Jesus: Our Savior

 

Palm Sunday Pic

Do you refer to Jesus as your “Savior”?

When Jesus rode into the city of Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, people were really excited. The people who were living in Jerusalem needed to be saved from the Roman soldiers and from something that they didn’t have any power to control. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, told people what they were allowed to do and what they were not allowed to do. The governor limited the size of all public gatherings. The governor told people when they were allowed to leave their own homes and when they needed to stay inside. And, once each year, Pontius Pilate was even more strict because, during the time of the Passover, Jewish people from all over the place flocked to Jerusalem and the city was almost always brought to the brink of chaos.

On the first Palm Sunday, Jesus was celebrated as a “Savior” who had come into the world during a time when people weren’t allowed to do what they wanted to do. People cast garments and palm branches on the road while Jesus was riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey because they were expecting God to intervene and to take control of an absolutely horrible situation.

And, maybe today, that’s something that resonates with you?

We’re living in a scary time, and we’re all being told that we’re not allowed to do some of the things we like to do. Governors have closed businesses all across the United States. We have been told to stay in our homes. Government officials all over the world have been trying to control the chaos by issuing orders and decrees that are sometimes even enforced by the police. Some people are still resisting the orders that have been issued by government officials and are doing whatever they want to do with little concern for their own health or for the health of other people. Maybe you’ve been praying and asking God to somehow intervene in the coronavirus pandemic because you believe that God needs to deliver all of us from these difficult days?

People were excited when Jesus rode into Jerusalem.

Palm branches and pieces of clothing were flying through the air. People were shouting “Hosanna!” – “Deliver us!” – because they believed that God was finally going to save them from something that they didn’t like. But what they didn’t realize is that Jesus came into the world to save us from far more than daily inconveniences. Jesus came into the world to deliver us from far more than government officials who tell us how to live our lives.

Jesus came into the world to break-down the power of sin and to take away everything that stands between us and God. Jesus came into the world to save us from the sin and selfish attitudes that destroy relationships. Jesus came into the world to remind us that God loves us and that God is not an angry God who sends horrible pandemics and things like the coronavirus to strike people down. Jesus came into the world because God wants us to know that we’re going to be OK even after life and death itself have done their very worst.

But many of us don’t believe that we need to be saved from anything.

We don’t picture ourselves as the money-changers in the Temple of Jerusalem because we don’t want to be reminded of the fact that we, sometimes, take advantage of other people, too. We’re humbled as we watch Jesus wash the feet of His disciples because we don’t want to picture ourselves as people who don’t take advantage of opportunities to serve other people. The altar is a place of cultural rebellion where company presidents humbly kneel beside people who work for them during Holy Communion. We are all reminded that we are not always swift to forgive as we listen to Jesus ask God to forgive even the people who were killing Him as He hung on the Cross.

If you call Jesus your “Savior,” what do you need to be saved from?

The coronavirus pandemic has reminded us that, if we truly want to make amends with other people, it’s best to do it today because none of us are actually sure that tomorrow is even on the calendar. The coronavirus pandemic has reminded us that we are a lot more vulnerable than we like to admit. Most of us don’t even think about the fact that we need to be saved or delivered from anything because we believe, deep inside, that we have the world by the tail and that we have the power to shape the future and even our destiny. But, maybe during these unusual times, God is calling us to step back and to look at our lives – to think about our decisions and priorities – to think about ways that we use (or even waste) our time – and to think about the relationships that we all have in our lives that are in need of repair?

If you call Jesus your “Savior,” what do you need to be saved from?

May God be with all of us as we think about that important question in the coming days. And may God bless us and increase our faith as we prepare to celebrate Easter, safely, from inside our homes in just a few short days.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

Jesus: The Son of God

Son of God picd

The Bible is filled with stories about God doing unusual things.

Just think about the story of Jacob’s ladder; when, in the midst of Jacob’s struggles with his brother Esau, God sent a vision of a ladder stretching up into the heavens. Imagine what the Israelites felt like when they were walking through the Red Sea after they had left the land of Egypt. The prophet Elijah once rolled up his cloak and struck the water in the Jordan River and the waters were parted. Jesus also did some incredible and very unusual things as the Son of God.

This week, I would like you to think about the story of the raising of Lazarus (John 11).

