Friday, June 23, 2017

Fathers of the Bible (Genesis 21:1-5, 35:27-29; I Chronicles 23:14-15) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A teenage boy had just gotten his driving permit.  He asked his father if they could discuss his use of the family car.  His father said, "I'll make a deal with you. You bring your grades up, study the Bible more, get your hair cut, and then we'll talk about it."   After about a month, the boy came back and again asked his father if they could discuss his use of the car. The father said, "Son, I've been very proud of you. You have brought your grades up, you've studied the Bible, but you didn't get your hair cut."  The young man replied, "You know, Dad, I've been thinking about that. I read in the Bible that Samson had long hair, Moses had long hair, Noah had long hair, and even Jesus had long hair."  "True son," his father said, "and everywhere they went, they walked."

Welcome on this Father’s Day.  A study from Penn State researchers published in the journal Child Development tracked nearly 200 families over a seven-year period.  The study found that time with mom and dad starts to drop when teenagers hit about the age of 15.  The study noted that, generally speaking, the more time teens spend with their dads, the higher their self-esteem, social competence, and sense of well-being.  Teens with involved fathers "may develop higher general self-worth because their fathers go beyond social expectations to devote undivided attention to them."   Yes, fatherhood is a critical role.

Are some fathers born great?  Leonard Ravenhill tells about a group of tourists visiting a picturesque village in Europe who walked by an old man sitting beside a fence.  In a rather patronizing way, one tourist asked, "Were any great men born in this village?"  The old man replied, "Nope, only babies.”

Today, we remember, honor and pray not so much for the ideal of fatherhood, but for real flesh and blood fathers.  Fathers who take fatherhood seriously and strive to be the best fathers they can be.  For fathers who treat their wives with love and respect as an example to their children.  We remember single fathers, married fathers, young and old fathers, foster fathers, step fathers and adoptive fathers.  We honor fathers who make promises and keep them, who stand by and support their families emotionally, spiritually and financially.

Today we pray for fathers who are separated from their children because of military service or because of problems in the family.  We pray for fathers who are grieving the death of a child, and for fathers who have a passionate desire to pass on spiritual and moral values to their children, and who give, not just material things - but their time, their love, their energy, their knowledge, themselves.

We also pray for fathers who do not support their children – emotionally or financially.  We pray for a change of heart, a change of mind, a change of attitude, that they will turn to God in repentance, that they will see the light and by God’s power and grace, mend their ways, and become the father’s God wants them to be and the father’s they are capable of becoming.

Who are some well-known fathers in the Bible?   Abraham left his home to follow the call of God.   Abraham was the father of the people of Israel, a leader and visionary.  He was constantly challenged by God and he met those challenges head-on.  When he and his wife Sarai were unable to conceive, God blessed the couple with their son Isaac.

God challenged Abraham by ordering Isaac be sacrificed. Though Abraham's heart was broken, he knew to trust in the Lord and at the last moment Abraham’s hand was stilled by God and Isaac's life was spared.  Abraham's difficult life is a reflection of difficult lives today.  Many modern fathers meet such challenges and learn, through experience, how to trust God.  Once that trust is developed, fathers pass that unyielding faith and trust to their children, who grow to love God as well.

Isaac is another well-known father.  Isaac married Rebekah, who was barren, like Sarah had been.  As a good husband, Isaac prayed for his wife, and God opened Rebekah's womb. She gave birth to twins:  Esau and Jacob.  No, Isaac wasn’t perfect, he favored Esau over Jacob. Isaac reminds fathers today that we are not perfect.   We need to grow and mature and learn, and be humble and grateful.  God calls ordinary men to be fathers, capable of doing extraordinary things.

Isaac obeyed God and followed his commands.  He became a leader and patriarch of the Jewish nation.  Isaac was faithful to God.  He never forgot how God saved him from death and provided a ram to be sacrificed in his place.   Isaac watched and learned from his father Abraham.  In an era when polygamy was accepted, Isaac took only one wife, Rebekah. He was a loyal husband and loved her deeply all his life.

Moses was another father.  He was the father of two sons, Gershom and Eliezer.  He also served as a father figure to the entire Hebrew people.  Moses trusted in God and led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt to the promised land.  He loved them and helped discipline and provide for them on their 40-year journey to the promised land.  Moses seemed to be a larger-than-life character, but he was only a man. He shows today's fathers that overwhelming tasks can be achieved when we stay close to God.

Our last father is Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus.  Though Jesus takes center stage, it is important to remember Joseph.  Joseph was responsible for raising the Christ child together with Mary.

It was a father’s job to prepare children for a trade.  Joseph passed on a skill to Jesus and trained Jesus to become a carpenter.  Joseph loved Jesus, protected him, provided for him, and raised Jesus up in the Jewish faith and tradition.  Joseph was a righteous man and was chosen to help care for Jesus in his childhood.  Joseph is an exemplary father figure for Jesus and the several children he later fathered.  Today, fathers can learn to be compassionate, loving and righteous after the model of Joseph.

In this light, I remind you of some basic biblical principles of Fatherhood.  God is our eternal Father.  Since human beings were created in the image of God, fathers are to reflect the image of God’s fatherhood.  Yes, that’s a tall order, a seemingly impossible one.  It is a role fathers strive to fulfill with humility and patience, trust and faith, and constantly seeking God’s grace, forgiveness and power.

Fathers are to love their children.  Jesus told the parable of the prodigal son to demonstrate both God’s love for sinners and a father’s love for his children.

Fathers are to teach and train their children.  A good father is an example and teacher for his children.  Ephesians 6:4 says: “Fathers, do not provoke your children, instead bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.  Fathers, control your temper, practice self-control, do not provoke your children to anger.”  This includes teaching about God and faith.

A good father protects his children from harm.  This is one of the basic duties of a father.  Jesus used the analogy of a shepherd protecting his sheep, those in his charge, and likewise, fathers are to protect their children whom God has entrusted to them.

A good father provides for the family.  The father who loves his family strives to and works hard to provide for them.    This is understood broadly as providing material necessities, but also providing emotionally and spiritually in terms of prayer and being a Christian example.

Writer Mark Twain said: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant; I could hardly stand to have the old man around.  But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

Our culture has dramatically changed.  Whom do we hear about?  We hear about superstar and super-paid athletes, successful entrepreneurs, celebrities and entertainers.  Yesterday I scanned the internet. I found hundreds of articles on almost every subject, but not one about Fathers or Father’s Day.   So how about elevating an important person and role in our society; a father, a committed father, a loving father, a man of faith, a good family man.  It is a role established by none other than God.   Amen!

Friday, June 9, 2017

Spirit of the Living God (Acts 2:1-13) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

The Holy Spirit is always something of a mystery for believers.  A father tells the story of their family gathering for breakfast, he asked his four-year-old daughter to say the blessing.  She folded her hands, bowed her head and prayed, "Thank you, Father, Son, and Holy toast."

Yes, it's Pentecost Sunday.  The color red you see around you is a symbol for fire. In the Old and new Testaments fire and flames denoted a theophany, an appearance of God, the purifying presence of God.   Today we celebrate the coming and blessing of God's Holy Spirit.  Pentecost means 50th day, for it was 50 days after Easter that God sent His Spirit to the disciples.  Pentecost is the story about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus' disciples who were gathered in the upper room in Jerusalem.  The Holy Spirit bonded them together as one and the Christian church was born.

