(De)construction

Matthew 11:1-6
When Jesus had finished giving these instructions to his twelve disciples, he went out to teach and preach in towns throughout the region.

2 John the Baptist, who was in prison, heard about all the things the Messiah was doing. So he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, 3 “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?”

4 Jesus told them, “Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen— 5 the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.” 6 And he added, “God blesses those who do not fall away because of me. (NLT)

We are currently living in a new information age in which it is always important to ask ourselves how we come to know things. This is the study of EPISTEMOLOGY. Thanks to the digital age, we have a deluge of information thrown at us that we can tailor to our specific views on theology, politics, and history. What is even more dangerous is that algorithms are thrown in to understand better what we want, and the digital gods offer it up to us. And for most people, that means that we are only looking at things that agree with our tailored worldview.

On one level, there is the method of indoctrination. This sounds bad at first because it goes against the grain of allowing someone to think for themselves. But when it comes to certain subjects, there is a body of information that we need to be indoctrinated with so that we can know and understand more profound truths. Think about little kids. We, as parents, want to teach them their letters and numbers. This is indoctrination, or maybe a better word is construction, so that they have a foundation in which to think deeper about English, Reading, and Math as they mature. It’s like Confirmation to a certain extent in that there is a foundation of information I would like the teens to understand about the Christian faith. We want them to be orthodox Christians who can understand and articulate the faith. So we are CONSTRUCTING a type of scaffolding and foundation to continue building their faith on in later stages of life.

Indoctrination can only take us so far, though. Let’s consider the study of HISTORY. When I was in high school, all I remember was being interested in learning about the wars. But my history teachers taught me a lot of lists! Lists of presidents. List of important dates. Lists of important events. It wasn’t until I went to college that a specific history teacher taught me that every single history book has some bias from the author. There was no unbiased history book. Not only that, but he went on to teach me about the reality of slavery and the civil rights movement and the impact and effects that are still present today from all of that.

This caused a major shift in my thinking that I want us to see.

Step 1 is CONSTRUCTION. This is where we learn the basic facts.

Step 2 is DECONSTRUCTION. This is when we are introduced to new information that causes us to reanalyze what we were previously taught.

Step 3 is called RECONSTRUCTION, in which we integrate the new information with the old to come up with a new outlook.

Why am I telling you all this? Because in modern-day Christian America, there seems to be a crisis of people leaving the faith. In particular, there is much consternation about Christian teens who head off to college and seem to walk away from the faith. Now there are many reasons for this. One explanation is that some churches and denominations teach a very literal interpretation of the whole Bible. Then when a teenager goes off to college, and their first science class seems to contradict what they have been taught about the Bible, they then walk away from the faith. Another reason offered is that what we are learning is not Christian theology but is instead called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. That means that God wants me to be a good and happy person. God is there whenever I need His help. We tend to see God as the benevolent old man who wants us to be blessed and feel good about ourselves. But if we read the Bible, we will see that this is far from an accurate view of who God is. When something terrible happens in our life, this can cause the whole structure of our faith to crumble since it is depicted on an inaccurate view of God.

What happens when tragedy strikes?

When I was in seminary, I lived right across the street from Calvary Church. This church ended up having a profound impact on me as I spent three years as an intern there while I studied at seminary. I got to instantly apply all I was learning immediately into the context of ministry. I had a great time there. My Senior Pastor there at that time was Ed Dobson. He was an Irish-American who was an excellent preacher. He was also the originator of what was then called the seeker-sensitive service. This was a church service he would have on Saturday nights that was more like a nightclub with a band in which he would address current hot topics and take questions after his talk. It drew in many people who would never show up for a regular Sunday morning church service. And this was a church of about 6 thousand members. He was gifted, blessed, and extremely fascinating to be around.

But this is what rocked my world more than anything. As he was nearing the age of retirement, he got diagnosed with ALS. Now I can’t even imagine what he was going through, but let me at least tell you some of the thoughts going through my mind.

Why God? Why would you allow this evil disease to impact Pastor Ed’s life?
After all he has done to advance your kingdom.
After all he has done to grow the church.
After all he has done to be a blessing to others and to teach others about you.
This is how you let him go out in this lifetime?

I nervously waited to see how Pastor Ed would take on this diagnosis. As would be understandable, he had his struggles and low moments, but he also used this time of his life to go deeper into his faith. Ed put together a 7-week small group curriculum about all that he was learning during this time. He wrote a book called “The Year of Living Like Jesus” in which he details how he attempted to live like Jesus: hanging out with undesirables, visiting the sick, observing the Sabbath, reading the gospels every week. The book follows him on this journey in which he tries to move beyond just teaching about Jesus and actually living like Jesus, in the midst of him living with ALS. And he wrote some other books to help those going through difficult times. Unbelievable.

The dark thoughts that haunted me that were in the back of my head go to what if it were me? What if I was diagnosed with ALS right when I was about to retire? What if something tragic happened to me? Would I blame God? Would I be angry at God? Would I dare to deny the faith? What would I do? And in all honestly, I don’t know!

I know that for me, one of the most embarrassing moments in my faith journey was when I came back from my first Africa trip back in 2009. Shelly let me know that one of our daughters had a cyst on her back that concerned her. When I finally got back home, I looked at it for myself, and I was instantly horrified that we may have a child with cancer. Every emotion started to go through me. God, I just got back from serving at an orphanage in Africa for You, and you give my daughter cancer? I was nervous, scared, angry, disillusioned. It turned out that a simple operation removed the tumor, and all was well. Then I was flooded with guilt, embarrassment, and shame that this one incident almost derailed my faith.

Now at every church I have served at, I have seen many people throughout my time in ministry go through deeply tragic times. Yet, in all those cases, I observed that God is a giver of grace and love even when we go through the deep, dark valleys of life. God is with us through it all. Jesus shares in our grief as well as our joy. Jesus understands pain and suffering on a scale that few of us will ever comprehend.

What I want us to do today is to do a character study on the person of John the Baptist.

If you read the Gospel of Mark, the first chapter explodes on the page with John the Baptist. It states:

This is the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. It began 2 just as the prophet Isaiah had written:
“Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
and he will prepare your way.
3 He is a voice shouting in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the LORD’s coming!
Clear the road for him!’”
4 This messenger was John the Baptist.

This is the child who was the son of Elizabeth, who was beyond the years of being able to conceive, whose husband was promised by an angel that they would have a baby who would become a prophet of God, named John.

Many years before this time, the prophet Isaiah foresees that there will be a messenger who will be sent ahead of the Messiah to prepare the way. John is the fulfillment of this prophecy from Isaiah!

John has the honor of baptizing Jesus and initiating the beginning of Christ’s ministry and mission.

As Jesus’s ministry began to grow, John’s disciples became concerned and wondered what John thought. John states to his followers that:

John 3: 28-30 “You yourselves know how plainly I told you, ‘I am not the Messiah. I am only here to prepare the way for him.’ 29 It is the bridegroom who marries the bride, and the bridegroom’s friend is simply glad to stand with him and hear his vows. Therefore, I am filled with joy at his success. 30 He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.

It would seem that John has fulfilled his purpose in the history of Christianity, and now he can fall in line with the classic movie scenes of riding off into the sunset. Mission accomplished! All ends well! Let the credits roll!

Unfortunately, John’s story has another chapter to it that is hard for us to hear. It is hard for us to accept. In fact, it brought John to the edge of his faith. Unfortunately, his perfectly constructed faith journey that was foreseen by the prophets left out the final chapter, a chapter that is quite dark and unsettling.

You see, John criticized the current king for marrying his brother’s wife. As a result, the wife held on to a bitter grudge against John. So, the king threw John in prison, thinking that that would take care of everything. Little did he know the growing rage his wife had against John.

The king eventually threw a banquet in which his daughter danced for the guests. The performance pleased him so much that he offered her anything she wanted up to half of his kingdom. Not knowing what to ask for, the daughter went to her mother and ask for some help. Unfortunately, the king’s wife seized the moment to inflict her wrath and rage on John by insisting that John be executed and his head be brought out on a platter. This caused the king to be troubled. But he knew that in the presence of his guests, and to stay true to his word, he had to carry through with the order.

What I want us to focus on first is the question John had for Jesus, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?”

As John spends his last remaining days in a prison cell, it appears that he is having a crisis of faith. Is Jesus who he says he is? Is he the Messiah? Are they supposed to be looking for someone else? John had a perfectly constructed faith in which he fulfilled his purpose, and then everything blew apart. A massive deconstruction of his faith occurred. Left in a prison cell to think, he had questions; he had doubts, he wasn’t 100% sure about everything. There are shades of anger, frustration, bitterness, and depression in what John is feeling. This is not a simple question with a reassuring answer that all is well. This is a painful question that John is asking with many layers of negativity attached to it. He is ready to give up.

And if that didn’t make things bad enough, he began to hear stories of Jesus that had to make him shake his head. As an Essene, John took a strict vow against alcohol and limiting his food consumption to only what was necessary, sometimes being as restrictive as eating wild honey and locusts. But then he would hear of Jesus changing water into wine, being called a drunkard and a glutton, one who hangs out with sinners and tax collectors.

And let’s not forget that John and Jesus are also blood relatives. They were cousins. They grew up together, playing games, having sleepovers, helping out their parents with their daily chores, and learning the trades that their father’s passed down to them.

John was in prison, waiting for his demise. He had a cousin who was doing so many miracles for so many other people. Why not him? He had a cousin who talked about freeing the captives? That’s great. What about the one person you are related to? I do not doubt in my mind that John was at his lowest point when he finally needed to ask the question, “Are you the Christ, or are we supposed to be looking for someone else?” John didn’t know what to think.

He felt hopeless.
Alone.
Disillusioned.
He wondered if everything he did was just a farce. Was there any truth to what he was called to do?

If I am thinking like John, I would believe that this is a straightforward question that deserves a YES or NO answer. But Jesus, as is typical of him, gives John more than he is asking for in his response. Jesus tells John’s followers to “Go back to John and tell him what you have heard and seen— 5 the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.”

Is this comforting to John? Maybe, maybe not. On the one hand, it is exciting to hear that Jesus is ushering in the new Kingdom of God through the transformation of people’s lives. But what about John? What about his life? Will Jesus rescue him?

Jesus then offers John one last bit of advice: God blesses those who do not fall away because of me.

Put another way: And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.

The Greek verb in this verse can be translated as “be lead into sin, be repelled by someone; take offense at someone by refusing to believe in him or by becoming apostate. The Greek word is pronounced “scandalon” in which we get our English word “scandal.”

Gene Edwards, in his excellent little book titled “The Prisoner in the Third Cell,” concludes his study of this passage by stating that:

A day like that which awaited John awaits us all. It is unavoidable because every believer imagines his God to be a certain way and is quite sure his Lord will do certain things under certain conditions. But your Lord is never quite what you imagined Him to be.

You have now come face to face with a God whom you do not fully understand. You have met a God who has not lived up to your expectations. Every believer must come to grips with a God who did not do things quite the way it was expected.

You are going to get to know you Lord by faith or you will not know Him by all. Faith in Him, trust in HIM . . . not in His ways.