Lazarus, a man that Jesus knew, was sick and his sisters, Mary and Martha, sent for Jesus. When the messenger that Mary and Martha had sent to Jesus told Him that Lazarus was sick, Jesus responded: “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God.” (John 11:4). And then, Jesus did something very unusual. We read: “And when Jesus heard that Lazarus was sick, He stayed where He was for two more days.” (John 11:6) That seems pretty unusual. Why didn’t Jesus just go to Lazarus immediately?

Now, before we go any further, we need to get something straight.

John’s Gospel does not indicate that Lazarus had done something wrong or that God had decided to make Lazarus sick. Every time disasters strike, people tell us that God’s angry and that God has sent whatever’s happening as a punishment from above. Maybe a good-natured friend once told you that God will never give you more than you can bear in an attempt to comfort you during a particularly difficult time?

Do you really believe that the God of the entire universe has nothing better to do than make your life miserable and to see how far you can be pushed before you break?

Yes, Lazarus was sick. But, John’s Gospel never indicates that his illness was being caused by something other than something natural. Lazarus, in fact, was so sick that he even died – just like many people who have been infected by the coronavirus have died. And again, how did Jesus respond to all of this? Jesus says: “The illness of Lazarus is meant for the glory of God, so that the Son of Man may be glorified.” (John 11:4) “And when Jesus heard Lazarus was deathly ill, He stayed where He was for two more days.” (John 11:6)

And as strange as what Jesus does appears to be, there is something for us to learn here.

People who have been complaining because they need a break from their busy routines are now getting a break, aren’t they? The coronavirus has reminded all of us that we’re vulnerable, even though most of us want to believe that we’re nearly invincible. Many Christians who are worshipping online are talking about the fact that they miss being able to share Holy Communion with each other. Many good and faithful Christians are losing their jobs and are even beginning to face financial difficulties.

And we might ask ourselves: “How can God be gloried in all of this?”

  1. The spread of the coronavirus has caused us to think about what we really believe about God. And, perhaps, as we travel through this challenging time, we can just abandon the idea that God is an angry God who strikes people down or who pushes us harder and harder every day to see what it’s going to take to break us?
  2. The spread of the coronavirus has challenged us to think about the ways that we treat each other. Perhaps, it’s time for us to admit that we really do need each other more than we’d like to admit? Or, maybe, this unusual time can help us to become more aware of infectious diseases and how often we spread them to other people?
  3. The spread of the coronavirus has challenged all of us to remember that we don’t have an unlimited number of days to live. Maybe, we’ll all be a little bit more aware of how we are spending – or wasting – the little bit of time that we have when this is all over? Benjamin Franklin once wrote: “Dost thou love life? Then, don’t waste time because that’s what life is made of.”
  4. The spread of the coronavirus can help us to more fully understand how it feels to be alone. Maybe, we can all come through this unusual time with a deeper sense of what it feels like to journey through the last years of life alone – often hoping that a family member will come to visit; or, at least, make a telephone call?
  5. The spread of the coronavirus has also given many of us more time to simply stop. Perhaps, we can use this time of social distancing to spend more time reading our Bibles and engaging in activities that God can use to build our faith? We can come through this challenging time much stronger!

The unusual times that we are experiencing will come to an end.

But, in the meantime, let’s draw upon on a great truth in the Bible: “God’s grace and strength are always sufficient, and God’s power is often revealed in times when we are feeling both weak and vulnerable.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

We can learn many lessons about life and faith in these challenging times. We are being held safely in the hands of the God who loves us. And Jesus – the Son of God – has shown us that God’s in control of absolutely everything and that our God even has the power to raise those who have died to Eternal life.

And if we can just continue to travel through these uncertain days with that message in our hearts and minds, God will be gloried in the craziness of the coronavirus pandemic.

May God be with you, my friends. May God’s peace fill your hearts, and may you always remember that God will give you the strength and faith you need each day as we travel through these uncertain times together.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

Jesus: The Lamb of God

The-Lamb-of-God
Many Christians wonder why it’s important to read the Old Testament.

The Old Testament has stories about God sending a man to the top of a mountain to sacrifice his own son, and about God opening up the earth and swallowing people. The Old Testament contains stories about God sending the “Angel of Death” to kill the first-born male in every home in Egypt that didn’t have blood smeared over the top of the doorway, and about God telling people to destroy their enemies without mercy. And for many of us, stories like these aren’t very appealing because we want to think about God as a God who loves people and forgives them. We want to believe that no matter what we do wrong, God is always willing to give us another chance.