We Christians affirm the doctrine of the Trinity; we believe that God is one God in three persons.  God is a tri-unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.    We are not talking about the human spirit, nor the spirit of the age, nor about team spirit.   We are speaking of the Spirit of God, the third person of the trinity or the God head.   The Holy Spirit is the Giver and Renewer of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified.  God the creator is over us or beyond us, God the Son, our savior is for us and God the Holy Spirit and sanctifier is with us and in us.

In the Gospel of John we discover the Greek word “Paraclete,” a word I want you to add to your Christian vocabulary, when referring to the Holy Spirit.  It is variously translated into English as Advocate, Comforter, Companion, Counselor, Helper, Spirit because the Holy Spirit performs all of these functions.

After Jesus' resurrection and public appearances, knowing that soon he would no longer be physically with the disciples, Jesus makes a promise to his followers: “I will not leave you orphaned.   I will ask the Father and he will give you another Paraclete to be with you forever.  The world cannot receive the Spirit, because it neither sees him nor knows him.  You know him,” Jesus says, “because he abides with you and he will be in you forever.”  Not temporarily, not occasionally, but forever.

In times of trouble, in fearful times the Paraclete is our comforter.  When we face confusing decisions the Paraclete is our counselor.   In lonely times, God's Spirit is our companion.   When we are weak, the Paraclete or Holy Spirit is our Helper.

A pastor writes:

When I decided to start a new church in Los Angeles, I found that I was overwhelmed with pressure and stress.  I was working more than seventy hours a week.  My wife would ask me to take a day off and I would say, "I can't." I wasn't sleeping at night and I began to take sleeping pills. When the church was about a year old, I woke up in the night and had this strange sense that God was laughing at me.   It was the weirdest feeling.  I lay in bed wondering why God is laughing at me?

I finally got an answer. Here's how it happened.  When we moved into our house, I saved the heaviest piece of furniture for last—the desk from my office.   As I was pushing and pulling the desk with all my might, my four-year-old son came over and asked if he could help.  So together we started sliding it slowly across the floor.  He was pushing and grunting as we inched our way along.  After a few minutes, my son stopped, looked up at me, and said, "Dad, you have to push too.”  I realized that he thought he was actually doing all the work, instead of me.  I couldn't help but laugh.  But then a moment of realization struck me.  I knew why God was laughing at me.  I thought I was pushing this new church all alone.  Instead of recognizing God's power and strength, I was thinking it all depended on me.

Do you ever think it all depends upon you, that the weight of it is on your shoulders alone, and fail to see and sense the presence of the Holy Spirit working in partnership with you?  I experience that at times.  God's Spirit brings comfort when we battle feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness.   When your heart is discouraged, the Holy Spirit brings a priceless gift, the gift of inner peace. Jesus says: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you, I do not give as the world gives, do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Have you ever felt anxious about something and then suddenly you experience an inner calm?  The Holy Spirit helps us to persevere when we are weak, to find courage when we are afraid, and to find hope when we despair.  The Spirit consoles us in times of grief.   Jesus said: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  This is the work of the Holy Spirit.  The work of the Holy Spirit is about inspiring, transforming and changing.  Can you identify some part of your mind, heart or soul that is changing?  Trust in Jesus’ promise.  The Holy Spirit is working in your life.

In his book, Against the Flow, Oxford professor John Lennox notes that when God calls us to do something difficult, he gives us the strength when we need it, not before we need it. Lennox illustrates this biblical principle with a story about an encounter he had with a Russian follower of Jesus who spent years in a Siberian labor camp for the crime of teaching his own children about the Bible.

Lennox writes: “This man described to me that he had seen things in labor camps that no man should ever have to see. I listened, thinking how little I really knew about life, and wondering how I would have fared in such inhumane conditions.  As if he had read my thoughts, he suddenly said: ‘You couldn't cope with that, could you?’ Embarrassed, I stumbled out something like: ‘No, I am sure you are right.’ He then grinned and said: ‘Nor could I! I was a man who fainted at the sight of his own blood, let alone that of others. But what I discovered in the camp was this: God does not help us to face theoretical situations but real ones. Like you I couldn't imagine how one could cope in the Gulag. But once there I found that God met me, exactly as Jesus had promised his disciples when he was preparing them for persecution.  The Holy Spirit comes upon us when we need him and not before.’”

The ultimate test of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives, according to the scripture, is when your life and mine manifest the fruits of God’s Spirit as we read in the letter of Galatians.  Do you recognize those times when you are radiating the fruits of the Holy Spirit:  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control.

I have always liked the song “Spirit of the Living God” which we just sang.  It is a song, it is a prayer, it is a plea.  Listen to the words: “Spirit of the Living God, Fall fresh on me, Spirit of the Living God Fall fresh on me, Melt me, mold me, Fill me, use me, Spirit of the Living God Fall fresh on me.”

On this day of Pentecost, may our prayer be: “Oh Spirit of God, fall afresh on me, breathe on me, oh breath of God.”  Amen!

Friday, June 2, 2017

Jesus’ Promise (Revelation 21:1-4) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Some friends were hanging out one day and the conversation turned to the subject of death.  One of the friends asked: "What would you like people to say about you at your funeral?"  One friend answered, "I would hope people would say, He was a great humanitarian, a generous philanthropist, who cared about his community.”  A second replied: "I would want people to say, 'He was a great husband and father, an example for many to follow.”  The third friend gave it some thought and answered: "I would hope someone says, 'Look, he's moving!’”  We often use humor when speaking about death.

We also use humor when talking about heaven, like the story about three women who die and go to heaven:

St. Peter tells them he’s tied up at the moment and asks them to wait outside the heavenly gates.    Later, St. Peter returns and calls the first woman into his office.  He apologizes for making her wait so long.  “Oh, I don’t mind at all she replies, I’m just so happy and humbled to be here.”  St. Peter is delighted by her attitude.  “Well, he says, if you will just answer one question, we can finish processing your papers.  “How do you spell God?”  The woman spells it and enters the celestial realm.

St. Peter calls in the next woman and also apologizes for making her wait.  She says: “Oh that’s okay, I’m willing to wait a 1,000 years if necessary, just to see God face to face.”  St. Peter is pleased.   He asks her: “Tell me, how to you spell God.”  The woman spells it and enters the celestial realm.  St. Peter calls in the third woman.  He starts to apologize, but the woman angrily interrupts him: “How rude of you to make me wait, do you know who I am?  I’m going to get you fired for being so incompetent!”  St. Peter replies, “I’m so sorry, if you’ll just answer this one question.  How do you spell Czechoslovakia?”

In this Easter season we are reminded of a universal truth – we humans are mortal, sooner or later, everyone dies.   I think being active in the church puts us closer to the reality of death than many people, because we witness the death of church friends and family members throughout the year.   How foolish to go through life unprepared for what we know is inevitable.

