Friday, December 29, 2017

A Birthday Celebration (Luke 2:1-15) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A father writes: “For two months before her third birthday, our daughter Sandie said, ‘I'm going to have a party,’ countless times a day.  When her birthday was over, she then told people, ‘I had a party’ and repeated it constantly. Finally, we told her not to talk about the party any more.  For one whole day, she didn’t mention it.  But as I tucked her into bed that night she prayed, ‘Dear God, I can't talk about it, but thank you for my birthday party.  Amen!’”  Yes, birthdays are special.

A 5 year old girl was singing carols all the time during Christmas.  Her mother asked:  “Honey why are you singing so much?” She answered:  “Mom, its Jesus’ birthday and I just have to sing.

In the Gospel of Luke the angel announces: “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”  Christmas is about joyful news for all people. Scripture says: “In the fullness of time, God sent his Son, born of woman.”

We don’t know the precise date of Jesus’ birth.  Christmas was first observed by the Roman Church around A.D. 325 or later.  St. Chrysostom says that Pope Julius I of Rome appointed the date, December 25, as the birth date of Jesus.

Prior to that, a Roman pagan festival had been held on that very date to celebrate the Winter Solstice.  In a bold action, the Church replaced a pagan festival with a Christian one.  From that time to today, December 25th has honored the birthday of the Son of God.

Now some Christians have argued that since the roots of the Christmas date, December 25 are pagan, with symbols and trappings still attached to it, like feasts and trees and lights and ornaments representing creation, stars and planets, we should not celebrate it.  The star of course, does not simply refer to stars in the sky, but the star that led the Wiseman to Bethlehem.

Other Christians have countered that argument by saying that the church was being faithful to Jesus’ great commission, to go forth and make disciples of all nations, to convert the world, to win the world for Christ.  So it was a good thing to turn a pagan festival into a Christian holy day.  They argue that symbols like trees, stars or ornaments for planets are good, God the creator made them.  Lights on the tree are good, God created light; Jesus is the light of the world.  Carols, singing songs of Jesus’ birth are good, the angels sang; giving gifts is good, the Magi brought gifts to Jesus.  So you decide which argument you agree with.

Why are birthdays special?  Birthdays say: “We’re happy you were born.  We are glad you lived for another year. We are happy you have a new year ahead of you.  You count and we want to honor you.”   We don’t commiserate with someone on their birthday.  We don’t look at them with sad eyes and dress in black clothing and say: “Oh no, don’t tell me you’ve had another birthday, I’m so sorry for you, I feel terrible for you.  No, we say Happy Birthday!”  And likewise, we say: “Merry Christmas in honor of Jesus’ birthday.”

Children can’t wait for their birthdays.  When asked how old they are they often say: “I’m 5 & 1/2,” they love sounding older.  Children know the significance of birthdays.   “A 5- year old boy was showing his Christmas presents to his grandma.  She asked him if he got everything he wanted for Christmas.  The little guy thought and said no grandma, but it’s not my birthday.”

Christmas celebrates that God entered this world and became a human being, one of us, one among us and one with us.  Christmas announces that this one who entered is Jesus the Savior of the world. There are some spectacular Christmas celebrations of Jesus around the world in cities like San Juan, Rome, and Rio de Janero. What about at your home?  Jesus’ birth was one of historical and cosmic significance.

Other holidays recognize but one day; Christmas is celebrated for 12 days.   That sounds right to me, for such an occasion as the coming of the Savior of the world.   We celebrate the good news of the angel’s announcement to the shepherds.  It’s good news, no matter who you are or where you are or what you have done.  It’s good news, not for a select few, but for all people.  It’s good news, in my view, for both political parties, who can’t seem to find much to agree on these days.

What is the heart of the good news of Christmas?  It's not –“Whew, I made it through another year,” or “I'm celebrating that I've finished all my shopping.”   It’s about Emmanuel, God is with you, God is for you, and God loves you.  God saw that because of sin and evil, the world needed a savior and God sent one.

Pastor Rick Warren of the Saddleback church writes: “Christmas reminds us that God is not mad at you.   God is mad about you.”  Scripture says: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world.”

Listen to how the Gospel writer John speaks of Christmas:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

Christmas announces that God the creator condescended, bent down to earth, came down from the heavens and decided to get his hands dirty.  The immortal God took on human mortality.  God showed up in our neighborhood. Christian music like Handel’s Messiah and carols like Hark the Herald Angel’s Sing, and Christian art like Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi honor the greatest birth the world has ever known.

Christmas celebrates God’s love. God loved us so much, God loved the world so much, that in Jesus Christ God came to earth as a human. Christmas celebrates God’s revelation, in Jesus we see who God is and what God is like and come to know him and trust him and follow him and worship him and love him.  Christmas celebrates God’s purpose.  God sent Jesus as the Savior to bring salvation to the world, to save us from our sins, to call us to worship, witnessing and service, to give us new life and hope for today and forever.

Christmas declares the truth that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly human, fully God and fully human. It is truth expressed in the language of paradox. In Jesus, God and humanity are uniquely united in one personal existence. That is a theological way of that Jesus was born of a virgin.  Being born accents Jesus’ humanity and being born of a virgin accents his divinity.

Christmas says:  “You are seeing God in Jesus.”  No, not everything about God, there is still lots of mystery, but in Jesus we see God in a greater way than ever before in history, we see God’s nature, God’s purpose and God’s motivation.  Christmas says: “Look at what God has done to get to know you personally and for you to get to know God personally.”  Christmas is an invitation from God – the invitation says: “See I’ve come near to you, now draw near to me.”

May all who do not know Jesus Christ, may those here this morning and around the world, open their hearts and minds this Christmas and receive by faith the one who out of love came to bring salvation.

I close with this poem by Ann Weems: “You should lead the celebration.  Run through the streets and ring the bells and sing the loudest.  Fling the tinsel on the tree and open your house to your neighbors and call them into dance.  For it’s to you above all others to know the joy of Christmas.  It is unto you that a Savior has been born this day.  One who comes to lift the burden from your shoulders, one who comes to wipe the tears from your eyes.  You are not alone, for He is born this day to you.  Amen!

Friday, December 15, 2017

God Has Spoken by His Son (Hebrews 1:1-4) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

One Christmas, a mother listened as her 4-year-old daughter sang one of the carols.  The mother was a little surprised when she heard her daughter sing: “While shepherds washed their socks by night.”  I mean who knows, shepherds had to do something to pass the time as they were watching their flocks at night.