But the Old Testament contains many stories and images that can help us to understand the New Testament better.

We’ve all heard the words: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16) right? But what about the verses that come right before that one? “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the Wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)?

These verses refer to a story in the Old Testament book of Numbers (Numbers 21).

Moses has gone down into Egypt and has stood toe-to-toe with the Pharaoh. Moses has told the Pharaoh to release his slaves. By the time we get to Numbers 21, the Israelites are well on their way and have even been led through the Red Sea. But then, they began to whine and complain. The Israelites became impatient with both God and Moses. And, in response to the whining and complaining, God sent fiery serpents (the seraphim) to bite the Israelites and cause them to die. People were dropping dead all over the place! But, when the Israelites repented, God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and to lift it high into the air with a pole, so that those who looked at the bronze serpent would live even after having been bitten by the fiery serpents.

God has a long history of finding creative ways to work with people who have failed.

We all have times in our lives when it would be nice to be able to re-wind the hands of time and do things differently. Many churches begin worship services with a time when people are encouraged to confess their sins. We don’t always love God with our whole heart, and we don’t always love our neighbors as ourselves. We all have times when our pride gets in the way. We all have times in our lives when we’re apathetic and indifferent to injustices that surround us. And, of course, we all have times when we think of others in uncharitable ways, and when our biases and prejudices cause us to treat people that we don’t even know very unfairly.

So, why doesn’t God just send more fiery serpents?

Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the Wilderness, Jesus – “The Lamb of God” – has been lifted high upon the Cross. Just as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent on the end of a long pole, Jesus – “The Lamb of God” – has been hoisted high in the air for us to see. And, in that mighty act of God, a new path forward in life has been provided for us. God has, once again, chosen to do a wonderful thing when there was every reason in the world to just flatten us like a pancake or send more fiery serpents to bite us!

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, so that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did NOT send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” – (John 3:16-17)

And that’s the Gospel – The Good News of Jesus Christ – in a nutshell…!

No matter what you’ve been told, God is NOT looking for a reason to pound you as flat as a pancake because you’ve wandered off and made mistakes. No matter what you’ve been told, God is NOT looking for a reason to throw you into the raging fires of an endless and eternal Hell. Jesus – “The Lamb of God” – came into the world because God continues to love us and care about us. Jesus – “The Lamb of God” – came into the world because God wants us to know that, no matter how far astray we’ve gone, health and wholeness and healing are still available because of God’s unending love.

And that’s a word of Good News!

Click Here for This Week’s Message

Jesus: The Cosmic Warrior

Jesus being tempted

People say many different things about Jesus.

We know that Jesus was crucified and was raised from the dead between 26 and 36 CE because that’s when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea. St. Paul wrote his letters about 20 years later and the Gospel of Mark was written about 10 years after that. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke appeared about 40 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the Gospel of John first appeared in about 95 CE (almost 70 years after Jesus lived). The New Testament bears witness to Jesus and has transmitted stories about Jesus and letters written by early Christians for nearly 2,000 years. In the next few weeks, we are going to be exploring some of the things that the New Testament tells us about Jesus and about what all of that means for us today.

We begin this 5-week series of messages in the Wilderness where Jesus was tempted by the devil. Jesus has already been washed in the Jordan River by John the Baptizer. We have already been told that Jesus is God’s Son. And now, we see Jesus being led into the wilderness (the land of demons and unclean spirits) by the Holy Spirit and we even see the devil tempt Jesus three different times.

But, before we get to that, let’s back up a little bit….

Did you know that Jesus believed that our world is a place where evil is running amok? Jesus, like John the Baptizer before him, called people to radically change their lives – knowing that the Kingdom of God is near. Jesus believed that he was living in the End Times and that a mighty warrior, called the Son of Man, was going to come into the world to set things straight (maybe even tomorrow!). And, because of that, the ethical teachings of Jesus were both extreme and confrontational (think about plucking-out the eye that causes you to sin) (Matthew 5:29). Jesus believed that the “Son of Man” was coming into the world to judge both the living and the dead.

It is in this context that Jesus came to be seen by his followers as The Cosmic Warrior.

