Friday, December 30, 2016

What’s In a Name? (Luke 2:1-21) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

What’s in a name?  Not much really.  It’s just a word, a sound, a label.  Names tend to capture our attention at different times in life, even at Christmas.  Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus, in the nondescript town of Bethlehem, 2000 years ago, is the largest celebration around the world each year.  It’s astounding.  His birthday brings out massive crowds and traffic jams in places like Rome, New York City, Chicago, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, and Jerusalem.  And like all babies, after this child was born, his parents gave him a name.

The Gospel of Luke says: “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”

Perhaps names are after all important   We get rather attached to them.  Parents trying to decide on what to name their newborn is a big undertaking in our culture.  A five-year old boy who lives next door to our home, is always surprised when I say, “Hi Daniel.”  He replies, “You know my name?”  I’m thinking yes Daniel, because you told me your name a few times.

We are sensitive about people mispronouncing our names or calling us by the wrong name.   Our identity is wrapped up in our name.  Names are critical in genealogy,  when exploring  one’s heritage, one’s family tree.   To be called “Hey you” or “You, over there” all your life would be dehumanizing.

Why did your parents select your name?  We are often called different names by people over time, pet names, nick names, etc.  Upon returning to San Diego where I was born, after we had been away for 33 years, during which people called me Alan, it sounded strange to once again hear friends I grew up with calling me” Al.”

Why did you choose certain names for your children?  Matthew, our first son is named after the first book of the New Testament.  We decided not to name our second son Mark because we knew we would go through life with people asking - “So where are Luke and John?”  While watching Olympic speed skater Eric Heiden during the 1980 Olympics, we decided we liked the name Eric and chose that name for our second son.

Yes, names are important.   A minister friend told me about a wedding he officiated at.  Afterward, the family approached him and said: “Pastor, it was a beautiful wedding, but our daughter’s name is Jennifer not Janet.”  Names are sometimes rooted in the family, like Johnson, the son of John.  Puritans in 17th century New England gave their children names that reflected Christian virtues, like Purity, Prudence, Chastity and Charity.  Children are named after occupations like Shoemaker or Baker.  Today, naming a child after an occupation doesn’t fit quite as well: “This is my son Project Manager or this is my daughter software engineer.”

The Bible employs numerous names for Jesus.    In fact, there are over 200 names and titles for Christ found in the Bible.  Don’t worry, we won’t review them one-by-one.  A mother writes: “While watching the movie The Ten Commandments on television, our four-year-old daughter Melissa learned that one of God's names in the Old Testament is Yahweh, which is best translated "I Am That I Am."  During the following week, true to her contrary style, Melissa strode about the house announcing: "I'm not that I'm not.”

Today, Christmas Day, we pause to reflect upon the names for the child born in Bethlehem. The Gospel writer John called him Logos, the Word, the Light, and also, the Son of God.  Matthew called him the King of the Jews.

The Gospel writer Luke called him Jesus!  “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”   The contemporary song writer Bill Gaither wrote a song titled: "Jesus, There's Just Something About That Name."

Jesus in Greek literally means "Savior” or” One who Saves," a name which shows forth God’s purpose in sending Jesus to the world, to bring salvation, to save us from our sins.

Scripture says the wages of sin is death.   Jesus saves us from sin, guilt, evil and death.  God forgives our sins in Jesus and reconciles us to Himself.  Jesus saves us from self-centeredness and sets us free to love others.  Jesus saves us to give us a new beginning, a new start in our lives.  Jesus saves us from darkness and brings us into the light.  Jesus saves us to love God and to love others.  That’s why God sent Jesus, to bring salvation to the world.

The Greek word which Matthew uses for Jesus is “Christ or Christos” which is a title, and means God’s Anointed one.  Messiah in Hebrew, and Christ in Greek are titles, both meaning God’s anointed one. God’s anointed Jesus to be the spiritual leader of Israel, the one the Jews were long awaiting.

Christ brings God’s Kingdom on earth, not a political kingdom, not a military kingdom, but a spiritual kingdom.  One enters God’s kingdom through conversion, by making a confession of faith in Christ as one’s Lord and Savior.  Christ came to be your leader, your ruler, your king, your deliverer.  God anointed Christ to lead us and guide us and empower us through the struggles and disappointments and decisions of our daily lives.

Another name Matthew uses is Emmanuel!  We read: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and they will call him Immanuel which means ‘God with us.’”  This is a name about Jesus’ presence and power.  It’s no wonder the angel said; “Do not be afraid.”  You lose your fear when you know God is near you each and every day of your life.  Immanuel says you are not alone: God is with you. God is for you, God is within you.  It means we have the opportunity to walk daily with God.   We can have a personal relationship with God in Christ.

Each name for Jesus is special, meaningful; each name highlights a particular aspect of Jesus’ identity and mission.   No one name can contain him.  No one name can explain him.  No one name can limit or hold him.  There is power when you call upon this name, the power to change your life, the power to save, the power to lead, the power to begin again, the power for renewal, the power for liberation.

Today we celebrate the story of the love and power of God come down from heaven as a newborn baby named Jesus.  It’s a story which can’t be bound to a single name, because Jesus is too great.  Jesus is greater than any one name.    Jesus is instead magnified by the names given to him.   What’s in a name?  Perhaps more than you can imagine.

I close with this quote from Philippians: “God gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the father.”   Amen!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Simple Gifts (Philippians 4:15-20) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

In case you're stressed about getting ready for Christmas, with all the shopping, cleaning, and putting up Christmas decorations, one company is trying to help.  Tesco, a British supermarket company, posted an ad for a new job - a Christmas Light Untangler.

The company's website offered the following description for the 36-hour-a-week job: "This new position will offer you the chance to run the unique in-store service with a friendly, flexible approach and making a genuine difference to the little things that matter to our customers this Christmas.  The first duty includes managing the Christmas Lights Untangling stand.  Candidates should be able to untangle 10 feet of Christmas lights in less than three minutes as well as check the bulbs for signs of breakage. The ideal candidate would also "be passionate about Christmas."   Finally, someone to help untangle those Christmas lights from last year.

In the fourth century the church established Advent and Christmas to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  It wasn’t long before carols were written to celebrate Jesus’ birth.   For 1,700 years Christians around the world have celebrated Jesus' birth at Christmas.

When it comes to Christmas, we naturally think of gifts.  What’s the worst Christmas gift you’ve ever gotten?  An article in Time magazine presented stories of people who had received questionable Christmas gifts.