Christmas calls to mind a question which has haunted human beings since the beginning of time – “Am I alone in this universe?”  Christmas dares to shout forth an answer: “No, you are not alone.

Christmas announces glorious news, God, out of love for His creation, entered our history, our life adventure, our journey, to be near us, among us, one of us and one with us. God slipped into our time zone and has never left it.

Why did God enter the world as Jesus?  It was out of love for His creation, out of love for humanity.  If God had wanted to relate to trees, he would have become a tree; if God had wanted to relate to birds, he would have become a bird; if God had wanted to relate to computers, he would have become a computer; but God wanted to relate to and communicate with and bring salvation to human beings, so God became one of us.  We could not rise to God, so God stooped down to come to us.

Christmas declares that an eternal light has broken into the darkness of the world.  The Gospel writer John says: “In Christ was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”   In Jesus, God has made his character, his heart, his mind, his voice, his will, his nature known to the world.

Christmas is about a young Jewish peasant couple, Mary and Joseph, who experience the miraculous in their life.  She is with child, an angel reveals, a child conceived by the Holy Spirit.  The prophet Isaiah says:  “The Lord himself will give you a sign:  The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”

Christmas is about the unique nature of Jesus.  It announces that Jesus is truly God, very God, fully God.  In the Gospel of John we read: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.”  The letter of Colossians says it succinctly: “In Jesus Christ, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”  The Letter of Hebrews states: “In these last days God has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.  He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”  

Born in Bethlehem, Jesus' is God’s revelation, God’s incarnation, God’s anointed one, Immanuel, God is one with us.  Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God.

But paradoxically Christmas also declares the exact opposite, Jesus was a human being.  Jesus was truly human, very human, fully human.   The sovereign God entered the world as a helpless baby.  The letter of Hebrews says: “Since God’s children share flesh and blood, Jesus likewise shared the same things.   For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect was tested as we are, yet without sin.”  Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary.  Jesus was human, born of a woman like you and I are born.  He experienced the joys and sorrows of life, yet he was without sin.  Christmas declares this unique, one of a kind birth.  No other world religions speak of incarnation in their faith.

Christians declare this truth: in Jesus of Nazareth, God and humanity, the divine and human are united in one personal existence.  This truth is a mystery.  Ultimately, comprehending it lies beyond our mind's ability to fully grasp it.  Rather the truth lies in God’s revealing it to our minds and hearts.  We then can accept it by faith or reject it.

Yes, for some today it’s a scandalous claim.  Jews consider it blasphemy and idolatry, an offense to God because God is Spirit, not flesh and blood and because we are to worship God alone, not human beings.  For others Christmas is a fairytale, with angels, animals, shepherds and kings, like the brothers’ Grimm fairy tales, Snow White, Rapunzel, the Frog Prince.  For others it’s about Santa Claus and getting and giving gifts.  Some see the Christmas story of a peasant family giving birth as a metaphor for poor people all over the world giving birth in humble circumstances.  Some see Christmas as a time for family reunions and food and celebrations and traditions.  The one thing they all have in common is that these understandings have nothing to do with Jesus’ birth.

The Christian faith announces that Christmas is founded upon a historical event.  It is based upon a unique and humble birth of Jesus, a baby born in Bethlehem, in a world of Caesar's and Herod’s and Pilates, and a Jewish people under subjugation by the Roman Empire.

Why did God enter into the world in Jesus?  To fulfill the prophecies of a coming Messiah from Jewish prophets like Micah, Zechariah and Isaiah: “For unto us a child has been born, a son given to us, authority rests upon his shoulders, and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, and this coming messiah, God's anointed one, would bring salvation from our sins and establish his kingdom with justice and righteousness forevermore.”

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

I recall when Police Chief Charles Moose, back in 2003, first made national news when he was police chief in Portland, Oregon.  Chief Moose and his wife, Sandy, went house hunting. They could have afforded to live in any of the city's best neighborhoods. Instead, they bought an 83-year-old wood-frame house in the King neighborhood, which had one of the highest crime rates in Portland. Chief Moose, who was 41 at the time, was the country's only police chief to live in a crime plagued dangerous neighborhood.

With his move to the King neighborhood, Chief Moose was hoping to get people feeling better about their community, to improve their quality of life and build trust with the police.  He said: "If someone can say, 'I live in the same neighborhood as the chief' instead of ‘I live in the neighborhood where the shooting happened or in a high crime area, "I will have achieved my goal."

The chief moved into the King neighborhood.  God in Jesus moved into our neighborhood.   That's the Christmas message. That is the greatest compliment that God could possibly pay us.  This is the good news of Immanuel, God with us.

Christmas declares that God is at work everywhere in the midst of the world’s darkness and in the most reluctant and hardened of hearts.   God is on the premises and suffers with those who suffer and judges those who perpetrate evil.  God in Jesus seeks those in whom love can be born and peace can be won.   God came to redeem the world and to reach out and find us and being found sends us out to let Christ’s love shine in us as light against the darkness and hope against hopelessness.  The incarnation confronts us with the truth about who Jesus is and challenges us to become who God created us to be.  God has spoken by His son.

What is our response?  Some of course dismiss Christmas, “Bah, humbug.”  Other people approach Christmas with the mind, with the intellect and critically analyze its message.   That is certainly one response and is not without merit.  Some find this approach quite helpful.  Some have met Jesus on the intellectual path.   Another approach is that of awe and wonder and mystery, where we receive the message of Christmas in humility on our knees.   Some have received the message through Christmas music, like carols like:  “Oh come let us adore him, Oh come let us adore him” and “Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her king.”

What will your response be to the Christmas story this year?    Amen.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Hope of Sharing in God’s Glory (Romans 5:1-5, 8:24-25) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

When NASA posted a job opening for a "Planetary Protection Officer," a position responsible for the microbial footprint of humans during interplanetary exploration, word about the "coolest job ever" spread widely in the media.   The stringent requirements didn't stop 9 -year old Jack Davis from submitting a handwritten note to NASA.  Jack has big dreams and high hopess about his future.

He wrote:  "I may be nine but I think I would be fit for the job."   "One of the reasons is my sister says I am an alien.  Also, I have seen almost all the space movies and alien movies I can see."  "I am young, so I can learn to think like an alien.   Please consider me.”  The Director of Planetary Science wrote back: "We are always looking for bright future scientists and engineers to help us, so I hope you will study hard and do well in school.  We hope to see you here at NASA one of these days."

