Friday, January 19, 2018

Be an Encourager! (Acts 20:1-6) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel


Hey dad, I’m having trouble with my homework, can you help me?”  “No, not now, I’m too busy.  And I don’t know why you’re having trouble anyway.  Why, when I was your age, I didn’t get any help from my folks, and I was a good student, I worked hard, and got good grades.   I expect the same from you.

So let me ask you point blank - are you a discourager or an encourager? Let's start with some cold and all too familiar facts of life.  We live in a sinful and fallen world.  Life is far from perfect.  Life is hard.   Life is not always fair or just.  Life is worrisome and frightening.  There is disappointment and suffering.  Are you feeling encouraged yet?  This will change, praise God, when Jesus returns at His second coming in glory and God’s sovereign love visibly rules over all.  But in the meantime, we walk by faith and not by sight.

Jesus encouraged the disciples when he taught them the beatitudes:  Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted; Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

The apostle Paul too was a great encourager.  Despite being persecuted during his three missionary journeys, despite his poor health, despite problems he encountered with other religious groups, as we are told in Acts, the apostle Paul, a man with a deep faith in Jesus Christ, and a conviction that God had called him to bring the gospel to the Gentiles, encouraged followers of Jesus and new believers on his journeys to Macedonia and Greece.

You may know the story about basketball great Larry Bird and his extraordinary record at Indiana State and with the Boston Celtics, and later as head coach of the Indiana Pacers.  But you may not know what he had to overcome.  He was one of six children.  His father was chronically unemployed, an alcoholic, and tragically committed suicide when Larry was in high school.  Larry’s mother worked three jobs to provide for the family.

From early on Larry’s love and talent in basketball was clear to everyone.  But he had a bad temper, he couldn’t control his anger, and his high school coach who had talked to him many times finally told him he was no longer on the team.  Larry was devastated. But the coach continued to be an important part of Larry’s life and worked and helped him to deal with his temper and refocus his energies and the next year Larry made the team again and became a star on the Spring Valley High School team.  Without that coach, basketball may have never had a Larry Bird.

The question is can you be an encourager in an imperfect world and with imperfect lives?  Of course, this is the day; now is the time. There will be no better time.  Why?  Because when God creates a brand new world devoid of evil and suffering, as the Bible promises there will be no more sin, or suffering or pain or injustice.  So now is the greatest time of all.

Look at yourself or your own circumstances.  Are you totally happy or satisfied or content?   We can always find things we don't like about ourselves or our circumstances and become discouraged and quit.  Or by God’s grace we can say - I’m down, but not out, get up, dust ourselves off and move forward.

Look at your relationships, relationships with family or friendships or at school, or at work, or in the neighborhood. Relationships are always less than ideal, they often don’t meet our expectations, and we can become discouraged and close ourselves off from people or get up, dust ourselves off and by God’s grace do the right thing which is often the hardest thing.

Or look at our government, politics; no, on second thought, I don’t think we will go there.  Some people complain:  “My life is terrible. It’s their fault, whoever they are, they caused this to happen and blame everyone around them.”  Like the man who said to the pastor: “My life is a mess Rev. there is nothing you could say or do to make me feel better, but go ahead, just try, I dare you.

The question is, if all is dark and hopeless, why are some people such great encouragers?  Think of one person who encouraged you at a critical time in your life.  Picture their face. Why do you think they were such a good encourager to you?

Here are some things I’ve observed as a pastor about encouragers.  Often, not always but quite often the people who are the best encouragers have themselves experienced pain in their lives: suffering, hurt, disappointment, and loss.  They developed an empathy for others.  When you find out about them you are stunned at what they have gone through.  In spite of these things, or despite them, they are positive, caring and supportive.

I’ve observed that such people are often thankful people, grateful people, and humble people.  They can encourage because they do so out of a heart of thankfulness, rather than bitterness or resentment.   I’ve observed that generally, not always but generally, people who have faith, a healthy spiritual life, people who trust their lives to God, people who walk with God, are there for you and with you.

