Friday, January 29, 2016

Jesus Called Fishermen (Matthew 4:12-22) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

The movie, The Perfect Storm, described the dangers of the fishing industry through the eyes of the crew of the fishing boat, the Andrea Gail.  Out of their need to bring home a prime catch of fish, the captain and crew decide to risk everything and travel to the distant, but fertile fishing ground, called the Flemish Cap.  It is a dangerous journey during the unpredictably stormy month of October.  On their way back to Gloucester, Massachusetts, the Andrea Gail encounters the "perfect storm" of 1991 and is never heard from again. Sebastian Junger, author of the book The Perfect Storm writes:  "There are many kinds of work that are dangerous, but one of the interesting things about fishing is that it really hasn't changed much over time.  It's been mechanized, of course, but the basic reality of going to sea for months at a stretch is the same as it was 100 years ago. You're way beyond help from anyone else; you're on your own. I think that forms a certain kind of character. Not only does everyone know someone who has died at sea but everyone who works in the fishing industry has almost died.  Every single fisherman you talk to has almost gotten nailed at one time or another."

Our story from the Gospel of Matthew says that one day Jesus was walking along the Shores of Lake Galilee, when he sees Simon and his brother Andrew fishing with nets.  Jesus calls out to them, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  He was asking them to leave their fishing business, their trade, their livelihood, and to help others find God, to change from being fishermen to becoming missionaries, to stop catching fish and to start catching people.

Our story says that at once they left their nets and went along with him.  A little farther up the beach, Jesus sees Zebedee's sons, James and John, in a boat with their father preparing their nets.  He calls out to them too, and immediately they leave their father Zebedee in the boat and follow him.

Now in Jesus' day, like today, fishermen fished both from the shore and from boats.  The difference is that in Jesus' day they didn't use fishing poles.  While walking along the shore, you would cast out a large net into the sea to catch fish.  When fishing from a boat, you also would cast out a large net into the water, wait for awhile, or troll a bit, and then haul the net into the boat.  Now maybe that's why I'm such a poor fisherman, I've been using fishing poles, I should try a net.

Some thoughts come to mind when you hear this story.  Fishing from boats was indeed a dangerous business.  The Sea of Galilee was notorious for fierce sudden storms appearing, threatening to capsize boats and drown fishermen.  I think about how these fishermen didn't know Jesus, he was a stranger, and yet they trusted him enough to leave everything and follow him.  I think about how these fishermen didn't take time to return home and consider carefully about changing professions.  Clearly it was something about Jesus' personal magnetism, his spiritual power, that motivated them to go with him. 

And I always wonder about their father, Zebedee.  I can picture him shouting: “James, John, Son's, where are you going, what are you doing, you can't just leave me like this, what about your poor father, what about the family business?”  I wonder how happy he was at seeing his sons walk off with Jesus.   Regardless, Jesus called them to go with him to share the gospel, to draw people to Jesus, like these fishermen used to draw fish to their boats.

Why did Jesus call fishermen and what are some implications for our lives in this story?  I think Jesus called them to be his followers because they were teachable.  Dr. David McKenna writes:  “Jesus chose working people rather than the well-trained religious leaders of his day, because it is easier to learn than to unlearn.  One must have a teachable spirit in order to learn.  One must be open to the truth in order to receive the truth.  Truth and teachability go hand in hand.”

No, these fishermen didn't have the whole truth about God, the whole truth about Jesus and the Kingdom of God imparted to them instantly or magically.  But they were willing to take the first step.  They were willing to learn.  They were going to spend three years in training as Jesus' followers in the power of the Holy Spirit.  They would be learning each day from Jesus' teachings and example.

There are some churches today that won't change, change the way they have done things for many years, because sadly, they are no longer willing to learn or experiment or try out new ideas, they are no longer teachable.  There are some believers who have been longtime followers of Jesus who won't re-examine their thinking, they believe they have heard it all, there is nothing new for them to learn about faith.  They are unwilling to look at their faith in a new way, because they are no longer teachable.  There is still much to learn about what it means to stand for Christ in our fast changing world.   So the question is are you still teachable?  Do you have a desire to continue learning and growing in your faith?  Are you still open to hearing a new word of God?

