Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Angel's Word (Matthew 1:18-25) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Do you know the story, How the Grinch Stole Christmas?   It's a children's story of the 1950's by Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel. The subtext of the story is a critique on the commercialization of Christmas.  The Grinch is a bitter, grouchy, cave-dwelling creature with a heart "two sizes too small" who lives on snowy Mount Crumpit, a steep high mountain, just north of Whoville, home of the merry and warm-hearted Whos. His only companion is his unloved, but loyal dog, Max.

From his perch high atop, the Grinch can hear the noisy Christmas festivities that take place in Whoville.  Annoyed, he decides to stop Christmas from coming, by stealing their presents, ornaments, stockings, trees, and food for their Christmas feast.  He crudely disguises himself as Santa Claus, and forces poor Max, disguised as a reindeer, to drag a sleigh to Whoville, where he slides down the chimney's of all the homes and steals all of the Whos' Christmas presents,  Christmas trees, and the logs for their fire. The Grinch then takes his sleigh to the top of Mount Crumpit, and prepares to dump all of the presents into the abyss.

As dawn breaks, he expects to hear the Whos' bitter and sorrowful cries, but what he hears shocks him.   "They're just waking up! I know just what they'll do! "Their mouths will hang open a minute or two "Then all the Whos down in Who-ville will all cry BOO-HOO!"  "That's a noise," grinned the Grinch,"That I simply must hear!"  So he paused.  And the Grinch put a hand to his ear.  And he did hear a sound rising over the snow.  It started in low. Then it started to grow...But the sound wasn't sad!  Why, this sound sounded merry!  It couldn't be so!  But it was merry! Very!”

“He stared down at Who-ville! The Grinch popped his eyes!  Then he shook!  What he saw was a shocking surprise!  Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small, Was singing!  Without any presents at all!  They are singing. "Why?" he asks.   And the Grinch, stood puzzling and puzzling: "How could it be so?  It came without ribbons! It came without tags!  "It came without packages, boxes or bags!" And he puzzled three hours, `till his puzzler was sore.   He hadn't stopped Christmas from coming!  It came!  Somehow or other, it came just the same!  Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!  "Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store. "Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!"  

Yes, Dr. Suess, you are right, Christmas does mean a little bit more, in fact a lot more, than all the commercialization that has envoloped it over the years.   Thank you for reminding us of this truth. 

Commercialization always poses a threat, a threat to stop the true meaning and message of Christmas.  But there are other threats as well.  Busyness can stop Christmas from coming.  We get so wrapped up in the materialism and expectations and pressures and planning of the season, buying and shopping and preparing, that we don't enjoy and experience its central message. 

There are forces like secularism and humanism that try to stop Christmas in our culture.  Atheism tries with litigation to stop Christmas.  The threat of lawsuits is always a good club to use to try to eradicate Christmas from our culture.  We see it in legal challenges to creche scenes, being displayed in the public square. 

We see it in politics, when towns and cities vote to change the name, and call it a holiday parade.  Or when some schools allow Hanukkah and Kwanzaa songs, but ban Christmas carols.  Or in some schools where Jewish and Islamic symbols are allowed, but they ban Christmas symbols.  We see it when the language of Christmas  becomes generic, with names like happy holidays or winter festivals.  I personally prefer saying Happy Hannukah or Merry Christmas or Happy Kwanzaa, than simply going generic, because we don't want to offend people.   And yet despite all of these Grinch-like attempts to stop Christmas, once again it is time to hear the joyful story 

And what is that jubilant story of Christmas?  It is beautifully stated in our biblical narrative from the Gospel of Matthew.  “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.  And Matthew tells us about Mary and Joseph discovering she was pregnant, and Joseph hears a word from an angel - “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son, and he named him Jesus.”  The name Jesus means one who saves.  Christmas announces the miracle of God coming into the world in Jesus to bring salvation.

Christmas announces that God came into the world to save sinners, because the world needed a savior.  We cannot save ourselves.   We invent gods to worship, like power, wealth, hate, empire building, and self.  This truth isn’t a shock to anyone who sees examples of greed, barbarism and bondage that humans apart from God exact on others.  Humanity broke away from God and Christmas announces the glorious news that God sent Jesus to bring us back to be at – one with him.  

Pascal, the French physicist and philosopher said:  “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man that cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God the creator, made known through His Son, Jesus Christ.”

That’s why God sent us a savior, to break the power of sin, to break the power of guilt over past sins, to free us from the fear of death and from the power of evil, a savior sent to restore our relationship with God, with others, and with ourselves.  Salvation is about right relationships. Pastor Rick Warren writes:  “God has a great purpose and a good plan for your life.  Salvation also means being given the freedom and power to fulfill God's purpose for your life.

The Gospel of John says: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

A pastor in New Jersey tells about taking his mother into New York City every Christmas to go shopping and look at the decorations in department stores.  The windows of the Macy's Department Store were unforgettable one year.  The first window had a scroll which read:  “The Smell of Christmas is in the Kitchen.”  The scene was an old-fashioned kitchen with a black stove and food cooking on it.  The second window was titled: “The Taste of Christmas is in the Dining Room.”  There was a long table laden with food.  The third window showed a beautiful tree decorated with ornaments and lights, little toys and popcorn strings.  The scroll read:  “The color of Christmas is in the Tree.”  The fourth window scroll said:  “The sound of Christmas is in the carols.”  This scene was a group of animated figures singing Christmas carols.  Then came the store's main entrance.  The scroll in this window proclaimed:  “But the heart and soul of Christmas is here.  In this window, was a stable with shepherds, wise men, Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus, lying in a manger.” 

Yes, the heart of the Christmas story is that God brought salvation to the world in Jesus.  Praise the Lord.   It is a Merry Christmas because of what God has said and done in His Son.  

And what miracle occurs, when we human beings experience the salvation of our Savior?  I close by returning to the story of the Grinch.   “And what happened then...? Who-ville they say, that the Grinch's small heart grew three sizes that day!  And the minute his heart didn't feel quite so tight, He whizzed with his load through the bright morning light.   And he brought back the toys!  And the food for the feast!  And the Grinch was warmly invited to the Whos' feast, where he had the honor of carving the Roast Beast.”   Amen!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Advent 2: Spoken to us by a Son (Hebrews 1:1-4) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Rev. Rick Warren, pastor at Saddleback Community Church, tells how one Christmas, he decided to take a survey of Christmas shoppers.  He asked, “What are you celebrating this Christmas?”  People said:  “I'm celebrating that I made it through another year,” I'm celebrating being home with my family,” “I got a Christmas bonus,” “My son is home from Iraq,” “The candidate I voted for got elected,” “I'm celebrating that I've finished all my shopping,” “I'm not celebrating anything, I'm just trying to survive.”  Some pretty good answers, I agree.  But like Rev. Warren said, most answers had nothing to do with Jesus.    Is this a reflection of our modern culture?

Advent is a season where Christians prepare to celebrate an extraordinary event, the birth of a baby, a glorious and joyful occasion.  Christmas sings forth – “Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her king.”   Christmas announces a miraculous birthday, the birth of Jesus, the Son of God. 

Humans have long been plagued with a haunting question – Am I alone in this universe?  Is this world impersonal, empty, and meaningless?  Am I a momentary spark in a dark abyss?  Christmas declares that an eternal light has broken into the darkness of the world.  “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.”  Christmas is Christianity's answer to that question.  In Jesus, God has made himself known to the world.  We are not alone.