I’ve observed that they are good listeners, which is I think is the number 1 quality of an encourager.  They are genuinely interested in you.   They take time and have time for you and really hear what you are saying.  Further, they have the ability to put themselves on the shelf and put you in the center.    Rather than telling you what you should do, or giving you their answer, they try to draw the answer, or solution or options out of the dialogue, out of the conversation.  They seek to let God’s Spirit work and bring a more positive perspective out of the conversation.

You can be a great encourager by listening, showing that you care, praying with someone, offering to help in some way, etc.  Sympathy, empathy, listening, caring, compassion and faith are great qualities for an encourager.  I’ve had people say:  “Pastor, she has so many problems, I don’t have any answers, I never know what to say, so I find excuses not to call or visit.”   That is totally understandable.

Sometimes there are no ready solutions, or answers, or way of making the problems disappear and an encourager helps the person learn to accept it and live with it in faith and prayer and daily turn it over to God so they can get on with life.

It is our old nature to judge, to be critical, to not care rather than to encourage?  But it is our new nature, our becoming a new person in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit that changes us and inspires us to a life of encouragement.   Think for a moment about a time when you encouraged someone?   Encouraging can change a life; encouraging can save a life.

An encourager isn’t blind to human flaws and weaknesses.  An encourager recognizes sin and shortcomings and yet seeks a constructive approach to others.  An encourager tells the truth in love to another if they are hurting themselves or others, but in a way that builds bridges rather than burns them and focuses on what is positive and possible in persons.  An encourager has patience, energy, and commits others to prayer.  An encourager can always find something to encourage others about.

Like the story about a concert which had just finished hearing a solo by a squeaky tenor.  When finished, the applause was less than enthusiastic.  One member of the audience exclaimed: “Extraordinary!   Bravo!”  “Excuse me,” said a puzzled woman sitting in the next seat. “I can claim some knowledge of the subject, and I think his voice was very poor.”  “Voice?” replied the other man.  “I wasn’t thinking of his voice.  I was praising his nerve!

As a pastor, I have worked with many families over the years, and I have seen the damage – how one’s spirit, one’s confidence, one's identity, hopes and dreams can be shattered, crushed when others have discouraged them at a critical moment.

Jesus calls each of us by His grace and through the power of the Holy Spirit to the ministry of encouragement.  And what a powerful and astonishing witness it can be.  Some of the greatest success stories of history have followed words of encouragement.

How can you become an encourager?  You decide to.  You make a decision.  You pray “Lord, I want to be an encouraging person, help me to change and become an encourager.  I am personally grateful for brothers and sisters in Christ who have encouraged me in the church.   I am grateful for Nancy who has encouraged me when I get down.   I am grateful for teachers, friends, and family members who have encouraged me.  Their words and support made all the difference.  May your walk in the Spirit be a ministry of encouragement to others so that God may use it for His glory.  Amen!

Friday, January 12, 2018

Into a New Year (Matthew 2:1-12) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel


A church member writes:  “While participating in my church's Christmas pageant years ago, I had the good fortune to be chosen as the narrator.  Each rehearsal went off smoothly and I was confident when it came time for the drama.  At a certain point in the drama, I said in a loud voice: ‘And we kings brought gifts to the baby Jesus, gold, Frankenstein and myrrh.’

I recall a cartoon which pictured three women standing near the manger.  The caption read: “After the three Wiseman left, three wise women arrived each presenting a gift to the baby Jesus, fresh diapers, casseroles for a week, and lots of formula.”

Which takes us to the story of the Magi, the mysterious men from the east.  A community of Jews lived in the east and Magi, astrologers, who lived among them were familiar with their beliefs, including the belief that a special star was expected that would be a sign of the birth of the Jewish Messiah.  When the Magi saw this star in the sky, they packed their suitcases, kissed their families’ good-bye, boarded their camels, embarked on their adventure and followed the star until it led them to Jerusalem, and eventually to Bethlehem.  The story captures our imagination because it's a metaphor for the journey that we all are on in life.