Jesus came into a world where the forces of good and evil are fighting with each other and to defeat the forces of evil (and even the devil). Jesus came into the world to drive-back the enemies of God and to defeat the powers of sin, the devil and death. We’re told in the letter to the Hebrews that Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, but did not fall victim to those temptations (Hebrews 4:15). St. Paul tells us that, because of the death and the resurrection of Jesus, we can know that we’re already “far more that conquerors through him who loves us (Romans 8:37).

And it’s in that trust and faith that we find courage and strength to live our daily lives.

We are still being tempted to put ourselves first and to push other people aside because we’re afraid that they’ll somehow take what belongs to us – just like Jesus was. We’re still being tempted to test the extent of God’s love and mercy every time we do things that we know aren’t right trusting that God will always forgive us. We still live in a world where people crave power for themselves and where people want to have a sense of power and control over other people. Think about Jesus – The Cosmic Warrior – who was offered total and absolute power, and who was offered the chance to control the entire world if he would just sell his soul to the devil – one time!

Jesus – The Cosmic Warrior – journeys with us, in that same battle, today.

Please don’t forget that when you’re being tempted to do what you know isn’t right, Jesus is with you. Please don’t forget that when you’re searching for a sense of peace and hope in your life, Jesus is with you to give you strength. Please don’t forget that Jesus continues to point you in the right direction when you read your Bible, and pray, and join others in worship and prayer. And please don’t forget that the same Jesus will sometimes poke you and challenge you to change course when you’re drifting away – just like Jesus did during his life and ministry on the earth.

You are already far more than a conqueror!

And my challenge to you, this week, is to live in that faith and to trust that Jesus is with you. This week’s lesson (Matthew 4:1-11) reminds us that Jesus – The Cosmic Warrior – has already faced the devil and has triumphed. Jesus is able to help you to overcome any temptation that you face and will journey with you no matter where life takes you. Trust that Jesus is taking care of you. Trust that Jesus is providing what you need. And, above all, know that ALL of the battles you will face this week are nothing more than the last few skirmishes of a great cosmic war between good and evil that has already been won for us by Jesus – The Cosmic Warrior.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

A Gift that Changes Lives

Candle at Both Ends

Have you ever felt like there’s not enough of you to go around?

I’d venture to say that many us define ourselves by the roles that we play in our lives and by the things that we do with our time. Maybe you’re a doctor or nurse, an administrator or a carpenter. Maybe you’re a mechanic or artist, a pastor or a musician. Maybe you are a Christian who has been baptized and who attends weekly worship. But, no matter who you are and no matter what roles you play, you’re probably going to realize that there is just not enough of you to go around at some point.

Have you ever considered the fact that there are going to be times when you cannot be where you want to be…?

My parents were 250 miles away from where they wanted to be on the night I watched my best friend die in an automobile crash. I’ve held the hands of many good people who were forced to watch children die many years after their parents were dead and buried. Maybe, when we feel like there’s not enough of us to go around, we’re being challenged to think about life on a different level? We can’t be in more than one place at a time. We can’t always do what we want to do because we don’t have an unlimited store of time and energy. People like us (mere mortals) only have a very short amount of time to live; and we, sometimes, need to help people that we love prepare for the times in life when we’re not going to be able to be with them.

This week, we encounter a very unusual story in the Bible.

The Bible tells us that, one day, Jesus was transfigured (Matthew 17:1-9). He had climbed to the top of a mountain (where people tend to encounter God) with Peter, James and his brother John. And, when they all got to the top of the mountain huffing and puffing and sweating and trying to catch their breath, something happened…. Bright lights came on…! Jesus began to glow! Moses and Elijah appeared out of nowhere and there was a big and booming voice from a cloud! And Peter said, “Wow! It’s good for us to be here!”

But Peter didn’t really understand what was happening. In a very short time, Jesus would be arrested and dragged away. Jesus would be condemned to death and He’d be nailed to a Cross. Peter would be stunned! In fact, Peter would be so stunned that he’d lock himself in a room with Jesus’ remaining disciples to keep the rest of the world at a safe distance.

I’m sure that Peter’s parents and friends never imagined what it was going to be like for him to watch Jesus being dragged away and executed. I’m sure Peter’s family and friends never imagined what it was going to be like for him to watch Roman soldiers prying the dead body of Jesus off the Cross. And, with that in mind, consider this:

I don’t know what kind of challenges or difficulties you and the people that you love are going to face. But I do know that there are going to be times when you’re not going to be able to be where we want to be – no matter how thinly you stretch yourself.