There are some today who see Christmas as an invention of western culture; it's a fairytale, a myth, a legend, a sentimental story about a baby.  I disagree.  Christmas is about a unique and joyous and astonishing birth.  A humble birth, and yet the birth of the Messiah, the king of kings and lord of lords, which occurred in a real world, a world of Caesar's and Herod’s and Pilates, and a Roman Empire, and a Jewish people occupied by a foreign power. 

Christmas announces that Jesus Christ is truly and fully God.   The ruler of the universe, God himself, was incarnate, in the flesh, in Jesus.  In the Gospel of John Jesus says:  “I and the Father are one.” I like the way the letter of Colossians says it: “In Jesus Christ, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”   The letter of Philippians says: “Though He was in the form of God, Jesus humbled himself, and was born in human likeness.”   The Letter of Hebrews says:  “In these last days God has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.  He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”   This is hardly a fairy tale.

The Gospels tell us that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit; his birth was unique, unlike any other birth, this is what sets his birth apart from all other births, and affirms Jesus' divinity.  So on the one hand Jesus is the eternal Word of God, God’s logos, God’s self-communication, God’s self-revelation, Immanuel, God is with us.   

But paradoxically, Christmas also declares just the opposite, that Jesus Christ was a human being.  Jesus was fully and truly human.   The letter of Hebrews says:  “Since God’s children share flesh and blood, Jesus likewise shared the same things.”  Jesus was without sin, yes, but Jesus’ flesh was precisely like our flesh.  He got tired, needed rest, became thirsty and hungry   He knew physical pain.  His heart and emotions were like ours.  He experienced joy and elation, as well as discouragement, disappointment, and the pain of betrayal by a disciple.  He felt the stress of daily life and faced the same temptations which we face.   Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary.  Jesus was human, born of a woman like you and I are born.

That God became a human being was a shocking claim then and it's a scandalous claim today.  The Jews considered it blasphemy, an unforgiveable insult and offense to God.  God is a free spirit and not bound by a physical body.   It was shocking to the Romans and Greeks because they held a low view of the material and physical world in contrast to the spiritual world.   The body was a prison house of the immortal soul; God would never take on a body, the claim was disgraceful.   And there are some today who deplore Christmas, they loathe it, and would like to see Christmas eradicated from our culture and will stop at nothing, including legal action, to accomplish this goal.    

What is the extraordinary claim of Christmas?  In Jesus of Nazareth, God and humanity are united in one personal existence.  So 2,000 years ago, Christmas was born in controversy, that controversy is alive today, and yet the birthday announcement and celebration continues. Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God.  In Jesus the God of the heavens stooped down to earth. In Jesus the glory of God appeared.  Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, God one of us.  In Jesus, God entered this world as a fragile and helpless baby.  At Christmas God entered our neighborhood, God moved into our town, our city, our world, God came to be in your life and my life, God came in person to be with us.
It is like a father who is a brilliant astronomer, who on Christmas morning gets down on the floor with his three-year-old boy and plays with him.  In some real sense, he becomes a child again, thinking the thoughts and speaking the language of a child.  The father could espouse lofty ideas about interstellar space, galaxies, astrophysics, and black holes.  But on Christmas morning he was a father, not an astronomer. He talks about simple things in a simple way to a little child.  Does the father lose stature when he is on the floor with his little boy? No. The test of God is not how great God is in the heavens, but how little God is willing to become, in order to reach out to us, His children.

Why did God come into this world in Jesus?  Because God loves the world, because God loves all people, because God love's  you and me.  God came so that we could see him and know him.  God was willing to do whatever was necessary to reach us.   God’s love for us never ends.  God's love is passionate and powerful.  If God had wanted to relate to birds, He would have become a bird, if God had wanted to relate to cows, He would have become a cow, if God had wanted to relate to trees, he would have become a tree, but God wanted to relate to human beings, so God became one of us.  God chose to stoop to our level, and to come to us because we could not go to God. 

The eminent 5th century Church Father St. Augustine said: “God became a man for this purpose.  Since you, a human being could not reach God, but you can reach other humans, God became a human so that following a human, something you are able to do, you might reach God.”

I think of the salient values of the incarnation.  The incarnation means the physical world has value, your body has value, your mind and heart has value, your life has value, because God in Jesus became one of us. The incarnation means God indentifies with our needs and concerns.  God is no stranger to the challenges and trials and sufferings of being human.  God understands the life we live.  For God took on human flesh and lived as we live.  The incarnation means you are not alone, God is with you.

I close with a story On Good Morning America about a family reunion.  It’s about a family from PA.  The mother is a captain in the Army and has been deployed for most of the year in Iraq.  Her husband took their two little boys, ages two and four, dressed alike in little sweaters and pants, to a mall to see Santa Claus.   While sitting on Santa’s lap they tell Santa what they want for Christmas.  Then Santa says: “I have one more big surprise for you.  Look over there.”  And suddenly, the mom steps out from behind the crowd of people; the little boys see her, yell “mom,” rush to her and throw their arms around her, with tears flowing everywhere. 

What is the greatest gift a parent can give a child?   You, your being there 100% with them.  This is what kids need more than anything else.  Loving them, dedicating your attention, time, wisdom, and your energy.   Giving and forgiving, loving and caring, disciplining and guiding, teaching and inspiring.     What is the greatest gift God could give us, coming in person to be with us.  In these last days God has spoken to us by a Son.

Let us prepare for Christmas.  Let us get ready to celebrate Jesus’ coming into our lives and into the world.  Amen!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Advent 1: About that Day and Hour (Mark 13:32-37) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Rev. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Community Church, tells the story about a little boy named Brian.  For weeks Brian hounded his parents about getting him a watch for Christmas.  Finally, his dad told him, “Brian, if you mention that watch again, you're not going to get it.“  One night Brian's parents asked him to say grace before dinner.  Brian said, “OK but I'd like to read a scripture verse before I pray.  He opened his Bible and read: “I say unto you, what I have already told you before, watch.”

Today is the first Sunday in the season of Advent, a season of waiting and watching and expectations.   We human beings are fascinated by and curious about the future.  We wonder what the future will hold?  We fantasize about being able to see into the future.  We think about our future and the future of our family, our children and grandchildren, we think about the future of our church, our government, our economy, our nation and of our world.  

We question, for example, if we are going to see more violence and rioting in our nation's future like in Ferguson, MS and other cities.   Whether we agree with the official decision about the police officer or not, and while we grieve with the family who lost their son, though protests are protected by the constitution,  violence, lawlessness, burning down businesses and looting go against our values, not to mention the laws of the land.  

Some people are inherently optimistic about the future?  They are positive and see the silver lining in clouds and the light at the end of the tunnel.   Problems and disappointments they see as blessings in disguise.  The glass is always half full.  They look to the future with confidence.  They envision a better future for themselves and their children and grandchildren, a future filled with greater opportunities and achievements brought about by capitalism and free enterprise, science, technology, and sound social policy.
Other people are filled with dread and anxiety about the future, they are pessimistic and negative.   They see the changes taking place in our culture as detrimental to our future.  The glass is always half empty.  They cannot see any silver lining or light in regard to looking toward tomorrow.

How do you see the future?   Without question, many in our day, and for good reason, are filled with uncertainty about what the future holds.  We witness the continuing historic hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians, we see how polarized we are in politics and government and in our society at-large, we are witnessing atrocities and unmerciful violence perpetuated by radical militant terrorism around the world including in our own nation. 

