesus' words about cutting off hands and feet figuratively.   Basically, this is a word picture about repentance from sin.  Jesus is calling people to repent from their sins.  He is saying whatever is causing you to sin, whatever in your life is leading you to sin, separate yourself from it, sever yourself from it, cut it out of your life, remove it from your life.    Both the psalmist and Jesus are speaking about the importance of repentance in the spiritual life.

The goal of repentance is to embrace, to receive, to accept God’s forgiveness and the joy of God’s saving grace.  “Lord I repent, I am sorry for straying away from you, I am sorry for acting as if you don't exist, I am sorry for what I said or didn’t say, I am sorry for what I have done or didn’t do, make me right with you, bring me back to you O Lord.   The aim of repentance is to return to the lord, our God.

God's priority for us, for you and me, is a clean heart, a new and right spirit within us.  For when our heart is unclean, beauty or wealth or knowledge or power will not stop us from leading a sinful and even evil life.  I don't have to give examples for you to believe this truth.  Conversely, a clean heart, a life lived in and under God’s grace, will enable us to lead a life that is pleasing to God and that is constructive and loving and beneficial to others.

What is the spiritual condition of your heart?   Do you need to pray the psalmist’s prayer of repentance?  “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.  Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your Holy Spirit from me, restore to me the joy of your salvation and sustain in me a willing spirit.”  Have mercy on me O Lord. Amen!