But let’s focus on the feelings that John is going through that caused him to question Jesus. Have you ever been there, at the end of your rope, filled with grief and despair, wondering if this whole thing is even real or not? All of us go through phases in life. Some are mountaintop experiences. Others are deep in the valley of the shadow of death. If you happen to be there, know that Jesus has a word just for you, “Do not be offended.” Do not stumble on account of Him. Although this life can be very unpredictable, we know that Jesus offers hope that one day he will make everything right.

As it says in Revelation 21:4-5
He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

John’s death is not the end of him. There will be a day when Jesus restores all things to what they were meant to be. A new heaven and a new earth. The Bride of Christ will be united with the Son of God. And this is the hope that we live into every day.

What John might not have been aware of is that Jesus was about to follow him in death. And not just any death but death on a cross. Somewhat ironically, Jesus had a similar question on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

But the difference is that Jesus, three days later, rose from the dead, defeating death and sin once and for all, and now offers us new life in him. Thus, we live in the “in-between time.” The Kingdom of God is here and is being lived into, but it is in the midst of a culture of sin and death, the kingdom of this age.

So, a couple of questions for you to wrestle with:

  1. What have you built your faith on? Is it so that you can be happy and fulfilled like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, or is it more about faith in a God who is with us in all circumstances?
  2. All of us a guilty of constructing a faith that may have some unbiblical elements to it. What are we doing to make sure you are building your faith on a solid foundation? Are you involved in a small group where you can grow together and lean on each other through difficult times?
  3. We will all go through times of deconstruction. If you think you have your faith all figured out, you will be sorely disappointed at some point. You will be introduced to new information and experiences that will cause you to rethink your faith. How are you putting your trust in Jesus to carry you through any circumstance you may find yourself in?
  4. And lastly, what do you put your hope in? Jesus is making all things new and will one day establish his kingdom once and for all. We may be on a challenging ride to get there. We will share in his suffering and death, but we have the reassurance that new life waits for us who put our trust in Him.

My hope for this church is that we present a faith that goes deeper than mere self-fulfillment.

That we are presenting a faith in Jesus Christ that goes beyond anything we could imagine.

A faith that is strong enough to go through the process of

construction,

deconstruction,

and reconstruction as many times as we may need to in our lifetime.

Whatever you are going through know that you are not alone and you have a church family that deeply cares for you. Also, know that Jesus is with you, and it is our privilege to share in his life and death, knowing that one day we will be resurrected like Him.

Amen.

The Uncertainty of Surrender

So, today’s story is about Zacchaeus. And what comes to mind when we think about Zacchaeus? That he was a wee, little man. Not very politically correct to label a man like that. In today’s world, we may say that he was vertically-challenged. Whenever I think of Zacchaeus being targeted for his height and how he may feel about it, I always think of this clip from the movie ELF with Peter Dinklage.

And with all that we learn about Zacchaeus, his height is the most minor detail in this story for us to unpack. What Zacchaeus did for a living is more significant. The scripture tells us that he was a chief tax collector. This was not a good thing. This meant that he worked for the Roman government in taxing his own people, the Jews. The Jewish people were under Roman occupation. The Romans were seen as the enemy. So, for a Jewish person to work with the occupying government to tax their own people was seen as corrupt and inexcusable. Not only that, but Zacchaeus could work the system for him to get a significant percentage of the profits, thus building his wealth off of the backs of his own people. To say that Zacchaeus was hated and despised was an understatement. Consider the crowd as Jesus was arriving. Let’s think of a parade. Most kind-hearted people allow the shorter, younger people in front of us so that they can see what is going on. The grown adults tend to be in the back of the crowd because they can see over the tops of all the others. But Zacchaeus knows better than to push his way to the front of the crowd. For all he knows, some God-fearing zealot might stick a knife in his back if he is in the middle of the crowd. So instead of taking any chances, Zacchaeus climbs up a tree to see Jesus pass by.

Now let’s consider Jesus. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, knowing that the cross is waiting for him. But instead of taking the most direct route to Jerusalem, he goes way out of his way so that he can have this connection with Zacchaeus. This testifies to us the amazing grace of how God often goes out of his way to pursue us. In Methodist theology, we call this PREVENIENT GRACE. That is the grace that “goes before us.” Before we knew anything about God, He was the one who made the first move in pursuing us. While we were still sinners, Christ dies for us.

Then Jesus notices Zacchaeus in the tree and invites himself to his house, and Zacchaeus welcomes him gladly. And this wasn’t just a “come over for brunch” type deal. When it says that Zacchaeus welcomed him gladly, it went much deeper than only an invitation to eat together. I suspect that this was the moment of transformation in the life of Zacchaeus in which he gladly welcomed Jesus not only into his home but into all areas of his life. We call this JUSTIFYING GRACE when we connect with Jesus in a significant way where we are forgiven of our sins and are then justified before God because of our faith in Jesus.

Now Shelly and I have many conversations about our past experiences growing up and working in various churches and our experiences here. Some of them are fond memories, some of them are painful. Some of it reflects on the good, and other parts are deconstructing what we were taught and trying to reconstruct what our faith looks like now. In a recent conversation we had, Shelly described how we were inundated with sermons about “getting saved” in our past. There was A LOT of emphasis on getting people to say the “sinner’s prayer” and begin a new relationship with Jesus. I participated in many activities and courses that taught me how to share my faith in such a way as to get others to want to convert to faith in Jesus. Pray this prayer. Sign this paper. BOOM! You are saved and going to heaven. The only problem with that is that this is not how Jesus operated. Jesus doesn’t give us “3 easy steps” to get into heaven.  In fact, if we back up to Luke 18, just one chapter beforehand, we see some interesting stories leading up to the encounter with Zacchaeus.

At the beginning of Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector coming to the temple to pray.  The Pharisee prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” While the tax collector prays, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus points out that it was the tax collector that went home justified.

Then at the end of Luke 18, Jesus is confronted by the rich, young ruler. Here is a guy who wants to be saved. So, Jesus, knowing this guy’s heart issues, begins by telling him to obey the commandments. In response, the man is proud to list the commands that he has faithfully followed. Then Jesus cuts to the heart by telling him to sell everything he has, give it to the poor, and then come follow him. The man turned away, sad because he was very wealthy. Jesus did not get him to say a quick prayer to get him into the club. Instead, Jesus wanted total surrender, not only of him as a person but everything else that came with him. The rich, young ruler couldn’t do it. You need to see here that salvation is not just a spiritual reality but also impacts our physical reality. In fact, it impacts everything about us!

Now we pick our original story back up with Zacchaeus. Jesus calls out to Zacchaeus and says, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” And we are told that Zacchaeus came down at once and welcomed Jesus gladly. This is once again more than just receiving Jesus to his house. He received Jesus into his life. All of it.

As Jesus went to spend time with Zacchaeus at his home, many people took notice of this. The crowd was not too kind. They began saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” Let’s stew on this a little bit. In Jewish culture, the idea of purity was a big deal. You had to obey specific laws to be ritually pure if you wanted to participate in life as usual. You could not touch dead things or mold or mildew, or you could become impure. If you were impure, then there were a whole set of other laws you needed to follow to become pure again and be accepted back into the community.

And don’t think for a second that we don’t have our own types of purity culture. In many youth ministries, there is a heavy emphasis on sexual purity. If you choose abstinence until you get married, then all your dreams will come true. But make a mistake, then you are just used goods. There has been a huge industry of shame used to control teens into making decisions about their sexuality. That is not to say we shouldn’t give our teens guidance, advice, and boundaries, but there must be grace, love, and forgiveness woven into our language. And it is not just sexual purity. Sometimes purity culture morphs into thinking we are better than others. If we are honest, we easily divide up people into categories that always make us look better. We have names for them: Karen; ok, boomer; people of Walmart. We are always quick to judge people based on their looks, their clothes, their status, their weight, their age, their sexuality, their color.   

The crowd was judging Jesus for contaminating himself with someone who was considered impure. In this culture, it was seen that contact with impurity would transfer over to others and make them unclean also. But Jesus operated differently. Wherever Jesus went, whatever he touched, whoever he met, whatever he came into contact with, his purity had a more significant impact on others, making what is considered impure now pure or clean. This was a radical change in how purity worked. This was a radical change in how Jesus worked.

Now that Jesus has changed the life of Zacchaeus, the question we want to ask is how did it impact or affect Zacchaeus himself? Was he to go back to life as usual? Going back to being a scoundrel of a tax collector throughout the week, but make sure he goes to the temple on Sunday and give some money to the offering, then all is good? I think not. Jesus did not let the rich, young ruler off the hook, and neither was Zacchaeus. Instead, Zacchaeus is immediately confronted with the corrupt way he did business and wants to make things right with his people. He says to Jesus, “Look, Lord! Here and now, I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” This, my friends, is called reparations. Zacchaeus felt convicted to make things right with those he cheated to become rich. He recognized that he had an occupation in which he became very wealthy off of other people’s backs. And he took advantage of them for a long time. He acknowledged that he took advantage of the system to grow his wealth at the expense of others. And he was immediately convicted of making things right. Zacchaeus’s faith was not just a personal, private thing, but it impacted him holistically and publicly. So, a couple of points to make here:

1) This action that Zacchaeus is taking after being confronted with Jesus would be considered SANCTIFYING GRACE. This is God’s grace that works within us to make us more like Jesus all throughout our lifetime. So, we see the whole pattern of grace in this story: PREVIENENT GRACE is the grace that comes before when Jesus went out of his way to pursue Zacchaeus. God is always pursuing people even before they ever know it. Then there is JUSTIFYING GRACE that represents that moment when we receive Jesus into our lives, and we become justified before God on account of Jesus cleansing us of our sin and being our righteousness. And then SANCTIFYING GRACE is when the Holy Spirit works within our lives to help us be more and more like Jesus in all areas of our life, both private and public. It affects how we interact with people, how we do business, how we conduct ourselves, how we love others, and of course, what we do with what we have, and how we steward our resources fairly and equitably. Our faith ought to seep into all areas of our lives.

2) Let’s talk about reparations. Zacchaeus wanted to repair the way he did business by making things right with those he took advantage of in his business practice. A very cursory study of American history has shown us that white European settlers took advantage of the Americas’ indigenous people. Time and time again, our country would make deals with them only to break promise after promise. Also, the institution of slavery was used for 250 years to build this nation. People from Africa, who are image-bearers of God just like us, were stolen from their country and brought here by force to be used in one of the cruelest forms of slavery in history. When slavery ended, it just morphed into other ways of keeping the white race in control and the African American race under subjugation: through Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration, among many other things. I have my ideas about what we as a nation should do to rectify our past sins. But I am not holding my breath. I can ask us, though, what can we do as a church? How can we respond to current-day racism? What can we do to try and make things right in light of our dark past? The hope is that we bring reconciliation and restoration to all. That we create a community in which we see the inherent worth and dignity of all as image-bearers of God. And that we live in a country that is fair and just for all equally. I will be the first to admit that I have grown up in a country that has benefited me tremendously simply for being a white, heterosexual male. How can we be welcoming and inclusive for all, not only within our church walls but also out in our community and throughout our country?