And yet, in spite of our questions, our uncertainity and our fears, Advent says don't dismay – you have a bright future, a hope-filled future, a glorious future, look to the future with glad hearts.

Advent says the days are coming when Jesus Christ will return in glory.  Do we know precisely when this will occur?  No.  No one knows, despite some who claim they do know the time and the hour.   Those who make such predictions are at best misguided and at worst deceivers.

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

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

We are those servants.  Christ has put us in charge.  The master is coming.  We are doorkeepers and we are to be on watch.  The days are coming.  We are awaiting that day and that hour.

Further, Advent says the days are coming when justice will reign throughout the land.   As people of faith, we believe in and worship a just God.  We believe that the concept of justice is grounded in the mind and will of God.  People must act justly toward one another because it is the divine imperative, God commands it, God wills that people and nations treat one another justly, for all of creation is accountable to God. 

The Jewish prophets spoke for God.  The prophet Amos cries out:  “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”  The prophet Micah cries out: “God has told you O mortal what is good and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”

We see examples of injustice in our world everyday.  We see kids bullying other kids on playgrounds,  people shooting others on the streets or in schools, or movie threaters and leaders like Putin of Russia invading countries in order to expand his power and empire.  We see Abu Bakar Al Bagdadi, self-proclaimed Caliph of Isis and the Islamic State, taking over cities in Syria and Iraq, murdering Muslims and Christians and building his army and his empire.    And we are angry, we are outraged, and we are fearful at such injustice in our world.

We see injustice in our criminal justice system.  A man was on trial for murder.  There were many witnesses.  The case was airtight.  That was why the judge almost keeled over when he heart the jury foreman pronounce the verdict.  “Not guilty.”  “Not guilty, the judge shrieked, but how?”  “By what reason?”   “By reason of insanity,” the foreman replied.  “Insanity,” the judge howled, “All twelve of you!”   

That's how we feel when there is a miscarriage of justice.  It's right to bring people to justice.  Whether it is criminal, or economic or social or ecological or moral, we are incensed when we witness acts of injustice. We are repelled when someone gets away with something.  We believe people must be held accountable for their actions. 

And yet in spite of this reality, Advent promises that one day the playing fields of this world will be leveled, crooked things will be set straight, broken things will be set right, and justice will reign.

Finally, Advent says the days are coming when peace will reign throughout the land.   The prophet Isaiah says:  “For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”     The prophet Isaiah says:  “God will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

A Christian recalls her trip to Israel and a sacred moment, when she experienced a foretaste of the peace, Christ will one day establish on earth.  She writes:  “We walked through the dusty streets of Bethlehem town and soon came to the entrance to the Church of the Nativity. We stood in line for what seemed like hours, winding our way downward into a series of caves, Christ was actually born in a cave.

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

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

Yes, we certainly question whether peace in our world will ever become a reality.  While we await its advent, the scriptures, and our Christian faith, remind us that we too can have a foretaste of Christ's coming peace, when we experience the presence of God.   The prophet Isaiah says:  “God will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on him, because he trusts in God.”

We become anxious when we feel that things around us are out of control.  We like to believe that we are in control.  Peace comes when we rely not on our self-perceptions of control, but when you trust in God's control of events and circumstances.   Though things do get beyond our control, nothing is beyond the control and will of God.  The prophet Jeremiah says:  “Oh, Lord God, It is you who made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm.  Nothing is too hard for you.”

Advent stirs our hearts.  It’s a message of hope.  It declares that the future belongs not to evil, not to sin, but to God.    Jesus is coming to establish an unimaginable and spectacular world.  C.S. Lewis writes:  “When the author appears on stage, you know the play is over.”

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

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Sent Ones (John 1:35-42) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A pastor writes:  “While I was attending seminary, our two older children, ages 9 and 7, seemed to attract every other child in our apartment complex for after-school games of hide and seek.  Our youngest daughter, Carrie, was not quite 3 and in the minds of the older siblings, was always in the way.  Whenever she played with them, in just a few minutes, she would start crying because she would get pushed aside, ignored or skin a knee.  One afternoon she walked into the house crying for mommy.  My wife, Elizabeth, gave her her two freshly baked cookies to comfort her and said to her: "Now, shhh, this is just for you, don't tell the big kids, I haven't baked enough for everybody yet.”  It took less than three seconds for Carrie to run to the screen door, fling it wide open, and yell to the big kids, "Cookies, I gots cookies!"  Good news is hard not to tell!”

This morning we celebrate our Scottish Presbyterian heritage.  I know you agree that the peaceful, quiet, and soothing sound of the bagpipes, played by piper, Laurie Scott, sets the mood.   Today, we shine the light on the disciple Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland.  Protestant churches around the world celebrate St. Andrew’s Day in November of each year.  

Andrew's life dramatically changed upon discovering that Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah.   His heart’s desire was for persons to come to know Jesus personally. For example,  Andrew found a young boy, who had five loaves and two fish and brought him to meet Jesus.  Jesus performed a miracle that day and fed 5,000 people.  Andrew also invited some gentiles to go with him and introduced them to Jesus. 

Andrew had been a disciple of John the Baptist.  He was spiritually hungry and waiting and searching for the advent of the promised Messiah.   Jesus read Andrew's and the other disciple's hearts and asked them:  “What are you searching for?”   It is a good question for us today.  What are you searching for?  The two followed Jesus and spent the day with him,  a day that forever transformed their lives.  Overflowing with spiritual energy, Andrew set out to find his brother Simon Peter.  Andrew finds him and says: “Peter, we have found the Messiah.”  Andrew introduces Peter and Peter dedicates his life to Jesus.   Tradition says that Andrew was crucified upside down on a cross which looks like an X.   It is actually the Greek letter Chi, the first letter of the word Christ.  Andrew wanted to be crucified in this manner, because he felt unworthy to be crucified in the way Jesus was.  It is called the St. Andrew’s cross.  

Fast forward a few centuries and we meet Columba, an Irish missionary in the 6th century, who brought Christianity to Scotland.  He founded a monastery on the island of Iona which became the base camp from which monks launched their missionary travels around Scotland.  In the 8th century a Benedictine Monk brought relics or bones of Andrew to a settlement in Scotland.  A church was built and the relics were placed inside the church, and that settlement was named St. Andrews.  Andrew was canonized as the Patron Saint of Scotland. 

In the 16th century during the Scottish Reformation, Scotland broke with the Catholic Pope under the leadership of Reformer John Knox and Scotland embraced the Protestant or Presbyterian faith.   In the 18th century, the Scots and Scots-Irish immigrants brought the gospel to North America and around the world.  This Scottish church has a distinguished evangelistic legacy, of spreading the good news, because like that 3 year old girl, good news is hard not to tell.  Arguably, this small country has sent more missionaries around the world than any other nation.  

Without question, today we live in an increasingly secular, pluralistic and post-modern age, an age of relativism, with the claim that there is no absolute truth.   Worship attendance is reported at about 40% in America, but polls like Gallup claim it may be half that.   The influence of religion on Americans is wanning.  Polls also say spirituality, and the definition of  spirituality varies, is on the upswing.  One conclusion of this picture is we don't have to send missionaries to Africa, where Christianity is growing, we are living in a mission field right here at home.    