One woman shared that for years, her mother-in-law had bought the other daughter-in-law an expensive makeup or perfume, and then she gave this daughter-in-law the free gift that came with it.   Another reader shared how she had received a waffle iron from her husband.  He said: “Now you can start making waffles for me.”  She asked so whom was this gift for anyway?

Focusing on the message of Christmas, the reason for the season, is always challenging.   There is the competition between preserving the historical and spiritual story of Christmas and the pressure of consumerism.   We hear on the one hand - focus on Jesus and the spiritual message of the Christmas season and on the other hand, buy, buy, buy the latest and greatest.  It is the tension between worshiping and honoring Jesus and consumerism.  We hear stories of shoppers who in the rush for a sale actually trample over other shoppers.  Is that a sign that things have gotten out of control?

As Jesus’ followers, we must stay focused on the core message, the central meaning of this season: the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, Emmanuel, the Son of God, the Savior of the world, the Word made flesh, that God became a human being in Jesus of Nazareth.

One of the traditional things we do at Christmas is to exchange gifts.  Is this appropriate?  Absolutely.  After-all, Jesus was God’s gift to the world.  And the Magi brought gifts to the Christ-child.  But we can also get overwhelmed with the expense and pressure of gift buying and giving.   Children can have unrealistic expectations about gifts.

Parents can feel tremendous guilt, competition and the burden of buying the newest and most popular gifts.  Today we are going to take a new look at an old idea, simple gifts.

There is an old Shaker song: It’s a Gift to be Simple.  Someone revised the words years ago.  “It's a gift to be simple; it's a gift to be kind. It's a gift to smile and to share a happy mind.  It's a gift from the Father when we go on our way, with a joyful song at the start of the day.  But the gift to be simple and the gift to be kind, are the gifts which only a very few will find. Yet these gifts from the Father can be found every day, if we look to him and his will we obey.  Love! Love! It's a gift to be kind. It's a gift when we smile, when we share a happy mind.  Love! Love! We go on our way, with a joyful song at the start of the day.  Love! Love! It's a gift to be kind. It's a gift when we smile, when we share a happy mind. Love! Love! We go on our way, with a joyful song at the close of the day.”

Simplicity.   What does this mean to you?   Simplicity, according to the Bible, is rooted in some basic convictions.  It’s believing that everything belongs to God, that everything you are and everything you have is a gift of God, being truly thankful for God’s grace, understanding that you are dependent upon God for each breath you take and each day you live, knowing that you are to take care for your possessions, but not to be possessed by them, not to become a slave to material things, and trusting that God desires for you to share your resources with others.

The biblical understanding of simplicity means that people are more important than things, that you measure your value, your self-worth on being a child of God, not by the material things you own.   It affirms that whether you live or die, you belong to God who loves you, who created you, who knows you, who forgave you on the cross and who will bring you to be with Him in the life to come.  It reminds us that we came into this world with nothing and that we will die with nothing.

Is it possible to simplify your Christmas?   Well, I don’t know, what do you think?  I think so. I hope so.  Our scripture passage gives us reason to pause.

In the letter to the church at Philippi the apostle Paul expresses his heart-felt thanks to the people of the church.  Philippi was not a wealthy church.  The gift would have been modest – a little money, personal letters, some food, medicine, some clothing.  Paul is deeply moved.  He writes: I have been paid in full; I have received more than enough, “I am fully satisfied now that I have received the gifts you sent.”  He describes the gifts as a “fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.”  The church gave him gifts in gratitude for Paul's ministry.

What is God’s word today about simple gifts in this Advent-Christmas season?  I believe God is saying pay extra attention to people.  Spend time with them; take time to listen, to see, to feel this Christmas.

First, make a list of some people in your life.   You know the song: “He’s making a list, checking it twice.”  Making lists is traditional at Christmas!  Think about close people, your wife or husband, your children, your grandchildren, your parents, your grandparents, your aunts or uncles, your brothers and sisters, your friends, a neighbor, or a colleague at work.

But what about people you wouldn’t normally include: your dentist or doctor or accountant or lawyer, your dermatologist or acupuncturist, your barber or hair-stylist, a police officer or firefighter, someone in the military, a teacher, a favorite waiter or waitress, the people who pick up your trash, your gardener, your computer technician, a cashier at the grocery store, your auto mechanic or plumber or electrician, your mail carrier, the teller at your bank or babysitter.   Our lives unquestionably are far richer because of the support and services of these people.  God brings some truly remarkable people into our lives on a regular basis.   And we know we sometimes take these people for granted.

Second, give them a simple gift.   What is a simple gift?  I’m going to suggest some things, but I want you to use your imagination and decide for yourselves.   Make an effort to express your appreciation this Advent/Christmas season in simple ways.   You never know how meaningfully you can touch someone; you never know what joy you can bring to someone when you surprise them with a simple gift.

Like a handwritten note or email, telephone call, conveying a word of affirmation, appreciation, of encouragement or gratitude. “I want you to know I thank God for you.” “I want you to know how grateful I am for you.”   “I want to thank you for what you meant to me this year.”

Simple gifts, like taking time to listen carefully to someone whom you normally wouldn’t listen to.  There is the gift of hospitality, inviting someone to your home for a meal or out to lunch.  You can invite someone to come to our Christmas Eve services.  You might offer to drive a neighbor to church or to go shopping.  You might bring someone a cake or pie or plate of raw vegetables or fruit or hummus. You may offer to help someone complete a project or to help someone hang lights on their house.  You can visit a person during their recovery from surgery or make a long overdue apology to someone.  You might call someone you haven’t talked to for a while.   You can always ask someone for to forgive you.  You can strive to reconcile with someone whom you have been alienated from, spend time praying for someone and asking God to touch their lives or buy socks for homeless people through CCSA.

So how can we be the sort of giver that ennobles?  How can you and I be a gift to someone on Christmas?  There’s a question to ask yourself – “How can I be a Christmas gift to someone?”   Offer a simple prayer: “Oh God may I not let this Christmas be all about me.  May this Christmas be all about you and others. Christ, help me to see you, to hear you, to feel you this Christmas.  Dear Jesus, inspire and empower me to guide others to see you this season.

This sort of thoughtfulness, spiritual maturity, and love is only possible if we embrace Christ as the King, our King, whose throne was a manger.   That’s when we’ll have a Christmas where Christ is the center of the season.