Here is the deal, we are called to be ministers of reconciliation, not just reconciling people with God but also with each other. This is the kingdom of God we are to be living in right now. And when we do this correctly, we draw people to Jesus instead of repeal people away from the church. What does working toward reconciliation and reparations look like for the United Methodist Church? So far, here at Epiphany, we have people involved in a social justice group studying and talking about this very thing. I would encourage all of you to read the book “Be The Bridge.” Christian author Latasha Morrison, an African American, helps us understand our faith and how to pursue God’s heart for racial reconciliation. It is one of the best books I read on the topic of racial reconciliation. Another book I would highly recommend is “The Color of Compromise” by Jemar Tisby. This book helped me see the church’s complicity throughout American history when it came to its response to racism. Both of these books will be offered as small group studies throughout the rest of the year. I think this should be required reading for all Epiphanyites. But our efforts shouldn’t stop at reading books. We need to wrestle with how we can be more welcoming and inclusive to all people, connect with other organizations and other churches to help, and be a blessing to them to inspire and encourage racial reconciliation. How can we help in areas related to poverty, incarceration, addiction, and families in crisis? How can we help to bring equity to education, housing, and access to jobs? 

So, today’s theme is the Uncertainty of Surrender. We have always liked the idea of privately surrendering to Jesus, making a personal commitment to follow Him. But why is it so hard to publicly surrender to him in all the other areas of our life; making things right, repairing broken relationships, reconciling all people to live into being the whole and diverse body of Christ? Jesus didn’t give us a prayer to say to be in the club, and then all is good from there on out. Instead, he continuously said, follow me. Follow me.

Follow my example.

Follow my lead.

Follow as I am doing.

Has Jesus impacted you in this way? We may not talk a lot about salvation as compared to my past experiences, but we must ask what is Jesus saving us from? Yes, he is saving us from our sins, but he is also saving us from ourselves. He is in the business of saving us and transforming us so that we are more and more like Jesus in all areas of our life so that we as a community represent the present Kingdom of God as an alternative to the broken kingdoms of this world. Just like Zacchaeus, have you opened yourself up to Jesus breaking into all areas of your life? Have you surrendered to Jesus, allowing him to save you from yourself? If not, know that Jesus is pursuing you, inviting you, and welcoming you into this kingdom project. He is there and has always been there. Are you willing to come down out of the tree and follow him? What are you holding on to that prevents you from surrendering to his call? What do you not want to let go of? Today would be a great day to surrender to Jesus and allow Him into your home and transform your life from the inside out. If you are ready for this move, then I invite you to follow Jesus. Jesus loves you where you are at, but he never intends to leave us there. He intends to take us on a journey of total surrender to his will and purpose for our lives. And what a journey it is.

AMEN

The Uncertainty of Faith

So, would you be crazy enough to get into the wheelbarrow? Not me! If social media has taught me anything, I am more than willing to watch “crazy people,” but only in the comfort of my own home in the safety of sitting in my chair! Ask me to participate in crazy stunts, and you can pretty much guess what my answer is going to be.

Now, why is that? If this tightrope walker has proven himself over and over again, why not trust in his athletic ability to get you across on a wheelbarrow? Because we like safety, security, certainty on our terms. We are Americans, after all! But if there is one thing this past year has taught us is that life is full of uncertainty: pandemics, the snow and ice storms, tornados, wildfires, power outages, etc. We have all been rocked out of our false sense of security, reliability, and certainty.

In our story today, we come across a man who is at his wit’s end. He has a son of which he is unable to help. As a parent, this is one of the biggest fears any of us can face. Bring on anything this world has to throw at me, but not my kids. Any parent wants to be the source of security, compassion, and hope for their kids.

In the context of our scripture, today, 3 of the disciples just had an extraordinary experience. Literally and spiritually, they had a mountaintop experience. They were witnesses to Jesus’ transfiguration. But as is with life, they came off of that incredible and inspiring experience just to be confronted head-on with life in the trenches. Let’s dive into the story.

A.  The Problem  – 14-18

14 When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. 15 As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him.

16 “What are you arguing with them about?” he asked.

17 A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. 18 Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”

Something was clearly wrong with this fathers’ child. What appears to be what we may think is a medical condition, Jesus is able to see something darker and more sinister behind it. The boy is spiritually oppressed and the father feels helpless.

If we look back into Mark’s Gospel, we would see that in chapter 3, all of Jesus’ disciples were commissioned to cast out demons and heal people just as he has done Himself. In chapter 6, we see that these disciples had success in doing just that, healing people from spiritual oppression.

Now Jesus comes across his disciples in a heated argument with religious leaders about a failed exorcism. What went wrong? Do the same methods and same techniques work every time? Apparently not. This leads to Jesus’ rebuke.

B.  The Rebuke                                       – v. 19

19 “You unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “How long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”

Jesus’ disappointment is directed at his disciples, who were unable to help the boy. Before Jesus can deal with the disciples, he confronts the problem head-on.

C.  The Confrontation                            – v. 20-27

20 So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth.

21 Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”

“From childhood,” he answered. 22 “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

23 ” ‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

24 Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

25 When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.”

26 The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up.

We see here that whatever was influencing the boy had a strong reaction to the presence of Jesus. Jesus assessed the problem by asking how long the boy has been this way. But then the father responded with one of the most honest responses. He says to Jesus, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” The man is open to any help he can receive from Jesus. Anything to make his hopeless and uncertain situation better.

Jesus responds to the man’s request by drawing out the doubt and uncertainty that the man is wrestling with by repeating, “If you can?” Jesus assures the father that “everything is possible for one who believes.” If we stop the story right here, it would appear that the problem in this story is the man’s lack of faith. If he just had the right amount of faith, his boy would be healed. This would be a very heavy burden to put on the father or even the disciples.

I once knew a woman who attended a church I served in that had a child suffering from cancer. During this season of her life, she attended another church. The whole church was praying for healing for the boy. Unfortunately, the boy ended up passing away from the dreaded disease. In her grief, the mother did not understand and had questions about the outcome of her son. She went to the pastor of the church and asked why her boy died of cancer when it was clear to her that everyone was praying for his healing. Why wasn’t he healed? The pastor’s response was horrible and could be considered spiritual abuse. He said to the grieving mom that she did not have enough faith for her son to be healed. This is terrible! This is not how the God I serve operates.

But let’s take a look at what Jesus does here. The man responds to Jesus, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” This man exposes the tension within every single one of us between belief and unbelief.

As I have grown in the faith, I can say with pretty much certainty that one of the most insufferable kinds of people to be around are those who have absolute certainty about everything. No nuance. No ambiguity. No doubts. Just absolute certainty: in their beliefs and how anyone who disagrees with them is wrong and on the highway to hell. But I am here to tell you that this actually demonstrates an immature faith, not a mature faith. These types of people typically have not had enough life experiences or have honestly wrestled with their faith in a deep and meaningful way.

On the other hand, some people need certainty. They want everything to be very black and white. But when difficult times come along, this can rock the faith of those who depend on certainty, pushing them into agnosticism, atheism, or an even stronger fundamentalism.

The author of our devotional and sermon series for Lent, Magrey R. DeVega, states that “tension and ambiguity in life are not always bad things. Struggling with what we know and don’t know does not convey how weak we are but simply how human we are. Faith is not the absence of doubt, but the embrace of it and ultimately the transformation of it. Likewise, courage is not the elimination of fear, but the regular interaction with it and conscious choice against it. The truth of the matter is, we live in a time when there is more value in ambiguity and shades of gray than there is in rigid, dogmatic certainty. Our world will be made better not by the extremists on the fringes who think everyone else has it wrong, but by those in the center who believe there is value in dialogue. Uncertainty is a certain part of life, and with its embrace can come transformation.”

In this story, the anxious father shows us that faith and doubt co-exist. They are held in tension. It is not an “either/or” proposition but instead a “both/and”. And it is in this tension that he looks to Jesus for help. Jesus proceeds to confront the spirit and bring healing to the boy.

Now let’s get back to the disciples. Imagine what they are thinking and feeling. Jesus commissioned them to heal people, they have gone out and did just that, but then they come to this situation where it just didn’t work the way they thought it should have. Obviously, they have questions for Jesus.

What happened?

What went wrong?

What did we do differently? The passage continues:

D.  The Explanation                               – v. 28-29 

28 After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”

29 He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.”

Jesus explains to his disciples that in their faith, they needed to depend on God through prayer. He didn’t shame them. He just showed how our faith and prayer demonstrates our dependence on God to help and intervene in our uncertain times. Now we may not get the answers we want, but prayer and faith help us to rely on God to walk with us through whatever life throws at us. And Jesus isn’t asking us for perfect, 100% faith. In fact, in Matthew 17:20-21, Jesus says that:

Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

Is Jesus talking about literal mountains here? Maybe, maybe not. I tend to think that he is telling us that when we face major issues in our lives, we need to put our faith in God that He is good and just and will be with us through anything. And if we have just the littlest bit of faith, as small as a mustard seed, we will be able to see how God moves in our lives through these uncertain times.

Also, our prayers do make a difference. It helps us to rely more on God to work through our lives.

In America, we like to have a plan, order, and structure for our lives. We like to have everything figured out according to our own understanding. But as we can tell from this past year, that just has not been possible. One of the most useless things in 2020 was a planning calendar!

A passage that has helped me out A LOT in life comes from Proverbs 3:5-6, which says,

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.

Our own understanding can be faulty. We have a very limited view of things going on in our life. We are incapable of seeing the bigger picture in the way that God is able to understand. That is why the proverbial writer tells us to not lean on our own understanding but to trust in God. This is the way we move the mountains in front of us as our paths are made straight. It is in our reliance and dependence on God.

So, my question to you is, are you ready to get into the wheelbarrow? Are you willing to embrace the tension between belief and unbelief, between faith and doubt, between certainty and uncertainty? When you let go of your own ability to try and understand it all and learn to live in that tension, this is the sweet-spot for spiritual growth and development. When we look back on our past, we understand things better in hindsight, where we see how God helped us through situations. Let’s rely on those experiences in our past as we look forward to an uncertain future, trusting that God is with us every step of the way and will bring about the best of outcomes as we continue to put our faith in Him and trust that He has our best interests in mind. God does not expect us to have PERFECT faith, PERFECT belief, and ABSOLUTE certainty. He just asks that we put our trust in Him and live in the tension. And as a church, let’s continue to take our prayer concerns to Him in a child-like spirit of dependence upon Him.

Anxiety in the Pandemic Age

There are many reasons why we worry. The current times we are living in raise a lot of concern for everybody. It is unbelievable that we have lost 166,000 Americans in just a handful of months to COVID-19. To put this in perspective we lost over 58,000 Americans in the Vietnam War. We lost over 36,000 in the Korean War. We lost over 116,000 in World War 1. We have blown those totals away in just a few short months. Jobless claims have also been extremely high because of the pandemic we are currently in. We are living in anxious times. It is easy to be in a perpetual state of anxiety and fear.

During the month of July, I saw first-hand the efforts being made to help those in Loveland who desperately need the basics of life when it comes to food and education. Our youth group participated with the NEST which is a mission that stands for nutrition, education, safety and transformation. Each week I had a different group of teens who would help to serve this mission in its efforts to continue to provide good food and educational tools to continue the mental and physical growth of the low-income kids in our community. The CEO of NEST, Evangeline DeVol, took time out of her schedule each week to share her story and vision for caring for the children and families within our community who are trapped in poverty and struggling just to make ends meet. I had the privilege of hearing the story 4 times! Each week if she left out a detail I would chime up and remind her to include it. This is a Loveland resident who could very easily keep to herself and ride out this pandemic and be just fine through the whole process. Instead, God laid it on her heart years ago to take care of the poor children who desperately need the basics of life and help to have a chance to break out of the cycle of poverty and excel in their education. Instead of being consumed with worry for herself, she has used her giftedness and blessing to be a blessing to others. And this is just one example of ways in which we can overcome worry.