What is hope?  It is a mode of anticipating the future.  We are expectant, optimistic.  Our outlook is positive.   We look for good things to happen or good things to come.  Of course there are also other modes of anticipating the future, like worry, anxiety and fear.   Without hope, I believe life loses all meaning and joy.

Hope is both active and passive.    Passive hope is like waiting for a package from Amazon.  There seems to be a lot of that these days.   Hope is active when we are doing something, like planning and organizing, praying and working toward some future goal.

Like the story of three store owners who shared adjacent storefronts in the same building.  As retailers, they had competed for years.  Times were now tough.  Sales were down.  In hopes of picking up sales, the owner of the shop at one end of the building put a sign over his front entrance – “YEAR-END CLEARANCE!”   At the other end of the building, another owner responded with his own sign: “ANNUAL CLOSE-OUT.”  The owner of the store in the middle knew he had to act fast or lose his business.   He hung a huge lit sign over his front door: “MAIN ENTRANCE.”  Hope is sometimes active.

Hope also has enemies.  The greatest enemy is gloom, despair, discouragement.   All we see in the future is a wall, a dead-end, a black hole.  We can’t see a way out.  We can’t find another way.  We feel trapped.  We believe there is nothing left to hope for or to work toward or even to live for.  The light of life burns out.   Our zest and enthusiasm vanishes.

What is the basis for hope?  I believe there are basically two world-views, two belief systems which are the ground of hope.  The first is secularism.  Secularism is pessimistic about God but optimistic about humanity.    The secular basis of hope is not in the heavens but on earth.  Its hope lies not in God which is a false belief because God doesn’t exist, because God is a fantasy, but its hope lies in humanity.   Humans alone can save themselves.  There is no god to save us.   We humans can save the world and preserve the future.  We can rely upon reason, science, technology, and good will.  We depend upon human determination, imagination, curiosity, brain power, and vision.

Together humans can work to create a just society, achieve world peace and save the environment.   There will be disagreements, but humanity will find solutions and transform the world.  We can save ourselves.  We don’t need a supernatural being.  Why – because we are on our own.  That’s secularism.

The second basis for hope is religion.  Christianity is pessimistic about humanity but optimistic about God.   The basis of our hope is God, who revealed himself to the world in Jesus Christ.  The ground of our hope is in the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the world.  In Scripture and faith hope literally means confident expectation.

Christianity is pessimistic about humanity because of human sin and moral evil which emanates from sin.  It is optimistic about God because God is the creator and ruler of the world, because God is powerful, just, merciful, loving, because God is leading the world toward its divine fulfillment.  Our hope is based upon our faith that God holds the future, that the future lies in God’s hands, that God is in control, that the future is secure.  Hope is a firm assurance that that which is hidden, unknown, or confusing today will be unveiled by God in the future.   Our Christian hope means that you and I can trust God to keep his promises.

To be more specific, the Christian hope for the future is two-fold.   First, our hope is personal, individual.  It is hope with your name on it.  Our faith inspires hope today.  By faith God’s hope lives within us.  The letter of Romans says: “By God’s grace, through faith, we boast in the hope of sharing the glory of God.”  Character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts and we have the gift of the Holy Spirit within us, who deepens our faith and hope.

We have Jesus’ promise to us personally of eternal life, everlasting life, resurrection of the body.  Jesus speaks about God’s house with many rooms, and promises: “I have prepared a place for you and I will come back to take you to myself, so that you will be where I am.”  Jesus’ wonderful promise is that nothing, not even death, can separate us from God’s love today and forever.  Our Christian hope is of sharing in the glory of God.

Second, our Christian hope is universal.  We find it in the biblical concept of the Kingdom of God.  The kingdom of God is the reign of God, the rule of God.  It is represented in the promise of Christ’s final coming in glory and the final judgment of the world when God will establish His Kingdom forever.

It speaks to God’s universal purpose.  God’s plan is not only to save individuals but to save and transform the world into His kingdom.  God’s ultimate purpose is both individual salvation and world salvation.

The book of Revelation pictures this beautifully: “See the home of God is among mortals.  God will dwell with them as their God, they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes, death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will cease.

As Christians, as followers of Jesus, we are to place our ultimate hope not in people, not politics, not government, not riches, not in hedonism, not even in reason, but God whom we know in Jesus Christ.

The question for the Advent season is this:  Where have you placed your ultimate hope - in man or in God?” Amen!

Friday, December 1, 2017

True Friendship (Luke 5:17-26) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

In an article on the Supreme Court, Associate Justice Ginsburg fondly recalled her closest friend, Justice Scalia.   He always gave her roses on her birthday and shared her reverence for the law.  She said that Justice Scalia was once asked how they could be such dear friends with such different views. Justice Scalia answered, "I attack ideas. I don't attack people. Some very good people have some very bad ideas. If you can't separate the two, you'd better get another job."   Not a bad friendship.  Not a bad concept.

Think about your friends. Who are your friends? Writer Mark Twain said: “I don’t like to commit myself about heaven and hell—you see I have friends in both places.” There was a sitcom in the 1990's titled Friends and the theme song was “I'll be there for you.”

The debate continues today about whether social media actually makes new friends and expands genuine friendships or whether it is an illusion which creates virtual and superficial friendships.  It certainly raises interesting questions. An article in Hemisphere magazine explored a number of sites that are dedicated to helping you find online "friends." For instance, on the site you can buy 500 friends for $30.00.  Sounds like a bargain.

An interesting article discussed the overall decline of friendship in our society.  It stated that fewer people have authentic friends and described a growing phenomenon about loneliness and mistrust.  Do you agree?  The article particularly addressed the issue of friendship as it related to men.  It pointed to studies and surveys which show that men are less likely to have meaningful relationships than women do.  Men have fewer friends, first of all, and the friends they do have are not nearly as close.  What do you think?

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I didn’t find my friends, the good Lord gave them to me.”   Yes, when we think about our friends, old and new, past and present, we too are moved to say: “I didn’t find them, God gave them to me.”   One of the sad realities of life is losing our friends to death as we age, as I mentioned last week about my childhood friend Bill Frost who died recently.  I have had many conversations with people over the years who have talked about the difficulty of seeing their circle of friends shrink as they age and how they miss them.  I have likewise had many conversations about the challenges of making new friends.