A Gallup Poll reports that more Americans believe in heaven today than in 1981, up from 71% to 78%.  This goes along with an increase in those who believe in hell, up from 53% to 60%.  I think that as 70 million baby boomers approach retirement, they are becoming more interested in the Hereafter.

The Bible depicts two conceptions of the afterlife - heaven and hell.  We see this pictured in literature in Dante’s 14th century classic story The Divine Comedy.  The plot of The Divine Comedy is that a man is miraculously taken on a tour of the afterlife, to visit the souls in Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.  He has two guides; the Roman poet, Virgil, leads him through the Inferno and Purgatory.   The young woman, Beatrice, to whom the story is dedicated, leads him on a tour of Paradise.

Do you believe in an after-life, in a life-hereafter, in heaven and hell?  It really is about what we believe, what we accept as true; not what is a fact or what we can prove.  It is a truth claim.  Some people don’t believe in God and they don’t believe in an after-life.  They don’t believe God exists and that one’s life is extinguished at death, like one would extinguish a candle.  They might be right or they might be wrong.  But fundamentally it is still about belief.

Some people don’t believe because they hold a materialistic view of life.   They believe that reality, that the universe, that all that exists, is physical.  There is no God or spiritual reality. Truth they believe is empirical, that what is truly known or can be known comes only through our 5 senses, taste, touch, see, smell, and hear.

I was speaking to a scientist from our congregation last week.  She said even science acknowledges that there are phenomena that are true or real, even if we can’t identify them through our senses.  Some examples are time, magnetic fields, thoughts, air, oxygen, gravity, sound and radio waves.  Until the invention of the electron microscope, atoms, molecules, and sub-atomic particles were nothing but a hypothesis or theory.

I do believe in an after-life.  I know it in the depths of my heart.  Remember this, knowing in your heart is still a type of knowing, a valid knowing, even if not a scientific knowing.  I am sure you can think of things you have known or know today, you know in your heart that cannot be proven.  I believe in heaven and I believe in hell.  Why?  I agree with the apostle Paul in I Corinthians 15: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

I believe in hell because the Bible declares that God is holy, moral, righteous, just, fair.   For example, the 6th commandment “Thou Shall Not Murder” declares God’s will for all humanity.  There is a price to pay if you violate God’s commandment.  The Bible says there are consequences for our behavior, the wages of sin is death; the consequence of evil is punishment.  The prophet Amos says: “Seek good and not evil, that you may live.”

I also believe in hell because Jesus, the Son of God, speaks of hell.  Jesus said to his disciple, “You are Peter, upon you I shall build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  The Bible uses different words for death and hell and each means something slightly different – sheol, gehenna and hades.  Hell is described as the abode of the dead, a place of judgment, punishment, loneliness, darkness, and separation from God, family and the faith community.

I also firmly believe in heaven.  Clearly, the Bible focuses not only on your and my life today, and living a Christ-like life, a loving life, an ethical life, a joyful life, a servant life, but also upon the life to come, everlasting life, glory.   In heaven we live a new life of joy and peace in God’s presence forever.  Imagine that for just a moment.   The stirring words in the book of Revelation paint this picture: “God will dwell with mortals, God himself will be with them, he will wipe every tear from their eyes, death will cease, grieving and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”   Here is a beautiful picture of heaven.  One I think, given the stress and demands of life, that we should keep daily in our minds.

I believe in heaven because Jesus taught about it and because Jesus’ promises it in our future. Jesus said: “Because I live, you shall live also!”  “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, even though they die, will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”  Jesus said: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” Jesus taught: “Our Father who art in heaven,” and “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Jesus says: “Believe in God.  Believe also in me.  In my father’s house are many rooms; I am going there to prepare a place for you.  I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”    Jesus says: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”

I also believe in heaven because on Easter God raised Jesus from death to life.  Jesus’ resurrection defeated the power of death.  Jesus appeared to many of his followers after his resurrection.  The book of Acts says: “After his suffering Jesus presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the Kingdom of God.”

I further believe in heaven because of the countless numbers of people who have testified to the after-life due to near-death experiences.  I have spoken to some of them personally over the years.   It’s fascinating at how similar the stories are.  A nurse, Diane Corcoran, describes the accounts of hundreds of people she has worked with.    In one instance a man said:  He felt himself “going to another place.” With tears rolling down his cheeks, he described this place as “beautiful” and “wonderful.”  But, he was told, he would have to go back, at which point he woke up in his body.

She said people describe themselves as hovering and seeing their bodies below, traveling through a tunnel toward light, and meeting deceased loved ones.  Some people describe having a “life review” or seeing their life, from an outside perspective.   Many of those who have near-death experiences say they were surrounded by an embracing and powerful light unlike anything on earth.

What is heaven going to be like according to Scripture?   Clearly, we are speaking about a mystery, but we do catch glimpses from scripture.  I believe you can summarize it in three ideas.  You’re going to be rewarded for your faithfulness and obedience to God.   You will be with Christ forever.   You will recognize loved ones and enjoy eternity with them.  Believing that Christ is Lord over life and death, trusting in the promise of Jesus about our future, gives us hope, strength to carry on, and comfort amidst the trials, losses, and tragedies in life.

I close with the words of Rev. Rick Warren in his book, The Purpose Driven Life.  This life is not all there is.  Life on earth is just the dress rehearsal before the real production.  You will spend far more time on the other side of death in eternity than you will here.  Earth is the staging area, the preschool, the tryout for your life in eternity.  It is the practice workout before the actual game; the warm-up lap before the race begins.   It is the preparation for the main event where you’re going to spend all of eternity.   At most you will live a hundred years here on earth, but you will spend forever in eternity. You were made to last forever. The question is where will we spend eternity?  God offers us not just an opportunity of a lifetime; but an opportunity beyond our lifetime.  God’s plans for our lives endure forever.”  Amen!

Friday, May 5, 2017

I Doubt It! (John 20:19-31) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

The mother of a Christian family wrote to her son who was in his first year of college.    She asked how he was doing and reminded him to study hard and that he was in her prayers.  He wrote back: “Hi Mom, I like college. I’m making new friends, but I can’t believe how much you have to study.  I have been extremely busy with reading assignments and term papers and lab work, and I’m having a terrible time in one class.”  And then in a creative paraphrase of II Timothy 4:7 the son concluded: “I have fought the good fight, I have kept the faith, but I doubt if I'll pass chemistry. Your favorite son, John.”

Is it rare to have doubts? No, it’s something we must grapple with and live with every day.  It confronts us in all realms of life.  What do you have doubts about?   Is there one thing in particular that you have doubts about or many things?  How do you deal with your doubts?

For there is no shortage of things to have doubts about.  Like our safety as a nation in the light of terrorist attacks, doubts about the economy, about our elected leaders in government, is government really looking out for the welfare of the people?   We have doubts about job security and about decisions looming before us.  We have doubts at times in our marriage, or about a friendship, or about how we’re raising in our children.  We have doubts about our health.  Yes, doubt is no stranger.