It is into this context that Christians are called to bring the gospel message of God's forgiveness in Christ.  In Romans 1:16 we read: “The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.”   The gospel is not an opinion.  It’s the absolute divine message of grace in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God, which through faith, brings freedom, forgiveness, hope and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  When you witness to your faith, you are sharing in the power of God unto salvation. 

Jesus declared: “When the Holy Spirit comes, you shall be filled with power, and you shall be my witnesses, in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth or in Pacific Beach, in San Diego and California, and to the ends of the earth.” 

John 3:16 says:  “God so loved the world that he sent His only Son.”  God sent Jesus into the world to bring salvation.  Jesus sent his disciples into the world to share the gospel.  Recall the Great Commission: “Go therefore, and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you, for I am with you always to the close of the age.”  The word apostle literally means, “one who is sent.” 

God sent Jesus into the world and Jesus sent his followers into their towns, and villages and communities.  The Sent One, Jesus Christ, sends us.  So another name for Christians is “The Sent Ones,” sent by our Lord to bring the gospel to unbelievers.  Christ summons us to connect with the community around us.  Christ summons us to love our neighborhoods.  Churches must not be isolated from their surrounding communities.  This is being disobedient and unfaithful to His calling.

Christ sends us because God loves people and desires for them to know Him.  Because God desires to bring salvation to people.  Because people matter to God.  Because God values all people and seeks to reach the lost of this world.  God desires to change people, to free us from the power of sin, and to reach those who live lives separated from God.  God desires fellowship with human beings and sent Jesus to bring humanity back into relationship with Him.  We are the sent ones under the authority and power of the Sent One.

Susan Steinmetz is a meteorologist and Christian who finds spiritual analogies in her studies of weather patterns and the natural sciences.  For example, she says that there is water vapor in the air over even the most parched land on earth, the Mohave, the Sahara, it makes no difference.  The problem is not the lack of water; the problem is how to get the water in the air to condense and fall to the earth as rain.  Water vapor condenses by wrapping itself around tiny dust particles.  She points out that humans are referred to as “dust” in the Bible and that Jesus is referred to as “living water.”  Only as we allow our lives’ to be wrapped up in Jesus, will we be able to refresh and renew a parched world.  God has chosen to make His will and His way and His truth known to the world, through particles of dust like you and me. 

How are some churches sending believers into their communities?  Churches are planting community gardens on their properties, and inviting neighbors to cultivate their own plots in these gardens.  Churches are going out and cleaning up streets, parks, beaches, rehabing old buildings, planting new churches, joining neighborhood watch groups, starting prayer and Bible groups at local schools, offering tutoring programs for students after school, feeding homeless people in parks or on the bay, setting up a Bible study where they work, or working with the courts and offering communty service opportunities for kids.  I read a story of how one minister, who has a black belt in Karate, challenges all comers to fight him.  If they win, he pays they $100.00 and if he wins, they must attend church with him.  The ideas are endless.  We at PBPC are reaching out into our community with our SNF, and our young adults handing out water bottles in the wee hours of the morning once a month, and our Friday Free Pizza and Movie night for families in our community among other activities.   Are their other things we could be doing?

Christ sends you and me out in His name. Remember we as a congregation and you as an individual are not alone.  Trust in the power of prayer, the power of the gospel and in the assurance that you are witnessing in the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus says make connections, develop relationships, love the community around you, be visible in your neighborhood.   

Rev. Rick Warren writes: “God has given you a life message to share.  When you became a believer, you also became God’s messenger.  God wants to speak to the world through you.  You may feel you don’t have anything to share, but that’s the Devil trying to keep you silent.  You have a storehouse of experiences that God wants to use to bring others into His family.

We are the sent ones.  Pray daily for God to give you an opportunity to share Christ by your word and deed.   God is overjoyed when someone hears about Jesus, when someone is prayed for, when someone enters into His Kingdom, when someone joins the family of God.  May the power of Jesus Christ, the witness of St. Andrew and the awesome sound of the bagpipes motivate you.  For good news is hard not to tell.  Amen!

Friday, November 7, 2014

All That the Lord Has Spoken (Exodus 19:1-9; Ruth 1:15-22) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

There is a long time rivalry in college basketball between the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky.  A story is told that at one of the games between the two schools, an elderly woman was sitting alone in the Rupp Arena, in Lexington KY, with an empty seat next to her.  A stranger approached her and said, "Ma'am, I have rarely seen an empty seat in Rupp Arena, let alone at a game between these two teams.  Whose seat is this?"  The woman responded that she and her late husband had been season-ticket holders for 28 years, were loyal supporters of the Kentucky Wildcats, and the seat had belonged to him.  "Well, couldn't you find a friend or relative to come to the game with you?" the man asked.   "Not tonight" she replied. "They're all at my husband's funeral.”

Honoring promises and commitments, maintaining loyalties, is fundamental to what it means to being a human being, as well as to the normal functioning of a society.  Broadly speaking, we are members of a social contract between government or the state and the individual.  It is a tenuous agreement framed in the rule of law.  This social contract sets forth the rights and freedoms of the one and the many.  We individuals agree to surrender certain freedoms and to submit to the authority of government in exchange for securing economic, political and social order, preserving basic freedoms and rights, and guaranteeing protection from danger, both from within and from abroad.  This social contract is fundamental to the stability and welfare of our nation.  

I think of a classic contract, our United States Constitution and Bill of Rights – “We the people of the US in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this constitution for the United States of America.” 

The social contract or covenant between government and people, is great in theory, until we get down to debating specifics about how much power the government has, what is legitimate power and what is over-reaching power, and what individual freedoms and rights should be protected.   Our democratic system works pretty well when people voluntarily, by their moral will, are committed to and obey the laws of the land. 

But public trust in our government and in politicians is extremely low today as we know.  And if a majority of people were to violate the social contract or break the covenant, our way of life, as we know it, would vanish.   We could not hire enough cops to protect us.   I also think of the current ebola scare.  Here is an illustration of the social contract debate between the personal freedom and rights of returning health care workers vs the health and safety of the public. 

Which leads us to our biblical lessons that describe two different covenants.   In our story from the book of Exodus, Moses is leading the Israelites in their flight from slavery in Egypt, and after three months in the wilderness, they reach Mt. Sinai, in the south-central Sinai peninsula.  And there God makes a covenant with the people of Israel.  God instructs Moses: “Tell the people you have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagle's wings and brought you to myself.  Now if they obey my voice and keep my covenant, they shall be my treasured possession of all the peoples of the whole earth, a holy nation.  And in response the people reply – “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.”  On that day, on a mountain in the wilderness, a sacred covenant between God and the people of Israel was established.

In the book of Ruth, we hear a narrative of both personal tragedy and hope in God.  We meet a young Moabite woman named Ruth and her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi.  Naomi and her husband, Elimelech depart from Bethlehem, in Judah, because of a famine in the land and make the sojourn to the country of Moab, known today as part of modern Jordan, to begin a new life.

Sadly, tragedy strikes the family.  Naomi’s husband, Elimelech dies, and then some years later, her two sons, Mahlon and Kilion, who had married Moabite women, also die.  That left Naomi and her two Moabite daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah.  Naomi tries to persuade her daughters-in-law to return to Moab and Orpah decides to return home.  But Ruth is determined to stay with her mother-in-law.  She loved her and was committed to her.  Ruth pledges her loyalty in the famous words from this story: “Where you go I will go and where you stay I will stay.  Your people will be my people and your God my God.  Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.  May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.”   And God's purpose for the future of the people of Israel unfolds as the story of Ruth continues.