I thank God for my wife Nancy, my best friend (who else would put up with me) and our two sons who now as adults, are our friends.    That thing about being parents to your children as they are growing up and then transitioning to becoming friends when they reach adulthood can get a little complicated.  We knew we weren’t our sons Best Friends Forever when they were teenagers.   I am grateful for the new friends we have made here during our over eleven years at PBPC and in San Diego.

God made us with the need for relationships, friendships and community.  The late Dr. Norman Cousins wrote: “The highest expression of civilization is not its art, but the supreme tenderness that people feel and show toward one another.  If our civilization is breaking down, it is not because we lack the brainpower to meet its demands, but because our feelings have been dulled.

Someone said, “You can always tell a real friend because when you’ve made a fool of yourself he or she doesn’t feel you’ve done a permanent job.”  The Bible is filled with inspiring stories about friendships.   Biblically speaking, friendships are far different than acquaintances.  One can have many acquaintances, but few true friendships.  Becoming a friend is a choice.   Becoming a friend is also a surprise, a gift.  Becoming a friend requires dedication and commitment.   Jesus says:  “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  Perhaps this is the ultimate definition of friendship.  A friend is someone you are willing to die for or who is willing to die for you.   It’s been said that friendships are like investments; you get what you put into them and they take time to mature.  But the dividends are worth it.

Today we will examine one story from the New Testament. What are some lessons from this story?  First, friends are loyal, they stick by one another, you can count on them, even in times of adversity.   Fair weather friends are the antithesis of true friends.  Friends don’t abandon you when you need help.   Friends don’t give up on each other when the journey gets tough.  They are in for the long haul.

In the story from Luke Jesus is teaching in a house which is bursting with people.  People are literally stepping over one another to hear what Jesus has to say or to be healed.   Suddenly some men arrive carrying a paralyzed man on a bed.  We don’t know if these men were family or friends.  But in a way it doesn’t matter.  Their actions should be consistent.  These men didn’t abandon the paralyzed man, they didn’t give up on him, but instead did everything they could to get him help.    They believed in their hearts that if they could get him near Jesus, the man would be healed.  The only obstacle was in making their way through the crowd of people.

Not to be deterred, they climb up on the roof, tear open a section of the roof, which was made out of tightly bound twigs mortared together between heavy wooden beams, and start lowering the man down on his bed in front of Jesus.  Now that’s creative problem solving.  That’s dedication.  That’s ingenuity.   No obstacle is too great when it comes to helping a friend.  These men don't care if they are causing a big commotion.  They are resourceful and imaginative and they are on a mission.  They are willing to go to great lengths for their friend.  Author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: “A true friend is one who multiplies joys and divides grief.” They were true friends.

Friends also support each other, encourage one another and are willing to sacrifice for one another.  Clearly these friends of the paralyzed man fit these criteria.  A friend says: “I’m here for you, and if I can’t help you, then with God’s help I will find someone who can.”  These men all exhibited this attitude.  And I believe they also either paid the owner of the house for the damage to the roof or repaired it themselves.   They were true friends.

Further, true friends are at times direct and honest with you.  They are not afraid to say what you don’t want to hear.  They speak the truth in love.  This is a characteristic of true friendship.  These friends would have been direct with the paralyzed man.  They would have told him: “We are taking you to a house where Jesus is teaching and healing.”  The man might have said: “Ah, I don’t feel like going today.”  I could hear them replying:  “It’s no use arguing, we are going there so get ready.  We are doing it because we love you.”   It sounds like an intervention.

Jesus is also direct.  He says to the paralyzed man, “Friend your sins are forgiven you.  I say to you stand up and take your bed and go to your home.”  Jesus was also frank with the Pharisees and says:  “But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins I will show you,” and he performs a miracle.  Honesty, truthfulness, is a significant quality for a friendship.

Imagine going to the doctor's office for a check-up. The doctor says to you, "You are a superb physical specimen. You have the body of an Olympian.  None of my patients are as healthy as you.”  Such words alone should raise a red flag and cause us to question the doctor’s credibility.  Later that day while climbing the stairs, you suffer severe chest pains.  You find out that your arteries were so clogged, that you were one jelly doughnut away from the grim reaper.  You go back to the doctor and say, "Why didn't you tell me?" The doctor says, "Well, ah, well because if I tell people the truth, they get offended, they know it’s going to be expensive and they don’t like me.  It’s terrible for business.   I want to be a friend to my patients.”  You'd say:  “Doctor, next time, tell me the truth or I’ll find another doctor.

The story finally reminds us that true friends also care about your spiritual life.  This man is helpless.  He depends upon others.  His friends realize that his hope lay in bringing him to Jesus.  They are committed to this end.  When we are in want or in crisis, we need to go to God.  A good friend reminds us of this.

We were not created by God to make our journey alone in this life.  Friends contribute immeasurably to the richness of our lives.  Think of friends whom God has used to shape your life and faith.  Jesus was extraordinarily impressed with the faith of these friends of the paralyzed man.  “When Jesus saw their faith, he said:  Friend, your sins are forgiven you.

Thank you, God, for the gift of our friends. I close with these surprising words of Jesus from the Gospel of John in speaking to his followers, past and present: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business, instead, I have called you friends.   Amen!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Only One Gave Thanks (Luke 17:11-19) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

It was the day after Thanksgiving.  A woman caught her husband weighing himself on the scale.  He was sucking in his stomach. “That won’t help you, honey,” his wife said.  “You know that won’t help.”  Her husband replied:  “Oh, it helps a lot; it’s the only way I can see the numbers.”

I hope you’re ready for Thanksgiving.  And I’m not speaking only about the food.  Thanksgiving is such an important holiday for us as Americans and for us as Christians.  It’s a time to give thanks to God for our nation and our freedoms, which we enjoy because of the sacrifice of the men and women in our military, and to give thanks that the God we believe in is a God whom we can trust, seek strength from, worship and serve.   It is a time to think about what we have to be thankful for.   It is a day which reminds us that thankfulness and happiness, happiness and being thankful, are inseparable.

Of course, people are thankful for different things.  On Thanksgiving a mom was outside one frigid morning shoveling snow from her driveway.  A neighbor stopped by to say hi and asked her why her husband wasn’t out there helping her shovel snow.  The mom explained that one of them had to stay inside to take care of the children, so they drew straws to see who would go out and shovel.  “Sorry about your bad luck,” the neighbor said.  The mom looked up from her shoveling and said, “Oh, don’t be sorry.  I won.”

