WOKE Part 1 – Ephesians 4:17-32

THEME VERSES: Ephesians 5:13-14

But everything exposed by the light becomes visible. this is why it is said: “Wake up. O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

Y’all need to get woke! See, even the apostle Paul says it! Now I know you all are thinking, “Whoa, what exactly do you mean by that?” I get it. So, let’s look at how the term “WOKE” has been used throughout history. Wikipedia tells us that:

“Woke is an English adjective meaning “alert to racial prejudice and discrimination” that originated in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). Beginning in the 2010s, it came to encompass a broader awareness of social inequalities such as sexism, and has also been used as shorthand for left-wing ideas involving identity politics and social justice….

The phrase stay woke had emerged in AAVE by the 1930s, in some contexts referring to an awareness of the social and political issues affecting African Americans. The phrase was uttered in a recording by Lead Belly and later by Erykah Badu. Following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, the phrase was popularized by Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists seeking to raise awareness about police shootings of African Americans. After seeing use on Black Twitter, the term woke became an Internet meme and was increasingly used by white people, often to signal their support for BLM, which some commentators have criticized as cultural appropriation. Mainly associated with the millennial generation, the term spread internationally and was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2017.

The terms woke capitalism and woke-washing have arisen to describe companies who signal support for progressive causes as a substitute for genuine reform. By 2020, parts of the political center and right-wing in several Western countries were using the term woke, often in an ironic way, as an insult for various progressive or leftist movements and ideologies perceived as overzealous, performative, or insincere. In turn, some commentators came to consider it an offensive term with negative associations to those who promote political ideas involving identity and race. By 2021, woke had become used almost exclusively as a pejorative, with most prominent usages of the word taking place in a disparaging context.

So, as you can see, being WOKE used to be a positive thing in the sense that someone has become aware of the effect and impact of racism. They get it. They had an awakening to better understanding and empathy for those suffering from racism. But now, as we come into our recent culture wars, we see the word “WOKE” being used as a negative, disparaging way of describing people or companies that promote progressive ideas. WOKE is used as a manipulative word to signal opposition to people and corporations who may disagree with the political right.

Now that we understand all of this, in what sense are we supposed to be WOKE? Paul tells us to be woke in the letter to the Ephesians. He says, “Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” I want us to look at the theological understanding of which Paul wants us to be woke. It is important that we understand this as a theological term rather than a political hammer to smear the opposition. This is a term that Paul uses to shock us out of an old way of life and into a new way of life.

In the letter to the Christians in Ephesus, Paul takes chapters 1-3 to explain all that Jesus has done for us. First, Paul summarizes God’s story. Then in chapters 4-6, Paul explains how God’s story should reshape our story.

We will pick up where we left off last week in chapter 4 of the letter to the Ephesians. Paul begins by stating that to be woke to this new way of life, we need to stop acting like unbelievers. Living in Ephesus had to be tough. Temptation was everywhere. Ephesus was a leading city of commerce and culture in the Roman Empire. It was the home of the pagan temple of Diana, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The worship of Diana involved the worst immorality of pagan religion. This influence made Ephesus a wicked place to live. Temple prostitution, crime, immorality, idolatry, and every conceivable form of sin were practiced. Many of the Christians in Ephesus came out of that kind of background. In contrast to this evil background, Paul states, “Don’t live like that any longer!”

He says in Ephesians 4:17-19
17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. 19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.

In this passage, we see that the unbelievers continue to live in the darkness. This involves futile thinking. They think in the moment and have no concept of the bigger picture of what God is trying to accomplish. They think only of themselves with no regard for others. They are ignorant because of the hardening of their hearts. They have no sensitivity to the Spirit’s leading. Instead, they have given themselves over to anything they want, leading to immorality and greed. It appears that the Ephesian church might have been struggling with this, understanding the old way of life in contrast to the new way of life. This is something that every pastor deals with in leading their congregation. We can see this play out with this video called the Honest Pastor.


Paul contrasts the way of the Gentile with the way of a Christ-follower. To be a Christ-follower is to be WOKE to a new way of living. Paul states in Ephesians 4:20-24

20 That, however, is not the way of life you learned 21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Becoming WOKE is definitely a process in which we learn how to be a Christ-follower. It is a process of unlearning habits of the former way of life and instead, forming habits for a new way of life. We are to put off the old self and put on the new self. We are to be made new by the attitude of our minds. This is a new way of thinking. A new way of being. A new way of looking at life and our purpose in God’s story. As we better understand how we fit into God’s story, we let go of our old way of life and embrace a new way of life, transforming us to be more righteous and holy.

Paul then gives us 5 things that we must change as we live into being a Christ-follower. The first thing he deals with is what is coming out of our mouths. Are we using our words to lie or be people of truth? He states in Ephesians 4:25

25 Therefore, each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.

Truth needs to be a central characteristic of a Christ-follower. Unfortunately, we live in a day where so much falsehood is put out there, and it is so easy to get caught up in things like fake news, alternative facts, and blatant lies. It has become a key characteristic of our culture over the past several years. Many online webpages and news sources have found how to get viewers by keeping their audience in a perpetual state of fear and anger. It is a corrosive and cancerous way of being. Instead, we find our truth in what Christ has done for us. We find our truth in how we are invited into God’s Story instead of the ugly and hateful narratives that permeate our culture. If you are caught up in false narratives and fake news, you’ve gotten off course.

The next thing Paul contrasts is how we deal with anger. Do you have constructive anger or destructive anger? Paul says in Ephesians 4:26-27

26 “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold.

We cannot allow anger to seep in and become the main characteristic of who we are. It can have a harsh and destructive effect on us. Based on what I see some people posting on the internet, I can tell you that some are living in a perpetual state of anger: anger at the government, anger at scientists, anger at the church, and anger at the schools. This is not healthy, nor is it Christ-like. Is anger always wrong? No, of course not. When we see the injustice being done to people all around the world, it ought to break our hearts and stir up righteous anger in us. But the difference here is that this should lead us to do what we can to bring God’s love and healing to situations of injustice and hate. First, there is an anger that leads us to do what is right for the sake of others. Then there is an anger that becomes a cancer to our soul, eating us from the inside out, hurting and destroying our relationships with others.

