God’s Presence in Times of Change

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We can learn a lot about living faithfully by returning to the Jewish Exile.

The Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar invaded the land of Judah, destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem; and, most likely, ordered the Ark of the Covenant to be destroyed. Homes and crops were burned. People were dragged away in chains and yokes, and they were now living in a strange country with different customs. And people began to dream about being able to return to what once was as they continued to live in exile.

Many of the rabbis that I know are referring to the Jewish Exile these days.

We’re not able to go where we want to go and to live our lives in the way that we’d like to live them. Many faithful Christians are still watching worship services online and are far removed from the worship spaces where they’ve come to know God. Some people in our country (and all around the world) are trying to explain away safety measures that we’ve been asked to take while others are refusing to wear any sort of face covering to make a political statement. We are responding to this crisis in so many different ways!

The coronavirus has brought grief into many of our lives.

We usually associate grief with the death of a loved one, but grief is something that’s far more complex. I am grieving because I’m not able to visit my grandchildren. Many young people are grieving because they didn’t get to attend a prom or graduation ceremony. We see young children acting out because they miss playing with their friends. We’re sensing that things are different and that it may not be possible to just return to doing things that we once took for granted in the near future. And many people are still grieving the loss of their job or even of their home, aren’t they? Some are grieving because we know that things that we cherish are going to be different.

We often wish that we could just go back to what once was when we are grieving.

And that’s what we see in Jeremiah 28:1-9. The false prophet Hananiah has started to talk with people who were living in Exile about being able to go back to what once was. Hananiah speaks about bringing sacred vessels back into the Temple (which, remember, had been flattened like a pancake by the Babylonians) and returning to the place that the Jewish people had called their home for generations. It’s almost as if Hananiah doesn’t want to accept the fact that things have changed, and he’s trying to encourage people to believe that they can simply return to what once was and watch the storm just go away. Perhaps you’d like to be able to do that today? But Jeremiah wasn’t that optimistic.

One of the things that I’ve learned in life is that our lives are often lived in cycles.

Good times are almost always followed by bad times; and even the worst times in our lives can give way to much better times. Think about grief. We mourn over what we’ve lost and wish that we could have it once again, but life moves forward and we change as we adjust to our new reality. Christianity is built upon the death and the resurrection of Jesus: Life being lost in death and death giving way to new life. Our faith reminds us of the fact that God blesses us with new life even while we’re still caught in our grief.

Now, think about the Church.

We were knocked off-center when churches needed to close; and yet, in the midst of this pandemic, churches that had never done so in the past have incorporated electronics in their ministry. That’s new life! People who don’t normally attend worship services are listening to sermons and are participating in online worship services. That’s new life! We’ve had the chance to improve our methods of communicating with each other. That’s new life! The church that I am serving is even working with several other congregations to launch an online Vacation Bible School for children in the next few weeks. That’s new life! Leaders throughout the Church have been imagining new ways to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ in more creative ways – realizing that, even as we grieve, Jesus moves us toward something new and exciting and life-filled. That’s new life! That’s resurrection!

Listen to Psalm 89:1 – “I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord, forever; with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations!

This week, I’d like to encourage you to do three things:

  • Think about grief and about how grief might be affecting you, right now. It’s not easy to be told that you can’t do things that you like to do. And it’s very natural for people who are grieving to imagine what it would be like to just to back to what once was even though it’s not possible anymore.
  • Pray for the many people who need to make big decisions today and remember that they are trying to do the best that they can even when you disagree with what they think needs to be done.
  • Pray for patience and offer some of your time, energy, vision and creativity to those who are struggling to discover how we can best return from our Exile and proclaim the message of God’s love and the hope of the Resurrection in new and exiting ways as the people of God, today. You can be a part of the new life that Jesus is creating!

Click Here for This Week’s Message

Conquering Our Doubts Together

Calm to the Waves

We are traveling through a time filled with many doubts and fears.

How have you been responding to the challenges that we’ve all had to face in the last few weeks? Maybe you’re scared? Maybe you’re troubled by the fact that our lives are going to be different after the storm we’re facing comes to an end? Maybe you’ve been forced to think about the fact that you’re far more vulnerable than you like to admit? Maybe the events of the last few weeks have made you think more about the fact that you’re mortal and that you are going to die someday – from a coronavirus infection or from something else?

The story of Thomas that we find in John’s Gospel (John 20:19-31) has some important lessons to teach us about life as we journey through these unusual times.

Thomas was a follower of Jesus and Thomas lived his day-to-day life with Jesus for about three years. Thomas watched Jesus turn water into wine at a wedding feast. Thomas saw Jesus heal lepers and cast out many demons.  Thomas listened to Jesus tell stories, and he heard Jesus talk about the fact that He was going to be killed and that He was going to be raised from the dead. But Thomas was stunned when Jesus was swept away, and when Jesus was crucified. Thomas was totally numb as he listened to news about how the dead body of Jesus had been removed from the Cross and had been sealed in a cold tomb.

It’s sometimes hard for us to know what’s true these days.

People are saying so many different things. Experts seem to be arguing with each other and even leaders in the United States (and all over the world) can’t seem to agree upon what’s best for us. And maybe, at this point in your life, you’ve begun to say to yourself, “Seeing is believing.” Many of us are relying more upon our own personal experiences with the coronavirus than we are upon reports in the news and upon press briefings.

