Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Lessons from the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel


A young Christian man writes:  “While auditioning for my church's Christmas pageant years ago, I had the good fortune to be chosen as the narrator.  Each rehearsal went off smoothly and I was confident when it came time for the pageant.  At a certain point in the drama, I said in a loud voice:  “And the kings brought gifts to the baby Jesus, gold, Frankenstein and myrrh.”

I recall a cartoon of the nativity which pictured three women standing near the manger.  The caption read:  “After the three wise men left, three wiser women arrived each presenting a gift to the baby Jesus.  Fresh diapers, casseroles for a week, and lots of formula.”
Which takes us to the story of the Magi.  Are there lessons the Magi can teach us?  The Magi were guided by a celestial body, which according to the star-gazers in their day meant that a special birth, the birth of a king, the King of the Jews, was coming into the world.  So they packed their suitcases, said good-bye to their families, climbed upon their camels, and set out on an adventure to find this king.    Yes, it was a modern day road trip.

I think this story captures our imagination, because it's a reminder that all of us are on a quest, a journey which we call life.  Magi were Wisemen, Astrologers, or Magicians from the east.  The East in this context has traditionally been identified as Persia, modern day Iran.  The arrival of the wise men in Jerusalem signified that this astonishing birth was inclusive, intended not only Jews, but Gentiles, non-Jews, represented by the Magi.

The presence of magi confirmed that God sent Jesus not just to be the savior of Israel, but that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, God’s anointed one for the whole world.  Centuries earlier we hear the prophecy of the prophet Isaiah: “Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

The Magi followed a star.  The story reminds us right off, that people follow all kinds of things in life don't they?   Some things, like stars, are positive, good, inspiring, and beneficial.  There are stars that help our lives to grow and others' lives to grow.  There are stars that lead to meaning, joy and fulfillment.  There are stars that contribute to society, e.g. worthwhile causes, careers, family, medical research, military service, and spirituality.  Other people follow things that aren't stars, but follow them anyway.  Things that are dumb, foolish, worthless, harmful or trivial, like trouble, materialism, radical ideologies, pleasure, greed, crime, using and exploiting people for personal gain, hurting others, and the god of money and wealth.

I remember a conversation with a man when I was pastor in Colorado who had followed his love for gambling for many years.  He told me he once had a family, a job and a home.  But over the years, his love for gambling became an addiction and caused him to lose everything.  When I met him he had come a long way back from the bottom.  He had become a Christian, was no longer gambling, was dating a woman, was trying to re-connect with his children and had started a new career.

We all have the opportunity to follow stars or things.  It's critical to distinguish between them, because what we follow makes all the difference in our lives.  Choosing wisely is crucial.  What are you following?

The story of the magi further reminds us that God sends stars into our lives.  Now please don't be too literal here.  Think symbolically.  I'm not picturing a celestial body hovering over your head while you are walking in your home or walking around outside.  God can use anything as a star to get our attention and to guide us according to His plan.  God can turn anything or make anything into a star; we are after all talking about God.  God sends stars to us in order to fulfill His purpose for our lives.

I think of a pastor friend in Los Angeles who saw a star or sensed God's call to get personally involved in the tough neighborhood around his church.  He started playing pick-up basketball, in parks in his community and befriended a number of troubled youths who were involved in illegal drugs and violence in the neighborhood.  God used this pastor's faith, his personality, his athletic ability, his presence to help steer many young men away from trouble, or prison or death on the streets and into productive lives.  He led many to come to faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord.  Yes, God sends stars into our lives and can even use us as a star to guide others, to inspire others, to point others to the glory of Christ.

I further believe the Magi story reminds us that in following stars we must persevere.   Just because God set's a star before us, and we have a clear direction, a path, a call to follow, doesn't mean the journey will be easy or comfortable or stress-free or risk-free.

Clearly the journey the Magi took involved suffering, sacrifice, discomfort, and struggle.  The distance from Iran to Israel is well over a thousand miles.   To make that trip, crossing deserts by camel would have pushed one’s inner-strength to the extreme.  They would have faced untold hardships.  But these Magi persevered, they didn’t give up, they endured the journey, battling the elements in their quest to find the promised king.

Their story reminds us about what’s involved in truly following Jesus.  It means at times we must persevere and endure hardship, and remain faithful, amid difficult circumstances.  Why, because Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior is worthy of such faith and endurance.  Why, because God’s purposes for our lives matter.  God’s purposes are worth persevering after.

I think of valiant people in the Bible, men and women of faith, who battled on amid adversity like Ruth and Esther, and Micah, and Elijah, and Mary Magdalene, and Joseph and John and Timothy and the Apostle Paul.

In the letter of Hebrews we read:  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.  And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”   In the letter of I Timothy we read: “Fight the good fight of the faith; pursue righteousness, faith, love, endurance.”

Christ calls us to persevere, to carry on and that includes every aspect of our being.  It includes our intellect, our emotions, and our soul; the intellectual, emotional, spiritual and physical aspects of our being, for sometimes we are plagued with questions and doubts, or we are downcast emotionally or spiritually exhausted.  Sometimes we are physically drained.  This is where prayer, getting down on your knees and going to God in prayer, is so essential.

Hardship doesn't mean you have mistakenly followed a star that you thought God had placed before you.  It doesn't mean that you are following the wrong star.  It doesn't mean God is punishing you because you aren't following in the manner God expects you to or in accord with God's timetable.

This is where we Christians sometimes misread God's plans and purposes for their lives.  In fact just the opposite can be true.  If the journey is too easy, too comfortable, you just may not be following the star, the path, the destination which God has in mind for you.   It is clear in scripture and in the lives of Christians today, in this nation and around the world, that following stars takes faith, determination, courage and a thankful heart for the privilege of God sending stars into our lives.

The author Fleming Rutledge writes: “As our life of thanksgiving deepens, we discover that the more mature prayers of thanksgiving are not only those offered for obvious blessings, but those spoken in gratitude for obstacles overcome, for insights gained, for lessons learned, for increased humility, for help received in time of need, for strength to persevere, for opportunities to serve others.”

My friends trust this, when God sends a star to you He will lead you.  The Magi traveled along their route with a sense of direction in mind.  They could not predict where the journey might take them, or what fortunes or disappointments they would encounter, or what detours they might unwittingly take, but they trusted the star to lead them to where God wanted them to go, Bethlehem, to where they could worship the king.

It’s been said: “The future is an opportunity yet unmet, a path yet untraveled, a life yet unlived.  The direction we take now, determines where we will end up in the future.”   When you aren’t sure which way to turn, what decision to make, or what you should do, remember and rely upon Jesus’ promise “I am the way.”   And fall down on your knees and pray.

I have spoken to many believers over the years who have told me about the guidance and direction God has given to them.  I too am personally thankful for the stars God has placed before my life, which have led me and have been a guiding light for my path, my walk, my journey.  Yes, I think the Magi have lessons to teach us after all.