Which brings us back to the first disciples.  Why did Jesus call fishermen?  I think he also called them because they were decisive, no rash or impulsive, but decisive.  They made their decision without undue delay.  They saw a new opportunity before them and seized it.  They left their nets and followed Jesus.   Procrastination is a problem for most people.  Is it for you? Procrastination has been called the thief of time and the graveyard of opportunities.  Why decide today when we can put if off for tomorrow.

This is a criticism I have heard for years from church members.   Our church, PBPC, being the exception of course.  People have said:  “I will serve anywhere in church except on a committee.”  Someone comes up with a bright and exciting idea.  It sounds right.  It is the right idea for the right time.  And then another person says:  “Good, let's form a committee to talk about it.”  And it takes time to recruit committee members, to find a chairperson, to set schedules, etc. and months go by with no results.  It is the problem of too much talk and too little action.

No not always, not in every instance, I agree.  As a pastor I have worked with many teams or committees over the years and we have accomplished some great things for Christ.  But we know there are times when you have to act quickly.  Like the story of the man who in a panic called an insurance agent.  He asked, “Can I insure my house?”  The agent said, “Why, of course you can.  We'll set up a time and I'll come out, probably next week, I'll bring all the paperwork and look at your house.”  The caller replied, “Oh, well, can I do it over the telephone?”  The agent responded, “No, I'm sorry.  I'll have to come over and look at your house first.”  The caller said, “Well, you better hurry and get out here my house is on fire.”

Sometimes there are issues, there are challenges, there are crises too important to put off.   When we hear God's word, we often find two conflicting inner voices.  One telling us - look before you leap, don't get involved, you can always put it off and do it later on.

The other is a voice urging us to trust and obey God's call today.  We can't have it both ways.  We can't waver.  Like those fishermen, can you still act decisively when you hear the word of God?

Why did Jesus call fishermen?  I think he called them because he knew they possessed courage.  Maybe that comes with the trade.  You can't be a wimp and brave the storms and perils of the life of a fisherman.  Perhaps this is why Jesus started with lay people, rather than clergy, fishermen, rather than highly educated priests or rabbis.  He wanted people who had been tried and tested by the wind and waves of life, not people who had been sheltered in the Temple.  Jesus knew these fishermen had been tested in every way.   He wanted people who could look persecution, and even death itself, in the face.

At age 26, Ken Elzinga joined the faculty of the University of Virginia. After a tenured colleague warned him that being explicit about his faith would hinder his career, Elzinga was stunned to see a flier with his face on a bulletin board on campus.   It was promoting a talk on faith he had agreed to give.  He started to worry. Would fellow professors think less of him? Might this harm his tenure chances? He experienced a dark night of the soul, returning to campus that night and secretly taking the poster down.  But the next morning, Elzinga put the poster back up. After hours of soul-searching, he concluded that his life was not about career ambition, but about faithful discipleship, and that being private about his faith was not an option.

In the four decades since, Elzinga has been named professor of the year multiple times and is still a speaker in high demand. He will be the first to say that serving only one master has been liberating. Why? Because pleasing an audience of one makes us less anxious, less sensitive to criticism, and more courageous. Because it’s about His honor and not ours.

We know that in those times when we lack courage, and we all face such times, we can pray to God for a spirit of courage, and God will answer our prayer.   Yes, it takes courage to be a fisherman. And it takes courage to fish for the souls of people.

The story raises questions.  Does the church too often play it safe rather than taking risks?  Do we Christians, including pastors, too often play it safe, rather then stepping out in Jesus' name?   Like those fishermen, can you act with courage when you hear the word of God calling you?

Jesus called those disciples and He calls each of us to follow him.  He calls us to be teachable, to be decisive, and to witness with courage.  Those fishermen followed Jesus and little did they know that day, that their decision would change their lives forever.  When Jesus calls you to serve him, to worship him, to lead a life like his, remember the inspiration of the fishermen and follow.  Amen!

Friday, January 22, 2016

Are there still surprises? (Acts 9:10-19) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

This story was sent  to the Reader's Digest.  A man was just stepping out of the shower one evening, when his wife yelled out asking him to run down to the basement and turn off the iron which she had accidentally left on.  Without bothering to grab a towel or robe, the man headed down to the basement.  Just as he reached the bottom stair, the lights came on and a dozen friends and colleagues jumped out and shouted – Surprise!  His wife had planned a surprise party for her husband's 40th birthday.