Commitments and promises!  People make commitments to the constitution and to this nation when they join the military.   We make commitments to our family, to our spouse, to our children and grandchildren, to friendships, to our jobs, to the community in which we live, to creation, to care for the environment, in which God has placed us.   We make a commitment as citizens on election day coming up on Tuesday November 4.

Think of someone who made a promise to you and kept it?  How did that impact you?  Think of someone who broke a promise to you?  How did that affect you?   Think of a promise you have kept.  Do you recall a promise you have broken? 

Scripture is clear that making and honoring our commitments builds character, the character God desires for each one of us.  And despite our instant gratification culture, character takes time to build.  And because of the choices we make, it takes more time for some than for others.  Honoring commitments builds endurance and discipline and trust and patience and faithfulness.  Honoring commitments speaks volumes about our values and about our faith. 

Yes, you have broken commitments and promises in your life.  And so have I.  That's when we fall to our knees, confess to God and to the person our contrition, ask for forgiveness and pray for God's help to make it right.  Now that's character.   And we turn to God because God is merciful and His mercy can change our lives. 

According to the Bible, honoring promises is the secret to a joyful, fulfilling, and meaningful life.  It is not necessarily the easiest path, but it is the right path.   It is the difference between depth and shallowness in a person.  It is a key spiritual value.    Yes, some people today are afraid of making promises.  Is our society becoming commitment adverse.  I sometimes wonder.   

Like Octavio Guillen and Adriana Martinez who came to America from Mexico.  Octavio popped the question and Adriana said yes. That was in 1902 when they were both 15-years-old. But one of them couldn't quite decide, so they kept putting off the wedding day. They finally got married in 1969 when they were both 82.  It took Octavio and Adriana 67 years to decide to get married.  Now that is a long engagement.

God wants His people, God wants you and me, to be people who make and honor commitments and promises.   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.

God has made an everlasting covenant with us, with you and to me.  John 3:16 says:  “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.  God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  

And as believers, we, in response, make a promise to Christ.  For instance, when you join the church, you make a promise to Jesus Christ and to your spiritual brothers and sisters in the congregation.  You answer four questions – Is Jesus Christ your Lord and Savior?  Do you trust in Him?

Do you intend to be his disciple, to obey his word and show his love? Will you be a faithful member of this church, worshipping regularly, giving of your time, talents and money in Christ’s ministry, seeking the fellowship of the church wherever you may be?  It is a covenant between you, God and the people of God to witness to Christ in your daily life.

Why be committed to God? Because God knows what’s best for our lives, because God has shaped us  for His purpose, because commitment expresses our gratitude to God for our salvation, because our character is forged and formed by the promises and commitments we keep, and because God promises to reward commitment.  Yes, God will bring us blessings and benefits, when we put God first and seek his will in our lives.

Marie Florian, a Stephen Minister from Eaton Rapids, MI makes this promise to those to whom she ministers.   It is truly a beautiful covenant.  “I’ll do my best to listen, should you want to bare your soul, while you sort through facts and feelings; Yes, I’ll gladly play this role.  I’ll be a friend to count on and I’ll try to understand.  You are a sacred trust to me, while you’re placed within my hand.  And should you need reminding, just to set your heart at ease, your words are very safe with me; you can say whatev’er you please.  Don’t feel you are a burden, for I want to share your load, and together in the valley we’ll seek for a better road.  I give my solemn promise that I’ll hold you up in prayer; I’ll lift you to the throne of God, my friend, I truly care.”

Today is our Day of Commitment to God, our congregation and the community for 2015.   Jesus asks us to commit not only a portion of our money, but beyond that, our hearts and minds, our bodies and souls, our abilities and talents and our prayers and faith.  May we, like the Israelites on Mr. Sinai, declare these words - “Everything that the Lord has spoken we shall do.”  Amen!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Count Your Blessings (Numbers 6:21-27; Romans 15:22-29) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

I remember a minister in CO, who whenever you would greet him and say, “Hi, how are you,” his standard answer was – “I am blessed.”  His response stood out to me, because I don't think I have ever heard anyone reply in that way.   You may remember an old song that Christians have sung for years that goes like this: "Count your blessings / Name them one by one / and it will surprise you what the Lord has done."  When someone sneezes, we say, “Bless you.”  This custom dates back to the 6th century, to an outbreak of the bubonic plague in Rome.  Sneezing was thought to be a symptom of the plague.  Saying “Bless you” “God bless you,” was a petition to God to bring His divine blessing of healing upon the person.

Blessings are such a vital part of life and faith.  Blessings were important in the Bible and in Judaism and Christianity.  We read in Genesis 1: “God created humankind in His image, in the image of God He created them, male and female he created them. God blessed them and said:  “Exercise dominion, be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.”  God blessed human beings and called us to go and be a blessing in all the earth.  

In our Old Testament lesson from the book of Numbers, we are introduced to a famous benediction called the Aaronic or Priestly benediction.  God spoke these words to Moses and commanded him to tell his brother Aaron to use these very words to bless the Israelites.  “The Lord bless you and keep you, or the Lord favor you and protect you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; or the Lord smile upon you and be pleased with you and be merciful and compassionate toward you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace, or the Lord give his approval to you and grant you His peace in the inner life and the outer life. So they shall put my name on the Israelites and I will bless them.”

In our New Testament Lesson the apostle Paul is writing to the church at Rome telling them that he hopes to visit them soon, but that for now he is on a mission to bring material resources, which were donated by Gentile Christians in Greece, to the poor Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.  Paul says he knows that when he comes to see the believers in Rome, he will come in the fullness of the blessing of Jesus Christ.

What are some of the blessings according to the scriptures which God imparts to us?   We find a plethora of blessings.  Some examples are:  longevity, God's forgiveness, affirmation and acceptance, God's dunamis or power, God's comfort, healing and reconciliation, God's protection, God's guidance, God's peace, God's call to a mission, God's granting authority, God's blessings of gifts and abilities, God's word of promise, and warning,  God's imparting of courage, God's blessings of faith, hope and love.   God's blessing is the message of the gospel and in hearing it and receiving it by faith.

Blessings deepen our relationship with God and enhance our relationships with others.  Blessings release people to build productive lives and free them to bless others.  God blesses us every day and gives us opportunities to be a blessing to others. 

Scripture reminds us to joyfully receive all the blessings God gives us.  Look for, embrace and celebrate God's blessings in your life, because we cannot pass on to others what we do not have.  A mature faith is where you see yourself as richly blessed by God.  Scripture reminds us that God's blessings often come as surprises and to people who don't think they deserve them.

In Jesus' day, Jews were committed to paying in their daily lives to the blessings that God had given them.   I know Christians who actually keep a journal and write down all the ways God daily blesses them.  That is a good spiritual practice for us today, don't you think?  Joyfully receive God's blessings and then pass on those blessings to people around you.

Which leads us to our Stewardship Theme for this coming year – “Count Your Blessings!”  Of course, one of the realities of human beings, is that we too often take our blessings for granted.  Rabbi Sidney Greenberg wrote the following piece:  “When the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in Paris in 1911 and was missing for two years, more people went to stare at the blank space in the museum, than had gone to look at the masterpiece in the twelve previous years it had hung there unmolested.  It points to our all too human tendancy to fail to take adequate note of precious things while we have them.  But let one of them be taken from us and we become painfully aware of the blank space in our lives, and our attention is sharply focused on that blank space.  The walls of our lives are crowded with Mona Lisas, but we are unmindful of them.” 

