Monday, April 19, 2021

Winds and Seas

This month our kids are learning about choosing peace over conflict.  It is a good series of lessons, but this Sunday I want to talk about a different kind of peace.  In John 14 Jesus said "Peace I leave with you ... My peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid."  Let's speak about a supernatural kind of peace!

In 1933, just before the Hindenburg government fell and Hitler came to power, the Germans were fearful.  Always a pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached and proclaimed God's power to a people who felt powerless over what was happening.  The people feared "the red tide from the East (communism)."  The people saw fighting in the streets.  Rumors, theories and misinformation abounded.  Bonhoeffer made 2 points to his people.

First, after reminding people to set their eyes on the things above (a sermon preached in June of 1932) he reminds the people that God is above all things.  This message is consistently preached and penned in God's Word.  The 1st Chapter of Ezekiel shows a vision of a wheel within a wheel and 4 living creatures spinning near the earth.  There was a vault above the living creatures and above the vault was a man on a throne.  Ezekiel is (Chapter 2) directed by the man to go out and speak to a rebellious Israel, rebellious because they have followed false Gods, false teachings, idols and all of the things worshipped by their neighbors (rivers, animals, wooden and metal statues, and ideas that did not come from God).  The image in Ezekiel 1 is there for a specific purpose ... to say, "I (God) am above all of the things petty people choose to worship!"  Jesus said, "I have been given all authority in heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18)."  God is constantly and consistently proclaiming His power over all things!  Bonhoeffer's message is ... "Observe, make positive changes, work with each other, don't join in with evil and be 'as shrewd as serpents but as gentle as doves (Matthew 10:16)' but do not succomb to fear."  God will set things right!

The second part of Bonhoeffer's message is from Matthew 8:23-27.  Never forget that Jesus is IN the boat!  God is above all things and Jesus has authority over all things, but Christ has chosen to get into the boat!  We fear that God might be asleep as we face the things that Germany faced in 1933.  Yes, we are divided!  Yes, there is fighting in the streets!  Yes, some people are following false-gospel cults!  Yes, governments struggle to follow the principles our founding leaders cast in stone!  But our lives, our world, our church and our community does not need to fall to fear and chaos.  "For God is with us.  His rod and His staff are comforts to us!"  And, as in Matthew 8, Jesus still rebukes the winds and the waves.  God is with us in the boat!  This is the same God we invoke when we say, "With God nothing is impossible!"  This is the same God that has shown us His ability to overcome darkness with light!

In our children's message this morning, there is a story of Abigail bringing peace to a testerone-driven situation.  David was headed to destroy the minions of a bad actor named Nabal.  David accepts Abigail's offer of peace, relents in his quest to kill Nabal, and God handles the matter in His perfect way.  I wonder if David, after he sees God's plan unfold, said what the disciples say in Matthew 8 ... "Who is this God that even the winds and the waves obey Him?"

AMEN!

Monday, April 12, 2021

Doors, Windows and Opportunities

Did you ever hear the cliche' "When God closes a door He opens a window?"  It sounds good, like many cliche's, but I have always thought that leaping out of that window didn't sound so appealing.  Like many of our Christian cliche's, this one leaves a lot to be desired.  So, what do we do when we hit obstacles in the path of our journey in life?  What is the Biblical way to move forward?

Isaac had a door, window, opportunity situation in Genesis 26:18-26.  Isaac needed water for his flocks and his people.  As he became more and more prosperous, the Philistines became more and more envious.  So they filled the wells that had been dug by Abraham with dirt and they told Isaac ... "You have become too prosperous!  There is not enough room for all of us, so you need to move away."  Isaac moved to the Valley of Gerar and set up shop there.  He, again, dug wells, reopening wells dug by Abraham, but the local residents said ... "Not so fast ... that water belongs to us!"  Isaac dug another well and, again, the locals quarreled over the water.  Finally, Isaac dug a well that offered no opposition and he named it Rehoboth because he said, "God has given us room."  There are many facets to this story but we will dwell on just a few today.