Yes, surprises are a part of life.  Good surprises and unfortunately bad ones.  Can you think of a time when you were completely surprised?   What an experience when something totally unexpected occurs.   You interview for a job, you feel the interview didn't go well, you write it off, then the phone rings and you're offered the job.  Or your rather low offer on a house or condo, which you think the owner is laughing at, is accepted.  Or you learn that your pregnant.  Or you unexpectedly meet someone and fall in love.  Or you reluctantly, against your better judgment, buy a ticket and win POWERBALL.  Or yes, someone throws you a surprise birthday party.

Now in saying this I'm not being Pollyanna here.  I'm not looking through rose colored glasses.   I am well aware of the disappointment and hurt which is also a part of life.   As a pastor, I have ministered to families in nearly every conceivable situation.   I am aware of the mournful and unfair side of life.   But nevertheless, sometimes we get so wrapped up in the negative, in dwelling on disappointments, in being pessimistic, in giving into bitterness,  that we are blind to or miss out on life's joyful surprises.   Or maybe I'm off base.

For you see, surprises are also a part of the Kingdom of God.  Surprises are also a part of God's will for our lives.  God surprises us with His actions in the world.  They too are a part of God's purposes for our lives.  God whom we worship is also a God of surprises.

For example, out of all peoples of the world, God called Abraham and his descendants, and formed the Jewish people, as His chosen people.   Why?  We don't know.  It was God's gracious decision.  God spoke to Israel through the prophet Isaiah:  “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom my soul delights, I will put my spirit upon him.  I have made a covenant with my people, you shall be a light to the nations.

God surprised the world with the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, in the town of Bethlehem.  God surprised the world at Easter, when after Jesus was crucified, had died and was buried, He rose from the tomb as the resurrected Lord and appeared to many.   God surprised the world at Pentecost with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Christian Church.

In Psalm 90, the psalmist prays:  “Surprise us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”   I say Amen to that prayer.  One of my daily prayers in whatever situation I find myself in is:  “God surprise us with your grace.” For God has surprised me with His steadfast love, His faithfulness, His affirmation, with power and strength when my heart was fearful, when I was discouraged, and my knees were weak.   How about you?

Jesus constantly surprised people.  Jesus shocked everyone when he raised Lazarus from the grave.  To the disapproval of some, Jesus treated women, who had low social standing in his day, with respect.  Women were a part of his entourage which traveled with him from village to village.  He spoke to women in public, even prostitutes, even Samaritan women.  To the horror of many, Jesus conversed with and healed lepers.  Jesus appalled the crowds when he encountered Zaccheus, a Jewish tax collector for the Romans.  Zaccheus would knock on your door and say:  “Hi, I'm from the Roman government and I'm here to help you.” 

He was hated by his fellow Jews who considered him a traitor and because he profited by collecting excessive taxes.  He was a short, small man, who avoided crowds because of their anger towards him.  One day in Jericho, Zaccheus heard Jesus was coming to town.  Zaccheus climbed a tree in order to safely see Jesus and spoting him Jesus said: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”  Surprise Zacchaeus.

Jesus was also surprised by people's reactions to him.   Like the extraordinary faith of an unlikely person, a Roman centurion, who asked Jesus to heal his servant.  Jesus said: “I will come to your home and and cure him.”  The centurion replied: “I am not worthy to have you come to my home but only say the word and my servant will be healed.”  Jesus responds: “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.”

Jesus was also surprised and disappointed by the lack of faith among many people from his hometown of Nazareth.  Recall his words: “Prophets are not without honor except in their hometown and in their own house.”  We read: “Jesus did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.

The Bible also speaks about surprising changes in people's lives.  Like our story from Acts.  Before his conversion to Christ, Paul was known in Jewish circles as Saul.  Saul was an agent of the Sanhedrin, the governing body of the temple, charged with finding and arresting followers of this blasphemer and political agitator Jesus.  Saul arrested and imprisoned many of Jesus followers.  His name struck fear in the hearts of Jesus' followers.  One day Saul underwent a dramatic conversion.  On his way to Damascus he was temporarily blinded and hears the voice of the lord calling out to him.  He is brought to Damascus by temple soldiers for a period of rest.

And in the midst of these events the Lord speaks to Ananias saying, “Get up and go to the house of Judas and look for a man of tarsus named Saul.  He has seen you in a vision where you come to him, lay hands on him and he will regain his sight.”