The third thing Paul addresses are the contrast between theft and work. He states in Ephesians 4:28

28 Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

It is interesting to note why he says we should work. It is so that we can help others who are in need! We are not supposed to figure out how to cheat, lie and steal, but instead, have a solid work ethic where we are taking care of ourselves and others. Honest work is a godly value where you learn how to take care of your needs and help other people in need. When we are blessed through honest work, we can meet our needs and help others.

Fourth, Paul contrasts bad language with good language. He says in Ephesians 4:29

29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

What comes out of our mouths ought to benefit others. It should build people up, challenge, inspire and uplift people. This would include what we post online as well as what we speak with our mouths. We live in a new information age where we can put out a lot of words both verbally and online. There have even been examples in recent news of pastors who have created virtual fake online personas in which they can post and say things that would shock their congregation if they knew this was their pastor. What we say, what we type, and what we post reflect our true identity, even if you are hiding behind a false identity online.

And then lastly, Paul shows us that we need to let go of the old way of life and embrace the Holy Spirit’s transformation into a new way of life. He says in Ephesians 4:30-32

30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Our actions and attitudes need to reflect the Holy Spirit’s transformation of our life. We let go of what would grieve the Spirit, and we take on things like kindness, compassion, and forgiveness towards others. We are to build each other up and not tear each other down. Paul reminds us in the letter to the Romans that it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance. Why then would we think anything less would help to attract people to our church? We need to be people of kindness, compassion, and forgiveness. When we act like this, people will be drawn to our faith. This will be the evidence that the Holy Spirit is working in your life and transforming you to be more like Jesus.

As I was growing up in the evangelical church, a big question that we always had was, “How do I know for sure that I am saved?” However, the more I have grown in the faith and studied Scripture, I believe that the biggest evidence of salvation is recognizing how the Holy Spirit is changing you and transforming you to be more like Jesus. So, take a good hard look at yourself. Are you still asleep, living out the old way of life? Or are you WOKE to the reality of the Holy Spirit making you more like Jesus each and every day?

Our faith should influence our behavior. We should be transformed through the inner working of the Holy Spirit. This isn’t just behavior modification, though, but a new way of thinking and living. Being WOKE to the reality of the Spirit in our lives.

Are you allowing the Spirit of God to work within you, or are you holding out on the Spirit? We can push him off or invite him in to change us to be more like Jesus.

The OLD way of life produces disunity, disfunction, fracturing, and broken relationships.

The NEW way of life produces unity, love, harmony, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness.

Which are you?

What’s Next? Romans 12:1-2

Confirmation Weekend, April 22-24, 2022

Now that we are completing another year of Confirmation, a year that was not interrupted by a global pandemic, the question comes up “What’s Next?” Once you have been through the process of Confirmation, what comes next? Have you graduated from church, and now you don’t have to go anymore? No! Absolutely not! You are saying yes to your baptism, yes to faith in Jesus Christ, yes to salvation, and yes to the church. You are now becoming full members of the church. With membership comes responsibilities. We do not approach the church with a consumer mindset, thinking, “What is in it for me?” Instead, we approach it with an attitude of “How can I contribute to the greater good of our church and community?”  What gifts do I have to contribute to the church, and how can I plugin?

Today I want to look at two verses from the letter to the Romans. Paul is the author of this letter, and he is writing to Christians in Rome in anticipation of him being able to visit eventually. We will find ourselves in chapter 12 but let’s consider all that Paul has written up until this point. In fact, he starts chapter 12 with a “Therefore,” which throws us back to chapters 1-11 as building up to this point in the letter. Chapters 1-11 can be seen as teaching the Romans the basics of the faith. He begins the book by stating his thesis:

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘the righteous will live by faith.’

Paul then outlines how humanity is lost in their sins, and no one has the ability to save themselves. All are guilty of sin before God. Then, he explains how salvation comes only as a gift from God through the work of Jesus. Once a person is established in the faith, the Holy Spirit comes into them to transform them to be more and more like Jesus. We are adopted into God’s family, and there is nothing at all that can separate us from the love of God. God is constantly working in our lives to make us more like Him.

With all that said, Paul’s letter builds up to Chapter 12 with a big “Therefore!”. He is essentially saying, “Now that we know all of this, What’s next?”

Paul says in verse 1, “I urge you, brothers”! This Greek word translated as ‘urge’ is a strong word that admonishes, encourages, and exhorts the readers to do this! This word was used in classical Greek to exhort troops about to go into battle.

He then addresses this exhortation to his brothers. This would be seen as anyone who considers themselves believers in Jesus. This is seen as a bond connected to our faith. We are brothers and sisters in the faith. This part of the letter is being directed specifically to Christ-followers.

Before Paul gets to his exhortation, he gives us two things to motivate us to follow through with what he is about to say. He says,

Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy.

It is in fully understanding that our salvation is totally seen as an act of God’s mercy towards us. We were lost in our sins, and there was no way for us to save ourselves. Instead, Jesus came to defeat sin and death once and for all and provide the only way in which we could be justified before God. When we fully understand the mercy of God, this becomes the greatest motivator to live into a holy life. Paul is totally in awe of how merciful God is towards us.   

The second motivator in this passage is seen in his statement:

This is your spiritual act of worship

Paul is telling us that what he is about to say is a reasonable and rational response to all that God has done for us in his mercy. And when we do this right, our life becomes an act of worship. What we do, who we are, becomes an act of worship.

So, let’s get to it! What do we have to do in light of God’s mercy and as a way to live a reasonable life of worship to God? 

Paul urges us to:

Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.

In his commentary of the letter of Romans, the late John Stott comments on this by saying that “No worship is pleasing to God which is purely inward, abstract, and mystical; it must express itself in concrete acts of service performed by our bodies.”