Is doubt all bad?  No.  People have had self-doubts about whether they could achieve something or knew that others had doubts about them were spurred on to prove to themselves or others that they could be successful.  Doubt has been a positive motivator for many to reach higher, to excel, to persevere, and to succeed, whether in sports, in entrepreneurial endeavors, in careers, in inventing, in business, in education, in attaining goals.  Doubts can propel us to take risks and accomplish things we never dreamed possible.   I also believe a little skepticism is healthy.  Being gullible, na├»ve, overly trusting can sometimes as we know get us into trouble.

But the answer also depends on the nature of our doubts.  Doubts about what color to paint the kitchen is one thing; struggling with serious self-doubt about our abilities, our judgment or our self-worth is another thing entirely.  Not believing in yourself, losing faith and confidence in yourself, is something else indeed.   Struggling with deep doubts about being a parent, about being a spouse, about whether your marriage can be saved, about your competence at work or in school, can lead to pessimism, anxiety, and ultimately depression.  I don’t think it’s healthy to ignore your doubts.  We need to pay attention to them and examine them and deal with them.   Denial is rarely ever the right path.

What about doubts when it comes to our faith in God?   Scripture clearly shows that you should not berate yourself or feel guilty, or think you are spiritually weak when you ask hard questions or feel disappointed in God or angry at God or struggle at times with your faith.   Such times demonstrate an intellectually honest faith.   Just read the psalms in the Old Testament for examples of an intellectually honest faith.    Like psalm 43: “Vindicate me O God, defend my cause against ungodly people; you are the God in whom I take refuge, why have you cast me off?  Why must I walk about mournfully because of the oppression of the enemy?”  In other words, God where are you, why is this happening?

In II Corinthians we read: “For we walk by faith, not by sight.”  The apostle Paul writes: “Now, we see in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face.”  Anyone here ever feel like you are seeing dimly, when you’re trying to understand what God’s plan or purpose is for your life?   I have.  Christian faith is a living, breathing, organic relationship with God through Christ.  Faith is about trust and obedience.  And like any relationship, there is an element of the unknown, of mystery, of surprises, of questions, of disappointments, of unmet expectations.

Our faith ought to steady us, and often it does, but sometimes it does not.  Faith should instill confidence and peace, and often it does, but sometimes it does not.  Faith comes easy when the sun is shining and the sky is blue, but then the storms of life assail us.   When is your faith strong and joy filled?  When is your faith shaken?

I believe there is some of the disciple Thomas in each of us, myself included.  Thomas was a charter member of that 12 Step Program – “Doubter’s Anonymous.”  But just a minute, aren’t we all?   Thomas knows his own mind.  He saw Jesus buried.  He refuses to go along with the crowd. The problem was that Thomas had missed the celebration.  I hate when that happens.  He missed seeing Jesus’ spectacular appearance.   The other disciples tell him about seeing the Risen Lord, but he isn’t buying it.  Jesus once again appears to the disciples and this time Thomas is there.   Jesus says: “Have you believed because you have seen me?”  Thomas, I’m glad that now you believe I am alive.   Touch my hands and my side.  Jesus clearly loves Thomas.

But then the risen Lord says something no one sees coming: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  Jesus is saying there are blessings when we receive a revelation from God like Thomas and believe.   But Jesus says, you are also blessed by God when you have not seen and yet believe.

Doubt is a part of faith because our human understanding is limited.  Faith in God is rooted in belief, assurance, surrender, humility, respect, gratitude and knowledge.  But it’s not rooted in sight.  It requires trust and obedience.    Faith and prayer confesses that we cannot control God to answer our prayers, and aren’t there times when you wish you could?   Scripture says:  “Fight the good fight of the faith.”  Faith is worth the fight.  I think this is another way of saying doubt is real and it must be struggled with from time to time.

Doubts remind us of the vicissitudes of life.   Sometimes a day is filled with amazing blessings and surprises and beauty and joy and wonder and humor.   I remember our indomitable church member Jack Farris, who if you asked him how he was feeling, would answer: “If I felt any better I’d have to go see a doctor.”   And then tomorrow comes and we are hit hard with all kinds of problems.  We find ourselves questioning, “Why Lord, why?”

Does God abandon us in times of doubt?  No.  Author Robert Louis Stevenson was a sickly child who was burdened by ill health for most of his life.  He died at the age of 44.  From skeptical beginnings, his spiritual journey eventually led him to become a man of radiant faith.  He started by debunking the Christian faith as the “deadliest gag and wet-blanket that can be laid on man.”  He referred to himself as a youthful atheist.  As he grew older, he began to have what he referred to as “his first wild doubts about doubt.”  Later, he commented: “Tis a strange world, but there is a manifest God for those who care to look for him?”  Near the close of his life, he wrote: “Faith is a good word to end on.”   Yes, sometimes doubt eventually leads us to faith.

I like what Dr. Lewis Thomas writes: “Much of God’s light shines in darkness.  There is enough darkness in each of our lives to cause us to wonder what, in God’s name, is going on.  Yet we would have to affirm that there is enough light in our lives to enable us to trust even when we cannot grasp what a particular event means.”

I believe that in times of doubt God brings the right people into our lives.  God gives us the gift of the church, like the disciples, who were there for Thomas.  Our faith is strengthened through the faith and presence of other believers.   It has happened to me personally.  I have also seen this over the years in the church, when people in difficult times tell me how their faith is inspired and encouraged by the prayers, visits, calls, cards, love and support of fellow believers.  The Holy Spirit links your sprit with the spirit of other believers in such times.

Like the story of Hans, a professor at a seminary who was devastated by the death of his wife, Enid.  Hans was so overcome with sorrow that he lost his appetite, and became depressed and didn't want to leave the house. Out of concern, the seminary president, along with three other professors, paid Hans a visit. The grieving professor confessed that he was struggling with doubt. "I am no longer able to pray to God," he admitted to his colleagues. "In fact, I am not certain I believe in God anymore."   After a moment of silence, the seminary president said, "Then we will believe for you. We will pray for you."  The four men continued to meet daily for prayer, asking God to restore the gift of faith to their friend.  Some months later, as the four friends gathered for prayer with Hans, Hans smiled and said, "It is no longer necessary for you to pray for me. Today I would like you to pray with me."

Our Easter faith proclaims that God raised Jesus from death to life.  Easter means that new life, new beginnings, new surprises are not only possible but a reality.   Fate does not control our destiny; God is ultimately in charge of life.   God is the ruler.  Jesus is Lord.  Jesus is with us through His Spirit.  Yes, sometimes we say – “I doubt it.”  But there are also times when we say – “Lord, I praise you.” “I believe in you.”  Thank you Lord.” And God’s people said:  Amen!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Easter’s Amazing Power! (Luke 24:1-12) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A mother writes: “Our three-year-old daughter, Nicole said “I can’t wait for Easter.”  I asked her: Do you know what Easter means honey?  In her own sweet way, with arms raised high and a smile on her face, she shouted, surprise!" What a superb word to sum up the meaning of Easter!    

What a glorious morning!  From San Diego to Jerusalem, from Rome to Egypt, well over two billion Christian believers around the world are celebrating Easter, even amidst the political, social, military, and religious turmoil in our world.   We gather on this morning of all mornings to celebrate the greatest event in history, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.    No historical event has shaped the world like the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  God in Christ has not only dramatically impacted individual lives over the centuries, but has shaped and influenced the values, the intellectual foundations and history of nations, including our own.