The first, and I think most obvious, point is that life (including for the chosen people of God) presents obstacles.  If you listen to prosperity gospel messages, please stop!  They are untrue and false teachings.  Every person in Scripture faces obstacles ... and so do we!  While it is natural to want to avoid obstacles, it is also natural that we expect, prepare for and endure obstacles.  In our world bad things do happen.  Some are part of corporate evil (WOW!!!, we have seen that in our political systems, our corporations, our governments and even our churches).  Corporate evil is real.  Bad people are also real!  Some people mean us harm.  Even in our local community we hear people talking down good people and even our churches.  Sometimes people choose evil and disunity as their agenda ... and we all suffer!  And sometimes bad things happen even when we are trying to do good.  A horrific example of this is the apparent accident of the Minneapolis police officer pulling their gun instead of their taser, firing once and killing a young man.  Not one person desired this outcome, yet it happened.  Isaac faced all of these evils that plague us even today.

The second point is that life is often more complicated than we expect.  I have embarked on projects that, in my estimation, are easy.  We thought getting bids on a new HVAC system in the Family Life Center would be a simple process.  Many months after we started this project, we have endured reluctant bidders, long equipment delivery estimates, vendors who decide (in the middle of the process) they are not interested in bidding, and limited funds.  Roadblocks have risen up in every part of this process.  Each roadblock required an assessment and a decision.  I have learned almost nothing is simple.  Life is complicated!

The final point is that there are things we can do even if things are complicated and even if all sorts of obstacles rear their ugly heads.  The story of Isaac is a story that is filled with possible solutions.  Isaac tried to do what had worked before ... Abraham's wells.  But these wells were filled up by the Philistines.  Isaac still needed water and he tried to co-exist with his neighbors.  New opposition rose up ... he finds that the Philistines just don't want him or his people around!  Isaac had to move his entire operation elsewhere.  He had to adapt to current conditions.  His new plan was to dig wells at a new location, but that was opposed by the people in the new area who said, "That's our water!"  So Isaac dug yet another well.  That worked, and he rejoices that God provided!

Isaac tried the door, but it closed.  He tried the window and he fell flat on his face.  He tried diplomacy, relocation, old ideas.  It didn't work.  But what did work was 1) persistence, 2) focusing on the real goal and 3) trusting that God would provide.  God seems to honor our efforts when we truly seek and trust Him to lead us forward.  It worked for Isaac ... and I think it will work for us!  Randy

Monday, April 5, 2021

Passing the Peace

All of you, if you have been in the church as long as I have, have heard the phrase "passing the peace."  Most of us think of it as a greeting during, before or after worship, and it can surely be this.  Some of us might think it is part of the act of communion, and it surely fits in the communal aspect of the eucharist.  But I would like to think God's word leads this practice further and deeper.

Jesus speaks about the importance of peace as he weeps for Jerusalem saying (Luke 19), "How I wish today that you, of all people, would understand the way to peace!"  Paul tells us, in Colossians 3, to allow peace to "rule in our hearts."  He follows this calling with an admonition to teach, counsel and sing (I love he brings music into this!).  To Jesus and Paul this idea of peace is something that should not be an occasional choice or a spiritual "bone" we throw to God saying, "See ... I can choose peace when I want to!"  They see it as a way of doing life.  Maybe we should explore it more deeply!

Three words about peace.  Presence, persistence and power.  When we choose peace over conflict, we acknowledge the PRESENCE of Jesus.  There are lots of opportunities to practice this.  Just go through a normal day, and you will probably have a chance to choose peace over conflict.  I usually do this by asking a few questions.  "What are we trying to accomplish here?"  "How can this situation become a way to achieve the mission of Jesus?"  "How can I be Jesus and the Church to another person?"  When I ask these questions, Jesus is present in my thought process.

Peace also takes PERSISTENCE.  To live in an attitude of peace, I must continually put my natural tendencies down.  My natural attitude is to win, conquer, overcome, overpower and rule.  Colossians 3 says to allow peace to rule, so I must be persistent.  My natural habits and knee-jerk reactions are oppressively persistent, so my love for Jesus and my submission to Him must persistently be on my mind.  Peace must rule my actions!