The story of the Magi reminds us that people follow all kinds of things in life.   We follow celebrities, leaders, principles, ideologies, ideals, goals, dreams, feelings, the stock market, politics, current events and yes even stars. Some of these things are good, inspiring, and noble.  They help our lives to grow or others' lives to flourish.  They lead to happiness, joy and fulfillment.  These stars contribute to society, e.g. worthwhile causes, careers, family, medical research, military service to name a few.  Other people follow things that are false stars, things that are foolish, worthless, trivial or harmful like greed, materialism, radical ideologies, pleasure, addictions, exploiting others, or evil.

I remember a conversation when I was a pastor in CO with a man who had followed his love of gambling for many years.  He told me he once had a family, a job and a home.  But over the years, his addiction to gambling cost him and he lost everything.  When I met him he was on his way back from the bottom.  He had become a Christian, had broken his gambling addiction, was dating a woman, had re-connected with his children and had started a new career.

In speaking about stars I am referring to God’s leading, God’s guidance and God’s will, which occur in a variety of forms.  God’s will was that the Magi find the Messiah and worship Him.  We all have the freedom and opportunity to follow stars in life.  But not all stars are the same.  We must distinguish between them, because what we follow in life makes all the difference.  God gives us the freedom to choose, to obey and we must choose wisely.  What are you following?

The story of the Magi further reminds us that God sends stars into our lives.  I am not being literal here. Please think symbolically.  I'm not picturing a celestial body floating over your head.  God can create anything, or use anything or turn anything into a star.  God sends stars to us in order to fulfill His purpose for our lives.

I think of a pastor friend in Los Angeles who saw a star in the form of God's calling, God's vision, God’s tugging at his heart to get personally involved in the tough neighborhood around his church.  He got out of his office and started playing pick-up basketball with neighborhood youth who were involved in illegal drugs and violence.  God used this pastor's athleticism, faith, outgoing personality, and dedication to steer many young people away from trouble, or prison or death on the streets and into productive lives.  He led many to come to faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord.  Yes, God sends stars into our lives to further his purposes for us or for the world around us.  God sends stars to guide and use for His glory.

Further, the Magi story reminds us that in following stars us we must persevere.   Just because God set's a star before us, and we have a desire to follow, doesn't mean the journey will be easy or comfortable or stress-free or risk-free.

Clearly the journey the magi took across the desert involved hardship, suffering, discomfort, and struggle. But these Magi persevered; they endured the journey, battling the elements in their quest to find the promised king.

This is what’s involved in following Jesus.  It means at times we must endure hardship, and remain faithful, amid difficult circumstances, because Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, is worthy of such faith and obedience and because His purposes for our lives matter.  I think of valiant people in the Bible, men and women of faith, who battled on amid adversity like Ruth, Esther, Mary, Mary Magdalene, and the Apostle Paul.

Like the Magi, God calls us to persevere, to continue the journey with every fiber of our being, which includes our body, our intellect, our emotions, and our soul. For sometimes we are plagued with questions and doubts, or we are emotionally or spiritually exhausted or physically drained.  This is when we must get down on our knees and pray for strength.

Clearly in scripture and in the lives of Christians today, here and around the world, particularly the middle east, it takes perseverance, faith, determination, courage and a thankful heart to follow God’s leading in our lives.

The author Fleming Rutledge writes: “As our life of thanksgiving deepens, we discover that the more mature prayers of thanksgiving are not only those offered for obvious blessings, but those spoken in gratitude for obstacles overcome, for insights gained, for lessons learned, for increased humility, for help received in time of need, for strength to persevere, for opportunities to serve others.”