Our faith is an embodied faith! Our bodies matter, and what we do with them will speak volumes about what we really believe. We cannot say we believe all this stuff about Jesus and not allow it to impact our bodies. We can not separate the spiritual from the physical. Our faith will impact the physical reality we live in if we are serious. To try and separate the spiritual from the physical has been seen as a heresy throughout church history. Yet here we are in the 21st century, still doing this very same thing. We compartmentalize our faith to the spiritual, then we act and behave however we want in the physical world at home, at work, and in our lives.

It is also interesting to note that Jesus offered himself as a dead sacrifice so that we could be LIVING sacrifices. Dead sacrifices are a one-time event whereas a living sacrifice is a lifetime event. Therefore, we continuously get to be living sacrifices with our lives as an expression of gratitude for God’s mercy. When we do this, we become holy and pleasing to God!

So, the question becomes: How do we offer ourselves as living sacrifices? Paul touches on this in verse 2. He makes two statements. One involves a negative action, and the other involves a positive action. He says:

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world.

What is the pattern of this world? It is to live in active sin and rebellion against God and his creation.

Instead, Paul exhorts his readers, telling them:

but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Once again, this embodied faith begins to act itself out by changing how we think. It is a renewing of the mind. We don’t give in to the anger, divisiveness, and hate that is encouraged in our culture and politics. We don’t give in to conspiracy theories that only stoke fear and hate of others. We are to be different. We are to be people of love and grace and mercy. We are to embody a new way of living that ought to attract and inspire others because it is so antithetical to the ways of the world.

In fact, the Greek word for transform is the word from which we get metamorphosis. We are to completely transform ourselves in the same way a tadpole transforms to a frog, a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly, or Bruce Banner changes into the Hulk! What once was, is no longer. We are now a new thing. We are transformed. How? By the renewing of the mind. How we think matters. What we think will act itself out in our behaviors.

When we go through this process of changing how we think and behave, in light of God’s mercy, Paul then goes on to say:

Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.

This is what should be driving our thoughts and behaviors, doing all we can to align our will with God’s will. So the question becomes, what is God’s will for my life?

If we had time to go through the rest of this chapter, you would see Paul encouraging the Roman Christians to make room at the table for all believers. Exercise your spiritual gifts in the context of the church. And to genuinely love each other. He also tells us to hate what is evil and cling to what is good. In fact, we are supposed to take this so far as to love everybody, including our enemies.

So, my encouragement to our confirmands and all the believers here is that we are to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, seeking to align ourselves with God’s will for our life. The way we do this is to be actively engaged in the church. We need to discover our spiritual gifts and use them for the greater good of the church and the community. Confirmation is not a graduation from the church. It is an initiation into being a full member of the church. Get plugged in. Get involved. Find out how God has designed you to be a blessing to others. Don’t give in to the hate and anger that is so prevalent in our culture right now. Instead, live fully into being kingdom people right now! Let’s create a youth group and a church that helps us transform to be more like Jesus in our minds and in our bodies! Let us become a people defined by our love and care for each other.

          So, What’s next? There are a lot of opportunities for you to get involved. Serve in children’s ministry, connect to a small group in the youth group, and participate in mission opportunities, including Summer mission trips. Find what makes you passionate about God and his creation, then pursue it! My hope for you is that you discover what God’s will is for your life and that this gives you direction in your schooling, including your pursuits, after you graduate from high school.

          Adults, I ask that you lead by example. Think about what you are watching, what you are posting, and what you are doing, and make sure that you are not conforming to the patterns of this world. Instead, actively pursue ways in which you are transforming yourself by the renewing of your mind; to think and act differently that speaks more about the love and mercy of Jesus in your life. You have a responsibility to the youth and children of this church to show us how to embody your faith in real life. So please be actively pursuing God’s will in your daily lives, for yourself, and for future generations to continue the kingdom work here at Epiphany.

          Alright! Are you ready to be confirmed in the faith?

Giving Up Enemies

When it comes to books and movies, we love our enemies! Lord of the Rings gave us Sauron and the Orcs. Harry Potter gave us Voldemort. The Avengers gave us Thanos. And Star Wars gave us Darth Vader! When the new Spiderman movie was being advertised, I was very excited to see the hints that Dr. Octopus was going to be the villain again. He was always one of my favorite bad guys in the Spiderman universe.

A well-developed bad guy will make a movie successful. Think of the Batman movies. The Joker, Riddler, Penguin, Bane, all were worthy adversaries.

We love the stories in the Bible that give us a strong antagonist to our beloved protagonist. Moses vs. Pharoah. Jacob vs. Esau. Joseph vs. his brothers. Elijah vs. the prophets of Baal. Paul vs. the Pharisees. And we can not forget the ultimate clash of good vs. evil that runs right through all these stories.

As Americans we like to pride ourselves on being the good guys to whatever antagonist that might challenge us. When I was young it was the Russians who were our antagonists. You saw this played out in popular movies such as Rocky 4, Rambo 3, Red Dawn and several of the James Bond movies. Over the years it has become others that have represented Communist dictatorships and Al-Qaeda as well as renewed tensions with Russia right now over the invasion of Ukraine.   

When we look to the Gospels there is no doubt that Jesus had his enemies. There were people he enraged and upset by his teachings and his actions. Some of the Pharisees were always quick to question him and try and trick him.

But what we want to look at today is how Jesus reacted to his enemies. The passage we are looking at is traditionally the passage we look to for Palm Sunday. We will revisit this passage on that weekend, but we want to look at it from the point of view on how Jesus reacted to his enemies. Many of us who grew up on John Wayne, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone or James Bond movies would find Jesus’ approach to his enemies very disturbing. We want the good guys to sweep in and obliterate the bad guys with new gadgets, weapons, and cool cars! The American way and the Jesus way are very different.

Let’s take a look at Luke 19:37-40

When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:

38 “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”

40 “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”

This is known as the Triumphal Entry. Jesus has finally arrived at Jerusalem and he is riding in on a colt. The people are praising him and shouting out “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” The Pharisees get upset at this and ask him to rebuke the people, but Jesus lets the Pharisees know that the people’s excitement is justified and can not be held back.