Some of you have come here this morning with questions on your mind.  Is there hope?  Is life meaningful?  Is there reason for joy?  Is there more than this life?

The answer has arrived today; it’s a three-word message, Christ Is Risen!  It’s good news to those who have lost their joy.  Its good news for those lost in grief.  Its good news to those burdened by guilt.  It’s good news to those filled with fear.  It’s good news for those who have lost their way and are seeking a new way, a new purpose, a new direction for their lives.

In our story from the Gospel of Luke, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and other women arrive at the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with spices as was the custom.  Finding the stone rolled away, they enter the tomb, and are shocked to discover that Jesus’ body isn’t there.  A divine messenger tells them the incredible news; Jesus has risen from the dead.   The women think back and remember Jesus words about being handed over to sinners, and being crucified and rising from the dead in three days, and then hurry off to tell the apostles.   The apostles are skeptical at the news and Peter decides to rush to the tomb himself.  He sees the empty tomb and returns home simply amazed.

Jesus’ resurrection is a totally unexpected, irrational and illogical event.  The church has attempted to use intellectual arguments to convince people that the resurrection occurred. That Easter is true.  Like pointing to the existence of the Christian religion and people who claim the name Christian, the existence of the Christian Church, the existence of the New Testament, the practice of Sunday as well as weekday worship services, and the sacrament of Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper.   Would these exist today if Easter, the resurrection of Jesus was a hoax or falsehood.

Easter catches us off guard, like it did for those women who had gone at dawn to the tomb.  It was empty.  The impossible to conceive broke in upon them.  It blew apart their belief system, their mindset, their worldview.  No wonder they were amazed and afraid.  We would be as well. It was the defining moment for their lives.  The power of Easter altered the lives of these women, and these apostles, as it has for millions of believers down through the centuries.

Today, it seems, with our advances in communication, we regularly hear that someone has died, and then suddenly, they come alive.  In February, the Internet said that the iconic Canadian folksinger, Gordon Lightfoot, was alive!  Someone on Twitter had created a false rumor that Lightfoot had died.  The 71 year old singer famous for the song “If You Could Read My Mind” said: “Everything is good.  I don’t know where it came from; it seems like a bit of a hoax.  I was quite surprised to hear it myself, I feel fine.”  The stark difference of course, is that Jesus really died, truly died and on Easter morning, defeated the seemingly unconquerable power of death.

Because of the amazing power of Easter, we are confronted with the truth about Jesus!  Jesus’ resurrection was God’s vindication of Jesus’ life and teachings and death on the cross for the sins of the world.   God was authenticating Jesus as His only Son.   On Easter God reversed the crucifixion and placed his seal of approval on Jesus.  Easter was God’s act of justice on behalf of one who was sentenced and executed unjustly.  Easter confirmed Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God.  Easter confirmed the truth of Jesus’ healings and miracles and exorcisms.  Easter confirmed Jesus claims about having power over sin, death, and evil.   Easter confirmed the claims Jesus made about himself and his mission.

Jesus said: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me."    “I am the light of the world.”   “I am the lord of all.”    “I am the resurrection and the life.”  “I and the father are one.” (John 10:30).

Jesus was either who He said He was or He was the biggest liar who ever lived.  Easter declares that Jesus is who he claimed to be and that Jesus has the power he claimed to have.  No other religious leader of history has made such claims — not Ghandi, Confucius, Buddha, Mohammed.  They are all in the grave.  But Jesus Christ isn't.  His tomb is empty.  God raised Jesus Christ alone.

Second, because of the amazing power of Easter our view of death has changed.  We know this simple fact about life.  Life will come to an end.  There is death.  We well know that life is precious.  Life is fragile.  It is priceless.  We deeply grieve the death of friends and loved ones.  It breaks our hearts.   Every one of us must face our mortality.  You can’t turn to modern medicine to obtain immortality.   Death is real.

But because of Easter it’s not the last word.   For life today and forever is in Jesus Christ, the hope for our life after death.  Scripture says:  “Whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord.”  Jesus made an amazing promise:  “There are many rooms in my Father’s house. I am going there to prepare a place for you, I would not tell you this if it were not so, and I will come back and take you to myself, so that you will be where I am.”  That’s a promise worth repenting for, that’s a promise worth turning away from self for, and that’s a promise worth turning toward Jesus Christ in faith for is it not?  Can I get an amen?

Third, because of the amazing power of Easter, the Risen Lord is continuing to change lives today.    Father Basil Pennington, a Roman Catholic monk, tells of a meeting he had with a Zen teacher at a spiritual retreat.  Each participant met privately with this esteemed teacher.  Pennington says the Zen teacher sat before him smiling and rocking gleefully back and forth.  Finally the teacher said: “I like Christianity.  But I would not like Christianity without the resurrection. I want to see your resurrection!”  “You are a Christian.   Show me what this means for you in your life and I will believe.”   Today, as always, people don’t just want to hear poetic words about Easter, they want to see the power of Easter, does it truly change lives?

The answer is yes.  We see the power of the Risen Lord in the witness of a family, a Christian family from Memphis, Tennessee, in the true story of Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy who take into their home a homeless teenage African-American, Michael Oher.  He has no idea who is father is and his mother is a drug addict.  "Clip from Blindside!!!!  Yes, Easter’s power continues to change lives today!  God amazing power not only changed the lives of Michael, but of the Tuohy family.

And not only in adults, but also in the lives of young people!  I close with a story from a Sunday school teacher:

“Once I had an eight year old boy in my SS class who was born with Down ’s syndrome.  His name was Philip.  He was a pleasant child--happy, it seemed--but increasingly aware of the difference between himself and other children.  And Philip, with his differences, was not readily accepted.

The class learned, they laughed, they played together and cared about one another, even though eight-year-olds don't say they care about one another out loud.  I also knew that Philip was not really a part of the group. Philip did not choose nor did he want to be different.  He just was. And that was just the way things were.

One Easter I had an idea for my class. I gave each child those things that pantyhose come in--the containers that look like great big eggs.  It was a beautiful spring day, and the assignment was for each child to go outside, find a symbol for new life, put it into the egg, and bring it back to the classroom. They would then open and share their new life symbols and surprises one by one.  It was glorious.  It was confusing. It was wild. They ran all around the church grounds, gathered their symbols, and returned to the classroom. They put all the eggs on a table, and I began to open them. All the children stood around the table.

I opened one, and there was a flower and they ooh-ed and aah-ed.  I opened another, and there was a little butterfly. "Beautiful," the girls all said, since it is hard for eight-year-old boys to say "beautiful." I opened another and there was a rock.  And as third-graders will, some laughed and said, "That's crazy!  How's a rock supposed to be like new life?" But the smart little boy who'd found it spoke up: "That's mine. And I knew all of you would get flowers and buds and leaves and butterflies and stuff like that. So I got a rock because I wanted to be different.  And for me, that's new life." They all laughed.

I opened the next one. There was nothing there. The other children, as eight-year-olds will, said, "That's not fair--that's stupid!--somebody didn't do right."  Then I felt a tug on my shirt, and looked down. Philip was standing beside me. "It's mine," Philip said. "It's mine."  And the children said, "You don't ever do things right, Philip. There's nothing there!"  "I did so do it," Philip said. "I did do it. It's empty. The tomb is empty!"