Today’s passage comes out of a famous section of the Gospel of Matthew that we refer to as the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is talking to a group of people who we see in the end of Matthew 4 are the poor, the suffering, the sick, the hurting. These are a group of people who have a lot to worry about. These would not be considered the middle-class or upper-class. These are people who are used to living day-to-day not fully knowing where their next meal might be coming from or what they may wear in the upcoming days ahead.

Our passage today comes from Matthew 6:25-34. But here is the deal. Verse 25 begins with a big THEREFORE! So, what that typically means is that we need to see what came before our passage. Let’s just look at verse 24. It says:

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

Jesus just finished a topic in which he defines what is our treasure. What is the difference between material treasure as opposed to spiritual treasure? What should our focus be on? He points out that where our heart is, that will also reveal what we treasure. If we store up treasure on this earth, it will depreciate in value, it could be stolen or destroyed, what seems to be important for me to have right now may be meaningless later. Instead, Jesus is encouraging his audience to focus instead on making investments in spiritual things, investing in the lives of others, caring for others, loving others. The pursuit of selfish materialism is contrary to a life of service. Jesus makes it very clear that either we serve ourselves or we learn the value in serving others. With that said, he now says THEREFORE!

So let’s take a look at our passage for today. It begins with:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

I don’t know about you, but lately I have found myself to be in a perpetual state of worry. I worry about this virus that is hurting and killing fellow Americans. I worry about how ministries are surviving during this time we are in. I worry about my daughters starting new jobs in the medical field. I worry about my son who is trying hard to juggle 3 different jobs. I worry about my youngest son who I am going to have to take to Ohio State on Monday and drop him off. Now my other kids were a little bit easier to drop off at college but considering all that is going on I am a bit more nervous about this drop off. Don’t get me wrong. I am extremely proud to be a Buckeye parent. And I am really looking forward to visiting the campus and familiarizing myself with the local cuisine. I want my Ohio State Dad t-shirt! And as a bonus there are a lot of kids from the youth group who are also going to Ohio State so I am looking forward to checking in with many of them on my frequent visits. But I am nervous this time around because of this dang virus and how it may or may not impact schools on every level this Fall. I pray that we quickly find a vaccine and are soon able to resume our lives back to a somewhat normal state of living if that is even possible.

Jesus sets us up in the passage by saying first of all that we need to stop worrying about our life. Then he goes into two specific categories that were very relevant to his audience. He talks about food and clothes. Now we live in a society where most of us eat for pleasure rather than for survival. And many of us are blessed to have a lot of clothes so much so that we tend to be fashionable and trendy here in Loveland. But keep in mind that Jesus is going after the heart here. Is God the God of our abundance or has our own wealth become our God? We can’t serve God and money.

The first illustration that Jesus uses relates to birds. He reminds us that birds, unlike humans, do not worry about what they are going to eat and drink. Birds do not store food away in barns. They are not in a perpetual state of worry about where their food is going to come from. Yet, even though they are just birds to us, God cares even for them and makes sure they are feed.

Just last weekend I went up north to visit my in-laws and parents. My in-laws live in a condo in Vermilion. They have made their backyard into a little bird sanctuary. I was able to sit out on their back patio drinking my coffee as I watched several birds pick away at their bird feeders while the squirrels ate the crumbs that fell into the grass. I was also easily entertained by the hummingbird that frequented their feeder. The many birds I was able to watch were not worrying about their next meal. They were not stressed out about where the food was coming from. They simply enjoyed the food that was available to them. Jesus points out that when it comes to value, are human being not more valuable than birds?

When we think back to the Creation Story we are reminded that when God created humans he marked that as the pinnacle of his creation by stating that it was VERY GOOD. And God empowered humanity to rule over the creation, birds being part of that creation. We were created in the image of God. God created us to be in relationship with us. This was the intent we see in the Creation Story. So to look at what Jesus is saying is that we are valuable to God and He cares deeply for us.

Now how do we rectify this passage with the fact that there are quite literally people every day who die of starvation and preventable diseases? I am reminded of a quote from Ghandi in which he said, “There is enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” Greed and the hoarding of wealth is a real problem today when you consider that God expects those who are blessed to use that to be a blessing to others. If we have the means and resources to help others, the last thing we should do is hoard it for ourselves. There are plenty of resources to meet the needs of everyone. The question is, are we the type of people or church willing to show care and concern for others in the same way that God takes care of the birds?

God cares for you. He cares for your physical well being as well as your spiritual development. All that we have is a gift of God to be used as a blessing from Him and to be a blessing to others. If you need food assistance I would like to think that the church would be the first thing you would think of. Not that we have warehouses of food stockpiled in the basement of the church, but we are connected within the community to take care of those who are in need. We are connected with the LIFE food pantry, Loveland Initiative, Milford/Miami Ministries, the Goshen Food Pantry, and the NEST. Many of our local churches support these ministries to help provide food and supplies to sustain families in need.

Jesus goes into his next illustration by looking at the fields, possibly even looking around in the very context of where he is speaking. He says:

28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?

Now Jesus takes a look at nature. He is admiring the landscape of where he is speaking. He talks about the flowers of the field. If you are a person who takes advantage of our bike trails or canoeing down the Little Miami River, we are constantly reminded of the beauty of nature. To watch the seasons pass with all of the beauty around us is a awesome experience to behold. One of my happy spots is to be up North to admire Lake Erie and the beautiful sunsets up there. God’s creation is just amazing when we stop for a moment to appreciate his creativity and wonder. But in this passage he is talking about the beautiful fields that are here today and gone tomorrow. We are reminded of this with the cycle of the corn seasons in our state. As a native, die-hard Ohioan there is something about traveling up 71 or 75 and being excited about the various stages of corn fields! I know, “Nerd!”, right? But it is always a little bit shocking in the Fall when you have gotten used to gigantic fields of corn stalks one day, then to see empty fields that have been mowed down the next. Here today, gone tomorrow. Do I lose any sleep over it? No. It is just the cycle of life for plants.

For years now I have teased my wife that she is a plant murderer. There have been many Springs where we go out and buy flowers, or I should say SHELLY buys flowers. She then proceeds to plant them with all the good intentions of having a bountiful harvest of flowers throughout the Summer, only to have her life get busy with other things where the plants die a horrible death of neglect. But I am happy to report that the cycle of death and destruction has been broken with the Summer of Covid-19! She has done a fantastic job of caring and loving all the flowers she has planted this year. Now in a few weeks or months they will all be gone as we head into the Fall and Winter. But it was a good year for plants on the Russ homestead! I suppose I am not allowed to move forward without showing you some pictures so here you go.

Jesus uses this analogy to point out that in nature very little has to be done to see magnificent beauty which is here today and gone tomorrow. And the beauty of nature far surpasses even King Solomon in all his splendor. If the natural world is taken care of by God in such a profound way will he not make sure we are clothed? Grass is worthless when compared to the greater value of people created in the image of God. He will care for us. He will provide for us.

So once again, many of us do not wrestle with the miniscule amount of clothing we have, wondering where we will get our next outfit. Instead, if you are like me, you have an excessive amount of very nice clothes, or in my case, jeans and t-shirts. If there is one thing that every youth pastor has an over-abundance of it is most definitely t-shirts. Every significant moment in the life of a youth group is marked by a fashionable t-shirt. Confirmation = t-shirt! Mission Trip = t-shirt! My spiritual growth can be measured in t-shirts. But once again, if we are blessed with a lot when it comes to clothing, are we hoarding what we have or allowing it to be a blessing to others? Make it a habit to regularly go through your closet and get rid of things you don’t wear anymore so that it can be passed on to someone else and be a blessing to them.

Then Jesus wraps up this section of his talk by stating that:

  31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Jesus hits hard here about where we are focused. What is our priority? Are we in a perpetual state of worry and anxiety with all that we have going on? Jesus calls us out on the fact that that is actually pagan. Not only that, but it is unnecessary because our heavenly Father knows what we need. So he is telling us not to be consumed with that. Instead, Jesus gives us our #1 priority which is to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness. Now what does that mean? When some think about what Jesus means by kingdom they think of heaven and the after-life. But I believe that Jesus established His kingdom here and now when he went to the cross. He is inviting us to be a part of his kingdom work RIGHT NOW! We are to live into the fullness of His kingdom now! This is an important message for us to hear as we are currently in a political season. Jesus is on His throne. I know that some of you are not comfortable with hearing this but our nationality is as temporal as the grass of the field but his kingdom is now and forever. That helps to put things in better perspective at least for the next couple of months here!

One of my most favorite authors is N. T. Wright. He is our modern-day C. S. Lewis. In his book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church, he states that:

It is the story of God’s kingdom being launched on earth as in heaven, generating a new state of affairs in which the power of evil has been decisively defeated, the new creation has been decisively launched, and Jesus’s followers have been commissioned and equipped to put that victory and that inaugurated new world into practice. . . . To put it another way, if you want to help inaugurate God’s kingdom, you must follow in the way of the cross, and if you want to benefit from Jesus’s saving death, you must become part of his kingdom project. (p. 204-205).

Our consuming priority is to live as kingdom people in the present. How do we do this especially during a pandemic?

Well one way we can do this which is modeled for us all throughout the New Testament and church history is small groups. Believe it or not, in the New Testament there was no such thing as a church building! They all met in small groups! This is how we know each other, how we learn to pray for each other, and how we care for each other. While the church wasn’t established until Jesus’ resurrection, I believe that Jesus saw the need for believers to trust in God and care for others. Our first priority, above all else, is to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness. A kingdom needs a people. And these people become the church. This is Jesus laying the foundation of what becomes the church.

While we attempt to begin opening up the church I know that there are many of you that are just not comfortable yet getting together in large crowds until a vaccine is found. I get it and I don’t blame you. But we have the resources and technology to meet in small groups. That has never stopped. Every Friday I look forward to seeing the Facebook post of the Men’s small group that has been meeting on Zoom. I literally zoom in on the picture to read the names of all the guys who are a part of that morning small group and find hope as a pastor that they are finding a way to continue meeting together.

I really do believe that this is the greatest way for us to pursue His kingdom and his righteousness; by living and sharing life with others who can pray with you, hold you accountable and be a source of encouragement and love for one another. All of you need to be involved in a group. Even if it is just meeting with a few church members in your neighborhood in your home or online. Do not be like a caterpillar and cocoon yourself away from those who can help you grow spiritually. Don’t hide in your house consumed with worry about all that is going on. We need each other. More now than ever. We are relational and spiritual people of which it is necessary for us to be connected in a way that promotes growth. Spirituality was never meant to be a solo experience. It is meant to happen in community. Sometimes I wonder if the American church has been so preoccupied with building bigger buildings for mega-congregations that God is teaching us through this pandemic that we need to invest in relational small groups more so than bigger arenas and sanctuaries.