One of my constant prayers is for God's blessing, I pray it before visiting someone in the hospital or in their home, before a session meeting, or deacon meeting, or worship service, or class I'm teaching or counseling situation I'm involved in or when we visit our children and grandchildren.  And for me it means God use this time for your glory, use this time for the work of your Kingdom, God use this time in surprising ways, God speak to or touch someone in a powerful way.  And may I not be a hindrance or barrier for your purposes, but use me to be an instrument for your will.

As I reflect upon our ministry here at PBPC, I give thanks to God for His blessings in our life and ministries and how God is blessing our community through our congregation.   Like our mid-week Youth and Kingdom Kid’s programs, where children and youth from the preschool, community and our congregation, are growing in their faith and enjoying fellowship under the leadership of  Robert and his dedicated helpers.  And our excellent Pre-school under the capable leadership of the director Brigitte.   Our Preschool now has an enrollment of over 50 children and babies.  It provides a healthy spiritual, intellectual and social foundation for children and builds community among the preschool families.  Some of those families have joined the church.

We rejoice in our Sunday Evening Roots worship service and ministry, reaching young adults in our community under the leadership of Grant.   Some of these young adults have joined our church.  We celebrate the blessings of our music program, the Sounds of Worship and our Chancel Choir, under the leadership of Esther and our organist Anne.  
We enjoy the music of handbells which enhance our worship under the leadership of Robin Mayo and Judy Whiles.
We see God at work in our prayer and healing ministries with Helen Sterling and in our congregational care ministry under the leadership of Mavis, which brings Christ’s love to members and friends.  We see blessings in Bible studies and Christian education for all ages during the week and on Sunday mornings.  We have faith-filled and committed leaders – deacons and elders, who enthusiastically serve Christ in our church.  

We bless our community by outreach events such as hosting Graffiti Day to clean up Pacific Beach.  We highlight the faithful Friday Pizza and Movie Night ministry, which for over 5 years has reached families in our preschool and new families in our community.  Just a few weeks ago, at Friday Night Pizza and Movie night, we had 24 kids, 18 parents and 4 volunteers. 

God has long blessed the community through our Sunday Night Ministry, by feeding over 100 homeless people each week for over two decades under the leadership of Dolores Shoemaker and through our mail service for nearly 275 homeless people during the week.  I often hear people living on the streets say:  “God bless you, thank you, as people are able to get their mail and in response to the caring assistance which Meri and the volunteers provide them.”  

God blesses people through a variety of mission projects -  we provide resources, volunteers and financial support for CCSA, Meals on Wheels, Voice of the Martyrs, Urban Youth Collaborative, Baja Presbyterian Ministries, Military Outreach Ministry, Intervarsity, Heifer Project, Presbyterian Urban Ministry in downtown San Diego, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and missionaries like Esther Wakeman in Thailand.   We are blessed by your generous giving to our Endowment Fund which annually contributes substantially to our ministry.

These are some ways God both blesses our congregation and uses our congregation to bring blessings to others for His purposes and glory.   I give thanks to God for all He is doing in our life together.  God’s Spirit is among us, guiding us and empowering us and inspiring us.  And yes, there are always more challenges before us,and there are sometimes disappointments and setbacks, but we keep moving forward striving to fulfill God's will.

I want to both personally and on behalf of the elders, thank you for your generous commitment and support this year.  We are blessed by your giving.  As I have said:  “When the treasurer is happy, the pastor is happy.”  We are asking for your prayerful and generous financial support for this coming year, as together, we serve and witness to Christ, and reach people for His Kingdom. 

Thank you for filling out the Count Your Blessings forms, which the stewardship team handed out over the past couple of weeks.   They are inspiring.  You will find them posted on the walls in Calvin Hall and I encourage you to peruse them during our luncheon time this morning. 

In response to God's blessings let us bring our time, our talents and abilities, our money and our faith and offer them to God in humble adoration and gratitude.  Jesus Christ cares deeply about your life and growth in faith and your participation in His Kingdom.   And be confident that Christ will continue to use you for His work and glory in His mission in this community and world.  Every pledge, every donation, every gift, every offering God honors.  Commitment Sunday is next Sunday, November 2. 

Count your blessings / Name them one by one / and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.”   Amen!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Loving Neighbors and Self (Matthew 22:34-40) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Can loving your neighbor ever be taken a bit too far?  A couple approached the pastor in the greeting line after church one Sunday:  The young woman said:  “Rev. Jones, Toni and I just met during this morning's 'Greet Your Neighbor' time, we started talking, one thing led to another and we fell in love.  We'd like you to marry us.”

St. Augustine, the 5th century Christian bishop, theologian, philosopher, and church father from North Africa, whose writings influenced the development of Western Christianity, said something rather profound: “Love God and do whatever you please, for the soul trained in love to God, will do nothing to offend the One who is beloved.”  Rather than commenting, I'm going to let you think about that for a moment. 

Last week we focused upon Jesus' command to love God with our heart, soul, strength and mind.  Jesus took that command from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy and he linked it with another command from the Old Testament book of Leviticus in a novel way, saying  - And a second is like it:  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

What is the definition of a neighbor?  The dictionary has two definitions.  First, someone who lives nearby, someone who lives next to or near another person.  The second is your fellow man.   The second definition is the one found in the New Testament, for example in the parable of the Good Samaritan.   Neighbor is not to be interpreted in a limited way or narrow way.  My neighbor is any person who is in need of my love, any person who is in pain, any person to whom I can give encouragement to or hope through my personal presence or my resources. 

Jesus commands us to love our neighbors.  Be concerned for them and pray for them and express active goodwill toward them.  Why?  Because one way of strengthening our love for God is to love other persons and one way to strengthen our love for neighbor is to love God.  The two principles are bound together.  When we love others, God’s love can flow in and through us in a free and powerful way.  God is able to give us greater wholeness of life when we are sharing life in an unselfish way with others.   It is both a life-enhancing and an extremely demanding command. 

Jesus command is clear, but not easy.  But who promised that Jesus commands to his followers would be easy?  It’s easy to give in to hate.  It's easy to be contempuous of those with whom you disagree.  It’s easy to demonize those who see things or think differently.  But loving another person, especially one who holds different values, now that is a challenge.  Jesus sets the highest standard. It is Jesus’ radical ethic and one that is daunting for anyone who strives to follow Jesus.

Jesus says: “If you only love people who love you what is your reward?  Anyone, even tax collectors are capable of that.  He says: “If you greet and welcome only your brothers and sisters, how hard is that?  Even Gentiles do the same.”

For instance, loving someone, helping someone can sometimes become enabling behavior.  You find yourself being manipulated, being used, becoming a co-dependent.  In some situations tough love, saying no, is the appropriate loving response.  Sometimes saying no, not helping someone in the way they request, is the most loving response.     There are of course no cookie-cutter models for loving one's neighbor.  It is case by case.  That's why we rely on prayer and the Holy Spirit.

One way to love a neighbor is to minister to someone who is hurting.  A student sent a note to one of his former teachers.  He received this reply:  “Dear William:  I can't tell you how much your note meant to me.  I am in my eighties, living alone in a small room, cooking my own meals, lonely and in poor health.  I taught school for 50 years and yours is the first note of appreciation I every received.  It came on a blue, cold morning and it cheered me up in a way you can never know.  Thank you with all my heart.”   Bringing consolation to the lonely, food to the hungry, comfort to the grieving are ways of ministering to those who are hurting.