Proverbs says: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, do not rely on your own insight, in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”  Amen.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

God Became Human (John 1:1-18) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

I don't know if you've heard the news, your probably not aware of it, since the movie has received such little hype in the media, but the movie Stars Wars opened in theaters on Friday.  Star Wars, the Force Awakens, Episode 7.   Yes, “long ago, in a galaxy far away.”   No, I haven't seen it yet, I may be the only one on the planet who hasn't.  It has a huge cult following like no other movie series.  I remember when Nancy and I were driving along highway 1 in Santa Barbara earlier this year and we saw a storm trooper walking along the highway.  Our son Eric and our grandson Wyatt both have storm trooper costumes.

Pop culture has long employed a concept called King or Queen Incognito, where in film and books you run into an apparently nondescript and unimportant character like a beggar, and later discover that this person is someone of great fame and power, like a king or queen or powerful wizard, who has disguised himself to walk unnoticed among the common people.

In Star Wars there is such a character, Queen Amidala, the queen of the planet Naboo, who frequently disguised herself as one of her own handmaidens, and went out into public incognito, in order to walk among the populace and fulfill her mission of liberating her planet from the evil Federation.

Christmas dares to make this astonishing claim: God, the king of kings, came among us in human form. This humble birth of a baby named Jesus, born in a tiny town called Bethlehem, is in reality the incarnation of God, the ruler of the universe Christmas announces that in this baby's birth, God appeared in a human body. God was in Jesus. God came to the town of Bethlehem and that meant God entered our neighborhood, our world. C.S. Lewis wrote in his Chronicles of Narnia:   “A stable once had something in it bigger than the whole world.”

Why is this Christian truth-claim revolutionary? Humans have long been plagued with a haunting question – “Am I alone in this vast universe?  Am I merely a fleeting spark in a dark abyss?”  Is this world impersonal, capricious, devoid of some core principle or power which unites, sustains and directs it?

Christmas declares that an eternal light has broken into the darkness of the world. John says:  “In Christ was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” Christmas is Christianity's answer to these existential questions.  In Jesus, God has made himself, his character, his heart, his mind, his voice, his nature known to the world.  Christmas proclaims that you and I are not alone. “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.

Some people today see Christmas as a fairytale, like the brother's Grimm fairy tales, remember those stories, Snow White, Rapunzel, the Frog Prince.  They view Christmas as a sentimental tale about a poor peasant family giving birth to a baby surrounded by angels, animals, shepherds and kings.  But is is just a romantic story.  The Christian faith strongly disagrees.  I strongly disagree.  Christmas is based upon a historical event.  It is based upon a unique and joyous and astonishing birth.  An ordinary and humble birth of the king of kings and lord of lords, which occurred in a world of Caesar's and Herod’s and Pilates, and a Jewish people under the power of the Roman Empire.

Christmas announces that Jesus is truly God, very God, fully God.    In the Gospel of John we read:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.”  The letter of Colossians says it succinctly: “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 states:  “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.”   And our Gospel writer John says:  “No one has ever seen God, it is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known.”   So on the one hand, Jesus' is God’s self-communication, God’s self-revelation, Immanuel, God is with us.

But paradoxically, Christmas also declares the exact opposite, Jesus was a human being.  Jesus was fully and truly human.   God entered the world as a fragile and helpless baby.  The letter of Hebrews says:  “Since God’s children share flesh and blood, Jesus likewise shared the same things.   For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect was tested as we are, yet without sin.”  Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary.  Jesus was human, born of a woman like you and I are born. No, the story of Jesus' birth is no fairytale.

Yes, for some today it’s a scandalous claim. The Jews considered it blasphemy, an unforgiveable insult and offense to God because God is Spirit, not flesh and blood.  They also called it idolatry.  How can one say a man named Jesus is at the same time God and worship Him as such.  Some unbelievers today despise Christmas and argue that it’s a myth, a fallacy, a lie and put their energies into trying to eradicate Christmas from our culture.

We Christians declare this truth: in Jesus of Nazareth, God and humanity are united in one personal existence. We also acknowledge that this truth is a mystery. Ultimately, comprehending it lies beyond our mind's ability to fully grasp it.   We recognize that our minds are limited in our capacity to fully understand the incarnation.

Is the controversial debate about Jesus today surprising?  No.  Jesus was born into controversy 2000 years ago and that controversy continues today.  But on the other hand let us never forget that the celebration of the birthday of Jesus also continues to be honored and observed by 2.2 billion Christians around the world today.  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 as Immanuel, God with us, God one of us.

Why did God enter into the world in Jesus?  To fulfill His messianic promise which the prophets declared that the messiah, God's anointed one, would come to the world. To send a savior to bring salvation from our sins, to establish His Kingdom, to open up for us the heart and character of God, to show us who God is, to allow us to see God and know God, to demonstrate God's love for the world, to come into your life and my life.   

God is so passionate about human beings that He was willing to reach out to humanity by coming personally. God chose to bend down to our level, like an adult bends down to speak to a child face to face.  God became Immanuel, "God with us," so we might spend eternity with him.

The distinguished 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 close with this story about a Roman Catholic priest named Father Damien.  For 16 years, in the late 1870’s and 80’s he dedicated his life to serving lepers.  He moved to a village on the island of Molokai, Hawaii that had been quarantined to serve as a leper colony.  He lived among them.  He learned to speak their language, he ate with them, he bandaged their wounds, he embraced the bodies no one else would touch, he preached to hearts that would otherwise have been left alone.  He organized schools and choirs.  He built homes so that the lepers could have shelter. He built coffins by hand so that, when they died, they could be buried with dignity. Slowly, it was said, the village became a place to live rather than only a place to die, for Father Damien offered God’s love and acceptance and affirmation.

Father Damien was not careful about keeping his distance. He was close to them.  He did nothing to separate himself from these people. He dipped his fingers in the poi bowl along with them. He shared his pipe. He did not always wash his hands after bandaging open sores.  For this, the people loved him.  Then one day he stood up and began his sermon with two words: "We lepers…." Now he wasn't just helping them. Now he was one of them.”

And the word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born not of blood or the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God."

Let us prepare to celebrate Jesus’ coming into our lives through faith, and to witness by our words and deeds to the Savior of the world.  Amen!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Prepare the Way of the Lord (John 1:1-9,19-23) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel


A pastor tells the story about a time he was preparing his sermon during Advent.  His 5 year old daughter approached him and said, "Daddy, can we play?"  He answered, "I'm sorry, Sweetheart, but I'm right in the middle of writing my sermon.  In about an hour I can play."  “But daddy, you always say that, are you sure?”  “Yes,” he replied.  "Okay, she said, when you're finished, Daddy, I am going to give you a great big hug."  She ran to the door and then did a U-turn and came back and gave him a bone-breaking hug.  The pastor said, "Darling, you said you were going to give me a hug after I finished."  She answered, "Yes Daddy, but I just wanted to help you prepare faster.”

What is the message of Advent?  “The Lord is coming, let every heart prepare Him room and heaven and nature sing.”  Today the spotlight shines on John the Baptist.  Why John?  He seems more like a Grinch rather than one who represents the true spirit of Christmas.   But John keeps showing up in this season whether we like it or not.