This Fall we want to kickoff a variety of small group opportunities for you to get yourself involved in. And just because I may have a list for you to choose from does not limit you. If you feel led to start your own small group, then do it! Let me help you, let me resource you, let me pray for you but let’s do this! Our target date that we would like to launch all small groups is the week after Labor Day starting on Sunday, September 13. Many of you who are already leading a small group have talked with me about what you are doing for this Fall but if there are any others interested in starting a small group in your neighborhood or with some affinity group then please call me or email me this week as I would like to add you to the list of small group offerings and make that available to our list. I can not stress enough the importance for you to make a plan for how you are going to continue to grow spiritually especially as we head into the Fall. Who can you learn with? Who can you pray with? How can you learn to serve together? Pray about it and let’s get back to being the church. While it is not ideal, we have technology today that people have never had in the past. Let’s take advantage of that if you don’t feel comfortable meeting in a small group in person. If you do want to meet in a small group, the church building is available to you. Just call and schedule a time and a place for your group to meet.

With all that being said, let me end with one more passage from Paul as he wraps up his letter to the Philippian church. He tells the church in Philippians 4:6-7:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

So, let’s not focus so much on what we DON’T have and focus instead on what we do have. We have each other. We have God. He is a big God and can take on all our prayer requests, our concerns, our grief, and our lament. In exchange for all of that we receive his peace! That’s not a fair trade! But that is the generosity of our God. He takes away our anxiety and gives us His peace, which, by the way, transcends our feeble attempts to try and understand everything and helps to guard our hearts and minds, our emotions and our intellect, in Christ Jesus.

Fear not church. Let’s kick this anxiety to the side and live into the kingdom He has called us to be.

Amen.

Andrew: Bringing People to Jesus

One of the greatest joys of being a pastor is to see someone come to know Jesus and watch the Holy Spirit transform a person into a Christ-follower. This is what energizes me and empowers me to continue doing what I am doing. I especially love watching teenagers engage in the faith because they are at a critical stage of life where God can do the impossible in their lives as they discover their giftedness and make important decisions as to what they would like to do with their lives. It is what gets me up every day and what brings me back to the church each and every day: to see the life-transforming power of Jesus change someone from the inside out.

If you have been paying attention to the news lately things just seem to be crazy right now. It is easy to get overwhelmed and feel despair. But as a follower of Jesus how do we rise above all that is going on? What is the proper response? When we are faced with personal and social issues what is our knee-jerk reaction?

I know that when it comes to social issues, it is good for us to consider better rules or laws for everyone to follow in order for there to be more justice and equality. But even if we had the best, most well thought-out laws that protected everybody would that finally take care of all our social ills?

I would propose that with all the right laws we would still face problems because the external laws do not change the heart! We see this with the Israelites in the Old Testament. And their laws were not man-made! They can from God Himself! We believe that the most powerful change factor that we profess to is the radical, life-transforming work of the Holy Spirit which comes through faith in Jesus. Quite simply, we call this the Gospel, the Good News. That despite whatever social, political, or personal ills we might be facing, Jesus can come into any situation and bring healing, hope, restoration and power that transcends our laws and politics. Jesus is our King and God’s Kingdom is our primary identity. What if the church acted like this and believed this 100%?

I would like to do a case study today. I want us to look at one of Jesus’ disciples named Andrew. He is mentioned just a handful of times throughout Scripture but every time he is mentioned it is important for us to observe his actions and see how he responds to his circumstances.

Let’s begin in the Gospel of John.

CASE STUDY: Andrew: Bringing People to Jesus

John 1:35-42 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”

37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. 38 Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”

They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”

39 “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”

So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.

40 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. 41 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). 42 And he brought him to Jesus.

Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).

In this story we see that Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist. When Jesus happened to come in contact with John and his disciples, John called Jesus “the Lamb of God”. This piqued Andrew’s interest enough to go and follow Jesus for the day. After processing his experience with Jesus, what I want you to notice in each one of these passages 3 things:

1) What is Andrew’s first reaction,

2) Who is the focus group that he is in contact with,

3) and what are the future consequences, or ripple effects of his interaction with the people in the story.

In this story we just read, did you catch what Andrew’s immediate reaction was after spending the whole day with Jesus? He went right away to his brother Simon to tell him that he found the Messiah. This is Simon who’s name Jesus changed to Peter.

So what is the focus group here? We see that Andrew’s first reaction was to share with his immediate family.

And what are the consequences that we know of as a result of Peter meeting Jesus? Peter ended up being one of the primary disciples that Jesus spent the most time with. Peter was the one who denied Jesus three times and yet after the resurrection Jesus sought Peter out and affirmed him three times to feed his sheep. Peter was called the rock that the church would be built on. Peter was a primary figure throughout the book of Acts who launched the church movement. He wrote some of the letters found in the Bible. We would not be where we are at today as the church of Jesus Christ if it weren’t for the courageous faith of Peter boldly spreading the message of Jesus to thousands of people. Why? All because of Andrew who was willing to introduce his brother to Jesus. If Andrew did not act on that impulse just try to imagine the New Testament without the presence of Peter.

Let’s take a look at another story found in the Gospel of Mark.

Mark 1:29-34 As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. 30 Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. 31 So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.

32 That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. 33 The whole town gathered at the door, 34 and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.

Andrew is with Jesus and the rest of the disciples as they leave the synagogue and go to his house. As they come to Andrew’s home it was discovered that Peter’s mother-in-law was sick with a fever. Now notice what was the first reaction of Andrew and his brother Peter in realizing that their relative was sick. Andrew, with Peter, brings Jesus into the situation. Now this circumstance is different from our first story. This is not necessarily about meeting Jesus for the first time more than it is about Jesus entering into a major issue and bringing peace, healing and wholeness to it.

Imagine if we did that with all the personal and social ills we are experiencing in our country right now. When we face a major problem in our life or community our immediate reaction ought to be to invite Jesus into the problem.

So, who was our focus group being brought to Jesus here? It was Andrew’s extended family. So not only did he introduce his primary family to Jesus but also distant relatives. We see the circle expanding here.

And then what was the consequences of Andrew bringing Jesus in to heal Peter’s mother-in-law? Many, many other people came to find healing through Jesus, both physical and spiritual healing. We can never underestimate the ripple effect that can be caused by bringing Jesus into every situation we find ourselves with whether it be personal or social.

Our next Scripture passage comes from the Gospel of John.

John 6:5-11 When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.

Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”

Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”

10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). 11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.

Many of you are familiar with this passage. This is where Jesus miraculously feeds the 5,000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish. But notice what happened. Jesus wanted to offer food to the crowd. He threw out the request to the disciples to see what would happen. Keep in mind that they would have seen Jesus perform many miracles already. What is the reaction of the disciples here?

Philip complains and the others remain silent. I can relate to Philip. I can imagine him thinking “Are you crazy? Do you know how much that would cost to feed everyone?”

But notice Andrew here! He is the only disciple once again, bringing someone to Jesus. He brings a child to him who has a basket with bread and fish in it. At the very least, Andrew is thinking of “Who can I bring to Jesus in this situation?”.

Who is the focus group here? It is a child. So what I gather here is that the circle that Jesus influences in Andrew’s life is not just immediate and extended family but now it is breaking out to being inter-generational, old and young alike.

What was the consequence of Andrew bringing this child to Jesus? He was able to take what the boy had and miraculously multiply it to satisfy the hunger of all the people. It is just another illustration in Scripture and in our lives where God can take what little we have and multiply it in ways we could never imagine.

Our final Scripture comes from the Gospel of John. Once again, pay attention to Andrew and the ripple effects of what he does.

John 12:20-22 Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.

Philip was at a festival and some Greeks approached him wanting to meet Jesus. It appears that Jesus wasn’t immediately available so what does Philip do? He takes this situation to Andrew for help. Andrew took Philip, with the Greeks, and introduced them to Jesus. Now Jesus goes on to give a lesson, but I want us to focus in on what Andrew did. He modeled to Philip what it was like to introduce people to Jesus.

What is the focus group here? It is the Greeks. Or more radically speaking it is the non-Jewish people. This shows us the multi-cultural nature of Jesus. He not just the Messiah of the Jews but for all the nations.

And what is the future consequences of Andrew’s actions here? In the book of Acts we see Jesus commission his followers to go and make disciples of all the nations and then He ascends into heaven. Many of the followers continue the work of the Gospel in Israel until persecution breaks out and scatters everyone. As we follow Philip in Acts, chapter 8, we see that he goes into Samaria to proclaim the good new of Jesus. Now if you know anything about Samaritans these are people who the Jewish people had no love for. Samaritans we looked down upon as second-class citizens. Yet Philip, with his experience with the Greeks, had no problem introducing the Samaritans to Jesus. Many miracles happened and we are told that there was much joy in that city.

Now if that weren’t enough, God used Philip to go and speak to the Ethiopian eunuch. Here is our first reference to anyone from the African continent coming to know Jesus. The Ethiopian was reading a passage from Isaiah that was a prophecy about all that Jesus just accomplished at the cross. Philip had the honor of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ to this Ethiopian who immediately put his faith in Jesus and asked to stop the chariot they were riding in so that he could be baptized. Amazing!

So who is the focus group here? It is the Ethiopian. When we combine that with the Greeks we see that this focus group comprises of those who are different that you. For Andrew, the gospel of Jesus came first to his immediate family, his extended family, it was multi-generational for the young and the old, and it is now multi-cultural. It transcends all cultures, races and people groups.

The consequences here are that Andrew is responsible for missionary efforts through the work of Philip to a wide cross-section of non-Jewish people both Greek and African.

So, what do we make of all of this? 2020 has proven to be a very tough year for all of us. I would encourage every one of you to be careful about all the directions and causes that could potentially pull you into certain camps. Our primary identity is in Jesus Christ and we are representatives of His Kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven. It is our responsibility to invite Jesus into all of our situations, our issues, and our relationships. We must be vigilant about this.

We have been given the task of making disciples of all the nations. This seemed to come naturally to Andrew. Was there a person hurting, or a social situation begging for a solution, or just a friend or relative who was going through something? Andrew’s immediate reaction was to figure out how Jesus could come into the situation or relationship and breath His power into every situation. And guess what? Jesus did not disappoint! Jesus brought healing, salvation, and multiplication into every situation.

How are you with your relationship with Jesus? Have you considered how he can speak into your personal life, your social life, your political life? Or are you limiting the potential of what Jesus could do through you?

If it weren’t for Andrew there would not be Peter or Philip. The missionary efforts of these two stalwarts is legendary. Yet none of it would be possible if Andrew didn’t introduce them to Jesus first. Never underestimate the impact that God can do through you simply by inviting Jesus into your situations and your relationships. How can you step out in faith and trust Jesus to use you to impact others?

We have the same Holy Spirit power within us that the believers had in the New Testament. The only problem is that we here, in 21st century America, have domesticated our faith and relegated it to our “private” life. Many of us are guilty of draining the power out of our faith. It is time for us to be brave like Andrew and invite Jesus into all areas of our lives and relationships.

As we are in the midst of a very, very crazy political year imagine if our connection to Jesus was what shined through all of our thoughts, feelings, emotions and relationships. This is who we are called to be. Kingdom people who are reflecting the transforming power of Jesus Christ. We can change a lot of laws to try and create a more just society, as we should, but only Jesus can transform the heart and mind of people as we are invited into his kingdom here and now. Let’s not lose focus of that and make sure that this is our primary identity above all else.  