But then we get some insight into what is going on inside of Jesus. Instead of riding in with bravado and machismo relishing the praises of his followers, swearing to punch back at his enemies, he does something very unexpected. It says in verse 41 that:

41 As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it 

He wept. His heart was actually broken. He showed tears. Why? He goes on to say that:

42 “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43 The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. 44 They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

Jesus sees into the hearts of the people praising him and knows that their actions are hiding a deeper issue. He knows that these people are praising him thinking that he will be a political leader that they want to overthrow the Roman occupation and establish a Jewish nation. Jesus knows that those who praise him now will just in days be yelling “Crucify him!” Their lust for power and nationalism has caused them to be blind to the way of Jesus. What Jesus had to do was definitely not what the people wanted him to do. They wanted a good guy to defeat their political enemies once and for all and establish them as their own people. Jesus knew in their hearts that they would not understand what he had to do and through their own stubbornness and hate, they would eventually face the destruction of their people which was fulfilled in AD 70. Jesus didn’t want this for the Jewish people, but he knew that they would reject his way.

We see a glimpse into Jesus’ heart for the people in Jerusalem when we go back a couple of chapters and look at Luke 13:34-35. He expresses his sorrow over the people of Jerusalem in say that:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 35 Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

We peer into the heart of God in this passage. God wants to bring together the people of Jerusalem like a hen gathering her chicks under her wings, but he realizes they are not willing. He knows the pain and destruction that is coming because of the choice they made with a bravado “Jerusalem first” kind of attitude. He knew that they would miss the whole point of his mission. And this broke his heart. Jesus had genuine feelings for his people and wanted them to see and understand the salvation he was bringing to them.

And these are the feelings and thoughts he had for his people as he was entering into Jerusalem on a colt. Instead of riding in on a war horse with armor, shield and sword, showing off masculine power to kill and destroy his enemies, he rode in on a colt, knowing that his weapon was going to be the sacrifice of his own body that would once and for all destroy sin and death. He wept, not for what he had to endure, but for the people who were all missing the point of his true salvation. He was riding into Jerusalem knowing that he would face his political enemies, his religious enemies, and all these people who would turn on him, people who would fall to all the fake news of their day and flip on Jesus, not seeing the news of all the prophets that came before them pronouncing the coming of the king who would defeat sin and death at the cross for the salvation of all those who believe. And this is what broke Jesus’ heart.

In fact, Jesus tried to teach about his approach to his enemies in the Sermon on the Mount. He said to his listeners:

Matthew 5:43-48

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

We see in this passage that God’s grace and mercy falls on everybody alike. The sun rises for the evil and the good. The rain falls for the righteous and unrighteous. His love is expressed through his creation lavishly to all. We are to give up that hatred, that bitterness, that anger towards our enemies and learn how to love them the way Jesus loved his enemies. Jesus knows that the only way to defeat hatred is not with more hate but with love. Instead of escalating hate for hate, pouring gasoline on the fire, we put it out with water through our love for our enemies. This is one of the defining marks of true Christ-followers. It is easy to love those who think like us, act like us, vote like us, and look like us. It is easy to take cheap shots at those who think differently than you. It is easy to look at a whole group of people that are in some ways different than you and, because of that, consider them your enemy. I have had to caution people I love to be careful of what news source they watch or podcasts they listen to because there are some that are very toxic always trying to define other people, other Americans, as our enemy. This can not be representative of the body of Christ. We are a kingdom people who ought to really mean it when we pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” In God’s economy we are to live into being one people defined by our love for each other, and even love for those who may consider themselves our enemies. Jesus did not mark out who his enemies were. It was them that claimed to be his enemy. Instead, Jesus, at his most excruciating moments on the cross, looked out at those who considered themselves his enemies and he said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” He took their hate and rage and anger and bloodlust and nailed all of that to the cross. His one act of sacrifice opened up a path to forgiveness and salvation from the constant turmoil of pain and death brought on by our hate.

And Jesus also tells us that not only are we to love our enemies, but we are to pray for them. When we do so it says that we are moving towards perfection just as our heavenly Father is perfect. Imagine that! The goal of Christian perfection is not church attendance, having the right theology or political views, or reading the Bible, or being a Sunday School teacher or youth leader. Jesus says it comes down to our attitude towards our enemies. Loving those who love us is easy. Everybody does it. But can we give up our hatred for our enemies and learn to love them in the same way that Jesus loved them as he rode into Jerusalem? Can we let go of the angry rhetoric, the hateful attitudes, the fear and loathing of those who aren’t like us? Can we look at the other as a person created in the image of God whom God loves just as much as he loves us? For when we do so, we come close to perfection in our spiritual life in this lifetime.

Love is what compelled Jesus toward his journey to the cross.

So where do we go from here? How do we respond? I know for me just recently I had to give up a podcast because it was so enemy-driven; defining “those people” as the enemies we must defeat with our ideas about politics and reform. I listened to 3 episodes, and I noticed that at the end of each episode I was mad, distressed and angry. This was not helping my blood pressure. Instead, I try to concentrate on listening to podcasts and news sources that uplift, inspire, encourage and try to show either an objective view of what is going on in the world or a kingdom perspective of how we should look at the world. Some of you need to detox from what you are putting in front of your eyes if you think that you have enemies because some guy or girl on a podcast or opinion news show tells you to think that way. You need to immerse yourself in the words of Christ and how he viewed the world, how he views his people, and how he viewed those who considered themselves his enemies. He wept for them.

When was the last time you were moved to tears because you were made aware of how lost people are in their sins? Believe me, this is a constant angst that every pastor of every church has been feeling especially through the pandemic. Many of us need to rid ourselves of the fake conspiracy theories and fake news sights and stop giving into fear and hate.

According to a recent Barna study done about the state of the church and clergy in America:

about 38 percent of Protestant senior pastors surveyed have considered leaving ministry over the past year. Among pastors under age 45, that number rose to 46 percent.

In personal phone calls, emails to congregations, and announcements on video, my colleagues have explained why they are leaving. An intractable conflict. Embedded sexism. Shifting congregational commitments. Unclear paths for ministry following the pandemic. Exhaustion, low pay, and lack of appreciation. After 18 months of live-streamed worship services, tele-pastoral care, and online funerals, my exhausted friends are leaving their churches one by one. Each week, I learn of another pastor transitioning not only out of their current job but out of ministry altogether.