There was silence, a very full silence. And for you people who don't believe in miracles, I want to tell you that one happened that day last spring.  From that time on, it was different.  Philip suddenly became a part of that group of eight-year-old children. They took him in.  He was set free from the tomb of his differentness.  Sadly, Philip died last summer. His family had known since the time he was born that he wouldn't live out a full life span.   Many other things had been wrong with his body.  And late last July, with an infection that most normal children could have quickly shrugged off, Philip died.

At the funeral, nine eight-year-old children marched up to the altar, not with flowers to cover over the stark reality of death.  Nine eight-year-olds and I marched right up to that altar, and we each laid on it an empty egg--an empty, old, discarded pantyhose egg.

Jesus said: “I am the resurrection and the life, he that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live, for whoever lives and believes in me, shall never die.” “I was dead, but now I am alive forevermore; because I live, you shall live also.”  My friends, because of Easter Jesus is Lord and He desires to be the Lord of all our lives.  Halleluiah!  Amen!

Friday, April 14, 2017

A Living Sacrifice (Romans 12:1-2; I Peter 2:4-6) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

In the popular 1990’s television series “Seinfeld,” George Costanza attends a child’s birthday party at the apartment where his girlfriend, Robin, lives. A clown is providing entertainment. George suddenly says, “What’s that smell? Is that smoke?” He hurries into the kitchen, turns and runs out in a panic yelling FIRE, knocking over the clown, an old lady with a walker, and a couple of kids. “Get out of my way!” he screams, as he opens the front door of the apartment and races outside. In the next scene, George is getting oxygen from a paramedic.

Suddenly, the clown runs over to George and says, “There he is! That’s him!” Several angry children and moms gather round. “That’s the coward that left us to die!” The clown tries to hit George with an oversized show. George replies, “I was trying to lead the way. We needed a leader, someone to lead the way to safety.” Robin objects, “But you yelled, ‘Get out of my way!’” “Because as the leader,” George continues, “if I die, then all hope is lost.  Instead of castigating me, you should be thanking me.

But I saw you push the women and children out of the way in a mad panic.” Robin yells. “I saw you push them down. And when you ran out, you left everyone behind.” George refutes, “To the untrained eye maybe, I can fully understand how you got that impression. What looked like knocking down was a safety precaution. In a fire, you stay close to the ground. Am I right? That’s why I pushed them down. I risked my life making sure the exit was clear.” The fireman looks at George and says, “How do you live with yourself?” “It’s not easy,” George replies.

Our culture is ambiguous; it sends mixed messages. On the one hand, it says that the goal of life is materialism, fame, status, power, wealth, pleasure. These are the values one should aspire to.  We see examples all the time of greed, avarice, narcissism, and selfishness.  We hear people say “me first” “live for yourself,” and “my individual rights above everyone’s.” He who dies with the most toys wins reflects our culture. Our culture further confuses celebrities with true heroes. But is being famous and wealthy, the same as being a hero or being a role model? Of course not, because sacrifice is about character and dedication toward others. Having intelligence or talent has nothing to do with a sacrificial life.

On the other hand, sacrifice is an American value, grounded in our Judeo-Christian ethic. Our culture also promotes the high values of altruism, self-sacrifice, commitment, big-heartedness, service above self. We see these values manifested in people’s generous giving to charities, in service clubs, in organizations, in churches, in the outpouring of generosity to victims of natural disasters around the world, in the sacrifice of the men and women in the military, in community-wide searches for missing persons, in volunteerism, and in runs and walks to raise money for worthy causes like cancer, autism, heart disease, and Parkinson’s disease. We see it in the generous aid our government provides to countries around the world.

Think about this question, “Can you sacrifice too much for someone?” Are there limits? I’m not speaking about donating a kidney, or financially helping someone with their education, or even giving your life for someone in danger.  I am speaking about situations I’ve seen over the years, as a pastor, where grown children and grown grandchildren take advantage of their parents or grandparents.  They continue to ask for money for this or that reason. They just keep asking and pressuring and make parents or grandparents feel terribly guilty. Asking can become a form of manipulation. It can drain the resources of the giver. It enables underachievement rather than inspiring motivation and ambition. Sometimes, the hardest word to say is “No” rather than “Yes.” Saying no takes courage, strength, and prayer.

Who has made a sacrifice for you? The truth is that everyone here this morning has benefited from someone’s sacrifice: their time, their resources, their wisdom and knowledge, their patience, their talents and skills, their protection, their sympathy, their encouragement, their love, their faith. People who sacrifice for us inspire us to want to do the same for others. Thank you Lord for the sacrifices of others on our behalf. Can I get an AMEN?!

From a Biblical and faith perspective, the willingness to sacrifice stems from the desire to please God; it’s an expression of love, of thanksgiving to God, of a desire to serve Christ. It shows that we know who we are—persons made in God’s image and persons forgiven and redeemed by God’s amazing grace, through Christ’s life, death on the cross, and resurrection.  Yes, sacrifice is indeed a noble value of our Judeo-Christian tradition.

Romans 6:13 says, “Give yourselves completely to God, every part of you. You want to be tools in the hands of God to be used for His good purposes.” I Peter 2 says, “Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God, through Jesus Christ.” Romans 12 says, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

In Old Testament times, priests would sacrifice animals in temple worship. They would kill an animal, place it on the altar, and offer it to God. In the Prophetic Tradition of the Old Testament, in prophets like Isaiah, Micah, and Amos, God also summoned the Jews to live sacrificial lives: “To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.” Early Christians began to curb animal sacrifice, and after the Jewish temple was destroyed by the Romans in 64 A.D. the early Christians heard Jesus’ call to offer themselves as living sacrifices, daily laying aside their own desires, to follow him, putting their energy and resources at God’s disposal and trusting in God’s guidance. God calls us, you and me, to be living sacrifices, that He might accomplish His purposes through us.

Superficial love never requires sacrifice. Genuine love always requires sacrifice. You cannot truly love somebody—your spouse, your friend, your child, your grandchild, your neighbor, you cannot love God—without sacrificing, without a cost, without giving up something.

Do you ever feel unappreciated when you give of yourself, when you sacrifice for someone, when you do the right thing? You start thinking, “Why bother? What’s the use? Why make the effort? Nobody cares. Nobody notices. No one says ‘Thank You’.” When you sacrifice to help other people, know this, God sees your actions. God knows your attitude. The Bible says God sees your witness, God remembers your witness, and God will reward your witness.

I read a story about a doctor in Birmingham, Alabama. On January 28, 2014, in the dead of winter, Dr. Zenko heard that a patient at Trinity Medical Center had taken a turn for the worse. The patient needed surgery, no other surgeon was available and the patient had a 90 percent chance of dying. Driving wasn’t an option because of the snow and ice. Emergency personnel were busy.