Can we simplify Christmas just a little?  Can we give some simple gifts to others in the name of Jesus Christ?   I truly believe, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that we can.  Maybe, just maybe, we can try something a little different this Christmas.  Amen!

Friday, December 9, 2016

Your Prayer Has Been Heard (Luke 1:5-20) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Is Christmas about buying gifts?  Is Christmas about shopping?   Columnist Dave Barry writes:

“Your normal man, at this point in the Christmas season, has purchased zero gifts.  He didn’t even manage to get an acceptable gift for his wife last year.   He did give her something, but he could tell by her reaction that she had not been dreaming of a car emergency kit, even though it was the deluxe model with booster cables and an air compressor.  Clearly this gift violated an important rule, but the man had no idea what this rule was, and his wife was too upset to tell him.”

“A survey on men's attitudes about Christmas shopping may provide useful information for women.  Many men dread holiday shopping so much, that instead of going Christmas shopping, 89 percent would rather see their favorite sports team lose.”

And yet according to the Bible and our Christian faith, Christmas was originally not about our giving gifts to others.    We get so focused on giving to others at Christmas, on what to give our children or grandchildren, or friends or worthy organizations, that we forget the original intent of Christmas

The first Christmas was about getting ready, about preparing to receive, to receive the gift of the coming Messiah.  The focus on the first Christmas was this - God is a giver.  God gave to the world His Son.  God gave the gift of salvation through sending Jesus, born in Bethlehem, as the Savior of the world.  Christmas is about preparing our lives spiritually to receive, to celebrate, to honor God’s amazing and loving gift.

Christmas asks the question – what does it mean to receive the gift of Jesus as your personal savior and the savior of the world?  The heart of Christmas is about being beneficiaries, about fully embracing God’s astonishing gift, God’s promised Messiah, named Jesus, the greatest gift humankind has ever received.

Which leads us to our story about Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist.  They were getting on in years.  They came from good families.  Zechariah held a respected position as a priest in Jerusalem.  They were righteous before God, they had a good reputation in the community, they had a good marriage.    They knew God had greatly blessed them.   But buried beneath it all was an unyielding desire – the desire for a child.  No, they were not unique in this desire, many people before and since, can identify with it.

One day Zechariah was chosen to enter the holy temple of the Lord and burn incense while a gathering of people prayed outside.  This was an esteemed honor.  As he was going about his priestly duties, suddenly the angel Gabriel appears to him.  Zechariah was afraid, which you would only expect if you were confronted by an angel.  Gabriel announces to Zechariah: “Your prayers have been heard.”  His wife Elizabeth would bear a son and they were to name him John. 

Gabriel exclaims: “You will have joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth.” Zechariah responds, “How can this be? My wife and I are old. How can it be that my prayers are answered?” Rather than shouting: “Praise God, thank you Lord, my prayers have been answered, hallelujah,” Zechariah replies, “Really, I just can’t believe, I rather doubt it, my wife and I are too old.”

Zechariah makes two big mistakes: never doubt the word of an angel, and never comment on your wife’s age.   He is totally skeptical as we might be too.  Zechariah had reluctantly accepted the fact that their time to be parents had passed them by. He and his wife had come to accepted their fate.    Gabriel announcement sent a shock wave into their world.

Gabriel tells Zechariah that since he did not believe this good news, he would lose his voice and not be able to speak until their son John was born.   Now that was serious.  I mean how can a priest do priestly things without a voice; I can relate to that.   And anyway, shouldn’t a priest, a man of God, believe that God has the power to answer prayer?  I mean who wants to listen to a priest who has more doubt than faith, who questions whether God can truly answer prayer?

It was the custom for the priest after being in the holy of holies in the temple to go out and declare to the people the great blessing of Aaron. “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you.  May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”   But not that day, there would be no Aaronic blessing, because Zechariah could not speak.

I don’t know about you but there is something about Christmas which takes one’s breath away, words escape you.  The God of the universe became one of us and one with us as a human being in Jesus of Nazareth full of grace and truth.  Yes, this certainly qualifies as an ineffable moment.

So Zechariah does not utter a single word for nine months.  But perhaps God’s removing Zechariah’s ability to speak wasn’t a curse, but ultimately a blessing.  For sometimes we can only truly appreciate a spiritual moment, when we are quiet, when we are listening and not so busy talking.   Sometimes only in a time of silence is it possible to reflect upon, to appreciate and behold a miracle of God.

Maybe God wanted Zechariah to ponder his encounter with Gabriel in depth?  Perhaps God wanted to teach Zechariah something: never give up on God, never question what is possible with God, never lose faith and hope in the power of prayer. Maybe God was testing this religious man.  What do you think?

Have you ever stayed up late at night and stared at Christmas lights?  Have you ever walked around your neighborhood in the quiet of night to look at the stars and lights and decorations around you?   Have you ever sat at a table for Christmas dinner, surrounded by people who are laughing and telling stories, and in a private moment, you realize that these people too are Christmas gifts?   Sometimes it takes silence to truly appreciate God’s miraculous gift at Christmas.   Yes, perhaps God’s removing Zechariah’s ability to speak wasn’t a curse after all.

I suspect Zechariah as a husband and priest, underneath it all, had lost his ability to hope, to hope in God.  A life without hope is a dreary life indeed.  And God wants us, God wants you and me, to be a people of hope, a people who share hope, who perceive God’s blessings, and who bless others, and encourage others to believe in God and to believe in prayer.  Thus, the question for this season is: What does your life speak to those around you?  Does it speak of disappointed expectations or does it speak of blessing and hope?

Don’t allow these coming weeks to be filled with just busyness and noisy activity and talking.  Find some quiet moments, spend some time in silence, receive the gift of Christ once again into your heart and see the miracle of what Christ is doing in your own life.  And may your life and the words you speak be of hope, faith, love, peace, encouragement and wonder.  The world needs believers, not only at Christmas, but throughout the entire year.

During your Advent and Christmas journey, may God bless you with moments of silence as well as with shouts of joy.  For this is a season to prepare for the promise of the Messiah.  Amen!

Friday, December 2, 2016

You Don’t Know When the Time Will Come (Mark 13:32-37) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Christians start your engines.  Perhaps that is a good slogan for today.  We have scarcely      recovered from our Thanksgiving meal, we are still catching our breath, we are just finishing putting things away, Black Friday is a frightening f because you put yourself in harm’s way fighting crowds and already it’s the First Sunday in Advent which leads us to Christmas.   But ready or not, Advent is upon us.

