Friday, January 30, 2015

God's Unpredictable Call (Acts 10:9-33) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

William or Bill Klem, known as the "father of baseball umpires," was a National League umpire in Major League Baseball from 1905 to 1941. He worked 18 World Series, which is a major league record.  Klem was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1953. 

He was beyond passionate about America's favorite pastime, declaring "To me, baseball is not a game, but a religion."  He umpired for 37 years and was the first umpire to use arm signals while working behind home plate.  He became known as "the Old Arbitrator," due to his keen eye for calling balls and strikes.  On one such occasion, as he crouched and readied behind the plate, the pitcher threw the ball, the batter didn't swing, and for an instant, Bill said nothing. The batter turned and snickered, "Okay, ump so what was it, a ball or a strike?" To which Bill responded, "Sonny, it ain't nothing 'till I call it."

Calls in baseball come only from the umpire.  The umpire has total authority in making the call.   Calls in life, whether in baseball or in some other aspect of our lives, are very significant aren't they?    We wait, we worry, we work, we pray, we prepare, we hope, we network, but the call for an opportunity or a chance or a decision ultimately comes from someone else.

So it is in the life of faith, in our spiritual lives.  In the Christian life calls ultimately come from God.  Calls to us to do something, to go somewhere, to accept an opportunity, to take on a responsibility, to fulfill a task, to get a second chance, are unpredictable, occasionally unusual, often surprising, and sometimes even strange and odd.

I think of rather strange calls in the Bible.  Jesus called a group of tough, grizzled fishermen to follow him and to become fishers of men.  God called the prophet Jonah to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrians, the hated enemies of the Jews, and preach a message of repentance, but Jonah refused and ran from the presence of the Lord and he ended up in the belly of a large fish for his trouble.  God called Moses to go to the omnipotent Pharoah, who had absolute authority over life and death, and tell him to let the Israelites go from slavery in Egypt.  Esther, a Jews, the queen of Persia, was called by God to go to King Xerxes 1, the King of Persia, to tell him about a plot to commit genocide against the Jews, but in doing so she risked her very life. 

In our New Testament lesson from Acts, the disciple Peter had been on a journey, and has come to rest in the home of Simon the Tanner in Joppa, a small seaport town on the Mediterranean Sea.  He goes up to the roof of the home to pray and has a vision.  Remember that the Jews had very strict dietary laws.  Peter sees the heavens open, and something like a large sheet descending from heaven, and it contains all kinds of animals, reptiles and birds.  A voice from heaven says:  “Peter, get up, kill and eat.”  Peter is shocked and confused and shouts:  “Lord, I cannot eat anything which is unclean.”  The voice comes to Peter again: “What God has created do not call unclean.”  This happens three times and the vision ends. 

While Peter is trying to understand what this vision is all about, three men representing Cornelius, approach the house and request to see Peter.  The representatives tell Peter about their leader, Cornelius, a Gentile, a non-Jew, who has been on a quest for the truth.  The representatives ask Peter to journey with them to meet this man who was known as a man of prayer, a righteous and God-fearing man, and respected by many Jews. 

The next morning Peter and the representatives travel to Cornelius's home in the nearby seaport town, Caesarea.  The Spirit had told Peter to go with them and he obeyed.  Peter knew that going with them broke with Jewish tradition, that it was against the rules of Judaism.  He is feeling uncomfortable as he nears the home of Cornelius.  He knows the laws of Judaism prohibit him from eating anything unclean or associating with people who were unclean, like Gentiles. 

And then Peter remembers the vision from God.  It was an “A-HA” moment.  He remembers what God said in the vision: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”   And Peter suddenly realizes something profound – the vision wasn't just about dietary rules, it was about something much bigger, it was about people.  The unclean animals in the vision represent the Gentiles, and Peter understands in a monumental moment, that God is not just the God of the Jews, but the God of the Gentiles, the God of  all human beings. 

How incredibly difficult this new awareness must have been for Peter.  It changed everything he had been taught since childhood.  It was a new truth that he was trying to get his mind around.  Isn't this true about how God works in our lives?  God was in this vision preparing Peter in advance of his visit to Cornelius.  God prepares us in advance for some future situation like God prepared Peter.

We may wonder why something is happening in our life, why we are going through something, why were are wrestling with some issue, and then the “A-HA” moment comes, the pieces begin to come together and we realize later that we were being prepared for sometime in the future.   How often do we miss the benefits of God's preparation because we are impatient or because we don't listen and pay attention?  Peter did listen, and a something entirely unexpected was about to happen in his life and God used him in a powerful way. 

The story continues and Peter enters the home of a Gentile, which previously he would never have done, and shares the Gospel about Jesus with Cornelius.  Peter forgets the religious barrier, and tells Cornelius the story of Jesus birth, life, death and resurrection.   The Holy Spirit comes upon the Gentiles who are listening to him.  And he baptizes Cornelius and the other Gentiles in the Spirit. 