So the 62-year-old doctor faced these brute facts and proceeded to take action. He put a coat over his hospital scrubs and started walking, six miles in the snow, from Brookwood Medical Center to Trinity Medical Center. Along the way, he fell and rolled down a hill, but got back up. He finally arrived at Trinity, performed the surgery, and saved a patient’s life. In a later press conference, the doctor was asked why he did it. He said, “It really wasn’t that big of a deal. Any good doctor would have done the same thing. The patient was dying and that wasn’t going to happen on my shift.” Why is it that people who sacrifice for others are often so humble?

What contributions are you going to make with your life in the years you have left? What is it that gives significance, meaning, and purpose in a life? Giving your life away is the greatest thrill of life. It’s the secret of significance. It’s the key to happiness. The truth of scripture is clear: to save our lives we must lose them, in giving we receive, in dying to self we find true life, in servanthood we find greatness.

How can we learn to be a living sacrifice? First, worship God! Prayer changes us. Worship changes us. God’s Spirit changes us. Psalm 50:23 says, “True praise to God is a worthy sacrifice.”

Second, love and serve others! Jesus gave His life for us. Because Christ first loved us, we too should love one another. I John 3:16 says, “We ought to give our lives for each other.”

Third, share Good News with others. Share your faith with others. Hebrews 13:15 says, “With Jesus’ help we will continually offer our sacrifice of praise by telling others the glory of His name.”

Following Jesus opens up a new way of life. Where in your life today is Christ calling you to make a sacrifice? Amen!

Friday, March 31, 2017

I Am the Door (John 10:1-10) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

One poet wrote: “There are two doors, the first door leads to an amazing life, and the second door is the one keeping you from getting to the first door.”  The poet Carl Sandberg wrote: “An open door says, “Come in.”  A shut door says, “Who are you?

A door is a significant part of a house isn’t it?   I doubt if you would want to live in a place where there was no front door.  It is the portal or moving barrier which allows people to enter or leave.  There are a dizzying number of door designs today.  People spend a lot of money and time in selecting their front door.  Some of the types of doors include Arched doors, Barn doors, Dutch doors, Double doors, French Doors, and Panel doors.

Doors are important symbols in the Bible.  Psalm 84:10 says: “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than live in the tents of wickedness.”  James 5 says: “Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged.  See, the judge is standing at the door.”  Revelations 4:1 says: “After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open and a voice said, come up here and at once, I was in the spirit and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne.

Today we continue our journey through Lent, a 40 day period in which we prepare ourselves spiritually for the celebration of Easter.  Jesus referred to himself using fascinating metaphors or figures of speech.  I am the Bread of Life, I am the Light of the World, I am the Good Shepherd, I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, I am the True Vine, I am the Resurrection and the Life, I am the Door or Gate depending on the English translation of the Greek.   Each one of these metaphors gives us a glimpse into the true nature and mission of Jesus.  The door is an appropriate image for Jesus as we reflect upon our relationship to him during Lent.

In Jesus’ day, shepherds would take the sheep far from villages out to graze in the hills and meadows. They would stay away for months at a time.  At night the shepherds would search for a sheltered area in a hillside surrounded by natural walls that provided protection.

The only unprotected space was the entrance to the sheepfold.  There was no door to that entrance, and once the shepherd put his sheep in the fold for the night, he would literally lay down across the opening.  No wild animals could enter the sheepfold nor could any sheep leave without stepping over the shepherd.  He was both a protector and gatekeeper.  So the shepherd himself literally became the door or gate to the sheepfold.

Jesus says the gatekeeper calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has brought the sheep out, he goes ahead of them and the sheep follow him because they know and trust his voice.  Jesus says, if anything enters the sheepfold by climbing in, rather than coming through the entrance, you could be sure they were thieves or animals.

Doors have two functions, to exit through or to enter.  Let’s take a look at those two functions. 

First, when you exit through a door and shut it, you leave something behind.  In this Lenten season we need to ask, what do I need to leave behind me?  It is critical that we acknowledge those things: failures, memories, disappointments, hurts, worries, things that are weighing you down, dragging you down, holding you back.  Our scripture is saying turn to the grace and mercy of Christ and shut the door on them.  Too many times we dwell upon such things, we fret over them, we obsess over them, and they become baggage.  We become hoarders and allow them to pile up.  What things do you need to leave behind you this Lenten season?  What is keeping you from being true to yourself, true to Christ, realizing your potential, being all that you can be?  Jack Parr said: “My life seems like one long obstacle course, with me as the chief obstacle.”  Jesus brings forgiveness.  Go to him and ask forgiveness for your past and you will experience a restoration of life.

But a door is also something you enter.  It is a way out of the drenching rain into a place where it is dry, a way out of the cold into the warmth of shelter, a way from harm’s way into a safe place.  “I am the door, whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture.”  Jesus says: “I am the door into God’s kingdom, into God’s family, into salvation, into eternal life, into green pastures, into life.”

I recall going to a magnificent and massive church in downtown Los Angeles.  When I got there the door was shut and a little sign beside the door read, “Ring the bell and someone will help you.”  I rang the bell and nothing happened.  No one came.  I then walked around the building and tried a couple of doors, all of them were locked.  I began to feel frustrated.  What kind of a church is this?  What an unfriendly place.  Finally, I came back to the front door and was about to leave, when another person walked up and rang the bell.  Nothing happened and I felt a little smug.  But she did something I had not done, she reached down, turned the doorknob and it opened.  Was I surprised.  It was open all the time and I had not even tried to go in.  Doors don’t usually open by themselves.

Yes, there are doors before you and before me in this life.  Doors of opportunity, doors of possibility, doors of service, doors of grace.  God wants you to enter them, but sometimes we don’t try them, we don’t attempt to open them and they remain closed to us.  What door or doors is God putting before you?  It takes faith to open doors, it takes courage to open doors, it takes trust to open doors.  Jesus is saying I have put doors before you.  Jesus is the most important door. The choice is yours.  Will you open it?

What will you find?  You will find pasture.  You will find beauty.  You will find faith.  You will find a loving person, you will be fed and spiritually nurtured.  You will find spiritual and emotional freedom from those forces and powers which try to enslave you.  You will enjoy a peace which passes all understanding amidst the ambiguities of life.   You will find the joy of the Lord that is our strength.  You will find meaning and purpose for your life today and hope for tomorrow.  You will discover what it means to be loved unconditionally and forgiven and accepted.  You will hear a call to go beyond yourself to love others and to serve Christ, using your talents and abilities.

Jesus says, I am the door to salvation!    Jesus is the only way to salvation and everlasting life.   Jesus is the door to God.  Jesus is the door to life.  Jesus came to show us who God is, to tell us who God is and to forgive us through his death on the cross into order to bring us back to God.   It is through Jesus that we meet God and enter into a personal relationship with God.   Jesus says: “Whoever enters by me will be saved.”

Jesus is speaking to all who feel apart from God, who want to believe but find it hard, who feel excluded or isolated, who feel rejected, who are lonely, who are lost, who feel unworthy or worthless, to all who are searching for truth and meaning and hope.  Jesus says: “I am the door. I welcome you.  Come and enter through me.”

I close with this quote from the book of Revelation.  The Lord says: “Listen. I am standing at the door knocking, if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you and you with me.”