Peter’s family and friends never imagined the great, big hole that was going to open up inside of him when Jesus died. My parents were 250 long miles away on the night when I watched my best friend die in an automobile crash. I’ve stood beside many people after they’ve received horrible news from a doctor or learned about another type of tragedy.

And yet, I’ve also seen that there’s a great source of Living Water that’s never exhausted.

Peter was given a glimpse of something that he could hold onto in the glowing moment that he’d never forget. I will ever forget my father standing beside me during worship services and guiding me through services by moving his index finger down the pages of an old hymnal. Many people shared the story of Jesus with me in different ways as I was growing up. Good and faithful Christians planted seeds in my life that later sprouted and became just what I needed as I’ve journeyed through life! And, I believe, that same story, the story of Jesus Christ crucified and risen, is the most precious gift you can ever give to another person. The gift of a relationship with Jesus is, truly, a gift that has the power to change lives forever!

It was no accident that I ended-up pounding on the doors of a church at 2:30 am on the evening when my best friend was killed. It’s no accident that I still continue to begin my times of daily prayer by taking a deep breath and saying, “Lord, it’s good to be here.”

My parents, who are both dead now, planted seeds that are still growing in my life even though they can no longer be with me. My parents wisely recognized the fact that simple people can only be stretched so thin and that they can only live so long. And so, as I was growing, they invited me to “come and see” what they had seen. They gave me chances to meet Jesus and they just allowed God do whatever God wanted to do with me.

Is there someone that you could invite to “come and see”?

You have a chance to share a gift that has the power to change lives! You have a chance to invite someone that you know to “come and see” Jesus. And yes, you have a chance to plant seeds that will sprout and grow, and that may even become something magnificent that someone you love will need during a time when you can’t be where you want to be.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

It’s All About the Table

Bread and wine

Some things drive me absolutely crazy.

Think about this scenario…. You’re in a hurry, and you either want to print something that you have been working on for several hours or you just want to send a quick email. And then, your computer freezes. CTRL/ALT/DEL sometimes does the trick. Sometimes you need to hit the power button and hope for the best. I have even had to unplug my laptop and remove the battery pack. And why? Because, sometimes, a computer gets so messed-up that the only thing you can do is re-boot the entire system.

In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 30:15-20), God clearly sets a choice before us. We can love God and obey God and keep God’s laws, or we can allow ourselves to be led astray by other gods. We can live our lives following God and be blessed, or we can choose to live our lives in a different way and not be blessed. And, according to Deuteronomy, the choice is ours.

And then, Jesus comes along….

Jesus tells us that, even though we’ve all be told that we should not commit murder, we do the same thing when we get angry. Jesus tells us that when we drift off-course, even a little bit, it’s both horrible and inexcusable. And then, Jesus gets radical! We’re told that, if our eye causes us to sin, we need to pluck it out. We’re told that, if our hand causes us to sin, we need to cut it off. Because, after all, it’s better to live your life without one of your eyes or without one of your hands than it is to spend eternity in Hell, right? (You may want to read: Matthew 5:21-37.)

Sometimes, our lives get as messed-up as a frozen computer. We can’t always fix the damage we’ve done. We can’t always repair relationships that we’ve broken. We can’t always fix things and make them right again after we’ve made choices in life that have caused us to lose a part of our good health.

And then, just when we’re ready to throw in the towel, Jesus provides a solution.

In the night in which He was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread and gave thanks, broke it and gave it to His disciples saying, “Take and eat. This is My body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.” And again after supper, He took the cup and gave thanks, and He gave it for all to drink saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood which is shed for you – and for all people – for the forgiveness of sin. Do this in remembrance of Me.”

In essence, Jesus comes into our lives during a holy moment and shuts down everything that isn’t working right. We come to the Table weighed down with sin and brokenness, and Jesus sends us away forgiven and renewed. We come to the Table burdened by all of the mistakes that we’ve made, and Jesus shines light in the darkest corners of our lives and send us back into the world to live in a new way.