Our lesson from the Gospel of John says:  “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light, the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

John was the quintessential prophet.  He looked like one, he acted like one, he sounded like one, he dressed like one and he smelled like one.   A common reaction today to John is: “What a kill-joy.  I’m stressed already at Christmas, I'm busy enough this time of year, you mean I have to repent too?”  “John is very un-Christmas like.” Would you like to invite John over to your home and spend an evening with him?

John’s presence that day fulfilled the age-old prophecy from the prophet Isaiah: “See I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.”  God sent John to get people ready for the Lord’s appearing.

The Jewish leaders asked John – “Who are you?”   John first told them who he wasn't; “I am not the Messiah, let's make that perfectly clear.”  They asked again.  John replied:  “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.”   John didn't give a name.  Instead, he said:  “I am the voice of another.”  In other words: “It’s not important who I am, it’s not about me, I am a disembodied voice.”  “It’s all about the one who is coming after me.”   God called John to be the forerunner, the herald, the messenger, to witness of the coming Savior of the world.   John was sent to set the stage.

Think of the crowds that turned out to see him.  Yes, some were curiosity seekers, others undoubtedly came to mock him, but many came because they were discontented with their lives.  They were spiritually hungry, they felt a spiritual void, an emptiness, an inner-longing, they wanted to change their lives and get right with God.   They were seeking forgiveness and purpose, hope and joy.  Isn’t that true for some, perhaps many people today?

Advent is a time to get ready for the coming celebration of the birth of Jesus at many levels.  How will you prepare yourself?  There are practical ways of preparing the way.  We host friends and family in our homes and prepare special meals and activities.  We decorate our homes and churches, like we have here at PBPC and even some cities and communities in our nation still decorate for Christmas.  We buy gifts; send cards.  Parents plan Advent activities for their children.   We donate to special charities to help the poor this time of year.  We continue the cultural debate about whether our commercialism has crowded out Jesus' birth at Christmas or whether there is still room in the inn of our of hearts, our homes and our communities.

Further, there are spiritual ways to prepare the way.  John the Baptist challenged people to be spiritually vulnerable, to open themselves to God, to turn away from their sins, to turn from their pride and self-deceptions.  God sent John to disturb consciences, to awaken a spiritual need, to expose the darkness in people’s lives, to free us from self-centeredness, to shake folks up.  John called people to repent and re-dedicate their lives to God.  John called people to trust in God for forgiveness and peace.   Spiritual ways include coming to worship services, reading advent and Christmas stories in the Bible, engaging in prayer.

If you don’t prepare spiritually, if you get lost in busyness, the time from now through Christmas will pass by with no special significance, no special meaning, no special joy.  It will be like any other month.   You will miss being surprised by God’s grace this season.

Finally, there are witnessing ways to prepare for the Lord.  When John the Baptist shouted prepare the way of the Lord, he was serving as God's announcer, forerunner, herald, messenger, and witness to prepare others for the coming of the Messiah.   Announcers are important aren't they?

We need people who will prepare the way for us, blaze a trail, go before us, set the scene, open doors of opportunity, pave the way, lay a foundation.   I think of Dick Enberg, the television announcer for the SD Padres.  I also think of special people who have paved the way in my life over the years.

To whom is God calling you to be an announcer, a herald, a witness?  To whom is God calling you to prepare the way of the Lord?  For example a neighbor, a colleague, a cousin, a family member, a friend?  Whom has God laid on your heart this season?

I think of a famous composer whom God called to be a messenger of the lord - George Frederick Handel.   He spent most of his life in London, England.  The story is told about how this aging composer, wandered the lonely streets of London, night after night, in hopeless despair.  Only memories of his past glory, when the brilliant man was touted by the court society of London and Europe remained with him.  It seemed as if his genius had deserted him.  Once the favorite of kings and queens, he had been forced into bankruptcy and had become a pauper.

One bitterly cold morning during the winter of 1741, Handel returned to his lodging, to find a thick package on the table.  It contained a text made up of scripture verses from the opera writer, Charles Jennens.  Dazed by cold and hunger, Handel leafed through the pages and the words from the prophet Isaiah caught his attention.

Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, says the Lord.  Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall call his name Emmanuel, God with us.  The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.  For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace. I know that my Redeemer liveth and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth - King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.  Hallelujah.”    The words burned into his soul.   He began composing the music to the immortal oratorio, the Messiah.  For two weeks he labored incessantly, until it was finished.

God used Handel as His herald, his forerunner, his witness.  Nearly, three centuries have passed and people are still thrilled by the music of the Messiah and by the inspiration of a man whose faith, creative energies and talents God used to announce the coming of the way of the Lord to new generations.

We live in a world where there is joy and light and love and yet, at the same time, a world racked with uncertainty, violence, and darkness and we need during Advent, to focus our hearts and minds upon the one whom God sent to save us.  May God use us today, like God used John long ago, to help people get ready for the coming of the Lord.     Pray for God to prepare you in surprising ways this Advent and Christmas season.   Amen!

Friday, December 11, 2015

But About that Day or that Hour! (Mark 13:32-37) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Long after the sun had set on this year's Boston Marathon, the official clock turned off, and the crowds had all but gone home, 39 year old Venezuelan, Maickel Melamed crossed the finish line around 4 A.M.  It was 20 hours after the race began. What made Maickel's race significant is that he suffers from muscular dystrophy, which meant he didn't so much run the race as walk it. In reflecting on his accomplishment, Maickel stated: "In any marathon, you have to know why you're doing it.  Because in the last mile, the marathon will ask you."  Maickel's motivation was to honor Boston Children's Hospital where he was treated as a child.

The New Testament compares the Christian life to a race, much like a marathon.  It's a race which requires perseverance and endurance.  In those times of struggle in life's race, we need to know why we are running and for whom we are running.  For believers, Christ is the one we look to; the one we run to, the one we run for.  Christ's impending return at the end of the race motivates us to keep going.

Yes in life we often find ourselves waiting for something.  For example, military spouses and their children wait for their husbands and fathers, wives and mothers, to return from deployment.   Sometimes we are impatient and excited and can't wait for something to happen.  Sometimes we await with patient optimism and hope.  Other times we are fearful and anxious, are pessimistic and gloomy.   How do you look to the future?

Today is the first Sunday in the season of Advent.   Advent looks forward to a bright new day. Advent is about the future, and that coming future may be much nearer than we can imagine.  Advent  declares a powerful truth -  the future of this world does not belong to the devil, to sinful human beings, to evil, to any political system, to any nation, to any dictator, or to radical terrorist groups.  No.   Advent declares this truth, the future belongs solely to God.

What does the Bible say about the future?  Christ is coming! Jesus is coming!   A biblical word which captures the spirit of Advent and which ought to be in our Christian vocabulary is Maranatha!  It is an Aramaic word.  It means “Come Lord” or “Our Lord, Comes”.  It is both a prayer and an affirmation of faith which Christians down through the ages have held on to.  “Maranatha, come Lord, our Lord comes.”   I'm sure you appreciate being able to leave church today knowing how to speak some Aramaic.

Jesus said: Watch the coming future with confidence, with hope, with assurance, wait with patience!   Jesus said watch out for false prophets, but he also said watch for the coming of the Son of Man.  Jesus also said watch out for wars, famines, pestilences, and natural disasters, but he also said wait for a beautiful new day.