John Wesley got it. He said,

“Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not whether they be clergymen or laymen, they alone will shake the gates of Hell and set up the kingdom of Heaven upon Earth.”

He knew that if he had a bunch of people similar to Andrew, willing to take the good news out to everyone, the world would be forever altered as the Kingdom of God would continue to expand and the effects of Hell would be destroyed.

May we enter into this Summer allowing the Holy Spirit to change and transform us to be more like Andrew, introducing Jesus to all types of people and situations that we encounter. How can you do this right now?

Who are you going to impact?

How are you living into being a disciple of Jesus?

Step out of your comfort zone and allow God to use you to impact others through you. You may never know what kind of ripple effects that the Holy Spirit may use with your ability to bring Jesus into all of your situations. Think about it. Pray about it. And do it, trusting God to use you in amazing ways! Amen.

A NEW REALITY

Imaging going back in a time machine to December 31, 2019. Everybody is waiting in anticipation for the new year and thinking of what they want to do differently to make their lives better for 2020. Knowing what you know now, how would you advise yourself with the 2019 version of you on what your New Year’s resolutions should look like? Imagine a conversation between your present self and your December 31, 2019 self!

2019 Self: I think I want to try and get in shape and lose some weight!

2020 Self: Um, everyone is going to turn into a couch potato and that will be a goal that will actually be very hard to maintain. Just accept that you are going to gain some weight.

2019 Self: Ok. I think I would like to spend more quality time with my spouse.

2020 Self: Well, in a way, you will have this but more like QUANTITY TIME instead of QUALITY time. You will both be working from home on your couch annoying each other.

2019 Self: Okay, I want to get out more and enjoy the outdoors.

2020 Self: There will be MURDER HORNETS!

2019 Self: I need to spend more time with the kids.

2020 Self: Oh really!?! Wish granted! You will become a homeschool parent!

2019 Self: Wait! What?!? That is not what I was wishing for!

If we are honest with ourselves, 2020 could not be anything we could have every imagined. Our world has been turned upside-down.

Never in my wildest dreams would I have every guessed that we would not be holding graduations as the Cintas Center and having graduations parties all over our communities for the next several weekends.

Never would I have ever guessed we would not be going to Memphis and Mexico for our mission trips.

Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever imagined that church buildings, for the most part, all across out country, would be closed to their parishioners.

I would like to suggest today that we are in a similar situation that the Israelites were in as they were heading into the Promised Land. If you recall, they were enslaved in Egypt. God called and empowered Moses to go and confront the Pharaoh to “Let my people go!” Through a series of plagues, the Israelites were released and sent away to a land that God would provide for them. They were in a transitional time. There was “WHAT USED TO BE” as they were heading to “WHAT IS TO COME” but in the meantime, they were transitioning, they were in-between.

As they came to the land of Canaan, it was time to send out some spies and get a glimpse of what the new land looked like. 12 men were picked out among the tribes. They were given 40 days to scout out the land and come back and give a report.

When they returned they gave their report. The land was amazing but the people there were scary. Fear began to spread throughout the camp. But one person in particular stood up and defied the others. That man was Caleb. He stated that:

READ Numbers 14:7-9

“The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will devour them. Their protection is gone, but the Lord is with us. Do not be afraid of them.”

Caleb had a vision for what God could do through them. Instead of focusing on the immediate fears that the others were consumed with, Caleb believed in God’s strength and power to forge a NEW REALITY for the Israelites. Now Caleb is one of my most favorite Old Testament characters. While everyone was consumed with fear and panic, he was looking forward to a NEW REALITY that God was creating with them. He was able to RISE ABOVE the negativity and stand firm on the possibility that God was doing something new here and it was up to the people to believe and trust in the possibility of this NEW REALITY.

While Caleb’s speech was inspiring and encouraging, look at the reaction he got from his audience. Now keep in mind, these very people are the ones who publicly witnessed all the miracles in Egypt which God used against the Pharaoh and the Egyptians in order to free the Israelites. They were witnesses to the cloud and the pillar of fire leading them through the transitional time. They saw God meet with Moses on Mount Sinai and forge the Law. They have witnessed miracle after miracle, blessing after blessing, and yet, as they look towards the Promised Land, they come to the conclusion that:

READ Numbers 14:2-4

“If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness!Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”

This BLOWS MY MIND! In light of all that they have seen in the past, they are willing to forget all of that and allow themselves to be consumed with fear and give up on trusting that God was going to create a NEW REALITY for them. Instead, they wanted to GO BACK TO EGYPT! They were afraid for their future and longed to go back to the past with all the oppression and slavery.

Now, I want us to consider our current situation. We are living into trying to figure out this coronavirus pandemic. Depending on who you are listening to, there is a lot of fear out there. And for legitimate reasons.

Losing 100,000 Americans is shocking and appalling. We should be mourning as a nation over the recent losses due to the pandemic as well as the continued acts of

domestic violence,

gun violence,

and racism as seen through the untimely death of George Floyd and Ahmed Aubrey

If this isn’t bad enough, we are heading into a political season where fear is going to be stoked to gain voters like we have never seen before. America is really, really sick right now.

Not just because of a virus,

but mentally,

emotionally,

politically,

spiritually sick, sick, sick.

When we see all that is going on, we have to be careful not to give into the messages of fear and cry out like the Israelites and say “If only we could go back to Egypt!” Your “Egypt” might be what things were like on

January 2020,

or 2010,

or 1980,

or 1950.

Just like the Israelites, we tend to look back on the past and idealize a time when we thought things were so much better. We forget about the systemic sins of the past and just remember the “good old days” longing to get back to an idealized time, even 4 months ago. We forget all that God is trying to teach us as we leave our Egypt and travel through the desert.

So, I beg to ask the question: What is God teaching you through this pandemic? The beautiful thing about our God is that He will always bring something good out of difficult situations. If we channel our inner Caleb what can we take from our past and our present situation, and look forward to the NEW REALITY before us? I will dare to say that there is no

“Going back to Egypt”

for any of us. We will never fully go back to the way things were 4 months ago or 40 years ago.

Now let’s connect this Old Testament story to the Gospel story. Jesus died on the cross. The disciples thought that they were following a political leader who was going to overthrow Rome and establish His kingdom once and for all. Even though Jesus told them again and again that He would die and rise again, they never heard that message. When Jesus died on the cross and was buried, what became of the disciples in this “in-between” time they found themselves?

They were scattered.

They were hiding in fear.

They were confused.

They didn’t know what to think

and they were in fear for their lives.

Jesus then appears to them, opening their eyes to this NEW REALITY of his kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus tells them to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit and then He ascends into heaven. In Acts 2, we see that on the day of Pentecost, the disciples’ fears, doubts and confusion turned into

boldness,

courage

and power as the Holy Spirit descended on them and empowered them for the NEW REALITY of His kingdom on earth.

So, once again, what is God teaching you through this “in-between” time? We are living through legitimate fears right now. How are we going to

adapt,

adjust,

and forge a NEW REALITY?

Do we protect what we like about the past, dig our heals in, and hope to return to the way things used to be?

Or do we learn from our past and present to forge a NEW REALITY that looks more, and more like the kingdom of God?

Consider some of the businesses that we have seen come and go throughout the years.

Kodak used to own the photography field. Remember those little Kodak huts where you could drop off your film for development and then pick up your pictures days later? I know I am speaking a foreign language to the younger generations. But then digital technology came along. If Kodak would have adapted to the new technology, they would still be around. Instead, they dug their heals in and protected their product instead of adapting to the new technology.

Or a more recent example, when I moved into Loveland back in 2006, our town was littered with video stores. There was Family Video, Hollywood Video, and Blockbuster. They owned the market in entertainment. I remember spending more time trying to choose a video to watch and the frustration of the store being rented out of the very movie I wanted to watch. But then Netflix came along. What did Blockbuster do? Did it adapt to the times or protect their past and present reality? Within a few years after the birth of Netflix, video stores are now a thing of the past.

We are currently witnessing businesses and churches that are digging their heals in and waiting to “return to normal” while others are

adapting,

adjusting,

and creating a NEW REALITY.

Now let’s think about our church. Consider this pandemic as our “desert experience”. We are in a transformational time. A lot is changing before our very eyes and we are not out of it yet.

What will the NEW REALITY look like?

Will we dig our heals in to protect our idealized view of the past or are we willing to consider our past and present and, with the power of the Holy Spirit, forge a NEW REALITY as we live into the future?

What is God trying to teach us in all of this?

I can tell you this, we are not sitting on our hands here at church just waiting for us to return “back to normal”. This past couple of months have created a HUGE learning curve in what ministry can look like in the future.

Now, what I am NOT saying is that we will never return back to using the building. Personally, I can’t wait to have our church family back together again. But we can’t just forget about all we are learning through this pandemic and then pitch it when it is over.

Churches all around the world have created digital experiences that are reaching people in ways we never could have imagined.

Throughout this pandemic people are developing a hunger for God as they try to seek out answers for all that we are going through.

Just through our own digital church experiences we have expanded beyond ministering just to our community and we are reaching others within our state, country and even in other countries such as Mexico, Jerusalem and even India. Families spread out across our country are come together for some type of digital experience to share together through Epiphany. We are seeing some amazing things happening that leave us scratching our heads and wondering what God is up to.

So, as we are heading into this NEW REALITY let’s learn from Caleb and look to the future with hope and expectation that God is forging something new through us. Let’s not be like the Israelites who gave into fear and wanted to just return back to the past, forgetting about the reality of their slavery and oppression, and just idealizing their past.

Let us not be like the disciples who forgot all the things that Jesus tried to teach them and instead hunkered down in fear until Jesus sought them out and empowered them to live into the NEW REALITY through the Holy Spirit.

What is God teaching YOU through this time?

Are you able to look to the future with HOPE and EXPECATION that through this time God is up to something amazing?

Let’s consider our teens who have also been going through some difficult times here. I had all 4 of my kids graduating from college and high school. Our graduates did not get the traditional end-of-the-year experiences like previous classes. But I will tell you this, God is up to something with our teenagers.

Many of these teens were born in the looming shadow of 9/11,

they were raised through endless wars,

they grew up during the financial crisis of 2008,

and now they are living through a pandemic on the scale of nothing we have seen in our lifetime.

In some ways I have grieved over the years for what they have had to experience mostly because of the bad choices and decisions that have been made by my generation and others. But I believe in all my heart that

God is not only doing something amazing with our church,

but He is doing something amazing with our young people.

 As much as we parents want to shield them from bad experiences and evil in the world, they have gone through the fires of testing and have emerged with a hope and strength like no other generation I have pastored. I am so excited about the future of these teenagers.

Let’s all promise to be more like Caleb and commit to seeing a future that is blessed with God moving us forward.

Let us be like the disciples after their Pentecost experience and start a movement of the Kingdom of God that continues to spread and spread into all areas of this world.

In some ways, we may have been thinking too small.

Let’s allow God to blow up our past and present realities and create a NEW FUTURE REALITY where possibilities are more than we could have ever imagined. What might that look like:

in your context,

with your family,

with your business,

and with your faith?

I encourage you to wrestle with this just as we are here up at the church. What is God trying to teach us as we look to the NEW FUTURE REALITY? These are the discussions we need to be having with one another.