Our nation celebrates Thanksgiving Day this coming Thursday.   Thanksgiving, as an unofficial festival, began in 1622, when Governor William Bradford summoned the survivors of the Mayflower to a meal to praise God for their first harvest, the first tangible sign that their pilgrimage had divine approval.

President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, in the midst of a civil war that had torn this nation apart, issued a proclamation.  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.”   What inspiring words.

The season of Thanksgiving offers us the opportunity to examine our hearts and minds and to honestly reflect on some important questions:  Do I live a thankful life?  Do I have a thankful heart?  What am I truly thankful for?   Being thankful is not natural to human nature.  It must be taught and caught.  One of the first important lessons parents teach their children is to say please and thank you.  Being thankful is an attitude, a powerful and positive attitude, that if learned, translates into enjoyment, fulfillment and appreciation.

Our Gospel story for this morning is about 10 lepers.  Lepers were the most revolting human beings of Jesus’ day.  They were repulsive to the eyes.  Their mere presence horrified people who feared they would be contaminated with the dreaded disease.  Lepers were socially ostracized, cut off from friends, banned from their homes and from the temple, and banished to live in remote valleys and caves.  They were literally the zombies, the walking dead of their day.

Luke tells us that Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem and as he approaches a village, ten lepers confront him.  One leper would be bad enough, but ten surrounding you would be terrifying. The story says: “Keeping their distance, they cried out in desperation, ‘Jesus Master, have mercy on us.’”   The law required that lepers keep their distance from people.  One authority writes that when the wind was blowing toward the healthy person, the law stated that lepers had to stand at least 50 yards away.  The law specified that if a leper saw someone approaching, they had to yell “unclean” three times to warn people and then cross the road.

These lepers knew that Jesus was no ordinary rabbi.  They call him master and appeal for Him to show mercy.  They fully believed the stories they had heard about Jesus’ power to heal.  And out of compassion and by the divine power within him, Jesus heals them.

Now if Jesus healed me of a dreaded disease, a life-threatening illness I would be overjoyed.  How about you?  I would shout aloud: “Thank you God.”   And yet though ten lepers were healed, only one turned back to give thanks.  “A Samaritan, seeing that he was healed, turned back and with a loud voice glorified God, fell down on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks.”

Jesus says: “Were not ten made clean?  Where are the other nine?  Was no one found to return and give God praise except this foreigner?”   You can hear the sadness and disappointment in Jesus’ words.   This story reminds us that all too often human beings are not thankful.  The attitude of gratitude is the exception, rather than the rule.

Why was Jesus disappointed that only one leper had returned to give thanks for his healing?   Were his feelings hurt?  I think so; Jesus was after-all fully human.  But there is something larger going on in this story than hurt feelings.  Jesus was deeply concerned about the human heart: our inner life, our interior life, the condition of our soul.  Jesus knew what a person is like whose heart is thankless.  An ungrateful heart is a cold heart, a callous heart.  Jesus knew it was a form of spiritual death.  Spiritually we might call it heart disease.   Jesus' desire was for people to have a thankful spirit, grounded in their faith in God.  Jesus was saying that gratitude should be at the core of one’s being.  Jesus healed the lepers to change their hearts so they would God the glory and praise.

When faith in God is lacking, we focus primarily on ourselves: our needs, our fears, our disappointments, our resentments, our desires, our missed opportunities, with no or little appreciation of our blessings or the needs and hurts of those around us.  A cold heart doesn’t have the ability to appreciate beauty and wonder and generosity and surprises of grace.    We become blind to the love from others around us and we become blind to their needs and concerns.

We hear a lot about the attitude of entitlement today.  The greater our sense of entitlement, that we deserve the things we want in life, that we have the right to have the things we want in life, the smaller our sense of gratitude.  Like gratitude and happiness, so gratitude and humility also are inseparable.  Our entitlement mindset has led to a proliferation of lawsuits in our society, when we don't get something we want or believe we deserve, we sue somebody.

Look inside yourself for a moment.  Is your heart thankful?  If the answer is yes, ask yourself why?  Why are you a thankful person?  Since thankfulness is not intrinsic to human nature, what has formed your heart?  I suspect some important and influential role models helped to shape your heart.  How has your faith helped to develop your heart of gratitude?   I suspect a growing and maturing faith, infused by the Holy Spirit, has something to do with it.

Is your heart thankful? If the answer is no, ask yourself why?    If you have an ungrateful heart, repent, tell God you are sorry, seek God’s forgiveness and ask God to change your heart.  And God will.  True faith says thank you God for your grace.   The words of a contemporary praise song capture it well:  “Change my heart oh God Make it ever true, Change my heart oh God, May I be like You. You are the potter I am the clay, Mold me and make me, This is what I pray.  Change my heart oh God, Make it ever true, Change my heart oh God, May I be like You.”   Yes, a growing, dynamic and genuine faith in God has a way of stimulating and producing a grateful heart.  When we have changed hearts, when we are no longer ruled by pride and self-centeredness, we become more like Christ, more Christ-like.

There is always something to be thankful for.     In the darkest of times, there is always some light.  In the saddest of times, there are always lighter moments.   In times of loneliness, there is always someone you can call or someone who will surprise you.  Why?  It is because of God’s grace.

A childhood friend of mine from San Diego, Bill Frost, we called him Frosty, died a few days ago.  He lived in Flagstaff, AZ.  We had gone to Sunday School together and spent a lot of time together up in the elementary years through high school.  He was a Vietnam veteran, serving in the infantry, and the war definitely took its toll on him the rest of his life.  In these later years he developed a disease where the muscles in his legs were getting weaker, he wore braces, but knew one day he would be in a wheel chair.  We had not seen each other for over 30 years, and got reacquainted about 5 years ago.   We regularly communicated through email, texting and even telephone calls.

He often would say:  “Al, I am grateful to God for my life.  I can say this to you because as a minister you understand.  I just talked to a good friend for over an hour whom I haven’t talked to for years.  I am a happy guy.”  He talked about his good fortune to have two brothers and how close they were.  He would say: “You know Al, we are not as young as we used to be.  We don’t know how much time we have left, so we need to make the most of it and spend time with people who bring positive energy.  We need to do things we think God wants us to do.  I have just learned to appreciate the little things, the small things, the surprises in life, like getting reacquainted with old friends after years of being apart.  Yes, I have problems but they could be worse.  I thank God for so many good things in my life.”