John’s Gospel tells us that when Jesus first appeared to the disciples (after He was raised from the dead) Thomas wasn’t in the room with them. We don’t know why Thomas was not in the room when the Risen Jesus appeared, but we do know that Thomas remained immersed in his doubts and fears for nearly a week after the Resurrection because he was not able to fully believe what other people were telling him. “Seeing is believing” seems to describe Thomas’ approach to life better than any other words. Have you ever said, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t”?

But Thomas remained connected to other disciples even in his time of doubt, didn’t he?

One of the things that’s been driven into my head over and over again in the last few weeks is that we need each other and we need to find ways to remain connected to each other during these unusual times. We need to remind each other that Jesus is walking beside us. We need to pray for each other and explore creative ways to do ministry. We need to be spreading the light of the Gospel with those around us; because, after all, who needs someone to give them a flashlight after the sun has risen and a new day begins? As harsh as it may sound, if Christians can’t find a way to bring a message of light – and the message of God’s love – in dark times like these, who needs us during other times? One of the recurring themes in John’s Gospel is the sharp contrast between darkness and light, and that theme is something that Christians need to be embracing today.

The story of Thomas reminds us that we need each other.

In the beginning, God said that it is not good for us to be alone (Genesis 2:18). Our Risen Lord has told us that He’ll continue to be with us as we reach out to each other, embrace each other and shine light into each other’s lives. Perhaps, what people need more than anything else right now is friends and family members (and a Church) that continues to remind them that the light at the end of the tunnel has not been turned off? Is that what you need to hear? Do you need to be reminded that Jesus is walking beside you and that God has promised you that, no matter what you face in life (or even in death), you will be lifted-up again both whole and restored?

We are traveling through a time filled with many doubts and fears. And we need to remember that, in times such as these, God continues to give us the gift of each other. 

What can YOU do today to remind people that you know that they are not alone in these challenging times? What can YOU do to shine light into the dark corners in other people’s lives, to strengthen them and to remind them that the Risen Jesus is walking beside them during these incredibly difficult days? As harsh as it may sound, if we can’t find a way to share a message of light and a message of God’s love in dark times like these, who needs us? Nobody needs other people to give them a flashlight after the sun rises and after a new day begins. People need us to be reminding them, right now, that the light at the end of the tunnel has not been turned off.

Click Here for This Week’s Message

Jesus: The Servant

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Many of us know that Jesus once washed His disciples’ feet.

Jesus had ridden into the city of Jerusalem on the back of a donkey while people cheered and threw pieces of their clothing and palm branches. Jesus had entered the outer courts of the Temple in Jerusalem in a moment of zeal, and He had driven the moneychangers away. And on the night when Jesus knew that He was going to be betrayed by Judas, He was aware of the fact that something terrible was about to happen.

John’s Gospel tells us that when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. We read: “And then, the chief priests and the Pharisees said, ‘If we let Jesus go on like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will take away our Temple and our nation.’” (John 11:47) Shortly after that, Caiaphas, the High Priest, said: “Don’t you understand that it’s better for you that one man should die for the people, so that our whole nation will not be destroyed?” (John 11:50)

Everything became radically different in a very short period of time.

And yet, in the midst of that change and uncertainty, what did Jesus do? We read that He got up, took off His outer robe and tied a towel around His waist. And then, Jesus washed the disciples’ feet and dried them with a towel. And He said, “Do you know what I’ve just done? I’ve set an example, so that you will do what I have done. Servants are never greater than their master, nor are the messengers greater than the One who has sent them.” (John 13:12-16) And Jesus shows us that when we serve other people what we’re doing is holy in a selfless act of washing feet. Jesus, our Master, shows us that serving others is a “holy act” that we can continue to do even today.

There are opportunities in every crisis.

Many of us are rightfully concerned about the coronavirus and are staying in our homes to prevent the spread of the virus. And yet, even in these frightening times when it’s very easy for us to withdraw and turn inward, Jesus is challenging us to continue to search for ways that we can creatively serve others.

People are continuing to serve others by working at food banks during these uncertain times and others are struggling to overcome steep technological learning curves, so that other people can remain connected. People are picking up their telephones and are calling people who live by themselves, and children are coloring pictures to send to other people. We serve others every time we wash our hands and voluntarily embrace social distancing. Last week, a member of the congregation that I serve asked me if it would be helpful for her to donate money to our church’s Family Fund since she is working in her home and spending less money for gasoline. People continue to serve others by working in hospitals and grocery stores. People are serving others by harvesting food that could simply be left in fields to rot. People are sewing masks for healthcare workers. People are delivering groceries and medications to those who are not able to leave their homes. And every time we do these things (or other creative things) to serve others, Jesus comes into our midst and we discover that we’re doing God’s work with our own hands!

There are opportunities in every crisis.

There are many opportunities for us to join hands (not literally) with other people in our communities who are brightly shining as “Jesus People” in these challenging times. Just as Jesus did not shrink back and turn inward on the night in which He was betrayed, God is calling us to keep moving forward and to keep searching for creative ways that we can serve other people simply because that’s what “Jesus People” do.

Perhaps, in these very unusual days, we have a chance to shine more brightly, as “Jesus People,” than we ever have at any other point in our lives?

May God continue to journey with you in these scary and unusual times. And may God bless all of us as we continue to think about creative ways that we can serve other people and glorify God with our love and good deed.

Click Here for my Maundy Thursday Message

Jesus: Our Savior

 

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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