Sometimes I gaze out at our world and fear grips me.  How about you? I wonder how will it all end?   We look with fear, with anxiety, sometimes even with despair about tomorrow.   But as people of faith, we need to remember who holds the future, whom the future belongs to, and whose plans and purpose will ultimately prevail.

I believe in the truth of the advent of Jesus.   Why?  Because Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the world, the Word incarnate proclaimed it!  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 slaves in charge, each with his work and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.  Keep awake, 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.”

I believe because this truth is attested to in the Bible which is the unique, authoritative and inspired Word of God!   We read in the N.T. In II Timothy:  “The sacred writings are to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient equipped for every good work.”  Many chapters and books of the Bible are devoted to this promise of Christ's final coming and bringing the world to an end.

Third, I believe because the Biblical and Christian understanding of history promises it!   The ancient Greeks believed that the world was eternal, it always existed, there was no beginning or end.   Conversely, our Judeo/Christian tradition declares that only God is eternal.  That before God created the universe, there was only emptiness.  There was no cosmos, no matter, no organisms, no gases, no chemicals, no protozoans, no cells, no atoms, no energy, no life.

Our Judeo/Christian tradition and the scriptures declare that God created the world out of nothing.   The world is moving toward an end time, to the destination which the sovereign God has appointed, when God’s final purpose for His world will be realized.   Life is not meaningless, but meaningful, life is not without any purpose, but has a purpose, life is not aimless, but has a destination.   There is one divine, far-off event toward which the whole creation is moving; the final triumph of God over sin and evil.

Fourth, I believe because the bible promises that the day is coming when justice shall reign.   The injustice we witness today is an outrage.  We see horrific acts of injustice by governments, by dictators, by radical Islamic terrorists, by murderers, where innocent people suffer and die, where people are oppressed and persecuted.

We long for justice in our hearts, but that longing eludes us.  Author N. T. Wright in his book "Putting the World to Rights" tells this story:  I had a dream the other night, a powerful and interesting dream. And the really frustrating thing is that I can't remember all that it was about. I had a flash of it as I woke up, enough to make me think how extraordinary and meaningful it was; and then it was gone… Our passion for justice often seems like that. We dream the dream of justice. We glimpse, for a moment, a world at one, a world put to rights, a world where things work out, where societies function fairly and efficiently…and then we wake up and come back to reality.

The Bible says - Do not despair!  God is holy.  God is sovereign. God is righteous. There will be an accounting, a day of reckoning, a day of justice.  You reap what you sow.   In the O.T. The prophet Amos cries out:  “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”  The prophet Micah preaches:  “God has told you O man 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.”

Jesus’ judgment will be a universal, over all the living and the dead.  God will judge humanity’s behavior, good and bad, moral and immoral, righteous and unrighteous.  God will judge how much light humanity has about God and morality and what we have done with that faith and knowledge.   And unlike our imperfect judicial system, which is flawed, God’s judgment is perfect.

In the N.T. The books of Acts says:  "God has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead."   Jesus will be the judge.

Finally, I believe in Christ’s coming because God loves His creation. God is a loving God, a forgiving God, a merciful God, slow to anger.     God loves the world and the people he created.   God will judge the world and purge the world, but God will not destroy it, God will not annihilate it.  I believe contemporary preachers of only doom and gloom are wrong.   God will renew the world. God will set the world right. God will restore the world. God will re-create a new and glorious world.  At Christ's return, the world as we know it will come to an end, and in its place, a new and transformed universe will be established forever.

Advent means you must keep watch and remember why you are running.  A few weeks ago we had our 2 &1/2 year old grandson Wyatt at our house for a few days.  He sleeps in his own room.   One early morning, about 5:30, I felt something brush against my cheek.  I was still half asleep.  I started to dose off and I felt something brush against my nose.  I started to wake up and opened my eyes.  Wyatt had his face about an inch from mine, was gently touching my face with his finger and said -” Wake up grandpa.”

Yes, wake up to the Advent of Jesus.  Jesus is coming.   But about that day or that hour no one knows, only God.  May we wait with hope, with confidence, with courage, with strength, with faith, because Jesus' return may be much sooner than we expect.   It may be tomorrow.  And when Jesus returns, a new indescribable, unimaginable, and spectacular world will be established forever.

I close with our Lord's inspiring vision from the Book of Revelation:   See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone's work.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.  The home of God is among mortals, God will dwell with them as their God, they will be his peoples and God himself will be with them.” Amen!

Friday, October 30, 2015

Joyful Hearts (II Chronicles 7:1-10; Philippians 4:4) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

There is a story about a young pastor of a strict fundamentalist church in the south,  who was preparing for Sunday morning worship.  It was a severely cold winter morning.   He discovered that an overnight snowfall had made the road to church impassable, so he decided to skate down the river to church on the ice.  He arrived just in time for the worship service, but he faced the church elders' disapproval, because he had participated in a sporting activity on the Sabbath.

After being questioned by the church leaders, the pastor was finally allowed into the pulpit.  Why?  Because the pastor had assured the elders in no uncertain terms, that though he had skated on the Sabbath, he had not enjoyed it.

When do you feel joy?  Where do you feel joy?  Is joy a part of the Christian Life?  Is there joy in following Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?

I believe the answer is yes!  Because at the core of the Christian faith is the gospel, the good news, glad tidings.  Good news is at the heart of the Christian religion.   Jesus at the beginning of His ministry preaches:  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.”

That's why we experience joy in our faith in God.  This is glorious news.   The God of creation, the author of life, is for us and not against us.   God is not an impersonal, capricious and hostile force, but a personal being, and God's sacrificial love , enlivens and transforms .  God's salvation, God's saving love in Jesus is astonishing news.

Recall some upbeat praises from Scripture:  “Make a joyful noise all the lands, serve the Lord with gladness, come into his presence with singing.”  “This is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” “Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise him.”  “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances.”  The apostle Paul was in a prison cell in Rome, when he wrote:  “Rejoice in the Lord, always, again I say Rejoice.”  Now what is that all about?  How is that even possible in prison?

In our O.T. Lesson we find ourselves at a spectacular event, the dedication of the temple built by King Solomon.   He organizes a national festival and offers sacrifices to God on behalf of the people of Israel.    And after seven days of celebration, we read:  “Solomon sent the people away to their homes, joyful and in good spirits, because of the goodness that the Lord had shown to David and to Solomon and to his people Israel.”

Yes, the people knew that the reason this temple was being dedicated, was because God had made it possible.  The Jews were filled with joy because of the goodness that the Lord has shown them.  Joy arises when we know, when we recognize, when we praise God for His goodness.

Joy is a response to God's goodness in our lives.   Are we speaking of escapist joy, a joy which pretends that there is no tragedy or suffering, no disappointment or failure in life?  Or a joy that depends upon our circumstances, that everything around us must be perfect?  No.  Mother Teresa speaks of deep joy in her ministry of mercy to the poorest of the poor on the streets of Calcutta.

Joy is the assurance that sadness, tragedy is not the last word.   Joy means that the resurrected Savior holds out his hand and offers a new beginning for every disappointment in life.   We can rejoice even in a world where there is pain as well as happiness.  The late author Lewis Smedes writes:  “Joy is the feeling that it is all-right with us, even when everything seems all-wrong.”

Joy is a gift to faith from God's Spirit.  It is an aspect, a dimension of faith, that comes from the Holy Spirit.   Joy arises when we experience Christ's promises fulfilled.  Joy is heartfelt delight, gladness in God.   Joy comes when we experience the awe-inspiring presence of God, that is, when we encounter God.  Joy is that realization in your heart that you truly belong to God, today and forever.    Joy is knowing that our salvation is God's gift of grace.  Christ has made us acceptable before God and clothed us in righteousness so we can indeed stand before the holy God.  Joy is any moment which opens our eyes and ears, hearts and minds are open to the amazing surprises of God.

Joy means we do not have to look to the future with dread, or with a tragic sense that we will never see our loved ones again, because we live with the knowledge that the future belongs to God and that the victory has already been won, the assurance of resurrection and a destiny in glory.  The joy of faith is a foretaste today, of the eternal joy to come, when Christ's welcomes us into His eternal Kingdom.

I think these are amazing words from Jesus when he says:  “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”   The joy we experience is the joy which enters our hearts through the Spirit at our conversion.

But there is more.   We experience spiritual joy not only from encountering God and hearing and accepting God's good news, God's word of forgiveness, love and acceptance,  but further, joy comes in generously sharing that gospel, in embodying that gospel, and reaching out with that good news, by the power and grace of God in the world.  Is that possible?

There was a front-page article in the San Francisco Chronicle about a metro-transit operator named Linda Wilson-Allen. She loves the people who ride her bus, learns their names, waits for them if they're late and makes up the time later on her route.  A woman in her eighties named Ivy had some heavy grocery bags and was struggling with them. So Linda got out of her seat to carry Ivy's grocery bags onto the bus. Now Ivy lets other buses pass her stop so she can ride on Linda's bus.

Linda saw a woman in a bus shelter. She could tell the woman was new to the area and she was lost. It was almost Thanksgiving, so Linda said: "You're out here all by yourself. You don't know anybody. Come on over for Thanksgiving and kick it with me and the kids." Now they're friends.  Linda has built a little community of blessing on that bus. They bring her potted plants and floral bouquets. When people found out she likes to wear scarves to accessorize her uniforms, they started giving them as presents to Linda.

Driving a bus can look like a thankless job: cranky passengers, engine breakdowns, traffic jams, gum on the seats.  How does Linda have this attitude? "Her mood is set at 2:30 A.M. each morning when she gets down on her knees to pray for 30 minutes. There is a lot to talk about with the Lord,' says Linda, a member of Glad Tidings Church in Hayward. When she gets to the end of her line, she always says,That's all. I love you. Take care.’  People wonder, Where can I find the Kingdom of God? I will tell you where. You can find it on the #45 bus riding through San Francisco, behind the wheel of a metro transit vehicle.”

God in Jesus brings joy to our hearts and Christ calls us to share our Joyful Hearts, which is our stewardship theme for this coming year!   I am filled with joy as I reflect upon our ministry here at PBPC.  We honor God by sharing in the work of His Kingdom through the ministries of 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 Christian faith, like we heard from their testimonies at the youth service this summer.  This program is led by  Robert Gerow and his dedicated volunteers.  And our wonderful Pre-school under the capable leadership of the director Brigitte together with her dedicated teachers.   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 our music program, the Sounds of Worship and our Chancel Choir, under the talented leadership of Esther Jordan and our organist Anne Bay.   We enjoy the music of handbells from our Crusader's and Silver Bells which enhance our worship under the leadership of Esther and Tammy McEuen.

We see God at work in our prayer and healing ministries in worship with Helen Sterling and in our congregational care ministry under the compassionate leadership of Mavis Qualsett, which brings Christ’s love to members and friends.  We offer Bible study and Christian education opportunities 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.

It is a joy as a congregation to reach out in the community as we participate in events such as Pacific beachfest and Graffiti Day dedicated to cleaning up Pacific Beach.  What a joy to see young families and children enjoying Friday Pizza and Movie Night ministry, which for over 6 years has reached families in our preschool and new families in our community including military families.

God has long blessed the community through our congregation's Sunday Night Ministry, by providing means for nearly 100 homeless people each week for over two decades under the leadership of Dolores Shoemaker.  We also serve nearly 300 homeless people through our mail service, where we provide our address and a way for homeless people to receive anything from checks from the government to personal mail from families.  I often hear people say:  “God bless you, thank you for this mail service,” as people pick up their mail under the direction of our office manager Meri Murch and the office volunteers.

I know people experience the joy of the Lord through the mission projects we support as a congregation.  We provide clothing and food, 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, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and international missionaries like Esther Wakeman in Thailand.   We are greatly blessed by your generous giving to our Endowment Fund which annually contributes money to our ministry.

God’s Spirit is among us, guiding us and empowering us and inspiring us.  It is a joy to serve and God is bringing joy to others through our service.  I want to both personally and on behalf of the elders, thank you for your generous commitment and support this year.  God's love is generous and God calls us to give generously.  We are asking for your prayerful and generous support of your time, talents and money for this coming year, as together we reach people for Christ's Kingdom.

Jesus Christ cares deeply about your life, your 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 this church, and in our community and world.  Every pledge, every donation, every gift, every offering, God honors.  Commitment Sunday is Sunday, November 8.  Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise him.  Amen!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Foundations Count (Luke 6:46-49) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

In response to the increasing number of tornadoes in the Midwest, a developer in Tulsa, Oklahoma, offered an optional steel reinforced safe room in the new homes he was selling. Nine of the first ten buyers opted to pay the extra $2,500 for the room—which can also be used as a closet, bathroom or vault when not needed for safety. The tenth couple, the developer himself and his wife, said they were 75 years old and opted for a hot tub instead.

Which brings us to our story from Luke.  This story is similar, but with some variations, to the story about the rock and sand in the Gospel of Matthew.  Jesus says foundations count, what you build upon matters, it matters a great deal.  Sound foundations are imperative.  Jesus draws this story from a natural occurrence in Israel.  In summer, many of the rivers completely dry up, leaving a sandy river bed.  A person searching for a plot of land to build a house, might see this picturesque river bed and decide to build on it.  But in winter, with the coming of the heavy rains, this person soon discovers he has constructed his home in the middle of a raging river, which sweeps the house down stream. 

A wise person searches for rock as the base, where it's more difficult to carve out a foundation, but when the torrential weather arrives, the winds blow and the rivers flood over, one’s toil is amply repaid - the house remains firm and secure.  In the final analysis it doesn't matter if your house has curb appeal, is breath-taking, exotic, palatial, a show home, if it has the Wow factor,  if its foundation is flawed.  

I think everything in life needs something firm, something dependable, something stable underneath it.  The foundation of our house, our business, our career, our marriage, our family, our friendships, our church, our faith, you fill in the blank.  A solid foundation is indispensable.   How secure, how stable, how sound are your foundations?

Intelligent and competent structural engineers who design buildings and bridges are always in demand.  Whether you are designing a house or a highrise you want to make sure that your engineer knows what he or she is doing.   When I'm driving across the spectacular Coronado Bridge, taking in that breathtaking view out over the middle of the San Diego bay, I don't want to hear that the engineer who designed it graduated at the bottom of his class, but he was a real nice guy or that the woman who designed it nearly flunked out, but was really a sweet heart. 

We Californians are quite familiar with earthquakes. When the Coalinga earthquake of 1983, with a magnitude of 6.4 occurred, many things were discovered.  One was that houses that were bolted to their foundation withstood that earthquake.  On the other hand, the houses that were built in a period when they did not bolt them to the foundation, and the horizontal earth movement occurred, the house moved maybe six or seven inches off its foundation.  And that's what caused the house to collapse.   This was a key discovery made at Coalinga; houses should be bolted into their foundation.   Do we do this in San Diego

Jesus' words apply to more than houses and bridges.   I'm speaking about building solid educational foundations, work experience foundations, financial foundations, emotional foundations, mental foundations, moral foundations, religious and spiritual foundations, physical exercise foundations, these are critical.  When our foundations begin to crack, crumble, they eventually collapse and it brings ruination in its wake.
We know that in general children growing up in abusive or in seriously dysfunctional homes, I say seriously because there is some dysfunction in all of our homes, have a tougher time of sorting out their lives, of forming their identity, of coping with their past, of establishing stable relationships, than children from healthy homes.  It certainly does not mean it's impossible, that they can't grow up to be healthy individuals, but its a harder road.     They like all of us need a solid spiritual foundation and this is what Jesus is speaking about. 

Jesus is saying come to Him, hear His words, build your life on Him, because Jesus brings God's saving love, merciful healing from past wounds, forgiveness, and hope for a new beginning.

If you have a solid foundation, you can weather the storms of life.   Logically, it should be layed before the storms come.  That is ideal.  You can't lay them in the middle of a terrifying storm.  You need to get your base solidified before the storm, so when the storm comes, you're not in crisis.  But life happens and that is not always possible.  We don't always prepare ourselves before the storms.  And Jesus understands this.  He is saying it is never too late, come to Him, hear His words and build your life on Him. 

We of course well know that storms and floods, figuratively and literally, are a part of life.  Sooner or later you and I will experience a storm.   Storms always disclose one thing; they reveal what kind of foundation you're on, they test your foundation.  In a storm you will discover whether you're faith rests on the truth and power of God or not.  There's often a huge gap between worshiping God when all is well and worshiping God when all is wrong, that is, when your faith has been tested and when your faith is untested.  If your foundation is sure, God's word and power will hold you steady.

Jesus warns us about building our lives on sand.  For example, we hear painful stories about the breakdown of the family in our society.  When I hear this I think about the truth of Jesus' words.  That American families are facing troubles is no secret.  Some even claim that the American family is in crisis.  Why?  I truly believe one key reason is because more and more American families are not concerned with building spiritual foundations.   Families find other things to do and other places to go on Sunday mornings, than to worship and praise God and to learn in Sunday school.   This change in our culture is evident when one drives to church on Sundays and sees schools and parks alive with soccer games and little league games.  I'm all for sports, please don't misunderstand me.  But on Sunday mornings?

I take Jesus' words literally, that when you neglect and ignore spirituality, when you turn your back on God and Christ, family foundations suffer and have a much harder time of coping with the storms of life.

So how do we know we are building our lives on the foundation of Christ?  Jesus answers this clearly.   He says:  “Why do you call me Lord Lord, and do not do what I tell you?”   Jesus presents a dichotomy between sand builders and rock builders.  Jesus says:  “I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and puts them into practice in contrast to the one who hears my words but does not act on them or put them into practice.”

We are not talking about a convoluted mystery in Jesus' words.  One who is building one's life on Christ shows it, exemplifies it, demonstrates it.  There is visual evidence for people to see.  People see your Christian life in action.  Others know you worship God, you serve others, perhaps in the church or the community, you share your finances, your time, your talents in Christ's name, you participate in fellowship with other believers, you witness to your faith by your words and actions, you learn and grow spiritually through prayer and bible study.   You incorporate your Christian convictions, your faith commitment, into your life-style.

One is building his or her life on the foundation of Christ who comes to Christ, hears his word, and acts on it or puts Christ's word into practice, that is, into one's everyday life.  People see that Jesus, that your faith, makes a difference in your life and is important to you.  They see that faith is a priority.

The question really is - if not Christ, then whom?   If you do not choose to trust in Christ’s
faithfulness as the starting point of your life, then what or whom do you propose to build you
life upon - money, success, hedonism?   For you and I will choose something.  That is
human nature, sooner or later we will decide to build our lives on something or someone else.  The choice is yours and mine.

Choosing to build your life on Christ is not a once in a lifetime decision.  At least that's not how I see it.  I see it as an ongoing decision.  A continual decision.  A daily decision.
It is a decision of faith.  For we know there are daily temptations which tempt us to follow another way or to commit ourselves to something or someone else.

And don't miss this point in our story; Jesus our Lord, whom we worship, is not just a fair weather Lord.   You can count on Jesus when all is not well.   The New Testament is filled with stories about Jesus being with his disciples in the midst of storms.  

I don't know what storms and floods you have faced or will face.  I do know this, Jesus is a rock, a solid foundation.  Jesus is your foundation and He is mine.  God, the father, son and Holy Spirit is the first word and  the eternal word and storms will never have the last word.

I believe this with all my heart; building your life upon Jesus enables your faith to weather the storms of life.  I believe and we affirm as Christians, that Christ is the sure Foundation.  Jesus says:  “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them...shall be like a wise man who built his house upon a rock; the rain fell, the floods came, the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.”    Amen!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Lamp to My Feet (II Tim.3:14-17; Psalm119:103-105) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

I read a story about an elderly man who was facing terminal cancer.  The man told a story about his grandfather who was a Christian.  At his wedding, many years prior, his grandfather gave him and his bride a wedding present, an expensive leather bound Bible with their names printed in gold lettering.  The man left it in the box and never opened it.  For years afterward, his grandfather kept asking if he liked the Bible.  He simply said “yes” it was fine.  Meanwhile, the box continued to collect dust.

Finally, after many years, the man grew curious enough to open the Bible.  "The joke was on me," he said.  Now I know why granddad kept asking me if I liked the Bible.  I found that he had placed a twenty-dollar bill at the beginning of the Book of Genesis and at the beginning of every book in the Bible … over thirteen hundred dollars in all.  He knew I'd never find it."  What's the moral of the story – you never know what surprises await you in the Bible.

The B-I-B-L-E - yes that’s the book for me, I stand up high with the word of God, the B-I-B-L-E.”  Have you ever heard that song?    What about: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  
Time for a pop quiz:  What does the word Bible mean?  Who wrote the Bible?  How many books are there in the Bible?  How long did it take to write the Bible?   What languages was it written in?  How is the Bible relevant to our lives?   What is the oldest book in the Bible?  Of course there are fun questions like: Who is the shortest man in the Bible?  Where is baseball mentioned in the Bible?   Who was the greatest comedian in the Bible?  How many of each species of animal did Moses take on the arc?  See me later for the answers.   