Bill embodied the spirit in the letter of I Thessalonians 5:17 which says:  “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

God's Spirit is at work in our hearts and minds through faith, working to bring hope out of hopelessness, strength out of weakness, wisdom out of foolishness, and gratitude out of ingratitude.  I can personally testify to this holy work of God in my own life over the years and yet I know I am still a work in progress.  I deeply believe there is an unbreakable bond between faith and thankfulness.  Faith in God inspires a thankful heart and a thankful heart strengthens and deepens faith.

One of them, when he saw that he was healed, gave thanks to God with a loud voice.”  My friends, let us too live lives of thankfulness.  Amen!

Friday, November 17, 2017

Bringing People to the Lord (John 1:35-42) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

In September of this year, Pat Payaso ran for an open seat on Boston's city council.  He felt he needed a gimmick for his campaign. Payaso donned a rainbow wig, a red nose, and clown makeup and decided to run as a clown.  He thought this would get people’s attention so they would listen to his message.

He showed up at a polling place dressed like a clown, talking and glad handing everyone.  He got their attention:  people were frightened, uncomfortable, nervous, they wouldn’t speak to him, they hugged their children close to their side, they turned and walked away.   Someone called the police who came out to check him out.  By the way, he wasn’t elected.

Payaso wasn't trying to scare anyone, he just wanted to find an unusual way to spread the word about his ideas for city government and garner some interest from potential voters.  Jesus commands us as His followers to spread the word.  But perhaps there are more effective ways to spread the good news, the gospel, than standing on a corner screaming at people or dressing up like a clown.

On this St. Andrew’s Sunday we recall our vision statement:  PBPC - People bringing people to Christ.  Today is about sharing our faith by word or deed or both.  Why?  Because Jesus’ disciple Andrew was known in Jesus’ day and has been celebrated by the church down through the centuries, as an evangelist.  Andrew was one of the 12 original disciples of Jesus.  He is Scotland’s patron saint and Protestant churches around the world celebrate his life in November of each year.

The soft, delicate, faint, whispering sound of the bagpipes sets the mood.   And we thank Charlie Rosenberger for playing today.  The names of families of Scottish heritage from our congregation are shown on the screens.  You see colorful tartans representing Scottish clans around you this morning.  Though I am not Scottish, I am wearing the official clergy tartan of Scotland, a gift from a member of another church I served.  A word to the wise; you never call someone of Scottish descent, Scotch, he’s scotch.  As a Scot told me, Scotch is something you drink, a Scot or Scottish is who you are.

We know from life experience that politics and religion are two subjects which many people try to avoid, and that is true for people we know well, like family members or close friends, especially if we disagree on these subjects, as well as acquaintances and strangers.   Roughly four-in-ten people today say they seldom or never discuss religion even with members of their immediate family.  So sharing or spreading the word is counter-intuitive.   But here we are.

Who was Andrew?   He was originally a disciple of John the Baptist.  But after he and another disciple met Jesus and spent the day with him, learning Jesus was the Messiah, Andrew became a follower of Jesus.  He was ardent about bringing people to Jesus.  Andrew’s heart burned with the desire for persons to encounter Jesus.

For instance, Andrew found a young boy, who had five loaves and two fish, and brought him to meet Jesus.  Jesus performed a miracle that day and fed 5,000 people.  Andrew invited some gentiles, Greeks, to go with him and he introduced them to Jesus.  But the incident, for which he is most remembered, happened after he and another disciple spent that day with Jesus, a day that changed their lives forever.  Andrew was so euphoric that he immediately set out to find his brother Simon Peter.  “Peter, we have found the Messiah.”  He brought Peter to Jesus, introduced him and the rest is history.

Tradition says that Andrew was crucified upside down, on a cross which looks like an X.  It is actually the Greek letter Chi, the first letter of the word Christ.  Andrew asked to die this way, because he felt unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus.  The cross is called the St. Andrew’s cross.

There are numerous ways to spread the word.  I spoke to a man about a year ago at a meeting at one of our Presbyterian churches here in SD Presbytery.  At the meeting, we were sitting in small groups at separate tables, sharing with each other about how we came to faith.  He said his family were non-believers and that he wasn’t raised in a Christian home.  He had never gone to church.  As an adult he was married, was raising a family and working.  But he said he had nagging questions about faith and God and religion. He had an interest but never pursed it.

Then one day his neighbor invited his family over for a barbeque.  They found that they worked in the same field and immediately hit it off.  They became friends.  One day, the neighbor asked him if he ever thought about spiritual or religious matters.  This man said: “Well, actually I do have some questions.”  Over time, they began to talk about spirituality, God and faith.  Then his neighbor invited him to a Bible study at their church.  He loved it and continued attending.  Eventually the man started coming to worship.   Long story short, this is the man I met who is an active member and leader in this Presbyterian Church.   God used his neighbor’s witness to reach him.  Though we sometimes think people don’t have spiritual questions or interests, you never know who may be interested in discussing spiritual issues and where it might lead to.

God is a seeking God, a reaching God, a loving God, and we know this because God sent Jesus Christ into the world.  God is searching for us before we even think about searching for him.    Know this, God is seeking after you.

Why does Jesus reach out to us?  Because of his deep and abiding love for us.   Because people are sinners and need a savior and forgiveness and power for living a new life.  Because God wants to rescue people who are lost.  Because God values human beings whom He created.  Because God wants people to know Him and enter into a personal relationship with Him.  Because God wants to reach people who are far from him and draw them near, he wants to change hard hearts into receptive hearts.  Because God wants people to worship Him rather than idols and serve His purposes in this world.  Because God desires to bring hope and light and joy and peace to us.  Because as scripture says: The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life.  Witnessing is sharing the story of God’s forgiving love and how His love has affected, even transformed your life.

Today, we live in an increasingly diverse and divided culture.  People still search for the answers to age old questions – who am I, why am I here, what is my purpose, what happens after I die?   God, Christ, the Christian faith, is one of a number of answers to these questions.  As a Christian, I personally believe it is ultimately the best answer and the only answer.  Certainly many would disagree.

The gospel is God’s word of truth and power in the story of the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the Son of God.  This gospel brings freedom, forgiveness, healing and hope and the power of the Holy Spirit to all who receive it in faith.  1 Peter 3:15 says:  “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”  This is our content.  “But do so with gentleness and respect.”  This is our style.