Loving one's neighbor implies taking some action.  I recall years ago when I was living in San Diego and attending my home church.  One of the members of our young adult group had been beaten in a random attack and sent to the hospital.  Our group prayed for him.  We were very concerned.  When he returned to church, I said we were sorry it had happened and I hoped it didn't negatively affect his faith.  He said:  “My faith is fine.  But I was in the hospital for a week, and not one of you came by to visit, no one called to see how I was, or sent me a card, or showed any concern at all.  My faith is fine, but I wonder about the faith of this group.”

Another way of loving our neighbors is to work to correct social conditions which cause suffering and injustice.  Jesus preached that the Spirit of the Lord is uon me, he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and to set at liberty those who are oppressed.  It is working to change or correct social conditions of our society which victimize and oppress people.  It is loving our neighbors by working for social justice.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a prime example of this form of loving neighbor.   I think also of whistle blowers, who are never popular, people like Frank Serpico, and Karen Silkwood and Erin Bockovich. 
Jesus in this command said further:  “As you love yourself.”  A preacher tells this story.  “One day I was reflecting on last weeks’ sermon.  I will never forget it.  I think it was my finest hour in the pulpit.  Unequalled eloquence seemed to roll off of my lips.  My brilliance even surprised me.  Afterwards he commented rather modestly to his wife, “I wonder how many great preachers there are living today?”  She replied, “Well, there is one less than you think there is.”

It is crucial to have a healthy attitude about yourself?   We recognize that there are many depersonalizing forces in life, events and experiences, which threaten our self-esteem, which call our self-worth into question.  We are tempted for example to compare ourselves with others.  I recall a speaker who said: “If you compare yourself with others, you will be vain or bitter, because you will always find there are persons lesser or greater than yourself.”  One writer said:  “Self-esteem is that deep-down inside the skin feeling you have of your own self-worth.   It’s how you truly feel about yourself even when no one else is around or regardless of what others say.” 

As children our identity and self-esteem is profoundly influenced by others: parents, grandparents, friends, neighbors, relatives, etc.  But what about when we become adults?  A writer said: “It’s what we believe about ourselves that counts.  Whether we were treated rightly or wrongly as children, our self-esteem is now our responsibility.”   Do you agree?

Growing to appreciate one-self is a process.  We all need to be told and shown from time to time that we’re loved, appreciated, and valued.  But at the same time it’s true that loving-ourselves is our responsibility.  You can be told you are wonderful, but ultimately you must believe it deep-inside your skin.  Self-love means to appreciate your worth, to have self-respect.    Eleanor Roosevelt said:  “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Loving yourself is not narcissism.   It's not being egotistical.  It's not feeling superior to others.  I’m speaking about a healthy attitude toward yourself and about yourself.     A woman whose husband had died years earlier and who raised her teenage children alone tells of how difficult it was when her children had all grown and left home.  She writes:  “I felt so lonely and the house was so empty.  I didn’t know what to do, where to turn.  I felt worthless and confused; my life didn’t seem to have any value, because I was no longer focused on raising my children.   When I was away from the house I didn’t want to return home and when I was in the house I could hardly stand the thought of leaving.  I felt like I was living in a cocoon.   So I began to pray, to pray as I had done throughout my life.  And as the days passed, I began to feel some stirrings inside of me, a kind of inner restlessness.  I began to see in my mind options for my life that I had never before considered and for the first time since the children had gone, I began to look ahead with some anticipation.  I didn’t know what was to happen, but I sensed God’s Spirit leading me and calling me out of myself, and I knew that I was about to break out of the cocoon I’d been living in and begin a new and meaningful chapter in my life.”

The challenge is to not allow what others say about you to change your opinion about yourself?   Are you going to give them that kind of power?   Jesus didn’t allow what others said about him to change his opinion of himself.  Jesus was slandered.  He was falsely accused.  They said he was possessed with devils.  Countless accusations were hurled like stones against Jesus every day of His life, but it didn’t change what Jesus believed about himself and what he believed about His mission.  Jesus taught people to love God and to love their neighbors and to love themselves.  Jesus reminds us that there is the sin of thinking too highly about yourself and the sin of thinking too lowly about yourself.  

So why should we love ourselves and respect ourselves and believe in ourselves?  God created you!  God made you in His image.  Psalm 8, a beautiful psalm says: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them, yet you have made them a little lower than angels and crowned them with glory and honor.  You have given them dominion over the works of your hand and put all things under their feet.”  God breathed life into you.  Knowing and believing this truth gives value and worth and meaning to our lives.

Why love yourself?  Our lives are new in Christ!  God is making us new people.  II Cor. 5:17: “So if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, everything old has passed away, so everything has become new.  All this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ.”   God sees us and through our faith is transforming us into a new being, a new creation, a new creature. 

 Why love yourself? God forgave you and me!  God forgave your sins and mine by dying on the cross.  Our sin is forgiven, erased forever.   Christ is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Christ took the consequences for our sin upon himself, our guilt, our punishment, our judgment our death and restored us to a right relationship with God.   Knowing and believing this truth gives value and worth and meaning to our lives.

Why love yourself?  Because God truly, fully, enthusiastically and passionately loves you.  Clearly, God’s will is that we have a healthy attitude toward ourselves.  Jesus’ greatest command is something we should believe in, remember, trust in and stand on everyday of our lives. 

Love neighbors and love self.  As one writer put it:  “Without love, all that you say is ineffective, all that you know is incomplete, all that you believe is insufficient, all that you give is inadequate, and all that you accomplish is insignificant. God's greatest aim for your life and ministry is love.”  Amen!

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Greatest Command (Deuteronomy 6:1-8) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

One of my favorite movies is Fiddler on the Roof.   Golde, the wife of Tevye, asks her husband, “Do you love me?”  Tevye replies, “Do I what?”  Golde repeats, “Do you love me?” Tevye responds - “Do I love you?”  “With our daughters getting married and this trouble in the town you're upset, you're worn out, go inside, go lie down!  Maybe it's indigestion.”  Golde again says, “Tevye, I'm asking you a question...  Do you love me?”

The question for this morning is - Do you love God?  We as believers regularly hear the biblical truth preached and taught that God loves you.  And what a powerful and awesome and comforting truth it is.  But today we ask another question  – Do you love God?  Do you ever say - “I love you Lord, I love you God.”  If not try it.  Practice saying it.  If it feels a little uncomfortable, start to say it in your prayers and devotions.  Why?  Because we are talking about ultimate things.

What is the purpose of life?  What is the reason for living?  What is the meaning of existence?  A mother writes:  “Our eight-year-old son was reading on the couch one morning when he discovered a new word. "What does ponder mean?" I wished for a dictionary. If you don't nail the odd impromptu definition perfectly, you hear about it later—and regret it!   So, I told him, "Ponder means you're wondering or thinking about things.  Like, you might say, 'I'm pondering the meaning of life.'" Oh, no, mistake,  mentioning "the meaning of life" is going to lead to one of those twisty, theological discussions, where I have to finish by saying, "I don't know; it's a mystery!" But to my utter amazement, my son was way ahead of me. "I know the meaning of life," "It's to love God!"