… what we gain as pastors is the opportunity to help forge communities held by common commitments to the gospel. We get to nurture generosity, redistribute our money, and create forms of mutual aid and care. We learn to get along with people with whom we disagree. We carve out new ways for conflict, repair, and restoration.

But in the wreckage of Trumpian politics and a never-ending-pandemic, our jobs have been reduced to negotiating skirmishes over mask-wearing and vaccination status. Former and current pastors have shared with me that their denominations and powerful congregants have pushed for a false unity that tolerates homophobia, racism, and conspiracy theories. My friend Ryan, a seasoned pastor, finally gave up. He felt that he could no longer follow the work of the Holy Spirit when he was expected to make room for people who actively thwarted God’s movement.

Now, I read this to you to help you see what is going on from a clergy perspective overall in America. For these past two years, many in the American church did not rise to the occasion and let our faith shine. Instead, we gave into an “us vs. them” mentality on multiple fronts. We created enemies with those we disagree with. While I cannot speak for unbelievers, this ought not to be for Christ-followers.

Looking at more recent events, I know for me that not only was the pandemic years hard, but now seeing the unfolding conflict in Ukraine is painful to watch. Seeing people in a war that they did not ask for by a person who wants to occupy their land. Are the people of Ukraine worthy of our prayers and support? I certainly hope so. We should be doing everything possible to help them in their suffering. But how do we show love to the aggressor? Do we pray for Putin and the soldiers that are involved in this war? Do we pray for President Zalinsky and the people he is trying to protect and defend? Absolutely. We need to be in prayer for this conflict and for God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness to bring a resolution to all of it. We need to pray for God’s grace to break through the hearts of those who started this. We need to pray for God’s justice and righteousness to triumph through it all. Any type of war ought to break our hearts.

And finally, I want to end with some lyrics by a favorite worship band of mine, Hillsong. They sing in a song entitled “Hosanna”:

Heal my heart and make it clean

Open my eyes to things unseen

Show me how to love like You have loved me

Break my heart for what breaks Yours

Everything I am for your Kingdom’s cause

As I walk from Earth into eternity

Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the Highest.

So, with all this in mind, let’s choose to be a people that are known for our tears rather than our hate, anger, and fears. Lent is a considered a time where we reflect on our sin and mortality; the reason of why we need a Savior, because of our own failings. This is why we look forward to Resurrection Sunday! Jesus rose again to usher in a new Kingdom that we are invite into. Are we living into the fullness of this or are we getting distracted by the divisiveness of this world? Are we like the people with Jesus, as he went into Jerusalem, ready to sing his praises, but when things get tough, we deny him with our actions?

May God open our eyes to the things that break his heart and may they penetrate our hard hearts.

May God create in each of us a tenderness and concern for others in just the same way that Jesus wanted to care for his people like a hen taking care of her chicks under her wings.

And may we learn to show love and compassion towards all people as image-bearers of God Himself.

Humble us Lord and help us to see things from a Kingdom perspective instead of our myopic, selfish, conspiracy-laden views of “us vs. them”. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Getting Ready for the Big Game!

Isn’t today exciting! The Bengals are in the Superbowl! Many thought they would not get by the Titans, and then they did. Many thought they would not get by the Chiefs, and then they found a way! And now we have to face the Rams! Some Browns fans do not want to see the Bengals win simply because they are division rivals. But I took it personally when OBJ left the Browns and got picked up by the Rams. As a Browns and Bengals fan, I have a double motivation to see the Rams get beat and beat badly! Plus, how can you not love Joe Burrow? A solid Ohio boy from Athens. It is an exciting day for Cincinnati and the state of Ohio.

On top of all the excitement about the Bengals, we are also in the middle of the Winter Olympics. I watched the opening ceremonies and felt a wave of excitement when Team USA entered the arena representing our country’s best athletes. Now, I’ll have to admit, when it comes to watching the Olympics live, I have a hard time doing it, especially any type of skating. To know in the back of my mind that these athletes have trained their whole lives to get to this point and then have something go wrong, like a slip or fall on the ice, makes me feel horrible. I’d rather watch curling, hockey, or snowboarding than wince through figure skating competitions.

Since we are talking about sports, I am also a huge Cleveland Cavaliers fan, and I just got to say that they are killing it right now! They are playing some exciting basketball.

With all that said, I want to give you a little background on our passage today. Paul was a church planter and went on several trips to plant churches throughout the ancient world. You can read about his journeys in the book of Acts. In fact, in Acts 18, we can see Paul’s work in the city of Corinth establishing a church and empowering them to grow. He most likely wrote this letter from Ephesus on his third missionary journey sometime between A.D. 54-56. Paul received some bad news on how the church was doing, which inspired this letter.

Now, some interesting things about Corinth are that they loved their athletes. They sponsored the biannual Isthmian Games, which were second in importance only to the Olympic Games. They held these games only 10 miles from Corinth so that most people would be very familiar with athletic training for the games. Many would also be audience members of the games. Paul was in Corinth in A.D. 50-52, so he would have been around for the Isthmian Games held in the Spring of A.D. 51.

The games would include six events: wrestling, jumping, javelin and discus throwing, and racing and boxing, which Paul alludes to in our passage. Athletes for the Olympic games went into strict training for at least ten months to qualify. It is most likely that requirements like this also existed for the Isthmian Games, which would explain Paul’s reference to strict training and disqualifications. Winners would receive a crown made out of pine or celery, which would be perishable.