Does Ananias say: “Ready now Lord. No problem Lord, I'm on it.”  Rather Ananias replies:  “Lord, wait just a minute.  I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon your name.”  The Lord replies: “Yes, so true  Ananias, thanks for sharing now go.”   The Lord won't allow Ananias to wimp out.   So Ananias goes to Saul, lays hands on him, witnesses to him, baptizes him, and Saul regains his sight and commits his life to following Christ.  Surprise Ananias.  Surprise Saul, who soon becomes known as Paul.

Yes, there still are surprises in God's kingdom, wherever God reigns, wherever God's hand is at work, wherever God's will is being accomplished, wherever there is faith.  In instances when people have their hopes and dreams dashed, and rather than living a life of bitterness and regret, God's grace leads them to find a new goal, a new passion, a new dream.   In instances when you are ill, and by God's grace you recover and are healed.  In instances where you are terminal, no treatment appears to have a lasting effect, the treatments are no longer effective, and you find acceptance, serenity, and peace in surrendering your will to God's will and your time to God's time.  In instances where you expect to die due to an illness, and yet you continue to live, the years continue to roll by, and you give thanks to God.  In instances where you are grieving, and you receive an unexpected outpouring of support, prayers and encouragement from not only friends and family, but acquaintances and even strangers.   God's still surprises us.

Dr. Ben Carson, one of the Republican candidates for president, has become known throughout the world as a premiere brain surgeon. What you may not know is that he had an uncontrollable temper as a young man. In his book Take the Risk, Dr. Carson writes about the day he invited God to help him deal with this critical character flaw:

One day, as a 14-year-old in ninth grade, I was hanging out at the house of my friend Bob, listening to his radio, when he suddenly leaned over and dialed the tuner to another station. I'd been enjoying the song playing on the first station, so I reached over and flipped it back. Bob switched stations again.

A wave of rage welled up. Almost without thinking, I pulled out the pocketknife I always carried and, in one continuous motion, flicked open the blade and lunged viciously right at my friend's stomach. Incredibly, the point of the knife struck Bob's large metal buckle and the blade snapped off in my hands.  Bob raised his eyes from the broken piece of metal in my hand to my face. He was too surprised to say anything. But I could read the terror in his eyes.

"I…I…I'm sorry!" I sputtered, then dropped the knife and ran for home, horrified by the realization of what I'd just done.

I burst into our empty house, locked myself in the bathroom, and sank to the floor, miserable and frightened. I could no longer deny that I had a severe anger problem, and that I'd never achieve my dream of being a doctor with an uncontrollable temper. I admitted to myself there was no way I could control it alone. "Lord, please, you've got to help me," I prayed. "Take this temper away! You promised that if I ask anything in faith, you'll do it. I believe you can change me."
Gradually I stopped crying, my hands quit shaking, and I was filled with the assurance that God had answered my prayer.  Uncontrolled anger has never again been a threat to me or those around me. God has provided and will provide whatever strength I need to control my anger.

Like Ananias, God's surprises also come when He desires to use you and me in unexpected ways.  All it takes is a listening ear, an open heart, a willingness to serve, surrendering yourself to God, humbling yourself in prayer, the courage to step out in faith.  That's all. 

Think about some person you know who is struggling or in need in some way.  Surprise them.  Surprise yourself.  Do something you would normally not do.  Reach out in a way that is a bit outside your comfort zone.   Stretch yourself.  Step out in faith.

God wants to use you in unexpected ways, in ways you may not believe you are ready for, but God does,  just like God used Ananias.   When we turn to God in faith and prayer, amazing things can happen.   

I want you to hear this word from the Lord.  You know more than you think you know.  You are stronger than you realize.  You are more capable than you give yourself credit for.  You can endure more than you believe.  God will supply what you need when you are following his calling.  God can make things happen through you, when you trust in Him.

Yes, God brings surprises into our lives.  And God desires to use you and me in unexpected ways.  Be alert, be ready, for God's surprises are still very much alive.  Amen.

Friday, January 15, 2016

New Year’s Resolutions (Ephesians 4:22-5:2) by Grant Kay

In Ephesians 4:22-5:2, Paul writes,
“22 You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. 28 Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. 5 1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2 and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Another new year is upon us, and I’m sure for many of you, like myself, you have made new years resolutions in an effort to improve yourself this year. For some the resolution is to get in shape and lose weight, for others it is to kick a bad habit or start a new hobby. I have all three of those resolutions and then some! Whatever your resolution, for most people the idea is to make themselves better people and start living the life they want to live. This is a good thing! We should always be striving to become better people, especially more Christ-like people, so that our lives can be an example to other people of the power of God in our lives.