God gets our attention, yours and mine, in different and sometimes unusual ways and when God gets your attention, pay attention.  When God lays something upon your heart, to go to someone, to call someone, to get involved in some issue, to take on some new task, to accept an assignment, then listen and go.  God may even specifically give you the name of an individual to pray for or to call or to reach out to.  God will lay it upon your heart, as an opportunity to share God’s grace with another through your presence, your forgiveness, your kindness, your courage, and your investment of time and love.

I think of times when out of the blue, someone pops into my mind, and I decide to contact them and they say:  “You know I was thinking about you, so glad you called, or you know I have been dealing with a difficult time in my life, thanks for calling.”  Was that a call from the Spirit?  Was God prompting me?  I believe so.

To have a personal relationship with God means you must be open to the possibility that the Spirit of God will prompt you, guide you, direct you, and call you, maybe even in a vision.   True, we are not infallible about whether or not we are hearing from God.   So it helps to understand that God’s will is always in sync with the truths and principles that we know from Scripture.  God’s call is always in line with the gifts and abilities, with our strengths that God has blessed us with.

Sometimes the Spirit prompts us through events in our lives and other times through thoughts: a thought to write somebody, to serve somebody, to get involved,  to make a commitment, to do something, to confront somebody.  Two things are for certain in the realm of God's kingdom.  God calls us to fulfill His purposes and often God's calls are uncomfortable, strange, unusual and even risky.

Rev. Bill Hybels writes: “God sometimes calls us to an ominous and dangerous place. History is filled with men and women who said no to fear and changed the world.  But imagine if they had given in to the paralyzing effects of fear on their lives.  Imagine the apostle Paul, fearing resistance or rejection, choosing to stay home rather than embarking on the missionary journeys that took the message of Christ throughout the known world. 

Imagine Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. giving speeches filled with gentle hints about the evils of segregation, because he feared pushing too hard. Instead, King championed the civil rights movement against racial segregation in the United States.

Think of Malala Yousafzai, the young woman and Pakistani activist, who at the age of 12, was an advocate for human rights, education and equality for women in Pakistan, who lived in a town where the Taliban had banned girls from attending school.  Imagine, if she was silent because she was too frightened by the death threats she received from Taliban extremists.  Instead, she became even more vocal about the educational rights of children and women and survived a 2012 assassination attempt.  She was a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize nominee in 2014.  She now resides in England.

Rev Hybels concludes:  “Imagine yourself, fully aware of the mission and vision God has placed in your heart to advance his kingdom in this world, and yet you are held hostage to phobias, irrational worries, and destructive fears of failure, harm, or rejection. If you don't fulfill the mission God assigned to you, who will?
Yes, like the disciple Peter, God calls us into Christ's service, God calls us into the work of His kingdom, God calls us to fulfill His purposes, and those calls are sometimes uncomfortable and even risky.

I close with this story told by the noted Christian author, speaker and activist Ravi Zacharias, about his co-worker Michael Ramsden, a Christian pastor from Iran.   “As pastor Ramsden was driving with his wife, they stopped in a small Iranian village to purchase some water.   Before entering, the minister noticed a man holding a machine gun and leaning against the wall outside the store. The minister's wife looked at the man's face and the gun, then put a Bible in her husband's hand and said, "Give that man this Bible." Her husband looked at the man, his menacing beard and his machine gun, and replied, "I don't think so." But she persisted: "I'm serious. Give it to him. Please, give him the Bible."

Trying to avoid the issue, the husband said, "Okay, I'll pray about it." He went into the shop, purchased the water, climbed back into the car, and started to drive away. His wife looked at him and said, "I guess you didn't give him the Bible, did you?" Looking straight ahead, he replied, "No, I prayed about it and it wasn't the right thing to do." She quietly said, "You should have given him the Bible," and then she bowed her head and started praying. At that point, he turned around and told his wife, "Fine! If you want me to die, I will."

When the minister returned to the store, the man with the machine gun was still standing against the wall. The minister approached him and placed the Bible in his hand. When the man opened it and saw it was a Bible, he started to cry. "I don't live here," he said. "I had to walk for three days in order to get to this village. But three days ago an angel appeared to me and told me to walk to this village and wait until someone had given me the Book of Life. Thank you for giving me this book."   Yes, you never know, God's calls are sometimes totally unpredictable.  Amen!

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Body of Christ (I Cor. 12:4-26) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Staying safe is something we all think about.  I read an article titled: “How to stay safe in the world today”.  Here is what it said:  “1. Avoid riding in automobiles because they are responsible for 20 percent of all fatal accidents.  2. Do not stay home because 17 percent of all accidents occur in the home.  3. Avoid walking on streets or sidewalks because 14 percent of all accidents occur to pedestrians.  4. Avoid traveling by air, rail, or water because 16 percent of all accidents involve these forms of transportation.  5. Of the remaining 33 percent, 32 percent of all deaths occur in hospitals.   Above all else, avoid hospitals.” 

You will be pleased to learn that only .001, (one one/thousandths) percent of all deaths, occur in worship services, and these are usually related to previous physical disorders.  Bible too study is safe.   Attend church, read your Bible…it could save your life.”

Our lesson from I Corinthians is about the church, the body of Christ, the family of God.  Let's reflect for a moment about the nature of the Church and about our church. 