Now let’s talk about the Corinthian church! Paul begins his letter in a typical fashion with some encouragement. Paul says that the church does “not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.” Once he encourages them, he launches into some of the problems he hears about: the divisions being created by who is following who: Paul, Apollos, or Peter. Paul resisted the desire of those to make celebrity pastors out of them and take their focus off of Jesus. Instead, he wanted to refocus their attention on Christ alone, with everyone serving the same person. Paul then launches into addressing issues related to sexual immorality, lawsuits being thrown at each other among believers, questions about singleness and marriage, and food sacrificed to idols. The church was couched in one of the largest cities within the Roman province. It was also one of the most wicked cities of ancient times, and the lines between the church and the culture were getting blurred. While many heathen religions practiced in Corinth, the most well-known was the worship of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. The temple of Aphrodite stood on the most prominent point of the city and housed one thousand temple prostitutes. So, you can see why it was important for Paul to make a massive distinction between how the culture defined love and how God defined it. Finally, we get one of the most famous chapters in the Bible of 1 Corinthians 13, which lays out the case for what Christ-like love looks like in contrast to the pagan culture’s abuse of it. This is a great letter to read all the way through as it has so much to say that was relevant to the church in Corinth and our modern-day church.

I want us to focus on one passage in this letter found in chapter 9, verses 24-27. As we begin to pick apart this passage, we need to understand that the church in Corinth was getting very lazy with their faith. They allowed all these sins, encouraged by the culture, to impact the church community. And it was having a very negative effect on them. It was causing a lot of division, selfishness, and immorality. What is interesting about Paul is he takes something very popular within the Corinthian culture, athletics, and he relates it to the spiritual development of the believers.

He begins this chapter by talking about our freedom and rights as believers. As Americans, we like those topics! We subscribe to the freedoms we have outlined in the Constitution and our rights as explained in the Bill of Rights. But Paul gets down to the fact that just because we may have the freedom and rights to behave a certain way, it does not necessarily mean we should. We need to consider what is best for everybody in the body of Christ. We need to have a team mentality. We need to consider the greater good in light of the church, not just my freedom and rights. The way I live my life in the context of the community will speak volumes more about what I believe than just by what I say.

Paul explains in the first part of chapter 9 that he is willing to give up any rights he has not to let anything hinder the gospel, which is the good news of Jesus Christ. In fact, he says that he is willing to make himself a slave to everyone to win as many as possible to Jesus. Unfortunately, now we live in a time where there is a rise in the worship of Nationalism within our country. People who say they claim the name of Christ, but are more interested in worshiping the idea of America instead of living into the fullness of the kingdom of God. This is very dangerous and must be avoided. Our loyalty needs to be Christ and Christ alone.

Now we come to v. 24, where Paul reflects on their love of sport and how this can help us understand our motivation to develop our spiritual lives. He says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize?” We are seeing this play out today with our beloved Bengals and Team USA at the Olympics! Many athletes train for their particular sport, and many compete. But only one person or team will get the ultimate prize: The Gold Metal or the Vince Lombardi trophy. While Paul is getting his audience to think of all those who like to run, whether competitively or casually, he then tells his Corinthian church to “Run in such a way as to get the prize.”

Believe it or not, I have run the Flying Pig Half-Marathon 3 times. Did I run to win the prize? To be the first to cross the finish line? No way. That would have involved extremely strict and disciplined training. My goal was just to cross the finish line in one piece. The first year was scary because it was my first time doing it and because it started in the middle of a storm. So, I started the race soaking wet! The second time was a little easier because it was a beautiful morning, and I was familiar with the race now. The third time I did not train as well, and my time showed. Thousands of people run in the Flying Pig just to say they did it. Everyone wins a medal and gets awesome gifts and food at the end of the race, but only one person can claim 1st place. Paul tells us to look at our spiritual lives with that kind of attitude. Don’t be sub-par, average, mediocre, or even halfway decent. Run in such a way as to win the prize!

Paul says that “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” Now I have helped raise four wonderful kids of mine. And as they grew up, I watched their rooms pile up with trophies, awards, certificates and pictures, and posters of all the things they were involved in throughout their school years. All of that had meaning and significance for them during that time of their lives. Now, most of that stuff has either been boxed up and put on a shelf or thrown out. We have even seen star athletes who at one time won a ring or medal or trophy take their award and try and sell it to make ends meet when they fell on tough times. So, the accolades or awards we may receive at the moment may lose their significance over time. But Paul here talks about a crown that we will receive from Christ that will last forever! This is the motivation we need to put in the forefront of our minds to live a Christian life!

Paul finishes out this passage by saying, “Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” He makes several points here:

1) STAY FOCUSED! Don’t run aimlessly or beat the air. Be focused on who you are in Christ and why we are here. Jesus gave us the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. We are to love God and love others. We are to go out into the world and make disciples of all nations. We are to live into what it means to be the people of God. What rights we may think we have because of our national citizenship or because of our freedom in Christ are rubbish if we are using those freedoms to cause any hindrance to the way of Christ. Remember! Paul also wrote to the church in Philippi saying that “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross.” Jesus gave up all his rights as God and allowed himself to be born human. He lived the perfect life we were unable to. And then he went to the cross to deal with our sins once and for all. Jesus was focused on what he had to do. We are invited out of our laziness, where we tend to blur the lines between the world and the church. We are invited to take the faith seriously and strive to live fully into it as if we were training for gold in the Olympics.

2) BE DISCIPLINED! Paul uses the idea of the physical discipline of an elite athlete in relation to our spiritual development. We need to be disciplined so that we are not disqualified from the prize. If you are paying attention to what is going on in the American church, there are so many religious leaders who have disqualified themselves by being unfocused and undisciplined. Their ministries may have appeared to do good at first but are now leaving a path of destruction with people leaving the church and abandoning the faith. This has led to a wave of people deconstructing what they have been taught as they are left being disillusioned about the faith. This is not good.

So how do we stay focused and disciplined like an elite athlete? I watched videos of what basketball G.O.A.T. Lebron James and Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps would do to train for their sports. Needless to say, that in our day and age, they are on a level that only a few will ever achieve. I did not want us to leave here discouraged that we could not achieve that level of spiritual training. But, what can we do to get started?

Have you ever noticed the video that runs at the beginning of the service? It highlights all five purposes of our church. All five commitments that each member commits to when they join the church. If you were not here at the beginning of the service, let’s run it right now!

Let’s talk about what things we can commit to in order to “run to win the prize.” The most basic thing some of you need to do for your first step is to simply become a MEMBER. With membership, you enter into a community of faith that will inspire, encourage and uplift you to grow spiritually. Also, you would take on some “basic training” commitments.