In the same way that people make new years resolutions, today I want to suggest that we as a church should make new years resolutions together. Just like each of us individually, our community always has ways to improve. There are things we do well and things we can do better at. There are ways in which God wants us to move forward as a community, and we need to spend time in prayer both individually and together to discern what God wants from us this year. But I believe God has big plans for this church. Even though we may not know specifically what God has in store for us, scripture gives us a guide to some of the ways we can begin to live and think differently headed into this year.

Paul reminds us that we have been called by God to put off our old selves and become new people in God. Scripture talks of us being born again, re-born in the Holy Spirit. This rebirth allows us to shed the old person we used to be and become new people in Christ. In a sense this is the Christian version of a new years resolution. Paul reminds us that as Christians we are called to remove the old person and put on the new person, or in other words to become more like Christ. So Paul wants us to boldly reshape our lives, to become more like the God who saves us. And there are several different ways in which Paul suggests we can become more like Christ. Let’s look at a few resolutions for us for the new year from this passage.

Our first resolution is to remember who we are. As Paul talks about all of the things he encourages us to do, he always returns to reminders of who we are and what that means. Paul tells us that we have a new self, created to be like God in righteousness and holiness. He reminds us that we are all members of one body, that we are sealed up with the Holy Spirit, that we have been forgiven, and that we are God’s children. These constant reminders give us the reasons why we change our behavior and strive to become more like Christ. Without consistent reminders of who we were and who we are, the commands of God become mere rules to follow or commandments to avoid punishment. But as we are reminded of our new status as children of God, members of the body of Christ, forgiven partners of the Holy Spirit, we see the commandments of God as the words of a loving father who wants the best for us and from us.

So how do we live out this resolution? By reminding one another who we are together. We resolve to gather in fellowship with our sisters and brothers in Christ, to be reminded that we are new people through God’s work of salvation. If you are feeling discouraged this year, if you have a moment of weakness or temptation, remember that you are forgiven by God, that you have been made new. If you are feeling lonely, remember that you are one member in the giant body of Christ, and you can turn to any other member of that body for comfort and friendship. As we work to better ourselves and the world around us, we need to keep always before us the reminder that we work and change because we are the chosen people of God who have been saved by grace.

The second resolution for this year is to use our words wisely, to speak honestly and build one another up. Paul reminds us to put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor. A little later in the passage he also says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Our words have power and the potential to hurt or help one another. Paul knows that what we say can have a huge effect on the people around us. Because of this, Paul urges us to speak truthfully, so that our words remain valid. He also encourages us to use our language to encourage one another and build each other up. Paul wants us to use our words wisely, to remove gossip, slander, and lies from our vocabulary and replace them with encouragement, compassion, and honesty.

In our community here at PB Pres, we should always strive to put this into practice. It is vitally important that we be honest with one another in all that we do, so that no animosity builds up within the body. We should treat one another with respect and dignity, using our words to recognize the good in one another. We should also use our words to lovingly and constructively correct each other when we inevitably slip up and fail to live out our Christian calling. Whatever we do, we should always make love our first language, whether we are encouraging or correcting one another. Let’s make this church a place where our words and our actions show the love of God powerfully every Sunday.

Our third resolution is to work for the kingdom of God. Paul tells us “anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.” And later also says, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Our calling as children of God, as the body of Christ, is to work to share with those who need, and to forgive one another with compassion. As we remember who we are in Christ, we are called to share that with the world around us. We have been saved, and we now want to bring that salvation to others. Sharing that salvation also means working for God’s desire for the world, which is to see the hungry fed, the outcast welcomed, and the sick cared for.

We can begin to live out this resolution by getting actively involved in our community and the ministries of this church. We are always looking for new ways to serve pacific beach, so if you have a ministry idea or opportunity now is the time to make it happen! If you are feeling called to serve others more, this church provides many opportunities to serve and will continue to provide more. You can help serve food to the homeless at the dinner on Sunday nights, or help pass out mail as a volunteer in the office. You can volunteer with the kids, the youth, or young adults. Your bulletin is packed full with ways to get involved. We are called to give not just our money but also our time and our talents to serve the Lord. Rather than remaining idle and being a spectator Christian, it’s time to get on the playing field and make a difference. And the beauty is that there is no limit to the ways we can serve God. If you have a place where your passions and talents intersect with the needs of the community, you’ve found a new avenue for ministry.