Finally, peace has a POWER component.  Does Christ have power in your life?  Does He rule over your emotions?  Is Jesus dominant over your thought process?  These are the questions about allowing peace to "rule the roost" as the Message states Colossians 3.  I wonder?  We all say we want God to have power in our lives.  We say we seek the power of Christ, and even people like John Wesley were concerned that Jesus would cease to have power in the upstart Methodist church.  So, do we want God's power?  When Colossians 3 uses the word "rule" it is used in a governing sense.  The implication is that our hearts and our attitudes are governed by peace ... not emotions, not feelings and not reactions.  Feelings, emotions and reactions are natural, but we, as mature Christians, are called by Jesus Himself, to cede rule to our "higher authority."  In our world today we see Jesus losing presence and power in our world.  Maybe this is because the people called by His name have given up power to the wrong thing.  Maybe it is time for us to reassert the presence, persistence and power of Christ in our lives and in His Church!  "Oh, how I wish that you, (we) of ALL people, would understand the way to peace!"  Jesus' words ... not mine!  Randy 

Monday, March 29, 2021

Reactions

The week of Easter is a week of stories, reactions and, at least for me, an emotional roller coaster.  Each time I read one of the stories they send my mind and my heart into places that engender competing feelings.  Some of these feelings are compassion for the suffering of Jesus.  Some relate to feelings of understanding as the disciples make wrong choices.  

On Palm Sunday I would love a Savior that rides in on a charger and sweeps evil from Jerusalem and even America (forgetting, of course, that if that happened in America, I would be part of that sweep).  I would love to shout Hosanna and wave palm branches.  And, of course, I would know better than to shout crucify Him later in the week.  I would love to sit in the little room and have communion served by Jesus Himself, and would, unlike Peter, be proud for Jesus to wash my feet.  I would try harder than the disciples to protect Jesus as He is betrayed in the garden of Gethsemane, and I would (for sure) not fall asleep like those other disciples.  I would try to do something when Jesus is unjustly tried and would somehow find a way to help as Jesus is led to Golgotha.  I would protest and make a scene when He is placed on the cross and would be up close (not at a distance like the crowds) as Jesus bled and died.  My reactions would be led and fed by my faith and faithful following of Christ!  At least, I would like to think this.

Truth be told, we react every day to Jesus, His life, His death and His resurrection.  We express our willingness to listen and our desire to follow in how we treat other folks and how we love His Church He has given us.  Our reactions are who we are as faithful followers of Christ.

That first Easter, at least in my reading of the story, Mary reacts in very human ways to the events.  In John's account, she is startled by the open tomb.  She is angry and fearful when they find the body gone.  She grieves when she realizes that things have gone terribly wrong.  She is terrified by the angel.  She cries, maybe about all of these things.  She is ready to converse with the gardener she meets outside of the tomb.  She cries out in joy as she says "Rabbani!," recognizing Jesus.  She listens as she is instructed to tell the disciples He is alive.  Reactions express how we believe.  And it is still an emotional roller coaster.

My favorite statement in the Easter story is a question about reactions from the angel outside the tomb.  The angel, in Luke 24:5, asks, "Why are you looking for the living among the dead?"  Why are they looking for a living Savior in the tomb!?  Why do we look for a living Savior among what some say are "new" movements that are rehashed heresies?  Why do we look for a living Savior inside our hearts that Scripture warns are 'deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9)?'  We are, as the old Johnny Lee song (1980) said, "looking for love in all the wrong places!"

I hope this Easter we find Jesus doing and being exactly who and what He is.  Singing praise in worship that is more than one Sunday a year!  Loving folks in fellowship that gives us hope, love and support!  Serving people (and therefore Jesus) by helping those in need (be sure to bring your Lenten offering for flood buckets)!  Being people who edify and build up the Church, for Jesus left us here to be a blessing to the world!  These things and places are where life happens.  These places are where love reigns.  Come and see!  Randy  

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Waiting for Fulfillment

The month of March has been all about patience and the theme of waiting.  Do you think God models the idea of waiting past our wants, our plans and our schemes for the good things God is doing?  The Gospel of Matthew repeats an idea about this over and over.  It is the idea of fulfillment.  

The basic Scriptural concept of fulfillment is that God is in the business of completing everything ... yes, everything!  God has an overarching plan that He desires.  Most of God's plan is a temporal juggernaut that has been predicted and will be fulfilled.  God's fulfillment happens in God's time and we cannot do anything to effectively alter it.  But there is that part of God's plan that is fluid.  Wesley said it well.  God has a plan that invites all people to the acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Savior.  That choice is available to all.  Some will choose Jesus.  Some will not.  That part of God's plan is offered by a loving God to everyone, but it is our free will to choose to love God with all our hearts.