The first is to be here in attendance as a WORSHIPPING member. Our online presence will not go away. It is a new reality for most churches now. It has become a necessary part of what a church needs to offer. But here is my beef! I believe that there are people who have gotten comfortable watching their church service online because of the pandemic we have gone through. In reality, they are healthy and capable of attending church. However, there is something to be said about being present as a body of believers, worshiping and praying together that online ministries will not fully achieve.

The next commitment is towards making sure you are GROWING spiritually. This is primarily done by getting connected to a small group. We practice spiritual accountability and spiritual practices such as prayer, Bible study, and dialogue in small groups. I am starting a small group this week which you are all welcome to join. The study will be on a book called “A Pray in the Night” by Tish Harrison Warren. If you are going through a tough time, this book is definitely for you as we will explore themes of doubt, insecurity, suffering, and vulnerability. We also will have Lenten small group studies starting at the end of the month. If you want to get plugged into a small group right away, please see Pastor Tracy. She will take care of you.

The next commitment is to be SERVING in a ministry. We have multiple ministries every month, serving people in downtown Cincinnati, Goshen, and Milford. In addition, we have ministries that we are connected to within Loveland that offer opportunities all the time. Also, we have three mission trips this Summer to Chicago, Puerto Rico, and Alaska. Chicago is primarily for our Junior High teens, Puerto Rico is for our Senior High teens, and Alaska is for our college and 20 to 30-something people. We need adults for all three trips. These are excellent opportunities to put your faith into practice as a community of faith.

The next commitment is to be a GIVING member. If one thing is true about Epiphany, you are generous when needed. But everybody should be giving regularly. This helps support the church and all the missions we can connect with locally, nationally, and internationally. If you are not a regular giver, there are ways to help you begin to give a tithe and be faithful stewards of your finances. Please call the church, and we will connect you with Mitch, who can help you become a regular giver.

The final commitment is to be an INVITING member. We are all challenged to bring in at least one new person each year. Now, I don’t usually like to brag about worship leaders because I have always felt it was important to keep everyone’s egos in check as a pastor. But let’s consider Corbin for a second. He came on as the Contemporary worship leader. But look at what he has done in the area of inviting. He has invited Tori, Bobby, Audra, Ian and Ivory, and others to become connected to our church. We have been blessed by all of them as well as those on the team who have been long-time faithful band members. But imagine if we were so excited about what is going on here that we were inviting in new people all the time to plug into all the opportunities available here. Many of you have done an incredible job inviting others to celebrate the big game tonight as many gather to watch the Bengals disappoint the Rams, hopefully. What if we had that same enthusiasm about bringing people into our community of faith here at Epiphany?

So, this is basic training, folks. Let’s get on board and practice our faith in such a way as to win the prize. Let’s stop wandering aimlessly or beating the air and instead focus our attention on Jesus, the author, and perfecter of our faith. Let’s rally together as a faith community to practice our spiritual disciplines of worshipping, growing, serving, giving, and inviting. And this is basic training people. There is so much more we can all be doing to expand the Kingdom of God in our context. So, get excited about your faith. Get motivated towards growth. And get committed as a member to help make a difference.


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.
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



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.


Senior High Trip to Clendenin, West Virginia 2019

Clendenin 2019

On June 21-28, 2019 the Epiphany UMC Senior High youth group went to Clendenin, WV. for our Summer missions trip. The story in Clendenin was very similar to the events in Rainelle. In 2016 there was catastrophic flooding that significantly impacted the town. We were there to help continue the efforts to bring restoration to the town in some small way.

We left for Clendenin earlier than usual. Instead of arriving on Saturday we arrived on Friday so that we could participate and help with the town’s Homecoming Festival. This is a festival that celebrates the hope and restoration the town has experienced since the flood. During the festival we did a variety of things from going on rides, hanging out at concerts, eating fair food, running and serving in a 5K race, serving at a hot dog stand that had A LOT of traffic, and walked in a parade. All the funds that we raised went to the local United Methodist Church. We also learned what a WV hot dog consisted of. It is a hot dog with coleslaw and chili on it. It is actually very, very good! We also had an incident when one of our teens had an asthma attack after running in the 5K race. We took a little trip to the hospital and everything turned out well.

On Sunday we attended the Clendenin United Methodist Church. It was a great experience. The message was really good and the pipe organ was amazing. The people were really kind and receptive to our team.  In the afternoon we headed out to a home in which we were invited to go swimming in the river. We had a lot of fun.

The work days were split between three sites. The first sight was an old church building damaged by the flood that the Praying Pelican Mission bought to renovate into a mission site for teams to use as their home base. We had a team of teens work there to do cleaning, dry walling, painting, and yard work.

The second site was a home that needed a lot of help to restore it. The teens did a lot to clean out the home and put a lot of the belongings into storage so that we could get into the house and do a variety of things such as cleaning, painting the shelves in the kitchen, put in a new bathtub, some basic plumbing, electrical and dry walling. The teens accomplished a tremendous amount of work at this house but it would need more teams to complete the job over the Summer.

The third site was a home out in the country that also needed a lot of help. At this house we were able to clean up a big trash pile that was in their yard, rip out the flooring in the living room and replace it with plastic covering, rip out the counter and sink in the kitchen and replace it with a new one, and put a temporary covering over a corner of the house that had a lot of damage to it.

Overall the teens did a tremendous job of working well together and doing a lot of work. I received a lot of complements from our Praying Pelican leaders on the work ethic of our teens and adults. I can say enough good things about them.

Some of the fun things that happened during the course of the week was that we celebrated two birthdays! One with a cake and one with donuts! We had some new adults and teens with us as well as our Senior Pastor and her husband so it was important that we teach them our classic games we play. There was a lot of Euchre going on too. The week was capped off with a very physical game of hockey using pool noodles for sticks.

On Thursday we went white water rafting with ACE Adventures. We went down the New River Gorge at a different spot that the previous trip with the Junior High. We were able to go down the part of the river that had Class 5 rapids. Everyone survived! We had a few who fell out of their rafts but made it back to safety just fine.