Our final resolution for this year is to walk in the way of love. Paul encourages us to “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” What does it mean to walk in the way of love but to bath everything we do in God’s love? There should be no part of our lives that is untouched by love, and no person in our lives who does not feel the love of God through us. To walk in the way of love means to turn away from anger, bitterness, violence, pride, and malice. God’s love should be the goal and direction of all our efforts, the desire of our hearts.

We can begin to walk in the way of love by immersing ourselves in God’s word and practicing love in community. Spending time with one another allows us to practice God’s love by loving real people with real flaws. We gather together to be reshaped by God’s word, and also to be shaped by the opportunity to really love people. We have to get to know God’s love letters to us so that we can become more like God, and we have to get to know the people in this community so that we can become more like one another as we grow in Christ together. As we grow in love of one another that love will have no choice but to work its way outward to the rest of the world. We will be a people marked by our love, as the scripture says, they will know you by your love.

So this year, as individuals and as a church, let’s resolve to remember who we are as the redeemed people of God. Let’s resolve to use our words to build one another up and speak truth to each other. Let’s resolve to use our hands and our passions to build up the kingdom of God. And let’s resolve to walk in the way of love, the love that makes all of our other resolutions possible. Let us love more deeply, speak truthfully, serve faithfully, fellowship gladly. In all of these things we acknowledge the power of God, who has made us new through his salvation and continues to make us new again and again.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Forgetting and Anticipating (Phil.3:12-16) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Today is the first Sunday of a brand new year.  Welcome 2016.   What does this mean?  One meaning is this – its time for something new, different, it's time for a fresh start?  On March 28, 1947, Bronx bus driver William Cimillo climbed aboard his bus, as he had for years, to start his daily route.  But something happened.  Cimillo decided he'd had enough.  Instead of driving his normal route, he headed his bus south, going nowhere in particular. He stopped in New Jersey for a bite to eat, and parked in front of the White House and walked around D.C.

Three days later, he was in Hollywood, Florida, where he stopped for a nighttime swim. Cimillo was totally free and strapped for cash. He telegrammed his boss in New York, asking for $50, and that's when the cops showed up. Two New York detectives and a mechanic were sent to fetch the runaway driver and his bright red bus, but the mechanic couldn't drive the bus, so they had Cimillo drive them back to New York.   Upon arrival, Cimillo discovered he'd become a legend. People across the country sent him fan mail, newspapers portrayed him as a working-class hero, and his bus-driving buddies raised enough cash to cover his legal expenses.

The New York city transportation system decided not to prosecute.  In fact, they gave Cimillo his job back. For the rest of his life, Cimillo never pulled any more wild stunts.  Instead, he kept on driving  the bus for 16 more years before finally passing away in 1975.  Asked why he did it, he said: “This New York traffic gets you.  It's like driving in a squirrel cage. Everybody is constantly complaining.  I needed a change.  I just wanted to get away and do something new."  I think most of us can relate to that feeling, though I'm not sure he chose the best way.  But maybe that's just me.

A new year means many things: new beginnings, new opportunities, second chances and questions:  What are my priorities for this year?  What changes should I make in my life?   What does God want me to do with my life this year?

Our first word in this new year is that Jesus cares deeply about our lives, yours and mine.   And that includes every aspect of your life –  intellectual, emotional, spiritual, physical, and relational.   Jesus cares about your values, choices and priorities.  Jesus said:  “I have come that you might have life and life abundant.”    Jesus earnestly desires that we live with a sense of purpose and joy and power, and not simply exist, not merely endure, not merely get by.  How might you discover that abundant life?

Our second word comes from the letter of Philippians.  The Apostle Paul writes:  “Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do:  Forgetting what lies behind!   I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ my lord.”

Paul called upon the grace of God to help him forget things about his past.  And Paul had reason to forget.   Before becoming a Christian, Paul, formerly Saul, was an agent of the Sanhedrin, the governing body in Jerusalem, tasked with persecuting the first Christians, arresting them and putting them in jail.  He watched as the apostle Stephen was stoned to death.  Because of his background, after his Christian conversion, he regarded himself as the least of the apostles.