The Magi could not predict where the journey would take them, or what fortunes or challenges they would encounter, or what detours they might unwittingly take, but they trusted the star to lead them to where they could meet and worship the king.   And so with us.  You sense what God wants you to do or where God wants you to go, but you are not exactly sure how you are going to reach that destination.   That’s why it is critical to follow God’s leading, so the star you are following in your journey into the future will be the one God has set for you, and not someone else’s.

Come on now pastor, does God really send stars?  A pastor tells this story about a young woman who came to his church.  “She began:  ‘Pastor, could I talk to you for a minute?’ She looked to be in her early 20s.  I'd never seen at our church before. ‘What can I do for you?’  ‘Would you please talk with my husband?  He moved out from our home and into an apartment. I don't know what to do.’   Her name was Laura. ‘Is he a Christian?’ the pastor asked. ‘He's the one who led me to a relationship with Christ.’  ‘I'll be glad to talk with him. How can I get in touch with him?’  ‘That's the problem’ the young woman replied, ‘I can't reach him. If he wants to talk, he calls me.’  At this point there was little I could do.  I asked her to have him call me if he talked with her again.  I remember the look of despair in her eyes as she walked away.

Friday was my day off.  We were landscaping our front yard. By late afternoon, I was muddy, aching, and thoroughly tired of the whole project. I had run out of ornamental plants so I drove to the store for more.  I arrived at the store, loaded my cart and headed to the checkout.

As I waited in line, I glanced at the cashier's nametag. It looked familiar.  As he began to ring up the plants, I motioned to his nametag. ‘Is that your name?’  He looked at me blankly, ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you married to Laura?’   He looked wary. ‘Yes?’  I gave him my happiest smile. ‘God has sent me here to talk to you about your marriage.’”

The pastor continued:  “Some 300,000 people lived in the Fresno area then. Out of all of them, the first person I had talked to—other than family and staff—since Wednesday night was this husband.  At times I've really needed guidance and have prayed earnestly for it.  God has helped me. But my divinely guided trip to that husband remains my most remarkable example. Not only was I not trying to be led, I wasn't conscious of God's leading. I just wanted the yard finished.”

Over the years that I’ve been pastor here I have had people say to me:  “Pastor, I was looking for a church and God led me here.  I am happy to be in this church.”  I too am personally thankful for the stars God has placed before my life, which have led me along my journey. The Magi show us the importance of being alert to, and following, God's stars in our lives.

The Book of Proverbs says: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, do not rely on your own insight, in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”  Amen.

Friday, January 5, 2018

My Eyes Have Seen Salvation (Luke 2:25-35) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel


Today, Sunday, December 31st, marks Day 7 in the Christmas season.  This day pictures Seven Swans a Swimming, in the song - The Twelve Days of Christmas.  Of course few people are relaxing at a park, in a tranquil setting, watching the swans gracefully swimming by.

This week is a time people start the big clean up from the Christmas festivities.  Family members and relatives are getting on planes or in their cars to return home.  Still others are making final preparations for the New Year. Today, December 31, is still the Christmas season and we continue to reflect upon and celebrate the birth of a baby, named Jesus, the Savior of the world.

An author writes: “A baby is God's opinion that life should go on.  A baby represents life.   Never will a time come when the most marvelous recent invention is as marvelous as a newborn baby. The finest watch, the fastest supersonic aircraft don't compare with a newborn baby.  A baby is very modern. Yet it is also the oldest of the ancients.

Our story from the Gospel of Luke is about an 8-day old baby named Jesus. He was brought to the temple by Mary and Joseph.  Simeon sees this baby.  Now is there anything more awe-inspiring, more breathtaking, more wonderful than seeing or holding a baby?  There is something extraordinary about a baby. It’s hard to put into words.  It’s a holy moment, a sacred moment.  The birth of a baby is a miracle of God.  A baby represents unrealized potential, new possibilities, new beginnings, promise.