In Matthew Jesus does the things He does to fulfill God's perfect plan.  In our story of Palm Sunday Matthew 21 says (verses 4 and 5) "This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet, 'Say to daughter Zion, see your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.'"  There is so much to this little verse!

The prophecy was from Zechariah 9:9.  The original prophecy took place around 587 BC.  Over 600 years later Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey as a living, breathing fulfillment of this prophecy.  God is patient and God's prophetic fulfillment takes place when God desires ... not when we desire.  This should alert all of you who keep hearing we are in the end times.  While I see all sorts of events that might indicate this, God will bring an end to things in His good and perfect time ... don't get impatient!

There are two phrases in this prophecy I want to highlight.  The first is "your king comes to you."  Has your king come to you or are you still searching?  Lots of people are searching for a king.  They, like the people gathered on that 1st Palm Sunday, want a great political and military leader that will wipe their version of evil, injustice, sin, wrongness and oppression off the face of the earth.  While most of us want that, we have different definitions of evil, injustice, wrongness and oppression.  Every election cycle, some are happy and some are not, while the evils of the world seem to roll along pretty unaffected by the party in power.  Go figure?   Maybe this happens because our 'kings' are different than the King God sends us.  Maybe God has in mind a King of a different realm ... a more powerful and permanent realm ... a more REAL realm.  For, in truth, that day the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords did ride into town on a donkey!

The other phrase I want to highlight is an unpopular one ... "gentle and riding on a donkey."  I could preach about the symbolism of the foal of a donkey.  Jesus clearly isn't coming as a warrior ... Jesus clearly is coming in peace ... Jesus clearly isn't overtly threatening the Roman authorities or the Jewish hierarchy.  The Prince of Peace is clearly doing something different.  As His Kingdom, in its greatest power, is spiritual, so is His mission that overcomes 'authorities and powers' that are spiritual.  Death ... evil ... hatred ... political posturing ... deceit ... betrayal ... the powers that lie behind structures of oppression (maybe you can add more) ... are all on Jesus' list as who/what He opposes.  He opposes them with peace, truth, Godly authority and with His very life, laid down against all of these things and for people like you and me.  It is a power we mostly don't and can't understand because we choose to live in the non-eternal realm of this world.  Jesus, in His very presence that day, shouts peace, love, sacrifice and submission to the Father's plan.  And all the while, the crowd shouts Hosanna one day and crucify Him the next.  I wonder if Jesus was asking then, and still asking now, "when will the people called by my name learn to live in my kingdom?"  Good question.  Randy

Monday, March 15, 2021

Choices

When Jesus is in the wilderness and being tempted by Satan, he is presented with a problem that seems to be happening before our eyes in real time.  Jesus has had nothing to eat.  He has fasted for 40 days.  Satan comes to Him and says ... "If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread."  Use your power to transcend the natural order of things.  Use your power to meet your physical needs.  Submit to your hunger.  Jesus replies, "Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God."  Spiritual needs are more important than physical needs.  Choices are important!  It is a good story from Matthew 4.

I retell this story because there is an Old Testament story that sounds like an impatient young man sells his birthright for some stew.  It is true that Esau, in our story from Genesis 25, is famished and sells Jacob his birthright to Jacob (who is often scheming).  Just two brothers in a conflict that causes enmity and division in their family ... right?  Well, it is a little more complex than that.

In the Hebrew world there are long-standing feuds.  The Samaritans are hated in Jesus' time because of things that happened in the 720's BC.  One cannot fathom the future when he/she is making a hasty choice.  So, I will give you a few historic issues that relate to this short little story from Genesis.  If you Google the descendants of Jacob and Esau, you will find that Jacob becomes the father of the chosen people, the Jews.  Most of you knew that.  But who descended from Esau?  There are many theories, but the land of Esau, called Edom, is near modern day Jordan.  Many Muslim people claim Esau as their ancestor.  These include the people of Iraq, the Kurds and the Palestinians.  Jewish and American history has been filled with conflict and enmity with these people.

But there is another historic character that arose from Esau.  You might have heard of him from the New Testament.  His name was King Herod.  Yes, this is the same guy from the Christmas story that was dead set on killing the new king born to the Jews.  Choices make a difference, sometimes an historic difference.