I invite those who feel so moved to pray with me: “Lord, I am a sinner in need of your power, your forgiveness and promise of eternal life. I believe you are the door to life.  You are standing at the door of my heart knocking.  Lord, I open the door of my heart, because I want you to come into my life as my lord and savior.  I will follow you with all my heart, soul, strength and life.”  Amen!

Friday, March 24, 2017

Enduring Temptation (Matthew 4:1-11; James 1:13-15) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

A priest was coming back to his rectory late one evening, when he was accosted by a robber who pulled a gun on him and demanded, "Your money or your life!"  As the priest reached his hand into his coat pocket, the robber saw his Roman collar and said: "I see you're a priest. Never mind, you can go."   The priest, surprised at this unexpected show of piety, tried to reciprocate by offering the robber a candy bar that he remembered was in his pocket.  The robber replied, "No thank you Father, I’m Catholic. I don't eat candy during Lent."

In this Lenten season, we look in depth at the subject of temptation.  It’s the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. The story shouts out a truth, the tempter and temptation is a reality.  I disagree with psychology when it argues that Satan is a figment of the human imagination, or a psychological projection of the dark side of humanity or a symbol of the fear of the unknown.

Temptation is a universal human struggle.  It’s not just a problem for people whose character is weak or for the young and immature.  It is no respecter of age.  If Jesus, the Son of God was tempted, then certainly you and I are vulnerable.  Humanity’s struggle with temptation is depicted in literature in the classic story Faust.  The protagonist, Faust, a legendary 16th century magician, alchemist and scholar, is unhappy with his life and makes a pact with the devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge, youthfulness and worldly pleasures.

Scripture teaches that temptations arise from our heart, that is, from our own inner sinful desires.  That’s true.  We have a bad idea, and temptation convinces us that it’s really not all that bad. But according to Scripture and the theological teachings of the church down through the centuries, temptation also arises from outside forces, from people, including the tempter, the personification of evil.

Sometimes we are tempted with something silly, like thinking about ordering a double extra-large chocolate malt topped with a mound of whip cream.  Other times we are tempted with something that can literally change our lives for the worse.  Embezzling from your company, or the church is one example.  I have spoken to two employees who stole in churches I served and both said: “I needed extra money. I thought I would take it just once and then pay it back.  I felt guilty. I had every intention to pay it back.   But after I stole a second time, it became easier, and soon I didn’t give it a second thought.”  Temptation can rationalize anything.

In the New Testament, the book of James says: “When tempted, no one should say, God is tempting me. For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does God tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.”

Scripture also says there is an important distinction between being tempted and succumbing to temptation.  It is not a sin to be tempted; Jesus was tempted, but he didn’t sin.  Sometimes people feel guilty because they are tempted.   The sin is succumbing to it.  Everyone has given into temptation except Jesus.

Further, the tempter cannot force you to yield to temptation.  You cannot be bullied, or brow-beaten or coerced.  Saying The Devil Made Me Do It, whether in humor or in all seriousness, is a falsehood.   Jesus had freedom of choice out there in the wilderness.  God has given us a free will.   Ultimately, the decision to yield to temptation is our personal responsibility.  We can’t blame it on what we ate for breakfast, or our parents, or our friends.  Mark Twain said: “I can resist everything except temptation.”

Why does the tempter tempt?  The Tempter wants to defeat God’s will in life and impose his will.  So the tempter strives to redirect your path, to change your allegiance and loyalty, to undermine and erode your faith, and influence you to turn away from God.   The tempter strives to both keep people from coming to faith in God and to cause believers to turn away from their faith.

As you think about your life during this Lenten season, is there a temptation have you struggled with?  We need to be alert.  Temptation is insidious.  The tempter is deceptive and can make good look evil and evil look good, wrong look right and right look wrong.  “Hey, it’s harmless, no one will get hurt.  It’s the trend, it’s popular, you deserve it, don’t worry.   Everyone is doing it, so why not?

When we are in the midst of hardship and suffering, we sometimes ask: “Why me God?  Why is this happening to me?”  We doubt that God loves us. The tempter is an opportunist and strikes when we are weak, just like the deceiver tempted Jesus when he was hungry and tired after forty days of fasting.  Temptation comes in all forms: food, excessive spending, uncontrolled anger, smoking, drinking, gambling, drug abuse, sexual temptation and harassment, laziness, allowing work to cause you to neglect your family, or dropping out of worshipping God in favor of another Sunday activity.  Temptations test our loyalties, values and faith.

How do we deal with temptation?  We must rely upon four things.  Our conscience, which God has imparted to us from our birth, the wisdom of good friends, turning to prayer, and reading the Bible.

Which leads us out into the wilderness.  In the first Temptation the devil tempts Jesus to turn away from God’s plan, God’s mission for the Messiah – the path of self-discipline, sacrifice, suffering, rejection, servant hood and the cross.    The tempter tempts Jesus to use his power to satisfy his hunger by turning stones into bread.  Jesus was hungry, what’s the problem?  The problem is that if Jesus takes the easy way out now, it could cause Jesus to take the easy way out in the future.   Could you see the temper saying: “Jesus you don’t need to bear the cross, God doesn’t really want that, you don’t need all that grief.”

God sent Jesus into the wilderness to fast for 40 days as part of God’s plan to prepare Jesus for his future mission.  Like BUD’S is for Navy seals.  God could tell Jesus when he could eat, not the tempter.  Satan was trying to tempt Jesus to disobey God.  Jesus replies: “One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

In the second temptation, the deceiver tempts Jesus with the prospect of worldly power, mastery and status, if Jesus will only bow down and worship him.  It is the age-old sin of idolatry.  “Worship me, says the deceiver and you will have it all.”  But God sent Jesus to usher in the Kingdom and to redeem humanity by his obedience, suffering, death and resurrection. So Jesus rejoins: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

In the third temptation, the devil tries to entice Jesus to tempt God by leaping from the highest pinnacle of the temple. “What a feat, look at all the followers you will attract Jesus, do it.”  Jesus retorts: “Do not tempt the Lord your God.”  Temptation is the devil’s business.  It’s not our business and it’s not God’s business.   God doesn’t tempt his followers and we are not to tempt God.  Jesus stays focused, centered upon God and His mission, and refuses to yield to temptation.

This story testifies to two powerful truths.  First, it reminds us that God is merciful and present with us in those times when we are tempted and even when we surrender to temptation.  Scripture says when we repent, when we confess our sin, God can be trusted to forgive us, to cleanse us from our wrong, and to empower us with a fresh start to begin a new day.

Second, this story inspires us, it shows us that we too can resist and triumph over temptation.   We have the Holy Spirit to strengthen us in such times.  Resisting temptation is not simply a matter of will power.  It’s a matter of God’s power working in us.

Rick Warren in his book The Purpose Driven Life writes: “On our path to spiritual maturity, even temptation becomes a stepping stone rather than a stumbling block, when you realize that it is just as much an occasion to do the right thing as it is to do the wrong thing.  Every temptation is an opportunity to do good.  Every time you choose to do good instead of sin, you are growing in the character of Christ.”

In this season of Lent, the good news is that the Tempter and temptation does not have the last word.  After trying to tempt us, but we resist, the devil will leave, like in our story, and angels will come and minister to us.  Amen!