Our lesson calls to mind the diversity in the church.   Look around you.   People in the church are not all the same, we are different.  “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit.”    “Different kinds of service, but the same Lord.”  “Different kinds of working, but the same God works in all of us.”

Yes, diversity certainly keeps things more interesting.  What a dull world it would be if we all looked the same, dressed the same, talked the same, liked the same things, thought the same, and agreed on everything.   Diversity on the one hand should be celebrated, but on the other hand, it can cause problems in terms of understanding one another and relating to one another.

For example we think of gender differences in the church.  In Genesis, we are told that God created human beings, God made us male and female, we were created in the image of God. 

I'm sure, I'm absolutely confident, that God knew in advance about the problems that would develop when he made men and women. Gender says a lot about our personalities and behavior.  

In the book, You Just Don't Understand: Men and Women in Conversation, the author tells about a study of male and female students at a Baptist seminary.  The study found that women are likely to suggest, whereas men are more likely to command.  When the women gave devotions they gently invited their listeners by saying:  “Let's go to verses 15 and 16.”  The men gave orders, “Go to verse 16 or turn to verse 17.”  Women use “let's” much more frequently than men.  Female nurses often say to patients, “Let's take our medicine.”   I have found that trying to command Nancy, my wife, to do something is not terribly helpful.

You'll always find exceptions to the rule, true, but research and experience consistently point to basic differences between the way men and women act, think, and feel.  For example, men generally base their self-esteem on achievement.  Women generally base their self-esteem on relationships.  Men are generally more aggressive than women.  One university study demonstrated that women were better able to read emotion in facial expressions than men.  Men and women see the world through different eyes.  What's the name of that book - Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus.  No wonder men and women don't always understand each other, we're from different planets.   Or am I way off here?

We in the church are diverse in terms of birth order.  Studies show that the oldest child is usually more conservative than his or her younger siblings, because the oldest often reflects the mores and attitudes of the parents.  Older children tend to be more anxious about being supplanted in the family nest.  They tend to be more dissatisfied with themselves because so much was expected of them as children.  Older children tend to go into the hard sciences, whereas later-born children are generally more attracted to the creative arts.

We are diverse in terms of our talents, abilities and spiritual gifts, as the passage tells us.  To one is given the gift of wisdom, to another the gift of knowledge, to another the gift of healing, to another miracles, to another prophecy and so forth.  We are different in terms of our God given gifts and abilities which God calls us to use in the ministry of the church and in our lives.

We are diverse in terms of our tastes and styles in worship and music.  Some are comforted by hymns and inwardly groan when asked to learn a contemporary song.  Others like new praise songs and inwardly groan when asked to sing a hymn.  For some music and singing is the high point of worship.  Other people would rather pray more, and have more opportunity for silence and quiet contemplation.  Still others come to hear a sermon, the sermon is the most important part of worship for them.  Others find it might be time to catch up on sleep during the sermon. We bring a wide variety of backgrounds and preferences for style and taste in worship and music. 

We think of diversity in terms of whether we are more right brain or left brain.    Science tells us that the way we think may be determined by which side of our brain is dominant.  Left brain dominate people are more fact-oriented, opinionated, literal, whereas right brained dominant people tend to be more creative, artistic, emotional, and visual. 

We are diverse in terms of our age, our race, our ethnicity, our life experiences and the wisdom and insights we have gained in life over the years. 

We are different in terms of our preference for service in the church: singing in the choir or in the Sounds of Worship; serving as a deacon or elder, usher, liturgist, or on a committee; teaching Sunday school; playing bells; serving homeless people on Sunday evenings; working with youth or young adults; decorating the sanctuary; or helping in the office.  

Our passage from Corinthians addresses the concept of diversity using another metaphor.  The church is one body with many parts.   Although there are many parts, it is one body.    This passage is speaking about unity, but not uniformity.  That is diversity within the context of unity.   Both notions are being affirmed.  Corinthians is clear that we in the church are not unified by our personalities or our experiences in life or our intellect, we are unified by the one God, God the father, son and Holy Spirit. 

The diversity that this passage was originally referring to was having Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, rich and poor all worshipping and working together in one church.   Such diversity created problems and our author, the apostle Paul, was attempting to teach, encourage and bring harmony in the church with this truth, this theological truth, about the nature of Christ's church. 

We are told that some of us are hands, some are eyes, some are ears, some are feet, but all parts are essential.  One might argue that the brain is the most important part.  Oh Ya.   If you don't think all parts of our body are equal, try stubbing or breaking your little toe.  It is amazing how one little toe can stop you in your tracks, how it can put your life on hold, and become an obstacle to your mobility. 

In the 1990's, Kenny Rogers of the Texas Rangers baseball team had just pitched the 12th perfect game in major league history.  The opposing team had no hits, no runs and no one even reach first base.  The Rangers played an outstanding defensive game in the field. The game featured a diving catch by rookie outfielder Rusty Greer in the  ninth inning to preserve this perfect game.  Greer said:  “I was going to give it my best effort whether I caught it or not.”   Someone raised this question:  “Did the pitcher hurl a perfect game or was the entire team responsible for that no-hitter?”   The answer was without question, it was a team effort, the pitcher could not have done it alone.   He obviously could not have played all 9 positions in the field by himself.  He was dependent upon the other players and they were dependent upon him.  So it is with the church.