But, even after that holy moment, we still go back into the world and make mistakes, don’t we? We’re called to live our lives in a new way, but we don’t always do it. Even after Jesus forgives us and renews us, we can still go away with hearts that are hard and with attitudes that are unwilling to be changed.

And that’s why Christians live from Meal – to Meal – to Meal – to Meal.

We come to the Table to be forgiven and renewed, and to be sent back into the world. And, when we go back into the world, we mess up again. And so, we come back to the Table of the Lord to be forgiven and renewed, and to be sent back into the world. And this kind of Christian life, lived from Meal to Meal to Meal, is our spiritual journey.

You see, Christian worship isn’t just about flashing lights, music that stirs up emotions and having a chance to listen to the best preacher in town. Christian worship is not about the buildings where Christians gather. It’s not about singing only familiar hymns or using the “right” instruments. It is, certainly, not just about touching base with people that you haven’t seen all week.

Christian worship is always about the Table. Christian worship is always about the Table where we find forgiveness, renewal and strength to meet the week ahead.

And the next time your computer freezes, I want you to remember that. We come to the Table weighed down with sin and brokenness, and Jesus forgives us and re-boots the entire system. We come to the Table as people who are far less than perfect; and Jesus forgives us, renews us, and then sends us back into the world to live our lives and to help our world to become a better place for us all – at least until Jesus calls us to come back to the Table again next week.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

You are Blessed!

diversity

What do you think it means to be “blessed”?

I hope that you know that you are deeply loved by God and that you are an important part of what God’s doing in the world today. I also hope that God has surrounded you with people who love and support you because even God said that it’s not good for any of us to journey through life all alone (Genesis 2:18).

But, even when we know that God loves us and sends people into our lives to encourage and support us, life is not always easy.

Many of us have been taught that people who are blessed by God live in positions of power and prestige. The Prosperity Gospel teaches us that God is ready to bless us with prosperity and good health – if we plant the right “seed.” We, normally, don’t call people blessed when they’re struggling to make ends meet or to figure out where they are going to get their next meal. Many people, in fact, believe that people who are struggling and who need help from others just need to learn to get out there and pull themselves up by the bootstraps (whatever that means) and start living their lives in the “right” way – which, of course, often means: “in the way that I do.”

Jesus said something very different than what most of us believe (Matthew 5:1-12).

Jesus calls people “blessed” when they are being crushed by the circumstances in their lives and when they’re longing for God’s comfort as they mourn. Jesus calls people “supremely blessed” when they find themselves longing for better days and when they are trying to mend relationships with other people. Jesus said that we’re “blessed” when people are criticizing and belittling us because we’re standing up for what we believe. Jesus says that people, who openly speak about truths and principles that other people don’t want to think about, are “blessed” – even thought we may not think so.

Several months ago, I read a book, entitled “Learning to Walk in the Dark” by Barbara Brown Taylor; and, in that book, I was challenged to think about something that I had never considered in my journey of faith.

Have you ever thought about how many things God did in the dark?

The Bible tells us that the Spirit of God hovered over the waters (chaos), in the dark, before God created the sun and the moon (Genesis 1:2-3.) Think about the story where Jacob sees a ladder reaching into the heavens in the dark (Genesis 28:10-19) and about the Angel of Death moving through the land of Egypt on the night of the Passover in the dark (Exodus 12:28-32). And, of course, the Gospels tell us that the women came to the Tomb of Jesus on the first Easter morning at sunrise (Matthew 28:1) and found it empty. And why? Because God raised Jesus from the dead in the dark.

This week, I want you to think about the fact that God is with you and that God’s blessing you every single day. God is with you when you are living on top the world, and God is with you when you feel like you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. God is with you when you (and perhaps, your family) are blessed with the goodness of life, and God is with you as you mourn the death of people that you have loved and cared about for many years. God’s with you when you find yourself surrounded by people who love you, and God is with you when you are struggling to mend relationships in your life that are broken because of conflict. God is found in the “light.” God is found in the “dark.” God is found in every moment…!

And so, remember: You are blessed…!

Jesus calls you “supremely blessed” even when your life isn’t filled with an abundance of things that we normally associate with success and happiness. And Jesus also calls you “blessed” when your life isn’t filled with all of the things that the empty Prosperity Gospel promises to those who plant the right “seed.” And why? Because God’s love is always a gift that is freely given to us. It’s not a gift that has to be earned by doing whatever we think we need to do (or are told that we need to do) to catch God’s attention.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

What do You Want Christmas to be Like?

christmas-tree

What do you want Christmas to be like this year?