Advent is the time we prepare for the coming of the Lord Jesus.  It is a season of waiting, watching and expectation; a season where we look to the future.  Are you curious about the future?  I think human beings in general are interested in the future.  What is going to happen in the future?  What will the future hold?   What are the first 100 days going to be like with a new Commander and Chief?  We think about and sometimes worry about our own future, the future of our family, our children and grandchildren, our church, our nation and of our world.

Christ is coming!   A biblical word which captures the spirit of Advent 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 has emboldened Christians down through the ages.  Advent says the future belongs to God.  Wow you got to worship God and learned a little Aramaic too.

Do you think about Jesus coming?  Robert Lee imagines the different headlines we might see on the day of Christ’s return:  Time Magazine might read: “He’s the Man of the Millennium.”   The National Enquirer might say: “Christ Comes Back and He’s Seen Elvis.”  And the headline for Atheist Monthly would simply read: “Oops.”

Some people are inherently optimistic about the future?  They are filled with hope.  They see a light at the end of the tunnel.  They envision a better future for themselves and their children and the world.

Other people are filled with dread about the future, they are pessimistic and anxious.   They believe the problems in our world with the environment, terrorism, disease, and war will only increase and bring a future filled with darkness and disaster.

How do you see the future?  And yet, in spite of our questions, our uncertainty and our fears, Advent says - Don't lose heart, stay the course, hold on, you have a bright future, a hope-filled future because the future belongs to God and God’s plans for the future will be fulfilled.

Advent announces that Jesus is coming!  Do we know precisely when?  Despite some who claim they do know the day and the hour, those who make such predictions are at best misguided and at worst deceivers.  You must always be on the alert for false prophets. No, we don’t know.

Advent declares that Jesus is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end.  Life has a purpose.  History has a direction.  The world is headed somewhere.  Everything in the world is temporary.  There is an end time for history.  The earth as we know it is coming to a close and a new earth will dawn.  We are not just accidents in an empty universe.  The universe sis not just a random occurrence.

The Stoics of Roman times believed human history was an eternal treadmill.  Every 3,000 years civilization would be destroyed by some catastrophe.  Then history would start over once again.  That cycle of world destruction and rebirth would repeat itself forever.  Advent says No!  God has a plan and pattern for all human life.  The culmination of God’s great plan will be the coming of Jesus Christ.

Pastor Steve Brown tells about a car he saw one day parked along the side of the road while he was driving home.  It was the ugliest car he had ever seen.  It had a large gash on its side, the windows were all smashed, the roof was dented in, one of the doors was held together with bailing wire, several body parts were missing, the rust had eaten away most of the paint and what little paint was left was of different colors.  But the most interesting thing about the car was the bumper sticker.  It said: “This is not an abandoned car; the owner will return.”   The message of Advent is that this is not an abandoned world and you are not an abandoned person.

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

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

Who are those servants left in charge?  We are.  You and I are.  Christ has put us in charge.  We each have a work to do.   And while we work we are to be on watch, to keep awake.  The days are coming.  We are to await that day and that hour.

Finally, Advent says the days are coming when the Messiah will bring shalom throughout the land.   The 8th prophet Isaiah envisions a future time of peace throughout earth.  Here his prophecy: “God will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”  Isaiah says further: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox, the nursing child shall play over the hold of the asp.  They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

A Christian woman recalls her trip to Israel and a holy moment, when she experienced a foretaste of the peace Christ will one day establish on earth.  She writes:

“We walked through the dusty streets of Bethlehem town and soon came to the entrance to the Church of the Nativity. We stood in line for what seemed like hours, winding our way downward into a series of caves.

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

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

I too as have some of you experienced that moment of peace, serenity, in a cave under the Church of the Nativity where Jesus was born.  Yes, we justifiably question whether peace in our world will ever become a reality.  While we await, the scriptures, and our Christian faith, remind us that we too can experience today a foretaste of Christ's coming peace.   The prophet Isaiah says: “God will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on him, because he trusts in God.”

Peace comes when we trust in God's control of events and circumstances, of both our yesterdays and our tomorrows.   Nothing is beyond the control and will of God.  Advent stirs our hearts.  It declares that the future belongs not to evil, not to sin, but to God.  Jesus is coming to establish an unimaginable world.  C.S. Lewis writes: “When the author appears on stage, you know the play is over.”

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

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

I Give You Thanks (Psalm 100) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

You may have heard this story before, but I think it’s worth hearing again.   A couple days before Thanksgiving, a father living in Phoenix telephones his son in New York and says: “I hate to ruin your day son, but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing.  45 years of misery is enough.”  “Dad,” his son shouts, “what do you mean, what are you talking about?”  “We can’t stand the sight of each other any longer,” the father says.  “We’re sick of each other and I’m tired of talking about this so you can call your sister in Chicago and tell her.”  Frantic, the son calls his sister who explodes on the phone.  “Like heck they’re getting divorced, she shouts, I’ll take care of this.”  She phones her Father and says: “You’re not getting divorced.  Don’t do anything. We’ll both be there tomorrow.”  The father hangs up, turns to his wife and says: “It’s OK honey, they’re both coming out for Thanksgiving and paying their own fares.”

Thanksgiving, our national fall festival, will soon be upon us, a day set aside for our nation to pause and give thanks.   Let’s go back for a moment in history.  We remember the Pilgrims, who sailed from England to Plymouth Mass, in 1620.  A year later they celebrated a feast in the autumn of 1621, after a year of sickness and scarcity. They celebrated together with the local Indians, to give thanks to God for their first successful harvest.  Half their number had died, they were people without a country, but to these people of strong Christian faith, this was a joyous outpouring of gratitude to God.

In the midst of a brutal Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, established a special day called Thanksgiving.  He wrote: “I invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father.  And I recommend that they fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty’s hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as may be consistent with the Divine purpose to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and union.”

Clearly, the origin of Thanksgiving Day was not merely a generic day of gratitude, but a day to specifically give thanks and praise to God and to seek God’s intervention in bringing reconciliation and healing amidst our War Between the States.