In thinking about this passage, I sometimes ask myself how do we do it?  How do we get along?  It's truly a wonder that anything gets done in the church.  It's amazing that we can work together in ministry and mission at all.   What is God's word, what is God saying to us in this text?

First, God created us as diverse people.  God intentionally did this.  It was God's plan from the beginning.  And God has called us, as diverse as we are, into His one church.  God created diversity so it must be good.  Diversity means that you are a unique person, one of a kind. God's intent was to create a rich tapestry of people in His church.

Second, all of the parts of the body of Christ, all members of the church, are important and equal, all are significant and necessary for the healthy and effective functioning of the body.   If one part of the body suffers every part suffers with it, if one part is celebrated, every part rejoices with it.   We are interdependent.

Third, God wants us to love and accept one another's diversity.  God wants us to celebrate and respect one another in the church, even though we may think and act differently.    We are to respect one another's differences, to respect our varied abilities and gifts, to be patient with one another, and to always strive to understand and affirm that each of us has a place in God's family.  We are not alike, we don't see things alike, but we are all precious persons in God's sight. 

Fourth, God imparts diversity, not to instill confusion or chaos, but so that in the Spirit we will work together for the common good.  We have a single purpose.  To build up the church, the body of Christ, in order that we might fulfill God's purpose for His church, which is to spread the gospel, to make disciples of all nations, and to win the world for Christ.    May God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be glorified in His church.   Amen!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Cloaks and Wineskins (Matthew 9:14-17) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Can we agree on this, change is life is inevitable, sometimes we embrace change, but at other times, change is difficult and we resist it with every fiber of our being. 

When the Russian comedian Yakov Smirnoff immigrated to the United States, he saw many changes from his Russian homeland, but the thing he loved most about America was the grocery stores.  He said, "I'll never forget walking down one of the aisles and seeing powdered milk; just add water and you get milk.  Right next to it was powdered orange juice; just add water and you get orange juice. Then I saw baby powder, and I thought to myself, what a country!"

At a church committee meeting, the moderator said: "Let's put it to a vote, everyone in favor of changing the maroon baptistry curtains, which Mrs. McIntire purchased 40 years ago, to green ones, after she moves to Florida, say so with an uplifted hand."

We read in our lesson from the Gospel of Matthew a response to a question about fasting addressed to Jesus from the disciples of John the Baptist.  It was asked in a critical tone because Jesus was breaking with tradition.  Or to be more precise, he was breaking the Jewish Law.  

Jesus regularly broke the rules of the Jewish law.  He forgave people's sins and was accused of blasphemy.  The law said rest, don't work on the Sabbath.  Jesus healed people on the Sabbath and was accused of being a law breaker.   The law said don't associate with sinners.  Jesus associated with tax collectors, lepers, and Gentiles, and talked publicly to women, not too mention women with questionable reputations, like the woman at the well. 

The disciples of John the Baptist were deeply troubled because Jesus' followers weren't fasting.  Fasting originally was for the purpose of personal spiritual preparation, for worship and for Jewish holy days and festivals.  But it had evolved over time into a legal requirement.  A rule required Jews to fast on Mondays and Thursdays.  Jews kept the rule out of a sense of duty and religious obligation.

Jesus responds to this criticism by explaining that His relationship to the disciples was like a marriage banquet.  In Jesus’ day, the bride and groom celebrated their marriage with the entire village for a full week.  And according to the rabbinical rule, during that week, the bridal party and their friends were excused from, exempt from, all religious observances, including fasting.

Jesus asks: “Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them?  But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, then they will fast.” 

Jesus identifies Himself as the bridegroom and that a relationship with him was like a spiritual marriage.  Jesus wasn’t promoting anarchy and lawlessness, for remember that the Law’s original purpose was to command people to respect and honor and revere God.  The law's intent was for people to treat one another justly and fairly. 

Recall the commands God gave to Moses: no other gods, no idols, don’t misuse the name of God, remember the Sabbath, don’t steal, don’t murder, don't commit adultery, don't bear false witness against your neighbor.  Jesus taught about loving and worshipping God over legalism and exercising compassion for people over legalism.   But the Jewish leaders were committed to Jews keeping man-made rules and regulations which had built up over the centuries.  They were bound by the traditions of their ancestors and resisted change or modification.  Jesus was essentially saying – the time for change has come!

In this context, Jesus uses two pictures to teach the disciples: “No one sews a piece from a new garment on an old one, otherwise the patch pulls away from the old garment, and no one puts new wine into old wineskins, or the wineskin bursts, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins will be ruined.  New wine must be put into fresh wineskins and so both are preserved.”

In Jesus’ day the juice from grapes was fermented in the skins of goats, rather than in oak barrels and stainless steel tanks like today.  When the goatskin was full of juice, the neck of the skin was sutured and the fermentation process began.  When fermentation was complete the new wineskin was stretched to capacity.  When the wine was poured out, the empty skin was dried.  It hardened and became brittle, inflexible, incapable of stretching and further elasticity.  It could be used for pouring water, but not as a wineskin, because the fermentation process would burst the old skins.