Our last night was very memorable as many of the teens shared how God has been working in their lives throughout the week and how they were going to apply what they learned as they head back home. I always emphasis that mission is an attitude that we instill within us everywhere we go. It is not just a one-week trip out of the Summer. We need to be missional everywhere we go. Our Seniors said their parting words as they are about to begin a new chapter in their lives as they are about to head off to college. Many of the other teens shared from their hearts how God is working through them.

If you would like to see the trip journal that was created by our Praying Pelican leaders just go HERE

If you would like to see more pictures in a Google document that you should be able to add to if you would like then just go HERE

If you would like to see all the White Water Rafting pictures taken by ACE Adventures just go HERE

Overall this was another great trip with Praying Pelican Missions. I would highly recommend them to any youth group. I love that they connect you to a local church. There are a lot of benefits theologically to this in that we are always an extension of the local church as we go out and do missions. Our leaders were amazing. In the small world we live in I found out that our trip leader lived in the very towns I lived in as well as played football with my wife’s cousin. Our team bonded really well with the Praying Pelican staff. I love leading these teens and seeing their spiritual development over the time they have been in the youth ministry. Many of these teens have been with me for a long time. Their spiritual growth and work ethic are amazing. I would take them anywhere, locally, nationally and internationally. They inspire hope for the future of the church!

2019 Junior High Mission Trip to Rainelle, WV.

IMG_3537On June 8-14, 2019 the Epiphany UMC Junior High youth group went to Rainelle, WV. for our Summer missions trip. About once every 4 or 5 years I like to take our teens to a rural area to serve to give them a different experience from ministry in the urban areas. These are always eye-opening experiences as many of the people in rural areas are forgotten about in mainstream culture yet they need help and love just like anyone else. Rainelle was devastated by what was called the 1,000 year flood back in 2016. The town sits in a valley around several mountains. When the storms came the flooding happened from multiple directions. Many lives and homes were affected.

Once we arrived, we set up camp at a school building that is no longer being used as a school but instead as a mission facility for groups to come in and help. It used to be a Christian school called Rainelle Christian Academy. It was a nice facility with a gym for the teens to play around in with their endless energy whenever we were not out doing mission work.

On our first full day we went to church at a local Baptist church both in the morning and in the evening. We met many people and had a different church experience that we were used to.  One thing that I thought came through loud and clear from hearing the preacher twice was that there is a lot of suffering within his congregation and community. A lot of hope was placed on the hope for the afterlife. Overall it was a classic conservative Baptist experience that reminded me of my own past from about 1979. Some genuine care, some fire and brimstone, some fear, some hope.

Monday through Wednesday were our community work days. Some of the projects we helped with were

  1. painting the fire escapes to Rainelle Christian Academy,
  2. helping with the community center in White Sulphur Springs, WV
  3. having a community cookout with the people of White Sulphur Springs
  4. helping the Rainelle Elementary School get ready for their summer reading programs
  5. meeting the mayor of Rainelle and helping her with some odd jobs

A majority of the jobs we did involved scraping and painting. In White Sulphur Springs we helped to take an old, abandoned school and help renovate it into a community center. We also had a cookout with the people that on our last evening there. The teens did a great job working hard, playing hard, and getting to know all the different people we interacted with in these West Virginia towns. It was hard to hear some of the stories about the floods but it was also amazing to hear and see how the towns have come back from such a devastating experience. It was awesome to hear their stories, see the renovations that have happened and continue to go on within the towns, and just appreciate and admire the beauty of these small country towns.

One funny thing that happened throughout the week was that we kept on telling the teens that there would be a talent show at some point. Some, not knowing any better, took us seriously so they began to develop acts for the show. On the last night we were there we decided to actually go through with it. It was a perfect way to end the week with a lot of laughs.

Another funny thing that occurred on our trip was the humming bird that continued to find its way into our cafeteria area. We discovered quickly how hard it was to get a hummingbird to exit the building.

Then another night I was just about to fall asleep when I heard what was a dog fight outside. I didn’t think much about it and went to sleep. The next morning we discovered that some local dogs cornered a skunk right buy one of our vans and tore it to pieces right there. For the remainder of the week that van had a strong odor to it. Thankfully the ride back to Ohio help to get ride of the smell. And I am especially grateful that I did not decide to go outside and see what was up with the dogs. It is a story that could have gotten a lot worse.

On Thursday we took the day off from mission work and went white water rafting with ACE Adventures in Oak Hill, WV. We had an awesome experience with them. The teens had a lot of fun as we rafted, ate lunch half way through, had a huge downpour at one point, pushed each other in the river, and had a great time overall. I would highly recommend ACE Adventures to anyone wanting to enjoy what West Virginia has to offer.

This was also the trip were we had our associate pastor with us and by Sunday we had to take him to the hospital because his heart was beating irregularly. Thankfully after three days at the hospital, he was let go with a strong heart beat. He is doing much better now.

If you would like to see our daily journal that the Praying Pelican Mission coordinators put together you can see it HERE

If you would like to see the photos of all the mission stuff we did you can go HERE

And if you would like to see some picture of the white water rafting activity go HERE

Overall, Praying Pelican Missions delivered a great experience yet again. The teens were taken out of their comfort zone and challenged to work hard and minister to the people we encountered. My hope is that the Holy Spirit uses these experiences to help the teens see outside of their cultural bubble and begin to love and care for people that are different than them socially, economically, and geographically. I hope to inspire the teens to apply all that they learned so that they look at their home life, school life, and extra-curricular life differently as an opportunity to be missional in all that they do. It is not just a one-week trip out of their summer but a way of life that helps us develop spiritual practices of service in any context we are in.

It is a privilege and honor to lead these teens to develop their spiritual lives. We also had a great adult team that went with us. They all assisted and helped the teens to do their best. I even had one adult brave enough to dispose of the skunk carcass before all the teens woke up! It would have been better if I would have done it because I don’t smell skunk but I appreciate the over-and-above attitude of the adults as well as many of the teens. May God bless the continuing efforts to restore Rainelle and White Sulphur Springs, WV.