I, like you, am grateful for many things.  For my wife, for my family, for friends, for serving as pastor at PBPC.   What are you thankful for?   I am also thankful for our American time tested process of changing the highest office of the land, the President of the United States.  It is an orderly and peaceful transition.  Yes, the campaigns by both candidates were spirited, to say the least.  But rather than power being changed by a coup, by assassination, by wars, by violence, we heard how President Obama and President-elect Trump met for a private conversation for over an hour.  Power is handed over from the current president to the incoming president.  And now as one administration is moving out of the White House and another is moving in, we await the final step, the inauguration scheduled for January 20, 2017.  However you feel about the outcome of the election, you must respect the orderly and smooth transfer of power in some 73 days.

The Bible exhorts you and me as people of faith to give thanks to God.  Psalm 100 says: “Enter His gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise, give thanks to him, bless his name for the lord is good, his steadfast love endures forever.”  We are to give thanks because the God we worship is good and because his love is steadfast.  In Psalm 138, listen to how this poet jubilantly expresses his faith: “I give you thanks O Lord, with my whole heart, before the gods I sing your praise; I bow down toward your holy temple, and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness.  On the day I called, you answered me; you increased my strength of soul.”  This psalmist had prayed to God for inner-strength, for God to lift his soul, and deliver him from some ordeal and God answered his prayer.  Has God answered a prayer you have made for inner-strength and courage in a difficult situation?  Has God ever delivered you from a threatening or troubling situation?

In the letter of I Thessalonians, we hear this exhortation: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  Why have a thankful heart in all circumstances?   God knows that giving thanks and being thankful is good for our character as human beings and for our faith as God’s people.  If we have a thankful spirit, we can perceive special blessings, small miracles, new possibilities, second chances, hints and flashes of God’s amazing grace through unexpected people and events.     If we lack a grateful heart, we miss these things.

How does God desire for us to give thanks?  To worship Him, to pray, to express thankfulness in words and actions.  It is after-all Thanks-giving, not Thanks-taking.  One example is churches which are planting community gardens all around the country including Northminster Presbyterian Church in Clairemont.  Some churches in New Jersey have become part-time farmers, growing more than 300,000 pounds of food for needy people last year.  Christians are supplying a critical need for families who rely on food banks and soup kitchens, where fresh fruits and vegetables are often in short supply.   What a glorious way of giving thanks.

Reflect for a moment on these key biblical truths.  First, a thankful heart can reduce stress in your life by making you more content with who you are and what you have.  You will be freer from the anxiety that goes with being resentful and dissatisfied.  Second, a grateful heart can increase joy by enlarging your sense of God’s abundant blessings.  Focusing on blessings, for which you are grateful, helps to develop a sense of just how much there is to be thankful for.  Third, a grateful heart builds relationships.  Thank-less, ungrateful people repel; thankful, appreciative people attract other peoples.  Expressing our gratitude to others draws us closer to people and them to us.  Fourth, giving thanks for the gift of life brings us ever closer to the Giver of life, to God.   Fifth, if we cannot learn to be a thankful person, we can become bitter and callous and insensitive toward others. Further, we can become totally self-absorbed and thereby develop an attitude of entitlement and narcissism.  Praying steadily to God, walking humbly with God, sharing with others builds a thankful spirit.

A thankful heart can positively affect the people around you.  It can influence their attitudes, their identity, their spirit, their self esteem, their behavior.   Like the story about a couple named Larry and Jo Ann.   The author writes:

“One day, a most extraordinary event took place.  The husband Larry said to his wife: “Jo Ann, I’ve got a magic chest of drawers.  Every time I open them, they’re full of socks and t-shirts and underwear.  I want to thank you for filling them all these years.   Jo Ann stared at her husband over the top of her glasses.  “What do you want, Larry?”  “Nothing, I just want you to know I appreciate those magic drawers.”  This wasn’t the first time Larry had done something odd, so Jo Ann pushed the incident out of her mind until a few days later.

Jo Ann, that was a great dinner,” Larry said one evening.  I appreciate all your effort.  Why, in the past 15 years, I’ll bet you’ve fixed over 14,000 meals for me and the kids.”  A few days later, Larry said: “Jo Ann, the house looks spiffy.  You’ve really worked hard to get it looking so good. Thanks Jo Ann, for just being you.”

Jo Ann was now growing worried.  Where’s the sarcasm, the criticism, the impatience she wondered.  Whatever was wrong, Larry didn’t get over it.  Day in and day out he continued focusing on the positive.  Jo Ann’s step was now a little lighter, her self-confidence higher and once in a while she hummed.  She didn’t seem to have as many blue moods anymore.  She rather liked Larry’s new behavior.  That would be the end of the story except one day another most extraordinary event took place.  This time it was Jo Ann who spoke. “Larry, I want to thank you for going to work and providing for us all these years.  I don’t think I’ve ever told you how much I appreciate it.”

The author continues: “Larry has never revealed the reason for his dramatic change of behavior.  No matter how hard I pushed for an answer; it will likely remain one of life’s mysteries.  But it’s one I’m thankful to live with.  You see, the author writes, I am Jo Ann.”

Enter His gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise, give thanks to him, bless his name for the lord is good, his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.”   May God bless you and yours on this Thanksgiving!  Amen

Friday, November 11, 2016

Not in Vain (l Corinthians 15:58) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

The weekend following September 11th, 2001, syndicated columnist and former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan drove to Lower Manhattan to witness the relief effort taking place at Ground Zero. She found herself focusing on the convoy of trucks filled with rescue workers coming off their 12-hour shifts. The men in the trucks were construction and electrical workers, police, emergency medical workers, and firemen. It was a procession of the not-so-rich and famous.

She writes: “These New Yorkers had become celebrities, more significant than any Broadway act.   A large crowd of onlookers were cheering the workers with shouts of "God bless you!" and "We love you!" They clapped and blew kisses.  I looked around and saw who were cheering. Investment bankers! Orthodontists! Magazine editors! A lawyer, a columnist, and a writer. We had been the kings and queens of the city, respected professionals in a city that respects its professional class.  And this night we were nobody. We were so useless, all we could do was applaud the somebodies, the workers who, unlike us, had not been applauded much in their lives…. I was so moved and grateful. Because they'd always been the people who ran the place, who kept it going, they'd just never been given their due.”

On that tragic day, rather than talking them for granted, the world recognized how useful, how indispensable construction and electrical workers, police and firemen, and emergency medical workers are to a city.

Which leads us to our scripture lesson: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain.”