A young couple brought their new baby to visit their elderly neighbor.  He was 89 years old and he and the couple had become very close.  After a brief conversation, the neighbor asked if he might hold the baby.  The mother carefully laid the baby in his frail arms.  He held the baby quietly, gazing intently into the baby’s face, and whispered: “I have been looking at the end of life for so long; I just wanted to look for a few moments at its beginning.

Simeon, a devout Jew, had been going to the temple, day after day, to await the coming Messiah.   Joseph and Mary come to the temple for the three customary Jewish ceremonies: the ceremony of circumcision, which required that Jewish boys be circumcised on the 8th day as a sign of the covenant between God and Israel, a ceremony of dedication to God of the first-born and a ceremony of purification or of giving offerings to God.  Being poor, the couple offer a pair of turtledoves or pigeons, the minimum requirement of Jewish Law.

Simeon was an elderly man who did not live in the past, re-living memories, but rather he concentrated on the future.  He lived daily with a sense of anticipation and expectation about tomorrow.  He was praying for and watching for and waiting for the coming Messiah.

Simeon knew upon seeing the baby Jesus, that God had fulfilled His promise to him.  Taking the baby in his arms Simeon praises God: “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.

Simeon predicts the hardship of Jesus’ future ministry - “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel.”  “His ministry will encounter opposition.”  “And a sword will pierce your own soul,” meaning that Mary, Jesus’ mother, would know the grief of seeing her son’s death.

Simeon saw this baby as the fulfillment of God's faithful promise of a coming Messiah.  Simeon saw the future wrapped up in this little baby.  Simeon knew God’s plan was unfolding; Jesus was the precursor of a new beginning for the world.  This baby was a symbol of the new age to come.    Simeon saw in Jesus the hope of the future not only for the Jews, but for all humanity.   You know, that’s an awful lot to see in one little baby.

This story brings an important message: look to the future with hope, dare to hope, never give up hope. Hope is a priceless jewel.  Maintaining hope in life is indispensable.  Hopelessness is one of life’s greatest enemies.

The story says: Put your hope in God, who has made himself known to us in Jesus.  The message here is: Don’t fixate on what the world owes you, but rather on what you and I owe to God.  This should be our perspective until the day we die.  Simeon knew God had chosen him to initiate Jesus into the Jewish faith and community.  He obeyed God and performed these Jewish ceremonies with excellence.

The message in this story is: Don’t get bogged down in the small things, don’t be shortsighted, don’t get caught up in trivial matters, but open your mind and eyes to see a larger purpose, a bigger picture in the events of your life, seek after and trust in what God is doing in life.  Simeon lives for one thing, to please God and to advance God’s glory.  That’s not a bad purpose.  His passion was to greet the coming Messiah.  He felt God calling him for that purpose.  He lived to see the grace, the power and mercy of God in the flesh and to fulfill his religious duties.

That’s not a bad purpose in life, living to see what God is doing, living to see God at work in life, living to see God at work in your personal life.  Seeing the Messiah was a defining moment in Simeon’s life, and so it is in our lives.

Simeon's story leads us to ask ourselves: “What am I waiting for?”  “What am I looking for in life?”  “What purpose is God calling me to fulfill?  Will you wait on the Lord?  Yes, when we look into the face of Jesus, we see our hope for this year and for every year.

Rev. Billy Graham, who is my opinion is the greatest Evangelist of all time, is 99 years old.  He wrote a book called Nearing Home.  He too is waiting for something; he is waiting to go to his heavenly home.  He says, "Growing old has been the greatest surprise of my life.  I was taught throughout my Christian life how to die.  No one taught me how to grow old."  Does that resonate with anyone?

Like Simeon at Christmas, our eyes have seen God’s salvation in Jesus Christ.  May your and my prayer be: “Lord, may I see you in my life, and seeing you, show me how I can share in your saving work in the world. Lord like Simeon, I will not lose hope, no matter what happens, for I know you are with me wherever I go.  Amen!