God is saying in this passage that some things in our past need to be forgotten.  We live in the tension between our past and our future, between what we have been and done and what we aspire to be and do.  Now it's not always easy to forget certain things, is it?  I’m sure you’ve tried so have I.  Sometimes you can will yourself to forget.  Sometimes it takes the support of someone else to help you move past it.   But other times you find you just cannot get past it.  No its not always easy to forget.

What do you want to forget about last year or in previous years?   Is there something that haunts you or wears you down or is sapping your strength?   Is there something that is robbing you of joy?

I personally believe, based upon the truth of scripture, that it's all-important to at times exert the energy that's required to stop thinking about something in your past.

An abundant life is difficult unless we learn to throw the past into the past and free ourselves from its shackles.  Without the power to do this, the prospects of a healthy life are slim; the capacity to move toward the future is limited at best and virtually impossible at worst.  Experiencing joy is nearly impossible if you are burdened and weighed down by hurtful memories, sins, shame, regrets, grudges, worries, missed opportunities, disappointments, resentments, failures and defeats.

Now there are different levels of forgetting.  We forget things for a moment like the name of our best friend, or our address or where you put your cell phone or what you had for breakfast.   Sometimes I will think of something and go into another room to get it.  But once I'm in the other room I have forgotten what I went there to get.  I have to go back to the first room to remember what it was. We might forget our spouse’s birthday or anniversary or our child’s or grandchild’s soccer game. I don't recommend these by the way.

The apostle Paul is speaking about something deeper.  The forgetting that comes with forgiving someone which opens the door to reconciliation, the forgetting that brings healing, the forgetting of not a memory per se, but finding freedom from a memory's emotional power, the destructive and crippling hold which memories can have on us.   The late theologian Paul Tillich said: “It is forgetting in spite of remembering.”  You may retain a memory of some hurtful incident, but its power over you is broken; it can no longer bring you down.  Because our hope is in Christ, we can turn to Him, pray for the power to let go of past guilt and look forward to what God will help us become.

Someone said:  “Don’t water yesterday with today’s tears of regret and don’t blacken today with yesterday’s burning resentments.”   Re-living a failure, harboring pent-up anger toward ourselves or someone else, makes us miserable and robs us of the power of our faith for tomorrow.   Don’t let it diminish your relationships and the joy and energy of your life and faith.

Please don’t misunderstand.  The past carries many uplifting, energizing and inspiring memories.   Remembering them brings joy, comfort and a richness to our lives.  We can learn from past mistakes, we can bring lessons learned from our past into our future.  But there are also times when we need to rise above our past, to transcend it, to be free from our past, if we are going to enjoy a meaningful and joyful and productive future.

Let's take a moment and turn to the lord in prayer.  Remember that you may need to repeat this prayer at times.  Let us pray: “Dear Lord, I praise you for the promise that we can turn to your grace and power.  I pray for your power to help me forget, to help me overcome, to set me free from this thing that's holding me back as I begin a new year.”    

Our third and final word also comes from Philippians:  “Straining forward to what lies ahead.  I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.   I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”  Strain forward, press on, focus on tomorrow, reach toward the life God has in mind for you.

Anticipating the future, looking ahead is God’s will for us as well.  Concentrate on where you are going and imagine the victory that lies ahead.  Set a goal.   Are you growing spiritually?  Do you need to strengthen your moral compass?  Are there skills you need for the workplace?  Is there one relationship you wish to concentrate on?  Where is God calling you to serve?  If you want this New Year to count for something, strain forward to what lies ahead.

A good goal is to honor and glorify God each and every day.  It is to know Christ, to be like Christ, to follow Christ.   Why?  Because you belong to Christ.  Jesus bids us to greet life and the future with expectation, reverence and courage.  Jesus wants us to wonder as we wander, to touch and savor, to find the uncommon in the common, to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.

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

Johnson 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."

Johnson was a stranger to personal exercise until she took a three-mile walk in 1986. Then she started jogging and competing in 10-K races.  By 1988 she had competed in her first New York City Marathon. Three years later she recorded her best time at age sixty-four with a time of three hours and 55 minutes.

A few years ago she told a reporter about her exercise regimen.  She 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.'"

The devout Christian ran every day except Sunday so she could attend church.   Johnson 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."

Jesus said:  “I have come that you might have life abundant.”  No, it's never too late to change, it’s never too late for a new beginning, you're never too old to start a new journey with God.  Something to think about on this first Sunday of a new year.  Amen!