Your style of witnessing must be natural to you, for we are different and have different personalities.  Our style is as important as the content of our witness.   Jesus commands us to spread the word out of love, but he doesn’t tell us how.  It can range from talking to someone face to face, to writing a letter, or email, from inviting someone to church or Bible study, to inviting them to tea or a barbeque.

Lord, here I am, use me as your messenger.”  God wants to use you.  You never know how God will use your style of witnessing.   Rev. Rick Warren writes: “God has given you a life message to share.  When you became a believer, you also became God’s messenger.  God wants to speak to the world through you.  You may feel you don’t have anything to share, but that’s the Devil trying to keep you silent.  You have a storehouse of experiences that God wants to use to bring others into His family.”

Is God calling you to witness to someone?  Pray daily for that person.  Ask God to guide you as to the how. Pray for courage.  God is thrilled when by our witness the Holy Spirit brings someone into God's family, into God's Kingdom, into eternal life.

Jesus says witness with courage and joy, with gentleness and respect, with perseverance and faith.  May the power of Jesus Christ, the witness of St. Andrew and the melodious sound of the bagpipes inspire you.  Amen!

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Inescapable God (Psalm 139) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Since it's opening in 1874, the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England, has been the place where many extraordinary discoveries in physics have taken place.  They discovered the first electron, they laid the foundations for the discovery of quantum mechanics in the 1920s, and laid the groundwork for the discovery of the double-helix structure of the DNA molecule in the 1950's.  What surprised me is that at the entrance to the old lab is a quote from the Bible, Psalm 111:2 “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.”  What further surprised me is that the scientists again voted to inscribe the same quote, from Psalm 111, over the entrance to the new lab that opened in 1973.  Despite the skepticism in our society, there are scientists who delight in, who recognize God’s mind and hand, as they study the world and human beings.  The works of the Lord.

As the book of Genesis in the Bible testifies, God created human beings in His own image.  This means many things, but one thing it doesn’t mean is that God made people all alike, that God used a divine cookie cutter.  No assembly line production here.  Quite the contrary; God has created us very differently.  Just sit at a park and do some people watching and you will be quickly reminded.   Here are three biblical truths about us based upon Psalm.

First, being created in God’s image means we are unique.   The psalmist in 139 says: “For it was you Lord who formed my inward parts.”  Christians believe there is one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  After God created the world and human beings God threw the mold away.

I am unique!  You are unique!  You are one of a kind, without parallel.  For instance, look at identical twins.  They have the same genetic makeup, but they also have slightly different physical traits, distinctive personalities, and different fingerprints and footprints and eyeprints.  There’s not anybody in the world like you.  There never has been.  There isn’t now.  There never will be.

I know we have Doppelgängers, a double, a counterpart in this life.  Have you ever met your doppelganger?  I have seen doubles of other people and I recall someone who said he saw my double.  Now that’s kind of an eerie thought.  But they are still not the same as we are.  God does not create carbon copies.  God only creates originals.

If you were to search the whole world, you wouldn’t find two people who have the same footprint or fingerprint or voiceprint or eyeprint.   Our genetic blue-print is unlike anyone else in the world.  That is how special you and I are in God’s eyes.  That is how much we matter to God.  So don’t compare yourself to others, it will either make you feel superior or inferior.  Your creation, by a personal God, gives you your worth, your value, your esteem, your dignity, your humanity.

Second, being made in God’s image means that you and I are incredibly complex!  The psalmist says in psalm 139: “I praise you God for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.  Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.”   God didn’t make us simple.  God created us as complex persons.

For example, there are 11 major organ systems in the human body, such as the respiratory, immune, and digestive systems.  The mysterious thing we call a brain weighs about 3.3 pounds.  It can perform what 500 tons of electrical and electronic equipment cannot do.  It contains 10 to 15 billion neurons, each a living unit in itself; it performs feats that absolutely boggle the mind.   How about the amazing red blood cell which is created in the bone marrow?  It immediately gives up its nucleus when it reaches the bloodstream.  For any other cell, this would mean death.   A red blood cell is formed with a thin membrane, without a nucleus it is able to carry more oxygen for the body.  Or think of the complexity of the human eye and all the myriad of functions it performs.  The eye can differentiate between some 10 million colors.

We are emotionally complex.   Think of a good friend of yours who continues to surprise or sometimes shock you; just when you think they were predictable.  How many of you married somebody who is wonderfully complex?  Have you ever thought, “Ah, there’s a side I haven’t seen before!”   How many of you have a brother or sister or son or daughter who is wonderfully complex?  Just when you thought you had them all figured out - they surprise you.

Of all God’s creatures, we alone are made for a spiritual relationship, for divine fellowship, for communion with God during our earthly journey.  The 5th century church father St. Augustine wrote: “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in thee.”

Sometimes we are a mystery to ourselves.   Have you ever acted in a strange way or said something which startled you, not to mention someone else?  And a little while later you thought - “What is wrong with me?” Why did I do that?”  “Why in the world did I say that?”  There’s nothing wrong with you or we hope not.  We don’t even know ourselves fully.  God knows you far better than you know yourself. God has made you marvelously complex.

Finally, being made in God’s image means you and I are known by God.   Hear again the words of the psalmist: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.  You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.  You are acquainted with all my ways.  Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.  Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high I cannot attain it.  Where ever I go there you are.  Your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me fast.”     God knows you better than your best friend, better than your wife or husband, better than brothers or sisters, better than you know yourself and God is with you wherever you are.  God is inescapable.

God, your creator and mine, desires for you and me to live with a single focus: “To live out our uniqueness, our complexity, God’s knowledge of us for God’s glory.”  I close with a quote from the late author Og Mandino, a Christian motivational writer, in his book, The Greatest Salesman in the World:

I am nature’s greatest miracle.  Since the beginning of time never has there been another with my mind, my heart, my eyes, my ears, my hands, my hair, my mouth.  None that came before, none that live today, and none that come tomorrow can walk and talk and move and think exactly like me.  All men are my brothers and I am different from each.  I am a unique creature. None can duplicate my brush stokes, none can make my chisel marks, none can duplicate my handwriting, none can produce my child, and in truth, none have the abilities to sell exactly as I.  I am rare, and there is value in all rarity; therefore, I am valuable.  I am not on this earth by chance.  I am here for a purpose and that purpose is to grow into a mountain, not to shrink to a grain of sand.  No beast, no plant, no wind, no rain, no rock, no lake had the same beginning as I, for I was conceived in love and brought forth with a purpose.  Let us use our uniqueness to glorify God.  Amen!