Is Jesus teaching us a lesson about winemaking?  No.  He was talking about new ideas, and new thinking, and new ways of doing things, and a new conception of the truth, he was talking about change.  And don't we love change and don't we hate change?  He was saying don't let your minds be like those old wineskins, hardened and brittle and inflexible.   No, not all change is good and not all change is bad.  But sometimes change is necessary, sometimes it’s required.  We often deny change.   One author wrote:  “Just because everything is different doesn't mean anything has changed.”

The Jewish leaders were vehemently attached to the old traditions, especially in terms of the Law.  The old is better.  The Law is unchangeable and immutable.  It's a familiar attitude.  “We've never done it that way before.”  “We've always done it this way.”  We become secure in the status quo.  We become comfortable with well-known ideas and habits.  Our attitudes become fixed and rigid.  We want to hold on to what we know, to what is familiar. 

Jesus was saying – “I have come, I am the Son of God, the time for change has arrived.”  Yes,  there comes a time when patchwork is folly, when patches are useless, when tinkering and duct-tape no longer works, when all you can do is scrap something entirely and begin again.

Now we immediately see a dilemma.  We value tradition and history and heritage. We should. We remember the good old days.  Although, like singer Billy Joel said: “Say goodbye to the oldies but goodies, because the good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”   But there is a caution - we don’t want to make a god out of the past, an idol of it and worship it and bow down to it and preserve it at all costs.  

Conversely, change is important and making changes in our lives in light of a rapidly changing world is crucial.  But the same caution applies: we don’t want to make a god out of change, an idol of it and worship it and bow down to it.  There should be sound reasons, a sound rationale for making changes. 

Did Jesus respect tradition?  Yes.  Did Jesus say: “I command you - stop the practice of winemaking.”  No, he didn’t denounce winemaking.  Did Jesus say throw out all old wine? No, he valued wine that had aged.  Remember his first miracle was when he changed water into wine at a wedding in Cana

First, in thinking about wine in old wineskins, we remember how God has worked in our lives in the past.  We recall our service in His name, we recall how God has called us to serve, how God has guided us and strengthened us and comforted us and we affirm this.  But we need to be open when God calls us to change, to think differently, to come up with new ideas, to do things differently, to be creative, to follow him down new paths, even though God is leading us in new directions. 

Second, Jesus is saying Jesus that He is the new wine.  The new wine is His new teaching about the Kingdom of God, about Himself as the Messiah, the Son of God, Emmanuel, about setting believers free from being bound to the laws of the past, about his message of repentance, faith, forgiveness and grace, and the joy of becoming his follower and the new life He offers to all who commit their lives to Him.  Jesus is the new wine who by his Holy Spirit indwells in our hearts.

This picture is about Jesus and his followers, in his day and in ours, who contain the dynamic, fermentative, life-changing power of His gospel and Holy Spirit.    We are to be distinguished for our elasticity and flexibility and creativity as vessels of Jesus’ own indwelling presence.   We are to represent an open mind, a receptive heart, a readiness to obey God’s guidance and inspiration where ever it made lead us, while still respecting tradition.

What do you hear God saying to you in this teaching about cloaks and wineskins?   How does this truth apply to your life?  What about where you work and how you're doing your job and your attitude toward it?  Is God calling you to do something new?

Is God calling you to do something new in a current friendship that has soured or to invest in the new wine of a new friendship? 

What about the church?  Do we need to pour new wine into new wineskins of outreach and ministry?  Is it time for some new thinking and ideas?

What about your marriage?  Are there significant changes that God is calling you to make in your marriage? 

What about your parenting responsibility and the raising of your children?  Is God calling you to pour new wine into new wineskins in terms of new ideas and practices and values in your parenting style?  

I recall a family in the congregation I served in CO.  Their son had gotten deeply involved into drugs in high school.  They tried various disciplinary strategies at home: grounding, taking privileges away, etc, but nothing worked.  He was quickly descending into the dark world of drugs.   His life was spiraling downward.

Finally after much prayer and research, they made the toughest decision in their lives, they sent him to live for two years in a military style drug rehab program in another state.  They couldn’t even see him for the first year.  He eventually graduated, got his life back on track and is doing well today.  Patch work on old efforts, new wine in old wineskins, didn’t work.

How about your own spirituality, your own journey of faith?  Are you growing in your walk with God?  Is God calling you to do something totally different in your spiritual life? Patches aren't working.  A new wineskin, a new idea, is the answer.

Life changes radically and rapidly; Jesus is saying it takes new cloaks and new wineskins to meet the new challenges of today. Jesus is the new wine.  Jesus is the new cloak. Let us go forward, trusting in Him, embodying His power, inspiration and guidance, and be ready for something new?    Amen!

Friday, January 9, 2015

Straining Forward (Philippians 3:12-16) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

One New Year's Day, in the Tournament of Roses parade, a beautiful float suddenly sputtered and quit.  It was out of gas.  The whole parade was held up, marching bands, horses, until someone could find a can of gas. The ironic thing was this float represented the Standard Oil Company.  Yes, with all its vast oil resources, the float representing a major oil company, in a prestigious parade, had run out of gas.  It's the beginning of a new year, and Oh by the way, I hope you haven't already run out of gas. 
On January 1, we turned the final page on our 2014 calendars.  We enter 2015 with hopes, dreams, plans, and oftentimes with some apprehension.  Hopes for good things to happen.  Plans to do some new things.   The possibilities are awe-inspiring.  The future is wide open.

But we also enter it cautiously, for we live in troubled times.  Both domestically and internationally, politically, socially, militarily and economically we face uncertainty and risk.    This is clearly a time when we need to pray for our leaders and for the leaders of nations around the world.  How should we enter a new year?  We need to do so prudently, faithfully, and with our eyes fixed on the leading of the Lord.  

Why is January significant?   This month is named after the mythological Roman god known as “Janus.” Janus was believed to be the god who was a guiding force for individuals in fresh starts, new beginnings, and times of transitions.  Janus was always depicted as having two faces — one face looking backwards into the past, the other face turned towards the future.  Today being called “two-faced” is considered an insult, but in Roman times the ability to simultaneously keep one’s past in clear view while also looking forward to the future,was seen as a god-like quality.   Which leads us to our lesson.

First, our passage says: “One thing I do, forgetting what is behind and straining forward to what is ahead.”  “Or forgetting the things behind and stretching forward to the things before.”

It is the image of a race.  And the Greeks loved competition, athletic events and contests.  The idea is that if the runner turns to see what is happening behind him or her, the runner runs the risk of losing the race.  The runner must keep his or her eyes fixed on the goal ahead.

And for our author, the apostle Paul, the goal was to participate in the life and activity of the risen Lord.  To share in His life, his power, his vision and his work in the world, in all that the Lord is doing including reaching the goal, the ultimate fulfillment of the resurrection. 

What are the things behind?   Clearly the apostle Paul is speaking about negative memories, bad times when you were not your best, when you let yourself or others down.  There is certainly much that is positive about our past as well.  Paul is here referring to those negative things about our past.  Don't dwell on them.  Don't brook over them.  Don't become a slave to them.   Don't let past memories drain you of your positive energy and zest for life today.  Don't live in the past, the good old days.  I know, it's easier said than done.  

We should regard the past with respect and caution.  Visit the past, yes, learn from the past, yes, draw strength from the past, yes, but don't allow it to overwhelm you, trap you, harm you or even destroy you. 

What over this past year or in prior years do you need to forget?  What do you need to put behind you?  What kind of baggage are you carrying that you need to unload?  The word is saying - live with your back to your past.

You will never move forward if you spend your time rehearsing your past, re-living bad times, remembering your failures, regrets and mistakes.  Your past will become like a great ball and chain around your neck which drags you down.   We can become consumed with past failures, guilt, setbacks and disappointments – whether in marriage, parenting, work, finances, friendships or unfulfilled hopes and expectations.  We have all done things about which we are ashamed.  We live in the tension of what we have been and what we desire to become.

True, wiping away the past is oftentimes difficult to do.  In the book In the Heart of the Sea, a true story about the whale ship Essex being rammed and sunk by an enraged sperm whale in 1820, author Nathaniel Philbrick writes: “For most disaster victims, the repeated flashbacks of a tormenting memory have a therapeutic value, gradually weaning the sufferer from anxieties that might otherwise interfere with his ability to survive.  There are some, however, who cannot rid themselves of the memory.  They become prisoners in their own psychic depths.”

The apostle Paul, formerly Saul, before his conversion, could have wallowed in shame and failure, haunted by his previous career of an agent of the temple in Jerusalem, charged with hunting down, arresting and bringing Christians back for imprisonment and sometimes execution. For example, he could have mentally relived the scene in which he gave orders for the stoning death of Stephen.  He could have watched again, in his mind’s eye, as every stone pounded the bodies of Christian martyrs. He could have re-heard the sounds of the crowds and seen the fear that swept over the faces of the believers.  Paul could have relived this event day after day for the rest of his life.  But Paul experienced the healing power of the cross.  He experienced the healing power of turning to Christ and finding forgiveness.

Is there some failure or shameful experience that you can’t get beyond?  Is there some guilt that continues to weigh you down?  Is there some painful memory that keeps you from reaching your potential, from using your gifts and talents, and becoming what God wants you to be?

The poet Louise Fletcher Tarkington wrote these words: “I wish that there were some wonderful place called the Land of Beginning Again; Where all of our mistakes and all of our heartaches and all of our poor selfish grief could be dropped like a shabby old coat on the floor and never be put on again.”

Have you ever wished for this?  Well the good news is that there is such a place.  Our hope is in Christ.  God is merciful, and God doesn’t give up.  God perseveres and God wants us to persevere.  Can you imagine how difficult life would be if God was as hard on our failings as we often are on ourselves.   This is where we experience God’s grace. 

Here is what the Bible says God has done with your past sins.  “As far as the east is from the west, so has God separated our sins from us.”(Psalm 103:12). “I am He who blots out your transgressions...and remembers your sins no more.” (Isaiah 43:25). “God will hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.” (Micah 7:19)

God on the cross of Christ has wiped away your past sins.  Yes, it happened and it cannot be undone.   But God in Christ has wiped the slate clean.  This is good news.  God forgives your sins, mistakes and failures.  God passionately wants you to forget and to move on. 