The Bible is truly an amazing book.  It’s the world’s most read book.  Nearly 5 billion copies of the Bible have been printed since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century.    No other book, not even The Lord of the Rings or The Harry Potter series, comes close to the Bible’s influence in people’s lives.  The Bible or some books of it have been translated into 2,800 languages.  Do you read the Bible?

We all know that words have power and the Bible has power because it’s God's Word.  It has the power to change lives.  The power is not that it's a magical book, but the power is in the Holy Spirit who inspired and inspires it.   God's Holy Spirit acts in and through the Bible to influence the minds and hearts of people.   If this were not true, if people were not afraid of its influence and power, if people did not think it was a dangerous book, why is the Bible banned or severly limited in countries like Afghanistan, North Korea, Saudia Arabia, Iran, Libya and numerous others today?

The Bible is a sacred record of God’s revelation in history, of God's actions, words, deeds and at the same time it’s God’s personal letter or message to you.  God has reached people over the centuries and God wants to reach you and me in the Bible.  It’s a book through which God has spoken in surprising and profound ways: inspired, comforted, encouraged and changed lives down through history.  

Is the Bible simple to understand? No.  Questions arise when you study it.  I’ve studied it for many years and still have questions.  Do believers always agree when they read and interpret the meaning of passages in the Bible?  No.  But believers do agree on the over-arching themes and truths of scripture.   Believers do agree the Bible is essential reading for the Christian life.

The Bible is a fascinating challenge and that's why churches have Bible studies.  We at PBPC have Bible studies weekly and monthly.  We come together to hear the truth of the scripture and in our times of discussion and sharing, the words of scripture become the word of God.  Must you always agree with the pastor when reading the Bible?  Is the pastor always right in interpreting a verse or passage?  Let me think about that for a moment.  That's a tough one.  Actually, the answer is no.  We hear and discern God's word together. 

I try to read the Bible from a contextual perspective, by looking at the verse or verses in relation to the whole book or to the whole Bible as a way to understand what the Bible is saying. Yes, reading the Bible takes time, effort, thought, and discipline.  But ask people who regularly read and study it and they will tell you it’s worth it.  It is well worth the energy and effort to hear God’s word.  Many Christians will readily tell you studying the Bible is central to their faith, people like Kurt Warner, Deborah Norville, Tim Teebow, Mary Lou Retton, Dave Robinson, Justin Bateman, Lee Strobel, George Foreman and the list goes on.

The Bible is still a public book.  Presidents are sworn into office and oaths in court are taken on the Bible.  Politicians and presidential candidates quote from the Bible in speeches.  Christians have struggled against secular attacks upon prayer and the Bible around the world.   Yet, the Bible continues to be a force in our culture and around the world and the Church continues its important work of translating it into new languages and distributing it to people across the globe.  

At its core the Bible is a story.  It’s the story of God’s revelation in history over some 2000 years.  It’s God’s story of creating the world and humanity and calling out and forming a people, Israel and decisively intervening in their life.  It‘s God’s story of entering our world personally in His Son Jesus Christ and bringing salvation and hope to the world.  It’s God’s story of establishing the church at Pentecost and the expansion of the church’s mission.   It is the story of God’s sovereign rule over history, over all nations, and God’s plan to bring a new heaven and earth.  It's a story about God's plan of salvation for humankind.  It’s a story of lives that were dramatically and radically changed when they encountered God.

Is the Bible great literature and poetry?  Yes.  Is it fascinating history?  Yes.  But it is far more.  It is a lens through which we see God, ourselves, the world and the future.  It is the book which inspires and strengthens faith    It is the book which we read and which reads us as we discover that we are persons created in God’s image and loved and valued, forgiven and transformed through the power of the Holy Spirit.  It’s the book which guides us in the new spiritual life God calls us to live.  It’s a book which declares our hope and assurance for life after death. 

In the Bible we meet the living God and the living God meets us, we encounter God and God encounters us.  We hear God’s commands:  “Love God with your heart, soul, strength and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.”   “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.”   We hear God’s promises: “If God is for us, who can be against us.”  “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you.”  “Cast all your anxiety upon him, for He cares about you.”  “Nothing, not yesterday, today or tomorrow, not even death itself, can separate us from the love of God.”   Those promises have lifted my soul and the soul of millions over the years.

I remember at a very low time in my life when I read and meditated upon a verse in I Timothy:  “Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called.”  It truly lifted my spirit and instilled hope.  I remember when I felt confused about where I was heading, I didn't know which path to follow and I read: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, do not rely on your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”  And God did fulfill his promise and made straight my paths.

In reading, you may feel convicted to repent and turn away from some sin or destructive habit.  Or you may hear a forgiving and reassuring word like:  “Lo, I am with you always,”    “Come unto me, all you who labor and are over-burdened and I will give you rest,” and “The Lord is my shepherd, He leads me beside still waters, He restores my soul.”  I have felt my soul restored from reading scripture.  How about you?

The Bible tells us its purpose.  In II Timothy we read:  “The sacred writings are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus!”  The Gospel of John says: “But these words were written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing, you may have life in his name.”    In Romans we read:  “All scripture is inspired by God, and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

The Greek word translated “inspired” literally means “God-breathed.”  The Bible is on the one hand a human book, written by human beings in a cultural context, in the Jewish, Greek and Roman cultures.  But at the same time it’s a divinely inspired book, the story-tellers, poets and writers were inspired by God.

Scripture is useful for teaching, teaching truth about God, faith and salvation, Israel and the church, human nature, sin, morality, values, justice, good and evil, Jesus, the future and life’s meaning and purpose.

It’s useful for reproof, for convincing you or me of the error of our ways and for pointing us to the right way.

It’s useful for correction, for testing other beliefs, ideas, teachings, precepts, and philosophies against the teaching of the Bible.   Many competing and conflicting voices vie for your and my loyalty and allegiance today.  The Bible has power to bring clarity amidst the cultural confusion.

It’s useful for training in righteousness, that is, for shaping our minds and hearts, our thinking and feeling, actions and behavior, for forming us morally, that we might become loving, compassionate, caring, good, faithful people.

You must read the Bible in a spirit of faith and prayer, and when you do, God’s Holy Spirit inspires you today as well.  The purpose of the Bible is to bring us to faith in Christ, inspire and empower us to mature in Christ, and guide our lives as Christ's witnesses along our spiritual journey.  We study the Bible to make ourselves useful to God.

There are many other devotional books out there that can be helpful to our spiritual life.  But they should never be become substitutes for the Bible itself.  Amy Carmichael wrote: “Never let good books about the Bible, take the place of the Bible.  Drink from the Well, not from the streams that flow from the Well.”

Our Christian faith says: “The Bible is the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ and God’s word to you.  No other sacred writing, according to our Christian faith, has the authority and power as does the Bible.

I urge you, I challenge you, to read the Bible if you are not doing so.  I invite and encourage you to join one of our Bible studies.   You may feel a little intimidated about joining a Bible study.  I assure you that you will not be embarrassed.  You will be welcomed and you will learn and grow in your faith. I close with the words of the psalmist:  God’s word is: “A lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.   Amen!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Blessed are the Peacemakers (Matthew 5:9) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

In a baseball game, when tempers flare and a fight breaks out, it's an American tradition that players and coaches clear the benches and rally to support their teammates. You do not want to be seen sitting alone on the bench with all your teammates out fighting on the field.  That would surely bring an early end to your career.  