Amen.

Giving During a Pandemic

This is a message I preached on March 29, 2020 on the topic of GIVING

Today we are talking about GIVING.

Now, I know what you’re are thinking! How can you talk about “giving” in a time like this!?!

We are certainly in extraordinary times.

Extraordinary times like what we are in will either help to strengthen your faith or it can expose a weak faith.

When things are going well, it is easy to get caught up with our STUFF. It becomes easy for our faith to just be an accessory to our already diverse lives.

When I was a youth ministry intern at Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan the youth pastor I worked for often said that people will know what type of Christians we are not by our actions, but by our reactions. Personally, I think people we see us for who we truly worship by both or actions and reactions. But how we react to things can be a big indication of a strong or weak faith.

In times like the moment we find ourselves in, it is easy to see the very best and the very worst in humanity. In an amazing effort to help others we have seen athletes giving away big checks to help support others, musicians doing live concerts online for free, people in the medical field giving extraordinary efforts in saving lives, neighbors helping and supporting one another.

On the other hand, we have seen people panicking and as a result hoarding.

Or those who are taking advantage of this situation to stockpile and price gouge others.

Difficult times will reveal peoples’ true NATURE and CHARACTER.

Now I don’t mean that if you are a Christian you should have it all together. That is NOT what I am saying. If I am honest, I have a pretty constant, low-level feeling of anxiety and worry about everything that is going on.

How bad is this going to be?

Who is telling the truth?

Will my kids be able to graduate in May?

Are we going to be able to do mission trips this Summer?

Quite frankly, I miss my church community. This lockdown has taught me just how valuable we all are to each other. So, with all that said, let’s talk about GIVING.

Whether we realize it or not we are all a part of a consumeristic culture. We have grown up with literally thousands of images everyday flashed before our eyes telling us that we will not fit in UNLESS we have the latest

fashions,

gadgets,

phones,

cars, and on and on.

I had the pleasure of going to a private Christian school in my early years. Hears the deal though, my dad was a teacher at the school. Private school teachers make far less than their public school counterparts. BUT I was in a school where there were A LOT of teens who came from well-to-do families. I was envious of my friends who came from families that had all the cool stuff that we couldn’t afford. My friends had the latest video game systems . . . like Pong and Atari. Some had boats we could take out on Lake Erie, others had parents who provided jobs and disposable income for their teens. I ALWAYS wanted to go over my friends’ houses on the weekends more than them coming over to my house. They had all the cool stuff!

I became more and more like Bob Wiley in the movie “What About Bob?” always having the feeling of “I want, I want, I want! I need, I need, I need!”

It is just as easy to get caught up in this kind of attitude in our adult lives. The consumer mindset just permeates our whole culture and it takes effort as a Christ-follower not to get sucked into feeling like I constantly want, and want and want, and need, and need, and need. If you are anything like me, I am at least once a week looking on my computer at the latest Apple product I want next and I have a very extensive Amazon wish list. I bet you can’t guess what is mostly on my wish list! BOOKS! I love books. And I have been in BOOK HEAVEN during this Corona Virus lock down.

When we look at our passage for today, we see that Jesus gives us a heavenly perspective when it comes to our stuff. In the Sermon on the Mount he helps us to see that there is a big difference between EARTHLY treasures and HEAVENLY treasures.

In Matthew 6:19-21 it says:

19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

This passage is ultimately about our attitude towards our STUFF. It is a contrast between two different ways we INVEST in our stuff. Earthly treasure vs. heavenly treasure. It is not about materials things vs. spiritual things as much as it is about how we manage our lives and what is MOST important to ourselves. Jesus defines the earthly treasure as those things which are:

1) CORRUPTIBLE,

2) INSECURE,

3) that which DEPRECIATES,

4) and is a result of SELFISH ACCUMULATION.

It is about building up my own mini-kingdom and then plastering my name over everything and declaring it as mine to the rest of the world. It is the idea of HORDING my own wealth to build up my own ego and self-worth. It is NARCISSISM. It shows an improper view of how we should be using our STUFF,

our LIFE,

our TIME,

and our ENERGY.

Jesus contrasts this with what the heavenly treasure is supposed to look like. He says that heavenly treasure is:

1) INCORRUPTIBLE,

2) SECURE,

3) it MULTIPLIES,

4) and it is represented by SELFLESS SHARING.

It is a contrast between selfISHness as opposed to selfLESSness. It is about taking all the blessings that you have abundantly been blessed with and sharing out of the goodness of your heart.

Jesus goes on to describe that we can approach our stuff with TWO ATTITUDES.

In Matthew 6:22-23 it says:

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, 23 but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

LIGHT vs. DARKNESS. Darkness represents blindness. Blind to others around you and the needs of others, holey consumed with one’s own selfishness. Light represents clear vision where one can see and understand their greater purpose in life to help and serve others. It opens our eyes to a generous spirit of sharing and helping with the talents and treasures we have been blessed with.

Jesus concludes this section of his talk by stating in Matthew 6:24 that:

24 “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.

This is a contrast between our faith in God as opposed to our faith in our stuff. Christianity in contrast to

hedonism,

materialism,

and narcissism, which all lead to spiritual blindness.

A darkness of the soul.

The pursuit of SELFISH MATERIALISM is contrary to a LIFE OF SERVICE.

You can not serve God and money or the stuff that we accumulate. Now, it is not necessarily wrong to have money or things. The question becomes more, “Are you selfishly hording your wealth OR using it in a way to the benefit of others?” Is wealth your god, or is God the God of your wealth?

One final passage I would like to leave you with comes from the first letter to Timothy. The context of this letter is that Paul is writing to Timothy who is a young pastor. In fact, these letters are often called the pastoral epistles because they were written to specific people who were pastoring churches. Timothy was a young pastor and Paul was the one responsible for discipling him in the faith. While in prison, Paul felt compelled to write Timothy to encourage him as he is pastoring a church. Apparently, Timothy had some wealthy people in his congregation and Paul wanted them to have a proper perspective on how they should manage their wealth.

Paul says in 1 Timothy 6:17-19 that

17 As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.

If you have ever read through the book of Acts it chronicles Paul’s missionary journeys as he goes about planting church from town to town and city to city. In many cases he was encouraging those who could give for the greater good of those who were poor and in need.

Paul tells his wealthy believers not to allow their stuff to give them an attitude of haughtiness or to put their hopes in their stuff. Instead, he encourages them to manage their wealth for the greater good of the body of Christ. They are to use their resources to:

1) DO GOOD! Sound familiar? That’s one of John Wesley’s General Rules for Christ followers.

2) BE RICH IN GOOD WORKS! If you have the means to help others because you have been blessed with a lot, then do it. You have been given an amazing opportunity to grow and expand the kingdom of Christ. Help a neighbor, reach out to a friend, check in with your relatives. Find ways that you can creatively be a blessing to others during this time of social distancing.

3) Be GENEROUS and ready to SHARE. Now this is not socialism vs. capitalism. This is greed and selfishness vs. living into the kingdom principles of generosity and good works.

As a result of these three things you are making a difference in expanding the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s what we pray for every time we say the Lord’s Prayer!

So how does all this relate to what we are going though right now?

First of all, the CHURCH IS HERE FOR YOU. If you are in a situation where you need help or assistance please let us know as we are involved in several ways where people can get help.

Secondly, many of us have been blessed by God with wealth and resources that put many of us in the top 10% when compared to the rest of the world. We have resources and means to be a blessing to other people. I would encourage you to wisely consider how you can help others during this time.

1) Continue to give to the church as we want to continue helping the ministries that we support who now more than ever need our help.

2) Give to the NEST as they are making sure that all low-income children receive food every day. Their needs this week are: Progresso soup, Shelf-stable milk, V8 Fusion, and Mac & cheese. If you are able to get any of these items as you go to the store you are encouraged to drop them off here at the church during regular office hours and we will make sure that those items get to them. Also, a private donation has been made to the NEST of $5,000.00 as a matching grant. I would think out of the generous spirit of Epiphany that I have observed over the years we ought to be able to match that just within our own congregation. This challenge goes through April 5th. You can either give directly to the NEST or drop off financial donations at the church and we will see that they get them.

3) Also, we would like to encourage you to give to the Goshen food pantry. We actually have three stations set up here in the church for donations. The NEST being one, the Goshen Food Pantry being another. And the last one is for Easter dinners for low-income families.

So, however you would like to give please do not let this time be a time to hold back,

stockpile

or hoard.

Definitely take good care of your basic needs. But if you are making a Kroger or Costco run, please think about how you can support one of these ministries. If you have the means, make a financial donation to support one of these ministries. And please consider your church and all the ministries we support through your tithes and donations.

May God bless you and be with you during this lockdown we are in. We will survive this and we will come together as a church body sometime soon in the near future and we will have a big giant celebration! I miss you all, especially that youth group out there! I want to send out a special blessing to all of our Seniors who are supposed to be graduating from High School or College soon. Whatever happens with your school, we are going to celebrate you BIG TIME! This goes for our CONFIRMANDS too! We love you all. And we miss seeing you all and worshiping together. But we will be back together soon. Have hope that this too shall pass and the church of Jesus Christ will answer the call to serve and comfort the least of these.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

Bearing Fruit: John 15:1-17

Picture1I don’t know what your experience has been living in this area, but I have discovered that trying to have a garden is an exercise in futility. When I first moved here we bought a small ranch-style home that had a huge backyard. I was proud of the backyard because I saw an opportunity not only for my kids to play, but also a chance to develop a big garden. So, one Spring day I got myself a rototiller and began to tear up the ground. My intent was to have a nice, big garden with lots of tomatoes and peppers. It was fun to see the plants start to peek out of the ground and start growing. Every day I would check their development, try and get rid of any weeds, and water the plants.

One day Zach was playing in the backyard with a friend and they were tossing around a football. After some time went by I noticed some of my tomato plants didn’t look right. Some of them looked like they were stomped on or maybe hit by a football. I confronted Zach and told him to be more careful. Of course, he denied any wrongdoing.

The next morning, I woke up, made some coffee, looked out into the backyard and noticed right away EVERY SINGLE PLANT in the garden was smashed down. I was in disbelief as I struggled to imagine Zach would do this to me. As I walked out to the garden to get a closer look I then noticed that there were deer tracks all throughout the dirt.

Since then, I have continued to notice that we have a massive deer population problem here in Loveland! All of you that go away for deer hunting season just need to come to my neighborhood! But the point is this: while it may be hard to develop a garden here in Loveland, God is in the business of gardening all the time.

Our Scripture today comes from the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John. This is a unique section of Scripture in that the other gospels do not spend this amount of time on Jesus’ last words before he heads to the cross. Jesus gets his disciples together for one last time. He begins by washing their feet and telling them to serve one another likewise. He then begins to teach them many things to prepare them for what is about to happen in the next few days. What I want us to focus on is the passage that deals with the topic of gardening.

Jesus begins by recognizing that GOD IS THE GARDENER

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”

Jesus’ main point here is that God is the gardener. As the gardener He is most interested in making sure that we do the very best in producing fruit. That means of course that, in agricultural terms, those branches that are not producing any fruit will be trimmed off and those that are producing fruit will be pruned to produce the best fruit possible. A good gardener will want to do the best to maximize their potential harvest. More tomatoes are a very good thing! God is not an absentee, deadbeat dad that just started everything and then walked away from it all. He is our heavenly Father that wants to bring out the very best in us.