How do we forget our past?  By repenting and asking for God's power to help us forgive ourselves.  By turning to the power of prayer.  By seeking professional help.  By putting your energy in new beginnings and fresh starts.  By growing daily in your knowledge of God,  drawing nearer to God, deepening your relationship with Christ.  Know you are forgiven and then move forward in your spiritual walk with Christ.

Second, look toward the future with hope!   In verse 13, Paul says: "straining or stretching forward to the things before." You overcome the past by looking ahead. Concentrate on where you are going and imagine the victory you will obtain.  A future awaits you.  Do not be afraid. Trust in God.  God accompanies us into the future and God is waiting for us in the future.

Where are you going this year? What are your goals and priorities?  Ask yourself: Where will I invest my time, energy, financial resources and talents in this new year?   I'm not talking about New Year’s resolutions. I’m speaking about setting goals for this coming year, or for a few years or for the rest of your life.  Educational goals?  Parenting goals?  Marriage goals?  Financial goals?  Career goals?  Spiritual goals. God wants us to be future oriented people.  And no matter what our age or circumstances, we have the power through faith, to set new goals and strain forward to things to come.

The following story inspired me.  On November 5, 2013, eighty-six year old Joy Johnson, a veteran of 25 New York City marathons, died with her running shoes on.  Johnson, was the oldest runner in the marathon.  She fell at the 20 mile marker in the event.  She finally crossed the finish line in about eight hours.  After the race she returned to her hotel room, lay down with her shoes on, and never woke up.

Joy didn't run her first marathon until she was sixty-one years old. The only hint of the sport was the verse from Isaiah 40:31 which hung on the kitchen wall in her family farm home in rural Minnesota: "But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint."

A reporter talked about her exercise regimen.   Joy would wake up at 4 A.M., drink her coffee while reading her Bible, and then set out on an eight mile pre-dawn run. "When you wake up it can either be a good day or a bad day," Ms. Johnson said: "I always say, It's going to be a good day.”

A devout Christian, she ran every day but Sunday, so she could attend church. Joy sang hymns to herself to pass the time while running.  According to Johnson's daughter, "She was always a happy runner—and besides her faith and family, this was something she loved the most.”

We will all face challenges in this New Year.  Our nation will face challenges.  Let us live the truth of the words of scripture: “Forget what lies in the past, look to the future with hope and press on in the race of life.”

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

Monday, January 5, 2015

Gifts of the Wisemen (Matthew 2:1-12) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

In this season, when you think of a classic character who is stingy, miserly, parsimonious, cheap who comes to mind?   Scrooge.  Right.  But at Christmas, quite to the contrary, people like Scrooge, in Dicken's story A Christmas Carol are actually the exception rather than the rule.   Generally people are bighearted during this season.  People tend to do more, give more, and help others more during the month of December, than any other time of the year.

Why?  There are more opportunities to give and to help others during this season, there is a spirit of giving and generosity that pervades our culture during this season, and there is a social pressure to give.  You will find articles on the internet which say:  “No time to wait, hurry, time is running out, last minute gift buying.” 

Christmas is about gift giving and so we turn to the story of the Magi.   The Magi said:  “We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.  When they had heard the king, they set out and there ahead of them, went the star that they had seen it its rising.” 

The magi were wise men, astrologers or magicians, most likely from Persia, modern day Iran.  We read in the Old Testament, that the Jews of the day expected a star as a sign of the birth of the Messiah. This was a wide-spread belief in Judaism.  Dr. Paul Maier, in his book In The Fullness of Time writes: “Eastern astrologers, were acquainted with Hebrew beliefs, since there was a large Jewish community living in the East. There is nothing improbable about a group of sages being attracted by some astral event and then trying to investigate it more closely.” 

They came bearing gifts and presented the Christ child with gifts.  Gold, the most precious of metals, a royal gift, signified Jesus' kingship.  Frankincense, was a fragrant gum resin burned as incense and denoted Jesus' future priesthood.  Myrrh was an aromatic orange-colored resin.  Myrrh was expensive and used in perfumes, anointing oil, medicine and embalming. 

When the wise men brought their gifts to Jesus, they didn't come bearing children's toys. They brought gifts that indicated who Jesus truly was—the king of kings, the great high priest, and the lamb of God who would die for the sins of the world.  The fact that years later, Jesus was offered wine mixed with myrrh as a palliative and was also buried with myrrh, clearly denotes this gift's significance.

Gifts.  When is a gift a gift?  When its given with no strings attached.  When its given in love, joy and gratitude.  These are two crucial biblical principles about giving. 

First, when you give a gift, give freely, with no strings, no conditions, rather than giving expecting something in return.  When the wise men came to see Jesus, they knew they weren't going to a "gift exchange."  They brought exquisite gifts, but they didn’t go expecting something in return.  Gift giving isn't deal making.  The Magi came to give, not to receive.