Some of us remember Christmas as a day when our family came together when we were growing up and we want that tradition to continue as we grow older. Other people look forward to seeing the twinkle in people’s eyes when they open the special gift that we bought for them. Still others resonate with the words “peace on earth and goodwill for all” and we long to see that happen in our lives and in the world. Yet others experience the coming Holiday as a time of loneliness, sorrow and hurt.

And then, right in the middle of our holiday preparations, the words of John the Baptizer ring in our ears (Matthew 3:1-12). John calls people a bunch of snakes. John calls us to repent and change our ways. John speaks not of the quiet coming of a little baby who is placed in a manger, but of a rather ferocious person who comes into the world to gather wheat into a barn and throw chaff into unquenchable fire. Whoa! John appears to be the biggest Christmas party-pooper who ever lived!

But, think about this. Sometimes Christmas isn’t what we hope it will be because we all have relationships that are strained and broken because of things we’ve said or done – and sometimes that’s why there are empty seats at our Christmas dinner. Sometimes Christmas isn’t what we hoped it would be because we get so immersed in the Holiday cheer and buying presents that we forget that Christmas is about love. Sometimes our Christmas isn’t what we hoped it would be because our hearts are hard; and because, even in a Season of “peace on earth and goodwill for all,” we judge people who need our help and make assumptions about the lives of people that we’ve never met. Sometimes, Christmas isn’t what we hoped it would be because we’ve gotten so swept away by the Holiday tunes and on the radio and preparing our Christmas feast that we forget about people who will spend Christmas alone and even end up throwing food in the garbage that could have been shared with a special guest.

But the Good News is that we still have a little bit more than two weeks to just stop and change course and do things differently. It’s not too late to go back to people that we’ve hurt and make amends, so that the empty seat at last year’s Christmas feast isn’t empty again this year. It’s not too late to remember that Christmas is about love and not about finding that “special gift” that is going to wear out or be broken and thrown in the trash. It’s not too late to drop some money into a Salvation Army bucket, or gather some people together to go Christmas caroling at the homes of folks who are confined to their homes because of health issues. It’s not too late to pick up the telephone and invite someone you know who is going to be alone on Christmas to be your special guest at Christmas dinner.

We all have ideas about what we want Christmas to be like. Christmas is a time of the year that’s filled with hopes and expectations and big dreams and deep longings for something in life that we don’t often experience at other times of the year. And that’s why the words of John the Baptizer are so important for us to hear.

We have a little bit more than two weeks to do the things that will help Christmas to be what we want it to be. We still have a little bit of time to stop and change course and think about ways to let other people know that the “Reign of God is near.” And that’s the message that John the Baptizer speaks to us even today.

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Is Your Congregation Struggling to Survive?

Crucifixion Picture

Many congregations are moving through challenging times these days.

Immediately after World War II, the “builders” got to work; and church buildings, some of them quite large, popped up everywhere. Many church buildings were filled to capacity in the 1950’s and some congregations even needed to put chairs in the aisles on special occasions. But, as we moved into the 1960’s and 1970’s, things began to change. People became suspicious of institutions of every kind. But, even in the 1980’s and 1990’s, many church buildings were still almost full because the “builders” kept coming to worship and were incredibly faithful in both their attendance and financial support.

But things continued to change. The “builders” began to age and even die. Congregations began to see worship attendance falling and budget deficits rising. And congregations began to respond to that change in two different ways: (1) Some congregations turned inward and chopped away at their ministry to save money, and (2) Other congregations turned to God in prayer, sought spiritual renewal, and searched for new and exciting ways to engage in mission and ministry.

In the story of the crucifixion of Jesus, we meet two very different men.