How ironic.   The apostle Paul who wrote these words, personally knew not only success and joy in his life and ministry, but failure, discouragement, disappointment, and frustration.  He had endured persecution and threats, but in his hearts of hearts, he still knew God would honor his ministry to the Gentiles.

Paul writes: “I have been shipwrecked on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, in cold and exposure.  And apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches.”   That is, the churches which he and other apostles had planted.

In the Lord your labor is not in vain.”   Here are words of wisdom, words of spiritual maturity, words of truth, words used to depending upon the grace of God.   I admire the apostle Paul.  Despite daily facing obstacles and setbacks in his work, he believed in his heart that God was blessing his preaching, his pastoring, and his work of planting churches.   He believed that his work was not in vain.

By faith, you too have the power to endure, to push on, to not allow yourself to be defeated in your work.  You have the power to persevere.   You have the power to devise new plans and approaches.  You have the power to cast off bad habits and learn good habits.   And that power is the power of our Lord, the power of his victory over death, the power of the Holy Spirit, which comes to us through faith.

There is a work of difference between feeling useless and useful, helpless and helpful.  Spiritual wisdom is the conviction deep in your soul, that whether your efforts and energies produce results or not, they mean something in the purpose of God, in the mind of God, in the kingdom of God.  They weren't wasted.  That conviction lifts our soul.

We must never forget that we are engaging in a spiritual battle, in spiritual warfare.  The book of James says – “Resist the devil and the negative thoughts which can poison our life.”  Why - because Satan promotes a defeatist attitude.  The devil knows that a discouraged Christian is ineffectual, your power and influence to be a vital witness to Jesus Christ is mitigated at best and shut-down at worst.   You can’t share Christ’s joy when there is no joy in your heart to share.  

What is your deepest frustration today?   You are putting forth effort, but feel like you’re getting nowhere, you are just spinning your wheels?  God’s word is clear.  First, always abounding in the work of the Lord means be steadfast in the work of the Lord.  Don't allow others to discourage or stop you.  Stand firm and steady.  Don't give up, or give in or give out.  Second, always abounding in the work of the Lord means give yourself daily and fully to God, relying upon God’s strength, and not just your own, praying for how God wants to use you in His service.   Sometimes we are completely surprised with how God decides to us.

And third, knowing that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain.  It’s never in vain when you prayerfully commit your efforts to God, when you ask for God's inspiration and power and blessing, when you humbly and sincerely dedicate your work to God, even though at times you fail to reach your goal or produce results.   Results may not be visible, but that doesn’t mean God is not working in an imperceptible way using your time and efforts and energy and prayers.

The book of Hebrews reaffirms God’s promise: “God is not unjust; he will not overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints.”    God never forgets work done in His name.  God remembers your labor.   God knows your efforts to love others and serve and glorify Him.  God sees what you have done and are doing and what these things mean for His kingdom.

I recall an intervention I was involved in with a family in our church in Monument, CO.  One of the family members had been an alcoholic for over 20 years.  The family had tried everything but to no avail.  This time it worked. The son made the commitment and joined AA. This family had the joy of seeing the results of their prayers and work over many years come to fruition.  Their work in the Lord was not in vain.  Praise God.

I remember a mother at our church in Santa Monica.  I knew she had been estranged from her daughter for many years.  The daughter had refused to have any communication at all with her mother.  The mother continued to pray and reach out through the mail and leave occasional phone messages on her daughter’s voice mail.  After 10 years, one day, the daughter phoned her and invited her mother to lunch.  It was a glorious day of where a mother and daughter were reconciled.  Praise God.

Open your heart.  Allow God’s word to encourage you.  God may bless you and you see results immediately.  Hallelujah.  God may bless you and you see results later on in your life.    Hallelujah.  God may bless you and you see results, not in this life, but in the life to come.  Hallelujah.    God has made you a promise.  Have confidence in the promise of God.   Amen!

Friday, November 4, 2016

What God Requires! (Micah 6:6-8) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A man named Jeff, living in Denver, after reading an advertisement offering firewood for $60.00 a cord, including delivery, decided to phone in an order.  When the man came by and finished stacking the order, Jeff was upset saying, “that’s not a full cord of wood.”  The seller replied firmly, “That’s what I call a cord.”  Grudgingly, Jeff pulled some bills out of his wallet and handed them to the man.  Hey, just a minute, the man complained after counting the money, you only gave me $30.00 dollars.  Jeff shrugged his shoulders and replied, “That’s what I call $60.00.”

Let us now turn to the passage from the prophet Micah.  Micah is preaching to his fellow Jews and asks a rhetorical question: “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before God on high?  Shall I come with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?  Shall I come with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil?  Shall I give my firstborn for my sins, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”   The prophet answers the question – “God has told you Oh 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.

Our Judeo-Christian tradition, based in Scripture, declares that justice, fairness, righteousness, in our relationships with God and one another, is grounded not in society, and not in man, but in our understanding of the nature or being of God.  God is just.  God is righteous.  God treats us fairly and in turn God expects us to treat one another fairly.

God wills that his people be good, that we lead righteous lives.  Goodness has something to do with practicing justice or righteousness, kindness and humility.  This a command from God to you and to me.  It is not a request, not a recommendation, not a suggestion, not an option; it’s a requirement for believers and followers of God.

In the eighth century, Micah lived during a time of when the social order, the moral structure of Israel’s society, was in decline.  The rich and powerful were exploiting the poor.  Corruption was rampant.  Immorality was flagrant.  Idolatry was in vogue.   Social and economic injustice was widespread.   Merchants used false scales, weights and measures to exploit the poor peasants and farmers.  Officials and judges took bribes. Farmers suffered at the hands of powerful landlords.  Micah writes: “When they want fields they seize them, when they want houses, they take them.  No man’s family or property is safe. The righteous are sold for silver; the needy for a pair of shoes, the poor were trampled upon.”

Temple worship was strong, attendance was high, animal sacrifices were at an all-time high, people brought generous offerings to the temple, but hypocrisy ruled the day.  Micah’s message was a warning that God’s judgment was coming and he was giving people an opportunity to repent.  Prophet Amos says: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”

God has a special concern in his heart for the poor, the oppressed, and powerless.  The book of Proverbs says: “Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.”  Prophet Isaiah says: “Stop doing wrong, learn to do right.  Seek justice, love good, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”  I John says: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”

When you think of justice what comes to mind?  It’s an abstract concept.  We think of social justice, criminal justice, legal justice, justice in heath care, justice for crime victims, racial justice, religious justice, economic justice, environmental justice, all of which fall under the rubric of justice.