I've known of situations where hard feelings developed in families because someone didn't get back as much as they put in.  They felt cheated and were deeply resentful.   I've seen where people gave a generous gift and then felt the person was somehow beholden/obligated to them.  Gift giving is not a contract.  When it comes to true giving, you can't lose, it's impossible to lose. The goal is to give freely, to give it away with no expectations and let it go.  Why – the underlying biblical principle is grace.

James Hewitt tells a story of a college friend named Paul who received a car from his brother for Christmas.  A kid on the street saw Pauls's new car and said: "Hey mister, is that yours?" Paul said, "Yes, my brother gave it to me for Christmas." The kid was amazed and said, "Your brother gave it to you and it didn't cost you nothing?" He then said, "Boy I wish..." Paul thought he was going to say, "I wish I had a brother like that." But the street kid surprised him. He said, "Boy, I wish I could be a brother like that."  That is the true spirit of giving according to scripture.  
Second, give out of a spirit of love, joy, gratitude, not out of an attitude of obligation or competition.  The gospel of Matthew says: “They saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him.”  Their gifts were an expression of worship, an expression of respect, honor and reverence for the messiah.  The gifts clearly showed that these Magi valued Jesus.

Have you ever received a gift from someone with the impression that the gift was given more out of duty than desire?   If they had really had a choice, they wouldn't have given you anything at all?  Have you ever given a gift with that attitude? That's not giving a gift; it's paying a bill.

I recall at another church where a brother had a falling out with his sister which lasted many years.  They didn't speak at all during the year.  But they did exchange gifts at Christmas.   She said she does it because: "You are pressured to give gifts to members of your family." Obviously, this gift has very little or no meaning and value.  The gift she really needs to give to her brother, and he to her, is the gift initiating communication, and of striving for forgiveness and reconciliation and healing.

If your gift isn't motivated by respect, honor and love for the other person, it doesn't matter what the gift costs.  You will resent giving and the recipient will not be appreciative.  The wise men's gifts were special, not only because they were intrinsically valuable, but because they were given with a heart full of devotion to the Christ-child.

In 1987, real estate agent Oral Lee Brown of Oakland, CA walked into a class of first-graders in a blighted neighborhood and made a promise.  Stay in school and I'll see you through to college.  In 1999, she made good, sending 19 students off to the colleges of their choice.  "When God is with you, no one can stop you," says Mrs. Brown, who was making about $45,000 a year selling working-class homes when she made her promise at Brookfield Elementary.  Mrs. Brown was honored in Washington D.C. with a John Stanford Education Hero award.  It commemorates her 12 years of changing the world, one child at a time.  In 2003, she attended 10 different college graduations. "After my babies walked across that stage," she said, "I was ready for them to lay me down and let me die."

In our culture, we know that we sometimes give gifts with stipulations or to control or to manipulate people into doing what we want them to do.  This isn't giving; it's bribery.  It doesn't value the one who receives the gift; neither does it glorify God.  It has nothing to do with grace.

I believe God called the magi to bring these gifts to Jesus.   These gifts had a purpose.  They revealed the identity of Jesus.  They were gifts appropriate to Jesus as the Messiah, the Savior of the world, Emmanuel, the lamb of God.  These wise men brought valuable gifts to Jesus because they recognized his value and worth as the long awaited Messiah.  When you give, give a gift that celebrates and honors the person. 

Finally, let's remember that gifts that honor another person don’t have to be material in nature.  I know that runs contrary to our consumer culture.  But again biblically its true.  God may be calling you to give a material gift to someone.  That is entirely appropriate.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with giving material gifts as we see in the gifts from the Magi.  But these are not the only kinds of gifts.

God may also be calling you to give a gift that is not material, that is immaterial, but is highly appropriate and timely for this person.  These are also gifts of grace and may in fact be more suitable and needed by someone.  God may be calling you, as you think about persons in your life, to give such a gift.

I close with the bishop's speech in the classic Christmas story, “The Bishop's Wife.”  It's about an empty stocking.   “Tonight I want to tell you the story of an empty stocking.  Once upon a midnight clear there was a Child's cry, a blazing star hung over a stable, and wise men came with birthday gifts.  We haven't forgotten that night down the centuries.  We celebrate it with stars hung on the Christmas tree and the sound of bells and giving of gifts.  Especially with gifts.  All the stockings are filled.  All, that is, except one.  Let us ask ourselves what Jesus would wish for most from us to fill the stocking with – loving kindness, warm hearts, the hand of tolerance, all the shining gifts which make up peace on earth.” 

What would Jesus wish for most from you for certain people?   The gift of your undivided attention, the gift of acceptance, the gift of affection, the gift of communication, the gift of enthusiasm, the gift of encouragement, the gift of creative energy, the gift of forgiveness, the gift of friendship, the gift of tenderness,  the gift of your time, the gift of surprise, the gift of joy, the gift of sharing your faith, the gift of prayer.

This Christmas, listen for God's word about your gift giving.  And though you don't expect or require anything in return, you never know what surprise you might receive in someone's reaction to your gift.  Some unanticipated serendipity may surprise you.  For ultimately we give, because God gave His Son to the world, the greatest gift which has ever be given.   Amen!