I say all of this to remind us of several truths in the Genesis 25 story of Jacob and Esau.  First, when we aren't willing to wait, people take advantage of us.  Jacob takes advantage of Esau.  Second, people get angry when they are manipulated.  Esau resents and is in constant conflict with Jacob.  This resentment lasts centuries and is arguably still happening.  Third, and maybe most important, choices matter.  I was talking about this uncomfortable truth with the praise team.  We all agreed that our choices, often made in a moment, had lasting effects on our lives.  Choices, people and decisions are not just fleeting things that have no impact on our lives.

We will be teaching our children about this passage this week.  Lessons will include 1) learn to wait for good things, 2) manipulation seems good at the time but results in anger and resentment and, 3) learn that choices matter.

I think this is good stuff to lead our children forward.  How about you? Randy

Monday, March 8, 2021

Stiff Necked

Stiff-necked.  It is a Biblical term used for the people of Israel in the Book of Exodus.  The term means stubborn, prone to error and obstinate.  It is highlighted in our story of the golden calf from Exodus 32 and appears eighteen times in Exodus.

The story of the golden calf is a tale we tend to view as one of those "we would never do that" events.  We marvel at how quickly the Hebrews turned away from God's plan.  We recoil at how people dismissed God's servant Moses.  We scoff at how faithless these people were when they substituted the golden calf for the God that "led the people out of Egypt."  But as I look around, I see a lot of golden calves, gladly embraced by people who should know better.  So ... let's see what we can learn from Exodus 32.

The first problems happen quickly.  "When the people saw how long it was taking Moses to come back down the mountain, they gathered around Aaron ... "Come on" they said "make us some gods who can lead us.  We don't know what happened to that fellow Moses who brought us here from the land of Egypt (Exodus 32:1)."  One verse, several decisions, total calamity!

Impatience set in quickly.  The Hebrews saw Moses was taking some time to return.  They 'gathered around' Aaron.  Have you ever had one of those meetings?  Impatient people want to make a decision, take matters into their hands.  They feed upon each other's anxiety, and ill-conceived ideas are born.  There's a lot of that happening today.  People on all sides of our collective problems are filled with angry, knee-jerk solutions which take us down some hard roads.  Is it an accident that God's word says ... "the fruit of the Spirit is patience?" God and God's plan isn't in the plans of the Hebrews of Exodus 32.

Fear grips people who dismiss God's leadership.  They fear Moses won't return.  Some may want to take over, and they may fear Moses' return.  We have lots of fear going around today.  Some fear the virus.  Some fear being told what to do.  Some fear our leadership.  Some fear the past leadership.  Some fear loss of control.  Some fear lack of guidance.  I have never seen such fears grip people, especially people who claim they aren't fearful.  I wonder if we have forgotten that fear is driven out by perfect love ... love of God's plan, love of God's people, love of the world God loved and love as our main motive (if we are true to our Wesleyan roots)?  Again, love is Spirit-fruit in a world that seems fruitless.

Idolatry is the third problem in Exodus 32:1.  They want a new god.  They want a god they can control.  They even (in verse 4) acknowledge that their golden calf is "the god who brought them out of Egypt!"  WOW!  How quickly they fell.  How quickly their mantra went from "I Surrender All" to "I Did It My Way!"

But before we look down on these wayward Hebrews, I would like you to consider two things.  The first is this.  We live in a time of golden calves.  God willingly and ably offers to lead us, but people tell me ... "That doesn't work in the real world."  God doesn't move quickly enough.  God is somewhere on the mountain and we need a leader now.  So we make golden calves, fashioned out of our biases, our petty definitions of strength and our desire to control things.  We build our gods big and strong, arrogant and haughty, not taking anything off anyone and never compromising!  Money, politics, power, stuff, people and fear all become our golden calves.  They are fashioned by us, so we love them, follow them and hold tightly to them when we are impatient and fearful.  The old song said, "All the people bowed and prayed ... to the neon god they made."

The second thing is to examine the term "stiff-necked."  It relates to a heavy yoke placed on an ox to control it.  The ox's neck must become rigid and stiff to carry the weight of the yoke.  The irony here is that the heavy yoke is placed by the people for failing to follow God and choosing to go their own way.  Being in charge of the world is a heavy yoke to bear.  It is why, I believe, that Jesus told these same "stiff-necked" folks 1,450 or so years later ... "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matthew 11:29)."

Which of these yokes do you want to bear?  Randy