Friday, November 3, 2017

Martin Luther (Ephesians 2:8-10) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Today we commemorate the launching of the 16th Century Protestant Reformation.  The message of the reformation is just as relevant today as it was then.  On October 31, 1517, 500 years ago, a Roman Catholic monk named Martin Luther, nailed 95 theses on the Castle Door, in Wittenberg Germany.  The 95 theses were protests or criticisms of the theology and practices of the Roman Catholic Church.  I know you are very interested in what all of these theses protested, so let’s get started, number 1.

Luther didn’t set out to break with the church, but to simply reform it.  He was surprised by the widespread reaction to his public protest.  He had touched a nerve in the lives of the people and his reputation spread quickly throughout Germany and Europe.  Opposition from the Pope and the church in Rome followed.  They said: “There is a wild boar ravaging in the vineyard of the Lord.”  The Roman Church demanded that Luther recant his errors, and when Martin refused, a tear in the Church, a schism in Christianity occurred, which has lasted 500 years.  The Protestant church was born.

In Luther’s day God was pictured as being angry and vengeful because of human sin.  God is good and humanity is sinful.  People were afraid of God.   Scripture says the wages of sin is death.  Human sin, the sins of idolatry and disobedience, had dishonored, had disrespected, had blasphemed God the creator.  Even Jesus seemed to be a harsh judge to Luther who sent the saved to heaven and the damned to hell.   Luther was afraid for his soul and tried to appease God, to become acceptable to God.  He tried to earn God’s favor and forgiveness.  He fasted until his cheeks caved in, he performed good works for the poor, he crawled on his knees up the church steps until his knees bled, he confessed his sins for six hours at a stretch, but in the end Luther felt hopeless, helpless, and afraid that God would not accept him and forgive him, and welcome Luther into heaven.

Luther felt like the nominal Christian who lived with the philosophy that his good works would be more than enough to get him into heaven. One night he dreamed of the last judgment, when all humanity stood before God.  He was standing directly behind Mother Teresa.  He overheard God say, “Teresa, I was really expecting a lot more out of you.”

So Luther turned to the Scriptures.  Luther studied the book of Romans.  He read verses such as the following: “The gospel is the power of God for salvation to all who have faith; The righteous shall live by faith; Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,  God proves his love for us in that while were still sinners Christ died for us, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus;  If God is for us, who can be against us; I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities, nor things present nor things to come will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord; God sent Jesus Christ, that through his sacrifice, he took the punishment for our sins.”  In the letter of Ephesians Luther read: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”   We are saved not by works, but by God’s grace through faith.

What is grace?  It is like when I was serving a church in Colorado.  I had just finished moderating a long session meeting and I was eager to get home.  You elders know what I’m talking about.  It was about 10:00 pm and I was driving along a narrow frontage road on my way home.   No one was on the road.   Suddenly I saw flashing lights in my rear view mirror.   The police officer pulled me over and asked:  “Do you know why I stopped you?”  I said: “Yes, I was speeding.  I just was on my way home after moderating a session meeting at my church.”  He didn’t say anything.  He finished writing the ticket. I signed it and as he was tearing it out of the book, he ripped the ticket in half.  I don’t know if it was on purpose or was an accident.  He looked at me and said:  “This must be your night, be safe.”  He walked away without giving me a ticket.  That is grace.

Luther heard that word of grace and knew that God had spoken to him through the scriptures.  He was transformed by his understanding that the gospel was good news, joyful news of what God has already done in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus to make us right with God, not what we have to do in order to get right with God.  All we need do is respond, that is, repent of our sins and believe the good news of the gospel.  God has saved us in Jesus.  All we need do is accept God’s salvation in Jesus Christ through faith.   After that God will begin His work of sanctification, of transforming our hearts, souls, minds and behavior, to make us more and more like Christ.

This revolutionary understanding of the gospel caused Luther to begin looking into the practices of the church which had long troubled him, and the unity of the church of the Middle Ages was broken.  Luther translated the Latin Bible into German, the language of the people, because he wanted Germans to read God’s word in their own language.  He wrote hymns like A Mighty Fortress is our God and carols like Away in a Manger.  He denied that there was such a place as purgatory or such a requirement as penance, because he could not find biblical grounds for these doctrines.  He said the Bible is our authority, not the pope.  Popes are fallible.  The church should pattern its life and its theology on the Bible, on scripture.  And if any church doctrines or practices are not supported by scripture they should be stopped.

The Reformation began with a simple act, nailing 95 theses or protests against the Roman church.  About half of them were protests against the church’s practice of selling indulgences.   What is an indulgence?  An indulgence is: "A way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for one’s sins."  The Catholic Church declared that God forgives sins when you confess your sins to a priest.  But even though you are forgiven, you still had to be punished for those sins. You had to do penance.   Indulgences were a means of taking care of the penalties for your sins.  They would reduce or eliminate the punishment you had to undergo after your sins were forgiven.   It is called the doctrine of penance.

Gradually, the practice of indulgences became corrupt.  Indulgences were sold.  They began as the priest telling you to say certain prayers like Hail Mary Mother of God a certain number of times to pay the penalty for your sins, to doing good works to pay for your sins, to buying indulgences in exchange for your punishment.   The Roman church said indulgences could reduce the time spent in purgatory for family, relatives and friends who had died and were being purged for their sins, or reduce or eliminate the time you would spend in purgatory after you died, or to move family members who had died from purgatory to heaven.   Indulgences were sold to purchase salvation from damnation.  Indulgences were used to raise money for the church, to buy land, to build cathedrals, like St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, or to fund the Crusades.  Churches were accumulating more wealth at the expense of the people.

Luther saw these abuses and decided to take action.  Here are just three of Luther’s protests out of the 95. He writes: “Why does not the Pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?” “They are the enemies of Christ and the pope who forbid altogether the preaching of the Word of God in some churches in order that indulgences may be preached in others.”  “Injury is done to the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or larger amount of time is devoted to indulgences than to the Word.

The Message of Luther, the message of the gospel, the message of the Bible is repent and believe the good news of the free gift of God’s forgiving and transforming love in Jesus Christ.  God is gracious.  His salvation is the greatest gift we can ever receive.  In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen!