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!

Friday, March 17, 2017

In Times of Trial (Romans 5:1-5; I Peter 1:6-7) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Actress Carrie Fisher died on December 27 last year.  She was famous for playing Princess Leia in Star Wars.  Just prior to her death, in an interview with Rolling Stone, Carrie Fisher was asked, "Do you fear death?"  "No," replied Fisher. "I fear dying.  Anything with pain associated with it, I don't like.  And I've been there for a couple of people when they were dying, and it didn't look like fun."   I think like Carrie, that most people will do whatever it takes to avoid suffering and pain in life.

I suspect most of you have experienced a personal tragedy or loss or trial at some time in your life.   Why is there suffering?  Why does suffering exist?  The honest response is that there are no easy answers.   Anyone who claims to have the answer is a person who has not pondered the question very deeply.

It’s the age old dilemma between good and evil.  Let me summarize the debate between theists and atheists.   Atheism says suffering and evil exist because there is no God.  The existence of suffering and evil proves that God does not exist.  Bertrand Russell argues that because of the prevalence of suffering and evil in the world, there is no all-good, all-powerful, all-present God.   So Atheism does not have a problem with suffering and evil.  It is present because there is no good force or power like God, to counter it.   It runs rampant.  Suffering, evil, death rules life.  Therefore, life, human life, all life, has no value, no meaning, no purpose.  Is suffering a problem?  No, not at all.  Atheism has no questions.

Conversely, theism or orthodox Christianity, the Christian faith, says God exists and God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good or loving and all-present.  It says life has value, meaning, purpose because God is the author of life.   It says life contains joy, goodness, humor, wonder, awe, and amazement.  It says suffering and evil also exist.  It says God is greater than suffering and evil, they are not co-eternal and co-equal in power.  It says one-day God will destroy all suffering and evil in life.  And yes, there are questions.  Believers have many questions:  Why did God allow evil to enter the world?  Why does God continue to allow suffering and evil?  What is God doing about suffering and evil today?  Why hasn’t God put an end to suffering and evil?   Yes, believers have questions, and again, there are no easy answers.

One natural question we ask when facing trials is why me?  Or why this person?  I have asked it.  But there is another question: “Why not me?”  Why should I escape pain and suffering?

In this Lenten season we examine this subject from a biblical perspective.   First, adversity is inevitable because we live in a fallen world.  God created human beings with a free will, which has resulted in sin.  Sin or moral evil, that is rebellion against God, disobedience to God, is the cause of much of life’s suffering.  We have the freedom to make good or bad, good or evil, wise or foolish choices.   Further, accidents are a part of life, disease is a part of life, natural disasters and wars are a part of life.    Second, God is present, not absent, but present in the midst of evil and suffering. Third, God has given us the gift of faith.  And faith, trust, belief, assurance makes all the difference in how we cope with life’s trials.

As a pastor, I have stood beside families in nearly every kind of crisis imaginable, from the death of a loved one after battling cancer to fatal accidents to suicide to murder.     As Christians we affirm that scripture has something to say about God in relation to life’s trials?  Here are some basic biblical answers about God in regard to the question of suffering.

God understands the pain you and I experience in life.  God can empathize with us.  We don’t worship a God who is above the fray, pampered, coddled, living a sheltered existence in the celestial realm being fed grapes by the angels.  We worship a God who entered this world fully human in Jesus Christ, who has walked our walk, who has experienced life’s suffering, who identifies with us, who is empathetic, who experienced loneliness, rejection, persecution and died an agonizing death on the cross for the sins of the world.  The God whom we worship is no stranger to pain.

Scripture says the Lord is alive and with us in times of trials and will supply us with strength.  God never leaves you alone.  I Corinthians 10 says: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.  God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”   This is a divine promise.  God is with us and gives us strength and hope in times of trial.

Scripture says God works to bring good out of life’s trials.  Romans 8:28 says: “God causes all things to work together for good for those who love God.”  Biblical examples abound.  Joseph’s older brothers sold him into slavery when he was a boy, but years later, Joseph rose to power in Egypt, and when his brothers came to him seeking food during a time of famine in Israel, Joseph said to them: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”

The prophet Daniel was thrown into a lions’ den, but God rescued him; the prophet Jeremiah was tossed into a slimy pit and later rescued.  The apostle Paul suffered from a physical affliction during his life which God didn’t heal, despite Paul’s prayers.  Instead God said: “My grace is sufficient.”  None of them were exempt from misfortune, but they kept the faith, they fought the good fight of faith, and God brought something good out of their adversity.

Scripture says suffering can be an opportunity to grow spiritually and in other ways.  Trials can help you discover that you are stronger than you think.  God has imparted to you a stronger character, a resilience, and the ability to endure more that you realize.  Trials can become opportunities for us to mature.  Romans 5 says: “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”   Trials can produce growth relationally, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.   Trials can inspire hope.  God does a new work in us.  God changes us amidst the pain.

Trials can motivate us to turn to God and discover that God’s plans and purposes are at work in our lives even in the midst of hardships.   And you will discover a true Friend and Lord:  A Christian wrote: “You’ll never know that God is all you need until God is all you’ve got.”  Romans 8 says: “I am convinced that nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

No, it doesn’t happen immediately or automatically.  We are too emotional; we are in shock and grief.  But by God’s grace, life’s trials can gradually lead us to a deeper and more profound appreciation for God’s love and guidance and peace.  I know some of you have experienced this in your own life.  I have as well.

Trials can help us to learn to appreciate the support and care of others.  We grow in our thankfulness for the love and encouragement of friends, colleagues, family members, neighbors and the church community.  Oftentimes their care and concern surprise us.  People come through when we least expect it and in ways which simply astonish us.  But it requires something on our part, having the humility to accept their offer of help, rather than reject it.

Trials can also make us more compassionate people.  Sin keeps us self-absorbed.  Trials can change us.  I have found this true time and again.  Have you?  People who have known hardships are often the most compassionate and sensitive of all people.   They have a depth, a discernment, an intuition, a sensitivity and empathy others lack. They can identify with what you are going through.  They are the best people to talk with and pray with.  They are non-judgmental. They know how to listen.

Trials can be a powerful witness to the grace of God.  Other people see how you are dealing with your suffering in terms of your faith.  God can use us to inspire, to encourage, to hearten, to motivate others in the times of their trials.

Yes, scripture has answers about God and the trials in life.  But no, it doesn’t have all the answers.  There are some answers that must wait until we meet Jesus Christ face to face in glory as the scripture says.  In the meantime, despite our intellectual dissatisfaction, we must rely upon the character, the mercy and strength of God and the love and support of others around us.  

What is the source of your comfort?  When the Bible scholar N.T. Wright was asked what he would tell his children on his death bed he answered: "Look at Jesus. The Person who walks out of the pages of the Gospels to meet us is irreplaceable.  He is always a surprise. We never have Jesus in our pockets. He is always coming at us from different angles … If you want to know who God is, look at Jesus.  If you want to know what it means to be human, look at Jesus. If you want to know what love is, look at Jesus.  If you want to know about suffering, look at Jesus.  And go on looking until you're not just a spectator, but part of the drama that has him as the central character.”

You may be going through a trial right now.  Know that God is for you, not against you; know that God is with you and not apart from you. May God grant us His grace, so that the genuineness of our faith, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Christ is revealed.   Amen!

Friday, March 10, 2017

Have Mercy on Me (Psalm 51:1-12) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

An author writes: “When I was a boy growing up in the Baptist church, I was told by the adults, "Baptists don't do Lent."  But when I asked, no one knew why.  I suspect now that it was an anti-Catholic thing. It was the old argument, "whatever they do, we don't!"  Whatever the reason I think it is a great loss for any Christian not to prepare for Good Friday and Easter.  Every spring baseball players’ prepare for the season with “spring training;” every spring people prepare for summer by doing "spring cleaning." So why shouldn't Christians prepare for the most important events in Jesus' ministry - what he did for us and the world on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, on Golgotha's cross and at the empty tomb? If it helps you, think of Lent as a kind of Christian spring training or spring cleaning.”

In light of this Lenten season, we turn to our passage from the O.T.  Psalm 51.   This psalm focuses attention on a critical aspect of our spiritual life.   The psalmist begins by acknowledging the greatness, the awesomeness of God. “Have mercy on me, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy.”

He prays to God in humility and honesty: “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, cleanse me from sin.”  He confesses His sin to God, he confesses His sin from birth, he knows that God desires truth and asks God for wisdom.  He prays for God to purge him, to wash him whiter than snow, to blot out his iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God and put a new and right spirit within me.  Restore to me the joy of your salvation.”

It is a prayer of repentance.  The psalmist had turned away from God.  He now seeks to turn back to God and once more experience the joy of walking with the Lord.  The Bible says the first step in getting right with God is repentance.   Repentance is a change of heart.  “Repentance means we love our Savior more than we love our sin." “Repentance means we want freedom more than bondage.”

A man was praying with his pastor at the altar.  He prayed the same prayer the pastor had heard countless times before. “O Lord, take the cobwebs out of my life.”  Frustrated the pastor couldn’t help himself and interrupted, “And Lord, please get rid of the spider.”  How often do we ask the Lord to forgive us of some sin, yet we leave the source of temptation in our life?  The psalmist prays because he desires a changed heart and seeks to be in a right relationship with God.  Do you need a change of heart?

The state of our heart is critical.  Heart is a familiar concept in music.  In 1960 Elvis, who inspired me to learn to play the guitar, sang a song titled Wooden Heart.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to sing it.  Listen to the words: “Can't you see I love you, please don't break my heart in two, That's not hard to do, Cause I don't have a wooden heart.  And if you say goodbye, Then I know that I would cry, maybe I would die, cause I don't have a wooden heart.  There's no strings upon this love of mine, it was always yours from the start.  Treat me nice, treat me good, treat me like you really should, cause I'm not made of wood, and I don't have a wooden heart.”

Today we use the word heart in everyday conversation: “My heart is broken, my heart if full, my heart overflows, my heart is heavy, my heart is sad, my heart aches, my heart is happy.”  Heart is likewise a concept that we see frequently throughout scripture.  Ps. 24 says: “Those who have clean hands and pure hearts.”  Hebrews 10 says: “Let us approach God with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience.”  Matthew 22 Jesus says: “Love God with your heart, soul, strength, and mind.” In Matthew 15 Jesus says: “The things that come out of the mouth, come from the heart and these make a person unclean.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”

Medically, we know that having a healthy heart is crucial.  Heart disease is a serious condition.  This is also true emotionally and spiritually.  Jesus is saying the spiritual condition of your heart is paramount.   Jesus is saying repentance is the way to a healthy heart. The biblical teaching about repentance involves four aspects.   True repentance in terms of the Bible is different than the popular notion of repentance.  It involves not only feeling sorry for your sin inwardly, but also outwardly attempting to do what is possible to rectify it.  Jesus began his ministry in Galilee by preaching this message: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the good news.”

Here are the four aspects of the biblical understanding of repentance: 
·         Feeling sorry, remorseful. 
·          Admitting to God, ourselves and to the person that we have done wrong.  
·          Striving to change so that we don’t repeat the behavior or sin again. 
·         Seeking to repay the person wronged for the damage we have done.  That is, striving trying to repair things, to make things right again with that person.

In our scripture passage from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is teaching about temptations to sin.  He says if anyone puts a stumbling block before a child, it would be better if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.  Jesus loved children.  He is speaking about sinning against children. There can be severe consequences for anyone who intentionally hurts a child or leads a child astray.

And what does Jesus command if you sin?  If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off, if your foot causes you to stumble cut if off, if you eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out.  How do we interpret Jesus' words?   Should they be taken literally?  No, I don't believe Jesus intended his teaching to be taken literally, and neither do other interpreters of scripture down through the ages.   The reason is that Jesus often spoke in hyperbole.  Like he does on the subject of judging others.  “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but you do not notice the log in your own eye.  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, then you will be able to see the speck in your neighbor's eye.”

Many people in Jesus day were illiterate.   Jesus employed imagery, symbols, metaphors in his teaching to paint word pictures in people’s minds.   Jesus taught in parables and stories.  Jesus wanted people to remember his teachings.

So we interpret Jesus' words about cutting off hands and feet figuratively.   Basically, this is a word picture about repentance from sin.  Jesus is calling people to repent from their sins.  He is saying whatever is causing you to sin, whatever in your life is leading you to sin, separate yourself from it, sever yourself from it, cut it out of your life, remove it from your life.    Both the psalmist and Jesus are speaking about the importance of repentance in the spiritual life.

The goal of repentance is to embrace, to receive, to accept God’s forgiveness and the joy of God’s saving grace.  “Lord I repent, I am sorry for straying away from you, I am sorry for acting as if you don't exist, I am sorry for what I said or didn’t say, I am sorry for what I have done or didn’t do, make me right with you, bring me back to you O Lord.   The aim of repentance is to return to the lord, our God.

God's priority for us, for you and me, is a clean heart, a new and right spirit within us.  For when our heart is unclean, beauty or wealth or knowledge or power will not stop us from leading a sinful and even evil life.  I don't have to give examples for you to believe this truth.  Conversely, a clean heart, a life lived in and under God’s grace, will enable us to lead a life that is pleasing to God and that is constructive and loving and beneficial to others.

What is the spiritual condition of your heart?   Do you need to pray the psalmist’s prayer of repentance?  “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.  Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your Holy Spirit from me, restore to me the joy of your salvation and sustain in me a willing spirit.”  Have mercy on me O Lord. Amen!

Friday, March 3, 2017

Led to a High Mountain (Matthew 17:1-13) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

I called my bank the other day.  Here is the gist of the conversation: 

Hello, this is your automated customer service center.  To continue this message in English, press 1, in Spanish, press 2.   I punched 1.  Please punch in your account number on your touch tone phone.  I punched.  Thank you.  For account balance verification, please punch 1.  To make a withdrawal, please punch 2.  To question a charge, please punch 3.  To apply for a credit increase, please punch 4.  To speak with a customer service representative, please punch 5.  To hear these instructions repeated, please punch 6.  I punched 5.  Thank you.

To speak with a representative about additional features of your card, please punch 1.  To report a lost or stolen card, please punch 2.  To speak with a reprensentative about any other problem, please punch 3.  I punched 1.  Thank you.  I'm sorry, our office is currently closed. Please call back during normal business hours.

I pray God's office isn't closed.  I pray this is not how it is when we go to God in prayer.  No, I know it isn't.  In fact, God our creator and Lord is proactive and reaches out to us in the course of our lives on earth.

In this light, let’s turn to our morning story which portrays a profound event in the life of Jesus’ and his disciples: the indescribable, the ineffable moment of Jesus’ transfiguration.  Think, aren’t there moments in your life which are unexplainable?  Extraordinary moments.  We have difficulty putting them into words.  Have you ever experienced such a time?

The joy at the birth of a child is one of those moments.  The loss of a loved one is one of those moments.  A brilliant sunset or sunrise is one of those moments.  An early morning walk along the beach or in the mountains can be such a moment.  Having your soul stirred by uplifting music is one of those moments.   A moving worship service is one of those moments.  When your child says “I love you” and wraps his or her arms around you is one of those moments. There are mountaintop and valley moments throughout life.  They often surprise us.  They arrive unannounced and change us in irreversible ways.  They often move us to silence.    Such moments touch the depth of our souls.

Our story from Matthew's Gospel is one such time.  Jesus leads his disciples Peter, James and John to a high mountain.  And once there, Jesus is suddenly transfigured before them; his face shines like the sun, his clothes become dazzling white, his appearance is radiant.    Moses and Elijah suddenly appear and are talking with Jesus.  Peter is awestruck and says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”   Well I should say so.   He was in the company of two former Jewish superstars.  Moses, the great leader who led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and brought God’s 10 Commandments to them and the prophet powerful Elijah, who with God’s power defeated the false prophets of Baal and ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire.  These are two giants in Israel’s history.

Peter, understandably, wanted this magical moment to last forever.  He offers to build three booths - one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah.   Realizing they are standing on holy ground the disciples fall to their knees in awe.  Then the story says: “A voice said, this is my Son, whom I love.  With him, I am well pleased.  Listen to him.

What does this story say to you?  I think it says God on occasion, leads us to high mountains. Jesus reveals special experiences from time to time, because we need moments of ecstasy in our spiritual life.   I know I do.   Life can be devastating.  Life can threaten to crush us.  Life can be frightening.  We need mountain top moments that engulf us.  We need glory moments, transcendent moments, special moments in which we sense the holy presence of God.   We are created by God to live in fellowship with him and God knows we need such special times, sacred moments, along our spiritual journey.

Our story says that God speaks, God communicates with his people!   God spoke that day on the mountaintop and the undeniable implication is that God continues to speak to believers today.    A young mother writes: “My 3-year-old son, Ian, enjoys the Bible story about Samuel hearing God's voice at night.  One evening after reading the story to Ian, I asked him if God had ever spoken to him.  To my surprise, he answered, "Yes."  "What did God say to you?" I asked.  Ian thought and then said in his deepest voice, "Ian! Go to bed!"  That explained why Ian settles down more quickly when I'm outside his room and tell him to go to bed.”

Scripture tells of how God spoke to Elijah in a cave out in the middle of the wilderness, not in the wind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in a still small voice.  Other translations say - “God spoke in a gentle whisper, in the sound of sheer silence.”

God is either alive or God is dead.  Our Easter faith announces that God is alive.  God loves us with a passionate and unconditional love and reaches out and intervenes in our lives.  Scripture says:  “God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

A Christian writes:  “I knew that it was God speaking to me because I was in tune with my inner spirit and my spirit suddenly became light.  Years of heaviness were lifted from me.  I heard God’s forgiving and accepting voice.  A new yet wobbly courage started to live in me, and I became comfortable in my own skin, in my own circumstances.  I felt safe and certain and grateful. Nothing around me had changed, but everything was different.  I knew it was God’s voice speaking because I could smile once again.”

Second, the story of the transfiguration says this – listen!    Why should you and I listen to Jesus?    Because God commands it: “This is my Son, whom I love.  With him, I am well pleased.  Listen to him.”

Jesus is the Word of God.  Jesus is the Son of God.  Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.  Jesus is the way out of darkness into the light.  Jesus is the way out of despair to hope.  Jesus is the way out of fear to courage.  Jesus is the way to discover purpose and meaning.  Jesus is the way into the Kingdom of God.  Jesus is lord over all other rulers and authorities in the world.  Christ is the Head of the Church and is present in both Word and Spirit.

We should listen to Jesus in prayer, in worship, in meditation, in the teachings of the Bible, through the words of other trusted believers, because Jesus sees things about our lives that we don't see.  Because Jesus is concerned about the life you and I are leading.

When artist Sir James Thornhill was painting the inside of St Paul's Cathedral, he began walking backward to get a better view of his work.  As he inched back, his left foot stood just on the edge of the scaffold, and he was in danger of falling and breaking his neck.  His helper, instead of screaming at him, took a brush, quickly dipped it in the paint, and splashed it on the wall.  The artist rushed forward to reprimand his helper, but when the helper explained his action, Thornhill was exceedingly grateful.  The helper saw something Thornhill did not see.  There are elements in life that Christ sees that we do not.  So we need to go to him, to spend time with him, to listen to Jesus.

This coming Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of our journey through the season of Lent.  Keep alert, keep your eyes and ears, your heart and mind open, for you never know when the Lord will lead you to a high mountain.   Amen!