One of the men hanging on a cross beside Jesus cried out in desperation saying: “If you are the Christ, save yourself and us.” This was a cry for survival. Maybe the man on the cross was asking for one more day to make amends with those he had hurt. Maybe he wanted to live for another month, another year, or even another decade. But, what we do know is that this man’s desperate plea for survival wasn’t answered. He didn’t get what he wanted; and, perhaps, he even died in sad desperation. But, this shouldn’t really be a surprise. Didn’t Jesus once say that those who try to save their own lives are going to lose them? (Matthew 16:25)

But, the other man who was hanging on the cross beside Jesus did something very different. He began by confessing that he had gotten himself into a pickle; and that, in some ways, he was only reaping what he had sowed. And then, in a moment of faith, he turned to Jesus and said, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” Here, we have a man of faith. This man, who cried out to Jesus in the same desperate situation said, “Jesus, please take me wherever You want to take me.” He entrusted everything to Jesus alone. And, in that moment of faith, he heard a promise: “I will remember you,” Jesus says, “and you will be with me in Paradise.” And those words shouldn’t surprise us either. Didn’t Jesus tells us that those who give up their life for His sake and who trust in Him alone are going to find it? (Matthew 10:39) Didn’t Jesus also tell us that He was going to build the Church and that even the gates of Hell would not prevail against it? (Matthew 16:17-19)

Moses once told the people of Israel: “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.” (Deuteronomy 30:15) And the story of Jesus’ crucifixion does the very same thing.

Congregations that turn inward and try to “survive” by chopping away at their ministries to save money are choosing a perilous path that often leads to death. Congregations that seek renewal through prayer and daily devotion and that entrust their futures to Jesus, in difficult times, often find new life and exciting opportunities to share the love of Jesus with others because renewal often brings a deeper sense of God’s guiding hand in life and in the ministry of the Church.

Jesus has clearly told us that He has something special planned for us, and that He’s going to carry us into better days and into a future that’s going to be far better than any of us can imagine in our wildest dreams.

And that leaves us, our congregations, and even the whole Church with a question that needs to be answered: Do we want to fight to survive for another year or even another decade, or do we want to follow Jesus into a future where our ministry will continue to grow and thrive even in challenging times? The choice is ours.

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When Your Prayers Seem to be Unheard

Provision

We’ve all asked God to intervene in our lives, haven’t we?

Some people ask for God’s help when they’re looking for a new job. Other people have asked God to help them win the lottery. I’m sure that we’ve all had times in our lives when we’ve asked God for the gift of healing – either for ourselves, or for someone that we love. A woman told me that she once asked God to provide a parking place for her at a local shopping mall, so that she didn’t have to walk through the snow when she went there to finish her Christmas shopping.

Jesus once told a story about a widow who had been treated unfairly. She asked a judge to help her, but he didn’t. And so, she started going to the Courthouse to plead her case every time the judge came to work and every time he left the building at the end of the day. But, the widow didn’t stop there! She started following the judge home and beat on his door in the middle of the night. And the same thing happened night after night after night, until the judge (who really didn’t care about God or even about people) caved-in and granted her the justice that she sought.

Have you ever felt like you were beating on the doors of Heaven, but that God wasn’t listening to you?

Maybe you didn’t get the job that you asked God to provide? Maybe you didn’t win the lottery and couldn’t pay your mortgage? I remember a time in my life when I prayed and prayed and prayed for young man who had brain cancer – and he died. What if God does not provide a parking place for you at the shopping mall during the busy Holiday Season and you have to walk through the snow – just like everyone else?

Many of us think that prayer is about asking God to give us the things that we want; and, when we don’t get what we want, we get mad at God. “Where was God?” we sometimes say when bad things happen. “If I’ve prayed every day for a young man who had cancer and he died,” we might ask, “then what’s the use in praying at all?”

As I’ve journeyed through life and as I have matured as a Christian, I’ve come to see that prayer is about far more than asking God to give me something and, then, expecting it to miraculously happen. God builds our faith as we pray; and, sometimes, God gives us the strength we need to face things in life that we can’t change. God helps us to see things in different ways when we pray and God promises to journey with us even when things are going dreadfully wrong.

St. Paul once wrote (Romans 8:35-37): “What shall separate us from the love of God?” “Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” And St. Paul answers that question by writing: “No! In all these things we are far more than conquerors!”

That’s living faith!

Faith is not about learning how to make our God jump through hoops. Faith is not about “doing something” to catch God’s attention; and, then, expecting God to bless you beyond your wildest dreams – even though that’s what the Prosperity Gospel proclaims.

God promises to journey with us through thick and thin. God promises to bless us with the gift of faith when we need it the most. God promises us that we will never be left all alone, and that God will never let go of our hand in the midst of a raging storm.

That’s the God that I meet and that I spend time with every day when I pray.

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