One Christian who played for the Seattle Mariners explained how he dealt with such bench-clearing brawls.  He writes:  “When a fight was imminent, I would scan the opponents' bench for a friend or a former teammate. When the fight erupted, I would bolt from the dugout and race toward my selected friend, grabbing him by the jersey and saying, ‘If you don't hurt me, I won't hurt you.’  We would clench, fall to the ground and do our best acting job of fighting.  In the end, we would appear manly, supported our team members and avoided getting hurt or hurting anyone.” Smart idea, but I'm not sure this is exactly what Jesus had in mind when he said, "Blessed are the peacemakers."

On this World Communion Sunday, we celebrate our membership in the One Holy Catholic Church, the world-wide Christian family, with over 2 billion other Christian believers.  We affirm our unity with our Christian brothers and sisters around the globe.  Yes, we Protestants acknowledge some theological and organizational differences with other members of the Christian family, but we also respect and listen to and pray for Pope Francis, the 266th Pope, the Holy See of the Roman Catholic Church.  We trust that God will use him with all of his spiritual influence over millions of believers to further the work of God's Kingdom on earth.

Today Christians focus on our common faith: our faith in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and one Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and one Church, the body of Christ, and one baptism, the sign of forgiveness and admission into the church, and one Lord's Supper, the sign of Christ's atoning sacrifice and continued power and presence and in one mission to love our neighbors and reach unbelievers for the gospel of Jesus Christ.

A central theme of World Communion Sunday is Jesus’ call to his followers to be peacemakers.  Jesus declares: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”  It is a high calling, a holy calling, a sacred calling, a noble calling.

What is a peacemaker?  A person, group, or government that strives to make peace by reconciling parties who disagree, quarrel or fight.  It's one thing to know how to define it.  It's quite another thing to roll up one's sleeves and enter into the messy work of peacemaking.  Today we ask: Is it my calling?  Is it your calling?

Without question, peacemaking is complicated and difficult.  Its a risky and sometimes dangerous calling.   Although you can always count on one thing, there's no shortage of opportunities to be a peacemaker.  There are lots of job openings.  Have you noticed?

Why?  Conflict, division, dissension, discord appears to be ubiquitous.  In our cities and towns, in government, in politics between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, who blame each other for the economy's ills, or violence in our communities, or global terrorism, or immigration, or failed foreign relations.  We see tragic violence in schools, like last week's tragic shooting in a community college in Roseburg, Oregon or we point to workplace violence.   We see conflict in families and even in the courts.

For example, recently a brawl broke out in a Florida courtroom.  No, not between the defendant and a bailiff, as you might expect, but between a judge and a public defender. Video footage shows the judge, John Murphy, instigating the fight with public defender Andrew Weinstock. The pair started arguing in front of the entire court.  The Judge said, "You know, if I had a rock, I would throw it at you right now. Just sit down." Weinstock responded, "You know I'm the public defender. I have a right to be here and stand and represent my client." On the video, the judge then appears to ask Weinstock to come to the back hallway, an area where there are no cameras, which is where the fight broke out.  There were no images of the fight, but the video does capture sounds of scuffling and several loud thuds. Two deputies broke it up and the attorney was immediately reassigned to another court. Judge Murphy agreed to take a leave of absence, so he could undergo anger management counseling. What a grand example of professionalism in our halls of justice.

At its core, the Gospel is a story about peacemaking.  God sent His Son Jesus into the world to make peace with humanity, to save humanity, to reconcile humanity, to bring humanity back into a relationship with the creator.  The church continues to engage in God's holy work of peacemaking: to bring sinners and saved, unbelievers and believers, men and women, all races and ethnic groups, rich and poor, slave and free into the one church, the body of Christ.   

Making peace doesn't mean peace at any price, Jesus showed us this.  Peacemaking doesn't mean making everybody happy because they all get what they want.  It doesn't mean allowing unjust or evil behavior to continue in order to keep the peace.  It is striving to find common ground and common agreement.  It means speaking out for what is right, rather than being silent.  It means holding true to your principles.  Peace and justice, justice and peace are bound together in the business of peacemaking.

I am inspired by the many individuals and organizations in the world who risk their lives everyday as peacemakers in war-torn countries.  For example, the Carter Center, founded by former president Jimmy Carter, and its work in Syria and the middle east, Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraqui Kurdistan, Women Peacemakers in Iraq in the US Institute of Peace, the Afghan Peacemaker Association, and the Peacemaking Unit in Africa just to name a few.  God is at work in these groups and others toward reaching God's end of bringing about peace in the world.  Their stories are exciting and they are making progress.

One must also acknowledge that as a peacemaker, there are situations where you need to be honest with yourself.  Where no matter what you do or how hard you try or how many hours you invest, trying to reconcile with someone or finding a peaceful and equitable solution may not work.  Despite our prayers, despite our attempts, and the time and energy we invest, there are situations that are beyond our power and ability.  And we must let go, trust in God and turn it over to God.  No, that is never easy.

God may not be calling you to be a peacemaker in international conflicts, between the Jews and Palestinians, or the Christians and Muslims, or Russia and the US.  But that doesn't let you or me off the hook.  God may be calling you to be a peacemaker in your circle: in your family, in a friendship that has soured, in your neighborhood, as a teacher in your school, in your community, in your church, or in your job.  I truly believe God calls us all to be peacemakers at one time or another, but not in every situation.  We are not qualified for some situations. 

But there are contexts in which you are qualified.  God only calls us to situations where He has imparted to us the mind, gifts, abilities, talents and temperament, and competence to be effective.  God desires success, not failure.  Can you think of an example when you acted in the role of peacemaker?  How did you do?

Jesus said:  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”   My friends, hear this, Jesus promises to bless us as peacemakers.  Jesus honors your work. God uses your efforts for His glory and purpose.  God will grant you a gift of grace now or in the future, because you are engaged in this work.  Children of God means because you are involved in the business of peacemaking, you are doing a God-like work, a holy work.  You are engaged in the very work which the God of peace is doing in this world.  

Peacemaking also applies to the spiritual realm.  It is about making peace with God in one's own soul and heart. “God I am sorry, forgive me.”   Forgiving another person or accepting their apology is a form of peacemaking.   Peacemaking requires courage and heart and perseverance. Peacemaking requires faith and trust in God.   And peacemaking requires being realistic; peacemaking is rarely if ever peaceful.  It is doing the work of God and finding through struggle and set-backs and disappointment a way to peace.

Scripture says, “If you are in worship and you remember that someone has something against you, go and be reconciled.” Leave worship, go to the person and seek reconciliation.   Then come back to worship and present your offering.  Come to terms quickly with your accuser.  Strive to resolve your differences before they become intractable.

Peacemaking is God's work and as Jesus' followers, it is your work and mine.  Is there someone you are striving to make peace with?   Is there some task that God is calling you to step in to as a peacemaker?

I close with the Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the 12th century Franciscan order of monks:   Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.  Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying   that we are born to eternal life.”  Amen!