Here is a tragic example.  In an article in the San Diego Union Tribune, date June 14, 2016, just a few months ago, we read:

Human trafficking investigators have dismantled what they described as the first - members-only Internet prostitution ring of its kind in San Diego, run by two local men who lured in vulnerable women and allowed customers to post reviews of their “performance.”  These men picked up women who were down and out on the streets, many of whom had drug problems, and persuaded them to entrust their care to them.  The men are alleged to have given these women drugs and money. Then they would post their photos on a Facebook page, where they were made available for paid sex.  About 900 members were active when authorities shut down the website, police said.

“This is ground-breaking,” San Diego police Capt. Brian Ahearn said of the sex ring. “This is a very covert operation that was very well-planned and very sophisticated.”  The case wrapped up with the arrests of Dale Vinzant, 68, of Mission Beach, operator of San Diego Adult Service Provider and Christian Koalani, 66, of Pacific Beach, who ran American Escort Company.  They are in jail pending a trial.  I say thank you and praise God for the San Diego Human Trafficking Task Force of the SDPD.

What are you and I doing for others in the name of fairness and justice?  Perhaps God is calling you to help someone in this important way.

Further, God calls us to practice kindness, to love mercy.   Kindness was desperately needed in Israel during the prophet Micah’s time.  So it is true today.    God is merciful, compassionate, kind and God’s word to us is to love kindness.

Herbert Prochnow wrote: “You may be sorry that you spoke, sorry you stayed or went, sorry you won or lost, sorry you thought the worst, sorry so much was spent.  But as you go through life, you’ll find you were never sorry, you were kind.”

Like the story a teacher writes about a little boy in elementary school.   “In our town's elementary school at the beginning of the year, the school secretary routinely collects the lunch money from the new kindergartners.  This solves the problem of lost money. But for nervous 5-year-olds, it took a while to understand what was happening.   For the first few of days, the school secretary would come into the classroom and announce:  "Does anybody have any lunch money for me?" Her question was met with no response.  On the third day, one little boy came in at the bell, walked hesitantly to my desk, held out his hand and whispered, "Here is money from my piggy bank for that poor lady who needs money for lunch.”

I recall the story of the woman who pulled up to a tollbooth at the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge, and said: “I’m paying for myself and the six cars behind me.”  The next six drivers arrive at the booth, money in hand, and were told: “Some lady ahead already paid your fare, have a nice day.”  The woman, it turned out, had read a note taped to a friend’s refrigerator, “Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.

I personally notice it when I’m driving.  Those unexpected acts of kindness, which we used to call courtesy, when someone lets you change lanes or enter the street from a driveway.  If I were to ask tell me a story of when someone was mean or rude, or disrespectful or unkind to you or someone you know, we might be here all day.   But can you also point to stories of someone who was kind to you or to someone else?

When was the last time you were kind to someone?  When was the last time someone was kind to you?  People remember when you have been kind to them.  They don’t quickly forget.  Even small kindnesses make a big difference in another’s life.   Just when you are down, just when you are discouraged, a simple and timely act of kindness can renew your faith in God and humanity and lift your downcast spirit.

One of my favorite quotes is by Quaker William Penn: “I expect to pass through life but once.  If therefore there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.”

Finally, the prophet says, “God has told you, O man, what is good; the Lord requires of you to walk humbly with your God."  Now let’s be honest.  In our aggressive, assertive, competitive culture who wants to walk humbly?  Who really believes Jesus when he says in Matthew: "Blessed are the humble, for they shall inherit the earth."

But God says there’s something good about being humble, something noble about being meek. It’s out of fashion in our culture, this is true, but God says be humble, which does not mean being submissive or subservient or passive!   It doesn’t mean being weak or being a doormat.   Walking humbly simply means you’re comfortable in your own skin.  You accept who you are.  You know yourself.  You are not racked by insecurity or neediness.  You aren’t always trying to prove something to others.

It frees you to do things for others without a need for recognition or praise. It doesn’t mean thinking less of yourself; it means you think of yourself less, and think of others more.    Walking humbly before God means we don’t take ourselves too seriously.  You can laugh at yourself. Humility enables you to recognize that life is a gift from God that you accept with gratitude, rather than an attitude of entitlement.  Pride, hubris, insecurity low self-worth are the enemies of humility.  Walking humbly means you put your ultimate trust in God and believe with all your heart that you are valued and loved by God.

Dr. John Ortman, pastor of a large church in N. CA. tells the following story. 

“We were with friends at an open-air street fair, when we spotted a mechanical bull that tries to buck people off. The guy operating the bull said, "Watching it isn't nearly as fun as riding." So I told the bull operator that I wanted to ride. He took one look at my middle-aged body and asked, "Sir, are you sure?”

He explained to me that the bull has 12 levels of difficulty. "It might not be easy," he said, “you have to follow the bull. You have to shift your center of gravity as the bull moves."  So I got on the bull and it started slow, and then it started moving faster and I was holding on real tight.

It kept moving and twisting and jolting and bucking and jumping.  I was huffing and puffing. I was hanging on sideways. My arms were flailing around. But I hung on and finally the bull slowed down and stopped, and I was still on the bull.  I imagined how impressed my friends were, not to mention the operator.  I felt pretty good.  I gave him a look and he smiled and said, "Nice job, that was level one."

Jesus says lead good lives.  True worship, true belief, true obedience must translate into an ethical concern for others.  And God clearly tells us what it means to be a good person: “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God."  Amen!

Friday, October 28, 2016

“Our Gifts in God’s Hands” (Chronicles 29:14) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A mother gave her 8 year old daughter a one-dollar bill and a quarter.  "Sweetheart," she said, as they entered church, "you can place either one in the offering plate.  It's entirely up to you.  As they were driving home, the mother asked her daughter what she had decided to give.  "Well, at first I was going to give the dollar," said the daughter. "But the man behind the pulpit said God loves a cheerful giver, and I felt I would be a lot more cheerful if I gave the quarter instead."