The ultimate question for faith is what does God, the creator of the universe, want from human beings?  What does God the Father want from us?  What does God want from you?  Which leads us to our passage from Deuteronomy.   In chapter 6 verse 4 we read the Shema.  Repeat after me – Shema!   Shema means “hear, listen.”   Now you know some Hebrew.   Here’s a suggestion.  Sometime when you can tell the person you're talking to isn’t listening, just say: “Hey, Shema!”  That will get their attention.

Shema Israel, that is, listen Israel, hear Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”   Moses has gathered the Israelites before him and addresses them: “This is the commandment that the Lord Your God, charged me to teach you to observe in the land you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children's children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, so that your days may be long.” 

Moses was proclaiming the truth of monotheism, one God, rather than polytheism.   Monotheism, is the unique and powerful divine truth which Judaism contributed to the world. 

And God charged Moses to command the Israelites, whom God had freed after 100's of years of Egyptian slavery, to love Him with every fiber of their being.  Was this command paramount?  Absolutely, so much so, that Moses offers some ni-monic devices:  “Keep these words in your heart, tell them to your children, talk about them wherever you are, bind them as a sign on your hand, attach them as an emblem on your forehead, write them on the doorposts of your house and your gates.” 

Mezuzah is a Hebrew word which means “doorpost.”   A Mezuzah is a small wooden, metal or glass case which contains the Shema and which Jews place on the doorposts of their homes.  It's a constant reminder of God's command.

Jesus reaffirms this central truth of Judaism and Christianity, that there is one God whom God's people are to love fully, in the Gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke, when he was asked: "Of all the commandments from God which is the most important?"  Now there were 613 commandments in the Law and Jesus, not being wishy-washy, immediately quotes the Shema, but then adds the word “mind” in addition to heart, soul and strength.  

"The premier command is to love the Lord your God, with all your heart with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind.”    Jesus further connects this command from Deuteronomy with another command from the book of Leviticus 19:18 saying:  “There's a second like it, "Love your neighbor as yourself."    Your entire life should be an expression of your love for God.  Today, we are looking at the first part, the command to love God.

Why is this command the preeminent command?  An author writes:  “The more you love something, the more you become like it.  For example, I have a friend that loves tennis. He wears tennis stuff. He reads tennis magazines. He has tennis talk. He has a racket, and his hair looks like a tennis ball.  I have another friend that loves surfing. He dresses with surf stuff, and he reads surf magazines. He talks surf talk. He's even starting to smell like seaweed. Everything about him is starting to go that way. But isn't it true whatever you love, you start moving that way? That's why this is the greatest commandment of all. Because we become what we love.”

Second, this is the premier command because God alone is worthy of our ultimate loyalty, our ultimate allegiance, our ultimate love.  Everyone and everything else is penultimate.  There are many people and things we love in this life.  There are many things worth loving, family, friends, home, country, chocolate.  But God says, “I am first,” God is first, everything else and everyone else comes after God.  God isn't saying  - don't love other things in life.  God is saying love Him before everything and everyone else.  If we don't, if we don't love God first, there is a danger, the danger that we will make an idol of other things or persons that we love.    The first commandment says: “You shall have no other gods before me, you shall not make for yourself an idol.”   We must keep things in proper perspective, in cosmic balance.  We must keep our priorities straight.

Now though we are commanded to love God wholly, fully, completely, if we are honest, we know we don’t.  There is a constant battle, an invariable competition, between putting God first and putting other things first.  Why, because it’s not natural to our sinful human nature.  Our nature is to be self-centered rather than God-centered.  It takes the Holy Spirit working in our hearts through faith, to slowly transform us into persons who are growing into loving God more fully.    It is a process of spiritual growth.  Our ability to love God fully is a work in progress.   It depends upon the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts through faith.

But I believe, isn’t believing in God enough?  No.  People say:  “I’m a Christian, I believe in God or I believe that God exists or I believe there is a God.”    Comedian Louis C.K. writes: “I have a lot of beliefs .… And I live by none of them. That's just the way I am. They're just my beliefs. I just like believing them—I like that part. They're my little "believies." They make me feel good about who I am. But if they get in the way of a thing I want, I sure as heck just do what I want to do.”  Moses and Jesus are raising the bar, declaring that the faith God desires for us, is more than believing, it is loving God with our whole being.

God I love you, God we love you?”  Do you tell God you love him?   Oftentimes, we don't say it to people close to us.  Like the woman who says to her husband: “Honey, you never tell me you love me.   He replies, “Dear, I told you I loved you when we were married 30 years ago and until I take it back, it still stands.” 

When one becomes a Christian, when we confess Christ as Lord and Savior, when the Holy Spirit enters our being, God gives us a new heart.    This is the beginning of a spiritual journey.  A journey of a growing desire to love God, to please God, to worship God, to obey God,  to glorify God, to follow God's will in your life, to lead a life that is good, just and righteous.  It arises from a thankful heart, in response to God's gift of sacrifical love and salvation.  

How do we love God with all our heart and soul?  It means desiring to know God and His will more closely.  It means sharing yourself with God, asking for God's guidance and inspiration in your decisions.  It means trusting God.  It means praying to God and worshipping God either alone in prayer or meditation or in worship with God’s family. It means spending time and taking time for God.  It means opening up and allowing God to know you. 

It means loving God with our emotions.  It means recognizing the importance of your interior life.  It includes times of repenting and confessing your sins and seeking God's forgiveness.  It is turning to God when your heart is broken.  Loving God with your heart and soul means seeking to please God, to honor and celebrate God and enjoy God.   The psalmist says: “Praise the Lord oh my soul.  I will praise the Lord as long as I live. I will sing praises to my God all my life long.”

Loving God with your might, your strength, is to obey God physically, yes, using your physical strength to glorify God.  I have been exercising recently at World Gym in PB.  Wow, there are some rather large intimidating dudes there, muscle bound guys and gals, who can lift enormous weight.  Their degree of physical strength is amazing. 

But this command also includes mental strength.  And sometimes life requires more mental strength than physical strength.  It means to learn to love God not only when your strong, but when your weak.  It means to love and trust God not only when life is good, but in times of disappointment, unrealized expectations, illness, discouragement, set-backs or even in crisis.  The threat which we all must deal with is giving up in despair. For in such times we need sheer spiritual and mental strength more than ever?  Loving God with all our might, our strength is critical.

Loving God with your mind means using your intellect in your relationship with God.  Faith is more than feeling, it is also an intellectual journey, a quest.  You are committed to learning, to studying the scriptures and the Christian faith.  You ask questions. You seek answers.  You seek understanding about your theology, the beliefs, truths, and tenents of your faith.   You are not afraid to wrestle with the moral dilemma's and tough questions about life in relation to your faith in God.   Loving with your mind is striving to integrate your faith into your life.    C.S.Lewis writes: “God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers.  If you are thinking of becoming a Christian, I warn you that you are embarking on something which is going to take the whole of you, brains and all.”     

Some contemporary critics think Christianity or any religion is for the simple minded, a crutch for people who don’t think for themselves, for mentally weak people who want to be spoon-fed religious nonsense.  Loving God meants to use our minds to seek to know the nature and will of God and the mind of Christ.  God wants us to love him with our our thinking, with seeking understanding, with our questions, and with reflecting upon our experience in life in light of our faith.

What does God want from us?  I close with these words from C.S.Lewis. “When I have learned to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now.  Insofar as I learn to love my earthly dearest at the expense of God and instead of God, I shall be moving towards the state in which I shall not love my earthly dearest at all. When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.”   Amen!