Jesus’ next point is to explain what it means that JESUS IS THE VINE

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

Jesus connects himself to this agricultural analogy by explaining that he is the vine. The vine is the source of life and sustenance for the branches. The branches must be connected to the vine to produce any type of fruit. To not be connected to the vine means the branch will wither and die. Once again though, Jesus emphasizes that not only is the gardener interested in producing fruit, but if we remain in Christ, who is the vine, he too wants us to produce fruit. The fruit that we produce from our lives will either demonstrate that we are disciples of Jesus or not.

Jesus concludes this part of his talk with explaining what it means that WE ARE THE BRANCHES.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.”

Now I want us to sit here and think about the passage a bit.

The SOURCE of love comes from the Father through Jesus. As a plant produces necessary nutrients for the branches to produce fruit, so too the love of the Father, through Jesus, give us the necessary stuff we need to learn how to love. As He loves us, we need to love each other.

Jesus goes on to foreshadow the fact that He is about to give up his life for these disciples. Jesus also breaks down any type of hierarchical mindset that the disciples may have. He doesn’t call them servants in relation to him, but instead he calls them friends. He then explains that the fruit he is most interested in the disciples producing is LOVE! That is our main fruit that ought to be evident in our lives as Christ-followers!

This is my command: Love each other!

Now let’s for a moment consider Jesus’ audience while he is speaking these words. He has 12 disciples of which we know that one is about to betray him, and one is about to deny him 3 times. And all of them are about to abandon Jesus in his moment of greatest need. Knowing this alone would be reason for me, if I were Jesus, just to cancel this whole Last Supper and give up on these guys. But when we consider some of the backstory of these disciples I think we can see some hope. Matthew was there, along with Simon.

Let’s talk about MATTHEW. What we know about Matthew is that one of the gospels is attributed to him. But through the Gospels we also learn that he was a tax collector when Jesus called on Matthew to follow him. Now a Jewish tax collector was seen as one who has sold out to the Roman government and betrayed the Israeli people by working for the Romans. The Romans were the occupying force that was over Israel at the time. Many Israelites were looking for a savior who would be a political revolutionary by overthrowing Rome and establishing them as the dominant kingdom. Any Jewish person who worked for the Romans would be seen as a traitor, especially a tax collector.

Now let’s consider SIMON. He has been referred to as the Zealot. A zealot was one who was a Jewish nationalist who was fiercely opposed to the Roman occupation. Zealots were known to assassinate Jewish people who were considered sellouts to the Romans, especially tax collectors.

So, without Jesus being the common denominator in this story, Matthew and Simon had really nothing in common to bring them together, and they had every reason to hate and despise each other and wish the worst on one another. They were on opposite ends of the spectrum when it came to the political climate of the first century.

But the common denominator that brought them together was Jesus. And Jesus taught them to love each other. Going back to our gardening analogy, Jesus was teaching them that while there may be two very different branches, they are still all connected to the vine and expected to produce fruit, and that fruit will be evident in their love for each other. I suspect that God did a lot of pruning especially on these two in order to shape them into disciples who love each other. While Jesus met these two where they were at in their lives, Jesus had a transformative effect on inviting them into the kingdom as brothers in Christ.

Now, at this time in our denomination, and at this time in the history of our country, we would have to be blind to not see that there is a lot of divisiveness. If you spend any amount of time on social media, cable news or talk radio, you will see people taking sides on any number of issues and viciously demonizing the other side that may disagree with them. It has gotten so bad lately that we have even had a congressman suggest we are heading into a next civil war. It has gotten so ugly, and so nasty. We have completely lost the ability to have any rational debates trying to figure out what is best for everybody. Instead, we surround ourselves with people who agree with us and we demonize those who may disagree with us. We strip them of their humanity and denigrate them with names that are used to demean them and make them less than human. This is the culture and society we live in right now.

What I want to challenge you with is will we as a church just reflect the divisiveness of the culture or will we rise above all of this and be the kingdom people that is seen through our love for each other? If we love each other the way Jesus calls us to we are going to be a big, shining light in a world that is lost in darkness. We will be branches connected to the vine, producing large amounts of fruit.

But if we don’t live into the fullness of loving one another I would say either be prepared to be pruned or even cut from the vine. This is a deal-breaker. We need to learn how to love each other. Now I will admit sometimes it is difficult to put this into practice. I catch myself at times thinking how much easier life would be if everyone just thought exactly how I thought! I come from a family that is very diverse (that’s putting it nicely) in their political and theological perspectives. I have to restrain myself at times to be very careful about what I am willing to talk about to them. It takes effort sometimes to remind myself that love is the common denominator here, not our political candidates, not our random theological or social positions on hot button issues, not on my personal ideas on how I think they should be raising their kids, and on and on and on.

Honestly, the people who have had the greatest impact on me within the context of the church are those who showed love to me regardless of where I was at in my faith journey. They saw something in me that I had a hard time seeing in myself. They told me they see Jesus in me, when I didn’t feel that way at all. They invited me to participate in small groups and church when I felt like an outcast. They invited me to be involved in the Kingdom of God by showing grace, love and compassion when I felt, disconnected, angry, lost and shunned as a “backslider”.

As I thought through this passage, I was reminded of the fact that Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13 that we could have a lot of great things going on in our life but if there is not love, then it is all meaningless. In the letter to the Galatians he writes about the fruit of the Spirit and the first one mentioned is love. I don’t think that that is a coincidence. He intended for that to be first because without it, the rest means nothing. You really can’t have the others without love being the foundation.

Let’s consider the disciple John himself. He was called one of the “sons of thunder”. In the gospel of Mark, we see that Jesus is getting ready to travel to Jerusalem with his disciples and he decided to send messengers ahead of him into Samaria to see if they could pass through. But they were not welcome. John’s reaction was to ask Jesus if he could call down fire from heaven to destroy them! This was John! As they were heading to Jerusalem where Jesus would be executed.

But what is fascinating about John is that we can see how his faith evolved after the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus by looking at his letters that he wrote later on in his life as a significant church leader. 1 John 4:7-12 says,

“7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”

When Jesus was speaking to the disciples just before he went to the cross, it would appear that he may have been planting seeds within the minds of the disciples because what we see with John is a person whose thunderous personality softened over time. As he matured in the faith, and he was able to better understand Jesus’ mission, John knew that love was the mission of Jesus and co-mission for us. We must love one another.

If we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us!

Let me give you a paradigm in which we can think through or process our theological ConcentricCirclesTheology2thoughts using 3 concentric circles. I am borrowing this diagram from author and pastor Greg Boyd. I have read some of his books and listened to his podcast for years and this concept has really helped me out a lot in processing my thoughts.

In the center of this diagram is JESUS. He perfectly embodies the love of God for us and he models the type of love that we ought to have for him and for each other. He is the means whereby we experience the love God has for us.

The next circle is labeled DOGMA. These are the beliefs of the church that make us distinctly Christian. Many of these beliefs are reflected in the creeds of the church such as The Apostle’s Creed. The belief in the Trinity, and also the humanity and divinity of Christ would fit this category. These are like the non-negotiables that define Christianity.

The next circle is labeled DOCTRINE. These are important beliefs that we have but may have different views. Many denominations have different views on what exactly happens in the sacrament of communion, how it should be performed and who can participate. Some denominations believe that God is involved in every detail of life while others believe that there is some degree to free will.

And the final circle is labeled OPINION. This circle represents different ways in which we may interpret particular doctrines, such as how to interpret the Creation story in light of evolution, and there are different views on how to understand the atonement, the afterlife, the apocalyptic literature such as the book of Revelation and on and on.

Notice in this diagram that Christ is always central. His love for us and our love for each other. That must be the most important thing. The wrestling match comes when we try to determine what is dogma, doctrine or just opinion. Regardless of whatever issues we may be struggling with as a church we need to always keep Christ central.

So, at this point, I would challenge all of you to take an assessment of your life and make sure you are not getting caught up in the divisiveness of our culture, with all the hate and anger that is out there, but instead we learn how to be more and more like Christ through our love for God and our love for each other. We must make sure that we are connected to the vine and that we are demonstrating the fruit of love in our growth as a Christian. Always keep the main thing, the main thing.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” So, let’s make sure that our faith is centrally located in the love of God and the love for each other. This is the one and only way that we will stand out as kingdom people and rise above all the hostilities that divide and label others. Love one another. This is not an opinion but what is central to our faith. Let us love one another. Amen.

 

 

Reflections on The Prophets

prophets1I just finished reading through the prophets in the Old Testament. What made an impression on me was the way in which God held whole nations accountable for their actions. He held them accountable for their violence, their greed, and how they treated their own people as well as other nations. Special care was directed at the people on the fringe: the alien, the stranger, the poor.

Reflecting on this, it scares me how God must view America right now. What we have done at the border separating families and abusing kids is reprehensible. Nationalism has risen it’s ugly head and become it’s own religion. The idea of “America First” flies in the face of Jesus’ teaching that the first will be last and the last will be first. The idea that we are a “Christian Nation” is really laughable. America needs prophetic voices to call out injustice and hypocrisy right now. Unfortunately over 70% of evangelical Christians approve of where we are politically. Then there are churches who do not connect the dots from Scripture to our modern day problems as a nation. Instead they preach a Gospel devoid of justice. To show any type of criticism toward our nation could alienate you from a percentage of your audience. But we need prophetic voices that call out the injustices that are happening right under our noses. A church that just preaches a feel-good message without ever calling for justice is the very thing that some of the false prophets throughout the Old Testament were called out for and were held accountable.

I worry about the American Church. It has become seduced with political power and has mixed religion with nationalism. This is just out-right idolatry. We are guilty of some of the very same sins that Israel was guilty of and were held accountable for throughout Scripture. And to think that there are those who believe that our religious freedoms are under attack. Once again, we need to look at all the examples throughout Scripture and history of those who were really persecuted and executed for their faith. That was real persecution. Yet story after story you see how God brings beauty out of the ugliness of Christian persecution. They were willing to suffer and be executed for their faith. Yet in our country we are told we can now say “Merry Christmas”. Really? Was that really a thing?

It is time for an Awakening. For a new generation of Christ-followers who love God and love people, but are also willing to call out injustice and seek ways to mobilize the church to be more prophetic. These are dark times we are living in yet either we are oblivious to it or we are complicit as we praise our national leaders, demand our rights, and demand that we are first. I honestly wrestle with what I am seeing with our nation as well as the contemporary church. It is ironic that we live in the information age yet the church is becoming more and more biblically illiterate. We want our own personal Jesus that makes us feel good about ourselves but we ignore the God who holds nations accountable for their sins. It time for the church to revisit the Prophets and realize that we have a responsibility to care for the alien, stranger, poor, outcast, the people on the fringes. We need to get back to reaching out instead of protecting the base. The church ought to be the consciousness of the nation, not a complicit partner with the nation.

There is a reason why so many people are walking away from the American Church and I believe that one of those reasons is that we have become irrelevant. We are not seeking justice, we are not offering mercy and we certainly are not acting humble. We have drifted a long way from what Scripture teaches us. May God have mercy on us and may his Spirit awaken us to the truth.