A pastor in Salt Lake City was challenging his congregation to give money so that the church might reach its goal for their mission.  He said: “God gave you talents, use those abilities to give money to the church and glory to God.”  So a member of the church, James Hatch, robbed a Salt Lake City bank of $2500.00 and gave it to the church.  He said he was following the pastor’s sermon and using his God given gift to give back to the Lord.  I have to wonder if being good at robbing banks is a gift of the Lord?  Oh and please know I that I am not suggesting anything like that today.

It is stewardship time and our theme for this coming year is: Our Gifts in God’s Hands!   Our gifts, your gifts and mine, are from God’s Hands and for God’s Hands.  God is the author and creator of life.  God is the source of our existence.  God breathed life into us.   Everything is owned by and belongs to God.   Our lives were not an accident, the result of a sudden explosion of some primeval gases.   Your life is on loan from God.

The book of Genesis tells us that God created us in His image and commanded us to be fruitful and multiply.  God delegated to us the task of exercising responsible authority over all living things.  God created us to live purposeful, meaningful and loving lives.  God gave us gifts/talents to help us fulfill His plan and purpose for us. We are God’s stewards, managers, representatives.  We have the resources of the world at our disposal.  We are ultimately accountable to God in terms of how we spend our time, our years upon this earth.

Perhaps that’s one difference between an atheist and a theist, one who believes in God.  An atheist says: “It’s my life, I can live it any way I choose.”  A  believer says: “My life is not my own, it belongs to God.”   The one says:  “I’m not accountable to anyone.”  “The other says: “I am accountable to God.”

Switzerland is known for its luxury watches.  Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe has also become well-known for clever advertising slogans, such as: "You never actually own a Patek Philippe; you merely take care of it for the next generation."   And so it is with our lives.

What gifts come from God?   We hear God’s word in our lesson from I Chronicles.  It’s the story of God calling the people of Israel to build the temple in Jerusalem.  King David gave generously toward the project.  We are told: “Then the leaders of families, the officers of the tribes of Israel, the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds and the officials in charge of the king’s work gave willingly.”

The temple was to be a sacred place where God was worshipped, but it was also to be a symbol that Israel was to be a light to the world.  David praises God:  “Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours.  Wealth and honor come from you; you are the ruler of all things.  In your hands are strength and power to exalt, and give strength to all.  Now our God we give you thanks and praise for your glorious name.  But who am I and who are my people that we should be able to give as generously as this?  Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.”

What gifts has God given you that you are grateful for?  What gifts have come from God’s hands to you?  – the gift of relationships, families, the gift of mentors, the gift of friendships, the gift of children and grandchildren, the gift of meaning and purpose and hope, the gift of freedom to use our minds and hearts, the gift of the ability to plan for our future, the gift of caring for others and being cared for by others, the gift of creating, the gift of having the power and courage to make changes in our lives, the gift of adapting to new environments and to social change around us, the gift of our body, athletic abilities, leadership gifts, artistic gifts, gifts of imagination, teachings gifts, the spiritual gift and discipline to lead a moral life, the gifts of time, and resources.

As Christians we have the gift of religious belief, the gift of faith, the gift of trusting in one who is our Lord, the gifts of prayer, the Bible and the family of God.  We have the gift of the gospel, that God sent Jesus to the world to bring repentance, salvation from sin and new life.  We have the gift of Eternal life, the gift of the Holy Spirit.  We have gifts of one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.  We have the gift of being able to love because God first loved us.  When we bring our gifts before God, we are giving back, as King David said, what has come from God’s hands. We offer them in humble adoration and praise.  God blesses them and our gifts are used in God’s hands for God’s purposes.

The Bible also speaks about our attitude toward giving.  We are to cultivate and use our gifts and not waste them.  We are to share our gifts and not hoard them.  We are to give thanks to God for our gifts and not be smug about them.  We are to honor and glorify God with what we do with our gifts and not only please ourselves.  We must not become overly attached to our gifts, that is, turn them into idols which we worship or become slaves to them.    We are expected to be disciplined and responsible in the way we use these gifts.

Further, I think we must watch out about being ungrateful, unappreciative, about not being content with our gifts.  Like the story about the mother and son who were walking in a forest. One day when they were outside a tornado surprised them.  The mother clung to a tree and tried to hold her son.  But the swirling winds carried him into the sky.  He was gone. The woman began to weep and pray: "Please, O Lord, bring back my boy!  He's all I have. I'd do anything not to lose him. If you'll bring him back, I'll serve you all my days." Suddenly the boy toppled from the sky, right at her feet, a bit mussed up, but safe and sound. His mother picked him up, brushed him off, paused, looked upwards and said, "Oh one thing more Lord, He wore a hat?"

Our gifts in God’s hands.  We honor God when we are involved in and sharing in the work of His Kingdom, that is, when God’s will is being accomplished.   Like our weekly Youth program where youth from the community and our congregation are growing in their Christian faith, led by Robert Gerow and his dedicated volunteers.  And our weekly Kingdom Kids program, where children from our preschool and community, led by Grant and Kat, and volunteers, learn about Jesus and the Bible and enjoy games, meals, crafts and music.  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 55 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.

Our Sunday Evening Roots worship service and ministry, reaches 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 are moved in worship by the music of hand bells from our Crusader's under the leadership of Esther.

We see God at work in our prayer and healing ministries and in our congregational care ministry under the leadership of Donna Pierce and volunteers, 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.   We serve in partnership with the Lord in reaching out to our community in events such as Pacific Beachfest and Graffiti Day.  We see God’s hand at work in military and other families which attend our Friday Pizza and Movie Night ministry. 

God has blessed the community through our congregation's Sunday Night Ministry, by providing meals for nearly 100 homeless people each week for over two decades under the leadership of Janice Minor and Neil Charette and many volunteers?  We weekly serve nearly 300 homeless people through our mail service, where we provide our church address as a way for homeless people to receive mail, from government checks to personal mail.  No other churches in our community offer this service.  I often hear homeless 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.

We see God’s hands at work as we provide clothing and food, volunteers and financial support  to CCSA, Meals on Wheels, Monarch school, Voice of the Martyrs, 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 under the leadership of George Shoemaker and other volunteers.

I want to both personally and on behalf of the elders, thank you for your faith, your generous commitment and your support this year.   We are asking for your prayerful 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.  Christ will use your giving for His work in our community and world.  Every pledge, every donation, every gift, every offering counts.    Commitment Sunday is next week, October 30.  We will have a basket on the chancel and invite you to place your pledges of commitment into the basket.  And be confident, knowing that your gifts are securely in the Hands of God.  Amen!